Oy vey: UK schools replace secular philosophy courses with religious ones

I tend to hold Jews to a higher standard than Christians, probably because of my quasi-Jewish upbringing and the general impression that Jews are on average smarter than members of other faiths (I don’t know that for sure, but they are certainly overrepresented in academic and among Nobel Laureates). And thus I get especially upset when a religious Jew does something really stupid, which is not uncommon.

Likewise, I tend to hold Brits to a higher standard than Americans, perhaps because they’re not as religious and their accent makes them sound smart. But then that feeling is weakened when the Brits do something so boneheaded that you wouldn’t see it even in America. And they’ve just pulled such a stunt, as reported in new piece by Charlie Duncan Saffrey at the Guardian‘s “Comment is free” section:  “Philosophy is not religion. It must not be taught that way.” (The Guardian notes that Saffrey, a writer and teacher, “is also the founder and host of Stand-up Philosophy, a regular live philosophy show in London”.)

Saffrey reports some proposed changes in the A-level philosophy course beginning in 2015. (“A levels” represent courses of study taken in Wales and England during a student’s last two years of secondary school, before university. Students are about 17 and 18 years old, and have to take three A-level curricula.)

The revisions in the philosophy requirements are completely idiotic: they’re dumping many classical topics in philosophy in favor of—”wait for it,” as the Brits say—philosophy of religion. Note that philosophy of religion is not the history of religion, but apologetics and various arguments for God’s existence and nature.

Saffrey begins his piece with a bunch of acronyms that mystify non-Brits, but the meaning is clear:

For the last nine years, I have taught the AQA’s A-level philosophy course. It’s a good course, and the only one to represent the breadth of philosophy as a discipline in its own right. So I was somewhat surprised to learn that the AQA have this week, without warning or consultation, published a completely new draft syllabus, which is now just waiting to be rubber-stamped by Ofqual.

The new specification completely excludes the previous options to study aesthetics, free will, all European philosophy since Kant, and – most significantly – political philosophy. This will be all replaced with a compulsory philosophy of religion topic, which will make up 50% of the AS course.

The exam board will also reduce the marks given for students’ ability to critique and construct arguments, and more marks will be given for simply knowing the theories involved. Essentially, where young philosophers were previously rewarded for being able to think for themselves and question the role of government, the new course can only be passed by students who can regurgitate classic defences of the existence and perfection of God.

Well, maybe they had no choice to dump the “free will” part. And, to be sure, there are really two sections in the new curriculum: epistemology and philosophy of religion. I presume the latter is replacing all the things mentioned in Saffrey’s second paragraph.

You can download a pdf of the proposed philosophy specifications here; the relevant part is on page 7:

Picture 1Surveys have shown (I’m not sure if they’re limited to the U.S) that while philosophers in general are overwhelmingly nonbelievers, philosophers of religion are predominantly religious. That means, of course, that students are going to get exposed to a lot more religious belief, apologetics, and other useless stuff. Saffrey, correctly, finds this unconscionable:

Meanwhile, the areas that have been casually dropped are the very areas of philosophy that make it a dynamic, relevant and academically rigorous subject. Political philosophy helps us make sense of politics and consider the importance of freedom and justice; considering free will gives us an opportunity to consider our responsibility for our actions. Both of these are apparently no longer worthy of teaching – nor is the option of a detailed reading of philosophical texts like Plato’s Republic or Mill’s On Liberty. It is not merely that the course that has been dumbed down; philosophy itself is being misrepresented.

A representative of the exam board told me on the telephone that it was “too difficult” to comparatively assess students across the different topics which were options before, so they were changing it so that everyone had to do the “most popular” ones. This is a bit like a science examiner saying that it would be “too difficult” to assess both physics and biology, so it would be better to just drop physics altogether.

(The reason philosophy of religion questions appear “popular” with students is actually that many centres ill-advisedly get an RE teacher to teach the course. Not being philosophers, they tell their students to do the religious questions whether they like it or not.)

As Saffrey notes, this is going to make it harder for secular philosophy to disentangle itself from religious philosophy—a struggle that’s been going on for years.  And I think it will certainly devalue philosophy degrees in the UK.  Imagine having to study Alvin Plantinga or Richard Swinburne rather than Plato, Mill, Rawls, or Singer!  Instead of pondering what makes a good life, or how can one construct a good ethical system, students will be reading justifications of the nonexistent.

