Top News, Articles, and Interviews in Philosophy

IAI Article on Heidegger and Miyazaki

IAI logoOur friends at The Institute of Arts and Ideas have recently published an article by Durham University (UK) philosopher Edward McDougall which examines the films of Hayao Miyazaki through the lens of Heidegger’s critique of modernity. The article focuses on the tension between advancing technology and respecting nature. The author points out that despite both Heidegger’s and Miyazaki’s shared criticism of technology, they both see it’s abolishment as wrong-headed. McDougall writes,

Despite their critical stances towards technology, neither Heidegger nor Miyazaki advocates simply abolishing technology as a way of life. Heidegger admits that nobody can brake or direct the progress of history. Attempting to abolish technology is not possible for Heidegger because it would repeat the mistake that people are complete masters of the earth… . While Miyazaki and Heidegger reject such simplistic responses to technology, they are both concerned with the possibility of an alternative way of life.

See the full article on their website here.

Taming the Beast: Building Self-regulating AI

Artificial Intelligence is all the rage these days–at least among the tech Illuminati. The attitude among the general population on the other hand seems to range from indifference, to fear, to outright antagonism. One of the big concerns many people share is the worry that AI systems will become too powerful and grow beyond the ability of their creators to manage and control. As an example, see this Ted Talk in which philosopher Sam Harris warns his audience of the impending ethical and practical dangers of building too-powerful AI systems.

(Un)Limited Resources

I was doing some reading recently and came across an interesting idea that sparked some thoughts about how AI systems could possibly be built to be self-regulating. The book that contained the passage is Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back (I’m working on an analysis of this book which I hope to publish soon). In discussing the evolution of minds, the author talks about the difference between biological systems and artificial systems like robots and AI systems. He briefly speculates that one reason why people have an intuition that artificial systems may get too powerful and thus turn malevolent is because they are not being made to ‘care’[1] about what they’re doing. This is because they generally are given whatever resources (in terms of computing power and energy) they need to do their work and have not been designed to ‘worry’ or manage how they spend those resources or even be denied resources in any meaningful sense. In other words, we keep feeding the beast with no upper limit on how much and how often. And with quantum computing on the horizon, this situation is going to exacerbate exponentially.

For example, an AI system that has to do a bunch of work generally is given as much electrical energy it needs and if that energy is throttled, systems typically are built to optimize around more resources not less. A translator application works best with lots of computing power and while it can work with less, it can do its work much better with the best-of-breed technology so engineers tend to prefer better specs. These systems aren’t made to ‘care’ about how much power they use so they just use whatever is available. Of course there are very real physical and financial limitations to what these systems can use and are being given but these barriers are being broken down each day with new and more powerful hardware coming online and tech companies are investing billions in developing these systems.

Humans on the other hand tend to self-regulate because we know we have limited resources (we can’t just eat with impunity--if our resources don’t limit us, our bodies do) and we know we’ll have to sleep at some point taking forced breaks from whatever benevolent or malevolent work we’re doing. Psychologically too, our minds need a break. We take vacations, parental leave, and time to manage grief or illness because mentally we need to take a break from our work and give our minds time to focus on other things. And while we can network, at some point we’re limited by our own ‘hardware’ that requires travel, moving our physical selves from location to location to get work done. All of these factors force us to choose how much we’ll consume and what we’ll spend energy on and that, in a very real sense, limits at least our individual power.

Building Self-regulating AI Systems

I think this an interesting insight and may have some implications for how we might build ‘ethical’ AI systems; systems that are self-regulating and thus self-restrained. Building into the engineering of these systems a time to ‘sleep,’ a limit to how much compute power is available to a specific set of computational resources, a limit to how much energy a system can consume in a given period, and a limit to how collaboratively these systems could work as a network could, jointly not only be environmentally responsible but also provide a kind of self-limiting mechanism that would prevent AI systems from becoming too powerful. Of course the system has to be kept ‘ignorant’ that this is a part of their engineering and would have to be prevented from changing it. Imagine the enormous power a human would wield if he or she learned that by taking a simple drug, they could avoid sleep entirely and just eat more of specific nutrients to keep going indefinitely without sleep and without losing energy. History shows us what can happen when an individual (malevolent or benevolent) discovers that they can extend their power by building a network of other humans that help them accomplish their agenda essentially enabling them to wield that power limitlessly.

At the very least, this could be an interesting thought experiment or research project. The biggest challenge to this approach isn’t an engineering one. The problem is that AI technology is in a very real arms race by the big tech firms where each is trying to outdo the other and build faster and more powerful systems. To engineer these systems to be self-regulating, companies would have to agree to (or be forced to adhere to) something akin to a nuclear disarmament or climate change accord and build in self-regulation across the industry. Any business or government entity that didn’t adhere to these standards, would have a distinct advantage over others and ruin the scheme.

