Monday, December 21, 2015

Seasons Grievings

I am not worried about terrorism. This is not because I am somehow more Zen than the rest of the world and never worry about what I cannot change. Nor do I generally apply some objective evidence-based assessment of what I am most at risk of dying from. While terrorism wouldn’t make a short list of significant threats to my person, I fear many things which are statistically improbable; Aneurysms, for example. Why did anyone ever think I needed to learn about aneurysms, the cause of anxiety since before I was an adolescent?

Even more than a bubble of air in my brain, I am particularly concerned about another threat, one so overwhelmingly present in my recent experiences as to crowd out any raised alert over acts of terror. For the last six months I have worked in St. Arnaud. I have prepared classes between two teachers who are also farmers. I have driven an hour and twenty minutes each way, each day, past the pastures that produce some of my food. Most poignantly I have driven over dry river beds and besides diminishing dams. All the while I have taught Geography students about food security. I am scared by what I have seen and learnt about.

Climate change is real. We have finally come to admit this at a political level at the recent Paris summit. Some people are still in denial. But denying or not people are investing on the basis of the sorts of changes global warming will bring. The U.S. city of Miami is allocating millions to hold back the rising sea while refusing to name what is causing it. Farmers in Australia are not all willing to accept man-made climate change as real but they are changing their crops, or even moving their farms, in the expectation that recent trends in weather patterns will continue.

Alongside climate change we are seeing global population growth, desertification of farm lands, competition for cropland from the production of bio-fuels, over fishing and the sort of food waste that can’t be sustained but seems culturally unstoppable. There are answers to these problems in smarter farming, greater sharing and reduced consumption. But our current efforts in these areas will be negated by the best case scenario of a 1.5 degree global temperature rise.

My head is playing a powerfully linear narrative. This year is dangerously different to last year. Next year will be crucially not the same as the year before. My children’s lives will not be like mine. The natural world will treat them differently, which is not the same as saying they will have different social mores or use technology differently from my generation. It is a magnitude beyond that. Nature, the benchmark of permanence by which technological and social change can be compared will be different.

Christmas is embedded in a circular narrative. Each year a baby is born as much as they were born once in history as well. Songs are sung and a pantomime is enacted in our lives to transport us to that singular moment in time, restored to relevance each year. This is the Christian church calendar that despite declining church attendance still shapes our secular world. The pattern is also the pattern of seasons. Come Easter when the crops would have been harvested across Europe, this child is cut down, their life taken, so that new life can emerge from that death. We are sustained. Our communities are sustained. Our world is sustained by the pattern of acknowledging God’s plan in our world. Prosaically, cynically even, our economy is sustained by the Christmas consumer demand.

The constancy of this cycle is a significant part of the message around Christmas every year. We are supposed to return to the original Christmas, to look at the manger frozen in perfect stasis. Even odder nostalgias are celebrated so that Dickensian garbed figurines adorn cards and wrapping paper, . There will be a million sermons which seek not to add a drop to the recipe, but instead suggest that the nativity message of the angel to the shepherds is still the food fit for us on Christmas "morn". Both the tacky and the profound share the message that old is good on this day. Who says morn not morning except at Christmas?

Of course the Christian calendar is not something unchanging. Its marking dates are relatively recent in the grand scheme of human history. We stand in its 2015th year. Extending before it is a Jewish calendar now in it’s 5776th year. This calendar corresponds its months to lunar cycles so doesn’t match exactly the civil calendar. Still the event closest to Christmas in date is Chanukah, which commemorates an event only two years before what Christmas remembers. Purim, in March (and the Jewish month of Adar), is perhaps closer in tone to Christmas, with plays and feasting and the exchange of gifts. It recalls an event set in the Ancient Persian Empire. This is Ancient applied too easily though. There are calendars older than this and in my ignorance I wouldn’t even know how to apply linear time to those of Aboriginal peoples.

Christmas represents, whether adopted voluntarily or imposed by the state, a disruption in the sacramental life that preceded it. Traditionalism in regard to Christmas is therefore a defense of the relatively modern and thus counter-traditionalism. To acknowledge this is to remember that Christian history is ultimately not cyclical but linear. What is happening is not supposed to continue indefinitely. Christian history heads towards the sharp cliff of the end times. Every sale will be a closing sale one day.

Normally I resent the intrusion of end times preaching at Christmas. I think it reveals our human discomfort with an image of God that is helpless at birth. In the adoration of the returned and avenging soldier Christ, Jesus gets weaponised in a way infant Jesus can’t sensibly be. But this year while I won’t look for any heavenly intervention to save us I find I am also not satisfied with the practice of Christmas as attention to the past. The same is not sufficient. The manger is burning. We need a new song to sing. Not even the seasons are the same.

This Christmas is not going to be the last but it is the last one we should practice in ignorance of what is happening to this planet. I'm not sure what this means in practical terms. Buy less plastic crap obviously. On a spiritual level ritual is meant to speak to our fears and hopes and I find mine feeling ignored by the observance of Christmas this year. Faithfulness to tradition feels like blitheness towards what is changing. NOT EVEN THE SEASONS ARE THE SAME.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

