Sunday, 8 November 2009

"Not Penal Substitution but Vicarious Punishment"

In Faith and Philosophy (July 2009), Mark C. Murphy poses the old question of just what it means for Jesus to die for our sins. He criticises the “penal substitution” view, not for its moral repugnance but its conceptual failure. Then he proposes a view of “vicarious punishment” which, he claims, is just as faithful to the Biblical witness, but just different enough from penal substitution to avoid its failure.

Let me see if I can simplify his argument …

First, he points out that the Atonement is a rich concept that probably can't be explained by any one theory or analogy. Furthermore, the concept raises varies difficulties and its unlikely that any one theory will deal successfully with them all.

The penal substitution theory of the Atonement says that we deserve to be punished on account of our sins, but that Jesus was punished in our place. To a well-trained Evangelical ear, that sounds very clear and straight-forward, but it raises a few questions, like:
  • Why should it be that my sin is such an obstacle to my union with God? It's not such an overwhelming obstacle in my relationship with my wife or kids.
  • Was Jesus punished in the place of every human, or just punished in the place of some of us?
  • Isn't it morally wrong to punish one person for another's wrong-doing?
  • Even if it's not morally wrong, what good does it do? If the goal of punishment is retribution, then punishing the wrong person simply fails to bring down any retribution on the guilty person.
Murphy's point, however, is something different. He claims that punishment has four essential characteristics:
  1. Punishment is hard treatment, i.e. there must be some suffering.
  2. Punishment must be imposed by someone in authority; it's not just revenge or vigilante justice.
  3. Punishment is imposed for some failure to meet a required standard.
  4. Punishment is a condemnation of the person punished.
Note that the first three are insufficient without the fourth. As an example, someone playing basketball may violate a rule and as a result the ball is handed to the other team. This is hard treatment, authoritatively imposed, for the failure to meet some standard. But a penalty like that is not a punishment, precisely because there is no moral condemnation of the player. The player broke a rule, but awarding a penalty is not a moral judgement.

A consequence of the fourth characteristic is that punishment is not transferable. You can't morally condemn one person for another's failure any more than you can praise someone for another person's success. (You might of course say “You must be proud of your son” to the mother of an Olympic medallist. Or you might say “You did a great job of training her” to the medallist's coach. But you wouldn't say “Congratulations on winning the medal” to any one other than the athlete herself – she is the only one who could be honoured for winning.) If Jesus is harshly treated by God for our failure, it could never be classified as “punishment” because the act doesn't meet the fourth criterion. Jesus could never be morally condemned for our failure.

What about the famous sermon illustration in which a person is found guilty of speeding and fined by the Judge, but then the fine is paid by the Judge (who turns out to be the person's father)? This of course may be a good analogy of the Atonement, but it is not captured under the penal substitution theory. This story is more about the punishment being eliminated rather than re-directed. The guilty party is not punished, but neither is the Judge. The Judge incurs the harsh treatment but is not condemned, while the guilty party incurs the condemnation but bears no harsh treatment.

So what's the alternative?

Murphy suggests that “vicarious punishment” is not a lot different from penal substitution, but sufficiently so that it gives a better account of Christ's Atonement. In this theory, A deserves to be punished, B undergoes hard treatment and that hard treatment constitutes A's being punished.

Are there other instances where one person is punished by having someone else treated harshly? One that Murphy never mentions is the classic whipping boy of the 17th and 18th centuries: where a close companion of a prince would be beaten for the prince's failings.

Murphy asks us to imagine a legal system where a murderer is punished by having their own spouse killed. This may be any even harsher punishment (and greater deterrent) than being killed oneself. It is not just that one's loved-one is suffering, but that one's loved-one is suffering because of one's wrongful actions.

Another example Murphy offers (from Steven Porter) is an athletic team in which the captain is made to run extra laps if anyone in the team misbehaves. This is somewhat like a CEO having to take responsibility for actions of other employees in the company. I wonder if there is an implication here that God, as universal CEO, is accepting that s/he bears responsibility for what went wrong with the world?

Murphy then deals with several objections to vicarious punishment, but I'll jump forward to how this applies to Christ.

First, note that vicarious punishment requires some sort of special relationship between the guilty party and the suffering innocent. It wouldn't work if the hard treatment was meted out to an anonymous or unrelated person. In the Atonement, our punishment is vicariously assigned to our Lord. If that special relationship is taken seriously, then this is very hard treatment indeed – that I am responsible for my Lord's suffering.

