The Value of Philosophy

 Posted by on 1 July 2014 at 11:00 am  Academia, Philosophy, Science
Jul 012014

Bob Pasnau — University of Colorado at Boulder Philosophy Professor — writes in the NY Times on the value of philosophy: Why Not Just Weigh the Fish?

The essence of philosophy is abstract reasoning – not because the philosopher is too lazy to attempt a more hands-on approach, but because the subjects at issue do not readily submit to it. If we could simply weigh the fish, we gladly would. In recent centuries, philosophers in fact have discovered how to weigh that allegorical fish, in various fields, and on each occasion a new discipline has been born: physics in the 17th century; chemistry in the 18th; biology in the 19th and psychology in the 20th. The scientists, short on history but flush with their government grants and Nobel Prizes, cast an eye back on what remains of philosophy and skeptically ask: Why don’t you stop wasting your time and just weigh that fish?

It’s a question philosophers ask themselves all the time, and sometimes they despair. The remaining problems of philosophy today concern issues like justice, morality, free will, knowledge and the origins of the universe. In dismissing philosophy as an antiquated relic of our prescientific past, the scientist is making a very large and dubious assumption: that the abstract methods of philosophy, despite the discipline’s string of successes over recent centuries, have nothing more to contribute to our developing understanding of the world. Perhaps scientists think they already have the answers to all these philosophical questions. Maybe, but if so they certainly keep them well hidden. Or perhaps they judge these remaining questions to be simply unanswerable. Possibly they are, but it seems wildly premature to give up hope.

Bob Pasnau was my medieval philosophy professor. He was also the graduate advisor and department chair for periods during my tenure as a graduate student. He was part of what made my experience in the department so good. Go Bob!

Years of Work in One Sentence

 Posted by on 30 December 2013 at 2:00 pm  Academia, Funny, Responsibility & Luck
Dec 302013

Paul found this hysterical web site in which people compress their whole thesis or dissertation into a single sentence. Here are a few samples:

I don’t know what genes are responsible for guiding zebrafish embryos to grow into mature fish, but I killed thousands of them to find out. (Biology, Northeastern University)

If you want to get drugs directly into your brain, then drill a hole in your head. (Biomedical Engineering, University of Toronto)

Democracy would work a whole lot better if we weren’t so, you know, human. (Political Science, Rutgers)

You can make spacetime do all kinds of wonderful things, and all you have to do is get rid of the conservation of energy. (Physics, Tufts University)

Trust your gut, except when your gut is being an asshole, which can be really hard to tell, but do your best. (Philosophy, Western University)

Here’s mine, now submitted:

It’s not luck; it’s you.

If you want the details, buy the book!

Oct 102013

This excellent blog post on Kant’s various crazy views by UC Riverside philosophy professor Eric Schwitzgebel details some of the crazy views that I covered in my recent broadcast on Kant’s views on sex. It’s worth reading though for its tidbits on including on organ donation, women in politics, and more.

At the end of the post, Schwitzgebel draws two lessons, both worthy of consideration:

First, from our cultural distance, it is evident that Kant’s arguments against masturbation, for the return of wives to abusive husbands, etc., are gobbledy-gook. This should make us suspicious that there might be other parts of Kant, too, that are gobbledy-gook, for example, the stuff that transparently reads like gobbledy-gook, such as the transcendental deduction, and such as his claims that his various obviously non-equivalent formulations of the fundamental principle of morality are in fact “so many formulations of precisely the same law” (Groundwork, 4:436, Zweig trans.). I read Kant as a master at promising philosophers what they want and then effusing a haze of words with glimmers enough of hope that readers can convince themselves that there is something profound underneath.

Second, Kant’s philosophical moral reasoning appears mainly to have confirmed his prejudices and the ideas inherited from his culture. We should be nervous about expecting more from the philosophical moral reasoning of people less philosophically capable than Kant.

I added the bold, because I think that’s so damn true. Kant does not merely handwave on occasion. So many of Kant’s arguments are rationalistic, pie-in-the-sky handwaving, where mere associations between words are supposed to give the force of argument.

My only point of disagreement is that I strongly suspect that the various horrifying ethical claims surveyed in the blog post were significant worse than the prejudices of his culture. For example, children born out of wedlock might have been stigmatized, but I doubt that more than a few crazies thought they could be killed with impunity. Then again, maybe I’m overestimating the moral culture of Königsberg.

