posttitle = I know what Knowing isn’t titleClass =title-long len =31

I know what Knowing isn’t

A tangent off the “I can tell for myself” sequence, between post 4 & 5.

There’s a thing it feels like to know 5+5=10.

Wait—that’s exactly the opposite of what I mean. There are many things in feels like—in some sense at least one per person who’s ever known it, in another sense as many as times it’s been known! And while I can know 5+5=10 is so true that I can be certain that if you know what I mean by 5 and + and = and 10, that you’ll agree… my knowing and your knowing are still different.

Concretely, I might be knowing 5+5=10 from a verbal memorized table that never did me wrong, and you might be imagining two nickels and a dime. Or one of us has an experience of beholding 10 fingers, 5 on each hand, the other has a sense of 5 having a halfness to it, in relation to 10, related to thinking in decimals for a lifetime. But those are just four abstract descriptions, under which many yet-unique experiences of knowing 5+5=10 could be binned—and many could not. And either or both of us might go about knowing 4+8=12 very differently than we know 5+5=10.

And those knowings are likely yet different from what it would feel like to know such a thing together

This applies to all knowings: mundane and spiritual, mathematical and episodical. My knowing is not your knowing, and neither one is our knowing. And they aren’t the thing that is known.

Knowing is different from truth

Something can be true without being known: I could write a computer program that would generate a true statement that nobody had ever seen or known (such as 12364871317234+1=12364871317235, but imagine it’s longer and more convoluted) and it would still be true within that formal system, but it wouldn’t be known unless or until someone went and knew it. It could be true that there’s life on a particular exoplanet 51 Pegasi b, but it’s not currently known (as far as I know—if I’m mistaken, pick a different exoplanet). There are philosophical questions about who counts as “someone” and I am mostly going to say “definitely at least humans, in some cases animals or parts-of-humans”.

In the previous paragraph I was talking about things that are true but not known by anyone. There are also true things that are known by someone but not by someone else. You can even know OF a “true fact”, without actually knowing it. Here’s one: I’m typing this paragraph while listening to Tycho’s album Dive. One of my favorite albums. You could memorize this fact and perhaps pass it onto many other people… and maybe you even have good reason to believe me, because I’m a pretty honest guy in general and have no incentive to lie or whatever, but you don’t know it. Not directly. You can’t tell for yourself, but you can take my word for it.

A kid can know that “Santa comes on Christmas eve!” The question of whether Santa is “real” in the same senses in which the kid’s parents are real is not vital to the kid’s knowing—the kid knows that there are presents from Santa, and various other evidences such as cookie crumbs or in the case of very theatrical parents, sooty bootprints or whatever… insofar as the phrase “Santa comes on Christmas eve!” refers to that event, the kid can tell for themself that that happens. Santa sure doesn’t come on a randomly selected Tuesday in late April, for the purpose of leaving broken toasters on the lawn!

Insofar as the phrase “Santa comes on Christmas eve!” is taken to imply that “there is one single flesh-and-blood Santa who is absurdly fast” or “reindeer fly” or “these presents were made by elves at the North Pole prior to being delivered”, as truths on the same level as “there’s a single flesh-and-blood Usain Bolt who is impressively fast” and “birds fly” or “these other presents, from my uncle, were made in a factory and bought at a store prior to being delivered”… well, the kid doesn’t actually know any of those things, by how I’m using “knowing”, which is largely referring to what I’ve been calling “I can tell for myself“. They have no direct experience that maps onto those specifics.

The kid knows people say those things, or that they say things that would imply those things. The “truth” here is complex: the kid has maybe seen movies in which such things happen. They know that at least in a narrative sense, reindeer fly and elves make presents at the north pole, in the same way that it’s true that Batman fights the Joker and not true that Batman fights Voldemort from Harry Potter. Then again, algorithmically-optimized content on youtube is aggressively serving up bizarre mashups of kids’ characters: Elsa from Disney’s Frozen swimming with Spiderman, and so on. But I digress.

