What do we know for sure? There are several sources for what we could call our ‘certain’ knowledge:
a – Present direct experience, such as our current surroundings: this is direct sense experience, which we take as reflecting reality because we believe our senses. This is backed up by memories of past experiences, which are generally still taken as certain.
b – Knowledge reported to us from others who have had direct experience, which we have not directly experienced, but which we know we could experience if we wanted to. So I have never been to Easter Island, but I feel certain that it exists and know that I could go there if needed. I base this on having seen the place referred to in many different contexts (books, travel agencies, satellite photos), and have a trust in other people’s word here because it is a logical extension of my own travel experience. So the essence here is a combination of the confluence of many other people’s affirmations, plus logical extension of personal experiences. A lot of our ordinary knowledge is of this type.
c – Knowledge reported to us from others but which no one has experienced directly, but which has been shown to exist from various human-created instruments. So I am sure that the surface of the planet Mars exists, and looks as it does in the photos, but I will never personally be able to go and have a look directly. This is a reliance on other people’s opinions (but not their direct experiences), and in this case far fewer people than in case (b), plus my own knowledge of science and what is possible with current technology. Much of scientific and technical knowledge is of this kind.
d – Case (c) already necessitates the use of human reason and logic: our direct experience leads to the extension of our senses through our instruments, from which we deduce the existence of other phenomena—amoeba, black holes, electrons, and so on. This reliance on reason and logic (“deduction”) is most clear in mathematics where, having established the basic axioms, the rest follows and is indisputable even though, in the advanced stages, incomprehensible to the majority of people. The axioms themselves are not provable, but we are certain of them based on our innate reason and intelligence.
e – Case (d) includes deduction, where we know something is true because it is directly implied in what we already know to be true. But we also use induction, where we take expected facts and events as certain based on past experience. So the sun will rise tomorrow because it always has done; the highway is there now and will still be there when I need to drive to work next time; and so on. A great deal of our ‘certain’ knowledge is based on induction.
Personal knowledge comes from direct experiences starting in childhood (or even in the womb), education from parents and teachers and so on. So the foundation consists of input from the senses, our innate reason (logic etc.), the acceptance of the direct and indirect experiences of others, and induction derived from past personal experience. I would say that most of our accepted knowledge is of this indirect type; and that the indirectness poses no problems for our feeling of certainty.
But the above certainty is for practical life, and, I would suggest, is inadequate when it comes to serious inquiries on spiritual matters (the main point here). For that, case (a) counts the most, that is, direct personal experience, together with case (d), reason and logic based on past personal experience. But there is a still a tacit input from other people: if the majority have had the same new experience, then we give it some credence; if not, then it is rejected, and we end up with a low opinion of the few who have had these unlikely experiences.
If someone were trying to persuade us of the value of some important, but ‘unpopular’ spiritual truth, there would be a barrier preventing its acceptance if it did not conform to our own past experience (and reason). So, apart from inducing belief without evidence (which methods are to be rejected), what other ways would be available to persuade us to keep investigating?
Miracles: One that does not work, despite its apparent efficacy, is the witnessing of miracles and the consequent belief in their origin. The reason for its failure is a deep-seated psychological trait which we all have, namely that our beliefs are not based on logic, reason and the external senses, even though we say they are, but rather they are based on already existing emotional attitudes: we believe what we like, leading to what we like to hear and see, rather than relying on plain (and cool) reason; and this is true even if the miracle is directly experienced! More on our biases here. It is the ground behind so many of the arguments we have with each other, where what seems to be proof from our viewpoint is denied by the other person, and vice versa. Behind our apparent reliance on facts and logic are the intransigent emotional attitudes, and a willfulness that retains a viewpoint because it is “mine or my group’s”; and perhaps this is accompanied by a mental laziness which wants to avoid hearing (and thinking about) new ideas; or there is a general fear of the new. Not a happy state of affairs at all.
Self-knowledge: There is one that does work, but takes longer. Most spiritual systems, including religions, emphasize the importance self-knowledge, and one finds that if one keeps investigating oneself, through inner observations, many new things come to light that cast doubt on accepted views on life and reality. Self-knowledge is, in general, accepted in ordinary society, and sounds admirable enough, but actual practice and persistence is not so common; see here for more on this ‘work on oneself’. Could we call this the ‘bait and switch’ method? One sees something is wrong—for instance, that one is not conscious most of the time—and follows through with observation and practice to overcome the weakness, but in the process starts to see other interesting things and eventually some of the spiritual truths that we initially rejected. Perhaps this is the main way to true knowledge and verification, no jumps (of faith), just a continuity with enough time to grind down old prejudice to allow new insight in. This method is centered on direct experience, case (a) above.
