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To What Extent is This True in Two Areas of Knowledge?

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“Doubt is the key to knowledge”, what does this sentence mean, and exactly what does it connotate? My personal opinion states that doubt is a state of mind, between belief and disbelief, which involves uncertainty or distrust. Doubt involves the questioning of a perceived notion. It opens one to inquisition and compels a reassessment of a given truth, allowing for improved revisions, thereby furthering gains in knowledge. This process is continued until one finds grounds by which they can be satisfied with.

This essay will seek to address the extent to which doubt is manifested as a key to knowledge regarding two areas of knowledge, Science and History. Science, according to Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary, is a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws obtained and tested through the scientific method and concerned with the phenomena observed in the physical world. Science, through the course of history, has been a tried and tested means of gaining knowledge; through experiments, regarded by the scientific community, as a means to derive truth from the unknown and hence establish facts. The scientific community will vigorously doubt and criticize any ideas until enough evidence is produced to back them up.

Thus, is known in science then, provisional? Provisional means to allow for falsifications. Theories with enough logic can falsify previously held standing knowledge. My stand is that through doubt, science is indeed provisional. The basis of the progress of Science is through inferred or possibly imagined hypotheses, by scientists attempting to determine and establish meaning to the unexplained. These will then be experimented upon through scientific procedures, and any positive conclusions drawn henceforth will then be ascertained as theories. Theories held as scientific knowledge will remain so until they are doubted and contested against; challenged by new experiments and exploration into areas opposing the theory in question. Throughout the history of Science, knowledge has been derived from the selfsame processes. In the early Mesopotamian study, the Earth was believed to be a flat disk with a dome, until Ferdinand Magellan managed to prove that Earth was spherical after successfully circumnavigating the Earth in the 15th Century. Another example would be of the Italian physicist Galileo Galilei who, despite the endless controversy, criticism, and denouncing made against him, proved false the long withheld notion of the geocentric view that the Earth was at the center of the Universe. Thus, it is evident that through the use of scientific theories, unless disproved otherwise, knowledge is updated and will remain as such through continual doubt. Therefore even after scientific theories are propagated into laws, new methods will always be discovered which can challenge them as long as one continues to doubt. For my argument to hold true, however, certain assumptions and implications have to be made.

Firstly, for doubt to succeed as a key to unlocking knowledge in Science, one must persevere in doubting until satisfied by reliable scientific experimental results whether in support of or opposition to the theory in question. Also, methods used to contest previously held theories have to be recognized and accepted by the scientific community otherwise any significance findings from the research cannot be acknowledged. Thus, theories to contest concurrent theories must be definite and not ambiguous, or subjects of debate, that will prove detrimental to the attainment of knowledge. Doubt alone cannot lead to the development of new scientific theories; however, doubt is absolutely essential in verifying and hence justifying hypotheses into theories and theories into laws. That said, it is conceivable that certain theories or laws remain in a gray area and are unable to be proven with enough logic to be held as knowledge, and, as such have to be held at the truth. As Science is always being updated by revolutionary discoveries, scientists may not be aware that the theory/law can actually no longer be proven otherwise as nobody knows whether that theory/law is an immovable truth of nature, thus making the scientist’ cause in continual doubt futile and fruitless. The theory of the black hole, for example, is as of yet, unable to be proven by man.

However, one of the many theories of the black hole might actually be true but as nobody can prove it so, scientists in the field may invest pointless effort into developing new theories instead of directing that effort into proving the theory, which is actually true. Hence, continual doubt might actually lead to the elimination of the correct theory, resulting in a regression of knowledge. Also, there exist theories/laws already set in stone and are immovable truths. Established facts such as the Earth’s orbit around the sun can no longer be contested. Thus, although doubt lends to the progress of science and hence knowledge, it also has limitations which might prove detrimental to the growth of knowledge. History, according to the Random House Dictionary, is defined as a branch of knowledge dealing with past events relating to a particular people, country, period, person and especially in connection with the human race. History, similar to science, is also provisional to a certain extent. Historians can always interpret events relating to the past differently as they take conflicting stances. These interpretations are influenced by the evidence historians have gathered relating to the event, and thus are easily subjected to change as new findings are discovered, just as entirely different perspectives can be derived from the new material.

Hence, this attests to the presence of doubt in historical study. As historical knowledge is regarded as the truth through justification from gathered evidence and analysis by historians, this can be proven false if challenged by new evidence which is found to be valid, displacing the previously held “truth”.Historical revisionism is an academic field of study in history in which orthodox views on evidence, motives and decision-making processes surrounding a historical event are revised and reinterpreted[1]. Revisionist historians seek to reinterpret what is widely acknowledged by other historians through doubt. Revisionist historians doubt the evidence presented to them and consequently the conclusions drawn from them. Hence, they proceed to delve deeper into the subject by uncovering new evidence, which can challenge and thus prove the former to be historically false; in the process substantiating the new evidence which historians would proceed to draw new conclusions from, often regarded as legitimate historical knowledge until proven otherwise. During the First Gulf War, the US army justified the dispatching of troops into Saudi Arabia as protection by revealing satellite photos of amassing of Iraqi forces in the desert in preparation for an impending invasion[2].

The US was acknowledged for playing a pivotal role in the national defense of Saudi Arabia against Iraqi antagonism. However, as there were doubts to the authenticity of the alleged satellite photos, a newspaper publication “St. Petersburg Times” privately obtained two satellite photos from a commercial Soviet satellite showing no signs of Iraqi forces anywhere near the area they were supposedly massing at[3]. The formerly held evidence was proved false, causing historians to doubt US motives and formulate new theories to discover the true intentions of the US government at the time; some suggesting the deliberate doctoring of the satellite photos to create an excuse to mobilize troops to protect US supply of oil imports. This example demonstrates how doubting the claims from the historical evidence presented had caused new evidence to be discovered and brought in to shed new light on the subject, leading to more accurate conclusions drawn, ultimately contributing to the progress of knowledge in the study of history. Doubt, instead of lending to the progress of knowledge, could distort and make false factual historical knowledge. The illegitimate distortion of history is known as negationism[4]. An example of negationism would be the cover-up of Japanese war crimes during the Second World War. The Rape of Nanking is a historical event known for the engaging of the Japanese army in brutal activities of mass rape, theft, and murder on the Nanking populace. Although the Japanese have acknowledged the authenticity of the event, they have tried to downplay the magnitude of the atrocities by criticizing the death toll estimates by China, accusing the latter of fabricating statistics attributed to the Nanking massacre.

Publications in Japan including school textbooks had purposely omitted their atrocities, distorting the accuracy of presented historical knowledge. Due to the controversy surrounding the war crimes committed by Japan, it is difficult to ascertain either side’s stance on the event and thus come to a commonly accepted historical account. Both the distortion of history and denial of historical truths have led to the regression of knowledge. In this regard, doubt certainly cannot be attributed as the key to knowledge as claimed. Nevertheless, with regard to history as an area of knowledge, it is irrefutable that doubt plays a critical role as an advocate of knowledge gained from the historical study. Without the ability to doubt, historians are tied down to pre-established facts and notions, which could, through extensive research and new methods of ascertaining evidence, be proven to be by no means accurate. Hence, history is provisional to a certain extent, as without a doubt, future generations would be left questionable and apocryphal “knowledge”.In conclusion, due to the broadness and ambiguity of the knowledge areas of Science and History, it is impossible to accurately evaluate doubt and its ability to present itself as the key to attaining knowledge. Nonetheless, through careful study and research on these various areas of knowledge, this essay presents the stand that doubt, to a large extent, is an indispensable and important factor as the key to knowledge.

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