All Souls College is a branch of Oxford University, and every year a select number of candidates in different academic disciplines take a written exam to become a prestigious "Examination Fellow." The details are here. What I find interesting are the exams themselves. Candidates are given several hours to answer only a handful of short but deliberately vague and monstrously complex questions. A classics questions might be, "How did Livy and Tacitus compose speeches?," or "Discuss the presentation of travel at sea in Latin literature." English questions include "What gives Beckett hope?" and "Why do poets imitate?" Pretty brutal stuff. Also, highly addictive to browse through.
Here I will briefly answer all of the questions in one of the previous philosophy exams. (All recent philosophy exams can be found here. The other exams can be found at the bottom of the webpage linked to above.) I was in peak philosophical form around 2014 or 2015, and am pretty rusty now compared to then. But I will do my best. I am not Examination Fellow material, but I am a rational animal just as much as the Fellows are. And since I have a sense of dignity, I will answer all questions without looking any information up. It's just me, the exam, and the fragmented memories of my past studies in philosophy. Let's see how it goes.
September 2018 Exam
1. ‘ “If p, q” together with p entails q.’ Assess.
Modus ponens, bruh.
2. ‘No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks’ (WOLLSTONECRAFT). Discuss.
Didn't Plato already make this observation? Or was it Aristotle? Something about how we all choose evil only under the guise of the good. Not dissing Wollstonecraft, of course––just recalling how Plato and Aristotle claimed a lot of philosophical territory before anyone else.
Post-exam review: apparently the "guise of the good" hypothesis traces back to both Plato and Aristotle. Unsurprising.
3. If nobody can tell the difference between an original and a copy, is the original or the copy more valuable?
I'm guessing this is meant to refer primarily to works of creativity or craftsmanship, such as paintings, manuscripts, or ships, though it might also refer to, say, human clones in a science-fictional setting. But if it's the former we're discussing, I'd say the original at least has more historical value. As for aesthetic or ontological value, they'd presumably be the same. They might have different moral values depending on the purposes for which each work was created. The original Sistine Chapel presumably has more moral value than a replica made purely for monetary purposes, for example. This is a good question, though.
4. What does generative syntax teach us about the mind?
No idea what that is. I never got into linguistics or philosophy of language. They just seemed a lot drier than, say, philosophy of religion, or ethics. Maybe I ought to give them a chance.
Post-exam review: it's the Chomskian idea "that humans have an
innate 'language faculty' and
that the universal principles of human language reflect intrinsic properties of
this language faculty." Quote from here.
5. Are we the causes of our actions?
It would be pretty awkward if we weren't.
6. ‘It may be as Appiah claims that “there is nothing in the world that can do all we ask race to do for us” (Appiah 1992, 45), if our project inevitably inherits the concept’s complex history; but we might instead ask “race” to do different things than have been asked before’ (HASLANGER). Discuss.
The proposal seems to be either that the concept of race is inherently malleable, or that its social uses are malleable, or both. I don't know enough about the philosophy of race to intelligently agree or disagree.
7. Does the CPT symmetry of physical laws provide any reason for doubting the objectivity of time's direction?
Oh dear. It's been far too long since I've done any physics or philosophy of physics. The concept of CPT symmetry sounds familiar, but I can't put my finger on it. Causal-physical-temporal? Cute-particles-traipsing about? Is it referring to how there are anti-particles? Oh wait, does this refer to the findings of that brilliant 20th-century woman who proved something special about the isotropy of physical laws, or something like that? Something involving iso-, aniso-, -morphy, -tropy, etc.? I don't know. I may have just made this woman up, though I hope not. I'm tempted to cheat and look it up but I'll save it for when I'm done with the exam. Regardless, I don't think there's anything that gives us good reason to doubt the objectivity of time's direction. That time forever marches onward is a brute fact of experience; it is something that must be accommodated rather than explained away by any sensible theory of time. This CPT symmetry thing may give us some reason to doubt the objectivity of time's direction, but I'm pretty sure it'll be a bad reason.
Post-exam review: CPT symmetry = charge, parity, and time reversal symmetry. Details here. Don't think I've ever heard of it.
8. Does belief require certainty? Does knowledge?
I believe that Octavian defeated Antony at the Battle of Actium. Am I certain? No. Do I still believe it? Yep. QED.
