Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Reason and Emotion

In 1943 Walt Disney studios produced an animated film entitled "Reason and Emotion". It was subsequently nominated for an Oscar. At its heart it is, of course, a piece of war propaganda. This is particularly obvious in its depiction of Hitler and his manipulation of people's emotions to gain and maintain power. I thought that its treatment of the two subjects is more than a little simplistic, particularly its depiction of emotion as a primitive out of control caveman. It suggests that emotion is something base that needs to be contolled in order to make rational decisions. However, the ending does show reason and emotion coming together as co-pilots in order to bomb the enemy. What do you think of it?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Trapped in a non-functioning body

An amazing story appeared in the news this week (November 2009). A Belgian man who was thought to be in a coma for 23 years was reported to be fully conscious but totally paralysed for all that time. Rom Houben was misdiagnosed to be in a vegetative state following a near-fatal car crash in 1983. Since the accident, he is believed to have been aware of everything that was going on around him, but was unable to communicate in any way.

It sounds like something from a horror film or a nightmare, but Mr. Houben seemed to have come to terms to some degree with his situation. Following a decision by a doctor to check his brain activity, he has received proper treatment and is now able to communicate using a keyboard.

He describes developing his ability to meditate and "travell[ing] with [his] thoughts into the past, or into another existence altogether". In a very telling statement he says "sometimes, I was only my consciousness and nothing else".

It is an extremely moving story, and makes me think about what consciousness is and where it really resides. If your body stops functioning, does it just become a prison for your conscious self? Could most of us survive without the ability to communicate with others?

One thing bothered me when I first posted this video. I couldn't help thinking that Mr. Houben's helper had at least some control over where his finger was landing on the keyboard. As he couldn't communicate in any other way, it seems a bit strange that he was able to type so quickly. My favourite sceptic, Ben Goldacre (Bad Science) recently posted the same doubts on his blog, where he refers to the practice of 'facilitated communication':
"... it doesn’t seem unreasonable to look at what is known about facilitated communication. Many have compared it to ouija boards, in the sense that facilitators may fully believe they are following an external force, when in reality they are generating purposeful movements themselves."

This does pose some questions about how his experiences were related in the press, but doesn't necessarily mean any false claims were made. I do think that his helper thinks she is relating his ideas but may have inadvertantly being 'putting words into his mouth'.

If you are interested in seeing the article on the BadScience website, and the discussion it provoked with the readers, you can find it here.

In a more recent development to this story (20th February, 2010), Rom Houben's doctor admitted that there is now no evidence that he was actually able to communicate through his keyboard. He does appear to gave regained conciousness, though not fully. However, the belief of his helpers that they could interpret pressure from his muscles and direct his fingers to the correct keys has now been shown to be false. The BBC story is here.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Explaining mathematics

Here is a good example of why the explanation of a mathematical problem is not always as easy as you think it is going to be:

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The oldest new mothers in the world

In 2006, a 63-year-old child psychiatrist became the oldest woman in Britain to have a baby. Patricia Rashbrook of Lewes gave birth to her baby by caesarian section in the Sussex County Hospital (where, incidentally, I was having my appendix taken out at about the same time). The baby was a healthy boy and was named Jay Jay.

She has received a lot of critisism for having her baby at such a late age. Jay Jay was not her first child. She already had two grown up children from her first marriage, but this was her first child with 60 year-old husband John. They travelled to the former Soviet Union to receive in vitro fertility (IVF) treatment from Italian doctor Severino Antinori. Medical ethics in Britain prevent a woman over the age of 50 from receiving IVF treatment (although it is not illegal). During the treatment a donar egg from another woman was fertilised with her husband's sperm and implanted into her womb. She was of course post-menopausal and her body was not producing eggs.

She appears to be a devoted mother, and perhaps you could argue this is all that matters. In Britain, as in many developed countries, there is a huge problem of unwanted children growing up in unloving families (or without a family at all). Is it fair for Dr. Rashbrook to be singled out purely in terms of age? On the other hand you might think that her decision was a selfish one, and Jay Jay has therefore become a commodity to satisfy his parent's needs (or their desire for publicity?).

