A Response to Larry Sanger

Yesterday I posted an essay titled “Why It’s Morally Wrong to Let a Student Believe in Creationism“.  Larry Sanger responded with a thoughtful piece here.  In what follows, I respond to his piece (I was going to simply leave a comment on his blog, but it got too long and I figured it would be better to post here).

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First off, thanks for the thoughtful response.  You seem like a very nice guy yourself, Larry!  As a fan of your work, I find it to be a great honor to engage in debate with you.

I think you bring up some very interesting points and I think if we were to discuss these issues in person, we may realize we agree on more than initially meets the eye.  I do, however, have some disagreements with you based on your response.  Let’s start with what we can agree on.

You wrote: “I always found the tendency of some college professors to teach their own pet views to be extremely annoying.  What I believe is my own business.  I have no desire to be part of your project to transform the world in your image; as a student, I regard myself as a free agent and merely want the tools to shape my own beliefs.”  I too have found these types of instructors who teach their pet views very annoying (especially in economics courses).  We’re not talking about “pet views” though; we’re talking about scientific facts.  You seem to be implying that I’m trying to change people’s beliefs about things I cannot possibly claim to know.  I can assure you that I’m not, I’m merely trying to uncover truths about the nature of reality by separating fact from fiction given the tool of reason that we humans are endowed with. We don’t know a whole lot, but we do have some knowledge.

I would hardly characterize what I’m suggesting as “indoctrination” (Is it really possible to be indoctrinated with objective scientific facts anyway?) or using “force”, so let’s set those misleading terms aside.  I would call what I’m suggesting stating scientific fact in an authoritative manner.  I do suspect, however, that many students may have been actually indoctrinated by their religious teachers.  I know this because I was indoctrinated with Christianity as a child.   What I’m suggesting, then, is that teachers have an obligation to call things by their proper name.  In other words, I’m suggesting we avoid euphemisms.   As such, scientific facts should be labeled as facts and verifiable mythology should be labeled as mythology.

And who is a teacher to decide what is fact and fiction?  Alas, this is where it can get tricky and this is where I think your concerns largely stem from.  I too see reason to be concerned about teachers professing something as a fact when it is not a fact in actuality.  I’m confused by your assertions though, because if I’m understanding your position correctly, you’re suggesting that a teacher shouldn’t call Norse mythology Norse Mythology.  You seem to be suggesting, by implication, that we should absolutely ban the use of the word “mythology” in academic settings so as not to offend those who choose to believe in the mythology over the facts.  If it wasn’t clear, I think believing in mythology is an individual’s prerogative; however, I think educators have the obligation to make them aware of the facts and to encourage critical thinking.

You wrote:  “Now, it might sound strange to call the inculcation of belief in the conclusions of science “indoctrination,” but it is not the quality of the belief that makes for indoctrination, it is the method whereby it is taught.”  I must admit, as I previously mentioned, this does indeed sound downright bizarre, especially coming from someone who believes in scientific facts.  So as long as we eradicate the “forcefulness”, as I think we both suggest, then it would seem that we agree on this point.

You later continue by writing:  “If you’re saying that you want to repudiate student belief, to label student beliefs as “mythology,” you’re not in favor of persuading recalcitrant students with argument; you want to shame them.”  That seems like quite a leap to make.  Another way to look at it would be that you are trying to help spare them future embarrassment by helping them hurdle the irrational belief instinct.  Telling a student that there is a difference between facts and mythology is not necessarily degrading or shaming them, despite what you say.  There are tasteful ways to discuss such matters in a classroom setting.

I’ll ask this question again:  should we be allowed to call anything mythology in academia?  As I asserted at the end of my piece, it seems insensitive and unfair to call some religious beliefs mythology and others justifiable beliefs.  For whatever reason, certain religions seem to get preferential treatment in academia over others.  I think we would be wise to think critically about why this is so.

Finally, you wrote: “We can’t really understand what it would mean for an adult person, with a grasp of math, to deny that 2+2=4.”  I, for one, can sympathize with those people who can’t really understand what that would mean.  This is because I also can’t really understand what it would mean for an adult person, endowed with the ability to reason and be logical, to deny that evolution is true.

