Odyssey Topics for Intro. to Philosophy

See www.madwizard.com/odyssey.htm for full Odyssey instructions.
 
See www.madwizard.com/logical.htm for instructions on how to do a logical analysis.

I've noticed a very disturbing trend. More and more students are writing their papers without first reading the prompt for their chosen topic. This results in students writing papers that have nothing whatsoever to do with the topics they imagine they are writing about. So far, it's only three or fours students a semester who do this, but even one such student is deeply disturbing, So here are three rules that should not need to be stated, but I'm stating them anyway.

1. Write a paper that specifically responds to the specific questions asked in the prompt. Don't just read the blurb around the link to the prompt. Follow the link to the prompt, and read the prompt. Don't assume you know what the prompt says without reading it. Don't assume that the prompt means something different from what it says. Read the prompt, understand it, and do what it says, even if you personally want to do something completely different. Philosophy requires people to question assumptions and to think about things they never thought about before. This is uncomfortable for some people, but you should not let your discomfort prevent you from thinking rationally about important topics. Do what the prompt says. Don't do things that the prompt doesn't tell you to do. If some piece of writing doesn't help you achieve the goal described in the prompt, that piece of writing is not worth anything in this assignment. (I don't take points off except as stated in the general instructions, but writing stuff that's not worth points is really a waste of time and effort for you. so I suggest you don't do it.)

2. If you don't understand what the prompt wants, ask your instructor to explain better. I've had students who turned in bad papers try to get better grades by claiming they read the prompt but didn't understand it. If you don't understand the prompt, then you don't know what to do, so you should ask me to explain it to you. You can do this by email. Think of it this way: the first mass-market personal computers were sold as kits for the purchaser to assemble herself. Imagine you've bought one of these kits, fail to understand the instructions, and decide to build it anyway. Do you think that a randomly assembled computer would work? Writing a philosphy paper is actually more complicated and subtle than assembling a computer from parts, so it doesn't make sense to think that you could write a successful philosophy paper without understanding the instructions. More importantly, the instructions describe the issue, so if you don't understand the instructions, you don't understand the issue.

3. Don't just write out your personal beliefs. Don't treat your personal beliefs as evidence. This is a philosophy class, not an encounter group. You're entitled to hold and express whatever beliefs you choose to have, but you cannot earn credit in a philosophy class merely for saying what you happen to believe. Expressing your personal beliefs in your paper will not cost you any points, but it will not earn you any points either. Furthermore, basing a thesis on an unsupported personal belief is exactly the same as not having an argument at all, and constitutes deliberate failure. Base your thesis on logical analysis of the available evidence, not on things you happen to personally believe.

Finally, remember that if you do not follow the prompt for the assignment, you are not doing the assignment, and I have no problem with giving you zero points for a paper that does not meet the assignment.

Following are all the topics assigned for my intro class. The boldface word at the beginning of each paragraph is the name of that topic. Each stage should be headed with that topic name, your name, the date and the stage number. You can add any title you like. Don't include a cover sheet! Click on the topic name to learn more about that topic. Once you select a topic, click on the topic name to get the full topic statement. Read it carefully and focus of the question I actually ask. Don't ignore any part of it, and don't change the question. I will deduct points for changing or adding things. If you change the problem significantly you may get zero points for that stage. If you think the prompt is unclear on any point, you can mention this and explain your interpretation in your paper.

Part of the reason to assign papers is to encourage intellectual curiousity. Pick a topic that intrigues you rather than a topic that you think will be easy. This will pay off for you, since you're more likely to say interesting and thoughtful things about a topic you like, and the topics people think are easy usually aren't.

If you care so passionately about some topic that you could not bear to change your mind, or even to say that your belief is not supported by reasons, DON'T PICK THAT TOPIC! I'm serious. You're supposed to figure out what answer is best supported by logic, NOT take your prexisting ideas and insist that they are supported by logic, whether they are or not. See defender.htm for more info on this issue.

If you would like to do some extra research, do it here: The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Topics.

