A puzzle for believers in an afterlife

Death has dominated the news recently, first with Terri Schiavo and then the Pope, whose funeral was today. It is perhaps inevitable that this has caused practically everyone to think, however briefly, about how they would like to die and what kinds of steps they would like to have taken if they should be incapacitated towards the end of their lives.

Robert Friedman, an editor of the St. Petersburg Times, has a funny take on it that I recommend reading.

But lost in the news was the fact that evangelical leader Reverend Jerry Falwell lost consciousness briefly recently and was hospitalized twice for pneumonia. After he recovered, he gave an interview to CNN where he compared his case to that of Terri Schiavo’s situation and also made his own wishes known. He said “I’ve already given my living will. Don’t you dare pull the plug on me. I want to wake up in 14 years and say, “What day is it? What time is it?””

Falwell’s decision that he would want all the stops pulled out to keep him alive as long as possible puzzles me. Having grown up in the Christian tradition, and having been around many evangelical, born-again Christians throughout my own life, it seems to me that a basic belief among them is that this life on Earth is merely a stepping-stone to a much, much better eternal life after death, and that if one is born-again, then one is guaranteed to enter heaven to enjoy that good life. In fact, they go out of their way to describe this life as temporary, full of misery and sin, and generally pretty awful, and that death is a welcome release from it.

Country and western singer Jim Reeves summed it up when he sang (and I am quoting from memory):

Across the bridge, there’s no more sorrow
Across the bridge, there’s no more pain
The sun will shine across the river
And you’ll never be unhappy again

So I am genuinely puzzled as to why, given that view, one would want to postpone death at all costs. If any readers of this blog can share their insights, I would appreciate it.

Let me be clear: I am not questioning Falwell’s personal decision to be want to be kept alive at all costs. That is his right and one has to accept it. I can also understand why one should not kill oneself just because one thinks the afterlife is going to be wonderful. That is also not the question.

The question is why someone who fervently believes that the next life is everlasting and far better than this one, and that she or he is guaranteed to enjoy the afterlife because they are born again Christians (or an equivalent reason), would want to hold on to this life at all costs, when it seems fairly clear that the end of one’s life is near and that it can only be prolonged at the price of barely existing, with prolonged sadness for one’s loved ones.

Falwell seems to think that, against all the odds, he might one day recover and be fully functioning again. But why would someone who is in that situation prefer those tiny odds to the certainty of going to heaven, if getting there has been your goal all along?

I have mixed feelings about the Pope’s legacy. I agreed with his stance on some things and disagreed with others. (Juan Cole has a nice compilation of quotes and stories about the Pope that captures the complexity of the Pope’s message on a whole range of issues. And Justin Raimondo also weighs in on his legacy.) But I have to say that, to the extent that one can tell these things from a distance, he seemed to have been at peace with himself when he died. He seemed to know the end was near, he seemed to feel that he had lived his life fully, and he seemed to be accepting of death and ready for whatever awaited him after that.

Given his stature and resources, there is no doubt that he could have ordered extraordinary steps to be taken to try and keep him alive if he had so desired. But he seemed to choose not to and it was a graceful way to die.

And whatever else one thinks of him, one must admire him for that.

The four stages of life: Stage 4 – sannyasin

The final stage of life in Hindu philosophy (as described in the book The World’s Religions by Huston Smith, and all quotes are from this book) is that of the sannyasin. This is the stage eventually arrived at by the person who, according to the Bhagavad-Gita becomes “one who neither hates nor loves anything.” (For descriptions of earlier stages, see stage 1, stage 2, and stage 3.)

Once having arrived at this stage of detachment from the world, the retiree returns from the self-imposed exile that was necessary in order to free oneself from worldly distractions so that one could achieve this deeper understanding. But returning to the world does not mean returning to the familiar bonds of the world. He or she “is back as a separate person” because “time and place have lost their hold.”

