Truth and Falsity in Indian Philosophy

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By and large, classical Indian philosophy treats truth within an epistemological context, and different theories of truth are connected with different theories of knowledge. Truth is regarded as a property of cognitions, not of sentences or propositions, although it is presupposed that a true cognition, if appropriately verbalized, would be expressed by a true statement. Cognitions form dispositions or beliefs, but the concept of a belief is also not in the forefront in classical Indian analyses. Modern interpreters tend to use the term veridicality, rather than truth, because of this focus. Cognitions are episodic psychological events divided into types according to epistemic and other criteria, and perceptual, inferential, testimonial, and hypothetical veridical (true) cognitions are not only the results of processes that are veritable "knowledge sources" (pramāa ) but are also causes of effort and action, including speech. A cognition has objecthood, its indication or intentionality, which is a feature it can share with other cognitions: two people can have the same cognition in this sense. Against such a background, contested issues include, most notably, the nature of veridicality as a cognitive property and the nature of justification, that is, how veridicality is known.

Preclassical and Early Classical Metaphysics

Classical Indian philosophy proper stretches from about 100 BCE to the modern period (1800s and beyond). Earlier Vedic and Upanishadic thought, along with rejection of a Brahmanic worldview by Buddhists, Jainas, and materialists, sets the stage for the professional reasoners. According to yogis and mystics of an early age (recorded in Upanishads, "mystic treatises," from about 800 BCE) consciousness has lost its native state of bliss and self-awareness. It can be recovered through meditation and various practices of yoga and religious discipline. Buddhist literature develops the theme: The world is a dream from which one needs to awaken to an emptiness brimming with delight and compassion, or, in still later Hindu literature, awaken to one's true self as one with the Absolute Brahman. Nonveridical perception is held up as an analogue to one's everyday lack of awareness of Brahman (nirvāa ).

Brahman is the real, the "truth" in a metaphysical sense, and spiritual knowledge, which is compared to veridical perception and is true in some higher sense of the word. Mystical sublation shows Brahman to be the real (sat, being), as a sublating perception shows a rope formerly misperceived as a snake to be the rope that it is. Such reasoning becomes crystallized as the doctrine of two truths common in much Buddhism and Vedānta (i.e., Hindu schools of Upanishadic philosophy). Indeed, Advaita (Nondualist) Vedānta develops a theory of three truths: the true (cognition, or consciousness, of Brahman), the indeterminable (cognition that is true of the world but not of Brahman, for example, a veridical cognition of water), and the false (not true of the world, for example, a dream or mirage). In Buddhism, a four-cornered negation is said to characterize nirvāa or speech about nirvāa: not F, not not-F, not (F and not-F), and not not (F and not-F). The logic and language of everyday life do not apply.

Metaphysical controversy marks the beginning of classical Indian philosophy, which is defined by texts devoted to systematic presentation of worldviews complete with supporting arguments and attacks on rival theories. Jaina logicians developed a theory of seven-truth perspectives to support their nonabsolutism (anekāntavāda ) in metaphysics or perspectivalism, the view that truth is relative to a perspective. (Some have seen in this way ahisā [non-injury]the core teaching of Jainismapplied to the life of the mind.) Every philosophy has something to be said for it. Every judgment has a grain of truth, as tied to a particular take on things, but, likewise, the negation of every judgment, and their combination. A fourth naya (perspective) is inexpressibility: every cognition has something about it that is paradoxical or ineffable in another fashion. Further combinations result in seven modes.

Jainas aside, disputes between idealists and realists dominate the earlier centuries of classical philosophy. A school of direct realists, Nyāya (Logic), argues that the intentionality of even a nonveridical cognition hits a feature of the world, albeit misplaced. When one misperceives mother-of-pearl as silver, the silver-hood of which one is aware exists elsewhere. Had one not experienced it previously, one would not misperceive in this way ("It's silver"). The mother-of-pearl misperceived as silver is real, and so, too, the silver-ness wrongly indicated. Buddhists and other classical idealists argue, in sharp contrast, that one's desires and interests shape one's perceptions and all determinate cognition. Illusion shows that there are no objects independent of consciousness, since the false is seen to appear as the true.

