Sunday, October 31, 2010

Qoheleth's Defence

The slim Book of the Preacher runs to only twelve chapters. We moderns call it Ecclesiastes, and it is the most entertaining defence that the ancient world ever put up against anomie, mainly because it starts by facing it head-on.

Here is the first chapter, eloquent in its best-known version. That one chapter has donated to the English language a wealth of idiom — 'all is vanity', 'earth abides forever', 'there is nothing new under the sun'. The eponymous author points out that people forget history, that psychology is nonsense, that attempting to use quantitative methods on abstractions doesn't work. He also points out that all the wisdom in the world will not save you from anomie, and that humans are forever going in circles.

And that's just the first chapter. In fact, it goes on like that a lot. It goes through every major philosophy of human existence (you should read his stuff on Epicureanism and hedonism, for example), and trashes the whole lot with fatalism of some sort — 'but time and chance happen to them all'.

Yet, in the final analysis, he points out that one major thing might be good to try: be at peace with your Maker, in the assumption that there is one. After all, if you are a Making, then your entire purpose revolves around your Maker. And if you are a Making, it is unlikely you can understand all the doings of your Maker.

That is why the wisest man on earth realised that the circle of human knowledge will never encompass the answer to, "What is the point of it all?" unless you assume there is a point and that you can't know it. Humans are never satisfied, and having a Maker who refuses to satisfy them on their terms is a great pain.

It is from this that humans get most of their angst and intellectual suffering. You can find a lovely illustration (tongue-in-cheek) of that here. The day ahead is All Hallows' Eve. It is a day full of related significance.

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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Subject to Authority

We are all subjective. There is a reality that each of us perceives, and it is never the same as anyone else's. When we compare notes, and they seem to say the same thing, it is never the same, but we believe it is.

The colour I call red is certainly not what anyone else sees when they see red. But we can agree that an object is red because someone taught me that an object with certain properties is red and someone else taught the other person something similar. The same property gives rise to two different perceptions of reality, but because they derive from the same property, we say A is the image of B and C is also the image of B, so A and C are evidence that B is the same thing.

This is the fragile underlying structure that gives our reality authority over us. It is mutual agreement from different subjective perceptions of something we fervently hope is an object; that is, something outside us. If everything were inside us, it would be a terrible joke.

The standard defence against such solipsism is to wonder how on earth a solipsist could possess a contrary opinion, or even have the self-knowledge to wonder about solipsism. But there is no way out of the hall of mirrors.

You see, what makes you think about such things? How would you know it is not you? If you can answer that question, then you admit there is something outside your perception. And if you can admit that, then you open the door to authority that is not you.

Is it hard to accept that reality might not depend on you? Some say that this leads to religion. I disagree. I have no problem accepting that reality might not depend on me, not because of religion, but because it is a possibility.

It is also a possibility that I am all there is, and my humility is merely ignorance of that. That too I have no problem accepting, along with the possibility that having no problems accepting such things is also an artifact of whatever it is that I am.

It makes me happy to think otherwise. And in the end, the faith-based arguments must win, because everything is a matter of faith. It is all a question of whether you choose to cut the never-ending navel-gazing short, or not.

All of us really have a choice of one infinite loop or one still small voice. Odd then, that I should go against my experience and preference, and stick with the latter for once.

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Friday, October 29, 2010

Catastrophic Change

Despite all the financial rumblings and the more geological rumblings of earthquakes and such, this time is a relatively peaceful moment in the short history of mankind. When I step back and look at what might have been and what might yet be, the little bumps and excursions of human history seem a lot less demanding on the road travelled, whether more or less.

Take for example the Zanclean flood. In a period of months, the entire Mediterranean basin was filled by the Atlantic Ocean. The water rise was something like 10 metres per day.

Or consider the Yellowstone supervolcano (graphic here). If it blows, at some unknown future time, the Americas will consist of Laurentia, South America, and a lot of tiny bits.

Catastrophes like that go beyond the normal human scale of activities. Our thin veneer of global civilisation would be struck a hammerblow which, even if not fatal, would be crippling.

As it is, we already have lost our sense of proportion. I read the daily and weekly newsdumps, and they are often about 'the Rise of China'. Well, China has long been the world's #1 economy; only in the tiny period of time from the 19th century till today has it been weakened in relation to the rest of the world. It is more accurate to say that the resurgence might be under way, and that certain western powers might seek to stave it off for as long as possible.

Change is the quick eyeblink of history. We look at the very large and the very small, the stuff of physics, and are happy that we seem to be heading towards the limits of knowledge. But everything in the middle is up for grabs. Predicting the behaviour of dark matter does not tell us anything of the role of India in the 21st century, let alone the 22nd.

In that perspective, nothing is catastrophe, merely apostrophe. And what becomes important on the human level is trying to make humans work as best as humans can, with all the accumulated advantages of whatever sort that are useful to humans.

Perhaps what might be most important, then, is not the very large or the very small. What would be most important is helping humans come to terms with each other, to stop frittering the moments away on accumulation of artificial wealth (stuff gained by computed point-scoring mechanisms) and to work towards accumulation of real things.

Assuming, of course, that we can tell the difference anymore.

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Thursday, October 28, 2010


Wolff nodded grimly to himself. He sat at an old table, his fist near the sherry decanter and his sword in the corner. He poured. And sipped.


In his mind, he saw a line of brave knights, before his time, not so many after. One by one, in some perverse mirroring of the Grail quest, they had been sent forth, with the sole purpose that they not come back to the Citadel. And so the fellowship had been broken, and the false knights had gained power without a fight.

He thought of the ivy that used to adorn the tower, and was no more to be seen. He thought of the keen swords and the sharp wits of those who saved the sum of things for pay.

In the ruins, the things crawled. Sometimes they seemed to cry out in the tongues of men, but Wolff suspected it was wishful thinking that made their morologia into speech.

In the ruins, the rats chittered and the bats squeaked. Where the Grand Inquisitor had once laid heavy hand, the signs and symbols were tarnished and scratched. Desolation was the name of the city, the ancient city of the Citadel.

But outside, the walls were brave. The children looked like knights in their armour of tin and satin, where once was bronze and steel. Yet each year, the dilution continued, and nobody noticed, because you cannot watch watchmen when they are gone.

The Grand Inquisitor had decided to go south for his health, or so he had told the remaining officers of the Citadel. Ignominy had never been easy to deal with for the sons of men, and for that man, hardest of all.

He cracked a crippled joke: "Do not leave the Citadel because I have left it," he urged. At the back of the room, several knights laughed grimly and walked out. They had already purposed in their hearts to leave, because they had thought he might stay. They continued to have misgivings about what might come next.


Wolff had sipped once for each of the lost. The decanter was nearly empty. Outside, through the windows of his rooms, the night was full. But he was sure that in the morning, the sun was very likely to rise again.


Note: The fictional adventures of Sir Wolff do provide much that is of interest. You can find them linked here. Just ignore the one about earwax. That was an accident.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Some nights, I feel the fire in my veins. I sit here, and I think of all the kind, gentle, fiery ancestors I've had. My grandfather was saintly. Never raised his voice to me, but once. But when he felt something was wrong, he would stand firm in the breach and it was as if a flaming sword was in his hands.

A flaming, two-edged sword. Some of you will know what I mean by that. He lived in a room full of them. I remember him filing, polishing, underlining; he never felt that his mastery was sufficient.

Once in a while he would tell me things, in his mild, resonant voice. He sounded like a giant hidden in the flesh of a man. He was sixty years older than I was, but that voice was strong.

He told me about the shield. He said that once upon a time, it was about being a knight. And a knight is a servant of a king, sworn to uphold the values and laws of that king. Those values, he said, were hidden in plain sight upon that shield.

There's a lot of blue. That is for things of the spirit, of the unseen, of what is above.

There's a lot of gold. That is for things of the world, for one should not be of no earthly use.

