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

Thursday, November 20, 2014

ToK Prescribed Essay Titles (May 2015): Question 6

“The whole point of knowledge is to produce both meaning and purpose in our personal lives.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?
This post considers three areas of knowledge that attempt to produce ‘meaning and purpose’ in our lives.
Religious Knowledge Systems: religions, especially the monotheistic ones, promote the idea that the universe has a specific design which is conceived and executed by a higher power.  It is this design that gives ‘meaning and purpose’ to our lives.  Meaning comes from the dualistic conception of the self – we are both flesh and soul, but it is the soul which must be nurtured while the flesh is merely functional and houses the soul for a short while.  In this life, the soul is to be made ready for the after-life in which it can exist either in God’s paradise or Satan’s hell.  This brings us to the purpose of life: while each individual is given a personal will, it’s up to us to merge this will with the higher Will of God.  This is what prepares the soul for the after-life.  Those who deviate from God’s Will take the path of evil; those who conform, take the path of good.  See how this religious narrative carries within it a wide range of moral values and ritualistic elements that shape our day to day lives from the moment we are born.  Out of this narrative are born ethical systems such as deontology (eg ‘The Ten Commandments’) and artistic traditions (eg. medieval iconography), as well as culturally evolved groups based around different faiths.  What happens when one group’s perception of the meaning and purpose of life clashes with another groups perception of meaning and purpose?  Is there a meaning and purpose we can all share? (Some would argue that ‘science’ gives us such a meaning and purpose…)
Indigenous Knowledge Systems: indigenous tribes gave us creation myths to shape our day to day lives with meaning and purpose.  These narratives accounted for the origins of the universe and many of them reveal a deep connection between man, animals and the environment.  The thread running through these creation stories is the idea of ‘interconnectedness’: the fates of every living creature are linked in an unpredictable environment.  Meaning comes from imposing a coherent story to make sense of the apparently random cycles of life and death; purpose comes from devising rituals to create balance between harmony or chaos in the environment. Much of this knowledge is handed down the generations through the oral tradition and guarded by individuals specially raised and trained to minister it to other members of the community.  In this sense, indigenous knowledge and religious knowledge seem to be the same thing: a way of organising society according to a set of, what many scientists would now call, superstitious beliefs.  A potential problem of this approach to knowledge is, of course, how do we know that the ministers of this knowledge aren’t abusing it…?
Science & technology: Those of you who are hooked to your computer games will know how sometimes you get so involved in the game that the distinction between virtual reality and reality itself becomes blurred.  Just reflect on how sometimes your dreams are so powerful that when you initially wake up, you still feel as though you’re in the dream. Now what would happen if we could harness this power of imaginative engagement with virtual or dream worlds and use it to shape our personal lives in a purposeful and meaningful way.  Well, scientists have developed virtual reality technologies to such an extent that it can be used in such a way.  The military have been doing this for years with flight simulators and now chicken farmers can use technology to give their birds the illusion of wandering happily in a field, when in fact they continue to be caged.  Why?  In an attempt to use a cost effective method of producing ‘free range’ yet factory farmed eggs…Think ‘The Matrix’ (gone mad!).  And yet, is this so farfetched?  Star Trek’s idea of a ‘holodeck’ showed us the vast possibilities of virtual reality for entertainment purposes; today, the proliferation of online roleplaying games suggests that many people find more meaning and purpose in their simulations and simulated universe than in the physical universe of their day to day lives.  In fact, Bob the builder feels he is more himself in the sim version of Bob the dragonslayer, than he is in his mundane, poorly paid job of fixing the plumbing for a living.  What does this tell us about the nature of technological knowledge through which such games are constructed…?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

ToK Prescribed Essay Titles (May 2015): Question 5

5. “Ways of knowing are a check on our instinctive judgments.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?

How many times has someone told you to ‘trust your instincts’?  And when you do trust them, how many times have you felt disappointed about the outcome? This title is built around a central human tension between our need to trust our instincts and the unreliability of them.  Instincts are closely connected to our emotions and impulses and rooted in our subjective experiences of the world.  Some would argue they are remnants of our evolutionary ancestors and tie us to our animalistic origins.  We’ve outgrown our instinct, the argument goes, since our bigger brains allow us to override our primal instincts by means of reason and language and perception which are the basis of our more objective experiences of the world.  But as we know, even reason, language and perception aren’t completely infallible when it comes to knowledge building, so the central tension of trusting instincts remains in the subjective-objective dichotomy built into our very nature. Conceptually, we need both the subjective and objective approach: the former allows us to build personal knowledge, while the latter enables us to shape this into shared knowledge by means of collaboration.

