Showing posts with label Knowledge. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Knowledge. Show all posts

21 June 2013

Cargo Cult Science

image from Suite 101 Cargo Cults
In an essay from 2011, Explanation vs Interpretation, I outlined an argument from a book called Rethinking Religion by Thomas Lawson and Robert McCauley. The book is about two different knowledge seeking behaviours, how they clash, and how the authors proposed to reconcile them. The argument is very relevant in academia because of sometimes bitter disputes between the camps to which academics. I hinted at, but did not really have time to explore, the way this dynamic plays out in everyday life. In this essay I want to go back and see if I can draw out some of these threads.

The basic dichotomy is between two forms of knowledge seeking. Those who seek knowledge through explaining observable facts and formulating them into causal laws which interact and combine to form a robust and highly useful, but to date partial, view of the universe. Science is the epitome of this approach. The success of the scientific method has been such that it totally dominated modern life. Even the detractors of science take to the internet to denounce it. 

The other approach is to interpret events by assigning meanings and reasons to them. In this school of thought all inquiry about human life and thought occurs in irreducible frameworks of values and subjectivity, and science is merely another framework. This is the approach of religion and certain varieties of philosophy.  The idea of universal human rights emerges from this approach. It allows a great deal of freedom for speculation but also leads to orthodoxies. However interpretations don't interact and cohere like explanations and thus can conflict with each other. The usual dynamic is cycles of fragmentation and synthesis.

I've since revisited this dichotomy several times, but in particular in my essay Metaphors and Materialism where I suggested that there is a dispute about the existence of the substance broadly called 'spirit'. The scientist finds no evidence of spirit and thus excludes it from explanations, but the religious cannot understand human exist without it and it becomes central to interpreting human existence. That most Buddhists believe in spirit is interesting because a number of early Buddhist doctrines would seem to deny spirit.

Schrödinger's wave equation

If you do not understand this, you
do not understand quantum mechanics
I have also obliquely addressed this issue in my essay Erwin Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat in which I sought to debunk the idea that quantum physics has anything to do with Buddhism. The way that Buddhists employ quantum mechanics is through an interpretation of the narrative accounts of some of the consequences of the science, ignoring the mathematics which are central to the science of quantum mechanics (the 'mechanics' part is a reference to the mathematical techniques which underpin the science). This is valid from an interpretationist point of view since science is merely one framework amongst many. Ironically such relativity often cites the so-called 'observer effect', outlined by quantum theorists, as justification of their subjectivism, though this is a rather gross misreading of the observer effect. 

This dynamic of the creative re-interpretation and co-opting of science is what interests me in this essay. It is sometimes called cargo cult science (this label was first suggested by physicist Richard Feynman). Decontextualised facts and figures washed up on the beach are thrown together to make an idol which forms the focus of the psychological needs of the spiritual tribe. The 'power' of science is co-opted by adopting the forms of science without the content or the founding assumptions. A new improved spirituality.

In this approach to interpretation there is a tacit acknowledgement of the success of science as a mode of knowledge seeking. Cargo cult interpreters seek ways of incorporating some of the success of science into their interpretation, but on their own terms as though facts can be detached from their context without any effect. I've said that ordinary people often experience science as a pernicious influence that destroys valued aspects of social and religious discourse and practice. There is a general confusion of values as religion has fallen under the steam-roller of science. Whether the link is causal or incidental I don't know, but clearly some people are seeking a more robust world-view that will not be so easy to overturn as when Darwin overturned the notion of all at once Creation. One strategy for this is to co-opt science itself.

Almost everyone will be familiar with presentations of "evidence" for the supernatural in form or another. In another essay, On Credulity, I explored the readiness of people to accept 'proof' of the supernatural. The spiritual suffer more than averagely from confirmation bias. Despite some high profile debunkings over many years, and the failure of all supernatural claims under strict  laboratory conditions, the spiritual folk latch onto any scrap of confirmation. To some extent I understand the belief in spirit. Recall that Thomas Metzinger says that after having an out of body experience (OBE) that "it is almost impossible not to become an ontological dualist afterwards." (See Origin of the Idea of the Soul). The belief is persistent precisely because experience suggests it. However, all Metzinger's attempts to explain his OBE in dualistic terms failed to account for it, and he settled on understanding it as a failure to integrate several streams of input related to the construction of our sense of self. 

