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The Dragon and the Bridge

Last updated April 18, 2022

Paper #1 for PHIL240A at UBC

It’s been three weeks now since you woke up deep in a forest. You’ve managed to survive; the forest itself isn’t that bad. But, there’s a pack of wolves that keeps trying to hunt you down, and every few days you have to run away from where you’ve set up camp. This is one of those days. You hear the howling of the wolves and run run run for it… until you break through the tree line and find yourself facing a massive ravine. There’s clearly no way to jump, go around, or scale down it. Scanning frantically, you see a rope bridge about half a kilometer away, and you dash toward it. There seems to be some large boulder blocking the entrance, but you’ll deal with that when you get there. As you approach, a long neck raises an elegant reptilian head, and two golden eyes turn to regard you. The boulder was a sleeping dragon! You slow down and approach with caution. Dragons are known to be intelligent and mostly benevolent; maybe you can just talk to them and ask them to move. “Great dragon!,” you call out. “Please let me past you onto the bridge. There’s a group of wolves coming after me, and I don’t want to be eaten.” The dragon looks askance at you, turns its long neck to look across the ravine, and turns back to you again. “Bridge? What bridge?,” they ask. “The one right behind you,” you reply, surprised. “There’s a bridge here?,” the dragon queries, feigning (or not?) confusion. You’re stunned. “Yes, the bridge, it’s right there!,” you say. “Aha!,” says the dragon. “But how do you know there’s a bridge here? How can you be certain of what you see, that it’s not an illusion, or that all of this isn’t a dream? Death approaches you from behind, death looms before you if you fall unsupported into this ravine. Why would you trust that the world has provided you with a bridge?”

Respond from the perspective of Uddyotakara, assuming that he endorses Gautama’s verses and Vātsyāyana’s comments (see: epistemology)

U: Great dragon! Please let me pass you so I can cross the bridge.

D: But how do you know there’s a bridge here? What if your senses deceive you?

U: Turn around and see for yourself! Can you not see clearly? There is clearly a rope bridge right behind you.

[The Dragon turns around.]

D: Hm.. there does not appear to be a bridge. How can you be sure you are not hallucinating a bridge?

U: I have trust in my vision – it is a reliable epistemic instrument. Why doubt my sight now when it has served me faithfully so many times before? I trust that my eyes see I bridge so I believe there is a bridge for me to cross the ravine.

Rational inquiry requires purpose. We do not doubt everything, lest we not trust the ground beneath us. (Nyāyasūtra 4.2.33).

D: You seem to rely heavily on inductive principles in your reasoning. One cannot infer that “my vision will always be faithful” given that it has been faithful in the past. How do you convince yourself that this bridge is not a black swan? Or that bridges exist at all? Perhaps nothing exists at all.

U: Vision is a subset of perception, which is a pramāna. It is a means of knowing that is gained through “close examination of objects through cognition” (Nyāyasūtra 4.2.29). With the existence of pramānas the thesis “Nothing exists” cannot possibly be true.

Let us suppose the claim were true and it was supported by a pramāna. In which that case, that very pramāna would contradict that claim. If there were no pramāna to support this claim, then the thesis could not be proved (Nyāyasūtra 4.2.30). Thus, the claim is false. Pramānas must exist and some things must be real.

D: Yet, you cannot be sure that the bridge is real. Your vision can deceive you. Have you not seen a simple magic trick? How do you know the bridge is not a visual illusion or dream?

U: Well, first I must get close enough to examine the bridge closely. If it was a visual illusion, I can consult another sense like touch to reinforce my trust in it. But even if it was, say a dream, then I could wake up from it! Both dream wolf and dream bridge would cease to matter.

The concept of being chased by wolves and the concept of a rope bridge may have been real, but the physical risk associated with them would be dissolved. In a dream, things are still real in the conceptual sense. For something to have been in a dream, I must have had the essence of the object as a prior. There is no concept ‘dream wolf’ if there is no concept of ‘wolf’ (Nyāyasūtra 4.2.34-35).

D: I concede then that conceptually the bridge must exist. Yet, how do you reconcile that with the real and the physical? What if that bridge is actually broken? What if you mistook the bridge for a fallen log?

U: That is to say that my cognition of the bridge is erroneous? Do you believe there to be nothing in its place? I cannot make a mistake about what it is unless there is something there that I could be wrong about. What do you see instead?

[The Dragon takes another glance at the ravine.]

D: I see a log. There is no concept of ‘bridge’ behind me.

U: This is quite the anti-realist argument – that because you and I see two different things when referring to the same object (due to language understanding, presupposed knowledge, etc.) then the object must therefore have no ’true nature’ (Nyāyasūtra 4.2.37).

Yet, to even be wrong about something, one needs to mistake something $\lnot F$ for something $F$ (to see a post as a person). This, of course, happens when the differences between $\lnot F$ and $F$ are ignored while their similarities are grasped.

While either one of us could be wrong about the true nature of the thing in the ravine, it is undoubtable that there is something there which has the essence of ‘bridge’ and ’log’ and should be usable to cross the ravine.

D: Well, seeing as there is something for you to cross the ravine with, you must get going now. The wolves are getting close, I shall let you cross.

[The Dragon steps aside.]

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