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.

5 replies
  1. Ken
    Ken says:

    I have heard that mice can sometimes build nests in car engines (and wreak havoc). Maybe the kitten went in after a mouse. Could be the beginning of a new nursery rhyme…

  2. Steve Martin
    Steve Martin says:

    Dr. McGinn,

    Thank you for this gem of an observation on the logic we apply in trying to resolve what we believe we perceive as reality.

    What makes this so interesting is that the visual inputs of kitten(s) are not a matter false visual observation. The black and white kitten was observed at your home and minutes later at the Biltmore. Given the incredible odds of the same kitten being in two locations within minutes of each other, I too would have gone with the sibling scenario as the “logical” explanation.

    That you were providing the literal vehicle to move the same kitten from one location to another is the fact that defies logic until one again examines the reality as it was applied.

    The fact that your wife provided the thesis based on anecdotal evidence makes this whole episode even more fascinating as an illustration of how we come to construct what we observe as a reality.

  3. Ivan Wohner
    Ivan Wohner says:

    I’m am curious as to the nature of belief: your brain made the conclusion and the idea took root. You alone could not dislodge it. You did not choose to believe that the cat was of the same litter, rather the idea gripped hold of you. It was only when a new hypothesis, perhaps we can call it an “invasive, non-native idea”, was introduced did the old one get choked out and die. And I imagine the displacement caused a moment of shock, dumb-fuddlement, of grappling with the old idea, and then a sudden and irrevocable transposition of beliefs so that the new idea was as firmly understood to be truth just as surely as the old one was.

    In this way, how can we say that one chooses to believe? This seems as impossible as choosing to cease believing. Until you had a better hypothesis, you could not believe anything else, even if what you believed was wrong. And once the new idea nestles itself into one’s mind, how could you go back to the old idea? It would appear that “you” are not conciously determining what to believe.

    Is it then our task as individuals concerned with truth to expose the fertile lawns of our mind to as many ideas as possible to figure out which ones take root over the rest? And if two half-truths settle in two different minds, causing strife between the individuals, are the individuals to blame? Or If an individual’s mind is not in a state where it can be receptive to “truth” are they to blame for not believing said “truth?” And if they are not to blame for being unable to grasp “truth”, is it the individual or the idea that is responsible for the actions they take that are based off of faulty information. Can one separate the idea from the individual mind that holds it?

  4. Colin McGinn
    Colin McGinn says:

    It is not possible to decide to believe, as many philosophers have pointed out. But we can decide to keep an open mind, or a closed one. The difficulty is that some true beliefs are not obvious.

  5. Ivan wohner
    Ivan wohner says:

    To close one’s mind would be to chose to reject any new hypothesis and to interperste all data under the old mindset, no matter how difficult that becomes (Bill Nye’s recent debate on evolution comes to mind: he asked his opponent what information or evidence would it take to change his hypothesis, to which came the reply, “nothing will ever change it”) But an open mind, a willingness to examine and change and grow… How is that possible to choose that? Does that just mean to choose not to summarily reject? Or can it be more active?


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