A thinking primate.

Introduction to Philosophy: A Free Course

Below are the syllabus and materials for my Introduction to Philosophy course. You are welcome to use any of the material as a student or as an instructor. The usual creative commons license applies to my portion of this—i.e., only the stuff to which I would have a copyright. (If you are my student, remember that you can be quizzed on the contents of the syllabus.)

I. Introduction to Philosophy

Did you know that people who study philosophy make significantly fewer reasoning errors than others? (See Livengood et al 2010 and Byrd 2014). And did you know that philosophy majors outperform basically everyone else on the GRE? And did you know that the median mid-career salary for people who major in philosophy is $81,000? And did you know that philosophy majors were projected to be the top-paid humanities major in 2016? Find out more about philosophy majors here. And if you’ve never taken a philosophy class, you might want to read this 3-4 page intro.

II. Course Overview

We tend to think and worry about issues that are important to us, such as:

Career/Vocation: What should (and shouldn’t) I do for money? What should I do with my time? My skills?
Finances: How much does a good life cost? What should (and shouldn’t) I buy? Sell? What’s a fair wage?
Facts: When can we trust people, institutions, test results, evidence, etc.? How? And why? What can’t we trust?
Lifestyle: What should (or shouldn’t) I do with my body? What should (or shouldn’t) I eat? When is it ok to…?
Politics: What institutions/policies/candidates should have power (if any)? How should we decide? Who cares?
Relationships: What makes a relationship/friend/partner good? What makes them bad? Who gets to decide?

Philosophers’ tools. This class will introduce us to new (and hopefully better) tools for answering these questions. So, by learning these tools in class (and outside of class), then we could think (and hopefully live) better. Specifically, we could improve our ability to analyze and evaluate real-world problems, arguments, evidence, and/or principles. That is both good news and bad news—ask me about this in class some time.

Practice: Learning the tools of philosophical analysis and evaluation is not very difficult. However, applying these rules to new material without a philosopher’s guidance can be surprisingly hard. The best medicine seems to be practice. So, practice. And practice again (not just in the classroom). And make sure that at least some of your practice conditions mimic assignment and test conditions—e.g., write your answers with some kind of time constraint and without immediate access to the answers.

III. Course Materials:

IV. Course Grading

Your final grade is determined by various aspects of the course. Early assignments count less than later assignments so that someone can make common mistakes early in the course and still get an A in the course—assuming they learn from mistakes, of course. (You’re welcome.)

Bluebooks 5% You need to turn in 2 large (8.5-inch x 11-inch) blue/green books during the first week. The campus bookstore sells them for less than $1.00. I will return one to you on each test days.
Paper 1 10% Two paragraphs—yes, two. In the first paragraph, explain the strongest version of an argument (that I select). In the second paragraph, explain what you think is the strongest objection to the argument.
Test 1 10% Multiple choice, short answer, and 1-2 paragraph answers in aforementioned Bluebook.
Classwork 25% You will complete assignments in class—in teams, if you want. You will also discuss in class. If not enough people are participating in the discussion, then I can choose people at random. Classes can also include quizzes that can occur at any time.
Paper 2 25% Like Paper 1, but about a different argument (that I select) and with a third paragraph: what you take to be the strongest counter-response to the strongest objection to the argument.
Test 2 25% Like Test 1, but cumulative—i.e., anything from the course can be on this test. (Don’t ask me what you need to know. I would never encourage you to be ignorant of anything).

Rounding Up/Down

Final grade percentages will be rounded up/down as appropriate.(For instance, 89.5% will be rounded up to 90% and 89.4% will be rounded down to 89%.)

Grading Scale

Final grades for the course will be assigned on the following scale:

A 92.5% to 100%
A- 89.5% to 92.49%
B+ 86.5% to 89.49%
B 82.5% to 86.49%
B- 79.5% to 82.49%
C+ 76.5% to 79.49%
C 72.5% to 76.49%
C- 69.5% to 72.49%
D 59.5% to 69.49%
F 0% to 59.49%

Paper Feedback

I will comment on your papers using shorthand. The key to understanding that shorthand can be found in “Grading Shorthand: Quick, Consistent, and Constructive Feedback“.