Here’s the passage that gave rise to these ideas:

Turing, Shannon, and von Neumann, tackling a spectacularly difficult and novel engineering project, intelligently designed computers to keep needs and job performance almost entirely independent. Down in the hardware, the electric power is doled out evenhandedly and abundantly; no circuit risks starving. At the software level, a benevolent scheduler doles out machine cycles to whatever process has highest priority, and although there may be a bidding mechanism of one sort or another that determines which processes get priority, this is an orderly queue, not a struggle for life. (It is a dim appreciation of this fact that perhaps underlies the common folk intuition that a computer could never “care” about anything. Not because it is made out of the wrong materials--why should silicon be any less suitable a substrate for caring than organic molecules?--but because its internal economy has no built-in risks or opportunities, so its parts don’t have to care.) Dennett, Daniel C. From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (Kindle Locations 2702–2709). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

  1. I’m putting all the anthropomorphic terms in scare quotes to avoid the implication that current AI systems have the emotional and psychological capacities of humans. While Dennett argues that computational cognition and human cognition may be on a spectrum rather than having clear “essentialist” lines between them, I’m not committing to that idea either way at this point.

Don’t take that class. It’s useless.

classroom_smRecently, my brother sent me a link to this Twitter conversation started by Andrew Ruiz in which the author made the following claims: "Knowledge is a Tool [sic]. People are interested in a tool only if it solves their problem. Few people buy screwdrivers for their aesthetic beauty. They buy them for function. Likewise, most MOOCs like Coursera fail because most of their courses don't solve problems people have." The claims interested me because they touch on a broad subject that I've been thinking about lately (N.B. I'm more interested in the general claim about the effectiveness of online learning in general than about the specific claim about the company he calls out which, I think, probably is false).

There are several questions to pursue in Ruiz's claims but two that stand out are whether education in the abstract solves problems people have and whether MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in particular are poor at solving those problems. These questions deal both with epistemology and with educational philosophy and the modes by which people are educated. People who responded to Ruiz took the opportunity to criticize college education in general (Ruiz, responding to his tweet, further claims that MOOCs fail because they're copies of college courses and most college courses "are shitty" and unnecessary).

I've taught college courses in philosophy for over 15 years both in the classroom and online and have been teaching MOOC courses through Microsoft for over three years, so I have a personal interest in the questions Ruiz's tweet raises (disclaimer: all opinions expressed in this article are mine and don't necessarily represent those of Microsoft). While grabbing an after-work drink, a few colleagues and I got to talking about this very issue. Playing the provocateur, I made the following claims to get the discussion on to philosophy: education mainly is the process by which those who know things deliver that knowledge to those who don't know those things. That's the essence of education. It can be delivered in myriad ways but, at root, it always comes down to that basic practice. Even those who are "self-taught" and explore a topic through books or the internet still are learning from others who ostensibly have written down or recorded the things they know and are communicating that knowledge to those who want to learn from them.

Types of Knowing

My claims, though general and course-grained, were based in my view of epistemology (the study of knowledge). In my introductory philosophy class that I've taught for many years, I teach my students that there are three different types of knowledge. Two of them are relevant here. The first is what epistemologists call "know how." It is the knowledge of how to do some task. For example, many people know how to play the piano (I don't). They can walk up to a piano and start playing a wide variety of music "without thinking about it." That is, the knowledge has become innate such that their mind orchestrates their hands and feet in such a way that everything is coordinated without the person being aware of how it all works. They may not even think about the music itself (I suspect that some musicians who play the same songs for fans night after night get to a point where they don't really think about the music they're playing but are thinking about other things like the size of the crowd, how much money they're making that night, where they might be going after the show, family problems etc.). People have know how on a vast number of subject areas. If you're able to read this article, it's likely that you have know how of the English language. (Incidentally, this is the focus of the popular book by Malcolm Gladwell titled, Outliers in which he argues that it takes the average person about 10,000 hours to become proficient at something—to gain an expert-level know how.)

Another type of knowledge, the type philosophers spend much of their time studying, is what is called "propositional knowledge." This is knowledge that something is true. It's the knowledge that a particular claim represents the state of the world at a particular moment. These typically are represented in declarative sentences like, "The sun will rise tomorrow," or "the holocaust was a crime against humanity," or "MOOCs fail because they don't solve problems people have." If we were to analyze each of these statements using the tools of analytic logic, we'd say each of these is true or false. Knowing which "truth value" each of these has can be a difficult thing and that's the task of epistemological contemplation and evidential exploration (epistemologists work to figure out the criteria for what it means to know something is true and what's involved in meeting those criteria).

