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Problems With Testimony

·10 mins
Musings Epistemology" Authority The-Wheel-of-Time Knowledge Diplomacy Communication
Table of Contents

Warning! This article is one among many salvaged from my previous blog! It is not on par with my demands of quality but I didn’t feel like abandoning it. Please don’t disappoint me by becoming fond of this.

Last two months, I had immersed myself in the Wheel of Time series of books by Robert Jordan, a fantasy novel series with so many details, adventure, politics, Point of Views, cultures, ideas, and etcetera. The list goes on and on. I am currently at a 11th book in the Series, Knife of Dreams, but the series so far has taught me a lot of interesting things that are worth contemplating upon. However, I would like to focus on two features that is bugging me when I see it in the real world - Aes Sedai’s (Servant of All) Three Oaths and Daes Dae’mar (The Game of Houses). Diplomacy is in the heart of these two features in this fantasy series. Let us start with Daes Dae’mar.

The Wheel of Time Series Covers
The Wheel of Time Series Covers

Daes Dae’mar #

Daes Dae’mar or the Game of the Houses, is political maneuvering employed by the nobility of the different nations. We get to see Thom Merrilin (Gleeman/Court-bard) and Moiraine Damodred Aes Sedai of Blue Ajah (formerly from Cairhein Nobility-adds another level to this qualification) flexing their skills on this game from the beginning of the series. This game is all about doubting and noting every single move of others and manipulating one’s own moves and words. For example, your smile, your choice of words, your choice to look at a select set of people etc will all be mentally noted down and be interpreted for deeper currents in the political standpoint. Here (1) is a good example of how to perceive Daes Dae’mar.

<em>Daes Dae&rsquo;mar</em>  sample memes.
Daes Dae’mar sample memes.

Reading this series will improve your skills in this game by showing ample examples of diplomacy and manipulations that you never expected to exist. You must be ready to lose your childhood innocence if you wish to get into this game. For a little more extra, you can always read about this topic here in official Wiki for the series here (2).

Aes Sedai’s Three Oaths #

Aes Sedai are women(also men, but that comes later in series) who can channel the one power. They are like the mystics we hear about in news. They have multifarious functions in society, like meddling with the politics of nations; preserving knowledge of bygone ages; they are masters of healing; warriors of a different kind; they are also masters of logic, etcetera. They are almost immortal and live for a long period - 300-600 years - possibly because of the ability to embrace one power. Since they are like witches(also called the same by a sect of people called Children of Light) or sorceresses, they are feared and respected. However, a man will lead a rebellion against a higher power if he fears his independence, so all the Aes Sedai, take the three oaths using Oath Rod that embed those Oaths to their flesh and bone such that they can never break them. This could pacify the brave men who wish to lead a rebellion against them and keep peace. The three oaths are:

  1. To speak no word that is not true.
  2. To make no weapon with which one man may kill another.
  3. Never to use the One Power as a weapon except against Darkfriends or Shadowspawn, or in the last extreme defense of her life, the life of her Warder, or another Aes Sedai.

Since this ensures the safety of public and nations from being reduced to dust by these powerful women (and men), people let along Aes Sedai. However, there are nations that outright ban the use of one power within their walls and also try avoiding them.

The catch here is the diplomacy coming from Aes Sedai. Here is a quote by Tam al’Thor at the beginning of the series about the Aes Sedai.

“An Aes Sedai never lies, but the truth she speaks may not be the truth you think you hear.” -—Tam al’Thor

They cannot speak a lie, but they can manipulate people into thinking by stating a list of facts (which they believe to be true, but needn’t be one) that are disconnected but consensus implies the connectivity and extracts some extra information which they never presented. Or perhaps, they might word carefully for an oath but might miss out on some crucial elements which most people overlook. This makes people wary of Aes Sedai and keeps away from them as much as possible and also avoids their interference in their lives. The novel series itself has a lot of indicators and explicit dialogues that contemplate that the Daes Dae’mar is invented by Aes Sedai to keep the strings of politics in their control. The conversations between two Aes Sedai are seldom clear to anyone who overhears it and only the sisters (as they refer themselves internally) are the only ones capable of comprehending what unspoken words mean and what spoken words actually meant. Here is more information from the official Wiki for the series on Aes Sedai (3) and their three oaths (4).

So What? #

Enough wasting 800 words just to explain two examples of diplomacy. And not a good job of it either. These two features of this fantasy series kept me thinking about the problems with knowledge by testimony. Wait what?, you might ask, and you are right to ask since I am asking this question for a long time. Here is an intellectual discussion on the argument from authority fallacy and consensus fallacy in a civilised manner in a setting that so frequently resurfaces the said problems 5.


