Posts Tagged ‘introphil’
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!
In the Forum This Week
An anonymous participant (I’m uneasy about anonymity but there can be good reasons for it) posted a comment in the forum wondering why some people there already seem so familiar with philosophy. After all, it IS a course with designated teachers and students and furthermore it’s an INTRODUCTORY course so students should have little or no previous knowledge of the subject. This was followed by some choice remarks on self-aggrandising participants obstructing reasoned debate.
SIGH!! – On reflection, I remembered my own puzzlement on entering my first MOOC (CCK11 a cMOOC on ‘Connective Learning’) and finding some participants who seemingly knew it all and had attended the same course, once or even twice before! This turned out to be fortunate. They were usually quite willing to encourage and share with the newbies – I’m still in touch with some.
Anyway, I got carried away and posted something along the following lines on this and some other issues that were bothering me. It’s a bit preachy but I’ve more or less reproduced it all here, not only because I’m lazy (or it’s going to sink without trace in the mammoth forum!) but because I think it says something about ‘MOOCs-of-our-time’ in general – and xMOOCs in particular.
Address to Disgruntled Participants
I’m an academic, a retired one at least, with the time to have participated in several MOOCs since 2011. MOOCs are relatively new so it’s inevitable that many of you joining a MOOC for the first time have expectations based on your experience of traditional courses. A MOOC is, or can be, a very different animal – some say it’s NOT a ‘course’ at all! First and foremost, a MOOC is for self-learners. How could it be anything else? Individual attention by the facilitators is in short supply given thousands of students – we’re lucky that the level and quality of contributions made by our facilitators is unusually high.
Open admission to a MOOC results in a wide diversity of participants who differ in educational background, age, language, culture etc. Of course a MOOC on a ‘popular’ subject like philosophy attracts those who already know, or think they know, along with those who know very little. The challenge for us is to learn to learn from each other – not to expect the last word in squeaky-clean knowledge to be pumped one way into our brains by the facilitators!
A challenge for facilitators is to frame the syllabus so that everyone has a fighting chance of departing with something of educational benefit, including the vast majority of the 90,000, the so-called ‘dropouts’ who, for whatever reasons, will not complete the MOOC. Personally, I can’t think of a better strategy than what’s being done – presenting basic philosophical nuts and bolts with the minimum of technicalities and a nod and a wink to the philosophers and issues of our own times. This suits me very well as a beginner but there’s also numerous links to additional material for the more advanced and (in spite of such a clunky forum) plenty opportunity for them to assist others – there’s certainly good examples of this happening.
MOOCs present far less of a problem when it comes to ‘trolls’, ‘know-it-alls’ and so on than for a traditional course. Just move on, don’t react – start your own thread somewhere else. The facilitators will act if there’s a serious problem.
Finally, on the videos – this is probably the first time that some of the facilitators have tackled anything like this before and I think they’ve done an absolutely excellent job. Nothing wrong with constructive criticism of course but some comments I’ve seen appear very unfair. Lecturing may seem effortless (particularly if you’ve never done it yourself!) but very few people are naturals and most have to work hard to get it right. It’s hard enough lecturing to a traditional classroom of students where at least there’s some opportunity for feedback but lecturing at a dumb camera must be quite a change. I suspect that considerable time and effort, planning and rehearsal has gone into the making of these videos – and they’re all being made freely available to us.
This week I tried really hard to connect with other participants through the forum – but without much success. This is unsettling – not like the cMOOCs. Far better to slink away with the notes and downloaded videos, they’re really good, and abandon the connected learning thing.
If that’s my emotional reaction then what about someone with less of an educational background, or whose English is limited, having to wrestle with such a mammoth and clunky online forum? All 90,000 people said to have enrolled for this MOOC may not be using the forum but hundreds certainly are! Unless a post catches the eye in the first few hours of its birth it dies an early death; a fate suffered by many many posts. I doubt if the authors ever return again after a couple of tries. Setting aside fundamental objections to stuffing hundreds of participants into a closed and centralised forum, it’s not so very difficult to come up with suggestions on how to improve navigation and other features of the forum as it stands – and some participants already have. I would head the list with a basic forum FAQ so that for starters, participants could learn how to find their own posts!
Fortunately, it’s in the power of MOOCs to triumph over adversity and the Massive in MOOC is ensuring that impressively large numbers of participants are engaging in the forum and probably learning something. As always for MOOCs, exactly what’s being learned can be difficult to pinpoint but there’s certainly vigorous discussion. Some participants are expert in one field or another and their contributions can be illuminating – or even intimidating if they become impatient with the non-experts. The trouble with philosophy is that no topic is off-topic so there’s endless debate on just about everything under the sun (or beyond it!) and not all is particularly philosophical. On the other hand there are excellent contributions by individuals who are labelled, ‘Instructors’ and others by ‘Students’ focusing more on the philosophical angle – the questions behind questions rather than the questions themselves. I’m coming to think that’s what philosophy is, or should be about.
This week we got right into some of the epistemological problems that philosophers worry about. Propositional knowledge is knowledge that – eg Paris is the capital of France (Where have I heard that one before?).
For a belief about something to be knowledge the Justified True Belief (JTB) theory requires that:
- It has to actually be true.
- It has to be believed to be true.
- The belief has to be justifiable – good reasons needed in support of why it’s true.
So far so good and evidently all philosophers from Plato down were reasonably happy with this until one, Edmund Gettier, in 1963, rather short on publications, finally published a 3-page paper that completely upset the apple cart!