The cargo cult is even more evident in the area of health. The popular media have science reporters who write stories on research with an emphasis on the novel and innovative. Unfortunately such journalists often have no respect for the scientific process. They publish attention grabbing stories without bothering to critique them, without waiting for other scientists to corroborate results. One example will suffice. At some point a journalist published a report on the amount of water a person needs to drink. This was taken up by alternative health practitioners and has become a dogma: a person must drink X litres of water every day or suffer ill-health. So now where-ever you go people have bottled water with them and compulsively sip at it. This is not obviously harmful, but it is a bit infantile and the bottles are not particularly environmentally friendly. The story emphasises that it must water and that anything other than pure water is in fact dehydrating. In fact research shows that it doesn't matter what liquid you drink - coffee is just as good at hydrating as water, and the very mild diuretic effect has a negligible effect on levels of fluid in the body. This is not a simple case of bad science. There is good science here as well. Humans do need to drink water and we can die from dehydration (for instance in cases of dysentery). But if we drink when thirsty, and drink to slake our thirst, then we will get the water that we need. And a cup of tea is just as good as water. There is no need to force ourselves to drink litre after litre of water, over-riding our natural thirsts. Of course this over-riding of natural appetites is part of a much broader problem faced by civilisation which has cropped up in my writing from time to time (most notably in my essay on pornography). The water bottle has become like a talisman and the water a sacrament. Although the behaviour draws on science it exists in a magical worldview. 

Part of the problem is that science is complex and difficult to understand. I recently read Stephen Hawking's new book the Grand Design which presents itself as answering "life's ultimate questions". His proposed solution, M-theory, is so complex that its equations cannot currently be solved. As I understand it the theory itself has yet to be fully described mathematically. Even if they are one day solved it's not clear how they will provide any meaningful results on the human level - one of the main criticisms seems to be that the theory does not make any testable predictions. The fiendishly difficult mathematics of M-Theory are, not surprisingly, entirely absent from Hawking's book. And yet like quantum mechanics the theory is mathematical. What is presented, rather ironically, is an interpretation of M-Theory. Hawking is forced to do this because even if the experts did understand it, the average person never will.

Unlike Hawking I don't think philosophy is dead, but I do think that scientists often make poor philosophers. I can't help but wonder what effect Hawking's existential situation has had on his views on free will and determinism, but I don't want to go too far down that road. What really struck me about the book was that the "answer" put forward by Hawking to the "ultimate question" was conspicuous by it's absence. Hawking does not address the question of how we should live, he is not interested in that question, and M-Theory has nothing to tell us about it. Nor does he address such questions as what life is. Far from answering life's ultimate questions, Hawking fails to even ask them. Thus even a hard-core materialist like Stephen Hawking seems to be inadvertently promoting cargo cult science. 

One of the ironies of cargo cult science is that it fixes results and doesn't leave them open to review. The religieux who idolise scientific results are still interested in absolutes rather than development. Once we have proved that the supernatural exists then we can just relax and get on with our seance. This positivist approach to science has largely been abandoned by scientists themselves, who generally set out to disprove something or other. The best result a scientist can hope for is to disprove the present paradigm in their field and become the next Einstein. But not so the cargo cultist. Having assembled their idol the last thing they want to do is probe it or test it, or dismantle it. Thus cargo cult science is not a homage, but a travesty. One sees this to some extent in the Kabat-Zinn style "mindfulness" clique. They are concerned to show that their approach is beneficial, and thus emphasise studies which show their practices in a good light - there certainly are many such studies now, but they seem suspiciously uniform in supporting mindfulness as a pancea.

Apart from the metaphysics why is this dichotomy interesting? Why are people in opposing camps at loggerheads? Part of the answer to this is politics and economics: or in other words influence and control of resources. These are just the basic social primate motivations. Those who control the narratives about what is important get to control access to resources. So the conflict is non-trivial. Those who co-opt science to make their own beliefs seem more attractive are competing for followers and support. In the market place of souls, science sells. But people also care about how resources are put to use in society. Professor Steve Keen is a heterodox economist who is relentlessly scathing in his attacks on the NeoClassical Economics which, through over reliance on interpretation over explanation, has lead the world to the brink of economic disaster. He has said on numerous occasions that the same economists who seem to have almost deliberately wrecked the world's economies are motivated by trying to make the world a better place.

