A fish and a theatre light

I was reminded of a favourite story the other day, when preparing to give a speech to the NZ Association of Scientists at the their annual conference. The point I hope to make was the power of story telling in education, and in particular how the stories of science can be a fabulous hook when it comes to interesting young students  in science. As it happened, I never got to the the story during the presentation, but the  urge to recount it remains:

At the beginning of the 19th century, the popular theory regarding the behaviour of light was that it behaved as a particle. this popularity was due, in no small part, to the fact that Newton had said did, and what Newton said tended to go. Geniuses are never wrong, right?  As is the way in science, there remained a number of unresolved problem with this light theory, and one of them was how to explain the way light bends as it passes through media of different density (think of the way a straight tick put into a stream appears to bend). The French Academy held a competition to explain this. An entry came in from Fresnel, and engineer, who explained it terms of light traveling not as a particle, but as a wave.

For we theatre folk, Fresnel’s name is entwined with the business of lighting the stage, as he invented a lens that is utilised in theatre lighting (and light houses I believe) and still carries his name. The esteemed members of the judging panel were initially sceptical of this unorthodox, outsider’s view, and in particular the renowned mathematician Poisson (he has a probability distribution named after him) is said to have mocked Fresnel’s entry. in order to demonstrate how preposterous it was, he noted how one can not shelter behind a rock to protect oneself from a wave in the ocean, because waves, by their nature, can wrap around the rock and collide behind it.

Going further, he used Fresnel’s own calculations to show that if he was right, it predicted that if you shone a light source directly at a solid object, then at the right scale you would observe the brightest spot of light directly behind the solid light, in the area shielded from the light source. Preposterous.

Luckily for science, another member of the panel, Aragol, thought it judicious to set up exactly this experiment. no surprises for guessing what happened next. The spot appeared, exactly where predicted, and the wave theory of light was resurrected. For the science geek, this story has everything. The historical authority figure, the powerful cheerleader, the preposterous prediction and yet crucially, the experimental observation which triumphs these most potent forces of intertia. In science, or so we hope, data trumps prejudice.

Of course, history shows progress is rarely this clean, but nevertheless messier versions of the principle are the happy norm. Meantime, this case stands for me was, well, a beacon

 

 

A Prince and a Duke

In the way the world has of throwing up patterns, this has been the year of the death of musical icons. I’ll not be the first to draw comparisons between David Bowie and Prince, or the last.

Bowie and Prince inhabited very similar places in my musical world, the respectable faces of popular music, so vastly talented that the reach of their appeal could not diminish their cool, even to a fragile, fashion conscious adolescent. Each dominated their respective decades, Bowie ruling the seventies, from Hunky Dory through to the Eno trilogy, and Prince moving in just as Bowie’s musical star faded. 1999, Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, Parade and Sign o’ the Times surely represents that period’s most startling run of recordings. Along with Bob Marley, Prince provided my generation with a sound track that transcended cultures, something Bowie, even in his pomp, never managed.

And yet, it is hard to escape the feeling that the media treatment of the two deaths is both different, and instructive. The death of Bowie saw not only a devoted front page in my local paper, but an endless sequence of articles over the following days, where journalists and luminaries of a certain age dwelt at length upon the contribution Bowie made to their existence. While the world section of this morning’s paper does lead with Prince’s death, neither the front page treatment, nor the mourning chorus, can be found. In Prince’s case, the coverage is already veering towards the salacious, with more interest in the circumstances of a death, that the grandeur of the life that preceded it. Along with the probing articles on drug use (Bowie’s drug use, like Keith Richards, was more often passed over as the predictable indulgences of fame and youth) there has also been a piece on Prince’s love life. And, as the controversies are brought to the fore, the musical genius fades to off stage. There is something shabby, and sadly predictable, about this difference.

