Saturday, October 31, 2009

Responses 003 (2010-2011)

The third question in the list was this: "'Doubt is the key to knowledge.'—Persian proverb. To what extent is this true in two areas of knowledge?" I laughed when I read it, because it so happened that I had just been reading Amartya Sen's amazing collection, The Argumentative Indian.

In the title essay, Sen argues that doubt, and actively heterodox doubt at that, is the basis of reason. The Indian is argumentative because he very early on realised that all things were dubious (i.e., 'doubtable'). It is the point of the quotation I mentioned earlier, in this post. Hinduism, as I learnt a long time ago, ranges from the pantheistic to the polytheistic to the agnostic to the atheistic; which is why it can sprout a religion like Buddhism, which is semi-atheistic (try comparing Mahayana with Theraveda), or any one of the many other Indian religions, and also obtain insights into reality and science (see, for example, Lokayata).

The point, to put it bluntly (haha) is that if you don't question your perceptions, there is nothing to think about. In modern educational parlance, we say that cognitive dissonance leads to learning; that is, when you have a situation in which things don't match what you know or believe, you have a de facto learning experience. You must doubt either the new input or the old basis. And whatever you decide about the new and the old, you are being presented with potential knowledge gain — either you will learn what's wrong with what you know, or you will learn what's wrong with what you have just received.

In fact, skepticism is a necessary tool in asking questions. This is true of all philosophical traditions, whether South Asian, East Asian, West Asian or Mediterranean. By the time these traditions had finally reached the western shores of the Eurasian continent, it had become firmly established as the single root of all lines of argument about knowledge.

The very idea of epistemology (theories of knowledge) is a list of four questions with their accompanying doubts:
  • What is knowledge?
  • How is knowledge acquired?
  • What do we know?
  • How do we know what we know?
The doubts that must underlie these questions are questions like 'Is it ever possible to define knowledge?' and 'Having defined it, how can we know we have it?' If you have no doubts, there is no point asking the questions, and there is no need to differentiate between knowledge and the lack of it.

Doubt, therefore, is indeed the basis of knowledge, in a general sort of way. The problem for someone trying to answer Q3 is to apply this argument to specific areas of knowledge. This is easy. Or maybe not. You should ask the Vedas. Haha...

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Blogger Maisha Farizma said...

this is a great response to the question, definitely helped me with my essay. thanks :)

Thursday, January 13, 2011 8:48:00 am  

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