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for the IB Diploma Richard van de Lagemaat This comprehensive, full-colour coursebook is designed for use by students following the Theory of Knowledge course in the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma programme. It will also be useful for students following other critical thinking courses. The fundamental question in Theory of Knowledge is ‘How do you know?’ In exploring this question, the author encourages critical thinking across a range of subject areas and helps students to ask relevant questions, use language with precision, support ideas with evidence, argue coherently and make sound judgements. The book consists of three main parts and a conclusion. Part 1 examines questions about the nature of knowledge. Part 2 focuses on four major ‘knowledge tools’ – language, perception, reason and emotion. Part 3 looks at problems of knowledge that arise in various subject areas (mathematics, the natural sciences, the human sciences, history, the arts, ethics and religion) and investigates questions of an interdisciplinary nature. Each chapter includes: quotations to prompt critical thinking • preliminary and exercises to encourage students to engage • questions actively with the material and other illustrations to support the text • cartoons of key points and a list of terms to remember • aa summary ‘linking questions’ diagram which makes connections • with other parts of the course for further reading • suggestions resources to explore some of the topics in • reading greater depth. Teacher support material and information on our full IB range are available at:

Richard van de Lagemaat is the founder and director of InThinking (www.inthinking., an innovative educational consultancy service which provides quality training for teachers and administrators in IB World Schools. With more than 25 years’ experience in international education, Richard has been actively involved in teacher training and curriculum development since 1988. He has run workshops and seminars for teachers and students in 50 countries and is a regular speaker at educational conferences. Richard has a Masters degree from the University of Oxford and a PhD in philosophy from the University of Warwick.

Richard van de Lagemaat

9781107669963 Richard van de Lagemaat: Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma Cover C M Y K

Theory of Knowledge

for the IB Diploma

Theory of Knowledge

Ful lco l o u r editi on

Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma

ISBN 978-1-107-66996-3

Richard van de Lagemaat 9 781107 669963

Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma

Richard van de Lagemaat

Cambridge University Press’s mission is to advance learning, knowledge and research worldwide. Our IB Diploma resources aim to: • encourage learners to explore concepts, ideas and topics that have local and global significance • help students develop a positive attitude to learning in preparation for higher education • assist students in approaching complex questions, applying critical-thinking skills and forming reasoned answers.


Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo, Delhi, Mexico City Cambridge University Press The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge CB2 8RU, UK Information on this title: © Cambridge University Press 2005, 2011 This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place without the written permission of Cambridge University Press. First published 2005 Full-colour edition 2011 4th printing 2012 Printed and bound in the United Kingdom by the MPG Books Group A catalogue record for this publication is available from the British Library ISBN 978-1-107-66996-3 Paperback Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of URLs for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this publication, and does not guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate. This material has been developed independently by the publisher and the content is in no way connected with nor endorsed by the International Baccalaureate Organization. According to the philosopher Martin Heidegger, ‘in all teaching, the teacher learns the most’. This book is dedicated to the countless students and teachers I have met whose ideas have informed, inspired and delighted me.

Reading resources Contents Introduction


PART 1 KNOWERS AND KNOWING 1 The problem of knowledge Introduction Common sense Certainty Relativism What should we believe? Who cares? Conclusion Reading resources

2 The nature of knowledge Introduction Knowledge as justified true belief Levels of knowledge Second-hand knowledge Conclusion Reading resources

5 Reason 3 4 4 8 10 11 15 16 19 23 24 24 28 30 37 40

PART 2 WAYS OF KNOWING 3 Language Introduction What is language? The problem of meaning Language and translation Labels and stereotypes Language and thought Language and values Conclusion Reading resources

4 Perception Introduction Perceptual illusions Selectivity of perception Seeing and believing Distinguishing appearance from reality Ultimate reality Conclusion Reading resources

47 48 48 51 61 64 68 71 76 79 85 86 87 91 93

95 96 101 105

Introduction Deductive reasoning Inductive reasoning Informal reasoning Reason and certainty Lateral thinking Conclusion Reading resources

6 Emotion Introduction The nature of the emotions Emotions as an obstacle to knowledge Emotions as a source of knowledge Intuition Conclusion Reading resources

111 112 114 119 124 131 135 137 141 145 146 146

151 155 158 165 169

Appendices to Part 2 Appendix A: Propositions Appendix B: Paradigms

174 180

PART 3 AREAS OF KNOWLEDGE 7 Mathematics Introduction The mathematical paradigm Proofs and conjectures Beauty, elegance and intuition Mathematics and certainty Discovered or invented? Non-Euclidean geometry and the problem of consistency Applied mathematics Conclusion Reading resources

187 188 189 192 195 197 202 205 208 210 213



8 The natural sciences Introduction Science and pseudo-science The scientific method Problems with observation Testing hypotheses The problem of induction Falsification Science and society Science and truth Conclusion Reading resources

9 The human sciences Introduction Observation Measurement Experiments Laws The relationship between natural and human sciences Conclusion Reading resources


221 222 225 228 230 233 235 240 245 246 250 256

257 258 264 268 270 273 280 283

Appendix to Chapter 9 The free-will problem

10 History Introduction What is history? Why study history? How can the past be known? Writing history The problem of bias Theories of history Conclusion Reading resources

11 The arts Introduction What is art? Judging art Art and knowledge

288 300

301 302 304 307 311 313 315 319 322 328

329 330 338 344

Science, art and truth Conclusion Reading resources

12 Ethics

349 353 356 363

Introduction Moral reasoning Moral relativism Self-interest theory Theories of ethics Duty ethics Utilitarianism Conclusion Reading resources

364 364 367 372 376 377 385 392 396

13 Religion (optional)


Introduction The nature of God The argument from religious experience The argument from design The cosmological argument The problem of suffering Reason versus faith The varieties of religion Conclusion Reading resources

404 405 409 412 414 417 420 424 428 431

PART 4 CONCLUSION 14 Truth and wisdom Introduction Correspondence theory Coherence theory Pragmatic theory Summary of theories Can we know the truth? Beyond dogmatism and relativism What price truth? Wisdom Reading resources



