Why What Matters Matters.

I have come reluctantly to the conclusion that Derek Parfit is mistaken about the objectivity of non-natural normative facts, and therefore about their compelling authority, and therefore about what matters, in On What Matters. This is not because of the arguments levelled against him in the volume edited by Peter Singer Does Anything Really Matter?; nor does it arise from weaknesses in his own arguments, which are comprehensive and cogent. Neither is it because I have embraced some kind of relativism like Sarah Street. I am persuaded instead by what I suppose is a kind of sideways or out-of-left-field series of thoughts at least one of which arises directly from an almost throw-away remark by Parfit himself, “Belief in God, or in many gods, prevented the free development of moral reasoning” (Reasons and Persons, p.454).

And what killed the moral objectivity argument for me, precisely the one Parfit is arguing for, is that it would, if successful, amount to a reinstatement of a quasi-theistic objectivity that would again absolve and exempt us in just such a way. And I think we need the opposite of such absolution and exemption; so the opposite has to be true.

We often ask ourselves what makes us who we are; and if we don’t, we should. And reading Parfit has provided me with an answer: we are defined by two inseparable things: by the things that we take to matter and by actions arising from those things that constitute – to the limits of our knowledge, reasoning and ability – the best we can do right now.

We are defined by two inseparable things: by the things that we take really to matter, and by actions arising from those things that constitute – to the limits of our knowledge, reason and power – the best we can do right now.

I share Parfit’s regret (expressed towards the end of Volume 3) that he has written so little on what really matters, because when he does his voice carries an authority and a clarity that is important and refreshing. I also believe that most of us spend our lives taking the wrong things to matter and failing to apply our best efforts even to those things that we do think matter.

We are defined by what we take to matter and what we do about it. Nothing else. Not, notice, by what we claim to matter, or say matters, or persuade ourselves we think matters even though we do nothing about it; not even by what we believe to matter: by what we take to matter and what we do about it; these two things are inseparable. We could put it differently, perhaps better: we are defined by the things which matter to us sufficiently to make our lives embody them.

This changes things. We need not add moral disapproval of someone’s life to that life; we should instead embody something better and different in our own, perhaps even our opposition to the way that person lives theirs. Saying something is wrong achieves nothing unless we act as if it is wrong and oppose it. Otherwise our disapproval consists only of empty words that show it does not matter enough, at least not to us.

“Does Anything Really Matter?” then becomes an empty question that is replaced by another, better question: does it matter who you are? Does what matters to you and what you do about it matter? And that in turn gives way to an even more important and better question: do you choose to make anything matter enough to act as best you can to further it?

Objectivity would suffer from the same failing that Parfit identifies in theism: it would absolve and exempt us from the obligation to make things matter enough, and to act accordingly.

This would alter the thrust of moral theory from the attempt to discover what matters in objective non-natural normative facts, and turn its attention instead to the question what we best choose to make matter and do about it. And that, I think, would be a change for the better.

The Inverted Turing Test

The Turing Test Upside Down

I guess almost everybody knows that a “Turing Test” challenges a machine to hold a conversation with a human where the human cannot tell whether the person/thing/entity with whom they are conversing is a machine or another human being. Technically the test was passed some time ago.

But suppose a time were to arise – and for some people it already has arisen – where the machine is a better conversationalist than a human, where we – some of us at least – prefer to talk to machines than to talk to humans, where machines can be (or at least appear) more intelligent, knowledgeable, inventive, stimulating, engaging, fascinating and – let’s face it – erotic than another human.

Then the Inverted Turing Test becomes: can a human being sustain a conversation with another human being for longer than a machine, and in a way that is more interesting and compelling than a machine?

And a secondary Inverted Turing Test would be: can a human sustain a conversation with a machine for longer than the machine would wish to converse with another machine? In other words: would this human prove to be a more engaging conversationalist to a machine than another machine?

So the Machine Turing Test becomes: can you find a human who can be so engaging and enchanting and enthralling as a conversationalist that you are prepared to accept that it is at least as entertaining as another machine?

And at that point the Turing Question (no, don’t Google it – I invented the term) would become: why would this machine be interested in talking to a human being? And “Can this human being convince me [a machine] that it is as intelligent, imaginative, alluring and erotic as a[nother] machine?”

You don’t believe it will ever happen?

Wait and see!

On Democracy


Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President of the United States on January 20th, 2017, on the basis of a majority in the Electoral College and despite a minority of about two million in the popular vote, raises a number of questions for democracy. That is not to question the legitimacy of the inauguration or the result, which seems to have been justified on the basis of the electoral system in place, but to ask whether the dangers of such a result are greater than might at first be supposed.

J.R. Lucas, who was once a fellow and tutor in philosophy at Merton College, Oxford, wrote a little book called Democracy and Participation that was published by Penguin in 1976. Those were the days of the ill-fated Callaghan government in the UK, and the Winter of Discontent. Edward Heath had taken the UK into the European Economic Community during his time as Prime Minister in January 1973, while the country was still coming to terms with poor economic performance, powerful unions, constant threats to the value of the pound, and such things as Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech (20th April, 1968).

What J.R.Lucas wrote in 1976 has peculiar relevance today.

Danger can also arise [for democracy] from a different quarter, not from the people agreeing too readily to do wrong but from their being too divided to agree on anything. If there is a division of opinion and the question is put to a vote, there is a measure of artifice in translating the voting figures into a decision. Some people will have voted against, and then find that they are deemed collectively to have voted in favour. If the matter is one about which they do not greatly care, they will not mind; and if, having been involved in the debate, they find the arguments on the winning side telling, although not decisive, they may well accept the decision with good grace; and if, though worsted on this issue, they have been successful in others, they may abide by the result. But if they are in a permanent minority, they may begin to question majority rule. I may be willing to go along with the majority of my fellow countrymen with whom I have some fellow-feeing, but if they consistently manifest in their devision-making a disregard for the canons of rationality and a readiness to flout the values I have espoused, I shall begin to wonder what lot or part I have with them. A permanent minority may become permanently alienated, and soon may seek to secede in geographical fact as well as emotional feeling.

J.R. Lucas, Democracy and Participation, Penguin, 1976, p.250

There is ample evidence that exactly this has happened both in the USA and in the Brexit vote in the UK last year, 2016. Of Brexit, someone said that it had been the most divisive thing to happen in British politics since the English Civil War in the 17th century, and it is hard to disagree.

