Moral Foundations Critiqued

This was originally posted as a guest blog post on The Tippling Philosopher, on April 19, 2016.

What follows is largely drawn from my dissertation, which I submitted as part of the requirement for my BSc in psychology. Despite being a psychology dissertation, I did try and bring a lot of philosophy to it, or as much as an enthusiastic amateur in the midst of a psychology degree can. Likewise, due to the limited resources of being a student, getting enough participants in each sub-sample was difficult, so the results here can only be seen as indicative (and hopefully deserving of further research).

It may help, in the first instance, to explain the history of the project. As with many other people that consider themselves liberal, I was interested in, and a little discomfited by Jonathan Haidt’s work on Morality. (If you’re not familiar with Haidt’s work, I’d suggest watching this TED talk[i], or reading his book ‘The Righteous Mind’… It’s fine. I can wait). Liberals, and particularly those that would also call themselves skeptics, do generally seem to be a little more interested in making sure that their beliefs comport with current science, and Haidt, as current science on morality, was disconcerting. I’ve since spoken to a number of people in the atheist/humanist sphere, here in London, and found variations on a theme of discomfort, or a shaky, ideologically-driven disregarding/discrediting of Haidt’s work. The idea that conservatives have five flavours of morality (namely in-group/loyalty, authority, purity (sacredness), harm, and fairness) compared to liberals’ two (harm and fairness) just did not fit with my beliefs about my morality. It did not fit because of my concerns with too many instances of conservative morality being immoral to my way of thinking. (I have tended to call myself a liberal, though leftist or progressive is probably more accurate.) So I set out to find ways to test whether my discomfort was with Haidt’s results and their implications, or if it was purely a matter of ego.



Figure 1: Shalom Schwartz’s (1992) model of values, as presented in Maio, et al. (2014).


Initially I had planned to look at people’s position on an individualist/collectivist scale as well as Bob Altemeyer’s (1981)[ii] RWA scale, as compared to their position on Haidt’s model. RWA stands for Right Wing Authoritarianism, which could be seen as begging the question when trying to debunk what I considered to be a right-leaning scale, but Altemeyer (2006)[iii] is at pains to explain that the scale does find Left Wing Authoritarians, too… if anything this just illustrates the deficiencies of the left/right dichotomy. I say “initially planned…”, because then I met with my supervisor, Ulrike Hahn, and after a bit of discussion she pointed me to her work, with Gregory Maio, using Shalom Schwartz’s (1992[iv]) model of Human Values. This turned out to be important for two reasons:

1) It’s a really good model, that seems to present a complete picture of available human values, from which we individually derive our morality; it has lots of supporting work, generated through years of collecting samples from all over the world, and;

2) It turns out that it was one of the scales that Haidt had used to generate his model (Haidt used a short version of the RWA scale, too).

After reading up on Schwartz, and reading Haidt a little more thoroughly, I came to the conclusion that approximately one quarter of Schwartz’s model was not represented in Haidt’s, and that the quarter that was missing (openness to change) was the quadrant that was most representative of left wing values. If you know Haidt’s work you will be aware that he has added a sixth flavour, Freedom, to include Libertarians. Freedom does appear in the quadrant that I felt that Haidt had excluded (see table). So, with my presumption already partially supported by Haidt’s own work, I set about coming up with a way of confirming my hunch that Haidt’s intention to consciously represent conservative American politics had skewed his model (given that, on many measures, America is an outlier, e.g. Gregory Paul’s (2009) successful societies scale)[v]. The approach I took was to look at the way in which people defined values between Schwartz and Haidt, to see if any of Haidt’s flavours were over-represented, and any of Schwartz’s values were under-represented when comparing the two directly.


UNIVERSALISM: Wisdom, World of Beauty, World at Peace, Unity with Nature, Social Justice, Protection of the Environment, Broad-Minded, Inner Harmony, Equality BENEVOLENCE: True Friendship, Mature Love, Responsibility, Meaning in Life, Loyalty, Helpfulness, Honesty, Forgiving, A Spiritual Life
SELF-DIRECTION: Choosing Own Goals, Creativity, Curiosity, Independence, Freedom TRADITION/CONFORMITY:Politeness, Self-Discipline, Honour Parents and Elders, Obedience, Respect for Tradition, Moderate, Humble, Devout, Accepting my Portion in Life, Detachment
STIMULATION/HEDONISM:Exciting Life, Varied Life, Pleasure, Daring, Enjoying Life. SECURITY: Health, Family Security, Social Order, Cleanliness, Reciprocation of Favours, Sense of Belonging, National Security
ACHIEVEMENT: Intelligent, Capable, Successful, Ambitious, Influential POWER: Social Recognition, Wealth, Authority, Preserving Public Image, Social Power
Table 1: Representation of Shalom Schwartz’s (1992) model of values, including all of the values that make up each of the ten basic values (or goals) in the circumplex model.


It also seemed to make sense to see if there was another reason why liberals rely so much on harm and fairness, where, to conservatives, these are on par with in-group/loyalty, authority, and purity. As part of my reading I had also looked at George Lakoff’s ‘Moral Politics’, which uses his theory of metaphor (Lakoff, 1980)[vi] to describe the differences between liberal and conservative politics. At one point Lakoff (2002, p. 60-61)[vii] details 10 different conceptions of fairness, so I decided to see if the liberal preference for fairness could be explained by a more in-depth understanding of fairness. Whilst my attempt to show a difference with regard to harm, wasn’t well designed, my test for defining fairness worked pretty well.


Haidt’s Flavours vs. Schwartz’s Values

Moral theorizing in psychology, according to Haidt (& Joseph, 2007)[viii], has a Western, Liberal and Secular bias. His response has been to look at morality by focusing on “issues related to binding groups together” (Graham, Haidt & Nosek, 2009, p. 1044)[ix]. In light of this view, Jonathan Haidt (2001[x]; 2007[xi]) and several colleagues (e.g. Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009; Haidt, Graham, & Joseph, 2009[xii]), suggest that the moral domain is made up of five moral ‘flavours,’ which, in combination, divide the population into four key groups. These flavours, when interrogated through Haidt’s Moral Foundations Questionnaire (MFQ), seem to reliably capture distinct views, but none of the five flavours that make up this model express the foremost concern of Libertarians: Liberty. Iyer, Koleva, Graham, Ditto and Haidt (2012)[xiii] sought to ameliorate this by adding Liberty to later versions. But Liberty is an inherently individualistic concern, and as such not about “binding groups together.” By contrast to this, the left side of the Schwartz (1992) model (or at least the left side in the orientation shown above, which to me happens to correspond with the left wing) contains the basic values (goals) of Self-Direction, Stimulation, and Hedonism, all of which relate to evaluations of the importance of things by and for the individual. The inclusion of stimulation as a goal also suggests an underlying need for cognition (e.g. Cacioppo & Petty, 1982[xiv]). Indeed, Iyer, Koleva, Graham, Ditto & Haidt (2012) included Cacioppo and Petty’s ‘Need for Cognition’ scale in their exploration of Libertarian morality and found that Libertarians scored highest, followed very closely by Liberals, with Conservatives bringing up the rear (note that here Libertarian, Liberal, and Conservative are such, as defined by responses to the MFQ, not self-selection).

Sam Harris has had a reasonably public disagreement with Haidt on this and other matters[xv]. Whilst I disagree with Harris on a great number of things, here I think he is on the money. Harris (2011)[xvi] suggests that conservatives may intuitively express harm and fairness through in-group, authority, purity; and indeed Haidt’s work is predicated on his own Social Intuitionist model (Haidt, 2001). As such, Liberals may see elements of harm/fairness within in-group/authority/purity. This could suggest a form of motivated reasoning (see Hahn & Harris, 2014[xvii], for an overview), such as Kahan, et al.’s (2007) “Identity-Protective Cognition” (p. 465[xviii]). In other words; liberals, not being as motivated by stereotypically conservative values, are motivated to find a way to make questions in the MFQ about harm and fairness. This is problematic for the intuitionist as it suggests greater involvement of reasoning. Furthermore, if Harris is correct, liberals would express harm and fairness through such values as stimulation, self-direction, and hedonism (which is both the avoidance of pain as well as the seeking of pleasure), and these do not appear in the MFQ. Indeed, these three values seem to capture liberalism’s core: “freedom of expression and action, and freedom from religious or ideological constraint” (Blackburn, 2008[xix]).

Another issue for Haidt’s intuitionism is that individuals bring two potentially contradictory sets of information to a questionnaire about values, morals, and moral systems. The first is the explicit system to which the individual believes that their personal system belongs; the religious or political affiliation with which they identify. The second is the implicit system, which is how they actually respond to moral questions, whether captured by the MFQ, or other questions. There is a third response-set, not addressed here: how an individual actually behaves in a morally salient situation. Bob Altemeyer (2006), in his work on Authoritarianism, points out that behaviour, and not a score on a test, shows how one actually is. Graham, et al. (2011, p. 17, note 3[xx]) make the same distinctions. This is odd, as intuitionism relies on the difference between explicit and implicit, and whether or not an individual is correct that their implicit (intuition-led) beliefs accord with their explicit (stated) belief structure. Simply comparing participants’ claimed political and religious beliefs with their results from the MFQ illustrates this.


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Table 2: Participants’ results as defined by the Moral Foundations Questionnaire, left, and simple demographic self-selection.


According to the MFQ my sample was 40% Secular Liberal, 19% Libertarian, 15% Religious Left, and 7.5% Conservative, with 17.5% ‘Other’ (presumably some of whom are either fiscally or socially conservative, but not both). By simple self-selected Religio-Political Orientation my sample was 30-49% Secular Liberal, 8-30% Libertarian, 14-31% Religious Left, and 12-29% Conservative. There’s not a whole lot of agreement going on there, a wide range in those headings, and Libertarians are disproportionately represented. It should be noted that Haidt and colleagues state that the MFQ is not diagnostic. Just as well, really.

So, ignoring political or religious orientations, how did people define the segments of Schwartz’s model using Haidt’s moral flavours? If comparing values with morals strikes you as not exactly apples with apples, consider the definition of values that motivates Schwartz’s model: Values are (1) beliefs about (2) goals or behaviours, that are (3) trans-situational, and (4) evaluative of individuals, acts, and occurrences that (5) stand in relation to each other and thereby (6) establish an implicit moral system (Schwartz, 1992; Schwartz & Bilsky, 1987[xxi]; 1990[xxii]). What this implies is that any given moral should have one value that is more strongly associated with it than others, and this should bring out the difference between implicit and explicit beliefs. Furthermore, this should get to the intrinsic, intuition-led morals of an individual, rather than their explicit system (assuming there is any difference between these), and this should favour Haidt’s intuitionism.


duval 2

Table 3: So, which of the values along the top is the most important for describing the moral concern on the left?

