In the video introduction to the course, I said the following:

Even though this is an introductory course, you will find it to be a challenging one, for two reasons. First, because it is an online course, you will have to take responsibility not just for learning and mastering the course material, which is of course something you must do in any course you take, but also for setting up your schedule so that you allow yourself sufficient time to attend to all the demands that the course will make of you. Because there is greater flexibility in an online course than in a regular classroom course, you may find it tempting to put off dealing with the course material so that you can attend to other seemingly more pressing matters. I urge you to be very careful about this, because − and this is the second reason that the course will be a challenging one − you will, I think, find the course material quite difficult, for a couple of reasons.

First, the issues that we will be discussing are complex, much more complex than many people suppose. And second, the manner in which we will address these issues will be new to you. In fact, you might at first find our approach quite bewildering. This is because, contrary to what many other courses require, the emphasis in this course will not be so much on acquiring and retaining new information (although there will of course be some of that) as on critical thinking.

In my experience, only a few students appear to take these words sufficiently seriously. So let me say here and now: take these words very seriously! In case you’re still not sure just what it is I’m trying to get across to you, let me elaborate further.

First, critical thinking involves trying to think through the claims (made by yourself as well as by others) about the various issues we’ll be addressing, in order to see whether these claims should be accepted. This requires stepping back from the material and reflecting carefully on it. The question isn’t simply “What does so-and-so say about such-and-such?” but, more importantly, “Should I accept what so-and-so says? If so, why? If not, why not?” Such critical thinking requires maintaining a delicate balance between being skeptical of what someone says while nonetheless being respectful of the person who says it and willing to take what that person says seriously. It requires trying to figure out whether what that person says is reasonable, that is, something that there is good reason to accept. It requires not either accepting or rejecting what that person says simply on faith, that is, without adequate supporting evidence or argument. (By way of contrast, consider certain religious teachings that are often accepted on faith − for example, that Jesus was the son of God, as many Christians claim, or that Jesus was not the son of God, as many Muslims claim. Notice that not both of these claims can be true; if one of them is true, then the other must be false. Thus, if someone does accept one of these claims, he or she is thereby committed to rejecting the other. But if such a person accepts the claim in question simply as a matter of faith, then he or she is not providing sufficient reason for doing so. This kind of uncritical thinking is not what this course is about. If, for example, you declare homosexual behavior immoral, you had better be prepared to back this up, or at least to try to do so. Likewise, if you declare homosexual behavior morally acceptable, you had better be prepared to back this up. Saying, as so many people do, “That’s just how I feel” − well, that is what is unacceptable, at least within the context of this course.)

Because of the emphasis on critical thinking, you will find that doing well on the quizzes is not simply a matter of cutting-and-pasting your answers from the commentaries or texts. That would be a mindless and pointless exercise. Nonetheless, even if the answers to many of the questions are not given explicitly in the commentaries or texts, all of them are given implicitly in your readings. It will be your job to find them, and the best way to do that is, as I have said, to think through what you read.

Let me say again: in all likelihood, you will find the quizzes difficult (except for the Syllabus Quiz, which should be straightforward) even if you consult the texts and commentaries while taking the quizzes − something that I strongly encourage you to do − and even if you’re used to getting a high grade in your other courses without too much trouble. (This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to do well on the quizzes. On the contrary, in the past some students have earned a perfect score on some of the quizzes. But that is, admittedly, an uncommon achievement.) In many cases, you’ll find that several answers to a question resemble one another and that more than one answer looks plausible, at least to begin with, even though each question has only one correct answer. (In some cases, this answer may be “all of the above.” So beware! Don’t go straight to one of the answers just because it “looks right.” Again, you should think through what you read, even when what you’re reading is just a question on a quiz. Have I succeeded in emphasizing that strongly enough? I hope so.) The way in which I have set up the quizzes is of course deliberate. I am not trying to catch you out − I’d love it if everyone answered every question correctly − but I am trying to get you to pay attention to the details, since doing so can often make all the difference between saying something true, accurate, or reasonable, on the one hand, and saying something false, inaccurate, or unreasonable, on the other. For this reason, I have taken great care in wording the questions and answers, and you, too, should take great care in choosing your answers.

Second, as you can see from the syllabus:

a. There is a wide “window” for taking each quiz. You should take full advantage of this opportunity. Take your time when taking a quiz. Refer to the commentaries and texts as and when necessary. Be very careful not to jump to conclusions. Most of the questions will require quite a bit of thought. You will get tripped up if you answer them in haste.

b. You must take all the quizzes to pass the course.

c. You must take the quizzes before their respective deadlines. Don’t wait until the last moment to take a quiz. Make-ups will be allowed only under very restrictive conditions, so please be very careful to budget your time properly!

Third, it is my job to educate you, not to coddle you. It is a job that I can accomplish only if you do your part. You must take full responsibility for doing so, or otherwise taking the course can only end in disappointment. If you do do your part, however − if you plan ahead, if you take the time to read the texts and commentaries carefully and critically and to think through the issues discussed, if you consult me whenever you encounter any content-related difficulties (before you start taking a quiz − of course I cannot provide any content-related help while you’re taking a quiz), if you call 6-TECH whenever you encounter any IT-related difficulties, if you make sure that you don’t put off completing the assignments until it is too late − then you will, I hope and believe, find the course both stimulating and rewarding.

The fact is, it can get lonely out in online land. But don’t isolate yourself. Participate! Become engaged with the material and the course! Contact me if and when necessary (regarding which, see again what the syllabus says). I can’t, and don’t want to, force you to participate, even though participation is surely more difficult online than it is on campus. But the opportunities are there, and I hope you will avail yourself of them. Doing so will help you, whereas not doing so will in all likelihood hurt you.

So, you have been warned! This is serious stuff! Now please go to Module 1, and we’ll get down to business!

PHI 121