A Paradigm Lost

By Tarty Teh

The Perspective

November 17, 2001

A South African writer Mr. Mukazo Mukazo Vunda has taken issue with my description of South African President Thabo Mbeki as letting philosophy get in the way of science. Although my piece was mostly about the thinking of otherwise educated Africans who showcase their knowledge rather than put it to work, I became a suitable subject of Mr. Vunda’s opinions. But I still admire his courage and the obvious virtue that has driven him to post completely my commentary "Where Are The African Intellectuals – Part II" even though he believes that I am mostly wrong.

Mr. Vunda believes that I have made some unfounded assumptions about Ph.D., wisdom, and common sense. Although these were not, to any substantial degree, the topics of my discussion, an expansion on my theme regarding patterns of African thinkinhg makes it possible to include these. I however profess no grips on Ph.D., wisdom, and common sense. But Mr. Vunda thinks that I profess wisdom and common on the strength of my formal education or Ph.D. He argues, therefore, that wisdom and common sense do not flow from academic achievements, and that I have shown no capacity to see the disconnection.

Nevertheless, I hope that Mr. Vunda and I will remain engaged as we explore together what we feel ails Africa. Agreement with each other should not be guaranteed as long as we have different paradigms that may dictate the areas of our concentration and the degree of emphasis we place on our respective methods for discerning truth and knowledge.

I have walked bare-footed, but I never stayed hungry for long, as I roamed my native tribal land as a child. I was baffled by some natural occurrences about which I had no source to turned to for explanation after exhausting the empirical knowledge of my brilliant but otherwise illiterate father and all that he dared to divine from the little he knew to explain new phenomena. My father was more wrong than right. I was the source of new knowledge for him after I started school at age 12.

Despite my formal knowledge, there is much that I don’t know, but with a firm set of principles in the search for knowledge and truth, my father prepared me not to spend too much time on any theory not based on material causes.

This is what I see as the issue before us. I also see that Mr. Vunda is totally committed to defending South African President Thabo Mbeki as suggested by the title of his piece "I Defend Thabo Mbeki" in response to my article about Africa’s misapplied intellectual energies. But I fear that the absolutism with which Vunda defends Mbeki leaves very little, if any, room for accepting the possibility that he and Mbeki may be wrong.

Scientists are dogmas of sorts. They believe that there is a cause, and until they find it, they will not accept any other explanation. Scientists start their investigation with the first set of truth: They don’t know. When they find a lead, they try to pursue it without diluting it with their own pre-conceived ideas about what the cause may be.

The tool of science is tested knowledge – what is known. In some areas of investigation, it is easy to extrapolate using mathematics, but there are some behaviors of nature which mathematics alone cannot explain. For that, scientists keep records over time, looking for patterns as the first basis for prediction while new forms of computation are sought toward understanding the phenomenon. Scientists test likely material sources for answers but adamantly exclude the supernatural.

Believing and thinking are two different things. Scientists don’t believe in anything; they think about every thing. Mr. Vunda is quite right, however, that "Christianity, for example, is not so far removed from mysticism," but I would put the two even closer together than he has. I therefore disagree with him that "Mysticism is actually a sign of a higher intelligence." If it is, then it can’t be on this earth, but rather in another wholly separate dimension which does not demand physical causes. I would wager that mysticism, or any undisciplined and therefore useless thought processing, needlessly takes up more space in the brain than thinking grounded in, for instance, physical science. So, just because the brain is jammed with activities doesn’t mean that it is functioning to more useful ends.

A person accused of witchcraft in a tribal village, for instance, spends more sleepless nights in laborious thoughts than, let’s say, a person working in a science laboratory mapping the human genes. The first thinking is unstructured, the other is focused. That’s another way of juxtaposing inefficiency and efficiency. But if anyone accused me of witchcraft I would not lose any sleep over the accusation.

When I make a cell phone call, I don’t expect my dead grandmother to answer. That’s why she has not yet called me. But if I want to see my dead grandmother, I can. Because I have a powerful enough imagination to bring her to life.

We live in a physical universe. Therefore the answers to our daily questions have material sources. We must concentrate on those.

