Friday, February 16, 2007




According to the Morehouse Catalogue, the objectives of philosophy courses are "(1) to develop skills of critical and analytical thinking, (2) to develop the skills for constructing and evaluating argumentative essays, (3) to develop a knowledge of major themes, problems and issues in the history of philosophical thought, (4) to develop a familiarity with the theoretical problems of contemporary ethics, theory of knowledge, and metaphysics." (Philosophy of religion is, in many ways, applied ethics, theory of knowledge, and metaphysics.)

Your assignment is to show that you are developing and improving your skills at doing the above. Here’s the set-up:L

A friend has learned that you are in a philosophy of religion course and that you have recently discussed the three major arguments for God’s existence. Your friend wants you to come to his or her group and make a presentation on these arguments. Your friend wants you to

  • clearly state the arguments in valid (or cogent) premise-conclusion format;
  • explain how the conclusions follow logically (either deductively or non-deductively) from the premises;
  • explain the best reasons that can be given in favor of the premises;
  • most importantly, explain the best objections that can be given to the arguments, i.e., either (a) the best reasons to think that some premises are not true or (b) the best reasons to think that some of the premises have not been adequately defended; these objections need to be directed at specific, identified premises and
  • on the basis of all this, explain whether we should think that these arguments are sound or strong or not and why: he wants you to defend your views with reasons.

Your job is to write up the presentation that does all this. It should have these parts.

I. A brief introduction that explains what you will do in this paper and what your overall thesis will be.

II. An explanation of what the concept of God is, according to classical theism.

III. A section on cosmological arguments: pick two versions of the argument by two different philosophers. Present, explain and critique these arguments.

IV. A section on design / teleological arguments: pick two versions of the argument by two different philosophers. Present, explain and critique these arguments.

V. A section on ontological arguments: pick two versions of the argument by two different philosophers. Present, explain and critique these arguments.

VI. BONUS: A section on moral arguments: pick two versions of the argument by two different philosophers. Present, explain and critique these arguments.

VII. Based on all the above, a conclusion.

Some guidance on how to write philosophy papers are here: Please read:

1. An online article by Jim Pryor called "Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper":

2. Some chapters on writing from A Rulebook for Arguments:

VII. Composing an Argumentative Essay
A. Exploring the Issue
VIII. Composing an Argumentative Essay
B. Main Points of the Essay
IX. Composing an Argumentative Essay
C. Writing
I. Composing a Short Argument: Some General Rules
3. Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, the section III. ELEMENTARY PRINCIPLES OF COMPOSITION:

4. Some tips from me:
  • The most common comments I write on papers are these: (1) What do you mean? and (2) Why think that? The first is in response to unclear claims: write clearly. The second is in response to claims that need defense: give reasons.
  • Write in short sentences: if any longer sentence can be broken into two or more sentences, do it because it's easier to read then.
  • Each paragraph should deal with one, and only one, topic. You should be able to say, "This paragraph is about this: _____."
  • Omit all needless words and needless discussion. Your reader's time is valuable so don't waste it.
  • Make sure everything is clear. Use simple words: no need for anything nebulous.
  • Your papers should have a short introduction, culminating in a thesis, a main point, the point that your paper is supposed to defend. The most direct way of presenting this sort of thesis is this: "I will argue that _(short sentence here: 'all abortions are wrong', 'Dr. Doopy's argument against euthenasia is unsound,' etc.___."
  • Your introductory paragraph, or a paragraph immediately after it, should give the reader an overview of what you will be doing in the paper. It should briefly explain the overall structure (e.g., "First I will ___ and then I will ____. Finally I will ______.")
  • Omit anything totally obvious and uninformative (e.g., "This issue has been debated for hundreds of years."). Everyone already knows this, so don't waste time telling us what we already know.
  • Don't write, "Well, _____." No "well's".
  • Don't say, "'Mr. Bubbles feels that this is wrong." Say, he believes, or thinks, or (if he does) argues. His views are probably not his "feelings" or his emotional reactions.
  • Also, no ' . . . ' unless you are shortening a quote. No "trailing off" in hopes that the reader will think what you are hoping they will think.
  • Don't ask rhetorical questions. Make statements, don't ask questions. Your reader might answer your questions for you in ways you'd like. But if you do ask questions, make sure there is a question mark.
  • It's OK to use "I". People use "I" to communicate clearly, so use it.
  • "Arguments" are not people's conclusions. They are the conclusions and the reasons they give in favor of those conclusions.
  • If I ask you to raise objections to a theory, argument, claim, or whatever, it's fine to raise objections that are discussed in our readings. What's not good, however, is to raise an objection that is discussed in the readings but the author responds to the objection and shows that it's not a good objection. If you raise this same objection, but do not discuss the author's response (and respond to that response), this suggests that you didn't do the reading very closely.
  • If an author states a conclusion (or a main point) and gives reasons for it, then that author has given an argument. If an author has given an argument, do not say that the author has not given an argument: you might not have found the argument (yet), but the argument is still there! Keep looking!
  • Keep focused and don't argue for more than you can give reasons for.
  • You have succeeded in writing a paper if you can give that paper to a smart and critical someone who is not familiar with your topic and this person will understand the views and arguments you are discussing, as well as whatever criticisms you raise. You can do an empirical test to determine whether you are writing well, and it's basically just to see if others understand your writing! If not, you need to keep working at it.
  • Finally, good writing, like many things, takes a lot of time. If you don't take the time to work at it, you probably won't do very well and you probably won't improve. I recommend writing something about double the length needed and then editing down and re-organizing and re-writing to remove the needless words, irrelevant distractions, and -- most importantly -- improve your statement of whatever argument you are trying to develop.

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