How to go about developing an alternative to the so-called social sciences? — S.N. Balagangadhara

I would like you to consider the following four kinds of answers, each pitched at a different level of generality and at a different level of description. One could provide more, but these four should be enough to give a taste of the kind of wine you might care to drink.

1. Suppose that one were to ask you: how to go about doing ‘science’ (in general) or, say, doing ‘physics’? What kind of an answer could you possibly give? If you do not want to be unkind, you will probably give answers that will not be satisfying to the questioner. Like what? May be you will say: one needs to read, think about a problem, provide a solution and critically evaluate the hypothetical answer and so on. If the questioner presses his point and asks: yes, but how does one go about doing any of these, what will your answer be? The only reasonable answer you can give him is to point him in the direction of a model: go, read that book on physics, you will perhaps say, and then you have an idea of what I am talking about.

2. This is also my second answer to your question. I have provided precisely such a model in my book “The Heathen in his blindness: Asia, the West and the dynamic of religion”. Developing an alternative to the existing social sciences is not the idle dream of a vain intellectual; there exists a model that has already begun the process. Therefore, from now on, the discussion is not any more about whether and how such attempts are necessary or desirable but one of evaluating the said model and, if found to be a beginning, continuing to build more such or similar models.

3. In what way, you may ask, will such an attempt be different than the existing social sciences? Instead of drawing your attention once again to answer (2) and say ‘go and find out how it is different’, I would like to take another route. I will treat your difficulty as a ‘philosophical’ problem. As you say, the ‘facts’ and the data’ are the same; so “how do we build new standards/baseline”? Of course, the history of sciences (the natural sciences, that is) gives us any number of illustrations of what the question entails. Let me use the simplest one: people saw, and continue to see, the setting and rising of the sun; its movements across the horizon. These are the ‘facts’ and ‘data’ that all of us have. For a long period of time, some thought what they saw was how the world was. Then came some other people who said the following: this is indeed what we see, we are compelled to see it this way because the reality is exactly its opposite. That is, they explained not only what we saw, told us why our perception was wrong but, more importantly, told us too why we had to perceive it the way we do. (This was the novelty of the ‘heliocentric theory’. Aristarchus, I think his name was, had long, long ago developed the ‘heliocentric’ theory as a possible model without, however, doing what Galileo’s explanation could, i.e. explain the ‘necessity’ of this perception.) The ‘facts’ and ‘data’ were the ‘same’ for both the geo- and helio-centric theories. The difference lay in their theories and, you will admit, what a difference it made! In this sense, the difference between the current and the ‘new’ social sciences will be of the same kind. Believe me, when I tell you this in all seriousness, there is and there will be a world of a difference between what is and what is going to be. Of course, this is not yet enough for you to know the ‘quality’ of the wine. Let me pour you a small glass, so that you may taste it for yourself.

4. Since this wine is coming from my cellar, you are beholden to listen to me about how I acquired it. Such tales are not only a part of the ritual of tasting good wines but they also add to the taste of the wine. Nowhere is this analogy more apt than with respect to what i am now going to say. For a couple of years now, I am irresistibly pulled in the direction of ‘aadhyaatma’. More often than not and with increasing frequency, I contemplate on going on what we call ‘vaanaprastha’. I would have done it by now, were it not for the fact that I still have to do certain things as a ‘gruhastha’; but the pull is increasing. (No doubt, it has to do with my age and my cultural education; I am glad of them both, but this explanation does not lessen the force of the pull.) In any case, I have slowly started revisiting (in a manner that is different from the way I visit other books and articles, and I find myself spending more and more time doing so) some of the texts and some of the authors from the Indian traditions. Here are just two examples of the results of this ‘revisiting’.

