3 Tips For Your First Philosophy Class

You enrolled in a philosophy class? Cool! You might have heard a few things about philosophy. But — on average — few people know much about academic philosophy. So here’s a quick introduction to your first philosophy class. It’ll cover the basics of what your philosophy teacher cares about and what they probably expect from you.

1.  Reason Well

The quality of our judgment matters in many contexts. It matters when we’re voting, when we’re raising children, and when deciding how to spend our time, etc. In each of these cases, we need to be able to

  • find information.
  • understand information.
  • explain information.
  • evaluate information.

And this is similar to what we will do in a philosophy class. So your grade in a philosophy class is a matter of how well you understand, explain, and evaluate information — where “information” is just the stuff you read and discuss for class.

But that’s not very specific. You probably want to know how to evaluate and explain the information we come across in a philosophy course. For instance, is it enough to say, “I disagree with So-and-so because I believe that _______”? The short answer: no.

In a philosophy class, it doesn’t really matter what we believe. Academic philosophers care more about Continue reading 3 Tips For Your First Philosophy Class

Classroom Poster Sessions: A win for you and your students

Last week, the Free Will & Science course finished up their poster sessions. It was one of the most enriching classroom experiences I’ve ever witnessed.† In case you’re interested, here’s a post about the why and how of classroom poster sessions — including templates for your own classroom. Continue reading Classroom Poster Sessions: A win for you and your students

Research Questions & Mental Shortcuts: A Warning

Daniel Kahneman talks extensively about how we make reasoning errors because we tend to use mental shortcuts. One mental shortcut is ‘substitution‘. Substitution is what we do when we (often unconsciously) answer an easier question than the one being asked. I find that I sometimes do this in my own research. For instance, when I set out to answer the question, “How can X be rational?” I sometimes end up answering easier questions like, “How does X work?”. In an effort to avoid such mistakes, I will (1) explain the question substitution error, (2) give an example of how we can distinguish between questions, (3) give a personal example of the substitution error, and (4) say what we can do about it.

1.  Substitution

In case you’re not familiar with Kahnemen’s notion of ‘substitution’, here is some clarification. In short, substitution is this: responding to a difficult question by (often unintentionally) answering a different, easier question. People use this mental shortcut all the time. Here are some everyday instances:

Difficult QuestionEasier Question
How satisfied are you with your life?What is my mood right now?
Should I believe what my parents believe?Can I believe what my parents believe?
What are the merits/demerits of that woman who is running for president?What do I remember people in my community saying about that woman?

For further discussion of mental shortcuts and substitution, see Part 1 of Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow (2012).

Now, how does this mental shortcut apply to research?  Continue reading Research Questions & Mental Shortcuts: A Warning

Monitoring for Bias in Education: What Does That Mean?

“I would use the Department of Education … to monitor our institutions of higher education for extreme political bias and deny federal funding if it exists.”

Ben Carson

1. Everyone has biases, political and otherwise.

So denying funding on the basis of any political bias would be tantamount to denying all federal education funding. That’d be problematic. So — if we assume a charitable interpretation of Carson — that’s surely not the Republican plan (…or is it?). So let’s assume that Carson is not out to defund any educational institution that exhibits just any political bias.

Instead, maybe Carson’s plan is to monitor for particular biases. The idea here would be that only institutions with certain biases should be defunded. But even that would be problematic. After all, Carson is a human. And humans are more likely to notice and take issue with others’ biases (Corner et al 2012; Lord et al 1979) or biases that merely seem like others’ biases (Trouche et al 2015). So Carson might be more attuned to and dismissive of others’ biases than his own. And that is itself a political bias.

To overcome that bias, we would need to make sure that Continue reading Monitoring for Bias in Education: What Does That Mean?

On Philosophy Ranking & Reporting: A Custom Solution?

Many academic philosophers and aspiring academic philosophers look to the Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR) for philosophy ranking — i.e, to rank philosophy PhD programs. For many reasons, academic philosophers are becoming more vocal about their criticism of this philosophy ranking system (e.g., this recent paper in Metaphilosophy). In this post, I will propose a new system based on a variety of the common complaints and suggestions about philosophy’s existing ranking system. In the end, it should be clear that the proposed system could be (i) more useful and visually amenable than existing rankings, (ii) achievable, and (iii) generalizable to the broader academic community.


The complaints about the rankings are voluminous — what else would you expect from philosophers? In lieu of an outline of every blog post and every public statement, I provide a list of major themes that fall into three different categories: the practice of ranking, the current process of ranking, and the current leadership of the ranking.

Complaints About Ranking

  1. Rankings might misrepresent the magnitude of the differences between departments.
  2. Rankings might indicate a false sense of hierarchy and/or prestige.
  3. Ordinal lists just aren’t that informative.

Complaints About Process

Continue reading On Philosophy Ranking & Reporting: A Custom Solution?