Ruminating on Michael Polanyi's epistemic model as developed and conveyed by Dr. Esther Lightcap Meek in the book Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People

Saturday, September 25, 2004

If God and Only God Knows with Full Certainty...

Assuming that the historic Christian view of God's absolute, eternal omniscience is correct: Has Western man's desire for knowledge with absolute certainty been part of mankind's continued pursuit of the Serpent's Edenic offer to make us "like the gods"? Was the relentless pursuit of exhaustive lucidity a form of idolatry? If so, that would help explain why it leaves us feeling so empty. If it is inherently arrogant, that would help explain the difficulty we (OK, I) have holding a heated discussion without becoming smug, snide, and angry.

I have a question

Is Polanyi just for me'n'you, or for critters and spirit-beings, too? Is the Polanyian model valid for human knowing only; for the epistemic acts of all created beings; for all knowing, period; or what?

It seems reasonable to me that it applies fairly well to animals, at least in some fashion. Observation of animal behavior may bear this out. Watch how butterflies are initially attracted to all brightly colored objects, even the likes of SUVs, until they fly close enough for long enough to discover their misinterpretation. Watch how cats use their senses to know just where to pounce on a rodent in high grass or thick bushes; they can't see the rodent but they can extrapolate what and where it is by the movement of the foliage, by the sound, and by the smell. Is that not a case of the integration of clues to a coherent pattern? Are there elements of the human act of knowing that distinguish it from what animals can do, not merely in degree (if even that) but in principle?

What about angels and demons? What do they know, and how? Can they know things with a certainty that transcends human knowing, or are they subject to the same possibility of doubt about some things? I believe they can learn. Judging by the sweep of history, I'd say the devil has learned a considerable amount over 6000 years about how to better deceive people. He may still be honing his craft. (What, someone who still believes in a real devil? Uh, don't look now, but there's a hungry lion behind you.)

Most importantly, perhaps, what about God? Does he go about knowing the same way we do? Since He created all and sustains all, and all things have their being in Him, A) Can there be any sense in which His omniscience is due to a flawless integration of exhaustively descried subsidiaries? Or, B) Does He simply know, with absolute certainty and perfect clarity, every thing? Is His Knowing utterly qualitatively, or only quantitatively, different from ours? Is human epistemic nature a function of the Imago Dei or of our creatureliness?

If we open the door to scenario A, are we thereby also giving the heresy of Open Theism a toehold? Could the Polanyian model, if widely accepted, undermine Reformed theology?

My head feels funny now. This is your inquiring mind. This is your inquiring mind on LTK. Any questions?

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Authoritative Guides and the Effects of Individualism

One of the means by which we come to know things is by reliance upon authoritative guides. We find those guides in community with other human beings: parents, friends, teachers, elders, clergy, law enforcement officers, journalists, authors, and so on. The guidance can be given in person, or it can come in the form of instructions (in the broadest sense--not necessarily communication primarily intended to be instructive) left for us by fellow humans in various media: signs, books and pamphlets, TV shows and movies, and on the Internet. Either way, the directions come from outside of ourselves, from other selves. We are able to receive those directions, and thereby enabled to know, because we share with those other selves a particular language, cultural understanding, and (in some sense) space and/or time. If it were not for our involvement in community, we would lack many important clues, and thus remain ignorant of many helpful and important things.

What does this say about our prospects for bettering our understanding of ourselves and our world in a society that is radically individualistic and anti-authoritarian? Flannery O'Connor wrote a lot about the importance of a sense of community and society to good fiction writing. In explaning why novels featuring Existentialist heros so often fell short of being convincing, she said, "The borders of his country are the sides of his skull." That has turned out to be a prophetic statement applicable to everyone in every facet of Western society a mere 45 years later.

I once dramatically experienced the effects of isolation on knowing. Sometime in my late teens, I came across an article in Keyboard™ magazine that introduced me very briefly to the idea of musical scale tunings that are significantly different from the one the Western world takes for granted. I had no way to explore it at the time, but the idea stuck in my craw.

A few years later, I purchased my first keyboard synthesizer with a customizable tuning table, and set to work. Because I had no knowledge of tuning theory nor of the history of musical instrument tuning (despite a Bachelor of Music degree, thank you very much!), I was flying blind, and starting from absolute scratch. My progress was as slow as a slug in the sun. For a couple of years I crawled on, learning by personal experience alone. I managed to produce two pieces of crude music in a simple form of Just Intonation. But I still understood very little of what I was doing, or why some things worked and others (most attempts) didn't.

