Celebrating the first year of PPE at Wimbledon High

Ms Suzy Pett, Assistant Head (Teaching and Learning) at WHS, looks back at the end of the first year of the new PPE course studied by Year 10 pupils at WHS.

We are at the end of the inaugural year of our PPE course. We wanted students to look outwards and question the ideologies – political, economic, philosophical – that are influential in shaping our world. One of our school’s key objectives is for each student to “stride out’ and be prepared to “shape the society in which she lives and works’. Our PPE course has certainly helped our Year 10s become savvy and robust thinkers about on important global, national and personal issues.

The course ended with students writing their own articles on a topic of their choice. The array of interests was kaleidoscopic! Articles ranged from Kantianism vs Utilitarianism; to immigration; to beauty; to Plato; to student loans; to voting…to Trump…and everything in the middle (including, of course, the impact of Coronavirus). There is no doubt that students have developed mature, thoughtful and increasingly bold voices on these matters. Their articles were hugely impressive.

Here is a small selection for you to enjoy:

Izzy S – Successes of the language of populism

Jasmine H – Student Loans: Friend or Fraud?

Amy C – ‘If Walls could talk!’ – What we can learn from the first modern artist about the value of isolation to our ability to express ourselves

Bella R – Your President

Marianne K – PPE Project

GROW 2.0 – Being Human in an AI World

On Saturday 21st September we host our second Grow Pastoral Festival. The theme for this year is an examination of what it is to be human in a machine age. What questions should we be asking about the way technology affects our lives and what are our hopes for the future? More specifically, how will our young people develop and grow in a fast-paced, algorithmically driven society and what might education look like in the future?

 
In the morning session Professor Rose Luckin and Professor Robert Plomin will be giving keynote addresses, and then talk with our Director of Digital Learning & Innovation, Rachel Evans.
Prof Luckin specialises in how AI might change education; Prof Plomin has recently published Blueprint, a fascinating read about genetics and education. We can’t wait to talk about how education might get personalised, and how that change might affect our experience of learning.

In the afternoon we’ll dive into some provocative debate with Natasha Devon, Hannah Lownsbrough and Andrew Doyle, addressing questions of identity, wellbeing and community in an online age with our own Assistant Head Pastoral, Ben Turner.

So what kind of questions are in our minds as we approach this intellectually stimulating event? Ben Turner brings a philosophical approach to the topic.


Is our ever-increasing reliance on machines and subscription to the ‘universal principles of technology’[1] eroding our sense of empathy, compassion, truth-telling and responsibility?



Our smartphones give us a constant connection to an echo-system that reflects, and continuously reinforces, our individual beliefs and values. Technology has created a world of correlation without causation, where we understand what happened and how it happened but never stop to ask why it happened. Teenagers are understandably susceptible to an eco-system of continuous connection, urgency and instant gratification. It is these values that they now use to access their world and that inform them what is important in it.

Are tech giants like Amazon, Google and Facebook creating a monoculture that lacks an empathy for its surroundings? If we all become ‘insiders’ within a technology dominated society, pushing instant buttons for everything from batteries to toilet roll, are we losing the ability to see things from a fresh perspective? By raising children in a world of instant access and metropolitan monism are we creating only insiders; young people who will never gain the ability to step back and view what has been created in a detached way. How as parents, schools and communities do we keep what is unique, while embracing the virtues of technological innovation?

Is social media destroying our free will?

If you are not a determinist, you might agree that free will has to involve some degree of creativity and unpredictability in how you respond to the world. That your future might be more than your past. That you might grow, you might change, you might discover. The antithesis to that is when your reactions to the world are locked into a pattern that, by design, make you more predictable – for the benefit of someone or something else. Behaviourism, developed in the 19th Century, believes in collecting data on every action of a subject in order to change something about their experience, often using punishment or reward to enact the change. Is social media, through its algorithms, gratification systems and FOMO, manipulating our actions and eroding our free will?

Social media is pervasive in its influence on the beliefs, desires and temperaments of our teenagers and you do not have to be a determinist to know that that will lead to a disproportionate level of control over their actions. Does social media leave our young people with no alternative possibilities; locked in a room, not wanting to leave but ignorant to the fact that they cannot?

Is social media the new opium of the masses?

