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On Experience Occluding Structures

1. Let me begin this article with the ideas of a most unlikely thinker: Imre Laka-
tos. He was Hungarian born, a naturalised British citizen, a philosopher of sci-
ence and, for some time, an ardent champion of Sir Karl Popper’s theory
about the nature of scientific growth. In his post-Popperian phase, he de-
veloped a ‘methodology of scientific research programmes’. Larry Laudan
transformed the theses of Lakatos and gave them the form familiar to most of
us today. Lakatos speaks about the growth of science in terms of competing
research programmes. His notion of a research programme included, besides a
succession of theories, a common ‘metaphysical core’ surrounded by a pro-
tective belt. This protective belt immunised the programme against ‘falsifica-
tion’; it encouraged the formulation of ad hoc hypotheses as immunising
strategy. He never went further than these initial formulations: he died too
early for that. If Lakatos is right, as I am now inclined to think he is, several
intriguing problems arise: why is there a protective belt? What is its nature?
Where does it come from? How does it continue to persist? I shall be partially
answering some of these questions in this article. As a run-up to outlining the
problematic though, some illustrations of the problem involved.

1.1 How did the proponents of the ‘flat-earth’ hypothesis react to the
claim that the earth was spherical? By suggesting that, if the earth
were to be round, at some point in a sea or land travel one would
have to fall off the surface of the earth. Because such an incident
never occurred, they reasoned, it was preposterous to entertain the
idea that earth was spherical.

1.2 When Galileo argued the helio-centric theory in his Dialogues on the
Two World Systems, his opponents refuted it by putting across the
following consideration: if earth revolved round its axis, how does
it come about that we do not fly off the surface of the earth? Or
feel dizzy? Or why does an object thrown up during a boat travel
fall inside the boat and not miss it entirely? Such experiences, they
suggested, goes to show that Galileo’s theory was absurd.

1.3 When the motion of the planet Mercury threatened to become an


anomaly to Newton’s theory, the scientists did not think that New-
ton’s theory got refuted by the observations. Instead, they postu-
lated an ad hoc hypothesis: there must be another planet (Pluto, if
my memory serves me right) in the vicinity causing Mercury to de-
viate from its predicted path. They could not believe that Newton’s
theory, which so elegantly accounted not only for planetary mo-
tions but also the ebb and flow of the tides, was wrong.
1.4 These are but three of many such stories told by philosophers of
science, while discussing the adequacy of theories of scientific
growth. What is of interest to me in such anecdotes is the nature and
role of ‘experience’. It plays a very important role in each of the
above examples: in the first two, there is an appeal to ‘experience’
in order not to accept accounts which appear ‘contra-experiential’;
in the third case, an ad hoc hypothesis is proposed in order to ‘save
the experience’. Despite their dissimilarity, there is a cognitive atti-
tude common to all three: threats to experience are rejected. (In philo-
sophy of science, this attitude is called as ‘saving the phenomena’.
My reason for not choosing the accepted terminology will become
evident later on.)

2. What is the nature of ‘experience’ in the above examples? If we use the Kantian
notion of ‘phenomena’ (in the phrase ‘save the phenomena’), it is self explanat-
ory: it is a structured experience. What has lent structure to these experiences? In
the third case, it is obvious: the theory of Newton. How about the first two?
Even though it is not immediately obvious, I suggest that the answer is the
same there as well: some account (I am not making any distinction between an
account, a theory and a hypothesis) or another has structured the experience
in the first two cases too. In each of the three cases, experience is structured
by cognitive schemes be they theories, accounts, implicit beliefs, or whatever else.
What is the ‘structure’ in this structured experience? It is the structure of the cog-
nitive scheme itself. An additional example might render the last sentence more
perspicuous.

3. Common to most theories of morality and to the commonsense in the west is


the following assumption: moral rules constrain human strivings. (It is of no
concern to us whether these ‘strivings’ are conceptualised as urges, passions,
inclinations, desires, or whatever else.) Moral rules appear to be in need of jus-
tification because of the constraints they place on human behaviour, and
hence the question ‘Is it rational to be moral?’ Notice that the relation
between ‘rationality’ and ‘morality’ is asymmetric: it does not make sense to
ask, ‘Is it moral to be rational?’ Of course, there are many ‘moral’ criticisms of
‘local’ rationalities’: a critique of ‘capitalist rationality’, ‘technical rationality’,
‘instrumental rationality’ etc. But they do not appear to have quite the scope of
the earlier question about the relation between ‘rationality’ and ‘morality’.