In a footnote, Murphy leaves an interesting question open. Does Jesus bear this special relationship of being Lord with just those who recognise that Lordship? If so, then those who do not have that special relationship with Jesus are, as yet, unpunished. Or is Jesus every person's Lord regardless of their acknowledgement of the fact – in which case all have been punished by his suffering?

Some implications of this view:
  • Note that there are few cases where vicarious punishment could be applied without being seen as simply unjust. How can it be just to cause one person to suffer for another's wrong-doing? The only exception really is when the suffering innocent accepts the hard treatment voluntarily, and that of course if exactly the case with Christ.
  • We do not get away with not being punished. It is not that Jesus was punished instead of us, but that we are punished by the fact that our Lord suffered.
  • Vicarious punishment is a form of retribution: “It is far worse, incomparably so, for my Lord to be killed, and killed for my offences, than it is for me to be killed for my offences.”
  • Like the team whose captain is caused to suffer, the church experiences a strong sense of unity through the fact that all of us are punished by the one act of suffering of our common Lord.
  • Vicarious punishment is also form of deterrent Although we can't undo the fact that Christ has already suffered for us, we may now think “If I do this wrong thing, then it will be true that Christ's death occurred in order that I might be adequately punished for my wrong-doing.” – and that may give me good reason for not doing so.
I think Murphy misses an important point about the nature of the hard treatment in vicarious punishment. There are really two separate “hard treatments” in his examples. There is the hard treatment of the suffering innocent (such as the spouse who gets killed), but also a separate hard treatment constituted by the psychological suffering that the guilty party goes through in watching the spouse suffer, grieving for the loss, and feeling the guilt from their own responsibility for the spouse's suffering. In Murphy's example, all four criteria of punishment are met by the guilty party's suffering, quite independently of the spouse's hard treatment.

This calls into question Murphy's conclusion about the case of the Atonement. It does seem to me that his account still requires each of us to suffer for our own sins. If it wasn't for the psychological pain of us knowing that we caused our Lord's suffering, then there is no vicarious punishment. If we could brush off that pain – as it would be in the case where we had no special relationship to Christ, or if we were pathologically unable to feel empathy – then surely the "punishment" is void. But if vicarious punishment still requires the guilty to suffer, then a significant chunk of the "vicarious" part is lost, and the work of Christ is diminished.

Finally, Murphy poses the question of what role is left for forgiveness? Under any theory of Atonement in which the punishment that we deserve is applied, doesn't the punishment remove the offence? So what's left to be forgiven? On the other hand, if God can pardon us then by definition no punishment is left to impose.

Murphy draws on the distinction between criminal law and tort law to show that being punished for our sins does not remove all the obstacles to union with God. Criminal law involves some violation which is answered by punishment; tort law involves some violation that is answered by compensation. It makes sense to talk about a victimless crime, but no sense to talk about a victimless tort. One action may be both a crime and a tort, and just because one is sent to jail as punishment for a crime does not prevent the victim seeking compensation via a separate process. The one act may bear two independent liabilities – one to punishment and one to compensation – and being freed from liability in one respect does not entail being freed from liability in the other respect.

If we apply that to the case between us and God, our crimes against divine law may be dealt with by the vicarious punishment of Jesus. But we have also wronged God, and how can we provide compensation for that when everything we have is God's already? That is why we also require forgiveness.

Scanning the brains of mice while they play Quake

Another amazing story from the who-would-have-suggested-that department. Stick a probe in a mouse's brain, sit the mouse on top of a ball and project a virtual-reality game on an iMax screen in front of the poor thing. Teach the mouse to control the game by running on the ball, and reward it with a drop of water now and then.

There's a description of why you'd want to do it and video at Wired, though the details were first published in Nature (so you know it's fair dinkum).

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Climate change?

One of the topics I think I need to understand more is the reality or otherwise of human impact on climate change. My knowledge of that to date has been limited to the overwhelming media bias towards our culpability in that regard, and our consequent responsibility to decrease CO2 emissions.

South African Lewis Pugh astonished me by demonstrating that you can swim at the North Pole — which implies that the ice has melted to such an extent that you can no longer walk there (at least at some times of the year)!

