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Monday, February 16, 2009

Chapter 4: Means of Valid Knowledge and Limitations of Knowledge

Recently I was reading a book written in the 17th century by an Indian Vedic Scholar. This book is on the 16 different systems of philosophy extant in India at that period in history. One portion of the book caught my attention. It deals with the means of obtaining valid knowledge. In Sanskrit, the word prama means valid knowledge and the word pramana stands for the means of getting there.

Our knowledge is limited in spite of the vast amount acquired by human civilizations over centuries. It is limited because it is vast, almost ever expanding, like cosmos itself. It is limited because there are some areas about which we may be able to make reasonable guesses, but will never be able to know for sure, such as the origin of this universe. It is limited because our organs of perception have their own limitations. We can expand the reach of our senses by making devices that see things our eyes cannot and hear sounds our ears cannot. However, just as our eyes cannot hear and ears cannot see, there may be areas that are inaccessible to our sensory systems and our brain as pointed out by the Vedic teachers of India who asked: “ How can you know That by which you know?” Our knowledge is limited because we have limitations in our ability to analyze and synthesize what we already know. We can make devices to help us in these tasks also.

The biggest limitation, however, seems to be in our inability to interpret or misinterpret what is already known. This is mainly because of the tricks our mind plays with what it perceives and what it has acquired. We gather information using our sensory organs and modify it with our thinking process to suit “our” purpose. This is the first area of problems – what are we acquiring the “knowledge” for? The purpose modifies, restricts and elaborates the content of knowledge. In this process we accept some facts and ignore others. In other words, we use mental filters and blinders, some knowingly and some unknowingly.

Filters and blinders certainly do not help us look at the truth as is. They look at only parts of the real world for some specific purpose and make the task easier. Vedic literature, differentiates between vastu tantra, which denotes knowledge of an object as is and purusha tantra which is knowledge as is understood by the knower. Most of our knowledge is purusha tantra which is appropriate for understanding the physical aspects of the universe. It is objective knowledge but will fail when it comes to personal experiences, human psychology and metaphysical realms. One has to “live” the internal life of the person or of the object. In the metaphysical realm one has to experience IT, whatever that means.

One of the many mental filters we use is called Pramana in Sanskrit. It stands for means of valid knowledge, mode of acquisition of knowledge. In the book on Indian philosophy I referred to earlier, I mentioned 16 different systems. It is interesting to note that each system accepted “proofs” obtained by specified modes. It is not clear whether the restrictions on the means of obtaining knowledge defined that brand of philosophy; or specific philosophical speculations demanded proofs obtained by specified means only.

For example one of the systems of Indian philosophy is called Caravaka system. This system accepts direct perception as the only means of valid knowledge. Therefore, this system is atheistic. It says that “this life is the only known life. Enjoy it. All these rituals and rites created by the priests are only as means of their livelihood”.

The Buddhists accept perception and inference as valid knowledge. We know that this is true of the present scientific tradition. The one difference is that the inference has to be a testable hypothesis in science.

Nyaya philosophy accepts comparison and verbal testimony in addition to perception and inference. Philosophical and metaphysical writings are full of comparisons as valid means of knowledge. The best example is comparison of the relationship between our individual self and the Universal Spirit to the relationship between the wave and the water in the ocean. Without the ocean there is no wave. But, when the wave disappears it merges with the ocean. One is in the historical dimension and the other in the Universal dimension. Science does not accept comparisons and similarities as valid means of reliable knowledge.

What about verbal testimony? This is not testimony from any body and everybody. Nyaya aphorism defines testimony as: “It is the instructive assertion of a reliable person”. Who is a reliable person? It is someone who has lived a life of spirituality and wishes to share out of compassion. This applies to Sacred Texts and the words of “Realized Souls” such as Buddha and Jesus. This is the basis of all Faith -based traditions and religions.

Several systems accept only three of the four listed above, namely perception, inference and verbal testimony or sacred texts. These are Jain, Samkhya, Visishtaadvaita, Dvaita and Yoga of Patanjali. One of the Mimamsa schools accepts perception, inference, sacred texts, comparisons and presumption! Another school accepts all of the above five and also non-cognition. (“Absence of proof is not proof of absence.” William Cowper) Advaita school belongs to this class. Some schools of thought accept tradition and supplements also as valid means.

The Advaita school is unique for the following reasons. As interpreted by Adi Sankara, it says that 1. In matters relating to the cosmos, do not accept what is written in the texts, if it is not supported by actual perception. 2. In matters relating to metaphysical realms, you have to accept the words of the “seers”. 3. You cannot learn about this Universal dimension from books or through erudite discussions. You have to “experience” it yourself. This knowledge is available ONLY to experience and therefore creates a problem for those who subscribe to objectivity and proofs by perception and inference.

It should be abundantly clear by now that our knowledge is actually “pockets of knowledge” accumulated for different purposes using different filters and blinders. Therefore, our “knowledge pockets” are by nature incomplete. There are only spheres of knowledge. They are blind (since they used blinders before getting there) to each other. Is it any wonder that there are spirited disagreements and even conflicts and wars between followers of different systems of thought and spheres of knowledge?

The primary problem is that each system is not aware of or not able to accept or ignores valid knowledge obtained by different means. Some systems refuse to concede that knowledge obtained by another mode may be useful for specific purposes. The best example is the current divide between Religion and Science.

Religious knowledge is transmitted knowledge based on faith. It is useful knowledge for specific purposes. It is personal and is subjective. Answers based on faith are definitive and dogmatic. There is no room for doubts. People who emphasize faith based knowledge are often afraid of critical questioning lest their faith be shaken. They wish quick answers even if they are wrong. It appeals to people who like easy and quick answers as long as it borders on a believable. Therefore, one can delude oneself to believing even in the face of actual perceptual evidence against that view. Because faith does not like scrutiny, people who rely on faith hide behind the personal, put all sorts of barriers and can easily become fanatic.

Science, on the other hand, is an acquired knowledge. It is never definite and therefore does not appeal to those who like easy and definitive answers. Science does not have perfect answers that are true for ever. The answers are only approximations but are verifiable. Science has the best and the most reliable method to get a close approximation to truth on the physical aspects of the universe. Scientific method includes objectivity, measurement and reproducibility.

This emphasis on objectivity arose at a period in human history dominated by the evils of blind faith and erratic conclusions based on subjective whims and fancies of rulers of lands and religions. Objective observations and analysis based on observable facts helped establish truths about our planet, universe and ourselves on a firmer ground. However, by emphasizing the importance of its methods, namely objectivity and measurement, science relegates knowledge obtained by other methods such as reflection and personal experience as less important or outright trivial. Thus, “the intuition is derided as irrational, true feelings are demoted as sentimental and imaginations is seen as chaotic and unruly….”. This is also an equally arrogant position to take. By taking this position, science is doing the same mistake religion did for centuries.

“To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible” said St.Thomas Aquinas. A system which emphasizes faith as an acceptable mode of knowledge disagrees with a system which emphasizes objectivity and reasoning as the only acceptable modes of knowledge. However, both groups have to realize that “Faith is not belief without proof, but trust without reservation.” Even faith depends on some reasoning, to the extent you have to decide why you have faith in this system as opposed to the other system.

It is silly to fight about apples and oranges. Systems of knowledge acquired using different modes of acquisition will differ. Two systems developed with restrictions on allowable evidence cannot have the same knowledge content and nor can they serve the same purpose. They are like our left and right brains. We need them both.

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