All sorts of well-meaning people believe that their interpretation of the facts is the panacea and set out to implement policies based on their ideology. Buddhists are particularly prone to seeing Buddhism as a panacea - and this is a narrative with centuries of history for us. But without the element of criticism and dialogue which form part of the explanatory approach to knowledge, we always, always run into trouble that we cannot get out of.


09 March 2012

Types of Knowledge

IT'S BEEN A WHILE since I drew directly on the Pāli texts so I thought I would share some observations from my recent Pāli studies. The Mahā-Vedalla Sutta is from the Majjhima Nikāya and features a series of questions put to Sāriputta by Elder Mahākoṭṭhika, and the answers.

The title of the sutta includes the word vedalla which is unusual (there is also a Cūḷa-Vedalla Sutta). PED thinks that it might be similar in form to mahalla 'old, venerable' which seems to be a (dialectical?) mutation from mahā-ariya via mahā-ayya. Veda-ariya doesn't really work as a compound. Another possibility raised by PED is that it derives from vedaṅga. This would give us the sense of 'types of knowledge' which does describe the content of the sutta, especially the paragraphs below. Since this seems the most sensible option I have adopted it.

What follows is a condensed translation of the first seven of Sāriputta's answers and some commentary.
The Great Discourse on Types of Knowledge - condensed translation.
Mahā-Vedalla Sutta (MN 43; M i.292ff.)

Ignorance (dupañña ) is not-understanding (nappajānāti) that 'this' is disappointing; that disappointment has a beginning and an end, and there is a way to bring about the end.

Intelligence (paññavā ) is understanding (pajānāti) that 'this' is disappointing; that disappointment has a beginning and an end, and there is a way to bring about the end.

Discrimination (viññāṇa) is discriminating (vijānāti ) between pleasure (sukha) and pain (dukkha) and neither (adukkhasukkha).

Understanding and discrimination are connected and inseparable. What one understands, one discriminates; what one discriminates, one understands. The difference is that understanding should be cultivated (bhāvetabba), and discrimination should be fully understood (pariññeyya).

‘Knowns’ (vedanā) are called ‘knowns’ because they cause [things] to be known, they produce knowledge (vedeti ) They cause pleasure to be known; they cause pain to be known; and they cause neither-pleasure-nor-pain to be known.

Perception (saññā) is called ‘perception’ because of recognition (sañjānāti) of blue/green, yellow, red, and white and so on.

Knowns, perceptions, and discrimination are connected and inseparable. What is made known, is recognised; what is recognised, is discriminated.

One of the first things we notice is that the text contains a lot of words deriving from the root √jñā'to know, to understand', including nouns paññā, viññāṇa, and saññā;" >; adjectives dupañña and paññavant; and verbs pajānāti, vijānāti, parijānāti, & sañjānāti; in addition to words from the root √vid 'to know', vedanā & vedeti. And what the text is doing is defining these terms in relation to each other. Understanding Pāli terms pertaining to mental processes can be difficult since the definitions appear to change over time and according to context. So this text is one version of how the terms can be distinguished. As such its quite handy.

In this text, following Indian grammatical practices, nouns and adjectives are defined in terms of verbs.

paññā pajānāti
viññāṇa vijānāti
saññā sañjānāti
vedanā vedeti

So the noun paññā 'understanding' is defined in terms of the verb pajānāti 'to understand'. The paragraphs form two groups: the first defines paññā and viññāṇa and describes the relationship between them; the second defines vedanā and saññā and their relationship to each other and to viññāṇa. Viññāṇa is a conceptual link between the two groups, which as I will try to show represent two different routes to viññāṇa.

In the first group we find the adjective dupañña 'badly understanding, foolish' (here the spelling is pañña not paññā) which is defined as nappajānāti 'not understanding'. This is contrasted with another adjective paññavant 'possessing understanding, intelligent' which is defined as pajānāti 'understanding'. The subject which we either understand or don't, which makes us dupaññā or paññavant is the Four Truths of the Nobles: the fact that 'this' (i.e. our immediate experience) is disappointing; and that disappointment has a beginning and and end, and a way to bring about the end. If we understand this we are intelligent, and if not we are foolish.

