After four months of an expensive London-based philosophical education, I am pleased to advise that I can now identify all of the allusions in this excellent cartoon, as well as empathising with the author of it. I hope it raised a chuckle amongst you blog readers. For those unfamiliar with Philosophy and its foibles, here's a brief summary of the philosophical difficulties alluded to in the cartoon:
The Trolley Problem
This thought-experiment problem was devised by the (recently deceased and much missed) philosopher Philippa Foot (1920 - 2010), and expanded upon by Judith Jarvis Thomson. It is in the field of Ethics (we at Birkbeck discussed it in Term One), and also crops up in Cognitive Science. It is very famous and you have probably heard of it. Here's the gist:
A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you could flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch or do nothing?J J Thomson proposed a wrinkle to the problem:
As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you - your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?The fat man seems to cause all kinds of different reactions. I won't go into the details, but the problems is a test for Utilitarian philosophy, which looks so benign on the surface: the greatest good for the greatest number.
The Cave Analogy
The Evil Demon
The Mad Tortoise
Zeno was a pre-Socratic philosopher whom we know from fragments and references from others (including Plato - Term One). His big thing was paradoxes. It is said that he was an admirer of Parmenides, and devised his paradoxes to support Parmenides' doctrine that "all is one" and that, contrary to the evidence of our senses, the belief in plurality and change is mistaken, and in particular that motion is nothing but an illusion.
In the paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise, Achilles is in a footrace with the tortoise. Achilles allows the tortoise a head start of 100 metres. If we suppose that each racer starts running at some constant speed (one very fast and one very slow), then after some finite time, Achilles will have run 100 metres, bringing him to the tortoise's starting point. During this time, the tortoise has run a much shorter distance, say, 10 metres. It will then take Achilles some further time to run that distance, by which time the tortoise will have advanced farther; and then more time still to reach this third point, while the tortoise moves ahead. Thus, whenever Achilles reaches somewhere the tortoise has been, he still has farther to go. Therefore, because there are an infinite number of points Achilles must reach where the tortoise has already been, he can never overtake the tortoise.
Zeno came up with the same paradox involving an arrow in flight....which could never reach its target.
The Veil of Ignorance
The Chinese Room Argument
Plutarch (c. 46 – 120 CE) came up with this one, based on Greek mythology. This is his story:
So if Theseus's ship is replaced plank by plank, is it still Theseus's ship? What about if the old planks were taken away and gradually assembled into ship somewhere inland, made of all the original materials? Which would have the better claim to be Theseus's original ship?The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned [from Crete] had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.—Plutarch, Theseus
As I am sure you will agree, there is plenty to keep philosophers busy.
Thanks to Wikipedia and http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/chinese-room/ for some of this material.
Cartoon from: http://saintgasoline.com/