METAPHYSICS AND EPISTEMOLOGY WRITING ASSIGNMENTS

 

9/25/2007

 

GENERAL INSTRUCTIONS FOR SUBMITTING WRITTEN ASSIGNMENTS

 

Emailing: You must submit your essays to me through email by copy/pasting them in the body of your e-mail message. Please do not send them to me as e-mail attachments. Please send your assignment through the same e-mail account each time, which will aid me in identifying all of your submissions. E-mail me your answers at jfieser@utm.edu.

 

Subject line: You must place the following in the subject line of your email: “Philosophy 315, study questions for Chapter X” (where x designates the number of the chapter in question)

 

Deadlines: October 17

 

Length: 1,000 words minimum; 2,000 if you wish to include your essay in your senior portfolio

 

Topics: topics must come from material in the Heil book from chapters 4-8. You may select a topic of your choice, but please clear it with me first. Your topics must either defend or refute some point, such as “defend or refute Lowe’s dualism,” “defend or refute philosophical behaviorism,” “defend or refute identity theory,”  “defend or refute Fodor’s representational theory of the mind,” “defend or refute Searle’s Chinese Room argument”

 

Resources: you must use resources other than the Heil book itself. A good places to look are the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (plato.stanford.edu), the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (iep.utm.edu), and epistemelinks.com

 

TERM PAPER GUIDELINES

 

Below are stylistic guidelines for you to follow with your term paper.

 

Argumentation. Your essay must contain arguments that either defend or refute a particular position. If you refute some claim, be clear about what that claim is. If you defend a claim, you cannot defend a claim merely by saying that you agree with it. Instead, you must defend that claim against some criticism. In either case, you will be arguing against some target position. When constructing your argument you might point out that some aspect of target position is inconsistent, unintelligible, counterintuitive, or false. To develop your point, you may quote from and discuss secondary sources such as commentaries and journal articles; consulting secondary sources is not required, though. Do not include biographical sketches in your essay. Please avoid insulting your opponent; here are some examples from past essays of what not to write:

 

"At best this lacks intelligence."

"Frankly, the man is insane."

"Religious believers have concocted feeble answers these questions"

"It is obvious Kant doesn't know what he is talking about."

"Plantinga uses over 20 pages to twist Aquinas' definitions."

"But what else can we expect from a second rate philosopher who thinks he is Socrates?"

"A clear case of fixation at the anal stage."

"I'd say Hume took a few too many drugs."

 

Technical Style. The writing style of your essay should be technical, and not creative. You should emphasize argumentation, rather than personal opinion. To that end, your essay should contain no personal pronouns such as "I" or "me", such as "I think that...," "I feel that.…" Do not use rhetorical questions in your essay, such as, "Well, why else would a person be moral?" or "What would happen to morality if God didn't exist?" Do not quote the Bible or preach in your essay.

 

Organization. The opening sentence of your essay must clearly state the topic you have selected. Suppose, for example, you wrote on the following topic: “Defend the willful bodily motion hypothesis against Hume’s attack.” The opening sentences of your essay would then be similar to this:

 

In “Of the Idea of Necessary Connection,” Hume argues that the idea of necessary connection does not arise from any alleged impression of "willful bodily motion." This essay will show that, when correctly understood, the act of willing bodily motion produces an impression that is sufficient to cause an idea of necessary connection.

 

The body of your essay should be organized and should not stray from your topic. Your final sentence should be similar to this:

 

From the above, it is clear that the act of willing a bodily motion can produce an impression which is sufficient enough to cause an idea of necessary connection.

 

Email. Please to not use complex formatting. When finished, copy/paste your essay into the body of an e-mail message and send to jfieser@utm.edu. Please do not send as an e-mail attachment.

 

 

ESSAY SAMPLE 1 (1,000 words)

 

Below is a sample essay from a previous semester in which the student wrote on the following question: “Try to refute Descartes' proof of God in Meditation 3.”

