2010 Fall Proseminar Class Notes

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Return to Philosophy Proseminar

August 31, 2010

Introductory Class:

  • Student Introductions: Prompt:
  • General awareness and curiosities about history of philosophy (pitch for timelines)
  • Philosophy Problem 101
  • What If . . . Searle's Brain Replacement

Student Interests (in no particular order):

  • Eastern Philosophies -- Daoism
  • Postmodernism
  • Applied Ethics / Env. Ethics / Business Ethics
  • Political Philosophy
  • Descartes / Scientific Revolution
  • Phenomenology
  • Philosophy NOW
  • Aesthetics
  • Philosophy/Econ - Game Theory
  • Lonergan
  • Analytic
  • Feminism
  • Existtentialism
  • Kant

September 7

Investigating Philosophy as a Discipline

Question for investigating Philosophy as a discipline

  1. What is philosophy?
  2. What are the major fields of Philosophy? See this wiki list.
  3. What are some basic concepts, issues, and methods of each? Browse.
  4. What are the major temporal epochs of Western philosophy?
  5. Is philosophy a global phenomenon? What is comparative philosophy? How do you identify philosophy in other cultures? (See course unit)
  6. What is the difference between continental and analytic philoosphy? (Course unit)
  7. What are: existentialism, postmodernism, positivism, romanticism, enlightenment philosophy, scientific revolution, renaissance, neo-platonism, scholasticism, game theory, cognitive science, moral psychology, ...
  8. How does philosophy relate to literature and religion?
  9. What are contemporary philosophers saying about art & politics?
  10. Why did language become so important in 20th century philosophy?

Major Sub-fields

Discussion of Hadot, "Spiritual Exercises"

"Spiritual exercises can be best observed in the context of Hellenistic and Roman schools of philosophy. The Stoics, for instance, declared explicitly that philosophy, for them, was an "exercise."n In their view, philosophy did not consist in teaching an abstract theory - much less in the exegesis of texts'n, out rather in the art of living.n It is a concrete attitude and determinate life-Style, which engages the whole of existence. The philosophical act is not situated merely on the cognitive level, but on that of the self and of being. It is a progress which causes us to be more fully, and makes us better.'n It is a conversion'n which turns our entire life upside down, changing the life of the person who goes through it.n It raises the individual from an inauthentic condition of life, darkened by unconsciousness and harassed by worry, to an authentic state of life, in which he attains self-consciousness, an exact vision of the world, inner peace, and freedom." 82
86: "For the Stoic, then, doing philosophy meant practicing how to "live": thatis, how to live freely and consciously. Consciously, in that we pass beyond thelimits of individuality, to recognize ourselves as a part of the reason-animatedcosmos. Freely, in that we give up desiring that which does not depend on usand is beyond our control, so as to attach ourselves only to what depends onus: actions which are just and in conformity with reason."
  • Philosophers as therapists / Philosophy as therapeutic.
  • In Epicurean thought -- the tetrapharmakos; also in Phaedrus.
88: "For the Epicureans, in the last analysis, pleasure is a spiritual exercise. Notpleasure in the form of mere sensual gratification, but the intellectual pleasurederived from contemplating nature, the thought of pleasures past and present,and lastly the pleasure of friendship. "
  • Prosoche -- attention.
  • Learning to Die -- It's role in defining philosophy.
  • Plotinus - sculpting your statue.

Begin Review of Theory of Argument and Explanation

We'll work from the following three documents for this line of instruction:

Discussion of Haidt, "The Divided Self"

- If one wants to understand consciousness, does one have to understand the brain? Yes or No: choose a position

No - Traditional philosophical Dualism (Platonic, Cartesian, etc.); Ideas are incorporeal

Yes - Phil of Mind: consciousness is an illusion. Premise: the brain is a necessary condition of consciousness. Consciousness is related to physical environment.

- Bodies/Persons - Vocabularies for talking about bodies and persons: divided; consciousness seems to be on the 'person' side

- Epiphenomenon! too complicated to explain... (Sorry about that. Could someone post/report next week on epiphenomenalism next week? It would have been a huge digression at this point, and I don't think I'd have done a precise enough job of it. (Alfino)

- Consciousness seems subjective

Four Areas of Separation: (uncontroversial) Good Places to start understanding the Human Mind

Mind/Body: Plato's Emo Horse/Reason Horse vs. Rider on an Elephant. Embedded consciousness - thinking with the whole body.

Left/Right: confabulation. is reason happening in language? or does our ability to think well depend on the physiology of our brain? unsure of the logic center in the brain. Philosophers' traditional picture of thinking as an isolated activity called into question.

