High school philosophy

dibu2by Roger Hunt

I run an extracurricular philosophy group for high school students. It operates on a rotating enrollment, integrating veterans with newcomers, which provides an opportunity for me to examine how people with different experiences and encounters with philosophy understand the subject/topic/practice/exercise.

I am especially proud of one activity: having the veteran students lead the new ones in an introductory lecture. The lecturer poses a question, the same question I posed to my first student and subsequent students have continued to pose to the newcomers: what do you think philosophers do?

I like this question because it generates a set of responses similar to those I receive from people at cocktail parties. The following is a list of reactions in no particular order:

  1. Someone is genuinely interested in philosophy because they either took a philosophy course in college or they just read a book or column by a philosopher.
  2. They feign interest, perhaps asking what philosophers I like, then move on.
  3. They describe how their particular field has made philosophy irrelevant.
  4. They scoff at me for being full of empty aphorisms.
  5. They deride me for being a logic chopper (i.e., someone who can’t resist pointing out a false analogy, or appeal to authority etc.).
  6. They pity me for spending my academic life in the clouds when I could be doing something much more effective.

Luckily, the kids I work with do not ever give the first three responses — at least not cynically.  Likely because they have never read philosophy, or if they did they didn’t know it, or they haven’t had time to develop a chipped shoulder. Some students who know a little philosophy — perhaps they read some Buddhism — will say things like, “doing philosophy is realizing that you’re not in traffic, but that you are traffic.” I like hearing these clever responses, especially when made innocently, though I often worry such innocence will one day turn to scoffing. Others will say that philosophers think about life and what it means. Few will ever say “logic chopper,” but some will say that philosophers try to figure everything out, which is close enough in meaning to “logic chopper,” but, again, more innocent.

Of course all six of the above capture some aspect of the job of a philosopher, and my students are not far off either. But, as we philosophers like to say, the job is not reducible to any one of the caricatures, though each represents one part of the endeavor.

Since my students and I have the hour to discuss philosophy, I present the topic to them in the following way:

The first thing philosophers do is to ask a question. Really any question, whether it is part of the philosophical academic discipline or not. For example: Why is there hair on human bodies?

The question is obviously more relevant to biology, nevertheless I encourage the students to try to approach it from a completely fresh perspective, as though they were living in ancient Greece — interestingly the pre-socratic Greek Philosopher Anaxagoras poses this very question — and had no idea about biology, or the other sciences.

Then philosophers answer the question: Because there is hair inside our bodies.

This response may seem crude, but it is an answer nonetheless. And with any answer to any question we should either be able to show why it is right or why it is wrong. So, the students are asked to either support or reject this answer.

The common response is “that just makes no sense!” While it may not make sense and it surely flies in the face of contemporary dermatology, I stress that it is their job as budding philosophers to demonstrate why it doesn’t make sense, again with only the tools available to a pre-socratic philosopher.

But how on Earth does one do this?  Well, this leads perfectly to the next step in the philosopher’s routine.

Philosophers create an argument. This step always stumps them. For what is an argument? Invariably someone responds that an argument is a way to persuade other people. But this is an aspect of an argument — hopefully at least — it merely describes the desired result of the argument and not the argument itself.

I then present the following argument:

1. If we have hair, then we have hair inside of us.

2. We have hair.

Therefore, we have hair inside of us.

This argument has premises, it has a logical structure (similar to something from geometry class), and it has a conclusion. The conclusion is the same as our answer to the original question, so if we have constructed a good argument, then our answer should be supported! But how do philosophers go about determining whether an argument is good or not?

We need to find out if the logic is valid, and if the premises are true. If both are the case, then we have a true conclusion.

First, philosophers examine the logic. Is it valid? The structure of the argument is:

If X, then Y

X

Therefore Y

Yes it is valid, and we call this logical form modus ponens.

Then philosophers examine the premises. Are they true? Premise 2 is true, we do in fact have hair. But is premise 1 true?

To recap, we have so far asked a question. We have also examined the logic, and thought about the meaning of the statements. It was easy to see if premise 2 is true: we just look at our bodies.  Is there hair? Yes. But how might we determine if the if/then statement is true?

In order for an if/then statement to be true, it cannot ever be the case that the antecedent is true and the consequent is false, or rather there can be no counter-examples. That is, there cannot be a scenario where we grow hair, but there is not hair inside of us. If there is such a scenario, then the if/then statement is false, and if one of our premises is false then our argument is false.

Now suppose, that we find out that the hair doesn’t grow out of our bodies, but rather lives in little pods on the surface of our skin. Well our premise would be false, because the hair is not inside of us! So my students can either accept that this argument is false, and either give a different answer or try another argument, or they can create an argument to support this premise — for I remind them that a conclusion supported by valid logic and true premises is true. Anaxagoras, our pre-socratic friend, reasoned the following way to support his conclusion:

1a. If we have hair, then the food we eat must have hair in it.

1b. If the food we eat has hair in it, then we have hair inside of us.

Therefore, 1. If we have hair, then we have hair inside of us.

2.We have hair.

Therefore, we have hair inside of us.

Again, we know that premise 2 is true, but now rather than evaluating premise 1 for counter-examples, we need to examine premises 1a and 1b. If either of those premises is false, i.e., they have counter-examples, then the conclusion, premise 1, is also false. As you know, it is fairly easy, given our current understanding of biology, to find at least 1 counter-example to either of these premises. However, this isn’t necessarily the end of the matter, since we can always develop more and more premises to support those other premises we found counter-examples for.  My students immediately see that philosophy can become quite complex, with more premises devised to support even more premises with counter-examples.

This process encompasses everything philosophers do. They examine logic, think about whether the premises are true, and try to imagine counter-examples to if/then statements. However, at this point a student always says: “well why would we do this when we could just look at it scientifically?”

Rather than butt-heads with the student, I encourage her in the following way: “as we move on through the semester/summer/year, I want you to think about the issues we are discussing, and consider how we might answer them scientifically. If you can show that all the questions we will ask can be answered scientifically, I will make it my life’s goal to ensure you are accepted into the best PhD program in the country and you’ll be wildly famous.” And though she thinks I am joking, I assure her that I am not.

Then a student will ask: “well how on earth can simply examining premises and thinking up counter-examples really do anything?” This is precisely the question facing philosophy departments across the country. Developing a good argument in response to this question will grant someone fame and glory in the philosophy world.

Still, it may seem like this process over-simplifies what philosophers actually do. For we are only talking about growing hair, which is not a terribly important question. Those philosophers who research for years, or even decades, and write books hundreds of pages long must be doing more than just posing premises and thinking up counter-examples, right?

Not really. Here are two examples, two very famous examples from contemporary philosophy: (1) Philosophical zombies and (2) The Chinese Room.

College students taking philosophy will probably have heard of these before; they may seem like the quintessential example of wacky, though perhaps brilliant, ideas concocted by some crazy philosopher.

It is true that these ideas are wacky. But they start to seem not only relevant but ground breaking when you begin to think about the context in which they were developed. For these ideas are counter-examples to other arguments. Not only are they counter-examples, but the premises they (potentially) demonstrate to be false are critical to our understanding of the world.

For those unfamiliar with these ideas, here are the basics:

Philosophical zombies are beings which are physically identical to you, me and everyone else down to the spin of their quarks, yet are not conscious. What!!??

The Chinese Room is a room into which someone inserts a character from the Chinese alphabet, then a person inside the box takes the character, examines it, looks through a Chinese-English dictionary to find its English equivalent. Yet the man in the room does not understand Chinese. What!!??

What many people — including students, non philosophers, and perhaps even some philosophers — miss is that these ideas are counter-examples to some very basic intuitions many people might hold about topics which are absolutely central to everyone’s life.

The philosophical zombie is a counter example to the following premise:

  1. If something has a functioning brain, then it is conscious.

That is, the philosophical zombie has a functioning brain — it is doing everything you and I are doing right now, so its brain must be working, but it has no consciousness. I have the sense that there is something it is like to be me, and you have a sense that there is something it is like to be you, right? Well imagine that the “something it is like to be you” isn’t something at all, there is nothing it is like to be you, yet physically all the same events are happening — your eyes are scanning these words, your brain is processing the information, the sound waves around you are rumbling your ear drums, but there is no consciousness of any of it.

Obviously it is difficult to describe this idea. But if it is true, then it follows that something could have a functioning brain and not be conscious. Suppose this premise is false. Some have argued that consciousness, or the sense of being you, is something present in this world, but perhaps not in another. This means that consciousness is a unique property, and is therefore not reducible to physics. This opens questions about animal sentience, the nature of artificial intelligence, and the fundamental facts of the universe, among others.

This idea, which has ramifications for the greatest questions ever posed, is simply a counter-example. There is no scientific experiment or confirmation of it, yet it is incredibly powerful and influential on how we understand the world.

