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embodied cognition: common sense or something startling? – part two. language and education

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Canto: There isn’t much detail in Lobel’s book about how sensations or the senses can be harnessed to education, but she tantalisingly offers this:

Several studies have shown that peppermint and cinnamon scents improved cognitive performance, including attention and memory; clerical tasks, such as typing speed and alphabetisation; and performance in video games.

Jacinta: Right, so we spray peppermint and cinnamon about the classroom, and genius rises. But is there anything in this approach specifically for language learning?

Canto: Well, a key insight, if you can call it that, of embodied cognition is that not only does the mind influence the body’s movements, but the body influences our thinking. And the relationship can be quite subtle. It’s known from neurophysiological studies that a person’s motor system is activated when they process action verbs, and when they observe the movements of others.

Jacinta: So that’s about mirror neurons?

Canto: Exactly. The basic take-away from this is that activating mirror neurons enhances learning. So as a teacher, combining gestures, or ‘acting out’ with speech to introduce new language, especially verbs, is an effective tool.

Jacinta: Playing charades, so that students embody the activity? This can be done with phrasal verbs, for example, which students often don’t get. Or prepositions. The teacher or students can act them out, or manipulate blocks to show ‘between’ ‘next to’, ‘in front of’, ‘under’, etc. This would be a useful strategy for low-level learning at our college, really engaging the students, but it would also help with higher level students, who are expected to write quite abstract stuff, but often don’t have the physical grounding of the target language, so they often come out with strange locutions which convey a lack of that physical sense of English that native speakers have.

Canto: Yes, they use transition signals and contrast terms wrongly, because they’re still vague as to their meaning. Acting out some of those terms could be quite useful. For example, ‘on the one hand/on the other hand’. You could act this out by balancing something on one hand, and then something of equal weight on the other hand, and speaking of equal weights and balancing in argument, and then getting the students to act this out for themselves, especially those students you know are likely to misconstrue the concept. ‘Furthermore’ could be acted out both by physically adding more to an argument and taking it further in one direction. ‘Moreover’ takes more over to one side. You could use blocks or counters to represent contrast words, a word or counter that shifts the argument to the opposite side, and to represent the additive words, with counters that accumulate the arguments on one side.

Jacinta: So this acting out, and gesturing, all this is very suggestive of the origins of language, which might’ve begun in gestures?

Canto: Yes it’s a very complex communicative system, which may well have begun with a complex gestural system, accompanied by vocalisations. Think of the complexity of signing systems for the deaf – it’s extraordinary how much we can convey through hand gestures accompanied by facial expressions and vocalisations, or even partial vocalisations or pre-vocalisations – lip movements and such. Other primates have complex gestural communisation, and it was in monkeys that mirror neurons were first discovered by neurophysiologists examining inputs into the motor cortex. They are the key to our understanding of the embodied nature of language and communication. When we learn our L1, as children, we learn it largely unconsciously from our parents and those close to us, by copying – and not only copying words, but gestures which accompany words. We absorb the physical framing of the language, the tone in which certain words are conveyed, words and phrases – locutions – associated with physical actions and feelings such as anger, sadness, humour, fear etc, and they fire up or activate neurons in the motor cortex as well as in those centres related to language processing.

Jacinta: I’ve heard, though, that there’s a competing theory about the origin and evolution of language, relating to calls, such as those made by birds and other animals.

Canto: Not just one other. This has been described as the hardest problem in science by some, and I’ve hardly scratched the surface of it, but I recently watched an interview with Giacomo Rizzolatti, whose team discovered mirror neurons in monkeys, and he strongly favours the gestural origin theory, though he also says we need more neurophysiological evidence, for example of mirror neurons in other areas of the brain, or the absence of them, before we decide once and for all. He finds the debate a little ideological at present.

Jacinta: Well the origin of language obviously involves evolution, but there are few traces discoverable from the past. Spoken language leaves no trace. So it’s always going to be highly speculative.

Canto: Well it may not always be, but it long has been that’s for sure. Apparently the Linguistic Society of Paris banned all present and future debate on the origins of language back in 1866, so we could get arrested for this post.

Jacinta: Yeah, a bit hard to enforce that one. So we have no idea about when human language evolved, or did it evolve gradually over hundreds of thousands of years?

Canto: Well, that’s more speculation, but there are continuity theories (language is this extremely complex thing that came together gradually with the accumulation of changes – mutations or brain-wirings – over an extended period), and there are discontinuity theories that favour, for example, a single transformative genetic mutation.

Jacinta: And what about the song theory – that’s one I’ve heard. That song, and therefore music, preceded language. I suppose that’s romantic speculation – right up our alley.

Canto: Okay so this is very interesting and something to follow up in future posts, but we should get back to our main subject, the implications of embodied cognition for language learning today.

Jacinta: Aren’t the implications fairly straightforward – that we learned language, that’s to say our L1 – in a thoroughly embodied way, within a rich sensory and physical context, as highly active kids, and so it’s a battle to get students to learn their L2 or another language, because neurons that fire together wire together, and there’s this thing called brain frugality which makes us always look for short-cuts, so we always want to convert the L2 into the familiar, wired-in L1, rather than trying to grasp the flow of a foreign language. We want to work in the familiar, activated channels of our L1. So, as teachers, we can help students to develop channels for their L2 by teaching in a more embodied way.

Canto: Here’s a thought – I wonder if we can measure teaching techniques for L2 by examining the active brain and the feedback mechanisms operating between cortices as students are being taught? Have we reached that level of sophistication?

Jacinta: I doubt it. It’s an intriguing thought though. But what exactly would we be measuring? How much of the brain is ‘lighting up’? How long it’s remaining lit up? And how would we know if what’s being activated is due to language learning? It could be active avoidance of language learning…

Canto: I need to learn much more about this subject. I’ve heard that you can’t and shouldn’t teach an L2 in the way we learn our L1, but what does that mean? In any case, it’s true that the way we teach, in serried rows, facing the front with too much teacher talk and a general discouragement of talking out of turn and even moving too much, it really does smack of an old dualist conception, with disembodied minds soaking up the new language from the teacher.

Jacinta: Well surely you don’t teach that way any more, shame on you if you do, but there are ways in which a more embodied approach can be used, with role-playing, framing and other forms of contextualising.

Canto: Yes, clearly contextualising and incorporating action, sensation and emotion into language teaching is the key, and getting students to use the language as often as possible, to learn to manipulate it, even if ungrammatically at times and with gestural accompaniment….

Jacinta: So, like learning L1? But we ‘pick up’ our L1, we absorb it like little sponges, together with context and connotation. Is that really how to learn an L2? Is the idea to replace the L1 with a thoroughly embodied L2? Or is it to have two – or more – fully embodied, firing-and-wired transmitting and feedback-looping  language systems alongside each other. What about energy conservation?

Canto: Okay so let this be an introductory post. I clearly need to research and think on this subject a lot more…

the brave new world of neurophenomenology, apparently

the brave new world of neurophenomenology, apparently


Written by stewart henderson

January 22, 2017 at 9:50 pm

what should a vegan’s pet eat, and other immortal questions

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Jacinta: So here’s a question – if vegans have pets – say a cat or a dog – do they feed them only vegetables?