440 440 442 443 447 447 449 452 456 463 468

Reading resources Acknowledgements The author and publishers are grateful for the permissions granted to reproduce materials in either the original or adapted form. While every effort has been made, it has not always been possible to identify the sources of all the materials used, or to trace all copyright holders. If any omissions are brought to our notice, we will be happy to include the appropriate acknowledgements on reprinting. p. 19 From White Noise by Don DeLillo, copyright © 1984, 1985 by Don DeLillo. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., and Pan Macmillan, London Copyright © Don DeLillo 1986; p. 21 Edward Harrison © New Scientist Magazine; p. 40 from The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra, published by HarperCollins, by permission of David Higham Associates; p. 42 from The Life of Galileo by Bertold Brecht, translated by John Willett © Bertold Brecht and Methuen Drama, an imprint of A&C Black Publishers Ltd; p. 83 Peter Popham © The Independent 1996; p. 105 Laura Spinney © New Scientist Magazine; pp. 108, 253 © Hilary Lawson, Director of the Institute of Art and Ideas; p. 141 by Deborah Tannen, from The New York Times, 14 Jan 1994 © 1994 The New York Times. All rights reserved. Used by permission and protected by the Copyright Laws of the United States. The printing, copying, redistribution, or retransmission of this Content without express written permission is prohibited; p. 143 extract from Cultural Anthropology: A Perspective on the Human Condition by permission of the authors Emily Schultz and Robert H. Lavenda, published by West Publishing Company; p. 169 ‘Rethinking thinking’ from The Economist 16 Dec 1999 © The Economist; pp. 172, 356 from How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker. Copyright © 1997 by Steven Pinker. Used by permission of W.W. Norton & Company Inc. and Penguin Group UK; p. 213 Michael Lemonick; p. 215 Ian Stewart © New Scientist Magazine; p. 250 Excerpt from “Crystalline Truth and Crystal Balls” from A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science and Love by Richard Dawkins. Copyright © 2003 by Richard Dawkins. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company; p. 283 by Jared Diamond (UCLA) published in Discovery Aug 1987; p. 286 ‘Is Economics a Science?’ by Arthur Williamson and a reply by Seamus Hogan from Chemistry NZ; p. 322 Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell (Copyright © George Orwell, 1949) by permission of Bill Hamilton as the Literary Executor of the Estate of the Late Sonia Brownell Orwell and Secker & Warburg Ltd; p. 325 ‘History as “Some Kind of a Novel”’ by George F. Kennan printed with permission of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City; p. 361 ‘’Whose side are you on?’ by Lewis Wolpert, The Observer 10 March 2002, reprinted with permission of the author; p. 401 Jim Holt New York Times, 20 June 2004; p. 431 Ian Sample, © Guardian News & Media Ltd 2005; p. 435 from The Mind of God by Paul Davies, copyright © 1992 by Orion Productions, all rights reserved, reprinted with the permission of Simon & Schuster Inc.; p. 463 from Zen and the Art of Motocycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, published by the Bodley Head. Reprinted by permission of The Random House Group Ltd., Copyright © 1974 by Robert M. Pirsig, reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers; p. 465 Lynch, Michael P., True to Life: Why Truth Matters, 1365 word excerpt, © 2004 Massachusetts Institute of Technology, by permission of The MIT Press The publishers would like to thank the following for permission to reproduce illustrations: p. vii © International Baccalaureate Organisation, 2011; p. 7 The Betrayal of Images: `Ceci n’est pas une pipe’, 1929 (oil on canvas), Magritte, Rene (1898-1967) / Los Angeles County



Museum of Art, CA, USA / © DACS / Giraudon / The Bridgeman Art Library, © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2010; pp. 13, 75, 231, 408 Nick Kim from www.CartoonStock. com; pp. 27, 28, 365, 460 Calvin and Hobbes © 1986, 1986, 1993, 1988, Watterson, dist. by Universal Uclick, reprinted with permission, all rights reserved; p. 35 Tom Tomorrow; p. 49l Martti Salmela/iStock; p. 49r Mark Aplet/Shutterstock; pp. 51, 192, 194, 197, 223, 458 Sidney Harris,; pp. 54, 60, 97, 102, 136, 183, 184, 188, 261, 288, 297, 298, 333, 336, 337, 367, 377, 379, 380, 382, 388, 389, 404, 407, 412, 416, 424, 425, 450, 453, 455, 456 The New Yorker Collection/; p. 89tr and 89tl from American Journal of Psychology, copyright 1961 and 1930 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, used with permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press; p. 94; p. 118 Randy Glasbergen; p. 127 Bizarro (New) © 1993 Dan Piraro, King Features Syndicate; p. 147tl Tyler Olson/Shutterstock; p. 147tc CREATISTA/Shutterstock; p. 147tr Gorich/ Shutterstock; p. 147bl VikaValter/iStock; p. 147bc Jason Stitt Shutterstock; p. 147br Nicolas Hansen/iStock; pp. 148, 236 Peanutes Comic Strip © 1960 & 1975 United Features Syndicate Inc.; p. 149 The Scream, 1893 (oil, tempera & pastel on cardboard), Munch, Edvard (1863-1944) / Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, Norway / © DACS / The Bridgeman Art Library and © Munch Museum/Munch - Ellingsen Group, BONO, Oslo/DACS, London 2010; p. 163l and 163r Photos to Go; p. 224 Skeptical Inquirer Magazine www.; p. 262 Clay Bennett © 2000 The Christian Science Monitor, reproduced with permission; p. 302 drawings from Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay © 1979 David Macaulay, reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company, all rights reserved; p. 305 Ria Novosti; p. 329 Rock painting of a bull and horses, c.17000 BC (cave painting), Prehistoric / Caves of Lascaux, Dordogne, France / The Bridgeman Art Library; p. 332 Ken Welsch/Alamy; p. 335t The Men at Emmaus by Han van Meegren, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam; p. 335b Bull’s Head by Pablo Picasso, © Succession Picasso /DACS © RMN / Thierry Le Mage; p. 338 Fountain 1917 replica 1964, Marcel Duchamp © Tate, London 2011 / © Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP Paris and DACS London 2005; p. 341t The Lake, Petworth: Sunset, a Stag Drinking, c.1829, Turner, Joseph Mallord William (1775-1851) / Petworth House, Sussex, UK / The Bridgeman Art Library; p. 341b The Mud Bath 1914, David Bomberg © Tate, London 2011; p. 342 America’s Most Wanted by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, 1994, oil and acrylic on canvas 24 x 32 inches, courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York www.; p. 343t Derwent Lakes, lithograph by I.C and S.A, from Charles Hullmadel’s Ten Lithographic drawings of Scenery, 1826. © V&A Images/ Victoria and Albert Museum, London; p. 343b View of Derwentwater from ‘The Silent Traveller in Lakeland’ by Chiang Yee, Country Life, London 1938, used by permission of Chien-fei Chiang; p. 346 Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1906 (oil on canvas), Picasso, Pablo (1881-1973) / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA / The Bridgeman Art Library © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2010; p. 351l, 351c, 351r Bearded Slave and Young Slave, c.152023, The Awakening Slave, 1519-20 (marble), Buonarroti, Michelangelo (1475-1564) / Galleria dell’ Accademia, Florence, Italy / Alinari / The Bridgeman Art Library; p. 392 Harley Schwadron; p. 406 Sistine Chapel Ceiling (1508-12): The Creation of Adam, 1511-12 (fresco) (post restoration), Buonarroti, Michelangelo (14751564) / Vatican Museums and Galleries, Vatican City, Italy / The Bridgeman Art Library; p. 449 Non Sequitur © 2002, Wiley Ink Inc., dist. by Universal Uclick, reprinted with permission, all rights reserved. Artwork on pp. 88, 114 and 203 by Mike Lacey (Beehive Illustration). All other artwork by Peter Simmonett.

