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The Map of the Soul

articles on the nature of the human mind

By S.M. Zakir Hussain (Bangladesh)

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The Roots of the Tree of Knowledge



What is knowledge: Knowledge is what is known.

Well, then what is called knowing? And what is it that is known?

But this question cannot be answered until and unless the following one is answered first: who is it that acquires the knowledge we are talking about?

Here is a catch. If we knew the knower, we would not have to ask any question at all. So let us move one step ahead, leaving this point untouched and ask another question: why is knowledge important at all? Or a still more subtle question crops up naturally: why is this questioning at all?

Unfortunately, this is a required blow, but it is still not hit at the right place. So the direct, down-to-earth version, or better say branch, of the question has to be this one: what is a question? Now it is good to heave a deep sigh and forget all that has been said so far. It will be safe to start afresh.

What is not knowledge?

An attempt to acquire knowledge is not knowledge.

I want to know something. To do that I am doing a lot of searching. I am guessing, hypothesizing, imagining, rejecting, assuming, believing, valuing, criticizing, and so forth. All these are mental activities preparing myself toward the ability to receive that which I will call knowledge when I have acquired it. But these are not knowledge in themselves. These are part of life, of living, and not knowledge.

Knowledge is not a part of life or living. It is the story of a part or the whole of life. But a part cannot be a story, since a story must be complete in itself. So it is actually the story of the whole of life. But how can there be a whole of life as perceived by an individual until the process of living is over? So we can infer that knowledge, whatever it be, is something arising as a result of the interplay between life and death.
Understandably, knowing involves the observation of the experience of life and death, somehow or other.

Exploring Technically

In Epistemology, knowledge is often viewed as belief proved true. Sometimes it is described as the picture of Reality as perceived. Such definitions have technical value, no doubt, but knowing such definitions does not change the way the quality of knowledge is judged or felt.

Let us consider the first definition: Knowledge is belief proved true. Well, what is belief, then? Is it not a mental construction waiting to be verified by a fact in the future? Surely it is. Now, if the belief is proved true, do I get anything new? I only get the confidence that I am not going to reject the belief that I formed in my mind. Nothing new is achieved, except for the fact that now I have a different attitude toward my own belief, which can be called a feeling of certainty. Truth means this feeling of certainty, the collapse of all possibilities of alternatives.

Now, when I say that a belief of mine has been proved true, what do I mean by the word 'true'?

If, on the other hand, we say that knowledge is the picture of Reality as perceived, then also there arise some critical questions: what is Reality? Whatever it be, to me it is nothing but the way it is perceived, isn’t it? So, Reality is not as important in this case as the concept of perception is. What do we mean by perceiving?

Any change in the perception will make Reality seem different. It needs no proof that the same individual may perceive the same thing in different ways at different times, under different circumstances, at different places. The position of the perceiver determines the way of perception. The Theory of Relativity has shown us this blatant fact. The perceiver, which is the object of search but cannot itself be perceived, is not of the primary concern, it being the ultimate target of our quest. What, on the other hand, we must look at to begin with is how the activity of perception takes place.
Although we must not make any premature conclusion, we may at this stage safely say that there may be no Reality; rather, it may be a state of perception depending on the quality of perception. But there can be no perception if there is no content. Now, is that content the Reality? By definition, it is, for we are saying that what is perceived cannot be other than the Reality - only the way of perceiving determines how 'real' it will seem to be. But please wait ... does reality at last have to be linked to this 'seeming'?

Or is the content / object of perception an outcome of the perception itself? Is it something outside the perceiver or inside them? Or is perception only a reflection of the desire to perceive?

The last question is very important. So we must look into it sufficiently rather than look for an answer. There can be no answer without a question actively perceived and understood. We often say or think that we ask questions because we do not understand something and so need to understand it. True, but the question must be understood first if the answer has ever to be meaningful.

If knowledge is belief or hypothesis proved true, then does it not mean that it is just an outcome of the desire to know?

What is desire, then?

But this is one of the most basic questions, the answer to which can be obtained only after a lot of other questions have been answered.

In order to get the answer to this question, we must first get the answer to this question: why does desire arise at all?

Therefore, we will start again!

We will again start from the ... very beginning? Sorry, do we still know where the beginning is? If we did, we would probably also know where the end might be. So what we are doing at this stage is just looking for a suitable point from where the search can begin.
Pre-Mature Observation:

What the eye perceives is knowledge for the eye but a question for the other senses. Likewise, what the ear perceives is knowledge for the ear but a question for the other senses, such as the eye. By the same token, what the body perceives is knowledge for the body but a question for the other senses.

The perception by the eye is called seeing, that by the body is called feeling; that by the eye is called seeing; and so forth. Because one's perception is the non-perception of the others, perception as it is defined locally cannot be called knowledge as a shared experience. Even the totality of such a bit of perception is not knowledge because every perception is also simultaneously a non-perception. If all the sense-organs could perceive the same aspect of an object, then they all would merge into one sense organ, obviating the need for their separate existence. Again, the different sense-organs are separate to the extent that they are different, and nothing more. Somehow or other there is already a continuity among them, which necessitates that a perception by one must automatically get transformed into a question in the others, so that the feeling of absence of the stimulus felt in one is compensated for in the plane of the totality. This is where the need for coordination becomes evident.

We cannot see things that we can hear, nor can we hear things that we can see. We cannot feel things that we can smell, nor can we smell things that we can feel. I think there is a precious clue in this observation to what we are looking for.

The eye perceives something. Does it mean that the ear or the nose or the skin does not perceive it? At the first thought it may seem so, but actually the matter is not that simple. When the eye perceives something, say a bird, the ear also perceives or expects to perceive something that must be in conformity with the experience of the eye. What is it? It is the call of the bird. Thus the existence of non-perception is also a perception. Knowledge may be the unifying field of all these types of perception. But we have to investigate deeper into the fact.
Knowledge seems to be free from the weaknesses of the sense-organs. It would be more appropriate to say that knowledge is the consequence which results when there is a weakness in one. The true interpretation of that weakness becomes knowledge. For example, I cannot fly in the sky but a bird can. In a sense this is an inability. But the very existence of this inability in me is compensated for by the fact that I know why I cannot fly and why a bird can and I also know that the bird does not know this difference. Knowledge results when a difference is identified. Thus my weakness has given me special ability that the bird cannot have. That is knowledge.

Well, how do I feel that there is a difference between my ability and the ability of the bird? There is the difference, accepted, but what ability makes me feel this inability? And how do I feel sure that the bird also does not feel this difference?

Now our observation, though premature, clarifies to some extent why knowledge, somehow or other, involves weakness, and as such death, which is the ultimate form of weakness.

Knowledge holds together all sense organs and life and death. If the true knowledge is acquired, the individual may transcend death. They great people of the world who had knowledge have said so.


How can the mind say: I need to know something? How does it even feel the necessity to know that which it knows that it does not know? Is that level of the mind knowledge? Certainly not. If it were knowledge, then it would not indicate the absence of knowledge. Still it is knowledge, perhaps without a content, which is why the mind 'knows' and feels that it does not know something. Where does this awareness come from?

It must pre-exist all knowledge because if this feeling or urge did not exist, we would not feel tempted to acquire knowledge at all. One who has the thirst will be satisfied, today or tomorrow.




Continued ...


Author of:

Secret Knowledge of the Qur'an