Featured Image is Evening in Arcadia, by Thomas Cole.
How many of us have known an addict who has broken our hearts too many times with their promise to get clean, for good this time?
Many of us have struggled with addictions of our own. The rest of us have surely been in a position where we told ourselves or others that we would change in some way, and even believed that we could and would, but did not.
Aristotle spoke of akrasia; of knowing what we should do but failing to do it, or knowing what we should not do and doing it anyway. But my question is: do we know we will fail?
If you’re addicted to heroin, or cocaine, cigarettes or alcohol—how can you know if you will quit, when you say that you will? Can you know it, except in retrospect? And how long must you wait before you can say it in retrospect? People can fall off the wagon after decades. Can we know that we will get clean for good, or should we call no man clean until he is dead?
To say that a farm boy knows how to milk a cow is to say that we can send him out to the barn with an empty pail and expect him to return with milk. To say that a criminologist understands crime is not to say that we can send him out with a grant or a law and expect him to return with a lower crime rate.
-Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions
There is almost nothing like a world-class stage actor, who manages to be a masterful entertainer while simultaneously seeming to vanish into their role. How can they pull it off? What do they know that the rest of us don’t?
Children think this way about adults, especially parents and teachers who are authorities. Adults seem so certain of what they’re supposed to do next—how do they figure that out? When will I know what they know?
But once you grow up, of course, you learn the great secret; adults don’t know much of anything. We just charge ahead and do the best we can, trying to get clues from previous experience and the people around us, attempting to get a read on the situation.
I have seen people become certain. I usually use a different word for it—stubborn, perhaps, or inflexible. It is easy to be certain when you have dismissed most of life’s possibilities.
I think a lot about Sowell’s hypothetical farm boy. Does he know, going into the barn, that he will definitely return with a pail of milk? Does he know this only because he has done it so many times before? Does he ever have a moment where he cannot for the life of him figure out what he’s supposed to do, even though he’s done it thousands of times before? Some episode where his fingers seem mute to his brain, unable to work the cow’s udders the way his memories tell him they’re capable of doing?
Do the very best stage actors, or stand-up comedians, ever choke? Do they know if they’re going to, or that they’re capable of it? Do they know why it is that they avoid it, when they do?
Ryan asks how I can say that I have learned if I can’t be certain that I know. I would say that I learned from philosophy books in much the same way that I learned how to write blog posts like this one. At some point I just started to find it very easy to write blog posts. I couldn’t tell you when it really clicked. Before that point I wrote quite a lot of garbage. I’m not saying that I spin gold now, and I’ve certainly put out my share of stinkers on this very blog. But it seems that at some point I learned how to write better posts more easily—relative to where I started.
Yet I never know when I start a post if it’s going to be any good or if it will go anywhere. It is a cliché for authors to say that they are led by their characters or their story in very different directions from what they intended. But it isn’t an exaggeration, not mysticism nor personification. Anyone with experience writing knows it is somewhere between free-falling and steering. In my experience, writing at its best is more free-falling than steering.
Ryan boldly proclaims:
Knowledge isn’t a stack of cards, but a pyramid. With greater knowledge, we gain certainty about the subject matter – if we lose certainty, we’re doing it wrong.
And I wonder how he knows this. It does not appear that way to me. It appears to me that when I expand my horizons, the field outside of them seems to expand at a faster rate.
I don’t know if it’s like this for anyone else, but when I learn something on almost any subject, I’m not sure I’ve understood it until I talk or write about it. And sometimes it takes talking and writing about it repeatedly before I feel I’ve actually grasped what I’m talking and writing about.
Could I simply work it all out in my head? I don’t know that it’s impossible, but it certainly hasn’t seemed to go that way for me yet.
Do I understand these things between the moments I talk and write about them?
It’s anyone’s guess.
Ryan appropriately references Paul’s piece on faith; I’ve written a thing or two on the subject and believe it very much applies here. We gain experience and build memories over the course of our lives—if we are lucky. But it is a leap of faith to believe that they are applicable, and still more to take the plunge and attempt to apply them.
My skepticism is not a matter of despair, but acceptance. I accept that we are, as Deirdre McCloskey puts it, “walking on air.” I still put one foot in front of the other, just like everyone.
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