Here’s my homespun example of a Gettier case:
I lock my car manually before I go shopping but on returning, I operate my electronic key fob in the belief that my car will unlock. As expected the car then unlocks with the usual audible clunk and flash of indicator lights. But when I get home my wife apologises for removing the battery from the key fob (it was a new battery) and forgetting to tell me!
Now 1. and 2. above are satisfied and so is 3. I had good justification as the key fob had always been reliable and with a new battery, I’d every reason to believe it would do its job. What actually happened was that, by a fantastic fluke, someone else nearby with exactly the same key code had operated their own key fob at exactly the same time causing my car to unlock! (This is not impossible – the number of different codes is finite!) So JTB fails – the car unlocked as I believed it would be and my belief was well-justified but yet the car would have remained locked were it not for a lucky accident. My belief turns out to be false and therefore not knowledge.
With most epistemoligists accepting the breakdown of JTB it’s back to the drawing board. I can’t get my head around JTB theory too well but my feeling is that there’s something fundamentally suspect about the whole thing. It may be a useful exercise in manipulating the nuts and bolts of philosophic thought but it doesn’t seem to relate much to what Prof Pritchard stated, very sensibly, at the outset in his first lecture about it being “… crucial to us to understand both what knowledge is and to assure ourselves that we have as much knowledge as we think we do.” Fair enough, but in everyday life what counts as knowledge is rarely the strict stuff of JTB. It’s more like, “maybe true” or “somewhat false” or even a bit of both depending on folks’ perspectives. Now something like Information Theory may sharpen up the everyday concept of information very satisfactorily for telecommunications engineers who design efficient networks and so on but as far as I know there’s nothing similar for dealing with ‘knowledge’.
I think of knowledge as essentially a property of a brain that’s well-developed by evolution to somehow code and store a sophisticated model of the external world – and ever ready for action. Knowledge that ‘Paris is the capital of France’ brings all sorts of associations with it that I need to act on if I actually go to Paris. Good knowledge is what correlates well but never perfectly, with what’s actually out there – maybe I won’t get lost on the Paris Metro if I have it! Measuring knowledge and how it’s acquired is of course something else again – perhaps best left to the neurologists of the future or even educators.
Brain in a Vat? Controlled by Evil Demons? Why not!
Enough! I enjoyed this second week despite my reservations. I’m less dubious about the importance of Radical Skepticism and the ‘Brain in a Vat’ problem. You only need a little imagination of the SF type to realise that there’s an infinity of Matrix-like scenarios leading to the same conclusion that it’s impossible to know they’re unreal. It’s important and humbling for we bigheads to have serious doubts cast on whether we can really know anything. Life is based on assumptions – fine! – let’s make our assumptions wisely and then get on with it!
After one week I’m really enjoying the Introduction to Philosophy MOOC and this is encouraging as I’ve no background in the subject at all. Thankfully, the academic level seems very basic and IMHO the lecturing style and performance of Dave Ward (and his jumper) featuring in the first week videos is very good. For me anyway, these five short videos were just the right length for single study sessions and they have a degree of clarity and a lack of verbal distraction (errs.. and umms.. etc) that I’ve rarely experienced in ‘live’ lectures. Some participants found Dave’s Scottish accent difficult but, being Scottish myself and having lectured to audiences of diverse nationalities, I’m fairly sure there should be no real problem for anyone with a reasonable grasp of English. In any case complete transcripts of all the lectures are available for download. The existence of Dave’s jumper though was a problem for some – ‘jumper’ is ‘sweater’ in American – not a potential suicide!
I think xMOOCs should become more like cMOOCs but I don’t think it’s necessarily all one way. As a beginner, would I have learned as effectively in a cMOOC offering a similar course without the scaffolding provided by a competent ‘teacher’? The introphil forum is overwhelming with hundreds upon hundreds of people discussing everything under the sun. This is excellent and there’s a reasonably good spirit of tolerance and respect among participants but I doubt if we could teach each other the basics of philosophy very well without teacher!
I must have contributed something to a ‘Meaning of Life’ forum because every few seconds another Meaning arrives in my email. There doesn’t seem to be a forum search box on every page and you can’t search for people by name unless they happen to be mentioned in the body of posts. With so many participants (around 90,000 evidently registered) the forums do not seem fit for purpose and my impression is that the well-meaning instructors are struggling to cope.
Occupy the MOOCs !
Looking through the massive introphil forums I came across an interesting contribution by a young lady from a so-called underdeveloped country – I can’t find it now of course! Looking at her profile, she was registered for around 16 different xMOOCs running this year. Now maybe she’s a budding genius with the time to participate and distinguish herself in so many academic areas. Or maybe she has a real but casual interest in a multitude of topics and intends to participate in as many MOOCs as she can whenever she has the time. Or maybe she’ll just login to download everything and study it at a later date and if she happens to be a teacher, pass it on to others. Maybe she even intends to print it up and sell it at cost – or even at a profit! Does it really matter much what she does? Of course the more that goes into a MOOC by way of sharing and connecting with other participants the better the learning experience but many are not fortunate enough to fully participate. Let’s just be grateful that MOOCs are here to stay with a stupid name that might actually help to draw a sharp distinction between them and traditional courses, on or offline. Let’s accept that, on the whole, MOOCs are or should be FOR the ‘lurker’, the ‘toe-dipper’, the ‘dropout’ and not necessarily be considered deficient just because they don’t live up to the learning objectives of traditional courses. Learners of the world unite – Occupy the MOOCs!
Yesterday the Comment Scraper came up with 145 comments from 36 posts covering about a week of etmooc activity. (I’m only archiving the output now as discussed here.) I’m going to try aggregating comments from WordPress or Blogger introphil blogs in the same way – from small beginnings at present! It will be helpful if such blogs include introphil as a tag or text in the body of posts.