Avidya, Ajnana, Maaya, Ignorance: a learning process –S.N.Balagangadhara

  1. When we speak about ignorance, we can do so in two ways. One is by talking about ‘how the world is’; the other is by talking about ‘how we think the world is’. Even though we could use both ways to characterize ‘ignorance’, they are not coextensive (or synonyms) because (a) they are about different things – in the first case it is about the world; in the second case it is about what we take to exist in the world – and, therefore, (b) they have different consequences.

    Let me illustrate this difference by taking up the snake-rope metaphor. The first way says how the world is: ‘there is a rope on the path’. The second talks about what we take to exist in the world: ‘she believed that there was a snake on the path’. What caused the person to shudder? Her belief that there was a snake on the path. This distinction is easily understood in this case because we are able to neatly partition the two halves: what there is in the world and what we believe to exist in the world.

  2. Our problem begins when we go to the next stage of questioning: how do we explain our reactions in the world? Let us use the snake-rope metaphor again: (i) she did not at all know what was there on the path; (ii) she did not know that there was a rope was on the path; (iii) she believed that a snake was on the path. However, why shudder? The fact that she did not at all know what was there on the path does not explain the event of shuddering: if you do not know what there is, you do not shudder (assuming some facts about human psychology). Neither does the second possibility explain: if you do not know that a rope was on the path, you do not shudder either. However, provided we know that she shuddered, we can look elsewhere for an explanation for the shudder. If we do not at all know how the person reacted, then the sentence (‘she did not know there was a rope on the path’) appears incomplete: why talk about what she did not know? For this sentence to be complete, we need to know how the person responded. If we know this, and also know what there is in the world, then the second possibility functions as a heuristic in looking for explanations. Like all heuristics, this sentence appeals to what we assume to be true about human psychology.

    So, the first possibility, namely she did not know what was there on the path, merely tells us what she did not know. However, this sentence cannot explain anything, even if we knew how the person reacted. Nor does it tell us where to look for an explanation. If we are merely told that the person did not know what was on the path and that the person shuddered, we can come up with any ‘explanation’: the person might have suddenly felt chilly; the person might have remembered some incident; the person might have seen a ghost; and so on. Assuming that a person was walking on the path, the sentence takes the following form: ‘she shuddered and did not know what was on the path’. Could we say ‘she shuddered because of the ignorance of what was on the path?’ We cannot: to say this, we have to further assume that the shudder had to do with what was there on the path. But this is merely an assumption on our part; we do not know this to be true. So all we can do is take the sentence at its face value and let the conjunction (‘and’) function purely linguistically: “the person did not know what was on the path and he shuddered”.

    In the second case, by telling us what was there on the path, namely a rope, and telling us that the person did not know this, the sentence suggests that we need to relate the shudder to ‘something’ on the path. That is to say, the second possibility tells us more. It tells us that the response has something to do with what was on the path, viz., a rope and that it has also something to do with the ignorance of the person about that fact. If we draw upon our knowledge of human psychology to explain the shudder, then we can begin formulating the problem: ‘what could appear like a rope and cause a shudder in a human being?’ In this sense, this sentence forces us to look for something else that explains the shudder and puts some minimal constraints on what that explanation should look like. But this constraint is minimal: it merely allows us to assume that the fact that he does not know the truth about the world has something to do with his response. However, neither of the two explains on its own in the sense that we need to add additional premises, if we have to explain the shudder. This is what ‘ignorance’ is: absence of knowledge.

    However, there is an interesting difference between these two cases. In the first case, ignorance, or absence of knowledge, is with respect to what there is in the world. Were we to know how we react in the world and also know which aspect of the world we react to, even then, we cannot choose between the different explanations as to why we react the way we do. We would also not know where to look for that ‘right’ explanation. We know that the person shuddered and we also know that the person did not know what was on the path. But it is not clear whether the person reacted to something on the path and what, if any, her ignorance (or absence of knowledge) about that aspect of the world had to do with the act of shuddering. In other words, the mere fact of ignorance about some aspect of the world and our responses in the world does not tell us what, if any, is the relationship between some aspect of the world and our responses to it. We would suspect that there is a problem to be solved (or that we should provide an explanation) without knowing what precisely that problem is. We get an ill-defined problem where we have to answer questions about our reactions. Our ignorance about some aspect of the world does not even contribute to defining the problem-situation. That is to say, our problem becomes one of explaining why some person shudders. That person’s lack of knowledge about what there was on the path merely tells us where that incident took place; it is not even obvious that the path has anything to do with the event of shuddering.

    With respect to suffering, this possibility is akin to the following: you are suffering and you do not know the nature and structure of the Cosmos. It might be the case they are related; it might be the case they are unrelated. All you have on your hands is the following: why are you suffering? We do not know where to look for the answer.