Regarding the nature of veridicality, realists tend to embrace varieties of a correspondence theory. A cognition is veridical just in case the object cognized is cognized as being some way it is in fact. Whether there need be congruence between the object as qualified (thing-ontological relation-property) and the cognition as structured (qualificandum-qualificative relation-qualifier) was debated for several centuries. Realist camps explain illusion in different ways. Prābhākara Mīmāsakas deny that the intentionality of cognitions ever in itself misfires. The problem lies in confusing a perceiving and a remembering occurring at the same time. Nyāya philosophers hold that a nonveridical cognition presents something in some way that it is not, analyzing the error, "That is silver," as perceptual. That is, according to them silver-hood is projected into the sensory flow by a dispositional misfiring, the thing being in fact shell. They say that the view that there are two cognitions occurring simultaneously, a perceiving and a remembering (along with a failure to notice the difference), is wrong for several reasons. A single cognition stream defines a person's mental life. The nonveridical cognition of shell presents the thing perceptually as silver such that one says of the thing in front, "That is a piece of silver," and reaches out to pick it up. The thing perceived as silver motivates one's effort and action (including speech).

Prābhākara Mīmāsakas nevertheless join with Nyāya in seeing cognitive objects both as out there in the world and as structured: Property-bearers, which are enduring entities, are qualified by properties, some of which change (e.g., color) and some of which are essential to the thing qualified (e.g., cow-hood or being earthen). Cognition is similarly structured on the Nyāya theory, presenting qualificandum as qualifier. Thus, when there is a match between how an object is presented cognitionwise with the thing as it is in the world, the cognition is true.

Buddhists and other idealists tend to adopt a pragmatic theory. A cognition is veridical just in case it proves workable in helping one get what one wants and avoid what one wants to avoid. Realists agree that cognition is in this way useful and that sometimes one knows that a cognition is true by inferring its truth from the success of the action it guided. But realists see the nature of truth as correspondence. The Buddhists see workability not just as a mark of the truth but as truth itself. One calls cognitions true that make one successful, and false those that lead to frustrated efforts instead. Insofar as cognitive contents or indications are verbalizable, they are useful fictions, since the real is unverbalizable, knowable only through direct perception. Direct perception has unique particulars as object, not the general concepts contemplated by the mind. Concepts are mental constructions, and what one says depends on mental projections on things that are ungeneralizable as things in themselves, as self-characterized particulars (svalakaa ).

Later Buddhist logicians use an exclusion theory of concepts (apoha ) in working out principles of logic and epistemology. The apoha theory seems motivated by Buddhist nominalism. A causally ordered series of particulars is conveniently designated a cow, though, strictly speaking, the series is a mental projection on fleeting particulars, none of which is either a cow or a non-cow. Designations exclude the least adequate concepts ("not a non-cow and so a cow"), according to one's desires and purposes; they do not apply directly to things in themselves. This view does not result in skepticism, since from one's everyday perspective truth is unproblematic. One distinguishes the veridical and the nonveridical by their perceived effects, satisfactions, or frustrations of desire through action undertaken on the basis of a belief (or mental construction, kalpanā ).

Genuine Sources of Knowledge and Their Imitators

Normative epistemology centers on the distinction between the veritably true cognition and its veritable knowledge source in distinction to the cognition that might seem to be veridical with the right pedigree but is in fact false and unreliable. Some kind of foul-up or deviation is to be suspected in a process resulting in the nonveridical. Though the evaluative paradigm is psychological and causal, inferential fallacies are discovered along with other epistemic faults. Indeed, long lists of fallacies appear in logic textbooks of both Buddhists and Hindus, including a majority of those known to the Aristotelian tradition and modern textbooks of critical reasoning. Veridicality is the ultimate touchstone, and disputants, given their differences on the nature of truth, rather surprisingly agree on fallacies and other concrete patterns of epistemic deficiency. Fallacies include nongenuine provers (hetvābhāsa ), that is, evidence that seems to indicate a probandum in question but fails to secure the truth.

