How to Know Things

You can’t just believe what you are told. This used to be a truism but seems, for many, to have become an outrageous fact, indicating a, to my mind, fallacious hope. There are increasing calls among otherwise intelligent people for institutions that pronounce reliably on the pressing questions of the day. People don’t want to think for themselves it seems.

They want their minds made up for them. They think that “fake news” violates some basic right to an epistemic authority; they want a source of ready-made beliefs that can be counted on to be true. I think this situation is the result, first and foremost, of a failure of education, but it has been sustained by media, both new and old. We have forgotten how difficult it is know things. We no longer understand why it has to be this way.

Even to believe your own eyes in this day and age is no easy matter. And education too often simply shows us pictures of unbelievable sights, unimaginable feats, and then asserts them to be real and wonderful. What it should do is teach us to overcome the difficulty implied by our natural skepticism. If something is hard to believe, we should provide our students with the evidence we have for it. If something is hard to understand, we should not demand that they believe it before they are ready to.

The world is indeed wondrous and strange and it can take some time before it all makes sense, or even some part of it does. We have to let our students disbelieve us for a lot longer than any given exam period. What we have to insist on, however, is that they state their reasons to believe as they do, and that they consider ours for thinking otherwise. If disbelief and misunderstanding were normal states of the educated mind, perhaps a biased media wouldn’t be so confusing to us?

What, then, does it truly mean to know something? What is a knowledgeable person capable of? I want to go through this in a few posts, but the short answer goes something like this: Knowing is the ability to make up your mind, to speak your mind, and to write it down. It is the ability to form a justified, true belief about something, to interrogate, entertain and provoke people who are knowledgeable about it, and to compose a coherent prose paragraph that supports, elaborates or defends it.

Knowledge is maintained through the application of philosophical, rhetorical, and literary skills. Knowledgeable people don’t just hold correct opinions, they have reasons for doing so. They can distinguish good from bad questions, share a sense of humor, and passionately disagree with each other. All of these capacities require years, not just of learning, but of discipline. Knowing is a rich and complicated craft and it is not for everyone.

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