Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Online Philosophy Resources

People often ask me about finding philosophy resources online. There is now a multiplicity of online resources available for free -- online philosophy classes, lectures, materials, etc. This is a sampling:

http://www.epistemelinks.com/index.aspx (thousands of links to philosophy audio and video, course materials and other philosophy resources)

http://broodsphilosophy.wordpress.com/2006/06/15/online-videos-of-philosophical-lectures/ (list of online videos of various philosophy lectures)

http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/Linguistics-and-Philosophy/ (free lecture notes and videos from MIT)

http://www.christiancolleges.com/blog/2009/top-100-open-coursware-links-on-theology-and-philosophy/ (a list of open courseware links on philosophy and theology)

http://www.erraticimpact.com/html/philosophy_pedagogy.htm (links to syllabi and course material published on the web by philosophy instructors)

http://philosophy-toolbox.org/ (resources for college and pre-college philosophy instruction)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Science Fair and Ethics

Yesterday I showed up in the fifth grade classroom in which I've been teaching, prepared to talk with the students about whether you can get something form nothing, whether everything has a beginning, and related questions. When I arrived, the class informed me that they had just had a discussion about an ethical problem related to the upcoming Science Fair, and they wondered if I could help. We set aside my planned discussion and started talking.

Two of the students had proposed an experiment for the Science Fair in which they would put two male Beta fish in a tank and see if one of the fish killed the other, and observe what characteristics the killer fish had (larger, more agitated, etc.). They and some of the other students in the class had begun to wonder if this was an ethically permissible experiment.

I asked the students what arguments that they had so far developed, for and against the experiment. They told me that the benefit of the experiment would be its scientific purpose: to see if one of the male Beta fish would kill the other and, if so, warn people about putting the two fish together. The problem, they said, is that they would be setting up a situation in which a fish might die, and was killing one fish acceptable if it meant saving many more?

We began by talking about the larger question of sacrificing one to save many. I explained to the students Bernard Williams’ scenario in which an innocent bystander walks into a town where a militia captain is planning to shoot twenty hostages, and the captain tells the bystander that if the bystander shoots just one of the hostages, the captain will let the remaining hostages go free. What would you do if you were the bystander? Would it be the right thing to do to shoot one of the hostages?

The students were almost unanimously reluctant to shoot the hostage, reflecting that there is a difference between letting someone die by not saving them, and killing someone yourself. But is sacrificing one life wrong if the sacrifice saves more lives? Some students seemed to claim that every life is sacred, and so it is never right to sacrifice one life to save others (unless the sacrifice is voluntary, one student claimed). Is this also true for fish?

One student argued that people are more valuable than fish, and that there is a distinction between sacrificing a fish and sacrificing a person. We discussed another scenario I described to the students. You have a little sister who is very sick, and the only way to save her is to inject many kittens with the illness she has and experiment with various medicines to see if they will work. What should the doctors do? The class was pretty divided on this one, though most of the children ended up claiming that if it was the only way to save the sister, the experiments on the kittens would be ethically permissible. But this was a much more difficult question for most of them than the potential harm to fish from the proposed Science Fair experiment.

So are kittens more valuable than fish? We discussed our intuitions that creatures more like us deserve greater respect – are those intuitions permissible reasons for valuing people more than kittens and kittens more than fish? Do we really know how fish experience the world – what they feel and understand?

We talked then about the ostensible scientific purpose for the experiment. One student commented that she thought that publicizing the experiment, say on YouTube, would be a way to inform people about the risks of putting two of these fish together, if it turned out that one of them killed the other.

“I don’t think this would work,” a student warned. “A YouTube video might only encourage other people to try the experiment themselves.”

“Like dogfighting!” another student exclaimed.

We talked about the possibility that the experiment might have larger negative consequences, a new experiment sweeping Science Fairs around the country, more and more Beta fish dying.

Could this experiment really have some potential social utility, for fish or for humans? Would one experiment with two fish be sufficient to give us any meaningful data? We decided that some further research was in order. The students who wanted to do the experiment are going to investigate whether there is any ongoing scientific research about Beta fish to which they might contribute. The students agreed that this information might help them decide if the Beta fish experiment would be ethically kosher.

