Free «Doubt is the Key to Knowledge» Essay Sample


"Doubt is the key to knowledge" (Persian Proverb) - this debate is as old, and as modern, as society itself. But the problem with doubt is that we don't know what to make of it. But that is just the point. Doubt is exactly the situation which obtains when we don't know, and doubt is something we do not really know. We don't understand what to make of it; we are in doubt about doubt. And if we do not understand what exactly knowledge is, perhaps we fail to know which of the views are knowledge. A view is not knowledge simply by being someone's opinion (Hetherington 2003, p. 106). Not all confidently held or deeply personal views are knowledge; and being culturally respected does not guarantee a view's being knowledge. Nor is a view knowledge simply because we want it to be, or because we believe or claim that it is. Not all viewpoints are especially knowledgeable. What guarantees us for being good in this respect?  Knowledge's objectivity - as termed as traditional knowledge by Hetherington (2003, p. 106) - is at least that demanding. Knowledge can be present - or absent - even when we do not feel that it is. Knowing is an achievement - and not always one of which we are aware. In this paper I shall discuss whether doubt really is the key to knowledge, and to what extent this Persian proverb holds true in the two areas of knowledge?

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It is an intriguing paradox of our present Western culture that, while the dream of a unified system of scientific knowledge has never been more alive, there is always an increasing doubt that any universally valid knowledge may ever be possible. The success of Newton's astonishing insights pales when compared with the successes of the Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics (Sorell 2005, p. 5). On the other hand, the scepticism of Hume which in the eighteenth century had awakened Kant from his 'dogmatic slumber' and impelled him to investigate the conditions of universally valid knowledge of fact, seems to be child's play when it compared with the onslaught of the attacks upon the 'received view' of the nature of science, that were perpetrated by Popper, Kuhn, social constructivism, and post-modernism which seems to be the latest bandwagon from which a wide variety of intellectual guerilla fighters feel free to shoot from the hip on their favourite target (p. 5).

Although doubt and the problem of its importance have clearly been present from the earliest times in religious thought, it can reasonably be argued that doubt is a key to knowledge is a modern problem. It is a problem of and for modern notion, which developed around the ideal of belief, with human consciousness as the measure of what can be known. In this context, is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it? This question, which at first sight might not seem difficult, is really one of the most difficult that can be asked. When we have realised the obstacles in the way of a simple and certain answer, we shall be well started the study of philosophy - for philosophy is merely the attempt to answer such ultimate questions, not carelessly and dogmatically, as we do in our ordinary life and even in the sciences, but critically, after exploring all that makes such questions puzzling, and after realising all the vagueness and confusion that underlie our ordinary ideas.

Although William Fleming and Charles Porterfield Krauth (1860, p. 147) described doubt as a "belief that implies knowledge: it is the knowledge that such or such a thing is not true. If the mind admits a proposition without any desire for knowledge concerning it, this is credulity. If it is open to receive the proposition, but feels ignorance concerning it, this is doubt. In proportion as knowledge increases, doubt diminishes, and belief or disbelief strengthens". But if we doubt the ability of knowledge to reach what absolutely is, why not doubt the doubt and so on? It may be pointed out, further, that the notion of knowledge as a medium or instrument which stands in an external relation to what absolutely is, which is quite separate from it, is a wholly questionable notion which makes knowledge impossible from the start.

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According to "The Nature of Natural Knowledge" (1975), "Doubt prompts the theory of knowledge, yes; but knowledge, also, was what prompted the doubt. Scepticism is an offshoot of science. The basis for scepticism is the awareness of illusion, the discovery that we must not always believe our eyes. Scepticism battens on mirages, on seemingly bent sticks in water, on rainbows, after-images, double images, dreams. But in what sense are these illusions? In the sense that they seem to be material objects which they in fact are not. Illusions are illusions only relative to a prior acceptance of genuine bodies with which to contrast them. In a world of immediate sense data with no bodies posited and no questions asked, a distinction between reality and illusion would have no place. The positing of bodies is already rudimentary physical science; and it is only after the stage that the sceptic's invidious distinctions can make sense. Bodies have to be posited before there can be a motive, however tenuous, for acquiescing in a noncommittal world of the immediate given" (cited in Orman Quine et al 2008, p. 257)

The theory of mind and knowledge to be constructed must square, so to speak, as Edward Leroy Schaub (1928, p.11) argued. Now, if this context is borrowed wholesale, as the 'evolutionary naturalist' does borrow it, from the sciences - from biology, physiology, and psychology - it follows that knowledge in a way which involves an illegitimate circle. For, the context of 'nature', in which knowledge is to be explained as a natural phenomenon, is itself assumed to be known. Hence, whatever is said about knowledge as a phenomenon in this context must be consistent with the context itself being known, i.e., being what we think it to be. But if the account given of knowledge as a phenomenon in nature is such that it throws doubt on our knowledge of nature, i.e., on our claim that nature is what, in certain sciences, we think it to be, that argument destroys its own basis; the conclusion invalidates the premises on which it rests (Schaub 1928, p. 12).

