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Wednesday, January 2, 2019


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.”

Nobody’s perfect.


s. wallerstein said...

The possible motivation of the person who is telling you something is important to take into account.

I can't think of any reason why anyone would lie about whether Austin is the capital of Texas. Once a while one runs into people who lie for the pleasure of lying, but generally their lies have to do with stuff that is harder to check out than whether Austin is the capital of Texas or not. In any case, liars who make up stuff for the pure pleasure of it are very infrequent in my experience.

Now you can immediately imagine several reasons why someone would lie about whether the Russians hacked the DNC emails or not. There are obviously people who work in the media who are trying to foment, for good or bad reasons, a new cold war with the Russians. Whether they and Mueller have conspired to deceive us on this point is not something I want to get into nor do I have a theory about it, but it is plausible and they are reasons why they might deceive us.

David Palmeter said...

Why was I reminded of Hume when I read this?

Unknown said...

There has been work on the credibility of testimony. Hume was, as Palmeter said, a pioneer in this area, but while I haven't kept up, I thought it was an area of increased interest just recently. Jennifer Lackey, one of my friends from grad school, was working in this area as I recall.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Any day on which something I write reminds someone of Hume is a good day.

Ed Barreras said...

This is not my original insight, of course, but when it comes to identifying conspiracy theories, it’s important to follow the chain of inferences — to ask yourself, that is, what else has to be true in order for the conspiracy theory to hold up. Regarding the moon landing conspiracy, for example, one should wonder whether it’s just a little bit odd that none of the people involved in perpetrating this monumental hoax — all those engineers and scientists and famous Hollywood directors — ever let their little secret slip, and that the basis for the conspiracy theory rests on a handful of purported anomalies like the flag “waving in the wind,” etc. As we know from real conspiracies, someone always squeals, even when the conspirators are only a few in number. Eventually, the conspiracy runs up against one’s basic understanding of human psychology — which is something like direct, first-hand knoweldge.

The whole Russiagate story is of the same character. Is the “official account”, as we’ve come to know it, more or less accurate? Of course it is. The evidence for Russian hacking has been vouched for by a at least four independent cyber-security firms. Are all those people part of the deep state? Mike Pompeo, formerly the CIA director and a loyal T***p flunkie, has confirmed the FBI’s findings. Is he a deep state plant? Up until this week Republicans controlled all branches of government, and the current occupant of the White House even technically controls the department under which the special council operates. We know the Republican establishment wishes the Russia story would just go away. They’re all in for T***p because they see him as their only means of maintaining power. Just today Mitt Romney recieved a smack down from his own niece for having the gall to say that T***p is not a person of upstanding moral character (though Romney likes his policies, of course). In other words, there’s an enormous institutional bulwark protecting the current occupant of the White Hourse. Are we to believe that some rogue band of deep state operators have the means or the will to take that on? Does controlling all branches of government — does the cult-like fervor of Trumpism — count for nothing against the implacable will of the deep state? Are Rod Rosentstein and Bob Mueller the type of people who would risk literal life imprisonment, the ruination of their reputations and families, by fabricating evidence against someone who will probably be out of office in four years anyway?

I could go on, all day. Hopefully the point is clear.

howard b said...

The sociologist Schutz studied the topic of our knowledge of the social world.
You might examine a few of his articles

howard b said...

Ed, people who believe in conspiracy theories are similar in some regards to cult members. They are attached to their facts and do not take a scientific attitude to their beliefs. Their alternative facts just serve to anchor their belief system- you would have to reprogram them, which is hard to pull off on such a mass scale. Their facts are emotionally held and are believed because it has to be true and their suspect of traditional sources of information leads them to discount disconfirmations

Dr. Christopher Mulvaney said...

Early on in the campaign I noticed lots of facebook posts that were from sources of which I had never heard. After reading several and finding that the title of the post was misleading and/or the info was obviously bogus and lead the reader to unsupportable conclusions, I concluded that there was a large disinformation campaign going on. Campaigns have long had non-campaign entities produce such disinformation. I saw this with my own eyes, and had direct experience with disabusing people who took the disinformation to be true.

There was recent news report of a M.I.T. prof who said he could prove/disprove the contention that the Russian hacking materially influenced the result. This is where I think we run into a William of Ockham problem: we don't need Russian interference to explain Clinton's loss. The conduct of her campaign is sufficient. She lost by a mere 88,000 plus or minus votes across three states. Her negatives were nearly as high as Trump's, and one could reasonably anticipate lower turnout. She committed fewer filed resources in these states than Obama. Thus they didn't was thus unaware that she didn't have the same level of support as Obama and didn't consider devoting more resources (which she had) to address the problem. She didn't even campaign in Wisconsin after the democratic convention. In short, her campaigns' poor decision making would seem to be sufficient to explain the loss. Russian interference is the unnecessary metaphysical entity that Ockham warned us about.

Michael Llenos said...

Professor Wolff,

Perhaps 100% truth is not discoverable by man, but only knowledge of "higher probability" through authorities, judgements, and specialization.

Aristotle wrote on judgments & authorities: "Another line of argument is founded upon some decision already pronounced, whether on the same subject or on one like it or contrary to it. Such a proof is most effective if every one has always decided thus; but if not every one, then at any rate most people; or if all, or most, wise or good men have thus decided, or the actual judges of the present question, or those whose authority they accept, or any one whose decision they cannot gainsay because he has complete control over them, or those whom it is not seemly to gainsay, as the gods, or one's father, or one's teachers."

E.g. you wrote: "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."

Michael Llenos said...

Part 2 or knowledge of "higher probability" through authorities, judgements, and specialization...

In his Discourses, Epictetus said something to the effect that judgements are all powerful and judgments are all invincible.

In his Night Thoughts, Wallace Shawn said something to the effect that civilization is the by-product of various types of special individual functions.

Plato wrote this about specialization: "Suppose I ask you a question: How about horses? Does one man do them harm and all the world good? Is not the exact opposite the truth? One man is able to do them good, or at least not many; the trainer of horses, that is to say, does them good, and others who have to do with them rather injure them? Is not that true, Meletus, of horses, or of any other animals? Most assuredly it is."

[So perhaps our individual minds are not a by-product of civilization, but civilization is a by-product, of the limitations of our individual mind's understanding of the truth, through higher probability? Therefore, the dawn of civilization came through man trying to understand the truth of the universe with his mind. And therefore the mind conforms itself to objects of the universe and objects do not conform to the mind.]

Michael Llenos said...
This comment has been removed by the author.