On the Cutting Edge of Knowledge:

A Short History of the Most Advanced Techniques of Establishing Truth in each Age


Educational institutions have long been associated with the pursuit of truth and the production of knowledge. Truth, in this context, is what the wisest and most reputable persons in a society believe to be true; truth itself eludes certain judgment. Truth is then the consensus of informed opinion, tested by diverse minds and points of view. The natural home for this activity is the university, where reputable scholars in different fields of inquiry pursue truth. Though wise persons may be found elsewhere, this is the institution to which the community looks for authoritative determinations of truth.

The western academic tradition begins with the Greeks. Plato's Academy, established in Athens during the 4th century B.C., was based on the conviction that properly motivated and well-trained philosophers could reliably find truth. At that point in time, philosophy was on the cutting edge of knowledge. Education for Plato was about turning the mind from "the world of becoming" - i.e., the world in all its transitory concerns - to the "world of being" - the world of essences and ideals.

This involved a shift of consciousness. The educational process Plato compared to "the scene-shifting periactus of the theater" which allows the soul (the mind) "to endure the contemplation of essence and the brightest region of being." A philosopher, accustomed to the eternal forms of truth, would be able to see the truth in all things. He would arrive at what Plato called "true knowledge" as opposed to mere opinion or belief.

Plato regarded an education in philosophy as a panacea for finding truth. It was the key to creating a better society. His confidence in the method of philosophy has its counterpart in our later belief in the "scientific method". For us, empirical science is on the cutting edge of knowledge. So we see that approaches to truth have changed from one age to another. This paper will summarize the history of the changing methods which scholars have employed in the process of discovering "true knowledge".

There is a way of looking at history in terms of successive epochs associated with communication technologies. In the beginning was oral communication. Knowledge was passed from person to person in an unbroken chain of memory. During the fourth millennium B.C., the Sumerians invented a technique of writing in ideographic symbols. Each written word symbolized a word of speech. Information contained in spoken communications no longer had to be remembered to become a part of knowledge. Alphabetic writing, developed in the second millennium B.C., spread rapidly through the Old World in the middle part of the first millennium B.C. This coincided with a period of intellectual and spiritual awakening of the 6th and 5th centuries, B.C.

Then, in the fifteen century, A.D., printing with movable type came to western Europe bringing with it a new kind of written communication. In the nineteen and twentieth centuries A.D., a number of invention utilizing electricity brought humanity into the age of electronic communication. Phonographs, motion pictures, radio, and television have supported the entertainment age. Recently, computer technology has advanced to the point of facilitating an important mode of communication, the Internet.

One can relate these different communication technologies to advancements in discovering and formulating truth. Let us consider some of the techniques which have been used in successive periods of history.

memories and traditions

Much knowledge comes down to us in the context of the family. Without formal preparation, parents teach their children many things. The most important of these may be the ability to speak. In the presence of their parents, children witness the ways of their elders. They learn to speak by listening to speech and by imitating it with parental guidance. All is learned within a family setting. The knowledge relates to what is required in those circumstances. Because a group of individuals is involved, the knowledge of one person reinforces that of another and the common culture is preserved.

It becomes more difficult when a community's collected knowledge must be passed to members of the next generation. Before writing was invented, community knowledge had to be told personally to a young person by someone who had received it, in turn, from his forbearers. The knowledge had to be remembered at each generational link or it would be lost. There were communal rituals which supported the process of remembrance. There were stories repeated in group gatherings. There were songs and poems whose rhythms perpetuated the memory of words. So the tribal folklore went from one generation to the next much as the language did.

The recipe or list

The ability to store knowledge in visual inscriptions which could later be read freed knowledge from the limitation of needing to be perpetuated by an unbroken chain of generational links. It improved the process of learning. Remember that ideographic writing was an art which required extensive training. The thousands of visual symbols corresponding to words of speech had to be learned in an educational setting, which was more difficult than learning speech. Only professional scribes received this training. Writing served the purpose of retaining certain specialized information such as tax collections.

The thousands of cuneiform tablets which have been discovered in Iraq and Egypt reveal the practical nature of this knowledge. Most writings consist of accounting records. There were lists of objects such as animals and plants or words of vocabulary. There were numbers used in calculations of various kinds. There were instructions in the proper technique for performing religious rituals or for applying certain types of medical treatment.

