Monthly Archives: October 2012

Proving Heaven

Rosa Celeste: Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have always included a section on the afterlife in my Introduction to Philosophy class. As bit of grim humor, I tell my students that this is one philosophical problem that has a definite answer—unfortunately getting that answer requires dying.

Not surprisingly, students often point to examples of experiences in which people are technically dead, but are restored to life. People who survive these encounters with death often speak of strange experiences that they sometimes take as evidence for the afterlife.

One of the best publicized examples of this is the case of Dr. Eben Alexander, a Harvard neurosurgeon. After being put into a coma by bacterial meningitis, he had a death and revival experience which he has extensively publicized. He has also written up his experience as a book, the aptly named Proof of Heaven.

While Dr. Alexander’s case was given extensive media coverage because he is a Harvard neurosurgeon, his case is otherwise not significantly different from other such cases and can be assessed as they have been assessed. Naturally, it is worth noting that his medical training does give him credibility as an expert on neurosurgery. However, as an observer of the afterlife he would seem to be no more (or less) of an expert than anyone else. That is, his expertise in neurosurgery would not seem to apply to metaphysical experiences of the sort alleged to have occurred.

One stock criticism of the near-death experience is that a person who is revived is not properly dead. After all, they are revived shortly after death rather than resurrected or raised from the dead. As such, there is the rather legitimate question of whether or not they are even dead in a manner that would allow them to experience an afterlife, should it exist. They might just be “mostly dead” rather than “properly dead” and hence any experiences they have would not be experiences of the afterlife.

A second stock criticism is that the person who reports on near death experiences is not experiencing an afterlife, but is in a state of dreaming or hallucination that is mistaken for the afterlife on the basis that they were “mostly dead.” Critics routinely point to the similarities between near death experiences and drug experiences and the case of Dr. Alexander is no exception. It certainly makes sense that a dying brain would experience dream or drug like experiences that have no connection to the afterlife.

The cutting edge of these criticisms is to be found in Occam’s razor: the experiences can be explained adequately without postulating a metaphysical afterlife. As such, the explanation that the experiences are occurring within a dying (but still living) brain is the better explanation.

Aside from Dr. Alexander’s fame, there seems to be no real difference between his experiences and those reported by many other people before him.  Given that these cases do not provide proof of heaven, then neither does his case.

Naturally, I would like to believe in the sort of wonderful afterlife claimed by Dr. Alexander. However, wishful thinking is not proof.

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God, Rape & Mourdock

Getup Get God

Getup Get God (Photo credit: prettywar-stl)

In a recent debate, Republican Richard Mourdock was addressing the subject of abortion. After noting that he believes that abortion is acceptable only to save the life of the mother, he went on to say: “Life is that gift from God. I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen.”

As might be imagined, Mourdock has come under attack for his remarks. These attacks have primarily focused on what his claim indicates about his view of women and the sort of legislation he is likely to support.

Rather than address these matters, I will instead focus on his claim that if a woman gets pregnant from rape, then God intended it to happen. While this matter deals specifically with rape, it is part of the general problem of evil. This is, of course, the problem of reconciling a certain conception of God (all good, all powerful and all knowing) with the existence of evil (in this case rape). It also falls under the general subject of God’s causal relation to the world.

While he might not be aware of it, Mourdock is presenting a view of God that has been argued for by theologians and philosophers. To be specific, this is the view that God is the cause of all that occurs and that nothing occurs contrary to God’s intention.  For example, Hume in his essay on the immortality of the soul, writes  “as every effect implies a cause, and that another, till we reach the first cause of all, which is the Deity; every thing that happens is ordained by him…”

As far as things happening against God’s intention, this would seem impossible given the usual conception of God. After all, things could only go against His intention if He lacked the power to do otherwise or the event in question took place without His knowledge. On the assumption that He is all knowing and all powerful, then events happening contrary to His intention could not occur. Thus, if someone becomes pregnant from rape, then God (if He exists) intended that to happen-just as Mourdock claimed.