The constraining notion of moral rule appears to appeal to another, more


deeply rooted idea from the Christian religions: man is an immoral creature.
Thus, it follows, in the absence of moral rules there would be no end to im-
moral behaviour. Perhaps, human civilisation itself would be impossible in the
absence of prescriptive rules for human actions. (This cluster of ideas is not as
explicitly present as I have just formulated it.) I have been puzzled by these
claims for some time now, and each time I have had discussion with my stu-
dents on this, my puzzlement has only increased and not decreased. What is
the puzzle?

3.1 Let me recount the structure of the discussions I have with my stu-
dents. The discussions begin with their belief that moral rules con-
strain the immoral strivings present in each one of us. They think
that they do not steal, murder, or rape the female students because
of their moral education. In its absence, they feel, they would have
been very immoral creatures. Why do they think so? “Look at all
the wars, genocides, murders, thefts, and sundry criminal activities”,
they say. Let us grant the assumption. How often, I ask the male
students, have they had to struggle against the urge to rape their fe-
male student-colleagues? Hardly, if ever. The idea does not even
occur to them, leave alone that they struggle with this urge. How
many female students have been raped by the male members of the
university? They are not aware of any such incidence, which means
that, even if it has happened, it is not a frequent occurrence. Surely,
if moral rules are constraints on our ‘urges’, more would have lost the
struggle against these urges than now. A half-convinced, half-scep-
tical assent follows. How many times did they have to restrain
themselves from stealing in a shop, murdering a fellow human be-
ing? Apart from a very occasional ‘desire’ to steal from a super-mar-
ket, it transpires, they are remarkably free of any awareness of such
struggles. However, if moral rules constrain us, surely, we must
chafe against them more often than we are aware of doing it? Again
a half-convinced, half-sceptical assent follows.

Which is easier? Stealing from a super-market, or paying for the


merchandise? Remarkably enough, the first answer is, invariably,
‘stealing’. Why, then, do they not do it often? ‘Our moral upbring-
ing’ or the ‘fear of punishment’. The subsequent step is to draw
their attention to the fact that it is not easy, but very difficult to steal:
thumping hearts, sweaty palms, dizzy heads, meaningless and repet-
itive loitering in the shopping mall, continuous fearful looks, etc.
are the prerequisites, surely. The whole experience is basically so
unpleasant that, even if followed by an exhilaration of success, it
leaves one feeling week-kneed for hours after the experience. If this
is the case, how could they say that it is easier to steal than pay for
the merchandise? It could not be the case that their appeal to ‘mor-
al upbringing’ accounts for the ‘difficulty’ in stealing. As children,
most of them have hardly been instructed not to steal, any more
than not to kill or rape. Even if they have been, they were also in-
structed, more often and without a great deal of success, to tidy up
their rooms, clean up the toys after playing, etc. Why should a
simple instruction ‘do not steal’ make it so difficult for them to
steal, when no amount of nagging helps them keep their rooms
clean? ‘Well, if you look at it that way …’ Which other way could
one look at it? There does not seem to be an answer to this ques-
tion.

If one were to add up all their ‘immoral acts’ and compare it to the
‘moral’ (or the ‘neutral’), what would their relative weights be? Im-
moral acts (of the petty sort) seem to form a small percentage.
Were we to do the same with respect to human history? ‘Well, if
you look at it your way, the number of immoral acts must be pretty
insignificant when compared to the number of ‘moral’ or ‘neutral’
acts…’ Is it not the case that we would expect to find more such
acts if moral rules constrained us? Yes. How then can one say that
human beings are ‘immoral’ and moral rules constrain us?

It is no part of my argument to say that man is basically ‘moral’. But


what does puzzle me is this: how could they entertain a belief that
is belied almost everyday? May be, they have not ‘reflected’ on this
issue before. In that case, what about the philosophers? Why do
they maintain a belief that is perhaps the most refuted claim in the
world? In this article, I hope to seek at least the fragment of an an-
swer.

3.2 What is of interest in these discussions is their unwillingness to let


go of their belief in the nature of moral rules or their constraining
role. They desperately seek arguments to refute me and when they
fall silent and appear to grant me my claim, it is not because they
are convinced but because they have no further arguments to offer.
It has rarely happened that a student shares my puzzlement. Con-
sequently, I am even more puzzled: what exactly is going on here?
Why the resistance or even the downright hostility that gets ex-
pressed occasionally?

