Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Rejection of Rationality II: Terms explained

This explains some of the terms used in the first part of the article, Rejection of Rationality I.

What is peripatetic investigation?

For many centuries, the pursuit of knowledge and the investigation on how nature works, what we now call Philosophy, has been confined to peripatetic investigation (except for few minor examples which suggest otherwise). Peripatetic investigation, as Greeks practiced it, involves one guy walking in the garden followed by his students who start asking him questions, while this guy keeps answering them, and over a period of time, after lot of questions and answers, they came to a 'sound argument' which seems to have stood ground in the debate that has answered most of the questions. This argument was then accepted as a valid theory of nature. Extend this example to a teacher or guru discussing in a class room or a person meditating under a Banyan tree, and you get Indian philosophies. They are all the same. Peripatetic investigation leads to an argument which sounds logical to humans, but need not be necessarily true.

Aristotle came up with ‘Earth as Center of Universe’ theory which is a result of such peripatetic investigation carried out by his predecessors. It sounded logical, but was not true. In the classical western world, empiricism was minimal and peripatetic investigation was given more credence. Except for Archimedes, Eratosthenes and few others who used experiments to make their theories, Greeks had come to embrace peripatetic investigation as the method to pursue knowledge. The results of such investigation held sway most of the West for a thousand years under Dark Ages and Middle Ages.

What is empiricism?

Pursuit of knowledge accompanied by lot of experimentation forms the basis for empiricism. One of the ways to understand nature is by conducting experiments to identify a pattern and then formulize a theory around it. Most of the modern scientific theories (not all) have come into existence through this route. Does it mean such theory is always a representation of the reality? Not really. To be true, this theory should now predict the future results in all experiments, forever, without failing in any scenario within the scope of that theory. One could also start with an idea or a hypothesis, and this becomes a valid theory only after it has been investigated using many kinds of experiments, especially those which try to disprove the theory.

The beauty of empiricism is that even if one experiment gives different results other than those predicted by that theory then that theory is abandoned. It has to be either replaced by a new one or the original one has to be modified to explain these new results (including all old results).

Sometimes a theory can come out of lot of observed phenomenon. Tyco Brahe made lot of observations on the positions of planets, their movements, etc, and these results were used by Copernicus, Kepler, et al, to construct a theory on the movement of planets around the sun (now known as Kepler Laws), which in turn were explained by Newton’s Law of Gravitation, making it a Universal Theory of Gravitation, applicable not only to movement of planets, movement of Galaxies, but also to the falling of an apple on a planet and movement of every object that we see.

Sometimes an idea could come ahead of the experimentation to become a theory later. When Einstein suggested that light is bent by a massive body, it sounded bizarre, but the experiment to prove this came only after many years when it was observed during a solar eclipse that indeed, light gets bent by massive object such as Sun.

Modern Science, Age of Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, and hence the Scientific Revolution, and therefore, advent of modern societies proposing universal laws based on rights to citizens giving us liberty are, to a great extent, the results of this empiricism.

What do Indians follow?

Most of Indian philosophies of yesteryears are based on peripatetic investigation just like Aristotle’s theories on Universe, most of which are now proved to be wrong. These are mere conjectures, based on argument that satisfies the logic of man, but NOT necessarily true in nature. Empiricism was not taken up by Indian Philosophers and there is no record to suggest they did. The present day Science of India lags behind rest of the world (except for brief spurts of inventions that happened in pre-Independent British India), because of our overindulgence and obsession with our ancient scriptures and their purported messages which seem to glorify such ‘holistic’ conjectures. Many Indian scientists are still reluctant to embrace empiricism and instead wallow in pure conjectural peripatetic investigations touting their age old mysticism and mythology as nothing else but pure science. Many cock-and-bull stories have erupted in the recent past to suggest that Indian Vedic messages are nothing but Quantum Physics in disguise- where bears are bosons, foxes are fermions, etc.

Related Topics: Rejection of Rationality I: Indian Hindus and the New Age, Rejection of Rationality III: Western constructs, Rejection of Rationality IV: Snippets


  1. Empirical evidences of n=1 (self) are the most powerful and valid ones, irrespective of what the scientific theory says.

  2. Sujai:

    You are comparing apples with oranges. To be fair, all philosophy - whether Indian or Western - is peripatetic investigation. Locke, Berkley or Hume are no less speculative than Shankara, Madhwa or Ramanuja. What could have been a valid question is why science developed in the west but not in India. However, you are comparing science as developed in the west with the philosophy that developed in India. On the whole, Indian philosophy is more other worldly than western philosophy. However, I do not see any marked difference in the acceptance of rationality in the two.

  3. How does one explain the current environmental crisis? Why did all the rational minds miss it? Why to all the empirical scientific experiments still keep "debating" whether this crisis is real or not. After 25 years we all could be dinosaurs, the earth would still keep revolving, it is just that the rational human beings would be wiped off from the face of the earth. Nature has its own way to come back to equilibrium, it does not let rational species like humans screw it up.

    This environmental crisis could be prevented if we all wake up now and start preserving our planet. Instead of waiting for the empirical evidence like the melting of north arctic and submerging of big coastal cities, lets act now (rationally) to save our planet.

    We need both peripetic questioning and emperical experiments to identify and act on crises like this. Thought provoking post Sujai.

  4. Vivek Behal:

    I said in my article:
    Peripatetic investigation, as Greeks practiced it,

    which is the same as what Indian philosophers practiced.

    While West abandoned that kind of investigation, Indians never came around to do it.

    I do not think Western Philosophy and Science are apples and oranges. Many philosophical discussions have directly contributed to Modern Science and vice-versa. Eastern philosophy is completely different beast altogether. Spiritualism, mythology and mysticism are all combined into one to have a bearing on Modern Science - as seen from the recent debate on Sethusamudram Project where the proof for Rama's existence has been Ramayana :)

  5. Sujai:

    Peripatetic investigation was not considered a respectable argument even in ancient times. One of the major objections raised by advaitins against Buddhism was that it was based on mere speculation, in contrast to their own system, which was based on the solid foundation of a "revealed" text.

    I think more than "peripatetic investigation", serious argument against Indian philosophy is lack of intellectual honesty. Even stalwarts like Shankara, Ramanuja or Madhwa do not debate in order to arrive at the truth, but to prove their point. No wonder their interpretation of same passages of veda are not only different but diametrically opposite to one another.

    However, I do not agree with you that most of the Indian philosophy has been proved wrong. To be fair to our philosophers, a significant portion of their philosophy can neither be proved nor disproved by any amount of experimentation. Indian philosophy is obsessed with the nature of 'self', the subject as in first person. You cannot do any experimentation on the first person. The moment you start your experiment, it turns into third person. The first person remains ever elusive.

  6. Vivek Bahl:
    Peripatetic investigation was not considered a respectable argument even in ancient times.

    Not sure if I agree with that. Peripatetic investigation was in fact glorified by the Greeks and Romans who followed them. The results of such investigations were unquestioned for more than thousand years.

    In India, the ancient scriptures elucidating wisdom and knowledge, which came out of such similar argumentative discourse were unchallenged for many centuries (and to some extent, even now).

    I don't see such an investigation being looked down upon.


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