Essays in Life and Eternity
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 7: The Epistemological Predicament

Now comes the great question of the individual perception of the world outside, its judgments, epistemological, ethical as well as aesthetic – we may add here even the aspiration for the religious. How does man know that there is a world at all? Sense-perception is regarded as the main means of a knowledge of the world. This is usually known as right perception, that is to say, a factual correspondence being there between the consciousness of there being something outside and the actual reality and structure of the thing perceived. If knowledge of a thing does not correspond to the nature of the thing concerned, that would not be right knowledge. When perception apprehends an object in a manner disharmonious with the actual nature of the object, that knowledge would be the result of a wrong perception. This is the well-known correspondence theory of knowledge.

But how can one be sure that perception compares favourably with the nature of the object of perception? Who can know the real nature of the object except as presented to the sense-organs and the mind? Where, then, comes the question of the real nature of the object, if, for all the knowledge obtained by perception, there can be nothing real except what is presented through perception? Some thinkers have held that there is a thing-in-itself apart from the thing as perceived. The perceived world is a phenomenon, because it need not always be the thing that it is, while the thing-in-itself, the thing as it is in itself, is the realm of the noumenon, that the world of reality. But the question is, again: how does one know that there is a world of the thing in-itself, if there is no means of perceiving it, all perception being limited to phenomena? Unless the perception of the world also involves within itself, simultaneously, a consciousness that all perception is just phenomenal, there would be no way of positing the presence of a world of reality outside phenomena. Are we unconsciously attributing to knowledge obtained through perception a consciousness of its own relativity and phenomenality? How could a phenomenon know that it is a phenomenon? Change itself cannot know change, process cannot know process, and movement cannot know movement, unless such an assumed knowledge is a characteristic of something which is not itself a part of the process of perception. But, how would such a thing be possible? Evidently, here lies a subtle secret, that at the very back and as the very foundation of all process of perception there is a thing-in-itself – the world of reality hidden beneath the very fact of individuality. They call it the Atman, the true selfhood of the individual.

Knowledge is not always derived through sense-perception alone in the manner of a correspondence between the perception and the object. There has to be a sort of coherence of the different particulars connected with the knowledge process, and utility is not always the test of right knowledge. Pragmatism is not a workable doctrine in realms of human aspiration and philosophical deduction, which may not see the utilitarian theory as fitting well with the immutability characteristic of right knowledge. Utility does not bring out well the organic structure of knowledge, which is not just a linear relationship temporarily obtaining as an external relation between the subject and the object. Knowledge rises as a whole, as an inclusiveness, and not as a spatio-temporal 'otherness' of the object in its relation to the subject of perception. If the object is a reality alien to the subjective consciousness, there would be no knowledge of the object in an integral fashion. Knowledge and its object cannot be dovetailed as two different things in an artificial way. There has to be a vital unity between the two, so that the object may become the real content of knowledge; else it would remain outside of knowledge as a disconnected reality, spatially and temporally sundered from the organism which is actually the essential constitution of the consciousness that endeavours to know the object. This defect of 'externality', vitiating the relationship between the subject and the object, is unavoidable either in the Pragmatic theory of knowledge or the correspondence theory of knowledge. The coherence theory alone satisfactorily accounts for a meaningful knowledge of there being such a thing as an object; here coherence meaning the very process of knowledge of the object constituting a living organism absorbing within itself the nature of the object, the process of knowing and the object itself. There is, then, a transcendent element in a correct perception of the object, a significance that we have noticed earlier in a previous analysis.

The other way in which one gains knowledge in this world is through inference from given premises. For instance, we might infer that there must have been rains uphill, when we see muddy water in the flowing river. We infer the presence of fire if we see smoke rising up somewhere. We infer that some changeless existence has to be accepted as accounting for the very knowledge we have of the transitoriness of things, the fluctuations of the historical process, and the instability involved in the movement of all life. This is another way, through logical induction and deduction, of knowing that something has to be there even if it is not visible to the senses of direct perception. Mostly, logical knowledge of every kind, and even far-reaching conclusions in the field of physical science, would amount to inferences that follow automatically as a veritable certainty reasoned out through the examination of prevalent conditions which are a certainty to all possible observation. Rational philosophy, metaphysical affirmations, and the like, are the work of the pure reason which deduces by sequential arguments the presence of things and orders of life which range beyond human perception.

The third way of valid knowledge is scriptural testimony, which is considered as a reliable record left by masters and sages and prophets who are known to have delved into the realms of reality, of heaven, hell, and even God Himself. There is the scriptural authority claiming to confirm the longings of the pure reason that such things are really there, and the regard and respect with which people rely on the word of the scripture are too well-known to require any description. The assertions of people with knowledge obtained through a direct realisation of truth are considered as reliable sources of knowledge, call them verbal knowledge, or scriptural knowledge, or knowledge come through authority.

The above are mainly the state in which human knowledge finds itself in its epistemological predicament, a way of knowing things on account of a dissociation of the individual from the organic structure of the universe and the world of perception being considered as something 'out there'. The wrong assumption of an externality associated with the world of perception reduces all possibility of epistemological knowledge to being reliable only to that extent, as a feeble indication and suggestion, and not as direct knowledge of the realities of life.