What did Socrates ever do for us?

‘What did the Greeks ever do for us?’ was the question discussed in a U3A philosophy group I joined last week, which turned out to be a very enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half – not really long enough to get to grips with the question, or even to get to the question at all, but certainly long enough to provoke some thinking, particularly about Socrates.

In preparation for this we were asked to read ‘Apology’ by Plato and translated by Benjamin Jowett . Apology is Plato’s account of Socrates’ self-defence against the charges of not recognizing the gods of the state and corrupting the youth of Athens. Plato of course was one of Socrates’ greatest admirers – a student of Socrates. And Aristotle was a ‘student’ of Plato. There was so much discussion around the Apology that there was little time to discuss Plato and Aristotle, apart from a brief discussion about Raphael’s fresco, The School of Athens, which can be seen in the Vatican museums. We were asked to consider what the fresco tells us about Plato and Aristotle’s philosophies.

There is so much information ‘out there’ about these three giants of philosophy, so many websites, so many articles, so many books, all of which are easy to find, that there is no need to repeat it all here and we only needed brief reference to it in our session.  Instead we focussed on these questions related to our reading of The Apology.

  1. What are the charges brought against Socrates?
  2. Why does Socrates think that the Athenians would be harming themselves rather than harming Socrates if they put him to death? What service has he provided the city of Athens by philosophizing there?
  3. Do you think Socrates is wise to disregard the possibility that he may die if he does not please the court?
  4. Why does Socrates think that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’?

For me the most interesting question was Q3, because when reading The Apology I found myself increasingly irritated by what I perceived to be Socrates’ arrogance. On the one hand he claims ‘the truth is that I have no knowledge’ and ‘I have no wisdom, small or great’, but that doesn’t stop him from claiming that the oracle at Delphi told him that there is no wiser man than he. Then he decided to test the oracle’s words by trying to find a man wiser than himself, but in discussion with various citizens considered to be the wisest in Athens, he decided they were not wiser than him and told them so, and then was surprised that they hated him. This he justified with the following words (according to Plato’s record):

Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him.

In this vein Socrates went to politicians, poets and artisans and found himself to be superior to them all for the same reason. At this point I found myself questioning his wisdom. And at this point too I began to wonder at his complete lack of self-doubt and his unshakeable belief in his own virtue and worth. ‘I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many times’. So convinced was he of his own worth that he told his accusers that if they killed him they would injure themselves more than they would injure him.

For if you kill me you will not easily find another like me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is like a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life.

Of course we have to remember that we only have Plato’s word that these statements actually came from Socrates. Socrates himself never wrote anything down. And we also have to try and think about the events in the context and culture of the time, for example the significance of the oracle’s statements.

Nevertheless, Socrates’ self-defence does raise the question of whether or not it is ‘wise’ to choose to die for your beliefs. For Socrates the difficulty was not in avoiding death but avoiding unrighteousness. He simply could not have lived with himself, had he not stuck to his principles. As such he could be said to have written his own death sentence.

Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? Are you ashamed of this?

But maybe by signing his own death sentence Socrates scored the most important goal of his career and ensured that he would go down in history as the founder of moral philosophy, who established the method of trying to get at truth through persistent open questioning.

(With thanks to Lisa Lane for sending me this video, which made me laugh)

As Bryan Magee writes in his book (p.23): The Story of Philosophy. A Concise Introduction to the World’s Greatest Thinkers and Their Ideas,

It is doubtful whether any philosopher has had more influence than Socrates. He was the first to teach the priority of personal integrity in terms of a person’s duty to himself, and not to the gods, or the law, or any other authorities. This has had incalculable influence down the ages. Not only was he willing to die at the hands of the law rather than give up saying what he believed to be right, he actually chose to do so, when he could have escaped had he wished. It is a priority that has been reasserted by some of the greatest minds since – minds not necessarily under his influence. Jesus said: “What will a man gain by winning the whole world, at the cost of his true self?” And Shakespeare said: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”

It’s interesting to consider whether Socrates needed to die to be remembered for his philosophy and method. The consensus at the U3A group seemed to be that he did.

Tinkering with the system won’t help reinvent the purpose of education

In OLDaily this week, Stephen Downes, in a comment on a post by Sasha Thackaberry, makes what to me is an astute point – that the future of education is not the same thing as the future of colleges. This was the trap that the webinar hosted by Bryan Alexander, with invited speaker Cathy Davidson, fell into this week. The event was advertised as ‘reinventing education’, but for me (and I can’t find a recording of the webinar to check my perception and understanding), the discussion was more about how and what changes could be made to the existing education system (in this case the American education system).

Having followed Stephen’s e-learning 3.0 MOOC at the end of last year, I know that he has done a considerable amount of ‘out of the box’ thinking about the future of education, and has recently made at least two, that I know of, presentations about this. See:

This thinking is very much influenced by his knowledge of advancing technologies and how these might be used to ‘reinvent education’ but it is not only influenced by technology. For the e-learning 3.0 MOOC these are the questions that we discussed:I regard myself to be adequately proficient with technology, but I don’t have the skills, as things stand at the moment, to keep up with Stephen.  However, I am always interested in thinking about and discussing how our current education systems could be improved, and what we might need to do to change them. I am also particularly interested in the underlying concepts, systems and ethics, i.e. the philosophical perspective through which we view education. It seems to me essential that this should underpin any discussion around ‘reinventing education’.

Other ‘out of the box’ thinkers

Recently I find myself drawn to the thoughts of three well-known thinkers – two current and one from times past; Iain McGilchrist, Sir Ken Robinson, and Étienne de La Boétie (best friend of Michel de Montaigne).

