Recent events, including one with more personal significance than the others, have caused the nature and varieties of knowledge to bubble to the top of my priority list. How about that, folks: two quasi-philosophical pieces in one week! I hope this doesn’t constitute an overdose.
What we mean when we say we “know” something varies according to the kind of knowledge being claimed.
An acquaintance once argued to me that it’s impossible to “know” anything – that even our most fundamental observations are “too theory-laden” to constitute knowledge of a reliable sort. This...person is a “Unitarian pastor” who specializes in “feminist theology” and thinks muckraker Ida Tarbell was an objective and trustworthy reporter. Despite an advanced degree in the sciences, he disbelieves in scientific method as the most reliable technique for amassing knowledge about the universe, because he rejects the notion of objective reality, though he knows better than ever to say so outright.
My acquaintance’s fundamental failings – in this regard, that is – are an inability concede the requirement for premises and a corresponding ignorance about the varieties of knowledge.
Let’s look at a typical problem in required premises and the varieties of knowledge.
It’s impossible at this time to determine a man’s true beliefs and affinities with absolute assurance. For example, I could tell you that I love my wife, but you could never be absolutely certain that that statement is true. The truth of the matter is locked inside my head, where you cannot examine it. What you can do is test my assertions against my behavior, according to patterns you believe to be reliable. Do I treat my wife with affection, consideration, and loyalty? Most important: am I consistent about it, especially when I’m unaware that I’m being observed?
Much will depend upon your choice of premises. Will you assume that I always speak the truth? If so, the syllogism runs:
- Fran always speaks the truth.
- Fran says he loves his wife.
- Therefore, Fran loves his wife.
If you refrain from making that assumption, preferring confirmation by experimentation after the fashion of the sciences, your syllogism will run:
- A man who consistently behaves in fashion X loves his wife.
- Fran consistently behaves in fashion X.
- Therefore, Fran loves his wife.
When we look closely at those arguments, we note the following:
- In each case, statement 1 is accepted as true without question, which makes it either a premise (first argument) or a previously inferred item of knowledge (second argument).
- In each case, statement 2 is about an observed fact: what a scientist would call data. Whether or not the fact in question was independently witnessed, it could have been witnessed.
- In each case, statement 3 is the implication of statements 1 and 2: we infer it from our premises / previous knowledge and our observations.
In any case of inference, regardless of the particular premises chosen, at the conclusion of it there are two questions of importance:
- How certain are you of your conclusion?
- Why does that matter?
In point of fact, certainty about inferred knowledge – i.e., knowledge other than awareness of an observed fact – is barred to us. We can have a degree of confidence in such knowledge, that degree being proportional to its observed reliability in practice, but we cannot be certain that it will always hold true.
Robert A. Heinlein made an important point about this in Stranger In A Strange Land:
"...You know how Fair Witnesses behave."
"Well . . . no, I don't. I've never had any dealings with Fair Witnesses."
"So? Perhaps you weren't aware of it. Anne!"
Anne was seated on the springboard; she turned her head. Jubal called out, "That new house on the far hilltop - can you see what color they've painted it?"
Anne looked in the direction in which Jubal was pointing and answered, "It's white on this side." She did not inquire why Jubal had asked, nor make any comment.
Jubal went on to Jill in normal tones. "You see? Anne is so thoroughly indoctrinated that it doesn't even occur to her to infer that the other side is probably white too. All the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't force her to commit herself as to the far side . . . unless she herself went around to the other side and looked - and even then she wouldn't assume that it stayed whatever color it might be after she left . . . because they might repaint it as soon as she turned her back."
Heinlein’s Fair Witnesses make an absolute distinction between observable facts and inferences. The two constitute completely different kinds of knowledge. The former are utterly reliable – always assuming one’s own perceptions are reliable, of course – while the latter are propositions in cause and effect which can never be proved beyond all possibility of exceptions.
