Introduction to Philosophy with Coursera


My eldest son, Andreas, had a hard time deciding on a course of study. He has a diploma on Engineering with Business with Singapore Polytechnic and I had assumed this diploma would ease him into a degree in Engineering or a Business degree. Instead, he wanted to study Music. I won’t bore you with the arguments and discussions we had on his choice but the fact that studying Music encompasses many disciplines, none of which we as parents (nor he) are familiar with and none of which he has any good basic grasp in, other than having a ABRSM Grade 7 in piano.  He took our advise to register for  Mechanical Engineering. When I read about Coursera in the local newspapers and the wide range of courses offered by different university all over the world, I advised him to take a short music course as sampler.

I didn’t think he would do it but when I next asked him a few months later, he told me he had signed up for not one, but a few music courses with Coursera. In fact, he completed his course just last week, something I was very proud of as he could only do so during his weekend break from army.

Impressed, I decided to check out the website myself and was hooked. Like him, I also signed up with a few university courses on subjects I am interested in but never had a chance to pursue.

My first course was Introduction with Philosophy with University of Edinburgh. It’s a manageable 7-week course and would cover popular topics in philosophy such as Knowledge (what is knowledge?), Mind, Brains and computer, Morality, Time travel etc.

Every week, a new lecturer would take us through a topic of his/her specialty. The 6-7 parts video are short, about 8-20 minutes long and we get notes and transcripts together to help with language/accent issues. At the end of the topic, we have three tries to attempt a quiz and need at least 50% to get a pass.

I thought the lessons were easy enough until I attempted the quiz. It was so difficult. While I thought I understood the lessons, I didn’t understand them deep enough to get the exact point. I spent many hours thinking and reflecting on the topics and the philosophers’ view. There is a forum where students can pose questions and get help from either the lecturers or other course mates. Lecturers also set questions to get us thinking about the different views that was taught. With so many students (I read almost close to 100k), the forum can be a maze and discussions often stray until I lose track.

At the end of the seven week, we are given the option to write a paper on the topic given, to be assessed by our peers. I am contemplating if I should do it, just to test my understanding of the subject, but I am also feeling lazy. After all, I have already passed the course and would be rewarded with a participation certificate. I am still deciding…

So, what is philosophy? (The initial definition given by the first lecturer gave me a shock:  Philosophy is what philosophers do.)

Aaron took a look at my course and commented he is also studying philosophy in school. My eyebrow raised, as I don’t see the word ‘Philosophy’ on any of his books or timetable. He said, what he learns in school is not ‘Philosophy’ per se, but on critical thinking and reflection. I was really impressed and gave him a pat on his stout shoulders. He was right, philosophy is about thinking clearly and well about reality and our place in it (Barry Stroud), and is an activity that uses reasoning and rigourous argument to promote human flourishing (Epicurus).

My sister called from Germany and remarked: Philosophy? For people who have nothing better to do after filling their stomach? (A Chinese sarcasm on wasting time.) That was when I tried to engage her on the word ‘vague’ as in when do you consider a bald man to be bald, at which juncture of hair loss?

And of course, because Philosophers ponder on these abstract topics, that I was not surprised when two different camps emerged to the question, ‘Does God exist?’  One topic I particularly enjoy was ‘Should you believe what you hear?’ on David Hume’s theory on believing in miracles during the enlightenment period.

From this course, I learned how philosophers approach a subject from different angles, and how they are meticulously exact in defining a word (example, the definition of miracle) so much so that I find myself breaking down questions into definitive words before answering a question. (What is the definition of time in time travel?) I picked up the skill of noticing when the speaker is going around in circle while trying to convince me without adding anything concrete to the argument.

I can safely say that most of us who had participated in the forum actively found the course really enjoyable and enriching. If possible, I hope my kids get a taste of the subject.

At the beginning of the course, I found a certain conflict between philosophy and my spiritual practise, as I was often advised that thoughts are toxic and not to think too much, but that philosophy is all about thinking. That’s when I realised I was confused. Philosophy is about structured thinking, but our common everyday thoughts are mindless thinking.

Now, to get that peer assessment going…

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About vickychong

Just an ordinary woman.
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