Philosophy: Introducing Philosophy through Star Trek

Introducing Philosophy through Star Trek

Philosophy 115: Introducing Philosophy through Star Trek

Spring 2013

MWF 11:15 AM - 12:20 PM

Morse-Ingersoll 209

Professor: Matt Tedesco



            Phone: 363-2146

Office Hours: Tuesdays 1:30-3:45 PM, and by appointment

            Office: Morse-Ingersoll 210

Textbook: Reason and Responsibility (14th ed.), edited by Joel Feinberg & Russ Shafer-Landau (Wadsworth, 2011)

The Class:

This course will boldly go where some of the greatest thinkers in history have gone before. As an introductory philosophy course, we will engage problems of knowledge, belief, faith, free will, personal identity, and morality. Our lens for engaging primary philosophical sources on these problems will be the universe of Star Trek, particularly the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation. Among its many contributions, Star Trek’s depiction of advanced technologies (including artificial life forms, matter transportation, and holographic projection) and alien races offers a range of cases for exploring and understanding many of the core problems of philosophy.

As a philosophy class, our emphasis will be on the analysis of concepts and the critical evaluation of arguments. Beyond gaining a familiarity with the problems of philosophy described above, students should expect to develop their analytic and evaluative skills through in-class discussion and a range of writing assignments.


Your grade in the class will be determined as follows:

I. TWO EXAMS (2/6)

There will be two in-class written exams this semester, each worth 1/6 of your overall class grade. The first will be administered in class on March 1st, and the second will be administered on May 7th at 9 AM (our assigned time during finals week).  This means, for planning purposes, that you should not plan to leave campus earlier than the time and date of this second exam. On the exams, anything discussed in class or assigned as class reading is fair game for a question topic. Note that these two will largely, but not entirely, overlap.


You will write two papers in this class, each worth 1/6 of your overall class grade. The first paper will be due by 11:15 AM on February 6th, and the second will be due by 11:15 AM on April 1st. These papers will be submitted to me by e-mail. Details (regarding specific guidelines and expectations) will be passed along as the semester progresses. For you to receive a passing grade in the class, both papers must be satisfactorily completed.


You will be responsible for sending weekly reaction e-mails to me throughout the semester. These e-mails should be at least two substantial paragraphs in length. The first paragraph should briefly summarize what you take to be the thesis, main point, or purpose of the reading assignment you’ve selected to discuss (presumably something on the schedule for our next meeting). The second paragraph and beyond should contain your reaction to the reading. Here, you should be critically evaluating some aspect of the reading: what was particularly interesting, convincing, problematic, confusing, etc.? Your reaction e-mails will not be evaluated for correctness, but they should demonstrate a serious engagement with the reading for class. In order to help ensure that you are seriously engaging the material, each reaction e-mail must be a minimum of 350 words in length; the word count must be included in the reaction e-mail. This word count is merely a bare minimum; reaction e-mails may, and frequently do, exceed this number. Reaction e-mails that fail to seriously engage the reading, including those that fail to reach the minimum word requirement, will receive no credit.

There are two important rules (or sets of rules) to keep in mind for this assignment: timing rules and formatting rules. First, the e-mails must be received before we discuss the reading in class, and you can turn in no more than one per week. If you turn in thirteen (one for each week, excluding the first, last, and mid-term break) satisfactorily, you will receive an A for this portion of your grade. For each one not turned in, this portion of your grade will decrease by one-third of a letter grade (so, turning in twelve earns an A-, eleven a B+, etc.). For our purposes, each week ends at the start of our Friday meeting; any reaction e-mails sent after 11:15 AM on Friday will count for the next week.

These, then, are the key principles to keep in mind about reaction e-mails: one per week, on something we have not yet discussed in class.

