Teachable Moments

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Anyone teaching Nozick this semester?

In case you are living in a cave and haven't heard about this case yet:


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Cornell performs Rousseau's Opera

That's right. Rousseau wrote an opera. And yes, it seems to exemplify his major themes: romanticizing the peasantry and a  misogyny.

A Cunning Success | The Cornell Daily Sun

The Cunning Man, archaic and baroque as it may seem today, was hardly highbrow at the time. As this charming, stripped down production suggested, it is a simple lesson on the virtues of the individual and of the joys of being a peasant. The story of a peasant woman, Phoebe, winning back her lover from a noblewoman with the advice of the “cunning man,” a village soothsayer, proceeds quickly. It is then followed by an extended celebration by the village people (the better part of the second act) that includes a scene of pantomime telling the opposite story — a peasant woman choosing a peasant man over the sinister courting of the wealthy

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How reliable are fMRI results? - via MindHacks

The excellent 'Mind Hacks' blog has a round up of some fascinating recent papers on the reliability of fMRI studies. It is from the same people who published the Dead Salmon study. Always a hot topic in PhilScience!

Mind Hacks: How reliable are fMRI results?

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Stuart Kauffman on Phil Mind on NPR blog

Stuart Kauffman is writing a blog series at the NPR site on Philosophy of Mind:
The Philosophy of Mind, 1 - 13.7: Cosmos And Culture Blog : NPR
It's pretty introductory stuff, but worth being aware of.

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Ruse responds to Nagel, Plantinga and Fodor: 'do your homework', to paraphrase

From the chronicle.  His main criticism is: Philosophers Rip Darwin - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education

I want to draw attention to the way this crop of critics ignores evolutionary biology—aside from the kind of cherry-picking in which Fodor engages. Nagel may sneer about the failure to find "accessible literature" that answers his worries. In what part of the library was he doing his literature search? Where, for example, is any discussion of the Grants' work on the Galápagos finches? What about a detailed look at the new scholarship that is challenging earlier thinking about the evolution of bipedalism? What about the discoveries of molecular biology and of the similarities (homologies) between humans and fruit flies? And why no mention of Marc Hauser and his work uncovering the secrets of moral thinking? There is a deafening silence on those and other issues. Fodor, Nagel, and Plantinga don't need to turn themselves into biochemists, but some awareness of the issues and advances would not be entirely misplaced.

Ruse goes on to suggest that the 'deeper' reason for their critiques of Darwin is, for Plantinga and Nagel, a rejection of reductionism. For Fodor, it is a resistance against seeing homo sapiens as just another animal.  read more »

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Descartes letter round-up

Just in case you missed it (and how could you?), Haverford College found a lost letter from Descartes to Mersenne, and is returning it to the Institut de France.

It's a useful story if you're teaching Descartes right now, but here's the bombshells: (a) The president of Haverford was a Philosophy major and (b) a Haverford student wrote a Thesis on this back in 1979, and appears to be the only one ever to have done academic work on the letter!

Stolen René Descartes Letter Is Being Returned to Its French Home - NYTimes.com

As soon as Haverford’s president, Stephen G. Emerson, understood the letter’s history, he contacted the Institut de France (coincidentally on Feb. 11, the anniversary of Descartes’ death in 1650) and offered to return the item. “I was frankly shocked because I didn’t know we had the letter at all,” said Mr. Emerson, who was a philosophy major in college. “But it’s really not ours.”

Scholars have known of the letter’s existence for more than 300 years, but not its contents. Apparently the only person who had really studied it was a Haverford undergraduate who spent a semester writing a paper about the letter in 1979. (Mr. Bos called the paper “a truly fine piece of work.”)

nrc.nl - International - Unknown letter from Descartes found  read more »

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Pascal Boyer's on the minimal counter intuitive nature of academically fashionable concepts

If you aren't familiar with his work, Pascal Boyer is a significant figure in the nascent Cognitive Science of Religion. According to Pascal, religious concepts are those concepts that, as a function of our memory mechanisms, are particularly memorable. They are what he calls 'minimally-counter intuitive concepts', which means that they tend to violate the template of a concept (such as TREE) in a minimal way (TREE THAT WALKS). Our cognitive mechanisms are such that these sort of concepts are more likely to be remembered and survive cultural transmission better than concepts that either do not violate the template, or maximally violate the template.

In a recent blog entry, he seems to be applying this analysis to academic fashions: that they tend to be introduced by 'gurus' who make a counterintuitive claim, e.g. 'Madness is not brain dysfunction,' and then unpack it into relatively innocuous claims.

Boyer's thesis is polemical, but the underlying position is interesting: can there be a Cognitive Science of Philosophy?  Can we explain the attraction to philosophical theses in terms of the cognitive mechanisms at work in our brains?  He concludes, incidentally almost, that:  read more »

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Descartes murdered?

I know I'm a little behind on blogging, given the massive snow storm we survived and the Central APA. But just in case you missed it:

Descartes was 'poisoned by Catholic priest' | World news | guardian.co.uk

According to Theodor Ebert, an academic at the University of Erlangen, Descartes died not through natural causes but from an arsenic-laced communion wafer given to him by a Catholic priest.

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Locke's state of nature, property rights and the snowpocalypse

I've been snowed in for three days. Classes are canceled today and tomorrow.  And we're expecting another 10-20 inches to fall starting at noon tomorrow. I moved an astonishing amount of snow Sunday in an effort to clear my sidewalk and car. My wife put in an equal amount of time clearing hers.  The snowpile next to our cars is now close to 6 ft. tall, 4 ft wide and 20 ft long.  So all in all, I (mostly) concur: Jay Hancock's blog: John Locke says: Honor parking-space lawn chairs! - Economic navigation and sightseeing - baltimoresun.com

I'm with Locke here. If you can't assume you'll be able to use the parking space you dug out, your incentive to create it would plunge. The city and neighborhoods would lose the labor of thousands of car owners who help recreate civilization each time the heavens dump white stuff all over the place.

I will mention that my main incentive for clearing my car is not to return to the spot, but rather just to get out of the house. If I was unsure of return, I don't think that would change my calculus much.

UPDATE 2-12-2010:

Hopkins philosophy prof on snow & parking spots

With a response from Hilary Bok, the Associate Professor of Philosophy, Luce Professor in Bioethics and Moral and Political Theory, at the Johns Hopkins University:  read more »

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American Law Institute abandons support for capital punishment - via @johnbasl

From the NY Times: the American Law Institute, which drafted the reasoning behind Gregg v. Georgia has "pronounced its project a failure and walked away from it."
Sidebar - Group That Shaped Death Penalty Gives Up on Its Own Work - NYTimes.com
Anyone teaching 'Contemporary Issues in Ethics' may well find this a rich topic. Here are some relevant links:

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