Iain McGilchrist (in a nutshell) believes that our view of the world is dominated by the left hemisphere of the brain and that to save our civilisation from potential collapse we need more balance between the left and right hemisphere’s views of the world. I know this sounds melodramatic, but you would need to read his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, where he makes a very good case, backed up by loads of evidence, to find support for this claim. Later on this year, on a course offered by Field & Field here in the UK, I will be running a discussion group/workshop where I hope participants will share ideas about the possible implications of Iain’s work for rethinking education.

For those who are not familiar with the book, here is a Table* (click on it to enlarge) which briefly summarises some of the differences in the ways in which, according to McGilchrist, the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere view the world. The right hemisphere’s view of the world is presented in purple font; the left hemisphere’s view of the world in blue font. These statements have been culled from many hours of reading McGilchrist’s books and watching video presentations and interviews.

*I am aware that this Table is (necessarily) an over-simplistic, reductive representation of McGilchrist’s ideas. It cannot possibly reflect the depth of thinking presented in The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. It is simply an introduction to some of McGilchrist’s ideas, which might provoke a fresh perspective on whether and how we need to ‘reinvent’ education.

In relation to McGilchrist’s work, my current questions are: Do we recognise our current education system in any of this? Do we need to change our thinking about education to achieve more balance between the left and right hemisphere perspectives?

Linked to McGilchrist’s ideas (and I will qualify this below, because it would be easy to get the wrong end of the stick), another ‘out of the box thinker, for me, is Sir Ken Robinson. Like many people, I first became aware of Sir Ken Robinson in 2006, when he recorded a TED Talk which has become the most viewed of all time ( 56,007,105 views at this time). The title of this talk was ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ and the thrust of the talk was that in our education system, we educate children out of creativity.

More recently in December of last year the question of whether schools kill creativity was revisited when Sir Ken Robinson was interviewed by Chris Anderson under the title ‘Sir Ken Robinson (still) wants an education revolution’. In this podcast the same question is being discussed more than ten years later and it seems that little progress has been made in ‘reinventing education’, at least in terms of creativity.

Just as McGilchrist is at pains to stress that both hemispheres of the brain do everything, but they do them differently, for example, they are both involved in creativity but differently, so Sir Ken Robinson says that we should not conflate creativity with the arts. The arts are not only important because of creativity; through the arts we can express deep issues of cultural value, the fabric of our relationship with other people, and connections with the world around us. Creativity is a function of intelligence not specific to a particular field and the arts can make a major contribution to this, but the arts are being pushed down in favour of subjects that are dominated by utility and their usefulness for getting a job. We are now locked into a factory-like efficiency model of education, dominated by testing and normative, competitive assessment.

In 2006 Robinson told us that education was a big political issue being driven by economics. He said that most governments had adopted education systems which promote:

  • Conformity (but people are not uniform; diversity is the hallmark of human existence)
  • Compliance (such that standardised testing is a multibillion-dollar business)
  • Competition (pitting teachers, schools and children against each other to rack up credit for limited resources)

I am recently retired, so a bit out of the loop, but from my perspective not a lot has changed between 2006 and 2019, in the sense that education has not been ‘reinvented’ – notably there hasn’t been, at government and policy-making level, a change in philosophy. McGilchrist believes that our current approach, where left hemisphere thinking dominates, has significant negative implications for education;  see The Divided Brain: Implications for Education,  a post that I wrote in 2014 after hearing McGilchrist speak for the first time. Robinson believes that although some schools are pushing back against the dominant culture there is a lot more room for innovation in schools than people believe, that we can break institutional habits, and we can make innovations within the system.

But can we? What would this take? Would students and teachers be willing to risk ‘bucking the system’ to embrace an alternative, non-utilitarian philosophy of education?

I am currently reading Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful book about Michel de Montaigne – How to Live. A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer.  In this she discusses the close relationship/friendship between Montaigne and Étienne de La Boétie and, in relation to this, refers to Boétie’s treatise ‘On Voluntary Servitude’. On p.94 she writes:

‘The subject of ‘Voluntary Servitude’ is the ease with which, throughout history, tyrants have dominated the masses, even though their power would evaporate instantly if those masses withdrew their support. There is no need for a revolution: the people need only stop co-operating ….’

Reading this immediately reminded me of the introduction in 2002 of the Key Stage 2 SATs (compulsory national Standard Assessment Tests) here in the UK – the testing of 11- year olds and the start of league tables pitting school against school. Key Stage 1 SATs (tests for 7-year olds) were introduced before Key Stage 2 SATs, so these teachers of 7-year old children had already been through the process. Therefore, by the time the Key Stage 2 SATs were introduced, schools and teachers had a very good idea of their likely impact, and Key Stage 2 teachers complained bitterly. I remember thinking at the time, if all the Key Stage 2 teachers in the country downed tools and refused to deliver the SATs, then there would have been nothing the government could do, but as Sarah Bakewell points out this type of collaborative, non-violent resistance rarely happens.

The power to change

Perhaps reinventing education will have to happen from the ground up, in individual classrooms/courses and institution by institution, rather than nationally. But how will this happen when the teachers and education leaders that we now have in place are themselves a product of an education system which has not: valued creativity as discussed by Sir Ken Robinson; a right hemisphere perspective on the world, as explained by Iain McGilchrist; or a rethinking of concepts, systems and ethics needed to take a new philosophical approach to education as envisaged by Stephen Downes?

