Dec 28, 2015

InPO 2015 Stage II - Different Strokes

Different Strokes

The Stage I of the Indian Philosophy Olympiad 2015 was conducted between 19th and 22nd Dec with students attempting an online test with SCQ, MCQ and some grid-response questions. The form was available online to all and there was no time constraint or other checks. Students were expected to research on the internet to answer the questions. Out of the 220+ people who enrolled we got about 170+ responses with many students in the top 20 percentile. These 31 students were chosen to the next level.

At the Indian Philosophy Olympiad Stage II which ran through 25th - 27th Dec 2015, we tried a new way of testing students. The usual manner was to conduct an essay round like the IPO or the Baltic Sea Essay Event. What we had seen over the past many years of asking students to write philosophical essays, especially when they were uninitiated into philosophy, was that even the best of them wrote an ineffective argument. Arguing from different points of view and comprehending the author's argument are key to writing a good essay. 

Hence, we chose to present the students with various tasks, each one taking them through a certain steps of learning (like a tutorial) and then posing them questions to complete their learning. These tasks built up to the point where students should be able to elaborate their thoughts into an essay. So rather than writing essays, we got them to first grasp the issues involved in the arguments and then the problems with the arguments presented. Finally they reached the point where they had to critically examine and comprehend the author's argument.

I write this to enthuse those who attempted the first stage but fell short of crossing over to the next one. To these students I say - Well done and a good show - and to them I owe a little training, so they make it better the coming year. And, even if they may not participate in the Olympiad, they would really benefit from some critical thinking. Hence and also for the sake of record, I present the outline of the tasks for Stage II here with links to the tutorials.

Task 1 - Classifying Issues

One of the first things we need to learn before proceeding with discussing philosophical quotes is to sort out the context of the quote. In that, we need to realize what branch does the issue discussed in a quote belongs to and hence if and does it have a bounded context. Also, the author may be arguing from a certain 'ism' (point of view) and hence again it may narrow down the scope of the author's argument. This thinking will later benefit you in being able to counter-argue.

Thus we have described in the posts below as to what things you need to be aware of and learn to whatever extent possible in order to categorize thoughts in philosophy. The discussions in the posts are examples of thinking done by previous teams and as such you may ignore particulars like how the training camp will proceed etc. and focus on the concepts and tips. The task was to go through each of the statements given in the questions and try to classify as to which area / branch of philosophy they belong to as specifically as possible. Through this round we observed sense of language, general awareness of philosophy and the world in general and the capacity to differentiate between various ideas. 

Task 2 - Grasping Reason

Now, before one can analyse the opponents argument comprehensively and hence construct one's own point of view, one must be able to spot the reason or the absence of it in his opponent's words. Thus arguments can be:
1. Valid: Conclusions follow unambiguously from the premises
2. Sound: It's valid and it's premises are true
3. Persuasive: It makes complete sense to you. i.e. there is no other way this issue can be looked at

Read the following posts and the connected links (especially Jim Pryor's page) before moving further:

Now read the little chit chat between our dear Pooja and Abhishek and try to put things into perspective for yourself. Then try to spot in each chunk / part of the argument whether the argument put forward by either speakers is Valid, Sound and Persuasive. If it is not one of these for some reason, specify so and explain your reasons. Each question allows space to write about one chunk of the argument, do not mix them together. You may give the context or reference of another chunk while discussing the problem with a particular one, but your examination should be restricted to the given chunk.

Abhishek and Pooja are reading an article about the Syrian refugee crisis. They have the following discussion while sipping on tea comfortably in their homes in India.
------ Part 1------
Abhishek: Hey Pooja, do you know that countless Syrians are being displaced by the ongoing civil war? They have lost their homes, families and property. Even so, European countries are reluctant to accept the fleeing refugees into their countries. Isn’t that abhorable?
Pooja: That’s not true. Many European countries are opening their doors to the refugees, even though they have no obligation to do so. They are doing their bit.
Abhishek: But why don’t they all think from a humanitarian point of view? These rich countries have more than enough money to take care of these refugees. So don’t you think that it is their duty to do so?
Pooja: Hmm… yes, you are right. Of course it is. 
------ Part 2------
Abhishek: The European countries (especially the NATO members) have this duty because they are largely responsible for the political instability in the Middle East.
Pooja: However what do you think will happen if these European countries begin to take in refugees indiscriminately? Most of the refugees are Muslims. Do you think they will be able to assimilate with the predominantly Christian societies in these countries? There might be a clash of cultural values, leading to unrest, followed by riots and perhaps even civil war. Do really think that they should take such a risk? 
Abhishek: Don’t be so harsh on them. I have family friends who live in Germany. They have temporarily opened up their home to a pregnant refugee, who they say is the sweetest woman in the world.  I think it’s impossible that these refugees could ever be so ungrateful to the people who are doing so much for them.
Pooja: Well I don’t know... All I can say is that some countries like Germany could accept refugees. Not out of the goodness of their heart, but rather because they have a valid reason to do so : countering their own rapidly aging and shrinking demographic.
Abhishek: What!? So are you saying that European countries should accept refugees only for their own selfish and pragmatic reasons?
Pooja: So you think it is wrong for countries to think about their own good, but it is their moral duty to help other people? How hypocritical!
Then they both go to have a chilled ice-cream, at the nearest Baskin & Robbins.

Task 3 - Interpreting Quotes

So far you have tried to understand what an argument talks about and if it has flaws. Now we turn to arguments made by professional philosophers which are usually quite valid and sound (there are exceptions). However, they may not be persuasive due to some or the other fallacy or limitation of perspectives. This is where philosophical research lies. And this is where the IPO expects the student to be able to form opinions, which are after a due consideration of the argument made by the philosopher in question.

So we turn to interpreting quotes of various authors. The first thing here is that you are not expected to know exactly what the author meant and in what context did he say that. You are not even expected to have read a lot of philosophical texts of the 'ism' of the author or for that matter any texts at all. What is expected however is that you are able to coherently interpret the argument presented in the quote and hence argue in support or opposition. For this task you are required to only interpret the author's argument. There should be no attempt to express your point of view or present a counter argument. 

So how do you proceed? Read up the links below which are takes on different quotes. The first parts of these discussions are what we think is the argument of the author - i.e. what premises must he have had in mind (or rather in the full text of his work from which this is taken) and how must he have connected them towards the conclusion. The intention is to comprehend the author's reasoning with justice to his point of view and not to deliberately introduce fallacies in his (perceived) argument so that we can later hammer it down.

The manner in which you write this down can be (preferably) as points (premises, connecting statements / hidden premises and conclusion) as shown in most of the examples. Or, you could write a para or two to explain the author's context. You will have to read between the lines and try to explore what each clause /phrase in the quote means and how it connects to the other. You will have to use your knowledge and understanding of the world and how it works to fill in the missing pieces of logic, keeping in mind that you cannot put words in the author's mouth. 

2. (Only read up to Piekoff's argument as the further part is not relevant to today's task)
3. (Focus only on my take of Hobbes' argument)
4. (This gives another style in which you could present an argument)

All these tasks were put up on Google forms and space for answers was provided.

Though we are still processing the answers, a quick glimpse indicates that many students did exceedingly well compared to previous years. We have many really detailed arguments in the answers, which could indicate that the method worked. i.e. Students seemed to have learnt philosophizing while giving their first test in philosophy.

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