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.
Here’s a wide sampling but still totally incomplete list of some examples of different kinds of direct-knowing:
Likewise, taking someone’s word for it can happen in many different contexts:
I might also not take your word for it. There are numerous reasons why we don’t take someone’s word for it:
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.
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.
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:
What you can tell, for sure, is:
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:
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.