PHIL 270




 Tips for Writing a Philosophy Paper



Philosophy Course Index






Philosophy of Religion (PHIL 270)

Course ID # 002185                                                                                                                                                                                 T H 11:00-12:20

WSU/Spring 2011                                                                                                                                                                                     Minne Hall 239


Instructor: Ed Slowik/325 Minne Hall/Office phone: 457-5663                                                    


Office Hours: T 6:30-7:00 PM, and by appointment. The best time to contact me is just before or after class, but feel free to set-up an appointment.



God Matters, R. Martin and C. Bernard (Longman)

Seven Theories of Religion, D. Pals (Oxford)


Course Objectives:

This course will cover a wide range of issues in the philosophy of religion, mainly through contemporary readings, but also through various texts with great historical interest. Topics will include: arguments for the existence of God, arguments against the existence of God, the nature of religious belief, miracles, faith and reason, as well as theories about the nature and origins of religion. We will also briefly review the historical and theological background of the main Western religions.


Course Requirements:

One in-class midterm (25%), in-class final (25%), and two papers (25%). The papers are 7-10 pages double-spaced, on a topic provided by the instructor. The due dates of the exams and papers are provided below and in the class schedule section of this syllabus. The midterm and final are of the multiple-choice, true/false, and short essay type. Dates for the midterm and final are as follows:


Midterm: Thursday, Frb. 24; Final exam: Thursday, May 5, 1-3 PM.


The tests will mainly cover the notes I give in class, or on the web page (which are based on the readings), so it is important to show up each day!


Web Page:

Information on the course will be posted on a web page (hopefully). The information will pertain to: syllabus, class notes, paper assignments, and tips for writing a philosophy paper. The address is:


Phil 270 satisfies both the General Education and University Studies requirements in the Humanities category. Students can review the University Studies criteria satisfied by this course either by checking the WSU web page or by stopping in the Philosophy Department (Minne 329). 


NOTE: This course will not presuppose any religious background on the part of the students. In fact, this course will critically analyze religious views from a philosophical/scientific framework—thus, students who may be offended by this skeptical/critical approach to religion should not take this course. 


Schedule (vague):

I hope we can get through all of the chapters I have listed below, but I don't want to force the pace. The specific readings for each day will be assigned at least a class day in advance, if not earlier. The Martin and Bernard anthology is abbreviated “MB” below.


Week 1: MB, Part I (Jan. 11, 13)


Week 2: MB, Part I, II (Jan. 18, 20) 


Week 3: MB, Part II (Jan. 25, 27)


Week 4: MB, Part II (Feb. 1, 3); Paper#1 assigned, Feb. 3.


Week 5: MB, Part III (Feb. 8, 10)


Week 6: MB, Part III (Feb. 15, 17); Paper#1 due, Feb. 17.


Week 7: review (Tues.), Midterm (Thurs.) (Feb. 22, 24)


Week 8: MB, Part IV (March 1, 3)


Week 9: MB, Part V (March 15, 17)


Week 10: MB Part VI, VII (March 22, 24) 


Week 11: MB Part VIII, IX (March 29, 31)


Week 12: MB Part X (April 5, 7); Paper#2 assigned, April 7.


Week 13: Pals, Chapters 1-3 (April 12, 14)


Week 14: Pals, Chapters 4-7 (April 19, 21)


Week 15: extra-time (April 26, 28)


Final exam (and Paper#2 due): Thursday, May 5, 1-3 PM


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Tips for Writing a Philosophy Paper

The main point of most undergraduate philosophy papers is to present positions backed by reasons and arguments. Even if you are simply giving a philosopher's views on an issue, you need to be able to present the arguments he or she relied on. Indeed, mere opinions, whether your own or those of a well-known philosopher, are worthy of a serious hearing only when backed by reasons.

Thus a philosophy paper is not just a series of opinions spouted by its author, nor a straightforward reporting of events, nor a "book report" or capsule summary of some famous person's views. It involves giving, and weighing, arguments. If this seems intimidating, you should know that there are some easily understood tips and techniques for writing philosophy papers. They do not eliminate the work involved in writing the paper–nothing will do that for you–but they can help you systematically approach your topic. And with enough practice, you will find yourself applying them almost automatically. (Incidentally, the plain fact is that most people who are good at this kind of thing were not born that way, but got that way by practice.)

Getting started.

A common mistake made by undergraduates is choosing a very large topic, one that calls for much more discussion than can be provided in a paper of six, eight, or even twelve pages. In general, it is better to say a lot about a narrow topic, than to say a little about each aspect of a broad topic. (Thus, for example, it is more productive to discuss in detail a single argument for the existence of God, like the Argument from Design, than to run quickly but superficially over the many different arguments for the existence of God.)

Once you have found a suitable topic, formulate to yourself a claim about it that you wish to defend. For example, if your topic is the Argument from Design, then your claim might be that this argument does not succeed in establishing God's existence. Or, if your topic is the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, your claim might be that Locke was right about this distinction, and that Berkeley, who disagreed with Locke, was wrong.

Once you have formulated your claim, try to think of arguments that support it, and also arguments that seem to undercut it. This sounds hard, but recall that, if your topic was discussed in your philosophy class in the first place, then probably there was also some discussion of arguments for it or against it. Moreover, it is perfectly acceptable to use arguments drawn from other philosophers. You must, however, show that you understand these arguments and are not just "parroting" someone, and you must acknowledge your source for the argument. Failure to credit sources properly is plagiarism, and will result in a failing grade for the course.

