Peter Boghossian on Critical Thinking, the Atheos App, and the Post-Modern Influence on Universities

[Gender studies professors] are pumping out complete bullshit and indoctrinating a generation of students to believe total nonsense.” — Peter Boghossian.

Peter Boghossian (@PeterBoghossian) is an Assistant Professor of philosophy at Portland State University. His primary research interests are critical thinking and moral reasoning. He’s written for publications such as Time Magazine, Scientific American, and The Philosophers’ Magazine, and has appeared on talk shows like The Rubin Report, The Joe Rogan Experience, and FOX News. He took a break from his sabbatical to speak with me.

The following is our conversation transcribed and edited for clarity.

Malhar Mali: What in your opinion is the best way of fostering critical thinking when it comes to religious and supernatural beliefs?

Peter Boghossian: I think the whole way we’ve taught critical thinking is wrong from day one. We’ve taught, “Formulate your beliefs on the basis of evidence.” But the problem with that is people already believe they’ve formulated their beliefs on evidence — that’s why they believe what they believe. Instead, what we should focus on is teaching people to seek out and identify defeaters.

What is a defeater? A defeater is:

If A, then B, unless C.

C is the defeater. We should teach people to identify conditions under which their beliefs could be false. This is profound for a number of reasons. If I’m correct, then it would be the holy grail of critical thinking. The problem with traditional notions of critical thinking is that most people believe what they want to believe anyway. They only look in their epistemic landscape for pieces of evidence which enforce the beliefs they hold — thus entrenching them in their view of reality. Eli Pariser has a vaguely related notion and talks about a technological mechanism that traps us in a “filter bubble.”

There are attitudinal dispositions that help one become a good critical thinker and there are skill-sets. If you don’t possess the attitudinal disposition then what’s the point of the skill set? A skill set could actually make it worse because, as Michael Shermer says, you become better at rationalizing bad ideas.

By teaching people to identify defeaters, which is a skill set, we may be able to help them shift their attitudes toward responsible belief formation. We may be able to help them habituate themselves to constantly readjusting and realigning their beliefs with reality. In the philosophy literature there’s a related notion called doxastic responsibility, which basically means responsible belief formation.

MM: So if you had put that formula into action with “If A, Then B, Unless C” what would that look like?

PB: A pedestrian example could be when someone thinks they see a goldfinch in their backyard. The traditional route here is to say, “Formulate your beliefs on evidence. What evidence do you have to believe that’s a goldfinch?” and they say: “Well I see the bird is yellow. I know there’s a high incidence of goldfinches in this area, so by induction I can see that it’s probably a goldfinch.” But unbeknownst to them it’s not a goldfinch but a canary.

So instead of saying, “formulate your beliefs on the basis of evidence,” we should say: “how could that belief be wrong? Give me three possibilities how the belief that it could be a goldfinch might be in error.” This type of questioning — applied to any belief — helps engender a critical thinking and an attitude of doxastic responsibility.

MM: Does this way of thinking tie into the Atheos app? How is that being received?

PB: It’s been received exactly how you would believe it to be (laughter): very well in the freethinking, skeptic, and broader secular movement. The app was created in conjunction with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science. We wanted to help people have more productive and civil conversations. The goal was to help guide users through the process of understanding their interlocutors’ methods of thinking. It was an attempt to offer a tool that anybody could use that teaches them how to facilitate critical thinking and belief revision. It’s based broadly upon the Socratic method.

Underlying the whole enterprise is civility. I think we’ve engaged in shouting matches for too long and this has only invoked defensiveness in believers and has been extraordinarily unproductive. That’s the other problem with debates, people just wall themselves in and feel they have to defend their position. We need to change the win-lose conditions and shift it away from the notion of the debate.

What I wasn’t expecting with Atheos is that people were fascinated with questions like “what happened before the big bang?” cosmological arguments, ontological arguments, etc. I thought that those more abstract and obscure issues would not have attracted that much attention.

MM: Some final thoughts on the election? Specifically on the focus on a “post-truth” era of news. It’s funny in a way to watch the side that entertained Post-Modernist thought — which discouraged objective truth — suddenly start worrying about the ways it could actually be applied.

