Knowledge and Reality
This elective gives students broad exposure to two major philosophical subjects: epistemology and metaphysics. The epistemology half of the course focuses on Cartesian skepticism, the view that knowledge of the external world is impossible. The metaphysics half of the class focuses on (i) classic arguments for the existence of God, as well as their most common replies; and (ii) whether human beings possess freedom of the will. The course draws from historical and contemporary texts on these questions and overlaps to a significant degree with a typical undergraduate introductory philosophy course. The course emphasizes synchronous and asynchronous peer discussion as well as expository writing.
Course objectives include:
- learning how to effectively summarize an argument in clear and precise language (both in formal writing and in informal discussions),
- working independently and collaboratively to identify the logical structure of an argument,
- identifying informal and formal logical fallacies,
- thinking critically and imaginatively about questions of existential significance,
- and presenting one’s own arguments in verbal and written form with explicit attention to its premises and conclusions.
This class has two 90-minute live sessions each week. Students are expected to have audio and video connectivity during these live sessions so that they can fully participate in the rich discourse needed to fully grasp the course topics.
Unit 1: Cartesian Skepticism
In the first unit, students will read and grapple with powerful arguments for the conclusion that they cannot know anything about a world beyond their own senses, not even whether the “external world” we take for granted exists. The locus classicus for this view is Descartes’ “dreaming argument” from the First Meditation. There he claims that a subject can never be sure that they are not dreaming, and therefore that subjects are not capable of knowledge of anything besides their own thoughts and sensations. A major task for this unit will be figuring out in more precise terms what Descartes is arguing, what his premises are, and whether the argument is valid. For example, is it really correct that I can never know that I am not dreaming? What assumptions does Descartes make about the nature of knowledge? Major skills for this unit include logical and argumentative precision, abstract and critical thinking, close reading, and collaborative engagement with peers. Texts for this unit include detailed handouts, selections from Descartes’ Meditations, and the first chapter of Barry Stroud’s The Significance of Philosophical Skepticism. As part of their asynchronous work, students will watch video lectures given by Professor Jennifer Nagel (University of Toronto). Other assignments include asynchronous discussion board responses. Each week the students will respond to a discussion board prompt and reply to at least one other student’s response.
Unit 2: Responses to Cartesian Skepticism
A natural objection to Cartesian skepticism is that it relies on a notion of knowledge that is too divorced from ordinary life. This objection can take many forms, for example, that (i) the skeptic must mean something else by the word ‘know’ and its cognates, or that (ii) we don’t ordinarily hold that knowledge requires absolute certainty (and/or total immunity to doubt). Students will read, discuss, and debate responses such as these in the second unit. Major skills for this unit include all those of the previous unit. However, with the second unit, students will be expected to show greater independence and originality of thought, both during in-class discussions and in their written work. Texts for this unit include detailed handouts, chapters two and three of Stroud’s The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism, G.E. Moore’s essay “Proof of an External World,” and Scott Soames’ essay “Moore on Skepticism, Perception, and Knowledge”. As part of their asynchronous work, students will watch additional video lectures given by Professor Jennifer Nagel (University of Toronto). Other assignments include asynchronous discussion board responses. Each week the students will respond to a discussion board prompt and reply to at least one other student’s response.
Unit 3: The Existence of God
In the third unit, the course switches from epistemology to metaphysics. The students will read, discuss, and debate four classic arguments concerning the existence of God and some of their better-known replies. These are (i) the ontological argument, (ii) the cosmological argument, (iii) the argument from design, and (iv) the so-called “problem of evil.” Major skills for this unit include close and critical reading and evaluation of detailed arguments, in addition to following progressions of increasingly sophisticated versions of the same argument type. (For example, the students will encounter several versions of the ontological argument.) In both their in-class discussions and written assignments, students will apply their skills of critical engagement and close attention to logical form to more complicated arguments than those seen in the epistemology unit. Texts for this unit include detailed handouts and selections from J.L. Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism. Assignments include asynchronous discussion board responses. Each week the students will respond to a discussion board prompt and reply to at least one other student’s response.
Unit 4: Freedom of the Will
The course ends with a unit on free will and moral responsibility. The students will read, discuss, and debate four different positions on the question of free will: (i) libertarianism, (ii) compatibilism, (iii) hard incompatibilism, and (iv) revisionism. This unit builds on the skills of close and critical reading and attention to the subtleties of logical form by applying those skills to the most challenging and sophisticated readings they will see in the course. The difficult nature of these texts issues from the fact that each of the aforementioned positions resolves into particular stances on more fundamental questions. For example, to be a “libertarian” about free will is to hold that free will is incompatible with causal determinism, that human beings do in fact possess it, and that freedom of the will is a necessary condition of moral responsibility. The students will observe that each of these four positions finds points of agreement and disagreement with every other position. For this reason, one of the major skills for this unit will be thinking critically and comprehensively about a range of questions, specifically (a) what is required for freedom of the will, (b) whether human beings possess freedom of the will (i.e., the nature of human agency), and (c) whether human beings are morally responsible for their actions. In both their extemporaneous discussions and written work, students will develop skills of careful exposition, logical rigor, critical thinking, and originality. Texts for this unit include detailed handouts and the contributions of four authors to Four Views on Free Will. Assignments include asynchronous discussion board responses. Each week the students will respond to a discussion board prompt and reply to at least one other student’s response.