5 young philosophers asking 2016’s big questions

Is it possible to reverse the spread of prejudice? Why do we compulsively Google our medical symptoms? What can Plato teach us in the age of Tinder? These rising thinkers might have the answers.

by Hannah Ghorashi
22 September 2016, 8:00pm

While technology continues to solve problems we didn't even know existed (thank you, Uber and Seamless), the conversations it provokes are only getting more complicated. Advances in computer science alone are leaving a complicated web of philosophical consequences in their wake — from legal conundrums (we're looking at you, NSA) to romantic woes (the "catfishing" phenomenon has its own Wikipedia entry) to sinking self-esteem levels (one word: Instagram) to major moral questions (do robots have civil rights?). In other words, we seem to be generating as many philosophic, psychological, and sociological questions as we're solving. And whereas in times past the philosopher was a central part of society, many millennials would be hard-pressed to name one philosopher of their generation besides Kim Kierkegaardashian.

Below, we've rounded up five rising thinkers that are asking some of the biggest questions of the day.

Hannah Tierney believes we're not as self-centered as we may seem.
After earning her Ph.D. in philosophy this year, Hannah Tierney went straight back to school — at Cornell, where she teaches and studies as a postdoctoral fellow. Her specialty is the crossroads where metaphysical questions (to be, or not to be?) meet their ethical counterparts. Tierney believes that ethical responsibilities to humanity at large trump more self-centered concerns regarding personal identity, free will, and the like. It's easy to argue in favor of self-interest — after all, you can never be sure of the existence of anyone's consciousness but your own — but Tierney takes a more karmic view in co-authored essays such as the forthcoming "How Many of Us Are There?", edited by Justin Systma, who also appears on this list. In her view, ethics and metaphysical questions do not intersect, but rather intertwine.

Karmpaul Singh wonders why we obsessively Google our medical symptoms.
Over in the psychology department at the University of Southampton in the UK, Karmpaul Singh contemplates the overlap between health services, mental health, and practical technology. As a Ph.D. student at the University of Manchester, Singh studied a phenomenon familiar to most of us: Googling one's medical symptoms. Specifically, he studied the negative mental health effects of researching symptoms online and using these non-credible findings to self-diagnose, say, a slight tingling sensation in your elbow as evidence of stage four brain cancer. Singh has used his philosophical enquiries to help develop online health interventions as well as websites aimed at augmenting hygienic practices within the general population.

Gina Roussos is exploring the spread (and eradication) of prejudice.
Yale social psychology graduate Gina Roussos tracks the evolution of individuals' prejudices and stereotypes — an effort that feels especially urgent in today's socio-political climate. More than just discovering certain patterns in the lifecycle of bigoted beliefs, Roussos attempts to find the key to uprooting these ideas, a field known as prejudice intervention. Roussos is particularly intrigued by the insidious power of media — specifically TV shows, movies, print magazines, and video and computer games — to manipulate our most personal, tightly held convictions. In two papers published this year, Roussos studies the conception of stereotypes, with focuses on the ideas that take shape in childhood and prejudice against poverty.

Justin Sytsma philosophizes about philosophizing.
Justin Sytsma's work occupies the realm of experimental philosophy, a new field which applies empirical data — the kind obtained from surveys — to guide the study of philosophical issues. Besides philosophy, the impressively bearded Sytsma, who is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, holds degrees in neuroscience and computer science. Unlike others on this list, his research favors the somewhat meta practice of philosophical study itself as opposed to specific subjects of interest. As a result, his expertise has been applied to a wide range of discussions, including folk psychology, the tension between religion and analytic thinking, American versus South Korean conceptions of pain, and of course, robots. This year, Sytsma completed his first co-authored book of philosophy, titled simply The Theory and Practice of Experimental Philosophy.

Maya Krishnan is introducing Plato to the internet.
Rhodes Scholar Maya Krishnan takes the (very) old-school philosophical theories of guys like Plato, Kant, and Heidegger and tries to place those ideas in today's digital world. Having also studied classics and computer science at Stanford, she was initially inspired to pursue philosophy by Plato's The Republic. Her studies now extend to the philosophical ramifications of developments in math and computing. And her side projects are equally impressive: she's working on an online database called POLIS (an interactive, searchable map which overlays datasets of ancient people and places) and a book called, naturally, The Theory of Knowledge.


Text Hannah Ghorashi

gina roussos
hannah tierney
justin sytsma
karmpaul singh
maya krishnan