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

Sunday, November 24, 2013

ToK Prescribed Essay Titles (May 2014): Question 1

Ethical judgements limit the methods available in the production of knowledge in both the arts and the natural sciences. Discuss.
The controversy surrounding the commissioning, design and construction of the Martin Luther King Memorial is well known (click picture above to go to article).  But it didn’t limit the Chinese artist who finally completed the piece from using his knowledge of sculpting and architecture to engage with the knowledge embedded in King’s own words and transform them into a physical embodiment of the leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the US.  What you think of the result is personal and subjective; but it is certainly a good example of how art and artists are able to transcend the tangles people get into over values.
Here are some of the arguments involved in the ethical controversy with the underlying assumptions they hold (can you make a counter argument?):
1/ Cultural bias: the commission should have gone to a black artist – assumption: a black artist would know intuitively ‘from the inside’ the impact of King’s achievement.
2/ Ideological bias: the final work reflects too much the political ‘cult of personality’ associated with the Soviet and Chinese regimes and therefore taints the spiritual message of King’s words with a political (communist) agenda – assumption: religion is free and detached of political influences & that King’s approach was not political.
3/ Artistic chauvinism: social realist genre of the artwork projects the wrong values like those associated with negative propaganda and dictatorial authority – assumption: any other genre of art is value free or projects ‘better’ values.
4/ Economic sovereignty: this is largely implied. Why outsource work and materials for a project that could just as well be paid for using North America labour and resources?  Assumption: it’s better for the economic growth (and national pride?) to keep things ‘in house’, so to speak.
Whatever the arguments and counter claims about the quality of the art work itself, perhaps the most powerful statement it makes is in the symbolic placement of the monument in a direct eye line between the Washington memorial (to celebrate the end of slavery in the US) and the Jefferson memorial (to celebrate the central tenet of the US Constitution: ‘life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness’.  Now that’s an imaginative construction of knowledge.
When you consider that Lei Yixin speaks no English and read the speeches in translation, it adds to the power of the creative process: our ethical values may confine and constrict the artist, but the imagination of the human spirit always finds a way to express itself.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

ToK Prescribed Essay Titles (May 2014): Question 4

 “That which is accepted as knowledge today is sometimes discarded tomorrow.” Consider knowledge issues raised by this statement in two areas of knowledge.

Some KIs implicit in this Q are related to the idea of CHANGE and PROGRESS and EVIDENCE: to what extent does knowledge change with time? How far can we agree that an increase in knowledge is progressive?  In what ways does the emergence of better evidence give us good reason to discard knowledge?
Examples abound:
Arts: the rejection of the Modernist approach to creating art in favour of the Post-Modernist approach
H Science (Economics): the discarding of classical (monetary) v neo-classical (Keynesian) economic theory opposition in favour of the new 'Austrian school' approach to theory
History: the discovery of new skull fossils helping to modify the knowledge of human evolution
Maths: the transition from flat plane Euclidean geometry to curved plane non-Euclidean geometries
Ethics: the gradual transition from religious value systems to humanist ones
Religion: the Protestant re-interpretation of man’s relationship to God and rejection of the traditional Catholic interpretation
Indigenous knowledge systems: using insights of modern medicine to reject/enhance traditional Ayurvedic practices
But the one area, students will undoubtedly explore here will be N Sciences and the notion of ‘paradigm shifts’.  So let’s take a closer look at the notion of CHANGE or PROGRESS involved in scientific knowledge.  There are two possible views of progress of scientific knowledge:
1/ traditional view that scientific knowledge progresses in a LINEAR, CUMULATIVE manner
The example usually given is the transition from the medieval superstitious view of the universe to Newton’s mechanistic view of it: Newton himself explained this in terms of his famous quote: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”.
Implicit in this way of thinking is the belief in scientific realism: the idea that scientific theories must describe the truth of nature as exactly as possible; that truths of nature are just waiting to be discovered and described coherently by scientists; that new, better theory doesn’t negate or contradict the old theory, but subsumes it and is a better description of nature than the previous theory. The ultimate goal of science becomes the search for truth, better predictive power of theory and the subsequent control over nature that this gives.
2/ paradigmatic view that scientific knowledge progresses in a REVOLUTIONARY manner
Implicit in this way of thinking is a fundamental scepticism about scientific realism. Instead, we are asked to think in terms of the idea that science is a puzzle solving activity; it doesn’t seek to describe truth, but to engage with piecing together how the natural world works within a context of cultural, social and economic and scientific constraints that form the working ‘paradigm’ or set way of doing science at the time.  This ‘normal’ science, Kuhn argues, progresses in a cumulative way; but ‘revolutionary’ science challenges this approach.  At first there is resistance from the ‘normal’ scientific community to the prospect of change.  However, in Kuhn’s model, new scientific knowledge, or a revolution, occurs when a new theory solves puzzles better than the old theory, NOT because it’s a more accurate representation of reality, but because new knowledge replaces incompatible knowledge.
And of course, THIS is how you’d explain that old chestnut of a TOK example: the transition from the geocentric to heliocentric view of the universe.
Just remember: Kuhn’s argument about the nature of scientific progress in knowledge is a counter-claim to the traditional scientific realist argument about linear, cumulative scientific progress in knowledge.  Make sure relevant examples support the respective arguments...

