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 2020

Thursday, December 3, 2015

ToK Prescribed Essay Title (May2016): Question 2

“Knowledge within a discipline develops according to the principles of natural selection.” How useful is this metaphor?


‘It’s gone viral!’ is a common enough expression in the 21st century world of digital mania, in which ideas and experiences are disseminated, verified and shared through various social media.  But can we apply the same metaphor to ‘knowledge’?  A virus is many things: uncomfortable, potentially fatal and, above all, contagious.  If we graft the metaphor of natural selection onto the metaphoric use of the idea of a virus, what insights can we generate?

Very simply put, a virus needs a ‘vector’ or host and like any reproductive organism, it uses the host to replicate itself.  The contagious part ensures that the cycle of replication continues…

But what makes the virus resistant and ensures its survival? Like with any organic species, it must have a ‘survival value’, a trait or quality that is selected for by nature that allows it to adapt to its changing environment.  In the case of a viral cell, it appears this trait is its ‘ability’ both to merge so fully with its host cell and to mutate so quickly, that it often resists detection by our immune system or other lines of defence like drugs.

What of knowledge then? It can be uncomfortable and potentially fatal, but contagious?  It seems odd to describe knowledge as something that infects us, but surely the mechanism that ensures the survival of some knowledge at the expense of other knowledge works in the same ‘evolutionary’ manner.

Consider creation myths about the origins of the universe.  They were once infectious and are now more dormant and exist in the form of entertaining stories for most of us and we resist them in favour of scientific explanations of the ‘Big Bang’.  A stronger, though more clichéd example (resist using it, even though it clarifies the point here!), is the development from ‘flat earth theory’ to ‘sphere earth theory’.  So what makes the spherical earth and Big Bang theories survive?  One possible response is that its central ideas are compatible with the available empirical evidence: the survival value of such scientific theories lies in their internal logical consistency, the strength of their predictive power and, of course, the cogency of the correlation between the theories and the data.

Where does this leave knowledge that is not so easily adaptable to evidence? Religious knowledge is notoriously ‘viral’: great numbers of people are drawn together by religious ideas and values either for good or evil.  Religious knowledge, like Jesus’ instruction to ‘turn the other cheek’, has survived for millennia and still has an impact on our personal lives.  Such knowledge is based less on available evidence than it is on deep rooted moral intuitions about what is right or wrong, so its ‘survival value’ must be in something else (emotion?) Has religious knowledge ‘evolved’ in any way? People pray and meditate in the same way as they’ve always done; their religious texts, on which they base much of their personal behaviour and value systems, never have bits added to them or taken away, so what exactly changes in religious knowledge? What makes it adapt to its modern environment?  One response is linked to the notion of how historical knowledge is constructed: it’s our interpretations of religious ideas and values that change and evolve…

Where does the metaphor of natural selection lose its explanatory force?  There is a counter claim: evolutionary development of a species or knowledge implies a linear progress – new knowledge is built from previous knowledge.  But we know that sometimes, knowledge breaks completely from what has gone on before and is ‘revolutionary’ – new knowledge arrives in the form of paradigm shifts (another cliché in waiting, so please find a fresher example!)…