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UC Philosophy Professor Releases New Book

Former business consultant and UC Philosophy Department chairman Tom Polger's new book examines the nature of realizations and perceptions.

Date: 5/3/2017
By: Jonathan Goolsby Other Contact: Julie Campbell
Other Contact Phone: (513) 509-1114
Photos By: Emily Piraino
There’s the old joke about a Fortune 500 company that was hiring a new CPA: the successful candidate was the one who, when asked by the hiring manager what 2 plus 2 equaled, leaned in and whispered, “Whaddya want it to equal?”

“There’s something smart about the employee who says to the boss, ’What answer do you want?’,” University of Cincinnati Philosophy Chair Tom Polger acknowledged. “But there’s something dangerous in that, too.”

An example, he said, might be air traffic controllers. A controller watching a clear radar screen might, under a boss’s pressure to bring the last remaining plane in for the night, give that aircraft clearance to land. But how many planes are on the runway when he gives the go ahead?

Photo of Tom Polger, chairman of Philosophy department
Tom Polger

There’s clearly a need there for deeper inquiry, and less tolerance for questionable interpretations of “truth.”

“If Big Brother can make you have their answer to a math equation, they can make you believe their answer to anything,” Polger cautioned. “This is part of the underpinning of democracy. We live in a democracy where the majority make a lot of the decisions. The idea behind the Bill of Rights is that the majority could be wrong.”

And this is where the value of philosophical inquiry comes in. Philosophy is valuable, according to Polger, because it studies the “how” and “why” of thought itself.

His newest publication, The Multiple Realization Book (co-authored with University of Wisconsin-Madison philosophy professor Dr. Lawrence Shapiro), certainly seems to examine — perhaps challenge — the notion that various modes of human inquiry are truly discrete.

“The area that I work in is an intersection of several areas of philosophy. I think that human beings think about what their minds are like, about what it is to have a mind, thoughts, beliefs,” Polger said. “We have sensations and we’re fascinated by them. But they’re mysterious.”

Just where do human forms of perception end and objective states begin? It’s a big question, and to illustrate his point, Polger cited the example of “pain.” It is, to some degree, a mystery whether the physical “pain” we humans feel is only perceptible to life forms that, as we do, possess nervous systems operating by electro-chemical means.

“Is it neurons that are important?,” he asked. “Is it electro-chemical signals that are important? is it grey matter like that in the human brains that is important?”

But, Polger and his colleague ask, could “pain” be realized by other beings or things, in other ways?

Would, for example, an artificial intelligence like IBM’s Watson feel some manner of “pain” if one damaged a portion of its electrical pathways? Do plants register the concept of “pain” when we pick healthy leaves? Or, do viruses perceive “pain” when their replication cycles are pharmacologically inhibited?
Cover of "The Multiple Realization Book"

Those questions are generated from the same line of inquiry that has generated the multiple realization hypothesis — chiefly, that concepts, sensations, or thoughts the human brain manifests might have analogues. “Pain” might be realized by humans, plants and computers, but in unique ways determined by strikingly different means.

Another way of thinking about it, Polger said, might be to think about hardware and software. Realizations, he explained, are somewhat like software. Similar core programming might form the base code of a handheld calculator program, a PC program and a smartphone app, but the hardware constructions of those devices differ, so the functionality of programs will naturally be different.

Confused? You’re not alone. This is high concept stuff — not the purvey of casual investigators, or even of journalists. But that’s the value in these lines of inquiry, and in the study of philosophy. “Philosophy is distinguished in part by asking questions that are ‘bigger’ than other disciplines,” Polger suggested.

The Case for Philosophy

Philosophy, he noted, functions with respect to other systematic pursuits of knowledge like mathematics, biology, history, physics and more, in much the same way that journalism and literature function with respect to societies — philosophy fundamentally interrogates other disciplines’ hypotheses and theories, and sheds light on just how “true” their findings may or may not be.

Are philosophers, psychologists and physicists all pursuing the same answer, but from different perspectives? We know that we have the capacity to discover a truth, but can humanity ever define and fathom the truth?

“In some sense the case for philosophy is the case for any liberal arts area of study,” Polger said, in that it develops students’ conceptual abilities and fine-hones the critical thinking skills they need to succeed, not only in other studies, but in day-to-day life.

“Employers want people who can think critically,” he asserted, because they need people who can devise new answers to new problems.

Humans constantly encounter real-world challenges, Polger said — both professional and personal in nature — and, “Often they’re not well-defined problems with well-defined answers. They’re fuzzy, they’re unclear. They require clarification and straightening out.”

When Polger was a business consultant, his services were requested because he and his colleagues could spot previously unidentified problems, and suggest creative means of solving those problems. Had he been trained simply to run protocols, business challenges would have remained unidentified and unsolved.

“We went into places where we didn’t understand how things were done,” he recalled. What client companies needed, he said, “was someone who could come in with that 30,000-foot view” and take “a critical view on things.”
To rephrase this in an easily-understood way:

It’s one thing to train a new doctor which medicines to give to treat known diseases. It’s another thing entirely to train a doctor how to identify unknown conditions and why to try administering this or that substance to see if it will remedy the problem.

“We’re teaching people to think about [their inquiries] very carefully,” he stated. “We’re teaching tools for doing so that have been accumulated for thousands of years.”

Careful consideration — the hallmark of the philosopher — might seem to some a luxury lost to simpler times when communication was more personal, news cycles were longer, and decision-making was less tribal. But Polger believes that the era of rationalism isn’t dead.

“Some would say, ‘What passes for truth?’,” he said. “If what’s true is what the powerful say is true, then one can’t challenge the powerful.”

 “You and I might have a disagreement about the nature of truth or justice, but probably you and I wouldn’t think there’s no fact of the matter about it.”

The natural next question, then: how is “truth” realized across disparate systems of thought, and by various beings?

You’ll have to read the book and decide.

Interested in Philosophy?

Philosophy is a field of study that lends itself to many options, including law, business, medicine, education, sustainability and much more! If you are interested in learning more about opportunities in philosophy, please contact David Gillespie,

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