Sunday, December 30, 2007

The "moral capital" move

The "moral capital" move that I explored here showed up again in today's Observer (article here). On page 25, Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, suggests that perhaps modern atheist do-gooders are nevertheless living off the moral capital built up by earlier religious generations (and when that capital finally runs out, then where will we be?!):

"...many people who have strong moral commitments without any religious foundation were shaped by parents or grandparents for whom morality and religion were fundamentally bound up. Moreover, many of those in the forefront of progressive political change, who have abandoned religion, have been driven by a humanism that has essentially been built up by our Christian heritage... How far are we living on moral capital?" (p.25)]

Harries credits Charles Taylor with making this point, though the U.S. neo-cons seem to have got there before him (see below). I have not read Taylor's "magesterial" A Secular Age yet. Will do shortly. Anyone out there read it?

Earlier uses of the move

Daniel P. Moloney of First Things:

Religious people are the first to admit that many religious people sin often and boldly, and that atheists often act justly. They explain these ethical atheists by noting that when atheists reject the religion in which they have been raised, they tend to keep the morality while discarding its theological foundation. Their ethical behaviour is then derivative and parasitic, borrowing its conscience from a culture permeated by religion; it cannot survive if the surrounding religious culture is not sustained. In short, morality as we know it cannot be maintained without Judeo-Christian religion.

Irving Kristol (so-called "Godfather" of neoconservativism) agrees:

For well over 150 years now, social critics have been warning us that bourgeoise society was living off the accumulated moral capital of traditional religion and traditional moral philosophy.

Gertrude Himmelfarb (who, incidentally, is married to Kristol) also favours the view that we are

…living off the religious capital of a previous generation and that that capital is being perilously depleted.

So too does Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee Judge Robert K. Bork:

We all know persons without religious belief who nevertheless display all the virtues we associate with religious teaching…such people are living on the moral capital of prior religious generations… that moral capital will be used up eventually, having nothing to replenish it, and we will see a culture such as the one we are entering.

Catholic schools - Bishops cracking down

According to today’s Observer (p5), the Catholic Bishop of Lancaster, Patrick O’Donoghue (illustrated), has said in a document written for schools in his diocese that:

Under no circumstances should any outside authority or agency that is not fully qualified to speak on behalf of the Catholic Church ever be allowed to speak to pupils or individuals on sexual or any other matter involving faith and morals

O’Donoghue also called for any books containing polemics against the Catholic Church to be removed from school libraries.

He also maintains schools should reject the promotion of safe or safer sex, as it is based on the (in his view, deluded) theory that condom use can provide adequate protection against AIDS (I discuss this here).

O’Donoghue is one of several “fundamentalist” Catholic Bishops pushing for a much more authoritarian, conservative approach to Catholic schooling.

I draw attention to these Bishops as they illustrate the point that it is not just Muslims like Ibrahim Lawson who insist on a very conservative, uncritical style of religious education.

The report does not say whether these Catholic Bishops would permit the questioning of Catholic teaching in the classroom, but it obviously isn’t something they’d encourage.

As I previously pointed out, you may be shocked to discover that independent religious schools in the U.K. can teach children whatever they like about religion, in whatever way they like. Even if they run Medieval-style factories of religious indoctrination, Ofsted (The UK school inspection agency) cannot fault them!

As I have already argued, isn't it time we did something about this?

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Carol Service - and Hypocrites

Each Christmas, churches that usually stand empty are suddenly brimming with people happily singing carols, kneeling for the prayers and celebrating along with the priest or vicar. Many of them are atheists. Isn’t there something deeply hypocritical about non-Christians celebrating Christmas in this way? Or is Christmas something we should all be able to participate in, whatever our beliefs?

Some Christians are annoyed by the presence of atheists at Christmas services. ‘If they don’t believe in God,’ they ask ‘then why do they come? They’re hypocrites, standing awkwardly at the back and hoping we won’t notice them. This is one of the most important events in the Christian calendar and it’s being treated as a concert – they’re only here for the music and lights.’ On the other hand, many Christians don’t just tolerate non-Christians at these events, they positively encourage them to come along.

Pascal on going through the motions

The philosopher Blaise Pascal’s thinking on religious belief suggests one reason why. Pascal thought that while there might not be convincing evidence or arguments for God’s existence, nevertheless it is sensible to make oneself believe in God. Why? Pascal suggests we approach belief God as a wager, and that we calculate how to bet by looking at what we stand to win or lose.

First, suppose we believe that God exists. And suppose we are wrong: there is no God. Then we have lost very little (not much more than a lie in on Sunday morning while we go to church). If there is a God, on the other hand, then the pay off is huge: we receive eternal life.

Now suppose we bet the other way: we believe there is no God. If we are correct, then we gain little (little more than that Sunday morning lie in). On the other hand, if we don’t believe and there is a God, then our loss is huge: we face eternal damnation.

So you can see, argues Pascal, that belief in God is the best bet. Belief in God costs us little, and if we win we win big. Fail to believe and while you might gain a little, you risk losing a great deal. So it’s sensible to believe.

But what if we find ourselves unable to believe? What if, try as we might, belief eludes us? What are we to do then?

Pascal suggests the solution is to act as if one believes. Play out the rituals of belief: attend church, kneel and say the prayers, and so on. Go through the motions. Eventually, Pascal suggests, belief will follow. Acting is if you have a belief will eventually cause you to have the belief itself.

But then, whether or not they believe we should approach belief as a wager (and that does seem a rather cynical attitude to take towards religious belief), many Christians might agree with Pascal that, if they can at least get atheists to enter church and go through the motions of belief, there is a good chance that many will end up acquiring the beliefs themselves. If we want to convert atheists, Christians may reason, then we should encourage them to show up and join in at Christmas time.

Frazer and Wittgenstein on the role of ritual

Still, for someone who doesn’t yet believe in God, mustn’t religious ritual and prayer must seem rather pointless and empty exercises? What’s the point of singing God’s praises if we think he doesn’t exist? Why bother praying if we suppose no one is listening?

But perhaps even an atheist might still gain from the religious rituals and prayers associated with Christmas. Some of the philosopher Wittgenstein’s remarks on religious belief are suggestive here. The remarks I have in mind concern the mythologist Sir James Frazer’s investigation in to magical thinking, The Golden Bough. Frazer argues that the magical thinking of ‘primitive’ people really constitutes a naive theory about how the universe operates. Take, for example, a tribesman who ritualistically pushes a knife into an effigy of his enemy. Does this tribesman believe his knife will have an effect on his adversary? Does he believe that by stabbing the doll he may cause his enemy to die? Frazer answers ‘yes’. The tribesman performs this ritual because he believes in what Frazer calls the law of similarity: he believes that like produces like, and that effects resemble their causes. Of course, scientific sophisticates like ourselves know better. But many ‘primitive’ cultures go through a stage in which they believe it. They attempt to achieve an end by imitating what they desire. This, according to Frazer, explains why people sprinkle water on the ground to make the rain fall, push knives into effigies to kill their enemies, and enact successful hunting scenes (with people dressing up as the animals, etc.) before they embark on a real hunt. They believe that, by imitating what they desire, they can cause it to become a reality.

It appears that the ancient Scandinavian custom of burning Yule logs (which has since become incorporated into Christmas tradition) also fits Frazer’s account of magical thinking. In the depths of winter, the Scandinavian pagans feared the sun would not return in the Spring, and apparently believed that by ritually burning a log (which is, like the sun, warm and bright) they could magically make the sun return warm and bright.

Wittgenstein rejects Frazer’s explanation of all this doll-stabbing, water-sprinkling and hunt-enactment. According to Wittgenstein, the tribesman who pushes a knife into an effigy of his enemy doesn’t really believe that he may thereby cause his enemy’s death. He doesn’t believe the law of similarity. After all, says Wittgenstein,

[t]he same savage who, apparently in order to kill an enemy, sticks a knife through a picture of him, really does build his hut of wood and cuts his arrow with skill and not in effigy. (RFGB 4)

This is a telling criticism. If the tribesman truly believed in the law of similarity, as Frazer suggests, then he would also build his hut in effigy, expecting a full-size hut magically to appear. But he has no such expectation. So why, then, does he push the knife into the effigy? Not because he genuinely expects some practical result. In fact, this sort of ritualistic behaviour is not really ‘primitive’ at all, in the sense that it is something we have left behind. Wittgenstein points out that, no matter how scientifically sophisticated we are, we still engage in it: we kiss images of the ones we love, we tear up photos of those we hate, and so on. But why?