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

ToK prescribed Essay Titles (May 2014): Question 2

“When the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems begin to resemble nails” (Abraham Maslow). How might this apply to ways of knowing, as tools, in the pursuit of knowledge?

Click the picture to hear the audio clip of the opening: 'In which we are introduced to Winnie the Pooh'...

The Maslow quotation in this title could be a perfect summary of the opening lines of the children’s classic Winnie the Pooh:
“HERE is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. And then he feels that perhaps there isn't. Anyhow, here he is at the bottom, and ready to be introduced to you. Winnie-the-Pooh.” [italics added]
Isn’t there also an echo of this in that great TOK classic, The Matrix, when Morpheus asks Neo if he felt in his mind that ‘splinter’ of knowledge of another reality...?
Anyway, sometimes, as the saying goes, the solution to our problems is staring at us right in front of our noses, but we simply can’t see it.  Just think of what happens to you when you misplace your phone? While this assumes that part of the problem of knowledge involves lapses of memory and misperception, presumably these very WOKs CAN also help to resolve the situation.  In short, one knowledge issue implied by this title is, to what extent is our knowledge-making brain flexible and adaptable to real life situations?  A straightforward answer is ‘Alot’, especially if you consider how inventors and scientists address glitches in their experiments!  But your job is to explain HOW the WOKs not only help the brain’s flexibility, but also to explore the limitations of the WOKs.
Transpose this idea onto a specific of knowledge: say Ethics.  We often find ourselves bumping our heads against a moral dilemma (pick one out of any of these) and struggle to think of ways of resolving it.  We may turn to various ethical theories to get us out of the bog of possibilities: utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics.  This is fine when debating about such issues rationally and from a theoretical perspective, but would you go through the same rational thought process when you find yourself right in the middle of a moral dilemma?
Sometimes, it seems emotion and intuition bypass the rational thought process you would normally undertake which finding yourself bumping your head against a moral problem.  This happens for evolutionary reasons – fight or flight – and because emotion and intuition save TIME and could save LIVES.  In a life or death situation, where survival is the only consideration, you are not going to take a breath and decide rationally if the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or if your particular choice of action is going to bring the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.  By the time you’ve gone through this, someone (you, perhaps) might already be dead.  So are you always going to follow protocol and ethical principles or are you going to take a risk and follow your emotion or intuition?
A terrible moral dilemma in itself...which WtP, if not the WoKs, might help resolve.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

ToK Prescribed Essay Titles (May 2014): Question 3

 “Knowledge is nothing more than the systematic organisation of facts.” Discuss this statement in relation to two areas of knowledge.