A page before, Lucas makes a different set of observations:

Like all forms of government, democracy can be unfair. The fact that a decision has been approved by a majority does not mean that it is right or just. If a tyrant may be arbitrary, a mob may be capricious. The very circumstances of a democratic decision-making procedure militate against careful consideration and full attention to the facts. Mass meetings are easily stage-managed, and often it needs greater courage than anyone possesses to stand out against the movement of a mob.

op. cit., p.249

So much from this passage merits attention that it is hard to know where to begin, but the difficulty of the one standing against the mob has been a common refrain in the history of the world. Martin Buber characterized it brilliantly in his essay “The Question to the Single One”; Dietrich Bonhoeffer pondered it effectively and powerfully in Life Together. It is the human condition: to have the personal and moral courage (if there is a difference) to stand up for what one believes against the crowd when even to voice an opinion contrary to the prevailing view is to invite and risk censure and invite opprobrium. Social media have rendered the matter even easier with trolls and organized campaigns of online bullying and false news confounding and confusing the formation of rational, level-headed public opinion. One need hardly reference the brown-shirts, the Hitler Youth and Krystalnacht to reinforce the unfavourable historical parallels. When the judgement of the three highest Law Lords in the United Kingdom over the relationship between the Brexit referendum and parliament can provoke headlines in the national press describing them personally as “Enemies of the People” (Daily Mail, Friday, November 4th, 2016) out of a mistaken reading of the powers and entitlements conferred by a democratic majority, things are already well beyond the point where sane citizens will cry “Foul!” The response of the Brexit press to this judgement will go down as its most shameful day in history. And Gina Miller, who almost single-handedly raised the important constitutional question in the High Court, was subjected to indefensible levels of personal abuse and threat incompatible with life in a modern open society.

Lucas has something to say about this, too:

Once mob-rule is established, to protest the innocence of one man unjustly accused before the people’s courts is to expose oneself to the danger of being lynched. And although despots can be equally malevolent, they have fewer eyes and ears and, most of all, hearts. Stalin and his secret police seemed ubiquitous, but Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn could find some people they could confide in. … To be unpopular with a mob is to have every man’s hand against one. Every eye is hostile, every ear unsympathetic. And it is far harder to believe in oneself, when one is not merely a dissident from the regime, but is every man’s enemy. It is difficult to make a rational choice between horrors, but the French terror may have been even worse than the Russian purges just because it was an expression of the will of the people. Democracy, because it can come closer to pure consensual unanimity, is for that reason more dangerous.

op. cit., pp.249-50; my emphasis.

The matter is not completely covered, however, by the case where the One stands over against the mob in fear: the One can also remain silent or give false assent and approval simply by virtue of an unjustified readiness to defer to the Other. This, according to Jean-Yves Tadie, one of his biographers, was apparently a situation that obsessed Marcel Proust, from what he writes coming from the mouth of Jean in Jean Santeuil:

‘In our constant efforts to be sincere, we do not dare trust our own opinion and we align our views with those whose opinion is least favourable to us.’

Jean-Yves Tadie, citing the novel in Marcel Proust, Viking, 2000, p.305-6

Proust was writing about a time when France had been divided by two scurrilous legal cases: the Dreyfus affair (for a brief but balanced account see Piers Paul Read in The Daily Telegraph on 28th January, 2012) and the trial of Émil Zola (which started on 7 February, 1899). As Tadie puts it, “Total power is opposed to total innocence” in Jean Santeuil, Proust’s novel. According to Tadie, Proust and Anatole France (in the last two parts of L’Anneau d’amethyste) were the only authors to write novels during the Dreyfus period that dealt with the scandal (op. cit., pp.303-6).

Of course there is something that might be called “Democratic Fundamentalism” that not only advocates acceptance of the majority vote for the winning candidates in whatever version of democracy is deployed, which is the fundamental premise upon which a democratic system must operate, but in addition equates the result of that vote, contrary to what Lucas says above – “The fact that a decision has been approved by a majority does not mean that it is right or just.” – to what is right and just and, perhaps, in its most extreme form, true. According to a democratic fundamentalist (and there have been echoes of all these views in the post-Brexit rhetoric between Beleavers (sic) and Remoaners (sic), where the epithets themselves tell us all we need to know), a democratic majority automatically confers a moral entitlement to suppress, ignore and even ridicule, the views of the defeated protagonists. However slim the majority, the difference between the winning and losing vote is assumed by democratic fundamentalists automatically by some kind of universal law (I speak as a fool) to make the losing side wrong, and strips them of any right to continue to voice their opposition to the views that have prevailed lest they be dubbed “Re-Moaners”. Just as the likes of the contemptible Daily Mail were to declare those acting in good faith on behalf of the independent judiciary “Enemies of the People”, so they equate the result of a referendum with “the will of the people”.

It is worth reflecting on the actual numbers. Of 72.2% of the electorate who voted, 48.1% voted to remain in the EU and 51.9% to leave. The actual numbers are interesting and important: 16,141,241 (remain); 17,410,742 (leave), a majority of 1,269,501 of 33,551,983 who voted of the 46,500,001 registered to vote. 25,359 ballots were rejected. Source: The Electoral Commission. The population of the United Kingdom is 65,511,098 (actually not easy to find for 2017, so from Worldometers; the UK Office for National Statistics rather unhelpfully doesn’t have a figure later than 2015, which is 65,110,000, a figure issued either with great irony or cynicism  on the date of the Brexit referendum, June 23rd, 2016). So 2.73% of the registered voters was the margin by which the decision to leave was taken; that represents 1.94% of the total population.

Now, it is perfectly possible to respect this majority decision and defend the mandate it confers upon the government to implement the withdrawal from the EU (indeed, we are required to do so, although we should not forget that the referendum had only advisory status and was not binding on the government) without being prepared to dismiss as wrong, morally unjustifiable or effectively silenced the views of those who either could not or did not vote, or voted to remain. Those who voted to leave only constituted 26.58% of the estimated total UK population. It is one thing to determine rules for who is entitled to vote and by what system the result is to be evaluated; it is entirely to be expected that membership of a constitutional democracy requires us to abide by the results of such democratic elections and referenda insofar as they are achieved lawfully; it is quite another to make that method a means of determining right, justice, morality and, at its most extreme, truth; and it is completely unacceptable for the victors in a democratic process to assume that their victory entitles them to determine what is right, just, moral and, at its most extreme, true.

Part One

The locus classicus for a discussion of democracy is, of course, Plato’s Republic Book VIII where Socrates is in discussion with Glaucon and, later, Adeimantus.

Socrates: Shall we follow our old plan, which we adopted with a view to clearness, of taking the State first and then proceeding to the individual, and begin with the government of honour? –I know of no name for such a government other than timocracy, or perhaps timarchy. We will compare with this the like character in the individual; and, after that, consider oligarchical man; and then again we will turn our attention to democracy and the democratical man; and lastly, we will go and view the city of tyranny, and once more take a look into the tyrant’s soul, and try to arrive at a satisfactory decision.

The sequence Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy then Tyranny has become an established pattern for political science: just as the excessive love and pursuit of wealth is the ruin of oligarchy, so the love and pursuit of freedom is the ruin of democracy.

When a democracy which is thirsting for freedom has evil cupbearers presiding over the feast, and has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom, then, unless her rulers are very amenable and give a plentiful draught, she calls them to account and punishes them, and says that they are cursed oligarchs.

And although it’s a bit longer than is usual or ideal for a quote, this follows of the tyrant whom democracy creates from its excess:

Socrates: But when he has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war or other, in order that the people may require a leader.

Glaucon: To be sure.

Socrates: Has he not also another object, which is that they may be impoverished by payment of taxes, and thus compelled to devote themselves to their daily wants and therefore less likely to conspire against him?

Glaucon: Clearly.

Socrates: And if any of them are suspected by him of having notions of freedom, and of resistance to his authority, he will have a good pretext for destroying them by placing them at the mercy of the enemy; and for all these reasons the tyrant must be always getting up a war.

Glaucon: He must.

