Knowledge is a trade off between simplicity and accuracy.
This is not the exact title (I am not allowed to print the exact title here). If students are considering this title it is essential that they get the exact title from their teacher.
Students will probably start this essay by considering the definitions of simplicity and accuracy – defining these concepts could be the structure around which the essay is based.
This post is not so much a suggested essay structure for this PT, it’s more a set of inter-related thoughts about the PT.
My starting point for thinking about simplicity and accuracy in terms of ToK is to ask whether accuracy is a form of ‘truth’, and simplicity a form of ‘understanding’ ? This leads on to thoughts about the very purpose of knowledge – this differs according to AoK.
What is simplicity ?
There is often a difference between the lived reality of simplicity, and the understanding once the knowledge framework of an AoK is applied. For example water may have a ‘simple’ taste in comparison to other liquids. However, the complexity of binding hydrogen to oxygen, and then designing a sensing system to produce a taste sensation is far more complex than the lived experience of tasting water may appear. This is just an example, which may not work for you, but I hope that it starts to illustrate the complexity of the word simplicity !
What is accuracy?
Is it measured or is it experienced? Is it predetermined by expectation or objectively analysed? ToK students will immediately recognise the interplay of WoKs and AoKs in this question. Think about the duplicitous conversation : what is said is not what is meant. The accurate representation of knowledge is not the same as the meaning of knowledge that the knower brings to the conversation. The transcript of the conversation is not the same as the lived experience of the conversation.
“Hello” has, maybe 3 dictionary definitions, yet has near infinite meanings in the reality of everyday conversation. The knower constructs the meaning (and therefore the PK accuracy) of the word in the context of everyday life.
Students could consider issues of reductionism in knowledge production, especially in the identification of causation. When looking at issues of reductionism students could contrast two Areas of Knowledge, looking at the differences in methodology and concepts in the Knowledge Framework of each AoK. Issues around reductionism could be argued using a number of approaches, for example:
- As explanations are reduced in complexity the level of achievable measurement increases to an optimal point, and thereafter reduces.
- As explanations are reduced in complexity the very nature of the object of experience changes (“holistic knowledge can be lost”) – consider this for understanding food such as ice cream or cake !
- The chicken or the egg ?: Reducing the complexity of understanding could increase problems of causation as the direction of causation becomes less clear.
For example if we look at the causes of artistic appreciation – the two determinants are the artistic subject, and the viewer. In order to understand the direction of causation we could look at the process of development of the subject, the context of the subject, the meaning of the subject etc. We could also look at the predisposition of the viewer, the history of the viewer, the emotional state of the viewer, the motivation of the viewer etc. If we took all of these variables into account we could start to build a model which, maybe, shows the direction of causation. However, if we start to take away variables (in order to simplify the model) it becomes harder to understand the direction of causation – does the subject cause appreciation, or does the viewer create appreciation ? (or, if we accept, a bi-directional approach do we start to undermine processes of causal inference ?)
AoK & WoK specific:
Simplicity and accuracy are both specific to the AoK and WoK under consideration. For example if we consider the differences between Religious Knowledge Systems and Maths as AoK. Simplicity in each AoK of knowledge will be defined, and represented, in very different ways. Simplicity in a RKS maybe seen through the prism of clarity of belief, or the strength in WoK Faith. Accuracy in RKS maybe in the detailed knowledge of the content of the religion. However, in AoK Maths simplicity may be seen in the lack of assumptions inherent to a solution, and accuracy may be seen in the supporting evidence for a solution, or it could be measured by degree of integer etc
This form of analysis could be further developed for any other AoKs.
Occam’s Razor is the idea that the proposal with the fewest assumptions tends to be the most accurate. Citing Occam’s razor would appear to support the premise of the title. Occam’s Razor can be applied to a range of disciplines within the AoKs, e.g. it can be applied in Medicine, Psychiatry, Geology, Mathematics and Ethics. Students could develop their essay by looking at an applied explanation which uses Occam’s Razor, and then evaluating that explanation using contrasting evidence and arguments.
Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.
The Uncertainty Principle was developed in Physics, and states that there is limit to the accuracy of measurement of two related variables. As such, in terms of this essay, it would suggest that accuracy is limited. It could be argued that accuracy is not limited by the simplicity of the knowledge, but limited by natural physical properties. This is an area that students who are particularly interested in Mathematics or Physics could further develop in their essay.
The Observer Effect.
The Observer Effect is the notion that the very act of studying a phenomenon will change that phenomenon in some way. This was first established in the Experimental Sciences, but has also been shown in the Human Sciences (see The Hawthorne Effect, or Reactivity). In terms of this essay it would suggest that accuracy is limited, and to a certain extent dependent upon the Knower’s Perspective. The Observer Effect could be used to extend the counterclaims within essays of students who are particularly interested in the Human or Experimental Sciences.
The PT states that there is always a trade off between simplicity and accuracy. This is a very binary approach to the relationship. Students would be well advised to consider the word ‘always’ in the title. There are numerous examples from which students could develop an argument that simplicity increases accuracy (think of AoKs The Arts, Indigenous Knowledge Systems, and WoKs Sensory Perception, Faith, etc).
Effective essays could be written around the processes of modelling. AoKs define models in quite specific ways, but most will be developing models in terms of accuracy and simplicity. In Human Sciences models are often described as “ideal type representations of theory”. It could be argued that the model is, therefore, simple but not accurate. However, real world feedback mechanisms which modify the model could lead to increased accuracy. There is a lot of scope for students to explore models in disciplines such as Economics, Biology, Meteorology, Visual Arts, Mathematics etc.
This essay has the potential to be very broad, as such students who are writing this essay should invest significant time identifying their KQs before writing, and planning a focussed argument line for the essay.
Enjoy your ToK writing !