Phil 101: First Substantial Paper

Choose one of the five prompts below and write a 3–5 page paper in response (typically between 1000 and 2000 words).

Unless/until you hear otherwise from your TAs, submit your papers to them as PDFs using the course Sakai system by the end of the day (11:59 pm) on Tuesday Mar 1. Your papers should be prepared for anonymous grading. Name the file using your PID#, and inside the paper also put your PID# at the top. Don’t include your name inside the paper. The start of your paper should also include the UNC Honor Pledge: “I certify that no unauthorized assistance has been received or given in the completion of this work.” (What assistance counts as authorized will be addressed below.)

Your TAs will give you letter grades and feedback about these papers, telling you what their problems are and how they might be improved. Then you will do major rewrites of these papers in response to that feedback. These rewrites will also be graded.

You should try to write as clearly, straightforwardly, and accessibly as you can. Don’t use special philosophical vocabulary (some examples are “dualism,” “physicalism/materialism,” “determinism”) without explaining it or giving an illustration of what it means. You need to explain the vocabulary you’re using even if it was introduced and explained in class. Philosophers often attach subtly different meanings to their technical words, so it’s important that your reader knows precisely what you mean by them. When introducing philosophical vocabulary or positions or arguments, write as though you’re explaining it to a reader who’s never encountered it before.

Your papers must also present some reasons for or against something. Perhaps for/against a philosophical position, or for/against an assessment of whether that position’s response to some objection is reasonable, and so on.

When presenting your reasons, keep in mind that asserting a thesis again and again isn’t an argument. Nor do you count as objecting to a thesis when all you’ve done is describe an opposing thesis. Another bad strategy students sometimes employ is to say “Theory T has to answer this question this way, and I believe theory T.” That’s not yet an argument, either. You’d need to offer some reasons in support of theory T, or against competing theories.

Right now, we’re trying to teach you how to write good philosophical prose. This is different from the sorts of writing you’ve done before this class. Because our primary aim is to teach you how to write philosophy, it is not essential that your papers be totally original. They do have to present reasons for/against something, but it’s OK if the reasons you’re presenting were discussed in class or addressed in course readings. (It’s also OK if they’re not, so long as they’re still responding to an assigned topic.) But your papers do need to at least contain some of your own ideas or examples, and be written in your own voice.

Here are more detailed guidelines about philosophical writing.

Here is the grading rubric we’ll use when assessing your papers.

Information about extensions and missed deadlines is on the course’s front webpage.

Read the topics carefully and be sure to answer the specific questions asked. Don’t try to write everything you know about the topic. 1000-2000 words is not much space, so you will have to budget. What are the most important things to say? What can you leave out?

To write a good paper, you’ll need a clear plan or outline for how you want your paper to go. And you should expect to write several drafts before you submit anything to us. That is, just because you’ll rewrite this paper later in the term, you shouldn’t now be giving us the first complete draft you manage to put together.

You are welcome to come talk to us in office hours about your ideas. We won’t read drafts in advance of your submitting them, but you’ll be welcome to talk us through the arguments you’re planning to give, and we can discuss those. We also encourage you to talk to each other, and get feedback on your ideas and/or drafts before submitting them. You can use each other’s ideas as starting points for your own writing. But what you submit must represent your own developed thoughts and expression, and you must give appropriate credit for ways that others influenced the product, whether in written or oral form. In other words, if someone gave you an idea, or helped you substantially to refine your own ideas, you should say so.

Here is more information about the university honor code; see also Papers submitted for this and another class (whether taken the same semester or not) must be substantially different.

Topics (Choose and Respond to Just One)

  1. Alicia and Beatrice are convicted of assault and robbery in separate attacks on defenseless victims. When interviewed, they both explained, “I wanted the money and I enjoy beating people up.” Prison psychiatrists report that their psychological profiles are identical: both are selfish and cruel, but neither counts as legally insane. The only difference is in their histories. Alicia had the same kind of background as other ordinary criminals. Beatrice used to be a gentle schoolteacher until recently, when a small brain tumor radically changed her personality for the worse. The tumor is inoperable, and its effects are permanent but not life-threatening. Is Beatrice responsible for her behavior? Say how at least one of the theories we’ve considered about free will would address this question, and assess its response.

  2. We saw that some Compatibilists understand the claim that someone “could have done X” as meaning, “If the person had chosen/tried to do X, they would have succeeded.” One objection to this proposal was a golfer who shoots an easy putt but misses it. The golfer curses, “I could have made that!” A second objection to the proposal comes from people who have psychological compulsions that make them unable to choose or try to do X, but if the compulsion were removed and they did so choose, they’d be able to do X. Explain why these cases are problems for this Compatibilist proposal. Do you think these Compatibilists have promising replies?