Canto: I don’t know, I suppose it would depend on the vegan…

Jacinta: Shouldn’t it depend on the pet? Cats and dogs are carnivores aren’t they? So it would be a form of cruelty to deprive them of meat. Might even be murder.

Canto: We don’t extend murder to the killing of other animals.

Jacinta: Many vegans do.

Canto: Good point. I once read an article by a vegan philosopher, who gets out of those problems by declaring that using animals as pets is unethical. A form of slavery, I suppose.

Jacinta: So, we free the pets? Along with the cows, the sheep, the donkeys, the camels, the water buffalos, the horses, the chooks and pigeons and all those other creatures we’ve used and abused so horridly?

Canto: Well, from memory – I’ll never be able to hunt out the article – he didn’t address the issue of those animals already under captivity of one sort or another. He was simply wanting to argue on general principles that using animals for our personal benefit was unethical.

Jacinta: Even if it benefits the animal?

Canto: Well I suppose the argument would be that even a well-treated slave is still a slave.

Jacinta: But if you free a dog, say, what would happen to it? You’re actually throwing it out of its home, it has nowhere else to go. And I believe that there’s historical evidence that dogs, and probably cats too, have adapted to live with humans. That it was their choice, in a sense. Like pigeons in the city getting fat on leftover bits of hamburger, with no obvious ill-effects. Do pigeons get diabetes?

Canto: Well there’s an obvious difference between scavenging pigeons and pets. Pets don’t choose to become pets. I think that’s the way the argument would run. Unfortunately there are a lot of current pets who would suffer from being set free, but that’s not the issue.

Jacinta: I think I see. We look after the pets we’ve got, then bury them and don’t have any more. And this wouldn’t mean the end of all dogs because there are plenty of strays – scavengers – to maintain the species. And no more enforced ‘pedigree’ breeding – I’d be all for that. But there’s a problem – in order to get rid of all the pets, you have to stop them breeding and that would mean desexing them – a gross interference of their right to reproduce. And if you allow them to reproduce, you must surely bear responsibility for their offspring as your home is theirs. You’re caught in a trap, you can’t walk out, because you love them babies too much.

Canto: You’re looking at it all from a practical perspective, which is all fine and good and relevant, but I think the issue for this philosopher was, I think – judging from him being a vegan – that all such usage of animals – pets as cuddly toys, dolphins as trained performers, horses and camels as pack animals, etc, not to mention farming them for slaughter – is unethical. What do you think of that as a general principle?

Jacinta: I don’t think it holds up, because species take advantage of other species all the time, and not just by preying on them. Sharks have their remoras, we have lice more or less specially adapted to us, roses have their aphids, in fact everywhere you look you have species making use of other species. And presumably being a vegan he marks a strict boundary between animal and vegetable and in reality that’s quite a fuzzy boundary, like with coral. And what about insects, what’s the vegan take on that?

Canto: Presumably negative – they have eyes and antennae and feelings of some sort.

Jacinta: Yes, well it’s a step too far I think. Yes we have a moral responsibility to avoid causing undue suffering….

Canto: Well what about this argument. Because we can survive – and indeed thrive – on only plants, we should do so. I mean, you’re talking about species that, say, are mostly carnivorous – that won’t survive if their food supply dries up. Sharks, for example, they can’t just become vegan, they’ve adapted to a very specific diet. We on the other hand are omnivores, we can dispense with certain varieties of food, including meat, and still live healthy lives, perhaps.

Jacinta: Hmmm, that’s definitely a more difficult question. I do believe that being omnivores, or being very adaptable in our diet has stood us in very good stead in the past, like in the last major  ice age when we almost died out apparently. So I’m wondering whether confining our diet might not expose us to greater risks…

Canto: It may not even mean confining our diet – we could synthesise many of the proteins and other nutrients we nowadays get from meat. We’ve already done that, probably.

Jacinta: Well I’ve heard they’re still a long way from synthesising anything that really has the nutrients as well as the texture, flavour, odour and je ne sais quoi of meat. At under about $200, 000.

Canto: And if they achieved that feat, and got it down to competitive prices, would you go vego?

Jacinta: Well of course – I’d have no reason not to. I just don’t think it’ll happen in my lifetime.

Canto: But let’s say for argument’s sake that it does – would you feed this synthetic stuff to your pet cat?

Jacinta: Ah so we come full circle. Yes I would, since it would be more or less chemically identical to meat.

Canto: But animals that have adapted to become carnivores have also adapted to become hunters. They go together. Haven’t you turned your cat from its proper course in life?

Jacinta: No, she became removed from her ‘proper course’, if there is such a thing, by becoming my pet, whether by her choice or mine, or the choice of her ancestors. Likely she will keep up her hunting skills, catching flies and insects and mice and small birds, if she can. And she will benefit from being my friend, as I will benefit from being hers. Like all good friends, we’ll use each other for own purposes, which we hope will be, and will try to make, mutually beneficial.

Canto: Okay, no further questions your excellency.


Written by stewart henderson

March 31, 2016 at 11:37 am

Pourquoi science? – inter alia

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So as I approach my sixtieth year I’m in a mood to reflect on my largely wasted, dilettantish life (at least seen from a certain perspective… ).

It seems to me that my two older siblings and I were largely the products of benign neglect, if that’s not too unfair to my parents, who seemed largely pre-occupied with their – highly dysfunctional – relationship with each other. Anyway this neglect had its advantages and disadvantages, and it was offset by at least one key decision of my mother (by far the dominant parent). She had us taken to the local library once a fortnight to borrow books, and there were always books aplenty in the house, including at least two sets of encyclopaedias. So from the age of six or seven until I left home, the local libraries became a haven.

From almost the beginning though I felt a difference between learning, which was a thrill, and school, which I suffered in silence. My first strong memory of school comes from grade one, when I was five or six. My teacher asked me to read from our class reader and I had to tell her that I’d forgotten to bring it from home. She blew up at me. ‘You’ve forgotten it again! What’s the matter with you? How many times have I told you,’ etc etc. I was extremely humiliated. I was learning that I was vague, forgetful, disorganised, and it was all too true. Shortly after this, I arrived at school and discovered I’d forgotten my reader again. I was so scared I hid in the bushes until break time, when I rejoined the class unnoticed, apparently (though probably not). I remember the sense of being defiant and tricksterish.

It’s funny that I’m now a teacher who checks students’ homework and has to admonish those who don’t do it, because as a kid in primary school and later in high school, when the issue loomed much larger, I never did any homework. Not once, ever. I even got caned for it in high school. And suffered endless screaming fits from my mother when the matter was reported back to her. I remember many sleepless nights fretting about how to survive the next day’s questioning, but still I was unable or unwilling to comply. I spent a lot of my school days staring out the window, daydreaming of freedom. One day I watched a tiny bird – a hummingbird, I thought, but we have no hummingbirds in Australia – hovering a bit driftily above some bushes, for ages and ages. What an ability, what a perspective it had! And yet it felt constrained to hover there. Maybe only humans could free themselves from these ‘natural’ constraints.