Nowhere is this tension more apparent than in Star Trek, dramatized in the interactions between Dr McCoy (instinct and emotion) and Mr Spock (reason and logic) with the Captain as a bridge between both, which Michael Shermer explores in terms of what he calls ‘The Captain Kirk Principle’.

It’s often when we’re faced with moral dilemmas that the tension between instinct and reason surfaces and raises the knowledge question: how do we know which course of action to take? Should we follow our instincts or reason?  In the later Next Generation series of Star Trek, the tension is explored through the concept of ‘the Prime Directive’, in which Captain Picard is forever faced with the ethical dilemma of interfering with an indigenous population when he knows that it might be faced with genocide or mass destruction.  A common argument for ethical NON-intervention is the ‘natural order’ argument – let nature take its course.  What implications does this have?  What are the counter arguments? Another argument is the ‘cause and consequence argument’: if we didn’t intervene in a situation, the outcome would be so bad that this justifies action to intervene – this is another version of the ‘precautionary principle’.  However, all these arguments are based on reason and logic and presuppose that in any given moral situation we have the TIME to think out the problem.  As we know from experience, we often DON’T have time and have to make a spontaneous judgment.  Is this the place for instinct?

We explore a possible response to this knowledge question in a review of the recent movie Star Trek: Into Darkness...

Sunday, October 12, 2014

ToK Essay Prescribed Title (May 2015): Question 4

4. With reference to two areas of knowledge discuss the way in which shared knowledge can shape personal knowledge.
Click on picture to visit site about the neurobiology of moral behaviour

Ethical situations are perhaps the best examples to highlight how shared knowledge can shape personal knowledge. Consider, for example, how the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ can bring nations together under the umbrella of a single moral code.  This doesn’t always mean that nations adhere to the rules as we know from the various Human Rights’ abuses by member states.  Even the fields of sport and medicine, for example, have ethical codes to guide the behaviour of individuals, though again, we still come across incidents of medical malpractice and cheating in sports (you may be able to recall some recent examples.)  In the fields of Religion and Ethics, the shared knowledge encapsulated in the various ethical theories such as Utilitarianism and deontology, provide a framework within which individuals can think through their personal morality and act in a rational manner.

But here’s the central knowledge question underlying this topic: does our personal sense of right and wrong always follow a rational path towards shared knowledge of morality?  Not according to Jonathan Haidt, whose famous example (presented below) is the basis of a fascinating argument promoting the idea that our ethical behaviour is driven by intuition which shapes our personal knowledge of right and wrong:

‘Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that? Was it OK for them to make love?’

When confronted with this scenario, Haidt argues, most people are automatically and quickly repulsed and answer with an emphatic “No!”  When asked to justify their answer, people often turn to the incest argument: such sex leads to deformed babies.  Haidt then points out that the couple used two forms of contraception.  Now, instead of accepting the union, people reach for a consequentialist argument to justify their revulsion, such as “It might harm the relationship and be devastating to the family.”  Haidt then mentions that the couple actually feel ‘closer’ after the episode.  At this point, people tend to stay with their original answer but claim not to be able to find the words to explain why they believe what they believe.

The point? Haidt argues that moral knowledge is like aesthetic knowledge: subjective and personal in nature.  When you see a work of art you instantly and automatically know whether you like it.  When someone asks you to explain why, you fish for explanations: you don’t really know what makes something beautiful, but the rational part of your brain needs some justification and will make one up when it can’t find one, based on colour, light, structure and so on.  Similarly, in a moral argument between two people, their feelings come first; the reasons are invented after the fact, so to speak.  Reason is secondary to emotion, or as Hume, put it: in the world of morals, “Reason Is and Ought only to be a slave of the passions.”

The implication of this argument is that the shared body of ethical knowledge often has little or no impact on we personally know right and wrong in the world of human affairs…

Sunday, September 28, 2014

ToK Prescribed Essay Titles (May 2015): Question 3

3. “There is no reason why we cannot link facts and theories across disciplines and create a common groundwork of explanation.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?

In his book The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall does exactly what is suggested in the quotation when trying to find an answer to the question, why do humans need story?