V. Course Schedule

The average reading is less than 10 pages! (You’re welcome). So, you have no (good) excuse for not reading the assigned reading (at least once) before every class. (And yes: there is assigned reading before the first day of class.) If you are looking for ways to read faster, see “Text-to-speech for speed reading and more“.

Part 1: The Basics

Section 1: Read the Syllabus before class. During class, complete a Pre-test, do some myth-busting, and review the syllabus.
Section 2: Read Self-taught Logic, Unit 1 (to the end of Section 2) before class. During class, review the basics a class and then complete the in-class assignment in groups.
Section 3: Finish reading Self-taught Logic, Unit 1 (to the end of the unit) before class. During class, go over the new material as a class and then complete the in-class assignment in groups.
Section 4: Read “A Right To Believe?” before class. During class, go over one part of the reading and then complete the in-class assignment in groups.

Part 2: The Method

Section 5: Read “Appealing to Intuition” before class. During class, discuss appeals to intuition as a class and then complete the in-class assignment in groups.
Section 6: Read “Armchair Science” before class. During class, discuss thought experiments as a class, and then complete the in-class assignment in groups.
Section 7: Read “An Experimental Philosophy Manifesto” before class. During class, discuss skepticism as a class and then complete the in-class assignment in groups.

** Paper
1 due (online and hardcopy). **

Part 3: The Facts

Section 8: Read pages 3-10 (“The Problem of Induction”) of The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Sect. 1, 3) before class. During class, discuss some history of science as a class and then complete the in-class assignment in groups. 
Section 9
: Read “Scientific Inquiry: Invention and Test” before class (available upon request). During class, discuss the logic of hypothesis testing and then complete the in-class assignment in groups. 
Section 10
: Read “An Experiment In Physics Can Never…” (a.k.a. “Physical Theory and Experiment“) before class. During class, discuss everyday cases of hypothesis testing and then complete the in-class assignment in groups.

** Test 1: Study your notes, in-class assignments, and ask about what is still confusing to you during class and/or office hours. **

Section 11: Read chapter 4 of Beyond Positivism: “A Problem-Solving Approach to Science…” (available upon request) before class. During class, discuss realism and non-realism about science as a class and then complete the in-class assignment in groups.
Section 12: Read “Historical Science, Experimental Science…” before class. During class, discuss smoking guns in historical science as a class and then complete the in-class assignment in groups.
Section 13: Read “Pure Science and the Problem of Progress” (Sect. 1, 3) or “Values and Objectivity in the IPCC” before class. During class, discuss the pure-applied science distinction as a class and then complete the in-class assignment in groups.
Section 14: Read “Du Bois’ Democratic Defence of the Value Free Ideal” before class. During class, discuss trust in science as well as science in policy-making and then complete the in-class assignment in groups.

Part 4: The Good

Section 15: Read “Morality Is A Culturally Conditioned…” before class. During class, discuss arguments for moral relativism as a class and then complete the in-class assignment in groups.
Section 16: Read “Trying on One’s New Sword” before class. During class, discuss whether moral isolationism follows from moral relativism as a class and then complete the in-class assignment in groups.
Section 17: Read Part III, Chapter 4 of What Ever Happened To Good and Evil?“Does Ethical Objectivity Require God?” before class. During class, discuss the Euthyphro Dilemma as a class and then complete the in-class assignment in groups.
Section 18: Read “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” before class. During class, hear Peter Singer explain what you should do with your affluence and then complete the in-class assignment in groups.

** Paper 2 due (online and hardcopy) **

Part 5: The Future

Section 19: Read “Why Novel Prediction Matters” (Sect. 0, 3, 4) before class. During class, discuss predictivism and accomodationism as a class and then complete the in-class assignment in groups.
Section 20:
Read “Conservation and Animal Welfare” before class. During class, discuss deer culling, human culling, intrinsic value, and instrumental value as a class and then complete the in-class assignment in groups.
Section 21:
Read “Raising Good Robots” before class. During class, discuss Platonic, Aristotelian, and Parental models of robot morality as a class and then complete the in-class assignment in groups.

