Jan 31, 2014

Solutions to "intuiting about philosophy" - part 2

5. Does a person have a right to complain about the religious practices of his neighbors if the sound of these practices is reaching his home, loudly? Does this mean that he is being intolerant? Is this morally wrong?

Abhishek: Main branch - Ethics. This is because the question deals with morality and behavior. Specific branch - Normative ethics and Meta-ethics and Descriptive ethics. This is because the questions considers whether that person ought to act in a specific way (normative ethics); evaluating the rightness or wrongness of that action - morality (meta-ethics). It also considers whether that person has a "right" to act in a particular way, i.e. - people's views about the action (descriptive ethics).
Me: It is broadly stemming from Ethics or the study of the rules of behavior in a society. However, this goes more to the applied area of Praxeology where human action is studied in the context of its consequences on a larger societal setup as also the consequences of setting rules to be followed by certain components of society. Praxeology deals with areas like politics and economics where we discuss about not the behavior of one individual person, but a whole community. Note that if the individual X suffering on account of his neighbors (Y's) loud prayers, decides to engage in conflict or call the cops, then ANY such individual in that community must get the same right. (Unless the community has agreed that some members are ethnically superior to others, as is the case in ethnic dictatorships or nations with strong and fanatic religious majorities) If yes, then any other individual (Z) may protest about X's practices, which may be subtle, but the very idea that X eats meat (just an example) on the "holy" days can be intolerable to Z ... and so on. Taking this reasoning further we see that the issue of tolerating someone's culture/behavior, as long as it does not intentionally harm us, is an essential in a multi-cultural environment such as India. Now maybe you see the link to Politics. 
All the same tolerance with no limits can be considered a sign of weakness by some and can lead to deliberate attacks on the tolerant. This in turn necessitates conditions on the governance of the community. This raises questions of whether religion (or God) are / are not above the country. This also raises issues of economic stability which again have a bearing on the rules of governance. So you see, it is not an individual's moral choice alone, although every individual has a right to protest (in a democracy) against anything "intolerable". It is more of an issue to be resolved by the whole community or the government that represents it.

6. Is it appropriate to feed lots of chocolates to a chimpanzee to see if the chimp starts suffering from diabetes?

Abhishek: Main branch - Ethics. This is because the question deals with morality and behavior. Specific branch - Normative ethics and Applied ethics. This is because the questions considers whether that person ought to act in a specific way (normative ethics); and whether this action is moral in a particular with respect to a particular issue (clinical or medical ethics in this case) (applied ethics)
Me: Personally, I would be glad to have the chimp be tested in order that my diabetes can be eventually treated; or to think of it, I would actually feed the poor chap with lots of chocolate, which I am sure he would enjoy to the sweet end. But that's all from personal experience and desires. Now lets think professionally. ;)
Would I like to be in the chimp's place, suppose an superior alien race wants to test a virus? So this is a question pertaining an action by some humans and supported by a larger group of humans, either knowingly or otherwise. However, it is an issue where the individual has to take a decisive stand and its consequences need not affect the larger society directly. So we can rule out Praxeology or any other applied areas. This is Ethics, sub branch - Bioethics. The issue here is about how much we understand other forms of life and value life as a whole. It is at a deeper level how we evaluate the value of something which is not really tangible or direct, viz., the idea of Man's superiority and hence benevolence against his efforts for solutions (which may or may not materialize) to further his survival. This goes to the extent of discussing whether Man gets to play God. Read some essays by Peter Singer. Try doing this free course by Singer to get some perspective.