I concocted an idea for a novel, which I confided to my sister, of schoolkids rising up and throwing out the teachers, establishing an ‘independent state’ school – an idea I probably took from Animal Farm. She was very enthusiastic, probing me on the details, assuring me it would be a best-seller, I would become famous. I became briefly obsessed with contemplating and planning the takeover – the secret meetings, the charismatic leader, the precisely organised tactics, the shock and dismay of our former masters, the nationwide reaction –  but of course I soon stumbled over the outcome. Surely not Animal Farm again?

I learned over time that Elizabeth, our town, was the most working-class electorate in South Australia, with the largest percentage of labor voters in the state, and possibly even the country. Of course, one had to take pride in being the biggest or the most of anything, but what did it mean to be working-class? Was it a good or a bad thing? Was our family more or less working-class than our neighbours? I was discovering that interesting questions led to more questions, rather than to answers. That, as Milan Kundera wrote, the best questions didn’t have answers, or at least not final ones. Of course, the provisional answer seemed to be that it wasn’t good to be working class, or middle class, or upper class, but to move beyond such limitations. But I was learning, through my library reading, which increasingly consisted of Victorian English literature for some reason, that class wasn’t so easy to transcend.

I continued to struggle as my schooling moved towards the pointy end. Classmates were dropping out, working in factories, getting their first cars. I was wagging school a lot, avoiding the house, sleeping rough, drinking. My older brother started an economics degree at university, probably the first person in the history of my parents’ families to do so as the prospect of university education was opened up to the great unwashed, but I was unlikely to be the second. I recall wagging it one afternoon, walking to the end of my street, where the city of Elizabeth came to an abrupt end, and wandering through the fields and among the glasshouses of the Italian marketers, armed with my brother’s hefty economics textbook, and getting quite excited over the mysteries of supply and demand.

And so it went – I left school, worked in a factory here, a factory there, went on the dole, worked in an office for a while, got laid off, another factory, moved to the city, shared houses with art students, philosophy students, mathematics nerds (whom I loved), wrote volumes of journals, tried to write stories, ritually burned my writings, read philosophy, had regular bull sessions about all the really interesting things that young people obsess about and so on and on. And I haven’t even mentioned sex.

I’d always been hopelessly shy with the opposite sex and wrote myself off as eternally poor and inadequate, but I loved girls and fantasised endlessly. I felt guilty about it, not because I thought it immoral – I never had any moral qualms about sex, which made it all the more easy to dismiss religions, which all seemed to be obsessed with regulating or suppressing it. I felt guilty because sexual daydreaming always seemed the lazy option. I was like Proust’s Swann, I would tire easily from thinking too much, especially as those great questions never had any easy or final answers. So  I would give up and indulge my fantasies, and even the occasional unrequited or unrealistic passion for real female acquaintance. I remember hearing of a celebrated mathematician who would wander homeless around the USA I think it was, couchsurfing at the homes of mathematical colleagues male and female, inspiring them to collaborate with him on mathematical papers, so that he held a record for the most papers published in peer-reviewed journals. An attractive female colleague laughed at the idea of an affair with him, because apparently everyone knew he was entirely asexual, had never been heard to even mention sex in his life… Could this be true, I wondered, and if so, how could I create for myself a brain like his? It seemed to me that Aristotle was right, the pleasure derived from certain types of contemplation was greater than sexual pleasure (though dog knows I’d hate to forgo sex). I’d experienced this myself, grappling with something in Wittgenstein, reading a passage over and over until an insight hit me and set me pacing around my bedroom all night long talking to myself. But maybe it was all bullshit.

So now to get to the heart of the matter – pourquoi science? As a youngster I read novels, and sometime works of history – one of my first big adult books was a very good biography of Richard III, which I read at 14, and which came flooding back when Richard’s body was miraculously discovered recently. But I never read science. At school I quickly lost track of physics and mathematics, while always being vaguely aware of how fundamental they were. Through philosophy in my early twenties I started to regain an interest, but generally I’d resigned myself to being on the arts side of the great divide.

One book, or one passage in a book, changed this. The book was Der Zauberberg, or The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, which I read in 1981. This was the story of Hans Castorp, a young man in his mid-twenties, as I was when I read it. As a tubercular patient, he was sent to a sanitarium in the Alps for a period of enforced idleness, where he encountered a number of more or less interesting characters and was encouraged to grapple with some more or less interesting ideas. Wrapped up on his loggia, he was reading some books on fundamental science, and fell into contemplation, and in a passage of some fifteen pages he asked himself two fundamental questions, both of which branched off into a whole series of sub-questions (or so I remember it). They were: What is life? and What is matter? And there was something about the way Mann animated this Castorp character, as ordinary a fellow as myself, and made me identify with his questioning and his profound wonder. It just flipped a switch in me. These were the questions. They could easily fill several lifetimes. No reason ever to be bored again.


I immediately went out and bought my first ever science magazine, Scientific American, and throughout the eighties I bought each monthly issue and read it cover to cover, not always understanding it all of course, but gradually building up a general knowledge. Later I switched to New Scientist, and nowadays I read the fine Australian magazine Cosmos, as well as listening to science podcasts and reading the odd blog. I’m far from being a scientist, and I’ll never have more than a passing knowledge – but then, that’s all that even the most brilliant scientist can hope for, as Einstein well knew.

But here’s the thing – and I’ll expand on this in my next post. It’s not science that’s interesting – science is just a collection of tools. What’s interesting is the world. Or the universe, or everything. It’s the curiosity, and the questions, and the astonishing answers that raise so many more questions. For example – what is matter? Our investigations into this question have revealed that we know bugger all abut the stuff. And when we were young, as a species, we thought we knew it all!

Next time, I’ll focus more deeply on science itself, its meaning and its detractors.



Written by stewart henderson

March 12, 2016 at 8:30 am

The philosophers want more power

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tamsin shaw

tamsin shaw

Canto: Well I suppose the apparent detection of gravitational waves should be capturing our attention more than anything else right now, but it’s very well described in The Economist, and in many other places, and we’re no astrophysicists, and we did promise to focus a bit more on philosophical issues, so…

Jacinta: But we’re no philosophers. But we’re philosophasters at least, so let’s have a go.

Canto: Well I came across an article on Three Quarks Daily which vaguely gave me the irrits, so with your help I want to explore why.

Jacinta: Right. The essay is called ‘The psychologists take power’, the author is Tamsin Shaw and it was originally published in the New York review of books.

Canto: Yes, and on reading it in full I find it an interesting but confused piece, which seems to take the failings of certain individual psychologists as an example of the failings of psychology as a whole, and even of neurology. Shaw seems to be entering the philosophy versus science debate, on the side of philosophy, but I don’t find her arguments convincing.

