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pathways (guide)

7 April 1998

I want to test the following proposition: 'The manner in which you can be ignorant of something determines the kind of thing that it is, the kind of thing you are seeking to learn, or learn about.' The possibility of ignorance thus becomes the very measure of reality, of there being something to be ignorant of.

That's a large claim. I am not even sure at this stage what exactly it means. But let's start with a simple hypothetical case. Let's say I have a 'personal barometer' which tells me when a day is an auspicious day for working on my philosophical notebook. When my mental light flashes green, I work. When it flashes red, I do not work. The special thing one needs to know about this barometer is that it cannot ever be wrong. If the barometer tells me to work then somehow I will always succeed in producing something, good, bad or indifferent. If it tells me not to work and I ignore it, then you can guarantee that I shall end up sitting for hours in front of an empty computer screen.

It seems that in this case I do not learn anything by attending to my personal work barometer. The prediction 'I will have some ideas' or 'I will not have any ideas' is always a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now contrast this case with another kind of personal barometer, the kind that might tell me, say, whether to trust someone with a secret. When my mental light flashes green I tell the secret, when it flashes red, I don't tell. Now in this example it seems perfectly possible that the light flashes green, but the person who I told the secret to subsequently betrays it. In other words, by contrast with the previous case, this kind of personal barometer can be wrong. (Interestingly, the reverse is not true. If the light flashes red, then there is no way — or at least no certain, direct way — of telling that the person would have betrayed my secret, had I told them. Even if it subsequently turns out that the person was a blabbermouth, they might still have been too respectful of me, or afraid of the consequences, to have betrayed my secret.)

I remember reading how in certain African tribes the guilt or innocence of a suspect is determined by witchcraft. Now one thing an anthropologist might want to investigate is whether the answer given by witchcraft, in the eyes of those who use it, can sometimes be wrong. Does the test of burnt goat's entrails, say, ever lead to a false conviction? Suppose there is the clearest evidence that the person tried and convicted was in fact innocent: say, a confession from another member of the tribe, complete with details that only they could have known about?

One possible line of response is that, when the entrails were examined, they could not have been burned correctly, or if they had been burned correctly then the witch doctor misread them. In other words, it is possible for the test to fail because it has not been correctly carried out. An alternative line is to say that the person convicted could not have been innocent. It follows that the person who did confess was not in fact responsible for the crime. They were made to do it by some form of sorcery. — There is, however, a third alternative: that the test of burning goat's entrails, correctly carried out, is not infallible. Sometimes, it simply gives the wrong result.

What is notable about a 'personal barometer' or relying on intuition, and also about using witchcraft is the way is the way in which errors, if accepted as such, must ultimately be accepted as brute fact. There is no explaining why intuition goes wrong, or why the correctly carried out test of burning goat's entrails fails to identify the guilty party. It is this feature that makes these cases philosophically problematic. Say, the success rate is considerably better than what would have been achieved by guesswork. It that sufficient to permit us to say that, judging simply by results, intuition, or witchcraft can sometimes be ways of learning about the world?

One could point out that there is plenty of evidence to support belief in a faculty of 'intuition', at least where judging the character of another person is concerned. Processes of taking in relevant information do take place at a subliminal level. In addition, there seems to be a clear evolutionary advantage in possessing such an ability. What is notable here — and notably absent in the case of witchcraft — is an account of the mechanisms by means of which we are able to learn things through intuition.

Is it possible that someone could have the power — with or without technical assistance — to 'read' the future? Or other people's minds? It is at least conceivable that a crystal ball, say, or a magic gizmo which displayed a subject's thoughts and feelings on a little TV screen, might give results which appeared consistently better than what would have been achieved by guesswork — never mind how. Who cares about the mechanisms. To say that this is 'conceivable' is simply to say that an experiment carried out under suitably strict conditions might yield such-and-such data, data for which there was no plausible alternative statistical explanation. Must the investigator take this appearance at face value? What is the alternative?

With these examples, I am venturing into familiar territory investigated by 'epistemology', or the theory of knowledge. The problem is philosophically gripping, because is presents us with a dilemma both of whose horns are unpalatable. If I could successfully 'read' the future, or other people's minds, I wouldn't care how I did it. (Let's leave aside the question whether I would want to!) What point could the philosopher conceivably be making in denying that these were genuine cases of learning? Yet how — one might just as well say in response — could a genuine process of learning ever depend upon pure magic?