Saturday, December 8, 2007

Reply from Ibrahim

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

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

25 comments:

Ibrahim Lawson said...

Actually, several contributors have been openly and gratuitously insulting, including Mr Bum

The Barefoot Bum said...

[T]he practice of Islam as a spiritual process enables one to understand how those limits [of analytic philosophy] may be recognised for what they are – a curiosity that results from some kind of ‘knots in our thinking’ to use Wittgenstein’s expression.

Curious. First, the focus has been subtly moved from critical thinking to analytic philosophy, a horse of a somewhat different color.

Second, the phrase "spiritual process" — especially in contrast to analytic philosophy — is necessarily vague. Analytic philosophy is (on one view) just the process of describing and defining ideas precisely. If "spiritual processes" could be defined precisely, it would therefore be subsidiary to analytic philosophy, not a replacement for it.

Lawson has not, to my reading, ever described how a "spiritual process" or mysticism can help us understand these supposed limits, why they these limits are inherent to analytic philosophy (the invocation of Wittgenstein is especially puzzling, since he advocated analytic philosophy precisely to remove these knots in our thinking), or even precisely what Lawson means by "understanding" or "recognizing".

Third, Lawson's offense at "insults ... thinly disguised as intellectual arguments," is an unsurprising tactic frequently employed by advocates of theism, mysticism, and supernaturalism. It at least allows a vanquished advocate to leave the field with a semblance of dignity.

anticant said...

As Mr Lawson appears to have flounced off, grumbling that he's been insulted, it doesn't look as if we're going to get his answer to my repeated question about the compatibility of Islam with free enquiry, free speech, and open democracy.

It is these issues, even more than whether or not children are capable of critical thinking, or what children are taught about the relationship between Islam and 'truth', that are crucial for the future peace and prosperity of these islands and this continent.

What I am asking - and I am sure Mr Lawson grasps the point - is whether Islam, in the form he teaches it or in any other form, is a totalitarian closed-mind ideology which permits of no dissent, or whether Muslims are willing to live peaceably and co-operatively in a society where the majority of the population are not Muslims, without seeking to impose Islam upon the rest of us.

What do you teach your pupils about the relationship of Islam to democracy, Mr Lawson? I presume you don't find this an insulting question - I genuinely want to know.

sr said...

"There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical" (Tractatus 6.522).

Wittgenstein did not reject the mystical. He just thought it wasn't philosophy's business to try to deal with it. I disagree with him on this, and it would seem that those who see critical thinking as a way to cure people of religion do as well, but for opposite reasons.

My question remains: can teaching critical thinking to children deal with critically thought out religion, which is very much about the limits to our thinking? What does one make of this quote from Goethe: "One is only truly thinking when that which one thinks cannot be thought through"? How does critical thinking deal with what religions call mysteries? Theologians have a long history of practice in doing just that. Primary and secondary school teachers will not.

anticant said...

Yes of course it can. An essential component of critical thinking involves being realistic and modest enough to recognise that there are indeed mysteries to which there is no clear answer, and that so-called religious explanations of them are false or at best unverifiable.

By all means believe the religious answers if you must, but do not try to pretend that such faith is anything but irrational. It is also highly dangerous because of the spurious power it gives to theologians and clerics.

Skippyx said...

In reply to SR,

I'd agree with anticant on this point; we can at least be clear to children about where knowledge ends and speculation begins. My feeling is that theologians hide behind this distinction far too often. There are phenomenon in this world that can be satisfactorily explained and those that can't. Let's not pretend that anyone understands those that can't (yet!) AND let's be realistic as to what we expect the explanation to be and what we do not expect it to be. For example, we do not fully understand the workings of the brain but let's not make an equally mysterious and unverifiable claim to explain it.

sr said...

We can agree on a lot of things on what counts as critical thinking, such as distinguishing between knowledge and speculation. But rationality is apparently not one of them. Anticant thinks that, because I have a religious outlook, I can't be (with respect to that) rational. I think I am rational -- certainly I know I want to be. The Catholic Catechism states that "sin is an offense against reason", so Catholics certainly don't think their faith is irrational.

All I can say is that I hope that to get certified as a teacher of critical thinking, the applicant is not required to assert that all faith is irrational. And I hope that at least some of them are open-minded enough to not prejudge the issue.

