Tomorrow I leave for two weeks in Paris. I found instructions, on a vagrant slip of paper, for accessing my blog in Paris. If they work, I shall report from there. Otherwise, I shall return late on January 18th. What could go wrong in two weeks?
Today, I want to spend time writing about something that genuinely puzzles me. If I were still a philosopher in good standing, I would call it an epistemological puzzle. The puzzle takes many forms. Let me start by putting it this way: How do I know that Austin is the capital of Texas? I have never been to Austin. Aside from changing planes at Dallas/Ft. Worth airport, I have been to Texas only once. Many years ago, I gave a talk at Trinity University in San Antonio [but that is another story.] So how do I know?
Well, I recall that it is, and while writing this blog I checked with Google [also ascertaining that whereas Austin is the capital of Texas, the state government is headquartered in the capitol.] What is more, I have heard Austin referred to countless times as the capital of Texas.
All right, but how do I know that a man has walked on the moon? As it happens, on July 20, 1969, I was with my wife and our one year old son, Patrick, in a summer home we owned briefly in Worthington, MA. We had a little black-and-white TV set with a movable antenna called “rabbit ears,” and on it I watched the film of that first moonwalk. It was the same sort of set on which I had watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald [actually, you couldn’t see the shooting because of the crush in the courthouse, but I watched the event live.]
But there are people who say the moon walk was a hoax, that it never happened. And for all I know, there are people who say Ruby did not shoot Oswald. So how do I know?
Let me be clear, this is not a bit of familiar Philosophy 1 Cartesian skepticism. I am not leading up to a dramatic cogito, ergo sum. There are lots of things I do know, about which I have no doubt whatsoever. For example, I know that all the streets here at my retirement community are named for trees: pear tree, apple tree, maple, oak, and so forth. How do I know? Every morning, including this morning, I take a long three mile walk around the entire community, in the course of which I walk for at least a bit on every street, and I can read the street signs as I turn into or out of each street.
I know the names and at least something about the physical appearance and personality characteristics of each of the people who live in Building 5, where Susie and I have our apartment. I also know my sister, Barbara, my sons Patrick and Tobias, Patrick’s wife Diana and their children Samuel and Athena. I knew my parents and my uncles and aunts and I know [or, in two cases knew] my cousins.
There is nothing remarkable about this knowledge. For most of the two hundred thousand or so years that genetically modern humans have existed, that is the sort of knowledge people had. First-hand knowledge, hands on knowledge, knowledge drawn from personal memories or from the reports of people one had known all one’s life. Human communities were small and face-to-face. A new face in town was big news, and called for some pretty intensive and sophisticated checking out. Travelers might tell stories about fabulous monsters or people with strange customs. Sometimes they were believed, sometimes not.
All this started to change ten thousand years ago, give or take. By several hundred years ago things had totally changed. People still had hands on face-to-face knowledge, just as they do today. But there built up in people’s minds a vast, complex social and natural world about which they had no hands on face-to-face knowledge at all. Which raises a question never put to rest: How do I know it is not a hoax?
I return to my original question about Austin, Texas. But now let me change the question: How do I know that agents of the Russian government used social media to damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign? There really is no epistemological difference between this question and the question how I know that Austin is the capital of Texas, or for that matter how I know that a man walked on the moon.
Of course, to answer the original question, I can take down an atlas [if I am so retro actually to have a physical atlas] and show a sceptic the map of Texas with Austin marked as capital. But if she says the book was written by someone who is part of a conspiracy to push the patent falsehood that Austin is the capital of Texas, or the even larger falsehood that there is a state named Texas, I do not have any hands on face-to-face knowledge to offer like my knowledge of the street names of Carolina Meadows.
And having changed the question, I can cite the contents of the indictment brought against a group of Russian agents by a grand jury guided by Robert Mueller [or at least I can do that so long as I am not challenged to prove the truth of the report that such an indictment was in fact handed up.] But if someone claims that Mueller [is there really a person answering to that name?] is part of a deep state conspiracy to destroy Donald Trump and thereby to protect the financial interests of the corporate class who have owned and directed the American government since the end of World War II [assuming there really was a World War II], I have no hands on face-to-face knowledge with which I can successfully rebut that assertion.
Look, we all know there are climate change deniers, there are Holocaust deniers, there are walk-on-the-moon deniers. How are they any different from Robert Mueller deniers or World War II deniers, or Austin-is-the capital-of Texas deniers?
Let us be clear. These questions are not somehow in principle unanswerable. Buzz Aldrin knows whether man walked on the moon. He did it [though not first – that was his fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong.] If I knew Buzz Aldrin, if he and I had grown up in the same village [he is three years older than I], if I had a lifetime of direct experience interacting with him and forming a judgment of his truthfulness, and if he told me he had walked on the moon, then I would know [remember, this is not a Phil 1 class on Cartesian skepticism.]
Did Russians hack into the DNC emails? Someone knows. Just not anyone I know, not even anyone who is known by someone I know [Kevin Bacon and degrees of separation and all that.]
So what can we do? One possibility, which I have considered and rejected, is simply to stop thinking about anything I cannot confirm by hands on face to face experience. Which leaves me where I am, compelled endlessly to double check what I read, to try to determine over time which reporters in the public space have turned out to be accurate, to try not to allow what I want to believe to substitute for what I have reason to believe [this is really hard], and to use such common sense as I have.
None of which is foolproof. Let me close with a story. My father was a New York City high school Biology teacher [later a high school principal.] In 1938, when I was four, he and a colleague published Adventures With Living Things, a textbook that went through a number of editions. Needless to say, I read it when I got old enough. It was in our family a Big Deal. When I grew up, I pretty much forgot what was in the book, except for one fact that stuck with me: the human cell has forty-eight chromosomes. Many years later, I came across a reference to the forty-six chromosomes in the human cell. I called up my father and asked him, if I may paraphrase, “What the hell is going on?” “Yes,” he said ruefully,” it is forty-six. Early staining techniques to prepare a microscope slide were not very good, and they made the twenty-three pairs look like twenty-four.”