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Past or Present: What can we believe? TOK Paper

Past or Present: What can we believe?
Theory of Knowledge Essay

With so much uncertainty about the future, most people long for certainty about the past and present. Is it really possible, though, to be sure about the past? When looking for a lost set of keys, are you sure of the past (where you put them) or the present (that you are looking for them)? The reasons for the differences in certainty are the different forms of knowledge involved in learning and perceiving the past and present. Bertrand Russell speaks of the existence of two types of knowledge: knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance. Learning about the past involves knowledge by description, or information through a source or number of sources that actually experienced the event. However, information about the present is gained through knowledge by acquaintance, or knowledge through direct contact with the event. Therefore, it is much easier to attain certainty about the present than the past, although absolute sureness can never be acquired.

It is impossible to have certainty about history, the study of past events, because of its basis in knowledge by acquaintance. One does not directly experience history and must rely on a collection of viewpoints from varying historians. Therefore no person can be sure about what events actually have occurred in the past. The cause of the First World War is a subject that historians have been arguing about for years. Some, such as Harry Elmer Barnes, believe that Russian mobilization was the action responsible for the war while others, such as A. J. P. Taylor, assert that German upset of the European balance of power prompted the beginning of World War I. With such varying opinions, how can any semblance of certainty be procured without direct observation of the past events? With simply knowledge by description, there is no possible way to gain absolute certainty about the past.

In argument, some individuals may defend the certainty of the past by saying that history has been written down, taught, and accepted by the masses. Physical evidence exists that proves the legitimacy of the historical texts. However, by this argument, how can the uncertainty surrounding the Holocaust be explained? There are photographs, interviews, and official documents supporting the occurrence of the Holocaust, and yet many individuals deny that it ever happened. There is absolutely no way to prove to those individuals that the Holocaust took place....

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