It turns out that more than 40% of all participants agreed that harm/care was best exemplified by self-transcendence (benevolence or universalism); authority/subversion by self-enhancement (achievement or power); and both loyalty and sanctity by conservation (security, conformity, and tradition). Notice that openness (self-direction, stimulation, hedonism) is not even in the game, coming last or second-to-last in defining all of Haidt’s flavours. Not only this, but openness was behind conservation in every single value. It seems likely that the inclusion of ‘freedom’ would change this picture. Of the two flavours that featured highest under openness, fairness is one (supporting my hypothesis), but curiously purity (sanctity/degradation) is the other. If pushed, I would suggest that this has more to do with the degradation aspect (with reference to hedonism) than the sanctity aspect.
duval 3

Figure 2: Percentage of each moral flavour, as represented by each value quadrant (compiled from individual responses at the value level). Which value quadrant is therefore best represented by the MFQ, and which the least?


So, I seem to have established that none of Haidt’s flavours represent openness. Or, if you prefer, none of the values represented by openness are dominant components of harm-care, fairness-cheating, loyalty-betrayal, authority-subversion, or sanctity-degradation (aka purity). Further, it seems that fairness is in some way a meta-value, appearing approximately equally in all four values, which supports Sam Harris’ contention, though these results suggest that conservatives also agree to some extent, that fairness is a means by which all values are expressed, which would be contrary to Harris’ view. Fairness was most strongly represented in self-transcendence. This makes sense, as that seems to be the meeting place for secular and religious liberals (which is as far as Haidt goes in representing the left), and explains why the left relies on it. To clarify, under the heading of self-transcendence are the values of benevolence (a more religiously oriented value), and universalism (a more secular value). To illustrate how benevolence is religious and universalism secular, consider the difference between the Golden Rule (central to much religious thought, and ignoring individual difference), and Karl Popper’s Platinum Rule (1966, p. 386), “The golden rule is a good standard which can perhaps even be improved by doing unto others, wherever possible, as they would be done by.” Consider also Rawls’s (1971)[xxiii] ‘Original Position’ wherein one would apply rules to society before knowing what place one inhabits within that society. In both cases we are employing an individual’s understanding of other people’s likely preferences to define right action, rather than expecting them to conform to some more general (social, group-binding) standard.

On this matter of fairness, then: if it is approximately equally represented by all of Schwartz’s values, and of key importance to liberals under Haidt’s conception of moral flavours (and his conception of liberals), how do liberal, conservative, secular and religious individuals discuss fairness?

To look at this, as mentioned, I used the 10 types of fairness put forth by Lakoff (2002, p. 60-61) in his book, Moral Politics:

  1. Equality of Distribution (e.g. one child, one cookie)
  2. Equality of Opportunity (e.g. one person, one raffle ticket)
  3. Procedural Distribution (e.g. playing by the rules determines what you get)
  4. Rights-based Fairness (e.g. you get what you have a right to)
  5. Need-based Fairness (e.g. the more you need, the more you have a right to)
  6. Scalar Distribution (e.g. the more you work, the more you get)
  7. Contractual Distribution (e.g. you get what you agree to)
  8. Equal Distribution of Responsibility (e.g. we share the burden equally)
  9. Scalar Distribution of Responsibility (e.g. the greater your abilities, the greater your responsibilities)
  10. Equal Distribution of Power (e.g. one person, one vote)

As expected under my hypothesis, both the left-leaning and the secular participants relied on more ways of conceptualizing fairness to decide whether something is moral (eight and nine, respectively), than the centrists, moderates, and the religious (between four and six).

There were three conceptions of fairness that were common to all political persuasions (though not necessarily to the same degree):

  1. Equality of distribution
8. Equal distribution of responsibility
10. Equal distribution of power

Furthermore, both leftists and centrists agreed that ‘Contractual Distribution’ was important. The right did not. The left and the right agreed on ‘Rights-based fairness’, centrists did not.

There were three conceptions of fairness that were common to all religious persuasions (again, not necessarily to the same degree):

  3. Procedural distribution
7. Contractual distribution
8. Equal distribution of responsibility

The religious (but not monotheistic) considered ‘scalar distribution of responsibility’ to be important; here the secularists agreed with the monotheists. They also agreed on ‘equality of distribution’, ‘equality of opportunity’, and ‘equal distribution of power,’ the non-monotheistically religious did not.

At this point I am departing from my original work and theorizing based on the results, and my own subsequent thinking on the matter.



If these fairnesses are part of a meta-value (or motivation) of fairness, then maybe we can apply them to the types of discourse they relate to. To my way of thinking politics is exemplified by the Schwartz values of power and security, and politics brought out ‘equal distribution of power’, and ‘equality of distribution’ as definitional conceptions of fairness. This seems to imply that a primary issue for security is equality of distribution (the previously mentioned ‘Successful Societies Scale’ by Gregory Paul would tend to support this). So if that’s political fairness, what of religious fairness?

Schwartz (2012)[xxiv] noted that Spirituality was originally tested as a universal value, but failed to achieve consistency across cultures, and in the samples where it did show up, the underlying values were split between Benevolence and Tradition (Schwartz, 1994[xxv]). These are social-oriented values, not individual-oriented. Nelson (2009)[xxvi] notes that Spirituality is generally used to denote the personal side of transcendent experience. However, Spirituality and Religion are often used interchangeably – though there are movements based on a distinction, e.g. ‘spiritual, but not religious’ (Fuller, 2001[xxvii]; Gallup, 2003[xxviii]) – it may be that religion is spirituality in light of society, and is expressed in light of or through benevolence and tradition (Saroglou, Delpierre & Dernelle, 2004[xxix]). I suggest that religion has done a good job of co-opting the term ‘spiritual’. Whilst religion may be a path to spiritual experience for people, it is primarily about the “binding together of groups”. It should be noted that Schwartz does not agree with me on this distinction (personal correspondence, 2015).

It is interesting that the fairnesses that relate to religious views (including secular) were contractual and procedural distribution. Respectively, “you get what you agree to” and “playing by the rules determines what you get.” Or, in more overtly Christian language, ‘accept God/Jesus/The Holy Spirit into your life and you’ll go to heaven, don’t and you’ll go to hell,’ and ‘be good and you’ll go to heaven, don’t and you’ll go to hell.’ These seem to be more related to the value of conformity and tradition than benevolence, they also seem to imply a social contract, which suggests an underlying (and unstated) politics.

As the reason for looking at fairness was to establish why liberals place fairness in high regard, to the exclusion of in-group/authority/purity, it is interesting to note that the left, generally, agreed on the importance of all conceptions of fairness but for ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘contractual distribution’, where the secular agreed on all conceptions of fairness but ‘scalar distribution of responsibility’. ‘Equal distribution of responsibility’ was agreed upon as important by all sub-samples, regardless of political or religious orientation, so we can maybe put that to one side as a central or unifying conception of fairness.

What all this seems to mean is that the values either not represented or under-represented by Haidt – stimulation, hedonism, and achievement, universalism and self-direction – may have the remaining types of fairness associated with them.

I take stimulation, hedonism, and achievement to be both the private aspect of religion (aka spirituality, self-discovery, etc.) and, as outlined elsewhere, definitional of both liberals in particular, and the left more generally. On the other hand, universalism and self-direction, I would group under the heading of self-governance (for want of a better term), and these are also values held to by the left, in general, but also by at least some self-professed progressives, and anarchists, and libertarians.

So can these be seen to relate to ‘equality of opportunity’, ‘rights-based fairness’, ‘need-based fairness’, ‘scalar distribution’, and ‘scalar distribution of responsibility’ (the fairnesses that weren’t agreed upon by religion and politics)? Or is there some other relationship? For example, Scalar Distribution (e.g. the more you work, the more you get) is in direct conflict with Scalar Distribution of Responsibility (e.g. the greater your abilities, the greater your responsibilities) – which seems very much like the libertarian ‘taxes are theft’ argument explained as an issue of conflicting conceptions of fairness. This seems to relate to achievement, as scalar distribution, in opposition to benevolence, as scalar distribution of responsibility.

If we can assign these two forms of scalar distribution in this way, then there remains ‘equality of opportunity’, ‘rights-based fairness’, and ‘need-based fairness’ to be matched up to self-direction, stimulation, and hedonism, or maybe there are still more conceptions of fairness to be considered, and other ways of relating them to values. At a rough guess, I would anticipate that self-direction seems a natural match to ‘equality of opportunity’ in that if we all have access to things, we can choose which things have meaning and value to us. Stimulation, then, matches up with ‘need-based fairness’, because it is through stimulation that one becomes aware of needs (the feelings of hunger and thirst, and so forth). Finally, and purely by a process of elimination, hedonism would therefore be attached to ‘rights-based fairness’. An attempt to harmonise this might be that rights are predicated, at least in part, on needs, and hedonism is predicated on the pleasantness or unpleasantness of stimulation.

This is already a long piece, so I’ll wrap up by saying that I have created an updated version of Schwartz’s model that reflects the above, and more. If there is interest, I will be happy to do a follow-up that introduces and discusses that. At the very least I will explain why I stopped using the term hedonism, from Schwartz’s model, and discuss what I have put in its place.


[i] Jonathan Haidt’s TED talk:

[ii] Altemeyer, B. (1981). Right-Wing Authoritarianism. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.

