Monday, April 09, 2007

I know when things are working--even though I do not always know how or why

This statement might suggest a thousand situations to someone else, but I have to admit it seems backward to me. Most of the time, when things are working, I don’t pay them any mind; not even a brief moment of pause to say, “Wow, this is working”. Usually, I am only aware of things working by their breaking down. I can tell when something isn’t working and then, as I try to fix the problem, I know if my remedies are working based on the absence of the initial problem.

I was brought up Baptist. It is sometimes common in religious communities to hear people praise God in prosperity but abandon faith in time of trouble. This always seemed backward to me, too. When I was ten, I wrote a poem:

The trees so green
The sky so blue
The birds are seen
The worms are, too

The sun is shining brightly
The car is running smooth
The children are all healthy
The hunting is good, too.

And then I shrug off God
I think I do not need Him
I am so smart
And I’m so good

It’s cloudy and it’s freezing
The engine just blew up
The kids all got pneumonia
The rabbits disappeared

And then I realize
That I’m dumb compared to God
I need Him to help me
And lead me along

Perhaps it’s unhealthy that I have always needed break down to shock me into awareness. But perhaps the ability to perceive that something is “off” or “not quite right” speaks to our intuitive human knowledge of truth and “rightness” or of wholeness.

I also know things are working when the desired outcome is produced. In my poem, the car presumably gets me where I need to go and there is food (apparently rabbit) on the table to indicate the hunting is good (I grew up in Michigan). I know my printer is working because I see my document spitting out of it. I know my son is listening to me because he responds to what I ask. Am I poorer because I don’t know how my printer works or why my particular words softened my son to me? Maybe. But do I need to know how or why something works in order to know that it is working? No. What does this say about us as human beings? What does it say about our ability to find truth?

It is possible to be mistaken or misguided about the truth, but it is also possible to go mad with doubt. Six years ago, I had hit the epistemological rock bottom. I could barely read or write, much less function on a practical level. Depressed, skeptical, cynical and desperate, I asked a wise friend to help un-muddle me. I told him I didn’t know anything, for sure, and I didn’t see any way forward in pursuit of knowledge. Nothing made any sense. He said, “Try to think of one thing you do know, and we’ll go from there.”

I thought about it for a day or two. When we met again, I said, “I’m pretty sure I can put a seed in the ground and it will grow, with proper conditions. And I’m fairly sure that if I plant a bean seed a bean plant will grow and not a tomato plant.”

This was all I could muster. It wasn’t much, but it was also everything. If there was truth and order at this basic level, surely it was possible—though complicated—to discern truth about myself and my situation in the world. I had failed to trust my instincts; I assumed that because I had been wrong before, I could never be right.

What if my tendency to notice glitches isn’t unhealthy, but is part of health—a part of our ability to know when things are working? Our bodies come replete with an innate knowledge of fertile conditions for growth and are adept in signaling us to this effect. Our bodies notice glitches—areas of lack or gaps in health. Signals such as hunger or weariness indicate the need for food or sleep. If conditions are right, we can trust these indicators to have truth behind them. However, if we ignore or abuse these signals, we can throw our entire system out of whack. So I may feel hungry when I am over-fed and tired because of inactivity. In this case, my hunger and tiredness are rather more like symptoms of disease than indicators of need. But interestingly, they are still part of health, part of my immune system, shouting out that something isn’t working right. My skepticism and depression were part of my illness, but their very existence suggested an alternative; suggested that I was falling short of the right way of being.

As a funny coincidence, my printer failed to respond when I tried to print this document (editing is sometimes easier for me when I can see the whole thing at once). I clicked “print” four times before I opened the paper tray and found a jam. I removed the affected paper and straightened the rest of it, then closed the tray. I now have four copies of my document in front of me.


de Silentio said...

