Teaching‎ > ‎2010 Spring‎ > ‎Phil 285‎ > ‎

Paper Topics

General guidelines:

Write a paper of about 2000-2500 words on one of the following topics. You may choose another topic if you discuss it with me and/or your TA in advance and we think that the topic is suitable.

Each of these prompts has a primary question, and your central argument should give an answer to this question one way or another.  I have also provided some further discussion of the topic, including several more questions.  These are issues you might consider in answering your main question, and you might address them in individual paragraphs.  But remember that all your discussion should be aimed at a central goal.

Thus, each paragraph should address some claim that is important to your main argument - either the paragraph should explain what one of the authors we read has said about a claim that is relevant to your argument, or it should be an argument in favor of something you claim in your central argument, or it should give an argument against a claim you make, together with a response showing that this argument is misguided.  The first few paragraphs of your paper should make clear your answer to the primary question, and give an outline of your main argument for this claim, as well as giving some idea of what to expect in the rest of the paper (perhaps mentioning the challenges to you claim that you will consider and reject, or the issues you will discuss in supporting the premises of your argument).  The last paragraph or two should repeat your central claim and remind your reader of why you discussed all the things you did along the way.

When you are discussing one of the authors we have read (or another author), always make it clear whose work you are discussing, and say specifically where (which page or paragraph) the author makes the claims you attribute to them.  You might quote the authors directly, but in most cases a paraphrase is sufficient (though you should still tell us exactly where they say what you are paraphrasing).

You must always mention when you are either quoting or paraphrasing either one of these authors or some secondary source. In particular, if you use Wikipedia as a source, then you should find out where the claim on Wikipedia comes from.  Don't cite Wikipedia itself.  (Wikipedia has a policy that every claim there must be backed up by something in a published book or paper, which is normally linked from that page - anything Wikipedia says that isn't supported in this way is not to be trusted.)  But there should be no need to go to secondary sources at all - your own ideas and those of the authors we have been reading will very easily fill up 2000 words with no need to discuss what anyone else thinks of these ideas.

When you make any claim, it should be supported in some way. If you are claiming that some author says something, you should state exactly which page and paragraph they say this in (with a direct quote if necessary, but paraphrase is fine). If you are making some other claim, you should give an argument that this claim is true, or else make it clear that the claim is obvious, or else just an assumption you are making for the purpose of the argument (or that you think someone else might make in trying to respond to your main claim).

Remember - in grading the paper we don't care whether or not you are giving the answer that we believe.  What we care about is whether you have given a strong argument for the position you chose, whether your paper is clear and well-organized, and whether you understand the views of the authors you are discussing (regardless of whether or not you agree with them).

Further advice on writing a philosophy paper is available on this page by Jim Pryor.

First paper

1. Do you need knowledge in order to teach something well, or is true belief sufficient, or is something else necessary?

In the last few pages of "Meno", Socrates suggests that true belief can be just as useful as knowledge in many cases, but that we need more than just true belief in order to teach something well.  Is this extra thing that Socrates thinks is needed the same as justification in the sense of Gettier and Zagzebski, or is he thinking of something else?  Is it perhaps one of the other things Zagzebski mentions (reliability, warrant, etc.) or something else?  Why are these various things needed or not?  (If you want, you might also discuss the implications of this for what Socrates says about virtue not being teachable.)

2. Can you ever be justified in believing something that turns out to be false?

In Descartes' 4th Meditation, he seems to argue for a conception of justification on which it actually does guarantee truth.  Gettier, and especially Zagzebski, suggest that any correct notion of justification must allow for false beliefs to be justified.  Why do they each have the views that they have?  Which one of them is right about what it takes to be justified in believing something?  Give arguments supporting your claim, and analyze the arguments of the other author, showing what goes wrong with them.

3. Can consideration of skeptical arguments make the Gettier problem worse?

Zagzebski argues that however we understand the notion of justification, if justification doesn't by itself guarantee truth, then there will be cases where someone is justified in believing something, and it happens to be true, but where the person doesn't actually have knowledge.  What is the general pattern for constructing these cases?  Descartes gives several skeptical arguments in the 1st Meditation trying to show that most ordinary cases we think of as knowledge aren't really knowledge.  Since we naively assume that we are justified in believing these ordinary claims, this seems to suggest that if they are true, then these are Gettier cases (justified, true belief without knowledge), so the problem seems to be worse.  But perhaps our naive intuitions are wrong and we aren't actually justified in these cases (if so, is this also true in Gettier and Zagzebski's cases?), or perhaps Descartes is wrong and we actually have knowledge in these cases (if so, is this also true in Gettier and Zagzebski's cases?).

4. Can one ever gain knowledge through the senses, or does knowledge come from the intellect alone?

Descartes argues that knowledge comes only from "clear and distinct perception" ("vivid and clear" in the translation we used) and other purely intellectual means.  Plato seems to suggest (through Socrates) that knowledge comes only from recollection, and that teachers and observations can only help by raising questions that make you "remember".  In both cases they say that knowledge comes entirely from within and not from observing the world or performing experiments. Why do they believe this?  Are they wrong?  Where do their arguments fail?  (If you think they're right, you should explain why it seems to me and most other modern commentators that we can sometimes gain knowledge through our senses and not just through pure thought - that is, outline an argument you think we might be using and show why this argument fails.)