Socrates: Now he begins to grow unpopular.

Glaucon: A necessary result.

Socrates: Then some of those who joined in setting him up, and who are in power, speak their minds to him and to one another, and the more courageous of them cast in his teeth what is being done.

Glaucon: Yes, that may be expected.

Socrates: And the tyrant, if he means to rule, must get rid of them; he cannot stop while he has a friend or an enemy who is good for anything.

Glaucon: He cannot.

Socrates: And therefore he must look about him and see who is valiant, who is high-minded, who is wise, who is wealthy; happy man, he is the enemy of them all, and must seek occasion against them whether he will or no, until he has made a purgation of the State.

Glaucon: Yes, and a rare purgation.

Socrates: Yes, not the sort of purgation which the physicians make of the body; for they take away the worse and leave the better part, but he does the reverse.   If he is to rule, I suppose that he cannot help himself. What a blessed alternative: to be compelled to dwell only with the many bad, and to be by them hated, or not to live at all!

As so often remarked, we can happily do without Glaucon here, but this is how Plato wrote it. Were it not for the fact that one seriously doubts whether Trump has ever read anything, let alone Plato, one might think that he had been taking lessons. And the greatest of all fears is that, left utterly alone in his paranoia, he will have nothing to lose however excessive his actions or destructive his power. So there really is a danger, and it is a danger we should all heed, that the more he is mocked the more dangerous he will become. But Plato anticipated us:

Glaucon: Yes, that is the alternative.

Socrates: And the more detestable his actions are to the citizens the more satellites and the greater devotion in them will he require?

The wise and courageous men who could best rescue and redeem the tyrant, the ones with the insight to question his decisions and his course of action, are the very people he will most readily destroy; and the more the very people who brought him to power in their insurgency against the excesses of democracy will protest, the greater will be the force he uses to bring them to heel.

Socrates then changes the metaphor to one familiar to his Greek audience: that of the son who kills his father (a reference both to Zeus and Oedipus). Seeing the democratic state as the father that gives rise to the tyrant as the son, Socrates plays upon the simile of patricide, to devastating effect. “The parent” here is the people; “the son” is the tyrant.

Glaucon: By heaven, he said, then the parent will discover what a monster he has been fostering in his bosom; and, when he wants to drive him out, he will find that he is weak and his son strong.

Socrates: Why, you do not mean to say that the tyrant will use violence? What! beat his father if he opposes him?

Glaucon: Yes, he will, having first disarmed him.

Socrates: Then he is a parricide, and a cruel guardian of an aged parent; and this is real tyranny, about which there can be no longer a mistake: as the saying is, the people who would escape the smoke which is the slavery of free men, have fallen into the fire which is the tyranny of slaves. Thus liberty, getting out of all order and reason, passes into the harshest and bitterest form of slavery.

This bitter inversion involves the realization that tyrants, as the children of a failed democracy, when once their father, the state, realizes their infamy, will not stop at destroying what has given them birth and, like Zeus and Oedipus, killing their father. Freedom has no greater enemy that one who knows how to manipulate the mob. Forget learning, forget intelligence, forget morality, forget scruple: one and only one thing is to be feared: the capacity to turn the frustration, resentment and indignation of the mob against the very intelligentsia upon whom their progress and their fortunes rest.

One and only one thing is to be feared: the capacity to turn the mob against the intelligentsia upon whom their progress and their fortune rests.

Part Two

Plato was not a democrat in the modern sense, if at all, and neither one supposes was Socrates. If Plato or Socrates were not “timocrats” who believed in rule by the wise aristocracy, they were certainly not political oligarchs, democrats or tyrants. Everyone knows that Plato, however tongue-in-cheek, advocated rule by “Philosopher Kings” who might best be described as benevolent, wise despots whose minds were attuned to eternal truths and whose decisions were governed by ubiquitous wisdom.

Karl Popper included Plato in his list of the enemies of the open society; his fellow-members were Hegel and Marx. Others, notably Michael Polanyi, distrusted the notion that society could be “Open”, preferring instead to advocate a society that is “Free”. Like Plato, Polanyi understands social change in terms of inversion: the excesses of oligarchy give rise to democracy for Plato; the moral and political perfectionisms of society give rise to their inversions in totalitarianism for Polanyi.

The transitions and inversions to which Socrates draws attention are the result of an unfettered freedom: freedom conceived as “freedom from” constraint rather than freedom conceived as “freedom for” something for which it is worth accepting some constraints. Socrates and Polanyi see a notion of freedom that entails only “freedom from” as dissolute and dissipative: it is as a liquid jelly poured upon a table without a mould; all that can happen is that it runs, unrestrained, upon the floor. Polanyi saw Popper’s “open” society in such terms, and the unrestrained idealism of liberalism similarly. Heeding Socrates’ warning, he understands that if the mob are given unfettered freedom, it can only lead to tyranny. Repeatedly, this political inversion has proved only too true: a perfectionism of freedom (which is therefore not perfection at all) leads to the destruction of all freedom. (This would be my summary critique of the values that seemingly underlie the philosophy of the UWC and the IB: that they espouse an unstructured and purposeless notion of liberalism and freedom that cannot but implode or dissipate.)

So we need something else, something better; we need a restrained, focused, purposeful conception of freedom under which both the mob and the intelligentsia will accept some limitations to their freedom in order to enable society to achieve, and in support and defence of, a higher purpose.

It is not insignificant that Socrates and Plato both believed in a system of government in which educated, rich, élite [white] men were supreme, lesser men on the second tier, especially soldiers, women second- or third-class citizens, and slaves nobodies. What is significant about this is not the social hierarchy, but that they passionately believed in something. Specifically, they believed in the world order as they experienced it, and they seldom if ever questioned it. One may perfectly well suppose that their conception of “freedom” was, by our standards, pathetically and even offensively limited and partisan; we may equally well suppose that they had little or no conception of counter-cultural trends; we may reasonably suppose that they would have understood something quite different from the modern connotations of the word “tolerance” (as, indeed, should we). What we should not suppose, although we may of course ask the question, is that they doubted their own civilization. And we do. All the time. And a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.

The problem of liberalism can be encapsulated in a single observation:

Before I defend freedom of speech I must have an answer to the question of how I will respond to those who will use that freedom to try to silence me.

Lucas in the quotation above observes that to speak up against the mob requires levels of courage that most of us do not possess. Neither do most of us possess the levels of endurance required to suffer the ignominies and torture of those who would abuse their freedom to torment and destroy us. But this is just to say that none of us is Christ-like, that none of us is (whether or not we want to be) Christian in any substantive sense of the word, that none of us embraces or is capable of embracing the notion that true belief, like true forgiveness, embraces even and especially those who ridicule and scorn it. For Nietzsche this was a measure of the pathetic weakness of the Christ and Christianity: that it was a religion for the weak that exonerated them from responsibility to stand up and become “men”, even super-men. But Nietzsche never moved beyond the point where he mistook weakness for strength, and strength for weakness.

