Philosophy and the Public: An Interview with Steven S. Gouveia
by Sarah Virgi
March 2023 – Is it philosophers’ moral duty to share the results of their research and their ideas with the public or to restrict their access to university seminar rooms and paywalled scientific journals? The medieval philosopher al-Fārābī (d. c. 950) once wrote that “if the philosopher who has acquired the theoretical virtues does not have the capacity to transmit them to everyone else according to their [own] possibilities, then, what he has acquired is in vain” (On the Attainment of Happiness, §56). Averroes (Ibn Rushd, d. 1198), on the other hand, was of the opinion that philosophy should not be divulged among the masses but restricted to the philosophical elite. The relevance of this question and the different approaches that have been proposed to answer it become more and more relevant in the present day as public philosophy rises and is broadcasted through an increasing variety of media, like Youtube, Spotify, online courses, and television. In this month’s interview, we explore some of the issues of public philosophy with Dr. Steven S. Gouveia, a philosopher who has put considerable effort into calling the public’s attention to contemporary philosophical and ethical issues. Not only has he directed and hosted a documentary on the topic of artificial intelligence, but also organizes online courses on various philosophical subjects, some of which involved notable philosopher-guests, such as Peter Singer and Noam Chomsky.
About Steven S. Gouveia
Steven S. Gouveia holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Minho (Portugal). He was a post-doctoral research fellow at the “Minds, Brain Imaging, and Neuroethics Unit” of the Royal Institute of Mental Health at the University of Ottawa (2021-2022) and he is he is currently a research fellow at the Faculty of Philosophy and Social Sciences at the Portuguese Catholic University. From May 2023 onwards, he will lead a 6-year project on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence in Medicine at the Mind, Language and Action Group, University of Porto.
More info: http://stevensgouveia.weebly.com/
Sarah Virgi: You hold a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Mind and are a research fellow in Philosophy at the Portuguese Catholic University. Aside from your academic career, you also promote online courses and workshops with contemporary philosophers that are open to the general public. How did you come up with this initiative? And what do these workshops consist of?
Steven S. Gouveia: My academic “career” (which is an odd thing to say about a 30-year-old) was focused on what we can call “traditional” philosophical training, in the sense that my goal was to think, write and talk like an academic, that is, to focus my energy on the peers of our discipline. And I did that: I worked on several academic publications (such as books, book chapters, papers) and organized and gave several academic conferences, but I was having a “big” problem for my future: at least in Portugal – and I am not sure if this is a Portuguese particularity of academic philosophy or just an individual fact about me – I had no chance of doing any teaching assistance of any sort and, as we all know, an important aspect that hiring committees take into account to hire people is their teaching skills and experience. Moreover, although I was following the “traditional” route, I always felt that I wanted to bring what I was doing outside academia and I did that by publishing a first authored book for the general public. I was also invited to participate in some public initiatives, such as talks for a non-academic crowd. The final puzzle of how I ended up doing these courses came with an invitation by the Portuguese Teaching Association to teach 2 short courses for high school teachers. I was surprised by how many teachers decided to register and how interesting the sessions were: I learned a lot from the students’ feedback and felt I was teaching relevant skills to them as well.
So, right after I finished my PhD, I decided to create these online courses via Zoom (first just in Portuguese, and after the 4th course, I decided to do it in English as well) with the goal of giving me the opportunity that I didn’t have at my university to gain teaching experience but also to be able to reach a more non-academic public. In order to do that and also to make sure the courses were rigorous enough, I always had an “invited professor”, an expert on that specific topic, who would close a specific session by having a discussion with me about the topic of the course and would also answer some questions from the students. Their participation can explain some of the success I had with the courses, but I think the overall the rigor and freedom to discuss complex topics – having me as a “navigator” – were also important. Each course has a specific topic (e.g., Course 8 – Consciousness) and is divided into 3 or 4 sessions, each of which is dedicated to a specific problem or theory. The structure is always the same: in the first hour or so, I present some of the material that I selected and prepared for the class; the students have total freedom to ask questions or raise objections and to exchange any relevant information; after a short break, the second part starts, where the invited professor joins us and, first, I have a debate with her/him, and then the students can do some queries.