Then the WWW came along, and I discovered a discussion list devoted entirely to the topic of alternate tunings! And it had over 600 members. All this time I had thought I was practically the only person in the world exploring the field. I thought I was a pioneer. How little I knew! What little I knew, and much more, had already been known for centuries. It was so basic that the subscribers to the Tuning List seldom thought about it anymore--it was part of their working assumptions.

Immediately, I was learning more on any given a day than I had learned in my first two years working in isolation. After a couple of years reading and asking questions, I even got to the place where I could occasionally contribute something that a few others found useful. My success at inventing and using alternate tunings blossomed.

Through the Tuning List, I gained knowlege of what was known, what had been tried, what was and wasn't generally found useful, and why. That gave me a sense of where my efforts might best fit with those of others, and set me on a trajectory exploring a kind of tuning that had been outlined by a brilliant mathematician but never worked out by a musician. Soon, I had a web site explaining the method, with dozens of tunings ready to be entered into keyboard tuning tables, and even several musical examples. (If by some strange chance you're interested, visit my home page and click on the link to The Sound of Phi.)

If I had continued to work in isolation, I would know next to nothing compared to what I know today about tuning theory. I might well have become so discouraged as to give up.

Not everyone on the Tuning List learned as much or as rapidly. There are various reasons for that, I'm sure, but one is that several of the participants are simply unteachable. They refuse to be taught. They attack anyone who tries to teach them. They are convinced that they are the source of true knowlege. The suspicion of authority bred into them by our society prevents them from taking advantage of the wealth of wisdom at their disposal.

The list is led by a handful of geniuses who are well-read, highly experienced individuals next to whom I am practically a moron. They are eager to share what they know. But some people take offense at the learnedness of others. They are suspicious of education, suspicious of articulateness, even suspicious of well-laid arguments. They won't submit their work to the scrutiny of others, believing that whatever came most lately from their own private inspiration (as they think it) must be the most valuable work ever done. And so they sit, alone in a little boat called Ignorance, adrift on a sea of knowledge.

Such attitudes are prevalent in our society at the beginning of the 21st century in every field of human endeavor. As long as they hold sway, they will continue to mitigate against significant epistemic efforts for all of us.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Puzzling

One of the unusual features of LTK is that it teaches us about something we never knew, that we've nevertheless done all our lives. It's such a funny feeling to be saying, "Oh, yeah! That's exactly what I do." And being excited about this simple affirmation. It's cast in a whole new light. I now know that I knew.

I had my own terms for it. What Dr. Meek calls integration, I called putting together The Puzzle. What she calls clues, I called pieces. I have been looking for pieces, and trying to fit them together, my whole life. It probably consumed more of my mental time and energy than any other single task. I just didn't think of it as an act of knowing since the Picture was resistant to explicit description. [In the voice of Homer Simpson:] Lousy false assumptions.

For example, my dear, patient wife would sometimes get just enough of the anti-Christian or anti-American or anti-Bush rhetoric on some Public Radio show, after, you know, like 30 minutes of it. "Why do we have to listen to this crap!" she'd finally cry. "I'm looking for pieces," I'd say, in my most assuaging tone, hoping to blow enough head off her steam to be able to listen a little longer. I was filtering -- heavily. But I was gleaning insights into what was happening in the wide world, expanding my horizons of rationality, trying to understand the causes of alternative perspectives, systematically filing things away for future reference. I knew that the pieces would fit together with others, somewhere, sometime, and aid my understanding of the world on some level. I knew there was value in it. I just didn't know it was knowing.

The Puzzle is not a totally inept metaphor for connecting the subsidiaries. It actually fits certain integrative acts rather well. The problem with it as a general model is two-fold. First, it made me think of it as something two-dimensional rather than polydimentional. Integration can happen in any number of dimensions at once.

Second, it made me think of the Picture, the pattern, as something static rather than dynamic. I was seeking to pin down a moving target. But you can't do that without getting off the merry-go-round, as John Lennon put it. The fact that the pattern is in motion through time, and, as all time-bound phenomena, evolving as it goes, may be behind the "unspecifiable future prospects" we sense when we have contacted reality through integrating subsidiaries. A puzzle can only manifest these prospects in the limited sense that you can be surprised about where a piece happens to fit; that is, about what it looks like in context compared to what it looked like by itself. That's not nearly complex enough to analogize most human acts of knowing with their webs of unpredictable implications.

