WESTERN SCIENCE AND CULTURAL IMPERIALISM
(1999 May 12)
The article that was reproduced in "The Island Midweek Review" of 5th of May 1999 (it first appeared
in the New Scientist on the 4th of October 1997), under the title "God of the Quantum vacuum" raises
certain issues that have been discussed for the last fifteen years or so in this country especially in the Sinhala
language publications such as "Divaina", "Irida Divaina", "Vidusara" and "Kalaya"
mainly within the Jathika Chinthanaya "discourse" a la "scholars". Similar viewpoints, though
not exactly the same, have been considered in the other parts of the world. I refer, in particular, to the influence
of the Judaic-Christian culture in the western science. The following paragraphs from the above article illustrate
the main point I would like to discuss here.
'According to John Barrow, professor of physics at the University of Sussex, it is hardly surprising that people see God in the scientific cosmos, because religious ideas so often permeate science. Hawking would not be working on the emergence of the Universe from the quantum vacuum, for example, if there was not already a tradition in religion of "God creating something out of nothing", says Barrow.
There are other examples of how science has subsumed religious ideas. Edward Harrison, an astrophysicist recently retired from the University of Massachusetts, points to the "cosmological principle", the idea that the Universe has no centre and is essentially the same everywhere. This has its roots in the notion, shared by Christians and Muslims, that "God is everywhere and occupies no point", he says. Within the Christian religion, the principle in this form was first expressed by the15th-century German scientist and theologian Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, who reached his view on theological grounds. "Astronomers don't often appreciate how the definitions and properties ascribed to God were eventually translated into properties of the Universe," says Harrison.
Linde goes further still. He believes that the whole of modern cosmology has been deeply influenced by the Western tradition of monotheism. "When scientists start their work," he says, "they are subconsciously influenced by their cultural traditions." In particular, the central idea of modern cosmology--that it must be possible to understand the entire Universe through one ultimate Theory of Everything--is an outgrowth of belief in one God. Thus cosmology has itself become a sort of religious quest: a search for "God in the form of an equation." '. By the way John Barrow is a Professor of Astronomy and not Professor of Physics at the University of Sussex and Prof. Linde is a cosmologist from the former Soviet Union now working in the U.S.A.
In fact not only the present day cosmological theories but even the absolute space of Newton and the Ether in the Maxwellian Electrodynamics that are supposed to exist everywhere even in the absence of the other particles and objects are consequences of the belief in an omnipresent God. I am not trying to say that the absolute space conceptualised by Newton is equivalent to the God or that it replaced the God. All that is implied here is that as Prof. Linde says "when scientists start their work they are subconsciously influenced by their cultural traditions." Now one may argue that in science, theories that are "objective" are "discovered" and therefore the discoveries cannot be influenced by the culture or any other subjective factor. However even the sociologists in the west know that it is not the way the scientific theories are introduced. The scientific theories like everything else are also constructions and further more they are social constructions. They are constructed within a particular society at a particular time and they are related with many other factors. Not only the creation of scientific theories but their acceptance is a social process. Scientific theories are not accepted simply because they "agree" with experimental results. Neither they are rejected just because their deductions do not tally with the observations. As Feyaraband and others have pointed out there are other factors involved in either accepting or rejecting theories. It is not a case of falsification as theorised by Popper, and the best example, which illustrates that falsification is not at work, is the Newtonian theory of gravitation itself.
As a consequence of the theory of gravitation as formulated by Newton, all planets should move in elliptical orbits, with the sun at one of the foci, in the frame of reference of the sun. However this does not happen and the perihelion or the planet's closest approach to the sun advances as a planet moves relative to the sun. This is most noticeable in the case of the planet Mercury and this "abnormal" motion was known to the scientists from the very beginning. This meant that the Newtonian theory had been falsified by the observations. However the scientists did not take steps to abandon the Newtonian theory. They continued to use it for more than two centuries until Einstein came out with his theory of general relativity with the curvature of space - time and other relevant concepts. Even after it was replaced in Cosmology with the Einstein's theory, Newtonian theory is being used in day to day Physics and its applications. It has been pointed out by some philosophers of science, that one of the defects in Popper's falsification is that in rejecting a theory which is not compatible with the observations scientists could drop part of the theory or some auxiliary conditions instead of the entire theory. In fact some modifications to the Newtonian theory of gravitation had been suggested by some scientists without throwing out the entire theory. However these modifications, though they were in agreement with the observations were not accepted on the grounds that they were not aesthetically appealing! Today the scientists seem to have resorted to some form of instrumentalism or opportunism and without bothering to modify or reject the Newtonian theory they continue to use it along with Einstein's theory, whenever the deductions of the former are not very much different from the observations. The scientists are not very much different from the politicians and they too adopt the strategy, which can be expressed as "if something works then it is all right".