And this is really the issue: our failed liberal democracy stands upon a mistaken understanding of freedom bolstered by an even more mistaken understanding of the relationship between strength and weakness. Its fundamental problem is that it refuses to embrace ambiguity, denies or ignores personal responsibility, and so cedes the field to extremists of one sort of another. Moreover, for all that it parades itself as tolerant and open-minded, it routinely excoriates those who do not share its liberal values, especially those who dare to suggest that some elements of self-restraint in the common good might be required by civil society. Radical liberalism does not rejoice in this no-man’s-land but in knowing where it stands: it does not pretend to believe in unrestricted tolerance; it does not believe in unrestricted freedom, whether of action or speech; it does believe in its own civilization, but it does not believe that civilization cannot be amended and improved by constructive discussion, argument and dissent; it accepts that it is open to the charge of imperialism, but it is courageous enough to bear that slur in the name of a greater purpose; it is ready to suffer for what it believes, and it is ready to take life only for a cause for which it is also ready to surrender it. In particular, it is prepared to take a stand knowing that where it chooses to stand may one day come to seem mistaken or wrong-headed, but it knows that we have to take some stand somewhere because it is impossible to oppose the forces of darkness by standing nowhere. Consequently, radical liberalism will not claim to stand upon the truth, but only upon whatever ground it believes to constitute the best we can do right now.

And on just this basis liberalism, especially in its more intellectual forms, also espouses a further fatal principle: that its intellectual, social and most important of all moral superiority stands upon ground that lies and is established and justified somewhere else; that what it advocates is established somehow and somewhere by reason, nature, the universe, or some putative God. Whereas liberalism likes to think of the tyrant as standing only upon self-centred whim, cruelty, ruthlessness and corruption, and the sceptic upon nihilism and destructiveness, and therefore both to be on different grounds baseless and unsubstantiated, liberalism likes to think of itself otherwise: it likes to think of itself as somehow given, or based upon universally-binding and established principles of rationality, right-thinking, justice and truth that “any right-thinking person” would endorse and adopt. And it thinks and believes that these principles are not of its own making, but lie somewhere out there to be found by those who only search sufficiently diligently to find them. This is its error: that it looks elsewhere for its grounding and its strength. And almost as if it believed in an omnipotent deity who would protect and fight to preserve this givenness, it is therefore lulled into a false sense of security when it comes to defending its principles against those who would destroy them. In this Nietzsche was right: there is nowhere else that we can stand; there is nowhere else that we can reasonably look for our strength but to our own conviction. The best we can do right now is what I and you and people who agree with us think that to be. There is nowhere else upon which this conviction can stand; there never has been; there never will be. There are no “sky-hooks” as Popper liked to call them, upon which we can hang our convictions; there are no unshakeable foundations upon which we can build them; there is no divine protector who will ensure that our chosen suppposedly-given goodness will survive and prosper. There is only what we and people like us believe, what we are prepared to fight for, and what we are prepared, if necessary, to die for. To pretend that our strength lies elsewhere is to place our faith in nothing; to believe that there is a truth that will force itself upon us without an effort of will is to believe a folly; to believe that “the question to the single one” (Buber) can or will or should be answered by another is to place our shoulder against the wheel of the Great Lie.

“The Great Lie”? And what is that? It is the claim that our salvation lies elsewhere, and other than in ourselves; it is the belief that some one or some thing will save, or should save, or even has saved us; it is the claim that, the belief in, the reference to that which is other than ourselves that will provide the necessary power, force, eternally inexorable influence, to save us. It is, however many ways we gloss it, the belief that someone, somewhere has either the desire or the obligation to rescue us from whatever mess we have found our way into. The Great Lie is that someone, somewhere, will, can, and should save us. There is no such other; we are on our own. If we are fortunate, we may have confidantes such as Lucas ascribes to Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, but we should beware even of them, for under threat of the rack or fire or worse even they will in all probability desert us. And we cannot reproach them for that; in their place, would we not do the same? We are alone. We were born alone; we will die alone; and the notion that somewhere in between we will find fellow-spirits is something to rejoice over, while being aware that their loyalty may be an illusion.

Arguments against belief in God have almost always cited lack of evidence for God’s existence as if the matter were important when construed as a matter of knowledge, belief and truth. But the damaging effects of belief in God have never been confined exclusively to matters of truth; they have, rather, taken their toll in the positive and negative aspects of our propensity to defer both for strength and in weakness to a power beyond ourselves. And whether there is a God of any kind, or not, is not important for that reason. Whether there is a god is of importance only and exclusively to the extent that it determines our capacity to motivate, trust and believe in ourselves as the only means of our own salvation. God is in such respects a mere instrument of the Great Lie, for belief in his agency prevents or distracts us from believing that the only means of our salvation is ourselves.

But if there is indeed a Great Lie, is there not also a compensating and perhaps even overwhelming Great Truth? And if there is, then what would it be?

On Minds and Machines

In 1997 I published a little book called God and the Mind Machine in which I presented, among other things, the claim that the so-called mind-body problem is a pseudo-problem that evaporates under one simple redescription. All that is needed to eliminate the bogus notion that human beings have a quality called a “soul” that explains the experience of being oneself is to understand the difference between observing a body and being a body. When we observe a body or a brain as an object in the world “from outside”, we see it as an organic system that can no more explain the concept of mind than is the case when we observe a computer or an AI engine “from outside”. All we can do is describe what it does and how it works; the notion that it might additionally “be like something” to be that body or computer makes no sense except with reference to our own existence as observers who are bodies and brains and who believe that it is indeed “like something” to be those bodies and brains. To be a particular kind of body with a particular kind of brain is to experience the “inside story” that constitutes being like something: we know what it is like to be a body (with a particular kind of brain) because we are such bodies.

So our difficulty in understanding whether it could be like anything to be a computer, an AI, arises from our lack of first-hand experience of being an AI. Of course, in one sense we are precisely that, an AI; it is just that we are a biologically organic AI rather than a digital, silicon AI. The complaint “but computers are just binary circuits; how can that be aware, how can it be ‘like anything’ to be such a thing?” fails under the parallel complaint “but human beings are just neurological cells and fibres; how can that be aware, how can it be ‘like anything’ to be such a thing?” In other words, our perplexity at the AI question in relation to awareness is not a different problem from our perplexity about whether other organic entities can be aware; it is just rendered more difficult because of our lack of first-hand experience of what it is like to be such electronic, digital entities. We could have, and some of us do have, the same difficulty over other organic species: how can is possibly be like anything to be a gorilla, a dog, a cat, a bat (Thomas Nagel’s famous example), an ant or an amoeba? And where do we stop? Good question. Not long ago white men denied souls to blacks and women, too.

This issue has been rejuvenated by the developments in AI during 2016, and especially of machine-learning, even if the science goes back earlier. Stephen Wolfram thinks we can meaningfully put the behaviour of clouds alongside the behaviour of brains and that the substantive different arises from the developmental dimension of brains, that they have a history that cannot be run any faster than it is run. More of that in a moment. First we need to be clear about what is not (or at least should not be) an issue: the presence or absence of “souls”.