The Chinese Room is also a counter-example, but to a different premise:

2.   If something seems to understand language, then it is intelligent.

Imagine having a conversation with someone who is speaking perfect grammar, is engaged, and has brilliant things to say, yet is not intelligent. That is, suppose it is pure luck that the person you are encountering is making all the right sounds, inflections, and utterances; or that it is running a computer program taking your responses as inputs and through an extremely powerful computing mechanism generates interesting responses. Is this enough to suggest that the thing is intelligent?

Some philosophers argue that examples like this show that such a computer is not intelligent in the same way we consider a human to be intelligent. This counter-example was developed in the 1970’s when philosophers were discussing the future of computers. Most people at the time argued that artificial intelligence was right around the corner, yet every prediction about when we would have intelligent computers was proven wrong, in the sense that it never happened. This counter-example explains why those predictions were wrong, while also shining some light on the nature of intelligence. For when IBM’s Watson competed on Jeopardy, and won, it seemed strange to think of the computer as intelligent. It just didn’t seem like the right description of what was happening. Gauging intelligence requires something more than just being able to answer questions correctly. This counter-example captured that intuition before the development of such a machine. That is, we knew that the computer wouldn’t be intelligent before even building it, because we could examine the premises supporting the argument that it would be intelligent, and developed counter-examples to those premises.

This is what philosophers do. We try to understand the world based on premises and conclusions.  And when we are successful, we are able to realize truths about the world that are crucial to understanding what happens, what could happen in the future, and even what happened in the past.

I tell my students to try applying this method to your life, as Socrates suggests that “the unexamined life if not worth living.” What does it mean to live an examined life? Write down your answers to questions like: what should I do with my life? How should I spend my money? Then create arguments to support them. Check the logic, and consider potential counterexamples to the premises. Imagine that the premises upon which you have built your life, or are building your life are false. How would you decide what to do with your life? Should you become a doctor or a lawyer? A scientist or an engineer? A computer programmer, or an animal rights activist? This is what philosophers do. They check the logic, check the truth, and try to make sure that there are no counter-examples. One might ask: is it possible for there to be an argument, or a way of life without counter-examples? Now that’s a philosophical question.

_____

Roger Hunt is training as a psychoanalyst in Boston. He studied philosophy at Boston University, and coaches high school students for the Boston High School Ethics Bowl, which he helped found. He is also on the editorial board for Questions: Philosophy for Children, which publishes philosophy essays by students from kindergarten through high school.

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57 thoughts on “High school philosophy

  1. I would have loved having a course like this when I was in HS. And I would love to teach one – on almost ANY subject where the students truly “elected” to be there because of interest. My son was an IB student in HS (a truly voluntary status) and had a somewhat similar course titled “Theory of Knowledge” (fondly called TOK). I would, however, hate to see such an abstract course imposed as a requirement for non-interested students.

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  2. More power to you, but I can’t help thinking that you are setting your students up for a major disappointment when they read the actual philosophers to whom you allude, and look for that kind of inferential structure in their work.

    Take P-zombies for example, and their well known exponent David Chalmers. Granted he does have a logical structure to the main argument, but its premises are couched in his own 2 dimensional semantics which one must understand in order to understand the premises. On finding his exposition of 2 dimensional semantics one finds that it is as half baked an idea as ever graced the pages of a philosophy journal. It is not backed up by any structured argument, instead one finds oneself wading through sentences about the dominant watery substance in the utterer’s domain.

    Eventually it transpires that the whole idea hinges on one of those grand unfinished (unfinishable) projects that one finds throughout philosophy, in this case a formal descriptive language.

    Chalmers has an argument which is supposed to refute Materialism but I can find no definition of Materialism in that argument. It depends on concepts like “physical” which he also fails to define.that.

    The other side of this argument is no better. Daniel Dennett rather grandly claims to have a knock down refutation of the very concept of p-zombies but if so then he must be saving it for a special occasion. Whether Dennett is missing the point or setting up a straw man is not clear due to his tendency to substitute flourish and swagger for any linguistic rigour.

    Searle is much better, but even there we find the argument loses structure, for example his response the the “Systems reply” to the Chinese Room argument seems to be little more than dust kicking.

    So, yes, sometimes philosophers try understand the world through premises and conclusions, but I find that this is not very often the case.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Hi Roger, I’d just like to point out that you messed up your list of six responses. The sentence that follows them now asserts that luckily you have never met a student who is genuinely interested in philosophy.

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  4. Roger,
    you sound like a terrific teacher and I admire what you are doing. I do have a cautionary note. To my ear, at least, your programme sounds too narrowly analytical. But clearly it works for you so you must be a good teacher!

    I would prefer a programme that followed the Kantian fourfold division 1) how can we know it is true? 2) what is the right thing to do? 3) what can we hope? 4) what/why do we value?

    And then I would also like something about the grand sweep of the history of philosophy.

    what do you think philosophers do?

    I like this question because it generates a set of responses similar to those I receive from people at cocktail parties.

    I suspect the answers show you waited too long at the cocktail party before asking your questions. Ask earlier and you might receive more coherent replies 🙂

    but I don’t want my quibbling spoil my admiration for what you are doing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Roger,

    Thanks so much for this essay. I loved the way it was written and appreciated the content very much. I particularly liked one point you made when you said,

    “What many people — including students, non philosophers, and perhaps even some philosophers — miss is that these ideas are counter-examples to some very basic intuitions many people might hold about topics which are absolutely central to everyone’s life.”

    This was a great observation – that frequently philosophers challenge our most basic and ubiquitous intuitions. This has great value – it can help direct research, force us to revise policies, or perhaps even just cause us to revise our most basic beliefs that guide our actions, which you point out at the end of the aforementioned quote.

    Conversely, philosophers also articulate, and show the logical conclusions of, certain basic and widespread intuitions. For example, Peter Singer articulated the widespread ethical intuitions which many people held (or hold) on abortion. Right or not, this is valuable because it allows people to clearly see what the implications of their beliefs are, and to make a more informed decision about which beliefs to hold.

    I am so pleased to see that you are helping students challenge and articulate their intuitions at such a young age.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. After reading Dan’s reply I have gained a deeper appreciation for your(Roger’s) method. Before the higher level questions, that I proposed, can be answered, it is necessary to develop a basic, analytical toolset. With that toolset in hand one can approach the bigger questions.

    For example, Peter Singer articulated the widespread ethical intuitions which many people held (or hold) on abortion.
    We have never had an essay about abortion(I think?). Now that would be fun. I can be depended upon to lead the anti-abortion counter-attack 🙂

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  7. Hi Roger,

    This was a nice essay, and I’m sure this sort of critical thinking is a boon to the kids.

    The philosophical zombie is a counter example to the following premise: If something has a functioning brain, then it is conscious.

    If I may get a teensy bit pedantic, the p-zombie is not actually a counter-example, it is merely a claim of a counter-example. Some of us think that the idea of a p-zombie is a bit like asking for a second triangle, totally identical in all respects, except that the angles add up to a different number.

    The Chinese Room is also a counter-example, but to a different premise: If something seems to understand language, then it is intelligent.

    Again, it’s not actually a counter-example, only a mere assertion of a counter-example. Given the systems reply it is entirely question begging.

    Anyhow, I can provide a much better counter-example than Searle. It’s my acquaintance Chang, who is the chef at the local Chinese restaurant. He was born in China, and indeed is a native speaker of Chinese. But, you know what, he doesn’t actually understand Chinese. No, really, he doesn’t! He just acts in every respect as though he does understand Chinese. Feel free to refute my counter-example.

    Both of these arguments are akin to stage magic. They use sleight-of-words to give the impression of a profound argument where there is actually none.

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  8. Coel (and possible others who may feel inclined to respond to Coel),

    Please remember that this post is a discussion of where, or whether, there is value in teaching philosophy to high school students than an in-depth discussion on P-zombies or the Chinese Room. These were just used as illustrative examples of more general points, so let’s please not hijack the discussion with those topics.

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  9. “This is what philosophers do. We try to understand the world based on premises and conclusions. And when we are successful, we are able to realize truths about the world that are crucial to understanding what happens, what could happen in the future, and even what happened in the past.”

    Wouldn’t an alternative definition (the above sounds like what several professions attempt to do — scientists, historians, …) be of philosophers as the inventors and refiners of new vocabularies* for coping with questions about the world (but such vocabularies are never “final”)?

