Reasoning to the Best Conclusion


Students are asked to write down a weird or random fact about themselves on a sticky note and to pass it to the person to their left. Each student is then asked to brainstorm logically possible explanations of the fact he or she has received. Through this activity, students learn to distinguish the best or most likely explanations from all the logically possible ones.

Introduction: This activity was introduced during a week, around the middle of the semester, when students were learning about fine-tuning arguments for the existence of God. They were reading authors who argue either that God's existence is the best explanation of the existence of a universe finely-tuned for life or that it is something else, such as a multiverse. Some authors argue that a universe finely-tuned for life needs no explanation. The activity helped students latch onto the idea that we often think strange facts call for explanation and that we have intuitive ways of reasoning about which explanations are the best. It brought this somewhat mysterious style of argument to bear on their everyday lives so that they could see that they really could engage with the arguments of the philosophers we were discussing. It helped students see that philosophy is accessible to them—something they do every day and know how to do—and resulted in several more students engaging more deeply with arguments to the best explanation rather than just writing them off.

Goals: This activity aims to help students understand how arguments that reason to the best explanation work. Students often think these kinds of arguments don’t work, because there are so many other logical possibilities for explaining some fact or phenomenon. However, this activity helps them see that we engage in this kind of reasoning in everyday life when we learn facts about one another. We can intuitively distinguish a merely logically possible explanation from a good or more likely explanation. Arguments to the best explanation are relevant not only for philosophy of religion, with respect to explanations of the universe or morality, but also for all areas of philosophy and everyday reasoning.

Procedure- Before Class: The instructor brought in colorful sticky notes and thought of an example of her own along with several possible explanations of it.

Procedure- During Class:

  1. Students write down a weird or random fact about themselves on a sticky note.
  2. Students pass their sticky notes to the left but do not explain it to the other students.
  3. The instructor asks for volunteers to read the facts in their hands and to offer any logically possible explanation of it. She spurs their thoughts by offering wildly unlikely logically possible explanations. She repeats several times with different students' facts.
  4. For each of the facts discussed, the instructor asks students for a likely or good explanation of the fact. She asks students who respond why they think their explanation is better. She explains to students that this is a way of seeing that some explanations are better than others and that we have an intuitive sense of what makes certain explanations better and what kinds of facts call for explanations (as well as a fun way to get to know each other!).

The instructor suggests having fun with this activity and pitching it as a way for students to get to know one another. Her class had great laughs imagining wild logically possible explanations.

Post-Activity: The class discusses how insights from the activity apply to fine-tuning arguments.