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May 12 2010

This is exactly why I hated my philosophy class

From SMBC:
Replace “Engineer” with “Scientist” and this is pretty much what Biomedical Ethics was to me. In fact, we had this exact scenario, and I replied the exact same way.

Or maybe I hated my philosophy class because we never got a single moment to ask questions during lecture, and during recitations we spent the whole time being fed answers to the quizzes and never had a single discussion about the material. Maybe I would have liked the class if it was more, well, philosophical.

*ahem*

Oh well. Got my A.

51 comments

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  1. 1
    Ian Betteridge

    Given that the entire point of philosophy is to ask questions, that doesn’t sound like a good class :)(I used to teach medical ethics, with a side order of philosophy of art – questions welcome!)

  2. 2
    John Hyperion

    I think the issue is you had a bad professor/class. I have a Philosophy degree and my answers to the questions in the comic would have been exactly the same.

  3. 3
    Matt

    That sounds kinda like a philosophy class I took back in the ’90s, except I tried to ask questions anyway since I didn’t quite grasp all the concepts from the lectures. That led to the other students in the class to complain to my program director, who scolded me for “not listening actively” and said I really ought not ask many questions — since it made the other students uncomfortable. And it was a Master’s level class.

  4. 4
    Matt Conlon

    A group of trainee managers were given an exercise to determine the height of the flagpole out the front. As they stood around discussing triganometry & pythagorus & other methods of calculating the height, an engineer walked up & asked what the problem was. After hearing what was required he pulled the flagpole out of the ground, laid it down & measured it with a tape. “9.35 metres ” he promptly said and then walked away. “Typical engineer” said the senior manager , “ask for the height and they give you the length.”

  5. 5
    bildungsroman

    Yup, sounds like you got the short end of the phil prof stick. A good philosophy class is supposed to make you question assumptions and think in creative, which, as a scientist, is what you’re being trained to do anyway.

  6. 6
    the_Siliconopolitan

    Errr … isn’t asking questions, yanno, active?In effect you were wrong for not listening passively.If they couldn’t even get that right, then what other concepts did they mix up?

  7. 7
    Michelle

    That’s a shame. I loved my one philosophy class in college because it was practically all discussion (with lots of reading behind it, of course). We got to read our papers aloud and defend our positions. It was tons of fun.

  8. 8
    Twin-Skies

    Philosophy class was fun for me – there was something amusingly odd about having a very animated debate with a priest who enjoyed discussing the ins and outs of Nietzche’s philosophy.

  9. 9
    Givesgoodemail

    Philosophers (and philosophy professors) aren’t looking for truth; they’re looking for possibilities that *might* be true if you squint your eyes really hard and look sideways at it.Philosophy teachers avoid students’ questions like the plague, because they don’t have good answers to the good questions.

  10. 10
    Hugo Grinebiter

    Jen, the overwhelming reaction from people who know from philosophy is that your prof was an idjit. Let yet another one weigh in: I was taught philosophy via the Oxford tutorial, which is two students and one prof in the latter’s college rooms. One presents a paper and the other one and the prof beat him up, just the way it was done in ancient Athens. You feel like Errol Flynn fencing with half a dozen men-at-arms. Legend tells of tutorials that last six hours. The prof will then serve sherry. Philosophy as something you DO, not read about or listen to “actively” (WTF?). Here’s another version of Matt’s joke: A man is flying in a hot air balloon and realizes he is lost. He reduces height and spots a man down below. He lowers the balloon further and shouts: “Excuse me, can you help me? I promised my friend I would meet him half an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.”The man below says: “Yes. You are in a hot air balloon, hovering approximately 30 feet above this field. You are between 40 and 42 degrees N. latitude, and between 58 and 60 degrees W. longitude.”"You must be an engineer,” says the balloonist.”I am,” replies the man. “How did you know?”"Well,” says the balloonist, “everything you have told me is technically correct, but I have no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I am still lost.”The man below says, “You must be a manager.”"I am,” replies the balloonist, “but how did you know?”"Well,” says the man, “you don’t know where you are, or where you are going. You have made a promise which you have no idea how to keep, and you expect me to solve your problem. The fact is you are in the exact same position you were in before we met, but now it is somehow my fault.”I don’t cross paths much with engineers myself, but I do with managers, and despise them ferociously.

  11. 11
    Cherish

    You should read Stephen Baxter’s ‘Exultant’. There’s a scenario in there that makes you look at this question in a completely different light. Or at least, it did for me.

  12. 12
    grail76

    One should never confuse taking classes with education.