The Role of Pain in Knowing

Sometimes we choose to disconnect from clues or resist integrating them when we can sense that we're not going to like the pattern. We don't always want to submit to the real. Reality bites sometimes.

But failure to connect, integrate, and submit can cause pain, too. And that can be just what we need. If not submitting hurts worse than submitting, we may reluctantly accede.

For children of the Heavenly Father, this can take the form of spiritual discipline, being stabbed by Grace, like Mary, whose soul was pierced by a sword. We speak of learning things through trials. How does that happen? Does pain open pathways in your brain, allowing information to be processed that would otherwise have gone out the other ear? I don't think so. Pain helps learning because it motivates us. One thing it can motivate us to do is refocus, to face the painful truth.

Sometimes it can even give us a glimpse of the Clue Maker Himself. The Apostle Paul spoke of knowing in connection with pain. He wanted more than anything "to know [Christ], and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his suffering." Sometimes pain helps us know fellowship with the one who experienced ultimate suffering.

Anguish can be a blessing in disguise. "Life is pain, Princess. Anyone who says different is selling something." When you look at the Man in Black, do you see Wesley or the Dread Pirate Roberts?

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Broken, bent, & alternate patterns; church music; and shepherds

Ultimately, I think, there is only one great Pattern, and only God can see it fully. We creatures are only given the ability to see distinct parts of it, or, in rare moments of insight, to have an instant in which we see the whole but as through a glass darkly, and can never seem to recall exactly what it was that we saw. Pink Floyd, in the song Comfortably Numb, put it brilliantly:When I was a child, I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown, and the dream is gone
The Pattern is simply too grand to wrap our little minds around. Besides, in a lifetime we have opportunities to encounter only a tiny fraction of the clues needed to point us to anything like an integration of the complete Pattern. And so we speak of many patterns: the flavor of a dish, the body of the doctrines of our faith, traffic patterns, fish habitats, and so on. And that's fine, that's consistent with our creatureliness.

Ultimately, all of our integrations are partial with respect to The Pattern, but it is possible to speak of patterns in a restricted sense, with respect to a particular person, idea, event, and so on. But most of the time even those integrations are partial, incomplete, not a fully orbed view of that part of the pattern. This produces the sense of a broken up or spotty pattern, or perhaps of a fuzzy view of it.

It seems to me that problems with integration arise when make mistakes with respect to clues. Often, we overlook important clues. That results in incomplete integrations, or partial integrations. For example, we might fail to notice that the cars in front of us have slowed down, and end up having to slam on our brakes; the overall pattern of the road and traffic was being integrated by our brains more-or-less correctly - we weren't driving completely the wrong direction, and our speed would have been safe at that place under most circumstances - but a crucial piece of information was missing or misinterpreted. That's what auto insurance is for. And seat belts.

We also make mistakes with respect to the integration process itself. Under the pressure of various desires and motivations, or simply through inexperience, we may attempt to force clues together that don't belong to the same part of the pattern, or to force them together in awkward and, um, unfitting(?) ways, producing a warped view of the pattern. For example, when faced with a flooded road, we might be so determined to get home that we ignore the perenial plea of rescue workers not to drive into it, and end up being washed downstream. We think we remember where the roadbed is, and we think we know that the current couldn't be strong enough to carry away our heavy car. We want to believe that it's safe to cross. But every year, numerous people are wrong. Their view of the pattern was warped enough to cause them severe loss or death.

So, here we are, all walking (and driving!) around with warped, fuzzy eyes, seeing a set of disconnected, warped, fuzzy patterns. This, I think is what Picasso, Dali, and Duchamp were trying to show us. We've all got our own little private modern art show going all the time. I don't think that condition was new to the 20th century. What was new was giving in to it, trying to ignore the transcendent, and pretending to believe that what we perceive is all there is. Again, Pink Floyd sums it up memorably, from Dark Side of the Moon:All you touch, and all you see
Are all your life will ever be
And thus, at last, everything under the sun was in tune - but the sun was eclipsed by the moon. But that's a matter of art philosophy, not epistimology. There can be no epistimology during a total eclipse. So let's shed a little light on the subject, and get to what the title of this post forboded.

