Here’s how he opens his essay:
Until two weeks ago, I had been laboring under the naïve assumption that one of the primary goals of every academic was to change students’ beliefs when they were based on inaccurate information. I was awakened from this dogmatic slumber at an interdisciplinary faculty meeting by colleagues who reacted with dismay to my confession that I had tried and failed to disabuse one of my students of Creationist beliefs.
Like I said, Boghossian raises a good question. Unfortunately, he doesn’t choose a very good case to examine. While teaching a philosophy course titled “Science and Pseudoscience,” one of his students writes the following on her final exam, which Boghossian characterizes as “Creationist”:
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.
If you know much about the Creation-Evolution-Intelligent Design controversies, you will recognize that the student’s statement is hardly “Creationist” in any sense beyond the broad assertion that God created the cosmos. It’s extremely disappointing that Boghossian has apparently left the student with the impression that “philosophy” rejects the idea that God, the creator of all things, loves us and lives among us. As a discipline, of course, philosophy makes no such claims. Further, many contemporary academic philosophers would, in fact, affirm this student’s statement. Perhaps she made additional statements during the course that revealed a narrower “Creationist” point of view, but Boghossian doesn’t share any of those, if they exist.
In [my course] Science and Pseudoscience, students need to understand a basic mechanism, rooted in the scientific method, by which they can reliably discern true empirical claims from false empirical claims.
Which part of the student’s statement does he believe is a “false empirical claim”? That God created the universe? That God loves us? That God lives among us? I wish him the best of luck in testing those claims with the scientific method.
Boghossian sums up his argument by drawing a firm distinction between “moral beliefs” and propositional knowledge:
With regard to our roles as educators, we should not be seeking to convert students’ moral beliefs, but we should, and we are obligated to, help students lend their beliefs to true propositions and repudiate false ones. A teacher is obligated to use cognitive dissonance to inspire students to shape a more reliable picture of reality that informs their sense of cause and effect.
As is so often the case, the devil is in the details. For instance, Boghossian gives an example of a moral belief — one’s position on same-sex marriage — that he thinks should not be challenged by faculty. I bet many of his colleagues would strongly disagree that faculty should remain neutral on this question.
What do you think of this way of framing this issue? Should faculty challenge their students’ religious beliefs as part of their education? What guidelines should faculty use in determining which beliefs to challenge and which to leave alone?
By the way, for an interesting take from someone who doesn’t have much sympathy for the student’s beliefs, check out Herman “the Friendly Atheist” Mehta’s response to Boghossian.