Referring, among other things, to the data generated from experiments on split brain patients, which is fascinating in itself, Gottschall weaves an argument to support the explanation that fiction-making is an evolutionary adaptation which gives humans at least four advantages over other species:

1/ It engages our imaginations to construct world in which to rehearse real life dramas within the safety net of our own minds – we can risk danger in our fantasy lives that we wouldn’t dare to risk in our ordinary lives, but this toughens us up for eventualities in the real world.

2/The storytelling mind is an identifiable neural network in the brain which helps (though can often mislead) us to make sense of the chaos of information that constantly bombards our perceptions – our brain is hardwired to seek patterns in random data and to describe them as a way of navigating our environment.

3/ The fictions we engage with reinforce common values that we hold dear to our social and individual well being – most of the stories we enjoy are to do with justice prevailing over injustice, as we understand it in our culture.

4/ Make-believe has the power to strengthen social bonds and promote in-group harmony – this is a legacy of the oral tradition when people would gather around a storyteller, enthralled by the dynamics of the narrative being recounted.

Okay, but this doesn’t really tell us how we make fictions.  This explanation is where the ‘facts and theories’ of the H & N Sciences come into play in Gotschall’s argument.  He refers us to the work of Michael Gazzaniga (it’s a long but fascinating article, so be patient!) whose work with split brain patients yielded a theory about ‘the left brain interpreter’, which Gottschall explains in terms of ‘the Sherlock Holmes’ syndrome’: our strange capacity to ‘reason backwards’ (or 'deduce') from the mass of information transmitted through our perception to the brain which orders it to give an orderly description of cause and effect of how things happen.  However, there is a down side to this: while the inner storyteller doesn’t like uncertainty, chance and randomness, it craves order and meaning.  In other words, if the storytelling mind cannot find meaning in the world, it will impose meaning through fabrication, lies or invention: in short, it will make up a story...

Sunday, September 21, 2014

ToK Prescribed Essay Titles (May2015): Question 2
Click on the picture to go to a clip about 'Ross's List'
2. “There are only two ways in which humankind can produce knowledge: through passive observation or through active experiment.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?

This title reminds us of that episode in Friends (there are so many memorable ones!) where Ross’s relationship with Rachel is on the rocks, because he just met Julie and he doesn’t know who to be with.  Ross eventually decides to make, with a little help from the other boys, a list of reasons who he should choose (we won’t give away the outcome in case you haven’t seen the episode).  His attempt at this ‘active experiment’ in logical, rational thinking to solve a problem mirrors Benjamin Franklin’s advice to Joseph Priestly, in which Franklin describes his ‘Moral and Prudential Algebra’ (there’s another letter in which he presents the same system to his nephew who found himself in similar circumstances to Ross):

To get over this [affair of the heart], my Way is, to divide half a Sheet of Paper by a Line into two Columns, writing over the one Pro, and over the other Con. Then during three or four Days Consideration I put down under the different Heads short Hints of the different Motives that at different Times occur to me for or against the Measure. When I have thus got them all together in one View, I endeavour to estimate their respective Weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out: If I find a Reason pro equal to some two Reasons con, I strike out the three. If I judge some two Reasons con equal to some three Reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the Ballance lies; and if after a Day or two of farther Consideration nothing new that is of Importance occurs on either side, I come to a Determination accordingly.

And tho’ the Weight of Reasons cannot be taken with the Precision of Algebraic Quantities, yet when each is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less likely to take a rash Step; and in fact I have found great Advantage from this kind of Equation, in what may be called Moral or Prudential Algebra.

Wishing sincerely that you may determine for the best, I am ever, my dear Friend,

Yours most affectionately

B. Franklin

Is this really the best (or even only) way to solve a problem of knowledge?  To gather all the available evidence and make a methodical calculation based on the evidential data?  Most scientists would agree with this approach.

Not Gerd Gigerenzer, who argues that too much knowledge sometimes gets in the way of knowledge acquisition.  Consider the fascinating ‘One million dollar experiment’ which yielded some very surprising results.

Imagine you’re on a game show and have to answer one question for the prize money of $1 million.

Which city has the larger population?
Detroit or Milwaukee?

Is Franklin’s Algebra useful here?  Perhaps, but on what do you base your logical deductions?  In a game show there’s nothing extra to guide your inferences (unless you can phone a friend.)  Mostly, you have to make do with what you know and make a best guess.