Also in the first group viññāṇa is defined as 'knowing' pleasure, pain, and neither-pleasure-nor-pain (sukha, dukkha, adukkhasukha). Here the literal meaning of vijānāti is intended: vi- 'division' and jānāti 'knowing' - i.e. understanding the difference between. My reading is that 'consciousness' would be the wrong translation here, and that discrimination (or something along these lines) would be more appropriate.

Now the relationship between paññā and viññāṇa is that they are inseparably connected, that one involves the other. However there is a difference in how we approach each. Paññā is to be cultivated (bhāvetabba), while viññāṇa is to be fully understood (pariññāṇa). The word for cultivated is related to the word bhāvanā in mettābhāvanā 'the development of loving kindness'.

Now to the second group. Here vedanā, usually translated as 'sensations' or 'feelings' (with much discussion of which of these two alternatives is a best fit), is defined in terms of vedeti. The relationship to the verb vedeti shows that neither 'sensations' nor 'feelings' really convey what vedanā is. Vedeti is from the root √vid 'to know' and comes from a PIE root *√weid which means to see; and draws on the metaphor that to see is to know. English cognates include: via German wise, wit; via Greek idea, eidetic; and via Latin video, vision. Vedeti in particular is the causative form which means 'to make known, to bring about understanding'. Vedanā is based on the past-participle vedana 'made known, brought to understanding'. Hence I have translated vedanā as 'a known'. And what is being made known to us is the pleasure and pain of experience. I'm not sure that this is all that we know, but pleasure and pain are what are salient to the Buddha's program.

The next term to be defined is saññā. The definition is here is not entirely helpful but we can infer more about it from what follows. Saññā is primarily defines in terms of sañjānāti recognition and the examples used of what is recognised are the names of colours. The implication here is that saññā is recognition expressed in terms of naming the objects of perception, i.e. apperception.

Finally we see that the relationship between vedanā, saññā and viññāṇa is described as sequential: what is made known, is recognised and named; and what is recognised is discriminated. This further implies that saññā is applied to vedanā; so naming the colours must be seen as a very limited example of the kind of operation involved.

We can diagram the statements above like this:

Anticipating some future posts on papañca I have added it branching off from saññā. What this model suggests is that discrimination has two input streams. One of them is experiential in the sense of being based on processing sense experience (vedanā → saññā → viññāṇa). Vedanā is the point at which we become aware of contact (phassa) which itself rests on the coming together of sense object, sense faculty, and sense-discrimination (also confusingly referred to as viññāṇa). And note that vedeti is the process which causes pleasure or pain to be known, sañjānāti recognises and names the experience, and vijānātidistinguishes between them. In this sense paññā); and it comes from cultivating understanding of the truths of the nobles (ariyasacca). What is implied in the latter is reflection on the truth of the truths. In both cases the senses and their data are secondary. The result of discriminating on the basis of greater and greater understanding is complete understanding (pariññā) which we can take as a synonym for bodhi. My reading leads me away from reading paññā as 'wisdom' in this case - though it may well be appropriate in other cases. I think rather that it refers to intellect, and that someone who possesses paññā is 'intelligent'. [1] Unlike latter Buddhist schools of thought it is viññāṇa which must be perfected in this model, not paññā (Skt. prajñā).

At least one of my regular readers is interested in the khandhas, and I this sutta may shed some light on them. As far as I know the khandhas themselves are not presented as a sequence in the suttas (this seems to be Sue Hamilton's conclusion too). But here we have three of the five khandhas presented as a logical sequence. Since saññā is defined in terms of colours, we could invoke the idea seen in many other suttas that the object of the eye (cakkhu) is form (rūpa). We could then state that here rūpa is implied as the generic object of the senses which combines with a generic sense faculty to produce contact (phassa). This is indeed how most people interpret rūpa in this context. One problem however is that contact rests on a tripod of object, faculty and sense-consciousness (cakkhuviññāṇa, sotaviññāṇa... manoviññāṇa). We would have to suppose that viññāṇa was being used in two different denotations here, which is fine, although somewhat confusing. Another problem is saṅkhārā which is left out, and this is a term that is difficult to understand (I wrote about in Saṅkhāra qua Construct, but that meaning does not seem to apply here). What saṅkhārā means in the khandhas, and why it takes the place it does in the order (if it is an order) are unsolved problems. Perhaps saṅkhārā or in verbal form saṅkharoti (from Skt. saṃskaroti < saṃ-s-√kṛ 'to compose, arrange') may well have its literal meaning here of 'put together, arranged'. [2]

In any case we could see here a kind of prototype from which a model of khandhas might have emerged with some tinkering. Perhaps these slightly incompatible models emerged amongst discreet groups of practitioners and were only brought together in the Canon. My theory, for what it is worth, is that the Canon as we know it was not compiled until the time of Asoka and probably under his direct influence. There is, in the Canon, clear evidence of multiple oral traditions preserving stories with slight variations (which I've noted in the past). Asoka's empire represents the first point in history when widely spread groups might have had a chance to come together, especially as the preceding centuries were full of war and social unrest.