This subject was in the news again very recently (May 2009) when 66-year-old buisness woman Elizabeth Adeney, of Lidgate, Suffolk, announced in a British newspaper that she was eight months' pregnant after undergoing IVF treatment in Ukraine. As far as I know, before that, the world's oldest new mother was Spanish woman Maria del Carmen Bousada de Lara, who gave birth to twins also aged 66. She recieved fertility treatment after lying about her age. She died of cancer a few months after the birth of her children.

The following clip was taken from British TV news at the time of the announcement of her pregnacy and features interviews with experts on pregnancy and fertility treatment:

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Are Psychic Powers Real?

In a short documentary for British TV (and his website), arch-sceptic Richard Dawkins interviewed magician Derren Brown, to discover his thoughts and experiences in dealing with 'psychics'. Do they believe they, themselves, possess supernatural powers? Do they take advantage of the naive, or the grieving? Should the media present 'psychic events' in ways that make them appear more believable?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Evolution vs Intelligent Design

Throughout the 20th century, Christian groups resisted the theory of evolution. Many US states did not teach it until 1968 when the Supreme Court ruled that banning the teaching of evolution contravened the first amendment of the constitution of America, the separation of Church and state. It was, however, still legal to teach religion as part of science class until 1987, when mentioning a theory called 'creation science' in biology lessons was also deemed unconstitutional. This left evolution as the only theory of biological origin that science teachers were allowed to teach.

In recent years, however, Intelligent Design has gained more and more supporters, not least President George W. Bush. In 2005, he reopened the debate with his comments: "Both sides ought to be properly taught . . . so people can understand what the debate is about . . . Part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought . . . You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes."

In the same year, the school board of Dover, a small farming community in western Pennsylvania, became the first in the U.S. to adopt the theory of intelligent design. The move divided the community and the town became the centre of national attention. The school board voted to teach the ninth grade biology class that there are gaps and problems with the theory of evolution and intelligent design was presented as an alternative. They proposed the use of scientific textbooks in which intelligent design was presented as scientific theory.

Bryan Rehm (who resigned his post as science teacher in Dover when intelligent design was adopted) and his wife Christy believed that this new policy was not only anti-scientific, but also religious and therefore unconstitutional. By promoting religion it was a violation of the law passed in 1987. The Rehms and nine other parents and teachers filed a law suit against the school board in the district court. This became the first legal challenge to intelligent design. After 40 days of trial, Judge John E Jones ruled against the school board, stating: "We have addressed the seminal question of whether intelligent design is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that intelligent design cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents."

Evolutionists heralded this victory as a damning blow to the intelligent design movement. However, as history shows, law suits have little effect on the support for creationism in a country where over 50% of citizens believe that God created humans in their present form, the way the Bible describes it (perhaps you could argue this is as it should be). The controversy rumbles on, with many opponents of intelligent design (such as Prof. Richard Dawkins) simply refusing to enter into debate, to avoid being accused of admitting that true scientific disagreement actually exists. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the setting of the science curriculum remains the responisbility of individual State Education Boards. In Arkansas and Alabama biology textbooks have been required to be printed with disclaimers stating that evolution is "a controversal theory" and "a theory rather than fact". Similarly, in Georgia, sections of textbooks refering to evolution were required to be preceded by the statement "this material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered." Most famously, at the end of 2005, the State Education Board of Kansas approved new science education standards that called for students to learn about scientific criticisms of evolution theory.

The following documentary "A War on Science" investigates the growth of Intelligent Design and the reaction of supporters on both sides:

Watch BBC Horizon - A War on Science(Evolution vs Intelligent Design) in Entertainment  |  View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

Monday, September 7, 2009

TOK Essay Marking Criteria

I have copied these pages from the IB TOK guide so you can see the criteria (A, B, C and D) which will be used to mark your TOK essay when you have submitted it. Please keep these criteria in mind as you write:

Another 10 tips for writing a good TOK essay

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Loaded Questions

Can the way you ask a question influence the response you get? In this clip of the classic British sit-com Yes, Prime Minister, two civil servants discuss how they can decide on the results of an opinion poll before the government has even commissioned it. I imagine it isn't too far from the truth.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Man allows daughter to die while praying

