Questioning Reality MOOC

Course: Question Reality! Science, philosophy, and the search for meaning
Length: 6 weeks, 2-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: Dartmouth/edX
Instructors: Marcelo Gleiser
Quote:

How much can we know of the physical world? Can we know everything? Or are there fundamental limits to how much we can explain? If there are limits, to what extent can we explain the nature of physical reality? RealityX investigates the limits of knowledge and what we can and cannot know of the world and ourselves.
We will trace the evolution of ideas about the nature of reality in philosophy and the natural sciences through the ages. Starting with the philosophers of Ancient Greece and ending with cutting edge theories about the universe, quantum physics, and the nature of consciousness.

Current events have a lot of us questioning reality these days. Different type of questions, though. The main questions in this course are outlined above: how do we know things, and how much is it possible for us to ever know? The course combines philosophical and scientific explorations, and proceeds chronologically from the pre-Socratics to the Renaissance to Einstein to the present day. Prof. Gleiser is a theoretical physicist specializing in particle cosmology, and the course roughly follows his book The Island of Knowledge, written for the general science reader.

I’ve taken three or four of these science/philosophy courses, and each time I get a little more comfortable. This one is pretty introductory, and it hits all the “ooooh, cool” spots (How would we know if we’re brains in vats? Why should we care about Schrodinger’s cats?) without requiring reading anything beyond Gleisner’s NPR blog articles. I have to say I found his explanation of electron orbits to be the most helpful one I’ve encountered, though it’s possible I’m just now at the point where I’m ready to start understanding things like what standing waves have to do with quantum theory.

Each week started with a great feature: an ungraded What Do You Know pretest, full of questions that range from factual (T/F: Violet light has more energy than red light) to conceptual opinion (Agree/disagree: Mathematics is something we invent; Reality only exists in our minds). These questions are repeated at the end of the week, offering concrete evidence that something was, indeed, learned, even if only a better definition of “reality”. Material also included a video lecture and several interviews with other philosophers and scientists on the topics covered. A few graded multiple-choice questions were scattered through the material, along with several short written assignments in the form of posts, journal entries, and short self-graded essays. A Reddit AMA with Prof. Gleiser finished off the week.

The discussion forums were active and I got into some excellent discussions along the way. I also enjoyed a project from the first week: understanding a pendulum’s motion. Now, I took the easy route and used the available online pendulum simulator, because I’m a klutz, but it was an interesting way to play around with the topic of observation and experiment.

I found myself often confused by the logistics of the course, so I just plugged away at whatever looked interesting, be it posting on a discussion or self-grading an essay or answering questions (though I never did find the Learning Journal). I say that a lot, don’t I. In this case, the multiple evaluation options were complicated by a bilingual approach: the course was offered in Portuguese as well as English, with all written material in both languages so everything appeared twice. I wholeheartedly support broadening the appeal to include more people worldwide, and I would rather deal with my befuddlement than restrict the audience. It’s a tough problem, and I applaud them for taking it on. I got used to the double-entries after just a few weeks; if more courses took this approach, we’d all get used to it, and it’s a small price to pay for inclusion of those who would otherwise be unable to participate.

One of the great discoveries for me in the course was another book, mentioned in Week 3: Steven Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern . I’ve only gone through 80 pages, but it’s wonderful: Poggio, Medieval Book-Raider, goes among the monks to rediscover Lucretius and atomism as Europe turned towards renaissance. Manuscripts, history, philosophy, science, the classics, all packaged in a wonderfully told story: who could ask for more.

Humblebragging: Intellectual Humility MOOC

Course: Intellectual Humility: Theory
Length: 3 weeks 2-8 hrs/wk
School/platform: University of Edinburgh/Coursera
Instructors: Various
Quote:

Faced with difficult questions people often tend to dismiss and marginalize dissent. Political and moral disagreements can be incredibly polarizing, and sometimes even dangerous. And whether it’s Christian fundamentalism, Islamic extremism, or militant atheism, religious dialogue remains tinted by arrogance, dogma, and ignorance. The world needs more people who are sensitive to reasons both for and against their beliefs, and are willing to consider the possibility that their political, religious and moral beliefs might be mistaken. The world needs more intellectual humility.

I’d never heard of a subfield of philosophy called Intellectual Humility before about two weeks ago; then, in the space of two days, I heard of it twice from two different sources. I’m sure that was just confirmation bias (see, I haven’t been doing all this for nothing); I’d probably hear the term before but didn’t remember it until I signed up for a mooc about it.

I haven’t been paying much attention to Coursera since they went with this new platform. But I do follow professors and departments from past moocs, and since I’ve taken a couple of Edinburgh philosophy courses, a series of cute tweets about Icarus and intellectual humility came across my feed and made me curious.

All material was released at once, so I ended up finishing in about 2 weeks. A few technical glitches, typical of first-run courses and not likely to recur, started things off: the course didn’t open properly, and since that was scheduled on a Friday, there was no staff to fix it until Monday; a couple of lecture videos and transcripts were out of place. The lectures themselves were clear; a couple of them had some minor issues – “place illustration here” instead of the illustration, for example, but they were easy to follow and visually appealing. Grading was done on the basis of multiple-choice information-retrieval tests of the take-as-many-times-as-you-want variety. Many academic articles were provided, mostly as draft versions of journal articles, which is a great compromise between open and closed access.

As is usual with Edinburgh courses, I found the overall course structure a bit confusing. They admirably try to accommodate different levels of interest and experience by dividing each week into Learn, Engage, and Go Further sections, but there are tradeoffs. It’s kind of hard to tell, but only the Learn part is required to “pass” if a certificate is all that’s desired. It’s pretty disconcerting when a notice suddenly pops up: “You’ve passed Week 2” – or worse, “You’ve passed the course!” – when half of the items on the task list were still undone. It’s not exactly conducive to covering the “Go Further” material.

I was startled, and absolutely delighted, to see an article incorporating Edward Slingerman’s Trying Not To Try, the supplementary text from the UBC Chinese philosophy course, as a starting point. I can see the point: can you try to develop humility? Doesn’t that lead to being arrogant about being humble? I haven’t fully digested the article, but it looks at anti-individualism, which is another topic I’ve been running into a lot lately.

The point of intellectual humility seems to be to get people to be more open minded and willing to look at facts instead of relying on things like “the people I like believe this so I do to” or “this is what my parents told me so it must be right” or “Gee, if that other thing is true, I’d have to change how I live, and I don’t want to do that so it must be false.” Good luck with that. The course results from a grant by the John Templeton Foundation, which, among other things, advocates civil discourse about matters of science and religion. Good luck with that, too. I’ve never seen the two as conflicting. No, I don’t believe the world was created in six days, but as far as I know, science can’t tell us what caused the Big Bang or what happened before, and I’m perfectly fine with the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen as long as no one tries to legislate them or teach them in science class.

I enjoyed the overview of morality, and the creation of a philosophical structure using one of four questions: What is valuable? What is a good person? What are good actions? What is a good life? with the other three questions are subordinated to the first. I rather enjoyed the week on measuring intellectual humility as well, though it seems it’s mostly in the self-report stage. I also liked that each week opened with a very brief introduction of the subject, followed by an opportunity to explore ideas without worrying about grades: short answer questions on, say, how intellectual humility could be measured.

Posting on the forums was plentiful – several interesting discussion questions were suggested, inviting but not requiring response. I tried, but found minimal interaction on points raised by lectures or applications thereof, lots of parallel monologues and opinions, and a couple of arguments. I missed the point most of the time. I don’t know if I’m clueless, if my bleak outlook is clouding my vision, or if the whole subject is truly much ado about nothing. It seems to me a lot of this belongs to the discipline of psychology.

Two additional modules, one on “practice” and one on “science”, are scheduled for 2017. I’m glad I took the course, given the minimal time investment, to get an overview, but at the moment I’m not interested enough to follow up; I suppose that may change by the time the future modules open.

Timing is everything. Edinburgh is in Scotland, of course, and the UK just went through their own upheaval last summer. I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that this course was scheduled for the period while we wait for the world’s (arguably) least intellectually humble person to take on the world’s (arguably) most important job. If anyone survives the next few years, some great research might result.

