[SCIE web news, Jan 24th, 2019] On Jan 14th, SCIE students have just finished their day. In room 312, Thomas Liu was invited by the SCIE Theoretical physics and philosophy club to give a lecture on philosophy. The topic is about hedonism and ethics.
We gradually took our seats and the lecture began right afterwards. Thomas briefly introduced himself and started talking about his paper on hedonism. He started by introducing two kinds of hedonism – psychological hedonism and ethical hedonism. Psychological hedonists think that for the only ultimate goal that anyone has is a hedonist goal (getting pleasure or avoiding pain). He listed a lot of examples to illustrate what this means.
Just when everyone thought that psychological hedonism fits our intuition very well, Thomas presented us a famous thought experiment by a well-known world-class philosopher named Robert Nozick. Nozick’s experience machine thought experiment proports to show that hedonism is false. The thought experiment briefly runs as follows: there is an experience machine in front of you which can produce a virtual reality that gives you a much happier life. You can experience what you can’t do in the real world. For example, if you are physically unable to climb Mount Everest, the experience machine can help you by faking a scenario that gives you the feeling of experiencing it. Also, once you get into the machine, you are not going to find out whether you are in the experience machine or in the real world. However, your beliefs about the life that you are living and the experience that you have are false. The question is: facing the decision now, would you choose to plug in and live the rest of your life in the experience machine?
After Thomas presented the thought experiment, we thought about it for a while and took a poll. Most of us decided not to go into the experience machine. Reading this at this moment, why don’t you think about it for a while and see what your preference is? I believe that most people will not go into the experience machine. However, if it is really the case that the level of happiness is the only thing that everyone ultimately cares about, it seems that everyone will in fact choose to go into the experience machine. But the result showed otherwise.
Maybe the thought experiment helped people realize that psychological hedonism is false, but Thomas thought that there is a flaw in the thought experiment and needs some improvement. He pointed out that there are two independent variables in the experience machine thought experiment, namely the level of happiness and the truth value of inhabitants’ beliefs. Therefore, it is hard to see if the change in the level of happiness actually covaries with people’s change in preference. Without the counterfactual relationship, it is impossible to see what the real causal relationship is.
Inspired by Rene Descartes, the famous philosopher and mathematician, Thomas proposed a new thought experiment – a Cartesian thought experiment. On Jan 21th, he introduced what his thought experiment was. In the lecture, he briefly reviewed what he talked about last time and directed his focus from psychological hedonism to ethical hedonism, which is the view that happiness should be the only ultimately goal that everyone has. Thomas explained more about his thought experiment and ran through some philosophical arguments against ethical hedonism.
Both lectures attracted lots of students to come. Our SCIE Chinese teacher Margaret also came to the lecture due to her interest in hedonism. Because of this, Thomas made some changes at that moment and decided to use Chinese most of the time to accommodate our Chinese teacher. After the lecture, Margaret commented, “I was deeply moved by Thomas’ passion in philosophy and his willingness to share his knowledge with SCIE students. He brings us critical thinking through his lecture, and he deserves a round of applause.” Because a lot of people are interested in Thomas’ philosophy lecture (including some SCIE graduates and his friends outside of school), Thomas did his lecture live with social media, which successfully attracted about 70 people. Additionally, an international student from SCIE came to the second lecture. Once again, Thomas changed his usual “bilingual lecture” to an “English-only” lecture. The lecture was done smoothly as well.
Overall, both lectures were hugely successful. However, it wasn’t an end. Philosophizing should be something in our daily lives as well. I hope that we can think more, share more ideas, and continue our pursuit of wisdom, truth, and knowledge.
Written by Jowett Yu
Photos taken by Bonnie Luo