I don't believe I've ever seen certainty as one of the preconditions of knowledge. Knowledge is usually taken to be either a conceptual primitive, or justified true belief + something else. That something else doesn't seem to be certainty. If certainty entails an inability to be rationally doubted, I can know all sorts of stuff without being certain. I know that somewhere in the world, there is a penguin. Can it be rationally doubted that there is a penguin? Yes, all of this might be a computer simulation. I think it was Nick Bostrom (have I gotten his name right?) who actually wrote a famous paper defending the idea that we're living in a computer simulation. But I still know there's a penguin somewhere, independent of what exactly knowledge is.
Post-exam review: Nick Bostrom (I got the name right!) paper here. He doesn't argue that we are living in a computer simulation, just that given certain peculiar assumptions about the course of civilizations, it's likely we are.
9. Is (physical) disability just a social construction?
Interesting that they would add the qualifier "physical." It seems they usually prefer vague or ambiguous formulations of a question to more precise ones. But my answer would be: yes and no. Physical disability is associated both with certain subjective experiences, such as feelings of pain, distress, or weakness, and certain objective realities, such as an inability to work or care for oneself. The subjective experiences are not social constructs, though the manner in which the individual interprets them may be socially informed. A devout Christian, for example, might see their suffering as a trial sent by God, whereas the nihilist may see it as more proof that nothing matters. But the experiences themselves are what they are, independently of society. The objective realities of disability, on the other hand, do seem to be socially constructed. (Something can indeed be both objective and socially constructed, eg, money.) In many developed nations it's normal to attach one's value or significance to what one is able to contribute to society, so if someone can't contribute much for physical reasons, then, partly to protect them from stigmatization, and partly for more pragmatic reasons (eg, receiving extra funds from the government), we label them "disabled." But many would consider the label itself stigmatizing, which suggests that the root problem may be with how we understand the individual's relationship to society. If, for instance, we didn't measure an individual's worth by what they were able to contribute to society, then those who are physically disabled would be just like the rest of us––they would simply require extra care from their family, friends, and community. And those caring for disabled individuals don't necessarily think of them as "disabled;" they merely recognize that we're all obligated to help one another, and some individuals need more help than others. The notion of disability seems necessary only for a society in which we have general expectations for what each individual is to do with their life. If we manage to eliminate these expectations, then we can theoretically eliminate the need for a "disability" label. However, the notion of disability still has pragmatic value, so the issue isn't that simple.
10. Which is worse: lying or corroding the true-false distinction?
What does it mean to corrode the true-false distinction? To simply not care about whether one is lying or telling the truth? To view truth as a purely pragmatic matter, with no real basis in mind-independent reality? To be a postmodernist? I don't know, but this seems like a profound question.
11. Is it possible to disagree about whether something is tasty? If so, must one person be incorrect?
Does it really take a philosopher to know how to answer these?
12. If legal obligations are not moral obligations, then do they have normative force?
Legal obligations may coincide with moral obligations, but they can't be moral obligations because immoral laws are possible. However, legal obligations still have normative force in the sense that laws tend to become ingrained in people's consciences. After Roe v. Wade, for instance, it became standard fare to accept a woman's right to abortion. Whether one is gladdened or disappointed by this will depend on one's stance on abortion, but that's beside the point. Legal obligations aren't normative in any other way I can think of.
13. What are Aristotle's three kinds of friendship? Is this taxonomy exhaustive?
Oh, pick me! Pick me! I believe they're: of utility, of pleasure, and of virtue. Right? I hope I'm not forgetting this. But is the taxonomy exhaustive? Taxonomies are rarely exhaustive, so if we're hedging our bets, the answer is No. But it's hard to come up with a particular instance of friendship that doesn't in some way fall into the Philosopher's taxonomy.
Post-exam review: of utility, of pleasure, and of the good. Close enough.
14. Was Kant a compatibilist?
Kant studies––my favorite. (Sarcasm.) From what I remember of Kant, he thought that although we are fully determined from the perspective of the realm of phenomena, he believed the transcendental ego belonged to the realm of noumena and was free, but he also thought we couldn't know the nature of the noumenal realm, so...yeah. That's Kant for you. Does this make him a compatibilist? He both accepts free will and rejects it, so why not.
15. Discuss the benefits or drawbacks of Tarski's definition of semantic consequence as preservation of truth in all models.
Tarski rings a bell. His first name was Alfred? Or Arthur? It starts with an A. No clue how to approach the question though.
Post-exam review: yeah it's Alfred.
16. Is evolutionary theory fundamentally teleological? If so, is this a problem?
Ah, something familiar. I feel like I just stepped into a hot bath. There is a very strong case that evolutionary theory is teleological. Teleology seems inescapable in biology as a whole, as argued by Ed Feser and friends. It's only a problem if you're a hardcore atheist, because once you welcome teleology into your world it's hard to keep God or something God-like out of the picture.