Philosophy’s greatest hits MOOC: God, Knowledge, Identity, and like that

Course: Introduction to Philosophy: God, Knowledge and Consciousness
Length: 12 weeks 5hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructors: Caspar Hare
Quote:

What you’ll learn
•    How to construct and analyze philosophical arguments
•    How to write clearly and communicate complicated ideas effectively
•    Arguments for and against the existence of God
•    The distinction between epistemic and practical rationality
•    Theories of Knowledge
•    Physicalist and Non-Physicalist theories of consciousness
•    Free Will and Determinism
•    Personal Identity

I very much wish I’d take this course before I took Alex Byrne’s “Minds and Machines” mooc. For one thing, it would’ve shown me the correct approach to the readings: tease out the argument being made into premise/conclusion format, or identify the premise being disproved for objections. In fact, I kind of want to take the Byrne course again; I think I’ll get a lot more out of it.

This one serves as a very good introduction to some of the foundational papers for the topics covered, from Hume, Descartes and Pascal to 20th century thinkers. I have some quibbles with presentation style, but that’s a matter of personal preference. I did finally get to see Damien, the TA from both Minds & Machines and the earlier Infinity course, as he took part in a couple of skits (and managed to nick $5 in doing so… you’ll have to take the course to find out how). And there was a rather hilarious running trope about psychotic Oprah, infected by a bacterium that causes her to attack anyone in sight.

I find the MIT courses have an odd structure in terms of how weeks, modules, and lectures are subdivided, but it boils down to lecture/quizlet/essay. The lectures are broken into short segments, and classroom discussion videos are interspersed. Most videos are followed by a couple of graded questions. Three 800 word essays round out the evaluation materials, but they’re self-graded unless you want to pay $300 for the “human-graded” (for some reason I find that phrase hilarious) option. I skipped the last essay out of sheer laziness. I’m not doing this for grades, and I’ve been rather low on motivation of all kinds since November 8.

The discussion boards were well-covered, though they included too much, since it was one of those “what do you think about this” which generated hundreds of single-post threads. This is a problem with the edX system itself, not with the course, but it’s mostly evident in courses that use this forced-posting element; no matter how many times you tell people to reply instead of starting a new post, most of them will start a new post. However, I did get a couple of questions answered (oddly, both about math – the use of the term “induction” and “identity” in math vs philosophy).

In spite of my seeming lack of enthusiasm, I think this actually works quite well as a first “serious” philosophy course. I like the use of actual papers (or translations thereof) rather than explanations accompanied by a quote or two; I also like the pursuit of a topic through argument A, refutation, counterargument, argument B, etc. And I like the focus on the logical argument being made, rather than the “gee whiz, what is the mind anyway” approach – and hey, I like that kind of thing, it’s fun and a great way to play with ideas, it’s just easy to get disorganized and end up not knowing what it is you just learned. So it’s really a pretty good class; I just wish I’d taken it a couple of years ago.

Wu-wei MOOC

Course: Chinese Thought: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science – Part 1 and Part 2
Length: 9 weeks total
School/platform: University of British Columbia/edX
Instructors: Edward Slingerland
Quote:

Part 1 introduces the basic philosophical, religious and scientific concepts that will be drawn upon throughout the course, and then goes on to cover early Shang and Zhou religious thought, the Analects of Confucius, the Daodejing (a Daoist text attributed to Laozi), the utilitarian thinker Mozi, the newly discovered and very exciting Guodian texts, and the momentous philosophical changes that occurred in the mid Warring States period.
Part 2 builds upon Part 1 by exploring late Warring States thinkers such as the Confucian Mencius, the Daoist Zhuangzi, and the return to externalism in the form of Xunzi—who believed Mencius betrayed the original Confucian vision—and his former student Hanfeizi, a “Legalist” thinker who helped lay the foundations for the autocratic system that unified the Warring States into China’s first empire. We will conclude with some reflections on what it means to study religious thought, and the thought of other cultures, in a modern, globalized world.
Part 2 can be taken as a stand-alone course, but will be more comprehensible and rewarding with the background provided in Part 1.

Short version: Another terrific class. Considering that prior to last May, I knew virtually nothing about China, it’s kind of amazing that I’ve now taken three tours through the philosophers of the late Zhou dynasty. What’s even more amazing is that each round took a different approach in interwoven layers, so it just kept getting better.

This course specialized in not only reviewing the tenets of each philosopher examined, but in relating those tenets to contemporary research in cognitive, behavioral, and psychological neuroscience. From the overall concept of wu-wei to Confucius’ attempt to cultivate intrinsic rewards via ritual and training to Mencius’ inborn moral sprouts to Mozi’s impartial caring, some of these ideas from more than two thousand years ago can be confirmed – or contradicted – by scientific techniques and very contemporary ethical philosophy.

Most weeks featured a guest lecturer on varying topics: generally, psychology and cognitive science, but also wide-ranging topics like music, language and literature, and the neuroscience of meditation. One of the guests, by the way, was Russell Brand reading the text and discussing his thoughts on wu-wei, Daodejing, Butcher Ding, and Confucianism. You never know who you’ll run into in a mooc. (I’ll admit I’m not sure who Russell Brand is, but he seems to be famous).

The syllabus is structured after Prof. Slingerland’s 2014 book Trying Not To Try (featured on Brainpickings), a clever capsulization of wu-wei ( 無爲 ), a key concept in several of the philosophies though the path and purpose may differ. Pertinent chapters from the book were provided in PDF format. His recent TEDx talk, featuring his experience playing “MindBall” at his local science museum, gives a general overview of the topic. The other text was Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy (Ivanhoe/Van Norden, 2001), a translation of the works of the philosophers studied; I managed to find a copy through my local library, but since the pertinent sections are fully quoted throughout the course, it wouldn’t have been a serious impediment if it wasn’t available.

The course is structured in two parts. They can be taken independently, but I’d take the final sentence in the quote above seriously. In fact, I’d consider the first part pretty foundational to the second, since a great deal of introductory work on cognitive and behavioral science takes place in the first week; of course, YMMV, but it’s great stuff – then again, I just loved the whole course and wouldn’t have wanted to miss a minute. Pssst – as a special incentive, there’s also blooper reel tucked into Part 1, the only time I’ve seen such a thing in a mooc. All of them should include one of those.

Structurally it’s your basic lecture-quiz course with excellent instructor involvement. Each week includes about 9 lecture videos, each about 10-15 minutes, but it seems like both a lot more and a lot less. A lot more, because Prof. Slingerland (who bears a strong resemblance to comedian Jon Stewart, but maybe that’s just me) talks pretty fast (there are speed controls on the videos, but while I often have used higher speeds, I find slowing things down always makes the speaker sound drugged so I just pause a lot and pre-read the lecture transcripts) and also because there’s a lot of stuff –about language, history, philosophy, contemporary neuroscience, psychological research, etc etc – and a lot less because it’s all fascinating. A couple of ungraded “test yourself” questions followed each video, with a graded quiz to finish off each week, plus a final quiz at the end of each part. The questions generally fall between information retrieval and concept application, so they keep you on your toes, but I wouldn’t say it’s hard. It is, however, a great deal of complex stuff.

Each week also featured a “Q&A” video featuring further explanation of issues raised on the discussion forums. The forums weren’t exactly rollicking, but engagement in the discussions was significant, as people posted about aspects that interested them, and others interested in the capturesame ideas joined in; staff and instructor showed up regularly. I far prefer this spontaneous system to the inane “forced post” courses, where everyone’s supposed to answer the same banal question (“What do you think about…”) and the boards end up cluttered with hundreds of single-post threads; the result is not discussion, but a whole bunch of parallel monologues. I don’t know why so many courses do that, but I’m glad this one didn’t. Each week the staff would pin a couple of threads and send an email outlining the issues, which was also a nice touch to encourage those who might not have seen the threads to jump in. It also gave the sense of a carefully tended mooc, rather than a plug-in with a start button. Treasure these while they still exist.

As you can tell from some of the images inserted, I went a little bonkers with my note taking. I’ve always been a little overly obsessed with putting everything from the moocs I take into a Word document – lecture transcripts with video images imbedded, readings, quizzes, occasional forum discussions – but here I went overboard, even for me. I put most of the quotes from the various thinkers – and there were tons of quotes – into text boxes, each with different backgrounds and fonts, depending on my impression of what might fit the philosopher best, then pasted those into my copy of the lecture transcripts. I probably added 2 hours to each week doing this kind of word processing. Hey, leave me alone, I had fun.