Jacinta: The essay seems to divide into two parts, first a general critique of psychology and neurology, which can be summed up by the title of a philosophical essay by Selim Berker, which she quotes approvingly, ‘the normative insignificance of neuroscience’. The second part is an account of how certain professional psychologists, practitioners of the ‘positive psychology’ pioneered by the influential Martin Seligman, colluded with the US government in providing dubious evidence for the psychological effectiveness of torture in eliciting valuable information from ‘enemies of the state’. Shaw clearly wants to link these unethical practices to what she might want to call ‘the normative insignificance of psychology’.

Canto: Yes, and it’s a bit of a dangerous game – you might as well label Heidegger’s allegiance to the Nazi party, or Althusser’s murder of his wife, as examples of ‘the normative insignificance of philosophy’.

Jacinta: Ha, well Althusser was declared insane at the time, no doubt by psychologists, who would be examining Althusser to determine whether he was, while strangling his wife, capable of understanding and following the normative rules of his society. Such determinations are hardly normatively insignificant, even though, no doubt, individual psychologists might make different determinations, due to levels of competence, corruption, ideological considerations and so forth.

Canto: Right, but let’s look more closely at Shaw’s essay, and pick it apart.

Jacinta: Okay, but first let’s make a philosophasters’ confession. Shaw mentions eight or so books or sources at the head of her essay, which form the basis of her discussion, but of those we’ve only read one – Pinker’s eloquent tome, The better angels of our nature. And we don’t intend to bone up on those other texts, though no doubt we’ll refer to our own reading in our responses.

Canto: And we are reasonably familiar with Jonathan Haidt’s work and ideas.

Jacinta: So Shaw begins her essay with the overweening ambition of behaviourist extraordinaire B F Skinner, a pretty soft target these days. I have no problems with criticising him, or Freud or any other psychologist whose theories get way out of hand. Shaw’s concerns, though, are specifically about the moral sphere. She feels that a new breed of psychologists, armed with neurological research, are making big claims about moral expertise. Here’s a quote from her essay:

Neuroscience, it is claimed, has revealed that our brains operate with a dual system for moral decision-making.

Canto: I like the ‘it is claimed’ bit. Claimed by who? Someone has put forward that hypothesis I’m sure, along with their reasons, but most neurologists bang on about neurology being a field in its infancy, and most findings are highly contested, it seems to me.

Jacinta: Shaw may be referring to the work of Daniel Kahneman – a psychologist not a neurologist – who distinguished between system 1 thinking (intuitive, less conscious, rough-and ready) and system 2 thinking (reasoned, conscious, more changeable depending on inputs and knowledge). But really there are many dual-process theories going back at least to William James. But Shaw is explicitly referring to the fMRI imaging work of the neurologist Jonathan Cohen, who analysed brain activity when subjects were asked to think about moral hypotheticals.

Canto: Yes and she’s quite straight about describing the two systems apparently highlighted by Cohen’s research and the brain regions associated with them, but becomes scathing in dealing with Joshua Greene, Cohen’s co-researcher, whom she quite deliberately introduces as a mere ‘philosophy graduate student’, whose interpretation of the research she describes thus:

Greene interpreted these results in the light of an unverifiable and unfalsifiable story about evolutionary psychology. Since primitive human beings encountered up-close dangers or threats of personal violence, their brains, he speculated, evolved fast and focused responses for dealing with such perils. The impersonal violence that threatens humans in more sophisticated societies does not trigger the same kind of affective response, so it allows for slower, more cognitive processes of moral deliberation that weigh the relevant consequences of actions. Greene inferred from this that the slower mechanisms we see in the brain are a later development and are superior because morality is properly concerned with impersonal values—for example, justice—to which personal harms and goals such as family loyalty should be irrelevant. He has taken this to be a vindication of a specific, consequentialist philosophical theory of morality: utilitarianism.

Jacinta: Okay, so here’s where psychology – especially evolutionary psychology – first comes under attack. It’s often said to present just so stories, which are necessarily highly speculative, as if they are facts. But I would question whether these speculations, or hypotheses, are unverifiable (forget about falsifiability, a term made popular by Karl Popper but which has come under heavy criticism since, both by scientists and philosophers of science, and I suspect Shaw has simply used it as a ‘double whammy’ to vilify Greene), to me they’re important and useful, and in any case are rarely presented as facts, at least not by the best psychologists.

Canto: So how do you verify this hypothesis, that fast, rough-and-ready responses for dealing with immediate dangers are systematically different from slower, more sophisticated responses that deal with the ‘impersonal violence’, the many restraints, justified or not, on our personal freedoms that we deal with on a daily basis?

Jacinta: Well one obvious way is through neurology, a scientific field still in its infancy as you say. Clearly the system 1 responses would be shared by other complex social mammals, whereas system 2 thinking is much more language-dependent and unique to humans – unless cetaceans have developed complex language, which is far from being out of the question. New techniques for mapping and exploring neural pathways are coming up all the time, as well as non-invasive ways of exploring such pathways in our closest mammalian relatives.

Canto: Good point. So to go to the second part of the above quote, Greene is presented (and I wonder about whether Shaw is fairly or accurately presenting him) as finding system 2 thinking as superior because it deals with more abstract and less personal values, whereas I would prefer to think of this system as a further adaptation, to a human existence that has become more socially complex, systematic and language-based. And in this, I’m apparently in line with the thinking of psychologists Shaw takes aim at:

Many of the psychologists who have taken up the dual-process model claim to be dismissive of philosophical theories, generally. They reject Greene’s inferences about utilitarianism and claim to be restricting themselves to what can be proved scientifically. But in fact all of those I discuss here are making claims about which kinds of moral judgments are good or bad by assessing which are adaptive or maladaptive in relation to a norm of social cooperation. They are thereby relying on an implicit philosophical theory of morality, albeit a much less exacting one than utilitarianism.

Jacinta: But I detect a problem here. You’ve talked about adaptation to the fact of growing social complexity, and the need to co-operate within that complexity. Shaw has written of a ‘norm of social co-operation’, by which she means an ethical norm, because she claims that this is the implicit philosophical theory of morality these psychologists rely on. But that’s not true, they’re not claiming that there’s anything moral about social complexity or social co-operation. We just are more complex, and necessarily more co-operative than our ancestors. So it’s kind of silly to say they’re relying on a less exacting moral philosophy than utilitarianism. It’s not about moral philosophy at all.

Canto: And it gets worse. Shaw claims that this phantom moral ethic of social co-operation is greatly inferior to utilitarianism, so let’s look at that normative theory, which in my view is not so much exacting as impossible. Utilitarianism is basically about the maximising of utility. Act in such a way that your actions maximise utility (act utilitarianism), or create rules that maximise utility (rule utilitarianism). So what’s utility? Nothing that can be measured objectively, or agreed upon. We can replace it with happiness, or pleasure, or well-being, or Aristotle’s eudaemonia, however translated, and the problem is still the same. How do you measure, on a large-scale, social level, things so elusive, intangible and personal?

Jacinta: Yes, and look at how laws change over time, laws for example relating to homosexuality, women’s rights, the protection of minorities, and even business practices, taxation and the like; they’re all about our changing, socially evolving sense of how to co-operate in such a way as to produce the best social outcomes. This can’t be easily bedded down in some fixed normative ethic.