 

            In his "Meditations on the First Philosophy," Rene Descartes offers two proofs for the existence of God.  One of these is an ontological argument that closely resembles that of Anselm.  The other, found in Meditation Three, is less common, and thus more worthy of analysis. This essay will show that there are flaws inherent in this argument, which can be summarized thus (paraphrased from the course text):

 

1. We have the idea of infinite perfection.

2. The idea we have of ourselves entails finitude and imperfection.

3. There must be as much reality in the cause of any idea as in the idea itself.

4. Therefore, the idea we have of infinite perfection originated from a being with infinite perfection, i.e. God.  

 

            The first premise seems the most innocuous, though it is perhaps the trickiest; one must consider what it means to "have the idea of infinite perfection."  Elsewhere in the Meditations, Descartes discusses the difference between imagination and conception, admitting that some ideas are more easily grasp by the mind than others.  For example, one can both imagine and conceive a triangle; while one can conceive of a thousand-sided figure, one most likely can't imagine it ­ that is, one cannot form an accurate mental image of it.  I agree with this distinction, as it is useful.  However, it is also arbitrary, and it would be useful to admit that within both conception and imagination that there are many levels of complexity at which such a division can be drawn.  

            Truly to have an idea in oneself, one must be capable of more than holding two words and tentatively pondering their relation.  For example, one can very abstractly consider the term "square circle." Obviously, one cannot imagine such a thing.  More importantly, one cannot even truly conceive of such a thing.  The same is true of "married bachelor" and a host of other self-contradictory terms.  This essay does not undertake to show that infinite perfection is self-contradictory.  One must ask, however, whether one can ever truly conceive of infinite substance.  Like "square circle," it seems that our idea of infinite perfection is simply the result of forcing together two ideas ­ infinitude and perfection ­ which the mind barely has grasp of to begin with.  Boundlessness, as an absolute, is incomprehensible to the human mind, which interprets the world by dividing things up, grouping things, separating things, and drawing mental boundaries constantly.  Perfection, too, is a difficult thing to conceptualize; one can, more or less, imagine a perfect cup of tea or a perfect human, but perfection itself is purely abstract. Even with a perfect cup of tea or human, imagining such a thing entails envisioning the object, thinking of flaws, and one-by-one ensuring that the mental object does not have these flaws.  It is often the case, however, that one is incapable of thinking of all possible flaws.  What one is left with is an imagined object which probably lacks a considerable amount of detail.  So, infinite perfection is a combination of too concepts at which the human mind can only take blind stabs.  

            Descartes himself admits that God "is incomprehensible and infinite" (Preface).  Of course, it may not follow that our idea of an incomprehensible being is necessarily incomprehensible itself. However, to make an incomprehensible idea comprehensible, one must surely alter the idea in ways that simplify it.  A simple idea, given Descartes' view as outlined in Meditation Three, has fewer "units of reality" than a more complex idea.  The God idea requires God's existence because it is, according to Descartes, infinitely complex. If we have but a simplified idea, something merely resembling an idea of infinite perfection, then the first premise is false, and the argument fails.

            The second premise ­ that one's idea of self entails finitude and imperfection ­ is another which seems obviously true to most who would read Descartes.  It is not, however, true for everyone.  A core element of Buddhism is the notion that the "self" does not truly exist, and that one's only real identity is equal to that of the entire universe.  Spinoza's pantheism seems to lead one in this direction.  If one feels that one is the universe, infinite and perfect, then Descartes' second premise is false.  

            The final (stated) premise is the most complex.  Descartes makes the claim that some ideas are more real than others (that is, they have more units of reality), and that an idea cannot be derived from another idea or a set of other ideas, unless there is at least as much reality in the source idea(s).  This notion of sufficient reason is borrowed from basic physics.  It is not so clear, however, why it should apply so cleanly to ideas.  Descartes himself posits mind/body dualism ­ the mind is purely spiritual, the body is purely physical ­ which makes it seem odd that he would apply a concept of physics to a spiritual realm.  Perhaps it is not so that in the world of ideas, something never comes from nothing.  More than what Descartes offers is needed to make premise three convincing.  