Burning in effigy. Kissing the picture of a loved one. This is obviously not based on a belief that it will have a definite effect on the object which the picture represents. It aims at some satisfaction and it achieves it. Or rather, it does not aim at anything; we act in this way and then feel satisfied. (RFGB 4)

The reason we kiss images, tear up photographs, throw darts at images of political leaders and so on, is not that we suppose our actions will have a real effect on the people these images represent (if they did, then Margaret Thatcher, a favourite dartboard pin up of the 80s, should now be peppered with tiny holes). We do what we do because of the emotional value it has for us. Such actions can console us. They can make us more resolute. They can inspire us.

Wittgenstein would not doubt say the same about Yule log burning. It is not that the Scandanavians actually believed that, by burning a log, they could cause the sun to return. They burnt the log because of the effect it has on them. It touches something deep within them: they burn the log and then, as Wittgenstein puts it, ‘feel satisfied’. That is why the practice continues even today.

The magical and spiritual

So such symbolic and ritualistic actions can have great emotional value, whether or not we believe in their practical efficacy or the literal truth of the doctrines associated with them. They are, arguably, an important part of being human, giving us the opportunity to express deeply felt emotions that would otherwise remain stifled. It is not a stretch, I think, to say that they put us in touch with our spiritual side.

In the West, the great established religions once provided the framework within which such ritualistic activity took place. As religion has declined, that opportunity has been lost. The magical and spiritual side of our emotional nature has been suppressed and forgotten. Many would say that is a good thing. It shows that we are ‘progressing’: that we are becoming more scientific and rational. But is this necessarily progress? If Wittgenstein is correct, ritualistic behaviour is part of our nature. It is not something we can leave behind. Try to suppress it and, I suspect, it will simply re-emerge in a different form. One of the reasons why New Age religions and cults are booming is that they offer to reconnect us with this side of our emotional nature.

If Wittgenstein is right, we can derive emotional benefit from rituals and other symbolic actions whether or not we believe in their actual effectiveneness. As I say, a contemporary Scandanavian might be deeply moved, in even a spiritual way, by the burning of a Yule log, despite the fact that they do not for a moment think that the log is actually going to have any effect on the sun. The ritual may still help to forge a strong emotional link between them and the natural world around them, reminding them of the cyclic nature of the world, and of life and death.

But then, if Wittgenstein is correct, perhaps even an atheist might gain some spiritual value from going through the religious rituals associated with Christmas. For example, they might derive real comfort from kneeling with the rest of the congregation and praying for peace, even if they think there is no God to answer their prayers and that prayer can have no real effect. They may still leave the service moved and uplifted. The spiritual side of their nature may still be engaged.

A sense of community

We have seen that there may be emotional and spiritual value to be gained from the rituals and traditions surrounding Christmas, whether or not we happen to be Christian. But there is another reason why non-believers might gain from these traditions. They offer one of the few opportunities we have left to come together as a community. They give us a sense of solidarity with our fellow man, a sense of belonging, as the philosopher Peter Singer points out.

Although I am firmly non-religious, and lack even a Christian family background, when I stand with the other parents at the Carol Night held by my children’s school….the effect of everyone singing together can lead to a strong emotional response that makes me feel the importance of being part of that community.

I suspect it is not a fondness for candles and carol music, but this ‘strong emotional response’ combined with the emotional value of ritual that explains why many non-Christians find themselves drawn to church at Christmas time.

Many argue that it is the loss of such traditions and the sense of community and belonging they help engender that’s responsible for the ‘moral malaise’ that, it’s alleged, is consuming society. But if this is true, then perhaps we should encourage people to involve themselves in these traditional, communal events, whether or not they happen to be specifically Christian. By involving themselves in the rituals and traditions of Christmas individuals may still, like Peter Singer, get a real sense of belonging and solidarity with their wider community.

The ‘strong emotional response’ of which Singer speaks, combined with the emotional power of magical ritual and symbolism, combine to form a highly intoxicating brew. Almost all of us have felt its power at some time or other. I remember that, as I small boy, I was emotionally almost overwhelmed by a baptismal service: being surrounded by my entire family, the collective singing, the rituals and the setting all combined to produce experience as intense as any I have felt since.

I have explained how these powerful emotional tools might be used positively: by giving us a sense of solidarity with others and an opportunity to express deeply felt emotions. But let’s not forget that these are tools that can also be used for evil: to inspire not love, but fear and hatred, especially towards those who do not fall within the charmed circle of our community. In the wrong hands – in the hands of a malevolent religious leader, for example – these tools become terrible and fearsome weapons. If we are going to encourage their use, let’s make very, very sure they’re used responsibly.

Christmas and the pagans

Sometimes, midway through a carol service or midnight mass, congregations are reminded from the pulpit not to forget the real meaning of Christmas. At this point there is usually some awkward staring at hands and shuffling of feet from the atheists, for of course it is generally assumed that the ‘real’ meaning of Christmas must be a specifically Christian meaning, a meaning presumably lost on the unbelievers at the back.

We can all agree, of course, that the ‘real’ meaning of Christmas does not reside in the commercial racket that has largely taken over our festivities. But is the ‘real’ meaning of Christmas specifically Christian?

It’s occasionally suggested that it is actually the Christians who are the interlopers at a mid-winter festival with its roots in the great pre-Christian pagan religious cults. In Christ’s time, the birth of many more or less interchangeable pagan god-men was widely celebrated on the 25th December, including Dionysus (in Greece), Osiris (in Egypt), Mithras (in Persia) and Bacchus (in Italy). The significance of December 25th is that it at one time marked the winter solstice: the shortest day, the point at which the sun is born again for another year (the solstice is slowly drifting forward, by the way, and now falls on the 21st of December). Incidentally, all the pre-Christian god-men listed above were also miraculously born of virgin mothers. So was Buddha, who also pre-dates Christ, and it was believed was divinely conceived in the womb of the virgin Maya. Buddha’s birthday? The 25th December. The Scandinavians also celebrated the 25th of December as the birthday of Freyr, the son of their supreme god, Odin.

Now there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that Jesus was born on the 25th December, or even in winter for that matter. The decision to mark his birth on that date was made several hundred years after his death. That choice of the 25th December was very probably influenced by its solar and religious significance. “So the Christians”, some non-Christians complain, “like the Grinch, stole Christmas. They stole it from the pagans. If Christmas has a real meaning, it’s essentially pagan.”

But while Christmas undoubtedly does owe something to pre-Christian pagan traditions, and some of its trappings may be borrowed from them (as I mentioned earlier, Yule logs are pagan), that doesn’t make Christmas itself pagan. After all, almost every tradition borrows from earlier traditions in various ways. Christmas is not unique in that respect. Yale University’s traditions owe something to Oxford’s. That doesn’t make Yale Oxford.

Christmas for everyone?

If the real meaning of Christmas is not pagan, then what is it?

There is no consensus about that, even among Christians. For some, it involves believing in the literal truth of the nativity story: Jesus really was divinely conceived and born of a virgin.

There really was a star, three kings, gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and so on.
However, many Christians no longer take this story literally, at least not in all its details. Some have even been known to question the virgin birth. But if these details are removed, what is left?

Still a great deal, of course. Christmas might still be understood as a celebration of the existence of God and his offer of salvation. Again, these claims might all be understood literally. But, again, there are Christians who view even ‘God’ talk as essentially metaphorical.

The residual meaning upon which almost all Christians agree is that Christmas is a celebration of peace and love, and a time to think of others, especially those less fortunate. It is a time at which we come together, at which we feel solidarity and empathy with the rest of humanity. But of course these are values and aspirations that can be shared by non-Christians too. Much of the true meaning of Christmas is open to everyone, whatever their religious beliefs.

