Phil 180
Firstyear Seminar: Science, Nature, Self & Culture

Prof. Gregory
Fall 2007

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Contact Information:

Professor Gregory
Newcomb 32

Department of Philosophy
Sec: Karen Lyle
Newcomb 6

Office Hours:

Tuesday and Wednesday, 1:30-2:45, and by appointment.

If you need to reach me outside of office hours please email me or call my office number and leave a voice message—be sure to leave a phone number or email address at which you can be reached.

Course Description:

What does it mean to be human? Is there a fixed human nature? Or is it the nature of humans to be plastic—changeable at the individual, cultural, and species level? Has evolution endowed us with unalterable propensities to specific behaviors and cultural forms? Or has it endowed us with the ability to create and change ourselves, our environment, our very nature? Evolutionary theory, genetics, neuroscience, cybernetics—all have transformed and continue to transform how we understand what it means to be human. We are on the verge of understanding the evolutionary and neurological bases of human behavior and culture. But such knowledge also gives us the power to change and enhance our bodies and minds. What are we to do with the rapidly increasing knowledge of and resultant technologies involving the human animal? This seminar will examine such questions as we think about human nature, fixity, plasticity, and the place of science and technology in culture.

Course Objectives:


Reading. You are expected to read the assigned material before it is presented in class. This does not mean skimming. This means reading critically—making an earnest effort to understand what the author is saying, noting where you have questions, disagreements, confusions, etc. Feel free to write in the margins of your books, or, if you plan on selling them back, keep reading notes. This will help you in understanding the reading, answering reading questions, participating in discussion, and writing papers (see below). If you had difficulty with the reading it would be especially helpful to formulate a question or two (with an attempt at an answer) and hand them in at the start of class. You should always bring the relevant books to class.

Writing. There will be a number of short writing assignments. Often the best way to understand something (e.g.: a philosopher’s ideas, your own ideas) is to try to clearly write it out in your own words. This will prepare you for class discussion, and allows you to demonstrate your understanding of the material and your ability to approach it critically. There will be two longer papers, and the short writings also prepare you to do well on these. See below for more detail.

Class Participation. This class will be focused almost entirely around discussion (once in a while I shall lecture, but hopefully not for too long). Discussion will range from small-group activities to general class discussion. Even during the portions of class when I am lecturing, I encourage you to raise a hand, ask a question, and potentially start a class discussion. Occasionally we may split into small groups for discussion. Click the link for “Notes On Class Participation”, a discussion of how I grade class participation. There are things I can do to ready you for discussion (such as in-class writing), but in the end it is up to you to read the material, think about it, and go for it—the more discussion we have, the more fun the class will be.

Critical Thinking. If you are doing well in the above three areas, then you are probably doing well with critical thinking, too. What I mean by ‘critical thinking’ is not just the expression of opinions, likes, and dislikes. Anyone can say what they believe, or react to what another believes. In some cases (hopefully many cases) you will have strong feelings about what we are reading or discussing. These strong reactions are good, but they are only the beginning. We want to do more than just express our reactions. Thinking critically requires: (1) clearly and accurately expressing the relevant claims, (2) examining and questioning (both the reasons for and consequences of) others’ and (especially) one’s own beliefs, (3) developing and being responsive to alternative views, (4) trying to support or reject such views on the basis of evidence and argument, and (5) being willing to accept the outcome of such inquiry.

Attendance. The only way you will do well in the four areas above is by consistently attending class. More than one or two absences will negatively affect your grade, both by impeding success in the areas above, and by negatively impacting my assignment of your participation grade. When you have good reason for being absent from class you should communicate with me as soon as possible concerning your circumstances.

Short Writing Assignments:

One-Page Papers:

These papers are designed to improve your critical reading skills and tighten and hone your analytical writing abilities. For each reading indicated in the syllabus you must write a one-page essay, due on the day indicated on the course schedule. In some cases there will be additional instructions. For more information see this page. You will do approximately 4 of these.

In-Class Writings:

Occasionally I may give an in-class writing assignment. These, ICWs, are very informal, and they are usually geared toward working out your own ideas, as opposed to explaining the author’s. Usually you will be writing on your own, though we may have some small-group projects in which you may develop an outline.

You must complete all In-Class Writings. If you are absent the day of an ICW, you will receive a zero for that assignment. Except for extreme circumstances, these cannot be made up.

Click here for the “Notes on Writing and Grading”, and here for “Policies on Quotation, Citation, and Plagiarism”. You must read these before sending your Syllabus Confirmation.


We will have two papers, one due around mid-term, one due during finals week. We will discuss these in detail when the time comes. Papers will be assigned at least 1˝ weeks prior to due date, and you will be given the opportunity to discuss topics/outlines/drafts with me. Late papers suffer a 1/3 grade penalty for each day they are late, unless other arrangements have been made.

Click here for the “Notes on Writing and Grading”, and here for “Policies on Quotation, Citation, and Plagiarism”. You must read these before sending your Syllabus Confirmation.

Logic Quiz:

We will have a brief logic quiz on Friday, September 12, based on “A Brief Introduction to Logic”.


Component % of Final Average
Logic Quiz 5  
Class Participation 20  
Short Writing 20  
Paper 1 25  
Paper 2 30  

Final Grade will be based your Final Average and factors including attendance and improvement over the semester.

There are no extra credit assignments.

Communication, Etiquette, and Respect:

The ‘What’s the Point?’ Challenge:

It may happen at some time during lecture, discussion, or your reading that you feel lost, or bored, and wonder ‘What’s the point of this reading [discussion, lecture]?’ or ‘What’s it got to do with anything?’ or ‘I don’t get it...’. Whenever this happens please feel free to raise your hand (or send me an e-mail, or come and see me) and ask me ‘What’s the point?’ Indeed I challenge you to do so. You might want to try to work out your worry (or lack thereof) in how you ask your question, but all you really need do is ask me ‘What’s the point?!’ or say ‘I don’t get it!’ (Times like these may produce a good grunt, growl, or screech.)

I do not pose this as a challenge because I have all the answers and will “beat” you by giving you one of them. I don’t have all the answers. Rather, I have found that many of the best discussions—in class and one on one—arise out of just such questions. At the same time, however, students have developed a fear of asking such questions, or a habit of suppressing them when they arise, because they are too focused on results, tangible products (including, but not restricted to, grades). In my class the process of thinking is of greater importance than the product. Do not hesitate to question the point, the importance, the value, of either the process or the product, this is simply more process—more critical thinking. This is what philosophy is about. It is a discipline in which everything is fair game for critical examination, even, and especially, philosophy itself.

Syllabus Confirmation/Student Information:

You must complete the syllabus confirmation/student information form by midnight, Sunday, September 9 to be eligible for class participation credit. If you have any questions or concerns about the policies, do not hesitate to contact me.

Click here for the “Notes on Writing and Grading”, here for “Notes On Class Participation”, and here for “Policies on Quotation, Citation, and Plagiarism”. You must read these before sending your Syllabus Confirmation.

Here is the statement you will be confirming when you submit the form after following the link:

I have read the Course Syllabus for the course in which I am enrolled, including the “Home” page, the “Class Schedule”, the “Notes on Writing and Grading”, the “Notes On Class Participation", and the “Policies on Quotation, Citation, and Plagiarism”, and I understand all policies contained therein.

To the Syllabus Confirmation/Student Information Form