Think of someone new to mechanics.  How is she going to know how an engine works?  Reading about it in theory is one half of the job.  If, however, she takes an existing engine apart and learns about the different roles played by each physical component, in time, she’ll know enough about them and their interrelationships to put them back together in working order.  The engine is itself is nothing more than the sum of its parts.  Is this true of knowledge?  If you want to be an economist, is it enough for you to pick apart all the various facts about how an economy works (‘the engine’ of an economy’) to be able to claim that now you have economic knowledge?  What ‘more’ do you need?

Let’s continue the thought experiment.  Presumably, if our mechanic ever came across an alien engine, given sufficient time, she’d be able to learn about the individual alien components and reverse engineer the engine using components with which we’re more familiar.  This alien engine too would also be nothing more than the sum of its parts.  (Can we reverse engineer an entire economy?)

Now extend this analogy to living things.  Say human minds.  Can we reduce a mind to the component parts or physical functions and chemical reactions of the brain?  Surely a mind is MORE THAN the sum of its parts (we have discussed this idea in a series of posts under the tab ‘Consciousness’ - read posts from bottom up!).  If knowledge is also somehow MORE THAN the ‘systematic organisation of facts’, what exactly does this mean?

Implicit in this Q is the idea of ‘reductionism’ or ‘materialism’, which is a view of knowledge held by most scientists: all material things can be reduced to their smallest physical particles.  Combined with this view is the idea of ‘mechanism’: to think of living things as organic machines.  Scientists who believe in reductionism tend to be ‘monists’ (only matter is real – no place for immaterial entities); whereas those who take the ‘essentialist’ position are dualists (mind is something separate from its physical and chemical brain functions).  It gets a little more complicated than this especially when you take account of recent developments in technology and AI.

Coming back to the question of mind or consciousness: if mind IS only a system of organised facts (just like a human or alien engine, the mind is a ‘brain engine’), then presumably we can reverse engineer it like any other engine (click the picture above to view the TED Talk on this issue)...

Friday, September 6, 2013

ToK Prescribed Essay Titles (May 2014)

The TOK Essay topics for May 2014 appear to have been published (earlier than anticipated) and are available here courtesy of Mr Hoye's TOK Website:

1.       Ethical judgments limit the methods available in the production of knowledge in both the arts and the natural sciences.  Discuss.

2.      “When the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems begin to resemble nails” (Abraham Maslow).  How might this apply to ways of knowing, as tools, in the pursuit of knowledge?

3.      “Knowledge is nothing more the systematic organization of facts.” Discuss this statement in relation to two areas of knowledge.

4.      “That which is accepted as knowledge today is sometimes discarded tomorrow.” Consider some of the knowledge issues raised by this statement in two areas of knowledge.

5.      “The historian’s task is to understand the past; the human scientist, by contrast, is looking to change the future.”  To what extent is this true in these two areas of knowledge.

6.      “A skeptic is one who is willing to question any knowledge claim, asking for clarity in definition, consistency in logic and adequacy of evidence” (adapted from Paul Kurtz, 1994).  Evaluate this c]approach in two areas of knowledge.
Good luck with your essay writing!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

ToK Prescribed Essay Titles MAY 2014

Changes to TOK

We signalled some time ago that there are going to be changes to TOK in the coming months.

In fact, those of you who start your IB Diploma studies this September 2013 (let’s call you the Class of 2013) will be the first group introduced to the changes which will be first examined in May 2015.

