Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Creationism in Scottish schools

I had been trying to keep out of the latest Creationism spat in Scotland. If by 'Creationist' you mean, 'God created everything in 4004 BC in six days', then it's not really a Catholic thing, mainly because reason plays too important a part in Catholic understandings of salvation for such a version of Creationism to sit easily within the Church. Of course, Catholics are creationist if you mean, 'Did God create the Universe?'. But between those two poles there are a variety of positions, and unpicking them is a tricky matter. Moreover, there's a sort of tribal loyalty: I like David Robertson and John Mason MSP who have been prominent on the 'pro-Creationist' side and I've been called a homophobic bigot enough times by supporters of the Scottish Secular Society (SSS) to feel a little out of sorts with that side. So, to be honest, I've rather felt that it's too much work to think about, not really my fight, and I'm happy to leave it to others to deal with. At the weekend, however, I got (by accident more than anything else) into a Twitter exchange with the SSS twitter account which forced me to think about the issue a bit more than I had. It was, I confess, an extremely civilized exchange, even friendly, so thank you to whoever was on the other side of the SSS account!

Anyway, the situation (as I understand it) stands something like this. John Mason MSP has introduced a motion into the Scottish Parliament:

That the Parliament notes that South Lanarkshire Council has issued guidance concerning the appointment and input of chaplains and religious organisations in schools; understands that some people believe that God created the world in six days, some people believe that God created the world over a longer period of time and some people believe that the world came about without anyone creating it; considers that none of these positions can be proved or disproved by science and all are valid beliefs for people to hold, and further considers that children in Scotland’s schools should be aware of all of these different belief systems. [Motion S4M-12149 here.]

This is in direct response to South Lanarkshire's guidance (David Robertson's comment here) and a previous attempt by the SSS to introduce a ban on creationism in Scottish school via a petition (which was rejected by Parliament). The petition wording was:

Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to issue official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of Young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time. [Details here.]

The definition of  'creationism' used in the petition is glossed by the background information given to the petition as:

‘Creationism’ here means any doctrine or theory which holds that natural biological processes cannot account for the history, diversity, and complexity of life on earth and therefore rejects the scientific theory of evolution. Pupils should also be taught about the age of the Earth on the basis of established science, and not presented with Young Earth scenarios as credible alternatives.

This guidance is not intended to inhibit discussion of beliefs about the origins of the Earth and living things, such as creationism, in Religious Education and other cultural studies, as long as they are not presented as valid alternatives to established science.

Creationism here means the separate creation of different living kinds. No objection is being raised to discussion of the overall belief in God as the ultimate creator. Similarly, by Intelligent Design we mean the oft-refuted claim that natural processes cannot generate the kind of new information required for evolution. This claim should be distinguished from the respectable philosophical position that sees the operation of the Universe as a whole as the working of Providence.


Pupils must be taught about evolution as firmly based science, and not presented with ‘creationism’ as scientific fact or as a valid alternative to evolution.

OK. Ducks laid out in a line. Where to start?

I think it's perfectly reasonable that science lessons deal with 'established science'. That's a slightly slippery phrase, but I'm perfectly happy to think of it as being roughly equivalent to Kuhn's 'normal science' -ie (roughly) the sort of intellectual framework professional scientists work within at the current time. That means that children should be taught in lessons that assume the earth is a lot older than 6000 years and that the prime driver of the 'history, diversity and complexity of life' is evolution through natural selection. School science should reflect (roughly) university science: it should be part of a process of apprenticeship that allows children to enter into the adult professional world of scientists.

A few things follow from this. Curricula should be set (in substance) by relevant experts and not by politicians. (This applies to history as much as biology.) There might be a limited role for government, but it is essentially subsidiary to that of professional academics. (So although I wouldn't rule out some sort of legal ban on this-or-that position in a science lesson, I'd want to be a) absolutely convinced that there was a real problem to be addressed rather than just a potential problem; and b) I'd want to make sure that the inevitable clumsiness of law and bureaucracy didn't get in the way of the educational prudentia -ie letting teachers exercise their judgment.)

