Science and Morality

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:50 am

P Z Myers is almost always worth reading. I disagree with him on many things, and agree on many more, but a blog is not worth reading only based on agreement – no doubt many who read my blog also disagree with me on some things. A blog is worth reading, in my opinion, for the ways in which it (a) points us to things that we find interesting but might not have discovered on our own and/or (b) works through ideas in a thoughtful, interesting way.

I’ve talked before about why I think Sam Harris’ claim that morality can be founded in science is a mistake, and could talk more about that, but this post by P Z does a great job, using an illustration from history:


The short-sighted lesson would be ‘oh, those silly 19th century folk who thought eugenics was a Good Thing’. The longer-sighted one is, I think, ‘Hmm, I wonder what things we silly 21st century folk remain blind to?’

The moral (heh) is that we must seek our morality somewhere other than in science. Where that is has been an on-going theme for me, some of it represented here and some in other places. To be continued…


Rifat Afeef in the Maldives – Deductive Science

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:50 pm

I’ve received a couple of unsolicited emails from Rifat Ateef, who claims to have identified serious problems in international education and to be able to offer a solution that will transform education and the social sciences.

Rifat’s blog is here and contains a number of writings outlining these ideas.


I’m still reading them myself. The main contention seems to be that we have focused on induction – building up general laws from a large number of examples – rather than deduction – generating specific examples from general laws.

Thing is, we need to deduce from something. The general laws must exist without being empirically induced from our experiences.

I’m interested to see where Rifat goes with the ideas…


What Am I?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:03 am

I mentioned to some friends on Facebook that the label ‘Christian’ doesn’t really fit me well these days. People tend to assume I’m a Christian when I say I believe in God, and to then interpret what I say from that perspective, which means they tend to miss what I’m really trying to say.

My friend James asked ‘So what are you?’, and here’s my best attempt at a reply:

Thanks for the question, James. Unfortunately the answer is far from simple. I’ll give it my best shot, though, because I know my vagueness is a source of frustration for many people.

I believe in God: a god who is literally infinite. God contains the universe, and indeed the multiverse, rather than the other way around. Our universe is a small local phenomenon within God, because it is finite within infinity.

God is also omnipresent and omniscient: everywhere, all at once, and knows everything, all at once: not through specific looking and attention but in the eternal present.

Being infinite, God contains all possibilities of good and evil, male and female, hot and cold, light and dark, large and small, from the quantum level of quarks and photons to… the multiverse.

Being infinite, any knowledge of God, no matter how large, is finite divided by infinite = zero. No-one knows anything fundamental about God (including me), and being infinite, anything we claim to know, God also embodies the direct negation of.

Given that, as well to call me a Buddhist or Muslim or Zoroastrian or… whatever any person trying to come to grips with the universe has ever believed: and its negation.

Calling me a Christian, when I very explicitly say that God embodies the negation of everything Christian, just seems perverse.

Call me a ‘quantum theist’ if any label be required, but that includes the possibility of ‘classical theist’ and no doubt many other possibilities that our fledgling quantum physics, less than a century old in a 14 billion year old universe, has never even contemplated.


If you could, would you?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:20 am

Hack your mind, that is. http://www.salon.com/books/neuroscience/index.html?story=/news/david_sirota/2011/05/31/memory_mechanics_science_fiction

I’m ambivalent about the whole thing. My worst memories are pretty mild… just embarrassments and stupid things I did. Without a ‘do-over’ that would change the memories of other people or, say, the financial consequences in the real world, just getting rid of the memories wouldn’t do me much good.

For those with truly horrible memories, it might be more tempting… but as the linked story explores, what if those are an essential part of what makes you, you? Would you be willing to become a different person in order to get rid of those memories? And how would that effect your relationships?

Lots to think about, that goes right to the core of who we are.


Truth and the Postmodernist

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:42 am

I’ve talked about myself as a postmodernist here, claiming that all grand narratives (meaning frameworks) can be deconstructed in terms of their internal logic, and therefore truths are contingent, situated in time and place and culture, rather than absolute. (Or, slightly more carefully, that if absolute truths exist we have no direct access to them.)

And yet… it really annoys me when people don’t tell the truth!

Discussions around climate change recently on a forum. (Yeah, I know…)

One person claimed repeatedly that the world is cooling, not warming, and is cooler now than it was in 1979.

My response:

temperature graph

(I’d already addressed this blatant lie here)

Another posted a scurrilous text floating around the web that the Iceland volcano negated all carbon dioxide reduction efforts so far, and that the Mt Pinatubo eruption released more carbon dioxide than all human activities ever.