This was the type of question that I had hoped would be discussed in the ‘reinventing education’ webinar that I attended earlier this week. It goes beyond tinkering – it’s more of a paradigm shift, or as McGilchrist says, it requires ‘a change of heart’. This is how McGilchrist sums it up:

… we focus on practical issues and expect practical solutions, but I think nothing less than a change of the way we conceive what a human being is, what the planet earth is, and how we relate to that planet, is going to help us. It’s no good putting in place a few actions that might be a fix for the time being. We need to have a completely radically different view of what we’re doing here.

Listening to and Learning from the ‘Other’

For a few months now I have been struggling to understand the idea of the ‘Other’, i.e. the capitalised Other. Why is it that so many people write about it and make such a big thing of it?

Having read around it a bit – not a lot, because, from my perspective, it’s hard to find anyone who writes about it with any clarity – I am beginning to wonder if, after all, it is a very simple idea. Basically each and every person who is not me is ‘Other’, which seems obvious, so what is the issue?

As I see it, and from my reading about the French/Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), in whose work a dominant theme was the ‘Other’, there are three significant issues which make the ‘Other’ worthy of being capitalised.

  1. No man is an island, as John Donne said.

We live in relationship with all things and all people. In an interview with Rebel Wisdom Iain McGilchrist says: ‘There is no way in which I exist independently of all of you and all of the planet and of all of the people who came before me, and indeed in a strange way I am part of something that is to come. That is all not in me or in them or in some sort of gaps between us but is in the betweenness’.

This is a significant idea because it means not only that we live in relation to all other people, but that our self cannot come into being without the ‘Other’, or as Gary Goldberg wrote in a comment on a previous post (‘Attending to the Invisible Other’),  ‘Being for the Other precedes Being for oneself’. Our identity depends on being in relation to the ‘Other’.

  1. This raises the second issue, that of responsibility for the ‘Other’.

Levinas was concerned with what it means to understand the world on the basis of the ‘Other’. He stressed that we must recognise our responsibility for others, but this responsibility can strain our sense of self, because if I always see myself in relation to others, then I cannot be separate from others.  This has been interpreted by one author as follows:

‘Whenever I see the face of another person, the fact that this is another human being and that I have a responsibility for them is instantly communicated. I can turn away from this responsibility, but I cannot escape it. This is why reason arises out of the face-to-face relationships we have with other people. It is because we are faced by the needs of other human beings that we must offer justifications for our actions. Even if you do not give your change to a beggar, you find yourself having to justify your choice.’ (DK Philosophy book)

And Young (1995) writes:

I am always and always have been in relation to the Other – meaning the other person. The presence of the Other calls me to service and responsibility. The Other brings myself into being, through my separation from the Other.

The face of the Other, makes it clear that ‘I am not everything – that everything does not belong to me and that my consciousness does not encompass everything’.  Everything also belongs to the Other.

We might ignore, but cannot escape our responsibility for the ‘Other’. But what does this mean in practice? I have just spent a month in India, where it was hard not to recognise the ‘Other’ and consider what my responsibility for the ‘Other’ is. Should I, or should I not give money to this family of beggars I saw on the streets? Would that fulfil my responsibility to them? And why do we tend to focus on ‘Others’ who are extremely different to us, when our immediate neighbour is also ‘Other’? How do I prioritise my responsibility? Should I prioritise responsibility? And what forms should my responsibility take? These are the sorts of questions that consideration of Levinas’ idea of responsibility for the ‘Other’ have raised for me.

  1. This leads to the third issue. How can the ‘Other’ enter into ‘my’ world without simply being reduced to that world?

I interpret this to mean, how do I see myself in relation to others as opposed to over and above others, and how do I maintain and respect difference?

On thinking about this, I realise that we probably try and dominate the ‘Other’, in the sense of hoping for a degree of sameness, more than we think we do. If you have children, think of the number of times you might have wished that your child will be like you, at least in your values. Or if we find ourselves in a different culture, how often do we look for and value ‘sameness’, for example, being able to laugh at the same things? How comfortable do we really feel with difference? How easy do we find it to fully embrace and respect difference, without trying to mould it into sameness?

Another common denial of the ‘Other’s’ difference is when we limit the ‘Other’ to a category, e.g. race, gender, age etc. In this sense the ‘Other’ is dominated and controlled by the same, which is what Levinas was warning against.

I have found myself wondering why Levinas’ thinking about the ‘Other’ and ‘Otherness’ continues to hold people’s attention.  I have come to the conclusion that it is not so much whether or not we recognise that the ‘Other’ exists. In fact I can’t see how anyone could be unaware of the ‘Other’. Every person is a unique individual, different to every other person, so every human encounter is with the ‘Other’. It’s more about how we respond to the ‘Other’. Do we try and dominate the ‘Other’? Do we accept responsibility for the ‘Other’? Do we try to listen and learn from the ‘Other’?

Levinas invites us to listen to the voice of the ‘Other’. This, he believes, is our moral and ethical responsibility.


Michael Barnes  Introduction to Levinas, https://youtu.be/RaPNYQ_qdII

Beavers, A. (1990). Introducing Levinas to undergraduate philosophers. Colloquy Paper, Undergraduate Philosophy Association, 1–8.

Buddeberg, E. (2018). Thinking the other, thinking otherwise: Levinas’ conception of responsibility binnen de muren van een verpleegtehuis voor ouderen. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 43(2), 146–155.

Kader Düşgün, C. (2017). The Self and the Other in the Philosophy of Levinas. Mediterranean Journal of Humanities, 7(2), 243–250.