Teachers: And one that partially works. This is a return to case (b), where one bases one’s knowledge on other people’s direct experience. Much of our ‘certain’ knowledge is already of this type, so how far can we use other people’s experience to reach true certainty? Suppose we lived in a community comprised only of the 800+ authors cited on this website, then I am pretty sure that we would accept as true the spiritual truths which ordinary society rejects simply because the majority’s opinion would sway us. But this is the same case as living in any restricted society with specific beliefs: however loudly a society ‘shouts’ out its values, even though we accepted them as children, in more mature years they must all be scrutinized by each person to see if they are true for him. The latter step is important, because belief is so much easier than active verification, but belief does not by itself lead to true certainty. Despite this drawback I would still say that there is a lot to be said for valuing even to the point of acknowledging as true the ideas put forward by people we respect. This is the case where one voluntarily follows a teacher: something one perceives about his being tells us he is saying the truth. This is a combination of personal experience (trust in one’s ability to assess others), acceptance of another person’s experience (the teacher), and a kind of induction—that realizations are in store in the future if one learns from this person. This appeal to authority has degrees, the stronger being a living teacher, the lesser being the written works by respected authors.
f – But there is another type of knowledge, touched upon when discussing teachers above, that is related to case (a) but resulting from our (internal) emotional perceptions of others and nature. We could classify it as another sense, that perceives something about the internal state of an object or person. It is also subjective so it contributes only to personal verification and, if voiced, may be rejected by others. Maybe intuition is another name for this kind of perception. When considering all the types of knowledge available to us, I would put this one first even though in a sense it develops after the others, as a result of self-knowledge and life experience.
This emotional perception is used not only with teachers and people generally, but also with nature and some man-made art. Although one may get agreement from others on some of these perceptions—for example, an ineffability surrounding some of Leonardo’s paintings,—most are truly subjective and not easily described in words to others. These perceptions are as important as those from the external senses, but their subjective nature makes them vulnerable to other people’s opinions. It takes emotional strength to hang on to them and incorporate them into one’s world view. Many of the people who have collected the spiritual experiences of others, such as F. W. H. Myers (1843-1901) or the NDE and reincarnation researchers, have found that a large number of the people with remarkable stories to tell wished to remain anonymous because they would be thought ‘bonkers, nuts etc.’ if their acquaintances found out. Resisting the social stigma attached to unorthodox experience demands an inner strength to hold on to what is subjective but true. The self-knowledge mentioned above helps this process, as does a teacher and any friends on the same path.
On its own, as intuition, I believe this is what was originally meant by faith: an emotional perception without intellectual confirmation, the ‘certainty of things unseen’, the forerunner to direct perception and experience. It is a necessary step on the spiritual path, and, in my own experience at least, I see it as a slow but strong inner growth of emotional knowledge accompanied by a suspicion or even a perception, especially when out in nature, that something else lies behind our ordinary life.
Perhaps by definition, true verification is always subjective and personal, and, being ‘certain’, must always be strong enough to resist the pressure from contrary ideas, that is, resist the influence of society’s opinions and accepted scientific explanations. For spiritual matters the latter usually takes the form of “X does not exist”, or is impossible, that one is imagining things, or hallucinating, and so on. How far, then, does one stick with one’s own experience when opposed by such majority opinions? Can one avoid the dangerous oscillation between staying with one’s personal verification, and falling into contrary belief under the influence of pressure from ordinary society—it is, after all, easier to believe than to verify? What are the criteria for holding onto one’s verification?
Although the term verification implies only an intellectual assent, I would say that for it to become ‘certain’ it has to include this emotional intuitive element to make the insight strong enough to get incorporated into one’s daily life. In other words, it needs to affect the whole person, that is intellect and emotion together, a unity. Without the emotional element the verification will fall apart. But one cannot develop the emotions directly, the changes happen as a result of all the intellectual work and the painful opening up of one’s emotional center to new influences.
Verification is essentially subjective, one cannot pass it on to another person except indirectly through one’s sincerity and enthusiasm, that is via an emotional passage. But, most importantly, spiritual verifications can lead to broader personal understandings of how the world works, and can make sense of problems that are usually regarded as intransigent. One of these is the problem of suffering which, when viewed objectively, is often used in arguments against the reality of God and the meaning of spiritual life. But the subjective view can lead to something quite different from this ordinary assessment.
Pain as Gain
This observation is a follow-up to the compilation of quotes in the book The Thorn and the Rose, and confirms an insight made by those authors on the effect of suffering on their lives, how it pressed them to go deeper into themselves and come out the other end with a changed and wider understanding of the world. The general topic of ‘suffering as a teacher’ has a whole section in the book, but there are further quotes on this site with the same message (for more, see under ‘Inner Life/Death, Suffering’ on the Search page).
