Monthly Archives: November 2015

On not saying Amen to Star Wars

The three major cinema chains that control 80% of UK cinemas recently rejected an advert that consists of a 60 second montage of the Lord’s Prayer, spoken by a variety of different people in different situations and prepared by the Church of England (see news report). The advert was set to go out before screenings of the new Star Wars film, and the church saw it as a way of reaching the wide audiences that would come to see this film before Christmas. The reason given by the cinema companies is that they do not accept any political or religious advertising, for such advertising might be offensive to some customers. The 60 second clip, however, has a simple message “Prayer is for everybody”, and (beyond what may be implied by that statement) does not advertise any particular religious view. You can see the advert here.

I can hear the Christians shouting “What’s offensive about this?” and the secularists shouting “Quite right too. We don’t want religious propaganda on our cinema screens”. But let’s try to unpick the likely assumptions of both sides a little. As usual, absolutisations on both sides tend to obscure the issues.

The Christians may find the Lord’s Prayer so familiar and culturally routine that they may not notice how absolute its language is. It asserts the existence of God in heaven. It embeds the metaphor of God as father that helps to entrench patriarchy. It asks God to exert his power and will over the earth in a way that could leave us passive or with a sense of false certainty about everything being taken care of for us. It asks God to ‘deliver us from evil’ as though to obscure all the tsunamis, cancer victims and murders in his name that he seems to have done nothing about, despite his supposed omnipotence. It also completes the fantasy by affirming belief in the kingdom, often interpreted as an ideal state in the future where God will have fixed everything. Although there are some lines in the prayer, such as those urging us to forgive others, that seem to have a helpful integrative orientation, the Lord’s Prayer taken just as a set of words is not really that inoffensive. It is indeed religious propaganda for unhelpful absolute beliefs that – at least as they are most commonly understood – will not actually help anyone to overcome conflict or address conditions better. On the contrary they may make it worse.

But then, watch the video again, this time focusing not on the words but on the people. The atmosphere of the whole carefully constructed video is extremely positive and reassuring. All the different people, in their diverse situations, are mindful and focused, taking a moment of reflectiveness in the middle of their day. That moment of reflectiveness is powerful. But then imagine all the same scenes with slightly different words. Would the effect be very different? Perhaps for some people the reassurance of the time-worn words, apparently almost meaningless but vaguely comforting, would be lost. But much of the power of that moment of recollection would remain. So most of it is not intrinsically dependent on the Lord’s Prayer itself.

The movement between diverse people all similarly focused also creates a strong sense of human solidarity that I find inspiring, even uplifting. Again though, it is not the words that intrinsically create that sense of solidarity. Religion has developed in such a way that layers of ritual affirming human solidarity are overlaid on a core of beliefs that tend to undermine that solidarity. To see how they might undermine it too, imagine the reactions that would be provoked by singing the Lord’s Prayer in a mosque, or at a lecture given by Richard Dawkins.

So, to understand what the secularists may also be missing, think about the disjunction between the absolute beliefs affirmed by the Lord’s Prayer and the positive meaning of the prayer for millions of Christians, as it is depicted on the video. Those Christians will probably be bewildered if you tell them that their prayer of peace is also productive of conflict. That’s really not what it means to them. Nevertheless, we can all integrate our interpretations of the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer by acknowledging the wide range of things it can mean, and that those meanings depend on the various bodies of the people who experience it, rather than the prayer having a “real” meaning (whether that meaning is good or bad) independent of those people and their bodies. This mistake in what we take meaning to be seems to be at the heart of the mutual incomprehension that arises on topics like this.

Another thing that secularists often neglect to recognise is that absolutisation is not at all the sole preserve of religion. Let’s go back to the Star Wars showing in the cinema. Is the Lord’s Prayer advert uniquely ‘offensive’ because it contains absolutisations (as well as conveying an experience of human reflectiveness and solidarity)? Well, if it’s offensive, it’s certainly not uniquely offensive. The Lord’s Prayer advert, if it had been shown, would probably have been preceded and followed by other adverts that encouraged people to absolutise beliefs such as that they would be uniquely attractive is they use a particular perfume, or absolutely powerful if they drive a particular car.  Belief in the value of hedonism, that value comes only from pleasure, could also be seen as reinforced by nearly every commercial advert. But these kinds of consumerist absolutisations generally pass without critical comment.Clip from Lords Prayer advert

