Friday, June 8, 2012

Linguistic Communication as instrument of knowledge and the Bias in favour of Evolutionism

One of the reasons why the numerous philosophical schools and thoughts elaborated in South Asia over an impressive number of centuries can be (still) neglected in philosophical department is that they do not confirm to a couple of the presuppositions of such philosophical departments:
  1. 1. obvious as it is, they do not share the history of Western philosophy (i.e., they do not fit easily in a class on Schleiermacher's sources and fortunes),
  2. 2. they do not share the same methodology of contemporary "analytic" philosophy (although excellent authors have shown how dialogue is possible, analytic philosophers may ask themselves why should they bother discussing with someone which is just "almost as good ad" her own colleagues),
  3. 3. they do not share the "evolutionary explanation" which is now very much in fashion in Natural sciences and, consequenlty, also in philosophy.

Several scholars, especially of Buddhism, have tried to show how Buddhism is compatible with Varela's or Damasio's theories, but in many cases the result is similar to that achieved by Matilal, Ganeri, etc. in the case of analytic philosophers (described above, point 2).
Now, I am not an expert of evolutionary theories and have no direct access to neuropsychological experiments. Most of the books I read on this subject, however, seem to me flawed by a source of petitio principii: they claim that we like sweet foods, because they are full of calories, and this is good for our preservation, we like sexy girls (or boys, but most authors are men), so that we can reproduce, and so on. But by the same token one might ask why do not we like many other things which are favourable to our species' preservation (such as healthy food and unattractive but fertile women) and we like instead many others which are detrimental for it (such as self-destructive habits of any sort).
More in general, picking up one or the othe character and looking for neurological or evolutionary reasons for it seems to me very much dependent on the whims of a certain group of scientists. Perhaps Indian philosophy should be recommended exactly insofar as it contains the more elaborate debates on the validity of testimony and of human statements as instruments of knowledge? Perhaps we just miss the importance of this problem while reading books based on statistical data (biased by the kind of questions asked) or on psychiatric data (biased by the sort of answers suggested), etc., because we are just not trained to see it?

On Linguistic Communication as an instrument of knowledge, see this post (or, if you can read Italian, my entire Italian blog on this topic).


ombhurbhuva said...

The key to the acceptance of Buddhist ideas is that they are presented in a ‘naturalised’ way. Owen Flanagan is a good example of this. Any religious taint is the kiss of death for the rationalist mind-set. Inevitably then Eastern philosophy has tended to be cast up on the beach of the Religious Studies department with a diminished status. That is my impression at least.

elisa freschi said...

Yes, it looks like the two are symmetrical: on the one hand, one tries to make a certain trend in Indian philosophy as less religious as possible (see Matilal or some Buddhologists' approach), on the other hand all the rest is sent into the Religious Studies department.

Jayarava said...

Hi Elisa

I think the problem is that when someone like me uses an example like the desire for sweet food (which I have done), that it is not an explanation, but an illustration of a much broader principle which might have explanatory power. It shows how we might apply evolutionary thinking to a problem that is familiar to a Buddhist thinker. And most Buddhist thinkers combine spectacular ignorance of science with a wilfully anti-intellectual stance, so in order to communicate any real science to Buddhists requires a lot of simplification and window dressing to make it seem attractive. And even so most of the audience shrug and go back to their supernatural magical thinking.

Science causes as much tension with Buddhism as coherence. Rebirth for example is shown by scientific method to be incredibly unlikely (on the scale of the toothfairy). And I would argue, contra many Westerners, that rebirth is integral to Buddhism. So denying rebirth is a real problem for Buddhists who embrace science.

Not all of us are naively trying to marry the two. In fact I think religion and science are two different species and if they can produce offspring the will be unlikely to be fertile: like the offspring of a horse and a donkey is an infertile mule. It's more likely that in deciding how to live, that we'll end up having to make a choice. With one of two outcomes: Either fundamentalists will continue to exist, but gradually become marginalised and eventually be moved onto reservations (like in Brave New World); or the fundamentalists will plunge us into a new dark age and will burn the internet.