Nooteboom, B., Levinas, E., Levinas, F., & Bellow, S. (2012). Levinas, 1–8.

The Dorling Kindersley Philosophy Book

Walicki, M. (1996). Levinas for the Beginners, 1–9.

Young, B. (1995). An Introduction to Levinas.


Attending to the invisible ‘Other’

Attention is how we relate to the world and what we attend to determines what we see. At this stage in my life I am interested in how I can ensure that what I choose to attend to doesn’t blinker me to the possible implications of attending too closely to a given idea. The balance between focussing and keeping a broad perspective often seems elusive.

I’m not sure how this can be achieved, other than to be aware that there is probably always an alternative perspective and there may be things I am missing. But recently the focus of my attention means that I am noticing that a number of authors seem interested in similar ways of thinking.

Most recently my attention has been drawn to a podcast (via Mariana Funes) in which Chris Richardson interviewed Ulises Mejias, author of Off the Network.  I am already familiar with Mejias’ work having cited him in a paper co-authored and published with Mariana early last year.

In the podcast Mejias tells us that he and his co-author Nick Couldry have written a new book, soon to be published, in which they reflect on how the conversation has shifted since he wrote ‘Off the Network’. At that time, pre-Snowden and Cambridge Analytica, few people were interested in critical studies of the internet. Now there are many articles being published that are critical of the network. Mejias likes the direction things are going but still has some concerns. Whilst noting that attention has shifted from believing that companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and Amazon can do no wrong, to thinking that they need tighter controls and regulation, he doesn’t believe that this can be done by throwing more technological innovation and more algorithms (which are becoming increasingly complex) at the problem.

In their new book Mejias and Couldry consider ways in which to unmap the network and un-think these technological determinisms. They question what happens when networks no longer promote agency but instead become templates for organising and structuring society. Mejias believes that a lot of our social biases are being mediated through our social devices and that we don’t even think about this. We carry smart phones and pay our internet bills, but what goes on behind the scenes is opaque and invisible.

It is this idea of what is invisible that interests me. What are the implications of what is invisible for how we live and learn? What are the implications of not being able to see the whole picture? Mejias’ argument is that in this digital age if you are not in the network, you are invisible, you are ‘Other’. This he calls ‘nodocentrism’ – a way of thinking that becomes so dominant that it erases all other ways of thinking, ‘the rendering illegible of everything that is not a node’ (p.10 Off the Network). The network can only see nodes and only recognise other nodes.

Mejias suggests shifting our focus to the spaces between the nodes and between the lines in a network. This space is important. It is not empty, and it can influence the network, although in this interview Mejias didn’t explain how. Does the invisible actually connect the nodes in some way? This reminds me of questions and discussions about the influence of observers (called ‘lurkers’ by some) on the web. What might the influence of the invisible be?

Iain McGilchrist also writes about the spaces between, but in a different context. Mejias’ concern is with nodocentrism and that the invisible ‘Other’ is not ignored but acknowledged. McGilchrist’s concern is with the meaning of our lives and that we underestimate that we are not atomistic. In an interview with Rebel Wisdom he says: ‘There is no way in which I exist independently of all of you and all of the planet and of all of the people who came before me, and indeed in a strange way I am part of something that is to come. That is all not in me or in them or in some sort of gaps between us but is in the betweenness’.

For McGilchrist the spaces between are critical for meaning. He uses two examples to explain this. The first – an electric current. He says: An electric current is manifest between two poles, a positive pole and a negative pole; it’s not in the positive pole, it’s not in the negative pole, it’s not even in the positive pole plus the negative pole, nor is it in the space between the two poles, because that space is nothing. It’s in the whole betweenness of the two poles and what that brings about at a wholly different level.

McGilchrist’ second example is music. In the Rebel Wisdom interview, he says: ‘Music is all betweenness. Take a note A flat, what does it mean? Absolutely nothing. Take another one, a B. It means absolutely nothing. Put 30 000 of these things together and you’ve got Bach’s B minor mass – which means a hell of a lot. So, what happened there? It’s not in the notes so it must be in the spaces between the notes, but the spaces between the notes in a melody are just silence, the spaces between notes in harmony are just silence, the spaces between the beat of the rhythm are not there, so if you put a lot of things that mean nothing together, a lot of spaces that mean nothing together, you find something that means more than anything you can experience in the world. How does that happen? The answer is betweenness.’

So, for McGilchrist and for Mejias, the spaces between, whilst invisible, are redolent with meaning and highly significant to our understanding and knowledge, just as the empty space in atoms, which makes up 99.9% of their structure is significant to our understanding of matter.

Both Mejias and McGilchrist believe in the importance of being willing and able to recognise the invisible ‘Other’ – that the invisible ‘Other’ makes a significant contribution to our lives, knowledge and understanding; without an understanding of the ‘Other’ we cannot see the whole.

McGilchrist believes an understanding of the ‘Other’ to be essential for an understanding of ourselves. In his book ‘The Master and his Emissary’ he writes:

…. the self originates in the interaction with ‘the Other’, not as an entity in atomistic isolation: ‘The sense of self emerges from the activity of the brain in interaction with other selves’ (p.88).

…. An affective relationship with ‘the Other’ over distances of time and space provides the wherewithal to understand ourselves as part of a three-dimensional world – not just three-dimensional in the spatial sense, but with temporal and emotional depth, too …. (p.365)

Mejias’ understanding of the ‘Other’ and feeling invisible comes from his personal experience of being an immigrant. He has said:

‘That experience of being in this country as an immigrant, both inside and outside, having to adopt certain ways of thinking and having to erase other ways of thinking, other parts of me that cannot be rendered in this new context, I think that’s where this idea [of nodocentrism] came from.’