[iii] Altemeyer, B. (2006). The Authoritarians. Winnipeg: Available here:

[iv] Schwartz, S. H. (1992). Universals in the content and structure of values: Theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 25(1), 1265. Available here:

[v] Paul, G. (2009). The chronic dependence of popular religiosity upon dysfunctional psychosociological conditions. Evolutionary Psychology, 7(3), 147470490900700305. Available here:

[vi] Lakoff, G. Johnson, M. (1980). The metaphorical structure of the human conceptual system. Cognitive Science, 4(2), 195-208. Available here:

[vii] Lakoff, G. (2002). Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think (2nd Ed.). London: University of Chicago Press. Relevant section viewable here: pg=PA386 dq=moral+politics hl=en sa=X redir_esc=y#v=onepage q=Scalar%20Distribution%20of%20Responsibility f=false

[viii] Haidt, J., Joseph, C. (2007). The moral mind: How five sets of innate intuitions guide the development of many culture-specific virtues, and perhaps even modules. In P. Carruthers, S. Laurence, and S. Stich (Eds.) The Innate Mind, Vol. 3, 367-392. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Available here:

[ix] Graham, J., Haidt, J., Nosek, B. A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(5), 10292 1046. Available here:

[x] Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: a social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108(4), 814-834. Available here:

[xi] Haidt, J. (2007). The new synthesis in moral psychology. Science, 316(5827), 998-1002. Available here:

[xii] Haidt, J., Graham, J., Joseph, C. (2009). Above and below left–right: Ideological narratives and moral foundations. Psychological Inquiry, 20(223), 110-119. Available here:

[xiii] Iyer, R., Koleva, S., Graham, J., Ditto, P., Haidt, J. (2012). Understanding libertarian morality: The psychological dispositions of self-identified libertarians. PLOS One, 7(8), e42366. Available here:

[xiv] Cacioppo, J. T. Petty, R. E. (1982). The need for cognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42(1), 116-131. Available here:


[xvi] Harris, S. (2011). The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values. New York: Simon and Schuster. Relevant section viewable here: printsec=frontcover dq=The+Moral+Landscape hl=en sa=X redir_esc=y#v=onepage q=Haidt f=false

[xvii] Hahn, U. Harris, A. J. (2014). What does it mean to be biased: Motivated reasoning and rationality. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 41, 41-102. Available here: M2014.pdf

[xviii] Kahan, D. M., Braman, D., Gastil, J., Slovic, P. Mertz, C. K. (2007). Culture and identity-protective cognition: Explaining the white-male effect in risk perception. Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, 4(3), 465-505. Available here: context=fss_papers

[xix] Blackburn, S. (2008). Liberalism, In The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Ed., revised). Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.209.

[xx] Graham, J., Nosek, B. A., Haidt, J., Iyer, R., Koleva, S. & Ditto, P. H. (2011). Mapping the moral domain. Journal of personality and social psychology, 101(2), 366. Available here:

[xxi] Schwartz, S. H., & Bilsky, W. (1987). Toward a universal psychological structure of human values. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 550-562.

[xxii] Schwartz, S. H., & Bilsky, W. (1990). Toward a theory of the universal content and structure of values: Extensions and cross-cultural replications. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 878-891.

[xxiii] Rawls, J. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[xxiv] Schwartz, S. H. (2012). An Overview of the Schwartz Theory of Basic Values. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1). Also available here:

[xxv] Schwartz, S. H. (1994). Are there universal aspects in the structure and contents of human values? Journal of Social Issues, 50(4), 19-45. Available here:,%20S.%20H.%20(1994).%20Are%20there%20universal%20aspects%20in%20the%20structure%20and%20contents%20of%20human%20values_%20Journal%20of%20Social%20Issues,%2050(4),%2019-45.pdf

[xxvi] Nelson, J. M. (2009). Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality. New York: Springer Science + Business Media, LLC. DOI: 10.1007/97820238728757326_1

[xxvii] Fuller, R. C. (2001). Spiritual, but not religious: Understanding unchurched America. Oxford University Press.

[xxviii] Gallup, G. H. (2003). Americans’ Spiritual Searches Turn Inward. In Gallup: Religions and Social Trends. Retrieved April 14, 2016, from

[xxix] Saroglou, V., Delpierre, V. & Dernelle, R. (2004). Values and religiosity: A meta-analysis of studies using Schwartz’s model. Personality and Individual Differences, 37(4), 721-734. Partially available here:’s_Model

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Balls! 2 (Balls on the Brain)

This is a crosspost from my weekly guest blog post at The Tippling Philosopher. I will be moving more of the material that is posted there over here in the coming weeks.


Some folks got quite exercised about the “cliffhanger” ending of my post, last week.

This week I will discuss what the original target of the thought experiment actually was, how the experiment morphed into what was ultimately posted, and how I think the utility of the thought experiment has been improved both for the purpose of illustrating my original target, and for use in other areas.


The first thing to notice about the experiment was the reductionist quality. We start with two visually similar “simple” objects that exhibit different properties, but which nevertheless have many similarities, beyond just their spherical shape. Originally, my intention was to allow you, the reader, to use your own imagery to provide one such spherical object – and indeed that is still in the post. However, I decided to provide the polar opposite images of bubbles and ball bearings, not least for the pleasing alliteration.

As with the scientific method, the reductionism in this thought experiment allows us to get rid of the complex features of real-world examples, allowing us to focus on the essential features of the target objects. We can then add the other features back in, and see what happens.

A quick restatement

To begin with, we looked at what would happen in the case of many millions of such objects, crammed together on a flat plane (again, attempting to keep things simple). Then we looked at what would happen to such a collection of “identical” objects if they were to be impacted on one of their leading edges. Of course, immediately we notice that the objects cannot be truly identical as they all inhabit slightly different locations in space, and some are on the outside edge, whilst others are in from the edge.

The intention was to keep these spheres uniform, but the moment you introduce location, you introduce some degree of identity. Furthermore, unless we completely ignore physics (which we absolutely can do in a thought experiment) there will be different types of pressure being exerted on these spheres, depending upon their location on the group. Those on the outer edge experience the least pressure from the group, but are the most open to incursion from outside.

Very quickly, with minimal additional complexity, we have rebuilt concepts of identity, context, and structure. The idea of incursion from outside the group – whether from foreign objects or from clusters of former members of the same group – highlighted further the ideas of identity, context and structure. In addition, the idea of incursion by former members of the group showed the interaction between group membership and contextual complexity. In other words, the fact of an additional individual entity alters the properties of other such entities, the addition of more entities eventually leads to more groups, and both alter the environment in which they exist.

The Original Target

My original target for this thought experiment was the human brain. I wanted to illustrate the logical structure that underpins thought, both rational and irrational, with the intent to do away with the trope about how intelligence cannot arise from matter. The spherical objects, with whatever properties you dreamt up, were going to stand in for neurons that we could get to behave in fairly uniform ways, at least to begin with. So, what I will do now is develop the thought experiment in the intended direction, and then bring it back around to explaining just why it might be so useful in highlighting interactions and behaviours in other, erm, spheres.

Somewhere between a bubble and a ball bearing is a spherical object which is more solid than a bubble, but with more give than a ball bearing. Let’s go with a baseball (sticking with the alliteration already established). So lets add this third spherical object to our ontology, in order to talk about brains.


Image from: Psychology Today

The Matrix

The bubbles, ball bearings, and baseballs, exhibit particular behaviours when collected together in a single homogenous group on a flat plane. In all cases we end up with some kind of matrix. In the case of bubbles, because they have a flexible outer surface, a honeycomb-like structure will form. In the case of the ball bearings, because they don’t as readily deform, we get a tightly packed collection, depending upon the amount of pressure that is maintaining the group perimeter. A baseball will deform a little bit, on for or six sides, depending upon whether the rows of balls are offset, and they will not deform as much as a bubble and, like a ball bearing, the baseball is unlikely to burst.

As mentioned previously, individual bubbles are more likely to break if something impacts them, depending upon the viscosity of the film that encapsulates the gaseous interior. There is some transference of the energy of the impact radiated out to surrounding bubbles, but it is quickly dampened (especially if the impact is from other bubbles). By contrast, in the case of the mass of ball bearings, the energy of the impact radiates out, potentially traveling all the way through the mass, with the possibility of bearings coming away from the mass on opposing side(s) to the impact (like a Newton’s cradle). With baseballs, such an impact would radiate out in fairly predictable ways, similar to the ball bearings, and the energy being transmitted would be dampened as the energy passed from ball to ball, much like bubbles.

With a matrix of near-identical spheres, what happens when it is impacted at several points at the same time?

Well, depending on the features of that which is impacting it (quite possibly more spheres of the same type), energy would be transferred from the points of impact through the mass, sometimes cancelling energy “signals” being transmitted from other sides, sometimes reinforcing the transmission from nearby impacts. Such activity could be seen to cause weaker bubbles or ball bearings to collapse, making way for stronger ones to “survive”. Or maybe you’re prepared to allow that the bubbles to develop tougher exteriors, or the ball bearings to develop a more malleable centre. Whether you allow for selection by the collapse of the weaker specimens, or for the gradual alteration of the properties of the specimens themselves, you will end up with something somewhat like a baseball, with a tough exterior, but the ability to absorb shocks by having a more compressible centre. Unlike a baseball, however, it’s likely that a midpoint between bubbles and ball bearings would have a stickiness like the soap film of a bubble or the possible magnetism of a ball bearing. How you come to make your baseball sticky is entirely up to you.

The Brain

When it comes to the brain, there are a fairly circumscribed number of entry points. Which is to say, the impacts or incursions mentioned so far have been completely random in nature whereas, for a brain, such incursions come only from a few sources, and the signals from those impacts dissipate across the mass in a similarly circumscribed set of ways. Recall that I mentioned that two impacts near to each other could reinforce or cancel each other’s signals. This is analogous to excitatory and inhibitory nerve signals. If particular patterns of signals predominate, then the mass is going to orient in a way to dissipate that energy across the mass as efficiently as possible. Balls may stick together more through repeated impaction, and equally, balls that are not in the path of energy dissipation may lose their stickiness to nearby balls that are using that stickiness as a resource for survival.

We have location, and thus identity, context, and structure, and we have tapped into this further by having signals only entering the mass through certain points. It may be that structures, having become optimized for these directional “signals”, as described above, but such a system may also come to process correlational information. This is to say that a structure that is suboptimal for either of two signals, but mostly suitable for either of two signals that are often repeated, will do better than a structure that is optimised for one, and not the other. This could be used to explain why it’s hard to not see faces when there are two points either side of vertical line formed by the combination of a somewhat vertical line, and the centre of a horizontal line. Face detection is optimized, by correlation, our ability to consider the elements of the face separately, especially once we’ve seen a face is, vecause of that, sub-optimal.


Fundamentally, almost anything can be described in this simplified (but not actually simplistic) way. It highlights the interactions between similar entities, but equally it highlights just how much of the behaviour at the complex level is predicated on “behaviour” at a simple level. I could as easily describe the action of water flowing over stone in terms of simple spheres that, while softer, are greater in number and velocity, and that stone will therefore erode, and the water will optimize it’s path accordingly. I can describe the actions within a cell, then within the life form that contains that cell, then the planet on which that life form resides.

The important thing to note is that bubbles are made up of smaller bubbles… or maybe smaller ball bearings! As such, I’m not standing on the edge of an infinite regress – we know the levels at which we can describe entities. For example, these simplified spheroids can be engaged to discuss things at the molecular level, then the cellular, then per organ, and then per organism, and so on up. Indeed, a number of papers have described the fuzzy boundaries of social groups in terms of the permeability of the cell-wall (Dechesne, Janssen & van Knippenberg, 2000[i]; Ellemers, Spears & Doosje, 1997[ii]), and even extended the concept to a “sociocultural homeostasis” (Damasio, 2010[iii]).