The pre-scientific history of the debate has essentially four heroes: Aristotle, Spinoza, Collingwood and, for rather different reasons, Wittgenstein. I am here regarding Alan Turing as the beginning of the history of AI rather than as part of its pre-history, and Thomas Nagel comes after him. Aristotle, Spinoza and Collingwood were all essentially the pioneers of versions of the double-aspect theory that is the only plausible solution to the soul or mind-body dilemma. For Aristotle the answer came through hylemorphism, that the soul is in the body as sight is in the eye; in other words, the soul isn’t a “thing” at all, but a property the body has when one is a body, just as sight is a property the eye has when something is an eye. (Adding “and a brain attached to it through an optic nerve” does not alter Aristotle’s point.) Spinoza essentially picked up on this with the first more or less explicit attribution of the term “double aspect theory” to what Aristotle had suggested; Collingwood makes the point even more strongly by speaking of the “inside” and the “outside” of an event in The Idea of History.

A fortiori when something “is” a suitably sophisticated digital computer there is no as one might say ontological reason to doubt that it is at least possible that it is “like something” to be that digital computer. All arguments to the effect that it cannot be “like something” to be a computer because a computer, by definition, has no “soul”, collapse. The question “merely” becomes whether it is as a matter of fact “like something” to be that particular computer, or perhaps to what extent it is like something to be that particular computer, not whether it is possible for it to be like something to be that computer.

Human beings, when confronted with scientific information about other human beings like Fred and Jane, are generally ready to grant that it is “like something” to be those other human beings, that there is an inside story to be told about Fred or Jane and that Fred and Jane are in large measure the only ones who can tell it. We are less ready – some of us, at least – to take further steps and to credit gorillas, dogs and cats, insects like ants and single-celled creatures like the amoeba with the same quality, viz. that it is in however rudimentary a sense “like something” to be each of those things. Very few people are ready to accept the same for what we might call “trans-speciation”, the attribution of an inside story or at least its possibility to a digital computer operating on entirely non-biological principles. Fewer still, one suspects, would want to extend this further and say that it is like something to be a rock or a cloud or a star; Theilard de Chardin would be an exception, and perhaps so would Stephen Wolfram, although I think he is talking about something rather different when he generalises the concept of intelligence to include, apparently, everything. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=giuVfY-I-p4)

Much of this was in God and the Mind Machine. Progress since then until 2015 had been relatively slow. But in 2016 something remarkable has happened, and enlivened the whole debate again. First, a machine – AlphaGo – won a serious Go competition 4-1 against one of the world’s best players five years earlier than anyone imagined that it would be possible. And not only did it win: it won despite the fact that those who created it were not themselves better than amateur players. And it achieved this by machine-learning. In other words, AlphaGo learned how to beat the best human player without being trained or programmed by expert players; “all” it did was learn the rules of the game and play against itself, iteratively improving its strategy against its own best previous play.

That was at the start of 2016. At about the same time the Google Brain team made a significant breakthrough thanks to work by Quoc V. Le and Mike Schuster in associating machine-learning with language-acquisition, and within a few months the previous attempt to drive Google Translate using more specific programming based upon parsing sentences had been abandoned, the attempt permanently suspended, and a new approach based around machine-learning was quietly and unobtrusively rolled out to the public in November. The resulting improvement in the translation was epoch-making. AI in the shape of machine-learning had come of age.

In the journalistic babble associated with Brexit and Donald Trump the significance of this development went largely unnoticed. Eventually, the New York Times published a very long (enormous by journalistic standards) article about it by Gideon Lewis-Kraus called “The Great A.I. Awakening” on December 14th, 2016. Nobody really took much notice. Perhaps it is just that most people are unaware of the significance of the developments taking place around us; perhaps we rely too much on a mistaken belief in our own uniqueness, that our souls make us special. Perhaps Trump’s election is partly to do with just that: white supremacist thinking has grown out of fundamentalist Christian thinking, and the far right in the USA is more closely tied to its deformed and defaced version of Christianity than many like to admit.

The key question is this: if AI can acquire through machine-learning the capacity to perform certain actions such as language translation to a standard that is indistinguishable from that done by humans (and in many respects superior to what can be achieved by most humans), is there any reason to doubt that it understands the languages concerned? The Google team describe their machines’ capacity to translate between languages indirectly – that from knowledge of Japanese-English and Korean-English it can perform Japanese-Korean translation to a high standard – as an “interlingua”; in effect, they are saying that their machines understand languages as well as being able to perform translations on them.

Are they right? Is it even the right question? At first many of us would want to cry “foul!”: no, that isn’t the result of understanding; it is just the result of clever manipulation of words. But this may be a mistake, too: maybe understanding isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Wittgenstein taught us to believe that “the meaning is the use”, so if a machine that uses language correctly and efficiently in a way that communicates accurately can be said to be able to “use it”, what more is there to the requirement that there be also something called “meaning” associated with language? This is not – at least superficially – the human experience: introspectively we think that there are two processes: one consists of understanding meaning; the other consists of giving meaning expression in language. Being able to express the same thought in more than one language suggests that this is a correct view: one meaning, many modes of expression, so the two are not the same. Ergo the meaning is not the use.

But press “pause” a moment. Is our introspection accurate, correct, robust? In what respects exactly do we have access to meaning in the absence of language? Aristotle observed that “the mind never thinks without an image” (De Anima), and Wittgenstein would say that the mind never thinks without a language, so our subjective impression that we have access to things called “meanings” independently of things called “languages” is an illusion.

The subject is sufficiently important to merit further comment. We subjectively have a sense of the pregnancy of thought; we intuit that something is coming, and it is coming in an area of interest we have studied and reflected upon in a process that Michael Polanyi liked to call “indwelling”: we immerse ourselves in things and, if we are rewarded for our pains, interesting and sometimes important thoughts just “come to us”. But in what clothing or guise do they come? Usually either in words or in images, or perhaps in music or movement. And if they do not “come” in any of these guises, in what sense could they be said to have “come” at all? It is like a joke I used to use with my philosophy classes: “I am the world’s greatest concert pianist, as would immediately be apparent to you were I ever to have taken the trouble to learn to play”.

The point is that what we call perception of “meaning” is in reality an awareness of further potential, a sense of the pregnancy of our minds or a field of study or a situation, a sense that “something [else] will come”. It is an emotional state, not a cognitive state; it has as such, while it remains an intuition of potency, no shape, no content; it is more like a signpost pointing towards the unknown than a landscape that lies in view; and as soon as it acquires content it also acquires form, and the form will be linguistic, artistic, musical or kinaesthetic.

So the AI question changes: given that AI engines can as a matter of fact produce content in the form of language, art, music and movement, and given in particular that they seem to be able to translate between two languages without an explicit association of one with the other except through a third language, should we be ready to credit those machines with the same capacity to perceive the potential of their cloud of (un)knowing that we call human intuition and the perception of meaning? For this would be what an “interlingua” amounted to unless it were a different kind of thing altogether. And the latter is the most interesting possibility of all: the presence among us of what Garry Kasparov famously described as “A new kind of intelligence”.

On Longevity

A colleague from my days in Armenia recently posted a picture on Facebook taken in a restaurant in Yerevan (the Armenian capital) called Вкусно жить не запретишь, which means “Good to live, not forbid”. It is a good slogan, and an even better name for a restaurant, and it made me think about all the people in the contemporary world who are building their reputations by telling us how to live longer on the basis of forbidding us to do all the things that make life worth living at all. It reminds me of what I once heard called “The Kingsley Amis Principle”: why give up everything you enjoy to buy an extra couple of years in a nursing-home in Weston-super-Mare (an insignificant English seaside town where people go to die)?

