What is Truth and Knowledge: Part 1
What is Knowledge? What is Truth?
What can we know for certain, and what can we know only with a probability? What is the difference between an opinion, and knowing, or between a belief and a fact? These questions are important not just in the understanding of non-duality (which is usually taken to be a "spiritual" understanding), but also in the fields of science, technology, policy-making, political and other forms of discourse, and in public and private discussions and debates about and around the world.
What is being examined here in these writings is an experientially-based philosophy, an empirical reckoning from the "subjective" and direct, and informed and confirmed by the perennial pointing and discriminations of wisdom traditions. It has implications for all fields of knowledge, including Western philosophy, science, psychology, etc., as well as in how we live, the art of living, in daily life.
This was spurred in part by the claim that there is no such thing as absolute truth, or that it's not kosher to claim that, and it's all relative, or "all Thought" (in the spiritual psychology field, such as the Three Principles), or all a story or "narrative". People will say that no one's view is any better or more true in a sense than any other (except the one who is claiming that!). Sometimes this is directly stated from those on a progressive path, or from a misinterpretation of Buddhist teachings (a topic worth discussing on its own), or in the culture at large.
Similarly, there is the claim that "it's all included", meaning the body and the mind and ego are not of less value or reality than Awareness (Consciousness/Being) because it's "all one". This I hear from the "embodied spirituality" advocates who are on a perpetual self-help merry-go-round. The mistake with this view is that, while it's true everything is within the One, this does not mean everything is true, or that ignorance cannot be distinguished from knowledge, or that nothing is absolute or universal.
Indeed, one becomes become humble before the reality of how hard it is to attain knowledge, especially relative knowledge, such as scientific truth, and finding facts in the world. Or, we become humble before the difficulty of seeing past our apparent personal flaws, to the impersonal awesome love and intelligence of our true nature. What is arrogant to say "it's all true" and "all relative", and people-derived, or just a narrative or story.
The mistake can be revealed more if one considers that in order to make a claim that all knowledge or truth is relative, it calls into question how one can make such an absolutist claim: how does one know? And as a matter of logic, it is akin to saying "this statement is false", or "everything I say is a lie", which is a contradictory conundrum indeed. (It is classically known as "The Liars Paradox")
And, just as fundamentally, how is it even possible that we can communicate meaning with each other, or understand meaning? This is a very key question. There must be a common reality underlying such a situation, for otherwise, we would be all trapped in separate realities, like minds with no possibility of a common understanding, no possibility for love, connecting, knowing the other understands, or for experiencing a shared world.
"To those awake the world-order is one, common to all; but the sleeping turn aside each into a world of his own.
We ought not to act and speak like men asleep.
We ought to follow what is common to all; but though the logos is common to all, the many live as though their thought were private to themselves. "
—Heraclitus (500 B.C)
It is also arrogant and a big mistake to take refuge in Pure Consciousness as an idea, without realizing its attributes. Without attributes, how can it be known or used, as a human? It would be completely beyond experience. And in terms of knowledge, how the hell can you know something if you can't have an experience of it? And by "experience" here I mean to include specifically what are normally called "subjective" experiences, such as of love, intelligence, beauty... what Spinoza called "attributes" of Being or God or the One (consciousness). And again, in practical terms, we could not live this understanding out in our lives unless it had attributes, such as for example, the attributes of happiness and love.
What is important to see about these attributes is that they cannot be separated from Consciousness, nor can Consciousness be separated from them. For example, a real love that is not just a passing fancy, a mirage of emotion and thinking, or an attachment, but is universal and always there, always potentially available under or behind the veil of appearances, not shrouded by thoughts and feelings, or a sense of separation... this "solid" love we can call an attribute, and not just a passing show. An attribute is not a mode or a state or a mental-based illusion, but reflects quality of the Real. Likewise real intelligence is not a phenomenon from the brain or from a mechanism, such as a computer or a process, but rather is instantaneous, timeless in origin, and infinite in potential. (I know this is controversial, but it is how I see it).
You can see how these terms, what we are calling attributes (after Spinoza) are potentially interchangeable: consciousness, being, awareness, intelligence, love, beauty truth... you cannot have one without the other.
That which we call a "state" or "mode" of consciousness is in the "realm" of the passing, the phenomenal, the relative. Examples would be a state of anger, or the mode of seeing a tree, or a state of bliss from meditation that soon passes.
As a way of seeing it, one could call these attributes of Consciousness "bridges" between the absolute and the relative. This is one of the problems with some of the formulations of non-duality, such as what have come to be known as "Neo-Advaita". They claim there is no bridge, and This is all, and already complete – not being clear what they mean by "This" (other than to say "It's all happening" and it's "both unreal and real") – in effect a stillborn realization, cutting short all enquiry and reasoned introspection, collapsing all discrimination in a dead end, a thin veneer of non-duality. Easy and fun and friendly and open is fine, but let's go a little deeper...