On the other hand, I have recently stumbled on two works by climate-change skeptics:
  • Prof Ian Plimer on ABC National's Ockham's Razor. (I have very little respect for Plimer having seen his abusive and disrespectful style in a live debate twenty years ago. He spoke against the Creationist Duane Gish, failed to bother about the topic of the debate but spent most of the time baiting, besmirching and belittling. As a climax, he donned gloves, connected two wires to a power point, claimed that Gish knew nothing of science and challenged him, if he was serious about experimental evidence, to come and grab hold of the wires! You can see it on YouTube, at about the 6 minute mark. Very dramatic, but not at all befitting what was supposed to be an academic debate. I was so outraged that a representative of my own University could behave so badly that I wrote a letter to him! Nevertheless, that doesn't discount what he has to say about CO2.)
  • Some notes by Leon Ashby, showing, among other things, that only 3.4% of atmospheric CO2 is caused by human activities.
I'll need to find some balanced review of the science on this topic.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Communicating wth an Orchestra

Mixed with the great speeches at TED, there are plenty of duds. But this one is a wonderful description of the way conductors communicate with their orchestras. Itay Talgam compares the techniques of von Karajan, Bernstein and others. It's just a pity he didn't include Danny Kaye!

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Reacting and responding

Here's a simple thing really, but it struck me as a neat summary. I was gazing over the shoulder of a fellow passenger on the train home this evening and in her book I read ...

An unconscious choice is a reaction.
A conscious choice is a response.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

"Canoeing is my religion"

Someone recently said to me "Some people go to church for their religion, but I get my religious nourishment while canoeing". She wasn't a friend -- in fact it was the first time we had met -- so I couldn't delve into what she meant, but it set me to wondering. All I could say on the spot was that there wasn't any reason why she couldn't do both.

But what do people mean when they say things like that? What view of "religion" is behind that comment?

I gather that "He's religious about football" usually means "fanatical" or "dedicated" or perhaps "spends a lot of time on". But that's not what this woman meant.

I think she probably meant that canoeing gives her the experience of comfort, serenity or peace that others feel in church. Maybe it goes deeper. Maybe she is drawn out of herself into a sense of awe and otherness and getting lost in the moment while communing with nature.

That "what I get from religion" approach is quite different from James' idea that true religion is "to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."

Nevertheless, I think comments about what people feel "religious" about still indicate a semi-conscious acceptance that they desire and value the spiritual state that they perceive religious people have.

I'd love to hear how others interpret it.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Novel networking

Back in the mid-90's Larry Tooke mentioned to me -- in fact he was thinking about doing his Master on the topic -- that you could run a LAN via the electricity cabling that was already in place in your house/office/school. That's now been commercialised (HomePlug for example) and I guess largely redundant now that short distance wireless technologies are so cheap.

Slashdot ran a story last week about an alternative mobile phone network that works by the phones communicating directly with each other via Bluetooth or WiFi. The network is based on ephemeral connections depending on proximity of available devices. See more here and here.

But that's nothing compared to the idea of Human Area Networks! That is, data communication via human touch. RedTacton has prototypes (in fact they've had something working since 2005) that use the body's natural electric field to transmit data. You'd have a card-sized device in your pocket (I think with a wire touching your skin) and if you shook hands with another person similarly attired, the devices can talk to each other through the skin! Or it might be that you touch a doorknob that's wired to a computer and your pocket device tells the room's computer who you are.


Monday, 5 October 2009

Words from the grave

While reading Memoirs of Moving On by Dorothy McRae-McMahon, I found this passage incredible. It is rare to find such an unambiguous example of the super-natural.

Dorothy had a son Christopher who, at two years of age, went into autistic withdrawal and stopped speaking entirely. The cause was undiagnosed until much later, when Dorothy's sister Thais died in a car accident.

Three days after Thais died, before we had the funeral, I was walking to the local shops with Robert [her second son] in the pram and Christopher alongside me. Christopher threw himself down on the ground and was screaming and banging his head. I stood and said to myself "Oh God, what will I do?" Thais's voice came to me as clear as a bell and said "Dearth, take Christopher to see Laura Nesbitt in Collins St." (Dearth is my family nickname derived from the young David calling me Dearthra because he couldn't say Dorothy.) I looked around to try to see her because it was all so real. I went home and looked up Laura Nesbitt in the phone book and, sure enough, there was such a person listed in Melbourne's Collins St. I tentatively rang the number and the phone was answered by Laura herself. I said, "I feel a bit silly asking, but what sort of doctor are you?" She replied "I am an allergist. Are you, by any chance, Thais Worner's sister?" I told her that I was and she said, "The presence of you sister came to me this morning and told me you would ring."

It's pretty hard to put that down to co-incidence, wishful thinking or any naturalistic explanation!

