AskPhilosophers, a project and website based at Amherst College that makes it possible for members of the public to query professional philosophers, made the leap to the mobile web this month with the unveiling of an app for both the iPhone and the Android operating system. "AskPhil" is Amherst's first app, and Alexander George, the professor who founded AskPhilosophers.org, five years ago, observed that "the fact that it's a philosophy app is quite appropriate for a liberal arts college."
The app addresses the paradox that all of us confront philosophical issues almost daily, yet few of us have studied philosophy. (George laments that the subject is not taught in high school.) So even if you fear your question is na´ve, you're urged to fire away. As a result, the queries vary widely, from the abstract to the practical. A recent "question of the day," for example, asked whether it is a mere "psychological evasion" when someone "says they have faith in something but don't know that something to be true." Jennifer Church, a philosopher at Vassar, replied that such faith can sometimes be reasonable, "because our unreflective inclinations are usually based on some information," even if it's unconscious.
On the more pragmatic end of the spectrum, the philosophers Jean Kazez (S.M.U.) and Oliver Leaman (U. of Kentucky) recently sparred over the grounds for concluding that it was wrong to kill ants "for fun." (The question was: "Is it okay?") Leaman thought the question turned on whether an insect could feel pain, a question he said was "unresolved," suggesting "we should lay off them." Kazez insisted that the issue had to do with respect for living creatures.
Profits from AskPhilosophers projects go to educational charities: Books that have been spun off the site--and published in several languages--have brought in some $74,000 to the AskPhilosophers Fund. (The app is free, though.)
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His last article for Ideas was about choosing Congress by lottery.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.