Frayed Edges of a Web of Belief

Featured image is a painted backdrop of a palace, by Edgar S. Paxson

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.

– Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions

A farm boy enters a barn with an empty pail. He has been in this barn, and barns like it, so many times before, that he does not even register most of his surroundings. He milks the cows almost without thought; the motions come to him as effortlessly as walking or scratching an itch.

The next day he returns, but something is not right. He is sure that he came the same way that he always does, but he doesn’t recall ever seeing this barn before. Thinking as hard as he can, he supposes that the barn he usually goes to looks something like this one. Trying to move beyond the strange sensation of unfamiliarity, he goes in. But it is no good—even inside, something feels very off. He looks around for some sign that this is the correct barn. He stares at a cow for several minutes before realizing he ought to get started. Once he is in position, he finds that he cannot make his hands work correctly. He does not tug hard enough to produce any milk, or he misses the pail. He simply cannot perform the task the way he knows he should be able to.

How many times must we send a farm boy in with an empty pail to get milk before we are satisfied that he knows how to milk a cow? Can we call no one a farm boy until he is dead?

W. V. Quine argued that any of our beliefs are only coherent within a larger web of belief, most of which we are not conscious of in a given moment. Hans-Georg Gadamer speaks, in like fashion, of a horizon of meaning which form the conditions of intelligibility for every one of us. But where are these horizons? Where do the visible threads in this web lead?

John Searle once thought that the beliefs we are not conscious of right at this moment are kept in a sort of inventory of unconscious mental states. In attempting to flesh this out, however, he found unresolvable problems. The only workable model of the unconscious he could come up with was one of the potentially conscious—so to say that someone believes the world is round even when he is asleep is really to say that if he woke up he would be capable of consciously holding that very belief.

We think of memory as a storehouse of propositions and images, as a kind of big library or filing cabinet of representations. But we should think of memory rather as a mechanism for generating current performance, including conscious thoughts and actions, based on past experience.

(…)

Instead of saying “To have a belief, one has to have a lot of other beliefs,” one should say “To have a conscious thought, one has to have the capacity to generate a lot of other conscious thoughts. And these conscious thoughts all require further capacities for their application.”

This is more in line with (to my knowledge) the neuroscience of memory. Memories are not stored and retrieved, but constructed in the moment of remembering.

I am also reminded of Gadamer’s discussion of moral knowledge:

But we do not learn moral knowledge, nor can we forget it. We do not stand over against it, as if it were something that we can acquire or not(…). Rather, we are always already in a situation of having to act (disregarding the special position of children, for whom obedience to the person educating them replaces their own decision), and hence we must already possess and be able to apply moral knowledge. That is why the concept of application is highly problematical. For we can only apply something that we already have; but we do not possess moral knowledge in such a way that we already have it and then apply it to specific situations.

A stage actor or a stand-up comedian, or a baseball player for that matter, has good days and bad days. Do they ever know why? Can they do anything about it even if they do?

When we walk up to the plate, what else can we do but hope? Hope that the scant threads we can see before us still connect back to the larger web. That, just out of view, they haven’t become frayed ends, unconnected and blowing in the wind.

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