Phil 89: General Feedback on Second Brief Writing Exercises

The instructions for this exercise were important. I’ll remind you:

… the aim is not for you to tell us about the larger text or the author.

Instead, you should try to explain the argument in the passage to someone who hasn’t read these passages (or the text they’re taken from). You should say enough that they could understand and discuss the argument, based just on your summary of it. Don’t provide more detail than is needed to do that.

Also don’t try to list or give a sentence-by-sentence copy of the author’s text, with some words and phrases switched around. Instead, reconstruct the argument in your passage, in your own words and in a careful way that makes its organization clear. You may want to say things in different order than the original does.

We don’t want you to criticize or defend the arguments you summarize. There will be opportunities for that later in our course. For now, just explain the arguments, as best as you can. Learning how to do this well is an extremely important philosophical skill, and it’s harder than you might expect.

You generally did pretty well with the third paragraph of these instructions. You had more trouble following the second paragraph — but that’s to be expected, that is a hard skill to master. The fourth paragraph is where a large number of you went off-track. Some of you didn’t manage to summarize the argument in the passage at all, but only gave a critical response to it. Others said in one or two sentences what happened in the passage, but then the rest of their submission amounted to a response or evaluation of the passage. I tried to explain in the instructions, and also in class, that this isn’t what this exercise is about. I’m not sure if those of you whose submissions looked like that weren’t paying close enough attention to the instructions, or if you misunderstood them in some way. It may be that if I had formulated the instructions differently, you would have understood them better? I welcome your feedback about how I could have communicated better what you should be trying to do in this exercise.

Common Feedback for both Papers

Here are some remarks I found myself wanting to make in response to many of these papers. These ones could apply to either paper.

  1. Many of you are writing in a way that’s more casual, loose, or imprecise than you should be aiming for. This is not a problem about whether your words or sentence structures are fancy enough. Instead, it’s a problem about how serious I expect you are about how you’ve put things. I expect there are many places where I can point to a word and say, for example, why did you write “establishes” here, is something being established? what is it? And I imagine you responding, oh I just meant “says,” or something like that — expressing that you didn’t have anything specific in mind by using the other word. No reason for choosing the one word over the other. In philosophical writing (and many other kinds of writing) this shouldn’t happen — or at any rate, it should happen less often. I should be able to point to a word and say, why did you put it that way, and you should be able to answer. Maybe you did have a good reason, and something about your writing just kept me from seeing it. Or maybe you thought you had a reason, but if we talk about it you’ll change your mind. All that’s fine. What you shouldn’t be comfortable with is that I’d ask you, why did you use this word? And you have no answer, or that as soon as you think about it, it’s clear to you that a different word is better. Even for a brief exercise, you should read over your words and think about whether each word is saying what you mean, or want to be meaning.

    Here are some words where it often doesn’t matter too much which you choose: “claim,” “proposal,” “theory,” “view,” “thesis.” Though when you choose one of these, it’s best to stick with it. If you start talking about X’s claim and then switch to talk about X’s proposal, a reader might naturally expect you’re talking about two different things — even if it’s not obvious what those two things are.

    But be careful about when you use a word like one of those, and when you use a word like “argument.” An argument is a reason (or structure of multiple reasons) for a claim. An argument often has, or could have, a “therefore” in it. A claim on the other hand, is just a single sentence. The difference between these is discussed more in the handouts I pointed you to earlier in the term.

    If you talk about a “conclusion,” that’s a claim that someone thinks follows from an argument. So if there’s a conclusion, there should be an argument somewhere.

    If you talk about a “premise,” that’s a claim that someone wants to use as a starting point in an argument. So if there’s a premise, again there should be an argument somewhere.

    If you talk about an “assumption,” you’re saying this is a claim that someone accepts but hasn’t given any argument for. That’s needn’t be a bad thing. We don’t have to, and can’t, argue for everything we say. But you should understand what’s meant when you label something as someone’s “assumption.”

    Other words that can be used, and mean different things than the ones already discussed are: analogy, example, objection, question, possibility. If you use one of these words, try to be sure that’s what you mean, rather than something else like “claim” or “assumption.” Sometimes you could reasonably use any of several words, even if those words don’t always mean the same thing. For example, you might discuss an argument or an example of van Inwagen’s that’s at the same time an objection to somebody else’s argument.

