I can pinpoint the single lecture at university which, to my great shame with hindsight, turned me away from philosophy, and indeed philosophers, for a quarter of a century. Thinking it sounded vaguely cool, I had chosen a first-year module on Pre-Socratic Philosophy and settled in to listen to a lecture on a man called Zeno of Citium. Zeno had developed a number of paradoxes to disprove the existence of what appeared to be some fairly basic orthodoxies. His most famous paradox was a proof that movement did not exist – it was simply an illusion. You cannot walk from here to that door, he claimed, because in order to walk to that door, you need to walk halfway to that door; and in order to walk halfway to that door, you have to walk halfway to halfway to that door. And so on ad infinitum. Therefore, not only can you not walk to that door, but you cannot even set off in the first place. Well happily, studying this paradox a couple of hundred years later, a man called Diogenes the Cynic, apparently did what you or I might have done – just got up and walked over to the door. But in fact, Diogenes (and I) had missed the point altogether – it may have looked like he walked to the door, but Zeno had proved it was an illusion. The last laugh is very definitely on us, as Zeno’s paradoxes have puzzled people, and demanded credible solutions, for very many centuries.
Three or four things have happened to me in recent years that have helped me to reassess my reaction to that lecture. Firstly, I attended another lecture about ten years ago on optical illusions by a professor who had spent his whole life studying them. He put on the board a very strangely shaped triangle and tried to persuade us that it was, in fact, an isosceles triangle. To the eye, that could not have been further from the truth, but, finally, he took out a ruler, measured two of its sides, and incredibly it was. It was what happened next, which caught my eye – he stepped back from the board and fell silent for what seemed like a whole minute. Then he said, just quietly, almost to himself, “yes, I spent three years of my life studying that single shape”. Then about six years ago, when I was living in Oxford, I had a meal with a man who reminded me of this professor. Our friend was in good form over dinner, as he had just finished writing a book, which he had brought along in all its hardback glory, and it was indeed significantly chunky – it had been about 15 years in the making. It turned out that it was a collection of essays, and not least his own, a commentary on a 17th century Puritan, Lucy Hutchison’s own views on the poetry of Lucretius; and it would, if you chose to buy it, set you back about ninety quid. I asked him how many he expected to sell. “Oh”, he said, perfectly seriously, “there are not many with my interest. Maybe two or three.” These two professors were modern-day Zenos, devoting their lives to something that, at my superficial level, seemed to be rather arcane activities. But suddenly, I was fascinated in them. It may have still seemed rather pointless to me for them to be doing what they were, but I could not help but admire their drive, their enthusiasm and the deep integrity with which they went about their scholarship.
And then, almost suddenly, and quite recently in fact, I also understood the point to it all. This can be best illustrated by my revisiting this weekend another ancient thought experiment analysed by the likes of Heraclitus and Plato in that golden era of Ancient Greek philosophy. To bring the problem of the Ship of Theseus into the modern-day, I quote Ben Dupré’s lovely little book I have at home called “50 Philosophy Ideas”. He tells it like this: “Boy, did Theo have problems with that car he brought at Joe’s. It started off with the little things – a door lock needed replacing, some fiddly bits in the rear suspension fell off, the usual. Then bigger stuff started to go wrong – first the clutch, then the gearbox, finally the whole transmission. And there were plenty of knocks along the way, too, so the car was rarely out of the body shop. And so it went on – and on and on…unbelievable. “But not as unbelievable” Theo ruefully thought, “as the fact that the car’s just two years old and every single bit has now been replaced. Hey, look on the bright side – maybe I have got a new car!”
Well, has he got a new car? That is the question posed by the problem of the Ship of Theseus. Or is it still the same car? And if it is a new car, then when exactly did it become a new car? Was it after the initial replacement of the door locks, or after the replacement of the final original piece? Or somewhere in between – and if so, then when exactly? The problem gets more interesting if you then assume that Joe the car dealer was not as honest as Theo thought he was – in fact, all those pieces had worked fine, and Joe had secretly reconstructed the car with the old parts out the back in his mechanic’s shed. He had created, therefore, an exact copy of the original car.
Or was it, in fact, the original car itself? Which was the original car – was it the old one built of new parts, or the new one built of old parts?
And do you really care?
Well, you should be beginning to care by now, because it is not just cars that change over time, but people too. It asks real questions about identity. I used to think that philosophy and philosophers were frankly, and to put it kindly, rather a luxury; but now I see the point. Does that mean I am the same person now that I was when I was at university, or a different person? And how different? Am I in fact an entirely new person? There are, after all, lots of other ways I have changed since university.
Should I simply change my name, the last vestige of my original being, and be done with it? And, even then, why should you care? Well, you might if you were being prosecuted for something you did 75 years ago, as some of the Nazis have been in recent decades, or if you were running for Prime Minister and you were constantly being reminded of things you said, or positions you had taken, 20 years ago. Was that person all those years ago actually you, in a current sense? Or to look at the problem much more constructively, we do have the power to change ourselves as bits of us become old or useless. More so the mind than the body, admittedly, but that leads us into another fascinating area of thought about identity and has further impacts on the way we look at things, even today – older people are being asked to stay inside on physical grounds, but how does this take into account the mental side of things – and which, after all, should take preference?
So my message today is to try to be 30 years ahead of me. Don’t dismiss seemingly impossible thoughts outright, or indeed the thinkers who inspired them. This world needs thinkers, every bit as much as it needs doers. The power, of course, resides in those who can manage to do both – as I will explain further in today’s notices.