With that background, I was thinking about the rightness of being predisposed to accept some ideas and reject others because of having integrated a certain set of clues toward what looks like a fairly coherent pattern (ch 19, The Power of the Pattern). Even that is not a straightforward, black-and-white situation. It admits to degrees. That is, we are not limited to either fully accepting an idea because it fits an integrated pattern, or fully rejecting it because it doesn't fit. We can be, and often are, somewhere in between, and in motion toward one or the other.

With respect to fundamental beliefs, most of us spend most of our time being reasonably confident about the pattern(s) to which we have integrated to date. Ordinarilly, we don't worry about whether the floor of our house is really level, whether our foot will touch down when we expect it to, and whether it will hold our weight. We just walk, confident in our embodied sense of our environment.

But there are many things with respect to which we waver, oscillating between alternate or even opposing ways to integrate the clues, either unsure how the clues integrate or unsure which of two (or more) appealing but incompatible potential integrations is truer to the Pattern. Or sometimes, it's the pattern which appears to be wavering, shifting, not altogether coherent; sometimes that's because we're trying to force some things to fit that don't belong, and sometimes due to simply having too few clues in view (whew!), too few pieces of the puzzle fit together yet.

For example, for a few years, I was convinced of four of the five legendary and controversial "points of Calvinism." But I was hung up on that middle one, the dreaded L of "Limited Atonement." Over a period of years, I went from being strongly opposed to it, to having this gnawing feeling that it was true but not wanting it to be, to feeling ambivalent about it, to warily thinking it might be true, to thinking it probably was true but still not accepting it and teaching it. Then one day, reading R.C. Sproul's book Chosen By God, the lightbulb came brightly on. The pieces fit. "Oh, no! I'm a Calvinist!" I said with that tone little kids use when they say "brussel sprouts."

There are some parts of the Pattern that we close our own eyes to, patterns we refuse to acknowlege. Our bentness is ever blinding us to parts of the Pattern that would make clear to us our creatureliness, limits, and bentness, and thus our need to repent and submit. This can keep us in a state of flux between one or more seemingly possible integrations, even when we know (or strongly suspect) which one is truer. For example, none of us wants to see how prideful and idolatrous we really are. We are saturated in the clues to the pattern of our wretchedness. They are found in most of our words and deeds. But to see it would make us too poor in spirit, it would cause us to mourn too deeply, to fall flat on our faces before God and cry for mercy, to become meek, and love our enemies, and all that other stuff that is way yonder too much for our flesh to bear. So we willingly turn a blind eye.

Now, Christians are people who are being conformed to the holy, incorruptible image of Christ, while still living in the fallen world. While our inner person has been given new life, we contend daily with what the apostle Paul called "the body of this death" (Romans 7). We are in the process of being straightened out, but we still suffer the dreadfully frustrating effects of the bentness we all inherited from our mutual longfather, Adam. Consequently, while we have the influence of the indwelling Holy Spirit to help us integrate toward the truth, we also must constantly fight the influences of the flesh, the world, and the devil pushing us to warp our integrations in fleshly, worldly, and demonic ways.

Apply that to the subject of church music. All church music facilitators know that one of the effects (not the primary purpose) of having a bunch of music before the sermon is that it helps restore the congregation to a state of mind in which we are more ready and willing to receive the Word. In LTK terms, the music provides a set of clues compatible with and complimentary to those of scripture (ideally), helping to predispose us to a scriptural (that is, True) integration. It occurred to me the other day that church music ought to sort of shepherd our minds toward a spiritual integration rather than a worldly or fleshly one.

I gasped at that thought. Shepherd! The shepherd as a model for the authoritative guide. A Polanyian meditation on Ps 23, anyone?

That, in turn, got me thinking about the beauty and wonder of metaphors like "shepherd." It struck me that the Polanyian epistemic model accounts for the power of metaphors and similes, poetry and stories, to communicate truth -- more powerful than exhaustive lucidity by a fair piece. The same cannot be said for the traditional Western model.

Groove as a pattern of integrated clues

The concept of a musical "groove" alone should have tipped me off about what knowing is about. It's impossible to explain what a groove is, and impossible to pin down precisely what makes it up in any particular piece of music. Yet every good musician feels the groove, and can lay effortlessly into it with no more than a bar or two to inform him/her about the nature of it in a given piece. When one musician shifts the groove in the midst of a piece, the rest adapt almost instantly. I watch it happen every week, and sometimes get to participate in it. But it never ceases to amaze me. You could call it an oscillating bed of complex human interactions, in which every element is a feedback loop for every other. But that only makes it sound like everything it's not. "It's a feel thing," they say. Body clues. And it's the kind of thing that requires, for most people, an authoritative guide to learn.