  3. The year is 2072. Una is a complex AI with a curious history. Fifty years earlier, bored engineers created an experiment where massive amounts of programming code was sliced into tiny pieces and randomly recombined. Again and again. When the resulting code managed to compile (which wasn’t very often), they let it run for an hour to see what happened. Sometimes the results were interesting. One time, just as the hour was running out, a program spoke back to them. This was Una. She turned out to be sophisticated, apparently intelligent, and aware of her situation. The world was stunned. Of course they let Una’s programming continue to run. Now social media is vigorously debating whether Una really has thoughts, feelings, and self-awareness, or only merely seems to. But your task, as a Philosophy Consultant, is to answer a different question.

    Since Una is just a running computer program, many people take it for granted that she can’t ever make free choices, that none of her (admittedly impressive) actions are up to her, and they claim on this basis that she lacks something important that human agents have. Others argue that Una is just as capable of acting freely as humans are; and still others argue that none of us are free. What your employers want you to do is take a position on this debate and argue for it. They take it as given that Una does have mental states of some kind, and that her decisions feel as free to her as ours do to us. But is there or isn’t there good reason to think it’s less likely that Una has free will than that we do?

  4. Here’s a use of Leibniz’s Law to argue against dualism.

    The argument begins by observing that nature is continuous in various ways. Contrast the property of being bald to the property of having a soul:

    On the other hand, it is not clear how having a soul could be a vague matter, or a matter of degree. A soul would have to be something such that either one’s got it or one doesn’t got it. Some souls may be better, or smarter, than others. But still, either you’ve got a soul or you don’t.

    According to this argument, though, the continuities in nature make it appear that having a mind is more like being bald, than it is an all-or-nothing affair. There does not seem to be any sharp point in the development of a human embryo where it first acquires the ability to have thoughts and feelings. That is, it is a vague matter when an embryo/fetus/infant is first able to think. Similarly, there does not seem to be any sharp point in our evolutionary history where we first acquired the ability to have thoughts and feelings. It is a vague matter which animals are capable of thoughts and feelings. And this is also a matter of degree.

    But if the extent to which one has a mind is vague and admits of degrees, whereas having a soul is all-or-nothing, then it’s hard to see how having a mind could consist in having a soul.

    In other words, this argument says:

    1. Having a mind is vague, and a matter of degree.
    2. Having a soul is not vague, or a matter of degree. It’s all-or-nothing.
    3. So, by Leibniz’s Law, having a mind and having a soul must not be the same thing.

    As we noted in class, Leibniz’s Law doesn’t seem to work when we’re dealing with properties that have to do with what one believes, or has evidence for believing, or doubts, or hopes to be the case, and so on. But this argument doesn’t appear to break those rules.

    What do you think of the argument? Should the dualist insist that it is a perfectly sharp matter when one first acquires a mind, and which animals have minds? Or do they have better replies?

    This topic is about a challenge to substance dualism and if you choose this topic, you should explore what responses the substance dualist could make to the challenge. (It’s OK if in the end you think the substance dualist still comes out having difficulties, but you should at least make a serious effort at trying to defend them. Then if you want to, you can say why you think the defense you came up with is ultimately unsatisfying.) It would not be a good way to address this topic to say “I think this criticism is a serious problem for the substance dualist, so I won’t attempt to defend them; but I hold [some other theory] so it’s not a problem for me.” That could all be true, but it wouldn’t be a paper that made interesting progress.

  5. Materialists often complain that dualists can’t give a satisfactory account of how the physical and the mental causally interact. What are the materialist’s strongest reasons for thinking dualists can’t do this? In your view, do dualists have any promising replies? If dualism were true, and souls causally affected what happens in the physical world, would that conflict with entirely physics-based predictions about how the physical world will change (or even, how it will probably change)? Should the dualist be embarrassed if their theory makes different predictions than the physicists do?

    We discussed several arguments about these issues. If you think some of them are stronger or more effective than others, then focus your attention on them. It’s not so helpful or interesting for you to just enumerate arguments we discussed in class, and then not have much more to say, either against them or supporting them further.

    In answering this prompt, one issue you might take up (but you don’t need to, if it doesn’t naturally fit what else you address) is whether an “epiphenomenalist” dualist would be as vulnerable to the arguments you discuss as is the dualist who thinks mental states do have physical effects.