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

Dec 11, 2016

By Malhar Mali

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.

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18 comments on “Peter Boghossian on Critical Thinking, The Atheos App, and the Post-Modern Influence on Universities

  • Here’s a telling exchange-

    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.

    I think the connection between the Regressive Left, Post-Modernism and perhaps the role of social media is a rich area to explore.

    My feelings, hence my opinion, hence my truth and my science, most particularly in the land of the free-to-fnck-up, needs addressing.

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  • When I said, in an earlier comment a while back, that nothing had been done about helping adults with their critical thinking I was forgetting Peter and Atheos.

    I wonder if critical thinking is the sort of thing taught at Night Schools. I’ll check.

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  • Hi Phil,

    I don’t know why no-one has taken up your challenge. There’s usually no shortage of people prepared to defend the dogmas of left-leaning politics.

    Perhaps this site is more effective than we think? More likely: People are learning that they can’t make assumptions when commenting here. Even more likely: Search engines are not directing people here because they’re dogma and existing-belief friendly – and that makes them hostile to critical thinking by default.

    That sounds like an interesting project for anyone interested in Search Engine Optimization.

    A link between Post Modernism and ‘Social’ Media? That sounds a bit ambitious. That there is a link between dogma and Net2 tech seems inescapable. The biggest problem is the modern habit of forwarding fake news stories, but that’s not news either: one of the oldest sayings:

    A lie can travel half way round the World, while Truth Is still putting on its boots

    It’s a problem as old as the hills, and it’s time to change.


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  • An ideal place to discuss Trump and the left…no?


    You call me on my stuff. So let me say this:

    There you go again.—Corporate greed, saving money by sending jobs overseas (which is quite natural; private business is in the business of private profit, not philanthropy or “patriotism”), right wing propaganda, poor education (which Republicans love), a demagogue who defrauded the voters with a clever strategy.—Why not talk about that?

    Your obsession with the regressive left is starting to irritate me, frankly – and is bordering on drum-beating. Nativism, racism, propaganda, xenophobia, has been around, and the plutocratic oligarchs have been around, since the founding of this nation. —No regressive leftists then, or during Andrew Jackson’s time. You have found a scapegoat, because you don’t want to point the finger at capitalism (run amuck), capitalism, which you criticize and love at one and the same time. That creates tension. Better to find a bogey man: the Regressive Left. That, I suspect, had far less to do with this election than you think. Those rust belt and rural voters – and they decided this election – are not familiar with, don’t pay attention to, SJWs and the others you fear have tilted the election away from the Democrats. (I’d sooner blame the Russians – and Comey – for putting their fingers on the scale.)

    Yes, there was and is lousy coverage on TV, and it helped Trump win; and post modernism may have contributed to a post-truth environment. But who owns the media?—That’s right: Mom and Pop, the corporation. Corporations are always conservative; you know that. And who owns the corporations? Who do you think they are more likely to support?

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  • Dan

    Better to find a bogey man: the Regressive Left.

    So fucking no! You so fail to grasp my contentions about what is different this time and what we can do about it next.

    The right win by demonising whole groups of people with just enough half truths. Mexicans, feminists, Muslims Atheists, the eco-concerned, black folk, the left, pro-choice etc.

    Because of social media there has been an upsurge in a thoughtless leftism and rightism anchored by neither facts nor reason. The right use the regressive left as us, as if they were the actual left. Rather than use the reasonable and thought through policies of the candidates to represent leftism they use the mangled stuff from the well meaning but half baked. The right lie about the left as they lie about all despised out groups and hungrily accept such lies . This is why we have to do better to martial our own (potential) troops. We cannot rely on our own people (6.8 million fewer Democrats voted this time, three times poorer than the loyal right) to do the right thing and we cannot rely on them not to present a comedy version of ourselves that won’t play badly for us in the enemy camp.

    What is galling is that you of all people, so keen to judge others simply bad to the bone, charge me, who wants only to comment on how things may be got better as simply seeking a “bogey man”.

    The evidence for an upsurge in SJW thinking is everywhere among the young. It is a novel phenomenon. I believe it tipped the balance. It needs remedial action. It needs Boghossian tackling not just religious believers but all dogma, political, economic and social.

    I fell out with Stephen over Boghossian sad that he so focused on religion. I thought PB’s claim of being only concerned about the quality of thought and reasoning came across as disingenuous given the illustrations of his techniques and that undermined his efforts. I was possibly…er…mistaken.

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  • Dan

    Why not talk about that?

    I did. Many times. My solution to the virtue of exporting jobs to poorer countries is that we must also be more diligent in sharing the better value it creates. Having cheaper better cars whilst Detroit rots from the inside out is not good enough. The value has to be shared. The imported cars, not so cheap and the revenue raised directed at job creation welfare and retraining, where the specific hurt is.

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  • @ Phil #6

    The right use the regressive left as us, as if they were the actual left. Rather than use the reasonable and thought through policies of the candidates to represent leftism they use the mangled stuff from the well meaning but half baked. The right lie about the left as they lie about all despised out groups and hungrily accept such lies.” —P.R.

    Yes, it is certainly an insidious dialectical process, if one can call it that. But even if the left were beyond reproach they would just make things up. I have made similar points on threads where the frequently asked question is: “how can we secularists frame issues better or use different words to avoid the backlash we are facing?” To that I say: “we can only do so much!”—Atheist, agnostic, freethinker, reasonable, fact, theory… It doesn’t matter much what words we use; the Right and the religious will always find ways to discredit those they oppose.

    Now that being said, I do, finally, see your point. We must be as good as we can be – especially now, and for the future. Yes. We need to give the malicious and destructive right as little fodder and ammunition as possible. That is a worthwhile thing to try to obtain.

    Sorry if I put you in a box. You are not seeking a bogey man. I need to get out of my box, as it were.



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  • From the “Fake News” thread

    Dan #119

    It’s the left’s fault!

    Not so crass. The regressive left were co-opted into this disaster and they rather more than the right are a pull-able lever. Our ultimate target is the centre and centre right and creating an image of the left as reason and evidence based and whom they can trust enough to work with. We HAVE to win the next vote in two years.

    Oops. Stuck on a call before posting and didn’t see the last post.

    But it is the centre voters we need to win back as the terrified right are inaccessible.

    We must be as good as we can be

    YES! We meet.


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  • Stephen

    It’s a problem as old as the hills, and it’s time to change.

    Doubly agreed. But I still think it has a new twist in this era of a high intensity social media, optimised to broadcast feelings and dog whistles and deliver hundreds of tiny rewards and rebukes.

    The recent upsurge in phantom psychological problems amongst the young and particularly young women, the emergence of “triggers” and “micro-aggressions” like weeds to occupy the space now cleared of once profound existential threats both signals and helps to atomise and disconnect moral philosophical deliberation. Post modernism that fight back from the French academics who wanted a “high brow” process of their own since science raced off with the one they had been sharing, became the perfect fracturing tool, breaking off pieces before the evidence ‘n’ reason crew got too close. In the hands of the have-it-easy young it has become the perfect excuse to migrate their mental lives from thinking to the less exhausting mode of feeling.

    I am very happy with the steadily improving state of our young and their education and compassion, but, in this one regard and through no fault of their own, their intellectual engagement in moral issues I worry is starting to fall behind their emotional engagement.

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  • I think we have to educate for the age of social media, its boons and its traps. This needs to start from very young. I think it is also an obligation on the services providers to inform, advise and provide better truth navigating tools.

    This is also an area for academia to step into perhaps at the level of creating new disciplines and new departments. These could replace some dying department sections. Theology as part of philosophy, is well past its sell by date.

    Chairs could be funded by the industry with highly publicised non-interference measures.

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  • My 2 cents:

    I suspect a “far-right” creationist and a “far-left” micro-aggressionist share a basic similarity in mentality, which they have not yet acknowledged as such: it’s all, absolutely, about me.

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  • Cantaz

    I think you are quite right. There is a self-centred, selfish quality to both. Mind you I have also thought that loyalty to the flag dissipates and defends against loyalty to each other.

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  • DanDare #14
    Dec 16, 2016 at 5:10 pm

    A cogent rebuttal

    I think not!
    As a comment on “Critical thinking and logical reasoning” – an epic fail in logic!

    @link -Hands up: Who thought atheism needed another arrogant atheist douchebro who cloaks himself in rationality and then proceeds in a spit-flecked rant rife with fallacious reasoning to tell us we are irrational about stuff?

    Peter Boghossian raves about “Gender studies professors” who “are pumping out complete bullshit” in Areo Magazine, producing something resembling less of an argument and more of a rancid onion. And for some fucking reason, I’m feeling masochistic enough to peel back the layers of entitled manbaby whinging. Tears to ensue.

    I don’t think we need to go any further than analysis of the first two paragraphs and look at the ad-homs and irrational vacuous emotive drivel posturing as comment on “reasoning”, to tell us (the authors) we (they) are irrational about stuff and “are pumping out complete bullshit”.