But wait, there’s more! Months ago, I signed up for a course titled “The Science of Religion” on spec without really paying much attention to what it included; it sounded like something I might like. Now I’ve discovered that not only is it a UBC course, but Prof. Slingerland is one of the instructors. He’s said it’s all new material, not a condensed replay of this course; I’m still not sure what it is, but I’m looking forward to it.

Confucius, Mencius, Zhuangzi et al: Ancient Chinese Thought MOOC

Course: Humanity and Nature in Chinese Thought
Length: 8 weeks
School/platform: University of Hong Kong/edX
Instructors: Chad Hansen
Quote:

We make ethical or behaviour guiding right / wrong judgments all the time but have you ever wondered where Ethics comes from, what it is about and why it is important? This course provides an introduction to traditional Chinese ethical thought and focuses on the pervasive contrast in the way Chinese and Westerners think about ethical guidance or guidance concerning what is right and what is wrong, good or bad.

While I’ve greatly enjoyed many of the moocs I’ve taken over the past three years (I’ve lost count, about 70, I think), I can count on the fingers of one hand the ones that have shifted a paradigm or had a lasting impact on life-as-lived. This is one of those few.

By a happy coincidence of timing, I’d just finished the first module of Harvard’s 10-part ChinaX series covering the Period of the Warring States and the Hundred Schools of Thought. Not only did that give me at least a vague familiarity with the names, but it let me situate the philosophers in a particular time and give me something of a foundation: an understanding of the Sage Kings that had gone before, of the transition from Shang to Zhou and the legitimacy of tianming, of the chaos of the time and the period that followed. None of this background was in any way required to understand the material itself, but it did prepare the field for sowing, so it’s an approach I recommend to those as completely unfamiliar with ancient China as I was.

The course is based on Prof. Hansen’s book, A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation. We opened with an overview of philosophical approaches and fields, showing where the ancient Chinese thinkers fit compared to Western philosophers. I found this very helpful as a way to keep my conceptual bearings (and picked up a few tidbits about Western philosophy in the process). It’s always a good idea to network new ideas to old ones.

The next seven weeks each featured a school of thought: Confucius, Mozi, Mencius, Shen Dao/Laozi, and Zhuangzi, who took up two weeks. Xunzi took up most of the final week, which, though unavoidable (the history of philosophy is what it is), was perhaps the only complaint I have about the course: it ended on a real downer, particularly at this moment of time when an authoritarian anti-intellectualism seems to be sweeping the world, not to mention the US. The last couple of lectures offered a review that somewhat recaptured the feeling of the rest of the material, but I also went back to listen to some of the Zhuangzi lectures so I could personally end there, feeling enriched instead of scolded and scared.

Lecture courses can be tedious – so many wonderful professors turn into soulless automatons when plopped in front of a camera to read a script – but Prof. Hansen’s able to pull it off extremely well, and this was far superior to most “talking head” courses. During the course they released a “the making of” video which shows the kind of thought and care that went into presenting lectures. They weren’t happy with the first few attempts, so they kept changing the format until they found one that worked. As a result, the lectures seem more like story-telling, with little “cliffhangers” at the end of each one that keep the momentum going, even create a degree of suspense that’s atypical for a history of philosophy course. Part of it is Prof. Hansen’s relaxed and engaged delivery, which is probably helped by the presence of students in the room so he’s not talking direct to camera (which can kill even the most animated speaker). Little animations with sound effects add a sprinkle of fun, with the overall result being lectures that are a delight as well as clear and instructive, with enough foreshadowing, repetition, and summary to help retention of the ideas.

Each week included an introduction, about 10 lectures (roughly 10 minute each), handouts for each lecture for those who would rather read than listen, and links to ctext files for pertinent text excerpts. I was a little confused about those links for a while, but I finally got the hang of it. Lecture captioning is available in English and Chinese, by the way; while the course occasionally explains characters for various concepts, no knowledge of Chinese is needed (a good thing, since I have none). A non-graded “knowledge check” of one or two questions followed each lecture, with a graded quiz, about 10 questions, at the end of each week. Two peer-assessed essays, 300 to 500 words, were required, each comparing two philosophers on some topic.

Staff was very involved in the course throughout. Prof. Hansen and an excellent TA responded to most student posts in some way, often extending into new directions and giving additional insights; as a result, the boards were active and thought-provoking. Each week featured Prof. Hansen in an impromptu “roundup” video addressing some of the more popular topics from the forums. As moocs aim more for scalability and automation, these are features that will be lost, and they’re the features that differentiate a meh mooc – youtube plus some quiz questions – from an educational experience that will be remembered and will entice students to learn more.

Those of us who know little or nothing about China, or Chinese thought, probably know the words Confucius and Dao, but chances are we don’t really have any idea what is packed into those names. I’d always assumed Confucius was the epitome of Eastern wisdom; imagine my surprise to find that I don’t particularly agree with much of his point of view. Dao is one of those massive topics, like math or history or Liberty or Shakespeare, that tends to get shoehorned into a pithy definition that doesn’t begin to cover it all. I’m going to need to read poet Afaa Michael Weaver’s work with new eyes now; he explicitly mentions Zhuangzi in his interviews, and now that I have some idea of what that references, I’d like to reconnect to that.

For me the central moment came during lecture 6 with the “fish in water” description of how we relate to Daos: I flashed on DFW’s “This is Water” graduation speech (immortalized in brilliant video form which may or may not be on youtube at this moment). I was stunned to find DFW in Zhuangzi (or is it Zhuangzi in DFW?). The technique I call “finding my compassion” versus compassion fatigue when yet another panhandler asks for spare change? My impatience with the maintenance guy who doesn’t believe it’s necessary to find the source of a leak but just to cover up the water damage? Those are choices between daos, and often we don’t realize we’re making a choice.

This course taught me about Mozi and logic and natural philosophy, yes, but it also taught me to look for the choices I make without realizing I’m choosing – because chances are, if I were aware I was choosing, I’d choose differently. I highly recommend the experience.

Talmudic MOOC

Course: The Talmud: A Methodological Introduction
School/platform: Northwestern (Coursera)
Instructors: Barry Scott Wimpfheimer, Sarah Wolf
Quote:

The Talmud is one of the richest and most complicated works of literature the world has ever known. Since being composed around 1500 years ago it has inspired not only religious reverence but significant intellectual engagement. In this course learners will be introduced to the unique characteristics of this text and the challenges that inhere in studying it while studying a chapter of the Talmud.

We’ve all read one of those books or seen one of those movies – Yentl, if nothing else – that feature a yeshiva scene where two boys argue over some obscure point of law involving the Sabbath or ox goring. Because of my long-standing interest in philosophies and religions, I’ve made some weak attempts to understand these things better, but never got very far. So I was very happy to hear about this course. It’s only six weeks, so it’s just an overview rather than in-depth study, but it gave me a very good idea of the landscape and even a few details.

It started with no expectations of prior knowledge, beyond vague familiarity with the Bible and Judaism, and went from there, explaining different works of Jewish literature, how they all fit together, and how the Talmud fits in. Beyond the general overview of historical and cultural origins of the Talmud, the focus was on the opening of one chapter of one tractate concerning edim zomemim, or false witnesses, a chapter often called “Lashes”. Just this one topic covered dozens of concepts, both legal (what is the standard of punishment? What are the exceptions? How were these arrived at?), religious (what is the difference between punishment and atonement?), and logical (how do centuries of rabbinical opinions get dovetailed in an organized, streamlined manner?). It gets a little weird at times, since we’re talking about false accusations of ox gorings or priests who’ve married divorcees – or the story of Susanna being raped and all anybody cares about is the heroic Daniel identifying false witness who named the wrong guys – but the details were absolutely fascinating.

Techniques of logical argument took center stage at one point. Now, I’ve taken four (or five, depending on how you count) courses in propositional and/or symbolic logic, but we weren’t talking modus ponens or syllogisms here, it was about logical structures like Kal Va-Homer, which turned out to be an argumentum a fortiori: extrapolation from a weaker example to a stronger example (logic is logic in all times and places: I just found out this week that Confucius, not really a logician, used modus ponens). There’s the well-known argument between rabbis from different eras, each proposing slightly different ways to approach the legal issues involved, drawing different conclusions. Again, I was fascinated, though I sometimes got lost between rabbis.

