For long time I thought about having a kind of book club or debate club. Especially since I was working in an academic environment that doesn’t challenge me enough (more about that in another post), I thought I’d need to start a regular event with friends, colleagues and whoever is interested at which we enjoy inspiring and intellectually thrilling conversations in a not-so-serious but rather joyful and entertaining atmosphere. My inspiration for that is the famous German Berlin Wednesday Society: The Berlin Wednesday Society met every second Wednesday between 1863 and 1944. It was named Free society for scientific entertainment. All members (always 16 at a time) were recognised experts in their field of expertise and mostly held special positions in public life (mostly, but not only, university professors). At the start of the event, the respective host, a member of the Wednesday Society, gave a lecture from his scientific field before continuing to exchange ideas with the audience over food and drink. The creation of such societies was not uncommon during this time, because they stood in the tradition of bourgeois enlightenment, when scholarship and entertainment were still linked. The motto was: To debate with each other, to simply listen, to grapple with words, to argue in a spirit of mutual respect, to gently shift positions and to reach a better understanding of things – that’s what it is about.
Earlier this year, I made nails with heads* and invited some friends and colleagues for a first meeting. I advertised it as intellectually inspiring conversation in relaxing and comfortable atmosphere with dinner and drinks, whatever is to our delight. We would meet at my place because I wanted to make dinner. Since the others had to drive, I reminded everyone not to drink and drive. This inspired me to give this club the name Think and Thrive as the much better choice compared to drinking and driving!
* a German idiom directly translated into English, meaning to really do something after talking about it, or finally bring something to the execution phase after theorising about it for too long
Date: March 8th 2020
Place: Jan’s home
Participants: Andy, Michael G., Michael H.F., Hannes, Brian, Jan
Dinner: Vegetable Bolognese, noodles; chocolate pudding
Topic: Implications of AI, machine learning, cloud computing, and big data (suggested by Jan)
Around the time of this first meeting, I was teaching an Innovation Project class that had the goal to conceptualise and realise service innovations in the context of a self-service convenience store. The students were asked to employ the cloud computing services of AWS (Amazon Web Services) to provide data-based applications that help customers enjoy or shops offer novel possibilities. Learning more about AWS, and approaching this new field with the attitude of a technology ethicist, I always wondered how we can prevent big data input for machine learning and AI routines to always ‘favour’ the mainstream or the most popular or the most profitable. Basically, my question is: “Do current trends in artificial intelligence and machine learning necessarily lead to conformity?“. It is a known effect of Google’s search engine AI routines to confront users less and less with challenging search results that contrast their worldviews the longer their search history converges towards particular views. People’s confirmation bias is amplified. Applications of data-based machine learning in business, education, innovation, etc. all lead towards supporting mainstream trends and neglecting marginal groups and underground movements.
Probably it was due to my lack of experience with such discussion groups that I didn’t realise that this question is much too specific and narrow for a fruitful discussion. We got away from it rather quickly and discussed AI and machine learning in general, entering the field of transhumanism and the philosophical underpinnings of digitalising the human mind. This debate, as expected, revealed the gap between the physicalist-naturalist view (represented by Andy) and the humanist-idealist view of the present Humanities professors (Hannes, Brian). We got deep into the metaphysics of the philosophy of mind, with no resolution, of course. A central topic that we spent quite some time on is Richard Dawkins’ meme concept and how it can inform our understanding of a (technological) bridge between artificial and human minds. This was certainly a stimulating and intellectually challenging discourse! Yet, it lacked practical implications or something like a conclusion or take-home-message. However, all participants expressed that they highly enjoyed this kind of event and suggested a monthly rhythm.
Date: May 27th 2020
Place: Jan’s home
Participants: Chloe, Julia, Michelle, Steven, I-Liang, Andy, Michael G., Hannes, Jan
Dinner: Mapo-Tofu with vegetables, rice; apple-blackberry-cake
Topic: Is critical thinking teachable? (suggested by Hannes)
This topic was very welcome because 4 members of this club are university professors, two of them even teaching Critical Thinking courses. It attracted more participants, all of them teachers who reflect about the responsibility of teachers to instil a critical thinking attitude in their students. This time the host tried to have the discussion a bit more structured and opened the round with a short presentation as a teaser. He briefly reported on his experiences with the critical thinking classes he taught and what he learned from the Taiwanese students and their difficulties with critical thinking. Rather than with reaching higher levels in the famous Bloom’s taxonomy, according to him, critical thinking should be associated with asking deeper questions as in the following hierarchy (from inside to outside):
On the first level (a level that Taiwanese students rarely get beyond), we can simply describe things. On a deeper level, we increase the sophistication of the description by further analysis, for example like a scientist. By asking further questions, we set the object of inquiry into a context. Only by this we enable any sort of evaluation. This, then, informs our action or a change of intentions and attitudes that lead to different actions. A reflection and assessment of these actions reveals new insights and a new inquiry starts from the inside out. Critical thinking, thus, means to be mindfully aware of connections, relations, and associations in the larger picture of one’s ‘businesses’. An important additional clarification is the form of an argument construed from factual and normative premises and, logically valid, the inference of a conclusion:
Critical thinking is an attitude that allows the cognitive agent to differentiate between the two kinds of premises and to apply different validation strategies. More importantly, critical thinking prevents from committing logical fallacies or falling victim to cognitive biases. Inferences must be consistent, coherent, and plausible, so that conclusions find acceptance and lead to a change in the world (for example, a deliberative discourse leads to an agreement on a new regulation or course of action.