I bet Anthony Grayling is FURIOUS about this. In fact, I think I’ll ask him what he thinks; his reaction should be amusing.

h/t: Matthew Cobb

58 Comments

  1. gbjames
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    sub

    • francis
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 7:43 am | Permalink

      //

  2. Posted January 31, 2014 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    This is so depressing, every time you feel you like progress something like this happens.

    It’s not gone through yet, anything we can do to complain?

  3. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    As a Brit I am appalled and embarassed. With regards to the various acronyms, AQA is an examination board or ‘awarding body’ previously known as the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance but now known only as AQA. It specifies curricula and sets examinations for public examinations at age 16: ‘GCSEs’ or ‘General Certificates in Secondary Education’ and at 18: A Levels, amongst other qualifications. A levels are done in two stages with the first year exams known as AS and the second year exams as A2 as referred to in Saffrey’s article. There are several other awarding bodies.
    Ofqual is the official regulator for public examinations. Hope this helps.
    GOD is not actually an acronym but a name used to describe an imaginary being believed by some people to have powers in influencing the outcome of football games :-)

    • Matt G
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 8:37 am | Permalink

      The important question is: in which football does God determine the outcome, American football or soccer/football? I hope their best minds are working on this one.

  4. nightglare
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    I agree it’s ridiculous to make the A Level 50% philosophy of religion, but philosophy of religion is not ‘religious philosophy’. Many of it’s practitioners are theists, but not all.

    I think philosophy of religion is a perfectly good topic for an intro philosophy course, as religion is a topic that most students will have some interest in, and intuitions about.

    • Posted January 31, 2014 at 8:01 am | Permalink

      Yes, perhaps as a single course—so long as the students learn both pro- and anti- arguments (will they read, for instance, Grayling or Harris?), and that they’re exposed to a diversity of conflicting philosophies of religion (i.e. is god a personal god or just a Ground of Being?) I doubt that will happen. But, as you note, this is NOT a single course, but 50% of the curriculum, and a moiety that displaces much more valuable forms of philosophy.

      • Posted January 31, 2014 at 9:36 am | Permalink

        Unfortunately, the way philosophy of religion is likely to be taught in faith schools is very predictable.

    • Alexander Hellemans
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 8:06 am | Permalink

      If philosophy of religion is not “religious philosophy,” what is it? What about the physics of astrology?

      • nightglare
        Posted January 31, 2014 at 8:26 am | Permalink

        Philosophy of religion is not religious philosophy in the same way that philosophy of psychology is not psychological philosophy, philosophy of science is not scientific philosophy and philosophy of art is not artistic philosophy.

        Philosophy of religion is philosophical reflection on religious claims. Some of it’s practitioners engage in it in order to support those claims, but they use philosophical techniques to do so, not religious ones.

        • ladyatheist
          Posted January 31, 2014 at 8:52 am | Permalink

          And many of those philosophers are atheists.

          • Alexander Hellemans
            Posted January 31, 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

            Many? I don’t think so. Can you name a few? I believe there are many historians, sociologists, psychologists, and even political scientists who investigate religions and who are atheists.

  5. eric
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    Note that philosophy of religion is not the history of religion, but apologetics and various arguments for God’s existence and nature.

    I’ll quibble a bit, having taken such a course in a US university. A decent Philosophy of Religion course should in fact cover apologetic arguments, but in a distanced, critical, and academic manner – not to promote belief. If you were to think about the right way to teach someone about ID (i.e, the history of its argument including the greeks on up to Paley, objections to it, historical attempts to co-opt it to promote prayer in school, etc…) then what you’re thinking about is a good philosophy of religion course unit.

    IMO there is nothing particularly wrong with that – if it’s done right. However, Saffrey’s commentary makes it pretty clear that they are not doing it right as they are de-emphasizing the critical, academic perspective in favor of rote learning. Moreover, even done right, I don’t know why you would want an introduction to philosophy class to spend 50% of class time on religious philosophy. That seems incredibly skewed to me.

    So Jerry, I’m with you that this decision appears to be pretty atrocious. I’m not with you in the implied panning of philosophy of religion as a subject.

    • Posted January 31, 2014 at 8:14 am | Permalink

      As I noted above, perhaps one course in the subject is fine, so long as it explores the diversity of religious opinions. But I urge you to take a look at the questions in the extract above:three of them are religious in nature and we already know the answer to one (“are my mind and body separate”?). The answer is NO! End of answer!

