The OUDCE Philosophical Society Members’ Weekend

In 2002 it seemed to me that it was such a shame that we have so many intelligent, interesting members of the OUDCE Philosophical Society, but that they never got a formal opportunity to make their views public. So I suggested to the Philsoc committee that we hold an annual Members’ Day. This was a huge success. So much so that last year we changed it to a Members’ Weekend.

Philsoc Logo

Philsoc Logo

During this weekend a topic is chosen, and members volunteer to speak about it to the other members. Panel discussions are held in which the audience gets a chance to ask questions of the speakers, and lots of fun is had. In the evening of the Saturday we hold the Philosophical Society Dinner. At the dinner the Chadwick Prize, and the other prizes are given, and I get a chance to tell Philsoc members how proud I am of them.

This year the topic was The Nature of Thought. This is a subject close to my heart, so I was particularly interested to hear what our speakers would say, both in their talk and in the panel discussions.

Here is a brief resume of what (I think!) was said by each speaker:



Mike Arnautov: Can Computers (Really) Think?

Before Mike retired he was an AI specialist, so we were all interested to hear what he had to say about this. He started (quite properly for a philosopher) by defining his terms. He then laid out his aim: to look at the relations between mental events and neural events, to choose his favourite theory of the relation between these events, and to offer an analogy from computing to suggest (a) that this theory is correct, and (b) that mental states ARE neural states, and that the relationship between them is well-described by the theory of ‘anomalous monism’ (AM). This Mike proceeded to do. I was hugely impressed by his account of AM – this is a very difficult theory to get right – and his hypothesis sounded very convincing. I would need to know a bit more about computers to evaluate this part of his talk properly. Mike concluded that one day computers will be able to think – as he puts it: why not?!

James Innes: Thought in a Deterministic Universe

James started off by noting that there are a number of different words for thinking. But, he claimed, they all boil down to one thing: the manipulation of information by the brain in such a way that we can predict the future. This he pointed out is what makes thinking adaptive and accounts for its having evolved. The question he particularly wanted to address though was that of how does a physicalist, in a deterministic universe, account for the feeling of what it is to think, and for the nature of the thing that does the thinking. James’s reply appealed to his notion of a ‘virtual universe’, that is implied by the physical states of the brain, is subject to the law of cause and effect. Qualia arise from our immediate awareness of this virtual universe (they are the intrinsic qualities of experience). The self, James stressed, is not a homunculus who squats in our brain. Pace Nagel there is nothing it is like to be a bat, the sonar tells the bat all it needs to know, so there is no need for it to know about itself. Humans can introspect, but only because they have evolved to replicate in their imaginations the thoughts of others (and need to be able to access their own thoughts to do this). This self, according to James, is free, because the decision it (as brain) makes are good for it. I quizzed James later about his view of free will because it seemed to me that he could be allowed only the illusion of free will rather than free will itself. But James stuck to his guns, and again there wasn’t the time, to get to the bottom of the dispute.



Christian Michel: Can we think Nonsense?

Christian started by introducing the notion of a category mistake. He exemplified such things by talking of ‘Caesar is a prime number’ or ‘colourless blue dreams sleep furiously’. He noted that Ryle and Russell had both argued that category mistakes introduce huge problems into philosophy. Christian’s thesis was that statements that embody category mistakes have meaning. Christian discussed his thesis with respect to the work of Magidor (2013), and with respect to metaphors such as ‘Juliet is the sun’. Interestingly, Christian argued that even if we allow statements involving category mistakes are meanings they do not express thoughts. No thought is available, says Christian, in a statement involving a category mistake because, the concepts of the supposed thought won’t ‘click into place’. ‘Caesar is a prime number’ is, I think, a good example of this: it seems that we can’t even entertain the possibility that this is the case.



Eileen Walker: Thought and Language

Eileen (who last year took a PhD in philosophy, having started with OUDCE some years ago), started by noting that there is a discussion in philosophy about whether thought comes before language, or arises with language. Eileen herself believes that thought comes first. Her argument for this appealed to the very strong intuition that many have to the effect that animals and pre-linguistic children have thoughts even though they can’t express these thoughts in language. She considered an objection to this that she attributed to philosopher John McDowell, namely that animals do not have thought, but only sensitivities to the world of the sort that does not amount to awareness. Children, he argues, are born animals, but are transformed into thinkers as they acquire language. Eileen rejected this argument on the grounds that animals have recognitional capacities, and that this demands that we introduce at the very least a notion of ‘proto-conceptual non-linguistic thinking’ to account for this. Animal thought, Eileen believes, will be found as we bridge the gap between ‘thinking how’ and ‘thinking that’.

Bob Stone

Bob Stone

Bob Stone: The Myth of Rationality

Bob took his staring point from the book by Daniel Khaneman: Thinking Fast and Slow. He heartily recommended the book (as do I), and offered a quick account of its main claim, which is that there are two sorts of thinking. System one thinking, Bob said is quick and intuitive, and system two thinking is systematic and slow. Bob gave examples of both types of thinking and then gave his thesis, which was that in fact there are not two sorts of thinking, but only one: the thinking that Kahneman calls ‘system one’. In supposedly rational thought, says Bob, in fact the ‘reasoning’ is either automatic learned responses triggered by stimuli (e.g. questions), or intuitive, inspired ideas triggered by something earlier (thoughts, sensations, memories or people were the examples he gave). Reasoning, says Bob, is not a process of inferential thinking, but an anarchic series of one damned thought after another. We judge it as reasoning, he says, only if the outcome stands up to rational analysis.

Ann Long: The ‘Objective-Reflective-Normative’ Thinking of Only Humans

To accompany her paper Ann gave out a four-page glossary of terms! So, if anyone were to misunderstand the terms she was using, they had an immediate source of enlightenment. Ann’s paper took as its point of departure a book by Michael Tomasello The Natural History of Human Thinking. Again, though at the end of her talk mentioning some of her reservations about the book, Ann heartily recommended it. She started by distinguishing two methods of discovery; one she called philosophical, the other scientific, and stressed that she found the second approach (observation, tentative hypothesis, theory) more helpful. Tomasello, she noted, is a scientist working with great apes and children, and his interest is in what distinguishes human beings from the great apes. Ann introduced us to what she called one of his most challenging ideas (that thinking is a not a solitary activity), and cashed out for us his arguments for that claim, noting that all his arguments are based on empirical research. The conclusion Tomasello comes to is that we start from individual intentionality, move to joint intentionality, and finish (so far?) at collective intentionality: it is our culture that makes us unique and that facilitates thinking that is objective, reflective and normative. No other animals he believes think like this.

In this extremely short romp through the papers that were given I have nowhere near done justice to them. All I can do is introduce their main claims (possibly wrongly!) and give you a flavour of them. If you are interested in what a particular speaker had to say I suggest you join the OUDCE Philosophical Society, and email them!

But I think you can see why I am so proud to be President of Philsoc?

About Marianne

Marianne is Director of Studies in Philosophy at Oxford University's Department for Continuing Education
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