PHL100 Problems of Philosophy, past assignments


23 January
A conception of philosophy. The branches (logic, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics) of philosophy. Using and understanding arguments (basic concepts of logic). Phenomenology. Background on Plato.

0: The branches of philosophy

25 January
The Allegory of the Cave. Read the selection that I sent you, and be prepared to explain it to the rest of us.

Question 1: Can we have certain knowledge?

27 January
Read: this paper by Harry Frankfurt.

Reading question: answer on BlackBoard or on a paper to hand in in class: What is bullshit, according to Frankfurt? Give an example when you unfortunately said something that was bullshit (according to Frankfurt's definition).

30 January
What is knowledge? What is truth? Read this paper by Gettier before class.

Also: bring you copy of Descartes Meditations to class. If we have time we'll start reading it together.

1 Feb
Read Meditation I.

This meditation is very brief, so it's not hard to read it before our next class. Be sure you can answer the following questions when you are done (re-read the meditation if you cannot):
  • What is Descartes trying to do? What is his goal here?
  • Descartes says he's willing to assume he's not mad, but what human activity makes him worry that he may be systematically deceived?
  • Why does he say that his argument shows composite things are to be doubted? What are composite things, anyways?
  • What is the "evil genuis"? What role does it serve in Descartes's task?
Our library has The Matrix. If you go to the second floor you can ask them to borrow it and you can even watch it on one of the TVs there. If you've not seen Descartes's favorite movie, take some time this week to watch it.

There are some good translations of The Meditations on the web, for those of you waiting for the book. Also, the library has copies, and it has an ecopy you can read on a computer or other device. But here is a decent looking translation online.

Do get a copy of some kind (e or paper) that you can bring to class, though. We want to read it together often this semester.

3 February
Read Meditation II.

Homework: Write a brief but clear account, in your own words but in clear and complete sentences, of what Descartes claims (here in Meditation II) that he cannot doubt. Is he right? See if you can reconstruct his argument. This should only take a page, preferably typed. Due at the beginning of class, either in paper or in BlackBoard.

6 February
We'll review coherentism and some other alternative concepts to Descartes's approach. There will also be an online practice quiz. This can be taken on BB between 1020 am and midnight. It's short! Then, we'll discuss scientific method!

8 February
The quiz is short, so let's do it in the last 35 minutes of class. For 15 minutes before that, we will introduce our next topic: arguments for the existence of God.

Here is a study question.

Consider the following claim: This piece of wax can be made into thousands of shapes.
  • Suppose you are a foundationalist. How will you evaluate whether you should believe this claim?
  • Suppose you are a coherentist. How will you evaluate whether you should believe this claim?
  • Suppose you want to use the scientific method to determine what you should believe in this case. How will you evaluate whether you should believe this claim?
  • Suppose you are an empiricist, how might you expect to learn about such a thing?
  • Suppose you are a rationalist, how might you expect to learn about such a thing?

9 February
One time only, by popular demand, I am making practice quiz 1 available this day.

10 February
Read: Meditation 3 in Descartes.

A note about quiz 1. I use a rubric to grade that is precise but that makes my grades seem harsh. Don't worry, I grade on a curve. All your numerical grade indicates is how much you accomplished on the quiz relative to the questions. I can give you approximate course letter grades in a few weeks, when we have more work.

20 February
Read: Meditation 4.
Homework: we're doing metaphysics in class, but let's not forget our epistemology. Descartes believes he's proved that God exists, In Meditation 3. This allows Descartes to continue his foundationalist project: the claim that a benevolent God exists is one of the beliefs in his foundation. From it, he derives that the world exists and that our senses are mostly reliable. But this raises a problem: why then do we make mistakes? Why is there any error? Descartes answers these questions in Meditation 4. What is his answer? Why do we make mistakes? Write this up in a page or so, either to bring to class printed out; or you can hand it in on Blackboard.

22 February
Online quiz availabe in Blackboard this day only.

24 February
We'll introduce our next topic: the mind-body problem. Then, we'll take a quiz on the question about whether God exists. Here are some study questions:
  • What is a reductio ad absurdum argument? How does it work?
  • Reconstruct Anselm's ontological argument. Do you think it is sound? Valid?
  • Reconstruct Descartes's argument for the existence of God. Do you think it is sound? Valid?
  • Reconstruct the design argument for the existence of God. Do you think it is sound? Valid?
  • What is Kierkegaard's leap of faith? Explain his example.
  • What is the problem of evil?
  • How does Descartes use his claim that God exists to then develop his epistemological theory further?