17. What is gaslighting? Does it shed any light on theories of perception or hallucination?
Does gaslighting shed any light––how clever. I really should know what this is since one sees the term so much on news and social media. But I have only one social media account which I barely ever use (Instagram), and I limit my consumption of the news to preserve my sanity. I just never bothered to look up what exactly the term "gaslighting" means. Maybe the term actually has two definitions, one philosophical and one colloquial. But I still wouldn't know either one. Ought I be embarrassed?
Post-exam review: "Gaslighting, an elaborate and insidious technique of deception and psychological manipulation, usually practiced by a single deceiver, or “gaslighter,” on a single victim over an extended period. Its effect is to gradually undermine the victim’s confidence in his own ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, right from wrong, or reality from appearance, thereby rendering him pathologically dependent on the gaslighter in his thinking or feelings."
18. What does higher-order vagueness tell us about first-order vagueness?
Some hardcore metaphysics right here. I'll take a crack at it. There is a distinction between ambiguity and vagueness. Something is ambiguous if it can be reasonably interpreted in two or more ways simultaneously; it is vague if its limits or borders are not precise. So the phrase, "He taught me everything I know" is ambiguous because it could mean multiple things, but it isn't vague. By contrast, the difference between stubble and a beard is vague because it isn't clear how much stubble has to grow before it becomes a beard. The question seems to be asking whether vagueness on the level of composite, large, or complex entities discloses anything about vagueness about isolated, small, or simple entities. For instance, it is vague where my body starts and where it ends. I am constantly shedding hair and skin cells, for one thing, so my body is, in a sense, strewn about my environment. Suppose there is a clump of skin cells that is in the process of shedding right now. At what point does that clump cease becoming a part of my body, and become just an isolated clump of cells? It's not clear. That is, it's vague. So my body is vaguely delimited. But does that tell us anything about the parts making up my body? Are they themselves vague? Well, it seems that no matter how much we micro-size our analysis of my body, it's incredibly difficult to eliminate all signs of vagueness. Let's go the level of particles, for example. Suppose there is a particle or collection of particles (eg, some electrons) that are currently part of my skin, but that I rub them off when I am, say, washing my hands. At what point do those electrons cease being a part of my body, and become just a bunch of electrons? It's still vague. But what about each individual electron? Are they vague? It would seem so, at least if we're going to buy into the standard theory that particles have both wave-like and particle-like features. Waves are incredibly vague, so that would make anything bearing wave-like features vague. But does there not have to be something free of vagueness at the bedrock of reality? Not necessarily. As Eastern philosophy has done an excellent job of pointing out, everything in the world sort of blends in with everything else. Nothing is entirely separate from its environment, even if it might seem that way to the naked eye. Vagueness only emerges when we try to precisely identify the boundaries of any object. When we attempt such a thing, we find that it's impossible: we can't say exactly where one thing starts and the next thing ends. But this is just the material world; perhaps vagueness isn't as present in the mental world. For example, the idea that 2 + 2 = 4 seems completely devoid of vagueness. So do such concepts as "triangle," "dog," and "happiness." So we might say that higher-order vagueness in the material world carries over to first-order vagueness (or perhaps emerges from it?), whereas this isn't necessarily the case in the mental world.
19. Does subjective experience require self-consciousness?
I'm reasonably certain a frog can feel pain without the ability to introspect.
20. Does democracy necessarily degenerate into tyranny?
21. Is there a coherent structuralist account of the complex numbers?
Ah geez. I read a book on philosophy of math a long time ago. Don't remember a word of it, so not sure what structuralism is. I'm supposing that if the question is about the complex numbers, they must fit rather uncomfortably into the structuralist view. So maybe structuralism has to do with whether numbers are mind-dependent or mind-independent? Or whether they have a basis in the real world? But complex numbers do figure in some of the equations of physics, such as in electromagnetism. "idk," as they say.
Post-exam review: "The theme of mathematical structuralism is that what matters to a mathematical theory is not the internal nature of its objects, such as its numbers, functions, sets, or points, but how those objects relate to each other. In a sense, the thesis is that mathematical objects (if there are such objects) simply have no intrinsic nature." From IEP.
22. How should we understand scientific claims about probability, for instance in statistical mechanics or climate modeling?
Good question. Probabilities can be either qualitative or quantitative, Bayesian or non-Bayesian, etc. I think different fields of science will use different notions of probability. I expect probability in quantum mechanics to be different than probability in predicting the weather, for example. But maybe it's the same after all.
