An occasional newsletter from The Philosophy Club
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Dear friends,

We hope you've had a splendid start to the year! This month, The Philosophy Club has some very exciting news to share, so please read on...

       FREE artificial intelligence workshop
       Baby news!
       Phenomenologist babies
       Thinking babies
       Can critical thinking change the world?
       Philosophy and creativity: a short film

FREE artificial intelligence workshop

Due to popular demand, our philosophy workshop about artificial intelligence ("When Things Start to Think...") returns to the Library at the Dock on 7th April. and this time, it's combined with a cool robotics activity: make your own racing BrushBot!

In this workshop, we'll be pondering what it means to have a mind. Who or what has a mind? Does Wall-E think? What about a smartphone? A thermostat? Videos from cutting-edge robotics laboratories provide stimuli for an enquiry about artificial intelligence. How can we know whether a machine is really thinking or feeling? How can we know whether the person sitting beside you is really thinking or feeling?

Kids will then have the opportunity to make cute bug robots out of toothbrushes, and pit them against each other on the library's very own race track!

BOOKINGS ARE NOW OPEN and places are strictly limited, so get in early!

Date: 7th April (Easter holidays)
Time: 10am – 12 noon
Venue: Library at the Dock, 107 Victoria Harbour Promenade, Docklands VIC 3008
Age-group: Suitable for children aged 10 - 12 who haven't previously participated in our robot workshop.

Further information: Visit the event website.

Baby news!

On a personal note, we are thrilled to introduce Zoe Hypatia, the newest addition to our Philosophy Club family!

We wanted to give Zoe a middle name with meaning, representing qualities to aspire towards, so we chose "Hypatia" as a tribute to the 5th century philosophy teacher of Alexandria:

She explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public... Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more."
        – A description of Hypatia by historian Socrates of Constantinople.

                 Rachel Weisz as Hypatia in the movie Agora, directed by Alejandro Amenabar

Phenomenologist babies

Phenomenology – the philosophical study of the content of conscious experience – is all about exploring subjective phenomena like perceptions, memories and emotions "from the inside". Doing phenomenology involves a method of introspection that gives us intuitive knowledge of our experiences.

For most adults, it takes an unusual combination of discipline and detachment to pay such close, reflective attention to our "naive" experiences, while suspending intellectual judgement. For babies, on the other hand, naivety comes naturally. Babies are fresh to the world, and their awareness isn't yet coloured by presuppositions or theoretical speculations. They are born phenomenologists!

                     Scene from the YouTube video Twin babies talk and hold hands for the first time

There is something very precious about this non-analytical openness to experience. At the end of this "Kindergarde" video, a dazzlingly insightful 11-year-old says: “I think avant-garde means something unusual, that closed-minded people don’t like... I think the most avant-garde people are babies, because they don’t know what’s right or wrong. They’re just there with the world, and very observant.”

There is a special pleasure in observing babies as they discover their own sentience and begin to explore their world in this refreshingly immediate, primordial way. 
David describes one such moment that we recently shared at bath-time:

When our one-month-old baby girl reached her foot out repeatedly to rub her sole against the warm wash-cloth and grasp it with her toes, we looked at each other and wondered whether we were witnessing the emergence of intentional behaviour from out of a bundle of instincts. Today we can celebrate the birth of Zoe as a person with her own mind."


Thinking babies

"Babies and young children are like the R&D division of the human species," says psychologist Alison Gopnik in her excellent TED Talk, What do babies think? Gopnik's research explores the sophisticated intelligence-gathering and decision making that babies are really doing when they play: 

The baby's brain seems to be the most powerful learning computer on the planet. I think babies and children are actually more conscious than we are as adults.… Adults' attention and consciousness look kind of like a spotlight: we decide that something's relevant or important, our consciousness of that thing that we're attending to becomes extremely bright and vivid, and everything else sort of goes dark… I think babies and young children seem to have more of a lantern of consciousness than a spotlight of consciousness. So babies and young children are very bad at narrowing down to just one thing. But they're very good at taking in lots of information from lots of different sources at once.... If what we want is to have open-mindedness, open learning, imagination, creativity, innovation, maybe at least some of the time we should be getting the adults to start thinking more like children."

