Introduction to Western Academic Philosophy

In every culture, educated people create a system for finding the truth. In ancient Greece, philosophers debated about what they could actually know. Today, scientists and academics argue in newspapers and scholarly journals to determine what is fact and what is false. This much is certain: what is considered “truth” is different in every culture. This guide should introduce you to some important concepts about what Americans consider “truth”. Principle 1: Doubt (“Skepticism”) Nothing is true “just because”. We need evidence to believe. The strength of an idea’s evidence is highly correlated with its validity. Only a fool believes that something is true without evidence. This tradition of skepticism can be traced back to the Greeks and Romans, but it became central to Western society when a 17th-century French academic, Rene Descartes, tried to find out what, if anything, we can truly know. This may seem strange—for example, I know that I am a student, I know I have $5 in my pocket, etc.—but let’s follow Descartes’ logic and see if we agree with him. First, Descartes made two basic assumptions: 1. Facts are true. 2. Everything that I believe/know comes from what my senses have perceived in my life. Next, he realized that his senses are not reliable*. They can lie to us and misinform us. They cannot be trusted to give us accurate or complete information. Therefore, we cannot find facts. We can never be 100% sure of anything that our senses tell us.
*NOTE: Interestingly, while Descartes insists our perceptions are unreliable, reason was considered to be an innate, highly reliable tool.

Principle 2: Knowledge = ideas, not facts The Western academic tradition is based around ideas. People think of an idea, test the idea if possible, and others evaluate it over time. There are two important conclusions to be drawn from this. 1. People own their ideas – This is very important to our culture! When you borrow someone else’s idea, you must cite your source and give credit to the idea’s “parent”. 2. Knowledge (ideas) changes over time – We can be absolutely certain of almost nothing. We must be open to the possibility that we are wrong. No idea is “sacred”, or deserves protection.

The oath of science: Because my perceptions can be faulty, I refuse to accept anything as 100% true, so nothing is absolutely certain. Even my own deepest beliefs could be changed with enough examination. And anything that anyone else says could be false, whether or not they intended to lie.

Implications of this philosophy The most important thing to remember is that our traditional convention of “true/untrue” is no longer useful. If nothing is absolutely, 100% true, then everything would simply be labeled “untrue”—but this is even more misleading, and much less useful.

True Not very much goes here

Untrue Almost everything goes here!

A much better model to use is a continuum.

Activity 1: List grammar constructions that express different levels of certainty.

≈0%

≈100%
Gauge of Certainty

Really, our GAUGE OF CERTAINTY just shows us how willing we are to trust that something is true. It can be different for different people. For example, try graphing “global warming is real”, “polar bears will go extinct in our lifetime” and “I will get an A in College Writing”. Then compare your graphs with a friend. So, how do we find out what is true? Simply, we try to rely on information that exists as far right on the continuum of truth as possible. If we create an argument with highly-reliable source materials, our conclusions will more likely be true. All ideas are built on top of other ideas, like bricks of a house. Your foundation (sources) must meet all academic standards if you want your building (idea) to also be acceptable. Examples of non-logical, yet highly organized persuasion techniques can be found in advertising and psychology. If I give candy to the class every day, you will eventually associate happy feelings with SFH 220—I will have convinced you to like coming to writing class! Expensive perfume ads show bodies of young models (suggesting the idea of sex) on exotic beaches (suggesting “the good life”), and use cutting-edge artistic techniques (to suggest sophistication). After being influenced by so many pleasant ideas, we are drawn towards the final image—the product—without having any clear explanation why.

Finally, how do I decide if something is a reliable source that I can use to support my ideas?

Usually there are two main factors: 1. How many people have actively reviewed and critically evaluated the material. 2. The qualifications of the author and the editors who reviewed the piece.

The first factor in judging a source is really quite obvious. Some sources are only reviewed by a few people (personal websites, for example), and some are only casually viewed, not critically reviewed. For example, Wikipedia has millions of users, but very few who take the time to check for accuracy in articles. Still, Wikipedia does have a large number of visitors for popular topics like “history”, “basketball” or “Britney Spears”—but Wikipedia isn’t recognized as a reliable source because it does not score well in category #2. A journal article written by a university researcher and reviewed by less than ten expert editors is superior to a Wikipedia page edited by thousand of unqualified users.

Common Sources
Academic Journal Articles Statements from Experts News Articles from the very best papers

Commonly Used, but Unacceptable Sources
Wikipedia 90% of “.com” websites that are not reviewed for accuracy News Articles that make highly questionable conclusions  these are very common!

Activity 2: Graph the following sources on our Gauge of Certainty. How much do you trust the following sources? Write them on a piece of paper and bring them to class. The New York Times, The Daily Kent Stater, Information in a writing textbook, a promise from a politician, a TV commercial, a text from a friend saying that school is closed

Activity 3: Evaluate some sources on your own. Google “dangers of eating meat” and visit a few pages with information about that topic. Find 1 trustworthy source, and 1 untrustworthy source. Copy the link locations and paste them into a Word document. Give a 3-5 sentence description of each website and your evaluation of its trustworthiness. Try to explain why you chose each one.

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