Mejias believes that there are things we can do politically to address this; choices are important; research will have to become more open. It’s something we need to do for ourselves.

McGilchrist believes that we need to access the world beyond words. The world ‘beyond’ ourselves (p.399, The Master and his Emissary). In the Rebel Wisdom interview, he says he thinks we can actually change things, but we each have to take it upon ourselves to be part of the change.

The strong message from both these authors seems to be the need to recognise that we may not be seeing the whole picture, either on or off line and that we should be open to the ‘Other’.

It may be that I am making links between these two authors where they don’t exist, or which don’t resonate with readers of this blog post. Perhaps the focus of my attention is such that I have failed to see the whole picture, which would be ironic. It is difficult to access a world beyond words.

But sometimes words do resonate. To end this post, here is a quote which I saw at the Kochi Biennale (Fort Kochi, Kerala, India) earlier this week, which serendipitously also references the ‘Other’, but in another context.

Virtual hyper-connectivity has paradoxically alienated us from the warm solidarities of community; that place of embrace where we can enjoy our intelligence and beauty with others, where we can ‘love’; a place where we don’t need the ‘other’ as an enemy to feel connected.

Imagine those pushed to the margins of dominant narratives speaking: not as victims, but as futurisms’ cunning and sentient sentinels. And before speaking, listening to the stone and the flowers; to older women and wise men; to the queer community; to critical voices in the mainstream; to the whispers and warnings of nature.

Anita Dube. Curatorial Note. Kochi Biennale 2019

E-Learning 3.0: The Human versus the Machine

This post is a response to a challenge set, as a result of Task 2, by Frank Polster, a fellow course participant on Stephen Downes’ MOOC, E-Learning 3.0.

Here is my challenge to all the E-Learning 3.0 cohort and a task associated with course module E-Learning 1 and 2 Conversation with George Siemens. Please comment on what fields, skills, talents, and education that you think are unique domains of humans like Stephen’s “kindness and compassion” and the skills, talents, and education required for the “ghost in the machine” that provides that alternative view.

I have given this post the Title, E-Learning 3.0: The Human versus the Machine, because that is how I have interpreted this challenge.

My response to the challenge is based on what I have learned from reading the work of Iain McGilchrist,  author of The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of The Western World. McGilchrist’s writing focusses on the differences between the ways in which the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere of the brain view and attend to the world. For example, the left hemisphere’s view of the body is as a machine. The right hemisphere’s view of the body is as a living whole in nature.

I have heard MGilchrist talk about the difference between living things and machines and have written about this before – see my post Skills for ‘Being’ in a Digital Age where I listed the differences he discussed. I will copy them here for ease of reference. According to McGilchrist these are the things that differentiate living things from machines:

  • An organism cannot be switched off. There must be an uninterrupted flow from the origins of life.
  • A machine is at equilibrium. An organism is far from equilibrium. A cell carries out millions of complex reactions every second. Enzymes speed these up to a thousandth of a second.
  • The relationship between steps and an outcome are different in machines and living organisms. In an organism there are no steps – there is a flow of process.
  • In living things there is no one-way step. Interactions are complex and reciprocal.
  • The parts of a machine are static. The parts of an organism are not static, they are constantly changing.
  • An organism is aware of the whole and corrects for it in its parts (see the work of Barbara McClintock)
  • Organisms have no precise boundaries.
  • Machines don’t generate other machines from their own body parts.
  • Machines’ code is externally generated. Organisms manufacture their own instructions.

But what is it that makes human beings unique and different to machines? My response to this (again informed by McGilchrist) is that a human being is able to relate to something ‘Other’ than itself that exist apart from us, beyond ourselves and may be ‘new’ or to some degree ‘unknown’. (A machine can only relate to what is already known.)

Priests, teachers, doctors, and similar professions do this as part of their jobs, through care, empathy, trust, altruism, kindness and compassion. They are able to put themselves in the position of the ‘Other’ and experience their experience. Human beings can experience not only their own pain, but also the pain of others. Human beings can love. We can also see all this in family relationships.

Other characteristics unique to humans are the ability to recognise and experience beauty, awe and wonder, in art, music, dance and nature, and to value wisdom, intuition, metaphor, ambiguity, uncertainty, flexibility, the implicit and the spiritual. Human beings experience emotions such as humour, fear, anger, anxiety and sadness, and affective states such as hope and optimism; they have a sense of self, an understanding of the uniqueness of the individual, and search for meaning and truth in life. They do this through embodied engagement with the world, not detached abstract contemplation of it or separation from it. Human beings can imagine, wonder and dream.

An education which values the uniquely human is one that focusses on learning the meaning of ‘Other’, recognising the value of living things, nature and the unknown, learning how to think in an embodied way, and acknowledging that thinking and feeling can’t be separated.

To think is to thank. Thinking is not made up by reason. It is not certain, unidirectional and detached. Thinking is receptive and grateful. It is relational. Mind relates to ‘to mind’, which relates to ‘to care’ again suggesting a relationship. Thinking is deeply connected with feeling (feeling probably comes first) and is an embodied way of sensing……… All thinking is dependent on the body. (From my blog post The Divided Brain – What does it mean to think?)

The second part of Frank’s challenge is – comment on the skills, talents, and education required for the “ghost in the machine” that provides that alternative view.

‘Ghost in the machine’ is not an idea I am very familiar with, but what I have read seems to imply that it questions whether there is a ghost in your machine making it work and whether you can put a ‘non-physical mind’ into a physical machine.