4. People do not normally steal, or murder or indulge in rape because they ‘obey’
moral rules. This experience appears to confirm their beliefs about ‘morality’.
Their beliefs about the nature and role of moral rules appear to structure their
experience of daily encounters with fellow human beings. However, this is not
the best way to formulate what is going on in all the four cases.

4.1 Let us look at these cases not in terms of their (implicit) beliefs, but
in terms of how they learn what they have learnt. It is their experi-
ence that people do not go around murdering, stealing, and raping
each other. This experience gets structured in terms of the explanation
about the nature and role of moral rules. ‘Experience’ has the struc-
ture it has because of the structure of the explanation. In other
words, there is no difference between the (structure of the) cognit-
ive scheme and the structure of experience itself.

4.2 If such is the case, the resistance in each of the above four cases be-
comes understandable. The theory of flat earth structured the ex-
perience of not falling off the earth; geo-centric theory structured
the experiences of not flying off, not feeling dizzy, etc.; Newton’s
theory structured the experience of the ebb and flow of the tides;
the moral theory structured the experience of people going about
their shopping, greeting each other in a ‘normal’ way. That is, exper-
ience is an absolutely structure-hugging fabric. The structure of the cognit-
ive scheme is the structure (or the figure) in this case. To challenge
the structure of the cognitive scheme is to challenge the structure
of the experience itself. The structured experience threatens to lose
its structure, if the cognitive scheme gets discarded. Unless, of
course, an alternative cognitive scheme is present that reduces this
disorientation.

4.3 There is a dangerous drift to this argument. It seems to be heading


in the direction of the following claim: all structured experiences
derive their structure from the structure of cognitive schemes (or
theories). Therefore, either no ‘pure experience’ is possible or the
way to have it is by discarding all theories. In this recognizable
route, there is an inevitable consequence: knowledge becomes
hindrance to experience. Scientific theories end up masking our ex-
perience, and all theories entail dogmatism on our part. Of course,
such ‘mysticism’ is no part of what I want to say.

4.4 Therefore, let me demystify what I have said so far by reformulat-


ing it as an ‘error’: people confuse an ‘explanation’ of an experience
with the ‘experience’ itself. Consequently, when they meet a criti-
cism of their explanation of a given experience, they mistakenly see
it as a criticism of the experience itself. Hence their resistance to
criticisms. They are, in other words, ignorant of the distinction
between ‘having an experience’ and ‘having an explanation for the
experience’. This formulation might appear more perspicuous. Let
me, therefore, stick with this for some time.

4.5 Ordinary folk might be oblivious to this distinction; how about the
extra-ordinary folk like scientists and philosophers? Why do they
commit the same mistake with almost the same frequency? What
makes it difficult even for them to keep this distinction in mind?
Or, more generally put: where does this error come from? Why
does it persist? What is the nature of this particular ignorance (of the
distinction) that makes us forget the distinction? Why does not
learning about this distinction eliminate it once and forever from
the republic of knowledge?

5. In the western tradition, we are familiar with the dominant notion of ignorance:
it is the absence of information (or knowledge, or whatever else). Knowledge is
possible because of our ignorance; with respect to some aspect of the same
thing, both predicates (‘knowledge’ and ‘ignorance’) cannot be true at the
same time in the same way. Of course, this notion of ignorance is not an ex-
clusive property of the western intellectual tradition. Every culture that speaks
of the activity of describing the world as knowledge has to have a notion of ig-
norance as the absence of such knowledge.

In the Indian traditions, there is another equally dominant notion of ignorance


present: it is a positive force of some sort. From the Buddha through the Advaita
of Shankara to the Bhakti traditions, one refrain can be heard over and over
again: ignorance causes suffering. It is very easy to think that ‘ignorance’ refers
to the absence of information as well: one has to merely learn this or that doc-
trine, and one becomes ‘knowledgeable’ as well. This is how Indian traditions
have been looked at in the course of the last few hundred years at least. But
this interpretation is not acceptable: how can an absence (of information) cause any-
thing? In fact, one of the widely accepted criteria to speak of ‘existence’ is the
ability to act as a cause: only an existing something (object, event, or whatever
else) can cause something else. How can ignorance cause anything (let alone
some such thing as suffering), if it is merely the absence of information?

