TOK Essay: Should a knower’s personal point of view be considered an asset in the pursuit of knowledge, or an obstacle to be overcome?
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As human knowledge has developed, several factors have influenced the path that learning has taken. These factors include sudden bouts of inspiration, personal points of view, and flawed logic, to name but a few. How each has changed the course of the pursuit of scientific knowledge leaves open the question of whether each is an asset or a liability to be overcome. From the perspective of the development of scientific knowledge in particular, a personal point of view can be considered an asset in the pursuit of knowledge.
One effect of a personal point of view on the pursuit of knowledge is the bias brought to a new study. By allowing a personal point of view to define what will (and will not) be studied, the scientists simultaneously limit what will be considered knowledge in their new field. For instance, by defining biology as the study of living things, then defining living things as those that are composed of cells and that undertake certain functions such as respiration, scientists automatically remove tables and chairs from their studies. This is generally a benefit, as it makes all-encompassing theories about a subject more possible than they would be without these limits. However, by limiting the study in this manner, things such as viruses are also expected not to adhere to the rules of biology, despite the fact that some of the criteria for living organisms are obviously being met. In this case, the point of view that (admittedly necessarily) restricts the knowledge gained about an area may in fact be an obstacle to the pursuit of knowledge, as without the inclusion of something such as a virus into biological theories, the biological model may be incomplete.
Biases in older, established studies also find their roots in personal points of view. For instance, the expansion of biology from the old study of only zoology and botany to the study of molecular biology during the 1950s required that inertia concerning the way the studies should be conducted be overcome. Some that were experts in the fields of botany or zoology maintained their stance that their older method of biology study was the only correct way to go about things; they were rapidly left behind in the tide of revolution. Others decided to migrate into the new molecular biology studies. Each group had its own opinions, its own biases, all of which affected the course of the study of biology. This represents a mixed advantage and disadvantage to a personal point of view. It was a personal point of view that provided the resistance to the “molecular biology revolution” in the first place, which, in itself, produces its own advantage and disadvantage, similar to one discussed above in that it provided seemingly reasonable limits to a study, but therefore limited the amount of attainable knowledge considered relevant to the study of biology. Yet a personal point of view also broke through the resistance, changing the path of biology to one that we now believe is more accurate, which is a definite positive.
Similar examples can be found in physics. Prior to the Michelson-Morley Experiment of 1887, which showed the constant speed of light, the experiments of FitzGerald and Lorentz, which explained the constant speed of light as the contraction of bodies and slowing of clocks, and the subsequent conclusion by Einstein that electromagnetic waves do not require a medium, scientists felt that light required a medium, and thus one was invented-ether (Hawking). These experiments demonstrate yet another aspect of a personal point of view in the pursuit of knowledge; the fact that despite the assumptions a personal point of view brings into a study, such as FitzGerald’s and Lorentz’s assumption that ether did, in fact, exist, knowledge can still be gained from such a study. Despite their assumption, they contributed, through their experiments, the knowledge that light does travel at a set speed. Thus, even when associated with false assumptions brought into an experiment, personal points of view are not always negative.
In the field of chemistry, there are two related examples, one that deals with Dalton’s atomic theory, and the second dealing with the structure of benzene. Dalton’s atomic theory, which stated “the atoms were tiny, indivisible, indestructible particles” (Bender), differed drastically from that of the Greeks’ in that it “wasn’t just a philosophical statement that there are atoms because there must be atoms” (Bender). Although Aristotle believed that there are four terrestrial elements, earth, water, air, and fire, Democratus believed that “a piece of a substance can be divided into smaller pieces of that substance until we get down to a fundamental level at which you can’t divide the substance up and still have pieces of that substance” (“Atoms”). Aristotle’s theory was popular, but incorrect; Democratus’s was closer to our current theory, yet he remained relatively unpopular and obscure. This demonstrates of the key way in which a personal point of view can, in fact, retard the pursuit of knowledge. The scientist with the better oratory abilities has his theories more widely accepted. Dalton’s own theory, which extrapolated upon four basic ideas:
- chemical elements are made of atoms.
- the atoms of an element are identical in their masses
- atoms of different elements have different masses
- atoms only combine in small, whole number ratios such as 1:1, 1:2, 2:3 and so on.
- atoms can be neither created nor destroyed (Stamps).
Dalton’s point of view that the Greeks’ “philosophical statements” must be proven with experiments and data has proven to be an asset to the pursuit of knowledge in the field of chemistry, as it promoted change and development within the scientific community.
Another example of a purely beneficial personal point of view involves the structure of benzene, discovered by Friedrich August Kekule in 1865. Until this point, the structure of certain gases remained a mystery, particularly benzene, which had been discovered by Michael Faraday in 1825. “Faraday succeeded in isolating benzene by distillation and crystallization of [the residual a whale oil used in illuminating streetlights]. He was also able to determine its quantitative composition and vapour density…” (Nagendrappa). Yet nothing else definite was known until forty years later. An inspirational dream led the chemist Kekule to the solution of the ring structure of the gas benzene. Kekule’s dream led to his personal belief that the structure of benzene could be discovered, and lent him the commitment to discover the structure of benzene himself. Thus, Kekule’s point of view was an asset that led him to expand chemists’ knowledge of their subject.
Despite the disadvantages of a personal point of view, namely its tendency to slow the pursuit of new knowledge in an established scientific field, it seems overall to be an asset to be embraced. Even those scientific “discoveries” that are later shown to be incorrect, such as the existence of ether and phlogiston, assist the pursuit of knowledge by the mere fact that they promote experimentation and challenges of old methods and thoughts. The personal points of view have allowed for the sudden bursts of activity in the scientific community that led to new discoveries.