Providence or atoms?

I wrote the other day about a course whose design I have been struggling with for a while (The Muses of Bad Timing).  It just has never come together even though my students haven't seemed to notice or complain. Still I have never been happy with it.  Then, while proofing the syllabus, it occurred to me how I could redesign the entire thing around a few interrelated questions.  

Thinking about it now all I can say is "duh."  Why didn't I see this earlier?  Indeed, all of the courses that I am most comfortable with are hung on simple but broad philosophical questions. I mean that's where learning always begins, right?  With a thought-provoking question.  Duh.  

Here, for example, are the questions for each of my courses.
  • INTS 121: Nature and Human Nature: How do we define humanness and what are the implications of our definitions?
  • Core Seminar II: "Kosmopolite": Why do human beings sometimes deny the humanity and equality of others of their kind? Is this inevitable and, if so, what does that mean?  Is it possible to change or mitigate this behavior and, if so, how?
  • LIBA 110:  First-Year Seminar: Why and how do we deceive others and sometimes even ourselves? 
And then there's Humanities 101/102 with perhaps the most interesting question of all: Providence or Atoms?  The question alludes to Marcus Aurelius' Meditations and the way he repeatedly framed two views of the universe.  Either there exists a providence--a plan and order--or the universe is just a random, meaningless collision of atoms.  The former view was held by Plato and his followers, Marcus' own brand of Stoicism and, of course, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  The latter was held by Epicureans in the ancient world, but we might say it's also the view of contemporary science and many secular, post Enlightenment thinkers.  

And it's really a hell of a question, one I try to trace with students from ancient times until the latest school board election.  Here's how we wrestle with the question on day one of class:
Let's say today you decide to buy a Lotto ticket.  No reason, really.  You've never bought one before or maybe once just for a laugh.  But for some reason you think, "Why not?  Maybe today's the day."  And sure enough it is to the tune of $300,000,000.  Of course this fortune changes your entire life.  Okay, so was it your destiny to win that fortune?  Was it just meant to be? 
Students stake out a position.  Those of who think our fates are guided by providence go to one side of the room; those who think it's dumb luck go over their.  Inevitably there are a few who want to split the difference with what I've come to call the 'lab rat in a maze answer.'  The rat can make many choices of where to go in his maze, but these choices aren't infinite and they are ultimately determined by the scientist who built the maze.  

Ten years ago I used to introduce the question by showing a scene from Tarantino's Pulp Fiction.  In the film two hit men--Jules and Vincent--are threatening some drug dealers who owe their boss money.  Unbeknownst to them, a third dealer is hiding in an adjacent bathroom with a gun.  At one point the third dealer leaps out of the bathroom and empties his weapon at Jules and Vincent, but every bullet misses them.  Later, in the car, the two debate whether what just happened was a miracle.  Jules insists it was and that it means something profound; Vincent argues it was just a freak happenstance, dumb luck.  So providence or atoms?

Humanities 101/102 is simply an exploration of the implications of looking at the world as providential or swirling atoms.  We wade through Greek and Hebrew creations stories, Homer, Plato, the New Testament, Augustine, Dante, Luther, Shakespeare, Hume, Darwin and all with an eye on this big question.  Is belief in providence--as Edmund says in King Lear--"the excellent foppery of the world?"  Or as Jules says in Pulp Fiction, "That shit wasn't luck. That shit was something else."

And note to self: the next time you get stuck on how to approach a course, first figure out what the the big, interesting question is.  Come on, already.  You know this.


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