Precepts to use in everyday life

1. Think for yourself, 2. Be yourself, 3. Speak up, 4. Feel free to agree and disagree, 5. Be honest with yourself and others, 6. Be open-minded, 7. Avoid being judgmental and 8. Question everything - even your own thinking.

TOK Essay Titles Nov 2020

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Life, the Universe and Everything

'Investigating God and the new physics'

In just about a week's time (Tuesday 3rd & Wednesday 4th November), Andy Fletcher will be here to conduct his seminar with the above title (see his website on the link to the bottom left). He'll be addressing the perennial question: how far is the belief in God rendered irrational and obsolete by Science? In other words, are Science and Religion worlds apart?

To prepare yourselves for the seminar, you might like to read up on the following ideas:

1. Infinity

2. Mechanism

3. Determinsim

4. Reductionism

Andy Fletcher will be taking you on an intellectual journey you'll never forget. You might not grasp the ideas at first, but the understanding will grow in time. Be prepared to travel the path of the great scientists of the last century and a half and to understand Relativity Theory, Quantum Theory, Chaos Theory and Complexity Theory and judge for yourself if Science has made God disappear...

Friday, October 23, 2009

Knowledge Issues - Examples

KIs in a TOK Presentation

Following on from the last post, here’s a worked example using the framework for KIs in preparation for a TOK Presentation:

Real Life Example: 'Which kids join gangs? A genetic explanation.'

Problem: This article is about scientific explanations of human behaviour/nature and nurture.

Knowledge Problem (Facts): What is the truth about children’s behaviour in their peer groups? This question uses one of the 5Ws.

Knowledge Issue (Closed question in context): “Is the survey data very reliable?” This question is ‘in context’ in that it is focused on the details of the article and requires a ‘yes/no’ answer.

Knowledge Issue (Open question in context): I’d like to transform the previous question in this way: “In what ways can the statistics about children’s behaviour be verified?” This question induces further discussion and also asks you to research beyond the article itself while remaining rooted in the details of the article.

Knowledge Issue (Generalised Open Question): "To what extent are the explanations of science liable to bias?" " How certain are scientific explanations of human behaviour?" These are now fully fledged ‘strong’ KIs ready to be explored in the Presentation.

KIs in a TOK Essay

Here’s a worked example using the framework for KIs in preparation for a TOK Essay:

Essay question: “Can a machine know?” (Question 9 from the Prescribed Essay list 2006-7) (You might like to look at the Blog entries on Consciousness at the same time.)

Problem: This question is about whether machines with Artificial Intelligence have consciousness or minds.

Knowledge Problem (Facts): Which WoKs does a machine use to acquire knowledge? A 5Ws-type question.

Knowledge Issue (Closed question in context): “Do machines only know what they are programmed to know?” This question is ‘in context’ in that it is focused on the details of the question and requires a ‘yes/no’ answer.

Knowledge Issue (Open question in context): I’d like to transform the previous question in this way: “How can we know (ie. verify) that machines actually know something?” This question induces further discussion and also asks you to research beyond the question itself while remaining rooted in the details of the question.

Knowledge Issue (Generalised Open Question): "How far is it true to say that machines and humans know in the same way?" "To what extent is knowledge or knowing limited to organic life forms?" These are now fully fledged ‘strong’ Kis ready to be explored in the Essay.

Further ideas about Knowledge Issues

Here’s a general framework to help you create KIs for your essays and presentations. Some of you might jump steps and start with Step 6, others might need to go through each step at a time. The most important thing is to try to work things out for yourself, but then to collaborate if you find creating KIs tough-going. Usually a combination of the framework and collaboration should yield a pretty strong result.

NOTE: Make sure you don’t use the SAME KIs in your work as your collaborators use in theirs!

1. Stimulus material/Essay question: Define the exact nature of the material or question.

2. Central argument or problem: State the essence of the material or question in the form of one simple statement (This is about...).

3. Knowledge Problem (Facts): Raise one question that focuses on the details of the material or question (Who? What? Where? When? Why?).

4. Knowledge Issue (Closed question in context): Now transform that question into a more closed (one that requires a yes/no response) question about the article or question itself.

5. Knowledge Issue (Open question in context): Next transform the closed question into a more open question (How far...? To what extent...? In what way...?) which inspires further debate about the article or question.

6. Knowledge Issue (Generalised Open Question): Finally, transform the previous question into a more wide-ranging open question that draws attention to the ‘bigger picture’ about knowledge in the world and how it is acquired and used; this question need not be focused on your material or essay question at all but goes beyond it in some way.

TIP: you may use any of the KIs you create in Steps 4-6 in your essays and presentations, though you will tend to get more credit for those created in Step 6 if they are effectively expressed and generate balanced arguments when you explore them in the main body of your work.

Watch this space for some worked examples...

Monday, October 12, 2009


Natural Sciences and Human Sciences (The problem of consciousness, Part 4)

Click on this movie to see the first episode of Dr. Susan Greenfield's BBC 1 documentary Brain Story - 'All in the mind'.

