Some Study Notes for Intro Philosophy

I’ve been posting about my TAing intro philosophy. (Part One, Part Two, Part Three) As the class is approaching the first exam. I made a list of questions, which I realized is a fairly useful list of basic questions on a few major philosophical topics, so I’m posting it here.

  • *Logic*
    • What is a valid argument? A sound argument?
    • What kinds of things can be true?
    • How do you identify a valid or sound argument?
    • What is, and in what cases do you use: deduction?
      • induction?
      • inference to best explanation?
      • hypothesis testing?
    • What makes something true?
  • *Epistemology*
    • What is knowledge?
    • What are the kinds of opinions?
    • What things can be knowledge?
  • *Mind*
    • What is the mind/body problem?
    • What are physicalism and dualism?
    • What’s the difference between property and substance dualism?
      • behaviorism and functionalism?
      • identity theory and functionalism?
    • What is the main objection against physicalism?
    • What is the advantage of property dualism over substance dualism?
      • functionalism over behaviorism?
      • functionalism over identity theory?
      • property dualism over functionalism?
      • functionalism over property dualism?
  • *God*
    • What are the three traditional omni- properties associated with God?
    • What is the Argument from Creation/Cosmological Argument?
    • What does actually show?
    • What is the Argument from Design?
    • What does actually show?

Additionally, I emphasize: I advise writing down responses to the study question, or at least verballizing answers. One of the most common mistakes people make is just looking at these and thinking “I know this,” but philosophy tends to lead people to thinking that while studying, and then having no idea what to write when it’s time to write.

TAing Intro Philosophy Pt. 3

Previous Posts: Week 1Week 2.
In week 3, the class turned to argumentation. This again left me a fair bit of freedom, since the skill is broad and will be useful for the whole quarter (and in general). On the other hand, I had to run this section six times (instead of my usual three) since two people were out of town, so I made it something fairly repeatable, and by the sixth time through it was pretty good.
The first half of the section was spent reviewing Deductive Arguments. Students were instructed to on a sheet of paper, write down a true, simple sentence, such as”40 million people live in California.” Then they constructed  sound arguments for them. E.g.
  1.     If the census data is reliable, then 40 million people live in California.
  2.     The census data is reliable.
  3.     So, 40 million peple live in California.
They wrote them, paired up and shared with each other, and then a few people shared with the whole group. In each section some people seemed to have trouble, so after a few minutes, I revealed the general form
  1. If X then Y.
  2. X.
  3. So, Y.

Then, I explain, the task is just to put in an appropriate X and Y. Understanding seemed nearly universal at this point, so I moved on to constructing valid arguments for false conclusions. I had them each write a false, simple sentence, such as “Skittles are made of chocolate.” Then I had them each construct a valid argument for it. E.g.

  1.     If all round candies are made of chocolate, then Skittles are made of chocolate
  2.     All round candies are made of chocolate.
  3.     So, Skittles are made of chocolate.

They notice that 2 is false, but the argument itself is valid. Because 2 is false, the argument is unsound. They repeat the pairing and sharing exercise, this time a bit faster since the routine is established, and then we moved on since understanding seemed solid.

One of the readings was Linda Zagzebski’s “Caring and Epistemic Demands”. Of the several they had to read, it was short, simple, yet interesting and applicable. Here I made fuller use of my ability to put in quotes from the texts. For instance:
Caring about many things is not only natural, but is part of any life we would care to live. But if we care about anything, we must care about having true beliefs in the domains we care about. (69)
I ask, what does this mean? Is this true? Then I have them each write down something they care about, followed by the beliefs they must care about being true as a result. For instance, I offer,  I care about my students understanding this material. As a result, I care about truly believing what LZ’s argument is, where and when section meets, etc.
I’ll call a belief that is governed by a concern for truth a conscientiously held belief. (69)
I asked what two demands does conscientious belief places on us. Admittedly, I overestimated how intuitive the argument is, and nobody quite figured out what I was going for. By section three or four I had learned to quickly move on to the next quote:
First, there is a demand to be conscientious in whatever beliefs we have in that domain, and second, there is a demand to acquire conscientious beliefs in the domain. (69)
Here I asked them to add to their papers what actions they have to take as a result about caring about certain beliefs of their being true. For instance, since I care about my belief in the time/location of class being true, I checked the university’s online portal for class information. It’s rather obvious stuff, but it forces students to get into the mindset of breaking things down into simpler parts.
Around this point I had still half the time left, but the next part of the argument turned to a generality, and used harder grammar in the process. That is, LZ argues that we all, in virtue of caring about things, care about being good informants to others. And to argue for this, she uses language difficult enough to put a paragraph on the wall and ask students to spend ten to fifteen minutes working together to break it down into an argument (in the style of the first half of the section) . This proved to be a very fruitful exercise. The quote:
Among the things we care about is caring that others care about what we care about, which means that we care about their having true beliefs about what we care about, and we also care to some extent about what they care about. So we care about being good informants to others. We want the ability to convey true beliefs and not false beliefs to others. (71)
I broke it down, in color:
  1. We care that others care about what we care about.
  2. If we care that others care about what we care about, then we care about their having true beliefs about what we care about, and we also care to some extent about what they care about.
  3. If we care about their having true beliefs about what we care about, and we also care to some extent about what they care about, then we care about being good informants to others.
  4. So, we care about being good informants to others.

