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Ergo | Summer 2021

Ignorance, Distraction, and ConfusionClassroom Setting

We started the semester in ignorance, we ended with confusion, and there was lots of distraction along the way. That was the overarching structure of this year’s super seminar, “Ignorance, Distraction, and Confusion.”

The course surveyed epistemic value and the ethics of belief by studying various ways that thinking goes wrong. We began with a four-lesson crash course on foundational ideas in mainstream epistemology, which gave us tools and insights to apply throughout the course. We then examined varieties of not knowing, including ignorance stemming from false belief, epistemic vice, and doubt. In epistemology, ignorance is often treated as an uncommon and marginal aberration; we instead considered how ubiquitous, normal, and potent ignorance can be. We also looked at ways that ignorance can be valuable.

We then turned to the normative contours of attention and distraction. We discussed forces of salience, ways that noticing and ignoring can be erroneous or harmful, and frameworks for evaluating attentional distributions. Assessing attention is increasingly important, as we drown in the informational flood of the internet age.

Finally, we reached confusion, focusing on inapt concepts and conceptions. Suppose one person dubs Laurie an alcoholic and another—knowing the same facts—says Laurie is a non-addicted merrymaker. In some cases, the disagreement does not concern features of Laurie, but is instead about what qualifies as alcoholism. How should we adjudicate which conception is better?

We were thrilled to host guest appearances from Elisabeth Camp (Rutgers), Mike Deigan (Rutgers), Catherine Elgin (Harvard), Amy Flowerree (Texas Tech), Jonathan Ichikawa (UBC), and Paulina Sliwa (Cambridge). We ended with a one-session crash course on formal epistemology, delivered by Catherine Saint-Croix (Minnesota).

A unifying theme was ways that a belief, assertion, or outlook can be true but wrong. One way to be confused, for example, is to center thoughts on true but insignificant details. Such mistakes can be particularly pernicious because, compared to false beliefs, they can be hard to notice and remedy. A second recurring theme was application to society, especially political media, medical diagnoses, and sexual violence.

This course will be featured in the APA’s (American Philosophical Association) 2021 Syllabus Showcase.

-By Georgi Gardiner

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