It’s almost too obvious to point out that part of the issue here is race, and the stereotypes indulged by the lazier journalists. The broader point perhaps, is a reminder that the world portrayed by the mainstream media is the world of a few. As it is with music, which is in many ways the trivial case, so it is with the way the spotlight falls when it comes to social and political issues, to the way history is retold, the way our heroes are selected and celebrated. All my life, this has been a reasonably comfortable state of affairs for me, for I am white and male and middle class, and latterly of the age and concerns of the agenda setters. But, for a great number, they will never see their concerns presented back to them: not on the New Year’s honours lists, not on the political campaign, the six o’clock news, not even in the passing of their musical heroes.

One would like to say it’s a sign o’ the times, but the problem feels much older than that.

 

 

The Wizardry of Harry Potter

It’s fair to say I’m a latecomer to the whole Harry Potter thing. I’m far too old to have been the target market first time around, and it’s only now that my boys are ready to start appreciating the wonder of Hogwarts. We began reading my little fellows the books this year, and for full effect will probably try to drip feed the titles in over the years ahead so they can have the very great joy of reading the later ones for themselves.

And what a special pleasure it is discovering this series alongside my youngsters, seeing the power of the stories to unleash and transform imaginations. The series are the publishing phenomenon of our time, with 450 million sales to their name, and J K Rowling can quite reasonably claim to be the world’s most successful author. To me, one interesting aspect of this is the way we reflexively associate mass appeal with low quality: think of the sneering attitude displayed towards The Da Vinci code, or the Twilight series (and to be fair, I’ve read neither so can not judge). A great part of the sneering instinct is the snobbery born of fragile egos, the desperate need to establish one’s superior by not being drawn into the entertainments of the masses. If it isn’t obscure, difficult and pessimistic, it isn’t art. This urge is understandable in adolescence, where finding one’s place is a central part of the whole gig, and misery still feels novel, but in adults is unforgivable. I well remember the vigour with which I rejected any music that was any sense associated with the mainstream when I was fifteen. More than thirty years later, I find that while this filter spared me some truly painful listening experiences, it also kept me from enjoying a great deal that is wonderful.

Harry Potter, I hardly need say, is in the wonderful camp, popular precisely because of its great quality. Sure, Rowling may not be the greatest crafter of sentences that’s ever lived, but there’s an awful lot more to a great story than the style of its sentences. Most obviously (and yet weirdly often neglected by the social skills support group that is the world of literary criticism) is the capacity to construct a story. And that’s where Harry Potter shines. Yes, there’s the ticking off of a bunch of tried and true ingredients (child alone, forced to find the strength to be a saviour, mateship, boarding school rituals and magic) but anyone can go the grab bag of the elements of successful children’s fiction and make a mess of it. What is clear from the opening chapter of the Potter series is that Rowling has a particularly strong instinct for constructing engaging storylines.

There’s a great set up, first building connection and empathy, while at the same time dropping all the hints and puzzles that constitute the foundation of the story contract. Then, right on cue, the arrival of Hagrid and the plot twist that marks the end of the first act, the game changer. From there, meticulous attention is paid to getting the balance right between world building, character development, and plot progression. Further, Rowling trusts her young readers to hold elements in their head, parking them up for future reference (sometimes having to wait for whole books to elapse before the pay-off). Reincorporation is one of her many strengths.

Most of all I’d nominate her ability to construct non-linear plots as the thing that sets her apart. She is supremely confident juggling complementary story arcs without losing the forward momentum of the A-plot. So, while this is always Harry’s story, and resolution hinges upon his actions and experiences, Rowling keeps a number of developing strands prodding and pushing at the primary narrative. In this, she trusts her young readership in a way that is sadly rare. Contrast this with the endlessly (tiresomely) novel and inventive fantasy stories that essentially run an and-then plot line, one damned thing after another. Who can forget the acerbic review of the Lord of the rings movies that went ‘a bunch of Hobbits walk the length of New Zealand in real time.’

While it would be a great mistake to conclude that popularity always speaks of quality (The Bachelor, anybody?) it is surely equally dim witted to conclude the opposite. In the case of J K Rowling, I would contend that she has sold more books not by dint of luck, fashion or canny marketing, but ultimately because she’s very very good indeed. So good that she managed to broaden the appeal of reading for an entire generation, taking it from the obsessive habit of the frightened, and making it a pleasure for those more fully alive in their world. And if the response of my boys is any guide, the books will produce the same brand of magic for generations to come.

