Three Men on a Sofa

Three Men on a Sofa

By Sasha Kirienko

As seen in Pegasus Pages (December 2013) and the Gloucestershire Echo (29th January, 2014).

The long awaited clash between a philosopher, a scientist, and an historian took place on a Thursday evening on the 21st November, as organised by the Philosophy Society. Personally, I was very intrigued by the posters up around  College, inviting girls to come and witness “Three Men on a Sofa” debating some of the world’s most difficult and puzzling questions. On the sofa (quite literally), there were three “men” – or rather, two men, namely Mr Stacey and Mr Hoole, and a brave woman who took up the challenging task of opposing two humanities teachers, Mrs Dowdall.


The first question that was brought forward was almost overwhelmingly huge: How can we know anything at all? First to speak was Mrs Dowdall, who summarised the principle of scientific method that is commonly used in physics to come up with a theory. The idea behind this involves putting forward a hypothesis that would then be tested and verified (or not) by the obtained statistical data. In essence, this suggests that “scientists never know”, since all of the so-called scientific knowledge can be undermined by a single anomalous result. This is why it was so important for Andrew Wiles to prove Fermat’s last theorem – if an + bn = cn turned out to be correct for a single value of n other than 2, our knowledge of the truth of that theorem would be gone into the ether.

Mr Hoole developed these ideas, applying to them the concepts of philosophy, a discipline that admittedly deals with similar questions more regularly than any other subject. He approached the topic from a rationalist perspective, claiming that all humans possess “innate” knowledge, which can be defined by the knowledge that we possess since birth. The analogy that was provided likened humans to computers: when one buys a gadget and starts it up for the very first time, an operating system that already exists on the computer allows us to use it. One can later download additional data, which would act as knowledge acquired during our lifetime. Mrs Dowdall disputed this resemblance by pointing out that any operating system, or technical “innate” knowledge, has been downloaded onto the computer by another human being, meaning that it is no longer innate. A logical extension to this would be considering the idea of God’s involvement in the creation of human beings as a possible counterargument.

Three Men on a Sofa

Mr Stacey took the debate in yet another direction, explaining that any knowledge which historians resort to is unreliable, as any perception of the world is subject to interpretation. Even primary sources, when describing an event having had a first-hand experience of it, will vary in their representation of the “ultimate truth”. If Christ was born in 6BC, how can we take any historical dates to be true at all? Likewise, with nepotism discussed in history textbooks of countries around the world such as China and Russia, history is already different for people around the globe. This seemed to suggest that there is no knowledge in history, and indeed in other disciplines, that would be counted as universally true, and therefore actually qualify as knowledge.

This slightly pessimistic discussion finished with Mr Hoole stating that there is one thing which we can definitely be certain of: that something exists. Although a largely accepted philosophical theory, this assertion triggered an influx of questions and comments from the audience, clearly showing the interest the audience had in the debate.

The second question to be discussed by the panel was also famous and yet thought-provoking: What makes us human? Mr Hoole shared a philosopher’s perspective on the question, evaluating whether having imagination, consciousness, moral feelings and intelligence were sufficient components of a human being. His verdict was that it is spirituality alone that defines us as humans, since we are able to appreciate the world in all its beauty. Admiring a work of art or a beautiful sunset is a quality that doesn’t seem to be possessed by any other creature on planet earth (note the use of the word “seem” instead of “is known” – as demonstrated from the first debate, not much can be known at all). Mr Hoole clarified that spirituality need not necessarily refer to religion, since if an atheist adores classical music, this is already a sign of his inner spirituality evoking certain feelings in him.

These uplifting thoughts were however grounded slightly by Mr Stacey who chose to look at the conditions of qualifying a being as a human through a political perspective, focusing particularly on the issues of euthanasia and abortion. He commented that nowadays, the complexity of the question has increased since we alsoneed to consider when one starts and stops being a human. We are now forced to consider at what stage an embryo becomes a human being; likewise, it is not clear when a human seizes to qualify as one due to serious medical conditions. Mrs Dowdall expanded on these ideas by listing the physical qualities that one would expect a human being to possess, pointing out the implications for people with learning disabilities or genetic disorders. The overall outcome of this discussion seemed to suggest that deciding what makes us human would become of crucial significance in the near decades. This would probably result in everyone having to stay tuned to the news covering opinions of politicians, philosophers, historians, physicists and anthropologists on the matter.

As the audience were posing questions to the three teachers, I wondered whether the very phenomenon that was taking place in that room at that moment made us human. Could it be that gathering together to debate questions as fundamental as the above is a purely human quality? Having asked the panel about their opinions on my observation, I was pleased to hear that all three concurred. But does this make my remark true?

According to the earlier comments of the scientist, the philosopher and the historian – probably not.

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