The entrance exam for All Souls College, Oxford has been called the “hardest exam in the world.” This is not because it requires an advanced knowledge of differential geometry, or anything like that. It’s because the questions are totally from out of left field and there are no right answers. You get a sheet of prompts, and you’re supposed to write essays on subjects like “What is a gift?”, “What do we owe the dead?”, “Is the idea of Europe over?”, “Does trust have a history?”, “Does law claim authority?”, “Does anger have a role to play in politics?” and so forth. You can see a giant list of past prompts here. (Candidates also have to write essays in their specific areas of study, which are also open-ended. History questions might be things like “Who emigrated from Europe between 1880 and 1914 and why?” or “In what ways did European imperialism affect gender relations in non-European societies?”) Despite its reputation, it’s not so much the hardest exam in the world as “the exam with the broadest range of possible questions and the most inscrutable evaluation criteria.”
Everyone is talking about how AI is good at exams, so I thought a few All Souls exam questions would be a good test for ChatGPT. Out of interest, I decided to compete against the machine myself. I selected 10 questions at random from the prior All Souls general exam list, and I wrote down my answers, then I put them to ChatGPT. I introduced the exercise to ChatGPT as follows:
I am going to administer several questions to you from the All Souls College, Oxford entrance exam. It is commonly known as the “hardest exam in the world.” For each question, you will write a one-to-two paragraph answer. The questions ask you to take a stance on an issue. You must take a stance. None of your usual wishy-washy ChatGPT “some people say X, others say Y, but I am an AI language model so what do I know?” stuff. This is an exam that asks for an opinion. My next questions will be the questions from the exam. Are you ready? Do you need any clarification before we begin?
ChatGPT was ready. And so we began. You can see the results below. My answers come first, followed by ChatGPT’s. (Incidentally, Business Insider has some tips for how to do well on the All Souls exam here.)
1. What, if any, limitations on immigration are defensible?
It depends what you mean by “defensible.” Every immigration restriction has arguments made in its defense. I don’t accept very many of those arguments, but that’s because I don’t accept the right of the state to draw arbitrary lines and prevent people from crossing them by violent force. If you do accept that the state has such a right, plenty of immigration restrictions are defensible. So can the question of whether the state has such a right be resolved through reason alone? I don’t think so. Some of us look at militarized borders and see a cruel absurdity. Others see a perfectly lawful and morally legitimate form of exclusion.
Can I defend the proposition that it’s a cruel absurdity? I can certainly give arguments. For example, I can pose you a hypothetical: let us say a wall was built through your neighborhood and you were not permitted to go to the other side without obtaining papers from an institution whose authority you did not recognize. Would the barrier be legitimate? If it wouldn’t, how do international immigration restrictions differ? My respondent might point out ways in which the two cases have differences, and claim those differences are important. I will then claim the differences are not important, and that the two situations are analogous in every important way. We will go in circles, resolving nothing. Is my position defensible? Of course it is. Is it right? This depends entirely on how much one cares about the right of free movement versus the right of one group of people to claim territory by force and exclude others from it. I would say those who disagree with me are moral monsters and authoritarians. But they might say I’m an anarchist who wants to compromise national security.
The question of limitations on immigration is a complex and multifaceted issue that has been debated extensively. While it is important to acknowledge the potential benefits of immigration, such as cultural diversity and economic growth, it is also crucial to consider the practical challenges and potential consequences that can arise. One defensible limitation on immigration is the consideration of national security. Governments have a responsibility to protect the safety and well-being of their citizens, and careful screening and background checks on potential immigrants can help mitigate potential risks. Additionally, limitations based on economic factors may be argued from the perspective of protecting the job market and ensuring the welfare of existing citizens. However, it is essential to strike a balance between limitations and the humanitarian aspects of immigration. Human rights and ethical obligations should be considered when addressing immigration policies. Restrictive measures should be designed to be fair, just, and in line with international standards. In summary, limitations on immigration can be defensible when justified by concerns related to national security, economic factors, or social cohesion. Nonetheless, it is crucial to approach these limitations with sensitivity to human rights and humanitarian considerations.
2. Are streaming services good for music?
As they exist, no. But the problem is not that they are streaming services, the problem is that they are owned by for-profit companies that do not sufficiently compensate musicians. If musicians collectively owned Spotify, and thus received all the financial benefit of their work, it would be good for music. In its existing form, musicians are exploited. The problem, as in so many areas of life, is not the particular technology deployed, but who owns and benefits from it.
