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Michael Bassil '19

"Realism, Anti-Realism, and the Representation Problem"

Major & Minor: Biology major, Ethics minor

Hometown: Nazareth, PA

Project Advisor(s): Dr. Arash Naraghi


Tell us about your research.

The aim of my research was to explore the realist/anti-realist debate in metaphysics and epistemology. In doing this, I read Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism and wrote a ~6000 word paper delineating its implications towards my topic. Afterwards, the project pivoted towards realism and anti-realist about a more narrow domain: morality. Therefore, the final weeks of the SOAR program consisted of reading and discussing Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity by Gilbert Harman and Judith Thomson.

How did it materialize? (E.g., did you pitch the idea and choose a faculty member, or did they come to you with an idea?)

I contacted Dr. Naraghi with the idea of doing SOAR research. I brought up this topic since I’ve had experience with it in past philosophy courses and it was fascinating to me. After meeting and discussing it further, we made a plan for writing the proposal.

What was the best part about working with your faculty advisor? What valuable insights did they bring to the research process?

Dr. Naraghi is an incredibly knowledgeable individual whom I greatly enjoyed working with. The best part of working with him was the refreshing dialogue we routinely engaged in. He pushed me to constantly think critically and be confident about every step of my reasoning, so that if asked to elaborate or provide justification, I would be able to. Dr. Naraghi’s valuable insights came in the form of directing me towards useful resources as well as guidance for when I should consider certain ideas more carefully in case they are closely related to the research topic.

What was your biggest obstacle?

The biggest obstacle in achieving a satisfying conclusion to the research is the nature of the research topic itself in conjunction with the time constraint of the program. It’s safe to say that philosophy is a subject where one often ends up with more questions than answers. Being completely honest, the conclusion of my research fits that description. Moreoever, it’s not very surprising that such a big philosophical topic could not be completely conquered over the course of a single summer.

What was your biggest takeaway from this experience?

My biggest takeaway from the SOAR research is that it has sharpened by critical and analytical thinking skills. It’s one thing to enroll in courses in philosophy and memorize concepts and arguments for an exam, but it’s quite another to actively engage in philosophical research and dialogue. Spending the summer immersed in such an intensely inquisitive and critical environment has been tremendously instructive, and I’m sure it will prove advantageous as I continue in my academic career and beyond.

What was the result of your research?

I found that the universalized forms of realism and anti-realism I set out to explore are both implausible positions. I concluded, then, that the debate between realism and anti-realism must be localized. That is, it may be possible to be realist about certain domains (science seems like a good candidate, for example) while anti-realist about others. I reached this conclusion through a ~6000 word paper where I reconstrued some of Boghossian’s arguments in Fear of Knowledge to apply towards universalized anti-realism. In addition, I made my own argument against universalized realism. Taking all those arguments to be correct and decisive, I concluded that both positions are implausible and advanced the notion that the realist/anti-realist debate must be localized.

Now that SOAR is over, do you plan to expand upon your research? If so, where would you like to see it go?

When it comes to proper academic research, I don’t plan on expanding further. Ultimately, my aim is dental school, so I expect the next two years of my extracurricular life to be largely dominated by that pursuit. Nevertheless, I think my experience this summer has helped me expand my mind and think more philosophically. So that, in all ordinary life affairs, I can take up a discernibly inquisitive disposition that—to some rudimentary extent—might count as “philosophical research.”

In your own words, how do you feel about being rewarded this opportunity? Why should other students take advantage of the SOAR program?

I feel very fortunate for having been granted approval to participate in the SOAR program. I think the professional and academic experiences I gained throughout this program are equally as important as any of the particular goals of my research. Students should take advantage of the SOAR program because it’s a great way to gain research experience without the added stress of the school year.