No Sympathy for the (concept of the) Devil

There is some hooha at the moment in the U.S. over a television show, Lucifer, for depicting the Devil in a sympathetic light. But who is the real Devil supposed to be? The word Devil is the Greek version of the Hebrew word Satan. The word Satan simply means adversary – so anyone can be a satan to a cause they oppose.  Lucifer is a name attributed to Satan because, meaning light-bringer, it was a nickname for the morning star. As thus it appears in the Book of Isaiah describing a mighty figure cast from the heavens.
In the third century BCE this reference was taken to refer not only to the Babylonian king it directly meant but also to a unique historical figure. This historical figure was understood to be the same as the serpent in the garden of Eve and also the adversary of Revelations who contends with the returned Jesus for the fate of the world. This is the Devil, a single male entity, who has been our adversary since creation.
Nowadays when we think of Satan or the Devil or Lucifer whether we believe in them or not it is this one immortal being that we tend to think of. They are not omnipotent like God but have some supernatural power. That power can range from the unfathomable, “god of this world”, able to establish Kingdoms and secure victory in battle, (or secure fame and recording contracts) to something much more limited – only able to possess individuals, or even merely a whisperer of dark suggestions. The Lucifer character from the latest t.v. show fits into this archetype.
But this isn’t the only way that the Devil has been understood. Their role has changed significantly over time, expanding or diminishing depending very much on broader world views. To describe the devil may even be to describe God’s animus to use Jung’s term – the repressed shadow to God’s righteousness.  It has long been my view that asking what God would be like, as the perfect object of worship, has usefulness to non-believers as much as theists, as a thought exercise. I don’t argue against the existence of God so much as I want to know what kind of God a person cares to follow. I am far less inclined to extend this merit to the concept of the Devil though. 
The Devil has always served as a crude political tool. The Devil gained horns and goat legs when Christianity wanted to demonise Pan worship in its first few centuries. During the Crusades both Muslims and Christians justified atrocities on the basis that their opponents served Satan. The Crusade against the Cathars, a Christian Gnostic sect, declared them Satanists too. The Reformation called the Pope, the Anti-Christ, in league with the devil and the Catholic church made the same claim about protestants. Whatever theological purpose the Devil serves seems secondary to immediate politics.
On the more local level the Devil has served humanity no better.  Both the medieval and puritan slaughter of women for witchcraft, often to obtain land from widows, found the Devil everywhere. The idea that women are especially subject to the devils seductions lingers in their oppression in churches today. Also in an alarmingly increasing trend the devil as an explanation can be seen in cases of child abuse and neglect. Brutal and at times deadly practices are being justified as the exorcism practices of the perpetrators.
I had intended this blog post to be a humorous tour of the different ideas of the Christian devil. I thought to visit not only perceptions in the Old Testament, particularly the Book of Job, and the New Testament but also ideas in popular culture. There are some ideas of the devil, as the ruler of Hell, which I find subtly funny; as if they were a middle manager assigned to the torture department of a large bureaucracy, burdened by expectations from head office. But to be honest I don’t have the heart for it.
More seriously I had wanted to challenge myself as well to find the ways in which a concept of the devil might be useful. I’ve only been able to think of two. Firstly working in addictions for many years I know it can be beneficial for some people to externalize compulsions – to disown them by attributing them to a medical condition. Maybe the devil’s influence can do this for a range of unwanted behaviours, even social problems like war and the destruction of environments.
Secondly the devil serves as a spiritual source of evil. Without this kind of a transcendent cause we might be more inclined to source evil in our animal instincts instead. Does this do justice to either evil or animals? I don’t think so; the holocaust is a uniquely human sort of endeavour. So maybe the devil has a usefulness in this regard, in recognizing evil as something that divides us from the rest of nature rather than is drawn from it.

In the end though I couldn’t see how a further investigation of the devil would reach my goal to find humour or practical benefit without glossing over far too much harm. God’s name can be found on the lips of those who speak up for refugees, against racism, and for the homeless. God is also declared by those who seek their own power over others. The Devil on the other hand, with very rare exceptions (which I might explore further another time) is declared present and powerful with the result of horrible suffering. The idea just doesn’t seem redeemable enough so I’m cutting the exercise short. Maybe the show Lucifer will be different precisely because its devil is less than pure evil and more like the rest of us.


Still interested despite my thoughts? The following clips are worth a watch;
History of the Belief in the Devil
History of the Devil

Friday, October 23, 2015

"Did I offend you? Good." : The Perversity of Inverse Wishful Thinking.

Recently my evangelical Christian brother, and often theological sparring partner, asked a stimulating question; Is substitutionary atonement the most offensive idea in Christianity?

Substitutionary atonement is pretty much the theologically nerdy way of describing the idea that Jesus died for our sins. In substitutionary atonement Jesus death serves as a human sacrifice on our behalf.  It is understood by its adherents as a necessary adoption of the punishment incurred by our sinfulness in order for us to be at one (or atoned) with God. Within the theology of substitutionary atonement you can understand our sinfulness as the commission of bad acts by each of us individually or a corporate human responsibility for Adam and Eve’s garden folly or even an inherited corrupted nature that we can do nothing about. 

What intrigued me about my brothers question however was that he didn’t find substitutionary atonement offensive. He didn’t mean to ask his question in a way that was critical of Christianity or this idea in particular. He likes the idea of substitutionary atonement. In fact he meant to pin to subsititutionary atonement the mark of “offensiveness” as a badge of honour. That is interesting. What assumptions are behind this idea that offensiveness is somehow a virtue?

This inverse use of offensiveness is not unique to either my brother or his theology although it is evangelical Christianity where I have encountered this useage most commonly. When I googled “the offensiveness of the cross” and “offensiveness of the gospel” (both autocomplete entries on my google account) I received results that were only pro-cross and pro-gospel. Offensiveness was always a good thing; a measure of the truth of the message. Nobody after all likes to hear the truth.

This way of thinking has a danger. Even if nobody likes to hear the truth this doesn’t mean that the truth is whatever nobody likes to hear. The truth may be that I am not a great writer. I don’t want to hear that. I also however don’t want to hear that my head is a bum - which it is not. If we take offensiveness as a virtue too far we enter the ridiculous; “Methinks he doth protest too much” makes any opposition to our position evidence for it.

I have personally encountered Christian evangelists who take this stance. Their argument for their faith largely consists of highlighting how unlikeable the prospect of having to submit ones life to judgement by God is. It assails our pride. It is offensive. Therefore by implication all opposition to this idea is basically self-serving while believing in this idea, because it is not self-serving must be because it is true. Scary logic.

But these evangelists are sometimes mirrored by their opponents.  Who hasn’t heard the characterization of belief in God as a crutch to lean on. The implication is that an atheist universe is just too hard to bear for the religious. Again by implication all opposition to this atheism is basically self-serving whereas atheism, because it is not self-serving, means it is true.  The burden of atheism is cast as its virtue – it is correct precisely because it is unpalatable.

I call these arguments the inverse wishful thinking arguments. Arguments from wishful thinking argue for what is on the basis of what would be nice. Inverse wishful arguments reverse this illogic but are no better. They are however extreme and maybe even strawman versions of the sort of thing my brother was doing with his question. I don’t mean to insinuate that he was suggesting the offensiveness of substitutionary atonement was a proof of it, merely some kind of “badge of honour” unrelated to its correctness.