Old/New: Old Brain - parts in the middle. New Brain grew around the Old Brain. Reason is a recent addition to the brain (new brain).

Controlled/Automatic: huge area of research - Daniel Gilbert's "Stumbling onto Happiness". Philosophers have had too much faith in our ability to control thoughts. We have been unaware of how controlled we are by physiological factors.

- Philosophy has to be informed by what we know.

Nice notes! Thanks (Alfino)

== How much attention should Philosophers pay to Science? ==

September 14

Topics to browse and possibly report back on for this week: the field of genetic engineering, transhumanism, torts, the field of Philosophy of Law. Additional scholarship on Hart & Honore's view. Research on HLA Hart.

Discussion of Glover article

The main point of this article is that a case can be made to show the beneficial effects, and therefore support for, positive genetic engineering; where positive means aiming to improve some aspect of a person, where that aspect is found in a majority of the population, and where that aspect is therefore characterized as normal. Negative genetic engineering, in contrast, defines the act of fixing or removing a defect.

Risks and Mistakes the threat of disaster versus the benefits of genetic engineering

Argument for the threat of disaster being to great – we would be unable to control the will of the people we would ‘create’ and therefore if they had unforeseen side effects, such as creating extremely violent and aggressive personality traits, there would be no way to keep those traits out of future generations, as the modified humans would feel themselves worthy of the same basic rights that we ourselves enjoy today. Glover illustrates two further paths from this argument. 1. Rule out genetic engineering altogether 2. Negative engineering is perhaps acceptable, but positive engineering is not

Glover agrees that the risk of disaster is present and says that if genetic engineering is adopted extreme caution must be used, and mentions it is similar to the nuclear power debate. ‘We should alter genes only where we have strong reasons for thinking the risk of disaster is very small, and where the benefit is great enough to justify the risk’

He counters the argument by saying that there may be risks from not using positive genetic engineering that are far greater then the risks stemming from actually using positive genetic engineering. Here he draws again on the nuclear power debate and says that unless we can rule out, absolutely, the possibility of such a risk with genetic engineering, the principle of risk provides an argument for the principle of caution rather that providing support for a ban on all positive engineering.

I broke down his argument as follows:

If the principle of caution is less strong than a principle of no positive engineering Then there is room within the principle caution for the possibility that the dangers of positive engineering may turn out to be very remote or that greater risks of a different kind are involved in not using positive engineering THEREFORE If we can’t rule out that the dangers from positive engineering may turn out to be very remote or that greater risks of a different kind stem from NOT using positive engineering Then the argument from risk gives more support to the principle of caution and less support to the argument the principle of no positive engineering

Not Playing God How can we know that it is better for one sort of person to be born then another?

Objectors to Positive Engineering say we should not use genetic engineering to raise the average IQ by - 15 points, not because it would be bad to have the average higher, but rather because they are of the - opinion that we are in no position to decide what the average IQ level should be.

Glover argues against this by saying that: If there is a God that has a plan for us that will be broken if we stray outside the boundaries of our existence, how can we say that medicine (i.e. longer average life span) and other things have already not broken those boundaries down. And therefore, an argument against positive engineering as a means that man will use to break these boundaries is invalid.

His next argument is from a standpoint based on the findings Charles Darwin: If our species is constantly adapting and evolving for survival, then it is not wrong to take into our own hands the power to do exactly that, because it is nature’s way.

His next argument against the ideology of not playing god is to disprove the theory proponents of that idea have about not interfering with natural selection and is made up of multiple premises: If we do not interfere with natural selection. Then we would not have a multitude of positive things (one of the biggest being medicine). If we should only not interfere with nature on a genetic level. Then negative engineering would not be OK. If negative engineering is OK. Then the parameters around positive engineering need some work.

The basic objection to positive engineering, he states, comes down to some variation of the populous having a general objection to a person or group of people planning out what other’s lives should be like, and he gives numerous examples of why this is an objection for some.

'The group of people controlling a positive engineering policy would inevitably have limited horizons, and we are right to worry that the limitations of their outlook might become the boundaries of human variety.'

The Genetic Supermarket A counter argument to show control of positive genetic engineering by a small group of people is not necessarily the only scenario in which positive genetic engineering could take place but that due to the will of the masses, and the problems that result from that will, some sort of control via a centralized decision making group would be necessary.

His main point is that instead of dwelling on ‘design’ in positive genetic engineering, we should take an approach similar to that of a supermarket, where parents can browse & pick the traits of their offspring. Nozick believes this system to be virtuous because it is free from the control of a small group of people.

