H.B. Augustine graduated from Denison University in May 2012 with a degree in Communication and Philosophy. He is now working on a number of social innovations, including Taggle, Ubiquity University, and Integral Publishing House. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org if interested in connecting.
What is the one thing with which we are most familiar and that we simply cannot doubt? Rene Descartes knows the answer. In his First Meditation, Descartes reasons that he can doubt all physical experience. In this sense, one can doubt what physical things show us because sometimes we have been deceived in believing something to be one way when it in fact is not. An example of the latter would be seeing a stick that appears bent in water. The senses tell us that the stick is bent, but we know that the stick actually is not bent. However, Descartes considers that sometimes, perhaps, we must be able to trust the senses. However again, in order to refute this notion, he figures it is possible that he is currently dreaming. Because the possibility exists, this means that physical experience ultimately cannot be Certain:
[E]very sensory experience I have ever thought I was having while awake I can also think of myself as sometimes having while asleep; and since I do not believe that what I seem to perceive in sleep comes from things located outside me, I did not see why I should be any more inclined to believe this of what I think I perceive while awake.
Descartes considers next whether he can still be Certain of some things, at least. Even if one is dreaming, one must still be familiar with simple mathematical concepts – perhaps, that is. Descartes considers the possibility:
[A]rithmetic, geometry and other subjects of this kind, which deal only with the simplest and most general things, regardless of whether they really exist in nature or not, contain something certain and indubitable. For whether I am awake or asleep, two and three added together are five, and a square has no more than four sides. It seems impossible that such transparent truths should incur any suspicion of being false.
However, he discovers yet another refutation against the notion that he considers this time. Perhaps he and we can even doubt mathematical Truth. Perhaps there is an evil genius of some sort making us believe that “three and three equals six.” Perhaps the latter is not actually True, reflects Descartes. The possibility is what matters with this consideration – as unlikely as it may seem. Descartes agrees:
Suppose I am the creation of a powerful but malicious being. This “evil genius”…has given me flawed cognitive faculties, such that I am in error even about epistemically impressive matters – even the simple matters that seem supremely evident. The suggestion is unbelievable, but not unthinkable. It is intended as a justification-defeating doubt that undermines our judgments about even the most simple and evident matters.
In this sense, Descartes can doubt everything that he once believed to be True. Because of the evil genius possibility, this means that simply everything is ultimately un-Certain. However, Descartes stumbles upon the one thing that he and we Absolutely cannot doubt. The general logic is as follows.
- “I am either being deceived or I am not being deceived”
- “If I am not being deceived, I still exist”
- “If I am being deceived, I still exist”
- “I exist”
Despite not knowing whether he is or is not being deceived, Descartes still knows that there is an “I.” In the words of the Father of Modernity himself:
I have convinced myself that there is absolutely nothing in the world, no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Does it now follow that I too do not exist? No: if I convinced myself of something then I certainly existed. But there is a deceiver of supreme power and cunning who is deliberately and constantly deceiving me. In that case I too undoubtedly exist, if he is deceiving me; and let him deceive me as much as he can, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I think that I am something. So after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.
Descartes cannot doubt two things. He cannot doubt existence, and he cannot doubt thought – or the existence of thought. Descartes concludes that what he fundamentally cannot doubt and must ergo acknowledge as being True, is his existence. Unfortunately, his knowledge of Advaita Vedanta is rather lacking. Rather than concluding that he exists as pure being, he sees that he exists as a “thinking thing” or a “mind.” Regardless, however, what Descartes has shown us is that the most fundamental knowledge each one of us humans has, is the Truth of our existing – of existence as such. Descartes has implicitly revealed the first level of what we will consider in this work: the spectrum of knowledge. We will call this first level existential. Existential knowledge is not cogito, ergo sum, but is rather simply sum. We are Certain of awareness, of being, of existence. What follows from the existential level on the spectrum of knowledge is the experiential level.