This is an important point.  Especially for those of you who are in your final year of the DP (let’s call you the Class of 2012).
There appear to be some websites and blogs out there suggesting that the TOK Prescribed Essay Titles for May 2014 will
a/ be released in September 2013 and

b/ assess your understanding of the NEW curriculum.
Please understand that a/ is CORRECT but b/ is INCORRECT.
The more likely scenario is that the Class of 2012 will be assessed according to the OLD assessment criteria in May 2014; the Class of 2013 will be assessed according to the NEW criteria in May 2015 (your Prescribed titles will come out in September 2014).
So be careful out there when browsing those TOK websites for information and maintain the spirit of questioning everything that you read – even this blog!

Friday, August 16, 2013

ToK Prescribed Essay Titles (November 2013): Question 5

“…Our knowledge is only a collection of scraps and fragments that we put together into a pleasing design, and often the discovery of one new fragment would cause us to alter utterly the whole design.” (Maurice Bishop)” To what extent is this true in History and one other Area of Knowledge?

Following on from the last post, imagine you’re a historian living a thousand years in the future and that you came across this remarkably well preserved written document:
Don't start me talking
I could talk all night
My mind goes sleepwalking
While I'm putting the world to right
Called careers information
Have you got yourself an occupation

Oliver's army is here to stay
Oliver's army are on their way
And I would rather be anywhere else
But here today

There was a checkpoint charlie
He didn't crack a smile
But it's no laughing party
When you've been on the murder mile
Only takes one itchy trigger
One more widow, one less white nigger


Hong Kong is up for grabs
London is full of arabs
We could be in Palestine
Overrun by a chinese line
With the boys from the mersey and the thames and the tyne
But there's no danger
It's a professional career
Though it could be arranged
With just a word in Mr. Churchill's ear
If you're out of luck you're out of work
We could send you to johannesburg


And I would rather be anywhere else
But here today
And I would rather be anywhere else
But here today

If very little or no knowledge existed of that distant world, then you would have to piece together what knowledge you can from the ‘scraps and fragments’ which you possess – this document being one of those scraps.

However, can you see that the document in itself is built of ‘scraps and fragments’ which seemed important to the writer (look at the highlighted expressions)?  Presumably, at the time it was written, someone considered it to have a pleasing design – consider the rhyme and repetition implied by ‘CHORUS’, as well as the organisation of the words into four main blocks (excl. chorus).
What sort of questions need to be answered about the text?

How would you go about answering them?
Can you piece together some sort of meaning from the details you have?

Are the writer’s intentions an important consideration when reconstructing this meaning?
Of course, today you can easily google the key words and work out the meaning of the whole – you can even discover that the text is a song and when it was written and what inspired it.

Nevertheless, the key point about historical knowledge is that even then, the narrative of meaning you construct will always be open to further interpretation – a better, more refined narrative might come along at any point.  To this extent, any historical narrative is similar to a scientific theory that explains how the world works...
To read more about the recent political controversy regarding this song, see

Thursday, August 1, 2013

ToK Essay Prescribed Titles (November 2013): Question 5

“…Our knowledge is only a collection of scraps and fragments that we put together into a pleasing design, and often the discovery of one new fragment would cause us to alter utterly the whole design.” (Maurice Bishop)” To what extent is this true in History and one other Area of Knowledge?

Click on picture to go to 'Guardian' article on the novel

This novel explores the meaning of history and the role of scepticism in building historical knowledge.  Set over a thousand years in the future in the ‘ideal republic’ of London, a timeless city of made of light, Plato is an ‘orator’ (which includes being a speaker, a teacher, a lexicographer  and a compiler of historical documents) whose key job is to reconstruct the past through reasoned inferences based on physical relics or ‘scraps and fragments’ unearthed in the city.  The narratives Plato builds of past civilisations do not, however, always please him or the ‘Guardians’ of the city: while Plato doubts the truth of his historical storytelling, the Guardians fear that he’s corrupting the minds of the young with his outlandish tales.
There is especially one tale which threatens to disrupt the harmony of the City: Plato’s story of a journey he took into an underground cave which exists simultaneously to that of the world of light above.  Plato relates how he discovered a realm of dark shadows which appear to live their lives out from birth to death without question.  The experience makes Plato question the nature of reality: is the true reality the material world of the shadows in the cave, or the eternal world of light above?
The novel explores the paradox at the heart of this question – there’s an element of Alice through the Looking Glass in its reversal of Plato’s well known allegory of the cave.  In a further reversal of the death of Socrates, the novel's Plato is judged to be not guilty of corrupting the youth, because he's such a dreamer and fantasist.  Plato, however, passes judgement on himself.  True to the real Plato's ideas in the Republic, the novel's Plato insists that as a dreamer, he should (like Plato's artists) be banished from the city limits forever...

