Perception, inference and testimony

जो मैं कल था

क्या वोह आज भी हूँ?

और जो मैं आज हूँ

क्या कल भी रहूँगा ?

What I was yesterday

Am I that today?

And what I am today?

Will I be tomorrow?

Is there an underlying, intrinsic self to us or are we just a form of energy constantly making and unmaking ourselves in relation to the universal flux? That is the question in my mind this morning. It is reasonably obvious that at some level I am today what I was yesterday. But is that my core unchanging intrinsic self? I don’t know. I don’t.

It is amazing how reading scholarly western literature about ancient Indian scholars invariably sets me sail on a weird journey through a river of perceptions. Like I often do on a whim, I again went back to reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP). This morning the random choice was Bhratruhari whose Google search led me to this particular material on SEP. It was while reading the fairly complex and unapologetically scholarly material that the lines above in Hindi and their English translation came to me. “Came to me” sounds mystical but in a manner of speaking they were delivered fully formed. Or, at the very least, their formation was so instant and organic that I felt no effort in conceiving and birthing them. The conception and birth was—or at least I perceived them to be—instantaneous.

I have written about such subjects earlier and I remain deeply interested in the kind of extraordinary pursuit of esoteric knowledge that went on in India since at least 500 BCE during the time of Buddha. Among the many ideas that SEP’s ‘Epistemology in Classical Indian Philosophy’ refers to are perception, inference and testimony. In particular, I was struck by this passage: “With an eye to the alleged power of inference to prove the existence of God or personal survival, the Cārvāka materialist school recognizes perception as a knowledge source but not inference nor any other candidate. Inference depends upon generalizations which outstrip perceptual evidence, everything F as a G. No one can know that, Cārvāka claims. Testimony is also no good since it presupposes that any speaker would tell the truth and thus is subject to the same criticism of lack of evidence. And so on through the other candidates (Mādhava, Sarva-darśana-saṃgraha). The standard response is pragmatic. We could not act as we do if we could not rely on inference (etc.) albeit inference does depend on generalization that (often, not invariably) outstrips experience. The skeptic himself relies on such generalizations when he opens his mouth to voice his skepticism, by using words with repeatable meanings (Gaṅgeśa, inference chapter, Tattva-cintā-maṇi).”

I am not even sure if what I understand of perception, inference and testimony, is the same as what the SEP is saying or what the Cārvāka materialist school is saying. All I know is that while reading that passage the lines above formed in my mind as a whole idea. How do I know what I perceived of me yesterday and inferred to be is what I perceive of me today and infer? And by extension of that, how do I know what I will perceive of me tomorrow will be a continuation of the last two days? I get lost in such esoteric non-sense. That has been a lifelong feature.

Some regular reader of this blog may conclude that I may now need some treatment considering the frequency with which I lapse into such esoteric ideas. But then how do you know what you perceive of me and infer me to be is really what I am? This especially when I am not sure myself if there is intrinsic continuum to me.


About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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