    Another place to be careful is with words like “idea.” Often students use this word when they’re not sure whether to say “argument” or “claim.” But philosophers will understand “idea” as meaning something like “justice.” That’s different than a claim, which can be true or false. Other expressions that might substitute for “idea” are “concept” or “notion” or “word.” Don’t get confused about when you want to talk about something like that, and when you want instead to talk about something that can be true or false. Or when you want to talk about an argument.

  2. (This is related to comment A, above.) Another way in which writing can be too casual, loose, or imprecise, is not at the level of word choice but rather at the level of how sentences are put together. In your writing, it should be clear what each sentence is contributing, how it connects to its neighbors and to your main goals in that paragraph or section of your text. If I point to a sentence and say, “I don’t see what role this plays, or how this bears on what came before, can you explain?” then you should always be able to give an answer. Maybe if we discuss things, some connection you thought you saw or were making will turn out to be less clear than you initially thought. That’s fine. What you shouldn’t be comfortable with is when I ask you about a sentence’s role, you have no answer, or you immediately see that there is no clear connection. Even for a brief exercise, you should read over your text and think about what its overall plot is, and how each sentence is contributing to that plot.

  3. It should be clear to the reader “in whose voice” each sentence is being delivered. Part of what that means is that the reader should be able to circle which parts of your submission are you presenting someone else’s ideas (perhaps in your own words), and which parts are you presenting your own ideas. (Given what this exercise was trying to do, here it should all be the former.) But this ideal of making it clear who’s talking when isn’t just about credit. It’s also important to help the reader keep track of when a point is supposed to help one side of a debate versus help the other side. Even if you’re only summarizing van Inwagen — or you’re only reporting your own thinking — sometimes you will shift gears to say things that help (or may seem to help) one side of a debate, and other times say things to help another side. You should write in a way that the reader won’t be confused about these shifts.

  4. (This is related to comment A, above.) You should be clear on how philosophers use and understand the words “body”, “mind/self”, and “soul”. These are not synonyms for each other. How these words are used can vary depending on who’s in the debate, and what’s being taken for granted. For example, in our discussions it’s taken for granted that we really do have bodies; it’s taken to be an open possibility, but disputed, whether we also have souls. In other discussions, it might instead be taken for granted that we have souls, and not taken for granted that we really have bodies. But let’s learn the rules for the discussion we’re actually having: We definitely have bodies, and everyone agrees these are wholly physical. Everyone agrees that if souls exist, they are not physical; but it’s disputed whether souls do exist. Everyone agrees we have minds/selves. But it’s disputed whether those words name any kind of individual substance or Thing, in the first place, and if they do, whether it’s a physical/material thing or a immaterial soul. The words “mind/self” are a kind of “neutral” word, in that different philosophers agree there are these things, but then have different pictures/theories about what they amount to.

    In your writing, I sometimes see you using the word “soul” when you should instead be using a more neutral word like “mind”; or doing the reverse, that is, saying “mind” when you should be saying “soul” instead. For example, if you begin your submission saying something like “Minds are non-physical,” you probably meant to say “soul” instead. Everyone will agree that souls — if they exist, which is a big “if” — are non-physical. So that’s something you could reasonably take as a premise or starting point in your text. The claim that minds are non-physical is something that dualists agree to, but since you’re summarizing discussions about whether there are good arguments for dualism, that claim about minds isn’t something we should take for granted, as something to start discussion with. That’s a claim the dualist is trying to establish or earn the right to say.

Passage 1 (van Inwagen’s second argument)

These were the two paragraphs concerning the “magnetism” example.

Common Feedback

Here are some remarks I found myself wanting to make in response to many of the papers for this prompt.

