But I Know They Were Finches

Over Spring Break my mom and my parents-in-law stayed with us. We had many conversations during those ten days, but one that has resurfaced was about birds. Specifically, birds who lived in my mother's house. Birds that I bought and helped name.

John and Marsha.

You know that stereotypical scene in which a man and a woman run toward each other across a field of flowers, yelling each other's names? Almost invariably, their names are "John" and "Marsha." So that's what we settled on for the birds' names.

Those were beautiful birds. John was mostly turquoise, with some white patches and some black and white bars on his wings. Marsha was almost the opposite. Mostly milk-white with some patches of the same turquoise John had. Beautiful.

Later we found out that John was a Marsha and Marsha was a John, but that's another story.

While the parents were visiting, we spent some time in our living room. Just outside our front window we've hung a couple of bird feeders--mostly for entertainment for the cats. We have a variety of birds who stop to eat--starlings, sparrows, mockingbirds, finches, cardinals, mourning doves--and Michele bought a book to help us tell one kind from another. One day we saw some finches and I brought up the subject of John and Marsha, and how we never see finches with that kind of coloration.

"They were parakeets," my mom said.

I disagreed. I knew for a fact that they were finches.

Michele and the Cat Whisperer were also against me. "The description sounds like parakeets," they said.*

I got pretty obnoxious. "You're right," I said. "Except they were finches."

What the hell was wrong with these people? I bought the damned birds. I spent time in the house in which they lived, where John-who-was-really-Marsha died while trying to lay an egg. I'm an intelligent human, and I'm observant to boot. They were finches.

A couple of days ago I stopped at Pet Store to get cat litter, and as I walked to the back of the store I passed some bird cages. I saw a couple of birds that looked just like John and Marsha, so I stopped to read the sign, to confirm my knowledge about those birds and to further establish my omniscience.



Now you're probably wondering why I wrote this on this blog. It's to illustrate that we don't always know what we think we know. That not only can our beliefs be mistaken, but the things we consider to be knowledge are not necessarily so. I knew those birds were finches, but I was wrong. It wasn't knowledge, but belief. And wrong belief at that.

* This is where, if this were an essay written by one of my Comp students, I'd point out that it's unlikely that Michele and the Cat Whisperer said this exact phrase at the same time, which is what my use of quotation marks asserts. And I'd be correct in questioning that. They didn't, in fact, speak this like a pair of synchronized swimmers, but they expressed the idea in quick succession, and I took the artistic liberty of combining their expressions (which I remember inexactly anyway) in a single "quote" for simplicity and for dramatic effect. So there.


"The Will to Believe" by William James

I'm still reading Kant (I've read the Introduction twice, and I'm ready to move on to the actual Critique now), but I was side-tracked by this essay (which was originally a speech James gave in 1897). I'd heard of it, of course, but hadn't thought of it in years. When I was reminded of it recently, I realized that the ideas at its core were also the central ideas I address on this blog, and in the humor book I'm considering.

As with everything philosophical, I'll need to read it a number of times before I'm willing to start tearing it up. But there are some weak links in this argument, and they come up all the time even today, 111 years after James presented this piece.

This should provide fuel for some more interesting posts here.


I Just Realized Something

Now I'm reading Kant again, and even I didn't know I'd be doing that as recently as two months ago.
But apparently Diana knew it a couple of years ago. Here she is giving me an award:

The award in question? I won "Most Likely to Win an Oscar for his Biopic of Kant vs. Hegel on the Planet of the Apes Part 2."

She saw it coming before I did. And now I'm closer than I was to doing that. I've considered writing it from time to time, because, seriously--that would be one fun film to watch.

Kant's Introduction

The reason I'm reading Kant again is reason. I mean, the book that I'm working on about belief isn't a straight piece of philosophy--this material has been covered by philosophers for a couple millennia, and while there's still some controversy, there isn't a lot of heated debate, as far as I can tell--but a more pedestrian attempt to (humorously, I hope) analyze the ways in which we talk about belief. I see this as a huge problem in American culture. The communication, I mean--not my project.

