Academy of Indian Philosophy


How do I know that I have a “brain”?

I have never seen, felt, heard, tasted or touched my “brain”. As of now, you only know it through inference.

What are PerceptionInference?

Perception is a source of knowledge in which a sense object is known directly by the sense organs: eye, ear, nose, tongue or skin. In other words, we directly perceive something when we see, hear, smell, taste or touch it.

Inference is another source of knowledge in which a sense object is known indirectly by a concomitant statement. A concomitant statement shows the relationship between two phenomena. For example: wherever there is smoke, there is always fire. This means, that anytime you see smoke, chances are that there is a fire near by. Thus, by seeing smoke you are inferring that there is a fire in its proximity. This is how you can know about the presence of fire.

I only know that I have a brain from inference.

Opponent: Well, you can think, that’s how you know that you have a brain.

This is because there is a concomitant statement “Human beings who can think, have a brain” or “thinking is ascribed to a brain, the prefrontal cortex.” However, I still cannot perceive my brain, only infer it.

Opponent: If you dissect a body, you can see it’s brain.

Yes, but in this case, you know that the human body has a brain only by perception, but you do not know that your body does by the same means. You can only infer it by the statement: every human body has a brain; and your memory of perceiving a brain in another human body.

Opponent: Scientists say we have a brain, we have plenty of research invested in medicine. Doctors have performed surgery on brains.

Sure, scientists tell you that you have a brain, but you still have not seen it. This indicates that you are getting your knowledge from reliable verbal testimony, but you are still not perceiving it. Yes, they have performed surgery, but unless you can actually perceive your own brain, you only know if its presence by inference or verbal testimony.

After pondering on this concept for some time, I coincidentally read an Alan Watts book called The Wisdom of Insecurity where he says the very same thing.

“The fact that I have a brain, though I cannot see it, is likewise an inference. We know about these things only in theory, and not by immediate experience” -Alan Watts

Now, what other things do we know only through inference, perhaps the heart, organs, cells, etc? This changes our understanding of what we know and how we know it. When we firmly think we know something, oftentimes, we only know it through inference.

Why is this important? First, this humbles us. It allows us to understand that what we know, we may not actually know. From this, we may try to directly experience it (if done safely of course). Second, this allows us to be comfortable with uncertainty. At first, it may scare us. “How is it possible that what I thought I knew, I actually don’t?” After some time, the comfort with uncertainty allows us to approach things as a blank state, without strong preconceived notions. Third, it makes us motivated to know things more deeply, and of course, view the world in a more philosophical manner.

-Hemal P. Trivedi

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