The Move from Propositional Knowledge to Know How

The early Greeks philosophers viewed the practical application of knowledge (wisdom) as the goal. In fact, philosophy comes from the Greek for the love of wisdom (philen – to love, sophia – wisdom). One significant challenge creators of digital learning face is how to help students make the shift from knowing that some set of facts are true to knowing how to apply the content of their subject area to real-world problems. In other words, helping students become proficient in the application of propositional knowledge so it becomes know how. Of course, this is the challenge education faces in general but the challenge is exacerbated in digital learning mainly due to the attenuated teacher and peer interaction.

While teaching "facts" is an important part of education, if a student can't understand the reasons for what he or she is learning and can't see a way to apply propositional knowledge to real-world problems, education can fall flat and, many times, go unused. I recall when I was in high school and had to learn geometry. My twin brother struggled with the subject mainly because he wasn't clearly taught the point of it—it was too abstract and seemed impractical. When he asked his teacher why he had to learn all those rules and theorems, the teacher's reply was only that, while he didn't see the value then and there, "it would pay off later." The teacher was unable to provide examples where and when it would pay off but assured my brother that it would. The answer, as you would imagine, failed to generate any interest in the subject.

It is, perhaps, this situation that Andrew Ruiz is concerned with. Propositional knowledge doesn't seem to "solve problems" and because of this isn't worth pursuing. He seems to make the assumption that MOOCs—and the college courses they're based on—deal mainly in propositional knowledge and so can seem impractical. What do we make of this? Is the criticism valid?

As with most criticisms of this type, the answers to these questions depends on several things. For example, a teacher's skill and passion (or lack thereof) can make a big difference in how students learn and whether they understand the practicality of what they're learning. I once had an excellent English teacher who was tasked with teaching propositional knowledge about the English language. She did just that. But she did it by assigning a series of short stories considered by many to be essential reading and then using the prose in those stories to demonstrate how English should be written and spoken. Not only did we learn English propositionally, but we learned about life, love, manipulation, greed, charity, thankfulness, and even, in a way, how to self-reflect but also how a well-written English phrase can deeply impact how to think about the world. Some of those stories have stuck with me to this day, decades later. I learned English but I learned why the language matters and how it can be used effectively.

Subject matter also seems to be an important factor when considering the level of propositional knowledge that is needed before a learner can reach know how. Learning a programming language or how to construct a modus ponens argument or how to wire a house has to be taught propositionally to lay the foundation for doing the work of a programmer, logician, or electrician. But it can't stop there if one wants to actually become proficient. Gaining propositional knowledge is an essential foundation but eventually one must transition (at least in cases like these) to know how—the ability to use the propositional knowledge one has gained. That process involves many things the least of which is practice and practice requires a working knowledge of the propositions that the practitioner will use in their craft.

Finally, the disposition and personality of the student is an important factor in all learning. While it might be easy to make judgements and label students "self-starters" or "slackers" I think those labels are generally unhelpful. In my experience, students are as diverse in their learning styles as they are in every other area of life. What works for one student may not be as effective with the next. In a classroom, teachers can attempt to adjust for these differences. If they can't accommodate every learning style, they can attempt to address broad categories of learning styles and provide the means to address each of these categories uniquely. In the digital environment of MOOCs, instructors tend to have less involvement with students, many more students to work with, and an inability to tell when and how students may be blocked from learning. This dynamic may be another reason Mr. Ruiz does not like MOOCs and finds them impractical.

On Method

These were ideas that the philosopher Socrates saw clearly. His method focused on dialogue which enabled him to determine how and what a student thought about a subject as well as put the burden of learning back on the shoulders of the learner. While Socrates certainly guided the discussion, he attempted to lead the students on a journey by helping them discover truth rather than learn it "didactically." The student learned propositional truths but learned also how to discover and apply those truths.

I think often about which models of education are most effective and regularly come back to apprenticeship models where students learn alongside skilled practitioners and gain not only propositional knowledge but learn how the master teacher applies what he or she knows. In many ways, Socrates was attempting to be a master teacher training his students in the art of sound reasoning. Apprenticeship programs are used throughout the world and, while they often are used to train tradespeople, the model can be highly effective for just about any practical work (or hobby). Most apprenticeship systems co-mingle propositional knowledge with hands-on or "on-the-job" education with the goal of enabling students to develop know how over time.

Digital education can be seen as the antithesis of apprenticeship in that it tries to teach large numbers of students using a self-paced, self-directed model. This model can and does work for a small subset of learners but ends up not working for a large portion of learners who may need the individual instruction from a seasoned practitioner--or some close analogue. Master practitioners become excellent at a craft by gaining skills that are hard to transfer propositionally. They learn by making a lot of mistakes and they develop shortcuts and workarounds that come only with doing. Over the years, I've tackled a lot of home improvement projects and, through lots of trial and error, learned a few things. I'll watch videos on how to do something and read articles on things to watch for. But nothing is a substitute for getting my hands dirty. I know now that I typically have to do something a few times to learn how to do it correctly and now budget for mistakes when purchase extra or duplicate materials and set aside time for doing things two or three times until it's right. Occasionally I have the good fortune to work with a master craftsman on a project and it saves me not only time and money, but a lot of frustration. All of this can be missing from a digital environment and lead to a frustrated learning environment and unmet learning outcomes. This can lead to a charge of impractically and frustration with online learning. So, what, if anything, can be done?