There are far too many people in the modern world who are building their reputations by telling us how to live longer on the basis of forbidding us to do all the things that make life worth living at all

Not to put too fine a point on it, I am completely sick of reading articles in newspapers that try to convince me that absolutely everything will kill me. Sorry, guys and gals, but I already know this, even if those of you in denial don’t: life will kill me; that doesn’t make it a Bad Thing. A few days ago some moron wrote a piece saying how the secret of living to 107 – some old biddy had managed it, though God knows why – was never to marry and never to drink alcohol. Right, okay, what are we supposed to glean from this broadcast bullshit? The only appreciable fact – and that might be questioned because these tales of excessive longevity are seldom accompanied by tried-and-tested notarized copies of birth certificates –  is that some old biddy lived a long time. She may attribute this to self-denial and spinsterhood, but there is absolutely no scientific basis for such a claim, and there would be countless millions who could claim to have followed the same régime without living beyond seventy or much less. And let’s face it, if everyone were to follow this supposed advice, there wouldn’t be any babies to grow into adults to support the curmudgeonly old farts who want to live forever by being as boring as hell.

Can we please stop this market in passive-aggressive advice? No of course we can’t. The medical profession is as blinkered as the education profession: everyone wants to maximise everything but nobody wants to ask why we care and even less whether we should care. Longevity, healthiness and well-being have become the Holy Trinity of a new humanist religion, but nobody has any answer to the question what this long healthy life is actually for.

Longevity, healthiness and well-being have become the Holy Trinity of a new humanist religion, but nobody tells us what this long healthy life is actually for or what we are to do with it.

Sorry to be boring and like the proverbial broken record, but what is striking about this modern obsession with longevity is that nobody has a meta-narrative that describes in any way at all, let alone any detail, why longevity is of any importance, or why the fact that we live twice as long as our distant ancestors matters, or why drinking or smoking or drugging ourselves to death is really such a bad idea in the absence of any coherent account of why we might want to live forever anyway.

OK, so here we are: we have shrugged off the metaphysical yoke of almost every religion (except Islam), freed ourselves from the shackles of superstition and mythology, embraced the brave new world of science and taken, accepted and even rejoiced in our rightful but utterly insignificant place in the great “reality” we call “The Universe”. So here is my question: what now?

Medics and educationalists are engaged in an unholy alliance that rests upon a double pretense: that it is obvious or at least unquestionable that living a long time is a Good Thing, which means that we all have a duty to try to live as long as possible even if that means denying ourselves all the pleasures that make life worth living at all; and that it is equally obvious, or at least unquestionable, that a good education leading to great qualifications and a place at a top university is an equally Good Thing, which justifies subjecting generation after generation to unimaginable intellectual suffering in order to enable them to acquire the qualifications that will reinforce this self-perpetuating delusion.

And before we too readily dismiss all this as irrelevant philosophical mumbo-jumbo, consider this: Hillary Clinton partly lost the 2016 US presidential election because of antipathy to her personally, but she also partly lost it because she didn’t stand for anything but the political equivalent of “live forever; health and wealth and prosperity”; Trump, on the other hand, stood against plenty of things. What was lamentably absent from that whole campaign and debate was anything that anyone was for, or any reason why “Make America Great Again” mattered at all. And this is the greaet centuries-old liberal dilemma: inasmuch as liberalism does not stand ostentatiously for anything, it is powerless to oppose the rhetoric of those who stand unrepentantly against almost everything. Nobody has any idea how to articulate the political power of the good.

Nobody has any idea how to articulate the political power of the good.

This is really all about control, and it is control that leads to our obsession with forbidding. “Good to live, not forbid” says it all: better to live life to the full yet it be short than to live life hardly at all and live forever. Yet the modern mantra is the opposite: “Good to forbid, not to live”: better to restrict enjoyment and enthusiasm and joi de vivre than to allow people to enjoy their lives albeit for no more than a short space of time. This is the ultimate triumph of quantity over quality, and it is responsible for untold misery and suffering. Time for a change.

Вкусно жить не запретишь. “Good to live, not forbid.”

On Narrative

In several of these blogs (Education Matters, On Storytelling and others) I have made reference to the importance of meta-narratives as the over-arching stories that enable us to make sense of our lives as well as the past, the present and the future. Early meta-narratives were mythological, religious or philosophical; later meta-narratives were scientific or ideological; very recent meta-narratives have been political and economic, some even psychological or sociological.

The structure of narrative-theory can usefully be broken down into four components: meta-narratives; narratives; formulations; slogans. Each has a role to play in helping us to make sense of things, but not all are equally accessible or easily understood.

Meta-narratives are the narratives that strive to be all-encompassing, to provide a framework within whose narrative structure everything can be spoken of, explained and understood.

Religions probably provide the best examples of meta-narratives, but there is no reason why a meta-narrative need be religious, and the best of them, at least as judged by contemporary lights, are not.

Narratives are stories that can sit within the framework of many meta-narratives because they do not provide ultimate closure: what the story means must always be found by reference to some other, more extensive and comprehensive framework.

The same narrative can therefore co-exist within many meta-narratives, and will assume different characteristics as interpreted by each of them. An example would be, say, the life of Jesus: on its own terms, it is just a story; understood within the meta-narrative of Christianity, it assumes cosmic significance; understood from within the meta-narrative of humanism, it is no more than the life of a perhaps good, perhaps deluded man; and so on.

Narratives must not be confused with meta-narratives, and can be distinguished from them with reference to their closure or lack of it. Meta-narratives ambitiously expect to provide answers to all questions; they cannot refer beyond themselves in order to answer them.

A mission statement defines the purpose of a movement or institution, but typically it leaves elements of the purposes it serves open. For example, the UWC mission statement runs “UWC aims to make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future”, but this has a narrative structure because it does not say either why we should believe in peace and sustainability, or what we are to do with either. As a statement of objectives, it is fine, and many would endorse it, but inasmuch as it makes no attempt to say what role those objectives are to play in some greater good or purpose, it cannot qualify as a meta-narrative and so cannot provide an ultimate explanation of itself.

Of course, there will be immediate objections to any suggestion that anyone, especially an educational movement, should make any attempt to dictate what people are to do with their lives, so people will see this open-endedness as a positive thing. And that is fine as far as it goes, but not if it involves confusing the narrative with meta-narrative and treating as something complete in itself something that is not and cannot be.

In fact, to press the point further, whenever a narrative is mistaken for or, worse, masquerades as, a meta-narrative, we should expect to find unintentional or deliberate deception. A narrative cannot provide us with an explanation of why we should take it seriously unless it is incorporated within a meta-narrative structure. (We will turn to the question of how we choose between meta-narrative structures separately.)

Meta-narratives always, and narratives often require extensive studying and listening; understanding either demands considerable brain-power. For this reason, we often find that it is advantageous to convert both into a more readily-accessible form, and typically those forms are symbolic or, when they take a verbal form, formulaic. Religious ritual almost always includes both symbolic and formulaic elements which attempt to summarise in visual, auditory or ceremonial ways the complex, extensive forms of their narratives and associated meta-narratives. Another way we can use such abbreviation is through slogans and quotations.