Social media has changed the meaning of life for the next generation. The change in human contact from physical interactions to those, arguably superficial, exchanges online is having not only a well-documented detrimental effect on individual young people but also on the very fabric and makeup of our communities.

In addition to the ongoing concerns about privacy, electoral influence and online abuse, it is becoming increasingly obvious that social media has all the qualities of an addictive drug. Psychologists Daria Kuss and Mark Griffiths wrote a paper finding that the “negative correlates of (social media) usage include the decrease in real life social community participation and academic achievement, as well as relationship problems, each of which may be indicative of potential addiction.”[2]

That is not to say that everyone who uses social media is addicted. However, the implications of the ‘heavy’ usage of social media by young people are increasingly painting an unpleasant picture. The UK Millennium Cohort Study, from the University of Glasgow, found that 28% of girls between 13 and 15 surveyed spent five hours or more on social media, double the number of boys survey who admitted the same level of usage. Moreover the NHS Digital’s survey of the Mental Health of children and young people in England[3], which found that 11 to 19 year olds with a “mental disorder” were more likely to use social media every day (87.3%) than those without a disorder (77%) and were more likely to be on social media for longer. Rates of daily usage also varied by type of disorder; 90.4% of those with emotional disorders, for example, used social media daily.

Panel Discussion

However, there is more to this than just the causal link between the use and abuse of social media and poor mental health. With the march of technology in an increasingly secular world, are we losing our sense of something greater than ourselves? Anthony Seldon calls this the “Fourth Education Revolution”, but as we embrace the advances and wonders of a technologically advanced world do we need to be more mindful of what we leave behind? Da Vinci, Michelangelo and other Renaissance masters, not only worked alongside religion but also were inspired by it. Conversely, Marx believed Religion to be the opium of the people. If social media is not to be the new opium, we must find a place for spirituality in our secular age. Even if we are not convinced by a faith, embracing the virtues of a religious upbringing seems pertinent in these turbulent times. Namely inclusivity, compassion and community, because if we do not, then very quickly the narcissistic immediacy and addictive nature of social media will fill the void left in our young peoples’ lives, becoming the addictive drug that Marx forewarned against.


References:

[1] Michael Bugeja, Living Media Ethics: Across Platforms, 2nd Ed. 2018

[2] Online Social Networking and Addiction – A review of Psychological Literature, Daria J. Kuss and Mark D. Griffiths, US National Library of Medicine, 2011

[3] November 2018

How is the Turing Test Relevant to Philosophy?

Kira, Year 13, looks at the Turing test and how criticisms of it bring new ideas and concepts into the philosophy of mind.

Alan Turing
Alan Turing

As emerging areas of computer science such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) continue to grow, questions surrounding the possibility of a conscious computer are becoming more widely debated. Many AI researchers have the objective of creating Artificial General Intelligence: AI that has an intelligence, and potentially a consciousness, similar to humans. This has led many to speculate about the nature of an artificial mind, and an important question arises in the wake of this modern development and research: “Can computers think?”

Decades before the development of AI as we know it today, Alan Turing attempted to answer this question in his 1950 paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence. He developed the famous Turing test as a way to evaluate the intelligence of a computer. Turing proposed a scenario in which a test subject would have two separate conversations: one with another human, and one with a machine designed to give human-like responses. These conversations would take place through a text-channel so the result would not be affected by the machine’s ability to render speech. The test subject would then be asked to determine which conversation took place with a machine. Turing argued that if they are unable to reliably distinguish the machine from the other human, then the machine has ‘passed the test’, and can be considered intelligent.

At the start of his essay, Turing specifies that he would not be answering “Can computers think?”, but a new question that he believed we are able to answer: “Are there imaginable digital computers which would do well in the imitation game?” However, Turing did believe that a computer which was able to succeed in ‘the imitation game’ could be considered intelligent in a similar way to a human. In this way, he followed a functionalist idea about the mind – identifying mental properties though mental functions, such as determining intelligence through the actions of a being, rather than some other intrinsic quality of a mental state.

Many scholars have criticised the Turing test, such as John Searle, who put forward the Chinese Room Argument and the idea of ‘strong AI’ to illustrate why he believed Turing’s ideas around intelligence to be false. The thought experiment looks at a situation where a computer is produced that behaves as though it understands Chinese. It is, therefore, able to communicate with a Chinese speaker and pass the Turing test, as it convinces the person that they are talking to another Chinese-speaking human. Searle then asks whether the machine really understands Chinese, or if it is merely simulating the ability to speak the language. The first scenario is what Searle calls ‘strong AI’, referring to the latter as ‘weak AI’.