Canto: Yes, Shaw seems to imply that some deep philosophical insight is missing from these psychologists which makes them liable to go off the rails, as the second half of her essay implies, but I’m very doubtful about that. But let’s continue with our analysis:

Rather than adhering to the moral view that we should maximize “utility”—or satisfaction of wants—they are adopting the more minimal, Hobbesian view that our first priority should be to avoid conflict. This minimalist moral worldview is, again, simply presupposed; it is not defended through argument and cannot be substantiated simply by an appeal to scientific facts. And its implications are not altogether appealing.

Jacinta: But surely she’s just assuming that ‘they’ – presumably all the psychologists she doesn’t like, or is it all the psychologists who posit a two-tiered system of decision-making? – take the view that avoidance of conflict is the highest priority.

Canto: Well I must say that Jonathan Haidt seems to take that view, and it’s something I find uncomfortable. So I agree with Shaw that Haidt ‘presupposes that the norm of cooperation should take precedence over the values that divide us’, and that this view is dubious. It’s just that I suspect my own view, that there are values more important than co-operation, is also a ‘presupposition’, though I dislike that word. But more of that later perhaps.

Jacinta: Right, so Shaw refers to the sinister implications of a minimalist Hobbesian worldview, supposedly held by these psychologists. What are they?

Canto: We’ll get there eventually – perhaps. Shaw describes the work of the ‘positive psychology’ movement, stemming from Martin Seligman and practised by Haidt among others, including Steven Pinker, whose book The better angels of our nature was apparently influenced by this movement:

In that extremely influential work Pinker argues that our rational, deliberative modes of evaluation should take precedence over powerful, affective intuitions. But by “rationality” he means specifically “the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games,” rather than any higher-order philosophical theory. He allows that empathy has played a part in promoting altruism, that “humanitarian reforms are driven in part by an enhanced sensitivity to the experiences of living things and a genuine desire to relieve their suffering.” But nevertheless our “ultimate goal should be policies and norms that become second nature and render empathy unnecessary.”

And here’s where I see another problem. Pinker is here criticised for not subscribing to any ‘higher-order philosophical theory’, but Shaw doesn’t attempt to outline or give examples of such higher-order theories, though she does refer to empathy – an important factor, but one that doesn’t obviously emerge from philosophy.

Jacinta: Right, and we’ve already referred to utilitarianism and its problems. This reminds me that years ago  I read a sort of primer on ethics, I think it was called Moral Philosophy, in which the author devoted chapters to utilitarianism, Kantianism, rights theory and other ethical approaches. In the final chapter he presented his own preferred approach, a sort of neo-Aristotelianism. I was intrigued that he felt we hadn’t made much progress in philosophical ethics in almost 2,500 years.

Canto: Well, his may be a minority view, but it’s doubtful that our changing laws derive from philosophical work on normative ethics, though this may have had an influence. I do think, with Haidt, that there’s a great deal of post-hoc rationalisation going on, though I’m reluctant – very reluctant actually – to embrace the relativism of values. And this brings me to the nub of the matter, IMHO. To go back to an old favourite of mine, Hume: ‘reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions’. A fairly notorious pronouncement, but I take the passions here to be something very basic – the fundamental drives and instincts, largely unconscious, that characterise us as humans…

Jacinta: But doesn’t Hume break his own is-ought rule here? He says that our passions rule our reason, which may or may not be true, but does it follow that they ought to?

Canto: Please don’t complicate matters. Hume also wrote this, in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals:

In all determinations of morality, this circumstance of public utility is ever principally in view, and wherever disputes arise, either in philosophy or common life, concerning the bounds of duty, the question cannot, by any means, be decided with greater certainty, than by ascertaining, on any side, the true interests of mankind.

So these true interests of mankind…

Jacinta: Hang on, so there he goes again, gaily bounding over his own is-ought barrier, saying that in order to work out what we ought to do we need – pretty well absolutely – to determine our interests, what in fact makes us human, what we actually are.

Canto: Well, precisely…

Jacinta: Or what we have evolved to become, which might amount to the same thing. So we need to study our evolution, our genes and genetic inheritance, our brain and its inheritance, and adaptive growth, and maybe the physics of our bodies…

our old Scottish mate Davey Hume, doyen of skeptics, whose is-ought distinction has been widely misinterpreted, we suspect

our old Scottish mate Davey Hume, doyen of skeptics, whose is-ought distinction has been widely misinterpreted, we suspect

Canto: So we need neurology, and genetics, and palaeontology, and physics and psychology, all of which contribute to an understanding of what we are. Without them, normative ethics would be empty theorising.

Jacinta: So I suppose you’re going to write a rejoinder to this ‘normative insignificance of neurology’ essay? Something like ‘the insignificance of normative ethics without neurology’?

Canto: Ha, well that would require reading Selim Berker’s essay, which I’m not sure about – so many other things to explore. But I should end this discussion by saying a few words about the second half of Shaw’s article – and I’ll pass over many other points she’s made. This section deals with the collusion of some psychologists, practitioners of the above-mentioned ‘positive psychology’, with the CIA and the US Department of Defence in the commission of torture.

Jacinta: And what exactly is this ‘positive psychology’?

Canto: Well, to explain that would require a large digression. Suffice to say for now that it’s about using psychology to make us more resilient, and in some sense ethically superior, or more benign, humans. Shaw dwells on this at some length, but claims that in spite of much rhetoric, these psychologists can only offer what she calls the bare, Hobbesian ethic of avoidance of strife. However, she herself is unable to point to a more robust, or a deeper, ethic. She presumably believes in one, but she doesn’t enlighten us as to what it might be. And this is very striking because the tale of these psychologists’ collusion with the Bush administration  on torture, and the huge financial gain to them in applying ‘learned helplessness’, a theory of Seligman’s, to the application of torture, is truly shocking.

Jacinta: So it would be a question of what, in their make-up, allowed them to engage in such unethical behaviour, and was it the lack of a deep ethical understanding, beyond ‘bare Hobbesianism’?

Canto: Right, and my answer would be that, although two psychologists took up this lucrative offer to ‘serve the state’, there would have been others who refused, and would any of them, on either side, have made their decision on the basis of some rigorous normative ethic?

Jacinta: I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have colluded with that sort of thing for all the terracotta warriors in China, but I’m also sure it wouldn’t have been for deep philosophical reasons. I just have a kind of visceral revulsion for physical violence and bullying as you know, and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I’d facilitated the premeditated cruel and unusual punishment of others. I’m not even sure if it’s about empathy, but it’s not a particularly reasoned position.

Canto: Yes, and so the only way to understand why some people are more prone to do unethical things – actions outside of the ever-changing standards of community ethics – might be to look at individual psychology, and neurology, and genetics, which takes us further away from normative ethics than ever.

