Thursday, March 18, 2010

The tower of Babel

All of human knowledge can be summed up as relationship between various abstract concepts. These concepts may not have one to one correspondence with the material world or the world of sense perception even though they might derive from it. Human knowledge can be looked upon as an ever expanding circle enclosed in an area of ignorance. As our knowledge increases or the circle expands, so does our realization of ignorance; for the boundary is our contact with ignorance.

When one makes a breakthrough at any frontier area of knowledge, he/she creates a perturbation in this otherwise perfect circle of knowledge. Thus immediately those who are around that perturbation, slide in to that region. Thus suddenly in this perfect circle of knowledge, there is an outward hump in to the region of ignorance. As more people slide in to this region, the hump becomes bigger and penetrates even deeper in to ignorance, shedding light as it moves. So imagine this, many scientists are working in the boundary area of the circle, the inner part of the circle being our genetically endowed cognitive abilities ( logical skills, ability for abstract thoughts, language skills etc). The perfect circle gradually starts growing spikes from these small humps or perturbation, as more and more scientists pour in. These spikes are different subjects, physics, chemistry, language, economics etc; each using our cognitive abilities as base and then developing/using their own tools/methodologies to penetrate in to the ocean of ignorance.

It might so happen that small hump may appear somewhere in the spikes themselves resulting in growth of secondary spikes. One can imagine these spikes to be conic in shape thus the highest tip having handful of people working, which is ought to be the case at the frontier area of a subject. If this is indeed the true picture of how we gain knowledge then one can see an obvious problem. If the spikes are indeed conic in shape and their base starts from the circumference of the circle then much empty space or ignorance will remain in between two adjacent spikes. The implication being, at very rudimentary level we might be still ignorant simply by virtue of the way we started accumulating knowledge.

Another problem that appears is that as the spikes become longer they gain more sophisticated knowledge in their own field but also by virtue of their conic shape at higher level they move further away from adjacent spikes. Hence as subjects develop further and its complexities increases, their distance from related subjects also increases. Each subjects developing its own tools and language fit for its own purpose. These tools become more and more precise for the particular discipline and hence less and less applicable to other disciplines. The practitioners of different disciplines will scarcely be able to communicate in the near future because they won’t be able to translate their knowledge to others.

One might suggest that mathematics is the common language for many disciplines and therefore all may not be lost. However as human knowledge expands, in each disciplines one has to learn background knowledge in order to reach the frontier. Thus it might be impossible to communicate with somebody else who lacks such knowledge. As the discipline becomes even more sophisticate the effort to communicate with others will become even more futile and impossible. We are witnessing the birth of new tower of Babel.

Now the above discussion was rather philosophical in nature and bad one at that. It was built on an analogy and then I derived some conclusions supposing that analogy to be true, which is obviously logically indefensible. But what I wish to point out is this: the role of philosophy lies in developing such extra-scientific or meta-scientific propositions. Recently I have been going over various documentaries on philosophical figures like Ayer, Gilbert Ryle, Isaiah Berlin, Bernard Williams etc. From their discussion it seems to me they have relegated philosophy and have made it subordinate to science; the purpose of philosophy being, to analyze the concepts of scientific disciplines like physics, psychology and even economics. Metaphysics is studied purely on the ground of historical reason. I found this rather disturbing because to bind or limit philosophy goes against the very nature of the discipline. It was the unbounded nature of the discipline that allowed the development of atomic ideas by Democritus or the ideas of all the major present day disciplines by Aristotle. I believe Wittgenstein-ien philosophy and those of logical positivism have done much harm to philosophy.

We need a subject that is supra-methodological, without structure and uses everything/anything as subject matter. We need a discipline which should study all other disciplines and thus methodologically should be different from all other. To structure it is to bind it, to bind it is to limit it, and to limit philosophy defeats its very purpose of existence. My above theory of knowledge is abstract idea with no strong empirical basis, and therefore it might be unscientific. However I believe it is precisely these kind of activities that must be pursued by philosophers, for it precisely these kind of activities that are left out by other disciplines. I believe in our excessive glorification of science, we have sacrificed too much, we have wrongfully dethroned philosophy. I am not against philosopher spending time trying to analyze and clarifying scientific concepts, however to limit them to that seems to me to be patently naive. Students of philosophy must be taught, if one might take it to the extreme, to think the unthinkable and there should be no methodological constraint in their pursuit, the future of human knowledge depends on it.


  1. Once again, very well written dost. I recently read a brief book "The philosophy of physics" by Max Planck and remarkably, he raises the same issues. We have binned knowledge into disparate entities, as though they exist by themselves exclusive of the other. Whilst most serious scientists would yield to the fact that such an unjustified segregation of knowledge do exist, they are reluctant to address this self-defeating status quo in any meaningful capacity.

    Modern western educational institutions have degenerated into slick well-oiled machines that produce automatons who can only extrapolate their acquired knowledge in a given vector of knowledge, if you will. These automatons form the engine of the economy; even with "science" degrees their critical thinking capacities are severely impaired.

    Even in the research domain, where piles upon piles of research papers are coming off the mill, incessantly; institutional prejudice for free thought is rife. There is too much red-tape to get through, especially with regards to research funding that fundamentally dictates the thrust of research endeavours in any given field.

    As you laid it out so articulately above, we are truly in need of a supra-methodological paradigm that espouses the free-spirit of philosophy in a meaningful way.

  2. Thanks for the comment man. I have heard of the book, Philosophy of Physics but never read it. Its good to know, I am thinking along the line of Planck, albeit 80 years later lol.
    Did u get the book from Amazon. I recently read Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolution and from there it seems like our system, as you put it, is geared towards efficiency and hence we are churning out automatons. Edward Said calls it tautological indulgence, where the Phd student writes what his prof wants to hear or put it another way for only those are accepted who write in that manner. And so u get the same thing recycled, no new knowledge in practical sense. Grave concern indeed. Great that u liked it :-)