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"Western Science" and "Eastern Mysticism" - Framing Issues
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Ajita Kamal Offline
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Post: #1
"Western Science" and "Eastern Mysticism" - Framing Issues

Most people accept this branding unquestioningly. I find this branding terribly misleading, revisionist and a perpetuation of Eurocentric thinking that is today responsible for much of the problems that we in the freethought movement in India face. Here are my reasons (briefly, because this is a very complex subject and we can go on about it). Please note that this is incomplete, and that I am very open to being corrected on some of the more speculative aspects of this post.

Note: The traditional West and East were Eurocentric "Old World" concepts that were adopted by all "Old World" cultures. The fact that these are Eurocentric concepts explains why there is a middle east (also called "near east") and a far east (for a Japanese resident during the 12th century, Central Asia and the middle east would have actually been the middle west or near west, and Europe the far west - Ignoring Sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas because at that time they were not taken into account by the major "old world" cultures). West and East in this context was a genuine attempt by people to describe the world itself, even with all the flaws. But this is not how the words apply today in the context we are concerned about.

What is "Western" and "Eastern"today?

Today the original meaning of The West and The East have been adapted to mean something else. There are pretty good explanations for why what is known today as the "West" is sufficiently distinct from the rest. But in essence, what it really means is "Caucasian/European, and anything with Caucasian/European origins".

This is obviously an oversimplification, but let's not get into that (yet).

Is Science a solely European Idea?

No it is not. Without a doubt, almost all of what is part of the modern tradition of science has been developed over the past 400 years, mostly in Europe. But without the contributions of Africa, India and the Middle East that were responsible for many of the fundamental concepts that led to the development of modern science, there would be no science as we know it (this will be a major part of the focus on the documentary we're making).

A major point of contention is that in the "West" today, references to the European scientific enlightenment are almost always never placed in the context of the political, social and economic conditions that made it possible. As has been noted by many postcolonial scholars, it was European colonialism, with its cheap (indentured and slave) labor, stolen natural resources and enormous quantities of stolen wealth that created the right conditions (wealth, political stability, leisure time for retrospection rather than struggle for survival, intellectual gains from around the world, etc) required for science to flourish. On the other hand, those years of colonialism were devastating to the "east" (not to mention Africa and South America) turning them from the wealthiest regions of the world with plenty of time and resources for intellectual development, to a poverty-stricken third world where religion and superstition were the only solace for a deprived people. Very few people in the West are cognizant of this. Indeed, very few in the East are.

My last point on this is that today China and India produce more scientists than the US (and Asia combined churns out more scientists than all of Europe and North America put together). Of course, the quality of the science is still very poor (much better in China than in India, btw), but we're definitely catching up. The projections predict that in a few years China will produce more peer-reviewed scientific papers (in recognized journals) than the US, which is by far the leading country in producing science papers.

Is Mysticism "Eastern"?

Do I even have to get started on this? Of course mysticism is not solely an Eastern concept. There are terrible Western superstitions and mysticisms that we in the East have been made to suffer through. We can talk about things like Western astrology (which is and has always been far more popular worldwide than any eastern mysticism) and homeopathy (which is now deeply entrenched in India) for example.

We must note that the East was responsible for creating a lot of mystical nonsense in ancient times. However, much of the nonsensical old Eastern mysticisms had analogues in the old Western philosophical traditions. Unfortunately, because of the history of oppression that the East faced from the West, and subsequent lower level of scientific progress, the East has responded by drumming up its nonsensical mysticisms (think Deepak Chopra and his predecessors)) while the West has moved on. People like to think in simple black/white dichotomies. The East became known as the spiritual part of the world, and the west as the materialistic part of the world, forgetting that both West and East had developed both "spiritual"/mystical and material/naturalistic philosophies (there is plenty of non-mystical, materialistic reasoning in our own ancient Indian philosophy, which is now mostly ignored in the Western universities where the best philosophers in the modern world chart the intellectual history of philosophy itself). What this has resulted in is that every time some idiot in the West wants to appeal to some superstitious nonsense, s/he appeals to Eastern mysticisms that are not understood in the West, rather than the lesser known Western analogues that the West has successfully "disappeared" (Frijtof Capra and Robert Lanza come to mind, but we can go back in time and find the same thing). It is an easy marketing strategy. The consequences are devastating to our Eastern cultures.

