Meet Dr. Josh Redstone, a Contract Instructor in Philosophy and Cog Sci here at Carleton! 

For the past three summers, Dr. Redstone has been teaching a course that may seem a bit strange, but that has been extremely popular with students: Philosophy of the Paranormal (PHIL 2405). We wanted to take this opportunity to highlight Dr. Redstone, the various things he gets up to, and the exciting, unique courses he teaches. 

Thank you for taking the time to engage with us! You have certainly been around at Carleton for a good long time, in both student and instructor capacities. Before teaching here, you received both your M.A. (in Philosophy) and your PhD (in Cognitive Science) from Carleton, and you now continue to offer very unique courses for the Philosophy Department. What is special about Carleton for you? 

Dr. Josh Redstone: One thing about Carleton that stood out to me during graduate school was the opportunity to do such interdisciplinary research throughout my MA and PhD. I had the opportunity to work with some great faculty members, graduate, and undergraduate students in the Philosophy and Cognitive Science departments. I also got the chance to teach some of my first classes in the Department of Cognitive Science around this time. After graduation, I was welcomed as an instructor in the Department of Philosophy, and I’ve been lucky enough to continue teaching here over the past few years. So, I’d say that what stands out to me now is the chance to put together so many interesting courses for my students. 

What topics are you generally interested in researching? As someone with formal training in both philosophy and the sciences, do you see yourself as working at their intersections? 

JR: Absolutely – I think that the research I do, as well as many of the classes I teach, are very interdisciplinary. Most of my interests fall at the intersection of philosophy and the cognitive sciences. For example, I’m very interested in understanding how people interact with artificial agents like social robots or virtual characters, and in what we can learn about the mind by using artificial agents as experimental vehicles. So, I guess you could say most of my research is situated the intersection of philosophy and cognitive science, specifically where robotics and A.I. are concerned. My other research and teaching interests include the emotions, consciousness, and the philosophy of technology. 

You are the first instructor in our department’s history to teach the new “Philosophy of Emotions” course (PHIL 3540). Often, people think of reason as the realm of philosophy, and as being divided from the emotions, so this course might surprise some students! What do you hope this new course brings?  

JR: One lesson I hope students take from this class is that reason and emotions are not at odds with one another. I think a lot of my students are surprised to learn this. The idea that emotions – or the passions, if you like – are detrimental to reason is arguably due to Plato, and in over two millennia of philosophy this idea hasn’t really gone away. One alternative idea that I introduce my students to is that the emotions have evolved in order to tell us what’s important, and to direct our attention toward it: what we value, what might harm us or be good for us, and so on. In this respect, reason and emotion are not divided; rather, emotions help us to reason about the world, about our values and morality, and about our relationships with others. 

Let’s move now to the main course in question for this interview: You are teaching “Philosophy of the Paranormal,” one of our more unique offerings and a course which has had not been offered in over a decade before you started teaching it, back in 2020. What exactly is this course about? Do you view this course as an opportunity to investigate unusual beings? Or is it more about the way that pseudoscience and pernicious tricks of reasoning can impact how we see the world? I suspect the course is not about “spooky metaphysics”! 

JR: I see this class as an opportunity to explore all sorts of areas of philosophy, especially epistemology, metaphysics, critical thinking, philosophy of science, and philosophy of mind. We investigate unusual beings, e.g., cryptids, aliens, etc., as well as unusual phenomena, e.g., claims of ESP, telekinesis, mediumship, etc. By critically examining claims related to paranormal beings and phenomena, the students have the opportunity to learn how to distinguish science from pseudoscience, to learn about how scientific knowledge is obtained, the importance of skepticism, and so on.  

Which paranormal entity or phenomenon in this course is the most fun to talk with students about? Are there discussions of some paranormal phenomena which require special tact? I am thinking here about things which people often feel they have experienced first-hand, like ghosts or spirits, and whether students feel especially attached to their beliefs concerning such phenomena?  