Thursday, May 30, 2013

ToK Essay Prescribed Titles (Novemebr 2013): Question 2

“Technology both enables us to produce knowledge and limits the knowledge that is produced.”  Discuss with reference to two Areas of Knowledge.

(The 'God Helmet' tested by Michael Shermer)
Here’s an example that potentially provides a scientific explanation for mystical experiences such as out of body experiences, but not without the help of EEG technology (there’s also a link to Q4 in that the example also turns on neuroscientific knowledge about our ‘sense of who  we are’.)

Dr Michael Persinger, a neuroscientist has come up with a testable hypothesis which goes some way towards explaining the nature of some kinds of religious belief like near death experiences.  The hypothesis is based on the idea that all human experience stems from electrical activity in the brain which is also the seat of our ‘sense of who we are’.  Persinger utilises a modified motorcycle helmet to stimulate particular electromagnetic field patterns in a subject’s brain which create ‘micro seizures’ in the temporal lobe area which in turn appear to cause ‘spiritual’ or ‘supernatural’ experiences such as the feeling of being outside the body, or sensing a presence in the room.

Working on the assumption that our ‘sense of self’ is maintained by the left hemisphere of the temporal cortex of the brain and in normal circumstances this is a function of the harmony between the systems of the left and right hemisphere temporal cortices, Persinger argues that the ‘micro seizures’ put these hemispheres out of phase with each other.  During such an event, the left hemisphere interprets this out of phase activity as ‘sensed presence’ or ‘another self’ outside of the body: or a ‘God experience’ (it isn’t surprising that the technology has become known as the ‘God helmet’)
What are the limits of this knowledge?
For science: if we can measure accurately the electrical wave patterns in the brain when, for example, we experience drinking wine, we can record and replicate this pattern in another brain so as to give another person the same experience.  Of course, the hypothesis becomes more interesting if we consider that using the helmet, we can, in principle, give a non-believer in spiritual experiences a first hand experience of the Divine...
For religion: if we can explain God in terms of electrical patterns in the brain, then ‘God’ presumably becomes a man made projection which we can draw upon at will or not at all if we so choose...

Sunday, April 7, 2013

ToK Essay Prescribed Titles (November 2013): Question 3

“Every attempt to know the world rests on a set of assumptions that cannot be tested.” Examine this assertion in relation to two Areas of Knowledge.

 ‘Fringe’, Season 5 Episode 5

“You don’t even know what you don’t know”