The material was presented in lecture form, with videos alternating between two instructors (and included a sprinkle of humor in the illustrations). Although the material was often challenging, explanations were clear and often went over important concepts several times in slightly different ways. The Talmud was often referenced in translation (presumably, many students who take this class would read Hebrew, but I did fine without it) and online sources. Each week included a quiz which included some information-retrieval questions and some that required more reasoning. Two peer assessed essays were required, graded more for completion than content; I found the first topic highly useful as a way of organizing my thoughts. The second essay topic seemed less relevant, but I could see what they were getting at.

Towards the middle of the course, the instructors held a live video hang-out to answer questions and provide additional commentary. It was great to see them in more natural circumstances. I’ve always wondered why so many professors use a solo lecture-to-camera approach when a more conversational setting, perhaps with a small group of students whether on or off camera, could be so much more engaging. But maybe that’s just my preference.

The big surprise was on the forums, where a couple of robust discussions broke out (these are sadly rare on the new Coursera). I’d originally signed up for the course because my MOOC buddy Richard (hi, Richard!) mentioned it to me, so we tossed a few things around and were joined by a few highly knowledgable fellow students. That’s the special thing about MOOCs: there’s an expert in every class, and here there were several who provided guidance to those of us with no background. Most particularly was Yael Shahar, who carefully explained various facets of atonement and forgiveness (a particular interest of mine; remember my months with Dante?). Turns out she is the co-author of A Damaged Mirror, a biographical narrative of a former Sonderkommando’s consultation with a rabbi, decades after Auschwitz, to see if forgiveness is possible.

Anyone who’s curious and interested in knowing a little about the Talmud would enjoy this and be able to gain something from it. If it’s completely new territory, it might be a bit challenging in places, but that’s part of the fun.

Ancient Philosophy MOOCs

Course: Ancient Philosophy: Plato & His Predecessors
and Ancient Philosophy: Aristotle and His Successors

School/Platform: Penn/Coursera
Instructors: Susan Sauvé Meyer
Quote:

We begin with the Presocratic natural philosophers who were active in Ionia in the 6th century BCE and are also credited with being the first scientists. Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximines made bold proposals about the ultimate constituents of reality, while Heraclitus insisted that there is an underlying order to the changing world. Parmenides of Elea formulated a powerful objection to all these proposals, while later Greek theorists (such as Anaxagoras and the atomist Democritus) attempted to answer that objection. In fifth-century Athens, Socrates insisted on the importance of the fundamental ethical question—“How shall I live?”—and his pupil, Plato, and Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, developed elaborate philosophical systems to explain the nature of reality, knowledge, and human happiness.

If you’re looking for a very straightforward introductory philosophy course, this two-course series might fit the bill. It’s a quick sampler of ancient Greek thought from Thales through the Stoics. Most of the focus is on Plato and Aristotle, since most of their material has survived over the centuries while the sometimes prolific works of other ancients comes down to us only in pieces, reports, and refutations. Since either Plato or Aristotle could fill a year’s curriculum, the material is a light gloss over some of the main features: a few dialogues, a selection from The Republic, the Four Causes, a little Logic.

It’s one of those “I’m going to read a textbook and you will answer multiple-choice questions to show you’ve paid attention” courses, with a series of lecture videos, each including one or two “are you paying attention” questions in mid-stream which repeats the sentence just said in questions form, a quiz at the end of each section (multiple attempts are permitted; there’s really no excuse for a score less than 100%, even if you don’t watch the lectures at all) and a peer-assessed essay, with a choice of prompts, at the end of each of the two separate courses. One of the prompts was quite interesting: rewrite Euthyphro (or maybe it was the Meno, I don’t remember) so that it comes out differently. I’ve always felt that Socrates gets away with murder in these dialogs, that anyone truly engaged in the conversation would not so willingly be led to the gallows of his argument. But I took the easier route and wrote a “summarize the material” essay, so shame on me.

To spice things up (well, as much as you can spice things up when you’re talking about Plato etc.) I supplemented the course with podcasts from History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, a very cool and ever-expanding site that does indeed attempt to cover philosophy without… well, you know. I also found a couple of the Yale OCW videos from their Political Philosophy course to be valuable vis-à-vis The Republic. Since the Coursera class has no academic rigor to it at all, these resources might be more useful to anyone intending to actually study philosophy, as opposed to collecting “certificates” (which seems to be the business Coursera is in now). But I found the lectures quite pleasant (I love this stuff), and as an introduction it serves the purpose – but Sophie’s World does it so much better.

Conscious MOOC

Course: The Conscious Mind – A Philosophical Road Trip
School/platform: Trinity College/edX
Instructors: Dan Lloyd
Quote:

You will explore your own mind and the minds of others in a new way, using a philosophical approach known as phenomenology. You’ll encounter some of the main ideas of the phenomenological tradition, through short readings by Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Their ideas are provocative and will animate the online and offline conversation as we proceed. But the main approach of the course will be experiential and experimental. You’ll learn phenomenology by doing it and journeying among the structures and elements of your own conscious experience.

And now for the other side of the coin. Where Minds & Machines was rigorous and technical, this was more of a thought-fest. There’s room for both approaches in MOOCdom, and I got some interesting tidbits out of this.

Again, I can’t really describe what the course was “about” other than the description above. One of the stated goals was to introduce students to reading “difficult” writing, and short readings included Husserl and Merleau-Ponty (neither of whom I’d ever read before), Sartre, Heidegger, and De Beauvoir. I’m not sure the course did much to promote attaining this goal, since by week 3, quiz questions were along the lines of “Who is the author of this quote” rather than anything requiring understanding.

In any case, the focus was on experiencing phenomenology, rather than reading about it. The introduction to Heidegger, for example, involved tools to notice how readiness-to-hand can become obtrusiveness when the tools don’t work, and “Hey, Jude” demonstrated Husserl’s notion of the three divisions of time. One video of a small group discussion looked at “otherness”, privilege and target identities, a particularly pertinent topic that was pretty tepid in realization (one person’s “otherness” was wearing glasses, for pete’s sake; how privileged do you have to be to consider that a targeted trait?). The intent was there, though the execution left something to be desired.

The final project – a fancy word for a short essay to be peer-assessed – was for me the most interesting part of the course, and I quite enjoyed working on it. We were to choose from a selection of brief videos, and explain how one embodied a concept from the course, and another referenced a specific quote in one of the readings. I had a lot of fun with this; length was unrestricted, and the instructions permitted bringing in any material from outside the course, as long as the required course material was included, so I ended up referencing a recent Veritasium video among other things (and it wasn’t nearly as long as I’d expected, given my tendency to verbosity). Peer assessments are always risky, from a “grades” standpoint, but this one went well.

The discussion boards were a major disappointment. I wish instructors would realize that no matter how well-intentioned they are when they require people to post responses to a question or idea, what they will get is a stream of single-post threads, some of which will have replies on the order of “I agree” (which also satisfies the posting requirement). A couple of us tried to have a conversation, and while there was some activity, I think we were on different wavelengths, because it never took off. At least we tried, though.

This was, I think, intended as not the classroom-equivalent that Minds & Machines was, nor even the multiple-tracks-pick-your-level that Critical Thinking was (all three claimed to consider themselves introductory philosophy courses). It was instead more the very-light-introduction-with-lots-of-stoned-bullshitting-late-into-the-night sort of course. As I’ve said, some MOOCs work for some people but not others. This didn’t quite work for me. I’m not sure why; it’s like a joke that falls flat, or a weekend trip that just isn’t fun for no identifiable reason. Part of it, I believe, was the posting requirement above. Why nothing materialized outside of that, however, I don’t really understand. Maybe it’s that each concept was posted as standalone, without anything to contrast it with; the Objections approach used in Minds & Machines really forced us to understand the implications of a theory.

But that’s just my opinion; I’m sure lots of students found it a great, gentle introduction to some of the more ephemeral issues of philosophy. It might be fun to take with a group, to stir more productive discussions including some objections. I was happy with what I got out of it proportional to the time I spent on it; I enjoyed both encountering two new thinkers, and I had a good time writing the essay, so I’m glad I took it.

