21. Epistemology (i) Inferentially Connected Words

In this post, we start discussing epistemology, a topic fundamental to understanding why Buddhism is unique and why Buddha can teach the Ultimate Reality of the cosmos and the mental nature of phenomenal reality that no other “-isms” offer.    

According to this article, epistemology (Chinese=認識論), also known as the theory of knowledge, “is the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge. Epistemology is considered a major subfield of philosophy, along with other subfields such as ethic, logic, and metaphysics. Epistemologists study the nature, origin, and scope of knowledge, epistemic justification, the rationality of belief, and various related issues.”

From this definition, we can understand that the human understanding of epistemology focuses on “knowledge.” Here, knowledge inevitably means word-based knowledge with information passed from one to another through texts or verbally.

But what if word-based knowledge is insufficient to understand all the realities humans face? What if humans live in a universe with two realities, and one of them cannot be understood through word-based knowledge? In that case, are humans forever destined to have only a partial understanding of the realities they live in? 

This is the dilemma that humans face without most people knowing it. Buddha teaches that we live in two realities: the visible and the invisible. Almost all people consider the visible reality, i.e., the phenomenal world, real. Buddha says otherwise. Instead, he teaches that the invisible reality is the real of the two. Why word-based knowledge is insufficient to learn the invisible reality and how humans can understand both realities are indeed the focus of our discussion on epistemology. 

We start with a fascinating discussion between Dr. Menachem Fisch, an internationally prominent historian and philosopher of science, and the host of Closer to TruthDr. Robert L Kuhn, as a modern-day reference to Buddha’s teaching from thousands of years ago. 

“How do we know what we know?” is the question Dr. Robert L. Kuhn asked his guest to start the conversation. As the question makes plain, “how we know what we know” explores the “nature, origin, and scope of knowledge,” leading to the role knowledge plays in “epistemic justification, the rationality of belief, and various related issues.” 

Dr. Fisch started by stating that, according to latter-day philosophy, “we do not know by our eyes or by our ears, but by means of the words we speak.” Furthermore, Dr. Fisch went on, “the old idea of empiricism carries with it an unfounded assumption that the world talks to us. That the stimuli of our nerve endings carry content,” which he “firmly disbelieve.” 

Instead, Dr. Fisch suggested that “we are stimulated by the world,” and while “the world impacts on us in a causal manner through all our sensors, but the content imparted on those stimuli is the reading-in of the mind. It’s imparted by the mind.” 

Dr. Fisch continued, “How we know is by means of their conceptualization.” “Sitting in the command room of our minds with the inner-eyes and looking out, … we don’t look out the windows of our eyes; everything happens within the head,… so sitting back on that armchair in the command console, and seeing on the screen the world that we experienceall that data has already been fashioned and conceptualized by our minds in ways that we do not govern.” “This is sensing.”

Knowing,” Dr. Fisch continued, “is to render explicit those conceptualizations. In other words, to take stock explicitly, um, that’s a horse, ah, I am talking to an interviewer, and so on and so forth.” “What we can know, not what we can feel, is the function of the language of conceptual schemes, the concepts by which we conceptualize.” 

Additionally, Dr. Fisch suggested, “if you look into the dictionary, words are explained by other words. The conceptual scheme, the vocabulary at our disposal, by which we experience and by which we know, is inferentially connected.” “In other words, if this point is north of that, then that point is south of that. That is about the meaning of the words. This isn’t an empirical fact. This is about how these concepts relate to each other. The limits of what we can know, the limits of our world, is the limits of our language!”  

“The intriguing thing about bringing language into epistemology is that you can only know something new by using old words. If you invent a new term, it’s just a tag, not a concept.” “Like every person in this studio, you are unique. But the only way I can account for your uniqueness is by means of a set of concepts by which you are likened to others.” 

“We know by means of using a concept.” Using a concept is to liken what we see to something else. So, concepts are little metaphors, a little class names.” 

Dr. Kuhn immediately recognized the immensity of Dr. Fisch’s words as he questioned, “What prevents you from cascading into skepticism where we can’t know anything? Everything is related to something else. I have no foundation between what I believe and what the world really is. So, how do I know anything?”

Before answering that question, Dr. Fisch wanted to clarify it by differentiating two completely different ways of understanding “know.” “Define know,” as he continued, “What you are saying now is that we should be skeptical about knowing for sure, about how things stand in themselves, not how things are experienced by us.”   

“How things are experienced by us,” Dr. Fisch expounded, “is already language informed, or concept informed.” “We know pretty much about the self we experience, the world we experience, the world we find ourselves living in.” “We got it right. We got it right according to our standards, no other standards.”

“Do we know things in themselves?”

“God knows,” was the reply. 

In Dr. Fisch’s opinion, with only inferentially connected vocabulary available to “render explicit” concepts that occur in “our minds in ways that we do not govern,” humans are seemingly cursed only to experience the world that is created in their minds in the first place. While inferentially connected words allow humans to “know pretty much about the self we experience, the world we experience, the world we find ourselves living in,” they cannot help understand how things stand in themselves. Furthermore, Dr. Fisch suggests understanding how things stand in themselves must be left to God. 

Of course, Buddha offers to differ.  

As discussed when discussing Citta, Citta is the Ultimate Reality and the “thing in itself” in the cosmos.  

As Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant defined, the “thing-in-itself” is “the status of objects as they are, independent of representation and observation.” 

Citta fits all the criteria. The status of Citta is as mentality is. Being an inconceivable reality that cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched, Citta is independent of representation and observation. 

The uniqueness of Buddhist epistemology is that Buddha teaches two means of knowledge to understand both “the world we experience” and “the thing-in-itself.”  

In the next post, we shall start the Buddhist epistemology by discussing Kalama Sutta, in which Buddha offers his opinion on the usefulness of inferentially connected words in pursuing the Truth.