    * http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ironism

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  10. I can’t say that I’m enamored with the way in which the author presents philosophy to high schoolers, although I am very glad that he is doing so. Starting off with what is clearly an empirical question strikes me as confusing and misleading, and characterizing philosophy as just reasoning about things fails to differentiate it from virtually any other discipline. Certainly philosophy may challenge intuitions, but at the end of the day, all confirmation/disconfirmation is in terms of intuitions — this is even how the basic axioms of logic are “justified” — so all one has done is challenge one set of intuitions by way of another, with a lot of reasoning “in the middle,” so to speak. Finally, P-Zombies and the Chinese Room strike me as requiring far too much sophisticated understanding to be useful with young teenagers, who have had no background as of yet, and without delving into the details of the author’s account — for the reasons dantip mentioned — the author’s presentation of the Chinese Room, here, gets a good number of things wrong, including the basic matter of what the thought experiment is supposed to show.

    My wife teaches High School English Literature, and I have had the opportunity to do a number of presentations to her students, as a guest speaker, on philosophy. Rather than try to define it, I have found it much more useful simply to start of with a list of a number of typical philosophical questions. So, for example:

    What is the best sort of government and how would one determine that?
    What are good (as opposed to bad) reasons for believing something?
    Are judgments of beauty/ugliness completely subjective or can they be objectively justified?
    What makes actions morally right or morally wrong?
    Can the belief in God be justified or is it solely a matter of faith?

    I then ask students to take a stab at some of these, and once the conversation gets going, I describe what, historically, have been some of the typical answers that philosophers have given.

    This also happens to be the way that I start all of my introductory level courses.

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  11. Hi Roger,

    Introducing philosophy to high school students is a worthy cause. It’s great that you’re involved in this. As someone with a philosophy education as well who also has bit of experience moderating extra-academic philosophy discussions with people new to philosophy, I think your approach is basically sound. But I would question a few things. This might be taken in the spirit of comparing notes.

    First, while I think it’s good to let the students know that there are professional philosophers out there, I think it is better to introduce philosophy in terms of what philosophy is as opposed to what academic philosophers do. I see philosophy as essentially a certain thoughtful practice that anyone can gain skill in and use in their lives, as opposed to something that would cease to exist if there were no philosophy professors. Further, philosophy’s presence in our culture is much broader than academic debate. Nearly every debate in our society has a substantial philosophical aspect. If philosophy is introduced as something that is already an aspect of one’s daily thinking, and which is an inevitable aspect of human discourse, as opposed to something certain professionals are doing somewhere else, the sense that it is important and relevant will be more lasting I think.

    Second, I think questions rather than arguments should be presented as the focal point of philosophy. The ability to distinguish philosophical questions from others and deal with them is, I think, closer to the essence of philosophy than assessing arguments. The latter is an important skill for philosophy, but more fundamental is becoming seeing how philosophy arises from curiosity or need and how it pervades the world.

    So a focus on questions relates philosophy to curiosity and clarifies its scope. It also illuminates a range of inquiry skills broader than argument assessment, such as disambiguation, question refinement, and answer outlining.

    In terms of practice, the above outlook led to philosophy group discussions where the aim was to expand our thought a bit on simple questions we found interesting, such as what it means to know someone, as opposed to trying to enact our own version of academic debate. During the three years I was organizer, we met biweekly, with an average attendance of about 12, and conversations usually lasted about four hours. Beyond the interest of the topic of the day, the discussion had the value of being an exercise in or introduction to philosophical inquiry.

    So, anyway, I write this in hopes that something here will be useful in your noble endeavor. Cheers.

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  12. Roger, like others, I appreciate your effort, and hope it plants seeds. Also, like others, I have not quibbles, but caveats, about how you’re going about it.

    I had a class on critical thinking, and riffing on Aravis, it was part of junior high school English.

    Frankly, I think that would be more helpful, and a better starting point for some of these issues, than a high-school intro to philosophy class.

    A lot of it was linguistically based, looking at common informal fallacies, though that’s not what the teacher called them. We started with looking at advertising language, which of course is chock full of nonsense like this, and went from there.

    New Mexico was not a 21st century red state, else my 8th-grade English teacher might have been fired.

    ==

    Per the article, since kids of any age K-12 don’t see philosophers on TV or whatever, I don’t think your question, Roger, is that good of an intro. It would be like asking a Berber from the northern edge of Mauretania “What’s an iPhone like?”

    Second, if the idea of “philosophy on the street” is to make us all more philosophizing, your question, as others note, rather seems to put up a professional barrier.

    Based on what I said I learned in junior high English, if you wanted to reach extracurricular high schoolers, I’d suggest finding a basic-level book on informal logic, like the one I had at a college class, to teach some things like classical syllogisms, strength of reasoning vs accuracy of warrants, etc., to get at that part of what you’re trying to teach. And, I’d start with that, rather than p-zombies. You don’t need to spend too, too much time on that, but in my college class, people would get “stuck” and refuse to get unstuck, on not separating reasoning from warrants.

    After that, I’d suggest “The Mind’s I,” a collection of modern philosophical essays co-edited by Dennett and Hofstadter. It has the Chinese Room in there, plus Dennett on the Turing test and much more, like Nagel’s (in)famous bat, and selections from Gödel, Escher, Bach.

    Not the whole book; just find an essay or two from it. Raymond Smullyan has a couple of great ones in there. Then, because the book is too old for him, try Singer, on, say, animal welfare. Again, high school kids will find this much more practically oriented then p-zombies.

    Contra other commenters, I’d do that rather than structure your presentation to one particular school of philosophy or philosopher, too.

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  13. I’m so happy to read all your comments, and ecstatic that so many have put some serious thought into this. I plan to make more extensive comments later, but I would like to share a few thoughts in response to these well intentioned and developed ideas.

    1. I never wait too long at cocktail parties for anything.

    2. Thanks for the compliments and working-through your thoughts on the board…If a students ever brings a perfectly well formed thought, I send them to the dunce chair.

    3. There was an observation about my being too analytical – which is well taken. I suppose this is in response to using logic and framing philosophical ideas as basic counter-examples, rather than sophisticated theoretical models. I’ll just note that I take those theories to be solutions to counter-examples. Chalmers’ naturalistic dualism and two-dimensional semantics (and everything else two-dimensional) are theoretical responses to the counter-example of the p-zombie (and a few others). The counter-examples comes first, is my point.

    4. As to p-zombies and Chinese rooms being too sophisticated for high school kids without the necessary background: they can do it. They just need to be SHOWN, not told why the ideas matter. And they matter because they are counter-examples. If these counter-examples fail in the sense that they are not counter-examples in the way their authors believed them to be is incidental. For example, if I ask students “suppose you have a fully functioning human brain, are you necessarily conscious?” Most people would say, “of course!” Chalmers’ counter-example of p-zombies, or beings with fully functioning materially identical brains to their physical counter-part yet are not conscious, at least allows them to entertain the idea that the original conditional could be suspect. This leads to discussions about what this could mean, or, even better, discussing why it isn’t a counter-example. Frankly, I find the latter a much better teaching tool.

    5. All this talk about language and posing questions. That material IS too difficult for high schoolers. I mean, heck we still don’t really get it, or even what Wittgenstein meant when he suggested it mattered. The only questions I ask are the primers for the counter-examples (we never read the material until they have intuitively thought through the consequences), and after posing the counter example “does that make sense?” The goal is not to train the students or teach them something about the world, but to give them a chance to respond to the wildest most creative counter-examples philosophers (and therefore humans – couldn’t resist the snark) have toyed with. I mean, they are the most likely to entertain them at all (consider the ratio of philosophers to adults).

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  14. Again thank you all so much for your kind thoughts and responses, and I hope this discussion continues…at some point I may share my experiences trying to get high school administrations to have an Ethics Club Team….hoooooooooo-wee

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  15. Yes, this view keeps popping up in the posts. Please, allow a passionate aside/ramble.

    That view which you and others have touched upon is precisely the perspective, which I see from other teachers, hear students complain about, and understand to be ineffective. It may not have come out in the blog post, but my greatest concern is that we either infantalize our students, such as with not saying “logical fallacy”, or terrorize them: that other extreme, such as expecting them to be able to read Shelley, Bronte, even Shakespeare, or Dennett, who’s prose is frankly riddled with inside jokes and overly clever allusions, which only those in the tower could decipher, thus complicating the way his words grease across our eyes and through our brains.

    The goal of bringing philosophy to the streets is not to oversimplify or exhaustively explain the mundane so as to avoid the more complicated matters. Rather, it is to present the problems in a context which anyone can think through them…rather than try to understand what the author is saying. Exactly what that looks like is unclear, but the current methodology, the one I reject, is to approach philosophy as being “over their heads” so to speak.

