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Goethe, a German writer and statesman once said, “We know with confidence only when we know little; with knowledge doubt increases”. But what is knowledge? A term that philosophers have been in search of for centuries, according to the modern definition, knowledge is facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. Rene Descartes, a well-known French scientist, mathematician and philosopher, who is widely regarded as the father of modern philosophy had an interesting approach to knowledge and acquiring knowledge: doubt. He doubted everything he learned and knew, wondering whether the information is true or false, and in the end he came up with “cogito ergo sum” which translates into “I think therefore I am”. All he can be confident in, as in certainly knowing, is that he exists because he is capable of thinking. This partially explains the phrase “We know with confidence only when we know little; with knowledge doubt increases”. The phrase expresses that one will be more confident the less he knows, and with more knowledge, confidence will decrease. However, it could be interpreted that we can only be confident in a small amount of knowledge, while doubting most things. Descartes is a knowledgeable philosopher; his knowledge leads him to be confident in a single statement and doubt the rest of his what he knows.
Modern science and philosophy has built up from Descartes’ famed philosophy on knowledge, where he defined knowledge in terms of doubt. He distinguishes factual knowledge (scientia) and weaker forms of conviction (persuasio) as the following: “I distinguish the two as follows: there is conviction when there remains some reason which might lead us to doubt, but knowledge is conviction based on a reason so strong that it can never be shaken by any stronger reason.” As Descartes explored his way through knowledge, he realized that he was sure of only one thing: that he knows he exists because he can think. Descartes used doubt as a contrast of certainty. As doubt increased, certainty decreased and Descartes did not find many things to be certain. Doubt has played a large role in philosophy since Greek philosophy started taking shape. Sophists also used doubt as a tool to explore knowledge and got to the conclusion that we can never truly know something for certain. They believed knowledge could only be gained from our sensory organs, and they can easily be deceived. They also argued that the universe is constantly changing, even science is proven wrong from time to time and it is near impossible for a fact to be true for a long time.
Descartes’ statements are proven by history; we can never know what is true knowledge. A perfect example for his statements would be that the world was once accepted to be flat. Galileo Galilei was an Italian philosopher and astronomer who paved the way for the acceptance of the Copernican heliocentric system as opposed to the geocentric cosmology that was accepted to be true at the time. The Copernican heliocentric system is a cosmological model in which the Sun lies at or near a center point and other bodies including the Earth orbit it. His studies with the telescope led Galileo to believe the Earth is a round spherical shape rather than a flat surface. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the idea that the Earth was a flat surface was widely accepted to be factual, and was even supported by the respected and ‘knowledgeable’ scientists of the time. The Copernican heliocentric system was rejected by society and Galileo’s advocacy of the system resulted in an Inquisition process against him. This historical event proves Descartes’ and the Sophists’ idea that knowledge cannot be trusted. It also supports the statement “We know with confidence only when we know little; with knowledge doubt increases”. Before Christ, most tribes and societies without doubt believed the world was run by Gods. As time passed and people gained knowledge, they began to doubt what they know and discover. What would once be accepted as a fact now remains as a theory or one of the possibilities in current time.
Christianity and the Church has played a large role throughout history. The institution has been one of the most powerful groups for several centuries, and it is unfortunately infamous for abusing its power. During its reign the Catholic Church has committed several crimes from burning women thought to be “witches” to covering up the rape of thousands of children. The Church has also intervened with matters of science, such as the previously mentioned Galileo Galilei case. A similar case is the burning of Jan Hus. Hus was a Czech (Bohemian) priest closely related with the Church. During his entire career he was involved with Western Schism (where there were three rival popes with their own following). Due to his relation with the Church, Hus was already a man under the spotlight. While Hus was studying the Bible and philosophy, he realized that since humans are flawed by nature, the Church should also be flawed since it is run by humans. The Church was not pleased with Hus’ philosophy because it was a threat to their power. To be able to stop the idea from spreading, the Council of Constance was convened and Hus was invited to join them. He was reluctant at first, however obliged when he was offered safe conduct. When Hus arrived he was imprisoned and later burned at stake. Followers of the Church blindly continued to believe in what the Church offered as “knowledge”. No one questioned the Church because no one had enough information to doubt them. As science advanced and human knowledge expanded people started questioning their beliefs. As a result, the Church was stripped of its power and is no longer a reigning institution.
Since the beginning of Greek philosophy, philosophers, scientists, researchers have tried to explain the condition of being unaware of one’s own stupidity. Sokrates’ explanation, “I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.” is actually a foreshadowing of what will later be defined as the Dunning- Kruger Effect. As far as science goes, there is a logical explanation as to why people who are ignorant or unskilled in a given domain believe they are much more competent than they are. The Dunning- Kruger Effect, found in the late 90’s by David Dunning and Justin Kruger occurs when people of low competence fail to adequately judge and understand their level of competence. The lack of judgment and awareness is attributed to their lower level of competence, which disables them from correctly analyzing themselves, leading to an overestimation of their abilities.
While the Dunning-Kruger Effect explains why people with a lower competence level tend to have more confidence in what they know, people of the Catholic Church and others who suppressed those who tried to gain further knowledge are not “stupid”. They do not exactly fit Goethe’s philosophy. In all of these historic events, the influencers are not the incompetent ones, their followers are. The less people know, the less they will question, which makes them easier to control. To ensure their power over their crowd, these influencers filter the information they are exposed to. Most of the population is driven into the false image of “knowledge” and “confidence” while some like Galileo and Jan Hus separate from the herd. As the influencers began to lose control, more and more people start to separate from the group. For centuries, the Catholic Church was in control of a large amount of people, having them blindly believe “knowledge” that they had altered and filtered. As time passed, their influence weakened as science progressed and eventually, what was once a global leading power got pushed to the side. Descartes’ philosophy is a fitting explanation to what most people now accept as the basis of knowledge philosophy. Many agree that we can be certain that we exist due to our ability to think, and some accept other facts as knowledge too. It is also understood that all facts can change, but “I think, therefore I am” will remain.
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