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, December 3, 2015

ToK Prescribed Essay Title (May2016): Question 2

“Knowledge within a discipline develops according to the principles of natural selection.” How useful is this metaphor?


‘It’s gone viral!’ is a common enough expression in the 21st century world of digital mania, in which ideas and experiences are disseminated, verified and shared through various social media.  But can we apply the same metaphor to ‘knowledge’?  A virus is many things: uncomfortable, potentially fatal and, above all, contagious.  If we graft the metaphor of natural selection onto the metaphoric use of the idea of a virus, what insights can we generate?

Very simply put, a virus needs a ‘vector’ or host and like any reproductive organism, it uses the host to replicate itself.  The contagious part ensures that the cycle of replication continues…

But what makes the virus resistant and ensures its survival? Like with any organic species, it must have a ‘survival value’, a trait or quality that is selected for by nature that allows it to adapt to its changing environment.  In the case of a viral cell, it appears this trait is its ‘ability’ both to merge so fully with its host cell and to mutate so quickly, that it often resists detection by our immune system or other lines of defence like drugs.

What of knowledge then? It can be uncomfortable and potentially fatal, but contagious?  It seems odd to describe knowledge as something that infects us, but surely the mechanism that ensures the survival of some knowledge at the expense of other knowledge works in the same ‘evolutionary’ manner.

Consider creation myths about the origins of the universe.  They were once infectious and are now more dormant and exist in the form of entertaining stories for most of us and we resist them in favour of scientific explanations of the ‘Big Bang’.  A stronger, though more clichéd example (resist using it, even though it clarifies the point here!), is the development from ‘flat earth theory’ to ‘sphere earth theory’.  So what makes the spherical earth and Big Bang theories survive?  One possible response is that its central ideas are compatible with the available empirical evidence: the survival value of such scientific theories lies in their internal logical consistency, the strength of their predictive power and, of course, the cogency of the correlation between the theories and the data.

Where does this leave knowledge that is not so easily adaptable to evidence? Religious knowledge is notoriously ‘viral’: great numbers of people are drawn together by religious ideas and values either for good or evil.  Religious knowledge, like Jesus’ instruction to ‘turn the other cheek’, has survived for millennia and still has an impact on our personal lives.  Such knowledge is based less on available evidence than it is on deep rooted moral intuitions about what is right or wrong, so its ‘survival value’ must be in something else (emotion?) Has religious knowledge ‘evolved’ in any way? People pray and meditate in the same way as they’ve always done; their religious texts, on which they base much of their personal behaviour and value systems, never have bits added to them or taken away, so what exactly changes in religious knowledge? What makes it adapt to its modern environment?  One response is linked to the notion of how historical knowledge is constructed: it’s our interpretations of religious ideas and values that change and evolve…

Where does the metaphor of natural selection lose its explanatory force?  There is a counter claim: evolutionary development of a species or knowledge implies a linear progress – new knowledge is built from previous knowledge.  But we know that sometimes, knowledge breaks completely from what has gone on before and is ‘revolutionary’ – new knowledge arrives in the form of paradigm shifts (another cliché in waiting, so please find a fresher example!)…

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

ToK Essay Prescribed Titles (May 2016)

The new ToK Essay titles have been published for students who will be examined in May 2016 - the deadline is March 2016:

1. “In gaining knowledge, each area of knowledge uses a network of ways of knowing.” Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of Knowledge.

2. “Knowledge within a discipline develops according to the principles of natural selection.” How useful is this metaphor?

3. “The knower’s perspective is essential in the pursuit of knowledge.” To what extent do you agree?

4. “Without application in the world, the value of knowledge is greatly diminished.” Consider this claim with respect to two areas of knowledge.

5. To what extent do the concepts that we use shape the conclusions that we reach?

6. “In knowledge there is always a trade-off between accuracy and simplicity.” Evaluate this statement in relation to two areas of knowledge.

Good luck and watch this space for some guidance on how to approach the titles...

Monday, July 13, 2015

ToK Prescribed Essay Titles (November 2015): Question 1

“The main reason knowledge is produced is to solve problems.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?