On the second point I noted that Mt Pinatubo released 43 million tonnes of CO2 while human activities release 27 billion tonnes every year. On the wonderfully named Eyjafjallajoekull volcano, this link shows that its net result was a *reduction* in emissions: http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/2010/planes-or-volcano/

Of course, none of the ‘skeptics’ (and ain’t *that* a misnomer!) has taken a step back and said “Oh, apparently I have been misinformed…” They’ve just ignored the refutation and moved on to reporting the next lie…

My point here is not to rant about dishonest people, or to make points about climate change, but to explore my own philosophical positions.

On the one hand, I’m a convinced postmodernist. On the other, the truth matters to me.

Perhaps (and I know this is a pretty superficial analysis) part of the truth is encoded in the statement: “You’re entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts.” There could be different units and different ways of measuring, but no grand narrative (with the possible exception of insanity or mendacity) can make Mt Pinatubo’s emissions exceed those of human activity. The universe insists on some things…


Incorrigibility1 of Religious Beliefs

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:55 pm

I’ve been participating in a looong (over 500 posts) discussion2 at a Seventh-day Adventist forum I sometimes frequent about the Bible’s attitude to moderate consumption of alcohol:


This blog post is not about that issue per se, but the bone of contention there was my claim that the Bible condemns drunkenness but is silent on moderate use. If you’re interested, the thread is both exhaustive and exhausting. 😉

But at the end, a forum denizen posted the following:

The Bible is plain on these things, just as it is on the Sabbath and the state of the dead, yet there are people who still want more evidence and even certain kinds of evidence, while the evidence of how God thinks about those things is staring them in the face.

Here are some verses that tell us the reason that some people decide one thing and some decide another. It is not because of worldly wisdom or information or education. It has everything to do with attitude, relationship with Christ, and dependence on the Holy Spirit:

John 7:17 If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.

Jude 1:20 But you, beloved, build yourselves up in your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit;

John 8:31-32 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, [32] and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

John 8:47 Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.

1 John 4:6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

John 10:26-27 …but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. [27] My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.

Daniel 12:10 Many shall purify themselves and make themselves white and be refined, but the wicked shall act wickedly. And none of the wicked shall understand, but those who are wise shall understand.

So, paraphrased: “If you disagree with my interpretation of the Bible, it’s because I’m on God’s side and you’re not.”

Now, leave aside the fact that Seventh-day Adventists are out of step with many other Christians on the state of the dead and almost all other Christians on the Sabbath, so the implication is that the vast majority of Christians are not actually on God’s side.

Leave aside, too, the sheer breath-taking arrogance this attitude displays – and here I refer as much to the quoted verses themselves as to the poster, who will probably read this blog post.

My point is simpler than that: it’s that this view makes all the other views a person holds incorrigible. They cannot be challenged by other people to change their beliefs even on the basis of Scripture, because they have convinced themselves that their personal, existing interpretation of Scripture is the only one sanctioned by God, and that all the others are… not of God. (And, in their binary worldview, there’s only one other place it can be from…)

Such a faith cannot grow, since there is no source that can challenge existing views. It is inherently stagnant.

As always, counterpoints and other views on the issue are sought…

(And finally, a return: I used to footnote blog posts extensively in the past, but haven’t been doing it as often lately.)

  1. ‘Incorrigible’ is sometimes thought of as meaning ‘naughty’, but it basically means ‘uncorrectable’: unable to be corrected. Someone who is consistently naughty and whose behaviour can’t be corrected is incorrigible. But one could also be incorrigibly happy, positive or friendly – it’s not inherently a negative term.
  2. Yes, I’m a bit of a masochist and probably a fool.


A Little Philosophy Around God, morality and the Bible

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:33 am

I have little time for ‘debunkings’ of flawed Christian arguments, although the arguments themselves annoy me: I just feel the effort is usually wasted, because everyone involved is already convinced in one direction or another, so nothing changes.

More than that, many such efforts seem to me to be unsophisticated, and to fall into many of the same fallacies and oversimplifications that they are railing against. I’d rather put time and energy into life.

Sometimes, though, someone does some careful work on the topic that I find interesting and enjoyable. I think (as a postmodernist) that all such efforts can be deconstructed in terms of their own internal logic, in the same way as the things they’re deconstructing, but it’s still interesting to talk/think about.