The point here is not about personal change per se, but about the fact that in some well-documented cases, contrary to normal expectations, people have gained a positive from a negative—greater appreciation for life, from imposed pain. They turned a purely subjective and painful experience into a positive benefit and, further, found that there were deeper currents flowing in life that pointed to new perspectives on why we are here and what we should be doing. My own experience has been similar when I look back on the results of past pains: all the things that ‘went wrong’—the usual things we all have to go through—have unexpectedly deepened my understanding of life, reduced self-love, and increased positive emotions towards others. But meanwhile, the great paradox, seeing the same sufferings in others, either in one’s acquaintances or in strangers, still evokes sympathy and the desire to help them get out of it.
Why suffering? So the answer to why-is-there-so-much-suffering-in-the-world is twofold depending on how one looks at it: for oneself, applied only to one’s personal subjective experience, the answer is that it can be a teacher and purifier, and is found (in hindsight) to be both a necessity and a boon. But looking out at the situation with everyone else, the objective view on the outside world, it remains horrific and deplorable with no clear answer. The net result: It is clearly right action to alleviate suffering in others; but there is the additional understanding that for them it might also be a salvation if taken differently. Somehow one has to contain both views at once, with external unequivocal action to alleviate, but internal understanding that life is teaching us something. This is regardless of the origins of the suffering, whether it comes directly or indirectly from others, or from nature as broken bones, diseases, and so on.
So there is an answer to the suffering of the world, but it is only for the part that applies specifically to one’s own case, and only to one’s own case. And one can learn from it because it is only oneself who knows the details, the nuances, and the weaknesses, and who would be capable of making any sense of the effects of these external events on the inner life. And it is important to stress that sense can only be made of one’s own life, one cannot cavalierly condone and then ignore the world’s suffering. It must be admitted that there is an implication that if everyone had this personal view of suffering in his or her own life then this would give a complete answer to the question of human suffering. But this solution depends on everyone finding the spiritual path, which we do not see happening. Consequently one can only honestly be sure of one’s own life, and leave unanswered the larger question.
As just hinted at, for this suffering to be productive, it seems to require one additional factor, that one has had the good fortune to have been led onto a path where suffering is found to have this additional hidden and positive purpose. In fact it is not clear to me which comes first, the pull—the interest in spiritual ideas—or the shove, made by the pains of life, that points out this rather unexpected way. I have found that is only in respect of this path that suffering makes any sense, because it is so often involved in pushing one to look inside and gain self-knowledge, which is the positive result gained. There may be other directions that make sense of life’s pains, but I have not come across them. And I agree with the others (in the book) that this gain in self-knowledge and understanding outweighs the pain it took to induce one to start seeing oneself.
Providence: It goes further. Having acknowledged that the past has helped one on the way, one can develop the attitude, even in a sense the verification, that future events will also be of benefit. This diminishes the fears both of life and death. Acceptance of whatever happens: sounds like familiar stuff—Stoicism, all the religious teachings (about God in one’s life) and so on. But in this case it is based on observation and direct experience, not faith. I guess the difference between this and the ordinary viewpoint is that the latter sees pains only in an external way, how the body is damaged, or one’s reputation, and stops there to try to patch things up, and does not see that there is another internal way that can use these to one’s advantage. The superficiality of society’s take on life covers up this hidden way out of suffering in which one is following the thread out of the Minotaur’s maze into detachment and freedom.
And one further comment, on karma. The above observations, that one can gain from suffering, shows that even though one still gets what one deserves—the karmic retribution—this is at the same time ameliorated or softened in the sense that the same retribution has two sides: Karma as justice, but also Karma as the way out, the teacher of how to do better. I believe this is what the religions call ‘mercy’, a combination of justice and compassion, the heavy hand of heaven. Further verifications are possible here, and these really upset the scientific mind: and they are, firstly, that providence is a reality (as karma); and, secondly, that it works in the details of life, not just in some far-off first cause from the deity (the Deist viewpoint of the 18th century). I find that this is true for me, and for some of our authors too (see here; for more, see under ‘Cosmology, Laws/Providence, also in details’ on the Search page).
Verification and Subjectivity
The above shows that there is at least one case where a truly subjective verification can lead to the understanding of a topic (human suffering in the world) that makes little sense from the objective view. How far can this subjective method be applied to other areas; what does it imply for personal verification in general? Could one say that in the end only the subjective view counts?
I believe there is a lot more to be said, and hopefully will be said, on this relation between subjective and objective experience and its bearing on reality. Science takes great pains to exclude the subjective and demands third-party verification of its tenets. But spirituality goes against this and puts the subjective experience on center stage. So someone like Nikolai Berdyaev (in the same vein as Berkeley’s philosophy) says: Actually, spiritual states do not correspond to anything, they simply are; they are the prime reality, they are more existential than anything reflected in the objective world. What will it take to verify something as radical as this? And how are we going to reconcile this with the scientific view?