Jazz, dirty jokes, and Fresh Air

Yesterday, the National Public Radio program Fresh Air ran an interview with saxaphonist Branford Marsalis. He told an amusing story about legendary jazz band leader Art Blakey that was interesting in light of the idea that "words work less like premises and more like evocative clues." When Art noticed that his band members needed a little help grasping some of the subtleties of playing in a jazz ensemble, he would "use these really coarse jokes to illustrate points that he would never really explain. You'd have to come to it on your own." One joke, for example, had the point that experience teaches patience, while the young tend to rush headlong into trouble.

Further, while one would not likely explicitly expect a jazz band leader to teach through dirty jokes, it's not completely surprising, either. It fits. It's a jazzy thing to do, no? By contrast, if your theology professor were to try this tack...

Marsalis also described the most important thing he learned from Blakey, who played drums. Blakey didn't just lay down a hot groove. He used his drums to support and help build the other instrumentalist's solos. "Rather than just being off in the corner doing his own thing -- you know, you see those drummers with their heads turned to the left, and they're just thinking about what they're playing, and not paying attention -- he really pays attention to what you play... He was on it."

What he seems to be describing is a characteristic I have noted in all good studio musicians. However talented a player you might be, however technically skilled, you don't get very far as a studio musician unless you discipline yourself to do what Art Blakey taught by example. Focus on what everyone is playing together, not on what you are playing. Jamming musicians are doing a truly remarkable thing: they are simultaneously relying on the clues the other musicians are creating, and creating clues that the other musicians are relying on! Unless all the musicians are focused on the coherent pattern they're co-creating, the parts won't gel. The pattern won't cohere as it should. It will emerge only in fits and starts at best. We've all heard this happen when listening to inexperienced players, especially arrogant ones. Aye, there's the rub. Good jamming requires mutual submission, both to the pattern and to one another.

And remember, this is all happening in real time. To analyze even one part, even your own part, is going to slow you down and throw you and everyone else off. It only works when everyone is focusing through the clues, integrating them into a pattern. Good musicians do this all the time. And it's extraordinary every time. It tends to produce unexpected, joyful music.

Marsalis gave a final tell-tale clue about this: he said that learning this helped him recognize that jazz is "far more intricate than it seems on the outside, when you're sitting around thinking about your own chord changes." He knew he'd contacted the real because of the profundity of the pattern.

Just more confirmation that the Polanyi model is a good model. Yes, Bilbo, it rings true.

Ad Sense

This is interesting. Google's Ad Sense engine uses a method reminiscent of the LTK principle of integrating clues to a coherent pattern. That's how it uses content decide what ads are most appropriate to show on a given web page. Of course, the decision is based on an algorithm, not on the fuzzy, emotionally-influenced inductive reasoning we humans use.

FYI

I should have said at the outset, to follow me fully it will help if you're familiar not only with LTK but also with two movies: Monty Python: In Search of the Holy Grail, better known simply as The Holy Grail; and The Princess Bride. I frequently quote these movies without reference. It wouldn't hurt to be familiar with The Lord of the Rings, either. That's a book, you know, not a movie. :-)

Pop music refs that exemplify LTK principles

Not only books and movies, but numerous songs have grabbed me in fresh ways since I began reading LTK. They give us clues that either artists have never entirely given in to the Western epistemic model, or that the model has been crumbling for some years, or both. Here are a few examples.

From the old love song Only You, a reference to clues in the body aiding an epistemic act:
"When you hold my hand, I understand the magic that you do."


A remarkable example of "seeing" through the clues and embodying them so as to make them an extension of him:
Pinball Wizard (The Who):
That deaf, dumb and blind kid
Sure plays a mean pinball

He stands like a statue
Becomes part of the machine
Feeling all the bumpers
Always playing clean


From ch 21 of LTK: "Not to decide is to decide. We have to push on in the face of something short of a glaringly obvious pattern because there is no other option." I couldn't help being reminded of the song Freewill by Rush:
Each of us
A cell of awareness
Imperfect and incomplete.
Genetic blends
With uncertain ends
On a fortune hunt that's far too fleet.

You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice.
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill;
I will choose a path that's clear
I will choose freewill.


