View From Nowhere: Knowledge

An alien perspective on the human race
by Peter Huston

 

If space aliens came to Earth and tried to understand the behaviors of the human race, they would soon find us a complex, diverse and often contradictory species.

I teach English at a major university in Shanghai. Despite previous years in Asia, the cultural obstacles amaze me. Recently, I faced a roomful of graduate students each eager to know, and genuinely uncertain, if they were guilty of plagiarism.

After being assigned to summarize a news article, and then share thoughts about it, I discovered two undoubtedly plagiarized submissions. The first not only had remarkably good English but included facts not in the original piece. The second copied the original piece almost line by line. I announced the situation and requested the guilty students to come forth privately and resubmit their work.

A confession soon came, then another, but from the wrong people. I examined the writing of the self-confessed, only to discover it did not seem plagiarized. Rechecking still revealed no hints of plagiarism. Next came a flurry of e-mails from students wishing to know if they too had plagiarized.

These students were, at most, guilty of improper citation technique.

Meanwhile, of the two parties originally guilty, one finally confessed, admitting to lifting sentences from a Canadian government website. The other never confessed, but when confronted, explained that direct copying seemed like a good way to avoid mistakes.

Some will ask if these were typical Chinese students. Based on their level and school, if anything, they were above average.

Clearly they had not been taught proper citation technique or the importance of original work. When told, my department head, a Chinese academic, was not surprised and said I was doing well. Our students, he said, must be taught not to plagiarize. After all, he explained, some day they might study abroad or submit to foreign journals. I soon modified my syllabus.

Plagiarism, as serious academic misconduct, seems a foreign concept in China.

In this column, I’ll focus on just one of many causes of this complex situation—how theories of knowledge vary across cultures.

Knowledge is a wonderful thing. But what is the source of knowledge? How is it discovered? How is it judged to be of value?

In the West, where the scientific method is paramount, we generally see knowledge as something that is discovered through research. Ideas, patterns, secrets are uncovered through hard work and verified by careful testing. When disproven, knowledge is discarded and seen as a thing of little value, save perhaps as a historical curiosity. (Of course, we know that in the real world of science, things are actually often murkier than such an idealized series of events.)

Within this paradigm, ideally, knowledge that is useful, or in other words shows the capacity to be applied to solve a problem or create technology, is valued, regardless of its age.

As mankind moves forward into the future, knowledge grows and should continue growing.

However, some cultures, past and present, view knowledge differently.

In many Asian cultures, for instance, the traditional paradigm was that knowledge originated in the past, descending to us from a distant golden age. Things were better. People then could do things we cannot today, for the reason that the knowledge they had has often been lost over the generations.

Within this framework, medical knowledge, for instance, is not something that is discovered, but instead something that can only be rediscovered. If one says, for instance, to a person who holds these views, that traditional Chinese medicine is not as effective as modern, scientific allopathic medicine, they might counter that centuries ago it used to be much more effective than it is today and claim the comparison unfair.

I once heard of a Taiwanese kung fu teacher who claimed his teacher’s teacher’s teacher had defeated a local rival’s teacher’s teacher’s teacher in a street bout. The surface implication is that his style is superior. The deeper subtext is that one’s fighting ability depends almost entirely on one’s training, and that the entirety of his training had been passed along, without either depreciation or improvement, for three generations.

Within this paradigm the creator of an idea is not respected, because, as being new, the idea itself is not seen as having proven value. If original ideas are not of value, why should someone who creates them be seen as having done something valuable?

Therefore, for instance, the identity of the author of the classic of traditional Chinese medicinal theory, the Huang Di Nei Jing (The Yellow Emperor’s Book of Internal Medicine), is unknown. Whoever he or she was, when they wrote (or compiled) the book two or three centuries before Christ’s time, they saw no benefit to putting their name on the work. Instead it was advertised as the work of the Yellow Emperor, a mythical sage said to live around 3,000 B.C.

The value to an individual lay in possessing knowledge, not in its creation. Study of past knowledge, after all, was a much more efficient and respected way to obtain learning than to simply try to invent new ideas whole cloth, hoping they somehow worked as well as long-respected ideas handed down for generations.

In fact, in the nineteenth century, when the West proved itself undeniably in possession of superior technology, the Chinese soon developed what seemed a logical explanation. Perhaps the Westerners had somehow acquired and then built upon Mohist knowledge. The Mohists were a school of ancient philosophers and scholars from the days of Confucius, a few centuries before Christ. They were known for skill in fortifications and siege warfare. To the Chinese of that time, such an explanation seemed much more likely and sensible than to imagine that Europeans had just invented these things, thinking up ideas out of nowhere.

And when an idea is disproven? Within the traditional Chinese paradigm, this was seen as largely situational. Just because a long-respected idea seemed incorrect in one situation, meant little. It should be saved, taught and passed on to the next generation as it undoubtedly held the potential to be useful elsewhere. The key, perhaps, was to know when and where to apply different theories even if a later civilization might find them contradictory,

Among the less-civilized people of south east Asia some of the same ideas exist. The Chin and the Homng (Miao) are both tribal peoples of the region. Surprisingly, both groups have near identical stories to explain their traditional illiteracy, something that distinguishes them from the literate Burmese and Chinese who they fought with. According to these legends these peoples were once literate but during a great battle with their enemies they left all their books at home. When they returned they discovered, in horror, that pigs and horses had eaten them all. With the books lost, so too went the knowledge of reading and writing. In fact, one reason both peoples welcomed Christian missionaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is that the missionaries not only came with a book but taught them reading and writing, an event seen as a wonderful restoration of things lost long ago.

Countless books have been written on the complex problem of China and intellectual property rights. China is our biggest trading partner and often a political rival. Traditional ideas concerning the origin, value, creditation and development and/or decline of knowledge are just one facet of the issue.

Yet to resolve this it will help to understand that many people in this world see knowledge as something that is better acquired instead of created.

And if we can’t understand our fellow humans, can we expect extraterrestrials to fare any better at understanding humans?

 

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