There is some red, and that is blood, shed to reconcile what is above to what is below. For Christians, that is the blood of Christ, and it is the mark of healing and joining.

There is a beast with three parts. It is historical, mythical, and not some sort of evil monster.

He told me that as symbolised by the lion's head, you should seek courage to do what is right, to act justly, to protect the innocent, and resist falsehood.

He told me that as symbolised by the eagle's wings, you should seek excellence to do your best, to act rightly, to aim for perfection, and resist mediocrity.

He told me that as symbolised by the dragon's body, you should seek wisdom to do what is merciful, to act generously, to defend the weak, and resist ignorance.

He said that if a school wanted to make good Christian men, then the vision should be simple — for all to be good, to be Christian, to be men. No doubt many would quibble about whether a school should have such ideas, but that was the vision of the Dauntless Hero. Whether the boys wanted to be such, that was a matter for their conscience, not for coercion.

He said, it's a pity that you don't learn what that shield means, although you wear it everyday on your shirt. You're a shieldbearer. You're a knight. Don't forget it, because you will carry it all your life.

And now I know what he meant, and he is gone more than sixteen years now, and I never got to tell him that I once shared his lessons with the entire school that he taught me was my home and my mission. The anniversary of his passing was Sunday, 10 October 2010. 10-10-10. He would have laughed at that, in his hidden-giant deep tenor voice.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010


And as if in a mighty dream of the past, I saw a shield shining in the light, and it had no supporters, nor needed any; for it was a guard upon the arm of Michael, the archangel, who is prince over the people of God. This is the blazon I saw upon it:
Party per pale Or and Azure; the letters ACS overlapped Gules; in chief Azure a four-clawed two-legged Eastern dragon coiling Or, with the head of a Lion and winged as an Eagle displayed.
Then I remembered the virtues that the Dauntless had brought to us of old: courage and valour, wisdom and chivalry, excellence and humility; the defence of innocence and the pursuit of justice; service as of a knight, mastery as of a craftsman. For while the colour of gold and earthly success made half the shield, the other half was of the heavens and the undying excellence of the Spirit; and over all was the blood that joined one to the other in faith and hope and love.

I cried out to the archangel who defends the people, "Will nobody teach the young what meaning is carried upon this shield?"

He replied to me, and his voice was as the rumble of stone upon the mountains, "Who has the gift, and who has the voice? Who was told these things in ages past?"

And I knew of whom he spoke, and it was as a burning fire within me that would not be put out.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Faery Tale

Wolff sits on the hill crest and he looks far into the distance, before the sea's edge and where the brooding buildings hide. The relationships are simple. Why has nobody bothered to understand them? When Wolff was Sir Wolff, he was bound not to discuss them, because he was a gentleman.

But now that they have told him he is no longer entitled to be called 'Sir', is he still a gentleman? Must he still keep their secrets and their horrors? Wolff is afraid that he too might brood, like a hen. It would be a sad fate for a knight.

So he begins, talking to himself as he counts on his fingers. He tells the story of the ladies and their dreams, and he talks even as his fingers twitch, trying not to be part of the story.

"Once upon a time, there was a mad king who had several daughters."

The distant thunder crashes, as if to evoke Lear, who had three, or Macbeth, who had none. There are so many kings, so many varnishings and tarnishings. Wolff resumes.

"And he had three stepsisters, each by a different father."

He remembers. One was lenient, and she was kind to all. One he nicknamed 'Lady Macbeth', but it was only a nickname. And the last one looked after the household expenses.

"He got it into his head to be king forever, or perhaps a high priest after the line of Melchizedek."

Wolff is unsure, here. Somehow, the story is coming out a little mixed in its antecedents. But he continues, and his fingers tingle.

"His four daughters were called Teach-Me-Not, Touch-Me-Not, Boots, and Beets. Obviously, the first two had been named by one of his stepsisters, and the other two by another stepsister. Or maybe, that is just the way they were."

Wolff remembers. It was all very funny, very amusing, and yet very tragic.

"The king was afraid of one stepsister, but she closed both eyes and he was reassured. He was scornful of the other, but that one opened both eyes and was safe. And the third worked at the back of the castle, and was not troubled by anything."

He looks at his fingers. They are cringing. Perhaps he should not continue. After all, it is a rare story and a dark one. Like most dark tales of the faery, the King in the High Castle is also the King under the Old Hill. The faery are not good people, but little people with sharp knives and sharper tongues. And the King of the Faery was the worst of them all until his inevitable downfall.


It was a long time ago that the Rhymer told Wolff the old stories. Wolff had been Sir Wolff back then, and he tried very hard not to believe them. But the day came when he knew they had to be true.


Note: The fictional adventures of Sir Wolff do provide much that is of interest. You can find them linked here. Just ignore the one about earwax. That was an accident.

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Income Inequality

I've noticed a lot of people talking about income inequality these days, mostly revolving around the ideas of debt, fair wages, and how uncivilised such inequality seems. Very few grasp that it's somewhat inevitable in specific contexts.

Actually, it's inevitable in a context that is very specific and also very rarely thought about. All city-states are like that, because a city-state seldom has control over its hinterland except by huge investment in overwhelming military force.

Such investment normally cripples the economy, because you need to reward the soldiers and mercenaries. A rich city-state normally avoids that, one way or another, by disproportionately rewarding wealth generation, networking ability, and the personal power to control and manipulate others. And this is also how the state will define merit implicitly.

That's it in a nutshell. The whole argument is partly historical in nature and very much longer. Major footnote: see here.

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Responses 010 (2011-2012)

Well, after being more cryptic than usual for this round of responses to the latest list, I am happy to be at the end of yet another season of Fun With Epistemology. Kidding... but I will still leave a complete link-list at the end of this post for everyone's greater ease-of-use.

Here's Question 10, the last of the season: " 'Through different methods of justification, we can reach conclusions in ethics that are as well-supported as those provided in mathematics.' To what extent would you agree?"

Ah, this one is a tricky one, make no mistake. Note the phrase 'different methods of justification'. Immediately, this centres the question around the issues of how one supports conclusions in different areas of knowledge, supports them in different ways, and yet is able to claim that they are conclusions that are equally well-supported.

First, we need to define 'ethics', something which is vaguely and variously defined no matter how you look at it. The problem with defining 'ethics' is that we speak English, but 'ethics' came from the Greeks. Roman culture produced 'morals' as a sort of synonym, but the two are not the same. A simple test shows this to be true: we speak of medical ethics, but not medical morals nor medical morality; we speak of legal ethics, but not legal morals nor legal morality.

I first said something about ethics in the context of such discussions here. The last paragraph of that post talks about how the grounds for an ethical basis arise. A better place to look is this post, in which I clearly outline the difference with support from an empirical (frequency-of-usage) approach.

Once we can define ethics, we can start thinking about how we reach conclusions about ethics. One of the most straightforward ways is some form of Kantian argument, in which we ask the question, "What if everyone in the world saw action X as a morally good thing compared to action not-X?" and figure out the consequences. This would make murder an unethical thing because if everyone committed murder, there wouldn't be enough of a society left to have any ethics. This is also true of many things, but it leads to logical consequences like thinking of contraceptive technology as morally evil — and also things like eating Big Macs. I'm sure you can see what else could be problematic.

However, if we don't say 'everyone', the problem goes away and is replaced by another one called 'relativism', in which we might have to argue that anything can be good if done in the right context, or that there are no such things as good or evil — merely optimal and suboptimal solutions. This was where utilitarianism led us, to the idea that something called a 'moral calculus' exists — a kind of situational mathematical solution for the determination of what the most moral action should be.

Lines of reasoning like this are not necessarily supported by mathematical approaches such as statistics, algebra, or formal logic. However, they can be treated (by philosophers especially) as equivalent in support to some areas of mathematics; just as math can have conjectures, so too can ethics.