Here’s a short discussion by ‘Fedora’. Although it’s the end of the sequence, it’s probably a good place to start: http://urbanphilosophy.net/philosophy/trouble-in-paradise-on-biblical-morals/

Here are a couple of the earlier pieces mentioned in that piece: http://urbanphilosophy.net/religion/objective-morality-and-the-bible/, http://urbanphilosophy.net/religion/response-to-fedora-on-objective-morality-and-the-bible/, http://urbanphilosophy.net/religion/a-response-to-payton/.

Have fun, kids!


A salutary question

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:34 pm

Just something that occurred to me on the ride from the St Lucia to the Ipswich campus today (after almost a week of heavy rain, it was magic to be back in the bike in a big sunny afternoon):

If you had the power to force everyone in your city to live the way you live, would you?

I think it’s a simple question that has a lot of dimensions. I don’t have any ulterior motive, and it’s not about judging you. I’ll reveal my answer here quite soon and the reasoning behind it.


Kuhn, Popper, Pirsig, Jesus and addiction to novelty

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:06 pm

I’ve been reading Steve Fuller’s ‘Kuhn vs Popper’ over the past few days. He uses a debate between Thomas Kuhn (author of ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’) and Sir Karl Popper (author of ‘The Logic of Scientific Discovery, among other things) in London in 1965 as a way to look at the legacies within the philosophy of science of both men, and to claim that they have largely both been misunderstood. It’s a very interesting book – at least for us philosophy-of-science geeks.

I got to thinking about Kuhn’s view, in which long periods of ‘normal science’ in which scientists all work in quite conservatives ways within a particular paradigm are interrupted by short and quite dramatic ‘scientific revolutions’ (his ‘paradigm case’ is the Copernican revolution when the sun replaced the earth as centre of the solar system). In my mind it linked up with Robert Pirsig’s notions of static quality and Dynamic Quality (his capitalisation). Pirsig suggests that society proceeds with long periods of quite conservative thinking and practice interspersed with the actions of radical individuals whose actions possess Dynamic Quality.

In an example that particularly caught my attention (and that I may have talked about here before – heh, yes, 6 years ago) he says Jesus is an example of such a person. The Judeo-Christian line of faith had become stultified and Jesus shook it up. The church since then has largely been about maintaining those new insights, though in the process it has also become about maintaining the institutional power of the church. I guess it could be argued that Luther and perhaps Aquinas were similar radicals who shook things up – maybe even Paul, although probably he was within the same fluid period as Jesus though in slightly different directions.

Pirsig argues that both tendencies are necessary – and so does Kuhn. Dynamic Quality creates progress and static quality ‘ratchets’ it so that it is not lost and society moves forward. Scientific revolutions create progress, but science can’t operate effectively in an environment of constant revolution – normal science makes huge amounts of progress possible.

I suspect, since it is both more politically volatile and also something more people will feel qualified to comment on, that the role of Jesus and the church might dominate the discussion, but I hope people will also focus on my main point, which is coming:

It makes me wonder whether the fact that change has adopted such a rapid pace during the past couple of decades has blinded us to this necessary balance. Whether we’re addicted to novelty, to revolution, to Dynamic Change. And whether, given that, we might actually be holding back our potential in the very desire to accelerate it. A powerful engine is a heap of fun, but it’s fairly short-lived (pun intended) fun without great brakes.

I know – hard to believe it’s me calling for what sounds suspiciously like conservatism. On the other hand, calling for balance is pretty much ‘what I do’.

There’s a whole other strand of thinking about how Popper’s approach is actually much more radical than it is given credit for, and about different notions of progress under Popper’s ‘falsificationist’ view of the nature of science, but maybe that’s a discussion for another day.


Ethics in School 2

Filed under: — Bravus @ 3:47 pm

A couple of weeks ago I wrote something about the trial of an ethics course in NSW schools: http://www.bravus.com.au/blog/?p=1763

My friend Glenn wrote this on Facebook today:

Here’s a dead easy way to have your say on the NSW Ethics Classes. Just visit this page, plug in your contact details and a letter will be sent to a variety of NSW politicians, including Premier Kristina Keneally and Education Minister Verity Firth.


You don’t have to be a NSW resident to write. You can just send the email supplied, or you can add your own thoughts.

It really couldn’t be easier and takes just a minute.

A similar scheme by the Sydney Anglicans has sent over 2000 emails to NSW politicians. We need to make our voices heard. Please take a moment to send an email from this site and pass on the link through your Facebook, Twitter and other networks.

I tweaked the offered template letter a bit to reflect my own situation – I’d encourage doing that because it’s more effective than hundreds of absolutely identical messages. Give it a go if you’re interested. Here’s what I wrote:

Good morning Ms Firth

I am an Australian parent, teacher and teacher educator who has published book chapters on education for citizenship and has a strong interest in the ways in which our students become engaged, informed citizens.

