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Monday, March 7, 2011

Can one undertake actions if one still doubts?

Can one undertake actions while one still doubts about their effects? Can this occur in regard to all possible fields?
I tend to think that it is possible to start undertaking an action while still doubting if one knows that one will soon be certain that what one is undertaking is correct (or not). The degree of certainty and the role of time might be different:

  1. 1. One might try to add some water to a dough in order to check whether it becomes softer. The result is immediate and doubt is immediately solved.
  2. 2. One might try to plant some seeds although one does not know whether it is yet too cold for them to grow outside. The result is delayed, but the doubt will sooner or later be solved.
  3. 3. One might decide to baptize one's baby, although one WILL NEVER KNOW whether this helped her, just because to do it is easy and the alleged risk of not doing it is huge (a baby burning in hell…).

No. 3 somehow resembles Pascal's pari (bet). Its logical possibility rests on the disproportion between the efforts required and the result one might get.
But what about:

  1. 4. extremely laborious actions whose results will never be experienced in this life?

Would one undertake them while still doubting about their results? Would one, e.g., perform a one-year long sacrifice, give away money, cattle, wealth?

I recall a very interesting discussion about it in Dharmakīrti (concluding that prekṣākārins, people who act in a conscious way, would not undertake such actions without any certainty). Also Mīmāṃsakas claim that trust is needed in regard to the Veda –which cannot be confirmed by any other instrument of knowledge. Hence, in regard to No.4, the problem might be rephrased as follows: How to acquire trust in regard to things one cannot verify?

The discussion about doubt has been raised in some of the last posts. You might wish to check here (Dasti) and here. For a general discussion on doubt, see here. An insightful discussion of Dharmakīrti's case can be found in Vincent Eltschinger's Penser l'Autorité des Écritures, discussed here.


Bram said...

What would be the Sanskrit word Mimamsakas use for "trust" (as in "Mīmāṃsakas claim that trust is needed in regard to the Veda")? Or if you are paraphrasing here and there isn't one word, how do they express that notion?

elisa freschi said...

Good question, Bram, thanks.
The concept is expressed with the svataḥ prāmāṇya theory, which claims that there is nothing additional which is needed for a cognition to become a valid one. A cognition, qua cognition, is also valid by default –unless and until contrary evidences arise.
Hope this helps.

Bram said...

Thanks, Elisa.

I was more thinking of an emotional attitude (which the English word "trust" denotes). Svatah-pramanya lacks this--in a way it says more about the texts than about the attitude of the person who accepts or trusts them. Is this "emotional" aspect entirely absent in Mimamsa?

elisa freschi said...

Interesting question, thanks for making me think about it.
Well, by and large I would say that the Mīmāṃsā is largely non-emotional. Even programmatically so. The point is to be able to interpret a text (first of all the Veda) and to think logically in an appropriate way. Emotions can perhaps just disturb this process.
In my opinion, I would add that most Mīmāṃsakas (at least after Pāthasārathi Miśra, 12th c.) understood such 'rational' work as the preliminary part of their cognitive enterprise, with emotions being legitimate, but in a different realm. For instance, that of faith.

Amod said...

I don't see why one couldn't perform the action while doubting, even in case 4. The question of whether it is wise to perform such an action is a different one, however.

elisa freschi said...

Hi Amod, nice to "see" you. The point has to do with the logic of action, namely whether action must be preceded by desire and/or by cognition. If it has to be preceded by cognition (as maintained by the classical Nyāya scheme), than doubt leads either to further inquiry or to practical paralysis. If it has to be preceded by desire, than one might ask further whether this desire needs to be grounded on some cognition of the thing desired…

More in general: one might undertake a random action although one completely doubts about its result. But religions require much more than that and would not it be hardly imaginable that one undertakes daily sacrifices and laborious seasonal ones unless one believed in their power (however understood)? The same applies to meditation, almonds and whatever religious action does not yield back an immediate result.

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