Traditionalists may be horrified at that suggestion that we, in effect, make the Christianity an optional Christmas extra. Isn’t this an example of pick-n-mix religion? We take the bits we like (the ‘Christmas spirit’ of peace and generosity, the coming together of the community, and so on) and discard the rest (the truth claims of the Bible, the existence of God)? But Christmas always was a pick-n-mix event. Its traditions, beliefs and customs are in many cases borrowed.

Christmas has an appeal which reaches far beyond the specifically Christian. In an age when religion increasingly divides us rather than unites us, perhaps there’s a case to be made for thinking of our great winter festival, not as specifically a Christian event, but as one of the last traditions in which we can all participate, whatever our beliefs.

From The Xmas Files

Monday, December 17, 2007

Response to Ibrahim Lawson

I struggled a little bit to understand Ibrahim's latest post.

In the first part, Ibrahim seems to do exactly what I thought we said we wouldn't do: go nuclear. I have already pointed out why I consider this an intellectually dishonest strategy. But perhaps I've misunderstood. Can Ibrahim explain why he hasn't yet again, just reached for the nuclear button?

The second part of his response is a direct response to my arguments for being liberal in our approach to moral and religious education. Ibrahim says (his stuff in italics):

Having rehearsed these preliminary ideas, and arrived at the Enlightenment, I would like to turn to your recent postings, and in particular the idea of liberalism.

Much of what you recount strikes me as revealing of the almost naïve utopianism of liberal thought, which is characteristic of much similar ‘technological’ thinking. By this I mean the kind of thinking that sets up an idealised, theoretical description of some human situation which it then finds impossible to justify or to implement in practice.

Ibrahim, surely we could quite easily introduce critical thinking about religion and morality in schools. It has been done, and the results, as I have pointed out, have been very successful. You seem to be suggesting it can't be done "in practice". Er, it can, and has.

But perhaps you are making a deeper point - Rawls now makes an appearance:

John Rawls provides an example in his proposal of the ‘veil of ignorance’ in his attempt to justify our intuitions concerning justice and fairness. The bare, rational intellect which he posits as the essence of the human being behind the procedural veil of ignorance – neither male nor female, young nor old, black nor white, straight nor gay, rich nor poor, Muslim nor Christian etc – and therefore able, indeed obliged, to judge impartially and fairly, exists only as a theoretical construct.

Yep. Well-known criticism of Rawls' "original position" by communitarians and others. But this Rawls-bashing is irrelevant - as I am not recommending that each child adopt a tradition-free Rawls-type "original position". I am merely recommending children be encouraged to think critically about whatever values, beliefs and traditions they already happen to have. They can do this, and when they do it, it appears to have real social, emotional and other educational benefits. And remember, this kind of thinking can be, and is, even done within a faith school setting.

Ibrahim continues:

Moreover, the perfect society we might imagine such intellects, once embodied, would then go on to form is a lovely idea, but frankly, isn’t going to happen. Most people are never going to be able to be their own authorities, however much we might like that to happen.

I have already explained why we are all our own ultimate moral authorities, like it or not. You haven't dealt with that argument.

But in any case, I don't believe a perfect, utopian society is achievable. I believe a better society is achievable. I have provided grounds for supposing a better society can be achieved by encouraging children to think critically about morality and religion. Ibrahim - you have not dealt with those grounds. You've just insisted that perfection is not achievable. But again, that's beside the point.

In short, your response is almost entirely irrelevant. What isn't irrelevant appears simply to be denial of what has already been established - that thinking critically about morality and religion can be done in schools (to great effect).

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Dolomites: via ferrata

Here is a short clip (with sound) from the trip to Italy with some friends last summer. video
That's me at the bottom. Tom at top. Rodas on camera... video
Second one is me at top.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Review: The Screwtape Letters

Did this review for Norm at normblog. Go here.

C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia books, also wrote a book called The Screwtape Letters, which was and remains very popular with the Christian fraternity.

The book is a series of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew and protégé, Wormwood, who has just graduated from demon Training College. What the letters reveal are all the tricks of the trade so far as devilry is concerned - the ways in which Satan's demons tempt, trick, and otherwise manipulate us so that we are lost to 'the Enemy' (God) and become delicious morsels for 'our Father below', as Screwtape refers to the Devil.

Screwtape's advice to his blundering nephew reveals his own experience at drawing humans to their doom. He explains how we can be tempted to sin, even while we think we are being virtuous. When Wormwood's first 'patient' finds Christianity, Screwtape advises Wormwood thus:

The most alarming thing in your last account of the patient is that he is making none of those confident resolutions which marked his original conversion... I see only one thing to do at the moment. Your patient has become humble. Have you drawn his attention to this fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is especially true of humility. Catch him at a moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection "By jove! I'm being humble," and almost immediately pride - pride at his own humility - will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother his new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt - and so on, through as many stages as you please. But don't try this for too long, for fear you awake his sense of humour and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed.

Lewis excels at capturing the labyrinthine and often masochistic patterns of thought into which the religious can get themselves. The cycle described above - of humility, followed by pride in humility, which is smothered by second-order humility, which awakens further pride, and so on - is a nice example.

Lewis's book is filled with pithy reminders of how we can slide into doing wrong - worthwhile reminders whether or not we're religious. The surest way of tempting humans to oblivion, Screwtape tells us, is not to get them to commit spectacular sins, but gently to lull them into the habit of little sins, preferably without them even noticing they are sinning.

It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is not better than cards if cards do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.

Even if you're not religious, you'll recognize that there is much truth in that.

Screwtape urges Wormwood to encourage the bond between his patient and two breezy, charming and fashionable new friends who are 'rich, smart, superficially intellectual, and brightly sceptical about everything in the world'. To Screwtape's delight, these trendy individuals introduce him to their whole set - 'thoroughly reliable people; steady, consistent scoffers and worldlings who without any spectacular crimes are progressing quietly and comfortably towards our Father's house'. The patient, he hopes, will be seduced away from the Enemy (God) by this sceptical and seemingly-sophisticated bunch. Lewis's real point here, of course, is to warn Christians against hanging out with... er, people like me.

One irony about Lewis's book is that, in producing this exposé of how demons psychologically manipulate people, he engages in a certain amount of psychological manipulation himself. A Christian may find that the siren voices of the demons (whom Lewis seems to think really exist) whispering in their ear are now accompanied by Lewis's own muscular intonations: 'Psst. Don't become friendly with those people - they'll seduce you into sinning!'

Lewis believes that reason favours religious belief. Like many philosophically minded-Christians (such as Keith Ward and Richard Swinburne), he encourages us to think and question. That's the sort of Christian I can respect, the sort that stands in stark contrast to Luther, who insists, 'Faith must trample all reason underfoot', and those evangelicals for whom 'Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has' and 'A free thinker is Satan's slave'.

I'm working on a parody of The Screwtape Letters. My Tapescrew Letters are written by a senior guru/priest to his junior in a fictional religion that nevertheless bears a close similarity to many actual religions. Just as Lewis aimed to take the lid off the activities of the demons, so my book aims to lay bare the psychological manipulation applied by gurus and priests. I'm in fact borrowing Lewis's clever little idea and turning it against him.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The McGinn/Honderich spat

Ted Honderich has developed a theory of consciousness which he calls radical externalism.

Colin McGinn reviewed Honderich's book setting out the theory in Philosophical Review. The review is pretty damning. Opening sentences:

This book runs the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad. It is painful to read, poorly thought out, and uninformed. It is also radically inconsistent.

Honderich has replied, and McGinn has replied to the reply. McGinn says:

I was well aware that the final product would, however, rank as among the most scathing reviews of a philosophy book ever written; reasonably so, in my opinion.

You can find all these pieces on Ted Honderich's website

I myself contributed to a volume of Journal of Consciousness Studies dedicated to the theory. My piece is here.

I won't comment on this spat other than to say that the position McGinn attributes to Honderich - that real physical objects appear within worlds of perceptual consciousness - is not, it turns out, Honderich's view. McGinn says:

Consciousness is not the awareness of the room (Honderich can make no sense of such "ofness"); it simply is the room -- that very spatial, physical object.