 


Why It’s Morally Wrong to Let a Student Believe in Creationism

Assume I were a professor that was tasked with teaching history to college students.  Now, let’s further suppose that during a classroom discussion I learned that one of my students believed that human societies came into being only a century ago and that humans were created by flying dragon gods.  Upon further examination of this student’s belief, let’s say that this student claimed that this belief came from a sacred religious text.  Do I, as a teacher, have a pedagogical responsibility to try and convince this student that this belief is mythical?  Do I have the right to tell this student that this is wrong?  For that matter, do I have the right to tell a student that anything is wrong?  Furthermore, would it be immoral of me to let this student go into the world without thinking critically about this belief?

There are some people that can stare at the picture of the bonobo above, believe in some objective science, and then still schizophrenically believe in creationism (of the anti-evolutionary variety).  These people suffer from cognitive dissonance and will do anything, logically inconsistent as it may be, to maintain their deep held belief in myth.  The famous paleobiologist, Stephen Jay Gould, had a doctoral student named Kurt Wise who famously suffered from cognitive dissonance.  Wise was a “young earth creationist” who did some pioneering work using statistical techniques to infer the period in which particular species lived (often millions of years ago).  Wise tried to reconcile what he knew objectively (through science) with his personal religious beliefs, but he found the two to be entirely logically inconsistent.  The comfortable warmth of religion ultimately proved to be more powerful than the coldness of reason and Wise somewhat famously said, “If all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist.  Here I must stand.”

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Philosophy professor, Peter Boghossian argues (in this controversial essay) that educators have a responsibility to repudiate false beliefs.  And I think he is absolutely correct.  In the article, Professor Boghossian tells the tale of a student who wrote the following on an exam:  “I wrote what I had to ‘agree’ with what was said in class, but in truth I believe ABSOLUTELY that there is an amazing, savior GOD, who created the universe, lives among us, and loves us more than anything. That is my ABSOLUTE, and no amount of ‘philosophy’ will change that.”

In the piece, Professor Boghossian asserts that he has an obligation to rid this student of beliefs that are false, like the belief in creationism (again, of the anti-evolution variety).  Two of the professor’s colleagues accused him of overstepping his bounds and abusing his authority, but I think they are on very weak grounds for making such a claim.  His detractors arguments could logically lead them down a rabbit hole that would make education, of any type, seem to be a product of unverifiable fiction.  Can we really know anything?  If not, how can we justify teaching anything?

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Here’s the reality: we humans don’t know much, but we do know some.  I think many people, rightly, question Professor Boghossian’s seeming epistemic arrogance (see this article by Paul Pardi), but it’s sometimes easier to attack a straw-man than it is the actual argument.  From what I can gather, Professor Boghossian is merely stating that part of being a good educator is to rid students of verifiable false beliefs.  This doesn’t, however, mean that an educator has a responsibility to rid a student of false beliefs through indocrtination.  If a professor were to let a student go out into the real world with the unchallenged belief that 2+2=5 or that humans were created by flying dragon gods, the professor would have failed to perform one of the fundamental duties of an educator.  If the professor turned a formerly ignorant and evangelical Christian into a questioning skeptic (even if they still believed in some mystical power), then this would be an example of successful educating.

My problem with the general attack against Professor Boghossian’s argument is as follows.  The fact that we don’t know everything about our existence doesn’t logically imply that we know nothing.  There are a great many things about the universe which are beyond our grasp at the moment. The key word, however, is at the moment (perhaps it will be forever, we simply don’t know).  At one point in time it was believed that the earth was flat. Now we know better. At one point in time, it was believed that humans descended from Adam and Eve (some still do).  Again, now we know better (we share more than 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees). As science advances we learn more and more about the world and our existence in it.  It’s perfectly reasonable to be skeptical of people who claim to know things they can’t possibly know (including militant atheists), but to say we don’t know anything is false.  The people who usually spout such non-sense implicitly use products in their daily existence that were created through verifiable human knowledge, but often conveniently overlook this salient fact.

Furthermore, I think it’s actually cruel to let people believe in goofy religions and ideas that are verifiable myths.  For example, many religious beliefs are not harmless (although some are actually harmless).  As such, I think it is morally wrong and inexcusable to avoid challenging religious beliefs that cause physical or psychological suffering in human-beings (forcing women to wrap themselves in bags comes to mind).