Just listen to the dialogue and follow the use of the verb ‘to know’ – even without knowing the context of the conversation or knowledge of the characters (Peter is about to torture the bald man strapped to the chair for information about how to reverse engineer a tool that could help to save the world), the assumptions about how emotion, perception and intuition are involved in finding out what someone knows are fascinating.
Peter ultimately believes he got the knowledge he wanted from the bald man – as he puts the machine together in an apparently trial and error way, he watches the bald man’s reactions to get clues as to whether he’s on the right track. These attempts to ‘read’ the bald man’s mind is, methodically, a cross between a lie detector test (monitoring heart rate and eye dilation), the Turing test (asking a range of questions to work out if the response is human or machine), the ‘poker test’ (reading the ‘tells’ of an opponent during a game).  If he were a psychic, he might have done a bit of ‘cold reading’ (asking a few generalised questions so as to home in on a specific truth).
The scene ends poignantly with the imprisoned man mocking Peter’s sense of superiority, urging him to think of the limitations of his human mind and knowledge: he makes the analogy of an ant who doesn’t realise that the dark cloud descending upon it is the sole of the bald man’s shoe: a strange parallel to the idea of the machines in ‘The Matrix’ who think of humans as ‘parasites’.
But the scene from ‘Fringe’ also points to a reversal of the ‘meno paradox’, explored in Plato’s discussion of virtue in The Meno.  When asked if he knows what virtue is, Meno poses the conundrum: how can you begin to define ‘virtue’ if you don’t know what it is? And if you did come across an example of it, how would you recognise that it was virtue in the first place?
Socrates’ solution is to argue that knowledge is a process of recalling what we already know through the kind of questioning that is exemplary of the Socratic dialogue.  Knowledge is ultimately a function of memory and is innate to the knower.
This implies, however, subscribing to a peculiar belief in the human soul and its transmigratory habits...
Are you prepared to do this?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

ToK Essay Prescribed Titles (November 2013): Question 4

“Knowledge gives us a sense of who we are.” To what extent is this true in the Human Sciences and one other Area of Knowledge?

 'Game of Thrones', Season 2 Episode 3

One of the perennial quotations to come up in TOK essays (usually in a very trivial way) is ‘Knowledge is Power’ (attributed to Francis Bacon who began the work of explaining the nature of science).  This is the perfect Q to explore the quotation in a wholly relevant way, since one of the insights we can gain from it is a ‘sense of who we are’ as powerful political agents.  The key knowledge issues are, however, what is the nature of this power and how far does it help or hinder our pursuit of self knowledge?

The clip from ‘Game of Thrones’ neatly foregrounds the nature of political power in terms of perception: your power is a function of how others perceive you.  Historically, and in dictatorial regimes, this has lead to an almost cultish development of a ‘cult of personality’ in which the head of state projects himself to be at once revered and feared by the public.  An ethical dimension to this idea is the way in which such tyrants claim to know and protect a whole moral code to which the masses have no access (think of the pigs and the ‘Seven Commandments’ in George Orwell’s Animal Farm.)  The implication is, of course, that the dictator makes you dependent on him for everything - including your sense of right and wrong. Authority worship is everything. Resistance is futile.

Of course, such a conception of power need not always lead to an abuse of it.  Consider, Gandhi’s non-violent ‘passive’ resistance to the English oppressors in the colonial regime of India and Martin Luther King Jr’s development of this precept in his own resistance to the US policy of segregation.  Some might argue that these two figures also commanded a cult-like following or promoted a cult of personality – but did they command respect from fear or some spurious and elitist notion that they had access to truths about human nature to which everyone else was blind?  Here, the implication is that the ‘passivity’ in such resistance doesn’t come without a cost - it involves a commitment and discipline to the very human principles which any authoritarian regime appears to negate, sometimes at the expense of many lives. Such power is the very antithesis of authority worship.

If perception is so linked to power, then in a very disconcerting sense, perceptions can kill...

Friday, March 29, 2013

ToK Essay Prescribed Titles (November 2013): Question 5

“…Our knowledge is only a collection of scraps and fragments that we put together into a pleasing design, and often the discovery of one new fragment would cause us to alter utterly the whole design.” (Maurice Bishop)” To what extent is this true in History and one other Area of Knowledge?

Consider this oft quoted passage from Ecclesiastes 3:1-15

Remember that from one perspective the Bible itself is a ‘collection of scraps and fragments’ woven together ‘into a pleasing design’ and to many millions it reflects the ‘whole design’ that God had in mind for every human being.

The various antitheses in the opening of Ecclesiastes are central to this design – they outline a pattern to our lives in every aspect of its physical and psychological manifestations.  The lines map out, in short, our destinies.  Now every individual will, of course, have a slightly different path than the one mentioned (not everyone will ‘rend’ and ‘sew’, for instance – unless you accept the metaphorical meaning of the words), but the essential idea is that we are each of us enmeshed in our own fate and thus our ultimate end (and thereby our beginning) is predetermined.

