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Self-knowledge

Last updated Feb 18, 2022 Edit Source

# Reflexivity vs Reflectivity

Self-illumination/reflexivity

Other-illumination/reflectivity

Nagarjana’s Argument

# Paper #2 for PHIL240A

Śiva and God are hanging out, binge-watching a Cosmicflix series called “The Greatest Hits in Philosophy.” It’s the Descartes episode. Descartes says: “To begin with, I acknowledge that it is impossible for God ever to deceive me, for trickery or deception is always indicative of some imperfection” (p. 36) Śiva leans back and smirks. “Now THAT,” he says, “is impressive. I’ve managed to so thoroughly deceive myself that I think I can’t be a deceiver!” God looks sideways at Śiva and responds, “What are you on about? This is one of the greatest moments of insight that one of my creatures has had! Because Descartes clearly and distinctly perceives that I am not a deceiver, he opens himself to all knowledge!” “Oh really?,” Śiva responds. “I thought Descartes already had the key to all knowledge just in the realization ‘I exist.’ He just needs to understand what that means about his own nature!” God pushes pause on the Cosmicflix show and, with a sweep of his arm, transforms their surroundings to a formal debate platform. “OK,” God says, “Time to get to the bottom of what self-knowledge even is. Do you accept the challenge?” “Bring it,” says Śiva, with a grin.


G: Wonderful. Now, let us first set the ground and define some terminology.

S: As one should always do when debating.

G: I posit that self-knowledge is the knowledge of one’s own mental states. This means that one should be able to know what the ‘self’ constitutes, and to know one’s experiences, propositional attitudes, etc.

S: This sounds reasonable but hinges on how you define “one’s own”. What does it mean to distinguish between one consciousness and another? I posit that, well, Descartes is actually me.

G: I am confused.

S: You must remember that, outside of Cosmicflix binging series, I am Śiva, the ultimate reality. I am a sculptor of sorts as I can create and carve worlds from myself. Conventional reality is created through my act of apoha or exclusion. So all of the world that Descartes lives in, including himself is actually something I have created. Descartes’ conventional sense of personal identity is also conceptual and made through this process of exclusion as well (Torella, p. 132).

Let me rephrase my question. Seeing as you are also the Creator of all things, did you not consider all of your creations extensions of your self?

G: Ah I see your question. Though I too have sculpted Descartes in my image, I do not see him as a part of myself.

S: But doesn’t his existence depend on you creating him? My ascertainment of something being a ‘jar’ is brought about by the free knowing subject and existence of the polarization of ’non-jar’ things (Torella, p. 129-131). This act of chiselling is just sculpting the world from the same block of marble – the same body of consciousness – is it not?

G: No. Creation, to me, does not imply me carving them out of my consciousness. Just as I can create mountain and forest who are not part of my conscious being, so too can I create other conscious beings.

Descartes is this own conscious being. He has actually ascertained this himself through his Second Meditation.

[G presses play on the show and continues talking.]

For Descartes, the self is the thinking being. This was what his statement “cogito, ergo sum” posits (Descartes, p. 18-19). Existence must necessarily be true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind. In this second meditation, Descartes explores the concept of the “I” quite clearly, eventually resolving that both soul and body can be deceptions (p. 18-19) and only thought, above all else, is inseparable from the existence of the self (p. 20).

[S pauses the show once again.]

S: Okay, even if you don’t subscribe to the fact that Descartes is actually a subset of the ultimate reality, how can Descartes be so certain that he cannot be deceived? If you have endowed him with infallible judgment, how is it that he can be mistaken, as he undoubtedly is from time to time?

G: Well, this is not something I can control. I give humans free will to think and judge and that is what allows them to err. Descartes himself also came to this conclusion in his mediations. “The will is free to affirm or deny whatever it wishes – as such, free will is the source of error… If there was no free will, we would never make mistakes.” (Descartes, p. 39-40).

The idea of God (me) exists as an idea in Descartes’ mind and he clearly and distinctly perceives all of my qualities.

One of these qualities of perfection is existence, then God would not be God if he did not exist – just as a triangle only exists if it has the property of being three-sided (Descartes, p. 46-47).

Thus, he concludes, I must exist and have these perfect qualities. In doing so, I cannot deceive him (as deception is evil) so his perceptions are accurate. Any missteps he makes are due to overstep in judgement.

S: Ah see now that Descartes does not have the key to all knowledge but rather just the ability to know that one must exist and the freedom to be able to judge the world for themselves. Hmm, this seems ok… for now. Let us return to the show.

[S presses play on the Cosmicflix show again.]


# Week 6 Short-answer for PHIL240A

Answer this question from the perspectives of both Descartes and Pratyabhiñā thinkers.

What, if anything, about self-knowledge is trustworthy?

From the perspective of Cartesian thinkers, both soul and body are not necessarily trustworthy, but thought is. A Cartesian thinker is one who understands the Meditator, who is in turn sure of their own thoughts. To even have doubts or to be deceived, one must first exist. Thus, above all else, thought is inseparable from being. Then, the ‘self’ is only a thing that thinks (Descartes, p. 18-19) and thus is a trustworthy indicator of the self existing.

Then, Descartes goes on to extend this by attempting to prove the existence of God. The rationale here surrounds the fact that God is infinitely perfect and has infinite substance (the most real) – necessary existence cannot be separated from the essence of a supremely perfect being. As no effect can have a greater amount of reality than its cause combined with the fact that you can’t actually get the idea of infinity just from endlessly increasing what’s finite, the infinite must independently exist (Descartes, p. 32).

Thus, Cartesian thinkers conclude, if deception is imperfect and God exists and is perfect, God cannot deceive. The things I perceive “clearly and distinctly” must be true and cannot be deceiving us about basic universal truths (e.g. a square has four sides) and methods of logical deduction (if p then q).


Pratyabhiñā thinkers on the other hand, believe that all knowledge is self-knowledge as everything is carved from the ultimate reality Śiva. They posit that only consciousness can present itself as precisely what it’s not while still remaining itself. Contrary to insentient objects," consciousness is capable of changing without perishing" (Ratie p. 441).

Externality, then, is made on the basis of differentiating internal appearances, in order for Śiva to be able to experience the effects of the created objects (Torella p. 149). This creates a basic divide between self and world. Even the mere appearance of an external world to an embodied subject is the result of this exclusion (apoha). My ascertainment of something being a ‘jar’ is brought about by the free knowing subject and existence of the polarization of ’non-jar’ things (Torella, p. 129-131)

As all objects and subjects rest in Siva, there is one underlying unitary consciousness.