Teaching Philosophy

Introduction to Philosophy

Philosophy of Science

Philosophy of Mind

Environmental Ethics

Teaching Philosophy

Mission. Students can make decisions that have tremendous and lasting consequences. They can vote (and/or choose not to vote). They can serve on juries. They can create other humans. You get the idea. Students can make such life-changing, sometimes irreversible decisions. And some of these decisions depend on their philosophy. Alas, students are rarely aware of their philosophy—or that they are constantly bombarded with philosophy. So, I introduce them to philosophy: its resources, methods, and tools. Actually, they introduce themselves. Without my help, they identify bad reasoning and unreflective assumptions. I just help them articulate what is bad about certain reasoning and what reflection reveals. See, students already know most of what they need to know about philosophy; they just don’t know what they know or how to use what they know. And once we practice enough together, they begin to be able to do philosophy, good philosophy, on their own. The hope is that this contributes to the decisions that they make far beyond and long after our classroom encounters.  [Jump To Top]

Open Access. Obviously, the tools of philosophy are interesting and useful beyond the classroom. So I try to share some of my teaching beyond the gates of universities. This is partly why I use social media, blog, co-organize an open access conference, and share my course material for free. Someday, perhaps with the help of others, I hope to turn course material into free, concise, videos, podcasts, and other open access media. [Jump To Top]

1. Introduction to Philosophy

On the first day of class, I ask students to imagine a philosopher, focus on the details of what they imagine for a moment, and then describe what they see. “An old guy” says one. “With a beard,” adds another. From the back, someone yells, “Yeah, in a toga!”. The class chuckles. “Anything else?” I ask. Lots of heads nod in a way that says, “Not really.” So, I ask students to describe what the philosophers are doing. “Sitting,” “Thinking,” “Reading”, “Giving a speech”, students say. I ask them if anyone imagines a philosopher doing something interesting or important. Some students shrug their shoulders. Others are just waiting for me to deliver a punchline. [Jump To Top]

The problem. Many have heard of philosophy, but few in the USA are aware of what philosophers are like or what they do—let alone their value. Most students tend to have only inaccurate stereotypes about philosophy. And they do not seem to imagine themselves doing philosophy. So, they don’t seem to realize that they are surrounded by and inundated with philosophy. Alas, even if students did know that life is so chock full of philosophy, they rarely know how to engage with it—not explicitly anyway. On some intuitive level, they know what they need to know about philosophy. The problem is they have never been forced to explicitly articulate what they know intuitively and practice applying it in a setting where they can get quick, consistent, and constructive feedback. [Jump To Top]

The primary theme of this course is just that: articulating what we already know about philosophy for the first time and putting that knowledge to use. The course begins by carefully articulating what we already know about logic and then applying logic to many (many!) arguments. Then we are introduced to the methods of philosophy: thought experiments, appealing to intuition, constructing arguments, and constructing objections to arguments. Of course, we are also introduced to actual philosophers. They’re primates—males and females, various ethnicities. Most of them are still alive. None of them wear togas. Some of them work at universities. Others are freelancers, doing their philosophy publicly—even outdoors. As we meet philosophers, we are introduced to philosophical views: their similarities and their differences, some arguments for them and some arguments against them. Along the way, write a couple papers that construct a strong argument and then object to it. In our tests we meet fictional characters that could be our friends, family members, and political leaders. These tests require us to identify and respond to philosophical claims, views, and arguments not unlike what we encounter outside the classroom. When we finish the course, we are familiar not only with the tools and methods of philosophy but with that habit of doing philosophy in ordinary circumstances and with the inevitability and irreplaceability of philosophy. In the final week of the course, we learn about opportunities to do more philosophy after the semester ends—most of them are free. We finish where we started: I ask students to imagine a philosopher—any philosopher. Then I ask students to describe what the imagine “Kate Rawles, at a rest stop in South America, talking to people about biodiversity loss,” says one. “Heather Douglas, giving a talk about science and morality,” says another. “Peter Singer, telling my friends about effective altruism,” adds the student who joked about togas on day one. Others imagine a more generic image of a philosopher. “Someone cool. Someone relatable,” and, “Someone playing devil’s advocate about all of my intuitions.” [Jump To Top]

2. Philosophy of Science

Science has become something of a fad. By that I mean that lots (LOTS) of nonscientists are interested in it. Oddly, some of these people say things about science that are just false. For example, people often say that science “proves” or “disproves” things. If you take a careful look at science, however, you find that this just isn’t true. And even scientists seem to misunderstand science. They say things like, “we don’t need philosophy.” However, this claim is obviously self-refuting since the claim, itself, cannot be justified without philosophy. People also say that science describes reality, that science is objective, that there is a single scientific method, etc. These claims sound right at first, but they are difficult to defend. [Jump To Top]

The problem. We don’t seem to know what we thought we knew about science. So what can we say about science? To borrow a refrain from Carol Cleland: science works; Exactly how and why science works, however, is less clear. [Jump To Top]

The primary theme of this course is just that: how and why science works. When you finish this course, you will be familiar with crucial moments in science, a few puzzles about science, and a few potential solutions to these puzzles. More generally, you will understand why some arguments don’t work, how they are supposed to work, how to compose your own argument, how to make an objection to an argument, and how to respond to an objection to your argument. [Jump To Top]

3. Philosophy of Mind

We all have a folk theory about how our minds work: We believe stuff. We desire stuff. Some beliefs are true — others, false. Some desires are intermittent and weak — others, persistent and irresistible. Our behavior is the result of an interaction between our minds and our bodies …or so our theory says. [Jump To Top]

The problem. The finer details such theories are very difficult to explain. For instance, many of our assumptions about beliefs and desires lead to absurd conclusions. And the relationship between mind and body often sounds mysterious. So perhaps our understanding of our minds is an illusion. [Jump To Top]

This course reviews a few ways that we can understand minds and how they work. We will find that many of the proposals on offer are dissatisfying in some way(s). Then we will discuss what a satisfying account of the mind should be like. In the end, we will understand various theories about minds and explain the problems with these theories. More generally, we will understand why some arguments don’t work, how they are supposed to work, how to compose our own argument, how to make an objection to an argument, and how to respond to an objection to our argument. [Jump To Top]

4. Environmental Ethics

You might have a rough idea of what environmentalism is. For starters, it’s about the environment. More specifically, it’s about protecting the environment. That sounds about right. But what do we mean by ‘environment’? And why should we care about the environment? What about when we have to choose between protecting one part of the environment and protecting another part of the environment? Which part do we protect? How do we make the right choice? [Jump To Top]

The problem. It turns out that most popular environmentalists and conservationists didn’t explicitly answer these basic questions. Philosophers have tried to answer these questions, but with imperfect success. [Jump To Top]

In this course, we’ll review some environmentalists’ and conservationists’ implicit assumptions and consider problems with these assumptions. Then we will turn to more careful treatments of environmental ethics and consider the merits and demerits of each view. Finally, we will apply each view to contemporary and forthcoming environmental problems. By the end of this course, we will understand the terms used by environmental ethicists, some of the problems they try to solve, some of the solutions they offer, and some of the views that motivate their solutions. More generally, w will understand why some arguments don’t work, how they are supposed to work, how to compose our own argument, how to make an objection to our argument, and how to respond to an objection to our argument. [Jump To Top]