In my view, online learning is in its infancy and there is a lot of growth opportunities and improvements that will have to happen in order to bridge the gaps as it were. Some of these improvements will be technological in nature—better digital learning environments that enable more student-instructor interaction, better and more advanced use of AI, better peer-to-peer learning. But all the solutions need not be technical; some immediate changes can help. One example: we as educators can focus on developing better assessments. Many online assessments still take the form of objective testing. Students answer multiple choice, short answer, or true/false questions and their "proficiency" is evaluated on how well they do on these types tests. By now, you should have already determined this approach largely is an evaluation of propositional knowledge. While not necessarily a negative thing, this type of assessment doesn't really tell the instructor (or a potential employer—or the student himself or herself) whether the student actually has acquired the practical skills he or she is supposed to have learned.

One way to address this latter challenge is to favor practical assessments that involve actually demonstrating skills in a real-world environment over objective tests alone. There are many challenges with delivering this type of assessment to large numbers of students in a meaningful way. But the approach can significantly increase not only the ability of educators to evaluate students, but also the enjoyment and level of engagement of the students themselves. Being asked to complete interact with an argument and write a response is better at generating know how than answering questions about that same argument. Dialoguing with someone (or, perhaps, an AI analogue) is better yet.

So while I can agree with Mr. Ruiz's frustration and tacitly agree with portions of his assessment, I prefer to look at the situation we're in as a challenge than an obituary. More importantly, knowledge is a diversified concept and while practical knowledge—know how--is important, sometimes learning a set of facts for their own sake is exactly the problem a student needs to solve.

For Further Reading

What is Knowledge? Philosophy News article on the nature, scope, and possibility of knowledge.

Who is Socrates? Dr. Paul Herrick describes Socrates both as a thinker and as a model. One of the three major early Greek thinkers, Socrates not only lived what he believed, he died for the principle that by thinking critically we can create a life worth living.

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Movie Notes: Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Directed by Martin McDonagh. With Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell

Humans are creatures that create value. One person may find throwing trash on the ground in a public place intolerable but have little problem treating an employee or co-worker as a means to their own advancement. Another may find fatherhood or motherhood their highest calling investing most of their life energy to the task but give little thought to being cruel to a server at a restaurant or a pet dog. Sometimes our values in one area of our lives seem entirely incongruous with the values we hold in another area and the incongruity can strike others as downright bizarre. This value incongruity is a theme in other writer/director Martin McDonagh’s films but is a central focus in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.

The movie is about a distraught mother who works to “focus the mind” of what to her is a complacent police chief (played with vigor by Woody Harrelson) who has failed her. Mildred Hayes’s (Frances McDormand) daughter has been raped and killed and after a year, no suspects have been arrested. In an act of desperation and anger, she pays to have two questions and a statement posted to three billboards near her home each implicating the Ebbing police department and it’s chief of police in particular for inaction and perhaps incompetence. The billboards polarize the town and turn over rocks, as it were, causing all sorts of nefarious and violent things to crawl to the surface. McDonagh deals with themes of abuse, intolerance, bias, authority, revenge, and despair and while these certainly are present throughout the film, I never felt the film was really about these themes. Rather, these form the backdrop for a more dominant theme: the cognitive biases and dissonance we exhibit as humans that give our lives an incongruity about what we value and how we express those values.

Mildred clearly is a mother experiencing despair and tremendous anger about her loss. And rightly so. A victim of an abusive husband who she divorced, Mildred works as a clerk in a trinket store trying to raise two kids on a meager wage. These circumstances certainly would be grounds for bitterness and anger though don’t really explain the degree to which Mildred seems to possess them. Then in a single flashback we see Mildred’s harshness and anger present in a conversation she has with her son and daughter ostensibly on the day her daughter is killed. “I hope I get raped on the way!” her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) screams after Mildred refuses to let her take the only family vehicle forcing her to walk to an undisclosed location. “I hope you get raped on the way too!” Mildred screams back as Angela walks out the door. This is not something we imagine even an angry mother would say on her worst day. She’s vindictive, angry, and immature and yet at the same time, tough, determined and passionate. This is a woman we both deeply admire and pity. We want her to win yet we agonize over her loneliness and rage.