When applying this experiment to a group of American and German students, the results were startling: virtually all the German students gave the right answer compared to only 60% of American students.  What do you conclude?  The Germans are just smarter? That the Germans knew more about North American city populations? No.  In fact, the Germans knew next to nothing about Detroit and many hadn’t heard of Milwaukee.  The Germans relied more on their intuition than on calculating reason.

If ‘passive observation’ means that decision making or knowledge building is a function of the more subjective ways of knowing or ‘gut feelings’, then Gigerenzer would agree.    Indeed, he would go on to argue that our tendency to demonise emotive, intuitive and imaginative approaches to knowledge is to our detriment.  Offering some insightful experimental data, Gigerenzer points out that much of human life, especially decision making, is startlingly intuitive and it’s this that makes us a successful species. He calls this the ‘intelligence of the unconscious’: how the human mind is often guided by simple rules of thumb, rather than complex calculations to solve the problems we face in life. We seem to have forgotten our intuitive selves, having been brainwashed most of our lives with Aristotelian binary logic and the Enlightenment focus on reason...

Sunday, September 14, 2014

ToK Prescribed Essay TItles (May2015): Question 1

There is no such thing as a neutral question. Evaluate this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.
Click on picture to listen to soundtrack: 'It's a jungle out there'

Where do babies come from?  Remember asking this question to your parents? Do you remember how they reacted or what they said?  Were you satisfied with the response? Do you remember if you asked a follow up question?  There’s something about asking questions that drives people crazy, especially curious little children who just seem to want to ask questions for the sake of it without really appearing to be interested in the answer. Sometimes questioning can be just playful; a form of mental gymnastics to keep the mind supple and flexible – you’re not really interested in gaining any knowledge but just enjoy the ‘trip’.  At other times, questions can be dangerous, a form of intellectual probing which reaches into areas which may be classified as ‘Top Secret’ or ‘For your Eyes Only’ – you’re poking your nose into forbidden knowledge and ought to be aware of the risk.


There are other times when questions can drive you a little crazy: the song, ‘It’s a Jungle Out There’, by Randy Newman raises the knowledge questions, how far should we be over cautious about the world? To what extent do our fears hinder our day to day lives? In what ways should we protect ourselves from the dangers of knowledge?


The first of the two actual questions posed by the song – ‘Who’s in charge here?’ seems to be driven by utter terror of the randomness of the world; it’s almost a cry for help from someone or something to take control of some pending danger; an appeal to some higher authority so give sense and meaning to life.  Isn’t this sometimes true when we ask knowledge questions?  When attempting to justify our beliefs, we often make an appeal to the higher authority of experts to help support the truth of a belief.  The authority could be a Nobel Prize winner on the field of medicine or a religious leader of a faith.  The ultimate authority in the latter example is, of course, God.  We tend to think that such authorities are infallible and that their answers are detached and have no hidden agenda, but is this strictly true?  Shouldn’t all our questions to authority figures be driven by a scepticism and be, as such, non-neutral?


What about the second question: ‘Do you know what’s in the water that you drink?’  This seems to be driven by some deeper knowledge: ‘I know something that you don’t’.  It’s not a rhetorical question (it’s followed by a clear ‘Well, I do…’), but why would anyone want to ask this question.  Surely we can take it on trust that the water coming out our taps is drinkable.  We know that we can wash babies without any side effects.  We take this knowledge for granted don’t we?  But it wasn’t so long ago that we couldn’t take it for granted (and there are some places on earth even today that people can’t take it for granted). So is the singer’s knowledge about the drinking water personal or shared?  The tone of the song suggests that it’s emotive knowledge: his ‘gut feeling’ is that the water is full of the kind of poison that’s in the air we breathe.  What would he need to convince us that it’s not simply personal knowledge: That we should actually ‘better pay attention’?  The answer comes back to justification or evidence.  The singer would have to show us some empirical evidence carried out by respectable scientists using the scientific method to generate some reliable data to back up his belief (which would, of course, spoil the song entirely!)


Still, the song neatly captures the kind of paranoia that drives some people with obsessive compulsive disorders (‘People think I’m crazy because I worry all the time’) giving us an insight also into the state of mind of conspiracy theorists and reminding us of that famous Joseph Heller quote from Catch-22? ‘Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t after you’!...