    Our students do not lack the capacity for abstract complex thought, but they do lack the emotional experience or understanding to recognize complex aesthetics and the humanity of our elders (in this case teachers). If we treat them like children, then they will think like children – as unfortunately much of the current citizenry does. If we present them with archetypal authority figures, then they will revere the world as such: impenetrable and unforgiving, or the other extreme of coddling and endlessly tolerant. We should engage them in the great questions of the day (p-zombies and chinese rooms, rather than Inception or Transcendence, not that Hollywood films and other pop-culture which touch upon these themes dont have their uses), or at least true to form discussions from the past approached with the same uncertainty of our predecessors (that means not reading the papers before the discussion), demonstrating that there remains room for thought (exploring counter-examples), and we as educators also find them puzzling and interesting (a little salesmanship never hurt).

    My language may seem to speak to the emotional state of our approach to teaching, but I mean it to affect the intellectual material itself. This may seem paradoxical, but I think there is a way to reconcile it. Hopefully finally expressing that is what I learn from this salon! Keep it coming, please.

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  16. Philosophy 101

    If I were teaching children philosophy I would take them down to the river and show them the truth. I would show them that the river’s truth is Nature’s truth, is their truth too. I would teach them One true self. I would teach them justice beyond the gray area of fairness. I would teach them unity and how truth connects all things. I would teach them equality, freedom, and show them the light at the end of the tunnel. I would teach them to be the light, how to shine bright! I would teach them the equation for everything. I would teach them love, to be love, by teaching them philosophy, and making them philosophers, true lovers of truth. I would teach them to follow this love, their own true hearts, and teach them to listen to their hearts, for they ring true.

    =

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  17. Roger,
    I may share my experiences trying to get high school administrations to have an Ethics Club Team….hoooooooooo-wee

    I would love to hear more about that. I imagine there is fear of parent sensitivity since many may think it is the parent’s province to train their children in their own ethical outlook. Except of course that rarely happens. For example, as a devout Catholic, I would be uneasy about my children being exposed to teaching that advocated utilitarianism/moral relativism. I am sure they could handle it since the Church, in any case, provides good moral training, but I would still be uneasy about what I would consider dangerous influences.

    The second fear that parents might have is that the Club becomes a venue for the current wave of atheist fundamentalist attacks on religion. Obviously school should be neutral in this.

    On the other hand, the sociologist, Christian Smith, has documented the parlous state of the moral development of our youth[1] so I think something like this is really needed. The proviso would be that it covered the main ethical systems in an analytical and impartial way. The goal would be to understand that many ethical frameworks exist, to understand the features of each framework and to develop a strategy for resolving moral questions.

    But I am guessing about your concerns. I would love to hear more about your experiences.

    [1] Lost in Transition, NY Times review – http://nyti.ms/1tUIs8E

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  18. While I find the interest in promoting and teaching philosophy noble; and while I won’t say that any particular teaching strategy is ‘wrong’ if it excites student to investigate philosophy or some branch of it; I confess myself at odds with this particular strategy.

    The problem with propositional logic is that it comes with a car-load of technical details necessary to uncover and test implicit premises, without which it dissolves, in common discourse, into classical enthymeme. Most of the students in my undergraduate symbolic course, which taught us the basics of propositional logic, came away as cynical logic choppers who felt they could pretty much twist any argument to their purposes.

    “1a. If we have hair, then the food we eat must have hair in it.
    1b. If the food we eat has hair in it, then we have hair inside of us.
    Therefore, 1. If we have hair, then we have hair inside of us.
    2.We have hair.
    Therefore, we have hair inside of us.”

    This may be a valid argument, but it is also very silly (since 1a is poorly structured and as structured untrue), and 1b is only trivially true *sometimes* (not all food we eat has hair on it). Thus 1 remains unsupported; so the conclusion does not follow. Yet it is a valid argument.

    So is this:

    “If (young, black, male), then likely criminally motivated.
    If a car has a criminally motivated person in it, then it is likely stolen.
    If a car has a young black male at the wheel, it is likely driven by one criminally motivated.
    This car has a young black male at the wheel.
    Therefore this car is (likely) stolen.”

    There are far too many white cops in America reasoning precisely in this fashion; and far too many politicians arguing in this fashion (see Trump’s recent remarks on Mexican immigrants). And one can’t really unravel such reasoning without going into a host of issues that have nothing to do with validity, but do have to do with hidden, uninformed premises. (Like, “blacks have the same opportunities and culture as whites, so if there is increased crime rates among blacks, then this indicates inherent criminal motivation” – exactly the kind of premise accepted by ‘social biologists’ and ‘bio-criminologists’ and EvPsych and the like, BTW.)

    The problem with propositional logic is that to get it to work meaningfully, it has to be applied *analytically* – one has to be able to deconstruct a discourse into its propositions in order to run these through truth-tables; then, having done that, one has to check the propositions as reasonable or empirical claims, in order to determine justifiable true belief in the conclusions. That’s not really what we do in real life.

    There’s a reason why the foundation of logic was, for many centuries the classical syllogism. Because this is how we really reason – through a process of intuitionally driven universals linking into the particulars of experience.

    (More on this in the following comment.)

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  19. In teaching the logic section of my basic composition courses, over the twelve years I taught, I did what successful teachers of logic did long before the birth of Frege. I taught classical syllogistics. Especially I focused on the logical square (of opposition) and the problem of induction. The first emphasis was necessary to surface students’ hidden biases – “If (young black male) then criminally motivated” translates into “all young black males are criminally motivated,” which is deductively negated by “some young black males are not criminally motivated” (empirically demonstrable), which can only be answered with “some young black males are criminally motivated” – which proves nothing deductively (“some are, some are not”).

    The reason for emphasizing the problem of induction was, first, to link the learning of good composition with the popular conception of the ‘scientific method,’ but also to blast through the ‘anecdotal fallacy’ (technical term?) The anecdote is a important source of personal reasoning in common discourse – and every anecdote is an instance of inductive reasoning. It just happens to be generally faulty; yet the science that demonstrates its faults also happens to depend on inductive reasoning. So it is important to stress the difference between individual experiences and *repeatability* – what anyone can experience if they perform the same operation.

    As to philosophy (beyond logic): I was fortunate, in the year after receiving my doctorate, to teach at a school permitting me to teach two undergraduate courses related to philosophy, Literary Theory and Theory of Rhetoric. Designing the Literary Theory Course, I thought it pointless to try to teach Derrida and Stanley Fish without the historic background on which contemporary theory depended; so I taught Hegel and Kant. Gosh, that was a lively course, with some great students! The Rhetoric course included Aristotle, Augustine and Nietzsche.

    The introduction to philosophy just has to include an introduction to its history. I admit I was an exceptional high school student – my introduction to philosophy was in 9th grade, through reading Voltaire, who introduced me to “Saint Socrates” (as Voltaire called him). But my experience as a teacher confirmed that the brighter students – those who want to learn (and nothing can be taught to anyone who doesn’t want to learn) – are open to anything that is rich in possibility and open to further discovery. History does this every time!

    So too do the big issues. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” may seem silly to Lawrence Krauss – it seems silly to a lot of people. But it may be just the right question to pose to a young Heidegger – or a young Lawrence Krauss, for that matter.

    One problem with the p-zombie issue is that in the long run we will see it as trivial. The Chinese room issue is not trivial, but the hope for conscious computers may well be.

    Philosophy, despite its emphasis on reason, should first appeal to our hearts – to what is most dear to us. If it doesn’t do that, it wastes our time.

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  20. Hi Roger,

    Yes few here are going to object with what you’re doing, though virtually all of us would want to provide our own specific lesson plans. When you’re asked the standard question, “Philosophy? Isn’t that where nothing ever gets settled?” I’d have you respond “Well perhaps so far… but this doesn’t mean that philosophical questions themselves are unimportant.” Furthermore I’d have you mention that there are philosophers (derisively referred to as “scientismists”) who argue that all of reality is causal (see https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2015/03/24/the-singular-universe-and-the-reality-of-time/), and thus “philosophical reality” will ultimately need to find its way into the realm of science. I myself go further, and through the belief that we will need various accepted philosophical understandings (such as the nature of good/bad, consciousness, and so on) in order for our mental and behavioral sciences to become non primitive fields. In my opinion Ned Block is doing some positive things through his “phenomenal and access consciousness” model. (See https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2015/05/18/ned-block-on-phenomenal-consciousness-part-i/). Of course some may say that children in high school shouldn’t be exposed to radical ideas from which to potentially overturn philosophy’s establishment, but I was looking for exactly this even then!

    I very much appreciate your “If X, then Y” discussion from which to demonstrate the philosopher’s method. I have such a model for you to consider as well, but think it’s far more universal — this one isn’t limited to the philosopher, or the human, but rather to the full domain of the conscious entity. The idea is that we take what we think we know (evidence), and then use this to assess various models that we’re not so sure about. As a model continues to remain consistent with evidence, it does tend to become accepted/used. A cat does this, I think, and even without language. But a p-zombie? No I don’t think so. This hypothetical thing is defined to essentially function like a computer. So here you might ask me how I believe a conscious mind functions? From my own such model there is a punishment/reward dynamic (qualia), that serves as incentive from which to figure things out in the manner that I’ve just mentioned . (Or you might consider a brief consciousness description of mine given during the Ned Block interview comments — https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2015/05/20/ned-block-on-phenomenal-consciousness-part-ii/comment-page-2/#comment-14404). Conversely for a p-zombie, existence shall be perfectly inconsequential.