(After tests, the doctors discovered brain damage caused by an allergic reaction to a polio vaccine.)

Friday, 2 October 2009

The Shack

Suppose you wanted to write about what God is really like, about God’s intention for us, about why God lets us suffer. Being a good storyteller, you decide to get the message across by weaving a dialog with God into a fictional setting. So you come up with a gripping story line and then put your pen down for a long time while you think about how to represent God. Surely you’d have to do better than a long-bearded wise old Gandalf or Father Christmas figure. And you couldn’t make God into a Lion because C.S. Lewis has already done that. How would you bring the Trinity to life for a modern adult readership?

The Shack is William Paul Young’s attempt.

I won’t give too many secret’s away about the plot, but I certainly found it enticing and rewarding. The story centres on Mack, who has been immensely sad for many years, unable to release the pain of his young daughter’s death. When Mack receives a note in his letterbox inviting him to return to the place of his daughter’s death, there is every reason to believe that this might be an invitation from God. He hesitantly takes up the offer, setting the stage for a weekend that challenges his beliefs about God to the core.

A quote on the back cover of the book compares The Shack to Pilgrim’s Progress. But that’s misleading. Although both books use a fictional setting as the stage for theological and philosophical reflection, Pilgrim’s Progress is a allegorical – with overt symbolism equating each element with some spiritual reality – whereas The Shack is clearly a modern novel. Some have claimed that the book, which is a best seller in the USA, is poorly written. I don’t think that criticism is aimed at the story itself, but more at the lengthy sections in which Mack and God talk. That didn’t bother me, probably because I was too interested in the ideas being presented to worry about how smoothly the dialog flowed.

So don’t read The Shack purely for the story. That’s just the setting. The real fun comes from dwelling on Young’s understanding of how God cares for us. Young’s God is more concerned about relationship than dogma. More interested in grace than judgement. More fond of verbs than nouns. More than anything, God is concerned about the process through which we are lead towards him (or is it her – you’ll have to read the book to see how Young addresses that one!).

It has often been said that traditional Christianity imposes a lot of guilt on people. That hasn’t been my experience. The preaching and reading that have come my way have emphasised the freedom that comes from forgiveness. But what has become clearer to me recently is that I have soaked up a theology in which, having been forgiven, I carry a burden of responsibility with regard to how I should live. How many of us “freed” Christians are weighed down by responsibility? And how frequently do we relate to others with an expectation that they must adhere to the same rules?

In The Shack, Mack shows those same inclinations. But God says to Mack:
“Let’s look at your two words: responsibility and expectation. Before your words became nouns, they were first my words, nouns with movement and experience buried inside them; the ability to respond and expectancy. My words are alive and dynamic – full of life and possibility; yours are dead, full of law and fear and judgement. That is why you won’t find the word responsibility in the Scriptures.”

If that sort of insight sparks your interest, you might enjoy the rest of the book too.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Plenty of water on the moon if we run out here

Researchers recently claimed to have found water in the top layer of moon soil. Sounds promising ... except that the concentration is lower than you find in the Sahara!

Friday, 25 September 2009

Cultured Aussies

We recently watched the finals of the local rugby league competition. Berowra v. Manly at Berowra. Real Aussie culcha, especially the Berowra victory chant (to the tune of "For he's a jolly good fellow") -- "We gave 'em a bloody good hiding ..."

Makes one proud.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Appreciation and Generosity

With my two kids constantly competing with each other, being ungrateful and selfish, I wanted to help them to appreciate what they have and act more generously. So over a week or so, here was my three-part sermon:

1. What is appreciation?

Appreciation can mean both understanding (e.g. "I appreciate what you say, but I disagree") and thankfulness (e.g. "I appreciate you standing up for me").

Once there was a girl who lived on an orange farm. Her dad was the farmer and she could pick an orange and eat it whenever she wanted.

I know a couple who often took in foster children. One time they were looking after a young boy. They had a bowl of fruit on the table and after lunch they let the boy have an orange. Afterwards, they saw him sneak another orange into his pocket and he looked very guilty when he knew they had seen him. When they asked why he had taken it, he said that in his home they very rarely had oranges, and if they ever did have them, there would only be a few and if you didn't grab them quickly there wouldn't be any left for you later on. The foster parents weren't cross but assured the boy that there would always be plenty of oranges and that he could have one whenever he wanted. He didn't have to try to steel them.

Which one of those two children do you think appreciated their oranges more? I bet the girl just took them for granted and never even thought about being thankful for them.