This week (August 2009) a US jury found a man guilty of allowing his his sick 11-year-old daughter to die by praying for her recovery rather than seeking medical care. Dale Neumann, from Wisconsin, was convicted of second-degree reckless homicide of Madeline after he arranged for prayer meetings and put his trust in faith healing rather than seeking medical advice. It was later found that the girl was suffering from undiagnosed diabetes which could have been easily treated with insulin. In similar circumstances, in July 2009, a jury in Oregon convicted a man of criminal mistreatment for relying on prayer instead of seeking medical care for his 15-month-old daughter who died of pneumonia and a blood infection.

The Neumann story, as reported by the BBC can be found here.

Its a sad story all round, I thought; not least because he thought he was doing what was best for his daughter. Many people would argue he was misguided, foolish or naive - but he now faces up to 25 years in prison for his actions. The prosecution argued that he was 'overwhelmed by pride' in his interpretation of the Bible and selfishly let Madeline die as a test of faith. I'm interested in hearing any thoughts on this story, on this blog or in class - particularly the implication that these days it is for our court systems to decide on questions of ethics. Interest in alternative medicine and faith healing appears to be growing and it could be argued in some cases has provided cures where conventional medicine couldn't. Does this mean that anybody who prefers to put their faith in non-conventional treatments could be seen as being criminally negligent?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Axioms of Arithmetic

During the 20th Century, mathematicians decided that they had to properly define the foundations of maths. Work by philosophers such as Bertrand Russell showed that there were inherent contradictions in the subject that might put many important assumptions in doubt. As several theorems proved to be false, there were concerns that many branches of maths were built on houses of cards that may be found to tumble.

To try to resolve this, a list was produced of axioms which can be taken as self-evident. This means they can be assumed as first principles upon which all other theories can be built. However, even these axioms have not been immune to questioning - and, if you need axioms upon which you build the axioms, doesn´t that also mean you need axioms to build the axioms of the axoms....(ad infinitum)? Anyway, these are the seven Axioms of Arithmetic:

  1. For any numbers mn: m + n = n + m
  2. For any numbers m, n, k: (m + n) + k = m + (n + k)
  3. For any numbers m, n, k: m(n + k) = mn + mk
  4. There is a number 0 which has the property that, for any number n: n + 0 = n
  5. There is a number 1 which has the property that, for any number n: n x 1 = n
  6. For every number n, there is another number k such that: n + k = 0
  7. For any numbers m, n, k, if k ≠ 0 and kn = km, then m = n

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A truel

From Fermat´s Last Theorem, by Simon Singh,

"A truel is similar to a duel, except there are three participants rather than two. One morning Mr Black, Mr Grey and Mr White decide to resolve a conflict by truelling with pistols until only one of them survives. Mr Black is the worst shot hitting his target on average only one time in three. Mr Grey is a better shot, hitting his target two times out of three. Mr White is the best shot, hitting his target every time. To make the truel fairer Mr Black is allowed to shoot first, followed by Mr Grey (if he is still alive), followed by Mr White (if he is still alive) and round again until only one of them is alive. The question is this: Where should Mr Black aim his first shot?"

If you've not seen this question before, please feel free to drop me a comment with your answer and a short description of why.

This kind of question is part of the branch of maths which has been called Game Theory, a term coined by John von Neumann in 1944. This became fundamental in the study of military strategy, particularly during the Cold War. People of my generation will be familiar with the 1983 film War Games, in which a young Matthew Broderick attempts to teach game theory to a computer which is about to start a global nuclear war, using his Commodore Vic 20.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Fermat's Last Theorem

Pierre de Fermat (1601-1665) was a French mathematician who, together with Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz, is credited with the invention of calculus (calculations which allow the mathematical description of two factors relative to each other). He also made notable contributions to analytic geometry, probability, and optics. His first love, however, was number theory - the philosophy of mathematics. He was more interested in solving and setting problems, rather than his own fame and fortune.

