Do you believe in the Divine or God?
A deep dive into ways of knowing
I am a modern Indian. This implies that I have been brought up with both Eastern and Western values through interactions with my family, friends, co-worker’s, acquaintances, and teachers. I have also studied physics and astronomy at the post-graduate level. That makes me a scientifically trained Indian. I don’t have a faith but I am attracted to both Hinduism and Buddhism as philosophies. Given this background, I often find myself stuck when someone asks me if I believe in the divine or in God. The rational side of me asks, “what are they talking about?”, but there’s another side that asks, “I experience love and connection, is that what you call the divine?” For a long time, I answered agnostic.
You are agnostic if you believe that nothing is known or can be known about the existence or nature of God.
But I don’t think I’m agnostic. I think that some among us do ‘know’ something about the existence or nature of the divine, but what they refer to as the divine could be different from me. I consider the divine to be the answer to the question articulated by Leibniz:
Why does something exist rather than nothing at all?
All major faith traditions attempt to answer this question with the proposition of a formless or undefined presence, also known as the divine or God, which somehow explains our existence. For the Hindu’s, the divine comes in over 300,000 forms. These various gods are all manifestations of Brahman, ultimate oneness. Buddhists do not worship any gods or God, but they follow the doctrine of dependent origination and natural law, and for them the divine is the interdependent avidness itself. Muslims believe there is the one almighty God, Allah, who created the universe and is the source of all good and all evil. Christians believe in God, the creator; Jesus Christ, the Son of God; and the Holy Spirit, God’s active force of action. New age religions promote the development of a person’s own power or divinity, a higher consciousness within themselves. Nature-based spiritual and devotional practices focus on the worship of nature spirits considered to be behind natural phenomena in the universe. And so on.
To believe in the divine is to ask if I accept the existence of the divine as true. To accept something as true is to be certain about it. To be certain about it, there must be a way to ‘know’ it with reasonable certainty, so in this article, I reframe the question to
Can I know the divine?
To answer the question, I take a deep dive into the ways of knowing and accepting something as true from the perspectives of both Western and Eastern philosophy.
I invite you into my process.
How do we know?
Being able to identify the way in which we know something helps us evaluate what we know or think we know — a useful skill in the information-rich 21st century. In the East and West, no one analysis of what is knowledge has been widely accepted. The dominant idea in the West on what is valid knowledge is the tripartite analysis of knowledge: Knowledge is a justified true belief.
We have knowledge of a claim if all three conditions (justification, truth, and belief) are met. That is if a proposition can be reasoned and cannot be falsified, it is accepted to be valid.
The tripartite analysis of knowledge / CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0
Empiricists consider that the origin of all knowledge is sense experience because sense experience has the highest degree of reliability. Rationalists consider reason to be the chief source and test of knowledge, where deductive reasoning is the most reliable. Positivists consider that only knowledge gained through observation (the senses) and justified through reason is valid.
In Indian philosophy, Pramāṇa or ‘proof’ is the theory of how correct knowledge can be acquired and validated. Indian texts identify six pramanas as valid means of accurate knowledge: perception, inference, comparison and analogy, postulation or derivation from circumstances, non-perception, and testimony of reliable experts. These ways of knowing are further ranked for validity in terms of completeness, confidence, and possibility of error, and is a much debated topic among Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain scholars.
Means of accurate knowledge by Indian philosophies / CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0
In this text, I classify the various ways of knowing into experience, reasoning and authority – with varying levels of reliability depending on the directness of experience, soundness of reasoning and incorruptibility of authorities.
Ways of Knowing / CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0
Experience/perception as a way of knowing
Experience is an event or occurrence that leaves an impression on someone. Experiences are largely physical, mental, emotional, or self-cognitive, or spiritual in nature.
Modes of experience / CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0
In the West, personal experience is considered a way of knowing but anecdotal evidence does not necessarily make it into a knowledge system because of the high degree of irreproducibility of experience. We tend to project our own thoughts and feelings onto situations, have false understandings, and have cognitive bias, rendering some perceptions of our experiences as false and unreliable.
Seeing the false as false is meditation. This must go on all the time. — Nisargadatta Maharaj
For personal experience to make it into a knowledge system, it needs to be backed with empirical research, which is a method to observe and document information received by means of the senses through experimentation.
In Eastern philosophies, the word experience refers to both the experience and the perception of that experience. The process of experiencing is described as a meeting of our consciousness with a particular event, which can be physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. After perhaps an instant (or more) of non-conceptual perception, our mind conceives the event and starts to process it. The result of that processing travels back into our consciousness through mental formations and actions.
How we cognize according to Buddhist philosophy / CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0
Spiritual experiences, in particular, are usually described as a feeling of infinite connection and self-loss by major faith traditions and tend to move from the zone of non-conceptual perception straight into mental formation. Dreams are a good example of non-conceptual perception. Or staring at a cloud, before labelling the cloud. Non-conceptual perceptions that are difficult to register, recognize, label, or interpret, do tend to leave an impact on our future actions. Sometimes spiritual experiences can also be induced by entheogens, a class of psychoactive substances like Ayahuasca (DMT) or Psilocybin mushrooms (psilocybin), as well as near-death experiences. Empirical research has shown that such experiences have a profound impact and are associated with changes in brain chemistry, personality and outlook on life.
Reason / inference as a way of knowing
A reason is a cause, explanation, or justification for an action or event through the mental cognitive process of thinking.
