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By Garry Jacobs

 May 24, 1982

  • I. Levels and Gradations of Knowledge

The aim of all science is to discover truths of existence, to obtain knowledge of man and the world around him, to formulate thoughts which accurately reflect the realities of life, to observe and explain facts of life in the world.

Though we may often use these terms interchangeably, according to Indian philosophy, truth, knowledge, ideas, thoughts and facts are not synonymous. Rather they are various levels and expressions, gradations in a hierarchy.

The ultimate truth is a total vision which excludes nothing, but places everything in its proper perspective. This all-encompassing truth is the self-existent spiritual light, Jyoti, which does not depend on the knower or the process of knowing or any organ of perception or thought.

But man normally does not have access to this direct knowledge of reality, this vision of truth. Rather he has to strive after knowledge through the instrumentation of his mind. Now the mind is a limited instrument which is quite incapable of a full vision of truth. One of the mind's most serious defects is the fact that it thinks in a linear fashion. It can pursue only one train of thought at a time. It sees one side or one dimension or one part of a reality to the exclusion of all the others, or at best it tries to piece together many different parts without a real knowledge of the whole it is trying to construct, like a child trying to assemble a jig-saw puzzle in which the pieces do not carry any precise picture or pattern which can clearly reveal their relationships to one another.

When the light of truth touches the mind as an inspiration, a revelation, or an intuition, knowledge is born in the mind. The extent of the knowledge depends on the receptivity of the mind to the descending light.

At the other end of the spectrum man is constantly coming into contact with matter through his sense organs and from this contact he discovers facts of physical life.

In between the knowledge that descends from above and the facts that emerge from below, there are the levels of idea and thought which are activities of the mind proper and the chief instruments of scientific enquiry.

When two or more facts are put together by the mind and an inference is drawn from the way in which they relate or interact, thought is born. An idea is a very high thought resulting from an understanding of the inter-relationships between innumerable thoughts.

This hierarchy can be expressed schematically as follows:




A vision of the whole




Rays of that descending truth



Light illumining the mind leading to perception of



Organizations of thoughts in the mind




Organization of facts in the mind



Sense of perception of the relation between physical things



Physical reality


  • II. Research

To look for something lost or to seek something one needs is search. To look for a new understanding of old things viewed in a fresh context is research. Research is made possible by the observation of new facts and by the formulation of new thoughts and ideas.

The objectivity of facts which are based on observation of matter below and the veracity of ideas based on perception of knowledge above are the two poles of reality on which research depends.

Both are essential to the scientific process, but they are not interchangeable and their relative positions cannot be reversed without invalidating the scientific process.

All great inventions and discoveries were made by men of genius, not men of mental muscles. The great men of science like Newton and Einstein first received a new knowledge through intuition and later laboured to verify that knowledge by examining the facts - the realities of life - to which the knowledge relates. The process is from above downwards, from knowledge to facts. They studied the facts to see how far they confirmed or fit into the pattern suggested by their knowledge. In many cases meticulous collection of minute details in the field helped them prepare their minds for a final discovery. But when the discovery came, it came as a revelation, an inspiration, or an insight from above and not as an inference from below.

The following example illustrate:

  • 1. Newton - He observed the very common place event of an apple falling from a tree. He wondered why it should fall down instead of remaining where it was or moving sideways. This observation of a physical fact opened his mind to an intuition from above, the idea of an invisible force of gravitation. He then constructed experiments to prove the validity of this idea.
  • 2. Freud - Psychologists had commonly believed that man's behaviour was a result of his conscious volition (thoughts, desires and will). Freud had a deeper insight into the working of the human psyche and concluded that in addition to man's conscious personality, there is a much larger and more powerful assortment of desires and impulses in man of which he is unconscious and that these unconscious factors profoundly influence his behaviour.
  • 3. Toynbee - Modern historians have viewed history as primarily the history of separate nations much like a biographer writes the life of an individual. Toynbee observed that the concept of the nation state is itself a fairly recent invention of man and that by dividing history up into so many small compartments, the historian overlooks many common elements in the histories of groups of nations. He evolved a wider perspective of history based on the study of civilizations rather than nations, and discovered certain recurring patterns of behaviour or laws in the growth and decay of civilizations which help explain many important historical developments.

Many other great discoveries can be added to this list, all following the same basic pattern. This pattern has certain important characteristics.

First, in all three cases the discovery was based on a deeper or wider perception than that which was presently in vogue. That is, it arose from a new and higher and more all-embracing idea, not from the discovery of a new or neglected fact, e.g. everyone knew that apples always fall down. What was lacking was the idea that the cause for this behaviour did not arise in the apple itself, but was the result of an unseen external force.