Second paper

1. Popper and Explanations

Pick one of the four models of explanation discussed in the "Scientific Explanation" article in the Stanford Encyclopedia (deductive-nomological, statistical relevance, causal-mechanical, and unification).  This model will say that certain facts (the explanans) can explain some other fact (the explanandum).  If some observations falsify the explanans, then clearly this is not actually an explanation.  However, is it possible to falsify the claim that this is an explanation without falsifying the explanans?  That is, for two claims that are in fact true, is it possible to falsify the claim that the one explains the other?  If so, then describe some possible observations that could falsify an explanation claim of this sort.  Either way, discuss how this affects Popper's prospects for considering explanation a part of science.  (Remember, Popper says that for some claim to be scientific, it must either be falsifiable by some potential observation, or must be provable as a matter of pure logic.)

2. Goodman and Harman

Goodman and Harman do not attempt to solve Hume's problem of induction - they both start with the assumption that some justification for non-deductive inference can be found.  However, Goodman raises a new problem of trying to decide which particular inductions count as good ones.  Harman proposes that we use a rule of "inference to the best explanation" instead of a rule of induction.  Does this avoid the "grue" problem?  If so, then how, and if not, then why not?

3. Surprising new predictions

In the main paragraph on p. 71, and the main paragraph on p. 73, Lipton discusses the claim that our theories receive more support from new predictions that are verified than from data that was used to generate them.  Newton's theory seems more strongly supported by the fact that it explains the tides in addition to the motions of projectiles and planets it was designed for; Fresnel's wave theory of light seems more strongly supported by the surprising prediction of the Arago spot than by the facts of diffraction it was designed to explain.  Popper, on the other hand, seems to suggest that theories are never supported, they just get some sort of minor "corroboration" from the fact that they failed to be falsified.  Can Popper account for our intuitions about these surprising predictions being better?  Or perhaps this idea is just an illusion?  Discuss some other theory (enumerative induction, IBE, or something else) and say whether it does better or worse than Popper.

4. Popper and Unification

On pages 15-16 of the reading, Popper suggests that "ad hoc-ness" is a problem for theories, and its opposite gives us a reason to prefer one theory to another.  How does this notion help us understand the notion of unification proposed for unificatory explanation, or vice versa?  You can choose to focus this discussion on the relation between this criterion and Popper's method of falsification, or you might focus on giving a more detailed account of unification, but you probably won't have space in the paper to do both.

5. Induction and IBE

Hume suggests that we get all our knowledge of the external world that goes beyond our immediate perceptions through use of the principle of induction (though he doesn't use this term).  Harman and Lipton both suggest that we should replace induction by the notion of "inference to the best explanation" (IBE).  Hume argues that induction is unjustifiable.  Is IBE unjustifiable for the same reason?  If not, give some argument for why IBE is justified.  If so, then is there any way to argue whether IBE or induction is the better inference procedure?

Final paper

1. God and Design

Richard Swinburne argues that, assuming God exists, the probability that He would create the world in a way fine-tuned for the existence of free will is between 0.2 and 0.8.  By contrast, Elliott Sober argues that the central problem for every theological design argument is that we have no independent idea of what God would want, and thus can get no estimate of the likelihoods.  Can Swinburne respond to Sober's point in a way that makes the argument objectively strong, using just naturalistic arguments, rather than relying on the Bible?  If so, give such a response and show how it would work; if not, then can we salvage anything of value from Swinburne's project?

2. Many universes or one?

Nick Bostrom suggests, with his "Parable of the Angel", that we have at least some evidence that supports the existence of many universes, rather than just one.  However, Elliott Sober suggests that this evidence is irrelevant because its negation is a "blind spot", so that we were guaranteed to have this evidence no matter what.  Is there any way to resolve this disagreement?  If so, then give an argument for the side that you think is right, and also discuss the role (if any) that fine-tuning plays in the argument.  If not, then give an argument showing that we can't possibly resolve this dispute, and say something about the upshot of this fact for this sort of explanation of the universe.

3. Skepticism and "freak observers"

Consider the problem of "freak observers" (mentioned in class as "Boltzmann brains", and discussed on pp. 51-57 of Bostrom's book).  How are these "freak observers" different from the souls deceived by an evil demon in Descartes' Meditations?  Which of these two skeptical worries is more threatening to the possibility of scientific knowledge, and why?

4. Explanation and the multiverse

Swinburne and Sober both seem to agree that if some theory gives a high probability to some observations, then this is relevantly similar to giving an explanation of it.  Does this depend on the theory of explanation that is being used?  Give some argument for or against this claim, that a theory will give a sufficient explanation of some observation iff it makes that observation probable enough.  Show how this argument applies to two particular cases - the second should be the case of multiple universes "explaining" the observation that the universe is fine-tuned, and the first should be some much simpler, much more ordinary case, that helps make this other case more clear.

5. Induction and the multiverse

Both Bostrom (with his argument in favor of the multiverse) and Smolin (with his "cosmological natural selection" idea) suggest that we can have evidence about other universes that are impossible to observe, even in theory.  Discuss these ideas with regard to just one of the following issues that came up earlier in the semester: Hume's thought that all knowledge that doesn't come directly through the senses comes from induction; Popper's thought that for a theory to be scientific it must make falsifiable predictions; the causal model of explanation.