Theory of Error in Classical Indian Philosophy


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Paper prepared as part of my "Introduction to Classical Indian Philosophy" course at IIT Delhi. It is about the Theory of Error in Classical Indian Philosophy.

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Theory of Error in Classical Indian Philosophy

  1. 1. Theory of Error inClassical IndianPhilosophyHUL 252: Introduction to ClassicalIndian PhilosophySubmitted By-Kangkan Boro (2010CS10221)Raman Kumar (2010CS10237)Suman Saurabh Lugun (2010CS10258)
  2. 2. Theory of Error in Classical Indian Philosophy 2 ABSTRACTIn our study of this course, we have been introduced to the Theoryof Perceptual Error (known as khyātivāda), which has always been animportant part of a system’s Theory of Knowledge. As we started toread up, we found that, in case of error, Indian philosophies werepreoccupied principally with non-veridical perception. In this termpaper, at first, we focus on the general aspects of the theory of errorin Indian philosophy. As we move on, we shall take up a fewrepresentative schools of Indian philosophy, and shall attempt todescribe their theories of error and point out the shortcomings, ifany. Finally, we shall discuss about the most reasonable among thesetheories and argue why it is the most reasonable one.
  3. 3. Theory of Error in Classical Indian Philosophy 31. Theory of Error and Indian PhilosophyOur knowledge of something, presupposes a subject of that knowledge and theobject corresponding to it. The nature of this knowledge depends upon the mindand the cognitive organs of the subject, as well as on the conditions in which theobject is situated in relation to the subject .Now, a distant object may bemistaken for something else, though the organs of perception may be in ahealthy condition; this error may be caused due to a peculiar relation formedbetween the perceiver and the position of the object. Our perceptions of thingsgreatly influence what we infer and decide, which means that our whole life isjudged by us in accordance with the modes of our perception and the knowledgebased on them. As every inference is based on previous perception, erroneousperception will nullify the value of the inferences built upon it.khyāti denotes apprehension, in this case erroneous apprehension. vāda meansproposition, discourse, argument. The theories of perceptual error from thepoints of view of different schools of Indian philosophy are called khyātivāda.Every school of philosophy in India developed its own theory of error(khyātivāda) made to fit its epistemology and metaphysics. For the Indiantheorist, the standard example has been mistaking a rope for a snake. We willformulate our discussion using this example.
  4. 4. Theory of Error in Classical Indian Philosophy 4Although the various theories of error differed from each other, every school ofphilosophy did agree on two very fundamental points:a) That in both the veridical and non-veridical perceptual cognitions of thesnake, there is no difference on the subjective side. The difference is only in theobject.b) That the non-veridical perception (illusory experience) of a snake and theveridical perception (non-illusory experience) of a snake are exactly alike.From these two points it can be inferred that khyātivāda is primarily a theory ofthe nature of the object of illusory perception and not of the subject.Rest of our discussion will focus on the following five prominent theories oferror analysis: 1. Asat-khyātivāda (Cārvāka), 2. Ātma-khyātivāda (YogacārāBuddhism), 3. A-khyātivāda (Prabhākara Mimāmsā), 4. Anyathā-khyātivāda(Nāiyayikas) , 5. Anirvacanīya-khyātivāda (Advaitins).2.1. Asat-khyātivāda (Cārvāka)This theory is simple and direct. sat means existence and asat non-existence. Itsays that in illusory perception something non-existent is cognised as existent.According to Cārvāka, the perceived (illusory) snake is really non-existent. Theother systems question this theory, because there cannot be any cognition ofwhat does not exist. Cognition/perception is intentional (directed at something).
  5. 5. Theory of Error in Classical Indian Philosophy 5Even during the illusory perception of the snake, „a snake‟ is presented to theperceiver although the „snake‟ is not real. No kind of relation can be establishedbetween cognition of the snake and the illusory snake, for there can be norelation between the existent and the non-existent. Without a relation betweencognition and the object cognised, no cognition is possible. Thus the theory thatthe illusory object is non-existent cannot be accepted. The Cārvāka, in itsdefence, argue that, since it is characterized as a materialistic school of thought,its theory of a non-existent illusory object is perfectly in coherence with itsbeliefs.2.2. Ātma- khyātivāda (Yogacārā Buddhism)In the term Atmakhyati, the word ‘Atma‟ means „referring to oneself‟.According to this theory, the snake is an object of internal cognition and thisinner cognition is apprehended as an external object. The snake is unreal as anobject of external perception. The illusion is actually a mental state that isprojected outside and the illusory snake, a mental image which has subjectiveexistence but objective non-existence. The error consists in the snake beingperceived as an external object.But this theory too is rejected on certain grounds. The Yogacārās need toexplain how a mental entity can be perceived to be out there (in this case theillusory snake). How can „the snake‟ appear outside when it is only an internal