One interesting way of comparing math to something related to ethics can be found here. In a way, that post suggests the possibility of treating areas in the two domains the same way.

I would conclude that conclusions in ethics can (not 'will') be as well-supported as some conclusions in mathematics. I'm not sure that this is extensively true; ethics is a less closed system than mathematics is, and it is hard to consider ethics without metaphysics.


Here's the list of links:

Question List for 2011-2012

Response to Question 1
Response to Question 2
Response to Question 3
Response to Question 4
Response to Question 5
Response to Question 6
Response to Question 7
Response to Question 8
Response to Question 9


Again, I have to remind everyone that these posts are just my personal responses, somewhat off the cuff and sometimes with loopholes I've overlooked. If you are going to quote any of my elegant prose (haha), please ensure you cite the material appropriately and check its validity by your own research. Thanks!

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Responses 009 (2011-2012)

Almost there. This is the penultimate post in the main analysis line of my responses to the most recent list. Question 9 states: "As an IB student, how has your learning of literature and science contributed to your understanding of individuals and societies?"

Without the first clause, this would be a rather stodgy question, in which two conveniently different-looking lenses from C P Snow's The Two Cultures are trained on what we might think of as their thematic synthesis, modern society. However, in the light of those four words, a different context presents itself.

IB students are of course exposed to a curriculum schematically represented as a hexagon of areas of knowledge around a set of core activities. The six broad areas are literature, language, individuals and societies, experimental sciences, mathematics and aesthetics.

To an IB student, therefore, the question takes on the nuanced meaning of 'having studied a Group 1 subject and a Group 4 subject, how have they helped you study a Group 3 subject?' That might be putting it too simplistically, but it's an obvious conclusion to be drawn, given the context-framing first four words of the question.

Like others in the present list, this appears to be a very IB-centred question. A non-IB student might answer it with a slightly different approach because to a non-IB student, literature is a humanities subject, and it comments on human nature and human society through the lens of human creative interpretation and description. Similarly, the sciences allow for analysis of individual human beings as well as human society through biology and materials science and suchlike.

However, that kind of reasoning (IB/non-IB) might be a trap. Perhaps candidates are really required to interpret the main question literally, but drawing on their experiences as IB students. IB students, perhaps you aren't supposed to be thinking about Group 1, Group 4 and their impact on your learning of Group 3? Or are you?

I like this question. It requires a fine balance. It is also slightly unfair.

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Responses 008 (2011-2012)

The eighth question in the list is one of those questions which elicit a sort of shrug, that odd gesture which some say is peculiarly Gallic. It requests the candidate to do something unusual: "Analyse the strengths and weaknesses of using faith as a basis for knowledge in religion and in one area of knowledge from the ToK diagram."

To do that, of course, one needs to begin by defining 'faith' and its relationship to 'ways of knowing'. The best way to do this is to point out that faith is conclusive belief without adequate evidence — if there were adequate evidence, that would be reason, not faith.

In other words, faith as a basis for knowledge allows us to decide what knowledge is without having sufficient evidence for definitive proof. This already sounds spurious. But it isn't. In fact, mathematics and theology are very similar disciplines. That's because they both rely on leaps of faith such as a belief in axioms, which by definition are assertions of truth without proof.

This means that a careful inspection of all areas of knowledge shows that there is always a gap at the base. We can reason all we like from basic principles, but basic principles have nothing supporting them except faith, whether this is by nature emotional, empirical, or anything else.

But how then to evaluate 'strengths and weaknesses'? Simply put, a candidate must put forward a variety of arguments such as those which attempt to show how faith is an asset in convincing people of the validity of knowledge in various disciplines. How much has to be taken on faith? Does it make the knowledge more accessible? More reliable? Easier to swallow? And so on.

It may prove, on analysis, that certain strengths are also weaknesses. In religion, faith allows humans to reconcile principles that seem beyond understanding; it bridges logical gaps or gaps in perception, and enables acceptance of things that seem beyond comprehension. This can be seen as a weakness from outside the religious paradigm; a science-based paradigm would scoff at the lack of replicable evidence and so on. But it should also be noted that a science-based paradigm is itself based on faith that the universe has governing principles, and is not just a scattershot series of data points linked by our need to find patterns.

That difference is what gives religion the tendency to seek firm principles and stick to them even in the face of what appears to be contrary evidence. Science, on the other hand, seeks similar firmness of principle but is sceptical enough to change its principles when the evidence seems to show something different.

Which is strength, and which is weakness? That is what you must decide. And of course, you don't have to use the sciences as your choice of area of knowledge. The other choices are literature, language, individuals and societies, mathematics, and aesthetics.

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Ockhamite Monotheism, or Why I Am A Monotheist

In a frequently-read previous post, I established a simple argument for why I am not an atheist given my beliefs. It isn't a new argument, but it's one that is supported by the converse reasoning of Joel Marks.

His side, of course, is that since God doesn't exist, he should be amoral. It is the same argument, but with a different choice — in my previous post, I said that since I would like to believe in morality, at least one god must exist.

To take that idea one step further, I call upon my interlocutors once again. Most of the friendly discussions I've had with the non-religious, agnostic, or atheistic people I know invoke William of Ockham. That worthy's philosophical principle of reductionism, also known as Ockham's Razor, insists that we should not accept plurality where a reduced set is possible, or that we should not multiply entities beyond necessity. It is a principle used by scientists ever since Newton started pretending to be one.

While it is not necessarily axiomatic, consistent application of Ockham's Razor shows better results in most domains. Hence, if one is going to be a theist, then one should be a monotheist, since any system invoking gods is probably best with one God. The only flaw is that human god-systems tend to be unimaginative — they mostly posit contradictory gods and powers (hence the theomachies and titanomachies of mythology) without allowing for a God capable of complex thinking, behaviour and exercise of will. That's because it seems easier to have gods handle separate domains, something like a celestial bureaucracy or equivalent.

Indirectly, this assumes that consistency must be a virtue derived from perfection, with the ultimate consistency being complete homogeneity. An inconsistent God would, by this argument, have to be more than one god.

Such an assumption seems spurious, since a perfect God or a perfect universe would then be a singularity. This in turn would conflict with other concepts of perfection (such as the idea that a being with the property of existence is of a higher order of perfection than one that doesn't exist, non-existence implying imperfection). It would also conflict with the idea that a god must exert powers, since there would be no differential across which to demonstrate any properties whatsoever, let alone powers.

The point really is that no matter what philosophical and theological convolutions we go through, if we want to be theists, it makes most sense to be monotheists. And creative ones at that.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Responses 007 (2011-2012)

The seventh question of this year's list is one on a theme close to my heart: " 'The vocabulary we have does more than communicate our knowledge; it shapes what we can know.' Evaluate this claim with reference to different areas of knowledge."

I have a suspicion that most people would equate 'the vocabulary we have' to 'language'. That's because 'vocabulary', strictly speaking, is a Latinate word describing a list of words and their standard acceptable meanings. However, that might be overly restrictive when managing the question given.

Why? Because in modern usage, a vocabulary can be taken to be the complete set of tools, techniques, processes, symbols and actions used to express oneself. That is why we can speak of a vocabulary of dance, of visual imagery, or of non-verbal communication.

This has to be borne in mind when one parses the second part of the claim. A vocabulary certainly communicates knowledge. But the claim is that one's range of knowledge is confined, restricted, or otherwise shaped by the constraints of one's vocabulary — not just language, but all the contents of one's 'communications toolbox'.

That claim is not a new one. It is found in constructs like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and other ideas about linguistic relativity. These range between two extremes.

At the 'weak' end, theories of linguistic relativity merely assert that different people have different languages, and since language also encodes nuances of thought and culture, some things can only be communicated if the language to do so is available. At the 'strong' end, the hypothesis suggests that language capability controls what a person thinks and how a person can think.

