I like the phrase, “Pave a Path” for thinking about teaching, and when it comes time to talk about metaphysics, there’s a particular discussion that allows students to see a connection between what we’re doing in the classroom and what happens once they walk out of it.
So to help my students connect with metaphysics, I’ve found it helps to talk about….
I define metaphysics as the study of existence (both the nature of existence and what things exist). And on the first day of class, for example, the metaphysics question I use:
“Could a person (say, Hank) be uploaded to the internet?”
We can’t just assume that Hank is the same person he was yesterday (as we normally do when he looks and acts similarly). So what would it take to convince us that it’s really Hank there in the internet?
Students talk about mimicking brain structure, and eventually get around to discussing the necessity of memory and personality to being the same person. Students enjoy it, and it gets their metaphysical feet wet.
2. Soul Mates!
But what it doesn’t do is show them how discussions of existence might be relevant to their lives.* That’s a job for Soul Mates: that one and only person who is uniquely suited to be your partner in life. Their soul is a match for your soul. The metaphysical question: do Soul Mates exist?
As is often the case with metaphysical questions, students haven’t considered it, but I normally leave my comments brief: that believing in Soul Mates can undermine what could have otherwise been successful relationships.
If they believe in Soul Mates, maybe Diane shouldn’t stick with Sam. If they don’t, why are they being so hard on Elaine? And students come to realize that their answer to this question can have a real effect on how they deal with relationships and the advice they give (and based on my last walk down the hallway, there’s a LOT of relationship advice passing between undergrads).
3. From Metaphysical Discussions straight to the Hallways
But whether they decide there are good reasons to believe in Soul Mates or good reasons NOT to believe in Soul Mates, having thought about it and come to a considered view can help them shape their relationships and their advice to others. In short, the Soul Mates discussion paves a path that allows students to see a connection between the philosophical process of examining life critically and what they do in the hallways outside the classroom: they can see metaphysics as relevant. And to me that’s the first step.
*-As an aside, I will sometimes reference the importance of a discussion about the necessity of memory to personhood to a disease like Alzheimer’s, but generally feel that’s a little too heavy for the first day. In any case, easing them into the ramification of philosophy with the Soul Mates discussion really seems to do the trick.