Second, you will need to adhere to four rules in formatting your reaction e-mails. First, the subject of your e-mails should include both the number of the reaction and the name of the philosopher or philosophers to whom you’ll be responding (e.g., “Reaction 1: Descartes”). Second, don’t send any attachments; your reaction e-mail should be the text of the e-mail itself. Third, don’t include other business (questions about assignments, requests for a meeting, etc.) in your reaction e-mails; send all of that stuff as a separate correspondence. And fourth, be sure to include a word count in the body of the e-mail.

These reaction e-mails serve a number of purposes. Beyond ensuring your critical engagement with the text throughout the semester, they give me a window into your reading of the text, which in turn directly informs my teaching. I’ll have a sense of what you focused on in the reading, and what needs special attention in class. I will also draw from the content of your reaction e-mails in class, sometimes generally, but also sometimes by referencing particular reaction e-mails. I will do my best to use discretion, but please let me know in your reaction e-mails if there are details in it that you would prefer not to reveal to the rest of the class. 

Given the volume of reaction e-mails that I will be receiving from all of you, you should not expect regular feedback on individual reaction e-mails. I will, however, respond to your first reaction e-mail, to let you know that I’ve received it and whether it meets the criteria of the assignment. I may also respond to individual reaction e-mails intermittently throughout the semester. Beyond all this, you should regularly be reviewing your reaction e-mails after our class discussions, to see how your understanding of the text has developed.  


One of the most effective strategies for reading critically is composing a brief summary highlighting the key elements of the reading selection in question; one of the most concise and elegant forms of writing is the classical Japanese poetry form, the haiku. This assignment combines these two distinct considerations, in an assignment aimed at helping to jumpstart our discussions through your reading of our texts. For every reading assignment on our syllabus, you are expected to compose and bring to class a haiku to be read aloud in class. For each reading, I will draw names at random from the class list, and those students will read their haikus to the rest of us. Your haiku should reflect what you take to be one or more important or interesting elements of the assigned reading selection. You will be allowed considerable creative flexibility in composing your haikus—this assignment should be fun, not stressful—but be aware that you will be expected to explain your haiku, and the elements of the reading that it captures.

As with the reaction e-mails, every student begins with an A on this portion of the class grade. If you read a haiku that you have composed prior to our meeting each time you are randomly called upon, you will receive an A on this part of your grade. If you miss a haiku because you are absent from class and within your allotted three absences (described below, in section V), you will not be penalized; if you miss a haiku either because you are unprepared or because you are absent and you have already missed class three previous times, your grade here will decrease by two-thirds of a letter grade (from A to B+, from B+ to B-, etc.).

V. CLASS ACTIVITY (variable)

The final component of your overall class grade encompasses several different elements, including (but not limited to) class participation and classroom behavior in general. This component is unique in that, unlike the other components, it is subjective. Attendance, first of all, is mandatory, and students with excessive absences will be penalized, where excessive absences are understood as those over and above the equivalent of one week’s worth of class time. In accordance with Beloit College policy, I expect everyone to come to class, and I furthermore expect everyone who comes to class to be alert and ready to participate. Participation also is mandatory. This means that I expect every student to contribute to our ongoing class discussion throughout the semester. I recognize that class participation comes more naturally to some students than others. If you expect this requirement to be difficult for you, then plan accordingly—no one is exempt from this expectation. Elements of class activity that may negatively impact your grade include disruptive behavior (e.g., engaging in side-conversations with others, ringing cell phones) or visibly obvious detachment from the class (e.g., reading outside material such as work for other classes, sleeping). Exceptionally strong class activity may raise your overall grade by one-third (e.g., if your final grade is a B, it may be raised to a B-plus), while poor class activity may lower your overall grade by at least one-third (e.g., from B to B-minus or lower). As a rule of thumb, expect to have your class grade lowered by one-third for each class missed beyond one week of absence.

Note a couple of things about the grading in this class. First, notice that the penalty for excessive absences is serious, and may be compounded by the impact of excessive absences on your discussion haikus. This should signal to you the importance in this class of being present, and being prepared, every time. Second, notice that a full one-third of your grade (between the response e-mails and discussion haikus) is entirely in your control based solely on effort. There is no good reason for anyone to receive less than an A on these parts of your grade.