Trolley Problem: What Would You Do?

 Posted by on 30 August 2013 at 3:35 pm  Academia, Ethics, Philosophy
Aug 302013

On Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Radio, I’ll answer a question on whether the “trolley problem” so often discussed by academic philosophers has any value. The basic scenario of the trolley problem is:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. Unfortunately, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?

So what would you do? Here’s a super-quick poll, the answers to which I’ll use in Sunday’s discussion:

Then explain your reasons for your choice in the comments!


In case you didn’t hear about this when it made the rounds a few weeks ago… John P. McCaskey taught a wildly popular course on the “Moral Foundations of Capitalism” at Stanford for some years. Alas, the course was discontinued, much to the consternation of students… so much so that the story was circulated about it around the internet, all the way to The Daily Caller.

Happily, McCaskey is now at Brown, teaching the same course. He’s such an awesome lecturer that, although I’ve sworn never to step foot in another classroom, I envy those students at Brown!

Happily, I’ll enjoy an hour of meaty discussion with him on tonight’s Philosophy in Action Radio. We’ll discuss the shift in the moral justification for liberty currently underway in libertarian circles. (That could be good… or it could be bad!) I heard him lecture on the subject on Saturday night, and that was fantastic.

I hope that you’ll join us for the live show tonight… but if you can’t attend that, you can always listen to the podcast later. (That will be posted here around 9 pm tonight.)

Nov 062012

I received the following fabulous story about teaching Ayn Rand’s novella Anthem in China from Dr. Robert Garmong in November 2009. I meant to blog it at the time, but I forgot about it until I interviewed him in September on Teaching in China. As I often say, better late than never!

Tonight was my first night teaching Ayn Rand’s novella Anthem in China.

Last spring, I made the decision to petition The Ayn Rand Institute for support via their free books program. At considerable expense to the Institute, they shipped me several hundred copies of Anthem, free for my students. I think they were as excited as I was to introduce Ayn Rand’s ideas to China in a systematic way for the very first time. I handed the books out three weeks ago in my graduate-level course on American Literature.

It’s a slightly risky move, teaching any work by Ayn Rand here in China. China is still a country with censorship — for example, the Ayn Rand Institute’s website is blocked by the government. Professors have been expelled from the country for teaching ideas critical of the government, and what could be more critical of the government than a radical assault on collectivism?

On the other hand, I’ve been told that all ideas, per se, are more or less tolerated here: censorship is directed mainly at direct criticism of the Party, especially with regard to tender issues in the provinces. Those professors who have gotten in trouble, I’m told, were using the classroom for open advocacy, and/or were very unpopular jerk-professors of the sort we’ve all experienced once or twice.

The edge of uncertainty about Anthem was heightened slightly last week, when some students told me they had read the book, with a little shock in their voices. One asked what the real message was, as if she couldn’t quite believe she was reading individualism in a Chinese government-university classroom. “It is too radical,” whispered another.

Last week, the students watched “Freedom Writers,” a good movie in the “great teacher shapes up hopeless misfit students” genre. The students loved the film, and I used it to set up Anthem by emphasizing the theme of individualism versus racism. I talked at some length about the “melting pot” idea, and how that is only possible if individuals are judged as individuals, not as members of their racial or other collectives.

Then, tonight, I introduced our discussion of Anthem by asking for initial gut-reactions. That’s often a very useful barometer of students’ context and understanding of a text. If they respond to a trivial or superficial element (“I don’t like red hair, so The Fountainhead is no good”), I know they’re going to need a lot of remedial concept-formation. If they respond to the right things, but with ill-formed judgment (“Locke’s argument for individual rights condones immoral selfishness”), I know they are going to need help expanding their philosophical context in order to understand the possibility of arguments for the other side.

Teaching Anthem in China, I got a little of both. When I asked for initial reactions, one brusque-faced student dressed in black faux leather jumped in immediately with: “I do not like this book, because Ayn Rand is Russian.” I expected some sort of anti-Russian nationalism to follow (and there is strong anti-Russian sentiment here), but instead he followed up: “She chose to move to America, so she betrayed her country. Why she must betray her country?” Um… “Her country?” Why must IT betray HER?!

While I was attempting to process this, like a 1970′s calculator trying to plumb pi to too many digits, his woman-friend jumped in with a wickedly calculated “I-gotcha” look on her face. “This book is wrong. Socialism does not mean what she says. She presents collectivism nai-ga-tively, yet she calls her fur-losofee Objectivism, as if it is objective. It is not right. It is too radical.”

