Teaching Help: Ethics of Belief

Ok, I need some help on my teaching methodology.  I haven’t had much of a problem in the past, but during this summer semester, I can’t get the class to get past idea of letting the evidence come to them.

Example: We went over Aquinas’ arguments for God’s existence.  This is how the conversation went:

Me: Anyone have any questions about these proofs?

Student: I don’t think it’s a good proof.

Me: Ok, why?

Student: Because I don’t believe it.

Me: But why don’t you believe it?

Student: Because I don’t believe in God.

Me: Ok, that’s fine.  But if you don’t believe in God, that means that you find something problematic with these arguments, right?

Student: Yes

Me: Ok, what’s the problem?  Where does Aquinas go wrong?

Student: It’s not a proof.  He’s just putting down what he believes.

Me: Well, let’s pretend that Aquinas started off agnostic and he really wanted to investigate if God really existed or not.  So now he’s providing a proof.  Is this a good proof?

Student: No

Me: Why not?

Student: It’s just what I believe.

You can understand my frustration.  This isn’t just one student.  It’s almost the whole class.  The class seems to think of philosophy of a way to defend beliefs.  But philosophy isn’t an apologetics class.  I need to get them out of the framework of here’s a belief, and I’m going to defend it any way I can.  Instead, I’m trying to get them to look at the structure of arguments and say that here is an argument, a proof, some evidence and if the argument is a good argument, then the rational person would have to believe where the evidence leads them.  I can’t get my class to have this thinking mode.  Of course, as a philosopher, this is just part of the thinking so I can’t quite put this to words to undergrad students.

I’ve thought of an example:

  1. Murder is wrong.
  2. Abortion is murder.
  3. Therefore, abortion is wrong.

I’m assuming that since this is Utah, most of the student will agree with this.  Now I’ll say that this is an argument.  If the premises are true (1 and 2), then number 3 has to be true.  That’s just how an argument works.  Hopefully, they’ll understand that.  Then, I’ll switch it and say:

  1. Murder is wrong.
  2. Abortion is NOT murder.
  3. Therefore, abortion is NOT wrong.

Now here, I’ll repeat that if the premises are true (1 and 2), then number 3 has to be true.  That’s how the argument works and so the rational person must therefore believe the conclusion.  Of course, I’m sure some people will contest number 2, but I’ll just repeat, assume that number 2 is true.  Thus, number 3 has to be true.  Therefore, we must follow the evidence and conclude that we must believe number 3.  That’s just how arguments work.  I’m hoping this example might get them to change from “I must defend my beliefs” to “I will go where the evidence takes me.”

Can anyone think of some good examples of doing this?  Or any other methodologies of how to get the students to think this way?

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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24 Responses to Teaching Help: Ethics of Belief

  1. Aubrey says:

    what day is your class on?

  2. Kevin says:

    Wow, trying to teach something that requires rational thinking to undergrads in Utah…. I’m glad I’m not you. People nowadays just don’t seem to understand logic. They think that logic means intelligence. They can’t seem to wrap their minds around the fact that something they believe may not be true. I think your example is good, but honestly I think you’ll be met with, “but point 2 isn’t true, so that makes point 3 false”. I really can not think of any way to make a close minded person believe something could be true they don’t already believe other than a slow and dedicated process of citing many examples, but that could take years. Rather than jumping to an issue like abortion maybe take smaller steps.

    1. Only vegetables are good for you
    2. Bananas are not vegetables
    3. Therefore bananas are not good for you

    even though we all know vegetables are good for you and that other things can be good for you too, with the information that only vegetables are good for you, and bananas are not vegetables, one can only come to the solution that bananas are not good for you.
    Also, use Vin diagrams, it’s an easy way to visually explain proofs.

  3. Fare says:

    I am not going to be any help to you AT ALL! Lol. But, I think it’s funny that you bring this up. I have experienced so much of this same thing lately with people I work with. It can be so frustrating! I think some of the most interesting conversations are when people can look at things from all different sides. Like you stated before, it seems that people cannot seem to get past their beliefs. It’s nothing but close mindedness. Honestly, if you find a good way to open people’s perspectives, let me know!

  4. Nancy says:

    yeah, i’m with kevin on this. it’s much easier to get people to agree to something they’re not emotionally invested in. if you can get them to agree to the formula using something they don’t care about, then you stand a better chance of getting them to at least think twice when it comes to something they do care about.
    good luck!

  5. thekillerj says:

    Maybe create one of those three step arguments based on that guy’s belief system, omniscience, and absolute truth. I’m not completely sure where I’m going with this, but if the guy is able to see his own potential for having fallable beliefs via argument structure then you may have success.

    Another thing you said was you want to get people past “I must defend my beliefs” to “I will go where the evidence takes me.”

    People that are rigid like that are defensive. WHen their beliefs are challenge, it creates anxiety. Truly examining their own beliefs and potentially changing them creates even more anxiety. We, as people, naturally want to avoid anxiety, therefore, we create defenses in our own mind that keep us “safe.”

    If you grow up believing the sky is blue, and are suddenly shown evidence it may be green, you may be a little freaked out but may submit to the idea if the evidence is sound. Somebody that has a strong emotional investment in believing the sky is blue will do what they can to avoid the crappy feelings associated with the evidence that it’s green. This includes temper tantrums, avoidance, stubborn adherence to a belief, etc.