One of these, "Fermat's Last Theorem" (named as such because it became the last of his theorems requiring proof), states that no three positive integers x, y, and z can satisfy the equation x^n + y^n = z^n for any integer value of n greater than two. Fermat set the challenge for mathematicians to prove the theorem correct. In a scientific sense, it can't be proved, since this would involve testing an infinite series of numbers. However, maths provides the opportunity to prove a theorem without the limitations of perception, and therefore is considered the purest form of truth and knowledge. Despite the simplicity of the equation, for three hundred years, the challenge beat all of the best minds in the world. Tantalisingly, Fermat left some indications when he died that he had come up with the proof himself. In 1995, softly spoken British mathematician Andrew Wiles, a maths professor at Princeton University, gave a talk at a conference at Cambridge in which he claimed to have met Fermat's challenge. It was the culmination of thirty years of work. He'd been fascinated by the probem since he came across it in a library book at the age of ten. The documentary below shows what was involved in him producing his proof, and the nightmare that resulted from it:

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The brain

This documentary about the human brain may be a bit old and dated now, but it does contain some particularly interesting information about the way we think:

Monday, June 1, 2009

Uncertainty and Schrodinger's Cat

Werner Heisenberg (5 December 1901 – 1 February 1976) was a German theoretical physicist who made fundamental contributions to quantum mechanics and is best known for asserting the Uncertainty Principle of quantum theory. In very simple terms, this states that for a particle such as an electron, the more precisely you know one physical property such as momentum, the less precisely you are able to state another property such as position. This is not a statement regarding the limitations of measurement, but rather a philosophy on the nature of the Universe (at the quantum level) - that events are essentially probablistic. This means that a particle could exist in one position, another, or even both points at the same time. See my earlier post (The Bell Experiment) for a better explanation.

Other physicists such as Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrodinger refused to believe in a probabilistic Universe, and defended the classical view of determinism (all events are determined by what has gone before - that every event has a cause). In fact, in his later years, Einstein became embittered by what he percieved as the vandalism of classical physics by theoreticians such as Heisenberg, Niels Bohr and Wolfgang Pauli.

In order to defend determinism, Schrodinger attempted to show that Uncertainty was, at heart, ridiculous by coming up with his famous thought experiment, concerning a cat in a box (no real cats were ever experimented on). This is explained in the following clip:

However, despite Einstein's and Schrodinger's objections, quantum mechanics continued to go from strength to strength and has survived many attempts to discredit or falsify it. It even provides an explaination for radioactive decay and the Big Bang (which determinism is unable to do), in the sense that quantum mechanics provides a framework in which an event occurs spontaneously, without a deterministic cause.

And Schrodinger's Cat? Again, in simple terms, a cat does not itself exist at the quantum level, although the particles it is made up of do. Therefore we cannot resonably expect a cat (as a whole entity) to behave in the same way as a sub-atomic particle.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Love at no sight

We live in a world where many people are obsessed about the way they look. You might think that blind people would attach little importance to others' looks, especially when it comes to falling in love. Some people might even say that it gives visually impaired people the moral high ground, or a better appreciation of others' personalities. Is a blind person unable to "fall in love at first sight"? Are blind people really as prejudiced as the rest of society when it comes to looks? In this magazine article for the BBC, Damon Rose invesigates perception and love.
And by the way, is it just me, or was Lionel Richie stalking that poor woman? If you are interested in building your own Lionel clay head, I found a nice website about it here.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Game of Life

The Game of Life is a computer simulation devised in the 1960's by the British mathematician John Horton Conway. It's a very good example of how a few simple rules can quickly create order out of chaos. The simulation takes place on a 2-dimensional grid divided into cells. Each cell has eight neighbouring cells and can be either "alive" or "dead". The rules which determine it's fate are very simple:

  • If a cell has one or no living neighbours, it will die of loneliness.
  • If it has too many neighbours - four or more - it will die from overcrowding.
  • New cells are "born" whenever an empty square has exactly three living neighbours.

This clip shows a Game of Life Grid in action:

You can create your own grid by going to the website here

In this interview, John Conway gives his thoughts about the Game of Life:

Monday, May 18, 2009

Bill Nye the Science Guy discusses... Pseudoscience

Does the media distort Science?

