The Grant Campus philosophy faculty invite all members of the campus community to "Brunch with Socrates," every Monday, 11:00 to 12:15, in the philosophy classroom (Nesconset 13). Modeled after the Socrates Café gatherings developed by Christopher Philips, our "Brunch with Socrates" meetings will facilitate thoughtful and empathetic dialog on fundamental questions in a non-combative environment. And, yes: bagels will be served.

 

Weekly topics:

 

On hiatus until the fall semester!

The May 6 meeting was the last Brunch with Socrates event of the 2018-19 academic year. During the past two semesters of BwS, we ate a lot of bagels, discussed a lot of interesting philosophers, and developed some camaraderie around our shared interest in exploring unusual and challenging ideas. The philosophy faculty would like to thank all our colleagues and students who participated this year, and we look forward starting again in September.

 

5/6/19: Having our ethics and eating it too

Historian Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft has produced an interesting account of the search for “cultured” or “in vitro” meat: meat produced from cells that are grown in a laboratory environment rather than taken from an animal’s carcass. (Here’s a short piece of his work: https://hedgehogreview.com/issues/animals-and-us/articles/biotech-cockaigne-of-the-vegan-hopeful)

His analysis raises interesting questions about the ethics of our use of nonhuman animals, as well as some interesting reflections on what our attitudes toward animals reveal about our humanity.

 

4/29/19: Discipline and Punish

CUNY Prof. Ruth Wilson Gilmore has spent the last three decades advocating for a radical idea: the abolition (not just reform) of prisons. (You can read an NYT profile of her movement here: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/17/magazine/prison-abolition-ruth-wilson-gilmore.html)

Counterintuitive ideas are a mainstay of philosophical reflection, so we will explore the arguments of the prison abolitionists through the lens of classical and modern philosophical theories of punishment.

 

4/22/19: What we owe the ancients

Last week, we gave attention to the classical ideal of beauty. While our discussion touched on many modern issues, the topic raises a more general question: Why should we care about classical ideals? Although philosophy is a living discipline with much to add to our thinking about contemporary issues, the word 'philosophy' can still conjure the image of privileged ancient Greeks in togas and -- truth be told -- a lot of philosophical texts and conversations still rehash the ideas of dead white men. Is there an enduring value to the philosophical ideas of those who lived in the pre-modern world? Why in the 21st century should we ask students to study the thoughts of ancient and medieval thinkers?

 Our discussion will be led by Prof. Simpson, our resident expert on ancient and medieval philosophy.

 

4/15/19: Beauty

We’ve talked a lot about things like death, social injustice and moral failure in our BwS meetings this year. This Monday, we look for solace in a classical ideal: Beauty.

In a post-modern artworld where even human excrement, animal corpses and cigarette butts are deemed legitimate artistic media, in a social media era in which beauty is equated with make-up tutorials by YouTube influencers, it can seem that aesthetics has devolved into a vapid, incoherent wasteland. Is there a deeper meaning to be found in the concept of beauty? Does our capacity to take pleasure in genuine beauty reveal something important about our humanity that contemporary culture is ignoring?

We’ll discuss the insights of traditional and contemporary philosophers about these questions. Beautiful bagels will be served.

 

4/8/19: The Problem of Consciousness

Explaining how it is that humans are capable of conscious thought and subjective experience has been a perennial philosophical problem. Consciousness has often been referred to as a “mystery,” and that is reflected in the fact that many traditional philosophers discussed consciousness in spiritual terms, as the capacity of an immaterial soul.

Today the problem has a more this-worldly urgency. As humans are rethinking their ubiquitous exploitation of other animals, we face the question of whether other animals have conscious experiences that are at all comparable to our own. As artificial intelligence continues to supersede human capabilities, we must face the question—once reserved for science fiction—of whether sufficiently sophisticated machines can ever be capable of consciousness.

The starting point of our discussion will be the work of neuroscientist Giulio Tononi (here’s a recent article on his work: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190326-are-we-close-to-solving-the-puzzle-of-consciousness) whose “integrated information” theory of consciousness is attracting attention from scientists and philosophers alike.