Reading resources Introduction This book is designed to be used with the Theory of Knowledge course in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. (It is, however, not an official guide to the IB Theory of Knowledge syllabus and is not connected with the IBO in any way.) The book may also be useful for students following other critical thinking courses. The main question in Theory of Knowledge (TOK) is ‘How do you know?’ The course encourages you to think critically about the subjects you are studying rather than passively accepting what you are taught. Critical thinking involves such things as asking good questions, using language with care and precision, supporting your ideas with evidence, arguing coherently, and making sound judgements. You are, of course, encouraged to thinking critically in every subject that you study. TOK is designed to help you to reflect on and further develop the thinking skills you have acquired in your other classes. You can get an overview of the main elements of the Theory of Knowledge course by considering the diagram below: Language A1

Group 1 dge wle no IB








Group 4




Experimental sciences

Individuals and societies



Group 3

ext e

essay ed nd RO


Group 2 theory of k

Second language

it y, a

c ti o n, s

er v

Group 5

Mathematics and computer science

Group 6 The arts

© International Baccalaureate Organization 1999

In line with the above diagram, this book consists of three main parts and a conclusion: 1

Knowers and knowing


Ways of knowing


Areas of knowledge.

1 Knowers and knowing Since TOK is concerned with the question ‘How do you know?’, we naturally need to spend some time talking about the nature of knowledge. We will be concerned with this in Part 1 and again in Part 4 of this book. Among the questions we shall be asking are: What is knowledge? How does knowledge differ from belief? What is the difference between knowledge, information and wisdom? Should we seek the truth at any price, or are there some things it would be better not to know?



2 Ways of knowing In TOK, we say there are four main ways of acquiring knowledge about the world: perception, language, reason and emotion. Take any thing that you claim to know and ask yourself how you know and you can trace it back to one of these four sources: either you saw it, or you heard it or read it, or you reasoned it out, or you have a gut-feeling that it is true. Despite their value, none of these ways of knowing is infallible. In fact, they are all double-edged in the sense that they can be both a source of knowledge and an obstacle to it. For example, many of our knowledge claims are based on perception, but our senses sometimes deceive us. Much of our knowledge is communicated to us ‘second-hand’ by other people, but the language they use may mislead us. We pride ourselves on being rational animals, but we often make errors in our reasoning and jump too quickly to conclusions. Finally, we sometimes appeal to feelings and intuitions to justify our knowledge claims, but they are not infallible guides to the truth. In Part 2, we will look at each of these knowledge tools and consider the extent to which they can be relied on in trying to make sense of the world. 3 Areas of knowledge In Part 3 we go on to look at the various areas of knowledge – mathematics, the natural sciences, the social sciences, history, the arts, ethics and religion. (Although religion does not appear in the above diagram, it is an important enough area to deserve its own chapter.) In each area of knowledge we raise the question ‘How do you know?’, and consider the role played by perception, language, reason and emotion in the subject in question. We will also touch on some of the ‘big questions’ that lie at the frontiers of knowledge. For example: Why is mathematics so useful? Does science prove things? What makes human beings different? Can the past be known? Do we have free will? Are there any universal values? Is everyone selfish? What is the purpose of art? Does life have a meaning? We will also consider the similarities and differences between the above areas of knowledge and raise various interdisciplinary questions that will help you to think about how different subjects are related to one another and to develop a more coherent and inclusive picture of the world. The chapters in this book are arranged to be consistent with the above diagram, but they do not have to be read in the order in which they are presented. Each chapter begins with a page of quotations and ends with a summary of key points, terms to remember, some suggestions for further reading, and linking questions. The reading resources at the end of all each chapter give you the opportunity to explore some of the topics covered in greater depth. The vast majority of the questions raised in this book do not have definite answers, but this does not make them any less important. My aim in writing this book is not to save you the effort of thinking about these issues, but to provoke you to think about them for yourself. My hope is that you will be able to relate what I have written to your own experience and that this book will help you to find your way to your own conclusions.

PA R T 1


and knowing


The problem of knowledge

‘The greatest obstacle to progress is not the absence of knowledge but the illusion of knowledge.’ Daniel Boorstin, 1914–2004

‘The familiar is not understood simply because it is familiar.’ Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, 1770–1831

‘By doubting we are led to enquire, and by enquiry we perceive the truth.’ Peter Abélard, 1079–1142

‘All men have opinions, but few think.’

‘It is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies and to end as superstitions.’ T. H. Huxley, 1825–95

‘There are two ways to slide easily through life: to believe everything, or to doubt everything; both ways save us from thinking.’ Alfred Korzybski, 1879–1950

‘We know too much to be sceptics and too little to be dogmatists.’ Blaise Pascal, 1623–62

George Berkeley, 1685–1753

‘What men really want is not knowledge but certainty.’

‘Man is made by his belief. As he believes, so he is.’ Bhagavad Gita, 500 BCE

Bertrand Russell, 1872–1970

‘A very popular error – having the courage of one’s convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack upon one’s convictions.’ Friedrich Nietzsche, 1844–1900

‘Common sense consists of those layers of prejudice laid down before the age of 18.’ Albert Einstein, 1879–1955

‘To know one’s ignorance is the best part of knowledge.’ Lao Tzu, c. 600 BCE

‘To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy in our age can still do for those who study it.’ Bertrand Russell, 1872–1970

