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, 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...