I don't see anything in John Mason's motion that contradicts my view on this: he is not (in any clear way at least) demanding creationism in science lessons. (David Robertson commented on the SSS petition: 'No MSP has been defending creationism within science classes in any Scottish school.' That was written before John Mason's intervention, but I'd be amazed if that motion intended a change to that position.)

So I'd broadly agree with the SSS that 'creationism' shouldn't be taught within science lessons, but disagree that this needs specific legal action: as the Scottish Government argued, "The evidence available suggests that guidance on these matters is unnecessary."

But what about outwith science lessons? The problem here is that teaching about creationism is not just something that might be discussed outside science lessons, but is something that probably must be discussed. Imagine a situation where 'God created everything in six days in 4004BC' were assumed to be false in science lessons, but nothing was said about the wider implications of this. If you have pupils entering the schools from a background that does accept such a creationist view, you'd almost certainly end up with a modern version of the 'two truths' approach: 'This is what you need to say in Higher exams; this is what we believe to be true.' (There appears to be anecdotal evidence of this already happening.) Unless, somewhere in education, the place of science in truth gathering is addressed, then the paradoxical result is that science is undermined: it becomes a dead letter, followed to pass exams, but of no interest in a fuller understanding of the universe.

Now, I suppose there's an argument that this issue -one of the philosophy of science rather than normal science- should be addressed in science classes. Frankly, I think this is nuts. Philosophy of science is difficult enough without cramming it into (say) a Higher class in biology: at best, it would be simplistic; at worse, it might actually be counterproductive by making the position stated clearly ridiculous. (One imagines something at worst like Dawkins on one of his twitter rants.) On the other hand, I suspect it is equally nuts to expect something like a separate undergraduate class in the philosophy of science to take place in a school environment (the nature of science is highly contested and difficult; most secondary school teachers simply don't have the ability to teach it; there isn't enough time in the curriculum). It certainly won't do to impose a highly simplistic scientistic framework on this complex area such as that envisaged by the SSS. For example, would discussions such as Nagel's be banned from reflection? (The prospect of that intellectual powerhouse that is Holyrood pronouncing on some of the most difficult areas of philosophy is, shall we say, troubling...)

So what's left? I suspect the answer to this is that what's left is unsatisfactory: it's inevitable that secondary schools students leave school with a pretty inadequate grasp of epistemology and the philosophy of science. (They will also lack a sure grounding in Akkadian.) What they should be left with is a sense of unease and possibility: that if they come from a fideist, young earth background, they should be aware that the preponderance of educated thought is against them; that if they come from a New Atheist background, they should be aware how difficult these issues actually are.

I pretty much agree with John Mason's motion. I don't agree with: '...none of these positions can be proved or disproved by science and all are valid beliefs for people to hold.' I think that (eg) young earth creationism is disproved by science and is only 'valid' to the extent that people should be free to believe nonsense. But actually to show that is far trickier than the SSS seem to think and isn't something that I'd expect secondary schools to be able to do. The problem here is that schools can only reflect wider society. If wider society (or a minority group) believes nonsense, there is only a limited amount that can be done to remove that nonsense with the schools system, and the imposition of views by authority is actually counterproductive if the aim is to produce children who think critically.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Wolf Hall

                                                                A wolf...

So everybody's talking about Wolf Hall. (Telegraph: here. Guardian: here.) We apparently like it.

I'll say something about the TV adaptation in a bit. But I wanted to try and say something about the books before I do. Treat this as part of an exercise in the phenomenology of reading rather than an exercise in close criticism. I read Wolf Hall pretty much when it first came out which means that I read it about six years ago. I read Bring Up the Bodies again roughly when it came out -so about three years ago. I read Wolf Hall in hard copy; I read Bring Up the Bodies on a Kindle.

