Phil 89: First Substantial Paper

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

Submit them using the course Sakai system by the end of the day (11:59 pm) on Thursday Oct 13.

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.)

I 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 be due on Thursday Nov 3, and 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,” “Locke’s theory of personal identity”) 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.

Here are some detailed guidelines about philosophical writing.

Here is the grading rubric I’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 me. That is, just because you’ll rewrite this paper later in the term, you shouldn’t now be giving me the first complete draft you manage to put together.

You are welcome to come talk to me in office hours about your ideas. I won’t read drafts in advance of your submitting them, but you’ll be welcome to talk me through the arguments you’re planning to give, and we can discuss those. I 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)

For the first two questions, suppose Juan is a philosopher who explains personal identity in terms of memory and “psychological continuity,” as in our Proposals #4 and #5.

  1. We sometimes will count you as “remembering” an event (from an “inside” perspective) even if your memory is not wholly accurate (it gets some details wrong), or complete (it leaves some details out), or if you don’t recognize it as a memory (you may mistake it for a vivid fantasy, rather than memories from having really been there). Should Juan count “memories” like these as part of what can connect/unite different person-stages into a single person? What would be the benefits and costs of doing so?

  2. What can Juan say about meditative trances, deep sleep or comas, or suspended animation like Han Solo undergoes at the end of The Empire Strikes Back — during which the subject has no memories, and in some cases no psychological states at all? Must Juan say that such a psychological “interruption” breaks the continuity in such a way that the original person doesn’t continue to exist? Or can he avoid that radical conclusion? Must Juan say that the original person is not present during the interruption? If so, should he say that the person stopped existing and then started to exist again? or would it better to describe the situation differently? Or can Juan find a way to say the original person is still there during the interruption, even though their stages are not psychologically continuous with the waking stages? (Juan may need to adjust his theory to allow for this. What adjustments might work, while still retaining the spirit of his approach?)

    (You may find it helpful to consult these sections of our Locke reading: §10, 19, 23. Or §4 of the Stanford Encyclopedia article on Personal Identity. Though you don’t have to do so.)

  3. Locke thinks that ordinary memory suffices for “sharing the same consciousness” of an event. If a later person can remember some experiences of an earlier one, they both share consciousness of that event and so are numerically the same person. But now consider these possibilities:

    1. Bennie is obsessed with Barack Obama. He has studied his life and come to have what he takes to be vivid memories of Obama’s experiences as president. Because of his obsessive attention, Bennie’s memories are completely accurate.
    2. A mad scientist has scanned Obama’s brain and implanted accurate versions of some of Obama’s memories into Bennie.
    3. Bennie hits his head in a ebike accident and by complete chance, thereby acquires visions/“memories” of Obama’s time in office that happen to match Obama’s actual life.

    Does Locke’s theory entail that Bennie is the same person as Obama in any of these cases? How could Locke resist that result?

  4. Alicia is in a accident and suffers complete, irreversible amnesia. She can’t remember her name or any biographical details of her former life. Still she remembers how to speak English, how to cook and drive, she retains her quirky sense of humor and love of hip-hop, and other aspects of her psychology. But all her special sense of who she is, and of “owning” her past life, has been erased from her brain and/or soul. Is it reasonable to think Alicia has survived the accident? Or is it reasonable to count this as a new person, distinct from Alicia and only now starting to experience its own life? Does the person after the accident have more responsibility for promises Alicia made before the accident than other people do?