At the end of the discussion, one girl commented, “I think that what might be really interesting would be to create a Science Fair project about this ethical issue, and to talk to a lot of people to see what they think and the reasons they give for what they think.”

"What do you think, personally?" one of the students asked me.

"For me it's like many issues in philosophy," I answered. "The more I think about it, the more complicated it seems."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Dreams and dreaming

On Tuesday, the fifth grade students with whom I've been doing philosophy and I spent about 40 minutes talking about dreaming. We started with the students' questions, which included:

What is a dream?
Can dreams affect your everyday life?
How do dreams work?
Why do we dream?
How do we know we're not dreaming right now?
How does what we think about affect our dreams?
Are dreams real?
How do you know you are dreaming?

We then began talking about what dreams are, whether they always include images and/or words, and we spent a little time talking about the differences between dreams and waking experience. Some students noted that dreams were "fuzzy," "strange-feeling," and included "things that couldn't happen in real life, like flying."

Other students, though, observed that often their dreams felt just like "real life" and that it took a while upon waking to clarify that what had happened was a dream. We then discussed whether we could be dreaming right now.

"There's really no way to be sure we aren't," commented one student.

"Yes, there is," another replied. "Dreams don't feel this sharp and clear. And if this was a dream, we wouldn't be talking about whether it was a dream."

"We could be," another student responded. "Sometimes I'm dreaming and I think I'm waking up and I ask myself if I'm still dreaming, and then realize I'm still in a dream. Like having a dream within a dream."

Why do we dream?

"I think dreams help us to work out how we feel about things," one student offered. "Sometimes I'm angry and then I dream about it and then I feel better because I know why I felt that way."

"I believe dreams help us balance our feelings," another student stated. "Like sometimes I feel sad, and then I dream something that makes me really happy. Or I’m really excited and then I dream something sad that calms me down."

“Sometimes dreams are scary and you can wake up even more tired than you were before you went to sleep,” a student said.

“If you could choose whether you ever dreamed or not, would you choose to dream?” I asked the class.

Most students said yes. “Why? I asked.

“I think dreams allow our brains to stay active when we’re sleeping,” suggested one student. “Our brains don’t want to shut down altogether, and so we dream and that keeps our brains doing something,”

“It’s like dreams are screensavers for our minds!” a student declared.

Everyone seemed to like that idea.

“I think dreams are really interesting,” a student reflected. “I couldn’t imagine how it would be not to have dreams.”

"What if dreams were a really important part of life?" another student asked.

"What do you mean?" I responded.

"Well, what if we live a whole other life in our dreams, and we just don't understand when we're awake that our dreaming life is just as important as our waking life?"

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Book Thief and Psychological Egoism

On Friday I had a marvelous discussion with a group of students in an eighth grade English class about The Book Thief, a novel by Markus Zusak. The story is told from the perspective of Death, who describes his experiences during the Holocaust, and in particular the story of a young girl living near Munich. This was our second meeting to discuss the book, which is beautifully written, darkly funny, and deeply moving.

At one point we were talking about the family of this young girl, who are hiding a Jewish man in their basement, and the courage and selflessness of these people. One student commented, "I don't think that they're selfless, really. I actually don't think anyone can ever really act other than in ways that benefit themselves."
I pointed out to the students that there is a philosophical view, psychological egoism, that holds that people are always motivated by self-interest even in what seem to be acts of great unselfishness, and explained a little about it. "What do you think?" I asked.

The students were sympathetic to the view. “When you think about it,” noted one student, “most of the time, when people do nice things for other people what they really want is for people to think that they’re good people.” “Really,” said another student, “everything we do, we do because it benefits us in some way.”

Giving the students one of the standard objections to psychological egoism, I asked, "Well, what about a parent who gives up her life to save the life of her child? Is there any way we can say she is benefiting herself? After all, she's dead and so unable to appreciate any benefits at all." Some of the students thought this presented a significant problem for psychological egoism. But the student who initiated this discussion countered, “She could think she’s going to heaven.” “Okay, let’s assume she doesn’t believe in heaven,” I replied. “Well,” another student responded, “she could think that her life would be miserable if her child died. And her last moments would be pleasurable to her in a way because she knows she is saving her child’s life, and so that benefits her.”