But I wondered as I read my brothers question, “Shouldn’t what we find offensiveness be a default guide to the wrongness of an idea? Not an exclusive or perfect guide but a nudge in the other direction? A negative quality, rather than a positive? In the absence of anything else to go on shouldn’t offensiveness tip us away from an option rather than make it attractive?”.

That assumption of mine seemed so culturally at odds with my brother’s question. And when I googled those phrases, “the offensiveness of the cross” or the gospel, I asked myself, “How is it that offensiveness is celebrated in every one of these evangelical Christian blogs and articles? Shouldn’t it be atheists making this claim?”

I guess I am saying that while arguments from wishful thinking are not really arguments at all they still seem better non-arguments than their inverse. It seems less perverse to fall into the trap of wishful thinking than the trap of making offensiveness into something good. Further if we are talking about God and God’s plan then maybe this permits us some entertainment that the ideal is a map for reality. If God is perfection then what would be nice maybe ought to be closer to what is true than what offends us as yucky or dumb. Even if not, doesn’t it seem sensible to err in that direction?

We seem to be generally attracted to making life hard for ourselves. Not only offensiveness  but also difficulty is swallowed dutifully as if it was a foul tasting medicine. One option over another can be discredited by alleging it is “the easy way out” or the “soft option”.  Yet surely, excluding all other factors, the easiest route is the best one to take. We don't exit rooms by the windows.

Psychologically inverse wishful thinking comes across as self-hating. Supposedly this is the me generation. This is the age of entitlement, just ending, according to some. I’m not so sure that’s true or at least we keep our self-flagellation tools close at hand. Otherwise why would inoffensive sound like an insult? Why do we extol the hard road? Yes, I see it as silly but I do it too.

Perhaps it's that the desire for the difficult and unpleasant is perennially justified. We do regularly let ourselves and others down. We feel bad about it. Thus a world that would be mean and disappointing to us would balance things somewhat. Which I guess makes inverse wishful thinking just normal wishful thinking after all. 

Friday, July 3, 2015

The right side of history part 3 : Equality

It's been another long gap between posts. I have been caught up this time in a campaign to save my town's science education facility, The Discovery Centre, from closure. The petition which explains the issue is here. You can make a personal contribution to helping Discovery stay afloat at 

It's been a bit deflating in the process to encounter the sorts of politicians who would leap in front of a banner to Save the Discovery Centre, declare the closure a terrible loss and simultaneously sustain a complete avoidance of any commitment to maintain funding. It's been very disheartening to hear our rates and taxes described as “handouts” and “propping up” as if a children's science museum should be user-pays or rely on the noblesse-oblige of the wealthy. Still, the short of it is that the centre is dearly loved by so many that in the long term council and state are almost certain to support it. There really is no sense in closing Discovery for a pittance of investment then complaining about a lack of engagement in science.

But let's leave the frustrations of local politics behind and talk philosophy instead. Concluding this trilogy of blog posts on The Right Side of History is long overdue and for a while now I've known what I want to say, if not how to say it. Before I try, you may want to refresh your memory with the first two posts, “Trope about Discernment” and “Progress”.

While discussing this topic with a friend of mine and speaking from my own doubts I asked her whether maybe there was no relation between different “good things” of history. Maybe, I mused, “women getting the vote and ending slavery and saving the orangutan from extinction and so on aren't connected enough to put them all on in the same right side of history.”

If this is so then the question I am asking – how to borrow from past moments in which people chose the right side of historical conflicts, some guide to discerning the right side to be on in our own times – falls down. My friends answer was revealing. She said “There probably is some meta-ethic narrative that ties together all the different historical right decisions but I doubt we can know what it is.”*

Firstly I really like “meta-ethic narrative” . It's proably clearer than my own preferred terms of “spirit” or “progress” which each come with their alienating cultural baggage. Narrative just means 
'story' like history is our story, and meta-ethic is a nice way of describing an idea of right and wrong that ties together disparate decision making moments. Hence meta-ethic narrative describes the right side of history fairly well.

Secondly its very important to remember
 the element of unknowability involved in this question. Whatever we are talking about in terms of a right side to history to be on is something glimpsed, only at best partially available to us. In Christian theology this idea of unknowing is sometimes referred to as a condition of “the Fall.” The Fall is the inbetween time that supposedly humanity lives in now, with harmony with God's will behind us in our story and in the future, but absent now. While I disagree with this history I think “the Fall” is well utilised by theologians like William Stringfellow to describe the problematic nature of our attempts to fathom the right side of history. For Stringfellow all things including religion operate inside the Fall and are therefore prone to corruption.

's discussions on the meaning of the Fall describe the type of unknowing that I am talking about. I am very carefully not saying that uncertainty is a quality of those on the right side of history so that we can point to the people who are terribly certain and say they are clearly going wrong. This is I think a mistake we want to rush to make. We are desperate to fill our ignorance in with something. This inspires the fundamentalist drive to elevate texts but it can even make an idol of uncertainty itself. Yet uncertainty, or certainty, can both be qualities of people on the right or wrong sides of history. We are therefore uncertain even if uncertainty is the correct position to hold in any given situation!

We need to be especially mindful of this when examining heroes of history. Heroes of history for example are all likely to be courageous, persistent and imaginative. This is because we identify heroes from the circumstances of them being opposed by great force and yet succeeding. That usually takes courage, imagination and persistence. However it would be wrong to conclude these characteristics put a person on the right side of history. If we broaden our scope we can see those characteristics producing some of histor
y's worst villains as well. Essentially courage, persistence and imagination produce people able to change history for good or ill. We can't make them into idols which would always put us aright.

I view the role of religion in a similar way. Religious beliefs are generally speaking “convictions”, whereas the scientific model of knowing treats beliefs as assumptions. (as discussed in this very old post). Convictions are harder to change than assumptions and therefore we will often see religion serving as a factor in helping historical heroes resist broad social forces, especially when conflict is sharply defined. No surprises though that this can also produce some horrible outcomes too. Not all circumstances involve progress by conflict with broad social forces and sometimes self-questioning is to be found in the necessary toolset of someone on the right side of history rather than conviction. To repeat Stringfellow, everything is under the Fall. Even religious conviction can be corrupted.

