Some things you can see with your own eyes, like her smile from across the room, that bolt of lightning in the dark western sky. Or you hear thunder like a drum, rain on the nylon tent, or smell the fresh-cut grass, or taste the sweet pinch of orange marmalade. Your senses tell you so.
Like that time years ago, standing in my front yard, when a pickup truck screeched to a halt in the middle of the street, and a guy got out, wielding a rifle, and ran to the door of the house across the street, yelling, threatening to shoot, while I ducked behind a tree and watched until the heated argument raged then subsided, the hooligan bolting, squealing off again.
It was a green pickup. My next-door neighbor swore it was red. “Plain as day. Seen it for myself.”
The pickup was green. I swear.
Some things we learn from books, some we see on TV, or read on the internet. Social media, neighborhood gossip. We take someone else’s word for it. Things our parents told us. Or Fox News. The New York Times.
Just to make sure, we often turn to experts — those with the education, knowledge and experience, the ones who have performed the studies, done the calculations, reviewed the data. There’s so much we just can’t know ourselves. We defer to those who know, the ones who are smarter than us, better informed. Their credentials and authority beseech our trust.
Sometimes we want to know for sure. We apply the scientific method. Look for empirical evidence. Diligently seek the observable, measurable, quantifiable. Then we will know. Undeniably, unassailably. A path to truth we have long followed religiously. Scientists as the arbiters of what is and what is not, armed with their rigor and objectivity. Even when they tell us that 85 percent of the matter in the universe is dark matter, not because it can be touched, seen, detected, but because of its effect on objects that can be observed directly. The wind is like that. Some people say God is like that.
I have long been interested in ways of knowing, having become familiar with people and cultures that see things differently, who speak of phenomena that elude our perceptions and intellections, our microscopes and measuring sticks. Many of these same people knew far more than we do today of the world in which we live — of stars and seasons, plant life and the ways of the earth. They, too, were experts, schooled in the living arts. Ignorant in many other ways. A very human story.
How do I know? How do I know? Because it is my story, too, as I have pursued the seen and unseen, probed the evidence, examined the caprice of evasive truths. Questions unresolved. Sometimes I turn to the wise for guidance, to scouts who have gone before, to the holy seekers who have found places of rest along the human journey.
Along the way, more questions raise their hands. Is intuition a legitimate way of knowing? How does the subconscious know stuff that our conscious mind does not? How does the imagination hold the secrets it reveals in the act of artistic creation? Is it possible to know with the heart? And what does that mean, that the heart knows? What did Blaise Pascal mean when he said, “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know”?
Is belief a way of knowing? Faith? Is it possible to understand the realm of faith without first believing? Or to understand believing without the faith necessary to get there?
How is it that there are some things we just know? Because there are, you know.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.