Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Philosophy Society Update

Despite the end of lectures for 2008/2009, hopefully some students are still around for The Philosophy Society meeting when we will be discussing Civil Disobedience by Thoreau.

As always, we are meeting in The Gallery Room at Park Campus at 7pm. The date is this Thursday, 2nd April.

Civil Disobedience is a short essay and can be easily read between now and Thursday. If you do not have the link: http://eserver.org/thoreau/civil.html

I am looking forward to a lively discussion,
Shelley Campbell

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Cordoba Field Trip...

see http://www.flickr.com/photos/58244916@N00/ for trip photos...

In March the successor to Nigel Scotland’s long-standing Rome trip took place. This involved Roy, Shelley and myself taking 21 students (5 of them 2nd years, the rest level 1 – all RPE students) to Cordoba in Andalucía, Spain. This trip was to explore the period of Islamic rule, the philosophers who emerged from it, the relation of faiths in that period (and the claims of a Golden age of religious tolerance that surround the period), the route of Greek ideas (such as those of Aristotle) into Europe, and the Christian re-conquest of the area.

Wednesday – a mid afternoon coach whisks us to Birmingham airport for a glamorous, jet-set flight with RyanAir to Malaga.. We are (much to my relief) met at the airport by another coach and driven to Cordoba, where we are dropped only a 5 minute walk from the hotel.

We arrive at Los Patios (http://www.lospatios.net/ ) around midnight – relieved that despite only having one star the hotel is friendly, clean and incredibly well-situated (it turns out to be a great place – with nice staff, night porters to let late students in, good food, and more – we hope to use it again next year).

Thursday – after a lie in – we have an orientation walk to Plaza de las Tendillas, so that students can find non-tourist shops, supermarkets, and the like. We then have lunch and cross the newly restored Roman Bridge to the new Torre de la Calahorra museum: this tower features a history of Andalucian life in the Islamic period – with models, speaking statues, and wireless headphones.

Here we began to understand the situation that prevailed in Cordoba during the Andalusian Umayyad dynasty, which lasted from 756 to 1031: often referred to as a ‘Golden Age’ of religious tolerance. While this is a simplification, the idea of an accommodation that allowed Muslim, Jews and Christians to live in relative peace, within part of Europe, is a compelling area to study – and this proved a good place to start.

More at http://www.torrecalahorra.com/

Some felt the museum might be a rather smoothed out account of the history – but it was good as an introduction to the relationship between Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the region. Many of us were glad to get out onto the roof terrace of the museum..

This museum also had a model of the large Mosque in Cordoba – now a Cathedral – which we were to visit the next day – as it would have been in its heyday, rather than as it is now (where there is now a huge Cathedral sticking out the middle of it – a very striking image if you are able to view it from above).

Following this we went to Cordoba’s archaeological museum – where much of the city’s Roman heritage is on show – which is significant and very visible around the city. There is also material here from the Visigoth period that came before the arrival and dominance of Moorish culture.

Friday was a busy day – dominated, as is the city, by the Mezquita – the grand Mosque that is now a Cathedral. Our guide, Imma, took us round the Jewish quarter and a Synagogue before we entered the hugely impressive Cathedral/Mosque.

The building still inspires strong feelings, and there was a lot to reflect on after and during this visit. The Catholic Church offers a very particular view in the leaflet that you collect as you enter – which implies that the place was a Christian place of worship (due to the presence of a Basilica prior to the Mosque) and that the re-conquest and consequent building of the Cathedral was merely a reclaiming. This seems, at the least, a simplification.

The building itself left us all with some sense of awe, but also perhaps with more troubling feelings regarding its history and claims made about it. We were also told that Muslims have often requested that Catholic authorities allow them to pray in the Mezquita/Cathedral – but that they are always turned down.

Some info HERE might be of interest..

On Friday evening we all went to the Plaza de la Corredera for a drink, followed by a meal at the Hotel – and an early night before Saturday.

Saturday began with a 6.30am alarm call… As is that was not enough of a shock for students, we then walked 25 minutes to Cordoba train station for the early morning train to Seville. Arriving at 8.30, and after a breakfast, we set off to find the Alcazar (Alcázares Reales de Sevilla) – which is a fortress with the most amazing, extensive gardens.

The place looks Moorish in style, and was mostly made by Moorish workers, but despite smaller earlier buildings, much of this Alcazar was built in the 1360s for King Pedro (the Cruel). Some argue that the Islamic buildings here were even built on the site of Visigoth buildings. However, this mix of claim and confusion over historical buildings seems not uncommon in a region where what may seem a matter of dusty history still has the power to cause passionate disagreement and dispute.

This was followed by the Cathedral in Seville – also on the site of a Mosque – the spire contains much that was a minaret and there are small parts of the arches of the mosque still intact if you look hard enough. You can climb the spire to get stunning views of the city – as we did, but this was another to chance to reflect on the purpose of the trip, in coming to an understanding of the way in which religions in this region have interacted.

