Archive for March 2013
Final Topic – This week was about Time Travel. Initially I thought there would be little to say about it without getting into big time physics but I was very wrong. Metaphysics is the name of the game, “a branch of philosophy that investigates the ways that reality could intelligibly be”, according to the introductory note and the idea was to use time travel as a case study. You may suppress a good laugh at the possibility of transporting a person backwards or forwards in time but things become less clear and considerably more involved, when you actually examine the logic. Consider the ‘grandfather paradox’ – go back in time, kill your own grandfather so you can’t exist in the first place – contradiction. But there are circumstances where logic dictates that you could actually go back in time and apparently intervene – remember that tall story a grandfather tells about how he once narrowly escaped death by a mysterious and unknown assassin…..?
Futuristic Flashings – I used to supervise lab projects using electronic logic gates. For example, designing a circuit that flashes a light 1 second after a button is pressed. Someone in the forum drew attention to a SF short story where a device is invented so that the light flashes 1 second before a button is pressed! This caused mental illness, anxiety and depression in the story because of an apparent loss of free will. I had an interesting argument with someone in the forum who held that free will would be unaffected. If I choose to press the button without seeing it flash then something (nature, God, whatever) must stop me if the device is working properly – even if the ceiling has to fall on my head! On the other hand, if the light suddenly flashes and I choose not to press the button then something else must – perhaps the cat passes by and accidentally presses it. These scenarios suggest a significant loss of free will to me but my inconclusive search for a definition of ‘free will’ reveals little consensus anywhere about what the term means. Now all this is fantastically weird and probably quite impossible but it does demonstrate how some very basic issues can be examined rationally by anyone without resorting to SF, or spending 10 years becoming a research physicist! I mentioned something along these lines in one of the introphil FB groups but somebody thought “hoi polloi” should not bother about such things! All the same, I’m adding it to my expanding list of ‘What Philosophy is For’.
cMOOCs and xMOOCs – My strong impression is that an overwhelming number of people taking this philosophy xMOOC are leaving it well pleased. Of course there was some nit-picking. Some participants expected different content and presentation styles – greater or less difficulty, longer or shorter videos, no funny accents, less talking heads, less humour, more shots ‘on location’, no mirrored reflections of female lecturers in museums(!), no dressing up for Serious Lectures on Time Travel….. Some criticism was very constructive, particularly about the awful forums, but the focus on the MCQ assessment process by participants, almost regardless of its real educational value, suggests that many are greatly influenced by baggage dragged in from traditional face-to-face courses. This of course is not discouraged by Coursera – presumably with a view to eventual monetisation of the MOOC.
To my mind, the undeniable success of this particular xMOOC lies centrally with the team of facilitators at Edinburgh University rather than with Coursera. Yes, there were sages on stages but some of them did actually descend to mingle with hoi polloi. In particular, Dr Richmond, of Time Travel fame deserves special mention. He popped up all over the forums, right from the beginning of the course and must have spent an inordinate amount of his time dealing with questions. He also quelled the inevitable trolls and stroppiness with impressive diplomacy and constant good humour. I hope he’s had due recognition and some relief from his normal university duties – or maybe he’s just been exercising his special skills!
Some time ago I wrote something on ‘Why can’t an xMOOC be more like a cMOOC?‘ but now I’m wondering what cMOOCs might learn from a good xMOOC? Good and conscientious facilitation is a must – I remember a certain cMOOC where all the facilitators suddenly vanished for days without explanation. Also, I think that the connectivist claim of knowledge being “literally in the connections” is (setting aside philosophical misgivings) rather less valid without some really strong connections with the experts. Some introphil participants certainly made valuable contributions that helped and connected with many others but I think most participants would agree that the contributions made by the professional philosophers were consistently of a very much higher standard in clarity and content and rather more effective in pushing along the educational process.
Are Scientific Theories true ? – very interesting topic for me this week. At issue is whether ‘truth’ is the aim of science (scientific realism) or whether science doesn’t need to be true to be good (anti-realism). This is a big topic to cover in a few short videos but from where I sit, the lecturer, who went to the trouble of having some relevant shots taken in an Edinburgh museum, did a very good basic job.