My personal challenge now is to find something to read the boys in the gap between finishing book two, and that moment next year when they will be ready to most enjoy book three. The current suggestion in our household is that I write them the gap filler, starring of course two identical twin boys, and a tunnel into another world they dreamt up earlier this year. And so I am eight thousand words in, and racing to stay ahead of their curiosity, because that’s just what fathers do. (Sebastian has decided there will be a daunting ten books in the series, but has very generously started tapping out volume ten himself on the computer.)

New plays up

It’s been a delightful year for producing plays at Hutt Valley High School. We’ve trialled two new pieces, Fight or Flight, with my Year 12s, and Fracture, with my Year 13s. Fracture may well end up being my favorite play; I was delighted with the way it turned out. Both are up on the site now, if you’re interested in reading them, or using them on stage yourself. As always, feel free to mess around with it any way you like, they’re yours to play with.

I’m reminded, in posting this, that a great many of my novels have started their lives as stage plays (Lester, No Alarms, Malcolm and Juliet and Genesis) and my current novel project is based round my play Singer. Starting with a play gives the luxury of being able to explore the themes and characters in a fluid and interactive environment, and is perhaps the best prep for writing a novel that I can think of. I remain indebted to the fabulously talented students who help me bring these stories alive. Mine is a very lucky profession (and I write this in the middle of yet another set of holidays).

Value added

The problem with bad ideas is that very often they appear, on first viewing, to be very good ideas indeed. This is why the habit of critical thinking is such an important one, worthy of a much more prominent place in the school curriculum. If we don’t develop the ability, and indeed instinct, to look beneath the glossy wrapper, then we’ll end up being sold any old nonsense. And, speaking of school, it’s quite possible that there is no field quite as vulnerable to the seductive power of glib fashion than education. Here’s a favourite example of mine. Consider the following statement:

It’s the job of a school to add value. There’s no point spending billions of dollars on education if that very process doesn’t add something valuable. Therefore, in order for us to know whether or not our education dollar is well spent, it’s critical that we can measure and report on the value we are adding. What’s more, knowing what the student can already do must be the starting point for any successful teaching programme, informing as it does what the next step should be.

Now, that appears deeply reasonable, doesn’t it? Almost to the point of being inarguable. Plenty of people at the Ministry of Education would say so, for it forms the basis of a significant push in our schools at the moment. Which is interesting, because the statement is almost certainly wrong. I should explain.

The first thing that must be noted, in the spirit of Heisenberg, is that measurement is never a neutral activity. The thing we measure is changed by the act of measuring it. Furthermore, measurement is an expensive activity, in terms of time and resources. A regime focussed on measuring will therefore do two things; it will divert resources away from other activities (say teaching) and it will change the way we think about the activities we teach and learn. The first is unambiguously negative, the second potentially so. Hence, we must conclude that a focus on identifying added value is a good idea if, and only if, the benefits exceed the costs. Yet, oddly, almost none of the enthusiasts for the concept see it in these terms.

So, let’s consider in more detail what some of the potential costs might be. Einstein (to continue the physics theme) once said: Not everything valuable is measurable, and not everything measurable is valuable. (Or was it the other way around?) So, if the cost of measurement is the first objection, then here is objection number two: A great deal of what is valuable in a school is intangible. Take for example the experience of heading out into the NZ bush to camp with a bunch of your peers. The most valuable takeaways from this experience will surely elude measurement (a moment of tranquility beneath the stars, a sense of belonging to a group, laughter around a campfire, the memory of which resonates through the years, and so it goes on). Now, imagine somebody tells you you must justify the camp in terms of value added. You can’t turn to the truly valuable aspects, as you know any attempt to measure them will be bogus, and so you may turn instead to something that could be measured, but is comparatively trivial: perhaps a temporary boost in fitness level, or an ability to correctly pitch a tent. The problem is immediately apparent. Justify the camp in these terms and two things happen. First, somebody will demand that more of the camp is therefore devoted to the intended outcome (let’s make the walk more grueling, let’s have tent inspections) and then, inevitably, someone will notice that the same outcomes can be more efficiently achieved in a less authentic environment. So we have tent pitching competitions on the school grounds followed by a brisk run around the block. And all of our lives are diminished.

