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, 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?