We cannot doubt that there is a World of some sort, at least, presenting itself to us via what we decide to call “experience.” We cannot doubt that there is experience, whatever it may be. Experiential knowledge is not cogito, ergo sum, nor is it sum. Rather, experiential knowledge corresponds to the word cogito and cogito alone, in Descartes' famous statement. Cogito, “I think,” really means just “thought.” In the cogito statement, there is the subject – sum, I – and there is the object – cogito, “I think” or thought. Experiential knowledge knows that there is an object or objects, whatever it is – whether from sensation, sentiment, and/or reflection. Whereas existential knowledge says, “I exist; there is awareness,” experiential knowledge, instead, says, “There is the World; there is distinction.” Moving along, the next identifiable level on the spectrum is that of perceptive knowledge.
Perceptive knowledge is what we perceive to be relative to the World, which allows us to be Certain that what we are inclined to judge as blatant and unquestionable in fact is blatant and unquestionable. There are several examples that come to mind relative to our perceptive knowledge. Relative to perception itself, at least conventionally speaking, we are Certain that the smaller figure we see that looks quite similar to the larger figure we see, is not actually smaller than its counterpart is; rather, it is farther in distance – relative to the mind, of course. The mind automatically distinguishes between various aspects of the World; it gives us a sense of space and time. With our senses of space and time – with the ability to perceive altogether – we are able to know aspects of experience that experiential knowledge as such, and existential knowledge as such, are by definition unable to know. Descartes is wrong to believe there should even be the possibility that our basic perceptive capabilities are untrustworthy. Furthermore, Descartes is wrong to believe that there is the possibility he is dreaming when he is in fact awake. Knowing that we are in fact awake, when we are in fact awake, is a result of what our perceptive knowledge allows us to judge rightfully. Knowing that we are not in a state of solipsism – that there are other people with minds of their own – is perceptive knowledge.
Perceptive knowledge concerns itself over the most basic elements that are relative to experience in itself. This knowledge knowledge does not figuratively exclusively identify sum, nor does it figuratively exclusively identity cogito. Instead, perceptive knowledge figuratively exclusively identifies the distinction within the cogito statement. Perceptive knowledge is able to distinguish between c and o and g and i and t and o, and all the rest of the letters. Let us continue. Other than the innate and unquestionable principles as they pertain to experience as such perceived by our mind in its most basic use, we have knowledge of the innate and unquestionable principles as they pertain to the ideas within the mind itself; in other words, the “next” most basic use of the mind. Let us let the first three levels we just considered together to form a grander level that is a main level of the spectrum. We will call the latter, which consists of existential, experiential, and perceptive knowledge, basic knowledge.
- “I exist”
- “The World exists”
- “'X' is True of what direct perception tells about the World”
Basic knowledge marks the first main level of the spectrum of knowledge. The next main level from that of basic knowledge is that of objective knowledge. Just as the existential level and corresponding existential knowledge is the first of the three constituting the greater level that is of basic knowledge, so we can see that the logical level and corresponding logical knowledge is the first of the three constituting the greater level that is of objective knowledge.
Logical knowledge is knowledge of logical necessity. Logical knowledge is our ability to detect Reason and to decipher which possibilities on which we reflect correspond to Reason – and which ones do not. Logical knowledge, again figuratively speaking, sees that c and o and g and i and t and o together form the word cogito – for instance. With logical knowledge and from the logical level, there necessarily follows mathematical knowledge and the mathematical level.
The latter is precisely what its linguistic expression implies. Mathematical knowledge is our knowledge of the connection of pure ideas, of pure thought, to one another – and it is our knowledge of why these ideas synthesize what they synthesize. Mathematical knowledge sees not that c and o and g and i and t and o together form cogito; rather, mathematical knowledge sees why. Moving along, the next level from the mathematical is the scientific.
The scientific level and scientific knowledge is the result of all levels prior. With basic knowledge and with logical knowledge, we have mathematical knowledge. Going further, with mathematical knowledge, we have the means to apply this to perceptive knowledge concerning basic elements of physical experience. Scientific knowledge is knowledge regarding the World; this knowledge extends beyond the scope of direct perception or perceptive knowledge.
