Knowing things can tricky. Ask any scientist in artificial intelligence and they’ll agree. But ask them what it means to actually “know” something, and they’ll find some way to avoid the question. I’m not sure why, but I can guess. Maybe they avoid the question because they know certain stuff, but can’t be bothered to share it. Or maybe they have some theoretical hope they wish to protect – a hope that some day they might build a machine that can know stuff. Their best answer so far is that believing we know something is an illusion; a by-product of our bio-mechanical mind shifting through stored memories using some unknown process, and somehow all this paper shuffling results in us tricking ourselves into believing we have a consciousness, when in reality, our awareness is just some fast and perhaps simultaneous memory trick, all brought together in one place, that, well, isn’t really a place. So really, they reason, we don’t know things. We can only remember things. Or, I suppose, forget them. This they know. Or, don’t, rather. And that’s why they avoid the question altogether, waiving their “get out jail free” cards.
But for the purposes of this essay I will not argue with them. In fact, I will agree with them in large part. Many things we believe we know are simply illusion, a form of self-trickery, where our more evolved and “larger” mind decides to play a subservient role to the more primitive and earlier-stage part of our minds that deals with such issues as survival, hierarchies, aggression (and love). In this way, we can act in accordance with our self-interests, justifying them through claims to a social order, even with our greater mind’s complete understanding of reasonable realities to the contrary. In other words, we can easily keep doing things and believing things even when we know better. This is a byproduct of our evolving mind that is often at odds with itself in an ongoing struggle between our more primitive adaptations and our more recently-evolved, higher cognitive abilities.
Empiricists believe that you must be able to touch something and measure it before it can be true. In other words, for something to be real, it must be able to hit you over the head and raise a lump. This is very convenient within the context of social orders, of all types, large and small. On the other hand, rationalists believe that something only needs to make rational sense, to be true. Of course, you can rationalize all you want that something is not hitting you over the head, but doing so will not keep you from getting a lump. And similarly, you can affirm all you like that being hit over the head, or hitting someone else over the head, is just the way it is – after all, you can feel it and measure it, right? But perhaps that is no longer a reasonable thing to do. Or perhaps other undiscovered and unmeasured clubs have already been pounding away, that will eventually change everything.
We can go clear back to the 1700’s and listen to Immanuel Kant about this issue. He demonstrated, and pretty well, that rationalists, without empiricism, were vulnerable to fooling themselves, while empiricists, without employing reason, can lose all context and meaning in their measurements and constructions. The interplay between empiricism and reason still happens today through the vessels of their adherents, who adhere strictly to varying degrees. But it turns out, the deftness at balance between the two is what separates the men from the boys. And the rest, who are the largest majority, are more akin to that Middle English poem about bulls leaping and farting in the Springtime.
My kung fu sifu once said, “you do not sing to cows – it is stupid”. That is when I first lost admiration for him. It has also been suggested, on more than one occasion, that I am “singing to the choir”. Could it be that you, reading this, are a farting, leaping animal in my choir of cows? I doubt it. You are all wildly different, with mostly unique backgrounds and certainly different priorities and beliefs. I would bet you are all farters, though, and that, at least, is comforting.
We’ve traveled a long way in our awareness since Darwin brought us back from Saint Augustine’s purely disembodied esoterics, reuniting us with nature, in all our crazy beastliness. Whether or not we are entirely biological machines changes nothing in our ethical imperatives toward one another. We are alive. We all feel pleasure and pain. We all experience hopes and disappointments. We can behave wrongly toward each other, or rightly.
The world of ideas dictates nearly all our actions. Ideas of ourself, and of others. Ideas of economic and political systems. Ideas of religion. Knowing anything may well be self-deception, just as some scientists claim (somewhat paradoxically). We pass ideas between each other, as surely as we pass them down to our descendants. They shape our ability to examine and understand the world and each other. Even the processes we use that lead to new ideas, are themselves, inherited ideas. How can we know anything true, when our very senses are merely tendrils that extend from that nexus we call our awareness? Not surprisingly, this itself is an idea that tends to appeal to and unsettle younger minds more readily than older. But after a while, we become settled within our experiences, having identified which hammers pound upon us and when, or which hammers we might possess in our arsenal to use. And this settling of our nature is the beginning of decay for any individual, and for any society.
Long before Kant, and long before Christianity, lived Socrates. We can trace the entirety of Western thought, the very basis of our intellectual abilities, both purely rational and scientific, through this line. Pythagoras, the “father of mathematics” had already completed his work in geometry fifty years prior to Socrates’ birth. Plato, who, like Pythagoras, was a lover of geometry, was a student of Socrates. However, Socrates was not entirely convinced that 2+2=4, when you really considered the question. Plato was convinced, however, and was even convinced that the mathematics of geometry were the basis for the atomic nature of the universe. In fact, the dodecahedron was so powerful that its existence was kept top secret, lest other, less worthy people, get it into their heads to play god. In fact, the dodecahedron was considered the “god particle”.
