How do we know?

Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 24 March 2024

section 1
Four ways of arriving at knowledge that are used in the ordinary waking consciousness

Humanity has made such incredible progress in science and technology, that many people now think that the explicit, evidence-based knowledge that the hard sciences seek is the only kind of knowledge that can be trusted and pursued systematically. This is tragical, because this kind of objective knowledge is unfit for the study of far too many things that are central to our existence as human beings. Fortunately, there actually are other ways of knowing that can be developed in a systematic and rigorous manner. While the West has focused during the last few hundred years with stunning succes on objective knowledge of the outer, physical side of reality, the Indian civilisation has concentrated for millennia on the inner, spiritual side, and it has found ways to study this inner domain with the same rigour and mental rectitude that science has applied to the outer world.

Bringing the two knowledge systems together is however more complicated than it may look at first sight. The core of the problem is that the study of the inner domain requires not only different methods of enquiry, but also a different understanding of the basic structure of reality as a whole. Since the Indian knowledge system is wider, more complex, and in certain respects more sophisticated than that of mainstream science, incorporating it as a small niche within the existing framework of science is not possible without missing out on what may well be the most important contribution the Indian tradition can make to science: its more complex and sophisticated, consciousness-centred understanding of reality and, with that, its methods for making knowledge of the inner, subjective domain, more reliable, precise and cumulative.1

As I hope to show, the Indian tradition has developed a powerful set of ideas about reality and knowledge that together with its methods for rigorous and effective enquiry in the subjective domain has the potential of making psychology as logically coherent and quickly progressive as the physical sciences already are in their field. But before we have a look at them, we first need to do some basic groundwork, and for this we will start with four well-known ways of acquiring knowledge we all use in our ordinary lives.2

Four ways of acquiring knowledge used in the ordinary waking state

In one of the chapters of The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo lists four ways of acquiring knowledge of which at least the early beginnings are part of our ordinary waking consciousness (LD, pp. 524–532). Sri Aurobindo lists them, in harmony with the Vedic tradition, from the inside out: he starts with the knowledge of the Self, and ends with the knowledge of the outside world.

  1. The first one is "knowledge by identity". In our ordinary waking state, we hardly use this way of arriving at knowledge. The only thing we consciously know by identity is the sheer fact of our own existence. And yet, it is the most important of the four as it includes the implicit, subconscious "know-how" needed to be what we are and do what we do.

    In us, humans, knowledge by identity tends to be covered up, almost entirely, by the other three types of knowledge. As we will see in the next chapter, this is the reason that the Indian tradition recommends silencing the outer parts of the mind not only as the best way to find our own inner happiness back, but also as the best way to develop wisdom and knowledge that is intrinsically true.

    The existence of knowledge by identity is perhaps best understood in the context of the involution and evolution of consciousness we discussed in an earlier chapter. As we saw there, it must be a conscious force that gives each part of the universe its specific properties, and knowledge by identity is the knowledge aspect of that conscious force. In other words, knowledge by identity is the intrinsically perfect and comprehensive knowledge that each thing has of itself. While the consciousness in each entity is to some extent limited and separated out in a manner that is appropriate for that specific entity, it is also, as if in the background, continuous with the consciousness in all other elements and in the cosmos as a whole. So one can look at knowledge by identity as the basic "intelligence" that is there in every individual part of the manifestation and in the whole, and it is the essential oneness between the two that explains the incredible harmony of the whole, where even the simplest physical thing obeys perfectly all laws of nature that pertain to it. Secular mystics like J.D Krishnamurti and Bohm called it the intelligence hidden in the universe. In a more traditional, religious language, one could say that knowledge by identity is the way the Divine knows — and manifests — itself in the world.

    According to the Indian tradition, knowledge by identity is the knowledge that enables all other ways of arriving at knowledge. It is the source of the deep theories about reality that guide our perception, the fundamental rules of logical thinking, a large part of mathematics, the ultimate source of our ability to discriminate between what is true and false, real and unreal, and it may well be the (often unconsciously intuitive) source of the new insights about the physical reality that are at present flooding our human knowledge-space. It might also be the reason that new discoveries, once fully established, so often give the impression that they have actually been no more than the recollection of something that somewhere deep down was already known.

    Once fully developed and purified, Sri Aurobindo considers knowledge by identity the only way of acquiring knowledge that can be made completely reliable. Within Indian philosophy it is known by different names that each highlight one aspect of it. One typical example is the fascinating quaternity of saṃjñāna, ājñāna, vijñāna, prajñāna. Another is ātmavidyā, the knowledge of the Self which contains the largely subconscious link that binds our individual consciousness to the cosmic consciousness that sustains the manifestation as a whole. But to all this we will come back later. We have to consider first the other three ways of acquiring knowledge that tend to fill our minds in our ordinary day-to-day existence.

  2. The second way of acquiring knowledge is "knowledge by intimate direct contact". It is the implicit knowledge we have of things in which we are directly involved. Sri Aurobindo calls it intimate, because in this way of acquiring knowledge we know a thing or process by being directly involved with it, and direct, because we don't need our sense-organs to mediate between ourselves and whatever it is we know. When applied to ourselves, it is known as experiential knowledge, and in the ordinary waking state, it is mainly used for bodily states, physical activities, emotions, attitudes, intentions and so on.

