Skip to main content

Complexitists Reading About Philosophy

Welcome to the Philosophy Reading Group.

We meet once every two weeks to discuss a central issue in the presence of biscuits. Discussions are relaxed and informal with dialectical analysis optional. Meetings take place in the study area above the complexity common room and feature biscuits provided by the department.

Discussions usually last for about 1 hour, with a 10 minute 'introduction' to the text and topic provided by a group member.

Below is a list of our past and scheduled meetings. Full texts are linked to where available, and in the event that anybody makes any notes or wishes to summarise our discussion, this will also be uploaded here. If you have a suggestion for a future topic, please email me: mikemaitland<<at>>gmail<<dotcom>>

Scheduled Meetings/Events


"Who am I?" - Discussions on the 'Self' and Identity.

26th November 2014

What is the nature of 'self'? Who are we, and what is the nature of the thing that 'we' are? In fact, what is the nature of identity at all? Philosophers such as Wittgenstein and Russell argued that the concept of identity is meaningless (two things cannot be equal to one another, else they are the same object, and to say an object is equal to itself is to say nothing at all!). Others such as Hume made the radical claim that there is no such thing as the 'self' at all, a feeling shared by many Buddhist intuitions. However, if we don't exist at all, then how can it be that we are able to ask these questions, let alone formulate the concept of 'self'? Is identity a meaningful concept, and are any of its difficulties relevant to our experience of ourselves?

Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has extensive entries on Identity and Personal Identity

Raymond Tallis writes in magazine Philosophy Now about how we can 'Save the Self' and in New Statesman about having 'A Mind of One's Own'

A paper that discusses Hume, Buddhism and Personal Identity by James Giles can be found here(PDF Document) (it's quite long...)

Finally, this neat little game neatly provokes thought on the nature of personal identity.

Past Meetings/Events


Movie Night: The Pervert's Guide to Cinema - Slavoj Žižek on Modern Cinema

Wednesday 5th November 2014

"Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn't give you what you desire, it tells you how to desire."

Maverick Slovenian philosopher and writer Slavoj Žižek hosts a witty 'essay to camera' deconstruction of modern cinema from the perspective of psychoanalytic theory; Are the Marx brothers representations of the Id, Ego and Super-Ego? What does Lacanian theory have to say about the smile of the Cheshire Cat? And what is the third option we should demand when Morpheus offers the "Blue pill" and "Red pill"?

We will meet in D1.07 and order pizza, and begin screening on the projector around 18:30. All are welcome to attend, and for once: no dialectic necessary!

"Does Human nature vary by gender? And, while we're at it... what is gender!?", reading In a Different Voice - Carol Gilligan (1983)

Wednesday 22nd October 2014

Psychologist Carol Gilligan presents case studies of psychological investigations into how patterns of moral reasoning differ between Women and Men. Where previous psychologists (most notably Freud) had defined maturity as a process of separation, and many psychologists and philosophers have described moral maturity as a matter of recognising abstract principles and transcendent rights, Gilligan notes in her study that these thoughts are purely based in male experience, and in fact Women tend to focus on the concrete relationships between individuals rather than abstract principles. Thus, Gilligan argues that previous thoughts on moral development have been purely andro-centric, and that Women experience a different trajectory of moral development leading to a perspective that has not been appreciated by previous thinkers.

We will seek to gain some insight on these differences in thought and whether they are real or perceived, and then proceed to ask ourselves, "If real, in what do these differences have their foundation"?

The essay can be found here(PDF Document)

A short video of the author discussing the concept of 'voice' can be found here(Video clip)

And a TED talk by Alice Dreger discussing the social impact of anatomical difference is here(Video clip)

"Can we really be Anarchists?", watching Noam Chomsky's book lecture 'On Anarchism' (2013)

Wednesday 27th August 2014

Noam Chomsky discusses his book 'On Anarchism', giving a history of anarchist thought and ideas. Chomsky discusses the various proponents and this ideology and discusses (very much in the style of analytic philosophy) the practicality and current useage of anarchism, including whether it's really possible to implement an anarchist system in today's world.

The lecture can be watched at book.tv here(Video clip)

"Do we have free will?", watching Daniel Dennett's lecture on free will at Edinburgh University (2007)

Wednesday 13th August 2014

American philosopher, writer, cognitive scientist and 'new atheist', Daniel Dennett lectures on the subject of free will. His lecture addresses the question "Is Science showing that we don't have Free Will?" and explains how free will can be reconciled with the apparent determinism of modern science. Dennett's position is thus that of 'compatibilism', that argues that our will can still be free in a deterministic universe.

The lecture can be watched on Youtube here(Video clip)

"What is Human nature?", reading L'existentialisme est un humanisme - Jean-Paul Sartre (1946)

Wednesday 30th July 2014

What is Human Nature? Jean-Paul Sartre says there isn't one, but that we are all caught up in one universal condition which is our absolute freedom. Sartre insists that we exist and define ourselves afterwards (coining the phrase 'existence precedes essence') going on to declare that we must all take responsibility for our actions by means of coping with anguish and despair, and also by dealing with the 'abandonment' atheists feel upon realising that without God they are alone in the universe.

The full version of the lecture can be downloaded here(PDF Document)

"Rhetoric vs Philosophy", reading Gorgias - Plato (380 B.C.)

Wednesday 9th July 2014

In this dialogue, Socrates takes on the rhetorician Gorgias and several other interlocutors (including himself at one point) in order to discuss the nature of rhetoric and persuasion, hoping to prove that rhetoric and hence politics are immoral without philosophy acting as a guide towards good. Along the way, the dialectic addresses the nature of persuasion, the difference between art and flattery, morality, self discipline and finally the nature of philosophy. Socrates answers a brutal criticism of philosophy with the riposte that all else is blind without philosophy.

The full text can be found at project Gutenberg here(Text file)

"What is reality?", reading On Math, Matter and Mind - Piet Hut, Robert Alford and Max Tegmark (2005)

Wednesday 23rd January 2014 [2 nd Impact]

Three physicists discuss the metaphysical makeup of reality. Using Penrose's controversial 'Math-Matter-Mind' triangle, three divergent views are elaborated, from the Mathematical 'Fundamentalist' and pseudo-materialist 'Secularist' to the purposefully vague 'Mystic'. The three views critique Penrose's diagram before offering their own versions, followed by a critque/response of each other's diagrams. The three conclude by agreeing that a plurality of views on this issue is more useful than any singular doctrine and propose future directions for Science based on their own metaphysical assumptions.

The paper can be found on arXiv.org here(PDF Document)

"Why can't I remember the future?", reading On the Relation between the Psychological and Thermodynamic Arrows of Time - Leonard Mlodinow and Todd Brunn (2013)

Monday 14th October 2013 [1 st Impact]

By talking broadly about systems which can be described as a 'memory', this paper makes the claim that the Psychological arrow of time (the fact that an agent perceives time passing) should align with the Thermodynamic arrow of time (defined by increases in Entropy and subject to small fluctuations) wherever the latter is well defined. Attempting to answer the seemingly ludicrous question of 'why can't I remember the future', the paper argues that memory systems are themselves thermodynamic systems (with irreversible dynamics) and hence the two should display the same time assymetry.

The paper can be found on arXiv.org here(PDF Document)