Saturday, September 03, 2011

Fun / Mind-bending Philosophy?

Helen and I have been thinking we'd like to put together a syllabus for an undergrad course that isn't bound by any unifying theme or topical focus, but each week simply assigns an awesomely fun paper / topic in philosophy to discuss. We want papers/topics that are fun to read, and sure to stimulate vibrant discussion -- the kind where you end up sticking around talking long after class has "officially" ended. (I have a penchant for "mind-benders", but other fun and gripping topics are also fair game.)

Some possibilities we've come up with so far include: Dennett's "Where am I?", Parfit on split-brains and fission, something on time travel (preferably including Heinlein's short story, "—All You Zombies—"), something questioning the passage of time, maybe some classic phil mind thought experiments like the Chinese Room and/or zombies, some fun paradoxes: mere addition, infinite spheres of utility. Maybe some mindbenders like Bostrom's simulation argument, and Matrix-inspired discussions of radical skepticism and whether life in the Matrix is as good as reality. Something on "the meaning of life" (e.g. Camus or Richard Taylor on Sisyphus? Susan Wolf?). Some phil religion would be nice: maybe Sider's "Hell and Vagueness"? The classic problem of evil? (Not so fun, alas, but sure to get students talking, at least.) Something on free will?

Any other suggestions (including readings for suggested topics) welcome... Help us brainstorm!


  1. You could do the sleeping beauty problem. The original Elga paper is super short and pretty accessible, I think.

    Something on the surprise exam/surprise hanging paradox might be fun. I don't know of any particular presentation that I think would be ideal, though.

    Lewis' "The Punishment that Leaves Something to Chance" is pretty fun and accessible, I think. The question of why/whether we should punish successful crimes more than failed attempts is an interesting one that's easy to get people excited about, and Lewis both does a good job of setting up the issue, and has a cool/novel/weird answer.

    Parfit on the non-identity problem might also be good.

  2. A fun topic of great philosophical import: which would win in a fight Nietzsche's mustache, or Marx's beard?

    My real suggestion would be topics pertaining to death. What is death? Can you be harmed by death? Can death harm non-persons? Death is a good topic because it is something most everyone is interested in. It is also a good topic because you can make use of ancient sources (The Epicureans, Plato/Socrates, Cicero) as well as modern sources (Nagel, McMahan, Bradley).

    You can also tie in the idea of the supposed replaceability of non-persons which is a controversial and interesting topic, plus it has a strong Princeton connection (via Singer).

  3. "Aristotle for women who love too much" by Rosalind Hursthouse is a fun read and perspective changing. It might be called a contribution to "philosophy of love".

  4. A pair of suggestions: on the subject of evil, Adam Morton's "On Evil" (particularly, his 'barrier theory of evil' or his chapter on 'nightmare people') might fuel a few ideias (not on the funny side, though); David Markson's "Wittgenstein's Mistress" (the only solipistic novel I've read so far) as a starting point for a discussion could be interesting.

  5. A couple of papers that aren't 'fun' but do get people talking: Thomson's trolley, Foot's killing one to save five, and Thomson's paper on abortion. I also always have luck teaching Mary Anne Warren's paper on abortion...the claim that abortion should be thought of no differently than a haircut raises hackles every time.

    On the 'mind-bending' front, I would consider (in line with JR's suggestions about the meaning of life) would be David Benatar's 'better never to have been' argument. Students might have their minds bent by the claim that they would be better off having never existed.

    PS...I would make JR's "Nietzsche's mustache vs. Marx's beard" into a battle royale by adding Ayn Rand's sideburns to the mix.

  6. Smullyan's "An Unfortunate Dualist" comes to mind. Short, simply, and versatile. Applying his logic to all sorts of metaphysical puzzles (free will, determinism, etc.) could be worth at least one class of dialogue.