In this article, the Guardian newspaper columnist Ben Goldacre discusses how the work of scientists is distorted (deliberately?) when reported in the media:

Cancer jabs, good or bad?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The history of science

Nicolas, our resident expert on the philosophy of science discusses science history (in Spanish) in an excellent seminar:

Monday, May 11, 2009

More Advice on TOK Assessment

These pages of advice on TOK assessment are from Amy Scott's website. Please visit it for more useful information at http://www.amyscott.com/:

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Your presentation

Please visit this post at the ibtokspot blog for help in designing your presentation:


Understanding Knowledge Issues

Please visit this page at the ibtokspot blog to improve your understanding of knowledge claims and knowledge issues:

Knowledge issues

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Emotion and Language

In 2007 the BBC's flagship current affairs series, Panorama, tried to produce a programme discrediting the Church of Scientolology. They found themselves among the first victims of "video ambushing", in which the people being investigated turn the tables on the journalists. The BBC interviewer, John Sweeney remained remarkably calm as he was followed around by a Scientologist spokesman, Tommy Davis, for six days. However, he eventually lost it in an embarassing outburst. Sweeney was later disciplined by the BBC, and made a public apology. The Church of Scientology produced their own documentary, refuting Sweeney's claim and making him look extremely foolish. The moral is... try to be in control of your emotions before you open your mouth (admittedly sometimes easier said than done).

Here is a link to the whole programme if you are interested in watching it:

Panorama - Scientology and Me

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Example of a fallacy

Interesting developments in the Swine Flu outbreak this week. China and Russia have banned imports of Mexican pork, despite the fact there is no evidence that the virus is passed on through meat products. The Mexican government has complained to the World Trade Organisation as a result.

I saw this quote from Nikolai Vlasov, the Russian chief veterinary inspector:
"We are constantly told that pork is not dangerous. But at the same time, nobody has proved that it is safe."
Why is this a fallacious argument?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Emotion and Reason

When somebody feels very emotional about a particular subject, reason sometimes goes out of the window. BBC journalist Louis Theroux recently visited members of the Westborough Baptist Church in Kansas. They have been called the "most hated family in America" after they started picketing the funerals of American servicemen killed in Iraq, in a protest against the prevalence of homosexuality in the USA. He tried (in his own way) to reason with their leaders (Fred Phelps and Shirley Phelps-Roper) but came away as lost as when he started.

In this second clip Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of Pastor Fred Phelps appears on Fox News in order to defend the church - but can you follow her reasoning?

Eugène Ney Terre'Blanche (born January 31, 1941) is a Boer-Afrikaner who founded the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging during the apartheid era in South Africa. Terre'Blanche remains leader of the recently reactivated AWB and continued to push for an Afrikaner state within South Africa (until his death in 2010). In this clip he explains his reasoning to Louis (and obviously frightens the life out of him).

Saturday, May 2, 2009

TOK Presentation Documents

TOK Presentaion Marking Criteria:

Friday, May 1, 2009

Dark Matter

When the Universe was first formed it was completely featureless (just a vast patch of hydrogen gas). Over time (billions of years) the hydrogen gas began to clump together to form the first stars, and these in turn created the elements that would form future stars, planets, nebulae and all the other components of today's Universe. The space between galaxies (clusters of stars) contains hot gas. In fact, this gas is so hot (tens of millions of degrees) that it shines in X-rays instead of visible light. By studying the distribution and temperature of the hot gas we can measure how much it is being squeezed by the force of gravity from all the material around it. This allows scientists to determine how much total material (matter) there is in that part of space.

Remarkably, it turns out there is five times more material in clusters of galaxies than we would expect from the galaxies and hot gas we can see. Most of the stuff in clusters of galaxies is invisible and, since these are the largest structures in the Universe held together by gravity, scientists then conclude that most of the matter in the entire Universe is invisible. This invisible stuff is called 'dark matter'. There is currently much ongoing research by scientists attempting to discover exactly what this dark matter is, how much there is, and what effect it may have on the future of the Universe as a whole.

Take a look at this documentary about dark matter and whether the search for it really constitutes proper "science".