At the moment, all courses are available (the recorded version of the live sessions), and I hope to be able to create more courses in the near future (my current academic obligations don’t allow me to have spare time to focus on that, but I hope to be back soon!).
SV: In your opinion, how do these philosophy courses benefit the people that participate in them?
SG: Well, I’m a bit biased, but I do think the courses can benefit those who participate in them. It depends a lot on the kind of attitude that you have as a student as well: I see the courses as having a sort of “philosophical compass”, where I try to introduce and guide the students, but that’s just half of the work that needs to be done. The other half is in charge of the student, and her/his curiosity to know more about the specific topic addressed: I always close the sessions with a list of relevant and carefully selected publications so students can dig deeper if they want.
Since I was new to teaching, I had the idea of doing evaluation surveys about how I could improve the next courses and also creating a space where students could write anonymously and give honest feedback on what could be improved. That allowed me to take into account their feedback and improve a lot: for example, several students asked to send some relevant articles about the session we would have that week beforehand so they could be more aligned with the general language and concepts. According to the feedback I received, most students were pleased with their participation and, of course, with the opportunity to ask direct questions to philosophers and scientists such as 2020 Nobel Laureate Sir Roger Penrose (one student even wrote me a long email thanking me, saying that he never imagined he would have the chance to talk directly with him, which I found rewarding).
To give you any idea, I had students all over the world, literally: Portugal, Canada, Spain, Italy, Swiss, Cyprus, Greece, Peru, Poland, Panama, Germany, Hawaii, Belgium, Sweden, England, Singapore, Romania, Brazil, Mexico, Mongolia, India, Ireland, Scotland, France, USA, The Netherlands, Philippines, Norway, Tehran & Hungary (and I think a few more that I didn’t write down!). Just for this reason, it was already an amazing experience: to bring together people from different backgrounds, levels of education, age, gender, etc., with the focus of discussing some of the most complex philosophical problems in the world. The eight (8) courses that I organized had around 500 students in total (of course, I also think that the pandemic helped make Zoom a viable option for this). In the future, I would love to be able to organize something similar but in-person: hopefully, this will happen sooner than later (the courses are available here: https://stevensgouveia.weebly.com/online-courses.html).
SV: In addition, you have also made several public appearances in the media where you discuss some of your ideas on ethics and political philosophy. How do you see your role as a philosopher in the society?
SG: That’s an interesting question since, from what I can tell, the “traditional” path of academic philosophy does not care at all about that role: what we are taught is that our role as philosophers is to publish in high-impact journals that nobody reads and are in the hands of big companies that charge thousands of dollars. I have always tried to fight this “existential” condition that we, as professional philosophers, are in by trying to share some of my knowledge with the general public. Of course, this does not come for free: you use some of the energy and time you have to do what “the profession” demands for other ends. But I really believe that philosophers have a sort of moral duty to inform society with their expertise. Having this in mind, I gave several interviews on different mediums, such as radio, podcasts, national tv, etc., and I believe that I was able to introduce relevant philosophical knowledge that most people would never have the opportunity to know about. For example, I produced and hosted an international documentary on Artificial Intelligence that had the participation of 13 professional philosophers and scientists (see the Youtube link below). I do believe that many people were introduced to some of the ethical questions raised by technology and artificial intelligence in general via the documentary, and, even if this project doesn’t have an “academic” value per se – since it is not peer-reviewed, not published by a relevant publisher, etc. – I do believe that this project has philosophical value.
SV: What sort of philosophical topics do you think are crucial to bring out to the public, and why?