As I mentioned at the start of the original post, this is but the start of an attempt to build a thought experiment that allows us to talk in simple terms about complex things (as such, I wouldn’t use th word viscosity when trying to use this as an xplanatory tool for children). Primary amongst my aims was to be able to talk about the interactions between these “identical” spheroids in the terms of folk physics, thereby making an explanation grounded in this idea accessible to almost anyone. The intent being to make it a useful, not actual “lie-to-children”, but an appropriate level of simplification for all laypeople of any given (though probably mostly scientific) subject.


[i] Dechesne, M., Janssen, J., & van Knippenberg, A. (2000). Derogation and distancing as terror management strategies: The moderating role of need for closure and permeability of group boundaries. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 923.

[ii] Ellemers, N., Spears, R., & Doosje, B. (1997). Sticking together or falling apart: In-group identification as a psychological determinant of group commitment versus individual mobility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72(3), 617.

[iii] Damasio, A. (2010). Self comes to mind: Constructing the conscious brain. Random House LLC.

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This is a crosspost from my weekly guest blog post at The Tippling Philosopher. I will be moving more of the material that is posted there over here in the coming weeks.

What follows is my first crack at developing a thought experiment (cos that’s so “in” right now) that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Feel free to critique, reject, mock… whatever works for you.


Thought Experiment

Imagine a simple thing, a sphere of some kind. Now imagine lots of them, lying gathered on a flat surface. It could a bubble, or it could be a ball bearing, whatever.


Image from: Mike Davies Bearings

Yes, you can argue that there’s not much that is simple about a sphere, but we’ll get to that later.

When I said “lots of them”, I meant a whole bunch of whatever you’ve conjured up (see image above). And I mean identical, actually identical (unlike that one individual in the image above). This is possible in thought experiments, even if not in real life. Again, we’ll get to that in a bit.

Imagine them gathered together on a flat surface, so, in two dimensions, not three… just for now.

If you imagined something like a bubble, then millions and millions of them pressed up against each other will be distorted in uniform ways, and you end up with a honeycomb-like structure. However, if something were to collide against one side of this mass of bubbles, the nearest ones would deform until they break. Only some of the pressure will be dispersed to neighbouring bubbles.


Image from: UniSci

If you imagined something like a ball bearing, then millions and millions of them pressed up against each other will retain their shape. However, if something were to impact against one side of this mass of ball bearings, the furthest ones would break away from the group as the pressure is translated through the neighbouring ball bearings with little deformation of the spheres themselves.

These differences in the basic characteristics of the spheres are what we might call identity.



A problem that arises from the idea that a whole bunch of spheres are completely identical is that no two things are completely identical. If they are identical, they are the same thing (This is a restatement of Leibniz’s Identity of Indiscernibles[i]). Of course, colloquially, when we say identical, we don’t mean actually identical, we mean sufficiently similar for the differences to be overlooked for the purposes of whatever is being discussed.

We might expect that a bubble might be larger, thereby containing more air. If it is made of a fluid with higher viscosity it will remain intact, if not, it will burst before achieving that capacity. Variations in concentrations of key characteritics of the bubble will change what kind of bubble it is. By contrast, it would only take a few changes to a ball bearing for it to no longer be a ball bearing; more impurities or a different admixture of elements would make it weaker, and no use as a ball bearing.

In both cases a collision will cause a change to the collective. They will translate the impact from the sphere nearest the impact, like ripples in a pond, radiating outwards. In the case of the bubbles, those nearest the collision will absorb as much of the impact as they can – and may burst – depending upon the strength (viscosity) of the enveloping fluid. This will happen in concentric rings radiating out from the point of impact until the energy of the impact dissipates, or the bubble bursts. The ball bearings will translate the force of the impact through the collective, and the bearings on the far edge(s) will spin away from the collective, forming their own smaller collectives.



As I mentioned above, you could argue that spheres are not simple. They rely on interactions between the material(s) they are made from and the environment in which they exist. This is very almost the grand point of this thought experiment… almost, but not quite.

It’s possible to imagine the impossibility of millions of identical spheres because it’s simple. We have already added some complexity, the concept of identity (or difference), but only fairly minor difference. We will be adding more complexity, which will have the impact of making it more realistic, but also harder to accurately manipulate.

If you introduce more aspects of the context to the thought experiment, the greater the chance that differences in identity will be highlighted. Under greater pressure (or more collision) more bubbles will burst, and not necessarily those that are directly impacted. In some cases a more robust bubble will translate more energy through to a less robust bubble. The less robust bubble may burst, despite being only indirectly impacted. Equally, under greater pressure, more ball bearings will fly away from the collective, and some may just disintegrate under the pressure.



As we introduce more of the context, and necessarily uncover more identity (through interaction), our mass of spheres takes on a structure. We might not recognise this as a structure in the architectural or engineering sense, but nevertheless it is. This is a direct consequence of differences in the spheres, as uncovered by the context.

Without the commonalities they would not be instances of the same thing, with broadly similar properties. Without the differences, they would all be identical, and thus couldn’t actually exist separately. These individual differences are at the root of complexification. If you ignore the finer details your collective is more like the ball bearings, if you include the finer detail your collective is more like the bubbles.


Image from: All Mac Wallpaper


So far, none of this has required the interference of an intelligence. We are talking about simple objects interacting in a simple context. The complexity is derived from repeated and changing interaction drawing out, or even creating, finer and finer details. The repeated and changing interaction is a product of the changing identity of the individuals, and the group and, eventually, the increase in the number of groups, which changes the environment.


Schisms and Reformations

As we have seen, in the case of the ball bearings, impacts cause the furthest edge(s) to hurtle away from the group. The bubbles are less likely to have sections come away from the collective, though it is not impossible. Because of this, the mass of ball bearings are more likely to have things in their environment to collide with; namely, former members of the collective.

As it happens, the ball bearings that fly away from the collective do so due to their location in the collective. This might be due to their individual features, but that is unlikely. Ball bearings that are significantly different tend to disintegrate under the constant pressure of their neighbours rather than changing neighbourhoods within the collective. As such, whilst such clusters of former members may be, and probably are, the source of future collisions, it is absolutely possible for such former members to rejoin. This is especially the case if the ball bearings have something like magnetism as one of their features.

Bubbles, conversely, relying upon viscosity to retain their shape, and being more inclined to yield to pressure, are more likely to reform, allowing the former members to rejoin the collective.


The Experiment So Far

  • We have collections of spheres, some like bubbles, some like ball bearings, but identical within their respective groupings… at least at first.
  • We have slowly introduced more context, and this has driven greater differentiation within the groups of heretofore “identical” spheres.
  • This differentiation has given rise to differing behaviours that has, in turn, given rise to other smaller groups of also identical objects.
  • These satellite objects were more likely in the case of the ball bearings, and less likely (but not impossible) in the case of the bubbles.
  • These, in turn, in the case of the ball bearings, give rise to more collisions, some of which may lead to the satellite groups rejoining the collective, and some of which might lead to further satellites coming away from other parts of the collective. In the case of the bubbles, it is much more likely that they will rejoin the collective.


The Questions

I’d be interested to hear what spherical things other people came up with, and the properties they assigned, both simple and complex.

  • What can these simple objects, and the groups that they form, be used to illustrate?
  • Do they allow for the necessary complexity to make the illustrations work?
  • At what point does it break down?



There is an argument that this does not hold at the quantum level:

“It is not just that two or more electrons, say, possess all intrinsic properties in common but that — on the standard understanding — no measurement whatsoever could in principle determine which one is which”

This requires the use of the equivocating phrases “on the standard understanding” and “in principle”. Given the enormous difficulty of studying things at the quantum level, I would suggest that this is an open question.

Additionally, given the intention to keep things fairly simple, I’m not going to digress into a discussion on decoherence and all that other fun stuff.

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Interview with Brian McLaren

Hi, Brian, thanks for agreeing to this interview.

I’d like to start, if I may, by just getting a quick overview of who you are and what you do. So, who is Brian McLaren, and what does Brian McLaren do?

I started my career as a college English teacher. Then I became the pastor of a nondenominational church for twenty-four years. For the last ten years I have been a writer and speaker on topics relating to Christianity, contemporary issues, and what a viable and constructive twenty-first spirituality might look like.


Could you give a quick run-down on the political and religious climate you were raised in, and any significant stops along the way, before your present position?

I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian setting – a small sect called the Plymouth Brethren. Then I got involved with the Jesus Movement, which was eventually folded into American Evangelicalism. Over the years I served as a pastor, Evangelicalism became increasingly the hostage or mistress of right-wing Republican politics in the US, a dysfunctional relationship that has culminated in the candidacy of Donald Trump. In the late 90’s, I became thoroughly disillusioned with this right-wing captivity of Evangelicalism and have been involved with what many call “the emerging church” or “the emergent conversation” – a conversation among thoughtful Christians (and there are parallel conversations among Jews) about shifts and changes entailed by moving from a modern, extractive, colonial cultural context to a post-modern, post-extractive, post-colonial cultural context.


I most recently came across your work in your Religious News Service article, ‘Like Katy Perry, I broke up with the conservative evangelical project.[1] Given that article, do you see your current position as a departure from Evangelicalism, a departure from American Conservatism, or both? (Or is it, more, that they have moved away from you… or is the situation somewhere in between all of these?)

Evangelicalism is my heritage, but it’s hard to tell what Evangelical means anymore. I would be more likely to call myself a progressive Christian, and would see American conservatism as being incompatible with Christian ethics as I understand them.


That article details 10 reasons why you parted ways with the “political project to which evangelicalism was giving its soul”, and it struck me that those 10 reasons wouldn’t be out of place in a secularist or moderate liberal atheist manifesto, particularly if they were former believers. That must be a sobering thought, given the years of your life that you have given to evangelicalism, and to a lesser extent, conservative politics. Do you see yourself more as trying to bring Evangelicalism on your journey, or merely stopping it from taking the journey it seems to be on, which is to say, supporting Trump (given your signature on that anti-Trump open letter[2])?

American Evangelicalism seems to me to be so fragmented and so morally compromised at this point that it’s hard to imagine any kind of coherent response from Evangelicalism as an entity. I’m more simply trying to raise my voice and articulate an alternative for younger generations of conservative Evangelicals and Catholics. (It’s important to remember that in the US, the Religious Right is composed of large numbers of conservative Catholics along with Protestants.) I think Trump would be so dangerous and disastrous nationally and globally that I can’t be silent – and I don’t want to mirror his ugly rhetoric either. So the challenge is finding ways to speak positively yet directly in this political context.