We'd like you to appreciate all the good things you have: to both understand that you are very blessed and very rich, and to be thankful. You have wonderful bedrooms all to yourself. You have heaps of toys, never-ending supply of food, a secure home and loving family, good education, good health --- more of everything that you actually need.

As parents, we love giving you all that, but we also know that because you have so much, we have made it hard for you to appreciate what you've got. We aren't going to take things away from you, but want to help you think more often about how much you've got. That's part of why we expose you to Africa -- by seeing others in need, you might be able to appreciate how well off we are.

2. What is generosity?

To be generous it to give more than expected. It might be to give more money, more time, more attention, more praise etc. It might be just giving someone the benefit of the doubt when you don't know if you can really trust them. It might be not having to come first all the time.

We try to give you a model of generosity so that you can become generous too.

The most generous person by far is God. All good things ultimately come from God. That's why we say grace at dinner each night. God blesses us far beyond what we deserve.

3. God is generous to us so that we can be generous to others
2 Cor 1:3-4 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.
God comforts us so that we can comfort others.
2 Cor 9:6-15 You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. (v11) (similarly in 1 Tim 6:17-19)
God gives us money so that we can pass that money on to others. (Not so that we then become poor, but so there may be equality -- 2 Cor 8:13-15.)
Luke 6:36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful
God is merciful so that we can be merciful to others.

How can we be generous in the comfort that we share with others, in the way we use our money, and in the way we show mercy?

Three lenses of a Christian worldview

Michael Goheen spoke on Hope 103.2 Open House recently about how we can evaluate the modern world based on a Christian worldview. He claimed that three principles characterise the Christian worldview:
  1. The world was created good by God
  2. The world is fallen
  3. God is redeeming the world
We can turn these into three questions when evaluating anything: sport, business, technology, politics etc
  1. What good can we see in it?
  2. In what ways has the original goodness been twisted?
  3. What is God doing (and what can we do) to redeem it and/or to restore the original goodness?
I should certainly weave those ideas into my analysis of technology.

It's worth looking out for his book "Living at the crossroads: an introduction to the Christian worldview".

contra Singer

John Wyatt presented a neat introduction to Peter Singer's moral philosophy on Hope 103.2 Open House recently.

He summarises the foundation of Singer's ethics thus:
  1. Instead of treating all human life as equal, recognise that the worth of human life varies. 
    • Value depends on an ability to choose.
  2. Take responsibility for the consequences of your actions. 
    • Utilitarian
  3. Respect a person's desire to live or die.
    • Supports euthanasia both for those who wish to die and for those with no value.
  4. Bring children into the world only if wanted.
    • Parents can decide whether their foetus or even baby should live or die
  5. Don't discriminate on the basis of species.

And in response, he proposes his own 7 principles:
  1. The Christian perspective on the sanctity of human life provides a holistic perspective on human identity.
    • The essential thing about being a human is not the ability to choose but the wondrous integration of mind, body, relationship that mysteriously reflects the image of God.
  2. The Christian view of humanity, made in God's image, provides a stability of human identity throughout the whole of life
    •  In Singer's model, a human with brain damage becomes a non-person and of no value. But if you later recover, you become a person again. But person-hood ought not depend on such contingent, random events. You are the one person, known and loved by God, from beginning to end.
  3. The Christian understanding promotes social cohesion and mutual respect
    • In Singer's world, everyone seeks their own good and consequently views other people as competition. In contrast, Christians see the importance of relationsips in which the strong have a duty to care for the weak.
  4. The Christian understanding provides the basis for a consistent legal framework for protecting human beings from destruction.
    • For instance, in UK law, killing a brain-damaged baby is viewed the same as assassinating the Prime Minister. How could a legal framework differentiate effectively in a Singerian world?
  5. The Christian understanding fits our intuitions about human relationships
    • We naturally hold emotional stances that over-rule rational, value-based judgements. Peter Singer himself admitted that he could not bring himself to apply his own philosophy in the case of his ailing mother.
  6. The Christian understanding motivates sacrificial and empathic caring by professional and lay carers
    • If you held Singer's view, how could you care for those in severe physical need with real love and respect? 
    • Good to ask peiople: if you were given the choice of being admitted to a Christian hospital or a Singerian hospital?
  7. The Christian understanding provides a safeguard against the abusive and manipulative possibilities of advanced medical technologies.
    • Technology has a tendency to instrumentalise human beings, e.g. using cells from aborted foetuses to assist others -- this treats the foetus as a mere instrument rather than a valued being.
(See Wyatt's upcoming book "Matters of Life and Death".)

