Wednesday, March 21, 2018

How my training in logic/philosophy prepared me for the USS strike

Yesterday I gave a talk at Durham University’s Open Day, to potential Combined Honors in Liberal Arts students. I am currently participating in action short of a strike, which includes "no voluntary activity". It was enough unclear to me whether participating in the Open Day was voluntary or whether it was part of the usual expectations for outreach and recruitment, and since I had agreed to do this before the strike action started, I decided to honor my commitment, but instead of giving my usual talk on logic puzzles and paradoxes, talk about the strike instead. This is the talk I gave (well, it’s the talk I wrote up, but I am incapable of giving pre-rehearsed speeches and went off-piste quite often. Still, this is the gist):

Welcome to Durham Uni! I hope you’ve been enjoying your visit so far.

I’m Dr. Sara Uckelman, from the Department of Philosophy, and I’ve been asked to tell you a bit about what we offer here at Durham.

Have any of you studied philosophy at A-level? What sort of subjects? Get examples

What are other sorts of topics that you know come under the heading of philosophy? Get examples

I’m not strictly-speaking a philosopher myself – I’m a logician. Have any of you studied logic? What’s the subject about? Get examples

Ordinarily, in giving a little mini tutorial, I’d give you some logic puzzles to work through in groups and then together as a whole. But instead, today I want to speak about the way in which a strong philosophical/logical education and training can benefit you in ways that you might not guess.

How many of you know about the recent UCU strike, that ended here at Durham only last Friday? 14 days over 4 weeks staff withdrew their labor completely – no teaching, no emails, no research, no marking, no going to conferences or giving talks.

Why? At the beginning, all I really knew was that it was a dispute about pensions, that the university employers were trying to change our current pension benefits from one type – defined benefit – to another type – defined contribution – and this would adversely affect many. But once the strike started there was a deluge of information, opinion pieces, statements, calls to action, comparative modelings, statistics, policies, laws, etc., etc., etc.

And this is where training in philosophy and logic becomes relevant. What is a good argument? When does one argument successfully rebut another? How do we reconcile two arguments that result in contradictory claims? How do we analyse and evaluate evidence? How do you spot ‘spin’? Fallacies? Irrelevant bits? How do you know when you’re in an echo chamber? How do you know when you’re falling prey to confirmation bias, where you’re more likely to believe what confirms what you already believe?

It’s not just about arguments and facts, though, there’s also ethics and epistemology. How do you determine the value of comparative options? How do you make decisions about uncertain futures? When do you know whether you should make a sacrifice now to prevent a bigger sacrifice in the future? When is it okay to directly and adversely affect the education of current students in order to prevent even worse things happening to the education of future students? Do the lives of those who are alive now matter more than the lives of those who will live in the future? Do we have obligations to future generations? It’s basically a trolley problem – you’ve got a runaway trolley headed down a track that has five people tied to it; if you do nothing, they will all die. But you can throw a lever and send the trolley down another track, saving those five. But on that track, there is another person tied to the track, and if you throw the level you kill them. Is it worse to act to kill one person than it is to not act and let five people die? What about if the trolley is on fire and going to explode and kill all six anyway, regardless of whether you flip the switch? What if the trolley is on fire and about to explode, but if you send it down the other path, it will be doused just before it hits the person?

Logic and philosophy gives the training to be able to answer – or at least start towards answering – questions like this. You’ll note that almost none of them are about philosophical topics. The philosophical education you’ll have access to at Durham provides you with not only the topics but also the tools and techniques. In the first year, our modules reflect the distinctive research structure our department has, with five clusters:

  • History of Philosophy
  • Science, Medicine, and Society
  • Mind, Language, and Metaphysics
  • Applied Phenomenology
  • Aesthetics, Ethics, and Politics

These core courses introduce students to the techniques and skills they need to investigate a wide range of philosophical topics. Second year modules cover a number of core topics in philosophy, and in the third year, specialist modules reflect the research interests of our staff, and there is also an opportunity to write a 12,000-word dissertation on a philosophical topic under the supervision of one of our members of staff. In the past, topics have ranged from fair allocation of school places in Amsterdam secondary schools to the ethical implications of reading fairy tales to women philosophers in the late 18th century to new foundations for theories of human rights to the nature of numbers and how we know things about them and beyond. There really is no limit to what you can apply philosophical techniques and training to.

Any questions?

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