Glover responds by saying that while this may be an improvement on a centralized process of deciding the outcomes of positive genetic engineering, personal choice by the masses does not guarantee diversity (which philosophically is very easy to see, and I believe, valid)

He makes a few points about the boundaries that should be placed around parents who are picking out their children in the ‘genetic supermarket’ using laws against cruelty and basic human rights as justification. He concludes that if this system were to exist, it would be necessary to have some form of centralized process in order to protect the subjects from the parents. He also puts forth the idea that restriction on parent choice due to the social imbalance that could occur in society.

In the conclusion of this section, Glover mentions that there are problems with having a system based purely on the choice of the parent as well as a system governed by a small decision making group but he ends with a statement that shows the basic idea of how he believes we could get around this problem.

‘A genetic supermarket, modified by some central regulation, may still be better than a system of purely central decision. The liberal value is not obliterated because it may sometimes be compromised for the sake of other things we care about.’

Values – what qualifies us to make decisions when it comes to positive genetic engineering? In other words, ‘on what basis can we decide between bringing into existence different types of people’.

Two Boundaries 1. The Positive / Negative Boundary – aimed at drawing the line between eliminating defects and the practice of positive engineering. It helps to avoid putting people in the position to make God-like decisions using genetic engineering on the basis of their own values. However, as with all emotional issues, many elements cloud the boundary. 2. Genes / Environment Boundary – aimed at drawing the line between positive engineering and the acceptable positive aims of educational policies


Two Questions 1. Can we be justified in trying to change human nature? 2. And if so, is genetic change an acceptable method?

Justifiable Doubts 1. Risks of Disasters 2. Drawbacks of the centralized decision making process

Glovers Answers 1. Risks are good reasons for extreme caution, not complete bans. 2. Valid doubt for resisting centralized decision making, and therefore why positive genetic engineering in authoritarian societies is not a good idea.

Notes on his conclusion… he mentions that to renounce positive genetic engineering would be to crush any hope of fundamental improvement in our nature, but admits that we cannot be sure that the pessimistic views of the outcomes of positive genetic engineering are both false.

Extra articles: some food for thought on the topic I realize this may be a little late for people to actually read the articles but here are links to two articles I focused on last semester when I did a project on HGE, one is in favor of HGE and the other is against it:

[1]   and [2]  

Couldn't really get a hang of the formatting. Feel free to edit & clean up.

Here is a transhumanist website: [3]

Discussion of Hart & Honore, Tracing Causes

"To consequences no limits can be set"

530: "It is important to see that the issue here is not the linguistic one whether the word 'consequence' would be understood if used in this way. The point is that, though we could, we do not think in this way in tracing connections between i.human actions and events. Instead, whenever we are concerned with such connections, whether for the purpose of explaining a puzzling occurrence,assessing responsibility, or giving an intelligible historical narrative, we employ a set of concepts restricting in various ways what counts as a consequence. These restrictions colour all our thinking in causal terms; when we find them in the law we are not finding something invented by or peculiar to the law, though of course it is for the law to say when and how far it will use them and, where they are vague, to supplement them."

When does action by another person change the tracing of cause?

distinction: causing harm directly / inducing harm by suggestion


i. fire from cig sets forest on fire
ii. same as i, but B comes by and pours gas on it.
iii. A hits B who then has a tree land on him

531: "3. Yet it is important to notice that even in applying our general knowledge to a case^ as simple as this, indeed in regarding it as simple,we make an implicit use of a distinction between types of factor which constitute a limit in tracing consequences and those which we regard as mere circumstances 'through' which we trace them."

Continue Review of Argument Theory

Tonight we'll focus on:


-Argument and Explanation Structure

-Tour of Logic Docs

-7 methods for majors. Assignment for next week: Find five examples of of method in your readings from your various philosophy courses, including this one. Report them to the link under "Student Work" on the wiki. Try to keep the page organized!

September 21

Background on Nagel

Ok, so here is a brief background on Nagel. Please add if you think that i left anything important out. . .

-Nagel is a professor of Philosophy and Law at NYU.[4] HIs work mainly deals with questions of consciousness and objectivity versus subjectivity. He has been described by his peers as being a Rationalist, and ethical Kantian. Because we will be focusing on his Philosophy of Mind perspective in " What is it Like to be a Bat?", it would probably be a good idea to get a general sense of what he thinks about the subject as a whole.

  • Nagel is mainly a proponent of the subjective experience. It seems that he would say that the way humans view the world cannot be divorced from the way that they perceive it as individuals. As a result, his theory of mind perspective has been cited in multiple other dialogues amongst people in the field. Particularly, his theory of subjective understanding appears in the Atheism/Religion debates of Dawkins and Hahn.
  • I plan on adding more, but for the meantime please add if you've got stuff.

September 28