Back in 2010 you said, “It’s not hard to fall out of the good graces of the most conservative elements of any religious community.” You have been vilified by the likes of CARM’s Matt Slick[3] (who many online atheists will know), Christianity Today’s Scot McKnight[4] and Evangelical blogger Tim Challies, in his ‘The False Teachers’ series[5]. Do you see them as stalwarts of Evangelicalism, or as unwittingly being dragged along with the religio-political juggernaut that is the marriage of Evangelicalism to the GOP?

I think the conservative wings of nearly all religious communities – Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, whatever – are in an anxious state, realizing that the foundations of the world in which they were founded are being shaken. They don’t know how or if they can survive in a fast-changing environment, and so end up becoming reactionary forces, desperate for their own survival, even at the cost of the common good. Some assume that religion itself is going to go extinct, but my suspicion is that religion (the human endeavor focused on meaning-making, moral formation, and community formation) will be as needed as ever as we move forward, but needed in very different ways. So I see the people you mentioned as fulfilling the expected roles of conservative gatekeepers, a path I couldn’t in good conscience follow.


You recently said, “The version of Christianity which we have supported is perfectly designed to produce a civilization that is unsustainable, conflicted, out of balance, and vulnerable to catastrophic collapse.”[6]

Elsewhere you say, ‘The Christian faith needs to be radically converted to a new fuel. We need to be energized by something other than beliefs; because beliefs are not the point.” Not the point? That’s not to say beliefs are insignificant. They are powerfully significant, for better or worse.’[7]

Would care to expand on these ideas further?

The first third of my new book (The Great Spiritual Migration) is devoted to this subject. My suspicion is that Jesus would not feel at home in the religion that bears his name because his project by all accounts was far more radical. Rather than substituting a system of behavior and belonging called Judaism for a system of beliefs and belonging called Christianity, Jesus was proposing a way of life that would challenge and transform people across religious categories. That way of life would be centered on love. First, it would focus on love for neighbor while redefining neighbor as inclusive of stranger, outsider, outcast, and even enemy. It would also entail love for self, love for the earth and all its creatures, and in and through these other loves, love for God as the source of them all. That was, I think, the original intent and movement of what we now call Christian faith, and I think it is still vitally needed today.


A regular complaint about conservatism is that individuals who claim to be conservative only begin to understand a contrary position when aspects of their lives bring them into proximity with that which they were previously opposed. In your case, that is clearly your involvement in your son’s marriage to his same-sex partner, though your position on homosexuality had been evolving for some time by that point. How much of the conservative position is down to lack of experience, do you think? And is it just a matter of moving in social circles outside of the immediate church group, circumscribed social circle, and so forth? If so, how can that be fostered?

Yes, conservatism as I experienced it creates an echo chamber. Anyone on the inside who differs is excommunicated or marginalized and vilified, so their “anomalous data” no longer counts or is even registered. And insiders are given prejudicial categories so that in their encounter with outsiders, there is a bias against learning anything. There seems to be a conveyer belt that takes people from the right to the center to the “left” margin of the right wing, at which point people are either intimidated to move back to the center or right, or are ushered off the premises. Creative reformers in this context must learn to tread very carefully, because eventually, they will either be coopted or excluded.

Because of the circularity of these communities, it’s hard to develop an “exit ramp.” The best we can do – and this is what I was trying to do in the article you mentioned – is to speak gently to the insiders and let them know there is a safe place that will welcome them if they need to ask questions that aren’t allowed inside.

A researcher once told me he had never met a college-educated fundamentalist son of a college-educated fundamentalist father.

You seem to fly in the face of the numerous studies that find an association between poor educational attainment and modern evangelicalism. Evangelical historian Mark Noll famously said ‘The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.’ Is this a misunderstanding of evangelicals or the basis of your apparent departure from Evangelicalism?

Sadly, I think it’s true. A researcher once told me he had never met a college-educated fundamentalist son of a college-educated fundamentalist father. In other words, two generations of higher education “graduate” people out of fundamentalism. But now, what’s happened here in the US is that fundamentalists have created their own colleges and universities, so they can create a kind of hermetically sealed educational environment where certain assumptions are never questioned and certain lines are never crossed. To me, there’s a window – from about the age of 12 or 14 to 30 – during which young adults have the option of considered alternative identities. If they aren’t exposed to a different way of being Christian or human during that window, they will only do find a different path with great struggle later on.


I see the Bible as having an implicit (and thus unstated) politics, as such, any marriage of it to a particular politics is a re-interpretation of the Bible in order to fit the requirements of the modern polity. Is this broadly what is happening to Evangelicalism? Do you see other denominations being similarly affected?

I might start with a different assumption along these lines: the Bible is a library of documents that reflects a wide array of political arrangements, often in tension, from hunter-gatherer societies to nomadic herder societies to agricultural-chieftain societies to primitive monarchies to more evolved monarchies to empires with subjugated nation states. Having said that, I’d agree that one can’t marry any of these to modern political categories.

But all of the Biblical political arrangements took place within a larger category of patriarchy, which I define as a method of controlling male aggression by elevating one alpha male to a dominant status. In that way, most traditional religions are inherently patriarchal, and one of the challenges of today’s world is that we’re moving into a post-patriarchal arrangement. (Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton perfectly epitomizes this transition.) It’s no wonder that in monotheistic religions, God fills the role of the Supreme Patriarch, willing to use violence and torture to maintain order and control. So in Evangelicalism (especially in the US) along with Catholicism, male leadership is still the norm and female leadership is suppressed, and LGBTQ equality is seen as a betrayal of the patriarchal order of the cosmos.


To extend this idea, the Old Testament is pretty right wing, being nationalistic, and intent on establishing a homeland, and comfortable with committing genocides along the way. The New Testament, on the other hand, is broadly left wing, with occasional interjections from the old/right. Is all of this somewhat of a metaphor for your journey, the journey that more than one denomination is going through (whether forwards or backwards), and a basis for comment on modern Christianity in general?

Here’s how I would say it. The Old Testament is full of dynamic tension. The primary Hebrew narrative is left-wing: God chooses the side of oppressed slaves at the bottom of the metaphorical social and economic pyramid, and God works for their liberation. The priestly tradition is more or less conservative, but the prophetic tradition is consistently progressive. Jesus and the New Testament writers by and large side with the prophetic tradition. But, as you say, there are occasional regressive interjections. In this way, the Scriptures reflect human society at large, which always includes dynamic tensions between conservative and progressive movements. This is really the subject of the last third of my new book.


This idea is particularly interesting given your comments about practicing Christianity or understanding faith in a more Jewish way. Would you care to expand on that idea?

Because Christians have been guilty of anti-Semitism for so long, I am careful to avoid anything resembling the “Old Testament is wrong/New Testament is right” formulation that has been so common among Christians. I think it’s fairer and more accurate to say that both Old and New Testaments reflect the range of human experience, sometimes for worse and sometimes for better. The challenge of wise interpretation involves the ethical process of discerning worse from better.

It has been said that conservatives are people with something to conserve – usually power, privilege, and wealth. Since I believe the narrative trajectory of both Old and New Testaments runs towards liberation and the common good, I am suspicious of those who are willing to conserve their own advantages at the expense of others. That, to me, reveals one of the deepest ethical currents of progressivism: not to hoard privilege, but to be generous with it and to see it spread far and wide.


To me religion seems to magnify who people are, often times if they are good, religion seems to make them better, and if they are bad, religion seems to make them worse. The biggest problem springing from this is that religion seldom prepares people for discerning between actually good, and manifestly bad but good at pretending. Unfortunately Evangelicalism, especially recently, seems to be sitting much more strongly at the negative end of that equation.

So, a three-part question:

1) Do you think that religion makes the good better, and the bad worse, if so, why? If not, why not?

I think this is often the case. But sometimes, it makes the good worse and the bad better too!

2) Does religion have the unfortunate effect of enabling the bad to camouflage and hide amongst the good, e.g. Mother Teresa and Donald Trump?

Yes. This is a problem with anything good: the bad will want to disguise themselves in it.

3) Why is Evangelicalism (or maybe, more correctly, fundamentalism) so polarising in this aspect?

I think it’s a bit different in England and elsewhere. But here in the US, Protestants made a deal in the early 20th century. Conservatives focused on private personal morality and progressives focused on public social morality. It was an unfortunate arrangement, destined to self-destruct, in my opinion, because morality can’t be divided that way. We need to attend to both personal and social integrity because each undergirds the other. By emphasizing personal morality, Evangelicals were tempted to feel morally superior, saying, “I don’t commit adultery! I don’t get drunk!” and so on. They ended up sounding like the Pharisee in Jesus’ famous parable. To make matters worse, under the surface they often weren’t as moral as they pretended to be.

Their claims to personal morality rang hollow (to outsiders) in the 1960’s when they were largely silent on civil rights, segregation, and white privilege, but outspoken against “the sexual revolution.” Their silence, of course, meant complicity with the injustice of the status quo. But then, in the 1970’s, they again claimed (in their own minds) the moral high ground by championing anti-abortion. Sadly, they often became single issue voters, which meant they were silent and complicit on environmental destruction, the ongoing struggle for equality in terms of race and gender, and so on. That explains in part why they can support Donald Trump: he is a deal-maker, and so he has made a new deal with them: “I’ll oppose abortion and you’ll excuse my misogyny, racism, and all the rest.”


I am in touch with an ex-Evangelical who, like me, recently completed a degree in psychology as an adult student. She has asked (I hope she forgives me for my interpretation of her question): How does one retain a belief in God (or Jesus) whilst also removing the associations with Evangelicalism that are inextricably linked to it? In short, how does one remain ‘of God/Jesus’ but not ‘Evangelical’ if that is how one was raised?

Well, that’s pretty much the story of my life! I remember when I started seeing a gap between what Jesus stood for and what Evangelicals stood for. When I started focusing more on Jesus and less on the Evangelical consensus, I became more passionately committed to the former and less with the latter. I later came to see that in Evangelicalism, like Catholicism, there has been a minority report, so to speak, an “alternative orthodoxy” that was refreshing and life-giving and deeply progressive in the sense of being committed to an integration of social justice and personal integrity.


In a similar vein, and to finish off, is it those who are progressive, but remain Evangelical, or those that have moved out of Evangelicalism and can see it from the outside, having been within it (e.g. Valerie Tarico) that are the best placed to move Evangelicalism in a positive direction? Or is Evangelicalism (and the GOP by association) rapidly becoming a lost cause?

