How do we know something to be true? This question has preoccupied philosophy for as long as we can remember. Many answers are offered to solve the problem, but each one suffers from a different problem. For example, reason is a useful method of knowing, but reason only compares a claim with the axioms or assumptions; how do you know that your assumptions are indeed correct? Sense perception too doesn’t certify our assumptions because the same perception can be explained by alternative assumptions. This post offers an introspective view of knowledge under which what convinces us of the truth is not reason or perception, but the happiness that we experience as a consequence of that knowing. Under that happiness, all doubts are destroyed, and certainty is established.
The Failure of the Socratic Method
Western philosophy was born in the Socratic method of hypothesis elimination. In this method, you trust a claim tentatively and then test out its consequences, with the aim to produce a contradiction. If a contradiction is found, then the hypothesis is naturally refuted. The problem is that if you haven’t found a contradiction, you don’t know for sure that you won’t find it in the future. Typically, most assumptions will seem to correctly explain certain things, but they have limitations. If you step outside the bounds of these limitations, you can produce an inner contradiction. If you don’t step outside these bounds, then your system is consistent but clearly limited by its bounds.
This pattern was conclusively demonstrated by Gödel in his incompleteness theorem. Assumptions are good within bounds. If we step outside the bounds, then we get a contradiction. If we remain within the bounds, then the system is incomplete because it doesn’t explain what lies outside those bounds.
Socrates started by saying that an “unexamined life is not worth living” and he ended by saying that “the only thing I know is that I know nothing”. But he needn’t have despaired if he had realized that reason is limited by assumptions, and assumptions are good within certain bounds. If you describe those bounds as the goal or the problem you are trying to solve, then reasoning can be employed to serve the purposes of the goal. In short, reasoning is a slave to our desires. The desires create the bounds; then we formulate assumptions using which we can test the truth. The truth is simply contextualized against the goal—i.e. some assumptions are useful for fulfilling some goals but not others.
The Judgments of Truth and Good
The lesson from the failure of the Socratic method—and Gödel’s incompleteness—is that reasoning only helps us determine the truths relative to some assumptions, but those assumptions are not true or false in themselves; they are instead useful or useless relative to a goal, problem, or purpose to be fulfilled.
Good assumptions are those that help us solve a problem—i.e. find an answer that addresses the question. Bad assumptions are those that limit us in finding the answer to a problem.
Now our quest for truth is limited by our desires. If you choose a goal, you will naturally make assumptions that are fit for fulfilling that goal, and all claims will be certified either true or false relative to those assumptions. But if you want to know something that might seem not provable (or disprovable) based on your current assumptions, you have to change your goals, and, consequently, revise your assumptions.
The Brain and the Heart
There is hence a difference between truth and good; all truth is relative to the good. In fact, the dichotomy between truth and good is present in our body as the difference between the brain and the heart. The heart is the seat of desire, which determines the good. The brain is the seat of reasoning which determines the truth after the good has been decided. The brain has a creative side and a cognitive side corresponding to the senses of perception and action. But these are different from the judgment of good which is produced in the heart due to desire.
The judgment of truth is based on the choice of axioms, but the choice of axioms is based on the desires that make us happy. The latter constitutes the judgment of good. The heart is involved in judging if something is good, and the brain in judging if it is true. The brain can die and but the heart will keep working. However, if the heart is dead then the brain will be dead automatically.
Desires Create Happiness
Beliefs are held so long as they help us fulfill our desires. If I’m frustrated in my goals, then I will seek to revise my assumptions. Most people, for instance, believe in the miracles of modern medicine until they get a disease which the medicine cannot cure, and the doctors have no clue why. When faced with suffering, one is automatically led to question the idea that modern medicine operates on correct assumptions. If you have always been cured by modern medicine, you will be loath to reject its assumptions. Again, the assumptions are accepted only relative to the goals or desires one wants to fulfill.
Some people may consider lies to be true, because it makes them happy and fulfills their goals. Similarly, others will find them false because it makes them unhappy. The question of truth can be completely subordinated to the question of happiness, and now the issue is: How do we find a better happiness? Because only by that judgment will we determine a better desire, a better assumption, and then a better truth.
