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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.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Chapter 3: Thinking about Philosophical and Metaphysical Questions

Let us see how we can think about philosophical and metaphysical questions. By definition, philosophy is the “study of the processes governing thought and conduct; theory or investigation of the principles and laws that regulate the universe and underlie all knowledge and reality”. Metaphysics is “the branch of philosophy that deals with first principles and seeks to explain nature of being or reality (ontology) and of the origin and structure of the world (cosmology)” and is associated with epistemology, theory of knowledge. Please be warned that the term “Reality” is a loaded word with different meanings and interpretations.

Now, what are some of the Universal philosophical and metaphysical questions?
Who am I? Where did I come from?
What is life? What is this world? How did the world and life come about?
What is the origin of the universe?
What is the origin of life? Why life at all?
What is the relation between the individual and the Universe (cosmos)?
What is the relation between humans and other forms of life?
What is the relationship between human beings?
What is the purpose of human life?
What is the cause of human condition and suffering?
Who do good people also suffer? And bad people prosper?
What are the solutions to human problems – such as illness, suffering and death?
What is consciousness?

These questions have been asked by philosophers and mystics in every culture in every part of the world. Here are some examples from Sanskrit texts.
Koham? Katham idam? Jaatham katham? Yoga vasishta 23:3;34.
Kim idam syat jagat? Kim syat aham? Yoga vasishta 19:4;46.
Yenedam sarvam vijaanaathi tam kena vijaaniyat? Brahadaranyaka upanishad
Ha vaa imaa prajaah prajaayanta? Prasna upanishad
Kenayshitam pathathi preshitam manah
Kena praanah prathamah pretiyuktah
Kennayshitam vaachamimaam vadanti?.... Kena Upanishad


Here is one from the Old Testament
Book of Job Chapter 18. “Who is God? Who am I? What is my relationship to God? Why am I being punished? Why was I born? Will I live after death?”

Every system of philosophy tries to answer some or all of these questions. The languages are different. Meanings of words are different. (See Chapter 2; Part 4 on Words) Admissible evidences are different. (This will be dealt with in a future chapter) Philosophical inquiries developed in different parts of the world in isolation. Geographical and cultural settings in which these ideas developed were varied. And there are problems related to interconnections between philosophy, metaphysics and religions.

Each system emphasized one or more questions and in the process came up with different answers. Followers of each system were not aware of the other systems or answers, or failed to consider these as valid answers. The result is perpetual conflict between the peoples of the world and even between people of the same faith.

My purpose here is not to discuss the essential unity of all systems of metaphysics and of religions. (See books by Aldous Huxley on The Perennial Philosophy, by Bhagvan Das on the Essential Unity of All religions, Bhavan Publications). My purpose is to help you think about these questions. Therefore, here are some guidelines. When reading treatise from different philosophies, ask yourself the following questions.
What are the basic tenets of the system? (examples: karma, sin, free will)
Is it an ideology? Is it a dogma?
Is this a closed system?
What kinds of evidences are allowed in the system?
What are the dominant value judgments? (examples: sin, karma)

Let me define some of the words. Ideology is a “system of beliefs about human nature or of the universe that is held by some groups of people as giving rise to their way of life”. Dogmas are defined as “tenets resting on the authority of a school of thought, an ideology”.

All systems of thought are not closed systems. You have to find out whether the system you are reading about is a closed system. A “closed system” of thought “does not allow any evidence to counter against the theory – always finding some way of explaining away putative counter evidence”.

Dogmas may be one of 4 varieties: claimed by at least one school and not opposed by any; one peculiar to some and rejected by others; hypothetical, if accepted will lead to acceptance of other tenets and implicit dogmas, not declared explicitly.
When challenged, proponents of dogmas and ideologies respond by questioning the motive of the critic or by questioning the readiness and the commitment of the critic. Some will hide behind the statement that “future will vindicate” their dogma. Or may claim that the critic is not ready to “receive” the answer? (The Theories of Human Nature Stevenson L and Haberman DL Oxford University Press 1998; also read Nyaya Philosophy of Gautama)

Dogmas and ideologies are different from a theory which is based on a testable hypothesis. This is the basis of scientific method. For example, Creationism is a dogma, a pseudoscience, since its tenets cannot be tested. Evolution is a theory and is based on testable hypothesis.

One of the fundamentals of science is that when an exception is found to an existing hypothesis, a new level of understanding is reached and a new hypothesis is generated to account for the recently identified fact that contradicts the original hypothesis. This confuses the general public who thinks that science is unreliable because it keeps changing. It is easier to cling to old ideas, even if untrue, than keep changing.

An important point to consider is that all of the systems of thinking accept only certain modes of verification. ( see a future essay on Valid means of knowledge). Science and an ancient system of Indian philosophy called the caravaka accept only direct proof and verification of hypothesis. Conversely some systems, particularly religious systems, demand faith. Some even assert that faith is the ONLY accepted method. Science often asserts that only observable, quantifiable aspects of life are worth our attention.

How does one listen to an exponent of ideology or dogma? If you listen carefully to what a proponent of an ideology says to explain away uncomfortable facts, you will be able to know whether he is open to evidence or not.

1. Does he describe or explain what actually IS, or what SHOULD BE. The latter is an opinion and value judgment, often used in discussions on human nature. These are called judgmental statements. These folks who mistake what should be for what is, do not change their minds even when given facts.
2. If he makes statements that “define” the object or concept under discussion, such that it cannot be proven or disproven, (examples are Heaven and hell), he is impervious to facts. In philosophy, these are called analytical statements.
3. If he makes statements that can be proven or disproven by experiment or practical observation or experience, it is called an empirical statement. This is true of science.
4. If a statement does not fall under any of these categories, it is a metaphysical statement and often based on concepts and words susceptible to varying interpretations.

When dealing with philosophical and metaphysical statements, the following questions helped me make up my own mind.
What was the most original statement?
Who said it ? (not always important; not always possible to be sure the words can be definitively attributed to that person) Why and in what context did he say those words? What was the intended meaning?
Was this really said by that person, or did someone add or modify it subsequently?
If so, by whom? When? Why?
How is this statement being used at present? Who uses it most? For what purpose?
Is this statement still relevant in the current context?
Has the knowledge base changed in this area so that this is no longer valid?
Does this agree with observable facts in everyday life? If not, why do we still keep repeating it?

I look at our current practices and beliefs and compare with the original writings. If they do not agree with reason on deep thinking, are irrelevant in the current context, are wrong based on current verifiable knowledge, do not help us or anyone else, are harmful to even one single life and do not agree with what we can observe in nature there is no need to accept these statements. This is in no way to diminish the intellect and the work of our ancestors on whose shoulders we stand to get our current, clearer view of the universe.

In other words, throw out the old map when the territory has changed. This position is supported even by Adi Sankara. In his book on Sankara’s Teachings in His Own Words (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1964), Swami Atmananda quotes from Sankara’s commentaries on Bhagavat Gita and Brahma Sutra. One of them is a bold statement, made originally in Sanskrit, and reads as follows: “Certainly Sruti (veda) cannot be an authority as against observed facts. Even if hundreds of Vedic texts declare that fire is cold and devoid of light, they cannot become an authority on this point”. Another statement says: “Sruti is merely informative. (Shruteh gnaapakathvath). The scriptures seek not to alter the nature of things but to supply information about things unknown”.