Jerry Fresia’s recent contribution to the comments about Trump raised in my mind once again a question about which I have brooded on and off for many years. To put it as pretentiously as I can, How do we know anything about the world? I do not have in mind Descartes-style doubts of the cogito, ergo sum variety. I mean more mundane matters. Let me explain.
I know that a portion of Eggbeaters [whites only eggs in a cardboard container] in a frying pan on my electric stove takes some while to start to cook. I know that because I make an Eggbeater omelet every morning for breakfast [along with half an orange and a piece of multi-grain toast with nothing on it.] But how do I know that Betsy DeVos is the U. S. Secretary of Education? Indeed, how do I know that there is a Department of Education with a Secretary? Hell, how do I know there is a United States with a government in which there are Cabinet Secretaries? I have never visited the Department of Education, although I have [I think] been to Washington, D.C. I have certainly never met or even seen in person someone purporting to be Betsy DeVos, and if I had, I would have had no way of ascertaining directly that she [or he -- who knows?] is the Secretary of Education. I have actually met someone whom I was told was the head of a Department of Education, but that was in South Africa [or so I was told – it might have been Nebraska for all I knew.]
I am being silly, right? Facetious. But not really. My point is that some of what I think I know I know on the basis of direct experience, like where the bathroom is in my apartment. But almost everything I know about the world I learned by reading about it or hearing someone on television talking about it or hearing about it from someone I do not know personally and for whose trustworthiness therefore I cannot really testify. There have been times and places [or so I have read] in which most of what people knew they knew by way of personal experience: which plants are edible and which are not, how much work it takes to fell a tree, when it is wise to plant a field of wheat, how to skin a seal. But this is not one of those times and places and I am not one of those people. I am entirely reliant for almost all of my knowledge of the world on a vast accumulation of what other people say.
One of the pieces to which Jerry links reports tests that show that the quantity of data supposedly obtained from the DNC could not have been the result of a hack because the time in which it was said to have been hacked is too short for that size file. The authors of the piece, who report having performed a series of tests, say that only a direct download from the DNC computers could have done the job. Hence, they conclude, the DNC site was not hacked by Russians [or anyone else, presumably.]
This is fascinating, although I do not quite see how it undermines the claim that the Russians mucked about with our election. But never mind that. Just as I have no direct knowledge at all of the people who claim that the DNC was hacked, so I have no direct knowledge of the people who wrote that article. Nor, I take it, does Jerry or anyone else reading this blog.
So, what is one to believe? Is it possible that an organ of the government could simply be lying to us? Presumably yes. After all, look at the lies about WMD in Iraq. But were there WMD in Iraq, after all? Indeed, is there an Iraq? Are there any nuclear weapons at all in the world, or is that just a fireside story to scare little children? I was alive when the United States nuclear bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Rather, I was alive when it is said that the United States did. I also sat in front of an old black and white TV set with rabbit ears and watched Ruby shoot Oswald. Or at least, that is what I am told I saw. But then, I also sat in front of a [different] black and white set with rabbit ears and watched a man walk on the moon. And we all know what some people think about that claim.
George Orwell [Eric Blair] wrote a chilling book about a state whose government undermines the distinction between truth and fiction. It doesn’t really matter whether there was really a George Orwell, because the chilling lessons of that book remain even if it turns out that it was typed by monkeys banging randomly on typewriters. But could our grasp of the world be threatened by a deliberate effort to mislead us about even the most elementary political facts?
Well, someone just all but disappeared me from Wikipedia. One more edit and I will vanish from The Cloud as though I had never existed. It gives one pause.