Funnily enough, I had interpreted Honderich the same way as McGinn, but then Honderich, in his earlier reply to me, makes it clear that this is not his view. He says about me:

His supposition that a world of perceptual consciousness includes physical objects plays another role in the second last section of his paper. If there are physical objects in worlds of perceptual consciousness, these worlds can't be subjective in the ways they were supposed to be. Indeed so, I reply. That is why there are not physical objects included in them.

If you want a quick intro to Honderich's theory, the opening part of my paper is fairly succinct (though bear in mind my misunderstanding).

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Religious education - some recommendations

Is there not a good case for ensuring that every school, state-funded or not, should do the following?

1. have a syllabus that includes periods in which open, philosophical discussion of important moral, cultural, political and religious question takes place. These sessions should be run by educators with some training in running a philosophical discussion. Safeguards should be put in place to ensure that pupils are not subtly (or not-so-subtly) psychologically pressured into not asking certain sorts of question or making certain sorts of point (e.g. about religion).

2. present their pupils with a broad range of different political, moral and religious beliefs and arguments. It’s important alternative points of view are not caricatured or demolished as mere straw men. One way to avoid this is to allow pupils to hear these alternative points of view from those that hold them. Students should get at least some chance actively to engage in discussion with those from other faiths. And also, I should stress, with those of no faith. While many religious schools have few qualms about exposing their pupils to those from other faiths, they often get very nervous indeed about handing them over to an atheist for half an hour (as I know from personal experience)

3. where religious education is given, include at least some basic philosophy of religion. This should include some discussion of the classic arguments both for and against the existence of God. Any child that leaves school having received a ‘religious education’ in which all objections to their faith have been airbrushed out has, in truth, been indoctrinated, not educated.

Plenty of educators, including many religious educators, will be comfortable with these suggestions. Plenty of religious schools already educate in accordance with at least some of them. But of course, many will reject them.

Ofsted report on Islamia school

Incidentally, I checked the Ofsted report on Ibrahim's school (he is no longer head, it seems).

Before I get to the school's report, what is especially interesting is this:

There are no national statutory requirements for religious education (RE), other than that RE should be provided.

There are non-statutory (i.e. entirely toothless) guidelines, however. They are here. Very waffly, aren't they? What do the require so far as getting children to think critically about their own religion is concerned? Er... um...

Maintained schools do have to comply with a locally agreed RE syllabus, determined by the Local Education Authority on advice from a Standing Advisory Council on RE (SACRE) which is comprised of 4 groups of people, each group with one vote, comprising representatives from: (i) religious denominations, (ii) the Church of England, (iii) local teaching reps, (iv) the Local Education Authority (notice membership must therefore be at least 50% religious). The syllabus is drawn up with an eye to the non-statutory guidelines.

Independent schools can do whatever they like.

Islamia school is independent, it seems.

So now to the Islamia school's Oftsed report. It says everything is pretty much great. Except right at the end we find this:

While not required by the regulations, the school might wish to consider the
following points for development:
  • continue to seek ways of integrating the secular curriculum and Islamic studies
  • further improve the quality of teaching by sharing good practice and through a rigorous programme of training and development
  • increase resources for physical education for older pupils and improve thefacilities for practical science
  • provide a wider range of opportunities for pupils to increase their knowledge and understanding of the other faiths and cultures.
(Source: Inspection report: Nottingham Islamia School, 9-10 May 2007.)

Note that first and last comment. That's it, suggestion-wise. Notice they are pointing up some weaknesses in RE re. the non-statutory guidelines. Legally, the school doesn't have to provide any opportunities for pupils to increase their knowledge and understanding of other faiths and cultures. There's just the suggestion that it might like to provide more.

Nor is there any mention, anywhere, of an absence of a critical culture. But then how could there be given even the non-statutory guidelines waffle over that issue?

So, even if the school were a little indoctrination factory (I don't say it is, by the way, but remember Ibrahim's approval of "indoctrination" and his suggestion that in any good Islamic school "Islam is a given and never challenged"), the report could not fault the school for failing to meet even non-statutory guidelines in this respect.

Not good enough.

When pressed on the issue of indoctrination, Islamic and other faith schools often respond by pointing to their "excellent" Ofsted reports. Unfortunately, on this issue, Ofsted reports provide no guarantees whatsoever, and Ofsted is utterly toothless.

Ibrahim Lawson: latest response

For those arriving late - this is an ongoing dialogue between myself and Ibrahim Lawson, head of a Muslim school, (and of course, many others), focusing on his remark that "In any good Islamic school, Islam is a given and never challenged".

Ibrahim now writes:


It is good that you have raised the issue of ethics and morality as this brings us closer to the live issues we began with. It was useful to thrash out a few metaphysical matters, albeit superficially, and I fear we must return to this ground sooner or later, even though, in view of recent events in Algeria for example, it sometimes feels as though we are indulging in intellectual speculation as ‘the luxury of the weak’

However, by shifting the focus in this way, we introduce a new element: that of ‘authority’, and associated concepts such as ‘power’ and ‘will’.

We can rephrase the non-question “why be rational?” as an inquiry into why we should feel obliged to be rational; what authority does or should rationality have over us? Why? How?

And similarly, ‘why be moral?’- and ‘why be religious?’- become: ‘what authority does morality have over me?’- or God? Or indeed any discourse or text?

It seems to me helpful to distinguish three elements: the authority, in the sense of that which has to power to command us (the authoritor?); the submitter to authority, i.e. the one who accepts that command (the authoritee?); and the relation of authority itself, the sense in which it is a power to command.

In ethics, there are two commonly held explanations: the deontological and the teleological. There are also some unsuccessful attempts to dissolve the problem, such as Ayers ‘emotive’ theory that ‘X is good’ is merely a way o saying ‘I like or approve of X’ which merely shifts the burden of explanation onto the purported ‘objective correlative’ of the emotion: what exactly is it that I approve of?

I think Kant’s deontological view, that if we act from any motive of desire for a specific end (i.e. teleologically) then we are not acting ‘morally’, is correct. This seems to entail, however, that the ‘moral law’ (‘do the right thing’) is necessarily empty, since any substantive justification of a moral action provides extrinsic, practical grounds for its desirability. Thus, someone who gives to charity ‘because it is the right thing to do’ cannot say “it is right because etc etc” since what ever might complete the sentence would give reasons for doing the act which would describe the outcomes of the action and make those the justification instead. For example: … it benefits those less fortunate than myself; …. I feel guilty if I don’t; ….society is a better place thereby; … it makes me/them happy; etc. Desire is not a moral power.

The question also then arises as to what is ‘good’, in the specific moral sense, about the intended outcomes, and then what is good about that, and so on until we arrive at some foundation for ‘good’ which is not justifiable by referring to the concept of ‘good’; is ‘good’ without explanation; simply IS good. And this doesn’t answer the question about what it is we know when we know something is ‘good’.

This probably seems much too convoluted to many people; but the relevant point is that unless we have a viable theory of morality, we cannot explain our moral judgements, even to ourselves; i.e. we don’t understand them and cannot use them in an argument against people who we disagree with on ethical grounds. Call it general scepticism about morality.

Then we re-assert the principle you invoked before in reference to rationality: that ‘unjustified’ or ‘unexplained’ does not equal ‘immune to critical review’. Then I ask again, where do we go from here? If we cannot without circularity use rationality to justify reason, or ‘good’ to justify moral judgements, to what criteria can we resort for the, shall we say, ‘warrantability’ of rational, or ethical, or, moreover, religious judgements? Whatever we use will be no more ‘rational’, ‘moral’ or ‘religious’ than the definition of ‘true’ can be true.

And I don’t see that such scepticism condemns us to nihilism, that we cannot be true, good or reasonable. I just resist the idea that we have to define these things so narrowly, so ‘technologically’ I want to say, as to create problems for ourselves.

Returning to the issue of authority, wherein lies the prescriptive power of morality? From where do we get the sense that we should not steal, or example? Is it simply that we would not like it if someone stole from us? If so, what is moral about that? No, I think there is a ‘naked’ sense of duty, of obligation, but what is that? Ethics has no answer, which is why many, orthodox, Muslim theologians refuse to engage with the matter.