Now for objection number three. In many cases, measurement inhibits learning. Two examples will make the case adequately. There is good evidence (a number of the studies in this area have used ethnic groups to make their point) that assessment increases performance inequities. In particular, the stress reaction in students who over time have become accustomed to failure inhibits performance. The more a struggling student expects the effort they are making to be assessed, the less effectively they engage with the task. The looming failure is enough to panic them into a non-receptive state. The second example comes from the area with which I am most familiar, that of creativity. I remember once being in a small group listening to the English Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, explaining why he was against grading papers in the elite creative writing paper he is responsible for. His argument will be familiar with anyone who has ever been involved in a creative endeavour. Motion suggested that as soon as you have grade levels, you have to have descriptors, and as soon as the student focuses on the descriptors (just what is the difference between a good and excellent piece of writing?) their approach becomes hopelessly mechanical, and the creative impulse withers. This is exactly my experience as a writer. The way to write is to find the story that needs to be told, and then, over time, to find the head space that allows you to discover the way to tell it. It’s a messy, frustrating and unreliable business. And nothing knocks you from your path more than the sense that there is some criteria to be met. Writing to please, according to some pre-conceived set of shoulds, is creatively disastrous. As any artist will tell you, the hardest piece of work to create is the one immediately following on from your greatest success. Expectations, be they imposed form within or without, are the enemy of creativity. So, careful attempts to identify value added will kill creativity and add to inequality. On to objection number four.

Implicit in the push for more careful assessment of educational achievement is the belief that learning occurs in stages, with each level of achievement being dependent on first mastering the previous step. At any point then, measurement allows us to identify the stage the student is is, and so provide them with the specific knowledge or guidance required to move on to the next stage. Now, this is undoubtedly true for a small subset of learning. Think of the very many foundation skills that must be mastered in mathematics before one can deal confidently with calculus – first one must have a sense of number, then of basic arithmetic, later of relations, and later still, algebraic expressions. We can properly identify an ever finer-grained sequence of skills which must be negotiated in an approximate order, and finding out where he gaps are can be crucial in remedying difficulties.

However, for a great deal of the learning we do, this is not the process. In these cases, knowing where the student is currently at adds surprisingly little to our ability to help them improve. A couple of examples will clarify. Occasionally, as part of a drama programme, I teach students to juggle. Now, juggling has a clear progession, from total confusion, through to making uncontrolled sense of the pattern, trough to sporadic success, then low level mastery, and eventually something like fluency. And yet, at every stage, the advice is the same. Practise some more. One of the clearest indicators of a person’s juggling prowess is their capacity to juggle five balls. Master that and you can properly call yourself a juggler. It’s very tricky. Here is what you need to know, in order to master this complex skill:
The five ball cascade uses exactly the same pattern as the three ball cascade, only the throws are higher, and need to land more consistently.
That’s it. It’s all the knowledge you need. And what advice can a tutor give you to help you achieve it?
Practise this every day. For most people, after some months of consistent practice, the brain will begin to see the pattern.
Again, that’s the extent of it. And a huge amount of what we learn and indeed need to learn, is of this nature. Our knowledge becomes embedded over thousands of hours of repetitive practice. Knowing where in the journey you are at, at any given time, is essentially inert information.

