Stowe Open Philosothon

Wednesday 6 November, 4pm

About the event

A discussion competition for the intellectually curious, aimed at discovering the truth rather than “winning the argument”

Philosothon comprises four twenty-minute discussion rounds in which you must agree on mutually acceptable, justified answers to philosophical questions. You score points individually by helping the team make progress.

Programme - Wednesday 6 November 2019

4pm Arrival & Registration
4.30pm     Welcome
4.40pm   Round 1
5:05pm Round 2
5.30pm  Supper
6.10pm Round 3
6.35pm   Round 4
7pm         Prizes
7.15pm Philosothon concludes

To enter

Philosothon is open to school students from Year 9 to Year 13. They do not need any knowledge of philosophy or any previous experience of Philosothon. Everything will be explained on the day.

Schools are invited to enter teams of ten pupils comprising two from each eligible year group (i.e. two Y9, two Y10, two Y11, two Y12, and two Y13). Where this is not possible, teams may be admitted at the organiser’s discretion. There is no cost to enter, and supper is provided free of charge.

To enter, or for further details, please email Dr Peter Dennis:

Deadline for registration: 19 October 2019


How it works

Pupils are randomised into small groups of mixed schools (Rounds 1 & 2) and mixed year groups (Rounds 3 & 4). At the beginning of each round, they are given five minutes to read a short discussion prompt. (For examples, see below.) They then have fifteen minutes to reach a set of mutually acceptable justified conclusions. These could be a set of agreed beliefs or a careful statement of any underlying disagreement.

Each participant is given a score out of 25 for each round according to how far they have furthered the aims of collective enquiry. This is added up to give their overall score out of 100. There will be a prize for the highest scoring participant in each year group and for the highest scoring school.

Example discussion prompts

The discussion prompts below were produced for last year’s Stowe Open Philosothon. Teachers are welcome to use these with their students in advance of the competition, however no preparation is required.

Round 1: On Gullibility and Trust

The little old man looked around to make sure no one was watching and then opened his hand to show Jack what he held.

"Beans?" asked Jack, looking a little confused.

"Three magical bean seeds to be exact, young man.  One, two, three!  So magical are they, that if you plant them over-night, by morning they grow right up to the sky," promised the funny little man.  "And because you're such a good boy, they're all yours in trade for that old milking cow."

"Really?" said Jack, "and you're quite sure they're magical?"

"I am indeed!  And if it doesn't turn out to be true you can have your cow back."

"Well that sounds fair," said Jack, as he handed over Bessy's halter, pocketed the beans and headed back home to show his mother.

"Back already, Jack?" asked his mother; "I see you haven't got Old Bess -- you've sold her so quickly.  How much did you get for her?"

Jack smiled and reached into his pocket, "Just look at these beans, mother; they're magical, plant them over-night and----"

"What!" cried Jack's mother.  "Oh, silly boy!  How could you give away our milking cow for three measly beans."  And with that she did the worst thing Jack had ever seen her do - she burst into tears.

From Jack and the Beanstalk

  1. Was Jack too quick to trust the little old man?

  2. As it happened, Jack’s belief turned out to be true. So should we say that Jack knew that the beans would grow into a magic plant?

  3. Can knowledge depend on luck? If not, what does it depend on?

  4. What principles or criteria should we use to decide whether to believe someone?

  5. The philosopher Elizabeth Fricker argues that we should not believe what someone else says unless we have positive evidence that they are a reliable source. Do you agree with this?

  6. Should you trust street directions given by a stranger?

  7. What is the difference between trust and gullibility?

  8. Do fairy tales (also books, films) encourage children to be gullible?

Round 2: Enter the teletransporter

I enter the Teletransporter. I have been to Mars before, but only by the old method, a space-ship journey taking several weeks. This machine will send me at the speed of light. I merely have to press the green button. Like others, I am nervous. Will it work? I remind myself what I have been told to expect. When I press the button, I shall lose consciousness, and then wake up at what seems a moment later. In fact I shall have been unconscious for about an hour. The Scanner here on Earth will destroy my brain and body, while recording the exact states of all of my cells. It will then transmit this information by radio. Travelling at the speed of light, the message will take three minutes to reach the Replicator on Mars. This will then create, out of new matter, a brain and body exactly like mine. It will be in this body that I shall wake up.

