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This is the first of six special TOK blog posts to directly assist students and teachers in appreciating vital nuances associated with each of the May 2021 Theory of Knowledge Prescribed Titles. For each title, I will identify some initial key concepts and highlight some concrete approaches to address them before pointing our subscribers to specific TOK resources that are part of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal that can concretely assist in the development of a strong TOK essay for that particular title.
We begin with PT1: “Accepting knowledge claims always involves an element of trust.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
Key Concepts: Upon first reading this title, my eye immediately falls upon three key words: “always”, “trust” and “accepting”. It might seem strange to present them in this order, since “accepting” is the first word I encounter, but this is deliberate, as you’ll shortly see.
When someone tells me that something always happens in conjunction with something else, I’m immediately suspicious. Always? On every possible occasion? How do we know that that’s necessarily the case? That would seem to imply a necessary, structural link between the two things in question, but how certain am I that such a link necessarily exists?
Then there’s the expression “an element of trust”, which is one of those everyday figures of speech that we’re all very familiar with, but all too often such routine phrases actually hide a substantial amount of ambiguity lurking behind them: Who is trusting whom, exactly? Do all people mean the same thing when they talk about trust? And how big, precisely, is “an element of trust” anyway, and to what extent does it naturally vary from person to person?
At this point, directly after musing over “an element of trust”, I’m led back to the notion of “accepting”. After all, what am I talking about here? What is this thing that allegedly, “always involves an element of trust”? Well, accepting knowledge claims, of course. But then, I think to myself, different people naturally have different criteria for acceptance than others. How might that be addressed?
Some Concrete Approaches:
So now I’m ready to sketch out a few ways of how I might concretely tackle this title. Can I imagine situations where the acceptance of knowledge claims don’t involve “an element of trust”, or at least strikingly different degrees of trust?
To what extent is trusting the opinions of authority figures the same sort of thing as trusting my sense perception or powers of reason? Are there some types of knowledge claims that I somehow feel more compelled to accept than others? In what ways does our knowledge of a subject impact our ability to accept subsequent knowledge claims? If I’m a molecular biologist, say, how would that influence my acceptance of a newspaper reporting a proposed cure for the current pandemic?
A reasonable way forward would be to explicitly gear such examinations towards the particular two areas of knowledge that I want to invoke. Do “acceptance of knowledge claims” differ between the mathematical sciences and the human sciences? Under what circumstances can the role of “scientific authorities” be compared to “religious authorities”? To what extent do intrinsically subjective factors make “knowledge claims” in the arts similar to, and different from, those in history?
Lastly, it’s worth explicitly examining the specific impact that different ways of knowing have on the claim, a notion that was already alluded to when we mentioned sense perception and reason earlier: how can language or faith influence our willingness to accept or reject a given claim? Under what circumstances can we trust our memory or our intuition?
Below we highlight a number of specific TOK resource examples from Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal to build a world-class TOK Essay.
Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal offers a strong pedagogical framework where TOK is the backbone of interdisciplinarity throughout all resources.
In Proof by Picture, philosopher of science Jim Brown investigates how we come to accept mathematical claims, while in Cultural Mindsets, psychologist Carol Dweck reveals the key role that cultural factors play in interpreting the applicability of certain knowledge claims. In Evolutionary Evidence, neuroscientist Matthew Walker describes how knowledge claims in the natural sciences naturally depend on our faith in the validity of underlying theoretical frameworks, while in Know Thyself, rabbi David Goldberg highlights instances of when subjective knowledge claims about our own identity are not accepted by others.
In Testing Reality and Measuring Brain Activity, physicist Artur Ekert and cognitive scientist Ellen Bialystok emphasize the role that experiment plays in the acceptance of knowledge claims in the natural sciences. In Political Games? political theorist John Dunn illustrates how all too often knowledge claims in political science are more of a reflection of internal sociological factors than objective knowledge of the political world, and in History’s Pendulum, historian Maria Mavroudi relates how trusted “traditional narratives” impact our willingness to believe associated historical knowledge claims.
Further insights related to the process of the acceptance of knowledge claims are covered in detail in the comprehensive TOK Essay Practice Video for May 2020 PT 3 (Does it matter that your personal circumstances influence how seriously your knowledge is taken?), while the TOK Samplers Navigating the World and Assessing Spin explicitly highlight how the media and popular opinion influence our inclination to accept knowledge claims across a wide range of different AOKs.