Monday, December 15, 2008

Don't Blame Biology for Sleepy Students

Today's has an article called "Falling Asleep in Class? Blame Biology." I've got some "thoughts" about this.

1. This semester my "Philosophy of Religion" class is at the horrifically early hour of 9 AM. Some students arrive in class looking like they've just landed from a 24-hour flight from Bangkok. They are very, very tired. I'm not surprised. One of the reasons we chose to home-school our second son was because in the public school he was listening to a boring history or science lecture at 8 AM. Our home-schooling classes started later than that.

2. What's the deal about teens falling asleep in early classes? The argument runs this way:

a. Teens are not getting enough sleep.
b. This is due to the decisions of educators and the human biological need for sleep.
c. Therefore, teens are not to blame for their sleepiness.

The scientific explanation is this: "Sleepy teenagers may not be able to help it, researchers say. Blame it on the early school start time and their circadian rhythms: the mental and physical changes that occur in a day."

With this in mind I now digress into some philosophy.

3. The article's title, if taken seriously (let's do it for fun), implies students are not responsible for falling asleep in early classes. Biology makes them do it. Which means... they're not responsible?

4. I think the correct answer is: no and yes. "No" to their being responsible when it comes to their circadian rhythms. "No" to their being responsible if educators don't take these rhythms into account in scheduling. "Yes" to their being responsible if they choose to stay up all night and arrive at class with no sleep whatsoever.

5. If students don't have a choice at all then it seems that "they are not responsible." How could that be true? It could be true if all human behavior can be reduced to biological constraints. If all "choices" are ultimately explicable in terms of biology then free will is, at most, an epiphenomenon with no causal efficacy. Today's neuro-reductionists seem committed to such a position. At most, "making a choice" is like the rainbow that appears over Niagara Falls. It's beautiful, but in no way affects the physical falls. Neuro-reductionism claims there are no non-physical realities. All that is, is material. Things such as morality and making choices are sheer biological phenomena. If that's true then we are to blame biology for all human activity, including the choices educators make. Here's where things get very strange.

6. If that is true, then you and I, as we read about teen sleepiness, cannot "blame" biology or "feel compassion" towards sleepy students, since "blaming" and "feeling compassion" with a subjective recognition that "I am now feeling compassion" are examples of first-person subjective consciousness (qualia). Which brings us to "the hard problem of consciousness." Neuro-reductionists acknowledge it, and "trust" that it will one day be explicable. As for me and my brain, I'm with those who say it is, in principle, unsolvable. If it is to be ever solved it will require a paradigm shift to something we-know-not-what that will allow us to meaningfully "recognize" the solution and at the same time ascribe both the recognition and the solution and the ascribing ad infinitum to "biology." To me it will be something like proving I exist without assuming "I" exist to give such a proof.

7. I prefer to think that one can't really blame biology for sleepy students but rather blame either the choices students make or the choices educators make about when to hold classes or both. "Blaming" requires a personal agent who is the "blamee." A theory of why students are sleepy requires a theorizer.