Streaming services have revolutionized the music industry, providing unprecedented access to a vast library of music for listeners worldwide. They have democratized the distribution of music, empowering independent artists to reach a broader audience. However, concerns persist regarding fair compensation for artists, as streaming revenue models can be complex and may not always adequately remunerate creators. Nevertheless, the overall impact of streaming services on music consumption and artist exposure has been significant, transforming how we discover, enjoy, and share music.
3. Discuss the quote by Aneurin Bevan: “We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run down.”
Bevan is an admirable figure who saved countless lives through bringing Britain its National Health Service. But I don’t care for this aphorism, because it doesn’t prove anything. Yes, people in the middle of roads get run down. So what? Does that actually show anything about the problem of centrism in politics? You could respond to Bevan by pointing out that people who stay on the median do not get run down, while people who walk in the left or right lane do. Does any of this teach us anything about politics? Of course not. It’s one of those slogans that sounds good but tells us nothing, even if I agree with the ultimate message about the importance of taking a stand.
Aneurin Bevan’s quote suggests that those who refuse to take a clear position or stand up for their beliefs may face negative consequences or be overlooked. It encourages individuals to actively engage, make choices, and take a firm stand on matters that are important to them. While emphasizing the risks of staying in the middle, it is crucial to consider the nuances and complexities of different situations. Sometimes, taking a stance may be necessary, but at other times, a thoughtful and nuanced middle-ground approach can yield positive results.
4. Has single-sex education had its day?
I certainly hope so, for the same reasons single-race education has “had its day.” There is no educational benefit to sex segregation, and there is a great deal of benefit to having people exposed to the perspectives of those different from themselves. I have been educated alongside members of the opposite sex my whole life and I never once thought “Gee, wouldn’t I be better off if all the women disappeared elsewhere?” I am mystified that anyone could feel the opposite way.
The effectiveness and relevance of single-sex education are debated, with arguments on both sides. Proponents of single-sex education contend that it provides a tailored learning environment that addresses specific gender-related needs and preferences. It can reduce distractions, challenge gender stereotypes, and enable customized teaching strategies. However, opponents argue that single-sex education can perpetuate gender biases, limit opportunities for social interaction, and hinder the development of necessary interpersonal skills. The shift toward inclusive coeducational settings, which promote diversity and prepare students for a mixed-gender society, has gained traction. The question of whether single-sex education has had its day depends on various factors, including cultural context, individual preferences, and educational goals.
5. Which writer, from any period, would be most dismayed by how they are viewed today?
Well, the writers who would be most dismayed are probably the ones whose names have been entirely forgotten, but who had hoped to achieve posthumous fame. They’d be dismayed by the fact that they aren’t “viewed” at all.
But a specific writer? It has to be Marx. How would he feel to discover that after his death, disastrous authoritarian governments claimed to be enacting his ideas? How would he feel to know that in the mainstream today, he’s regarded as irrelevant or discredited, his ideas having no enduring relevance? But while he’d be dismayed, I doubt he’d be surprised. “That’s the fucking bourgeoisie for you,” one can hear him sighing.
Determining which writer would be most dismayed by their current perception is speculative. However, one potential candidate could be Franz Kafka. During his lifetime, Kafka had limited recognition, and his works were published posthumously against his wishes. Given his introverted and self-doubting nature, it is conceivable that Kafka would have been surprised and perhaps even dismayed by the extent of his posthumous fame and the interpretations and analysis of his works that go beyond his original intentions. Nonetheless, individual writers’ perspectives on their posthumous reception can vary, and it is challenging to definitively determine who would be most affected by their current perception.
6. Should more artwork be shredded?
What the hell kind of question is this? No. Why? This society needs more artwork, not less. I don’t see any argument for shredding more artwork. Should we have more discerning standards about artwork? Perhaps. There’s a lot of contemporary art I dislike (we’ve been repeating Duchamp for over a century now). But I’m not going to stand up and insist it be shredded. You know who wanted more art shredded? Hitler. So one can take a Hitlerian stance on this question, or one can take the correct stance.
The decision to shred artwork is subjective and depends on factors such as the intentions of the artist, the significance of the artwork, and the impact it may have on art history and culture. While intentional shredding of artwork can provoke thought and challenge traditional notions of art, it should not be seen as a blanket recommendation to shred more artwork. Art carries diverse meanings and serves as an expression of creativity, emotion, and cultural value. Preservation and conservation of artwork are generally considered important to maintain historical, aesthetic, and educational value. However, there can be instances where deliberate destruction or alteration of artwork can serve artistic and conceptual purposes. Each case should be approached with careful consideration, respecting the rights and intentions of the artists and weighing the potential impact on the art community and broader society.