I support the the trial of ethics classes in public schools for the following reasons.

1. The trial of ethics classes in NSW public schools is a welcome step that provides parents and students an alternative for those students who do not attend special religious education.

2. The trial of ethics classes based on the St James Ethics Centre program provides an opportunity for students to consider ethical questions without having to profess a particular theological worldview

3. The teaching of ethics is a valuable addition to NSW public schools that recognises the diversity of our state and contributes to the public good.

The value gained from participating in this program will extend well beyond the issues addressed: students who develop skills in moral reasoning and argument from evidence will develop significantly improved higher order thinking in *all* their learning areas.

Warm regards,

Dr David Geelan
47 Regency Crescent, Moggill QLD 4070


David in the Middle

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:29 am

I say fairly often to people with whom I’m having a discussion “hey, you know I also argue with the people on the opposite side of this issue, right?” It’s true – I challenge evolutionists and creationists, Christians and atheists, left-wingers and right-wingers, and so on. I don’t think people often believe me, though.

Here’s some evidence:

Arguing with atheists about atheism and cognitive dissonance (you may have to be logged in to Facebook to read that discussion, not sure)

Arguing with Christians about the nature of God and issues of Scriptural interpretation (you’re coming in at page 19 of a looong thread, and the most interesting bits are in the next couple of pages of discussion)

So, I hope those of my friends with whom I argue, and who tend to place me in the opposite camp from them on the basis of that, will recognise that I’m actually in no camp, at least not firmly and in any way I want to argue to defend.

I don’t think I do it just to be a gadfly, or because I’m naturally contrary, or that I’m just arguing for the sake of argument. I think it’s because I’m on about what Jesus described as the ‘weighter matters’: justice, mercy and faith1. A little clarity, consistency and coherence in argument doesn’t go astray either…

  1. And no, by ‘faith’ I do not mean ‘belief in the absence of evidence, or for which evidence is actually considered a bad thing’! I mean something like ‘good faith’ or ‘faithfulness’ (in the Greyfriars Bobby sense more than the not-Tiger-Woods sense)


Theism, Atheism and Morality

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:04 am

It keeps on coming up in the wide variety of web discussion forums I read, as well as in face-to-face conversations: what is the relationship of religion and morality? For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll stick to Christian religion, since that is most often the context, it’s the context I know best and the discussion will get too unwieldy if I try to take on all religions. By ‘atheism’ I mean disbelief in any deity who acts as a supernatural guarantor of morality – that could include deism, I guess, and even some other sorts of gods. Often the pointy end of the argument is the existence of an afterlife where wrongs are righted and balance is restored – good that fails to be rewarded in this life and evil that fails to be punished is redressed there.

Christians tend to claim that, in the absence of God as a divine source and guarantor of morality, life is meaningless, good and evil are meaningless, and we may as well be absolute nihilists and hedonists who abuse others for our own pleasure. Let’s leave aside the slight suspicion that this simply reflects what they would really like to do, but the fear of God keeps them from, and realise that most of their arguments seem to come from the ‘fear of punishment/hope of reward’ level of moral reasoning. To be fair, though, some come from other levels, but it seems to be from the conviction that a moral code cannot be truly universal without a superhuman source.

They also tend to claim that all morality in the world has its source in Judeo-Christian influences in law and society – that when atheists act morally it’s through social pressure or a social code, but that it was Christianity that created that kind of society in the first place. That argument might be sustainable in Western countries such as the US that grew out of a Christian tradition, but it’s pretty hard to sustain with a broader view of the world and countries like China and India that are not at all founded in that tradition.

Anyway, as I have probably mentioned before, I find Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral reasoning to be an invaluable tool for thinking about these kind of questions. I thought it might be worthwhile to spend a little time looking at Kohlberg’s stages (or, as I tend to think of them, categories, since I’m less convinced by the notion of linear, unidirectional progress through them in a particular order) in the light of theism and atheism.

Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)
1. Obedience and punishment orientation (How can I avoid punishment?)
2. Self-interest orientation (What’s in it for me?)

This is pretty easy to explain from a theist orientation: God, the judgement and afterlife punish the wicked and reward the virtuous, so ‘you’d better be good for goodness sake’. From an atheist perspective, it becomes about the here-and-now consequences, both positive and negative, of our actions: doing bad things can lead to arrest or fines from the authorities, divorce from our partners, ostracism from our friends and so on. Doing good things can lead to opportunities, positive rewards, esteem and so on. The punishments and rewards are on a different scale, but they’re definitely there.

