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Is knowledge different things to different people?

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  • ss
    Following a short exchange on the nature of science with Jakob last year, I have been pondering about the nature of knowledge in pagan and religious cultures.
    Message 1 of 6 , Jun 11, 2004
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      Following a short exchange on the nature of science with Jakob last
      year, I have been pondering about the nature of knowledge in pagan
      and religious cultures. I would like to see if the members of this
      group have any thoughts or reaction on the matter.

      It seems to me that if we agree that culture is a 'configuration of
      learning', then we could expect culture to have a profound effect on
      our conception of what knowledge is. Diverse cultures might be
      expected to have different attitudes about knowledge, different
      notions about what exactly constitutes knowledge, and probably
      different approaches towards accumulating it.

      Professor Balu has said in the past (if I understood properly) that
      science, as we know it, could not have arisen without religion. I
      have no basis to quarrel with this assertion, but it has always
      surprised me how religion (in which a ready made explanation of the
      entire Cosmos is self-contained) could possibly spur the production
      of - or give rise to - any new knowledge about the Universe. (If God
      created the Universe in Seven Days, and we all know that because he
      revealed that truth to us, why should we be at all interested in
      how, say a galaxy was formed?) Yet, it seems obvious, that Western
      science has done exactly that at a rapid clip.

      My question is - does anybody else perceive such a paradox? If not,
      why not? If so, do you have any thoughts on how to reconcile said
      paradox?

      *************

      I was listening to a program on the radio a few weeks ago, which
      commemorated the journey of Lewis & Clark, who explored the American
      wilderness with a Native guide, Sakagewa. Lewis & Clark catalogued
      many thousands of species of plants in their journeys. The radio
      host raised the issue - given the sheer number of new plants they
      were encountering, how did they decide which ones were most
      important to catalogue and sample?

      It seems the decisions were guided by the knowledge of the natives.
      It was they who pointed out the plants that were important or useful
      either medicinally or for other uses.

      Lewis and Clark are hailed as making a landmark contribution to
      Botanical Science in America, one that apparently serves as a basis
      even today. But it seems, when you dig below the surface, that they
      were in many cases, merely compiling knowledge that already existed
      amongst the Natives.

      This led me to wonder: are there any instances of the same in other
      fields?

      I know for instance that, maybe a hundred years before Western
      science postulated germ theory, an ancient surgical method to repair
      nasal fractures was transplanted from India to the West. The West,
      at the time, lacked the knowhow to repair nasal fractures. The
      Indian method (it still bears this name, I believe), utilized
      antiseptic and cautery techniques that improved the success rate.
      Even though Harvey had already demonstrated the human circulatory
      system, the West had not figured out that the skin flap grafted over
      the wound required an adequate circulation.
      The Indian method, sans Harvey, took this into account.

      Even though Western medical science can explain why the Indian
      method was successful, it is unclear what logic ancient Indian
      surgeons used to arrive at their technique, which is still the one
      in use today.

      My point is that non-religious (or pagan) cultures must have their
      own methods of pursuing knowledge. And since they are different from
      cultures influenced by religion, these methods could be expected to
      be very different from what we see in the West.

      Has there been any study of what those methods are and how they
      differ from Western science?

      --Satya
    • j_vdboogert
      Hi Satya, I do not have an answer to your last question, viz. the question about different kinds/methods of knowledge production. I suspect that this is a
      Message 2 of 6 , Jun 17, 2004
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        Hi Satya,

        I do not have an answer to your last question, viz. the question
        about different kinds/methods of knowledge production. I suspect
        that this is a barren territory and that the research done so far in
        these fields will fail in providing any satisfactory explanations.

        To give you an example: we still do not know how the Romans managed
        to build all those magnificent temples, theaters, aquaducts, etc..
        There were no architects, civil engineers neither was there the
        technology or scientific know-how of today. If you read the
        famous "On Architecture" of Vitruvius you will still not know how
        they did it.

        (http://www.ukans.edu/history/index/europe/ancient_rome/E/Roman/Texts
        /Vitruvius/home.html)

        Modern day archeology offers analysis and interpretation, and I
        suppose we could copy say a Roman temple or aquaduct. But how did
        they do it remains (largely) unanswered. Clearly they had the
        knowledge necessary to build those incredible edifices, but it is
        doubtful wether it is the same knowledge we apply in our
        architecture of today.
        I wonder what your impression is of the first chapter of Vitruvius'
        text. Here he sums up the requisites for being a good architect. I
        think it gives a hint of the differences between the (cognitive)
        prerequisites for e good Roman architect and a contemporary (Western
        one).


        With regard to you first question I have to say I do not see the
        paradox. What religion does is promote a certain attitude, it molds
        one's experience of the world, it makes the world into something
        explanatorily intelligible. Of course, a particular religion offers
        a particular account of the cosmos, and one could accept that to be
        the end to it- why question what has been answered beforehand? But
        one's knowledge of Gods intentions is always limited. We are but
        human, our knowledge is necessarily perspectival (being part and
        parcel of the cosmos), tentative, and hypothetical. Therefore, God's
        total and ultimate truth (i.e. an EI account of everything that ever
        was, is and shall be) is unattainable for humans. In the best case
        (a part of) this truth is revealed, but in most of the cases one is
        destined to search for Gods intentions, in both the scripture (being
        the word of God) an in the world (being His creation and thus an
        expression of His intentions). Therefore, when it comes to the
        divine truth, we are stuck at the level of interpretation. Hence,
        the offshoot of heresies, the phenomenon of excommunication, etc.

