Valid Sources of Knowledge

I’ve tried to come up with good justifications for writing this post, knowing that more than a few folks will find it boring, lacking the excitement of another commentary on Lady Gaga, the familiarity of a personal anecdote, or the sensationalism of blogging on Michael Vick as a role model. The thing that I suppose I keep coming back to in my mind is that while I respect and appreciate most religions, I truly don’t understand atheism, despite my longing and effort to understand. Many of my friends and professors have urged me that it is a waste of my time and that I should just let “them” vent as I remain unfettered with nonhomological discourse… and yet I am compelled, by friendships and convictions for peace to find some common ground – some means of discourse and dialogue that is more than an “us” and “them.” I’m searching for some basis from which we can construct a “we.” (Not a “wii” – although that could be fun, too). I suppose that is my motivation – my prayojana – for writing now, here, about epistemology. OK, enough epilogue, now to the boring stuff.

In Indian philosophy (have I lost you yet?), there are somewhere between 6 and 8 pramāṇas, or “valid sources of knowledge” depending on which school of thought (dare we call them religions?) you consider. What concerns me is the careful distinction between the first three pramāṇas, which are readily accepted by all six so-called “orthodox” (āstika) schools. What is (in)valuable here is not only the description of the three sources, but the careful distinction between their domains, or scope (viṣaya). The disagreements between one theologian (or, if you prefer, philosopher) and another often come down to whether a particular issue falls under the scope of this or that pramāṇa (valid source of knowledge). (I know, I know, this is too technical for a blog post, but bear with me, please.)

The first pramāṇa or valid source of knowledge is pratyakṣa, or “perception.” Perception is simply what is perceived by the senses – sight, smell, sound, etc. In ancient Western philosophy, this is what was known as “sensation,” but later (during the modernist period) got muddled up with cognition (until Husserl again carefully distinguished cognition from perception).

What does this have to do with talking to atheists? Well, I have found that often my miscommunication with atheists has something to do with how we distinguish perception and cognition, which both seem to fall under the category of the “empirical” or, recently, “what I see is what I get.” Anywho… “perception” is just the first of the three.

The second pramāṇa or valid source of knowledge is anumāna, or “logic.” Actually, it is usually translated as “inference,” but that is a troubled term in the West. There is an entire orthodox school of thought devoted just to logic (nyāya) and there is much disagreement on how logic should be conducted, the differences between inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning, etc. But for the purposes of a blog, “logic” seems sufficient.

It is on the third pramāṇa that there is the most disagreement within Indian thought. Buddhists, Jains, and other (nāstika) schools stop with the first two (at least, in theory). Other schools disagree significantly on all sorts of particulars about the third pramāṇa, even as they all accept its necessity. It is called variously śruti, śabda, śāstra, etc., but the basic meaning is “scripture” or “revelation.” (And, to my Buddhist/Jain readers – wouldn’t arhat fall here?)

Why on earth would I feel like you, the SoF blog reader would have any interest in learning about this? My suspicion is that you don’t, but my wager is that you should. The Sanskrit doesn’t matter, of course, but the basic frame of perception-logic-scripture does seem to matter. For one thing, I think that these careful distinctions help us to better understand one another. For example, I know that my Muslim friends and interlocutors agree with me on the importance of all three, and probably on the relative weight that we attribute to each, but we disagree on the content of the third (scripture). From that, we can at least find our common ground for dialogue. When it comes to my Christian friends, we can agree on all three in full, but we may disagree on the proper way to read and interpret scripture.

So here is one question that I have – for those of you bold enough to venture this far (despite boredom)… why is it that when I dialogue with so-called “religious” folks, there never seems to be any problem distinguishing between cognition and perception, and yet this is a nearly constant problem when dialoguing with self-professed “atheists”? It would seem that we should only disagree on the third pramāṇa – scripture – but most often it is on the first. I have my strong suspicions why this is the case, but I’ll postpone these for a future post. For now, I hope to hear from all of you who’ve read this far. What do you think of these three so-called “valid sources of knowledge”? Is it a helpful epistemological frame for us to understand one another? Is it just something useful to (some) Indians? For those of you who do accept the importance of all three, why do you feel like the third (scripture) is so important? Again, I have my reasons, which I’ll share in a future post, but I hope to hear from you. Lastly… Is this far too academic for a blog?

