Philosophy professor tackles God and science in public course

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[caption id="attachment_12337" align="alignleft" width="120"]Shapiro Shapiro[/caption]

On midsummer evenings, while the rest of us were relaxing by the lake or puttering in the backyard, a group of intellectually-curious community members and undergraduates joined Professor of Philosophy Larry Shapiro to tackle some of the biggest questions in history.

In a heady Summer Forum course entitled, “The Greatest Debate: Science and Religion,” class members wrestled with such questions as: Do we have free will? Is God necessary for morality? Can we ever be justified in believing in miracles given our scientific understanding of the world?

Offered through the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies, the open-to-the-public course drew more than 120 community members as well as undergraduates looking to fulfill a humanities credit. The seven-week course wraps up on Thursday, July 11.

Shapiro had a hunch that his inaugural course would feed a hunger for dialogue. But he has been pleasantly surprised by both the class size and the lively discussion. In email messages and classroom conversations, participants have expressed gratitude for the chance to explore and engage on age-old, perplexing issues.

“I’m not necessarily touching on any topics people haven’t been exposed to already,” Shapiro says. “What I think they value is a moderated discussion, a chance to be led through the issues in a step-by-step way.”

We asked Shapiro to share more about his new course and its appeal.

What makes philosophy such a great lens through which to view questions of science and religion?
A philosopher’s concern is to teach people how to think about religious and scientific claims — the grounds for their justification. We are trained to search for evidence that might justify a particular belief in, say, God, heaven, or souls. Science attempts to understand how the world and its inhabitants do behave and leaves for others the job of saying how the world and its inhabitants should behave. Religiously-oriented people often think that religion gets to answer the “should” question. A philosopher is trained to clarify these issues and help people understand how one might decide them.

Your course reveals that philosophers are deeply engaged with scientific research. What is a “scientifically-minded philosopher?” And conversely, is there such a thing as a “philosophically-minded scientist?”
The distinction between philosophers and scientists is actually fairly recent. Newton would have called himself a ”natural philosopher.“ Here at UW-Madison, we have a long and proud tradition in the philosophy of science — our program is one of the best in the country. Philosophers tend not to do empirical work, but we might still think about scientific concepts and practices, and it’s not unusual to find philosophers and scientists writing articles together. Likewise, many scientists are philosophically inclined, in the sense that they are excited about stepping away from the laboratory in order to reflect on how their discoveries might bear on questions about minds, or ethics, or free will.

Your class welcomed some interesting guest lecturers. What were some highlights?
People really enjoyed [Wisconsin Public Radio Executive Producer and Wisconsin Institute for Discovery Distinguished Scholar] Steve Paulson’s visit. He played clips from interviews he’d done with renowned thinkers, on the origins of the universe and the meaning of life. It was exciting for the class to hear the voices of some of the people we've been learning about: Richard Dawkins, Jane Goodall, Daniel Dennett [a philosophy professor at Tufts University]. Another guest was Elliot Sober, a UW-Madison philosopher of biology, who presented the arguments theists often make to support the idea of God as an omnipotent designer.

Set the scene: what is the class dynamic?
I have been surprised by the number of people who seem to be atheist or agnostic in outlook. I was expecting a larger proportion of believers in my class. It could be the “Madison effect:” a small city with a tradition of free thinking. Still, discussion so far seems to reflect a number of viewpoints, and I’m glad participants feel free to express their beliefs.

Do you enjoy teaching this class? Has it led to any ideas for further study or research?
I've loved it. Sometimes it’s not so easy for philosophers to find a way to engage with the public. It’s been great to make contact with the Wisconsin community and give back, after all the benefits I've received. As far as what’s next: I realized how little I actually know about the history of science and religion. I've been working hard to learn more. I’m not sure whether it will turn up in my writing, but one of the great things about philosophy is that you never know from where the next epiphany will come.