Again, why do we feel obliged to accept the dictates of reason? Why do I feel I have to accept the truth of the conclusion of a deductive argument whose validity I have accepted along with the truth of its premises? (I’m not saying I don’t feel I have to, just asking what the authority is here).

And why do I feel that I have to accept the authority of Allah and His Messenger?

It may be that the nature of the authority relation in each case, moral, rational and religious, is different, as is the nature of the authoritor.

Now, Stephen, it seems to me that we return to the issue of freedom which you appear to invoke in a previous posting. Does ‘I am free’ mean ‘I am my own authority’? (This seems preferable to other explanations, which have their own problems).

If so, how could we explain that? Is it true in all cases? In moral issues you claim it is. Would it hold true for rationality?- and religion? Or are we left with mere assertion, hence your own difficulty in supplying a supporting argument?

In moral issues, I do not see that we can explicate the prescriptivity of moral propositions in terms of some external agency, but only in some sense such as ‘I will (in an active, not modal sense) that I do good’. Indeed, Kant says that the only thing that can be morally good is the will and I think I agree with him. Inasmuch as we have free will, we are able to act morally, but there is no rational explanation of this freedom according to him. (His ‘Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals’ contains the arguments). Was Kant therefore not a moral person?

Of course he was; he was also religious, and famously said “I will that there be a God.”

Since the enlightenment owed much to philosophers like Kant, perhaps we should not dismiss his words lightly but try to understand what he meant by this.

Having rehearsed these preliminary ideas, and arrived at the Enlightenment, I would like to turn to your recent postings, and in particular the idea of liberalism.

Much of what you recount strikes me as revealing of the almost naïve utopianism of liberal thought, which is characteristic of much similar ‘technological’ thinking. By this I mean the kind of thinking that sets up an idealised, theoretical description of some human situation which it then finds impossible to justify or to implement in practice.

John Rawls provides an example in his proposal of the ‘veil of ignorance’ in his attempt to justify our intuitions concerning justice and fairness. The bare, rational intellect which he posits as the essence of the human being behind the procedural veil of ignorance – neither male nor female, young nor old, black nor white, straight nor gay, rich nor poor, Muslim nor Christian etc – and therefore able, indeed obliged, to judge impartially and fairly, exists only as a theoretical construct. Moreover, the perfect society we might imagine such intellects, once embodied, would then go on to form is a lovely idea, but frankly, isn’t going to happen. Most people are never going to be able to be their own authorities, however much we might like that to happen.

And, paradoxically, total personal autonomy, or authenticity (Eigentlichkeit in German; Heidegger has an interesting and pertinent discussion of this in Being and Time) leads, I believe, to a kind of reflexive annihilation which I prefer to understand as ‘submission to the will of Allah’, but that is another story.

I can already hear the cries of ‘Islamo-fascist!’, so to attempt to divert this knee-jerk reaction, I must say that I do not subscribe to the view that it is right to withhold moral responsibility from children; I do believe we should teach them to think and to question; we must equip them with the skills necessary to assume moral responsibility to the extent that they are capable and to resist tyranny and all the other noble qualities of character that Stephen refers to as the fruits of a liberal education. But I do also accept that there is one absolute, benign and eternal authority: Allah. We just have to understand better what that means and what our relationship is to Him.

Now I realise that some readers will now be thinking that they have no idea what I am talking about and that, in any case, whatever it is has nothing to do with the attitudes and behaviour of ‘normal’ Muslims. I can’t help that, it’s normal; as Nietzsche said: life is tragic - only death is perfect.

Finally to your question: “Perhaps Ibrahim could now summarize his case for saying Islamic schools should present Islam as a "given" that is "never challenged"? Why, exactly, is this a good idea?”

I agreed with this comment ‘off the cuff’ so to speak during a radio program, and I stand by it. Islam is a ‘given’ for Muslims in the sense that it is where we start from. Why? Well I hope I have gone at least some way towards explaining that, though the nature of that ‘givenness’ has taken some unpacking and may not have been entirely successful in your eyes. Islam is ‘never challenged’ (again not my formulation of words) in the sense, not that it is not interrogated, but in that Muslims do not imagine that there is a viable alternative, which there isn’t.

This is a good idea because anything else leads to literally endless confusion as we search for the justification of our imaginary explanations and authorities (false gods). Meanwhile, people are dying.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Worry about religious education

Incidentally, that there's something deeply inadequate about religious education as currently provided in schools (Islamic, and other) in this country is suggested by the finding of one recent poll that 36% of young British Muslims believe the appropriate penalty for any Muslim that rejects their faith is... death!

"...a significant portion of British Muslims think that such behaviour is not merely right, but a religious obligation: a survey by the think-tank Policy Exchange, for instance, revealed that 36 per cent of young Muslims believe that those who leave Islam should be killed."
Daily Telegraph.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Summarizing case against Ibrahim's position

To refocus the dialogue, can we now start commenting here, please...

Also, remember the main topic here is whether or not Ibrahim is right to suggest that in any good Islamic school "Islam is a given and never challenged".

Let me summarize my case for getting children to think critically about morality and religion from as young an age as possible:

(i) Actually, individuals cannot avoid the responsibility for making moral judgements. They cannot hand that responsibility over to some religious or other authority. Given they cannot hand it over, shouldn't they be encouraged and trained to discharge the responsibility properly? Surely the best way to do this is to confront them with the responsibility and encourage them to think and question.

(ii) There's evidence that raising people to think and question, rather than more or less uncritically defer to authority, provides some protection against the sort of moral catastrophes that marred the 20th Century.

(iii) There's growing evidence that even young children can think philosophically, and that it is good for them emotionally, intellectually, and socially. Suppress this kind of independent, critical thought and you risk stunting these important forms of development.

(iv) If you raise young people to defer unquestioningly to religious authority, they will be vulnerable, later, to the wiles of other self-styled "authorities". They will have no critical defences. The best protection against brainwashing by zealots is not to do our own brainwashing first. It's to train young people to be robust critical thinkers - to equip them with the skills they need to spot when they are being brainwashed and manipulated. By suppressing independent critical thought and expecting mindless acceptance of whatever religious authority says, isn't Ibrahim's school churning out the perfect fodder for zealots to turn into weapons of jihad?

Remember, I am not arguing against Islam (here) or against faith schools. Let Ibrahim tell pupils that he believes Islam is true, and explain why he thinks so. But he should also give them the freedom to think and question - and even reject. Other religious folk manage it, so why won't he?

Perhaps Ibrahim could now summarize his case for saying Islamic schools should present Islam as a "given" that is "never challenged"? Why, exactly, is this a good idea?

Further case against Ibrahim's position

Here's one more reason to encourage people as early as possible to start thinking independently about morality/religion... (again, from my book The War For Children's Minds.)

When it’s sensible to trust an authority

Deferring to authority isn’t always a bad idea. We do it all the time. No doubt you go to a doctor for a medical opinion, to a plumber for expertise on central heating, to a lawyer for legal advice, and so on. It’s pretty reasonable to take the authority’s word for it in these cases.

In fact, modern life demands that we trust the expertise of others. The world is now so complex that any one of us can only properly understand how a tiny bit of it works. We can’t all be experts on plumbing, science, the law, car mechanics, psychology, and so on. We have to seek out others upon whose expertise we inevitably have to rely.

So what if you go to an authority on some matter, and they give you bad advice? Who’s to blame, then, if things then go awry? Suppose, for example, that a student new to chemistry wants to know whether it’s safe to dispose of a large lump of potassium by flushing it down the sink. They ask their chemistry professor, who tells them it will be perfectly safe. So the student drops the potassium in the sink. There’s a huge explosion that kills another student. Is the student who was given the wrong advice to blame? Can she excuse herself by pointing out that her authority told her to do it?

Yes she can. It was entirely reasonable for the student to trust the advice of their chemistry professor. She had every reason to accept the professor’s advice. Generally speaking, if we go to the acknowledged experts for advice, and those experts assure us that something is a good idea when in fact it’s a very bad idea, we’re not morally culpable when things go wrong as a result.

