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, November 24, 2010


Natural and Human Sciences (The problem of consciousness Part 5)

This time last year we started a thread of posts on the idea of consciousness. We got somewhat distracted, but here's a follow up... (see the tab on 'Consciousness' to view the previous posts.)

A deterministic argument against dualism

Scientists refute both forms of dualism by resorting to a deterministic argument to explain behaviours like choosing things.

Choosing anything can be explained by pointing to a chain of physical causes and effects which links the initial decision to a combination of brain activity, the nervous system, muscle movement and the environment. The series of physical causes comprising of these factors, it is argued, explain or determine why I chose to wear a blue shirt this morning instead of a white one.

Scientists would have us believe that if they were supplied in advance with a knowledge of all the laws of nature, as well as all of the physical facts relating to my body and environment just a few moments before I chose my blue shirt, they would, in principle, be able to predict the outcome of my decision. The choice of blue shirt, in other words, was fixed in advance by how things were physically.

What are the implications of this?

1. There is no place for a non-physical fact to play a part in the chain of cause and effect – a mental fact or property couldn’t affect the ways things turned out. I would have always chosen the blue shirt.

2. According to dualists, the mind or consciousness is at least partly non-physical and they are committed to the view that the mind or mental properties can affect the way things turn out in the physical world (they want their cake and they want to eat it).

3. But if the deterministic explanation is right, the dualist would be forced to accept that he could omit the mind altogether from his belief system, since it is irrelevant to what goes on in the body when we choose things.

4. However, he might point to the absurdity of the situation; that of course we couldn’t get rid of the mind or consciousness since it makes us what we are.

5. We would then have to point out to him that, according to the ‘chain of cause and effect’ argument, the mind can only affect the outcome of my physical actions if the mind is itself physical.

6. The dualist is left with two alternatives:

a. Holding on to an inconsistant belief in the duality of the mind.
b. Rejecting dualism altogether.

Science appears to win the argument that the world only consists of physical facts. But some people find it difficult to accept that human consciousness is so easily reducible and that our actions are physically pre-determined.

The Black and White room argument against materialism

In the 1980s, the philosopher, Frank Jackson, devised the following thought experiment in a defence of the dualistic position (click on the picture above.)

Imagine a girl, Mary, is born and raised in a room where she can only experience black and white. The scientists who study her have made sure that she has no other colour experiences. She only ever experiences black, white and shades of grey. Mary begins to study science and eventually becomes a world renowned expert in brain science. She discovers everything that goes on inside the brain of people when they have colour experiences – she learns, for example, all the physical facts possible in the chain of causes and effects that explain what happens when people have the experience of seeing red.

Now one day, one of the scientists who’s been studying her development, brings a red tomato into the room. In spite of everything she knows about the ‘experience of red’, Mary is shocked. She does not know that to experience red feels like this. How could she? She’d never experienced redness before. Evidently, Mary has learned a new fact – the fact that experiencing red feels ‘like this’. She thought she knew all the physical facts pertaining to colour experiences. This fact, she now thinks, can’t be a physical fact. She concludes that the ‘experience of red’ and what this experience ‘feels like’ are two different things. The former may be a physical fact, but the latter is not.

According to Jackson, there are two major implications of this thought experiment:

1. there must be something more than physical facts to explain the existence of consciousness.

2. there exists an ‘explanatory gap’ whereby science falls short: it cannot explain everything in terms of an appeal to physical facts alone.

So we are left with our original distinction: is consciousness something irreducibly subjective and private (like the dualists believe) or is it something outward – a physical manifestation of inward states linked to our brain functions and nervous system?

We appear to be nowhere near a definitive answer as to how this piece of flesh we call a human body comes to be full of thoughts and self-awareness...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Notes on Structure and Layout

The ToK Essay: A SEXCI essay – worked example
Imagine that Rose is pondering the 2010 essay title #6:

All knowledge claims should be open to rational criticism. On what grounds and to what extent would you agree with this assertion?

Suppose now that the following line of thought takes place in her mind (think of it as a debate between opposing voices – for ease of understanding, we’ve labeled these voices The Angel, The Daemon and The Other):

The Angel: I agree. If someone claims to know that there’s water on Mars, they better have a good reason to believe this. I read a BBC article which suggests that the scars on the surface are water tracks or valleys which once had flowing water running through them. Reason is a good way of measuring the reliability of knowledge claims. If we didn’t demand reasons for people’s beliefs, all kinds of dangerous beliefs could be passed around.

The Daemon: I disagree. It depends on the kind of knowledge claim, doesn’t it? Take religion, for example. Someone who believes in God may not exactly be able to provide any reasons for his belief that are acceptable to an atheist. It’s a matter of faith. They can point to various things like miracle healings or people’s near-death experiences where a guardian angel appears before them, but they can’t tell the atheist that they have given her any ‘reasons’ to justify their claim. There are some beliefs that cannot be rationally criticized because they have nothing to do with reason.

