Tuesday, May 18, 2010

a conviction in malawi

We will shortly be turning our attention in this course to the field of ethics, and we will need to examine how people should and do employ reason to arrive at moral judgements. Here is a story that is "breaking news" today:


The judge convicted the couple on the grounds that what they were doing was "against the order of nature". Leaving aside for now what he might have meant by that, consider the following:

What OTHER moral claims could be made that would (a) support the conviction, or (b) help to overturn it? In more general terms, what grounds are there for condemning or accepting the actions of a couple such as this?

Each reply to this thread should include at least one example of each please! I don't want your personal judgement on the matter; I want you to identify the grounds that could be invoked on either side. We want to get beyond instant opinions in order to access the premises and assumptions that lie at their roots.

statistics and the world

Here is a thoughtful article about the relation between mathematics (statistics, really) and empirical data about the world:


What does this imply about mathematical knowledge?

Monday, May 17, 2010

learning history in texas

Here's the link:


What are the purposes of history and how might they affect its production and use? To what extent are historians themselves responsible for this, do you think?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

what do you believe is true even though you can't prove it?

Some of you might be interested in articles found at http://www.edge.org/.

At the end of each year, prominent academics are asked for their response to a question. That question in 2005 was:

What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?

Here are some of the responses offered:

1. that all human languages have a common origin
2. that extra-terrestrial life exists
3. that consciousness does not survive death
4. that Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal Man) became extinct because Homo sapiens (our ancestors) ate them
5. that there is moral progress
6. that some works of art have eternal value
7. that most ideas taught in first-year undergraduate Economics courses are wrong
8. that neuroscience will never fully explain the nature of thought
9. that the Riemann hypothesis is true
10. that animals have feelings

Pick one or two of the items on this list and suggest (a) why it is difficult to establish that they are true, and (b) what methods we might nevertheless try in order to do so.

Monday, May 10, 2010

prescribed essay titles

Well, you will be getting back your semester essays immediately after the forthcoming examination period, and it is usual for us to turn our attention at that stage to the prescribed title list for the year. But, considering all the discussions going on at the moment, I think it might focus our minds a little if we had these titles at the back of our minds now. So here they are:

1. Consider the extent to which knowledge issues in ethics are similar to those in at least one other area of knowledge.
2. How important are the opinions of experts in the search for knowledge?
3. “Doubt is the key to knowledge” (Persian Proverb). To what extent is this true in two areas of knowledge?
4. To what extent do we need evidence to support our beliefs in different areas of knowledge?
5. To what extent are the various areas of knowledge defined by their methodologies rather than their content?
6. “There are no absolute distinctions between what is true and what is false”. Discuss this claim.
7. How can we recognise when we have made progress in the search for knowledge? Consider two contrasting areas of knowledge.
8. “Art is a lie that brings us nearer to the truth” (Pablo Picasso). Evaluate this claim in relation to a specific art form (for example, visual arts, literature, theatre).
9. Discuss the roles of language and reason in history.
10. A model is a simplified representation of some aspect of the world. In what ways may models help or hinder the search for knowledge?

general comment

Dear All,

It is great that this blog has become so active in recent days. Some of your comments are extremely interesting and worthy of further exploration.

I just wanted to make a general observation at this point. It is similar to something I wrote earlier but that is down at the foot of some thread and may not be read by everyone.

As some of us said last week in class, successful TOK is a marriage between students and teachers (yes, yes - I know, that doesn't sound too attractive!). Students bring real life experiences and opinions about knowledge issues, along with the youthful energy to think about and discuss them in a lively manner; teachers bring established ideas and approaches to these knowledge issues so that discussion is rooted in the intellectual activities of humanity as a whole.

We do not expect you to agree with all of the ideas that we contribute in class (indeed you couldn't because some are contradictory positions); what we do hope is that you will engage with them and not ignore them. This is because they are often well-thought-out positions adopted by eminent scholars and are therefore worthy of respect. That was the purpose of the little "test" we gave you in class last week - to see whether you have been keeping up to date with our side of the bargain.

So, for example, a question such as "what is language?" on the thread below is not a "bolt from the blue" requiring your thinking from first principles but a question to which we can relate previously introduced class material. You might disagree with some these respectable ideas, and that is fine (as long as you try to support what you think) because that is also a form of engagement. Engagement with the whole of TOK is the key.

Looking forward to many further interesting contributions.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


Many students who wrote their TOK essay on the title on language considered all sorts of communication as language. But is every mode of communication language? Can we say animals have language? A painting communicates ideas and expresses emotion; is a painting language? What should our definition of language be?

Thursday, May 6, 2010


Since we are talking about the arts at the moment, we might do well to think beyond the visual arts for interesting examples. Like music...

The composer John Cage produced a piece in 1952 called 4'33'', which consists of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of... well, the performer sitting at a piano and doing nothing except opening it at the beginning and closing it at the end (actually there are supposed to be three "movements").

As you can imagine, some people were outraged by such a piece of "music". They thought it was a "con", or a joke or a hoax. But let us not be totally dismissive at the start - what about some of the characteristics of art that you identified in your lessons last week? Would it be possible to comment on this example using any of them? Let's try and see if we can get anywhere.


Yesterday 5/5/10 a painting which Picasso made in a single day was sold for 106.5 million dollars at an auction. It is a new record for a work of art and the bid reached the selling price within barely 9 minutes.

Do you think the amount of money is an indication of its real worth or is it just because the thing is a Picasso? If everything Picasso created is worth Millions is the emphasis on the work or the man? And in general what should determine the value of an artistic work? Follow the link to see the painting in question and let’s hear what you have to say.


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

don't talk to aliens

Stephen Hawking, a British physicist regarded by many as the most famous living scientist, recently was in the news for saying that we should stop trying to contact extraterrestrial intelligent life because it could be dangerous for us. In a documentary for the Discovery Channel he warned, "If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans." His argument is that if aliens could come to our planet travelling across light years they must have developed a superior civilization and can easily colonize or destroy us.


The question is should our quest for knowledge be thwarted by fear of unintended consequences? What if we could benefit from their advanced civilization? What if we stopped splitting the atom fearing that it may lead to nuclear weapons? Is there something as dangerous knowledge?

Monday, May 3, 2010

can you hurt a chimpanzee's feelings?

Reading the following article made me think about the origins of our ways of knowing and how this might affect our ethical stance with regard to other animals:


Here are some TOK-related questions to which you may want to respond:

1) How can we know if animals experience feelings that correspond to the emotions we as humans possess?

2) If certain animals (such as chimpanzees) are indeed receptive to the kinds of emotional experiences with which we are familiar, would that obligate us to treat those animals ethically?

3) Would such an ethical treatment extend to recognizing that animals have rights? Can anyone or anything have rights without responsibilities?

4) Why might we make the existence of feelings or emotions the deciding factor in our ethical attitudes to animals? Why not the ability to construct or use language, or to reason effectively? Or, for that matter, to perceive?