So where does this leave this project? Humbled for one thing. Simple answers like suggesting we all need to meditate or think more logically to improve our chance of being on the right side of history wont fly. An idea like “read your bible” is about as historically reliable as “join the workers party” for ensuring a life without historical regret.

However I refuse to believe that the clarity with which I can identify the right side of history in the past is meaningless. I also take comfort from a particular Christian teaching which has always made sense to me; ethics is not rocket science.

Before you scramble for your bible to find out where Jesus mentioned rockets almost two thousand years before we launched one I'm referring to Matthew 7: 9-12
Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”Look, even we who are evil are not so messed up as to not get the basics of right and wrong and give our kids stones for bread (or as the gospel of Luke adds, "a scorpion instead of an egg").

Many people I asked answered this question of how to know the right side of history by relying on the sort of common sense that is found in the bible quote above. My partner's mother said “It always seems that people go wrong when they make themselves more important than other people.”*
As she pointed out arguments like the need for British Sugar to maintain the use of slaves are really just convoluted ways to put the speaker's wants above another's basic needs. We often find that the people on the right side of history, in this case William Wilberforce, didn't do this. He and those with him simply valued the wellbeing of others as much as their own.

For me this notion of equality between self and others needs is at least one essential kernel of the meta-ethic narrative. I used to wear a badge which said “You are among equals”. I enjoyed the way it infuriated the right people and flattered the right people depending on what misconception they laboured under. And for myself, if the badge humbled me or gave me airs it was precisely when whichever dose was required.

Certainly not every kairos question is neatly answered by this notion of equality. But upon reflection a surprising number are. If we look squarely at an issue like Australia's policies towards refugees we can see that every complex argument for harsher border protection simply obscures that Australians are trying to preserve a privileged way of life at the cost of refugee's very lives. While some Australians might be poorer or less safe than a refugee seeking entry most aren't by a huge magnitude. So long as that inequality exists then the right side of history is to be found in refusing to consider it a valid state of affairs. People's conclusions from this recognition may differ but not so wildly that we would ever tolerate covering up systematic child abuse in off-shore detention. 

Equality also gives us a direction for history and a way to recognise where wrong turns were made. Flattening movements like Christianity with its anti-clericalism or Communism with its supposed abolishment of class move away from this right side of history when they throw up new hierarchies and inequalities. There is no guarantee of success implied in this definition of progress. We can't even imagine necessarily from our present what perfect equality might look like. We can however tell when inequality gets worse and when we have chosen the bread for us and the stones for those seeking our help.

*Not exact quotes.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The right side of history Part 2. - Progress

I have been struggling to write this piece continuing on from my last post about discernment (which I recommend a read of first so this post will make sense).  Partly the delay in posting has been due to the thrilling distraction of some regular casual relief teaching. Partly it is because I may have bitten off more than I can intellectually chew. My aim with this topic is to borrow the processes of discernment belonging to people who made profoundly correct choices in the past. Before I do that I would like to stress the profound implications of the task which may be repetitive for some but helpful to others.

Those of us who reject submission to a purportedly divine and clear legalistic authority as any kind of basis for morality are often accused of having nothing more to say on morality than personal taste, of simply making up our own versions of right and wrong. In this bag are not only atheists but the non-fundamentalist religious. It’s a serious charge because taste is notoriously affected by peers, and prejudices and we at least like to pretend that morality is an objective reality when evaluating different options for actions.

We are not entirely forced to evaluate options as right or wrong. A possible escape is to avoid consciously making these choices as much as possible – to try to operate from an instinctual orientation towards health. In a way this is the ultimate acceptance that morality is “taste” but with a regard for the wisdom of taste to point to healthy. This would be a neat approximation of the Daoist solution. I think it is an interesting road and invite anyone with more experience exploring it to comment. I honestly don’t trust my own taste enough to commit to this path.

Conceding that moral arguments are necessary to make however does not lead into the fundamentalist’s argument that clear divine instructions necessarily exist. It means life would be simple if they did exist but since when has life been simple because we wish it to be? The fundamentalist is ultimately indulging a fantasy and their arguments are really temptations to a happy stupor.

The temptation of fundamentalism works because the irrationality of morality and the obligation to make moral arguments is genuinely experienced as anxiety – often leading those who can’t embrace the simple security of fundamentalism to belittle ethics entirely (as they should say Daoists). It is no small thing, in this context, to be trying to justify a description of what is really right or good and it is greater still to say this is a reliable method for finding the right and good in different situations. That is what this post and some of my past ones attempt to do.

What we call right or good on an individual level we could call progress on a historical and societal level. The anxiety over groundlessness is no less serious here. If progress is a matter of taste then who can really say whether we should develop or dismantle public health care, or whether tackling homophobia or ending spanking or protecting endangered species has any merit. In the absence of objective merit or “shouldness” we could simply reduce each of these choices to personal cost-benifit analysis – a trend which arguably our governments have been all too willing to embrace; also a trend in which individual costs all too often outweigh collective rewards to our universal detriment.

So how cool then to suggest a positive historical direction called progress and to identify how to be for or against it. Note that this is not the same thing as believing that history has been a winning tale of progress. It is possible to believe in a right direction for history but to believe humans have been missing that direction for the most part. In fact to believe human history is a tale of decline requires a belief in the, at least theoretical, possibility of progress. I honestly think that the abandonment of this concept has more profound implications than Neitzche’s declaration that God is dead – or more accurately the death of progress is the most profound implication of Neitzche’s declaration. Progress, as a theoretical possibility, is the activists ultimate God by which even conceptions of God are measured. In its absence all activism is reduced to shouting only for what one wants (which again the Daoist would say is ok).

The problem (if we just ignore the Daoist who is shouting “wrong way, go back”) is however how to know what this progress is. My community “knows” what this progress looks like in hindsight – I have zero people in my life who think that Wilberforce was wrong to oppose slavery or Chiune Sugihara shouldn't have helped Jews flee to safety from the Nazis. Everyone I know is glad that “illegitimite” is no longer stamped on the birth certificates of children born out of wedlock (which Texans can thank Edna Gladney for and I can thank Blossoms in the Dust for teaching me about her). If agreement on these matters isn't always universal then it is at least overwhelming. But is this sufficent? Why couldn't we all be wrong.