Philosophy students will raise all sorts of objections at this point, but let’s just suspend our disbelief and explore the possibilities of this position in terms of the KNOWLEDGE QUESTIONS it raises: to what extent can we know the predetermined outcomes of our actions?  How far can we discover a path that changes forever this predetermined path?

Theologians have elaborated numerous responses to questions like this and the upshot seems to be: our lives are a constant struggle to know God’s will for us and once we discover this, it will change our lives forever; the path won’t change, but our attitude will or should.  This explanation accounts for people’s conversion experiences to belief in God as well as radically confirming believers’ own faith and sense of moral obligation to the Will of God.

Not everyone is satisfied with this answer, but you can see how it’s pretty consistent within the Christian belief system as underlined by the passage.

Besides, it’s wonderful poetry...

And if you’re interested, read T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets which makes ample use of this passage and other biblical allusions.

Friday, March 15, 2013

ToK Essay Prescribed Titles (November 2013)

The new titles for November 2013 have ben published and are here for your information:

1. “In the natural sciences progress can be made, but in the arts this is not possible.” To what extent do you agree?

2. “Technology both enables us to produce knowledge and limits the knowledge that is produced.” Discuss with reference to two Areas of Knowledge.

3. “Every attempt to know the world rests on a set of assumptions that cannot be tested.” Examine this assertion in relation to two Areas of Knowledge.

4. “Knowledge gives us a sense of who we are.” To what extent is this true in the Human Sciences and one other Area of Knowledge?

5. “…Our knowledge is only a collection of scraps and fragments that we put together into a pleasing design, and often the discovery of one new fragment would cause us to alter utterly the whole design.” (Maurice Bishop)” To what extent is this true in History and one other Area of Knowledge?

6. “The methods used to produce knowledge depend on the use to which it will be put.” Discuss the statement in relation to two Areas of Knowledge.

Good luck and be sure to watch this space for guidance and ideas about how to shape your response!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Changes to TOK (Sept 2013)

New TOK Guide:

Thank you to Mr Ferlazzo for drawing attention to this document outlining the new TOK Guide for students starting the IB in September 2013.

Apart from the additional WOKs and AOKs and the change in terminology from “KIs” to “KQs” or Knowledge Questions, you’ll see that the assessment criteria for the essay have also been streamlined.

The implications for students? All good, it appears.

Not only will you have a greater pool of ideas to draw on, but also the examiners of your essays will assess their ‘global impression’ of your work.

What does this mean?  They will have two fewer criteria to worry about when addressing the quality of your writing, opening up their minds to the overall ‘TOK quality’ of the essay based on the remaining two criteria.

Suffice it to say, the descriptors for each remaining criteria are fairly clear about what is meant by ‘TOK quality’ – there’s nothing fundamentally different in WHAT you have to write or HOW you have to write your essays.

Continue to focus on the main Q by exploring the related KQs and the arguments/counter arguments related to the AOKs you’re asked to study, making sure you build in relevant examples from those AOKs.

Read the posts on 'Notes layout and structure' to give you some guidance on best practice for TOK Essays & watch this space for further elucidations on the new concepts like KQs...

Thursday, February 7, 2013

ToK Essay Prescribed Titles (May 2013): Question 3

"The possession of knowledge carries an ethical responsibility." Evaluate this claim.

From wormholes to crossing moral lines to a philosophy of action... 

Perhaps the most important example to consider in relation to this Q is the case of the great physicist Oppenheimer, who was quoted in the sci-fi series 'Fringe' (S02.ep15, 'Peter').

Walter is discussing the possibility of opening a portal between alternative universes, but his assistant, Carla Warren, is anxious. The dialogue goes something like this:

CARLA WARREN: No, Walter, I mean you can't. Shattering the wall between universes would rupture the fundamental constants of nature.