Second, in each case the discoverer resorted to a very careful and detailed collection and examination of minute details in order to determine how far his idea was confirmed by actual physical facts. The idea was primary, the facts secondary.

Third, all of these discoveries occurred by transcending the narrow bounds of a limited subject. Newton related the behaviour of a small object with a universal force. Freud postulated deeper layers of motivation in man below the conscious level. Toynbee viewed historical events from a wider perspective than the nation state. In other words, these discoveries were not made by minute specialized study in a narrow field but by a widening of the field of perception to relate a field with others to which it is connected in space, time and causality. Confining oneself to narrow limits, specialization, makes for sterility of the subject. Widening one's perception leads to knowledge. The capacity to postulate a wider content or give a deeper interpretation is the very basis of scientific discovery.

The last lesson I would like to draw from these examples is that research and science must be based on life. Along with specialization science has also shown an unhealthy tendency toward isolation from life. The preoccupation with methodology has often resulted in the divorcing of science from the object of knowledge, life. This is called curing the disease by killing the patient. The classic example of this tendency can be drawn from the Indian science of yoga. In ancient times yoga was practiced to attain spiritual realization and fulfillment in life. The means to that realization was the renunciation of attachment to life in order to attain God. Over time this fact was lost sight of. It was found that by withdrawing from life altogether, spiritual realization was easier. Gradually renunciation of attachment to life and withdrawal from life which were originally intended as means to the goal of spiritual realization of God in life, became ends in themselves. The isolation of modern science from life is a repetition of this same tendency.

  • III. The Scientific Method

The process I have been describing in reference to these great individuals is the scientific method which is taught in elementary science classes. Simply stated the method is:

  • 1. Postulate an idea or a theory.
  • 2. Derive a hypothesis from that theory.
  • 3. Design an experiment to test the hypothesis.
  • 4. Observe and collect data to prove the hypothesis in support of the theory.

As we have already seen, the first step is the idea. The scientific method starts with an idea and proceeds to a fact. It does not start with facts and proceed to ideas.

Now the reason I have belaboured this very simple point is that all too often, in fact most of the time, modern scientific research has forgotten the primacy of the idea and resorted to a methodology based on the primacy of the fact. One of the main consequences of this shift in emphasis from idea to fact has been to open the doors of scientific research to a much larger cross-section of the population. For today to be a scientist one need not first be a thinker, though all great scientists have been primarily great thinkers. Today anyone who can collect facts and analyse them can pass for a scientist.

  • IV. The Myth of Methodology

Another consequence has been what Abraham Kaplan terms the myth of methodology. When facts are made primary, the emphasis easily shifts toward devising more and better ways to collect and measure facts and to designing experiments suited to the methodologies already developed. This phenomenon which Riesman called "the excessive preoccupation with technique" is often accompanied by a more grave malady, a serious deficiency in thought.

It is essential to keep in mind that methodology is only a means to knowledge and not an end in itself. Over-emphasis on the means may result in development of a perfect methodology which is perfectly unrelated to life and irrelevant to knowledge. This myth is illustrated by the story of an uneducated lady who wanted to buy a pair of glasses because she was told that glasses enable anyone to read. Many highly educated scientists are under the equally mistaken impression that methodology enables anyone to discover knowledge.

  • V. Methodological Errors

I would like to now illustrate some of the common errors that arise from an inordinate preoccupation with fact and method to the exclusion of thought.

  • 1. Generalisation from a limited example: An illiterate immigrant arrived in New York city in February amidst heavy rain showers. During the one week he remained there before moving further south, there was heavy rain every day. After leaving the city he wrote home to his relatives that it rains in New York every day. This seemingly ridiculous conclusion based on brief experience is not quite so uncommon as we might wish. It occurs when the observer has no understanding of the phenomenon he observes. He simply draws an inference from his limited data. It is a direct result of over-emphasis on data instead of thought.
  • 2. Collecting data to support our hypothesis: The stress on methodology has led to another quite unscientific but equally common error. Collecting data with the specific aim of proving our hypothesis and with insufficient controls to rule out other conclusions than those we have drawn.

A recent study of regional disparities in development between different areas of the country based itself on a so-called "suction theory" of development. Briefly stated, the suction theory held that the more developed areas continued to grow by sucking more and more wealth from the poorer areas. Not surprisingly the study revealed that the colonial nations were more developed than the erstwhile colonies, that urban areas like Bombay were more developed than rural areas, etc. The authors concluded that the data supported the suction theory, implying that cities like Bombay and Madras were the neo-colonial imperialists of the developing world. Now whatever the validity of this theory it is evident that merely by measuring the relative development of different regions, it cannot be proved true. The authors have resorted to the simple device of collecting data which could not possibly disprove or contradict their theory and could also never prove it true.

