Details of Ways of Knowing: 4 Presumptive Cognition

Extensive Explanation of “Compendium of Ways of Knowing”

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Presumptive Cognition

Presumptive cognition is defined as an invalid cognition that freshly, conceptually implies a correct object.

Comparison between Presumptive Cognition and Other Ways of Knowing

An inferential cognition also takes its object correctly and cognizes it conceptually and freshly. But in addition, because it does this by relying on a valid line of reasoning that is thoroughly comprehended, it takes its object decisively as well. Thus, it apprehends its object and, being fresh, is therefore a valid conceptual cognition. Presumptive cognition, however, lacks this decisiveness. It conceptually takes its object correctly and freshly but presumes it to be true either for no reason, a wrong one, or even a right one but without understanding why it is correct. Therefore, it neither apprehends its object nor validly cognizes it.

Because presumptive cognition takes its object correctly, a distorted conceptual cognition that for some preposterous reason comes to the fresh conclusion that sound is static cannot be classified as presumptive cognition. Furthermore, because it must be fresh and take its object by its own power, neither a subsequent cognition of an inferential cognition nor a recollection of one is in any way presumptive, although each of these is an invalid, conceptual cognition that takes its object correctly. In fact, because subsequent cognitions and recollections of inferential cognitions also decisively cognize their object, they are said to apprehend them, even though not by their own power. Presumptive cognition, on the other hand, takes its object correctly by its own power, but indecisively and so, without apprehension. Therefore, although presumptive cognition and both subsequent cognitions of inferential cognition and recollections of them are invalid conceptual cognitions that take their objects correctly, nevertheless their invalidities are based on different reasons.

Another point to note is that because it must be conceptual, sensory cognitions cannot be presumptive. Only mental cognitions can be conceptual, although not all are, and therefore only they have the possibility of being presumptive. Suppose you see a man wearing a belt-buckle with the initial “F” on it and whose name happens to be Fred. If you conclude that because he is wearing that buckle his name is Frank, this is a distorted conceptual cognition which takes its object, Fred, incorrectly to be Frank. It is a wrong guess. If after seeing the buckle you wonder whether his name is Fred or Frank, this is indecisive wavering, not presumptive cognition, because you have not yet drawn any conclusion. If, however, because of the initial on the buckle you conclude that his name is Fred, this is presumptive cognition because, although it takes its object correctly, there is nothing decisive about your conclusion. Later you may doubt if in fact that was his name, because anyone could wear such a belt-buckle, even if their name began with a “B.” Your correct conclusion was merely a lucky guess.

In none of these cases, however, is it your visual consciousness that is doing the conceptual guesswork. Your visual bare cognition merely cognized the man with the initialed belt-buckle. It is your mental consciousness that then speculates conceptually about something obscure concerning him, his name. If it guesses correctly, this is presumptive cognition because in this case the evidence does not substantiate the conclusion beyond any doubts.

Types of Presumptive Cognition

When divided, there are five kinds of presumptive cognition: (presuming what is true to be so) (1) for no reason, (2) for a contradictory reason, (3) for a non-determining one, (4) for an unestablished one and (5) for a correct one, but without having reached decisiveness (about it). Examples having the defining characteristics of each in turn are said to be as follows: A knowing with which one assumes sound to be impermanent from merely (hearing) the words, “Sound is impermanent.” Similarly, assuming the same by relying on a line of reasoning that is contradictory, non-determining or unestablished, or by relying on the (correct) line of reasoning, (because it is) produced, (but not understanding it – these) are said to be what the presumptive cognitions are like that take sound to be impermanent.

The Structure of Syllogisms Relied on in Valid Inferential Cognition 

A valid inferential cognition relies on a valid line of reasoning (rtags) used to prove a syllogism (sgrub-pa, logical proof). In Buddhist logic, the syllogistic form is, for instance, sound is an impermanent phenomenon (mi-rtag-pa) because it is an affected phenomenon (’dus-byas-kyi chos) – something affected by causes and circumstances – like a clay jug and not like space. This particular proof is a favorite example and so we shall use the more common translation “impermanent” rather than “nonstatic,” since it also includes the connotation of eternal. 

This proof is used to refute the assertion by several non-Buddhist schools that the articulate sounds of the words of the Vedas are eternal and unchanging. The Nyaya school (rigs-pa-ba) assert that they were created by Ishvara, but nevertheless are unchanging and continue forever. The Mimamsaka (dpyod-pa-ba) school asserts they are self-revealed truths without any author. They also say that that the syllables of the Vedic Sanskrit language are eternal, unchanging, omnipresent and, like space, all-pervasive. Humans who speak them are merely instruments for making them manifest; they do not create the sounds they utter. Words of human conversation are merely a manifest grouping together of such syllables and are not whole partless entities that exist independently of their parts. Nevertheless, words and their meanings and the relation between the two are unchanging and eternal, though words only signify particular items when in a sentence.