KYLA What if you found out that you were really a hologram projected by a computer? (If you pick this topic, click the link KYLA and follow the instructions you find there.)

R42 Can a non-human-looking mechanical body be a person? Can a human-looking body not be a person? (If you pick this topic, click the link R42 and follow the instructions you find there.)

Non-Human Are there any non-human people? (If you pick this topic, click the link Non-Human and follow the instructions you find there.)

What is "free will" and do humans have it? Do NOT google this topic. Follow the prompt. The internet does not understand this issue. and if you mindlessly follow the internet here, you will find yourself saying foolish things about determinism and free will. (Edited 10/11/16) (Please also note that this topic is NOT about political freedom. Don't tell me that free will exists because people in America have freedom of speech.) And don't just assume that determinism rules out free will. If you want to think that it does you will have to come up with an argument that connects the two concepts in a way that makes one rule out the other. Don't make the mistake of thinking you can choose a random event. If it's random, it can't possibly have been chosen. If you can't come up with an explicit, detailed argument that shows exactly how determinism creates the external coercion that could rule out free will, you should assume that determinism does not rule out free will. If you're genuinely interested in the topic of free will, and think you know how it is different from political and social freedom, and understand that determinism is nonrandomness, that randomness rules out choice, and that determinism cannot just be assumed to rule out free will, click this link: Free Will (Remember, do NOT assume that determinism rules out free will.) (If you pick this topic, click the link Free Will and follow the instructions you find there.)

Figure out your own best solution to the Ship of Theseus Problem 

Are we living in a simulated universe? Some people have the idea that we're all living in a computer simulation of a universe rather than an actual physical universe. Other people think this idea is wrong. Your task for this prompt is to figure out, as best you can who is right and why.

Would your uploaded brain-pattern be you? Many science fiction books (and at least one TV show) involve the idea of the pattern or program of a person's brain being uploaded into a computer. The writers of such books (and several philosophers) seem to think that the consciousness that then exists inside the program is the person whose brain-pattern who was uploaded. In your opinion, is this correct? (This is a new topic, so I don't have a developed prompt for it yet.)

Some Textbook Based Topics.

The following paper topics are based on Does the Center Hold? by Donald Palmer. These cover complex and subtle ideas, so take the time to develop at least a partial understanding of some main idea. Remember to explain each point as someone who believed in that point would want it explained. Don't pick one of these topics unless you can explain a main idea enough so we can see why someone would take it seriously. If you think your chosen reading is saying something trivial, or obviously wrong, you probably don't understand that point.

Personal Identity Do NOT write on this topic without following this link and carefully reading the prompt! What makes you the same person as the one who inhabited your body five seconds or five years ago? Again, you must click on the link Personal Identity and read what you find there before attempting this topic.

Freud and Determinism. Does Freud's Theory really imply that hard determinism is true?
Some people cited in the text think it does, but I think they are completely and utterly wrong.
In fact, I think they're idiots.
Please note that looking up what the textbook says does not constitute thinking about the issue.
If all you do is look in the textbook and write down what the book says, you will be deliberately failing this assignment.
If your paper consists of nothing but a rehash of what Hospers and Peters say, you will get the grade I would give those guys, which is "F."
If you are willing to actually think about whether Hospers and Peters are right, follow the link: Freud and Determinism
If all you're willing to do is repeat what Hospers and Peters say, pick another topic.

Psychological Egoism. Is it true? Does it even make sense? (Click Psychological Egoism if you are interested in this topic.)

Can computers be conscious? Follow this link. There's an argument for computer consciousness on the page it goes to. Do not ignore that argument. Many people ignore the basic argument for computer consciousness. These people are deliberately failing to do the assignment. Do not be a deliberate failure. If you don't read the prompt, you will get zero points for a paper on this topic. If you ignore the basic argument for computer consciousness, you will get zero points for a paper on this topic.

