How to know anything at all?

How to know something in its truest essence? This appears to be a strange question. But herein lies one of the greatest mysteries of science and spirituality.

The knowledge that we think we know is mostly Objective Knowledge. That is to say, the knowledge that is based on some measurable and definable properties of the object that is being observed. Let’s take an example: If someone were to ask us if we know what an apple is, we would say yes. Our understanding of what an apple is would be based on our knowledge of it acquired through our sense organs – color, texture, taste, smell, and so on. The sense organs convey information to our brains (or minds) and here we give meaning to the form. The meaning could be “Tasty and Nutritious”. Meaning is a function of our past memories and the culture that we are conditioned in. Take for example a culture that doesn’t know wine – they would see, smell and taste it, but might find it absolutely revolting. They certainly wouldn’t understand the social context of wine drinking. But the form of the wine would remain the same irrespective of the culture. Therefore any knowledge has two components – the raw form and the meaning which is the interpretation.

This concept of the form works well for the human species. However, breaks down when we ask different species to act as observers of our apple. Here’s a theoretical experiment. Let’s line up a set of observers – a human, a chimpanzee, a dog, a cat, a mouse, a bacteria. All these observers perceive the same object – the apple. Now, both the form and the meaning will change based on who is looking at it. Some creatures have eyes but maybe color blind. Therefore they miss seeing the beautiful red color of the apple. Some species do not have eyes at all – they cannot detect the apple visually. Even within humans, there might be considerable variation – what if someone is color blind or has a cylindrical vision. It quickly becomes apparent that there cannot be “one definite view of what an apple really is”. It depends on who is observing it. Or more accurately, it depends on the capabilities and limitations of the observer’s sensory apparatus.

What we objectively know an apple to be is only a representation of the object we call an apple according to the capabilities of our sensory apparatus. We cannot really know what an apple truly is, because whoever or whatever measures it, will be presented with a representation based on one’s own sensory limitation. So all knowledge gathered from our sensory apparatus or extensions of it through instruments is bound to be limited. They are only species-specific approximations. There is simply no way we can truly and fully know what a thing really is. For this, we would have to have an infinite number of sensory apparatus, after which we would have to stitch these infinite versions together to make a comprehensive view of an apple. This is impossible.

This points to a fascinating conclusion. The objective world of reality is relative. There is no “definite version of reality”. Quantum physics of course says the same thing in a much more complex and scientifically accurate manner. They conclude that the observer determines the observed object. Or in other words, the thing in itself doesn’t exist until an observation is made. This does not mean that the observer creates reality. It only means that with the observation comes about the representation of reality. We create the image of an apple, and not the apple itself. This distinction must be made. Therefore, we can never truly know what a thing is from objective measurements of it. But does this mean that we can never know a thing at all?

This is where the second category of knowledge is needed – subjective knowledge. Unfortunately, the word subjective has come to be used in terms of something which is relative. For instance, art is subjective, so is beauty. But this is not what is meant by subjective here. Subjective knowledge in our case of the apple experiment is knowing an apple the way it knows itself. What is a thing in itself? As understood by itself? On a casual analysis, this appears impossible. How can we know anything subjectively? We need to ‘be’ an apple to know an apple. We can never know what an apple is by making objective measurements.

This brings us to the path of the mystics, the meditators, and the sages. They understood that true knowledge cannot be gained through objective means because this is limited. Not that these observations and the laws that stem from them aren’t necessary or useful. They are. They have a place. But as a seeker of understanding, or knowledge and truth – or a philosopher in the truest classical sense – subjective knowledge is critical. And the only way we can know something subjectively, is by starting with ourselves. We are the subject ourselves and perfectly suited to know ourselves subjectively.

So how can we go about knowing ourselves subjectively? Meditation. And in particular, the ‘neti’ technique developed in ancient India. The word ‘Neti’ (Sanskrit : नेति) is a composite word with ‘Na’ and ‘Iti’ or ‘Not – this’. In the Neti technique, we eliminate all that can be known objectively. We start with the world. Can the world be known objectively? The answer is an obvious ‘yes’. The world in perceived by ‘me’ and therefore is apart from me the subject. We, therefore, eliminate the world as ‘not me’ – the subject. We then come to the body. The body can be perceived and therefore is also an objective experience. We eliminate this as ‘me’. Then the thoughts. The thoughts can be known by me. This indicates a distance from the subject that knows them. This is eliminated too. Finally, the emotions are also known by me and are eliminated. What remains?

We are not the world, the body, the thoughts, and the feelings. But we perceive all of this. Who is the ‘I’ that perceives all of this? We think we are an “I”. But when investigated thoroughly, we come to realize that the “I” isn’t present in a thought, nor an emotion, nor the body, and certainly not out there in the world. And here is the greatest realization. The “I” simply does not exist. Our perceptions, thoughts, and emotions posit the existence of the I, but it is pure fiction – imaginary. There is no independent I that exists. This can be thoroughly unsettling for many of us and rightfully so. We have based our life on this I entity that knows, that feels, that is hurt by others’ comments, that succeeds or fails in the world. But the I cannot be found.

This revolutionizes the way we experience ourselves. We aren’t this limited, finite, separate I located somewhere in the body and the mind. We aren’t this independent I that controls, that accepts or rejects experience. In fact the separate I does not exist. So what are we?

All that we can say is there is the undeniable knowledge that there is existence or in other words that I am. There is also the undeniable knowledge that there is experience or that I know. Beyond this nothing more can be said. The subjective understanding of ourselves is this – there is knowing and there is the experience of things (things being perceptions, thoughts and feelings). A deeper investigation into the knowing and experiencing of things reveals something absolutely startling. They are two sides of the same coin. There is one knowing-experiencing. Nothing more can be said of that. We may call this consciousness at the risk of being associated with the new age movement. But if we are to define consciousness as ‘the ability to know’, then yes, this knowing-experiencing can be termed as consciousness.

Let us think of experiencing as a thread that connects two knots at each end – where one end is the observer and the other the observed object. Through the Neti process, we have established that there is no “I” observer. However, there exists observing or experiencing, or knowing, which is the line connecting the two knots. What about the object? We can never know the object subjectively. So whatever we know of the object is an experience of it – a representation of the real thing. This image or representation is experienced by the knowing. The object cannot be known without the knowing of it. And we have to make the assumption that it doesn’t exist outside of observation – for how can it be known? Therefore the perceived object also drops away. All that is left is a field of knowing – experiencing or consciousness.

This is the highest realization that one can aspire to in life. There is consciousness. It’s not that I am conscious. Just that consciousness is. And that is all. All of reality is this knowing-experiencing. When we come to this subjective understanding – not just of ourselves but also the object, we can truly know. Not know an object, or know the subject. But be knowing itself. This knowing has no dimensions, no taste, no texture – in fact, it cannot be defined in terms of senses or space, or time. It is ever-present, unchanging, eternal, dimensionless. That which is: here-now.

This is the direct knowledge of oneself as pure knowing. And to my understanding, a knowledge that can liberate us from eternal suffering.

A spice market in South India – truly engaging the senses. Sringeri.2022.

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