            A general problem with Descartes' proof of God is that much of it relies on speculation concerning the origins of ideas.  For Descartes, the principal identity of man is "a thing which thinks."  Man's reality, then, lies within the realm of mind; this is precisely the realm that Descartes is studying.  Given, however, that his existence is restrained to his mind, one must wonder how he can learn much about the realm of mind.  It is impossible to leave his own mind to get a better look at it, for his mind is his existence.  One cannot know one's mind anymore than one can bite one's own teeth.  One can object to this by offering another metaphor ­ one cannot see one's own eyes, unless one has a mirror.  That being the case, perhaps what Descartes needs is a philosophical mirror.  This is fair enough; the mirror, however, must still be found.  One can suggest that the physical world is something of a mirror for the spiritual realm, and therefore Descartes escapes this problem and the aforementioned problem with his third premise.  Again, however, no reason is given why this should be so.  It may be the case that sufficient reason is a principle common to both realms.  However, no proof is given of this.

            From the above, it is clear that Descartes' proof of God, as found in Meditation Three, is  flawed and in need of revision, since Descartes uses God's existence as a basis for many of his later claims in the Meditations. 

 

 

ESSAY SAMPLE 2 (1,500 words)

 

A Reply to Pojman's Criticisms of Ethical Relativism

            In the Introduction to Global Political Philosophy, Louis Pojman spends much time arguing against ethical relativism (ER) and for ethical objectivism (EO).  In the subsection titled "Conventional Ethical Relativism (Conventionalism)," he offers six arguments against relativism and two arguments for objectivism.   This essay will show that these arguments are ill-founded.

            It may be helpful to consider first what Pojman considers the primary argument for ER.   This argument is in the form of a syllogism.  First, there is the diversity thesis, which states that "what is considered morally right and wrong varies from society to society, so there are no moral principles that all societies accept."   Second, there is the dependency thesis, which states that "all moral principles derive their validity from cultural acceptance.”  Finally, the conclusion of the argument is that "there are no universally valid moral principles, no objective standards that apply to all people everywhere and at all times."

            Pojman's first argument against ethical relativism draws on the position of Melville Herskovits, that relativism entails intercultural tolerance.   Herskovits argued that, since morality is relative to its culture, we have no independent basis for criticizing the morality of another culture, and that we should thus be tolerant of the moralities of other cultures.   Pojman points out that a society which has no principle of tolerance need not accept this argument toward tolerance.  The relativist may answer this criticism by pointing out that her argument toward moral tolerance is offered to her own society, which presumably holds some general principle of tolerance, and to other societies similarly holding such a general principle.   Any society lacking a general principle of tolerance, the relativist may further argue, is facing far worse problems than the matter of tolerance toward the morality of other cultures.   Thus, the relativist would argue, the call to tolerate other moral cultures may be heard either by cultures which should readily argue to heed it, or by cultures which are so distinct from the relativist's own, that they may be viewed (by her) as morally backwards and in need of much progress.

            Pojman's second argument against ethical relativism states the relativist is left in a rather impotent position; she may not criticize cultures in which principles that are morally heinous (in her opinion) are espoused, as she lacks any objective standard of comparison.   This inability to illuminate the moral failings of other cultures is, to Pojman, unacceptable.  The relativist may answer this criticism by pointing out that she may still compare other cultures, using the moral standards of her own culture as a backdrop.   That is, a citizen of culture A may judge culture B as morally superior to culture C, insofar as B has a morality which is closer to that of A than does C.   Also, we may still compare our culture's morality to that of other cultures.  We may not, however, make the sort of lofty value judgments that the objectivist may make.   For example, while we may view Western democratic societies as morally superior to Muslim Arabic societies, we may not decide that this is a universally true proposition.  This may, in fact, prove advantageous, as this lack of unquestionable moral superiority may keep a nation's citizens from growing complacent and uncritically accepting the authority of their government.