JR: Where do I begin?! I suppose my favourite topics are parapsychology, and aliens and UFOs. Parapsychology is interesting to me because it began as a good faith attempt to ascertain whether so-called “psi” phenomena exist scientifically, but it inevitably devolved into pseudoscience. It’s a great opportunity for me to show my students the difference between science and pseudoscience. Aliens and UFOs are fun to discuss because, out of all the paranormal phenomena we discuss, alien life is the most likely to exist. Then again, that doesn’t mean little green men are visiting us in flying saucers… 

A fascinating subject matter! As mentioned, this course has been offered in the past, though a very long time ago. How are you updating the course to make it interesting for students today? What do students have the opportunity to investigate in their assignments?  

JR: The last time this course was offered was long before I arrived at Carleton, so I can only imagine how it was previously taught. But when I teach this class, I try to include examples of paranormal claims, ranging from those made by members of the spiritualist movement of the 19th century to claims made by T.V. psychics and social media personalities today. Sometimes, students even bring interesting claims and topics to my attention, such as the Mandela Effect, and “reality shifting” trends on social media platforms like TikTok. Therefore, I give the students the opportunity to investigate whatever strange, spooky phenomena they wish in their assignments, so long as it falls under the category of “paranormal.” 

What are your own views concerning the paranormal? Are there any legitimate arguments in favour of the existence of the paranormal? Besides p-zombies or ghosts-in-the-machine, of course! 

JR: Well, I’d say that I’m very skeptical of paranormal claims, and I don’t think that there are any legitimate arguments in favour of the paranormal. Parapsychology, for example, tries to explain paranormal phenomena in ways that violate the principles of naturalism, which serve as the foundations of the natural sciences. When we try and explain these phenomena naturally, however, a few things can happen. One is we find that they’re “non-phenomena,” i.e., there’s nothing going on. Another is that we are able to provide a naturalistic explanation of something that was previously believed to be supernatural or paranormal. In that case, once it’s been explained, it’s not really paranormal anymore. 

Will students who take this course leave with a new respect for how superstition may play a bigger role in our day to day reasonings than we may think? Or does that not come into play? 

JR: Yes, that’s one of my hopes for this class. After all, people often remain unaware of the extent to which superstition – and related things like false beliefs or cognitive biases – play a role in their understanding of the world. I hope that one of the things students take away from my class is an appreciation of how the mind can play such tricks on us. 

Recently, you have also been the first instructor to teach our new course on the “Philosophy of Technology” (PHIL 2120). What type of knowledge and skills do students acquire through this course?  

JR: Students learn about different ways of understanding technology that fall within two broad categories: technology is neutral, like a tool, and is under our control; and technology is not under human control. We also learn about the role of philosophy of science in technology studies, technocracy, technology and feminism, and technology’s impact on the environment. It’s a very comprehensive course which spans both the analytic and continental traditions. I hope that I have the opportunity to teach it again! 

First Year Seminars (FYSM) offer students at Carleton opportunities to work closely with their instructors. I know you run some of these, and your seminars are highly appreciated by our students! Do you have any plans for your next FYSM? 

JR: I do have plans for a new first year seminar. In fact, I’ll be teaching on the philosophy of music in the winter semester. 

With that exciting FYSM in the works, we simply must ask: What kind of music do you like? Would students have an opportunity to hear you play guitar in the FSYM? 

JR: My musical tastes are pretty eclectic, but there are some genres I tend to gravitate towards more than others. I love heavy metal, especially the progressive, symphonic, and experimental stuff. I also enjoy the blues, jazz, classic rock, and classical music. Whenever I get the chance, I’ll go see the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, or check out a live metal show. Since I’ve been playing music longer than I’ve been doing philosophy, if my students are lucky I may bring my guitar along for a demonstration or two, but it will depend on how much time I have to practice of course! 

Thank you for your time Dr. Redstone! Before we let you go, is there any exciting news you’d like to share about either yourself and your research, any students of yours, or any other matters?  

JR: Just that I plan on continuing to design and teach interesting courses like the ones you’ve asked me about today, and that I hope my students will continue to find them fun and interesting! 

Thanks Dr. Redstone for answering our questions! You can find more about Dr. Redstone and his research on his page on our website, and you can find him on Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn. Keep an eye out for our next Spotlight in August 2022! 

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