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Theories of Ethics

Mother Teresa of Calcutta was a Roman Catholic nun of Albanian origin. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her work with the poor and dying, primarily in India. Her humanitarian organistaion, the Missionaries of Charity, continues to expand, and at the time of her death it was operating 610 missions in 123 countries, including hospices and homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis, soup kitchens, children's and family counseling programmes, orphanages, and schools.

She has been praised by many individuals, governments and organizations and was considered a "living saint" before her death in 1997. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2002, following varification by the Vatican that a number of miracles could be attributed to prayers to her.

We have discussed five theories for the existence of ethics:
  • Moral relativism
  • Religion
  • Duty
  • Self-interest
  • Utilitarianism
Few people, until recently, would have doubted that Mother Teresa was motivated by strong religious ethics and a sense of duty. However, it has been suggested that close to her death she experienced doubts concerning her faith. She has also faced critisism of the focus of her work and it has been suggested she was motivated by self-interest.

One of her most vociferous detractors is the British (now American) journalist Christopher Hitchens, well known for playing 'devils advocate'. Interestingly, this phrase was originally used to describe a lawyer who gave evidence against a person's beatification, and Hitchens was called by the Vatican in this role in the case of Mother Teresa's. In his book, The Missionary Position, he critises her work, including baptisms of the dying, her strong anti-contraception and anti-abortion stance, and her belief in the spiritual goodness of poverty. Several medical journals have also criticised the standard of medical care in her hospices and concerns have been raised about the nature in which donated money was received and spent.

In the following documentary Hitchens develops his arguments. Please note that this piece is very one-sided and I'd encourage researching other sources on Mother Teresa's work in order to develop a more balanced viewpoint. Take note of the references to ethics.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Lost language revived

Dharug was one of the dominant Aboriginal dialects in the Sydney region of Australia when British settlers arrived in 1788, but became extinct after the British colonisation. Details of its death are sketchy but it appears the last of the traditional Dharug speakers died in the late 19th Century, and it survived (if that word can be used) only because of written records. However, the language has been revived by school teachers and students in Sydney. It is being seen as a way for aboriginal people to reclaim part of their lost heritage, but courses are also open to non-aboriginals.

When the British ships arrived, there were about 270 different Aboriginal languages in Australia. Today, only about 60 or 70 are spoken on a daily basis. Of these, roughly half a dozen are considered to be strong and are being passed from adults to their children. Do you think languages should be allowed to die if they begin to outlive their usefulness? Is language really intimately linked to culture?
You can read the whole story from the BBC here.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Murder of James Bulger

James Bulger (16 March 1990 – 12 February 1993) was a victim of abduction and murder in Liverpool, England, in 1993. His killers were two 10-year-old boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson (both born in August 1982). Thompson and Venables were released on a life licence in June 2001, after serving eight years in prison, when a parole hearing concluded that public safety would not be threatened by their rehabilitation. The court ordered details could not be published about the boys, for fear of reprisals. The injunction remained in force following their release, so their new identities and locations could not be published. They are now living new lives with new names.

Public feeling ran very high (especially in Liverpool) both during their trial and after their subsequent release. There was a riot outside the court after their first trial. Would you consider that their actions in kidnapping James were immoral or perhaps amoral?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Top 10 Moral Dilemmas

The website below lists 10 dilemmas in which you have to make a decision based on your own moral code. Please take the time to read through them and honestly say what you would do in each situation:

Top 10 moral dilemmas

Confusing your perception

When you try to focus on more than one visual task at the same time, your perception can become confused. Does this tell you anything more about perception? Take a look at the following clip from Brainiac and see if you can do the test:

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Ethics in the News

The BBC has produced a series of podcasts called "Everyday Ethics", based on current affairs which involve moral and ethical decisions. This first episode was broadcast in March 2009, and deals with the topics: the Catholic Church and condoms, whether Joseph Fritzel really is "evil", whether preference should be given to local jobseekers, and the public response to the death of British reality TV star Jade Goody.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Can God and Science co-exist?

The Templeton Prize (worth £1 million - believe it or not), awarded each year for contributions to "affirming life's spiritual dimension", has been won by French physicist Bernard d'Espagnat, who has worked on quantum physics with some of the most famous names in modern science. He suggests that the strange behaviour of sub-atomic particles are compatible with a spiratual view of the universe.