“Far from wanting to “be somebody”, the sannyasin‘s wish is the opposite: to remain a complete nonentity on the surface in order to be joined to all at the root…The outward life that fits this total freedom best is that of a homeless mendicant. Others seek to be economically independent in their old age: the sannyasin proposes to cut free of economics altogether. With no fixed place on earth, no obligations, no goals, no belongings, the expectations of the body are nothing. Social pretensions likewise have no soil from which to sprout and interfere. No pride remains in someone who, begging bowl in hand, finds himself at the back door of someone who was once his servant and would not have it otherwise.”

If the idea of retirement as leaving all that one has created in order to find oneself is hard to take, the idea of ending one’s life as effectively a beggar is even more difficult to accept. Part of the problem is that the word ‘mendicant’ properly means a holy person who begs just for food, and such people are more commonly found in predominantly Hindu or Buddhist cultures, where they are highly respected as having reached an exalted stage in life that everyone should aspire to. It is an honor to have such people come to your house asking for food and people respect them and are supposed to take care of them.

In the west though, the word mendicant is equated with beggar and such people tend to be despised as wastrels and losers. So it is hard to see this idea of becoming sannyasin catching on here. One cannot imagine people who are important figures in society here choosing to end their lives wandering the streets, living on charity. A sanyasin who arrived at someone’s door asking for food is likely to find the police being called and be arrested for vagrancy.

But is that a problem with the philosophy or with the way the society creates its value structure?

Politics in the Universities

There has been a lot of play in the media recently about the so-called liberal tilt of university faculty. Let’s see what the actual numbers are. As far as I can tell, the most comprehensive and authoritative data comes from HERI (Higher Education Research Institute) based in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, which has been studying trends in higher education for a long time.

HERI’s 2001-2002 report on national norms for college teachers, finds that “34 percent of college and university faculty identify as “middle-of-the road” politically (down from 40 percent in 1989). Although the percentage of faculty identifying as “conservative” or “far right” (18 percent) has changed very little, the percentage identifying as either “liberal” or “far left” has grown from 42 percent to 48 percent”, compared to a previous survey in 1989.

It turns out that women faculty are more liberal than men. The report finds that “54 percent of women, compared to only 44 percent of men, identify as politically “liberal” or “far left.” In 2001, 21 percent of male professors and 14 percent of female professors defined their political views as either “conservative” or “far right.””

The report continues:

The latest survey involved 55,521 faculty and administrators at 416 colleges and universities nationwide. Of those, questionnaires from 32,840 full-time undergraduate teaching faculty at 358 institutions were used to compute the national norms. The numbers were adjusted statistically to represent the nation’s total population of approximately 442,000 college and university faculty.

So those are the numbers. What are we to make of them? Is this imbalance in political leanings a sign of blatant political discrimination in the hiring of university faculty?

(At this point I have to reiterate my own belief that the terms ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’, ‘Republican’, ‘Democrat’ have ceased to have much meaning in terms of defining coherent political philosophies, but since this discussion and the data are framed in those terms, I have little choice but to use them for this post.)

That conclusion of hiring discrimination does not follow automatically. For one thing, the word ‘liberal’ in university circles does not have the same meaning it has outside. A ‘liberal education’ is what universities strive to provide for their students. It is used in contrast to ‘vocational education’. To call someone a ‘liberally educated person’ is not to describe his or her political beliefs but to describe a person with breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding, as opposed to someone who has acquired a fairly specific set of knowledge and skills in order to perform a trade or profession. So the word ‘liberal’ has a fairly well-defined and valued meaning in universities, and one would expect people to want to identify with it.

Another point is that while it is true that universities have intense political struggles, they are based on parochial academic politics, and those divisions do not parallel national political splits. In academic departments the biggest battles over a new hire are likely to be based on field of study (in physics, it might be whether the department wants to grow the condensed matter field or the astrophysics field, or whether it should be a theoretician or an experimentalist) or rank (whether they want to hire a promising newcomer or an established star), and so forth. Similar battles occur in other departments.

These battles can be quite hard-fought, but leave little room for other considerations based on party affiliation and the like. Those are not considered important. The prestige of a physics department depends on the physics knowledge it produces, not on the ideological spectrum its faculty encompasses. No department is likely to hire an incompetent researcher to a rare and potentially lifetime appointment just on the basis of that person’s party political affiliation.

