Some people say that philosophy -- and metaphysics in particular -- is the study of the fundamental nature of reality. That is not what we will be doing in this course. Instead, we will study concepts. More specifically, we will study the processes of evaluating our concepts, revising them when needed or creating new ones when necessary, and then determining how best to implement those changes. Call the study of these processes conceptual engineering. In this course, we will focus on conceptual engineering's core methodological issues, including topic continuity, externalism vs. internalism, and the implementation challenge. But we will also take the opportunity to explore specific instances of conceptual engineering, especially as they occur within the area of metaphysics.
This course is a graduate-level seminar in metaphysics. While there are many ways to design such a seminar, I have designed this one to be discussion-based and research-oriented. We will read and discuss one book on the topic of conceptual engineering. We will then practice a series of "research activities", including comprehensive presentations, constructive papers, and reviewer reports.
Philosophy and AI
In 2022, OpenAI launched ChatGPT, a chatbot with a remarkable ability to mimic written language. In some ways, the launch of ChatGPT resembled the introduction of the pocket calculator in the 1970s. On the one hand, both technologies promised to streamline certain tasks. On the other hand, they threatened to undermine the significance attached to those tasks: Why should I learn how to do arithmetic when a calculator can do it for me? Why should I learn how to write an essay when ChatGPT can do it for me?
In this course, we will explore the extent to which this technological analogy holds true. We will examine some core issues in the philosophy of artificial intelligence, including the difference between "strong" and "weak" AI, computationalism vs. connectionism, and the intentional stance. We will also examine a host of ethical issues in domains as wide-ranging as education, social media, art, and warfare. Throughout the semester, we will connect these issues to their real-life manifestations in artificial intelligence technology.
Courses Previously Taught
Frontiers in Social Philosophy
We all have beliefs, we all perform actions, and we all are judged on the basis of the rationality and morality of our beliefs and actions. But we also talk as if other things -- expert communities, governments, sports teams, and so on -- have beliefs, perform actions, and are judged on the basis of the rationality and morality of their beliefs and actions. In this course, we will explore the extent to which such talk makes sense. In particular, we will explore whether this talk of collective intentionality is merely metaphorical, or tracking real features of sui generis group minds, or something in between. As a follow-up, we will explore the extent to which the principles we use to evaluate individual intentionality can be extended to the evaluation of collective intentionality.
This course is an advanced seminar in Social Philosophy. While there are many ways to design an advanced seminar, I have designed this one to be discussion-based and topic-oriented. We will read and discuss three* books on the topic of collective intentionality (broadly construed). In addition, you will write three short reply-style papers, one for each book.
Philosophy of Language
Language plays a central role in analytic philosophy. So, too, does the philosophical study of language. In this course, our central goal is to determine the extent to which the philosophy of language's prominence is deserved. In the first half of this course, we will thoroughly explore key works in early analytic philosophy of language, focusing especially on the nature of reference and the semantics-pragmatics distinction. We will then explore some more contemporary topics in the philosophy of language, including metaphor, linguistic justice, and bullshit. Throughout the entire course, we will strive to be mindful of potential differences between languages (especially potential differences between North American English and Mainland Chinese Mandarin). Students who take this course for credit will be assessed on the following: (1) class participation; (2) short, bi-weekly, questions about the reading material; and (3) two papers, each of which serves as an introductory "survey" to one of the course's topics.
Social Philosophy is often taught as a course about how societies should be organized, and students in these courses read some of history's greatest social theorists -- Hobbes, Marx, Kongzi, Foucault, and so on. But Social Philosophy can be so much more than that. In between these grand theories lie a profusion of smaller, but no less interesting, philosophical issues about the social elements of our lives. What determines that this piece of paper is a 5RMB banknote? In what sense can an institution like Wuhan University have a "mission"? Is it possible to have a morally virtuous open relationship? In this course, I will introduce you to these, and other, issues. Along the way, I will help you develop your ability to substantively engage with me and your classmates about these issues. To that end, the primary means of assessment will be two oral exams. (I know that's scary, but at least there won't be a term paper!)
Philosophy of Science
Neil deGrasse Tyson has said that philosophers are not "productive contributor[s] to our understanding of the natural world." Stephen Hawking has said that "philosophy is dead," because "[p]hilosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science." And Lawrence Krauss has even said that "...the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science... [i]t has no impact on physics what so ever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it."