At this point in our discussion, we enter into an enquiry that philosophers label the 'mind-body problem' which is linked to the problem of identity. It's worthwhile investigating into the various theories, if only to yield some insights into the mystery of consciousness.

The materialist theory of consciousness

Greenfield argues that 'you are your brain'. Your inner world of consciousness is a matter of electrical activity inside your brain. So for example, when you saw that red apple you had for lunch, certain physical causes and effects created the experience of redness in your consciousness: first, light was reflected off the apple into your eye. Here the light was focused onto your retina to create an image. Next, the photo-sensitive cells on your retina triggered electrical pulses which moved down the nerve pathways that connect your eye to your brain. Then the electrical pulses caused something to happen in your brain to give you the visual experience of seeing a red apple. Your mind, or mental perception of the world, is just what goes on physically in your brain. In short, you are the sum of the different parts of your brain: the cells that cause different electrical impulses depending on ther function; the nerves that transport those impulses from your sense receptors to your brain; the neurons that fire when you those electrical impulses reach the brain and so on.

The dualist theories of consciousness

There are two versions of this theory:

Substance dualism

Rene Descartes (1596- 1650) argued that 'you are your mind'. He devised the theory that the mind and body are separate entities and capable of existing independently of eachother. In short, Descartes believed that when something happens in the brain, something else had to happen - your brain caused something to happen in your mind. The brain and mind may interact, but they aren't identical. How does Descartes argue his case? He gives us the classic sceptical method of doubt:

P1: My body (or anything made of physical matter) is something the existence of which can be doubted.

P2: I am not something the existing of which I can doubt (since some doubting is actually going on...)

Conclusion: Therefore, I am not my body.

I am, Descartes concludes further, a thinking substance made entirely of mind.

Property dualism

Property dualists differentiate between physical and mental properties, rather than substances. Yes, human behaviour can be explained by certain brain states, but there is something else, over and above the physical, that characteries our conscious, mental experience of the world: these are explained in terms of mental states or properties. Unlike materialists, property dualists would argue that our minds are not reducible to the sum of the parts of the brain; we are somehow more than the some of our parts. We'll have a look at the arguments that represent this view later.

But for now, now, we are left with three alternative views of consciousness:

1. The hard scientific view that consciousness is reducible to the individual workings of the brain.

2. Descartes’s view, which very few people would be willing to defend these days, that consciousness is an immaterial substance that interacts with our physical body.

3. The very unscientific view that there exist these non-physical, so-called ‘mental properties’ which make up what we call 'consciousness'.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


Natural Sciences and Human Sciences (The problem of consciousness, Part 3)

So what have we established so far?

1. Consiousness (the action of my mind) is redicible to the physical facts of what happens in my body and brain when I express my inner experiences. This is, presumably, what Kurzweil would refer to as 'sentience'.

2. Consiousness is purely subjective and it is in principle impossible to reduce my conscious experiences, the facts of my mental actions, to mere physical facts: there must be something more than just the physcial facts to explain this strange inner life that only I can experience.

Position 1 is termed the 'materialist' perspective and is usually held by scientists. They explain that just as two properties that at first seem distinct are in fact identical (eg. water and H2O), mental states and brain states are in fact identical. Don't be fooled by advertisements for pain killers which tell you that the drug, once taken, homes in directly to the part of your body that is throbbing (usually indicated by a fancy visual of a red spotlight on the affected area). The pain is actually a certain brain state and the drug's work really takes place there.

Position 2 is termed the 'dualist' position and is usually held by people with a leaning towards a religious or supernatural explanaton for the origins of consciousness. 'Substance dualists' argue that the mind and body are two disctinct substances and can exist independently of eachother but can interact with eachother. Property dualists argue that there is only phyiscal stuff in the universe, but this stuff has two distinct properties, mental and physical properties. Our mental properties are extra properties and exist in addition to our physical properties.

Before we look at the arguments and counter-arguments presented by believers in each position, consider the following variations on an intelligence test for machines.

The Turing Test

In the 1950s, Alan Turing devised an intelligence test to establish whether a machine is displaying any conscious mental activity. There are different versions of the test, but here's a summary: there are three participants, A, B and C. B & C are in separate compartments and A is the interrogator looking into both. A communicates with B & C by means of a telegraph apparatus. It is up to A to pose questions to B & C in an attempt to find out who is the human and who is machine. It's up to B & C to convince A that each of them is indeed human. According to the terms of the test, if A cannot tell the difference between B & C more than 50% of the time, then the machine is said to be intelligent. As yet, we haven't been able to create a machine or computer that has passed the Turing test. Why? Largely because, as Kurweil might suggest, our computers have not mastered emotion...yet!