Here in the US, after Trump, I don’t know what happens to Evangelicalism and the Republican Party, individually or as a “married couple.” They will reap what they have sown, I would expect. My focus is on building a new creative alliance between progressive or post-Evangelicals, missional mainline Protestants, the black and Hispanic churches with roots in the Civil Rights and Liberation Theology movements, and progressive and contemplative Catholics. I believe this kind of convergence has enormous creative potential, and could be a dynamic spiritual movement that could provide an alternative for younger generations who feel a deep spiritual restlessness and dissatisfaction with conventional Christianity in its various forms. This progressive Christian movement could articulate a just and generous form of Christianity that could contribute greatly to the challenges we face in the decades ahead. If people want to learn more about this in the US, they might want to check out my website ( and Convergence (


Fantastic stuff, Brian! Thanks so much.

Great questions, Alan. I hope this is helpful.









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Why is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?

(An Allowable Psychologism?, pt. 1)

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter asks Alice, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” After several pages of delay the Hatter finally admits, “I haven’t the slightest idea.” Cracked characterizes this as “one of the biggest dick moves in literature.” Apparently, Lewis Carroll was plagued with demands for an answer to the riddle. In response to the numerous accusations of a “dick move” (or the Victorian equivalent thereof), he addressed the issue, saying, “Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is never put with the wrong end in front!” This is disappointing. However, apparently, “never” was originally written by Carroll as ‘nevar’. This is indeed ‘raven’ “with the wrong end in front” (i.e. “nevar” is ‘raven’ backwards). This is a little better, but still not satisfying. WiseGeek suggest that the answer is simply that neither is made of cheese, which, if this post looks TL;DR, is close enough. But if you’d like to see the specifics of my answer, and the possible resolution of some philosophical paradoxes, then please, read on.


Paradoxes, so many paradoxes

It doesn’t seem highly likely that the answer to one mathematical paradox and one logical paradox (and a few others besides) could be illustrated by, and ultimately help solve, a flippant and ultimately throwaway riddle from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. That being said, stranger things happened in Wonderland, and truth is stranger than fiction, so here we go.

Paradoxically, I want to start my discussion about the aforementioned mathematical and logical paradoxes with another paradox entirely. Epimenides’ Paradox is a version of what has come to be known as the Liar’s Paradox. Epimenides lived in Knossos, Crete, around 600 BC, and is attributed with the original version of this paradox. Doug Hofstadter (1979)[1], in his book Gödel, Escher, Bach, puts the paradox like this:

Epimenides was a Cretan who made one immortal statement: “All Cretans are liars.”

This is a paradox of self-reference. Epimenides cannot be telling the truth about Cretans, and also be a Cretan; and if he is a Cretan, then he cannot be telling the truth. It is with some amusement that I note that Hofstadter’s book was originally published with the tagline “a metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll.” Curiouser and curiouser.

This paradox of self-reference helps give us some traction on Russell’s Paradox, which Bertrand Russell uncovered whilst writing his Principia Mathematica in 1901. Russell was trying to ground mathematics in rigorous logical terms using set theory. An example of this rigorousness being that all empty sets are the same empty set, for a set with nothing in it has nothing to differentiate it from other sets with nothing in them. An empty set is zero, by definition, and there is only one empty set, so from zero, we have derived one… and so on, for several hundred pages… across three volumes.

If we concern ourselves with sets, as Russell did, we come to a paradox of self-reference when defining sets into categories. A set is normal, unless it contains itself, then it is abnormal. That being said, it seems as though the only sets that could contain themselves are sets that are descriptions of things, rather than actual things, i.e. self-reference. To borrow from Russell (1919, p. 136)[2], “normally a class [set] is not a member of itself. Mankind, for example, is not a man.” So, now, what of the set of all normal sets (R)? Is it normal or abnormal? If R were normal it would be a member of the set of normal sets (R), thereby making it abnormal, but if it were abnormal it would no longer be a member of the set of all normal sets (R). Thus R is neither normal nor abnormal, R is both R, and not-R, and this is a paradox, Russell’s Paradox. Curious-R and curious-not-R.

Russell’s Paradox, to me at least, bears a striking resemblance to both Epimenides’ Paradox, as outlined above, and Hempel’s ‘Paradox of the Ravens.’

Bertrand Russell


The Paradox of the Ravens

The Paradox of the Ravens, was put forward by Carl Gustav Hempel (not Jung), and arises from the confluence of two logical rules, Nicod’s Principle and The Equivalence Condition. The Paradox reads something like this:

  1. All ravens are black.
  2. Everything that is not black is not a raven.
  3. Nevermore, my pet raven, is black.
  4. This green (and thus not black) thing is an apple (and thus not a raven).

Both 1 and 2 are equivalent. 3 is evidence for 1, and 4 is evidence for 2, but because 2 is equivalent to 1, 4 is also evidence for 1.

To expand on this a bit, under Nicod’s Principle[3], if we state that ‘All ravens are black’ (All Rs are B), and we encounter an instance of a raven that is black, we have, to some extent supported the hypothesis. Famously, of course, it was thought that all Swans were white, until they discovered black swans in Australia. So, as with the scientific method, inductive logic, and Bayesian reasoning, each instance of a case that supports the hypothesis lends incrementally more credence to the hypothesis, but certainty is seldom absolute. Indeed, courtesy of Karl Popper, the scientific method now requires that a hypothesis be able to be falsified (shown to be untrue) in order to have any use as a hypothesis. As such, the hypothesis ‘All ravens are black’ can be falsified by an instance of a raven that is not black, such as an albino raven. This being said, the definition of ‘swan’ could include the fact that they are white, and that thus black swans are in fact not swans at all. Conversely, an albino raven is still a raven, albeit not black, and not ultimately a case which falsifies the hypothesis, because we know what albinism is.

With the equivalence condition, whatever can be confirmed by a statement can also be confirmed by an equivalent statement. For example, if we were to say that ‘All Ravens are not Writing Desks (All Rs are not-WD), we could logically say that ‘No Writing Desks are Ravens’ (No WDs are R). From this, each instance of a writing desk not being a raven also supports the idea that no raven is a writing desk. But we expected that.

In combination, then, Nicod’s Principle and the Equivalence Condition should allow us to say ‘All Ravens are Black’ (All Rs are B), and that its equivalent statement is ‘All non-ravens are non-black’ (All not-R are not-B). Which seems fair enough on the face of it. The problem arises when you realize that the hypothesis ‘All Ravens are Black’ would now be, at least to some extent, supported by any instance of a non-black thing that also happened to not be a raven. Curious-R and Curious-B.

This idea is nicely explained, here:


It’s amusing to note that the Raven in this paradox is called ‘Nevermore’. Another solution to the riddle ‘Why is a Raven like a writing desk?’ courtesy of WiseGeek, that actually does seem to answer the question in a satisfying way, is also a reference to Edgar Allen Poe: Poe wrote on both. Cracked credits yet another solution to American Chess puzzle composer, Sam Loyd: They both have inky quills.

These aren’t bad, but not where I’m going with this.

The Paradox of the Ravens is supposed to illustrate a conflict between inductive logic (as exemplified by Nicod’s Principle and the Equivalence Principle) and intuition (as illustrated by our reaction to the paradoxical conclusion that the greenness of an apple in anyway supports the hypothesis that all ravens are black). So it seems that the paradox is somehow a product of some flaw in human thought. But does that flaw extend to logic itself, or is that an unallowable psychologism?


Mentally processing a negative

There is a truism in self-help literature that when trying to stop doing something, like smoking or drinking, we do better by mentally representing what we will do, rather than what we will not do. Saying that we will not do something forces us to represent all of the alternatives. Saying that we will do something that is not the thing we are trying to not do, is a successful way of not engaging in the behaviour we are trying to avoid.

Likewise, if we are trying to remember things, or make logical inferences about things, it helps to represent these things in positive, and thus concrete, terms. We will more quickly get to the correct state of affairs if we remember ‘The door was closed’ rather than ‘The door was not open’ (Kaup, Lüdtke & Zwaan, 2006[4]). The delay is greater, and means of representation different, if the negation opens up an even wider scope of possibilities than the binary represented by the door (open or closed). “Not wearing a pink dress” (Kaup & Zwaan, 2003[5]), for example, gives rise to everything from an amber dress to a yellow dress.

Along the same lines, matching a picture to a sentence describing that picture takes longer, and is more error-prone, when using negatives (Carpenter & Just, 1975[6]; Clark & Chase, 1972[7]; Trabasso, Rollins & Shaughnessy, 1971[8]). Interestingly, negated items are slower to be recalled (Kaup, 2001[9]; MacDonald & Just, 1989[10]), which means that you will be slower to think of a white bear when you’re told not to, but think of it you will (Winerman, 2011[11]).

So, with respect to the Paradox of the Ravens, is the fact of representing not one negative, but two – not a raven, and not black – just something our brains balk at? Are we actually trying to mentally represent all of the alternatives, or even just all of the plausible (seemingly relevant) alternatives? Or, is the problem maybe that our brains are trying to deal with the description, as given, negatives and all, and the result does not seem like it can logically be related to black ravens?


The Conjunction Fallacy

If a negative is a shorthand way of describing absolutely all possible counter-examples of a given situation or thing, what problems, aside from delayed access to relevant information, could that give rise to? The conjunction fallacy may give us some clues to the possible answer. The classic depiction of the conjunction fallacy is due to Tversky and Kahneman (as cited in Kahneman, 2012[12]):

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which is more probable?

  • Linda is a bank teller.
  • Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

This is not a paradox, this is an outright fallacy. The number of feminist bank tellers must be less than both the number of active feminists and the number of bank tellers. So it is more probable that Linda is merely a bank teller than being both a bank teller and an active feminist. The reason that the idea of Linda being both is so attractive is that we know she is definitely a bank teller (given the two choices) and, courtesy of the representativeness heuristic[13], we feel that a bright, female, philosophy major, with concerns about discrimination and social justice simply must be a feminist. As Stephen J. Gould said,

I am particularly fond of this example [the Linda problem] because I know that the [conjoint] statement is least probable, yet a little homunculus in my head continues to jump up and down, shouting at me— “but she can’t just be a bank teller; read the description.”

More on the conjunction fallacy here.

Is a negative an inherent source of a conjunction fallacy, or even multiple conjunction fallacies? Is the source of the problem with the Paradox of the Ravens our inability to represent millions of alternatives to blackness and ravenness being compounded by our inability to account for the overlaps between these? Or is it just, as the conjunction fallacy illustrates, that our brains are really unintuitive when it comes to probabilities? Or is the use of the word “not” an obtuse kind of self-reference that leads to paradoxes of self-reference, just as Epimenides’ “lie” and “normal” sets do?