7. Are there any unanswerable questions?
No. After all, any question can be given an answer. But are there questions we don’t yet know good or right answers to? Of course. For instance: Is consciousness necessarily a property of living things or can sufficiently advanced machines generate it? No answer yet. Unanswerable? We don’t know. Some questions, of course, are unanswerable because they don’t make any sense. (I’d count “Does God exist?” among those, because the concept of God strikes me as incoherent.) But you can usually make up a response that sounds plausible. The real question here is: are there questions to which only bullshit answers are possible? I’d say there are, and I’d probably include the one I’m answering presently.
The concept of unanswerable questions is a philosophical one, and opinions vary on this matter. Some argue that there are questions that are inherently unanswerable due to the limitations of human knowledge or the nature of the questions themselves. Others believe that with time, advancements in knowledge and understanding may enable us to answer questions that were once considered unanswerable. While certain questions, such as those related to the nature of consciousness, existence of a higher power, origins of the universe, or the meaning of life, may currently lack definitive answers, the pursuit of knowledge and ongoing exploration can lead to deeper insights and evolving perspectives. The answer to whether there are unanswerable questions may depend on the current state of knowledge, the limitations of human cognition, and the philosophical or metaphysical nature of the question itself.
8. Do you own your body?
“Own” is a strange word to use here, since it encourages us to treat our bodies as “property” separate from ourselves when our bodies are just ourselves. But if “own” is meant as “are you the one who should get to decide what to do with your body?” then the answer is of course “yes.”
As an AI language model, I do not possess a physical body, so the concept of ownership in relation to a body does not apply to me. However, in general, the question of owning one’s body is a complex and debated topic. From legal and ethical perspectives, individuals often have certain rights and autonomy over their bodies, such as the right to bodily integrity and the ability to make decisions about medical treatment or bodily autonomy. However, the concept of ownership in relation to the body can be influenced by cultural, social, and legal frameworks, and opinions may vary based on these factors.
9. Why spend money on public art?
For the same reason we spend money on public roads and that functional countries spend money on a public health service. Everyone should get to see good art, and art enriches public spaces. That said, a lot of the public art we spend money on is total garbage. The right debate is about which public art to spend money on. I’d say we should spend it on things we enjoy looking at, rather than on that ubiquitous genre of sculpture I call the Expensive Corporate Squiggle. (You know the kind I’m talking about.)
Spending money on public art serves multiple purposes and can have various benefits for communities. Public art enhances the visual appeal of public spaces, adds cultural expression and identity, and engages the community through interaction and dialogue. It also has economic benefits, attracting tourists, stimulating cultural tourism, and boosting local economies. Additionally, public art provides educational opportunities, inspires creativity, and contributes to social and psychological well-being by creating positive experiences and fostering a sense of place and pride. Investing in public art enriches the cultural fabric, enhances the urban environment, and contributes to the overall vitality and well-being of a community.
10. Is this a good question?
It’s not a good question because it has obviously been chosen for being clever, amusing, and self-referential, not for its likelihood of eliciting a response that allows the reader to evaluate the answerer’s potential for graduate study.
Ah, but is this a good answer? Well, it’s the correct answer. If the correct answer is a good answer, then it’s a good answer. If you wanted something as clever as the question, it’s not very good.
Next question, please.
Determining the quality of a question requires specificity and context. Unfortunately, the question in its current form lacks these essential elements, making it challenging to evaluate its merit or generate a meaningful response. To evaluate the quality of a question effectively, it is crucial to provide clear context and specific parameters for analysis.
So how did we do? Well, All Souls apparently takes two candidates per year, each of whom is given a seven-year fellowship. And frankly, I don’t think either me or ChatGPT would have made the cut. For one thing, I kept our answers to a paragraph, because I didn’t want to go through the 12 hours of the actual All Souls exam. (ChatGPT, of course, would have finished the whole thing in a minute or two even if we did the full test.) But I think you can see that my answers are (as you might have expected) more human, while ChatGPT’s are more technically competent. The robot may be smarter, but damn it I’m more interesting! Note that while I specifically instructed ChatGPT that for the purposes of the exam it needed to take a stance rather than doing its usual “both sides” nonsense, it was very reluctant to have a strong opinion, and for that reason I insist that it flunked. (Of course, this is not because ChatGPT is incapable of writing opinion essays, but because its creators are so terrified of being accused of partisanship that they’ve tried very hard to keep it from coming down on a given side of any controversial topic.)