        Religion generates a configuration of learning. This means that it
        provides a fertile soil for some kinds of knowledges to prosper,
        while others wither away. Scientific knowledge has thus been
        privileged in the West. Science has found a fertile soil and in
        religion it has the perfect example of what an explanation should
        do.

        Why scientific knowledge has emerged in the renaissance and has
        subsequently progressed so rapidly should probably be rephrased in
        terms of the double dynamic of religion. I have no idea how to go
        about that. Would you like to have a go at that? In the mean time is
        the above explanation clear enough?

        Kind regards,

        Jochem
      • ss
        Dear Jochem, Thank you. I think your explanation answers my first question about what I saw as the paradox of science flourishing in a religious culture.
        Message 3 of 6 , Aug 4, 2004
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          Dear Jochem,

          Thank you. I think your explanation answers my first question about
          what I saw as the paradox of science flourishing in a religious
          culture. Wanting to know the intent of God would indeed seem to be a
          powerful imperative for obtaining knowledge. It would also seem this
          imperative might dictate that knowledge is framed in a particular way

          It is interesting to explore what attitudes might drive the
          accumulation of knowledge in non-religious cultures. You talked
          about the Roman aqueducts. I encountered a similar example when I
          visited Mexico recently. Some of the pyramids there have been
          designed with ingenious acoustics, and geo-spatial effects. There
          are still highways in the jungle that stretch for miles. Yet, as our
          guide was demonstrating many of these things to us, he went on to
          say that it was a mystery how the Mayans had managed to build all
          these structures without any knowledge of architecture. Which of
          course was an astounding statement to me. Not that the Mayans should
          have built these things, but to suggest that they had no science of
          architecture or engineering. It seems to me obvious that they did!

          Just as it is obvious (because we have the evidence of the aqueducts
          and the cities) that the Romans did. Yet, imagine if every trace of
          Roman architecture and engineering had been destroyed and the only
          evidence we had was Vesuvius' treatise. We would today not be able
          to imagine (given our conception of knowledge) that the Romans had
          any ability to build cities or aqueducts or roads.

          It is really interesting what Vesuvius finds as important enough to
          record in his treatise on architecture. For him, it seems of primary
          importance to say what the *qualities* of an architect should be. It
          is not as important to record the principles of geometry, physics or
          optics or even music, history etcetera - all fields he says a good
          architect should be versed in.

          The very first point Vesuvius makes is that that the science of
          architecture consists of both practice and theory. It's interesting
          that he talks about science as allowing one to *judge* a work. He is
          not interested primarily in how to get stones stacked on top of each
          other to form a tower. For him, science allows one to judge the
          tower. I don't think of our modern Western science in any such
          terms. In fact, it befuddles my scientific self that, on opening
          this treatise on the science of architecture, I see no theories
          about how to engineer foundations on silty soil or water erosion or
          any of the innumerable other questions that come to mind when we
          wonder "How did they do that?"

          In fact, as one reads the document, one gets the sense Vesuvius uses
          even a bread-and-butter science term like 'theory' in a different
          way than we do today. "Theory," he says "is the result of that
          reasoning which demonstrates and explains that the material wrought
          has been so converted as to answer the end proposed." Theory is not
          (as I would assume) something that allows us to execute the
          construction of a building. "Practice" alone could accomplish
          that. "Theory" in Vesuvius' book is what helps us judge the end
          product: that demonstrates and explains whether the construction has
          answered its *purpose*.

          Our science arises from wanting to discover God's intentions, God's
          purposes. We then apply the knowledge gained to acheive our own
          ends. Whereas the Roman science seems to say Man decides on the
          purpose of his construction, and he uses science to adjudge whether
          he has acheived that purpose.

          Is this how you see it?

          Satya


          Quote from Vesuvius:

          "1. Architecture is a science arising out of many other sciences,
          and adorned with much and varied learning; by the help of which a
          judgment is formed of those works which are the result of other
          arts. Practice and theory are its parents. Practice is the frequent
          and continued contemplation of the mode of executing any given work,
          or of the mere operation of the hands, for the conversion of the
          material in the best and readiest way. Theory is the result of that
          reasoning which demonstrates and explains that the material wrought
          has been so converted as to answer the end proposed.

          2. Wherefore the mere practical architect is not able to assign
          sufficient reasons for the forms he adopts; and the theoretic
          architect also fails, grasping the shadow instead of the substance.
          He who is theoretic as well as practical, is therefore doubly armed;
          able not only to prove the propriety of his design, but equally so
          to carry it into execution.