In response, the Buddhists argue that all sounds must be impermanent and change from moment to moment because they are affected by causes and circumstances. When a sound is made by a person, it clearly arises from causes. And even if one were to accept that the sounds of the Vedas are self-produced in the sense of being beginningless, still they have objects, namely the meanings they convey. Therefore, in being communicating sounds that continually have objects, the sounds of the words of the Vedas are affected by them so that they produce effects: they communicate their meaning to different beings. Thus, they do not remain static and do nothing, but rather undergo change as they perform the function of communicating to different beings. In this sense, even if accepted as eternal, such sounds are like the so-called “permanent” impermanent phenomena of subtle mental consciousness and persons.

In the syllogism, therefore, that sound is an impermanent phenomenon because it is affected by causes and circumstances: 

  • Sound is the subject of the thesis (sgrub-chos)
  • Being an impermanent phenomenon is the property to be established (sgrub-bya’i chos) about it
  • These two together are known as the thesis (bsgrub-bya) – sound is an impermanent phenomenon. 
  • Because it is an affected phenomenon is the reason (gtan-tshig) used to prove it. 
  • The two examples (dpe) are a clay jug and space. 
  • A clay jug is given as a homogeneous item (mthun-phyogs) – an item in the homogeneous set, the set of all items to which the property to be established, impermanence, pertains. 
  • A space is given as a heterogeneous item (mi-mthun-phyogs) – an item in the heterogeneous set, the set of all items to which the property to be established does not pertain. 
  • The subject of the thesis taken together with the common property of this heterogeneous set form the anti-thesis – sound is a static phenomenon. 

To prove a thesis and disprove its anti-thesis, then, the line of reasoning must be complete with three components (tshul-gsum). These refer to three facts that must be established about the reason (being an affected phenomenon) or, more fully, the set of all items to which the reason pertains: 

  • This set must contain the subject of the proposition
  • It must be completely contained within the homogeneous set
  • It must have no members contained within the heterogeneous set. 

These three are known as the factors of 

  • Applicability to the topic (phyogs-chos)
  • Pervasion (rjes-khyab)
  • Negative pervasion (ldog-khyab). 

In schematic form, let’s call: 

  • The subject of the thesis – sound – “q” 
  • The homogeneous set – all items to which the property to be established pertains, so all impermanent phenomena – set “x”
  • The heterogeneous set – all items to which the property to be established does not pertain, so all permanent phenomena – set “non-x” 
  • The set of all items to which the reason pertains – all affected phenomena – set “y.” 

In a Buddhist syllogism you try to prove the thesis that the element “q” is a member of set “x” and disprove the anti-thesis that “q” is a member of set “non-x.” To prove the former and disprove the latter, then, by relying on knowledge of set “y,” you must establish that: 

  • Set “y” includes “q” as a member
  • Set “y” is either a sub-set or a concomitant set of set “x” 
  • There is no common member or overlap between set “y” and set “non-x.” 

In other words, “q” is established as a member of set “x” if it is an element of set “y” and if this set “y” is totally contained within set “x.”

In the above syllogism, the proof is as follows. The set of affected phenomena:

  • Contains sound as a member – sound is an affected phenomenon
  • Is completely contained within the set of all impermanent phenomena; in fact, the two are concomitant or equivalent sets – all affected phenomena are impermanent 
  • Contains no member in common with the set of all permanent phenomena – there are no permanent phenomena that are affected.

By relying on a thorough understanding of this line of reasoning and the logic involved, then, you have a decisive inferential cognition of the fact that sound is impermanent.

Thus, from having established the thesis you can, when your mind is aimed at the basis of the proposition, namely sound, explicitly apprehend what has been proved, namely that it is impermanent, even though this fact is obscure. Your mind will, conceptually, explicitly apprehend sound and its being a member of the set of impermanent phenomena, as is a clay jug, and implicitly apprehend sound as being not like a space, which is a non-member of the set of impermanent phenomena, as described in detail in the previous chapter on apprehension. This inferential cognition will be correct and decisive. 

With presumptive cognition, on the other hand, you might also be aimed at the sound and cognize conceptually the fact that it is impermanent. But your understanding will not be decisive. This is because either you have relied on no line of reasoning whatsoever in order to reach this conclusion, or you have relied on a faulty one. The third possibility is that even if you have cited the correct line of reasoning, you have either not worked out the logical pervasions of the three components or, even if you have, you have not understood them.

Faulty Reasons in Lines of Reasoning Relied on in Presumptive Cognition

Although there are many types of syllogisms, studied fully as part of the class on ways of reasoning (rtags-rigs), here three specific faults are mentioned in terms of the line of reasoning. Presumptive cognition can arise from relying on either a (1) contradictory, (2) non-determining or (3) irrelevant reason. These will become clear in terms of a set analysis for each. 

Reliance on a Contradictory Reason

First, consider the syllogism that sound is an impermanent phenomenon because it is nonfunctional. Here set “y” is the set of all nonfunctional phenomena, while sets “x,” “non-x” and element “q” are as before. For this syllogism to be proved, the set of all nonfunctional phenomena must: 

  • Contain sound as a member
  • Be completely contained within the set of all impermanent phenomena 
  • Have no members in common with the set of static phenomena. 

