Teaching: July 2005 Archives

Julia Annas has produced a remarkable volume intended as a reader for introductory ancient philosophy classes. I'm using it in my class right now, and I'm finding it to be exactly what I was looking for.

An upper level ancient philosophy course should be more directed toward examining the whole of a philosopher's thought, and reading longer works in context with the entire philosopher's outlook is ideal in that environment. In an introductory course, however, students are taking philosophy for the first time, and the ancient philosophers are merely a means to learning philosophy for the first time. Focusing on issues is thus more important than getting the whole of a philosopher's thought down in every way.

This book presents six topics, with ancient philosophers' writings on the topics organized as a conversation. The six topics are (1) Fate and Freedom (which includes divine foreknowledge and the fixity of the future), (2) Reason and Emotion, (3) Knowledge, Belief, and Skepticism (including relativism), (4) Metaphysical Questions (including paradoxes, the Forms, cause/explanation, and time), (5) How Should You Live?, and (6) Society and the State.

This is the the fourth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear.

The first response to Descartes' particular version of skepticism didn't take very long to surface. Indeed, Descartes was its author. He wasn't a skeptic himself. His goal in writing the Meditations on First Philosophy, where his most extended treatment of skepticism is found, was to argue that our knowledge is indeed well-founded. It's just that his view that knowledge requires absolute certainty pretty much required him to present reasons for doubting before he could reconstruct the certainty of knowledge from its basis. His argument is nowadays seen to be wholly unconvincing in more than one place, but I'll sketch the general outline of it anyway so you can see how he tried to respond, because any response that might be successful would have to avoid the problems with his attempt.

Descartes picked up on Augustine's argument that there's got to be at least one thing that we know, no matter how much doubt we engagw in. Augustine was dealing with the ancient skeptics who claimed not to have any beliefs. They saw belief as a way to open yourself up to error, since nothing can be trusted as reliable. Certain things appear to be the case, and the skeptics might assume those things in some sense, but they won't believe them. Augustine argued that this very reasoning process involves thinking, and someone's got to be doing that thinking. How can you doubt something if you don't exist? I'm raising doubts, so I must exist. I think, so I must exist. The most famous formulation of this is "I think; therefore I am", which doesn't occur in Descartes' Meditations as such but is in one of his other works, and the main argument does occur in the Meditations. It's not originally his argument, though, despite the popular notion that he came up with it. It's really Augustine's argument. Descartes did make use of it, though, to begin his way back up the path to knowledge. He at least knows that he exists, because he knows he thinks.

This is the the third post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear.

One bad objection to the arguments in the previous post is that the cases it involves are fairly extreme and seem unlikely. It's a bad objection because the point doesn't involve any assumption that the cases are likely. The point is very simple and straightforward. You can't rule these cases out. They're within the realm of possibility as far as our evidence is concerned. Our evidence is just as consistent with the Matrix or an evil demon's deception as it is with what most of us believe to be true. All that matters is that it's possible. If it's possible that something is true, even something you think incredibly likely, then you can't rule it out. If it were true, it would mean your beliefs are false. That means you can't rule out the possibility that your beliefs are false, and you don't know those things that you believe. How likely the skeptical scenarios are plays no role in the argument. If the argument is bad, it's not because the skeptical scenarios are far-fetched. Some other error in reasoning must have taken place.

Nonetheless, the skeptical argument can easily be framed in very mundane circumstances that aren't all that far-fetched at all. In fact, they're things that happen all the time. For instance, I might walk to campus and then wonder if I know where my car is. I know where I parked it. Do I know it's still there? I haven't moved it. Maybe it's moved from where I put it, however. How would it do that? Well, it's possible that someone broke into it and stole it. What's more likely is that my wife got into it and drove it somewhere when I wasn't expecting her to do so. Can I rule that out? So I don't really know if my car is where I left it. It may not be all that probable that she'd go somewhere on a day when I don't know she's going somewhere, but that doesn't mean she didn't. Even if she didn't, I don't know that she didn't, so I don't know that the car is where I left it.

