Think or Know
John L. Gordon June 2021
The title of this text, think or know, most certainly looks misguided. Why would I not want to think and know. Yet, if we consider a strong definition of know and knowledge, it becomes clear that we know a lot less than we really need to know. In order to make reasonable progress in our modern society filled with scientific and technological marvels, we need to trust in what we are told. We can start to develop our trust at school as we learn about the fundamentals of human achievement and discovery. Yet whilst I can trust that there was an Ice Age which changed things for our environment and our development, I can’t really know, myself, that there was an Ice Age. Of course, I am not trying to convince anyone to challenge this, because I am convinced that there really was an Ice Age and I can learn quite a lot about it and its effects.
In other words, I have trust in our education system even though I am not certain that it never makes the odd mistake. Science and Technology and Medicine build on previous knowledge and we can all see that they do quite a good job of this. The modern scientists, technologists and medical scientist can put their trust in previous discoveries and previous knowledge to form a foundation for new discoveries which we can all witness the success of. I suppose that the claim that we can’t really know things which we find out by putting our trust in others, is quite flimsy. But it is, correct.
The point of this opener is not to challenge our knowledge, is to draw attention to our need to think more and more carefully. For instance:
Take the, currently topical, point of covid-19, I can’t help but mention the claim that the point of the vaccine is to inject us all with transmitters so that we can all be monitored 24 hours a day by the government. I can’t KNOW that this isn’t true. But if I give the matter a little thought! Someone has invented a transmitter with a unique code for everyone on the planet which has a considerable range and will fit through the very narrow gap down the length of a needle. Each separate transmitter has been assigned to each person going for the injection and this has been fitted in the syringe just as each person is called forward for their turn. If the government can organise this then they deserve my admiration. More than this though, each transmitter has a power source inside it which will also fit down the needle and which will last the lifetime of each person who gets the injection. Could I have a larger version of that power source please. The massive infrastructure to monitor all of our transmitted signals has been developed and deployed worldwide and the results can be processed and the prime minister can know when I call into the local caffe for a coffee. There are many more points about this which could be made but the final point of thought is another one of admiration. This is why a government should invest in this fantastic world breaking and probably very expensive (not to mention currently impossible) technology when we all carry around a mobile phone which tracks every move we make anyway.
So, whilst I can’t know, I can think.
Not being able to know makes it more than possible that people can lie to us. This, after all, is how confidence trickster’s work. Internet based confidence tricksters are prolific now it seems. I get quite a few evil emails from time to time. Take this text (from an email sent to me) for instance:
Dear customer, Your Amazon Prime Membership is set to renew onMonday, June 22, 2020. However, we've noticed that the card associated with your Prime membership is no longer valid. To update the default card or choose a new one for your membership, Please find the document attached and follow the on-screen instructions. To prevent interruption of your benefits, we will try charging other active cards associated with your Amazon account if we can't charge your default card. If we can't process the charge for your membership fee, your Amazon Prime benefits will be suspended. Sincerely, The Amazon Prime Team
Actually, I do have an Amazon Prime account so maybe it could be true. But look at this email address where the message came from firstname.lastname@example.org . Note the address at ‘gainamazon.online’. Might I think this is a little suspicious? Added to that, the details are wrong as well. Added to that as well, I don’t click on links sent to me unless I can be sure they are safe. So, whilst I can’t know that this isn’t true, I can be really confident that it is a lie. When I receive such emails, I put them in a directory called ‘Evil People’. Unfortunately, many of them are not really repeatable in a text which should be readable by anyone.
The clever bit about this sort of confidence trick is to try to shock a person into acting before they have time to think. Thinking first usually exposes the evil intent but acting first, as one might do, puts one at risk. In either case. Knowing is not entirely possible but thinking can expose evil claims with a high degree of probability.
Also, thinking about emails which ask for payment to ensure your safety from exposure (about anything) can ensure that no payment is ever made. Even if you were guilty as charged, coincidentally, can you really believe that this person demanding money can be trusted to protect you when you have paid. This is an evil, dishonest person we are talking about, and you are being asked to trust them. Well good luck with that.
I have spent rather more time than originally intended discussing the use of thinking to protect us from evil. But thinking is so much more powerful than that. Imaging the school child who isn’t much good at maths but is OK at some other subjects. This could be accepted and concentration shifted to those other subjects. But thinking could also be used. Why can’t I understand maths? Can I understand any of it? Which bits don’t I understand? What exactly stops me from understand this bit of maths? Can I do anything about this? Actually, thinking here could lead to a way forward and a solution to a problem. Even if no solution is found, thinking might reveal a better understanding of self.
My big regret, yes, a personal regret, is that children are not, routinely, taught how to think. Well, I can’t regret it myself because I am not responsible for the (perceived) problem. But I can be sort of held a little accountable. My views are formulated from many years in college education where I slowly became aware. I periodically asked my students, who had all left school, had they ever been taught how to learn? Short answer is, they hadn’t. I gradually shifted this focus on learning to one on thinking. Regrettably, I have never had the opportunity to promote thinking in education but I expect that my efforts might fall short of complete success if I was given the opportunity. Not everyone, it seems, wants to think. It can be hard work.
I have also met some people, in my lifetime, who start to think in a logical and sound way and then explode into uncontrolled ridiculous conclusions. In other words, I have met people who employ stepwise thinking before taking uncontrollable and unjustified strides in thinking to arrive at unwarranted conclusions. It’s as if thinking can be used at the start to justify anything which arises even after thinking stops.
Yes, thinking can be hard work but it is also hugely rewarding. I often thought that Philosophy was a rather ridiculous pastime because it typically leads to no conclusion. It took me quite a while to realise that Philosophy is about thinking, not conclusions. If you want to become a great athlete, then training is essential. But nobody wins medals during training. If you want to be a sound thinker, then Philosophy is extremely useful. Philosophy might not get you a great job (other than teaching Philosophy) but it is a great way to improve thinking capability. Mind you, some Philosophy experts seem to think that Philosophy is about knowing who said what and when they said it. Well, it isn’t, it should be about thinking. So, THINK!