Why moral authorities are different

But if it’s sensible to trust the word of medical, legal and plumbing experts – if we are justified in simply taking their word for it – then why not the word of moral experts?

Suppose someone wants to know what sort of attitude she should have towards those who don’t share the same religion as her. She goes to her community’s religious and moral Authority for the answer, the Authority to which she has always deferred in the past. Suppose this Authority tells her that it is her moral duty to kill those who don’t share the same religious beliefs as her. In fact, suppose this Authority tells her to go out, wire herself to some explosives, wander into a supermarket full of unbelievers, and blow herself up. She takes her moral Authority’s word for it (as she always has) and goes out and kills several hundred people. Is this person also blameless?

Intuitively not. Someone who goes out and kills on the instruction of a religious or some other moral Authority does not thereby avoid moral responsibility for what they have done. “I was only following the instructions of my expert” is not an excuse.

Of course, in the case of the suicide bomber, there may be mitigating factors. If we feel this individual did not really make a free decision – if she had been heavily psychologically manipulated, perhaps even brainwashed – then we might be slightly more forgiving. She might, for that reason, be less blameworthy. The point remains that she can’t absolve herself from responsibility simply by saying, “My moral expert told me it was okay” in the same way that the chemistry student can absolve herself of responsibility by saying “My chemistry expert told me it was okay”.

Taking advice from moral experts and authorities

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t seek moral advice, particularly when it comes to complex moral dilemmas. The advice we receive might be valuable. It might lead us to recognize that we were mistaken in holding a particular moral belief. No doubt some people really are better judges about what’s right and what’s wrong than are the rest of us. They’re ‘moral experts’ in that sense. Arguably, these moral experts include some priests, imams and rabbis. If so, we might learn by listening to them. They may, in this sense, be “authoritative”.

However, to accept that some people may be “authorities” in this sense is not to say that we should more-or-less uncritically defer to them on moral matters. It’s not yet to say that anyone should be considered an Authority with a capital “A”.

Many will reject this of course. Some may point an accusatory finger and say, “You believe you should make your own mind up about what’s right and what’s wrong? The arrogance! You are playing God!”

But actually, like it or not, playing God is unavoidable. For how am I to know which religious book, which religion, which religious sect and which interpreter of the book I am supposed to listen? Those who defer to religious Authority can pretend these judgements don’t have to be made. But they are unavoidable. Even just sticking with the religious authority with which I was raised requires that I make them. And they are moral judgements. They involve the question, “Ought I to follow the moral advice I’m being given?” However we’re raised, we inevitably have to rely on our own moral compass – our own sense of right and wrong – in weighing up to whom we should listen and whether or not to accept the moral advice we are given. Like it or not, we have to “play God”.

This is at least part of the explanation for unavoidability of the responsibility for making a moral judgement. The judgement whether someone can be trusted to be competent in some technical area like chemistry or plumbing or car maintenance need not itself be a technical judgement. But the judgement whether someone is a moral expert whose advice ought to be followed is itself a moral judgement. Hence the responsibility for making a moral judgement cannot be avoided.

But then those who say, “The arrogance! You’re playing God!” deceive themselves if they suppose they’re not playing God themselves. Moral responsibility is indeed like a boomerang. Try and throw it to someone else if you like – but you’ll find that, in the end, it always comes back to you.

That’s precisely why you can’t absolve yourself of responsibility for having committed some atrocity wrong by pointing out that the moral Authority to which you defer told you to do it. If Stalin, the Pope, an Ayatollah or even the voice of ‘God’ in your head tells you to go out and kill the unbelievers, and you obey, you’re still culpable.

The truth is it would come as something of a relief to me if I could hand over to someone else responsibility for making moral decisions. That kind of responsibility weighs heavily on my shoulders. How convenient it would be if, whenever I was faced with a moral choice, I could transfer responsibility for making it to someone else. Unfortunately, I can’t.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Building the case against Ibrahim's position: moral sheep

Here’s another reason why encouraging children to think critically and independently even about moral issues might be a good idea. Again, it’s from my book The War For Children's minds.

I’ll summarize my case against the Ibrahim’s view that in any good Islamic school “Islam is a given and never challenged” shortly.

Milgram’s Experiment

Here’s another reason why raising Enlightened citizens might be a good idea.

Humans appear to have a disastrously strong in-built tendency to defer to authority. This was demonstrated particularly vividly by the psychologist Stanley Milgram back in the Fifties. Struck by the way in which concentration camp guards in Nazi Germany attempted to excuse themselves by insisting they were “only obeying orders”, Milgram set out to show that the same could never happen in the U.S. He designed an experiment to establish what strength of electric shock an ordinary American citizen would administer to a stranger if asked to do so by a white-coated authority figure.

Subjects were recruited through a newspaper advertisement to take part in a “study of memory” for which they would receive a small payment. Each participant was paired with a stooge who pretended to be another member of the public. The participant was told that one of them would be arbitrarily selected as the “learner” and the other as the “teacher”. In fact the actor always became the “learner”. After seeing their pupil strapped into an electric chair, the “teacher” was then taken to a neighbouring room where they could speak to their pupil via an intercom. They were then asked to teach and test their partner. When the “learner” made a mistake, the participant was asked to administer an electric shock. The shocks were administered from a board of 30 lever switches that ranged from 15 volts up to 400 volts. The board was also labeled descriptively, from “slight shock” up to “Danger: severe shock”. When a shock was administered, a buzzer sounded, a needle on a voltage meter deflected and lights flashed. The shocks the subject was asked to administer were mild at first, but gradually escalated in intensity. As the voltage increased, the actor next door feigned increasing levels of discomfort and alarm. He would beg to be released. At 300 volts he would kick the wall. At the next level, marked “extreme intensity shock”, he became silent (as if dead or unconscious).

Milgram wanted to see how far up the scale Joe Public would be prepared to go if ordered to so by an “authority figure” dressed in a white coat. Just what level of shock would an average U.S. citizen be prepared to administer before they refused to continue with the experiment?

The results were extraordinary. Milgram found that sixty-five percent of his subjects went right to the end of the scale, beyond the point where the participants believed they had killed their “learner”. It appears that around sixty-five percent of ordinary American citizens will electrocute another human being to death if told to do so by a white-coated authority-figure!

True, many participants became agitated and concerned about the fate of their subject. When they expressed their concerns, the authority figure would respond by saying “Please continue”, “The experiment requires that you continue”, “It is absolutely essential that you continue” and “You have no other choice – you must go on”. But no threats were made. And yet astonishingly, despite feeling that what they were doing was very wrong, the participants found the pressure to defer to the authority-figure overwhelming. In fact, not only did the majority proceed to murder the “learner”, not one of them stopped before reaching 300 volts – the point at which when the “learner” began to kick the wall.

It turns out that the soldiers who ran Auschwitz and who said they were “only obeying orders” weren’t weird, inhuman monsters. They were just like the rest of us. And remember that the soldiers at Auschwitz had the excuse that, had they disobeyed orders, they might themselves have been punished or killed. No such threats were made to Milgram’s subjects.

Of course, most of us don’t believe we would electrocute another human being to death if instructed to do so by an authority figure. We believe that in such circumstances we would act differently. We believe we would stand up and denounce the whole procedure as monstrous. Unfortunately, there’s good evidence that we flatter ourselves. It seems that, in similar circumstances, most of us will follow the instructions of authority to the bitter end.

Glover’s and the Oliner’s research

What Milgram demonstrated, in effect, is the extent to which we’re all moral sheep. We tend naturally to lack the inner resources to identify and stand up for what is right when pitted against a malign authority. We tend to go with the flow, follow the flock, do, and even believe, what we’re told to by those we perceive to be in positions of “authority” over us.

So how do we avoid raising moral sheep? Professor Jonathan Glover, Director of the Centre for Medical Law and Ethics at King’s College, London, has conducted research into the backgrounds of both those who were most eager to join in killing in places like Nazi Germany, Rwanda and Bosnia, and also those who worked to save lives, often at great risk to themselves. As Glover explained in an interview in The Guardian,

If you look at the people who shelter Jews under the Nazis, you find a number of things about them. One is that they tended to have a different kind of upbringing from the average person, they tended to be brought up in a non-authoritarian way, bought up to have sympathy with other people and to discuss things rather than just do what they were told.