I mention all that because those details affect how I feel about the books. (And that's what I'm going to talk about.) If this were proper criticism, I'd be obliged to go back and check these feelings against the text. But I'm not going to. Which is why this post is simply about my (current) impressions of the book and doesn't claim to be criticism. However, it may be of interest for two reasons: first, I seem to be one of those rare Catholics who enjoyed both; secondly, I haven't seen what I'm going to say precisely echoed by anyone else (and I'm arrogant enough to think that I might have an interesting perspective).

A lot has been made about the books' being, in some sense, about the rise of modernity: a very modern man (Cromwell), who achieves his position by merit, not birth, and who operates with managerial efficiency rather than (as with More) from theology or (as with Henry) from his codpiece. I think that's basically right. But what is often missed is that the first person narration of the book and general form of the book itself embodies that rise of modernity. Cromwell's take on the world is oddly flat: he sees the world with disenchanted eyes; he is alienated from it. (The confusions noted by Mark Lambert  reinforce this Verfremdungseffekt: Cromwell's consciousness becomes the one still, Cartesian spot in a blooming buzzing confusion.) What others have taken to be dullness I took as part of the point: a sort of extended exercise in Vonnegutian 'So it goes', the careless flatness of the modern, disembodied ego. (I think perhaps there's a slightly false note in the narrative with the death of Cromwell's family (and indeed his abused childhood): instead of his disenchantment being part of the structure of modernity, it hints at a pathological psychology where the disenchantment and lack of emotional connection is the result of personal grief rather than cultural shift.)

As I said, I'm not sure how fair that impression is to the text, but it is nonetheless why I tell myself now that I enjoyed the books. (Wolf Hall more than Bring Up the Bodies, I think, in part because I think it did this 'disenchantment' thing rather better.) It also relieves any anxiety I might have had about the unsympathetic portrayal of More: of course he is a grotesque. All those with light and colour and character are grotesque (just as the Middle Ages are grotesque) in front of the unfeeling light of the modern, rational consciousness. Mantel's take on that appears to be that Cromwell is good because modernity is good. My take is that Cromwell is bad (almost psychopathic) because modernity is bad. (But so it goes no doubt.)

And what of the TV series? Well, aesthetically it's great. (Great use of light and dark, not afraid to let whole scenes (almost) vanish into the Tudor murk). And one is reminded again just how wonderful gifted actors are, disappearing into another human being with no sign of the effort it costs. I'll certainly go on watching it. But (given the books) I think what I'm going to miss is the relief of the flatness by the penetrating consciousness of Cromwell: instead of being the camera through which all the world is viewed and reduced to something to be manipulated or played with or just seen, he becomes instead just one more character within the camera's field. He too becomes part of the flattened, disenchanted world rather than the eye through which it is viewed.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Happy birthday, Cezanne. (Catholic.)

There are a great many things I don't like about blogging (the sound of my own voice -or whatever the correct digital, visual equivalent is- rambling on in feeble imitation of professional commentators can be just as grating for me as it is for you, dear reader), but one of the things I do like is the possibility of bringing out the interplay of the personal and the academic. I am, for example, quite happy to admit that, on most (all?) subjects, I write having entered in medias res and will stop writing ex mediis rebus: we always stand a little unsure of the dimensions of the room we inhabit and we never quite get a firm sense of the contents of that room. (But that doesn't stop us talking. Oh Lord, not in the slightest.)

And so, Cezanne. Brought up in a lower middle class, pretty philistine home, we just didn't do the visual arts. (Actually, I'm not sure we did much of anything except TV.) And not having any natural abilities in that area, I just didn't pay much attention to painting and the like until undergraduate courses on aesthetics forced me to engage. I remain pretty ignorant, not really even knowing what I like. But as I get older, I find the enjoyment of paintings, the sensual enjoyment of seeing, incredibly satisfying. I suppose this is all to say I dabble. And Cezanne, for a variety of reasons, is one of those painters I find most satisfying to dabble in...

