posttitle = “I can tell for myself” titleClass =title-long len =35

“I can tell for myself”

There’s a capacity for knowing, that every human being has, that as a society we’re out of touch with in many important domains. It’s the knowing that comes from trusting our own experience and understanding. It’s not incidental that we’re out of touch with it—our societies are largely organized around this fact. But we could organize a different kind of society where everyone is in touch with it. It’s not easy or straightforward, but it seems to me to be both possible and worthwhile.

There are various fancy terms for this kind of direct-knowing—eg “self-trust” or “trust in one’s own experience” or “wise knowing” or “gnosis”—but in this piece of writing I will speak of it in plain language: “I can tell for myself”. This phrasing is cumbersome but concrete, and forces me to be very clear about what I’m talking about rather than letting the idea float off into some vague attribute one “has” or “doesn’t have”, or some accomplishment or attainment, like “awakeness”. It’s also particularly useful for contrasting it with a different kind of knowing we can call “taking someone’s word for it”. It could also be “received knowing”. I’m particularly interested in what happens when what we can tell for ourselves seems in conflict with what someone else says, and problems that occur when we override what we can tell for ourselves by taking someone else’s word, which I’ll get into in a future piece.

All of this is part of a project you could refer to as “descriptivist epistemology”. Epistemology is the study of how we know things. Much of epistemology is sort of external and prescriptivist: it is the study of “how people should go about knowing things”. Descriptivist Epistemology instead asks: how do we actually go about knowing things? There’s a thing it feels like to know something. Where does that come from? Sometimes we discover that things we knew before, we would now consider incorrect, not because the world has changed but because we’ve learned something or matured in some way. When and why does that happen? And when someone’s very way of knowing evolves, how does it evolve? In what sense did we nonetheless “know” something that was in some sense untrue? How is this different from simply “being misled” or “being confused”?

In order to explore all of those questions, let’s first, explore, concretely and intuitively, the kinds of things that we can know for ourselves, where we don’t have to take someone’s word for it.

Examples of situations where “I can tell for myself”

Here’s a wide sampling but still totally incomplete list of some examples of different kinds of direct-knowing:

  • I can tell for myself that I have fingers, and that they’re typing these words right now. 
  • We could debate various metaphysical claims implied by the previous bullet, but the fact remains that there was something I meant within the frame I used, and I can tell that’s what I meant (this is a point about meaning, which is separate from the one about fingers).
  • I can tell for myself that I like the taste of certain foods or the vibe of certain songs. My preferences may change but I can tell in the moment that I’m enjoying them.
  • I can tell for myself that 32+28=60, and that 432+128=560. I might take someone’s word for it if it doesn’t matter and/or I trust their math, but I could check it myself even if it required literally counting them out one by one.
    • There are other mathematical structures that at first I took someone’s word for (like π ≈ 3.14159 or that the derivative of ex is ex) but then later I figured them out for myself and so I can tell for myself that those things are as true as 1-1=0 (ie tautologically self-evidently true, which is what math is made of) and thus if I tried to figure them out again I would come to the same answer every time. Depending on your background, you might have dozens or hundreds of these, or very few.
  • I can tell for myself that gravity is a thing that is a regular part of my day-to-day life.
    • To some extent I can tell it would be possible for it to be the force that causes planetary orbits, not just the one that causes things (or me) to fall towards the earth, because I’ve seen how things swing around each other when pulled towards each other while they have relative angular momentum—this is an embodied knowing I have ever since I was a kid being swung around by my dad. I wouldn’t say I can tell that whatever theory of gravity is true, but it checks out: my own direct-knowing is consonant with it. Put another way, someone could present me with a theory of gravity where I would be able to tell for myself that it couldn’t possibly be true, but the one we have (on this level) is not such a theory.
AI-generated digital art, with the prompt: a dad playing 'spin me around' with his kid, just as earth's gravity spins the moon in its orbit. in the foreground of the scene is a kid floating in the air by being spun by his dad who is leaning back. they're standing on a planet with a moon and sun in the background.
AI-generated by DALL-E with my prompt: a dad playing “spin me around” with his kid, just as earth’s gravity spins the moon in its orbit
  • If I come into a room and someone sees me and promptly shoves something under a table and I ask “what was that?” and they awkwardly say “uhhh… it was… uhh… nothing!!” then I can tell for myself that they’re hiding something (it doesn’t tell me what they’re hiding, or why). I’d be a fool to take their word for it when they say “nothing”, although it might make sense to pretend, whether because:
    • they have the power and motivation to harm me if I don’t pretend
    • it’s somebody I don’t know very well and things will be awkward if I acknowledge that I can tell they’re hiding something
    • my birthday is coming up and the most likely scenario is that it’s a benign surprise that I’d be happier not to intrude on
    • I just have other priorities in that moment than having an experience of shared reality with that person
  • I can tell for myself that I feel sad, or angry, or whatever. This is definitely the sort of thing that people learn not to notice, or learn to suppress, or whatever. I might have anger going on but in some sense not be feeling it, and with practice I’ve learned to notice that, too.
  • I can tell for myself that I’m feeling pain. Sure, pain may be psychosomatic or whatever, but I can tell for myself that to say “I’m not in pain” would be a lie.
  • I can tell for myself that it’s okay to rest for a moment right now. This particular tell-for-oneself has been maybe more heavily suppressed by civilizational memes than even the one about feeling your feelings, but the capacity is there if you can get the memes out of your hair.
  • I can tell for myself that I am. This is not a logical conclusion, à la Descartes, but an experience of being, that I can tell I’m having.

