On the epistemology of the extra-ordinary. Or: Do we need to waste our time proving that unicorns do not exist?

Do we need to prove that unicorns, tooth fairies, hobbits and so on do not exist? The question is not just funny, insofar as an upholder of the existence of ghosts and the like could easily claim that —strictly speaking— there is no evidence of their non-existence. In Indian epistemology, this amounts to saying that there are no bādhakas ‘invalidating cognitions’ telling us that the existence of ghosts, etc. is invalid.

Thus, the absence of bādhakas is not enough, unless one wants to invest an aweful amount of time looking for contrary evidences about nearly every possible claim. A usueful tool, in this sense, might be the Pūrva Mīmāṃsā adherence to what is usually the case. We do not see omniscient people, nor witches, nor hobbits, nor tooth fairies, thus, the one who argues in favour of their existence has the burden to prove it.

Accordingly, the absence of bādhakas is not enough for whatever goes beyond the ordinary and one needs positive reasons to establish it. But one must be careful with such positive reasons. In fact, the same argument will be applied to more important issues, such as the existence of God or the epistemological validity of the Sacred Texts. Thus, once we have agreed that God and hobbits share the fact of being extra-ordinary, then we need to apply to God the same standard we applied to the hobbits, i.e., the asbence of evidence of the contrary is not enough to establish His/Her existence.

Now, suppose one says that God exists not just because His/Her existence cannot be invalidated, but also because of consensus gentium (or any other form of mahājanaparigraha ‘acceptance by the great/by many people’), then, what would she do if the opponent could be able to prove that most people do in fact believe in the existence of witches (as it might have indeed been the case)? Indian epistemologists have, thus, asked for a majority of qualified people (i.e., of mahājana ‘great people’ and not just bahujana ‘many people’). Christian theologians, by contrast, have conceived the idea of a providential lead of the people’s hearts, so that God Himself/Herself will incline His/Her people in the right direction (cf. vox populi, vox Dei— the people’s voice is God’s voice).

If, however one is not persuaded by these attempts (the latter relies, again, on something extra-ordinary and has, thus, no independent probatory value; the former relies on one’s ability to discern who the ‘great people’ are, which is far from obvious) and leaves out bādhakābhāva (‘absence of invalidating cognitions’) and mahājanaparigraha (‘acceptance by many/great people’), what remains in order to prove extra-ordinary states of affairs?

Perhaps: 1. Inference (but you must really be very confident in order to hope for inference to go further than direct perception). 2. Mystical experience (but that is not communicable, or at least, its epistemic value cannot be communicated). 3. Renunciation to any need to verify. Can you think of other means?

(cross-posted here and on my personal blog)

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

15 thoughts on “On the epistemology of the extra-ordinary. Or: Do we need to waste our time proving that unicorns do not exist?

  1. Elisa, a few quick notes here–forgive the brevity, I am a bit rushed for time:

    Your question nicely illustrates that while Indian epistemologist are very skilled at identifying sources of knowledge, subordinate sources, and their interactions, there are some very complicated relations between sources that aren’t always easy to tease out. In this case, I am thinking of the way that testimony, in the form of shared, but often analyzed beliefs (aitihya, perhaps) create parameters that bracket off what should be consciously defended vs what is allowed to stand until explicitly challenged.

    One thing I’ve thought a little about is the way Nyaya, at least, sometimes engages in the principled extension of pramanas in their arguments for such disputed, non-ordinary sorts of things. They tend to argue that we have this basic set of knowledge sources that help us get around in the world (perception, inference, testimony, analogical reasoning), and that when we consider how we know some extraordinary things (which they argue we do), they try to identify them as products of either these very sources, as applied to special cases, or though some modified version of these sources.

    If you can do this effectively, then you then can say that such beliefs are entitled to the same default status as other putatively pramana-generated beliefs (e.g., yogic experience of the deep self, as a perceptual state is entitled to the same default epistemic entitlement as other perceptual states).

