Teaching Philosophy and Truths To Live By

Dedication:  This article is dedicated to my first philosophy professor Prof. Gordon (Langara College) as well as Prof. Sommers (UH) whose courses caused me to lose many hours of sleep for all the right reasons and whose teaching I try to emulate.

Here are some of my thoughts on teaching philosophy.  Later in the post I make some comments on elements that I think make a great course.  I want to be clear that I don’t think I’ve achieved them but they are part of what I think I ought to be striving for.  Also, I realize it’s probably presumptuous and naive to think that after only 2 years of teaching philosophy I can make any pronouncements on the subject, but fuck it. Here goes.

What Makes A Good Intro Philosophy Class
A good intro philosophy class causes mental anguish.  The anguish happens because the students embark, willingly or otherwise, on an intellectual journey where many of their beliefs that seemed obviously true become uncertain.  Their most basic beliefs about the nature of the universe, the mind, moral responsibility, right and wrong, good and bad are all shown to be on shaky foundations–if on any at all.  And the foundations are not just shaky because of some fanciful and implausible Matrix-like scenarios.  The foundations are weak for good reasons that they often can find no way to reject.

I’m not just talking about beliefs that are a consequence of a sheltered existence of which young students will be disabused later in life.  I’m talking about beliefs that the majority of people all over the world consider to be self-evident.

The anguish grows throughout the course as common sense belief after common sense belief is shown to be untenable.  The uncertainty this creates can have two effects; not necessarily mutually exclusive.  In fact, the mark of a great intro course is that the two effects are not mutually exclusive.  One effect, I have mentioned already: anguish.  How is it possible that everything that seemed so obviously true is now so obviously murky? What should I believe? The progressive disintegration of certainty and its inevitable replacement with uncertainty is unsettling  The second effect is a thirst to know more in hopes to reclaim some of the lost certainty.

Each unit has the following arc.  I begin with the destructive phase.  We read an article that definitively undermines the common sense view.  The natural reaction is to reject the conclusion in order to hold onto what they had previously thought self-evident.  The problem is that they can’t find fault with the argument.  Together, we go through each premise and try to find a way out, but alas, there is a powerful counter-reply for every objection.  The anxiety begins but hopefully that’s not all. 

Humans have an aversion to uncertainty.  The justifications for my students’ beliefs have just been decisively undercut and have been replaced with a well-justified unpalatable alternatives.   But they don’t want to accept this alternative.  There must be a way out.  This longing for a way out is what instigates the desire to learn more.  Maybe this next reading offers a way out.

The next reading is presented and discussed in class.  Initially if conforms better with their intuitions. Then we start to explore some of the objections and hidden consequences.  The objections are valid. The consequences undesirable.  We need a new answer.  “You’ll find it in your book right after the previous reading.  Read it tonight and we’ll discuss it tomorrow.”  

We repeat the process.  The anxiety starts to grow again.  

“We need an answer!  Just tell us the answer!”  

“What’s the point of philosophy? Nothing is ever solved! This is stupid.”

Frustration is setting in.  We want our certainty back.  It’s so much more comfortable.

Here is what separates a good philosophy class from a great one.  A good one whips the students into an existential frenzy and shows them that the universe is not the simple place they thought it was.  They learn that it’s not as easy as it initially appeared to ascribe moral responsibility and blame and that these concepts might not ever be applicable as we typically use them; that neither dualism nor physicalism give us entirely satisfactory answers about the nature of mind and consciousness; that what is good and what is right can come apart and there is no clear way to choose between the two; that your beliefs can sometimes be justified without you knowing they’re justified; that a belief can be justified and true yet still not count as knowledge; that even if there is a god he/she/it probably doesn’t have the properties we ascribe to him/her/it.  Most importantly, they learn to withhold assent until they’ve thoroughly thought through the consequences of an argument–no matter how much it accords with what they want to be true.

Humans hate uncertainty.  It bothers us and we avoid it when we can.  A great philosophy course distinguishes itself from a good philosophy course in that it engenders hope that some form of progress on these issues is possible.  Philosophy is not a fun house of theories posing as illusions of truth.  We can move forward but progress is slow.  Patience and careful thinking are necessary virtues.  If you don’t have them, you must develop them or you will be in for a frustrating experience.

There is an analogy with science I offer my students:  No one ever throws their hands up at “science” and says “look at all those theories that didn’t work out, science can’t answer anything!” Science is a wasteland of discarded theories which were all at one time considered “true” or at least well-supported.  The idea is that we don’t approach truth directly but we circle in on it by discarding what is not well-supported and keeping whatever is.  Approaching truth is a slow and difficult process, not a one-off affair.

