Teaching Counter Intuitive Ideas

Certain subjects and ideas are just harder to teach than others. My hunch is the difficulty of teaching something is inversely related to how counter intuitive it is. 

Science, for example, is almost completely counter intuitive.   Let's face it: the Earth does not feel like it is moving and, despite what Newton said, there's nothing intuitive in the idea that a thrown ball will naturally continue in a straight line forever.  Indeed, other than Ohm's Law about resistance in electrical currents, it's hard to think of a single scientific theory that's all that intuitive.

Lucky for me I don't have to teach physics (or even Ohm's Law).  Even so, there are some ideas in my courses that students always struggle with.  In my Introduction to Humanities class, for example, I have students read Boethius, Augustine and Dante.  The aim is to get them to see how Neo-Platonism informed Augustine's analysis of sin and how the Augustinian analysis of sin informed much of medieval thought, something on full display in Dante. 

Here's the counter-intuitive notion they really struggle with: Augustine doesn't believe evil exists.  Evil, he argues, is simply the absence of (or turning away from) God, not a thing in itself.  This perspective--which relies heavily on Neo-Platonic notions of hierarchy--allows Augustine to avoid the problem of evil that always bedevils monotheism.  For Augustine, the universe is a hierarchy of goods with God, the greatest good, sitting atop all else.  When we sin, he argues, we become fixated on lower goods (wealth, friendship, worldly success) and turn our back on God.  Thus the entire universe (matter, energy, human values, the heavens) is entirely good. Sometimes, however, our will gets confused (lost in a dark wood, you might say).  In other words, we believe we are aiming at something good and we actually are.  It's just not the highest good. 

Grasping this concept is key to understanding the structure of the medieval worldview and its comingling of theology, science, cosmology, ethics and even political thought.  It can help students to grasp the design principles that shaped Gothic Cathedrals.  More to the point, it allows them to grasp why Dante put liars lower in Hell than murderers.  After all, the violent and wrathful have only committed sins of physical incontinence by losing control of their temper and physically lashing out. Liars have knowingly perverted the higher good of the intellect (the good of the mind sits above the good of the body).   And the higher the sin, the deeper into the Inferno you fall.

"But," my students will protest, "murder is a worse crime than lying. It doesn't make any sense." 

So I try to explain it this way: most murderers aren't Hannibal Lecter or serial killers.  People who murder are generally in a deluded pursuit of justice. They believe they have been slighted or suffered a grave unfairness, so they attempt to redress this wrong by seeking retributive justice.  People who lie, on the other hand, know exactly what they are doing.  They aren't deluded about the truth, so their sin is actually worse.

This explanation usually fails to clear things up.  My students just wrinkle their noses at Dante, Augustine and me.  "Whatever," they say. "I still say it's worse to kill somebody than it is to lie to them."

But understanding this point is key to my course.  I need students to appreciate how Neo-Platonic ideas of a single, all-encompassing natural and moral hierarchy informed Western thought.  Getting this not only helps them to understand Dante; it's also pretty useful for making sense of the tensions and cracks that show up in this hierarchy during the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment, not to mention any number of hot button issues you might in encounter in a local school board election arguing over school prayer, evolution or what needs to be in high school textbooks. 

So I was happy to run across a statistic that backs up Dante's logic.  I've been reading Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has DeclinedIn it Pinker mentions a stat well known to criminologists: only a small percent of homicides (maybe 10 percent) are committed as means to a practical end (i.e., eliminating an eye witness, to affect an escape, killing the guard in the back of an armored car, etc.).  Most murders are moralistic retaliation for an insult, a cheating spouse or an act of self-defense in an escalating violent confrontation.  In other words, murder is not usually the result of the murderer having less morality.  It's a result of a heightened sense of morality and injustice (at least to the perpetrators).  In their mind, there's nothing wrong with them; it's the victim who has done something wrong.

I don't think I'll quote this statistic or lecture on it in class.  There is no way to explain it that won't result in confusion.  Still I think I can juxtapose it with the poem in such a way that students can make the connection on their own.  If I track down the numbers Pinker cites, I'll just show them to the students and ask them to imagine what Augustine and Boethius would make of it.
Okay, so would Augustine and Boethius see this modern research on crime as a confirmation of their ideas about why we err about the highest good?  Why?  Those of you who think it does over here.  Those who think it doesn't over there?  Talk to each other and come up with an argument for why you think the way you do.  Let's hash this out before we move on.
Then, later, when we get to the murderers in the fifth circle of the Inferno, it might make a little bit more sense.

Maybe the key to teaching deeply counter intuitive ideas is not explaining them more clearly or providing more evidence.  Maybe it's not about what I do at all.  Maybe the key is creating opportunities for students to road test a few of their own intuitions. 

Sheez, one of these days I'm finally going to figure out how to do this job.   


Anti-Dada said…
Intuitions are interesting in their own right. Once a cultural or scientific concept has become thoroughly internalized, intuitions seem to follow suit even if that means they become disconnected from sensory reality. I suppose that's a discussion of another type, though. I only brought it up because if students had been raised in the Middle Ages, under Augustine's philosophic worldview, their intuitions would suggest lying is worse than retributive justice. However, they've grown up in a world in which murder is the worst offense under U.S. law whereas most forms of lying are entirely legal. Therefore, it makes sense that their intuitions suggest that murder is a worse offense. Also, they are growing up in a world in which they may be atheists, but even if they are't, the seriousness of sin has been deluded even within most religions (except for abortion, murder, and homosexuality, if one watches the news). So, in that sense, the ending of a life is worse than debilitating the quality of life (and afterlife). That may be an entry point, by the way: Which is more valuable, a high quality of life or a life of any kind no matter how much suffering is endured? After examination of a life spent being tortured ceaselessly through solitary confinement and other forms of psychological torture (including lies designed to elicit the greatest emotional anguish), being "murdered" sounds more like a gift than a punishment.
Professor Quest said…
Another way to come at it by emphasizing intent. Modern law recognizes the difference between a crime of passion and cold-blooded murder. Both are crimes but with they are punished with different levels of severity. Dante's killers in the fifth circle killed out of wrath. We meet lots of killers lower in hell, but their crimes were committed with more deliberation. For my purposes, though, I need the students to grasp the logic of Neo-Platonic hierarchy early in the course so they can fully appreciate the way it begins to fall apart in the subsequent centuries. It helps them to see why Luther, Galileo and Darwin were (and in some cases remain) game changers.
Anti-Dada said…
Oops, I meant, "diluted." ... otherwise, your points are duly noted. Thanks for that perspective, I hadn't considered it.

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