Two Kinds of Empiricism

A caricature (but in my opinion true in essence) of modern western scientific practice goes as follows. The scientist starts with sensory concepts, i.e., concepts that are entirely determined by their referents. The referents in turn, can be measured directly using an appropriate experimental apparatus. For example, the concept “frequency of light” would be used to denote the vibrational patterns of light as measured by an appropriate optical device. Sensory concepts are unproblematic as far as the scientist is concerned since they denote facts and as we know, facts are basic. There is nothing more certain in science than facts. There is no sense in which a fact can be doubted — a fact is a fact is a fact — which is reflected in the typical scientific response to a postmodern critique of scientific inquiry is to say that the speed of light is the speed of light independent of which culture you come from and what you think about light etc. And since real science (as opposed to pseudosciences like psychoanalysis) starts with facts, its foundation is secure. Facts are not the only entities in scientific epistemology; we also have theories. However, theories are built upon facts since a good theory explains old facts and predicts new facts.

From this fact based epistemological perspective, certain things are either outside the provenance of science or just nonsensical, depending on whom you ask. Values and morals for example, cannot be derived from facts, like the existence of the (ex-)planet Pluto was determined by looking at the orbit of Neptune. Hence we have the famous fact/value and is/ought distinctions. Metaphysics and religion are two other well known examples of domains outside the province of facts and therefore, both were rejected by logical positivists as nonsensical. The concept of God in particular (in the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam) is an especially interesting example of a concept that is not scientific by this yardstick. Since there are no facts that demonstrate the existence of God (indeed, what kind of God would he be if we were just one fact among many?) the only tactic that a rational defender of religion would say is that either:

(1) Religion lies in the domain of faith, values and morals which are independent of science, or
(2) God is transcendental, i.e., he is the necessary condition for there to be any facts whatsoever.

Stephen J. Gould’s “The Two Magisteria” is an example of the first defense while the well known literary critic, Terry Eagleton, has written this defense of the second hypothesis.

Unfortunately, Indian contemplative and spiritual traditions seem to be outside this empirical/transcendental distinction all together. Take for example, Buddhism, which like most other Indian traditions, starts with the insight that Samsara (the world) is Dukkha (suffering) and that liberation, Moksha or Nirvana, is beyond Dukkha. Is Dukkha a fact? No, of what is it a fact of the matter? It is certainly not a measurable fact about the world. Similarly, is Nirvana a value or moral state? No, for its not a goal to be achieved, as any achievement would itself be in Samsara. Is Nirvana a transcendental entity, like God? No, since Nirvana is not a necessary condition for the world to be what it is. Nirvana may be constitutive of the world (or if you are an Advaitin, Brahman is the only Real), but its not what creates the world as the world. Certainly the knowledge of Brahman or Buddha Nature is not knowledge of something as scientific theories would demand but they are not entities that one takes on faith as somehow lying outside this world.

One response to this conundrum is to say that the Indian traditions are primitive and incoherent. There is no shortage of people who have taken this stand, or its complementary opposite, which is that the Indian traditions talk about knowledge and beings that are outside current scientific inquiry though still part of introspective empirical inquiry, via practices of meditation, yoga etc. I am not one of them.

Instead, what we need to do is to take the Indian insights seriously. What does it mean to experience the world as Dukkha? It means that the incompleteness of the world and precarious nature of facts itself is given in experience. In other words, experience, far from being grounded in facts, destabilizes the very facts that it discloses. So we have a very subtle form of empiricism here — not only are we aware of facts that can be measured by our instruments, we are simultaneously aware of the impermanence of facts (where impermanence is being used in the technical Buddhist sense of that term). Experience, therefore, is an open inquiry into a world which doesn’t have a ground floor of any kind — facts, values etc. In this kind of Indian empiricism, we cannot do science the way it is done now since the solidity of facts is not a given, but rather a provisional hypothesis that itself is guaranteed to be false in the long run.

If we were to do science starting from the Indian traditions, we cannot start with facts and proceed to build theories based on them. We will have to be open to the facts themselves being dislocated as our inquiry proceeds, and in the limit (Moksha?) be open to knowledge that emerges when all facts have been dropped. I believe that the second kind of empiricism, of open inquiry without an ontological commitment to facts, has dramatic consequences for any project that seeks to reconceptualize the Indian traditions in the context of current problems and debates in the natural and social sciences.

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