We talked about the characters in the novel, some of whom risk their livelihoods and their lives to help others. Can we really call that self-interested? Isn’t there a difference in self-interestedness between the family who took in a Jewish man hiding from the Nazis, and people who took advantage of the black market in Nazi Germany to profit from the war?

Thursday, February 5, 2009


The House in Winter

in the year's late tidewash,
a corner cupboard suddenly wavers
in low-flung sunlight,
cupboard never quite visible before.

Its jars
of last summer's peaches
have come into their native gold—
not the sweetness of last summer,
but today's,
fresh from the tree of winter.
The mouth swallows peach, and says gold.

Though they dazzle and are gone,
the halves of fruit, the winter light,
the cupboard it has swept back into shadow.

As inhaled swiftly or slowly,
the sweet-wood scent goes out the same -
saying, not world but the bright self breathing;
saying, not self but the world's bright breath.
Saying finally, always, gone,
the deep shelves of systole and diastole empty.

Or perhaps it is
that the house only constructs itself
while we look -
opens, from room to room, because we look.
The wood, the glass, the linen, flinging themselves
into form at the clap of our footsteps.
As the hard-dormant
peach tree wades into blossom and leaf
at the spring sun's knock: neither surprised
nor expectant, but every cell awakened at that knock.

-- Jane Hirshfield

February Birthdays

February 2 Ayn Rand (Russian-American, born 1905)

February 3 Simone Weil (French, born 1909)

February 6 Antoine Arnauld (French, born 1612)

February 7 Thomas More (British, born 1477)

February 8 Martin Buber (Austrian-Israeli, born 1878)

February 11 Hans-Georg Gadamer (German, born 1900)

February 15 Galileo Galilei (Italian, born 1564), Jeremy Bentham (British, born 1748), and Alfred North Whitehead (British, born 1861)

February 21 John Rawls (American, born 1921)

February 22 Arthur Schopenhauer (Polish, born 1788)

February 23 Karl Robert Eduard von Hartmann (German, born 1842), Karl Jaspers (German, born 1883), and W.E.B. DuBois (American, born 1868)

February 24 Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (Polish, born 1885), Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (Italian, born 1463)

February 25 Benedetto Croce (Italian,born 1866)

February 26 Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury (British, born 1671)

February 27 Rudolph Steiner (Austrian, born 1861), Paul Ricoeur (French, born 1913), L.E.J. Brouwer (Dutch, born 1881), and George Herbert Mead (American, born 1863)

February 28 Michel de Montaigne (French, born 1533)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Philosophy as a way of life

When, in our first class together, I asked the fifth grade students with whom I'm doing philosophy this winter what they imagined was the definition of philosophy, one student volunteered that he thought philosophy was "a way of life." Of course, I loved the sophistication of this answer, and there are philosophers who hold this view. I started wondering, thought, exactly what it means. I don't think that anyone would suggest that either sociology or anthropology is a way of life, so why does this claim seem at all plausible for philosophy? (Of course, there is far less controversy over the meaning of sociology or anthropology among sociologists and anthropologists!)

Many professional philosophers would argue that philosophy is a particular discipline practiced within academia, and some have told me that they don't think what I do (with pre-college students) is real philosophy. Certainly, philosophy is a discipline with a history, and knowledge about the philosophical tradition deepens and expands thinking about philosophical questions. What I do with pre-college students is to focus on the discussion of philosophical problems: What is truth? What are the elements of a good life? What can we know about the world? These are all ways of approaching the study of philosophy, but what about philosophy as a way of life?

Pierre Hadot, the French philosopher, talks about philosophy as a way of seeing, and being in, the world. It is "love of the good," developed through dialogue and maintained through self-examination and questioning. So philosophy as a way of life would be a life devoted to questioning and the search for understanding. That seems to me close to what this student meant when he referred to philosophy as a way of life. It's an appealing idea. I do think about my work with young people as a way of helping them become critical thinkers and people actively engaged in trying to understand the world. But are all people who seek understanding of the right way to live through questioning and self-examination, and who think about the fundamental questions of human existence in dialogue with others, philosophers?