Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Free Education: nerd alert

Okay so my joy at discovering this makes me the biggest nerd ever. Now I may be behind the times, and everyone may already know about this, but this is new for me. Apparently, you can audit classes online. No fees, no registration. Just pick a class and watch the streaming video. Wow. The link above is for some of Yale's classes, but I guess if you search the web you can find others (from Notre Dame, Berkley, and others). I got excited because there's a philosophy class I'm going to watch after break. Who knows what else is out there. Get excited. Free education for nerds everywhere. The idea behind it all is to give folks who love to learn, regardless of their qualifications or financial situation, the chance to do what they love. Now you can't get a degree from watching these classes (which does nothing for the positional goods problem with higher education), but you can indulge in some shameless self-edification. So now I can add some educational viewing to my trashy online tv (the OC, the Hills, Laguna Beach, Grey's...I have no shame).

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Misusing History in the Classroom

Today's post, as you can guess, is about how history is misused to promote other people's agendas. I used to think, quite naively, that history was about facts. History class, I thought, was about memorizing those facts and then proving on my test that I had memorized them. Wrong, oh so wrong. History is closer to literature than science. It has to be written. It has to be passed on from the perspective of someone else. History isn't pure and indisputable. It's living and active, and controversial. Who knew? You know what else I didn't know? I didn't know that the history I learned in the States was, for the most part, pretty cushy and pro-American. I didn't learn about the uncomfortable periods. Sure we talked about slavery, but it was the south, and not us, and you know, we can focus on the fun stories instead like the few slaves who escaped. Civil rights was much the same. Let's glorify the heroes and sweep the jerks (um, the majority, of us) under the rug. I feel sadly misinformed, to be honest. Recently, I've been doing some thinking about how schools use history to shape students (mainly thanks to Harry's chapter about it). Are schools justified in promoting patriotism, for example, by glorifying past patriots? Of course no one's claiming to do a whole 1984 history change-up, but still, it's meddling by omission. Who you put in the curriculum will vastly change the overall attitude of the student towards the society being studied. Not that I think it should be a completely depressing and somber lineup, but it shouldn't be so gosh darn warm and fuzzy. It's all a bit disturbing, to be honest. I won't go into arguments and details (go read Harry's chapter if you want), but you can see where the problem is.

Okay so I told you that to tell you this. In France, Sarco's doing some history meddling of his own, and it's rather upsetting. I had heard rumors just after his election that he wanted to use history classes "to produce better citizens," but I dismissed it then because I didn't think that was possible. Oh I was wrong; it is possible. And this is how he's started doing it: Guy Moquet. Ever heard that name before this year? I didn't think so. Neither has the typical French student (well, at least not this generation, he was famous for awhile but I think newer generations hadn't heard of him). Anyway, from this year onward they will celebrate the life (and death) of this teenage every October 22. So who was Guy? Well, to be honest, he was pretty cool. He was a teenager that refused to side up with the Nazis, joined the Resistance, and was eventually executed for it. He was only 17 years old when he decided to pay the ultimate price for his convictions, his own life. So what do I have against Guy? Nothing. He's a cool kid, and sure, his story bears repeating in the classroom. The problem is this: Sarco has purposefully given Guy his own day (where his letter will be read and the French Resistance will be discussed) that all schools have to honor because he, admittedly, wants students to emulate Guy's model of good citizenship and patriotism! Yes my friends, Sacro admits to using history to shape impressionable minds into being more patriotic. (Interesting, Guy's communist ties are downplayed.)

Now I can see why Guy's example would be a good example of political dissidence, which can be a very good thing. He was someone who stood up for what he believed in, and kids should know that. But, the problem comes in the glorification of this one story. Sure Guy was cool, and sure you talk about the importance of the Resistance, but what about everyone else? In the newsletter our high school gets there was a huge story about Guy, and then another page with a timeline of important dates for the Resistance. It talked about the Reich, the Jews, and the good French folks... but it left out an important element. There was one sentance about the Vichy government. One. And it pretty much said that it was Petain's fault, and it said that his government (notice, not the French government) collaborated with the Germans. What about everyone else? Yes, a heroic few stood up for humanity, but they are hardly representative of everyone. French students need to learn about Guy, and then also learn about the hundreds of other French men and women who looked the other way. Why should they, because that's what many of us are doing today! You have to learn about history's uglier stories if you really want to produce good citizens. If you lull students into a false sense of righteousness, then they won't be equipped to stand up for justice. Sure we can talk about the heroes, but let's not forget that the villains were one of us too. They weren't demons in disguise, they were regular people like you and me. We are all capable of doing what they've done. We can't turn a blind eye to history's stains, or we'll continue to make the same mistakes.