Regarding my comment about Thabo Mbeki, I received an e-mail from a European who disagreed that Mbeki ever looked to witchcraft as a potential source for a cure of AIDS. And this is quite apart from the writer’s having expressed respect for me, at least, on the merits of how I present my thoughts. He was right, but he also knew that my claim about Mbeki was a bit of a hyperbole to underscore my rage for lost opportunities in pursuing a treatment regimen that could have prevented the transmission of the disease from, for instance, a pregnant mother to her unborn child. I therefore believe that Mbeki has stubbornly, and perhaps recklessly, refused to help us build a bridge to the next generation of South Africans because of his tenuous claim of alternative theory that may deny a connection between the HIV virus and the disease AIDS.

However, I have no doubts that Mbeki cares very much for the people of South Africa, if not for all of Africa. But he must learn to keep his coconuts and cassava apart. Hunger is not a disease, but even if it were, the cure is well within the reach of the human race as a matter of where each individual chooses to apply his effort to cope with the disease (of hunger). Waiting for manna from heaven or blaming white people as always having an anti-Africa agenda may bring some relief from the pain of frustration, but it will not put breakfast on the table. Yet, even after you have chosen to make a rice farm, the rain may not come on schedule. But if that leads you to blaming your neighbor – on whose farm rain fell at a crucial time – as being responsible for delaying or withholding the rain, then I’ll say you will go hungry a while longer.

Mind you, I don’t take the question of racial discrimination lightly. But assuming the worst case possible – namely, all white people don’t like us – where do we go with that? Do we wait until their opinions about us have improved, or do we hasten the demise of their claim by thinking harder and advancing without their intervention? Even in many cases where we have alleged bad white attitudes, the supposed attitude can be explained as one human being looking out for himself, because it is not written anywhere that white people owe us help. If we are stupid enough, we will invite exploitation by that very fact.

Now, I am fully aware that I have come dangerously close to the camp which thinks that if a white person invented something or discovered a cure or a cause, we must fashion an alternative method that can be called African, which makes no use of such prior knowledge. Let’s think about it. I believe that knowledge is universal. Individual persons may take credit – or, in fact, take out a patent – for a piece of knowledge. But to profit from that knowledge, its benefits must be wildly available to as many people as possible. Otherwise, what would be the point? But with the spread of the product which that knowledge makes possible comes curiosity enough for others to want to make it better. There is a name for it. It’s called technological advancement. We must be a part of it without undue worry about who invented or who discovered it first.

The creator gave us everything we need to survive. It’s between our ears. It’s the brain, the host of our rational faculty. My hunch is that we Africans often put knowledge on display and not to work. South Africa and Mexico – oceans apart – seeded clouds and forced rain to fall. In the 1990s Nigerian scientists, through plant genetic manipulation, created new species of palm and cassava with more productive yields than those occurring naturally. But if you do a rain dance, you are still playing the game of chance in which you have no control before, during, and after the dance. That’s another way of saying, you are not thinking.

My frustration with the African situation stems from the fact that the potential is there among us – more so today. The recent development in Nigerian botanical research is not a fluke. More than 60 years ago a Nigerian scientist discovered the disease beriberi. In medical research, discovery is the first step to understanding a condition. Before the Nigerian scientist pinpointed the disease, it existed only as a symptom. Identifying the disease ultimately leads to a cure. Today beriberi is easily treated with an injection of thiamin. According to a medical journal, a patient immobilized by the disease may "be on his feet in a matter of hours" after being treated with thiamin.

Mankind took a step forward when that Nigerian scientist looked under the microscope instead of peeping under his bed for witches lurking to do him in with a disease that was strange to the world. Now a doctor in Norway can diagnose beriberi and relieve his patient’s fear of much worse affliction. There are records on how the Nigerian scientist discovered the disease. He may not have found a cure for it, but he identified its characteristics. It is a safe bet that many a witch has been tried and killed by ordeal in Africa on the suspicion of the relatives of someone who died from beriberi.

Let’s look at it this way. Of the two kinds of roosters there are, we Africans are very much like the rooster which thinks that daylight comes when it crows. But those who have much firmer grips on reality only think that they are the rooster which announces the dawn of a day.

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