This is one key to understanding how the question should be approached. If a thought cannot be expressed or communicated using available components in one's toolbox, then doesn't one's vocabulary control what one can understand, and hence have knowledge about?

Once this is assumed, then the second part of the question comes into play. To what extent do different areas of knowledge rely on vocabulary?

Certain areas of knowledge have some capacity to bypass communication (as in religion or the aesthetics). In such areas, it may be true that you cannot express something completely in words and yet can have knowledge of it (think of the Biblical phrase 'the peace that passes all understanding', for example). If this is the case, then the original claim may be less significant or less true — or the definition of knowledge in the area may be less sharply defined than in other areas.

Well, that's a possible position to look at. There are lots more, and if you attempt this question, take the opportunity to extend your vocabulary.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Responses 006 (2011-2012)

I have to confess that in almost every list, there is one question that seems peculiar or 'tricky' to me. For the latest list, it is Question 6, " 'It is more important to discover new ways of thinking about what is already known than to discover new data or facts.' To what extent would you agree with this claim?"

I think it looks unarguable, not in the sense that it is true and therefore not to be argued about, but in the sense that it appears to make no sense. How can there be new ways of thinking? I will explain what I mean by saying how this question might indeed make sense. Here are some ways through which this may be done.

The first way is to assume that the entity doing the thinking is not biological. We can make new machines. They can think in different ways. If the machines are complex enough, we cannot predict those ways. That might give us ways of thinking which are new to us.

The second way is to assume that the entity doing the thinking is biological but not human. We could try to think like a non-human life-form — a bird or a reptile, for example. That's assuming humans haven't tried this before, that it would be different from how humans have been known to think, and that it is possible at all.

The third way is to assume that the potential of all human brains in history has possibly not yet been fulfilled. From this perspective, we are all capable of thinking in new ways. The problem is to figure out what the non-new ways are, and then think orthogonally from those. If you can, because a human brain might not be capable of thinking in a way that is different from all other ways human brains have thought.

There are many more ways you could try to have this question make sense. But at this point, I must pause and say this: not only does the question assume the existence of something that is hard to prove (i.e. 'new ways of thinking') but it assumes that you can argue about whether discovering such things (if such things exist) is possible — and that you can decide how important it is.

The latter part of the question points to what this importance is to be measured against — that is, the importance of discovering new data or facts. This part is easy, because the discovery of new data or facts is quite a bit easier to establish than the discovery of 'new ways of thinking'.

To summarise, a candidate answering this question must first establish what is meant by 'new ways of thinking'. Then it must be demonstrated that such things can be discovered and evaluated in terms of importance, when compared with the discovery of new data or facts.

Personally, I'd say it is of no importance at all, since discovering new ways of thinking is hard to prove, and new ways of thinking need not be of benefit to us at all. We can't even imagine what benefit they would be to us, since they are unknown to us. But we have no choice but to discover new data and/or facts — this happens all the time and we might as well make the best of it.


Note: I have not mentioned the creative process. That's because creativity does not consist of 'new ways of thinking' but old ways of thinking used in new combinations, sometimes with new materials or processes. An idea is not a 'way of thinking', but the product of a way of thinking.

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Responses 005 (2011-2012)

Question 5 in the list is: "What is it about theories in the human sciences and natural sciences that makes them convincing?"

This is quite possibly the easiest but most tedious of the questions in the list. Essentially, the candidate must define 'theory' and compare/contrast the kinds of theory that are developed in 'human' and 'natural' sciences (both of which should also be defined). The analysis should focus on the power of theory to overcome resistance or active opposition, since that is what 'convince' means.

A good starting point in defining theory (in a very general sense) is to just go along the lines of 'a theory is a suggestion that is logically coherent according to the acceptable kinds of reasoning within a given area of knowledge'. Theories generally have at least three objectives — they are designed to describe something, explain something, or predict something. Although theories can be aimed at all three objectives (in theory, haha), a good theory need only achieve one.

An example of the three kinds of theory is this. 'I have an idea of what creativity is...' points at the first kind, a descriptive theory. 'I have an explanation of how (or why) creativity works...' points at the second kind, an explanatory theory. 'I predict that you will see creativity if you...' points at the third kind, a predictive theory. As you can see, this more or less covers the major kinds of theory.

So what makes theories convincing in any discipline? We are convinced in various ways: on a rational level, on an emotional level and so on. The candidate must show that theories in human sciences and natural sciences can overcome opposition in various ways. For example: by appealing to reason (e.g. a logic-based argument or data-based argument that meets the 'rules' of the discipline), or to emotion (e.g. an argument that seems intuitively acceptable because most human respondents have experienced something similar and are hence inclined to be sympathetic).

Clearly, natural sciences (those based on natural history and natural philosophy — physics, chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy etc) have different standards of proof and acceptable content, when compared with human sciences (those based on human interaction and experience — sociology, economics, political science, psychology, anthropology etc). This means that while there are similarities in the kinds of theories produced, the argumentation that supports the theories may have key differences. That is why a compare/contrast approach should work well.

I hope you are convinced.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Responses 004 (2011-2012)

I have an intuitive fondness for Question 4 in the list: "When should we discard explanations that are intuitively appealing?"

The obvious answer is, "When they turn out to be wrong."

However, if they are intuitively appealing, they are appealing to our intuitions — and our intuitions are the incomplete, spontaneous and emotively compelling subconscious reasoning patterns of our minds. The veiled question is, "When should we listen to our intuitions?" and it is a question that is impossible to answer, since it varies according to the level of incompleteness in our intuitions.

So how can this be spun out into a 1600-word essay?

That's an easy one. My intuition tells me that seven words (as in my 'obvious' answer above) is way too short for a good grade. Actually, the rubric says so too. So I would begin with asking, "Why should we discard explanations at all, and in particular, explanations which we haven't definitively proven to be wrong?"

You see, if an explanation is definitely wrong, we would discard it and not need to think too much about it. So we must be talking about explanations that are not definitely wrong and which are appealing to our 'snap judgements' or 'gut instincts'. And that must certainly be a discussion which demands that we think about what constitutes a good explanation and what constitutes a bad one.

After all, many explanations are not definitively complete. Yet we would waste time on many such explanations just because they were plausible and attractive. Consider the difference between astronomy and astrology, or computer science and political science. In each pair, the first discipline is easier to put to the test, while the second is harder — and fairly often impossible — to test.

Should we then discard astrology or political science as wasteful of human resources? We could do the same thing to literature and the arts, since explanations are hardly ever final when seeking meaning and definition in those disciplines.

So, when should we discard explanations that are intuitively appealing? How early, how often, and why?

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Monday, October 18, 2010

Responses 003 (2011-2012)

Question 3 of the list says: "Using history and at least one other area of knowledge, examine the claim that it is possible to attain knowledge despite problems of bias and selection."

This is certainly one of the most straightforward of the questions in the list. All that needs to be considered is how the idea of knowledge is framed — how do you know that something is knowledge, and how do problems of bias and selection act as obstacles to attaining it?

One paradigm I've always found useful is to think of knowledge as information that has found a purpose, and information as data (singular: datum) that have found a context. If you say that Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore in 1819, that's information. If you can find a use for that, it's knowledge.

The thing is that whether you approach knowledge this way or not, it is based on the methods by which we accumulate data and the means by which we structure the data into information. When we accumulate data, we almost always carrying out filtering processes in deciding what to keep and what to ignore — that's the 'selection problem'. When we do this such that it tends to provide a specific kind of direction or answer, that's the 'bias problem'.

If either of these problems arises, in any of the many ways they can, then the information space is compromised. It may have missing pieces, irrelevant pieces, missing but relevant pieces, relevant pieces that support only one side of an argument, and so on. When we purposefully act on the information we have constructed, we create knowledge, and when our information is compromised, so is our knowledge. Compromised knowledge... is that knowledge at all?

