I asked the tutors to send me some of their favorite “Group Discussion Summaries” (GDS). You will see them below. Keep in mind that some (but not all) of these go above and beyond what we were looking for. But before that, let me say something about the genesis and rationale for the component.

This is the first semester we pre-allocated students to small groups, and have you do GDS before the tutorial. With the course going fully online due to the ongoing pandemic, I knew that the old “group project (12%)” component had to go. In fact, I had been thinking about replacing it for a while; the present circumstances sealed the deal. The question concerns its replacement(s).

As you know, one part went to the two Meme Competitions (4%)–a smaller version of the group project, now spread out across two semesters. By it’s very nature, the memes will come after students have engaged with the material a bit and formed a more considered opinion–at least, that’s the intention. So we wanted something else that will get students started on this engagement. Hence, a group discussion summary that comes before you even come to the lecture.

Since the GDS are meant to come before, it’s also obvious to us that it should not be graded for accuracy, but on conscientious engagement, and using it to make available an opportunity for students to get to know each other. Having it done before the lecture–before the tutorials even–gives the tutors valuable information about students’ assumptions before they even come to class. The timing makes it impossible but if I have access to a summary of summaries, I will most likely incorporate elements into the lecture itself too–but you can’t win every battle.

From past experience, all group components suffer from challenges. First concerns group composition. Self constituted groups composed of students who actively banded together do the best both subjectively (by the students’ own reporting) and objectively (by their performance). But allocating groups this way basically leave students who aren’t already in networks out in the cold. Allocating groups, on the other hand, spreads people out–even though just by random chance alone some groups will still be more enthusiastic than others. In other words, there are difficult trade offs everywhere.

Given the fact that the class is fully online semester, it’s important to ensure that as many students get to meet people they don’t already know. Hence, pre-allocation with a small degree of social engineering (spreading out by faculty, year, etc.) was the obvious solution. That said, there is something to the idea of reallocating the groups through the semester to spread risk once again, but we lose the chance for students to get to know each other better–that sort of thing takes time. I am seriously considering this when I teach this module again in the future.

Normally, I would have asked groups do a peer review–but there are already a lot of data surveys this semester. Of the six (non “extra”) module components, GDS returned the lowest score. But keep in mind that it’s relative to the others. Of 415 respondents, 49 rated it “Very ineffective”, or “Somewhat ineffective”, 95 “Neutral”, and 222 rated it “Very effective” or “Somewhat effective”. In addition, I’m counting nearly 20 so far who highlighted discussion in their small group as one of the things they like best about the module. Interestingly enough, several comments under the “needs improvement” question say that a higher weightage should be given to the component. Anyway, we definitely have not completely figured this out and the survey responses are giving me a lot of ideas.

Regarding the examples below–I basically asked the tutors to send sample ‘favorite’ student work, especially those they found especially good. The students have also given permission to have their names revealed in the write ups.

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Showcase #1

Loy’s notes: This is an excellent example of what a good summary–in the normal mold–can look like. It’s very compact (393 words)–“very focused and organised”, as the tutor put it to me. All the group members are there, and even more impressively, their contributions interlock with each other in clear ways. As the tutor observed: “Shawn raised a claim, and then Gillian raised a clarificatory question about the claim, before the other members of the group raised three separate objections to Shawn’s claim (which Shawn then replied to).”

W22 Group 1 (Consciousness)

In  the beginning, Shawn asserted that it is problematic to say that the physical and mental states of human beings are two different entities (according to Dualism). He refers to the argument (pp. 32-33, slide 4) that posits the inapplicability of the breakdown of chemical compounds to the brain and human consciousness. Shawn argues that if it is indeed true that non-animated matter made of chemical compounds (i.e. water) is purely physical, then ‘physicalness’ would also apply to all things human-related, including our consciousness since we ourselves are carbon-based species – carbohydrates, fats, minerals are composed of the same rudimentary elements.

Gillian clarifies why there’s a distinction between physical and mental states since they’re all made of the same “matter”. If so, she feels he has misunderstood Nagel’s point, which isn’t that phenomenological experiences aren’t rooted in chemical interactions, but there are emergent properties not directly ascribable to these “rudimentary elements” (i.e. there’s an explanatory gap between the what-is-it-like-to-be and the what-it-is-physically – how the experiential comes from the non-experiential).

Wenn, Chelsea and Yan Lin disagree with Shawn’s claim that “humans are not so different from water” (quoted from Zoom conversation). Wenn says that humans have a consciousness which makes us more than mere physical things like water. That alone cannot explain how we experience consciousness or mental states. Chelsea thinks that human and water being “carbon-based species” is not sufficient to claim that the human entities of physical and mental states are not different. Values and morals cannot be compared to and classified as a physical state. Yan Lin thinks that humans are unique such that everyone’s experiences and feelings are different and cannot be broadly categorized as one physical entity such as water. Mental and physical should remain as two different things. 