Some students (and staff) also managed to find Flaherty’s bar and catch a Liverpool victory over Man Utd….

After a late night back, Sunday began with the Cordoba Alcazar – the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos (Spanish for "Alcázar of the Christian Monarchs"), – with huge Roman mosaics, and yet more elaborate gardens, – and then coach-plane-coach journey to Cheltenham, arriving at FCH in the early hours of Monday morning….

While formal student evaluations are a matter for exciting places like Course Boards – early informal reports suggest that this was a great way for students to learn, to get to know each other and to acquire more general life-skills and confidence. We hope to repeat it next year – and hope that more Humanities students will opt for the module (to be known as RPE136 in future) – or to attend as part of an Independent Study module.


Oh- a prize (coffee from the refectory?) for anyone (not on the trip) who can tell me what these fine gentlemen are doing… (and yes, it is religious)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Week 12 RPE 103 Lecture

Next week in the RPE 103 lecture slot I will be giving a lecture on philosophical/argumentative essay-writing. I would highly recommend that ALL students taking RPE 103 and RPE 107 with me attend this lecture. You should all want to improve the way you write; ergo you should all be there.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Back from Spain...

Well - as we got back to Cheltenham about 1.45am, a proper update may have to wait a day or two - but after our adventures in Cordoba and Seville - with Cathedrals, Alcazars, Mosques, Synagogues, Spanish trains, and more - I'm glad to repeat that all were counted out and counted back - much to my relief...

click the picture to the right to enlarge it...

Sunday, March 08, 2009

RPE 107 Presentations (Reminder)

Hello all. Please remember that each group must hand in a short summary/bullet-point document to do with their presentations... This is not necessary for the 103 presentations.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Worst Argument Result...

When I went to cover a RPE101 (Philosophical and Ethical Arguing) class in December, I chatted with the students about fallacies and bad arguments – and was reminded of an in-class exercise I often did with students. This involved taking in a pile of the day’s newspapers and the class, in groups, hunting through them for examples of various fallacies (Straw Man, Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc [and causal fallacies in general], shifting the burden of proof, and the like). This was always fun, but I thought that our blog might be the means for a more ambitious version of this activity…

So in December we asked for submissions for our Britain’s Worst Argument competition. As you can see from the comments left on the blog – we had a lot of response – and lots of submissions also came by email. The one that received the most comment was the Atheist’s Nightmare – possibly due to the comic connection of fundamentalist creationism and a banana – but this was American and not eligible. We did have quite a crop of submissions relating to creationism and the Design Argument (for God’s existence), but most of these were from across the Atlantic.

I think one of my favourites, and it was sent anonymously so I cannot say where it hails from, was:

I got this one from a hairdresser when inquiring about a shampoo against hairloss:

Hairdresser: "It has been thoroughly tested and it works on 30%"

Me: "Well,... that sound good, but do you have one with more percentages?"

Hairdresser: "No,... but think again, there's a fifty-fifty percentage change that it will work on you?"

Me: (I teach statistics)"How's that?"

Hairdresser: "Well, that's obvious, either it works on you, or it doesn't!"

No need to say, I bought the shampoo right away.

This makes a great point about people’s (mis)understanding of probability and statistic, and also really made me smile. However – this is a competition – and needs a winner… (drum roll…) – and I think the worst argument we encountered (from more than one submission) is the nationalistic deployment of bifurcation. It was captured by Shelley Campbell (one of our postgraduate students) when she wrote (in response to the original post):

Politicians use this one - if we are not heart-throbbing nationals then we are traitors. For example, "If you are not for us, you are against us."

Bifurcation is where you present the reader/listener with only two alternatives, and imply that if they reject/are not aligned with one, they agree with/are aligned with the other alternative by default.

I could speak to a student: are you going to do that essay today, or be a life-wasting loser who never achieves anything? It is not uncommon in many settings, and is a way of trying to preclude the discussion of other possibilities (are you going to give up your job, or do you not love me? - there are states of affairs that might combine some of the two? or third options?).

The argument is more sinister though when used to dismiss political views by claiming they are insufficiently patriotic / pro-British (in this case). In the recent discussion of 'British Jobs for British Workers' it was hard (should one have wished to do so) to criticise the protesters without seeming unpatriotic or anti-British: in cases of war, this can lead not only to faulty reasoning - but to death and loss of life...

What is so bad about bifurcation?
• It is effective – in the heat of an argument we often fall for it: thinking that if there are only two options, we must defend one – even if absurd – rather than allow the one we dislike to dominate.
• Often the person using it does not really see things in such stark terms themselves.
• It is ‘bad’ because it is used effectively all the time in politics – witness the scramble to prove oneself patriotic in the US elections.
• Beyond nationalism, bifurcation impoverishes political debates all around us: “if you disagree with me, you are an extremist of some sort” – this is a common, dangerous and fallacious strategy: the worst argument (in the broadest sense) that we came across…