Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Experience the pellet gun.

You can’t really know something unless you have firsthand experience with it. I’ve had this conversation with people hundreds of times.

Can you know much about anything without firsthand experience?

I’m not sure I’ve been convinced one way or the other by any of the arguments I’ve heard.

On the one hand, I recently listened to a man go on and on about how horrible it would be to live in New York City. He admitted that he had never even visited New York City, yet he was sure that it would be a horrible place to live. I knew that his point of view was invalid, no matter how he had obtained his information. He couldn’t know much about New York if he hadn’t been there.

On the other hand, I’ve never been to Spain, but I feel I know it’s a wonderful place, because I want to go there, and I’ve studied and learned as much about Spain as I can.

One of the best illustrations of this argument came many years ago from a particularly dim witted young man who worked in the warehouse of the company where I was employed. This young man believed without question that we cannot know anything with absolute certainty without firsthand experience. He was ready to defend this position to the death. There was no way he could be persuaded to consider the possibility that there might be another point of view on the matter.

The argument in the warehouse became heated. Some of the guys there felt that someone could have a pretty good opinion about something without firsthand experience. But the dim witted young man was unmoved. You can’t know ANYTHING without firsthand, actual knowledge.

The following Monday, as we all returned to work. I noticed that the angry young man who had argued so passionately about experience, was walking with a limp. I had to know his story.

“I was at a get-together with my family over the weekend. One of my nephews was playing with a pellet gun. He asked me how much it hurt to be shot with a pellet gun. I was going to tell him that it really hurts a lot, when it occurred to me that I really didn’t know. I didn’t have any firsthand experience with being shot by a pellet gun. So I pumped up the gun and shot myself in the thigh.”

Now, I guess I have to say that I don’t really know what it feels like to shoot myself in the leg with a pellet gun. I don’t have that firsthand experience. But I’m pretty sure that it hurts a lot, and that it would probably leave a nasty mark and cause me to limp for a few days. And now I can say that my knowledge has been increased by seeing someone else experience a pellet gun shot to the thigh.

Maybe that’s the key. We share our experiences with others, and learn from the experiences of others. In this way we develop a shared knowledge, even if it isn’t firsthand, pellet gun knowledge. But sometimes that kind of knowledge isn’t really necessary.