What is the Meaning of Life? Here you would think about the nature and existence of meaning in the universe. Suppose someone else, perhaps a mad scientist, created you specifically to perform a task that neither you, nor anyone else, would ordinarily care about. Would the fact that you were doing something meaningless for someone else magically make that otherwise meaningless thing meaningful to you? What is "meaning?" What is the difference between an object or an event that has meaning, and one that doesn't? How do things get to have meaning? How is a life that has meaning different from a life that does not have meaning? (It is important that you think about this for yourself. Repeating other people's ideas without argument or analysis will get you zero for this paper.)

If you want to try a more challenging issue, the topics below are ones that almost everyone gets hopelessly wrong. If you pick one of the following topics, remember that the answer that seems easy and obvious to you is probably completely wrong.

Is Plato Elitist? Palmer says yes. I say no. You decide. Follow the link and study what Palmer says and how I rubbish it.

Existentialism What is existentialism? Is it true? (Notice that there's a link to the prompt for this topic.)

Is Consciousness a Fundamental Property? David Chalmers says it is. Is he right or wrong? 

Ryle on Descartes. Does Ryle refute Cartesian Dualism? (Click the link if you're interested in this issue.)

What, In Truth, Is Beauty? Click the link to find the prompt for this topic. Follow all the instructions in the prompt. If you don't follow the instructions in the prompt, don't be surprised if you get zero points for your paper.

Palmer on Free Will The semester ends with a discussion of free will and determinism. I think Palmer's ideas on free will and determinism are completely wrong, so I don't assign any reading from the textbook for the last three lectures. But maybe I'm the one who's wrong about determinism and free will. This essay topic asks you to read what Palmer says and figure out if he succeeds in proving that his view of free will is true.

Palmerian Soft Determinism Do Donald Palmer's attacks on the coincidence of Will and Necessity have any relevance for real Soft Determinism?

Palmer's Heroin Addict Does Donald Palmer's "Heroin Addict" argument pose any problem for real Soft Determinism?

Palmer's Libertarianism Palmer's account of determinism and free will is basically an extended argument in favor of Volitional Libertarianism. Does this argument succeed?

Which comes first, epistemology or ontology? I began this class with questions of epistemology (How should we fix our beliefs? What is truth?) and moved on to questions of ontology (What is real? Is physicalism true?) on the assumption that it's pointless to talk about ontology until we've settled on an epistemology. Our text, however, starts with ontology and then moves on to epistemology, giving the impression that questions of reality should come before questions of knowledge. We can't both be right. Take a position on the relationship between epistemology and metaphysics and defend it with careful reasoning. If you pick this topic do not give a survey of epistemological and ontological ideas. Do not give any kind of survey. Doing a survey would constitute deliberate failure of the assignment. (You can read any of the articles on pages 69 - 123 for ideas if you like.)

Is Plato's simile of the line fundamentally about epistemology or ontology? You should discuss the relationship between epistemology and ontology in Plato's simile of the line. This will require you to define both epistemology and ontology, and explain the idea of "direction of fit." Then you should describe how one side of the line "fits" with the other side, and explain why the two sides fit the way they do. Finally, you should explain what this fit means for the nature of the similie in terms of it being primarily an epistemological or an ontological theory. (What is epistemology? What is ontology? What is "direction of fit?" How do the two sides fit together? Which side can be filled in without the other? Which side cannot be filled unless the other is already in place? After you have thought this through completely, you should write a paper that starts by stating your thesis on this issue, and then goes on to explain the reasoning by which you came to support that thesis.

Who is right, the empiricists or the rationalists? Rationalists like Plato and Descartes believe in things like innate ideas and intangible forms, Empiricists like John Locke do not believe in innate ideas or forms. Explain and critique the arguments for and against rationalism. If you think the rationalists are right about forms, you will have to explain what evidence we have that these utterly imperceptible entities exist at all. If you think Locke is right about forms, you will have to explain how it is possible for things to be beautiful if there is no real thing that makes things that embody it intrinsically beautiful. If you think the rationalists are right about innate ideas, you will have to explain what evidence we have that the human mind cannot develop ideas like "beauty," "object" and "sameness" for itself, or explain what facts about the world are such that we have to assume innate ides exist in order to explain those facts. If you think Locke is right about innate ideas, you will have to explain how it is possible for human minds to invent ideas like "beauty," "object" and "sameness" if there are no specific sense impressions to which we can point and say, "there, that's an impression of beauty, or of sameness, or of objectness.

