What is Identity?

Last week, at the pub, my brother asked me what I thought identity is. There was no real context; he interrupted our conversation about unsociable conversations* to say “you tend to think a lot, what do you think identity is?”. The truth is, this is not a conversation I have had often. I meditate (or, at least, used to; I haven’t done for a while now), and that paints a distinct picture of “self”, but not of identity. That confusion, between self and identity, formed the basis of the first thought to come to mind, but it never got articulated.

More things have an identity than have a self. For example, you could identify the Mona Lisa. If you are a particular expert, you can identify a copy of the Mona Lisa and distinguish it from the original. It was those verbs that started for form a concept of identity in my head (all in the time it takes to say “umm…”, so this is still an open conversation for me). The processes of identifying and distinguishing is an interaction; it involved both an object and an observer. Take, for example, me: what is my identity? What characteristics of mine would identify me? Well, that depends on who you are. As a reader of my blog, you are more likely to identify me by my URL (allallt.wordpress.com) and by the sorts of ideas I would share here. But the ideas I share here are selected, unsociable conversations and so my close friends would not identify me by the same collection of ideas readers would. There are some people I see most days but don’t talk to; my appearance is pretty much the only thing that uniquely identifies me as me to them.

When I was a university, a slightly strange long-haired student vanished one weekend. He had attended lecturers, had a few friends, but didn’t talk to many people. Then, one Friday he left campus and never returned. At least, that is how it looked to a large number of people who went to the same gym, sat behind him in lectures or often saw him in the library. But, to his friends and lecturers, he never vanished; he just got his hair cut. That isn’t a facetious joke, either. The long-haired student was me. One weekend, in the spring term of my first year I cut off and gave to charity 18 inches of my hair. It was kind of impulsive, and I didn’t tell anyone; I just turned up to university on Monday. In my third year, we had a house party and discussed people who had dropped out from the course: long-haired me was mentioned. To people who did not talk to me, my long-hair was my uniquely identifying characteristic. As far as they could tell, I had dropped out.

And I don’t think it fair to suggest they had the wrong conception of my identity. They could not fairly be considered experts, as they would have struggled to distinguish me from my brother (who, at the time, has similarly lengthed and coloured hair). They did not have a deep idea of what could uniquely identify me, and I wouldn’t expect them to).

Identity is a perception. I probably identify myself differently from those who know me best, because I have a vested interest in identifying myself a certain way. Afterall, it’s 10 in the morning and I am sitting in a dressing gown with no pants on as I write this.

Identity is also highly complex. My friends would probably recognise my voice, intonation and rhythm of speech but not be consciously aware that the rhythm of my speech had formed part of my identity. The same is probably true of my gait and posture; friends would recognise it if they saw it, but not think of it. The same again probably goes for what conversations I choose to join and my lexis and syntax; they’d notice it if it changed, or tell another person they remind them of me, but they’d probably never write it down as something they notice about me.

If you don’t take a complex fingerprint of someone’s identity, you can get confusions and failure to distinguish, like by university colleagues who couldn’t tell me from my brother. But, simplified identities are also how we create groups. Simple identities refer to a number of individuals. You can imagine it as a vast spreadsheet. Without any criteria (identifying characteristics) all things belong to the same group. As you add criteria to filter the list–”select those with long hair”; “select those who are blonde”–you create the group (in this case, hiding all individuals without long hair and without blonde hair). But you are a long way from understanding any of the individuals. You won’t start to understand the individuals until you have a vast array of identifying characteristics (i.e. identities), but by that time your group will have so few individuals they you may be talking about only a handful of them.

A male friend of mine was proud to belong to a group of people who are over 6 foot tall and under 9 stone (126 lbs). You may make assumptions about him from that, but the group he belongs to only has 4 identifying characteristics (I bet you thought there are 2. There aren’t, there are at least 4. In fact, I’ve given you 5). Can you really extrapolate from those 4 characteristics?

* an unsociable conversation is one that forces a person to be critical of the ideas they hold or are discussing. Questions like “what does it mean to be reasonable?” and “what is ‘good’?”. People tend not to like being faced with hard hitting questions like this, and especially not on the spot.


As many people are probably aware, Bill Maher hosted a “TV brawl” between Sam Harris and Ben Affleck (with Bill Maher being about as biased a host as you can be). The discussion was of “Islamophobia”, and it is an important discussion to have. The argument was one of Sam Harris citing polls where Muslims, from Muslim-dominated parts of the world, believe in quite literal and uncensored interpretations of the Koran and Hadith–believing in the stoning of infidels and murder of apostates and other things we deem horrific. Ben Affleck deemed it racist, and the people who backed him up, oddly, agreed more with Sam Harris than with Ben Affleck.