The demise of the Church

In Science and religion revisited, Larry Buttrose voices an extremely unbalanced criticism of the Christian Church. Nevertheless, I thought this bit was well worded:
Around four centuries ago, the church began a gradual decline in power against the nation-states and the rising entrepreneurial class, against increasing literacy and the reason of the Enlightenment. From the 17th century the Church started assuming more the role of spiritual guide and ethical advisor, in its gradual transformation towards a kind of transnational agony aunt, with plenty of moral huff and puff but little if any real temporal thwack.
Nonetheless, any organisation with a billion members will still wield great influence, but compare its importance in everyday life with, say, the World Wide Web, and we see how much has changed. The carbon credit of today is the papal indulgence of the time of Luther.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Carrier Pigeon

A news report highlights the slow speed of broadband in South Africa. The data transfer from PMB to Durban took 2 hours 6 min via pigeon, during which time only 4% of the file had been transferred over the Internet. Impressive as a publicity stunt, but ...
  • There is always some point at which sending a physical medium is faster that a WAN transfer, as discussed on Low-tech Magazine.
  • I bet they didn't use the IP Over Avian Carrier standard or any other protocol that allows for transmission problems.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Effective Motivators

Dan Pink spoke at TED about the disparity between what science knows about human motivation and what techniques business uses to motivate employees.

There is overwhelming scientific evidence that higher rewards lead to lower performance, except in the most non-cognitive tasks. The carrot-and-stick approach only works for tasks where the solution is obvious -- e.g. a mechanical task that requires no thinking.

Key to his argument are the results of numerous variation to the Duncker's Candle Problem.

The better motivators are intrinsic rather than extrinsic:

  • Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives
  • Mastery: desire to do better and better at something that matters
  • Purpose: service of something larger than ourselves.

Can homosexuals change their sexual orientation/identity?

On Hope 103.2's Open House, Stanton Jones discusses the efficacy of the Exodus Foundation program for changing people's sexual orientation. He presented research to the American Psychological Association recently that sought to demonstrate:
  • That at least some people can change sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual.
  • That conversion programs are not necessarily psychologically damaging.
Jones claims that the beliefs to the contrary are based mostly on anectodal evidence. What research has been published is with very small sample size, short periods of time, and based on therapists input rather than the subjects themsleves. He carried out a longitudinal study of 98 homosexuals in the Exodus program over 6 years.

Setting aside the 33% drop-out rate, the study showed 25% reporting success in becoming heterosexual, 25% decided and succeeded in becoming chaste, 25% remained homosexual and 25% were still in the process and the outcome was unclear.

Although some participants experienced substantial distress during the program, others improved on standard stress scores. The study found no statistical correlation in either direction.

It's useful to read Anthony Venn-Brown's criticism on the Open House blog site.

Stephen Clarke on Conservatives and Liberals

Stephen Clarke proposes a neat distinction between Conservative and Liberal attitudes towards morality on the ABC's Philosopher's Zone.

Liberals place high moral value on:

  • Individual freedom/autonomy
  • Fairness, equal opportunity
Conservatives, while still holding to the above, place greater moral value on:
  • Respect for authority
  • Respect for sanctity / purity => typically some religious system
  • Protecting your group from external threats (e.g. patriotism)

Mark Rowlands on morality

Mark Rowlands talks about morality on the ABC's Philosopher's Zone (that site includes a complete transcript). Putting aside what seem to me irrelevant comments about his pet wolf, Rowlands introduces some basic concepts about morality very neatly:
  1. If you construe human morality on the basis of implicit contracts then at its base morality is about:

    • Power - You only make a contract (you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours) with people who are capable of helping or harming you. People without power fall outside the contract.

    • Deception - Perceived back scratching is more important than actual. Contracts reward skilled deception.

  2. Given that interpretation, animals have moral rights wrt their relationship with humans. [Doesn't seem to me that he justifies that claim.]

  3. But morality is more than just rights e.g. we might be morally obliged towards object (e.g. an obligation to protect a work of art) that have no inherent rights.

  4. Critical of Descartes' mechanistic view of animals:

    • "Going back to the Descartes classic example, the very famous philosopher who had ridiculous views of animals, you know, animals can't think or feel because they don't have minds, and so on, this resulted in animals being vivisected while alive and conscious, you know, nailed to boards and cut open, and if anyone would protest about their sort of protests, then people say Don't be stupid, they're just machines, this is just their wheels locking together and making a funny noise, they don't feel anything at all."

