The other day Mrs H and I were discussing our early reading experiences because Granddaughter is learning to read. Our first introduction to reading in the fifties was the Janet and John series of books which we both remember reading. We also remember the different coloured book covers indicating different reading standards.
What we do not remember is being unable to read. We cannot recall what it was like to gaze at those black marks on the page and not understand their significance. We cannot remember knowing nothing at all about Janet and John and their thrilling world of cats and mats.
One might ascribe this memory blank to the patchy nature of early memories but it may be an example of something far more interesting. Daniel Kahneman says we cannot easily reconstruct past states of knowledge or beliefs that have changed. When there is such a change we immediately lose much of our ability to recall our state of mind before the change. That would include our ability to read – we cannot easily reconstruct a state of mind where we did not have that ability.
To take a related but more obvious example than early reading, I cannot remember my state of mind when I did not know what occurs when a solution of sodium hydroxide is added to a solution of copper sulphate. Yet there certainly was a time when I didn’t know it. I can imagine not knowing it and associate that lack of knowledge with the right time period, but I can’t recall it as an absence of knowledge. Hardly surprising of course - we can't easily reconstruct our own ignorance. For one thing there is too much of it.
Another example is trying to remember what I thought about the surface of Pluto before we found out via those photos from NASA's New Horizons mission. I think I remember not knowing what the surface of Pluto looks like, but as with the copper sulphate example this is merely an absence - there is no particular state of mind to remember as nobody knew what the surface of Pluto looked like anyway. It is the state of not knowing something now known which is so elusive. Presumably it is more efficient that way - move on and forget. There is no point remembering ignorance.
Pushing this a little wider, we cannot easily construct a state of knowing something we have no wish to know such as a celebrity career or the latest reality show drama or accusations of ancient sexual misconduct. What is it like to know and value these things? We cannot easily construct the state of mind of someone who is interested and affected by them. We easily lose sympathy with people who have knowledge and opinions we have no wish to share.
How about reconstructing a state of mind before we changed an opinion, belief or assumption? To my mind Monty Python comedy has not worn well although a few sketches I still find amusing. Over the years I have changed, the sketches have not, but do I remember my state of mind when I thought it was all hilarious? I certainly remember thinking it was all hilarious, but I am not able to reconstruct the associated state of mind. I have no real access to that earlier state of mind where Monty Python was almost uniformly hilarious.
Suppose someone ‘knows’ that capitalism is evil. Such a person cannot easily reconstruct a earlier state of mind where he or she did not know that capitalism is evil. It probably follows that the same person cannot easily conceive a state of not knowing such a thing. Especially puzzling is someone who claims to favour capitalism. How does that happen?
The fallback position here is to imagine that the person who fails to ‘know’ that capitalism is evil must be duplicitous in some way. They must be pretending not to know what is surely impossible not to know. Therefore they must be bad.
And so to politics.