Does Quantum Mechanics Refute Materialism? The author of the text I used to use for this class hinted at the following argument. Materialism implies determinism. Determinism implies predictability. Quantum mechanics and chaos theory prove that the universe is not completely predictable. Therefore materialism is false. Is this a logically compelling argument? To answer this question you must define the terms "materialism," "idealism," "determinism" and "predictability" in your own words, say how you think these concepts are related, and explain whether or not the fact that the universe is largely unpredictable implies that anti-materialism (idealism) is true.(You can read pages 3-66 for ideas if you like.) 

Media-Based Topics

Read a philosophically interesting book (The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl, The Sinful Ones by Fritz Leiber) or watch a philosophically interesting movie (The Thirteenth Floor, Inception) and apply actual philosophy to it. Get my permission to use this topic.

General Topics.

The following topic questions represent deep issues in philosophy. The point of investigating such a topic is not necessarily to settle the issue, but to gain insight and practice with the tools of reasoning. The way to tackle one of these topics is to find out one or two things other people have already said about the issue and to work out your own critical response to these ideas before going on to develop your own thinking on the issue. The best place to start is probably our textbook. You can also look at Internet sources, such as Wikipedia. However, it is very important that you do not waste large chunks of time browsing through web pages. Find one or two ideas about the topic, and put your time into thinking your own thoughts about those ideas. If our textbook and Wikipedia do not give you enough to get started, please e-mail me at squiptryx@gmail.com for suggestions.

The most important piece of advice I can give you here is to not trust people to correctly represent their opponents' doctrines and arguments. If someone opposes the coherence theory of truth, do not trust that person's description of the theory, or her statement of the argument for that theory. It is very, very common for writers to get each other's theories and arguments completely wrong. In fact, one of the main sources of controversy, even inside philosophy, is people's frequent inability to understand, or even to listen closely, to what other people are saying. This can be good for you, because if you can demonstrate that one writer has failed to properly represent what another writer is saying, demonstrating this misrepresentation can make a very nice philosophy paper.

Solve or resolve the question of whether the ship called "Theseus's Ship" in the time of Demetrius Phalereus was actually the same ship that Theseus actually sailed. In this story, Theseus's ship is taken for repairs to a shipyard where absolutely every part is progressively replaced by a new part so that at the end of the repair process absolutely every part of the ship has been replaced by a completely new piece. No part of the ship is made of the original material. Is it the same ship? You can read more in the Wikipedia article The Ship of Theseus or in The Ship of Theseus and Personal Identity or in Identity, Persistence, and the Ship of Theseus.

Reality, What a Concept! The study of reality is generally called "ontology," so if you look up that word in the index of our textbook or in Wikipedia, that should be allow you to get started. Alternatively, you could sit down with a nice cup of coffee, and think about what the word "real" means to you. If somebody tells you that something (ghosts, dragons, unicorns, aliens...) is real, how would the truth or falsity of that statement affect your life? If something is real, how might your life be different if it was not real? If something is not real, how might your life be different if it was real?

Well, Whadda You Know? The study of knowledge is called "epistemology." You can look up one or two existing theories of knowledge, or you can sit down and think about the practical difference between knowing something and not knowing it. Do not turn in a survey of epistelogical theories. There are no survey questions in these assignments. If you look up theories, just look up two, think about which of these two is right, and explain your reasoning. don't write anything that isn't part of this.

Rationalism vs. Empiricism. Without giving the history of philosophy, write down your own explanations of rationalism and empiricism. (Remember that "rationalism" is just a name, it doesn't mean that other theories are against rationality.) One way to look at it is to say that rationalism says we can have knowledge without relying on evidence, and that empiricism says we cannot have knowledge without relying on evidence. You can look up more details in wikipedia. You can use specific arguments by various philosophers to illustrate your points, but you should not refer to any philosopher unless you personally have a particular point you are trying to make. Remember that this essay is all about what you personally think, so don't include anything that isn't part of you trying to explain your own ideas. Once you've explained the two theories, say which one works best, and explain your reasoning in detail. (Most of the paper should consist of you explaining why you think what you think.)