      • eric
        Posted January 31, 2014 at 8:26 am | Permalink

        Those four questions seem fine to me as part of a ‘philosophy of religion’ unit, because those are the sorts of questions you want to teach students to think critically about. We want students to think critically about whether God’s existence can be proven. Right? Deeper thought is on our side, yes? We want teach students to think critically about dualism. People not thinking critically about dualism is part of the problem, not the solution!

        Having said that, I will reiterate that I agree with you about this course, as written, looking like a bad idea. While critical thinking about these questions has value, the emphasis on simply learning them without critically analyzing them is a recipe for failure. Simply hearing teachers and others students voice their opinions about the answers, nodding along, and taking the pomo approach of not challenging anyone’s position could do more harm than good.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted January 31, 2014 at 11:54 am | Permalink

          “whether God’s existence can be proven.”

          Maybe it is me, but I rather want such courses to be concerned about whether such magic beings can be accepted or rejected.

          Besides the skewing of asking for “proof” on existence claims and the skewing on the use of the null hypothesis, existence or non-existence are not equal claims as it may come down to uncertainty. E.g. it is very hard to reject different distributions of black body radiation in a condition of near zero temperature.

          If philosophy of religion is so near enough theology that they have to hedge their questions to make them interesting, what use are they?

  6. Scientifik
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    Jerry, if you get upset when a religious Jew does something really stupid, then you won’t be too fond of this story:

    http://www.vice.com/read/the-child-rape-assembly-line-0000141-v20n11

    • natalielaberlinoise
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      That’s horrible. I had to force myself to read the article to the end. Do you think the situation portrayed is accurate? I remember reading a similar report a while back, wondering if that was an exaggeration at the time.

      • Posted January 31, 2014 at 10:56 am | Permalink

        Did you see the comments? There was another story about a woman who sold her infant daughter to a man for sex. He raped her repeatedly between the ages of 4-16 months and the mom took pictures of the encounter for him. It’s cases like that which makes me not 100% anti-capital punishment. I have no moral qualms about slowly and painfully murdering the man (and mom) responsible. I don’t care if there’s no free will. A man who rapes an infant deserves to be set on fire and burn slowly.

        • Posted January 31, 2014 at 10:58 am | Permalink

          Sorry, them comments I was referring to were linked to a different article (about a mom selling her 15 year old daughter for sex). I can’t think clearly after reading child rape stories.

          • natalielaberlinoise
            Posted January 31, 2014 at 11:36 am | Permalink

            “I can’t think clearly after reading child rape stories.”

            That’s ok. Such stories are absolutely maddening. My first thought is “how can this be prevented?”. It’s the only thing that matters, it seems to me.

            • Posted January 31, 2014 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

              I just noticed I wrote “them comments.” Apparently I can’t type clearly either.

      • Scientifik
        Posted January 31, 2014 at 11:03 am | Permalink

        “Do you think the situation portrayed is accurate?”

        I don’t have a reason to believe otherwise. My first reaction when I read the article was that these orthodox Jews are even more deranged than pedophile Catholic priests, but then again, most of their abuses probably never see the light of day.

  7. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    On the one hand, good courses on the philosophy of religion routinely include critics of religion such as Friedrich
    Nietzsche or Kai Nielsen as well as their religious counterparts such as Thomas Aquinas or Alfred North Whitehead. It’s not the same thing as “religious philosophy”. If they do Plantinga, they need to do Dan Dennett.

    WIkipedia asserts “The philosophy of religion differs from religious philosophy in that it seeks to discuss questions regarding the nature of religion as a whole, rather than examining the problems brought forth by a particular belief system. It is designed such that it can be carried out dispassionately by those who identify as believers or non-believers” and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy states “The range of those engaged in the field of philosophy of religion is broad and diverse and includes philosophers from the analytic and continental traditions, Eastern and Western thinkers, religious believers and agnostics, skeptics and atheists.” http://www.iep.utm.edu/religion/

    Nonetheless, I must agree with Saffrey that “the areas that have been casually dropped are the very areas of philosophy that make it a dynamic, relevant and academically rigorous subject.”

    PS I certainly agree with Jerry about holding both Jews and Brits to higher standards. My first year of junior high school was in Oxford (England not Mississippi!!), and I spent the rest of junior high & high school in a Pennsylvania public school system that had a 3/4ths Jewish student body. This contrasted enormously with my elementary school experiences in Texas!!

