Since writing my last post, Risky Business, I found myself thinking about something that Mom used to say often to me as a boy, “You know better than to do that!” Usually that was accompanied by a scolding for teasing my sisters, but that’s another story. What I was thinking about today was the phrase know better, and what that means.
I’ll begin by talking about implicit versus explicit knowledge. How do we come to know something and is there something we can do to know that something better? What’s driving that set of questions is something that I learned many years ago, the difference between knowing something explicitly and implicitly.
Let me illustrate what I mean with a typical conversation I had around the time I was five.
Me: “Auntie Helen, can I have some ice cream?”
Auntie Helen: “May I have some ice cream”
Me: “May I have some ice cream?”
Auntie Helen: “Certainly, Rickie”
What I was receiving from Auntie Helen was an implicit lesson in etiquette, the difference between “may” and “can” used in the context of making a request. It was also a lesson in which verb was best to use. But at age five, I wasn’t ready to know about rules of grammar and etiquette. I was able to use “may” and “can” properly with Auntie Helen but couldn’t have said why. I just knew that Auntie Helen regarded it as more polite for me to talk that way. That’s implicit. I could speak in full and properly constructed sentences, but I couldn’t tell you what a sentence was, let alone its components: nouns, verbs, prepositions, adjectives and so on.
Much later, from memory sometime around grade seven, I was taught English sentence structure and grammar at school. I learned how to conjugate verbs correctly, for different persons in different tenses. When I learned what all that meant, it left me more powerful in the correct use of language. I was now learning how to speak and write explicitly.
I’ve created the following ways of holding these two distinctions:
Implicit is when you know something, but you don’t know that you know something.
Explicit is when you know something and you know that you know it.
In both examples, “know” means epistemological knowledge, knowledge acquired intentionally and correctly.
What I’m seeing around me everywhere is a world of people who haven’t got this distinction, and the suffering that flows out of that ignorance. Nowhere does this show up more than in a couple of memes that have surfaced over the last few years. One is “disinformation”, another similar one is “fake news”. Explicitly “disinformation” and “fake news” simply mean something offered as fact that is not fact. Implicitly “disinformation” and “fake news” mean something so catastrophic to the future of all mankind that some form of suppression or censorship must be undertaken. You and I are not up to managing this “not fact” on our own and must be protected.
What I’m also seeing is that there are no bad guys out there, only people with power not realizing explicitly what they are doing. What’s running the show is their feelings! But who would ever admit to this? Would you? Would you say to someone, “Sorry, but I’m grounding you in your apartment because I feel like it”? Of course not. You’re a good person and what your doing is for the public good. Something like that. Sure, implementing lockdowns and blocking disinformation on twitter upsets people. But it’s for their own good. What we have is an unbroken chain of those with power issuing orders to those without power. It’s been going on for thousands of years. There aren’t many moments in that time-frame where someone in power sat down and questioned what was being done. “Should I be telling others how to live their lives? Maybe that’s their responsibility.” may have popped up but it was quickly squashed, like a cockroach scuttling across the kitchen floor. Maybe it’s nothing more than when knowledge is implicit, feelings rule and that’s mankind’s biggest problem! But few of us get this. We can’t get this because all we can work with is our feelings!
I cannot begin to do justice to this topic in a short blog. There are too many layers of ignorance to explore and take apart. What concerns me, especially in the context of do no harm, is the anger that’s flowing out of these occurrences of suppression and censoring. I’m alarmed at the animosity that’s flowing on social media these days, the polarisation between groups, a real “It’s them or us!” way of being. Personally, I don’t like others thinking that I need protection from the “fake news” and “disinformation” that’s going on out there. I’ll work it out for myself, thank you. And I believe that by and large we can all work things out for ourselves.
What’s needed first is a sound education in thinking better for our children. Start them with a simple lesson, like do no harm. Teach them to think for themselves. Let them work out the variations of harm not to do to each other. Likely they already come to school with this lesson in place. Start them with simple concepts and principles like that.
As their maturity grows make the teachings explicit. What is a “fact” and how is that determined? What is “logical” and how is that determined? Teach them about “non-contradiction”, about how things connect. Teach them the philosophical categories: metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Most important, teach mutual respect and toleration. “Peace on Earth, goodwill towards men” must never fall out of existence. And please, please, please don’t get annoyed with me because I used the old-fashioned word “men” instead of “people” or “humanity” or whatever. Instead, give me a little smile, maybe even some sympathy because I’m just an old-fashioned fart, and help me build a better life, a better world. We can do no better than that.