  6. 6. Theory of Error in Classical Indian Philosophy 6idea? There cannot be appearance outside without some reality underlying it.Even in the case of non-veridical perceptual cognition (illusion), the snake ispresented to the perceiver and this representation is identical to that of the snakerepresented in the veridical cognition. This shows that the illusory object isalways presented as a physical object out there and it is not a mere internalcognition. Moreover, correction of the illusion does not testify to the illusoryobject‟s status as a mental entity. As far as representation of the object isconcerned, it cannot be non-existent, nor can it be an inner object. It ispresented vividly as an outer object.2.3. A-khyātivāda (Prabhākara Mimāmsā)Literally, akhyāti means non-apprehension. According to this theory, error issimply the failure of the mind to apprehend one or more aspects of what ispresented. The Prabhākara Mimāmsā have the view that perceptual error is notunitary, but composite comprising of memory and perception. Therefore,illusion is not due to wrong apprehension of one thing as another, but due tolack of apprehension of the distinction between memory and perception andtheir respective objects, namely memory-image and percept. In our illustrationof the rope-snake illusion, the mind fails to notice those features which arepeculiar to rope; it notices only such features as the rope has in common withsnake, e.g., their shape. This partial perception revives the memory of real
  7. 7. Theory of Error in Classical Indian Philosophy 7snake, which, through non - discrimination, is identified with the objectpresented. In the statement “This is snake”, the rope is perceived as „this‟ butbereft of its „ropeness‟, and „snake‟ is imported in memory merely as „snakebereft of ropeness‟. Thus there results the illusion that the object presented issnake.One criticism of this theory is that it does not provide an account of why andhow this confusion between the object presented through memory and objectpresented through perception occurs. Moreover, the lack of discriminationbetween the cognition and the memory cannot turn into the positive experienceof snake as something present „here and now‟.2.4. Anyathā-khyātivāda (Nāiyayikas)Anyatha - khyati means apprehending an object in a matter which is differentfrom what it actually is. It is an error of commission. According to this Nyāyatheory, the snake and rope are both real and the perception of the shape of therope is interpreted as the snake that was actually perceived at some other placeand time. The memory of snake is revived and the memory-image of (real)snake is presented as the percept of a (real) rope. This is said to occur throughsome supernormal connection in knowledge (alaukika pratyaksa) – the mind issomehow connected to the object via the memory. Error consists in relatingsnake with rope where it does not exist, but neither of the two is „unreal‟.
  8. 8. Theory of Error in Classical Indian Philosophy 8Advaita dismisses these arguments on the grounds that perception of snake istaking place now and should be based upon the current sense input through theorgan of vision. Even in the erroneous cognition, snake does not appear as adistant object, but is identified with something which is existent before the eyes.Without acknowledging the perception of snake in some form in the object infront, the knowledge that „this is snake‟ cannot be occurring. Moreover, thesupposed mechanism of „extraordinary‟ perception (alaukika pratyaksa) itself isin need of credible explanation. Correction of the illusion, in addition, does notshow the snake, now rejected, as being elsewhere.2.5. Anirvacanīya-khyātivāda (Advaitins)The realists (Nyāya, Prabhākara Mimāmsā) had a dilemma :a) If the snake is real, it cannot be contradicted afterwards by the sublatingcognition of the rope.b) If the snake is unreal, how can it appear to consciousness during illusion?Therefore, the Advāitas(idealists) concluded that the illusory object is neitherreal nor unreal, and hence indescribable. They said that the non-veridicalperception is as much a unified cognition as is the veridical, only its object isneither existent nor non-existent. According to them, one cannot definitelydescribe the nature of the snake perceived in the rope. It is not real, for it is
  9. 9. Theory of Error in Classical Indian Philosophy 9sublated. It is not unreal, for it is perceived. But the theory pays the price byadding one more ontological category which is not describable. This theorycomes up with an astonishing fact about the ontological space of the „being ofobject of cognition‟. Before this, „real‟ and „unreal‟ was considered to beexhaustive elements of entire set in which the „being of object of cognition‟could be categorized. But the theory says that the nature of object of cognitionis neither real nor unreal, it is not describable. So an extra-ordinary nature ofobject of cognition comes into picture but the nature of cognition is not altered,which gives strength to this theory.3. Final Analysis and ConclusionThe first three theories of error (Asat-khyātivāda, Ātma-khyātivāda, A-khyātivāda) are generally rejected due to the various shortcomings discussedabove. The last two theories (Anyathā-khyātivāda, Anirvacanīya-khyātivāda)try to give a proper logical conclusion on perceptual error through a criticism ofthe various other views on error. Each of these two schools (Nyāyā and AdvaitaVedānta) put forward two astonishing arguments, supporting their theories,which are:
  10. 10. Theory of Error in Classical Indian Philosophy 10Extraordinary perception of an ordinary object (by Nyāyas).Extraordinary object of ordinary perception (by Advaita Vedāntas).The Nyayas are realists and since they believe in the mind-independentexistence and nature of objects of cognition, they have a hard time arguingabout perceptual error because in the theory of error either the existence of theobject of cognition or its nature, or both, are not mind-independent. Hence, in adesperate attempt to save realism they put forward an astonishing view in whichthey conceptualize perception of the illusory object to be extraordinary(alaukika pratyaksa) and make the illusory object of cognition to existelsewhere, which is abrupt. Moreover, they also need to explain how the abilityof alaukika pratyaksa can be a curse causing perceptual error.The Advaita Vedāntas, on the other hand, are idealists. Theory of error comeseasy in their hands because the object of erroneous cognition looks like beingmind-dependent. Hence, their theory of error (Anirvacanīya-khyātivāda), whichtalks of an indescribable illusory object, is in perfect coherence with theirbeliefs of mind-dependent objects. They arrive at a logical conclusion to thisproblem through a thorough analysis and criticism of the other theories of errorand put forward the most reasonable theory of perceptual error.