When I realized that today was Cezanne's birthday, I turned to the Alex Danchev biography of Cezanne to find something helpful to tweet. And knowing that Cezanne was a daily mass goer, I thought I'd probably say something about that. So to Danchev's index. Nothing. Absolutely nothing on Catholicism. Freud, of course. Heidegger. Hegel. Even Billy Whitelaw. But nothing under 'Catholicism' or 'Mass' or 'God' or 'Christ' and so on. I did (by dint of extensive flipping) find the following exchange (p291) where Danchev contrasts his understanding of Cezanne with that of earlier biographers:

It constructs a helpless, almost childlike Cezanne in his dotage, a political simpleton, a preconscious pilgrim, clinging to le bon droit in all its forms -the Church, the State, the Army -even the Boers...It is tone deaf, to wit and to wisdom. 'I'm going to get my helping of the Middle Ages,' he would whisper, mischievously, near the font. 'To be a Catholic,' he told his son, near the end, 'I think one has to be devoid of all sense of fairness, but to keep an eye on one's own interests.'

And that, so far as I can see, is that: one paragraph exemplifying as much as noting a tone deafness to wit and to wisdom. (If you can't imagine all sorts of ways in which a devout Catholic might mischievously speak thus without stopping being a devout Catholic...) The reviews of the book (the Guardian here; Telegraph here; Waldemar Januszczak here) neither mention religion (which suggests that I'm not missing something in the biography) nor suggest that this is a failing (which suggests that Danchev is not atypical).

All this is particularly strange in that Cezanne is quite clearly an artist who is engaging in that very Catholic thing of trying to find form in the world: a form, not with the accretions of tradition or French bourgeois seeing, but 'the dearest freshness deep down things'. And coupled with a purification of the see-er, we have almost a perfect case study of Catholic art and the encounter of French Catholicism with modernity. (I look up Bernanos, Peguy. They're not there either. Weil gets a one line mention -but a throwaway (and certainly no reference to her religion).)

Googling a little more, I find this essay by Patrick Reyntiens. Reassured to notice that I'm not going mad in noticing something is a little odd here:

An aspect of Cezanne's personal life not much harped upon is that he was a staunch Catholic. He was a daily Mass-goer. Such aberrations are best left unemphasised in the structure of the myth of the Modern Movement. But it explains a great deal. Cezanne's religion, however conventional it may or may not have been, constituted the prime basis for his sense of identity, stability and personal probity. This in turn fuelled his obsession with painting to heroic lengths.

None of this matters much to Catholics, at least educated ones. I guess most of us are used to suspecting the airbrushing that goes on in cultural history (my children tease me for my adding, when possible, 'He's a Catholic' to any passing description of this or that celebrity) and can look (search) past it. But if you enter this world in medias res, unless you're a Catholic on the look out for lacunae, you find yourself in a world that has been scraped of its Catholicism in the same way that Protestant reformers scraped our churches of paintings and colour; and, unless you have it continually pointed out to you, you start to think that the normal state of the world is this barren remnant, smashed ruins being mistaken for the complete original. Cezanne's a small, relatively insignificant case study of that secularization, which is not simply an absence, but an act of positive violence, a distortion of what our Lebenswelt, the cultural environment we inhabit, is really like.

Happy birthday to Paul Cezanne. Requiescat in pace.

Friday, 9 January 2015


I held back from commenting immediately on the murder of the journalists in Paris in part because I knew I'd get the tone wrong if I said anything immediately and in part from a feeling of nausea at how many commentators were hitching this or that bandwagon to the event. Fundamentally, it's about human beings having their lives violently snuffed out and perhaps the only totally satisfactory immediate response is sorrow and prayer.

