ToK Blog Post #16 – Andy Fletcher’s ‘Life, the universe and everything’

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Bertrand Russell on Skepticism

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But if philosophy is to serve a positive purpose, it must not teach mere skepticism, for, while the dogmatist is harmful, the skeptic is useless. Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or of ignorance. Knowledge is not so precise a concept as is commonly thought. Instead of saying "I know this," we ought to say "I more or less know something more or less like this."

Unpopular Essays (1950)
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"The less people know, the more stubbornly they know it."

—Werner Vogels

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Is TOK a Philosophy Course?

YES, in the sense that the name of the course itself is in any dictionary effectively synonymous with "epistemology."

NO, in the sense that IB-specific ToK has many philosophical elements, but is not just philosophy. ToK is at root an interdiscipinary course that allows students to become aware of how the six subject-groups on the corners on the Diploma hexagon overlap and integrate. The interdisciplinary aspect is the crucial thing . . . .

—Bruce Bartlett
Le Collège français
Toronto, Canada

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"A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking."

—Steven Wright
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Webs & Chains

Natura in reticulum sua genera connexit,
non in catenam: homines non possunt nisi
catenam sequi, cum non plura simul
possint sermone exponere.


Nature knits up her kinds in a network, not
in a chain; but men can follow only by
chains because their language can’t handle
several things at once.

—Albrecht von Haller (tr. Howard Nemerov)
[Epigraph to Nemerov's poem, "The Dependencies"]

About This Blog

This TOK blog features work by IB Theory of Knowledge students at Dulwich College Suzhou and at Suzhou Singapore International School, in Suzhou, China, from 2009 to 2015.

Before the holidays, we were visited by an experienced lecturer who gave a presentation entitled “Life, the universe and everything’. In my opinion, his presentation was really, really interesting. I think a big part of why I like it so much is because it dealt so much in physics, and not just the dry, obvious, -and sometimes boring- world of Newtonian physics, but it dealt with the more abstract and exciting principles of Einsteinian physics – relativity, space-time, and more. I could make a long list of reasons why I liked this presentation, but that wouldn’t really do anyone any good. Instead, I’d like to respond to some of the comments I heard about the presentation, because there were times where I disagreed.

One of the comments that I heard or read a lot was that the presentation was not actually a ToK presentation. In some respects, these comments were true, the presentation was not fully and entirely a ToK presentation, but I thought that the presentation had a lot more ToK in it than most people gave it credit for. The beginning was all about the inherent weaknesses of scientific theory and scientific evidence – and we all can see the ToK in that; it puts into question the anachronistic and all-too-widespread image of science as founded only in cold, hard logic, and it puts into question the blind faith that we seemingly put into science to be right.

I thought that this idea – the transience of scientific theories and the fallibility of scientific discoveries as a whole- was demonstrated very well in the later parts of his presentation. He showed us and explained to us 3 distinct ‘eras’ or where there were mainstream theories that dominated and dictated the mindsets of the people back then, including the geocentric universe, flat-earth paradigm, the Newtonian paradigm of a infinite universe, and the Einsteinian revolution. It was interesting for me to see how in each era, people put so much faith in their respective mindsets (to the point verging on being arrogant – with the examples of scientists inaccurately claiming that “There is nothing new or worthwhile in science to be discovered any longer”… or something to that extent), only to be proven fundamentally wrong later on. This kind of puts our own era of science, and our blind faith in its exterior of hard logic, into some perspective.

The presenter later on went into detail about the physics concepts and how the scientists derived them. I noticed that it was this part that most people disliked and claimed was too far removed from ToK, but I disagreed with this the most. I thought that this literally dealt with the essential ToK question: “What do we know and how do we know it?”, albeit applying mostly to knowledge in physics.

I also felt that one of the ideas presented in the later parts of the presentation were so ToK-ish that I was surprised no one brought it up in class. Mainly, the idea of the Strong Anthropic Principle (SAP). The SAP states that the Universe was designed in order for observers to be borne and in order to sustain them; and that the observations of these observers are essential to the existence of the Universe – without any observers, the Universe would not exist. This reminds me of that old and well-known philosophical question: ‘If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound’? In fact, I think that that question is a product of the SAP. I’m not sure if I know the answer to that question, nor am I sure of the validity of the SAP, but it’s comforting to think that our existence isn’t just a random, meaningless occurrence.

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