7. Is it 'OK' to mimic Shah Rukh Khan (dance or speech or fashion) because you adore him? Girls may choose Katrina Kaif.

Abhishek: Main branch - Ethics. This is because the question deals with morality and behavior. Specific branch - Normative ethics and Descriptive ethics. This is because the questions considers whether that person ought to act in a specific way - imitating a particular actor/actress (normative ethics), based on people's views about the action (descriptive ethics).
Incidentally, the part of the question that stated that a girl may choose Katrina Kaif is an example of descriptive ethics. Girls choosing an actress to imitate while boys choosing an actor is based on people's views about gender. Normative ethics would also involve asking whether it is okay for a boy to imitate Katrina Kaif? And a girl to imitate Shah Rukh Khan?
Me: I realized that I should have used a newer role model than K-K-K-Khan uncle, but I guess you get the point. Mimicking someone is the natural method of learning new things - when you are a baby, that's how you learnt to speak or move or dance (well you weren't really a baby then, I suppose) - when you grew older, that's how you learnt to socialize, to dress-up, etc. - when you get really old, you still use it now and then to learn new physical skills or complex tasks or to blend in. But you see, the dependence on this method as against deliberate cognition - analyse, classify, reason, discriminate, synthesize, hypothesize, verify, justify, ... - should decrease as you grow more mature. 
So you see, the issue is largely about what you feel is acceptable in society and hence what you should or not do. This is again Ethics, but as all of the students who answered so far have pointed out - Normative Ethics. What is the norm, i.e. standard of social acceptability? How should I behave to blend in more? As also, what do I think is heroic or idealistic? This last part usually depends upon the social norm, but need not be always so. So as long as it is a questions of and for an individual, it is normative ethics.
Now further on, while taking a decision about whether it is "OK" to do so, you end up dabbling with meta-ethics as well. If you extend the question to society at large and for all individuals, i.e. should all barbers trim the hair of youngsters in the Khan or the Kaif style and therefore should all heads of school make this a part of the school dress code, etc. you are questioning "whether it is right to act as per the norm" OR "should the norms be enforced". I am sure some of my students who had the misfortune of watching my hands work synchronously with my scissors, from very close, wouldn't dare support the allowance of fashion as a norm. In essence here you could go as far as to question, whether a philosophy which support / opposes normative thinking, is the better one. 
Coming to Abhishek's final comment there: There is indeed a connection between Descriptive and Normative theories wherein it is the people's views which eventually create the norm and you could question whether it is appropriate for a girl to dress like a boy or vice verse. 

8. What is a joke? What makes us laugh?

Abhishek: Main branch - Aesthetics. This is because the question deals with the study of art and beauty. Specific branch - Nature of Art and Aesthetic Judgement and Aesthetic Taste. This is because the question deals with what a joke is (nature of art), whether we consider a given something to be a joke based on our understanding of what a joke is (aesthetic judgement), and whether we find the joke funny - whether we appreciate it (aesthetic taste)
Me: Yes Abhishek & Aparna, it is Aesthetics and no Aparna it is not ethics, although it does raise ethical questions, such as whether we should laugh a certain community based on some of their common characteristics, etc. Humor is usually associated with the idea of difference or oddness, particularly with the difference in something or someone which makes the thing or person appear wrong in the given context. For instance imagine me hogging chocolates instead of the chimp, (Oh I'm loving it) or Abhishek dressed up like Katrina, or a plump chap slipping on a banana peel. Feels funny doesn't it. "How silly can these people be", "How weird would that look", etc.
Now think of the same in a different context: The great and handsome and muscular me (as I actually am) eating a chocolates with an air of gracefulness. (how sensuous - you would say) Abhishek dressed like Katrina when he was 2 year old. (Ohh! how cute - you may say) Plump guy slipping on the peel and hitting his head into a coma, and wait it minute - its your uncle!!! (now try laughing)
So you see, humor is an issue of evaluating the effect of certain situations on people and determining which ones they would find odd / wrong / weird, but without a feeling of personal involvement. It is a process of evaluation of the psycho-epistemology of people. (why you feel that which you feel) The degree of laughter and hence the degree of the humor presented as an art-form has to be evaluated on the basis of the metaphysics of the artist and the audience. (what do they think is unreal / unnatural, hence humorous)
 So here goes the first assignment. Abhishek you gave really good answers; Satya and Aparna - well tried - next time elaborate your thoughts; and everyone - put your thoughts in the comments (FB or blogger) for all to see and discuss. Thus Abhishek, you get a reward - You are hereby allowed (even at the peril of losing face) to wear ANY costume at the official ceremonies of the IPO (Please try to be more confirming, ;) ). 

So long. Stay tuned for the next assignment. (in a day or two ...)

Solutions to "intuiting about philosophy" - part 1

In the assignment posted a few days ago, I had asked learners to classify 8 different issues as to the branch of philosophy that deals with them. I got some really good answers from Abhishek, Satyasarvani and Aparna. Lets dissect these.