The theories in science are not objective and they are accepted, rejected or modified along some kind of instrumentalism, where politics (in the sense of power) also comes into play. But what is more important is the background in which the theories are created. The scientists are influenced by the culture and the theories they construct reflect those traditions. The science is not value-free and the system of knowledge that is recognised as science today is a creation of the western Judaic- Christian culture. In that sense, it is nothing but proper to call this body of knowledge, western science, as that nomenclature would indicate the background culture in which that particular system of knowledge is created.
Many in the non-western world have been conditioned to think that there is only one science and that this unique science is objective and also that there is a so-called scientific method that is used in science, which distinguishes it from the other systems of knowledge. However, every attempt, including that of Popper's, to formulate the unique features of the scientific method has failed and as Feyaraband has said in his "Against Method", " anything goes in science". What he means by that statement is that western science is not different from the other systems of knowledge and that there is no scientific method that is peculiar to "science". Though there is no scientific method as such, western science and the other western disciplines differ from the other sciences such as say Indian science or Chinese science due to the differences in the culture that produce these different sciences. People of different cultures create or construct (sanskara) knowledge among other things due to the ignorance (avidya) of anicca, dukka and anatta and these constructions are relative to the cultures in which they are produced. Any science together with the other disciplines that are created in a particular culture are based on a particular "chinthanaya" and it is the "Judaic- Christian" chinthanaya that has generated the western science. It should be clear that the above thesis on the construction of knowledge is also relative to a particular culture, namely the Buddhist culture. It could be reformulated within the Hindu culture with slight modifications. The main features of the Judaic-Christian chinthanaya are described in the "Mage Lokaya".
Some are of the view that in the past there could have been various sciences but now all these sciences have been incorporated into one system of knowledge and it is futile to talk of different sciences. What has really happened is that within the last four hundred years or so the knowledge that was taken to the west from the other countries has been assimilated into the western culture. The result of this assimilation was the birth of a new science that was generated within the Judaic-Christian chinthanaya and influenced by the Judaic-Christian culture. Later on the western scientists have been able to create an edifice of knowledge on the foundation constructed out of the early assimilations. Since the sixteenth century the other sciences have been neglected and the western science has been presented as the only science as a result of the cultural imperialism. As we are forced to study only the western science, at present we have no idea as to how to develop the other sciences. Perhaps we could begin by assimilating the knowledge created in the western culture into our cultures, which is very much different from repeating that knowledge imitatively in our languages.
Today western science, the technology based on western science and in general the knowledge created in the west has become an instrument of cultural imperialism. It serves the west by bringing people, especially the "intellectuals" of the so-called third world into the western cultural tradition. These "intellectuals" have been trained to think as the westerners do and repeat the knowledge created in the west in their respective countries. However most of these "intellectuals" can only understand the knowledge created in the west and perhaps "apply" the western theories in their respective countries. Very often these "applications" end up in disaster as the "intellectuals" do not realise that most of those theories are not applicable outside the culture in which they were created. Most of these "intellectuals" are engaged in "tinkering", if I were to modify an expression of Einstein in a different context, with the western theories. They are unable to lay their hands (infertile minds) on the engine of the western science. Hardly any significant creative work is done in the core of western science by the "intellectuals" in the non-western world. Though these "intellectuals" have been drawn to the western cultural tradition they have not been able to immerse themselves in the western culture. They are still merged with their indigenous cultures though they do not know how to create knowledge within their respective chinthana. (sorry there is no English word for chinthanaya and chinthana is the plural of chinthanaya as foci is the plural of focus). These "intellectuals" who are neither here nor there are among the most unfortunate products of western cultural imperialism.
However there are tendencies emerging in many parts of the world challenging the hegemony of the knowledge created in the western countries. These tendencies are bound to grow into indigenous systems of knowledge and could become a threat to the west in the next century, as reckoned by the western Christian calendar. To be effective these will have to be associated with national movements for independence from the world imperialism in the areas of politics, economics and culture.