This of course relates to Descartes’ argument that mind and body can function separately. My understanding is that this idea of body/mind dualism has long been discredited, so I’m wondering if it is worth taking the idea of ‘ghost in the machine’ seriously, although there are scientists working on trying to understand what’s unique about humans and to replicate this in robots.

If Frank is asking what human-like skills could be adopted by a machine, then I would say only those skills that can be programmed by a human being, and that there are unique qualities of humans, as discussed above, that are immeasurable and cannot be programmed. A machine, if programmed correctly, can perform many of the tasks a human can do, but it cannot do or be programmed for the important, immeasurable tasks and qualities that are so essential for a meaningful life.

And if I am wrong and machines will ultimately be able to replicate humans, then, as I think Frank is asking, what checks should be put in place in a machine to ensure that the machine always has access to an alternative perspective. If we value what is unique about humans, then machines should be programmed to ensure that human beings are never prevented from experiencing the ‘Other’, or thinking and feeling in an embodied way.

Source of image here.

Update 11-11-18

Frank Polster has replied to this post on his blog. See http://frankpolster.com/blog/elearn30/a-response-to-jennys-e-learning-3-0-the-human-versus-the-machine/ 

See also Laura Ritchie’s response to Frank’s task and the conversation there – https://www.lauraritchie.com/2018/11/10/what_makes_us_human/#comment-57854 

And see Matthias Melcher’s post which informs this discussion – https://x28newblog.wordpress.com/2018/10/24/el30-alien-intelligence-ai/ 

Truth in a Post-Truth Age

Last week BBC Radio 4 broadcast a series of 15 minute podcasts over five days on the topic of Truth. It was noticeable that each of the five podcasts mentioned Donald Trump in one context or another, who seems to have become synonymous with the idea that the world is suffering from an epidemic of truth decay. In the first podcast we were told that an analysis of Trump’s tweets have shown that he misleads the public 7.6 times a day (this did make me wonder what counts as a 0.6 deception). However, having listened to the five podcasts (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bjz95t), it is clear that whilst Trump might be the current and most spectacular symptom of post-truth America, he is not the sole cause (Kurt Anderson, Episode 2).

The series was launched with a podcast by Dr Kathryn Murphy, Fellow in English at Oriel College, Oxford, who examined the striking contemporary parallels between Sir Francis Bacon’s 1620s essay ‘On Truth’ with today’s pressing issues. In his time, Bacon protested against ‘corrupt lovers of the lie’ and classified the intellectual fallacies of his time under four categories which he called idols:

  • Idols of the tribe – common tendencies of the human race to exaggeration, distortion and disproportion. Bacon diagnosed confirmation bias before the term existed.
  • Idols of the cave – within the mind of the individual. These are the blinkers and silos of our identities which blind us to different points of view.
  • Idols of the market place – errors arising from the false significance bestowed upon words, the imprecision of words and slippery terminology. Bacon thus anticipated the science of semantics.
  • Idols of the theatre – the human tendency to adopt authority uncritically.

Kathryn Murphy’s question was – doesn’t this all seem very familiar? In other words, this is not the first time in history that there has been confusion about the meaning of truth. But she also suggested that we might now need to add Idols of the algorithm to Bacon’s list, to name new confusions.

Bacon advocated writing in aphorisms to give us brief glimpses of possible truths which would demand active engagement, probing and testing what is read. In a post-truth world it is not that truth is dead, but that too many people refuse to engage critically with truth and test ideas. Could a tweet act like an aphorism?

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 1)

We live, we keep being told, in a “post-truth” world, suffering an epidemic of “truth decay”, but we are not the first to fear information overload, disinformation and fake news.

‘In the 1620s, the statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon opened the final edition of his Essayes, which had been the first book of their kind in English when first published in 1597, with an essay entitled  ‘Of Truth’.

He was driven by his own personal political woes but also by the preoccupations of his era: rapidly changing technology (the telescope and microscope made the world feel at once bigger and smaller); America and its inhabitants challenging European understanding and sense of identity; passionately opposing factions continuing the arguments of the Reformation; war in Europe forcing the question of just how far Britain should get involved in the Continent; and – to spread the news and unrest about it – the first organised distribution of newspapers in England had just begun.

In the second podcast in the series, Kurt Andersen, author of ‘Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History’, discusses America’s ‘iffy’ relationship with reason, rationality and empirical truth. This was an interesting podcast for a non-American, such as myself. Andersen suggested that America was created from scratch by dreamers, gold hunters and the promise of Eldorado. It was a blank slate new world for wishful thinking and fantasy, shaped by natural selection of those willing to believe in advertising eagerness and to credit the untrue because it was exciting.

In the mid 20th century America’s immersion in fantasy accelerated with the arrival of Disneyland and TV which enhanced the unreal and make-believe.  For three centuries America’s gatekeepers managed to relegate ‘nonsense’ to the fringes, but by the 1960s, they lost the will and ability to keep true and false separate. From the 1960s onwards, America (and from my perspective, not only America) has seen the growth of extreme individualism, the pursuit of happiness above all, and undiscriminating acceptance of all understanding of reality. During this time, large numbers of academics have moved away from reason and a scientific world view, to a social construction of reality in which all is equally true and false and the paradigm is one of anything goes. Factual reality is now just one option. Americans feel entitled to their own facts as well as their own opinions.

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 2)

As he unpicks the fantastical beliefs that run through America’s past and present, the writer and broadcaster Kurt Andersen asks if the US is now entering a post-truth era.