Glover adds, “I think that teaching people to think rationally and critically actually can make a difference to people’s susceptibility to false ideologies”.

Samuel and Pearl Oliner conducted an extensive and detailed study into the backgrounds of both those who went along with the Final Solution and those who rescued victims. In The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe, they report that the most dramatic deference between the parents of those who rescued and those who did not lay in the extent to which parents placed greater emphasis on explaining, rather than on punishment and discipline.

[P]arents of rescuers depended significantly less on physical punishment and significantly more on reasoning.

[I]t is in their reliance on reasoning, explanations, suggestions of ways to remedy harm done, persuasion, and advice that the parents of rescuers differed from non-rescuers.

The Oliners add that “reasoning communicates a message of respect for and trust in children that allows them to feel a sense of personal efficacy and warmth toward others.” By contrast, the non-rescuers tended to feel “mere pawns, subject to the power of external authorities”. Incidentally, the Oliners found that while religious belief was also a factor, “religiosity was only weakly related to rescue”.

If Glover’s and the Oliners’ findings and conclusions are correct, then they mesh with Milgram’s. Given that human beings have a disastrous tendency to defer to Authority anyway, surely the last thing we should do is reinforce this tendency. If we seek to produce truly moral individuals, and not just a moral sheep, we should not, as those at the Authoritarian end of the Liberal/Authoritarian scale want, seek to strip away from individuals the responsibility to establish what is right and what is wrong. Rather, we should confront them with that responsibility. We should also equip them with the skills they will need to discharge that responsibility properly.

Of course, there can be advantages to a society within which a powerful moral Authority is at work. If a strict moral code is drilled into all individuals from a very young age, perhaps backed up with threats of divine retribution should they err, and if the questioning of moral Authority is not tolerated, then perhaps a society will emerge in which crime hardly exists and the streets are litter free. You may ask what is wrong with that.

Well, let’s hope that this Authority remains fairly benign. What is terrifying about such societies is what their members might do if so commanded. Once their confidence in their own ability to distinguish right from wrong has been eroded, individuals can be led into committing all sorts of horrors. The 20th Century has shown this to be no idle worry. Just as Milgram initially thought that what happened in Germany could never happen in the U.S., so we all have a rather complacent tendency to suppose “it could never happen here”. As I say, the evidence suggests otherwise.

Of course, even someone raised in the Liberal way recommended here may end up committing some unspeakable atrocity. Perhaps some have. The preceding argument is not that those raised within a Liberal regime - the kind of regime you find at a school like Liberalia High - will never commit such atrocities. It’s that human beings have a demonstrable and clearly dangerous tendency to behave like moral sheep, and that a Liberal approach would seem to be our best defence against this tendency. This gives us a powerful reason for favouring the Liberal approach, a reason not easily outweighed by other factors.

There’s a further, related reason for favouring a Liberal approach. No doubt the risk of atrocities will always exist, but at least those raised in a Liberal way can be reasoned with. They will feel themselves obliged to consider alternative points of view and to take seriously our criticisms. We can still reach them. The more they have been raised to defer to Authority, on the other hand, the harder it will be to get through to them. Those raised to defer blindly to an Authority might as well have cotton wool in their ears so far as our arguments and objections are concerned.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Reply from Ibrahim

[this is a response to the preceding post below - the final sentence is for the benefit of dd, I believe. S.L.]

I think it must be clear from my previous posts that I have no objection to teaching children to think critically. It must also be clear that I think that analytical philosophy has its limits. The point at which it becomes possible to think about those limits is after long preparation and practice. In the meantime, the practice of Islam as a spiritual process enables one to understand how those limits may be recognised for what they are – a curiosity that results from some kind of ‘knots in our thinking’ to use Wittgenstein’s expression. Many other western thinkers have detected the same kind of problem, as have the mystics of various traditions. This is where interesting possibilities begin to open up as far as I am concerned. Trading insults, even when thinly disguised as intellectual arguments, may be entertaining, but I don’t need to come to this blog for that.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Can children think philosophically?

Here's a bit from my book The War For Children's Minds. I include it as opening the case for saying critical thinking is something children can do, even at a fairly young age, and it's good for them. It's offered as an opening response to comments by Ibrahim Lawson and sr that children cannot think critically below 14, and also Ibrahim's comment that in any good Islamic school "Islam is a given and never challenged" - so I guess he thinks children should not be thinking critically about Islam in school at all (and also, of course, his turning down of my offer to come to his school and argue for atheism).

One way of being Liberal-with-a-capital-L would of course be to ignore morality altogether, to abandon each child to invent his or her own morality from scratch, within a moral vacuum. That’s not the method advocated here. This book recommends a much more specific sort of approach, an approach that involves a training in and the fostering of what might broadly be termed “thinking skills and virtues”. Children should be encouraged to scrutinize their own beliefs and explore other points of view. While not wanting to be overly prescriptive, I would suggest that skills to be cultivated should at least include the ability to:

• reveal and questioning underlying assumptions
• figure out the perhaps unforeseen consequences of a moral decision or point of view
• spot and diagnose faulty reasoning
• weigh up evidence fairly and impartially
• make a point clearly and concisely
• take turns in a debate, and listen attentively without interrupting
• argue without personalizing a dispute
• look at issues from the point of view of others
• question the appropriateness, or the appropriateness of acting on, ones own feelings

Acquiring these skills involves developing, not just a level of intellectual maturity, but a fair degree of emotional maturity too. For example, turn-taking requires patience and self-control. Judging impartially involves identifying and taking account of your own emotional biases. By thinking critically and carefully about your own beliefs and attitudes, you may develop insights into your own character. By stepping outside of your own viewpoint and looking at issues from the standpoint of another, you can develop a greater empathy with and understanding of others. So by engaging in this kind of philosophical, critical activity, you are likely to develop, not only the ability to reason cogently, but also what now tends to be called “emotional intelligence” (which is why the Director of Antidote – a British organization that works with schools to help develop emotional literacy –recently endorsed this kind of philosophical activity as an effective tool in aiding emotional development). Although I have emphasized the importance of reason, I don’t wish top downplay the importance of emotional development too. They are deeply intertwined.

Notice that many of these skills can only be developed, or at least are most effectively developed, by engaging in group activities, by getting children collectively to discuss and debate issues together. These are skills and virtues that are best taught and mastered, not in isolation, but through interaction within a “community of inquiry”. For that reason, many philosophy for children programmes are based around structured, open-ended group discussion. So the kind of Liberal approach recommended here certainly acknowledges the importance of a shared, social dimension to moral education. It’s not about severing all social ties and abandoning each individual child to “think up” their own morality within their own hermetically sealed-off universe. Quite the reverse. Exploring issues together may help foster interpersonal skills and a sense of community and belonging.

The approach described above might loosely be termed “philosophical”, though I should stress that doesn’t mean children should be given an academic course on the history of philosophy. What it means is that they should be trained and encouraged to approach questions in a particular kind of way. We should get them into the habit of thinking in an open, reflective, critical way, so that these intellectual, emotional and social skills and virtues are developed.

Clearly, the sort of philosophical approach to moral education recommended here is anti-Authoritarian. Those who favour Authority-based moral and religious education will reject it. Encouraging pupils to think for themselves, to debate freely and openly different moral and religious points of view, and so on, is precisely what those who think children should be taught to defer more or less uncritically to Authority on moral and religious matters are against.

Can children be philosophical?

Of course, all this presupposes that thinking philosophically is something children can do. But can they?

There’s growing empirical evidence that they can. There have been a number of studies and programs involving philosophy with children in several countries. The results are impressive.

One notable example is the Buranda State School, a small Australian primary school near Brisbane, which in 1997 introduced into all its classes a philosophy program along much the lines outlined above. Children collectively engaged in structured debates addressing philosophical questions that they themselves had come up with, following a Philosophy in Schools programme using materials developed by the philosopher Philip Cam and others. The effects were dramatic. The school showed marked academic improvement across the curriculum. A report on the success of the program says,

[f]or the last four years, students at Buranda have achieved outstanding academic results. This had not been the case prior to the teaching of Philosophy. In the systemic Year 3/5/7 tests (previously Yr 6 Test), our students performed below the state mean in most areas in 1996. Following the introduction of Philosophy in 1997, the results of our students improved significantly and have been maintained or improved upon since that time.