(Incidentally, I asked an Irish friend of mine to give me feedback on this review before it went to press. His comment after on the above paragraph is insightful. He said, “Ireland is full of hard/harsh loving mothers. The mother is also the center of Irish society and we would all believe in the unlimited tenacity of these crazy, ragged characters.” This illustrated to me a deeper dichotomy in a character like Mildred than a simple caricature can and should portray and it’s a helpful call out. The line between hard and tough or between obsessive and passionate can truly be thin and partly in the eye of the beholder.)

McDonagh then presents a woman who values finding her daughter’s killer at any cost. There is a shadow cast over her determination and mental and physical toughness: she thinks very little of being cruel to almost everyone, causing emotional and psychological harm to her son, endangering lives, damaging property, and becoming truly isolated even from those who wish to help and love her all for this single goal. Few have experienced loss of the type Mildred has experienced and while we might imagine the rage we would feel, it’s not possible to know it truly. Mildred’s dissonance is extreme and perhaps for good reason. But we all possess this type of incongruity. The result is the good that may come from upholding the single value becomes offset by the abuse of all other values.

This is illustrated through the lives of principle characters in the film. Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) gives very little thought to physically assaulting a citizen or verbally assaulting people of a different color (or size) in his duty to protect and serve the population of Ebbing. In a state of despair over the loss of a somewhat noble colleague, he says to himself “I know that the best thing, the only thing, to honor that man’s memory right now, is to go to work; is to be a good cop. To walk in his shoes and do what he did every day of his life. Help people.” He says this just before he walks out of the police department, proceeds across the street to beat up a completely innocent citizen and throw him out of a two-story window in a rage. In the scene that follows, he is shown bragging to other officers of his act as if he believes the act itself was an example of “being a good cop;” of “helping people.” He has an extreme form of cognitive dissonance where the singular value of destroying those who he deems unworthy of his colleague’s memory comes at the cost of actually protecting and serving those he vowed to protect and serve. The incongruity is at the same time humorous, shocking, and bizarre and we’re made to feel it.

McDonagh, though born in England, is a child of blue-collar, Irish parents who left Ireland to look for work and gave birth to Martin shortly after the start of the recent 30-year clash that pitted the Nationalists against the Unionists. While McDonagh himself most likely would not have experienced the conflict in Ireland directly, he no doubt would have felt the effects of The Troubles through his parents and frequent visits to his home country. A dual citizen of Ireland and England, it seems his heart belongs to Ireland. Many of his plays are set in Ireland and it appears he even took an artistic stand related to the effects of the conflict (read more about this in his biography here). I raise this only because I suspect that McDonagh’s focus in this movie may partially be influenced (consciously or unconsciously) by hostilities that occurred in his home country during his formative years. The ideas that fuel conflicts like these are supposedly focused on making life better for the people involved but, in the process, tear those same lives apart. The focus on achieving an end regardless of the cost runs the risk of destroying the people who would benefit from the outcome. This is incongruous—as incongruous as the behavior of the principle characters in Three Billboards. (Of course, McDonagh wouldn’t have to return to his Irish roots to easily find such incongruity. The countries in which he now lives and works exhibit similar pathologies.)

A scene in the movie might lend credence to my suspicions. Mildred returns home one day to find a Catholic priest sitting at her kitchen table talking to her son. The priest tries to tell Mildred that while the town is with her in her desire to find her daughter’s killer, they are against her posting the billboards. Mildred’s response is indicative of this meta-narrative I’m claiming exists in the movie and I post her response to the priest at length here to illustrate the point:

You know what I was thinking about today? I was thinking about those street gangs they had down in Los Angeles, those Crips and those Bloods. And I was thinking about that bunch of new laws they came up with in the 1980's, I think it was, to combat those street gangs, those Crips and those Bloods. And, if I remember rightly, the gist of what those new laws were saying was, if you join one of these gangs, and you're running with them, and down the block one night, unbeknownst to you, one of your fellow Crips, or your fellow Bloods, shoot up a place, or stab a guy, well then, even though you didn't know nothing about it, and even though you may've just been standing on a street corner minding your own business, what these new laws said was you're still culpable. You're still culpable, by the very act of having joined those Crips or those Bloods in the first place. Which got me thinking, Father, that whole type of situation is kind of like you church boys, ain't it? You got your colors, you got your clubhouse. You're, for want of a better word, a gang. And if you're upstairs smoking a pipe and reading a bible while one of your fellow gang members is downstairs fucking an altar boy, well, Father, just like those Crips and just like those Bloods, you're culpable. Because you joined the gang, man. I don't care if you never did shit, you never saw shit, you never heard shit, you joined the gang, you're culpable. And when a person is culpable to altar-boy-fucking, or any kinda boy-fucking, because I know you guys didn't really narrow that down, then they kinda forfeit the right to come into my house and say anything about me, or my life, or my daughter, or my billboards. So, why don't you just finish your tea there, Father, and get the fuck outta my kitchen.