There is an article from the BBC about the prize here

And another article from Scientific American here

And finally, the Templeton Prize website is here

Sunday, March 22, 2009


I think Calvin doesn't really mean he "doesn't believe in ethics any more". I think he means to say that he belives in "moral relativism".

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Moral Relativism

Shortly before he was elected Pope in 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger deliverered a withering criticism of moral relativism. The position of the Catholic Church is one of "absolutism" in which there is only one moral truth (the teachings of the Church).

"We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires"
Pope Benedict XVI
However, it could be argued that, strictly speaking, the current teachings of the Church take a position of relativism, since they are often at odds with the values of western liberals. You might also take the view that the Pope has misunderstood the meaning of moral relativism as a belief system in which simply "anything goes"

There is an article from the BBC about this here


Sunday, March 8, 2009


This is a way of life originally proposed by the Greek philosopher Zeno (333 BC-264 BC) which advocates:

  • That in order to find true happiness, we must learn to be indifferent to external influences.
  • If we can learn this indifference to external events, no matter how horrible (like slavery, torture, rape, imprisonment, etc.), then others will have no power over us in any significant way.
  • That virtue resides in the will; therefore, the exercise of free will alone determines what is good and what is evil.
  • A good life comes from being able to free oneself from desires and passions (stoicism shares this value with Hinduism and Buddhism).
  • Your essential character cannot be destroyed by external events in your life.
  • Virtue consists in a will that is in agreement with the happenings of nature in which all is part of a divine design that is unalterable.
  • That all behavior is ultimately determined by natural laws, but without free will no one can be held responsible for their own actions.
  • That responsibility for becoming good or bad resides with the individual and not with society at large.

from "Ethics in a Nutshell with Cartoons"

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Emotional response

Do you think your emotional response to something depends on its context? For example the following two pictures depict somebody in a state of anguish, but is your response different in each case? Should it be?

Thursday, March 5, 2009


A famished fox saw some clusters of grapes hanging from a vine, She resorted to all of her tricks to get at them, but wearied herself in vain, for she could not reach them. At last she turned away, hiding her disappointment and saying “ Those grapes are sour and not as sweet as I thought”

Rationalisation is the justification of bad reasoning by somebody in an emotional state

Monday, March 2, 2009

Primary Emotions

Japanese scientists have finally cracked the problem of giving a robot primary emotions (well... not quite). But which is which? (fear, surprise, anger, disgust, happiness, sadness):

Sunday, March 1, 2009

What is a Knowledge Issue?

Please visit the following site and look at the material provided there to develop your understanding of knowledge claims and knowledge issues:

IBTOKspot - knowledge issues

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The James-Lange Theory

The James-Lange Theory proposes that emotions occur as a result of physiological reactions to events. According to the theory, you see an external stimulus that leads to a physiological reaction. Your emotional reaction is dependent upon how you interpret those physical reactions.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Lost in Translation

Madonna was in Budapest a while ago, filming some scenes for the movie "Evita", and the newspaper "Blikk" interviewed her. The questions were posed in Hungarian, then translated into English for her; her replies were then translated back into Hungarian. "USA Today" then asked for a copy...... so the Hungarian translation was then retranslated into English. This is the translation that was sent from Hungary:

Blikk: Madonna, Budapest says hello with arms that are spread-eagled. Did you have a visit here that was agreeable? Are you in good odor? You are the biggest fan of our young people who hear your musical productions and like to move their bodies in response.

Madonna: Thank you for saying these compliments [holds up hands]. Please stop with taking sensationalist photographs until I have removed my garments for all to see [laughs]. This is a joke I have made.

Blikk: Madonna, let’s cut toward the hunt: Are you a bold hussy-woman that feasts on men who are tops?

Madonna: Yes, yes, this is certainly something that brings to the surface my longings. In America it is not considered to be mentally ill when a woman advances on her prey in a discothèque setting with hardy cocktails present. And there is a more normal attitude toward leather play-toys that also makes my day.

