Friday, November 30, 2012

El Sheddi

Every few months, the cat sheds. His fine and allergenic fur distributes itself lightly on the air, interactively through human contact, and by direct application to whatever he brushes and rubs himself against.

As I scritched him today, I wondered what it must feel like to be a miniature human flea on the skin of such a magnificent creature. Yes, true, there would be many such fleas, but there would also be many forces beyond our perception. And the cat, the golden master of our world, he would be El Sheddi, the Lord of Hosts to us.

El Sheddi, El Sheddi
Are you feeling well-feddi?
You're an orange stripey lord
Bright of eye and eighteen-clawed
El Sheddi, El Sheddi
Daytime sees you all-beddi
But at night you're roaming free
El Sheddi

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Educator's Dilemma

A pastor once told me that his job was to comfort the hurt and hurt the comfortable. To some extent, that fine balance is the basis of the teacher's dilemma.

You see, all teachers know that cognitive dissonance (i.e. the stuff you are learning is different from what you believe) is the beginning of learning. If you think the stuff you're learning is the same as the stuff you know, then you won't bother.

However, in these days of oh-so-softly customisation of education, sometimes people say we should fit our educational approaches to the strengths and weaknesses of the students. This is also true; making a screwdriver a better screwdriver is probably more useful than turning it into a hammer.

But there are a few problems. Here are some of them.

1) It's hard work to rewire someone's neural net so that new stuff is learnt.

2) If you don't need a screwdriver you might need to perform a tech conversion.

3) You might see a potentially excellent screwdriver, but realise that everyone out there for the next few years is using joint-and-nail.

And so on. The educator's dilemma is to decide whether...

a) to follow the route of hurting people (face it, even if you're very nice, there are issues about people in authority — perceived or positional — using it to brainwash or otherwise influence others), or

b) keeping them happy by helping them do what they do best (and who cares if they don't learn stuff that's useful but which they don't want to learn?).

The main solution is probably along the lines of being wise enough to know how to combine the two into some sort of synthesis, unique to each student and learning relationship. In human society, the older ones will always be the first teachers of the younger ones; we should invest the time we take to grow older in learning to be wiser and make wiser.

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Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Shining

Halfway between the morning exam and the afternoon paper, a friend of mine inveigled me into accompanying him to the movies. Being young and pointlessly fearless, we hopped on the shuttle bus and went off to watch Jack Nicholson in The Shining. It was mind-boggling, and perhaps the reason why we then went on to do better in the latter half of our O-levels.

The horrific rush of events that pretended to be a story, the huge amounts of money Stephen King must've made off it, the icy landlocked claustrophobia of the empty hotel — all these are as nothing compared to the terror-filled career of life. Not for nothing is the original meaning of that deceptive word 'career' that of the course of a chariot (same etymology as for 'car') hurtling down the road, or that of the sun flaming out across the sky.

And suddenly, my blog is splintered into two parts — a log of random fragments (something like a chipboard stump) and what you're reading right now, the longer bits jutting out once a week like sprouts shining from the spring snow.

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Saturday, November 17, 2012

Responses 006 (May 2013)

#6 says: Can we know when to trust our emotions in the pursuit of knowledge? Consider history and one other area of knowledge.

It might seem obvious, but the question is not "Can we trust our emotions... ?" but "Can we know when to trust... ?" This is not as easy as it seems.

On one level, the "Can we know... ?" kind of question is somewhat facetiously answered all the time, by people who should know better, with "No, of course not, how can anyone know that they know anything?" On a slightly higher level, the point of asking a 'can I know' question is so that one can argue whether or not one has a reasonable chance of knowing something — it's not a 'will I know' question either.

To extend the idea further, let's ask this: "Can we know when to trust X in the case of Y?" It's a question about the reliability or validity of the approach, and there are two main ways of trying to answer it.

