The Case for Philosophy in America's High Schools -- Part 6: Keeping Students Uncertain

Far from giving students "the answers" to philosophical questions, a teacher should keep students uncertain by making every answer as plausible as possible. Both the strengths and weaknesses of each answer's claims are critically evaluated, while the question itself remains unresolved. Doing anything else would be brainwashing students. How one answers these questions is for each student alone to decide. Teachers naturally want to be helpful to students, but not too helpful lest students become dependent on them as authority figures, thereby undermining the very thing teachers try to teach students - having the courage to think for themselves.

Every theory must be fairly presented and robustly critiqued, so that students can see how each answer is impartially dealt with. Such evenhanded treatment is crucial at the high-school level, when student expectations are being fashioned for life about the need for impartiality towards all points of view. See parts three, four, and five in this series for a few examples.

Since these articles are intended for teachers interested in teaching philosophy to high-school seniors, seven assignments follow that deal with different kinds of philosophical questions. The purpose of these exercises isn't, of course, to have students arrive at definitive answers, but rather to encourage them to begin thinking about these questions early in life.

1. "Ex concessis" Refutation

One can refute an argument or theory by exposing its internal inconsistencies. One accepts as true the theory's premises or conclusion, and then proceeds to show how the theory contradicts itself. This mode of refutation is called "ex concessis" or "from the things which have been conceded" to be true by the theory's opponent. Simply put, one refutes the theory by the theory itself.

For example, behaviorism claims that man's behavior, beliefs, decisions, and theories are conditioned or determined by chemical, neurological, unconscious, sociological, historical, or economic factors. According to this theory, man, "the master of his fate and the captain of his soul," is really the puppet of conditioning factors. To refute the reasoning of this theory, one accepts (or "concedes") the argument as true and then turns it back upon itself as follows:

Is behaviorism a theory? If it is a theory, is it a conditioned theory? If not, why would it be exempt from the fate of other conditioned theories?

If it is a conditioned theory, is it advanced as truth or falsehood? If it is advanced as truth, is its truth accepted on faith or on evidence? If on evidence, why has this evidence been accepted?

If it has been accepted because one is conditioned to accept it, then one has not objectively examined the evidence. One has no evidence of the theory's truth apart from the claim that one is conditioned to accept it as true. But this would be arguing in a vicious circle or begging the question, since the theory's truth is the very thing at issue.

If, on the other hand, the evidence is accepted because one has objectively examined it and upon that basis has concluded that man is conditioned, then one would be contradicting the theory that one holds an idea because one is conditioned to do so.

In the first case, the behaviorist can offer no proof for his theory; in the second, he is caught in a self-contradiction. With no proof for his theory, his claim is groundless, his defense is pointless, and his advocacy is senseless. Caught in a self-contradiction, the behaviorist can lay no claim at being a scientist.

Role-play a behaviorist and respond to this argument in 500 words.

2. Ideas as Weapons

As animals have sharp teeth, claws, and horns to protect themselves from their enemies, so too philosophies and policies can be viewed as weapons in the hands of the Haves against the Have-Nots. The doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, for example, could be viewed as a weapon devised by royal attorneys to provide the legal justification for subjects to obey their king. At a time when a restive population was agitating for its natural rights to govern itself against the arbitrary power of the king, the crown contended that since God had placed kings on their thrones, those who disobeyed them were disobeying God.

A contemporary American example is the claim that for the past few decades governmental legislation, policies, and decisions favor powerful corporations and the rich over the general population, which the government was established to protect against exploitation. According to this theory, class war is now being waged by the corporate state upon the poor and the middle class, and citizens feel helpless to change things because politicians, with few exceptions, are either complicit or too cowardly to speak out and remedy the situation.

1.) Is the above theory a fact, value judgment, explanatory or metaphysical hypothesis, and why? 2.) Is the theory true or false, and how would you go about proving or disproving it? 3.) Are fallacies present? If so, which ones, and how do they function within the theory? 4.) What assumptions, if any, is the theory making? 5.) If assumptions are present, do you agree or disagree with them, and why? 6.) Can you think of other historical or contemporary examples of philosophies, policies, or decisions that might be viewed as weapons that favor the Haves against the Have-Nots? 7.) What conclusions do you draw from this assignment?

3. Suspension of Judgment

If some theories can neither be proved nor disproved, why does one believe or reject them? Since one can never know whether they are true or false, why not simply suspend judgment? Why is it necessary to have certainty when certainty can seemingly never be had? Upon what basis does one's belief or disbelief rest? If upon one's needs, hopes, or fears, then how seriously can one take this belief or disbelief? But cannot one believe in one's theory even though it cannot be proven? One can - yet, if there be true theories which can neither be proven not disproven, may there not also be false ones which likewise can neither be proven nor disproven? And, if so, how would one know the difference? Write a 500-word critical reaction.