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  • The core conflict between the political right and the political left came into focus in the decades after 1850.
    The basis for defined struggle among interest groups centered on the question of how wealth is created and distributed. The bipolar terms that came to define this struggle swirling among and between socio-economic classes were: Capitalism versus Socialism. Imaginary extremes were captured by ideologies called Laissez-Faire Capitalism on the right and Communism (the scientific socialism of Karl Marx) on the left.

    Neither ideology worked in actual societies. The imperfect resolution shook out in the European and American welfare states developing to maturity in the second half of the twentieth century that combined an imagined private sector economy with a public sector economy. In practice there was never a hard line distinction between the activities of each. In any case the conventional wisdom perceived that the public sector (government – infrastructure – bureacracy – social welfare) was substantively “supported” through taxation of the private sector ( corporations – trading – property -income). Tax policy and allocation of resources (wealth) affecting variously the “health” of social welfare government-sponsored programs and by contrast the “health” of business, productivity output and the job growth.

    Gradually discussion of the central economic conflict fell further and further away from political dialogue, to be replaced on the left by identity politics. The rise of the middle class to electoral hegemony, pushed politicians away from rhetoric about the interests of the working class and poor to rhetoric that championed the prosperity of the middle class. Because rising taxes had reached a critical mass where the consumerist middle class lifestyle was being pinched, politicians began to promise funding social welfare programs (health, education, etc.) without raising taxes, growing the size of government, or imposing costly “new’ regulations.

    Instead of talking about reforming economic and financial institutions and levels of taxation, leftest millennials have diminished their message into pseudo-concerns about “respect” for people of color, immigrants, Muslims, women, and most obnoxiously, members of the “LGBTQ” community even unto the point of making public toilets for transgender persons a major issue. Populist reaction against these furious excesses is one factor contributing to the election of Donald Trump, Brexit, and other reactionary movements in Europe. Many people see the grievance-victimhood politics of leftists through the old cliche, “effete, effeminate and ineffectual.”

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  • Melvin (and Phil, others)—

    Communism was somewhat successful under the pragmatic Lenin, that is, before Stalin. Read up on it.

    Imaginary extremes were captured by ideologies called Laissez-Faire Capitalism on the right and Communism (the scientific socialism of Karl Marx) on the left.

    Only imbeciles and the wicked amongst us (Trump, Bannon et al) capture ideological extremes.

    My late father, who incorporated marxist thought in his writings and his social vision, but was no ideologue, presents a more nuanced, creative, and sophisticated perspective (something lacking in most non-academic discourse), in a great essay on CLR James and Antonio Gramsci. A brief excerpt:

    […] First of all, organicist imagery is pervasive in the writings of both men. They both sought to integrate it into their understanding of Marxism as an integral, comprehensive conception of the world. They were both disturbed by the tendency of many self-styled Marxists to apply Marxist theory in a mechanistic manner, which accounts in part for their frequent recourse to the word “organic.” Marxism for Gramsci and James was not a closed, static system unaffected by change. They believed that Marxism, like all bodies of thought rooted in human experience, must constantly renew itself, must draw from other currents of thought in order to remain relevant and viable. As a result of this premise, they were able in large measure to avoid the dangers of sectarianism and dogmatism. Neither felt constrained to reject automatically insights into historical, political and cultural problems merely because they did not conform to an established set of canonical doctrines and texts.

    Secondly, what Gramsci designates with the phrase national popular has its counterpart in James’s gradual evolution towards what one James scholar, Patrick Ignatius Gomes, calls “Marxian populism.”[1] The formation of a “national popular” culture was for both thinkers a top priority: for Gramsci, one of the grossest deficiencies of Italian national development was precisely the lack of a closely interconnected and fruitful relationship between the intelligentsia and the common people, while for James, especially after his return to Trinidad in 1958 following a twenty-six year absence from his native land, a task of primary importance for Trinidadian intellectuals was to help forge a creative bond between the island’s diverse races and classes within the larger framework of a political federation embracing all the countries of the Caribbean archipelago. James was as deeply immersed in the critical analysis of Caribbean creative writing as Gramsci was in the study of Italian literature, for both saw in their respective literary traditions an extraordinarily sensitive record of their countries’ social history. […]

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  • When I was in college in the 80s (before I dropped out) they had a course called Critical Thinking 101. It was a course to teach you how to think critically – and I have to say it worked. I remember being in my dorm room and saying: “Now this bag of pot is definitely smaller than the one I bought last week. I am very critical of this.”

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