  8. eric
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    A representative of the exam board told me on the telephone that it was “too difficult” to comparatively assess students across the different topics which were options before, so they were changing it so that everyone had to do the “most popular” ones.

    That’s still no excuse for the 50% weighting. If they’re worried about assessing students fairly, they could make the course have 5-6 required units (of which this could be one) and 1-2 teacher-chosen units, then focus assessment on the required units.

    I’m sure someone else could give a better list, but here’s a shot at a bunch of units, any six to eight of which would probably make a decent introductory class: intro/”what is philosophy,” ethics, aesthetics, logic, greek philosophy, midaevel philosophy, continental philosophy (1700s-1900s), modern western philosophy, philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, political philosophy, philosophy of religion.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      When it comes to philosophy, the “existence of God” is where the action is. People whose eyes glaze over when confronted by “free will” or “Aristotle” will spring up ready to do battle the minute “God” is brought up, regardless of how much time they have ever devoted to studying the issue in an academic setting. They have an opinion. They have a strong opinion. And the opinion — pro or con — is often poorly formed and informed, and badly articulated.

      So I can understand the desire to concentrate on something in philosophy which is popular and likely to intersect with the lives of every student on what could even be a daily basis. After all, the topic of religion involves epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, physics, and all sorts of other areas which can be introduced by being springboarded off what I’ll call a (metaphorically) ‘sexy’ issue. I wouldn’t be too surprised if Anthony Grayling is not furious but THRILLED about this.

      Surprised, yes. But not too surprised.

      One critical issue of course is implementation. I’ll echo the chorus: if they’re not going to be true and honest and do it right — and the record of the religious is not good here — then this is a terrible idea. The other critical issue is egads — what is being left out.

  9. Jonathan Dore
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    The background to this is the grade inflation that has been going on for the past three decades, which makes it ever more important for future life chances for kids to get top grades. This therefore skews them to take A-level subjects that are comparatively easy, and Religious Studies has long been notorious for being easy to pass.

    The second compounding factor (I’m not sure if this situation is replicated in other countries) is the competition between exam boards for school business. This creates pressure for the boards to dumb down their syllabuses, so their exams are easier to pass, so schools will have a better set of grades with which to boost themselves to the top of the league tables and thus ensure their position with the next cohort of students and parents.

    A truly vicious circle — but I suspect not, in this case, one emanating from a religious agenda per se.

    • eric
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 8:39 am | Permalink

      We have something similar in the US, where high school teachers are sometimes pressured to make A’s easier so that their students’ GPAs are higher. In the worst cases, school administrations have been caught altering standardized test answers to get their kids better scores.

      It is a vicious circle, you’re right about that, because what happens in the US is that university admissions departments start discounting grades from different districts or schools which are known inflaters. Which puts the pressure on the schools to give even higher grades, and round and round we go.

      California has taken an interesting step in reining this process in, though I’m not sure how effective it is. There, the University of California (UC) gives automatic admissions to the top 10% of California HS students…but only if the school’s classes have been approved by UC. The benefit to the students is so great that there is enormous pressure from parents – even parents sending their kids to private religious schools – to have the school get their classes approved by UC. So they use a big carrot instead of a stick to keep control of course content.

      • Jonathan Dore
        Posted January 31, 2014 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

        Good for UC! — a canny and creative response.

  10. Matt G
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    Is there any point in asking exactly which religion this philosophy of religion course addresses? I already know the answer, don’t I?

    • Alexander Hellemans
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      Yes, and these religions (Abrahamic ones) consider questioning any religious tenets as “sin.” Since philosophy consists of questioning anything in sight (or should do so), you have here an interesting paradox.

  11. Ben
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    I think a clarification might help here. If I read the original correctly, the 50% figure applies to the AS course. That is itself half of the A-level, so the proposal relates to 25% of the material covered. Not that this alters the argument, but I think it strengthens complaints if they have the right numbers.

    Unlike our host I don’t think it will devalue philosophy degrees. The A-level is taken by very few students (1.1% in 2011) and most schools won’t even offer it. Philosophy departments will be geared up to teach students who have no A-level in the subject, so I don’t think a change in the syllabus will have any great effect. I checked a few universities and none required the A-level for entry.

    On an unrelated matter, students take anything from as few as one A-level to as many as the school timetable allows. Three is the most common (52.5%) because universities tend to offer places based on three A-level grades, but one is not unusual (10.2%) and four or more is surprisingly common (21.4%).

    • j houston
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

      You’re quite correct.

      The Philosophy ‘A-Level’ won’t be 50% philosophy of religion, but it will make up half of the first year (after which around 50% dropped the subject between 2012 and 2013).

      Only 2941 pupils were exam candidates for the AQA philosophy A-level in 2013, down from 3233 in 2012 and 3280 in 2011.

      Not only would no university think a philosophy ‘A’ level necessary for entry to a philosophy degree, but at least one (Oxford) decided a few years ago that possession of A grade in it is insufficient to identify philosophical aptitude for the purposes of undergraduate intake. They decided thus, on the basis that the questions offered could be answered quite satisfactorily by having memorised an answer without imbibing any real understanding.

  12. Posted January 31, 2014 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Oh, good lord. Dualism? Seriously? What’s next, the Four Elements? Humors? Luminiferous Aether? Astrology? Zombies? Talking plants?

    …and people wonder why I have no respect for philosophy whatsoever. Any discipline so hopelessly out-of-date as to consider dualism a respectable question is utterly worthless.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Jiten
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 9:26 am | Permalink

      Have you read Rebecca Goldstein’s answer to this year’s Edge question? It’s very illuminating. Read it if you haven’t already and then see if you still hate philosophy. But I would say that 90% of philosophy is bullshit. For that matter 90% of science papers are utter dross.

      • Posted January 31, 2014 at 10:14 am | Permalink

        Yeah. Same old, same old. “You can’t argue for science making philosophy obsolete without indulging in philosophical arguments.”

        Bullshit.

        The exact same bullshit as we get from theologians, in fact, when they insist that science is simply the quest to understand their favored gods’s ultimate creation.

        There’s a crystal-clear dividing line between philosophy and science — or, for that matter, between science and everything else. Richard sums it up nicely when he asks, “How do you know that?” The scientist answers it by showing you empirical observations that you can confirm for yourself. And it applies the exact same standard to itself; again, Richard (this time channelling Randal Munroe): “It works. Bitches.”

        Philosophers whine and howl and bitch and moan about how we really need them and how everything science does is really all to the greater glory of Jesus. Er, “Plato.” Socrates? Some dead Mediterranean dude on a stick, regardless.

        Thanks, but no thanks. The disconnect from observable reality that philosophy is selling is exactly the disease that science cures.

        Cheers,

        b&

    • eric
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      I don’t get your position; the point of education is to teach people how to think as well as teach them information they don’t already know. If they don’t know much about dualism and don’t know how to critically think about it, don’t you want them to have courses available where they critically think about it?

      If I said “I have no respect for 1st grade teachers whatsoever because they teach how to read. I already know that – it’s out of date” you’d think I was being pretty stupid and self-centered, right?

      Everyone has to start somewhere. Just because you think the question is settled doesn’t mean that teaching other people how to think about that question is a waste of time. And no, I’m not proposing we teach whole classes on astrology or the ether. But dualism is still with us, it’s a “live” belief, and as such, I’d think you would want students to have a chance to think critically about it. Instead, it seems your position is that we should eliminate those classes where they would, in fact, think critically about it. How much sense does that make?

      • Posted January 31, 2014 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        I don’t have any objection to teachers dismissing dualism, of course. In the proper context — the one I put it in. And, yes, of course, just as if you have a student who won’t let go of astrology you’d spend some extra time on that, you’d spend some extra time on dualism if you had students stuck on that one as well.

        But that’s not at all what this case is about. It’s clearly phrased as “teach the controversy” bullshit. And, just as with Creationism, that sort of nonsense has no place in the classroom. The closest you could legitimately get would be sociology or history of science or that sort of thing, which, I can assure you, is not what these “standards” are about.

        So, if you’ve got a class on psychology (or a section of a more general science class with a lecture or three on psychology), you’d likely do the usual whirlwind tour of the history of the subject from the ancients to modernity. In so doing, you’d obviously mention the prominence of dualism in the past, with specific and varied examples — just as you’d discuss demon possession as a theory of mental illness, phrenology, sanitariums, and the like. How much time and depth you spend on each depends, of course, on the scope of the class. But, by the time you’ve made it through the history portion, it should be clear that all those long-discredited theories have long since been abandoned, and then move on to the meat of the subject — and that’s where you’d spend the overwhelming majority of your time and emphasis.

        Students who still think dualism is a serious explanation after learning of Phineas Gage, psychedelic pharmacology, brain imaging, the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments, cognitive dissonance theory, and all the rest…well, they damned well deserve to flunk the course every bit as much as a biology student who believes in Creationism does.

        Cheers,

        b&

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted January 31, 2014 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think philosophy is the area which thinks, or better acts, critically about dualism. E.g. “qualia” and “zombies”.

        Science has acted critically on dualism for 200 years. (Since the use of thermodynamics to study monistic aka closed physical systems.) It is even older than evolution and its specific criticism of creationism.

        • Posted January 31, 2014 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

          Exactly.

          As with every other example, philosophy is either not even worng, or fractally worng, or some combination of the two.

          While philosophers are trying to stick qualia in their dual zombies, scientists are mapping the brain and building computational models of cognition and developing empirically-based models of psychology. It’s the exact same comparison as between evidence-based medicine and voodoo witch doctors chanting spells and sprinkling chicken blood over their victims.

          Remind me again: in this, the twenty-first century, why are we supposed to respect superstitions such as philosophy or astrology or religion?

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Alexander Hellemans
            Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

            “Philosophy” seems to have many meanings. Bertrand Russell was a philosopher. And there are questions in science you could call philosophical. For example, is reality ultimately a mathematical pre-existing structure, Platonism, as, for example, an idea supported by the mathematician Alain Connes, whereby we keep discovering more “mathematics” as we go along (I’m sure some string theorists like this idea), or is mathematics just a construction that we create, just like language? Perhaps one day we will know, and this question will become a scientific one.

            • Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

              You’ll find that, in every case, when a philosopher does something that’s actually useful, the reason we know it’s useful is because of empirical supportive evidence. Logic and math especially fall into that category; we use the Pythagorean Theorem not because of some sort of Platonic idealism it represents, but because you really can draw any right triangle you like, draw squares on the sides, measure the areas under the squares, and find that the big one covers as much area as the two little ones combined.

              As to the philosophical question you offer — of whether or not reality is just one giant equation — I’m at a loss as to what that’s supposed to even mean. But, even if you were to explain it to me, the only way we’d ever have an answer is by means of observing evidence supportive of the proposition that could not be reasonably explained by any other proposition. That is, by doing science.

              But, I’ll make another prediction. Should we ever come up with an answer, it will render today’s philosophical musings seem every bit as utterly clueless and unsophisticated as philosophical questions about the origins of consciousness or the Universe do in light of neruopsychology and cosmology. And the ones to answer it will have made as little use of philosophy as today’s neuropsychologists and cosmologists.

              Remind me again: which philosopher was it who proposed the Higgs Boson or confirmed its existence, thereby completing the Standard Model?

              Philosophy is just another type of junk pseudoscience, and the sooner we bury it next to its kissing cousins of astrology and theology and alchemy, the better.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Alexander Hellemans
                Posted January 31, 2014 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

                This is before the Higgs was discovered, but Connes was quite close (not that I am a Platonist).

                https://www.fastmail.fm/html/connes.pdf?MLS=FS-*&SFS-CD=345740&u=150441aa&MSignal=FS-SF**20013353

              • Posted January 31, 2014 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

                Sorry, but that link just takes me to a page asking for a credit card in order to access some random Cloud company’s services.

                If you’re referring to Alain Connes…well, he’s a mathematician, Fields Medal recipient, and active in theoretical physics. I’m not exactly familiar with his work, but I wouldn’t at all be surprised if some of it is directly applicable to the Higgs.

                But what particle physics, number theory, geometry, and the like have to do with philosophy is utterly beyond me.

                Unless, of course, one were inclined to credit philosophy for all intellectual endeavors, as most philosophy apologists are wont to do….

                Cheers,

                b&

    • Posted February 1, 2014 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

      Hi, Ben Goren.

      I share your aversion to philosophers trying to answer questions that are properly answered by science. For example, I would say that Chalmers’ zombie argument is an attempt to use philosophy to answer a question that really belongs to neuroscience and other experimental disciplines. In my view, metaphysics should be limited to making a few obvious, redundant claims (existence exists, A is A, etc.), and that’s it.

      But I still think there is room for philosophy. Certain epistemological, moral, and political questions are best answered, not by doing another controlled observation (i.e., an experiment), but by drawing generalizations from our life experience or studying relevant events in history and looking for patterns. This is how we know that, for example, it is better to allow people to have free speech than to censor unwelcome opinions.

      So, do you think that this sort of philosophy is legitimate?