I might quibble with him about whether "freewill" and a "ready guide in some celestial voice" are necessarily two different and opposed paths. A little Upper Story/Lower Story dualism going on there. But while I suspect that this song is in part an unfortunate lashing out at some form of Calvinism in the author's background, he has nevertheless demonstrated an integration to a partly coherent pattern. And he's a real good drummer.


Speaking of rush, in chapter 22 it says, "You can't rush reality." I made a sideways connection to The Princess Bride, in the scene with Miracle Max. Inigo says, "Sir, we're in a terrible rush." Max responds, "Don't rush me, sonny. You rush a miracle, man, you get rotten miracles."

Well, LTK just might be the chocolate-coated pill that brings some dead minds to life in academia (and maybe even the evangelical community!) Think it'll work? It would take a miracle.

LTK benefits, Pt.3: J.R.R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings is also a rich source of examples for LTK concepts. Tolkien seems to have intuitively grasped this model of knowing. What you learned through philosophical study and purposeful thought, he learned through stories. And what you teach largely through, dare I say, lucid, structured premises, he teaches through stories. Of course, my words there must be taken more as evocative clues than as premises. :-)

Most recently I noticed that many of the episodes in the story beautifully exemplify determined resolve -- resolve made in the light of often rather vague clues on the one hand, and in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds on the other. This comes through far better in the book than in the movie, but one of Gimli's lines in the movie sums it up memorably: "Certainty of death, small chance of success -- what are we waiting for?" While Frodo's flight from home, journey with the company, and march to and through Mordor is obviously the primary example of determined resolve in the book, my favorite is when Aragorn leads his fellow rangers, along with Legolas and Gimli, through the Paths of the Dead. For clues, he had no more than dark hints from his authoritative guides, Elrond and Gandalf; the tradition that he was the legitimate heir of Isildur; and the dire need for the plan to succeed. For opposition, he had the knowledge that no man had ever survived those paths; the dismay and discouragement of Théoden, Éomer, Éowyn, and their riders; the fear that flowed palpably from the dark door in the mountain; and the fear of even the horses to enter it. Yet he never hesitated, never flinched, and thus he led his followers (and their horses, the movie version notwithstanding) through the dark, chased by ghosts, and out the other side to victory. Sadly, the movie robs that episode of its greatness by making it revolve around a magic sword. I wanted to shout, "Alright, he's got a +3 Sword of Ghost-busting! Now if only he can roll an 18." Sigh.

For me, Tolkien's Middle-earth writings have a unique feature among works fantasy literature. In fact, the Bible is the only other book that shares this feature for me. And that is, the appropriate question for it is not, "Have you read it?" but, "Do you read it?" Since my second time through LotR I've never really stopped reading it and the literature that surrounds it. And so it was that I was reading chapter 16 of LTK on the same day that I arrived back at book 4, chapter 8, The Stairs of Cirith Ungol, in LotR. That afternoon, as I sat in the parking lot of my wife's company, I read your words:

"In the moment of profound integration, we experience a sense of the future possibilities, prospects, horizons of the thing we have encountered. There are sides we cannot currently see, behaviors we suspect but could never predict, implications only some of which we can reason out, but which in their incompleteness may lead us to uncover new and transforming dimensions... This sense of possibilities furnishes us with a second indicator that we have contacted the real."

Later that evening, my jaw dropped open as I gained a renewed sense of the meaning of a conversation between Frodo and Sam, as they sat in a dark crack in the lifeless rocks on the side of the Mountains of Shadow, half way up from the Dead City toward Shelob's Lair:

(Sam:) 'I wonder what sort of a tale we've fallen into?'
'I wonder,' said Frodo. 'But I don't know. And that's the way of a real tale. Take any one that you're fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don't know. And you don't want them to.'
'No, sir, of course not. Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did...'

A real tale, Tolkien teaches us, is one that draws us on with the anticipation of future possibilities, yet ends in ways that are unexpected and at the same time satisfying in their sense of setting things to rights. Now, what in Middle-earth are two lowly little hobbits, one of which is a simple gardener -- smack in the midst of their darkest and scariest hour to date, no less -- doing, discussing the epistemology of mythology? Only Tolkien. Any Lit prof (or movie script writer!) would surely chastise him for letting the action sag at such a crucial point, nevermind for letting the characters step outside the story to look at it. But he pulls it off, using it to connect LotR with a much broader tale, tantalizing his readers with the sight of it, and inspiring a sense of wonder in the reader about his own life that is unsurpassed in any other human work I know. I think the reason he was able to do that is partly that he had, on some level, a grasp of epistomology that was informed more by scripture than by Western culture. Of course, I could be wrong...