The distinction between the apparent (but false) and the genuine is made early in a metaphysical context, in the Nyāyasūtra, where it is used to refute the illusionist who would deny the reality of everyday objects. Things could be unreal or nonexistent, like dream objects. The epistemologist's knowledge source may itself be an illusion. Vātsyāyana (c. 400) points out in his Nyāyasūtra commentary (4.2.34) that the concept of the apparent whatever (as an apparent person that is really a post misperceived in the distance) presupposes the concept of the genuine variety (formed from previous experiences of persons). The apparently F could not be recognized without knowledge of things that are F genuinely. Thus, the concept of the illusory is parasitic on that of the veridical. If all cognitions were false, the cognition of the falsity would also be false. This is nonsense. Falsity requires an appreciation of truth. Thus, there is no reason to think that all objects and knowledge sources could be pretenders.

Despite such metaphysical argument, it is in epistemology where the distinction is most exploited. What is a genuine knowledge source (pramāa ) as distinct from the imitator or pseudo (ābhāsa, thus pramāābhāsa )? People are subject to cognitive error of several types including logical error (anumānābhāsa ), of which the hetvābhāsas (apparent [but false] reasons or provers) are the most discussed. Illusion is apparent (but false) perception (pratyakābhāsa ). Understanding a false statement and being misled by the testimony of the deluded or of a deceiver, which is a form of śābdābhāsa (apparent [but false] testimony), will be treated separately later on. In general, if a cognition that appears to be, for example, perceptual from a first-person point of view is nonveridical (however defined), it is no result of perception as a genuine knowledge source, but of a cousin process, a close cousin, perhaps, indistinguishable from the real McCoy by the cognizer at the time. Much effort, under different flags, goes into trying to specify the features of cognitive processes that are marks of the one or the other, the genuine truth-generator or the imitator. The issues are complex, as can be guessed simply from the fact that at least thirty distinct definitions of truth and falsity are examined by late classical philosophers.

False Statements as Nongenuine Testimony

Classical Indian theories of meaning are mainly referentialist, and it is interesting to see how a false statement is analyzed by the classical epistemologists. Such enquiry also connects with questions about the lack, in Indian ontologies, of an exact equivalent of Western philosophy's "proposition." What is said about false claims, statements that seem meaningful but fail to hit the facts? Only the Nyāya view will be laid out; other schools present variations.

A case of śābdābhāsa (pseudoknowledge from testimony) may be taken to originate in a false statement of a speaker that a hearer understands and accepts, having no reason not to. As with perceptual cognition where there is no block, testimonial uptake and acceptance are normally fused. A blocker (pratibandhaka ) would be, for example, the hearer knowing in advance the opposite or knowing the speaker is a liar or deluded, the statement not being syntactically well formed or meeting certain conditions called semantic expectation (one cannot understand the statement, for example, "He wets with fire," since wetting is done only with water). Given no blockage, the false statement has a role in the generation of the hearer's comprehending and accepting cognition, which is false.

Taking the objecthood of that cognition to be the target of inquiry (a homonym misunderstood as well as a lie could constitute the deviant source), the Nyāya philosopher analyzes it in much the same manner as with apparent perception. The way (prakāra ) that an object, a qualificandum, is being cognized would indicate a qualifier that exists elsewhere than in the thing. The standard realist story about how qualifiers, which are real-world realities, form dispositions (saskāra ), which are inappropriately aroused, is available here as with other forms of cognitive error. The peculiarity of testimonial pseudoknowledge concerns the speaker's statement being a causal factor in the generation of the hearer's nonveridical testimonial cognition. Nevertheless, it is the resulthow the hearer understands the statementthat is targeted in the standard account of apparent (but false) testimony.

How is Veridicality Known?