The Chinese Room

In 1980, John Searle presented a thought-experiment to prove that machines or computers don't have minds or conscious mental states, they simply imitate intelligent behaviour or understanding. In short, computers, however complex their computational outcomes, are simply fulfilling a program that we have created for them. Here's how the experiment works. Imagine that a person who has no knowledge of Chinese is locked in a room in which there are a set of cards with strange symbols on them. These symbols are in fact Chinese characters, but to this person they are meaningless squiggles. Suppose now that he is given other cards with similar symbols on them plus instructions (in his own language) about how to shuffle the symbols and hand them back in response. The first set of cards were a story in Chinese and the second set were questions posed to him in Chinese about that story. The instructions for the symbol shuffling are his 'program', so to speak, to respond correctly in Chinese to these questions. The people posing the questions outside the room are Chinese. When the answers come back from the person in the locked room, they might be fooled into thinking that he understands Chinese and is capable of following the story. But clearly he doesn't understand a word of Chinese. He's simply shuffling symbols according to his instructions. Searle's point is twofold: first, that computers, however complex, work in exactly the same way - they mechanically shuffle symbols according their program without understanding any of the symbols and their meaning. They merely provide a simulation of understanding. Second, the main reason for this is because they're made of the wrong stuff - they are not biological, organic beings that have evolved naturally.

Friday, October 9, 2009


Natural Sciences, Human Sciences and the Arts (The problem of consciousness, Part 2)

Literary writers have been fascinated about the consciousness conundrum, most dramatically Mary Shelley in her Gothic novel, Frankenstein. Haing been impressed by the work of the 18th Century Italian physicist Luigi Galvani in the fiel of electricity, she constructed that well-known parable of man playing God and giving life to a inanimate piece of matter comprising the body parts of different dead humans sewn together. Dr. Frankenstein harnessed the raw power of electricity in lightning and channelled it into the lifless flesh of his Creation. And the rest is fictional history.

But this isn't how it happened with us, is it? It's going to be extremely hard to specify a date when our ancestors first became conscious. And perhaps it's going to be harder still to explain how this happened, unless we're drawn to the God hypothesis. But what if we aren't so drawn? What sort of hypthothesis are we left with.

Clarifying our concepts

Let's begin with some definitions. In the debate, 'Will machines become conscious?', Kurzweil defines 'consciousness' in two ways:

1. 'Apparent consciousness': "We can define apparent consciousness, which is an entity that appears to be conscious—and I believe, in fact, you have to be apparently conscious to pass the Turing test, which means you really need a command of human emotion. Because if you're just very good at doing mathematical theorems and making stock market investments and so on, you're not going to pass the Turing test...Mastering human emotion and human language is really key to the Turing test, which has held up as our exemplary assessment of whether or not a non-biological intelligence has achieved human levels of intelligence.

And that will require a machine to master human emotion...That's the most intelligent thing we do. Being funny, expressing a loving sentiment—these are very complex behaviors..." and reflect our "emotional intelligence".


2. 'Subjectivity': "Consciousness is a synonym for subjectivity and really having subjective experience, not just an entity that appears to have subjective experience...There's no consciousness detector we can imagine creating, that you'd slide an entity in—green light goes on, OK, this one's conscious, no, this one's not conscious..."


What implications does this distinction have to our understanding of the human mind as opposed to the mind of a machine?

Thursday, October 8, 2009


Natural Sciences and Human Sciences (The problem of consciousnes, Part 1)

You've just got to read this!

In a recent Guardian article, Ray Kurzweil, a technology guru, made certain predictions about mankind based on the evidence of the technological revolution in the field of computers and Articial Intelligence in recent years. The Guardian reports:

"that by 2029 computers will be able to pass the Turing test - that is, pass themselves off as human in conversation...By 2035 the human brain and computers will begin to merge - literally. Those nanobots will be used to vastly extend the reach of human intelligence. They will allow us to control all our senses by computer and enter a full virtual reality in which we could become other people."

'Nanobots' are tiny robotic micro-processors. Kurzweil describes them as "blood-cell sized devices" that can be injected into our bloodstream. The initial effect would be to help our bodies repair dead or dying cells and, ultimately, to keep us healthier and living longer.

What we're interested in, however, is the idea that in 20 years time, we won't be able, if Kurzweil is right, to distinguish between computers (or machines) and humans. Nanobot machines will be able to enhance our thinking powers from the inside, so to speak, just like a pacemaker enhances the work of a defective heart. Nanobots are more than replacement internal prosthetics like a heart valve or a metal pin to strengthen a hip joint; they are enhancements that become a part of us and make us somehow more than human. The full implications of nanobot technology are, however, vastly more interesting and perhaps even unimaginable.

Kurzweil suggests, in another debate entitled, 'Will machines become conscious?', that machines, computers, will display CONSCIOUSNESS; they will become self-aware.

How on earth does that happen?

By extension, we may well ask: how on earth did this piece of flesh that is a human being ever become conscious?

Much of what follows is discussed very vividly and with great lucidity in Stephen Law's book, The Philosophy Gym. Please check it out.