    And at that point, one may play a defensive game, so to speak, putting the onus on a challenger to undermine such entitlement.

  2. This question of proving/disproving the existence of something/anything based on perception is a very tricky business. Firstly, because I think it is a mistake to divide situations-to-be-perceived into a simple bifurcated: ordinary vs. extra-ordinary. There is more likely a vast sliding scale of range between the two poles.

    Secondly, of course, because each individual not only defines these two differently, but defines them differently in different moments.

    Thirdly, and most importantly, however, because even toward the more “ordinary” end of the scale there is vast disagreement between different individuals about what is perceived.

    On an entirely different note………

    It seems to me that you have begun with a strange assumption.
    As I see it, unicorns DO exist. As soon as the first human being conceived of a unicorn, unicorns began existing. The principal question is: in what manner do unicorns exist?

    In the case of God, Chuang Tzu’s question is relevant here: Is he a man dreaming that he is a butterfly, or is he a butterfly dreaming that he is a man?

    That is to say, is God(s) a reflection of us, or are we a reflection of God?

    Perhaps a more relevant question is: why are we asking?

    • @Lyone, thanks for the fresh perspective. I will start with your last note. The idea that whatever is thought exists has been upheld in the West by the Austrian philosopher Alexius Meinong, but it was not the rule in the classical Indian debate (nor in contemporary US, as far as I can tell). Among the schools which are more active on epistemology, Nyāya and most of all Mīmāṃsā agree on a basic down-to-earth attitude, accepting (ordinary) sense-perception as a fundamental source of knowledge and focusing on an inter-subjectively sharable perspective (in other words, the fact that, e.g., a child might think to have really seen a unicorn does not matter, since his experience cannot be shared and it can, by contrast, be easily invalidated). The Buddhist Pramāṇavāda school does not rely on our ordinary perceptions, but only in order to be even more selective about what really counts as real (atoms, not aggregates).
      As for the last question: We are asking because we are human beings, thus we are curious and we cannot help inquiring, especially about the form of inquiring itself.

  3. Hi Elisa,
    Nice to see this new blog getting going. Best Wishes.

    The question that you pose only makes sense from a sceptical point of view. There is a difference between God in whom we live move and have our being and beings mythical or otherwise. It is the difference between a empirically resolvable question and a metaphysical account of the underlying structure of reality. So I would say that the question incorporates a categorical error. It is not a serious question though one does come across it from respected figures.

    In the Indian tradition that I am familiar with, advaita, the sages are open to the settling of whether there are unicorns living on the dark side of the moon by empirical means but the question of the existence of god is a matter of the testimony of scripture and not rationally demonstrable. Once that existence is accepted the development of the concept of god is a rational matter.

    • Dear Ombhurbhuva, thanks for the good wishes and nice to see you here!
      I agree with your last point, i.e., the existence of God can only be known through the Sacred Texts (or through one’s personal experience, which does not count as an instrument of knowledge because —as discussed above with Lyone— it is not intersubjectively available).
      Perhaps I could not explain myself clearly enough, but I was not trying to demonstrate rationally the existence/non-existence of God, I was rather showing the conundrums one is led into if one wants to do it, while at the same time denying the existence of other extra-ordinary entities. My position is that parataḥ prāmāṇya does not work and that yogipratyakṣa should not be accepted among the pramāṇas.

  4. Matthew, Lyone, thanks a lot for the interesting comments.

    @Matthew, I agree with your general point, i.e., that there is a shared background assumption regarding what could count as genuine knowledge and what would not (tooth fairies and unicorns are just implausible, whereas deities are at least worth discussing). A Naiyāyika would say that what one knows through *yogipratyakṣa* (a sort of ‘intellectual intuition’ which enables one to have immediate access to super-sensuous realities) is externally justified since it is based on a genuine epistemological instrument. Thus, one is only left with the problem of proving whether one has known about unicorns and the like through yogipratyakṣa or not. If the answer is that one only knows about them because of fairy tales, it is easy to dismiss them since they are not valuable sources of knowledge.

