Tuesday, March 22, 2005

teaching in the small

While I was eating my Spicy Szechuan Tofu at the Union, two kids sat down with me and read me a questionnaire about religious and moral issues. I could tell where it was going from the beginning, but the girl was cute and I don't mind chatting with proselytizers, so I answered their questions politely. Then they tried to convert me to Christianity. I ran the problem of evil back against them, and I tried to convert them to compatibilism* and hedonic utilitarianism. Probably nobody got converted, but I think we all had a pretty good time.

I really think I could do this "teach philosophy in a red-state university" thing. Whenever I'm talking to little religious undergrads who assume incompatibilism in responding to the Problem of Evil, and think that you can't get morality without the Bible, I feel like I have awesome powers. I can spin out amazing theories that can reshape the way you think about the world, and do all that stuff that's supposed to happen in a good philosophy class. I'm only about 85% sure about compatibilism being right, and error theory occasionally has appeal for me (though, to be sure, I can't see how God would be helpful in setting up morality). But I get a real kick out of spinning out these theories to kids who simply hadn't ever encountered them before, and who had unthinkingly assumed their falsity. Heck, if I can get this kind of kick out of talking to some kids who were carrying around the ulterior motive of converting me, imagine how it'll be when I'm lecturing on these topics to a class of 300, and maybe even 50 of them are paying attention! I haven't had a chance to teach on compatibilism as a TA, but I'll make sure to do it when I'm running intro philosophy lectures in the future.

*compatibilism is the view that we can have free will even if determinism is true.


Mary said...

Oh, no, Werewolf. Little religious undergrads? Condescension is one of the things that gives we liberals a bad reputation, and causes people to dismiss us and say it like it's a bad word. Maybe it's a graduate assistant hing...I heard a young grad student at my health club talk about how her students were so cute. I wanted to tell her that as a teacher, I thought her going on about her students was so cute.
Anyway, I AM interested in hearing more about compatibilism, if you will consider me intellectually curious and someone who enjoys listening to smart people, and not an adorable middle-aged Christian lady who you had the opportunity to enlighten. (It will be easy...I'm not at all cute or adorable.Well, maybe a little adorable.)

Neil Sinhababu said...

Mary, you are free to find me cute, seeing as I am younger. TA's find their freshmen cute, 12th graders find 6th graders cute, 6th graders find 1st graders cute, and 1st graders find preschoolers cute. Such is the way of the world, and it is a fine way for things to be. (Here, I am using the nonsexual sense of 'cute'. 'cute' has been used in two ways in the post. The girl involved was cute in both the sexual and nonsexual way, while I only found the boy cute in the nonsexual way.)

Sometimes I'll have a choice between amused condescension and outright horror at the presence of pernicious doctrines loosed on the world by human ignorance. Usually I'll look at things so as to feel the former. It's more fun and easier to disguise when teaching.

Being unaware of the compatibilist position is perfectly fine, if you're a nonphilosopher. But thinking that the Bible and only the Bible can ground morality is a pernicious doctrine loosed on the world by ignorance. Condescension here is fitting, although it may be good to hide it from pragmatic reasons.

Neil Sinhababu said...

oops, that should be "for pragmatic reasons"

Brandon said...

"Back to the states" is the way to go, man. It's time for liberals to do what conservatives have done: go local, get on school boards, state legislatures, etc. There was a guy on the Al Franken Show the other day from the Rainforest Action Network talking about how his group goes directly to the corporations rather than lobbying congress for legislation. There was a nun who talked about how she advises huge Jesuit institutions on how to invest in a socially conscious way. Stuff like that is going to be integral in pushing back against the conservative movement.

d locke said...

I wonder if throwing out the possibility of compatibilism is the right move in response to the free will response to the problem of evil. It might (will!) seem to suggest that the best objection to the free will response hangs on the possibility of what might (will!) seem like a counter-intuitive and perhaps self-contradictory theory.

It seems wider to point out that the response fails for more general reasons (i.e. whether compatibilism is true or not). So here's what I believe the best objection to the response is. It's two-fold and comes straight from Mackie:

A) Even if free will works for evil caused by human action, you're still left with the problem of NATURAL EVIL (e.g. Tsunamis)

B) There is nothing logically impossible about a world which contains both free will and people always freely choosing the right thing (and thus there being no evil). Such a world would be better than this world. An all-good, all-knowing god would have created that world instead.

p.s. funk band tomorrow night at The Blind Pig.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Yeah, I did mention natural evil and tsunamis specifically to the kids.

If God can create a world like the one you mention in (B) and know from the beginning that nobody will do evil, that seems to presuppose compatibilism.

Hope I can make the show. There is a worry that the atmosphere of the Blind Pig may be bad for my post-Lasik eyes. We'll see...