Monday, September 1, 2014

ToK Prescribed Essay Titles (May 2015)

The new essay titles based on the 2015 Guide are printed below.  Remember to follow the new assessment guidelines for your work and lots of luck1

1. There is no such thing as a neutral question. Evaluate this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.

2. “There are only two ways in which humankind can produce knowledge: through passive observation or through active experiment.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?

3. “There is no reason why we cannot link facts and theories across disciplines and create a common groundwork of explanation.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?

4. With reference to two areas of knowledge discuss the way in which shared knowledge can shape personal knowledge.

5. “Ways of knowing are a check on our instinctive judgments.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?

6. “The whole point of knowledge is to produce both meaning and purpose in our personal lives.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?

Monday, June 30, 2014

ToK Prescribed Essay Titles (November 2014): Question 1

“Some areas of knowledge seek to describe the world, whereas others seek to transform it.” Explore this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.

Read this post in association with the post on Title 2 of the November 2014 TOK Title list.

You might think that the Arts and Sciences neatly fit into the distinction expressed by this title.  The Arts involve imaginative descriptions of the world which draw you into a world of make believe, through words, paint, music or dance, for instance, and you’re thrown back into the real world after the story ends or you disengage from the art work or when the music stops.  The Sciences involve a practical application of theories that lead to inventions in the physical worlds of media, technology and industry, for example, and you use the products of this process often without thinking about it and taking it very much for granted.

This distinction often leads people to argue that the Arts are generally useless when compared to the Sciences.  How can the Arts ever be anything but secondary to the Sciences?  But this would be naive at best and ignorant at worst. In fact, why can’t the Arts and Sciences be both descriptive and transformative?  We need both equally and they are both equally crucial to our evolutionary development.

Consider Jonathon Gotschall’s thought experiment. Imagine millions of years ago in the evolutionary beginnings of our ancestors, there are only two human tribes, alike in every way except one, as designated by their names: the ‘Storytelling People’ and the Practical People’. One group is going die out, whereas the other is going to survive.

Here’s how the difference manifests itself: the Storytelling People do their hunting and gathering and mating as the Practical People do, but they get bored easily and when tired out by the day’s activities often spend long hours exchanging tales (sometimes downright lies) about things that have happened, might happen or might never happen at all.  They enjoy themselves and have lots of fun making up their fictions while the Practical People don’t have anything to do with the seemingly trivial matter of telling stories; they keep on with their survival activities, hunting, gathering and mating more and more, and when they get tired, they crash with fatigue and sleep to refresh their energies for more of the same practical survival work.

We know the end of this thought experiment, Gotschall argues: the Storytelling People is homo sapiens and they survived; the purely Practical People (if they existed at all beyond the thought experiment) no longer exist.  And yet if we hadn’t known this outcome from the beginning and had been asked to predict which of the two groups would survive, surely it would have been the Practical People, whose frugality and efficiency and value systems were more than a competitive match for the frivolous storytellers.

The fact that this didn’t happen Gotschall calls ‘the evolutionary riddle of fiction’.  So what is it about our imaginative capabilities, our need for storytelling that gives us such an evolutionary edge?

Some answers are that the human imagination is like a virtual reality ‘holodeck’ which constantly runs internal simulations in which we project ourselves into make believe situations as a practice for real life situations; telling stories is a socialising experience which sharpens our empathetic skills and hones our altruistic nature which gives our species an evolutionary advantage of cooperating when faced with life’s manifest obstacles; moreover, engaging with these internal, imaginary fictions can be done in the safety of our head which takes away the risks and dangers involved in the real world.

Imagining the future paves the way of shaping a vision of how things can be which in itself is the first step towards transforming the here and now...

Sunday, April 20, 2014

ToK Essay Presecribe Titles (November 2014): Question 4

“To gain an understanding of the world we need to make use of stereotypes.” With reference to two areas of knowledge, to what extent do you agree with this statement?

Click on the picture and read the corresponding post before reading what follows...