Monday, 17 August 2009

Alain de Botton: A kinder, gentler philosophy of success

Alain de Botton's presentation at TED 2009 has greatly inspired me. (And BTW, the podcasts that come from TED are by far the most informative and diverse thought-provokers I have come across.)

  1. Snobbery: "A snob is anybody who takes a small part of you and uses that to come to a complete vision of who you are. ... You encounter it within minutes at a party, when you get asked that famous iconic question of the early 21st century, "What do you do?" And according to how you answer that question, people are either incredibly delighted to see you, or look at their watch and make their excuses. ... The opposite of a snob is ... the ideal mother ... who doesn't care about your achievements."
  2. Materialism: "I don't think we are particularly materialistic. I think we live in a society which has simply pegged certain emotional rewards to the acquisition of material goods. It's not the material goods we want. It's the rewards we want."
  3. Spirit of equality leads to the problem of envy. "If there is one dominant emotion in modern society, that is envy." That idea that anyone is able to succeed (in terms of social status) makes us all envious of those who have succeeded. "There is a real correlation between a society that tells people that they can do anything, and the existence of low self-esteem." -- because we all feel like failures in comparison to those who have higher social status.
  4. Meritocracy: "A meritocratic society is one in which if you've got talent and energy and skill, you will get to the top. ... If you really believe in a society where those who merit to get to the top, get to the top, you'll also, by implication, and in a far more nasty way, believe in a society where those who deserve to get to the bottom also get to the bottom and stay there. In other words, your position in life comes to seem not accidental, but merited and deserved. And that makes failure seem much more crushing."
  5. Unfortunates and Losers: "In the middle ages, in England, when you met a very poor person, that person would be described as an 'unfortunate.' Literally, somebody who had not been blessed by fortune, an unfortunate. Nowadays, particularly in the United States, if you meet someone at the bottom of society, they may, unkindly, be described as a 'loser.' There is a real difference between an unfortunate and a loser." The result is s higher rate of suicide. "The idea that we will make a society where literally everybody is graded, the good at the top, and the bad at the bottom, and it's exactly done as it should be, is impossible. There are simply too many random factors. Accidents, accidents of birth, accidents of things dropping on people's heads, illnesses, etc."
  6. Ridicule: "When we think about failure, ... what we fear is the judgement and ridicule of others." Newspapers are the prime carrier or ridicule.
  7. Tragedy: "An art form devoted to tracing how people fail." This is a more productive response to failure than ridicule. "At one end of the spectrum of sympathy, you've got the tabloid newspaper. At the other end of the spectrum you've got tragedy."
  8. Transcendence: "The other thing about modern society, and why it causes this anxiety, is that we have nothing at its center that is non-human. We are the first society to be living in a world where we don't worship anything other than ourselves."
  9. Success: "You can't be successful at everything. ... A lot of the time, our ideas of what it would mean to live successfully, are not our own. They are sucked in from ... father ... mother ... advertising. ... So what I want to argue for, is not that we should give up on our ideas of success. But we should make sure that they are our own, ... that we are truly the authors of our own ambitions."

Christian Billionaires

  • Forbes richest list
  • Philip Anschutz, Anschutz Company, 555 17th St., Ste. 2400, Denver, CO 80202
  • Thomas, Walter, Raymond Kwok, Sun Hung Kai Properties Limited, 45th Floor, Sun Hung Kai Centre, 30 Harbour Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong
  • Andrew Forrest, Fortescue Metals Group, Level 2, 87 Adelaide Terrace, East Perth WA 6004

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Ian Bogost on serious games

In the ABC Fora podcast Serious Gaming , Ian Bogost commented about the role of video games.

He claims that video games are the one form of modern media that embraces complexity rather than shying away from it. The key characteristics of video games are modelling, role playing and world building.