1. In what way should one submit oneself to God.

Abhishek: Main branch - Ethics; This is because the question deals with morality and behavior. Specific branch - Normative ethics and Applied Ethics; This is because the questions considers how a person ought to act (normative ethics). It also deals with a specific issue - religion and thus would be related to personal or private religious ethics (a part of applied ethics)
Me: The question is usually answered as a diktat from a certain theological standpoint and as such is outside the purview of systematic philosophy. i.e. One religion may ask its follower to submit via penance, while another may advocate highest learning about the world and beyond. These diktats usually have some reasoning (although based on fallacious grounds) which usually end up with "God said so" or that "God likes it like this" or some such variant. Philosophy is about asking questions and finding out deeper truths. Diktats are therefore not what philosophers do. However, questioning the rationale behind such theocratic doctrines is left to Philosophy of Religion. Ethics deals with behavior in human society, while the question above pertains to behavior towards that which transcends all that is human. Hence although normative ethics would analyse how people follow tenets of religion or applied ethics would discuss how subjugating oneself to God may be beneficial (or not) and how should one go about it, neither can define the method by which this may be done. So technically this question is theological and not philosophical, however, philosophy of religion is the closest tool to analyse various theologies and their take on this issue. 

2. What are the conditions for saying "I Know"? Is it sufficient to have heard it from someone or is it necessary to actually have seen it / sensed it?

Abhishek: Main branch - Epistemology. This is because the question is regarding the study of knowledge. Specific branch - Acquisition of knowledge : A priori and A posteriori knowledge. This is because the question asks whether obtaining knowledge should be experience-independent (A priori) or experience-dependent (A posteriori).
Me: This is definitely a question from Epistemology. Epistemology deals with what is knowledge?, what does it mean "to know"?, is knowledge subjective or objective? and so on. As Abhishek rightly points out, it is an issue of whether we need to have an experience of something to truly "know" it or is learning indirectly from a trusted source, sufficient. It further deals with issues such as sensory data (what we sense) as being different from perception (what we make of it and is it necessarily the same) and the cognition (what we consciously think about it and learn from it or connecting it with other knowledge) as being the ultimate stage of "knowing". It also questions - if we have never sensed it ourselves, then can we be sure about its existence?. In this, it enters into the realm of metaphysics and would need to discuss what is existence. Thus the Theory of knowledge is an epistemic inquiry with a metaphysical basis. 

3. What is the meaning of adding the number 1 to any number?

Abhishek: Main branch - Epistemology. This is because the question is regarding the study of knowledge. Specific branch - Nature of knowledge - Propositional knowledge. This is because the question is regarding knowing that (propositional knowledge) addition of 1 to number means something and about finding out this meaning.
Aparna: Epistemology, Rationalism
Me: The study of math entails the study and acceptance of many abstractions, one of which is 'numbers'. Although we can point out objects and count them, the idea of numbers remains abstract. Just to highlight this point, consider this question: If we count all the objects in the known universe (from people to mountains to fishes to molecules to toothpicks and then to stars and so on) we should be able to come up with some (very large) number. So, so far we know what each number we counted stood for. However, if we add 1 to this number, what would that stand for? (of course I already counted myself). So, if a number does not correspond to something, does it have meaning? Does meaning have to do with correspondance, or is it more about implication? (for example if an ant gave birth to another ant, then our counting would increase by 1 and thus the new number "would" exist and hence "has" meaning) Have a look at Max Tegmarks hypothesis for an interesting viewpoint. So to answer my question, this is partly epistemology, in the sense that we discuss about what is the knowledge associated with numbers or mathematical operations, but it is a more specific application of epistemology and partly metaphysics (what is the meaning of?) of reality into the field of abstractions, namely - Philosophy of Mathematics.
Response to Aparna: Rationalism like many other '-isms' (e.g. logical positivism) take different standpoints to answer a question. Strict Realism for example may say that the numbers are just referrals to real objects and as such have no meaning and hence addition by 1 is simply a mechanism to refer to 1 more object. So in the absence of objects, this process has no meaning. Whereas, Plato's idealism or even Tegmark's hypothesis would claim that the numbers have their own existence in a world transcending our's and thus addition is just our way of understanding relations between different, already existing numbers. So you see, that is what isms do. They however do not change the area of philosophy in which the question is posed. Sometimes, questions are posed from one ism to counter another. Very rarely, questions from one area (from any ism) may lead to redefining another area by reclassifying the issues that come under it. e.g. Darwin's observations and the scientific questions he posed, shifted the focus of origin of life from religion to science.

4. Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder or is it really about the hand of the artist?

Abhishek: Main branch - Aesthetics. This is because the question deals with the study of art and beauty. Specific branch - Aesthetic judgement - Objective and Subjective Nature of Art. This is because the question deals with whether beauty is objective - innate, or viewer-independent; or subjective - viewer-dependent.
Me: Abhishek, Satya & Aparna are all pretty much on the mark here. It is Aesthetics. It has been a raging debate in this field for more than 2000 years about whether beauty is objective or subjective (read more here). Aparna is close in saying that it is an issue of values; more specifically of value judgement. It calls for a metaphysical understanding of how (and why) one forms a value judgement about something. For example, the ancient Greeks held that strength and heroism was something to be aspired to and this is depicted in most art of that era. Another example is where a teenager who cannot handle his emotional turbulence, prefers the escape into the world of films or songs, almost all the time, and thus finds songs about dreams and maybe love, to be extremely beautiful. Read The Romantic Manifesto by Ayn Rand to a get a clearer picture of this issue.
The next four answers in the next post. Stay tuned ...