Perceptive knowledge sees that one thing as it appears is the way that it is. Scientific knowledge uses perceptive knowledge to make justified claims about the World that are not True relative to the perceptive level. Scientific Truth is only such relative to the scientific level. Scientific Truth is not-Truth relative to the mathematical level as such, relative to the logical level as such, relative to the perceptive level as such, relative to the experiential level as such, and relative to the existential level as such. Scientific knowledge knows that cogito is different from sum.
- “there is a necessary (logical) connection”
- “five times four equals twenty”
- “'X' is True beyond what direct perception tells about the World because of what direct perception tells about the World”
Moving along, just as there is the main level of basic knowledge and there is the main level of objective knowledge, so there is the main level of subjective knowledge. Just as the basic level consists of existential knowledge, experiential knowledge, and perceptive knowledge, and just as the objective level consists of logical knowledge, mathematical knowledge, and scientific knowledge, so the subjective level consists of philosophic knowledge, aesthetic knowledge, and mystic knowledge. Just as science and philosophy are relative to one another concerning different general levels of reality, so are objective knowledge and subjective knowledge relative to each other on different main areas of the spectrum.
Philosophic knowledge is knowledge that is not-knowledge relative to scientific knowledge and the scientific level. For instance, the argument for intelligent design is not scientific knowledge at all; it is simply however justified scientific “speculation” – according to a number of people, at least. However, we can agree that the premise for intelligent design is more than sufficient empirical evidence making us Certain that the Universe could not have manifested itself because of pure chance, thus necessitating the existence of an Underlying Synchronizing and Guiding Force. It is far too irrational to believe the latter false, or even ultimately unknowable. Knowing there must be this Force, or Spirit as Creator of the World or God, is not scientific knowledge; rather, it is philosophic knowledge. Just as perceptive knowledge is meaningless relative to the preceding experiential level, so is philosophic knowledge meaningless relative to the preceding scientific level.
All subjective knowledge, in general, (figuratively) sees beyond the statement cogito, ergo sum and understands what the implications of this expression in fact are. Another example of philosophic knowledge, just for the sake of further explanation, is that concerning the of universals or Forms. Relative to the realm of science, such an assertion would be deemed unrealistically speculative and unjustified. However, as we know, there is Certainly sufficient empirical evidence giving us Reason to know and understand, that and why, Plato's theory is not just mere conjecture. Just as scientific knowledge uses everything under it and makes assertions most often about the World, as it is, from a physical standpoint, so philosophic knowledge uses everything under it, most of the time at least, and makes assertions about the World, as it is, from a logical standpoint.
However, the order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things. Philosophic knowledge and scientific knowledge can both be derived from physical contemplation, as they can also be derived from logical contemplation. One seems “more physical” or “less logical” than the other does while the other seems “more logical” and “less physical” than its counterpart does. Furthermore, philosophic knowledge is by definition more abstract than is scientific knowledge – just as scientific knowledge is proportionately more abstract than are all the levels below it. Likewise, aesthetic knowledge is by definition more abstract than is (most) philosophic knowledge.
Although we can apply aesthetic knowledge to the way we interpret something such as the Bible, it is most apparent that we see its application to art in general. People might say that we cannot ever know anything about art and the meaning and Truth that it conveys – but to believe this to be True is nevertheless fallacious. Granted, it is very difficult to know and understand the Truth hidden within the subtle messages artists may choose to incorporate in some or all of their work. However, we know what the main themes of a book or a play may be. We know that Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle is meant to be a satire. We know that Golding's Free Fall is meant to debate the theme of determinism. We know that Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby is meant to criticize the effects of capitalism. Just as we can know art that is as relatively basic to interpret its Truth as is literature, so we can know art that is as relatively complex to interpret its Truth as is painting.