But none of these factors is the case: 

  • Sound is not nonfunctional: it is very much functional and can produce many effects. The sounds of words, for instance, communicate their meaning. 
  • Not one nonfunctional phenomenon ever changes; none are impermanent. 
  • Rather than there being no common locus between the sets of nonfunctional and permanent phenomena, all permanent phenomena are nonfunctional. They are not equivalent sets, however, because non-existents are also nonfunctional. 

In symbolic form, then:

  • Set “y” is not a sub-set of set “x,” in fact the two contain no common locus and are mutually exclusive. 
  • Set “y” contains the entire set “non-x” as a sub-set 
  • Element “q” is not even a member of set “y.” 

Therefore, such a syllogism does not prove anything because it contains a contradictory reason. It is so-called because the reason is contradictory to what is to be proved. The sets “y” and “x” are mutually exclusive. To maintain that sound changes because of such a reason, then, is pure presumptive cognition.

Reliance on a Non-Determining Reason

An example of the next fault is with the syllogism that sound is an impermanent phenomenon because it can be validly known:

  • The set “y” of all validly knowable phenomena includes element “q,” sound. 
  • Are all validly knowable phenomena included as a sub-set or equivalent set of that of impermanent phenomena? No, they are not because permanent phenomena are validly knowable yet do not change. Thus, the pervasion here is the wrong way around. Rather than “y” being a sub-set of set “x,” set “x” is a sub-set of “y.” 
  • Are there no common elements between the set of all validly knowable phenomena and that of permanent phenomena? This is also not the case because all permanent phenomena are validly knowable. 

Thus, although “q” is a member of set “y,” set “y” not only contains set “x” as a sub-set but is more extensive than set “x.” In fact, it contains the entire set “non-x” as a sub-set as well. Thus, set “y” contains as sub-sets the sets of both “x” and “non-x.” Therefore, such a syllogism involves a non-determining reason. Even though “q” is a member of set “y,” this does not determine that it is also a member of set “x,” because set “y” contains the sets of both “x” and “non-x.”

Reliance on an Irrelevant Reason

The third fault mentioned here is illustrated with the syllogism that sound is an impermanent phenomenon because it can be explicitly apprehended by visual cognition. 

  • Is sound directly apprehensible by visual cognition? No, it is not. Therefore, here “q” is not an element of set “y.” 
  • But all such explicitly visible objects are impermanent phenomena
  • None of them are permanent. 

Thus, although set “y” is a sub-set of set “x” and does not contain any element in common with set “non-x,” nevertheless because “q” is not a member of set “y,” this latter is irrelevant to the proof. Therefore, such a faulty line of reasoning can also be involved with presumptive cognition. 

It should be noted that several of these mistakes may be present together in one faulty syllogism. For instance, in the example “sound is an impermanent phenomenon because it is nonfunctional,” this line of reasoning is both contradictory and irrelevant. Nonfunctional phenomena are mutually exclusive with impermanent ones and, moreover, sound is not nonfunctional anyway. 

If in the syllogism concerning the line of reasoning “because it is explicitly apprehensible by visual cognition,” you were to omit the word “explicitly,” then this would be both irrelevant and non-determining. It would have this second additional fault because static phenomena such as the absence of a clay jug can also be apprehended by a visual cognition, although only implicitly. Thus, not only would “q” not be a member of set “y,” but furthermore set “y” would not be totally contained within set “x.” It would overlap and have some elements shared in common with set “non-x.”

Presumptive Cognition Gained from Merely Listening to Teachings

Although this is not the place for a technical discussion of all possible faults in lines of reasoning and in syllogisms in general, this will suffice as an introduction. Thus, when presumptive cognition is based on a faulty reason, there can be many possibilities of how and where the error has occurred. 

These (five) may be condensed into two: (1) a presumptive cognition (of something) for no reason and, for the latter four, (2) a presumptive cognition having some reason. The understanding one gains from merely listening (to a teaching) is mostly presumptive cognition. Therefore, it is said that its continuum is unstable.

When you gain knowledge of an obscure fact, there are three stages involved. First, you must hear or read it from a reliable source. Next, you must think about it until you comprehend its meaning. Then, by concentrating over and again in meditation on the meaning you have understood, you come to integrate your knowledge fully. On the first step, therefore, when you initially learn a piece of new information, such as that sound is impermanent because it is affected by causes and circumstances, you have not yet thought about it. Thus, such knowledge based on mere hearing is presumptive.

Because you have not decisively comprehended the logic involved, you can easily forget such information. That is why it is said that the continuum of such knowledge is unstable. This is not the case, however, if you go on to contemplate and then engage in discerning meditation (dpyad-sgom, analytical meditation) on the information you have first learned through hearing. The more you think about what you have heard or read, and then familiarize yourself with it in stabilizing meditation (’jog-sgom), the more chance there is that you will remember it. But first you must learn something before you can make it an unforgettable part of you. Thus, even though knowledge gained through hearing may in itself be presumptive and unstable, nevertheless it is the indispensable starting point for all further development.