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Indeterminacy

Last updated May 5, 2022

Anirvacanīyatva or indeterminancy

Vācaspati Miśra’s Bhāmatī, a commentary on Śamkara’s Brahmasū-trabhāsya.

In this chapter/section, objects of erroneous cognition are used to show how the world as it is experienced can neither be denied an independent status nor established as having one. The key idea is the ‘indeterminate’ state as to their ontological status.

Vācaspati does not doubt the correctness of the Nyāya argument for philosophical realism but more so its completeness. I have cognition of a white horse, not of ‘white’ and of ‘horse’. Vācaspati argues that the sum is greater than the whole – it is not sufficient that a description of its constituent elements (’this’ and ‘silver’) entirely constitute the unitary object of cognition (’this is silver’).

# Cognition-Object relationship

The cognition-object relationship here refers to one about representational content.

Representation, in this context, means a cognitive state of being ‘of’ or ‘about’ the object. Important to note that, in this translation, representation is neutral to theories of perception

Example case where a cognition (thought) is a thought of a specific object

  1. Object gives content (visayatā) to a cognition in the sense it is the subject of the thought and therefore individuates/gives identity to/specifies that cognition
  2. The cognition is then a representation (visayitā) of the object

The form usually is ’this thing is a shell’ which is in the form of $F\alpha$ where

Ontologies are theories of objects – a conception of what the world is made up of. Ontologies need to be interpreted

# Erroneous Cognition

Epistemic indistinguishability: there is no perceived difference between contents of distinct cognitions (i.e. confusing ’this is shell’ with ’this is silver’)

Let us take the simple perceptual demonstrative judgement of the form ’this is a piece of silver’. This can clearly be a wrong judgement as the relevant object could be a piece of shell.

What does an erroneous cognition say about its object (if anything at all)?

Well, this states that object and concept must both exist. Even in mistaking the shell of the silver, both shell (instantiated as physical demonstrated object) and silver (instantiated as primary object of cognition) exist. TLDR; erroneous cognition required determinate objects in the determinate world.

The state of taking ’this’ to be silver is not explained simply by explaining that ’this’ and ‘silver’ occur in it. Take for example, the non-erroneous cognition ’this looks like silver’ which contains both constituent elements but is epistemically different from the earlier erroneous claim of ’this is silver’.

So how does an erroneous cognition $G\alpha$ arise?

  1. Suppose the subject knows when the distinguisher $G$ is valid
  2. $G$ is not necessarily true given the conditions at hand may not be as remembered compared to the conditions under which $G$-identification was last true (temporally different).
  3. It is true that $G\beta$ where $\beta$ is a piece of silver at some point in the past
  4. It is true that $\alpha$ exists
  5. It is false that $G\alpha$
  6. It is false that $\alpha$ is perceived as $\beta$ The erroneous cognition arises when the subject believes 5 and 6 to be true instead.

The question then becomes, what is the object $\alpha$ that is being individuated here?

First, let $F$ and $G$ be incompatible (read: mutually exclusive) qualifiers. That is, if $F\alpha$ then $\lnot G\alpha$ and vice versa.

Advaitin makes two contradictory conclusions here

  1. Utilizes P1: asserting that an object exists requires there to be a cognition with that object as its content through pramānas. Concludes that $G\alpha$ cannot exist.
  2. Utilizes P2: what doesn’t exist must not be the content of any cognition as it is not experienced as all. Concludes that $G\alpha$ exists.

Both P1 and P2 rely on relevant (and fairly uncontroversial principles) to come to contradictory results. This argument shows that there is no way of assigning status to $G\alpha$ and thus indeterminant.


# Essay

Ram-Prasad summarizes Vācaspati’s argument concerning indeterminacy as follows: “while it is possible to determine the existential status of objects of cognition (and thereby determine the validity or invalidity of particular cognitions), it is indeterminate as to whether objects as a whole are, independently of particular cognitions of them, existent or not” (118). Unpack this argument. You can focus on the material that Ram-Prasad covers in p. 113-118 (Section 7 and Section 8). Note that “unpack” here is just asking you to explain the argument. You don’t have to give an evaluation of whether or not it’s successful this time.

Let us break this argument down into constituent parts and tackle them piece by piece.

A: It is possible to determine the existential status of objects of cognition.

We first define some terminology. The cognition-object relationship here refers to one about representational content. Representation, in this context, means a cognitive state of being ‘of’ or ‘about’ the object. Ram-Prasad uses a specific notation to express these relations:

B: The second part posits that A implies the ability to *determine the validity or invalidity of particular cognitions.

To use more of Ram-Prasad’s notation, let the object at at hand (’this’) be $\alpha$ and what it is cognised as (‘silver’) be $F$. The resulting cognition is of form $F\alpha$. This resulting cognition is a demonstrative, grounded in reference to a “spatio-temporally indexed object” and is ‘valid’ until sublated by subsequent cognition.

However, let us consider the ‘invalid’ case. Let us take the simple perceptual demonstrative judgement of the form ’this is a piece of silver’. This can clearly be a wrong judgement as the relevant object could be a piece of shell. In more formal terms, if the cognition is actually $G\alpha$ (this is a piece of silver), then $F\alpha$ would be invalid as each object is uniquely distinguished by its distinguisher.

Yet, even in mistaking the shell of the silver, both shell (instantiated as physical demonstrated object) and silver (instantiated as primary object of cognition) exist. Erroneous cognition still require determinate objects in the determinate world.

C: Finally, the argument concludes that A and B combined do not allow us to conclude whether objects as a whole are, independently of particular cognitions of them, existent or not.

For this argument, Ram-Prasad refers to Advaitin’s seemingly contradictory conclusions which arise from fairly uncontroversial principles (P1 and P2 in the text):

  1. Utilizes P1: asserting that an object exists requires there to be a cognition with that object as its content through pramānas. Eventually concludes that $G\alpha$ cannot exist.
  2. Utilizes P2: what doesn’t exist must not be the content of any cognition as it is not experienced as all. Eventually concludes that $G\alpha$ exists. This argument shows that there is no way of assigning status to $G\alpha$ and thus the cognition is indeterminant.

Extending this to the world, we use the differences between third and first person accounts of erroneous cognition. The distinguishing characteristic of third person accounts is that the third person’s determination of what causal elements were involved in the erroneous cognition of the subject is true. However, this is not guaranteed to hold.

A valid cognition is discriminating, but that is determined only by the judgement of another cognition. In a sense, every cognition requires a third-person account. Yet, we know that every third-person account itself is a first-person cognition merely presuming its validity, no independent judgement as to the truth of the original cognition is possible. We know that whether a cognition is veridical or erroneous is to show whether its object exists or not. As this cannot be done, Ram-Prasad concludes that the existence of the object as a whole is indeterminant.


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