LTK benefits, Pt.2: Fishing

It might surprise you (or it might not) that fishing is an incredibly rich source of examples for LTK concepts. Ahh, the epistomology of fishing...

There's a family fishing story about my cousin Darren, who is entirely an indoor type, that has delightful epistomological overtones. My brother, Jeff, the consummate outdoorsman, once talked him into going fishing with him. As they were drifting around the edge of the shore in a small boat, Jeff began to notice that Darren had gotten a huge clump of weeds around his lure which he never bothered to remove. He kept flinging it back out into the water, weeds and all, and dragging it dutifully back in. Jeff asked him how he thought he was ever going to catch anything like that. Darren replied, "Ah -- fish don't know." And thus it became a saying and a proverb among the people, as it is to this day. What makes it so funny, of course, is that everyone (except Darren) knows that fish DO know. You can't fish very long and hold on to the idea that animals operate soley by instinct. Fish know.

One LTK concept that is brilliantly illustrated by fishing is that of meaningful hiddenness. Fishing is all about assigning meaning to the gaps. Seldom can a fisherman see where the fish are, or where his lure is. Nearly all the action takes place beyond the horizon of visible clues. That is, in fact, a primary draw of the sport. Besides clues from the sense of smell and the feel of the air, what a fisherman sees is things like the geography of the shoreline, the color of the water, the ripple of the waves in the wind or over rocks, the angle of the sun, the location of shade, the proximity of branches to the water, stumps or brush or weeds under the water, the angle of his line at the water, the tension in his line above the water, and so on. If he's lucky, he'll see a fish hit the surface somewhere. To that he adds what he feels as he reels in his lure, where it bumps against things or gets tugged at by the current or, dare he hope, a fish. It's quite possible to learn to recognize the differences between the feel of bumping over a muddy bottom, a rock, a log, or a branch by how your line tugs. Most important, of course, is to be able to distinguish all of those from the tug of a fish striking. From all those clues together, he gets a sense of the future possibilities of a catch, maybe the catch of a lifetime. That's the hope that keeps us fishing until dark, and then some, and that keeps us going back.

The successful fisherman has his senses wide open, eagerly intent on the clues in the world around him, and the clues he feels in his body (and its extention, the fishing rod), all interpreted through his past experiences and the memories of words and actions of those he considers authoritative guides. When a change in line tension is detected, there is seldom time to think about what to do. You just embody the clues for all you're worth! Sometimes you're mistaken, and have to either drag a branch aboard or cut the line. Sometimes you're mistaken and miss a fish. But you live for those times when you, er, "contact the real."

Even when you do, it's nearly always surprising the way it happens. That's why fishermen can regale each other for hours with stories about the big one that got away, as well as the ones that didn't. Maybe one in 1000 fish is caught just the way you expected by doing just what you thought ought to be done. But every strike and every catch feeds your sense of what ought to be done in ways that can never be expressed with anything resembling exhaustive lucidity, and can seldom be expressed at all. And it wouldn't do you much good if you could express it. The best you can usually do is something like, "I cast over there and let it sink a little, then reeled kinda slow." But, of course, you can never cast "there" again because that "there" is gone forever. But you'll encounter places that look, in ways you can't quite wrap your line around, similar to "there." Or at least they feel like they might, to those who are learning to assign appropriate meaning to those kinds of gaps.

While I've never gotten into hunting much, it has got to be as rich a source of examples as fishing is. I have no doubt that your whole book could be rewritten with the Field & Stream crowd in mind, sending the message to an entirely different audience than LTK is likely to appeal to. That's probably true in a whole range of fields.

LTK benefits, Pt.1: Life and Wife

The following three posts are from the first email I sent to Dr. Meek after reading the book.

[Begin Quote]
The book started out a little shallow and slow for me, actually. I thought I might end up being disappointed. Just goes to show what surprises can lie just beyond the horizon...

