How do we know?

Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 25 March 2024

section 2
two modes of knowing: naïve and expert

Perfecting the four ways of acquiring knowledge

The way we use the four ways of acquiring knowledge we discussed in the previous section in our ordinary daily lives is far from perfect, but they can all be perfected, each in its own way. The methods through which they can be perfected are different for each one, and we'll take them up one by one. This time, we'll look at them in the opposite direction from the sequence followed in the previous section: we'll take them up from four to one. The reason to do so is that our collective effort during the last few centuries has gone almost entirely into objective knowledge of the physical and social domains which is knowledge by separative, indirect contact. As a result of this one-sided effort we have become so much better in this way of acquiring knowledge than in the other three ways that to many of us objective knowledge feels like something inherently good and trustworthy, while knowledge acquired by the other three ways gives the impression of being inherently vague and unreliable, if not plain suspect. So, we will move this time from the known to the unknown and start with knowledge of type 4.

4. Knowledge by separative indirect contact

Knowledge by separative indirect is the sense-based knowledge of the physical world, and the expert mode of this type plays a major role in modern science. Modernity has made stunning progress perfecting this way of acquiring knowledge in the physical domain, and we need not detail out the methods it uses here.

The problem with this way of acquiring knowledge is that it can only be used for things and forces in the outer, physical world, and as we saw in the Introduction, almost everything that really matters to people cannot be studied in this manner. Love, the sense of our connectedness with nature and each other, beauty, joy, values are not "things", and they don't belong to the physical world that science can study. They are part of what we are "on the inside", and to find the key for what happens inside of us, we need expert forms of the other three ways of acquiring knowledge.

3. Knowledge by separative direct contact

In the beginning of the 20th century, mainstream psychology tried its hand at professionalising this way of acquiring knowledge, calling it "introspection". Unfortunately, it encountered such serious difficulties that it gave up on it and redefined itself as the science of behaviour.

In itself it was not surprising that introspectionism met with difficulties: introspection is difficult. The tragedy was that the American psychologists who were confronted with these difficulties did not look outside their own culture. If they had done that, they would have realised that the Indian civilisation had developed a highly sophisticated knowledge system and a technology of consciousness with which the difficulties of introspection can be overcome.

To understand why the Indian system works while the way in which the early introspectionists tried to conduct objective observation of inner processes didn't, it helps to have a quick look at why the way science observes the physical outside world does work so well. To understand physical objects and events, science uses a combination of highly disciplined observation of often artificially created experimental situations, sophisticated instrumentation, as well as mathematics and logical reasoning which belong to an entirely different order of reality than the physical stuff that is being studied. By and large, this works well. In most situations our own human biases do not influence the physical processes under study much, and their measurement has become even less prone to human error since we use digital instrumentation. Whatever errors there still are, are due to the organisation of the experiments beforehand, and the interpretation of the results afterwards, places where they are relatively easy to spot.

Without proper instruments rain is probably as difficult to "measure" as anger or the effectivity of therapy. But once you have installed a good instrument to measure rainfall, whether you like rain or what you think about climate change is unlikely to affect your measurements to any substantial degree. When, on the other hand, you want to know whether you have gained from a certain method of therapy, it is rather likely that your feelings towards the therapist, the effort you have put into it, and your ideas about therapy in general, will effect your assessment of the effectivity of the therapy.
   When your query is not about complex inner states, but about what you're thinking, the situtation gets worse. When you ask someone "are you thinking of a yellow elephant?", the question works like a switch that determines the outcome.

But in psychology things don't work in the same way: we cannot avoid human observers and the act of observation effects the psychological processes we try to study in often complex ways. So, if we humans try to understand our own minds, things tend to go wrong. The early German and American introspectionists did try to train their observers, but their basic method of observation still used one part of the mind to study the functioning of another part of the same mind, and the result was comparable to what would happen if a judge would be asked to adjudicate a case in which he or his own family is involved. This is normally not considered acceptable since it would result in an obvious conflict of interest. In the case of introspection in which one part of the mind is asked to observe what happens in another part of the mind, this is a major difficulty, but it is only one of the problems. There are at least four. The second one is, that the ordinary waking mind is not refined enough to study inner processes that are more subtle than those in the surface mind; the third is, that the act of observation tends to affect what is happening; and the fourth problem is infinite regress.1

The Indian solution avoids all four problems, because it is based on a deeper understanding of consciousness and its relationship to the mind. In the ordinary waking state consciousness and mind tend to be entangled and mainstream science takes it for granted that consciousness cannot exist without a functioning nervous system. It takes matter as the primary reality, looks at the brain as a biological information processing unit, and takes consciousness as no more than an "epiphenomenon", property, or side-effect of a small sub-group of these mental processes. The Indian tradition takes consciousness as the primary reality and has found ways to separate consciousness out from the mental processes that ordinarily take place within it. One of the possibilities that then open up, is to watch the activities of one's mind as a completely detached centre of consciousness, a silent witness, or sākṣī. If done well, none of the complications of ordinary introspection occur. Arriving at a state of pure, absolutely silent witness consciousness is of course not trivial, but interestingly, it is actually doable. We'll see later in more detail how this can be accomplished and what it can be used for.2