As a matter of class policy, laptop computers and tablets may not be used in class. The reason for this is straightforward: the classroom is a place for community conversation, and for a variety of reasons, laptops and tablets hinder conversation. The only exception to this policy is class meetings where we are discussing one of the readings available electronically; on those days, you may, if you choose, bring a laptop or tablet solely for the purpose of accessing the reading during our discussion. If you believe you have a compelling reason to be exempt from this policy, please see me to discuss the matter.

If a situation of prolonged absence is unavoidable, please make sure to contact me about it. Be aware that I will normally request proper documentation should such a circumstance arise.


What follows is the plan for the semester as I see it now. Reading assignments should be completed before the class that they’re assigned, where the days listed in parentheses signal when I expect us to begin discussing the article in question. Note that this schedule is tentative; we may deviate from it as the semester progresses and class discussion takes on a life of its own. If changes are required, they will be announced in class.

If you have specific physical, psychiatric, or learning disabilities and require accommodations, please provide the appropriate documentation to me from the Learning Enrichment and Disability Services office early in the semester so that your learning needs may be effectively met. Be aware that I cannot make special accommodations without direction from the LEDS office.


1/16:     Class introductions




1/18:     Plato, “Knowledge as Justified True Belief,” from Theaetetus (167-171)

1/21:     TNG episode: “Ship in a Bottle”

1/23:     Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, Meditations I & II (184-191)

1/25:     Huemer, “Three Skeptical Arguments” (155-160)

1/28:     Gettier, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” (171-173)

1/30:     Moore, “Proof of an External World” (234-237)

2/1:       Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Sections IV & V (240-252)



2/4:       TNG episode: “Rightful Heir”

2/6:       Pascal, “The Wager” (135-138)

            Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief” (117-121)

            PAPER 1 DUE

2/8:       James, “The Will to Believe” (122-130)

2/11:     Hume, “Of Miracles”



Freedom of the Will

2/13:     TNG episode: “The Mind’s Eye”

2/15:     Holbach, “The Illusion of Free Will” (451-456)

2/18:     Chisholm, “Human Freedom and the Self” (430-437)

2/20:     Ayer, “Freedom and Necessity” (475-480)

2/22:     Pereboom, “Why We Have No Free Will and Can Live Without It” (456-470)

2/25:     Nagel, “Moral Luck” (487-494)

2/27:     First half wrap-up & review

3/1:       EXAM 1


Personal Identity

3/11:     TNG episode: “Second Chances”

3/13:     Locke, “The Prince and the Cobbler” (373-376)

            Reid, “Of Mr. Locke’s Account of Personal Identity” (376-378)

3/15:     Parfit, “Divided Minds and the Nature of Persons” (381-396)

3/18:     Dennett, “Where Am I?” (386-394)


3/22:     Perry, A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality, First & Second Nights (395-409)

3/25:     Perry, A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality, Third Night (409-414)


Minds & Artificial Intelligence

3/27:     TNG episode: “The Quality of Life”

3/29:     Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” (335-343)

4/1:       Searle, “Minds, Brains, and Programs” (344-350)

            PAPER 2 DUE

4/3:       Lycan, “Robots and Minds” (350-356)

4/5:       Carruthers, “Brute Experience” (356-363)

4/8:       Searle, “Animal Minds” (364-373)

Practical Ethics

4/10:     TNG episode: “Measure of a Man”

4/12:     Singer, “Unsanctifying Human Life” (645-652)

4/15:     Warren, “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion”



4/19:     Marquis, “Why Abortion is Immoral” (658-664)

4/22:     Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion” (652-658)

4/24:     Thomson, con’d

4/26:     Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” (630-636)

4/29:     Singer, con’d


5/1:       Class wrap-up & review

5/7:       EXAM 2 (9 AM)