  13. 13
    Jim

    I guess I’ll chime in as well and suggest you had a poor teacher. I’ve taught lots of philosophy classes, and questions are always welcomed. It gets pretty dull just standing up there talking about the same stuff class after class. The only thing that makes it interesting is finding out what the students find interesting and pressing on those concerns. Otherwise you could just press play on a video and leave the room.As to the cartoon, there’s nothing interesting about that question at all from a philosophical standpoint. The clone is clearly identified and is the clone by definition, so the question from the “philosopher” is just dumb. There are, of course, interesting questions that come from such a scenario, but none of them are “which one is the clone?” The cartoon is a clear caricature of philosophy, and not a very funny one. There are much better things about which you can pick on philosophers than that.

  14. 14
    mybabysweetness

    That comic is AWESOME!I did not take philosophy in college (took one of those big mess of everything classes that recovered a bunch of my core), but did have at least one friend who was a philosophy major. He’s now a handy man. I’m just saying.

  15. 15
    SteveWH

    One more vote for “your teacher just wasn’t very good”. I simply ask that you withhold judgment on philosophy until better-quality evidence is available.

  16. 16
    Michael Makovi

    ROFLAs an aside, however, this is a perfect illustration of the problem with teleportation. Even if it were possible to construct an atom-for-atom duplicate remotely, all you’d have done is invent remote cloning. In order to teleport, you’d have to kill the original person. So really, all teleportation would do is to combine remote cloning with the murder of the original person.Now, if you can find a way to actually MOVE the original person without his having to pass through the space in the middle, then that will indeed be teleportation. But that would involve moving the actual atoms themselves. If all you do is copy the original atoms’s properties and transfer their properties (using quantum entanglement or some such) to a second set of atoms, then all you’ve succeeded in is remote cloning, not teleportation.

  17. 17
    NathanPralle

    Sounds like you had a terrible professor and/or class; I have a Philosophy minor and 98% of my classes were very, very interactive. In fact, one of my best classes started by the prof sitting there in a chair like us, looking around, and eventually saying, “So…what are we going to talk about this semester?” It only got better from there.

  18. 18
    Kai

    It’s really too bad you had such a poor experience with philosophy. I’m going to be a grad student in philosophy next semester, and I can assure you that it’s not all like that. In fact, if you’re interested, I recommend researching the differences between continental and analytic philosophy. Continental (let’s say it, *French*) philosophy seems to thrive on criticizing science, which they think “assumes a pre-theoretical substrate of experience”. (I’m not making that up, look at the Wikipedia page. They all seem to talk like that, too–the more obscure and unreadable the paper, the more highly it is regarded.) I had a Philosophy of Mind class–in the continental tradition–which nearly blew my mind with frustration. The class discussed, in all seriousness, whether sunflowers have feelings, and whether trees would cease to exist if we stopped experiencing them. Analytic philosophy, on the other hand, is strongly based in logic and holds a deep regard for the natural sciences. The driving goal behind analytic philosophy is to clarify ideas by defining terms, analyzing arguments, and demanding consistency. This is exactly the type of thinking that is promoted within the skeptic’s community, and so it’s always frustrating to me when skeptics criticize philosophy as a whole. Please believe me, there is a lot more to it than the stupid stuff you’ve encountered.

  19. 19
    Brittany

    It does sound like it was a crappy class. I took two philosophy classes when I was still at Purdue, and it was questions galore in both of them.

  20. 20
    Pablo

    You need to say it:Who was the instructor?

  21. 21
    Sam Barnett-Cormack

    Firstly, I agree about the lecturer. I never took philosophy, but I know many who did, and that sounds *nothing* like any of their descriptions.Secondly, there’s a whole plot arc in Farscape dealing with that question. In that one, there’s *no* way to tell which is first. The person was covered in an opaque bubble, when it popped there were two of him, indistinguishable with identical memories. Both were convinced that they were the ‘first’. *That*s what the philosophical question is usually about. Harder to make easy answers then.

  22. 22
    Hugo Grinebiter

    a pre-theoretical substrate of experienceIsn’t that when you come out of the birth canal and the doctor holds you upside down and slaps you? The Continentals seem to say “pre-theoretical experience” as if it is a BAD thing. Funny, I thought Kant had buried a priori metaphysics at the crossroads, and he was a Continental himself. My logico-analytic teachers had a phrase for what the continentals were doing: “Raising a dust and then complaining they cannot see”.