I am going to go out on a precarious philosophical limb here and say this is sufficient. There are areas where my community and I have doubts and are open to challenge but there are also some firm convictions as well. Women should have the vote. Yes, speaking skeptically that might be wrong. But if it is I may as well be hung for it. Frankly I am willing to be that kind of wrong. At some point I guess a person has to recognise what life they intend to lead in terms of certain assumptions and live it, accepting what metaphysical or historical judgements ensue.

Is this dangerous? Potentially. Lazy? Perhaps. As much an exercise in wishful thinking as the fundamentalist? Ouch. Maybe. But consider the weakness of only tolerating moral statements we can articulate a basis for. We will have made our morality dependent on our eloquence. If morality really did operate that way then we would expect simple minds to be cruel. As they are often not I think a case can be made for a right instinct. Before any Daoist celebrates I would add the caveat that this instinct can be most trusted only towards those issues which are comfortably settled and thus don’t play to our current self-interests.

Hopefully this post was able to lay out the stakes of this conversation. Hopefully I’ve explained my motivation and in doing so connected some previous comments I’ve made about progress and morality into a coherent position. Most hopefully I’ve punched a Daoist hole in my own position which I invite anyone coming from that perspective (whether you would call it Daoist or something else) to drive on through with their comments.  I end spared from actually answering my question as to how to use kairos moments in the past to inform the present by the length of this post so far.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Escape from Dingo Island

One of my fascinations is game creation. Escape from Dingo Island is a first attempt to put out there a very simple game I created  to teach some children I tutor and my own oldest child some basic maths. That maths is simply addition to ten which is regularly taught in early primary. In this game however students have to find if any combinations of numbers make ten from jumbled number sequences. That's a novel approach to the problem and involves adding multiple numbers in different combinations.

The game is also co-operative and positively themed which makes it suitable for kids in prep or year one. (You aren't even escaping from scary dingoes in the game but instead are helping animals including the dingoes escape from an island to safety.) This means it probably lacks the darkness and conflict that might appeal to older children some of whom could still benefit from practicing the skills it needs. That's a common challenge in education, how to combine age relevant themes and individually relevant levels of skill, which don't always match. Comment below if you want to suggest a version of this game that tells a different story to better engage older kids.

I'm linking to the game as a downloadable PDF file but I am also trying something new. It wont be a regular feature of the site (and it may not happen at all if I can't figure out how it works) but I'm asking for payment. I'm using a model I remember from my days loading free-ware off a floppy disk; try before you buy. Download the game and if it helps your children with their maths or if you like it so much you implement it across a whole school then pay the suggested price. If it isn't very useful then pay nothing.

And stay tuned because I'm still mulling over my thoughts about discernment and where I left my last post.

Download link:
Escape from Dingo Island

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Friday, April 17, 2015

The right side of history; A trope about discernment.

Martin Luther King removes a blackened cross from his front lawn.
A while back I discussed the use of tropes; predictions and mental shortcuts based in story telling. For this blog post I am going to expose a trope of my own. It’s a trope particularly relevant to the question of discernment raised in the last post.

Firstly a reminder that tropes are good. Everyday we have to predict the future which by virtue of it being in the future we can’t directly observe. For simple questions like whether the sun will rise tomorrow we may not think we need tropes but in the face of a counter claim from a Doomsday cult for example we will still use tropes to reject the doubts they raise. Tropes are our way of “knowing how this story ends”; we locate the events in front of us inside a type of story we have seen before. In this case a failed Doomsday prediction. There is therefore no need to investigate every allegation from everyone.  Tropes save us a lot of time.

Equally tropes are not so good. Tropes can make enemies of people who might in fact be friends when we apply our knowledge of “where this will end” over-cautiously.  Imagine refusing a genuine gift because it was “too good to be true.” Tropes can also merrily lead us into trouble. A good con-artist will encourage our tropes and allow us to play the hero or even the con-artist ourselves in line with our expectations. Our tropes are basically our prejudices with all the pejorative connotations that word deserve.

I use the word truism to describe the building blocks of a trope. Truisms are statements about the world which we accept as true. They may be rigorously tested or blithely assumed. They are not always conscious and making them conscious can be a great way of exposing a tropes flaws. The truisms which my trope is composed of are probably the best way to investigate it and can be laid out as follows. You can use the points to find where you depart with your own trope about discernment (treat them as wild claims rather than careful arguments).

1. There are clear Kairos moments in history. Kairos is a term I’m borrowing from theology where it describes a time in history when “the church”  - those people who profess to be the people of God – must make a decision which will critically decide the legitimacy of their claim to this identity. The position of the Anglican church on Apartheid in South Africa, or the position of the Lutheran Church on the Nazi party in Hitlers’ Germany form classic modern Kairos moments.

2. Kairos moments don’t just occur for the people of God. There are moments in the life of any institution including the broad institution of humanity when certain decisions become morally critical. Notwithstanding some losses in the translation from church to nation we can see the land-rights movement or even the royal commission into child abuse as kind of Kairos moments for the community of Australia. A Kairos moment is like a fork in the road. The relationship of an institution to its most fundamental legitimacy is at stake.

3. In a Kairos moment the path of righteousness is not clearly lit. It is obscured by rational and reasonable sounding counter arguments. White people supporting Apartheid in South Africa pointed to neighbouring countries in which corruption and violence seemed even worse under black rule. Mark Twains famous depiction of Huckleberry Finn shows him comprehending freeing his friend Tom from slavery as stealing him from the woman who owns him.  Even the oppressed can’t be certain of their tactics or timing for change. The resisters in the Warsaw Ghettos could never be sure that surrender wasn’t the wiser choice of action. Our choice in a Kairos moment might cost our life and the lives of many others and for nothing. Our pursuit of what we think is righteousness might ultimately condemn us as unforgiving, or naively soft for all we know in the moment of decision.