How might the sceptic's reasoning led to an entirely amoral politics to affirm that 'everything is permitted'? The arguments tying doubt to knowledge, that doubt corrodes beliefs that are necessary to sustain liberalism. Scepticism undermines faith in the value and justifiably of a liberal democratic way of life as well as the ability to defend it against those who oppose it. It thus prepares the way for liberalism both by freeing the will from moral restraint and by giving no principled reasons to raise against such opponents. Nietzsche, Machiavelli, Descartes, and Charron are the most important figures in history of political though to consider this question.

Descartes argued that the axioms from which true philosophy should proceed had to be rigorously grounded in the human capacity to reason. He associated rationality with mathematics and thought the rigorous application of logic could result in a unified system of truth (Sorell 2005, p. 6). He therefore emphasised systematic doubt as a key to knowledge, questioning even his own existence. His solution to that question, "I think, therefore I am", demonstrated that his ability to perceive the rational order of creation was at the core of his own existence (p. 6). Descartes also had to doubt the existence of God before he could prove his own satisfaction that God did, in fact, exist (Doren 2008, p. 156). Once again that proof came from rational thought rather than inherited wisdom or sacred texts.

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Reason rather than sense is the main cognitive capacity underlying science. Metaphysical doubt, rather than sense, elicits the use of reason and the discovery first of the principal metaphysical truths and then the general truths of physics, biology and psychology. The Meditations is a sort of sequel to and enlargement on the Discourse, especially its Part IV. What the Discourse merely sketches - the method of doubt and its use to discover first the cogito and then the proof of non-deceiving God - the Meditations unfolds in detail, and in such a way as to allow the reader to enter. Descartes, as Tom Sorell (2005, p. 6) pointed out, hopes to undo the influence of Aristotle, only by exposing all sense-based science as doubtful, rather than by presenting his own un-Aristotelian solutions to selected problems of physics.

Like Descartes, Bacon believed that doubt produced knowledge. "If a man will begin with certainties", he wrote, "he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties" (Doren 2008, p. 156).

Both Descartes, who used reason to deduce truths about existence, and Bacon, who used an inductive approach that emphasised close observation and careful record keeping, were part of an intellectual trend in Western Europe that increasingly emphasised human possibilities.

Something analogous applies to epistemology as a traditional theoretical inquiry aimed at understanding, with generality and depth, the nature, conditions, and extent of human knowledge. Here again, reflection so aimed need arise from any real doubt that there is any such knowledge. Such reflection might spring only from that familiar source of theoretical inquiry: sheer curiosity. Insofar as any doubt might naturally accompany such curiosity in epistemology it would be doubt about the nature and conditions of human knowledge, and not necessarily doubt about its extent. Moreover, the same holds true when the scope of the inquiry is restricted, for example, to framework commitments about the external world, other minds, etc. (Nor is it crucial that we regard these as 'knowledge', since much of the familiar epistemological problematic remains if we focus rather on justified or cognitively acceptable commitments, and what renders them acceptable, etc.).

It might be replied that epistemological naturalism does not reject epistemological reflection aimed at better understanding of the nature, conditions, and extent of human knowledge (both in general and also in various delimited domains). Epistemological naturalism recommends neglect not of such inquiry but only of the traditional sceptical arguments designed to cast doubt on our knowledge (in general or in the delimited domains). One can engage in such inquiry about some presumed knowledge sans doubt that it is knowledge. Unshakeable conviction that it is knowledge would seem to render idle any sceptic's arguments against the supposed knowledge. Is it not then a waste of time to consider such arguments? What point could be there in considering them if one's mind is obdurately made up?


From the above discussion, we have come to a conclusion that every science, as a branch of knowledge, reveals the nature of the objects with which it deals. To say that science 'reveals' the nature of its objects is equivalent to saying that the objects really are what, as scientists, we perceive and think them to be, and this again, is equivalent to saying that we 'know' the objects or that they 'are known'. To treat knowledge in a context conceived in biological and psychological terms, involves the circle of explaining and justifying our right to say that we 'know', e.g., the physical world (i.e., that the physical world is that we think it to be), by means of an argument which, in employing as its premises certain scientific theories of the nature of that world, takes that right for granted all along.

To sum up, John Calvin (2008, p. 360) puts it really beautifully by saying that since the knowledge of the divine goodness cannot be of much importance unless it leads us to confide in it, we must exclude a knowledge mingled with doubt - a knowledge which, so far from being firm, is continually wavering. But the human mind, when blinded and darkened, is very far from being able to rise to a proper knowledge of the divine will; nor can the heart, fluctuating with perpetual doubt, rest secure in such knowledge. Hence, in order that the word of God may gain full credit, the mind must be enlightened, and the heart confirmed, from some other quarter.

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