Consider the fable of the emperor with no clothes. All the evidence provided (interviews, first-person accounts) seems to say that that emperor is wearing perfect clothing. However, once selection and bias are dealt with appropriately, it turns out that there is actually no direct evidence for such a belief. The database, so to speak, is compromised. In fact, empirical research shows the emperor has no clothes at all (or prefers walking around naked even if he has clothes).

History, in particular, has got problems with selection and bias. It is a construct made with a clear purpose in mind — to tell a story, to prove a point, based on putting together evidence for past events. To that end, we select the contents of our database based on criteria such as relevance and what the preponderance of existing evidence seems already to show. We have our own ideas of what is reasonable, what is acceptable, and so on. Then we create a narrative.

But all historians are human agents selecting from a vast graveyard of bones to build perfect skeletons. We discard splintered bones and ambiguous artifacts where it seems convenient to do so. This may indeed give us the skeletons we seek. However, are those the real skeletons? Or are they merely what we think they ought to be?

The same is true to a lesser extent for the hard sciences and to a greater extent for the social sciences and humanities. That is where the person answering this question has to examine the claim critically, pointing out the differences between methods of knowledge acquisition and criteria for defining knowledge in each discipline.

Strangely enough, the vaguer the definition of knowledge, the less impact bias has on the outcome. After all, if we don't define knowledge sharply, errors to the database are less important. Look at the range of knowledge in the aesthetic disciplines for example, ranging from the hard technical aspects to the subjective evaluation of performance and style. It's easy to say whether a candidate has knowledge of the technical aspects; it's almost definite that a candidate who has created new knowledge cannot be evaluated correctly.

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Responses 002 (2011-2012)

Looking at the new list began to be interesting in a whole new way with Question 2: "Compare and contrast knowledge which can be expressed in words/symbols with knowledge that cannot be expressed in this way. Consider CAS and one or more areas of knowledge."

It's the first question I've seen that would be partly incomprehensible except to a student of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. That's because it has the term 'CAS' in it — an acronym for 'Creativity, Action, Service'. This core element of the Diploma is supposed to act as a counterbalance to academic work, and consists largely of activities one might think of as 'experiential learning'.

And that immediately supplies us with one possible key. To participate in CAS is to design a course of study for yourself, but one which acts as a counterpoint to traditional academic studies — all of which consist largely of knowledge expressed and assessed by words/symbols. Evaluation in CAS consists of documenting your reflections on what you have done and how that has affected your outlook and perception of life; it's more about knowledge that can be described but not expressed fully without going through similar experiences.

That's not to say that none of it can be expressed in words and symbols. If you've learnt how to make pots or have been digging latrines in Peru, the physical and material aspects can be communicated — e.g. 'How to Dig a Latrine in 5 Easy Steps', or 'How to Make a Basic Pot' — in words and diagrams. But what you've learnt about cameraderie, teamwork and working in an alien environment — these are much less easy to convey.

This is a difficult question, though, because of at least one philosophical position. If your brain is a machine, then its inputs and outputs can theoretically be completely described in words and symbols. All your sensory perceptions, emotional changes, communication abilities and reasoning processes can be converted to symbolic form. It's a big 'if', but a discussion of its 'iffiness' is crucial to the discussion of this question.

So... what exactly is knowledge that CANNOT be expressed in words or symbols? Is there such a thing? Or does it only exist in a way because some people are just not articulate enough to express their knowledge by such means? A famous researcher is rumoured to have said, "There is no such thing as qualitative research, just quantitative research that hasn't been adequately defined." Ho ho.

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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Responses 001 (2011-2012)

This is the first response to a specific topic from the latest list. Question 1 in that list reads, "Knowledge is generated through the interaction of critical and creative thinking. Evaluate this statement in two areas of knowledge."

The safest way to start an approach to this question, apart from some high-calibre rifles and an armoured vehicle, is to quickly and ruthlessly diminish the range of definition for the terms 'critical' and 'creative'. It is good to note that 'critical', coming as it does from Greek kritias, or 'judge', implies a convergent paradigm. You can probably think of 'critical thinking' as somewhat synonymous with convergent and reductionist thought, designed to evaluate through the use of logical reasoning. Similarly, it is good to note that 'creative' comes from Latin creare, 'to produce' — 'creative thinking' is somewhat synonymous with divergent thought which produces alternatives and expands the frame of reference and/or the field of discussion.

That would make the statement to be evaluated in this question something like: "Knowledge is generated through the interaction of convergent and divergent thinking." Clearly, this is somewhat like the operation of inductive and deductive reasoning in science — induction converges towards a rule, while deduction expands the scope of a rule. You can think of it as pruning a plant: let it grow divergently until it reaches a certain limit, then cut it back to give it the shape you want.

The main problem here is to make sure you don't diverge from your definitions of 'critical' and 'creative'. If you do, nothing will be able to save you from vagueness. You will also have to produce specific (as opposed to rhetorical) examples showing the interaction of these two directions of thought.

Apart from that, this is an easy question. Perhaps, it is made a little more difficult by the fact that it doesn't specify the terms of engagement: some of the others help by telling you what areas of knowledge or ways of knowing you ought to be looking at.

It is also, because of this, a more 'free-form' question. Apart from the usual common-sense suggestions found elsewhere in this blog, there is no special advice attached to it. It's actually pretty boring.

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Friday, October 15, 2010

Life in Wartime (Part V): Götterdämmerung

Wagner was a romantic fatalist, compared to his sources. For him, valkyries and pyres, heavenly choirs, all kinds of mushy guff. And that abomination, he called Götterdämmerung despite it having nothing to do with the original.

But to us who served during the Twilight War, it was clear that the Wagnerian take was what the public saw, and most of the clientele saw it that way too — fake thunder and lightning, drama and beauty, and everyone taking a bow together at the end. Under the surface, however, the Tree of Life groaned as the dragon gnawed at its roots. The ravens took flight, and ponderously, the ship made of fingernails moved into play.

It might come as a surprise to those who read such things that some secrets of the Twilight War are also woven into the threads of epic myth as described elsewhere. Yet those are hard to disentangle, and the arts required are no longer commonly found among the living. Still, there are more brutal paths to knowledge.

Essentially, the purge of the faithful, which began a decade ago, had weakened the Citadel. The Leader had placed inferior officers slowly but surely into positions of trust. They were reliable people, but often not principled or bright enough to be a threat to him. And in those choices lay the seeds of doom, for if the Leader failed, there would be none left to raise the Citadel.

So it came to pass. All the losses sustained across the years caught up with Asgard, and the ravens left the Tower. When the Old Man looked across the room at the meeting of the wyvern brothers in March, he should have known his time was up. I looked into his face, but he did not dare meet my gaze. And in that moment, I knew it was time.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Life in Wartime (Part IV): Liebensraum

There is a certain kind of restless personality that wants more of everything, that seeks trifling bargains and gambles for power. It is found most often in a great kind of man, and with the right tools, that man can reshape the world. But with the wrong environment, such a man is a great monster.

And so it was that the Great Leader looked around him and saw fertile land which he might claim. He spent a few months in the corridors of the mighty and the councils of the wise, and everyone was saying 'peace in our time'. They might as well have been saying 'one piece at a time'. I was with the Biologist when we saw the great trees fall, with their burden of biodiversity; ironically, that land was slated for an ecogarden which failed to materialise.

The generals and staff of the war college laid out their plans for blitzkrieg while the Great Leader muttered to himself and built great castles in the air. We drew up everything — the logistics, the objectives, the schedules. He nodded. "Very good," he said, and proceeded to give our plans to the incompetents who fawned on him. We remained loyal, nevertheless.

A short while later, he launched the offensive, using an inferior version of the Plan. That he won at all was a triumph of happy circumstance, for our troops were not only the best in the world, but better than we had dreamt. We were in Paris very shortly after, and the best was yet to be. Or was it?