  23. 23
    Scott Jones

    I had to take Research Ethics. All I took away from the class was, “If you’re going to do something underhanded and deceitful for money or fame, *don’t get caught*.”

  24. 24
    ArturosKnight

    Yeah, I’m a senior in Philosophy, and to me it sounds like you’ve had a pretty bad experience with it. The classes are much more enjoyable and challenging if they’re discussion-based. Not being able to argue or ask questions in class is bullshit.As a Philosopher in the Analytic tradition, I am very scientifically-minded – despite not being a scientist myself, I respect the work of experts in their respective fields and feel confident using their results in Philosophical projects. At the same time, though, I don’t think thought experiments dealing with such questions as “Does a tree stop existing when you stop perceiving it?” or “Can we have knowledge?” are necessarily stupid, even though they undermine the epistemological foundations of science. For all practical purposes, these questions aren’t important. Scientists can freely operate without wondering if their sense-perceptions are accurate, whether they’re in the Matrix, or any number of other existential crises. But when you’re trying to understand what it means to have knowledge or what relationship a person’s perceptions have with objective reality, then it does make a lot of sense to start with these things unproven.It could be argued that this has no practical application, and is only really relevant to Philosophers. I hear that a lot. However, as a minor in Cognitive Science, I’ve learned that issues like these are important for information modeling and knowledge representation by robots. A lot of failure in doing these tasks likely comes from a misunderstanding of these issues. And about other areas of science? Well, maybe more people will accept evolution once we prove there’s no God. In short, Philosophers are your friends. Use us.

  25. 25
    mmccread

    Hi Jen,I taught college level philosophy for a few years. My intro class was meant to present the philosophy of philophers. Some of my students tried to argue that the philosophers were wrong. Sadly, I had to point out we were there to learn what the philosophers thought and how and why they got there. Most of my objectors were fundamentalists who found various views or reality did not match theirs. Many of the greats are most decidedly wrong in their thinking. It is useful to understand why they thought that way. I tied in modern trends and imbroglii to show parallels in disagreement in they way they approached the universe. Plato was a fundamentalist. Hume was more of a scientist.Perhaps the background will help you understand where others are coming from. More importantly, you will also understand that just because a big name philosopher decreed it, does not make it so.My best to you and your new life in grad school. To quote my own doctoral advisor, “It’s not truth we are after.” He was saying, “Seek truth on your own time. Pass your exams.”

  26. 26
    Pablo

    I think my question about a lot of this philosophy stuff is, so what?Go back to the clone question: so what if we can’t tell them apart. If that is the case, why does it matter which one is the original and which is the clone? In quantum mechanics, we could just say the “real” person is the superposition of those two states (properly antisymmetrized, of course)

  27. 27
    Scott Jones

    The philosophy discussion, and the concepts of perception and memory, do bring to mind this quote; “Consider yourself. I want you to imagine a scene from your childhood. Pick something evocative… Something you can remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at the time, weren’t you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you WEREN’T there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place. Every bit of you has been replaced many times over… The point is that you are like a cloud: something that persists over long periods, whilse simultaneously being in flux. Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made.” – Steve Grand

  28. 28
    Chris Jones

    I just had this same argument with someone a few weeks ago.

  29. 29
    Jesse

    Replace philosophy with English literature, and you have my experience in high school. Read the material followed by rote explanation of the themes, metaphors, etcetera. Except my senior year when I got the best English teacher. In one project she had us each pick a song to play in class, and then we would have a discussion about the theme, story, message, etcetera and how it worked with the music/melody of the song. Followed by a scrapbook project with our own song and a few songs we particularly liked from our classmates. The whole class was projects like this, and I learned more there than in any previous English class.

  30. 30
    Hugo Grinebiter

    “This is St. Olav’s Axe. The head has been replaced once, and the shaft three times, but it’s still the very same axe!”So too with personal identity.

  31. 31
    Mel

    Hi, I’ve been checking in on you since the boobquake initiative – great one btw! The other day I saw this debate on existence of god. From what I’ve read on your page I’m sure you’ll find it interesting… The introduction is in Swedish, but the debate in English.http://www.ur.se/play/157800

  32. 32
    skepticalmedia

    How interesting, a philosophy class were they did not use the Socratic method of teaching. Well, it’s a good way for a professor to avoid encountering a question he cannot answer.

  33. 33
    4ndyman

    I got all excited when I signed up for an American Philosophy class in college (I was on an Ayn Rand bender at the time and wanted to see how she fit into the greater scheme of things). It wasn’t until class started that I realized that I had signed up for the History of American Philosophy. It was a history class taught by a philosophy professor.Given the choice, I’d rather have a philosophy class taught by a history prof than vice versa.