I found his comments on role playing to be the most insightful. He says that an important aspect is to experience what it is like to be constrained by the rules that the role implies. I can see that as a useful dynamic in my 12-year old son's life. As he plays various computer games, he is forced to work within tight boundaries to reach some pre-specified goal. In doing so, he is hopefully building an ability to empathise. He is brought up will such affluence and power that he could easily be blind to the constraints most people experience. Short of an immersive cross-cultural experience, a role-playing computer game may be his best chance to appreciate what its like to maintain a will to succeed and avoid despair in the face of limited choices.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

"Glut" by Alex Wright

The Sydney UX Book Club is going to discuss Glut at the next meeting so I've been reading it. Here's a few comments and quotes:

It immediately seems a more balanced book than Everything is Miscellaneous, giving more credence to the value of hierarchical information structures.
  • "The fundamental tension between networks and hierarchies has been percolating for eons. Today, we are simply witnessing the latest instalment in a long evolutionary drama." (p. 7)
  • Taking this tension back to genetics and cultural evolution, however, seems to be stretching the idea too far.
"Population density appears to determine the velocity of technological change." (p. 17)
  • The Ice Age 40,000 years ago forced people to live closer together and gave the impetus for a whole range of new symbolic behaviours. Social proximity lead to more complex forms of communication and that in turn supported more complex social structures. (40)
  • Early forms of art at the same time act as a counter-example to the normal view that art arises as a luxury in the easy time. In fact, art is a necessity when a society experiences hardship. (45)
The Sumerian city of Uruk (very close to Abraham's Ur) was perhaps the first "city". The population density in about 5000 BC lead to trade and specialisation.

The first known bibliography was a list of documents kept in the Hittite government archives (from another source I think that was around 1300 BC, around the time of Judges in the Bible).

Great Library at Alexandria (70):
  • Established 300BC
  • 700,000 works
  • Initially had no catalog
  • A later catalog had two major divisions -- poetry and prose -- within which authors were listed alphabetically.
  • No one knows when the library was destroyed
Monastic copying of the Bible during the Dark Ages originated in Ireland with a clearly missionary intent. The books were not to be kept in the monastery but distributed by missionaries. (84)

Protestantism is left-brained whereas Catholicism is right-brained. Protestantism, right from Luther's reliance on the printing press, emphasises the written word over the image. (118)

Thomas Jefferson contributed quite a bit to naturalism and was an early supporter of the Linnaean classification system. He considered it a higher honour to be president of the American Philosophical Society than president of the USA. (161)

Wright makes an impressive connection between the stigmergy in the insect world and links in the WWW. Even prior to the Internet, Bush and Otlet saw the meta-data of links being central to the web of knowledge. As people establish and navigate the associative trails between knowledge chunks, the trails themselves become an interesting item to study (199). I don't think Wright mentions it, but Google's PageRank is doing just that: analysing the stigmergy of hyperlinks.

Criticisms of the WWW:
  • Hyperlinks are uni-directional. It didn't have to be that way, and some predecessors of the Web had naturally bi-directional links. (218, 220)
  • Web browsers are limited to viewing, whereas other proposals would have more naturally balanced viewing and editing (consuming and producing). (228 and earlier) [This editing ability is of course now being retro-fitted via Wikis, blog comments, Google Wave etc.]
  • The Web still carries the legacy of the printed page (229), a woefully inadequate 2-dimensional concept.
Interesting comments on the relationship between post-modernism in literary criticism with Internet publishing (221ff).

On pages 223 and 228, Wright describes modern computing and the Web as profoundly humanist. I don't know what he means by that.

"Twenty years after Johannes Gutenberg invented his printing press, a bare handful of people in Germany and France had ever seen a printed boook. Less than 20 years after its invention, the World Wide Web has touched billions." (229)

Like previous advances in information technology, the Internet has triggered a conflict between literacy and orality (231). The Internet is evolving into a mechanism that allows people to express themselves informally and without the constraints of institutions. The result is far more like an oral culture than a written one. That's an important and fascinating idea. I should not only re-read the final chapter a few times, but hunt down Wright's primary source: Ong, W. J., Orality and Literacy, Methuen, 1982.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

A few good YouTube's

Differences in modern media

In a podcast from TED, Clay Shirky makes some interesting points about the distinguishing characteristics of modern media...

"The moment we are living through ... is the largest increase in expressive capability in human history"

Four media revolutions in the past 500 years:
  • Printing press
  • Telegraph and telephone
  • Recorded media other than print: photos, sound, movies
  • Radio and television, in which electromagnetic techniques were harnessed allowing to be sent through the air
In each of these, individual communication is separated from group communication. You either get to communicate 1:1 or 1:M. The Internet is the first media that facilitates M:M.

On the Internet, all forms of media exist side-by-side.

The former "audience" can now use the same medium to publish themselves.

Media is now global, social, ubiquitous and cheap.

The "really crazy change" is not that the former audience can speak back to the publishers, but that they can interact with each other.

The key role of this new media is to convene rather than to control communication.

Clay also discusses a great example of how technology usage in Nigeria inspired similar usage in the USA.