PB: It’s fascinating. I would be lying to you if I told that I wasn’t genuinely concerned about Trump’s presidency. I think the Left bears considerable responsibility in him being elected.

It’s interesting how people who claim “there is no truth” or “all truth is relative to something” let that belief fall by the wayside when it comes to other root beliefs they have. For example, that lead causes brain damage to children in poor neighborhoods (empirical) or that there should be gender parity at conferences (moral). Everything won’t be relative in that case. It’ll be: “Oh gee, here’s an objective fact.”

And it’s obvious that people don’t believe this relativism stuff fully because if they were sick they would go to the witch-doctor instead of the hospital. And relativists would confine anybody they wanted to any kind of life. I once tweeted something like:

“If you’re really a relativist, then take a vacation in Aleppo,”

and it pissed off a lot of people. But it’s true.

So all of this posturing about relativism is just verbal behavior. They don’t actually buy into it. If they did then they’d convince themselves of some insane belief like you can leave your corporeal body and walk into the street. And yet they don’t do that.

I don’t think it’s mere hypocrisy, either. There are communities of ersatz intellectuals in the humanities in general and gender studies in particular which have been impacted by the legacy of post-modernism. These people are pumping out complete bullshit and indoctrinating a generation of students to believe total nonsense.

MM: I’m sure you’re aware but @RealPeerReview deals with this. The debate between Jordan Peterson and Nicholas Matte on The Agenda with Steve Paikin was absurd. Nicholas Matte, a professor of transgender studies at University of Toronto, claimed over the course of the discussion:

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PB: That is the most asinine, ridiculous, preposterous piece of ideological tripe. The only way someone could possibly believe that is they’ve been sufficiently indoctrinated by radical Leftists. I was once covering a lecture for a colleague and this topic came up. I said: “If sex were really a cultural construction, why don’t men menstruate? Why don’t men have babies? Why are there no women on professional football teams?” And an individual from the back of the class got up and started yelling, “Fuck you,” gave me the middle finger, shouted at me and stormed out of class.

Disciplines such as gender studies don’t have a dialectic. They’re not truth seeking enterprises. They think they’ve already found they truth and exist to indoctrinate students. There is no dialectic at the core of those disciplines like there is in philosophy. And there are profoundly negative consequences for peoples’ views of reality — it untethers them from what’s real.

A friend of mine is a physician and she told me an interesting story. She had a guy to come in to see her who was born biologically female who transitioned to male. Who by every indication looked like a male — beard, the whole thing. And he came in because he had a yeast infection.

Now you can go around denying reality all you want, but isn’t it funny that we only deny reality in regard to some things and not other things. Why don’t people deny reality in terms of the value of a currency? Why don’t people walk into a bank with a $10 bill and tell them that in their reality it equals 15 $5 dollar bills? Because people don’t believe this stuff. That’s why. This is not complicated. You just have to be honest. Don’t barter truth for hope.

One of the first orders of business is that we need to completely defund gender studies departments. These places are toxic cesspools of misinformation pumping out dangerous, dangerous nonsense.

I don’t know how much more can be done to show that these “disciplines” are really a situation in which the emperor has no clothes. And that’s putting it charitably.

Here’s what is surprising: with very few exceptions, and there are exceptions, Christians are very kind decent people all over the world. I do talks and we go out afterwards for drinks etc., and we talk with civility.

The far Left in contemporary academia is not like this. These are viciously ideological and nasty people whose goal it is to shut down discourse and indoctrinate students. I think we’ve spent too much time on Creationism. The problem is less with Creationism and more with radical Leftism. For example, if you’re a professor who teaches in the biological sciences, Creationists have substantive disagreements with your work and they’ll try to demean it. But they’re not going to harass you or your family. They’re not going to try and get you fired. They’re not going to call you a racist, a sexist, a bigot, a homophobe.

The far Left have successfully managed to infiltrate our universities. A consequence: radical incivility and students who hold preposterous views of reality and think they’re better people as a result. One reason is because people go into ideological bunkers where they protect themselves from ideas. And this is a type of ideological convergence which strengthens and exemplifies their convictions. They’ve created “safe spaces” for themselves and anyone who persistently questions those becomes the target of a smear campaign.