  34. 34
    amanda8706

    That’s weird that you weren’t allowed to ask questions. I love philosophy classes, but I’m a philosophy minor so I might be biased. lol. However I have never had a philosophy professor who didn’t encourage questions or even (when appropriate) debate. I found your blog through PZ Myer’s blog (when you were doing Boobquake) and have been reading ever since. Love it! Good luck in grad school!

  35. 35
    Ben A. Varkentine

    Lately I’ve become obsessed with the idea that someone, somewhere, is having the exact same thought as me.I tried to call that person, but the line was busy.

  36. 36
    Robyn M

    That’s kind of like how I was when I had to take a Philosophy of Language course. I don’t know why it’s so…unnecessarily wordy.

  37. 37
    wouldeye

    What books do you teach? I took “medicine and ethics” but it was in our religion department, not our philosophy department. The entire class was one giant facepalm. For example, when discussing where we might draw the line between human and non-human if AI is ever invented, a girl raises her hand after 10 minutes of intense discussion and says, “I think we’re all forgetting about the existence of the human soul.” While I sat, trying to pick my jaw up off the floor, the professor said, “Yeah, that’s a good point.” End of discussion.

  38. 38
    Zenlite

    This is exactly why I loved The History of Ancient Philosophy and hated Modern Philosophy 1.The flaw with the question in the comic can be rectified by specifying that the duplicate is created through direct cell fusion, or a quantum duplication like what was probably occurring in The Prestige. Then there may well not be a first and a second to distinguish between.

  39. 39
    OlderMusicGeek

    that sucks! sounds like you got a crappy philosphy class. too bad! cus they can be lots of fun!

  40. 40
    haleyk

    I’m a philosophy major. The only arguments I ever have engineer boyfriend look a lot like this comic. So much so that I might have to buy a print of it. Ha. Your philosophy class sounds like it really sucked. Proper philosophy classes involve calling the professor out on their bullshit and getting praised for it, (if you have a good point, obviously) but it seems like there are some bad professors out there. The philosophy departments stacked with theologians tend to be worse. (I. fucking. hate. Kierkengaard. fucking idiot.)

  41. 41
    Tom

    Maybe you hated your philosophy class because the prof was an idiot. Many “philosophers” are. Self-contradictory fantasy hypotheticals are not a sound basis for the investigation of anything, and the example given is exactly that: the two beings are NOT identical at all. For one, they have different positions, and as the guy points out, different histories. Philosophers are too stupid to understand that “identical” means “identical in absolutely every respect, all quantum numbers” or it means “totally different in certain respects, to the extent that you can identify which entity you’re talking about by reference to those differences.”In a world where Liebniz’s Law (the identity of indiscernibles) is known to be empirically false, philosophers are still teaching it as if it was true, and have been for nearly a century.

  42. 42
    NotThatGreg

    I remember in grade school, one of my classmates asking the teacher (who was in a philosophical mood) “what happens when the unstoppable force meets an immovable object?” and the answer given was “Deadlock!”. Which occurred to me afterwards is unsatisfactory, since it allows for the immovable object but not the U.F. So, years later (having become an engineer) I thought about this again and realized the question invalidates itself, since the two can’t by definition exist at the same time in the same universe. At least one must not be what is claimed, and when they meet you will only find out which. Likewise, Xeno’s paradox: this is easily shown to be a ‘paradox’ only because it is phrased in such a way that you never allow yourself to consider the point in time when Achilles overtakes the tortoise, only an infinite series of instants before then. So it’s a neat trick question, but a great philosophical question? “Ah, but it shows that moving from point A to B involves an infinite number of intermediate positions covered in a finite time.” No… it really only shows that your mathematical model of motion calls for that, and mathematics can do that sort of thing without looking up from its cornflakes.

  43. 43
    NotThatGreg

    ‘Star Trek’ sanitizes this issue. You step into a machine, and someone says, “We are about to destroy you forever, but at the same time we will create a new being just like you, who will remember being here having this conversation, and will think that what just happened was pretty cool; but in fact that will be an illusion and *you* will be gone”. “OK, Captain bring-down; energize!”Telecloning is less destructive but far more difficult in terms of trying to write Star Trek episodes, much cleaner if you don’t wind up with duplicates of people. This also interferes with basic concepts of individual responsibility and so forth [Recommend: Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan]. I read a SF story long ago, can’t remember which, about a telecloning operation to provide staff to a remote mining outpost. The story didn’t get into the obvious and difficult moral issues, which really disappointed me. “We’re going to pay you $400 to walk into this machine and get scanned, then you can walk out and go have a burger or whatever”. Then a new being just like you will remember this conversation and this lovely morning, but will wake up on a distant moon where there are no decent hamburgers, and nothing much to do but work, and cannot possibly return. You will be blissfully unaware of their situation. Wow. [Altered Carbon, on the other hand, does address the moral issues].

