Intro to Philosophy – Week 1 – What is Philosophy

As I’ve been doing so much reading on things like theory, complexity science, and research methodology, I’ve been reading more and more papers with words like epistemology and ontology, and it’s prompted me to do a bit of a refresher on philosophy. I’ve never actually done a Philosophy 101 type of course – my philosophy education has been pieced together from a few philosophy courses during my various university degrees (specifically, biomedical ethics and critical thinking courses during my undergrad and a business ethics course from the philosophy department during my MBA), an ethics training course I took in my previous job so that I could serve as a consultant with the organization’s ethics department 1Sadly, I never got to put that into practice, as I left that organization for my current job before an ethics consult came up that I could participate in., and reading Sophie’s World and The Matrix and Philosophy. So I figured I should go back to basics and thus have enrolled in Introduction to Philosophy, offered by the University of Edinburgh on Coursera.

What is Philosophy?

  • is both an subject and an activity – philosophy is what philosopher’s do
  • Dr. Ward’s definition “the activity of working out the right way of thinking about things”
    • all subjects try to think about their domains in the right way, but what makes philosophy different is that working in other subjects involves doing the work of, say, physics, (e.g., collecting data, developing theories, testing theories), while philosophy involves stepping back from that work and working out the right way to think about things (e.g., “what does it mean by “physical reality”? “what distinguishes a good scientific theory from a bad one?”)
    • another example: medicine involves trying to treat people’s illness based on an understanding of the best available medical theory. That used to mean trying to balance black bile and yellow bile, because it was believed that diseases were caused by imbalances in the “humours”. But philosophy of medicine involves stepping back and thinking about how we understand “health” and “illness” (e.g., perhaps noticing that balancing black bile and yellow bile didn’t actually work to heal people would lead people to think about their understanding of causes of illness).


  • philosophical questions can arise from anywhere (you can always step back and ask questions about how you are thinking about something)
  • similar to when children ask you “why?” and when you answer, they ask you “why?” again, etc. – in this analogy, the philosopher is in the role of the child asking “why?” and in the role of the person trying to come up with answers
  • since we can ask philosophical questions about anything, they can be trivial, but they can also be very important (e.g., if we hadn’t asked philosophical questions about the way medicine was understood, we’d still be using leeches to treat most diseases)
  • in the past, people found it acceptable to enslave others or commit genocide – but today those ideas are indefensible. We don’t know which of our current beliefs/values will be looked back on as indefensible (e.g., farming animals for food; our treatment of the planet) – philosopher’s will step back and ask questions about these things

How Do You Do Philosophy?

  • the best way to learn how to do philosophy is to do it
  • working out the best way to think about something is something that we do naturally
    • we look around for evidence, we think about what that evidence means, and draw a conclusion
  • “argument” means evidence and a line of reasoning to support a conclusion
  • “premises” = claims made to support a conclusion
  • we examine arguments to see if we think they are good arguments
    • if the argument’s conclusion follows from the premises – i.e., if the premises are true then the conclusion must be true, then the argument is valid
    • we can question the truth of the premises – so even if the conclusion follows from the premises, if one or more of the premises are not true, then the argument does not support the conclusion
  • if an argument is valid and its premises are true, then we say it is a sound argument

An argument against free will:

  1. The way the world was in the past controls exactly how it is in the present, and how it will be in the future
  2. We’re part of the world, just like everything else.
  3. We can’t control how things were in the past, or the way the past controls the present and future
  4. Therefore, we don’t control anything that happens in the world, including all the things that we think, say and do
  • we can question the premises – e.g., some people think humans aren’t a part of the world like everything else because we have “souls”; or perhaps there is some indeterminacy on the effect of the future based on what happened in the past
  • when questioning the premises, you’ll then have more work to do to support your thoughts around if the premises is true or not
  • it is hard, but useful work, to clarify our thinking, our premises, our arguments
  • it is also useful to keep in mind the “big picture” – philosophy is not just about constructing clever arguments, but also thinking about why these issues are important

Is There a “Right” Way to Think about Things?

  • David Hume thought a skeptical attitude was the appropriate way to approach philosophy
  • he felt that it was important that philosophy stay true to our sensory experience of the world, which he felt was
    • e.g., causation – Hume argued that we can’t really know causation – e.g., when we see one billiard ball hits another and the other moves off, we attribute the causation (i.e., we add the notion of causation with our mind), as all we actually see is the behaviour of the two balls
    • he also thought there wasn’t really a “self” – all we really experience is our thoughts/feelings/impressions as they pass through our minds, but our mind adds something extra that we think of as our “self” – we don’t observe a “self” above and beyond the thoughts/feelings/impressions
    • he also thought there was no reason based on our sensory experience of the world to believe an omnipotent, omniscience “God”
  • he didn’t think there was a “right” way to think about the world
  • Immanuel Kant thought the possibility of a world that didn’t conform to the rules and patterns that our mind imposes on experience was nonsensical
    • the rules that govern our thought are the same as rules that govern the world, and that we can know this just by thinking about it. So, for Kant, there is a right way of thinking about things, and we can arrive at it by the clear and careful use of reason.


1 Sadly, I never got to put that into practice, as I left that organization for my current job before an ethics consult came up that I could participate in.
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