Today the West, through its highly unregulated market-based economics, churns out much superstition by the minute. The biggest mystical bestsellers (think The Secret, for example), including those that claim to be influenced by Eastern mysticism, have all originated in the West and made their way to the East. All the BS about aliens is from the West. When someone talks about mystical medical claims that originate in the East, these are labeled Eastern Mysticisms or Eastern medical pseudoscience. When it comes form the West, it is labeled alternative medicine or bad/quack science not Western Mysticisms or Western medical pseudoscience. In the US in every town and city you can see the business of Western mysticism prospering- Tarot card readings, séances, palm readings, psychic readings (this is a big one), communicating with the dead, etc etc etc. There are so many Western mysticisms that it has to be seen to be believed. Nevertheless, it is the East that holds the title of being all about mysticism, and science is labeled as being "Western".

I conclude by saying that not only are the terms "Western Science" and "Eastern Mysticism" not accurate or useful, such language conspires to favor the West in the continuation of its social, cultural and economic domination over the East. Taking into consideration everything from language to social norms, the East has to compete with the West in a highly biased climate, the lingering effects of colonialism. Together with the problems of poverty and revisionist pride that also owe much to colonialism, the continued characterization of science as "Western" and superstition as "Eastern" is a major injustice to an already highly oppressed part of the world.

Comments?

"Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian"
~ J.B.S.Haldane, on being asked to falsify evolution.
(This post was last modified: 01-05-2011 11:31 AM by Ajita Kamal.)
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astrokid.nj Offline
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Post: #2
RE: "Western Science" and "Eastern Mysticism" - Framing Issues

Ajita,
I fully agree that superstition is quite prevalent amongst the masses in the US at least. I am actually irked big time by popular culture and mass media that feed on each other and tend to dumb down followers, and I wonder if that isnt whats keeping these superstitions alive.

PZ once said "I want to puke when I hear the word spirituality", and I kind of feel the same way about that word, as well as "mysticism"
(from wikipedia) Mysticism: is the phenomenon of having a unique experience of communion with God, an ultimate reality, divinity, or insight into spiritual truths.

Quote:I find this branding terribly misleading, revisionist and a perpetuation of Eurocentric thinking that is today responsible for much of the problems that we in the freethought movement in India face

Of course, there will be several idiot theologicians who throw such terms around, but can you point me to where you see a sustained/imbalanced use of the term Mysticism with Eastern? I am not well read, but I remember 'Doubt: A history by Jennifer Hecht' being very fair to the Indian story, and also covering 'greek-egyptian mystery(?) religions' etc. I did some googling, and I see a site dedicated for mysticism, and eastern mysticism is only one part of it.
http://www.plotinus.com/mysticism1.htm

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has - Margaret Mead
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Ajita Kamal Offline
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Post: #3
RE: "Western Science" and "Eastern Mysticism" - Framing Issues

Quote:"Of course, there will be several idiot theologicians who throw such terms around...."

As I stated, it is not just " idiot theologicians" but also those who contribute to popular culture in general, including legitimage scientists and philosophers, who have a way of systematically making these associations. The core of the problem is the term "Western science". I have presented my reasons for why this is not an accurate descriptor. Let's keep this in mind. Over and over we see "Western science" being compared to nonsense from the East. It is not just Chopra and his cohorts.

As an example, here's Simon Blackburn, a leading philosopher of science and vice president of the British Humanist Association.
"There may be rhetoric about the socially constructed nature of Western science, but whenever it matters, there is no alternative. There are no specifically Hindu or Taoist designs for mobile phones, faxes or television."
Once you declare science as being "Western", it comes naturally to think of it as being opposed to Eastern mystical traditions rather than to Western mystical traditions. Blackburn's comment is from his book "Truth: a guide for the perplexed", and the quoted part is available on google books which you can check to see that I'm not taking it out of context.

