Western Science and Traditional Knowledge: Despite Their Variations, Different Forms of Knowledge Can Learn From Each Other (Final)
First, a renewed approach to dialogue among cultures is required. Such a dialogue can only take place if there is a common principle shared by all participants. All humans from all cultural backgrounds have the same biological nature. At the same time, however, a dialogue is only possible because there is diversity at various levels. Eliminating these differences or staying in rigid isolation eliminates the conditions needed for a potentially mutually beneficial converse.
By acknowledging the uniqueness of each knowledge system, we can go well beyond a mere pluralist approach to knowledge. Dialogue can become a tool for social cohabitation, as well as for discovering and enhancing knowledge. It should be based on a sense of profound hospitality because it arises from different identities and traditions, which are interested in exchanging their perspectives and experiences. This should not be anathema to Western science—in fact, it is through dialogue that new insights have emerged from the ancient Greek academies to today’s laboratory meetings and scientific conferences. In this sense, a dialogue can catalyse the development of shared meanings, which are key factors in binding people and societies together as vehicles of social cohabitation (Bohm, 1996).
Dialogue can become a tool for social cohabitation, as well as for discovering and enhancing knowledge
The real world is too complex to be compressed into static conceptualizations. Dealing with this complexity requires approaches and strategies that maintain a continuous openness and willingness to discover and learn (Morin, 1990). This dialogue should take place with the unknown and the otherness. By shifting our perspective, and looking at other paths to knowledge that humans have developed and lived, we might create the necessary conditions for hitherto unknown knowledge to be revealed. All of these perspectives describe the human experience of reality. We need to open ourselves to participating in the experience of others, and yet we should also be aware that this opening can only start from where we already are—from our point of view or the tradition to which we belong. Our historical and culturally embedded perspective has been described by Gadamer as the “initial directedness of our whole ability to experience” (Gadamer, 1967). Nevertheless, from our delimited horizon we can still accept the invitation of other paths to knowledge and might well learn from them.
For example, some authors (Freeman, 1992; Iaccarino, 2003) have suggested that traditional knowledge systems can be helpful in dealing with complex systems: “The understanding of complex systems remains a major challenge for the future, and no scientist today can claim that we have at hand the appropriate methods with which to achieve this. Thus, we cannot discuss the future of science without taking into account the philosophical problems generated by the study of complexity. Modern, or Western, science may not be best suited to fulfil this task, as its view of the world is too constrained by its characteristic empirical and analytical approach that, in the past, made it so successful. We should therefore remember the contributions of other civilizations to the understanding of nature. […] Such traditional or indigenous knowledge is now increasingly being used not only with the aim of finding new drugs, but also to derive new concepts that may help us to reconcile empiricism and science” (Iaccarino, 2003).
There is little doubt that modern science can gain a lot from such a dialogue. It has been extremely efficient in studying specific aspects of the natural world—those that are achievable through observation and experimentation—but operates in an environment that is either strictly controlled, such as a laboratory, or highly simplified. This approach is crucial in order to make generalized claims about the validity of scientific propositions, because it allows hypotheses under the same or highly controlled conditions to be tested and verified.-However, an increasing number of critical voices argue that an approach based on reductionism—as helpful as it has been in the past—might no longer be sufficient to analyse and understand higher levels of complexity (Kellenberger, 2004; van Regenmortel, 2004). Moreover, scientists work only at specific levels of analysis. The theories formulated at each level are based on key observations, and, therefore, can explain only a specific set of facts (Iaccarino, 2003). Hence, the integration of methods and results from different approaches and levels of analysis can become essential.
These considerations seem to be particularly relevant for studying biological, ecological and social phenomena that include different levels of complexity. As already mentioned, the Western tradition of thinking is developing a different approach to gaining knowledge from complex systems, but it would be equally useful to learn how traditional approaches explain such complexity. Not only are they more holistic, but also they seem to be better suited to coping with the uncertainty and unpredictability that are viewed as intrinsic characteristics of natural systems. Western science and traditional knowledge constitute different paths to knowledge, but they are rooted in the same reality. We can only gain from paying attention to our cultural history and richness. — Fulvio Mazzocchi Institute for Atmospheric Pollution of CNR, Monterotondo, Italy