6. Consider a stranger in a strange land committing an illegal act. Whether or not


the argument is legally admissible, we accept the statement that he was ignor-
ant of the laws of the country he was in. This, however, does not make ignor-
ance into a positive force: he is merely saying that he did not know what was
permissible and what was forbidden. That is to say, he had a false idea of what
was permitted and hence his illegal act. He wrongly believed that some action
was permitted, when it was actually forbidden. This kind of gloss on his state-
ment shows that ignorance was not the cause of any event but his belief was
(even though he wrongly thought that his belief was right).

At first sight, Indian traditions seem to be saying something analogous. The


Sanskrit words literally mean ‘knowledge’ and ‘not-knowledge’. ‘Not-know-
ledge’ appears to refer to false beliefs: that the agent exists, the agent acts, etc.
Often, it is called illusion as well. But the most compelling reason for not ac-
cepting this prima facie appearance is the following consideration: without ex-
ception, almost all these traditions identify ‘non-knowledge’ as the biggest obstacle to
knowledge. If ignorance were to be merely the absence of information, or the
absence of knowledge, how could it be an obstacle to gaining knowledge? It is,
of course, contingently possible that some kinds of false information prevent
you from having knowledge. But the Indian traditions do not speak of these
kinds of contingencies. They appear to suggest that inherent in ignorance is its
capacity to actively prevent you from attaining knowledge.

7. Most Indian traditions have spent a considerable bit of effort in understanding


the nature of this ignorance, where it comes from, what its necessity is, etc.
However, these explanatory avenues are not really open to us any more than
our resources were theirs. Stories of rebirth, tendencies inherited from previ-
ous lives, and such like belong in a world long gone: I do not think that they
make sense to us; there is no point to rote learning and its repetition. Con-
sequently, let me outline the problem in our terms: ignorance is both a pre-
condition for information and actively prevents knowledge acquisition; ignor-
ance is both the absence of information and its presence (reading Buddha’s
teaching does not enlighten you, does it?). How can we conceptualise ignor-
ance in such a way that these two apparently contradictory demands are satis-
fied? Are we, perhaps, talking about two kinds of ignorance?

8. Let me return to Lakatos in an attempt to formulate my hypothesis. Let us


first read his claim literally: the protective belt immunises the research pro-
gramme. What does a biological immunisation consist of? Two things actually.
The immunised entity becomes impervious to attack; secondly, it actively repulses
any attack on itself. Let us see what this means with respect to our case ex-
amples.

8.1 In the first two examples, it is obvious how the protective belt
functions: experiential structures are rendered immune to criticisms.
Any consideration, whether factual or theoretical, is repulsed from
damaging the structured experience. The only hope of change here
is the presence of an alternate cognitive scheme that structures the
experience differently. In the fourth example, the story is pretty
much the same as in the first two cases.

8.2 If we look at the results of the third example, two things occur be-
cause of the protective belt. Newton’s theory becomes impervious
to the factual observation regarding the perturbation of the motion
of Mercury. The protective belt does something that is, at first
sight, curious as well: it enables the generation of a new piece of
knowledge (at the moment, it is irrelevant whether that piece of
knowledge was ad hoc or whatever).
8.3 These illustrations are all I need to formulate my hypothesis. The
protective belt of Lakatos is actually a learning strategy. He called it
a protective belt; I call it ignorance. Ignorance is a learning strategy which
immunises. What does the immunisation consist of? An identification
of the structure of the experience with the structure of the explana-
tion (or the cognitive scheme) itself. The protective belt or the learning
strategy (that ignorance is), then, immunises by inducing the identifica-
tion of the structure of the experience with the structure of the ex-
planation itself. It also enables an active repulsion of theoretical and
factual criticisms by deflecting the criticisms. That is, the learning
strategy relocates the force and foci of such criticisms.

9. Otto Neurath, the logical positivist philosopher of science, uses the imagery of
a boat on the high seas to speak about human knowledge. He compares our
scientific theories to the boat, and suggests that any and all repairs to the boat
have to be carried on while travelling on the high seas. If the boat springs a
leak in some place, one moves to another place on the boat and tries to patch
up the leak. There is no possibility to thoroughly overhaul the boat and build
it anew because we never make landfall. I personally find this a very powerful
and extremely accurate analogy. We patch knowledge as it springs leaks, but
our basic attitude is to retain what we have as long as it works. Let me use this
imagery to explicate my hypothesis further.

