Philosophy Club hosts spring conference

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The Saint Louis University Undergraduate Philosophy Club held their inaugural, three-day spring conference on the weekend of April 12, featuring keynote speeches by Dr. Elizabeth Schechter of Washington University, Dr. Sara Bernstein of Duke University and Dr. John Bengson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Schechter’s presentation focused on the concept of self in split-brain subjects, or those who have had the left and right hemispheres of their brain separated from each other by the severing of the corpus callosum, an act performed by doctors to treat patients suffering from epileptic seizures. The procedure is no longer utilized in the United States.

The central question for Schechter was whether split brain subjects held two distinct conceptions of a self — one in the left hemisphere and one in the right — or if the subject maintained one self and merely lacked communication between both parts of the brain.

Schecter argued that the right and left hemispheres referred to oneself by collectively constructing a unified idea between the two separate collections of knowledge held by either hemisphere.

Bernstein gave a talk centered on what sort of causal significance omissions have in the world. Looking at statements such as “if I did not water my plants, they would have died,” she questioned whether the possible action, as compared to the actual action, of not watering the plants had a significant role in the plants’ deaths. She concluded that omissions are important to the causal relation, but don’t necessarily cause things in themselves.

Bernstein then argued that the context of a given situation determined what level of relevance an omission has, and what extraneous factors had an important role in the outcome in a series of events.

Bengson’s talk concerned the arguments put forth by some proponents of experimental philosophy, or x-phi, which claimed to prove that intuition — or humankind’s innate sense of knowing — is systematically biased or unreliable.

Studies done by experimental philosophers showed a large difference in responses concerning intuitive knowledge depending on a person’s cultural beliefs, the order of the questions presented and the word-usage present in a given scenario. One would expect there to be little difference in natural, or intuitive, knowledge when asking any number of people a question. The philosophers concluded that intuition was, in certain cases, a faulty source of knowledge because the responses were so varied.

Bengson argued that the studies did not give people an opportunity to demonstrate whether or not they had an instinctive answer to certain questions, contending that in many cases people don’t claim to know something intuitively but merely state their best guess. He also maintained that the questions may have prompted “stray answers,” which departed from intuition and instead followed a line of detailed and extended reasoning. For this reason, Bengson claimed, x-phi’s attack on intuition is false.

Other sessions throughout the weekend included presentations by SLU faculty and students, as well as a panel on intergenerational justice, and social lunches and dinners.

In addition to hosting another philosophy conference next spring, the Philosophy Club plans to hold an additional event in the fall semester focusing on the philosophy of science.
“[The event] would be somewhere between a colloquia and a workshop,” Ben Conover, the president of the Philosophy Club, said. “People would have their thesis papers they’re working on, and hopefully the professors would be willing to [review them].”
The colloquium would be open to all SLU students and Conover hopes to have them in early November or late October.