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Opinions of Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Columnist: Amponsah, John

On Rawlings, traditional knowledge, religion and science

By John Amponsah

Recently, former president Rawlings made some comments about religion and traditional knowledge that led to a number of reactions including a satirical cartoon piece made to deride him. In this article, I aim to delve into this thorny debate on science and religion and I hope to tread carefully enough to present my argument sufficiently clearly in order to stimulate discussion on the subject rather than attract uncritical or even distracting banter.

Since the dawn of human history on this planet, human beings have been a curious lot. Curiosity leads to the "what if" question. Extant reality seems vast, possibly infinite. Human form is finite. From the purely biological point of view, the human brain is finite. Human consciousness is also finite in terms of what it knows and what it is aware of at any given time. Everyone reading this article was born into this world having a human body that needed to be taken care of. Unlike most reptiles, mammals (of which materialistic science classifies humans under) need to be cared for. Each one of us was most likely born into a human society having its norms, knowledge systems, traditions, cultures, politics and so on inculcated into us. We are a product of our experiences. Our minds reflect what we have been exposed to.

It often intrigues me to observe proponents of materialistic science demand "scientific proof" for spiritual phenomena. By “materialistic science”, I mean scientific knowledge derived ultimately from five-sense perceptual reality. At the axiomatic level, materialistic science denies the existence of non-physical (spiritual) phenomena by limiting its data to inputs obtained from the five senses. So the model of reality that is captured by materialistic science is limited by five sense perceptual inputs such as taste, smell, touch, sight, sound. How then can materialistic science be used as an adequate model to explain non-physical phenomena, which is essentially non-material? Isn't there a contradiction here? Scientific evidence/facts and theories require physical media for expression. Non-physical phenomena (such as those ascribed to the spiritual) are inherently non-material and may not require physical media for expression. So from the point of view of science or of the scientifically minded, spiritual phenomena does not exist, because of the lack of scientifically acceptable physical evidence.

This brings up the most important point I seek to make in this article. The point I want to make is that underlying assumptions are important in the theoretical and practical aspects of human knowledge. The idea of starting points, axioms, definitions and such is common to the human mind in today's world, given the type of westernized education most people in the world are receiving. Axioms or “starting points” lead to certain human knowledge trajectories. “Starting points” exist in possibly all structured forms of theoretical and practical aspects of human knowledge. As an example, Newtonian physics has “starting points”, axioms or underlying assumptions that are not the same as those of quantum mechanics. Whole numbers are defined differently from rational or real numbers. Computer programs may have variables and other definitions which may refer to software libraries used in the program. Legal theories have underlying assumptions. Medical theories have underlying assumptions. This line of thought may be extended to even non-scientific areas or to an even seemingly trivial practice such as juggling. This is also based on principles.

Until relatively recently (last few hundred years of modern knowledge deriving largely from Europe’s mental-intellectual transformation experiences), the vast majority of human beings living on this planet cohabited in societies having within their epistemological models the notion spirit as a variable. So the knowledge generated by human beings in societies where spirit is allowed to have existence and expression has led to beliefs and practices which reflect the epistemological “starting points” of these human societies. Based on the “starting points” of a particular aspect of human knowledge, certain occurrences, processes and phenomena can be or have been brought into play.

Let us return to the practical subject at hand. This article is about "traditional knowledge", religion and science. I want to argue that none of these three fields of human knowledge have the exact same "starting points", although there may be some overlaps between them. It seems to me that traditional knowledge allows assumptions based both on physical and non-physical perceptions in its epistemology, while materialistic science only allows assumptions based on physical perceptions. The Judaic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) also have physical and non-physical “starting points” however the conceptualization of “starting points” in the Judaic religions differs from that in traditional knowledge. For instance in traditional knowledge, a “medicine man” can participate in the non-physical world in diverse ways whereas in Christianity, the non-physical world is largely limited to realms of existence that are usually interacted with after death. And so on…this is a complex topic however I seek to limit my argument and the scope of this article to considering the importance of differing “starting points”, and the implications of that to using one epistemological system to try to determine the legitimacy of another.