9.1 What we learn as we grow up in our societies and cultures are sali-
ent diversities. We not only learn to see the world in terms of sali-
ent diversities, but we also learn the attitude of working with them as
long as they appear to work well. That is, we are prone to retain the
salient diversities we have learnt; it is also not possible to enumerate
them. Such an exercise is not even necessary: we need not know
every plank in the boat; what we need is the ability to localise the
plank which has sprung a leak. If we have this ability, it more than
compensates for the lack of explicit knowledge of each and every
plank. This ability does not just compensate without being posit-
ively useful: it is an enormous waste of cognitive resources to learn
each of the component part individually. Furthermore, we do not
have the time to do this either. If the boat springs a leak while we
are acquiring the knowledge of some or another individual plank,
we are well and truly sunk. That is to say, it makes enormous evolu-
tionary sense to have the learning ability to localise and repair the in-
dividual planks instead of having to learn each one of them indi-
vidually.
9.2 The second aspect of this learning ability is often called the ‘prag-
matic presupposition’ for action. When we work in the office, we
pragmatically presuppose that ‘everything else’ continues to be what
it is. When we write on a piece of paper, we ‘pragmatically presup-
pose’ that there is a causal connection between the pen moving on
the paper, and the appearances of marks on the paper. When Hume
wrote his ideas down, he ‘pragmatically presupposed’ that moving
his hands on the paper this way, and not that way, had specific ef-
fects; that the words did not disappear once they got penned; etc.
Of course, this is but a name, but does not explain. However, it
does tell us that this ‘attitude’ is deeply rooted in each one of us.
When we are in some part of the boat, we take it for granted that
the rest of the planks continue to be what they were and behave the
way they are supposed to. We cannot question all the salient di-
versities at the same time. Not only because it is cognitively im-
possible, but also because we do not explicitly know what they are.
We take the existence of other salient diversities for granted, as-
sume their ‘correctness’, while we interrogate some salient diversity.
This attitude is a precondition for learning: we have to hold the rest
of the salient diversities stable, if we want to learn or alter some
specific salient diversity. That means to say that the learning ability
creates the pre-condition for learning as well.

9.3 To summarise: the learning ability helps us localise the plank that
springs a leak; it also creates the pre-condition for being able to do
so by developing an attitude of holding the rest of our ‘experience’
steady and stable.

This learning ability, I now want to suggest, is an evolutionary inherit-


ance. Imagine the case of you taking your dog for a walk. Neither
the dog nor you ‘think’ that the house you live in disappears the
moment you leave it. Yet, you do not ‘assume’ that it will be still
there when you come back; neither does the dog. In fact, you do
not think about this at all. Both of you ‘take it for granted’. This at-
titude is what enables both you and the dog to learn. Suppose the
house you lived in disappears by the time you are back from taking
a walk. In that case, both the dog and you are ‘puzzled’: as a human
being, you fish around for probable explanations; the dog simply
circles around, smelling the ground for ‘clues’.

9.4 As I see it, ignorance as a learning strategy springs from this evolution-
ary inheritance. It holds ‘experience’ stable by inducing an identific-
ation of explanatory structures (or the structure of the cognitive
schemes) with the structure of experience itself. It helps localise the
leaking plank by meeting ‘criticisms’ through the generation of hy-
potheses. The first entails that, at times, the hypothesis becomes ad
hoc and that ‘criticisms’ are met by deflecting the force and foci of
such criticisms. But this is an inevitable side-effect of any heuristic,
any learning strategy. No heuristic is infallible. Yet, this strategy is
retained because it originates from an enormously successful learn-
ing ability, which creates the pre-condition of learning. This precon-
dition for learning is also generated by the learning strategy that ig-
norance is: absence of knowledge. (‘Holding experience stable’ is
simply another description for ‘absence of knowledge’, as a mo-
ment of reflection will make obvious.)

9.5 Without ignorance, we cannot learn. It is our learning strategy that


generates ignorance; ignorance is the price we pay for being able to
learn. That is, we see how ignorance is both a presupposition and
product of the process of learning. Learning does not only produce
knowledge (about some specific aspect) but it also reproduces ig-
norance (in other aspects). They are not unrelated to each other,
which is not how they look prima facie. (‘Of course, learning about
black holes does not contribute to your understanding your digest-
ive processes’.)