So I just finished reading the Introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason (I'll abbreviate it CPR from here on out, because then I don't have to type it all every time, and because the initials amuse me), and I've decided I need to read the Introduction at least one more time before I move on to the body of the work.

In this intro, Kant is just establishing a few things, such as his reasons for writing this, the problems he hopes to solve, and the ways in which he's going to treat certain terms--some well-established in his time, and others he invents. He covers a priori knowledge (that which is acquired without experience) and draws the distinction between it and a posteriori knowledge (that which comes from experience). Once he does that he makes a further distinction within a priori--the analytic from the synthetic. The focus of the CPR will be on synthetic a priori knowledge--that which isn't derived from experience, but isn't mere tautology. It's the consideration of propositions whose predicates are not implied by their subjects. It's a linguistic approach to metaphysics, and I'm hooked.

So I'll read the Introduction again to make sure that I'm solid on Kant's vocabulary, and then I'll wade into the swamp. If I'm not back in five minutes, just wait longer.


New Guinea?

Since we moved to Oklahoma Michele and I have gotten along with most everyone we've met, despite the fact that we're both weird. Thankfully, we've found plenty of other weird people to make friends with, but with one exception (a guy in Michele's office) we haven't even had minor personality problems.

And we still don't, but today I had an interesting exchange. I started my office hours with three other adjuncts--two of whom I knew fairly well from last semester and another I'd talked to a few times. Monte's an older guy, a member of the Church of Christ. He's friendly and thoughtful, and really curious about both my nodding acquaintance with Buddhism and my budding pescetarianism. Tonya is a couple years younger than me and a recent convert to a nondenominational Christianity. I've had lengthy, comfortable, and valuable conversations with both about religion and related matters, though the three of us probably believe few of the same things.

Tom was the fourth at the table today. I've known for some time that he's also Christian, and that he's both emphatic and vocal in his belief. Even though he's in his fifties (I think) his demeanor reminds me of myself when I was about twenty-five--convinced, arrogant, and dismissive.

Tom brought up some topic today that got us talking about hostility about belief, which is one of the focus topics of the humor book I'm working on. I said something about the hostility between different kinds of religionists and between religionists and non-religionists. Monte said, "Why is that?"Meaning, why is there such hostility? This question is one reason Monte and I get along. We're both more curious than insistent.

Just after I said, "Well, there shouldn't be, but--" Tom interrupted and spent the next fifteen minutes monologuing about why he's hostile to those who don't believe in God. His speech was a constant stream, such that we other three couldn't even interrupt to try bringing the discussion back to the original point, let alone point out where his ranting departed from solid argument and strayed into irrelevance or incoherence.

At one point he looked at me and said, "You're like the man in New Guinea. When a student comes to him with a scholarship to a school in the United States, you tell him that the United States doesn't exist." The analogy bothered me, but he moved along to a new subject denigrating my nonbelief so quickly I couldn't frame my objections, or even figure them out.

The problem with his analogy (at least the first problem) is that it's a straw man. He's built a position that isn't mine in order to more easily dismantle it. Putting me in the position of the doubter in his analogy is effective, especially when using the crutch of an example for which the listeners must acknowledge the truth of the proposition being doubted, but it's wrong.

There are some atheists who will go as far as saying that it is a fact that God doesn't exist, but they are few and far between (at least thoughtful ones are). A larger number will say that they believe that God doesn't exist. That's the classic "strong atheist" stance. Still, that's not me.

My position, that I don't believe that God exists, differs both in proposition and in disposition from this stance. Rather than being the New Guinean who tells another that the United States does not exist, I'd be the guy who says he's never encountered any evidence for the existence of the United States.

The difference, I think, is that Tom is tying belief to truth and I'm not. He's comfortable using the words "knowledge" and "truth" as close corrollaries to his perceptions and apperceptions, and I'm not. We're speaking two different languages about one subject--which is interesting, because Tom has a PhD in Linguistics.

Am I a hopeless geek for being excited to bring this up when I see these people again on Thursday?