      • Posted February 1, 2014 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

        Certain epistemological, moral, and political questions are best answered, not by doing another controlled observation (i.e., an experiment), but by drawing generalizations from our life experience or studying relevant events in history and looking for patterns.

        Properly done, that’s science, not philosophy. Indeed, cosmology and geology are faced with the exact same problems: how is one supposed to do a laboratory experiment on stellar life cycles or plate tectonics?

        It is also true that politics is very messy and that we don’t have the best of tools for objective analyses.

        But.

        That doesn’t mean that we can or should fill that void with philosophy.

        Rather, it means making the best with what we have, but always comparing everything against observations with what’s really real rather than with what we want to be real or what we think should be real.

        A perfect example of this is trickle-down economics. The theory goes that a rising tide floats all boats and therefore the best way to reduce poverty is to cut tax rates on the wealthy. Well, we did that experiment, and it didn’t work. Spectacularly so. An empirical approach to fiscal policy would admit that the theory isn’t right and that we should at least return taxes to the pre-cut levels; it would further suggest that, contrary to expectations, it might actually be the fact in reality that, for whatever reason, a more aggressively progressive tax rate is the key to success and that we should give that a try as well. But the philosophical approach, and the one that continues to reign supreme in both parties, is that we need to at least keep taxes where they are and maybe even cut them further, because of some philosophical objection to taxes.

        So, while I’d agree that some level of guessing and extrapolating and even hoping is called for when you have nothing better, I’d most emphatically insist that those should only be used as stopgaps or, at most, starting points, and that we must ever be willing to adjust theories as necessary to accommodate observations and not the other way ’round.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Posted February 1, 2014 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

          You are making many good points. I think the central disagreement here is whether or not we need broad philosophical generalizations in addition to concrete facts.

          I agree that the approach you advocate, where concrete facts are central, would be the best approach to take for a godlike intelligence with an unlimited capacity. But we are human, and we have to reduce all apples to a few generalizations about apples, or all physical motion to a few equations, or all of the political events of our day to a few broad statements, in order to deal with them competently.

          The result of trying to take your approach, I fear, is that people, being unable to hold all of the facts in mind at once, will accept or reject facts by reference to the political generalizations they have helplessly drawn. In other words, philosophy would end up being done but not talked about.

          It seems to me that explicit engagement with philosophical ideas, on philosophical terms, is necessary if we are going to have a productive public discourse.

          • Posted February 1, 2014 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

            I’m sorry, but that smells too much of the “little people” argument.

            It’s necessary, of course, to always be clear in one’s explanations, and to tailor them to the educational and experiential level of the audience; however, it’s always counterproductive to fabricate explanations. When you must resort to analogies or overly simplistic models, it’s of vital importance to make clear that that’s what you’re doing, to point out the boundaries of the model and where and how it breaks down, and to lay a path for those interested to investigate the matter in as much depth as they desire.

            Philosophy is fundamentally broken in an unsalvageable manner, and unsuited as any sort of a model for didactic purposes.

            There might be some familiar anecdotes or the like from philosophy that could be useful in certain contexts, just as one might use a Bible story (or something from Shakespeare or Harry Potter or whatever) to illustrate a point. But the very essence of the field is corrupt and shouldn’t be touched with a ten-foot pole.

            Cheers,

            b&

  13. Posted January 31, 2014 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    “Well, maybe they had no choice to dump the “free will” part.”

    Heh. I see what you did there.

  14. Posted January 31, 2014 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Pointing out that philosophy of religion is not the same thing as religious philosophy is all well and good, but it strikes me as having too much confidence that the actual instructors will recognize the difference and toe the line, rather than taking the opportunity to promote their religion.

    I hope I’m wrong, but the older I get, the more I tend to see “realism” and “cynicism” as synonyms.

    • Posted January 31, 2014 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      (That was of course directed not at what Jerry wrote but at some of the comments above.)

  15. Christopher
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Yes, this isn’t great. If someone does an undergraduate degree in philosophy, they can decide to take the philosophy of religion modules themselves. They don’t need it in the secondary schools! It would be much more worth while they stuck with the previous topics to ground them in the essential philosophical concepts and they can do Phil of Religion later on if they want. Bad move.

  16. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    “it was “too difficult” to comparatively assess students across the different topics which were options before, so they were changing it so that everyone had to do the “most popular” ones.”

    As Hitch would have said, ‘Fuck that!’