Download slides.

TAing Intro Philosophy Pt. 2

Last week I continued running sections for introduction to philosophy. We had, in theory, read Bertrand Russell’s “The Value of Philosophy.” I say “in theory” because in reality when I asked my students who had done the reading, not many people raised their hands. Turns out the bookstore hadn’t actually gotten the book in, yet.
No problem, though, really, since I put the important text in my slides. I got tired of having to find things in books because I’ve noticed in discussions that usually by the time everyone has gotten the text out and found the spot, the person sharing has already finished reading. Between that and just losing people spacing out when we turn our attention to the text, it’s easier for the screen to just have the text ready.
I first posed the questions “What is the main point of this text?” and “What argument is given for it?”. The argument goes:
  1.     Philosophy is to be studied only if there is some value derived from doing so.
  2.     There is some value derived from doing so.
  3.      So, philosophy is to be studied.
The first premise is essentially the challenge posed by the imagined interlocutor. Since nobody really has a problem with 1, the main challenge is arguing for 2. I needn’t go into detail here on how he does so (see the link above), but I did challenge the students to then argue against it. I imagine that’s the only time in their academic careers they’ve been asked to provide reasons to leave.
We spent the most time then discussing whether the goods of the mind are at least as important as the goods of the body. Discussions took off on their own pretty quickly.

On the Two Parts of Empirical Knowledge

There’s two parts to looking at the world. The looking and the world. Most fields of inquiry fix their way of looking and go out in search of the world. Philosophy (at least some of it) instead turns to the way we’re looking at it.
Take for example the role of acetylcholine in the brain. If you ask “Why is that ACh there?” the organic chemist will answer with some sort of mechanical explanation. There’s some mechanism that created an ACh molecule and put it where it is. On the other hand, if you asked a molecular biologist, she would give some sort of purposive explanation. There’s ACh doing the stuff it does being the beings with the ACh doing what it does were able to reproduce. Here we see two scientists answering the same question with two different but compatible answers. Both look to the world, gather their evidence, and draw conclusions about the world. And both keep their ways of looking at the world more or less fixed throughout.
This isn’t meant as an insult to the scientists! Fixing a method of investigation is just how we get a science going. Until we have a concrete system of generating questions (or problems) and an established method of answering (or solving) them, we just don’t have a science. Once we do, though, we apparently get quite a bit of use out of it. The tricky part is figuring out which systems of generating questions and which methods of answering them are the good ones. This is where I see philosophy fitting in.
I take my work on consciousness in particular to be serving this role to neuroscience and psychology, for example. The two fields have very effective ways of investigating nervous systems and mental/behavioral structures. I think that they don’t yet have a great way of investigating subjective conscious experience itself yet (which isn’t a super unpopular view). Don’t get me wrong: I don’t deny the current best empirical data people have collected. My point is not that we have no information from our current perspective, but rather that with a fundamental reconfiguration of our understanding of what consciousness is, and with this reconfiguration a new vocabulary, calculus, etc., we can see it much more clearly.
It takes all kinds. Some people are excellent at taking the blueprints and paving the roads. Some people are great at taking the beaten paths and continuing to build. And some of us see some value in taking yet-undiscovered approaches to the same material. Thus there is in fact not a conflict here but rather two parts of the same larger enterprise.

TAing Intro Philosophy Pt. 1

Yesterday I ran three sections for the first week of spring quarter. This time around I’m TAing intro to philosophy, and some of the information in my slides seems like it might turn out to be useful. So I’m going to give blogging it a go. Since the audience is all of you on the web rather than just my class, I’ll be re-orienting the material accordingly.
Since the section met before any course content was on the table, I only had the course expectations and introductions to work with. Still, every section took the whole time and had to be cut off. First I went over course expectations, then did an icebreaker, then gave tips, then moved to discussion. In retrospect, I might have swapped the first two since the introduction activity got the class more active.