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  21. If I were to teach a course on philosophy I would use Searle and Chalmers as examples of how not to do it. Or at least these particular thought experiments. I think both of these thought experiments employ very similar acts of smuggling your conclusion past the guards of reason in a suitcase labeled “conceivable.” They both start with the assumption that these contrivances are conceivable. Then they conclude that (since these contrivance are conceivable) they must tell us something about the world. But they aren’t conceivable. Searle and Chalmers assert they are, but they really aren’t. A “room” that spoke fluent Chinese would have to be, en masse, the equivalent of a Chinese speaker. Whether or not the man in the room is fluent is as immaterial as asking whether or not our lips and ears speak Chinese. They are part of the process of speaking Chinese, but the work gets done elsewhere. Pushing that work into the book in the room is just a sleight of hand. Similarly with the p-Zombies. To assert by fiat that you can conceive of a p- zombie does not make them possible, in this or any other world.

    These thought experiments are expressions of their creators’ deep desires, but not of actual things in the world. As a psychoanalyst in training, I would think you would be able to notice a projection when you saw one.

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  22. Sounds fun! You mentioned “Ethics Club”. Down here in Australia, there has been a minor brouhaha about some schools offering ethics in the time given to religious education in New South Wales state schools. Because of the historical origins of schools here, there was always an optional Special Religious Education period of 30-60 min per week in the equivalent of grade school. Parents and other interested parties pushed for ethics as an alternative to sitting “reading quietly” for the nonreligious. One recent comment by a politician was “There is no ethics taught in the ethics classes, it’s a philosophical discussion group”, as if that is a bad thing 😉

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-06-03/proposed-changes-to-ethics-classes-in-nsw-schools/6516824

    It is still offered, but less overtly.

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  23. “This is what philosophers do. We try to understand the world based on premises and conclusions. And when we are successful, we are able to realize truths about the world that are crucial to understanding what happens, what could happen in the future, and even what happened in the past.”

    ———————————–

    While the author has replied, he has not responded to any of my quite specific criticisms or suggestions, so I am going to press a little bit more.

    The statement I have quoted above is almost entirely false, unless it is read so loosely as to lose any sort of substantial content.

    What happened in the past is the subject of History and is studied by historians. It is an empirical question and has nothing whatsoever to do with philosophical inquiry and methods. (Of course, I do not include the history of philosophy in this point, and certainly, there is the philosophy of history, in which philosophical questions regarding history and its study are raised.)

    What *is* happening is also an entirely empirical question. One can’t ascribe its study to one discipline, but of all the disciplines that study what *is* happening — sociology, political science, economics, etc. — philosophy certainly is not one of them.

    The author gets closer to what philosophy does, when he speaks of what could happen. Certainly, one of the things that philosophy explores is the space of logical possibility (and necessity) — i.e. what could be the case; what could not be the case; what must be the case; what must not be the case.

    Finally, there is the claim that “we understand the world based on premises and conclusions.” This is so generic as to fail to describe any specific discipline. Name one discipline that “studies the world” of which this is not true.

    Again, I applaud the author for his desire to introduce high school students to philosophy and philosophical methodology. But beyond the desire, one much actually deliver and I am afraid that what he describes is not philosophy as I, who practice the discipline as a professional, at the university level, understand it. I have suggested a different way of acting on the desire the author expresses — a way that I have employed myself in high school settings — in which we begin with typical philosophical questions and allow students to work at them, employing their native intelligence and intuitive understanding of logical principles (which everyone has), with guiding pushes and prodding from the instructor. Another way which I also would prefer to the author’s approach, would be simply to start with Plato’s early dialogues — Apology, Crito, Phaedo — in which a number of basic philosophical topics are taken up and the process of reasoning and dialectic are explicitly demonstrated.

    As always, all of this is intended to be taken in the spirit of constructive criticism.

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  24. Thank you for sharing this with us. Like Harry Ellis, I would have welcomed a course along these lines when I was in high school. There were no electives. As for extracurricular activities, these were limited to those centered around sports and religious activities or perhaps a drama or debating club.

    There are many good comments here that focused on alternative approaches or methods for introducing adolescents to philosophy. These notwithstanding, I took the spirit of your piece as suggesting one method for empowering young minds by demonstrating how to examine and to question positions they encounter everyday among their elders and within their peer groups. That’s a good thing . Your subsequent point in a comment about the tendency either to infantalize or to terrorize young students is especially noteworthy.

    Now, if someone could work up a method for introducing them to what a poet does . . . .

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  25. In my experience as first a tertiary teacher of philosophy for more than twenty years and then as one involved shoulder-to-shoulder with engineering students in pursuit with them of their kind of undergraduate degree, I have been impressed by the variation of receptivity to Socrates’s dictum, that an unexamined life is not worth living. I have tried out this dictum both on self-selected philosophy students, and on self-selected engineering students, and the response to it is very different by the two groups. My experience is that undergraduate philosophy students immediately see the point of the dictum and are grabbed by it, whereas undergraduate engineering students are taken aback by it in various ways. They ask: really? How long does it take to examine a life? What are the opportunity costs? Will you earn more money if you examine your life? If you examine your life, will it make you better at solving practical problems? The lesson I take from this experience is that in order to be grabbed by philosophy, in order properly to see its nature as well as its point, a person must be willing to ignore or bracket consideration of opportunity costs. For the purposes of a philosophical discussion, the truth, or at least the best reasoned attempt to secure the truth, is all that matters. I thoroughly enjoy your essay, Roger, upon the pattern of your bringing high school students into the culture of philosophy. I commend your practice and your efforts. They warm my heart. I think that these particular cultural dispositions are important and often good for people. Every young person should be provided some opportunity to be seized by them. But a higher kind of reflection on them could concern how special they are, and unusual in their way; how other ways of disciplining practice or thinking pull even rather systematically in quite opposed directions, etc. To consider the importance of philosophy is partly to explore what philosophy is not; to consider the importance of philosophy is not only to explore what philosophy is. The dispositions of students who are little attracted to philosophy may be telling in this connection, not only the dispositions of students who fall into its ways very naturally and happily. (See my next comment.)

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  26. In defence of philosophy one might argue that the habit of engaging with one’s fellows in an unsparingly truth-oriented way can serve many important purposes. I am well persuaded by this argument myself. Yet (see my previous comment) I am also impressed that the surrender of considerations of opportunity costs that defines philosophical discussion is not the only way to be and that society needs people in it who are at least often otherwise. And I think philosophy can gain better perspective on itself and on the world only if it becomes better than it has been at recognising this fact. A philosopher picks up a suggested way to think about problems and asks where does this way to think fail, what clues might there be that we need to dig deeper and find a better way to think. An engineer picks up a suggested way to think about problems and asks where does it work, what ways might there be to regularise its use and benefit from that, practically. I don’t think that philosophers look across to other disciplines and quite appreciate the looseness of those disciplines vis-a-vis pure pursuit of truth. Philosophy tends to look out at other disciplines in the false expectation that their practitioners also, for purposes of discussion, value only the truth. That can represent serious misperception of what the other inquirers are doing. The debate does not reduce to whether other inquiry must be similar to philosophy or cannot be, that is, whether to be ‘realist’ or ‘anti-realist’ about other inquiry. The nuances are far richer than the bald realism/anti-realism debate by philosophers can possibly bring into view. That is why I say that to consider the importance of philosophy is partly to explore what philosophy is not; to consider the importance of philosophy is not only to explore what philosophy is. The dispositions of students who are little attracted to philosophy may be telling in this connection, not only the dispositions of students who fall into its ways very naturally and happily.

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  27. A few responses to this already fun and passionate discussion.

    First to Aravis. I think your point about people understanding basic logical principles is absolutely false. The fact that things such as logical fallacies exist is because people dont understand basic logic…even modus ponens for heaven’s sake. This is precisely the reason I begin with teaching that basic principle. Though I should say I never “teach” it, in the sense of preaching it, but rather serve students a variety of arguments boiled down to the form, and see if they can recognize it. We usually spend the entire first hour determining if they can even conceptualize it, let alone apply it. Any discussion of deep philosophy without that basic conceptual understanding is exactly the thing people deride philosophers for…having no substance. If you give kids this basic concept of modus ponens and let them play with it for a while, you will be shocked at how in depth and substantive conversations of more interesting problems become.