Teaching acting has a similar quality. The advice I am most likely to give an actor (beyond the foundational stuff about voice and audience awareness) is to try to inhabit the character. Find a way of stopping being you, and being then. Fully imagine your way into their world and situation. Understand why they do and say the things they do, and how that makes them feel. The task is essentially the same for a first time student as it is for a professional actor with decades of experience. One piece of advice, to be learned over a life time. Sometime the actor struggles to find a character, other times they get there quickly. Our job is to help them explore the role, and to provide the encouragement and criticism needed to motivate them in the search. Eventually, they become a little more proficient. Because it is not a case of moving sequentially through skills, where each level has a new instructional need, knowing where the student currently stands is again of no instructional use. This objection might be best summarised thus: knowing how much value you were adding (even if it were possible) would do nothing to help you add value.

In drama students, it is not so much that they move through a sequence of ability levels, as they are caught within one of a number of mutually exclusive orbits (like electron clusters, shall we say?) The workmanlike actor, over a lifetime, becomes slowly more proficient at being workmanlike, in the same way that the true talent slowly, over a lifetime, learns to more reliably let that talent shine. One doesn’t move from proficient to talented, nor could one even compare two actors caught in different orbits. They’re just completely different things. Occasionally, there is a quantum fluctuation, a random and inexplicable leap for one orbit to another, linked I suspect to moments of confidence or clarity, and when the leap is upwards it’s a fine thing to witness, but as for leading a student through the levels, the metaphor just doesn’t hold.

Objection number five. We can never be sure the progress we observe is value we ourselves have added. This is an interesting factor that is often overlooked in educational research. Put simply, an awful lot of learning happens despite us. Just because a student at the end of the year can do things they couldn’t do at the beginning, that’s no indicator that we helped them do it. A child at some stage learns to walk, despite us never teaching them (and anybody who noticed the change and concluded that they, the parent, had added value, would be a judged a moron). But so it is with the increasing intellectual and social sophistication that comes from undergoing brain development in adolescence. Now, these skills of social discernment and complex reasoning, although developing offstage, are key drivers in the capacity of students to reach new academic heights as they age. We see the results, but can not sensibly conclude we added value. Some studies of reading development note that in middle class homes, reading age increases over the holidays at much the same rate as it did in school time, whereas in socially stressed households, we often see students going backwards over the break (this is said to be one of the biggest drivers of educational inequality). So, what should we say of the school’s contribution to the reading development of the middle class child? How much is down to the teacher? How could we ever know? Why would we want to?

And finally, to round out the half dozen, my sixth objection is something of an echo of the second. For the whole value-added edifice pre-supposes that the purpose of education is to learn. In fact, that’s only one of the purposes. We do want the student to emerge from the machine more capable than when they went in. But, and how easy it is to forget this point, we also want the student to experience. School is not just a preparation for life, but it is also a significant part of the life itself, and so the goal of providing experiences that are of themselves worthy contributions to the totality of a life well lived, is every bit as important as the goal of teaching them something. And attempts to measure value-added tend to miss this entirely.

So, could it be that an idea that sounds very smart from the outside, (measuring student progress to inform teaching practice) is actually of practically no value (and significant cost) in most educational contexts? Could it be that as processes go, this one is expensive, promotes inequality, devalues what is most important, fails to recognise how most learning occurs, stifles creativity and yields end data that is largely meaningless? If that is true, then serious questions need to be asked about the competence of those setting educational policy, because they appear to believe the opposite is true. This is not just a New Zealand trend, so in this sense perhaps we should not judge our own officials too harshly. The international nature of this particular folly suggests that beneath the surface the forces in play are largely political.

Meantime, the highlight of my teaching year next year will be directing the full school musical. Students will come together to sing, to dance, to act and entertain. They will support each other, face down their fears, experience moments of pure magic and walk away with memories that will never leave them. Do pity the first fool to approach me and suggest I consider measuring the value I have added during that process.

The wisdom of Greeks

When the new school year rolls around in February, my boys will be amongst the number passing through the gates on the first day, embarking upon what I hope will be a happy continuation of their learning adventure. One day I would like to write a book about schools, perhaps a reflection on what has now been two and a half decades working in the field. If I ever do, I’m sure I will start by asking ‘what is this thing called school for?’ It’s not an easy question, but there must be a compelling answer. After all, by the time my two pass through the other end, the state will have committed upwards of a quarter of a million dollars to their time within the institution. It beggars belief that we would be doing that without a solid plan.