Okay, I'm climbing down from my soapbox now. Sorry for that. I just don't think it's right, what we do with history. Not only is it bad to purposefully manipulate students, but I don't even think it works the way you want it to. Ignorance doesn't fight for justice, it just keeps things from changing. Though, that may be just what the government wants... Who knows.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Evolution can't bridge the moral gap

(UPDATE: I've added an important thought that I forgot to put in before. Look for it below)

I've recently read a rather good paper by John Hare about the failings of evolution to explain morality. His paper pretty much aligned with my prior intuitions, but he obviously explained what the problem was much better than I had every been able to. The main problem is this: there is a moral gap between what we ought to do and what we can do. If ought implies can, as many people believe, then we are only obligated (morally speaking) to do what we can in fact do. So if ought implies can, then what we ought to do will, seemingly, be considerably constrained by what we have the capacity to do. Herein lies the problem. If we can't live up to morality (as is evidenced by, well, everyone everywhere), then how can we be morally responsible for our failure? You can only be responsible for what you have the power or capacity to accomplish, and it seems that our moral capacity falls rather short of our moral obligations. The question is: can evolutionary theory provide any help in bridging this gap? Hare thinks no, and I agree. Here's why...

So we'll start by fleshing out Hare's moral schema. He traces the origins of his view way back to some medieval folks, but we'll skip the history lesson. The important part is that we have two different affections, or inclinations. The one affection is called the "affection for advantage" where advantage can be defined, roughly, as self-interest. This affection is pretty obvious to everyone. We are often motivated by our own desires, and many of our actions are results of this motivation. The second affection is the "affection for justice" where justice is, for the most part, the recognition that other moral beings carry as much weight as the self, so the self cannot be promoted above those other beings. Self-sacrifice, altruism, and all that jazz fall into this category. Now, Hare doesn't say that first affection is inherently bad. It can be a good thing. What Hare does say is that the affection for advantage must come second to the affection for justice. In other words, the first affection isn't bad so long as it is subordinated to the other affection. Now that that's clear, an obvious problem arises. The ranking of affections ought to be one way, but humans, by and large, come with the ranking reversed. Not only is the ranking reversed, but it's super hard to switch around. In fact, it's impossible for us to live with the proper ranking.

And that's the problem. If we can't live with the proper rankings, at least we haven't proven thus far in the course of history that we can, then it's hard to say we ought to. Remember, we only ought to do what we can do, and if we can't switch the rankings then we can't very well be obligated to do so. This is the performance gap. We can't do it, but our sense of morality says that we ought to. Yikes. What now? Well, Hare would say that the theist approach (in his case, the more specific Christian approach) offers a bridge. Yes it's true that we can't switch our rankings alone, but we still ought to because it is possible for us to do if we get help from God. Ought is still in, because we can if we get some support from the Big Guy. Well, that makes sense. We clearly can't live up to moral obligations on our own, but we still ought to, so maybe there is a way that we can and that way is by getting help from God. God is the bridge between our actual performance and how we ought to perform.

So what's the problem then? Well not everyone buys into the God bit, so there is still that nasty problem of can't. Can't takes away our ought, and we want to keep the ought (well, some of us do). We want to be able to say that mass killing is wrong and that slavery is bad. We want to because we have this deep sense of ought, and no matter where the ought came from we want it to mean something. But can it mean something if it's a product of natural selection?? This is where Hare recognizes 3 strategies that are often used to bridge the gap sans God:
1. Lower the moral standard
2. Exaggerate our capacity to meet the standard
3. Find a substitute for God's help (a new bridge)