WALTER: It's a theory. We don't know that to be true.

CARLA WARREN: It's a good theory. It is why we have been lying to the military, telling them it's impossible. Walter, there has to be a line somewhere. There has to be a line we can't cross.

WALTER: I always considered you as a scientist, Doctor Warren... despite your personal needs for religious claptrap. I see I was wrong.

CARLA WARREN: "I am become death, Destroyer of worlds."

WALTER: Don't you quote Oppenheimer to me.

CARLA WARREN: Knowledge cannot be pursued without morality.

WALTER: You sound like a pious sanctimonious Southern Preacher!

CARLA WARREN: I may go to church every Sunday, Walter, but I also have three degrees in theoretical physics, and I am telling you you cannot do this. We both know the amount of energy required to create a portal will forever ruin both universes. For the sake of one life, you will destroy the world. Some things are not ours to tamper with. Some things are God's.

WALTER: My son is dying, Doctor Warren. I will not allow that to happen again. There's only room for one God in this lab, and it's not yours............-- that will be all!

Recognise Warren's lines about KNOWLEDGE? Follow the connection to Oppenheimer and what he thought about scientific progress and the moral responsibility of scientists and remember that he was fond of quoting from the 'Bhagavad Gita'...

Monday, January 14, 2013

ToK Essay: Prescribed Title (May 2013): Question 5

5. “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”  (Christopher Hitchens).  Do you agree?

What do the expressions ‘iron horse’, ‘floating mountains’ and ‘flying saucers’ have in common?

Answer: They are responses to something seen for the first time – an attempt to explain something unfamiliar and unknown and never experienced before.

The ‘iron horse’ was, allegedly, how a Native North American Indian described the first train that was seen moving across the North American plains. A ‘floating mountain’ (p. 17 of the pdf document; section: 'The versions of the vanquished') was, supposedly, how the native South American Indian spies described the oncoming ships of the Spanish invaders. And, ‘flying saucer’, as everyone may know, is how the Western media first publicised the phenomenon of UFOs. Now, imagine how each of these assertions were received by the general population: with understanding nods of approval and general acceptance? With undoubting certitude and unquestioning acknowledgement? Nope. Most probably with a lot of hilarity and not merely a pinch of condescending irony.

Now this is a slightly different take on the above title – some sceptics reject a belief, not simply on the grounds that it was asserted ‘without evidence’, but because the evidence presented is framed in highly metaphoric terms and is thereby somehow diluted as far as justification of a belief is concerned. The language of evidence, it appears, is crucial.

Consider the language of the Bible, for example. When justifying statements in the Bible, believers often argue that we shouldn’t take the words of the Bible too literally – it detracts from the essential message or teaching; whereas atheists sometimes argue that after you’ve stripped the metaphor away from the language, there’s nothing of substance left in the message.

And what do you notice about each of the above expressions? They are deeply metaphoric. Metaphor, it seems, is crucial to our ability to make sense of the world, especially our experiences of it. Metaphor fills the gaps, so to speak, in our more literal attempts to grasp order and meaning in what we see in our universe. The North American Indian, seeing a giant, metallic object, racing towards him, breathing smoke and screaming violently, can only grasp what he’s sensing by comparing this unbelievably strange experience in terms of something more familiar to him. Metaphor helps to suspend our incredulity about the world and reach for knowledge and understanding that slips through our more literal (rational?) approaches.

Which begs the knowledge issue: to what extent is imagination an integral part of making assertions? Or the more ethical KI: should evidence, grasped imaginatively and presented in metaphorical terms, be rejected with a corresponding rejection of the belief?

If the South American Indians had collectively accepted the ‘floating horses’ hypothesis, might they have taken more seriously the threat of the invading Spanish ships?

A what if question, the answer to which we’ll never be able to know...