Jacinta: Yes, and didn’t we read, in Sam Kean’s The tale of the duelling neurosurgeons, about a poor fellow in his mid-fifties who suddenly started engaging in paedophile acts, something he had never showed any signs of before? A brain scan revealed a large tumour pressing on parts of the brain responsible for higher-order decision-making (to put it over-simplistically). When the tumour was removed he returned to ‘normal’, until some time later he regressed to paedophile acts. A further scan showed they didn’t remove all the tumour and it had regrown. After another more successful operation he was cured and never diddled again. But the consequences of his actions for his victims when ‘not himself’ would have required him to be punished, on a consequentialist ethical view, wouldn’t they?

Canto: Very good point. And yet, and yet… can it be true that we’ve barely gone further in our ethics than the Golden Rule, or Aristotle’s mean between extremes?

Jacinta: We’re animals, don’t forget. Okay we’re animals that have managed to detect waves from space that are a tiny fraction of the diameter of a proton, but we’re still not that good at being nice to each other. And the extent to which we’re able to be nice to each other, and follow social norms, that’s a matter of our individual psychology, our neurology, our individual and cultural circumstances, our genes and our epigenetic profile, so much particular stuff that philosophical ethics, with its generalities, can’t easily deal with.

Written by stewart henderson

February 26, 2016 at 8:37 am

some thoughts on urbanisation, language and culture

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Australian language families. From west to east:

Mindi (2 areas)
Daly (4 families)
Tiwi (offshore)

Pama–Nyungan (3 areas)

The trend is massively towards urbanisation, though it varies massively between nations. The big urbanising country now is China of course. Citification leads to homogenisation, as everyone strives to be original. Anthropologist Wade Davis says that of the 7,000 or so extant languages, more than half are not being taught to the next generation. Cities are about communication, requiring a common language. It’s unlikely to be Wajarri or Pitjantjatjara. How about English? Language groups, it has been argued, constitute the most natural nations, rather than states with their artificial boundaries. There’s a whole theory based around this but I say, whenever you hear the word natural you should be skeptical. Why did a diversity of languages arise? A very very complex question. Or rather a simple question but the answer…

It presumably wasn’t the case that each language was invented from scratch. My speculation – somewhere, sometime, a human or proto-human population developed a language (a bit like saying ‘here, a miracle happens’, but we know more than that about the earliest abstract sign systems). That population grew, split up and separated to such distances that the languages followed separate developments, just like, say, chimps and bonobos followed separate lines of development after being separated by the Congo River, if that’s what happened. But then it could have been invented from scratch more than once, as is supposed to have been the case with writing.

Surely though the emergence of all these languages is primarily due to migration and isolation. Surely this is neither natural or unnatural. It happens. The loss of many of these languages will be due to their being surplus to requirements, due to a modern process that has reversed the ‘tyranny of distance’. The need to communicate effectively across distances, between nations, has meant that a lingua franca has been a high priority, and the more such a language dominates, economically and culturally, the more small, local languages will die of neglect, or be rendered redundant. Is this tragic? I’m not entirely sure.

Wade Davis is quoted (in issue 63 of Cosmos magazine) as saying:

The central revelation of anthropology is that other peoples of the world are not failed attempts at being you, at being modern. On the contrary they are unique answers to a fundamental question: what does it mean to be human and alive? And when the peoples of the world answer that question they do so in 7000 different voices, and those voices and answers collectively become our human repertoire for dealing with the challenges that will confront us all. When we lose a culture we lose a part of ourselves. And it doesn’t have to happen.

This is all stirring stuff, and it would seem bad form to demur, even slightly. But I would like to reflect a bit more on this. First, note that Davis is equating language with culture, which is fair enough to a degree, but some people may be separated by language but have more cultural similarities than differences. After all, this is part of the raison d’être of the European Union, that the French, the Italians, the English etc have enough in common that they should work together rather than separately. And I would dispute the claim that there are 7000 different voices answering the basic questions of human existence and purpose. Surely there are no less than 7.2 billion? On my street, I know there are at least a couple of people who speak a different first language from me. It’s highly likely, though, that I would share more with them in terms of outlook or interest than with others who share my language. But I wouldn’t share every interest or preoccupation with anyone, and nor would anyone else.

And to look at the first part of the quote: I’ve never seen other cultures, such as Australian Aboriginal cultures, as failed attempts at being modern. I see them as generally quite successful attempts at surviving and multiplying in a fairly inhospitable but obviously not uninhabitable environment, in which they’ve had to adapt to a world of resources, opportunities and threats that has remained relatively static, and certainly far far more static than was the situation in Europe over the same time period. And then, 200-odd years ago, Europeans arrived here, with (always in hindsight!) predictable consequences. The very concept of modernity would not have occurred to humans who had lived in a pretty well completely unchanging environment for more than 40,000 years, whereas for the Europeans who arrived here the concept of modernity was very much a living thing, as they were constantly aware of their changes and development, in technology, in politics, in lifestyle. They naturally believed in the progress which had, after all brought them to this great southern land and enabled them, they felt, to lay claim to it.

So, many of us are well aware of the situation. Just keeping to our Australian circumstances (though I’m actually a Brit, if it comes to strict definitions), one culture or set of cultures was long habituated to stasis, the other set of cultures was long habituated to dynamics, and, as a result of having survived all those dynamic processes, to ‘progress’. So, in an important sense these two different groups aren’t answering the one fundamental question, they’re answering two quite different questions. The Aborigines had answers to ‘what is it like to be a human in a world which for 40,000 years has been unchallenged by other humans, and which has enough resources to survive on if you know how to read the signs, and if you pass knowledge and skills on down the generations’, whereas the Europeans had answers to ‘what is it like to be a human whose ancestors have fought and defeated invaders, conquered other lands and enslaved or exploited their peoples, cultivated soils and experimented with plants and animals to provide a variety of foodstuffs, exploited mineral resources for construction and technological purposes, etc etc’.

So, it comes to this. We Europeans, sharpened by our historical experience, have come to Australia and transformed it. We – some of us – tried to make peace with the Aborigines while taking the best land to cultivate ourselves. We brought in our sheep and cattle, we took over the rich coastlines, we built our industries, and we made an assumption of ‘Terra nullius’ because it was so obviously in our interest to do so. We had no idea, of course, of the history of the Aborigines – being all ‘young earth creationists’ at the time. The Aborigines had no more chance than, say, a tasty flightless bird would have if feral cats were introduced onto an island that the birds had comfortably and skilfully survived on for a million years. Of course we didn’t eat any Aborigines (as far as I’m aware) but we transformed their environment almost beyond recognition and made a continuation of their habitual way of life well-nigh impossible.

I make that comparison to suggest that humans are nothing special. Cultures, like species, go extinct, or adapt. That’s a harsh reality, but somehow, in our sophistication, we know, at least some of us do, that diversity, of species and cultures, is a good thing, not just intrinsically but for our own selfish benefit. It’s a balance maybe – we strive to preserve, but also encourage to adapt.

