Sunday, June 27, 2010

Doubt is the Key to Insanity (or Inanity)

This is really a sort of everted follow-up to a previous post on a rather vexing question. Apparently, there is a Persian proverb that says, "Doubt is the key to knowledge."

I now have a lot of apprentices running around trying to write 1200-1600 word essays on this topic. But what strikes me is that they don't begin with the obvious — that is, unpacking the metaphor and defining the terms.

What is a key? It is an object (material, insubstantial, metaphorical or otherwise) that is used either to gain, or to restrict, access to what is on the other side of a barrier.

In that sense, doubt must either be the active agent that starts a person on the path towards knowledge, or the active agent that confounds a person who is looking for knowledge. We must then define doubt and knowledge.

Defining doubt is easy; it can be done in many ways. Perhaps it is profitable to frame doubt as an active agent which is related to the ways in which humans 'know' things. A useful definition might then be something like: "A possibly unpleasant sensation of uncertainty with respect to the truth of an assertion or phenomenon, which may either provoke further action designed to quell that sensation, or deter further action because of other considerations."

Defining knowledge is also easy once one remembers that the purpose of establishing definitions in any debate is to dictate the terms of argument in a way that is useful to the person presenting the case. Knowledge, in this case, must be defined so as to make it the object of a pathway of inquiry that can be blocked.

It is therefore useful to define it in terms of the data-information-knowledge sequence: data are inputs received by ways of knowing, which when labelled and/or structured become information; information that is assigned a meaning (whether theoretical or practical, arbitrary or not, in physical act or mental process) is knowledge.

Showing how doubt is the key to knowledge in different disciplines or areas of knowledge then becomes a simple exercise in analysis. The overall outcome is likely to be different in extent from discipline to discipline, and the examples that can be used to demonstrate this range of results are manifold and can be used to make the exercise interesting.

The problem is that most apprentices don't think about writing out the argument outline before they just start writing stuff. So by the end, you are likely to see arguments like, "If you doubt things, then you will wonder a lot, and that will lead you to discover new knowledge. Thus, doubt is the key to knowledge."

I read such things and think that this must be serendipitous knowledge discovery, and that perhaps such people should instead write essays entitled, "Serendipity is the key to discovery. Discuss." Or perhaps, "Random writing is the key to failure. Demonstrate."

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Blogger Tessa said...


I've been working on my TOK essay for a couple of weeks, and I would just like to thank you for this post (and the other related ones) - they were useful in helping me sort out my thoughts for the essay. I have included your blog in my bibliography.

Thank you once more,


Saturday, July 24, 2010 6:01:00 pm  
Blogger Trebuchet said...

Argh, I'm such a bad person. I completely overlooked your comment for a fortnight! Thanks very much for telling me my stuff has been useful. :)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010 8:45:00 pm  

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