4.1. Most of us know the following verses from the gita that begins with “yadaa yadaa hi dharmasya” and ends with “sambhavaami yuge yuge.” Permit me to give a rough translation of these four lines for the sake of this discussion: “whenever dharma begins to wane and adharma waxes, which happens in each yuga; to protect the good and punish the wicked, and to re-establish dharma, iI fashion myself.” you also know how most have been taught to interpret these verses: krishna’s avataara occurs in each ‘yuga’ and that it has either already taken place in our yuga, or that it will still happen again, etc. However, if you read it again with the eyes of a twenty first-century human being, here is what is striking and, if true, breath-taking. These verses are telling us the following (I am going to reformulate the substance of these verses in my terminology and not just provide an ‘interpretation’): there is an assumption that there is a process of learning to be moral and that this is a learning process in society. It is inevitable, this is the second assumption, any social learning process can and does undergo degeneration. From this it follows, this is what the verses now describe, that: when such a degeneration of the learning process occurs, at some critical phase in the degeneration at the level of society, other mechanisms in society are going to kick in and regenerate this learning process (i.e. the process of learning to be moral). This is a breath-taking claim about the nature of moral learning in India (let us keep it confined to India at the moment). Of course, they (the writer/writers of gita) formulate this ‘insight’ using the images familiar to them about Krishna and his ‘avataaras’. But that need not detain us. But what should, is their insight into the nature of society. Where and how did they discover these things? How did they discuss these things? What kind of a research did they do so that they came to have this extraordinary insight? This insight, even if it proves to be wrong, is light years ahead of any extant psychological or sociological theory about moral learning and moral development that you care to mention. So, just these two verses are formulating a scientific hypothesis in the best sense of the term about the nature of moral learning. Believe me, I am dumb struck. The western culture has not even suspected the existence of what these verses take for granted (for example, the two assumptions I have just identified). How and why did the Indians think of these things those many thousands of years ago?

4.2. A second example of a different kind, which is equally random. You know that Indians are alleged to believe in the ‘doctrine of punarjanma’ (rebirth). You know too that either it causes ’embarrassment’ to the scientifically minded Indians or generates indifference in them. You also know, I suppose, that this ‘doctrine’ plays an important role in the ‘Hindu’ traditions, the ‘Buddhist’ and the ‘Jain’ traditions. So, how to understand this ‘doctrine’? (I will not talk here about the modern Indian philosophy because I find that the worst place to begin understanding anything Indian is the modern Indian philosophy. But this is an irrelevant pot-shot.) To understand this, i first need to set the problem up. Some Indian traditions claim that there is a difference between ‘aatma gyana’ (or aatma vidya) and ‘brahma gyana’ (or brahma vidya): the first precedes the second and the second follows the first. Despite this, the transition is neither smooth nor self-evident. So, what is the difficulty here? If you look at Shankaracharya (say his aatmabodha, for example), you can see what kind of a difficulty he is talking about. It is what we call ‘the problem of induction’, i.e. how could we make a universal statement on the basis of any number finite singular observations? (By observing that 10 Mexicans have a sombrero on, how justified are we in making the statement ‘all Mexicans wear sombreros’?) It transpires that the transition from aatmagyana to brahmagyana (at an experiential level and not as an abstract philosophical problem) involves such a difficulty: to go from the particular aatman to the universal brahman. (This is not esoteric, but experiential.) Here is what Shankara says: one must use yukti (‘tricks’). He also gives an example of such a ‘yukti’: ‘neti neti’ (not thus, not thus). In our modern day terminology, it merely means that one needs to use some cognitive strategies (i.e. heuristics, algorithms, rules of thumb, however you may want to call them) and ‘neti, neti’ is one such. You know what is another such cognitive strategy? Exactly: the ‘doctrine’ of punarjanma. (I will not go into how this strategy works, etc. on this thread.) What does this mean? The ‘doctrine’ of punarjanma is not a ‘doctrine’: it is not a description of the world at all, but a cognitive strategy! If it is that, then we can understand why the ‘buddhists’ speak of ‘punarjanma’ even when they deny the existence of ‘aatman’ and not face cognitive embarrassment. Not only that: if it is a cognitive strategy, it must be a recognizable part of the Buddhist ‘meditation’. If anyone has followed Buddhist meditation, you will know that this ‘doctrine’ is used as a visualization technique in the process of generating certain kinds of emotions. Why is it that generations of Indian and western scholars insist talking about the ‘doctrine’ of punarjanma and fail to see for what it is? You see, my research programme generates these kinds of reformulations of the ‘ancient’ Indian traditions. (As far as I know, I am the only one who is making such extraordinary claims.) Tell me, would these constitute some indications of what it means to take steps in the process of building an ‘alternate’ social science? Of course, this is just a sip of the wine: to prove that it is not sour, or is not over the hill. It has yet to reach its prime, and we have many more tons of grapes to harvest yet. But is it worth the effort? Is it promising? What do you think?