 

4/1/19: Sociodicy

The term ‘theodicy’ refers to the attempts by theologians to meet a standard atheist challenge: How could an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good god allow so much gratuitous suffering to exist in the world? In his recent book, sociologist Nicholas Christakis gives this problem a secular twist. He coined the term ‘sociodicy’ to refer to his efforts to vindicate our social existence despite the individual and collective harms for which humans are responsible. (You can see an interesting NYT piece on Christakis here: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/19/opinion/nicholas-christakis-yale.html)

Christakis’ argument touches on a perennial philosophical question—one that we’ve touched on in several of our brunches: Are human beings essentially selfish and violent, with social strictures being the only things that prevent us from devolving into chaos, or is our essential goodness undermined by dysfunctional social and political institutions? This question takes new forms in a world of 8 billion persons forming social relationships that our earliest ancestors could never have imagined.

 

3/18/19: The End

This week we finish our three-part series on birth, life and death with...death. Some philosophers have argued that the natural fear and revulsion that we often feel toward death is justified, because death is in fact a very bad thing. Stoic philosophers have argued that such an attitude is irrational, because if death is the end of a person's existence, the dead person cannot experience anything bad, so what's to fear? Others have made the counterintuitive argument that death, even without the hope of an afterlife, is in fact a very good thing, as it brings meaning to our mortal existence. We'll consider these arguments and their practical implications for such fields as biomedical ethics.

 

3/11/19: Is greatness overrated? (make-up for 3/4 snow cancellation)

At our next Brunch with Socrates gathering (11:00-12:15 in N-13), we will have our second in a series of discussions on birth, life and death. We will consider Avram Alpert’s argument in “The Good Enough Life” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/20/opinion/the-good-enough-life-philosophy.html). Do traditional ethical models that link human flourishing with striving for excellence, perfection and greatness rest on incorrect assumptions about what is necessary for us to achieve the human good? Might striving for a life that is “good enough” present moral challenges and reveal unexpected pleasures that have been underappreciated in moral philosophy?All are welcome. Bagels will be served. (They won’t be great bagels, mind you, but they’ll be good enough.)

 

2/25/19: The Ethics of Being Born?

Philosophers have had much to say about death, but what about birth?

Collectively, these ideas frame an interesting field of inquiry: the ethics of being born.

 

2/11/19: Would Human Extinction Be a Tragedy?

In October we had a discussion on environmental ethics and our responsibility to future generations. We begin the spring semester with another look at these issues, focusing our discussion on philosopher Todd May's piece, "Would Human Extinction Be a Tragedy?" May makes the interesting case that the answer to this curious question may be more complex and ambiguous than it at first appears.

 

12/17/18: No meeting!

Good luck with finals. We'll pick it up again in the spring, same time, same location!

 

12/10/18: The freedom to believe?

Are beliefs purely private matters, individual possessions that are only subject to our own whims and wishes? Are they instead public matters with implications we have a duty to consider? Does it depend on the belief? How do we decide? These questions fall under the umbrella of what philosophers have termed the ethics of belief.

 

12/3/18: What's the deal with math?

Legend has it that Plato had inscribed over the door to his school, the Academy, the words: "Let no one enter who is ignorant of geometry." Whether or not that legend is true, there is no doubt that the nature and meaning of mathematical concepts has been of interest to philosophers throughout history and throughout the world. Unfortunately,many students today are not only uninterested in those questions but are also downright "mathphobic." Why do so many see math as something to be afraid of? Can some philosophical ideas about the nature of mathematical entities make the subject less fearsome?

 

11/26/18: Ethics and Social Media

Today we'll discuss philosopher S. Matthew Liao's NY Times op-ed piece, "Do You Have a Moral Duty to Leave Facebook"?

 

11/19/18: Gratitude

In honor of the Thanksgiving holiday--and as evidence of the fact that philosophers take nothing for granted--this week we ask the question: What does it mean to be grateful? Is gratitude a moral virtue? Do we have a duty to be grateful, and if so under what circumstances? Is gratitude not something morally required, but rather only instrumentally valuable (e.g., good because it leads to other positive emotions and behaviors)?

No turkey and stuffing on the menu, but we will have bagels.

 

11/12/18: Intelligence--artificial and human

In our past two meetings on the philosophy of education, we touched on anxieties faced by both faculty and students regarding how to prepare for the disruptions that will come with technological advances in areas such as robotics and artificial intelligence. These technologies raise important economic, political and ethical questions, as well as fundamental philosophical questions about the nature of intelligence and consciousness.

