In a previous post—Mercury Rising—we considered various measuring devices—used by scientists to record information about large, medium-sized and very small phenomena. One device briefly considered was the human body-mind itself.
Now, let’s continue our exploration by taking a closer look at the human body-mind as a measuring apparatus. In particular, let’s address the question: what counts as authentic or reliable perception/cognition?
Health & Fitness of the Sensory Organs
When the human body-mind is the measuring apparatus that is under consideration, its reliability is evaluated, first of all, via the health and fitness of its sensory organs.
We ask: are this body’s eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin functioning within acceptable parameters?
Through the eyes of someone with jaundice, all visual phenomena will appear with a yellow tint. Through the eyes of someone who is colorblind, green and blue phenomena will appear identical. In each of these cases it would be fair to say that the visual recording device is unreliable.
And the same goes for the ears, nose, tongue and skin:
- Through the ears of someone with serious tinnitus, all sounds are mixed with a buzzing undertone.
- Through the nose and tongue of someone suffering from covid-19, all food may taste the same.
- Through the hands of someone who has serious scarring or nerve damage, a prickly cactus may be felt as smooth.
In each of these cases, the sensory recording device in question is unreliable.
So, for a human body-mind to be a reliable measuring device, it needs to have well-functioning sensory organs.
Tenets of Valid Cognition
Given functioning sensory organs, the reliability of a human body-mind as a measuring device is evaluated, next, via what are known as the “tenets of valid cognition.”
What counts as valid cognition are sensory/cognitive processes that facilitate reliable measurement of phenomena, or accurate assessment of the truth-value of statements.
What are the means by which reliable data is collected/measured via a human body-mind? Generally speaking, there are three categories of such valid cognition:
- Direct perception
- Expert testimony
Let’s now consider each of these, in turn …
Direct perception is pretty much what it sounds like: perception that is (at least relatively) direct, unmediated, undistorted. Buddhist philosophers have identified four subcategories of direct perception:
1. Sensory direct perception.
The first moment of sensory perception—viz. seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching—is direct in the sense of being wholly non-conceptual.
Shapes, colors, sounds, tastes, smells and tactile sensations appear as such—prior to any conceptual overlay, e.g. the mind assigning a name and then inserting the named object into a narrative.
Before the mind names a pine tree as a pine tree, there’s just the appearance of color, shape and movement. This kind of naked perceiving of sensory phenomena, absent of mental overlay, is known as sensory direct perception.
2. Mental direct perception.
This form of direct perception can be a bit tricky to comprehend—particularly given the description of sensory direct perception, which requires the absence of mental overlay.
That said, the basic idea here is something akin to “first thought, best thought.” A mental event—i.e. the appearance of thought—is considered direct in its first moment, prior to extended mental elaboration upon that first thought.
It’s like the arising of an insight, an intuition—a flash of clarity expressed via thought. In its first moment, this counts as mental direct perception.
3. Yogic direct perception.
There’s a big difference between the Hubble Space Telescope and, say, the amateur telescope your uncle mounts on his rooftop twice a year to do some recreational stargazing.
In similar fashion, it’s possible to amplify the power of human sensory capacities—either through intentional cultivation or via some special “gift” we’re born with. The result is so-called extrasensory perception in all of its varieties: clairvoyance, telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, etc.
While some spiritual teachers consider such siddhis as no more than a distraction, others find value in such extrasensory capacities. In either case, Buddhist philosophers consider the information thus gleaned to be a form of direct perception: a reliable measurement.
4. Self-reflexive direct perception.
Unlike the other types of direct perception—which involve a relative subject interacting with a relative (gross or subtle) object—self-reflexive direct perception is wholly nondual. It is pure Awareness cognizing its unbounded Wholeness.
This is a form of knowing—and the only form of knowing—that is entirely self-evident; that comes with absolute certainty. This is the nondual recognition of our True Self.
Direct perception, in any or all of its forms, is considered the most reliable (and hence “valid”) way of knowing/recording/measuring things. But this doesn’t mean that it’s the only valid way of cognizing. Another valid mode of cognition is inference.
Inference involves a skillful use of our rational faculties. Arguments based upon inference come in two basic flavors: deductive and inductive.
In a deductive argument, a conclusion follows necessarily from its premises—assuming those premises are true. The classic example is:
Premise #1: All men are mortal.
Premise #2: Jonathan is a man.
Conclusion: Therefore, Jonathan is mortal.
If we assume the premises to be true, then the conclusion follows necessarily. This is an example of deductive reasoning.
It’s worth pointing out that deductive reasoning can be valid without producing a true conclusion. This happens when one of the premises is false. So, for instance:
Premise #1: All men have neon-green skin.
Premise #2: Jonathan is a man.
Conclusion: Therefore, Jonathan has neon-green skin.
Since premise #1 is false, the conclusion that emerged—from a valid reasoning process—may well be false.
In an inductive argument, prior experience (held in memory) that correlates two or more phenomena is relied upon to draw a conclusion. The classic example is:
Prior experience tells me: Where there is smoke, there is fire.
My current experience tells me: There is now smoke.
Conclusion: Therefore, there must be fire (even though I’m not seeing it directly, right now).
So far, we’ve discussed (1) direct perception and (2) inference as valid ways of knowing: of employing a human body-mind as a reliable measuring apparatus. There’s a third category—expert testimony—that’s a bit more controversial, and often considered to be less reliable than direct perception or inference.
As its name implies, expert testimony means relying upon the testimony of someone we consider to be an expert, for information about a particular phenomenon. Instead of directly perceiving or inferring something myself, I ask someone else about it. In doing so, I trust that this person (my “expert”) has themselves either directly perceived or inferred the thing under question.
* Trusting what our parents or teachers tell us is one example of relying upon expert testimony.
* Other examples of expert testimony include trusting the diagnosis of our surgeon or the recommendation of our car mechanic.
* Trusting the legal testimony of an “expert witness” in a trial is another example.
* Relying upon so-called scriptural authority—i.e. what is written in a text that I consider sacred—is another example.
* Another example of expert testimony is garden-variety hearsay: of hearing something in the rumor-mill—or on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, and assuming it to be true. When I assign reliability to something someone else has said—without having any direct experience of the thing/event, or without having employed my own reason via inference—I am granting the status of “expert testimony” to those words.
Obviously, there’s a huge range in the actual reliability of the experts that we presume to be reliable. For instance:
We presume our parents to be experts, because that’s what kids generally do—though their actual degree of reliability is less certain.
Someone who is called as an expert witness in a trial will—at least one hopes—have professional experience which justifies their court-assigned expert status.
Our trust in our surgeon or car mechanic may initially have arisen via hearsay (i.e. the recommendation of a friend)—though over time may become rooted in our own direct experience and valid processes of inference.
Generally, the most skillful way of utilizing expert testimony is in the mode of a scientist examining a specific hypothesis. We trust provisionally—pending our own direct experience and/or rational use of inference to experimentally verify the hypothesis.
Among the types of valid cognition that we’ve explored, most refer to and depend upon the human body-mind as a measuring apparatus. And a body-mind can be a more or less reliable vehicle of valid cognition, a more or less fit measurement apparatus.
But only one type of valid cognition refers specifically to a way of knowing that transcends the human body-mind—and this is self-reflexive direct perception.
Only pure Awareness knows itself non-dualistically, self-reflexively, in a way that is 100% reliable: that carries incontestable certainty, effortless confidence, absolute self-evidence.
Now, perhaps the knowing quality itself—of direct perception and inference—also belongs only to pure Awareness, even if the phenomenal content of those processes lacks perfect reliability.
Which will be the topic of our next installment ….