SG: I think different philosophers have different takes on this question, different concerns, many of which are attached to their own subjective existential experiences. I was – and still am – very influenced by philosophers such as Peter Singer and Noam Chomsky. Taking this into account, my focus has been to bring some ethical problems to the layperson, such as the existence of extreme poverty and how to fight it, the problem of political ignorance in democracies and the dangers associated with that, the idea that non-human animals deserve better treatment in general, or the thesis that artificial intelligence raises many problems that we should all be aware of.
Regarding the last (artificial intelligence), I just published a book of interviews for the general public titled “Thinking the New World: Conversations on Artificial Intelligence” (2023). This book project arose from a documentary that I hosted in 2019: I noticed that the documentary would last approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes, but we had recorded more than 10 hours of discussion with the 13 researchers. With the aim of reaching non-academics, I decided to transcript the entire interviews and, after revisions, gather them in one book that is finally out on Amazon for a reasonable price, compared with the traditional prices you get for academic books. (available here: https://stevensgouveia.weebly.com/thinking-the-new-world.html). In the course on Democracy with Noam Chomsky, I asked him how we can be politically active or criticize the status quo while our funds come from the government, which, a lot of the time, is the organization that will pay your salary (via universities).
His answer was amazingly beautiful: it was all about courage – you will have negative backlash for sure, but the Truth and what is Right deserve that sacrifice from you. Of course, most people nowadays prefer a calm and stable academic position, and, sometimes, to argue in favor of specific topics can literally affect your job prospects (I personally know some philosophers who, because they argued in favor of specific topics, even though they were brilliant academics and the most suitable candidates for specific positions, weren’t hired because someone on the hiring committee “didn’t like her/his views”). At this point, and against much friendly advice, I am more certain that I prefer to be on the right side of mankind, even if I will have to switch careers in the future.
Regarding the first (extreme poverty), I wrote a book in 2020 (in Portuguese) on applied ethics about eight specific ethical problems that we, as a society, should take seriously. The first chapter is about the Ethics of Effective Altruism, where I argue that, even if we don’t have a moral obligation to donate all our income, we certainly have a moral duty to donate part of our income that doesn’t affect your own life significantly (for example, by donating 10% of your income in a first stage). I was very happy when I was approached by a reader who had read the book and told me her story: she was the owner of a human resources company, and after reading the book and doing research on Effective Altruism in general, she decided to switch her company to an EA-inspired company by hiring people who will use their time and income to improve the world. Moreover, after all expenses are paid, 100% of the profit of the company will go to effective altruistic causes. I’m currently the Ethical Consultant of the company, and you can find more information about it here: https://www.altruistic-careers.com/.
SV: How do you think your publicly engaged initiatives impact on your own research and your philosophical development?
SG: I’m not sure that this is a solid statement since I would need to do a cogent study on this, but at least from my own experience, I think I learned quite a lot more from non-philosophers than from the typical trained philosopher. But again, I may be a bit biased since I decided to do a PhD on an interdisciplinary topic that tried to analyze how philosophy and neuroscience could work together to solve the problem of the conscious mind. I was lucky enough to work in a neuroscience lab in Ottawa, where I was surrounded by researchers from different backgrounds, such as psychology, neuroscience, psychiatry, engineering, etc. This multidisciplinary environment allowed me to think and consider philosophical problems with different lenses but also with different criticism, which allowed me to develop new philosophical paths.
Of course, this influence was still “academic”, even if it was different from the kind of influence I would get from academic philosophy. From the general public, I also learned a lot about my own thinking and research, particularly considering my ethical work. It is incredible what you can learn from different points of view about things that you could spend an entire life thinking about and never come to that specific idea or objection. Philosophers are sometimes too restrained by their own philosophical training, and we become “blind” to things in the world that are almost too obvious to be seriously considered. For those reasons, I hope to maintain a balance between my academic duties and my public initiatives in the future, between having a job while also having a positive impact on the world.