One of the most impressive things you can do in a paper, besides giving good arguments in support of your claim, is to anticipate objections (the "arguments that seem to undercut it," mentioned above), and to show that they do not succeed. Moreover, it is a grave error to ignore or overlook undercutting arguments that have actually been presented in your class or in assigned readings. If you disagree with them, you should say why; but to simply omit them is to ask for a bad grade.

As for evaluating such supporting and undercutting arguments, that is a skill that cannot be imparted here in a paragraph or two. The way to learn it is to see how others do it (particularly in class, but also in philosophy books and articles), and to try to do it yourself. Some of the appropriate techniques are: (1) to assess whether the argument uses key terms properly; (2) to see whether the argument rests on one or more premises that are questionable; and (3) to see whether the argument, if accepted, leads to consequences which do not square with known facts or credible theories.

Showing understanding.

How do you show that you are not just "parroting" someone? The main way is to put things in your own words. It is all too easy to think that you understand something just because you can regurgitate some buzzwords. Real understanding typically goes hand in hand with formulating things for yourself, in your own words. Several rules of thumb are helpful here. One is to avoid jargon where possible; if you must use it, be sure to give a definition. Jargon, for our purposes, is wording that rarely or never arises in ordinary conversation, or that is being used in some non-ordinary way. Another rule of thumb is to write as if you were explaining something to someone who is intelligent, but is not a specialist in the subject, e.g. a favorite grandparent. Do not, in particular, write with jargon in the hope that your professor will like it better or will understand it better (even if you don't).

Another key technique for achieving, and showing, understanding is to come up with your own examples to illustrate key points. Many philosophical positions, though highly abstract and general, readily lend themselves to concrete illustrations. For example, Hume's ethical claim that no `ought' can be derived from an `is', comes alive when fleshed out as the claim that nowhere among the facts about what happens when I cut off Joe's head is there anything that tells me whether I ought not to cut off his head. (Hume himself knew this, of course; indeed, he gives even more hair-raising examples.)

Note, however, that examples illustrate and hence clarify, but that they do not take the place of arguments. Thus you still need to be able to explain the underlying principles in words–you still need to be able to explain why the example is an example.

Finally, do not leave things unclear or make sloppy statements and then say to the professor, "Aw, c'mon, you know what I meant!" Your professor can't read your mind, and will probably assume from previous experience with other students that you yourself do not know what you mean. The safest course is, naturally enough, to say just what you mean.

Writing with clarity.

It is crucial, not just to have something to say, but to say it effectively. The most effective presentation usually follows the old saying: "Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em; tell 'em; then tell 'em what you told 'em." That is, begin with an introductory paragraph in which you say what you take yourself to be doing in the paper; then, after you have presented your case, close with a conclusion which says what you have done. If you do not say up front, in the introduction, what you will be doing in the body of the paper, your reader will probably conclude that you do not know what you are up to in your paper. (This is an all-too-frequent situation, especially for students who put off papers until the last minute.)

This does not mean that you must write your introduction first. On the contrary, it is typically better to launch into writing the body of the paper first, since the writing process often brings insights and changes of opinion that you didn't expect. So it is prudent to wait until you are happy with the body of the paper, and then go back and write an introduction that spells out in a nutshell what you are doing in the body. The same goes for the conclusion, of course.

You may be tempted to avoid "tipping your hand" at the beginning of your paper, so that your reader is led suspensefully and dramatically to the eventual unveiling of your key points. Avoid this temptation. It is much more difficult to pull off than you might imagine, and your reader will appreciate much more the up-front approach, pedestrian as it may seem.

A final point about introductions and conclusions is that they should not include grandiloquent phrases. Avoid saying things like, "Throughout history, people have struggled with the question of what makes an action good," or "Aristotle was the greatest philosopher who ever lived, and his influence is still being felt today." Your reader, far from being impressed, will be thinking, "Cut to the chase." Remember, you're not actually writing for your grandparent; you should merely put things as clearly and simply as if you were.

Structure and grammar.

Proper structure at all levels of your paper will help immensely in getting your points across. Choose words in a way that avoids ambiguity. For example, if you use the word "it", be sure that it is clear to which "it" you are referring. It can help to have a friend read your paper, looking for ambiguities that you might have overlooked. Likewise, you should avoid run-on sentences or incomplete sentences, which can be very confusing to read.

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Paper Assignments


Paper #1


Philosophy of Religion, PHIL 270                                                                                                Ed Slowik

WSU                                                                                                                                             Spring 2011



Answer any four of the following questions. The answers should be as detailed as possible, so I'm expecting at least a few pages (typed, double-spaced) for each answer. (However, the length of the answers will vary from student to student, of course.) Come and see me during my office hours, or elsewhere, if you would like to discuss the material and get help, but I won’t read rough drafts for this assignment. The paper is due: Thursday, Feb. 17.


1) What is the problem of free-will and God’s omniscience? Explain an attempt to resolve the problem, and the difficulties associated with the attempted solution. 


2) Explain Malcolm’s version of the Ontological argument, and the problems with it.


3) What is the “fine-tuning” argument? Explain Collins’ attempt to use the argument, and some of the problems associated with his use of the argument. 


4) What is the relationship between God and time? What are the problems associated with God’s relationship and time?


5) What is the “necessary and contingent being” version of the Cosmological argument? Explain the problems with this argument.


6) What is the Moral argument for God’s existence? What are the problems with this argument?



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