I’m on retreat this week (Oct 11 – 16), so this is a ‘scheduled’ post. If you’re reading this, it worked. – Kate
YSP 1.7: Pratyaksha anumana agamah pramanani
Understanding arises from sensory perception, inference and faithful testimony.
Tr: Bernard Bouanchaud
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god.
I’m biased towards this but of all our human capacities, perhaps our most glorious is our capacity to think, to reason, to analyze, to infer. Our capacity to draw conclusions based on logic, statistical information, and heuristics is nothing short of remarkable. In fact, we’re so danged good at it, we often don’t appreciate the wonder of it all and so we do it without conscious awareness of the process.
We can generalize from the particular and specific to the abstract. We can take partial information, figure out a pattern and continue the pattern into the future. 1, 3, 5, 7, ?, ?, ?, 15, 17. Most of you didn’t have to work very hard to ascertain the missing three numbers in the series are 9, 11, and 13. I’m no expert of the cognitive capacity of other species on the planet, and I recognize that a lot of them are much smarter than we give them credit for, but you have to admit, that “three number trick” is a humdinger.
If nothing else, humans are a pack of thinking monkeys. Our brains evolved to solve problems related to survival in an unstable outdoor environment and to do so while in constant motion. One of our neatest tricks was to learn to observe another thinking monkey and anticipate the next move based on our observations of them [John Medina, Brain Rules, 2008]. This capacity is the foundation to human society. For most of us, we are not surprised by the actions of our fellow humans. In fact, we can accurately predict their behaviour through many complicated processes. You couldn’t drive a vehicle without your ability to predict the behaviour of other road users.
We do this by combining the information we’ve received from our senses and the information we’ve received from others (more on that later in the column on testimony), and we build a “picture” of the reality in our minds. The amazing part is that we do this in milliseconds. Of course, sometimes we do this at our peril and this is where stereotypes and prejudices arise. Like sensory perceptions, inference needs to be examined critically if it’s to be used effectively. Why do I believe what I believe? Do I have sufficient information to draw conclusions? Where are the potential pitfalls of my thinking process? How can I refine the process? What is knowledge, what is guessing?
As I’m writing this, I’m once again reminded why I love yoga as a philosophical foundation to my life. It is a realistic examination of my capacities. Yoga neither dismisses nor over-glorifies my mind and its products. Yoga helps me bring the mental processes that I might otherwise ignore into conscious thought where I can examine them closely. Is this true? How do I know this is true? What things may be influencing my conclusions? Is this information sourced by something I’ve experienced or something I’ve heard? If it’s something I’ve experienced, do I have sufficient data points to draw reliable conclusions? If it’s testimony of another, how reliable is it?
The next column will look at the last part of this aphorism: testimony. Until then,
Thanks for reading and Namaste,