Friday, January 20, 2012

Infants, knowledge, and why we may not know our yoga

Yesterday, in my theory of knowledge class, I had a discussion with my students about what knowledge really is (what else can you really talk about in a class like this, anyway?). One interesting question that came up was: Is it possible to have knowledge without having any concepts?

Right now, you may be wondering: What has any of this to do with yoga? Why are you writing about this on a yoga blog? But stay with me a little: I'll get to the yoga part in due course.

Here's an example that we thought about during our class discussion. Consider an infant who has yet to learn and speak any words. This infant is being breastfed by its mother. We can imagine that every time it is being lifted to its mother's breast to be breastfed, the infant will experience a certain series of sensations: a sensation of warmth and firmness as it touches its mother's body and starts suckling on its mother's breast, a sensation of warm liquidity as it feels the milk from the mother's breast flow into its mouth, a sensation of sweetness as it tastes the milk.

Here's the question: Does the infant know that it is obtaining nourishment through this process? The students and I had different answers to this question. My students believe that even though the infant does not have the words to describe its experience, it knows that it is obtaining nourishment: If the infant is being breastfed regularly, it will become intuitively aware that this is the process it goes through (or rather, this is the process its mother puts it through) when it is feeling hungry, and that the succession of sensations described above always results in the feeling of hunger going away, to be replaced by a feeling of being sated. Thus, the infant knows that it is obtaining nourishment, even if it does not have the words and concepts to describe and label this experience.  

I understand where the students are coming from, and am actually sympathetic to their view, on some level. But on another level, the stuffy analytic philosopher in me refuses to accept that the infant knows anything in any meaningful sense. Here's why: If one is to be able to say that one knows something, one must be able to explain or give an account of what it is that one knows. If I say, for instance, that I know that eating lots of fruits and vegetables is good for my health, I should be in a position to be able to explain how I know this to a friend who asks me why eating fruits and vegetables is good for my health. There are several different ways to go about explaining this: I can appeal to personal experience, and tell my friend that my overall health has improved since I started eating more fruits and vegetables. Or I can appeal to expert opinion, and refer my friend to some books on diet and nutrition that purportedly offer scientific support for my claim. Either way, I am giving an explanation of why I claim to know what I know.

But why is it important to be able to give explanations for what one claims to know? Well, because if I can't give an explanation for what I claim to know, then for all we know, I may just be lucky. Even if I can't give any explanation for why eating fruits and vegetables is good for me, I may still turn out to be right that eating fruits and vegetables is good for me. But if so, then my being right is a matter of being lucky. And surely we wouldn't want to say that something as important as knowledge should be left up to luck and chance?  

Which brings us back to the infant: Since the infant does not have the words and concepts to describe and label the various sensory experiences, and to try to explain why those experiences are related to obtaining nourishment, it cannot give any explanation of what is happening when it is being breastfed. Which is another way of saying that until the infant acquires the relevant words and concepts, it really does not know that it is obtaining nourishment when it goes through the experiences it goes through in being breastfed.

Maybe you are thinking: Why are you picking on an infant who does not have words or concepts? Surely there is something... low about using words and concepts to charge an infant with not having knowledge when the infant cannot possibly be in a position to use words and concepts to defend itself against this charge? Well, if this is what you are thinking, then I think you misunderstand my intentions. I'm not being snarky or meanspirited here and picking on infants. I am really just trying to show that one cannot have knowledge without words and concepts. And I don't mean "not having knowledge" in a meanspirited or derogatory way: In other words, I don't mean "not having knowledge" in the sort of mean-spirited way in which one may accuse someone of being ignorant or dumb or whatever. I'm just saying that if I happen to be right that words and concepts are indeed necessary for knowledge, then since infants (and other beings that do not possess words and concepts) do not possess words and concepts, they necessarily do not have knowledge.

I said that I was going to try to relate all of this to yoga. Well, I was; I was going to try to say something about how all this might show that we don't actually know yoga when we do our daily practice, because a big part of our daily practice on the mat consists of visceral experiences that we may not (yet?) have the words or concepts to describe and characterize. So, perhaps, when we are on the mat, we become like infants, in a way. Again, please, I don't mean this in a snarky or derogatory way. But I'm a little too blogged-out right now to write much more about this yoga connection. So I'll have to leave things at this, and maybe (?) write a follow-up post to this in the future. Please forgive me: I think I just baited and switched you in reading a long post about philosophy!

In any case, when all is said and done, it is not always clear that being in a state of not having knowledge of the world is such a bad thing. Consider, for instance, the sentiment expressed in the following poem by Tagore:

On the seashore of endless worlds children meet.
The infinite sky is motionless overhead
And the restless water is boisterous.

On the seashore of endless worlds
The children meet with shouts and dances.
They build their houses with sand,
And they play with empty shells.
With withered leaves they weave
Their boats and smilingly float them
On the vast deep.
Children have their play on the
Seashore of worlds.

They know not how to swim,
They know not how to cast nets.
Pearl-fishers dive for pearls,
Merchants sail in their ships,
While children gather pebbles
And scatter them again.

They seek not for hidden treasures,
They know not how to cast nets.
The sea surges up with laughter,
And pale gleams the smile of the sea-beach.
Death-dealing waves sing
Meaningless ballads to the children,
Even like a mother while rocking her baby's cradle.
The sea plays with children,
And pale gleams the smile of the sea-beach.

On the seashore of endless worlds children meet.
Tempest roams in the pathless sky,
Ships are wrecked in the trackless water,
Death is abroad and children play.
On the seashore of endless worlds is the
Great meeting of children.

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