Tok Question 7

” How can we recognize when we have made progress in the search for knowledge? Consider two contrasting areas of knowledge.”

My feeling is that this is an easy question to approach at a simplistic level, but quite a hard one to do really well on.

Your essay will turn around the definition of ‘progress’ which is an interesting concept, one of which varies between subjects. If you want to tackle the question at an advanced level, you will need to consider the nature of ‘progress’: is there an objective extrinsic indicator/standards for progress in a subject, or is progress subjective/intrinsic?

An obvious subject to consider would be natural sciences and art, which would appear to constrast. It would be easy to think of a case where we can have progress (objective progress?) in NS. Consider a natural phenomena that I manage to explain. Science’s purpose is to learn more about the natural world, and I have managed to explain the world. Ergo, I have made progress.

Have I made progress? Really? It certainly appears that I have made progress but what is to say that my conclusions will not be overturned by a later scientist? Consider the plum pudding model of the atom; this was purported as progress but infact it set Science back.

Extra for experts: Does science have an objective standard of truth? If it did, and we were certain we had attained it, (could we ever be certain?) then we could say that we are making progress. It may be sensible to consider the objective nature of NS knowledge with mathematical knowledge, and compare their empirical basis’s. You may also want to consider the nature of scientific knowledge, and whether it merely¬† involves empirical observation of the world, or goes beyond that to explain the world. If you think it does the latter, does that change the epistemic status of knowledge?

You could also profitably consider art. The common sense reading is that art has no external standards, so it is very hard to measure progress. And indeed this would be quite easy to see: you would be doing well if you want to argue that a piece of art is ‘better’ than other one: you would have to argue that there is some objective standard for art which would be a rare position. So you have a simple argument here: there is no standard of progress in art because we can’t compare works.

You might, for a simplistic response to that, consider the preparation and performance of a work of art. It would be somewhat easy to say that we have to prepare and practise for something. When a pianist plays a piece completely accurately, they have made progress.

EforE: Are you sure this is art? Is this not replication? Be clear as to your definition.

Maths would be an interesting topic to cover here, as would history. Give some thought to the nature of historical knowledge: are we actually making progress in our knowledge about the past? If yes, you are adopting a classical modernistic view. However, a p-modernist would argue that your ‘progress’ is no better than my ‘progress’ which is different to yours. This means that my work is no better than yours, and yours is no better than Gibbons or Carr’s. So there is no prospect of progress.

Remember as ever to reflect critically on your life, and your experiences!

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