How Do Humans Acquire Knowledge?

How do humans acquire Knowledge – This blog describes four methods of acquiring knowledge – direct perception, logical inference, historical evidences and hearing from authorized sources, the Pitfalls on the Path of Knowledge Acquisition and their Remedy and Importance of Hearing from Authorized Sources.

Epistemology: The Acquisition of Knowledge

1. Direct Perception

It is a common saying that seeing is believing. We use our five senses – eyes (vision), ears (hearing), nose (smell), tongue (taste) and skin (touch) to know the world around us. This is called direct perception. Direct perception depends on the senses and the mind. In direct perception we can say that the food is tasty by eating, or that the weather is cold or warm by experience of our skin. Flower gives fragrance, stream water is naturally cool, and too much bright light is painful to see – these are all direct experiences. Sophisticated instruments are build to observe microscopic and macroscopic objects. Using an electronic microscope, one can observe cellular growth of a worm starting from a single cell. Using the Hubble telescope, one can see celestial objects.

How do humans acquire knowledge

2.Historical Evidences

To establish historical facts such as how in a particular era people lived, what foods they ate, what clothes they wore, what their beliefs were, what their lives were like, and what their thoughts were, historians use written, visual, aural and physical evidences. For example, some recent events – Akbar’s ruling on India from 1556 to 1605, Britishers’ rule on India from 1757 to 1947, and founding of Mauryan Dynasty by Cāṇakya in 322 BCE – have been recorded in the recent history. Similarly, from the Vedic literature, we learn that Lord Rāma ruled Bhārata Varṣa around 2 million years ago and Lord Kṛṣṇa performed His divine līlā around 5,000 years ago.

3. Logical Inference

Inferences are made to go beyond the available evidences of direct perception to reach a conclusion with the help of logical reasoning.
For example, one particular form in logic is called modus ponens, which has the following structure:

I. If A then B,
II. Since A
III. Therefore B

Here, I and II are called premises, and III is the conclusion, i.e., if I and II are ‘True’, then III has to be ‘True’. For example, if we take “If the sky is cloudy, it may rain” and “The sky is cloudy” as two premises then “it may rain” will be the conclusion.

4.Hearing from Authorized Sources

A very efficient and effective method of acquiring knowledge is to learn it from an authorized source. For example, one gets admitted in a top University like IIT Kanpur to become a professional Electrical Engineer. One gets admitted in AIIMS Delhi to get Medical education. Similarly, one seeks the guidance of a spiritual expert and spiritual books to learn the science of soul.

Pitfalls on the Path of Knowledge Acquisition and their Remedy

However, we must notice that any method of acquiring knowledge that is based on the senses and the mind is never perfect because of the following four unavoidable fallacies

1.Our senses are limited

For instance, eyes can see only a limited range of stimuli (e.g., they cannot see radio waves), have a limited resolution power, their vision is blocked by things, etc. The same is true for the other senses and even for sophisticated scientific instruments.

2. We are subjected to illusion

The inference derived from sense experience is subjected to faults because the mind itself is imperfect. For example, a stick partially immersed in water appears broken near the water surface and a rope in the dark frightens us by giving an impression of a snake. This happens because we try to make an inference based on our limited sense experience and knowledge. Even in science, we base our inference on our prior imperfect inferences, thereby getting entangled in a thick network of illusion

Process of acquiring knowledge


3. We make mistakes

On top of the limited senses and mind, we have got limited cognitive, intellectual, and physical resources. Hence, we commit mistakes.

4. We have a tendency to cheat others

One has to be absolutely unbiased and unprejudiced to reach perfect knowledge. A person who always acts from a neutral position is a right thinker. He is not biased by his selfish mentality, he is not biased by other’s selfish mentality, he is not biased by his own name and fame, and he is not biased by anything. The moment you are biased, you cannot become a right thinker.

But our pursuit of knowledge is often clouded by many other temptations which may be for wealth, fame, or sense gratification, just to name a few.
Because of these defects, the direct perception – either based on mundane senses or on sophisticated instruments and logical inference alone cannot lead us to the perfect knowledge. In order to reach the perfect knowledge, however, one can rely on the perfect authorized sources.

Especially, in the case of the knowledge of soul and Supersoul, one can depend upon the perfect source – Kṛṣṇa. Hearing from Kṛṣṇa is certainly the most infallible way to gain transcendental knowledge. Such hearing process and its application in one’s life is called the Bhakti Yoga.

Knowledge acquisition process

The Bhakti Yoga process guides one’s senses and mind to become purified of all defects. Then, even the direct perception and logical reasoning helps one to see the soul and the Supersoul. We will dwell on this subject in later blogs.

Importance of Hearing from Authorized Sources

In 1994, while addressing around 200 school children in Betanati, Odisha, I asked this question: “How do you know who is your father?” I was pleasantly surprised when all of them resonated with the answer that they knew it from their mothers. When I ask this question to IIT students, they mostly remain silent while odd ones would answer that they would go for a DNA test. This answer is shocking as all of them have already accepted their fathers based on the authority of their mothers.

This can be called as denial mode as we do not want to accept the authority. Just like you have been accepting your biological father based on the authority of your mother, similarly to understand your spiritual father you should accept the authority of Veda. If you reject the authority of your mother, then you may have the embarrassing situation of having to conduct DNA tests. This is not the way the society works. Such a behavior shows false pride and hypocrisy, which has to be given up by sincere seekers of truth. A sincere seeker humbly acknowledges his/her limitations and fervently seeks guidance from authorized sources.

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