23. What can an analytic philosopher learn from a continental philosopher?
The art of sophisticated obfuscation.
24. Is the difference between Yablo's Paradox and the Liar Paradox important?
So I know the Liar Paradox. I believe it originated with Russell. It says: suppose a liar claims, "I am lying." If he's lying, then he's lying about lying, which means he's telling the truth. If he's telling the truth, he's lying. Either way, the situation is absurd. I could go further if I knew what Yablo's Paradox was.
Post-exam review: discussion of Yablo's Paradox here.
25. Should we be four-dimensionalists or three-dimensionalists?
About space, I presume? Our everyday experience of space is three-dimensional, so that's a point in its favor. Einstein's theories of relativity are often cited as a reason for accepting four-dimensionalism (with its "space-time"), but science doesn't give us the fundamental structure of reality; it just gives us empirically adequate theories. But if four-dimensionalism is still around once physics is "completed" (assuming it ever will be), that might count as a point in its favor. Until then, I'll stick with my everyday experiences.
26. May institutions use affirmative action in admissions? Should they?
May they? Well, yes, in a broadly logically possible sense they can. Should they? Way beyond my pay grade.
27. 'If her functioning as a female is not enough to define woman, if we decline also to explain her through "the eternal feminine," and if nevertheless we admit, provisionally, that women do exist, then we must face the question: what is a woman?' (DE BEAUVOIR). Discuss.
Also beyond my pay grade. I do recall that Goethe mentions the eternal feminine at the end of Faust, though. Maybe that would have scored me some points on a real exam.
28. What is the value of ideal theory in political philosophy?
Okay, this is probably the best question so far, at least in my opinion. Because so much of political philosophy seems to be about ideal states and scenarios, whereas the reality of politics is unbelievably messy and non-ideal. Some possible answers might be: (1) there is no other way of doing political philosophy; appeals to ideal theory are unavoidable, (2) ideal theory––in the sense of an ideal political state, or "utopia"––gives us something to strive for, (3) ideal theory is the most efficient, least time-consuming approximation of everyday realities, (4) certain realities must be explored ideally before they can be fully understood in actuality, eg, justice, or power.
29. Where does Berkeley's idealism go wrong?
Who says it does go wrong?
30. At what point does killing a totalitarian leader become justifiable for a citizen?
One of those things that can only be taken on a case-by-case basis.
31. Do Gödel's incompleteness results (or Turing's uncomputable functions) show that the mind is not well modelled as a computer?
Been a while since I've studied the incompleteness theorem. (Or is it theorems?) I sort of recall that it only applied to axiomatic systems, which computers don't necessarily have to be. Quantum computing, for instance, may not have to be axiomatic in the Gödelian sense. If this is true, then the mind may be modeled alright as a computer, though there are plenty of reasons for also thinking that the mind is not at all like a computer.
32. Is this a hand I see before me?
Depends on where you're looking, Mr. Moore.
33. 'Not only our faults, but our most involuntary misfortunes, tend to corrupt our morals' (HENRY JAMES). Discuss.
Seems like James got to the concept of moral luck before Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel did. And it's Henry, not William!
34. If A has legitimate authority over B, then are A's reasons for action immediately also B's?
So like, if my boss has legitimate authority over me, and her reason for action is she wants to make more money, then is that reason also mine? Um...no? I mean, it might determine what actions she has me carry out, but I may still have my own reasons for doing what I do. And what's the point of the "immediately?" What a strange question.
35. What is the role of 'it' in 'If a man owns a donkey, he beats it'?
7th-grade grammar question = brutal.
36. Is it more laudable to do the right thing in accordance with one's desire or despite one's desire?
Dana Nelkin has recently defended the idea that one's degree of moral responsibility for an action depends on the difficulty that must be overcome in performing that action. This seems plausible and intuitive. Someone who is constitutionally cheery probably deserves less praise for acting cheerily than someone who is constitutionally a grinch but puts in a lot of effort to be cheery around others. Both are still praiseworthy though.
37. What is imagination?
Our built-in simulation system.
38. 'A kind of question that doesn't get asked often enough is: what are modal intuitions intuitions of? Consider, for example, the intuition that water is necessarily H2O. How do things have to be for it to be right? Or wrong? What's its "truth maker", to use the philosophical jargon?' (FODOR). Discuss.
Fodor! RIP. One of the funnest philosophers to read. I have a link to his London Review of Books page on the home screen of my phone. Sadly, completely incapable of answering his question. I haven't studied truth maker theory enough to even make a half-decent guess.
Well that's everything. Again, am I Fellowship material? Nope. But there is more to life than fellowships and the like.