By "attributes" of (universal) consciousness I am not referring to what Spinoza called "modes" or what are commonly called "states". These are the effects, or after-effects as it were, of an experience of X (fill in the blank with your favorite term: Consciousness, being, God, Allah, Brahman, the One, the Logos, Real Intelligence...) – and are felt or perceived in the senses or mind and body, and include such things as the pleasure of the joy of love, of understanding, of seeing beauty, or of the delicious states of the body and mind that meditation can bring about.
An idea of Pure Consciousness, or Being, or God, or Self, or Brahman whatever word and concept you want to use) as ultimate reality — as a completely unknowable (full stop) foundation of reality — is purely an abstraction. This kind of Pure Consciousness, as having no attributes, and completely unknowable (as a living human, in effect), as claimed by some Advaita vedanta teachers and students, is stupid and dangerous. It is the cornerstone of a fundamentalism. It is also what is called a non-disprovable proposition, like claiming I have an invisible man named Yahudie in my pocket. Can you disprove it? If you can't disprove it, it is true: that is the fallacious logic of a true believer, be it a religious, political, or other kind of true believer. They hold to ideas as security blankets, ideas for which there is no evidence and no logic, either material or spiritual.
It is a mistake to not make some of these critical distinctions, and this lack of clarity in making distinctions has consequences in one's understanding and experience. If one is coming from an intellectual, mind or belief-based stance, and one has not seen this discrimination or had a glimpse of pure knowing, pure awareness, Reality, then mind will not be discriminated from consciousness. This is the common view in the culture: that consciousness is mind-like, and of a lesser reality or less important than mind and matter.
The following was a crude, initial attempt to make something like a "A chart of discrimination" (viveka). These distinctions are often made by those in the non-dual understanding, and the Advaita Vedanta tradition, and teachers of the direct path teaching. Keep in mind they represent the distinctions that are a way of talking about truth and knowledge, as a path to understanding, but may not represent reality, nature in itself.
(Note: Just because something is in the same column doesn't mean it equates with it. For example, "science" and "ignorance" are in the same column, but it would be specious to say "science is ignorance". Ignorance in a spiritual teaching context has to do with the source of suffering, which lies within the inner belief or feeling to be separate. So it all hinges on the context of the word used, and the field of its application. In any case, these are just general ideas, examples of "discriminations" that help a student or seeker see the whole situation more clearly.)
|Absolute||Relative||[Type of Knowledge]|
|Certain, 100%||Never Absolutely Certain, Always < 100%, Probabilities||[Epistemological Status]|
|Real, Primary, Fundamental||Unreal or less Real, Secondary, Derivative||[Ontological Status]|
|Noemena||Phenomena||[ Realm Name (Ontology)]|
|Eternal, Timeless, Static||Temporal, Changing||[Status]|
|Wisdom Philosophies (traditional)||Science||[Pointers in the Social Domain, Epistemic Activity]|
|Self||"Ego", False, Illusory, small self, sense of separation||[Identity token]|
|Direct, unmediated||Indirect, mediated||[Epistemological Method, how known]|
|Immediate, Instantaneous||Time, Process Based||[Method, how known]|
|Continuous, Unbroken||Intermittent, Discrete, Quantum jumps|
|Whole, Complete||Partial, incomplete|
|One, Singular||Many / Diverse|
|Universal||Particular, local, dependent|
|Wisdom||Ignorance (in Sanskrit sense of Avidyā)||[Fruits when Identified]|
|God||Human||[Theistic, dualistic view]|
|Spiritual||Material / Worldly||[Theistic, dualistic view]|
|Nonhuman, Impersonal||Human, Personal|
|Fact||Belief, Concept, Imagination, Theory|
|Essence /Being||(Material) Existence (seeming)|
|Invisible, Unmanifest||Visible, Manifest, Appearance||[Mode]|
|Intelligence||Cleverness, computability, process thinking|
|Natural, Fresh||Mind-made, derivative, repeated|
"Speaking and thinking necessarily arise from being, because being is. And nonbeing is not. I invite you to reflect deeply on this point,
And to move away, in your search, from that other path
As from the one traveled by those ignorant mortals
Who are the men of two minds: the uncertainty which resides in their hearts Misleads their wavering reason. They are swept along,
Deaf and blind, benighted, the masses without discernment
Who pretend that being and nonbeing are simultaneously identical
And different, they for whom, for any statement, the opposite is equally true.
No power will ever bring nonbeing into existence.
So direct your thinking away from this path of exploration.
May habit, so often resumed, not force you to return to it,
With eyes blinded, ears filled with noise
And mouth with words, and may your intelligence alone resolve this contentious issue."
—Parmenides (475 BC)