A critique of Prof. Nalin de Silva’s denial of conceptual objectivity – By Vasantha Raja

source >> LankaEye

Prof. Silva likes to brand his philosophical views as “Sinhala Buddhism”. Some Buddhist scholars may disagree with his interpretation of Buddhism. But that’s a different issue irrelevant to my purposes here. I merely want to focus on two inter-related sides to his philosophy: his ontological views and epistemological views. Let me begin with his epistemology that is designed to undermine any objective credibility given to scientific knowledge.

Prof. Silva vehemently denies the objectivity of concepts (knowledge). Curiously, contrary to his anti-western credentials, in his Sinhala book Magay Lokaya (My World) he uses widely known Neo-Kantian arguments to justify his case. He admires Postmodernists and Prof. Paul Feyerabend presumably for their unmitigated hostility to “objective knowledge”. He seems to adore the mystical interpretation of some experimental results in quantum mechanics.

For clarity’s sake let me counter-pose my own approach to scientific knowledge right at the outset:

My conviction is that knowledge of the external world is an evolving phenomenon, in the sense a child’s knowledge would develop through practical dealings with the surrounding world. Essentially, this process seems to me to be an objective process independent of cultural factors.

In sciences there’s a conscious effort to organize concepts consistently to be tested against the objective world. Thus, the limited nature of theories is constantly being exposed paving the way to enrich, expand or even radically transform them into new theories. This does not, however, mean all of the previous concepts are totally false. They have only been partly false, like in the ancient Indian parable of “six blind men and the elephant”

Let’s briefly reflect on the parable: The one who touched the elephant’s broad & sturdy side thought the animal must resemble a wall; the one who got hold of the trunk thought the elephant looked like a snake; and the one who felt a leg said it must be like a tree without branches; the one who felt the elephant’s smooth, sharp tusk thought the beast had the shape of a spear, and so on. The point is: each observation is partly correct. Does this mean there’s no chance they get a more or less accurate picture of the elephant as a whole? I don’t think so. There are ways to correct their mistakes and obtain increasingly all-sided concepts of the elephant’s real shape.

Suppose the blind men got together, discussed the differences and launch team work to figure out the real shape of the elephant. Obviously, a far more complicated picture would begin to evolve. In other words, their concept of the elephant’s shape would now begin to systematically develop. The important point to realise, however, is this: Conceptual development does not amount to a formal adding of partial pictures- like a jigsaw puzzle – to get the full picture. Every new development in this process is incommensurable with the past concepts even though the past concepts are indispensable for the emergence of the new.

Let’s encapsulate the lesson we learned from the blind men’s experience: Any new conceptual development of an object or a phenomenon would incorporate the old concepts of the same in an organic manner. Thus, the old concepts would undergo change in terms of the newly developed concepts: they get subsumed and become part of the new setup. In other words, they get redefined in terms of the new framework.

This logical incommensurability between theories has made many philosophers, including Prof. Silva, to conclude that any talk of getting closer to the truth is nonsensical. Also, they thought, without first knowing the full picture there’s no grounds to believe that the ‘developing’ picture is approximating the absolute truth.

The fallacy of this argument seems to arise from a fundamental error common to mainstream academic philosophy. By limiting epistemological enquiry to language and mathematics – i.e. the symbolic aspect of knowledge – most philosophers have dislodged the crucial aspect of knowledge: human activity, or simply practice.

Concepts, linguistic/mathematical symbols, sense-data and practical activity are inseparably linked as aspects of knowledge. Among them practical activity is the anchor that connects the conceptual and symbolic aspects to the external world. Once that part is cut off all hopes of linking abstract concepts with reality are gone. No wonder Prof. Feyerabend ended up saying: Anything goes!

Let me elaborate this point through a simple case: Competent tailors want to have abstract diagrams of their customers’ shapes and sizes to make suits that fit them well. Mathematical diagrams would be more useful than thousands of photographic images taken from different angles and distances for them to do the job. An abstract drawing represents the ‘real shape’ for a tailor while the photos represent ;appearing shapes’. The three-dimensional real shapes that come as the abstract diagrams are more real to tailors than everything else. But, in what sense are they more real; only as a guide to activity.

