Hardly a day goes by in the approach to the Sochi Winter Olympics without yet another news story about terrorist threat. The assumption underlying these stories seems to be that the terrorists in question are so strong in their unshakeable beliefs that they are willing to kill themselves and hundreds of others to achieve their political and/or religious goals.  (In this case, it seems to be both religious and political if there really are links to the Buynaksk terrorist group.)

For a TOK class, the terrorist threats at the Olympics can form the basis of all kinds of interesting discussions about many knowledge issues which can be raised as questions to explore:

  • the language of labeling—words like terrorists, jihadists, freedom fighters, revolutionaries, guerillas, insurgents and so on.
  • identification of underlying assumptions behind the claim, often made, that the Olympics deserve special insulation from all political activity, as an example of the role of unstated premises in knowledge claims.
  • ethical systems based on weighing consequences and ethical systems based on identifying and following principles, and the differences between them in justifications offered for particular conclusions and actions.

–       more specifically, ends and means (particularly involving violence) and, related,

–       the justifiability of basing any  irreversible action on political ideology or religious faith, particularly in the context of unpredictable effects.

However, the issue of extreme beliefs leading to extreme actions raises further, and perhaps less obvious, issues.

Extreme actions – from extreme beliefs, or squelching of doubt?

A current book and an even more current radio broadcast/podcast based on the book treat this topic of belief and action.   The book Ethnographies of Doubt, Faith and Uncertainty in Contemporary Societies, edited by  Mathijs Pelkmans, is discussed by the editor and one of the contributors, Alpa Shah, on the BBC radio show “Thinking Allowed“, hosted by Laurie Taylor.  The outline of the book is also available online.

The entire thrust of the book (and podcast) is to encourage us to question some of our assumptions about those who generally appear to be utterly convinced of their beliefs –and willing to act on them.  In fact, in working with groups of both religious and political “believers” over many years, both Mathijs Pelkmans and Alpa Shar report several findings, some fairly predictable, others not.

One such finding is that the newly converted—having overcome doubts—often appear to be the most certain in their beliefs.  “Recent converts are often particularly fervent in acting out their conviction, precisely because of their greater need [and momentary ability] to suspend lingering doubt.”  He adds, “intense ideological movements can only retain their fervor by actively denying ambiguity.”

Another finding may be familiar to those who have noticed couples in romantic difficulties, making a major commitment in order to overcome doubts (through deciding to get married or have a child):  “rather than necessarily leading to inaction (although that is certainly a possibility), doubt may also be a facilitator of action by triggering a need for resolution.”

In the book’s Outline, Pelkmans further states,

 Religious and secular convictions can have powerful effects, but their foundations are often surprisingly fragile.  In fact, the firmer the endorsement of ideas, the weaker the basis of these notions may be. Recent converts are often particularly fervent in acting out their conviction, precisely because of their greater need (and momentary ability) to suspend lingering doubt.  And intense ideological movements can only retain their fervor by actively denying ambiguity.

Even more surprising, perhaps, are two more findings:

 a. doubt is widespread amongst even the most apparently absolute in their beliefs. (How strange, perhaps, to think of some of the most notorious terrorist acts like 9/11 or the Kenyan shopping mall massacre as committed by wavering believers.)

b. such doubt is constantly changing–waxing and waning over many years.

 It is not surprising that we tend to equate extremist action with extremist beliefs.  Even in academic circles, however, Dr. Pelkmans points out, when we read about ideologies, for example in anthropology, we get a distorted impression about the levels of certainty for two reasons:

 First, those who speak about the levels of their beliefs tend to overcome many doubts in the very act of talking about them.

 Second, we “tend to look at action or fully articulated ideologies rather than ‘catching doubt in midair.’”

 Alpa Shah, one of the contributor’s to Peltmans’ book, says something similar:  “I’m very interested in the dialects between certainty and uncertainty, doubt and clarity which people are always dealing with.  You like to label these people as revolutionaries or terrorists…in fact, people are inhabiting this middle ground and the decisions which lead them to one or the other are based on all kinds of relations of doubt and uncertainty and it’s that which causes action.”

Doubt and knowledge

This book and podcast on Doubt, Faith, and Uncertainty raise many issues of critical relevance to the Theory of Knowledge course. In TOK, we recognize the constructive role of doubt: in everyday life and in areas of knowledge such as the sciences and history, doubt activates further inquiry.  Doubt in itself is not a weakness in knowledge, we might venture to say, but part of the process of building it.  Ideally, Theory of Knowledge students, unlike those described in Pelkmans’ book, are not interested in denying ambiguities but instead in exploring them in an open-minded way. They are not interested in squashing doubt but instead in assessing the most reasonable level of doubt or certainty.  (See IB TOK Course Companion, chapter 3, on Seeking Knowledge.)

For IB students, TOK also fosters an ethical appraisal of actions based on knowledge claims.  After all, their actions, according to the learner profile, are supposed to  “help to create a better and more peaceful world.” How do we know what actions those are?  An examination of ethics as an area of knowledge yields various ways of responding, with a thoughtful treatment of ambiguities.

In many ways, then, TOK stands against the terrorist’s squelching of doubts and violent actions: it recognizes ambiguities, treats doubt as constructive and accepts degrees of uncertainty, and appraises ethically the connection between beliefs and action.


Eileen Dombrowski, Lena Rotenberg, Mimi Bick.  Theory of Knowledge IB Course Companion.  Oxford University Press, 2013. https://global.oup.com/education/product/9780199129737?region=international

“Thinking Allowed”, hosted by Laurie Taylor. BBC, January 14, 2014. (minutes13:23 to 27:30) http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/radio4/ta/ta_20140115-1645a.mp3

Ethnographies of Doubt: Faith and Uncertainty in Contemporary Societies, edited by Mathijs Pelkmans, I.B.Tauris & Co., London, 2013  http://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=-IqZbUYz-VgC&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=ethnographies+of+doubt+faith+and+uncertainty+in+contemporary+societies&ots=A5DXRFMe4t&sig=6c7CeNaQp5VAugsU8B-5tSbosJo#v=onepage&q=ethnographies%20of%20doubt%20faith%20and%20uncertainty%20in%20contemporary%20societies&f=false

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