Level 2 (Conventional)
3. Interpersonal accord and conformity (Social norms) (The good boy/good girl attitude)
4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation (Law and order morality)

From a theistic perspective, Stage 3, interpersonal conformity, is redefined somewhat. It’s not society’s approval (‘good boy, good girl’) that is being sought, but God’s. What is praiseworthy is largely defined by the Bible, and may even be in conflict with what the rest of society thinks (society is usually seen as corrupt anyway). Stage 4 is where many Christians, particularly those of a more fundamentalist1 stripe, tend to focus. The Ten Commandments is one very clear set of rules by which to live life, and of course the Bible also has other rules, or rules can be created based on it.

A rule-keeping morality is characterised by statements about whether particular conduct is within the rules, and also with obsessive consideration of the letter and spirit of the law. I grew up in a Seventh-day Adventist household, so the Fourth Commandment, the one about keeping the Sabbath holy, was emphasised. In that place and time it was not appropriate to go swimming on the Sabbath (doing one’s own pleasure), but if you went on a nature walk along the beach it was OK to take off your shoes and paddle in the water… And so on.

For an atheist, Stage 3 is about approval from the rest of society – or from a subgroup. Outlaw bikers might like to think they are the ultimate rebels and need no-one’s approval (sometimes actively seeking the disapproval of mainstream society), yet of course they do seek the approval of others within their own subculture. Everyone likes to be liked, and seen as a ‘good bloke’ or ‘good woman’, and seeking this kind of approval tends to reinforce moral behaviour, with the “what will people think?” level of reasoning. Stage 4 tends to get transferred to other kinds of laws, particularly the laws of the land. This is the level of moral reasoning of the people who get very offended if someone exceeds the speed limit – not at all because of the threat of danger to that person or others, but specifically because the person is breaking the law. The same applies to all other laws: moral behaviour is defined by legal behaviour. The notion that a law can be immoral might be accepted in theory, but the response will usually be ‘but it’s the law!’

Level 3 (Post-Conventional)
5. Social contract orientation
6. Universal ethical principles (Principled conscience)

Maybe some of you can correct me, but I’m not sure Stage 5 is understandable at all from a theistic perspective. A social contract takes the form “I won’t steal from you and you won’t steal from me: and if we both abide by the contract then both of us will be able to keep our stuff safe”. I guess a theist might argue that God’s laws encode the same kinds of principles as a social contract: the Ten Commandments do a decent job of encoding most of the common social contract principles. But that’s not quite the same level of moral reasoning, since the reason for keeping the Ten Commandments is not the social contract, it’s ‘because God said so’. (Which boils down to either Stage 4 law-keeping or Stage 1 punishment avoidance.)

For an atheist, Stage 5 is kind of the default (for someone who has developed in their moral reasoning beyond the earlier stages): we do things and avoid doing things largely on the basis of the Golden Rule (even if we don’t ascribe that to Jesus) – “would I want it to be done to me?” It resides in empathy and an ability to imagine consequences: at Stage 5 a person avoids drinking and driving, for example, not because it’s illegal, but because they can imagine what it would feel like to kill someone in an accident that was their fault.

Stage 6 is probably in many ways the defining point of difference. Theists say “how can moral principles be universal without a divine guarantee?” Any scheme that is human is on a human scale – and, of course, one of the hidden assumptions in this discussion is that Christian doctrine says all humans are Fallen, sinful, corrupt. Anything that arises wholly from human sources, therefore, is flawed by definition. Without God to offer a ‘God’s eye view’ of morality from a position above and beyond the human, all sets of moral principles are ‘merely’ social constructions – and social constructions founded in sinful human self-love and selfishness. Without a divine guarantee, they claim, moral principles are meaningless – fleeting and foundationless.

Atheists, on the other hand, believe that humanity is all we have available when it comes to developing moral principles. Humanists (there’s a large overlap) tend to believe that humans are inherently good, inherently likely to seek to do right and to enhance others’ lives and experiences. Humanists would see humans as almost inevitably generating moral codes based on social contracts and avoidance of harm, and then generalising those beyond the local context and the ‘in-group’. And for atheists, all we’ve got is all we’ve got. If humanity does not create a morality, then there will be no morality. Since there clearly exist moral codes in the world, they must have arisen through human processes. Our moral reasoning becomes a matter of applying these principles, and seeking to sieve out our own self-interest from our considerations so as to do the moral thing. Someone at Stage 4 will really struggle with the ‘steal medicine to save dying person’ dilemma, since it involves law-breaking, but someone at Stage 6 will recognise that values, while universal, are also relative, and saving a life outweighs protecting private property. And so on.

