November Researcher of the Month – Dr. Arun Bala

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Meet Dr. Arun Bala, Visiting Researcher at the University of Toronto.

Dr. Bala will be giving a talk at the University of King’s College, Halifax, Nov. 14th, at 7pm.  See here for more details on that event.
1. What is your current place of research?

Until recently I have been Senior Research Fellow with the Asia Research Institute, Singapore and Visiting Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Toronto. I am currently looking forward to life as an independent scholar when I return to Singapore from Canada later this year.

2. Could you give us some details about your education background?

I have a Master’s degree in physics from the National University of Singapore and a PhD in philosophy of science from Western University, Canada.

3. What projects are you currently working on and what are some projects you’ve worked on in the past?

I worked in the 1980s on the development of environmental education in Southeast Asia with the Regional Institute for Higher Education Development set up by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It led to a number of monographic studies on the philosophy of environmental education and research methodologies that could tap into local environmental knowledge to enrich scientific studies. This motivated me to incorporate traditional knowledge into philosophy of science courses that I subsequently taught for many years at the National University of Singapore.  This led me to a greater appreciation of the contributions that local traditions of knowledge had historically made to cosmopolitan modern science. In particular it informed my study The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science which highlighted the contributions Asian astronomical traditions – Arabic, Chinese and Indian – made to the 17th century Scientific Revolution. My forthcoming book Complementarity Beyond Physics: Neils Bohr’s Parallels endeavours to explain the parallels noticed by Niels Bohr between the complementarity principle he proposed to interpret quantum theory and certain traditions of epistemology in Indian and Chinese philosophical traditions.

Over the last six years I have also organised a series of workshops in Singapore which brought together international scholars from across the world to explore Asian – mainly Arabic, Chinese, Indian – connections to modern science. These have resulted in two edited books – Asia, Europe and the Emergence of Modern Science and The Bright Dark Ages: Comparative and Connective Perspectives (with Prasenjit Duara), with one further volume envisaged.

I am currently working on a study that looks at the implications of taking seriously traditional environmental knowledge as a resource both for advancing science and for rethinking scientific epistemology. In some respects this goes back to my earliest work on environmental education, but with the added hindsight knowledge of all the work I have done in between looking at the role that many local traditions of nature knowledge have played, or can play, in enriching modern science.

4. What’s one thing you particularly enjoy about working in your field?

I especially like the way this approach opens up vast vistas for the study of the history and philosophy of science that have remained quite invisible until recent times. Traditions of the discipline have largely grown in separate enclaves that study Western, Chinese, Indian and Arabic traditions largely in isolation from one another, or at best make binary comparisons between modern science and one of the other traditions. I think bringing them together in one forum promotes multilateral comparisons that casts new light on the nature and growth of scientific knowledge through mutually fructifying dialogues. Moreover, there is a demand for such exchanges not only because the globalisation of education has brought together students from different cultures in universities across the world able and interested to inform each other of their different perspectives, but also the cyberspace of the internet has created a shared platform for exchange of ideas across global geographical spaces. This is going to transform history and philosophy of science in ways hard to predict, but it certainly makes for exciting times.

5. How do you relate your work to the broader topic of ‘cosmopolitanism and the local’?

I think that it is necessary to understand what I take ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘local’ to be in order to appreciate how I interpret the way they relate to one another. I do not assume cosmopolitan science to be current modern science to which other local traditions contribute by way of enrichment in the form of new data, techniques or technologies. Neither do I see cosmopolitan science as one local tradition among others with each co-existing in incommensurable enclaves of mutual non-communication and incomprehension. Rather I envision many traditions as engaged in dialogue and communication from which emerges a wider consensus that constitutes a cosmopolitan tradition, which nevertheless continues to engage with emerging new local traditions. Thus the cosmopolitan is what arises out of the engagements and interactions of local traditions – a pattern recognised even within orthodox history and philosophy of science that sees a body of consensually accepted theories emerge out of the competition of competing alternative theories. However, I take such competing alternatives as also originating in different local cultures, and contributing to the reservoir of cosmopolitan science. Hence, in both my studies of the astronomical revolution of the 17th century, and the quantum revolution of the 20th century, I have tried to show how local traditions of knowledge and epistemology from various cultural traditions enrich the cosmopolitan heritage of modern science and its philosophy.

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