Peter Boghossian, a Portland State University philosophy professor, is my type of teacher.
He doesn't believe in letting faith-based beliefs go unchallenged in his classroom. If you spout religious ridiculousness, like "I know it's true because the BIble says so," Boghossian will do his best to cure your cognitive sickness.
So saith a story in the Portland Oregonian about an upcoming public lecture:
Peter Boghossian 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.
"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," he wrote in an online piece at Inside Higher Ed. "Some values, like matters of taste, have a fundamentally internal, subjective component. Facts relate to the objective status of things."
Good for Boghossian. His Inside Higher Ed piece is well worth reading.
He says that knowing facts is not enough; we must be willing to act upon the promise of the truth of our beliefs. Otherwise we haven't really understood reality, like the student he talks about at the beginning of his essay. On an exam she said that her answers were what Boghossian had said in class, but actually she believes that God created and oversees the universe.
Should a professor leave her faith-based belief system alone? Is an educator's duty merely to teach critical thinking, not to make sure a student really knows how to use that cognitive tool?
Boghossian argues that action has to go hand-in-hand with well-founded conclusions about reality. Realizing that your house is on fire isn't of much use if you're not willing to pick up a fire extinguisher or call 911.
The primary goal of every academic should be to bring students’ beliefs into lawful alignment with reality. An example from critical thinking may help to make this clear: there are certain ways of making decisions that are superior to other ways of making decisions.
Drawing from our civil engineering example above, if I want to figure out how far to dig into the earth when laying a foundation for a bridge, a bad way to do this would be to flip a coin: heads it’s 50 meters and tails it’s 200. Rather, one should act upon the best available evidence and make a rational, informed decision that should then guide one’s actions.
It is not enough to merely present students with better ways of making educated, rational decisions. It is an indispensable part of the educational process that students then leave the learning environment and actually build reliable, practical bridges in which travelers can literally trust their lives.
I browsed through some of the comments on Boghossian's "Should We Challenge Student Beliefs?" Quite a few were wildly off the mark. It isn't valid to criticize him for supposedly claiming that he has an unarguable understanding of reality, and his students can't disagree with him.
Boghossian is calling for the same thing that I ask for, over and over, on this blog: demonstrable evidence. If you believe something is true, objectively true, not just true for you, then you need to provide good reasons for that belief.
What is demonstrably true today may be superceded by a truer truth tomorrow. That's what the tree of knowledge does. Branches grow, change, blossom, die back, send out new shoots. There's no end to the growth of human understanding.
But religions try to block inquiry into knowledge areas that threaten faith-based beliefs. Often true believers defend this dark ages mentality by seeking refuge in "I'm entitled to my own values."
Yes, you are. However, you're not entitled to your own reality. That belongs to everyone. Religious people can believe any crazy thing they want to, so long as they acknowledge there's no reason for anyone else to accept that it is objectively true.
When it comes to facts supported by demonstrable evidence, though, no one should be allowed to substitute their personal subjectivity for what's true. If you have good reasons for your alternative truth, bring them forward. Share them.
In the end, the truth wins out. That's why Boghossian correctly challenges faith-based beliefs. If truth and falsehood don't fight on the battleground of rational discourse, the winner will remain unknown.
There is an incommensurable gulf between attempting to change students’ values and attempting to help students align their beliefs with reality. Some values, like matters of taste, have a fundamentally internal, subjective component. Facts relate to the objective status of things. Belief that homosexuals should be allowed to marry, for example, is a moral belief upon which even biological facts about what causes homosexuality may have little effect.
Belief that the age of the earth is closer to 4.5 billion years, not 6,000 years, is a true, empirical belief. The latter does not fall under the category of a matter of taste, instinct, revelation or value, and is true independent of subjective considerations.
With regard to our roles as educators, we should not be seeking to convert students’ moral beliefs, but we should, and we are obligated to, help students lend their beliefs to true propositions and repudiate false ones.
First time poster but I've been reading the blog a lot the past few weeks.
An educator should challenge one's students but I think he/she should also be respectful of their different points of view. Where religion is concerned, challenging one's belief system is a big scary thing for the student. The educator should always allow the student to have their beliefs and be aware of their cognitive bias against those beliefs. It's a tough balancing act. If you're going to lecture and give assignments on religion and are lacking in religious belief, you need to design your assignments and tests in a way that helps minimize your bias and clearly define expectations. Tough call.
Bias hits us all the time. At the same time though, challenging one's beliefs, I think, is a very healthy thing. It forces us to re-examine who we are, what we're about, what we believe in. It can lead to a lot of growth.
Posted by: Mike | November 25, 2011 at 07:46 AM
Mike, your attitude on this issue is nicely balanced.
I agree that we have to be careful about challenging people about their religious beliefs. My basic stance is that so long as a belief is basically personal, not edging into the "political" (broadly speaking), there's no problem.
But if someone has an unfounded belief that interferes with other people's ability to live effectively in demonstrable reality, then we have a problem. Embryonic stem cell research is an example. Fine, someone wants to believe that life is holy and begins at conception. However, that belief isn't a justifiable reason to deny funding for stem cell research.
Reasonable reasons have to be given when a belief affects other people. I think this is the position of the professor I blogged about. I doubt that he challenges students who believe that such-and-such style of music, or way of dressing, is the best/most desirable. Often no reasons need be given for a belief, because it rests in the realm of the subjective.
I've also enjoyed your other comments. Welcome to this blog. Hope you return and take part in other comment conversations.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | November 25, 2011 at 10:29 AM
"...challenging one's beliefs, I think, is a very healthy thing. It forces us to re-examine who we are, what we're about, what we believe in. It can lead to a lot of growth."
I don't believe in "growth". Beliefs are growths - tumors - that need to be removed by seeing the fearful, wishful thinking that nurtures and sustains them.
Posted by: cc | November 25, 2011 at 12:36 PM