Lawrence alumnus shares philosophy research

To explain the research he is working on for his PhD and to give an example of what Lawrence philosophy majors go on to do after graduation, alumni Ethan Landes ‘13, a current doctoral student at the University of St. Andrews, returned to Lawrence to give a lecture on his research. Landes gave his lecture “How Philosophers Learn From Each Other” on Friday, Jan. 5 at 4:30 p.m. in Main Hall 201.

Professor of Philosophy Thomas Ryckman introduced Landes, mentioning how he is one of the many Lawrence graduates who came back to share the work that they have done after graduation. Many students come back to speak about what they are studying to get feedback from Lawrence professors and also to inspire students who are considering a similar field of study.

The topics of Landes’ lecture were metaphilosophy and the epistemology of Philosophy. Metaphilosophy is the study of how philosophy is done, often shown through examining experiments. The epistemology of philosophy is a part of metaphilosophy and deals with how philosophical truths can be known by philosophers and how philosophers learn these truths.

Justified true belief is a concept which is essential to philosophy and is supported by influential philosophers such as Plato, Ayer and Chisholm who believed that knowledge was justified true belief. In his lecture, Landes questioned if this concept is really true. He did this by explaining several thought experiments which have been done.

Another key part of examining thought experiments that Landes went over was the idea of intuition. Commonly when performing thought experiments, a philosopher will have an intuition about the thought experiment and then that intuition is taken to be the answer to the thought experiment. According to Landes, this is flawed because minor changes in how one does thought experiments changes the results of the intuition. Since intuition is a major part of philosophy and it cannot be relied on, “philosophy seems to be in really bad shape,” said Landes.

While it might seem that philosophy is not doing well, since the basis of philosophical knowledge, intuition, is not something that can be relied on, Landes said that this is not the case and the subject of philosophy is still thriving. There are two main opinions in the philosophy community about this: the point of view of experimental philosophers and that of Deutsch and Cappelen.

According to Landes, experimental philosophers believe that philosophy is in trouble because “people’s consumption of thought experiments, their intuitions are problematically flawed”. Deutsch and Cappelen believe that “the original production of thought experiments does not rely on intuitions at all. Philosophy is fine,” stated Landes. He pointed out that at the center of the debate between these two sides is whether the knowledge of the consumer or that of the producer matters most.

Landes argues more towards the side of Deutsch and Cappelen, but focuses on how testimonial knowledge is used in philosophy. Testimonial knowledge is knowledge gained from being told something by someone else. Some philosophers argue that people cannot learn just from testimony, but Landes believes differently.

To explain this, Landes explained a thought experiment where some monks were transcribing history. Then just for fun, they based some of it off of what their cat was doing, so part of the text in their history book was written by a cat. Then at the end they explained this was written by a cat so that someone reading it would only be temporarily fooled. There were three different takes on this. The “Feline Monk” take says that there is no knowledge gained by this. In the “Feline Gettier” take on this, what you learn from the cat does count as knowledge because you now independently know this. The “Feline Scientist” take has a similar perspective in that it says that while what the cat tells you is not knowledge, it points you to look at something that will be knowledge.

Landes concluded his lecture by siding with the Feline Scientist, and stated that yes, philosophy is not in trouble because philosophers can learn from each other by pointing towards things and prompting each other to learn more. After finishing his lecture, Landes took questions from students and professors.

For more philosophy events, there are weekly informal Philosophy Department meetings at 4:30 p.m. most Mondays in Main Hall 103.