As the Class of 2018 prepared to graduate, we wanted to hear from philosophy graduates about their time as philosophy majors at Puget Sound. Jessica Chan-Ugalde ’18 majored in both Philosophy and Computer Science. In the summer of 2017, she conducted summer research that combined both disciplines. She was also an awardee of the John and Kathryn Magee Memorial Scholarship Award for 2018.
If you are interested in becoming a philosophy major, if you are a current philosophy major looking for advice from recent alumni, or if you’re simply curious about the endeavors of a philosophy major at Puget Sound, read Jessica Chan-Ugalde’s interview below:
How did you get interested in philosophy in the first place?
I’ve liked philosophy since middle school and took a course at my local community college my freshman year of high school. When I got to college, I wanted to take some courses just for fun. I took Human Natures (SSI with Prof. Justin Tiehen) my second semester of freshman year and realized how much more I enjoyed writing philosophy papers (as opposed to papers in other disciplines). The topics discussed and readings assigned in class addressed a lot of issues that had been floating around in my mind, sometimes largely unarticulated. I found that the process of philosophizing was also an exercise in self-expression.
When and why did you ultimately decide to become a philosophy major?
I really just love the discipline. I kept on taking philosophy courses until it became an easy decision to major. I knew I was going to major at the end of sophomore year. It took me longer to decide to actually major because computer science was my primary major and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to meet both requirements. When it became clear that this was a feasible option, I declared.
How did your parents and strangers react when you told them you were a philosophy major?
Because I’m also a computer science major, I think people react more to the combination of CS and philosophy as a major than philosophy alone. I think some people are wary about the job market for philosophy majors and find CS to be more reliable and lucrative. I’ve also found that people my age are more likely to recognize that three quarters of college graduates work in a field unrelated to their major.
Is there an area of philosophy that interests you the most?
This is a difficult question. There are so many ways to index topics within computer science (e.g. traditional branches, methodology, time period, etc.). If I had to choose, I think I’d go with how different philosophers interpret the divine and our relationship to it. For example, Aristotle talks about a ‘god-like’ quality that humans possess (EN Book X) with which we should align ourselves; Descartes justifies the existence of an external world by appealing to god. One aspect of this area that’s particularly interesting to me is how logical frameworks and epistemological traditions influence our ontological assumptions of the divine.
Has your study of philosophy informed your day to day life or how you make decisions?
Yes, immensely. There’s always a part of my mind that consults philosophy before I make decisions. I’ve learned to be more charitable to others (and myself) — as a result I’m less attached to being right and more interested in rigorous analysis. I don’t think a day goes by where I don’t think about or implement a philosophical concept to some degree.
What was your favorite philosophy class? Why?
This is also a difficult question. I’m going to have to go with Ancient Philosophy. I think it’s amazing to see how philosophies formed thousands of years ago are still discussed, implemented, and amended to this day. Additionally, the content of the class has come up time and time again in my studies of more contemporary philosophers — the extent to which ancient philosophers influence contemporary philosophical dialectics is impressive.
How has your other major shaped your philosophical studies and vice versa?
Computer science is a field that requires creativity, diligence, and attention to detail. It also prizes optimization — the concept that the results of a program are not the only success metric for it. Instead, we should also look at how we achieved the result and whether it is efficient and robust. This practice has made me more conscientious of making robust claims and arguing for them in the clearest, most efficient manner possible.
Could you describe the summer research you did in 2017?
Last summer I was looking at the ethical implications of recommender systems (algorithms that decide what to show or recommend to you). I wanted to find a link between Aristotelian friendship ethics and the ethical responsibility of ‘artificial agents’ (non-biological agents, like artificial intelligence). I found that there is significant philosophical precedents that support the idea of conceding agency — and by extension, moral agency — to intelligent, non-biological entities. Given that artificial agents may in some circumstances be considered moral agents, I found that it is a tenable option to subject them (e.g. AI, recommender systems) to the same ethical responsibility we subject our friends to (e.g. not disseminating misinformation, expressing ‘good-will’).
Do you have advice for philosophy students interested in summer research?
I’d recommend starting with a very narrow topic and expanding as necessary. Considering students are usually very passionate about their summer research, it’s very easy to be carried away into interesting rabbit holes that can detract from the cohesiveness of the final research product.
Do you have a particular memory as a philosophy major at Puget Sound that stands out to you?
There are many memories that stand out to me. However, there is one strand of memories that are particularly memorable. I’ve visited my professors’ office hours pretty regularly every semester and it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my college career. The kindness, interest, and encouragement extended to me and my philosophical endeavors made me feel like a part of the UPS philosophy community. The conversations I’ve had during office hours made me realize that I can no longer imagine a life without philosophy.
Do you have any advice for current philosophy students?
Take advantage of office hours! It’s so helpful to articulate (or at least attempt to) questions or concepts that remain nebulous in your mind. Especially early on, it’s really useful to have someone guide your thinking/writing process.
Any final thoughts?
The philosophy department at UPS is impressive in rigor, community, and care. My education here has shaped my conduct, analytic process, and intellectual interests. I’m very thankful to have been a part of it.