Can I Possess Knowledge That I Disbelieve?

In a way, my previous post was about the existence of existence. This post might be about the existence of truth. Or, perhaps it is about the illusion of its absence.

Atonal Music

Unlike most music fans, I love serial compositions. They’re not for everyone, but the reason I like them is because they use our implicit knowledge of traditional Western harmony against us. Even if you don’t think you know anything about music, you do. Your mere cultural exposure to music has ingrained you with the understanding of certain rudimentary concepts, certain expectations of harmonic and melodic sequences, even if you aren’t expressly aware of them.

What makes atonal music like Schoenberg’s so much fun for me is that, because they lack the same kind of musical structure traditional music has, my mind races in to fill the void. I’ll hear two notes played at random, and my mind subconsciously creates a harmonic link between them. Then a third “random” note appears, and my mind stretches to create a harmonic link that reconciles all three notes. On and on it goes until my mind can no longer link all the notes together, and I have to start again.

This very process is what makes other people hate serial compositions. Rather than compelling, they find the process stressful. Well, different strokes for different folks – but what’s interesting here is that even if you hate serial music, you can’t stop your brain from attempting to form patterns in the music. Love it or hate it, the music switches on a particular attribute of human thinking: pattern recognition.

If I play all the notes corresponding to, “Twinkle, twinkle, little…” and suddenly stop, then your brain will automatically think, “…star.” To people who spend a lot of time listening to music, like me, all you’d have to do is play, “Twinkle, twink…” – just three notes – and our musical brains would automatically think, “..kle little star.”

If you really want to confuse someone, then try whistling the notes that correspond to: “Twinkle, twinkle little star / Fa la la la la, La la la la!” But if you really want to make them made, make sure the first part is in a different key signature than the second part.

Many great composers have utilized similar tricks to play the listener’s ear against itself, but the serial composers took this fact of human psychology to a whole new level, in the pursuit of new “outside sounds.” The genius of atonal music is that it makes us see patterns even where none exist, i.e. even when the notes arranged, essentially, nonsensically.

Atonal Logic

A few years back, in a post entitled “The Paradox Paradox,” I wrote:

The interesting thing about paradoxes is that they are both a problem of definition and of perception. The definition can never be true, and their existence is in fact only a matter of perception.

A paradox is defined to be a statement that is “seemingly” or “apparently” self-contradictory. But their main problem is that they don’t really exist. No statement can be both true and false at exactly the same time in exactly the same way.

Paradoxes capitalize on the fact that language is more flexible than logic. The “trick” is that self-contradictory sentences can be constructed whose logical or physical properties are impossible, in the same sense that imaginary creatures can be described in books even though their physical existence is otherwise impossible. I can construct the sentence “This statement is false,” but I cannot make it mean anything. While such statements dazzled the ancient Greeks for a time, in the end they are simply nonsense.

Like atonal music, paradoxes adhere to a consistent internal logic, namely, valid linguistic syntax. Also like atonal music, the value of paradoxes is that they are simply entertaining. And, like atonal music, paradoxes contain no outward meaning beyond their internal structure; the composition is the statement, but there is no meaning to be extracted beyond its structure.

Paradoxes aren’t the only statements that work this way. I can also construct a sentence like, “My fertile eyeglasses eat nimble compassion,” which has all its parts of speech in the correct locations, but which conveys no real information. Eyeglasses aren’t fertile and they cannot eat anything; compassion isn’t nimble and it cannot be eaten.

Here, though, our sense of pattern-recognition might kick in and wonder whether there might be a sense in which that statement might be true. Can eyeglasses be fertile in a manner of speaking? Can compassion be allegorically nimble?

It sounds interesting for a moment, but we soon realize that the sentence really is nonsense, and then we move on.

Atonal Knowledge

I thought about my old post on the nonsense of paradoxes when Adam posed his questions the other day.

So here are the questions I promised: if certain ideas are implicit in our practices but we do not believe in them conceptually, is that knowledge? Does our incorrect explicit belief count as ignorance or falsehood or deficiency of knowledge, or error, in some way?

Given that we know of philosophical skeptics throughout history who have professed to disbelieve in just about everything, but clearly did not live as though that were the case, did they really know they were wrong in some meaningful sense?

If my statement is true, then in what sense does Germany border China?

I think it’s possible to listen to that Schoenberg piece I embedded above and to genuinely believe that it has a tonal center, even though it was deliberately written not to have one. I also think it’s possible to genuinely believe that compassion can be nimble. The problem with beliefs is that they can be – and quite often are – simply wrong.

This fact is unpleasant. We don’t like to judge others, and in particular we don’t feel good about judging others’ beliefs. But atonal music is genuinely atonal, and skepticism of consciousness is genuinely impossible. We don’t have to be jerks about it, but when someone claims to reject the existence of consciousness, we can safely discard their statement as a wrong thing, a logical and physical impossibility, that they only think they believe.

This shouldn’t stop us from analyzing the matter. For one thing, just because a particular truth exists doesn’t mean we already possess that knowledge. For another thing, we might only realize our mistaken beliefs after close consideration of the matter.

And, thirdly, thinking about such things is entertaining, just like paradoxes and atonal music.

3 thoughts on “Can I Possess Knowledge That I Disbelieve?

  1. In general, I think meta consistency of knowledge is pretty darn rare. What people profess to believe can be quite different from the implied knowledge of their actions. For example, in macroeconomics, prior to 2008, most economists said fiscal stimulus was pretty useless, but as soon as things turned south, they all hopped onto the fiscal stimulus bandwagon. To paraphrase Scott Sumner paraphrasing the fair weather fiscal stimulus proponents: “Yes, we know our models say it’s useless, and all the evidence we’ve spent our careers accumulating say its useless, and we’ve told are students for 20 years that it’s useless, but we think we should do it anyway”. That too is knowledge of a sort.

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