The Knowledge-Happiness Relation
To know the truth we must know the good, but to pick the good, we must desire that good. Ultimately, our cognition of truth depends on our desire. If that desire is modified, then the truths are modified. Similarly, happiness is produced only when the desires are fulfilled. Therefore, if you find the thing that you desire, then you have the double satisfaction of finding truth and goodness. Your brain tells you that you have found the truth, and your heart tells you that you have fulfilled your desire.
If you tell a happy person that his ideas about the world are false, he will most likely ignore you, because he knows that since he is happy he must be doing something correctly, and consequently his beliefs must also be true. On the other hand, if you tell an unhappy person that he is suffering because of his false beliefs, and that he must change his beliefs in order to find happiness, he is more likely to listen to your arguments.
In short, new knowledge doesn’t come when you are happy, because there is complacency whereby one’s current beliefs are accepted as true just because one is already happy and contented. New knowledge comes when one is unhappy and discontented; that’s when you are prepared to change goals and revise assumptions. The greater the suffering, the greater is the preparedness to change one’s assumptions.
The Epistemology of Happiness
This is a completely subjective criterion for judging the truth, as opposed to modern objective criteria which seek to validate the assumptions against innumerable facts, and you can never be sure if you have checked you assumptions against all possible facts (past, present, and future; here, there, and everywhere). Since such verification is impossible, the irrefutable criterion for finding the truth is not external but internal. I find the inner happiness, which then convinces me of the truth.
This is a common problem for many people who like to challenge the ideas of others: How do you know this idea is true? Have you validated it against the worldly facts, the statements of authorities, or the prescriptions of recognized texts? The short answer is that you can never know the truth through such corroboration because before you can judge the truth, you must first know its meaning, and that meaning is subject to your interpretation. Thus, if you believe that X and Y are true, you will try to reconcile them; you will interpret X in terms of Y or Y in terms of X to maintain your belief in both X and Y. If one of them happens to be incorrect, the real meaning may be disregarded, just in order to maintain internal consistency about all the current beliefs. In short, our desires change our assumptions, and our assumptions change the meanings we see in the world. To see new meaning, to find new truths, and to achieve new goals, we have to only alter one thing in our life—our desires.
It is impossible to judge the meaning because it is subject to interpretation. It is impossible to judge the truth because it is relative to the goals. And it is impossible to judge the goals because they are relative to desires. External verification is not solid ground for truth. The criterion is completely internal: If some belief makes me happy, then it must be true. Now, if you are frustrated or unhappy, you must change the beliefs.
Superior and Inferior Truths
Now we can also talk about superior and inferior truths, not because we validated them against external facts, or corroborated them against the statements of authorities, but simply because it gives me greater happiness. The inferior and superior truths correspond to lesser and greater happiness. If you desire greater happiness, then you will have to change your beliefs, which will change the meaning, (and then in turn sensations and sense objects), and the new set of beliefs will be considered true because they enhance happiness.
Unless your knowledge leads to a far superior level of happiness, your commitment to your beliefs and these desires will remain tentative. You may argue vociferously citing formulae, facts, texts, and authorities, but you will remain doubtful. All doubts are destroyed when you find a superior happiness; then you don’t need others to accept your claims. They are self-evident to you because their acceptance leads to superior happiness.
The Cleansing of Consciousness
Since happiness comes from desire, to find that superior happiness we must change our desires. This change in desire is called the ‘cleansing’ of consciousness. In the material world different people have different desires, and, accordingly, they enjoy different kinds of happiness. To elevate our happiness we have to elevate the desires. Once we change the desires, the knowledge is changed automatically. Which means that to fulfill the desire, I must find that object which makes me happy.
Spiritual progress is about changing the desire, which changes the assumptions, which changes the meanings, sensations, and objects. The process is non-material because it doesn’t begin in changing the objects, which could then change sensations, meanings, truths, and desires. Of course, nobody stops us from doing those outside-in things to modify our desires. But the measure of change is the inside-out change in desires followed by the change in beliefs, meanings, sensations, and objects.
