Friday, July 11, 2014

Who cares?

When you read philosophy articles, you'll often come across the "motivation" part of the article early on.  This is where the author tries to convince you that what he or she is writing about is worth your time and attention.  It's pretty clear that the truth of the article is not sufficient for it to be of value.  People also have to care about what the author has to say.

Unfortunately, there are lots of areas in philosophy that no one really cares about.  Here's one example.  In one of the intro classes that I teach, I cover six topics: knowledge/skepticism, the existence of God, the possibility of time travel, the relationship between mind and brain, personal identity over time, and free will.  Of these topics, I have the hardest time getting students to care about skepticism.  Do we really have access to the external world, or are we dreaming?  Or in a computer simulation?  Who cares?

If nobody cares about a particular issue or problem, then no one will work to solve it.  But how exactly do we understand this notion of caring?  Why do people care about the things they do, and how do the come to care about things that they didn't care about before?

Part of this is easy to explain.  People care about Maslow's hierarchy stuff like getting food, water, shelter, social interaction, etc.  This is explainable in terms of evolutionary concepts like survival or reproduction.

Other things that we care about might be explained as extensions of things that we care about for Darwinian reasons.  For instance, we often care about money because it serves as the means to stuff that ensures our survival or ability to reproduce.  Lots of things that we care about on a daily basis might fall into this category.

There are, however, things that we might care about that are don't directly serve our interests in surviving and reproducing, nor are they straightforwardly extensions of the aforementioned interests.  I'm thinking of things like art, music, literature, and philosophy.

Why do we care about these things?  There are lots of answers floating around that appeal to cultural, religious, or biological mechanisms.  I'm interested in a pedagogical standpoint.  If a student doesn't get them to care about philosophy, how do you get them to care?  Likewise for politics, art, etc.  Is concern for these things simply a function of how an individual was raised?  This doesn't seem quite right.  There are plenty of adults who come to care about these things when they had no prior interest.  What happened?  How do people come to care about something they didn't care about before?

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