If You Don’t Know You Better Ask Somebody.

    Have you ever seen someone freak out at a church? People who couldn’t walk get up out of their chairs. People speak in tongues, they fall shivering to the floor. So when these people talk to someone who doesn’t think there’s a God, there’s a big disconnect. All of those things happened while they were watching and so telling them that there is no God is like them they didn’t wake up this morning. I was there guy. You’re welcome to join me next time. 

They sure felt something. 

      Nobody can see God. That’s like his number one rule: no touching makes it hotter. An atheist doesn’t think there’s a god that’s creating the things the religious person feels, but we’ve all got some explaining to do. We’re all basically sticking our hands into a bag and feeling something. How do we know what it is? The point here is that telling people who believe in God that they aren’t feeling anything is stupid, because they obviously are. To say “there is no God” to these people is like saying “you are not happy”, or in our scenario that there is nothing in the bag. 

    While I think this conversation is an interesting one to drop on the table while two people with different God beliefs are chopping it up, the point I want to make here isn’t really about God. It’s about knowledge in a general way. The hand groping in a bag comparison captures the problem pretty well I think. Imagine a world without schools, without history, without inherited accomplishments of any kind. A human body in that situation is basically just a sophisticated hand in a planet sized canvas bag. It gropes around cluelessly with little more to guide it than the feelings it gets when something hurts or feels good. It’s a fairly punishing imagination of existence. Think about it. You can drink so much water that you die. How could we have learned that without someone groping their way to that unfortunate end? There we are, bumbling around in the dark. Water tastes good. Grope grope. And then something painful pops out of nowhere and the hand jumps out of the bag. Game over. 

Rise and shine. 

    There doesn’t feel like there’s a ton of space here to say that we know things for sure in any sort of convincing sense. Being an expert on what happens when you shove your hand in a bag, and knowing what’s in that bag seem like cousins at best. In fact, perceptual weaknesses like this have made pissing all over human knowledge into an illustrious pass time. From science to technology, we seem to be able to get our hands on knowledge much more easily than we’re able to say how we know it. Famous thinkers from Socrates to David Hume have been there consistently throughout history with bags of piss, ready to rain down on anyone who thinks they know something. 

     Socrates’ famous conclusion was that nobody actually knows anything, so the wisest thing we can do is just admit that to ourselves. Even if he’s not right about how much it’s possible to know, this still seems like it’s probably good advice, in so far as it’s an invitation to take a step back from yourself and stop thinking that your shit doesn’t stink, which is almost always good advice. Still for as easy it is to see where Socrates is coming from, the job he did on knowledge is kid stuff compared to what Hume did when he got his hands on it. Hume was a Scottish guy from the 1700’s and boy did he have a bone to pick with everyone who ever said they knew anything. Don’t get me wrong here. Hume was a nice guy. His books were written so that anyone could read them and they sold pretty well. He was the guy to have over for dinner, an easy person to like who just wanted to share his thoughts with the world. But the job he did on knowledge was absolutely brutal. 

“Oh my, I seem to have changed the way you think about knowledge and your nana’s shower cap. My bad.” -Davey Boy Hume

     Hume is just not going to give you one single solitary inch on the knowledge playing field. Not because he’s in some contrarian tug of war, but because we don’t realize how much we’re normally asking to get away with when we say that we know something. Cause and effect is one of the best examples. Normally we argue about how we can know that this event caused that event, but Hume won’t even let us say that “cause and effect” is something that we can know actually exists. 

      To be fair, Hume was quoted in his life as saying something like: I have never said something so foolish as there is no such thing as cause and effect. I have only said that we have no reason for supposing that there is. He just thinks you can’t prove it. He’s got a couple of reasons that people usually use to say that one thing is the cause of another, things like, succession in time, conjunction in time, conjunction in space etc. And none of them are enough. If I clap my hands and you sneeze, I didn’t cause you to do that, no matter how close together we are, how soon you sneeze after I clap or how many times in a row it happens. He thinks that if all we can do is list reasons like these, we never really get all the way to cause, because none of them are individually necessary. Everybody hates Hume for this, or the argument at least, because he was a pretty likable dude. But it feels wrong on a basic level that makes us just want to spit the whole thing out right away.

Yeah. Nice hat by the way. I’ll make sure to stop knowing anything in just a sec. 

      If we do though Hume will be right there with another spoonful telling us to open up for the airplane. He is not even close to finished with picking apart knowledge. You’ve probably heard of “I think therefore I am”. It was the catchphrase of a French philosopher named Rene Descartes, who used it to try and stop this same rampage that Hume went on through the battlefield of human understanding. At least, Descartes thinks, I know that I’m here. As long as there is knowing, there must be something that does that knowing right? But Hume isn’t going to give you that either. For Hume, we can only really say that our perceptions are here, because you can’t perceive a thing that perceives, you can only have another perception of a thing that perceives. 

      Like almost everyone who reads Hume, I’m pretty sure that he’s wrong. What makes his work so valuable is just how tricky it seems to be at first to say exactly where he’s gone wrong. If we really do know much more than Hume seems to think we should give ourselves credit for, then why don’t we know how we know it? He makes the point that we can’t perceive a self that perceives because that launches us on an infinite regression, but this assumes that only one perception is possible in a given frame. What I see when I perceive my own looking is a different species of perception itself which splits and layers into a sentient form. To say there’s a creature that perceives is to make reference to this layered species of perception, something which is clearly distinct from simple sensational realities like hot and cold. Yes we can only ever have perceptions, but that only launches us onto an infinite regression if all perceptions are rigidly equal units of the same size which must wait their turn to be experienced. And that’s very much not what’s going on when we perceive ourselves as responsible subjects. We can fit all kinds of seeing in a single frame. What the self really refers to is this continuity of perceptive meaning that can summon and command itself through different phases of being. The self doesn’t have to be beneath perception. It can remain in tact as we currently understand it as something that threads through and rises out of perception, the way a laser beam bounces off of mirrors. 