    Philip, first thank you so much for reading this, it is great to hear from you again! I think teaching kids how to reason from negatives is exactly the goal, since that’s how I think all philosophers should reason. Check out the upcoming book “Its Always Sunny in Philosophy” and you’ll see me and my fellow contributors workout this concept as it applies to the character in the show. We call it reverse virtue ethics: rather than reasoning about the good life by what virtues one should develop, we (or at least I) think one should reason about the good life by examining who not to be. However, from my experience modus tollens (If x then y; not y; therefore not x) is asking too much of the students. I like to let them play with modus ponens for a while before letting them construct argument tollendically,

    That said, another friend of mine made a wonderful comment to me to which encapsulates my position nicely. What I think we should do with kids is teach them modus ponens, boil every philosophical idea down to a modus ponens (like I did with Searle in the piece), then let the kids play with that . This gives them a basic limited logical concept, a bunch of philosophical ideas, and the opportunity to imagine counter-examples, and, if they find any, try to rewrite the original conditional such that the counter-example no longer applies. I think this is ABSOLUTELY what philosophers do their entire careers, though at a far more complex level than modus ponens…except Chalmers’ zombie argument, which even in its sophisticated form IS modus ponens: I’ll find the pg number in Conscious Mind later. Our job as teaches of pre-college philosopher is to boil down complex ideas to basic modus ponens so the kids can play with them for a while. Once they have mastered this, then give them modus tollens to play with, and finally some sort of bayesian calculus (remember that Philip?).

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  28. Roger,
    This is what philosophers do. We try to understand the world based on premises and conclusions.  And when we are successful, we are able to realize truths about the world that are crucial to understanding what happens, what could happen in the future, and even what happened in the past.

    I think Aravis has identified a crucial problem with your definition when he points out your definition overlaps that of many other disciplines, especially science. I don’t think you mean quite what he says you do but your words lead naturally to his interpretation. And that is the problem with your definition, it is ambiguous and allows competing interpretations. This is an important problem since it lies at the very heart of the strong criticism that philosophy has been receiving.

    The common criticism from people people in the natural sciences is that philosophy has made no progress, has made few discoveries and has not added significantly to the sum of knowledge. This criticism has been growing in recent years.

    This is not a trivial problem because it is a common perception and it damages the standing of philosophy as an academic discipline. It is a false perception based on a false understanding of the aims of philosophy, but it is a perception that philosophers have helped to create. Other disciplines lend themselves to concise, pithy definitions but philosophy, seemingly, lacks an agreed, concise definition. This is where the problem starts because philosophers will reply to the question in many ways. Thus it is not surprising that natural scientists should misjudge philosophy. Your definition is another example of the confusion that fuels the problem.

    This problem has been debated several times in Scientia Salon. Massimo Pigluicci says that philosophy is the study of the cognitive landscape while science is the study of the empirical landscape. That is a good definition that makes clear the distinction between the sciences and philosophy. I like the landscape metaphor with its allusion to mapping. It does make intuitive sense.

    But I prefer Kant’s definition because it makes immediate sense to the rest of the world and captures a defining aspect of philosophy. We are all subject to claims of truth concerning knowledge, behaviour, belief, meaning and value. We need to understand and respond to these claims. Philosophy enables us to respond to these claims in a useful way. Or, to put it very simply, philosophy is in the business of evaluating truth claims about the world(I think this is what you intended your definition to mean).

    For example. The physicist, Lawrence Krauss, in his book, A Universe from Nothing, makes far-reaching claims about the origin of the universe. Philosophers will point out that his claims 1) are not verifiable, 2) have no empirical basis, 3) are selective, 4) are deeply confused about the nature of nothing and 5) are ideologically motivated. Thus his truth claims have no weight. Philosophy provides the tools and training for evaluating these kinds of truth claims. The subjects of the truth claims need not be physics. They could just as easily be morality, sociology, religion, history, politics, aesthetics, etc.

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  29. Hi again Roger,

    Aravis has had a bit of fun with your passage here:

    This is what philosophers do. We try to understand the world based on premises and conclusions. And when we are successful, we are able to realize truths about the world that are crucial to understanding what happens, what could happen in the future, and even what happened in the past.

    I took the main gist of his argument to be that what you’ve referenced as “philosophy” actually concerns other fields. Furthermore I can tell you from a past conversation (partly viewed inside this comment: https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2015/05/25/annus-mirabilis-geology-edition/comment-page-1/#comment-14430) that he favors a “critical” interpretation of philosophy. Still I’d hope that even his dear Wittgenstein would permit you to define the term “philosophy” however you like — I certainly find your “truths about the world” approach useful. If traditional philosophers would rather not explore reality, I’ve mentioned before that perhaps the rest of us could simply adopt the term “scilosophy.”

    I do find one thing about your passage above in need amendment or justification however. This was “And when we are successful, we are able to realize truths about the world…” I’m not aware that any such understandings have yet been achieved in philosophy. Thus you might change your “when” conjunction to “if,” or present some examples to show that such progress has indeed been made.

    The first thing that I personally hope to do for the academy, is to help it realize how important this specific epistemic gap happens to be. Ignoring it should solve nothing. Then secondly I would have those able to acknowledge the severity of the problem, to earnestly assess my own theory. I do now wonder if you would happen to be such a person?

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  30. Ah thank you for those clarifications of Aravis’ thought. It certainly helps to hear things put in other ways.

    Here is, hopefully, a more direct response: Determining a definition for philosophy is not my intent, nor do I believe I proposed one, nor do I believe one possible – just as I believe defining “physics”, “history”, or any other discipline is possible, and if it were, would also not be useful.

    The passage quoted by Aravis, which I believe he would agree he was also having fun with, was inadvertently carefully worded to express precisely my position. The passage does not claim to define what philosophy IS, but rather what philosophers – or those called as such…oig – DO. Furthermore, it gives an outcome metric…a very high bar indeed. As noted in my response to Philip, I do not believe this outcome metric to be approachable in a positive way, but only negatively. However, this kind of reasoning, negative reasoning, is not helpful in teaching high schoolers, or even adults to do what philosophers do, which is explore the world with conditionals and counter examples, and if they are bold enough, theories. I myself prefer the latter, but you don’t get tenure spending 15 years developing a theory: you get it by mucking around with conditionals and counter examples: how else could one publish 2-3 papers a year!?

    But I digress. So, I teach people how play with conditionals and counter examples, since that’s what philosophers do. The easiest form of this is modus ponens, then for more advanced students we in corporate the transitive property (if x then y; if y then z; therefore if y then z) since how else could one make an argument – in the technical sense – to support a conditional, and when they get to graduate school they can start trying out modus tollens. Then once they have mastered this, provided elegant mastery of creating counter examples (Wittgenstein is King – PI293 beetle in a box is a counter-example to, as I would frame it for my students, “if I have a pain, then only I know I had that pain.” Then ask the students “can you imagine a scenario where you had a pain, but it’s not the case that only you know you had that pain” and we’re off. Parfit is probably his prince – Reasons and Persons is nothing but counterexamples. And a fantastic young philosopher Richard Chappell (shoutout buddy) third in line to the throne – check out his blog if you haven’t…especially his stuff from the beginning http://www.philosophyetc.net), gotten a post-doc job, spent their young lives couped up in a cage teaching intro to philosophy when all they want to do is focus on churning out papers to look good for the committee, gotten tenure (though maybe after bouncing around to a few universities and colleges), earned respect from their colleagues, then, maybe, they can write theory, if they still even care enough to…he he :/, my apologies.

    I have a similarly dire outlook on what it’s like to work on philosophy problems in – plug #2 – “it’s always sunny in Philosophy” coming out from Open Court this summer…I base doing a philosophy problem on the DENNIS system, if you know the show.

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  31. labnut: “philosophy is the study of the cognitive landscape while science is the study of the empirical landscape. That is a good definition that makes clear the distinction between the sciences and philosophy.”

    It’s not that clear of a distinction:

    Computing sciences — programming language theory, computational cognitive science, artificial intelligence, network science, etc. — also study the “cognitive landscape”.

    The science and technology of synthetic biology is about creating (biocompiling*) man-made life forms, some never empirically observed in nature before.
    * http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/biocompiler

    “philosophy is in the business of evaluating truth claims about the world”

    Isn’t that the “business” of many professions (science, law, …)?
    Alternative: “Philosophy is in the business of defining what the meaning(s) of the word ‘is’ is.”

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  32. I think your point about people understanding basic logical principles is absolutely false. The fact that things such as logical fallacies exist is because people dont understand basic logic…even modus ponens for heaven’s sake.

    —————————————

    I have taught logic at the university level since 1993. I am quite aware of the logical fallacies.