** Test 2: Study your notes, in-class assignments, and ask about what is still confusing to you during class and/or office hours. **

VI. Philosophy Guidelines

Discussion Guidelines

Discussion is crucial to your success in this class. First, a discussion is the closest thing to a review session that you will get in this class. So, if you can’t confidently answer something on an in-class assignment, then we should probably discuss it in class. (In case it wasn’t obvious; in-class assignments are the backbone of your class notes.)

Also, we will be covering some controversial and sensitive issues about which different people have different opinions. You will very likely disagree with other people in the class—including me—at some point in the semester. No need to be alarmed. Disagreement is common in philosophy. And discussing disagreements can be productive. Why?

In philosophy, what we believe matters less than why we believe it. Discussing our disagreement(s) often reveals why we believe what we believe. Of course, we can imagine a disagreement and corresponding discussion. That is, we can argue for positions that we do not actually hold and argue against positions that we do hold. (It’s pretty fun. You should try it.) In class, we have the benefit of discussing disagreements with real people! For instance, we can express disagreement with and ask questions about the reading, in-class assignments, or lecture material. Good things to mention in class discussions include:

  • Arguments for and against what we discuss;
  • Objections to those arguments;
  • Counter-objections to those objections;
  • Examples to accompany those arguments, objections, and counter-objections;
  • Questions about the meanings of terms/phrases from those arguments, objections, and counter-objections.

When you float a claim or view in class, I will probably ask you for a reason—e.g., an argument or some evidence. So, when you find yourself wanting to make a claim or disagree with someone else’s claim, feel free to think of some reason that our class would probably accept. More importantly, try to be courageous enough to admit when you cannot think of good reasons for your claim or your disagreement—it is perfectly acceptable to find ourselves in that situation so long as we admit it.

Writing Guidelines

In general, you should write in a way that a smart person who is not in our class will understand. More specifically, you should write clearly, cogently, concisely, and (if possible) creatively. Not sure how to do that? Find my advice in “How To Write A Philosophy Paper: 4 Criteria, 9 Tips“.

VII. Course Policies

Electronics Policy

Aside from iClickers, electronics must be turned off and put away. You may use a computer/tablet/etc. for team-based assignments—e.g. so that you can search within each reading. But unless you have written permission from me, these devices must be put away during lectures and tests. Those who have permission to use such devices can lose permission if I find the laptops or cell phones distracting.

Make Up Policy for iClicker Problems

iClicker assignments that are missed or entered incorrectly because

  • you have not purchased your iClicker yet (or you have, but you have not received it yet)
  • you have not registered your iClicker
  • your iClicker is not working (or you clicked the wrong button)
  • you lost your iClicker (or you forgot to bring your iClicker to class)

are not excused. It is your responsibility to overcome these problems. My responsibility is to point you to the website, phone number, and email address for iClicker support:http://support.iclicker.com, 866.209.5698 (M-F 9am-9pm EST), support@iclicker.com

The “I just need to pass!” Policy

Anyone who satisfies all the following criteria will be guaranteed at least a C in this class: (a) you hand in both papers on time; (b) you miss no more than one in-class assignment; (c) you put forth a reasonable effort on all work; (d) you score (on average) at least 55% on the tests; and (e) you don’t commit academic dishonesty.

Respect Policy

We will be covering some controversial and sensitive issues. We will probably disagree about some of these. Our goal is to express our disagreements in a way that respects the people with whom we disagree. Here are a few ways to do that.