In addressing both Gillian’s, Yan Lin’s and Wenn’s objection, Shawn still finds [their] statement(s) of “emergent properties not directly ascribable to these rudimentary elements” unconvincing since we humans can only perceive the physical world and it is the only ‘world’ that we humans know. He even has doubts about the existence of that ‘mental world.’ He also defends himself from Chelsea by saying that values and morals are constructs derived deterministically from the chemical processes of the brain. However, he does not completely rule out the implausibility of her objection since the idea of consciousness is merely a priori.

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Showcase #2

Loy’s notes: This one decided to go for a more light hearted approach. But again, notice that it is relatively compact (475 words), and everyone is represented. Despite not being as “serious” as the previous one, it effectively showcased the students’ engagement with the ideas.

W12 Group 4 (Factory-Farmed Meat)

What do you find most/least convincing about the Norcross reading? And why?

Hao Zheng was convinced to be vegetarian for 15 mins by the argument of animals being moral patients that deserve to be considered by moral agents (us) in making decisions. When pressed by Neil as to why he was only slightly convinced, he revealed that it is easier to just eat meat than change his lifestyle. Neil then asked him to consider the following thought experiment:

Consider that you were a Nazi Officer under Hitler’s rule and you were tasked to kill the Jews (and disabled) in the gas chambers.  

Neil: Do you think it is wrong to kill them?

Hao Zheng: Yes

Neil: It would be easier for you to just abet in their killing according to the previous argument you made. You think it is morally wrong to do so but it would be easier for you to “just go with it”. Hence as a Nazi Officer under Hitler’s rule you would be directly implicated in their genocide.  

Hao Zheng: My life is flashing before me.

Mujeer is unperturbed by the discussion between Neil and Hao Zheng. He claims that he sees himself gravitating to the idea of causal impotence. When Neil asks him whether he would be willing to torture the puppies for “cocomoane” he grudgingly admits that he would. He reinforces his stance by citing both the Pleasure Pain Theory and Utilitarianism. When Neil asks wouldn’t a utilitarian factor in the well-being of animals as something to be maximised, Mujeer politely asks him to {mind his own business}.

After hearing Mujeer’s view, Kelly wonders about the extent to which we should be concerned with another person’s pain and suffering, and the basis of which a person’s moral compass stems from in respect to the marginal cases. She is confused about why it matters as we are unable to know their perspective and whether we can even go so far as to understand or point out what their perspective may be. (Neil exclaims, “to quote Bentham, the question is not, can they reason? nor can they talk? But, can they suffer?”) Hao Zheng argues that their perspective does matter because we as moral agents should account for their suffering. Natalia continues to support Hao Zheng, by stating that we have a responsibility to be aware about how our actions could possibly cause pain to others, due to our ability to influence circumstances around us as a by-product of our rational thoughts. She brings up the Doctrine of Double Effect and continues to elaborate that there is no outweighing good in this scenario that would even justify us merely knowing and not acting in a morally reprehensible way.

In conclusion, this group has a genocidal maniac, a puppy torturer, an anti abortionist, a pragmatic and girl in her quarter life crisis.

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Showcase #3

Loy’s Notes: Another example with a similar format as the previous, though opting for a more ‘serious’ tone. Not counting the discussion of the optional reading–found by the students themselves, mind you–this one only has 414 words. Apart from showcasing engagement, plenty of information for the tutor about students’ background assumptions.

W17 Group 1 (Knowledge and its Discontents)

Main: Zhuangzi’s concern on interesting/philosophical concerns and questions.

Thomas’ Q: Just to clarify: there are some things that can be proven right, like the sun rises from the east? Of course, some knowledge that we discuss about is necessary and sufficient for empirical things.

Natalie’s reply: I think what Zhuangzi is talking about is rational disputes where there is little to no empirical knowledge to settle the dispute, and the debate is based on rational, logical arguments.

Thomas: Yes, I appreciate the clarity of that issue is with knowledge pertaining to non-empirical things such as determinism, the logical problem of evil, not with empirical knowledge.

Charles’s Q: What does Zhuangzi mean when he says that ‘knowledge is impossible, if knowledge requires justification’?

“If we cannot know that our way is truly better than anyone else’s, we have no justification for forcing upon others – even if we do not deny there might indeed be a way”. (Sturgeon, 2012)

Ashley’s Q: If we can obtain knowledge in another way other than justification, is knowledge then possible? Since justification is sufficient but impossible for knowledge (and hence knoweldge doesn’t exist), can we, if we think something else, say X, is sufficient for knowledge, say knowledge exists if X does not make knowledge impossible?