In order to answer his question, Searle illustrates a situation in which an English-speaking human is placed in a room with a paper version of the computer program. This person, given sufficient time, could be handed a question written in Chinese and produce an answer by following the program’s instructions step-by-step, in much the same way as a computer does. Although this person is hence able to communicate with somebody speaking Chinese, they do not actually understand the conversation that is taking place, as they are simply following instructions. In the same way, a computer able to communicate in Chinese cannot be said to understand the language. Searle argues that without this understanding, a computer should not be described as ‘thinking’, and as a result should not be said to have a ‘mind’ or ‘intelligence’ in a remotely human way.

Searle’s argument has had a significant impact on the philosophy of mind and has come to be viewed as an important argument against functionalism. The thought experiment provides opposition to the idea that the mind is merely a machine and nothing more: if the mind were just a machine, it is theoretically possible to produce an artificial mind that is capable of perceiving and understanding all that it sees around it. According to Searle, this is not a possibility. However, many people disagree with this belief – particularly as technology develops ever further, the possibility of a true artificial mind seems more and more likely. Despite this, Searle’s Chinese Room argument continues to aid us in discussions around how we should define things such as intelligence, consciousness, and the mind.

In this way, both the Turing test and Searle’s critique of it shed new light onto long-standing philosophical problems surrounding the nature of the human mind. They serve to help bring together key areas of computer science and philosophy, encouraging a philosophical response to the modern world, as well as revealing how our new technologies can impact philosophy in new and exciting ways.

Is nihilism really hopeless?

Nietzsche

Anya, Year 13, explores what characterises nihilism and investigates the worth of nihilism; it is hopeless or actually positive?

Nihilism, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is the rejection of all religious and moral principles in the belief that life is meaningless, which, strictly speaking, does sound quite despairing. Yet, however hopeless the Oxford Dictionary would have us think it is, nihilism can allow (perhaps surprisingly) room for personal, moral and spiritual growth.

Nihilism undoubtedly stems from pessimism. Indeed, Nietzsche, the German philosopher and scholar who is often associated with it, called nihilism “the most extreme form of pessimism”.

The path to becoming a nihilist starts with weariness and a loss of faith in social, legal and cultural values widely held in our society. When people begin to feel alienated from their values and do not replace their value system with any other known system, such as a new religion or political philosophy, they become nihilists. They are disappointed with the egoistic nature of ‘truth’ and ‘morality’ but at the same time recognise that those things are necessary.

Often, free will seems contradictory: we depend on a value system that doesn’t exist and have depended on previous value systems which we have seen crumble. Each time we encounter a new system we conform to those values, we feel bound by them and those of us who rebel, i.e. criminals, are cast out from society. If none of these systems ever even existed, as the nihilist claims, we are just going around in a cycle of limiting our life choices for no reason. Basic values such as getting an education or a good job are placed in a sphere far beyond what is reachable.

The nihilist realises that every time someone begins to talk about “the real world” they are merely talking about a fictitious world because, from a nihilist perspective, every category used to measure and qualify our world is fake. In summary, the beginning of a nihilist lifestyle sounds a lot like the act of giving up and becoming a recluse, not to mention very dejected.

However, Nietzsche claims that nihilism is a necessary step in the transition to a devaluation of all values one holds. He outlines two distinct forms of the philosophy: passive and active.

Passive nihilism is characterised by a weak will. This is the kind of nihilism commonly made reference to in popular culture, which brings about little more than mental exhaustion and no change. A passive nihilist would see the emptiness of general external values (such as various social constructs) and project that onto individual internal beliefs (such as what you feel is good and bad), which results in a loss of personal authority. This type of nihilism can truly be called hopeless. Passive nihilism plagues the mind, often resulting in the person attempting to remove all responsibility from themselves, as the mind seeks to hold onto something that isn’t arbitrary, which can lead to one searching for hollow escapes such as excessive drinking, meaningless relationships and general “self-narcotisation”. Yet any attempts to escape nihilism without actually re-evaluating one’s own values only makes it worse.