For instance, we know that Plato's gesture upward and Aristotle's gesture downward is meant by Raphael in School of Athens to illustrate the split between the two philosophers, one emphasizing the heavens and celestial Ideas and the other emphasizing the ground and corporeal things – the essential split between Plato and Aristotle, between epistemology, between rationalism and empiricism. In short, even though the Truth that art contains is not immediately shown, we can study and analyze the work and we can reach True conclusions about the intentions of the artist. To return to the mention of the Bible, we can apply the same principle.
For instance, we can consider the story of Genesis. Certainly, we ought not to take the account on a literal basis. However, just as it is more unwise to ignore completely a rather distinct aspect in a book or painting, so it is more unwise to ignore completely the greater significance of the story of Adam and Eve. Perhaps we may agree that we know and understand what the story, if we take it figuratively as we would take a poem or drawing, really means. Perhaps we may agree that we know and understand the significance of Genesis in that it represents how and why humanity became humanity.
Perhaps Adam and Eve before the apple incident represent humanity before it was humanity, meaning before we evolved to become more than mere sensorimotor-perceptive primal beings. When we were apes and monkeys, for instance, this perhaps represents when Adam and Eve were unaware that they were naked, in perfect harmony with the Garden and all nature. Likewise, our race as animals was naked, in perfect harmony – or perhaps equilibrium is better – with our physical surroundings before we evolved. Perhaps the act of eating the apple represents the transition humanity took from animal to human. Perhaps “Knowledge of Good and Evil” simply equates to increased sentience and overall intelligence.
We can agree that we know that Genesis did not literally happen the way that the Bible tells us. However, perhaps we can also agree that the story attempts to convey Truth using abstract language and metaphors – just as nearly any work of art. The way we interpret something such as School of Athens ought to be the way we interpret something such as the Bible. We can see, then, that aesthetic knowledge encompasses art as well as things we can consider art, and handle as art, even though they are not commonly regarded as art. Aesthetic knowledge means nothing relative to (some) philosophic knowledge, just as the same would apply for philosophic knowledge in relation to (some) scientific knowledge. However, aesthetic knowledge is not the most subjective kind that exists. The highest level on the spectrum, as we will see, is mystic knowledge.
William James is notable for what he calls radical empiricism, in which entirely subjective religious or mystical experiences can be considered legitimate scientific proof based on the essential doctrine of empiricism itself. Empiricism holds that knowledge comes from experience. If an experience gives someone knowledge, then we might label this knowledge “empirical” and thus “justified.” Applying the latter to the realm of religious insight and realization, James' radical empiricism holds True. Relative to our knowledge and understanding of what science tells us, we ourselves have no empirical proof backing up what we are inclined to judge. Rather, science and the scientists are the ones who have the necessary proof for making such claims. We only hear what science describes to be the case, and we agree or disagree with these claims based on what seems to make the most sense to us. What mysticism and mystics do is no different, essentially, from what science and scientists do.
Mystics tell us things that only they have experienced. Based on their experiences, these individuals claim to have gained a significantly higher level of knowledge and understanding of the True nature of reality. Buddhism tells us that Emptiness is Form. Jesus tells us that, “I and my Father are one and the same.” Hinduism tells us that the World is Brahman – is Pure Consciousness. Similarly, Ramana Maharshi tells us that there is only the Self – the Atman – the highest level of Truth. These individuals and the traditions to which they belong claim to be Certain that they are not being fooled by whatever they perceive. These individuals tell us that they are not making up everything they say; they claim that they are as Certain of their spiritual experience as they are Certain of their physical experience, because they directly perceive something they previously had not, and something that is unquestionably True. These individuals are no different from scientists in that they are relaying their empirical account to others who have not had such an experience.
How do we know what these people claim is True? In order to answer this question, let us ask how we know what scientists claim is True despite our never having shared what they physically perceive. We know what science or a scientist tells us is True in two main ways. First, what we hear resonates with our current knowledge and understanding of the World. When we hear that atoms consist of electrons and below electrons, there are quarks, we see that this metaphysical scientific notion makes sense – it “fits,” it “feels right.” In addition to the idea as such resonating with us, we also can believe what a scientist claims based on his or her truthfulness.