One reply to this is that God allows things to happen contrary to His intention, such as pregnancy arising from rape. The obvious reply is, of course, that if allows it and could prevent it, then He does intend for it to occur. If He cannot prevent it, then this would entail that God is rather different than the stock conception of a perfect deity.

It might be replied that God allows things to happen contrary to His intention because of free will. While this might get Him off the hook in regards to allowing rape, it does not do so in the case of pregnancy. After all, God could allow rapists the freedom to rape and still prevent rape from causing pregnancy. He could, for example, give women that pregnancy shut down system that Akin infamously mentioned. Or, even better, he could allow people the free will to chose to rape but prevent them from ever acting on that choice. As such, it would seem that if God exists and matches the stock description, then God does intent for the pregnancies that arise from rape.

There is, of course, still the question of whether not women should be legally compelled to endure such God intended  pregnancies. It could be argued that since God intended the woman to get pregnant from rape, then abortions should not be allowed since God’s intent should not be violated.  The easy and obvious reply to this is that the same logic would entail that we should do nothing in response to anything other than to accept it rather than go against God’s intent.

It can also be argued that we can determine  God’s intent by allowing abortion in such cases. After all, if God intends for the pregnancy to go through, then God can make that happen. If the abortion succeeds, then either God intended for it to succeed (and thus the abortion should have been conducted) or God is lacking in some manner (or does not exist).

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Interview at RationalHub

For anyone who might be interested, I’ve done a long (it comes to over 6000 words) interview at RationalHub. It was quite a searching interview – I was asked questions about the New Atheism, free will, metaethics, science-religion accommodationism, arguments for the existence of God, the relationship between science and philosophy, and the spectre of “scientism”.

Come to think of it, the interview could have been even longer … as most of these questions are worth a book each.

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Peanuts & Aesthetic Identity

A Charlie Brown Christmas was the first Peanut...

A Charlie Brown Christmas was the first Peanuts television special. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a recent essay cartoonist Scott R. Kurtz objected to the creation of new Peanuts content. This essay led me to consider the matter of aesthetic identity and the creation of this essay.

In the specific case of Peanuts, Charles Schulz was rather clear that he was the only one who could draw Peanuts. While there has been, as of this writing, no attempt to create new Peanuts strips, Boom Studios released a Peanuts comic book with new content that was not created by Schulz. There is also a rumor that the folks behind the movie Ice Age will be making a Peanuts movie written by Charles Schulz’s son and grandson.

Obviously, the continuation of characters and settings beyond the death of the original creator is nothing new.  Nor is the transfer of creative control of characters and settings anything new. Characters such as Superman and Batman live on after their creators have died. Star Trek continued after the death of Gene Rodenberry with the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise and a new Star Trek movie. Frank Herbert’s Dune universe has spawned numerous books written after his death, including prequels. The same is true of Asimov’s Foundation series.

In general, the legal matters regarding the continuation of characters and settings when they are no longer in control of the original creator can be easily settled. After all, it seems rather well established that such intellectual properties are just that, properties. As such they can be inherited, bought and sold like any other property. So, if a company owns the legal rights to Peanuts, then they can do with Peanuts as they wish within the specifics of their rights. Naturally, there can be nasty legal battles and disputes when it comes to specific properties, but this is not anything special to such intellectual properties.

Since I am not a lawyer but a philosopher, I will not focus on the legal questions. I will, instead, focus on the philosophical matters.

One point of concern is the matter of ethics. To be specific, there is the moral question of whether or not the creations should be continued after the death of the creator. This can, of course, be tied to the legal concerns in many ways. If, for example, the creator agreed to this continuation in a contract or other agreement, then it would seem that the continuation would be morally acceptable. If the creator made it clear that s/he did not want the work continued, then even if someone (say a relative who inherited the property) had the legal right to continue the work, then doing so would seem morally dubious. This would also apply to cases in which characters and settings had entered the public domain. While people would have the legal right to use the characters and settings, there is still the moral question of whether or not they should do so—especially when their efforts degrade the characters and settings. For example, the John Carter movie is based on Burroughs’ works which are now public domain. However, the treatment of these excellent works was so awful that it seems that Disney acted in an immoral way by degrading the characters and settings with an inferior work. While the moral concerns are both interesting and important, I am also concerned with the matter of aesthetic identity.