My goal in this whole post is not to support one or the other perspective, it’s to try to help people from each perspective see how it looks from the ‘other side’. A big problem in the debates I’ve been reading is blanket statements about what theists and atheists ‘can’t possibly do’ within their own moral reasoning, or about ‘in the absence of God there can be no universal moral principles’ and so on.

I guess my point is really that Kohlberg’s useful scheme – and the very real and easily observed categories of moral reasoning that it describes – doesn’t actually distinguish well between theistic and atheistic moral reasoning. Each level and stage (with the possible exception of 5) can be understood from within either perspective. Irrespective of whether we think people with a different perspective from us do tend to use all available levels of moral reasoning, it seems fairly clear that they can – that the opportunity exists. That neither theism nor atheism rules out large swathes of the ability to think and act in moral ways.

  1. I’m using the term descriptively, not pejoratively


Reverse Pascal

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:23 am

For those not familiar with it, Pascal’s Wager can be roughly stated as the idea that, given we cannot know for certain whether or not God exists, it is better to believe he does, since the rewards of believing he doesn’t are finite while the rewards of believing he does are (advertised as) infinite. It’s a probability argument, and Pascal’s own perspective was more sophisticated than this raw rendering gives him credit for… but the idea is out there.

Of course, he was writing in 17th century France where there was really only one God to think about – a binary probability distribution. If there’s one thing that the travel and communication of the past couple of centuries has shown us it is that there are thousands of possible gods, and that the task of choosing the right one (since all claim to be true and that all others are false) changes the probabilities in Pascal’s Wager dramatically.

I have a position that seems to work for me, on this question… others mileage most definitely will vary… but that’s what web discussions are for!

Life is here, life is generally good, with bad bits, life is for living. Any belief system – and beliefs are here described as ‘dispositions to act’, so a belief system directly implies a set of ways of being and behaving in the world – must enhance life right here and now.

In other words, I’m completely eschewing the notion of doing things in this life for reasons related to the afterlife (gaining reward and avoiding punishment (incidentally, very low level moral reasons for doing anything, according to Kohlberg)). Things are done or avoided because they are right or wrong – or, in my friend Darren’s language, beneficial or not beneficial – right here and now.

Christians have tried to claim (that ‘Long March of the Koalas‘ thing I’ve posted a couple of times does a nice job of skewering it) that such a perspective leads to a debauched and nihilistic hedonism: that humans freed from supernatural shackles end up as drug-addled profligates riddled with pox.

And yet clearly that’s bullshit and there are all manner of people who act only for this life who are healthy, happy, productive, loving, creative people and members of society.

So, no point of distinction so far from atheism. But here’s the Reverse Pascal bit: if it does turn out that there’s a God and an afterlife:

  1. Any just God would reward a life spent focused on enhancing the quality of life for oneself, one’s loved ones and as many other people as possible with eternal life.
  2. One would not want to enjoy eternal life with an unjust God.

The downside, of course, is if those who believe in everlasting torment in Hell are right… but given that one would still be stuck with trying to pick the right God from among thousands, there’s no realistic way of avoiding that anyway.

But living the best possible life here and now is the only rational course, it seems to me.


Stephen Fry on the English Language

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:58 pm

I’ve talked before here about language and how it grows and develops, and the tension between correctness and usage.

This is the second half of an interview of Stephen Fry by Jonathan Ross, so it starts off a bit mid-stream, but once Stephen gets into his rant about the English language, it’s pure poetry.

(I’ve also written about my intellectual mancrush on Stephen Fry here before.)


Interdisciplinarity and Security

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:13 am

I didn’t end up blogging a lot about the ideas from the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning conference I attended in Edmonton – lots more about the meetings with people and the day-to-day stuff I was doing. But there definitely were exciting ideas and exciting sessions (even if I skipped a fair few to see people!), and I did want to capture some of that.

Marcia Baxter Magolda did a nice keynote address at the beginning on the development of university students, from a longitudinal study she did where she interviewed college students in their early 20s about their ways of thinking and then interviewed the same people years later at 40. Lots of interesting ideas, but it seemed as though her scheme led up to a very selfish end: the highest stage of her stage theory, which partly paralleled William Perry’s, was ‘self-authorship’, with the students talking about making their own decisions based on their own values rather than accepting the values of others. That was OK as far as it went, but it did not get to the notion of interdependence and relationship, or to the notions of citizenship that we were advocating in our presentation. Making decisions oneself, but taking into account the ideas, perspectives and needs of others, from family to those effected by one’s decisions even in other countries, seems to me like a higher level than Baxter Magolda’s highly individualistic approach.