The first is inductive, a historical-legal approach based on the evidence of precedents and antecedents. Supposing that trusting X has always led to success or truth or knowledge in the case of Y. Then clearly we can know when to trust X — it's whenever Y is the case. But the problem of the inductive approach is that at any time, a 'black swan' might appear — a fluke that happens and shows that prior performance is no guarantee of future success. How much can you trust something based on its history? Does the 100% reliability of the past continue into the future?

The second is deductive, a philosophical-logical approach based on reasoning. If Y is such that Y is susceptible to success when using X, then we can always trust X based on the nature of Y. Then we clearly can also know when to trust X — it's whenever Y (or something with the X-related properties of Y) occurs. However, the problem of the deductive approach is that it depends on our first assumption or axiom being true. If we think Y is such, but it isn't, then all our subsequent reasoning is flawed. How much can you trust something based on logical conclusions that are worked out based on an assertion that might not be valid?

Now let's consider 'pursuit of knowledge... history and one other AOK'.

History can be defined as the construction of a narrative based on verifiable events in generally chronological order, so as to explain the present in the light of the past. History should make no attempt to predict the future; it is a sense-making exercise based on things that have already happened and are far enough away that we can begin to gather a fairly comprehensive collection of evidence concerning those things. (You can probably find useful definitions of other AOKs elsewhere in this blog.)

So how would we know when to trust our emotions when in the pursuit of historical knowledge? Clearly, the evidence must be verified by sense and reason to a large extent. But the pursuit of historical knowledge consists of different types of evidence: witnesses and reports, archaeological finds, ideas from the other human sciences (sociology, anthropology etc) about how humans normally behave.

Some of those kinds of evidence require us as humans to respond as humans — to try to understand by empathy and emotion why people did things. This is what emotion as a way of knowing is all about — it is the body's complex physiological and biochemical response to incoming material, giving us a sense of how other humans might feel about it and thus altering or forming our psychological perspective on it. We then interpret what we see in the light of what we feel. In this way, the history we then construct therefore makes more sense to our readers and may be closer to a true explanation of why humans did something. How do we decide WHEN to trust emotion in this way? If we can decide at all, that's the answer to part of the original question.

And that's the beginning of the argument you need to construct. Enjoy!

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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Responses 003 (May 2013)

The third question in this semester's list is:
"The possession of knowledge carries an ethical responsibility." Evaluate this claim.
It's a rather interesting question, this one.

Why is it interesting? For a start, you'd have to define the area of knowledge known as ethics before you decided how and why possession of knowledge might carry an ethical responsibility.

Ethics can reasonably be defined as the knowledge of moral decision-making carried out by individuals within a defined group. For example, medical ethics deals with people who handle medical issues, but excludes people who are not 'medical'. An ethical responsibility is a responsibility that you bear because you are a member of the group to whom a particular kind of ethics is related.

This has direct bearing on the basic argument to be evaluated. If you possess knowledge, you are a member of the group 'possessors of knowledge'. If knowledge is considered to be a good thing (like food or air or any other useful resource) then to some extent you have a duty to share it. If you don't share it, you ought to have a reason, and that reason would also be a matter of ethics.

For example, if you know how to kill a lot of people in a short amount of time with readily-available resources, you have the general duty to share knowledge (maybe it will save people from you or people like you, but with fewer moral scruples) but you might not want to share it in case somebody else uses this knowledge to kill others.

Well, that's the basic stuff. Now go and work on it.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Responses 002 (May 2013)

The second question in the list is this:
"Only seeing general patterns can give us knowledge. Only seeing particular examples can give us understanding." To what extent do you agree with these assertions?
It's an odd question, and it hinges a lot on the way we define knowledge and understanding. One way to approach it, therefore, is to begin with such definitions.

Knowledge is plausibly defined as information given a context. This allows us to separate it from understanding, which we can then define as awareness of that context and the significance or usefulness of knowledge within that context.

Here's an example. Consider the mathematical equations of a straight-line graph. They all take the form y = mx + c, and we're taught that m is the gradient of the line and c is the y-coordinate when x = 0 (the y-intercept). We can solve linear equations without seeing a graph at all, and our solutions would be correct; they would be valid and reliable, and people would say we knew how to solve linear equations. However, it would be difficult to explain the concept of a linear equation (why 'linear', for a start) or a gradient (what is a 'slope'?) unless you gave an example, preferably of graphic nature.