Here’s not the place to attempt to justify that spending, that would take a more expanded format. Instead, let me outline quickly what I hope happens to my boys as schooling becomes part of their lives. To do that, I will turn to the ancients, still the most reliable guides in any number of situations. Here are three of my favourite pieces of Greek wisdom.

Plato once said: Be kind, for everybody you meet is engaged in a battle.
Aristotle observed that virtue always lies at the centre of opposing vices.
Protagoras once stated: The fire burns the same everywhere, but the law of the land changes from place to place.

Those three nuggets by themselves are almost enough to live by, I think. And it takes a lifetime to get the hang of them. Here’s why I love them so much:

For me, Plato offers two messages. The first, that kindness flows from empathy. Nobody’s life is entirely easy. We will all meet fear, loneliness and grief. And so we all need kindness, all the time. The human being appears to have evolved a unique capacity for imagining our way into the lives of others, to understand, at least partially, the world from another’s point of view. I hope school sharpens this skill in my children. Through the literature they encounter, the games they play together, the opportunities for service they are offered, they will become kinder, and better at seeing the other as an extension of themselves. Or so I hope. Plato’s second message, if you think about it, involves resilience. If everybody we meet is engaged in a battle, then so too are we. Life will be hard, sometimes. I want my boys to experience some of that hardship, in a safe and controlled environment, so that they develop the skill of bouncing back.

I’ve always found Aristotle’s dictum here profound. We live in a culture fond of black and white summaries, of dichotomies that save us the trouble of grappling with subtlety. Generosity is good, selfishness bad. Bravery virtuous, cowardice despicable. Dedication is admirable, slothfulness to be avoided. And this is childish nonsense. Aristotle saw that excessive bravery is simply recklessness, and that caution is the moderate form of cowardice. So too with generosity. Give too much, becomes the instinctive martyr who can function only when enduring misery on behalf of others, and your life has been shamefully wasted. Think only of oneself and the same is true. I hope my boys can grow to understand the importance of balance in all things. Of sometimes striving, and sometimes saying to hell with this and going to the beach. I hope they will look after their health without becoming nuts about it. I hope that their kindness will be balanced by self-preservation, that they will be humble enough to ask for help, and proud enough to assert themselves when they need to. The trouble with the middle, though, is that it takes remarkable control to resist the attraction of the extremes. And so this is my true Aristotlean hope for my boys’ education, that they are given every opportunity to develop self-control, even if it means that they are left to stumble sometimes.

And as for Protagoras, was ever a more wonderful summary of human knowledge recorded? Here is a perfect anticipation, thousands of years before its time, of the post-modern view, but without any of its excesses. The world is knowable, in so many ways. The fire burns the same everywhere, and so we can study it, and learn its laws, no matter what our cultural background. And yet the laws of the land, our beliefs, our values, our dreams, differ from place to place. Whatever the truth of these things, the best we can hope to do is find solace in our community’s stories. And what does this mean for education? Well, I think of curiosity, and of tolerance. If we can understand the physical world, through careful application, then I hope the native enthusiasm for learning that my boys exhibit is fanned by the classroom, not stifled. And tolerance, because if all the rest is story, then surely the first thing we must learn to do is listen to the stories of others, that we might understand them before we dismiss them.

So there you have it: empathy, resilience, self-control, curiosity and tolerance. Throw in the ability to celebrate (for which a pithy Greek quote comes not to hand, but there will be one for sure) and I would be awfully happy with any education system that nurtured these qualities. And why do I want these things for my children? Because I am selfish enough to desire the satisfaction that comes from seeing one’s children happy. And as best I can tell, these are the ‘virtues’ that will get them there. As for their reading and their maths, or their grades in general. I care not one jot. That stuff is ephemeral, the justification for the busyness that is required to maintain order in a cost-efficient institution.

