How do we know what’s true?

After a couple of weeks of watching the competing narratives coming out of the impeachment inquiry, I felt inspired to sit with the question: how do we know what’s true?

Conventional wisdom tells us that we live in a post-truth world where up can mean down, forward means backward, and left and right mean really left and right.

Separating fact from fiction has probably never been harder. And technology isn’t helping; it hasn’t the means and its handlers, for the most part, don’t have the will to be helpful when fake news is as profitable as real news.

So who or what do we accept as an authority on what’s true and what’s false?

There’s no question as to whether or not we accept an authority on any given topic; it’s just a matter of whose authority we accept: our own or someone else’s.

Personally, I don’t consider myself an authority on anything, at least not enough of an authority to rely on my own opinion alone. Instead, I rely on yoga’s theory of knowledge to help me separate fact from fiction.

The yogic theory of knowledge – pramāṇa in Sanskrit – has three parts: direct perception (pratyakṣa), logic (anumāna), and verbal testimony (āgamaḥ or parokṣa).

Since my senses are limited by imperfections such as the potential to be mistaken, to be influenced by illusion, or to interpret information according my personal biases, I start with the last item, verbal testimony, and work my way back.

‘Verbal testimony’ is also divided into three categories: guru (one’s teacher), śastra (scripture), and sadhu (exemplary practitioners). We hear from a teacher and, rather than accept what they say on blind faith, we look to authoritative yoga wisdom texts such as the Yoga-sūtra or the Bhagavad-gītā to see if what the teacher says is reflected in the traditional literature.

If it is, the next step is to look to those upon whom history has conferred a reputation for exceptional spiritual achievement to see if their teachings match those of our teacher and what we’ve read in yoga wisdom texts.

If all three – teacher, scripture, and exemplar – are saying the same thing then we can accept the teaching as legitimate, at least in the context of the tradition from which the teaching arises.

But does the teaching make sense?

There are four reasons why we might not understand something: we might not be smart enough, we might not be pure enough, we might not have heard a proper explanation, or it might just be that thing we’re trying to understand doesn’t make sense.

We shouldn’t be too quick to accept something just because it sounds authoritative or sell ourselves short on brains and purity if we don’t fully understand what we’ve heard. There’s plenty of ‘wisdom’ floating around the yoga-verse that doesn’t make sense once you think it all the way through, to say nothing of the flotilla of nonsense sailing across the ocean media-driven misinformation.

So the second step is to think about what the implications of the teaching are. This is where the practice of active contemplation comes into play: we have to ask ourselves if what we’ve heard makes sense when taken to its logical conclusion.

If a teaching passes the logic test, then the last step is to put the teaching into practice. The acquisition of knowledge in yoga is a scientific process: you take a reasonable theory into the laboratory of your life and do an experiment to see if the theory is true. The experiment validates the theory when we experience the truth of the theory by direct perception.

This is the practice of turning jñāna – theoretical knowledge – into vijñāna: experiential knowledge.

And experiential knowledge, acted upon repeatedly over time, eventually evolves into wisdom.

In a polarized world where convictions about right and wrong are intensifying toward the opposite ends of the spectrum, it’s increasingly important to have a way to distinguish between real news and fake news, between authentic, sensible, and beneficial teachings and speculative nonsense that’s bereft of any practical value.

In one sense, the news is always changing and, in another, it’s always the same: conflicts come and go, disasters arrive and subside, losers become winners and winners become losers. All of these little pictures fly by within the context of a bigger picture. Seeing the ephemeral events of the material world in the context of a changeless spiritual reality can help us find a peaceful center in the midst of all the breathless whirligig news cycles.

To ride the roller coaster of current events without getting queasy, we need to be anchored by the bigger picture. Yoga wisdom tells us that there’s a permanent spiritual reality beneath the paroxysms of material insanity. We can apply yoga’s theory of knowledge to both in order to know what’s true and what’s True.

2 thoughts on “How do we know what’s true?”

  1. Thank you so much for taking the time and trouble to compose this. Also thank you for being sane. This very topic has, I will bet, been on many people’s minds of late. Whose version of reality do we accept? As you say, no individual (unless that individual also happens to be omniscient) can claim epistemological autonomy. We all rely to greater or lesser degrees on sources of knowledge outside ourselves. Those who hunger and thirst for wisdom and righteousness will likely starve if fed an exclusive diet of the daily “news.” As you mercifully point out, for anyone to feel they have anything resembling a grasp of objective reality there must be a duly diligent search for that very objective reality itself, which is seemingly and maddeningly perpetually out of reach of most of the current sources of information that bombard us with a steady stream of data without being able to provide anything like a clear picture of what it all really means. See? You’ve inspired me to write almost a whole paragraph, such an inspiration you are.

    1. Thanks for your encouraging comments, Ekendra. In return, I would like to encourage you to apply the theory of knowledge I’ve described here before coming to any conclusions about my sanity. – Hkd

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