I do, however, think there’s hope. Dave Rubin (@RubinReport), Joe Rogan (@JoeRogan), Christina Hoff Sommers (@CHSommers), Real Peer-Review (@RealPeerReview) and others, see who I follow on my Twitter (@PeterBoghossian), are fighting back against nonsense. They’re needed voices of clarity in a world where obfuscation is a virtue. And they’re making a difference.

Malhar Mali

Malhar Mali is the founder and editor of Areo. He can be reached via malhar@areomagazine.com

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Malhar Mali

Malhar Mali is the founder and editor of Areo. He can be reached via malhar@areomagazine.com

12 thoughts on “Peter Boghossian on Critical Thinking, the Atheos App, and the Post-Modern Influence on Universities

  1. Some great points but how does it support critical thought to argue to “defund” a department whose methods you take issue with. That’s just censorship. In an ideal world of dialectical progress, you’d hope that we just argue for the truth and if we’re right programs that are full of shit will shrivel up and die naturally, from lack of interest.
    To try and silence the opposing thought, on the other hand, seems to defeat our stated goal.

  2. “A friend of mine is a physician and she told me an interesting story. She had a guy to come in to see her who was born biologically female who transitioned to male. Who by every indication looked like a male — beard, the whole thing. And he came in because he had a yeast infection.” — So, what exactly is this meant to prove?
    Well yeah, shocking news, there are actually men who have vaginas. There are also men who menstruate; some are even able to have babies.

    The idea that not only gender (as a social concept) but even sex is an abstraction that – being an abstraction – often fails to grasp individual specific characteristics is by itself dialectical. I don’t see what’s not to get about that. So yeah, most people do identify with their gender assigned at birth, most people match the biological criteria associated with a certain sex, but some don’t, and that’s what the whole discussion is about: how society deals with the dissonance between abstract concept and individual reality.

    I’m always baffled about people who are professional thinkers have trouble wrapping their heads around such basic philosophical insights.

  3. I’m French. What the article describes, the rise of radical left in Academics, happened in France 50 years ago, and can be traced back to the fight waged by Sartre onto Camus. This has since poisoned the country so deeply, that it is now a cesspool of hate. In this respect, Tocqueville, when he described the old Europe and its probable fate, was sadly right on point.

    On the radical left side – Sartre – for whom existence precede essence, individuals can be (re)-educated, re-programmed since their life experience is the primary driving force of their beliefs. There’s no limit to what can be done, except what diminishes the political strength of their ideas. Humans become a means to an end.

    On Camus’ side – the humanist & classical liberal – there is a transcendence that pertains to human beings. Anything and everything isn’t permissible. Humans are an end in itself.

    It is important to note that at the time by French liberals – and there were many – made the mistake to fight on the battleground of ideas. It was never about ideas on Sartre’s side and his supporters. It was all about power. And the rise to power is all about logistics, nothing more.

    Back then, gender was a matter of debate, but not a mainstream issue, so the political vehicle was ‘work’ in its philosophical and economical sense. It would take too long to describe why this was important to the French mindset, and so crucial to its identity. Sociology became the fortress of the radical left, producing armies of jobless citizens, who in turn would vote for more radical policies.

    It’s now the US’s time. ‘Work’ is still unconnected to philosophy, and there’s acceptance that mobility is part of the deal. That won’t last for very long, considering the recent US elections, but in fine, the initial vehicle will be different. It’ll be gender and race (then work), which by all means, have become the reasons to die, to kill, or to hate for. I’m sure Camus would appreciate the irony.

    To the left, these topics are just conduits leading to power. I see many US classical liberals making the same mistake as their French counter-parts, back in the 50s/60s and 70s. Oppose with ideas.

    That won’t work, simply because the goals aren’t gender or race. There’s only one goal, and it is power. The left’s framework will adapt, morph, mutate, to escape any form of counter-arguments, to the point where only a few are allowed to participate (as in ‘do you know enough to warrant our attention?’). By that time, they’ll control the logistics.

    It’s the first time I read ‘defund gender studies’, said by someone whose primary goal are ideas. Defunding something isn’t about ideas, it’s about logistics. I’m glad a philosopher has finally decided to do something with his hands (wink to E. Kant, just in case.)

    Please, do carry on that path. In Europe, we did otherwise – we used common sense -, with admittedly very limited results.

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