Quite recently, Rudy Giuliani kicked over a hornet’s nest by saying that he doesn’t believe that Barack Hussein Obama loves America. In the classification system established above, Giuliani’s assertion is an inference from observable facts, founded upon a simple premise: i.e., that one who loves America would speak and behave quite differently from Obama’s record. Because “love,” in whatever context, occurs in the mind of an individual, Giuliani cannot be absolutely certain of the accuracy of his inference. Additional uncertainty arises from the tendentiousness of claims about “love.”
Many persons agree with Giuliani, but there are many others who don’t. The former persons accept his premise, while the latter persons reject it. What cannot be disputed is the pattern of facts from which he drew his conclusion; the conclusion itself is open to disputation.
When a reporter ambushed Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker by asking him “Do you think President Obama is a Christian?” Governor Walker faced a comparable problem. Obama claims to be a Christian. He attended a supposedly Christian church for some twenty years. If Obama’s statement is all that’s required to establish his Christianity, the inference is automatic...but a sincere Christian such as Governor Walker has good reason to infer from Obama’s conduct and the nature of the “Christian church” he attended that there’s quite a bit of doubt about it.
Full disclosure: I agree with Rudy Giuliani that Obama does not love this country. My premises and observations match Giuliani’s, which leads me to agree with his inference. More, I do not accept Obama’s claim to be a Christian. Obama’s observable conduct, and the statements and behavior of his odious pastor Jeremiah Wright, utterly contradict all established Christian doctrine. Make of that what you will.
Those who aim to confuse you, to misdirect your attention, or to make damaging imputations about others, will routinely attempt to confuse the two kinds of knowledge.
The reporter who tried to corner Scott Walker wanted the governor, a promising candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, to assert a kind of knowledge that that reporter could thereafter misrepresent. Whatever answer Governor Walker might have given would have been an inference from his observations and premises. The reporter, regardless of whatever beliefs he might hold, would have trumpeted it as Governor Walker’s certainty about a matter locked deep within Obama’s self. Had Walker said that he accepts Obama’s claim to Christianity, the reporter would have used it to divide him from the many Republicans who have been offended by the clash between Obama’s claim and his observable conduct. Had Walker said that he rejects Obama’s claim to Christianity, the reporter would have implied that Walker allows himself to be contemptuous of Obama’s faith – a faith that the reporter, strictly by unspoken implication, wants his readers to accept as beyond question. That’s the nature of “journalism” in our hyperpartisan age.
I would have loved for Walker to respond to the reporter as follows:
Reporter: Governor, do you believe that President Obama is a Christian?
Walker: Do you?
Reporter: Yes, of course.
Reporter: He says he is, and he attended a Christian church.
Walker: Do the words and deeds of pastor Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ match Christian teachings? Does Obama’s conduct in office reflect Christian allegiance?
A smart, on-his-toes reporter would refrain from answering. He’d know that the initiative had passed to Walker, and that there would be nothing to be gained by proceeding. But let’s imagine that Walker has caught him off-balance:
Reporter: I don’t know enough about Christianity to say.
Walker: But you expect me to say – to testify to what lies within another man’s heart, which no other man is privy to. That’s a degree of arrogance I leave to you and your colleagues. I’ll have no part of it.
There’s a win for you. Perhaps Governor Walker will read this and agree.
A relevant personal vignette, arising from events of yesterday: Have a look at this listing at Amazon:
I did not publish that story through Amazon. The only place I published it is here, at Smashwords. More, note that the price listed at Smashwords is Free. Believing that Smashwords simply must be the originator of the listing, I contacted its support center and asked what had happened. Here’s the reply I received:
Thanks for your email. We don't distribute to Amazon so you would need to contact them directly.
Amazon is one of the most reliable, and reliably ethical, retail organizations in the world. More, its security arrangements have never been breached. Yet Smashwords’ staff would have me believe that Amazon lifted my story from its Smashwords listing, entirely without my permission, listed it at Amazon’s site, and attached a price to it to which I did not assent – all while listing it under my full and correct name, such that I would be certain to encounter it!
What are the facts in this matter, and what inferences, if any, do they support?
Food for thought.