We all agreed that critical thinking necessarily features a kind of scrutinizing. This creates the dilemma that, once you believe you are thinking critically and got the point of it, you actually stop thinking critically. This makes it difficult to teach, because there are no defined tools or a textbook full of THE critical thinking strategies. Rather, critical thinking is an attitude that is rooted in an open mind, a certain degree of intelligence, and the courage to question others. This last aspect makes it especially difficult to teach in a Confucian society in which questioning others is very much associated with troublemaking and respectlessness.
The topic question could not be answered clearly. Yes, of course, we believe there is something that can be taught to support and sharpen critical thinking skills. On the other side, at the university level, it is too late to start with it, because the requirements for the willingness to think critically have to be set much earlier, during childhood. Another difficulty is to avoid a too strong impact of the teacher’s own idea of critical thinking since critical thinking implies that the students think for themselves. How can that be graded? The less conform the better? Despite the many questions remaining open, most participants remarked later that they went home with the feeling of having gained something of practical value for daily life. If that is really the case, this meeting was successful!
Date: June 28th 2020
Place: Jan’s home
Participants: Chloe, Julia, Sophie, Andy, Michael G., Hannes, Brian, Jan
Dinner: Sweet & sour vegetables, lemon chicken, rice
Topic: What constitutes inner peace? (suggested by Chloe)
Before the meeting, I compiled a list of questions with possible answers. My intention was to structure the discourse a bit because this topic bears the risk of leading into many different directions at the same time.
- What discipline is competent in answering this question?
- Academic disciplines are irrelevant for this question! It is a pragmatic-practical issue!
- Inner peace is…
- …a feeling.
- …a skill, talent, or competence.
- …an attitude.
- …the result of fortune.
- …dependent on external influences.
- …the result of an active peace-making that requires effort.
- What is the central factor/parameter that determines the degree of inner peace?
- Satisfaction (or: satisfactoriness)
- Success (in reaching one’s goals)
- Harmony (for example, between expectation and real outcome)
- Confirmation of one’s self-identity
- Is inner peace desirable?
- Yes. It is the central goal in the life of a human being!
- Yes. But rather as a luxury achievement after other needs have been satisfied.
- Yes. It is the comfort zone that we need in order to perform well.
- No. It is a comfort zone that should be destroyed.
- No. Inner peace makes a person lazy. It is trouble and hardship that make us progress.
- No. There can never be ultimate and stable inner peace, so why waste energy on it?
- Does inner peace require conscious awareness of it?
- Of course! There is no physical state ‘inner peace’. It is a purely mental state that is constructed after perception of one’s emotions.
- Yes. Inner peace, by definition, is the conscious awareness of one’s [insert answer of question 3] _____________________.
- No. Psychologically speaking, un- or subconscious states contribute to inner peace to a greater extent than conscious (intellectual) reflections.
- No. Inner peace is a spiritual state of harmony that is located in the soul rather than body or mind.
- How sustainable must a state of inner peace be to count as inner peace?
- It must be long-lasting. If you only have occasional moments of ‘inner peace’, it is instable, volatile, and dependent and, thus, doesn’t provide the mental pleasantness of sustainable inner peace.
- Moments of inner peace are all that is possible. And those are moments with which you try to anchor yourself.
- It depends on the answer to question 2.
- Does inner peace have an interpersonal normative dimension?
- No. Nobody is eligible of telling me how I should maintain my inner peace! It is purely personal and private!
- Yes! Same as “your freedom ends where my freedom starts”, the means by which you maintain your inner peace are limited in legal and/or ethical terms when they collide with my interests and rights. Principles of justice and freedom apply.
- Yes. We should respect each other’s inner peace (or: strategies of achieving and maintaining inner peace) or go one step further and help each other establishing inner peace.
- Is there such a thing as collective inner peace?
- No. That would just be a form of integrity that is not comparable with personal inner peace.
- Yes. It is constituted by the security of the self-identity of a group, organisation or society (see answer 3f).
- None of my/tonight’s/our business.
We did not come to discuss questions No.7 and 8. It seems we all agreed that inner peace is not merely a feeling, and certainly not something that just happens to us, but rather an attitude that enables an active working towards inner peace which is an ongoing task. Interestingly, Buddhism was a central topic this evening after everyone agreed that inner peace is an issue in Eastern culture rather than in Western traditions. We insightfully discussed connections between inner peace and freedom, meditation, knowledge, love, and psychological concepts like ontological security. None of us is esoteric enough to claim that inner peace is something like the harmony of the soul. We all take it as something mental, conscious, and as rationally contemplating emotions (if I understood everyone correctly).