Sam Harris described the Muslim world as being approximately 20% Jihadists and Islamists. Respectively, these are Muslims who want to kill infidels through their own suicide to gain a place in paradise, and people who want an Islamic state (please notice I didn’t capitalise the word “state” because I’m not talking about the terrorists group) and to use litigious means punish those who oppose an Islamic state. These are people with “deeply troubling” (Harris) views on homosexuals and women. 80% of Islam is, then, composed of people who can honestly say that the Islamic State (IS. Now I have capitalised it and am talking about the terrorist group) do not represent them or the world that 80% wants to live in. No one is more at risk from Islam that Muslims: homosexual, women, outspoken moderates and freethinkers of Muslim countries need a voice and being a part of the criticising Islam. And pointing to Albania, Penang and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and Indonesia as posterchildren of Islam at peace does nothing to address the actual content of Islam.

In an attempt to defend Islam, Michael Steele wanted to give a voice to the Muslims who have voiced opposition to IS and similar groups. To lend them a voice, because the media has quite reprehensibly not done it, Steele points out that these Muslims who are speaking out against Jihadists like IS are facing credible threats against their life; surely that proves the nobility of Islam. Well, no. That proves the nobility of a lot of people who are Muslims. But Islam is still the collection of ideas that demands the execution of apostates and adulterers, and poses the credible threat against the life of those who speak out against it.

As Harris has said many times, real beliefs lead to actions. I would very much doubt that Jihadists are Jihadists because of the socio-economic background of certain countries. The only other modern culture to produce suicide bombers was Japanese Kamikaze Bombers. But that, too, was based on a dogmatic idea. In fact, the ideas of honour and loyalty to death echo (if somewhat mildly) the same ideas of honour we get from Islam. Not all Japanese people are Kamikaze bombers, but the dogmatic idea that it was better to die with honour than to live with shame was a real idea with real consequences.

Similarly, Christianity does not make mention of death through martyrdom, and not even the mentally ill Christians become suicide bombers. And, I’m talking about historically; Christianity has been through its maturation curve.

Christianity boasts different beliefs. Although the Christians may not agree today (I wonder what the religious route to that knowledge is!), the religion itself teaches to kill non-Christians (Deut 13: 7-12; Deut 17:12; 2 Chron 15:12-13) and, historically, the belief that this is a good idea has lead to actions in accordance: the Inquisitions. Even the Witch Hunts were propagated not on the fear of the people, but the belief in the explicit wish of the Creator of the universe (Exodus 22:17). Again: real beliefs result in actions. And so the ideas deserve criticism.

The modern religion that poses threats of this nature is Islam. Is this Islamophobia? Phobia, by its definition, is an irrational fear. Given that the teachings of Islam directly create Jihadists, is the fear of dogma of this nature really irrational? I am not suggesting that all Muslims are Islamists (although, Sam Harris cites an NOP poll commissioned by Channel 4, claiming that 78% of British Muslims wanted the Danish cartoonists prosecuted for an unpublished cartoon of Mohammed) or Jihadists. Nominal Muslims seem to make up a large number of the Muslims I meet. But they have a method by which they ignore the calls to violence against nonbelievers, but by secular routes.

Muslims are not to be feared; Muslims are people and each one I have met is as charitable and humane as any other. Islam is a terrifying dogma. It is only because Muslims are capable of truly critiquing Islam that it is not even more terrifying than it already is.

How to deal with groups like IS is a difficult question. A lot of the answer spans from whether you accept the premise that the terrorists and Jihadists really believe they are going to Paradise. If you don’t accept that claim, then the behaviour of those terrorists may parallel that of an acting-out, attention seeking child or dog. In which case, our response should be to ignore them. Every time IS claim a victim the media channels should be celebrating the life of that person and not talking about IS a lot. As long as you believe IS is feeding from our attention, starve it. But I don’t believe IS are attention hungry, and I don’t believe you believe that either. I believe they really believe they are doing God’s work, like the Inquisitors did. Christianity’s maturation curve happened over centuries as it battled with secular discussions. Islam’s maturation must happen faster than that. Do you know that quote about science progressing by the death of people who believe the outdated theory, and the new generation coming forward with the better theory? That is the power of criticism and clashing an idea against reality is that bad ideas can die in a generation. To protect the oppressed, is it not necessary?

Predicting the Lottery with Dr Isaacs

An ex-colleague of mine has written a book in which he purports to have devised a way of predicting the lottery. It is called How to Predict Future Lottery Results: know tomorrow’s numbers today on a month-by-month basis by Francis Isaac. I was initially doubtful because he has a job. If I knew how to win the lottery, I wouldn’t have a job. I looked at his book, and I am disappointed to report that he does not tell you how he actually predicts the lottery. What Dr Isaac (yes, his book goes on and on about the fact he has a lot education) does is gives you a list of 2-number combinations under the heading of a month. As he is my colleague, I got an opportunity to talk to him about what is going on.

Dr Isaac has spent the last 17 years collecting and analysing lottery results from a lot of 6 out of 49-ball (6/49) lotteries across the globe (I couldn’t discern from him whether it was all of them). He believes he has found two basic patterns, which I will share with you. He then believes that the tables he gives you offer a way of utilising the patterns to increase your chances of matching 2 numbers in a 49 ball lottery.