  44. 44
    DHB

    I am so glad someone brought up Farscape. I just got done watching the entire series (bought it for my wife for Christmas last year … never heard of it before my company worked on the tooling for its packaging and I thought it might be something she’d like) and thought of the duplicator guy right away when I saw the comic above.

  45. 45
    DHB

    Your philosophy professor should learn about brain-based learning, which is built upon the nature of learning: – I read, I forget. (This is what happens when you are assigned reading.) – I see, I remember. (This is what happens when concepts are demonstrated to you.) – I do, I learn. (And this is what happens when you physically get involved in what is being taught.)

  46. 46
    James Claims

    Your experience might be because it was a biomed class. Most philosophy classes that are geared to non-philosophy students do fall short of being engaging or interesting. Upper level philosophy is really fascinating though. I just spent a whole semester in philosophy of science on theories of measurement and strange behaviors in quantum mechanics (like electrons exhibiting behavior that is not lorentz invariant despite being observable in a macroscopic environment). Much more interesting stuff…Try some philosophy of science classes while in grad school, or audit a graduate seminar. You’ll not only find those more engaging but probably much more illuminating.

  47. 47
    ArabiaTerra

    Farthest Star. by Frederick Pohl and Jack Williamson.

  48. 48
    Akusai

    I have a phil degree and my answers would be the same, too. That doesn’t mean that we’re representative of all people with phil degrees, let alone ph.D philosophers. In my experience, most people at or beyond the grad school level in philosophy take this kind of vapid nonsense quite seriously.

  49. 49
    Kaleberg

    Star Trek transporters supposedly decomposed you somehow and reassembled you atom for atom at your destination. In the original, Doctor McCoy often expressed reservations about having his atoms all mixed up, and in Deep Space Nine, in the wonderful James Bond parody episode, there was some discussion of the need to buffer the atoms and the state information for an interrupted transport. Basically, the transporter killed you, but then brought you back to life.

  50. 50
    Fatpie42

    I have a philosophy degree and I too would give the exact same answers as the engineer in the comic. I reckon the major philosopher Bernard Williams (who I studied in relation to personal identity) would do so too.

  51. 51
    MPH146

    This topic was covered rather well in the books “The Price of the Phoenix” and “The Fate of the Phoenix”. They’re Star Trek novels, in which an adaptation of the transporter is used to manufacture perfect duplicates of people, right down to their memories. The developer of this device asserts that the copies made are rightfully owned by him (a created object is owned by its creator), to dispose of as he pleases. The device can go even further than exact duplication, your personality can be put into another body. This affords a kind of immortality, as your personality can be copied into a younger body as you age.The books go into more detail about the philosophy than Jen’s simple example, and explores the difficulties in the question of “who’s the original” in more detail. For instance, when you come to in the hospital after that auto accident, and there’s another you in the other bed in the room, and the last thing you BOTH remember is hitting the tree, and the hospital staff has been thinking they’ve been working on identical twins all this time, and the cops want to know who was driving, and BOTH of you say “I was driving, and I don’t have a twin”, and you both remember that time at band camp you told nobody about, etc., and you both KNOW that you’re the original, which one is? The answer “the first one is” doesn’t cut the mustard. Once you’re convinced that the other one has all your memories, how do YOU know that YOU’RE the original? How do you know that you’re not BOTH duplicates? How do you know that you’re the original you right now? Perhaps the original you was snatched up last night, and a duplicate with all the original’s memories was put in its place, and so you just think you’re the original you?Of course, this is one of those impossible to answer questions. If there is a way to duplicate people down to their DNA, age, and memories, there is always some scenario where even those who did the duplicating can lose track of which one is the original and which one is the copy. The test of your humanity comes in how your react to the existence of the duplicate. Do you kill it (since you’re 100% sure that YOU’RE the original, and they’re the copy)? Share your life with it (kids, spouse, etc.)? It’s a brain burner, and the two books do an OK job of exploring it (keeping in mind that it isn’t a philosophy book, but a novel).

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