Knowledge of this kind consisted of proposed solutions to particular problems. It took the form of listing steps that needed to be taken in a particular sequence to complete a task. Never did this knowledge ascend to general propositions of truth. It contained no logical arguments or proofs. Egyptian geometry, for instance, consisted of knowledge useful for surveying land rather than of abstract theorems as later proposed by the Greeks.

This type of knowledge takes the form of a recipe. Drawing upon the lessons learned from previous life experiences, it formulates truth in instructional statements which are listed next to each other. Knowledge is embodied in a list of items juxtaposed in a fixed expression. This has the advantage of relieving the human mind of the obligation to remember the operation. Inscriptions in baked clay take the place of memories requiring constant refreshment.

Such a technique is useful when assorted elements of knowledge must be kept in association to serve some purpose. In modern times, for instance, the test pilot uses checklists to remind him of steps needing to be taken in a complicated technical operation. The checklist, like a recipe, tells how to carry out these in the proper sequence. That is how knowledge was formulated in the age of ideographic writing.


the general concept

Greek philosophers were obsessed with the idea of generality. This is a mental device which allows a single concept to stand for many specific things. For example, the word "cow" refers to the general idea of a cow. Statements about this idea, if true, apply with equal validity to the limitless number of cows found in the world.

The pre-Socratic philosophers searched for a single substance from which all things were made. Pythagoras saw the unifying factor in numerical relationships. Socrates directed this type of inquiry to the world of human behavior. His dialogues with Athenian citizens sought to establish the proper definition of words such as "justice", "courage", or "the good". If its generality could be properly delineated, he supposed, errors related to the concept would be impossible.

The Socratic dialogues illustrate the "dialectical method" of discovering truth. The idea is that truth will emerge when persons holding diverse points of view freely state their positions and then, in discussions pulling in different directions, they gradually narrow down their differences. Truth comes through a long, thoughtful process of argumentation. False concepts are proposed, debated, and rejected, leaving only true concepts intact. Truth consists of general concepts with properly drawn boundaries.

The correct definition of a word allows the word to be known in its true generality; and once a generality is known, knowledge of its specific manifestations will surely follow. We see that knowledge in the form of generality represents an improvement over the previous type of knowledge (the recipe or checklist) in that a person has only to know a single concept in order to possess knowledge of a multitude of specific things. The general idea, if understood correctly, is, thought Plato, an infallible guide to truth.

The model for this knowledge was geometry, a field in which the ancient Greeks excelled. Euclidian geometry is a tightly drawn system of spatial elements, forms, and relationships. The reasoning process discovers new knowledge from elements already known. Such propositions of truth admit no exceptions. Therefore, Plato's Academy emphasized instruction in geometry and mathematics. Aristotle, Plato's student, created a system of symbolic logic.

Inductive reasoning established general truths from an examination of specifics. Once the generality is known, deductive reasoning establishes new generalities or produces specific knowledge conforming to the general type. Because Aristotle developed classifications in many areas of knowledge, his philosophy constituted the basic science of biology, medicine, politics, and other fields for centuries to come. Sages of the Hellenistic period such as Archimedes developed amazing applications from their concepts of general truth.

This type of knowledge is associated with the introduction of alphabetic writing. In Plato's day, written language was still a bit of a novelty, whose elements aroused curiosity. It was no coincidence that the Socratic conversations concern the nature of words. However, his philosophy had a moral focus. The focus was upon truth, of course, but also upon beauty, justice, and the good. Goodness was a general pattern to which ethical behavior had to conform. It was an ideal which people strove to attain with varying degrees of success. Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy later became fused in religion to create Christian theology.


textual criticism/ translation into modern languages

In the late Middle Ages, the truth accepted in western Europe were locked in scriptures more than a thousand years old. The Bible was revered as the revealed word of God. Writings of Greek and Roman authors from classical times were regarded as products of a culture superior to that existing at the time. Perfect knowledge lay in collections of ancient writings preserved in particular manuscripts.

The problem was that these manuscripts were not the work of original authors but copies of previous manuscripts which, in turn, had been copied from previous copies, and so on, through the centuries. Another problem was that some writings, including those from classical Greece, were translations from Arabic or another language. The words had been translated from their original language directly or indirectly into the reader's language. Scholars were unsure whether existing texts accurately represented the author's message.