    BUT: what if an otherwise reliable speakers guarantees me that s/he has grasped unicorns through yogipratyakṣa? We are back to the problem of verifying this extraordinary piece of cognition through saṃvāda ‘accord’ with other cognitions and/or through mahājanaparigraha ‘consensus gentium’…

    In this sense, I find the Mīmāṃsaka position more convincing (i.e., recurring to intrinsic validity for all cognitions, denying the validity of yogipratyakṣa as a pramāṇa, empiricism as a general world-view). But I look forward for more interesting interactions about that!

  5. Elisa:
    Let me come at it a slightly different way. Suppose someone said to you ‘I know there are apples, oranges, bananas, grapefruit etc but where is this thing called fruit? Can you show me a fruit?’ You would be puzzled and consider that they were mixing up the generic and the specific. Considering god as one of those things that are empirically discoverable or not, as the case may be, is that sort of category error. God is not an existing thing in that sense i.e. just another existing thing alongside all the other existing things. Note I am leaving aside the personal realisation of god and concentrating on a generally intersubjective discoverability. Posing the question in terms of discoverability is itself the prime mistake. If god is pure being and pure existence; the god that is of interest, then discoverability is not necessary or possible.

  6. Thank you, Ombhurbhuva, now I see your point. I think you are right and saying that God cannot be grasped because It is outside the frame of reference of grāhya-grāhaka makes sense. From the point of view of a personal theist like Veṅkaṭanātha, I would interpret this as saying that God is beyond the world. of ontology, but an Advaitin might well say that It is the ontological condition of possibility of the world.

  7. Relevant quotation from Udayana at the end of his opus on natural theology, Nyāyakusumāñjali:

    “The Lord who is thus established by sacred testimony and by inference is directly seen by some people, since he is an object of awareness, like a pot” (sa evaṁ bhagavān śrutaḥ anumitaśca. kecit sākṣāt api dṛśyate prameyatvādeḥ ghaṭavat).

    This is consistent of course with his own (and others’) denial that God can be an object of perception as commonly understood.

    Just putting this out there. Not making a case from it as much as sharing an interesting bit of textual data.

    • Matthew, whether the self (and consequently God, I would say) were perceivable or only inferable is one of the few topics about which Nyāya authors overtly disagreed throughout centuries. Perhaps worth an ad hoc discussion?

  8. I think this problem is urgent for realist thinkers, for whom to exist simply means to exist. In this case the situation, when words and concepts do not correspond to reality, is indeed problematic.
    Bhartrihari, who was not a realist, would solve this problem differently. For him the existence of an entity is proved by the existence of the situation, in which this entity is engaged. E.g. if some villagers pray to a ghost and as a result receive, what they wanted, in the context of this situation the ghost does exist. This is of course my example, not Bhartrihari’s, but the way of reasoning is just the same.
    When there arises a question of the ontological status of the things like hair’s horns (unicorns and ghosts can also be the case), Bhartrihari claims, there is a certain mode of Being called upacAra-sattA, in which all these entities exist. And from another point of view all of them are just shaktis of Brahman that is beyond reason and limitations of formal logic.

    • Evgeniya
      A minor detail perhaps, but ‘hair’s horns’ in your post should read ‘hare’s horns’ – i.e. hare as in rabbit, a hornless mammal with big ears. Like another common example used in Indian texts – ‘a barren woman’s child’ – the point is that such things *cannot* exist by definition, and must therefore be distinguished from e.g. ghosts which might conceivably exist; the non-existence of ghosts is contingent not necessary.

      • Thank you, Nik, for correcting my spelling)
        As for the ghost, of course their existence is not of the same type as in the case of hare’s horn and other logically inconsistent things. Still it is problematic from the point of formal logic, therefore in some way it might be similar to the mentioned above drishtantas.

  9. dear Evgeniya,
    thanks for the input. You are right, if one thinks from the perspective of ‘sabdabrahman, there is no need to distinguish between purely linguistic entities and really existing. ones.

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