The author of Fantasyland and co-founder of Spy magazine, Kurt has spent many decades separating fact and fiction and in this essay he explores the historical roots of America’s weakness for alternative realities.

From the religious visions of the Pilgrim Fathers and Joseph Smith, to the showbiz dreams of PT Barnum and Walt Disney, the proliferation of conspiracy theories and the new age of virtual reality and internet chat rooms, Kurt tells the story of a nation in which fantasy and reality have long been intertwined.

In Episode 3, Juliet Samuel discusses the role of markets in defining truth.

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 3)

In the depths of the financial crisis of 2008, American bankers-turned-regulators met to discuss plans to restore market confidence by injecting vast quantities of cash into the failing system. “What about $1 trillion?” , Neel Kashkari is reported to have suggested. “We’ll get killed,” Hank Paulson is said to have replied. And so the figure of $700 billion was agreed, the biggest bailout in history calculated not on market truths but on political realities.

Juliet Samuel writes for The Daily Telegraph and in this essay she looks back at the recent history of financial markets to ask whether markets really are, as many economists believe, vast mechanisms geared towards discovering truth – the true price of assets, the true risks and rewards of investment and therefore the most efficient allocation of cash.

As she considers financial market failures such as the 2008 crash and the euro crisis, Juliet argues that, ultimately, there is still a compelling reason for believing that markets are as close to economic truth as we can get and it is almost impossible to beat them. Investors who try to do so, so-called “active managers” who are probably managing some of your pension fund right now, have consistently failed to get to the truth more accurately than the market. What we are learning is how and when markets can discover the truth – and when it’s simply undiscoverable.

The fourth podcast was presented by Pankaj Mishra, who discussed Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography – ‘The story of my experiments in truth’. Gandhi always kept an open mind and thought that there were at least seven points of view, but that they were not all correct at the same time and in the same circumstances.

The focus of this podcast was on the necessity, as expressed by both Ghandi and Nietzsche, to recognise that human beings can only know partial and contingent truths and perspectives; there are a multiplicity of truths and perspectives. Nietzsche thought rational truth an illusion.

In our post-truth age we agree to agree because we share the same perspective, not because of rational truth. We advance our own truth claims with our own biases and live in echo chambers which are amplified by social media. There has been ethical and epistemological breakdown, with people entrenched in different value systems and viciously hostile to each other’s truths. We rationalise and justify anything at the expense of ordinary reality. But we don’t have to remain imprisoned by our biases.

Gandhi’s message was that to see/find truth we must be prepared to hear the other side, but he rejected all claims of objective truths. Relative truth was his beacon and he thought relative truth was best found in action. We must hold fast to truth by exploring the attitudes and motives of our opponents. Man is not capable of knowing absolute truth and therefore not competent to punish. Truth in action does not admit a violence inflicted on one’s opponent. The golden rule is mutual toleration. We will never all think alike. It is openness of mind that strengthens truth in us.

Gandhi realised that an age of pluralism has the potential to degenerate into an age of nihilism.  For him truth is too important to be left to politicians, technocrats, journalists and the like. We must all strive for truth in our everyday practices of altruism, humility, compassion and self-evaluation.

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 4)

Mahatma Gandhi wrote “Devotion to this Truth is the sole justification for our existence. All our activities should be centred in Truth. Truth should be the very breath of our life.”

The final podcast in this series was by Simon Blackburn, author of the ‘Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy’ and until his retirement Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University.

Simon Blackburn’s message was that even in a post-truth world we are pretty good at judging what is true. For example, we know when it is safe to cross the road and we know that not everyone should be trusted equally about everything. On the whole we grow into being good, practical epistemologists. But we find it difficult to settle doubt ourselves. We dismiss inconvenient facts and find conspiracy theories irresistible . Bewilderment about where truth lies can be quick to set in.

Blackburn claims that the issues are more verbal than substantive. We find ways of describing things difficult. All our terms can be controversial and contested. He quotes Charles Sanders Peirce as saying that we must not begin by talking of pure ideas, we must begin with men and their conversation. We shouldn’t lose ourselves in abstract thoughts about truth, thought and reason, but look at the actual uses of words to sift out descriptions that really matter. Some descriptions have consequences and some sources of information are more trustworthy.

So long as we have thoughts and beliefs at all, we have notions of truth and falsity.

Truth beckons but it does need careful wooing. If you think knowledge is expensive, try ignorance.

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 5)

“In simple affairs of life we’re often pretty good at judging what’s true. We have designed, tested and trusted instruments to help detect whether an electrical circuit is live, whether there is petrol in the car or pressure in the tyres. Given this background of success, it is perhaps surprising to find how often scepticism about truth and about our capacities has reared its head in the history of human thought…”

So where does this series of podcasts leave us.

It seems that truth decay has happened before in history and is likely to re-occur in eras of information overload when there is a blizzard of information and disinformation and conspiracy theories can gain traction. Perhaps America’s history, in which fantasy and reality have long been intertwined, makes it particularly susceptible to truth decay, which given its position of power in the world, cannot be good for the rest of us. Financial markets can be equally irrational and unpredictable. According to Juliet Samuel, economic and financial truth is a constantly moving target and cannot remove the next crisis.

This all sounds like doom and gloom with no hope for finding truth. But as McGilchrist says (he would have been a good addition to the programme), this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to seek truth or a multiplicity of truths. For Gandhi this requires action in every day practices of altruism, humility, compassion and self-evaluation. For Simon Blackburn it requires sifting out descriptions that really matter and sources of information that are more trustworthy.