Thus textual criticism was born. Pioneered by humanist scholars such as Petrarch, it was a technique for analyzing corrupted texts inherited from antiquity in an attempt to discover what the author might originally have written. A strategy was to gather several versions of the same text and, finding differences between them, try to decide from points of agreement or disagreement which version of the text was correct. Older manuscripts were more likely to represent the original writing than later ones. Then, too, scholars used their general knowledge of the period to guess which version made the most sense. The end of this scholarly effort was to produce a reasonably uncorrupted, authoritative text close to the original.

A parallel effort was to translate the Bible from Greek, Latin, or another ancient language into the reader's own language. This made the sacred scriptures of Christianity more accessible to the average worshiper. However, new translations of scripture from an ancient language also improved the quality of the translated work, especially when intellectuals of the caliber of Erasmus, Martin Luther, or John Wycliffe were involved.

Both developments occurred at a time when printing was transforming literature. Corrupted texts were an inevitable product of the manuscript culture. Printing facilitated more carefully produced texts. When a book was mass-produced rather than copied by hand, the publisher could afford to hire scholars and proofreaders to review the text for accuracy, confident that the printed copies would remain error-free.

This was also a time when universities sprang up in Europe and secular education took root. Authors of widely distributed books became famous. The cult of the author flourished in an environment where the author's words were faithfully represented in printed works distributed to masses of readers. This literature was also a suitable subject for study in schools.

Textual criticism is on the cutting edge of knowledge in institutions which study cultural artifacts from the past. The type of scholarship developed in studying literature has also been used to authenticate other kinds of artifacts or expressions. Art historians have judged paintings, sculpture, and architecture from the standpoint of styles flourishing in particular times. Instrumental music has a history of composers worthy of study. There are scholars who know the characteristic types of pottery, building construction, or burial practices in an ancient society. Linguists such as Jean Francois Champollion deciphered previously unknown scripts, exposing ancient expressions of thought to modern understanding. The academic community nurtures individuals who specialize in these many subjects. Petrarch, living between classical and his own times, was the archetype of such a scholar.

While knowledge of the original work was always an important consideration, developing standards of judgment became increasingly important as contemporary artists, writers, and musicians came to the fore. Which works were worthy of study? At first, styles developed in classical Greece and Rome were taken as a standard of excellent expression. Theories formulated by Aristotle and Horace defined ideals in the age of neoclassical literature. But then new models and theories emerged.

Shakespearean realism came to be preferred to works that obeyed classical norms. Romantic poetry rediscovered the beauty of medieval ballads and tales. Victorian critics favored literature that had a civilizing effect in society. Expressions of realism, written from a socially conscious perspective, came into vogue. Some critics analyzed works from a biographical or historical perspective while others insisted that its structure had to stand alone as an object of beauty.

the scientific method

Western empirical science represents a departure from modes of truth seeking prevalent in the Middle Ages. Truths about nature were then thought to reside in texts produced by ancient philosophers. St. Thomas Aquinas created a comprehensive system of belief by fusing Aristotelian science with Christian doctrines. Such systems discouraged further questioning. Still, there were some who continued to search for knowledge in the natural world. A notable example was an English Franciscan monk of the 13th century, Roger Bacon. "Cease to be ruled by dogmas and authorities," Bacon said. "Look at the world! .... If I had my way, I should burn all the books of Aristotle, for the study of them can only lead to a loss of time, produce error, and increase ignorance."

The belief that truths about the natural world are found in nature rather than in books is the starting point of empirical science. The Italian physicist and astronomer of the 17th century, Galileo, was at the center of conflict between the old and new belief systems. Aristotle had written that objects of different weight fall to earth at different rates of speed. Legend has it that Galileo decided to test this theory by dropping differently weighted balls from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. He discovered that they all took the same time to reach the ground. Having invented the telescope, Galileo studied bodies in the solar system, concluding that the planets including earth rotated around the sun. That opinion angered church officials. Summoned before a committee of Roman cardinals, Galileo was forced to recant.

