Philosophy professor’s challenge sparks discussion
Peter Boghossian, a philosophy professor at Portland State, ruffled quite a few feathers last year with his arguments that college instructors should not be afraid to correct a student’s beliefs in things like creationism in the classroom.
His article “Should We Challenge Student Beliefs?” in Inside Higher Ed, an online educational journal, was followed by a lecture open to the public on campus titled “Faith, Belief and Hope: From Cognitive Sickness to Moral Value and Back Again,” which was covered by The Oregonian and various online news outlets.
It apparently started when a student of his proclaimed her adamant creationist belief that the Christian God created the cosmos, including Earth dinosaurs, and humans, about 6,000 years ago. Boghossian tried but was unable to “disabuse” her of that belief on the basis that both the process by which she arrived at her conclusion and her conclusion itself were both fundamentally flawed and wrong.
“I believe our role as educators should be to teach students not just factual data,” Boghossian wrote, “but the importance of critically examining beliefs by exposing them to facts and then revising cherished notions when confronted with reliable but discomforting evidence.”
The student refused to budge an inch and went so far as to write on her final exam that her belief in God and her beliefs about God were “ABSOLUTE” and that no amount of silly things like facts, logic or reason would ever change that. (If that’s really the case, I’m also hoping she never reproduces and thus never has a chance to help pass that deranged line of thinking on to the next generation.)
Critics of Boghossian argue that it’s not really a professor’s place to be foisting beliefs onto students, but he counters by making the very valid distinction between subjective beliefs—those of taste, opinion, and values—and objective ones—beliefs about how the world actually is.
Subjective beliefs are entirely personal and have no real meaning outside of the holder. For example, I believe that pumpkin pie tastes good. That is a matter of taste, and has no consequence for me or the world outside of a few extra gym workouts around Thanksgiving to balance out all those delicious pie-crust calories. He, of course, would be overstepping some boundary by trying to convince me that pumpkin pie does not in fact taste good.
But suppose I believed that pumpkin pie also granted me eternal life. That is an objective belief about how the world works—one that is testable, verifiable and presumably false. Boghossian, or any college professor, would be doing me a disservice by not correcting that false belief.
One might consider them obligated to set me straight, because that belief could be potentially damaging down the road. The same is true for the student’s belief that God created the universe 1,500 years after inhabitants of the ancient Near East were developing the first irrigation techniques that would provide the foundation for all permanent agricultural civilizations in the area.
There is a peculiar American cultural tendency to shield faith-based conclusions (“religious beliefs”) from the same rational scrutiny we utilize in every other area of life. For example, we’re quick to point out that a person who believes another based on the statement “you know I’m trustworthy because I say so” is probably about to be taken for a ride. But when someone says “I believe the Bible is the word of God because the Bible says so,” we suddenly withhold judgment. We might even agree with them.
In the interest of fostering a genuinely rational country in which to live, this kind of “tolerance” must stop. A cursory review of the current political climate should be all the evidence one needs. Republican presidential-hopeful Rick Santorum has recently risen to popularity on a largely anti-gay platform.
In any other first world country, his views and those of his supporters would be recognized as completely bigoted and irrational, but instead we consider them at the very least a valid position because they claim to be religious in nature.
Faith-based conclusions formed by processes completely detached from logic and reason seeping into public policy is precisely the area Boghossian maintains its most important to remember the difference between subjective and objective beliefs and the place each has in our lives.
People are free to use whichever thought processes they wish and to draw their own subjective conclusions from those processes. But when a person attempts to translate a logically unsupportable faith-based objective belief about the world into laws that govern everyone, there is a problem.
Aside from the impossible issue of deciding which religious beliefs would be “right” and which would be “wrong” (because there are quite a few rule sets to pick from, even within the same systems), our country is supposed to follow a principle commonly referred to the separation of church and state.
Essentially, the government isn’t supposed to pass any laws that would make the tenets of any religion actual public policy, thus forcibly applying that religion to everyone.
That is exactly why when the federal government passes a law that prohibits same-sex couples from accessing the same legal benefits as heterosexual married couples, we have a problem.
When schools teach ineffective abstinence-only sex education classes, which actually lead to higher rates of teen pregnancy, we have a problem.
When legislators argue about the “sanctity” of microscopic human cell clusters in a Petri dish versus the potentially life-saving benefits of stem cell research for millions of suffering human beings, we have a problem.
There was a time in Western culture when religion ruled every aspect of life, and those with dissenting opinions were instantly put to death. We accurately describe that pitiful time in history as the Dark Ages.
Let’s leave the light on, shall we? ■