Sandra Harding and I wouldn’t get along. I suppose I’ve known this for a while now, having followed the professor’s work on the philosophy of science for a few years without finding anything to agree with her about. Still, I saw her lecture last Tuesday, in which she asked whether “real sciences” had to be secular, as something that could bridge the separate worlds of religion and science. “Of course scientific methods must be secular,” I thought to myself. “Surely she will agree.” But I suppose you already know how this story ends: Sandra Harding and I didn’t get along.
She began by claiming that there’s a certain unwarranted resistance to “indigenous knowledge systems” — systems of knowledge derived by local communities generally as part of a cosmology and expressed through laws, oral traditions and rituals — by proponents of “Western science.” By discounting these apparatuses of knowledge, Western science does itself a disservice by disqualifying modes of thinking and ways of understanding to both itself as a methodology and to the universe as a whole. Furthermore, Harding claims that these indigenous knowledge systems have allowed people to thrive and survive and accomplish great feats in their lives and therefore should be permitted entry into realms of science as valid forms of reasoning. In fact, she claims that to do otherwise is intolerant and prejudicial.
One of the main reasons Harding gives for the existence of such opposition by “the West” — a term that’s more an abstract idea than a real “thing” — is that the West has built itself up for millennia by declaring certain dichotomies between itself and the “other” civilization. Such binaries include freedom vs. bondage, progress vs. retreat, universality vs. particularity and reason vs. dogma. Harding claims that what underlies each of these choices is the fundamental opposition of secularism and religion, legitimized by the West’s massive scientific enterprise. If the sciences were to allow religiously derived indigenous knowledge systems into their ranks, the West would be unable to justify their exclusion anywhere else in its infrastructure. Hence, all of the progress the West has made would be undone. Thus the reticence.
Or at least so far as Harding would have us believe.
The actual reason is less romantic, less conspiratorial than all of that. These indigenous knowledge systems are usually just plain wrong. It’s actually quite a simple point Harding herself not only neglected to address in her lecture but also failed to answer adequately when questioned by the audience. When asked, “If there aren’t fairies in the garden, why should scientists care that some culture believes and acts like there is?” She retorted that we should accept their worldview because “it works.” She then lamented the grammar of the question, saying that it comes from a Protestant Christian type of secularism embedded in notions such as “beliefs” which have no bearing on other cultures, going so far as to say that indigenous knowledge systems “are not interested in the truth or falsity of their beliefs.”
But that fallacy obviates any possible scientific discussion. Scientific methods are about establishing the truth or falsity of claims about the universe using evidence and logic to attain these ends. If a knowledge system has no concern for whether or not what it says is true, I suppose that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t qualify as science. It cannot. It is for this reason that religious knowledge was excluded from scientific methods so very long ago, as it is neither held up by evidence nor held down by the lack of it. The truth or falsity of a religious or spiritual tenet is generally not near the top of the “List of Things Religious or Spiritual People Care About.” Usually, these belief systems are focused on ritual, community and understanding oneself and one’s place in the cosmos, and whether any of these religious beliefs are true or false is beside the point to a believer.
To a scientist, however, the truth of a claim is all that matters. The way the world is matters. Using the best tools we can — evidence, reason, logic, deduction and experimentation — we’re able to paint finer and finer pictures of our cosmos. Our cosmic picture’s colors get more accurate, the positions of all the facts more precise, the canvas expanded nearer to its proper proportions. That someone else may draw a pretty picture of the same universe is nice and wonderful and spectacular and can be deeply moving to both themselves and others — it can be many things, but “science” isn’t one of them.
This isn’t to say that we can’t learn from others’ new techniques or ways to visualize our existence, but rather to declare that science can only be concerned with giving us the most correct picture it can, not the prettiest, not the most meaningful. The world we live in is the way it is, and it’s the job of scientists to find that out as best they can. If there aren’t actually any fairies in the garden, then there are no grounds to include them in science’s cosmic canvas, no matter how much we may wish they were real.
Barry Belmont is an Engineering student.