    Knowledge by intimate direct contact is used in all professional skills and attitudes and its systematic training has led to remarkable results in almost all fields of human endeavour, right from management to theatre, dance and sports. It will be interesting to see whether a better theoretical understanding of how it actually works could lead to further breakthroughs not only in these areas but also in areas humanity has till now hardly explored or not at all.

    The reason to consider this possible, is that this kind of knowledge can not only be used to know parts our own nature, but also to know other people, animals, plants and even inanimate things "as if from the inside". So, one specific area where such breakthroughs are likely to happen is that of "anomalous phenomena" like telepathy and synchronicity. Since such phenomena are extremely hard to explain within the boundaries of a purely physicalist understanding of reality, they have till now been met with much scepsis and they have not remotely received the attention they deserve. Once we acknowledge that consciousness and will are as pervasive and continuous throughout reality as mass and electromagnetic force, they don't need to be treated any longer as "anomalous" and it should become possible to study them systematically and effectively. It is hard to predict what a better understanding and mastery in this field could lead to, but it is quite well conceivable that its impact would surpass the effect of our increasing physical knowledge.

  3. The third type is "knowledge by separative direct contact". It is the knowledge we acquire when we try to look pseudo-objectively at what is going on inside ourselves. Sri Aurobindo calls it separative, because we try to look at what is going on inside ourselves objectively, as an outsider, and again direct because here too, the usual sense-organs are not needed.

    In psychology this third type is known as introspection. Psychology cannot do very well without it as it is the simplest way to find out what is going on inside one's mind, but, as the early "introspectionists" found out, it is notoriously difficult to make reliable. We will see in the next chapter how the Indian tradition tackles the difficulties inherent in introspection and we will discuss there the two main methods it uses to enhance introspection’s reliability. As I hope to show, these Indian methods are not only logically impeccable, but also effective and indispensable if we want to take psychology forward.

  4. The last way of acquiring knowledge, Sri Aurobindo calls "separative knowledge by indirect contact", separative because it goes with a clear sense of separation between the observer and the observed, and indirect, because it is dependent on the physical senses.3

    The expert form of "separative knowledge by indirect contact" is known as science, and a tremendous collective effort goes at present into its development. As we are so incredibly good at it and as it can be shared and applied so easily, it plays an ever-increasing role in our society and there is an increasing tendency to think that this is the only way of acquiring knowledge that really works and is worth cultivating.

The four ways of acquiring knowledge as they occur in the ordinary waking state can be put together into a table as follows:


1. Knowledge by identity
Awareness of the simple fact of our own existence
while details are provided by the other three types
Knowledge inherent in existence
2. Knowledge by intimate direct contact
Awareness of our own inner states
by being intimately connected with them
Experiential knowledge
3. Knowledge by separative direct contact
Looking at one’s own mental processes
as if from outside
4. Separative knowledge by indirect contact
Sense-based, constructed knowledge
of the outer world
Factual knowledge

Table 16.1. Four ways of acquiring knowledge that are used in the ordinary waking state


Knowledge by identity enabling the other three ways of acquiring knowledge

Before we can have a closer look at these different ways of acquiring knowledge and at the possibility of developing expert modes for each of them, we have to consider a few caveats which Sri Aurobindo mentions in his discussion of these four distinct ways of acquiring knowledge. The first disclaimer is that, as we already saw, knowledge by identity (type 1) plays a role in the other three ways of acquiring of knowledge.

In experiential knowledge (type 2) this is clear enough, as here we tend to identify, at least partially with our experience: we take what we know as knowledge about ourselves .

In introspection (type 3) it is less immediately apparent, as we do not fully identify with what we see, but try to observe what goes on inside ourselves in as detached and ‘objective’ a manner as we can muster. Still, in introspection we recognize that what we look at is happening within our own being.

In sense-based knowledge (type 4) the involvement of knowledge by identity is perhaps the least obvious, but even here knowledge by identity does play a role in at least two distinct ways.

The first is that even though we normally feel a certain distance between ourselves and the things we observe ‘outside’ of ourselves, we still see them as part of ‘our world’; we feel some inner, existential connection between ourselves, others and the outside world. The degree of this sense of connectedness differs considerably from culture to culture and from person to person.4 On one extreme, there are mystics who feel in a very concrete way one with others and the world. On the other extreme, there are deeply pathological psychotic states in which hardly any connection is felt between one’s self and the rest of reality. The ordinary consciousness of most people wavers somewhere between these extremes.

The second manner by which knowledge by identity supports all other forms of knowledge is not through this existential sense of connectedness, but through the structural core of their cognitive content. According to Sri Aurobindo, the information the senses provide is far too incomplete and disjointed to create the wonderfully precise and coherent image that we make of the world. He holds that there must be some inner knowledge, some basic ‘idea’ about how the world hangs together that helps the mind to create meaning out of the raw "data" which our senses provide.5

Mixed patterns

A second thing to keep in mind is that these four types of knowing are not entirely separate or exclusive of each other. There are smooth transitions between them, and in the semi-conscious state in which most of us conduct our daily lives, they tend to get mixed up together.