The spiritual path is said to be free of all material impediments, because you change your desires regardless of whether the world fulfills them or not. The change in beliefs is jnana-yoga or the cultivation of knowledge. The subsequent changes to meaning in the mind are dhyāna-yoga or meditation. Finally, the resulting changes to sensual activities constitute karma-yoga. However, the genesis of all change lies in bhakti-yoga, which involves the changes to a person’s desires.
The Shackles of Material Desire
In the beginning of this post I noted that our truths are limited by the bounds of desire; if we remain within the bounds, then our truths are incomplete; if we cross those bounds then we get inconsistency. Therefore, unless we change our desires, we cannot find new truths because our assumptions have been tailored to fulfill our desires. The soul is shackled in the material world by the bounds of desire, which are called the guna or ‘ropes’ that bind. Material nature is called prakriti and it comprises three guna, which constitute the three kinds of ropes.
The rajo-guna is all that is within the bounds, or what we consider desirable pleasure. The tamo-guna is all that is outside the bounds, or what we consider despicable. The sattva-guna is the boundary that lies between what we find pleasurable and what we consider despicable. In one sense, it is neither pleasurable nor despicable, and this mode is associated with detachment where I neither desire nor detest; I neither hate, nor love; neither am I attracted, nor am I repelled. Sattva-guna stabilizes you.
Clearly, sattva-guna is better than loving and hating, but it is still a material mode. The boundary defined by this mode creates an identity or personality of the soul by which he begins to think that the pleasures within this boundary constitute his person, and whatever outside it is impersonal. We can say that sattva-guna is the subject-object distinction. If the soul breaks this shackle of material identity, then he is freed of the material laws. On breaking these shackles, the soul enters Brahman.
However, if you get rid of these shackles, then you have no desire, and without desire there can never be happiness. If you don’t want anything, then receiving it won’t make you happy, and not finding it won’t make you unhappy. That is a good approach if most of the time you don’t find what you desire. But it is a bad approach if you could always find what you desire.
Cooperation vs. Competition
Remember that if one remains within the bounds, there is consistency but incompleteness. The material world draws a person out; you think you are going to expand your pleasure by extending the boundary of your desires because you feel incomplete inside those boundaries. In effect, we desire to become full. But as we desire new things, we find conflicts with the desires of others. Those conflicts then force us to recoil, and shrink our desires. The soul’s personality is always changing because it tries to expand his pleasure and then settle for lesser. He tries different kinds of pleasures and withdraws.
Competition in the material world is the outcome of the idea that the world has no center, no purpose. Each person is therefore the center and purpose of their existence. In relativity this idea is expressed by saying that there is no universal space; each person is the origin of the space from which they survey the world. Then, obviously, your purposes will conflict with those of the others.
To overcome this problem, we have to cooperate, and cooperation depends on the world having a center, a purpose. We can also say that there is an absolute space with an origin, although we are not its origin. That origin would also need to be a person from whose viewpoint everything is judged. Recognition of an absolute unique origin results in cooperation because that origin becomes the shared purpose that transcends the purposes of the individual observers.
The Shackles of Spiritual Desire
In that sense, there is a new type of shackle produced from the relation between a person and the Supreme Person. This relation can be expressed as the distance from the origin, or how far the Supreme Person considers the individual person to be. Knowing that distance establishes the relative position of a person, who can then aspire to be closer to the Supreme Person.
Regardless of whether a person is close or far from the Supreme Person, there is natural cooperation among the individual persons because there is an established and recognized center. If one expands their desire, others contract automatically. In the material world, each person is selfish and have themselves as the goal which conflict with the selfish goals in other persons. But spiritual desire is not for one’s own happiness; it is meant for the Supreme Person’s happiness, which is the common purpose that creates cooperation. Thus, even when one extends their desires, it is to satisfy God; and if one withdraws then it is to let someone else satisfy God. The center creates cooperation.
This personality is a shackle because it binds you. But it is predicated on cooperation rather than competition. The reason is that desire is not focused on the self, but on the Supreme Person. This desire is perfect because it always results in happiness. Therefore, all the knowledge that follows from this desire is also perfect. In that sense the Supreme Person is also the Absolute Truth. You become convinced that God is the Absolute Truth, because truth is evidenced by your own happiness.
