image20180814boyazhiwojianwangyuankelly01Kelly Inglis is Assistant Professor of General Education Office and has been teaching at UIC for five years.
She is an American, but has been living in Hong Kong for over 20 years. She received her PhD in Philosophy
from the University of Hong Kong. Kelly first visited China in 1984, when she was an exchange student
at Hangzhou University (now part of Zhejiang University).

To study the liberal arts is to learn to think independently and to develop new perspectives with which to evaluate familiar experiences and established knowledge. It is through this study that we nurture the mindset needed to do new and original research.

Rethink research

A traditional education in science is aimed at informing students about what has already been learned and what theories have already been developed. To make contributions to a discipline, we need to understand the current state of the discipline. This is the foundation on which most new research is built and is what Thomas Kuhn calls “normal science”. However, sometimes to make progress, we must rethink our established theories and consider beginning again with an entirely new set of assumptions. This is what Thomas Kuhn calls a “paradigm shift”. Examples of paradigm shifts that have revolutionized our understanding of the world include the theory of evolution, the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.

To prepare students to be able to rethink conventional wisdom, it is essential to make students think for themselves and to have thoughts that they have never had before. That is one of the primary goals of the liberal arts and is exemplified in philosophy. Philosophy forces us to question everything that we normally take for granted. What is real? What is a person? Where did the world come from? What is time?

Students who are very practically-minded sometimes object to philosophical thought experiments because they seem to have nothing to do with real life. For example, when I discuss with my class what would happen if a woman travelled back time and tried to shoot her own grandmother, I am sometimes met with impatient indifference. They think that’s never going to happen, so why try to imagine it? I remind them, however, that when Einstein tried to imagine what it would be like to ride on a beam of light, the ideas which that absurd notion provoked eventually led him to develop the theory of relativity.


Think independently

It is not enough, of course, to simply think new thoughts or imagine strange scenarios. You must also critically examine these ideas, and to do that, you need to have the skills and the courage to think independently. One of the most important roles of a liberal arts education is to develop those skills and nurture that courage.

This is an on-going theme in the classes I teach. During my course “Conceptions of Nature from Aristotle to the 20th Century”, for example, I taught students about how different civilizations throughout history have regarded nature, and I began with Aristotle. After a few lectures, a student said to me, “I’m confused. Last time you told us that nature has a plan, and today you tell us that nature doesn’t have a plan!” I explained that I had not told the class that nature had a plan, but rather that Aristotle believed that nature had a plan. Later I told the class that according to evolutionary theory, nature does not have a plan. I was not telling him what to believe about nature, but rather introducing him to different views of nature that had been held by different people in different cultures. “So which one is right?” he persisted. I explained that it was not my job to tell him which view was right: that he needed to think for himself.

If you freely exercise your imagination but do not use critical thinking to analyze the consequences, then imagining riding on a beam of light might inspire you to write a comic book. However, if you use your understanding of physics and apply logic to your daydream, then imagining riding on a beam of light might inspire you to develop a new theory about the fundamental laws of the universe.

Question everything

The liberal arts in general, and philosophy in particular, prepare students to question established beliefs, consider ways in which things might be different, analyse the implications of those differences, and eventually synthesize the analysis of possibilities with the observation of realities in order to produce a deeper understanding of whatever subject the students apply themselves to.

A passive thinker can do normal science but to revolutionize our understanding of how the world works, it is necessary to be in the habit of questioning even the most obvious “truths” and to take seriously the consideration of the seemingly impossible.

As Einstein said in a letter to a friend in 1944, “This independence created by philosophical insight is – in my opinion – the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker of truth.”

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Written by Kelly Inglis
(republished from UIC magazine New Dimensions Issue 6)