Yes, 2 numbers. That’s not quite the same promise as made in the title. 2 numbers will only win you anything if you make the bet at a bookie’s shop; the National lottery doesn’t care for two numbers.

The patterns are this:

  • If a certain number, X, comes out in a lottery draw then another certain number, Y, is more likely to come out.

For example, you know the number 1 is going to come out in a draw, then the number 2 has a chance of coming out that is greater than 1/48. (I can’t guarantee that is a real example, but that’s the idea and the example he gave me).

  • Certain numbers are more likely to come out in certain months of the year.

In the month of May, every year, numbers in the mid-40s are more likely to come out, especially in combinations with single-digit numbers. There is a more precise way of utilising the numbers. To find that out (assuming you believe this), I think it’s only fair that you buy the book.

In Dr Isaac’s defense, the data he presents is evidence based; he really has looked at trends across the globe. What he hasn’t done is explained what the significance of these trends is: does 2 come out more often with 1 at a rate of 1% or 70% more often?If the patterns found are very minimal, they could be chance and have no predictive power. If his patterns frequently show a 70% advantage, that would suggest something is going on (opposed to random fluctuations).

For the month of May Dr Isaac offered a total of 69 number combinations that could come out in the national lottery. Correct. He is awarding himself a total of 69 shots at winning a 2-number hit. Someone put their sceptical hat on, because there is science to be done!

This is where my input comes in. Currently, Dr Isaac claims that the system helps him make a hit on the lottery every month. He even has the receipts to prove it. What he is less forthcoming about is exactly how many tickets he has to buy to make a hit. However, he has confessed that his next goal is to make the system profitable. It makes me wish I’d taken a career as a bookie. The system is not profitable yet (unless you include profits from the sales of the book, I’m sure). My next goal is not to make his system profitable. My next goal is to see whether his system has a hit rate above that of sheer chaos. His numbers promise 3 2-number hits per month.

Microsoft Excel has a random number generator. I used that generator “=randbetween(1, 49)” to come up with tables analogous to his, except my numbers were not derived from 17 years of “scientific and experimentally observed results” (from the blurb). I hope my readers are scientifically minded enough to notice what it is I have offered: a control. He claims his results are scientifically observed, but he has never had a control. The only question that remains now is whether his ordered system is more successful than my chaotic one. If so, the implication is that there is predictability in the lottery and this system can be developed into a lottery-winning system. If that happens I’m sure I shall be scorned for my scepticism and not receive any charity. However, if not, it has been an unfortunate waste of a project that inspired hope.

Before I share (or even discover) the results I want to ponder a moral quandary. Dr Isaac is a friendly, personable and highly intelligent man. I like him. And he is a colleague. Given that I know it is near-impossible for a person to not invest their ego in a project like this, is it really right for me to doggedly invest in my scepticism? Is that not antisocial and unfriendly? or, do I owe it to him as a mark of respect? I feel it is the latter. But as the dogged persecutor, is that not bias? I think my efforts show that I respect him enough to take him seriously and no part of me is fully sceptical, yet; I’d be excited to discover he is right. But I am aware that it looks like argumentativeness. And how presumptuous am I, to write that before I even do the study? But that’s enough of the social squirming an angst…

I wrote the above in May. Between May and today (7 Oct 2014) Dr Isaac has been using my random number table. Although it is true that Dr Isaacs’ table has not failed to meet his promise of 3 two number hits every month, neither has my random number table. In August, my random number table made 4 hits. In June, Dr Isaac’s table also made 4 hits (including one hit from a number combination that was in 2 table; perhaps we can call that 5 hits).

And you can replicate this by creating a random number table and buying the book and just looking at historical hits. You create 3 tables under each month, each the same size as the tables in Dr Isaacs’ book (they are all slightly different size, average around 16 rows per table).

The conclusion from this is pretty clear: Dr Isaacs’ book does not predict the lottery. It doesn’t even predict a 2-number hit at a higher rate than choas.

The Function and Morality of Forgiveness

Back in the aether, I wrote two posts about forgiveness (first and second). That particular post gained a lot of attention from Paul Quixote. We didn’t finish the conversation before I vanished from the blogosphere, so I am going to get back to explaining why God, Jesus and the police cannot offer you meaningful forgiveness: if I accidentally knock you over on my bike and break your hip, there’s no meaningful way God can forgive me. What I would like to discuss now is what forgiveness is and how forgiveness interplays with morality.

Forgiveness does have a function, it is not just polite etiquette. Forgiveness is helpful for both the perpetrator and victim of a transgression.

Quickly, here are the definitions I am using:

Victim – a person who had their right trespassed against.

Perpetrator – a person who trespassed against another persons rights.