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10 thoughts on “Valid Sources of Knowledge

  1. Well, as one of those “self-professed “atheists”” (what are the scare quotes for, I wonder?), although I prefer the term “naturalist” or “Humanist”, I’ll take a whack at this.

    First, I don’t think this is too academic for this space – I hoped this would be a space where we could discuss important high-level questions with each other, so thank you for raising it!

    I’m left a little baffled by the issue you have regarding atheists and the “first source of knowledge”, since you don’t describe exactly what the problem you encounter is, and I’m fascinated by the comment “I truly don’t understand atheism, despite my longing and effort to understand” – what is it that you don’t understand? I’d LOVE to know!!

    In any case, it seems to me that given decades of focused study into the nature of human cognition, and hundreds of years of philosophical study into epistemology (a topic I care a lot about!), there is no need to turn to a religious tradition in order to get a grip on our epistemological questions.

    It seems reasonably clear that human beings take in sense-data and use that data to construct models by which they hope to understand the world, and that science is a systematized and extended version of this process that has been extremely successful in generating broader, more specific and more comprehensive understanding, while striving toward parsimony. Scripture or revelation are not required in this process.

    Does this get us anywhere?

    1. Howdy James, once again we find ourselves in a good debate. As for the scare quotes around “atheists” – that’s a good question. I’d say it is because I don’t believe that atheists exist… but that would just be a mean thing to say, so I’ll keep that a secret. I don’t know what a “naturalist” is (or why you put it in scare quotes) – is that someone who rejects supernaturalism? If so, sign me up. As for humanist, I’m one in a long, long line of Christian humanists, so I have no problem, there… my problem is with the word “atheist.” (uh oh, scare quotes!)

      Thanks for the kudos, and for the engagement!

      As to your bafflement, I do – honestly and truly – want to understand atheism. I don’t expect that we’ll resolve it here – but I hope this is another chapter in a longer dialogue towards understanding. As to what it is that I don’t understand, I addressed the core issue in my very first post on SoF (http://www.stateofformation.org/2010/11/a-theological-perspective-on-atheism-in-formation/ ). I don’t understand how someone can reject that which cannot be defined. If one can define god – that is not god. So how can one negate that which cannot be defined? If one says “I do not believe in the existence of a de-finable god” then my response would be “obviously.” If one says “I do not believe in that which cannot be de-finable” then this seems silly to me for reasons we can discuss later, if they aren’t clear a priori.

      You write, “there is no need to turn to a religious tradition in order to get a grip on our epistemological questions.” Ah… here is a point we can debate… and a debate I’m excited to have. It is, in fact, precisely where my faith resides, meaning that I can’t say for sure if I’ll hold the same views after the debate is over. My convictions are deep, and firm, but not immovable, so if you know which buttons to push and push them well, then you might even change my mind on it. It will absolutely be the topic of one of my future posts, so you can save it until then, if you want. 🙂

      You write, “It seems reasonably clear that human beings take in sense-data and use that data to construct models by which they hope to understand the world,” … clearly. It’s the “construction” that we disagree upon… at least inasmuch as “god” ceases to be useful construct for someone who claims the title “atheist”.

      You write “… and that science is a systematized and extended version of this process that has been extremely successful in generating broader, more specific and more comprehensive understanding, while striving toward parsimony.” Parsimony? I’m not sure about that. But I am sure that I’m not quite comfortable referring to science as construction. Inasmuch as scientists carefully collect/measure sense-perceptions and quantify data based upon those perceptions in order to make deductions, then science is not construction (which is not a pramāṇa) – it is deduction (which is a pramāṇa). This is, I think, what most physicists and biologists do, and I would not call that construction but deduction. Psychology and other cognitive “sciences,” though would seem to muddle the issue. Perhaps we can explore this later.