Then a grinning guy in the back row, wearing a military-green wool coat, jumped in. “Our China requires collectivism for its moral survival. We cannot have individualism.” (Corrupting the Morals of China, by the way, is a crime that carries the death penalty, so Grinning-Guy had thereby issued what amounts to an oblique and distant death threat. Not that it would likely be carried out, but still… everyone knows it’s there as the ultimate punishment. That has a funny way of shutting people down.)

I was attempting not to literally reel. The plurality of non-aligned students were avoiding my eyes, as Chinese students will do. I looked to my support group, the three or four students in the class who clearly and profoundly love me, my class, and all things American. They smiled exaggerated, disarmed smiles of attempted support, but they were obviously folding up inside. I was on my own.

A woman in the front-right raised her hand to say: “My Marxism professor in undergraduate university told us that all Western thinks is metaphysical. Westerner wants to find the one, and maybe it’s a little radical, but makes sense logical. China understand that there is other side, maybe not just one side. Maybe this book like that.” It’s possible was trying to throw me a lifeline, saying “this book isn’t evil, it’s just too extreme.” Not much of a lifeline, I have to say.

I asked the students how they had responded to the writing style. One support-group woman finally jumped in to say, with a bold smile but a timid voice, that she’d found the book exciting. “I thought the Equality character was changing much through the story, so I could not stop reading to find out how he would think and change each time.” I explained the concept of a “page-turner,” which seemed to return some portion of the class to learning mode.

It was time for a ten-minute break, and damned if I wasn’t ready for that break!

After break, I decided to launch into a substantive lecture on individualism versus collectivism. I hit the issue as straight-on philosophy, not trying too hard to tie my entire discussion to Anthem. I drew examples from the movie they’d watched, I laid out a grid of premises, such as “collectivism: Individual has no value. Individualism: happiness is the purpose of life.” Collectivism: The good is service to society. Individualism: The good is to promote your own well-being. I talked about how collectivism implies the metaphysical premise that the individual is nothing, and society is everything.

This time, I thought the students really understood and were enthralled. They hopped with examples and questions. The same students who had earlier disparaged individualism, now leapt to its defense.

Chinese students are fun.

Robert Garmong’s blog — professor-in-dalian — has more fabulous stories from his life as a professor and now husband in China. If you missed my fabulous interview with him, you can stream or download it here:

The Mind of the Plagiarist

 Posted by on 20 July 2011 at 7:00 am  Academia, Ethics, Psychology
Jul 202011

Here’s a fascinating article on the psychology of plagiarism, particularly how the plagiarist’s ignorance of his own ignorance is often his undoing: The Mind of the Plagiarist:

It never occurs to the plagiarist, therefore, whether panic-stricken or calculating, that submitting someone else’s prose under his own name might alert a wary reader that shenanigans are in play. It never occurs to him that a vapid three-sentence paragraph of his prose, with simplistic sentences, bad grammar, and misspellings, when followed by a paragraph in a competent writer’s professional prose will create a sense of disjunction in the very party whom the gesture aims at defrauding.

If there were such a thing as an intelligent or well-educated plagiarist, the idea of a careful patchwork of paragraphs, culled from various websites and rewritten to make the style homogeneous and framed within original prose that endowed on the whole something like a convincing structure — that, I say, might occur to him. But if the plagiarist were intelligent and well educated, if he were that capable, he would probably not be a plagiarist; he would be an honest student who acquits himself in courses.

Go read the whole thing!

Mar 182011

Bob Pasnau — noted medieval scholar in my own CU Boulder Philosophy Department and generally awesome guy — makes a compelling case for young philosophers specializing in the history of philosophy. Here are a few choice quotes:

The discipline of philosophy benefits from a serious, sustained engagement with its history. Most of the interesting, important work in philosophy is not being done right now, at this precise instant in time, but lies more or less hidden in the past, waiting to be uncovered. Philosophers who limit themselves to the present restrict their horizons to whatever happens to be the latest fashion, and deprive themselves of a vast sea of conceptual resources.