Back on topic—Santa! Depending on whether their parents and their immediate social context have been using the idea of Santa (and possibly Elf on the Shelf) as a tool for coercing the kid’s behavior, the kid may have a fear that if they misbehave, even when nobody can see them, they will get coal or no presents or whatever on Christmas day. But they don’t know this, unless they’ve watched it happen, and most kids probably experience suspicious evidence to the contrary, such as a mean sibling or classmate getting plenty of toys for Christmas. They might, however, know that even though Santa seems kind of suspicious, they’re supposed to ignore their doubts and go along with it.

Sometimes we know things that turn out to be false. We make a slip calculating something or a mistake in mathematical logic, and we come to a conclusion that has the feeling of inalienable knowing that math has, but then… it contradicts something else, or it comes out differently than we expected. And so “this is how it is” switches to “this is how it seems/seemed to me”. When we’re comfortable in our knowing process, we can smoothly make that switch. Even the smartest most expert mathematician, if someone else got a different answer, might go “hm. well, I got 10. you got 5?” The shift from “it’s 10” to “I got 10” reveals the more precise knowing underneath the previously un-subjected truth. But there’s still an unalienable knowing there: I know I got 10. I can tell for myself. More on that below.

Likewise, I know where my bike is, until I come back to the jarring reality-jolt of an empty post, realizing that it was stolen, and that all I actually knew was where I left my bike. But it was fine to treat that as [I know where my bike is], until it wasn’t! I don’t just mean the words “I know where my bike is”, but an underlying sense of reality. Necessarily, we have to treat our sense of reality as being what it is. To do otherwise would be absurd. This includes our “rational” knowings, not just our sense perceptions. If it sounds like there’s a bear in my living room, I’m going to guess it’s a movie my roommates are watching, not a live bear.

Knowing is in this sense provisional, pragmatic, ad hoc—it works fine enough for the situation at hand (or it doesn’t). And that’s how we use it most of the time. If someone says “I know something” and it turns out to not be so, then our concern turns to whether they were lying or bullshitting or sloppy, not to philosophical quandaries around exactly what knowledge is. Which is good, because “knowledge” is a confused concept, that removes the knower and the pragmatic context.

It’s like calling something “healthy”. What’s healthy for a human isn’t healthy to an ant. What’s healthy for me may not be for you. What’s healthy in the morning may not be when I’m about to sleep. Doing bench presses will make you more fit… but not more fit for competitive long-distance biking where it adds muscle mass you now have to carry, at no benefit.

Let’s explore why defining “knowledge” is broken.

Knowing is different from Justified True Belief

One standard definition of “knowledge”, going back to the ancient Greeks, is “justified true belief.” This definition is subject to Gettier cases, counterexamples that technically count as justified, true, and beliefs, but which are intuitively not knowledge. Here’s an example from 8th century Indian philosopher Dharmottara:

A desert traveller is searching for water. He sees, in the valley ahead, a shimmering blue expanse. Unfortunately, it’s a mirage. But fortunately, when he reaches the spot where there appeared to be water, there actually is water, hidden under a rock. Did the traveller know, as he stood on the hilltop hallucinating, that there was water ahead?

Mu. Un-ask the question. What the traveller knew was not “there is water”, whether as merely a verbal proposition or as some supposed contextless true or false “fact” that can apply to both “there is a lake” and “there is water under a rock” (I’m presently uncertain whether it’s possible to conceive of such contextless facts without using verbal propositions). He knew he saw a more appealing direction to walk in than other directions. He knew it seemed like water to him (although someone familiar with mirages might actually not have experienced such a seemingness in the same view). He didn’t know there was water under a rock. The person posing this hypothetical has constructed an unexamined equivocation between two situations—the root of a lot of apparent philosophical paradoxes and edge cases.