Usually, all the headlines and content are written by Journalists who specialise in summarising and presenting to public - the way they are forced to by corporates/government or the way they are forced by analytics to reach maximum hits - this is definitely not in line with the vision and motivations of scientific research. Take this instance, for example, take this example of the discovery of a parallel universe where time runs in opposite direction to our universe by NASA (6, 7 & 8).

[^6], [^7] & [^8]

Journalists have completely messed up regarding what actually happened with ANITA. They either do not know about what actually happened or just inflated the subject to suit their needs. Both are damaging to the scientific community and strains credulity of scientists. Then, after all the raging tweets and social media turmoil, they tried fixing it by explaining to a degree what actually happened. And here are some smart physicists who actually clarify what the situation is all about9:

This is just one example of an event. However, we are not here to discuss science communication, although this discussion will bear fruits to the future of science communication if taken seriously. We are to discuss the problem of knowledge by testimony that is regarded as the primary and most credible source of knowledge in Eastern Cultures.

Knowledge by Testimony #

Knowledge by testimony-as in Western Epistemology10- is termed as shabda pramana in Sanskrit that means knowledge by sound/hearing. This is considered being most authentic and timeless in Eastern Philosophy. Scriptures are valued more and often quoted as law books even to discuss philosophy, politics and other moral/ethical cases in day-to-day lives of people. The problem with the system is that it heavily discourages pratyaksa and anumana pramana, which are knowledge by experience/perception and knowledge by inference respectively, despite the outlook of all inclusiveness. Another big time problem is this knowledge is held and exercised by Brahmanas sect of the society. They are the court advisors and have the upper hand in almost all the decisions and manipulations. They are more like the Aes Sedai we have discussed above; are highly diplomatic and truth bending in most of their dealings, and that is necessary if you are to be an advisor for the monarch.

Since they hold the knowledge and they only provide it as they see fit to any individual, it is difficult to cross-examine what he (no she here) teaches. You are to devote to the individual and surrender to him to even start learning the ideas and philosophy he administers to his students. We can’t present the innocence of them since they are the diplomats of the society. They set the rules and laws to organise and control every sect of the society, be it mercantile communities, army of soldiers, or craftspeople, etcetera.

It is believed that the knowledge passed down by such Brahmanas is coming directly from God and is never coming into existence. It is timeless and is eternal and, therefore, perfect. Every word of the master is law, both in letter and spirit, to his students, even if the teacher is a defector. There are some way outs if the student figures out his teacher is a defector, but usually the obedience and servitude keeps them in check. Penances also keep them in check, mostly.

Now linking the Daes Dae’mar and Aes Sedai into this picture, we can never be sure about the situation. We can never say if the Brahmana is helping us out or manipulating us for his needs. That is why science is a birching tool which strips them in public and birches them. Their authority status is put to turmoil, experiments simple enough to witness or perform by common public will outlaw the “eternal statements” as taught by Brahmanas. A quick note: I’m not saying all Brahmanas are like that, it is a spectrum, and each one exercises the above qualities to their level of comfort and necessity.

What’s the Point? #

You might think where I am going with all these arguments and examples. It seems we are beating around the same dried bush with not apparent target and purpose. Perhaps I’m playing Daes Dae’mar with you, you can never tell, can you?

You can never tell, can you?
You can never tell, can you?

The point is, either Brahmanas or the Scientists, being held with authority is buying a supplementary offer of domination and control for free. With scientists, we could at least question their consensus and disprove their ideas with strong experimental evidence (ahem.., a little cough from string theorists) but usually, the Brahmanas are sure not ready to accept defeat mostly. How many more years are they going to cry about their earth-water-fire-air-ether model of the universe? Sure that may be a possibility but possibility is not a replacement for certainty.

Knowledge in the hands of an authority - a person - is sure to be contaminated. Perhaps that is what the ancient Eastern Philosophers like Śrī Madhvācārya meant about Vedas (the Indian Scriptures) being not written even by God (11 & 12), it is authorless. Śrī Madhvācārya wants to attribute to knowledge the negation of personhood that might obscure the actual content to the person’s inclination if it was otherwise. How or What makes a body of knowledge free from error of a person needs further discussion. How a body of knowledge can be objective from the subjectiveness of a person might also be worth contemplating. The example of deferring knowledge from an authority13 is sure to become scrambled once it actually reaches public-be it scientific or theologic. We are to look into how do we make the communication as seamless as possible. We need Claude Shannon the Second to workout the consciousness model of the communication. Until then, there are unspoken but hinted questions all along the article. What is unspoken here also has a lot more weight than you think. Perhaps I’m playing Daes Dae’mar with you and you will never know!

You will never know!
You will never know!

References #