But I didn’t even mean to write about that! I started (and the title reflects) thinking about the idea of interdisciplinary studies. There was a very interesting discussion with Trish Ferret, Mary Huber and Bettie Higgs, based on Bettie’s presentation, about “what does it take to do interdisciplinary work?” My contention was that it was a matter of emotion rather than reason – it’s not really about being rationally convinced that it’s a good thing to do, or even about having the brains to do it. Rather, it’s about feeling as though you ‘have what it takes’ and having the confidence to step outside your own comfortable disciplinary boundaries.

I think it’s about confidence and security. It requires a level of maturity and comfort with your own discipline that allows you to ‘play’ with it rather than to be terribly serious, and also a bit of an ‘outside’ critical perspective that makes its underlying assumptions visible to you (rather than hidden and taken-for-granted). It also requires a level of personal security that allows you to make mistakes in the new discipline(s) you are exploring without being embarrassed and withdrawing, a willingness to ask questions, and a certain carpet-bagging willingness to use the tools of a discipline as soon as you know enough to make that possible, rather than feeling as though you have to wait until you have complete mastery of all the skills and ideas of a discipline before you can do valuable work in relation to it.

Maybe it’s just chutzpah!


Religion and Truth

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:32 am

I need a big book to take on a big flight, and as I think I mentioned here before, I’m enjoying Neal Stephenson’s ‘Anathem’ on this trip. It’s over 900 pages of fairly small print, so I only read about half of it on the trip up, and have plenty to keep me occupied on the trip back.

It’s excellent and highly recommended to those who enjoy dense, philosophical science fiction. Lots of the ideas have struck me, and extended things I’ve been thinking about, but one quote from page 577 really hit me. I need to offer a bit of background so it will make sense for you. Some of the characters were using a simple gas stove to cook a meal. Erasmas, the main character, asked why they were using such a simple cooker, when there were much more hi-tech ones available, and they replied that because they often travelled in isolated, difficult environments, they preferred to rely on things that they could understand, and that they could pull apart and repair if necessary (I often have the same reaction under the bonnet (hood) of modern cars…).

So here’s the passage:

Later, Cord [Erasmas’ sister] began to share her views about what had happened, and it became obvious that she was interpreting the whole thing from a Kelx [a fictional religion in the book] point of view. It seemed that Magister Sark had got himself a convert. His words, back in Masht, might have made only a faint impression on her, but something about what we had lived through at Orithena made it all seem true in her mind. And this didn’t seem like the right time for me to try to convince her otherwise. It was, I realised, like the broken stove all over again. What was the point of my having a truer explanation of these things if it could only be understood by avout [kind of secular philosopher-monks] who devoted their whole life to theorics [kind of science/philosophy]? Cord, independent soul that she was, wouldn’t want to live her life under the sway of such ideas any more than she’d want to cook breakfast with a machine that she couldn’t understand and fix.1

OK, so leave aside for a moment Erasmas’ automatic assumption that his own explanation is ‘truer’ than hers, and the implied condescension. This passage just got me thinking about ideas and explanations and our insistence on forcing our ‘truer’ interpretations on others.

Thinking this way is anathema to Christians (and presumably to followers of other religions too): evangelism is all about convincing others to accept our explanations. It’s seen as a sacred duty in most religions. And not only religions, of course: we try to encourage, and when that fails coerce, others to see the world in accordance with our political and scientific and philosophical views, too. But I dunno… it seemed to me that perhaps what we need to look at is (again) the Dr Phil test: “How’s that workin’ for ya?” If other people’s world views seem to be making them happy and fulfilled, and leading them to make the world a better place by caring for others and the world around them, how about we leave them alone, and focus on those whose beliefs are obviously (in their frame of reference, not ours) making them miserable or making them act in evil ways toward others?

Hmm, that might change who is the evangelist and who the sinner in need of salvation, in quite a few cases, I suspect.

  1. Hmm, didn’t realise quite how many explanatory notes I’d need to insert when I started this!


Evidence-based Practice and Education

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:23 am

It’s a notion that’s been popular in medicine for perhaps a decade, maybe a bit longer: doing what the best available research evidence suggests is the best possible treatment for a particular condition. Sackett and colleagues (1996) wrote that evidence-based practice consists of “integrating individual clinical expertise with the best available external clinical evidence from systematic research.”

