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Wed, 23 Jul 2008

Confused about Science, Religion, or Morality? Let's TOK!

Have you read all the news stories about the physicists' search for a Theory of Everything - also known as a TOE? This theory, if found, would describe the tiniest parts of matter and the natural laws that govern them. The discovery of a correct TOE would be a huge achievement for science.

There's another theory that might be as important, in the long run, as the TOE. This is the theory of knowledge - which we might as well call "TOK" to keep it short.

Let's talk about TOK for a few minutes.

TOK is not a single theory. It's a whole branch of knowledge that studies how people know things, and that tries to find the limits of what we can know. TOK is like a science, but it isn't exactly a science, because it deals with problems and questions too basic and slippery to solve through scientific methods alone. Instead, TOK is considered a branch of philosophy. Like other branches of philosophy, TOK uses logic and reason, more than experimental facts, to try to answer questions about human knowledge.

TOK is not new. People have been studying the theory of knowledge for a long time. In fact, philosophers have given TOK a second name that comes from ancient Greek - because the ancient Greeks studied some of the questions of TOK. (I'll mention the other name at the end of this post. For now I'll just say it starts with an e.)

Here are some of the questions that people who study TOK have wondered about:

  • Does all human knowledge come from the senses? Or is there some other way to find knowledge, without information from the senses?
  • Can reasoning alone give us any knowledge, without help from the senses?
  • Besides sense experience, are there any other kinds of experience that can give us knowledge? (For example, how about the emotional insights of artists and poets? Are these really knowledge?)
  • There are many things that people believe, but that they don't really know. So, what's the difference between knowledge and belief?

These few questions should give you some idea of what TOK is about. TOK is the study of knowledge - where knowledge comes from, how we can find knowledge, and what we can and cannot know.

Does all of this stuff matter? What does the study of knowledge have to do with you, right now, today?

TOK matters because you probably already have opinions about it - even if you have never heard of TOK before. What is more, those opinions help to decide what you can think and believe about many other things!

TOK is not just a game for philosophers. Nearly everyone has opinions on some of the questions that TOK asks.

For example, some people don't believe anything that isn't scientifically proven. (You've probably known people like that. I sure have.) That's an opinion about what we know - the opinion that if it's not scientifically proven, we don't truly know it.

Other people like to rely on their intuition, and feel that intuition is more dependable than rational thought. That's also an opinion about knowledge - the opinion that intuition is a more dependable source of knowledge than reason.

Some people believe that the teachings of religious faith are a form of knowledge. Others strongly disagree.

All of these opinions are about the sources and limits of knowledge - so all of these opinions are part of TOK.

So why does TOK matter to you?

TOK matters to you because it affects what you believe about other things besides knowledge. Your opinions about knowledge affect how you think and feel about other things. Here are some examples:

  • If you think that faith can be a legitimate source of knowledge, then you also can believe there is a God.
  • On the other hand, if you don't think there's any knowledge besides science, then it will be hard for you to believe there is a God - because scientists don't use the concept of God in their theories.
  • If you think that feelings and emotions sometimes give us knowledge, then you might also believe that art is more than just something pretty. Instead, art may be a major source of knowledge, side by side with science.
  • If you think feelings and emotions sometimes give knowledge, then you also might believe that the conscience, or moral feelings, can teach you something. This makes it much easier to believe there are real moral standards - that morality is not just arbitrary.

Your opinions about knowledge can have a huge impact on your opinions about some very important issues. Many of the ongoing disagreements in today's world are partly fights over TOK, though they seem to be about something else. The prime example is the debate between science and religion. This might not seem like a disagreement about TOK - but that's mostly what it is!

Atheists who deny all religion, but who believe in science, actually hold a strong opinion about the nature of knowledge - whether they realize it or not. They believe that conclusions of science are real knowledge, but the doctrines of religious faith are not. Thus, science-based atheism actually is a thinly veiled opinion about TOK.

Those who believe in religion, but who deny parts of science (like the seven-day creationists), also hold an opinion about the nature of knowledge. They believe that faith, or religious revelation, is a more dependable source of knowledge than is science. That's an opinion about knowledge, so it's a position on TOK.

Some religious people don't emphasize faith, but instead rely on personal spiritual experiences to answer their spiritual questions. This is especially true of adherents of Eastern teachings that emphasize meditation. If you think that you can know something important through meditation, that is an opinion about the sources of knowledge - so it's an opinion about TOK.

It's beginning to look like the "war" between science and religion is mostly a scuffle between different ideas about TOK!

The study of TOK might even help us understand religious fanaticism - a problem which, of course, is sadly relevant to today's world. Religious fanatics often think the traditions of some religious sect are so important that it's OK to harm people for those traditions. On the other hand, a normal, nonfanatical religious believer usually has some sympathy or compassion for others. Such believers tend to ignore or soften any cruel traditional beliefs, instead of following those beliefs strictly. Thus, the normal believer often trusts moral emotions, like compassion, as sources of knowledge about how to behave. The fanatic does not take these emotions nearly as seriously as he takes the literal words of his religion. The difference between the normal believer and the fanatic is a difference of character and heart - but it also involves a hidden difference in TOK.

Yes, TOK can be that important!

This brief foray into TOK teaches us some lessons. Perhaps the main one is this: We cannot get our ideas about morality and religion straightened out until we get our assumptions about knowledge straightened out. The endless debates about religion, atheism, and science will never cool down as long as we fail to think clearly about what knowledge is and where knowledge comes from.

If we want less confusion in our world, let's start by having more TOK!



P.S.: The other name for theory of knowledge, or TOK, is "epistemology" (e-PIS-ta-MAHL-uh-jee). Philosophers use "epistemology" and "theory of knowledge" to mean the same thing - and I've even seen some of them call it "TOK."

posted at: 00:49 | path: /knowledge | persistent link to this entry


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