While McDonagh, whose parents sent his him and his brother to Roman Catholic schools as children, is attempting to level an obvious polemic against abuses in the Catholic church, there is a clear subtext here, one having to do with gangs and sides, and the inconsistency and bizarre ethics of claiming to care about “the depth of people’s feelings” while at the same time failing to deal with atrocities happening under the noses of the church leadership (and it shouldn’t be lost on the viewer that the setting in which this dialogue takes place is a dark room where the priest is sitting alone with her teenage son). In this film, no one escapes the dichotomy. This film is about all of us in one way or another and how ideology can blind us to the inconsistencies and sometimes abuses we engage in to support those ideologies.

Because the film attempts to plumb the depths of this dysfunction, it’s dark. Still, it never feels gloomy. The main action happens in the bright, mid-west [California] sunlight and McDonagh keeps the energy of the actors high and engaged so the film doesn’t feel depressing despite the intense and disturbing subject matter. The film is well made and worth watching for the quality of the acting alone. It’s violent (thankfully McDonagh spares us from having to watch the rape) but there are some genuinely funny moments such as the description of two people who supposedly complained about the billboards. Delivered perfectly by Sam Rockwell, officer Dixon describes them as: “a lady with a funny eye” and “a fat dentist.” And the conversation between a random (imaginary?) deer who grazes under the billboards and Mildred brought a smile to my face. Mildred tells the deer that the only food she has for it is “some Doritos” but it might kill the deer because the Doritos are “kinda pointy.” It’s oddball humor to be sure but what we should expect from the writer of Seven Psychopaths.

The movie isn’t perfect. Some things happen too quickly. Dixon is beyond doubt a cruel and bigoted man. These are not surface qualities but deep-seated, ingrained character flaws. Towards the end of the film he appears to become virtuous in an instant based on a single word from the chief. Granted, Dixon is portrayed as simple but even (especially?) in the simple, character flaws take time to undo and Dixon’s transformation doesn’t fit the general narrative the film is trying to get us to believe. Typical of modern films, there are no true heroes. But Three Billboards goes further. Ebbing Missouri is depicted as a town full of complacency and inaction. Severe violence happens in the open street at mid-day and no one steps in to help or even seems to care. This is a bit much even for those steeped in cynicism about red states.

Despite these minor flaws, the film is well made. It grinds some axes but not to the point of excess. This is a film that takes no sides and so ends up being a mirror into which we all can look and find ourselves even among the excess (I’m reminded here of Flannery O’Connor’s phrase, “To the deaf you shout, and to the almost blind you draw large, startling figures.”). It has the texture of Cohen brother’s film--particularly No Country for Old Men and while it may not have quite the technical excellence in terms of pacing and direction, it’s close enough to warrant the accolades its received.

A couple of people have asked me about the ending. I’m not quite sure what to say. It seems to run tangential to the rest of the film. We seem to be looking at a “Bonnie and Clyde” moment but then Mildred raises an ethical question that casts doubt that this is what we’re actually witnessing. Perhaps this is McDonagh’s final play at incongruity. Or maybe it’s a lot simpler than that. Maybe it’s just a sign of hope that things can be better if we just stop, think, and talk. Yes, let’s go with that. 

Read more reviews.

Announcement: A New Podcast You’ll Want to Check Out

AheadofOurTime_Logo-IUBen Olsen (@bendotolsen), educator and expert in data science and its relation to philosophy (Ben has an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Seattle Pacific University, and works for the Microsoft Corporation in 21st Century Jobs, Skills, and Employability) has just launched a podcast called Ahead of Our Time, where he interviews the leaders and rebels of today who are mastering the skills of tomorrow.

On the surface, the worlds of data crunching and creating algorithms that run the largest companies and services couldn’t seem any more disconnected from pure philosophical contemplation. But dig deeper and many, including CEOs and hiring managers, are finding important links between philosophy data science (one of the hottest jobs of the 21st century). In his new podcast, Ben is interested in highlighting those links. 

For example, he recently interviewed Kristen DiCerbo, one of the world’s leading experts on the future of games in the classroom, as well as a contributor to the largest education company in the world’s study that predicts what skills people will need in 2030 and beyond. Their talk focuses on a future skill of finding the “essence of things out of the big picture” which Ben calls out as a very “philosophical” exercise. “[Philosophy does] the same thing: taking the ‘data points’ of “justice”—anecdotally, intuitionally, and politically, scientifically, and making inferences about that—is the same skill for me as it is to crunch data and make inferences from it.” he notes in the interview.

