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That which is accepted as knowledge today is sometimes discarded tomorrow

Updated on July 9, 2014

Introduction

Knowledge is conventionally defined as “facts, information and skills acquired through the experience or education”. Like everything else, knowledge is affected by time. The value and ‘truth’ of a supposed piece of knowledge may increase over the centuries—as, for example, with the ‘atomic theory’ of the ancient Greek natural philosopher, Democritus. On the other hand, the status of a belief as knowledge may diminish with time until it is, gradually or suddenly, discarded altogether. New evidence may utterly contradict long abiding alleged truths, such as that the Sun and other planets revolve around the Earth, or that the Earth is only several thousand years old. These revolutionary changes occur not only in scientific knowledge, where they are easiest to spot, but also in other areas of knowledge, like ethics. Sometimes drastic changes in ethical knowledge are even driven by changes in scientific knowledge, so that the discarding of truths in the one leads to the discarding of truths in the other.

DNA

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DNA & Human Evolution

One of the most revolutionary discoveries of twentieth century science, which had led to revolutionary developments in many areas of knowledge, including history, was the discovery that the chromosomes in the nuclei of eukaryotic cells were densely coiled strands of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, and that sequences of this molecule formed a kind of template for the manufacture of all the proteins from which all living things are built. The knowledge of DNA’s role and properties has, since this was fully understood in the 1950s, slowly led to huge advances agriculture, immunology, paleontology, or areas beyond the sciences like archaeology, history, or famously, criminal investigation. DNA based evidence has undermined traditionally accepted explanations of all sort of events but one particularly important recent example is the emergence of overwhelming genetic to demonstrate that our species, Homo Sapiens Sapiens, was not a different species from Homo Sapiens Neanderthals, and that in fact, the two sub-species interbred and everyone of European, North African, Middle Eastern and Central Asian descent is carrying 1%-5% of Neanderthal DNA. Moreover, the peculiar features of ‘caucasians’ in particular, such as non-black hair, and non-brown eyes, and fair skin and heavy body-hair are now looking as if they are of Neanderthal origin. Our T.o.K. teacher told us how different this was from what ‘the knowledge’ he was taught about Neanderthals when he was growing up in the 1970s, which was that ‘smarter’ Homo-Sapiens out-competed less intelligent Neanderthals for scarce resources so that the latter became extinct through natural selection. Furthermore, he reported that the illustrated ‘recreations’ of Neanderthals always seemed to show them as dark-complexioned. The knowledge that we humans are not directly related to Neanderthals, and that they were some sort of inferior, more primitive version of us has been discarded through DNA evidence.

Say no to Racism

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Racism & Philosophy

How interestingly at odds with what we now ‘know’ about Neanderthals is one the most common and basic assumptions of western civilization at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, namely that…‘Whites are a superior race’. Due to this so called ‘scientific fact’ an ‘ethical judgement’ held sway that white people ought to, had a right to, dominate other races. Very sadly, because white people had the ideological power (fundamentally because they had the fire-power), tens of millions of non-white people, over many generations, in the Americas, Asia, Africa, India, the Arab world and Australia were persuaded to believe that they were inferior. The Nazis beliefs on this score didn’t just come out of nowhere. Kant, Hegel, Herder and Schopenhauer were all advocates of so called ‘scientific racism’. If anything, it was worse in France where luminaries like Cuvier, Buffon and Voltaire upheld the same ideas. In the U.S.A., especially in the first half of the 19th century, dozens of publications gave supposedly ‘scientific’ credence to the inferiority of non-white races, and in particular, used this to justify the enslavement of Africans. In 1870, when Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man dared to question ‘scientific racism’ on the basis of his meticulous re-examination of the alleged ‘craniological’ evidence for it, maintaining instead that racial traits graded into one another in a single spectrum, and were trivial attributes anyhow, he was attacked on all sides by scientists and non-scientists alike.

Yet, by the turn of the 20th to the 21st century, racism and especially the attempted scientific justification of it, as well as its use to justify imperialism, or slavery, or genocide, had come to be abhorred by most educated people, especially in western society. This ethical paradigm shift, which went hand in hand with a scientific paradigm shift, has revolutionized our world for the better. The belief that since we are all human, and that no human should subject another to slave labour is one of the core elements of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has become a touchstone for dominant ethical beliefs nowadays. This sea change in normative and applied ethics raises important questions about ‘moral conscience’ and the law. Henry David Thoreau wrote in his book Civil Disobedience in 1848, the great year of revolution in Europe against exploitation on the basis of class:

Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavour to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then?

Thoreau argues that our conscience, our ability to distinguish right from wrong, should lead the way to human enlightenment, moral and ethical progress. Furthermore, he believed that the issue of the rightness or wrongness of whether one should resist involuntary servitude could be easily solved this way. And so it could. Once one accepts the almost universal ethical nostrum that “One should not do to another what one would not want done to oneself”, it becomes easy, for ‘normal’ people anyway, to determine that one should object to a law enforcing slavery or genocide.

Knowledge Issues

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Conclusion

There are so very many examples of either presumed scientific or ethical knowledge coming to be seen as false and being duly discarded. In science, we can cite the idea that life generates spontaneously from non-living matter or that the continents are fixed forever in place. In ethics, we can find other notions, once widespread, that are now extinct, such as that if we want things of life-giving value, like rain or sun, from the Gods, then we must solicit them with something of equal value like a strong and healthy young person’s life, or that it is acceptable to use other people as food (as long as they are not your own people). There are even other examples of linked paradigm shifts in scientific and ethical ‘knowledge’, such as the rejection—still in progress-- of the one-time world-wide received idea that women are physically and intellectually inferior to men, and therefore should therefore receive less compensation for the labour, or labour more, or not be allowed to do any important jobs. Yes, time does indeed wear away everything. It turns mountains and seas into sandy deserts, and in much less time, the living into the dead. It transforms human knowledge too, whether of the physical universe around us, or of the moral universe within us, regardless of whether that happens after a short period or after many hundreds of years. It has been crucial for humanity to continue in its quest for ever improved truth, even if this means the discrediting of cherished ideas, long accepted as indubitable and incontrovertible. What we must come to realize is that this revision of knowledge by throwing away is one step backwards to make two, or more forwards, a little loss for a far greater gain.

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