A couple of quick thoughts. You ask if you are poorer because you don’t understand why or how your printer works or why particular words soften your son. The platonic side of me would say you a poorer, but the pragmatic side says you are not. Some people do not want or care to know how things work, they are content with the beliefs they have. Personally I see nothing wrong with this (unless you are someone like the President, who needs to know why he makes the decisions he makes).

Now, Plato would argue that we cannot *know* something unless we understand it. Just because my teacher tells me the two sides of a right triangle squared equals the hypotenuse squared does not mean I know the Pythagorean Theorem, it merely means I believe what my teacher is telling me. When I go through the process of discovering the truth behind Pythagoras’ theorem, I begin getting closer to *knowing* the theorem (Plato would say I discover the form of a perfect triangle). To keep this comment short, we need to distinguish the difference between truth and belief. Our concept of knowing is much different from Plato’s. I recently paged through a book called “Plato’s Theory of Understanding”, this book examines what Plato means when he uses the word knowledge. The author describes how different our concept of knowledge is from Plato’s. Plato’s knowledge is more geared toward understanding, where as our culture typically sees knowledge as simply something we pull from our brains. (I think)

Back to your post, you ask “But do I need to know how or why something works in order to know that it is working?” I would argue yes. The level of your knowledge of “why and how” is where the question comes in. Example, if you know that turning on your computer, tuning on your printer, pressing the print button makes your printer work, then you know why it is working. However, if an Aborigine from Australia sees you print a piece of paper from your printer and you ask him “is this working?”, will he be able to give you an answer?

One last thought. I’m glad you have a wise friend to aide you in your quest for understanding life, I find they are a necessary part of learning and becoming complete.

Rachael King said...

I know my printer is working because I pressed the print button. But do I know how pressing the print button causes the machine to print? Does the button really have anything to do with why the printer is working? Why a button and not a lever? the most I can say about it is that there is such a thing as a working printer and I want to use it, so I do something that has made it work before. I can't be sure, but if I brought the Australian Aborigine to my printer, showed him the paper, put it in the printer, pressed 'print', and then showed him the words on the paper where there were none before, he would probably understand that the printer had just 'worked', although he wouldn't see why I wanted a machine to do that. Having said that, I think my actions are more important in this case than the actions of the printer. If, when the paper came out printed, I threw up my hands and cursed, crumpled the paper and threw it in the trash and then started examining the printer, the Aborigine would undoubtedly think the printer had not worked, even though it had.

I think 'why' is more difficult to know when applied to interpersonal relationships. In my example with my son, I don't know why he reacts or doesn't to the things I say or do. Most of the time, he doesn't know, either. But we can both sense the rhythm of right relating.

Some level of knowledge is necessary to know if something is working, but this doesn't extend far beyond knowing a definition of the thing. An automobile is a means of travel. Based on that, I know if my car is working. I don't know much else about my car. I certainly could gain much by studying, tinkering and understanding how a car works or exploring why, as a race, humans wanted to transport themselves to new places further and faster. But I could gain much from studying an apple or the weather or the history of the Australian Aborigines and their ability to comprehend a printer. There isn't a perceivable limit to knowledge, and even when we do dip into how or why something works, we will never hit a point where we can dig no further. If I understand every function, part and aspect of my printer, I still won't be able to tell why it sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. If I know everything there is to know about all printers, the subject is still not dead to me, because I can invent better ways of doing the same thing or meet someone who tells me something philosophical about printers, that I had never seen before. We can know how and why and it is good to know. But we can't exhaust how and why, nor do we need to know how and why about everything in order to know that things are working or are right.

I see 'knowledge' as understanding, too, but in increments. I can have knowledge of my car that includes only knowing what it is for and that it is working, or I can have knowledege of my car as a a master mechanic. Or anywhere in between. But at any point it is still my car I have knowledge about. And I can have real knowledge. I can say I know what a car is and that it is working even if I don't understand exactly how a piston works.

