Some Courses I’ve Taught
A non-technical introduction to the basics of probability theory, and an exploration of ways in which it has been used to shed light on epistemological issues such as dogmatism, self-locating belief, transformative experience, and scientific reasoning. Intended to bridge the divide between formal and traditional epistemology, and to teach probabilistic reasoning to students with little or no mathematical background.
An exploration of whether and how our gender, ethnicity, or other aspects of our social location exert epistemic influence. Do they influence the forms of knowledge that are available to us? Might there be objects of knowledge to which a particular social group has privileged or underprivileged access? Do certain social structures lead systematically to “epistemic injustice” against particular social groups? This course explores the tight connection between knowledge and social power.
An introduction to philosophical thinking. We learn and practice important “informal” philosophical and critical-thinking skills, both deductive and probabilistic. We learn to isolate the premises of arguments and examine how they fit together, look at argumentative methods and fallacies, and identify and evaluate different types of argument. We also learn about the heuristics and biases that make our thinking faster but less accurate.
This course looks at the nature of reality and how we can gain access to it from our limited perspectives. We explore mind-benders such as: What is time? What is it to be real, or to be possible? Do I exist completely here and now, or is my existence spread across my life over time? How is a person different from a shoe? What is it like to be a bat? How do I know I am not a brain in a vat? We learn that everything we take for granted can be called into question.
We rely on other people for much of our information: our parents, teachers, peers, the government, the media, and the internet. Are other people an important source of knowledge or a dangerous threat to our autonomy as thinkers? We explore these issues by discussing questions such as: how can you responsibly accept a belief from another person? What should you believe when experts disagree about an important matter? How does the diversity of opinions in politics, morality, and religion affect your own rationality in believing what you do?
Philosophy of religion has traditionally discussed arguments for and against God, whether religious belief can be rational, and whether God is compatible with evil. Recent discussions have updated these issues for a contemporary context, as well as asked entirely new questions, such as: What is a religious ritual? Can atheists be spiritual? Does the diversity of religious and secular worldviews threaten your own beliefs? What is religious faith? Might religious reality (if there is one) be polytheistic? If there is a monotheistic God: might he not be a person after all? Why does he hide his existence from human beings? This course examines the foundations of ultimate reality and our relationship to it.
We enter the minds of key thinkers at a radical turning point in human thought. We examine their often revolutionary ideas in their own intellectual context. We look at Descartes’ attempt to demolish and reconstruct all his knowledge from his sitting room; we ask what the world would be like if (as Leibniz thought) it were made of panpsychic monads; we explore how Locke’s theory of knowledge responded to life-and-death issues of his time, and why (with Hume) there might not be causes after all. We also engage with Kant, Spinoza, and Malebranche. In the future I will incorporate female thinkers into this course, including Émilie Du Châtelet, Marie De Gournay, Anna Maria van Schurman, Mary Astell, Damaris Cudworth Masham, Princess Elibazeth of Bohemia, Mary Astell, and Margaret Cavendish.
Courses I’m Planning
The digital age offers unprecedented opportunities to increase our knowledge. But it also presents unprecedented dangers of manipulation and misinformation. This course explores the epistemological issues of the digital age. We look at how social-media “echo chambers” create a sharp selection bias, and how impersonal online sources are less accountable and thus make recipients more vulnerable to misinformation. We explore the cognitive biases that incline us toward believing indiscriminately, and the groupthink effects that social media plays on. We discuss what measures we can take to preserve our agency as thinkers.
Trust is as essential to our flourishing as the air we breathe. But like air, it is invisible – we only notice it when it is gone. What is trust, and what makes it good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, wise or unwise? Some think that trusting someone is just calculating that she will help you achieve your aims. But others think this conception far too narrow, insisting that trust is an inherently moral concept that gets at the heart of what it is to be human. Some think that evidence destroys trust, whereas others think that trust should be based on evidence. It is even worth asking whether there is any single thing called “trust”. This course examines a variety of puzzles surrounding this vital yet slippery attitude.
A medical education focused on chemistry and biology will not naturally cultivate creativity, critical thinking, or the ability to deal with ambiguity or shift perspectives. Yet doctors need these skills, and this course uses a variety of philosophical and literary resources to cultivate them. It teaches medical students to recognize the contingency and fluidity of medical categories, and to attend to non-standard or idiosyncratic clues arising from patients’ narrative self-reports. Students will become comfortable dealing with the ambiguity of real-life cases, and will gain critical awareness of the pressure they face to look authoritative to patients by acting more certain than cases may warrant. They will also critically reflect on the ethics of certain incentive structures in medicine.
Feminist theories of knowledge sometimes have the reputation of being ideological and thus unscientific. Is this objection fair, or can feminism offer important insights? Students will learn that feminism is not a monolith but comes in a broad array of flavors, including relativism, empiricism, naturalized epistemology, and standpoint theory. One theme is that, although feminist epistemology is often regarded as pertaining only to women, it is in fact concerned to bring to the table all manner of traditionally marginalized viewpoints, including those of racial and ethnic minorities and the economically underprivileged.
Our minds use a variety of biases that make our thinking faster but less accurate. This course examines these biases and their implications for epistemology. We learn how people perceive things that are relevant to them and screen out most other things, yielding a potentially distorted view of reality. We learn how memory does not encode events like a video camera but instead “reconstructs” them to cohere with one’s current beliefs. We examine how people often use the same evidence to arrive at opposing conclusions, and tend to conform their thinking to their social groups. Do these facts spell problems for our knowledge or epistemic justification, or for our theories of what these are?
The Early Modern philosophical “canon” consists entirely of male philosophers (think Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, Hume, Locke, and Spinoza). So it might come as a surprise that many women were philosophically influential at the time. Among the female philosophers we’ll converse with are Émilie Du Châtelet on laws of nature and religious epistemology; Margaret Cavendish, whose vitalist account of causation is still endorsed in contemporary philosophy of biology; Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia on the mind-body relationship; and Mary Astell, who argued that, if the mind is separate from the body (as Descartes thought), then there is no reason to think women less cognitively capable than men.