Sources of Knowledge: Anumana or Inferrence

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Have you wondered how we learn things? How do we acquire knowledge about something? Rarely do we get an opportunity to reflect on how we learn because we are constantly learning and we are immersed in the process. This is what Patanjali Maharishi says “Vritti sarupyam itaratra” (all other times we are of the nature of the vrittis. We get identified with the vrittis and hence are not witness to the process).

Let us look at how a child learns things. A child looks at an object that we show and we provide the label for the object. The child does not have prior knowledge of the object and hence trusts on our words. We say “Apple” and show an apple to the child. The child sees it for the very first time, remembers features of the fruit and learns its name. It is also stored in memory by repeated learning. We then show another fruit and say “Orange”, the child then makes sense of distinguishing factors and records this in memory. The child directly cognises the object and also relies on our words to know about it.

We as adults use other sources as well. We look at an object and directly cognise it. We also learn from experts (and may or may not experimentally verify) and we also draw a lot of inferences. We draw conclusions based on various pieces of information we may have. We see smoke and infer that there is fire. Inference is drawn based on a systematic process of reasoning. We may reach the right conclusion or may make an invalid conclusion based on how well we deducted things.

One of the key distinguishing features of Sanatana Dharma is that it gives equal importance to the words of experts and personal verification of the truth. The Bhagavad Gita says “श्रद्धावान् लभते ज्ञानं “. The one who has Shraddha (faith) gains knowledge. Not always do we need to have empirical or experimental evidence as we recognise that some of aspects of knowledge go beyond the senses.

In our tradition, the sources of knowledge (Pramana) are different in different philosophical systems. The six sources include: Pratyakṣa (perception), Anumāṇa (inference), Upamāṇa (comparison and analogy), Arthāpatti (postulation, derivation from circumstances), Anupalabdhi (non-perception, negative/cognitive proof) and Śabda (word, testimony of past or present reliable experts) : source Wikipedia.

Without going into much detail, let us understand some of them. You can read this article on Pratyaksha here. Let us look at Anumana or inference here.

Leaving out the complexities, Anumana can be of 3 types:

  1. Pūrvavat: Inferring effect from the cause. Looking at the clouds, we infer that there is going to be rain.
  2. Śeṣavat: Inferring something based on the effect. When we see a flooded street, we infer that there has been rain
  3. Sāmānyatodṛṣṭa: Inferring something based on general observation and not on causality. For instance, we see the Sun rise and set everyday and infer that there has been movement.

These frameworks are not only used in physical science but also in life science -Ayurveda. Inorder to diagnose a disease, the Vaidya may do it based on pre-symptoms, various signs and symptoms or various pathological activities that occur (the five fold process is described as Nidana Panchaka in Ayurveda). These inferences decide the kind of treatment given to the patient.