The point to be derived from this example is this: Having conceptual knowledge means having the ability to deal with abstract symbols as a guide to deal with the objective world. Remember, not just linguistic and mathematical signs but also sense-data (as in the case of tailors’ ‘appearing shapes’ ) would only have a symbolic value for us to ‘see’ the reality that lies behind the sense-data screen; and, we see it through our activity (practice).

Developing knowledge means developing practice. Thus, the proof of continuous improvement of scientific knowledge is to be seen in the continuous progress in our ability to deal with the objective reality.

With the above-mentioned points in mind let’s now briefly turn to the way science developed since it became a highly organized team-activity with established methodological guidance. The purpose is to trace the way how our concept of the universe’s general structure ( ‘the shape of the elephant’) has improved along with the progress of science.

The backdrop to Pre-Einstein physics was the ‘commonsense world-outlook’ where bodies mechanically interact within absolute time and absolute space as separate categories. Before long, however, scientists confronted new phenomena involving vast distances and the speed of light that exposed the limitations of the Newtonian picture; the commonsense worldview began to crumble. A new world outlook (Einstein’s theory of relativity) emerged where time-space and speed are inseparably intertwined. The commonsense outlook was subsumed within the new framework, and the Newtonian concepts’ validity was restricted to areas where the impact of movement (speed) and distance is negligible.

The next big challenge to our evolving concept of the universe’s general structure may come from quantum mechanics even if many scientists would not see it that way yet. But already several major contributions towards that end have occurred outside physics. Frederick Hegel, Karl Marx and Charles Darwin in their own ways have done their part to demonstrate that big chunks of the universe are evolving in a ‘seed-to-product’ relationship.

But it took a long time to view the entire universe in this light – that is until cosmology came up with concrete evidence of universe’s birth in a Big Bang and its subsequent evolution to the present stage.

Physicists have been dealing with a microscopic world – as opposed to the highly evolved macro-world mirrored in the theory of relativity – for quite sometime now. But they still do not seem to have quite figured out the possibility that they may be dealing with universe’s ’embryonic egg’ that contains the subsequent developments as a potential.

Clearly, both quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity are incredibly successful in their own arenas. And the scientists are presently facing grave difficulties in unifying the two. But if the universe resembles a “seed-to-product’ model rather than a ‘simple-to-complex’ model, and also, if quantum mechanics and relativity-theory are mirroring to two different stages in universe’s hierarchical evolution, then the very effort to unify them by reducing the latter to the former may turn out to be futile. Instead of trying to concoct bizarre mathematical models, micro-physicists may do well to figure out how Mother Nature managed to impose a space-time straitjacket with precise laws to self-evolve the micro-world into a macroscopic world and beyond – and above all, where is our universe heading, is there an objective purpose to it?

Thus, it seems to be within the reach of human intelligence to understand the general logic of the universe, its beginning and the evolution – including life, species, human society, consciousness and intelligence – and even the possible death of our universe. But the point is this knowledge would not be in the form of a picture. As pointed out through the ‘tailor example’ it will be represented in abstract symbolic formulae and, above all, in future humans’ practical ability to meet all possible challenges of nature by becoming free of all natural limitations. Remember, it is these practical abilities that prove that scientific knowledge is increasing.

The progressive development of concepts is demonstrated in our growing ability to deal with the world. It is the mere focus on the symbolic aspect of knowledge (both language & mathematics) that misled academic philosophers.

True, symbols too are getting more and more complex. But they are only meaningful to those conscious actors who use them as a guide to deal with the objective world. It is on this basis that I reject the argument that all knowledge-claims about the external world have no objective validity.

Humans’ practical abilities to change the world – building bridges, vehicles, houses, rockets, planes, semiconductors, medical scanners and so on & so forth- prove the objectivity of concepts. Man-made products, artistic creations (man-made changes in nature) are objective manifestations of the subjective consciousness; for, they first emerged in subjective minds before becoming part of the objective reality. They are the proof of the inseparable unity between the subject and the object.