Wason and Confirmation Bias

Also discussed in Kahneman’s ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ is Peter Wason’s experiments from 1960. Wason asked people to identify a rule as represented by a number sequence, (2, 4, 6) and to then ask him if a number sequence they generated also fit the rule he had in mind. They were to do this as many times as they felt necessary to confirm that they knew the rule. Most people would then proceed to provide sequences that were consecutive even numbers (e.g. 6, 8, 10), some might provide a sequence of even numbers with gaps (e.g. 4, 8, 12). Few, if any would present odd-numbered sequences, or even numbers in reverse numerical order, or anything that deviated too far from the most obvious. Wason’s pattern was simply numbers in numerical order, which would include such examples as ‘3, 7, 9’ and ‘10, 100, 1000’.

So we should be looking for disconfirmation. We should be looking to falsify our hypothesis. Non-black ravens falsify our hypothesis. Black non-ravens neither confirm nor deny our hypothesis, and non-black non-ravens support our hypothesis.


Why IS a Raven like a Writing Desk?

A raven is more obviously like other corvids, such as blackbirds, rooks, and so on, and a writing desk is more obviously like other man-made, wooden, objects, such as bureaus and dressers. This having been said, is a wooden chess piece, which happens to be called a Rook, more like a raven, or a writing desk? What about a piece of cheese? The moon? And what about the word ‘Raven’ written on a piece of paper? Is that more like the raven it names, or the writing desk upon which it was written?

We’ve established that we’re not very good at probabilities, even with something as simple as Linda’s job in combination with her political orientation.

We’ve established that negating a statement may give rise to an infinity of alternatives, but even where it only gives rise to one alternative it takes longer for our brains to represent than the same statement expressed in the positive.

And we’ve established that the greenness of apples adds to our certainty that ‘All Ravens are Black’.

Except that it still “feels” wrong, doesn’t it?

What if I were to suggest that the problem is with the way the equivalence principle makes you think of equivalency in the wrong way? Encountering a black raven does directly lend extra weight to the hypothesis that all ravens are black. But then the hypothesis specifically mentions black ravens. The greenness of an apple also lends credence to the hypothesis that all ravens are black, but to a very, very, very much smaller degree. A green apple means that you have one less thing that is both not black and not a raven, but that is only one less thing from a very long list of things. Indeed, all of the things!

The statements ‘All ravens are black’ IS logically equivalent to ‘All non-ravens are not-black’, but the weight they lend to their respective hypotheses, the degree to which they add to your certainty as to the truth of the statement, are not equivalent. Indeed 1/∞ is nowhere near 1/10,000,000 (no actual stats as to likely world raven population were discoverable, by me at least, at the time of writing). Now, 1/10,000,000 is not a massive incremental increase in our certainty on the hypothesis that all ravens are black, so it’s odd that our brains, which have trouble with numbers of that size, are still so certain that green apples do not help us to confirm that hypothesis, but that black ravens do. Then again, if ravens are black, by definition, we don’t need an incremental increase in our certainty on that point, so the logical relationship between black ravens and green apples is irrelevant. Which really does seem like self-reference by the back door.

So, the solution to the paradox of the ravens can be illustrated by using it to solve Lewis Carroll’s riddle, “How is a raven like a writing desk?” A raven is like a writing desk in that they are both unlike far more things than they are unlike each other. They also both have names that seem to unequivocally denote what they are, and many more that denote what they are not. The fact that ravens seem unlike writing desks to us is, statistically speaking, merely a rounding error, they are, in fact, virtually identical, and notably unlike a piece of cheese.



[1] Hofstadter, D. (1979). Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (a meta-phorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll). New York, NY: Basic Books.

[2] Russell, B. (1919). Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, and New York: The Macmillan Co.

[3] Nicod, J. (1930). Foundations of Geometry and Induction, P. P. Wiener (trans.), London: Harcourt Brace.

[4] Kaup, B., Lüdtke, J. & Zwaan, R. A. (2006). Processing negated sentences with contradictory predicates: Is a door that is not open mentally closed? Journal of Pragmatics, 38(7), 1033-1050.

[5] Kaup, B., & Zwaan, R. A. (2003). Effects of negation and situational presence on the accessibility of text information. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 29(3), 439.

[6] Carpenter, P. A. & Just, M. A. (1975). Sentence comprehension: A psycholinguistic processing model of verification. Psychological Review, 82(1), 45-73.

[7] Clark, H. H., & Chase, W. G. (1972). On the process of comparing sentences against pictures. Cognitive Psychology, 3(3), 472-517.

[8] Trabasso, T., Rollins, H., & Shaughnessy, E. (1971). Storage and verification stages in processing concepts. Cognitive Psychology, 2(3), 239-289.

[9] Kaup, B. (2001). Negation and its impact on the accessibility of text information. Memory & Cognition, 29(7), 960-967.

[10] MacDonald, M. C., & Just, M. A. (1989). Changes in activation levels with negation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 15(4), 633-642.

[11] Winerman, L. (2011). Suppressing the ‘white bears’. Monitor on Psychology, 42(9), 44. 

[12] Kahneman, D. (2012). Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin.


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An Allowable Psychologism?

This is the first in an intermittent series where I will use psychology to illuminate philosophy. (I do have a degree in psychology, but am merely a hobbyist philosopher.) Specifically, I intend to explore the possibility that understanding psychology can actually illuminate logic, mathematics, and reason.

Doing this is, in some people’s eyes, an unconscionable thing, and they call it psychologism.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines ‘psychologism’ thus:

“Many authors use the term ‘psychologism’ for what they perceive as the mistake of identifying non-psychological with psychological entities. For instance, philosophers who think that logical laws are not psychological laws would view it as psychologism to identify the two.”[1]

So psychologism is the idea that our understanding of something reflects our psychology, to a greater extent than it reflects the thing that we seek to understand. By analogy, consider growing up with an undiagnosed cataract, you can see, but there is a distortion in your vision. You were born with it, so as far as you’re aware what you see is normal. As you grow up your brain adapts to the distortion, in the same way that you quickly adapt to wearing glasses with stripes on the front of them that should block your vision, like those made famous by Kanye West. Studying the cataract is psychology, taking your view of the world through the cataract to be in some sense true is psychologism, removing the cataract from the equation is the answer, apparently.

Neon Shutter Shades

Neon Shutter Shades – significantly cooler than Kanye West, and their inclusion here neatly avoids having to have a picture of him on my blog.

Over the last few decades psychology has gone some way to separating our understanding of the world from our brains and the distortions that are inherent in its structure. Unlike cataracts, though, we all have these distortions to a greater or lesser extent. Indeed, the main way in which we can be less impacted by these distortions is to be aware of them (unlike the stripes on those shutter shades). In the case of the human mind, the single biggest cataract surgery has been the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky on heuristics and biases. Indeed, I would suggest that Kahneman’s ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ is one of the most important books of popular psychology ever written, certainly the most important this century.

Heuristics are simple rules that our brains use to resolve complex problems. These ruels are right most of the time… but not all of the time. For example, if we see a shadow in the corner of our eye, we will treat this as a potential source of danger. Biases, on the other hand, are the consistent and predictable results of relying on heuristics. These are by no means the only distortions that arise from the way our brains evolved. Evolution is pragmatic, balancing costs (needs for fuel/food) against benefits (survival advantage). So we have numerous talents that helped us survive, but that hamper our ability to get at the truth. According to evolution, knowing that the movement in the corner of your eye is a large, aggressive mammal is less important than already being on the run by the time you discover it is a large, aggressive carnivore; and the occasional life-preserving sprint occasioned by a harmless herbivore, is a small price to pay.

An example of where our psychology may have been what was being described rather than the reality “out there” is Plato’s Idealism. Platonic Idealism is the idea that transcendent ideal things exist in another sphere of existence above our mundane world. Is this a reflection of reality, or a reflection of the fact that the human mind (probably) is a connectionist neural network (relying on prototypes by which to define things)? Can you countenance the idea that a transcendent Platonic world exists, and contains, for example, and because this is the internet, an ideal cat from which all earthly cats derive their ‘cat-ness’? Or does it seem more likely that, having been exposed to a great many cats, we have stored in our memory a prototype that best encapsulates ‘cat-ness’, and from which we can decide whether some quadrupedal mammal in our environment is a cat or not?


Plato’s cats, from Midnight Media Musings

More particularly, psychologism has at its heart the question of whether logic is a sub-discipline of psychology or not, as mentioned above. The answering of this question hasn’t been helped by the fact that psychology was a branch of philosophy until about the same time as the psychologism argument arose in earnest with the work of Frege[2] and Husserl[3], in the late 19th Century. One solution is to suggest that psychology is the study of how we do think, and logic is the study of how we should think, but of course Ethics is both the study of how we do think about right and wrong behaviour, and how we should think about right and wrong behaviour, and there is no long-standing argument about whether that is psychology. That being said, whilst Ethics is an area of philosophical discussion, it is increasingly encroached upon by psychology (indeed Richard Carrier has called for a psychologically-based ‘ethicology’[4], and Sam Harris’ claims that science can be applied to all questions of ethics, so long as ethics is positioned as a discussion about the harm of conscious creatures)[5].

So, psychologism is the application of our understanding of human thought processes to the study of things that don’t seem to have anything to do with human thought processes. For myself, I think that we need an intentional psychologism as a tool with which to disentangle what is studied from the means by which it is studied, a means of bracketing out (as Husserl would have it) the vagaries of the human mind from the vagaries of the world it reports on. In other words, are you describing a thing in the world, or are you describing the way in which that thing (or those things) is represented in your mind? Are they phenomena, or is it phenomenology? From Plato’s idealism to almost everything that has arisen from rationalist philosophy (aka armchair science), this seems necessary. So I shall proceed as though psychologism is a tool, rather than a philosophical debate.

It seems I’m not the only one. The rest of the quote from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that I opened with reads like this:

“Other authors use the term in a neutral descriptive or even in a positive sense. ‘Psychologism’ then refers (approvingly) to positions that apply psychological techniques to traditional philosophical problems (e.g. Ellis 1979, 1990).”