Understanding, therefore, includes the ability to explain something. It could also include the ability to make something that can be explained. And it is probably demonstrated best when we manipulate things such that people can figure out what we did, and how we did it, and how we justify what was done.

In a sense, understanding is the outgrowth of knowledge, just as a specific example is the outgrowth of a general pattern. But that's only one side of the argument.

You'll probably recall that this kind of reasoning, from the general to the specific, is called deduction. One of the problems with deduction is that you have to assume that the general rule or pattern is true. If it isn't, then seeing particular examples and linking them to the false general pattern gives us false understanding.

But if we are inductive thinkers, then seeing particular examples gives us knowledge of individual cases, and we can use those to build general patterns. Inductive thinking is the opposite of deductive thinking in that sense — and understanding will come when the general pattern appears from our knowledge of individual cases.

And that's the other side of the argument, for which I shall not provide examples because that would make it too easy for you.

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Monday, November 12, 2012

Responses 001 (May 2013)

The next lot of prescribed topics of this kind produces intellectual contortions of various varieties. Topic 1 reads:
In what ways may disagreement aid the pursuit of knowledge in the natural and human sciences?

There are clearly several levels of disagreement and pursuit of knowledge to think about here. However, we should begin by taking a little digression to establish what the natural and human sciences are in the first place. We'll look at the content of these large super-areas of knowledge and then what lies beneath them.

The natural sciences are areas of knowledge that stem from the observation of natural phenomena and the construction of theories and experiments concerning such phenomena. These would include the life sciences (e.g. biology, zoology, botany), earth sciences (e.g. astronomy, geology and meteorology), and physical sciences (e.g. physics, chemistry, metallurgy).

The human sciences are areas of knowledge that stem from the observation of human phenomena and the construction of theories and experiments concerning such phenomena. These would include psychology, sociology, economics, anthropology and so on.

There's more about the disciplines in the natural and human sciences in this topic from the previous session. Theories in the natural and human sciences also differ (prior argument here).

Because of the differences between the two large groups of disciplines, and the range within each group, you'd probably need to think about the general rules for each group; you can use the linked posts I've provided to think about what the rules are. Once you've decided what defines these areas of knowledge, you can think about how you would pursue that knowledge.

Which leads us back to how disagreement might aid such pursuit. What is disagreement? On one level, it occurs when two data or data sets do not agree; that is, they are just not the same or lead to different conclusions. On another level, it is a process of trying to produce arguments that contradict a given position. On a third level, it is the mindset of deliberately being contradictory in order to ensure that a fair skepticism is brought to bear when thinking about science.

The first case is perfectly natural. We define things by difference; our senses tell us what inputs are different from the previous state (e.g. 'it is getting brighter' or 'this water is warmer than normal') and our emotions are basically differences in physiological states that allow us to evaluate our environment and shift our psychological perspectives. Therefore, to make an observation requires us to determine whether or not what we sense and record disagrees with what we have sensed and recorded before.

The second case is an extension of the first. If we keep evaluating our disagreements or the disagreement of our 'new' data with the 'old' data, we will start constructing theories about why this is so — one famous case is the Hegelian dialectic, where a thesis is confronted by its antithesis and a synthesis resolves this disagreement.

The third case occurs when this kind of thinking becomes a legitimate and established process. Then the idea of disagreement with what we've found becomes a valuable tool that keeps us from being too conservative about knowledge. Disagreeing with what we think we've established earlier can also help us to learn new things (look up 'cognitive dissonance' and 'skepticism' elsewhere).

OK, that's my brief take on the first topic. Goodness, it's not as brief as I thought! How... disagreeable.