4. Just as the right call in a Kairos moment is unclear in our approach it is painfully obvious in hindsight. Nowadays even the staunchest western conservative, unwilling to bear the thought of a woman bishop, would not question a woman’s right to vote. Nowadays even the sad few who cling to the myth of Aryan superiority deny rather than celebrate the holocaust. Support for slavery or segregation, once half the debate are now embarrassments for the church. This means we can take certain historical outcomes in debates as givens in regard to morality. (I realize this may be my weakest point; matters of justice that may seem settled briefly can easily become contested again eg. the Australian abandonment of our obligations to refugees and does a settled opinion mean anything about its rightness anyway.)

5.  Those who made the right call in historical Kairos moments (and I rely on the above point to claim they can be clearly recognized) share some commonalities in terms of their process of discernment. Maybe they nurtured an intimacy with the people affected by the decision or maybe they could create the distance from the matter at hand to see things clearly. Maybe they emphasis reason or instinct or balance between the two or held basic philosophical assumptions in common. Perhaps by comparing each person side by side we could identity a super tradition or religion each of these right-callers belong to. Whatever it is there is some definition to the process by which they managed to be on the right side of a Kairos moment.

6. Likewise we can see from past Kairos moments that certain processes of discernment were not helpful and served to obscure what we now see clearly. It may be that we can discount or treat warily forms of authority based on their uselessness in past Kairos moments. Alternatively we might just crudely note intellectual vices to avoid.

7. When we stand in a position of ignorance in relation to our own Kairos moments we can borrow from those who made the right call in the past, their process of discernment. We can also skirt past the traps that befell those who made the wrong calls. In this way while we can’t necessarily know the right conclusion to a contemporary moral crisis (and must ultimately step forward in faith) we can grow to trust a path to truth and try to find it in new scenarios.

Before I go any further with this and talk about how I apply my trope to what I see might be modern Kairos moments (Australia’s treatment of refugees for example or the global response to climate change) I want to ask you for your thoughts. Do you agree with the points laid out above? Is the concept of a Kairos moment a helpful historical one? Am I right to have my doubts about point 4? Is there really any common discernment process to be uncovered as suggested in point 5?

You could see in this trope what is alluded to by the common phrase “right side of history”. Perhaps a really fundamental question is whether there can be a right side of history other than victory? I think there can be at least a side of history we wish we would have belonged to if we lived in Kairos moments in the past. We would rather be freeing slaves than slavers for example in the 18th century. Imagine if we could make even some small measure of improving our chances of being on the right side of history today. I think that’s something worth aiming for.

Sunday, March 29, 2015


A prayer in progress.

O Holy Spirit of justice
How little my relationship
with you has cost me
I have spent my days
with you finding fault in others
But I did not want to hear
your words to me

O Holy Spirit
Is this why you have abandoned me
To confusion and uncertainty?
Which way are you blowing?
I cannot feel you on my face
The air is still.
I will be still too.
And listen for you.

O Holy Spirit of Justice
I am making my home
in a wrong place
There is blood on the land
that I have stolen
Your hot air dries the ground
about my feet
My garden withers
As it should
But I am listening

O Holy Spirit of Justice
I swear I can walk from this throne
in the land of my forefathers
into the unknown
where I am unprotected
that my life will be full of life
that my life will sustains others
In your faintness I will heed you
Only do not leave me entirely.

I'm posting this poem as an re-introduction to thinking about discernment. Discernment is most simply to "judge well", to tell a tonic from a poison, to gauge the wisdom of a course of action, the merit of a tool for a job, the relevance of advice for a situation.... that kind of thing. Also discernment can refer to distinguishing more abstracted notions such as right from wrong or just from unjust. Whether these abstracted concepts relate directly to pragmatic concerns or whether they are somehow separate to them is also a matter of discernment itself. 

We are all involved in discernment all the time. It is a mark of our age that we like to conceal the moral dimensions of our conversations with the language of science and its objectivity. Debates such as whether children should be "pushed" to "excel" (both loaded words) by their parents, really struggle to hide their assumptions of value. Still even here both sides like to cite statistics and data about long term outcomes. In ages past conversations like this may have depended more on notions of moral debt and duty such as our responsibility to use our "gifts".

This is a re-introduction to talking about discernment rather than introduction. A quick perusal of my old blogs will show a number of times that I have tried to articulate what I think are good general principles of discernment. Going right back to a post from the second month of this blog almost four years ago I proposed something I called Empathy-led ethics. I still hold to the general gist of what I argued then. The same reliance on empathy pops up again in the perception of the ideal which forms the basis of "good morality" in a later post.

One recurring theme of this blog is its concern with fundamentalist (or biblicist) readings of Christianity. Here too the question is about discernment. Does submission to the texts of Christianity divorce us from a more reliable oracle, namely the relationships with people via which we intuit what is good and healthy for them in particular? Is fundamentalisms generation of universal truths imposed upon people after being determined, exactly what morality should avoid? I think so.

Despite these firm views I have a huge question about my own discernment. I think Buddhism has a great insight when it recognises that enlightenment comes after practice. In my daily acts of selfishness and laziness I can't perceive what is truly fair or even possible ethically. My perceptions are distorted by my priveleges and self-indulgence. The more I try to live well however the more I stop magnifying my sufferings and minimising what I can give. The more good I do, the more I can perceive what good I can do. Likewise the more I look after myself first the more I normalise to myself that I am number one and the less giving seems reasonable. The discernment of what is right and just is therefore something quite vulnerable to my actions. In the poem above their discernment is almost lost through misuse. This is a real fear I have for myself.

Because I hold ethical philosophy to be the most important branch of philosophy I am also saying something genuinely revolutionary about philosophy here and potentially to theology as well.  I do believe frankly that a stint of volunteering with people in need will do more to improve your perception of moral truth (God's truth if you like) than either studying scriptures or improving ones rationality. (Once again I have mentioned this before in a blog on killing. ) Seeing and doing are interwoven and we truly risk our ability to see justice while we are involved in injustice.

Philosophy and theology however are not immune to the hierarchies of our world. The person who makes the tea is considered less worth consulting than the academic at their books learning a fourth language, even on matters of tea!  Likewise we make experts of moral philosophy, people who study a lot. We make course on ethics that don't involve any practice. We assume our perception of what is right and just and healthy can be made with our nose in a book, even the Good book. We accumulate ways to perform wisdom without kindness and we never seem to ask ourselves whether this method of discernment has ever worked before.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Please stop teaching my child the difference between a fact and an opinion.

