The Things We Believe


Init 100-21: The Things We Believe

Fall 2012

TTh 2:00-3:50 PM

Morse-Ingersoll 209

Professor: Matt Tedesco



            Phone: (608)363-2146

OL/TA: Jessica Vogel


Office Hours: W 1:30-3:30, and by appointment

            Office: Morse-Ingersoll 210


1)     Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Broadway, 2010) [COMMON READING]

2)     Hank Davis, Caveman Logic (Prometheus Books, 2009)

3)     Susan A. Clancy, Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens (Harvard UP, 2005)

4)     Philip Kitcher, Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith (Oxford UP, 2007)

The Class:

We believe a lot of things. We believe in ghosts and gods, gravity and global warming. You presumably believe that you are, right now, reading a description of a first-year seminar on beliefs. We have beliefs about ourselves, about the world around us, and about the relationship between us and the world. Our beliefs concern the natural and the supernatural, the physical and the metaphysical, the normative and the descriptive. But what is it to believe? How do we come to believe the things we believe? What is the relationship between evidence and belief, and under what conditions are we epistemically justified in believing a proposition? Should we continue to believe the things we believe? Perhaps no activity is more essential to responsible global citizenship than scrutinizing our beliefs—being vigilant about the things we believe and the grounds on which we believe them. W.K. Clifford claimed that a life of failing in this activity is “one long sin against mankind.” We will take up Clifford’s challenge; this critical activity will be at the heart of our seminar together.


Your grade in the class will be determined as follows; all work must be completed satisfactorily in order for you to receive a passing grade in the class, and in all cases, further details will be passed along during the semester:

I. PAPERS 1 & 2 (20%)

In the first three weeks of class, you will write two short papers (approximately 3 pages each) that require a focused critical engagement with the articles we read early in the semester. The first paper will engage the debate between Clifford and James; the second paper will engage the skeptical challenges posed by Descartes’ first meditation, Pollock, and our in-class discussion of the skeptical regress problem.

II. PAPER 3 (10%)

Your third paper will be a short elaboration (approximately 3 pages) on either of the first two papers. In it, you will charitably offer and respond to a critical response to the thesis you staked out in the earlier paper.

III. PAPER 4 (20%)

Your fourth paper assignment will be a critical discussion of one or more of the texts that we have read during the semester. It will require that you effectively combine the skills developed during the first three paper assignments: you will need to critically engage a text or set of texts, and you will need to defend your thesis by charitably imagining and rebutting a critical response to your thesis. As such, this paper will be longer than the first three—approximately 5-6 pages.


In teams, you will be assigned a popular conspiracy theory to investigate and evaluate in a presentation to the class. Explicit attention will be paid to the use and critical evaluation of external sources. You will be expected to utilize powerpoint and other relevant technologies wherever appropriate. Each team will be allowed a total of 45-50 minutes for both their presentation and class discussion of the presentation.


While the conspiracy theory presentation is made as a team, each team member will be expected to complete a report detailing their particular role in the project, and the way in which the individual contribution contributed to the project overall. This report will describe and evaluate the sources you consulted in the course of working on your team project, and it will also involve a brief discussion of the experience of working as a team on a project.


Your belief log is an occasion for you to connect the various readings and class discussions from throughout our semester to your own personal beliefs and standards for belief. What do you believe, why do you believe it, and how are those beliefs affected (or not) by the things we are reading and discussing? This is meant to be a relatively flexible assignment, insofar as I expect you to compose a log entry at those times where you find something particularly relevant to discuss, but there are some guidelines you must follow. To ensure that these log entries are reasonably well-developed, log entries must be at least 350 words each. To ensure that you are making steady progress throughout the semester, you may not write more than one log entry in a week, and you must complete six throughout the semester, where four of those must be completed prior to fall break. You must e-mail them to me when you complete them, so that I can track your progress, and a hard copy of your log is due at our last meeting.  Your belief log will not be evaluated for correctness, only completeness.


One of the most effective strategies for reading critically is composing a brief summary highlighting the key elements of the reading selection in question; one of the most concise and elegant forms of writing is the classical Japanese poetry form, the haiku. This assignment combines these two distinct considerations. Early in the semester, you will be assigned a set of readings for which you are required to compose and bring to class a haiku. Your haiku should reflect what you take to be the most important or interesting elements of the assigned reading selection. You will be allowed considerable creative flexibility in composing your haikus—this assignment should be fun, not stressful—but be aware that you will be expected to explain your haiku, and the elements of the reading that it captures. During our class meetings, we will begin our discussions of the assigned reading selections by having students read and explain their haikus.


