Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Afflictions of the Mind : Part - 4.3 (The Prison of Beliefs)

4.3 Indirect Knowledge, Delusions, Doubts, Attachments and Myths

Indirect Knowledge

These are the most common type of beliefs and when one says the word belief, this is what is mostly meant. Indirect knowledge is any knowledge that is not based on first hand direct experience. Indirect knowledge is just information, not real knowledge. So why do we call it knowledge at all? Firstly, the information can be converted into knowledge most of the time (if the seeker is willing to take that trouble) and secondly, some of the information originates from the direct experience of another person. It is up to the knowledge seeker to trust (have faith) on that person. Traditionally indirect knowledge has been a recommended method for gaining knowledge on the path of knowledge (includes scriptures and teachers). However, one need not be content with such knowledge, ideally speaking, and should go ahead and gain a direct experience of the matter. Until that is done, one needs to clearly understand that the indirect knowledge is just a belief.

I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.

- Richard Feynman, The Making of a Scientist, p. 14

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Information comes mostly from other people who communicate their ideas, beliefs and experiences via media (books, talks, schools, internet, videos, TV etc). What they are doing is spreading information, not knowledge. It is a general belief that one gains knowledge via reading or attending school etc. There can be some knowledge surely (such as of mathematics, or languages), but most of it is just information (e.g. history, sciences, cooking etc). Usually there is so much of it that it would be impossible for someone with ordinary intelligence to gain all the knowledge there is. So for practical reasons, most of what we learn from books, teachers and schools remain as beliefs till we die.

So we see that an “educated” person is full of beliefs, more so than an uneducated one, and so is more ignorant. This is ironical, but this is what you get when you rely mostly on indirect knowledge. Such people take pride that they “know” a lot because of such and such degrees they hold, but in reality, they have just memorized a lot of information. You wouldn’t want a surgeon to perform a surgery on you if you knew that he has never done a surgery before, and has just read a book on the subject. So it all is a pretension till one actually needs to implement and use the information. This is where practical, hands on training is needed. Those who gain experience this way, have real knowledge.

Men that believe only what they understand can write their creed on a postage stamp.

- Austin O'Malley , Keystones of Thought

The situation is better in Science and technology, because without experience the jobs related to these fields would be impossible to perform, but the situation is worse when it comes to subjective fields, such as spiritual pursuits. Most of what we hear is indirect knowledge when it comes to spiritual knowledge. Some ignorant seekers spend their entire lives believing this or that, performing random rituals or parroting mantras. The situation is obviously worse in religions, where the amount of beliefs is unfathomable, experimentation and questioning is not allowed and the depth of ignorance often leads to violence, stupidity, manipulation and funny behaviours of all kinds. Some good teachings hide in religious texts, however hardly anyone takes trouble to follow them practically. It is often enough to believe everything one is asked to in order to follow a particular religion. Some people do follow the teachings, but most of them are hardly aware of why they are following it. They do not progress beyond the religious teachings.

How to know when you are in the grip of indirect knowledge? You will need to perform thorough introspection. Find an idea you think is important for you, and search for an experience you had that formed that idea. If all you find is some words from a book or from another person, then it is just a belief. Of course, you will find a lot many and it will be necessary to weed out those that are going to affect you much more compared to others. Which beliefs can affect you most? The ones on which you are going to act. If you do not need to act on an idea, it should not matter much if it true or not, but when you need to act, it better be solid. For example, if you “know” that there is such and such planet that orbits a star that is a billion lightyears away and you also know its weight and size and all, you will find that it is merely information, you read it somewhere. It is a harmless belief, at most you can impress your friends with your “knowledge”. You are most probably not going to act on it, so it is not so important to make a distinction here. If you “know” that the horoscope of a girl matches with your own exactly, which obviously means a perfect marriage and you act on that “knowledge” and marry her, realize that it can be a huge mistake, because your action may result in a lifelong suffering for not only yourself, but also for your partner and any future offspring. It is, obviously, important to make a distinction here between a mere belief and knowledge. The knowledge in this case is your experience with different people, how they match with your own personality, behaviour, lifestyle and whether you (and the potential partner) have actually experienced any love and desire to remain together for a life time.

The trouble with the world is not that people know too little; it's that they know so many things that just aren't so.
- Mark Twain

Knowledge comes from experience and usually experiences come from life itself. The more consciously one lives, more knowledge one gains, and so the actions are mostly right ones, resulting in a happy and free life. There, that is the essence of it all.

Well, sometimes the situations demand that we better believe in something and not insist on having a direct experience. In some cases, you do not want to find out the truth yourself. Better believe and leave it there. Such situations often involve survival. For example, if someone tells you a fruit is poisonous, you better not eat it. Its too risky. You know that it is just information, the source is not an authority on poisonous flora, and you see insects eating it, but if you possess an ounce of intelligence you will not want to convert the information into an experience. Please do not use your cat or mother-in-law to convert it into knowledge either.