The most clear purpose of forgiveness is as a benefit to the perpetrator. But the function there is reasonably limited: forgiveness will only ever help the truly remorseful perpetrator. An unapologetic perpetrator cannot benefit from forgiveness because the purpose of forgiveness is to help the perpetrator move past the guilty they feel. If the perpetrator is remorseful, the forgiveness can help them develop and move on. You can forgive an unapologetic person, but it’s dangerous: an unforgiving person (especially if they suffer from a dis-social personality disorder) may see your forgiveness as weakness and take advantage of you again. There is a limitation to forgiveness: forgiveness cannot protect you against repeated transgressions. If it turns out a person will continually violate your rights then, even if you let go of the anger and forgive the perpetrator, you should still make steps to protect yourself. If they steal from you, don’t leave your property unattended or given them access. You can do that, and still forgive.

It is more interesting to think about when forgiveness can help the victim. Obviously, as the victim, only they can forgive. But the act of forgiving one’s own assailant is cathartic. Truly forgiving another person releases you from the anger and resentment that you have for another person. It can be useful to forgive a person even after they are dead or otherwise completely unaware of the step you are taking. The perpetrator takes no benefit from this, but the catharsis still exists for the victim.

It is difficult to think of a time when forgiveness is useless if it is sincerely given. To sincerely give forgiveness, first the forgiver must be a victim of the transgression; bystanders and observers have no place to forgive: what would it even mean? Secondly, the forgiver must actually let go of the anger and resentment, else it’s not really forgiveness but is just going through the motions. If the victim tells the perpetrator they are forgiven, then the perpetrator cannot throw it in your face or take advantage, else the forgiveness will have been useless because the catharsis doesn’t get time to set in. But that is the only time it is useless: when the perpetrator immediately throws it back at you.

There is an argument that all transgressions against a person are transgressions against God, because it is Its law. I’m not sure that is correct. After all, does the state get to forgive people for violation of their laws? I think not. The only effect on God could be how indignant it feels watching a transgression take place. But God is not actually a victim. More importantly, is obligatory or guaranteed forgiveness meaningful? The answer is no. If forgiveness were obligatory then the victim would just be going through the motions, not legitimately forgiving. Forgiveness cannot be obligatory because there cannot be a guarantee that a victim will let go of their anger and resentment. Part of the reason that it’s not God’s job to forgive is that God is not a real victim of a transgression, another part is that the narrative of God is that It automatically forgives under some circumstances which is not real forgiveness.

The function I have described for forgiveness has an effect on wellbeing, you may have noticed: the catharsis and the relief. Is this a moral consideration? I am not going to surprise my readers by saying that if an act, symbolic or otherwise, can have that large an impact on one’s Mental Universe (read: wellbeing) then it is a moral consideration. To question whether this is a moral question, however, Paul and I will have to agree some definition of morality (an issue he has promised not to bore me with).

Forgiveness can be a source of immoral behaviour, however. It is possible to scapegoat morality to justify taking advantage of a person. This happens in families where a parent forgives a child who repeatedly goes against the wishes of the parent: how many times can a parent forgive a child stealing from their wallet? Will the child stop if they are supported past the guilt? Forgiveness is also vulnerability.

Dissecting Questions for Atheists

This has been sat in my drafts for quite some time. I thought, now that I’m back on to my blogging hobby, I would tune up a few of the answers and share them for your recreational reading. The questions come from an apologist named Matt Slick. He is a presuppositional apologist. What this means is that he has refined the art of replacing dialogue with stubbornness. He will insist that the assumption a God exists is justified and everything spawns from that assumption (including reason and morality). He then systematically ignores rebuttals, because he refuses to believe you can disagree with him as rely on reason or logic. It’s interesting, then, to see whether he can produce fair and useful questions for the theism/atheism debate.

(I can’t find the ‘Proofread’ function on this new editor. Expect typos, passive voice, hidden verbs and complex language that hinders understanding to increase slightly.)

How would you define atheism?
This is a fair and intelligent first question. It sets the tone for an unbiased and levelled discussion without prejudice to assumption. It also allows the atheist to define their terms, which is fair given that the atheist is the one on trial. In isolation, the main problem with this question is that the answer already well established: a lack of belief in deities. In context, well, the problem is about whether the author of these questions (Matt Slick) can maintain that level tone.

Do you act according to what you believe (there is no God) in or what you don’t believe in (lack belief in God)?
Here we go. This question is loaded. How do you act in accordance with things you don’t believe? I don’t believe “God exists”, and I don’t act in accordance with that. No one acts according to what they don’t believe. I don’t consider what I don’t believe when I act. I act in accordance with things I do believe.

Do you think it is inconsistent for someone who “lacks belief” in God to work against God’s existence by attempting to show that God doesn’t exist?
If I work against the existence of a political group, I work to disband or destroy that group. That assumes the existence of that political group. So it would be inconsistent to work against the existence of God, as an atheist or not: believing in but working against the omnipotent is inconsistent because it means taking arms against the undefeatable; working against something you don’t believe exists assume its existence.
Luckily, I am entirely unaware of any atheist who does this. I am one of many atheists who argued that the idea is irrational and doesn’t hold up to rational scrutiny, as any good idea should. That is not the same.