Christian dogma could not withstand the pressure for improved information about the natural world. For one thing, the Julian calendar was out of balance with the seasons. Sound astronomical knowledge supported the calendric reforms put through by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 A.D. The Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe laboriously recorded the positions of celestial objects. His records provided empirical data for Copernicus' theory of a heliocentric universe. Johannes Kepler explained the planetary motions in terms of elliptical orbits around the sun.

New information, technologies, and techniques were entering Europe from China and the Islamic world. The Roman church reached an accommodation with empirical science in proposing that scientific knowledge, though untrue, was useful. This "instrumentalist" viewpoint was an equivocation which allowed scientific inquiry to continue without persecution.

England was the center of empiricism. The greatest scientist of his day was Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727 A.D.) who developed a theory of gravity and physical motion expressed in mathematical equations. Newton and others claimed that the same principles applied to moving bodies on earth as in the skies. Nature was like a universal machine. Newton was also president of the Royal Society of London, which grew out of ideas expressed by Francis Bacon in 1627 in The New Atlantis.

The British historian Arnold Toynbee has suggested that the great flowering of European science in the 17th century had its origins in the revulsion which European intellectuals felt in the aftermath of the Thirty Years War between Protestant and Catholic armies. Men of cultivation and intellect shied away from theological discussions, preferring the quiet pursuit of scientific knowledge and the amiable companionship of others with the same interests.

Francis Bacon published ideas to describe what we call "the scientific method." Essentially, this means that scientific knowledge is rooted in observations of nature. The scientist carefully observes nature and records his observations. This factual information is used to formulate general theories. Theories which fit the facts of nature are considered true. If the facts conflict with theory, then the theory must give way to a new theory which does fit the facts or can be modified to do so.

This approach to knowledge is like inductive reasoning. The scientific method includes, however, the idea of controlled experimentation by which the scientist creates artificial conditions to test theories. A theory which is tested under a variety of circumstances without contradiction by facts becomes a scientific law - i.e., it is regarded as truth. Scientific knowledge as a whole consists of empirically validated theories and laws which explain various kinds of natural phenomena.

Basically, this is the approach to knowledge which we have followed for the past four hundred years. It should be added, however, that the content of scientific knowledge is often supported by mathematical calculations. Advancements in mathematical technique, such as the calculus (invented independently by Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz) and non-Euclidean geometry, are therefore closely related to scientific knowledge. A physicist such as Albert Einstein made important discoveries on the basis of calculation alone. In this respect, modern science resembles Greek philosophy in seeking guidance from mathematical knowledge. But it takes the additional step of obtaining verification in the facts of nature.

The technology of printing underlay the explosion of scientific knowledge. That technology made it possible to communicate scientists' theories and discoveries accurately and quickly to other interested persons so that natural science became a worldwide collaborative effort. Knowledge was thus put to the test of wide-scale criticism and experimentation, accelerating the pace of discovery. Also, printing brought standardized communications and careful recording of detail, so necessary in science.

new tools and techniques of observation

In reviewing the advancement of scientific knowledge, we are obliged to regard tools and techniques used to observe nature as a kind of improvement in the method of seeking truth. For example, scientists now "see" natural objects by sensing devices which record vibrations along many parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, not just those which carry light. Eighteenth century experiments employing frictional electrostatic instruments, Alessandro Volta's invention of the "voltaic pile" (electrical battery), and Benjamin Franklin' s kite-flying discoveries made during an electrical storm have all contributed to our knowledge of electricity. Several British and French scientists discovered relationships between electricity and magnetism, light, and heat, that allowed the Scottish scientist James Maxwell to develop general equations for electromagnetic waves.

The capability to observe previously unseen phenomena has allowed scientists to propose new theories of knowledge. Two 17th Century inventions, the telescope and microscope, helped to visualize the very large and the very small. Although nature had always existed at these levels of magnitude, it was inaccessible to human knowledge. The invention of the microscope led to discoveries in medicine and biology. Precision balances and the pneumatic trough allowed quantities of gases and other chemical substances to be measured precisely. By an expanded definition, the "tools" of modern science even include the sailing vessel which carried Charles Darwin to the Easter Islands, whose unusual flora and fauna provided data for his theory of evolution. Telescopic sightings or travels in outer space will also yield much new information.