Monkey morality

A few years back, I wrote a book called Falling for Science, a response to a year spent at The Alan Wilson Centre, a research organising specialising in molecular evolution. The book was a response to my first encounter with the philosophy of science, and was my way of trying to make sense of the way science and story telling are necessarily intertwined. The conclusion, perhaps banal, was that we make sense of the world both by constructing models of our physical experience, and by using story to interpret those models, so freighting them with personal meaning.

Next week I’ll be giving a talk to The Sea of Faith conference, where a theme is the relationship between brain science and spirituality. I want to look at the way certain scientific discoveries constrain our meaning models, and specifically to make the case that, if we are to accept evolution, we are led to the conclusion that the human mind has no reliable access to moral truths.

That’s a reasonably challenging view; for most of us, the idea that some things are just right and wrong, and we know what they are, dammit, is instinctive. And, for most of us in the modern age, evolution stands uncontested. So, if these two cherished views are incompatible, that’s going to cause a problem. Not surprisingly, a great number of people, amongst them eminently qualified philosophers, disagree with me. Here then, in truncated form, is the case against moral knowledge, along with a quick examination of a counter-argument, from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which was provided by a correspondent, Darrell.

Two fundamental scientific models are being assumed. First, that complex design in nature is the result of natural selection. Given that the brain is the most complex piece of design we know of in nature, the argument is that it slowly developed its characteristics over time, in response to the differential survival rates of particular genetically determined variants. Second, that the laws of quantum physics are reliable. That is, that the physical sub-structure of the brain behaves according to probabilistic determinism. A particular state of the brain exists as a probabilistic function of its state in the previous time frame. In other words, we don’t have non-physical entities exerting any systematic influence on physical entities.

The moral argument is a conditional one. It doesn’t say, we must accept such science, but rather says, if we do, we are left concluding that the brain does not reliably access moral truths (it may hit them by random, from time to time, if they do indeed exist). In form, it is essentially a plausibility argument. It says, if we know of no mechanism by which a physical occurrence could occur, and have no evidence that it is occurring, we should conclude it does not occur. Think of this in terms of the claim that at night, while you sleep, your kitchen furniture levitates. A strong scientific argument against, that most would accept, is that we know of no mechanism by which a table or chair could levitate. So it is with this particular argument.

What then, is the equivalent of levitation? Consider a moral judgement. You see a child being beaten and cry out ‘stop, that is wrong!’ We can think of the time between the beating being observed, and the utterance being offered, as a sequence of physical states. First, light of the image hits the retina. Next the light information is converted to electrical impulses and so forth, right through to the brain state required for the utterance to be primed and offered. Physics suggests that every physical state is probabilistically determined by the previous state. In other words, the information at state one is sufficient to explain state two. Nothing uncaused happens within the physical brain, beyond the random element of the quantum equations (which being random, is without cause or purpose).

So, if the final utterance is reliably moral, then in some way, the design of the brain has been set up such that this ‘machine’ is calibrated to true moral values. However, evolution tells us that the design is the result of pragmatic forces. In other words, our particular moral instincts have evolved over time in response to the impact they have on genetic reproduction. Hence a fierce desire to protect one’s own children, that does not extend with the same ferocity to the children of strangers. We have no reason to believe that such pragmatic needs also match the true moral compass. If they do, it can only be because moral truth is identical to pragmatic need.

We have also clearly evolved a mental plasticity, which allows us, by way of culture, to overlay new behavioural tendencies, and we see this in the way moral mores change over time. We can teach our children to not only follow their instincts, but also to moderate and to some extent modify them. But again, there is no obvious reason why our cultural tendencies, which often reward either power interests, or the interests of social stability, should track some higher truth.

So, imagine a universe in which the beating of children is, in fact, morally good. How would the evolved brain, or the subsequent cultural overlay, ever discover this truth, let alone shape the brain to track it?

My argument is that we know of absolutely no mechanism by which this might happen and so, as with the levitating furniture, we should conclude it is not happening. (Some will argue that, unlike the furniture, we have clear evidence via our personal conviction, that moral truths exist. But ask yourself, should you meet a person with clear personal conviction, but no physical evidence, that the chairs levitate, would that also sway you?)

