Our knowledge of the external world: a mystical approach
In memory of Islamic mystic saint, Muhi-al-din Abdul Qadir Jailani
by Nawaz A. Raheem
To the uninitiated, these questions may seem strange if not altogether pointless, but in fact they are of considerable importance if taken not as logical puzzles but as genuine questions about the status of our experience. They are another way of asking questions about the nature of reality, something which is perhaps unfashionable and dismissed as a pseudo-problem in many of today's philosophical circles, but is nonetheless vital inspite of its neglect.
Rene Descartes initiated the problem in its modern form when by the application of the method of universal doubt he arrived at his first indubitable certainty - "Cogito ergo sum" (I think therefore I am). If the one thing I can be certain is my own existence and that because I am primarily a thinking being, then the physical world outside me becomes problematical. Perhaps it is a mere vision, a phantom, induced in my imagination by an all powerful God.
This line of thought was developed by John Locke, Bishop Berkeley and David Hume and it was not until the German philosopher Emmanuel Kant appeared on the scene that the fallacy involved in it was finally uncovered. Kant deals decisively with this problem in his 'Critique of Pure Reason'. He argues that far from its being the case that we are certain of our own existence but doubtful of the existence of anything else, we could not have the certainty which we do have of our own existence unless there were something existing over and against us by which we were able to define our own existence. The mere but empirically determined consciousness of my own existence proves the existence of objects outside me.
Kant further argues that I am conscious of my own existence as determined in time: this determination in time presupposes something permanent in perception. The perception of the permanent, therefore is only possible through something outside me and not through the mere representation of that thing. Kant's insight has been further developed by such writers as John MacMurray, Strawson and Stueart Hampshire. The emphasis of these writers is on the primary of the self as agent rather than as a thinker. To think of ourselves as only minds, spectators of the world, would be to think of ourselves as being in no particular place, in fact as being nowhere. But we must think ourselves as being in some particular place and as standing in some relationship to other material bodies. So, to the first question 'Is there an external world?' we answer a decisive 'Yes'. The existence of the external world, the other over against myself, is one of the necessary preconditions of our own existence.
It may be the case, however, that while we can be certain of the existence of the external world, we can never know its true nature. This aspect of the question is more of a speculative nature. We may ask; in what sense is our perceptual experience real? Is there anything which is ultimately more real and if there is, then how is the world of our perceptual experience related to the more ultimate reality? How is the mystic's perception of reality related to our more mundane experience? It will be convenient, in our attempt to survey these problems, to consider briefly the nature of knowledge as such. What is knowledge? What is it to know something?
Knowledge may be such that it may be either communicated in empirical descriptive terms or according to rules of logic and scientific verification. This points to the important fact that knowledge is communicable. We can call it the communicable aspect of experience.
To know something is to have differentiated it from the background of experience in which it is originally apprehended; it is to have singled it out and classified it in some way in relation to the rest of experience. This does not need to be done consciously and in fact is for most of the time a largely unconscious process. Many of the fundamental concepts which we use in the interpretation and ordering of our experience are so basic that we take them for granted and it is only the process of philosophical analysis which reveals them in their true nature as basic interpretative principles or as basic modes of viewing the world.
If knowledge is the communicable aspect of experience, then the other incommunicable aspect of experience is identification. When we know a thing we are in some sense identified with the thing though we may be identified with a thing having no knowledge of it. Experience includes therefore, these two aspects of communicability and identification of which identification is more fundamental, for we cannot know anything until we have allowed ourselves to become identified with it. Communicability on the other hand, involves the grasping and individuating of experience by means of certain categories. Logically it is secondary to identification; it is the cutting up and limiting of experience. We as subject reflect on experience as object and impose certain categories on it.
But we cannot suppose that the categorized communicable knowledge is knowledge of ultimate reality. We must suppose that reality transcends the subject-object dichotomy to include both. What we know is the interaction of two aspects of reality which we distinguish as self and other. Our knowledge is knowledge of the concepts by which we define and limit the other and in terms of which the other presents itself to us. It is the knowledge of the limitations and boundaries of our experience. Hence, the conclusion is that we cannot know the true nature of the external world.
However, if we could experience reality before we imprison it within the framework of categories, if we could catch our experience before we objectify it within a net of concepts, this would be ultimate reality, and to the extent to which we are able to do this, we are able to apprehend greater reality above the reality of our mundane existence in the external world. But to the extent to which we are able to free ourselves from our objective conceptualized framework of experience, to that extent we become less able to communicate our experience for it is cosmic religious feeling. It is very difficult to elucidate this feeling to anyone who is entirely without it, especially as there is no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it. Only objectified experience can be communicated. These precious moments of apprehension of reality are no doubt the timeless moments of the Mystic, when the subject-object duality having been transcended, Self becomes one with the Other in the sublime unity of Reality.
"Dewatagaha Mosque, Cinnamon Gardens, Maqaam of Wali Allah Sheikh Usman"