Thursday, September 09, 2010

Going Mental

As one would expect, school is in session and my online presence has largely evaporated. I know it’s still early on, but it’s a bit frightening that three weeks of the semester have already passed. That’s a decent-sized chunk of time, especially with all I need to be doing. I think I’ve been working diligently this semester, but it’s always a bit disheartening to compare how much time has passed with how much work has actually been accomplished. Somehow it’s never quite the ratio you had hoped for in the beginning. But what can you do? Oh yeah … work more, I guess.

So, for the two or three people who might pretend to care, I thought I’d say just a tiny bit more about what I’m doing this semester. As I’ve previously stated, I’m gearing up to do what’s called a “special area exam,” a customized four-hour essay exam that tests you on a rather specific topic within philosophy that you’re interested in. The goal is to home in on a fairly narrow topic, not something broad like “ethics” or “free will.” As for me, I am tackling the issue of mental action. What kinds of issues does that cover? Basically, it deals with questions concerning how much, or to what extent, our mental goings-on can be considered actions—that is, things that we do and not just things that happen to us. It’s easy to suppose that of course we do something when we think, but the point is, how much of our thought process is in our control? How much of our thought process should be deemed intentional? Or do our thoughts just kind of happen of their own accord? When we work on a math problem, do we have much choice about the way our thoughts unfold? Or is it fairly automatic, once we push ourselves in that direction? When we daydream, do we decide what we think about? The easy answer is ‘yes,’ but you can’t really choose ahead of time what you’ll think about, so in what sense do you control what actually pops up? Even if we actively cause the thoughts to come up, do we actually control what pops up? It’s tricky to see how, even though we’re inclined to think we do control it (or at least we’re so inclined before we start thinking too much about it, which is what philosophers do).

I’m interested in these types of questions because I feel that anyone interested in free will must ultimately confront them. If our actions stem from our thought processes, which seems obvious, then it matters a great deal whether or not certain of those processes are controlled, intentional, and/or free. It’s nice for me that I’m interested in this subject, because it’s a rather undeveloped and underexplored area in philosophy. There should be a lot of work to be done on it. I think it’s cool.

So, the way the special area exam works is as follows (with some variation, depending on one’s committee): the student compiles a reading list of approximately 15-20 essays (or comparable works, like chapters from a relevant book) on the topic of choice. The student has a committee of professors who oversee the exam, and the head of the committee must approve the reading list. Once the list is approved, the student studies those readings and makes up essay questions about them. (The committee might also construct essay questions on the readings.) Each essay question is designed to take approximately 10 typed pages to answer. Prior to the exam, the questions are narrowed down to four, and on the day of the exam, you’re given three of them and must write on two of them. You’re locked in a room with a computer—without books or notes, of course—and must write two essays on the spot. So, in a four-hour timeframe, you compose two 10-page essays. It’s a bit daunting, but you’ve helped design the exam yourself, so you should feel pretty good about it. Alternatively, you can do a take-home version of the exam, where you have a week but must write even more. The standards are higher for the take-home test, and it requires an oral defense. No thanks.

So that’s what I’m up against this semester, on top of my TA responsibilities and the one class I’m taking for credit. I remain hopeful. I have my reading list approved and I’m slowly working through it. I really hope to take the exam before Creegan gets here, but that’s not an absolute must. It really would work better with my school schedule, though, because shortly after Creegan arrives, I’ll have final papers both to be grading and writing. It would be nice to have the exam out of the way before then. I’d like to spend some time with my new son before he’s a month old!

And, speaking of babies and of mental action, check out this photo and headline from The Onion. There’s not a story to it, just a headline and a photo, but I find it hilarious—probably because of what I’m studying right now more than because it’s actually that funny.

1 comment:

  1. I love the Onion! So funny.
    That exam sounds daunting. It sounds like an AP exam, actually. Good luck to you!
    By the way your topic reminds me of the following interchange from Empire Records:
    LUCAS (having just lost $90,000 of Joe's money): I think it's gonna be ok, Joe.
    JOE: Oh yeah? And what would make you think that?
    LUCAS: Who knows where thoughts come from, they just appear!