Phil 251

Introduction to Philosophy

Time: Tuesday/Thursday 2:20-3:35 pm

Location: YMCA 115

Instructor: Kenny Easwaran

Office: YMCA Building 314, 979-847-6128

Office Hours: Tuesday/Thursday 1-2 pm, or by appointment.

Course Description: This class will introduce students to philosophical arguments on a range of topics. Each day after the first, students will read a philosophical argument before class and be prepared to discuss it in class. Some of these arguments will be from classic texts in philosophy; others will be from contemporary public media discussions of philosophical topics.

Learning Outcomes: Students will engage with a variety of arguments on philosophical topics, both in class discussion and in writing. By the end of the semester, students should be able to engage critically but respectfully with disagreeing opinions, and express themselves clearly both in writing and in speech. This includes the abilities of recognizing when someone is putting forward an argument, identifying the premises and conclusions of the argument, explaining the arguments of someone else, and putting forward your own argument.

Grading Policies: 1/3 of the class grade will be from very short in-class quizzes. 1/3 of the class grade will be from 5 assignments throughout the semester. 1/3 of the class grade will be from the final paper.

Quizzes: Every day, class will begin with a one-question quiz to make sure you have done the reading and are ready to participate in class discussion. These will be graded pass/fail, and are the way I will take attendance. (If you need to be absent, either let me know in advance, or get me a doctor's note afterwards for an unexpected emergency.) You can fail or miss three of the quizzes with no penalty - your grade will be the fraction of the leftover ones that you pass. For instance, if there are 23 total class days, and you have a excused absence for 1 of them, and you pass 17 of the quizzes and fail 5, then your grade for the quizzes will be 17/19=89%.

Assignments: Writing a philosophy paper is a difficult task that is quite different from many of the other sorts of writing that you have done for other classes. Thus, rather than starting out with a full paper, the assignments will progress through various levels, like in a video game. For each assignment, you'll write a paper at the level that you're on - just as with levels in video games, the idea here is to ensure that you are always working on a task that is challenging enough to be interesting, but not so challenging that it is frustrating. I'll mark each paper as either "complete", "almost", "good effort" or "not much progress". Once one of your assignments is marked "complete", for the next assignment you will move to the next level. Your final grade for the assignments will depend on how far you have progressed through the levels by the last assignment (which is the fifth):

Level 3: Complete=A+, Almost=A, Good Effort=A-, Not Much Progress=B+

Level 2: Complete=B, Almost=B-, Good Effort=C+, Not Much Progress=C

Level 1: Complete=C-, Almost=D, Good Effort=D-, Not Much Progress=F

For each assignment, you should write about a new topic, preferably one we discussed since the last assignment - you won't be re-writing previous assignments. (Sample papers) The particular assignments are as follows:

Level 1 Paper: Short expository paper, 150-300 words.

Choose one particular argument from the readings and explain that argument in a very short paper. We will discuss what exactly this means over the first few weeks in class. Remember that in philosophy, "argument" means not just a claim or a view or a theory, but the reason for believing it. It will be helpful in your notes to explicitly write the premises and conclusions of the argument(s) in your papers so that you know exactly what you need to support or criticize.

Level 2 Paper: Expository paper, 400-600 words.

Explain two arguments in a slightly longer paper. They might both be from the readings, or one might be from the readings and one from discussion in class. These two arguments should have an important connection to each other - you might explain one argument, and then another argument that aims to refute one of the premises from the first; or you might explain one argument, and then another argument that extends the first; or there might be some other interesting relationship between the arguments. Because this paper has some complexity to it, when you are done with the body of the paper you should write an introductory paragraph that explains what the paper is going to be about, and how the arguments are related to each other.

Level 3 Paper: Expository and critical paper, 700-1000 words.

At this point you're ready to do some original work. This level of paper should include an explanation of two related arguments from the readings or discussions, like a Level 2 paper, and then a new argument of your own showing that one of these earlier arguments is unsound (i.e., it either has a false premise, or the premises fail to support the conclusion). Be sure to consider ways that the author of the earlier argument might respond or object to your criticism, and defend your argument!

(this assignment structure is borrowed from Dustin Locke)

Final Paper: The final paper should be a Level 3 paper as described above, and can be on any topic we have discussed all semester. It will be graded on an ordinary letter scale. If you have worked your way through the assignments you will be prepared to write a great philosophy paper!

Readings: There is no required text for this class. All readings will be posted or linked on the website, or sent via e-mail.

Disability Statement: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal anti-discrimination statute that provides comprehensive civil rights protection for persons with disabilities. Among other things, this legislation requires that all students with disabilities be guaranteed a learning environment that provides for reasonable accommodation of their disabilities. If you believe you have a disability requiring an accommodation, please contact Disability Services, currently located in the Disability Services building at the Student Services at White Creek complex on west campus or call 979-845-1637. For additional information, visit

Schedule of Topics

(all dates and readings subject to change)

Jan. 19 Introduction - What is an argument?

no reading

Jan. 21 Can we know anything?

