Notes #1: Course Requirements, What Is Philosophy?
To discuss today:
This course: requirements, subject, guidelines
Philosophy: what it is
An example of philosophy: The Ship of Theseus
The value of philosophy & this course
I. About this Class
Review syllabus. Some highlights:
• Who should take this class?
Class will contain:
Lots of arguments
Theoretical, philosophical questions (see below)
Will not contain:
Directly practical knowledge
• Course requirements. Quizzes, exams.
• Miscellaneous guidelines:
Come on time.
Come to office hours.
• What should you do now?
Get course readings.
Read the syllabus.
Read the Clifford and Feynman readings. (Then the Rand selection.)
II. What Is Philosophy?
A. The Subject Matter of Philosophy
• Philosophy studies some general, fundamental questions, about the nature of the world and
place in it.
• Three main branches:
1. Metaphysics studies what sorts of things in general exist, and what sort of world this is.
(Examples: existence of God, free will vs. determinism, distinction between body and soul,
and the Ship of Theseus question)
2. Epistemology Studies the nature of knowledge what is it and how do we know what we
3. Ethics studies evaluative questions what is good/bad, what should one do in general, etc.
• Some smaller branches of philosophy:
4. Political philosophy studies the source of political authority, the best overall structure for
society and/or the state, and related questions. (Can be seen as a branch of ethics.)
5. Aesthetics studies the nature of art, beauty, and related questions. (More generally: the
nature of aesthetic qualities.)
6. Logic studies reasoning, esp. the principles of correct reasoning. Closely related to, but not
the same as, epistemology.
B. The Methods of Philosophy
Philosophy in the Western tradition mainly relies on logical arguments & common
III. Benefits of Studying Philosophy
A. The importance of philosophical questions
A metaphor: The story of the astronaut (from Ayn Rand). Three questions:
1. Where am I?
2. How do I find out?
3. What should I do?
B. Thinking skills
Philosophy teaches us to think more clearly, to avoid common confusions.
Philosophy teaches us to reason more cogently, to avoid common fallacies.
Philosophy makes us aware of the fundamental questions.
C. Philosophical Attitude
The Cardinal Rule of philosophy: Truth comes first.
When doing philosophy, we are trying to identify what is true. That comes before
feelings, and desires. The following rules are all consequences of this.
Four rules of philosophical comportment:
1. Philosophers question:
Question the claims of others.
Question your own beliefs.
This does not mean refusing to accept anything as true!
2. Philosophy is impersonal:
The philosopher does not choose beliefs based on his personality or feelings.
The philosopher does not take intellectual criticism personally. Challenges are to be
The philosopher does not accept or reject philosophical claims based on who says them.
The philosopher does not go along with ideas because of personal or social consequences
of criticizing them.
3. Philosophers are reasonable:
The philosopher has reasons for his beliefs.
The philosopher asks for the reasons for others’ beliefs.
The philosopher is moved by good reasons presented to him.
4. Philosophers are open-minded and critical:
Our ideas and arguments are open to criticism. The philosopher looks for objections to
The ideas and arguments of others are also open to criticism.
Notes #2: The Ethic of Rationality
Two problems of irrationality to discuss today: 1.Forming beliefs for no reason.
2.Failure to consider objections/counterevidence.
I. Evidentialism (Clifford)
This is the view that it is morally wrong to hold unjustified beliefs.
• Justified belief: a belief that it is rational to hold; a belief that is (very) likely to be true,
Argument for this:
1. It is wrong to hold an unjustified belief which causes harm to others.
The shipowner in the 1 example is morally blameworthy.
Best explanation of this: he is blameworthy for his unjustified belief. (Discuss alternatives.)
2. If so, it is also wrong when the belief does not but could have caused harm.
Wrongness must depend on what was true at the time of the action.
Related point: moral blame cannot depend on whether the agent got lucky.
3. All unjustified beliefs carry a risk of harm to others.
Everyone (not just public figures) influences the beliefs and actions of others. (Examples)
[Beliefs interact in unpredictable ways. (My point)]
Unjustified beliefs weaken our powers of reasoning, develop bad habits.
Your irrationality causes other people to be dishonest with you.
4. Therefore, it is always wrong to have unjustified beliefs.
“To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon
insufficient evidence.” (101)
Why people are often irrational:
• We feel happier when we think we know things.
• But this is no justification for adopting unjustified beliefs.
• Exercise: think about what unjustified beliefs you or others around you have.
What if we are irrational only about certain things with little practical consequences?
The irrational person is in a poor position to identify these issues.
Beliefs have many connections with other beliefs, some unanticipated.
II. Rationality & the Scientific Ethic (Feynman)
• Feynman distinguishes two things:
a) Not being dishonest: This is merely not lying.
b) “Scientific integrity, which is another level” (341): This requires giving all relevant
that you know.
Scientist should state all the facts that might cast doubt on their theory / experimental
“For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think
might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could
possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other
experiment, and how they worked ... Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all
wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it.”
• This applies to nonscientists too (my points):
Confirmation Bias: This is a common psychological phenomenon. People are biased
confirmatory evidence. E.g., when considering a theory,
L They look for positive instances, not counterexamples.
L They think about arguments for, but not objections.
L They remember evidence supporting their beliefs more than evidence against their beliefs.
Psychology experiments support this.
L Capital punishment experiment
L The introversion/extraversi