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Sabrina Chan

Doubt is the key to knowledge (Persian Proverb). To what extent is this true in two areas of knowledge? I believe doubt is the awareness of uncertainty. Uncertainty makes humanity realize that we do not view knowledge from outside, but we struggle to make sense of knowledge from within. In other words, all knowledge is historically conditioned. 2000 years ago, the Persians believed their knowledge is somewhat contained, that doubt is the only key that will unlock knowledge, opening new horizons. Since knowledge is conditioned by history, the proverb and its meaning are also conditioned. In this essay, I will analyse the extent of the truthfulness of the proverb from a modern perspective. In the 17th century, Ren Descartes believed Mathematical axioms to be the only truths that remain unchanged with respect to ontological presuppositions. In contrast, Economics seems to be unstable as there have been sporadic upheavals and revisions of economic models. The fact that both areas of knowledge have undergone paradigm shifts suggests there are doubts in both areas. Doubt can be either productive or destructive. An excess of doubt can become cynicism, paranoia and nihilism. Is doubt really the key to knowledge? Do we automatically obtain knowledge whenever we challenge assumptions and remain doubtful of our own knowledge? The first knowledge issue is the role of doubt in the authority of Economics in terms of its usefulness and values. Ambiguous though it may sound, doubt can either create or destroy the authority of Economics. For example, the Classical theory1 advocated by Adam Smith was accepted as the absolute economic truth that would hold true throughout the ages. In 1930s, John Maynard Keynes doubted the scope and applicability of Adam Smiths Invisible Hand2 because the Classical theory failed to explain recurring mass unemployment during the Great Depression. Keynes doubt led to the rise of Keynesian economics and 30 years of prosperity in Europe. However, Milton Friedman doubted Keynesian Economics because he believed the future is probabilistic rather than uncertain, and that we could reduce uncertainty to calculable risk. This, however, was widely blamed for causing the financial crisis of 2008. Doubting Keynes idea that the future is always uncertain led, ironically, to a situation where we overestimated our ability to stabilize the
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The Classical theory states the economy is always at the full employment level and therefore government intervention will only distort the economy. 2 The theory that our market is always correctly adjusted as if guided by an invisible hand 1

Sabrina Chan

market economy. In this case doubt can be dangerous as it can undermine confidence in all economic theories. If doubt can be both productive and destructive, how can we predict the final outcome? As knowledge in Economics is not fixed, we cannot be certain that any present truth will hold true in the future. This is because Economics is a human science and the study of human behaviour is fluid and unpredictable. As the Greeks believed that nothing is knowable unless it is unchanging3, whether or not Economics can be used to draw definite conclusions becomes another knowledge issue. In fact, some go even further, arguing that not only are human sciences in constant flux, but that: The whole phenomenal world is in a state of perpetual change and is therefore unknowable4. This means that, while doubt leads to knowledge, knowledge also leads to doubt. This suggests a reciprocal relationship between knowledge and doubt. Intuitively, most people will argue that there can never be doubt in Mathematical knowledge because Mathematics is built on axioms that are absolutely true regardless of time, place and user. Elimination of doubt through proofs is one of the keystones of Mathematics. On the other hand, Descartes offered the dream argument, which calls into doubt the truth of claims like two plus three equals five because he thought that we could achieve absolute certainty by starting with radical doubt5. He concluded that Mathematics is the only knowledge that cannot be doubted. The next knowledge issue is whether or not axioms in Mathematics are always absolute truths. In fact, there are still many unsolved postulates in Mathematics that have been worked on by thousands of mathematicians. Fermats Last theorem was left unsolved and doubted for 370 years until Andrew Wiles offered a proof for it. It may seem that doubts in Mathematics can always be solved, it being only a matter of time, because mathematical knowledge is absolute. However, the many other unresolved questions such as Riemanns Hypothesis lead to the question of whether all mathematical doubts can be answered since we have not answered them yet. This means, knowledge in Mathematics may never be final and therefore cannot be deemed absolute.