Introduction We live in a strange and perplexing world. Despite the explosive growth of knowledge in recent decades, we are confronted by a bewildering array of contradictory beliefs. We are told that astronomers have made great progress in understanding the universe in which we live, yet many people still believe in astrology. Scientists claim that the dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago, yet some insist that dinosaurs and human beings lived simultaneously. Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969, but it is rumoured in some quarters that the landings were faked by NASA. A work of art is hailed as a masterpiece by some critics and dismissed as junk by others. Some people support capital punishment, while others dismiss it as a vestige of barbarism. Millions of people believe in God, yet atheists insist that ‘God is dead’. Faced with such a confusion of different opinions, how are we to make sense of things and develop a coherent picture of reality? Given your school education, you might think of knowledge as a relatively unproblematic commodity consisting of various facts found in textbooks that have been proved to be true. But things are not as simple as that. After all, if you had attended school one hundred or five hundred years ago, you would have learned a different set of ‘truths’. This suggests that knowledge is not static, but has a history and changes over time. Yesterday’s revolution in thought becomes today’s common sense, and today’s common sense may go on to become tomorrow’s superstition. So what guarantee is there that our current understanding of things is correct? Despite the intellectual progress of the last five hundred years, future generations may look back on our much-vaunted achievements and dismiss our science as crude, our arts as naive, and our ethics as barbaric. When we consider ourselves from the perspective of the vast reaches of time and space, further doubts arise. According to cosmologists, the universe has been in existence for about 15 billion (15,000,000,000) years. If we imagine that huge amount of time compressed into one year running from January to December, then the earliest human beings do not appear on the scene until around 10.30 p.m. on 31 December, fire was only domesticated at 11.46 p.m., and the whole recorded history occupies only the last ten seconds of the cosmic year. Since we have been trying to make sense of the world in a systematic way for only a minute fraction of time, there is no guarantee that we have got it right. Furthermore, it turns out that in cosmic terms we are also pretty small. According to astronomers, there are ten times more stars in the night sky than grains of sand in all the world’s deserts and beaches. Yet we flatter ourselves that we have discovered the laws that apply to all times and all places. Since we are familiar with only a minute fraction of the universe, this seems like a huge leap of faith. Perhaps it will turn out that some of the deeper truths about life, the universe and everything are simply beyond human comprehension.

Common sense Most people do not think that there is a problem of knowledge and they see knowledge as nothing more than organised common sense. While there may be something to be said for this view, the trouble is that much of what passes for common sense consists of little more


Knowers and knowing

than vague and untested beliefs that are based on such things as prejudice, hearsay and blind appeals to authority. Moreover, many things that at first seem obvious to common sense become less and less obvious the closer you look at them. Yet we need some kind of picture of what the world is like if we are to cope with it effectively, and common sense at least provides us with a starting point. We all have what might be called a mental map of reality which includes our ideas of what is true and what is false, what is reasonable and what is unreasonable, what is right and what is wrong, etc. Although only a fool would tell you to rip up your mental map and abandon your everyday understanding of things, you should – at least occasionally – be willing to subject it to critical scrutiny. To illustrate the limitations of our common-sense understanding of things, let us make an analogy between our mental maps and real geographical maps. Consider the map of the world shown below, which is based on what is known as the Mercator Projection. If you were familiar with this map as you grew up, you may unthinkingly accept it as true and be unaware of its limitations.

Figure 1.1 The Mercator Projection

1 The problem of knowledge


Activity 1.1 1 Think of as many different ways as you can in which the world map shown in Figure 1.1 is: a inaccurate b based on arbitrary conventions c culturally biased. 2 Do you think it would be possible to make a perfect map of a city? What would such a map have to look like? How useful would it be? Among the weaknesses of the above map are the following: 1 It distorts the relative size of the land masses, so that areas further from the equator seem larger than they are in reality. The distortion is most apparent when we compare Greenland to Africa. According to the map they are about the same size, but in reality Africa is fourteen times bigger than Greenland. 2

It is based on the convention that the northern hemisphere is at the top of the map and the southern hemisphere at the bottom. Although we are used to this way of representing things, the reality is, of course, that the world does not come with a label saying ‘This way up’!


The map is eurocentric in that it not only exaggerates the relative size of Europe, but also puts it in the middle of the map.

Now compare the Mercator Projection with another map of the world, known as the HoboDyer Equal Area Projection.

Figure 1.2 Hobo-Dyer Projection This projection accurately reflects the relative sizes of the land masses (although it distorts their shape); it has the southern hemisphere at the top and the northern hemisphere at the bottom; and it is centred on the Pacific rather than Europe. The fact that most people find this map disorienting illustrates the grip that habitual ways of thinking have on our minds and how difficult it is to break out of them. 6

Knowers and knowing

The point of this excursion into maps is to suggest that, like the Mercator Projection, our common-sense mental maps may give us a distorted picture of reality. Our ideas and beliefs come from a variety of sources, such as our own experience, parents, friends, teachers, books and the media, and since we don’t have time to check up on everything to make sure that it is true, there are likely to be all kinds of inaccuracies, half-truths and falsehoods woven into our mental maps. Furthermore, it can be difficult for us to think outside the customs and conventions with which we are familiar and see that there may be other ways of looking at things. Finally, there may be all kinds of cultural biases built into our picture of the world. If you ask an English person to name the greatest writer and greatest scientist of all time, they will probably say Shakespeare and Newton. If you ask the same question to an Italian, they are more likely to say Dante and Galileo. One final point to draw out of this discussion is that, while different maps may be more or less useful for different purposes, there is no such thing as a perfect map. A perfect map of a city which included every detail down to the last brick and blade of grass would have to be drawn on a scale of 1:1. Such a map would, of course, be useless as a map, and would in any case quickly become out of date. We might call this the paradox of cartography: if a map is to be useful, then it must of necessity be imperfect. There will, then, always be a difference between a map and the underlying territory it describes. To sum up in a well-known slogan that is worth keeping in mind throughout this book: ‘the map is not the territory’. Activity 1.2 1 What relevance do you think the slogan ‘the map is not the territory’ has to our search for knowledge? 2 Look at the painting below by the Belgian surrealist René Magritte (1898–1967) called The Treason of Images (1928–29). What do you think of the title of the painting? What has this got to do with our discussion?

Figure 1.3 Magritte: The Treason of Images

1 The problem of knowledge


Certainty If there are problems with our common-sense picture of the world, perhaps we should abandon our everyday understanding of things and limit ourselves to what is certain. For it has often been thought that certainty is what distinguishes knowledge from mere belief. The idea here is that when you know something you are certain it is true and have no doubts about it; but when you merely believe it, you may think it is true, but you are not certain. At first sight, this seems reasonable enough; but when you start to look critically at the things we normally claim to know, you may begin to wonder if any of them are completely certain! Activity 1.3 List in order the five things in life that you are most certain of. Compare your list with someone else’s. Can you come to any agreement? Consider, for example, the following four statements: 1

I know that Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969.


I know that strawberries are red.


I know that if a is bigger than b and b is bigger than c, then a is bigger than c.


I know that murder is wrong.