Kant was wrong to create an unbridgeable gap between the subjective side of consciousness and the external reality. His dualism failed to grasp Mind’s unbreakable link (practice) with the objective world. Ironically, it was Kant’s agnosticism that provided the epistemological framework for the main pillars of contemporary western philosophy: Logical Positivism, Linguistic Analysis, Existentialism, Postmodernism etc. In theology, Kant’s influence took the form of heavy dependence on ‘blind faith’ to justify a transcendent reality. Although all such schools of thought immensely contributed to new insights in many fields they lacked a scientific theory of knowledge to justify the objectivity of knowledge. Philosophical insights of Hegel, Marx et al countering Kantian agnosticism – with profound revolutionary implications against the social status quo – were systematically ignored within mainstream philosophy.

Growth of practical abilities is the objective criterion of developing knowledge. Objectivity of knowledge is not a scholastic issue, but a practical issue, as Marx correctly pointed out. Mind ability to transform reality is the proof of its conceptual objectivity.

Without quantum mechanics semiconductors, communication gadgets, MRI machines in hospitals etc., – are unthinkable. Relativity concepts are crucial, for instance, to all space travel. Newtonian theories are not adequate for such activity, though they are applicable to aspects of reality. Although the concepts within Newtonian physics & relativity are “incommensurable”, both contain corresponding “practical abilities” that can demonstrate why the latter is higher than the former.

Yes, it is true, theories (concepts) are changing (rather, evolving) & the reality is also changing (rather evolving). But this only means that knowledge can only be an approximation. It, however, does not mean that there is no objective way of differentiating between sound knowledge and speculative fantasies.

As pointed out earlier, a tailor, for instance, would need to know the objective shape & size of Prof. Silva to make a suit for him. Otherwise, the suit wouldn’t fit. Also, Prof. Silva would need objective concepts, for instance, to cross a road safely or drive his car. If all concepts are arbitrary creations of mind then all ‘knowledge-claims’ become epistemologically equal. Thus, visiting a doctor when Silva is ill or seeing a motor mechanic to fix his car etc., become epistemologically meaningless.

I think Silva’s line of reasoning leads to skepticism and “My World”-type solipsism. Prof. Paul Feyerabend also has been an ardent opponent of ‘objective knowledge’ who finally branded himself as an “epistemological anarchist” proudly using his catchy slogan, “anything goes”. He described his approach: “epistemological anarchism”. Thus, his unguarded enthusiasm for free, creative thinking has made him throw the baby out with the bathwater and open the door for total skepticism. Sadly, Prof. Silva seems to have got stuck in a similar trap.

source >> LankaEye


3 Responses

  1. ah thamizan…..only 20sq km 😉

    have a nice day

  2. To point out two main points of quantum physics,
    1. State of matter are probabilistic. – in this sense you cannot say precisely where a particle is and what is its momentum. Rather, you can only give a range and probability about the state of the particle. That means you can never say where a ball you throw is, and where it is headed.

    2. This probabilistic nature fails when there is an observer.- That is, if you are actually looking at the ball, the ball WILL have a definite state.

    I actually dont know what prof. Nalin Silva’s theory is, and the only thing I remember about that is that he says the universe come and go in and out of existence in your mind.

    Upon starting to study QM, it seems prof. Nalin Silva’s argument is very consistent. Because every thing that the normal sciences predicts happen because of the failure of that probabilistic nature. In fact it is precisely because there IS an observer that you (an observer, of course)see things as fixed.

    In this sense, if you were not present, the universe will not be a predictable one, rather a mixture of states, or there will be infinite number of universes existing together. But as soon as an observer come into being, that infinite number of universes become one and the probability fails. That can be easily relate to the fact that Buddhism states that universe exists in your mind. which I think is prof. nalin Silva’s argument.

  3. You Sinhala hypocrites get back to your country and do what you want to do. Do not defile the countries that you have come to seek refuge unlike the THAMILS.

    What do you know about the THANIL CIVILISATION. So called Professor is a fake and not fit to be identified to be having any substance leave alone his credentials.

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