9.6 It is important to note that the evolutionarily inherited learning


ability is itself not ignorance. (Human) ignorance is a specific implementa-
tion (or ‘translation’) of this learning ability. Ignorance (I speak only of
human ignorance) is a learning strategy that implements the evolu-
tionary ability in a particular way. This entails that there could be oth-
er ways of implementing ‘or ‘translating’ this enormously successful
ability to learn. What other ways could there be? This question has
been identified, albeit in a slightly different guise, as the ‘frame
problem’ in Artificial intelligence. Daniel Dennett (1984: 129-130)
tells a long but beautiful story about this, which goes as follows:

“Once upon a time there was a robot, named R1 by his creators. Its
only task was to fend for itself. One day its designers arranged for it
to learn that its spare battery, its precious energy supply, was locked
in a room with a time bomb set to go off soon. R1 located the
room, and the key to the door, and formulated a plan to rescue its
battery. There was a wagon in the room, and the battery was on the
wagon, and R1 hypothesized that a certain action which it called
PULLOUT (WAGON, ROOM) would result in the battery being
removed from the room. Straightaway it acted, and did succeed in
getting the battery out of the room before the bomb went off. Un-
fortunately, however, the bomb was also on the wagon. R1 knew
that the bomb was on the wagon in the room, but did not realize
that pulling the wagon would bring the bomb out along with the
battery. Poor R1 had missed that obvious implication of its planned
act.
Back to the drawing board. ‘The solution is obvious’, said the
designers. ‘Our next robot must be made to recognize not just the
intended implications of its acts, but also the implications about
their side effects, by deducing the implications from the descrip-
tions it uses in formulating its plans.’ They called their next model,
the robot-deducer, R1D1. They placed R1D1 in much the same pre-
dicament that R1 had succumbed to, and as it too hit upon the idea
of PULLOUT (WAGON, ROOM) it began, as designed, to con-
sider the implications of such a course of action. It had just finished
deducing that pulling the wagon out of the room would not change
the colour of the room’s walls, and was embarking on a proof of
the further implications that pulling the wagon out would cause its
wheels to turn more revolutions than there were wheels on the
wagon – when the bomb exploded.
Back to the drawing board. ‘We must teach it the difference
between relevant implications and irrelevant ones’, said the design-
ers, ‘and teach it to ignore the irrelevant ones’. So they developed a
method of tagging implications as either relevant or irrelevant to
the project at hand, and installed the method in the next model, the
robot-relevant-deducer, or R2D1 for short. When they subjected
R2D1 to the test that had so unequivocally selected its ancestors for
extinction, they were surprised to see it sitting, Hamlet like, outside
the room containing the ticking bomb, the native hue of its resolu-
tion sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, as Shakespeare (and
more recently Fodor) has aptly put it. ‘Do something!’ they yelled at
it. ‘I am’, it retorted. ‘I am busily ignoring some thousands of im-
plications I have determined to be irrelevant. Just as soon as I find
an irrelevant implication, I put it on the list of those I must ignore
and …’ the bomb went off.
All these robots suffer from the frame problem.” (“Cognitive
Wheels: the Frame Problem of AI.” In Christopher Hookway, ed.,
Minds, Machines and Evolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1984, pp. 129-151.)

9.7 It must be clear what R2D1’s problem is. It must first actively con-
sider (or focus upon) an implication before ignoring (or neglecting) it.
Human ignorance does both simultaneously: while focussing on some
specific thing, it neglects everything else. These two facets of ignorance,
directed towards two different things, are difficult to implement in
a system, where everything requires to be represented explicitly. In
my frame work, the question of AI becomes: how do you explicitly
represent ignorance, when it consists precisely of not being expli-
citly represented? One way of doing it is to try and develop differ-
ent types of non-monotonic logics, logics for ‘jumping to conclu-
sions’, ‘scripts’, etc. The other way would involve taking (human)
learning strategies more seriously and study them. As a learning
strategy, ignorance appears to presuppose human abilities and capa-
cities explicitly. Not only that. Human ignorance appears also to
rely upon other learning strategies for it to work well: strategies that
help you, for example, to ‘zero-in’ on something at some specific
level of abstraction. Ignorance might help you ‘zoom-in’ on
something, while holding ‘the rest’ stable. Some other learning
strategy, I think, helps you in directing the focus, instructing you
where and how to ‘zoom in’. In either case, it should be interesting
to wait and see whether and how they will end up ‘representing’ ig-
norance explicitly.

