Papers that Changed My Mind

3 minute read

I recently came upon a philosophy paper that seemed to tackle a problem I didn’t know existed and had a convincing argument for identifying and perhaps fixing that problem.

Good papers – especially good philosophy papers – are like that. They force you to look at the world in a new way, even if you don’t agree with what they say. They also tend to be easy to read without extensive knowledge of the domain they are contributing in, because they go less into the details of previous perspectives.

So here’s a list of papers like that. These papers have all in some way changed the way I think about something. The list doesn’t include any books, because that would make the list much longer and I wanted to list stuff you can read in a couple of dozen pages at most. Most of them are in the broad area of philosophy, but not all of them.

I tried adding links to where you can find the papers in question, but only some of them are open access.

Williams, Evan G. 2015. ‘The Possibility of an Ongoing Moral Catastrophe’. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 18 (5): 971–82. /

Williams argues that it is likely that there is an ongoing moral catastrophe on the order of slavery or the Holocaust, but we don’t know what it is. It’s easy to point to likely candidates, but if Williams is right, there are also ones that we are unable to recognise. Historically most societies have not been able to recognise their own moral problems. Why should our own be the first perfect society?

Nagel, Thomas. 1974. ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ Philosophical Review 83 (4): 435–50.

Nagel argues that as humans, we are fundamentally incapable of conceptualising what the phenomenological experience of being a bat is like. We can only imagine what it is for a human to imagine what being a bat is like.

Bostrom, Nick. 2003. ‘Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?’ The Philosophical Quarterly 53 (211): 243–55. /

Bostrom extrapolates from the technology available when writing the paper in 2003 and tries to estimate how likely it is that we live in a computer simulation. He comes up with three propositions that can’t be all true at the same time. Either we are living in a simulation, advanced civilisations don’t like running simulations or we all die before reaching that stage. Take your pick.

Suits, Bernard. 1967. ‘What Is a Game?’ Philosophy of Science 34 (2): 148–56.

If you’ve ever stumbled upon game studies, you might have noticed that it has struggled with game definitions for a while. Good that Suits solved all of those already in 1967. In case you’re wondering,

to play a game is to engage in activity directed toward bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by specific rules, where the means permitted by the rules are more limited in scope than they would be in the absence of the rules, and where the sole reason for accepting such limitation is to make possible such activity.

Suits later turned the paper into a book, The Grasshopper: Game, Life and Utopia, written in the form of dialogue within a fable. It is an absolute joy to read.

Frankfurt, Harry G. 1986. ‘On Bullshit’. Raritan 6: 81–100.

It’s hard not to love how Frankfurt starts his essay:

One of the most salient features of our culture that there is so much bullshit.

Frankfurt turned “bullshit” into a technical, philosophical term, analysing how it differs from falsehood. While the liar tries to conceal the truth, the bullshitter doesn’t care what the truth is and is entirely willing to say the truth if it suits them. I like this article because it shows how philosophy can clarify how we understand something mundane like bullshit.

Frankfurt later turned the essay into a book, but I think you get idea from the essay. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find a source for the text that would be accessible online.

Healy, Kieran. 2017. ‘Fuck Nuance’. Sociological Theory 35 (2): 118–27. /

This paper is from sociology, but it reads like a great philosophy of science paper. The author argues that good theories abstract things and sociology has increasingly been plagued for a call for more nuance. It’s hard to abstract things if you have to include everything in, making nuanced theory weaker and more complicated at the expense of clarity.

If you have further suggestions for eye-opening papers I should read, do tell me.