Is it possible to justify the different ways of knowing?
TOK Essay 1/2011
Question: Is it possible to justify a hierarchy of different ways of knowing and, if so, on what basis?
Name: Valerie Ng Suying
TOK group: P1b (Mr Eric Lau)
Index Number: 21
For many generations, humans have learnt to attain knowledge through many different ways including reason, sense perception and emotion. Reason is the way in which truth can be ascertained by thinking and the process of reflection alone (SOTA TOK Lecture 1). Sense perception is the awareness or apprehension of things by sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) and emotion, is any of the natural instinctive affections of the mind which come and go according to one’s personality, experiences and bodily state: a mental feeling (New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary). These ways of knowing have their own advantages and shortcomings and often lead to different new knowledge for a given environment or data set being considered or examined.
Over time, humans have come to realize that the acquisition of knowledge can be made more efficient and effective if these ways of knowing are applied in a more structured manner. This seems to suggest that in the pursuit of knowledge, humans use some form of hierarchy when applying the ways of knowing and that it is possible to justify this hierarchy. To have a hierarchy would mean to arrange or classify the different Ways of Knowing according to their relative importance or inclusiveness in giving us knowledge (Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary). For this to be possible, we need to find a set of common basis that can be used to judge each Way of Knowing against its ability to deliver knowledge. Personally, I believe that there is a hierarchy among the ways of knowledge, in which the criteria underlying the hierarchy is based on reliability and accuracy. Knowledge delivered though the ways of knowing must be firstly reliable, where it can be trusted and defined by its ability to remove any form of bias or uncertainty. Secondly, it must be accurate, where it is defined by the state of being correct or precise. Reason fulfills the above criteria to a large extent, thus placing it at the top of the hierarchy, with sense perception and emotion positioned below it respectively.
Reason should be placed at the top of the hierarchy when it comes to giving us more accurate and reliable knowledge as compared to sense perception because it involves conscious and logical processing, thinking and reflection when evaluating a knowledge claim. In most cases, reasoning starts with premises that are true. Therefore, the arguments are valid and conclusions are often true (Alchin 76). Additionally, when one receives data or information in the different areas of knowledge, the brain processes them and seeks to find linkages between sets of data. Through reasoning, people are able to make sense of both their thoughts and experiences, identifying problems and the factors influencing these problems. As such, we are able to achieve plausible and logical conclusion. For example, through observations and experiments in the natural sciences, we can prove, within reason, whether a hypothesis is true or not. In the areas of Arts and Ethics, though emotion is considered by many to be the most important Way of Knowing, reason nevertheless plays a fundamental and essential role in these two areas of knowledge. In the Arts, reasoning is needed to allow us to make sense of the subject matters we perceive in the physical world and find relationships and patterns in the objects and sounds we identify in visual arts and music. More importantly, reason is required in the process of deriving at an artistic concept. On the other hand, in sense perception, conclusions are drawn solely on what one derives from the five human senses. No logical reasoning is taking place in the process. As a result, imprecise perceptions or mistaken interpretations may surface. This can be illustrated with a science experiment where a color-blind person sees colors differently from one who has perfect eyesight: the normal person may see that the color has changed from orange to blue. On the contrary, the one who is color-blind may see that the color has changed to say, purple instead of blue. Therefore, knowledge derived from sense perception is often not as precise.
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In spite of reason giving us a plausible and logical conclusion, there is a problem of induction where it is based on assumptions and sometimes prone to fallacies like hasty generalization. For example, in the area of mathematics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy),
Premise 1: 0 has the property F.
Premise 2: For every number n, if n has the property F then n+1 has the property F.
Conclusion: Every number has the property F.
The conclusion in the above example may not necessarily be true, but it nevertheless illustrates that the inductive reasoning process requires the examination of observations, ideas, outcomes and events, in order to find common themes to reach a unified conclusion (mindtools.com). In contrast, data is derived solely from the senses in sense perception, at times introducing bias in the process.
Further, despite the shortcoming of induction, a reliable and accurate conclusion can still be achieved, given that one can easily state the exception to the universal statement or conclusion. In the study of Biology, a universal conclusion is made showing that “inorganic molecules consist of atoms joined by ionic bonds”. However, there is in fact, an exception of water where it is an inorganic compound whose atoms are joined by covalent bonds. Thus, the general conclusion is falsified. Yet, the statement could be made true by qualifying it merely by stating the exception. For example, “inorganic molecules consist of atoms joined by ionic bonds, with the exception of water”. Thus, reason essentially leads to a more reliable and accurate knowledge.
It is my opinion that sense perception should be positioned below reason because the human senses are limited and can at times mislead us (acperesearch.net). Human senses are connections that link the brain to the real world. It is through these connections that humans attain knowledge. Our minds create realities of the environment based on information derived from the five basic human senses. However, these senses do have limitations. This is true considering that our senses are not as acute as those of the animals. Humans are only capable of hearing and seeing to a certain frequency and degree. In fact, bats can detect frequencies as high as 100,000 hertz whereas the range of hearing for a healthy young person is 20 to 20,000 hertz (hypertextbook.com). A dog’s olfactory system is also 10,000 to 10 million times more sensitive than a human’s (reachoutmichigan.org). In addition, National Geographic News also reported “wild and domestic animals seemed to know [about the impending disaster] and fled to safety. Wildlife experts believe animals have a more acute hearing and other senses might enable them to hear or feel the Earth’s vibration, tipping them off to approaching disaster long before humans realize what’s going on.” Consequently, the phenomena that we humans perceive through our senses may actually be “a limited, illusory perception”. (fthink.org) Leonardo Da Vinci’s window also illustrates the misleading factor of sense perception. He uses a “technique for perspective drawing in which [he] views a scene though a glass from a fixed vantage point. [There are optical illusions involved and] many possible three-dimensional scenes can give rise to the same two-dimensional image” (psychol.ucl.ac.uk). With these limitations, the senses are unable to give us an accurate representation of the world. Thus, humans are unable to rely purely on sense perception to attain accurate and reliable knowledge.
Reason and sense perception has primacy over emotion because emotion is more prone to being personal and subjective. According to Plato, truth is independent of belief. Though emotion may be a significant factor in the acquisition and understanding of knowledge, the information derived from emotions are often difficult to verify because they are mainly based on individual gut feel, experiences and beliefs. Sometimes, emotions are shortsighted and hence, beliefs can be distorted, leading to poor conclusions. Hence, emotion can easily mislead and impede a person from deriving at reliable and accurate knowledge. For example, valid scientific data cannot be obtained entirely through feelings or instincts. The same can be said about mathematics where emotions cannot be used to solve an equation or to prove a theorem (weblamp.princeton.edu). Conversely, sense perception, to a certain extent, could bring about a more reliable and accurate knowledge compared to emotion. Perception in some ways can be reliable if majority arrived at the same information using their senses, though this may not always be the case.
In summary, though these ways of knowing work interdependently for one to obtain knowledge, they differ in their ability to provide consistent and precise knowledge. Emotion is heavily influenced by one’s belief, culture and religion, which may render it unreliable and inaccurate. Our senses have limitations, thus restricting us in attaining Knowledge as well. Reason however, provides a logical process that enables us to assimilate the information that is gathered through emotion and perception, thereby allowing us to decide whether the information is reliable and accurate. Hence, it can be concluded that it is indeed possible to justify a hierarchy of the different ways of knowing according to the criteria presented above.
Word count: 1519
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