This is a list of posts in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series, based on my lecture notes from a class I have taught by that name. I will add links to posts as I post them:

1. Intro

2. Cartesian Skepticism
3. Skepticism from Ordinary Cases
4. A Priori Responses to Skepticism
5. Berkeley's Idealism
6. Idealism: the Arguments
7. Sidebar: Theories of Perception
8. Pragmatism
9. Contextualism
10. Reliabilism
11. Skepticism About Science
12. Responses to Skepticism About Science

Knowledge and God
13. No-Evidence Arguments: Divine Silence Argument
14. No-Evidence Arguments: Evidence for God?
15. No-Evidence Arguments: Explanatory Adequacy and Ockham's Razor
16. Responses to No-Evidence Arguments
17. No-Evidence Arguments: Some Final Thoughts

Arguments for the Existence of God
18. Cosmological Argument
19. Cosmological Argument: Objections
20. Design Argument I: the General Argument
21. Design Argument II: The Fine-Tuning Argument
22. Design Argument III: Many Worlds or a Designer?
23. Moral Argument I: The Inadequacy of Naturalistic Ethics
24. Moral Argument II: Non-Naturalistic Ethics
25. Moral Argument III: The Euthyphro Dilemma

Problem of Evil
26. The Logical Problem of Evil
27. Against the Logical Problem of Evil
28. The Evidential Problem of Evil
29. Explanations for Evil, Part I
30. Explanations for Evil, Part II
31. Explanations for Evil, Part III
32. Explanations for Evil, Part IV

Philosophical Theology
33. Omnipotence and Possibility
34. Omniscience and Time
35. Omniscience and Freedom
36. Goodness and Revelation

Freedom and Determinism
37. Determinism and Fatalism
38. Arguments for Determinism
39. Arguments for Free Will
40. Freedom and Determinism: Possible Views
41. Libertarian Freedom and Incompatibilism
42. Problems with Libertarian Freedom
43. Arguments for Compatibilism
44. Compatibilist Freedom
45. Moral Luck: The Cases
46. Moral Luck: Responses

Mind and Body
47. Three Arguments for Dualism
48. Leibniz's mill argument
49. The Interaction Problem

Personal Identity
61. Nihilism

Cartesian Skepticism

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This is the the second post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for the introduction to the series that explains what it's all about and the list of posts in the series, which I will update as they appear.

Perhaps the most famous line in the history of philosophy is Descartes' "I think therefore I am". What's often misunderstood is what he meant and why he was saying it. He wasn't saying that only things that think exist, as if thinking is what makes us exist, though many jokes rely on that mistake. [Descartes walks into a bar. The bartender asks him if he wants a drink. He says, "I think not" and promptly disappears.] What Descartes was up to with that line, often called the Cogito (from the Latin "cogito ergo sum"), was a response to a particular skeptical claim, and it was the beginning of an extended response to skepticism that most philosophers today believe was completely ineffective. They do, however, tend to think that the skeptical questions he raised are very difficult to get around, and they attribute the persistence of skepticism to him, even if his goal was to refute it. This is how these things go sometimes.

What I want to do in this post is motivate the kind of skepticism Descartes raised. I'll proceed to other kinds of skepticism and responses to skepticism in further posts.

I've been wanting to work through some of the material in the introduction to philosophy course (Theories of Knowledge and Reality) that I've now taught seven different times (five of those seven with two sections, so really twelve times of teaching the material). On most of the topics I've got well-organized and carefully written class handouts. If I do this, I can basically have much of my course materials online so that those who want to can look at the substance of what I teach in that class, which is not only my favorite course to teach but the one that I think I'm best at teaching. I'd love to be able to point people to that if they want to get a sense of how I cover certain issues and so on. It will also give me a chance to get feedback from a wider variety of people than just my students on how this material can be presented and on whether my evaluations of certain positions and arguments are correct.

I want to stress that this isn't what you would get by taking my course. Much of the learning that goes on in the classroom comes from direct interaction. I will tease out certain ideas, often getting students to come up with them. For some reason my teaching style lends itself well to the process of presenting some bits, being hit with an objection, responding to the objection, using that response to lead into the next bit, with its own objections to follow, and so on. Some of that might come across in handouts, but the idea is that the student's own objections will be part of this process. Sometimes that requires my clarifying questions to see what someone really has in mind. You can have these back-and-forth processes in comments on a blog post, but you can't do it in the middle of a post before you read the rest of the post the way you can do it in a live conversation. So I want to say that these notes don't duplicate what goes on in the classroom. What they do is present much of the content of what I want to get across in this class, and they give some sense of how I think about the various arguments and positions that arise, of how I organize the information and the issues, of how I think certain answers to certain questions will have some bearing on how you might answer other questions.



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