The first solution is the one Hare treats at length in his paper. It's the one I think most people are tempted to buy into. If you never fail morally, then you've met the standard, and that standard is perfection. Perfection, you might then say, is too high a standard. Let's lower it to be "good enough," or something like that. (This wasn't talked about by Hare, and I'll get back to his critique momentarily) My problem with that is: what is good enough? Perfection is an easy line to draw. Good enough is messy. Where does it go, and can it even be one line? Is there a range, and can only one moral failure knock you out of that range? This suffers from the "no sharp distinction" problem (hair on head, pile of sand, say what you will). There is no way to judge where that lowered standard should be drawn. So then maybe you'd clarify it and say, well you are only responsible to be as good as you can possibly be. That too poses some problems. What if Hitler was a good as he could possibly be (taking into consideration environmental factors, genetics, etc)? Does he then have no moral blame for his actions?? I doubt it. The truth is, lowering the standard is really just making things even harder, and no bridge is being built. Instead we're just saying that we're content to sit on the moral failure cliff.

(UPDATE: I forgot to mention that perhaps the standard could be considered not as an all things considered measure but in a case-by-case basis. If we can do the right thing in each particular instance --which is evidenced by the fact that we sometimes do-- then the can survives and the ought does too. It's not until you look at morality as an all-choices-taken-together standard that it looks so bleak. Or maybe it still looks bleak case-by-case. I suppose you could also say that while it's highly improbable that we will be morally perfect, it is possible. If in every situation we could do the right thing, then in every situation we ought to. All because it's highly unlikely that we will always do the right thing, and all because no one else ever has in the past, well that doesn't necessarily mean it's impossible. You could offer Jesus as an example if you were so inclined. It's possible. In that case, we still ought to even though there's not a very good probability that we will live up to the ought. But still, this grim probability verges on the border of can't so I'm not sure. In this case we are responsible, bridge or no, for getting to the other side. It's sort of a depressing set-up, but you could roll with it if you really want to keep ought without the help of God.)

Hare sees the lower standard as a rejection of the affection for justice. Evolutionary psychologists try to pin morality on a naturally selected trait that will increase the survival of our species. That being said, morality must then be based on self interest, or affection for advantage. Affection for justice essentially disappears. In this way the standard is lowered so far that morality really just means our affection for advantage. That's it. And that's pretty depressing. Hare clarifies it with this example: "To see the effect of Arnhart’s view [a guy who proposes this sort of compromise], consider the case of slavery. Arnhart is not entitled to condemn it morally, since it results from the satisfaction of natural desires for dominance, and he thinks the satisfaction of natural desires is good. The most he is entitled to say is that slavery is tragic, since it results from the conflict of natural desires between the masters and the slaves." To me, and to Hare, this is unacceptable. Slavery is not just tragic, it is morally reprehensible. If you can't condemn slavery, or similar evils, then why speak of morality at all??

It's clear that evolution, in this case, is not building a bridge. It's merely deciding that getting across the gap is either not something worth pursuing, or it's nonsensical because there is no other side to get to. Now Hare mentions a point here that I think is not made enough, and it's that evolution need not be a complete explanation of all that there is. Why should evolution think that it must explain morality? If it can't, that doesn't mean that it's a failure as a theory; it just means that there are limits to what it can speak to. Evolution can't explain mathematics (certainly Pythagoreans theorem was not invented by man to ensure our survival --recognized by us maybe-- but we don't invent mathematical truths). Evolution needs to stop trying to over-explain things. Hare says: "[The] view [held by some guy called Alexander] is that humans invented mathematics, and therefore mathematics has to be understood fundamentally in terms of genetic self-promotion, just like religion or any other feature of life. But then this claim is no longer a part of the theory of evolution, but it is a metaphysical view added onto it: that every domain above the physical and the chemical which human life encounters is to be explained ultimately by natural selection at the genetic level. It is important to see that this metaphysical view cannot itself be justified biologically; it is, I believe, an article of faith for Alexander, though it is not recognized as such."

And there's the key: evolution can only be a complete world explanatory theory if taken on faith by it's proponents to be all that there is. That doesn't mean evolution can't explain some things; it just means that when you try to say evolution can explain all things you are taking a metaphysical leap of faith that you can't back up with your theory. So there's something to think about.