Harsh words from three of the most popular physicists today! But are they right? Our central goal in this class is to find out. We will seek to understand how -- if at all -- philosophy is relevant to scientific practice. We will do so in two ways. First, we will explore some "classic" debates in the philosophy of science concerning the foundational epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics of science. Second, we will explore some "new" debates that combine science and philosophy. Such topics include the evolution of human morality, the epistemology of extraterrestial life, and the "scientific creation" of sexual orientation.
Value in Metaphysics
According to many philosophers, metaphysics is the study of ultimate reality. This characterization of metaphysics might suggest that metaphysics is a "value-free" descriptive project. But appearances can be deceiving. In this course, we will explore the ways that metaphysics may be inﬂuenced by considerations of value. We will organize this exploration around specific sources of value: the practical, the ethical, the linguistic, and the epistemological. But we will also look to see how the overall force of these considerations impacts our understanding of metaphysics. Along these lines, we will be concerned with two central questions: (1) In which ways do considerations of value interact? (2) To what extent does the interaction of these considerations challenge the status of metaphysics as "objective"? This course will be conducted as a seminar. Consequently, the vast majority of class time will be spent in discussion. Students will be assessed on the extent to which their presence contributes to that discussion. Students will also be assessed on two papers on a topic of their own choosing.
Philosophical English ("Version 3.0")
Our central goal in this course is to cultivate your ability to hold a productive philosophical conversation in English. To that end, I divide this course into three parts. In the first part, you will learn the "tools" of philosophy, focusing especially on the structure of philosophical arguments and the appropriate "moves" in a philosophical conversation. In the second part, you will learn some key ideas in the so-called "core" areas of analytic philosophy (including epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and political philosophy). In the third part, you will learn some key ideas in more specialized topics (including decision theory, the philosophy of science, the history of philosophy, and conceptual engineering). Your participation in this course will center around oral conversations and short written exercises. (There will not be a final term paper.) In addition, because this course is an "introduction" to professional Anglophone philosophy, we will also occasionally discuss questions about how to do philosophy professionally.
Philosophical English (with Benjamin Cross and Michael Longenecker)
Our central goal in this course is to cultivate the ability to conduct philosophical research in English. To that end, we will divide this course into three parts. In the first part, we will learn the "tools" of philosophy, focusing especially on the structure of philosophical arguments. In the second part, we will learn some central concepts in the areas of epistemology and metaphysics. In the third part, we will learn some central concepts in the areas of ethics and political philosophy. While the course will be conducted online, we expect students to be highly participatory. Because this course is an "introduction" to professional Anglophone philosophy, we will also occasionally address questions about how to do philosophy professionally.
Philosophical English ("Version 2.0")
Our central goal in this course is to cultivate the ability to conduct philosophical research in English. To that end, we will focus on three components of that ability: (i) an understanding of key philosophical concepts and their application within Anglophone philosophy; (ii) a fluency in verbally discussing philosophical questions (in English); (iii) a competence in composing argumentative essays (in English). Our class sessions will feature an even mix of lecturing, discussion, and skill-building activities. Our assignments -- two short papers and three conversational "podcasts" -- will assess the extent to which we are able to demonstrate growth in (i), (ii), and (iii).
Philosophical English ("Version 1.0")
Our central goal in this course is to cultivate the ability to hold a productive philosophical conversation. There are many ways to hold a productive philosophical conversation, but for practical reasons we will focus on conversations within Anglophone philosophy. We will closely examine influential works of the Western canon, including those of Plato, Anselm, and Hume. While we will come to these texts on our own terms, we will also observe how they represent the concerns of Anglophone philosophy. Consequently, our class sessions will feature a mix of discussion and lecturing. Our assignments (two papers and two conversational "podcasts") will asses our ability to relate the material to our own perspectives.
Contemporary Philosophical Issues
(as principal organizer)
This lecture-series seminar is designed to expose students to contemporary philosophical research. There are two parts to this. First, all faculty participants will give a lecture on a research topic of their choice. Second, students can approach faculty whose work interests them and ask to be supervised throughout the semester, the product of which should be a high-quality research essay.