    Ask the person what payoff (emotional or otherwise) they receive from holding on to their belief. For some, it might be a sense of security. Challenge that guy to drop his f**king security blanket, man up, and consider the possibility you are presenting!

    In my line of work, we have a theoretical model call the “ABC” model designed to help people challenge irrational (yet firmly held) beliefs that contribute to their misery. If you’re interested, I could teach you the model and maybe you could apply it during class. Have a psychology day bro.

  6. Kyle says:

    Well, you’re simplifying the logic in the final example somewhat. You’re saying:

    1. M = W
    2. A /= M
    3. A /= W

    Which doesn’t quite follow. All we can really say if we accept premises 1 and 2 is that abortion is not wrong in the same way that murder is wrong. Maybe it’s more like, I don’t know, theft or assault or something (I know, not good examples 😉 ).

    Still, although I know nothing about teaching methodologies, it sounds like you’re on the right track; you might just need a different example. Kevin’s suggestion about bananas and vegetables is a good one. It turns the if statement in #1 into an if-and-only-if statement.

  7. Kevin says:

    My suggestion actually came from Suzanne who read this and said that from a teachers point of view she has to build the difficult concepts in small steps. She forgets as a teacher sometimes how long it took her to understand some techniques. Maybe try and realize that these kids don’t have the same understanding as you.

  8. shaunmiller says:

    Thanks to everyone’s suggestions. I’m applying all of your advice as much as I can and I’ll report back to let you know the results.

  9. shaunmiller says:

    What a huge disappointment! After going through all that with Hume, the students still fell into the traps of having beliefs first and then supporting them. They even committed some major fallacies. Lame!

  10. aubreycierra says:

    thats no good at all…what traps did they fall for?

  11. shaunmiller says:

    Argument from Ignorance, Ad Hominem, and Appeal to Consequences of Belief. I even used Kevin’s example above and they still fell for it. Arrgh! I think I’m going to teach “Detecting Bad Arguments” at the beginning of the course.

  12. Kevin says:

    they all need to be flunked. If you can’t even understand the rudimentary example I came up with, then they’re hopeless.

  13. shaunmiller says:

    I’m at a lost. I gave the example, they understood following the evidence. And then I did Hume, going through the arguments, and they didn’t follow through the evidence. They even pulled a lot of fallacies. Man, these students just don’t get it.

  14. nicismynickname says:

    Are these Community College students?? Psh.

    They need Gordon Steinhoff to teach some Deductive Logic.

  15. nicismynickname says:

    Are these Community College students?? Psh.

    They need Gordon Steinhoff to teach some Deductive Logic.

    1. It is raining outside.
    2. The streets are wet.
    3. Therefore the streets are wet because it’s raining outside.

    Or something like that.

  16. Matt says:

    I’m a philosophy major up at Weber and I can only imagine how frustrating teaching those intro classes must be. Had I not liked the professor, that class would have been mind-numbingly brutal; there was a pretty vehement distaste for actual thinking among what seemed like the majority of the students in the class. It improved among the upper-division crowd, but it seems like a, uh, “gem” or two is obligatory at Weber in every philosophy class.

    Have you thought about spending the first third of the semester just going over arguments? I took logic rather than critical thinking, but I imagine our first exam in 1010 was virtually identical to an exam in critical thinking: validity, soundness, strength, cogency, fallacies, justification, excluded middle, etc. – lay down the ground-rules for the standards you expect in the back-and-forths, really emphasize the importance of justification when determining soundness and cogency, and when you get “Yeah, well… that’s just, like, your opinion, man…”, rile them up by just baldly asserting things and drawing parallels between your bad argument and theirs.

    Part of the problem is that a lot of students are under the assumption that the kinds of beliefs philosophers examine are radically relative and beyond reproach. The colloquial understanding of “philosophy” is vastly different than what most academic philosophers actually do and you might have to annihilate them a little to “wake them from their dogmatic slumber”.

    p.s. Not to be a douche, but the argument in your second example isn’t valid.

    • shaunmiller says:

      Thanks for the advice Matt. However, I don’t think teaching a third of the class logic and critical thinking would be practical. Maybe the first week, which is what I plan to do.

      As for the second example not being valid, could you show me why it isn’t? I’m not following why it isn’t valid (assuming the premises are true).

      • Matt says:

        You know better than I do, I’m sure. The first week is almost certainly better than no weeks and there’s a very real possibility that my fractions are all broken, anyway. I should probably stick to the weaker claim of “all I remember from the first test is logic and critical thinking”. 🙂

        As far as your second argument being invalid:

        1. Murder is wrong.
        2. Abortion is NOT murder.
        3. Therefore, abortion is NOT wrong.

        1. Cats are mammals
        2. Dogs are not cats
        3. (T) Dogs are not mammals

        The set of wrong stuff has more than one member and abortion may be an instance of some other member of the set, so you need to, for the sake of the argument, assume that murder is the only wrong thing or that the only morally problematic thing about abortion is whether or not it’s murder. You need another premise:

        1. Murder is wrong
        2. Abortion is wrong iff it’s murder
        3. Abortion is not murder
        4. (T) Abortion is not wrong

      • Matt says:

        The second premise in the last argument shouldn’t be “iff”; it should be “only if”. Oops.

      • Matt says:

        Actually iff is right after all. I’m dumb.

  17. shaunmiller says:

    Ahh, that’s a good point. I will have to modify my notes. Thanks!

  18. Pingback: What I’ve Learned this Past Year — 2009 Edition « Shaun Miller’s Weblog

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