  1. Listen to whoever is talking. Only one person should talk at a time, except during team-based classwork.
  2. Talk, one at a time, only after you raise your hand and you are called on (except during team-based classwork). (I will call on as many people as time permits. You can also talk to me in office hours.)
  3. Disagree not by presuming that the person/view with whom you disagree with is silly, foolish, but by summarizing the “steel person” version of the view, the part with which you disagree, and your reason(s).
  4. Silence your electronics in class. Electronic noises are distracting and can cause unnecessary stress during quizzes and tests. Let’s be kind to each other by silencing electronics during class.
  5. Use electronics only for class-related activity: I’ve seen some weird stuff on smartphones, tablets, and computers during class—so distracting! Let’s be kind to each other by putting electronics under our seat, unless we are doing team-based assignments. And let’s use electronics only for class-related purposes.

Academic Integrity Policies

I take academic dishonesty very seriously, and I expect all students to abide by these ground rules:

  1. Team-based assignments. You can work with classmates on in-class, team-based assignments. (Note: you should feel no obligation to work with anyone. Working alone is totally acceptable.)
  2. Papers. You can work with classmates on your papers if you note who you worked with on the line below your name (e.g., “I worked with Marques Jones” …and Marques should write that they worked with you).
  3. Tests. You can study with classmates, but do not work with classmates on tests and quizzes.
  4. Anyone found guilty of engaging in academic dishonesty will be sanctioned in accordance with the university policy and will result in automatic Fail for the course.

Important Note #1: Failing to cite correctly and/or submitting your own work from other classes constitutes plagiarism according to the University’s Academic Honor Policy—even if accidental or unwitting.

Important Note #2: It is common for postgraduate schools (e.g., med schools, law schools, software boot camps, etc.) and employers to ask your alma mater if you committed academic dishonesty. So, plagiarism and cheating can haunt you long after you graduate.

The “Can you tell me what I missed?” Policy

If you miss some or all of a class, do not ask me to review what you missed. Simply read what was assigned (at least once) and complete the corresponding in-class assignment. Classmates can tell you about class discussion(s). We can discuss your questions about the reading and/or the in-class assignments in office hours.

Office Hours Policy

If you plan to attend office hours to get help understanding the material, then bring the relevant reading, your notes/flashcards (e.g., your completed in-class assignments), etc. If you have not completed the reading, taken notes, studied your notes, and practiced the material, then you do not yet need my help. You simply need to start reading, taking notes, studying, and/or practicing. Once you do that, I can (and am truly happy to) help.

The Pre-Grading Policy

The purpose of homework is to test how well you understand the material. So, no, I cannot read your paper before it is due and tell you what to change. That is what grading is for. (If you want to know the reason, re-read the first sentence of this policy again.) Of course, we can discuss the course material more generally.

The Cool-Down Policy

We can talk about a grade on any assignment or test a couple days after it is returned to you.

Late Policy for Homework Assignments

You can submit late homework assignments for full credit if you can provide a reasonable, documented excuse, such as a doctor’s note, for missing the deadline.  If you lack a reasonable, documented excuse, then you can still submit a homework assignment for half credit as late as seven calendar days after the deadline. You will receive no credit for homework assignments submitted more than seven calendar days after the deadline without a reasonable, documented excuse.

Last Day Late to Submit Late Work

With no exceptions, the last day to submit late work is the Monday of the final week of class by 5 pm.

The “But I am an A student!” Policy

If you argue or imply that your grade in this class is somehow determined by your grades in other classes, then you can expect only one thing from me: an incredulous stare.

The “Is there anything I can do to bring up my grade?” Policy

The assignments on the syllabus are easier than extra-credit and/or make-up assignments. For example, an extra credit assignment might be to explain a short book or a long book chapter (that I select) in your own words. On any extra-credit/make-up assignment, you write (at the top) which already-graded assignment’s grade will be replaced by the extra-credit/make-up assignment’s forthcoming grade. By submitting the extra-credit/make-up assignment, you are agreeing to the replacement grade, even if it ends up lower than the original grade.

The “Will you write me a recommendation letter?” Policy

I will write letters of recommendation for students that receive an A or A- in the course. I will consider arguments for making exceptions to this policy. Without exception, a letter must be requested ≥ two weeks before it is due.

Published by

Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog