Owen Flanagan, The Problem Of The Soul (False Beliefs)

False beliefs are the philosopher’s enemy. To be sure, some false beliefs provide comfort in the short term, possibly over the life of an individual, even over many generations. This is one reason for their resiliency. But there is abundant evidence that false beliefs ultimately do more harm than good, and that people who overcome such beliefs can flourish, in part because overcoming what is false and illusory is liberating.

The duty to expose false philosophical beliefs is not to be undertaken solely in obscure philosophical journals on the way to gaining tenure. Nor is it sufficient to spread the word only to the lucky few who take philosophy courses at universities. More than a few philosophers think philosophical problems are inherently unsolvable and that the purpose of philosophical training is to help students acquire the analytical skills to think clearly and profitably when faced with solvable problems outside of academia – on Wall Street, in law practice, or in the public sector and politics. But many other philosophers think that certain widely held “answers” to philosophical questions are transparent nonsense. But they expend almost no passion in teaching students to see these beliefs for the nonsense that they are. It is not clear why. One diagnosis… involves the division of intellectual labor. Another, less kind diagnosis imputes paternalism and cowardice. On this latter diagnosis, these teachers are like Dostoevsky’s suffering cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor, in the Brothers Karamazov. The cardinal and a small group of fellow clergy are, in fact, atheists. They do not believe in God, but they pretend to because their charges, they think, need this belief.

I am not sure to what extent such hypocritical paternalism explains why some professional philosophers treat their students’ unjustifiable preconceptions with a gentleness the students surely deserve, but that their beliefs often don’t. Whatever its root cause, there is within the academy a professional reticence about undermining such beliefs. Dostoevsky imputes deep psychological reasons to the cardinal and his circle that justify their not only letting certain illusions take hold of the hearts of their charges, but actively working to inculcate these beliefs. I don’t see my professional colleagues actively fostering belief in what they judge false. But we may suffer, on some level, from the delusion that our charges need beliefs that we ourselves think are misguided.

Another reason is a commitment to fairness in presenting both sides of a complex issue, combined with the liberal view that it is up to each individual to make up her mind about the issues as she sees fit. But this stance carries a certain negligence. If it is not good to believe what is unreasonable or false, we do our students no favor in allowing them to think that they are using their minds well if they choose to believe what is false or unreasonable.

The aim of philosophy is, or at least once was, to locate wisdom when and where it could be found. The Stoics, the Epicureans, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all framed their projects in terms of seeking and teaching wisdom. Dharmic practices in the East still seek wisdom, even if most professional philosophers in the West don’t. Jean Francois Revel, a distinguished French political philosopher and journalist, writes, “Nowadays in our scientific age, philosophers have abandoned the ideal of wisdom.”

Chapter One: Human Being


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