Sometimes situations are sufficiently similar: suppose a forest traveller hears rushing water and heads towards a stream, and discovers it’s slightly bigger than he imagined. Nobody says “ah but he didn’t know it was there because the stream he imagined was 1.5m across, and the actual stream was 1.8m across.”

Who is the judge of “sufficiently similar”? Whoever cares. There is no knowing without caring.

A more complex hypothetical: if I say to a guest “yeah go ahead, there’s cheese in the fridge” and I meant that “I have cheese in the fridge” but upon a thorough search my guest only finds my roommate’s cheese, that I didn’t buy… did I know there was cheese in the fridge? Mu! Yes. No. Kind of. Whatever. It might be worth investigating, for understanding how I got confused (maybe last night, at a glance, I thought the roommate’s cheese was mine?) but it also simply might not be. The point is that the pragmatic question has changed. We have a new question now, which is “are we going to eat this cheese?” and that depends on whether I feel like I have permission to share the roommate’s cheese, whether I think I could buy more to replace it before the roommate notices, how desperate my guest is for cheese, whether we can just go to the corner store to get some instead, whether the roommate is around to ask, whatever. Maybe it turns out the roommate ate MY cheese and replaced it with a different brand, and so in a sense I was right after all! And if I had clear agreements about this sort of thing with my roommate(s), that would mean I could confidently offer cheese knowing that there would be cheese, even if not the cheese I bought. In which case we could arguably say that I knew there was cheese, even though I’d never seen it.

It’s useful to be able to make abstractions and generalizations, but in order to say two situations are “the same”, we need to be able to say “for what purpose?” or “in what sense?” One such purpose might be about whether we can rely on such an impression, in ourselves or others, in the future. Was it a lucky guess, a coincidence, an “eh we’ll count that as me being right”… or an actual being-in-sync-with-the-world?

To which end, consider this other example, also from Dharmottara:

A fire has just been lit to roast some meat. The fire hasn’t started sending up any smoke, but the smell of the meat has attracted a cloud of insects. From a distance, an observer sees the dark swarm above the horizon and mistakes it for smoke. “There’s a fire burning at that spot,” the distant observer says. Does the observer know that there is a fire burning in the distance?

Once again, there is no simple “there is fire”. There are many situations that describes.

But furthermore… suppose that the observer has had this happen hundreds of times, and when they’ve approached the location they’ve found a fire, with smoke (and no insects). Even if they’ve been mistaken every time about the smoke as part of the inference, I would say that insofar as anybody ever knows anything from seeing something off in the distance, this observer knows there’s a fire!

In Can you control the past?, there’s a hypothetical about playing a game where a superintelligent being predicts your behavior so perfectly that it seems like a decision you make now affects what happens in the past. It points out how if you’re just presented with that as a claim, it seems impossible, but how if you get to play the game hundreds of times, it doesn’t matter whether it’s impossible, because it’s self-evidently happening. You can tell for yourself that what’s in the boxes is clearly coupled with which boxes you later open. You trust it. It being reliable does not depend on understanding how it could be possible. Humans relied on our senses of smell & disgust to tell us when food has spoiled long before we understood how that works or even thought to ask the question.

The question is whether we’re in sync with reality, which is an ongoing unfolding that isn’t reducible to a propositional claim with a fixed frame. “True” is perhaps trying to capture the sync, but it puts it outside the person, in accordance with some hypothetical “objective” perspective. “Belief” is perhaps trying to capture the “inside the person” (mere “truth” is clearly not “knowledge”) but it reifies some static thing that a person has.

Why the need for knowledge to be “justified”? This is partially about sync (vs a stopped clock being incidentally right) but I sense there’s something more.