Despite the above list of names, many philosophers today are presentists – they think that the only philosophy worth reading has been written in the last 100 years, if not the last 30 years. This attitude is hard to justify. The historical record shows that philosophy – unlike science and math – does not develop in steady, linear fashion. Perhaps the very best historical era ever came at the very start, in Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. If that was not it, then one has to wait some 1600 years, for the century from Aquinas to Oresme, (Who’s Oresme?, you may ask. Exactly.) or wait 2000 years, for Descartes through Kant. I’m leaving out important figures, of course, but also many quite fallow periods, even in modern times. Maybe subsequent generations will judge 2011 and environs as the highpoint up until now of the whole history of philosophy, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Every generation of philosophers has been equally prepossessed by its own ideas.

Of course, I am no more capable than others of judging my own times, but certainly I am not alone in feeling some amount of dissatisfaction with the way philosophy looks today. Tyler Burge nicely expresses my own worries when he remarks, in the preface to his recent book, that “if philosophy is not to slide toward irrelevance and become a puzzle-game-playing discipline, good mainly for teaching the young to think clearly, some central parts of philosophy must broaden their horizons.” Burge mainly has in mind science as a broadening influence; I think the history of philosophy can play a similar role. Although a background in the history of the subject is obviously not a prerequisite for doing deep and original work, it helps, and I fear the discipline’s present collective neglect of its past contributes to its often insular character.

Personally, I was always far more interested in the history of ethics than in contemporary ethics — for many of the reasons that Pasnau discusses here. While the history of ethics is taught (somewhat), philosophy departments don’t recognize a research specialty in the history of ethics, except for ancient ethics. The history of philosophy, with the exception of ancient philosophy, is focused on metaphysics and epistemology. So if you write a dissertation on the history of ethics, the standard result is that ethicists will regard you as a historian and historians will regard you as an ethicist, such that you’ll have a devil of a time getting a job. (That happened to one of our sharpest and most talented professors at Boulder.)

In academia, my two favorite areas of philosophy for study and teaching were philosophy of religion and the history of ethics. I just loved to dive into the ethical texts of the great figures in the history of philosophy — Kant, Hume, Mill, Aquinas, the early Christians, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and of course, Aristotle — so as to develop a clear view of their ethics. That’s something that I hope to return to doing soon, in some form.

The Simpsons on Graduate School & Academia

 Posted by on 9 February 2011 at 2:00 pm  Academia, Funny
Feb 092011

This was pretty damn funny, particularly since I’m no longer in academia:

Why Caltech Is Different

 Posted by on 18 January 2011 at 8:00 am  Academia, Education
Jan 182011

I recently read a fascinating article entitled, Why Caltech Is in a Class by Itself“. Here is an excerpt:

Of the top two dozen or so elite universities in America only one has managed both to avoid the craziness of the post-60s intellectual fads, and to establish something pretty close to a pure meritocracy — California Institute of Technology, which has not received the general recognition among academics that it clearly deserves…

If you can’t meet the stellar performance requirements and show an intense love for science and mathematics, Caltech isn’t interested in you and will not lower its standards. When you apply to Caltech the admissions committee is interested only in your intellectual merit and passion for learning. It has little or no interest in your family heritage, your race, or your skill in slapping around a hockey puck…

Perhaps the most striking difference from all other elite universities — including institutions like MIT and the University of Chicago which forgo athletic recruitment — is Caltech’s complete indifference to racial balancing.

In a state and a region of the country with the largest Hispanic population, Caltech’s entering freshmen class in 2008 was less than 6 percent Hispanic (13 out of 236). The unwillingness to lower standards for a larger black representation is even more striking — less than 1 percent (2/236) of Caltech’s 2008 entering freshmen were listed as “non-Hispanic black”.

This “underrepresentation” of blacks and Hispanics, of course, was more than made up for by the huge “overrepresentation” of Asians. Only 4 percent of the U.S. population, Asians made up a whopping 40 percent of the incoming freshmen class in 2008, a slightly larger proportion than the 39 percent figure for whites.

Applicants to Caltech are clearly seen as representing only themselves and their own individual merit and achievement, not their race or their ethnic group.

(Read the full text.)

I found the “no legacies” and “no racial preferences” policies especially interesting. Given how rigorous the school is, it would simply be cruel to admit a legacy student or “underrepresented racial category” student who couldn’t otherwise handle the academic pace. It also means that if you’re a black or Hispanic student at Caltech, everyone there knows you are there because you met the same admission standards as the white and Asian students, rather than being stigmatized with the “affirmative action” label.

And even though I’m a proud alumnus of MIT, Caltech is purer in how it applies its meritocratic principles.

(Via Marginal Revolution.)

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