Emboldened by the crushing victory we won, our Leader turned his eyes away from the mundane business of mopping up and incremental consolidation. Instead, he looked away completely from the objectives we had won with so much blood and sweat. And in that instant, we knew that trouble was in the air.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Life in Wartime (Part III): Not Your Father's SA

Sometimes, during the Wyvern War, we sat by the River, and there we wept as we remembered Zion. I remember sitting with the Argonaut at the now-vanished parade square one evening, thinking about what was lost and what was soon to be lost. It was then that I knew he had decided to leave, to turn his back on the place he had made his own for nine years.

I remember the days of my father's world and the world before, when the boss's principal aides were men of valour, the batmen and adjutants from the days of true courage and manhood. I remember growing up in a small wyvern-home where the officers were fearless men with resonant voices, who taught us how to try and determine what was true and right and brave. I remember a cleaner, better time.

But what broke the fragile post-1988 peace was the scurrilous activity of the new right-hand man, an officer who was no gentleman. In private, he would garner personal support from various generals against his own immediate superior. Later, this would all become known, as the generals put the broken pieces together.

This person was well known to be ungrateful to his mentors. His personal belief was that he outshone them all, and that he ought to be recognized for it. He was a very bright fellow — of that there is little doubt. But he gathered around him his own version of the SA, and when the time was right, he made his putsch. The old SA was thrown out, and while those who were loyal to God and the Order remained, they were slowly marginalised.

It was a fact, as a senior staff officer was heard to say, that to oppose the Great Leader was death. To tell him he was wrong would lead to a campaign of destruction aimed at smearing even the memory of the unfortunate commentator. But as long as the people got their bread, circuses and mighty engines of war, nobody complained.

A short generation passed, and a people arose who knew not their past. Those who did remember were sometimes traitors to the old Order. But they were loyalists and faithful servants of the new. And the people did not know their left hands from their right, and there were many cattle besides.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Life In Wartime (Part II): The View From The Trenches

It was the kind of war we didn't know we were fighting until we found ourselves being shot at. I had good people like the Argonaut and Gnomus with me, or I wouldn't have survived as long as I did, which is to say not very long, but long enough.

Looking back is an interesting experience. It has parallels with an earlier war into which I was born. JFK had just died, and hope seemed distant. 'Global thermonuclear war' was entering the consciousness and the vocabulary of the world.

In this newer war, the phrase 'holistic education' had much the same effect — it was something that everybody was preparing for, that nobody had experienced, and that anybody could define in the knowledge that you could weasel out of it in time for tea. The fact now, as it was then, is that the idea was a chimera designed to frighten children into thinking about obeying the authorities for their own benefit.

And in this war, as in that one, everyone talked about trenches — but nobody actually lived in one. Rather, people built elaborate bunkers, sometimes decorated with stone eagles, and worked long hours under artificial lighting in the depths of fortified hills. From those 'trenches', we saw the creeping entanglement of information that was designed to hold people up rather than set them free — a modern kind of virtual barbed wire. We also saw the machine guns, firing bullets of platitudes and meaninglessness from the stage-managed pill-boxes of administrative power.

But to the patriots and rebels alike, a lot of it was very real. Real blood was shed, real lives were lost (although some were found again). The people in the cities saw none of it. Those of us in the metaphorical trenches saw too much of it. We saw people shelled and blown to pieces. You would be struggling against the forces of ignorance with a colleague at your side, and then that person would suddenly not be there anymore.

Meanwhile, as you desperately tried to protect your flank, the stormtroopers would be breaking down doors and taking down names, intimidating the friends of the missing person, and making sure the political indoctrination held firm. They would read your mail, summon you arbitrarily for meetings, ask you questions which seemed meaningless and which you could not possibly answer. It was as if the Grand Endeavour was just another façade for the Great Game.

And so it was. Those who were most incompetent in battle turned their eyes to competency in backstabbing their own people and sucking up to the powers upon the throne. The people in the comfortable cities saw none of this either. To them, as long as the air-conditioning kept coming and the astroturf was pristine, none of it was their business at all.

That is why, when the war came to an end, most of them manifested serious problems of denial. But that's another story.

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Monday, October 11, 2010

Life in Wartime (Part I): A War That Wasn't

There were so many happy people during the war that wasn't. While the soldiers at the front bled and died, or lost their minds to unspeakable things in the wastelands, or sat in dark rooms pondering the blips on green screens, the people adored their strongman. The purges fell like Leonids in August, each orbit of a hidden world dragging flashbangs down through the evening skies.

The young were not to know. They had their own enthusiasms while their mentors and parents took the hits, took drugs in the canteen (mostly hot peppers and coffee) and were sent to Siberia for making puns and anagrams. They looked at the faces of the powerful and felt fond affection for their master and his inner circle.

The young were not to blame. The strongman boasted incredible strength, industrial might based on the efforts of the many cut-price labourers in the mines and factories. The state prospered. The party continued. And there was only one party. The drinking never stopped, the balloons never burst. And every year, the tanks were wheeled out.

Sometimes, people would remark about the missing faces in the photographs. Sometimes, they too would go missing. And everyone was happy as long as the wax was in the ears and the sirens were hunting someone else. It was a weird time. We were the second greatest superpower in the world and thought we were the first.

And one day, it all came to an end. Or at least, it wound down, creaking a bit, just like a party as the booze runs out.

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For some reason tonight I thought of struggles, and in particular, the idea of wrestling, of coming to grips with something.

"For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places."

So says St Paul in the Epistle to the Ephesians. It is an interesting image, because in some ways, it leads one's eye away from that other great wrestling match of the Bible, the one found in the 32nd chapter of Genesis:

Then Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day. Now when He saw that He did not prevail against him, He touched the socket of his hip; and the socket of Jacob’s hip was out of joint as He wrestled with him. And He said, “Let Me go, for the day breaks.”

But Jacob said, “I will not let You go unless You bless me!”

So He said to him, “What is your name?”

He said, “Jacob.”

And the Man said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

Then Jacob asked, saying, “Tell me Your name, I pray.”

And He said, “Why is it that you ask about My name?” And He blessed him there. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”

It is possible to contend with God, it seems. And God seems to welcome it. Why else does He allow men like Abraham and Moses to argue with Him all the time? That makes hash of the Greek philosophical argument known as the Euthyphro dilemma for the simple reason that God is not bound to fit any human idea of good, and yet is good. It lowers the philosophical hazard to believe that, than to believe that there isn't a God at all.

I invite people to wrestle with that issue, if they can bring themselves to it. Perhaps they will end up joining hands (figuratively) with the Good Doctor, Thomas Aquinas. Or maybe the other Good Doctor, Isaac Asimov. Heh.

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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Aspiration and Inspiration

I have a nice large lateral section of provolone with me, and several pleasant liquids which one might imbibe on such an occasion. There is bread. And it is quiet.

I think of all that is past, all that is to come. And I remember some of Robert Browning's words in his long and rambling Rabbi Ben Ezra:
For thence — a paradox
Which comforts while it mocks —
Shall life succeed in that it seems to fail:
What I aspired to be,
And was not, comforts me:
A brute I might have been, but would not sink the scale.
That scale is of course a reference to the weighing out of men's souls. A heavy-laden soul would sink the scale; an unburdened one (or less-burdened one) would not. It makes me reflect on what 'success' and 'failure' have meant and have come to mean to me.

And that brings me back to both the first and last verses of that poem. It begins with
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in his hand
Who saith, “A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”
and it ends with
So, take and use Thy work:
Amend what flaws may lurk,
What strain of stuff, what warpings past the aim!
My times be in Thy hand!
Perfect the cup as planned!
Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!
We are all works in progress. Sometimes, the text is blotted, censored, savaged, missing, or incompetent. And sometimes, it is sublime or strange or both. I am inspired to greater heights by the realisation that what I aspire to be is not necessarily as great as what may one day come to pass.