In the forum – I had an interesting discussion about what a realist would make of quantum mechanics. Here’s a quick resume: The humble electron is a good candidate for consideration. As time passes the realist, on the basis of widely accepted experimental evidence, is pleased to associate various properties with this tiny but concrete object (spin, charge, etc) and accepts all this as at least, approximate truth. Then quantum theory comes along. Although the realist happily accepts a probabilistic view of electron states on the basis of good evidence, she has some difficulty keeping her realist hat on while trying to accept that the electron is ‘really’ not one thing or another until it’s observed.
This may not be particularly relevant to the scientist in the field but it’s certainly a provocative thought if you happen to be a realist. Maybe a purpose of philosophy is to act as a gadfly. As Socrates is reported to have said, “to sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth.” I will add this to my list headed, ‘what philosophy is for’.
cMOOC found in an xMOOC ! – I’m convinced that inside every xMOOC there’s a cMOOC trying to get out. This can be difficult because of the way things are set up, particularly with Coursera’s terrible clunky closed forums but, just as in cMOOCs, there is a natural tendency for at least some participants to cooperate, create, share and make connections. Some examples – one participant posts her reflections, not only on current course material but on supplementary references she’s actually studied: all with helpful links. Various study subgroups have been set up by participants under headings of nationality, age, location, subject specialist etc though I haven’t noticed very much activity in these very recently. There are a number of helpful experts, mainly in the physical sciences and computing areas, who really do seem to know what they’re talking about – maybe contrary to my initial impressions when some people seemed more defensive and less tolerant of the poets! A good example of DIY spirit was the participant who, single-handedly, produced a complete transcript of this weeks videos before the official version was available.
Comment Scraping – I undertook to unleash my Comment Scraper on the introphil MOOC but my main computer with all the programs crashed more than a week ago. I’m hoping to get it back today and if so, comment scraping can be restarted, though some comments will be irrevocably lost because of missed aggregation.
‘Should You Believe What You Hear?’ was the title for this week. It was all very interesting to me as a Scotsman because there was so much to say about David Hume and his rival, the religiously trained Thomas Reid, also a Scottish philosopher who became a professor at the University of Aberdeen in 1752. Reid was the more trusting and thought people were naturally inclined to believe what others told them and that they tended to be truthful themselves. Hume on the other hand was all for ‘intellectual autonomy’ – think for yourself and don’t trust testimony unless you have evidence that it’s likely to be right.
I knew almost nothing about Thomas Reid but David Hume of course is very well known and his views seem far more in tune with the world today than Reid’s. Reid appeals to ‘Common Sense’ as a guiding force in his ‘Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense’ (1764) although, to me anyway, some of his beliefs seem lacking in just that! To be fair, the same could also be said of some of Hume’s beliefs judging from a video on Louise Taylor’s excellent blog. I’m beginning to think that all philosophers tend to push the boundaries of common sense a little too far but maybe that’s part of what philosophy is for, as well as asking and thinking about questions instead of answering them.
I tend to place some reliance on common sense. What else have we got when we move out of our own personal areas of expertise? If common sense is the distillation of life’s experience that we carry around in our heads, ever ready to deal pragmatically with day-to-day problems, it should not be too surprising that one person’s common sense can be very different from another’s. Also, common sense ideas from the past have often been shown to be wrong. All the same, it’s unsettling to think of common sense just floating around unanchored in a sea of subjectivity.
Years ago, a panel of luminaries such as Julian Huxley, Alfred Ayer, Jacob Bronowski, Bertrand Russell etc would come together on an extremely popular BBC radio programme called ‘The Brains Trust’. One question for discussion that I remember was, “What is common sense” but what sticks with me is not their actual words of wisdom but my astonishment at how elusive definition seemed to be and how much they had to say about it. I can’t come up with a good definition of common sense either. Who knows? Maybe I will by the end of this course!