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You Can't Escape Our Ever-Expanding Scope of Knowledge

The Star-Spangled Banner — the flag that inspired our National Anthem — on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
Hugh Talman
Courtesy of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History
The Star-Spangled Banner — the flag that inspired our National Anthem — on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

Does the word "at" occur in the "Star-Spangled Banner"? If you're like me, it won't take you long to answer. You sing the song through at faster-than-normal speed in a whisper, or in your head, until you hit the phrase: "at the twilight's last gleaming." (Hat tip: cognitive scientist Daniel Levitin gives this example in his book This is Your Brain on Music.)

Now consider this: did you know the answer all along? No, you might say. You needed to look it up. You're in the position of a person who, when asked whether he knows the time, answers "yes," and then looks to his wrist to read his watch. (Hat tip to philosopher Andy Clark for this example.)

But isn't that just what knowing the time is? Wearing a watch is a good way to keep track of the time; knowing the time is just being in position to tell the time when need arises. Knowing the time doesn't mean that you keep time in your head.

But if that's right, then maybe we say that you did know whether "at" occurs in the song all along. In fact, we might think, there's an even stronger case for saying this than in the time-telling case. After all, you didn't really look up the answer. You just needed to think about it. The answer was there, all along, in your memory. You knew the answer. You just needed to find it.

Not so fast. It's one thing to know an answer and another to know how to get it. You figured out the answer to the National Anthem question. You didn't know the answer.

Is that what we should say, then, about telling the time as well? You didn't really know the time. What you knew was how to find out the time?

There are two really interesting points about this.

There is a difference between the watch and song cases. It has to do with speed, reliability and accuracy. What justifies us in saying that you know the time even before you look at your wrist is that your method of getting the information is so speedy, so quick, so reliable. Not so relying on memory to remember the song lyrics or reasoning to solve a problem.

"In your head" versus "not in your head" turns out to be a red herring. What matters is speed, reliability and accuracy and not whether you make use of resources like watches (or smart phones or the Internet) that are external to your head.

In an environment in which we are finding new and more robust ways of staying online, the range and scope of our knowledge is expanding.

Do I know how to get to my friends place? Yes, I have GPS in the car.

Do I know what time the movie starts? Yes, there's an app for that.

Knowledge is online access to what we need to know when we need it.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.