  • 3. Mistaking Effects for Causes (the fallacy of correlation): Perhaps the most common error in present social science research in to infer a causal relationship between two variables which are actually both determined by a deeper layer of causality and which do not actually interact with each other at all. The classic example of this error is the Lamarckean theory of acquired physical characteristics. Lamarck observed that giraffes have long necks and eat the leaves from the tops of the trees. He concluded that the effort to reach the higher branches has stretched the neck of the giraffe and resulted in this long necked characteristic. Of course we now know that this is not true. It was not the physical effort of stretching which made their necks long, but the selective advantage in obtaining food that giraffes with long necks had over those with shorter necks, resulting in a greater survival rate and natural selection of the long-necked variety.

The Lamarckian error is likely to arise wherever we observe two phenomenon and find a statistical correlation between them. It is very easily forgotten that a statistical correlation between two variables does not necessarily mean a causal relationship between them. This is a very frequent error today when statistical correlation has become synonymous for many researchers with the scientific method itself. The only real safeguard against this error of inferred causality is to remember that true research must begin with the idea, not with the data. Analysing masses of data and trying to discover correlations without a firm basis in thought is the easiest type of research and the surest way to error.

  • VI. Levels of Causality

We have already noted the error arising from imputing a causal relation where only a correlation may exist. But the problem is really more basic. When we speak of causality, we must remember that there are many levels of causality. A single primary or original cause leads to primary effects which become secondary and tertiary causes for secondary and tertiary effects and so forth. What we really want to discover are the primary and original causes, but in practise all too often researchers construct theories and experiments trying to prove causality at a level far removed from its real origins.

I will cite an example from theories of the causes for industrialization. It is commonly believed that the process of industrialization is primarily a function of capital and technology. This view arose from one of the fallacies we have just been discussing, mistaking a correlation for causality. Because all of the industrially developed nations of the world have sophisticated technology and huge amounts of capital, it was only natural for economists to mistake the effect for the cause and to conclude that capital and technology were the key factors in industrialization.

Nobel Laureate in economics Sir Arthur Lewis has challenged this myth in his book, The Evolution of the International Economic Order. Lewis argues that the technologies involved in the early stages of industrialization in the last century were relatively simple and available to all and that the capital requirement was remarkably small. The availability of capital and technology are not sufficient to explain why the Industrial Revolution began in England and spread through western Europe, but did not establish itself in tropical countries.

Lewis concludes that the real determining force for industrialization was the prior development of agriculture in those countries which industrialized early. High agricultural productivity resulted in surplus food grains enabling some people to leave their farms and migrate to the cities. It also generated purchasing power and demand for non-agricultural products in the farming community.

Lewis has identified another level of causality outside the actual field of industry. But it seems to me that the causality which Lewis postulates is only an indirect effect of some deeper cause, and not the real cause. By saying that high agricultural productivity is the key to industrialization we only shift the field of enquiry from industry to agriculture. Instead of asking why industry developed first in England, we must ask why agricultural productivity was so high. Agriculture, like capital and technology, appears to be a variable correlated to industrialization, but not its primary cause or motive power. To really answer this question we must investigate still deeper layers of causality.

  • VII. Levels of Causality in Political Science

In Political Science a great many levels of causality have been identified. I will mention only a few:

Geography      -      The isolation of England and Japan promoted an early sense of national identity.

Climate           -      the harsh environment of northern countries stimulated a more energetic and aggressive form of adaptation than in tropical regions.

Leadership      -      many individuals like Napolean, Gandhi, Churchill have changed the course of world events.

Institutions      -      Toynbee describes how the institution of the representative assembly was borrowed by the British from feudal Europe and became an instrument for the first democratic nation state.

Religion          -      the rapid modernization of Japan after the forced entry of Western traders in the 1850's was largely the result of the Japanese religion, Shintoism, the worship of the nation as the Shakti.

Social force    -      the amazing success of the French Revolutionary armies under Napolean in defeating the mercenary armies of feudal Europe has been attributed to the patriotic zeal of the untrained French recruits who constituted perhaps the first national people's army.

Idea                -      the ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity, and self-determination have been powerful forces in the political affairs of the world during the last 2 centuries.

I have mentioned only a few and there are many other important ones - organization (formation of the Indian National Congress) transportation, communication, education, etc.

The most important point is that research at any level in any field of political science should be based on a conception of these various levels of causality and seek to penetrate as far as possible to the real or primary causes.

story | by Dr. Radut