Some philosophies claim that knowing their tenets is enough to reap their rewards. Let’s call such a philosophy P. Now, this claim may seem odd to some. After all, some people will study P, agree that it’s true, yet find they haven’t reaped P’s rewards. Does this mean knowledge of P is not enough?
I think knowledge of P is enough, but this knowledge is a special kind. To see this, let’s start with a brief detour through a common conception of how we decide.
A common view of our decisions is they are the result of a struggle between reason and desire. Reason rules over desire… or would if our will was strong enough. But is this true?
Assume I’m on a diet and am debating whether I should eat a brownie. Not eating the brownie seems reasonable, and eating it seems unreasonable — it would be succumbing to desire. However, not eating the brownie is also succumbing to desire — the desire to stay on the diet. Additionally, my reasons for dieting are a chain of desires: the desire to be slimmer to be more attractive to get more dates…
So in all cases, desire is running the show and reason — at best — serves it. So how are desires mediated? They’re not. The strongest desire wins. If I eat the brownie, then the brownie-eating desire is strongest. If I don’t eat the brownie, then the dieting desire is strongest. Days where I seem to resist the urge are simply days when the desires change in strength; maybe I’m not as hungry, or am in love (and hence really want to look good) or I’ve eaten so many brownies, I’m tired of the regret and a third desire — avoiding mental recriminations has entered the mix and trumped all other desires.
So if my decision making process is a case of bowing to the strongest desire, then how do I adhere to P, especially since P is likely to run counter to the traditional pursuits I normally value?
This is where knowledge comes in. P’s conception of knowledge is not intellectual assent, but rather that which strengthens the desire for P above other desires. If this is accomplished, then adherence to P takes care of itself since desire-for-P is the strongest desire and hence wins.
So what kind of knowledge builds this desire? It depends on the person, but very often it’s experiential knowledge. For example, take fire. I can read about fire and agree that being burned is bad. Alternatively, I can burn my hand. What is more likely to build a stronger desire to avoid fire?
Many of the practices of P can be seen as ways of bringing P’s knowledge to experience and hence building a strong desire for P. Additionally, P may include tenets and practices to disparage the traditional life, thus increasing the relative desire for P by decreasing the desire for its biggest competitor.
This knowledge is sometimes called realization, and its opposite is ignorance. In this context, ignorance is not a pejorative or a lack of intellectual knowledge. Rather it’s simply not experiencing P’s tenets. Therefore, it’s possible for one to intellectually understand P, yet still be in ignorance regarding P because one has not experienced P’s tenets and hence not built the magnified desire for P.