By the way, I tend to agree that religious answers to mysteries are either false or unverifiable. But then I consider (and I think many theologians would agree with me) that religion is not about answering mysteries. Theology is about thinking about them, and restating them in such a way as to preserve their mystery, and to clear away rubbish that they accrue.

anticant said...

I am well aware of the Catholic Church's doctrine that Reason is the handmaiden of Faith. I am not saying that because you are religious, or a Catholic, you are irrational within your religious tradition; there is much closely reasoned argument contained in Catholic theology, and I have had many intellectually stimulating arguments with Catholic friends. But before such reasoned argument can begin the 'leap of faith' has to be made, and that is where the prime irrationality lies.

Ron Murphy said...

Mr Lawson - In some of your posts you do support the teaching of some form of critical thinking. However, you also claim, as reported in this blog but originally from an interview, that you very clearly do support indoctrination, and that overrides the use of critical thinking with regard to religion.

As the headmaster of a British school I don't think there can be any doubt about what you understand by, and mean by, 'indoctrination' in this context. And, in particular the categorical point made by (from the interview):
ER: Does that mean that Islam is a given and is never challenged?
IL: That’s right…

Ron Murphy said...

Mr Lawson - On the issue of the offensiveness of some of the posts. As I'm sure you must understand, sarcasm and even insult are common aspects western social and political argument. I appreciate that they don't contribute to the soundness of any argument.

Having said that, I feel it unfair of you to complain when we have all heard the vehement rhetoric employed by many Muslim clerics. Again this illustrates the double standards that are employed in the name of Islam, and explains to some extent why so many non-Muslims are sufficiently frustrated to feel they too can or must resort to insults to drive home their points.

In the light of your claims about the worth of Islam, don't you feel you can rise above the insults, and graciously ignore them. Remember also that, sadly, not every one here has benefitted from an education that includes critical thinking and fair and valid debate.

I think it is obvious from the majority of posts that your opinions have been appreciated, if not agreed with.

I also note you are not above a little playful sarcasm yourself, assuming the contraction of the barefoot bum's name above to 'Mr Bum' was intended.

sr said...

Anticant:

But before such reasoned argument can begin the 'leap of faith' has to be made, and that is where the prime irrationality lies.

It depends on what the leap is to, and why it is made. Suppose I were a graduate physics student, interested in quantum gravity. Do I choose string theory or loop quantum gravity or something else? At this point they are all speculative paths, yet I have to choose one, and which I choose is going to shape my career in physics for a long time, so I think one could call that choice a life-shaping assumption.

That's how I think of faith. There are, of course, many who never make this choice (they just follow whatever faith they were indoctrinated into as a child). Many who do make a choice (convert, either to another faith or give up religion altogether) may do so for bad reasons. But the point is that there is a choice to be made, without sufficient evidence to know what is "right" (assuming one has no personal religious experiences).

So I can say that the choice I have made may be the wrong one, but given what evidence there is, and because it does not contradict any generally accepted knowledge, and because I think my life will be improved by making this particular choice, and because I think other choices that I know of are inferior (with respect to these considerations), and because a choice must be made (not practicing any religion being one of the options), I fail to see why my "leap of faith" should be considered irrational.

The Barefoot Bum said...

SR: The issue is what, precisely, constitutes "rationality". Your comparison of religious belief to a choice of scientific paradigm reveals that you do not mean by "rationality" what a scientist or skeptic means by rationality.

There are two ways of constructing what is meant by specifically "religious" belief. The first way would be akin to being fan of a particular sports team. There is nothing inherently unrespectable about adopting a religion as a free choice about how to live your life and from whom to take moral and practical guidance. I don't particularly admire those who freely choose Catholicism, but it's fundamentally none of my damn business how any person chooses to live his or her life. It's your life to live, not mine. The rational choice as to how to live your life is to live it in the way that pleases you personally.

On the other hand, most religions, Catholicism included, make and promulgate claims about reality. And it is at this level that issues of rationality and irrationality have real force.

The thing that distinguishes religious belief from the choice of a scientific paradigm is that a scientific paradigm strongly embeds the notion of falsifiability: a paradigm with unfalsifiable content is "not even wrong". This stands in stark contrast with religious paradigms, which usually have completely unfalsifiable content.