Reply: Aren’t there multiple ways of obtaining knowledge besides logic and justification. If we go beyond the precedent, evidence and application, there might be other ways of obtaining knowledge – emotion, imagination, etc. Mozi only shows 3 (application, precedence, evidence).

Charles’ reply: But you can see “imagination” as a justification, for example.  Then you go back to justification is impossible for knowledge, and knowledge doesn’t exist.

Natalie’s reply: As stated in the reading (p. 6, 1st para), if that were the case, “everyone—from the so-called wise… … firmly convinced of their own views”. But I do understand where you are coming from: that knowledge can arise from our experiences, emotions, imagination, and other factors we still can achieve some form of knowledge.

Kexuan’s Q:  Unsure on whether Zhuangzi feels it’s meaningless to debate right or wrong or whether it’s impossible to debate right or wrong.

Natalie’s reply: It is about whether debating itself is meaningless but there can still be a ‘true’ right or wrong or is it that there is no ‘true’ right or wrong in the first place.

Charles’ reply: Debate is not meaningless but rather it is impossible because everyone will have their own beliefs and evidence that ground their arguments.

(On the optional reading Donald Sturgeon, “Zhuangzi, perspectives and greater knowledge“)

Ashley’s Q: What does Zhuangzi mean when he mentioned “how do you know fish like”?

Ashley’s reply: I think Zhuangzi is not saying that it is meaningless to debate, but that it is meaningless to debate with the goal of achieving a final ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

Elaboration on Kexuan’s question (and conclusion) But being “wise” or “knowledgeable” for the Zhuangzi seems to entail precisely the opposite of this (imposing a single way of life on everyone) – we are wise only when our knowledge holds from a vast range of perspectives, and this will prevent us from claiming to “know” that any one way of life is the right one, so long as we can imagine any perspective from which it might not be right. Being wise means recognizing the varied perspective that exist – and so realizing that there may well not be a single way of living which is right from all perspectives. (Sturgeon, 2012)

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Showcase #4

Loy’s Notes: Not counting the questions for the tutorial, this one went to 596 words. The tutor’s comments for the students attached below as well.

W6 Group 4 (Free Will and Moral Responsibility)

Wei Xin, an aspiring prosecutor with big dreams, a pastel outfit and lime green hair looks disdainfully at a convicted murderer who butchered 25 young children and 37 puppies being led away from the courtroom. “Look at his elderly parents sobbing away. His father is a humble, down-to-earth teacher while his mother is a kind old lady who often volunteers at various soup kitchens. How can we Strawson say that we can’t be responsible for our actions just because we can’t control our genetics? I disagree with his view that our genetics determine our choices and because we can’t control our genetics, we shouldn’t be held morally responsible for our actions. Think about this vicious murderer here! His parents were such sweet souls, but he is such a ruthless man. Clearly, his decision to murder was his own, and his genetics had nothing to do with that. He had free will, and should definitely be held responsible for his actions.”  

Shannen, a struggling psychology student, says “Unlike Wei Xin, I find it difficult to disagree with Strawson’s claims about us having no control over our genetics and early experiences which eventually shape our decisions later on in life… we often end up choosing environments, whether consciously or unconsciously, that suit our genetics… However, I do think there is good in thinking that we have free will, even if we’re unsure of its existence. Perhaps the sense of responsibility we feel with the illusion of free will is a good thing for society after all! With the idea of free will, we are able to maintain order in society as we punish people like the murderer Wei Xin was talking about…” 

Meanwhile, Jia Jun, a GET1029 student, looks at the last remaining MRQ question on the weekly quiz. He wonders if he should tick “Will is wrong”. In this moment, he thought that he had absolute freedom to pick whatever answer he wanted to pick. “Even though I might have no control over past experiences that brought me to this moment, I am consciously able to make a decision right now”. He feels that it is exactly because he owns his past experiences and despite having no control over it, what he does now is completely on him. He ticked the checkbox and submitted the quiz. After the answers were released, he realised that he was wrong, and it was completely his own fault. (or maybe it isn’t because there was no free Will) 

Kenji, who also ticked “Will is wrong” and got the question wrong (and is now sulking with Jia Jun), contemplates: “I understand the argument behind determinism (I think……), but there is a certain intuitive appeal in believing that we have free will, isn’t there…….? Maybe we shouldn’t downplay the legitimacy of our own subjective experiences, so if we all feel free, perhaps there is some validity in that feeling……?” Kenji trails off in his mumbling, imitating The Thinker statue’s pose as he tries to reconcile with the lack of logical reasoning behind this intuitive argument. 

