The knowledge

It may be that some of what people mean, when they talk about other ways of knowing and how different they are from science, is that there is a whole range of subjects that are interesting to talk about and think about that are inherently fuzzy – that are not yes or no issues – that are not purely factual – that are not helped or enhanced by experiment or testing (though data may be relevant); and that all that matters because it’s where we live. Stories (or ‘literature’) are about that stuff: they perform, illustrate, enact the iffy quality, the uncertainties, the ambiguities, the negative capability.

None of that is really knowledge – but it rests on a vast amount of background knowledge – including theory of mind. Austistics aren’t good at it, for that reason.

Stories are in a way part of that background knowledge. Our sense of how people behave, how we should behave, how things can go wrong, how quarrels can be fixed, and so on ad infinitum, is woven out of our experience with people and the stories we know; that combines to make up our implicit background knowledge.

In that sense, stories can be seen as a kind of knowledge, but all the same, it’s not the kind of knowledge we cite as we would cite historical or anthropological knowledge. We weave it into our background knowledge but it has a different status, different from experience as well as empirical knowledge. We think or say ‘That happened to me/a friend/my sister’ but we don’t say ‘That happened to Hamlet/Lizzie Bennett/Huck Finn.’ If we refer to stories we say things like ‘It’s like that situation in “King Lear”‘ or ‘This sounds like something from “The Office.””

In any case, all that isn’t a ‘different way of knowing’ – it’s a mixture of the ordinary way of knowing and other kinds of thought and feeling, none of which is weird or spooky or about the supernatural. None of it is particularly relevant to religion. Religion includes some stories…but that’s not spooky, it’s just more stories. It includes some moral talk, but again, that’s not peculiar to religion, and religion doesn’t add anything apart from claims about magical beings, which is fine in fairly tales and magic realism but not to be taken literally.

This does perhaps give a more satisfactory account of literature and stories – they do thicken and enrich our background knowledge: our sense of how people do behave, can behave, might behave.

Gossip is the same thing. Stories are fictional gossip; literature is the higher gossip. Some people perhaps think that religion too is the same kind of thing – but if so they’re dead wrong. Religion imports all sorts of extras that confuse the issues, create new motivations, raise irrelevant fears. The background knowledge is a secular subject or set of subjects, and adding souls and immortality and a deity changes that. We need to know how to behave in this world, the real one, where we’re not immortal and we don’t have souls and there is no god to supervise us.

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