      “Scripture or revelation are not required in this process.” Again – here is an issue I look forward to debating.

      “Does this get us anywhere?” I think so… I hope so… Does my response move us closer to some kind of debate? I still don’t understand atheism… but I am hopeful that we may be, at least, beginning a dialogue!! Thank you, James! I look forward to more on SoF 🙂

      1. Wow – what a response! So, you say “I don’t understand how someone can reject that which cannot be defined. If one can define god – that is not god. So how can one negate that which cannot be defined?”

        The problem here, from my standpoint, is that atheism is neither a rejection nor a negation of God. Rather it represents the inability to reject the null hypothesis that there is no God. The distinction is subtle, but important.

        If someone wants me to believe there is a Loch Ness Monster, then the burden of proof is on them. They must provide the evidence and accompanying reasons for me to feel comfortable believing them. An important part of this process is establishing precisely what it is they want me to believe in. Providing a clear definition of what is being argued for is crucial to the process – without defining what I’m supposed to believe in, how can I meaningfully examine the evidence or reasons put forward in favour of its existence? If you are asking me to believe in something that cannot be usefully defined, I am going to respond that I don’t really understand what it is you want me to believe in.

        On science, you say “I am sure that I’m not quite comfortable referring to science as construction. Inasmuch as scientists carefully collect/measure sense-perceptions and quantify data based upon those perceptions in order to make deductions, then science is not construction (which is not a pramāṇa) – it is deduction (which is a pramāṇa). This is, I think, what most physicists and biologists do, and I would not call that construction but deduction.”

        This is simply false. The creation (important word) of scientific models involves far more than deduction, even in the “hardest” of sciences. Think about one of the most important characteristics of science – its predictive ability. We have the capability, using models we have constructed (NOT deduced) to make predictions about the future involving whole substances (particles, elements etc.) which we have never before encountered. Obviously this process INVOLVES deduction, but it also involves construction and creativity – we have to imagine a model of what the world MIGHT be like, and go out to test it.

        Think about a very successful scientific model – Newton’s Laws. Sure, he “deduced” that certain objects fell in certain ways and at certain speeds (think of the apple falling on her head). But to generalize that and say that the specific incidents he observed represented a broad pattern or law that the whole universe follows – THAT was a construct. And this construct enabled him and others to predict the movement of objects in entirely unforeseen circumstances.

        Crucially, too, Newton’s model is WRONG – it falls down under certain circumstances he could not foresee. We respond to this problem by making up a new model (relativity) which is, too, a creative act of construction, not merely deduction.

        I have one more thing to say. In your first post you talk of “God-talk” and its usefulness in various circumstances. Now, if you want to suggest that God is simply “talk” – metaphorical expressions which have use in certain contexts – then I’m all with you. But I suspect that’s not where you want to go…

  2. THIS is interesting. I need to think before I post more, but, I did read, to the end, and understand what you are saying. I feel very much like you though…I need to engage with all those who have beliefs…even the belief, not to believe. For me, that is difficult. And intriguing. More after I have thought and maybe stuffed my face with too much turkey…

    1. Hey Karen! Thanks for your response, and glad to know that you found it interesting (actually, I delayed posting it, wondering if I would come accross as dry and boring, but decided to give it a shot). Enjoy your turkey and I look forward to hearing what you think – either on this post or a future one!

  3. Hi Brad,

    Thank you for your post.

    I was wondering if (perhaps in a future post) you could speak more on your following statement:

    “What does this have to do with talking to atheists? Well, I have found that often my miscommunication with atheists has something to do with how we distinguish perception and cognition, which both seem to fall under the category of the “empirical” or, recently, “what I see is what I get.” Anywho… “perception” is just the first of the three.”