René Descartes, "Meditations on First Philosophy", Meditation 1

(text available here; other translations are acceptable)

Supplementary fiction:

Movies: The Matrix, The Truman Show

Jan. 26 Do you believe in miracles?

David Hume, Chapter 10 of Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

(modernized text available here; other sources available)

Supplementary fiction:

Jan. 28 (no class - I will be at a conference in Arizona)

Feb. 2 Must we believe what we hear?

Daniel Gilbert, Douglas Krull, and Patrick Malone, "Unbelieving the Unbelievable"

Supplementary fiction:

Novel/Movie: Life of Pi

Feb. 4 Is reality a simulation?

David Chalmers, "The Matrix as Metaphysics"

Supplementary fiction:

YouTube: "How Does Deadpool Know He's a Comic Book Character?" - spoiler warning

Feb. 9 How can the mind move the body?

René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth, letters written in 1643

(pages 1-8 of this translation)

Supplementary fiction:

Short story: "Learning to be Me", by Greg Egan

Movie: 21 Grams

Feb. 11 Can a computer think?

Alan Turing, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence"

Supplementary fiction:

Movies: Her, The Imitation Game

Feb. 12 - Assignment 1 due; send as .pdf to easwaran AT tamu DOT edu

Feb. 16 Are aliens like computers?

Susan Schneider, "Alien Minds"

Supplementary fiction:

Television: Star Trek, The Next Generation, S02E16: "Q Who"

Feb. 18 How could the world end?

Nick Bostrom, "Existential Risk"

Supplementary fiction:

Movies: Idiocracy, Dr. Strangelove

Novels: Accelerando, by Charles Stross

Feb. 23 (no class - I will be at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh)

Feb. 25 Discussion day

Instead of a quiz, I'll ask everyone to submit a question or two for discussion, about any of the readings we've done so far, and ideally a question that raises some theme that comes up in more than one of the readings.

Mar. 1 What does it mean to be happy?

Daniel Kahneman and Jason Riis, "Living and thinking about it: Two perspectives on life"

Supplementary fiction:

Movie: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Novel: Brave New World

Mar. 3 (no class - I will be at a conference in Chicago)

Mar. 4 - Assignment 2 due; send as .pdf to easwaran AT tamu DOT edu

Mar. 8 Transformative experiences

Laurie Paul, "What You Can't Expect When You're Expecting"

Supplementary fiction:

Movie: Sophie's Choice

TED Talk: Ruth Chang - "How to Make Hard Choices"

Mar. 10 Who cares about inequality?

Harry Frankfurt, "Inequality isn't Immoral"

(shortened class - I catch a flight to New York)

Mar. 15-17 Spring Break

Mar. 22 Property is theft!

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, "Property considered as a natural right" - Chapter 2 of What is Property?

Mar. 24 Against democracy

Alexander Guerrero, "The Lottocracy"

Sunday, Mar. 27 - Assignment 3 due; send as .pdf to easwaran AT tamu DOT edu - if you need or want an extension for any reason, just let me know some time in advance.

Mar. 29 Discussion day

Instead of a quiz, I'll ask everyone to submit a question or two for discussion, about any of the readings we've done so far, and ideally a question that raises some theme that comes up in more than one of the readings.

Mar. 31 Social construction

Shamus Khan, "Not Born This Way"

Apr. 5 Same-sex Marriage

John Corvino, "Same Sex Marriage: They'll just never get it"

Apr. 7 Pornography

Maria Konnikova, "Pornucopia"

(shortened class - I catch a flight to St. Louis)

Apr. 10 - Assignment 4 due; send as .pdf to easwaran AT tamu DOT edu

Apr. 12 Monogamy

Robert George, "Is Polyamory Next?"

Supplementary fiction:

Movie: Her

Television: Rick and Morty, Season 2, Episode 3, "Autoerotic Assimilation"

Apr. 14 Progress and war

Joshua Goldstein and Steven Pinker, "War Really is Going Out of Style"

Apr. 19 Progress and GDP

Diane Coyle, "Growing Pains"

Apr. 21 Sustainability and resources

Amory Lovins, "Waste Not" - Chapter 3 of Natural Capitalism

optional supplement: "The Next Industrial Revolution" - Chapter 1

Apr. 26 Sustainability and energy

Tom Murphy, "Galactic-Scale Energy"

If you're interested in the implications of this article, you might want to read the follow-up "Can Economic Growth Last?"

Apr. 28 Discussion day

Instead of a quiz, I'll ask everyone to submit a question or two for discussion, about any of the readings we've done so far, and ideally a question that raises some theme that comes up in more than one of the readings.

Apr. 29 - Assignment 5 due; send as .pdf to easwaran AT tamu DOT edu

May 3 (is this a re-defined day?)

May 10 - Final Paper Due; send as .pdf to easwaran AT tamu DOT edu