Then there’s the film itself that would follow. Not being a Star Wars devotee, I’m not familiar with the details of the religious elements of Star Wars, but I gather that they involve a certain amount of cod Zen mixed in with the providentialism of ‘May the Force be with you’. Probably a good deal vaguer than the Lord’s Prayer, but it doesn’t sound as though it’s free of absolutisations. Those absolutisations will be far more forcefully propagandised by a lengthy film with a narrative, characters etc than they would have been by the Lord’s Prayer advert. Indeed it seems likely that by the end of the film 98% of the audience would have completely forgotten about the Lord’s Prayer, swept away by the power of fantasy. Again, the meaning of this for the people who watch it is probably far more important than the effect it will actually have on their beliefs, but that doesn’t mean that no dubious beliefs are being promoted.

So, were the cinemas right to refuse to screen the Lord’s Prayer advert on the grounds that some people might find it offensive? No. I disagree with the absolutisations in the Lord’s Prayer, but let’s also understand the role of these in context. If we start trying to control the expression of absolutisations in the public sphere in any way, let’s at least try to do so consistently, rather than picking on religious ones as offensive when commercial ones are apparently not so. In its context, too, the Lord’s Prayer advert would have functioned mainly as a moment of calm, reflectiveness and solidarity in the midst of a storm of over-stimulation, hedonism, violent combat and archetypal idealisation. Let’s have more of those moments of calm and solidarity. If they could come without absolutisations, that would be preferable, but let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good.

The MWS Podcast 84: Mark Williams on the impact of humans on the biosphere

Our guest today is Mark Williams who is a professor of paleobiology at the University of Leicester. He’s the co-author, along with Jan Zalasiewicz of The Goldilocks Planet: The 4 billion year story of Earth’s Climate and has published several peer reviewed papers on paleobiology, paleoenvironments and paleoclimates in conjunction with other researchers including his latest ‘The Anthropocene Biosphere’ which explores the impact of humans from a geological perspective on the biosphere. It also looks at how humans are potentially driving a sixth mass extinction and this will be the topic of our discussion today.

If you’d like to pursue this topic further you can download the Anthropocene Biosphere paper here. In addition, a couple of books Mark recommended are: Dodging Extinction – Power, Food, Money, and the Future of Life on Earth by Tony Barnosky and The Anthropocene. The human era and how it shapes our planet by Christian Schwägerl

MWS Podcast 84: Mark Williams as audio only:
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Apologies for this site being unavailable for a number of hours during the past day or so. It should now be functioning normally. The interruption was due to a technical problem of some kind, but we have not yet been informed of its cause by our host.

Objectivity Training: An update

It was in a previous blog post at the end of August that I first coined the term ‘Objectivity Training’. The reason I felt we needed a new term was because existing terms like ‘Critical Thinking’ didn’t really convey the breadth and the psychological depth of the kind of work we need to do to challenge all our biases and delusions. It’s not just a question of ‘thinking’ or reasoning, though that obviously comes into it.

Objectivity training is the name for an area of practice that needs to connect with our bodies and wider awareness of the conditions in which our beliefs arise, in addition to critical thinking. It is focused much more on our assumptions than on whether we are reasoning logically, because it is our assumptions that make much more of a difference in practice.

Since I wrote that first blog I have made a start on a new book called Objectivity Training, which will try to bracket out the philosophical arguments and just focus on this practical process. This book is undoubtedly going to take some time.  I have also made some progress with the ‘Mistakes we make in thinking’ video series, and produced five of them so far. However, probably the most important development is a decision to develop training courses.

There is plenty of training on meditation available in many places these days, but very little working practically with the integration of belief and elimination of biases, so there is obviously a widespread need for objectivity training courses. These courses could help a very wide range of people in a variety of ways, such as the following:

    • personal and spiritual development
    • moral and political judgement
    • study and research skills
    • effective decision-making in businesses and organisations

I’ve arranged the first Objectivity Training course to take place in Malvern UK, near where I live, for an intensive 4 day block from 31st May-3rd June. Please see this page for more details and to book. But there is plenty of scope for developing and delivering courses of different kinds elsewhere. To be able to give this the time it deserves I’ve decided to try to make it part of my livelihood, hopefully in time taking over from some of the online tutoring I currently do. That’s why I’ve decided to offer this training independently rather than making it a society event, but the society committee has agreed that it can be advertised through the society.