I imagine you would say that all of the above statements are true. But how do you know? You might say that you know that Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969 because you read about it in an encyclopaedia; you know that strawberries are red because you can see that they are red; you know that if a is bigger than b and b is bigger than c, then a is bigger than c because you can reason it out; and you know that murder is wrong because it is intuitively obvious. However, if you ask yourself whether you are 100 per cent certain that these statements are true, doubts may begin to creep in. A quick look at each of the four ways of knowing – language, perception, reason and emotion – suggests that they cannot simply be taken at face value. 1 Language

Language enables us to acquire knowledge from other people, and we claim to know a great many things because we have been told them or we have read them somewhere. However, the authority of other people is not always a reliable source of knowledge, and even the so-called experts sometimes ‘get it wrong’. If you are into conspiracy theories, you might ask how we can be sure that the alleged American moon landings were not an elaborate CIAinspired hoax. 2 Perception

Much of our knowledge is based on personal experience, but our senses sometimes deceive us. For example, if you are colour blind, you might not see strawberries as red. We shall have more to say about this in Chapter 4. For the time being, you might like to consider Figure 1.4.


Knowers and knowing

Figure 1.4 Believe it or not, the two table tops above are exactly the same shape and size. This suggests that we should not blindly trust our perception and assume that it gives us certainty. 3 Reason

Statement 3 above might seem less open to doubt than the others, and some philosophers have claimed that reason gives us greater certainty than perception. In practice, however, people do not seem to be very good at abstract reasoning and they are liable to make all kinds of errors. To illustrate, assuming that some dentists are drunkards and no cyclists are drunkards, does it follow that some cyclists are dentists? The answer is that it does not – but we may well struggle to see that this is true. 4 Emotion

Some of the things that we claim to know strike us as intuitively obvious or are based on our gut feelings. The trouble is that what is intuitively obvious to me may not be intuitively obvious to you, and gut feelings are far from being a sure guide to the truth. You only have to consider debates about such things as abortion or capital punishment to see the extent to which people may have conflicting intuitions on important issues. And it would surely be arrogant simply to assume that my intuitions are right and yours are wrong. Emotions may provide us with the energy to pursue knowledge, but it is far from clear that they are infallible guides to the truth.

Radical doubt So far, we have raised some preliminary doubts about knowledge that is derived from language, perception, reason and emotion. But, following the French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650), there is perhaps one statement that you think is absolutely certain – namely that ‘I exist’. Surely that is something that cannot sensibly be doubted?

1 The problem of knowledge


Well, if pushed, I might say that I am not even sure about that! In the movie The Truman Show a character called Truman Burbank lives on an island called Seahaven and leads an apparently ordinary life. As the movie progresses, we learn that Truman’s entire life is being filmed 24 hours a day and broadcast live on TV, and that his wife, family, friends and acquaintances are all paid actors. Truman himself is unaware of this and he mistakes his illusory world for reality. So how can you be certain that you are not living a TrumanShow-type life and that the people around you are not simply actors? Some philosophers have even speculated that the whole of life might be a dream. Perhaps you will awake in a few minutes and realise that you have been having the strangest dream in which you were a creature called a human being, living on a planet called Earth. Although such a radical supposition does not prove that you do not exist, it does suggest that your life might be completely different from what you thought. Activity 1.4 1 Do you think it is seriously possible that you could be dreaming right now? 2 Do you think that some areas of knowledge are more certain than others?

Relativism Sometimes people react to this lack of certainty by swinging to the opposite extreme and embracing a position known as relativism. According to relativism, there is no such thing as absolute truth that exists in an objective way independent of what anyone happens to believe is true. Instead, truth is relative and may be different for different individuals or for different cultures. So rather than say that something is true or false in an unqualified way, the most we can do is say that it is ‘true for me’ or ‘false for you’. Since there are no grounds for saying that one opinion is better than another, we must therefore conclude that all points of view are of equal value. Since there are disputed questions in all areas of knowledge, relativism might at first seem an attractive position. Rather than insist that I am right and you are wrong, it is surely more attractive to say that one and the same knowledge claim can be true for me and false for you? Despite its attractions, relativism leads to as many difficulties as equating knowledge with certainty. Consider the question of whether or not the earth is round. According to a relativist we would have to say it is true for me and false for a member of the flat-earth society. But surely there is an objective fact of the matter independent of what I or anyone else may happen to think? After all, the earth cannot be both round and flat. In view of this, I think that what people really mean when they say that something is ‘true for them’ is that they believe it is true. You are, of course, entitled to believe what you like, but the mere fact that you believe that something is true doesn’t mean that it actually is true. A young child might believe that Santa Claus exists, but it only confuses the issue to say that it is ‘true for the child’. For, no matter what the child believes, Santa Claus does not in fact exist.


Knowers and knowing

The fact that we take seriously the idea that someone might be wrong in their beliefs suggests that relativism is false. Indeed, it could be argued that the statement ‘All truth is relative’ is self-contradictory. For if we ask ourselves about the status of the statement itself, we seem to run into difficulties – as can be seen from the dialogue in Figure 1.5. On the one hand, if it is absolutely true that all truth is relative, then there is at least one absolute truth – namely the truth that all truth is relative. On the other hand, if it is only relatively true that all truth is relative, then if a consistent relativist meets someone who says ‘It is not true for me that all truth is relative’, they are hardly in a position to argue with them. ‘All truth is relative.’ ‘Really? Is that true?’ ‘Yes!’ ‘Absolutely true?’ ‘I guess not because I said that all truth is relative.’


‘Hang on! I need to think about this…’

‘So the statement “All truth is relative” is only relatively true! Right?’

‘So it could be true for you and not true for me?’

Figure 1.5 The dialogue of relativism

Activity 1.5 Read the dialogue taken from a novel White Noise by Don DeLillo (see Reading resources, page 19). What doubts does Heinrich cast on his father’s claim that it is raining? Which, if any, of these doubts do you think are reasonable?

What should we believe? We have seen that neither common sense, nor certainty, nor relativism can give us a quick solution to the problem of knowledge. So what should we believe? There is no simple answer to this question, and TOK is, in any case, more concerned with how you believe something than with what you believe. Whatever you believe, you should, for example, try to support your beliefs with evidence and be able to consider and respond to criticisms of your views. 1 The problem of knowledge


The role of judgement Since we live in a world in which there are few black and white certainties, you will probably have to rely more on judgement than proof in deciding what to believe. One important aspect of good judgement is the ability to balance scepticism with open-mindedness. Take the claim that aliens have visited the earth at some time in the past – something which opinion polls suggest is believed by around one-third of Americans. We should be sceptical enough to question some of the flimsy evidence that has been put forward to support this claim, but open-minded enough to allow that it is possible that a technologically advanced civilisation may have evolved and sent envoys to our planet. We must then engage in the difficult task of assessing the balance of evidence and coming to a provisional conclusion. The great marketplace of beliefs in the so-called information age is, of course, the Internet. Surfing around, you can quickly find websites devoted not only to a whole range of academic subjects, but also to a dizzying array of paranormal phenomena, conspiracy theories and urban legends. Since we live in a credulous age, we should cultivate a healthy scepticism as an antidote to intellectual – and financial – gullibility. (If you are too gullible, you will find plenty of charlatans and hucksters out there who will be only too willing to relieve you of your money.)

