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Wednesday 1 October 2014

Knowledge as construction II

Some western sociologists had said some time ago that knowledge is a social construction. What they meant by that statement was that knowledge is constructed by society, in the sense that people living in a society construct knowledge. The society changes over time, may be continuously may be discontinuously, and the constructors or creators of knowledge are influenced by society. It is clear that the atomic bomb would not have been created by the ancient Chinese even if they had constructed the basic knowledge essential for the creation of the bomb. The Chinese who had constructed knowledge of gunpowder did not proceed from there to construct guns and other such weapons. It was left to the Europeans to construct weapons based on knowledge of gunpowder that they had received from the Chinese.

Independent of the western sociologists of knowledge we had created a story on knowledge in the early eighties, which was finally formulated in the form “knowledge is constructed (or created) by individuals (prthagjanas) due to avijja (ignorance) relative to the sense organs, mind and culture”. This was included in “Mage Lokaya” that was first published in 1986. The booklet is now in the fifth edition though the only review of it was negative and published in a magazine of the “independent student society” of the University of Colombo. It is said that the person who wrote the “review” under the title “Silvage Lokaya” is now somewhere in France as seen by an MP who went from Sri Lanka. Both stories may not be true but I am happy that though the booklet was ignored by the brilliant academics and others in Sri Lanka the ordinary people keep on buying it.

We formulated our story (all knowledge consists of stories created or constructed by prthagjanas), based on Sinhala Buddhist culture and were influenced by Paticca Samuppada that begins with “avijja paccaya sankara” and not by Eureka of Archimedes who is supposed to have discovered upthrust in liquids on objects immersed or floating in the liquid. In any event one of the basic questions that has to settled (of course in the form of creation of a story) is whether knowledge is constructed or discovered. To be discovered that particular knowledge has to be there until a brilliant scientist or some other comes across it.

The most famous example of a discovery is that is supposed to be due to Newton while he was at home due to the closure of the University of Cambridge. Whether this story is true or not Newton is supposed to have “discovered” the Theory of Gravitation now named after him. It is not my intention to go into details of what Newton is supposed to have achieved with his theory, for example unifying terrestrial and heavenly phenomena, but to go into a thought experiment by Einstein who had other ideas on bodies falling freely.

However, a criticism by Newton’s contemporaries has to be mentioned before we go to Einstein’s stories. In Newton’s days forces (the concept of force was not developed those days as the creators were struggling in the dark) were supposed to be due to sticks poles, ropes etc. Either one pulled an object with a rope thus applying a force on the object or pushed it using a pole or a stick. There was supposed to be some physical contact between the object and the person who applied the force and no divine intervention was allowed though Newton was known to be a believer in “mysticism”.

When Newton said all bodies (particles) attract each other with his newly discovered gravitational force it implied that there was a force between the Sun and the earth or the earth and the moon. Newton’s contemporaries wanted to see the rope between the Sun and the earth. In other words they wanted Newton to show the rope with which the Sun and the earth attracted each other. Newton could not show the rope and some of his contemporaries would have thought that it was a de-rope.

This clearly showed that the gravitational force was not a force as understood by the contemporaries of Newton and there would have been some who did not want to buy Newton’s story. Newton was helpless and like all such people whether in western science or politics he just kept quiet without trying to reply his critics. In a way it was a good policy as people are never consistent in anything and it is particularly so in knowledge. Here there was a blatant contradiction between the force as understood by Newton’s contemporaries and the gravitational force as “discovered” by Newton but most of the scientists (intellectuals) were prepared to sweep it under the carpet.

Maxwell had not created his concept of field and Newton’s gravitational field was not known to Newton or any other in the seventeenth century! Perhaps it was there but had not been discovered by an eminent scientist, and it would not have been to have a more eminent Physicist than great Newton himself!

Newton being a “mystic” in a way would not have bothered for rational explanations as some of his more mundane colleagues. All that he was interested was that his “theory” worked, whatever that word meant. Yes it worked in explaining so many phenomena though there was no rational explanation for the absence of a rope! I am reminded of my fourth form Chemistry teacher Christy Gunasekera who once asked us who were just fourteen years then (we are all seventy now and had a big bash to celebrate our impending exit from all definitions and explanations at least for some time, of course depending on the religion of each individual) to define explanation and explain definition! What I realised later was that all explanations are definitions and that all definitions are explanations. I am indebted to “Katey” as he was fondly called by his students for introducing me to cyclic chinthanaya with his questions on definitions and explanations. May he rest in peace.

However, Newton was not fortunate to meet Christy Gunasekera and the former had to be satisfied with his “mysticism”. In western science as it is in western way of life in general, what matters is whether something works more than “rational explanations”. The latter are there in order to “understand” phenomena though basically one does not “understand” anything through the “rational explanations”. The rational explanations are also constructions and basically they are nothing but inductions made of few observations.

Einstein was very much influenced by Ernest Mach, the Western Philosopher and Physicist (In the west it is usually the Physicists who take an interest in Philosophy but in Sri Lanka it appears that it is the Medics who are engaged in Philosophical talks.) who did not like to introduce any “metaphysical” concepts such as inertial frames of reference, atoms, gravitation in order to explain Physical phenomena. Mach also lived before Christy Gunasekera and did not know much about definitions and explanations. We are lucky to have been taught by Christy Gunasekera from whom I learnt so much though not Chemistry! (To be continued) 

Nalin De Silva