If a student believes something that is verifiable mythology, then I believe the educator has the right to label it is a such even if it makes the student uncomfortable. It would be inconsistent and irresponsible of a professor to teach a student that some ancient religions are mythology and that Christianity, Judaism, or Islam are not.  If educators are going to teach that some forms of religious beliefs are mythologies and others are not, this is wrong and terribly inconsistent.  If one is to be consistent and logical, then Norse mythology, Greek mythology, Chinese mythology, Christian mythology, Jewish mythology, and Islamic mythology should all be labeled as such or else they should all be taught as equally likely possibilities that have no grounding in any empirical evidence.  Clearly, I’m in favor of the former option.

Update:  Wikipedia co-founder and philosopher Larry Sanger responds to this piece here.

 


What’s Wrong With Labels?

Labels often make me cringe for several reasons, namely because certain ones promote dogmatic thinking and they trap people into ideological boxes. For example, suppose I politically or religiously define myself as label “X”. You can likely and accurately predict that I think “Y” about a certain issue given nearly every “X” (assuming logical consistency amongst those being labeled). Labels, especially the types I just mentioned, often subtly strangle the open-mindedness out of people, which is why I think some people tend to avoid committing to certain labels, myself included. Labels often trap people into beliefs that aren’t necessarily their own, but that neatly fit within the ideology dictated by the label. Allowing yourself to be defined by labels, then, seems to be the paragon of rigid thinking.

I don’t, however, think that it’s quite right to blame labels entirely for dogmatic thinking. Thus, I must pose the following question: Is it wise to reject all labels and be some free floating and identity-less being or is it ok to be defined by some labels? In other words, are labels the problem or are the wrong labels the problem?

Open-mindedness, while generally a good quality, is not categorically so. As such, I’ve become increasingly skeptical of the fashionable idea that all labels are inherently bad. I often hear many people outright reject any and all labels for themselves, which, as I mentioned, seems like a logical way to avoid sealing yourself into any ideological boxes. The trouble is, being anti-label does exactly that, it traps you into an idealogical box. I think it also means you don’t have a backbone. For this reason in particular, I’ve become a bit troubled by this brash approach to shunning all labels, even though I think I largely understand the intent behind doing so.

If I label a piece of fruit as an apple I think I’d find very few people who are willing to argue with me on that point (if it was indeed physically what we know to be an apple). An apple is, after-all, an apple. Calling or labeling it something else doesn’t change what it really is from an objective physical perspective. If anti-labelers are willing to concede this point that labels do in fact help us make sense of the world, why, then, are so many people opposed to being labeled themselves or labeling other humans? “Human” itself is a label for a certain type of animal. Just as we can call a piece of fruit an apple due to its physical qualities, we can use descriptive language to label certain types of humans based on their ideas and beliefs. If a human is “X”, it’s only natural to call them “X”. Avoiding calling them “X” doesn’t make them any less “X”.

When you think about it, language is really a complex tool we use in attempt to make sense of this ontological mess that surrounds us. I think the key purpose of language is to communicate ideas and thoughts about the world we experience around us. We do this through labeling things like snakes, well, “snakes”. From an evolutionary perspective, the process of communication would break down in its entirety if when I called something a “snake” you thought it was an “apple”. In essence, we are natural born labelers and clearly labels serve a valuable purpose.

Labels also help us by categorizing what’s beneficial and what’s dangerous to our existence. As tribal animals, we humans need labels (and accurate ones at that) to help us identify who and what is and isn’t a threat to our very existence. As such, I think it’s fair to assume that language is useful to humans and has helped propagate our species. Using labels would thus seem to harbor some evolutionary advantages. To be anti-label would seem to be anti-language, which seems to further support the notion that being anti-label is at odds with our very nature and our existence.

I think many people are afraid of labels because they’re afraid of taking the beliefs that are encompassed within given labels to their logical conclusion. In an essay titled “Keep Your Identity Small“, Paul Graham wrote: “The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.” I largely agree with the sentiment of Graham’s quote and the essay, but I don’t think he gets it quite right. Having many labels for yourself often does, but doesn’t necessarily, make you any dumber.

