Philosophy teacher writes a book from his answers to anonymous questions

Floris van den Berg in zijn werkkamer waar hij zijn vragen van studenten beantwoord. Foto: Floris van den Berg

Philosopher of science and sustainability Floris van den Berg has some outspoken opinions. He wrote several books opinion articles about veganism, sustainability, and atheism. He calls himself a diehard atheist, an abolitionist – someone who is against literally every form of instrumental use of animals – and a presentist – someone who acknowledges the discrimination of future generations by present decisions and behavior. In his online Bachelor of Philosophy lectures, he concludes each lecture with the question ‘Ask me anything' on which students can anonymously ask a question. He then answers these questions in writing. So he created a collection of Ask me anythings. Van den Berg wants to develop this into a book.

How did ‘Ask me anything’ start?
“When we started lecturing online at the start of the Corona crisis, I was looking for new methods to make the lectures more interactive. The Mentimeter seemed interesting, because it’s anonymous. I started every lecture with this. I could ask fun questions to break the ice, or provoking questions. I also made quizzes to examine the understanding of the previous lectures. And every time I ended with: ‘Ask me anything’. The question was meant as a follow-up on the previous lecture, but soon it expanded.

“I had a hundred students, many of whom were international students, and they could ask me an unlimited amount of questions. Sometimes I gave a quick response, sometimes I told them I had to look something up. Then I’d put the answers on Blackboard. I did it after every lecture, so the document with questions and answers gradually expanded.”

Ask me anything, a student question:
What matters more: to be absolutely right or to be absolutely convincing?
This question is an example of a false dilemma fallacy. It is like asking someone: would you rather have your leg, or your arm amputated? When you are absolutely right, but fail to convince people, that is frustrating. Think of a math teacher who doesn’t succeed in instilling some basic numeracy in her or his pupils. Or a human rights’ activist in failing to convince the government of Saudi Arabia to stop discriminating against women, homosexuals, apostates, atheists et cetera. On the other hand, when you are absolutely convincing for the wrong cause it can be quite dangerous. Hitler was convincing large crowds of his dangerous ideas. Another example of this danger are charismatic sect leaders who put a spell on their devotees.

Asking questions seems to me the core of philosophy, and regarding your outspoken ideas they also seem to be the core of the way you live. Was it meant to teach students what a question is?
‘‘Ask me anything’ clearly shows what students think philosophy is, and also what they’re up to personally. Some questions had philosophical topics, allowing me to explain all kinds of concepts. Most questions, however, had little to do with the course.

“That was OK, because I could use this opportunity to talk about different kinds of questions. Philosophical knowledge can help you to analyse what a well-advised question is. ‘What came before the Big Bang?’ basically is a physical question. But you can ask yourself whether it is a useful question. ‘What is the weight of red?’ is semantically a good question, but it doesn’t mean anything.

“If it is a normative question, you have to ask yourself: do I agree with the answer? If not, why? You wouldn’t do this in a typical lecture, but ‘Ask me anything’ gave me the opportunity.”

How personal can it get when you answer these questions?
“In my lectures, I don’t need to talk about my personal views on, for instance, veganism or faith. But if they ask me, I’ll give them an honest response. In my answers, I’m not politically correct. I’m a vegan, I’m a member of Partij van de Dieren (political Party for the Animals in parliament) and I’m a critic of religion. I’m very honest about this.

“Although it grinded, I noticed that they liked to ask a lot of personal questions: about my dogs, for instance, and what I’ve studied. Because I have a strong opinion, they want to know how I raise my children and whether I indoctrinate them as atheists or vegans. I also received a lot of personal questions about sustainability: do you own a car, do you fly sometimes?”

Ask me anything, a student question:
What is your opinion about drugs?
Personally, I don't use drugs (including alcohol or tobacco), because I want to keep control of myself and I care about my health. When people do well-informed things that can harm them, it is their personal choice, as long as they don't harm others. With a lot of drugs, there is a lot of damage to others. Think of the drug-related violence in the world. Or the chemical waste from illegal drug labs in the Netherlands. Eating meat is more immoral than using drugs. Eating meat is by definition murder - the body is on your plate. (If you use homegrown weed, there doesn't seem to be any damage. Not all drugs cause damage). And the meat industry has a huge negative impact on the environment.

