Seems like once a year or so that I feel drawn to reviewing – and hopefully in some manner clarifying – the tenets of valid cognition. And so it is that I embark once again on this journey …
What Is Valid Cognition?
The phrase “valid cognition” (Sanskrit: pramāṇa) is one that appears largely in Buddhist philosophy – though there are similar explorations within Yoga and Vedanta. The aspects of western philosophy that correspond most closely are epistemology and logic. The basic question is: How do we know what we know; and when is our knowledge “valid” i.e. correct, undistorted, non-deceptive and/or trustworthy?
The Buddhist philosophers most closely associated with questions of valid cognition are Dignāga (c. 480 – c. 540 CE) and Dharmakīrti (c. 6th or 7th century). According to these philosophers, there are two and only two reliable sources of valid cognition: (1) Direct Perception; and (2) Inference. But within these general categories there’s quite a bit of variation — sub-categories and the like — making for some highly technical and detailed analyses. Here we’ll offer a general bare-bones overview of the major categories at play.
Flavors of Direct Perception
Direct perception is non-conceptual knowing that comes in four flavors: (1) Sensory Direct Perception; (2) Mental Direct Perception; (3) Yogic Direct Perception; and (4) Reflexive-Awareness Direct Perception. The former two (sensory and mental) are only conventionally valid, since they depend upon human sensory and cognitive faculties; while the latter two (yogic and reflexive-awareness) are ultimately valid, i.e. are forms of cognition through which one is able to realize (in a way that is “self-evident”) the true nature of phenomena.
Sensory Direct Perception is the first moment of a sight, sound, taste, smell or kinesthetic touch. It’s also sometimes referred to as fresh or innocent or “naked” perception – unclothed by conceptual overlay, i.e. by our thoughts about what we are perceiving.
Mental Direct Perception is the analogue – in the realm of thoughts and internal images – to sensory direct perception. It can be a bit slippery to grok – since it’s proposing an aspect of mental functioning that is non-conceptual. It aligns with the “first thought, best thought” notion – or with intuition appearing as words/images — or what in Taoism is known as wu-nien (non-volitional thinking). It is mental images as they first arise – prior to conceptual elaboration spinning out from those initial images.
Yogic Direct Perception (Sanksrit: Yogipratyaksa) is an unmistaken non-conceptual cognition arising on the basis of shamatha and vipashyana.
In other words, Yogipratyaksa is a form of direct perception rooted in meditative awareness. It can have an apparent object (e.g. in the case of being able to see something which is hidden to normal perception), or no apparent object (e.g. when “seeing” selflessness or impermanence directly, as a fruit of meditative wisdom).
More metaphorically, Yogipratyaksa can be considered as a form of “mystic intuition.” It’s a kind of “apperception” which is free of conceptuality, is apprehended on a level of pure immediacy, and is an absolutely trustworthy (as opposed, for instance, to sensory hallucinations) and reliable cognition.
Reflexive Awareness Direct Perception (Sanskrit: Svasamvedana-pratyaksha) is a mode of perceiving in which the explicit object of the perception is (in alignment with a Dzogchen view) an unconditioned “ultimate, unbounded wholeness.” Such an “ultimate, unbounded wholeness” is not actually an “object” in the usual dualistic sense, but rather is the very nature which IS that reflexive awareness. In other words, the perceiving process, via Svasamvedana-pratyaksha, is utterly nondual; and — rather than being a means for authenticating something else — is instead self-authenticating, i.e. is in-and-of-itself none other than “authenticity.”
Note: This can be contrasted with, but should not be confused with the Cittamatra view’s “open reflexive awareness” — whose object is a conditioned “consciousness.”
Flavors Of Inference
Inference is conceptual: it relies upon linguistic conventions and philosophical, mathematical or logical reasoning. There are two flavors of inference: (1) deductive; and (2) inductive.
Inferences drawn via deductive reasoning are conclusions that are logically necessary, given the assumptions that are accepted as true. The classic example is:
All men are mortal
John is a man
Therefore, John is mortal
The deductive inference/conclusion that “John is mortal” follows necessarily from the given assumption that “All men are mortal” along with the observation that “John is a man.”
Formal geometric proofs are another example of deductive reasoning. A mathematical conclusion follows necessarily from a particular line of mathematical reasoning, presented as the steps in the proof.
Inferences drawn via inductive reasoning are not logically necessary: they’re just hypotheses rendered highly probable based upon previous experience. We observe phenomenal patterns, and from these observations formulate hypotheses. The classic example is:
1,000 times I experience that when smoke appears, there is a nearby fire.
Today I am seeing smoke.
Therefore, it’s likely that there is a fire nearby.
Though inductive reasoning can never, by itself, constitute a formal mathematical proof – it still plays an important role in the overall process of mathematical research. It is via inductive reasoning that a mathematician notices patterns in his or her (sensory and cognitive) environment. They then organize what they have observed into specific mathematical hypotheses; which they then can commence to formally prove via deductive processes.
In relation to nondual spiritual inquiry, we might consider the statement:
“Where there is psychological suffering, there is dualistic ignorance.”
Is this a conclusion arrived at via inductive or deductive reasoning (or both)? Is it most similar to: “If John is a man, then John is mortal” – or to “Where there is smoke, there is fire”? Is it logically necessary, or simply a hypothesis based upon experience?
Now somewhere along the line, another presumably reliable source of valid cognition was added into the mix, which is “scriptural authority” – the spoken or written words of a realized master, i.e. someone whose valid cognition is (presumably) perfect, making their words 100% trustworthy.
This one is quite a bit more controversial than direct perception and inference. And the root of its controversial nature can be clearly seen if we consider the issue in a legal context: In a courtroom, it becomes of paramount importance to discern so-called “expert testimony” from mere “hearsay.” Is the testimony of the witness reliable, or not?
So the basic question is: When, if at all, is it (at least provisionally) skillful to believe in, or have faith in, or assume to be true, or take refuge in, what someone else has said? Making this sort of judgment call is a common aspect of our daily lives. For instance we might ask ourselves:
* Should I trust the words this stranger – teetering curbside with a half-empty bottle of gin in tow — who reports seeing a herd of dangerous-looking pink elephants, just around the corner?
* Should I trust the words of my longtime mechanic — who over the years has proven to be skilled and reliable – when she says that my car needs a new carburetor?
* Should I trust the words of my spiritual friend or guru, when he says that who I am essentially is non-phemomenal, non-conceptual, unbounded luminous emptiness – even though this is not yet my direct experience?
Now of course in daily life we rely, of necessity, upon all variety of experts – since a single human bodymind can’t possibly do and know all there is to do and know. Within the human body, the heart is an expert at pumping blood; the liver is an expert at creating bile; and so forth. And the same is true in a “body politic” – a given community.
In terms of spiritual explorations, what can indeed be skillful is to accept provisionally the words of a spiritual friend – with the intention of verifying what she or he has said via our own direct perception and/or valid reasoning (viz. inference). This is like someone whose eyes have been injured – and so is temporarily blind – relying upon someone with healthy eyes, to navigate – until their own eyes return to health.
So the key point here is to avoid reifying the words – and rather use them as the proverbial “finger pointing to the moon” of our own direct perception and understanding.
- Direct Perception is a reliable non-conceptual source of valid cognition.
- Inference is a reliable conceptual source of valid cognition.
- Scriptural Authority is a faith-based and potentially skillful (provisional) support for giving rise to Direct Perception and/or Inference.
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