When discussing knowledge we must explore what we mean by knowledge. Does everybody within society accept the same information as knowledge? I will investigate further using the example of medical knowledge. Knowledge is not absolute. As knowledge and knowing is a human faculty, by the very nature of human beings and a society that has a choice in what and who to believe, it cannot be an objective set of truths. The moment a fact or theory is communicated it is in some way at the mercy of the medium which/who is communicating it and the recipient. We must also discuss not just what we know but how we know.
Using the example of religious knowledge I will explore the ways that constitute knowledge gathering and acceptance of knowledge. I will be discussing what can cause changes to and further enhance knowledge held. Medical knowledge is an area which appears to be constantly developing, new ideas are regularly offered to the public consciousness to be either accepted or disregarded and whichever judgement is chosen makes a statement about where society places its trust, how ready we are to accept change, how radical we will allow any changes to be and whose theories and evidence mass society is willing to accept.
An example of this is Alternative Medicine, although it is more accepted now than in previous years (e. g. aromatherapy massage is now actively promoted by mainstream health professionals as a complimentary therapy during pregnancy and treatment of bad backs) it is still generally seen as a compliment to Orthodox Medicine and not valid as treatments in their own rights. The ways in which medical knowledge has developed and how these processes of development have knock-on effects throughout society e. the setting up of the Royal Society in 1662, emphasised the expert knowledge bias over common sense knowledge. Expert knowledge was historically endorsed and distributed by middle and upper class male establishments (e. g. the Royal Society was founded by Charles II and allowed gentlemen members only and women were only allowed to qualify in Medicine in 1876 however they were only actually granted access to quality medical training after the Second World War).
This helped perpetuate an air of superiority, increased intelligence and authority to this group in society, their medical knowledge trusted and officially endorsed over traditionally female common sense knowledge. Structures of medical knowledge enhancement e. g. the methods of investigation into Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in 1970s by Dr Steinschneider as well as offering a medical theory, also makes certain assumptions about the non-medical world e. g. e family set-up, motherly love, which may cloud objectivity and lead to the wrong conclusions being drawn e. g. the case of Waneta Hoyt which was at the core of Dr Steinschneiders research. Waneta and Tim Hoyt lost five children one after the other, SIDS was looked to as the cause and Dr Steinschneider developed a new theory regarding the cause of SIDS, namely that prolonged apnoea was to blame. In 1976 however forensic pathologist Dr Linda Norton began researching the case without ruling out parental involvement.
Dr Norton found evidence that multiple infanticide was actually at the heart of the case and as a result 23 years later Waneta Hoyt was jailed for murdering her five children. Medical authority extends an assumed authority throughout other spheres of society although it has no jurisdiction over these other areas or any official right to comment on or assume given facts about non-medical situations e. g. family ties and a mothers natural instinct to protect her offspring (an assumed fact which obscured the truth in Dr Steinschneiders study of the Hoyt case.
Yet the medical profession does make assumptions and comment on situations outside of its remit and because it is an authority it is believed in many cases and by many people. The knowledge endorsed by medical authorities e. g. The Royal Society are looked upon as more valid than for example knowledge passed down through generations of women, not because the common sense knowledge has necessarily been disproved (or even tested) but because authorities have been socially sanctioned and have traditionally been viewed as objective and trustworthy.
Charles II established the Royal Society in 1662. At this time Monarchs were afforded a vast amount of power and trust, seen as next to God and therefore the Royal Society inherits some of this power and public trust. Thomas Kuhn has a Social Constructionist approach and bases his argument on the idea of paradigms. That rather than making and proving hypotheses, researchers spend the majority of their time trying to solve problems set by previous researchers. Kuhn says scientists are constantly developing paradigms and that previous theories or paradigms are often replaced by new ones.
By this rationale each new discovery is in some way simply the next step on from the previous step so there are no great revelations for the public to digest, no scientific theory will be a huge leap from knowledge they already accept. Even the great discovery of DNA has been a gradual (if accelerated) journey from the actual discovery that DNA existed to each subsequent related discovery of what DNA meant in terms of inherited diseases, treatments, human cloning etc Although these are monumental things they have come as a stream of knowledge.
Perhaps new theories that would come out of the blue and challenge a huge chunk of societys accepted knowledge would be too much for society to swallow in one go. Maybe that is why, although the general public does not have the expert knowledge and specialist investigative skills to accurately assess the accuracy and validity of any scientific theory orthodox or alternative and relies on various media (newspapers, education, official papers etc. ) to choose whether to accept or reject a theory, we are on mass, much more ready to accept a theory that follows on from what we already take as read.