    The second case narrows our field of search. It tells us that we are ignorant of some specific fact about some specific aspect of the world. Or it characterizes our ignorance as an absence of some specific knowledge item. It circumscribes our ignorance in terms of the truth about the world: the world is structured in ‘some way’ (“there is a rope on the path”) and that we are ignorant of this structure. Because of this circumscription, this functions as a heuristic. It tells us to draw upon the knowledge we already have about the relevant aspects of the world (our ideas about human psychology) to frame the problem. It does not explain or solve the problem of the shudder but it tells you about the likely place you have to search in, if you want a solution.

    With respect to suffering, the above takes the following form: ‘you are suffering because you do not know things are transient and impermanent’. We can appreciate why this puts only minimal constraints on our explanation because we can easily imagine a response that goes as follows: “of course, I know things are transient and impermanent; that is why I lost my wife to death. Hence the reason for my suffering “. We can also imagine an analogous response with respect to our metaphor: “of course I know that it is a rope; that is why I shudder; the rope makes me think of the gallows.” In other words, even if we were to supplant ignorance of some particular fact with knowledge about the same, our explanation could turn out to be wrong. We need to further assume that the assumptions we make about human psychology also hold true in particular cases.

  3. She shudders because she thinks there is a snake. Now, if we know the structure of the world (or believe we know it), we can characterize this is a false belief. There are two important things to note here. First: the belief might be false, but she believes that it is true (at that moment). That is to say, the presence of this belief and assumption she makes about its truth are required to explain why she shudders. Second: one can say that this belief is false provided we know either (a) there could have been no snake there or (b) there was a rope. This either/or is not the same: in one case we know that there could be no snake (even if we do not know what else was there); in the other we know what there is.

  4. In the snake-rope metaphor, the absence of knowledge does not/cannot explain the shudder; false belief does. This is the point I have been repeatedly making. Indeed, one of the explanations for suffering in the world is the set of (false) beliefs which we entertain because we think they are true: the ‘I’ is the body, the mind, wealth, power, status, etc.

  5. When I speak of ‘ignorance’ conceived negatively, I have the ‘absence of knowledge’ mind. I say that this does not explain suffering (any more than it explains the shudder in the snake-rope metaphor). However, when I want to speak of “ignorance conceived as a positive force”, I want to talk of something entirely different. I am trying to answer the following question: why do people, across generations and cultures, come to have the same sets of commonsense beliefs about who they are? I mean to ask: why is it that every human being (more or less) learns that the ‘I’ is the body, the mind, wealth, power, status? This question opens up a hornet’s nest. Let me outline some of the issues.

  6. In the first place, we have to describe a learning process as something that produces false beliefs about the nature of the ‘I’. In some senses, there is something strange about coupling a learning process with the production of false beliefs. In our language-use, we speak of knowledge as the product of a learning process. That is to say, we tend to speak of learning only when such a process leads to knowledge acquisition. Even though unclear about what the relationship between truth and knowledge is, we relate knowledge to truth and not to falsity. At the minimum, we do not say that some sets of sentences are ‘false’ and thus ‘knowledge’. In this sense, there is the problem of making sense of a learning process that produces false beliefs even if the object under question is the ‘I’.

    One way of solving this problem is to suggest that we constantly formulate hypotheses about the world to account for what we see and do. Then we have a situation where we make best guesses about the world (our hypotheses), which we entertain only as long as they are not proved false or better ones do not come along. Instead of speaking about how knowledgeable we are, we can only speak about how ignorant we are. ‘Truth’ becomes the end-goal of our hypothesis production. In this case, we can speak about learning as an act of hypothesis generation.

  7. Whether we take this route or not, there is a second notable problem. To what should we appeal in order to explain why all people come up with the same (or similar) hypothesis regarding the ‘I’? One of the strategies used in the natural sciences is the following: postulate a new hypothesis about the same phenomenon and show how (minimally) the earlier hypothesis and its consequences are derivable from the new hypothesis. Formulated differently: make a distinction between ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’ and show that the nature of reality generates the structure of the appearance. For instance: we believed in the geocentric nature of the solar system. By relegating it to the world of appearance, the reality was shown to be the heliocentric in nature. The appearance (movement) of the sun became a necessary consequence that required an explanation.

    If we take the Indian insights into the nature of the ‘I’ seriously, we see that this approach will not work. The reality of the ‘I’ does not in any sense cause the illusion that the ‘I’ is the body, the mind, agency, wealth, power, or whatever else. Consequently, we are forced to rethink the relationship between how we experience the ‘I’ and the nature of the ‘I’. Our experiences of the ‘I’ are not the appearances; the true ‘I’ is not the reality hidden behind the appearances.

    If this is the case, enlightenment is not a movement that traces the effects to their cause. We cannot describe the experience of the ‘I’ as a logical consequence of the structure of the ‘I’. These two belong to different realms or levels without a causal or a logical relationship between them. Nevertheless, it is possible to move from the level of experience to the other level.

    Thus, the Indian traditions cannot possibly claim that our experiential world is an illusion, underlying which there is the ‘real’ world. Therefore, ‘Maaya’ cannot be an ‘illusion’ and unreal. In so far as ‘Maaya’ is responsible for our daily experiences in the world, if anything, ‘Maaya’ would be real and be a cause of our experiential world. This brings us to the next problem.