There were substantial payoffs in terms of behaviour too. The report indicates “significantly improved outcomes” occurred in the social behaviour of the students:

The respect for others and the increase in individual self esteem generated in the community of inquiry have permeated all aspects of school life. We now have few behaviour problems at our school (and we do have some difficult students). Students are less impatient with each other, they are more willing to accept their own mistakes as a normal part of learning and they discuss problems as they occur. As one Yr 5 child said, ‘Philosophy is a good example of how you should behave in the playground with your friends’… Bullying behaviour is rare at Buranda, with there being no reported incidence of bullying this year to date. A visiting academic commented, ‘Your children don’t fight, they negotiate’… Visitors to the school are constantly making reference to the 'feel' or 'spirit' of the place. We believe it's the way our children treat each other. The respect for others generated in the community of inquiry has permeated all aspects of school life.

Of course this is a single example – hardly conclusive evidence by itself. But it’s not the only example. In 2001-2, Professor Keith Topping, a senior psychologist, in conjunction with the University of Dundee studied the effects on introducing one hour per week of philosophy (using a Thinking Through Philosophy programme developed by Paul Cleghorn) at a number of upper primary schools in Clackmannanshire, including schools in deprived areas. Teachers were given two days of training. The study involved a whole range of tests, and also a control group of schools with no philosophy programme. The children involved were aged 11-12. This study found that after one year,

• The incidence of children supporting opinion with evidence doubled, but ‘control’ classes remained unchanged.
• There was evidence that children’s self-esteem and confidence rose markedly.
• The incidence of teachers asking open-ended questions (to better develop enquiry) doubled.
• There was evidence that class ethos and discipline improved noticeably.
• The ratio of teacher/pupil talk halved for teachers and doubled for pupils. Controls remained the same.
• All classes improved significantly (statistically) in verbal, non-verbal, and quantitative reasoning. No control class changed. This means children were more intelligent (av. 6.5 IQ points) after one year on the programme.

These benefits were retained. When the children were tested again at 14, after two years at secondary school without a philosophy programme, their CAT scores were exactly the same (that’s to say, the improvements that had previously been gained were retained), while the control group scores actually went down during those two years. Three secondary schools were involved and the results replicated themselves over each school. Again, this is only one study. No doubt such results should treated with caution. But, they do lend considerable weight to the claim that not only can children of this age think philosophically, it’s also highly beneficial. A recent study strongly supports the view that philosophy for children provides measurable educational benefits for children even in their first year of school.

To sum up: there’s good evidence that children, even fairly young children, can think philosophically. And, while more research needs to be done, there’s a growing body of evidence that it’s good for them academically, socially and emotionally. The kinds of skills such philosophy programmes foster are, surely, just the sort of skills we need new citizens to develop.

Letter to Ibrahim: Going Nuclear

Hello Ibrahim

Lots of interesting points being made here (especially in your comments on last three posts) – I won’t try to address them all.

Seems to me one of the biggest issues you raise concerns the use of reason. Here’s a popular argument for general scepticism:

Why suppose reason is a reliable route to the truth? Any justification of reason we offer will itself rely on reason, and so be unacceptably circular. So, that reason is a reliable route to truth cannot be justified. But if reliance on reason cannot be justified, then, because every justification relies on reason, nothing can be justified.

So, all beliefs are equally irrational!

Moreoever, if, to qualify as knowledge, a belief must be justified, knowledge is impossible too.

Suppose I am involved in a debate – and I’m struggling to make my case. In fact, my opponent seems to have shown I’m wrong. Oh dear. What do I do?

I might be tempted to make just this sceptical move. It offers a wonderful “get out of jail” card. I give the sceptical argument outlined above and conclude: “So you see? – both our positions are, in the last analysis, equally (ir)rational!”

Once I play the sceptical card, all my opponent’s hard work in constructing arguments against my position counts for nothing. At one stroke, they are all demolished.

I can now walk away with my head held high, having “established” that my position is no less reasonable than my opponent's!

Now Ibrahim, when people criticise Islam, and also your approach to religious education, you do, it seems to me, sometimes play this sort of sceptical card.

That’s OK. But bare in mind that in such discussions, playing the sceptical card really is “the nuclear option”. You avoid defeat, yes, but only by utterly annihilating the rationality of every position. All positions, no matter how sensible or nuts, come out as equally (ir)rational!

You must now say: “Hey, that the Earth is flat, that the earth is round, that milk makes people fly, that it doesn’t, that astrology is true, that is isn’t, that Mohammed is God’s prophet, that he isn’t – all these beliefs are equally (un)reasonable!

Now, is that what you really want to say? I guess not, but I am not sure.

In fact, once you take the nuclear option, you have to give up supposing reason is any sort of route to truth. You can’t take the nuclear option, but then, when you think maybe you can muster a cogent argument for not allowing children to think critically about religion, slip that argument back into the fray.

But that seems to be exactly what you have just done, in fact (you just suggested if you don’t fill kids heads with Islam, they’ll get filled with something far more pernicious – that’s an argument).

When I offer arguments against encouraging mindless, uncritical acceptance of Islam, you go nuclear. But then, five minutes later, I find you offering an argument in support of your own position. There’s a lack of consistency here, surely? You’re not playing fair!

Indeed, the fact that you do continue to use reason wherever you think it supports your case - and also in everyday life, when you rely on it almost every minute (indeed, you constantly trust your life to it) - shows that playing the sceptical card is, in truth, merely a rhetorical ploy. You don’t really believe what you’re saying about reason. You are saying it just to raise enough dust and confusion to make quick your escape. Or so it seems to me!

The point of my astrology example needs spelling out. I have two questions:

(i) Given Ted’s attitude to his book, does that show that the truth of astrology cannot be rationally settled? If your answer is “no”, why does the fact that you take a similar attitude to the Koran show that the truth about the Koran cannot be rationally settled? But perhaps your answer is “yes”?

(ii) Is Ted’s attitude to his book foolish? If you say that Ted is a fool, then the question is, why aren’t those who take a similar attitude to the Koran similarly foolish? If you deny Ted is a fool, well, don’t you make yourself look foolish?

I’m particularly keen to get answers to these two questions, Ibrahim, if you’ve got the time.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Further point re Ibrahim Lawson correspondence

Here’s another, hopefully more accessible, way of making the same point I made in my reply to Ibrahim below.

Suppose Ted buys an astrology book. The first line of the book says he must accept the basic principles of astrology without question. They must not be subject to critical scrutiny. Ever. Ted accepts this.

As a result, whenever Ted comes up against any apparent evidence against astrology, he always attempts to explain away the evidence, or, if he can’t, says it’s simply a “mystery” that such evidence should exist given astrology is true. The one thing he never does is question the basic tenets of the book.

Ask him why he does not question the book, he simply answers: because the book says he mustn't.

Ted has made acceptance of the principles of this book part of his foundational beliefs – his first principles, if you like.

Given you reject astrology, as I do, would you nevertheless accept that, because Ted has made acceptance of these principles "foundational", we have here a rationally “unresolvable disagreement over first order issues”? Do you suppose that reason cannot reveal whether or not the principles of astrology are true? That reason cannot reveal whether or not its Ted, or us, that's mistaken?

I’m sure you wouldn’t. The fact is, astrology can be shown to be false. By science and reason.

Would you consider Ted’s position intellectually respectable and honest?

Again, surely not. I think we’d both agree that Ted is a fool.

Ted’s position, epistemologically speaking, is worthy of about the same level of respect as that of someone who, when told about something they don’t want to have to consider, sticks their fingers in their ears and shouts “Nya, nya nya! Can’t hear you!”

But if that’s true – then why aren’t those who take the same attitude to the Koran not similarly foolish?

P.S. Ibrahim, having just read these last two posts, they strike me as a bit brusque, which wasn't my intention. Tend to get brusque when I have my philosophy hat on - apologies.