At any given moment on most issues in science there are competing theories.  The presence of competing theories isn’t evidence  that there’s no answer to the issue nor that both theories are of equal merit.  As more and better evidence comes in, one theory will become untenable while the other one continues to have no obvious reason to reject it.  We discard the former and keep the later.

The same applies to philosophy.  The history of philosophy is a wasteland of theories on every philosophical issue–alive and dead.  This is evidence of progress.  We have found reason to reject many theories.  The ones that remain are well-supported given our current epistemic position.  When arguments and evidence become available to reject one over another as has happened throughout the course of both scientific and philosophical history, progress will have been made.

This raises a problem that Descartes recognized:  How do we know in advance which theories will eventually turn out to be true and which will turn out to be false?  The answer, of course, is that we can’t.  And this is what motivated Descartes’ method of radical doubt. Rather than build a foundation of scientific knowledge on theories and facts that may one day collapse under the weight of new evidence, he treated anything that could possibly turn out to be false as false.  Now, we’ll only build our edifice of knowledge on facts and theories that will never falter.   There, problem solved.  

Or are we just left with another problem?  If we reject everything that that could possibly turn out to be false, no matter how remote the possibility, what are we left with?  I won’t spoil it for you but the answer is not much.  Not enough to rebuild a scientific account of the world, anyway.

You might complain that philosophy doesn’t tell us what’s true it only tells us what’s false. But philosophy is in good company: the exact same criticism can be leveled at science.  

Today was the last lecture for my 101 class.  We were discussing Chalmers’ claim that a complete science of the mind cannot be achieved if we restrict ourself to a purely physicalist conception of the universe. That is, the physical sciences can never give us a complete understanding of the mind because to understand the mind you also have to study subjective conscious experience–and consciousness doesn’t exist as physical phenomena, it’s mental.  Selon Chalmers, the subjective phenomenology of experience, by definition, is outside the grasp of the physical sciences. Charmers also says that even if we understood all the physical systems of the brain, down to the neuron, we still wouldn’t be able to answer why these processes give rise to conscious experience and how consciousness arises from purely physical processes (in the brain).

But Churchland and Dennett disagree. And they have some fairly compelling arguments too from which I’ll spare you.  By the end of the lecture I could see my students were a bit distraught.  I polled the class, asking whose side they thought was most compelling and why.  Most didn’t want to commit.  They saw the strength of both positions but also that logically you had to accept one or the other.  They can’t both be true.

I don’t want my students to leave their (most likely only) philosophy class as hardened skeptics throwing their hands up in the air at any attempt to establish certainty.  This isn’t a good pedagogical outcome.  I want them to believe that progress is possible on many issues and that not all positions are of equal strength.  Progress is possible but you must invest time and energy.  Knowledge doesn’t come easy, you have to work for it.  As Burge says:

Genuine understanding is a rare and valuable commodity, not to be obtained on the cheap.

Aside: Upon disclosing that we work in philosophy, every philosopher is inevitably asked the same question: “So, what’s your philosophy?”  In the context of academic philosophy, this question makes no sense and is the subject of much eye-rolling and laugher amongst philosophers. Nevertheless, I’ve always wanted to have an answer to the question–one that didn’t belittle the question but recognized in it the interlocutor’s potentially genuine philosophical curiosity and desire to potentially gain some insight.  Over the last two years or so I think I’ve finally come up with an answer I like.  More on that in a moment…

I didn’t like the fact that my students were visibly anxious at the end of my last lecture to them. This isn’t how I want them to remember philosophy. One student raised her hand and asked the inevitable question.  “What’s the point of all this if there’s no answer?  No matter what position we take there are going to be problems.”  

Ah! The need for certainty. 

“I have some philosophical truth for you.  Do you want to hear it?”  I asked.  “Please! Tell us NOW!” they implored.  I looked at each of them and said, “OK, here are three.”

1.  Your own happiness is bound up in the happiness of others.


2.  There are two things that are necessary to have a meaningful life.  There are others as well, but without these two you have no chance:  You must cultivate and strive for personal excellence in whatever you do and with equal or greater effort you must help others cultivate and realize their own personal excellence.  You cannot have a meaningful life if your life does not include both of these things.


3.  The suffering of others matters.  You have an obligation to reduce the suffering of others in so far as you are able.


Now you have your precious certainty.   

Live by it.

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