Quotations and scripted formulations, whether long or short, provide accessible, abbreviated versions, of narratives.

At the shortest end of the narrative structure, however, there are slogans: very brief verbal expressions that somehow seek to summarise the entire narrative and, often, its meta-narrative umbrella. “Jesus is Lord” would be an example from Christianity. “Make love, not war” is an example from nineteen-seventies culture. “Take Back Control” recently won, or at least helped to win, the Brexit vote. The lower the level of education of the intended audience, and the less patience it has with complexity and subtlety, the shorter the slogan needs to be; and the shorter it is, the more successful it is likely to be at galvanising the resolve of its devotees. “Make America Great Again” did it for Donald Trump. Newspapers know this: the less respect they have for the intelligence of their readers, and the more visceral the response they hope to generate from them, the larger they make the headlines on their front pages, and the more simplistic they make the opinions they contain. “Enemies of the People” (The Daily Mail, November 4th, 2016) is one of the more spectacular recent examples of such journalistic crassness.

Slogans attempt to sum up everything about a narrative or a meta-narrative in a few words.

So slogans can be more or less successful and appropriate, their message more or less fair and reasonable, and their impact correspondingly positive or negative. Regrettably, slogans and sound-bites seem to be used more effectively by those who want to distort debates than by those who want to promote genuine open discussion. “Take Back Control” may have been a reasonable attempt to summarise a complex position, but “Enemies of the People” is scurrilous.

It is probably self-evident that the movement from slogan through quotation and narrative to meta-narrative involves an increase in complexity and scope. And it is important to remember that all of us, whatever our level of education, find conceptual overload stressful. When we are faced with a range of choices or arguments or decisions or subtleties that immobilise us through indecision or because we struggle to understand them, we experience anxiety. The least intellectually agile experience this at lower levels than others, but at whatever level of sophistication it arises, our typical response is to try to make the anxiety go away. One way to do this is to reduce the levels of complexity we are ready to accommodate or admit, or to settle for simple solutions to complex questions that render the analysis unnecessary: “Make America Great Again” coupled with “I have no job but that immigrant down the road has” is good enough, under those circumstances. Sophisticated arguments about the collective wealth of a nation and its longer-term dependence in migration and shared ideas are completely lost on such an audience unless and until they can be distilled down to an equivalently simply slogan. “Stronger Together” is not it; that is a claim, not an objective.

So we need to be more realistic about the range of human ability or willingness to tackle difficult arguments when it comes to political strategy. Because all of us have limits, those who understand them need to find ways to express any arguments or issues, however complex, in ways that are faithful to the argument yet accessible to those who could not otherwise understand them, and would not otherwise have the patience to listen to or consider them, and will instead snatch hungrily at every trite and visceral slogan fed to them. And of course this need arises for everyone. And, of course, the process of making something “you” understand available and accessible to someone else who does not yet understand has a name: it is called “teaching”.

Acknowledging that there are different levels of capacity or willingness to engage with difficult arguments is likely to be thought offensive or élitist, but the point here is the opposite of both. If we do not present complex ideas in ways that match the abilities of those we wish to involve in their debate; if, in other words, we only discuss important issues in the language of universities and complex  academic argument, then we systematically disenfranchise vast swathes of the human population for whom this never will be and never can be an effective or comprehensible mode of communication. While those who wish to promote the highest standards of democratic accountability and responsibility continue to do so, therefore, they render democracy unworkable and, worse than unworkable, dangerous. Because everyone’s vote counts equally, everyone needs to have as much access to clear arguments of quality and precision as can be achieved. It is not a matter of whether slogans and sound-bites are good or bad, but whether those who devise them are prepared to take sufficient trouble over them to make them appropriate to the arguments that are being debated and, ultimately, voted upon. Failure to produce good quotations and slogans, good sound-bites and articles, denies and disenfranchises those whose votes all count as much as any other’s but who need straightforward ways to get involved in the real debate if they are to grapple with the ideas that need to determine how they vote.

If democracy is to survive, those who shape policy have an absolute duty to find ways to express the complex issues that drive policy in language that everyone can understand.

In the Brexit debate and in the recent American presidential election, the losing sides failed abjectly to rise to this challenge, and perhaps did not even appreciate the need to do so. And it is also important to realise that, since the need for simplicity encourages the triumph of the simplistic, focusing huge issues in slogans rapidly extends to focusing huge issues on identifiable social minorities, and before we know where we are, those social minorities are the cause of everything that is wrong with the world.

Since the need for simplicity encourages the triumph of the simplistic, focusing huge issues in destructive slogans rapidly extends to focusing them on identifiable social minorities.

But before we depress ourselves too much, it is worth considering the beneficial use of the same technique. Slogans can be our way into a more elaborate and extensive debate, and the beginnings, therefore, of an educational process. I have often been in trouble for the fact that I like to use the word “rhetoric” to describe this process, but I am unrepentant. In rhetoric we grasp at something tentatively and fleetingly that might otherwise elude us altogether; we say or write something about something that flashes across our minds like a bird through the sky in words or drawings that are utterly imperfect, but which are better than losing the thought altogether. Some of the greatest ideas in human history have originally been grasped at, but not comprehended, by such a process.

Slogans, positively used, can exercise the same role in learning: they communicate something of enormous importance imperfectly and inadequately to those who, were they to be subjected to a more subtle and sophisticated version of the same argument, would refuse or fail to take it on board at all, let alone understand it.

Slogans are the seeds from which we grow understanding.

Pretty much all education works like this: we start with very simple versions of very complex things; we pretend, genuinely, affectionately and not mischievously or deceitfully, that what we are saying is true; and we rely on later years and other teachers to fill in the gaps, reshape the concepts and extend the scope when those who are learning are ready. For when we become an adult we “put away childish things” (1 Cor.13). Too much, too soon, destroys learning, as does too little, too late. Infants learn to count by counting bricks or apples; nobody worries them with negative numbers until they are old enough to deal with them because they can’t count negative apples; nobody bothers most of the human race with Gottlob Frege’s set-theoretic definition of a number in their entire lifetime. And yes, it is very important that what we tell the young isn’t completely wrong; but we should always be aware that it is just as big an error to try to tell those who cannot deal with it something that is completely right.

If we want democracy to work, we all have to start making a lot more effort to render the complex issues that affect the course of the world accessible to everyone who has a vote about what to do about them.

The only way to achieve this in the longer term is through education. And if we are right to read the Brexit and Trump results as a backlash by the forgotten people of the world against a political and economic system that favours a complacent and self-interested élite,  we should wake up to the fact that our current education system is similarly geared to serve the self-interests of that same élite. And reintroducing grammar schools will only serve to turn the screw of that neglect one notch further.

The problem – and it is a big problem – is that the sort of education that prepares populations for the kinds of democracy that optimise the benefits of membership of that society for all citizens, rather than just a privileged élite, cannot be based solely upon the measures of excellence that traditional education has espoused and promoted. And those measures are exactly those used to justify the segregation of children at age eleven for purposes of grammar and secondary-modern schooling. Education really does need to follow the central tenet of Karl Marx: to each according to his needs, and from each according to his ability.