Mind MOOC


Course: Minds & Machines
School/Platform: MIT/edX
Instructors: Alex Byrne
Quote:

What is the relationship between the mind and the body? Can computers think? Do we perceive reality as it is? Can there be a science of consciousness?
This course explores these questions and others. It is a thorough, rigorous introduction to contemporary philosophy of mind.
According to many scientists and philosophers, explaining the nature of consciousness is the deepest intellectual challenge of all. If you find consciousness at all puzzling, this is a great place to start learning more.
What you’ll learn:
-The basics of argumentation
-Some central arguments for and against the view that a sufficiently powerful computer can think (AI)
-The main theories of mental states and their relations to physical states
-Some central arguments for and against the view that the world is not as we perceive it to be
-What the “hard problem of consciousness” is

This was one of three “killer MOOCs” I had the bad timing to take concurrently, and thus one-third of the reason I had to forego Pushcart for a few weeks. While I very much enjoyed and got a lot out of some aspects of this course, I was less enthusiastic about other aspects. The main problem was that I didn’t approach it correctly, and that’s my bad. I may take it again, do it right next time, and I think I’ll get a lot more out of it. Because although I did manage to “pass”, a great deal of it went by me, and I fear I won’t retain much. Still, it was perspective-shifting and horizon-expanding, and so the time and effort are well worth it.

What I liked was the general subject matter. These are fascinating topics: can computers think? What is it that we see when we see blue? Do we exist apart from our bodies – that is, how much of my physical body can you remove, and still leave “me” intact? There were fascinating thought experiments: if it were possible to create an atom-for-atom duplicate of a person, would that person have the same thoughts as the original? If your nerves are reporting pain, and you aren’t feeling pain, is there pain? Can we ever understand what it’s like to be a bat? These are the sorts of questions some people tend to sneer at as being high-falutin’ nonsense since nothing is ever answered but only raises more questions, but all of those questions go to the heart of reality, of humanity: what constitutes “me”? What seems simple and straightforward becomes a little fuzzier when all the implications are included. And although these topics can seem diverse, they all relate to each other.

Yet, for all the high-falutin’ nonsense, it was a rigorous course. It wasn’t a sit-around-the-dorm-getting-stoned-and-bullshitting-into-the-night sort of thing (though I wouldn’t know, having never been a residential student); the course consisted of looking at structured arguments for each –ism, and then looking at the objections raised to different parts of those arguments. This is what I wished I’d outlined from the beginning.

My favorite moment of the course came from the TA, Damien Rochford. He was the TA in the earlier course on Paradox & Infinity; I felt sorry for him, one person to cover the myriad of questions raised both on material and on process. In a discussion of whether, in a world where blue swans are possible, if the proposition that there could have been blue swans was possible (hey, it’s fun, lighten up), Damien came up with what is at this time my favorite philosophical statement: “It is a matter of some dispute whether, whenever something is possibly possible, it is possible. My view is that it is not.” I don’t understand why Republicans hate philosophy, do you? Bertrand Russell even said outright: “The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty.”

And that’s a good thing, because I’m still uncertain about much that transpired. The course was subdivided into 5 units: Minds and Computers; Dualism to Functionalism; Minds and Brains; Perception; and Consciousness. Most units lasted two weeks and included a series of lecture videos filmed in the actual classroom, broken up into very short segments (3 to 6 minutes) often followed by an ungraded question or two. Some lectures covered a paper. Some lectures covered a topic. Some brought in basics of argument. I had a hard time figuring out just what I should be focusing on. Part of that may be time limitations, which is something I need to keep in mind (less is indeed more). But part of it is that I didn’t realize from the beginning what the course was, at its heart, about.

This became evident with the first graded assignments. Having read the papers, paid attention to the videos, taken notes, considered what I thought were the important points, and done fine with the ungraded questions, the first Argument Analysis took me by surprise. I “passed” it, but missing one question out of five took its toll. I always thought I was fairly adept at the basics of logical argument. Not so much, it seems: the second argument analysis was disastrous – yet it covered a topic I thought I’d understood fairly well.

Then there were the exams. On the midterm, I was doing very poorly on a series of True/False questions, so I stopped for the evening and picked it up the next day. Things went far better. I’m not sure if I was more rested or focused or whatever, or if the questions were in fact easier. The final section was a series of questions on a previously unread paper, and to my surprise, I did very well at picking out the arguments and objections. I began to wonder if listening to the lectures (which often included somewhat tortuous syntax, repetition of the trivial and non-explanation of the significant) was a mistake. I do think, however, that the paper in question was far easier to follow than the primary papers in the syllabus, with a lot more “guide words”, and the questions asked were both simpler and included significant hints, so that probably explains it. The final exam, it seemed to me, had a number of “easy” questions strewn throughout, designed to give a break to those of us who got something out of the material, though perhaps not the level of an MIT student. And then it had… other questions.

I wish I’d approached the course entirely different, that I had gone through the papers and outlined the argument that was being made, or the objections that were being raised to an earlier argument, as a primary means of study, then outlined the “ism of the week” with reference to those arguments. I think this would’ve helped keep me on track. Unfortunately, I didn’t think of it until week 9 or 10 of 12.

And yes, there’s that: this was a long course, stretching over a full MIT semester. For some reason, I thought it was much shorter, and I kept thinking the course was almost over. When I finally figured out, in mid-January, that it actually ran into March, I got pretty discouraged, since I felt I wasn’t really getting all I could out of it. I wonder if the in-person class was as worn-out as I was by the end, since it seemed the students moved farther and farther back in the rows of seats, possibly because the numbers were shrinking. Then again, these are MIT students. Maybe they don’t need silly thing like lectures to ace their courses.

But now that I have a better idea of what the topic is, I just might run through it again some time. Because it really is fascinating material.

Thinking MOOC

Course: Philosophy and Critical Thinking META101x: Thinking about thinking
School: University of Queensland via edX
Instructors: Deborah Brown, Peter Ellerton, et al
Quote:

We’ll begin by developing some of the intellectual tools we need to analyse the big issues in philosophy – understanding the nature and structure of arguments. We’ll learn what makes an argument compelling, and how we can evaluate arguments to see if they are put together in a convincing way. We will develop this skill all through the course, by applying it across a range of philosophical topics with increasing sophistication. In each module we will be analysing and evaluating arguments.

The Fallacy Referee, the Glossary Fairy, the philosophical Grotesques, illustrations filmed in coffee shops, high school classrooms, duck ponds… Once again, as with the Duke “Think Again” course on argument, I could tell the people making this course had a lot of fun with it. I’m all about goofy, but it wasn’t quite my style of goofy. That’s ok, I’m sure a lot of people thought it was great. I have to give them credit for creative and well-executed graphic and camera work, as well as for enthusiasm.

The course was made up of four week-long modules, each with a series of lectures, conversations (“Philosophers Talk” featuring faculty discussing pertinent topics), readings (“Let’s Philosophize”), discussion topics for the forum (with significant staff support), and ungraded questions and exercises. Grades were based on four exams, one per module. The introductory material indicated three possible tracks to accommodate different goals or different prior coursework. What’s odd is that I couldn’t figure out what went with what track. That’s ok, all MOOCs are pretty much choose-your-adventure.

Some of the lectures and readings seemed a bit vague and cryptic, with more jargon – the endless parade of “isms” – than explanation or framework for understanding. Possibly, these were for “serious” philosophy students and were simply over my head (I’ve been perplexed by underdeterminism before), but I would’ve liked a bit more explanation.

The course has been Archived, which means you can enroll and take the material at your own pace, though there won’t be any grades or discussion forums. It’s not a bad course, just not my cup of tea. If it’d been an 8 week course, I probably would’ve dropped by week 3. But the 4 weeks were worthwhile. There’s a great deal of philosophical info in there. And they really went to a great deal of effort to create the course; dozens of people were involved, from the philosophers discussing their work to TAs enacting little illustrative dramas (in addition to the unseen editors and edtechs). In fact, I’m a bit surprised they’re archiving it after one run, considering how much went into it, and how many discussion questions show up; I’m going to guess it’s some kind of supplement to the in-person philosophy curriculum.

