1. “The main reason knowledge is produced is to solve problems.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?

My thoughts on this essay title should not be taken as a ‘model answer’, nor a complete essay structure. They are just my initial ideas on how to answer this essay question. Those ideas are certainly not the only way to answer the question, nor even the ‘best way’ to answer the question, they are just starting points for discussion within our ToK community.

I find that a useful starting point for many ToK questions is to identify the key themes of the question, and then to develop possible Knowledge Questions from those themes. The obvious themes of this question are:

1. The reasons for ‘knowledge’.

2. The process of ‘knowledge production’.

3. How do we identify / define ‘problems’ ?

4. Are the ‘problems’ identified in the title known to us already ?

From these themes I have developed the following Knowledge Questions (There are many many other possible KQ’s, you should develop your own rather than copy mine, I only cite these as examples):

1. Do we need apriori knowledge in order to identify a problem ?

2. What is the relationship between conscious goals and identifiable problems in the production of knowledge ?

3. What are the consequences for [state an AoK] if most human problems are understood to be ultimately internal ?

4. How can we explain recent knowledge development if we accept that human evolution is a natural response to environmental problems ?

5. What role does serendipity play in the development of human knowledge ?

6. If our knowledge is bound by our imagination can we even start to understand the problems that we currently face ?

7. If we don’t have the language to articulate a problem does it exist ?

This PT asks you to comment upon your degree of agreement with the statement, therefore it would be helpful to look at both sides of the debate, and many points in between. The following thoughts are designed to help us to start looking at the degrees of agreement with the title.

Definition of “solve problems”. 

The essay very much rests upon your definition of problems, and in some versions of the essay it depends upon your definition of “solve” in the title. Some of my initial thinking about how to define problems would consider:

a) Primary tangible problems vs. secondary intangible problems (e.g. food scarcity vs a sense of purpose).

b) Short term problems vs long term problems (e.g. physical safety vs efficiency of food gathering behaviours)

c) Naturally occurring problems vs Human ‘created’ problems.

d) Universality vs specific.

and many, many other factors of definition could be considered.

Some writers may wish to consider defining the term ‘to solve’. The effects of an apparent solution could be either immediate, or longer term, or the apparent solution could lead to new problems (which in turn require a solution). There is a very interesting paragraph which could be written on the process of ‘solving’ – by accident or on purpose ? what is the direction of causation ? could the solution have given rise to the problem ? (is this ontological, or tautological ?) – I hear discussions about Nuclear Weapons in this area of philosophy (ie “Nuclear Weapons guarantee security because their existence means that no-one will ever use them”) – in other words nuclear weapons are the solution to the problem caused by the existence of nuclear weapons !

Another way of looking at the title would be to consider the nature of knowledge itself. We can go about this in two main inter-related ways, the first being that knowledge exists as an external reality, and it is the process of selection and labelling which defines it as knowledge. The second being that knowledge is more of an internal state – a construction of a cognitive state. In classical philosophy this could be understood in terms of the debate between  empiricism and rationalism.  If you were to structure your essay around this debate, or just include it in your essay, you must decide how to apply it to the question. Personally I would argue that Rationalism is a philosophical approach which is supportive of the PT whilst an Empirical approach implies more significant problems with the PT. I will now develop this argument a little more, however please do not feel that this is the only interpretation and application, you are free to apply this duality as you feel appropriate.

As such it could be argued, from a rationalist perspective that we have identified problems and then devised solutions by synthesising pre-existing knowledge, use of lateral, inductive and deductive processes. As such the rationalist approach could be used to support the PT. Real Life Situations could be drawn from numerous examples across the Natural Sciences, Human Sciences, The Arts, Maths etc

However, on the other hand, an empiricist approach could propose that we have experiences which, by existing in a partially known physical world, exist beyond apriori knowledge. As such they are beyond human categorisation, labelling and semantic analysis. As such experiences are beyond that which could be rationally determined as ‘known’, and therefore could not be labelled as ‘problems’, consequently the knowledge generated by such experiences could not be produced in order to solve such problems. Real Life Situation examples could be drawn from Indigenous Knowledge Systems, Religious Knowledge Systems, or from WoKs Faith, Imagination, Intuition, etc

There are extensive opportunities to structure your answer around the empiricist vs rationalist philosophical debate. It is neither the purpose of this blogpost, nor particularly advantageous to the reader, to go into this extended detail here. Rather, I would prefer to suggest the following philosophers if you are interested in this area: Locke, Hume, Descartes & Kant. – Have fun !