Examples of taking someone’s word for it (and not)

Likewise, taking someone’s word for it can happen in many different contexts:

  • I might take your word for it that you’re busy.
  • I might take your word for it that you’re happy or sad.
  • I might take your word for it that you did something you just said you did.
  • I might take your word for it that someone else would be fine with some course of action I’m proposing.
  • I might take your word for it that something is safe or dangerous.
  • I might take your word for it that a book is or is not worth reading.
  • I might take your word for it that if I do some sort of meditative practice, I’ll have some sort of experience worth having.
  • I might take your word for it that Jesus Christ died for our sins (and that, furthermore, this has various other implications).
  • I might take your word for it that the boiling point of some substance is some temperature. I could also look it up and take the vague collective body of scientific knowledge’s word for it. Or if I have access to that chemical myself, I might be able to tell for myself very directly, with a bunch of work.

I might also not take your word for it. There are numerous reasons why we don’t take someone’s word for it:

  • what they say seems to contradict our own senses (“you say you’re enjoying yourself, but you don’t look like you are”)
  • what they say seems to contradict the generalizations we’ve formed that we can tell for ourselves hold to some degree (“but if that were true, that would imply…”)
  • what they say seems to contradict other things that they themselves say, leading us to conclude that something fishy is going on (“wait but last week you said…”)
  • we don’t trust their motives (“of course he said that, he was trying to offload it onto you”)
  • they’re tagged to us as an unreliable narrator, because we’ve experienced them as lying, bullshitting, or misleading in the past—or we’ve taken a trusted friend’s word that this person is a compulsive liar (“yeah, Meghan has told me all sorts of ridiculous things… her stories are entertaining but I never assume they’re at all true”)
  • what they seem to mean contradicts other beliefs/frames/values/alliances that we’ve adopted as a result of taking someone else’s word for it (“but that’s heretical!” —thinking that rejects other thinking)
  • we don’t even know what it would mean for what they’ve said to be true (“I’m not even sure what you mean by free will, so I’m not sure what sense to make of what you just said”)
  • what they say is phrased in such a way that it sounds dumb or has logical errors, separate from whatever they’re actually trying to indicate
  • power dynamic stuff that involves us not respecting the other person enough to allow their words to influence us

At any rate, sometimes these two ways of knowing live in harmony. Sometimes someone points something out with words, and I don’t take their word for it, I use their word as guide to point my own attention at the matter in question and investigate for myself, and check it out, and then I can sometimes tell for myself that what they said matches my experience, or doesn’t. When it doesn’t, perhaps we’re looking in different places, and an example (hypothetical or manifest) would help.

A dialogue

Here’s a tiny example of the interplay between “I can tell for myself” and “taking someone’s word for it”:

Malcolm: Ahh oops I thought I’d put this bowl of leftovers in the fridge before our walk… oh wait no you must have taken it out just now.
Jess: No I didn’t.
Malcolm: It’s cold.
Jess: Ah I guess I did.