27 February
Read: Meditations 5 and 6.
Homework: At the end of Meditation 6, Descartes offers some reasons to believe mind and body are two different kinds of things. Describe carefully one of these reasons. Can you phrase it as an argument? You can do this either on BlackBoard or on a page or so that you hand in at the beginning of class.

1 March
Read: selections from the letters of the Princess of Bohemia. There are two selections, from May 1643 and from September 1645. The princess challenges Descartes dualism with an argument that many repeated afterwards.

About the quiz: We will review the quiz a bit. Please keep in mind that I use a rubric in grading quizes and I am very rigorous in grading the quizes, but your grade is on a curve. Also, the quizes are only part of the class grade; do all the homeworks (which I grade mostly with nearly full credit if you show you attempted the work) and do all the practice quizes and you'll be in good shape overall. You must show real insight to get an A, but I won't flunk anyone who does all the work and shows that they learned something.

Also: if you answered more than 3 questions on the quiz, I just graded the first three. Remember that on all quizzes I'll give you a range of options, so look always to see what I am asking in the instructions!

6 March
In class we will discuss: The Imitation Game (aka The Turing Test); and Contemporary materialism.

7 March
I'll be around and available in my office from 9 a.m. -- 1:00 pm.

Here is a Monty Python classic that I mentioned. At 1:55, it ridicules the kind of definition of argument I gave you in class -- the hapless customer instead defines "argument" as "a collective series of statements to establish a definite proposition." But that's too colloquial for us; instead, we defined argument in a minimal way, so that we could then distinguish good and bad arguments, and define "valid" and "sound."

If you can bear more Monty Python, here they poke fun at the idea that philosophers think but don't do.
8 March
In class we will discuss: A short selection from Jackson (a contemporary dualist argument).

Practice quiz available till Friday morning!

10 March
Quiz on Mind. Brief introduction to our next topic: What is Justice?
Here are some study questions:
  • What is a valid argument?
  • What is a sound argument?
  • What is interactive substance dualism?
  • Explain one of Descartes arguments that mind and body are distinct substances.
  • Explain the Turing Test. What is it meant to test?
  • Explain the Mary Thought Experiment (also known as The Knowledge Argument). What is it meant to show?
  • What are some reasons to be a materialist about the mind? Can you explain how the materialist might answer one of Descartes arguments?
Some items from our discussions:
  • If you are interested in reading the paper with the Mary thought experiment, you can get it here. (Citation: The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 127. (Apr., 1982), pp. 127-136.)
  • If you want to read Turing's original paper, here is a copy. If you read it, skip the technical stuff (parts 4 and 5)--you don't need convincing that computers exist and work.

20 March
Read: Chapter 1 of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Ethics by Kant. You can read it here. This is demanding but you're hard working! I may post some questions to answer about this reading.

We'll begin our section on "What is Justice?"

Now is a good time to think about thinking and studying, since you got your midterm grades. You should watch the following videos, and reflect on them:
  • First, you need the growth mindset: there is no such thing as being "smart", there is only working harder: watch this video by the great psychologist Carol Dweck.

  • Second, watch the five videos starting with this one by Dr. Chew.
22 March
Read: Chapter 2 of Mill's Utilitarianism.

I will be out of town giving a philosophy talk at a conference. You will have an assignment due Friday that requires you to have read and understood Kant and Mill, and to apply the concepts from their work.

24 March
I will be out of town giving a philosophy talk at a conference.

Practice: Use BlackBoard to answer this question. This is a demanding question: to answer it you will have to write a short paper.
Consider a moral problem of our time. What would Kant's theory tell us about the problem? What would Mill's theory tell us about the problem? You must briefly explain their theories, and then apply those theories to the problem. Your answer will be judged on how well you understand and apply the theory. Do the two theories agree? If they do, are there any related situations where they may give different answers?

Advice: you could structure your answer as: introduce the problem; explain Kant's view; apply Kant's view; explain Mill's view; apply Mill's view; discuss the differences of the two theories.

This assignment will count like 2 and 1/2 of our usual reading assignments, on the principle that you have an extra 2 hours to work on it. Note: I graded roughly 5 points on your example (is it really an ethical question?); and 10 points for understanding and applying each theory.

27 March
Read: "Justice as Fairness" by John Rawls.

Attend: Julius Caesar in Waterman Theatre, 7:30 pm. While watching, ask yourself: does Brutus do the right thing?

28 March
Attend X in Waterman Theatre, 7:30 pm.

29 March
Applying our ethical theories to the cases of Brutus and X. Also: when is revolt justified?

Brief practice quiz available for the next 48 hours.