CEOs in industry back this up: "You take a look at the vast variety of people that move into the profession of being a data scientist — they do come from traditional computer science. There's a big population that's coming out of math, especially statistical analysis, and there's also a big group coming from philosophy," Mike Gregoire, CEO of CA Technologies said on CNBC. "Philosophers understand how to think very logically." Philosophy News’s Paul Pardi agrees, having created a free online course with Microsoft in Logic and Computational Thinking, making the link between technology work and philosophical tools and techniques explicit.

Topics covered in Ahead of Our Time are broader than data and education and Ben seeks to show how philosophy education can help one move into many different fields and contribute. Guests include game-changers in social transformation, conflict resolution, artificial intelligence, comedy, and more. Ben tries to get to the heart of meaning and purpose, common philosophical themes that students and professors care about. His guests are answering critical questions about our future: what skills do we need to survive and thrive in the coming decades? How do some people rise above the rest to achieve great things? And, most importantly, how can we live meaningful lives in a rapidly changing world?

Listen and subscribe on iTunes and SoundCloud.

Free Online Course: Logic and Computational Thinking

dev262x-378225I just released the third installment of my free course “Logic and Computational Thinking” on published by Microsoft (outline below). This is a fundamentals course focusing on the basics of formal logic and associating that learning with computer science. I focused this course on helping the student develop basic skills in formal logic with the goal of helping him or her become stronger in thinking about how to apply logic to programming and other technical development tasks (such as testing and even circuit board design). The course includes case studies, plenty of assessment questions, and a large body of fellow students to bounce ideas off of.

As a part of the course curriculum, I was able to license content from a recent book by Dr. Paul Herrick called Think with Socrates: An Introduction to Critical Thinking published by Oxford University Press—probably the most preeminent publisher of philosophy right now. The value of using Dr. Herrick’s book is that it provides a practical perspective on using logic in real-world scenarios and with Dr. Herrick’s more than 30 years of teaching logic, the book provides a solid foundation to the rest of the material I developed for the course. Dr. Herrick was kind enough to record a few videos with me so you can learn from the author of that text directly.

In the two quarters that I’ve taught the course, it is has been well received by the almost 12000 students that have enrolled and I’ve had enormous joy putting the material together. If you’ve never had a formal course in logic, this free offering is a great opportunity to learn about this very important topic so check it out!

You can learn more about the course and enroll here:


Here’s the outline:

1)      Module 0: Introduction to the course

a)       What this course is about

i)        Analytic logic and its relation to computer science

ii)       ii. Critical thinking as both a lifestyle and aide to better programming and testing

iii)    iii. Note: This is not a programming course

b)      Let's get started: critical thinking and logical reasoning

i)        What does it mean to think critically?

ii)       An overview of definition, induction, and deduction

iii)     Computer programming and logical thinking

2)      Module 1: Logic and Computer Science

a)       Formal Logic and Computer Science

i)        Introduction and prolegomena

ii)       What is a Turing Machine?

iii)    Bits and Bytes

iv)     Algorithms

v)       Logic and Computer Science

b)      Introduction to Formal Logic

i)        Introduction to Logic

ii)       Arguments

iii)     Statements

iv)     Propositions

v)       Truth Value

vi)     Review Questions

c)       Symbolizing and Logical Operators

i)        Symbolization

ii)       Introduction to Operators

iii)     Negation Operator

iv)     Conjunction Operator

v)       Disjunction Operator

vi)     Conditional Operator

vii)  Sidebar: Operator of the largest scope

viii)  Truth Tables

ix)     Review Questions

3)      Module 2: Deductive and Inductive Arguments

a)       Types of arguments

i)        Arguments again

ii)       Review Questions

b)      Deductive Arguments

i)        Valid and invalid arguments

ii)       Soundness

iii)     Sound deductive arguments

iv)     First two deductive syllogisms

v)       Sidebar: formal fallacies

vi)    Two more deductive argument forms

vii)  Deductive arguments and computer programs

viii)  Review questions

c)       Inductive Arguments

i)        Introduction to inductive arguments

ii)       Strong and weak arguments

iii)     Cogency

iv)     Determining strength

v)       Review questions

4)      Module 3: Categorical Logic

a)       Introduction to Categorical Logic

i)        What is categorical logic?

ii)       Aristotle's theory of forms

iii)     Some, all, and none

iv)     Quantity and quality

v)       Review questions

b)      Categorical form and syllogisms

i)        Standard categorical form

ii)       The categorical syllogism

iii)     Forms of categorical syllogisms

iv)     Review questions

c)       Venn Diagrams

i)        Categorical statements and validity

ii)       Venn diagrams: I and O statements

iii)    Venn diagrams: A and E statements

iv)     Using Venn diagrams with categorical syllogisms

v)       Venn diagrams: testing categorical syllogism for validity

vi)     Review questions

5)      Module 4: Introduction to Critical Thinking

a)       What is Critical Thinking?