Though I believe that this is what will happen, I still hesitate. But then I remember seeing my wife grin when, at breakfast today, I revealed my nervousness. As she reminded me, she has been often teletransported, and there is nothing wrong with her. I press the button. As predicted, I lose and seem at once to regain consciousness, but in a different cubicle. Examining my new body, I find no change at all. Even the cut on my upper lip, from this morning's shave, is still there.

Derek Parfit (1984) Reasons and Persons

  1. Would you be willing to use this teletransporter?

  2. Is the person who enters the scanner the same person who materialises on Mars?

  3. Suppose the scanner malfunctions in the following way. It replicates you on Mars, but only partially destroys your body in the scanner. Instead, the person in the scanner is told they have only a few days to live.

    1. How many persons are there, and which of them is you?

    2. Do you survive?

    3. If you can have more than one replica, can you have more than one “survivor”?

  4. In patients with “split brains”, communication between left and right hemispheres is impossible. Therefore, they can be seen to inhabit two separate “spheres of consciousness”.

    1. Should we say there is one person here, or two?

    2. Would it make a difference if each hemisphere were implanted into a different body?

  5. What makes you the same person today as you were yesterday?

Round 3: The Puzzle of the Self-Torturer

“Suppose there is a medical device that enables doctors to apply electric current to the body in increments so tiny that the patient cannot feel them. The device has 1001 settings: 0 (off) and 1 ... 1000.' Suppose someone (call him the self-torturer) agrees to have the device, in some conveniently portable form, attached to him in return for the following conditions: The device is initially set at 0. […] He has only two options - to stay put or to advance the dial one setting. But he may advance only one step each week, and he may never retreat. At each advance he gets $10 000.

Since the self-torturer cannot feel any difference in comfort between adjacent settings, he appears to have a clear and repeatable reason to increase the voltage each week. The trouble is that there are noticeable differences in comfort between settings that are sufficiently far apart. Indeed, if he keeps advancing, he can see that he will eventually reach settings that will be so painful that he would then gladly relinquish his fortune and return to 0.

Warren S Quinn (1990) “The Puzzle of the Self-Torturer”, Philosophical Studies 59: 79-90

  1. Would you agree to wear the self-torturing device?

  2. Would you turn the device from 0 to 1 if someone paid you $10,000?

  3. Suppose setting 100 causes mild discomfort, a bit like being outside on a cold day. Would you turn up the device to 101? How about from 1000 to 1001?

  4. It may seem sensible never to turn up the self-torturing device because we know where it leads. But wouldn’t it be more rational to turn up the device just once? How about just once more?

  5. Quinn knows his example is far-fetched, but believes the same principle is at work in over-eating, smoking, and procrastination. How does the principle apply in these examples, and can you think of your own?

  6. Most countries tolerate dangerous levels of carbon emissions for the sake of economic prosperity. Chrisoula Andreou has argued that these countries are like Quinn’s self-torturer. What do you think she has in mind?

  7. Assuming Andreou is right, do you think human beings are capable of bringing carbon emissions down to safe levels?

Round 4: Property and Nature

Although the earth and animals belong to all men in common, every man has a “property” in his own “person”. Nobody has any right to this to except him. The “labour” of his body and the “work” of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatever, then, he removes from nature, he has mixed his labour with, and he has joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.

Since he has removed it from the common state nature placed it in, it has, by this labour, something added to it that excludes the common right of other men. For this “labour” being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no one else can have a right to what the labour is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others.

John Locke (1690) Two Treaties on Government II: V, §27
(Slightly modernised)

  1. Can you think of anything that does not already belong to someone?

  2. Does nature belong to anyone?

  3. How do things in nature come to be owned by individuals?

  4. If I gather wild berries in a forest, do they belong to me?

  5. Locke believes that anyone can come to own part of the natural environment by “mixing their labour” with it. What does he mean by this, and do you agree?

  6. Can people own animals?

  7. Can animals own property?

  8. Locke says that we can only come to own things in nature if we leave “enough and as good” for others. Has property always been acquired in this way?

  9. Do we have a right to keep property that has been unjustly acquired? Does it make a difference if it was acquired by someone else, a very long time ago?

  10. Can you imagine a world where property rights do not exist? Does your answer tell you anything about the nature of society, or the nature of human beings?

For more information about Philosothon in the UK, click here.