Well, it has been an extraordinary week at school, as you will no doubt have seen; and there are plenty of links online for you to look at, if you have not seen much of the coverage. Thank you to all those who helped open 150,000 birthday cards – it was a great effort and, in fact, very uplifting to do so because every card contained the most lovely message that humanity was alive and well, and fundamentally kind. On one of the days I was interviewed by the most delightful and intelligent reporter from RTL, a German TV network which happens to be the largest commercial provider in Europe. Ulrich lives in London now, and he has twins going in their GCSE year, and I want to tell me what he said to me. He told me that he had always taught his children about the importance of the two “I’s” – interest and initiative. These two, he claimed, were the cornerstones for success. You must have interest, he said, but equally importantly, you must do something about it. The assembly today was essentially about those two – and indeed our own core values of curiosity and endeavour are very similar. Ulrich’s words reminded me that I had promised in a letter to your parents about a month ago that I would offer a Speech Day prize this year (and in subsequent years) for social entrepreneurship. The world “entrepreneurship” should be understood in its broadest sense. Really, it involves using entrepreneurial skills, rather than implying the setting up of a business, and the definition I most like for this is given by, of all places, the EU Skills Panorama, a European Parliament recommendation on key competences for lifelong learning. It states that entrepreneurial skills involve “an individual’s ability to turn ideas into action. It includes creativity, innovation and risk-taking, as well as the ability to plan and manage projects in order to achieve objectives”. In short, this is the interest and initiative that our new German friend was speaking about. Social entrepreneurship is about ensuring that your initiative has a positive social impact. So, via this prize, I will acknowledge a number of boys each year, rather than just one – and I feel this is particularly important now that one of you has just raised £32m for charity, which strikes me in monetary terms at least as pretty hard to beat! But lots of you are doing really great things, as I know that Benjie would be the first to cheer on, and I hope to be able to acknowledge them accordingly.
So, good luck – it is never too late to give something good a go!
There has, in fact, been some great initiative shown only this week by a number of you – so well done and here is some of that initiative.
Gabriel Davis, Harry Hine and Arun Nanda in the Fifth Form are setting up a new school magazine which aims to allow boy writers to explore a range of economic and political matters. They would ideally like to create their first edition by the end of this term; do please let them know if you would like to contribute an article of between 1000 and 1500 words. They would be keen to hear from you.
Oliver Yates in the Fourth Form has, brilliantly in my view, spotted that many minor charities are really struggling at the moment, and in particular animal charities. It is ironic because we have probably never in our lives been more aware of the beauty of nature. Accordingly, he has set himself the task of running 300km for Spiny Normans, an animal rescue centre in Bedford which deals specifically with hedgehogs. Apparently, 300km is the average distance a hedgehog roams in a year, and when I saw Oliver run past up towards Bedford heights the other day, he had covered 51km in his first five days. Good luck to him – not least as it is National Hedgehog week this week! You can find a link to his JustGiving page on the website notices. Inspired by Captain Tom, he says that he will just keep running until the money stops coming in. Well done, Oliver!
Lastly, Sam Dicks in the Lower Sixth wrote us a brilliant email about the challenges of working at home during this period. At the foot of it, he included this link to a short 10 minute animated film which he found had helped him; and I must say it is indeed extremely thought-provoking. Do please have a look at it.
In further notices…..
Survey Help, Please!
The link below is to a survey from German Nikolishin in the Lower Sixth, who is collecting data for his Comp Sci NEA project. He is planning on designing a machine learning system for a diary to help with self-motivation. A little bit like the concept of thermostats which learn your behaviour and switch your heating on / off at the right time.
The idea is that many boys may struggle with planning their own time during lockdown without the structure of a timetable (or at least less structure). The user will enter in tasks that they need to complete, and the system will recommend durations for those times and generate a plan for them. As the user completes the tasks the user will enter in the actual duration and the system will learn from that, and, as the user continues to use the system, it will make adjusted recommendations of how long tasks will take and plan the user’s day more accurately for them. With multiple people using the system, the recommended durations will become more accurate more quickly.
It sounds intriguing – and well done to German. Please could you help him to make this as useful as possible, by taking the short survey.
Messages of Thanks
I had a couple of messages to pass on to you from Lillibet and Elcombe House, following delivery of the cakes this morning to the care staff. These are from Beverley and Kerri:
“Please pass on our love and thanks to the boys, when they were here they gave the residents such joy and really lifted them.”
“Thank you so much for your kind gesture. It really helps the staff when they see how kind people are. Please pass on our thoughts to the boys who visit us.”
Architecture Society, Monday 4 May, 1.15pm
Andy Wong (Lower Sixth) will be talking about “European Architecture in Hong Kong. 1841-1997”. All welcome.
Andy, you will remember, is also still teaching Maths to children at St James’ Primary school, so he is clearly keeping busy over there in Hong Kong – well done, Andy. Do please join his lecture.
Drama Society, Monday 4 May, 1-1.30pm
All students are welcome to the new remote Drama Society on Monday 4 May 1pm-1.30pm. Our new President, Dylan Swain will start of the session, and then Will Roberts will be lecturing on ‘Is Theatre Sustainable in the 21st Century?’. All new members welcome.
Lockdown Lit, Tuesday 12 May
All are invited to a Teams Meeting on Tuesday 12 May at 1.15pm to discuss anything that they are currently reading. Feel free to bring your lunch, bring your book and share your thoughts! Please email Mrs Chatley, our new Librarian, or Miss Bassa if you would like to join.