(cross posted at In Socrates’ Wake)
In my time as a philosophy professor I have continuously noticed one thing: students (well, people in general, obviously) like to “collect” conclusions like some people like to collect stamps or coins. What I mean is this: when you go through an argument for X in class, you can tell that some people who were disposed towards X in the first place now feel as if X, which they had already in the past “collected,” was now authenticated because an argument exists for it. The argument could be awful, but that’s fine, because all they were looking to do in the first place was collect X and put it in their “belief sack” and continue on their way. It could be that they don’t even understand the argument. That’s fine too.
Same thing happens in the reverse. You can tell that students who are wildly against X will refuse to believe X, no matter how many arguments you present for it, or no matter how many arguments you can muster against X. At some point in the past they “collected” X and no one is going to take X away from them. This is fairly typical behavior, and there’s nothing shocking or unusual about it. But in philosophy I always think that what we’re trying to do is get people past that. Just because it’s natural to do it doesn’t mean we ought to embrace the practice.
If you like X, great. But you really shouldn’t like X if there isn’t a good argument for it. And if someone presents you with a really good argument against X, it should bother you, because now your belief in X should be shaken to some degree. You shouldn’t just dismiss the argument without even trying to analyze it critically because you’ve already previously collected X and no one is going to take it from you. In other words, part of philosophy is about training people to appreciate the importance of attending to arguments for and against one’s position. We don’t just collect conclusions (which sounds more like the business of subjectivism) — we assess arguments. The conclusions we end up with are the ones that stand up best over time.
What interests me about this, though, is the fact that I don’t think many philosophy students are all that different about the desire to collect conclusions than anyone else. I noticed this the other day in Modern Philosophy (hello to those students, if you are reading this!). After presenting Descartes’ ontological proof in Meditation 5, my students were left without a clue as to how to critique the argument. But yet they (many of them, anyway) seemed entirely unmoved by the conclusion — that God necessarily exists. Does this mean that they had already “collected” the conclusion that God doesn’t exist, or at least that no argument could establish it, and no one is going to rob them of that? I should hope not, because then the only thing that makes a philosophy student different from everyone else is this: philosophy students collect stranger conclusions. But they’d still be collectors, just like just about everyone else.