I have a hard time summing up what was covered without listing individual topics: argument structure, validity and soundness, fallacies, philosophy of science, dualism, idealism, realism, this–ism that–ism, analogies, causation… and dozens more. I would imagine to a philosopher, these fit together in a category that covers all these things, but to me it seemed almost like a random collection of philosophical topics about thinking.

Quranic MOOC

Left: One of the oldest surviving Quran manuscripts, perhaps late 7th century. Right: Opening of Sura 20 in 1924 standardized edition.

Left: One of the oldest surviving Quran manuscripts, c. 7th century.
Right: Opening of Sura 20 in 1924 standardized edition.

Course: Introduction to the Quran: The Scripture of Islam
School: Notre Dame via edX
Instructors: Gabriel Said Reynolds
Quote:

This course will introduce you to various aspects of the Quran, including its basic message, the historical context in which it originated, the diverse ways in which Muslims have interpreted it, and its surprisingly intimate relationship with the Bible. By the end of the course, you will gain an appreciation for the perspectives of Muslim believers and academic scholars alike on the origins and the meaning of the Islamic scripture. No background in Islam or Arabic is necessary for this course.

Like many white-bread Americans, I have absolutely no idea what’s actually in the Quran. I’ve tried to read parts of it a couple of times, but got lost very quickly, and when it comes to religious texts of any kinds, it’s very difficult to judge the reliability of sources of information unless you have some overview of the playing field. So when I found out this course was available, I jumped at the chance to start understanding better. I’m glad I did; this was a highly successful project.

We started with an overview of structure of the Quran, the themes found within, and the process by which the text became standardized. All of this situated the verses in a time and context. I realized why I had so much trouble understanding it on my own: whereas the Bible is structured around a mostly chronological account of the Hebrews, the life of Jesus, and the Apostles – a story, with some philosophy thrown in along the way – the Quran has a different structure. Suras (chapters) don’t necessarily stick to one theme, nor is there a narrative in most cases. This gets particularly confusing as each Sura is named, but the name doesn’t necessarily refer to a theme, or even the most important aspect of the section, but rather to some distinctive feature.

The last two weeks of the course compared the Quran with the Bible, first with the Old Testament (Adam, Noah, and Moses) and then the New Testament (Mary, Jesus, and the disciples), examining the differences with an eye towards understanding why those differences appeared. I found these differences to be fascinating, and often quite beautiful.

What I appreciated most about the course was the clear distinction between what is in the text, and the interpretations of that text. This was most evident to me in connection with the “Night Journey” of Sura 17, the story of Mohamed’s mystical transport in the course of one night from Mecca to Jerusalem to Heaven and back again. We looked at several traditions of interpretation of the text according to different Islamic scholars and schools of thought, and how those interpretations are situated into more verifiable aspects of Mohammed’s biography and the history and geography of the period.

The course consisted of a weekly set of lectures (one of which was taped in Jerusalem overlooking the Dome of the Rock), which were clear and informative. We were also able to enjoy guest interviews with several academic and religious scholars of the Quran, and each week also featured a “response” video on questions and issues raise on the forums. A typical week would also include significant reading: two or three Suras, and a chapter or two from a couple of academic texts. I found some of these academic readings to be somewhat complicated, primarily due to my unfamiliarity with Arabic, even Anglicized Arabic (obviously, all material in the course was presented in translation, with occasional recitations in the original Arabic), and secondarily due to my newness to the terrain. But that’s what learning is, after all: expanding the landscape of what’s familiar.

Grading was on the basis of three multiple-choice quizzes; each week also included a very short (4 to 5 questions) ungraded quiz. I didn’t find these to be difficult, though in some cases I needed to refresh my memory, as so many new names, places, and concepts were piling in. There was a quirk I haven’t seen before: the final essay (analysis of a sura not included in the course material) was for verified students only, and was submitted by email for grading by staff. While staff grading is a fantastic feature, I was surprised there was no option for peer assessment, or even self-assessment.

Another feature I greatly appreciated was the detailed structuring of the discussion forums into the topics covered for a particular week. This minimized the deficiencies of the edX forums (which I’ve ranted about before), but on top of that, given the tenor of the times, discussions in this type of course could easily get out of hand. Every mention of posting questions or comments included the word “respectful” (sad that such a thing is necessary, but a welcome reminder) and the boards were well-monitored. I didn’t participate – a combination of time pressure and being too much of a neophyte to formulate an intelligent query, or much of a query at all – but I looked around and was surprised at how well-behaved things were, given the high level of activity and the different points of view being offered. The single troll I noticed went almost entirely unfed, which is pretty remarkable. Of course, it’s possible that things were cleaned up by moderators before I got there, but that’s pretty remarkable as well. In any case, I found it comforting that, as so many in the world seemed to be going crazy, there still are people who are able to wonder, question, and trade ideas in a rational way.

I can recommend this course for anyone who’s interested in taking a look at the Quran from an academic perspective, and understanding some of the interpretations it generates; yes, there is significant effort involved, but as one of my academic heroes says, if you’re taking an easy class, you need a different class. I’m at too low a level to know, but I think it’s effective as a multi-level course: that is, beginners like me find it a great introduction, but those with more depth of experience and understanding will no doubt find it worthwhile as well. I may take it again myself, to deepen my understanding.

Platonic MOOC

Course: Reason and Persuasion: Thinking Through Three Dialogues By Plato
School: National University of Singapore via Coursera (free)
Instructor: John Holbo
Quote:
 
         Why ‘Reason and Persuasion’? The title is generic, and indicates that the course will be – if this is what you are looking for – a general, introduction to philosophy, as it tends to be taught at the university level. But the title also points to a specific problem: reason without persuasion is useless; persuasion without reason is dangerous. Plato worried about it. So will we.
         The course will be of interest to a wide variety of students. There are a variety of reasons why you might want to know at least a little about what Plato thought and wrote. I will do my best to teach in a way that accommodates as wide a range of likely interests in the subject as I can manage.

[Addendum: this course has been converted to the new Coursera platform; content may have changed, and the experience is likely to be very different]

What a roller coaster! There were times when I thought, what the hell is going on here? There were times when I put “Awesome!” markers in my notes. I wanted to say, screw the tests, screw the paper; then I found out the tests were the most educational part of the course, and I had a blast writing the paper. That’s philosophy for ya. It’s why some people prefer to sweat out ordinary differential equations. But some of us like roller coasters (or maybe we just can’t figure out ODEs).

If you just want someone to give you a traditional interpretation of Plato, check SparkNotes. But if you’re willing to take the scenic route, and can tolerate a wild ride, I recommend this highly.

The first six weeks revolved around three Platonic dialogs, specifically the Euthyphro, the Meno, and Book I of The Republic: Socratic debate about the nature of justice and virtue. In weeks 7 and 8, the focus turned to contemporary moral philosophy and psychology, specifically the works of Jonathan Haidt and Joshua Green. The course comes with a textbook available for free on ISSUU or as a PDF (as well as on paper and, eventually, Kindle if you really want to spend money). Lots of illustrations (some of which appear here). There’s a story behind those illustrations:

The cartooning? It started as a teaching method, a way of bullet-pointing without words. Because, as I learned: if you give students a bullet point in words, they will think it is the answer. That would never do in Plato’s case. I hope the cartoons are true to Plato’s better nature as a comic puppeteer, and serve the intellectual function of setting up thematic echoes across the dialogues and my discussions, without presuming to tell you exactly what the echoes mean.
 
                                               ~~ reasonandpersuasion.com, “About the Book”
 
I may be the only person in the history of the world who learned to draw because of PowerPoint. That’s right. I teach the large intro philosophy lecture and I had to have some color in my lecture slides. And clipart just doesn’t cut it. So one thing led to another …
 
                                              ~~ johnholbo.com

The cartoons in the book, at least the PDF version, are black-and white. That’s ok, the slides used in class are in color. I like colors.

