5. Epistemology (iii) How Do We Know What We Know?

The critical role that epistemology plays in correctly understanding Buddhism cannot be overemphasized. In my opinion, only when one understands Buddha’s unique teaching on epistemology can one comprehend why Buddhism is uniquely different from all the other teachings in the world and why Buddha can realize the Ultimate Reality of the cosmos that the three major disciplines, religion, philosophy, and science, cannot.     

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.”

This post focuses on how knowledge’s nature, origin, and scope affect justification, the rationality of belief, and related issues. Obviously, the acknowledged need to study these relationships underlines the fact that the current nature, origin, and scope of human knowledge are insufficient for a full understanding of epistemic justification, rationality of belief, and various related issues.

So, in this Epistemology Category, we explore why that is the case and what solutions Buddha provides to resolve the dilemma.

We start with a fascinating discussion between Dr. Menachem Fisch, an internationally prominent historian and philosopher of science, and the host of Closer to Truth, Dr. 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.

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 experience, all 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 stand in themselves?”

“God knows,” was the reply.

In Dr. Fisch’s opinion, with inferentially connected vocabulary functioning only to “render explicit” concepts that are “fashioned and conceptualized 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. Furthermore, the best inferentially connected vocabulary can do is to allow us to “get it right according to our standards, no other standards.“. While inferentially connected words enable humans to “know pretty much about the self we experience, the world we experience, the world we find ourselves living in,” they cannot help humans understand “know things stand in themselves.” Furthermore, Dr. Fisch suggests that the knowledge of understanding how things stand in themselves must be left to God.

Of course, Buddha offers to differ. Not only are there no Gods in the Western religious sense in Buddhism, but knowing “how things stand in themselves” does not require supreme beings either. It is something that all humans are equipped to understand.

In Buddha’s opinion, the mystery of “how things stand in themselves” is the mystery of the nature of reality in which humanity has lived. What humanity has wanted to understand but has never been able to are answers to questions such as “What is reality?” and “What are we made of?”

That fact is that Buddha has provided the answers to these questions since his enlightenment sitting under the Bodhi Tree. Understanding how Buddha realized that feat, why humanity has failed to understand for 2600+ years since Buddha’s enlightenment, and why the answers to these two questions continue to elude science even with the advent of Einstein’s Theory of Relativities and quantum mechanics requires understanding Buddha’s unique epistemology. The uniqueness of Buddhism is rooted in Buddha’s unique epistemology and Buddha’s offering of two means of knowledge to understand both “the world we experience” and “how things stand in themselves”  in nature.

However, before we discuss the two means of knowledge, we first discuss the Kalama Sutta in the next post, in which Buddha offers his opinion on the usefulness of inferentially connected words in pursuing the unchanging Ultimate Truth.    

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