Quote:"can you point me to where you see a sustained/imbalanced use of the term Mysticism with Eastern? "

I really didn't expect this question, given how commonplace these associations are in popular culture. But its a good one and so let me try to quantify my claims using google.
Befor we go ahead and look for the evidence, let's keep in mind that we need to go further than just demonstrate an imbalance in conflation of the East with mysticism. My argument is not just that mysticism is often conflated with the East, but that it is done so in opposition to the conflation of science with the West. With that said, I present here a few searches on the google ngram viewer. A disclaimer here: The Google ngram viewer can be manipulated and it will show vastly different results for different search criteria. In addition, interpretation requires careful analysis. It is not a good idea to compare these terms without extended background, and we cannot take these results as conclusive evidence. However, this is a pretty good place to start, and these search results can certainly be considered preliminary observations that can serve to build testable hypotheses.

Since the results are case sensitive let's look at mysticism with lowercase 'e' and 'w' for Western and Eastern first (note that lowercase 'e' and 'w' for Eastern and Western in the context here would more commonly be found in badly edited books).
[Image: ezial3.png]

Note how use of "western mysticism" actually drops off as the use of "eastern mysticism" soars.

But Eastern and Western need to be capitalized as they would be in a properly edited book:
[Image: 4toygz.png]

Now, science, lowercase first:
[Image: mjxuu9.png]

And with uppercase:
[Image: rwpcuw.png]

"Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian"
~ J.B.S.Haldane, on being asked to falsify evolution.
(This post was last modified: 01-05-2011 05:46 AM by Ajita Kamal.)
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arvindiyer Offline
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Post: #4
RE: "Western Science" and "Eastern Mysticism" - Framing Issues

Portrayals such as the following which juxtapose Indian contemplatives against Greek invaders of the time, seem to reinforce dichotomies of the indrawn Oriental and the adventurous Occidental.

Chanakya teleseries Episode 12

Chanakya teleseries Episode 13
(Watch both for around 10 minutes from linked times. English subtitles are available in all episodes.)

In an addendum which is a well-advised inclusion to the aside into how different the worldview of the forest-dwelling renunciates is from the hoplites intent on world-conquest, there is a cameo of Diogenes the Cynic in Episode 12 (an incident in which the 'cultural nationalist' Subramanian Swamy misidentifies the participants), to make the point that there is nothing fundamentally Indian or Greek about being a mystic.

Even so, these portrayals remain standard tropes in popular culture not only in Doordarshan teleserials but in Hollywood movies as well. This clip from the movie Seven Years in Tibet is a case in point.

Just like the contemplative Diogenes and the conqueror Alexander both were products of their civilization, so were the contemplative Buddha and the pre-conversion Ashoka. In more recent instances of thinkers from 'Western civilization', we can find contemplative and adventurous strains in two well-known contemporary American thinkers:
Quote:Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. - Mark Twain
Quote:As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness. - Henry Thoreau

So, is there such a thing as a quintessentially 'Indian Way of Thinking' at all? That question is also the title of the compelling essay "Is there an Indian Way of Thinking?" (alternate link)by Prof. A K Ramanujan of many Ramayanas fame. One of the key points in the essay is the identification of India as a high-context society, a characterization which has been applied more recently in the book Breakout Nations by Ruchir Sharma. The difference between a low-context and high-context mode of thinking can be thought as relating to what comparative mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik calls the difference between 'the world' and 'my world'. (Interestingly, Dr. Pattanaik in his talk relates a dialogue between Alexander which is a variant of the one referred to above, with his interlocutor as an unnamed gymnosophist.) One of the most telling examples of the high-context culture of India one can think of, is the concept of wedding of two families as opposed to two individuals. However, from the listings here, high-context cultures abound in the West as well, thus precluding this as a criterion for reinforcing the East-West dichotomy.
(This post was last modified: 20-08-2012 11:17 PM by arvindiyer.)
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