Being and Knowing, Being and Being Known. If you are really into conceptual issues, you might want to sit down and think about the relationship between ontology and epistemology. Can ontology and epistemology really be pursued separately, or do you have to finish one before you can even tackle the other? Is there any point in doing ontology before you have an epistemology worked out? Or do you absolutely have to get your ontology squared away before you can even think about epistemology? How exactly is epistemology related to ontology? (I don't know if there's any point in looking this one up, because as far as I know there's no one, besides myself, who's even thought about this issue.)

What Is Thinking? A strong underlying theme of my intro course concerns the nature and development of the rational thinking process in Western society. How is a rational thinking process ("reasoning") different from a non-rational thinking process ("Glenn Beck")? (I'm not really sure how to research this one. You could try looking up "rationality" or "reasoning" or "informal logic," but I don't know of anything out there that specifically concerns the nature of the reasoning process. My own personal view of rationality revolves around such concepts as Occam's razor and the difference between self-deception and intellectual integrity, so you might want to start with Occam's razor.)

Explain Occam’s razor and place it as best you can in the larger development of modern epistemology. Does epistemology requite Occam’s Razor, or can we develop a practical and effective way of producing knowledge without it?

The Nature of Mind. This is a very complicated topic, and we will devote two units to this issue, so the important thing here is to keep things simple, and focus on one small issue in the philosophy of mind. For instance, there is a quote from a guy called John Heil on page, um, 140 I think, that I ignore in my lecture because, in my view, it's impenetrable, complicated, confusing and wrong. But maybe you can figure out what it means and whether it really is wrong. Similarly, you can pick any single thinker, or any single argument, and analyze it in detail.

What Is Truth?

Language? To be honest, I have no idea what kind of philosophical issues might be raised about language. If you're interested, look up "language" in our textbook, and "philosophy of language" in Wikipedia. If you pick this topic, e-mail me and let me know what you're doing.

Definition? This term appears in the catalog description for this course. I have no idea why it is there. If you can find a genuine philosophical issue related to the nature of definition, please let me know.

There Ain't No Justice! What is justice? You can tackle this topic by evaluating one or more theories of justice, or you can sit down and think about the real difference between just and unjust systems of law and government.

Human, All Too Human. Is there such a thing as human nature? What features of human beings are essential to our humanity, and what features can we do without and still be human? Suppose a mad scientist used human DNA to make emotionless, unreasoning, unconscious killer androids. Would these humanoid beings be human in any meaningful sense?

High-Risk Topics

The following topics look easy, but are in fact extremely difficult. So much so that virtually all students who have picked these topics have failed completely. So if you look at one of these topics and think, "oh, this is an easy question," you probably have not understood the question at all!

The Value of Value Make sure you read the whole prompt for this topic. Most people who pick this topic get it horribly, horribly wrong at first because they don't get that they are supposed to actually define value, not just talk about what things they value, and how different people value different things. This isn't defining value, any more than saying "my height is sixty-six inches, and different people have different heights" defines what height is.

Unprocessed Wikipedia Based Topics

Here are some topics that seem cool for me, but I haven't made a question page for yet. The basic way to approach these topics, as always, is to identify two opposing positions, identify a main argument on each side, and then figure out which argument is weaker. The side with the weakest argument loses. The side whose argument isn't weak wins.

I picked these links because they looked interesting. I can't guarantee that each one will have two opposing positions.

Philosophical_Zombie
Metaphysical naturalism
Cognitive science
Consciousness
Epiphenomenalism
Hempel's Dilemma
Monism
Ontological pluralism
Physical ontology
Mary's Room
Philosophy of mind
Presentism
Reductionism
Supervenience
Multiple realizability
Problem of Evil

Unprocessed Possible Topics

The following topics are basically just random ideas that may or may not lead to essay prompts. They do not as yet have specific instructions. If you pick one of them, email me for more detailed instructions. As with any other topic, your paper should discuss and evaluate the arguments on both sides of some significant issue. If you can't find a significant issue with arguments on both sides don't do that topic!