    It is simply a mistake to think that the fact that people make logical errors — or just as commonly, refuse to apply logic or accept the conclusions of sound arguments — means that logic is not ultimately understood at an intuitive level. Certainly, there is metatheory, in which we can study the properties of logical principles, but at the end of the day, the basic axioms and principles of logic are confirmed intuitively and are immediately recognizable, even to teenagers. We have know this since Plato and it is why the Platonic dialogues are so useful as a teaching tool.

    That people forget, space-out, or stubbornly refuse changes nothing about this fact.

    I am happy to leave things at this point in our discussion. Again, I appreciate what you are trying to do.

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  33. Hi Philip,

    Thinking about a (likely purely) hypothetical prospect that I would be teaching a high school philosophy course, mine wouldn’t be about answering the “big questions”, but about becoming familiar with the “variety of vocabularies” coming from the significant schools* of philosophy.

    In other words you’d strip out all the interesting stuff and make it as dull as possible?? Sorry, that sounds harsh, but kids learn ten times faster if they’re interested and engaged.

    Hi labnut,

    … a crucial problem with your definition … your definition overlaps that of many other disciplines, especially science.

    I would say that much of the dismissal of philosophy (that you summarise) comes precisely because of the insistence by philosophers that philosophy is a distinct discipline that does not overlap with others. If it were seen, instead, as an integral part of the wider program to understand the world about us, then its value would be more widely appreciated (and philosophy itself would likely be more productive).

    Massimo Pigluicci says that philosophy is the study of the cognitive landscape while science is the study of the empirical landscape.

    That distinction doesn’t work, since science is also concerned with the wider “cognitive landscape”. Indeed, one of the best ways of understanding why the world is like it is, is to consider how otherwise it might have been, and hence science routinely does that.

    Or, to put it very simply, philosophy is in the business of evaluating truth claims about the world.

    And so is science. Indeed, the combination of generating truth claims about the world, and then evaluating them, sums up science in a nutshell.

    (By the way, I’m not going to bother explaining, yet again, why your characterisation of Krauss’s book is just wrong.)

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  34. Coel: “In other words you’d strip out all the interesting stuff and make it as dull as possible?”

    That’s actually a very good way to put it. That’s exactly what I would do!

    Perhaps it’s my pragmatist orientation towards the mundane vs. the transcendental, and focusing on the details and not the distractions.

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  35. Certainly, there is metatheory, in which we can study the properties of logical principles, but at the end of the day, the basic axioms and principles of logic are confirmed intuitively and are immediately recognizable, even to teenagers

    I have to disagree, the intuitive logic that people use is, in general, not good.

    I have seen a study which shows that most people will intuitively affirm the consequent and although I don’t place too much trust in one study this does seem to bear out my experience.

    I have very often come across the closely related fallacy “my conclusion is true, so my argument must be sound”. When I point this out it seems that the majority will consider me wrong and in fact a sizeable proportion will think that I am disagreeing with the conclusion.

    This is not people forgetting or spacing out, this is people just not getting it even after it has been pointed out.

    Also, as I have pointed out before, it often happens that I begin an argument with “if X then Y”, people will say that I am assuming the truth of X. It has even happened to me here at Scientia Salon, right after I pointed out just this mistake.

    If “the truth of ‘if X then Y’ does not depend upon the truth of X” is intuitively obvious to most people then I have to wonder why so few people can be persuaded to agree with it.

    In discussions I usually find that, if I use a logical structure to an argument, people will ignore that logical structure even when you draw attention to it. On the other hand people will accept arguments that lack this structure. Consider Sam Harris’ summary of the central argument of “The Moral Landscape” http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-moral-landscape-challenge1 . It is, of course, a non-sequitur. And, as it has very often been pointed out, Richard Dawkins’ conclusion to his “central argument” does not actually follow from his premises. But this is very rarely considered as a substantial objection to that argument and is often considered trivial or even vexatious.

    Yes, people will say that I ought to be able to infer the intended logical structure, but when I make an honest attempt to do so, people say I have changed what they say and have therefore misrepresented them.

    We have know this since Plato and it is why the Platonic dialogues are so useful as a teaching tool.

    In fact the Platonic dialogues very often exploit people’s faulty intuitions about logic. I wonder how many people who consider the “Euthyphro Dilemma” as a knock down refutation of something or other can actually state it as a valid argument. I find very few are willing even to try.

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  36. Hi Coel,

    I would say that much of the dismissal of philosophy (that you summarise) comes precisely because of the insistence by philosophers that philosophy is a distinct discipline that does not overlap with others.

    Just out of interest, can you actually cite any philosopher asserting that philosophy is a discipline that does not overlap with others?

    Can you cite your reasoning or evidence that this represents the view of philosophers in general?

    If not, are you prepared to agree that the dismissal of philosophy on this basis is not reasonable?

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  37. Philosophy is the study of is, truth is. And if you have any questions or doubts about truth or is then you still have some philosophical work to do. And without pushing or prodding, does anyone here have any questions? Come come now, don’t be shy, Socrates had questions too! =

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  38. Robin, I think we have to disentangle the complexity of the pragmatics of natural language communication from that intuitive understanding of logical principles that Aravis was talking about.

    Take your point about people thinking that the ‘if … then’ construction implies a belief in the truth of the proposition following ‘if’. In many cases of ordinary communication we do implicitly assert or assume the truth of the proposition following the ‘if’. No?

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  39. There are cases when some argument seems trivially true to some and trivially false to others with no seeming possibility of agreement.

    Take this statement from the “Iron Chariots” website as a refutation of the Transcendental argument:

    If the universe did not exist, neither would the three logical absolutes as they would have nothing to apply to. If nothing existed there would be no A to equal A. The underpinning of the logical absolute statements are dependent on something existing. The logical absolutes themselves are simply a fundamental property of material existence.

    http://wiki.ironchariots.org/index.php?title=Transcendental_argument

    This seems perfectly reasonable to the authors of the site and to most people who read it and quote it.

    I think that there is a really obvious flaw with the statement entailing that it is either meaningless or false, but have never been able to get anyone to agree with me.

    My counter example for A is “If there was not anything existing then there might be hippopotamuses existing”.

    My question is, if there was not anything existing, then why couldn’t there be hippopotamuses existing?

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  40. Robin, I assume your hippopotamus response was to me, but you do not really address my point. In fact, you confirm a general thought that lay behind my comment. I (like Aravis) tend to take a Wittgensteinian approach to language and logic. I would say that natural language incorporates basic logical principles like modus ponens. The ability to use certain basic expressions requires and so implies an intuitive grasp of the most basic logical principles. You are talking 1) about arguments (not principles like MP); and 2) you are using natural language in a non-ordinary way. If you generate paradoxes or unresolvable issues, maybe that’s because you are working in a kind of no-man’s-land between formal logic and ordinary language. I have no problems with formal logic, but when you start to ‘translate’ it into English you get a kind of metaphysics which I personally have reservations about.

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  41. When I said above that Robin was talking about arguments rather than principles like MP, I meant that he was talking about complex arguments. MP could be seen as representing the form of a certain kind of simple argument: there is something very basic built into it in terms of its logic which cannot be ‘explained’ (and doesn’t need to be).

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  42. Robin Herbert,

    Excellent points about common understanding of logic in your 7:04 comment. Fleshing out logical language is one of philosophy’s great accomplishments. It’s a subject to be learned if one wants to avoid logical confusions, not something we have a clear common understanding of, however common the linguistic materials. That’s why we needed Aristotle, Boole, Russell, Wittgenstein, Kripke, and so on. Something similar may be said of ethics and epistemology and other philosophical fields: philosophy has done the work of turning rather shaky intuitive natural systems into relatively clear and orderly domains of self-conscious inquiry.

    Mark English,

    “Take your point about people thinking that the ‘if … then’ construction implies a belief in the truth of the proposition following ‘if’. In many cases of ordinary communication we do implicitly assert or assume the truth of the proposition following the ‘if’. No?”

    No ; ) Can you give some examples of contexts?

    Robin again,

    Regarding your response to the following statement by Coel:

    “I would say that much of the dismissal of philosophy (that you summarise) comes precisely because of the insistence by philosophers that philosophy is a distinct discipline that does not overlap with others. If it were seen, instead, as an integral part of the wider program to understand the world about us, then its value would be more widely appreciated (and philosophy itself would likely be more productive).”

    You said:

    “Just out of interest, can you actually cite any philosopher asserting that philosophy is a discipline that does not overlap with others?

    “Can you cite your reasoning or evidence that this represents the view of philosophers in general?

    “If not, are you prepared to agree that the dismissal of philosophy on this basis is not reasonable?”

    I think if you interpret Coel charitably–considering his full statement–he makes a good point. It’s similar to the point I made earlier about presenting philosophy as connected with daily thought and affairs. It isn’t really a matter of philosophers holding that philosophy is unconnected to other disciplines, but one of philosophers presenting philosophy in a weirdly abstract way that seems disconnected from the rest of life; something I have witnessed. As has become a theme here, emphasizing philosophy’s connectedness with the rest of life is critical to convincing youth of its relevance.

