A Ku Indeed!

Collecting Conclusions

Posted in Course Material, Pedagogy by Chris on September 8, 2007

(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.

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6 Responses

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  1. Mark said, on September 8, 2007 at 10:32 pm

    I think that personal experience is way more important in most people’s lives (philosophers included) than proofs. Someone who has had a very negative experience with the concept of God is going to take that experience more seriously than a proof for God’s necessary existence that is a couple hundred years old. Likewise, someone who has had a charismatic experience in a church is going to be far less likely to take a proof for the non-existence of God seriously.

    While I think that personal experience is really important in how we view the world, I take John Wesley’s view (yes, he a Christian theologian) on the matter. He says we need to take the world on four precepts: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Though I usually don’t take scripture to mean just the Holy Bible, but usually include any serious literary work, I think he’s got a pretty good idea here. That’s just my opinion.

  2. Chris Panza said, on September 8, 2007 at 10:45 pm

    Mark,

    These are all good points, and I think you’re right that this is usually how things go. And certainly I’m not claiming that someone should believe in God (say, just to use an example) because a proof says that God exists (or the reverse either). That would be somewhat odd, to say the least. Rather, what I mean is this: if you are disposed against belief in God (that’s the conclusion you’ve collected), then a proof for God that you can’t criticize should at least bother you in the sense that you want to figure out what’s wrong with it, because (given your predisposition) you don’t believe in God in the first place. To merely shrug off the proof seems disingenuous (even if it is 500, or even 2000 years old), and most certainly so for a person who has picked philosophy as an avocation (I’m just speaking of philosophers in general here).

    I think for the most part, we do want our beliefs to be well-supported. It may be that some are not capable of argumentative support, but the vast majority seem to be, at least to some degree. And I think we certainly want them to be supported. What I find odd is how we (philosophers, particularly) prize this suggestion but then are quick to discard it as soon as it comes in conflict with our conclusion collection.

  3. Claire said, on September 10, 2007 at 8:20 pm

    When I read your post, I’m reminded of the discussions we had on Quine in Being and Knowledge. It seems to me that collecting conclusions is a lot like forming a belief net. The difference is that instead of throwing conclusions into a sack, the conclusions must be arranged in a web. The more important a conclusion is, the closer to the center of the web it should be, and the harder it should be to shake it. I realize I’m probably oversimplifying Quine’s framework, but if we follow it, the behavior you describe makes sense. If a student accepts conclusion X and places it at the center of her/his belief net, s/he is going to be reluctant to reject X regardless of the arguments made against X or lack of arguments in favor of X. Under the best circumstances, if X doesn’t stand up, it should be moved towards the edges of the belief net or rejected entirely. In reality, it seems to me that people (philosophers included) don’t like to rearrange their conceptual frameworks and in some cases are willing to give in to subjectivism in order to hold on to X. I agree with you, we ought to be bothered by good arguments against beliefs we hold at the center of our nets, and shouldn’t find excuses to hold on to a bad conclusion. Unfortunately, we seem inclined to believe what we want to believe instead of challenging our beliefs and attempting to build a better belief net.

  4. Chris said, on September 11, 2007 at 11:54 am

    Claire,

    I think you’ve hit on an important element of the problem, and Quine is the right guy to think of to understand it. Exactly; if a belief ruptures too much of your ‘belief net’ then you are not likely to accept it, unless you’ve figured out a way to accept it and not do unnecessary damage to the rest of your conceptual scheme. That’s why people resist rejecting their own beliefs.

    But the problem goes deeper, I think. Even a person who resists rejecting a long-held conclusion (one central to their belief net) should be bothered by conclusive arguments against that belief. What shouldn’t happen is that a person just shrugs their shoulders and says “I’ll just ignore those arguments because they don’t support my beliefs.”

    It is especially problematic in a philosopher, because that’s the kind of behavior that we are supposed to hold in very low esteem!

  5. Nic Z said, on September 12, 2007 at 5:49 am

    As a student at liberal arts university I am constantly exposed to new arguments, ideas, and beliefs on a daily basis. In fact, this type of exposure is exactly for which the Global Perspectives curriculum is aiming. This type of learning is exhilarating but, at times, it can be overwhelming. At the speed at which college (or even life it self) travels it seems that students may be somewhat forced into the “conclusion collecting” mindset. Even the conceptual design of textbooks present material with a “collection of conclusion” theme.

    Take for instance the course Values and Ethics which is taught at Drury to sophomores or older. When I attended the class I used the book Ethics for Life by Judith A. Boss. The professor followed the book so our class topics and discussion progressed as we read further through the text. We went from discussing ethical egoism to utilitarianism and finished with virtue ethics. It seemed that each week things became more complicated but at the same time better. If I had latched onto one of earlier system of ethics I would have been thought of as a fool by the rest of the class. If I remember right my intro to philosophy course was similar. CP, I remember you pointing out how it was easy to tell which theories the authors of our text book favored, as they were always at the end of the chapter.

    I also think a student’s indifference can be fueled by a lack of “solid” beliefs (especially when dealing with something as defining as “does God exist?”) It takes a lot of effort and time to figure out one’s religious beliefs. If a student is agnostic to begin with they’re most likely not going to be phased by a brilliant proof of God’s existence. I know that some link agnosticism with laziness but I don’t think this is always the case. Another problem with being an active college student is that there are plenty of distractions – countless ways to escape having to face problems such as how do the mind and body communicate. In this case though, as you have said before, I feel that a student can always respect the scholarship and drive needed to explore an issue such as that to the fullest.

    I enjoyed this post and everyone’s comments. It really makes me more conscious of how I approach learning.

  6. Chris said, on September 13, 2007 at 6:23 pm

    Nic,

    Great observations about student psychology here. It’s been 20 years for me, so it’s good to get the perspective you are putting forth here. It can very well be that all of these factors are playing a role (I especially like the one about just being overwhelmed by the constant material being shoved in your face on a daily basis), and not a small one at that!


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