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PostSubject: ToK Essay   Tue 26 May - 20:31

“What separates science from all other human activities is its belief in the provisional nature of all conclusions.” (Michael Shermer, www.edge.org) Critically evaluate this way of distinguishing the sciences from other areas of knowledge.

Humans are inquisitive- as far as history can go, humans have been observing and analyzing the world trying to come up with conclusions. This innate curiosity was what helped human civilization progress. At the very beginning, humans sensed the world with perception; then, they developed language to identify things; when they could communicate, they were capable of expressing emotions; lastly, reason was used to control emotion and function a civilization. However, perception, language, and emotion are subjective. It is hard to arrive at a precise, absolute answer from them because they vary from person to person. Cultural background, age, and gender etc. are some factors that will affect these ways of knowing. On the other hand, reason is objective. Reason is based solely on premises or axioms, and if those are valid, the conclusion will always be true and permanent.

From these four basic ways of knowing came the six areas of knowledge: Natural Science, Human Science, Mathematics, Ethics, Art, and History. Each area of knowledge can be obtained from various ways of knowing- some more than others. Since some ways of knowing are subjective, conclusions may change according to different factors. In fact, people often challenge current conclusions; for example, quantum physics depict a world that defies all laws in classic physics; Japanese government decides to make up her own history of the World War two; castrato singers were common in the Baroque ages but are unethical nowadays; and people only started to appreciate Van Gogh after he died. Mathematics is an exception because of its objectiveness; it can only be obtained by reason. Without other subjective ways of knowing, Math is the only area of knowledge that gives the truth- accurate, precise, permanent conclusions.

Michael Shermer said, ”What separates science from all other human activities is its belief in the provisional nature of all conclusions.” With the analysis above, we can start to evaluate this way of distinguishing sciences from other areas of knowledge.

Mr. Shermer claimed that science is unique because it believes in the provisional nature of all conclusions. His statement is partially correct; science does give provisional conclusions, and we are so used to new scientific theories supplanting old ones already. A classic example would be the belief that the Earth was a flat surface, and it was possible to travel to the “end” of the world. Why was such ridiculous knowledge nowadays so widely accepted in the past? A reason was that this scientific knowledge came from perception, a subjective way of knowing. Perception is subjective, because senses can be deceiving. When one looks at the horizons, the land appears flat, stretched infinitely onwards. This is incorrect because the conditions of perception limited; the Earth is much larger than a human being. When one looks at the Earth from outer space, she will appear to be a sphere.

Shermer’s statement is also partially wrong, because other human activities also believe in provisional conclusions. Firstly, human activities are based on knowledge. The accumulation of knowledge can be viewed as building up Jenga (also called tumbling tower); all new knowledge is based on previous justified belief. Since the initial way of knowing is mostly sensory perception, which can be deceiving, this way of building up knowledge might be dangerous. Logic is applied to the premises (base) and form new conclusions (build up of blocks). However, if the base, or the basic way of knowing, is fickle, then everything on top will collapse. Take for example, the belief that God exists. Since this claim can be neither proven nor disproved, uncertain knowledge is derived from this belief. As a result, there are various interpretations on God, sometimes even in the same religion. If somehow evidences of the “true God” are found, much of the current knowledge of God will be abolished.

Science is essential because it helps us understand how the world works. So, it is important that scientific conclusions are provisional in nature and open to rational criticism in order to compensate for the unreliable ways of knowing. Conclusions will become closer to objectivity when they go through a discourse. In his Theory of forms, Plato said “the forms flow down from of the Good going from most general, abstract, and objective (the Good) to most particular and subjective.” In dialectic, we go from the opposite direction; from subjectivity to objectivity by combining the strengths and correcting the flaws from each other. Consider three ancient Greek Eleatics philosophers, Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Empedocles. Parmenides and Heraclitus had exactly opposite theories: one said, “nothing can change therefore our senses are unreliable”, while the other claimed, “everything changes and our senses are reliable”. Empedocles on the other hand, decided to analyze the two subjective views, and came up with a new conclusion- the discrepancy was due to the assumption of a single basic substance, and that idea must be rejected. Empedocles successfully arrived at a more objective conclusion by considering two subjective ideas. In this sense, Science is also similar to other human activities, because as social animals, we make most of our decisions collectively. An everyday example would be a case in the court; the judge can never punish a criminal based on personal emotions, because the law is what everyone (or representatives) agreed on and it is more significant than personal values. Yet, the verdict can be altered as the situation changes (social values, new evidences etc.): human conclusions are always provisional, always improving as new perspectives are added. In this point of view, science is no different than other human activities.

Does the provisional nature of conclusions make them inferior to permanent conclusions? Some people might find subjective ways of knowing deceiving, and should doubt everything we know. Reason, on the contrary, is a hundred percent reliable and true in all conditions. In fact Mathematics, which is derived from reason only, is considered the key to understand the world. In his first meditation, the French mathematician and philosopher Descartes said, “Whether I am awake or asleep, two and three added together are five, and a square has no more than four sides. It seems impossible that such transparent truths should incur any suspicion of being false.”

Although science can only offer provisional conclusions, it is still essential to humans because reason alone is not sufficient. While reason can easily provide true conclusions, it can never come up with premises. The best reason can do is to prove the validity of certain claims, because the initial premises can only be discovered by the subjective ways of knowing. Descartes tried to use only reason to determine what is absolutely certain, and he concluded he knew nothing other than that he existed. A sound conclusion must come from both subjective and objective ways of knowing. Therefore, provisional conclusions are equally as significant as permanent conclusions because neither can maintain without the other.
Despite the fact that scientific conclusions are provisional, the knower should be confident in the conclusions because they go through the most testified and infallible testing. No other area of knowledge requires the same careful observations, precise measurements, and specific terminologies. The conclusions may or may not be true, but it can be at least justified with current knowledge and technology. I have a relativist slant towards the nature of scientific conclusions- they are also a kind of relative truth. Although previous scientific knowledge might be deficient nowadays, it was still proved valid at the time. Consider my Jenga allegory from before: unsteady block as the base (uncertain knowledge) and the blocks above it (accumulation of knowledge by logic). However, unlike the Jenga tower, the tower of knowledge only falls when someone points out the base is inadequate! This is because knowledge exists in the “spiritual world” (anything intangible) rather than the “material world” (anything that takes up space), and it does not follow the same physical laws that our Jenga tower follows. In other words, the tower is not slanted until it is identified as slanted; the now-imperfect knowledge was true at the time because the now-accepted knowledge did not exist back then. How do we know that something is slanted, if nothing is upright? We do not, because that is the only valid conclusion we can make with the latest knowledge; therefore, the conclusion was once the truth.

The belief in provisional nature of conclusion does not distinguish science from other human activities, because almost all conclusions from human activities are uncertain. The characteristic of science that separates it from other areas of knowledge is that anyone can prove a scientific conclusion to be correct at some point, but that conclusion can turn out completely false at some other point of time. No other area of knowledge shares this unique feature: we can never prove history, nor experience the same emotions when appreciating an art, nor prove a mathematical axioms invalid, nor have the exact same ethical values as someone else. However, with science we can repeat the steps of an experiment and get the same results. It is important to realize that although scientific conclusions are provisional, they are all the same essential because every new discovery leads us closer to the permanent, subjective conclusion.

1. Gaarder, Jostein. Sophie's World. London: Phoenix, 1996.
2. Newman, Lex. "Descartes' Epistemology." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 3 Dec. 1997. Stanford University. 2 Apr. 2009 .
3. "TOK questions." Theory of Knowledge- guide. 2006. IBO Diploma Programme. 2 Apr. 2009 .

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