Philosophers have disputed the matter of identity for quite some time and have focused on specific types of identity, such as personal identity. Fortunately, aesthetic identity can bypass many of the usual metaphysical problems regarding identity since the fictional characters and settings do not have the ontological status of actual people and settings (unless, of course, one believes that fictional worlds are also actual worlds). However, there are still concerns about identity in the context of aesthetics.

In the case of characters, the concern is similar to that of personal identity: when a character is continued by someone other than the original creator, is the character still the same character? To use a specific example, if someone else draws and writes Charlie Brown, is that character still Charlie Brown in terms of his aesthetic identity? Or is it just a character that looks similar and says similar things—a mere imitator? In some cases, it would seem that the continuity of aesthetic identity is possible. After all, it seems reasonable to claim that many comic book characters retain sufficient identity to still be the same characters even though they are drawn and scripted by different people (and played by different actors in movies).  Interestingly, it can be argued that in some cases even the creator of a character fails to preserve the aesthetic identity of a character. What is needed, of course, is a full account of aesthetic identity of characters—a project that goes beyond this short essay.

In the case of settings, the aesthetic identity would also be a matter of concern. For example there is the question of whether or not the Dune universe in the newer prequels is similar enough to Herbert’s Dune universe in terms of its aesthetic qualities. While the identity of a setting would include the obvious factors such as getting the locations, inhabitants, history and such right, there is also the matter of capturing the “look and feel” of the setting. So, while a book might get all the facts about the Foundation universe right, it might fail to capture the aesthetic qualities that make the Foundation universe the Foundation universe. As with the aesthetic identity of characters, the specific conditions of the aesthetic identity of settings would also need to be developed.

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Being in Uncertainty

Like millions of people I watched Felix Baumgartner’s space jump last Sunday. He leapt from a tiny capsule pulled 24 miles into the sky by a helium balloon. He fell to the ground from the edge of space, breaking the sound barrier, and several records, in the process.

I found his achievement moving and compelling. And this surprised me because quite often I find extreme feats of this sort rather sterile, and perhaps a little bullet-headed.  When someone walks across the Antarctic, or climbs Everest without oxygen, it seems to involve a chest-beating determination to assert oneself against nature. The self-assertion makes it seem a small inward-looking response to the largeness and awesomeness of the world. It reminds me of the character in William Golding’s novel Pincher Martin who takes huge pride in surviving against the odds on a tiny rock in the middle of the ocean,  staving his hunger with vile rock-dwelling creatures and sheltering himself by squeezing into a tiny jagged hole. The astonishing twist in that story shows  his pride in that narrow victory to be the very same thing as his failure to see and appreciate something much larger and more beautiful than his deluded and debased survival.

Golding’s novel has a belief in God at its centre. So as an atheist, I read it at arm’s length. I can’t share its central vision.  Some or all of Baumgartner’s jump team are atheists too. That’s the message I took from mission control’s reassurance to Baumgartner that “his guardian angel” was with him. The notion of a guardian angel is so kitsch, so primitive and so not a part of most religious people’s  experience of faith that it seemed to me that these colleagues of Baumgartner were stating their atheism at the same time as they indulged an (entirely understandable) need to supplicate (someone, something) for their friend’s survival.

That these scientists felt drawn to this playful but clumsy invocation of a supernatural entity in which they probably disbelieved gives me a clue about why I found Baumgartner’s jump so moving.

There is an atheist’s plight, I think. Not for all atheists, but for some atheists most of the time, and perhaps even for most atheists some of the time. The plight is this: there is no God, but sometimes invoking the concept of God seems a very compelling way indeed of doing justice to the strangeness, the beauty and the peril of our lives.

