Friday, March 30, 2012

New Philosophy Blog

Moti Mizrahi has started a blog called Think: Just Do It. He's put up some interesting clips that are worth checking out. The Daily Show clip having to do with whether it's ever okay to play the "Hitler card" in making an argument is especially good.

How (not) to reply to the skeptic

External World Skepticism is the view that we do not have knowledge about the world around us. In reply to this view, some have argued that we should reject the sorts of skeptical challenges (e.g., that we might currently be dreaming, that we might be in the Matrix, etc.) that the skeptic suggests undermines our having knowledge. A principle like the following might be invoked:

Given a conflict between two beliefs, it is rational to reject the less initially plausible one, rather than the more plausible one.

The anti-skeptic can thus argue that my belief that there's a keyboard before me is more plausible than that my belief that I might be merely dreaming the keyboard. As a result, it's rational for me to reject the skeptical scenario (that I'm dreaming) and accept the more plausible explanation of my perceptions (that there's really a keyboard before me).

Michael Huemer suggests that this is G.E. Moore's strategy in replying to the skeptic.

I wonder what readers of this blog think of the principle above. I'm especially interested in the clause 'initial plausibility.' What, for example, entitles one to claim that my belief about there actually is a keyboard before me has more initial plausibility than my beliefs that knowledge requires the ability to rule out skeptical scenarios like that I'm dreaming or that I might be dreaming right now or that this keyboard that I seem to see might be a hallucination?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

An ex-missionary might have turned linguistic theory on it's head

Daniel Everett went to live with an Amazonian tribe in the hopes of converting them to Christianity. He eventually learned their complex language, suffered from malaria, lost his faith, and he thought quite a bit about a theory made famous by the esteemed Noam Chomsky: Universal Grammar. Based on what he learned about the language of the Amazonian tribe, Everett has written a book in which he tries to refute this widely-held thesis. It's making some serious waves in philosophy and linguistics departments around the world. An article on Everett and his book can be found here.

Some Bittersweet News

I recently accepted a position at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I'll be teaching my last class at UPB this summer. It's Ethics and it meets during the first, four-week summer session. I'm working on the syllabus now and it's shaping up to be really interesting (and fun!) class. We'll be reading a great book by Julia Driver called Ethics: The Fundamentals and this will be supplemented by a handful of movies/documentaries. If you're thinking of enrolling in a course this summer, I hope you consider this one. Remember that there's free housing if you enroll in summer courses.

* If I'm your advisor, you should request a new one & talk to another faculty member about your schedule for the fall.

* If you're enrolled in the philosophy program, email me to make an appointment to discuss options for degree completion.

* If you've borrowed a book from me (you know who you are!), please return it by the end of the semester.

As you can imagine, this was a difficult decision. I'm going to miss my colleagues and students at UPB, but I'll have some very fond memories.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Foundational Justification

Michael Huemer argues for the following principle:

Phenomenal Conservativism (PC): If it seems to S as if P, then S thereby has at least prima facie justification for believing that P.

So if it seems to me as if my coffee mug is on my desk in front of me, then I thereby am at least prima facie justified in believing that my mug is on my desk. (The phrase 'prima facie' means something like upon first sight or it initially appears as if.) In other words, I can typically trust my perceptions in rendering my beliefs about my environment justified.

So he thinks that it's legitimate to accept things as they appear. As he put it, "... appearances are presumed true, until proven false."

Do you think he's right about this? Should we be phenomenal conservatives and hold that PC is true?

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

The eighth amendment states that, "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." But what exactly constitutes cruel and unusual punishment? Is capital punishment a form of cruel and unusual punishment? Are certain methods of killing criminals cruel and unusual (e.g., by firing squad, quartering, etc.)? What distinguishes the punishments that are cruel and unusual from those that are not?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A fascinating case about death benefits...