Prominent in classical debates about veridical cognitions and their sources is the issue of how veridicality is known. Prābhākara Mīmāsakas and Vedāntins say there is a kind of self-certification (svataprāmāya ) at least with respect to certain contents or a cognition's own occurrence. Nyāya philosophers and others say that certification requires apperception, a second-order awareness, and certification by inferential means. The nature of the justificational inferences becomes central. Bhāa Mīmāsakas propose that while every cognition wears veridicality on its faceat least one assumes veridicality as a defaultdecertification is possible. Vedāntins tend to insist that there is a self that is essentially self-aware and the precondition of all cognition and experience. They view the other-certificationalists (parataprāmāyavādin ) as confused about self-knowledge, though they may get the story right about knowledge of the external world, at least provisionally right, until the dawning of spiritual knowledge (vidyā ).

On all views, confidence in a cognition's truth prompts effort and action; there are differences about whether the confidence has to be in some sense self-conscious. Realists of the two-cognition persuasion on illusion support a self-certificationism by taking a noncongruent correspondence view of the nature of truth. Idealists, too, often attack the qualificandum-qualifier structure supposed by Nyāya.

In Nyāya certification is said to proceed in three ways. First, a knowledge source can be identified by intrinsic features and in relation to a cognition in question as its result. Second, a cognition's veridicality can be certified with respect to its fruit, success of effort and actiona way that is also tied to causal relations and that is accepted by practically all disputants. The third procedure involves typifying. As mentioned, a cognition belongs to a type in virtue of its objecthood, its indicating, for instance, "a is F." Such objecthood can be shared with other cognitions, belonging to other people and to the cognizing subject at other times. So once a cognition as specified by its objecthood has been certified, a later cognition known to be a token of that type would also be certified.

Self-certificationists say that certification rides piggyback on apperception or whatever the way it is that a particular cognition is itself cognized. It appears that in this way ethical prescriptions of scripture can be upheld. They require no external justification. Certain Buddhists admit a form of certificational inference that looks like a kind of a priori knowledge, whereas Nyāya philosophers view all inference as depending crucially on prior perceptions.

Against the other-certificationists it is argued that, given that veridicality is in question, no certification would be possible, since only a cognition known to be veridical could possibly provide certification. If a certificational inference is required to show that a cognition is veridical, then there would have to be another inference to certify it, and one lands in an impossible regress and skepticism. Without the possibility of knowing that a cognition is veridical, trust in cognition would fly away. However, normally one does trust one's cognition, as is proved by one's behavior. Thus, however a veridical cognition is itself known or cognized, in that way its veridicality is also known, argue the self-certificationists. Other-certificationists respond by agreeing that an assumption of veridicality is a cognitive default, such that a cognition normally would not require certification to spark unhesitating effort and action. A cognition may nevertheless be called into doubt by good reasons, reasons that make one desist and reconsider.

Pseudocertification, on the Nyāya view, is possible but the presumption is also against it. Pseudocertification is certification that seems right from a first-person perspective but is misleading in fact. Apparent certification can be defeated (bādhita ) by one's coming to learn something that undermines or rebuts a putatively certificational pseudoinference, whereas genuine certification requires that there be no ultimate defeater (bādhaka ) in fact, that is, that one's evidence for regarding a cognition as veridical would hold no matter what else one comes to know. Established positions (siddhānta ) serve as winnowing devices, and what one already knows can prevent wrong cognitions from arising. But one is not infallible. Just about any cognition, including an apparent certification, can prove to be wrong. But cognition of a cognition's veridicality, as distinct from a first-order assumption of truth, presents a higher barrier to doubt. Not only would there have to be good reasons to doubt the original cognition but also further reasons to question its certification.

The realist admission of a fallibilism that has few exceptions leaves the door wide open for the Advaitin nonrealist. Late Advaita Vedānta develops its two- or three-truth theory in sophisticated polemics where the Advaitin takes a minimalist position about the Upanishadic truth that Brahman is everything. World description may be left to the realists (science). The way that Brahman is the world is not statable (cognizable) in language that conflicts with statements (cognitions) about everyday things. Realism holds only provisionally.

See also Knowledge in Indian Philosophy; Logic, History of: Logic and Inference in Indian Philosophy; Meditation in Indian Philosophy; Mind and Mental States in Indian Philosophy; Negation in Indian Philosophy; Philosophy of Language in India; Universal Properties in Indian Philosophical Traditions.


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Stephen H. Phillips (2005)