The Flynn Effect

I've just finished teaching for the summer. That gives me roughly ten days off to get ready for the fall term. Not much of a summer break, I'll grant you, but I needed the money. The good news is that the class I just finished teaching, Introduction to the Philosophy of Science, is one of the classes I will be teaching this fall, so I'm well prepared, at least for that class. I will also be teaching a graduate seminar on the philosophy of biology, and that one will take considerably more work. For one thing, that class is more likely to have some real scientists in it, and my experience has been that real scientists don't always take philosophy all that seriously, especially when it tries to say something about the particular domain of science in which they work. There is often a fair amount of persuasion that goes into greasing the wheels of the naturalist program these days.

The problem is rather different when I teach courses in the history of philosophy. These classes have no prerequisites, so they tend to have a fair number of freshmen and sophomores in them. I am more than happy to have such students in my classes, of course, but I've noticed something about them that is rather striking. Some of them have a tendency to challenge every argument from every philosopher they encounter. In itself it is not a bad idea to be skeptical about philosophical arguments, so it's not the fact that they are willing to raise such challenges that I find striking. Indeed, it would be more worrisome if they said nothing at all but rather just passively absorbed whatever they happened to come across. What is striking is that the challenges tend to be vociferous, dogmatic, and unrelenting. Some students appear to think that challenging a philosophical argument really amounts to nothing more than having a different point of view of one's own and then stating it. With conviction. When this attitude is combined with what appears to be a certain disdain for the arguments of the philosopher being challenged, one cannot help but get the feeling that intellectual laziness is on the rise.

Now, I'll grant you that such philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hume, Wittgenstein, and Quine have all mounted arguments in favor of propositions with which it is tempting to disagree. Is it really the case, however, that Aristotle's views about, say, final causation, or Kant's categorical schema, or Quine's denial of the distinction between the analytic and the synthetic, are nothing more than the mere guesswork of complete morons? Because that's how some of my students treat such ideas when presenting their own. It's as if the 2300 years that have elapsed between Aristotle's time and our own was merely preparatory for the present generation: nobody noticed, until now, what a dork Aristotle was, and we finally have the definitive refutation of all of his views. The only problem left worth solving is the question why we even bother to teach the ideas of these benighted bozos at all any more. I taught a class a few years ago in which we read Plato's Gorgias as an introduction to certain elements of moral theory. One day we were discussing the argument, made by Socrates in the first half of the text, to the effect that every wrongdoer actually harms himself when he does wrong. I asked whether the argument was valid, and there was a moment's silence. I waited them out. Finally one guy in the back of the class said, "I think it's stupid." Well, it's a start, I thought to myself, but I tried to draw him out. "What part of the argument do you have in mind? Where do you think it goes wrong?" He just stared blankly at me. "Can you pinpoint any specific statement by Socrates that you think is the key here to the argument's failure?" He picked up the whole book and said "I don't know, I just think this whole thing is stupid." I still didn't get it. I asked "You mean you think the argument is no good?" He said, "No, the whole thing is stupid." It appears that he meant the entire text of the Gorgias. One of the greatest works of philosophical literature in the Western Canon, but this guy, an undergraduate at Ohio University, had decided that it failed to amount to anything at all worth reading. I should have asked him for a list of works that he thought would be better candidates for taking up his time in study, but I was a little worried that he might not be that much of a reader to begin with. We moved on.

I was reminded of this little exchange today as I read, with considerable morbid fascination, the exchange at a blog called Parchment and Pen between an author of one of the essays there and Dr. Michael Liccione of Sacramentum Vitae and Fr. Alvin Kimel, formerly of Pontifications. Mike and Fr. Al got drawn into the conversation because the topic of the essay was whether "Catholics deny Chalcedon in their view of the Mass." The author of the essay, C. Michael Patton, admits early on that "it may be that I am misunderstanding things (this would not be a first)." He goes on to document what he takes to be the impossibility of reconciling the notion of transubstantiation with the teachings of Chalcedon. It is a very interesting essay, and I certainly recommend reading it. What fascinates me about the exchange, however, is not so much the argument of the essay (which, in the end, fails for precisely the reason its own author had, with such admirable modesty, anticipated), but rather the exchanges in the combox between the author and Mike and Fr. Al. Mike, in particular, completed the Herculean task of making some sense out of the issues involved, and Fr. Al did an admirable job of clarifying what the Church actually has to say about these issues and noted, not unfairly, I think, that the Council of Chalcedon itself accepted the basic metaphysics of transubstantiation. Needless to say, none of this had any effect on those readers of the essay who, for various reasons, appeared to be predisposed to accept the Calvinist, rather than the Catholic, interpretation of things.

Now, just possibly it is the case that a 35 year old blogger from Norman, Oklahoma, has stumbled upon something that generations of philosophers and theologians have missed. Things like that may be very rare, but of course they are not literally impossible. But I couldn't help agreeing with Mike, when he closed his first comment with these words:
As a regular Catholic blogger, I often find myself confronted with arguments that the body of Catholic dogma is inconsistent with itself in this-or-that respect. Since I don’t want to invite more such arguments, I shall not now cite any examples other than yours. I mention my experience only so as to cite the lesson I’ve learned from it: invariably, I find that the critic has simply misunderstood at least one of the doctrines in question. In isolated cases, that would not be at all strange. What I do find strange is the apparent frequency of the belief that the Catholic Church, despite her nearly two thousand years of teaching, dogmatizing, and theological reflection, somehow keeps missing the rather elementary points of logic that would expose her doctrinal inconsistency. I would gently urge you to be very careful before you adopt a stance which entails something so unlikely.
You would think that this kind of advice, coming as it does from a professional theologian with advanced degrees and considerable academic experience, would have some effect. The effect it had, however, was not unlike the effect that Plato's Gorgias had on my student of yesteryear. C. Michael Patton was much more polite, and exhibited admirable Christian charity, but what he said was ultimately the same in substance as my former student's assessment of Plato's argument.

There's not much that can be done about that kind of thing, in my opinion. Mike is a Catholic, and C. Michael Patton is a Protestant, who claims that John Calvin is the greatest theologian in the last 2000 years: the guys are like antiparticles of each other, and it's probably best if we just keep them apart so they don't annihilate one another.

Comments

John Farrell said…
What is striking is that the challenges tend to be vociferous, dogmatic, and unrelenting. Some students appear to think that challenging a philosophical argument really amounts to nothing more than having a different point of view of one's own and then stating it. With conviction. When this attitude is combined with what appears to be a certain disdain for the arguments of the philosopher being challenged, one cannot help but get the feeling that intellectual laziness is on the rise.


That doesn't surprise me. Frankly sounds like every other jackass who shows up in the comments section at Pharyngula.

;)
Mike L said…
Scott:

With minor editing to reflect the change of venue, this piece would work well at Philosophia Perennis. It is certainly of professional interest.

Best,
Mike
Anonymous said…
a friend of mine in Memphis married a Catholic. She told me she'd never become Catholic because they believe in 'works righteousness'--not salvation by grace. I mentioned to her that the Catholic Catechism said differently & she might want to check that belief out with her husband's priest. She then stated confidently, " I know its true because my minister told me and he's really smart and almost became Catholic and read all about it.

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