In thinking further about how to present objectivity training I’ve recognised one new key distinction. That’s between the aspects of cognitive error (biases and fallacies) that apply to all judgements, and the specific biases and fallacies that apply to some judgements but not others. I have identified 15 dimensions of judgement that will always be present to some extent in every judgement, and will play a part in determining how far that judgement is either limited and deluded on the one hand or objective and adequate on the other. As these dimensions of all judgement are so widely important I have decided to focus all my initial work on them, and the book (or at least its first volume) and the Malvern training course will be focused on them.

To get some idea of how these different dimensions interact, let’s take an example judgement. Let’s say you get into a road rage scenario when driving a car. Let’s say another driver pulls out of a side street unexpectedly in front of you, you brake sharply and swerve to avoid him, and a car on the other side of the road is then forced to swerve to avoid you. You are enraged by this. Doesn’t this person know the Highway Code? He could have caused a serious accident etc. University Street Liege Jeanhousen CCSA3-0

Let’s pause the situation there. It could develop in all sorts of ways: with everyone just driving off, with a reproving blast of the horn, with both drivers getting out and shouting at each other or even coming to blows. But your key judgement at that point is that the dangerous manoeuvre, with its dangerous consequences, was the fault of the other driver. It’s from that judgement that your anger flows. However, unknown to you, the other driver has just heard that his wife has been taken to hospital in a critically ill state. He’s in a distracted state and is desperately trying to get to the hospital as quickly as possible.

Your tendency to assume that the other driver is responsible can be related to the actor-observer bias in cognitive psychology, whereby we tend to assume that another person is responsible for an action with a bad outcome, whilst exculpating ourselves. The most obviously relevant dimension of the judgement here is thus that of responsibility. There is a lot of interesting psychological research on responsibility biases that can be applied here. It’s also worth noting, though, that every other judgement has this dimension even if it doesn’t at first appear to be particularly about responsibility. If we assume that we are powerless in making any judgement, for example, we fail to take responsibility for it and thus cannot work to improve it, even if it is a judgement about a ‘factual’ matter like a measurement of a length of guttering or the shortest route to a particular destination.

But this judgement about responsibility also involves many other dimensions. For example, it involves confirmation bias (which is the tendency only to look for evidence which reinforces our prior beliefs), because all your observations of the other driver are likely to be interpreted in terms of the irresponsibility you seek to place on him. For example, if you see a little ‘B’ on the car registration you might exclaim ‘Ah, should have known, the Belgians have the worst accident statistics in the EU!’, although it would never have occurred to you to consider the Belgian-ness of the car in that light otherwise. You will also be constructing a ‘reality’ about this driver, this irresponsible Belgian, which has little to do with the complexity of the actual person concerned: our tendency to construct a reality that is affirmed or denied is another feature of errors of judgement. In this case it is a ‘reality’ that includes stereotyping and hasty generalisation.

The judgement also has conditions ‘further back’ on which it relies – for example, it relies on availability – the limitation of ideas that will actually occur to us. It doesn’t occur to you that the hapless Belgian might be rushing to hospital in a distracted state – and there’s probably no way you were likely to guess this unless he stopped and told you (and you also listened). It doesn’t occur to you as a possibility because it’s not salient for you: it’s not part of the goals and representations you’re intent on at this moment. But if we were to slightly broaden our awareness there might be some chance in this situation that the possibility of an alternative perspective might occur to us. That might just take the form of a general thought that there was probably a reason why the driver of the Belgian car pulled out like that. Once that general thought occurs to you, perhaps because of mindfulness training as well as some awareness of your likely biases, the edge of your anger might be blunted and you might at least avoid fisticuffs on the pavement. That general thought need not undermine your awareness of the importance of care on the roads and following the Highway Code – but dwelling on a near-miss that was due to someone else’s actions is hardly likely to make much difference in practice at that point. It’s probably best to let go of the incident as quickly as you can, and a wider awareness of your biases can help you do that.

So, I’ve mentioned at least four dimensions of judgement there: responsibility, confirmation bias, constructions of reality, and availability. There’s a lot more I could say even about these, and there are 11 more dimensions in my analysis of each and every judgement. But I don’t want to prolong this blog unduly. That should be enough to give a taste of how objectivity training might work by making us more aware of the different dimensions of our judgements. The training itself would obviously involve more time devoted to each dimension (as well as the relationship between the dimensions), with a more thorough explanation of how each works, further examples, exercises applying the dimensions and discussion of how we can make balanced judgements about them. It’s a big job, but a very worthwhile job central to all of our lives.