31 March
Quiz on ethics. The quiz will ask you to explain and apply each of our three theories to an issue in Julius Caesar and X.

If you missed either play, I recommend you read it before class.

Start on topic: free will or personal identity (you pick!).

Note: Philosophy Club meets Friday, March 31, 2017, from 4:00 PM - 6:00 PM, in Marano Campus Center Room 258 to watch and then discuss the film Ex Machina. There will be pizza!

3 April
Read: chapter 27, paragraphs 5 through 11 of Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding. You can find an online version here or here.

As you know, I usually have my office hours 1:40-3:00. But today there is a meeting 1:30-2:30 I need to attend. So, I'll have office hours from 2:30 to 4:30 to make up for that. I hope this is convenient for you.

7 April
Reading: read chapter 27, paragraphs 11 through 25 of Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding. You can find an online version here or here.
I will hand out a homework. But you can also get it here.
10 April
Read: read parts I, II, and III of Nagel's Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness.
Homework: on Locke due in class.
12 April
Read: read parts IV, V, and VI of Nagel's Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness.
14 April
No class. But over the weekend there will be an online practice quiz. We won't have a quiz on personal identity--BUT, I will put questions on the final about personal identity.

You can write a paper as extra-credit, or to replace your lowest three homework grades (including not done). It will be due the last week of classes. It should be 4-5 pages long. Questions you might consider are:
  • What might matter to your personal identity, other than memories?
  • Consider a conflict between utilitarianism and Kantianism. Which theory looks more plausible? Or do both fair poorly?
  • Rawls argues we should want a much more equal society. Is he right? Why do we accept the very great wealth inequalities that exist today?
  • Does Descartes's dualism actually explain anything? What do psychologists miss that Descartes can explain?
  • Compare Nietzsche's answer to the question of purpose to Sartre's. Which is better? Why?
Check with me for advice.
17 April
Reading: Read Sartre's "Existentialism is a Humanism."

Answer the questions on BlackBoard, which are: You must understand and apply Sartre's concepts of anguish, abandonment, and despair. The homework is to write up examples of each from your own life. That is,
  1. Briefly describe a situation in which you felt what Sartre calls anguish;
  2. Briefly describe a situation in which you felt what Sartre calls abandonment;
  3. Briefly describe a situation in which you felt what Sartre calls despair.
This should only take you three (perhaps long) paragraphs. Due at the beginning of class if you write it up in paper.
19 April
Watch Sartre's play No Exit.
21 April
I'll be out of town. But!:
Homework: Answer the question on BlackBoard: Why don't Joseph, Estelle, and Ines leave the room at the end of the play? Remember and apply Sartre's ideas from "Existentialism is a Humanism." (Note: "they are afraid" is not a complete answer. If you think they are afraid, what are they afraid of?)
25 April
I'll have special office hours today from 1 to 3:30, to help you with anything Philosophical. Stop by my office to talk if you like.
26 April
I will bring you some selections from Nietzsche.
28 April
I will bring you some selections from Simone de Beauvoir.

I had mentioned in class "The Grand Inquisitor," a section of The Brothers Karamazov. This novel was seen as a predecessor of existentialism. The Grand Inquisitor is a story that one of the characters tells to his brother. This is a dramatization with the great Sir John Gielgud. It is worth watching: can you give a Sartrean interpretation of the events, and of what the Inquisitor says to Christ?

A reminder: You can write a paper as extra-credit, or to replace your lowest three homework grades (including not done). It will be due the last week of classes. It should be 4-5 pages long. Questions you might consider are:
  • What might matter to your personal identity, other than memories?
  • Consider a conflict between utilitarianism and Kantianism. Which theory looks more plausible? Or do both fair poorly?
  • Rawls argues we should want a much more equal society. Is he right? Why do we accept the very great wealth inequalities that exist today?
  • Does Descartes's dualism actually explain anything? What do psychologists miss that Descartes can explain?
  • Compare Nietzsche's answer to the question of purpose to Sartre's. Which is better? Why?
Check with me for advice.
1 May
Reading! Read Albert Camus's very short essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. We'll have a brief quiz about the reading at the beginning of class.
3 May
I will bring you a short selection from Albert Camus's The Rebel that we can read together.
4 May
Online practice quiz on the question of purpose.

(PS, just so you don't think I'm just making stuff up! I mentioned in class that Cornell West had written about MLK, and asked you if you remembered him from the Matrix. Here's a picture of the great American Philosopher Cornell West in The Matrix playing one of the councilors of Zion. He was in Reloaded also, but I think maybe not in the last one.)
5 May
Quiz on the question of purpose.