University of Notre Dame
Metaphysics is the area of philosophy that explores the underlying reality of the world, which can create the impression that metaphysics is dry, uninteresting, and irrelevant to our lives. This, however, is not the case, and in this course we will explore metaphysical topics that matter. Some questions along these lines are: How do I freely choose my actions, or is the future fixed? What sort of thing are we, and what happens to us when we die? What is the nature of race and gender? Along the way we will learn key metaphysical concepts, including essence, possible world, existence, naturalness, personhood, and causation. The course is primarily discussion-based and will emphasize philosophy as a collaborative activity.
Groups: What They Are and What They Can Do
(with Rebecca Chan)
We are all members of groups. Some of us are members of a sports team, the staff of the Observer, or the band. We are all members of the community of Notre Dame. Groups are commonplace. Yet, they raise a host of interesting philosophical questions: What kind of thing is a group? How are groups formed or dissolved? What sort of actions can groups perform? Are they responsible for their good (or bad) actions the way that individuals are? These questions are essential for our everyday lives. Answering them guides us in how we think about ourselves and our roles in groups. And apart from our personal investment, groups constitute some of the most crucial features of the world -- governments, churches, and corporations, to name a few.
We’ll have two main goals for this course. First, we’ll familiarize ourselves with answers philosophers have given to the above questions. Second, we’ll develop the resources necessary to intelligently discuss how these issues relate to our everyday lives. Potential topics here may include: How many members of a band or team can be replaced before the resulting band or team is no longer the same? Are mob bosses responsible for all the crimes members of their mob commit? Can corporations speak and hold moral or political views the same way individuals do?
Rationality and Action
In this course we will focus on the sense of rationality associated with action, practical rationality. We will approach the topic in four discrete units. In the first unit we will focus on issues concerning decision theory, the study of how best to satisfy preferences. In the second unit we will consider more robust conceptions of practical rationality. Then, in the third unit, we will consider some cases where it seems like we systematically act deficiently. Finally, in the fourth unit we will discuss particularly hard choices concerning what to do.
Ultimately, students can expect to become better actors. Along the way, students should expect to develop the skill to critically engage with the material, hone their ability to articulate and defend their own beliefs, and apply those beliefs to real-world situations. These three more concrete goals will be measured by students' participation, short weekly writing tasks, four unit quizzes, and one medium-length paper on a topic of their own choice. Students will be guided on each of these tasks.
Death and Dying
Like everyone else, philosophers have always thought about death. But the conclusions philosophers reach on this topic are not idle: they have important consequences for how we live and how we die. Death, of course, is personal. But it is also public. Many contemporary social issues revolve around death and dying. The first goal of this course is to learn and explore both historical and contemporary philosophical treatment of death. Topics include: What, precisely is death? What happens to us when we die? Why is death bad? Are there circumstances in which death is good? When is it permissible to end a life? How does the possibility of immortality affect the value of life and death? The second goal of this course is to help students discover their own beliefs about death and improve their ability to articulate, defend, and act upon those beliefs.
Imagine you are a member of a city council faced with a decision. Currently, there is a large track of land on the outskirts of the city limits. A company has offered to buy the land from the city to turn into a golfing facility. A group of community activists wants to retain the land for public access and conservation. The city would financially benefit from the sale. Local wildlife would benefit from conservation. The proposed golf facility would create new jobs. But it would also prevent future generations from freely accessing the preserved land. How would you vote?
In this course, we will confront ethical dilemmas concerning our engagement with the environment. To do so, we will anchor ourselves around contemporary "case studies" (for example, the Paris Agreement on climate change). The primary goal of the course is to develop our ability to competently explain our positions on the case studies, as well as on related issues in environmental ethics. To meet this goal, we will first identify the relevant philosophical issues at stake. We will then familiarize ourselves with the philosophical concepts necessary to understand these issues. Finally, we will synthesize all of this material to justify our own conclusions about what we ought to do and why we ought to do it.
Introduction to Philosophy
When we do philosophy, we attempt to use reason to resolve seemingly irresolvable disputes about the nature of the world and our place in it. Our central goal in this course is to develop the ability to do just that. In our pursuit of this goal, we will explore questions like: How can we live good lives? What do we know? Does God exist? How should we improve society? To reach our goal, we will have to improve our ability to use reason. This course will provide the resources to do so; we will develop skills in argumentation, logic, and precision of thought. This course will also provide the opportunity to practice these skills; large portions of class time and many assignments will be dedicated to the application of these skills in collaborative discussion.