I could also figure out what a car is for by seeing it work, like the Aborigine with my printer. But then I would be guided by the actions of the people operating it, so their actions would lead me to a definition of the machine. What does this mean for how we relate to each other and what effect we have on each other as humans?

As you say, friends are indispensable. In the case I refer to in my post, I asked a friend who makes his living helping people in their 'quest for understanding life', so it was quite convenient and fortunate for me that I already knew him in another context and felt I could trust him. I have few friends who really live life alongside me (my husband being the primary one) but I'm learning how to ask for what I need from people and how to listen well enough to give aide when I can. We can learn so much from each other--we are all in this together.

de Silentio said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
de Silentio said...

You say: "I can't be sure, but if I brought the Australian Aborigine to my printer, showed him the paper, put it in the printer, pressed 'print', and then showed him the words on the paper where there were none before, he would probably understand that the printer had just 'worked', although he wouldn't see why I wanted a machine to do that."

What if you acted disappointed by the results of the paper coming out of the printer with words on it, what would the Aborigine think then? Perhaps he would think the printer did not function as it was supposed to. If he thought this, the grounds for his knowledge of the printer working would be non-existent. (as he would think the printer did not work)

If the Aborigine's knowledge of the printer working rests on your reaction, what does that say of his knowledge?

Rachael King said...

de silentio: Sorry I missed your last comment. The conversation's gone cold by now, but I'll address your question, regardless.

Much of our knowledge rests on other people; it is derived directly when someone tells us, say, that the mail has not yet come and indirectly when we saw him, a moment before, stand frowning in front of an open mail-box. If we make an assumption about the mail based on his words or his display of disappointment, is it possible our conclusion is mistaken? Sure, perhaps he has lied to us and feigned agitation because he wants to prove a point about printers and Aborigines. In that case I would hope that he gives up his charade before either one of us misses a utility payment, but if his assertion was that knowledge cannot be intuited through observation and social interaction, I would have to tell him that he had not proved his point.

There are many ways we gain knowledge of our surroundings, but none is fool-proof. I could examine the mail-box myself, and, finding no mail, check the boxes of my neighbors (from which our fictional friend has also removed the mail, in his eagerness for the perfect deception). I could then call the post office and inquire whether the postman finished his route today, but any number of clerical or malicious errors may have occurred, resulting in our still not knowing the truth. A conspiracy on this scale would be highly unlikely, so the chances that we have true knowledge increase with each investigative step we take. But notice that our assurance of being right increases with each confirmation, as well, but has no bearing on the actual truth of the matter. This is dangerous. In the beginning, I might easily be persuaded that my friend played a joke and emptied my mail-box, but by the time I had the word of the post office and the evidence of my neighbor's empty mail-boxes, it would take more than my friend telling me he simply played a joke; it would take his convincing me that he is a liar and a criminal.

I am not saying that evidence doesn't matter or that a personal investigation into a matter is pointless or that the Aborigine couldn't benefit from learning how and why a printer works. All of these are ways to understand and know our world and are worthy pursuits. Each of us has to decide, according to our circumstances and the gravity of the matter at hand, how much and how many avenues of investigation we are willing to give a matter. What I am proposing, however, is that we don't snub intuition as one of those avenues. It is perfectly reasonable to assume the mail has not come or the printer has worked, because someone has shown or told us or because we have observed it. The important thing is to keep a sort of humility that is open to new information and revision of opinion.

de Silentio said...

"The important thing is to keep a sort of humility that is open to new information and revision of opinion."

The perfect answer. Coming to the realization that our knowledge of the outside world always contains the possiblity of error is the first step in obtaining the truth in the world around us. It is arogance and self deception which stunt us from obtaining the truth.

"perhaps he has lied to us and feigned agitation because he wants to prove a point about printers and Aborigines"

The best thing I have read all week. Thanks for the enjoyment.

As a matter of excersize I am going to try and defend my argument, but it must wait for another day.