Even if my translation choices and interpretations do not convince (or appeal to) the reader, I think they will agree that this sutta offers some useful insights into technical terms for kinds of knowing.


  1. Intelligence comes from the Latin intelligentem, which is a present-participle of intelligere 'to understand, comprehend'. The etymology is inter- 'between' + legere 'to chose, pick out, read'. The earliest sense of the word was the "faculty of understanding". So the word 'intelligent' is probably more closely related in sense to vijānāti 'discriminating, distinguishing'.
  2. The gerund of the word is used at S ii.269 where akaddamaṃ saṅkharitvā means 'having made clean' (i.e. mud free). In fact 3 of the four occurrences of the word relate to preparing food before one eats it.

18 February 2011

Explanation vs Interpretation

IN THE INTRODUCTION to their book Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture, the authors Thomas Lawson and Robert McCauley admit they intend to cause trouble. The audience for the book is probably involved on one side or the other of the sometimes bitter scholarly conflict they are writing about. The combination of jargon and assumed common political and intellectual background make it a bit daunting for the general reader. However in Chapter One Lawson and McCauley make some interesting observations about the social sciences generally and the study of religion in particular that I want to pick up on.

They note a dichotomy between those who seek knowledge through explanation and those who seek it through interpretation, but make the point that the dichotomy is in many ways a false one.

In its extreme form the explanation camp says that all interpretation is irrelevant. The stereotype here is the materialist scientist, the logical empiricist who is only concerned with the observation of facts. Knowledge is the discovery of causal laws, and interpretive efforts simply get in the way. The approach to knowledge puts strict limits on acceptable subject matters and methods. The important thing about science - which distinguishes it from common sense - is that scientific explanations form general systems of abstract principles. These principles can be applied beyond the domain in which they were discovered. It is the inter-connectedness of scientific theories, the way they work together to support each other, that contributes to their success. Common sense knowledge, by contrast, is typically restricted to a particular domain, and it isn't related strongly to other knowledge. Explanations lead to consensus, but only on the subset of all possible knowledge amenable to empirical observations.

We can safely let Richard Dawkins stand as a good example of the scientist explanationist camp. He is known for his impatience with superstition and ignorance of facts, and for his public attacks on religious beliefs. Interestingly Richard Dawkins evinces surprise that people should see him as 'cold' and 'nihilistic' on reading The Selfish Gene, and attempts to alter that impression with his next book, Unweaving the Rainbow. But for all that he shows that he is familiar with poetry and deft at manipulating metaphors in his factual explanations, he also seems to misunderstand something fundamental about human cognition and decision making - the role of emotion in our lives. Dawkins appears to explain his failure to communicate himself as laziness or stupidity on the part of his audience. He is openly contemptuous of people who are not persuaded by his explanations, but makes no attempt to connect with the values of the audience, which means that he presumes that everyone prioritises cold hard facts as he does. Note that his sub-title for Unweaving the Rainbow contrasts science with delusion as though these are the only two possible positions. His contumely is reminiscent of legacy attitudes of the British upper-classes to the common people. Similarly Stephen Hawking in his recent book The Grand Design declares "philosophy is dead", and that scientific determinism is simply how things are - he goes as far as denying the possibility of free will, but allows that despite the lack of true agency that behaviour is so complex that it remains unpredictable. The Grand Design trumpets itself as offering "new answers to life's ultimate questions" - and the selection of the questions is telling. First and foremost Hawking seeks to answer: 'why is there something rather than nothing?'. Socrates question 'how should we live?' is not only not addressed, is it not even asked! Scientific determinism creates a sterile vacuum by placing many aspects of human life - especially all the creative and imaginative arts, and the human emotions and values - outside the sphere of knowledge seeking and making.

