The statement has been in my mind for the entirety of my education. As a child I have always wondered how we, as humans, can be sure of all the knowledge that the world is providing to us. This quote can be discussed with reference to areas of knowledge such as history, ethics, and natural sciences in relation to ways of knowing such as language, faith and imagination. As I grew up and was obliged to study the “Theory of Knowledge” in the last two years of high school. I was hoping and was almost entirely sure that this subject will be left in my international baccalaureate years and that I wouldn’t have to ask why and how about everything in life and that once I made it to university TOK would be something my friends and I would reminisce and laugh about. Turns out that no. When my best friends from school and I meet up, we still wonder about the “pourquoi du comment” (why of how), and bring up TOK with its areas and ways of knowing.
So because I have now realized that everything I have learned in this class will be imprinted in my brain, I could share a little of my personal and shared knowledge with you, discussing the question of confidence, doubt and knowledge, which undoubtedly is present in everyone’s life.
There is a thin line between confidence and doubt. A dash separates “little” from “growth”. Just gaining knowledge is not enough, as knowledge has to work hand in hand with understanding. In truth, we as human beings often pretend to be knowledgeable, yet our understanding may in fact be limited. Ignorance enables us, if we are willing to learn, to become confident. If we began by pretending we are knowledgeable, does it mean doubt led us on the road to confidence? With new discoveries, technology has improved, awareness has increased and society continues to evolve. Taking these factors into consideration, we can understand how and why confidence may grow. We can also begin to figure out how or why doubt may arise. Today human life has evolved more than ever and new findings accelerate evolution. However, all information can be falsified with new sightings and history can be altered. If we agree that a base of human reasoning, memory and language is needed for knowledge, must we accept that confidence and doubt are also created by these ways of knowing?
To effectively explore how confidence and doubt affect knowledge in light of one’s personal filters, I will tell you about some real life situations in the areas of knowledge of the natural sciences, which are dominated by human reasoning, and history, which principally pertains with memory and language.
A prevailing knowledge question in the natural sciences is: To what extent does knowing less breed more confidence in the study of the properties of the Earth?
It may be that “An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.” - Nicholas Murray Butler.
This claim suggests that field experts exist to make research on the most insignificant aspects of the Earth that make up the biggest revelations. It can be argued that expert intuition allows such specialists to be determined in their work and confident in their findings. Thanks to the empirical data collected and overall findings made, scientists tend to make statements that explain the Earth. One area that particularly strikes me is the biggest wonder of the Earth: the ocean, which is like blood in the human organism. Covering around 70% of our planet, its state affects the weather, temperature and supports all living organisms. With scientists making new discoveries every day, it is surprising to find out that 95% of the Earth’s lifeblood remains unexplored ("Oceans & Coasts"). With access to only 5%, scientists believe that they know ocean’s effects on everyday life. We believe that its physical, geological, chemical and archaeological aspects define the Earth’s dynamics and how the land is mapped out ("How Much Of The Ocean Have We Explored?"). With that little percentage, experts were able to discover underwater waterfalls and a supercontinent that covered the surface of the blue planet ("New Discoveries"). We seem to be certain about the ocean’s mechanism, the animals that coexist in these waters and the vegetation that enables the organisms to respire. Every new discovery seems to unravel more and more knowledge.
Natural sciences are closely linked with inductive reasoning. Specialists observe and then produce deductions. It leads us to a generalization about the world that has shaped humanity and its evolution. This subject area offers a solid base for certainty, and inductivism captures the essential features needed for this reality. Nonetheless, the traditional scientific approach has some disadvantages to it. This brings us to the counter claim that problems associated with human observations distort our perception of truth. The Earth is so big, and its lands are ever changing. When carrying out experiments, scientists tend to repeat and control the investigation for more data recordings and an erasing of anomalies. Most times, a scientist’s expectations can influence what he or she perceives. They would be so confident in their beliefs that they could interpret an observation in a different way to the rigorous scientific line of thought. After all, reasoning is only as certain as the premises upon which it is based; and these can be fundamentally flawed. With the use of scientific experiment, better observations are made, making the scientists doubt their beliefs and what they previously knew. In addition, the act of observation can sometimes affect what we observe (Lagemaat). The fallibility of perception deflates a scientist’s confidence in his or her discoveries. Everything they knew about a theory, topic or experiment can vanish in the spur of a moment, giving rise to doubt in their area as knowledge increases. Scientists strive to discover everything that the universe holds. The ultimate goal to the theory of everything is yet to become reality. To know everything about this world is what would make the scientist confident. But since it is just theory and not a law, the doubt surrounding it will still remain.