  8. We have now two sets of questions. One pertains to the generation of false beliefs about the ‘I’; the second is about the nature of reality. Let us begin with the first one. ‘Maaya’ is itself the learning process or the learning process is an element (or a component) of ‘Maaya’. The learning process generates certain false beliefs about the world. Either this learning process itself is ‘Maaya’ or, other things, components of ‘Maaya’, contribute to the generation and fixation (or reproduction) of these false beliefs. Let us work with this hypothesis for some time and turn our attention to the second set of questions.

    ‘Maaya’ is real (because it exists) and so are its effects. The ‘I’ is also real. So, either we talk about two ‘realities’, the ‘false reality’ and the ‘true reality’ or we say that ‘existence’ and ‘reality’ do not coincide: what exists is not real just because it exists. So, we have to say, ‘Maaya’ exists; so do its effects. But neither is real. Quite apart from saying what ‘reality’ and ‘existence’ mean in this context, we are confronted by yet another weighty problem: that of truth.

  9. Consider our commonsense notion of truth, often called the ‘Aristotelian concept of truth’, which says that “truth is to describe what is there as it is there”. For the moment, let us accept the idea that ‘truth’ is a linguistic property of statements. That is to say, let us agree that we can speak sensibly about whether or not some sentence is true. If we accept this convention, we can say the following: the statements that describe existence are true; the statements that describe the real are also true. That is, it is true that the ‘I’ is body etc because this ‘I’ exists; it is also true that ‘I’ is not body etc. because this ‘I’ is real. Some statement about the ‘I’ is either true or false depending on what it describes: whether it describes what exists or whether it describes what is real. (We need to keep in mind that both what exists and what is real can be experienced.) We can avoid the problem of speaking about two kinds of truth, the conventional truth and the Adhyatmic truth, by distinguishing between what exists and what is real.

  10. However, many Indian traditions also use the predicate ‘truth’ to characterize what is real. The real is what is permanent, unchanging and unconditioned. It is rather tempting to suggest that such ideas about the real are derivative of our linguistic intuitions about the nature of truth: a true statement remains true under all circumstances; a true statement does not become false; and so on. If we go in this direction, we can understand why the Indian traditions claim that the real is permanent, unchanging and unconditioned: they have simply projected the linguistic intuitions about truth onto the world. We can also show that logic and philosophy has progressed since then because we are able to retain these linguistic intuitions without having to speak about the world in these terms. Furthermore, we can also give up the distinction between reality and existence. Our ontologies take on manageable forms.

  11. Though tempting, the above route faces two kinds of difficulties. The first involves some of the assumptions it makes: (a) with respect to the Indian thinkers, we have made progress in the area they were busy with; (b) the problems of contemporary philosophy and that of the Indian thinkers are the same; (c) our language-use almost completely determines our experiences; (d) the experiences of the Indian thinkers require no further explanation than that they were mistaken; and so on.

    The second kind of difficulties has to do with what it cannot explain satisfactorily. (a) Why do the idea and the process of “a search for truth” resonate so deeply in the Indian traditions? (b) Why downsize the possibility that the Indian thinkers were busy in making sense of experience? (c) Why should there not be an experience of the real ‘I’? (d) How to make sense of the experience of those many Gurus who also talk in terms similar to those from yesteryears? And so on.

  12. This lengthy digression had to do with the hornet’s nest of philosophical problems opened up by an earlier suggestion (in point 5): “why is it that every human being (more or less) learns that the ‘I’ is the body, the mind, wealth, power, status?” Answering this question in a satisfactory way requires a hypothesis that is powerful enough to suggest answers also to some of the problems mentioned above.

  13. Currently, I am working with a hypothesis which includes the two notions of ignorance that the Indian traditions talk about. The first looks at Ignorance as the absence of knowledge (see point 3). This kind of ignorance is a precondition for knowledge. We want to have knowledge precisely because we are ignorant.

  14. Then, there is ignorance conceived as a learning process. This learning process is a hindrance to knowledge because it continually generates false beliefs about the world. The point to note here is not merely the fact that we have false beliefs. If that is all there is to it, reading a Buddha or a Shankara would be sufficient to dispel all such beliefs and enlighten us. However, this happens rarely, if at all. We do not get enlightened by merely reading either the Buddha or the Upanishads because such readings do not interfere with the learning process that generates false beliefs. As long as this process continues to function, it reproduces and sustains our false beliefs. To be sure, the Indian traditions often speak about false beliefs, which knowledge dispels: they use several analogies like the sun and the mist, the light and darkness, and so on to illustrate this point. In that case, we can consistently talk about ignorance in terms of beliefs alone: the absence of beliefs about some object and the presence of false beliefs about the same object. While this would be convenient, it could also makes us forget the more important question: why is there a necessity for false beliefs, i.e., why do all of us succumb to false beliefs so easily? In order not to lose this focus, I speak about ignorance as a learning process.