In an op-ed this week by Portland State University computer science professor Melanie Mitchell, she argues that the optimism from tech gurus that we will soon have artificial intelligence that rivals human intelligence is misguided because we are not even close to knowing how human beings achieve understanding and meaning from our experiences—the deepest aspects of human intelligence.

Will this technological challenge ever be overcome? Is it possible (and not just in science fiction) that we eventually will produce machines that can do everything that the human mind can do (and more)? If so, what does that imply about our nature as humans? If not, how do we nurture those uniquely human abilities that will be vital in a world increasingly shaped by machines?

 

11/5/18: Part II of our discussion of the philosophy of education: Today is the start of priority registration, a timely opportunity for students to ask themselves: Why am I here?

Students: What are your expectations for your time in college, and what do they imply for your understanding of what education is really all about? Have those expectations been met during your time at the College? What can you, the faculty and the College do to make your experience here more fulfilling? Collectively, how can we help the institution remain true to the ideals of higher education?

 

10/29/18: A special joint meeting with the Grant Campus Pedagogy Committee. Our question for discussion:  What is teaching?

Socrates claimed that his role as a teacher was not to impart knowledge but to act as a "midwife" for the ideas of his students. Heidegger argued that the teacher must prepare students to confront their authentic humanity, in turn preparing them to care for the humanity of others. The history of philosophy offers many other models for what constitutes genuine teaching and learning.

Faculty: At a deep level, how do you see your role as an educator?

Students: At a deep level, what do you expect from the faculty you work with at the College?

 

10/22/18: What is our moral responsibility to future generations?

In our past two meetings, we discussed how moral responsibility can extend back in time, requiring us to consider whether we are obligated to offer redress for historical wrongs that we did not ourselves commit. This week, we look toward the future: What moral obligations do we have to future generations of humans who have not yet been born? This question can be framed around many different issues, but is given additional urgency by the pressing environmental challenges we face today. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report makes very dire predictions about future catastrophes that will occur if we don't take immediate and radical steps to reduce carbon emissions. Political and economic considerations aside, do we have a moral obligation to ensure a habitable world in the future?

 

10/15/18: Part 2 of our discussion: What is our moral responsibility for the wrongs of history?

Last week, in recognition of the controversy surrounding Columbus Day, we explored our moral responsibilities in regard to atrocities that were committed in the past but that still affect our present social circumstance. Since our conversation only touched the surface of the issue, we've decided to continue the discussion for an additional week.

 

10/08/18: What is our moral responsibility for the wrongs of history?

Today is Columbus Day. Some will celebrate Italian-American heritage and the "discovery of America" by Europeans, while others will memorialize the genocidal violence directed at North America's indigenous peoples for five centuries. How should we who have inherited this complex history respond? Do we bear any moral responsibility for addressing the atrocities that our ancestors committed, or does my moral responsibility end with my own actions and decisions?

 

10/1/18: Rational animals?

In our previous two meetings, our conversations touched upon the relationship between reason and emotion. Aristotle famously described human beings as ζῷον λόγον ἔχον – the animal that has reason. Throughout the Western philosophical tradition, many other thinkers agreed that rationality is the defining, essentially human attribute. But what of the non-rational parts of our nature? What role do the emotions play in our humanity, and in how we interpret and understand the world? For better or worse, do our emotions have a stronger influence than rationality on what we believe?

 

9/24/18: What can we make of “truth” and “honesty”?

Last week we explored the question: What makes for a good human life? Our conversation touched on several topics, including how knowledge, truth and honesty function in the good life. This week we explore those topics further. How and why are truth and honesty to be valued? How has the concept of truth been used and abused? Are truth claims always relative the person or group that makes them? If not, why is it so hard for us to agree on the answers to important questions? If so, are all “important” questions really just matters of opinion?

 

9/17/18: What makes for a good human life?

Philosophy is the love of wisdom, and being wise is much more than being intelligent or knowledgeable. It requires insight into how to live well, in a manner befitting our nature as human beings. Philosophers have explored many different concepts of what the good life for a human being entails, including happiness, virtue, flourishing, freedom and authenticity. Join us for an exploration of these and other ways of defining the human good.

For information, please contact me at fellenm@sunysuffolk.edu.