Science And Society
People from all walks of life encounter philosophical problems every day: the person who is told that an idea is ridiculous because it's "just a conspiracy theory", the molecular biologist who must decide whether a data point is an outlier to be dismissed or a genuine refutation of her theory, the physician who is confronted with family members who want different things for their terminally ill parent, the author who learns that another person has hit upon the same idea. Philosophy, unfortunately, can have bad reputation. It's often caricatured as too abstract, too nebulous, too obscure. My goal as a philosopher is to combat that caricature by making philosophy personal and practical—by drawing attention to the philosophical problems that philosophers and non-philosophers alike encounter and by providing the philosophical tools to work through those problems.
My position as a professor of philosophy allows me access to a great diversity of students: undergraduate students who are taking their first philosophy class, medical and graduate students who are required to take a class in ethics, members of the larger community who are simply interested in learning something new. But despite this diversity, I bring the same goal of making philosophy personal and practical to all students. For example, in an undergraduate class on epistemology (the study of knowledge), I made the philosophical problem personal by focusing on conspiracy theories, a concept with which anyone will be familiar. Conspiracy theories are funny things because they are almost universally ridiculed, and yet we all know of episodes from history where just such a conspiratorial element transpired (think Watergate). So what makes a conspiracy theory conspiratorial? And when should we take a conspiracy theory seriously or dismiss it as irrational? To make the philosophical problem practical, we focused on the case of "9/11 Truthers" (people who believe the attacks on September 11, 2001 were orchestrated by the American government), and we identified a range of criteria that help to distinguish conspiracy theories that should be taken seriously from those that should be dismissed.
Medical students and graduate students in the sciences who are required to take a medical ethics or a research ethics class (respectively) present a very different population of learners. These students almost universally come to the first class begrudgingly because ethics is being "forced on them". But making the material personal and practical quickly wins them over. These classes are often quite large (100+), and so I use the audience response system "clickers" to engage the entire class. A clicker-question about, for instance, conflicts of interest conveys the fact that we all encounter conflicts of interest (making it personal), and initiates a discussion about how to manage such conflicts (making it practical).
Finally, philosophical problems are not confined to college and university campuses; the wider community also encounters them. As a result, I look for opportunities to make philosophy personal and practical for a public audience whenever possible. Over the summer of 2011, I co-organized the Biohumanities Public Forum, a series of public lectures on issues ranging from the biology of gender and sexuality to the latest developments in evolutionary biology. And in February 2012, I published an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune entitled, "WWDD: What Would Darwin Do?", which highlighted the moral integrity of Charles Darwin.
Philosophical problems are all around us. By making philosophy personal and practical, I aim to convey this reality and to provide the philosophical tools for dealing with it.