Jan 28, 2014

Developing a little intuition about Philosophy

Hello learners,
As I had mentioned in my earlier post, we need to start grappling with philosophy as a subject of study. This means we get our heads around a little jargon. An introductory piece was in the links in that post - step 1. Some more stuff in a quick form can be found here. Having read this and some other books on philosophy, you should be able to figure out which branch of philosophy deals with which kind of issues. The purpose for learning this is:
  1. To take a narrow view - it helps when you are faced with a quote at the IPO or a similar exam/competition, to know which branch the issue belongs to, as this helps you recollect the different thinkers / isms contributing to this area. (assuming to store information systematically) Hence you can construct your argument for the essay.
  2. To take it slightly broader - It helps you to store info systematically, when you learn about the ideas in context of their development and the thinkers' backgrounds - more like learning the history of philosophy. However, to achieve this in a short time, its best to take a quick input of material, such as in the links above.
So now, try to sort out the following as an assignment and answer the same as comments to this post.
Which branch(es) would deal with the following issues? Give the broad branch first, then be more specific
e.g. Q: What is Life? What do you call as "alive"? Answer: broadly - Metaphysics; finer look - Ontology
  1. In what way should one submit oneself to God.
  2. What are the conditions for saying "I Know"? Is it sufficient to have heard it from someone or is it necessary to actually have seen it / sensed it?
  3. What is the meaning of adding the number 1 to any number?
  4. Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder or is it really about the hand of the artist?
  5. Does a person have a right to complain about the religious practices of his neighbors if the sound of these practices is reaching his home, loudly? Does this mean that he is being intolerant? Is this morally wrong?
  6. Is it appropriate to feed lots of chocolates to a chimpanzee to see if the chimp starts suffering from diabetes?
  7. Is it 'OK' to mimic Shah Rukh Khan (dance or speech or fashion) because you adore him? Girls may choose Katrina Kaif.
  8. What is a joke? What makes us laugh?
So send me the answers in a couple of days. I intend to move to the next step by this weekend.

