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Some epistemological speculations

Author's note (21 Dec 09) This page was originally written as part of - and has been relocated from - my "Integral Paradigm" series (original url). I no longer believe in a single "Integral theory" a la Wilber; indeed, all such intellectual attempts are doomed to failure. However, these comments can still be useful within the context of a metaphysical philosophy, provided it is acknowledged that they are limited to the pre-Realisation stage of understanding.

The epistemology presented here is very simple, and universal to almost all insight-based spiritual traditions. Knowledge is three-fold; it consists of correct (on a relative level) knowledge, incorrect knowledge (again, relative), and Absolute "knowledge"

Before we we can know anything, we have to know how we know. Hence Epistemology; the study or science of knowledge. Where to begin? How about an appeal to authority, by considering the most respected and/or reliable sources?

Valid or Reliable Knowledge

Knowledge is cumulative. It is simply not possible to create a complete worldview from scratch, without any predecessors on whose shoulders one can stand (although my old lecturer Moshe Kroy tried, using his own brand of radical cartesian-advaitin phenomenology, some of which I have built upon). But one is confronted with the question of which sources and references and authorities are reliable and can be used - their conclusions serving as the foundation for one's own - and which one should steer clear of.

In other words, every Provisional Metaphysical Theory of Everything needs an epistemology - it needs to determine what knowledge is reliable and authentic. What is truth, what is falsehood, what is reality, what is illusion?

What follows is my own list of kosher sources of knowledge. Of course, this is just my own opinion; to be used for the Provisional Metaphysical Theory of Everything which I have proposed here. You might mildly or strongly disagree, and come up with a completely different list. And there is no reason why my list should be any better or worse than yours, and vice versa. So, in writing this, I am not intending to preach or persuade, just following what to my own reason, feelings, and gnosis is felt to be true.

The following, then, can be considered Reliable Knowledge:

The Three Truths

In arriving at an understanding of reality, we can leave out belief-systems based on denial of datums of experience. For example Scientism, Naive Naturalism and reductionism denies phenomenological facts of psychic and paranormal experiences, Creationism and Fundamentalism denies empirical facts in the fossil record, radiometric evidence of ancient Earth, etc; both deny mystical and pantheistic experiences. We can also leave out belief systems that are patently absurd - e.g. literal Judeo-Christianity says a supernatural God made Adam out of clay, and Eve out of his rib - or contain serious inconsistencies or historical biases. Some good candidates then are Western wisdom, embodied by Plato (respected as the main source of Western philosophy and even theology (via Augustine etc)), Eastern wisdom, represented by Nagarjuna, Shankara, etc (based on mystical experience rather than on religious dogma), and modern secular wisdom of Science (which has revealed amazing things about how the universe works; in a manner that none of the other systems of knowledge were able to do; hence it deserves our respect). What do each of these authorities say about knowledge? We find that according to Platonism there are four types of knowledge, which from the least to the most reliable is: aesthesis (sense-knowledge), doxa (opinion), episteme (knowledge based on reason), and gnosis (spiritual knowledge) Obviously, Plato and his successors weren't impressed with evidence of the senses. If we look at Eastern philosophy we find either the trilogy (again from least to the most reliable) of Illusion (Parikalpita or Pratibhasika), Empirical (Paratantra or Vyavaharika; this would be Plato's aesthesis and episteme perhaps), and Absolute (Paramartha or Paramarthika, which would seem equivalent to Plato's Gnosis), or at the very least the duality of Realative (Samvriti) and Absolute (Paramarthika). Finally, Western Science considers only observation from the senses and from instruments etc, which are confirmed or falsified through successive observation and/or experiment. Science in itself neither supports or denies metaphysics.

This gives us:

  Platonism Eastern Philosophy Science Experience Explanation
Absolute Knowledge Gnosis Paramarthika n/a Enlightenment experiences and existence as Absolute Reality "Finger pointing at the moon"
Valid but Relative (Empirical) Knowledge Episteme / Reason Paratantra or Vyavaharika Current Scientific Knowledge various physical, psychic, and/or spiritual experiences verified knowledge
Illusory Knowledge Opinion

Parikalpita or Pratibhasika Falsified theories n/a* arbitrary knowledge

* according to the strict phenomenological premises adopted by Moshe Kroy, every experience is valid. However one could say that the interpretation of that experience may be correct or incorrect.

Although the above is presented in a hierarchy (and is used as a starting point for the "Epistemic dimension" on the mapping of consciousness), one could equally say that all forms of knowledge tell us something about reality, even if it is only about relative reality, or, even more limited, about an incorrect understanding of relative reality. We will return to the subject of hierarchy (a dirty word in post-modernism and "politically correct" thinking, although Ken Wilber (Link to Amazon com Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, pp.x-xi) provides a good argument in favour of some sort of hierarchical framework)

Obviously, one can postulate many more than just three levels, in fact one could even say that every metaphysical reality (see following section) has its own form of knowledge that corresponds to it. But to keep things simple we'll keep it at just three. So, it is suggested here that every datum of experience is valid, but an explanation or belief system that is derived first or second or third or tenth hand from such datums, is either (a) illusory, (b) relative but valid, (c) points to the Absolute (the Absolute itself cannot be conveyed in conceptual terms), or (d) a combination of two or all three of the preceeding

What does it mean to say that every datum of experience is valid, but the explanation may or may not be? Ok, take external link Near Death Experience (NDE). According to one physicalist theory, this is a hallucination. The reasoning goes:

(a) when the brain is starved of oxygen it hallucinates.
(b) when heartbeat, breathing etc stop the brain is starved of oxygen
(c) therefore NDEs (which occur during outward cessation of vital signs) are hallucinations.

Not only is this theory bad logic (along the line of assuming that because A is an attribute of x and B is an attribute of x, therefore A must always equal B), but it is falsified by the fact that OBEs (external link Out of Body Experience) are very similar to NDEs, but these are not triggered by cessation of oxygen supply to the brain. If we look more clearly at the above theory we see it is inspired by a preconceived bias or explanation, which is physicalism. The scientist or neurologist begins as a physicalist, and that prejudices everything (they also have the added hassle of trying to explain or explain away OBEs). So the NDE experience itself (as reported by survivors), is a valid experience. But the explanation may not be.

The above is an example where there is a clear dichotomy between experienceand explanation. But much more often there is cross contamination between the two (point (2) of the Basic Premises). e.g. When the born-again person claims to have experienced Jesus, it (the explanation) isn't necessarily Jesus, even though the experience itself is valid. But the experience is itself coloured by a prior expectations and prejudices (e.g. reading the bible, talking to other evangelicals), which then (via the subconscious, or even the conscious) appear in the experience. This is then taken as "proof" that the experience is valid, the result being a feedback loop. And of course the fact that a Hindu will see Krishna and not Jesus falsifies the experience, but this is conveniently ignored by evangelicals themselves, as it would falsify their entire belief system.

In short, the one rule here should be: include every experience. Even if the experience is a subjective "hallucination" , it still needs to be explained. That is also why those teachings and worldviews that are based on negation - e.g. fundamentalist religionism rejects evolution and process, sceptical physicalism rejects psychic experiences - cannot be used as guides, the way that more embracing theories and explanations can. If there are facts that don't fit one's theory, it is necessary to expand and develop the theory so that they do, not misinterpret and distort or ignore the facts!.

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page by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 28 July 2005 (as part of A New Integral Paradigm thesis), relocated 21 December 2009