Course Expectations

I break the learning of philosophy, like foreign languages, into four parts: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. To facilitate learning to read philosophical texts, students are expected to do all of the readings listed on the syllabus. This is graded via exams. There will also be writing assignments to evaluate students’ ability to write philosophy. To aid this, there will be practice assignments in section that will contribute to their participation grades.
For listening, learning philosophy and interpreting complex speech will be developed through lectures and conversations. Attendance of lectures and sections will be graded. Putting philosophy into words is often the first way of making sense of things. As such, all students are expected to speak in discussion.
Of course, things happen. I’ve noticed that some students are horrifically overstressed. I understand that a lot of my students have several other classes, jobs, family obligations, and illnesses/disabilities. I take a moment to acknowledge this and encourage students to ask for help early, justified by the fact that I can be way more helpful with more time.
Following this, I moved onto communication standards. In email: I email back within two business days. I try to extend the same courtesy, though, and always give my students two days’ notice. In discussion, disagreement is actively encouraged. Nonetheless, civility is required at all times. We’re here to talk about concepts, reasons, ideas, etc. Not about the person talking. I draw a comparison to dodgeball. Normally, it’s not okay to whip balls at people. Just like how it’s not okay to tell people their deeply held ethical or religious beliefs are wrong. But in gym class, you can throw a ball at someone, and in philosophy class you can throw a rhetorical ball at someone. Even in gym, though, you can’t whip the ball at someone’s face, and in philosophy class you can’t just insult people.
I do call on people at random. Or in particular if someone seems like they have something useful to say. I have three reasons behind this. One, it forces all students to participate. Two, often the quietest students know things but are shy. Part of my goal is to train confidence in speaking to a group. Three, research indicates members of certain demographic groups tend to dominate conversations. I can use my position of power to amplify voices that might otherwise be silenced.
On a different note, yes, everything is a matter of perspective. You should have a perspective. When asked for perspective, I ask that my students please give it. It’s okay to be unsure or change your mind. Taking a position lets us play around with the ideas and see what works.

Introduction Activity

The activity begins by having everyone choose a partner. Then they, obeying a slide on the wall, collect the following information about their partners and become ready to share it:
  • Name
  • Major(s)
  • Year
  • Where you’re from
  • A major non-academic interest
They share this info about their partners. Now I’m 15-20 minutes in and everyone has spoken once. I also got to share all of this information about myself, so they know a little about me. But now I want to get some philosophical thinking going, so I ask them to  find an issue on which they and their partners disagree. In addition, they explain the reason for the disagreement. For example, I think we shouldn’t blame people. Lots of people disagree. But the reason I think we shouldn’t blame people is because people never have the ability to do other than they do, and blame is useless. Someone might disagree with either of those two, and whichever they disagree with is the more basic reason behind our disagreement about blame. The students got into pairs for another ten minutes and shared. Interestingly, in two or three of the three sections, students spontaneously added their input to the disagreements of others. (Lots of death penalty and abortion. Amusingly, one “trivial” disagreement from each class, including James vs. Jordan and whether pineapple goes on pizza.)

Tips & Tricks

I’ve been made aware of the fact that a lot of UC Riverside students haven’t really been taught how to effectively navigate college coursework, nor philosophy coursework in particular. So I offer the following hints on day one:
Reading: Ideally, read three times. First, skim to get the general “plot”. Second, read to understand. Third, read to see which points you can press up against and which parts from the start pay off in the end. (Less ideally, at least read the section headings and first and last sentence of each paragraph.)
Writing: Start early! I’ll provide more writing guidance as we approach the papers, but ideally, you should write down your thoughts in response to the readings to practice putting them in concrete form.
Listening: Paying attention can be hard. Use note-taking to your advantage. Too much: Writing down every word. Too little: Not writing down anything. Just right: Putting down the stuff you want to remember later but get out of your mental space for now.
Speaking: Philosophy is hard. You may want to have your thoughts mapped out on paper to guide you when speaking in class.

Why Are We Here?

Finally, I try to motivate the class. Most of the students are in the class because they were told to be. But I think the questions themselves are interesting. Who/what we are matters. What matters matters. And for a lot of people, the (in)divine nature of the universe matters.

Also, the skills themselves are incredibly useful. In an increasingly divided world, being able to read or listen to someone and thoroughly understand what they believe and why they believe it is important. Then, being able to come up with your own views, subject them to rational scrutiny, and then articulate them in spoken or written language clearly and interestingly enough for someone else to bother consuming is also, I take it, a rather desirable skill. I invite my students to partake in the project of developing these skills and answering these questions. I hope they accept.

The slides are available here: Phil_1_S_1 (1)