1. Knowledge

I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know.

– Socrates in Plato’s Apology

After twelve years as a scientist, I have to admit that there is a lot I do not know; knowledge has been siloed in containers that I was either biased against or because the container was not accessible to me.

Science is based on increasing universal knowledge through testing the testable. But what happens to knowledge that is not testable?

In studying science, we examine generations of theories and experiments in western scientific traditions. But how did these paradigms emerge?

Post-modernists say that our understanding of the world today is biased by the words we use to describe them. Is ‘development’ a positive initiative or do we assume it is positive because the word intrinsically implies positive properties?

I did not have the answers to these questions because I was trained in a tradition that values empiricism and hypothesis-testing. But, the philosophy of science says that leading hypotheses against which we test our data may also be biased [more on this later].

When I was twenty-three, I read a brief history of philosophy, and became obsessed with Descartes. You have to understand that this was a very cursory text, and my understanding of philosophy was very superficial. Nevertheless, I was inspired and attempted to write down everything that I knew for certain. For this blog, I looked up this list again, and the list is laughable. I do not consider almost any of the ‘truths’ I listed at the time as ‘known knowns’ any more.

Since the age of twenty-three, I have completed a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university, given comprehensive examinations in multiple disciplines, lived in remote areas with marginalized people for years, and have experienced ten years of life. During this time, I have received knowledge from instinct, observation, stories, folk-lore, religious friends and lived experiences. Does this knowledge reconcile with the body of knowledge I received from academia?

Many of my observations could be reconciled with the received body of knowledge from historical research, anthropological research, statistical analysis and natural history reports. But, much of this knowledge is still unexplained. The modern world has emerged from ideas incubated and developed in Europe, but my understanding of histories and trajectories of thought in Europe were haphazard. I could not trace the genealogy of any idea other than the ones in my home disciplines of ecology and environmental studies. These disciplines are increasingly interdisciplinary as individuals interact with the environment at larger and larger scales, and as environmental studies incorporates disciplines that can be categorized as humanities. I needed a wider understanding of thought and knowledge in which I could place the genealogies of thought with which I was familiar.

Therefore, I embark on a personal project of understanding European history and intellectual traditions to understand how academia, and particularly science, obtains its knowledge, and what it leaves out.

For this, I enrolled in a few courses on edX, an online educational site where you can enrol in classes taught by professors at US universities. In this blog, I will be walking through the interesting lacuna in my knowledge from the disciplines of philosophy, mathematics, history, sociology, and literature.

I hope that this exercise will make me a wiser person and help me to reconcile my observations of the world we live in today. Do join me on this journey.

PS: If I have erroneous information on something today, please realize that this is an exercise in improving my knowledge and I hope to correct myself with further knowledge. However, do point out if I am missing something, though.

PS2: Nature of knowledge will be dealt with later.