          --- In TheHeathenInHisBlindness@yahoogroups.com, "j_vdboogert"
          <j_vdboogert@y...> wrote:
          > Hi Satya,
          >
          > I do not have an answer to your last question, viz. the question
          > about different kinds/methods of knowledge production. I suspect
          > that this is a barren territory and that the research done so far
          in
          > these fields will fail in providing any satisfactory explanations.
          >
          > To give you an example: we still do not know how the Romans
          managed
          > to build all those magnificent temples, theaters, aquaducts, etc..
          > There were no architects, civil engineers neither was there the
          > technology or scientific know-how of today. If you read the
          > famous "On Architecture" of Vitruvius you will still not know how
          > they did it.
          >
          >
          (http://www.ukans.edu/history/index/europe/ancient_rome/E/Roman/Texts
          > /Vitruvius/home.html)
          >
          > Modern day archeology offers analysis and interpretation, and I
          > suppose we could copy say a Roman temple or aquaduct. But how did
          > they do it remains (largely) unanswered. Clearly they had the
          > knowledge necessary to build those incredible edifices, but it is
          > doubtful wether it is the same knowledge we apply in our
          > architecture of today.
          > I wonder what your impression is of the first chapter of
          Vitruvius'
          > text. Here he sums up the requisites for being a good architect. I
          > think it gives a hint of the differences between the (cognitive)
          > prerequisites for e good Roman architect and a contemporary
          (Western
          > one).
          >
          >
          > With regard to you first question I have to say I do not see the
          > paradox. What religion does is promote a certain attitude, it
          molds
          > one's experience of the world, it makes the world into something
          > explanatorily intelligible. Of course, a particular religion
          offers
          > a particular account of the cosmos, and one could accept that to
          be
          > the end to it- why question what has been answered beforehand? But
          > one's knowledge of Gods intentions is always limited. We are but
          > human, our knowledge is necessarily perspectival (being part and
          > parcel of the cosmos), tentative, and hypothetical. Therefore,
          God's
          > total and ultimate truth (i.e. an EI account of everything that
          ever
          > was, is and shall be) is unattainable for humans. In the best case
          > (a part of) this truth is revealed, but in most of the cases one
          is
          > destined to search for Gods intentions, in both the scripture
          (being
          > the word of God) an in the world (being His creation and thus an
          > expression of His intentions). Therefore, when it comes to the
          > divine truth, we are stuck at the level of interpretation. Hence,
          > the offshoot of heresies, the phenomenon of excommunication, etc.
          >
          > Religion generates a configuration of learning. This means that it
          > provides a fertile soil for some kinds of knowledges to prosper,
          > while others wither away. Scientific knowledge has thus been
          > privileged in the West. Science has found a fertile soil and in
          > religion it has the perfect example of what an explanation should
          > do.
          >
          > Why scientific knowledge has emerged in the renaissance and has
          > subsequently progressed so rapidly should probably be rephrased in
          > terms of the double dynamic of religion. I have no idea how to go
          > about that. Would you like to have a go at that? In the mean time
          is
          > the above explanation clear enough?
          >
          > Kind regards,
          >
          > Jochem
        • macgupta123
          A personal note - how do I know that I know something (adequately) has been a problem that has bugged me since my primary school days. In engineering, the
          Message 4 of 6 , Aug 13, 2004
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            A personal note - how do I know that I know something (adequately)
            has been a problem that has bugged me since my primary school days.

            In engineering, the answer implicit in the education system is -
            you know something if you are able to effectively operate in that
            domain (e.g., solve problems). While this is a practical answer,
            and is susceptible to empirical verification, I am still not
            convinced of its adequacy.

            -Arun
          • j_vdboogert
            Hi Staya, Thanks for your reply! I m glad you found Vitruvius remarks so interesting. To be honest, I really don t know how to porperly interpret them. All I
            Message 5 of 6 , Sep 10, 2004
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              Hi Staya,

              Thanks for your reply! I'm glad you found Vitruvius' remarks so
              interesting. To be honest, I really don't know how to porperly
              interpret them. All I see is that it is really different from our
              understanding. I would feel uncomfortable speculating on it, though.
              It would be nice to find some more quotes on knowledge and
              understanding from different cultures -be it Roman, Asian,
              European/Christian,... If I should come across one, I'll certainly
              post it.

              Btw, I read Vitruvius from a different angle: I was trying to figure
              out what to a Roman constitutes a public building. Never got there,
              unfortunately ;)

              Kind regards,

              Jochem
            • venkateshwara_reddy
              It is worth rephrasing the question: what *kind* of knowledge do certain cultures produce? For example, the development of Natural Sciences has been driven by
              Message 6 of 6 , Sep 16, 2004
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                It is worth rephrasing the question: what *kind* of knowledge do
                certain cultures produce? For example, the development of Natural
                Sciences has been driven by the dynamic of religion. After all, such
                knowledge about natural world is not different to, say, Indian
                heathens. Balu raised the same question in "India and Her
                traditions: A reply to Jeffry Kripal"-- whether humanties,
                masquerading as sciences, have produced any knowledge about either
                Western culture or non-western ones. If they have not produced any
                knowledge about other cultures, they would not have produced
                knowledge about their own culture, which the western is.
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