Thursday, May 17, 2012

More on Students and God

Looking back, I see that nearly every year that I have taught "Modern Philosophy," I have written about students' struggles with how much the modern philosophers (1600s-1700s) talk about God.  Here is one example of a previous posting on this.

This year we kept having a certain debate in class.  A few students got annoyed with philosophers who, in their view, evoked God to explain what cannot be explained.  They wrote this off as a cheap trick, a cop out, with no intellectual merit.

I argued against this point every time it came up, and in every way I could think of.  I pointed out that the philosophers constructed arguments for their views.  We examined these arguments in depth.  I then asked the students, "if you disagree with the conclusion, then can you point out where the argument goes wrong?"  Sometimes we found that the arguments were deductively valid.  "So, if you disagree with the conclusion, since there is nothing wrong with the philosopher's reasoning, it must be that you disagree with one or more premises.  Which one(s)?"

Other times, when we discussed the great explanatory power of the concept of God as grounding the orderliness of the universe, again, the "cop out" complaint would emerge, and so I would ask the offended student, "can you explain this any better?"  They would vaguely say, "well, science answers these questions now!"  When I pressed them to say more, they would claim, "I am not a scientist, and so I do not know -- but I am sure science can explain all of this now!"

Then I would give them my best account of science's answers, and they would be amazed and impressed at how much I knew (I specialized in philosophy of science).  We talked about cosmogeny, Newton's laws, relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and the theory of evolution.  But then I would ask, "Do these scientific theories really provide fully satisfactory answers to our deeper questions?"

A central question we kept coming back to concerned the emerging view of this time period of "matter."  Many students now take for granted that physical materialism can explain everything.  But it cannot explain life, or consciousness.  The Modern philosophers realized that, and puzzled over it.  Many alternative theories were formed:  that all matter is infused with life and consciousness; that there is some mysterious connection between matter and spirit; or that matter is not even real.  But those views ended up fading from Western thought in favor of a theory of matter understood as itself dead and inert.  Thus arose the philosophical problem of how life and consciousness can emerge from something that does not in itself contain these properties.  "Why not give priority instead to conscious life as the most real 'substance' in the universe?" I would ask the class.  "There is a certain elegant simplicity to that approach!  It renders those other questions moot.  And, is this not a more honest approach?  If we look honestly at our lives, don't we care more about thoughts, ideas, consciousness, than about material objects in and of themselves?"

"But that is anthropomorphizing!" my students would protest.

"So, out of humility, we give ontological priority to a conception of matter as lifeless and inert -- we infuse it with the power to purposelessly, thoughtlessly, even accidentally, create life and consciousness and purpose?  And this has somehow worked well for us?!  We regard this view as rationally superior to giving life, consciousness, love, purpose, and goodness, ontological priority?  It is more rational to regard the latter as woefully misguided superstition?  Show me that rational proof, then!"

It was an exciting semester!

I thought our discussions were great. 

Then I read their final papers.  Several students dismissed the "God cop-out" without even deigning to try to argue for their views in this respect.

I feel really depressed about this.

While it is true that I want to give my students the freedom to believe what they want to believe, what depresses me is that, after all that, they did not at least pick up on two important facts:  (1) I am not going to automatically agree with them that believing in God is a cop out, and especially (2): they must argue for what they believe!

If even wonderful, thoughtful philosophy students such as these cannot get over strongly entrenched biases after a whole semester of intense discussions, what hope do I reasonably have that on my sabbatical I can at last write the book that will heal the science and religion divide in Western thought?

Yet, that remains my audacious hope!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Happy May!

Another semester is drawing to a close.  I just submitted final grades, and am in that strange state of being that one is in just after submitting grades.  It is a mixture of intense anxiety and looming enormous relief.  The anxiety is because you know this matters very much to the students, and you hope you were fair, and you worry that some will be upset and will write angry or painful notes.  The looming enormous relief wants to break through, but for a while that anxiety is pretty intense.

But I am especially happy to be finished now, because I am on sabbatical next year!  And, in fact, I am in my library carrel right now, about to resume work on one of my writing projects!

Meanwhile, this heron family has been keeping me company through all of the end of semester busyness.