The Knot in the Heart
In the material world, a soul suffers due to internal conflicts between desires, abilities, and duties. I desire something but I’m not able to achieve it because my circumstances don’t allow it, or because I don’t have the ability. This inner conflict is called the ‘knot’ in the heart due to which the soul is unhappy as the fear of failure restrains him but the desire propels him forward. When the soul is liberated into Brahman this knot is destroyed because both fear and desire are simultaneously destroyed.
However, on further advancement, in the association of God, a new inner knot is created within desires themselves due to humility. The soul feels that he is not serving God adequately and to overcome that sense of incompleteness, the soul seeks to serve God better by being closer to Him, and yet considers himself unqualified and serves from a distance. The knot is that the desire is conflicted; desire is sometimes overpowered by shyness and other times shyness is overpowered by desire.
This ‘rope’ is not external but internal; one is not compelled to withdraw desires due to pain and hurt; one backs down voluntarily due to humility, coyness, and self-effacement. When desire is restrained by shyness, God is seen in the heart due to the intensity of unfulfilled desire; when the desire overcomes shyness, God is seen face-to-face. Thus, God is always seen, either in the heart or through the eyes. However, the most dominant experience is in the heart because shyness is dominant.
Humility – The Path to Perfect Knowledge
If everyone had a strong desire all the time, then nobody would back down and allow someone else to fulfill their desire, which would result in competition. Thus, humility is an indispensable ingredient of cooperation. This humility is the new ‘rope’ that is sometimes tight and sometimes loose. It restrains the person from fulfilling the desire, but the object of desire is perceived in the heart through remembrance caused by desire.
The ‘rope’ of material restraint is called sattva-guna and it is the feeling of “I am”; rajo-guna tries to expand this “I am” while tamo-guna contracts the “I am”. The ‘rope’ of spiritual restraint is humility; it constitutes the feeling of “I am not” which constricts the soul, while desire expands it to “I am”. The soul never exceeds the bound of “I am” and mostly it remains “I am not”.
In the Śikṣāṣṭakam of Sri Chaitanya, the first verse deals with the destruction of the material knot and the remaining seven verses with the intensification of the spiritual knot. Right from the second verse, a feeling of regret, remorse, guilt, and humility are described, which intensify successively. Like material experience is obtained at seven levels—morality, intentions, beliefs, thoughts, abilities, sensations, and objects—similarly, there is a corresponding tier of intensifying religious experience.
The essence of that experience is that the desire increases in proportion to remorse. And knowledge grows in proportion to desire. Thus, to increase knowledge, one increases the desire, and to increase the desire one increases the remorse. We can call this the duality between desire and remorse. Just as the material world is duality outside (hot and cold) while the soul seeks harmony and peace within through reconciliation, the spiritual world is marked by consistency outside but intensification of inner conflict. The idea that we become happy due to ‘peace’ is limited to the destruction of the material knot; inner conflict is celebrated spiritually, because under these conflicts the soul sees how God has innumerable contradictory qualities.
Diverse Interpretations of Reality
If one seeks ‘peace’ in the heart, the desire is tailored to produce a vision of reality as oneness. But if one has an ‘inner conflict’ between desire and humility, then the desire produces the vision of one comprised of contradictory opposites; God is both honest and deceitful, He is both attached and detached, He is both powerful and weak. This vision of God is perfect, but we cannot get it with inner peace. It is possible only when we are ourselves conflicted, because knowledge is a byproduct of our desires; if I have that conflict, then reality is also seen conflicted.
Ultimately, all happiness and all knowledge is produced by the soul, and the same reality can be perceived differently. If my emotional state is that of peace, then I will perceive Brahman. If my emotional state is one of diversity without any conflicts, then I will perceive Paramātma. But if my emotions are conflicted, then I will see Bhagavān who is the composite of opposites.
The knowledge of reality is completely dependent on the soul’s desire. Therefore, we don’t ask what reality is by itself; we say which desire leads to which realization. Your conviction in that realization is also produced as the cognition is consistent with the emotion. The cognition itself is not the source of conviction; it is you desire being fulfilled that creates conviction.