Anumāna (or inference) is a method of reasoning in Indian philosophy that consists of three parts: hypothesis (a proposition), a reason (valid inference), and examples (positive examples are present and negative examples are absent). A valid inference is based on three factors: faultless logic (like if all women are kind and Meena is a woman, then Meena is kind), shared meaning (like a tree is an object with a trunk and leaves, so all objects that match this definition are trees), and conviction of reliability of the premises of the reasoning (like discerning my birthdate from my birth certificate).
In the West, reasoning can be subdivided into forms of deductive, inductive, adductive, probabilistic, statistical, and par consistent reasoning.
Modes of reasoning — Western philosophy / CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0
Deductive reasoning concerns the logical consequences of a given set of premises using an organization of terms for the analysis of deduction. If the premises are true, then the conclusion must also be true. Much scientific research is carried out by the inductive method — gathering evidence, seeking patterns, and forming a hypothesis or theory to explain what is seen — and unlike deduction, conclusions reached by induction do not guarantee a specific conclusion. This is because there is no way to know if there exists unobserved evidence that might invalidate the hypothesis. In defense of science, while news articles might report scientific inductive conclusions as absolutes, if you are trained in reading academic literature, you will notice the use of more cautious language, which highlights the nature of inductively reached, conditional conclusions.
Abductive reasoning is also often used in our daily lives for decision making. It begins with an incomplete set of observations and kind of guesses an explanation. A medical diagnosis is a good example of abductive reasoning. A doctor needs to provide the best explanation for a given set of symptoms. Probabilistic, statistical, and paraconsistent reasoning can be considered as kinds of inductive and abductive reasoning based on the conditions and premises.
Inductive, abductive, probabilistic, statistical, and paraconsistent reasoning are all defeasible forms of reasoning where the reasoning produces a conditional claim, i.e., where fallibility is acknowledged. They are also considered to be rational as they acknowledge that they are defeasible.
A rule of thumb for rational reasoning is if any other person follows the same system of reasoning based on the same premises, they will reach the same conclusions, with similar certainty.
East or West, reasoning relies on the use of concepts and categories to form relations. Here is where things get tricky. If spiritual experiences move directly from the zone of non-conceptual perception into mental formation, they cannot be reasoned because we generally cannot reason something we cannot conceptualise.
Word of reliable experts/authority as a way of knowing
Authority plays a big role in validating knowledge, and consequently as an indirect way of knowing. A lot of the times we know because a reliable authority has told us so. That is, if we believe the source of the knowledge proposition (e.g., knowing my birth date from my birth certificate), we believe the knowledge.
But authority is a moving definition — it is not absolute. For example, ‘religion’ was a dominant authority on how the universe worked until it was replaced by ‘science’, which came up with methods that sought to support empirical evidence with reason and vice versa, and established the scientific authority.
Ways of knowing and that sweet spot of scientific validity / CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0
The scientific way of reasoning reality is what distinguishes today’s scientists from those who explain nature and existence by actions of the divine.
Most believers of divinity have strong faiths in religious authority, i.e., they believe by conviction in religious doctrines rather than proof. Religion still remains an authority for most to understand matters of the spirit, although scientific materialists who consider that the human mind, soul, and consciousness can all be reduced to mechanisms are creeping into this space by examining consciousness and spiritual experiences from psychological and neurological perspectives.
Sweet spot of religious faith and scientific materialists / CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0
Can I know something that I can’t conceive?
For a spiritual experience to be reasoned, we need a valid way to reason the non-conceptual, that is to think about what we cannot think about — or to think about how to think about what we cannot think about — an incomplete domain of knowledge. Knowing what we can’t conceive has remained outside the realm of rational methods because these methods rely on concepts that can be reasoned. But can’t conceive is not the same as can’t cognize. There are some ways of knowing that can cognize the non-conceptual described in Eastern and Western philosophies.
Intuition as a way of knowing
Intuition is the ability to know something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning — knowing that but not how. Inherited intuition or ‘genetic memory’ is a large topic of research today. It’s the kind of memory that is inherited genetically, for example, newly hatched sea turtles on a beach that automatically move toward the ocean.
In the East, intuition is mostly intertwined with religion and spirituality. In advaita vedanta (a school of thought) intuition is an experience through which one can come in contact with and experience Brahman, andin Buddhism intuition is expressed as seeds of consciousness manifesting if and when the conditions are ripe. Plato’s anamnesis also alluded to the idea that humans possess innate knowledge and that intuition is just rediscovery of that knowledge.
Sometimes intuition is just learned knowledge that later seems intuitive when applied in complex situations. But mostly intuition remains in the realm of experience and cannot be reasoned or understood.
Non-conceptual cognition as a way of knowing
The Buddhist philosophical system on the nature of reality follows the doctrine of dependent origination, where all phenomena arise in dependence on other phenomena. That is, no primal mover can be acknowledged or discerned. The Buddhist proposition is that you can gain cognition of this avidness through developing non-conceptual cognition that is fresh, accurate, and decisive. The concept of whether or not the cognition is fresh (i.e., the proposition is not corrupted by mental imputations), accurate (there are only true examples and no false examples of the proposition), and decisive (you are not wavering and are decisive about the proposition) can be reasoned.
Valid non-conceptual cognition / CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0
This process is hard work, takes years of training, and is currently a hot topic of research as it suits both Western and Eastern sensibilities of what is knowing.
Why do I need to know?
Several transpersonal psychologists, psychologists studying the transpersonal, self-transcendent or spiritual aspects of human experience, have proposed models in which spiritual experiences are part of a process of transformation of the self. Carl Jung believed that our main task in life is to discover and fulfil deep innate potential, and the journey of transformation is at the heart of all religions.
It is a journey to meet the self and at the same time to meet the Divine. — Carl Jung
Maslow (1971) and Rosenberg (2003) both put transcendence and spiritual communion as basic human needs.