The Other: Hold your horses, if you have beliefs that are NOT open to rational criticism, then surely you’re holding irrational beliefs and that doesn’t seem right – clearly, it is not inconsistent for me to believe that torture is wrong and yet there are circumstances (reasons) under which it is justified: for example, to gain intelligence that could save many lives. Perhaps the belief in God is like this. You might say that this is ‘dangerous’, but first, I think we have to be clear about what we mean by ‘rational criticism’…

Let’s break down the dialogue into its constituent parts:

S = There is water on Mars

E = Scars on the surface are water tracks

eX = Reason is a good way of measuring the reliability of knowledge claims

C = Belief in God. - Miracle healings or people’s near death experiences. - It’s a matter of faith; some beliefs that cannot be rationally criticized because they have nothing to do with reason.

I = That doesn’t seem right. - if you have beliefs that are NOT open to rational criticism, then surely you’re holding irrational beliefs. - Surely we have to be clear about what we mean by ‘rational criticism’.

There’s no reason why your planning can’t take the form of this to and fro momentum of argumentation, building in any reading material that you've selected and even snippets of conversations that you've had with other students and teachers on the topic.

The internal dialogue might go on as follows:

The Angel: Ah! You mean whether we should follow Plato’s suggestion that knowledge is ‘justified true belief’ – rational criticism means that we must justify our beliefs in the light of reason? If I believe that smoking kills, then first, I must believe this; second, it must be true and third, I need some reasons to explain why I believe this.

The Daemon: Yes, we could do this, but you know the problems that this leads us to. For example, if you justify your belief that smoking kills by explaining that it causes lung cancer, you need to justify your belief in that cause itself by way of another reason and so on ad inifintum.

The Other: Indeed, the old ‘infinite regress problem’. We could dwell forever on possible solutions for this, but why don’t we focus instead on the idea that ‘rational criticism’ means more that we need a method to approach the issue of beliefs: a method which allows us to accept or reject beliefs on the basis of observable evidence.

The Angel (casting a sullen look at her feet): Oh dear! You’re getting much too scientific for my liking.

The Daemon (rubbing his hands together with glee): Now we’re getting somewhere – you’re talking about falsification aren’t you? Well…

Writing like this can be fun, creative and most of all, really opens your mind to alternative arguments.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

TOK Websites


This website is based in Patana school, Thailand. Mr. Hoye has constructed a fabulous site whose main interest lies in the suggestions of how to plan your essays and presentations. It also provides thought-provoking articles relating to the differrent aspects of the TOK course which will provide you with ample examples to support your arguments and counter-arguments, as well as a range of useful web links. Above all else, the website is really easy to navigate.


Triplealearning is a company that specialises in providing online IB training courses for IB teachers. Once a teacher has been on a course, he can engage in follow-up discussions on the triplealearning blog. They have a blog for every subject on the IB course. The TOK blog is interesting largely for the teaching resources that the teachers share with each other - a vast bank of examples that you could tap into for your essays and presentations!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Notes on Structure and Layout

The ToK Essay: Writing with a SEXCI style

Having recently glanced through our copy of The Oxford Union Society Guide to Schools’ Debating,* we came across a section entitled ‘Argumentation (SEXI)’ which explains a ‘technique for thinking about arguments’ – ‘[SEXI] stands for State, EXplain, Illustrate’:

‘State’ means simply to say what your team believes, ‘EXplain’ means providing the logic and reasoning for why that statement is true and ‘Illustrate’ means providing evidence to show that the ‘EXplanation’ is not just theoretical but that there are instances where it is so…”

It occurred to us that a TOK essay might be thought of as presenting an internal debate or dialogue which loosely follows this technique. Now this is nothing new to IB teachers who have taught Philosophy for a number of years. A few years ago, one of the assessment requirements was for students to write a Socratic dialogue on philosophical issue.

Now we’re not suggesting that TOK students write an essay in the form of a Socratic dialogue (although it’s been pointed out to us that there’s nothing in the marking criteria to prevent you from doing this). What we are suggesting is that the Oxford Union’s idea of a debating technique of argumentation might, with one or two adjustments, give you a framework to write the main body of your TOK essays.

Consider this:

S = statement or knowledge claim

E = example or evidence to support the claim

eX = explanation of how the example/evidence is relevant or supports the claim

C = counter-argument (which follows the ‘statement – example – explanation’ procedure above)

I = implication (So what? If we accept all this, what follows? What connections can we make with the other ideas about knowledge? What is the Knowledge Issue?)

The first four parts of the process would make one paragraph of an essay and other paragraphs would utilize the same format with the final point (I) being the opening statement or knowledge claim (S) to start the next paragraph…

It’s the C and the I parts that build in the TOK element to your essay.

A worked example will follow.

*BAILEY, J. & MOLYNEAUX, G., The Oxford Union Society Guide to Schools’ Debating, Oxford Union Society, Oxford, 2005.