How sure are you that your atheism properly represents reality?
It doesn’t. The question assumes atheism is a positive claim. It is not; atheism cannot be summarised in the following way: “Atheist is based on the following sentence being true: [insert sentence here]“. Atheism is simply not accepting one claim: at least one God exists. Equally, I don’t think my empiricism represents reality, I think it is a good method for identifying claims that do represent reality.

How sure are you that your atheism is correct?
See above. It is not a positive claim, it cannot be correct. I just don’t think your claim a God does exist is justified.

How would you define what truth is?
That which comports to reality.

Why do you believe your atheism is a justifiable position to hold?
Justifiable is a much better word than true. Justifiable is closer to rational. Atheism is rational to anyone who does not have sufficient evidence to support the claim God exists. There is a side note to be made here: instead of recognising the default position, the author of the question has asked the default position to be justified, presupposing the validity of theism. That’s not philosophically defensible.

Are you a materialist or a physicalist or what?
Methodological naturalist; empiricist; sceptic.

Do you affirm or deny that atheism is a worldview?  Why or why not?
Deny. It does not inform anything. Worldviews are a part of everything. Atheism is a response, not a view.

Not all atheists are antagonistic to Christianity but for those of you who are, why the antagonism?
Actually being antagonistic is quite rare. The assumption or problem with this question is that it is predicated on an oversensitivity and assumption that religion should not be challenged. Direct moral, intellectual or rational challenges to religion are seen as antagonism. It is eerily similar to challenging a psychiatrically deluded patient.

If you were at one time a believer in the Christian God, what caused you to deny his existence?
“Deny his existence”? Why did you even ask me to define atheism. Despite the first question allowing me to define my terms, the questions are all loaded.

Do you believe the world would be better off without religion?
Would it be better if something precious to people was destroyed? That is both loaded and irrelevant to what comports to reality. However, yes. This is not because I think religion is inherently evil, but because all dogmas inherently permit atrocities.

Do you believe the world would be better off without Christianity?
Dogma without question is bad. So yes.

Do you believe that faith in a God or gods is a mental disorder?
Define your terms. Medically speaking, a condition doesn’t become a disorder until it interferes with your ability to function. It evidently doesn’t interfere with the ability of a number of people. Some people are deluded morally and intellectually by religion, so for them it is a disorder. Ironically, members of the Islamic State, who are following the Koran more literally than any Muslim I have ever got along with, are displaying their religion as a mental disorder while being truer to it.

Must God be known through the scientific method?
How could you know something about the external reality by another method?

If you answered yes to the previous question, then how do you avoid a category mistake by requiring material evidence for an immaterial God?
Epistemology: the question is how we know anything.

Do we have any purpose as human beings?
No. But, also, yes.

If we do have purpose, can you as an atheist please explain how that purpose is determined?
By experience and wellbeing. The ‘purpose’ of anything is only the purpose is appears to have. The purpose of trees are not to produce oxygen for animals. However, if we reforest an area the purpose of those trees is oxygen (and soil binding and ecosystem support). Purpose is the not deontological and universal thing the author hopes it to be.

Where does morality come from?
For fun, let’s say there is no morality. On a universal scale, all things are in fact permissible. It turns out Cosmic Background Microwave Radiation doesn’t care what we do. The only thing that cares what we do is society. Oops. That’d be morality, wouldn’t it? Even if not, what would it have to do with God, anyway?

Are there moral absolutes?

If there are moral absolutes, could you list a few of them?
At some point, you will realise that looking after people actually matters.

Do you believe there is such a thing as evil?  If so, what is it?
Yes. The intentional violation of the wellbeing of others. It might look like cutting down the rainforest, starving entire ecosystems in exchange for money or beheading a humanitarian because you have no idea what might constitute a society.

If you believe that the God of the Old Testament is morally bad, by what standard do you judge that he is bad?
Literally any given understanding of morality. Even relativism.

What would it take for you to believe in God?
I don’t know. But God should know. There is no reason that a god should even be knowable.

What would constitute sufficient evidence for God’s existence?
That really depends on your conception of God. Another blogger referred to the universal conception of moral laws. We don’t have that, but if we did it would be an arrow in the right direction (towards any God of the ontological argument). For a biblical God: evidence of the flood, the arc, walls of Jericho, DNA evidence that supports genesis; the absence of natural explanations for phenomena.

Must this evidence be rationally based, archaeological, testable in a lab, etc., or what?
Must it be demonstrable and sensible? Yes.

Do you think that a society that is run by Christians or atheists would be safer?  Why?
That really depends. Atheists who are also deranged and succumb to heinous dogma are incredibly dangerous. But a country run by Christians when the population is so diverse… isn’t that just asking for Crusades and Inquisitions?

Do you believe in free will?  (free will being the ability to make choices without coersion).

If you believe in free will, do you see any problem with defending the idea that the physical brain, which is limited and subject to the neuro-chemical laws of the brain, can still produce free will choices?
What would this have to do with God?

