‘Fringe’, Season 5 Episode 5
Sunday, April 7, 2013
ToK Essay Prescribed Titles (November 2013): Question 3
“Every attempt to know the world rests on a set of assumptions that cannot be tested.” Examine this assertion in relation to two Areas of Knowledge.
“You don’t even know what you don’t know”
Just listen to the dialogue and follow the use of the verb ‘to know’ – even without knowing the context of the conversation or knowledge of the characters (Peter is about to torture the bald man strapped to the chair for information about how to reverse engineer a tool that could help to save the world), the assumptions about how emotion, perception and intuition are involved in finding out what someone knows are fascinating.
Peter ultimately believes he got the knowledge he wanted from the bald man – as he puts the machine together in an apparently trial and error way, he watches the bald man’s reactions to get clues as to whether he’s on the right track. These attempts to ‘read’ the bald man’s mind is, methodically, a cross between a lie detector test (monitoring heart rate and eye dilation), the Turing test (asking a range of questions to work out if the response is human or machine), the ‘poker test’ (reading the ‘tells’ of an opponent during a game). If he were a psychic, he might have done a bit of ‘cold reading’ (asking a few generalised questions so as to home in on a specific truth).
The scene ends poignantly with the imprisoned man mocking Peter’s sense of superiority, urging him to think of the limitations of his human mind and knowledge: he makes the analogy of an ant who doesn’t realise that the dark cloud descending upon it is the sole of the bald man’s shoe: a strange parallel to the idea of the machines in ‘The Matrix’ who think of humans as ‘parasites’.
But the scene from ‘Fringe’ also points to a reversal of the ‘meno paradox’, explored in Plato’s discussion of virtue in The Meno. When asked if he knows what virtue is, Meno poses the conundrum: how can you begin to define ‘virtue’ if you don’t know what it is? And if you did come across an example of it, how would you recognise that it was virtue in the first place?
Socrates’ solution is to argue that knowledge is a process of recalling what we already know through the kind of questioning that is exemplary of the Socratic dialogue. Knowledge is ultimately a function of memory and is innate to the knower.
This implies, however, subscribing to a peculiar belief in the human soul and its transmigratory habits...
Are you prepared to do this?