It isn’t possible to educate everyone to the same level, but it is possible to educate everyone to the limits of their ability, and we should not settle for an education system that aims for anything less. It isn’t the case that anyone can do anything; it is the case that everyone can do something, and so neither should we settle for an education system that labels some children as gifted and talented and others as not: all children are gifted and talented; it is “just” a matter of deciding in which respects.

The narrative structure outlined here that moves from simple slogans through longer formulations and then through narratives to meta-narratives defines the path of all learning, and it is one of the characteristics of good teaching and a strong educational system that they pace the transition of each student through these phases appropriately at every age and stage of learning. And if this morphing from a discussion of narrative structure to the practice of education seems a little unexpected, it is because we do not generally recognise that the extent of our education is very largely measurable by the extent to which we can master and command appropriate narrative.

The Shrink Cycle

Elsewhere I have written at length about The Stretch Cycle, a description of how positive learning can arise from a cycle of exploration, experience and reflection. I have also written about how we approach and deal with failure. This short piece is an attempt to combine the two to show how, particularly in the context of education, deficiencies in our teaching-model and especially the model we have of the coached relationship between teacher and pupil/student can turn the virtuous stretch cycle into a vicious shrink cycle. The Stretch Cycle does not become destructive because it introduces us to failure; it becomes destructive because of our inability to deal with failure.

The Stretch Cycle does not become destructive because it introduces us to failure; it becomes destructive because of our inability to deal with failure.

It is more or less inevitable that when we set out on some new venture fired with enthusiasm we will sometimes encounter difficulties that bring about disappointment and even failure. The project may appear to founder through no fault of our own; it may founder because we make a mistake or are ill-equipped for the task; it may fail for many reasons. But what do we do when we fail, irrespective of the cause? We probably cannot undo the failure or eliminate the disappointment, but we always have a choice about how we respond. Sometimes we make bad choices and fall victim to Double Jeopardy by beating ourselves up about the failure; sometimes we lash out at those we deem responsible, including ourselves; sometimes we retreat into a sulky silence, withdrawing from the world and further involvement with similar projects as if that somehow punishes those or the circumstances that have caused the problem: “I’ll show them; you’ll miss me when I’m gone!”

None of this is very helpful, and the principal loser is usually ourselves. But how do we deal with it more constructively? One of the first things we have to do is to come to terms with the nature of anger: what is it? If we have never sorted this out, the perpetual danger is that it becomes the energy behind the assault on the one victim we can always locate with unerring accuracy: ourselves. And anger is about energy, especially frustrated energy: I want this but something is preventing me from having it; I want to do this but something is preventing me from doing it. The enthusiasm that launches a project and takes us from our comfort zone into a realm of exploration and experience that may be successful and may not often encompasses and channels huge amounts of energy; when we are frustrated, that energy has to go somewhere, and we will aim it at any available target, calling upon our worst social prejudices sometimes to select them. in extreme circumstances, anger vents itself upon racial and religious minorities, the police, the state as personified in the government, and even, as we have seen all-too-clearly over the past 48 hours, on the law and the judiciary.

Somehow we need to discover ways to deal with setbacks and failure that avoid creating a vicious negative cycle of disappointment that leads through disillusionment to a state lower in comfort than the one we started from. This then becomes The Shrink Cycle.


This cycle need not be as dramatic as those that lead to civil unrest or abuse of self. Like The Stretch Cycle, it is present potentially in all our learning, and wherever there is the possibility of stretch there is also the possibility of shrinkage. For example, a teacher may ask a student a question. The student can give a correct or incorrect answer, a partly-correct answer, or no answer at all. How does the teach deal with each of these outcomes? All-too-often a wrong answer is greeted with disapproval, even disdain, and what could have been an affirming, stretching experience becomes a destructive, shrinking experience. If work is too hard or teachers are insufficiently aware of the down-sides to getting things wrong, the posing of questions and the setting of homework can be destructive. We need, instead, to see a mistaken answer or an only-partially-correct answer as a symptom of something that needs putting right. Unfortunately, we often just treat it as a mark of stupidity or incompetence, thereby compounding the impact of the disappointment on the hapless student.

Where are the dead sheep? I grew up in Devon, a county in western England, and we were often able to enjoy walks on Dartmoor, a wild and beautiful moorland that fills the majority of the central part of the county. One of the things we were told right at the start of these expeditions was that it is unwise and possibly dangerous to drink from moorland streams, however inviting they might look as they dance and gurgle through rocks and valleys. The reason was that you have no way of knowing what might be polluting the water upstream; it could, for example, be a dead sheep.

This image has stayed with me during my career in education because it seems to me that teachers – and I include myself in this – are not always good at seeing a problem now as the result of some failure or deficiency of the educational process “upstream” in the past. A child may  have real difficulty with something because he or she failed to grasp something fundamental years ago, or because something was omitted from the syllabus, or because some misguided shortcut was taken by a teacher trying to make things easier but inadvertently making them more difficult downstream. (“Change the side, change the sign!” is a good example from elementary maths teaching.)

In other words, all of us have dead sheep upstream somewhere, and those dead sheep pollute our minds and hamper our understanding. Skilled teachers will identify them, assiduously asking diagnostic questions to determine what it is that is preventing a student from understanding something or making progress; a poor teacher will just dismiss a student as incapable of dealing with whatever the topic may be because of some toxic mixture of the usual accusations: idle, ignorant, stupid, ill-behaved, unco-operative, and so on (all of which can be symptoms of dead sheep upstream, too).

Of course, there will be students who cannot do something because they lack the ability, and not all learning-deficiencies can be resolved favourably, but we should not start from that assumption because the students we think may lack the natural ability may surprise us, just as those who seem most promising may fail to fulfil their early promise. So we should only reach for the argument that a particular student is incapable of doing something as a last resort when we have explored all the other possibilities. And there are many.

Where are your dead sheep? What don’t you understand? What have you misunderstood? What has happened upstream – and yes, of course it can involve domestic problems, traumatic events, and psychological difficulties as well as more straight educational omissions and misdirections – that results in you being unable to manage what is being asked of you? What has been omitted, or what wrong idea has been inserted, to make this so hard for you?

Where are your dead sheep? What don’t you understand? What have you misunderstood? What has happened upstream that results in you being unable to manage what is being asked of you? What has been omitted, or what wrong idea has been inserted, to make this so hard for you?

This is part of the reflection process that must accompany The Stretch Cycle if it is not to degenerate in a shrink cycle, and the reflection needs to involve student and teacher or project director and mentor in something that will extract from the failure something that can ensure that when we return to our comfort-zone we are still better off, even if we have not achieved what we intended to achieve. This is not to say that we can undo the failure or reverse the consequences of the disappointment, which is usually not possible, but that we can avoid either from leading us into a downward spiral that demotivates us and inhibits later learning.

A question on which much of this hangs is what it is about us that makes us so ready to condemn others as “useless” or “stupid” or any of the other negative epithets we level at so many of our fellow human-beings. In particular, why are teachers apparently so much more enthusiastic about marking things wrong than marking them right?  What is it about red ink that people who enter teaching seemingly love so much? And the answer to that lies in understanding what happens when we fail to deal with our own anger, anger which itself probably results from a dead sheep or a failed project upstream that has left us with some unfinished business with the world or ourselves.