‘Ask me anything’ challenges students to (learn to) ask good, personal, critical, curious questions. Isn’t that the right way to show that you can sharpen your philosophical vision through questions?
“Absolutely. But students think the answers to some questions are dogmatic… It may seem that way, but sometimes it’s simply the answer to a question. You may not like that answer. They sometimes have an opinion about my answers to different questions, which gives way for a more meaningful discussion.”

How did the students react to your answers?
“Some students said: “You’re writing propaganda now, you’re influencing!” But if that’s what you ask, that’s what you get. This is an introductory course in philosophy. It’s nice when they understand the names and concepts, but the primary goal for students is to think critical and provide decent arguments for their own opinions, to be able to spot inconsistencies and to be able to look back on their own choices, whether that’s eating meat or believing in God. I want to teach them this self-reflection.

“This sometimes gives tensions. At the start of the course I warn them: look out, it’s possible that you’ve changed at the end of the course. If you don’t want that, you shouldn’t do this. During the course, the debate can get heated. Then I say to them: remember?, I’ve warned you!”

That’s of course what a good course should do. But if you can give it to people, during a course or in the ‘Ask me anything’-questions, you should also collect.
“In ‘Ask me anything’ I’m the one who receives. That’s why it’s a good thing it is anonymous: I offend nobody when I say something ugly to anonymous students. As a teacher, I wouldn’t say such things to students personally. As a teacher, I have an educative, pedagogical role. When it’s anonymous, I think you can do this, because this student is still able to communicate with me.”

Ask me anything, a student question:
But do you like plants? You eat them too.
Good and smart move! (Good rhetoric!) I do like plants, but I eat them too. However, plants can’t suffer, and many animals can. Also, it is common practice to say, ‘I love animals!’ and post pictures of cute animals on social media. It is not so common to do the same with plants. I use the juxtaposition of liking-eating to point out an emotional dissonance. But the analogy cannot be extended to plants. In the end, as we discussed, it is not only about using them, but also about harming them. Plants do not feel pain and suffer as animals do. Even if plants could suffer, their suffering will be quite different from the suffering of sentient beings who have a central nervous system.

Is this only the case in ‘Ask me anything’?
“During a lecture I talked about rape. A student who had suffered such a traumatic experience thought I shouldn’t say anything about it. But I will not be censored, how painful this must be for some people. Science is impersonal, while such a horrible event is indeed very personal.”

Were there questions that crossed the line for you?
“Some questions were about Black Lives Matter, and I responded to those. But to some answers, students wrote: ‘all cops are bastards’. That made me angry: this is too much of an abstraction. Another time I read a call for violence: ‘kill the bastards’, or something like that. I’m a liberal, so I think you’re allowed to say anything you like, except for violence or a call for violence. I made that very clear.”

Ask me anything, a student question:
Why are we discussing so many male philosophers? Are there just fewer female philosophers?
Philosophy goes a long way back and women have for a long time been excluded from education. It is only recently that women have been included in higher education. The number of women in philosophy has been very low historically as a result of this exclusion. Even nowadays, the number of men outnumbers the number of female philosophers by far.

‘Ask me anything’ will be published as a book.
“At the end of the course I had quite a collection of questions and answers. Then I thought: if this is going to be a book, it should be done right. I was wondering whether I should edit the answers, but I decided to leave them unedited.

“I think these questions are interesting for a book because it shows in an accessible and readable way what philosophizing is. Moreover, it encourages self-reflection. There are controversial questions and answers among them that challenge you to take (or reconsider) your own standpoint.

“I asked some people around me to read the manuscript. I don’t want this to be my dismissal. I mean: you have to be careful nowadays. The same counts for this interview. In the old days, an interview wasn’t a problem at all, but if you say something political incorrect these days… that really is a problem. Sometimes you really have to be careful what you say.’

Do you have other plans?
“Next year I’m going to teach a master’s course. I’m going to introduce ‘Ask me anything’ there as well. I’m very curious what kind of questions they’re going to ask. Will the questions be more difficult, different? They choose the course, it’s not mandatory, so perhaps they’ll experience it very differently.”