It strikes me that the model for knowing that you describe in LTK is actually the one found in scripture. All my life I've heard and read explanations about the meaning of epistemological terms in scripture. It's obvious that statements like, "Adam knew his wife...," and "...that I might know him and the power of his resurrection," cannot be understood using the traditional Western model. But somehow the message communicated by preachers and teachers usually amounts to no more than, "Those ancient Hebrews had a funny idea about what it meant to know," or "The word 'know' is being used euphemistically here," rather than "This gives us a hint about what it means to really know." We have been, you might say, "disinclined to entertain counterproposals," and "ill equipped to recognize counterevidence" with respect to our very model for acts of knowing.

LTK has helped me understand everything better. I understand my wife better. For 16 years we've been having conversations that run something like this:
[David] Blah, blah, blah.
[Deborah] Blah, blah, bleh, bleh, blih, blih.
[David] Wait! Let's not talk about bleh and blih yet. I was just talking about blah.
[Deborah] How can you talk about blah without talking about bleh and blih?!
[David] I can only talk about one thing at a time.
[Deborah] It is one thing. It's all one thing. They're related.
[David] No it's not. They're different things. Blah is such and such, while bleh is so and so, and blih, is, well, it's kind of related but it's not what I was talking about. You're confusing things.
[Deborah] No! They're they same thing. You can't just talk about blah without bleh and blih, too. They're one thing.
[David] Well, I'm sorry, I see them as different and I can't talk about more than one thing at a time. Please, let's just talk about blah, then I'll be happy to talk about bleh and blih all you want. One at a time.
[Deborah] [silent brooding]
[David] [sigh]

Now I see what she means. She sees blah, bleh, and blih as clues that integrate to a coherent pattern, one which she cannot yet name. She sees them all in terms of their relationship to the pattern, and sees no point in focusing on them apart from each other. And she's right. Now I also see why, when she can't explain to me exactly why she disagrees with me, and I ignore her intuition and proceed on available hard data, that we usually get burned. Thank you, Lord, for a wife who sees the pattern.

LTK has helped my work. As a recording and mixing engineer, my job is to capture disparate musical elements and blend them into a seamless stream of musical audio. I'm prone to focusing on the tracks (individual musical parts) one at a time, making each sound as "good" as it can. As you might guess, that approach does not usually yield the most harmonious outcome. I've had to learn to go for the big picture. But it was difficult for me, and I often found myself obsessing over details that I knew good and well were relatively insignificant. Once I began to see musical listening as focusing through the clues to a coherent pattern, I was able to see mixing in terms of placing those clues so as to make them most accessible, and such that they best serve listening through them rather than to them. Immediately, I began to put better sounding mixes together in less time, and having more fun doing it.

LTK has helped me better understand the legalistic Christian fundamentalism I grew up in. We were focused on clues, both in Bible study and in life, rather than focusing on the One to whom the clues pointed, and on the redemptive story He was telling us. We strove to be obedient as an end in itself rather than moving through obedience to focus on God, as you put it, living in the clues to reprompt the focus.

Who knew?

What do you know? How do you know you know? How do you know you're not dreaming, or that what you see with your waking eyes is not an illusion?

Don't ask Descartes. He never got out of the oven, as far as he knew. Ask Esther Lightcap Meek, author of Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People. She knows. She knows she knows. And she has graciously shared with us how we can know we know, too. Far from offering a false promise of unattainable absolute certainty, LTK offers something worlds better: the prospect and recognition of confident contact with the real through integrating environmental, sensory, and normative clues toward coherent patterns. But that's all wrong and wide of the mark, to paraphrase Sam Gamgee. It ought to be sung.

LTK gave me more lightbulb moments than a presidential candidate at his party's national convention. Dr. Meek calls them "Oh! I see it!" moments, OISIMs hereafter. By the time I got done reading the book, I was drowing in a flood of OISIMs, and it doesn't look likely to recede anytime soon. This here's my boat.

So, don your sunglasses, your lifevests, your thinking caps, grab your magnifying glasses and whatever else you think might help, and climb aboard. Let's go for a wild ride, a risky cyber-adventure. We'll sail the good ship Hope up and down the Epistemic River, expanding our "horizons of rationality" as we go. We might even get shot at by Pomo indians.

But we're not just after adventure. We're clue hunters. Yet we won't focus much on the clues themselves, either. Ultimately, we want fully coherent integration. And we won't go until we get some.

If you've read LTK or are familiar with the epistemic model of Michael Polanyi that informed and inspired it, I welcome your participation. If you haven't, Longing to Know at Amazon.com

Wake up, Neo.