If you affirm evolution and that the universe will continue to expand forever, then do you think it is probable that given enough time, brains would evolve to the point of exceeding mere physical limitations and become free of the physical and temporal and thereby become “deity” and not be restricted by space and time?  If not, why not?
No. What would be the evolutionary pressure for that? What would the intermediate look like? What is the author talking about? What does it even mean to have consciousness without a physical, material medium?

If you answered the previous question in the affirmative, then aren’t you saying that it is probable that some sort of God exists?
No. The previous question seems design to trip up people who are less aware of what evolution is. It is as if there is some sort of end goal of evolution and everything is just on a spectrum between mud and God. Do you see the ridiculousness of the author?

Define Learning

Education is one of the cornerstones of modern society. Each of us stand on the shoulders of the discoverers and teachers who came before us. From them, we learn. Learning is not only how we remember the past but also how we will discover and shape the future. Our primary learning environment, where we expect our kids are being taught what they will need for their future, is school. If we are to trust schools to teach, we must believe they are following the best practice to support learning.

I know it is the bane of many bloggers and debaters to have to define their terms to progress. However, it is important. In the example of learning, if we can’t robustly articulate what learning is we can never test to see what best supports learning. Defining learning has something of an observation paradox; that is to say that how you look at and plan to measure learning directly effects the definition of learning. If you want to research the best teaching practices to support learning you must know what you mean by “learning”. As a teacher it is very easy (and appropriate) to test your students’ knowledge immediately after the lesson or at the start of the next lesson. That defines learning as retaining knowledge for 1 hour or a week. But, at their most frequent exams, are 6-monthly (not every hour) and ‘retaining knowledge’ shouldn’t be the goal of learning (should it?)

Retaining knowledge is, I’d say, less-than-half of learning. A parrot or CleverBot can recount words. Computers retain knowledge all the time, but I doubt you’d say the Chromebook I’m using is learning as I type. But if you measure learning at the end of a lesson, then you are defining learning as ‘knowledge retention after an hour’. The exams students then sit test learning as if it’s the ability the retain knowledge for at least 6 months. The fact that the teacher and the exam define learning differently is a problem, and I don’t think either is a useful definition of learning.

My mother disagrees with me. She teaches in a Young Offenders institute and thinks exam pass rates or ‘value added’ are very good ways of defining learning (for the learners she deals with). By the very nature of teaching in a Young Offenders institute, my mum teaches people who have a certain number of opportunities in the future closed off to them. My mum strongly believes that getting a predicted U-grade at GCSE level up to a real D-grade at the time of the exam is valuable learning; it is opening up doors to them the Young Offenders that were closed. The goal of learning is to retain and be able to produce facts. In those circumstances, that may be appropriate. If that is your goal, there are experiments you can carry out to see how best to make people learn. Here are some examples of how to measure those things:

Create a series lesson plans that both aim to teach a certain number of relatively simple facts. Each lesson must aim to teach the same number of facts. Take each lesson and design it is such a way that it simulates different teaching practices. For example, lesson 1 may be a tactile/practical lesson on weather where the aim is to learn 20 things about weather and how to measure it. The lesson is ‘tactile’ because students are asked to design, create and use weather-measuring equipment. Lesson 2 is an auditory/didactic lesson where a lecture is played and comprehension questions are given through out the lesson. The goal is to learn 20 things about population dynamics. Lesson 3 is student-led research etc. 1 week after each lesson you ask the students to write down as many of the facts they were meant to learn as they can remember. Whichever lesson showed the greatest retention used the best teaching method, correct?

If your goal is exams-based, your experiment will be different. Take two classes taught by different teachers who favour different teaching methods, find each class’ baseline predicted grades at the start of the year and find their value added on exams day. Whichever class has the greatest value added… simple, no?

But this separates learning from developing abilities to reason things through, critical thinking and evaluation. If I made a claim like “listening to Katy Perry improves learning in undergraduates” you would think the investigation looked at a lot more than just retention of knowledge. After all, any one who has been to university will tell you they retained very little. My stepdad says at university he learned “how to think”. So, how might we investigate that?

What do we expect a university student to be able to do better if they are learning better? Write a 1,000 word essay on something their not necessarily familiar with; decide what information is helpful in answering a question; reason and evaluate thoughts better? It would be something along those lines, I’m sure you agree. So, with two groups of students I would sit one group in silence and make another group listen to a Katy Perry track (or selection of her Greatest Hits — if she has enough songs for that). I’d then give each student from both groups a booklet of research information all pertaining to (picking at random…) aluminium production and manufacture. Each student then has 2 hours (under exam conditions) to read and assimilate information from the booklet with a view to write an extended answer to the question “Examine the advantages and disadvantages of modern aluminium production techniques”. Then find an objective-as-possible way of marking, with the marker(s) blind to what group different students were in… average marks from both groups; are they significantly different?

All three of the experiments measure “learning”, but in each example it means something different. And in each case, the definition suits a different circumstance. If you want to investigate learning, you have to go through that tedious task of defining your terms and defining them in line with exactly what you want to study.