Blikk: Is this how you met Carlos, your love-servant who is reputed? Did you know he was heaven-sent right off the stick? Or were you dating many other people in your bed at the same time?

Madonna: No, he was the only one I was dating in my bed then, so it is a scientific fact that the baby was made in my womb us­ing him. But as regards these questions, enough! I am a woman and not a test-mouse! Carlos is an everyday person who is in the orbit of a star who is being muscle-trained by him, not a sex machine.

Blikk: May we talk about your other “baby”, your movie, then? Please do not be denying that the similarities between you and the real Evita are grounded in basis. Power, money, tasty food, Grammys – all these elements are afoot.

Madonna: What is up in the air with you? Evita never was winning a Grammy!

Blikk: Perhaps not. But as to your film, in trying to bring your reputation along a rocky road, can you make people forget the bad explosions of Who’s That Girl? and Shanghai Surprise?

Madonna: I am a tip-top starlet. That is my job that I am paid to do.

Blikk: O.K., here’s a question from left space: What was your book Slut about?

Madonna: It was called Sex, my book.

Blikk: Not in Hungary. Here it was called Slut. How did it come to publish? Were you lovemaking with a man-about-town printer? Do you prefer making suggestive literature to fast-selling CDs?

Madonna: These are different facets to my career highway. I am preferring only to become respected all over the map as a 100% artist.

Blikk: There is much interest in you from this geographic region, so I must ask this final questions: How many Hungarian men have you dated in bed? Are they No. 1? How are they comparing to Argentine men, who are famous for being tip-top as well?

Madonna: Well, to avoid aggravating global tension, I would say it’s a tie [laughs]. No, no, I am serious now. See here, I am working like a canine all the way around the clock! I have been too busy even to try the goulash that makes your country one for the record books.

Blikk: Thank you for your candid chitchat.

Madonna: No problem, friend who is a girl.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Incorrect use of the English Language

In this Youtube clip, Irish comedian Ed Byrne illustrates that the singer Alanis Morissette doesn't understand the meaning of the word "irony":

And here is Alanis singing the song (in case you hadn't heard it before):

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Persuasive speaking

This speech was originally delivered by Sir Winston Churchill to the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom on 18 June 1940. It was given shortly after he took over as Prime Minister of Britain on 10 May, in the first year of World War II. The US had not yet entered the War, and at the time it looked doubtful that they would. The Germans had by then occupied most of Western Europe, and Churchill knew that he had to prepare the British people for an eventual invasion.

It is interesting to note Churchill's references to the idea that the British Empire might last a thousand years (Hitler had the same idea about the Third Reich). This illustrates Churchill's extreme attachment and faith in the Empire — its gradual dissolution in the subsequent decades was a source of great distress for Churchill. It followed from Britain's bancruptcy following the War.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Tips on persuasive speaking

I found this presentation on Youtube. It might be helpful when you give talks in TOK:

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


By Lewis Carroll (from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872)

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought
-So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
"And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
He chortled in his joy.

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Taylor Mali

A totally, like, cool poem about ... whatever

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Auditory Illusions

These were originally published by New Scientist. You need good headphones and/or good speakers to do them justice:

In my Language

Amanda Baggs is a young woman with autism and she's created a powerful and articulate video in which she compares her world of environmental interaction to the typical form of speech and perception.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Fry's English Delight

In a short series of programmes for BBC Radio 4, presenter and comedian Stephen Fry looked at the origin of certain phrases in the English language. Please click the link below to go to his website and listen to the last broadcast:

Fry's English Delight

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

More examples of fallacies

This website lists 42 types of fallacies with examples of each one. You wouldn't be expected to remember all of them, but they are still quite interesting to read through:

Different types of fallacies


This clip is a tongue-in-cheek (I think) attempt to discredit Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. Try to list as many fallacies as possible using the handout from a previous post as a guide.


One of the fallacies of reason is evasion of the question - something that politicians are particularly skilled at. Have a look at the following classic clip in which Michael Howard (the British Home Secretary at the time) tries to evade the same question twelve times.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Love is a Fallacy

In this short story author and screenwriter Max Shulman uses different types of fallacy to prove that love doesn't exist.
Love is a Fallacy