The production of scientific knowledge to help solve crimes has its roots in the 19th Century. Consider these two real life examples, one of which has been consigned to the realm of pseudo-science and the other which has evolved significantly as part of the area of forensic science.

William Herschel and Henry Faulds’ work on fingerprinting to help identify people was developed into a science by Francis Galton.  Galton’s used a form of mathematical analysis to produce the verifiable knowledge that that fingerprints do not change over the course of an individual's lifetime, and no two fingerprints are exactly the same.  Based on this knowledge, he devised a method of categorising fingerprints based on patterns of loops, whorls or arches as a way of identifying people. This scientific knowledge was adopted by Scotland Yard in 1894 to complement their approach to solving a range of crimes by using fingerprints as empirical evidence.  Today, DNA fingerprinting is part and parcel of the forensic approach to crime solving, whose discovery can be explored as one of those curious ‘eureka’ moments in the history of science.

On the other hand, compare the earlier work of Cesare Lombardo, whose interest in psychology shaped his researches into the criminal mind.  Lombardo’s central theory came to be known as ‘characterology’: simply put, the physical features of a person’s face and head give clues about the likelihood of their mental state (or criminal behaviour.)  So for example, unusually oversized ears, the short distance between a person’s pupils or having long hands was a mark of criminal psychopathology. Why?  Lombardo theorised that they were ‘atavisms’: regressive, physical traits that resembled traits of humans in earlier stages of development and which could spontaneously appear down the line of evolutionary development.  So innovative did this ‘scientific’ approach seem that Lombroso was invited to give evidence at trials to solve ongoing criminal cases. However, his knowledge was later discredited as being more pseudo-scientific than anything else.  Firstly, we now know that some of Lombroso’s ‘atavistic’ traits involve the work of extremely rare genes: eg. ‘werewolf syndrome’ where a person can be covered completely in bodily hair.  Secondly, apart from its link to the discredited theory of phrenology, Lombroso believed that not only could a person be born a criminal, but also that a criminal was under-evolved: a violent beast or savage akin to our primitive ancestors.  This had, of course, great social implications: if we want a society with less criminality, why not genetically engineer people with the right kind (ie. Non-criminal) of facial features?

So you see, in the field of criminology, new scientific knowledge is specifically produced to solve crimes, but the application of it doesn’t always lead to success.  One of the key concepts to apply in this analysis is the distinction between shared and personal knowledge.  Which part of the distinction applies to which example and HOW?...

Thursday, May 21, 2015

ToK Prescribed Essay Titles (November 2015): Question 6

Is explanation a prerequisite for prediction? Explore this question in relation to two areas of knowledge.

Click caption to listen to Tom Lehrer's 'Periodic Table Song'

One of the lessons being learned with the new TOK Essay marking criteria is the need for a clear and explicit attempt at unpacking the key terms of the title.  Usually, this should be done concisely and precisely in the introduction, alongside the presentation of a thesis that sets the direction of your essay. By all means, go to a dictionary and remind yourself of the meaning of words, but avoid reproducing them wholesale in your essays: it takes too much TIME and involves much word wasting on definitions which have little or nothing to do with TOK.

