Metaphysics - A Definition

Friday, January 30, 2009
Via SkepChick, I was directed to a website of a professor of the University of Hawai'i (where I was a student in the 80's). This professor teaches Philosophy, and he's evidently had some trouble with students signing up for his course Philosophy 310 - Metaphysics without fully understanding what the term "Metaphysics" actually means.

Aside from the humor involved in upper level students at a prestigious University not understanding the content of a class before they sign up for it, Professor Amundson's disclaimer on the course made me laugh my ass off.
“Metaphysics” as a field of study within the academic area of Philosophy is very different from “Metaphysics” as the label of a bookshelf in Border’s Books. This is a Philosophy course. It is not about what Border’s Books calls Metaphysics. The popular (Border’s Books) understanding of Metaphysics is that it is the study of paranormal phenomena, such as extrasensory perception, out-of-body travel, reincarnation, and auras. None of these topics will be seriously discussed in this course! It doesn’t much matter what my opinions are about the matter, but you may want to know. I believe in science. I do not believe in pseudoscience. I believe that no one has extra-sensory perception (even though perception is a very complicated and interesting thing). I do not believe in reincarnation, or in out-of-body travel. In fact I have published articles in anti-paranormal journals, and I’m somewhat famous for my skeptical refutation of the paranormal Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon. (See my web page for details if you’re interested.)
I do not believe that I’m any more narrow-minded than the next person on these topics. But if you are a fan of paranormal phenomenon, you will probably consider me to be very narrow-minded. That’s ok with me -- you have a right to consider me narrowminded if you want to. But the important thing is this: You should not take this course because you expect to study astrology, ESP, and so on. I will not ask my students to study topics that I consider foolish, and I consider astrology, etc., very foolish.

I am stating this SO THAT YOU WILL KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT!!!

So if you signed up for the course because you are interested in the supernatural or paranormal, please drop the course. You will not be able to pass the course by concentrating your attention on the paranormal, and trying to prove its existence to me. Many people have tried. None of them has passed the course. Please don’t add your student record to the gruesome list of people who believed that they could convince Amundson that they possessed ESP.
I have had some bad experiences on this topic. Some very sincere students have gotten angry and even belligerant because I required them to study and write about theories that they disagreed with. I am teaching this course the way the American Philosophical Association affirms is the academically responsible way to teach Metaphysics. Please, if that is not a course that you want to take, do not take this one.
How pathetic is it that a Professor has to explicitly state that in order to pass his class, students are, you know, actually required to study the material in the syllabus.

I know some Universities conduct paranormal research. I tend to believe such endeavors are a bit silly - they have a conspicuous lack of verifiable results, and extensively use the moving goalpost logical fallacy to explain away their failure. For that reason, I would never take a course in such a topic. It would be a waste of time for both me and the Professor, and my opinions would probably offend the majority of students who would be interested in this field of study.

So why would believers in the paranormal attempt to derail a metaphysics course by injecting their non-related personal beliefs into the class? It's obviously happened on numerous occasions, or Professor Amundson wouldn't find it necessary to post his disclaimer.

I don't get it.

9 comments:

Nathan said...

Not to state the obvious, but it's a product of kids who have been raised to think that "participating" is just as good as "winning"; that every opinion is as valuable as every other opinion, regardless of how many or how few facts inform that opinion; that every "culture" is the equal of every other "culture" even if one of those cultures is rooted in baseless superstition and cannibalism.

There's a commercial running right now (I forget what it's for), that starts with a little girl proudly placing her Fifth-place karate trophy on the mantle. Implicit in the ad is the fact that the child has made an achievement worthy of pride, but also that she has further goals worth striving for. I find that to be a much more healthy and reality-based way to raise a kid.

I suspect that many of the Professor's potential students never saw a trophy they couldn't win by showing up.

Janiece Murphy said...

Nathan, you make a good point.

There's a reason the intellectual achievement in this country is on a downward slide - the self-important illiterates are the only one who give a rat's ass if show up or not. The rest of the world is more interested in achievement and results.

I keep telling the SmartBoy - there's always going to be someone smarter than you. But that doesn't mean you can't continue to learn and contribute in the way gives you a sense of joy and fulfillment.

Ah, reality, how I love thee!

Wendy said...

Sent a note to my brother, hopefully he can give you a prospective from a practicing college professor perch.

...and you know he'll have comments!!

WendyB_09

Janiece Murphy said...

Wendy, we're always happy to hear from Dr. Phil when he drops by.

vince said...

You would think people could read a course description, but apparently they can't. And yeah, metaphysics in philosophy has a very specific definition, and bookstores and many others haven't a clue, or a clue about how to get a clue, about the actual definition.

I don't have a problem with research being done to determine if ESP exists as long as the studies are rigorous and take into account how difficult it can be to catch charlatans practicing their trade.

In high school, I was fascinated by the studies of J.B. Rhine, and even performed some experiments myself. But as I did more research trying to understand what Rhine was doing, I came to understand how easy it would be for information to be passed from the subject to the researcher, even when there was no intent to do so. That and the lack of anyone to independently reproduce the results of experiments took the shine off my fascination.

Since then, I haven't read anything that would present what I would consider rigorous evidence that ESP exists. Because of this, I doubt that it does. Lack of evidence is not, ipso facto, proof of nonexistence. But if you put forth an affirmative claim, the onus is on you to present credible evidence of proof. If you can't, you should quit making the claim.

And "I know it's true even if I can't prove it's true" may work for some, but not for me.

Janiece Murphy said...

Vince, you really need to get out of brain when you don't have permission to root around in there.

Just sayin'.

:-D

The Mechanicky Gal said...

Huh. If I saw Metaphysics in a college catalog I wouldn't take it just because I would think it some kind of earth-shoe wearin', patchouli-smellin', hippie-dress wearin' type people would be in there and I would, by necessity, have to be offensive.
It's a skill.

MWT said...

Heh, evolutionary biology courses have to put up disclaimers like that about creationism, too.

Also, by the same token, self-important skeptics have a tendency to invade paranormal-interest communities and be annoying there, too. It goes both ways.

I don't consider parapsychology to be a pseudoscience. The people studying it seem to be trying to do it like any other science, as far as I can tell, but I haven't really looked into it much. What little I've seen has suggested to me that they are unlikely to advance, because they're studying the wrong things. (And therefore, I haven't felt inclined to look into it further.)

And "I know it's true even if I can't prove it's true" may work for some, but not for me.

It doesn't work for me either. Unfortunately, sentiments like Amundson's tend to turn people away from wanting to have anything to do with scientific studies of what they can do.

Steve Buchheit said...

I actually took those metaphysics courses in college (well, one of each). The one dealing with the Border's definition was about what to look out for and how to debunk. It's come in handy.

As for the Evolution, my wife teaches college-level biology. Every semester it's a tense week around those lectures.