Not the light but the magnified thing we can create through bouncing it off of itself. 

      And in a broader sense there seems to be a problem with Hume’s deconstruction of cause and effect on necessity grounds. We want to spit out the things he tells us because we’re here in a way that we have to know. Our own presence in the world is an outgrowth of a grinding of large scale natural relationships. Tons of forces, from the rays of the sun, to the spin of the planet, to the presence of water, push and carve against each other in a consistent way and our lives are the rut they dig into the planet. No one thing causes us to be here. In fact, of all the things that come together to mean what we do, very few of them couldn’t afford to be nudged slightly out of place. From the size of the Earth, to the many kinds of materials we find on it, no individual one of these contributing variables can be bolted to the floor in a hyper specific mousetrap of cause and effect to make us  blink our eyelids in any given second. That’s just not what organic being is. It’s a melting pot much more than it’s a contraption. Organic being is a coalescence of unrelated forces splashing together into something that, with enough time and consistency, will churn out little chemical tumbleweeds like us and the birds and the bees. 

    For Hume to really kill cause and effect the way he wants to, we have to stop thinking about reality in an organic way. It’s almost the same problem he has with the self, in that what he’s trying to do is put life on a piece of graph paper so he can show us how much it doesn’t fit into a grid. It assumes that all collections of different, intersecting forces are equally unable to be causes and that’s not true. A horoscope collects some facts that are conjoined in time; a birthday, a star position, what some jerk from a thousand years ago thought about them, etc. and tries to say that there’s a cause and effect relationship between those things because they appear together in some way. There’s clearly not enough information put together here to get from the simple fact that these things appear together in some way, that they cause events in your life. But if we step away from there to something like the weather, suddenly what appear to be unrelated collections of facts start to have a more reliable path of cause and effect charge through them. Things like the tilt of the planet relative to the sun, the amount of diesel cars there are on the planet, and whether or not a big chunk of ice fell off a glacier 8,000 miles away swirl together to make everything from tornados, to hurricanes to sunburns happen across the globe. This is not a situation that’s going to fit neatly on a piece of graph paper. Plenty of things about it, like how much driving there is or whether or not a bear decides to stand on a ledge, can change or fail to change how the weather happens so that none of it is really a clean mouse trap of causes and effects. Really what we should be prepared to say is that enough correlations can surround a circumstance that they close off all possibility collectively until an effect comes charging out of it. In other words; just because there is no one cause, doesn’t mean that causation isn’t real, or that we can’t arrive at it with the right number of sufficiently powerful correlative forces. 

This guy got ambitious and now it’s going to rain in Tuscon. 

     We know about things like global warming and the relationship of the seasons to the tilt of the planet because of observations, but the difference between seeing something and knowing what we’re looking at is a difference in the space that being sentient creates inside of perception. Vision is fancy pants groping. Imagine putting your hand in the same bag every day, all day, so that you knew where everything was inside it perfectly and instantly the second you woke up. The more perfect your mapping of the space became, the more you’d be exercising  a rudimentary form of vision by using that map. Our sensitivity to changes is what allows the groping we do to be more and less sophisticated, and that’s why vision is most sensitive to photons, one of the smallest possible elements of change around us. All knowledge finally works this way. We do back flips trying to decide what can and can’t be called knowledge, but what we’re finally talking about is this point where natural relationships trigger a certain event. We know it’s there because we found some way to run into it.

      Light hits the eye and knowledge is finally a way of talking about what happens at that point of impact. All the other spectrums of radio waves and radiation that we know about, are things we learned by developing instruments that could be meaningfully run into by them, Sensory knowledge is knowledge in its seed form. When we do a logical exercise, we’re setting up the same basic mental event. A premise arrives, it’s run through a logical framework and an event happens, where the premise either breaks or develops, and it’s that event that we call knowledge. In the same sense that our lives are the result of an organic, rather than a mechanical process, knowledge has certain hard boundaries that it can’t exist outside of, and while knowledge is as plain as life itself when it works, no one incarnation of it is perfect. 

     Much of knowledge is sickly, hindered by polluted habitats that jerks have trampled all over. Trolls and propagandists pollute knowledge the way locusts pollute a wheat field. Just because they’re there doesn’t mean we have no knowledge, it just means the knowledge we get is gross to choke down. Some knowledge is ancient, towering and monolithic like a redwood tree that society has collectively agreed to make space for in its own right. Things like the pythagorean theorem or the existence of the pyramids are little bits of popular information that everyone is allowed to visit, which remain basically unchanged over individual life times. But knowledge is always something that’s alive, teeming together as a pocket of breathing meaning that strikes a natural note out of colliding systems. Just because we can’t stab it to the floor in a single stroke, doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Sorry Hume, and everyone who reads his stuff and then gets a boner to tell people that they don’t know they exist. Not knowing how we know is different from not knowing. It’s a problem with how sentient we are, which is something we can improve by looking harder in one moment of time and seeing ourselves as we see things. That extra layer of meaning is us and there are few things we can know more completely. 

We’ve been at this for a while now. 

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