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  43. Hi Mark,

    No, your comment had not yet shown up when I wrote my last one. I was simply illustrating the confusion involved in so-called “intuitive” logic.

    If you generate paradoxes or unresolvable issues, maybe that’s because you are working in a kind of no-man’s-land between formal logic and ordinary language.

    Well, in fact the “Iron Chariots” team are working in that no-mans-land, I am using that as an illustration of where ‘intuitive’ logic leads.

    And I can’t see that I have generated any paradox or unresolvable issue in any case.

    In many cases of ordinary communication we do implicitly assert or assume the truth of the proposition following the ‘if’. No?

    Yes, and that might explain an initial misunderstanding. But if they had an intuitive grasp of Modus Ponens then they would surely accept, or at least attempt to understand, my clarification that I am not using that particular shorthand, rather than continuing to insist that “if X then Y” assumes the truth of X.

    I just don’t buy that people have an intuitive grasp even of MP, otherwise they would not think that affirming the consequent or that “my conclusion is true therefore my argument is sound” are intuitively reasonable.

    In fact I would say that the assumption that people have an intuitive logic generates confusion.

    I have no problems with formal logic, but when you start to ‘translate’ it into English you get a kind of metaphysics which I personally have reservations about.

    I have reservations about that too – in fact just the reservations I am now expressing.

    This is a problem I have expressed before – if any argument is expressed in natural language – what basis do we have for evaluating that it is true or not? Do we argue to get to the truth of something? Or do we merely seek to persuade?

    Kleene has a good discussion of how we can use logic for normal language, by accepting the distinction between the object language and the observer language but this is probably not a practical consideration for most discourse.

    But then again, on what basis are we evaluating any argument given to us in natural language unless we are at least informally applying one or other inferential framework for it?

    I don’t know – but I don’t think we should just ignore the problem because it is a problem.

    ==================
    By the way, why does everybody talk about the “Wittgenstienian approach to language and logic” as though his was the first or best presentation of this problem?

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  44. Roger, let me assure you that I am far too stupid to have foreseen that things were going to play out this way, but apologize regardless. I simply did not realize how precarious your position of youth and ambition in academia happens to be right now. Once Labnut and I alerted you to your perceived disrespectful stance (with me in support of course), your following statement did seem pitiful:

    Determining a definition for philosophy is not my intent, nor do I believe I proposed one, nor do I believe one possible – just as I believe defining “physics”, “history”, or any other discipline is [not] possible, and if it were, would also not be useful.

    Wow! Then your next paragraph was similar, claiming that our deeds do not define us (as well as a strange but informative assertion that tenure is not earned through theory). Crowning Wittgenstein “King” however, perhaps with Parfit “prince,” seemed well over the top. I’m sure that Aravis did appreciate your efforts, and even though he then proceeded to bitch you out some more. Lesson learned I suppose, but at least you can now make sure that your kids don’t confuse “philosophy” with “reality study” (wink, wink).

    This entire mess seems perfectly unnecessary to me. I come here both to learn about the existing field, as well as to display ideas of my own. But given that “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” I do not demand that what I do be referred to as “philosophy” — I just require this sort of work get done!

    It might be therapeutic however for us to consider the questions which Aravis has mentioned presenting kids with:

    1) What is the best sort of government and how would one determine that? 2) What are good (as opposed to bad) reasons for believing something? 3) Are judgments of beauty/ugliness completely subjective or can they be objectively justified? 4) What makes actions morally right or morally wrong? 5) Can the belief in God be justified or is it solely a matter of faith?

    You don’t need to be a physicalist (such as myself) to realize that every one of these questions does concern ontological aspects of reality. What this demonstrates to me is that philosophers are indeed human, and thus can feel a bit self conscious when scientists flaunt their various discoveries, but have nothing of their own to flaunt back. Thus perhaps some decide that they aren’t actually in the “reality discovery” business, but rather the “criticism of reality discovery” business. To this I say, “Fine… then get on with your criticism. But don’t also harass us non-philosophers (or whatever you want to call us) for exploring various perplexing questions that humanity has failed to come to terms with for many thousands of years. Please do permit us optimists to get on with our work!”

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  45. Connecting philosophy to the rest of life for our students is precisely the issue. My experience has been that presenting students with questions like “what is justice?” And letting them have a go at it leaves them feeling disconnected, since they have never experienced justice. And when you ask adullts questions like this they take one of the aforementioned positions noted at the beginning of the article. However, when you present them with basic logic, play with philosophical ideas, while also saying “you ever have a friend say to you while in an argument ‘you’re not being logical!’, well now you can reply ‘wait what do you mean?’, allow them to respond, they will say something like ‘you’re not making sense!’, then you can say, ‘oh because you said logical and I wasn’t clear if you meant that the structure of my argument was invalid or one of my premises was false’ thus turning that dopey rhetorician spewing the word ‘logic’ to intimidate you on his head. The kids always love this example.

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  46. Aravis said,
    It is simply a mistake to think that the fact that people make logical errors — or just as commonly, refuse to apply logic or accept the conclusions of sound arguments — means that logic is not ultimately understood at an intuitive level.

    Whether people understand logic at an intuitive level is an empirical question and various commentators appealed to their own experience when responding to Aravis’ statement. Aravis is an educator/academic with long experience in teaching the subject to generations of unruly undergraduates, so his opinion should carry a lot of weight in this matter.

    I agree we see many examples of confused thought but, as Aravis says, the reason is not the lack of understanding of modus ponens/tollens. I think the confusion happens at a higher level and results from a careless aggregation of concepts. Concepts are added and mixed until their structure is obscured.

    One way in which that happens is what I call the Argument from Obscurity. This is where tendentious or careless wording is used to obscure important distinctions that bear on the argument, hence ‘argument from obscurity‘.

    Coel was kind enough to give us a good example of Argument from Obscurity when he said:
    I would say that much of the dismissal of philosophy (that you summarise) comes precisely because of the insistence by philosophers that philosophy is a distinct discipline that does not overlap with others.

    By implication he is denying that philosophy is a distinct discipline that does not overlap with others.
    Here he has created obscurity by failing to separate out the meanings of ‘distinct discipline’ and ‘overlap’.

    Disciplines can differ, in the sense of being ‘distinct’, in
    1) their subject areas;
    2) their methodology;
    3) their intent.
    Conflating these meanings creates obscurity and this is what Coel has done. He has obscured the distinctions.

    Moreover disciplines can overlap
    0) in subject, methodology or intent;
    1) to a large degree;
    2) partially;
    3) hardly, or not at all

    He has ignored the fact that science and philosophy can partially overlap in their subject areas but have distinctly different methodologies and intent. That sort of careless thinking is the hallmark of Argument from Obscurity. Furthermore he has ignored the large areas where science and philosophy do not overlap in their subject areas. This has created even more obscurity.

    It hardly can be disputed that if disciplines differ substantially in their intent and their methodology then they are distinctly different disciplines even if they partially consider the same subject matter.

    Coel, thanks for providing, in such a timeous manner, a paradigmatic example of Argument from Obscurity 🙂

    Another example of Argument from Obscurity:

    That distinction doesn’t work, since science is also concerned with the wider “cognitive landscape”.

    Here he conflates mankind’s entire cultural output with science. What about ethics, aesthetics, history, politics, religion, foreign affairs, sculpture, music, language, literature, poetry, dance, ballet, theatre, art, etc? Sure, science can contribute but it does not play a central, explanatory role. It can provide better ballet shoes and the lighting for the theatre but these are only ancillary contributions.

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  47. This whole discussion has been people suggesting something, then someone else providing counter-examples to it, then people suggesting those counter examples aren’t counter examples and on and on. I’m not critical of this way of doing things, rather I think it’s the best way to do them, and that we have come to this point (In human history) is awesome!! Which is why I teach students about it. The questions posed require this methodology to make the answers relevant. Otherwise we end up listening to sermons, rather than having constructive discussions. Seriously now, how can someone reject the idea that philosophy is posing a thought, which is turned into a conditional, then presented with a counter example, then reformatted to block the countrrexample, or at least the counterexample is rejected as one. Being and Time even starts way: if you’re doing ontology, then you’re a realist or an idealist. The rest of The book is a counterexample to this claim!! Whether or not it’s a good one is up for discussion.

    The reason arguments from obscurity or any other fallacy is a fallacy is because it’s easy to construct countrrexample said to those arguments.

    Take appeal to authority. It’s not a fallacy because someone said so or because it makes us quesy. It’s a fallacy because there are a billion counter examples to the conditional: If person x with authority says y, then y is true (or should be listened to).

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