The anecdote about Gandhi is special on many levels, most especially in the way that it simultaneously exposes a negative cultural stereotype of the ‘stupid foreigner’, then subverts and replaces it with a celebration of a more positive stereotype of the ‘heroic Englishman’.  The irony is, of course, that Gandhi’s response to his Professor embodies the very sense of humour for which the English are renowned and turns it against his Professor to underline a reversal of roles.  Stereotypes are, in short, often about seeking patterns and we cannot help using them to function in the world as well as to understand it, because we are inherently pattern seeking creatures...
Click the picture to go to a TED Talk entitled, 'The Science of Stereotypes'
Stereotypes and emotion: Think of survival and the fear driven flight/fight responses of our early ancestors which continue to shape our behaviours today. There is a link with intuition, our capacity to make quick judgments without reason getting in the way.  The usual example is to imagine yourself in a savannah; you find yourself face to face with a hungry lion and your back to a tree.  You don’t reason out the pros and cons of the situation as this would take too long and you’d most likely end up as lunch; you feel fear and this triggers an intuitive ‘save yourself’ response which instantly drives you to climb the tree (hoping the lion doesn’t follow!) Now even, though we don’t often find ourselves in a savannah, the same thing happens in our urban jungles and emotion helps to judge situations based on our recognition of patterns of danger.  But the down side is that there’s no in built ‘deception detection’ kit – in other words, you could be wrong in your emotive judgments.
Stereotypes and perception: As the Gandhi example illustrates, stereotypes often distort the way we see world and people and are reinforced by a number of cognitive biases.  On the more positive side, they can help build knowledge because they help to identify who belongs to a particular group and who doesn’t as a way of demarcating needs, values and beliefs which are, after all, essential to our nature as social beings.
Stereotypes and reason: A cultural stereotype is a form of generalisation, not exactly like the inductive inferences we draw from observed data by means of the scientific method or the deductive inferences we make using mathematical logic, but driven by emotion as a means of justifying attitudes and actions.  On the one hand, these reasoned inferences are helpful in various ways; for example, clarifying the decision making process when dealing with people and situations, but they also shore up prejudices and intolerance (eg. religious attitudes towards gay marriage...). We often rationalise our attitudes to people without realising that we are prone to making various logical fallacies in our justifying arguments.
Stereotypes and language: Here, stereotypes help us to classify social groups making it easier to give us sense of social/cultural identity, but can lead to extremes of nationalistic pride (eg. White Supremacists in the West and Taliban suicide bombers in the Middle East...) and social/cultural divisions (eg. gender divisions between men and women...) But here’s something of a paradox: according to the etiquette of political correctness, it’s offensive to use the ‘n’ word when communicating to and about black people, but then it appears to be fine for black rap artists to use the word in song lyrics. Is this simply artistic licence or doesn’t political correctness apply to them? A basic example, but you can probably think of other such examples of hypocrisy in our behaviour.
In summary, stereotypes are part of our ‘mental map’; a set of patterns we create or which are culturally handed down to us and which we use to navigate our world of disparate ideas, data and human behaviour.  We make them in order to have some sense of control over our thoughts, other people and our environment, but sometimes they get in the way of clear thinking and peaceful interactions with those around us...

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

ToK Prescribed Essay Titles (November 2014): Question 5
Click picture to go to a site which discusses the idea of 'The Banality of Evil'

“The task of history is the discovering of the constant and universal principles of human nature.” To what extent are history and one other area of knowledge successful in this task?

The idea of ‘constant and universal principles human nature’ implies, somewhat strangely, that knowledge about humans can be encapsulated in general laws which could in effect allow us to predict future behaviour. Given the conditions of a specific situation and how most people behave within it, most of the time and in most places, we can, with a high degree of probability, assert that an individual or group will behave in the same way should those conditions ever come about in the future.  Here is an exploration of examples within History, Ethics and H Sciences that span between the 1940s to the present day...