Jan 22, 2014

About preparing for the Olympiad

Team India for IPO 2014 (Lithuania) has been finalized and the training begins. Ms. Aparna Mishra (Bokaro) and Mr. Abhishek Dedhe (Pune) have agreed to join the team and take the efforts needed. Mr. Previous international participants - Ms. Pooja Bilimogga (MSc - I, Physics) and Mr. Abhinav Menon (IB - DP finals) - have agreed to help with the training of this team. 
I gather that both participants are avid readers and have read many books passed on in the markets as philosophical. (namely Chetan Bhagat or Paulo Coelho) They have also pondered over issues / questions of being and existence and "why things are the way they are". I believe that they are somewhat familiar with the traditional Hindu philosophy of Gita. and other related mythologies.
I find this to be the condition of most Indian students who are interested in doing philosophy, but have not yet been initiated into it by proper discourse. The fact that these students intentionally ponder over questions of life and "what it is" or "who they are" or "why things ..." is a proof that they have the curiosity needed to philosophize. However, in the absence of proper initiation, books such as self-help books or Chetan Bhagat, etc. provide the fodder for their thoughts. I think that the damage that these books (or similar philosophies touted by mystics or other "thinkers" who have not published any peer-reviewed essays, the latter being the way of a scientific pursuit) cause is 
  1. oversimplification of critical thought leading to wrong concepts
  2. "analysis" based on presumptions and usually with a weak or no argument, which nullifies the readers capacity to analyse
  3. unverified and usually unverifiable statements, which leave the reader to either take on faith or discard without thought, either of which is not the manner of the philosopher
I am not discussing this here to demean the literary value of these books or to in any way demean the efforts taken by Aparna or Abhishek or many others who are similarly interested. I am rather stating the problem that there are few resources (books, sites, etc) which can properly initiate a young mind into philosophical thought and engage him/her long enough so that he/she can produce an essay of intellectual value. (I do not count courses in philosophy, since they are usually very academic in nature and presume that the taker is already sufficiently motivated)
I do not pretend to be able to resolve this problem in an easy way. However, the course through which I have had good results in the past and course in which I intend to take this team is broadly as follows:
  1. Overview of the subject (1/2 week): Philosophy is a vast subject (if we may call it "a" subject) and consists of many branches. I ask the beginner to first have a quick glimpse of the issues in these branches so as to familiarize with the scope of philosophy. Wikipedia portal on philosophy and some specific pages like http://atheism.about.com/od/aboutphilosoph1/a/branches.htm could be good for starters. Discuss any doubts at the FB group.
  2. Tools of the subject (1 week): The most important thing to learn before learning or doing philosophy is logic and different terms like arguments, validity, fallacy, etc. See Jim Pryor's quick review of these issues. Wikipedia is also a good source for this, e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syllogism, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fallacies,  or you may find such other pages - http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/fallacies/. We can discuss some assignments like making arguments or finding flaws in them via the blog / FB, once students have read the material.
  3. Getting Perspectives (1 week):  It is now time to go deeper. Philosophy is different from science in that since it deals with many issues which have some un-observable phenomena at their base, hence different schools of thought crop up to explain issues from different viewpoints or to make different assumptions and solve the problems in their own way. These eventually end up as "-isms" such as realism, objectivism, mysiticism, idealism, etc. Look up wikipedia again for a quick review. These viewpoints are sometimes also known as different philosophies. We will discuss some simple issues from different isms to get a familiarity.
  4. Diving deeper (3-4 weeks per branch): Next step is to go deeper into a branch of philosophy - say Ethics. We choose the branch depending upon the interests of the students involved in this training. Ethics, Metaphysics or Praxeology are favorites at the IPO only because these contain issues that the pre-university learner can possibly handle, since you have come across these topics somewhere or the other in your humanities curricula or through general awareness. However other branches are given due justice once in a while and those can form some of the most interesting quotes to deal with at the IPO. We study the overview of the branch and then some pertinent issues from different points of view. We hone our argument making skills. We write some essays along the way.
  5. Forming opinions (3 weeks vigorous): Here's where we begin to perfect our essays. We take random issues from different branches or mixed stuff and discuss the arguments possible for or against. We brainstorm this online or in a classroom and hence learn how to explore the topic from every possible point of view, thereby making a complete argument. This goes on till the day of the competition.
All along this process students are encouraged to read up a few books which cover the overview of the subject and also familiarize the student with the work of specific philosophers and the language in which to put ones thoughts. One such thinker whose books are widely available is Bertrand Russell. Problems of philosophy is an excellent start. Another book you could read is Sophie's World by Josie Gaarder, which is a thorough introduction to the history of ideas (another name for development of philosophy) although in a very casual way through a novel-like approach.
Another author whose approach and language is very direct and convincing is Ayn Rand. Novels like Atlas Shrugged or the Fountainhead are more philosophically oriented than those of the other novelists I mentioned above. However the most important and direct philosophical works by Ms Rand in promoting her philosophy of Objectivism are For the New Intellectual and The Romantic Manifesto. Although Ms. Rand is not considered as a philosopher by the general community of philosophers, I personally find her thoughts eye-opening and her arguments lucid and usually without flaws. I find her solutions (that is generally rare in philosophy) to be very applicable. Hence I urge the students to read some of her work before they make up their minds about her. The minimum you would gain from reading Ayn Rand is a good grasp on verbal reasoning.
Thus we begin with Act I, Scene I - Overview. I expect some comments / queries / thoughts on the Facebook group before the end of January. The sooner we deal with the first three stages (say 2-3 weeks), the faster we can proceed.

p.s. Anyone is welcome to join these sessions. 

Jan 3, 2014

InPO final results

Dear all,
The final stage of the Indian Philosophy Olympiad is concluded with this declaration of the result. As the web site is experiencing some problem, we are posting the results here. Congratulations to all who attempted, as all of you are brave enough to think and thus all are winners.

Name Score Rank
Abhishek Dedhe 8.38 1
Aparna Mishra 7.63 2
Nihar Kulkarni 6.63 3
Rounak Majumdar 5.63 4
Purva Chaudhari 5.38 5
Rohan Dhere 5.38 5
Satyasarvani Pindiproli 4.5 6
Madhura Bilimogga 4 7
Manju Sharma 2.88 8

The top two in this list will be asked to join the Indian team for the IPO at Lithuania in May. If any one of them is unable to join then the next in rank will be asked. This process will culminate in a week or so and the final team for the IPO will be announced.
A more proper announcement of performances will be put up on the web site when the site is back online.