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The Idea Of Nature, Robin George Collingwood, Oxford University Press, p.11 Caesar s Church: the irrational in science and philosophy, Benjamin Walker, p.254 Descartess Method Of Doubt, Janet Broughton, Princeton University Press, front flap 2

Sabrina Chan

In 1931, Kurt Godel showed in his famous Incompleteness Theorem that any possible axiomatic system for the natural numbers must be incomplete6. It follows that mathematics can never give a complete account of it, nor prove its own truth and that any attempt to demonstrate consistency will itself lead to inconsistency.7 Indeed, a mathematical proposition cannot be said to be true or false, only consistent or not within the set of axioms it employs. This shows that mathematics is an incomplete system and imperfect area of knowledge. For example, in 1800, Euclidean geometry was thought to be a complete system that explained all geometry. Later people discovered non-Euclidean geometry showing the incomplete nature of something believed to be absolute. Therefore, Mathematical knowledge is not containable and cannot simply be opened with a key. The metaphor, doubt is the key to knowledge, I would suggest is not appropriate in the context of mathematical knowledge. The next issue is the conceptualisation of knowledge based upon subjective valuation of its worth. Economic theory evolves not only through doubt of current beliefs, but also because of changing value systems. For example, centrally planned economies are judged by most economists to be less successful not only because of inefficient productivity and resource allocation, but also because growth became increasingly based on money values. Capitalism is now questioned not only because we realize there is market failure8, but also because as our societal values are changing and we are searching for more sustainable growth based, increasingly, on social and environmental values instead of solely monetary values. This reconfigures the dynamics of most current economic theory and confirms the truth that our economy cannot be conceived in an endlessly expansionist way. Therefore, in Economics, our values directly influence the knowledge we collect. Blaise Pascal once asserted reasons last step is to admit that there is infinite number of things beyond it. If it does not admit this, it is merely feeble9. This could be equally applicable to doubt. Personal experience in learning Economics and Mathematics tells me that for the majority of time it is interests,
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The Incompleteness phenomenon: a new course in mathematical logic, Martin Goldstern, Haim Judah, p.187 7 Caesar s Church: the irrational in science and philosophy, Benjamin Walker, p.57 8 Negative externalities resulted from the market mechanism, for example, global warming, financial crisis 9 Making sense of it all: Pascal and the meaning of life, Thomas V. Morris, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1992, p. 214 3

Sabrina Chan

ambition, curiosity and pressure that push me to acquire new knowledge. There are many other factors that lead to knowledge, such as intuition, tradition, experience and consensus. The power of these other factors is exemplified through Andrew Wiles experience of proving the Taniyama-Shimura Conjecture which gave the motivation and the basis for proving Fermats Last Theorem. Wiles experience and tradition played a greater affirmative role than doubt. The Rational Expectations Hypothesis was a new premise of contemporary economics built upon existing New Classical Theory. It was created not because of doubt, but economists ambition to refine the existing theory. Finally, in both Mathematics and Economics, the nature of knowledge is never final and certain. According to Halvor Urdahl, the fact remains that the key of knowledge has not been revealed and cannot be made known to us unless it is shown beyond even the shadow of a doubt.10 It follows that doubt can be doubted, and will never lead to any final knowledge. The key to knowledge is therefore not doubt, but a conviction that transcends doubt and certainty that when one takes hold of it, it also takes hold of oneself. In conclusion, doubt may be productive and destructive. In the chosen two areas of knowledge, I have shown that even productive doubt does not guarantee the acquisition of knowledge because the foundation of knowledge is incomplete and uncertain. In addition there are forms of doubt that can be destructive and destroy the authority of knowledge; as John Ortberg puts it, scepticism can keep us trapped in two minds ; instead of looking for answers, cynicism offers conclusions about the world that paint it in an entirely negative light.11 As far as Mathematics and Economics are concerned, the Persian Proverb doubt is the key to knowledge is not entirely true. Doubt may be one of the many keys; what keeps us living is not endless doubt but a search for conviction upon which many of the most treasured values are based, such as faith, love and beauty.

(1580 worlds)

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Key of Knowledge, Halvor H. Urdahl, Kessinger Publishing, 1998 Faith and doubt, John Ortberg, Zondervan, 2008 4