    Are you saying that atheists, in your experience, do not separate perception from logic? If this is what you are saying, does this mean that you believe that they are not clear about the sources or assumptions upon which their logic depends and therefore mix these up with perceptions? or am I completely misunderstanding you?

    Peace,
    Kelly

    1. Hi Kelly,
      Thanks for your response!!!
      As to your first question (“Are you saying that atheists, in your experience, do not separate perception from logic?”), my answer is no. In my experience, many atheists do not clearly distinguish between perception and *cognition*… the latter of which involves some kind of hermeneutic – which is quite distinct from perception. Religion(s) tends to provide such a hermeneutic. For the Hindu theologians that I read (and also for me, and for Husserl, and for a number of other Western philosophers – but not all of them), cognition is not a pramāṇa, i.e, a valid source of knowledge. There is much discussion, for example, about how a seashell can be cognized as “silver” or a rope can be cognized as a “snake”, but there is no doubt that what is perceived is a shell or rope… the doubt pertains to the cognition, not the perception. Does that make sense? (I know this is a terribly abbreviated explanation, so I won’t be dismayed if you say – “no, that doesn’t make sense!”)

      As to the second question (which you framed as a follow-up question, but I’m going to take as distinct)… “does this mean that you believe that they [i.e., atheists] are not clear about the sources or assumptions upon which their logic depends…?” To this, I answer, quite firmly, Yes, absolutely, that is definitely what I am saying. Logic depends upon knowledge, and knowledge is always already posterior to cognition, and cognition depends heavily (but perhaps not entirely – this is something I’m very curious about) upon language. Language has not been constructed in a vacuum, but has evolved in conjunction with religion and other socio-cultural factors (politics, etc.).

      As to the final part of your second question, “and therefore mix these up with perceptions?” I suppose my answer is no… I think most folks (even atheists!) distinguish between logic and perception and most folks consider both of these to be valid sources of knowledge, even as we all recognize the difficulties of performing logic. I don’t claim to be any better at logic/reason than anyone else.

      As to your last question – “am I completely misunderstanding you?” – my answer is no… I think you pretty much got what I was trying to say, other than the distinction between cognition and perception.

      I also want to add that I REALLY appreciate your (and everyone else’s) comments.

      I’m thrilled that this has generated some good feedback (3 emails in addition to the 4 comments here). I hope I’ve answered your questions, but if not, then let me know. And if I have answered them and you disagree with me – then I’d love to hear that, too!

  4. Nice article… Hmmm… Meanwhile, I often feel greater kindred for atheist humanists than for (other) Christians who read scripture literally. I would much rather pay attention to archaeology, anthropology, and genre than to suspend my acknowledged situatedness and pretend I can give up my mind to a heteronomous (authoritarian) book– even a book I really love. The absolutely different approach to Scripture makes it a non-starter for dialogue in my experience with these folks.

    1. Thanks Paul!
      Indeed, it is difficult to find common ground with Christian in-humanists. 🙂 I am one of those who reads scripture literally. Mea culpa. I’m not sure why you think this means suspending one’s situatedness. Inasmuch as one reads scripture, one reads as a reader, which entails a particular situatedness. No? If I read scripture literally and someone else reads the same scripture literally, we will necessarily differ in our readings by simple virtue of our diverse backgrounds, language, culture, presuppositions, etc., but this does not mean that we are not reading the same scripture literally. The question of authority and heteronomy is definitely at issue, and a good topic for debate, diversity, and disagreement (particularly when one decides upon a canon of scripture). I’ll post on this topic soon and look forward to more of your insights then. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that one should “give up one’s mind to a heteronomous book.” Perish the thought! (Actually, I would have thought this would resonate with your process theology leanings… but I am, perhaps, too influenced by the Catherine Keller version of process theology). I’m not quite sure what your last sentence means… but I’m all ears when it comes to learning to dialogue with “these folks,” as you say. In any event – thank you very much for your response!

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