Forgiveness and Permission for it

A reader has taken particular issue with one of the sentences in my earlier post (Whose Responsibility is Forgiveness?). In the post I outline two beliefs: that forgiveness from God is not the forgiveness you should seek for your transgressions against people, and that with God all things are forgivable. To make the former point I used the sentence “The freedom to forgive a person, or not, is granted upon you when you become a victim” (emphasis added by Paul Quixote). Paul (I hope he doesn’t mind the first name address) asked a simple question: granted by whom?

My post never challenges a god’s existence, so the answer “god” could be consistent with the post. All I asked was whether God is the right person from whom we should seek forgiveness; my answer is no. However, that answer would have been evasive, and so I addressed the broader implied question: given that you don’t believe in God, from where is permission to forgive granted? (emphasis mine, to draw the distinction between personal and non-personal causes). Perhaps you can already see that the cause I am going to posit is not personal.

To posit a cause which is not personal, I must first explain an example which is widely agreed upon: rights and responsibilities. I believe we live in a self-entitled society that is ignorant about how rights come about. People seem to implicitly believe in some variety of deontological definition of their rights (which is to say that because their rights are written down, they are true): “I know my rights!” Knowing your own rights is almost entirely useless; you have to know other people’s rights. The UN Declaration of Human Rights is actually a document outlining the explicit responsibility of the UN: to promote, foster and realise those rights. Rights are entirely meaningless unless people, societies and government recognise their responsibility to give those rights to others. And so it is with forgiveness; you must have a trespass against you before you can forgive. In the example of Simon’s stepdad, you must have the kidney that was stabbed before you can forgive the assailant. What use it is for the doctor or Jesus to forgive the assailant? They weren’t stabbed.

Paul promises me that he “pondered that the better part of a day” and has only really noted “the inability to directly answer the question”. Oddly, I disagree with his evaluation; I think I did directly address the question. I just had to fix the question first, as Paul insisted on asking “by whom?” (emphasis mine) when consciousness and sentience simply aren’t required. Paul is still not convinced:

“[T]he English language itself will flawlessly snuff and stamp out your attempted sophistry: That is, the definition of the verb “grant.” All definitions of the word, more importantly than quibbling about dictionaries, require a sentient self-aware conscious noun to operate them.”

Err… no they don’t. I understand why Paul doesn’t want to quibble about dictionary definitions; if I open a dictionary I will not find reference to the necessity of “a sentient self-aware conscious noun” (sic – if you’re going to get smug about grammar, the actor in a sentence is a subject, a noun refers to the word and no words are self-aware) defining “to grant”. It is not mistaken to say that luck grants you opportunities or that disappointment grants you insight. Luckily, Paul has a second argument.

“I also find what you suggest morally reprehensible: That is, to talk of “freedoms” and “rights” and “responsibilities” as special endowments on the forgiver. I don’t necessarily suspect that you’re an immoral person, but this does strike as having every potential and possibility to lead to the most abject deformed sort of morality.”

Err… did I say that? Perhaps I was unclear. I am happy to clarify. The ability to forgive an assailant is granted upon a victim of transgression. Only the victim can forgive the assailant. Forgiveness is no one else’ business. Solely from the perspective of the word “granted”, there are parallels between this and rights and responsibilities. At no point do I talk of rights and responsibilities being a special endowment. Rights are universal and society obliges all of us to recognize those rights. I don’t know if that defends me from Paul’s accusation, because I have no idea what Paul thinks I mean.

“For one thing, forgiveness typically comes as anterior to damned near posterior to morality as possible. More often than not, I am going to have to make the observation here that, if not the last seal of it, forgiveness is often post-moral.”

Bonus points for using language to obfuscate meaning. Luckily Paul has since clarified what he means: his thoughts would better be expressed as “posterior to post-moral”, meaning forgiveness is “tending to happen later down the chain of occurrences”. My interpretation of that is that forgiveness happens after moral considerations i.e there is a transgression, moral judgments are made and then the right to forgive emerges. Paul brings this up because:

“it seems fair to say there may be an issue for some as to whether forgiveness should be a part of our morality at all. Also, forgiveness in the light of future events. For instance, the young teenager who breaks a parents curfew, punishment, parents forgive, and three weeks later the same curfew is broken yet again. Where we wonder how much forgiveness we are to give and where to draw the line so people don’t mistake our kindness for license to take advantage of us.”

Unfortunately, for a full discussion this will need a working and agreed definition of morality; Paul and I haven’t worked on one yet, so that seems like an unlikely venture. But as a short thought for now: at no point have I knowingly uttered that the freedom to forgive is identical to the obligation to forgive. If I have given that impression, I apologise. It seems plain to me that  right or a freedom necessarily extends to the right to abstain. Freedom to forgive necessarily includes freedom from forgiveness. As for forgiveness in the light of future events, no such thing exists; you cannot know what the future holds. Instead, you forgive (or not) based on your best estimates of the future. The only “future” we can work with the light of is the one we imagine to be true; I am unlikely to forgive a person who I believe will trespass against me again, in the same way.