“Justification” is an interesting choice of word here, because it has its roots not in the world of epistemology, phenomenology, or philosophy… but in morality and law. This suggests to me that justification arises from the social politics & power dynamics around asserting you know something. The knowing itself has its reasons and its contexts but is utterly prior to justification. before some sort of judgmental jury. If you don’t have anybody demanding justification, you can just go about knowing what you know. If you do, suddenly things get tangly. This can even happen with imagined juries—eg the skeptic friends or family whose minds live in yours and go about doubting your intuitions. Your intuitions are your best sense of things. Nothing more. AND nothing less! They (and your cognition, and every thought that arises) is in some sense your best sense of things. It’s not perfect, but it got you here.

And in some situations, similarly to as discussed in “oppressive cultures”, you may need to be able to justify your knowings in terms of the surrounding cultural mores etc. But that’s not what the knowing is made of. Sure, many knowings involve concepts you inherited or remixed from your cultural context, but those concepts are still yours as you’re knowing them, and don’t have to be intelligible to others except when they do.

And you can’t combine knowings by means of justification. Justification is saying “here are more words to back up why you should take my word for it about this thing”. This is different from saying “come stand over here, if you look, you’ll see what I see.” Sometimes of course, whatever you saw is now gone. But you could tell a story that merely reveals reality to them through your eyes, rather than attempting to “justify your belief”. If it’s safe to. Maybe justification is about trying to exchange information in a context where trust-building doesn’t feel safe? I’m thinking out loud here.

Knowing is different from knowledge

So “knowledge” is kind of fake—a misleading concept.

Not fake, however, is knowing, which is a relationship or interface one can have—a sense of reality being as it is-in-your-experience. How things seem. How things seem is all we ever have, it seems to me.

Sometimes we’re able to corroborate these seemings extensively, such that we can say we’ve found invariants about the universe—fundamental physical constants or laws, facts like “magnets point north”, etc. We generally call these “objective”, a word which stems from the idea that if you try to assert otherwise, reality will object! And what we mean here is a kind of knowing that says “if I perform some known kind of measurement on this object/phenomenon, what do I expect the result to be, given the perspective from which I perform the measurement?

These objective knowings are also subject to change, such as when Newton’s laws were shown to not be applicable for very tiny (quantum) or very fast (relativistic) situations, only a good approximation in macro-scale situations (which they still are, and that’s related to what made them objective in the first place!) Or your own interpretation of an objective knowing can turn out to be missing a caveat, like my confused friend who had been relying on a compass regularly for grounding his sense of direction, and was very disoriented one day before he found out that cars contain metals/magnets large enough to deflect compass needles.

It seems to me that sometimes we can even corroborate certain seemings not with other people but with the vast diversity of perspectives that make up our whole bodymind (including perspectives of other people that we’ve internalized) and have a resounding chorus of “yes, this”. Most of my deepest insights have had that quality. Perhaps they don’t hold outside of this particular mind, but minds are not nearly as separable as we sometimes like to think, so I’m not even sure that that’s a meaningful thing to say (let alone probable).

Maybe some aspects generalize everywhere but some apparent implications don’t. For example, with my Non-Naive Trust Dance insight in 2020, I had a deep sense of “oh, this is how sensemaking works” and it seemed very clear to hundreds (thousands? more?) perspectives within myself that that’s exactly how sensemaking works, not just in my mind but in any mind from a worm to a collective composed of many ants or many humans. And I can tell for myself that something’s basically right there. But at that phase I assumed that this implied some stuff about what other people might be willing to do together, or other things that would be possible, based on extrapolating what I could tell plus some facts about myself and some existing philosophical commitments. And these didn’t hold up.

So what we call “objective” is just a certain kind of generalization from what we might also call “subjective”, but it’s not that “everything is really all subjective” either.

Knowing is relational: how things seem to me, how they seem to you, how they might seem to us if we can interface our seeming processes with each other. We don’t usually talk in terms of knowing, we just talk in terms of what is, or we just talk as if it’s that way without claiming it. It fades into the background, except where it contrasts with what someone else knows.

Which I’ll talk about in the next piece.

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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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