August 14, 2014

Even Without Philosophy, I'd Still Be An Atheist

I have little doubt that I'd be an atheist today even if I had never discovered philosophy. I'd be an atheist even if my favorite high school teacher had not inspired me to seek out and read Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus. I would be an atheist even if I had not spent countless hours pouring over the writings of Hume, Spinoza, Russell, Kant, Hobbes, Berkeley, Locke, and many of the other dusty volumes I was able to find on the shelves of the used bookstore where I spent so much time. I'd be an atheist even if I hadn't taken the philosophy courses I took in college. But as certain as I am that I would be an atheist without philosophy, I am equally certain that it would have taken me at least 2-3 years longer than it did to find atheism.

Bashing philosophy has become popular over the last few months following some comments from a scientist who is revered by many atheists. As someone who has long been interested in both philosophy and science, I have found this unfortunate. The field of philosophy has informed and continues to inform many important aspects of our lives, often without us even realizing it. Medical ethics and the ethical standards governing those of us who do research with human and/or animal subjects come to mind as obvious examples. But the value of philosophy extends beyond ethics, especially for those of us who value skepticism and aspire to be more reasonable in our thinking.

Hand-in-hand with psychology, philosophy has helped us to understand reason, critical thinking, skepticism. We have learned about their value, their application, and about the many obstacles that prevent us from utilizing them. Granted, it would be easy for someone like me who is immersed in psychology to claim that most of this knowledge has come from psychology and not philosophy; however, that would be disingenuous because the fingerprints of philosophy are all over psychology. At both the undergraduate and graduate level, courses on the history of psychology almost always begin with philosophy. Many, such as the history of psychology course I took in graduate school, are so heavily rooted in philosophy that they could easily be mistaken for philosophy courses. The influence of philosophy on psychology is difficult to deny.

Not that long ago, it was fairly common for many liberal arts colleges to require students to complete a philosophy course in logic or critical thinking. Many schools have dropped this requirement. Few students enjoyed these courses, and we're all about students-as-consumers these days. I found these courses valuable. They encouraged the sort of deep, analytic, critical thought among students that seems too rare today. The good ones challenged students in precisely the ways they needed to be challenged. We're not doing that nearly as much as we should be, as fewer administrators seem willing to stand up to outside pressure.

I believe we've lost something in this process. I see students graduate every year who have not been asked to do much deep thinking during the time in college. Faculty often steer clear of issues that are perceived as being "too controversial," and many students seem to be learning to provide some combination of their uninformed opinion and another author's ideas (sometimes in the form of word-for-word copying without bothering to credit the source). Deep engagement with the issues seems to be less common. They don't know how to do that, and fewer faculty are asking it of them.

Philosophy was where I learned much of this; however, it is obvious to me that these problems go far beyond the elimination of philosophy requirements. Returning philosophy to the curriculum is not going to magically erase them. And yet, some of these philosophy courses did provide a place for students to learn some of what seems to be lacking today. Some are now learning this in other courses; many are not being exposed to it at all.

I used to love those challenging philosophy papers where we'd not only have to show that we understood what various philosophers said but where we'd have to struggle with both sides of topics like the existence of gods, the connection between mind and body, or free will. We'd have to explain our views, how they developed, and be able to clearly articulate why we had reached the conclusions we had reached. This sort of exercise proved invaluable for graduate school and everything I've done since then.

I'd still be an atheist without philosophy, but it would have taken me longer to get there. And even today, I question whether my views on atheism and religion would be nearly as informed or nuanced had it not been for philosophy.