  7. Iris Murdoch has some good philosophical dialogues, "Eros and Art: A Dialogue about Art" and "Above the Gods: A Dialogue about Religion." I suspect that the latter would be almost perfect for what you have in mind: Murdoch is a splendid writer, the dialogue is deliberately written to be a fun look at the subject, and if you want to supplement it, Murdoch's own "On 'God' and 'Good'" is an excellent companion piece. What's more, Murdoch's own view of the subject (nontheistic Neoplatonism) is bound to be different enough from any undergraduate's that it's bound to be mind-stretching for many of them. The philosophy of art one was actually written to be performed (and has been). They can all be found in Existentialists and Mystics.

    For paradoxes, aesthetics is a too-often overlooked source. It is amazing how much has been written about the paradox of horror, for instance; and that would certainly be a good one to get discussion going.

    O. K. Bouwsma's "Descartes' Evil Genius" is also a possible candidate.

  8. Many topics in philosophy of religion are "fun", such as the fine-tuning argument, the problem of evil, and the kalam cosmological argument. For writings on these topics, you may consider Parfit's 'Why Anything, Why This' (now incorporated into On What Matters), papers by Plantinga, Rowe or Quentin Smith, and transcripts from William Lane Craig debates with atheists.

    Some philosophical views (not just topics or papers) seem to be intrinsically fun. Examples include panpsychism, modal realism, and what some people call "anti-natalism" (David Benatar's view).

  9. The ship of theseus worked pretty well for me, as did the so-called Knobe effect (and some of the other suggestions offered above). I found that students really liked trying to work out the principles upon which their intuitions were based, and then challenging one another with counterexamples.

    I recall being impressed by Hofstadter and Dennett's collection "The Mind's I", which includes "Where Am I?". I think there are comments by H and D after each story/essay, which might be pedagogically useful.

  10. For freedom of the will, I would suggest Frankfurt's Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility. The Jones 1-4 examples are outlandish enough to fit within the context of discussing sci-fi and mindbending puzzles. The essay itself is a good example of an intuition pump that should lead students to rethink what they had taken for granted.

  11. Thomas Nagel's "Sexual Perversion": At least people will definitely read the paper, but I'm not sure if everybody will participate in discussing it.

    Very nice idea for an undergrad course!

  12. Lots of cool suggestions so far -- thanks all!

  13. Another take on Frank Jackson's "What Mary Didn't Know" could be interesting - and funny; and Benjamin Libet's experiment (on free will). These two exanples could be mind-stratching for students...

  14. Shoemaker on time without change.

  15. Nagel's "Concealment and Exposure", Bouwsma's "On Many Occasions I Have in Sleep Been Deceived" are also good choices from people already mentioned.

    I've used short stories to good effect. Le Guin's "The ones who walk away from Omelas", Borges "Pierre Menard, author of Quixote", Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery", etc.

    I would avoid things like "mere addition, infinite spheres of utility" and the sleeping beauty problem. These problems are of little to no general interest. I would also avoid things like the surprise exam paradox, since serious work on that problem is far too difficult for what I imagine your target students are.

  16. "Where Am I?" is an excellent choice. I don't see how zombies and the Chinese Room could seem fun/mind-bending to people with no substantial knowledge of or interest in phil mind. Mary might be better imho.

    Concerning earlier recommendations: I think Elga's Dr. Evil paper was far more fun than his first paper on Sleeping Beauty. Also, Susan Wolf on meaning in life can look very promising to those types of people who are strongly philosophically inclined, but your average intro-level undergrad will probably find her topic boring (this comes from an experience with bringing up one of her papers to a group of people I thought might enjoy it -- I was very wrong).

    Some article on the Carter-Leslie Doomsday argument would be pretty mind-bending. (John Leslie has written a lot on this, but Nick Bostrom's papers on this topic are usually more precise and analytic-ish.)

    Toby Ord's "The Scourge" is rather clear, well-written, and (maybe) prone to shaking someone out of a dogmatic slumber, and could seem fun to interested people. Thomson's "A Defense of Abortion" also seems that way.

