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Valid Sources of Knowledge

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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 sensessight, 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 pramāṇascripture – 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?