This is actually a fairly sophisticated definition, in that it incorporates the clinical expertise of the individual practitioner with the external evidence: less-sophisticated approaches tend to make it seem as though the clinical evidence will provide a single best answer in each situation.

The notion is a compelling one, and helps to bridge the ‘research-practice gap’ by bringing the best fruits of research into the work of practitioners. I think it has largely been successful in medicine.

It’s now tending to come up in conversations about educational research and practice, and in that context it does worry me a bit. Part of the reason is that I’ve argued before in some detail that educational activities don’t come under the necessary conditions for conducting the kind of tightly controlled research that is used in medicine and science, because people’s attitudes and actions are too complex and there are too many variables to control.

The other part is the concern about the quality of the evidence. It does occur in medicine sometimes too, where for example a pharmaceutical company will suppress evidence of adverse reactions in clinical trials. But in general, if the research is published, the quality of the evidence is pretty reliable in medical science. In the social and human sciences that form the basis of education, it’s much easier for the evidence to be controversial, because often what you go looking for is what you will find.

So using the notion of ‘evidence-based practice’ in education begs questions about ‘whose evidence?’ Who created the particular evidence that is being used, and what were their purposes? How do we decide whether one piece of evidence is more valid or important than another, if their findings are different. And so on…

This could be seen as simply a short-coming in the quality of educational research – if it’s not good enough to allow us to make good prescriptions for practice, why not, and how can we improve it? I think there’s space there for some interesting self-reflection on our part.

But I do also think that the difficulties may be inherent ones in a set of social practices as complex as education.

Sackett, D. L., Rosenberg, W. M. C., Gray, J. A. M., Haynes, R. B., & Richardson, W. S. (1996). Evidence based medicine: what it is and what it isn’t. British Medical Journal, 312(7023), 71-72.


Alberto Rivera and Unassailable Claims

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:34 am

Alberto Rivera is a guy who came out in the 70s – initially in the (in)famous Jack Chick Christian comics – and claimed that he had been a Jesuit priest (sometimes upgraded to bishop) specifically tasked with infiltrating and destroying Protestant churches. His ‘testimony’ sparked quite the panic among evangelicals, some of whom started finding a Jesuit behind every bush.

This article looks at Rivera’s life and claims: http://web.archive.org/web/20051202084221/http://www.cornerstonemag.com/pages/show_page.asp?228

The part of it that I find most interesting is that Rivera simply claims that (a) anything illegal or immoral he did was done at the order of the Jesuits and (b) any apparent negative information about him is false evidence planted by the Jesuits.

It’s a perfectly closed system, in the sense that from his perspective there is no possible evidence that can disprove his claims, since his claims subsume such evidence and explain it away within the terms of the system.

This is a feature it shares with most conspiracy theories, from the more extreme forms of climate change ‘skepticism’ to World Trade Towers Building 7. Any evidence that apparently invalidates the conspiracy is explained as having been planted by the conspirators. For a believer, such a system is unassailable.


Kieran Egan Makes Me Think (Again)

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:47 pm

Kieran Egan is a Canadian educator who has written a lot about the importance of play, storytelling and imagination in education. I’ve been reading his stuff and enjoying it for nearly 20 years now. Just reading a little bit from one of his books today, I was struck by this passage:

If one examines the stated aims of even the most sophisticated educational thinkers, one will find a curriculum that is clearly designed to produce people like its producers. Usually this is qualified by our desire to have a curriculum that will produce people like us, but without our ‘defects’ – those, that is, we feel able to acknowledge. It would perhaps be better to say that our decisions about curriculum are largely determined by the desire to produce people like our idealized image of ourselves.


Explaining Explanation

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:33 am

Not so much a New Years resolution as just a realisation: I’ve been having trouble writing new academic papers lately, and I realised it was because I wasn’t reading enough academic books and papers. Got to feed the machine and spark off the ideas, then they’ll come and writing will be easier.

So instead of another novel this month (although I do also have Iain M Banks’ spectacular ‘Matter’ still going on the side), I’m reading David-Hillel Ruben’s excellent book ‘Explaining Explanation‘.

It’s a philosophical discussion of the questions around explanation – what is an explanation? how is an explanation different compared to other kinds of communication? how are scientific explanations similar to and different from everyday explanations?

Dr Ruben has a very clear, interesting style of writing, and I’m enjoying the book a lot, but reading philosophy – were everything has to be laid out the clearest and most unambiguous way possible, which makes it slow and painstaking – is the mental equivalent of taking your body to the gym. So I’m starting to feel the burn, and suspect I’ll be mentally a bit stiff and sore for a few days. But soon I’ll have the mental muscles for Olympic feats of writing!