Socrates was more of a rationalist, however. He wanted things to make sense. And mathematics made perfect sense, as long as you remembered the context in which you applied it. Pythagoras, on the other hand, believed we could understand the universe through mathematics. He attributed a physical significance to numbers and gained a large following of his teachings, all of whom were tightly-knit collaborators upon their various mathematical equations and theories. Today, we would consider such a following a cult. At one point they were thrown into disarray and turmoil by the square root of two. You see, the universe likes whole numbers, or even ratios of whole numbers, which represent fractions. But the square root of two, they proved, could not be represented by a ratio of whole numbers, and the number two was far too important to exhibit such disturbing and provocative qualities. So the problem was downplayed, and even suppressed. They did not want this truth, even though they discovered it.
Plato, like Pythagoras, happily believed that the universe could be better understood through reason and mathematics, rather than relying on observations of nature, as Thales had said it must be understood. Most historians attribute Plato’s ideas that mathematics and reason are the best way to access the nature of reality as the primary force that kept science from advancing for well over a thousand years. In the meantime, Socrates, his teacher, who agreed that 2+2 may equal 4, but wanted to know what that really meant, was put to death by the Athenian state for embarrassing the ruling class by exposing their inadequacies as intelligent people who are obligated to lead well.
Some of you will see parallels in this, to the self-referential hallucinations that comprise a great portion of modern theoretical physics in its schism with the more sane disciplines of the observational. Some of you will see parallels with the insistently physical foundations of mind and consciousness, versus the more esoteric. And others will be gritting their teeth, wondering what on earth this has to do with the fleecing of the non-rich and the killing and torture of so many people. Still others will be convinced that this has nothing whatsoever to do with beer drinking.
The point is, people do have ideas, even if they’re only spouted when they’re drunk, and people do feel that they know things. And all these ideas have come to us, somehow. If we look back to Saint Augustine, we find a man who helped define what Christianity would mean for everyone who came after. He also was a philosopher, living long after the Greeks I’ve mentioned. He lived after Rome was transformed into something resembling civilization, after they conquered Greece. He lived at the time when Rome decided that Christianity was the one and only religion people could have. Saint Augustine was not a Christian then, but saw the light of Christianity while non-Christians were being put to death. One of his many contributions was giving us the concept of a “just war”, that is, a reasonable way to invade other countries, not because they have attacked you, but because they do not believe the right things, or because you would actually be helping them by invading.
Interestingly, it was around the same time that Rome was increasingly beset by the Vandals. No, they weren’t a punk rock band, but rather a very irritable group of Slavic and Germanic people who felt that they, too, were perfectly justified in doing and taking what they wanted. While Rome played their political games of backstabbing and power grabbing, the Vandals ran about pretty much willy-nilly through the empire. Saint Augustine actually died during a siege of Rome by the Vandals, probably from starvation. It’s certainly an interesting story about the power of the hordes.
Just a few nights ago I was talking, late at night, to a store clerk about the helicopters that always seem to fill the sky throughout the night. She told me that earlier that evening the Arco gas station had been robbed, and that her building had been painted with street images by vandals. She was happy the vandals had been apprehended by police. Also, her young daughter stays with her mom while she works at night, and she is worried about her daughter because she is very sick and nobody can tell her why. She had to move back in with her mother because she was trying to pay medical bills. Also, the thick metallic money vault behind the counter will only drop out $20 every hour, which she can use for making change. While I was there, one hooded man came in, buying lighter fluid and cold tablets.
She has trouble trusting people now because her boyfriend, a salesman, used to beat her when she questioned anything he said, and sometimes just when she was being nice to him. She wanted me to tell her that everything would be okay. Yet somehow, I didn’t know where to begin. What I did say was that I was glad she was standing on her own now, and that she was finding her own strength, which looked to me, to be considerable. And that none of that is me – it is all you.
Sometimes there are so many thoughts or ideas, with no obvious place to begin. Sometimes we may drown in them. An interesting thing about Socrates is that he never produced any writings. He believed that philosophy and discourse was meant to be alive, between people. He believed that it was better for people to consider ideas for themselves, reaching their own reasonable conclusions, despite what others might say, or what others might believe, or what any social order or government might compel. The Socratic Dialogue, or dialectic – the examination of ideas we might erroneously hold as truth, discussed and worked out between people. It is no place for the instruments of power and coercion. To the mind of Socrates, the dialectic ennobles people through the revelation of truth that might otherwise be obscured. A dialogue between people, two-way streets, without fear, with open minds, in the interest of all that is greater.
I couldn’t tell her all this, all at once, but only set a little sign. Small moves, Jenny at the store, as we find the little stepping stones. The paths that lead home, and the winding, rocky trails leading out into the world. Desperation, anger, clinging to the one thing that makes sense, the acceptance of a still decline, turning in one place – when there is no voice: it is illusion. All acts have consequences, as certainly as none do. And this is what creates, the entirety of our lives.
The big young man who got out of his car, as I was returning to my own, moved here recently from Texas. He met his wife while he was stationed at Fort Lewis, nearby, and they were married before he left to spend four years fighting in Iraq. He was overly gregarious and disconnected from our surroundings, seeing in the way only those who have known combat do. I walked up to stand in front of him and took his hand, looking him the face, so that I was all that he could see. “Welcome back home,” I said, “I’m very happy you made it through whatever you did.” Then I moved to stand beside him. “You’ll see more clouds here than you’re used to, especially this winter. Look at them, and pay attention to their shape and texture. Be unhappy or happy. And tell other people about them. We all learn, in the strangest ways.”