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"The quality of knowledge is best measured by how many people accept it." Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
People generally assume that there are multiple ways of measuring the quality of knowledge just as the title implies, by suggesting that measuring the amount of people who accept certain knowledge, is the best way of measuring its respective quality. But even though most people I know would also agree that different layers of quality exist, the same people would fail to name these different layers of quality or explain ways of measuring the quality of specific knowledge. Looking specifically at the method of measuring the quality of knowledge through how many people accept it, the question arises of what accepting knowledge even means. According to the dictionary, accepting something has multiple different meanings such as to “consent to receive or undertake”, “believe or come to recognize (a proposition) as valid or correct” or “tolerate or submit to”. Therefore, accepting something could either be interpreted as if it means to only blindly trust certain knowledge, or as if it means to also understand or believe in that certain knowledge. In this essay I will maintain that accepting knowledge means to believe in the knowledge even if understanding remains incomplete. Since the method of measuring knowledge and the respective ranking of quality of knowledge varies greatly depending on the different areas of knowledge, this essay will focus on exploring these differences and links. I will also do this by exploring another method of measuring the quality of knowledge with the specific areas of mathematical knowledge and ethical knowledge.
The title suggests that the quality of knowledge is best measured by how many people accept it, which implies that other methods exist. One of those other methods of measuring the quality of knowledge would be reliability. I will assume that the reliability of knowledge is best measured by observing the replicability of results, even though some may argue that the best way of measuring the reliability is also by measuring the number of people who accept the respective results. Using the method of measuring knowledge based on reliability, it could be suggested that mathematical knowledge is more qualitative than ethical knowledge as it is arguably better repeated and therefore more reliable than ethical knowledge. Some may propose that mathematical knowledge is more reliable and therefore also more qualitative than ethical knowledge, as it uses reason rather than faith and emotion, but others would counterargue that, actually, ethical knowledge can also be reached using reason as suggested by the German philosopher Kant. In his view, it could be said that making moral decisions based on similar principles every time, even if the outcome is different, could be interpreted as replicability. Therefore, considering Kant’s view, this would mean that ethical knowledge is at least equal or in any case not much less qualitative than mathematical knowledge when measuring the quality of knowledge based on reliability.
However, with regards to measuring the quality of mathematical knowledge based on reliability in terms of replicability, it can very clearly and easily be measured, as the same formula will always lead to a specific and correct result if used correctly. While arguably, with regards to ethics, it can sometimes be incredibly complex and difficult to define its replicability and reliability. A simple example for easily measurable mathematical knowledge would be the Pythagorean theorem a2+b2= c2 which works without exceptions when trying to find the length of the remaining side of a right-angled triangle given the lengths of the other two sides. The fact that there are no exceptions accounts for all mathematical knowledge as all of that knowledge is fixed and cannot be replaced or challenged; the whole principle of mathematics basically relies on replicability. Therefore, a measurement based on replicability would suggest that mathematical knowledge is very reliable and therefore at least equal to and also possibly more qualitative than ethical knowledge. The method of measuring the quality of knowledge based on the number of people accepting it would support that claim, as arguably reliability leads to people accepting knowledge.
A good example regarding the difficulty of measuring the quality of ethical knowledge based on reliability would be an instance from 2012 where a father from the US, on finding his five-year-old daughter being raped, beat the attacker to death and was not charged by a grand jury1, while another father was sentenced to 40 years in jail for murdering the man who sexually abused his daughter2. These instances show that there is a certain degree of inconsistency in (US) law which arguably represents (western) moral values and therefore ethical knowledge. This would then suggest that ethical knowledge is less qualitative than mathematical knowledge in terms of reliability.
Returning to the method of measuring the quality of knowledge based on how many people accept it using the aforementioned example of the two fathers, it can be said that the reaction of the public towards the outcomes of the cases differed immensely. While the majority of the public was pleased with the one father being released, the majority of people protested against the verdict of the second case where the father was sentenced to 40 years in prison. As my definition of accepting knowledge includes to believe in it, I suggest that in the first case the majority of people accepted the ethical decision of the verdict as it matched their own ethical knowledge, which they acquired through emotion, faith and arguably also reason. On the other hand, in the second case the majority of people didn’t accept the ethical decision of the verdict as it didn’t match their own beliefs. Therefore, if we accepted that the best method of measuring the quality of knowledge is based on how many people accept it, that would suggest that we should never charge a father who kills the rapist of his daughter. This is because the moral decision, which is based on ethical knowledge, leading to the verdict where the father was released, was accepted by far more people than when the father was sentenced to prison. From a legal viewpoint this obviously wouldn’t make any sense as both verdicts are equally valid. Therefore, measuring the quality of knowledge based on how many people accept it is not the best method of measuring the quality of knowledge as the method of measuring the quality of knowledge based on its reliability provides a clearer ranking of the quality of knowledge within the areas of ethics and mathematics, while the first method is not even clear within ethics.
But the fact that more people accept the first verdict as ethically or morally correct rather than the second one, could also be interpreted differently: it suggests that the knowledge obtained by the second verdict is only ethically less qualitative. This interpretation tells me that the method of measuring the quality of knowledge based on how many people accept it, should be used to compare the quality of knowledge within one area of knowledge rather than comparing the quality across multiple areas. This leads me to the assumption that the method of measuring the quality of knowledge based on reliability should be used to compare knowledge across different areas of knowledge rather than using it to compare the quality of knowledge within one area. For example, as mathematical knowledge is based on replicability and reliability, the method of measuring the quality of knowledge based on reliability would suggest that all mathematical knowledge is of the same quality. Using the following example, I will explain why according to the method of measuring the quality of knowledge based on people accepting it, that claim wouldn’t be true. Plato (427BC—347BC) realized that mathematics involves perfect triangles, circles and other shapes and also noticed that actually there are no perfect shapes to be found in the real world, only imperfect approximations3. For example, a polygon shape with an infinitely increasing number of equal sides will eventually end up being a circle, thus a perfect circle may be conceived of as a regular polygon with an infinite number of infinitesimally small sides4. Plato’s particular type of mathematical realism expressed in this theory has since then been accepted and admired by some people. However, it was also not accepted and challenged by empiricists. As this means that not everyone accepts Plato’s theory but everyone (maybe not everyone but surely more people) accepts for example the distributive law a(b + c) = ab + bc, the method of measuring the quality of knowledge based on how many people accept it would therefore suggest that Plato’s theory is less qualitative mathematical knowledge than the distributive law. As we can see, the method of measuring the quality of knowledge based on how many people accept it gave these two different kinds of mathematical knowledge a different ranking in terms of quality, while the method of reliability would have ranked them the same as they are both repeatable to the same degree and therefore of the same reliability and quality.
1 BBC News. (2012). No charge for US killer of rapist. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-18522383 [Accessed 16 Dec. 2018].
2 Cosmopolitan. (2017). A dad has been sentenced to 40 years in jail for murdering the man who sexually abused his daughter. [online] Available at: https://www.cosmopolitan.com/uk/reports/a10258259/jay-maynor-prison-murdering-man-sexually-abused-daughter/ [Accessed 16 Dec. 2018].
3 Vieira, R. (2010). Mathematical Knowledge: A Dilemma | Issue 81 | Philosophy Now. [online] Philosophynow.org. Available at: https://philosophynow.org/issues/81/Mathematical_Knowledge_A_Dilemma [Accessed 17 Dec. 2018].
4 Vieira, R. (2010). ibid.
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