“[W]hat of those for whom the forgiveness of offenses takes place directly in the trespass against said parties very freedoms, rights and responsibilities? Your own examples above being ripe with what I mean: The freedom or right or responsibility of that family to not have their child stabbed being trespassed against. The freedom and right of your friend Simon’s stepdad not to have his kidney punctured having been utterly suspended.”

I am not going to accuse Paul of “attempted sophistry”, like he did me. But you, my fellow reader, just might. I am happy to use the ideas Paul shares here as being definitions: a transgression against another person (for which forgiveness could be given) is when a person, group of people or community has their rights trespassed against. Given my definition of rights and responsibilities, a transgression (i.e. to trespass against the rights of others) can also be seen, definitionally, as failure to adhere to one’s responsibilities. What’s the issue? When an assailant murders a child, the assailant trespasses against the rights of the child and the family: the child had the right to life, and the family had the right to expect their child would not be murdered. Because we as a society recognise those rights, the rights are real. And so the police intervene: arrest the assailant and if the assailant is found guilty he is isolated from society to protect society’s rights and to attempt to teach him the necessity of rights and responsibilities in society (prison has other purposes, not all I agree with).

If you believe in the afterlife, which I do not, then the child has the right (but not the obligation) to forgive the assailant. The child may not. The family is still alive, and it also is able (but not obliged) to forgive the assailant. The family may, understandably, never be able to forgive the assailant. However, the family may also see the guilt the man has been racked with for years and decide that the man is, indeed, redeemable. Or they may not care about the man’s guilt, and think that being a murderer is a stain on a person’s life that can never be undone; the morality of forgiveness is perhaps a conversation for another time.

“Is not talk of “responsibility” at such times is rather more like salt on wounds, bordering on the inhuman?”

I am not suggesting this is a method of counsel.

“Whose responsibility, to take a contemporary example, is it exactly to forgive ISIS in Mosul for its actions? Why, the Palestinian Christians who have lost their rights and freedoms and must flee for their lives in terror and persecution? To be fair, that may be case where forgiveness will never occur.”

NB: Paul has since corrected this as “Iraqi Christians”. It’s a fair mistake; newspaper headlines are a confusing mess of buzzwords.

I accept that forgiveness may never happen in some circumstances. It may be, depending on your personal views about forgiveness, that some circumstances mean that forgiveness cannot be given. The Iraqi Christians having their rights infringed upon may never forgive ISIS. There is no obligation to. But ISIS cannot ask for forgiveness from the international arena: only the Iraqi Christians have been empowered to forgive, or not, ISIS.

1. Why should I forgive anybody for anything ever, who roundly don’t deserve it?

You are never, ever, obliged to offer forgiveness. It may be that a person shows evidence of rehabilitation or reformation, and that may be enough. It may be that nothing will ever allow a person to forgive.

2. Conversely, why should anybody forgive me for anything ever, since I never deserve it?

The power to forgive, or not, is a freedom. If a person has trespassed against you, but is now disproportionately racked with guilt and convinced you of their reformation, then perhaps you can find the strength to forgive.

3. What difference or good does forgiveness make/do? Is it not, more often the case with humanity, enabling further trespasses and offenses? I think so; that’s our general tale of the tape, religion or religionless. The world could probably carry on swimmingly without this worthless platitude of homo sapiens; should it?

The planet will spin after our apocalypse, agreed. But we live in a specific world: one of wellbeing and feelings and emotions; guilt and happiness; loss and reformation. The moral world is entirely mental. That is the world we are looking to keep up by our moral actions. Forgiveness does not just benefit a truly repentant assailant, but also a victim. Being angry in addition to loss and pain, is difficult. Having the strength to forgive helps oneself.

4. Where does forgiveness actually ever at any point acquire efficacy?

If you care what other people think and feel, forgiveness has efficacy.

5. In order to forgive my offenders must they ask for it first and seek me out in penance or can I/should I seek them out and offer it in advance of their request?

I am not sure it makes sense to offer forgiveness to people who don’t want it. If an assailant is not repentant, forgiveness is no good to them. But you can forgive them for your own sake. I am planning another post on the function and morality of forgiveness soon.

6. In conjunction with number 5, what happens if when I do forgive the offender, they explicitly spit in my face and say they’d do it again if they could? And I forgive that as well? Am I immoral for allowing someone to take advantage of me and humiliate me? I am stupid; we can agree to that.

You can forgive but not forget. If you know a person is internally compelled to kleptomania ot to hurt others, you may forgive them because you understand the power and strength of compulsions like that. But you would be foolish not to secure your belongings or protect yourself. Blind, unconditional, irrational forgiveness, even in the face of blatant intent to reoffend does seem mightily silly.

7. I’m still wanting to know by what authority, anyway, I am to offer forgiveness at all?

I’ve answered that.


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