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Archive for October 7th, 2004

So, what do you know?

I was talking recently to an ex-colleague on the telephone and he mentioned that he had recently seen Farenheit 9/11. He said he was amazed at how many lies Americans are willing to believe and I lamented how times like these so dramatically divide people. I reminded him of the scene where Lila Lipscomb is standing in front of the White House listening to a protester in a tent, and another woman comes up and tells her not to listen, it’s all staged. Lipscomb tells her it’s not, and that she lost her son in Iraq. The woman seems embarrassed and adds, “Blame al-Qaida.” Lipscomb comments shortly afterwards that this is the sort of ignorance she has to deal with it. “She thinks she knows,” she says (I’m quoting from memory), “but she doesn’t know. I thought I knew.”

At this point my ex-colleague took it a few steps further and said we never really know anything. He gave World War II as an example. He’s British, and said he had been taught that Britain and its allies were the good guys and German the bad guys. “But who really knows? Who’s to say it was really like that?”

Regardless of whether this is an oversimplification, I was rather surprised to hear the comparison and told him that despite the fact that the US, for example, may have had ulterior motives for entering the war, and did so rather late, to stand by and do nothing would have been morally reprehensible.

Still he clung to his scepticism. Surely no one can doubt that Germany invaded Poland, I said. How can we overlook so many first-hand accounts? History books are held up to academic scrutiny and reputations can be made by people who are able to find holes in other people’s research. You can’t compare the Second World War to what’s going on in Iraq. History is not the evening news on television.

When I first met this colleague, we were talking about books and he said he wasn’t very interested in literature. He was more interested in gaining knowledge and learning about ideas. He mentioned Krishnamurti. Years ago, someone recommended Freedom from the Known to me, and I borrowed it from the library. I read some of it but soon became impatient with it. The basic idea was that very little of what we know is first-hand knowledge, and in itself this is a good point. But where do you go with it? (Krishnamurti also says that we must live in the present and forget the past, and forget the teachers of the past.)

I think it was Wittgenstein who ironically asked what it would look like if the sun revolved around the earth. He was implying that it would look exactly the way it does now. It is important to realise that much of what we believe we know about the world we have accepted on someone else’s authority. I believe that the earth revolves around the sun because physicists who know more than I do say so. I believe that my heart pumps blood around my body because I trust the doctors and biologists who say so. If I waited until I knew these things myself, I’d never get anywhere. It is important to understand the limitations of my knowledge, but it is vanity to extend this conclusion to knowledge in general.

Some months ago a Bangladeshi immigrant stopped me on the street and tried to sell me some flowers. When I attempted to give him some change, tears welled in his eyes and he explained to me in broken English that he needed 35 euros to buy medicine for his child. I told him I couldn’t afford to give him any more. Although I had about 60 euros in my wallet, it was true: it was a financially difficult time for me. Nevertheless, that day I had spent 18 euros on a hardcover notebook I ended up throwing away, and now I was preparing to go to a bar and drink 4-euro beers. “You have money,” he said. “I know you do. You have big money.”

I was speechless. He was, of course, right. Compared to him, I had big money. I was ashamed to to tell him that I had more expenses than he did. I felt weighed down by all kinds of superfluous things.

I was faced with a dilemma. Should I refuse although he might be telling the truth, or give him the money although he might be lying? If those two were the only possibilities, which would I choose? After all how could I know if he was telling the truth. (I gave him 20.)

The question of what we know should be a practical one. What do I choose to believe?

On the telephone with my ex-colleague, I began to get irritated and impatient. We spoke in raised voices. I said the logical conclusion of his argument is that we can never know if we’re not really nothing more than a brain in a jar in a lab somewhere. What do we gain from this exercise in doubt? What does he construct after he’s finished tearing down? I happened to be reading Primo Levi at the time. What does it say about me if I choose to say, although there is nothing to recommend the theory except that it’s merely possible, that Levi was wrong or not telling the truth? How should I know?*

Am I being naive in choosing to trust such documents? How is one person naive because he chooses to believe what Levi says, and another person wise because he doubts what Krishnamurti tells him to?

*At one point in the conversation, he surprised me by saying one way of getting first-hand experience of things in the past would be through some kind of cosmic travel. “But that,” he said, “is for another conversation.”

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