10. Let me return to the Indian traditions to see where I am. For thousands of
years, they have been raising and answering the question about ignorance.
They have found this a question of central importance in the process of un-
derstanding the emergence and growth of knowledge. (Remember: the literal
translation of the Sanskrit word for ‘enlightenment’ is the ‘arising of know-
ledge’.) Lakatos stumbles upon a crucial insight in his attempt to understand
the emergence and growth of scientific knowledge. This insight, I hope to
have shown, is non-trivially about the role of ignorance (the nature and func-
tion of the ‘protective belt’) in the growth of knowledge, scientific knowledge
included. The Indian traditions are convinced that ignorance is a ‘positive
force’; I account for this by showing that it is a learning strategy. They are con-
vinced that ignorance cuts across time and culture; I have suggested that it is a
human learning strategy. They explain it on the basis of an inherited tendency
from a ‘previous birth’; I retain their insight that this learning strategy is not
culturally specific, but that it is an evolutionary inheritance. They suggest that it
hinders the acquisition of knowledge; I have accounted for it by specifying
what its immunising role consists of.

We have discovered that ignorance (as absence of knowledge) is a precondi-


tion for the acquisition of knowledge; I have accounted for it by showing how
ignorance (as a learning strategy) creates the preconditions for learning. These
preconditions, at times, also hinder the acquisition of knowledge: that is be-
cause inducing identification of the two structures also entails the production
of ad hoc hypothesis now and then. In other words, it appears to me, my ac-
count captures the insights from both traditions without trivialising either.
Not only that. By reformulating the problem in terms of a learning strategy,
research can now be carried out in a way it could not be before.
10.1 As I have noted before, ignorance is translatable as ‘not-know-
ledge’ (at times, also as ‘not-learned’, as avidya) in Sanskrit. Let me
take the Buddhist tradition as an illustration to make one more
point in this context. The basic insight of meditative practices is
that structures like ‘self’, ‘agency’, etc. are not to be found in experi-
ence itself. Rather, they are the structures provided by descriptions.
That is to say, the insight involves in dissociating experience from
its explanation. What ignorance does is to induce identification
between these two structures, something that meditation pulls
apart. However, the question here is: why are structures like ‘self’,
‘agency’, etc. less easily susceptible to ‘criticisms’ than others? I will
take up this question soon.

10.2 Even though I have used Lakatos and Neurath in the course of
this article, it would be foolish to identify the strategy of ignorance
with the strategies used in scientific problem-solving. Some general
strategies inherited from evolution, some cognitive strategies hu-
man beings use in their cognitive activities will also be used in sci-
entific theorising. But it does not follow from these uses that sci-
entific theorising is the set of such strategies. I still think that my
characterisation of science and scientific knowledge (as I formulate
it in ‘The Heathen …’) is at an appropriate level: it is a culturally specific
knowledge. It will also have evolved cognitive strategies specific to it-
self which are learnable by any human being, but have emerged in a
specific configuration of learning. In that sense, what Lakatos has
identified is not specific to scientific research programmes but applic-
able to all human learning. It is important to keep this distinction
firmly in mind.

11. Earlier on, (in #8.3), I said that ignorance is a learning strategy that immunises
by inducing an identification between the structure of experience and the
structure of the cognitive scheme. What does it immunise? I think it immunises
the precondition for experience. Any experience presupposes constancy (and struc-
ture): of the experiencer, the experienced and the relation between the two. In
this sense, ignorance is a learning strategy that makes experience possible by
inducing identification between the structure of experience and the structure
of the cognitive scheme. As I have said before, it holds the world stable and
thus enables experience.

11.1 What then is experience? In the most general terms, it refers to a


relational attitude in the world towards all objects, events, actions and
such like. (I am trying to conceptualise the Sanskrit word ‘Anubhava’
here.) Ignorance enables such a relational attitude by holding either
the experiencer or the experienced steady and constant. However,
ignorance also does more: it masks the relational attitude by indu-
cing identification between one of the relata (the experiencer and
the experienced are the relata in our case) and the relational attitude.
That is to say, ignorance masks experience. This seems to be a paradox-
ical claim: a learning strategy immunises the precondition of experi-
ence by masking experience. In other words, one could have exper-
ience if and only if one does not have experience! Or, one could
have a relational attitude if and only if one does not have a relation-
al attitude. I think this has only the appearance of a paradox. One
speaks about experience as though it is a property of either the ex-
periencer or the experienced. I ‘experience’ something in some way
either because it has to do with me or with the world. What disap-
pears from the picture (in this way of talking) is the relational atti-
tude even though such an attitude is present.

Is this way of speaking intrinsically wrong? This is an empirical


question that cannot be answered before investigation. Why? In
many cases, we can eliminate a relationship between two objects by
speaking of them as ‘dispositional properties’ of the objects in ques-
tion. The facts that sugar dissolves in water and a magnet attracts
iron are dispositional properties of sugar and magnet respectively:
one is solvable, whereas the other creates a magnetic field. In other
words, we can rightly conceptualise relations as dispositional prop-
erties of organisms or as causal forces of Nature. There is nothing
intrinsically wrong with this. Therefore, there cannot be anything
intrinsically wrong with what ignorance does. This shows that ig-
norance could indeed be a result of our evolutionary inheritance.

