Precepts to use in everyday life

1. Think for yourself, 2. Be yourself, 3. Speak up, 4. Feel free to agree and disagree, 5. Be honest with yourself and others, 6. Be open-minded, 7. Avoid being judgmental and 8. Question everything - even your own thinking.

TOK Essay Titles Nov 2017

Sunday, March 23, 2014

ToK Prescribed Essay Titles (November 2014): Question 2

2. “Knowledge takes the form of a combination of stories and facts.” How accurate is this claim in two areas of knowledge?

Picture: Courtesy of

(Click on the picture to go to a TED Talk on METAPHOR)
[A version of this post appeared here on January 13 2013]

What do the expressions ‘iron horse’, ‘floating mountains’ and ‘flying saucers’ have in common?

Answer: They are part of story told in response to something seen for the first time – an attempt to explain something unfamiliar and unknown and never experienced before.

The ‘iron horse’ was, allegedly, how a Native North American Indian described the first train that was seen moving across the North American plains. A ‘floating mountain’ (p. 17 of the pdf document; section: ‘The versions of the vanquished’) was, supposedly, how the native South American Indian spies described the oncoming ships of the Spanish invaders. And, ‘flying saucer’, as everyone may know, is how the Western media first publicised the phenomenon of UFOs. Now, imagine how each of these assertions were received by the general population: with understanding nods of approval and general acceptance? With undoubting certitude and unquestioning acknowledgement? Nope. Most probably with a lot of hilarity and not merely a pinch of condescending irony.

So you see, the implied distinction between ‘stories’ and facts’ is not always so clear cut and the above examples evidently support the title quote, especially as regards new knowledge.
However, there is a problem. Some sceptics reject a belief, not simply on the grounds that it was asserted without evidence, but because the evidence presented is framed in highly metaphoric terms and is thereby somehow diluted as far as justification of a belief is concerned. The language of evidence and justification, it appears, is crucial.

When justifying statements in the Bible, believers often argue that we shouldn’t take the words of the Biblical stories too literally – it detracts from the symbolic message or teaching; whereas atheists sometimes argue that after you’ve stripped the metaphor away from the language of the stories, there’s nothing of factual substance left in the message which we could validly argue represents knowledge.  These arguments notoriously assume that knowledge is either story or fact.  But can’t they be both as the title quote suggests?

Consider the language of the stories of the Bible, for example. Can we confidently argue that the stories also combine facts?

On the one hand, believers argue the story of the flood must have been based on true events as we find similar stories in other religious texts – it was a significantly catastrophic event throughout the earth to have compelled the imaginations of humans strongly enough to have recorded it.  Thus sacred texts are seen also to be historical documents in part; primary sources to help reconstruct a historical narrative of the past. However, when a similar line of argument is made to support the idea that according to the timeline of biblical events, the earth is only 4000 years old, are we to take this literally?

On the other hand, atheists argue that the story of Noah is only that – a story, a fiction.  It is might be very entertaining and engage us imaginatively and emotionally into a completely different world from our own; we can take whatever moral we want from it, such as ‘the endurance of human hope in the face of adversity’, but this does not make the events of the story real or true historical knowledge.  However, such arguments often detract from the sense that such Biblical myths helped our ancestors to make sense of a random universe and gave them an emotional strength to survive disasters.

Let’s come round to the title quote again.  What do you notice about each of the above expressions? They are deeply metaphoric. Metaphor or storytelling, it seems, is crucial to our ability to make sense of the world, especially our experiences of it. Metaphor fills the gaps, so to speak, in our more literal & factual attempts to grasp order and meaning in what we see in our universe. The North American Indian, seeing a giant, metallic object, racing towards him, breathing smoke and screaming violently, can only grasp what he’s sensing by comparing this unbelievably strange experience in terms of something more familiar to him. Metaphor helps to suspend our incredulity about the world and reach for knowledge and understanding that slips through our more literal/factual (rational?) approaches.
Which begs the knowledge issue: to what extent is imagination an integral part of building knowledge? Or the more ethical KI: should knowledge, grasped imaginatively and presented in metaphorical stories, be rejected with a corresponding rejection of the belief?
If the South American Indians had collectively accepted the ‘floating horses’ hypothesis, might they have taken more seriously the threat of the invading Spanish ships?
A ‘what if?’ question, the answer to which we’ll never be able to know...
On another level, what happens when we can’t tell the difference between our fictions and the reality from which they are made?  What if we believe a fiction to be true...?

No comments: