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philosophy

Knowledge, Value and Rationality

This course was taught at Portland State University.

Excerpt from Syllabus

The fundamental learning objectives of this course are threefold: 1) to empower students to be trustful of reason and to give them hope that they can make better communities and live better lives, 2) to demonstrate that there are better and worse ways of reasoning morally, and that the process one uses to make moral decisions can either contribute to, or alleviate, real life suffering and misery, 3) to teach student not to withhold moral judgment, but how to make better, more discerning moral judgments.

This class has the potential to disabuse students of ideologies and specious reasoning processes that bring students’ beliefs out of lawful alignment with reality. Specifically, it is meant to be both an antidote and a prophylactic to pedagogical constructivism, cultural relativism, radical epistemological subjectivism and faith-based belief systems. As such, this course should be viewed more as a moral and cognitive intervention than as a cannon of information that needs to be disseminated, assimilated and then assessed.

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Atheism: Understanding Secular Arguments

This course was taught at Portland State University.

Excerpt from Syllabus

This course is a systematic examination and analysis of atheism. It is primarily focused upon understanding contemporary secular arguments regarding religion and faith-based belief systems. It is secondarily focused upon exploring what secularism means for metaphysics, epistemology, morality, politics, aesthetics, etc.

Learning Goals

After successfully completing this course students should be able to:

  • Use critical thinking skills to analyze arguments for God’s existence
  • Examine and evaluate counterarguments
  • Understand secular responses to faith-based morality, epistemology and metaphysics
  • Investigate the role evidence ought to play in belief formation
  • Examine basic logical fallacies and their application
  • Explore writings and lectures of contemporary atheist thinkers
  • Research 1) A specific argument for God’s existence, and 2) The counter to that argument
  • Evaluate, Present and Defend findings to the class
  • Address questions of textual exegesis and interpretation and their relevance to religious doctrine and belief
  • Explore the controversy surrounding “the new atheists”
  • Engage debates from leading religious and secular thinkers regarding God’s existence
  • Explore different faith traditions by visiting local religious services and then sharing your experiences with classmates
  • Examine Christian epistemology and warrant through writings of Christian thinkers
  • Reflect on learning experience and articulate those experiences to peers
  • Develop teamwork skills by working with fellow classmates to analyze complicated epistemological problems
  • Engage controversial ideas and attempt to come to a consensus
  • Empower themselves with the tools to navigate questions about faith, God and the meaning of life

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(252 kb PDF)

Science versus Pseudoscience

This course was taught at Portland State University.

Excerpt from Syllabus

“What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out, which is the exact opposite.” —Bertrand Russell

“That which can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.” —Christopher Hitchens

“Feeling better is not actually being better. Heroin also makes people feel better, but I wouldn’t recommend using heroin.” —James Randi

This course examines basic issues in philosophy of science through an analysis of creation “science,” faith healing, UFO abduction stories, and other pseudoscience. Some of the questions addressed: What distinguishes science from pseudoscience? Why does evidence matter? Must we invoke the supernatural to explain certain aspects of reality?

Learning Goals

By the end of this course, students should have:

  • Developed a healthy skepticism.
  • Formulated beliefs on the basis of reason and evidence.
  • Improved their critical thinking skills.
  • Designed experiments to test (pseudoscientific) claims.
  • Developed tools to discern reality from “makebelieveland”.

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(165 kb PDF)

Critical Thinking: Reason & Evidence

This course was taught at Portland State University.

Excerpt from Syllabus

“As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” —Donald Rumsfeld, Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

“I am one of those who are very willing to be refuted if I say anything which is not true, and very willing to refute anyone else who says what is not true, and quite as ready to be refuted as to refute—for I hold that this is the greater gain of the two…” —Socrates in the Gorgias

This class is designed to improve reasoning and critical thinking skills. The focus is on practical/applied methods of reasoning. Students will learn to use tools to think clearly and critically about a wide range of questions and issues.

Learning Goals

By the end of this course, students should have:

  • Developed a healthy skepticism.
  • Improved their critical thinking skills.
  • Formulated beliefs on the basis of reason and evidence.

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(176 kb PDF)

God and the Letters

This is a student-made video created for Dr. Michael Shermer’s course, Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist (Without Being a Geek) at Chapman University during the fall 2011 semester. In the style of Brian Dalton’s Mr. Deity, students show the audience the types of difficulties God may experience in answering his mail.

Perspectives on Atheism

This course was taught at St. Edwards University in spring 2012.

Excerpt from Syllabus

American mythology claims the United States is a Christian nation, increasingly accepting of all denominations and faiths. What about non-belief? Should atheism be written into, and become part of the American story? Has it already? From a rhetorical perspective this course will address a variety of related questions:

  • What are the narratives of atheism? Whose voices tell the stories and what are their interests?
  • What are the arguments for atheism?
  • How is atheism framed, both positively and negatively?
  • Why has “New Atheism” appeared recently as a social movement? What are the aspirations of the movement, the strategies used for altering perspectives, and who are their audiences?

This course will examine four different perspectives from which to view these issues:

  1. The personal perspective of “Letting Go of God”
  2. The critical perspective taking religion as its object
  3. The social perspective examining secularism in a free society
  4. The ethical perspective addressing the tenets of secular humanism.

There is an alternative American myth claiming the United States is a beacon of Liberty, carrying the torch of progressive values, scientific endeavor, and human rights ignited by the Enlightenment. Which American myth appeals to us? This overarching question will guide our journey.

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(420 kb PDF)

Jesus, the Easter Bunny, and Other Delusions:
Just Say No!

In this talk, Dr. Peter Boghossian argues that faith-based processes are unreliable and unlikely to lead one to the truth. Since our goal as knowers is to have more true beliefs than false ones, faith, as a process for getting to the truth, should be abandoned in favor of other, more reliable processes. The talk was followed by a question and answer session from the audience. This presentation, sponsored by the Freethinkers of Portland State University and published by philosophynews.com, was given by Dr. Peter Boghossian of Portland State University on January 27, 2012.

How Scientific Controversies are Resolved:
Cosmology as a Case Study

In this lecture based on a chapter in his book, The Believing Brain, Dr. Shermer outlines how controversies in science are resolved by looking at the centuries-long debate over the nature of the cosmos, its size and origin, and what those fuzzy patches in the sky are: nebula within the Milky Way galaxy or island universes? It was not clear until well into the 20th century that the Milky Way was not the entire universe, until Edwin Hubble working at Mt. Wilson Observatory determined that the universe is much larger than anyone had previously imagined it to be.

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(72 MB Powerpoint Presentation)

The Moral Landscape:
How Science Can Determine Human Values

This book was required reading for the following courses: (1) “Evolution, Economics, and the Brain” taught by Michael Shermer, and (2) “Knowledge, Value & Rationality” taught by Peter Boghossian.

The Moral Landscape (book cover)

Sam Harris’s first book, The End of Faith, ignited a worldwide debate about the validity of religion. In the aftermath, Harris discovered that most people—from religious fundamentalists to nonbelieving scientists—agree on one point: science has nothing to say on the subject of human values. Indeed, our failure to address questions of meaning and morality through science has now become the most common justification for religious faith. It is also the primary reason why so many secularists and religious moderates feel obligated to “respect” the hardened superstitions of their more devout neighbors.
—Amazon

In this explosive new book, Sam Harris tears down the wall between scientific facts and human values, arguing that most people are simply mistaken about the relationship between morality and the rest of human knowledge. Harris urges us to think about morality in terms of human and animal well-being, viewing the experiences of conscious creatures as peaks and valleys on a “moral landscape.” Because there are definite facts to be known about where we fall on this landscape, Harris foresees a time when science will no longer limit itself to merely describing what people do in the name of “morality”; in principle, science should be able to tell us what we ought to do to live the best lives possible. Bringing a fresh perspective to age-old questions of right and wrong and good and evil, Harris demonstrates that we already know enough about the human brain and its relationship to events in the world to say that there are right and wrong answers to the most pressing questions of human life. Because such answers exist, moral relativism is simply false—and comes at increasing cost to humanity. And the intrusions of religion into the sphere of human values can be finally repelled: for just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no Christian or Muslim morality.—Skeptic

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