Past or Present: What can we believe? TOK Paper
Past or Present: What can we believe?
Theory of Knowledge Essay
With so much uncertainty about the future, most people long for certainty about the past and present. Is it really possible, though, to be sure about the past? When looking for a lost set of keys, are you sure of the past (where you put them) or the present (that you are looking for them)? The reasons for the differences in certainty are the different forms of knowledge involved in learning and perceiving the past and present. Bertrand Russell speaks of the existence of two types of knowledge: knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance. Learning about the past involves knowledge by description, or information through a source or number of sources that actually experienced the event. However, information about the present is gained through knowledge by acquaintance, or knowledge through direct contact with the event. Therefore, it is much easier to attain certainty about the present than the past, although absolute sureness can never be acquired.
It is impossible to have certainty about history, the study of past events, because of its basis in knowledge by acquaintance. One does not directly experience history and must rely on a collection of viewpoints from varying historians. Therefore no person can be sure about what events actually have occurred in the past. The cause of the First World War is a subject that historians have been arguing about for years. Some, such as Harry Elmer Barnes, believe that Russian mobilization was the action responsible for the war while others, such as A. J. P. Taylor, assert that German upset of the European balance of power prompted the beginning of World War I. With such varying opinions, how can any semblance of certainty be procured without direct observation of the past events? With simply knowledge by description, there is no possible way to gain absolute certainty about the past.
In argument, some individuals may defend the certainty of the past by saying that history has been written down, taught, and accepted by the masses. Physical evidence exists that proves the legitimacy of the historical texts. However, by this argument, how can the uncertainty surrounding the Holocaust be explained? There are photographs, interviews, and official documents supporting the occurrence of the Holocaust, and yet many individuals deny that it ever happened. There is absolutely no way to prove to those individuals that the Holocaust took place. Because they did not directly observe the Holocaust, they cannot accept that it happened. They insist upon knowledge by acquaintance in order to believe in the existence of the Holocaust. How can we be certain of the past when not everyone can agree on the existence of important historical events?
Just as it is impossible to have certainty about the past through history, it is equally impossible to determine certainty about the past by examining morals. As the morals of a society change, so does its perceptions of the past. With the changing view of the past, certainty cannot be established. For example, burning individuals at the stake once was a common and accepted form of public execution. Witches, political traitors, and prisoners in general were all burned to death. However, burning at the stake is no longer considered an acceptable form of execution. It is now viewed as a cruel and unusual punishment.
Society looks at the actions of the past through the morals of today. Without understanding and experiencing the past, today’s society cannot view past actions in the same light that others once did. Because the morals of today differ from the morals at the time of the accepted burning at the stake, certainty about the past cannot be attained. Past actions cannot be understood because the present society did not witness them. The perception of the past has been changed because of the lack of direct observation of the past. With only knowledge by description, sureness of the past cannot be achieved.
One could argue that although the entire idea of public execution is cruel and morally wrong, public executions still take place. Thus, the morals surrounding capital punishment have changed, but the attitude towards the past actions of execution has remained the same. Therefore, morals have no real effect on the perception of the past. However, this argument can be countered with the fact that some states are beginning to outlaw public execution and capital punishment. The moral view of society is in the process of changing, thus leading to changes in social actions. Knowledge of present social morals, or knowledge by acquaintance, is influencing knowledge of past social actions, or knowledge by description. Thus, more certainty about the present can be attained than of the past because the changing moral state contradicts past actions.
It is much easier to attain certainty of the present as opposed to the past because it is possible to directly experience the present. Knowledge by acquaintance is utilized in learning about the present. Natural science is an area that allows for direct observation of what is currently occurring. An experiment, such as observing the effects of the nutrient content of decaying leaves present in the soil on plant growth, can be utilized in a natural science such as biology to learn about the present. The data collected in the experiment demonstrates gathering knowledge through acquaintance because of the real interaction between the environment and scientist. There is certainty about this data because the scientist actually saw and measured the tree growth. He/she did not simply rely on past accounts which would be knowledge by description.
Certainty about the present cannot always be assured though. The experiment mentioned above could have had undetectable flaws that would render the results of the test unsure. If, for instance, the soil was saturated with plant fertilizer from a nearby farm, the resulting plant growth would not be fully due to nutrients from decaying leaves. Certainty about natural science experiments therefore cannot be guaranteed one hundred percent. Scientific technology, though, can lend a hand in detecting foreign agents that could disrupt a test, thus increasing the chance for certainty in the experiment.
When examining certainty in the present, one must look at the method used to convey knowledge about the present: language. Society learns of current events through language. Politicians talk of political goals, students learn of homework assignments, and individuals learn of prices of certain items all through direct communication with other people. This direct information flow is an example of how certainty of the past is developed through knowledge by acquaintance.
The truthfulness of individuals can come into question when closely examining just how sure the present really is. How can one be positive that they are not being lied to? This dilemma certainly proves that the present is not completely certain. However, through methods such as examining an individual’s body language can offer insight into how truthful and straightforward they are really being. Typically, when someone is lying, they discredit themselves by nervously looking around, avoiding eye contact, stuttering, and a variety of other implicating actions. By directly observing body language, thereby gaining knowledge by acquaintance, a greater certainty about the present can be established.
It is much more difficult to attain certainty about the past than the present. The very nature of gaining knowledge makes it easier to be sure of what is occurring now as opposed to what has occurred before. When learning about the past, one learns through description, rather, through a variety of sources that experiences the event. As with history and morals, one must rely on the interpretations and information provided by another individual or group of individuals. No real certainty can be established because no opportunity is available to examine the past and draw personal conclusions. However, when learning about the present, one gains knowledge through actual observation of and interaction with the event and environment. When dealing with the present, one can in fact examine what is occurring. As with natural sciences and language, one is allowed to draw their own conclusions and create personal interpretations. Because of the observable nature of the present and knowledge achieved through acquaintance, certainty of the present is more assured than certainty of the past.
Article name: Past or Present: What can we believe? TOK Paper essay, research paper, dissertation