Written by stewart henderson

July 18, 2015 at 3:44 pm

reveries of a solitary wa*ker: wa*k 1

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(Being a thousand words or so of mental drivel)

I’d prefer not to be coy about the title but I’ve a job to protect.

the delightful enthusiasm of children

the delightful enthusiasm of children

Began watching documentary series chronicles of the third reich, yet another rake-over of that terrible but ghoulishly fascinating period, and it kicked off with noted historian Ian Kershaw saying that the regime was unique in that it aimed to overthrow the entire Judeo-Christian system of ethics that sustained western Europe for centuries. Bullshit I say. No such thing. What nazism was overthrowing, or delaying or subverting, was the progress of western Europe, for example the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, movements towards democracy, individual liberty, internationalism, none of which owed anything to the Judeo-Christian belief system. This lazy thinking and remarking continually goes unchallenged. At the height of Judeo-Christian control we had monarchical dictatorships, divine right, religious authoritarianism, extreme corruption, torture, rigid hierarchies, feudal slavery, etc, a world of inhumanity and brutality. Not saying that Christianity caused this, life wouldn’t have been any better in China or Japan, doubtless. Depended on chance and ‘birthright’ as to how well you fared.


Reading the big bio of Darwin by Desmond and Moore, thinking how so much that was radical or extreme becomes mainstream within a few generations, such as materialism, atheism, democratic principles, equality for women, humans as apes. Chartism’s aims – extension of suffrage, taxation reform, the repeal of laws too unjust to be enacted nowadays, all horrific to the upper classes, who armed themselves with crowbars to protect their homes and privileges. And among them, quite a few favouring transmutation (though not of the Darwinian kind – more a sort of Lamarckian progressive development towards the human pinnacle) and atheistic science. Makes you think of today’s accelerating trends, e.g gay marriage. All these ideas were opposed because they would bring down civilisation as we know it. Rock n roll was another one.
Also thinking how science threatened and continues to threaten religion. Moslem student asked me last week, do you think humans come from apes? Could see what his hopes were, was happy to crush them and move on. No doubt he’ll return to Saudi, ask the question again and be reassured as to his human specialness. But maybe not. But in Darwin’s day, so many associates, Sedgwick, Henslow, Lyell, Owen, Whewell, even Herschel, even bloody Wallace, couldn’t countenance our ‘demotion’ to a primate, on grounds some of them didn’t even recognise as religious. How can it possibly be argued that religion and science are compatible? Only if we have a very different religion, and perhaps a very different science – panpsychism, spooky action at a distance, positively conscious positrons.

A love-hate thing with Darwin, all his stuffy aristocratic connectedness, his family’s money, but then his boldness of ideas, but then his timidity born of an unwillingness to offend, a need to be admired, feted, but two kinds of glory, the one for a grand idea that might just outlast the opprobrium of his elite class in mid-nineteenth century England, the other for being a model member of that class, civilized, restrained, highly intelligent, pushing gently outwards the boundaries of knowledge. The tension between immediate, hail-fellow-well-met acceptance and something more, his dangerous idea, something barely digestible but profoundly transformative.


Keep reading about the hard problem of consciousness, without greatly focusing. Don’t really believe in it. We’re surely just at the beginning of getting to grips with this stuff – but how much time do we have? Dennett talks of the mind as cultural construct, Cartesian theatre as he calls it, and you don’t need to have ever heard of Descartes to wonder at how memories, rehearsals, fantasies can be played out inside the head, inaccessible to everyone but yourself, but without the boundaries of the skull, or of a theatre, no straightforward boundaries of space or time, yet composed of reality-bits, physical and emotional. One of my first serious wonderings, I seem to remember (not trustworthy) was about this boundary-less but secret place-thing called the mind. Not sure about a cultural construct, seemed very real and self-evident to me, and a wonderful safe haven where you can think and do things for which you’ll never get arrested, never have to apologise, a theatre of blood, sex and brilliance…

But I don’t think I thought then, and I don’t think now, that this was anything other than a product of the brain because to me the brain was like every other organ, the heart, the liver, the kidneys, the lungs, they were all mysterious, I didn’t know how any of them worked, and though I knew that I could learn a lot more about them, and would over the course of my life, I suspected that nobody knew everything about how any of them functioned, and the brain was just more complex and so would contain more mysteries than any of the others perhaps put together, but it had to come from the brain because, well everybody said thoughts were produced by the brain and these were just thoughts after all and where else could they come from – there was no alternative. And it seems we’re slowly nutting it out, but humans are understandably impatient to find answers, solutions. We like to give prizes for them.


Also reading Natalie Angier’s Woman, a revised version of a book brought out in the nineties. It’s a popular biology book from a good feminist perspective, and I’m learning much about breast milk and infant formula, about the breast itself, about menstruation, about the controversies around hysterectomies and so on, but her style often irritates, drawing attention to too much clever-clever writing rather than the subject at hand. It’s a tricky area, you want your writing lively and engaging, not like reading an encyclopedia, but especially with science writing you want it all to be comprehensible and transparent – like an encyclopedia. Angier sometimes uses metaphors and puns and (for me) arcane pop references which have me scratching my head and losing the plot, but to be fair it’s worth persevering for the content. But it shouldn’t be about persevering.

some thoughts on humanism and activism

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What Australia needs


I’ve been a little more involved in ‘movements’ in recent years, though I’m not usually much of a joiner, and I’ve always been wary of ‘activism’, which is often associated with protesting, personning the barricades (doesn’t have quite the aggressive ring to it, does it?), even a bit of biffo – if largely verbal, by preference. I’ve just been hungry for a bit of stimulus – salon culture, witty and cultured and informative exchanges with people cleverer than myself. But since I’ve been occasionally asked to engage on a higher, or deeper level, in ‘the culture wars’, on the side of reason, atheism, secularism, humanism, whatever, my thoughts on the matter have started to crystallise, and they’re hopefully in evidence in my blog writing.

I don’t mind calling myself an activist for humanism, or for other isms, but I think we should be activists for rather than against. Now it might be argued that to argue for one thing is to argue against another, so it doesn’t really matter, but I think it matters a great deal. It’s a matter of trying to be positive and influencing others with your positivity. Secular humanism has a great case to promote, as do reason, self-awareness and ‘skepticism with sympathy’.

I’ve learned from years of teaching students from scores of different countries and cultures that we all can be excited by learning new stuff, that we’re amused by similar things, that we all want to improve and to be loved and appreciated. The ties that bind us as humans are far greater than those that divide us culturally or in other ways. I’ve also learned that the first principle of good teaching is to engage your students, rather than haranguing or badgering them. This may not seem easy when you’re teaching something as apparently dry and contentless as language and grammar, but language is essentially a technology for communicating content, and if we didn’t have anything meaningful or important to communicate, we’d never have developed it. So the key is to engage students with content that’s relevant to them, and stimulating and thought-provoking enough that they’ll want to communicate those thoughts.