Wilber is right: We must rely on a person's truthfulness if what they are telling us is impossible to discover first-hand and immediately. If our friend tells us that he or she just saw a shooting star, then we can believe him or her, or we can be skeptical that what he or she says based on the experience is actually the case. Most often, we would Certainly not side with the second option – and why? We are able to know Truth extending beyond our own experiential perception when the person relaying such Truth allows us to detect his or her truthfulness. In short, internal resonance and external truthfulness are what allow us to know that what science tells us is True. We can see that the same principle applies to our knowledge and understanding of mystic Truth in addition to scientific Truth. There is essentially no difference between what the mystic is saying and what the scientist is saying. Likewise, there is essentially no way to interpret the significance of what the mystic tells us other than in terms of resonance and truthfulness. First, does what this person claims to be True resonate with us – does it “work?” Second, does the way that he or she conveys what he or she claims to be True emit truthfulness? In other words, can we tell that this person is not being deceived by his or her perception, and can we tell that this person is telling us the Truth? If one or more of the latter two factors pertain, then we are able to consider the mystic a scientist in a radical sense because he or she has successfully conveyed to us new knowledge and understanding of some aspect of the individual or the World – based on the subjective account of the objective realization belonging to this person. Why, then, is mystic knowledge not scientific knowledge for a number of people, to be sure?
First, these people are unable to know and/or understand what the mystic tells them. Furthermore, naturally, these people are unable to detect the truthfulness of the mystic, whether they are familiar with this person directly or indirectly. Usually, however, the latter is the case because the former is the case. In other words, people who consider the message of the mystics to be far too subjective and meaningless, are people who simply cannot share the same indirect conceptual knowledge as someone who instead considers the message of the mystics – while Certainly subjective – to be likewise Certainly True.
Mystic knowledge entails realization extending beyond the World of common perception. We can gain mystic knowledge by experiencing it ourselves, and we can gain mystic knowledge by acknowledging the experience of others, which we have not shared. Mystic knowledge marks the zenith of the spectrum of knowledge, because it is by far the most subjective and the most uncommon kind of knowledge that people can acquire. Mystic knowledge also completes the main level of subjective knowledge amid the spectrum, which is shown below.
- “the Theory of Forms is True”
- “the Mona Lisa is a self-portrait of da Vinci himself”
- “Advaita Vedanta is a legitimate branch of Truth inquiry”
We may now review the full spectrum, which is likewise shown below.
- basic knowledge
- existential level
- experiential level
- perceptive level
- experiential level
- objective knowledge
- logical level
- mathematical level
- scientific level
- mathematical level
- subjective knowledge
- philosophic level
- aesthetic level
- mystic level
- aesthetic level
We can also see that each sub-level of the spectrum, other than existential and experiential knowledge, further contains a spectrum within itself. For instance, there are some physical perceptions that are more complex than others are. It is more difficult to perceive that an optical illusion is but an illusion, as opposed to perceiving that one object is farther in distance from another. Moving along, there is a sub-spectrum of logical knowledge – simply because there is a spectrum of knowledge at all. We may note that the highest level of one spectrum may still be higher or more complex than a lower level of a spectrum that is higher on the spectrum of knowledge as it is. For instance, wave-particle duality from quantum physics (scientific level) is more complex than is what the story of Genesis really means (aesthetic level).
However, why the aesthetic level is still higher than the scientific level is that aesthetic knowledge overall is more complex and more subjective than is scientific knowledge overall. Going further, nonetheless, we can see that mathematical knowledge begins with basic geometric and arithmetic Truth and extends through differential and integral calculus. The scientific level begins with the first scientific discoveries history has shown, and it ends with the most theoretical findings we have found during the last contemporary paradigm. The way we can understand the sub-spectrum of each sub-level amid the spectrum of knowledge as a whole is through studying the evolution of intellectual knowledge and understanding throughout human existence.