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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Responses (May 2013) — Summary

The list of IB TOK Prescribed Titles for May 2013 (with some of my personal one-line responses) is summarised in this post.
  1. In what ways may disagreement aid the pursuit of knowledge in the natural and human sciences?
  2. "Only seeing general patterns can give us knowledge. Only seeing particular examples can give us understanding." To what extent do you agree with these assertions?
  3. "The possession of knowledge carries an ethical responsibility." Evaluate this claim.
  4. The traditional TOK diagram indicates four ways of knowing. Propose the inclusion of a fifth way of knowing selected from intuition, memory or imagination, and explore the knowledge issues it may raise in two areas of knowledge.
  5. "That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence." — Christopher Hitchens. Do you agree?
  6. Can we know when to trust our emotions in the pursuit of knowledge? Consider history and one other area of knowledge.
For #1, you could first frame the sciences in terms of dialogue between contention and refutation. Or you could try natural history vs natural philosophy and the problem of validation.

For #2, you could attempt to define understanding and knowledge first, before debating how much various ways of perception can help you with them.

For #3, you could think about what ethics and an 'ethical responsibility' are, and what kinds of things place an ethical burden upon you.

For #4, you would probably have to think of intuition, memory and imagination as brain phenomena. There are several posts about each of them somewhere in this blog.

For #5, the obvious rejoinder (and one given by Hitchens' opponent in a debate) is, "What's the evidence for saying this in the first place, Mr Hitchens?" But there are depths to it.

For #6, the point is to think about whether you can know this at all. The rest is gravy.

I'll follow up on some (possibly all) of these questions in the days ahead.

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Saturday, November 10, 2012

Untweeted Intuition

This blog used to be updated daily. It still is, but in my notebook because it's easier to think in pen and pencil than on screen. This is a stub. They all are. But like reverse pencilling, they grow from stub to whole.

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Friday, November 09, 2012

I Two Am Four Something

It's interesting how the right wing often confuses ambivalence (or ambiguity) with irrationality, while the left wing often confuses ambiguity (or ambivalence) with open-mindedness.

In the first case, this is because conservatives prefer to identify fixed positions and a wary of moving positions or flexibility, whether real or imputed. In the second case, this is because liberals are inherently against fixed positions except as unattainable ideals.

But, as F Scott Fitzgerald said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."

In the first case, it is not always irrational to consider two opposed or different positions as both being tenable. This is because social phenomena depend a lot on social context for validation. Discipline in school and discipline in banking are different (and yet the same) in many (different) ways.

In the second case, it is not always open-minded to consider two different or opposed positions as both being tenable. Sometimes it's just a mark of indifference, lack of mental rigour, or desire to not create a fixed position of any kind. Yet that too is some sort of fixed position.

The upshot of these two positions is a third non-position. People who are unhappy with both extremes are called centrists, which just muddies the waters further. Since most intelligent people hate muddiness, this forces them to be unhappy. What a mess.

A fourth non-position is the 'apolitical' tag. People who are intelligent but do not want to be unhappy just refuse to think too hard about politics in public (lest somebody label them lefty, righty, or centristy). But that too is a position, and if it avoids the left-right axis, may end up being judged on a vertical axis of 'beneath politics' to 'above politics'.

You can't win. So you might as well have fun. I stand by the fifth — the position that I'm willing to aggressively engage any position that I'm not happy with, just to make myself happy. Heh heh.

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Sunday, November 04, 2012

Velikovsky Redux

In Steven Shapin's review of The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe by Michael Gordin (LRB Vol 34, No 21, 35-38, 8 Nov 2012), he concludes:
A rule of thumb for sound inference has always been that if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. But there’s a corollary: if it struts around the barnyard loudly protesting that it’s a duck, that it possesses the very essence of duckness, that it’s more authentically a duck than all those other orange-billed, web-footed, swimming fowl, then you’ve got a right to be suspicious: this duck may be a quack.
I think this is great advice for students attempting to collar a few books, collate the ideas therein, and collectivize them into an extended essay or two. Beware the self-proclaimed big ideas that claim to unify or to apotheosize existing ideas. And remember Velikovsky, who was probably better-read than you, had greater scope than you — and was likely more of a duck than you.

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