But if national political considerations are not the cause of this difference in political leanings in universities, what could be the cause? I am not aware of any studies that have looked carefully at this causal question. But people have been willing to speculate.

Jennifer Lindholm, associate director of the Higher Education Research Institute’s Cooperative Institutional Research Program and lead author of the faculty survey said: “The disproportionately greater shift we see toward liberal political views among women faculty may be attributable to their dissatisfaction with the Republican Party’s current position on issues that often impact women’s lives more directly such as abortion, welfare and equal rights.”

Writing in the New York Times on April 5, columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman points out that registered Republicans are almost as rare in the hard sciences and in engineering (where clues as to ones political affiliation are hard to discern) as in the social sciences, suggesting that the reasons lie with more subtle causes..

Krugman postulates that “One answer is self-selection – the same sort of self-selection that leads Republicans to outnumber Democrats four to one in the military. The sort of person who prefers an academic career to the private sector is likely to be somewhat more liberal than average, even in engineering.”

But the more serious charge that he levels is that the Republican party (and by association the conservative movement) are making themselves unappealing to academics by taking stands on issues that ignore evidence and that are anti-research. He pointed to a recent April Fools’ Day issue spoof editorial by Scientific American entitled O.K., We Give Up in which the magazine “apologized for endorsing the theory of evolution just because it’s “the unifying concept for all of biology and one of the greatest scientific ideas of all time,” saying that “as editors, we had no business being persuaded by mountains of evidence.” And it conceded that it had succumbed “to the easy mistake of thinking that scientists understand their fields better than, say, U.S. senators or best-selling novelists do.””

Krugman continues:

Scientific American may think that evolution is supported by mountains of evidence, but President Bush declares that “the jury is still out.” Senator James Inhofe dismisses the vast body of research supporting the scientific consensus on climate change as a “gigantic hoax.” And conservative pundits like George Will write approvingly about Michael Crichton’s anti-environmentalist fantasies.

Think of the message this sends: today’s Republican Party – increasingly dominated by people who believe truth should be determined by revelation, not research – doesn’t respect science, or scholarship in general. It shouldn’t be surprising that scholars have returned the favor by losing respect for the Republican Party.

Krugman argues that such an anti-research message is unappealing to any academic (whatever their political stripe), and so it should be no surprise that academics are distancing themselves from it. When Dennis Baxley, a state legislator from Florida who has introduced in that state a bill similar to Ohio’s Senate Bill 24, cites professors who teach that evolution is a fact as a prime example of “academic totalitarianism”, he should not be surprised that serious academics start giving him a wide berth.

As I said in an earlier post, universities are ultimately reality-based communities, which depend on evidence as an essential part of their knowledge structure. Academics in any field respect that scholars in other fields also use evidence in reaching their conclusions. They may not know that field in any detail but they tend to respect the way scholars go about reaching their conclusions and know that they can back it up with evidence if called upon to do so. The fact that their conclusions are evidence-based does not make them infallible, of course, just that they are grounded in reality.

Academics also suspect that the people who are upset about biology professors teaching that evolution is a fact are closely aligned with those who think that the Earth is only 6,000 years old and that Adam and Eve are historical figures. They suspect that the current attack on biology teaching is just the precursor to similar attacks on geology, physics, anthropology, archeology, and everything else that challenges a particular religious revelatory interpretation of the world.

Krugman argues that it should not be surprising that overtly linking such a world-view to a political movement should result in that movement losing ground in universities, even though it might be politically advantageous.

As I said, I don’t know of any studies that have examined the causal reasons for this seeming ideological imbalance, but Krugman makes a point that is worth considering seriously.

The four stages of life: Stage 3 – retirement

So far, the first two life stages of student and householder described by Hindu philosophy would not seem that different from any western concept of those stages. It is the next two stages (retirement and sannyasin) that the paths start to diverge.