During the post Second World War Nuremburg trials, the prominent writer Hannah Arendt observed how some of the most notorious Nazi war criminals appeared to be just normal citizens of whom we wouldn’t take much notice in the street; often, some of them just seemed plainly nice on the surface.  She coined an expression to embody this observation about the paradox of human nature: ‘the banality of evil’.  The implied thesis is twofold: first, that in spite of being educated, intelligent and civilised, we all have a dark, monstrous side to us and can turn to it at any moment of our lives, especially when our consciences are influenced and undermined by those in authority.  And second, the common sense belief that some of us are simply born evil and these ‘bad apples’, so to speak, are the cause of all the nastiness in the world. But is this a ‘constant and universal principle of human nature’? And how do we know the difference between good and bad apples?
TOK students often present in their essays the psychology experiments undertaken by Stanley Milgram who set out to test the theses in the early 1960s.  Milgram’s ‘Obedience Experiments’ or “shock” experiments, as they came to be known, explore the tension between conscience and authority and offer a staggering conclusion: most people find it emotionally easy to ignore their sense of moral responsibility, especially when they see themselves as part of a chain of evil action and far away from the final consequences of it.  The idea is that good or evil isn’t entirely in our genes or brains or spirit (as some religions might have us believe), but our environment can deeply influence us to act in evil ways. Again, is this ‘a constant and universal principle of human nature’?
In 1971, Philip Zimbardo attempted to test the conclusions reached by Milgram through another experiment: the notorious ‘Stanford County Jail’ experiments which were reminiscent of situations described so vividly in Golding’s Lord of the Flies. The results of the experiment are arguably more shocking than Milgram’s. The scheduled two week experiment was shut down by Zimbardo after a matter of days because of what Zimbardo came to call ‘the Lucifer effect’: how an individual’s character can become so transformed that an otherwise ordinary person can commit extraordinarily monstrous acts.  To extend a former analogy: a good apple can become bad when placed in a bad barrel.  In short, context is all.  Where Zimbardo’s conclusions go further than Milgram’s is in the insight that very often we don’t need an authority figure to manipulate us to do evil acts; good people can turn evil simply by adopting, or being assigned, a particular stereotype or role and put in a situation where the rule of law is not enforced fully.
Two relatively recent examples from vastly different cultures serve to illustrate how both Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s experiments seem to have discovered a ‘constant and universal feature of human nature’ as far as morality is concerned.
In 2004, we learned about the atrocities committed by US soldiers at the Abu Graib detention camp – acts of evil which were strongly reminiscent of the results of the Stanford Prison Experiment.
In 2008, we learned about Shin Dong-hyuk, a North Korean man born in a detention camp, who, being allegedly the first person ever to have escaped from such a place, tells stories of some of the most terrible atrocities that are committed in the name of ‘democracy’, including his own act of condemning his mother to death by telling guards of her plans to escape.
So we evolved into moral beings who also have a capacity for immoral behaviour.  Most people, most of the time and in most places choose to be moral, but in certain situations, even the most ordinary person can be driven to unspeakable acts of evil.
If this sounds like a dark and miserable story, read up on the experiments conducted by Steve Sherman, the results of which suggest that education can help strengthen our consciences against the vagaries of authority; especially education that directs and guides us in creative enquiry into moral dilemmas and how we might resolve them…

Monday, March 10, 2014

ToK Essay Prescribed Titles (November 2014)

The new ToK Essay titles for November 2014 are out and published online courtesy of:

1.“Some areas of knowledge seek to describe the world, whereas others seek to transform it.” Explore this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.

2. “Knowledge takes the form of a combination of stories and facts.” How accurate is this claim in two areas of knowledge?

3. “In the production of knowledge, it is only because emotion works so well that reason can work at all.” To what extent would you agree with this claim in two areas of knowledge?

4. “To gain an understanding of the world we need to make use of stereotypes.” With reference to two areas of knowledge, to what extent do you agree with this statement?

5. “The task of history is the discovering of the constant and universal principles of human nature.” To what extent are history and one other area of knowledge successful in this task?

6. “We may agree about general standards in the arts but disagree as to whether a particular work has artistic merit. In ethics the situation is reversed: we may disagree about ethical theories but we all know an unethical action when we see one.” Discuss.

Good luck to all the students around the world starting on your TOK essay adventure!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

ToK Prescribed Essay Titles (May 2014): Question 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 approach in two areas of knowledge.


Ideas about scepticism are closely linked to ideas about the certainty or lack of certainty of knowledge.  Consider these three alternatives:

Philosophical or Cartesian Skepticism

Like with the expression ‘Knowledge is Power’, this Q is no doubt going to attract students who want to write about Descartes and his ‘method of doubt’ summed up in his famous cogito ergo sum.  Descartes was willing to question everything, including his own existence, in an attempt to find those ‘clear and distinct ideas’ which would form the foundation of all human knowledge. His argument goes something like this:

P1. My body is something the existence of which I can doubt.

P2. My mind is something the existence of which I cannot doubt.

Conclusion: Therefore, I am the same as my mind; I am a thinking being.

Descartes claims that this is one absolutely certain piece of knowledge and with this in hand, he argued that the only certain knowledge we can have comes through reason and not the senses.