I suppose I’m talking about constructive engagement, and this is the best form of activism. Of course, like everyone, I don’t always ‘constructively engage’. I get mad and frustrated, I dismiss with contempt, I feel offended or vengeful, yet the best antidote to those negative feelings is simple, and that is to throw yourself into the lives, the culture, the background of your ‘enemy’, or the ‘other’, which requires imagination as well as knowledge. I mis-spent a lot of my youth reading fiction from non-English backgrounds – from France and Germany, from Russia and eastern Europe, from Africa and Asia. It was a lot cheaper than travelling, especially as I avoided a lot of paid work in order to indulge my reading. Of course I read other stuff too, history, philosophy, psychology, new-wave feminism, but fiction – good fiction, of course – situated all these subjects and issues within conflicted, emotional, culturally-shaped and striving individuals, and provided me with a sense of the almost unfathomable complexity of human endeavour. The understanding of multiple backgrounds and contexts, especially when recognising that your own background is a product of so much chance, creates multiple sympathies, and that’s essential to humanism, to my mind.

However, there are limits to such identifications. Steven Pinker discusses this in The better angels of our nature (the best advertisement for humanism I’ve ever read) by criticising the overuse, or abuse, of the term ’empathy’ and expressing his preference for ‘sympathy’. Empathy is an impossible ideal, and it can involve losing your own bearings in identifying with another. There are always broader considerations.

Take the case of the vaccination debate. While there are definitely charlatans out there directly benefitting from the spread of misinformation, most of the people we meet who are opposed to vaccination aren’t of that kind, usually they have personal stories or information from people they trust that has caused them to think the way they do. We can surely feel sympathy with such people – after all, we also have had personal experiences that have massively influenced how we think, and we get much of our info from people we trust. But we also have evidence, or know how to get it. We owe it to ourselves and others to be educated on these matters. How many of us who advocate vaccination know how a vaccine actually works? If we wish to enter that particular debate, a working knowledge of the science is an essential prerequisite (and it’s not so difficult, there’s a lot of reliable explanatory material online, including videos), together with a historical knowledge of the benefits of vaccination in virtually eradicating various diseases. To arm yourself with and disseminate such knowledge is, to me, the best form of humanist activism.

I’ll choose a couple more topical issues, to look at how we could and should be positively active, IMHO. The first, current in Australia, is chaplaincy in schools. The second, a pressing issue right now for Australians but of universal import, is capital punishment.

The rather odd idea of chaplaincy in schools was first mooted by Federal Minister Greg Hunt in 2006 after lobbying from a church leader and was acted upon by the Howard government in 2007. It was odd for a number of reasons. First, education is generally held to be a state rather than a federal responsibility, and second, our public education system has no provision in it for religious instruction or religious proselytising. The term ‘chaplain’ has a clear religious, or to be more precise Christian, association, so why, in the 21st century, in an increasingly multicultural society in which Christianity was clearly on the decline according to decades of census figures, and more obviously evidenced by scores of empty churches in each state, was the federal government introducing these Christian reps into our schools via taxpayer funds? It was an issue tailor-made for humanist organisations, humanism being dedicated – and I trust my view on this is uncontroversial – to emphasising what unites us,  in terms of human rights and responsibilities, rather than what divides us (religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation etc). To introduce these specifically Christian workers, out of the blue, into an increasingly non-Christian arena, seemed almost deliberately divisive.

Currently the National School Chaplaincy Program is in recess, having been stymied by two effective High Court challenges brought by a private citizen, Ron Williams, of the Humanist Society of Queensland. As far as I’m aware, Williams’ challenge was largely self-funded, but assisted by a donation from at least one of the state humanist societies. This was a cause that could and should have been financed and driven by humanists in a nationally co-ordinated campaign, which would have enabled humanists to have a voice on the issue, and to make a positive contribution to the debate.

What would have been that contribution? Above all to provide evidence, for the growing secularism and multiculturalism of the nation and therefore the clearly anachronistic and potentially divisive nature of the government’s policy. Identification with every Christian denomination is dropping as a percentage of the national population, and the drop is accelerating. This is nobody’s opinion, it’s simply a fact. Church attendance is at the lowest it’s ever been in our Christian history – another fact. Humanists could have gone on the front foot in questioning the role of these chaplains. In the legislation they’re expected to provide “support and guidance about ethics, values, relationships and spirituality”, but there’s an insistence that they shouldn’t replace school counsellors, for counselling isn’t their role. Apparently they’re to provide support without counselling, just by ‘being there’. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just have their photos on the school walls? The ‘spirituality’ role is one that humanists could have a lot of fun with. I’ve heard the argument that people are just as religious as ever, but that they’ve rejected the established churches, and are developing their own spirituality, their own relationship to their god, so I suppose it would follow that their spirituality needs to be nourished at school. But the government has made a clear requirement that chaplains need to be members of an established religion (and obviously of a Christian denomination), so how exactly is that going to work?

While humour, along with High Court challenges and pointed questions about commitment to real education and student welfare, would be the way to ‘get active’ with the school chaplaincy fiasco, the capital punishment issue is rather more serious.

The Indonesian decision to execute convicted drug pedlars of various nationalities has attracted a lot of unwanted publicity, from an Indonesian perspective, but a lot of the response, including some from our government, has been lecturing and hectoring. People almost gleefully describe the Indonesians as barbarians and delight in the term ‘state-sanctioned murder’, mostly unaware of the vast changes in our society that have made capital punishment, which ended here in the sixties, seem like something positively medieval. These changes have not occurred to the same degree in other parts of the world, and as humanists, with a hopefully international perspective, we should be cognisant of this, aware of the diversity, and sympathetic to the issues faced by other nations faced with serious drug and crime problems. But above all we should look to offer humane solutions.

By far the best contribution to this issue I’ve heard so far has come from Richard Branson, representing the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP), who spoke of his and other commissioners’ interest in speaking to the Indonesians about solutions to their drug problems, not to lecture or to threaten, but to advise on drug policies that work. No mention was made about capital punishment, which I think was a good thing, for what has rendered capital punishment obsolete more than anything else has been the development of societies that see their members as flawed but capable, mostly, of development for the better. Solutions to crime, drug use and many other issues – including, for that matter, joining terrorist organisations – are rarely punitive. They involve support, communication and connection. Branson, interviewed on the ABC’s morning news program, pointed to the evidence showing that harsh penalties had no effect on the drug trade, and that the most effective policy by far was legalisation. It’s probably not a story that our government would be sympathetic to, and it takes us deeply into the politics of drug law reform, but it is in fact a science-based approach to the issue that humanists should be active in supporting and promulgating. Branson pointed to the example of Portugal, which had, he claimed, drug problems as serious as that of Indonesia, which have since been greatly alleviated through a decriminalisation and harm-reduction approach.

I hope to write more about the GCDP’s interesting and productive-looking take on drug policy on my Solutions OK website in the future. Meanwhile, this is just the sort of helpful initiative that humanists should be active in getting behind. Indonesians are arguing that the damage being done by drug pushers requires harshly punitive measures, but the GCDP’s approach, which bypasses the tricky issue of national sovereignty, and capital punishment itself, is offered in a spirit of co-operation that is perfectly in line with an active, positive humanism.

So humanism should be as active as possible, in my view, and humanists should strive to get themselves heard on such broad issues as education, crime, equity and the environment, but they should enter the fray armed with solutions that are thoughtful, practicable and humane. Hopefully, we’re here to help.