In the US at least, people approach retirement with mixed feelings. For those people who loathe their jobs, it may come as a welcome relief from a routine that they find hateful, a chance to enjoy life free from restrictions. Such people look forward to retirement.
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When good cheeseburgers go bad

We interrupt the regular series of postings on developing a philosophy on the stages of life to talk about far more important things, like what you should do when the people working at the drive-thru don’t get your order right. Why, you call 911, of course. At least, that is what this woman in Orange County supposedly did.

Here is the transcript of the call:


Dispatcher: Sheriff’s department, how can I help you?

Woman: Yeah, I’m over here . . . I’m over here at Burger King right here in San Clemente.

Dispatcher: Uh-huh.

Woman: Um, no, not San Clemente; I’m sorry, I live in San Clemente. I’m in Laguna Niguel, I think, that’s where I’m at.

Dispatcher: Uh-huh.

Woman: I’m at a drive-through right now.

Dispatcher: Uh-huh.

Woman: I went . . . I ordered my food three times. They’re mopping the floor inside, and I understand they’re busy . . . they’re not even busy, okay, I’ve been the only car here. I asked them four different times to make me a Western Barbeque Burger. Okay, they keep giving me a hamburger with lettuce, tomato, and cheese, onions, and I said, “I’m not leaving . . .”

Dispatcher: Uh-huh.

Woman: I want a Western Burger because I just got my kids from Tae Kwon Do, they’re hungry, I’m on my way home, and I live in San Clemente.

Dispatcher: Uh-huh.

Woman: Okay . . . she said, she gave me another hamburger; it’s wrong. I said four times, I said, “I want it to go. Can you go out and park in front?” I said, “No, I want my hamburger right.” So then the . . . the lady came to the manager. She . . . well whoever she is, she came up and she said, um, she said, um, “Do you want your money back?” And I said, “No, I want my hamburger. My kids are hungry and I have to jump on that toll freeway.” I said, “I am not leaving this spot,” and I said, “I will call the police,” because I want my Western Burger done right! Now is that so hard?

Dispatcher: Okay, what exactly is it you want us to do for you?

Woman: I . . . send an officer down here. I . . . I want them to make me . . .

Dispatcher: Ma’am, we’re not gonna go down there and enforce your Western Bacon Cheeseburger.

Woman: What am I supposed to do?

Dispatcher: This is . . . this is between you and the manager. We’re not gonna go and enforce how to make a hamburger; that’s not a criminal issue. There’s . . . there’s nothing criminal there.

Woman: So I just stand here . . . so I just sit here and [block]?

Dispatcher: You . . . you need to calmly and rationally speak to the manager and figure out what to do between you.

Woman: She did come up, and I said, “Can I please have my Western Burger?” She . . . she said, “I’m not dealing with it,” and she walked away. Because they’re mopping the floor, and it’s also the fact that they don’t want to . . . they don’t want to go through there . . . and . . . and . . .

Dispatcher: Ma’am, then I suggest you get your money back and go somewhere else. This is . . . this is not a criminal issue. We can’t go out there and make them make you a cheeseburger the way you want it.

Woman: Well . . . that is . . . that . . . you’re supposed to be here to protect me.

Dispatcher: Well, what are we protecting you from, a wrong cheeseburger?

Woman: No . . .

Dispatcher: Is this like . . . is this a harmful cheeseburger or something? I don’t understand what you want us to do.

Woman: Just come down here. I’m not . . . I’m not leaving.

Dispatcher: No ma’am, I’m not sending the deputies down there over a cheeseburger. You need to go in there and act like an adult and either get your money back or go home.

Woman: She is not acting like an adult herself! I’m sitting here in my car; I just want them to make my kids a . . . a Western Burger.

Dispatcher: Ma’am, this is what I suggest: I suggest you get your money back from the manager and you go on your way home.

Woman: Okay.

Dispatcher: Okay? Bye-bye.


I could say that the reason for posting this is because of the light it sheds on what happens when all human interactions are believed to be under the jurisdiction of the law, or some other high-sounding stuff, but the real reason is that I found it to be funny.