It seems that at it’s core, labeling is a rather tricky issue. The problem is that we humans don’t know much about our existence at all. Avoiding labels in their entirety, however, seems like a cop out that is used to merely assuage cognitive dissonance. Many people hold rather complex (value-pluralistic) bundles of beliefs. Yet, there is still a label out there that can classify what they believe. Contrary to the tenets of the fashionable idea of being anti-label, I think it is actually closed-minded to refuse to define yourself by labels. What I think most anti-label people are really opposed to is labels that are wrong or constricting. There is, however, a solution to this problem: avoid labels that are wrong or ones that are too constricting.

If a label doesn’t accurately encompass your views or identity, it would seem only natural to shun it. Fair enough, but there is still some other label that perhaps describes what you now think. If, for example, a certain religious label is formed and it’s known that its members believe in event “Z”, which you have logically concluded is impossible or at least highly unlikely, then it would seem silly to call yourself by that religious label. Not believing in event “Z” doesn’t, however, necessarily exclude from being labeled as a religious person in any capacity.

Considering that there are 22 major religions in world, if you commit to the label of one particular religion at random, the probability that you chose the correct religion is 4.5 percent. There are people from all 22 of these labels who are absolutely convinced that there label is right. Assuming that all 22 labels have an equal likelihood of being correct, the odds aren’t good that you were lucky enough to be born into the proper label. Yet, the label of “theist” still allows for one to believe in a god even if one disagrees or finds aspects of all 22 of the major religions to be factually incorrect. Granted, the idea of theism may still be wrong in entirety, but it seems a more appropriate label for someone who harbors this belief and has found something factually inconsistent about all 22 individual major religions. I’m using theism as an example to demonstrate that some labels are more encompassing than others and still allow you to keep a backbone, e.g., a belief in a god that can’t be factually disproved either.

I’ll use Christianity as a further example. I know people who call themselves Christians, yet reject many of the defining characteristics that make one a Christian. I suspect that for some reason these people feel guilty or bad about rejecting this label from their identity because of cultural and family issues. As I discussed earlier, rejecting Christianity doesn’t mean you must reject all theistic notions of a higher being. Perhaps it’s in our tribal nature, but for whatever reason, I think people have an incredibly difficult time shunning labels, particularly religious ones that they deem at the crux of their identify.

I believe that there are truths to be known in this world. What that logically means is that some labels are flat out wrong, yet there is a certain brand of political correctness that makes it a faux pas to acknowledge this reality. For example, the labels of “Christian” and “Atheist” are both labels that promote dogmatic thinking, which is why I don’t like either one. There is an aphorism written by Kurt Tucholsky that seems fitting to describe what I’m trying to get at. “I prefer a sketpical Catholic to a devout atheist.” Religion is not, however, necessarily a dichotomy. Both of these labels do, however, take a stand on an issue and thus allow those who fit within the label to have a backbone. Furthermore, only one of them (or neither of them) can be correct. If a Christian is correct, an Atheist, by definition, must be wrong and vice versa.

As I discussed earlier, just because I don’t like either of these particular labels doesn’t mean that I have to reject the notion of labels all together. I don’t have to fashionably proclaim that I’m above labels because my beliefs are somehow not able to be labeled. In fact, there is a label out there that accurately labels my religious beliefs. That label is called “Possibillian“. Voltaire summed up what I find attractive about Possibillianism in the following aphorism. “Doubt is not an agreeable position, but certainty is an absurd one.”

My initial thoughts when I started to write this essay seemed to align more with the fashionable anti-label crowd due to my disdain for dogma. I quickly realized, however, that being anti-label is dogmatic itself. Clearly, it would be gross oversimplification to say that all labels are bad. And the beauty of writing essays is that it allows your mind to meander through some deep and often repressed thoughts. It’s possible to start an essay with the belief that you’re anti-label and then quickly realize you aren’t. Labels aren’t the problem, the wrong labels are the problem. Alas, the real trick is figuring out which labels specifically and correctly account for factual truths and which ones are broad enough to account for things we can’t possibly know or understand.