Last year my six year old received instruction in her grade one class as to the difference between a fact and an opinion. She was taught by example;
A horse has four legs. This is a fact.
Horse riding is fun. This is an opinion.

In order to define the difference alluded to above, multiple similar examples were given. Students gradually figured out that anything a person liked or disliked was called an opinion. Anything a person could count or weigh or that would be commonly agreed upon (like the colour of something) was a fact. The distinction rested, as far as I can tell, on the difference between the category of things for which we admit multiple right answers (opinion) and the category of things for which we admit only one (fact).

Of particular concern to me is the value discrepancy my child seemed to pick up between opinion and fact. I perceived a hidden message that opinion was “just” opinion while a fact was something much more real about the world; A person “feels” an opinion with far less certainty than they “know” a fact. I don’t see why my child should at the age of six consider the fun-ness of horse riding as somehow belonging to a less real category than the four-ness of horse legs. Is the declaration of the beauty of a sunset less real than a matter of fact description of its colours? To make such a case would require a whole host of philosophical assumptions that I doubt were adequately explored in her class.

This automatic insertion of judgment in philosophical conversations is common; when people are considered to be animals they are often not just considered animals, they are considered just animals instead (a profound difference).  It’s very possible that teaching my child to devalue opinion in relation to fact wasn’t the teachers’ intent. However any dichotomy tends to settle itself into a hierarchy, especially if a particular order of importance already has currency. We live in just such a culture that privileges the objective above the subjective and in school more than anywhere. Consequently the value discrepancy my child learnt was a predictable outcome.

This begs the question, was the purpose of this lesson meant to inform this hierarchy? Is it part of some social skills curriculum with the intent to ensure children permit each other to have different opinions while accepting they cannot choose the facts they like? I’d rather my child was taught social skills by empathizing with others feelings. I’d rather my child was encouraged to support all her opinions with reasons and to expect the same of her teacher – no need to restrict this to “facts.”

Regardless of these preferences it is a form of wishful thinking to believe in a model of truth and the world because of its implications for social behaviour. At least we can choose to engage in this wishful thinking as adults. Is it morally permissible to teach a model of truth to children for its social benefits without admitting that agenda? The Village, directed by M. Night Shyamalan explores that question. For a range of reasons I don’t think it’s either desirable or necessary to do so.

Hearing my child come home with a respect for fact over opinion wasn’t my only concern with this lesson. The distinction is also incorrect; an opinion is not the opposite of a fact. What makes something an opinion is just that someone believes it. All opinions, in order to be an opinion, are my opinion or your opinion or someone else’s opinion. They belong to someone. There is no such thing as a category of statement which is an opinion in isolation from whether someone believes it. The statement “Horse riding is fun” describes a subjective quality of horse riding which is only an opinion if it is my opinion or yours or someone’s. It is not an opinion by virtue of any independent or intrinsic quality of itself.

Even more importantly there is no kind of statement that we can declare is not an opinion. It is now a common opinion that the earth moves around the sun, just as it was once a common opinion that it didn’t. It is an opinion that horses have four legs. Whereas the statement that horse riding is fun is an opinion about the subjective quality of fun involved with riding, horses has four legs is an opinion about the objective quality of number of legs involved with a horse. But the latter is still an opinion. Someone, possibly almost everyone, believes it. It is their opinion.

Failure to understand this meaning of opinion sets children up for failure in any scientific endeavor. Science is not the process of discovering facts which are magically not anyone’s opinions. Science is the process of forming one’s own opinions based on observations. Unlike the concept of an orphan fact, a scientific opinion has to be owned by the scientist who takes responsibility for their observations and fairness towards them. This responsibility is the moral crux of being a scientist.

This personal responsibility enables scientists at their best to do what scientists do best. They can change their opinion. The importance of retaining this attitude does not lessen when an opinion is rarely contested, even as rarely contested as horses have four legs. Yes, you can get away with treating commonly held opinions as if they weren’t opinions at all. You can even prosper, as no doubt the witch hunters of the inquisition did, but you won’t be meeting the responsibilities of the scientific method. To do that all statements must be recognized as opinions - differing by the degree to which they are supported and informed, but never fully transformed into facts.

My last objection to the teaching my child received is to the notion that opinions have multiple right answers. If we include in this category of opinion descriptions of fun, beauty and yumminess it may seem obvious what we are saying; people will not always agree on these things. I personally might even accept that people will never agree and that we might be better of not trying to achieve agreement in these areas. I am however aware of the huge ramifications that spring from accepting that there is no case for agreement ever to be made – particularly in the case of beauty.

Many of our moral and ethical ideas relate directly to some sense of beauty. A school yard covered in litter is aesthetically less pleasing than one kept clean, and students are encouraged to appreciate that. A forested mountain is considered more beautiful than a clear-felled one. If beauty is entirely in the eye of the beholder then it becomes possible to simply argue that one person’s preference for nature is the same as another’s preference for a shopping centre. Less obviously our admiration for a life spent seeking truth and justice rather than one spent submitting to arbitrary authority is also about principles of beauty. We only have to look at a life like Malala Yousafzai’s to feel inspired and in awe. Is the art in her life-choice equal to that of her oppressors?
We should teach this possibility to kids, but not as a forgone conclusion. Let them explore how the permission of multiple (infinite?) right answers to certain types of questions is contestable with curious implications. For example, ask them why they think a butterfly is pretty (if they do) and whether a person who disagrees about that is wrong. That there are certain questions which we do not and can never know a definitive answer to is itself an opinion – something someone believes. So too is the idea that other questions have one right answer. Like all opinions these claims should have to be supported by reasons rather than simply declared a fact,

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Benefit of The Doubt Review

Tony Abbott is Australia's Prime Minister. Despite believing that Australia was “nothing but bush” prior to English settlement he is also the Minister for our Indigenous Affairs. Famous for knighting princes, his mastery is the policy pronouncement from left-field; the “captains call”. Captain here could be in reference to Captain Ahab but our less focused Tony seems to have a new giant mammal in his sights every week. Only a complete lack of negotiating skills ensure that none adorn his wall as trophies.