The final component of your overall class grade encompasses several different elements, including (but not limited to) class participation and classroom behavior in general. This component is unique in that, unlike the other components, it is subjective. Attendance, first of all, is mandatory, and students with excessive absences will be penalized, where excessive absences are understood as those over and above the equivalent of one week’s worth of class time. In accordance with Beloit College policy, I expect everyone to come to class, and I furthermore expect everyone who comes to class to be alert and ready to participate. Participation also is mandatory. This means that I expect every student to contribute to our ongoing class discussion throughout the semester. I recognize that class participation comes more naturally to some students than others. If you expect this requirement to be difficult for you, then plan accordingly—no one is exempt from this expectation. Elements of class activity that may negatively impact your grade include disruptive behavior (e.g., engaging in side-conversations with others, ringing cell phones) or visibly obvious detachment from the class (e.g., reading outside material such as work for other classes, sleeping). Exceptionally strong class activity may raise your overall grade by one-third (e.g., if your final grade is a B, it may be raised to a B-plus), while poor class activity may lower your overall grade by at least one-third (e.g., from B to B-minus or lower). As a rule of thumb, expect to have your class grade lowered by one-third for each class missed beyond one week of absence.

Note that, as a matter of class policy, laptop computers and tablets cannot be used in class.  The reason for this is straightforward: the classroom is a place for community conversation, and for a variety of reasons, laptops and tablets hinder conversation. The only exception to this policy is class meetings where we are discussing one of the readings available on-line; on those days, you may, if you choose, bring a laptop or tablet solely for the purpose of accessing the reading during our discussion. If you believe you have a compelling reason to be exempt from this policy, please see me to discuss the matter.

If a situation of prolonged absence is unavoidable, please make sure to contact me about it. Be aware that I will normally request proper documentation should such a circumstance arise.


What follows is the plan for the semester as I see it now. Reading assignments should be completed before the class that they’re assigned. Note that this schedule is tentative; we may deviate from it as the semester progresses and class discussion takes on a life of its own. If changes are required, they will be announced in class.

If you have specific physical, psychiatric, or learning disabilities and require accommodations, please provide the appropriate documentation to me from the Learning Enrichment and Disability Services office early in the semester so that your learning needs may be effectively met. Be aware that I cannot make special accommodations without direction from the LEDS office.




Francis Bacon, The New Organon (1620), Preface & Aphorisms 1-46


Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), Meditations I & II


David Hume, “Of Miracles” (1748)


W.K. Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief” (1877)


William James, “The Will to Believe” (1896)


John Pollock, “A Brain in a Vat” (1986)



8/28:     Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief”

            James, “The Will to Believe”

8/30:     Clifford & James, continued

            PAPER 1 ASSIGNED

            Visit Writing Center @ 3:15


9/4:       Bacon, The New Organon


9/6:       Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy

            PAPER 1 DUE

9/11:     Pollock, “A Brain in a Vat”

            PAPER 2 ASSIGNED

9/13:     Hume, “Of Miracles”


Text: Abducted

9/18:     Introduction (1-10)

            Ch. 1, “How Do You Wind Up Studying Aliens?” (11-29)

            PAPER 2 DUE

9/20:     Ch. 2, “How Do People Come to Believe They Were Abducted by Aliens?” (30-53)

Ch. 3, “Why Do I Have Memories If It Didn’t Happen?” (54-80)

9/25:     Ch. 4, “Why Are Abduction Stories So Consistent?” (82-105)

Ch. 5, “Who Gets Abducted?” (106-136)

9/27:     Ch. 6, “If It Didn’t Happen, Why Would I Want to Believe It Did?” (137-155)

            PAPER 3 ASSIGNED


Text: Caveman Logic

10/2:     Introduction (11-15)

            Ch. 1, “The Road to Imperfection” (15-44)

10/4:     Ch. 2, “Cataloguing Irrationality” (45-82)

            PAPER 3 DUE

10/9:     Ch. 3, “Some Real-Life Examples” (83-150)

            Ch. 4, “Science to the Rescue” (151-176)


            Research discussion & library visit (3 PM)


10/23:   Ch. 5, “A Deeper Look at What’s Wrong” (177-220)

            Ch. 6, “Assigning the Blame” (221-264)

10/25:   Ch. 7, “Can It Be Fixed?” (265-289)

            OIE visit (3 PM)


Evolution & Faith

Texts: Living with Darwin

10/30:   Preface (ix-xiv)

            Ch. 1, “Disinterring Darwin” (1-24)


11/1:     Ch. 2, “Goodbye to Genesis” (25-42)

11/6:     Ch. 3, “One Tree of Life” (43-72)

            PAPER 4 ASSIGNED

11/8:     Ch. 4, “At the Mercy of Chance?” (73-116)

11/13:   Ch. 5, “A Mess of Pottage” (117-166)

Onward & Upward…


            TEAMS 1 & 2 REPORTS DUE


            TEAMS 3 & 4 REPORTS DUE

11/27:   Looking ahead: a roadmap for the next few years

11/29:   Class conclusions (all good things…)

            PAPER 4 DUE

            BELIEF LOGS DUE

12/4:     FYI Digital Storytelling Festival