The eight modules, ostensibly one per week, were released in clumps so students could proceed at our own pace; it was possible to complete the entire 8 week course in 4 weeks or so. That seems to be popular in Coursera right now; I never saw it before, but am currently taking 3 courses that release all or most of the materials at the beginning. I have mixed feelings about that approach. There was a distinct benefit for me at this time: since I’m getting more and more seriously overcommitted to courses over the next few months, it let me compress this course and a couple of others so I would reduce the cumulative workload later. On the down side, yes, there’s always the option to take a module a week without accelerating, but since some people do and some don’t, it kind of breaks up the cohort, making the discussion boards less coherent. I wanted to discuss Agony Aunts before the class got that far, but by the time the class got there, I’d moved on to geometry and math, and wanted to talk about that, then later was all excited about rational dogs and emotional tails (except it’s the other way around, but I like it the way I think of it). Like I said, mixed feelings.

I got confused about the quizzes: they were “titled” rather than ordered, so the first four quizzes dealt with Euthyphro, covered in the first two lectures; the next four quizzes were about Meno, lectures 3 and 4. I got confused. I … well, ok, I assumed (yes, I know what that makes me) it was one quiz per week (I MUST start reading instructions!) so I wasn’t sure why I was still answering questions about Euthyphro when I was reading Meno. I don’t know what I was thinking, it’s not that hard: four quizzes per two-week module on each. Numbers. They’ll get me every time, even the little ones.

The content of the quizzes initially confused me, too. Here these lectures were goofy ramblings about masks and mantises and agony aunts (I’d never heard that term before, apparently it’s a whole thing) and, yeah, some Euthyphro, some virtue. I just went through Euthyphro in the Kierkegaard course, but I didn’t remember anything about mantises. Then the quizzes blindsided me with detailed logical analyses of individual passages, which was more what I’d expected but felt like the quizzes from another class got attached to these lectures by mistake.

It wasn’t until later that I made the amazing discovery that the answers to the quiz questions, and a detailed analysis of exactly why each answer was right or wrong, was provided from the start. If nothing else, this course will teach me to read instructions, I swear. But that changed the game, because the given analysis of the answers was fantastic. I didn’t even “cheat” though I suppose it’s not cheating if the answers are pre-supplied – hey, you get 100 chances on a multiple choice quiz with 4 or 5 options, and the incorrect answers marked, why cheat – but going through them afterwards was the perfect feedback. Sometimes I got one right for the wrong reason. Sometimes I had the right idea, but had the poles reversed (I have a lot of trouble with “pick the incorrect answer” in general, more of my we-don’t-need-no-stinkin’-instructions obsession). But after I discovered the answers, the quizzes went from scary to an adventure. I didn’t improve at getting questions right as time went on, but I loved figuring out what I did wrong. I loved those quizzes. I wanted more quizzes.

I only half-participated in the forums. That’s about the most I can do in a “thought” class; I typically get intimidated by those who start throwing around thinkers and theories I’ve never heard of, and I’m scared of people who know everything (or at least post as if they do). Whereas in math I can throw myself on the mercy of the nerds and someone will come down to my level, that doesn’t work so well in philosophy or history or literature since I can’t even formulate a question like “I don’t understand where the 6.3 came from”. Most of my reactions to philosophy forum posts are along the lines of, “What the hell are you talking about?” Sometimes I found a quiet corner where some of us slow kids gathered and tried to figure things out, but either I’d say something stupid and slink away feeling all inadequate, or someone would come along to “help” us and it all turned into the message-board equivalent of the Charlie Brown teacher “WAH-Wah-wah.” So my participation, while fun and productive, was intermittent and encapsulated. Admission: I could’ve spent more time trying. I give great credit to John Holbo for keeping an active, if intermittent, presence on the board, and raising topics for discussion; that’s getting ever more rare in MOOCs, but I think it’s an important element, especially when there’s no other staff or CTAs. It’s nice to know someone cares enough about a course to keep an eye on things.

A peer assessment paper was included in the course, though the grading was structured so that it wasn’t strictly required for a Certificate of accomplishment or whatever the hell it’s called; it was necessary for the Distinction thing. Since I still don’t understand the value of a certificate (can you tell?) I wasn’t going to do it, but then I thought, hey, don’t be lazy, you finished the readings, lectures, and quizzes (I loved those quizzes!) and you have time before high tide hits, go for it. And dang, I had fun with it. I intentionally write these commentaries before grading, since peer assessment is always unpredictable and no matter how much I say it doesn’t matter, it kinda hurts to get slammed (it’s also embarrassing to be given an unearned high score, by the way) and I don’t want my impression of the course colored by hurt feelings. And I will get slammed: I ignored the rubric, the five-part paper thing (I did my time writing five-part academic papers; at my age, I’m in this to learn something or to have fun). The paper was an application of the course material, rather than a recitation of it, which I appreciated, so I went for it. It wasn’t a paper I’m particularly proud of, but it did provide a way for me to review some of the material, and it was a lot of fun to write. So though I rode it off the rails, I did wave out the window at the points of the course material as I passed, yelling, “Helloooooooo there!”

What surprised me most about the course was seeing myself in a mirror. I bow to no one in my love for digressions, regressions, multiple metaphors, and goofiness, but in the first few weeks of lectures, I was screaming “WOULD YOU GET TO THE POINT!” at my computer screen. Now I see why I drive people crazy. However, it got better as time went on – or maybe I just got used to it. I even came to enjoy it – and the last two weeks of lectures absolutely rocked. John Holbo can get more out of an elephant (or a mantis, or doggie caryatids – see, I did learn something) than anyone has a right to expect.

I had a good time, once I relaxed and let it be what it was. I learned some thing about Plato, and I learned some additional things about System 1 and System 2 (which I’d encountered before, though I forgot until I read the Haidt paper) and I saw some additional ways contemporary thinkers are framing morality, like the Tragedy of the Commons – hey, I see that on the news every day. Great course. And – I do like colors.

Philosophical Science (or is it Scientific Philosophy) MOOC

Course: Philosophy and the Sciences
School: University of Edinburgh via Coursera (free)
Instructors: Various
Quote:

Scientific research across both the physical sciences and the cognitive sciences has raised pressing questions for philosophers. The goal of this course is to introduce you to some of the main areas and topics at the key juncture between philosophy and the sciences. The course is structured around two broad areas:
1. Philosophy and the Physical Sciences
2. Philosophy and the Cognitive Sciences
Each week we will introduce you to some of these important questions at the forefront of scientific research. We will explain the science behind each topic in a simple, non-technical way, while also addressing the philosophical and conceptual questions arising from it. Areas you’ll learn about will include:

• Philosophy of cosmology, where we’ll consider questions about the origin and evolution of our universe, the nature of dark energy and dark matter and the role of anthropic reasoning in the explanation of our universe.
• Philosophy of psychology, among whose issues we will cover the evolution of the human mind and the nature of consciousness.
• Philosophy of neurosciences, where we’ll consider the nature of human cognition and the relation between mind, machines, and the environment.

I’m afraid I came to a somewhat different conclusion by the end of this course: the philosophers are talking to themselves about what the scientists are doing, and I have to wonder if anyone’s really paying any attention to them. But they seem to be having a very good time, and I greatly enjoyed listening in.

After the first week (a general examination of what makes science, science, as opposed to pseudosciences like astrology and phrenology), the course was structured in the two modules described above, with the option to focus on one or the other or do both. Lecture videos, less than an hour per week, included material from both scientists and philosophers in an ever-changing cast as we moved through topics. The explanation of course grading seemed downright Byzantine to me, with three “tracks” and multiple ways of completing both; fortunately, I didn’t pay attention to the requirements until it was time to write this post, so I just plowed ahead and did what was assigned, and that worked out fine.

I found the cosmology lectures in Module 1, to be very difficult to follow, but it wasn’t a serious impediment to passing the course; only a general understanding of the broadest scientific concepts (about the same level as a Nova segment) was required for the quizzes and writing the peer assessed assignment about the specific philosophical theories and structures (such as theory choice and the anthropic principle). The more technical material, while perhaps not at the level of an actual astrophysics course (though I wouldn’t really know) kept students with a higher level of scientific understanding interested; the forums were very active with questions about the red shift, singularities, expanding vs contracting universes, etc.

I found the philosophy to be hard to find in the second module focusing on cognitive science, but the science was fascinating (particularly concepts of intelligence and consciousness) and accessible. I think I even understood the presentation of Bayes’ Rule explaining the mathematical way our brains “guess” at making meaning from input. The Ames room was fascinating: a trapezoidal room that appears perfectly square from one point of view (a similarity to anamorphic art?). I couldn’t see the trapezoid at all. I still can’t, even though I’ve seen multiple models and explanations – am I unusually susceptible to image? Is that a philosophical question, or a scientific one?