The danger of gullibility Now, you may personally believe in some or other paranormal phenomenon or conspiracy theory, and at some point it may even be shown to be true. However, no one is willing to believe everything they read on the Internet, and we all have limits beyond which we conclude that a belief is absurd. I very much doubt that you would take seriously any of the following headlines from the Weekly World News, which styles itself as ‘America’s wildest and zaniest supermarket tabloid’:

‘Amazing New Proof of Life After Death’ (11 January 1999) ‘Faith Healer Cures Sick Pets with the Power of Prayer’ (13 August 1999) ‘US Scientists Bring Mummy Back to Life’ (27 August 1999) ‘Washington Think Tanks are Riddled with Space Aliens’ (1 October 1999) ‘First Marriage Between Human and Space Alien Still Going Strong’ (8 October 1999) ‘Dog Reincarnation: Five Ways to Tell if Your Dog was a Human in a Past Life’ (12 November 1999) ‘Top Psychic Warns: Hitler is Coming Back’ (21 January 2000) ‘Top Scientist says Sicko Space Aliens are Stealing Our Women and Turning them into Prostitutes’ (6 April 2000) ‘Your Dead Pet’s Ghost May be Peeing on Your Carpet’ (16 May 2000)

The danger of scepticism Despite the above comments, there is also a danger in being too sceptical; for you may then close your mind to new ideas that challenge the conventional wisdom. There are many examples of ideas that were ridiculed when they first appeared but were later shown to be true. For example, until the early nineteenth century, scientists dismissed the idea


Knowers and knowing


that stones could fall from the sky as superstition; but we now take the existence of meteorites for granted. Similarly, when Alfred Wegener (1880–1930) suggested the theory of continental drift in 1912, it was rejected by his contemporaries; but it was resurrected in the 1960s as part of the theory of plate tectonics. The moral of the tale is that just because an idea does not fit our currently accepted theories does not necessarily mean that it is wrong. For it is always possible that it is our theories that need to be changed. Thus if we are too sceptical the danger is that intellectual progress will grind to a halt and knowledge stagnate. So we need to find a balance between being open to new ideas that challenge our current way of thinking, and keeping in mind that human beings are credulous animals who are sometimes willing to believe strange things on the basis of slender evidence.

“For goodness sake, man, SNAP OUT OF IT...!!! We’re NOT aliens from outer space!! We’re PIXIES! from your GARDEN..!! IS THAT SO DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND...?!?”

Figure 1.6 Activity 1.6 Comment on the following quotation, and explain why you either agree or disagree with it: ‘My view is that there is such a thing as being too open-minded. I am not open-minded about the earth being flat, about whether Hitler is alive today, about claims by people to have squared the circle, or to have proven special relativity wrong. I am also not open-minded with respect to the paranormal. And I think it is wrong to be open-minded with respect to these things, just as I think it is wrong to be open-minded about whether or not the Nazis killed six million Jews in World War II.’ [Douglas Hofstadter]

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Reasonable knowledge In trying to determine whether or not a knowledge claim is reasonable, two preliminary criteria may serve as useful guides: (1) evidence and (2) coherence. 1 Evidence

For a belief to be reasonable there should be some positive evidence in support of it. Imagine someone claiming that there are little green men living on Mars. When you challenge them to support their belief, they say ‘Well, you can’t prove that there aren’t.’ This is a bad argument because the person has given no positive evidence to support their belief; and although it is difficult to prove that there are definitely not little green men on Mars, this simply reflects the fact that it is always difficult to prove a negative. The fact that you can’t prove that something isn’t true does nothing to show that it is true. The fallacy of thinking that it does is called argument ad ignorantiam. Activity 1.7 1 Which of the following is an example of argument ad ignorantiam? a Since many people claim to have seen ghosts, it is likely that they exist. b Many members of the Society for the Paranormal believe in ghosts. c Ghosts must exist because no one has proved that they do not. d It is true for me that ghosts exist. 2 Make up three examples of your own to illustrate the fallacy of argument ad ignorantiam. 3 How would you go about trying to prove that a species has become extinct? What has this got to do with our discussion? We should look not only for evidence in favour of our beliefs, but also for evidence that would count against them. For, according to psychologists, we have a disturbing tendency, known as confirmation bias, to notice only evidence that supports our beliefs. For example, if you believe in astrology, you will tend to notice the times your horoscope is right and overlook the times it is wrong. To counter this tendency, you should keep a record not only of how often the horoscope is right but also of how often it is wrong. 2 Coherence

A second criterion for deciding whether or not a belief is reasonable is whether it coheres, or fits in, with our current understanding of things. Despite appearances, I don’t think that this criterion contradicts what we said earlier about the need to question common sense. When it comes to examining our beliefs, our position is like that of a sailor who has to rebuild his ship while still at sea. If he dismantles the ship completely and tries to rebuild it from scratch, he will drown. His only option is to rebuild it piece by piece. Similarly, we cannot cast doubt on all of our beliefs at the same time. The best we can do is examine them one at a time against the background of our other beliefs. If we don’t want to drown, there is simply no other way to proceed.


Knowers and knowing

What this criterion implies is that, although we should be open to new ideas, the more unlikely something is relative to the current state of knowledge, the stronger the evidence in its favour should be before we take it seriously. Consider, for example, the claims of people such as Uri Geller – ‘the world’s most famous paranormalist’ – to be able to bend spoons using only mental energy. Given our current knowledge of the way the world works, it seems unlikely that a spoon can be bent through non-physical means simply by focusing one’s mind on it. So before accepting such a belief we should demand good evidence in support of it. As far as I know, no such evidence currently exists. Activity 1.8 1 According to the astronomer Carl Sagan (1934–96), ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. Explain what he meant by this. Do you agree? 2 Explain, with reasons, which of the following statements you think is less likely to be true. a The Loch Ness monster exists. b Some mystics are able to levitate. 3 In a book entitled The Appalling Fraud (L’effroyable imposture), the French author Thierry Meyssan makes the extraordinary claim that a passenger jet did not hit the Pentagon on 11 September 2001, and that the explosion was instead caused by a truck load of explosives. Using the criterion mentioned above, how much evidence would you need in order to be convinced of the truth of Meyssan’s claim?