            Here we may also point out a general tendency of ethical objectivists to argue against ethical relativism on the grounds that its acceptance leaves one in an undesirable position.    Whether there are, in reality, objective moral truths is a matter of fact or falsehood; the repercussions on our moral dialogue are irrelevant.  Thus, to say that ethical relativism should be rejected because its acceptance leaves us in a precarious position is fallacious.  With reference to Pojman's second criticism, the relativist's supposed inability to condemn the morality of other cultures has no bearing on the truth of either relativism or objectivism, and thus an argument against relativism along these lines commits a fallacy of relevance.

            Pojman's third argument against ethical relativism is that it supposedly leads to the conclusion that all moral reformers are wrong, insofar as they go against the tide of their culture's current standards.   His fourth argument holds that civil disobedience, as a means to ethical reform, is never justifiable.  The relativist may reply by pointing out that no culture is monolithic.   That is, no culture may be rightly thought of as having a single set of moral standards; rather, each culture may be though of as containing several subcultures.   This view is actually favored by Pojman within his sixth criticism.  Moral reform, on this view, is not the reversal of a culture's moral leanings, but rather the victory of one subculture over another, competing subcultures on the matter of some particular facet of morality.   The civil rights movement, for example, was not simply the wholesale undoing of American morality, but rather the victory of civil rights advocates over an establishment which favored white hegemony.

            Pojman's fifth argument against ethical relativism is that, in the absence of a moral basis for the law, we have no general duty to obey it.   Again, one may argue that this unfavorable consequence has no bearing on the truth of ethical relativism.  Aside from this point, however, the relativist may still argue against Pojman's claim.   The relativist may argue that, as we value the benefits of a stable, well-functioning society, we should avoid severely disrupting that society.  From this, we may form the basis of a prima facie general duty to obey the laws which regulate society, preventing its slip into anarchic chaos.  This duty may be overridden with regards to a particular law if said law works to disparage the society's wellbeing – for example, a law requiring each citizen to murder the first person she sees upon exiting her place of residence.

            Pojman's sixth argument against ethical relativism stems from the fact that an individual may be a member of many different subcultures.   Pojman argues that, since the rightness or wrongness of our actions are derived from our membership to particular cultures and subcultures, we could very well perform an action which is simultaneously right and wrong.   For example, a devotee of the Roman Catholic Church – which prohibits its members from having abortions – may legally obtain an abortion in the United States; according to Pojman, this devotee is acting rightly qua US-citizen and wrongly qua Roman Catholic.   A relativist may very well deny that the legality of an action in the US lends moral rightness to said action, as she may deny any such connection between legality and morality.   Furthermore, the relativist may argue that, though this consequence of relativism renders moral judgment a more difficult task, it nonetheless offers a more accurate account of the nature of morality than objectivism.   The world is a complex and pluralistic place, and our ability to belong to a plethora of subcultures should not be disregarded for the sake of moral simplicity.

            It is at this point that Pojman turns from criticisms of ethical relativism to direct arguments for ethical objectivism.   First, Pojman argues that there exists a "core morality" – a set of ethical principles found in all cultures at all times – and that this core morality is, in fact, the set of objective moral standards.   The relativist may respond in two ways.  First, she may point out that, even if there exists some core morality, this need not lead us to objectivism.   It may simply be the case that all well-functioning human societies are structured in such a way that a certain set of principles will manifest itself.   These principles include prohibitions on killing, theft, adultery, and dishonesty, among other things.  These prohibitions all clearly function to keep societies intact.   A society which lacks the notion that murder is bad will, in all likelihood, die out within a few generations.  The societies which we see today are simply those whose moral standards allowed them to stand the test of time.