I suspect my trouble sorting science from philosophy is because the disciplines interweave, with one imperceptibly blending into the other. It was fine back in the 17th century when Descartes did his cogito ergo sum thing, but once you start seeing brain processes on fMRIs and PET scans and hypersensitive EEGs, not to mention my new friend the Bayes rule, I’m not sure the mind-brain debate can be among philosophers any more. This made the essay for that module particularly difficult to write. In fact, I’d say that whereas my paper for the first module was boring and uninspired but reasonably accurate and comprehensive, for the second module I turned in a disorganized, incoherent mess; my self-assessment was quite low, and if my peers are honest, the scores they give it will be low as well.

But scores aren’t the point; fact is, I know more now than I did before; in fact, I know about whole swaths of concepts I never knew about before. This is a very general, very introductory level course, and whoever it is in whatever discipline that’s doing the work, it’s incredibly interesting, looking at what happens when we perceive, think, feel, dream.

Ironic MOOC (Kierkegaard style)

Course: Søren Kierkegaard – Subjectivity, Irony and the Crisis of Modernity
School: University of Copenhagen via Coursera (free)
Instructor: Jon Stewart
Quote:
 
It is often claimed that relativism, subjectivism and nihilism are typically modern philosophical problems that emerge with the breakdown of traditional values, customs and ways of life. The result is the absence of meaning, the lapse of religious faith, and feeling of alienation that is so widespread in modernity.
The Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) gave one of the most penetrating analyses of this complex phenomenon of modernity. But somewhat surprisingly he seeks insight into it not in any modern thinker but rather in an ancient one, the Greek philosopher Socrates.
In this course we will explore how Kierkegaard deals with the problems associated with relativism, the lack of meaning and the undermining of religious faith that are typical of modern life. His penetrating analyses are still highly relevant today and have been seen as insightful for the leading figures of Existentialism, Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism.
No prior knowledge of Kierkegaard is required. The course will be on an advanced undergraduate level, and it will be an advantage for students to have some prior knowledge or idea about the history of philosophy.

[Addendum: this course has been converted to the new Coursera platform; some content may have changed, and the experience is likely to be very different]

I now know (or, more accurately, know of) three Jon (no “h”) Stewarts: the comedian, the oldest American Ninja Warrior contestant to qualify for the Mt. Midoriyama finals in Vegas – and the philosophy professor who taught this class.

I signed up for this course because 1) I wanted to know more about Kierkegaard, and 2) I heard a lot of good things about this course from some students who took it last year. It worked out well.

True to its title, the course focused on Socratic irony and the difference between German Romanticism, and Kierkegaard’s vision of negative irony as subjectivity rather than relativism, and a general overview of his understanding of Christianity, all set in a travelling on-site biography. The lectures took place in a variety of places around Copenhagen – in the University, museums, houses where Kierkegaard (and others important to his life) lived, Amalienborg Castle, in front of the Parliament,the Citadel Church, his gravesite, and most dramatically, a stone monument in the village of Gilleleje which honors the man who in 1835 there contemplated his mission in life.

The focus on irony and subjectivity pushed existentialism and the “stages” of life – two things I’d associated with Kierkegaard prior to the course – into the background. I quite liked the more in-depth approach to a smaller area, but I’d like to pursue other aspects of Kierkegaard’s work further; I hope a “part two” will be forthcoming at some point. Kierkegaard isn’t someone I would dare to read alone.

I do think, however, they buried the lede. It wasn’t until the 7th week I found out that Kierkegaard was sure he’d die at age 33 and so planned his work in two parallel streams with a final analysis capping them off. He was so confused when he didn’t die, he checked his birth records to make sure he had his age right. So what was the poor guy to do, but write more books – and pick a fight with the church, bless his heart. I wish I’d known that initially, not just because it’s interesting, but because it gives a structure to his body of work.

In addition to the video lectures (about an hour a week), readings from Plato/Socrates, Hegel, and Kierkegaard were assigned, and made available in PDF format. This was one of the first courses where I used the video transcripts provided for most Coursera lectures, highlighting instead of taking notes; this approach worked quite well for me, allowing me to listen more than worry about catching everything. It worked so well, in fact, I’ve started using the technique in other courses; I’m embarrassed I never thought of it before. [Addendum: Dr. Stewart’s book, scheduled for publication in October 2015, includes much of the material from this course] [Another Addendum: More good news – the course lectures from the 8 weeks (about an hour per week) are available on Youtube.]

Each week concluded with a ten-question multiple choice quiz (three tries), and a 2000-word final peer assessed essay was assigned; to my surprise, the question was extremely general, linking Socrates, Kierkegaard, and modern life. Anyone who’d paid even cursory attention to the lectures would’ve had no trouble with the essay, though of course peer assessment is unpredictable. I can’t say I’m particularly proud of what I turned in (assessments aren’t completed yet so I have no idea what “score” I received) but I do feel like I got a great deal out of the course, so it was a success.

I’d recommend this course to anyone; it’s very accessible – and, by the way, it’s scheduled to run again in March 2015. The course description estimates 4 to 6 hours a week, which seems about right (they’re usually much too low), though, as with any course, one can always find ways to dive deeper into the material. Plenty of avenues were available, and I probably could’ve spent more time on certain areas, like supplementary readings. I didn’t use the discussion forums at all for this course; initially I was simply overMOOC’d, and later, I just couldn’t find a comfort zone.

I find it interesting that both Dante and Kierkegaard, two profoundly Christian writers, took as primary muses voices of the Ancient world, Socrates and Virgil, neither of whom had any part in the Judeo-Christian tradition. But where Dante gives Virgil a few slaps for his paganism, Kierkegaard holds Socrates in highest esteem throughout his life, and saw a great deal of similarity between his contemporary understanding of Christianity and the model Socrates followed. Interestingly, I found this course, which sometimes included some heavy-duty issues of religious faith and Christian dogma, far more enjoyable and productive than the Georgetown approach to Dante, though I enjoyed reading Inferno more than reading Kierkegaard.

In the last week of the course, as Ferguson showed the world what injustice looks like and 12-year-old Tamir Rice was gunned down for looking dangerous, this quote from The Sickness Unto Death came into focus on my screen:

“…When I see someone who declares he has completely understood how Christ went around in the form of a lowly servant, poor, despised, mocked, and, as Scripture tells us spat upon – when I see the same person assiduously make his way to the place where in worldly sagacity it is good to be, set himself up as securely as possible, when I see him then so anxiously, as if his life depended on it, avoiding every gusty of unfavorable wind from the right or left, see him so blissful so extremely blissful, so slap-happy, yes, to make it complete, so slap-happy that he even thanks God for – for being whole-heartedly honored and esteemed by all by everyone – then I have often said privately to myself: “Socrates, Socrates, Socrates, can it be possible that this man has understood what he says he understood?”… No, Socrates, you I can understand; you make him into a joker, a jolly fellow of sorts, and fair game for laughter; you have nothing against but rather even approve of my preparing and serving him up as something comic – provided I do it well.
 
Socrates, Socrates, Socrates! Yes, we may well call your name three times; it would not be too much to call it ten times, if it would be of any help. Popular opinion maintains that the world needs a republic, needs a new social order and a new religion – but no one considers that what the world, confused simply by too much knowledge, needs is a Socrates…
 
So it could very well be that our age needs an ironic-ethical correction such as this – this may actually be the only thing it needs – for obviously it is the last thing it thinks of. Instead of going beyond Socrates, it is extremely urgent that we come back to this Socratic principle – to understand and to understand are two things – not as a conclusion that ultimately aids people in their deepest misery, since that annuls precisely the difference between understanding and understanding, but a the ethical conception of everyday life.

~~ Søren Kierkegaard

I don’t think invoking Socrates will help, until we’re ready to fix ourselves – the crowning irony being, we all (myself included) think it’s the other guy that needs to change. And kids keep dying, and will keep dying, until “their kids” become “our kids” and “them” becomes “us” and we stop the self-mutilation we’ve been inflicting on ourselves. But this has nothing to do with the course. Does it.