Monday, October 21, 2013

Responses (May 2014) — Summary

The list of IB TOK Prescribed Titles for May 2014 (with some of my personal brief responses) is collected in this post.

Topic Titles

  1. Ethical judgments limit the methods available in the production of knowledge in both the arts and the natural sciences. Discuss.  
  2. "When the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems begin to resemble nails” (Abraham Maslow). How might this apply to ways of knowing, as tools, in the pursuit of knowledge?  
  3. "Knowledge is nothing more the systematic organization of facts.” Discuss this statement in relation to two areas of knowledge.  
  4. "That which is accepted as knowledge today is sometimes discarded tomorrow.” Consider some of the knowledge issues raised by this statement in two areas of knowledge.  
  5. "The historian’s task is to understand the past; the human scientist, by contrast, is looking to change the future.” To what extent is this true in these two areas of knowledge?  
  6. "A skeptic is one who is willing to question any knowledge claim, asking for clarity in definition, consistency in logic and adequacy of evidence” (adapted from Paul Kurtz, 1994). Evaluate this approach in two areas of knowledge.  


Clearly, the emphasis on specific areas of knowledge and ways of knowing has almost completely disappeared as the IB prepares to transit to their new TOK model. This means a return to basics. Here are some deliberately short responses.

1. An ethical judgment is a judgment based on the composite morality of a social environment. That is, you can argue that any method that can legitimately be used in knowledge production (based on what a discipline considers to be legitimate) is also bound by what society deems legitimate. We are thus talking about the intersection between what methodologies fit the definition of an area of knowledge (e.g. the various forms of scientific method in the AOK of the natural sciences) and what methodologies fit the range of actions which a society considers to be moral actions.

2. Consider a way of knowing (e.g. sensory perception) and the associated methodologies linked to it (in this case, mostly empirical observation and related methods). If this is your only tool, then you would think that only empirical observation would allow you to pursue knowledge. You would dismiss all other phenomena as being less valid and/or less reliable.

3. Is knowledge just 'stamp collecting'? (I invite students to look for the source of this idea.) If so, then all you need to do is find the right organisation of facts and you have an area of knowledge. But what defines an area of knowledge? This is a key knowledge issue, and it can be resolved by asking questions (similar to those I have answered elsewhere in this blog) such as, "What is the difference between the humanities and the arts?"

4. Well, clearly we need to know what knowledge is, and whether it can be said to become not-knowledge. One argument is that, if you 'know' something and it is later found to be false, you never really 'knew' it. For example, if you thought that lead and gold atoms behaved the way they do because of purely classical reasons, and then learnt (as we did only about 20 years ago) that they did so because of effects related to Einsteinian relativity, did you ever know anything about these atoms?

5. This is an interesting question. History, unlike the sciences, has only descriptive and explanatory theories. Once it develops predictive theories, we call it sociology or political science — examples of human sciences. Why is this so? Again, I've answered that question elsewhere in this blog.

6. I really don't like this kind of question. Consider what would happen if a) you failed to define 'skeptic' properly, and/or b) you considered this approach skeptically (i.e. being skeptical about skepticism). Can you be skeptical about skepticism at all? If so, why not? And if not, why so?

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Friday, October 18, 2013

Empty Space

In the aftermath of M John Harrison's Empty Space, I dreamt a strange reversal of my own. In my dream, I was cleaning up the rheumy eyes of the very young and the very old, and a voice whispered to me, "Remove the dirt from others' eyes, now that you have cleaned your own."

And the world overflowed with people with dirty eyes, and my own eyes overflowed with tears.

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Monday, October 14, 2013

The Long Day Wanes

Where to begin, now? There is a happy man who sits in the pale golden light of the IKEA lamp, looking back with satisfaction on six months' work. So perhaps we begin with the present moment, or that range of self-knowledge which masquerades as time.

I live in Atlantis, a city of millions, with runnels and swards of water and grass and life woven throughout its wonderful fabric. Some Atlanteans, in particular the rich or the culturista-liberalist, profess disgust at the degree of government control, sanctimony, antimony, antinomy, economy — it is as if their inability to bend reality to their tastes makes Atlantis a dump.

It is not. It tries very hard not to be. Just the other day, I realised that potable water costs one and a fifth Atlantean thalers per tonne. That is a thousand litres of water, four thousand glasses. Each glass an Atlantean drinks will cost him only three-hundredths of a cent — up to a limit of forty tonnes a month. And this, in what the fashionable call a concrete wasteland of economic soullessness.

And so, I am happy. I am happy that only the rich can have multiple cars, and that it costs the earth if you want to be a heavy consumer. For all I need is books, and that to the tune of not more than 500 Atlantean thalers a month. Knowledge begets knowledge; I earn that much by weaving new knowledge out of old and feeding it to the hungry. Indeed, I earn enough even to pay for my water, and my food.

My current estimate is that in Atlantis, it is possible to get by on ten thalers a day. The question then becomes, "How much work does one need to earn that much?" The answer is: very little. A more important question is: "How much does one need to do to earn enough for a home AND ten thalers a day?" A tiny leasehold of two rooms over 99 years will set you back the enormous sum of 76,000 thalers, or 16,000 if you are poor and qualify for grants. That is about two thalers a day, or perhaps as little as forty cents.

I would therefore try to earn at least fifty thalers a day, were I young again. Heck, why not throw in everything else modern life might consider necessary (the internet, distractions from life which are referred to as 'having a life', and suchlike) — the sum might rise to two hundred thalers a day.

Do you know how much work will earn you that much? Surprisingly, selling coffee will do that for you. There are many avenues for the unskilled to earn that much. What people won't say is that they don't want to tell others about that because such jobs are limited — too many baristas and each barista will earn less.

The entire shebang is run by the Gnome's successor. Atlantis is not poor. It is only the half-rich who tell the half-poor how terrible their (either side's) lot in life is. In the end, 60% of the population remain sufficiently clear of mind to keep the priests of the Thunderer in business. The cult of the Hammer is rising though; people think that perhaps lightning proceeds better from a Hammer than a Bolt.

They are of course mistaken. Lightning is the cause of thunder, and thunder is a sound similar to the echo of a hammer. Nothing rules the lightning, but it does tend to pass through the highest point in the forest. Only the hardiest spire can control the flash of doom.

And here I sit, drinking pale gold wine in a pale gold room. I think that the main problem of all problems is that there are people wealthy enough to waste time trolling and surfing the Net, who have the gall to complain that they are too poor. I laugh sadly, and think about the goldenly unbearable lightning-ness of being.