What Keeps Me Up At Night

Here’s something that scares me more than maybe anything else: the idea of believing that I know something that I actually don’t know. That might sound strange. There are a lot of bad things in the world to be afraid of. A lot of injustices and dangers and horrors. But the thought that I might go through life tricked in some way, believing something to be true that isn’t––that’s the kind of thing that keeps me awake at night.

Before you dismiss me as way too concerned about philosophy and epistemology, hear me out. As a nation, the U.S. is currently witnessing the latest (and in my opinion worst) battle in the culture wars, and the conflict over the Kavanaugh nomination that has been forced upon us comes down to a question of epistemology.

News and social media sites are filled with claims about what we can and can’t know: “We need evidence!” “There is no evidence!” “Believe women!” “Her testimony was credible and convincing! Nobody could fake that kind of emotion!” “His testimony was passionate and believable!” “Look at him get angry! He must be guilty!” “If he doesn’t want an FBI investigation, then he’s obviously got something to hide.”

Almost everyone who has a horse in this race (and pretty much everybody else, too) believes that they know something that they don’t know. And sooner or later, somebody is going to have to make a judgment call––a call that will probably be based on evidence that isn’t completely sufficient. And however it goes, the result of that decision will not only be a dramatic change in the lives of two people, but our country entering a dangerous time in its history. Whether or not Kavanaugh is guilty, whether or not the Senate and the FBI decide that he is guilty, we are not headed for a good place.

Everything depends upon knowledge. We make our most important decisions based upon what we know. So what happens when we have to make those decisions without sure knowledge? What happens when our future depends on those kinds of choices?

Knowing and Feeling

Batman Eternal explores this problem. In the first issue of that storyline, Jim Gordon inadvertently causes two subway trains to collide, killing hundreds of people. When he confronts a member of Professor Pyg’s gang in a subway tunnel, he sees a gun in the man’s hand. When the criminal refuses to drop his weapon, Gordon tries to shoot it out of his hand. The bullet strikes an electrical transformer and disables the trains’ brakes and the track switches.

The problem is that there was no gun in the gang member’s hand. Gordon clearly saw it, but it wasn’t there.

After the trains collide, Gordon is arrested, charged with manslaughter, and put into Blackgate prison. Most of the city turns against him, and it looks like a good man has come to a bad end.

Gordon’s plight emphasizes one of the first difficulties in epistemology: the fact that our senses can be deceived. Our eyes and ears can be duped. Even the healthiest of us can hear and see things that aren’t there. This problem can compounded by age, fatigue, mental or physical illness, and any number of other factors. Seeing is believing, perhaps, but it isn’t necessarily knowing.

A handful of people remain convinced that Gordon is innocent, however, and that there must be something more to the story than simply that the old man has finally gone incompetent, negligent, or senile. Those who really know Gordon believe that there has to be some explanation, some fact that would exonerate Gordon if it could be found.

This speaks to another problem in epistemology. When we want to know something, we usually gather all the available facts and use inductive reasoning to determine what is true and what isn’t. The trouble is that sometimes even facts can lead us to the wrong conclusions if they’re interpreted wrongly (just ask Othello, the protagonist in Shakespeare’s tragedy of the same name). All of the available facts in Gordon’s case point to a horrible mistake at best and criminal recklessness at worst.

Still, Batman remains convinced of Gordon’s innocence. He visits Gordon in jail to reassure him that he will prove that Jim wasn’t at fault for the train accident. Their conversation highlights the problem of knowledge that each of them faces.

Batman speculates that Gordon might have gotten sprayed by Professor Pyg with an hallucinatory toxin, but Gordon says that he didn’t. Batman takes a sample of Gordon’s blood to test for the toxin, but Gordon insists that he knows that he wasn’t sprayed. The thing is, Gordon can’t possibly know that he wasn’t sprayed––tiny droplets of the toxin could have landed on him without him feeling them. So what does he mean when he says, “I know“? He can only mean, “I feel very certain.”

This is perfectly natural and human. Much of what we call knowledge is really just strong feeling, the emotional conviction that what we believe to be true actually is true. But as much as we would like them to be, feelings aren’t knowledge, and emotions aren’t proof.

Gordon goes on to explain the accident as a result of his physical condition. He’s old and fatigued. It was bound to happen someday. And this seems like the most reasonable explanation of the available facts. But Batman stubbornly refuses to believe Gordon’s interpretation of the situation. He insists that Gordon is innocent, and he also insists that Gordon knows that he is innocent.

Those who have read through the entirety of Batman Eternal will know that Batman turns out to be right. Gordon saw the gun in the gang member’s hand because of Dr. Falsario, a villain with hypnotic and hallucinatory powers. But does that make Batman’s belief in Gordon’s innocence different from Gordon’s belief that he has become dangerously incompetent? After all, when Batman and Gordon talk, all the physical evidence supports Gordon’s interpretation of events. Doesn’t this mean that Batman believes something that he has no good reason to believe? And if so, can we call such a belief knowledge simply because it turns out later to be true?

Perhaps knowledge depends on something more than simply what our senses tell us. Batman seems to base his belief in Gordon’s innocence on a deeper knowledge of Gordon than what comes from sense experience. Call it gut feeling if you want, but that phrase doesn’t really do justice to what I’m talking about. It’s the thing that Oedipus, Othello, and Hamlet all miss because they’re overly focused on what their senses tell them. There is a kind of knowledge that we can’t name––or at least, I can’t––that goes beyond what our senses tell us. Sometimes you just know things, don’t you?

Maybe. And that thought is comforting to me. But the problem is how to tell the difference between strong feelings and knowledge. Even though Batman is right about Gordon, he can’t prove it until Batwoman, Batgirl, and Jason Todd track down Dr. Falsario and learn the truth. In other words, even when we think we know something to be true, we still have to come back to sense experience. A feeling that we’re right doesn’t prove anything.

So I’m Still Going To Lose Sleep

I’m not a solipsist. I believe that we can have true knowledge of the world around us. I believe that the truth about the Ford-Kavanaugh affair is out there, just as the truth about Jim Gordon was out there. But even if there is some evidence to be found, deep problems remain.

Since there are no specific details about the time or place of the party that Ford has described, Kavanaugh can produce no alibi to show that he wasn’t there the night Ford was assaulted. And so far none of the people that Ford has named can remember the assault or the party. This means that unless some miracle happens in the next week and the FBI finds definitive, incontrovertible proof one way or the other, we are going to remain divided over this question. Each side is going to continue to believe things that they don’t (and can’t) know. And as I said in a previous post, we’re going to continue hating each other over it.