An atheist invoking God in response to peril can easily be seen as a momentary weakness, a panicked irrationality, so it is not terribly interesting. More interesting is the way an atheist might feel when contemplating the strange empty  infinity and complexity of the universe and the sheer oddness of being a conscious presence within it. We might not be at all tempted to say that the idea of God needs to be invoked to explain the universe. But the idea that God exists and that we humans are in a state of separation from that God can seem like a very vivid way of experiencing our awe in the face of a not-yet-fully-explained universe and also of capturing  some central philosophical problems. The idea of a God from whom we are separated and whom we strive to rejoin (the idea of a fall followed by redemption) has in the past lent philosophy some of its fundamental structure. Hegel’s self-positing spirit, for example, is a version of God coming to self-knowledge through a process which involves first the generation and then the overcoming of separateness.  And even if we eschew Hegelian ways of thinking,  the idea of a God that we must strive to rejoin feels like a rich metaphor for the traditional philosophical project of characterising reality in a manner which makes it both independent of us and yet within our knowledge. The truth (if it is a truth) of the atheist’s claim that there is no God sometimes seems like poor compensation for the loss of the religious worldview –  because that worldview is a very beautiful and metaphorically fertile orientation to the strange condition of being conscious in the world.

So, just as Baumgartner’s colleagues summoned the idea of a guardian angel to fill the space left by their disbelief in God,  I too look around for metaphors to fill the space left by my own disbelief in God. And Baumgartner’s endeavour at the physical margins of our world, the point where it joins the universe, seemed to fit the bill. Where Pincher Martin, in Golding’s novel, squeezes himself into a small hole on a small rock and feels big, Baumgartner took himself to the edge of the largest possible space to (in his own words) “see how small he was.” It was (corny expressions seem unavoidable here) an encounter with the infinite. The symbolism of falling also has poignancy. It speaks of a chosen passivity, a surrender, very different from the assertive striving  of a Pincher Martin, and very resonant with Christian mythology. Finally the sheer pointlessness of jumping from space seems a rather heroic defiance of the meaninglessness that threatens to engulf us when we look at a vast universe empty of mind: it embraces meaninglessness joyfully and colonises it with purpose.

I don’t want to spend too long teasing out the symbolism of the jump. Instead I want to ask a question. It seems from the above that we (or many of us) have a need for what might be called aids to reflection, aids to the contemplation of certain fundamental features of our presence in the world. If a belief in God is not available to us as a supplier of such aids, we look for it elsewhere. What I want to ask is this: Can a religious person endorse this status of religion as being, not the provider of truth but simply a provider of resources for reflection? If we reject every distinctively religious claim (that there is a god, that there is a soul, or an afterlife, or reincarnation …), if we say that religion offers us no truths of its own but only resources for the contemplation of the truths of science and philosophy, and if we say that religion is not even the only supplier of such resources because art and literature and jumping men are also resources, might it still be possible to be religious? Note that I’m not asking  a question about the value of religion, considered from outside the religious perspective. I’m asking whether the religious perspective itself can survive a certain view of its status. In a review of Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists John Gray quotes  Keats to suggest that “the heart of religion isn’t belief, but something more like what Keats described as negative capability: ‘being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’.” But can a religious person really and wholeheartedly subscribe to such a view?

I think that this question translates into (at least) three more specific questions (only very roughly formulated here):

(1) Is it really true that a religious practitioner can give an entirely “non-creedal” account of religion, one that does not claim there to be any distinctively religious truths  and states that religion is simply not about belief? Quakerism, for example,  advises us to “remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way.” But is it, in fact, possible for a religious person consistently to sustain this religious non-cognitivism?

(2) If religion turns its back on the notion of religious beliefs, can it still maintain a distinctive territory for itself, or does it simply become a part of art and literature? If we contemplate God without asserting his existence, and derive very important lessons from the contemplation, what – if anything – makes this different from contemplating, say, Achilles, or Hamlet, or Dorothea Brooke?

