Confidence gained through societal and individual past

Confidence can be described as a belief or feeling that an individual can have faith or consequently rely on something or someone Doubt, on the other hand, can be defined as a feeling of lack of conviction or uncertainty. The benefit that is associated with doubt is that we increase our knowledge or research on a particular area. Essentially, it can be suggested that confidence can be gained through societal and individual past experiences. Contrariwise, it is possible to lose confidence through experience when encountering conflicting perspectives or new sources of knowledge. With that in mind, this essay aims to consider how both confidence and doubt in existing knowledge impact the individual’s and society’s pursuit to question accepted “truths” or “facts” as a basis for further knowledge.

The essay will base arguments and counter arguments on examples from the Natural Sciences and History (specifically historiography). The ways of knowing in the Natural Sciences are, primarily, deductive reasoning and sense perception, both relevant to the essay, as, scientists in general, use reasoning to select which observations are significant to their investigation and which are not, these choices are at times, prejudiced by the scientists’ beliefs, predictions or hypothesis which are  based on confidence in their existing knowledge, or ‘sense perception’, to the extent that “observations” that do not support previously held beliefs are not noticed (also known as confirmation bias). In this case confidence may impact negatively on the scientist’s direction and breadth of inquiry, thus limiting their body of knowledge. History is set apart from the sciences as those studying it cannot observe that which they are studying, instead, their knowledge is based on historiography, that is, the study of the writings of history or more exactly, this unique area of knowledge is based on the study of signs/glimpses into and from the past which have been considered important by those studying them. Throughout the study of history, it could be suggested that the historian’s confidence in his prior knowledge can be a major cause of both topic bias and confirmation bias, meaning the historian includes, investigates and questions only those events and signs that may support his interpretation of events. Again, this could suggest that personal confidence impacts on the historian’s direction and breadth of inquiry, possibly limiting their body of knowledge.

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The foundation of the argument lies in the suggestion that “we know with confidence only when we know little; with knowledge doubt increases.” (adapted by JW von Goethe). It can be conceded that confidence, is generally a positive attribute.  However, the moment we become over-confident, chances are that we are likely to develop what can be referred to as self-deception. Self-deception will be in most cases associated with incorrect thinking that could lead to poor judgments or inferences about a topic. Confidence develops, with time and experience, as the knowledge that one has on a given topic is consolidated. What should be further considered is that knowledge can also be associated with doubts. When confronted with a different perspective or a wider /deeper knowledge base on the topic, the confident individual may become doubtful in his knowledge.

Regarding historiography, Coffin (1997) suggests that history is primarily a recording of the past. However, this suggestion can be described as oversimplification. Some studies would disagree that historiography is simply a recording of past events, as the recordings themselves are most likely limited and based on the perception and prior knowledge base of those doing the recording; for that reason, such studies are likely to raise doubts when a conclusion is drawn regarding a particular historical topic. For instance, a recent study by the Prof. Shwartz, University of Pittsburgh (2010) debunked the broadly accepted supposition that the ancient Carthaginians habitually sacrificed their children. Historian’s had for decades been confident in their knowledge that these sacrifices were common place based on reports in ancient manuscripts.

This apparent reliance and confidence in one type of source led to a limitation of knowledge in this regard. When Prof. Shwartz doubted that such rituals took place he searched for other sources of evidence. His research did in fact uncover new evidence, which suggested, based on an examination of Carthaginian infants’ remains, that the majority of those that died had not survived long enough to be sacrificed.

To quote Shwartz: “Our study emphasizes that historical scientists must consider all evidence when deciphering ancient societal behavior,” . This quote and the above example infers that when one has little knowledge about something, confidence increases. Yet, with a larger base of knowledge, chances are that one’s level of doubt is likely to increase.

  In this case, historians’ confidence in a small and unrivaled body of writing led them to believe a thousand-year-old conjecture and it was only when, an historian with a larger and more diverse knowledge base doubted the conjecture, that a broader and more substantial knowledge base of the topic was substantiated. It can be concluded that in the discipline of human science where absolute facts barely exist, having little knowledge about something is a factor that makes one confident in that area. In regard to the natural sciences, a majority of the inferences and conclusions are primarily based on absolute facts or truthfulness. Yet, these absolute facts are reached through observation, deductive reasoning and the examination of hypotheses. It can be suggested that such hypotheses may be influenced by cultural assumptions, thus the scientist, backed by culturally accepted beliefs or ideas, most likely has confidence in their argumentation. Furthermore, accepted hypotheses occur when the outcome complies with prior assumptions regarding the nature of nature. Once accepted these hypotheses become scientific facts and eventually are regarded as nature itself. It can be suggested that this process which substantiates “absolute facts” reinforces a sense of confidence within the scientific community.

Only when there is doubt or disagreement regarding the way in which scientific data was deduced or interpreted are ideas deemed worthy of further investigation. One example of a debunked “absolute fact” is geocentricity, a fact that was deeply rooted in accepted social beliefs up to the 16th century. This concept, which places the Earth in the center of the Universe where all other celestial objects orbit around it, was accepted with complete confidence by some of the ancient civilizations as well as western civilization until it was challenged by Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler in the 16th Century. The complete confidence in the geocentric theory was based on observations and biblical writings. The writings served as accepted hypotheses regarding the nature of the universe and the scientific observations, which substantiated this accepted absolute fact, was the view from Earth which seemingly demonstrated that the Sun revolves around the Earth. It is understandable that mankind, without further knowledge or deeper understanding, would have total confidence in what is observed in the most obvious and natural way, through the millions of eyes “seeing” the sun moving across the horizon.

It was only when these observations were questioned that doubts very gradually led the debunking of the geocentric model (although some individuals still consider the geocentric theory to be valid). These doubts were preceded by the invention of Galileo’s telescope and his subsequent observations which did not sit well the accepted model. Galileo’s observations lay the path for future scientists to suggest alternative theories and hypothesis, including Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation (1687) and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (1915). This example highlights the power of doubt in existing knowledge, as without this doubt in an “absolute truth” upheld with complete confidence by the ancient masses, the foundations of modern science may never have been laid and humankind’s knowledge would have not expanded across many fields of knowledge. Contrarily some may argue that the suggestion “we know with confidence only when we know little; with knowledge doubt increases” is not justifiable. This counter argument suggests that with more knowledge we develop the convenience of supporting our arguments and positions with facts. In that same regard, the only thing that little knowledge can do is to pave the way for the existence of underdeveloped ideas.

Hence, more knowledge increases the validity of arguments that are made in regard to discussion topics. In conclusion, this essay has discussed the research question and concluded that both confidence and doubt in existing knowledge do impact the individual’s and in turn, society’s pursuit to question accepted “truths” or “facts” as a basis for further knowledge. In both examples, the introduction of new sources of knowledge, whether through technology or new historical discoveries, led an individual to doubt an existing theory which in turn led to a deeper understanding. In both cases confidence was placed in a body of facts or beliefs which was believed by generation after generation, this existing knowledge was accepted as truth and as such not questioned, leaving many with little understanding but with much confidence in the familiarity of the subject. Through examples from History and the Natural Sciences this essay has demonstrated that the confidence of the masses, when doubted by the individual, contribute to the further pursuit of answers and a greater breadth of knowledge.