‘Knowledge is true opinion’. This saying by Plato really hit my senses, as I had always received knowledge from a higher authority, from teachers in school to elderly in my religious society. However, through collective opinion, we get a varied response from many people, possibly gaining validity in knowledge. This could be through agreements between many members of a field, hence reaching a consensus. The consensus theory of truth states that something is true if a large number of people agree that it is true1. On the other hand, conflicting opinions and disagreements could also be a form of inducing knowledge. Then it got to me, what is the role of external opinion in influencing our perception of knowledge? Is gaining knowledge from opinions better than what I am currently learning? We can say that knowledge is robust when it is supported or validated by reliable sources, or according to Karl Popper2 when knowledge can be falsified. The more a theory has been challenged and debated and withstood these disagreements, the more robust it is.This hence leads me to discuss the claim that “Robust Knowledge requires both consensus and disagreements”. I will be discussing this claim through the natural sciences, since consensus and disagreements are used on a frequent basis, and through the indigenous knowledge systems, to evaluate how my current way of gaining knowledge compares to what we discuss in the natural sciences.
Scientific Consensus can be defined as the collective judgment, position, and opinion of the community of scientists in a particular field of study. To judge a scientific theory, a consensus is used to validate them. Plato’s definition of knowledge as ‘Justified True Belief of Knowledge’ states that if a proposition is true, the subject believes the proposition and is justified in his beliefs. However, Karl Popper opposed this system by stating that for a scientific theory to be truly scientific, it must be possible to falsify it.3 If this is not possible, then the theory may well reside in the realm of supernatural, superstitious, or faith-based areas, hence calling it the Theory of Falsification. He explains this theory by stating that in order to create knowledge, claims have to be criticised rather than justified. This is because justifications will eventually turn into circular arguments, where there would be infinite justifications for a claim.4 Rather than that, by falsifying and criticising the existing knowledge we are thereby able to strengthen the theory.
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Through this, we arrive at the question “To What extent does the falsifiability of knowledge affect its robustness?”
One prominent example of the use of scientific consensus is in the field of climate, and the scientists’ overall judgment among other scientists regarding the extent to which global warming is occurring, its likely causes, and its possible consequences. The scientific consensus amongst the scientists is that it is extremely likely that global warming is caused by humans, from increased concentration of greenhouse gases by burning of fossil fuels. Associations such as the American Association of the Advancement of Science, US National Academy of Science to name a few, have explicitly stated the word ‘consensus’ in their statements regarding the issue of global warming.5 Perceptions of visual sense perception-seeing satellite pictures and scientific interpretations of these findings have led to such conclusions. It also uses deductive reason and predicts the future by extrapolating results of climate change today based on inductive reason. Seeing patterns in weather is a major way of understanding climate change.
But how reliable are these scientific consensuses?
In the above example, the consensuses were opposed by Naomi Oreskes, when she reported that a survey of the abstracts of 928 science articles showed none which disagreed explicitly with the notion of anthropogenic global warming. She reported that those who disagreed with the notion were part of the scientific community, and showed through her research that there is great scientific disagreement in the theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming, and there is a lack of consensus compared to disagreements. Therefore, through this example, our claim is that falsification strengthens our knowledge and hence, makes it more robust.
However, we cannot establish that all scientific theories can be falsified. Earlier we had established that falsification of a scientific theory strengthens our knowledge, but if a theory cannot be falsified, does that mean it is not valid?
To further examine this, let us look at the universally known String Theory6. The String Theory describes how one-dimensional objects known as strings, spreads through space and interact with each other7. For a scientific theory to be valid, there is a need to falsify it or support it with empirical evidence. Hence, to establish the String Theory as a scientific theory, it is subject to many falsification attempts8. The strings are too small to be recognized by modern day technology, and hence there is no concrete evidence to the existence of these. Hence, we see that the string theory does not follow Popper’s Theory of Falsification and hence, cannot be classified as a scientific theory.
However, though the string theory could not be falsified, it is still a widely used phenomenon till date. For example, many scientists apply the string theory to pure mathematics, and other calculations relating to particle physics and states of matter. According to American physicist Andrew Strominger, “String theory may not be the fabled theory of everything, but it is definitely a theory of something”. 9Hence, since the string theory is used collectively by mathematicians and scientists in their respective fields, we can say that though the string theory does not follow Popper’s Theory of Falsification, there is a consensus in the use of this theory in many fields, hence arriving at the consensus theory of truth. Hence our counter to the above claim is that consensus in a theory creates robust knowledge rather than through falsification.
Now we have established that consensus and disagreements are required for robust knowledge, but what affects them, and are there alternative ways to make knowledge more robust?
In the examples seen above, we have seen how collective authority in the form of consensus of a group of expert scientists, played a part in influencing knowledge. However, there are also examples of individual authority in religious knowledge systems making knowledge robust.
Hence, we reach our next sub-knowledge question: To What Extent Does Authority play a role in Influencing Knowledge
In science, empirical evidence is the key factor in determining a theory and enhancing acceptance of that knowledge. However, in religious knowledge systems, we observe that knowledge is transmitted merely by the faith in the receiver, whereby faith itself acts as evidence. Therefore, in religious knowledge systems, robust knowledge is created through faith in the individual authority. Let us look at how faith in religious authority had influenced the actions and knowledge of individuals, through the example of Hinduism. Hinduism10 is one of the most ancient religions, developing over many centuries in India11.
However, even where religious beliefs are concerned, disagreements have a role to play. This can be in the form of disagreeing to the position of authority that the authoritative figure sits in and disagreements in a religious theory between different religions. Let us explore how disagreements were used to influence knowledge created by the authority, through the example of the Protestant Reformation12
2 Karl Popper’s theory of falsifiability states that “In so far as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable; and in so far as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality
4 LulieTanett. YouTube, YouTube, 27 July 2010, www.youtube.com/watch?v=VTFcNDJqyts.
5 The Network of African Science Academies stated: “A consensus, based on current evidence, now exists within the global scientific community that human activities are the main source of climate change and that the burning of fossil fuels is largely responsible for driving this change.”
6 String Theory is a theoretical framework in which the point-like particles of particle physics are replaced by one-dimensional objects called strings.