Philosophy Professor to Students: You’re Wrong

A Portland State University professor believes that “the primary goal of every academic should be to bring students’ beliefs into lawful alignment with reality.” The problem is that our access to the truth about what is real is, many times, unclear and beyond our reach.

Peter Boghossian believes Creationism is a verifiable fiction. While that’s not necessarily an odd or even uncommon belief, he also believes its his job as a philosophy professor to teach that to his philosophy students. His argument is that philosophy professors have an academic (and perhaps moral) responsibility to teach students what he believes is the truth even if it makes them uncomfortable.  When it comes to creationism, the truth has been established: “Both the process that allows one to arrive at Creationist conclusions, and the conclusions themselves, are completely Double_Persecutiondivorced from reality.” Boghossian uses his stance on Creationism in the classroom as an example to make a broader, and perhaps more controversial, point.

In a recent article for Inside Higher Ed professor Boghossian of Portland State University (Oregon) sketches his position that professors should have a primary goal of changing students beliefs if those beliefs are false and seek to replace those beliefs with true ones. He asks, “Should professors attempt to change students’ beliefs by consistently challenging false beliefs with facts?” On the surface, an affirmative answer to this question seems obvious. What professor would want his students to walk out of his or her class with clearly false information when he or she has the power to set the record straight. “I believe our role as educators should be to teach students not just factual data, but the importance of critically examining beliefs by exposing them to facts, and then revising cherished notions when confronted with reliable but discomforting evidence.”

Some of his colleagues disagree. They argue that the role of a professor is to provide students with data and reasoning skills so they can make the appropriate conclusions on their own. Professor Boghossian counters that this approach is not only misguided but could be dangerous. He offers a couple of analogies to help make his point. Mathematicians don’t teach their students that the plus sign could be used to add two numbers and if a student disagreed, she should send her on her merry way pleased that she drew her own conclusions on the matter.

Similarly if a civil engineering professor taught his students that in general steel is superior to balsa wood as a building material for constructing bridges but that the student should draw his own conclusion about the matter, he would be at the very least negligent and more accurately incompetent. In these disciplines, part of the essential role of the professor is to teach facts and to disabuse students of false ideas. He writes, “The primary goal of every academic should be to bring students’ beliefs into lawful alignment with reality.” I am in agreement with professor Boghossian on this point. Sort of. The problem is that our access to the truth about what is real is, many times, unclear and beyond our reach.

Philosophy and access to truth

In this article, I think professor Boghossian paints a far too simplistic picture of both the educational process and the process of knowing in general. Access to truth comes in degrees and isn’t an either/or (either one has it or one doesn’t) enterprise. It seems fairly obvious that there are many academic disciplines that ought to focus on disseminating factual information where professors should work to ensure their students’ beliefs align with those facts. But the nature of these disciplines is such that the facts about the subject matter (or at least large portions of the subject matter) either is widely established or relatively unambiguous. Low-level math and introductory logic may be examples as are certain types of civil engineering, parts of physics, and even some parts of music and literary theory. But not all knowledge domains are like this. There are a many disciplines and sub-disciplines that are fraught with ambiguity, competing theories, insufficient data, difficult problems, and lack of proof that defies drawing certain conclusions.

Is the Mona Lisa beautiful? Is string theory (in any of its many variants) correct? Is the punctuated equilibrium theory of evolution true? There are certainly good arguments that warrant a “yes” vote for each of these questions. But there are equally strong arguments such that a “no” or “I don’t know” vote is just as warranted. What is a professor to do in these situations?

The scenario is exacerbated when it comes to philosophy. Non-professionals tend to have the opinion that philosophy makes little to no progress, isn’t testable or subject to disconfirmation, is esoteric and impractical, and in short, is little more than a bunch of opinions where each philosopher’s view on a topic is no better or worse than any other philosopher. Many of the problems philosophers tackle are very opaque and extremely challenging and that can foster views like the one above. While I don’t believe the caricature is at all accurate, I do think the complexity and ambiguity of philosophical topics should foster a deep epistemic humility and tentativeness when it comes to making certain claims about the truth of a great many topics.

This doesn’t mean that philosophy professors shouldn’t make truth claims. We do and should. But it does mean, I think, that philosophy education should emphasize method, analytical thinking skills, frameworks, and history with the goal of providing students with the tools they need to think about disparate viewpoints and to provide them with the means to think more deeply on their own. There are topics in philosophy that do warrant a clear statement of truth. But in most cases, philosophy professors would do well to introduce or postscript their lessons with, “this is what I and others believe and here’s why but you should look at all sides of this issue and draw conclusions based on a rigorous analysis of the topic.” This isn’t a vice of the discipline but one of its many virtues.

Censure or virtue?

According to (an online magazine associated with The Oregonian), professor Boghossian will be giving a lecture in which he “will argue that faith-based beliefs are a ‘cognitive sickness’ that have been turned into a moral virtue and that -- like racist beliefs -- they should be given no countenance in the classroom.” There are many taking a similar approach and some of the criticisms they’re leveling are warranted. But on any honest read, the issues in philosophy of religion are complex and to conclude that the views of religious believers have no place in the classroom (I’ll even limit this to the philosophy classroom) seems out of bounds. The issues I encounter in the classroom more often than not are ones having to do with poor method or immaturity and not necessarily content (many times have I received comments similar to the one Boghossian read on his student’s final). Both believing and non-believing students often make assertions that they think should be taken as an argument or argue poorly and take any critical assessment of their argument as an “attack on faith” or “evidence of the disenfranchisement of atheism.” But these are exactly the types of issues philosophy is great at addressing and a discussion of faith (or lack thereof) can be a great catalyst for addressing these methodological problems.

This does raise another interesting question: are there any topics that should be “given no countenance in the classroom”? Again, this is complex though my first inclination is that there isn’t. Topics like racism and abortion and gender issues, while “hot button” topics, can foster a tremendous amount of learning and all are philosophically interesting. I’ll also add that there is a difference between a discussion about racism and a student (or professor) making racist remarks or using racism as a weapon against the classroom and learning environment. This is a much different problem but one that won’t be solved by censure. I hope that’s not what professor Boghossian is suggesting.

**Update (12/8/2011)

There has been some interesting dialogue in the blogosphere on professor Boghossian’s article.

Greg Linster published this article generally agreeing with Peter’s position. That generated a fairly heated response from Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger. Greg then wrote a rejoinder to Sanger’s post.

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