Monday the 4th of December marked the last Williams Project of 2018, as well as the last Williams Project with Mr Lord at the helm. With this in mind and with so many wonderful and insightful talks preceding him, Mr Robert Blakey, criminology doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, had a hard task ahead of him. I’m sure it’s no surprise to hear that he did so with pure charisma and flawless knowledge with regard to his subject. Mr Blakey began his presentation by outlining the big question he would be attempting to answer: ‘Will criminal behaviour be one day treated like a brain-based cancer, rather than punished like evil?’ He began by giving us four concepts that contribute to a person’s offending: genes, social environment, brain activity and free will, and asked us to decide in what order they run in when contributing to a criminal committing a crime. We then proceeded to have an interactive discussion as a group in an attempt to order these notions, culminating in our successful ordering of the ideas. Mr Blakey then read us two scenarios about free will: one where, from a psychological point of view, our decisions were all caused by factors outside our control, and another similar but described in terms of chemical activity in our brains. He then invited us to stand on the left side of the room if we still believed the person in the example had free will or the right side if we believed they didn’t. It was interesting to see how many people moved to the side of no free will, particularly in the chemical scenario. This activity was thoroughly engaging and gave us a real opportunity to think things through for ourselves. Mr Blakey continued his fascinating talk by presenting the idea of rehabilitating criminals, especially young offenders, in good social environments instead of prisons as he noted that prisons are poor repairing facilities, as well as being detrimental to the mind of a youth offender. We spent the final minutes of the presentation trying to decide how to rehabilitate offenders, and whether there would ever be a perfect way to help lawbreakers. It was a captivating and highly perceptive talk that challenged us to think laterally with regards to many issues. Many thanks must go to Mr Blakey who we are sure would be very welcome to return to Chigwell in the near future.
Rory Hankins and Julie Vytrisalova
robert blakey at the williams project
robert blakey at the williams project
On the 9th of October, the Williams Project was visited by another great speaker. This time, it was Ray Monk – professor of philosophy at the University of Southampton, acclaimed writer and expert in analytical philosophy of the 20th Century. He gave a lecture on Ludwig Wittgenstein – his life, works and why he is relevant up to this day.
Even though the philosophical aspect was prominent, the lecture was also a biography of Wittgenstein. Prof. Monk described his family and his time growing up in Vienna. Then he focused on Ludwig’s school years and his inspirations. The story of Wittgenstein was very engaging and it was easier to look at his ideas through his biography. You could really feel that Prof. Monk is an experienced biographer and lecturer. Later on, he introduced us to some philosophical problems while talking about the philosophical part of Wittgenstein’s life. For example, he mentioned Russell’s paradox, which still doesn’t have a clear solution. The lecture finished with a Q&A section, although it was possible to ask several other questions to Prof. Monk during dinner. I, among others, found the lecture very interesting. It was a comprehensive, yet comprehensible introduction to Wittgenstein and a great encouragement for further reading.
On the 5th of December a different sort of Williams Project happened. Instead of having an invited speaker come to talk to us we just had each other to talk to over a meal.
The premise of this particular Williams Project was to get us talking to each other. However, instead of the usual dinner table small talk, we were going to have more meaty conversation.
This is based on Alain de Botton’s (a Swiss-born British author and philosopher) ideas about the art of conversation. He believes that most people are very bad at having conversations because we think knowing how to talk to each other is a skill we’re born with instead of a learned art. He also states that most conversations are rather stale and that shyness is one of the main reasons that they can be boring. We need rules to give direction to where our conversation is going so that we feel like we’re coming away with new ideas. Alain mentions Madame Sophie de Condorcet who wrote a certain set of rules to enable a successful conversation so it is not just small talk. She believed that guests had to arrive with prepared conversational topics so that they could use each other like reference books in a library.