Another concern is the publicity standard. If people lose the willingness to conform to some standard after discovering the true foundation of that standard (or lack thereof), then that standard has a pretty big strike against it. Example, if I am nice to my sister because my mom says that Santa will give me coal otherwise, and if I then find out that Santa isn't real, then I loose a big motivation to be nice to my sister. In fact, I probably won't be very nice if that was the only reason I bothered to be nice in the first place. If you take away the foundations of morality, then people won't be bothered to follow it. And why should they? If morality is really only a manifestation of self-interest, then why bother? Why not just promote the self at all costs if that's where morality stems from anyway? That's a problem.

So evolution is looking grim as far as finding a bridge for the moral gap goes. It just can't, on it's own, get us from one side to the other without making things more complicated. At best you can just decide not to worry about, and at worst you can abandon objective morality all together (which is getting more popular to do). There was way more in the paper, and you should read it, but I'm out of space/time for now. More later if I have the chance.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

More Golden Compass Stuff

I've recently come across this interview here with Philip Pullman. It was a very interesting read, and I recommend that you check it out. The most interesting Pullman quotes:

On being ingrained with the culture of the Church of England:
"My answer to that would be that I was brought up in the Church of England, and whereas I'm an atheist, I'm certainly a Church of England atheist, and for the matter of that a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist. The Church of England is so deeply embedded in my personality and my way of thinking that to remove it would take a surgical operation so radical that I would probably not survive it....My own background, as I've said many times, is Christian to the core. Christianity has made me what I am, for better or worse. I just don't believe in God."

Then he was asked a question about his books carrying Godly messages, though obviously sophisticated, despite his own atheism:
"That would be embarrassing, wouldn't it? But I think this question touches something that I answered in my previous email, namely the tendency among Christians (and no doubt other religions too) to think that anything they like in the work of an avowed atheist or agnostic is a sign that really the said a. or a. is deluding himself, and that he's really Christian, only he doesn't know it. But I resist that interpretation, as you'd expect me to. I'm not deluded: Christians are. There is no God."

In the interview he makes it clear that he gets very upset with Christians monopolizing virtues. If I say that love and self-sacrifice are Christian virtues, then I'm not wrong in the sense that my religion is wrong, but wrong in the sense that my religion cannot monopolize those virtues. I can see what sort of attitude he's talking about, and it's one that's rife in the Church. The attitude is that only believers can do or know good, and non-believers can't. Well that's obviously wrong. Non-believers can cherish the same virtues as we do, and many of them can live by them better than we do. It's not a question of monopoly. Good is universal for the doing, and evil is the same.

Christians need to be careful not to say (or think) that only Christians can have access to these virtues. On the contrary, the existence of these virtues on a universal level testifies to the whole point of Christianity, or the Gospel. The fact that everyone does think love and self-sacrifice are good things, and that selfishness/etc are bad things (and the fact that we often have more of the latter than the former) gives us a good reason to think that the Christian world view isn't all that crazy. No, Christians don't have a monopoly on virtue. But, if the Gospel is right, then the fact that so many stories and authors point to these virtues should be a good sign that there is universal truth in the message of Christ. If you don't believe the Christ bit, that's your own deal. But Christians have good reason to see Christian virtues in non-Christian works. If they didn't, then they'd have a reason to be suspect of what they believe. If, for example, Christ said it was virtuous to be lazy and disobedient, well we'd have to wonder. Not many people of any cultural variety would call that virtuous. Not that all morality of all religions and cultures is equal, which it's not, and not to say that the message of Christ wasn't radical in ways, but rather he spoke to a deeper story and struggle that every human faces. Do you see where I'm going with this? It's okay for Christians to point to the work of non-believers and see a greater message embedded in them. It's because the struggle is universal that you will inevitably find evidence of that struggle everywhere. But no, don't think that only Christians know about or can be live by these virtues. The difference is that Christians (should) realize that they fall short, that everyone does. That's the point.

Now for those books, you can check out my thoughts on them here. If you're a Christian, go read them. The story is great (though the end is wanting), and you won't go to hell for it. In fact, you may just learn something. The opposite of faith is fear (I shamelessly steal from Pastor Chris), and being afraid of a story won't get you anywhere. You need to be able to evaluate everything for what it is, for it's good points and bad. Pullman has some good lessons, and he has some I don't care for. The important part is being able to test for yourself what's worth taking from the books, and what's not. But don't let his atheism put you off. Rather, see this as an opportunity to learn from a different perspective.