 So here goes:
Explanations involve giving reasons for why you believe what you believe and can fall into two broad categories that tie in with the TOK definition of ‘knowledge’ as ‘justified true belief’.
First, evidential reasons in the form of objective, empirical evidence, data or statistics that help support or refute a specific knowledge claim. For example, the observational data generated by Tycho Brahe which helped Kepler formulate his mathematical calculations to explain elliptical orbits.  Or, the preponderance of evidence gathered to refute the claim that the Bermuda triangle is a place in which weird, paranormal activities take place.
Second, non-evidential reasons in the form of subjective, personal testimony based on emotion, intuition or faith, which help or hinder the justification of our knowledge claims.  For example, the intensely felt experience of the ever present force of Brahma is explained by Buddhists in terms of mindfulness, a form of intuition.  Or, the ideals of terrorists, of whatever denomination, which are often grounded in extreme interpretations of sacred writings, a form of faith.
‘Prerequisite’ implies that there is a step by step order in the process of knowledge building, in which certain steps come before, first or are a basis for, or ground or foundation of other steps. Finally, in a basic sense ‘prediction’ means a best guess about the future; more specifically, it involves making specific claims about future conditions or events based on general laws or statements.  At least, if you’re aiming to be objective and scientific! So yes, you can have predictions based on both empirical and non-empirical kinds of explanation; and yes, you can have predictions made on nothing resembling an explanation at all.  It just depends on how reliable you want your predictions to be and how you KNOW this…
This should give you the KIND of thing you may do in your introduction.  The direction of your essay will then focalise on two AOKs, one of which could be the Natural Sciences.  Here’s an example many of you will no doubt explore: Henry Mosely and the periodic table…
Mendeelev invented the periodic table but the explanations for ordering them were largely based on their perceived chemical properties and a subjective, intuitive sense of their relative atomic masses.  Mosely’s experiments provided a more objective, measurable basis for explaining why elements should be ordered in specific ways: the mathematical link between the protons in an element’s nucleus with that element’s atomic number.
Now, the strange thing is, both Mendeleev and Mosely were able to predict the existence of elements missing in their versions of the Periodic Table.  While Mendeelev’s intuitive based prediction was that an element was missing from the table, Mosely’s more experimentally based prediction could actually pin point WHERE in the Periodic Table the gaps were…

Sunday, April 12, 2015

ToK Prescribed Essay Title (Nov 2015): Question 4

“In some areas of knowledge we try to reduce a complex whole to simple components, but in others we try to integrate simple components into a complex whole.” Discuss this distinction with reference to two areas of knowledge.

[Note: A version of this post appeared here on Sept 19 2013.]

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
We murder to dissect.

(From 'The Tables Turned', by William Wordsworth)

These lines are from a pair of poems in Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads, which encapsulate the central tension between emotion and reason within his revolutionary project of writing poetry which we have come to know as belonging to the 'Romantic Period'.

In these lines, Wordsworth appears to argue against the 'meddling intellect' of the learned community of minds in 18th Century Age of Enlightenment whose focus on Reason has been at the expense of human empathy.  Wordsworth's criticism seems to be aimed specifically at the scientific spirit whose need to discover the laws of nature have led only to one thing: the destruction of the natural environment.  He was quite possibly pointing to the mass industrialisation and its adverse effects on society which was made possible by the very scientific discoveries made by intellectuals such a Newton in the 17th Century.  Newton's laws of motion not only gave us a mechanistic view of the world, but also gave us a means of controlling and shaping that world to our most immediate social and economic needs.

The last line of the verse stands out, however, as underlining the main thrust of Wordsworth's criticism of the scientific urge for new knowledge: science, in its attempt to know how the natural world works, is a form of 'murder'; it fails to see natural objects, or even the natural world, in their wholeness.  By trying to find the essence of life by dissecting nature into its parts, we kill that essence. The life force of nature is something more than its individual parts.

Wordsworth's lines appear to make two assumptions: first, that what makes nature work in the way that it does somehow inheres invisibly in natural objects like a hidden essence or soul-like element just waiting to be seen, without physical interference, by someone who has the right skills (this is the 'essentialist' assumption).  And second, Wordsworth doesn't seem to take into account that science works in both directions: reducing things to their simple parts and putting them back together in imaginative and often more efficient ways.  So one of the key knowledge questions embedded in this question are: in what ways do the parts of an object relate to the whole?  To what extent is a natural object more than the sum of its parts?

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!).

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)...

Saturday, April 11, 2015

ToK Prescribed Essay Titles for November 2015

A little belated, but here are the titles for the November 2015 Examination session:

1. “The main reason knowledge is produced is to solve problems.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?

2. Assess the advantages and disadvantages of using models to produce knowledge of the world.

3. “Without the group to verify it, knowledge is not possible.” Discuss.

4. “In some areas of knowledge we try to reduce a complex whole to simple components, but in others we try to integrate simple components into a complex whole.” Discuss this distinction with reference to two areas of knowledge.

5. “No knowledge can be produced by a single way of knowing.” Discuss.

6. Is explanation a prerequisite for prediction? Explore this question in relation to two areas of knowledge.

All the best!