When Knowledge Is Not the Answer
Sardar, Ziauddin, New Statesman (1996)
Alternative medicine is junk. That is the view of a group of eminent doctors and scientists who have sent a letter to every NHS trust urging the health service to reject funding for "unproven" and "implausible treatments". But how do we know for sure that alternative medicine does not work?
It is a perennial question for an all-round sceptic like me. Knowing is quite different from knowledge. Knowing is a process, and involves a method. Knowledge is the end product of knowing. In an aggressively secular society, we tend to think that there is only one way of knowing--namely, science and its method--which leads to the conclusion that there is only one type of knowledge we can be certain about. But there are different ways of knowing, each with its own distinct method, and each as rationally satisfying within its own framework as science.
Often we come to know by acquiring personal skills. No amount of scientific reasoning can teach you how to ride a bike. But once you have acquired the skill, you know. We know our tradition by experiencing and living it. Then there is ethical knowing. We may not be able to define justice but we know when we see it; and we recognise its absence. Ethical knowing has a religious dimension. In the Bible, the words "he knew" are a euphemism for "he had sexual intercourse with"; there is no better way of knowing another person. The euphemism is cleverly employed by an Estee Lauder perfume, which is called--what else--"Knowing".
Tacit knowing is another form of this. It has meaning within a particular culture. This is how Australian Aboriginal songlines work as a tool of navigation and source of indigenous knowledge. Then there is the intuitive knowing used by mystics, acquired through spiritual discipline and experiential insights. These, and other, ways of knowing are equally valid. They are what the philosopher Michel Foucault called "regimes of truth". Thus you can't use the method of physics if you want to understand homoeopathy or use qualitative methods to appreciate yoga.
Consider the perennial question: what came first, the chicken or the egg? We think that it is a philosophical question requiring philosophical method. Hence, it has never been answered. Philosophy is largely a game of its own invention; and it can illuminate only those questions that fall within its own framework of knowing. …