Is a child born after it's father's death entitled to receive benefits such as life insurance payments? How about if the child was conceived after his death? This issue is currently being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court. Robert Capato froze his sperm and, eighteen months after he died, his wife gave birth to their twins. She, of course, used in vetro fertilization to become pregnant. Ms. Capato has since applied for survivor benefits on behalf of the twins, but the Social Security Administration rejected her claim. The case has since moved up through the courts and is now being heard by the Supreme Court. Obviously a host of fascinating moral and legal implications are lurking here. What do readers of this blog think about all this?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Awareness: Direct vs. Indirect

We're reading Michael Huemer's wonderful book Skepticism and Veil of Perception in my Metaphysics and Epistemology course. I'm not convinced by his response to skepticism, but he does a marvelous job in developing his argument. Yesterday in class we were discussing a distinction he makes between direct awareness and indirect awareness. He notes that, " are indirectly aware of x if you are aware of x, but your awareness of x is based on your awareness of something else. You are directly aware of x if you are aware of x, and your awareness is not based on your awareness of anything else." This is pretty clear. But what are some examples of being directly aware? Huemer goes on to claim that perception is a case of direct awareness. He thinks that when I see the pen on my desk, I am directly aware of (some parts or aspects) of the external world. Let's set this issue aside.

What are some cases-besides perception-that are instances of direct awareness? A hackneyed example might be pain. Suppose I experience a throbbing pain in my ankle and I say, "My ankle hurts." How would I justify this claim? What reasons do I have for believing that my ankle hurts? It seems to me that it is the experience of the pain. Now, is my awareness of the pain based on my awareness of something else? In other words, am I directly aware of my pain? A number of my students thought this was not direct, but we couldn't come to any consensus on what this awareness could be based upon. Some said that it was my neurophysiology that my awareness of the pain is based upon. But this is to use "based upon" in a different sense than how we're using it here. Huemer is talking about epistemology, not metaphysics. So, for example, some of my beliefs are based upon other beliefs. I believe that Saul isn't home and this is based on the fact that he didn't answer his door. So what, if anything, do I base my belief that I'm in pain upon? I don't see my neurophysiology as a reason in the relevant sense (i.e., some belief that I have that explains why I come to the conclusion that my ankle hurts). Indeed, it seems to me that this is an example of being directly aware.

I'm hoping that readers of this blog will provide some additional examples of direct awareness. Of course, you're welcome to discuss the pain example I just gave too.

Why has tuition gone up?

Here's an interesting article on why the cost of education has gone up so sharply. One of the reasons considered is the increase in state pension expenses (and, we might add, increased costs of medical care) as baby boomers retire. Unfortunately, the money has to come from somewhere and raising tuition is becoming a favorite tool for politicians.

Anyone have any suggestions for policy changes that would reverse this trend?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Animal Experimentation

A group of students in my Philosophy and Public Issues class just gave a presentation on the moral status of animals, focusing on medical and other forms of testing. There are obviously countless resources available online. Here's a piece worth checking out. Of note, especially given our discussion in class, is the following passage:

"Moreover, it is argued, the lives of all creatures, great and small, have value and are worthy of respect. This right to be treated with respect does not depend on an ability to reason. An insane person has a right to be treated with respect, yet he or she may not be able to act rationally. Nor does a right to be treated with respect rest on being a member of a certain species. Restricting respect for life to a certain species is to perform an injustice similar to racism or sexism. Like the racist who holds that respect for other races does not count as much as respect for his or her own race, those who support painful experimentation on animals assume that respect for other species does not count as much as respect for members of his or her own species. "Speciesism" is as arbitrarily unjust as racism or sexism. The right to be treated with respect rests, rather, on a creature's being a "subject of a life," with certain experiences, preferences, and interests. Animals, like humans, are subjects of a life. Justice demands that the interests of animals be respected, which includes respect for their interest to be spared undeserved pain."

I wonder what readers of this blog think of this argument and how far the conclusion extends. As was brought up in class discussion, it seems that there are some cases of causing suffering that are morally permissible. Indeed, it may be morally obligatory to torture an organism if doing so were to produce a great deal of good or prevent a great deal of bad. So what conclusion should we draw about whether it's morally permissible to engage in animal testing/the sorts of experiments that are morally acceptable?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Conference at Ohio State

The Ohio State University Undergraduate Philosophy Conference
May 11th and May 12th

Papers written by undergraduates on any philosophical topic are welcome. Entries should be roughly 10-20 pages in length. Please remember to include a cover letter containing your name, e-mail, phone number, University/College/Institution, paper title, and short abstract (roughly 100-200 words).

Submit papers via email to

The deadline for submissions is April 1st. All applicants will be notified of the status of their submission by April 15th.