  1. Some of you wrote as though the problem were that the dualist had simply asserted their view and not proved it, and that the challenge to say more about the “positive nature” of souls were a challenge to provide more proof (or at least argument) that souls exist. But this is not how the debate is going, at that point in the reading. In the pages before your passage, the dualist has tried to claim an advantage over the physicalist based on the fact that we can’t understand how microscopic physical events could give rise to thoughts and experiences. van Inwagen then presented a physicalist response, which was that we don’t really have the kind of understanding the dualist is looking for of how what happens in a soul could give rise to thoughts and experiences either. That brings us to the passage you’re supposed to exposit. van Inwagen is summarizing where we are in the debate, and his point is that, if the dualist can’t tell us more about the soul than that it’s non-physical, then this physicalist response is right. The dualist’s picture and the physicalist’s picture of how thoughts and experiences happen are equally unexplanatory. (Plus the dualist has some special problems because they have to explain how we get causation between physical things and souls.) So the problem is not about the dualist not having an argument. They do have arguments; in fact this passage occurs in the middle of trying to evaluate one of them. The problem is that the dualist begins this argument by acting as if the physicalist has to take some things as mysterious and unexplained, but that unless the dualist can tell us more about souls, their view is going to have at least as much mysterious and unexplained parts to it as the physicalist’s story does. And that complaint would hold even if we already accepted that souls exist.

Ways to summarize this passage

Here’s how I would have approached the task of summarizing this passage. I’d have said something with this kind of structure:

A dualist is someone who holds __1__. Their physicalist opponents on the other hand hold __2__. The passage we’re looking at considers the question whether __3__. The author of the passage van Inwagen, though you don’t have to identify him by name argues that if all the dualist can tell us about souls is that they are non-physical, then the dualist cannot claim to do better than the physicalist at __3__. Also the dualist may take on special disadvantages that the physicalist doesn’t also have, such as __4__. To avoid these complaints, the dualist would have to tell us more about “the positive nature” of souls, that is, tell us more about their nature than just that they are non-physical. The passage explains and illustrates these complaints with an analogy about magnetism, like this: __5__.

That gives the skeleton of a summary. Then I’d have to fill in the numbered blanks. Filling in blanks 1 and 2 requires background understanding of the debate beyond what’s in the passage, and filling in (the two copies of) blank 3 requires contextualizing this passage somewhat, by looking at the paragraphs that precede it in the reading.

Here’s an example from one of your submissions that organizes this differently, but also gives a pretty good summary:

First and foremost, this is a response to the materialist counter argument that although the mechanics of thought cannot be viewed or even properly explained physically, the same is true for nonphysical thought. Since dualists often simply state that the process of thought is nonphysical, and therefore by nature cannot be viewed or explained, unless they can come up with the specifics, they are in no better shape than a materialist.

In fact, as van Inwagen offers, the dualist runs in to the extra problem of having to explain the connection or relationship between the physical and this proposed nonphysical force. In his example, an imaginary 17th century scientist doesn’t believe magnetism is a completely physical process, because it consists of unobservable forces that seem to go through objects. If a rival of his used an unexplainable physical force to represent magnetism, they would both lack the same evidence. So, bringing this back to our dualist vs. materialist argument, both views argue that some mysterious force explains how thoughts work, and neither of them provide an explanation into the specifics. Dualism has the extra work of needing to provide for an explanation for the interaction between the physical and nonphysical, and how that is proposed to work.

Because both dualists and materialists are stumped at this argument, it doesn’t come to any conclusion.

Here’s another good summary, with a different organization. This one focuses more on the magnet analogy, and then only at the end says how it illustrates how the passage represents the debate between the dualist and the physicalist:

Think of the process of a magnet sticking to a refrigerator (magnetism). Person A may believe that this may only occur from non-physical interactions, which are not seen and unknown. They believe non-physical interaction between the two physical objects (magnet and refrigerator) are what cause magnetism. They assume that physical interaction occurs from contact between only physical things that are seen. In the example of a magnet sticking to the fridge, this would be the pushes and bumps of the magnet towards the refrigerator. Therefore, they would believe that magnetism cannot be just physical. They would explain that certain observations (the magnet moving towards the refrigerator and sticking to it) can be explained as non-physical because if it were examined in detail there would be no evidence of any physical interaction occurring. Person A is showing the ideas of a dualist.

The opposite view point would be Person B who believes that a certain observation, in this case magnetism, is caused by known and unknown physical interactions that cannot be explained. They are unable to show how the unknown physical interaction causes what is being observed. They believe that physical interaction between the two physical things (magnet and refrigerator) cause the observation. Person B is showing the ideas of a physicalist. Both sides state that a certain observation, the magnet sticking to the fridge, is caused by something unknown yet they cannot explain how the unknown thing causes what is being observed.