장웨이 is a fervent believer of God. He attempts to dispel the doubts of his peers using God. ‘Does God have free will? Since He begins from just a consciousness, He can choose whatever He wants to be and thus has free will. Then, he has a choice to grant free will to the people. God doesn’t want to grant absolute free will to the people, but He is still watching you. So don’t do things that are wrong, or you are choosing to go to Hell!’  


(1) if there is no free will, then nobody is morally responsible for their actions –> then how do we maintain law and order? is there an alternative? 

(2) if genetics influence your free will, are your parents at least partially responsible for your actions? What about your grandparents? 

(3) if we are not morally responsible for our actions, then who’s morally responsible for our actions? 

Tutor’s Comments: Hey Group 4, thanks for the great read once again! I feel like the group can come up with scenarios for the weekly quizzes given the quality of the group’s imagination. Really sophisticated points raised! Notice, however, that the relationship between moral responsibility and criminal culpability is not so straightforward. In other words, the absence of moral responsibility need not absolve people of their crimes; that depends on our theory of how morality relates to the codified laws — but good observation nonetheless! It’s truly impressive that topics and concepts that are way beyond the syllabus were raised: e.g. moral responsibility vs criminal justice (Wei Xin), pragmatism (Shannen), radical freedom (Jia Jun), phenomenology (Kenji), and Pascal’s Wager (장웨이). (Also, sorry to hear about the last MRQ!)

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Showcase #5

Loy’s Notes: A nicely compact one at 486 words. The tutor’s comments for the students attached below as well as “endnotes”. 

W2 Group “Netflix and Chill” (Simulation Argument)

What do you find most/least convincing about the Bostrom reading (Are you living in a computer simulation) and why? 

We hope we are not living in a computer simulation. Avelle says we can’t know and it’s not falsifiable. If everything we do now is unreal, what is the meaning of us doing what we do? 

Avelle introduced an existentialist concept that says life inherently has no meaning [1], which she thought to be a liberating concept. Wan Lin agreed, and remarked that maybe if one subscribes to this, then it doesn’t make a difference whether we are living in a simulation or not to ascertain whether we have meaning in our lives, because we ascribe our own meaning to what we deem is worthy of meaning, notwithstanding that life inherently has no meaning, let alone that we might be living in a simulation. If we (Avelle & Wan Lin) find meaning from eating chocolate and doing Group Discussion Summaries every week, then so be it 😀.  

Does living in a simulation mean that life isn’t real, or is artificial? Shirly mentioned how someone running the simulation might ‘reset’ it to make us believe that it’s real, so we can never really know.  

Avelle wanted to clarify what exactly Bostrom meant by “simulation”. At first, she thought that it meant that the posthuman race would run every single possibility at every decision-making crossroad,[2] but the group thought it was more generally to do with life being artificially run. Andrea thought that “simulation” is something like playing video games. 

Wan Lin shared that she has watched many scary science fiction series relating to this simulation worry, like Love Death & Robots, The Matrix, Westworld and Black Mirror.[3] LOL. She shared one episode in which everything that has happened was just a simulation that keeps re-running in someone’s brain, and that particular person was, in reality, trapped alone in a cryogenic pod or something and wakes up at the end of every simulation to realise that his “life” in the simulation was a lie. (He then goes back to his virtual simulation, totally unaware and then wakes up aware.) 

What would happen to us if the simulation stopped? Would we wake up alone like that episode above ^, or would we just… disappear and cease to exist?  

The group ended by just hoping that even if our lives were simulations, that we’d remain none the wiser about it, so we don’t have to deal with the existential crisis 😊 😊 [4] Wan Lin remarked that maybe ignorance is bliss. The worst thing that could happen, in Wan Lin’s opinion, is to know the truth of us living in a simulation. And Wan Lin thought this echoes a Mental State Theorist (well-being theory)’s sentiment and reflected that she would side the mental state theory only if the reality is bad, which is exactly the case here (so she’s being biased here? lol).

[1] There are three theories around this camp, nihilism, existentialism and absurdism. Of course, each theory has different things to say about meaning in general as opposed to inherent meaning, but I’ll let you research on that for yourself. Definitely very interesting stuff though (and a popular stance for a lot of edgy teens on the internet)

[2] Of course, this is definitely one of the reasons that someone might run an ancestor simulation, but you’re right, that isn’t in the definition of an ancestor simulation. Minimally, an ancestor simulation is just a simulation of the entire mental history of humans

[3] Of course, the media tends to portray realising in a simulation as being bad. Maybe we need more stories showing that it might actually be good…

[4] Good news because we will probably not know we’re in a simulation unless it was revealed by the simulators. So… yay?

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(There might be a few more to be added later)