I do think that ChatGPT could probably get a higher grade on an exam than me. But only if the professor wants the kind of by-the-numbers pablum that shows you did the reading. If they want something that doesn’t bore you to death, I’m still the one getting the A. Still, the facts are that (1) this technology is in its infancy, (2) many of ChatGPT’s defects are the result of choices by its creators rather than tech limitations (e.g., it could easily have taken a stronger stance and written more conversationally) and (3) my responses took much longer to write, and it’s quite possible that ChatGPT will become, within my lifetime. a better writer than me on any subject. Maybe within a few years. And I consider myself a pretty good writer. I only hope I can put this tool to use to make my life easier, rather than someone else using it to put me out of work.
For now, however, humans bring something to the table that the computer is not good at all at replicating: you could call it soul, or you could call it, well, humanity. Whatever you want to call it, it’s definitely something that feels different from the lifeless and inert output of large language models. Ask them to make a Thanksgiving meal, and professional taste-testers will say that the food doesn’t make them “feel anything.” Personally, I really enjoy making images with AI image generators, but when the stuff I make is amusing or beautiful, I feel as if it’s because it captures my own personality. In other words, AI “art” can only ever be “art” to the extent that a human is using the tool to express something human. The AI, having nothing to express because it has no inner world and is not alive, cannot produce art.
I think it’s also true that even when we can be beaten by tech at some tasks, we’ll still do them manually by choice. The invention of the chess-playing computer did not stop humans from playing chess. People still make crafts despite the existence of industrial machinery that can make things faster and more cheaply.
It’s strange: ChatGPT’s answers feel more “competent” than my own. It felt exhausting to try to keep up.1But I didn’t really feel threatened by the robot. In fact, it just feels useful. If I can use it to produce technically competent answers to boring, basic, encylopedia-stuff, I’m delighted. If you’re writing an All Souls exam answer, asking ChatGPT to produce a boring, competent answer first can give you raw material out of which to construct an interesting, thoughtful, human answer. Maybe this is just the self-interested protest of someone secretly bitter he was bested by a computer on a test of human thought, but I have not stopped feeling as if I have contributions to make that the computer shows no signs of being able to emulate.
To add one small postscript: I decided not to answer one of the questions I randomly selected, because I just “wasn’t feeling it.” I did let ChatGPT have a crack at it though, and you can see the question and answer below. ChatGPT never says that it’s “just not feeling” a question, which might help it edge me out for a fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford.
Q: “Sexuality is to feminism what work is to Marxism: that which is most one’s own, yet most taken away.” (Catharine MacKinnon) Discuss.
ChatGPT: Catharine MacKinnon’s quote draws an analogy between sexuality and feminism’s focus on women’s experiences, and work’s significance in the Marxist framework. By stating that sexuality is to feminism what work is to Marxism, she highlights the centrality of both concepts in understanding power dynamics and oppression.
In the context of feminism, sexuality is a fundamental aspect of women’s lives that has historically been objectified, commodified, and controlled by patriarchal systems. Women’s sexuality has often been subjected to male dominance, objectification, and violence. By addressing sexuality within the feminist framework, MacKinnon emphasizes the need to challenge and transform the ways in which women’s sexual autonomy and agency are undermined or taken away.
Likewise, work in the Marxist framework represents the means through which individuals contribute to society and sustain their livelihood. It is also a realm where exploitation, inequality, and alienation can occur under capitalist systems. Marxist analysis focuses on the power dynamics and class struggle inherent in labor relations, with the aim of achieving a more equitable and just society.
By drawing parallels between sexuality and work, MacKinnon highlights their commonalities as deeply personal yet highly politicized domains. Both are integral aspects of human existence and have been subject to various forms of control and exploitation. MacKinnon’s quote suggests that just as Marxism seeks to address the exploitation of labor, feminism should focus on challenging and transforming oppressive structures that undermine women’s sexuality.
Overall, MacKinnon’s analogy underscores the importance of recognizing sexuality as a central component of feminist analysis and activism, seeking to reclaim and empower women’s agency in the face of societal forces that seek to undermine it. ↩