The lack of falsifiable content is becoming a serious problem for string theory. The only thing physicists have found in string theory that's falsifiable is that the Standard Model must be a valid special case. Beyond that content, though, the content of string theory is proving extraordinarily resistant to falsifiability.

A physicist who adopts a scientific paradigm does not (at least ideally) adopt is as true "come what may". If a paradigm can be shown to be valid under any logically possible set of observations, scientists will eventually consign it to religion or philosophy.

I don't really think that you have, or even can, evaluate Catholicism according to "evidence", because Catholicism is unfalsifiable. Indeed, your comment that "it does not contradict any generally accepted knowledge" is especially telling: Of course it doesn't contradict any generally accepted knowledge, because it is built precisely so that it will be "compatible" with whatever knowledge we happen to have, because it has zero empirical content.

Let me say again, that as a free choice as to how you live your life, the lack of empirical content is not irrational; the only relevant truth is the particular facts of your mind, which physically cause your choice of lifestyle. However, to the extent that a religion makes (or appears to make) claims specifically about reality, the unfalsifiability and lack of empirical content is definitely irrational. As we have seen, the resistance to clarity and precision of thought in drawing the distinction between free choice and truth-apt statements about reality is irrational as well.

Abdullah said...

Some interesting ideas here. In response to Mr Murphy's posting concerning indoctrination - you seem to imply that there is only one type of indoctrination and that it is singularly wrong. John Mills said something to the effect that 'education cannot take place without some form of indoctrination'. Stephen Law's ideas on how children should be educated are just as indoctrinating as muslim education or any other type of education. Is any institution or human interaction free of indoctrination? A sharper definition within an educational context is provided by R.S. Atkinson who sees the distinction lying between teaching 'about' morals and teaching 'in' morals, to teaching 'that' as opposed to teaching 'how'. To illuminate this further, teaching how involves, as Atkinson puts it; ‘…providing adequate support, by way of proofs, reasons, evidence, whatever may be appropriate to the field in question, for the conclusions it has sought to impart. With the above in mind the indoctrination that is to be condemned should be that which is based more on procedural means as opposed to its perceived sustaining of the moral, values and belief systems of a given society. Obviously this may refer to both intentional and unintentional indoctrination.

What is reprehensible is the degree and the intention to which it is carried out. This is not to say that the latter does not constitute indoctrination but as I have attempted to show current popular beliefs and values in regard to such matters as the origin of humans, the after death experience, sexuality, the existence of God, even the right to having diverse opinions on such matters, or the undesirability of indoctrination constitutes a belief system itself which is clearly represented within secular education. A case for indoctrination could be made here just as clearly as it would be within a muslim school.

Reprehensible Indoctrination does not require this, it seeks only conviction and assent and any teaching procedure is acceptable in the pursuit of these aims.’ There is also a distinction between treating someone as an end in themselves or simply as a means.

Ron Murphy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ron Murphy said...

Abdullah,

"..you seem to imply that there is only one type of indoctrination and that it is singularly wrong." - No, just the type supported by Mr Lawson in the context of this blog topic. If you want to consider the 'mild' definition of indoctrination - to imbue with learning - then I realise there are subtilties. If you mean the unwitting acceptance of ideas by those who suppose themselves to be free thinking, then that's a danger Noam Chomsky warns of. This, from the Collins School Dictionary (UK) - "...to teach them a particular belief in such a way that they will not accept any other belief" - is what I think we're talking about here, and I think Mr Lawson's words confirm that.

"Stephen Law's ideas on how children should be educated are just as indoctrinating as Muslim education or any other type of education." - I disagree. I've not seen in any of Stephen Law's work anything that means the same as Mr Lawson's positive response to "Does that mean that Islam is a given and is never challenged?"

"A case for indoctrination could be made here just as clearly as it would be within a muslim school." - Well, if you think indoctrination into Islam is OK, then presumably indoctrination isn't the problem. If it was suggested that children be 'indoctrinated' into 'critical thinking' - an oxymoron in the sense of 'indoctrination' used here - then the objection by Muslims would be the topic of indoctrination, i.e. 'critical thinking'#, not the indoctrination.

(# more specifically, critical thinking applied to religion, or even more specifically in the current context, Islam)

The Barefoot Bum said...

I think Abdullah is more or less on the same page as the rest of us.