Who cares? At this point, you might ask whether it really matters what we believe. We may laugh at some of the crazy ideas people hold, but what harm do they do? Don’t people have the right to believe what they like? I am as in favour of freedom of belief as the next person, but I think it matters what you believe; and although it may sound undemocratic I think some beliefs are more worthy of respect than others. One reason why your beliefs and opinions matter is that they are an important – perhaps defining – part of who you are as a person. So if you want to be something more than a ‘second-hand self’ who mindlessly repeats the opinions of other people, you need to make your beliefs and opinions genuinely your own by subjecting them to critical scrutiny. Socrates (470–399 BCE) once famously said that ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ Although it would make little sense to be constantly examining your beliefs, I think that if you never examine them you end up leading a life that is not genuinely your own. A second reason why beliefs matter is that people’s beliefs affect their actions; and, in some cases at least, beliefs can literally be a matter of life and death. For example, between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, an estimated half a million people were burnt to death because they were believed to be guilty of the ‘crime’ of witchcraft. Fortunately, we no longer burn people to death for witchcraft; but there is no shortage of dangerous and misguided beliefs in circulation. Here are two examples:

1 The problem of knowledge



A former chief executive of Philip Morris once claimed that cigarettes are no more addictive than gummy bears candy. But the statistical evidence suggests that every cigarette you smoke shortens your life by about the amount of time it takes to smoke it.


In 1997, the leader of an American religious cult called ‘Heaven’s Gate’ persuaded his followers that if they ‘shed their bodies’ they would be beamed on board a spaceship behind the Hale-Bopp comet and taken to a new world. Thirty-nine people committed suicide as a result.

Activity 1.9 1 Do you think we should respect the beliefs of a racist or sexist person? Give reasons. 2 Find some examples of beliefs that you think are both misguided and dangerous. The French philosopher Voltaire (1694–1778) once said that ‘People who believe absurdities will commit atrocities.’ Although most people who hold eccentric beliefs show no interest in massacring their neighbours, I think there is an element of truth in Voltaire’s comment. A society in which ‘anything goes’ is a fertile breeding ground for fanatics and extremists of all kinds. Some historians have observed that the rise of Hitler in Germany was accompanied by a growing interest in various kinds of pseudo-science. The psychologist Viktor Frankl (1905–97), who was a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, sees a direct link between the two: ‘I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.’ If there is any truth in this claim, then each of us has the responsibility, at least occasionally, to take a critical look at our own beliefs and prejudices.

Conclusion At the beginning of this chapter, we saw that it is difficult to form a coherent picture of reality in the modern world. The way we see the world is shaped by our history, and by culture and psychology; and since in cosmic terms we have not been around very long, we may wonder if we have any privileged access to the truth. We then looked at three possible solutions to the problem of knowledge – common sense, certainty and relativism – and we saw that none of them is entirely adequate. Since the problem of knowledge has no easy solution we must use our judgement in trying to decide what to believe. I hope that at this stage you will agree that there is a problem of knowledge and that it is worth spending some time thinking about it. What we now need to do is look in more detail at what we mean by the word ‘knowledge’. That is the task of Chapter 2.


Knowers and knowing

Key points world is a confusing place in which we find a bewildering variety of different • The opinions. common-sense picture of reality probably contains inaccuracies and biases that we • Our are not aware of. acquire knowledge about the world through language, perception, reason and • We emotion, but none of these ways of knowing can give us certainty. to relativism, truth is relative to the individual; but the fact that we take • According seriously the idea that someone may be wrong in their beliefs suggests that relativism is false.

there are few black and white certainties in the world, we have to rely more on • Since judgement. aspect of good judgement is finding the right balance between scepticism • Anandimportant open-mindedness. preliminary criteria for deciding whether a knowledge claim is plausible are • Two evidence and coherence. we are what we believe and our beliefs affect our actions, if we want to be • Since authentic and responsible we should occasionally subject our beliefs to critical scrutiny.

Terms to remember argument ad ignorantiam certainty coherence common sense confirmation bias

evidence gullibility judgement mental map open-mindedness

paradox of cartography paranormal phenomena relativism scepticism ways of knowing

Further reading André Comte-Sponville, The Little Book of Philosophy (Heinemann, 2004), Chapter 5: ‘Knowledge’. A beautifully written chapter on knowledge, scepticism and certainty. Since it is written by a philosopher, it is quite challenging, but it is worth reading, thinking about, and then reading again! Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World (Ballantine, 1997). This classic text written from a scientific and sceptical point of view contains many thought-provoking chapters. Try Chapter 12, ‘The Fine Art of Baloney Detection’, Chapter 17, ‘The Marriage of Skepticism and Wonder’, and Chapter 19, ‘No Such Thing as a Dumb Question’.

1 The problem of knowledge


Linking questions Perception How trustworthy are our senses?



Does some knowledge lie beyond language?

How can we justify logic?



How reliable are our feelings and emotions?

Can we know what the meaning of life is?

Some problems of knowledge

Ethics Are values objective or subjective?


Mathematics How does mathematics relate to the world?

The arts

Natural sciences

Do the arts give us knowledge?

How certain is scientific knowledge?


Human sciences

Can history be unbiased?

Can human behaviour be predicted?

Knowers and knowing

Reading resources SCIENCE’S FINEST HOUR The following dialogue is taken from a novel called White Noise by Don DeLillo. A father is driving his 14-year-old son, Heinrich, to school. Heinrich begins the conversation. ‘It’s going to rain tonight.’ ‘It’s raining now’, I said. ‘The radio said tonight.’ ... ‘Look at the windshield’, I said. ‘Is that rain or isn’t it?’ ‘I’m only telling you what they said.’ ‘Just because it’s on the radio doesn’t mean we have to suspend belief in the evidence of our senses.’ ‘Our senses? Our senses are wrong a lot more often than they’re right. This has been proved in the laboratory. Don’t you know about all those theorems that say nothing is what it seems? There’s no past, present or future outside our own mind. The so-called laws of motion are a big hoax. Even sound can trick the mind. Just because you don’t hear a sound doesn’t mean it’s not out there. Dogs can hear it. Other animals. And I’m sure there are sounds even dogs can’t hear. But they exist in the air, in waves. Maybe they never stop. High, high, high-pitched. Coming from somewhere.’ ‘Is it raining’, I said, ‘or isn’t it?’ ‘I wouldn’t want to have to say.’ ‘What if someone held a gun to your head?’ ‘Who, you?’ ‘Someone. A man in a trenchcoat and smoky glasses. He holds a gun to your head and he says, “Is it raining or isn’t it? All you have to do is tell the truth and I’ll put away my gun and take the next flight out of here.” ‘What truth does he want? Does he want the truth of someone traveling at almost the speed of light in another galaxy? Does he want the truth of someone in orbit around a neutron star? Maybe if these people could see us through a telescope we might look like we were two feet two inches tall and it might be raining yesterday instead of today.’ ‘He’s holding the gun to your head. He wants your truth.’ ‘What good is my truth? My truth means nothing. What if this guy with a gun comes from a planet in a whole different solar system? What we call rain he calls soap. What we call apples he calls rain. So what am I supposed to tell him?’ ‘His name is Frank J. Smalley and he comes from St Louis.’ ‘He wants to know if it’s raining now, at this very minute?’ ‘Here and now. That’s right.’