2. Knowledge by intimate direct contact

As already mentioned, in modern society expert modes of the most outward form of knowledge by intimate direct contact are used in a wide variety of professions. Athletes, dancers and craftsmen use it to train their physical skills and actors use it to master the expression of emotions, but knowledge by intimate direct contact is not limited to what happens on the surface of one's own nature. It can go deeper, and since in those deeper layers we are intimately connected with each other and with everything else that exists, it makes it possible to know others, and even inanimate things and events, as if from the inside. In other words, this is the way of acquiring knowledge that gives access to many of the "anomolous" phenomena studied by parapsychology.

That psychology has till now paid so little attention to this field and sidelines what happens there as "anomolous", is not only tragical but also disingenuous, since the hard sciences have fully accepted that there are forces and phenomena that are not accessible by our human senses. It is as if psychologists have been so mesmerised by the succes of the hard sciences that they are scared to tread outside the safe limits of what they think the physical sciences do, while the physical sciences themselves have crossed the boundaries of what our outer, physical sense-organs can tell long back. Once physicists realised that there might be forces and types of radiation that cannot be perceived with the ordinary human senses, they have constructed instruments that can translate those extra aspects of reality into human-perceptible form. Interestingly this is exactly what the Indian systems of yoga have done, except that their instruments are not physical but psychological: they have created antaḥkaraṇa, inner instruments of knowledge, to study our inner realities.

It is good to realise that the hard sciences would have made no progress whatsover if they had limited themselves to what the ordinary human senses can perceive and if they had refused to create instruments that are sensitive to things the ordinary human senses cannot perceive, things like electromagnetism, x-rays, infrared and ultraviolet light, ultrasound; the list is ever growing. In psychology it is the same: limiting ourselves to what the ordinary physical senses can perceive blocks all possibilities for progress: we must create new instruments of knowledge that can accurately perceive those aspects of reality that the ordinary mind cannot see or that it can see only vaguely or in a distorted manner. The only difference is that the instruments psychology needs to create and perfect must be appropriate for the domain psychology is supposed to study: they must be sensitive to what is happening inside our own human consciousness, and so they must be constructed within our own human nature. And this is what the Indian systems of yoga have done.

1. Knowledge by identity

If we perfect these inner instruments of knowledge well enough and manage to silence the normal working of the mind completely, the resulting inner clarity opens up the way to develop the last way of acquiring knowledge, knowledge by identity, and that to levels way beyond what is presently normal to humanity.

Indian mystics found, thousands of years ago, that if you withdraw your consciousness from the ego and from its entanglement in the ordinary activities of the human mind, it does not diminish, but it expands, and the limits of what can be achieved in this manner appear to be imposed only by the outer nature which can neither express nor bear with anything that goes too far beyond what it is used to. Most Indian schools of spirituality have accepted these limits and either strive for a final release into an effectively transcendent state of infinite bliss beyond the body, or accepted what was called "the householder's path", a temporary compromise in which one continues to live a more or less normal outer life while one tries, on the side, to make at least some effort to increase one's contact with the eternal harmony, light and delight which exist behind the appearance of suffering, imperfection and ignorance that characterise the ordinary human existence.

As mentioned at the end of the chapter on the ongoing evolution of consciousness, one of the main motivations to write this text is Sri Aurobindo suggestion that there is a third option: the possibility of a radical transformation of our nature's capacity to bear and express these higher degrees of consciousness and delight.

Summing up the naive and expert modes of acquiring knowledge.

The naive and expert modess of acquiring knowledge can then be summarised as in Table 2.1.2.

  Way of acquiring knowledge Naïve mode Expert mode
4 Knowledge by separative indirect contact ordinary, sense-based
knowledge of physical world
the hard sciences
3 Knowledge by separative direct contact introspection pure witness (sakshi);
2 Knowledge by intimate direct contact superficial experiential knowledge professional skils
"anomolous" knowledge;
real intuition
1 Knowledge by identity superficial awareness of one's own existence inherently true Knowledge

Table 2.1.2. Naive and expert modes of the four ways of acquiring knowledge

In the next section of this chapter, we will have a look at how the naive and expert modes of the four ways of acquiring knowledge can be used to study the different realms that together make up our complex human existence.


1Infinite regress occurs when the psychologist watches that something happens in his mind; then watches that he watches that something happens in his mind; then watches that he watches that he watches... and so on ad infinitum.

2The details of all that is required to enable a genuine, rigorous exploration of the inner domains are somewhat complex both theoretically and practically, and we will take them up in more detail in the next chapter. How to achieve a fully silent, inner consciousness, we'll take up in Part Four, Working on oneself.