Saturday, July 2, 2011

You Know So Much About Nothing At All.

Slight change of pace. Here is a little story i wrote the other day when i was bored during a spare hour or two. There might be more where it came from, but I probably won't put it here, because the first part is terrible enough. This is a one off, i promise.

It wasn’t so much that the wizard was wise looking that caused one to pause. That is to say, he did cut a fairly grand figure, what with his long white beard, billowing black robes, and a hat that pointed upwards toward the sky, not unlike a wigwam. It wasn’t his staff either, though it was as tall as the wizard himself-dead straight, incredibly smooth, until the top, where it finished in a large protruding knot. Some might have said that it was the large black dog that walked alongside the wizard that added to the level of mystery. But it wasn’t that either. No, it was more the severity of his countenance that really struck one, on first meeting the wizard. His brow was very much furrowed. The average person tends to believe they know what a furrowed brow looks like. That is to say, they would probably believe this until they saw the wizard in questions brow. His eyebrows, already a bushy, brilliant white, fairly drooped over his eyelids, as if trying to reach forty-five degrees. His nose, long and crooked (perhaps broken in the past?) flared outward, almost in time with his steps, and did nothing to take away from his generally severe expression. His mouth chewed slowly, masticating not entirely unlike a cow, over some foul substance, perhaps tobacco, perhaps something more ambiguous. It was only his eyes that were his saving grace, so to speak. They were a brilliant blue that, when looked into, gave you that distinct, yet wholly uncomfortable sensation that the eyes owners knew more about you than you yourself. Occasionally, as the wizard walked, he would pause and lean down to pat his big black dog. The dog would sit, allow itself to be stroked and then, once the patting was done, both dog and wizard would right themselves, and continue walking.

The wizard’s name was Greg, and he was hungry.

This was, for Greg, an off-putting state of affairs, but one that could readily be addressed, given that he and his big black dog were at the outskirts of a town. He could tell they were nearing a town for two reasons: firstly, the smell of urine was becoming stronger. Secondly, there was a distinct smell, (and this was very surprising to Greg, given the potency of the first reason), of frying potato. Given that the harvest had turned out about half of that of last year, Greg could only assume that the townsfolk were cooking potato purely out of necessity. He wondered, as he neared the town gates, coughing violently due to thick wood smoke, whether he would be able to get away before the potatoes ran out. Poor people, he reflected, tend to get agitated when they’re hungry. Agitation always led to some degree of unrest up in these parts. Bastardised brands of anarchy, championed by village idiots, would occasionally grip the people, only to be forgotten the next week, when any sense that the movement might gain some traction became apparent.

Entering the town gates, Greg looked from side to side. There was almost always a tavern of some description on the outskirts of town, where both the cheapest prices and the least desirable people could be found. Undesirables could be tolerated, but Greg was starving, and poor, so there wasn’t really a choice. The tavern he had chosen had a dirt floor, with various scraps of unknown origin littered over the floor, and a smoke haze so thick Greg could barely see the bar. This was, in some respect, a blessing because on seeing the bar, Greg had a profound sense that he may have made the wrong choice. There was a grand total of one man sitting there, who was passed out in a puddle of what appeared to be beer, though admittedly it could have been water, if rumored water quality in the town was anything to go by. Greg sat down at the bar, ordered a meal and a beer, and then tried to do his best to look busy. The black dog sat at his feet. A man he had not seen when he first came in suddenly loomed out of the shadows from his right. He had the look of a man who thought he knew more than he actually did. He also looked to have some sort of skin disease, but this was less worrying that the former observation as far as Greg was concerned. Sick people were harmless when compared to the insufferable nature of the know-it-all. The man spoke, with a shrill tone, and incredibly quickly:

“You! I’ve got a question for you!” Greg raised his eyebrows.

“How do we know if we know something?” the man asked. Greg groaned. Christ. A philosopher. Greg cleared his throat, looked directly at the man, and said:

“What do you mean how do I know when we know something? For me to know if I know something I would have to know what it takes to know, which I don’t know, so it stands to reason that I cannot possibly know what it is to know. How can I recognize knowledge if I don’t know what it is to know it?”

The man started at Greg, blinking.

“You might have just said justified true belief counts as knowledge” he muttered.

“I might have said that” answered Greg, trying desperately to think of a way to rap up this conversation, which was heading rapidly into the realms of full scale philosophical debate. “But that simply doesn’t cut it. Say I am told on good authority that a particular tavern serves an excellent stew. This is because the cook there knows a secret recipe for a mean stew. I go to the tavern and eat the stew, and it is indeed delicious. Without my knowing though, the cook left some time ago, and the stew I ate was cooked by another cook altogether, though it was also delicious. Did I know that the stew at the tavern would be delicious? The justified true belief system says that I did, because I was justified in believing it (say I was told by a reputable source), I believed that the stew would be delicious, and it turned out to be true! But not for the reasons that I first believed, namely that the first cook made a mean stew. So did I know it? No. Does it matter? No. Was the stew delicious? Yes.”

The man, Greg noted, rather than being put off by this retort, seemed to have been spurred on.

“Very true bearded one! But then how do I account for the things I feel that I know then? There must be some way!” Things were rapidly getting out of hand Greg realized.

“No. There is no way. Knowledge is just a term for things we feel very comfortable about believing. We need to feel that some things are set in stone. How often to we hear: ‘I thought I knew that…’? There are some things that must appear to be beyond doubt, because if there wasn’t, everything else you build upon that bedrock, would come toppling down upon you. The day that happens, you get into philosophy, and eventually you visit random taverns in the town, talk to strangers about pseudo-questions that no one cares about, until the fateful day that you realize the one ultimate truth. That you’re a jackass, well beyond saving.” With that, Greg took a sip of his beer, wondering vaguely whether his meal would arrive soon. The man looked a little hurt, and slumped down onto the stool next to Greg. He gave it one last shot.

“Well then, what about this paradox. If I take one step, of exactly one foot, I can surely half that distance, right?” Greg knew where this was going.

“Sure” he replied wearily.

“Right, so if I half that half, I get a smaller number again. Eventually, I get to the point where I can half the distance travelled infinitely, meaning that the distance travelled is itself infinite, meaning I cannot take a step at all!”

The man leaned back, a satisfied smirk on his face. He honestly looked like he felt he had won. Greg knew the time to end this was now.

“Listen fuckwit, I’ve heard all these so called paradoxes. You know what they do? Make a seemingly simple tasks like walking, or making a pile of beans sound really hard. But they aren’t. Look, I’m going to get my beer, and walk to the other side of the room. If your theory is correct, I won’t be able to do it. But you and I both know that I’ll be able to. So is there really a problem, or just a problem with what you feel are legitimate problems? Enjoy your meal jackass.”

With that, Greg got up and moved to the other side of the table. His dog, after looking briefly at the philosopher, also moved over to where Greg had relocated. The barman, and the man passed out at the bar went about their business as if nothing had happened. The barman pretending to clean glasses, the passed out man continuing to be passed out. It wasn’t as if wizard/philosopher arguments were uncommon.

Philosophy was not looked on kindly in these parts. And with people like the philosopher being its only defender, it was easy to see why.

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