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Explore a range of examples and ideas for your Essays and Presentations and leave your comments.

By ToKTutor, Mar 30 2019 09:53AM

Example for Question 2:


The sensus divinitatis


Ever since Hume’s invitation in the 18th Century to proportion our ‘belief to the evidence’ in the production of knowledge, the slow but gradual erosion of religious knowledge has continued. If the justification of knowledge is based on providing the empirical evidence of the senses to support it, then surely it’s irrational to believe in the existence of God. Firstly, because there is no such material evidence. And secondly, even if there were, we probably wouldn’t know what it looked like. Hold on, the objection might arise. What about experience of miracles? Surely, this is evidence enough to justify knowledge of God’s power in our lives. Evidentialists might reject this appeal, arguing that miracles are notoriously anecdotal and eyewitness testimony is not entirely reliable. Moreover, the idea of miracles is based on a strange view of cause and effect relationships. That is, how could you ever ‘prove’, strictly speaking, that non-physical forces can ‘cause’ physical things to happen?


In the late 20th Century, thinkers began to question such evidentialist objections to religious knowledge, developing the view that it is rational to believe in God’s existence even though the kind of empirical evidence required for justifying this knowledge is unavailable. Alvin Plantinga reintroduced an idea originating in the thinking of John Calvin during the Reformation. Calvin proposed that we have a sensus divinitatis – an awareness of God – with which we are born. He calls it various things – an ‘awareness’, an ‘understanding’, an ‘inscription’ amongst other things – but let’s be clear: the sensus is not to be confused with faith. The sensus is not, in TOK terms, a fundamentally new way of knowing. This more ‘nativist’ idea implies that we are born with knowledge of God. Knowing God is the default position for humanity. If someone says that she doesn’t know God, then various things must have happened. Either the sensus has been damaged or the sinful nature of the world is clouding her knowledge.


Plantinga underlines the implications for a contemporary understanding of the idea. He argues with an analogy. From the evidentialist view, our sensory apparatus brings us the fundamental empirical evidence with which to build and justify knowledge. We ground our scientific knowledge, for example, on basic beliefs which go unquestioned and actually can’t be proven by empirical experience, such as the belief that relationships of cause and effect exist. Based on the assumption of causality, we are able, through further experimental processes, to generate physical evidence which allows us to explain how gravity works. From the new ‘reformed’ perspective, the sensus divinitatis is a similar apparatus that brings us fundamental experiential evidence with which to build and justify specifically religious knowledge about God. So for example, the belief in the existence of God is like the belief in causality. Based on the basic belief that God exists, we are able, by means of interacting with the natural world, to yield evidence which allows us to explain how miracles work.


Plantinga’s next move is to change the terms of explaining how knowledge is produced. Our sensory apparatus generates physical evidence to 'justify' knowledge. The sensus generates evidence to 'warrant' knowledge. This subtle difference between the production of religious knowledge and all other knowledge draws significant objections, perhaps the most humorous of which is ‘The Great Pumpkin’ counter claim. What do you think?

By ToKTutor, Dec 15 2018 01:18PM

Example for Question 5:


Malagasy funeral rites


The Malagasy people accept a conclusion that seems to go beyond the evidence for it: that dancing with the exhumed bodies of their dead ancestors sustains the communal connection between the living and the spirits of the deceased which linger on earth until their buried bodies are fully decomposed. Only after this do those spirits pass over into the realm of ancestors forever. How do they KNOW? Isn’t this just a form of magical or mythical thinking irrelevant to the world of 21st century knowledge? A distraction from the progress of technological know-how that promises, amongst many things, a mission to Mars?


Famadihana or ‘the turning of the bones’ is a festival, celebrating the continuation of the family bond of love with the added knowledge that spirits can still enjoy the material pleasures of life until they fully pass over to the afterlife. Such ritualistic behaviour has many components and many explanations. For example, at the end of the celebration, the bodies of the deceased are carefully reburied and money and gifts are placed with them. The reason is to afford the spirits safe and secure passage into the realm of ancestors. However, the detail that the bodies are reburied upside down suggests a more nuanced explanation of what drives the Malagasy to think this way (and what drives such mythical thinking in general). The idea is that such reburial symbolises the closing of the cycle of life and death – a final acceptance of human mortality and a belief in a higher supernatural force at work in the universe. In this case, the supernatural force is the power of the collective wisdom of dead ancestors.


Such thinking may be the source of religious faith and religious systems of knowledge, but why do humans feel the need for this? One explanation is that the world in which such rituals originated was a world of chaos and randomness; its very unpredictability made indigenous people feel uncertain and unsafe. Thus they evolved rituals as a way of coping with the vast unknown. Accepting conclusions about this world and the afterlife ensured some level of control over their environment and personal insecurities as a way of making sense of it; as a way of imposing some sort of order and routine in a universe that otherwise appeared to them not to care one bit about who they were and whether they lived or died. The assumption underlying such ritualistic forms of thought about death and the afterlife is that there must be some meaning to our mortality, otherwise what’s the point of life? What’s the purpose of living? It’s hard to accept the conclusion that there might not BE a purpose to our existence at all. So we accept the conclusion that there is some meaning and purpose, the source of which is NOT in this world, even though this conclusion seems to go beyond any available physical evidence for the existence of a supernatural source...

By ToKTutor, Dec 1 2018 12:13PM

Example for Question 3:


Bagpuss & the power of stories


If we’re going to get all technical about it, then yes, reliable knowledge of how the world works does require ‘good’ explanations, if by ‘good’ and ‘true’ we mean that such explanations are grounded in facts and statistics, the logical relationship between them and a clear causal relationship between such facts. Such explanations are ‘empirical’ and ‘good’ precisely because they can be routinely tested against the real world. In the context of science, here’s a simple explanation: Rain falls because air is warmed up by a heat source; the warmer air rises and condenses, producing water droplets which, owing to their heavier mass and the work of gravity, fall back to earth as rainfall.


But this sort of thinking leaves out a whole range of explanations that aren’t similarly empirical. What do these look like? They are based on a way of making sense of the world which relies not so much on ‘facts’ and ‘truth’ but more on ‘stories’ and ‘morals’ and ‘images’. A story may not be open to the kind of testing that a more scientific explanation requires but we learn things through their morals or messages. Does it follow that such explanations aren’t good? Well, a story can still help us to explain the nuances of human interaction with others and our environment. Such ‘explanations’ are ‘good’ because they challenge us to reflect on the moral and psychological possibilities of our behaviour and, of course, they are entertaining.


Look at this 1970s a children’s TV show that draws on the magical power of stories and storytelling: ‘Bagpuss’. Emily has a shop which doesn’t sell things. However, she’s a collector of broken things and brings them to her shop to leave them amongst her friends. Bagpuss, the sleepy old cat is one of them. As each episode unravels, when Bagpuss wakes up, he is always encouraged to tell a story based on the broken artefact Emily has brought into the shop. The story in itself is a bit of fun. The real interest is in what happens during the story and in its aftermath: the broken item has somehow been repaired and looks as good as new.


And here’s the moral of the story: stories encapsulate our way of creating order in a world we often perceive to be chaotic, broken. They offer reassurance and hope of finding solutions to problems. They are a way of projecting a world in which we feel we have some level of control and feel safe. Ultimately, they tap into a mythical form of thinking which helps us to sustain an emotional hold on our world; to tie us together through the power of remembrance and imagination. Even if such explanations can’t be tested like scientific ones, they bring us both personal and shared knowledge by allowing us to create virtual worlds in which we can ‘test’ ourselves as a way of managing expectations, desires, behaviours...

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