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Saturday, October 09, 2010

Day 930

I actually hadn't realised almost a thousand days had passed between Monday 18 March 2008 (Day 000) and Monday 4 October 2010 (Day 930). Time's winged chariot hustles along, outpacing the doom of the Shining One by a goodly margin, and two and a half years have zipped by.

In between, I've written quite a bit. Poems, papers, presentations. I've been a busy person, earning my own keep, enjoying my own time, living with wonderful people and taking pains to look at all that I missed in the dim years of Egypt.

It occurs to me, though, that there is so much more I could have done in 930 days if I hadn't been watching the heavens so frequently. But that's where the signs were, so to speak, the auspices (bird-watchings) of a better time.

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Friday, October 08, 2010

Questions (2011-2012): First Impressions

This is the immediate follow-up to a previous post. In that post, I listed ten questions from a list recently distributed to baby wyverns who will be leaving the nest next year.

My first impression of that list is that it is an ambitious list with a markedly different agenda from previous such lists. It is more explicit about the direction to be taken in answering questions, and it requires far more explanation and explication from individuals who have to answer those questions.

Of the entire list, only questions 6, 7 and 10 are conventional questions, if by 'conventional' one implies 'similar in tenor and content to those in earlier lists'.

Question 1 strikes out into 'creative' and 'critical' thinking, both of which are frequently but not comprehensively defined. Questions 2, 8 and 9 appeal to knowledge and understanding of specific IB concepts — the CAS core element, the TOK diagram and the Group 3 (Individuals and Societies) area of the curriculum. Question 3 requires the respondent to talk about 'the problems of bias and selection', while Question 8 approaches the problem of faith. Questions 4 and 5 speak of what is 'intuitively appealing' and 'convincing'.

What all this means is that teachers need to change their vocabulary somewhat. In the past, it was possible to conduct an epistemology course and produce students with good results in this sort of essay challenge. Now, teachers will have to conduct a course more tightly linked to the IB curriculum, as well as provide proper explorations of some ways in which human minds work.

I think there will be a lot of entertainment value in observing the way schools deal with all this.

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There is much that I've wanted to say for a long time. But not all things that can be said should be said. And yet, some things which seem unsayable are the very things that must be said. So I looked through things written here before, especially those to do with the prophet Jeremiah, who has often been a good guide.

It turns out that the first time I quoted the prophet was in this post, which was written looking back three years at the events of 11 Sep 2001. Some time later, I quoted him again in morning devotions at the old place. He has, I think since I was seven years old, always been my favourite voice of God.

When I left the old place, I threw away all those devotional notes. One should not seek the living among the dead; similarly, when a text is 'live', one's dead meditations on it should perhaps not get in the way of newer, fresher thoughts. Here, though, are some signposts which can still be used.

I wrote this one in response to what I felt was the overuse of a perfectly serviceable vision. Of course, in days of yore, the vision was a lot more clearly enunciated — but without vision, the people perish. And for my first batch of IB students, I left this.

It wasn't until the next year that I had an odd awakening in the middle of the night. Somehow, a loose leaf had landed somewhere. That experience is recorded here. Shortly after that, a certain group of individuals sought to have my research suppressed even though I had published nothing as yet.

Life is funny. Jeremiah was buried up to his neck in the cisterns of Jerusalem for his unwillingness to stop telling the king unpleasant things. He was finally exiled to Egypt, where he lived out his days in relative comfort while Jerusalem was sacked, burnt, broken.

Jerusalem's story continues, long after Jeremiah became dust. But the prophet whose 'burning fire within' led him to say uncomfortable things to uncomfortable people — his memory lives on.


Thursday, October 07, 2010

Closure (Redux)

In my mind's eye, I still look upon the great climax of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien's masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. In the last section of that book, entitled The Return of the King, we see the defeat of Sauron, as mad Gollum falls into Orodruin and brings the Great Ring with him into the fires of creation.

The eagles are coming. The hosts of Sauron are scattered. The Servants of the Ring, once feared through all the lands of Middle-Earth — they are turned to shadows and dust.

And yet, as Brian Duffy says in Tim Powers's The Drawing of the Dark, "Much has been lost, and there is much yet to lose."

Certain things have gone on too long. Saruman's foul experiments and his corruption of the halflings have sequelae that must be dealt with. Though he was cast out of the Order and his staff broken, his poisonous tongue still holds power. The snake pit needs to be cleansed, the captives must be freed from the dungeons that they allowed to be built.

Having read the novel, we remember that the true heartbreak comes at the end, when the hobbits return to their homeland and find that it is scarred, damaged, corrupted beyond belief. They must fight to bring sanity and wholesomeness to what was lost and broken. And some wounds, as has been said before, will never heal until the ending of the world.

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Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Questions (2011-2012)

There are always, ever, many questions. Here is a set, which if not familiar, soon will be very much so.
  1. Knowledge is generated through the interaction of critical and creative thinking. Evaluate this statement in two areas of knowledge.
  2. Compare and contrast knowledge which can be expressed in words/symbols with knowledge that cannot be expressed in this way. Consider CAS and one or more areas of knowledge.
  3. Using history and at least one other area of knowledge, examine the claim that it is possible to attain knowledge despite problems of bias and selection.
  4. When should we discard explanations that are intuitively appealing?
  5. What is it about theories in the human sciences and natural sciences that makes them convincing?
  6. "It is more important to discover new ways of thinking about what is already known than to discover new data or facts." To what extent would you agree with this claim?
  7. "The vocabulary we have does more than communicate our knowledge; it shapes what we can know." Evaluate this claim with reference to different areas of knowledge.
  8. Analyse the strengths and weaknesses of using faith as a basis for knowledge in religion and in one area of knowledge from the ToK diagram.
  9. As an IB student, how has your learning of literature and science contributed to your understanding of individuals and societies?
  10. "Through different methods of justification, we can reach conclusions in ethics that are as well-supported as those provided in mathematics." To what extent would you agree?
This, like the previous set, is also a stub for now. As with that one, it should soon grow into a full set. I find the orientation towards a specific IB philosophy rather interesting; unlike previous sets, this is certainly much closer linked to the IB curriculum.


On a different note, it has come to pass that this blog has been identified by at least one TOK examiner as being too helpful to TOK students. Apparently (and I've noticed this as well), many students footnoted or quoted from it and the examiner (somewhat parochially and bad-temperedly) decided that "any URL with blogspot in it should be treated as suspect".

This year, therefore, I shall try to be less helpful. And I hereby warn students that while I am a trained TOK teacher, I am not sufficiently an authority that you can drop my URL and expect to have it respected as if it were Nobel prize-winning language from Stephen Hawking's mouth.

Frankly, we all learn from other people. If you learn from my ramblings, I am most greatly honoured. All you have to do is think about what I've said and decide, using your own mental apparatus, whether it's worth pursuing the lines I've opened up. Then conduct your own pursuit, and I wish you all the best.

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Sometimes tradition can be manufactured, and even aptly so. At the Citadel, the anthem and the crest are 20th-century inventions made to unify a 19th-century institution. There are older traditions from the 19th century, which seem older than that, but aren't. Here is one, from the finely-tuned ear of Robert Louis Stevenson, in his beloved 'children's story', the pirate epic Treasure Island:

Fifteen men on a dead man's chest
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
The mate was fixed by the bosun's pike,
The bosun brained with a marlinspike,
And cookey's throat was marked belike
It had been gripped by fingers ten;
And there they lay, all good dead men
Like break o'day in a boozing ken.
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!

Fifteen men of the whole ship's list
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
Dead and be damned and the rest gone whist!
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
The skipper lay with his nob in gore
Where the scullion's axe his cheek had shore;
And the scullion he was stabbed times four
And there they lay, and the soggy skies
Dripped down in up-staring eyes
In murk sunset and foul sunrise.
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!

