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.