Campus & Community

Thinking The World — Gould, Dershowitz, and Cox Cross Swords and Ideas in Class

7 min read
Harvey Cox (from left), Alan Dershowitz, and Stephen Jay Gould meet to talk about the course they are co-teaching in Hauser Hall. Photo by Kris Snibbe.

Three professors sit in a classroom talking. The idea is to highlight the ways that members of their respective disciplines think. And when those professors are Alan Dershowitz of the Law School, Harvey Cox of the Divinity School, and Stephen Jay Gould of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, this idea really works.

The course is called Thinking About Thinking, and its mission, says Dershowitz, is “to demonstrate to students that there isn’t one single way of thinking about issues.”

University educations have become too specialized, the professors say. By thinking about their own ways of thinking, and understanding how people in other fields think, students can become better citizens of both the academy and the wider world.

“We’re not in hermetically sealed, methodological chambers,” says Cox. “We can talk with each other, we can disagree, we can agree, but we’re not incommunicado.”

The course, broadly speaking, looks at sources of authority in each field, definitions of truth, and the processes by which lawyers, scientists, and theologians arrive at those truths. The professors debate a series of topics, each of which serves as a lens, clarifying their views. By the end of the semester, they’ll have touched on such themes as justice, free will, dissent, approaches to classification, causality and probability, and views of the future.

During the first class, students watch a brief video about the international black market for human organs. Women in India lift their bright saris to show scars across their torsos, from where they had donated kidneys. Back in America, the diseased heart of an American heart-transplant patient pulses in a silver bowl.

“Is it wrong for someone to sell an organ?” Cox asks. Some students raise their hand in assent. “How many of you feel it’s okay?” Other students raise their hand. Cox then asks students to turn to people who had disagreed with them and discuss their relative positions. A roar builds in the room, the sound of several hundred students talking.

“Now think about the way you’re thinking,” Cox says. “And is there a difference between how you think inside, and how you present your argument externally?”

Cox, an ordained minister, offers the theologian’s perspective.

He contrasts the “Hellenistic” and “Hebraic” views of the human body. The former view holds that the soul is imprisoned in the body, implying a separation between the two. The Hebraic view sees body and spirit as unitary, rendering something like organ removal problematic.

Gould takes the floor next. Whereas Cox was stately and well-organized, Gould is like a bad boy, rumpled and extemporaneous, running his hand through the hair that falls over his forehead. Quoting variously from Ben Franklin and Psalms, Gould veers away from the moral conundrum, instead noting the historical specificity of this issue. Scientifically speaking, the ability to remove someone’s organ and still have the person live wasn’t possible until fairly late in human history. He stands firm on this difference between his realm and Cox’s: “Science can create the substrate of a moral dilemma, but it can’t resolve that dilemma,” Gould says.

Finally, Dershowitz swings into action. He discourses on the legal history of organ transplants, revealing the diabolical cleverness of legal argumentation. In 1954, a child, with his parents’ blessing, wished to donate a kidney to his ailing twin. Massachusetts law forbade parents from consenting to any surgery that was not “in the medical interest” of the child, thereby preventing the twin from donating his organ.

Gould interjects, beaming, “There’s a good Darwinian answer to that, because they’re clones.”

Dershowitz continues. A lawyer successfully argued that surgery was in the interest of the donating twin; if the twin were prevented from donating, he would spend a lifetime suffering from regret.

The ensuing dialogue between Dershowitz and a student volunteer dazzles the class. Dershowitz piles extenuating circumstance upon extenuating circumstance, pressuring the student to continue to defend her belief that organ sale was “wrong.”

It’s for your 68-year old father who’s dying, Dershowitz says. Your father specifically said, before he went into a coma, that he prayed for an organ to come to him from the black market. The next guy on the list to receive the organ is the head of the Mafia. The money your father pays for this kidney will enable the seller to purchase a heart for his dying father. And on and on.

Dershowitz rests his case. The class bursts into applause.

Three different viewpoints, three different teaching styles. Both in their content and their pedagogical styles, the professors convey information about how people think in law, science, and religion.

“I teach differently from the others; I use the Socratic method, whereas Steve Gould gives publishable lectures which don’t even need a comma changed to appear in a literary magazine,” says Dershowitz. “Bob Nozick [who co-taught the class until Cox took his place this year] used to speculate with himself in class, turn ideas over in his head. I think each of us is a product of our backgrounds in the way we teach, so we illustrate ways of thinking, as well as talk about it.”

The course is sometimes dubbed Talking About Talking, or Egos, Gould jokes. There’s a lot of joking in class, as well as some genuinely contentious interplay between the three professors and the students.

Dershowitz to Cox, during the second class: “You abolish the distinction between religion and philosophy. You’ve made Thomas Aquinas Nietzsche, Huxley Falwell. There are no boundaries. And in life we need boundaries.”

“Lawyers love to make distinctions and sometimes theologians are born to blur them,” Cox replies.

Cox to students handing in index cards for the course lottery: “If you’re in the Divinity School, you can pray that you get in.” The course is one-quarter Divinity School students, one-quarter Law School students, and half students from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Gould, puckishly: “But it won’t help!”

For all their sparring, the professors model a genuine appreciation of, and learning from, each other’s disciplines.

“Lawyers aren’t particularly good at probabilistic thinking and thinking within uncertainty, and science is very good at that,” Dershowitz says. “Theology presents some absolutes, but presents a different source of authority than lawyers and scientists. So we each benefit from each other’s perspective.

“I think my thinking has at once sharpened and also gotten a little fuzzier. Fuzzy thinking is sometimes a virtue.”

Cox, for all his good-humored baiting of Dershowitz, says, “I think that ethical- and meaning- and value-oriented traditions like the ones we have in religion eventually have to be encoded and enforced and applied and interpreted, so we do have legal systems all over the world. It requires a kind of thinking which is very precise and careful and can make very accurate distinctions between this case and that case.”

“On the one hand we can criticize lawyers for their picayune nitpicking, but I’ve come to understand how important some of that is.”

Of Gould, Cox says, “I agree with Gould that science cannot generate the answer to value questions. It can tell you how to do an organ transplant, but it can’t tell you whether the purchase and sale of an organ is ethical. It can tell you how to make a nuclear bomb, but it doesn’t have a word to say about whether to use it or not. Gould is critical of scientists who illegitimately extend the claims of science into ethical and meaning realms. He thinks that is really the realm of religious tradition and discourse, and we need both.”

Gould most succinctly expresses the value of thinking about other people’s ways of thinking.

“‘All art is limitation,’” he said, quoting G.K. Chesterton. “‘The essence of any picture is the frame.’”