Skepticism and a Kitten

A black and white kitten showed up in my garden a week or so ago. It was clearly wild and we started feeding it. I was thinking about skepticism at the time and certainly not connecting the two things. Yesterday I went out the front door to drive over to the Biltmore to play some tennis and saw the kitten under my car. I made a point of shooing it away before I drove off,  as I often do with my own cats. I made very sure it was no longer under the car. I drove over to the Biltmore and played for an hour. When I got back to my car I noticed a very similar stray kitten in the parking lot near my car. I formed two hypotheses: one, that the kitten from my house had somehow traveled over to the Biltmore (a mile and half away) for some unaccountable reason; the other, that this was another kitten from the litter from which “my” kitten had come. For a moment I had thought it was just another black and white kitten bearing no close relation to “mine”–but closer inspection convinced me otherwise. On reflection, I decided that it was impossible that it just walked over to the Biltmore as I was heading there; so I settled for the same-litter hypothesis. I expected to see the kitten in my garden when I got back, but it had been raining and that usually sends them into hiding for a while. I didn’t see it, even a couple of hours later. I had a conversation with my wife in which she mentioned on occasion on which a stray cat had climbed up into her father’s car engine. Then it struck me, but only as a wild hypothesis: this little animal had inserted itself in the bottom of the car engine and stayed there till I had driven to my destination. That meant lodging itself behind two hot pipes, close to the road, as I drove at fairly high speed. As I thought about it, I realized this had to be the correct explanation. I have been back twice to the Biltmore to look for it and seen nothing. Nor has it returned to my garden. The improbable had happened. But what struck me, epistemologically, is that, given the evidence I had, I formed the firm belief that, by coincidence, a kitten from the same litter was over at the Biltmore–I could see no alternative. But I was dead wrong; the correct explanation had not even occurred to me. This is the kind of thing that encourages radical types of skepticism. Not a brain in a vat in this case but a cat in an undercarriage. There is a good lesson here, too, about the perils of jumping to conclusions.