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Upgrading to Philosophy 2.0

Upgrading to Philosophy 2.0

December 31, 2007

There was no theorizing about ghosts in the machine at an annual meeting of philosophers last Friday. Instead, they embraced technology's implications for their field, both within the classroom and beyond.

Two presentations outlined how computer software could change the way philosophy is both taught and disseminated. One professor discussed how artificial intelligence can help to improve individualized instruction, while another laid out a radical framework for online publication that would leave most of today's academic press apparatus in the dust.

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This being the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association's Eastern Division, the largest of the regional subgroups , none of the scholars' suggestions went unchallenged. The Baltimore session, arranged by the APA Committee on Philosophy and Computers, led to a lively question-and-answer period among the 20 or so audience members who likewise saw technology as a vital component in the future of philosophy as an academic discipline.

Still, as the session's title implied, the participants were also interested in exploring "the Ethics of Emerging Technologies," not just how to implement them.

Marvin Croy, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (and a former chair of the APA committee and current vice president of the International Association for Computing and Philosophy), described his search for a high-quality but cost-effective way of promoting individualized learning through artificial intelligence. He believes that making such programs worth the effort is more difficult than it would initially seem because people tend to play down maintenance costs and overestimate the extent to which automation can lead to greater accessibility of teaching content.

The reason for those misconceptions, Croy argued, is that adaptive learning techniques require AI, and good AI algorithms require long-term empirical research into how students learn and which methods predict classroom success. Moreover, he said, if a computer program that employs AI increases the range of students being taught, any economy of scale would be counterbalanced by the greater diversity of learning approaches reached -- and that would require further development into more sophisticated processes to encompass them (and more money).

Bypassing that vicious cycle requires some brains, and not just the human kind. The problem becomes: How can a program learn how an individual student thinks, and use that insight to offer constructive suggestions as he or she works online?

One of Croy's attempts to solve that problem involves a system designed to provide intelligent help to students constructing deductive proofs. As they graphically map out the steps from a given initial proposition to the provided end point, the software ideally provides helpful suggestions to students who can be working both forward and backward at the same time.

In looking for an algorithm that can offer hints "in a way that doesn’t cost us an arm and a leg," Croy noted, the software employs a mathematical model called a Markov decision process that can map students' steps toward the solution and "learn" the chosen path as they work. Such proofs can be solved in varying sequences, so the possibilities are numerous.

"They do stuff that I wouldn’t have expected them to do," Croy said of the students. By anticipating the logical direction of the students' reasoning, the program can ideally guide them along the way.

To see if such techniques are empirically useful, Croy also tested to see if he could predict students' performance in his class early on, based on results from a computerized test of "justified thought" -- for example, choosing from a multiple-choice list whether a given logical sequence was an example of modus ponens, modus tollens or neither. By dividing one class of 50 into two groups, one whose grades were below 65 percent and those with 65 or higher, Croy found that the test predicted their performance "fairly well."

This being a meeting of philosophers, he touched on a few of the ethical implications of his work, such as the potential of conflicting roles as both a teacher and a researcher within the same classroom. "It does put you in a very strange position," he admitted, since students could be both pupils and subjects at the same time. One clear solution, he said, was to seek informed consent. At the same time, Croy raised the question of whether technology should seek to replace or supplement student-teacher interactions.

In his own experience, he said, "the class is a lot better today than it used to be a year ago."

A 'Radical' Rethinking of Scholarly Publishing

Harriet E. Baber of the University of San Diego thinks scholars should try to make their work as accessible as possible, forget about the financial rewards of publishing and find alternative ways to referee each other's work. In short, they should ditch the current system of paper-based academic journals that persists, she said, by "creating scarcity," "screening" valuable work and providing scholars with entries in their CVs.

"Now why would it be a bad thing if people didn’t pay for the information that we produce?" she asked, going over the traditional justifications for the current order -- an incentive-based rationale she dubbed a "right wing, free marketeer, Republican argument."

Instead, she argued, scholars (and in particular, philosophers) should accept that much of their work has little market value ("we’re lucky if we could give away this stuff for free") and embrace the intrinsic rewards of the work itself. After all, she said, they're salaried, and "we don't need incentives external [to] what we do."

That doesn't include only journal articles, she said; class notes fit into the paradigm just as easily. "I want any prospective student to see this and I want all the world to see" classroom materials, she added.

Responding to questions from the audience, she noted that journals' current function of refereeing content wouldn't get lost, since the "middlemen" merely provide a venue for peer review, which would still happen within her model.

"What's going to happen pragmatically is the paper journals will morph into online journals," she said.

Part of the purpose of holding the session, she implied, was to nudge the APA into playing a greater role in any such transition: "I’m hoping that the APA will organize things a little better."

Comments on Upgrading to Philosophy 2.0

  • Paper journals?
  • Posted by Sandy Thatcher , Director at Penn State Press on December 31, 2007 at 10:25am EST
  • I'm not sure what it is Harriet Baber wants to change. Most philosophy journals are already available online, including the three we publish at Penn State, which are part of Project Muse. Does she want to get rid of the editors of philosophy journals? Then how will the peer review she wants to retain be organized? Or is she thinking of some kind of self-publishing, with some kind of community peer review after publication?

  • Spoken like a true aristocrat
  • Posted by Prole on December 31, 2007 at 3:10pm EST
  • >> After all, she said, they’re salaried, and “we don’t need incentives external [to] what we do.”

    Maybe Harriet Baber would like to share some of her salary with a prole like me, and maybe some of aristocratic pension too.

  • Clarification
  • Posted by Peter Bradley , Assistant Prof of Philosophy at McDaniel College on January 2, 2008 at 3:00pm EST
  • I was at this session, and have to say that I'm pleased to see it covered on I think the first comment has misunderstood Harriet's position slightly so I’ll try to clarify it - we (academics) already do all of the peer reviewing and most of the editing for our journals, so there is little value added by disseminating our papers in a physical medium. The thing that a publisher brings to the table is marketing power born of prestige. We can change that by making electronic archives more prestigious.
    Her argument draws from many of the same points that Peter Suber (formerly of Earlham, now of Open Access has been making for some time, although her position is slightly more radical. The academic community has its own built in system of reward and review, we need editors, not publishers. She is arguing for creating a philosophical archive analogous to
    There are a few philosophers out there doing this kind of thing already – David Anderson’s Mind Project ( and the Inquiry project ( which, in the interest of full disclosure I'll mention I run) are two examples of what I think Harriet has in mind, although in these cases for pedagogical purposes, not research.

  • Value added?
  • Posted by Sandy Thatcher on January 17, 2008 at 8:00pm EST
  • What Professor Bradley's response overlooks is two kinds of "value added." One is related to print publication's unmatched (so far) archival durability; librarians will freely admit that they do not yet have a solution to long-term archiving of electronic information. The other is related to the kind of hyperlinking and cross-journal searchability that a large aggregation of electronic journals like Project Muse provides. The inclusion of a "journal" in an individual institutional repository will lack this extra dimension, which even Google-type searching cannot readily supply. Project Muse deals only with publishers, not individuals who want to publish journals themselves.

  • AI Education
  • Posted by Tane W on May 29, 2008 at 7:50pm EDT
  • A suggestion that comes to mind to allow an AI educational program to determine what kind of learner a student is would be to incorporate a general psychological assessment test at the start of the course with the AI using the answers to guage the persons character and learning style.

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