            Second, the relativist may argue that this "core morality" of prohibitions against the most obvious moral trespasses does exist, but their application varies so widely as to render the core morality something of a moot point.   All societies may prohibit murder, but many will disagree on what distinguishes murder from other types of killing.  Pojman's second argument for ethical objectivism is a concession to this point.   He maintains that the principles are what count, and that however widely societies' definitions of murder may differ, "thou shalt not murder" is still an objective moral principle.   The objectivist is left, however, with a rather impotent morality.  Furthermore, the objectivist must still respond to the relativist's demands for a factual account of objective moral standards; he must provide some metaphysical account for the origin of such standards.   He must also answer an interesting question raised by philosopher Joshua McDaniel: if the core morality is, in fact, objective morality, how can we explain the coincidence that these objective moral standards – universal in scope, and far above human limitations – happen to be fully in line with our most basic societal interests?

            It thus follows from the above that Pojman's criticisms of ethical relativism and arguments for ethical objectivism are ill-founded.

 

 

SAMPLES OF PHILOSOPHICAL DIALOGUES

 

Some assignments may ask you to write a philosophical dialogue on a particular issue. Below are three examples; the first is an example of what *not* to do.

 

Example 1 (don’t submit one like this)

 

Assignment: Write a dialogue between Locke and Bentham on the subject of natural rights.

 

            I, Philosopher Locke, am here to defend my theory of natural rights and revolution. In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, he granted us natural rights. These fundamental rights are those to life, health, liberty, and possessions. Due to the fact that these were given by our creator, any action taken against those are a complete violation and is unjustified. All powers of the government lie solely in the hands of the people, meaning if they don't chose to give them up, the government has no authority. We, as a people, chose to give the government authority over us in exchange for protection of our natural rights. If the government fails at doing so, we (the people) have the right to remove it and create another one.

            I, Philosopher Bentham, disagree with Locke's pathetic theory. Due to the fact that God is intangible, you can not use him to support your theory. All rights are the result of laws that are created by legislators (humans). We can not access natural law or God. Therefore, I think it's only just to stick with legal rights. They all serve to protect society and its people.

 

Example 2

 

Assignment: Write a dialogue between Nozick and Rawls on the subject of welfare taxation.

 

            The scene begins as two old friends meet on a busy London street and decide to share a taxi to the bank.  Both men are approaching old age and are quite wealthy.

            Reginald:  Bertrand, old man, would you mind paying the driver?  I’ve just given all my pocket money to a poor destitute man I saw on the street before I met you.

            Bertrand:  Oh, Reginald!  I’ve told you so many times you ought not to do that.  You know he’ll just spend it on liquor or gamble it away at the track.  If you’re so concerned for the welfare of the poor why don’t you just give money to a nice charity?  That seems to me to be enough.

            Reginald:  A charity?  Surely you’re joking, Bertrand.  There are hardly enough charitable organizations and hardly enough money within those organizations to make a difference.  Do you have any idea how many poor people there are out there?

            Bertrand:  No.  And I can’t say I spend a lot of time thinking about it.  I pick a charity twice a year and give them money ­ -- a fair amount of money, if I do say so myself.  Why?  How many poor people are there?

            Reginald:  Well, I’m sure I couldn’t say for sure, but I know it’s more than a charitable donation is going to take care of.  We have to be willing to let the government sort out problems like this.

            Bertrand:  Nonsense!  The government taking my money and giving it to any Tom, Dick or Harry who happens to have fallen on hard times isn’t productive at all.  In fact, it’s tantamount to common pick-pocketing.  Why should someone force me to give money for the welfare of the poor, when I am perfectly willing to make donations?  Besides, at least by giving a donation to a charity I have a better idea of who will be receiving the money.

            Reginald:  What does that matter?

            Bertrand:  Well it matters a great deal!  While I certainly feel pity for a poor widow left with many children and no inheritance, I can’t say I feel the same pity for a lazy drunk who has more interest in his own debauchery than in finding gainful employment.