Of course, ToK is not meant to be a philosophy course, and you are in no way expected to learn a lot of philosophy in order to take the course. It is a course in thinking, as such you should be able to answer the question using ideas and examples drawn from the Areas of Knowledge which most interest you. As such, I will now briefly consider the question in terms of AoKs and Woks.

I have structured the following comments in terms of AoKs & WoKs in order to remind us to keep the links to ToK, however there is absolutely no requirement in the PT that you explicitly link to AoKs & WoKs.

1. Natural Sciences, or Human Sciences & Reason.

My first interpretation of this title was an evolutionary biological / evolutionary psychological explanation for knowledge production. It could be argued that the apparatus for knowledge acquisition, comprehension and retention developed in response to the adaptive requirements of the environment.  As such, this argument would support the proposition of the PT.

Real Life Situation examples could be drawn from the evolutionary explanations for the development of human culture – Alex Mesoudi’s book Cultural Evolution would be useful here. There is also a useful APA link here.

In developing a set of counterarguments it could be argued that Culture has developed a number of outcomes which don’t appear to solve any ostensible primary human problems such as the arts, concentration of wealth and poverty, conflict, resource shortages, environmental degradation etc. Further, it could be argued that the development of culture itself has given rise to new problems which humans have, in turn, had to seek solutions for.

Another, contrasting approach within the Natural and Human Sciences would be to consider the structured scientific method of investigation (aka “Hypothetico Deductive Method“) in contrast to serendipitous moments of accidental discovery. Students could explore the claim that through use of the Scientific Method scientists identify a problem, and through a set of stages produce knowledge to solve that problem. Real Life Situation (RLS) examples could be drawn from the gamut of examples in natural and human sciences e.g. research to discover vaccinations against diseases, or research into reducing violence etc etc. As a counterclaim students could consider the range of ‘accidental’ scientific discoveries, those things which were discovered by serendipity, luck or chance. Such famous examples include Fleming’s discovery of Penicillin, however more accurate discoveries may include Newton’s discovery of gravity, and Pasteur’s discovery of the Cholera Vaccine. This approach could also be looked at through the prisms of inductive reasoning vs deductive reasoning, or lateral thinking vs convergent thinking.

2. The Arts, perception, and imagination.

The Arts as an AoK provides us with a great way into this question. Students could set up a dichotomous dilemma surrounding the function of human artistic endeavour. Roughly this dilemma is : Do the arts solve problems of human experience / existence, or do they define the problems of existence ? In terms of the PT is Artistic knowledge an attempt to solve problems or does artistic knowledge produce problems ?

To better understand this problem it may be opportune to pair The AoK of the Arts with Perception and Imagination as WoKs (NB – there is little logical reasoning for this pair, it is merely apposite to the purposes of this question). In order for us to understand that a problem exists, and subsequently to proffer possible solutions to that problem we have to perceive and imagine the problem and possible solutions. The dichotomy that I set here is that the Arts (& perception & imagination) may be either necessary and / or sufficient (an interesting debate in itself) for the production of such solutions (i.e. supporting the PT), or The Arts (& perception & imagination) may be key to the generation of awareness of such problems (i.e. counter to the PT).

