When knowledge is not the answer

Ziauddin Sardar knows about knowing

Alternative medicine is junk. That is the view of a group of eminent doctors and scientists who have sent a letter to every NHS trust urging the health service to reject funding for "unproven" and "implausible treatments". But how do we know for sure that alternative medicine does not work?

It is a perennial question for an all-round sceptic like me. Knowing is quite different from knowledge. Knowing is a process, and involves a method. Knowledge is the end product of knowing. In an aggressively secular society, we tend to think that there is only one way of knowing - namely, science and its method - which leads to the conclusion that there is only one type of knowledge we can be certain about. But there are different ways of knowing, each with its own distinct method, and each as rationally satisfying within its own framework as science.

Often we come to know by acquiring personal skills. No amount of scientific reasoning can teach you how to ride a bike. But once you have acquired the skill, you know. We know our tradition by experiencing and living it. Then there is ethical knowing. We may not be able to de- fine justice but we know when we see it; and we recognise its absence. Ethical knowing has a religious dimension. In the Bible, the words "he knew" are a euphemism for "he had sexual intercourse with"; there is no better way of knowing another person. The euphemism is cleverly employed by an Estée Lauder perfume, which is called - what else - "Knowing".

Tacit knowing is another form of this. It has meaning within a particular culture. This is how Australian Aboriginal songlines work as a tool of navigation and source of indigenous knowledge. Then there is the intuitive knowing used by mystics, acquired through spiritual discipline and experiential insights. These, and other, ways of knowing are equally valid. They are what the philosopher Michel Foucault called "regimes of truth". Thus you can't use the method of physics if you want to understand homoeopathy or use qualitative methods to appreciate yoga.

Consider the perennial question: what came first, the chicken or the egg? We think that it is a philosophical question requiring philosophical method. Hence, it has never been answered. Philosophy is largely a game of its own invention; and it can illuminate only those questions that fall within its own framework of knowing.

The chicken-and-egg dilemma is, in fact, a scientific question. And science gives us an answer. We know that genetic material does not change during an animal's life. So the first bird that evolved into a chicken must have first existed as an embryo inside an egg. In other words, the living organism inside the eggshell would have had the same DNA as the chicken it turned into. Therefore, as the evolutionary biologist Professor John Brookfield of Nottingham University announced last month, "The first living thing which we could say unequivo- cally was a member of the species would be this first egg." QED: the egg came first.

Of course, those who argue that alternative medicine is not scientific are correct. It is based on a different way of knowing - that is what's "alternative" about it. It is a combination of formative knowing, acquired as skills throughout the ages, ethical knowing, based on non-western world-views, and the tacit knowing of such civilisations as those of China and India. It is not amenable to scientific questions.

There is no scientific way, for example, of empirically proving the theory of acupuncture. To discover if and how it works, we would need to sticks pins at random in every part of the human body, have a control "body" with pins covering every nanometre, and then have some sort of system for identifying each individual acupuncture point. And we would need our own theory to make sense of it all. Mapping the human genome made much more sense and was far safer.

The problem with alternative medicine is not that it is "unproven" but that it is not regulated. It needs a rigorous dose of quality control. But to dismiss it totally is not only arrogant and ignorant; it is also to deny the claims of countless people who know it works. That's what I would call everyday knowing - knowing through personal, psychological and social experience. While accepting the special place that scientific knowing has in our culture, we need to provide dignity for other, everyday, forms of knowing.

"How Do You Know? Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, science and cultural relations" is published by Pluto Press (£16.99)