09.09.2019 | 
Professor of the University of Portland Peter Boghossian about religion, Armenian origin, critical thinking and objective philosophical truth.

1.  Can you describe the "religious atmosphere" in your family?


I grew up in Norwood, Massachusetts. Every Sunday we drove to the Saint James Armenian Apostolic church in Watertown , which was about a 50-minute drive. My dad would play Armenian choir music, which he loved, and I hated. I'm pretty sure my dad was an agnostic, but he loved the Armenian community, language, food, and especially music. He sung in the choirwhile I was in Sunday school. Sunday school was equal part religious instruction and Armenian history. It was about three hours long. In the final hour we'd go to the Armenian church and celebrate mass. My Armenian language skills were terrible, at best, and they're nonexistent now. So I never really understood mass. Although there'd be an English component in which the _Der Hayr_ gave a sermon about some social or moral issue, I pretty much tuned out. Beyond that, there was not much religion in my family.


2. According to standford philosophy in educational contexts, a definition of critical thinking is a "programmatic definition" (Scheffler 1960: 19). It expresses a practical program for achieving

an educational goal. What is your definition of critical thinking and problem solving?


I use the American Philosophical Association's 1990 definition, which is considered the gold standard. Here's a snippet of that definition: The ideal critical thinker is habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open-minded, flexible, fairminded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in complex matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in the selection of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit.


If one wants to be a good critical thinker there's no need to reinvent the wheel. This definition is a great way to move forward. At the end of your day, find specifics things you did well (go through the list) and ways you could improve. The next day fix mistakes and continue successes. Rinse and repeat!


3.  How to teach students Critical thinking? Tell us about your teaching methods?


 I have an unconventional method for teaching critical thinking. I provide an infrastructure—or a way to think about problems—and then I invite students to challenge their own beliefs. I wrote about how to do that here, and my forthcoming book, _How to Have Impossible Conversations_ , teaches people how to how to have civil conversations while probing their beliefs and the beliefs of others.


4.  Do you belive in objective truth [in Philosophy]?


Yes. There are better and worse ways to come to knowledge. The moment one admits there are worse ways to know the world, that must mean there are better ways. For example, say you want to figure out the temperature at which paper burns. A worse way to do this is to sacrifice a goat on the hood of your car. That must mean there's a better way, and that there's a truth to be known (at least for this particular question). Science is the best way we have to come to knowledge. That doesn't mean we'll always get the right answers, or even that our best minds won't be mistaken for generations (think phlogiston theory or bleeding with leeches). It does mean that we have access to the tools needed to answer certain questions and that we'll be less wrong more often.

I also think that there are moral truths, and these moral facts are knowable through reason. The philosopher John Rawls offers a thought experiment for deriving moral truths which is a helpful way to think though moral issues, and Socrates offers a highly effective method of reasoning to moral conclusions.


5. Why does a person believe in God? What drives a person who want to gift himself to Him?


There are many reasons a person could have for believing in God: culture, tradition, comfort, fear, conformity, etc. My first book, _A Manual for Creating Atheists_ details these reasons and my app, helps users navigate conversations with believers.

I'm not sure what you mean by "gift himself to Him". Assuming you're Christian, perhaps the way to answer your question is to ask you the same question about a different faith tradition: What drives a person to want to gift himself to Allah [or Shiva or Zeus]?


6.  Does belief help society to develop?


If nobody believed anything we'd all be dead. If I didn't believe drinking would end thirst I'd not drink. So beliefs are indispensable for life. The question is, "Is my confidence in the belief I hold justified by the evidence I have?". And that is a question answerable only through honest self-reflection.


7.  What do you know about the religious history of the Armenian society?


Not nearly as much as I should.


8. Is there anything else you'd like to add?


My dad went into the military and became a Captain in the US Army. He was incredibly grateful because the United States took in his father and mother, who escaped the Armenian genocide. He wanted to pay back a debt he knew could never be fully repaid, a debt of gratitude and for life.


It pains me to write this, but I think our sense of gratitude and duty has largely been lost. The virtues of self-sacrifice and service to country are remnants of a past age. When we lost these virtues, we lost something fundamental about who we are as a society. We lost the idea that we could be better—better people, better citizens, and better humans. We abandoned the idea that we could create something extraordinary by sweating, bleeding, and crying, and that we could secure the American promise of "the shining city upon a hill". As President Reagan stated, [I]n my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.


As an American of Armenian descent, I will be forever grateful that the United States gave my grandparents sanctuary. When I was a boy, every time we'd go to a doctor's office my father would hold me up and we'd look for Armenian names. Inevitably, we would find them. My father would say, "There are so few Armenians in this country and look at the contributions we make. You need to be that person. Put in more than you take out. Work. Remember who you are, where you came from, and what this country gave us." These are lessons I've never forgotten, and I am incredibly grateful for those who have sacrificed to give me the life I have.


Ani Poghosyan

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