Such stories are almost too good to be true, confirming our worst stereotypes of self-absorbed, self-indulgent people giving harassed fast food workers a hard time over trivialities. So I checked to see if it might be an urban legend. The people at Snopes have looked into it and report that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department confirmed that such a call came in about two years ago. But since the Sheriff’s department did not send a squad car in response, they do not know if this was a genuine caller or some prankster having fun at their expense.

You can listen to the sound file at Snopes, where the transcript reproduced above came from. (I could not open the .wma sound file on my Mac, though.)

The four stages of life: Stage 2 – the householder

In a previous post, I spoke about Hinduism’s description of the first stage of life, that of the student. Today, we’ll look at the second stage, that of householder. Once again I am using as my source the book The World’s Religions by Huston Smith, and all quotes are from this book.

The marker that indicates that you are entering this second stage is evoked by its name, which indicates that you are no longer dependent on your parents but are setting up your own home, getting married, raising a family, and starting a career. This stage corresponds to the time when your “physical powers are at their zenith.” If you view the four stages of life as paralleling a day, then the student stage is the morning and the householder stage is noon, the peak, the apex of ones energies.
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The four stages of life: Stage 1- the student

For most people, their starting philosophy comes from what they acquired in their early childhood and is strongly influenced by the religion of their family and the values of their family and local community. Of course, the religious philosophies of the major religions encompass many strands, as they must if they are to maintain broad-based support. If their basic philosophies become too narrow, rigid, or constraining, then they will lose members or breakaway groups will form. Already, major religions have broad sub-groupings, such as the many denominations of Christianity, the Sunni and Shia groups of Islam, the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements in Judaism, the Mahayana and Theravada branches of Buddhism, and so on.

But even these subgroups allow for a wide diversity of philosophies within them. But most people tend to know only the range of philosophies of the religion of their own childhood. Thus they tend to be unaware of elements of philosophies of other religions that might have appealed to them.

For those who would like to go further afield in their philosophical explorations than just their own religious tradition, I can recommend the book The World’s Religions by Huston Smith. (All quotes in this series of postings are from this book.) What I like about the book is the approach taken by the author, who is a Methodist minister. He simply lays out the basic elements of each religion. He does not try to make value judgments of each one, or compare and contrast the religions, or try to rank them. He simply describes what each one says about the major questions that concern them, and leaves it to the reader to take from them what they may. But this is not just a dry ‘just the facts, ma’am’ approach either. Smith manages to balance a non-judgmental approach with commentary delivered in a lively way.

Since I tend to be very eclectic in my tastes, not bound by any particular religious tradition, and willing to use ideas from whatever source as long as I find them interesting or useful, Smith’s book appealed to me. A section that I found particularly interesting was Hinduism’s approach to the life cycle, that each person’s life can be split up into four stages, each having its own distinct characteristics.

Although I grew up in a country where almost 20% of the population were Hindus and I had many Hindu friends, I had never really gone beyond a cursory understanding of this ancient religious tradition, so the four stages of life described by the book were unknown to me until I read this book a few years ago. The philosophy of life implied by these four stages does not seem to me to be organically connected to Hindu theology and could be adopted by believers in any religion or by atheists.

Hinduism takes the diversity of human nature seriously and accommodates “a variety of paths towards life’s fulfillment.” But it also asserts that each person goes through four stages of life “each of which calls for its own appropriate conduct.” I will end today’s post with a description of just the first stage, which is that of the student, leaving the other stages for later.

The student stage starts around the age of ten (give or take a couple of years) and lasts for a dozen years. “Life’s prime responsibility at this stage was to learn, to offer a receptive mind.” There will come a time later, during other stages of your life, when you will have responsibilities to bear. But “for this gloriously suspended moment the student’s only obligation was to store up against the time when much would be demanded.”

But the learning envisaged was not just factual information or knowledge just for knowledge’s sake, to create a mere walking encyclopedia. Education also required that character be developed and good habits cultivated so that one would lead a good and productive life. “The entire training was more like an apprenticeship in which information became incarnated in skill. The liberally educated student was to emerge as equipped to turn out a good and effective life as a potter’s apprentice to turn out a well-wrought urn.”

I like the fact that this says that the student’s only obligation is to learn and not be too concerned with other, ostensibly weightier matters. This enables students to immerse themselves in the learning process, to experience the joy that true learning brings with it. (Note that grades and degrees and other types of credentials are not synonymous with the model of learning described here and may even detract from it.) But although the student is absolved from responsibilities for other things at this time, learning does take place with an eye to the successful carrying out of responsibilities that must be inevitably shouldered as one goes through the later stages.

What constitutes those three later stages – that of householder, retirement, and (most intriguingly) sannyasin – will be described in later postings.

What is your own philosophy?

Professor Sandy Piderit of the Weatherhead School of Management at Case has a wonderful knack of finding interesting sites and posting the links on her blog, so you should check it out regularly. She recently posted the results of an on-line survey that asks you to rate your responses to a series of statements and, based on those responses, gives you an analysis of your philosophical outlook.
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Developing a personal philosophy of life

I wrote in an earlier posting about how college is an ideal place to start thinking about developing a personal philosophy of life, because it brings together all the resources that can help you get started on such a fulfilling journey. I also noted the disturbing trend that the number of college students seeing that as a major goal of college was decreasing over time.

But what exactly do I mean by ‘a personal philosophy of life’? And how does one set about developing one? Does it mean reading books on philosophy and taking courses in them? Not necessarily, though such things can help since it helps you develop the vocabulary to better understand those kinds of questions. I have never had a course on philosophy in my life, but I think that I do have some sort of philosophy. What studying formal philosophy does do is give you the vocabulary to label what you believe and to make better contact with the philosophies of other people.

The first thing to realize is that all of us have some philosophy of life already, although we might not be able to articulate it. What is more accurate to say is that it is likely that we have many philosophies, each dealing with separate areas of life. We might have one for our religious beliefs, one for our political beliefs, one for our scientific beliefs, one for personal relationships, one for life, one for death, and so on. These philosophies may be fairly separate and we simply pluck them off the shelves of our mind to deal with specific situations.

Developing a personal philosophy of life does not mean abandoning all of these separate philosophies and starting from scratch but instead starting the process of bringing these various elements into a common framework. In other words, trying to mold them into a coherent whole, so that the beliefs and values we apply in one area of life are compatible with those in another.

This is far from easy to do. Having separate philosophies for different areas of our lives can make life easy for us in very practical ways and prevent us from facing awkward questions and contradictions. One of the biggest problems that some people face (and which I have discussed before – see here and earlier articles) may be the different philosophies that are brought to bear on science and religion. Another might be those we apply to our friends and those we apply to strangers. People who are extraordinarily kind to people they know might be quite callous about the plight of strangers. For example, people who say they object to murder might be quite agreeable with dropping bombs on people of other nations. Or people who say they value life and yet may be agreeable to the death penalty, Or people who are vegetarians on moral grounds yet are comfortable wearing leather shoes. And so on.

We all have such contradictions. What I am saying is that recognizing their existence and trying to resolve them is the basis of understanding oneself. The act of trying to bring all our separate philosophies into one personal, individualized, coherent framework that makes sense for each one us may not be possible. There may always be some things that cannot be made to fit and we may have to live with the contradictions.

The point I want to make is not that we must have one unifying philosophy, but acquiring the desire to have one and starting us on the road towards developing one of the most valuable things that a university education can give us.

What makes us change our minds?

In the previous post, I described the three kinds of challenges teachers face. Today I want to discuss how teachers might deal with each case.

On the surface, it might seem that the first kind of challenge (where students do not have much prior experience (either explicitly or implicitly) with the material being taught and don’t have strong feelings about it either way) is the easiest one. After all, if students have no strong beliefs or prior knowledge about what is being taught, then they should be able to accept the new knowledge more easily.

That is true, but the ease of acceptance also has its downside. The very act of not caring means that the new knowledge goes in easily but is also liable to be forgotten easily once the course is over. In other words, it might have little lasting impact. Since the student has little prior knowledge in that area, there is little in the brain to anchor the new knowledge to. And if the student does not care about it one way or the other, then no effort will be made by the student to really connect to the material. So the student might learn this material by mostly memorizing it, reproduce it on the exams, and forget it a few weeks later.

The research on the brain indicates that lasting learning occurs when students tie new knowledge to things they already know, when they integrate it with existing material. So teachers of even highly technical topics need to find ways to connect it with students’ prior knowledge. They have to know their students, what interests them, what concerns them, what they care about. This is why good teachers tie their material in some way to stories or topics that students know and care about or may be in the news or to controversies. Such strategies tap into the existing knowledge structures in the brain (the neural networks) and connect the new material to them, so that it is more likely to ‘stick.’

The second kind of challenge is where students’ life experiences have resulted in strongly held beliefs about a particular knowledge structure, even though the student may not always be consciously aware of having such beliefs. A teacher who does not take these existing beliefs into account when designing teaching strategies is likely to be wasting her time. Because these beliefs are so strongly, but unconsciously held, they are not easily dislodged or modified.

The task for the teacher in this case is to make students aware of their existing knowledge structures and the implications of them for understanding situations. A teacher needs to create situations (say experiments or cases) and encourage students to explore the consequences of the their prior beliefs and see what happens when they are confronted by these new experiences. This has to be done repeatedly in newer and more enriched contexts so that students realize for themselves the existence and inadequacy of their prior knowledge structures and become more accepting of the new knowledge structures and theories.

In the third case, students are consciously rejecting the new ideas because they are aware that it conflicts with views they value more (for whatever reason). In such cases, there is no point trying to force or browbeat them into accepting the new ideas.

Does this mean that such people’s ideas never change? Obviously not. People do change their views on matters that they may have once thought were rock-solid. In my own case, I know that I now believe things that are diametrically opposed to things that I once thought were true, and I am sure that my experience is very common.

But the interesting thing is that although I know that my views have changed, I cannot tell you when they changed or why they changed. It is not as if there was an epiphany where you slap your forehead and exclaim “How could I have been so stupid? Of course I was wrong and the new view is right!� Rather, the process seems more like being on an ocean liner that is turning around. The process is so gentle that you are not aware that it is even happening, but at some point you realize that you are facing in a different direction. There may be a moment of realization that you now believe something that you did not before, but that moment is just an explicit acknowledgment of something that that you had already tacitly accepted.

What causes the change could be many factors – something you read, a news item, a discussion with a friend, some major public event – whose implications you may not be immediately aware of. But over time these little things lodge in your mind, and as your mind tries to integrate them into a coherent framework, your views start to shift. For me personally, I enjoy discussions of deep ideas with people I like and respect. Even if they do not have any expertise in this area, discussions with such people tend to clarify one’s ideas.

I can see that process happening to me right now with the ideas about the brain. I used to think that the brain was quite plastic, that any of us could be anything given the right environment. I am not so sure now. The work of Chomsky on linguistics, the research on how people learn, and other bits and pieces of knowledge I have read have persuaded me that it is not at all clear that the perfectly-plastic-brain idea can be sustained.

On the other hand, I am not convinced that the socio-biological views of E. O. Wilson, and more recently Steven Pinker, who seem to argues that much of our brains, attitudes, and values are biologically determined by evolutionary adaptation, are correct either. That seems to me to be too pat and too much like Kipling’s Just-So Stories, where Kipling’s fictional characters accepted the present state of affairs as ‘normal’ and biologically determined, and concocted fanciful tales to ‘explain’ how they came about. I am always skeptical of theories that try to make the status quo seem ‘natural’ and just. It seems to be very convenient for those who benefit from that status quo.

It seems reasonable that some structures of the brain, especially the basic ones that enable it to interpret the input from the five senses, and perhaps even learn language, must be pre-existing. But I am not convinced that the more sweeping claims, such as that men are better than women at math or that women are more nurturing than men or that our behaviors can be explained by the desire to maximize the spread of our own genes, are biologically determined.

So I am currently in limbo as regards the nature of the brain, mulling things over. At some point I might arrive at some kind of unified and coherent belief structure. And after I do so, I may well wonder if I ever believed anything else. Such are the tricks the brain can play on you, to make you think that what you currently believe is what is correct and what you always believed.