Shifting from a scientific perspective, we can now look into the area of history, a subject that will forever be a mystery. History exists thanks to language and memory. Without these two ways of knowing, a person’s personal knowledge could not become a historical shared one. Language has fostered the creation of historical knowledge and has solidified it to spread across nations and through time. Every country’s memory allowed its own story to develop and become important to the population. We must keep in mind that evidence is a significant factor making up history. The past can only be known to an extent and we study its traces rather than the events themselves. We can ask ourselves the following knowledge question: Do historical events really ever have closures?
A claim to this question is that humans seek to determine the true nature of their identities with greater confidence by referring to knowledge in history. By travelling back in time, we have a better sense perception of today’s reality that shapes our respective futures. My grandfather has always told me the story of my ancestors. Although Genghis-Khan had approximately 70 children, knowing that he is present on my genealogy tree unravels a big part of my family history. Memory enabled my family to preserve the origins, offering a better understanding to our roots. Personal relationships in the ethics of memory are why we ought to remember. In fact, that is why my curiosity for my family’s past tends to develop further. We might think that learning about our history makes us more appreciative and makes us doubt our past less. But surprisingly, there is a counter claim to this statement: finding out more does lead us to question what the deeper truth to our past may be. The world is so large, and there are so many complexities in its features. It will always hide secrets from humanity. For example, we know that three views blame the emergence of the Cold War on different countries. The revisionist view states that USA and UK are the primary causes of conflict. It was a leftist reaction that blames the emergence on historical US expansionism and fear of communism. Meanwhile the orthodox view places responsibility on USSR and its expansion into Eastern Europe. Finally, the post-revisionist view is the latest response to both views and blames both sides. (Mamaux). Having parents that lived in Kazakhstan USSR, at home I was always exposed to a strong pro-USSR view. While writing an essay on the roots of the Cold War before 1945, I realized that balancing arguments and views was challenging. With divided outlooks, more doubt on whom to blame took surface. Having studied in an international school, I was taught how to be more open-minded to different opinions and sources. Learning and looking at the causes from a broader perspective allowed me to change my opinion. It is a clear example of how knowledge and understanding have led me to shifting my world view. Language allowed my personal knowledge to alter thanks to the shared one. Language is power, it creates opinions and relations with historical values. It shaped our world and what we believe in today. Even by basing research on primary and secondary sources, history is full of fallible eyewitness testimonies, whose perceptions and memories alter throughout time and can depend on cultural backgrounds and interests. We seem to be confident about our knowledge on the history of human life when our knowledge is filtered through eyes of historians and pass a number of steps to establish the « truth ». Bias leads to a distorted picture of events, once again giving rise to doubt. Although we need to unravel the hidden secrets in order to find ourselves, there is a path of acceptance that needs to be taken to reach a true feeling of confidence.
Doubt and confidence are closely related, which as demonstrated by the examples, can’t exist without one another. They come in to play when making influential decisions, making up reality and a sense to human life. Nevertheless, we may ask ourselves why we base such importance on areas with so many flaws? This questions the existence of knowledge in its entirety, since every person’s ways of knowing work differently. As Mark Twain once said: “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence and then success is sure” (Twain). Humans love being right, however being wrong and having doubts is what keeps knowledge alive and developing. We can therefore assume that ignorance may at times be essential to shape our knowledge.
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"How Much Of The Ocean Have We Explored?." National Ocean Service, https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/exploration.html.
Lagemaat, Richard van de. Theory Of Knowledge. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Mamaux, Alexis. The Cold War: Superpower Tensions And Rivalries. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015.
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Twain, Mark. Letter To Mrs Foote. 1887.