  17. David Lewis's "Divine Evil"

    Boltzmann's brain paradox is really fun. Here's a great short and accessible intro to that problem.

    Also I thought the film "Moon" is a good movie to start off students on skepticism regarding self-locating belief.

  18. Richard Sharvy's "Who's to Say What's Right or Wrong? People Who Have Ph.D.s in Philosophy, That's Who"

    Written, it seems, for intro-level students. Quite easy to read. Can't imagine this paper, for better or worse, not stirring up a conversation or two.

  19. Goodman, "New Riddle of Induction"!!! Also, metaethics is getting fun again, don'tcha know; I'm thinking of papers like Sharon Street's "Darwinian Dilemma..." and David Enoch's "How Objectivity Matters". Also, I second that Bouwsma -- really enjoyed that when I read it.

  20. Some papers / arguments I found cool when I was an undergrad (even if I disagreed):

    1. Plantinga's "Naturalism Defeated" (
    2. Gettier's paper (
    3. "Libertarianism without Foundations" by Tom Nagel
    4. Mike Huemer's "Is There a Right to Own a Gun" (, which tries to argue that there is from premises even proponents of gun control likely already accept.
    5. Sadly, he doesn't still have it posted on his website, but when it is published David Boonin's book on race has a chapter arguing for reparations (which get a bum rap nowadays) that is excellent.
    6. Finally, I think this article rejecting the "God is mysterious" reply to the problem of natural evil is also pretty fun:

  21. I'd also add Peter Singer's Famine, Affluence and Morality and Jeff McMahon's two pieces about weeding out predatory species in NYT's The Stone.

    I'd agree with the person above that the trolley-problem is probably a very good introduction tool to moral problems.

    BTW, your students are very lucky for you to teach them this material. This is all very philosophically interesting but stuff like this are rarely taught in intro classrooms (I don't know why, though).

  22. I've had fun teaching Carl Cohen's essay advocating Fascism as the best form of government, from his book FOUR SYSTEMS.

    Hugh LaFollette makes a good case (in theory) for requiring licenses for parenting.

  23. Great ideas. Don't leave out the basics, though - many undergrads are left to develop the critical and philosophical thinking as a result of the philosophy they read; but some early familiarity with validity and fallacy can go a long way. Consider Harry G Frankfurt's On Bullshit, Stephen Law's Believing Bullshit (although I haven't read that yet) or Nigel Warburton's Thinking from A to Z These all purport to present some of the basics in a fun and digestible way, and might help break some bad thinking habits early on. They might not be academic essays per se but they're perfect for first semester undergrads.

  24. Robert Nozick's "Fiction" is a fun little paper, though it's really more suggestive and exploratory than it is rigorously argued. It is included in an anthology someone mentioned earlier in the comments: The Mind's I, with commentary by Hofstadter and Dennett.

    Also in the anthology is a really interesting work of fiction by Stanislaw Lem called "Non Serviam". It's a "review" of a book (itself fictitious) that describes an artificial intelligence worker's experience with AI civilizations that he helped create. The AI entities are unaware of anything outside their digital universe, and the book relates several philosophical conversations between the entities, where they speculate about the existence of and nature of their own creators. Aside from raising the topic of ethics with respect to AI, it invites the reader to imagine how s/he would handle being in the position of a sort of god.

  25. A possible textbook: "There Are Two Errors in the the Title of This Book" by R M Martin

  26. I think Dennett's "Where am I" is an excellent start. It focuses attention on the central problem of the "viewing point". Dennett seems to be a poor physicist because he does not realise that a "viewing point" does not have a physical explanation. He also seems to be a poor historian of philosophy because he has not pointed out that his viewing point is Descartes' "Res Cogitans", the very object that he has spent his life scoffing at! (It is also Reid's soul that is united to the world or Malebranche's soul etc..)
    See Dennettian Dualism.


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