There is "indoctrination" which teaches children the specific socially and culturally constructed moral standards, and there is indoctrination which teaches children general cognitive tools. Furthermore, there is the teaching of actual fact and scientific truth.

Indoctrination is reprehensible and corrupt when it teaches false-to-fact or non-fact assertions as fact. Indoctrination is reprehensible when it teaches demonstrably inferior cognitive tools as valid or effective.

Ideally, we should teach children both the contingent social and cultural ethos while also teaching them how to subject that ethos to critical thought: This is what our culture is, and here are some tools for changing it, if you wish.

This model creates conflict only if the social and cultural ethos cannot withstand critical examination. By and large, Western societies can withstand critical examination, because our ethos is (mostly) humanistic and rational, and where it is not, we want it to change.

By Lawson's own admission, there are substantive elements of Islam that cannot withstand critical examination from its members of any age, specifically Islam's supernaturalism, authoritarianism, radical conservatism, and anti-humanism. The only hope for preserving these elements lies in establishing them deeply in children's minds, and entirely subverting the cognitive processes that will afford change.

We of the West, at least the secular, humanist West, can teach our children to question everything, because we are not afraid to subject everything — even our ethical and cultural beliefs — to the universal tests of logic and consilience with experience. What is Islam (and, by extension, Christianity) afraid of?

Ophelia said...

"What I am asking - and I am sure Mr Lawson grasps the point - is whether Islam, in the form he teaches it or in any other form, is a totalitarian closed-mind ideology which permits of no dissent, or whether Muslims are willing to live peaceably and co-operatively in a society where the majority of the population are not Muslims, without seeking to impose Islam upon the rest of us."

Not only (I would say) 'without seeking to impose Islam upon the rest of us' but also without seeking to impose Islam on anyone, very much including what are almost invariably called 'members of the Muslim community.' No religion should be imposed on anyone, anywhere, and that of course means that no religion should be able to forbid anyone to leave on pain of punishment or death.

I think it's worth being careful not to divide everyone up into Muslims and the rest of us when talking about imposition and the like. The rest of us should not be coerced and neither should Muslims. No one should be coerced.

Stephen Law said...

I would have thought that Western philosophy is very good at acknowledging its limits. Philosophers acknowledge such limits all the time, don't they? Certainly, I don't pretend to have all the answers.

Indeed, isn't it those who engage in this sort of philosophical enquiry that show some humility and acknowledge mystery?

Isn't it actually traditional religious authority that insists it has all the answers to the Big Questions?

It's trad. religious authority that insists there's no mystery about e.g. where the universe came from (answer: God), where morality originates (answer: God), whether or not we have immortal souls (answer: yes).

On the other hand, even while philosophers acknowledge the limits of philosophy, and the mystery of, say, why there is anything at all, they might still be entirely justified in rejecting certain answers. Such as the Christian/Jewish/Islamic one. I think they are in fact - but that's a whole other topic.

The Barefoot Bum said...

It's one thing to assert that one does not one does not presently have an answer and that one cannot have some answer. I have not yet driven my car from San Francisco to Florida, but I cannot drive my car to Hawaii.

The conflation of present ignorance and in-principle limitation is an endless source of confusion, especially in the discussion of religion.

We have explored some of the actual limitations of rational thought. There are logical limitations, such as Godel's Incompleteness theory, a.k.a. Turing's Halting Problem. There are scientific limitations, such as the impossibility of knowing with certainty scientific universals from finite evidence.

Just having answers is not a particularly impressive: If one is allowed to just make stuff up, any idiot — myself included — has an answer for everything.

I would be very impressed indeed if some religion could actually solve the Halting Problem.

The Barefoot Bum said...

Sorry... "Godel's Incompleteness Theorem"

Stephen Law said...

Yes, BB, good distinction. I acknowledge the possibility that some philosophical puzzles are in principle unsolvable by us. Some "analytic philosophers (e.g. Colin McGinn) argue that some are in principle unsolvable by us.

Post-Islamist said...

Since religious ‘facts’ and ‘cognitive processes’– so misleading to use these loaded terms of which so many of you are so fond – are not the outcome of the relatively trivial, and above all secondary, thinking process known as ‘science’ (the new god) – they are not taught in that way.