    I get moderately irate when somebody decides to cut back on options; but making the allegedly ‘most popular’ one compulsory is just unacceptable. (I would also doubt whether it can be justified by any reasonable philosophy – except, from what I’ve seen, ‘philosophy’ can be used to prove anything, which makes the whole subject futile).

  17. Posted January 31, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    I have no problem with a good unit on philosophy of religion being done with (what amount to) intro students. But 50% of a course? Do I recall that a course is 1 year long? Even if that’s semestered, *50%* of a semester? This does not reflect the field as practiced by academic philosophers. Should it? I dunno, but at least at first glance, desynching it from the university setting etc. can’t be altogether good.

    Personally, I would do a good, “socially aware” critical thinking module, some formal logic, a brief ethics part and then intro topics at the instructor’s whim (e.g., pick n of m from metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language, political philosophy, aesthetics, philosophy of science and technology, philosophy of mind) but that might require changing the examination expectations. I’d change the philosophy of mind topic to “What is mind, what has it, and how does one come to know this?”. But then again, I insist that philosophy of mind be allied with psychology, neuroscience, etc. which would require some work to get into. (And then there’s the question of history …)

  18. Posted February 1, 2014 at 2:46 am | Permalink

    Philosophy 101 in Uni includes philosophy of Religion. Shows what is possible (mind games) to justify Religious belief?

  19. Gareth Price
    Posted February 1, 2014 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    “A representative of the exam board told me on the telephone that it was “too difficult” to comparatively assess students across the different topics which were options before, so they were changing it so that everyone had to do the “most popular” ones. This is a bit like a science examiner saying that it would be “too difficult” to assess both physics and biology, so it would be better to just drop physics altogether.”

    Maybe I am being pedantic and I know this is not the main point of the quoted article or Jerry’s post (both of which I entirely agree with), but making a comparative assessment of students who have taken different topics is not at all the same as assessing students in more than one subject.
    The question of how to compare students who have taken different courses is surely a legitimate one.

  20. Rosie
    Posted February 9, 2014 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    I find this odd, because when I took my A-levels, philosophy of religion was taught on the Religious Studies A-level. Maybe it was taught in Philosophy as well, and I just didn’t know. The UK religious studies curricula are very good courses, more than I get the impression is the case in the USA.

    After the pre-GSCE RS syllabus (11-14), which covered basic facts about many world religions, my GCSE (14-16) syllabus covered Christianity and Hinduism in greater detail, with a side look at Humanism by way of a non-theistic ethical comparator. We looked at topics such as ‘peace and conflict’ and ‘animal rights’ through the lenses of these different religious and ethical frameworks. This was a state school, by the way, in a fairly poor urban area.

    I found it so interesting that when I went to 6th form college I took RS A-level, in which at my college you could choose two of three options: Buddhism, New Testament Studies and Philosophy of Religion. Alongside the RS A-level my college provided a Philosophy A-level, which I didn’t take. The Phil. of Religion course introduced us to Hume, Kant, Mill, Bentham and others along with various arguments for and against the existence of a deity.

    The RS and Philosophy A-levels were taught by some of the same teachers, but this doesn’t mean they were religion grads also doing philosophy – it could mean that they were philosophy grads also teaching RS. It’s also common in the UK for secondary schools (11-16) and ‘colleges of further education’ (16-18) to be separate institutions.

    This development may not in itself be a huge problem regarding the teaching of philosophy, but I do find it concerning in the context of the UK government’s continued favouring of faith schools and privileging of religion as a dominant mode of discourse through which minorities and migrants are engaged (and categorised). I also find it odd considering there is a very strong RS syllabus which already offers the philosophy of religion option. This also removes the flexibility for an institution to play to its teachers’ strengths. Call me horribly cynical, but I’m wondering if Michael Gove (draws sign to avert evil) may ultimately be planning to merge RS and philosophy completely. That would really be a travesty. I hope this comment’s not too appallingly long!


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  1. […] UK schools replace secular philosophy courses with religious onesAs Saffrey notes, this is going to make it harder for secular philosophy to disentangle itself from religious philosophy—a struggle that’s been going on for years.  And I think it will certainly devalue philosophy degrees in the UK.  Imagine having to study Alvin Plantinga or Richard Swinburne rather than Plato, Mill, Rawls, or Singer!  Instead of pondering what makes a good life, or how can one construct a good ethical system, students will be reading justifications of the nonexistent.— Why Evolution is True […]

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