This word has many connotations, but I’m going to use it in a special way and not very differently from general meaning. Delusions are a set of beliefs, where there is a total ignorance about their being beliefs. Delusions are often long term, give rise to more beliefs and mental abnormalities like paranoia or phobias. Such a person finds a confirmation for his beliefs in information, events or people he encounters. If he finds and opposing information or a person, it still strengthens his delusion, because – they are lies, people are all against me etc, etc. A deluded person is not only unaware that he is so, it is often impossible to make him realize that he is so. A deluded person sees every attempt to destroy his beliefs as a confirmation of the beliefs. It often lasts for life times and many end up in asylums.

At the core of all well-founded beliefs, lies belief that is unfounded.

- Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty

Usually it is possible to convince an intelligent person by simply pointing out his beliefs, showing how they are just acquired information, mistakenly treated as knowledge. An intelligent person will quickly realize this and will often be grateful to you for correcting his thinking. Not so with a deluded person. This kind will display an exactly opposite behaviour. Not only a deluded person is stupid, he is also borderline crazy. Any attempts to show the truth to such people soon ignites fiery arguments which often lead to personal attacks and even violence. Any such attempt results in strengthening of the delusion, making it worse. In case of delusions, a person will always find many experiences that fully support his delusion, so no amount of explaining or introspection will help here.

How do you know if you are deluded? You don’t, you will never know perhaps. However, people change and sometimes a deluded person wakes up from the delusion. There can be some hints here and there which can point to the fact that you are deluded. If you get into fights regarding some matters, if you are sensitive towards some subjects or people or things, if you find that people avoid talking to you about a particular thing, if you find that people you like are borderline crazy, there is some chance that you are under the spell of a delusion of some sort.

I’m not deluded but I can’t stand such people, what to do? Be compassionate and tolerate. Easy said than done. They are deep into ignorance, and letting them be there, if you can’t help, is the only rational response. It would be a waste of time fixing such a person and you will end up making his delusion strong. Delusion survives on opposition. You cannot even not oppose, because delusion grows with support. Often the delusions make a person’s life very miserable, and one cannot do much to fix it.


Doubts are beliefs with negative implications. It’s a belief that something is not true. A little doubt is often a healthy trait, especially when survival is at stake. A person who doubts nothing is hopelessly gullible, not a good situation. A doubt turns into an affliction only when it is taken to the extreme and is based on illogical assumptions, not on experiences. If you doubt a person who is giving you free candy in the train, it is ok, obviously. But if you doubt a person because he has a particular skin colour or speaks a particular language, it is an affliction, a belief.

A doubt also becomes an affliction when ample evidence is presented to show that the doubt is baseless, and the person still holds on to the doubt. A strong doubt has a potential to become a delusion, where all attempts to remove the doubt are seen as supporting the doubt. A doubt is often a result of an experience that is then grossly generalized for every situation. For example, if you are once bitten by a dog, you will doubt all dogs from that point on. It takes some courage to experiment and overcome such beliefs and behaviours.

To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection.

- Henri Poincaré, Of Science and Hypotheses

Isn’t critical thinking just doubting? No, there is a difference between assuming something as not true and suspending judgement while letting something be either true or false, depending on direct evidence. The former is an affliction, a doubt, the latter is a quality.


An attachment is a belief that some object/person or action is necessary for one’s happiness. Sometimes its not only happiness, it can be survival, protection or even amusement. An attachment often becomes a habit, reducing the freedom of the person severely. It is not the attachment itself that causes suffering, it is the non-fulfilment of the expectations that does so. We will discuss attachments in more detail later, as it is closely related to emotions.

Talking to the tree spirit by TheBeke


These are the beliefs many of us are so fond of. These are not only entertaining, they impart some good lessons too. A myth is just a story, and it becomes an affliction, a belief, if taken as truth. Often uneducated people believe in myths, but some educated and intelligent people also fall for it. The reason can be that myths often mix history, real people, real places and pure fantasy together. A bias in thinking then makes one believe it, deducing in illogical way that if a part of the story is true, the whole of the story must be true. Secondly, something doesn’t magically become true if it is a thousand year old. You need evidence and ideally an experience (which is not possible in case of myths).

Nothing is so firmly believed as that which we least know.
- Michel de Montaigne, Essays (1580-88).

Myths often start as true stories, which are simple, and then the story tellers, generations after generations, go on adding spice until the truth is replaced by pure fantasy. Often the lessons survive, but who cares about the boring lessons when there is so much awesome magic going on there.

What should be the proper attitude of an intelligent person towards myths? Take it as stories that are trying to teach you something. If a story is useful, makes you a better person, its job is done, and there is no use trying to argue about its truth.

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