On the other hand is the interpretationist who says that all inquiry about human life and thought occurs in irreducible frameworks of values and subjectivity. Human beings are subjects not objects. The search for knowledge about human beings - and therefore about religion - is the search for reasons (hermeneutics) and meaning (semiotics). Explanation is not only unnecessary it is at best undesirable, and at worst not possible. Since interpretation allows no common (objective) standard and there is much less interactivity amongst knowledge found in this way, there is a tendency to splinter into factions e.g. Freudian, Foucauldian, Feminist, Marxist, Christian, Buddhist, etc. Each group comes up with a plausible story about what things mean, and criticises the other groups with no possibility of consensus. The interpretationist account of humanity is overly fecund, and reaches an apotheosis in the Post-Modernists who reject all explanation and all objectivity, and disclaim all possibility of wider consensus since there is only personal interpretation. However interpretation allows us to structure and understand those areas of life which science cannot touch - particularly human experience. Although laws may not be possible, there are certainly patterns. Identifying and discussing problems such as universal human rights rely on interpretation rather than explanation.

I'm not familiar with any of the examples of interpretationist type given in the book, but it strikes me that Joseph Campbell fits the profile. He interprets myths and legends, seeking reasons for human behaviour and sources of meaning relating to it. He is not concerned with what causes us to behave, in the way that a scientist is, only in what it means that we do behave the way we do. Campbell on the other hand accepts everything as part of life's rich tapestry without judgement. So when discussing the theme of rebirth (in his interviews with Bill Moyers published as The Power of Myth) he sees the images of the Buddha peacefully meditating beneath the bodhi tree, and Jesus brutally nailed to a cross as being the same story without any qualification (I disagree). Equally he discusses ritual murder in the same context without any sense of moral judgement - every expression of human behaviour is valid to him because it is simply an expression of the myth. The term for this kind of view is monist - expressed sometimes as "all is one". There is no way to prove what Campbell says - it is simply one interpretation of a range of observations. Campbell's position is not easily reducible, but he is broadly speaking a Jungian, I think. If he were a Marxist his reading of the myths would no doubt be different. However Campbell creates extremely plausible narratives in many cases and he seems to shed light on the content and importantly the function of myths. Since the Enlightenment myth has become a byword for something which is not true. Campbell shows how myths have value because they symbolically communicate meanings and purposes, and has to some extent rehabilitated the word myth.

Lawson and McCauley outline some intermediate positions, but these require some familiarity with the literature and are therefore harder to explain. Overall when there are concessions made by 'social scientists', the authors say, they inevitably privilege interpretation and subordinate explanation. Some see the methods of social science as yet inadequate to the task of an empirical approach, leaving interpretation as the only way forward. A second group acknowledge that explanation has a role, but see human actions as guided by reasons and not by causes, so it seems natural to focus on interpretation while not actually discounting explanation (I think the problem here is free will). A third intermediate position sees all knowledge seeking - including the natural sciences - as fundamentally interpretive, and in particular argue for the importance of subjectivity in the construction of scientific knowledge systems. For this last group interpretation sets the agenda for explanation. In studying humans they prioritise the concrete contents of human experience over the abstract theories about them.

In my experience most religious people are interpretationists of either the extreme kind who deny any possible explanation for human, especially religious, experience; or they tolerate a level of explanation but place certain types of experience forever beyond the reach of empiricism and factual knowledge (my Buddhist teacher Sangharakshita is overtly in this camp I would say). Religious people are wary of explanation which they see as 'cold', and as 'killing the magic'. They speak of scientists 'explaining away' their beliefs. The danger religious people see is that science, in explaining human religious behaviour, will destroy the things they value about their religious practices and communities. And on past evidence this is not an unreasonable fear as explanationists are often insensitive to values.

It's clear that the extreme approaches are not always helpful. Although both have had their successes, they have tended to polarise the discussion about religion and stymie communication and understanding. The point that Lawson and McCauley wish to make is that there is a way to combine both interpretation and explanation without privileging or banishing one or the other, and that in effect we all do it anyway. They point out that in fact explanation and interpretation are different cognitive tasks.
"When people seek better interpretations they attempt to employ the categories they have in better ways. By contrast, when people seek better explanations they go beyond the rearrangement of categories; the generate new theories which will, if successful, replace or even eliminate the conceptual scheme with which they presently operate." (p.29)
Interpretation presupposes a body of explanation (of facts and laws), and seeks to (re)organise empirical knowledge. Explanation always contains an element of interpretation, but successful explanations winnow and increase knowledge. The two processes are not mutually exclusive, but interrelated, and both are necessary.