A question for you liberals… what exactly has been the wonderful outcome of teaching everyone the ridiculous idea that they can think for themselves and question everything? Now Rome is burning and you are fiddling around trying to defend the false ideology of metaphysics. YOU are the danger to healthy society and the proof is staring us in the face.

Stephen Law said...

"A question for you liberals… what exactly has been the wonderful outcome of teaching everyone the ridiculous idea that they can think for themselves and question everything?"

I'm beginning to wonder whether you're not pulling our legs. Well, ok, here's a few things.

The idea idea that individuals should dare to think, question and use their own powers of reason rather than trust uncritically in authority (e.g. of the Bible, and Aristotle on science) is the core idea of Enlightenment, as Kant defines it. Enlightenment, thus understood, was pivotal in giving rise to modern science, and via modern science, electricity, refrigeration, clean water, medicine, anesthetic, electric light, steam engine, internal combustion engine, mass production, etc. etc.

See my last post and you'll see why an Enlightened approach to moral education would seem to provide some protection against certain forms of moral catastrophe. What is it that Mao's China, Hitler's Germany, the Holy Inquisition, Pol Pot, etc. all had in common? - they were all obsessed with policing what what was going on in people's heads (yes even Hitler to some extent - he shut down free press, free speech, etc. He was certainly no liberal.)

An Enlightened approach to moral ed also produces smarter, better adjusted, better behaved kids (see my last but one post). There's some hard empirical evidence to back up these claims, by the way.

These are just a few of the benefits Enlightenment provides.

Oh, another one is, we tolerate other points of view. Including your anti-Enlightenment views. Because we live in Enlightened country, you won't be getting a visit in the morning from our "thought police". Not even if you name your teddy bear "Kant".

I'm sure it's much better in Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc, and you will be leaving for one of these wonderful destinations shortly.

(See, now even I'm being sarcastic.)

I have dozens more reasons to be Enlightened but that'll to be going on with...

By the way, guess where we Westerners got the idea of Enlightenment from? Averroes - a Muslim.

anticant said...

"What I am asking - and I am sure Mr Lawson grasps the point - is whether Islam, in the form he teaches it or in any other form, is a totalitarian closed-mind ideology which permits of no dissent, or whether Muslims are willing to live peaceably and co-operatively in a society where the majority of the population are not Muslims, without seeking to impose Islam upon the rest of us."

I am STILL asking. But answer comes there none.

Ophelia: "No religion should be imposed on anyone, anywhere, and that of course means that no religion should be able to forbid anyone to leave on pain of punishment or death...The rest of us should not be coerced and neither should Muslims. No one should be coerced."

Thanks for that, Ophelia. Is Islam about coercion, Mr Lawson? If so, why?

Post-Islamist said...

‘Daring to think’ is one thing – some Muslims did and do that. There are historical reasons for the decline of Muslim cultures just as the west was taking off on its journey towards technological destruction of civilisation and the planet, whichever comes first. If you are saying we have to get rid of religious belief in order to have science, I think it is you who are pulling our legs.

Yep, with you on moral sheep, but you missed out Bush’s America – see anything by Chomsky on manufacturing consent (which is now very sophisticated, so it’s not so obvious). What price ‘freedom’ of thought when there is nothing effective you can do with it? Problem is, most people can’t think for themselves so it doesn’t take much to convince them they’re free.

Smarter, nicer kids? As compared to a control group who have had all the same socio/cultural economic benefits but an Islamic rather than an Enlightenment upbringing?

You tolerate other points of view? Only when it doesn’t matter. Are you not with Dawkins on this one? Shouldn’t we all be enlightened, or don’t you really care?

Tell me why you think you aren’t totally culturally and socially conditioned into a false consciousness that allows the exploiters to carry on exploiting ever more efficiently (there’s some hard evidence to back this claim, by the way) while you and your fellows enjoy a bourgeois lifestyle and congratulate yourselves on being morally superior.

I used to be a teacher, and the majority of kids I taught were convinced that the third world is poor because they’re all lazy and thick over there. When they get older, they moderate their views – they’re all intellectually lazy moral sheep over there.

But I am not the only one to point out that these oppressive regimes are all supported by the west as they steal from their own people, line their own pockets and persecute their own minorities.

I have dozens more reasons for being a Muslim, but that will do for now.