1 The problem of knowledge


‘Is there such a thing as now? “Now” comes and goes as soon as you say it. How can I say it’s raining now if your so-called “now” becomes “then” as soon as I say it?’ ‘You said there was no past, present, or future.’ ‘Only in our verbs. That’s the only place we find it.’ ‘Rain is a noun. Is there rain here, in this precise locality, at whatever time within the next two minutes, that you choose to respond to the question?’ ‘If you want to talk about this precise locality while you’re in a vehicle that’s obviously moving, then I think that’s the trouble with this discussion.’ ‘Just give me an answer, okay, Heinrich?’ ‘The best I could do is make a guess.’ ‘Either it’s raining or it isn’t’, I said. ‘Exactly. That’s my whole point. You’d be guessing. Six of one, half dozen of the other.’ ‘But you see it’s raining.’ ‘You see the sun moving across the sky. But is the sun moving across the sky or is the earth turning?’ ‘I don’t accept the analogy.’ ‘You’re so sure that’s rain. How do you know it’s not sulfuric acid from factories across the river? How do you know it’s not fallout from a war in China? You want an answer here and now. Can you prove, here and now, that this stuff is rain? How do I know that what you call rain is really rain? What is rain anyway?’ ‘It’s the stuff that falls from the sky and gets you what is called wet.’ ‘I’m not wet. Are you wet?’ ‘All right’, I said. ‘Very good.’ ‘No, seriously, are you wet?’ ‘First-rate’, I told him. ‘A victory for uncertainty, randomness and chaos. Science’s finest hour.’ ‘Be sarcastic.’ ‘The sophists and the hairsplitters enjoy their finest hour.’ ‘Go ahead, be sarcastic, I don’t care.’


Knowers and knowing

THE UNCERTAINTY OF KNOWLEDGE According to this article, written in 1987 by Edward Harrison, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Massachusetts, contemporary scientists stand no closer to the ultimate ‘truths’ than their forebears did.

tomic seem convinced. One or two suba erhaps you have noticed that few n, a few particles remain to be tracked dow es people are speechless when it com to make items – such as quantising gravity s. to answering the burning question DNA to us universally wise and controlling ody. The person without answers is a nob ain rem – ect perf make us physiologically ns and In our writings, lectures, conversatio ng ythi to be developed, and then ever table we pronouncements over the dining wing, fundamental, genuinely worth kno much tell one another that life would be was, is will be revealed for us to see, as it cated, better if only people were more edu n. ame , ever and will be, forever and greater had more faith in religion, devoted Confronted with this inspiring orted effort to the cure of diseases, supp al challenge, the humanities, arts, soci ed, more vigorously social reform, diet the hing relis not ns, essio sciences and prof and exercised more, flossed their teeth g enin hast are ind, idea of being left far beh y. On voted for this or that political part the to s to make their own contribution of every side can be heard the clamour wisdom of the 20th century. At last, t be voices claiming to know what mus after groping our way in the darkness believed and what must be done. of for millennia, we see light at the end this With a sigh of relief we escape from the tunnel. s and confusion of beliefs into the quietnes pages It all sounds terribly familiar. The , in certainty of the natural sciences. Here nt of history are covered with equivale ge... this lofty museum of secure knowled Yet ties. clari ne certainties and crystalli display may be found the right answers on the all have vanished into thin air like and for all to see and examine. Exhibits l celestial-angelic spheres of medieva the working models reveal the truth with r of ethe rous inife lum the astronomy and exhibits, utmost clarity. Some of the latest all of gs bein an Victorian physics. Hum lic naturally, are not quite ready for pub ve societies in all periods of history belie Some view and require finishing touches. real that their ideas on the nature of the remain display cases – but not many – still their world are the most secure, and that around empty: but judging by the activity the are ce justi and cs ideas on religion, ethi long. them, they will not stay empty for that k thin most enlightened. Like us, they e, Soon the screens will be pulled asid h. final knowledge is at last within reac ers that unveiling to the public view answ er ages Like us, they pity the people in earli about. will explain what the Universe is all gly, ailin Unf s. fact for not knowing the true ed Visitors come away feeling convinc for s stor human beings pity their ance wledge that the end of the search for kno their being so ignorant and forget that t. The in the natural sciences is now in sigh descendants will pity them for the le are final pieces in the cosmic jigsaw puzz same reason. staff about to take their place. Even the


1 The problem of knowledge


to Light always gleams ahead. The end s loom ys alwa ge wled the search for true kno c risti acte in sight. The one invariant char ce of of rational inquiry is the imminen final knowledge. Dare I say – contrary to the popular never belief – that secure knowledge can rance be found? That our boundless igno of success explains why we feel so confident discovery each t Tha ge? in bounded knowled than tery mys e creates in the long run mor the to it solves? That we stand no closer s? bear fore our did than hs’ ultimate ‘trut y uall llect inte er bett And that we are no a lived who le and morally than the peop ago? s year thousand and even ten thousand f that belie g lmin whe over We have this the of il deta the in we are rapidly filling ure pict the ly, cosmic picture. Unfortunate res figu keeps changing. One landscape with melts away and a new landscape with twork. figures emerges requiring fresh pain we and er bigg The picture keeps growing


Knowers and knowing

how gaps cannot help occasionally noticing than dabs r on the canvas are spreading faste of paint. inty Let me say how I view the uncerta ver fore t mus ge of knowledge. Knowled st for change otherwise it withers. The que joy knowledge is endless and its greatest ape is constant surprise. We forever resh t’s hear the to er the scheme of things near ot cann nt desire. Permanent enlightenme the be secured by bringing down from in aved engr laws e llibl mountaintop infa re figu and res desi stone. We project our rutable, our designs on the face of the insc s us, and the inscrutable, which include n. We seems patient of endless interpretatio itself. nd ersta und to represent reality seeking find I hy. osop I feel liberated by this phil tive comfort in the thought that the crea we live. mind fashions the world in which ty are reali and d min For it means that the ose. supp ally more profound than we norm

Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma (full colour edition)  

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