In the process of attempting to integrate Buddhism and Western Culture (which includes science and technology as well as distinctive myths and ideas about what gives life meaning) we cannot afford to take an exclusively explanatory or interpretive approach. We are forced, by intellectual honesty, to accept the strong conclusions of science: the classical laws of physics and chemistry for instance are not really in doubt despite being dependent on a frame of reference - we do in fact live in that frame of reference. Some of the critique of each camp is useful - explanation helps to put useful limits on interpretation; while we are reminded that facts are not always hard (think of statistics and how vital they are in biology or quantum mechanics) and laws governing imagination and emotion are vague, though not without importance.

One of the big issues of religion in the modern world is the status of the supernatural. On the trivial level we have ghosts and 'energies' of various kinds, and on a more serious level we have a transcendental Buddha beyond any predication or description, let alone explanation. Nirvāṇa is taboo, and remains not just inaccessible but forbidden to scientists. Though one of the most interesting areas of neuroscience is the effects of meditation on the brain.

To even consider trying to explain the Buddha is seen as a kind of heresy. We Buddhists do maintain conceptions equivalent to both heresy and blasphemy - despite all protestations to the contrary - that emerge when we transgress. It can be heresy to deny some doctrines. To some denying rebirth is a heresy. More or less any doctrinal innovation in Buddhism leaves one open to the charge of heresy. If we go further and declare our belief that consciousness is entirely based in the brain (which I more or less accept) or that the Buddha was just a human being who was kind and not troubled by psychological suffering then we will find the charge of blasphemy being laid surreptitiously at our doorstep. We may find that someone will say that we are not in fact Buddhists if we don't accept a transcendental version of Buddhism; or we may be called a materialist. The label materialist has a powerfully pejorative sense in this context; and often comes with an offhand, sometimes contemptuous, dismissal of the so-called materialist's opinions. The form of the arguments is identical, I would say, to those we see in theistic milieus.

Buddhists like to emphasise true, original (in the temporal sense) and authentic teachings; genuine masters, living Buddhas; unbroken lineages; and fully ordained individuals. We are a bit obsessed with appealing to external authorities to bolster our internal authority. Why do I constantly refer to the Pāli Canon for instance when I have my personal experience? Could it be from lack of experience?

We have some way to go as most of these issues are not even conscious. As someone with a science education and a leaning towards explanation, I regularly find myself in conflict with those who embrace interpretation - often having to point out that my disinclination to supernatural interpretations of experience does not amount to materialism (see Am I a Materialist?). The important thing about Lawson and McCauley's analysis is that it clarifies what issues and values are at stake so that we can bring them to awareness, and have the discussion in the open. Facts are important, and we should not be denying facts in promoting Buddhism. One fact is that human values are not easily objectified, and another is that experience doesn't necessarily conform to mathematical laws.

Lawson, E. T. and McCauley, R. N. (1990). Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chapter One Reprinted as Lawson, E. T. and McCauley, R. N. (2006). "Interpretation and Explanation: Problems and Promise in the Study of Religion." J. Slone (ed.). Religion and Cognition: A Reader, London: Equinox.

See also:
Oliver Sacks on Why the brain creates myths on "Jerome Bruner, a great psychologist, has spoken of two modes of thinking. One is to create narratives, one is to create paradigms or explanations or models."

19 March 2010


I stumbled upon a website recently that quoted Bill Bryson's book about the English language: Mother Tongue. He points out that some languages have different words for the knowledge that comes from recognition (French connaître; German kennen), and knowledge gained from understanding (Fr. savoir; Gm. wissen). If we trace the roots of these words they lead us in several directions - I'll aim to highlight links to English and Sanskrit.

