Thursday, May 31, 2007

Philosophy Exams

Exams in philosophy can be curious things. Of course, in many instances, they can can be quite mundane exercises, designed to see whether the students have read and thought about the material. However, there is one kind of exam that does not fall into this category. This is the notorious 'philosophical problems' exam.

We do not have an exam of this kind. This is perhaps a pity. However, some programs have an exam in which students are faced with classic philosophical conundrums and asked to respond in philosophically appropriate ways. According to philosophy lore, there was one senior professor who would set the same exam question each year. The question was,

Ask a philosophically interesting question and answer it. Equal credit will be assigned to each part.

Most people are not quite as devious. However, the questions faced by anyone taking the exam can be quite challenging. When I took this examination, there were two questions in particular which stood out. In fact, I can recall their exact wording to this day. These questions were,

1) Can a dog think?
2) Is it possible that you alone exist? If so, then why answer this question?

I actually answered the latter question. As anyone with a little philosophical knowledge will know, this question raises the possibility associated with the philosophical position known as 'Solipsism'. My answer was based upon Wittgenstein's famous Private Language argument. In brief, Wittgenstein argued that there could not be an entirely private language, as language is essentially a public artifact. On this basis, as the question was posed in a language, I argued that although it was possible that I alone existed, it was unlikely to be the case. I then argued, in a manner similar to Pascal's famous wager, that it was prudential to answer the question, rather than not do so. If I recall correctly, I did well on the exam.

Unfortunately, during this exam, the stress proved all too much for one of my fellow students. Some time after the beginning of the exam, he stood up noisily, attracting the attention of everyone in the room. He then announced in a loud voice, "I am an Orange. Oranges do not take philosophy exams". He then started to make odd noises, as he was helped away by the people who were supervising the exam. I personally think that his inference about Oranges and philosophy exams was quite reasonable. It is just a shame that he was mistaken about his being an Orange!

The CP


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