Do our senses tell us the truth?


Western philosophers assumed that truth could be known by dialectics and reason. Immanuel Kant was the first one to question whether man had the faculties required to know truth. The great sage Patanjali, of India, who lived long before Kant, gave conclusive proof that settled the dispute about the nature of man’s faculties required in knowing truth.

A thirsty man once went to a lake and wanted to swallow all its water. He found, however, that he could not drink more than the capacity of his little stomach. So also do many thirsty philosophers and seekers sit by the vast lake of truth, aspiring to drink all of its waters and to learn all of its mysteries.  But alas, they does not know that to swallow all the waters of the lake of truth, one must have a stomach as big as the lake.

All human experiences depend for their data upon the testimony of the senses. The power of inference draws conclusions from the material supplied by the senses. For instance, if smoke is seen to emerge from a distant hill, John concludes that the hill is on fire. Why? Because he had seen fire and smoke together before. But in this case it was not smoke but only a cloud of dust on the hill. John was mistaken in inferring that the hill was on fire. Whenever the data furnished by the senses are wrong, the conclusion is wrong. Hence, though the power of inferential reasoning has its uses, it is incapable of providing the truth of the ultimate nature of Reality.

Our senses do not tell us the truth that the electrons contained in a small pencil could explode a skyscraper, and that the energy released from the electrons constituting a human body could explode part of Mount Everest. If our senses spoke the truth, we would see the earth not as solid, liquid, and gaseous, but as rivers and glaciers of electrons. Each speck of dust would appear to be a rolling mass of light.

Some believe that though our senses deceive us, our power of reasoning can give us new truths. That is true. We must, however, remember that all knowledge derived from experiments carried on with the help of mathematics, the microscope, and fine instruments must come through one or more of our five senses.

The senses and the reason, working on their testimony, have revealed only a millionth part of the truth about the nature of matter and all things. Only yesterday atoms were considered ultimate; now they have been found to contain the finer materials of electrons. Thus neither the senses nor the power of inference, which builds upon sense testimony, can be trusted to tell us the truth about the earth, the universe, the human body, or the mind.

From Inner Culture, June 1939.