Mechanical and electrical calculators, especially the computer, have provided practical assistance to scientists who must determine numerical relationships or express their theories in a mathematical form. Computer modeling can be a convenient substitute for physical experimentation. As the tools of science have pushed the spatial frontier, so other tools have allowed scientists to peer into the past. The technology of carbon dating helps to establish an accurate date for archeological artifacts. Osteologists can tell from the condition of exhumed bones whether the person was suffering from a particular illness. Isotopic analysis which determines the chemical composition of bones reveals ancient diets. DNA analysis gives evidence of human migrations that took place long ago. If the film Jurassic Park contains a germ of truth, it may even be possible to resurrect extinct species of plant or animal life from DNA samples left in fossilized remains.

observing the content of the human mind

However, empirical science has limitations: it cannot know what it cannot observe through the senses. This domain of terra incognita includes the human mind. There are no sensing instruments that can "see" a person's thoughts. Only testimony given by the person himself yields evidence concerning the content of his mind.

So-called "social scientists" try to gather information about a person's thoughts by the use of questionnaires. However, the validity of this information depends upon the subject's truthfulness in giving answers as well as the clarity by which the person can perceive his own thoughts. Sometimes the interests of scientist and subject are at odds - for instance, in the case of a criminal suspect being interrogated by the police. In that case, investigators sometimes use polygraph equipment which observes brain waves during questioning. Certain wave patterns indicate internal stress and anxiety that might be associated with lying. However, such conclusions cannot be determined with the precision required of science.

Some "scientists" in the 19th and early 20th centuries attempted to overcome these difficulties by asserting that their own theories of human thought and behavior had a greater validity than the subject's own thoughts. They claimed that the latter represented "surface symptoms" of a deeper reality. Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory falls into this category as does, sociologically, Karl Marx's theory of economic relationships shaping human culture. This is using science in a dogmatic and "unscientific" way, making it to be like a religion. A true science would respect the facts gathered from its field of study.


knowledge in the entertainment age

This discussion has assumed that the different epochs of history, each associated with a type of communication technology, have their own modes of discovering and formulating knowledge. If that is true, how would knowledge advance in the age of movies, radio, and television? Would popular entertainment have an impact on this process?

Some would say that entertainment is antithetical to the serious pursuit of knowledge. With respect to considering truth, that judgment is probably true. Knowledge, however, has another side to it. That has to do with its formulation in expressions communicated to people. The modes of communication used to convey entertainment to the public can also be used to convey knowledge. Documentaries on public television or on cable-television channels such the Discovery Channel or History Channel illustrate how the new media can be adapted to that end.

In the entertainment age, many influences compete for people's attention. Messages communicated to a mass audience must be designed with care so that they fit into a time slot compatible with people's schedules. The images and thoughts and images must move along quickly. Therefore, those who produce knowledge in the entertainment age may need skills in writing and organizing information.

Additionally, knowledge-laden programs on public or cable television have a visual component. Those images must, of course, be consistent with the verbal message. The visual images may consist of drawings or film clips spliced into a presentation. That raises issues of availability and cost. Most television producers also work music into their programs. There is an art to designing the package of expressions effectively, both to keep the audience's attention and convey knowledge.

Education presents a special set of challenges. It is not just a matter of seating students down in front of a television set and inserting videocassette tapes with course content into a VCR. The interaction between student and teacher is also important. The teacher needs to determine how well a student has learned the lesson so that the courses can be made more effective and student performance can be accurately evaluated. Computer technology holds promise of two-way communication lacking in previous electronic devices. Some day, computers may become human-like teaching machines which provide individual instruction to students and evaluate feedback. We are not yet there.

Mindful of entertainment requirements, the challenge is to select and organize the best course materials to help students learn. The presentations must hold together thematically and make sense. Course materials should be presented at an appropriate level of abstraction. They should take into account the knowledge which students have previously learned. Yeats' lament in the last century, "the center does not hold", is a deficiency which needs also to be addressed in education. Students need both a view of the totality of human knowledge and specialized teaching to suit their own needs.

the computer

The thinking machine known as the computer may be the ultimate tool for producing knowledge. This machine allows human researchers to assemble and evaluate a huge amount of data, as, for instance, in the human genome. Without this tool, scientists would be unable to do the required calculations and computations to produce valid models of knowledge. So, in the fifth civilization, the emphasis may be upon knowledge produced by computers.

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