i)        Introduction to critical thinking

ii)       Socrates and critical thinking

iii)     Socrates's definition of truth

iv)    The Socratic Method

v)       Two Socratic questions

vi)     Applying the Socratic Method to computer science

b)      Inductive Reasoning Applied

i)        Forms of inductive reasoning

ii)       The logic of science

iii)     Confirmation and disconfirmation

iv)     Mill's Method

v)       Mill's method: agreement

vi)     Mill's method: difference

vii)  Mill's method: variation

c)       A Case Study

6)      Module 5: The Final Exam

IAI Discussion the Nature of the Self

LOGO_iai-black_40x373222 Our friends at the Institute of Art and Ideas have posted another essential discussion on philosophy of mind. In this conversation, top philosophers talk about age-old, but still very poignant topics relating to the self and personal identity. This topic is especially relevant given modern advances in neuroscience and reductionist models in psychology and philosophy. Is the self merely a construct produced by the brain that helps humans survive or is the self a substance that is different from, and independent of the body?  From their website: There is no self, no 'I', only a flickering illusion. So claim many neuroscientists and philosophers. Yet for the rest of us, the denial of the self feels like a bitter pill to swallow. Is the self a fantasy? Or is it essential to our being and consciousness?

The Panel: Cambridge and NCH philosopher Simon Blackburn, neuroscientist Colin Blakemore, philosopher and author of Are You an Illusion? Mary Midgley seek out the all seeing I. In association with New College Humanities.

Check out the video below and visit their website to join the conversation!

The Graduates and the Pizza

The graduate with a science degree asks, “Why does it work?”

The graduate with an engineering degree asks, “How does it work?”

The graduate with an accounting degree asks, “How much will it cost?”

The graduate with a philosophy degree asks, “Do you want fries with that?”

Q: What’s the difference between a philosopher and a pizza?

A: A pizza can feed a family of four!

When a Fundamentalist Finds Philosophy

I was rummaging through some stacks of stuff in the garage today sorting through items that needed to be recycled, discarded, and saved. I found an old, dust-covered briefcase that I used as a student, locked tight with long-forgotten combinations on the clasps. After trying various three-digit combinations that might have meant something to me back then, I gave up and grabbed the biggest screwdriver I could find and pried the locks loose. Among some dried up pens, an old notebook, and some tissues, I found a purple Pee-Chee with two dozen or so papers—obviously important since they were set aside from the reams of notes I have in an old metal filing cabinet at the rear of the garage. In back of the handwritten notes on epistemology and the dot matrix printout of reference materials I grabbed from the library, I found a single page on which I had written some lines in red ink. It’s dated June 1995 which makes it just a touch over 20 years old almost to the day.

In June 1995 I was scouting graduate schools with the goal of studying philosophy. I had grown up a Christian fundamentalist who generally had the world figured out by the time I was a teen and had my eyes firmly set on full time ministry. I took a required intro to philosophy class during my senior year at an ultra-conservative Baptist college by a professor who was not so conservative (and not so Baptist it turns out). I would never be the same. For the first time in my college experience, I had found myself with questions. Real questions, not the kind you’re taught to ask knowing you already have the answer. And there was something else. For the first time in my life, a small seed of doubt had been planted. I found myself with the terrifying consideration that some items in my worldview may not have been as iron-clad and irresistibly true as I had been led to believe they were. That seed flowered and by the end of the summer I had, for the first time, started reading to try to discover the truth rather than to reaffirm it.

Three years later, my worldview was in shambles and I knew I needed more training. Graduate school seemed like the best option and I headed to southern California to check out the program at Biola University. I stayed at a friends house not knowing who I was or where I was headed. I was alone and contemplative, one foot in the warm, comfortable old world and one out in the frigid unknown. Thoughts flooded into my head in that quiet room on that hot summer June evening and I jotted down these words.

At the top of the page, I simply wrote,


Look inside, outside, through pages of endless thought
endless mind in weary, dreary droll.

A slight glimpse a shadow vague—a stick, a nail
a jury-rigged edifice growing on the knoll.

Take, steal, beg, borrow desperately humbled
to light (or dark) not quite my own.

But shoulders are strong and tall enough
to bring heaven closer, nearer (not alone).

Secluded so it seems. A bubble impenetrable or only slightly visible.
A flame to few.

Half moon—silly half as many see it. Intelligence and genius reign
for those outside the pew.

Taste it. Good? You know it now. Ghosts haunt my mansion.
You live in an exorcised house.

Empty though it is, free, loose, explode! What’s beyond? Look!
The heres and nows.

Hand in hand we stand? Confusion with glasses on. Look closer.
More, heavier pages.

It squiggles and squirms. Can you catch it?
Not for all the stacks filled with sages.

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