I had a memory from earlier of putting the bowl in, whether it was an episodic memory of the act itself, or whether it was a memory of intending to and then later seeing the clean countertop… but then after the walk, upon encountering the bowl on the counter, I questioned my own memory. Then I felt the bowl and it was cold, and I realized that Jess had just taken it out since we arrived back from the walk.

But when I first reported that to her, she didn’t remember doing so, and so she countered me—she didn’t take my word for it that she had taken it out, given that she didn’t initially locate such a memory. But then when I shared with her that it was cold… it would have been absurd not to take my word for it that it was cold, since with literally the touch of a finger she could have verified that for herself. And while she’d spoken with confidence moments before that she hadn’t taken it out, she wasn’t totally sure, so she came to the same conclusion as me. I didn’t take her word for it that she didn’t take it out, even though she spoke with confidence and in general I would trust her memory quite a bit, because I could tell for myself that someone took it out and I was very confident it wasn’t me.

My friend & EvConch colleague Michael Smith commented on this example:

Good use of gnosis needs to be paired with humility. Imre Lakatos’s book “Proofs and Refutations’ highlights this in math. The thing where, if literally everyone else on Earth concluded that 1+1≠2, your first reaction shouldn’t be to flat-out reject it but should instead be to look at why.

Trust and truth: “what I can’t trust”

I can’t infallibly know what’s so, but I can infallibly know that things in fact do seem to me the way they seem to me. How could it be any other way? (That doesn’t mean that the generalizations I’ve made will hold in all situations, or that my articulations will be accurate when interpreted—by someone else or just by myself moments later. In fact, there’s almost always some kind of gap there, and it’s not a skill issue but inherent to the situation. As Korzybski says, “the word is not the thing”.)

So I may be confused about something on various levels—but my sense of “I can tell for myself” is a kind of trustable that taking someone’s word for it… isn’t. “I can tell for myself” is authentic knowing—”authentic” in the precise sense of coming from one’s own authority and in the sense of being true to oneself. It is, in a sense, what my own trust and distrust is made of.

Thus, in general, if someone tells me something, and it seems to me to contradict something I can tell for myself, then even if it turns out they’re right, if I try to override what I can tell for myself by taking their word for it, that is precisely the same as signing up to get gaslit (even if they’re not trying to override my own knowing). Even if they successfully “convince me” of something “true”, this is happening at the cost of violating my natural epistemic process. It’s a form of rationalization. To be clear, this is different from them convincing me that it’s worth it to take a bet I think will probably fail but not too expensively, that might allow me to tell for myself that they’re right.

Instead, by backing what I can tell for myself, I’m requiring that my learning/updating process respect my experiential frame. I’m never in a position of epistemic naïvety.

One of the main ways people make mistakes here, in practice, is that they have one level of “I can tell for myself” (eg “that my partner’s hiding something”) and they extrapolate that to eg “I can tell for myself that my partner is sleeping around”. They can’t. However, They can tell for themself that they can’t trust that their partner isn’t sleeping around, and this is key.

That sentence sounds a bit convoluted, but it is not more convoluted than the reality it describes. Reality is convoluted sometimes! Especially when there’s some sort of distrust.

And attempting to simplify it (in your own mind or in how you talk) causes some sort of problem:

  • If you simplify it to “I can tell for myself that you’re sleeping around” (or “You’re sleeping around” which has the “I can tell” implicit) then it has become false—disconnected from truth, because even if they are, you can’t tell that. Starting with a false statement is not a great position for dialogue.
  • If you simplify it to “Seems like my partner is sleeping around” or “I think my partner is sleeping around” or “I feel like my partner is sleeping around”. it has become weak—disconnected from the groundedness of your “I can tell for myself”. It’s just a feeling (implied: irrational, or a projection of yours) or just an opinion (implied: and it can be wrong).

What you can tell, for sure, is:

  1. there’s a way you’d feel if you weren’t worried about this
  2. and you don’t feel that!

And “I can tell that I can’t trust that X” is a way to experience or express that, that is in touch with both the grounded clarity of what you can tell for yourself, and with collective truth. If you want more about that, check out my other writing on the Non-Naïve Trust Dance which is about how this works and how it can work better.

This post begins a sequence! In future posts, I’ll explore… (links show where I’ve published later posts already)

For now I’ll leave you with this quote:

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.

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