Saturday, March 8, 2008

Bathroom Monologue: If knowledge is power, then someone define “power,” OR, I felt a lot less clever when I found Plato beat me to this

It’s Word Time again in my head. Today’s word is “know.” I don’t know what it means. Can I say that? It’s using the word to define itself (or to admit that I can’t define it). I know “think” and “believe” and “conclude” and “experience” and “remember.” Not “know.” I could say that I know there is a pair of scissors on my desk. I remember them being there, and when I look, they are there. So did I know? When did I know it? What if I looked and they weren’t there? I put them down ten minutes ago. I don’t know where they’d go if they weren’t there – but they wouldn’t be there. If I put them down on my desk ten minutes ago, then typed this, saying I knew there was a pair of scissors on my desk only to find they weren’t there, did I know? No. In that case I believed them to be there, but they weren’t. In the traditional case of knowledge, to “know” would mean I believed them to be there and they were there. But in both cases there was a point when I wasn’t directly observing and I said they were there – in one case they were, and in one case they weren’t. I was just as certain in both cases, before the fact was checked. So my mental state was identical; being wrong was a physical condition. Then knowledge might not be a physical state. Is “knowing” only believing something that happens to be true? What a weird bridge to build across subjectivity and objectivity.

You could memorize facts – memorize a whole manuscript, word for word, sentence for sentence, paragraph for paragraph. You could think you know the story. You could believe you knew it. And then the author could change it. If she added just one word, suddenly you wouldn’t know her book. Your information would be invalid. But you would think you knew. And this happens all the time.

Many teenage couples think they’ll be in love forever. Maybe one of them will be. Let’s say all the others don’t make it past fifteen years. They think they know they will, and then it turns out they didn’t. They didn’t really know. But what about that one couple? Did those two 14-year-olds know, even though there was no possible way of observing the ends of their claim until it happened? They believed it, and then it was true.

People claim to know things based on favorable probability all the time. If they’d had culture, the dinosaurs probably would have known that no meteor would take them all out – except if a meteor did, which we can’t be sure of, though some scientists say they know. Others say they know it was disease.

And what about all the things you’re supposed to know? You know you did your best. You know you love your kids more than anything in the world. Do you believe these things as they are said? Will you keep believing them? Are they true, will they be true, and how long will they remain true? Forever? I don’t know where my scissors went, so knowing about anything as long as “forever” seems rather silly to me. Maybe “to know” is a joke – something else’s idea of a joke. We make jokes to make each other laugh. What’s laughing at us for making us think we know?

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