(3) A version of religion which denied the existence of God, and of every single other supernatural phenomenon, would be a very profoundly revisionist one. It might be one that almost every single religious practitioner rejected. Is such extreme religious innovation coherent? Or does religion have to be defined in terms of (certain very general) widely shared features of people’s actual religious practice?

Perhaps these questions seem unmotivated: if one rejects religious belief, why struggle to find common ground with religion? That might very well be a good question. But the extremity of the current antipathy between atheism and faith seems to call for an exploration of different, happier and more mutually enriching forms of interaction between them.  So I’d be grateful for any comments that considered the three questions above. If John Gray and Keats are right, and religion is, not about belief but about “being in uncertainty,” are those questions the right ones for the project of making sense of religion so-conceived? How could they be better formulated? What further questions are there for that project? What direction might the answers take?


Lord Russell meet Lord Russell

More from the world of Bertrand Russell. Here’s an exchange of letters between Russell and his namesake, Lord Russell of Liverpool, which took place in February 1959.

Dear Lord Russell

I am forwarding the enclosed as Monsieur Edmond Paris, and he is not alone, has got us mixed up. The first paragraph of his letter refers to you. The others are for me and I shall be replying to them. Would you please return the letter when you have read it.

Yours truly,
Russell of Liverpool

Dear Lord Russell

Thank you for your letter and for the enclosure which I return herewith. I have been wondering whether there is any means of preventing the confusion between you and me, and I half-thought we might write a joint letter to The Times in the following terms: Sir, To prevent the continuation of confusions which frequently occur, we beg to state that neither of us is the other. Do you think this would be a good plan?

Yours sincerely,

Dear Lord Russell

Many thanks for your letter of the 18th.

I am not sure whether you are in earnest or joking about a joint letter to The Times but, in either event, I think it is a good idea. Even were it not effective it would provide a little light amusement, and if you would care to write such a letter I would gladly add my signature below yours.


Yours sincerely,
Russell of Liverpool

Dear Lord Russell of Liverpool

Thank you for you letter of February 20. I was both serious and joking in my suggestion of a joint letter. I enclose a draft which I have signed, but I am entirely willing to alter the wording, if you think it too frivolous. I think, however, the present wording is more likely to secure attention than a more solemn statement.

Yours sincerely,

Dear Lord Russell

I have forwarded our letter to The Times but I have asked them, of course, to put your name before mine.

I like the wording immensely.

Russell of Liverpool

And thanks to the magic of the internet, here’s the letter, which appeared in The Times on February 28 1959.


More On Loving Bertrand Russell

“I feel I must be honest & just say once…that I am utterly devoted to thee, & have been for over 50 years. My friends have always known that I loved thee more than anyone else in the world, & they now rejoice with me that I am now able to see thee again.”—Alys Pearsall Smith

I thought I’d add some further detail to the heartbreaking tale of Alys Pearsall Smith’s lifelong love for Bertrand Russell.

Alys Pearsall Smith

Alys Pearsall Smith

Russell fell out of love with Alys in 1901, and finally left her in 1911. In August 1926, Russell’s Aunt Agatha – his mother’s sister – wrote the following letter to Russell, now married to Dora, after he had complained about a picture of Alys his aunt had up on her mantelpiece.

You owe her everything since the separation. But for her, Dora would be Miss Black, and your children illegitimate – the slightest spark of gratitude in you would acknowledge what you owe to her since you left her, in so many ways that I cannot write of. Her conduct has been noble since the separation – I am very far from being the only one who thinks this…

It would have been more manly and chivalrous of you to write me not to withdraw friendship from the woman you brought into the family, the woman you once loved and had forsaken, though her love was unchanged… You now in these later times always speak of “pain to me”, “giving me pain”, etc. – Do you ever think of Alys’s suffering – from her love for you… Yet she always speaks beautifully of you, wishing only for your happiness. Do not imagine for a moment that I ever forget, and did not feel most acutely, your own unhappiness… but to those who truly loved you, it is heart-breaking that you have not grown nobler, stronger, more loving and tender through suffering, but in every way the reverse.