Alternative medicines such as Homeopathy (despite being seemingly proved and disproved in contradictory investigations) have never wholly been accepted and yet Steinschnieders theories on SIDS, again despite being seemingly proved and disproved, was readily accepted and still is even after strong evidence that it is an erroneous theory. Kuhn also suggests that in an inverse way to the question at the basis of this essay, society and its institutions constrain the scientists working within it into a certain way of working and thinking and therefore society changes what is accepted as knowledge and not the other way around.
Indeed what theories are tested and developed are often reliant on what scientific studies are funded, both with public or private money and as this is a selective process with certain scientific needs being prioritised e. g. nuclear weapons technology over investigating the merits of cannabis use for M. S. sufferers, we can see that to some degree Kuhn is correct. Religious knowledge is based on faith, a belief in truths revealed rather than information which has been deduced, tested and scrutinised logically and rationally unlike most officially recognised medical knowledge.
Religious knowledge used to be assumed to be certain and factual. Natural science has taken its place as the factual knowledge, it is the belief system which is, on mass, thought of as authoritative and proven and it is by this benchmark of proof that a large part of society judges what they will accept as true and religion fails as it is based on faith. According to many sources (including Newsweek in their 1999 claim that God is Dead) numbers of church attendees have fallen in recent years.
It is unclear however which denominations this refers to. Attendance figures provide us with one way of viewing the scale of religious worship, however the respondents in the surveys used to compile numbers have simply said whether they attend church, they have not answered whether they believe in/study any religious text or God. Perhaps the census figures might be a more reliable way of gauging the situation as in the last census respondents were asked to indicate religious belief rather than whether they regularly attended a place of worship.
The force of belief across the globe is apparent by the religion inspired sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, the Middle East and some disputes in Northern England earlier in the year. There is no denying that the role of religion in UK society has changed over recent years. With the rise of scientific knowledge (particularly explanations for the origins of the universe and in particular the Big Bang theory) have given way to a sceptical view of religion that if there is proof that natural forces created the universe despite religious claims otherwise (e. g. e book of Genesis in Christianity) then perhaps all religious claims are false.
Grace Davie suggests that while official worship has dwindled (attendance figures in UK have steadily dropped year on year) people have continued to believe without belonging to religious organizations. While our need to understand where we came from has in part been taken care of with scientific knowledge, we often still have needs in terms of guidance or understanding what may be in store for us in a spiritual sense or where we come from philosophically and for these needs we often turn to religious or spiritual theories or teachings for answers.
Perhaps with people (particularly in the Western world) having more access to the teachings of different religions (Eastern religions such as Buddhism are often very popular) through education, the Internet and the Media, we are able to create a pick n mix belief system borrowing different ideas from several religions. This would in some way explain the dwindling attendance figures, as if you believe parts several of several religions where do you base your worship?
There is also less pressure within society to attend religious services, in many ways there is pressure (amongst young people especially) not to admit being religious and in this case private worship may be the answer. David Hay set up a Religious Experience Research Project at Nottingham University (based on an earlier project set up in 1969 at Manchester College, Oxford by Alister Hardy).
Using questionnaires and interviews he found that over a third of all adults in Britain claim to have had a religious experience. The number of church attendees is less than this which would support Grace Davies ideas. Hay argues that people are embarrassed to disclose spiritual experiences in todays supposedly secular society, and that popular culture and its complex imagery help repress religious beliefs and desires.
Perhaps people find it difficult to admit that despite having clear scientific theories to explain the origins of being they still need the comfort of believing in a higher being, a friendly ghost or perhaps a pre-ordained fate or that someone or something is looking after them and keeping the balance of right and wrong and good and evil in check. It is very common to hear of non-religious people praying in times of crisis or when all else has failed and anything is worth trying.
Which suggests that many people have not always completely ruled out the possibilities that religious knowledge has some truth in it but generally we feel confident and in control and only seek outside help when we are vulnerable and desperate. It is clear that there are no absolutes when it comes to knowledge and that the term itself can mean different things to different people. To some only knowledge which passes the test of modern day methods of investigation should be considered knowledge, to others simply what you believe is knowledge whatever scientific basis it does or doesnt have.
It seems that in Modern Society we are often prepared to accept that science is the ultimate knowledge and that all other proposed theories be measured against this benchmark but we do not necessarily have the skills to find out if the scientific knowledge we trust is as factual or definite as we deem it. We often regard knowledge as only as reliable as its messenger, or not as the case may be, yet those messengers we are ready to trust are only trusted because of the tradition of trust that precedes them.