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Theory of Knowledge Question 4 That which is accepted as knowledge today is sometimes discarded tomorrow.

Consider knowledge issues raised by this statement in two areas of knowledge.


Knowledge is a very broad term. For the purpose of this paper, knowledge will be defined as what we accept as truth and error concerning the physical Universe and the world in general. In this day and age we are used to taking almost every piece of information with a grain of salt. However, even with such a sceptical mentality we are still prone to accepting claims from authorities such as the scientific community practically without question, while at the same time fully realising that our scientific understanding constantly changes due to our pursuit of falsification. It also seems that the field of mathematics provides definite, clear answers to many difficult questions. While most of us struggled with it in high school and Albert Einstein struggled with it even in adulthood, as expressed in his statement Do not worry too much about your difficulties in mathematics, I can assure you that mine are still greater., we must admit that without maths, none of the complex architecture, space missions and advanced computing would ever be possible. So do any of these provide a solid foundation for truth, or are they accepted today and discarded tomorrow? Mathematics is as old as recorded history, if not older. The concepts of numbers, magnitudes and forms have been carried over from generation to generation, passing on previous knowledge to others who might advance it. Yet when we talk about advancement in mathematics, what is advanced? Do discover ideas which have always been there, or have we simply invented more and more complicated versions of the same information? When we are in mathematics class and are given a problem to solve we feel a profound sense of accomplishment. We knew that there were no two ways as to how to do the problem, there was only one answer and we found it. This is the Platonic view coming from Plato who taught that mathematics exists in the realm of ideas. That it is eternal and unchanging. Certainly, this appeals to our first impression of maths. It does seem that 2 + 2 = 4 will always be true. And it is certainly the case that we find evidence of the same mathematical rules in ancient civilizations, such as the precise architecture of the Great Pyramids or the sexagesimal system of the Babylonians, which we still use in our time keeping (60 seconds to a minute, 60 minutes to an hour etc.). These systems have not been discarded and have been used for thousands of years, to this day. In contrast, the natural sciences seem to be the polar opposite. These look at the material universe, attempting to understand how it works through unifying theories. We are fully aware that theories are constantly tested by what is called the scientific method (The systematic observation, measurement and

experimentation) with the purpose of falsification. There is a rich history of theories being proven and then disproven, such as the flat Earth theory and the most recent Steady state theory, which was rejected in favour of the Big Bang theory in the mid-20th century because of the ample evidence which worked against it. Due to the scientific method, the natural sciences have become a primary authority on what is true knowledge and what is false knowledge. The scrutiny and rigour of science has generally been in high admiration. However, one may ask If science is so reliable then why do so many people distrust it? The answer is that above was described an ideal of science. On the other hand, scientists are still merely human. They are all prone to human emotions and sways of reason and imagination. This makes science, above all, a human endeavour. Not only that but according to Thomas Khun, a scientists, historian and philosopher of science, the above view of science is easily proven to be practically non-existent in the real world. As a matter of historical fact, he argues that all scientists hold some fundamental beliefs, or paradigms, so strongly that sometimes they will be unwilling to put them to the test of falsification, or ignore and disbelieve evidence which disproves them. As an example he states Galileos argument against the Geocentric model (Earth as the centre of the Universe) and how although it should have been accepted with enthusiasm immediately, it actually took a very long time until the scientific community agreed on it. While science boasts that sufficient evidence would persuade any group of scientists against their current views, the question of how much is sufficient evidence remains to be answered by the scientists own personalities and idiosyncrasies. Therefore, all natural sciences are a good example of how knowledge and accepted truths are discarded as easy as the whims of the human mind due to it being a human endeavour. While it may seem straightforward, certain issues arise when we brand mathematics as infallible. In order to explain the problem the following example will be useful: We have all heard about averages. They are used by statisticians in all areas of life to measure different groups. So lets take a list of numbers: 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5, 6, 7 What is its average? Well, it depends on which average you want. There are three of them the mean, median and mode. So, in order to have a right answer you need to begin with a premise, an assumption. That is called an axiom. So if, lets say, you decide to look for the median the right answer would be 3. That the average meant the median, then that was your axiom, your assumption. This is a simple example to try and illustrate a larger point. All mathematics is constructed on axioms man made assumptions. Once an axiom has been chosen, then and only then will the final answer be certain (in our example, only once we decided we are looking for the median could we follow the rules of maths to find the only possible correct answer - 3). This may seem insignificant, however it poses a fairly big problem. If all mathematics stems from axioms then where do the axioms come from? The answer is from our own minds.

Why is the median the middle number in a list - because we have defined it to be so. Mathematical theorems, while seemingly precise and unquestionable, are still a product of a human endeavour. And humans are often wrong in their thinking. Just like the natural sciences, the history of mathematics is littered with false proofs. Probably the most famous example of this is the German mathematician David Hilberds 21st problem. In the last century he gave a number of problems to the mathematical community to solve. The 21st problem was proven correct in 1908. However, in 1989 a counter-example to the theorem was presented and the earlier proof was proven to be incorrect. And while technology allows mathematicians to crunch more and more complicated numbers, the simple fact remains that those same calculators were programed to work on the same artificially made axioms which we use in our manual calculations. When we compare the two disciplines in an objective light, it seems to be that science, while accepted as extremely reliable turns out to be very subjective to the popular thinking of the times. At the same time, mathematics, which often is portrayed as the epitome of factuality, turns out to be a very human invention which is often imposed onto the physical universe. This might explain why certain branches of the natural sciences, such as physics, seem inseparable from mathematics, and why they work so well together. Thus it may safely be deduced that our knowledge of what is true and what is false, at least when we observe our Universe through the lens of the sciences and maths, constantly changes. That as a thought is intriguing, as it poses larger questions, such as can th ere be a certain truth then? Is it possible that a lot of what we believe to be true about the world is in fact a wrong fabrication of our imaginations? Many philosophers and scientists often remind us of that possibility. While complete assurance of truth may be difficult to substantiate, it cannot be denied that there have been certain ideas which have remained intact for extended periods of time. The Flat Earth theory was not substituted for many centuries. We may call this primitive, yet it is perfectly normal due to the evidence which scientists could collect. Similarly, a mathematical theorem may remain for decades and centuries until someone finds a counter-example to disprove it. The fact of the matter is that it all depends on where our human endeavour will take us. Albert Einstein said Truth is what stands the test of experience. As long as our personal experiences support a certain theory, no one could ever tell us that it is wrong. This complex psychology renders all our knowledge of the physical universe to be relative to our time, culture, society and technological development. However that does not make them any less significant as they are but the building blocks of our future understanding. Through mistakes we learn to become better. And until we find a completely certain outside source of information which can give us perfect truth, knowledge of the world today will always, sooner or later, be discarded tomorrow.