Fifteen men of 'em stiff and stark
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
Ten of the crew had the murder mark!
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
Twas a cutlass swipe or an ounce of lead
Or a yawing hole in a battered head
And the scuppers' glut with a rotting red
And there they lay, aye, damn my eyes
Looking up at paradise
All souls bound just contrawise.
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!

Fifteen men of 'em good and true
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
Ev'ry man jack could ha' sailed with Old Pew,
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
There was chest on chest of Spanish gold
With a ton of plate in the middle hold
And the cabins riot of stuff untold,
And they lay there that took the plum
With sightless glare and their lips struck dumb
While we shared all by the rule of thumb,
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!

More was seen through a sternlight screen
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
Chartings undoubt where a woman had been
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
'Twas a flimsy shift on a bunker cot
With a dirk slit sheer through the bosom spot
And the lace stiff dry in a purplish blot.
Oh was she wench or some shudderin' maid
That dared the knife and took the blade?
By God she had stuff for a plucky jade!
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!

Fifteen men on a dead man's chest
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum
Drink and the devil had done for the rest
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
We wrapped 'em all in a mains'l tight
With twice ten turns of a hawser's bight
And we heaved 'em over and out of sight,
With a Yo-Heave-Ho! and a fare-you-well
And a sudden plunge in the sullen swell
Ten fathoms deep on the road to hell,
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!

I wonder why that came to mind. Yo ho ho!

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Blank Spaces

This blog is a blank space. Too much is being said, and more is yet to come. The best is yet to be. Blank spaces have much room for expansion. And as I said some time back, the blue ocean is turning red very quickly.


Tuesday, October 05, 2010


At certain times in one's life, one feels a sense of certainty — whether certain resolve, certain satisfaction, or certain rejection. Whatever it is, it is the rock-solid sense of being present at the inception of a new time, a better time.

I was chatting with Gnomus (and also, it seems, half the world) over the last few days. The image that arises most frequently in these conversations is that of the Fall of Barad-Dûr. Sauron's collapse undermined the foundations of that dark tower, and his hosts scattered in the wind. The eagles are coming, and the Marshals of the West are gathering at Minas Tirith to determine the fate of men.

All those who allied with Sauron are tainted. Those who pled innocent dealings will still have to pay reparations for war-crimes. And from the depths of the dungeons have been salvaged many things.

But some things cannot be repaired. Like Frodo, some wounds cannot be healed, and the Elves must pass into the West, taking ship at the Grey Havens.

All that awaits, really, is the Scouring of the Shire.

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Monday, October 04, 2010


And so Wolff (who once was a Knight of the Citadel) went up onto a hill, and he looked across the Valley of Hinnom, and he saw the hosts gathered at the Time of Contact. And he, being a herald learned and efficacious, saw the portent of the messages that were sent from Inquisitor to Inquisitor — and yet the Grand Inquisitor was not there.

For his health, the rumours said, he had been sent to the Isle of Sleep. But Wolff knew he was not there. For his mind, other rumours said, he had been sent to the Isle of Peace. But Wolff knew he was not there. For his heart, yet other rumours said, he had been sent to the Isle of Forgiveness. And Wolff wondered if that might yet be the end of the story.

But at the Citadel, the Black Seat was empty, and no man sat at the head of the Black Altar of Administration. Quietly, the Ladies of the Chamber went about their tasks, although they did not speak of Michelangelo, the archangel with the flaming sword.

Wolff felt a deep melancholy, that it should have come to this. For the Citadel, headless in a time of war, and with the places of rank filled by those who could not fill them, it was an evil star indeed.

Yet, as he remembered the times of Inquisition and Trial, he felt a measure of satisfaction. For all things come to those who stand and wait, and he had stood and waited long enough.


Note: The fictional adventures of Sir Wolff do provide much that is of interest. You can find them linked here. Just ignore the one about earwax. That was an accident.

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Scorched Earths

The People's Republic of China controls 95% of the world's rare earths. To a chemist, this is a statement that should already hint at the world that is to come. A small number of nations appear to control petroleum, but the USA and USSR used to be net exporters while convincing everybody that the Arabs were sitting on all of it. And petroleum and natural gas are to be had all round the world.

But the Chinese control 95% of the world's rare earths. What does that mean? It means that catalysts, electronics, and about 500 other industries will all be paying higher and higher amounts to the Chinese, should they decide to clamp down on export. It is the reason I once said that if one could invest, one should invest in Chinese rare-earth mines. If. Failing which, of course, one should buy up the remaining 5% as much as possible. A lot of that, however, is in places like Mongolia. Or Tibet. And maybe Afghanistan.

It's hard to think of the educational future when the syllabi and curricula of this present moment are constructed on abstract premises that don't quite meet the realities of the world, the flesh and the Devil. Natural sciences, human sciences, and applied sciences, that is, for many of the people in these benighted days.

And what of the humanities and aesthetics? I think they ought to have been removed from the formal curriculum a long time ago.

What? Why?

Because the humanities and aesthetics should have been made part of our lives ages ago. That they have to be taught to young people shows us what a hash we've made of things in the name of pragmatism. The old ways of telling the young where we've come from, what our family, clan, community and social history is all about — those things are rare. And an appreciation of aesthetics, most often found in the young, evanesces too quickly and is gone.

So the second best solution is to keep the humanities and aesthetics prominent, while working out a curriculum that will teach people why the fact that China controls 95% of the world's rare earths is a very significant fact indeed.

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Sunday, October 03, 2010

This Is Not A Blog

I long ago stopped thinking of what you're reading as a blog. Yes, it's a chronological record of my thoughts; no, it's not a weblog. If it were a novel, an archive, a diary, it would suck.

It's a resource, I think, in the sense that those old books I used to read were resources — books with titles like 1000 Amazing Facts or 366 Science Experiments. It's reached the point of trivia and lunacy at which you could find almost anything you wanted in here and it wouldn't necessarily represent a stable opinion from my brain.

Perhaps I should just split it up. I write stuff about the Bible, and my agnostic/atheist/retrohumanist friends think it's a waste of space. I write stuff about Atlantis, and everyone thinks that's peculiar. I write stuff about my past, and everyone thinks that's boring. I write stuff about education and get hundreds of hits a day. Haha.

Somewhere in here is my annual thread of posts on epistemology and academic writing. Somewhere pretty deeply buried, mostly. It's also one of the more popular sources for people looking for a path out of the 'Theory of Knowledge Maze'.

It's all like that, fragments. It's like the mixed jellybeans that come without a key, so that you don't know when you're going to get a flavour you don't like.

I think there probably won't be a blog here anymore, sometime within the next month or three.

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Saturday, October 02, 2010


I find myself on a writing assignment about cyberspace and digital identity. I suppose that having had a digital identity for almost 25 years, I must be somewhat qualified to write about it; this is similar to the state of a man who, having had gallstones, is entitled to write about the experience.

What surprises me is the plethora of stuff people have written about that space since Gibson coined the term in Burning Chrome. It is an informational space, like any other; it is a social space, like any other.

And yet, in both ways, not like. It overcomes distance and other barriers, it creates illusions better. It is not like radio, television, print, or film. It is not like letter-writing or financial transactions. It can subsume all of these things and create new spaces, new properties.

But this is true of any technology. A new technology is a catalyst for human thought. It opens up new conceptual spaces, and creates new sciences of human application. It changes the possibilities of sociology, anthropology, psychology. It even makes us extend our grasp of philosophy.

And this is what cyberspace is. A technology-created space, like any other. And of course, like any other, not like any another.

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Friday, October 01, 2010

Everything Flows, Nothing Stays Still

I am watching time flow. There is a hypnotic quality to it all. Sometimes, you turn on the tap and watch the water flow, listen to it wash down the pipes; sometimes you listen to the music and realise you have not heard it at all. Time flows, like water, like music, like lava, like a garden. For a garden too has flowers.

πάντα ῥεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει.

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