One of the great problems with this idea of knowledge is Descartes’ belief in the dualism of mind and body; he thought that they were separate entities and so left himself open to the extremely difficult issue of explaining HOW the two entities interact.  If the body is physical and made of matter, how can something so non-physical and immaterial as a mind or soul possibly influence it or cause it to do anything?  Without a clear answer to this question, Descartes’ explanation of how we make knowledge begins to collapse.

Scientific Skepticism

Scientific skepticism is less to do with issues about certainty of knowledge and more to do with the idea of testing knowledge against evidence.  This has evolved alongside the ‘scientific method’ ever since Sir Francis Bacon introduced us to its basic principles in the 17th Century: theory, experiment, observation, prediction.  Michael Shermer discusses a ‘Baloney Detection Kit’ which uses scientific principles to help us filter out strange beliefs by means of grounding our beliefs in pertinent modes of questioning and in evidence. The project of such skepticism is thereby to distinguish between scientific knowledge (eg. about influence of genes on human behaviour) and pseudoscientific knowledge (eg. about the influence of astrology on human behaviour.)  Where scientific skepticism converges with philosophical skepticism is its insistence that scientific knowledge (or theory) is only provisional.  Think for example about the theory of dark matter: the theory allows us to make predictions about this strange ‘stuff’ of nature, but we have little evidence to justify any KNOWLEDGE about how this phenomenon works.  So we need a combination of better theory and better data to help justify that ‘dark mater’ exists.

A problem with skepticism is to sort out the skeptics from the so called ‘pseudoskeptics’ – those who use scientific language to discredit or refute beliefs but in reality fail to apply the scientific method rigorously. Consider the arguments of Deepak Chopra about consciousness and the afterlife in which he uses language from neuroscience to present his conclusions: "And life is, as he said, it's a process. It's one process. It's perception, cognition, emotions, moods, imagination, insight, intuition, creativity, choice making. These are not the activities of your networks. You orchestrate these activities through your synaptic networks. But if I ask you to imagine the color red or look at the color red, there's no red in your brain. There's just electrical firings." (Quoted in Michael Shermer, who calls this the ‘woo-woo’ approach to explaining beliefs.)

How do we differentiate between scientific skeptics and pseudo skeptics?  Read this: ‘On Pseudo-Skepticism A Commentary by Marcello Truzzi’ or this Wikipedia article on pseudoskepticism which summarises Truzzi’s ideas neatly.

Religious Skepticism

This can take two possible forms: either using one’s faith to doubt scientific explanations about the world which manifests itself in questioning the knowledge of science (eg. that the universe began with a ‘big bang’) or having doubts about one’s own faith which manifests itself in questioning the grounds of one’s belief in God as a way of reaching a higher level of faith (eg. the problem of evil – why does God allow evil acts?)  While questioning one’s faith can lead to a stronger knowledge of self and purpose in life, bringing empowerment and wellbeing (think of the works of Martin Luther King and Gandhi), the questioning of science can lead to a more dogmatic and narrow minded approach to knowledge bringing great disharmony, bigotry and destruction (think of Galileo’s imprisonment for asserting the truth of the heliocentric theory).  In its most extreme form, religious skepticism can lead to the kind of radical ideological hold on faith which leads to terrorism.

Read some of these articles on the positive effects of religious doubt while some of the dangers of religious uncertainty are explored here...

A conclusion

The language we use is so important in these matters.  Proper scientific always tries to establish knowledge ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ – the theories of science are provisional and true to a high degree of probability and can be modified when better evidence comes along.  Skeptics never ask for knowledge ‘beyond (all possible) doubt’. In science (and philosophy), it’s a good thing to be familiar with the ambiguities of the word ‘proof’.

Consider a real life issue in this light: the problems in Syria in September 2013 after Assad had allegedly used chemical weapons against civilians.  The US government was ready to attack because it believed there was proof ‘beyond any reasonable doubt’ that Assad had used chemical weapons.  The Russians argued to wait until the it could be proved  ‘beyond doubt’ that chemical weapons had indeed been used by Assad.

Usually, when skepticism of any kind asserts that knowledge is true ‘beyond (all possible) doubt’ alarm bells should ring.  Read this post by Stephen Law about ‘scales of reasonableness’ to see the difference. What sort of knowledge can BE beyond all possible doubt? In the Syrian case, however, we see that while the US politicians used words that sounded good, it was the Russian President’s caution that actually won out and prevented an all out strike – in spite of his fuzzy request for something that any self-respecting skeptic would never ask for: knowledge beyond (all possible) doubt...