Of Carlo, Nalin and Peter Elbow


Readers of The Island who love science and philosophy may not have missed "Doramadalawa" on ITN, on March 11. Thanks to Hasantha Hettiaarachchi, it was a superb debate on epistemology or simply an attempt to know about what is not known.

The discussion, however, turned into a debate when Prof. Carlo Fonseka (CF) gave an example of the scientific way of acquiring knowledge, free of illusion, delusion and hallucination.

CF explained why a straight pencil appears bent when dipped into a glass of water. He demonstrated thereby that a naked truth could sometimes be an illusion, as in this case. He then took Galileo’s famous test to show that everything that falls from atop comes down in equal speeds (acceleration) irrespective of their weights.

At this point Professor Nalin de Silva (NDS) argued; ‘What is the reality? The pencil was straight or bent?’ and referring to Galileo’s test he said, "it was a ‘pattapal boruwa’ (a total falsehood)" and all that comes in Western sciences is ‘pattapal boru’.

NDS’s argument may look petty to an ordinary person, but CF knowing what NDS’s core argument is and also knowing that NDS himself knew very well what the reality is, kept silent with a complimentary smile.

Does this mean Nalin was deceiving the audience? No! I think NDS’s unexplained core argument needs to be illustrated. Suppose that we human beings and other animals are living in a vacuum, Aristotle would have postulated that everything falls at the same speed, irrespective of their weight – the complete opposite of what has been said. Accordingly, Galileo too would have disproved it by dropping a feather and a pebble in an air filled cylinder, instead of atop Pisa Tower erected in our imaginary vacuum!

What NDS implicitly says is that what is discovered by Western science constitutes conditional truths but not absolute truths. Interestingly, this is an accepted fact by Western scientists. That is why Bertrand Russell said "…Thus science seems to be at war with itself". Therefore, although NDS’s argument has some truth, Western science is not "pattapal boru".

Nevertheless, NDS is correct on two points. One is that Western thinking is different from Eastern thinking. Yes, but Peter Elbow has described this difference in a more lucid manner than NDS’s complex and incomprehensible way. As cited by Nadler and Hibino in their book Breakthrough Thinking, Peter Elbow has named Western style of thinking as a "Doubting Game" and the Eastern style as a "Believing Game". In their view, Westerners consider "a person who refrains from playing a Doubting Game as unintellectual (not intellectual), irrational and sloppy..."

Criticising further they say "… Doubting Game is the mode of choice among Western corporate executives, academics, intellectuals and political leaders, it is the prevailing mindset of the contemporary power-elite, who, not coincidentally, have generally failed to find effective solutions to the common problems we face today, regardless of how good their solutions are…" Some of the common problems Nadler and Hibino have recognized in the Western way of thinking are: conflict management, world peace, issues that affect the existence of human beings. No doubt, NDS must be referring to these results of Western science.

"Believing game, on the other hand, is based on an entirely different set of principles. To refrain from doubting is the first and foremost rule. This game causes people to seek ways of achieving the desired end, thus putting forth positive reactions to questions like… How could it work? What are the larger ends that a particular solution will achieve? ... And so on". In fact, when our ancestors were building Ruwanweli Mahaseya, Parakrama Samudraya, they must have adhered to these Believing Game principles.

The second point where NDS is right is the authoritative way of Western thinking on scientific discoveries. In other words, for them, all the theories are correct as long as they come from a white man and not by any other. A good example is the denial of the Nobel Prize to Bhose of India for the Bhose-Einstein statistics. This was considered one of the top ten scientific works of the twentieth century.

However, as the white man is dominating the world, we cannot say Western science is ‘pattapal boru’. As Professor Carlo Fonseka says, it is not Eastern or Western science that matters. Nor does the birth place of science or philosophy matter. What really matters is whether the discovery is good for mankind and the world at large.

Upali Gamakumara


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