4. Do Human Beings Have Value? - Three Theories

1. Human beings have value because they are children of God with immortal souls and eternal destinies. This alone gives them value because, in and of themselves, they are prone to evil and, without God's help, cannot be good.

2. Human beings have value in and of themselves with no need of having value bestowed upon them from an external source. The view that they have value only because of God insults and demeans them and may even induce in them an inferiority complex. They can do good on their own, despite being told that they can't. Their lives are brief, fragile, and tragic, and therein lie their beauty and grandeur.

3. Human beings have no value or importance whatsoever. True, they possess instrumental value for those who seek to use and exploit them, but they are of no more value than the beasts of the field. The preceding two views that they do have value are comforting delusions, for when humans die, they rot in the grave and are no more.

1.) Are these three theories facts, value judgments, explanatory or metaphysical hypotheses, and why? 2.) Are they objective descriptions of what human beings are? Explain your answer. 3.) Make a case that each of these theories is true. 4.) How would each theory critique the others? 5.) How would each theory respond to these critiques? 6.) What would be the emotional advantages and disadvantages for holding each theory? 7.) To what extent would emotion enter into deciding which theory was true? 8.) What conclusions do you draw from this assignment?

5. Critiquing a Biblical Theory

Evaluate the following theory: A people hemmed in and threatened on all sides by large predator-powers needs to create a tribal story and national epic to romanticize, idealize, and mythologize itself to create a compensatory glorious, life-sustaining identity, a transcendent destiny to buoy itself up, feel special and chosen, in its very forlornness and perilous state.

All peoples and nations need this. The history of every nation is an exercise of self-empowering wish-fulfillment, unconscious myth-making, self-fulfilling prophecy that it may strut and pose upon the stage of its collective imagination.

A nation must believe in itself in order to give itself hope, to feast upon the manna of poetry to arise majestic from its fear of extinction. It must dream ecstatically that it might believe in itself lest it despair and be covered by the eternal night of oblivion.

If its story is not true, what does it matter if the incandescence of its mystical vision makes it seem true? That it creates in a people by sheer inexorable will a belief in an heroic, life-enhancing destiny so beautiful that it must be true, so that, if believed in ardently, it may will itself into existence? A people cannot live by bread alone, but needs to lift itself up to rapturous heights of self-exaltation.

What a paltry thing is truth in the struggle for survival! Truth is, rather, only what promotes and calls forth life! For isn't life's midwife and first lady-in-waiting life-sustaining illusion? And if this brings a people to greatness, this alone matters. History, chronicle, or memory - they are all one in serving grander designs: yearning, self-creation, therapy, theology, all of which impart the intoxication of self-transcendence to dance the dance of life unapologetically before the universe.

Truth is what we need to believe in to survive, our Pillar of Fire that shows us the way through the darkness of self-doubt. It is what summons us forth from the tomb to return to the struggle reborn, as we surrender our individual selves to a common destiny that redeems our personal sacrifices, while we commune with our Scriptures that give us the strength until taking possession of our Promised Land.

This is what every nation needs if it is not to go under, for this is our sustenance as we celebrate ourselves in our sacred beliefs. So, Philosopher, we banish you and all your servitors, your questions, your doubts. For what we desire is life piled on life, sweet illusion that makes today possible and tomorrow real!

1.) How would you assess the claims of this theory? Are they meant to be refuted, or are they beyond proof or disproof? Are they too fanciful, subjective, insubstantial, and imaginary to admit of either proof or refutation, or are they more important than that? 2.) If a people believed in these claims, would this be something desirable or an invitation to disaster? Or neither? 3.) Is this theory historical analysis, imaginative reconstruction, literary exercise, self-induced hypnosis, psychological ad hominem, or theological meditation upon Old Testament Israel? Respond in 500 words.

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The two remaining assignments deal with different theories of morality and the changing image of God in the Bible. In both these assignments, as well as assignment four above, different theories are juxtaposed for critical analysis.

Concluding Comments

In dealing with these and similar assignments throughout the course, students begin to realize that education isn't the possession of answers, but an understanding of the complexity of the questions, and the difficulty of providing a certain answer to any of them. As a result of this training, they will later understand how to deal with questions in any college humanities course. They will know the necessity of hearing all sides of an issue and, when given only one side, they will ask their professors for the standard objections to the theory presented, and why alternative theories have all been rejected. In short, they will know the difference between being educated and being indoctrinated.