11.2 Because transforming relations into dispositional properties is a


way of conceptualising a relationship, the learning strategy that ig-
norance is ends up masking the relational attitude that experience
is. This masking is possible because of the conceptual scheme we
use. This conceptual scheme identifies the nature of the relational
attitude with either the experiencer or the experienced. The identi-
fication of experience with either of the two relata makes not only
conceptual but also evolutionary sense. In doing so, ignorance as a
learning strategy immunises the precondition of experience.

Now we can try and make sense of some of the earlier imageries
and formulations. ‘Experience is an absolutely structure-hugging
fabric’ was one such imagery. The relational attitude can hug either
the experiencer or the experienced absolutely. ‘An induced identi-
fication between the structure of experience and the structure of
the cognitive scheme occurs’ was a second claim. This identification
is possible because the relation between two objects could be con-
ceptualised as the dispositional properties of the objects in ques-
tion. However, this conceptualisation does not make the relation
disappear; it is only a way of understanding that relationship. The
presence of the experiencer and the experienced is the absolute pre-
condition for experience. Ignorance immunises them both by
masking the nature of experience. The constancy and stability of
the relational attitude is enabled by identifying the attitude with
either of the two relata. In short, ignorance works. It is a precondi-
tion (in this sense as well) for knowledge.

12. However, ignorance also masks experience. The Indian traditions claim that
this prevents emergence of knowledge about ourselves. I have already made
some partial sense of this statement. Let me return to the question raised earli-
er on and tie up some of the loose ends. The question was: “why are struc-
tures like ‘self’, ‘agency’, etc. less easily susceptible to ‘criticisms’ than others?”
One possible way of answering this question is to look at the role of human
emotions in our learning processes. (I thank this insight to Jochem.) What are
the mechanisms that allow an induction of identification between the structure
of experience and the structure of the cognitive scheme? What holds this iden-
tification together? Human emotions. The learning strategy (that ignorance is)
mobilises our emotions and invests the identification with the required energy
that can sustain itself. Because the cognitive scheme conceptualises the rela-
tional attitude (i.e. experience) with the dispositional property of the organism
(the experiencer), the emotions are directed towards the organism itself. ‘Me’,
‘mine’ and so on are the linguistic expressions of this emotion directed to-
wards the organism. These very same emotions deflect criticisms about this
identification. ‘Self’ and ‘agency’ are conceptual elements from a cognitive
scheme; they are identified with the organism. An agent is someone who has
the disposition to act; actions, in that sense, require an agent. The deeply
philosophical conceptions about agency have their roots in our daily experi-
ences. Better said, they have their roots in the masking of experience. They prevent
us from interrogating our experiences of the world and thus hinder the emer-
gence of self-knowledge. The ‘unreality’ of ‘avidya’ as well as its reality (‘maya’)
are captured in the current formulation.

How does our notion of enlightenment fit into this picture? Pretty neatly,
would be my first guess. (What follows is more speculative than what has gone
before.) The enlightened does not conceptualise the experience as the disposi-
tional property of the agent or as the dispositional property of the object. His
experience is not masked. He has broken the shackles of ignorance by splitting
the nature of his experience from its conceptualisation. To do this, he has
learnt to dissociate the emotions that induce this identification. He is the ex-
periencer because he has a relation to the experienced. After all, experience
relates him to the world. What is the nature of this relationship, if he does not
conceptualise it? He has “Anu- bhaava” and not merely “Anu-bhava”, ie., he has
the appropriate (Anu) ‘feeling’ (bhaava) and not merely an appropriate (anu)
existence (bhava). He describes this attitude and reflects about them: these are
the so-called teachings from the enlightened. These teachings teach you to
have the same ‘bhaava’ and that is how they can guide us. He is not ‘one’ with
the experienced (this idea does not make sense outside the religious mystics in
the west); nor is he the ‘other’ of the experienced. The experiencer and the ex-
perienced are related to each other the way the two poles of a magnet are con-
nected to each other. They are indivisible: they are one as a magnet; two as
poles; united through the relationship.

I do not know whether I have made much sense. But this should indicate the
direction I want to travel when understanding the Indian traditions.