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Relative Concepts

Akila Weerasekera, California State University

What we know today as science is often presented as an objective knowledge of an objective reality. Also, it is generally believed that in western science knowledge is "discovered" rather than created. Western science concludes that scientific laws connect the world, the universe, human being, and society, and the "discovery" of these laws will illustrate the scientific independence of these laws in time and space. Most philosophers' discussion of issues relating to "laws of nature" and scientific theories have concentrated heavily on examples from classical Newtonian physics. Newton's laws of motion and of gravitation are often subjected to discussion. This area of science gives a clear example of the type of universal generalization that constitutes the widely accepted view of what a law of nature or scientific theory "ought to be."

In general it has been assumed in western science that there is an objective reality and science progresses towards the objective truth with successive discoveries. It is also claimed that there is a "scientific method" that is applied in "science" that distinguishes itself from the other systems of knowledge. As a consequence of this approach people tend to (or led to) view which lies outside the scope of what we can see, touch and feel, with grave skepticism and unless proven true by science, becomes relegated to the wasteland of wishful thinking.

The notion of laws of nature has medieval origin as the edicts of an all-powerful deity to his angelic servants about how the functioning of the world should be arranged and directed. The philosopher Rene Descartes insisted that he was discovering the "laws that God has put into nature." Later Newton would declare that the regulation of the solar system presupposed the "counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being."

Laws of nature are often seen as principles of the way the world works and that they are an objective part of the external world, waiting to be "discovered". Furthermore laws of nature are regarded as simply expressed generalization of our best knowledge and belief about the way the world works. In this view, a law can change over time with the state of scientific knowledge.
Until the beginning of the twentieth century, Newton's Law of Gravitation was the accepted or "correct" law which explained the falling of apples and such. Newton's law has been replaced by an understanding coming out of Einstein's general theory of relativity. This makes us ask the question, is there a "truer" (objective) law of gravity that is deeper and still undiscovered or which does not change with the state of human knowledge?

Professor Nalin de Silva's new philosophy of constructive relativism or paticcasamuppadin view gives a different perspective to the question of whether science is objective. Constructive relativism is based on Buddhist culture and states that the world is nothing but a creation of the observer due to ignorance of anicca, dukka, anatma and that the world is same as the knowledge of the world. Lay people having not attained "Nibbana" constantly create knowledge. This created knowledge is then categorized as scientific knowledge, indigenous knowledge, or any other kind of knowledge. It is important to keep in mind that the knowledge of constructive relativism is also relative and a creation, not a "discovery".

In this approach it is not assumed that a world exist independent of the observer who attempts to gather "information" of an already existing world. The observer creates the knowledge of the world, and hence the world is relative to the culture, sense organs and the mind of the observer. Simply put, the world is a conceptual creation of the observer.

Thus, according to constructive relativists western science is the product of Greek-Judaic and Christian chinthanaya (chinthanaya is identified here as that which binds different aspects of a culture such as language, arts and crafts, music, science etc., into a whole and nothing more). Constructive relativists do not deny scientific knowledge but argue that any knowledge is a creation of the human mind and not knowledge of something that "exist" independent of the "observer". Since knowledge is created as concepts, the concepts themselves are relative to the creator (his senses, culture, etc.) of the concepts. What is a relative concept?

For example, let's take the concept or the knowledge of a solid brick wall. We (humans and animals) are unable to walk through this "wall" since we assume that it has certain qualities which prevent us from doing so. Now, suppose a being such as a deva is capable of passing through this wall. Will this being or deva consider this wall as a solid which prevents it from passing through? Do the "qualities" which prevent us from walking through the wall apply to the deva? Can we consider these "qualities" as intrinsic properties of the wall? Certainly not, the "qualities" are relative.

According to the above example the wall does not "exist" independent from us but "exist" relative to us (in a deeper sense the relative existence is also an illusion). The "qualities" are given to the wall by us and has no independent existence. Likewise, everything in the universe which we consider to be real is nothing more than a relative concept. Thinking along these lines we can clearly see that scientific knowledge or any other knowledge is made up of just relative concepts and that there is nothing objective about it.






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