Russell’s biographer, Ray Monk, notes that while Alys remained helplessly in love with Russell, following his public activities closely, and keeping a scrapbook of cuttings about him, Russell for his part scarcely gave her a thought. As for Aunt Agatha, Dora dismissed her as a “malicious old lady”, Russell’s brother Frank labelled her an “acid old spinster” and Russell hardly noticed her at all.

My Research Philosophy


(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine, if you will, a once noble vessel, now stricken and adrift. Many of the decks are ruined shells, filled with debris and inhabited by the lost and helpless. Other decks are nicer, but still plagued with troubles. To make matters worse, members of the crew and passengers live in rival groups and periodically slaughter each other over various matters. The situation is all the more hopeless because there are no lifeboats and virtually no chance of any outside help (although some swear to have seen lights in the sky).

Some few do try to set the ship right and get her back on course. Oddly enough some of the brightest passengers have retreated into the ship’s towers (the walls of which are lined with tiles of finely cut elephant tusks). In the towers, these bright people scribble furiously on scraps of paper in languages only they and their fellows can understand. These scraps, which deal with such dire matters as whether blue is green or green is blue, are passed from tower to tower to the delight of the inhabitants. Sometimes they gather together in bands and, behind tightly closed doors, discuss important matters such as whether they exist or not. While one might expect the crew and passengers would unite and toss such oddballs to the sharks, they do not. Instead, regular tribute is given to the tower dwellers.

Given the dire plight of the ship, it seems immoral for the tower dwellers to squander their intellects and the ship’s resources in such activities. Instead, it seems fair to expect them to help solve the problems that plague the stricken vessel, and those on board.

Not surprisingly, the stricken ship is a crudely obvious metaphor for the earth and the ‘oddballs’ in the tower are, of course, philosophers.

While the analogy might seem a bit silly, it is not all that far from the truth. After all, one has but to look at the daily paper or any news show to see just how well things are going. War, crime, disease, sexism, racism, violence, genocide and other problems abound in the ‘real’ world.

Philosophers are often regarded as being detached from the ‘real’ world. This is shown, in part, by the fact that philosophers tend to focus their research on highly abstract, often self-generated puzzles and conundrums whose solutions (if ever obtained) would seem to have no significant consequences. Further, even when philosophers attempt to address ‘real’ problems, they seem to take perverse delight in creating the most diabolically convoluted and irrelevant papers and presentations possible. Naturally, these papers and presentations are largely for the consumption of other philosophers.

While abstract philosophy has its merits, my view is that a significant portion of philosophical research should be aimed at these very serious problems. When people are on a stricken vessel, each person is expected to help out with the situation. Thus, it seems reasonable to take the current situation on earth to be remarkably like that of a stricken ship. Thus, philosophers are under an obligation to help out.

Given my view on this matter, much of my research has focused on such serious problems that have significant consequences in the world. I have written extensively on topics in ethics, technology, and politics with an approach that is both practical and philosophical.

That said, many philosophic problems are rightly regarded as very important matters and some are even regarded as eternal and essential questions. Bertrand Russell, in The Problems of Philosophy, presented an eloquent and excellent case for the value of philosophy and philosophic questions. To blend Russell’s words with a wonderful line from the Matrix, it’s the questions that drive us to expand our imaginations, to open up new possibilities and to free ourselves from dogmatism. These things certainly seem good and worthwhile.

While Russell argued for the value of philosophy, he also recognized the importance of being involved in the problems of the ‘real’ world. Perhaps the best example of this was in 1960 when Russell told a journalist that there was no time to talk about philosophy in the face of the nuclear threat. True to his word, Russell went out and was arrested for protesting against nuclear weapons. Thus, it would seem that philosophers are not excused from being involved in ‘real’ world problems. Of course, such an argument from authority is relatively weak. Fortunately, another argument can be given.