After we watched and listened to the short PowerPoint we then (based on Madame Sophie de Condorcet’s idea) wrote down two questions that we would bring to the meal to talk about. Everyone took turns asking their questions and people gave insightful answers on topics that would normally never be discussed at a dinner table. Some of the questions posed at my table where: “Why is Brexit happening?” and “Is it right for parents to punish their children if what they did was due to their hormonal changes?” Unlike most conversations we felt that we were taking something out of our exchanges and maybe things to think about later. I think the method and rules of conversation worked very well as it gave us an insight into each other’s personality. I will definitely want to try these rules out in the future and maybe school dinner chats will be a bit more lively!
On Tuesday 7th November, Dr Nils Kürbis, a philosophy lecturer from King’s College London, visited Chigwell to give a talk on ‘What the Tortoise said to Achilles’ by Lewis Carroll. Two Chigwell students read the dialogue. The opening part eluded to one of Zeno’s most famous paradoxes – the race between Achilles and the tortoise. Even though we know Achilles will overtake the tortoise (given the Tortoise had a head start), when broken down into small intervals it seems that the gap between Achilles and the tortoise gets smaller but never diminishes, hence Achilles can never overtake the tortoise. This is why this is a paradox. I helped to explain this using a simple diagram.
However Nils’ main focus was on what the text went on to describe. The tortoise was using the example of Euclid’s first proposition, which states that things that are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. This is a proposition. The problem began when we had to go from the proposition to the conclusion. To do this you need a middle step to reach the conclusion. Since the middle step contains the proposition you need another step to convince the very stubborn tortoise (in this example). This creates an infinite number of middle steps creating a sequence infinitely increasing (the opposite to the infinitely decreasing sequence in Zeno’s paradox).
As a philosophy professor he was able to really engage us into this problem which had a lot of people scratching their heads as they were being asked to think in what seemed to be a very illogical way.
Nils Kürbis on triangles
Nietzsche in full swing
On the 12th September, the first Williams Project of this academic year was held in which Professor Ken Gemes and Dr Andrew Huddlestone of Birkbeck, University of London, came to talk about Nietzsche, a prominent German philosopher of the 19th century. Being the Bernard Williams Philosophy Lecture, we welcomed Patricia Williams, his widow, yet it was also special as it was the first of many more interactive seminars in which the audience were constantly questioning and participating in a discussion which was constantly interpreting what the philosopher means.
The talk began with a reading from ‘The Gay Science’ on the madman and whether ‘God is dead’ – with ‘God’ referring to the idea of god, religion and morality and whether we have some morals and human values left in this westernized modern world. This encouraged further questions of “How does the madman react to the death of God?” and “How did the marketplace folk, the non-believers, react to the madman’s whimsical nonsense?”. More importantly, the passage describes us as the murderers of God, which invites us to ask “What do we do now if there are no more Christian values? Do we create our own or is the madman merely a madman and we should ignore him? Do we need these old values in such a new society?” The discussion only developed further into ideas and many questions regarding nihilism and also the personal and political beliefs of Nietzsche – an atheist!
Overall, this talk was incredibly engaging – allowing the audience to question what the ‘death of God’ means to them, and serves as a great introduction to a year of Williams Project sessions.
Dr. Florian Steinberger, philosopher and lecturer at Birkbeck College, University of London, spoke to both branches of the Williams Project. He spoke to us about two very different philosophical topics, beginning with “animal rights”: what are they? Do animals really have them and should we respect them? There were multiple discussions, questions and debates on whether animals could really have preferences and feelings to be deserving of rights as humans do. We also covered the issue of why we are willing to protect them to a certain extent, nonetheless, also willing to consume them. We outlined the religious, moral and health aspects linked to the matter to delve deeper into if we could and should give animals rights. The discussion was thoroughly enjoyed by all of us of all age groups, being a very controversial and interactive talking point.
He continued with second session on the topic of “infinity” – a more mathematical approach towards philosophy and the possibility and impossibility of infinity, the contradictions and the proof – in particular whether some kinds of infinity can be greater than others (for example the infinity of real numbers can be shown to be larger than the infinity of integers). Although complex for a few of us(!), many were able to grasp the concept of how infinity could be perceived; it was an engaging and stimulating lecture on a rather unfamiliar topic.
We are grateful for the discussions led by Dr. Steinberger, and thank him for enlightening us on two of the many contemporary philosophical issues we face today.