            Reginald:  That’s very easy for you to say, Reginald.  Your wealth goes back generations.  And, while I certainly wouldn’t call you lazy or inept, you’ve clearly had advantages that others haven’t had.  Had you not been born into such wealth, do you really think you’d have everything you have now?

            Bertrand:  That’s hardly the point, I think.  So what if I was born wealthy?  I’ve still worked hard, and I’ve still achieved greater successes than my father or his father.  And even if I were a chimney sweeper or a rail worker and could barely make ends meet, I would still not condone our government poaching my pocketbook just because I had a hard life.  What I’ve earned is what I’ve earned, and that’s the end of the story.

            Reginald:  But how can you possibly know how you would feel?  I daresay if it were you who stood to gain from the government’s poaching, as you call it, you would feel quite a bit differently.

            Bertrand:  Well, that theory notwithstanding, I am not the one who stands to gain from the government taking my money and giving it to the poor.  I stand only to lose by this arrangement.  If I decide to donate my money to charity, then at least I feel good for doing something kind and moral, but it does not benefit me in any practical way.

            Reginald:  We must not forget the man who less fortunate than ourselves, Bertrand, even if that misfortune is of his own making.  After all, the economy can be an unpredictable thing.  One or two bad investments and it could be you or I panhandling out there.  But I see we’ve arrived.  Do you have the fare?

            Bertrand:  Yes, I have it.  How surprised should I be with your position, old friend, when here you sit asking me to pay your way as well because you’ve used your funds for, shall we say, other priorities?

            Reginald:  A debatable question indeed, old man.  Do tip the driver for a safe journey.

 

Example 2

 

Assignment: Write a dialogue between Nozick and Rawls on the subject of welfare taxation.

 

            Rawlsian Ray: You maintain that a government is not justified in taxing its wealthier people in order to supplement the incomes and living situation of those who are not as wealth or more to the point destitute. How is it that you justify your position?

            Nozickian Nick: Maybe I should clarify what you have said so that we are standing on stable ground. Not only do I not believe that a government is not justified in doing what you say, I believe that governments and groups that attempt to this sort of thing always fall short of their well-intentioned goals.

            Rawlsian Ray: Before you get to that, please answer my original question.

            Nozickian Nick: Happily, although I believe that the second statement may well be the most important of the two. One of the most basic rights we have as humans is the right to our property, in fact it is this right that is the only justification of government in the first place, since governments exist only to protect this most basic right. Once we allow a government to take a portion of our property, they move past the minimal state that we intentioned for the government when it was chartered in the first place. Furthermore, we actually approach something very similar to slavery when this occurs, since I now have to work a certain amount of the hours to offset this amount that will be taken away from me.

            Rawlsian Ray: It seems however that in this acquisition of property and retention of property there is an imbalance that exists, that leaves having more, many times much more and others having less, often much less. Even if property is acquired through the just means that I have heard you speak of before, doesn’t it seem that if we both agree on this idea of basic liberties, that everyone should have access to those liberties.

            Nozickian Nick: We still haven’t looked at the second and perhaps most telling point of my position, but before we do, what would you propose as a solution to this disparity that you speak of, and seems to be in all actuality in place?

            Rawlsian Ray: A government committed to these basic liberties that we agree on and carefully instructed can be entrusted with careful distribution and redistribution of wealth. In this way, the individuals in a society can be taxed according to their wealth, based on the knowledge that if we were in the place of the less fortunate we would be very interested in receiving help. More pointedly if we were in a place of not knowing how things would turn out for us, a kind of pre-status in life location, we would probably choose this middle ground where there was careful redistribution of wealth.

            Nozickian Nick: Since I’m almost out of time, let me leave you with this. Even if we set aside our talk of justification, it seems that when governments are entitled in the way that you have just talked about, they are ineffective and perpetuate the problems of poverty in society by encouraging people to take advantage of this system. So in the process of encouraging fairness, you have actually put the wealthy or even the hard working in an unfair place. I believe I should help less the fortunate but I want it to be at my discretion and not the governments who should not be entitled in this way.