If philosophers defend their pursuits by claiming that the importance of the philosophic problems obligates them to work on them, then it would seem that philosophers would be equally obligated to work on problems of similar importance. It seems reasonable that matters of life and death, the survival of the human race, and human freedom are matters which are equally important as the problem of personal identity, epistemology and whether beauty is a real quality of objects or not. Hence, it would seem that philosophers cannot be excused simply by claiming that what they do is too important to allow the ‘real’ world to interfere. This does not mean that philosophers should stop doing philosophy. Many philosophic questions overlap with and are relevant to critical ‘real’ world problems. Philosophers are actually ideally suited to deal with problems in a rational and logical manner. This view is what guides my approach to philosophical research.

Thus, philosophers should still do philosophy, but they should also become more involved in the problems of the world.

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Women in Philosophy – Redux 1

Back in 1999, when The Philosophers’ Magazine was only a couple of years old, Julian and I put together a “forum” on women in philosophy.

I thought I might resurrect some of the pieces, starting with an interview with Mary Warnock.

You can read it here. It’s in PDF format, but feel free to comment below (if you’re so inclined). Also, apologies for the production values – TPM was being produced out of two bedrooms at this point.

Actually, there’s a somewhat amusing story relating to this interview that I can probably tell now. In the early days of TPM, we used to chase “big names” for interviews, because we figured this was the most effective way of generating interest in what we were doing. So we were very pleased when Mary Warnock agreed to be interviewed. Thing is, she wanted to do the interview by phone, which meant that Julian had to buy a little gizmo thing to record the interview. This involved a lot of fairly farcical pfaffing around ensuring that it was working properly, with Julian on one end of a phone and me on the other. Eventually he got it as he wanted it, and it worked – it was possible to hear enough to transcribe a phone interview.

Anyway, the interview went ahead, the gizmo did its job, Warnock was audible, and everything pretty much worked perfectly, which meant we had the centre piece for our women in philosophy forum. Except, as it turned out, we didn’t, because Julian promptly managed to lose the tape! We searched everywhere, but it was nowhere to be found. In the end – and much to my amusement, it’s got to be said – Julian had to confess what had happened to Baroness Warnock (I’m sure I used her title a lot when telling him he’d have to fess up), and ask her whether she’d be willing to redo the interview. She was very gracious about it, so we got our piece in the end.

There’s quite a lot of other material on the topic of women and philosophy floating around in our archive – including a large survey, if I remember correctly – so I’ll flag some more up here in due course.

My Teaching Philosophy


education (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

Teaching involves numerous general challenges and teaching philosophy involves some special challenges. Two of these challenges often manifest themselves in two stereotypical types of students. The first is dogmatic student who regards his or her own beliefs as sacrosanct and competing beliefs as unworthy of consideration. The second is the student who regards philosophy as a matter of mere opinion and hence as being useless.  Not surprisingly, dealing with the challenges has helped shape my teaching philosophy.

In the case of dogmatic students, it is often tempting to dismiss them as close minded and teach around them rather than trying to engage them. But, this is a mistake. In many cases dogmatic students can be reached by showing them that philosophy is not in the business of destroying beliefs or forcing people to convert to a specific view, such as atheism. In many cases, if a student can be shown that philosophy is about exploring beliefs they can be lead away from their dogmatism and to developing reasons in support of what they sincerely believe. Further, by exposing them to other views and their supporting arguments, they can begin to understand why other people might have different beliefs and this can help them become intellectually tolerant in cases where such tolerance is warranted.

Students who believe philosophy is merely a matter of bickering about useless opinions pose a different challenge.  I address this by showing that while philosophy begins with opinions it progresses into arguments and these are not just a matter of opinion. I also show the students the historical contributions of philosophy and then go on to show them how philosophy can be useful in what they regard as their real life. For example, students are often surprised to learn that epistemology has relevance for the legal system in terms of assessing evidence and what it means to establish a claim as being beyond reasonable doubt.

