How Do We Know?

This is a question that has occupied me all my professional life. How, in fact, do we know what is true and what is false? I have at times thought about this question in metaphysical terms and at times in sociological terms, at times as a problem of phenomenology and at times as a problem of psychology. I believe, quite generally, that knowing is something we do with our bodies, which is to say with our minds and our hearts, and that we do it together. We can’t know anything by ourselves. But we do have to do something. We can’t leave it altogether to others to know things for us.

All of this is quite trivial, perhaps. But I think I our epistemological situation today has a certain urgency. Sometimes it feels like an outright emergency. Once we have raised the question of how we know things, and looked at the chaos of our means to do it, we can easily find ourselves wondering whether it is possible to know anything at all. For my part, I am optimistic. I not only believe that we can know a great many things, but that we in fact do know a great many things. And I’m confident that we will learn a great many more. When I say “we” I mean us as a culture, of course, but also you and me. I am entirely hopeful that I’m going to learn something in the years to come.

How, then, do I propose we do this? My epistemology these days is built out of three basic competences. To know something we have to be able to (1) make up our minds, (2) say what’s on them and, (3) write it down. More specifically, we have to be able to (1) form justified, true beliefs, (2) discuss them with other knowledgeable people, and (3) compose coherent prose paragraphs about them. While I’m happy discuss the standards against which we might evaluate these competencies, and while I of course grant that mastery is always relative, I will not consider someone knowledgeable (not even you, dear reader) if they declare that they lack these abilities. If you haven’t made up your mind about something, are unwilling to discuss it, and/or refuse to put it in writing, I will not grant that you know it. I think it would be great if we approached all claims to know things in this way.

Remember that every time someone expects you to believe them they are claiming to have knowledge. If not — if, when you scratch them, they say that they don’t actually know — then you have no reason to believe what they are telling you. The reason for this isn’t really philosophical but rhetorical: when someone claims to know something and asks you to believe them there is a conversation you can have to help you make up your mind. You can ask how they know. What tools and materials did they use to attain this knowledge? What theories framed their inquiries, what methods guided their investigations? What concepts did they use to grasp the data they were given? And their stories here will be plausible to you or not. You may find the stories so convincing that you simply believe them then and there. Or you may choose to retrace some of their steps, to try to replicate their findings. You may suspend belief as long as you like. As some point, however, if you want to know this thing, you will have to make up your mind.

Again, trivial notions that, to me, have some urgency in these times. I sometimes sense an indignation in my fellow human beings that it should be this hard to know things. Why can’t we just believe what we are told? people seem to say. They seem disappointed in their “post truth” politicians and “fake news” journalists. They seem to feel entitled to being told the truth at all times. They won’t accept the burden of checking the facts for themselves. We seem to have lost our sense of charity about the “honest error”, both in the thought and the speech of our interlocutors and in our own hearing and thinking. We imagine everyone is always either speaking their minds plainly or deliberately concealing what they think. We imagine that what we hear is always what was said, and what we understand by it is always what was meant. We have lost our taste for the difficult work of believing things.

The knowledge of a culture is the product of countless well-meaning, but often misguided, people trying to figure out what the facts are, working among countless more who are trying to accomplish their goals, with or without our knowledge. The facts, of course, don’t make themselves known, even under the best of conditions. We must do it for them. But at some point, it sometimes seems to  me, a generation decided that the work was more or less finished and there was nothing left for us but to believe. I think we’re beginning to see that this won’t work. I’m hopeful we’ll soon learn how to know again.

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