With a bit of distance, perhaps it's possible to start drawing necessary distinctions. #Jesuis Charlie is fine as fighting talk, a quick and necessary way of showing solidarity with the victims. But as reflective political commentary, it's inadequate. 'I am not Charlie': I don't like its brand of satire; I don't like its crudities. I don't think it adds to democracy to shriek at your opponents. 'Free speech is the foundation stone of democracy': well, some (large) amount of free speech is a foundation stone of democracy, but that isn't the same as having the right to say anything that pops into your head. Civility is also a foundation stone of democracy. So is restraint. So is the exercise of rationality. So is not alienating large  numbers of your fellow citizens who happen to be of a different Weltanschauung. (Yes, I do primarily mean Muslims.)

'Islam is...' A lot of things apparently. '...the problem.' We shouldn't have to worry about placating them or worrying about Islamophobia or backlashes. We need to arm up and fight them. (And what? Bomb Southall?) Do something about the fifth column. (Send them back to Birmingham?) If you must say that Islam is the problem, then I suppose you must so long as we can also say that secularism and legal positivism are the problem. But I don't see how it helps either analysis or solution, certainly in the short term.

The murders in Paris changed nothing: that's part of the tragedy. Terrorism has been a feature of twentieth century Western democracies whenever we've paused fighting continental wars. 'The Troubles' (as one of my children remarked recently, is that supposed to be an example of British understatement?) killed over 3,500 people in roughly thirty years in a population of roughly two millions. And you can add to that the Red Brigades, Baader Meinhof, ETA etc etc. Undoubtedly, the current situation in the Middle East with IS looking to establish some sort of regional Caliphate is new. But we've only just emerged from a generation who, often with good reason, daily expected to be incinerated by a global nuclear war between the Warsaw Pact and NATO.

Nothing has changed from the Tuesday before the murders. On Tuesday, we knew that there were Muslim terrorists who wanted to conduct terrorist campaigns. We knew that they had had some success in the past and that, in all probability, they would succeed again. On Tuesday, we knew that freedom of speech is an important area in a democracy, but that there are difficult philosophical issues regarding its extent and justification. (If anyone is going to contest this, would you read Mill's On Liberty and Fitzjames Stephen's Liberty, Equality, Fraternity before doing so? Or at least this?) On Tuesday, we knew that there are cultural and racial tensions in French and other Western European societies which are difficult to deal with. On Tuesday we knew that the Middle East is a rapidly escalating source of instability.

One of the cornerstones of democracy (not sufficiently mentioned in recent days) is the rule of law and the use of force by government through a disciplined army and police force. It is fortunate that, whatever else has been dismantled since the 1960s, both France and Britain possess professionally trained men and women in these institutions with an ethos of public service that will, in extremis, allow them to lay down their lives for others. The main achievement of civilization is the restraint of stasis, the restraint of civil unrest which allows people to pursue the good life. The main question since Wednesday is what needs to be done and what can be done to prevent terrorism from undermining civic stability without wrecking the possibility of living well, particularly in the areas of privacy and liberty. That is, for the most part, a question of policing and intelligence methods, but also needs deeper (and continued) reflection on the nature of politics. It's there that I worry that the fetishization of one element at the expense of all the others -liberty or freedom of speech or the preeminence of satire- distorts the complexity of democratic culture. As I have said before, there is politics as campaigning, fighting talk, where such slogans or fetishization serve an immediate rhetorical purpose. But that needs to be supplemented by reflective thinking that aims at the truth in politics rather than momentary effectiveness or the mobilization of the public.

If I have to have a hashtag at the moment then #jesuislaloi would be my best bet. That's law which both controls stasis, but which also reflects ethics (ie natural law). Frankly, I wouldn't defend to the death the right of satirists gratuitously to insult people or beliefs, particularly if that right is bought at the cost of cheapening public discourse and coarsening society. But I would defend to the death their right not to be murdered. And the solution to that is primarily a question of policing.

Originally considered this as picture, but felt it didn't quite convey the sense of impersonal, rational justice required...