While my approach to teaching has been shaped by the two challenges just discussed, it has also been shaped by various negative experiences I have had as a student and as a teaching assistant. Perhaps the most negative and hence most shaping experiences involved students being left largely in the dark in regards to such important matters as the goals of the class, what the class would cover, the way grades would be calculated and how the written assignments should be done. Such situations made me feel like I was on a derelict vessel adrift in a sea of confusion. Naturally, this was not a good feeling. One of my most painful memories as a teaching assistant was having several students break down in tears during my office hours because they had no idea what the professor was doing or what he wanted for them. Sadly, I did not know either and I could only tell them that I would do all I could to see that they were graded fairly. These sorts of experiences lead me to ensure that my classes have clear objectives, stated and fair means of assessment and an overall plan. The students might consider it something of a strange trip, but they can be confident that the ship is on course and that the captain knows what he is doing.

I consider the writing of argumentative papers a key part of the philosophical education. After all, an essential part of philosophy is being able to present both rational defenses and rational criticisms. Based on the experiences mentioned above, I believe that students need to have a clear idea about what they are expected to do in such papers. Hence, I provide highly detailed paper guides that include extensive hints, careful details and even sample papers. I have found that, in general, the students greatly appreciate this. One potential risk I have considered is that the students might be too constrained by such detailed guides. However, I think my approach is justified by using and analogy to driving a car. A student needs to learn how to drive within limits before they can fully strike out on their own. Letting a student just set out on the road without any guides might be a learning experience, but it is more likely to teach them what it feels like to crash into  a telephone pole than it is to teach them how to drive properly. The same can be said of writing papers (without the actual crashing into a telephone pole, of course).

My positive experiences also shaped my view of teaching. Like many professors, I have had caring and excellent professors who made my education a positive experience. From these professors I learned that it is crucial to provide students with the extras that show one is concerned. Some of these extras are things directly related to education, such as downloadable class notes and downloadable practice tests. Some of these extras are not directly related to education, but are part of being a thoughtful person-such as my tradition of bringing candy to my classes on Halloween. The students sometimes laugh a bit at this, but the candy bags are always empty at the end of the day.

While it might seem a bit odd, my experiences as a long distance runner and a martial artist have had a profound effect on my approach to teaching.

Teaching philosophy is very much like teaching Tae Kwon Do. In the case of Tae Kwon Do people must be trained to defend themselves and practicing it develops both physical and mental fitness. While the practice of 21st century philosophy does not develop physical fitness, it does develop mental fitness. It can teach the students confidence and the ability to engage in intellectual self-defense. But, as with Tae Kwon Do, students must learn to practice control and respect for others. As with Tae Kwon Do sparring, there is always the possibility that people might lose their tempers while arguing and harm one another. As a teacher, one must guide the students so they learn to handle challenges, but at the same time ensure that no one is actually harmed.

When it comes to running you must train regularly and push yourself. If you do not, you get out of shape, grow weak and certainly do not improve. Just as with running, it is rather easy to start taking it easy when teaching. Just as with running, the consequences are equally serious. I know that if I do not keep up in my training for teaching, then my actually teaching will become rather poor. Because of this I regularly update my classes, use up-to-date examples and make sure that I am in good mental and physical condition for the classroom. While, unlike running, there are generally no trophies to win in teaching, a similar motivation is provided by the satisfaction of doing well and the shame of doing poorly.

Speaking of trophies, the rewards of teaching are manifold. Many people value making large life changing differences in their students’ lives. While I value doing that, it is usually the little things that matter most: having a student smile and say “I finally get the concept of validity” or getting a card from a student who says that although she thought my class was “a bit silly” what she learned is now helping her in law school. Often it is the many little things that make it all worthwhile. Of course, the big things are nice, too.

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