The latest Quixotic challenge of Tony's is to revoke "the benefit of the doubt” which as captain he feels we can no longer afford to extend. But Tony has been timid in his proposed cuts to this archaic pillar of reason and retrograde courtesy. Only certain groups are to have their benefit of the doubt revoked; asylum seekers, applicants for citizenship and the recipients of welfare benefits.

These three seem like odd groups to target first; applicants for citizenship because sensibly governments encourage citizenship. Citizens, while being entitled to certain rights and protections, are also expected to invest in their new nation and are under obligation to care for it, specifically in Australia by voting. Generally it is preferable to have permanent residents take up citizenship rather than retain what might be an interloper's identity.

This love of country was presumably Tony Abbott's own motivation when, at the age of 24, he took up Australian citizenship (albeit without forfeiting British citizenship). For the six years before then Mr. Abbott could only utilise Australia's colonial legacy of permitting all British citizens (with a residence of six months of more) Australian voting rights anyway. Could such disadvantage give him special insight into the problems of stateless persons who seek citizenship here?

Welfare recipients and asylum seekers certainly wouldn't be among my other first targets for any rationalisation of the benefit of the doubt. They are clearly the most reliant on it. If we are to presume that all welfare recipients are welfare -cheats or that all asylum seekers are disgenuine smugglers of themselves then frankly lives will end. Here the “benefit of the doubt” is hardly surplus but provides the basic air to breathe. In fact without the benefit of the doubt we may as well just replace the categories of welfare recipients or asylum seekers with “criminal”.... oh. Yes, I see.

Still, if we consider the benefit of the doubt as a sort of fat in the conceptual budget of our compassion then arguably the most needy have already had their bacon trimmed. Instead I want to suggest to Tony Abbott a range of other areas where benefit of the doubt seems to be wastefully and disproportionately accorded. Some of these are sacred cows of the political establishment so this is a call for Tony's trademark boldness and innovation.

1. Politicians

We all know that politicians lie. Sometimes they even warn us not to take them seriously as they will be speaking “off the cuff” at any given time. Still large amounts of the benefit of the doubt is handed over to them at every election. This costly resource is spent so flagrantly that completely fraudulent costings can emerge mid-campaign with benefit of the doubt to spare.

We can soften the blow by commenting on how little explicit electoral violence there is in Australia. But the peacefulness of our voting doesn't change the fundamental economics. We are decades deep in deficit in our benefit of the doubt spending on politicians. An increasingly disillusioned electorate suggests this is unsustainable.

If the benefit of the doubt spent on refugees and welfare recipients is a leaky tap then the waste on politicians is a burst pipe. By withdrawing generosity to the needy we may indeed have a tiny bit more to fill our electoral swimming pool with but for how long? Frankly claiming to be interested in the people treating Australians like mugs and not looking at politicians is like having an energy policy that ignores the sun.

2. Tycoons

When Alan Bond financed the America's Cup win in 1983 for us nobody could question his patriotism. When he was jailed in 1997 for embezzling $1.2 billion we almost didn't forgive the larrikin, even removing his Order of Australia. It was as if the benefit of the doubt for Australia's ultra-rich might be permanently damaged. But this was to prove a mere hiccup in the love of a nation that can barely stop itself from officially becoming a squatocracy.

Kerry Paker's famous declaration,“Tax me if you can, I'm the gingerbread man.” (or something similar) was a moment of honesty about the obligation all truly wealthy people feel towards their nominal nationality. Despite this, Australian governments baulk at addressing our internationally renowned supermarket and media concentration, or negative gearing or our reliance on coal on the advice of our most wealthy citizens. After all they probably only want what is best for the whole country.

In 2010 the mining oligarchs in Australia ran a campaign informing people that a tax on mining super-profits was bad. Few noticed the conflict. 22.2 million dollars was spent in six weeks. Few complained it was a distortion of democracy when the Labor party dropped the teeth from their policy in response. We extended the mining magnates the benefit of the doubt when they declared their involvement “patriotic”. We continued extending when they patriotically donated 1.9 million to the opposition before the 2010 election for the promise to scrap the mining tax altogether.

There have been some reductions in the benefit of the doubt afforded the corporate sector lately. Big tobacco couldn't convince the High Court that it was an artist in a soviet gulag when made to convert to plain packaging. But to stop here would be foolish. James Packer, (a “huge Tony Abbott fan”) and Rupert Murdoch (of the “Australia Needs Tony” front page fame) still make regular policy contributions and co-write our trade agreements. There's enough fatty generosity here to make soap for the nation.

3. An Open Tender Process

I'm beginning to suspect Tony that you may be a little too close to some of our major benefit of the doubt budget holes. In fact you seem a little free with your own benefit of the doubt. Your decision to be a glowing character witness for a priest charged with sexual assualting a 14 year old boy in 1997 is hardly the sort of tightened spending we're aiming for. Especially not considering he was defrocked shortly after or that you continued to defend the Catholic Churches response to sexual abuse up till 2013.

An open tender could also reveal those areas which get the benefit of the doubt so freely that we don't even estimate our expenditure. The Queensland police force perhaps? ASIO whose powers and expenditure are increasingly without any oversight? Andrew Bolt? There are hefty unaddressed accounts for these institutions in terms of the public benefit of the doubt.

The danger is a truly open tender could go nasty Neighbour could nominate the benefit of the doubt granted neighbour. Shopkeepers could suggest “schoolbags must be left outside” signs become mandatory. Frozen berries will never be sellable again. Ministers may have to wear body-camera's when meeting party donors. Your new anti-terrorism measures will be viewed as fear-mongering by a desperate snake-oil salesman about to be tarred and feathered.

This blog post is itself a prime example, Tony. It's mean spirited compared to most of what I write. Should we really judge you just for being a belated citizen or even for your loyalty to an old friend and pederast? For that matter shouldn't we move on from such old history as your broken promises from almost four whole years ago?

If I haven't been measured and calm Tony, if I've been overly concerned that you treat me like a mug, then its partly on your recommendation. You may want to reconsider; is the benefit of the doubt something we really can ill afford? How will you survive without it?