I've tried to include useful links in each of the notes. You can also google any topic that intriques you.

Nozick and Rawls: Try to settle the argument between Robert Nozick and John Rawls.

Deep Ecology
: Analyze the ethical arguments for and against Deep Ecology. Is it right or wrong?

Feminist Ethics
: Analyze the ethics of feminism. What cans feminism tell us about ethics?

Duty
: Analyze duty based morality. Is it true or false? What reasoning supports your answer?

Utilitarianism
: Analyze utilitarian morality. Is it true or false? What reasoning supports your answer?

Egoism
: Analyze the relationships between morality and egoism. Is it true or false? What reasoning supports your answer? 

Existential Freedom: Analyze the concept of existential freedom. Is it true or false? What reasoning supports your answer?

Ontological Pluralism
: Analyze the concept of ontological pluralism. Is it true or false? What reasoning supports your answer?

Cartesian Dualism
: Analyze Cartesian dualism. Is it true or false? What reasoning supports your answer? (Also see Mind & Body)

Logical Positivism
: Analyze logical positivism. Is it true or false? What reasoning supports your answer?

Each of these topics asks you to analyze something, which means doing what you can to evaluate the logical support for the ideas expressed in the pages indicated. The best way to start out is to say what you think is the main point in those pages, what you think about that point, and why you think what you think. If you choose one of these text based odyssey topics, remember that although you can start out by analyzing one small point, you may find that your next assignment will ask you to analyze a different point from that reading.

You should do your best to deal with the arguments presented on each side of your chosen issue. Random speculations about the topic that avoid dealing with the real arguments in the material you are supposed to read might be worth a little credit as representing your initial thoughts about


Rules For Going Off List

Occaisionally, a student asks me if he or she can do a topic not on the official list. I always say "only if you first provide me with a statement of your intended thesis and argument, or alternatively a statement of the main arguments on both sides of the issue." Invariably, this student will completely ignore these instructions and turn in an absolutely horrible paper that purports to cover an important topic but which in fact contains no logical analysis whatsover. This means that the student has turned in an inadequate paper on a topic on which he did not have permission to write. Each of these features is worth a grade of "F," so the paper is worth a grade of "double-F," or negative 100 points.

So, if you think of a topic, relevant to Modern Philosophy, upon which you wish to write philosophically, you may EITHER turn in a short statement of your thesis about this topic and your argument for that thesis OR turn in a short statement explaining the main arguments for both sides of this issue.

If you turn this in, you MIGHT get my permission to write on this topic. You don't have it yet.

If you don't turn in a statement as described above, you absolutely do not have permission to write on an off list topic.

Remember, you only have permission if I write on your thesis/argument or argument/argument statement that you have permission. If you don't have this permission, writing on an off list topic will get you a zero-point "F" for that paper.

So, if you want to do a topic that's not otherwise on this list you must obtain my approval first. You must give me your thesis, arguments for, arguments against and final reasoning before I can think about approving a topic. No exceptions. This is the hardest option! Just grinding your favorite axe without seriously considering the other side will get you an F. Taking this option without getting my approval will get you an F.

Remember, in this class "topic" means topic from this list!

Remember that you are not being asked to come up with a way to make the situation come out the way you want it to. The situation in each question is exactly as described in that question. Adding or subtracting things to the situation makes it a different question, which means you won't be answering an assigned question. Since only assigned questions can get any credit, changing the question is just a labor-intensive way of failing to do the assignment.

Remember also that you are graded on your responsiveness to the logic of your topic, not on your ability to make your personal opinion look plausible. If you can't support a particular position with reasons, accept that it's not supported and explain what that implies and what we would think if we made up our minds based only on logic. You don't have to change your personal opinion, but asserting that your personal opinion is supported when you can't think of any reasons for it will get you an F. 

Copyright 2013 by Martin C. Young


This Site is Proudly Hosted By: