Objective and Subjective Knowledge

We see something with our eyes or hear something with our ears and we believe that we know that it is an external reality, which we all perceive and can agree upon. We put in a separate category those things that we perceive through forms of knowing that do not depend on sense perception, and which are not subject to validation by others automatically.

If we examine what we truly know and how we know it, eventually we have to conclude that whether the impulse is external or internal, it is referred to the brain through a series of electrical and chemical impulses that the brain then tries to interpret. We do not actually directly know what we perceive externally, but only know it because an impulse has been sent through our nervous system and been interpreted. It is possible, in fact, to directly create impulses in the brain which mimic external stimuli and thus, what we then believe we have seen or heard, is actually just an electrical impulse in the brain, not an actual external object. Additionally, since everything is subject to interpretation in order to be ‘known’, we frequently find that misperceptions or misinterpretation provide us a false view of reality.

We perceive the sun moving around the earth, but in fact, this ‘common knowledge’ has been debunked and we now can intellectually understand that what we see with our eyes in the external world is not being interpreted accurately and thus, we fall into falsehood with our external perceptions.

While we believe that we all can agree on certain objective observations, in fact, the courtrooms of this world are rife with multiple percipient witnesses who disagree on what actually happened. So even this test of objectivity eventually fails.

This brings us to subjective knowledge. All our external perceptions in the end turn into subjective knowledge. Does it really matter, in the end, whether this subjective knowledge comes through an impulse travelling up the nervous path from the external sensory organs, or whether we experience something directly in the mind? We do not perceive, for instance, emotions with the senses, but we nevertheless all attest to the reality of the emotions we experience. Similarly, we do not experience thought through the sense organs, but directly in the mind, generally as a type of ‘voice’ that we hear internally. Thought nevertheless is a real experience that has effects in the external world.

We now recognise the mind as the ultimate organ of perception and while we generally agree on five external sense organs, can we definitively exclude other perception mechanisms including direct mental perception?

Sri Aurobindo observes: “Subjective visions can be as real as objective sight — the only difference is that one is of real things in material space, while the others are of real things belonging to other planes down to the subtle physical; even symbolic visions are real in so far as they are symbols of realities. Even dreams can have a reality in the subtle domain. Visions are unreal only when these are mere imaginative mental formations, not representing anything that is true or was true or is going to be true.”

“This power of vision is sometimes inborn and habitual even without any effort of development, sometimes it wakes up of itself and becomes abundant or needs only a little practice to develop; it is not necessarily a sign of spiritual attainment, but usually when by practice of yoga one begins to go inside or live within, the power of subtle vision awakes to a greater or less extent; but this does not always happen easily, especially if one has been habituated to live much in the intellect or in an outward vital consciousness.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 7, Experiences and Realisations, Supraphysical Vision, Audition, Sensation, pp. 189-193

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