The argument of the Church of England against same sex marriage is instructive. They argue "If the government allows same sex marriages, then we will become irrelevant". They say this like it's a bad thing, but most people see it as a good thing.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Jayarava, thanks for your comment, it is always interesting to read you.
Western Buddhism, seen from the outside, seems to really want to look rational and "scientific" or at least compatible with contemporary sciences. It strikes me that your experience is so different. But, I guess, there are stupid believers everywhere (i.e., people who take their faith as a ready-made solution, rather than as the beginning of a challenging and difficult intellectual enterprise).

As for you next point, suppose we grant that science and faith cannot have fertile offspring. Why should it follow that either the one or the other will overcome? This would be true in the case of superstition vs. science (either you think that friday the 13th brings "bad luck" or you know that all days are alike, no middle way). But religion is not that (and even in the worst cases it is at least not just that). Religious *praxis* seems to have little to do with natural sciences. Similarly, to name an example less controversial than Buddhism, a Catholic who claims that the Eucharist is "Christ's body" thinks that it is so "on a level only accessible by faith". She does not claim that a chemical analysis would prove that its molecules are now different than before!

As for the Church of England, I tried to find the quote you refer to. The only passages I found refer to the fact that to change a civil law about marriage would have terrible consequences for the Church of England, due to its being some sort of "statalised" church, with the Queen as its head (…!). Thus, two different "state marriages" would be possible. Anyway, apart from this case, the unadequacy of the churches' authorities is an accidental point in our debate, isnt' it?

Eisel Mazard said...

This is a blog-article that does not satisfy the expectations created by its own title (it is a rather long title, promising the reader quite a lot).

Is the subject of the article the one raised in the first paragraph, i.e., why are the philosophies of India "neglected in philosophical department[s]"?

If so, the real answer has nothing to do with philosophy, and everything to do with money. Almost-nobody studies Pali because almost-nobody can earn a living through the language; almost zero universities employ anyone to teach or study Pali, because they don't want to spend the money on it (and if you ever participate in departmental debates on such points, you will find them bereft of discussions of Schleiermacher's categories, etc., such as you have here mentioned).

There is certainly no consideration of "...elaborate debates on the validity of testimony and of human statements as instruments of knowledge..." in budgeting institutions (be they secular or religious institutions).

Alas, without the ability to read the primary sources, what can be done (and what actually is done) with Buddhist philosophy (in the academic setting) is deplorable.

[Quote] I recall a very simple remark made by Prof. Neil McMullin [...] in reference to the Theravāda monks who were then pursuing various graduate degrees at the University of Toronto. He said of them simply, "...but if they were actually reading the original text for themselves, they would find problems with it". Indeed, they would come up with original questions that they were uncertain as to how to answer themselves, they would confront unfamiliar facts that challenged their preconceptions, and would not repeat the same old generalizations in English.

That simple remark stayed with me while I was in Asia, and McMullin was right: people who read the texts for themselves know about problems, whereas those who do not read for themselves merely know about vague ideals and generalizations.
[Close quote.] [Source:]

elisa freschi said...

Dear Eisel,

thanks for your comment.

1. As you might have noticed, I tend to write only short blog posts (unlike you and Jayarava, who really write articles on your blogs). This has to do with the fact that I tend to imagine blog readers as different than article readers and I develop my full-fledged philological arguments in my articles and not onl my blog. Thus, thanks for adding valuable elements to the point I raised.

2. I did not want to address the general topic of why is Indian philosophy neglected, but only the smaller topic of the philosophical reasons for this neglect (and, within these reasons, I focused on the lack of shared presuppositions, such as the bias in favour of evolutionism). I see the economical points you raise, but money is never in itself an explanation. Rather, it leads to the question of why one cannot earn one's living with Pāli, although research in the field of theorical logic is still financed. And the answer is often linked with the Weltanschauung of a society (e.g., the bias in favour of "natural sciences", the idea that "scientific" research is closer to technical applications and that these will lead to economical benefits, etc.).

3. Of course, one cannot understand a text without having read it. And reading it includes in most cases reading the original, unless and until translations and studies are accurate enough to reconstruct the text, its context, its background, etc. I doubt that something like that is ever possible and it has certainly not been achieved yet in the field of Indian philosophy.

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