When I get angry, for example, the anger can invade different parts of my nature and the way I know myself will be effected accordingly. If the anger is strong I will fully identify with it and to some extent become the anger. I know the anger then through type 2, experiential knowledge.

If the anger is less strong, part of my mind may stand apart and watch what is going on semi-objectively. I observe then that I do not think clearly, that I have a cramp in my stomach and that there is a nagging fear in me that things are going wrong (type 3, introspection).

If I distance myself even further from the anger, I will look at my own outside behaviour, notice that I don't speak very clearly, that my hands tremble and that the person I am talking to looks nonplussed about what I am so worked-up about (type 4, sense-based knowledge).

On the other hand, if I live deep within, I will identify with something that remains entirely unaffected and I will know that I am what I am, that the world is what it is, and that, in spite of anything that may happen on the surface, all is well (type 1, knowledge by identity).

The difference between experiential knowledge (type two) and introspection (type three).

It may be useful to pay attention to the difference between the second and third ways of acquiring knowledge. When I’m very happy, for example, I need not observe myself to find out whether I am happy or not. I can stay directly with the happiness, and exclaim, in full identification with my feelings, "What a great day it is!" I know the state I'm in, but not in a representative, objective manner. I know then what and how I am through knowledge of type two as if from within, through a direct intimacy with the inner state or process. If I would look at myself in a (pseudo-)objective manner, through introspection of type three, I would say something like "Hey, today I’m happy", and this would imply a certain distance from the happiness.

One might think that the introspective mode of knowing oneself (type 3) goes more with the mind, while experiential knowledge, knowledge ‘by being with’ (type 2), goes more with one’s feelings and body-sense, but this is not always the case: When I fully identify with my thoughts, I might say, for example, "Shankara is one of the greatest philosophers the world has seen". There is then a mixture: the thought itself belongs to the realm of ‘separative knowledge’ (type 4), while there is at the same time a possibly vague and implicit self-awareness of thinking this which belongs to the realm of ‘knowledge by intimate direct contact’ (type 2). If I slightly doubt whether what I think is actually true, or if I take some distance from my own thinking for another reason, I might say: "Hey, I think that Shankara is one of the greatest philosophers (while you don't)." There is then a mixture of type 3, introspection, with type 4, sense-based knowledge.

A completely different example of a fruitful collaboration of these different types of knowing we have already alluded to: it is provided by science. Science consists largely of a patient intellectual labour to collect knowledge of type four, but there are stages when knowledge of type one, two and three play a significant role.6

All these different ways of being aware of our own state can follow quickly one after the other or even be there at the same time. The beauty is, that once these different ways of knowing become more clear to oneself, one can learn to move from one to the other at will, which creates a wonderful inner freedom which, in due time, can lead to more reliable inner knowledge and wiser action.

In the next section, we will have a look at the expert versions of these four different ways of acquiring knowledge.


1It is true that certain techniques that have their origin in the Indian tradition, like mindfulness and hathayoga, have been found to be beneficial in fields like counselling and self-help even when used in a "decontextualised" manner, but without the deeper understanding of the knowledge systems on which they are based, it is a bit like using the techniques with which Michelangelo made his beautiful statues for making marble kitchen sinks and coffee tables: it is a good thing to do, we all need kitchen sinks and it is great to have a really beauteous coffee table, but it misses the point. The real treasures hidden within the Indian knowledge systems will become visible only when we study them in the context of the Indian understanding of reality and our place within it. Only then can we understand how they saw the inner, psychological domain and how they managed to make their knowledge of it so effective and reliable. Doing so is not easy, as it requires a very different attitude towards life, work, and self, but as I mentioned earlier, the stakes are high. Humanity has become far too powerful for its own good and we are in urgent need of a better understanding of ourselves.

2There are of course many other ways of subdividing different ways of acquiring and using knowledge. Some other ways we have found useful are given in this chapter of the Appendix.

3Most of us would call what we perceive with our own eyes and ears "direct knowledge" because it is based directly on our own experience. Sri Aurobindo, who lived much deeper within, calls sense-based knowledge indirect because it is mediated by our sense-organs and needs an elaborate process of semi-conscious mental construction before it reaches an acceptable level of accuracy. For him only intuitive knowledge is direct as it comes as if "ready-made" from inside. Modernity is sceptical about intuition, but we have already suggested some reasons why it must be there and we will see later how it can be made more reliable.

4In the chapter on the structure of the Personality we have attempted an overview of where different cultures and knowledge systems place the borders of the self.

5In principle, research in Machine Learning should be able to tell whether new knowledge can be constructed entirely by induction out of raw data or that some pre-existing knowledge or purpose is required to "make sense" out of these data.

6In the daily practice of science, one encounters all kind of immixtures from the side of the life energy. A short description of the different ways in which the immixture of "vital" impulses can vitiate intellectual discourse has been given in the chapter on the different centres of consciousness from where people operate in daily life.