On the other hand, active nihilism is characterised by a strong will. This constructive nihilism goes beyond simple judgement and moves on to action, specifically, the destruction of the remaining, meaningless status quo and the rebuilding of values and ethics through thought and reason. The will is made stronger still by forcing the recognition that practically all our value systems are in fact devoid of meaning, whilst at the same time having the power to accept that this meaninglessness serves a purpose, as ironic and oxymoronic as that may seem. Nietzsche claims that this form of thought is “a divine way of thinking”. An active nihilist will recognise the necessity of the lies and oversimplifications of life and begin to value the irrationality of how we live, as these are the conditions which must exist in order for people to truly have the ability to think for themselves.

It is important to note that nihilism does not replace values, at least according to Nietzsche, but rather makes room for those values to be broken away and reconstructed. Nietzsche stressed that nihilism is merely a means to an end, and not an end in itself. In this way, it becomes a form of existential nihilism, a contradictory principle in which we accept that values are meaningless and fake whilst building new ones for ourselves. Active nihilism opens doors to revaluating and more importantly, constructing new values for ourselves. In this way, we achieve a sense of freedom as well as infinitely greater insight into ourselves and the people around us.

Thus, nihilism is not inherently hopeless, instead, it can be said to create hope, as it pushes us to change, ask questions and find answers for ourselves. Active nihilism is certainly necessary for any kind of social, political or religious revolution. To paraphrase Sartre, if our life is the only thing we get to experience, then it’s the only thing that matters. If the universe has no principles then the only principles relevant are the ones we decide on. If the universe has no purpose, then we get to dictate what its purpose is. So, whilst a loss of faith may lead to nihilism, nihilism leads to new hope.

 

 

The Theory of Deconstruction – 21/09/18

Ava (Year 13, Head Girl) explores the Theory of Deconstruction as suggested by Derrida and discusses the confusing nature of both ideas and words.

Deconstruction is a theory principally put forward in around the 1970s by a French philosopher named Derrida, who was a man known for his leftist political views and apparently supremely fashionable coats. His theory essentially concerns the dismantling of our excessive loyalty to any particular idea, allowing us to see the aspects of truth that might be buried in its opposite. Derrida believed that all of our thinking was riddled with an unjustified assumption of always privileging one thing over another; critically, this privileging involves a failure to see the full merits and value of the supposedly lesser part of the equation. His thesis can be applied to many age-old questions: take men and women for example; men have systematically been privileged for centuries over women (for no sensible reason) meaning that society has often undervalued or undermined the full value of women.

Now this might sound like an exceedingly overly simplistic world view, and that Derrida was suggesting a sort of anarchy of language. But Derrida was far subtler than this – he simply wanted to use deconstruction to point out that ideas are always confused and riddled with logical defects and that we must keep their messiness constantly in mind. He wanted to cure humanity of its love of crude simplicity and make us more comfortable with the permanently oscillating nature of wisdom.  This is where my new-favourite word comes in: Aporia – a Greek work meaning puzzlement. Derrida thought we should all be more comfortable with a state of Aporia and suggested that refusing to deal with the confusion at the heart of language and life was to avoid grappling with the fraught and kaleidoscopic nature of reality.

This cleanly leads on to another of Derrida’s favourite words: Differánce, a critical outlook concerned with the relationship between text and meaning. The key idea being that you can never actually define a word, but instead you merely defer to other words which in themselves do not have concrete meanings. It all sounds rather airy-fairy and existentialist at this level, but if you break it down it becomes utterly reasonable. Imagine you have no idea what a tree is. Now if I try and explain a tree to you by saying it has branches and roots, this only works if you understand these other words. Thus, I am not truly defining tree, but merely deferring to other words.

Now if those words themselves cannot be truly defined either, and you again have to defer, this uproots (excuse the pun!) the entire belief system at the heart of language. It is in essence a direct attack on Logocentrism, which Derrida understood as an over-hasty, naïve devotion to reason, logic and clear definition, underpinned by a faith in language as the natural and best way to communicate.

Now, Derrida clearly wasn’t unintelligent, and was not of the belief that all hierarchies should be removed, or that we should get rid of language as a whole, but simply that we should be more aware of the irrationality that lies between the lines of language, willingly submit to a more frequent state of “Aporia”, and spend a little more time deconstructing the language and ideas that have made up the world we live in today.