We shouldn’t give up on seeking truth. The word ‘true’ suggests a relationship between things and is related to the word trust.

McGilchrist tells us in his book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World)  that Heidegger related truth to ‘unconcealing’. It is come at by a process, a coming into being of something. It is an act, a journey, not a thing. It has degrees. It is found by removing things, rather than putting things together. Truth is process, not object.

From my perspective this means that we have work to do.  We must critically engage with it. This must surely have implications for how we live our lives in this post-truth age.

Skills for ‘Being’ in a Digital Age

I have been puzzling over George Siemens’ idea that learners need to develop ‘being skills’ if they are to cope with what it means to be human in a digital age.

George discusses this with Neil Selwyn in an interview recorded for Monash University, Australia, Faculty of Education.

George does qualify, right at the beginning of the interview, that his question ‘What does it mean to be human in a Digital Age?’ is posed from a learning in knowledge development angle. During the interview he says that technology can ‘out know’ us, artificial intelligence is taking over human roles, and that in the future technology will become a co-agent rather than an enabler; you, me, colleagues, algorithms and robots will all work together in a techno-socio distributed learning model. George tells us that learners (humans) need to learn how to participate in this and that this will be through ‘Being skills’ which, as yet, machines can’t succeed at. He says we are necessarily entering a ‘being age’ because the technological systems around us are more intelligent than we are.

My immediate thought was that this is not so much a techno-sociological issue, or even an education issue, as a philosophical, ethical issue, which will involve deep inquiry into robot and machine ethics and the nature of ‘being’.

I have recently attended an ethics day course, in which in one session we discussed robot ethics in relation to whether we can teach robots ethics – see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-41504285  and https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b098ht04 . I have also attended introduction to contemporary philosophy and epistemology courses in which we were introduced to how some of the great philosophers in our history have thought about knowledge and being. So philosophy, epistemology and ethics have all been on my mind recently.

George said that he has only just started this work, and that his ideas are still emerging/forming, but  I wondered how philosophy and ethics will fit into his future work.

I then came across this article – ‘Our Technology Is Our Ideology’: George Siemens on the Future of Digital Learning‘ –  in which the author  Marguerite McNeal (Aug 11, 2016) writes of George

Throughout his various projects, of which there are too many to track, he focuses on education’s potential to develop the capabilities that make humans unique. Affect, self-awareness and networking abilities are all traits that separate mankind from machines and will be important for work and life in an increasingly automated world.

This reminded me of what Iain McGilchrist said about the difference between living organisms and machines, on a course I attended earlier this year (see posts on The Divided Brain):

According to McGilchrist there are eight things that differentiate living things from machines:

  • An organism cannot be switched off. There must be an uninterrupted flow from the origins of life.
  • A machine is at equilibrium. An organism is far from equilibrium. A cell carries out millions of complex reactions every second. Enzymes speed these up to a thousandth of a second.
  • The relationship between steps and an outcome are different in machines and living organisms. In an organism there are no steps – there is a flow of process.
  • In living things there is no one-way step. Interactions are complex and reciprocal.
  • The parts of a machine are static. The parts of an organism are not static, they are constantly changing.
  • An organism is aware of the whole and corrects for it in its parts (see the work of Barbara McClintock)
  • Organisms have no precise boundaries.
  • Machines don’t generate other machines from their own body parts.
  • Machines’ code is externally generated. Organisms manufacture their own instructions.

For McGilchrist, things come into ‘being’ without being forced (p. 230/231 The Master and His Emissary; see reference below)

“The feeling we have of experience happening – that even if we stop doing anything and just sit and stare, time is still passing, our bodies are changing, our senses are picking up sights and sounds, smells and tactile sensations, and so on – is an expression of the fact that life comes to us. Whatever it is out there that exists apart from us comes into contact with us as the water falls on a particular landscape. The water falls and the landscape resists. One can see a river as restlessly searching out its path across the landscape, but in fact no activity is taking place in the sense that there is no will involved. One can see the landscape as blocking the path of the water so that it has to turn another way, but again the water just falls in the way that water has to, and the landscape resists its path, in the way it has to. The result of the amorphous water and the form of the landscape is the river.

The river is not only passing across the landscape, but entering into it and changing it too, as the landscape has ‘changed’ and yet not changed the water. The landscape cannot make the river. It does not try to put a river together. It does not even say ‘yes’ to the river. It merely says ‘no’ to the water – or does not say ‘no’ to the water, wherever it is that it does so, it allows the river to come into being. The river does not exist before the encounter. Only water exists before the encounter, and the river actually comes into being in the process of encountering the landscape, with its power to say no’ or not say ‘no’. Similarly there is ‘whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves’, but ‘whatever it is that exists’ only comes to be what it is as it finds out in the encounter with ourselves what it is, and we only find out and make ourselves what we are in our encounter with ‘whatever it is that exists’.”

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

For McGilchrist the way forward is to recognise the nature of the problem, that we are living in an increasingly left hemisphere dominated world. He thinks we will have to cope with profound change and that will involve our individual practical selves and training ourselves out of habits of mind. We will have to question and invert things to see if we can find truth. We will have to change the way we spend our time, by first stopping a lot of what we do, switching things off, making space, and being quiet. For McGilchrist the answer is to create a different world and change our culture.

McGilchrist didn’t mention ’being skills’, but it seems to me that his concern is that we need to find a new way of ‘being’ in this technological left-brain dominated world. His work is steeped in philosophy, ethics and scientific research.

I wonder if George’s work on ‘being skills’ will cover any of this.