And here's what the Raising Children Network has to say about the development of thinking in Little Philosophers like Zoe:

"When babies are born, they don't know who they are, where they are, or what life is all about. Your baby doesn't even know that she is a person yet... Newborn cognitive development happens through back-and-forth interactions with others, different experiences and simple play... This naturally sets the scene for the brain to develop and imagination to soar. It helps babies understand life and their part in it...

ight from the start of her life, your baby’s brain is hard at work as she makes sense of the world and herself… Your baby loves new experiences, knowledge and learning, including any opportunities to learn through play. Your baby is an active learner – busy observing, thinking and trying to work things out.

More detailed experiments become a feature of your baby’s play from about 12 months… It’s your baby learning about cause and effect... If your baby has lots of opportunities to test out the environment, she has the chance to learn more and more every day… Every experience is building your baby’s brain and helping her cognitive development. Play and back-and-forth interactions are vital to her learning, thinking and development… The more relaxed the fun, the more the learning takes off. Being a playmate rather than a teacher can also help."


What's new on our blog?

Can critical thinking change the world?

We're delighted to share a guest post by Christina Majoinen, an educator in philosophy who trains university tutors in running effective philosophy tutorials. She writes about her discovery of critical thinking and her growing unease with the culture of disagreement that she observed in the postgraduate classes she taught:

"...The clues were subtle: The student getting cut off mid-sentence by a peer. The student whose pitch rose just a little in response to someone relentlessly playing devil’s advocate. The student who sat in the corner never volunteering an opinion, just in case it was wrong... Students did not always make an effort to really understand each other’s arguments. More often than not, they only attempted to gain a shallow understanding of each other’s views: just enough to mount an opposing argument. This is not true critical thinking: true critical thinking requires the ability to understand and carefully consider opposing views.

... In a philosophical enquiry, all members of the group have equal rights to contribute and there is a strong emphasis on listening carefully to each other’s views. Participants are invited to voice disagreement if they disagree, but as an alternative they are also invited to build on each other’s arguments, working together to build the best version of a particular view. This subtle shift in emphasis creates a remarkable ideological change: ideas no longer belong to the individual; they now belong to the whole group.

Learning about philosophical enquiry helped me realise that in my eagerness to encourage discussion in my classroom, I had specifically encouraged disagreement, privileging it over productive agreement. Introducing philosophical enquiry into my tertiary classroom has had a remarkable effect... Students who previously sat quiet in the corner now voluntarily participate in discussion. Students who previously felt overlooked by their peers now feel heard..."

Read Christina's blog post in its entirety...

Philosophy and creativity: a short film

The Canadian charity Brila has released a marvellous 15-minute mini-documentary about doing philosophy through creative projects with children. It includes some fascinating interviews with Brila's primary-school aged participants, as well as a plenty of illuminating insights from Brila's founder and Executive Director, Natalie Fletcher, whose vision and energy turbo-charge our commitment to doing similar work here in Australia.

“There’s a sense of whimsy and of playfulness that comes out of doing philosophy in creative projects with kids… But also what you see come up are issues that really matter to them… and they start to see that there may be tensions and inconsistencies in the way they think."

"We try to put kids in situations where they have to grapple with major issues...Kids start to see that there are many different perspectives that are worth holding – that the world isn’t black and white. But in doing so, they realise that they have to figure out for themselves – and also together – what the most reasonable thing to think is...

Many adults underestimate kids’ ability to ask big questions about the world and make meaning of their lives. But we’ve noticed that when given the chance to do this, they really can – and their answers can be surprising. They’re often more nuanced and more insightful than those of adults.

We see the ‘kook’ as that creative, quizzical spirit that’s inside all of us, that needs to be given a chance to play, to try new things and to experiment, without the pressure of perfection or of being afraid to make mistakes."

"What we hope for at Brila is that kids get a chance to explore life’s big questions but retain their sense of goofiness and of playfulness. And we think that can translate into a really strong sense of self-efficacy, where they trust their ability to think, their ability to create.

       - Natalie Fletcher, Executive Director of Brila. 

Watch the Brila video! We strongly recommend it.

We look forward to keeping you up to date with The Philosophy Club's activities throughout 2015!
Best wishes,

Michelle and David

Michelle Sowey and David Urbinder
The Philosophy Club
Mobile (Australia): 0400 420 241


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