There are nearly innumerable real life examples which could be used to illustrate this dilemma as examples can be drawn from across the vast contemporary and historical spectrum of all forms of Art. Personally, the first example which immediately springs to mind is the work of War Photographers (for e.g. see the conflict in Vietnam 1955-75) – did the work of Western photographers in this conflict increase public awareness, and therefore hasten western withdrawal, thus helping the people of the region to find self-determined autonomous solutions ? (supporting the PT) Or did the work of the photographers increase a generations awareness of their own capacity for inflicting harm, thus leading to an erosion of social collectivism and the rise of individualist materialism ? (Counter to the PT). A starting point for researching this is this fascinating paper from Wellesley.

This is just my initial thinking on RLS for The Arts (or History), I’m sure that students will be able to come up with far better examples than me. I would strongly encourage you to do so (BTW my RLS soon appear on those plagiarism checking programmes !).

3. Intuition.

Intuition provides us with a good basis for exploring the question, it could be applied across AoK’s or applied within specific AoK’s such as Natural Sciences and Religious Knowledge Systems. Intuition is defined by Oxford Dictionaries.Com as

(1) The ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning:we shall allow our intuition to guide us

(2) A thing that one knows or considers likely from instinctive feeling rather than conscious reasoning:your insights and intuitions as a native speaker are positively sought

As such Intuition as a WoK takes us beyond the Empiricist/Rationalist framework described earlier, intuition gives us knowledge which is neither reasoned nor conventionally perceived. An interesting essay (or part of) could be written around asking the question: “How can intuitive knowledge be understood in terms of problem solving ?”.

I would set the premise up here within the framework of Evolutionary Biology, or Evolutionary Psychology. This argument could be outlined as: Intuitive knowledge has a neurological basis which is the result of inherited positive adaptive genotypes. As such, intuitive knowledge is knowledge that was generated in order to solve the problems of previous generations. Students could use this article from my blog to extend their answer, and to develop RLS.

Counter arguments could range across a critical analysis of evolutionary theory, application of epi-genetic theory, Lamarckian analysis, critique of the causal inferences drawn from CAT, PET & fMRI research, Jungian Collective Unconscious etc.

4. Ethics – Morality as a form of social cohesion.

Students could use Ethics as an AoK to argue that ethical knowledge, particularly morality, has developed in order to solve the problems of conflict, social fragmentation and social disorder. In this knowledge claim morality is posited as providing a set of commonly agreed rules which provides for a more harmonious society. As such morality is seen as a form of Social Contract. Writers could draw upon Rousseau’s work on Social Contract as a Real Life Situation / example.

As a counterclaim to this position students could explore the idea that morality is a social construct which acts as a form of social control. For theory, and real life situations students could draw upon Althusser’s theory of Ideological State Apparatus, or Gramsci’s theory of Hegemony. Alternatively, students could use Faith as an WoK, or Religious Knowledge Systems a WoK, and cite morality as an inherently truth.

There are countless other ways in which to answer this question, drawing upon a range of selected AoKs & WoKs. There are, undoubtedly, a multitude of other ideas, concepts and theories which I have not included in this answer. The function of this answer is not to be a model answer, but only a starting point to show students some of the ways in which we can start to approach the PT. It is now up to you to start to develop your own ideas, your own approach, and to develop some new knowledge in response to the problem “how do I answer this question ?” !

enjoy your writing,



4 thoughts on “1. “The main reason knowledge is produced is to solve problems.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?

  1. I don’t see how the following KQs you developed are relevant to the PT
    6. If our knowledge is bound by our imagination can we even start to understand the problems that we currently face ?
    7. If we don’t have the language to articulate a problem does it exist ?
    Can you explain? Thanks

    1. The KQ’s I list are merely examples which I could develop into an essay. I strongly recommend developing your own KQ’s which work for you. The 2 KQ’s which you identify are concerning the limits of knowing. As the question posits the function of knowledge these KQ’s start to explore the division between that which is known and that which cannot be known given a particular wok. I would very much recommend that you develop KQ’s which are understandable and relevant to your own understanding of the PT.

    1. It all depends upon your definition of knowledge, some would argue that art is knowledge. You may want to spend some time investigating definitions of knowledge. You pose an interesting question, I’ll try to write a post about this question soon.

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