Monday, November 14, 2011

Proposed UK legislation banning the verb 'to know'

To: Katherine A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Proposed UK legislation banning the verb 'to know'
Date: 14 December 2005 14:13

Dear Katherine,

Thank you for your email of 5 December, with your second essay for Possible World Machine, in response to the question, ''In view of advice from the philosophical think-tank formed last year from six eminent professors, we shall be introducing legislation to ban the use of the verb "to know" and its derivatives from all official documents.' - Comment on this imaginary extract from the Queen’s speech at the opening of Parliament.'

I had a good chuckle at this. It is of course the UK government, rather than the Queen, who write 'the Queen's speech'. Although from time to time, one can detect in the Queens' tone of voice approval or disapproval.

- Or is that merely imagined? How good is the Queen at faking it, really?

It occurs to me that this is a good question to test our understanding of the word 'know'. Let's say I am the Royal Correspondent for the Times and have studied the Queen closely over many years. I can detect, when others cannot, when the Queen is expressing approval or disapproval of a particular item in the Queen's speech.

Do you believe me?

'I know,' I say. I have no doubt at all. I know Queenie too well, she can't get anything past me. You may be impressed with my journalistic credentials or not. You may believe or not believe what I am telling you. How are these things decided? what is the truth here? (or is it the word 'truth' that we should think of banning?).

This is a nice example of 'knowledge on instinct'. Another example is chicken sexing. It is possible to tell (amazingly, when you think about it) whether baby chicks are male or female just by holding them or looking, and chicken sexers earn their living this way. But no-one knows for sure how they do it. You either respond to the six week course of training in chicken sexing by becoming an expert chicken sexer or not.

The difference here is that we have a test, independently of claims made by chicken sexers, which is to wait a few weeks or months.

As you say, we assert that we 'know' many things which on closer inspection we have merely assumed. Did you know that the family upstairs keep three parrots which they feed exclusively on gum nuts? No? Well, how sure are you now that it's raining?

We use the word 'know' a lot, even when we 'know' that we are taking things for granted, assuming things which we don't 'know'. Leaving aside the question of how practical it would be to attempt a massive, unilateral change in the way English is used in the UK, what good use does this term have, in what way is it indispensable? Surely, you would not wish to deny that there are terms which we use everyday which could be easily dispensed with.

Here's your argument: 'How could we live if we removed "to know" from not only our vocabulary but also from our lives. We would then know nothing. At every moment we would have to relearn what w learnt a moment ago. We could not function. We would be reduced to less than the animals.'

I'm not convinced by this. Suppose the eminent professors went one step further and suggested a replacement for the word 'know', 'gnow'. You gnow something when you feel sure about it. Whereas the statement, 'Katherine knows that it is raining logically' implies the statement, 'It is raining', the statement, 'Katherine gnows that it is raining' does not. If I asked you, 'Is it raining down under, as you read this email?' and you tell me that you *gnow* that it is raining, that piece of information is every bit as useful to me as if you had told me what you *know* that it is raining. The fact that you feel sure that it is raining is good enough for me. Generally, parrots aside, when someone feels sure that it is raining, it is raining. What more could I want?

Animals don't know anything. Maybe they gnow, although strictly that would be a misuse of the term which we have coined. They act instinctively on the basis of information which they gain through perception, or which is embodied in their genes.

This brings us full back to the question of this essay. The practical difficulties being admitted, why know and not gnow? What is the point of having that concept at all?

Here is the standard answer. We do have a need, a use for 'factive' discourse - which includes not only know but also the other terms listed in the dictionary definition like be aware of, recognize, perceive etc. - namely when I want to say not only something about you, not only that Katherine gnows that it is raining but also something about the weather, namely that it is raining, and, moreover (and here is where knowledge allegedly difference from true belief acquired by accident) that what you gnow is accounted for by the fact that it is raining (i.e. you haven't merely guessed, or been tricked into assuming).

So far so good. But once we become aware of this fact, it also becomes clear that whenever we make any assertion, at any time, we are doing more than saying, 'This is what I gnow'. When I say, 'It is raining' I mean to talk about the rain, not about me.

What the sceptic really challenges is whether we ever have the right to say anything, make any assertion. The only answer is, Yes, if 'to have the right' means simply being 'generally accepted' as having that right, or meeting the 'normal criteria'. Outside 'general acceptance' or 'normal criteria' no-one has the 'right' to assert anything. And that is the kernel of truth in scepticism.

All the best,

Geoffrey