For example, the spectrum of scientific knowledge begins with the first and most basic scientific findings humans have realized – as is the case for logic, and mathematics, and philosophy, and aesthetics, and mysticism. The spectrum begins with existential knowledge, which is our ability to acknowledge that we exist. Existential knowledge is simply the beginning of the “ego,” or the sense of “self.” From a historic perspective, existential knowledge began when humanity advanced evolutionarily enough to realize more than there being danger or food or a mate lurking somewhere nearby. Existential knowledge figuratively began when Eve ate the apple from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
With basic knowledge, the descendants of our race were eventually so fortunate as to discover logic – the power of Reason. Whereas we became self-aware and relatively more intellectually capable during the time of our acquiring basic knowledge, we became rational and yet relatively more intellectually capable during the time of our acquiring objective knowledge. Objective knowledge rests on logical knowledge. Scientific knowledge rests on mathematical knowledge, and mathematical knowledge rests on the ability to detect some sort of logical necessity. Not surprisingly, once our race became to some extent rational, the fields of mathematics, science, and philosophy emerged – although science and philosophy were not yet distinguished from one another at this point. In addition to being rational however, some humans were intuitive.
The distinction between what is rational and what is intuitive is to the distinction between what is objective and what is subjective. Everything is objective but in different degrees, or everything is subjective but in different degrees – or, there is an imaginary divide we can make between the two just as we can discriminate between two parts of any hypothetical dichotomy. Although we can see that Platonism, Renaissance art, and Zen Buddhism – for instance – are relatively abstract yet still legitimate objective fields of study, they are still so much less objective than are – again for instance – formal logic, algebra, and Newtonian physics, that we decide to label the latter objective and its counterpart(s) not-objective or subjective. To return to the previous discussion, however, we can agree that around the time of the emergence of rationality, logic, or objective knowledge, so there was the emergence – though not as widespread – of transrationality, intuition, or subjective knowledge. The Axial Age is a prime example of the latter.
Not only were Pythagoras and Aristotle advancing our knowledge of logic, mathematics, and science, but so, too, during this general time were Gautama Buddha and Plato advancing our knowledge of philosophy and mysticism. We can also view the historic unfolding of knowledge, in accordance with the spectrum we have reviewed, as Auguste Comte describes. Comte tells us that knowledge begins with dominance by religious doctrine, then, dominance by philosophic doctrine, and finally, dominance by scientific doctrine. The latter does not mean that during the religious doctrine dominance, there were no such things as philosophy and science. What Comte means is that religious testament took precedence over philosophic and scientific inquiry. We can see the logic and legitimacy behind Comte's sequence if we acknowledge the unfolding of human inquiry from one metaparadigm to the next.
We have the Traditional Age, the Modern Age, and the Postmodern Age. We can agree that during the Traditional Era – beginning around the first millennium B.C.E. and ending around the second half of the second millennium C.E. – religious doctrine dominated. However, with the coming of the Modern Era to replace the Traditional Era, religion no longer ruled but instead a sort of combination between both philosophy and science. By the time of the Postmodern Era – the transition period to which being the 19th century – however, philosophy had been replaced completely by science. Interestingly, Comte's sequence does not follow the sequence of the spectrum of knowledge in its order. Rather, we begin with religion, which derives from the mystic level but presents itself at the aesthetic level.
Next, we have philosophy, which naturally derives from the philosophic level but also partially from the preceding scientific level. The latter brings us to what replaced philosophy entirely, this being the highest stage of objective knowledge. How can we explain the inconsistency of the nature of the spectrum of knowledge and the unfolding of Comte's three main stages of human understanding? Even though scientific knowledge precedes subjective knowledge in general, this does not mean that science must precede philosophy and religion – which now brings us to and ends us with the concept of the distinction between the three. Let us conclude this account with the following.