Natural Assumptions?

Arguably, every piece of knowledge that has ever been produced has been based on an assumption or a set of assumptions. No knowledge can be produced in a vacuum, which means that the search for knowledge always has a starting point that will generally provide the kind of questions being asked as well as the parameters of that search. One of the most important tasks for TOK students is to identify the assumptions which underpin the production of knowledge in all Areas of Knowledge. This is important because it highlights the things which disciplines take for granted;  it throws light on what they believe as important in terms of the foundations for knowledge as well as helping to identify the role of methodology in this search for answers; it also allows the student to work out the limitations of both the knowledge and the means by which it is produced.

Teachers of individual subjects in the DP are, of course, expected to address these issues in their TOK links, but there may be a variety of reasons why this does not always happen. Apart from the pressure of making sure that sufficient material has been covered to prepare the students for exams, there is also a sense among some subject teachers that to bring up the assumptions upon which their subject knowledge is based undermines their authority as teachers but also is an unwelcome distraction. Some would say it is simply impractical to consistently address the underlying assumptions of every piece of knowledge their subject produces—there simply isn’t time. Nevertheless, any TOK curriculum which fails to seriously address this issue provides a significantly incomplete implementation of the subject and short changes students in terms of one of the most important skills it is meant to develop.

The Area of Natural Sciences may be used to provide an example of some of the consistently unexamined assumptions necessary for the production of knowledge within it.

  1. There is a universe. This may seem like stating the obvious but, given the fundamental role of this assumption, it seems worth pointing out.
  2. The universe behaves in a consistent, orderly, and predictable manner according to a number of fundamental laws.
  3. These laws are discoverable with the use of the scientific method.
  4. These laws are fixed and operate exactly as they did from the first moments of the life of the universe and always will.
  5. These laws operate uniformly throughout the universe.
  6. The laws of physics are entirely valid foundations for all scientific laws.
  7. Mathematics provides a true picture of the meaning of a scientific law.
  8. There is a causal relationship between the quantum and Newtonian dimensions.

It is interesting that many physicists prefer to speak of postulates (things suggested as true as a basis for exploration) rather than laws when discussing the behaviour of elementary particles at the quantum level. This is an example where scientists explicitly recognise the existence and role of assumptions in their work.

All subjects and disciplines of course generate knowledge on the basis of assumed truths or facts; it seems it is in the very nature of human knowledge that it be so. Admittedly, knowledge is constantly being produced and tested on that basis, but there is no harm in sometimes reminding ourselves that it is indeed so.

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