French connaître is, I think, related to the English word 'cognition' (from Latin co + gnōscere 'to know'). The Indo-European (IE) root is sometimes given as *gn-, sometimes *gno [1] from which comes the Sanskrit root jñā. The IE gives rise to many English words. Via the Greek we get 'gnosis'. From the Latin nōscere (dropping the g) we get 'noble' which original meant '(well) known', from L. nōbilis via Old French noble; similarly 'note' and 'notorious'. 'Quaint' derives from the Old French coint, from L. cognitus, which also gives us 'cognition' and 'recognise'; French variations on L. cognōscent (present participle) give us 'connoisseur', 'cognisance', and 'reconnaissance'. The Sanskrit equivalent of 'cognition' is saṃjñā (sam- and co- both signifying 'together'), though saṃjñā in Buddhist usage often means 'to recognise' or 'apperception'.

Kennen must be related to the English 'ken' from Old English cennan (via Scots dialect) which is again ultimately derived from *√gno. Compare this with the Anglo-Saxon equivalent: cnāwan. The word ken 'to come to know' is also related to the Germanic *kuntha which became Old English cūtha and this gives us the word 'uncouth' which originally meant 'ignorant'.

Savior and wissen however are not cognate, that is they derive from different roots despite having a similar meaning. Savior derives from the Latin sapare 'to taste, have taste, be wise', from which we also get the words 'savant', 'sapient', and our species name 'Homo Sapiens'. Words such as 'savour' and 'savoury' are from the same root. The IE root is *√sep and I have not identified a Sanskrit cognate.

Wissen by contrast is clearly related to words such as 'wise' and 'vision' from Latin visione. The Greek is oida. All are clearly related to the Sanskrit √vid from which we get the cognate vidyā 'knowledge (especially esoteric), science etc'. The idea here is that what we see, we know. Related words are veda 'knowledge', vedanā 'that which is made known'.

The link between knowledge and vision is explicit in Sanskrit and Pāli and they often occur as synonyms. As well as √vid we also find the root √dṛś is used in this way. From √dṛś especially we get the words darśana 'to see' but also 'an opinion', and dṛṣṭi 'seeing, notion, doctrine'. Presumably savior 'to taste' must be being used in a similar sense here. Note that in Buddhism the knowledge associated with views and doctrines is suspect, but this is a sectarian view and does not emerge from philological concerns.

The word 'understand' (the sense of savior and wissen) means 'to stand in the midst'. From IE *sta (Sanskrit sthā) and 'under' not used in the usual sense of 'beneath', but deriving from IE *nter 'amidst, among' (cf Sk antar 'between'; and Latin. inter-). The word 'interest' comes from the Latin inter est 'it is among'; compare also 'interior'. By contrast the Sanskrit antargacchati simply means 'to go between', though adhigacchati 'to go over, to approach' can figuratively mean 'to understand'.The Greek for understanding is epistamai 'I stand upon'. Spatial metaphors using 'in' and 'on' are often interchangeable: for instance we can say "in his view", but equally "on this view" (the latter seems more common amongst American academics).

There is another important Sanskrit verb √budh 'to perceive, notice, understand, to awake'. From this word we get the important Buddhist technical terms buddha 'awoken, understood' and bodhi 'awakening, understanding'. We also get the verbal noun buddhi 'intelligence, reason, mind'. The only trace of this word in English is in the word 'bid', as in "do as I bid you" which is related to the causative form bodhaya- 'to inform' via the Anglo-Saxon bēodan 'command'.

The Sanskrit root jñā is used with a number of affixes: abhijñā 'direct knowing'; prajñā 'wisdom'; saṃjñā 'awareness, apperception', vijñāna 'consciousness'. Not all combinations produce expected results however, compare: anujñā 'allow, permit' (anu = along, with); avajñā 'insult, disrespect' (ava = down, under).

The dictionaries I regularly consult for this kind of essay offer a surprising range of English equivalent for Sanskrit and Pāli words meaning 'to know' indicating the breadth of the concept: 'perceive, apperception, conceive, apprehend, comprehend, understand, cognition, recognise, ascertain, discern, distinguish, discriminate, experience, investigate, discover, intelligent, judge, observe, conscious, aware'.

Note that all the words with -ceive relate to the Latin capere 'to seize'; and those with -hend relate to Latin hendere 'to take hold of'. All the -cern words (including discriminate) are from Latin cernere 'to sift, separate'. Dis- as a suffix means 'apart'.

  1. Words preceded by an asterisk * are hypothetical or reconstructed by philologists based on triangulating between the various Indo-European languages using what they know about how sounds change in order to propose the underlying word that gave rise to all of the known variations.