So, what’s the argument against this? Darrell suggests an answer can be found in this Stanford entry:

Consider how a moral realist will approach the above debunking argument. It is intended to show us that realism is untenable, which of course means that this conclusion cannot just be assumed from the start. Yet if we begin the argument allowing that there may be independent moral truths, then why should we accept the initial claim about the pervasive influence of evolutionary forces on the content of our moral thinking in the first place? If there are independent moral truths, then we may plausibly have grasped many of them through autonomous exercises of our capacities for moral reflection, whereby we have come to recognize good reasons for thinking certain moral propositions to be true...”

The above makes two important claims. First, just because we may have established the way evolution can shape our moral intuitions, this does not in itself preclude the possibility that some of our moral intuitions refer to something more than mere selective contingency. In other words, science may provide one way of moral knowledge entering the system, but this need not be the only way. To assume in advance it is the only way is to beg the question.

The second claim made here is that, in fact, we do have another means of grasping moral positions, and this involves our capacity for reason, what here is referred to as autonomous reflection or autonomous moral reasoning. This is the observed human capacity to reason our way towards new truths. We have after all reasoned our way to the fact that there are infinite prime numbers, or that the world is round. Nobody claims our access to such truths is precluded by evolution. So, if we can reach mathematical or physical truths in this way, why not also moral truths?

The first point is valid, and one would be foolish to question it. An argument showing how evolution shapes moral judgement is not in itself sufficient to show either that there are no moral truths, nor that we have no access to them. The problem, it seems to me, comes about with the second claim. For, the argument I am making is that, while moral truths may exist (I have no opinion on this either way) we should conclude we have no access to them because we have no plausible mechanism by which they could be grasped. And that is an explicit claim that the appeal to autonomous moral reasoning does not work, if its intention is to show it to be a reliable generator of morally true statements. In other words, the analogy with scientific or mathematical reasoning is a false one. Here’s why:

Remember that the argument is not that we can not reason our way to moral beliefs, clearly we can and do, but rather that such reasoning will not reliably guide us towards external, or objective, moral truths. To see this, consider how both mathematical and scientific investigations work. Mathematics is essentially the process by which we unpack the implications of a set of axioms. So, in the case of prime numbers, we first set up a mathematical system, with a set of rules and definitions, and once these are accepted, we can work our way through various proofs (say the unlimited number of primes). So, we can say, given a particular set of axioms, a certain set of results must follow. The closest we can come to statements about mathematical truth is to say, if A is true, then it implies B must be true.

Clearly this is problematic if we hope that moral reasoning can reliably deliver up moral truths. For such reasoning to work, first we will need to define and accept our moral axioms. For example, a person starting off with the proposition that a moral goal is greatest benefit for the greatest number will be able to reason their way to a number of moral propositions that therefore follow (imperatives ruling tax systems, perhaps). However, the propositions thereby reached will only be reliably true if the starting moral assumptions are already true (that’s just how deductive logic works) and we must ask, well where did the truth of the starting assumptions come from? And, the evolutionist will argue, we know of no mechanism that would make the starting assumptions reliably true.

Science works slightly differently, in that both its starting assumptions and reasoned to propositions will then be tested against the world as we experience it. The belief that the world is round was tested against the angle of the sun at different geographic locations, for example. We say the model holds, not just because of the way we reason towards it, but also because of the way our experience of the world matches the model’s predictions. In moral reasoning, however, the real moral world exerts no influence against which we can test it (unless we redefine morality in pragmatic terms – the moral is that which fulfills us, for example – which was the evolutionist’s point in the first place).

So, where does all of this leave us? Well, we can still construct, consider and refine our moral systems, and set great store by them socially. We can use them to attain the goals we value, and to work towards a shared sense of humanity. What we can’t do, if we are to cleave to our scientific understandings, is hold that our moral discoveries are indicators of some higher, unchanging truth.

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