PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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Using Cyberspace Topics to Motivate Students to Learn Philosophy

For the last two years, I have experimented with using current topics involving "cyberspace" (broadly defined) in freshman seminars to motivate student interest in some old and some new topics in philosophy. For example, the current renaissance in AI provides a basis for motivating learning about cognition and exploring the similarities and differences between human and machine reasoning. Science's dependence on computer simulations provides an interesting context to introduce students to ways in which science represents the world and reasons about it using those representations. The increasing interaction of cyber-agents (robots, military drones, algorithms analyzing “big data” to support decision making) can be used to introduce topics such as moral responsibility, agency, and distributed cognition. I have used contemporary concerns about ethical choices made by computer algorithms, e.g. self-driving cars, to make two aspects of philosophical reasoning more immediately relevant for students. First, raising questions about how to have autonomous agents make such decisions makes some old ethical disputes appear far more interesting to some of our students than more traditional examples. Perhaps more importantly, the “ethical robot” issue (along with several others about cyberspace) demonstrates the value in trying to instantiate solutions to some traditional philosophical problems – both ethical and epistemological – concretely in a digital context. Such efforts force a kind of precision in problem and solution specification that sheds new light on those problems. The same is true of defining and dealing with the issues of personal identity in the context of digital identities, social media, and dependence on the Internet for information, communication, and society.

The pedagogical “bottom line” in this effort is that various aspects of the digital revolution provide those of us teaching philosophy with both a new set of contexts and examples to use in discussing traditional issues and a number of new issues, e.g. machine cognition, that undergraduate students find compelling and relevant. I believe we can use such topics as another strategy for helping students to learn the value of philosophical issues and analysis.

I know my colleagues both here and around the country draw from the digital world in various ways both for concrete new content, e.g. modeling and simulation, and to motivate students, e.g. questioning the Turning Test as a measure of intelligence. I simply think that my experience in using a number of “cyber problems” together in a freshman course suggests it would be valuable for philosophers of science to discuss and share what is being done to use this new and compelling set of topics to further invigorate undergraduate philosophy teaching.

Author Information:

Joel Smith    
Carnegie Mellon University


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