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Is Doubt the Key to Knowledge Essay

As a student currently taking the International Baccalaureate, I constantly question the differences between the several areas of knowledge which I study. In a period where technology shows constant developments which trigger new discoveries and establish new facts, a critical outlook is essential in order to assess the validity and limitations of knowledge claims that arise within these fields. The twenty-first century has been called the age of information, where individuals have the ability to communicate freely and where knowledge becomes increasingly accessible.

This seems to create an environment where knowledge prospers freely, and where doubt is gradually becoming extinct. However, many still argue that this new age of information bombardment creates a false sensation of certainty, and a series of unsupported convictions. Almost all areas of knowledge have a particular way of achieving values of truth, when that is possible whatsoever. This is directly linked to the ways of knowing in Theory of Knowledge, (emotion, perception, language and reason) as well as through the methods each field uses in its attempts to explain something, or to reach truth.

Furthermore, it is important to recognize the several “paradigm shifts”, as in the term first coined by Thomas Kuhn[1], that change the perception and methods through which we acquire and interpret knowledge, as well as our definition of truth. Scientific certainty derives from countless experimentations and observations, and many debate whether scientific truth can ever be reached. History, on the other hand, is rigorously based on personal experience and interpretation of individual accounts, which allows for partiality and bias.

This essay aims to evaluate and distinguish these two areas of knowledge, as well as determine the possible legitimacy and certainty that can be obtained from the knowledge claims produced in each field. Historical analysis is one the most controversial areas of knowledge, possibly due its extremely ambiguous and uncertain nature. Historians may disagree over the causes and consequences of nearly any historical event. It is important to remember that history is based on paradigms.

As a result, it s almost impossible to find a particular period in history which has not been marked by disputes between historians, attempting to determine what actually happened. Thomas Carlyle, a 19th century historian and teacher at the University of Edinburgh, once stated that “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”, an allusion to The Great Man Theory, one of the many paradigms that have bent the shape of historical analysis. If we take the Second World War as an example, it seems as if the historical context of the war is seen through the actions of men such as Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini and Winston Churchill.

Another paradigm that can be observed in historical thought is the “Rise and Fall” concept, which tends to evaluate the history of empires and historical powers in terms of two phases: the ascent and decline. Examples of this paradigm can be found in many titles of history books: “The Rise and Fall of the Holy Roman Empire[2]”, “The Growth and Decline of the French Monarchy[3]”, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich[4]”, amongst others. Furthermore, as we analyze the history of the Second World War, we also find correlations with another historical paradigm, best exemplified by the famous proverb: “History is written by the victor”.

The argument proposed is quite clear; those who triumph at War and reach power will inevitably influence and determine the course of history. In order to better illustrate this claim, two extracts follow, concerning the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941; the first, a broadcast by Winston Churchill to the British people, and finally a speech given by Adolph Hitler in Berlin, proclaiming the invasion of the USSR: “At 4 o’clock this morning Hitler attacked and invaded Russia. (…) A non-aggression treaty had been solemnly signed and was in force between the two countries. …) Then, suddenly, without declaration of war, German bombs rained down from the sky upon the Russian cities. (…) Hitler is a monster of wickedness…”[5] Winston Churchill, London, June 22 1941 “National Socialists! (…)The German people have never had hostile feelings toward the peoples of Russia (… ) Germany has never attempted to spread its National Socialist worldview to Russia.

Rather, the Jewish-Bolshevist rulers in Moscow have constantly attempted to subject us and the other European peoples to their rule. (…) which were particularly severe for Germans living in the affected nations. …) The purpose of this front is no longer the protection of the individual nations, but rather the safety of Europe, and therefore the salvation of everyone. May God help us in this battle. ” Adolph Hitler, Berlin, June 25 1941[6] Analyzing both speeches, the difficulties of validating a historical account become quite evident, since there are always several perspectives concerning a specific historical event. As it relates to the ways of knowing, history is extremely dependent on perception and language, making it particularly hard for historians in hindsight to corroborate one account over the other and recognise its legitimacy.

However, offering a personal perspective, I would most likely tend to support Churchill’s account of the 1941 Nazi occupation of the USSR. Yet, after exposing the uncertainties and ambiguity of historical knowledge, I begin to question whether or not my perception would differ, had Hitler and the Axis’ forces won the war. Unfortunately, it seems that would most likely be the case. Science is widely regarded as one of the most reliable fields of inquiry. When considering its potential for accurate and impartial conclusions, my initial response was to consider the scientific method the ideal, archetypal model of discovery.

History seems simply too inseparable from human emotion and interpretation to produce a constantly indisputable account of facts, while science appears to be the most reliable and precise area of knowledge, solely based on rationality, empirical evidence and observable patterns. The scientific method, starting with a predicted hypothesis, followed by an experiment, collection and interpretation of data, which ultimately leads to a conclusion which could be repeated by any other scientist, gives the impression of being the perfect “truth formula”.

On the other hand, when looking at the progress of science over time, it is important to realize that, together with the other areas of knowledge, real certainty can never be achieved in science. Even when scientific models survive repeated testing which fail to disprove them, they cannot be universally accepted as truths, but only provisional truths that are simply given functional certainty. The Caloric Theory[7], introduced by Lavoisier, was once a commonly accepted theory that was discredited in the 19th century by the mechanical theory of heat introduced by Carnot[8], which later on evolved into the science of thermodynamics.

This supports the claim that scientific “truths” only exist on their specific “scope of applicability”[9]: “Science progresses through trial and error, mostly error. Every new theory or law must be skeptically and rigorously tested before acceptance. Most fail, and are swept under the rug, even before publication. Others, like the luminiferous ether[10], flourish for a while, then their inadequacies accumulate till they are intolerable, and they are quietly abandoned when something better comes along. Such mistakes will be found out. There’s always someone who will delight in exposing them. Science progresses by making mistakes, correcting the mistakes, then moving on to other matters. If we stopped making mistakes, scientific progress would stop. ” [11]

In conclusion, it seems that uncertainty will always be an indissoluble part of every area of knowledge. We can also conclude that historical and scientific knowledge have an incredibly different way of explaining and interpreting things, mostly due to the ways of knowing, or according to which filter each area of knowledge attempts to express their ideas, and draw conclusions.

While many may argue that the main purpose of these areas of knowledge is to explain and generate answers, some would say that their aim is inquiry, and their purpose is to generate questions. If we analyze these fields in hindsight, it is hard to dispute the claim that what we now consider hard facts are simply theories waiting to be discredited by the progress of our existence. Although at first I found myself to be disappointed with my findings, I stand corrected.

The pursuit of knowledge, the quest for truth, is a never ending cycle of discoveries, and most importantly rediscoveries. Once we are certain of anything, we kill this cycle, we close the book, and the entire process loses significance and context. In the human drive for knowledge and higher awareness, as in the questions that generate the angst and sorrow of human consciousness, there can never be an unquestionable truth, an indisputable answer, for certainty is an illusion.


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