Therefore, the argument is that a dualist (Person A) does not have more of an advantage in their argument if they cannot explain more about non-physical interactions and how they work with physical things. Their argument isn’t better than physicalists (Person B) who believe in other •unknown* physical interactions but are unable to explain what those unknown physical interactions are. The dualist must be able to explain what about non-physical interactions between physical objects, cause observations, such as the magnet sticking to the refrigerator, to occur instead of other unknown physical interactions causing the objects to move towards one another.

Neither of these summaries are perfect: they could be improved in several ways. Probably my (skeletal) summary could be improved too. But these show some reasonable strategies for explaining or summarizing a particular text or argument. In your full-blown philosophical writing, you’ll need to be able to do this, before you can effectively respond to the text or argument.

Passage 2 (van Inwagen’s third argument)

These were the three paragraphs concerning the “closer to hands than feet” argument.

Common Feedback

Here are some remarks I found myself wanting to make in response to many of the papers for this prompt.

  1. Note that this passage spends one paragraph presenting the dualist’s argument, and then two paragraphs critically reacting to it. I’d expect your summaries to say enough about the dualist’s argument for the reader to understand what’s being talked about, and to then (also, and primarily) to summarize the objections given in the passage. It should be clear in your exposition which points are meant to be helping the initial dualist argument, and which points are offered in order to criticize that argument in some way. (See comment C, above.)

  2. Many of you had some sentences in your submission talking about what would happen if we moved our sense organs, or if someone relied on a different sense organ like touch more than they relied on sight. But then you didn’t spell out what lesson those sentences were supposed to support. Some of you didn’t even make it explicit that (in van Inwagen’s eyes, at least) this was supposed to be developing a problem for the dualist argument you were discussing. That should be explicit, and also you should try to explain to the reader why/what the problem is supposed to be. Couldn’t a fan of the initial dualist argument agree that if you moved our sense organs you would move where we are located? As I read van Inwagen, he was saying that our impression of being located somewhere, and in particular closer to our hands, is an illusion, and his remarks about ways the senses could be configured to give us impressions of being located other places are meant to support his claim that the impressions are illusory. A strong summary of the passage would at least say this; even better would be to try to explain in your own words why/how it might support that claim.

Ways to summarize this passage

Here’s how I would have approached the task of summarizing this passage. I’d have said something like this:

A dualist is someone who holds __1__. The passage we’re looking at presents an argument for dualism, which is that we seem or feel to ourselves to occupy a different space than our body does. This is offered as a reason to think we are not identical to our bodies. The passage then presents a number of doubts or complaints the author has about this argument. First, the author observes that the argument leaves open the possibility that we are identical to another physical object, for example, our brains. Second, how much should the dualist be ready to trust this seeming or feeling, since on their view, we don’t really occupy any space at all? Third, the passage offers a suggestion about why we might have this seeming or feeling, namely that it centers on where our main sense-organs are. The dualist’s opponent who thinks we are identical to our bodies after all could “explain away” the seeming or feeling if this suggestion were right.

There are other good ways you could organize a summary of this passage. Here’s an example from one of your submissions that does a pretty good job:

The philosophical argument presented in Passage 2 of Peter van Inwagen’s writing on Dualism and Physicalism examines the argument that one is not the same thing as one’s body. Van Inwagen discusses the claim “I am closer to my hands than I am to my feet” made by an English philosopher from the twentieth century, G.E. Moore, and uses Helen Keller as a counterargument to that claim. Because Helen Keller relied mostly on touch, or in other words her tactile senses, she may have had a different point of view, perhaps thinking that her arms were closer to her than her head. Van Inwagen uses this point to explain that it is likely that we believe, in a way, that we are closer to our hands to our feet simply because our eyes allow us to make that judgement. To state it simply, the argument’s mistake is that it only relies on the visual senses to make the conclusion, supposedly thinking that one’s self, or soul, is located where their eyesight is.

Furthermore, van Inwagen discusses that it would be inconsistent with the concept of dualism to claim that one could be closer to their hands than to their feet, since dualism relies on the idea of a non-physical thing which does not take up a position in space. While van Inwagen does in fact state that the conclusion may be true, that one is indeed not the same thing as one’s body, the argument about having a soul which is closer to certain parts of your body than others is tenuous.

Again, this could be improved in some ways. But it shows a reasonable strategy for explaining or summarizing the passage.