Free-floating rationales

Dan Dennett (1984), in ‘Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting’ introduced the idea of the free-floating rationale, and it strikes me as a useful tool for this intentional psychologism. A free-floating rationale is a reason why a particular response to a particular problem is inherent in the elements of the problem, all that is being waited upon is the tools by which the solution can be deployed. For example, the ability of the squid or chameleon to change colour to match their surroundings can be seen as a response to the need to hide quickly. A means by which that reason can be arrived at is not necessary for the animals that display it (neither the squid nor the chameleon, so far as we are aware, makes the decision to change colour, and the ability to do so was arrived at via evolution, not a congress of chameleons, nor a senate of squids). It so happens, though, that arriving at reasons for things is a skill that humans do have. That’s why humans have developed sonar similar to a bat’s echo-location, and many other things that echo solutions that have been arrived at in nature. The solutions exist, and we discover them. What we invent is the means by which to manifest that solution. This may also explain the pervasive belief that the universe is intelligently designed – we perceive the reason, and we perceive the reason to be out there, correctly, but assume that the reason is also articulated, out there, which it is not (a case of mistaking the thing for the label we have for it).

I see the concept of a free-floating rationale as yet another in a long line of claimed human inventions that are really human discoveries. Numbers don’t exist, but they describe relationships between things; centres of gravity don’t exist, but describe the relationships between the particles within, and the totality of, a thing; and free-floating rationales don’t exist, but nevertheless describe relationships between things, and states of affairs in the world; and logic is a distinct set of patterns of inter-relationship to which things regularly conform… inherent in the elements of the problem.

Is mathematics demonstrative of human rationality, or is it merely a free-floating rationale? Is reason phenomenology, or a phenomenon? Is logic an invention, or a discovery?

Can psychologism be used to distinguish between free-floating rationales and human-centric biases in the way we see the universe? I think so, and I’m going to explore that idea over the coming posts.


Next Instalment: ‘How is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?’







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Does anybody really think?, pt. 2 (Does any body really feel?)

The first part of this blog detailed what I saw as flaws in the methodology and the presentation of the statistics that was the basis of the documentary ‘What British Muslims Really Think.’ In this second part I want to look at what I see as a primary flaw in virtually all discourse regarding the Middle East, and the Muslim diaspora more generally.

What follows is a segment taken from Bruce E. Wexler’s book, ‘Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change.’ I present a 1000-word case study describing what it feels like to be an immigrant. From this, I have removed any clue as to race, creed, religion, country of origin, country of destination, and even the period of history to which it relates, in an effort to have you, the reader, insert your own experiences, or those of people that you know and care for, to see if it’s possible to walk a mile in this person’s shoes. I will then relate this content back to the first installment of this blog.

[Name] was 13 years old when [they], [their] parents, and [their] 9-year-old sister left [old country] to emigrate to [new country]. Growing up as part of a [culture] family in [old city] after [traumatic event], [they were] in many ways on the margin of [old country] society and the object of more than a few exclusionary and critical comments by [their] peers. Yet this was [their] only world, external and internal, until [they] and [their] family [travelled to new country]. As [they] explained, “the country of my childhood lives within me with a primacy that is a form of love… It has fed me language, perceptions, sounds, the human kind. It has given me the colours and the furrows of reality, my first loves. The absoluteness of those loves can never be recaptured. No geometry of the landscape, no haze in the air, will live in us as intensely as the landscape that we saw as the first, and to which we gave ourselves wholly, without reservations”. [Name] recalls that, walking around [large city] shortly before leaving, “I burst into tears as I pass a nondescript patch of garden, which, it turns out, holds a bit of myself.” Standing on the [transport to new country], “I feel that my life is ending”. “When the [traditional band] near the [transport to new country] strikes up the [local musical style] of the [national anthem], I am pierced by a youthful sorrow so powerful that I suddenly stop crying and try to hold still against pain. I desperately want time to stop, to hold the [transport] still with the force of my will.” How clearly [they describe] the formative effects of the environment into which [they] happened to be born, the connection between [their] internal and external worlds, and the impossibility – in [their] situation – of keeping the internal world together with the external world by which it was shaped and to which it was matched.

On [their] third night in [new city] [they had] “a nightmare in which I’m drowning in the ocean while my mother and father swim farther and farther away from me. I know, in this dream, what it is to be cast adrift in incomprehensible space; I know what it is to lose one’s mooring. I wake up in the middle of a prolonged scream. The fear is stronger than anything I’ve ever known.” A short while after [they wonder], “what has happened to me in this new world? I don’t know. I don’t see what I’ve seen, don’t comprehend what’s in front of me. I’m not filled with language anymore, and I only have a memory of fullness to anguish me with the knowledge that, in this dark and empty state, I don’t really exist.” Aware when [they] was leaving her [old country] that part of [himself/herself] was being left behind because [they were] losing the external match to [their] internal self, in the [new country] [they feel] loss, discomfort, terror, and confusion when [they are] surrounded by an environment that does not match the inner world [they had] brought with [them].

While those mourning a deceased spouse may feel that part of oneself has died, this transplanted immigrant felt as empty as if [they] no longer existed. When encouraged by those around [them] to try and forget what [they] left behind, [they wonder] “Can I really extract what I’ve been from myself so easily?” When [they attempt] to take in [their] new environment, the requisite internal structures are lacking or the old structures are obstructing. … “The city’s unfocused sprawl, its inchoate spread of one-family houses, doesn’t fall into any grid of mental imagery, and therefore it is a strain to see what is before me. Even on this days when the sun comes out in full blaze and the air has the special transparency of [new country], [it] is a dim world to my eyes, and I walk around it in the static of visual confusion.” When [they look] at others who are farther along than [them] in the adjustment to a new world, [they worry] that even for them “insofar as meaning is interhuman and comes from the thickness of human connections and how richly you are known, these successful immigrants have lost some of their meaning.”

The change in language associated with many immigrations further disrupts the links between the self and others, and between internal neuro-psychological processes and external social processes. Two days after their arrival [Name] and [their] sister are taken to school and given new names […]. After the teacher introduced them to the class, mispronouncing their last name in a way they had never heard before, “we make our way to a bench at the back of the room; nothing much has happened, except a small, seismic mental shift. The twist in our names takes them a tiny distance from us. …Our [old country] names didn’t refer to us; they were us as surely as our eyes or hands. Those new appellations, which we ourselves can’t yet pronounce, are not us … Make us strangers to ourselves.” Their original names were, of course, assigned to them by others. But the assignment of new names after years of hearing the original names in association with themselves, and the internalisation of those names in important neural structures, is no small matter. [Name] quickly learns [new language] but “the words … don’t stand for things in the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue. …This radical disjoining between word and thing is a desiccating alchemy, draining the world not only of significance, but of its colours, striations, nuances – its very existence. It is a loss of a living connection.

I think this piece eloquently sums up what one might feel in just a normal, or as we seem to be saying these days “economic”, migration, and gives a good base from which to extrapolate what might be the case in a refugee or forced migration (because from a young person’s perspective, any migration is forced).

The case study contains a number of direct quotes from an adult reflecting on their adolescent experience of immigration. Now consider that 33% of the Muslim population was aged 15 years or under in 2011, compared to 19% of the population as a whole. This is likely to have held steady in the intervening four years. Only 4% of the Muslim population is over 65 years, compared to 16% of the overall population.


The survey that was the basis of this documentary was meant to be a “representative sample.” It’s very hard to get consent to interview children under 16 due to ethical concerns. If such interviews were undertaken (and there is no indication that they were), given that we’ve established that Muslims tend to more conservative views, what is the likelihood that a youth would, with their parents present (because that’s how such an interview would have to take place), go against their parents’ views? But, as I said, there is no reason to believe that such interviews took place. What this means is that the 4% of the Muslim population that is 65+ have had the prevalence of their view statistically doubled because of the way the survey was carried out. It is a truism of aging that one’s views become more conservative as one gets older. Note the difficulty, in the case study, that the author had in translating the language and landscape of childhood into the present realities of a new country. That’s an adolescent, whose brain is still highly plastic (able to change more readily in response to external stimuli), noting these difficulties. The problems would be much more severe, and require numerous coping mechanisms, in older adults. This is culture shock, writ large.

To illustrate even more forcefully what culture shock can do. Immigration is a recognised risk factor in the diagnosis of schizophrenia (McGrath, Saha, Welham, El Saadi, MacCauley & Chant, 2004[1]), and especially in all ethnic minority groups (Fearon, et al., 2006[2]). People living in developing nations are more at risk, as are people living in urban areas. Curiously, though, the risk of schizophrenia increases for the children of immigrants. New immigrants are 2.7 times more likely to develop schizophrenia than the native English population, but the next generation are 4.5 times more likely (Cantor-Graae & Selten, 2005[3]). So it may be that environmental factors in the country of origin, or changes in environmental factors between countries, are influential; but that only explains prevalence in new immigrants, not the second generation. So the question then becomes, is this due to integration, or lack thereof? Cantor-Graae and Selten (2005, p. 101) have suggested what they call “social defeat” is a causative factor in subsequent diagnosis of schizophrenia:

Since both migrants and city residents are exposed to high levels of social competition, the long-term experience of social defeat, defined as a subordinate position or as ‘outsider status’, is a viable candidate. This is compatible with the recent meta-analysis of studies on migrants, which showed greater effect sizes for migrants from developing countries than for those from developed countries, and greater effect sizes for the second generation than for the first. A bigger increase in the second generation is expected, because outsider status would be even more humiliating for individuals who feel entitled to the status conferred by their birthright. Since discrimination would certainly contribute to the migrant’s experience of defeat, it is noteworthy that a prospective study in The Netherlands found that perceived discrimination was a risk factor for the development of psychotic symptoms (Janssen et al, 2003[4]). The risks for immigrant groups known for their strong family networks, for example Asian immigrants to the UK and Turkish immigrants to The Netherlands, are not nearly as high as those for Caribbean immigrants to the UK or Moroccan immigrants to The Netherlands. Moreover, the incidence in minority ethnic groups is smaller when they comprise a greater proportion of the local population (Boydell et al, 2001[5]). A plausible interpretation of these findings is that social support protects against the development of schizophrenia and this accords well with the social defeat hypothesis.

So here we see that discrimination is a causal factor on the one hand, but relying on strong family networks, and having a large number of people of similar cultural origin are protective factors.

In the case study quoted at the start of this blog, it mentions that the author is somewhat of an outsider in their home country. Could they be describing the experiences of a Sunni youth from Iran, where 90-95% of the population is Shi’a? Or maybe a Shi’a youth from Jordan, positioned as it is between Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, where the population is 95% Sunni, and 3-4% Christian?

The “rigorous survey” that was the basis for ‘What British Muslims Really Think’ didn’t actually make a distinction between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. Amongst British Muslims, 85% are Sunni, and 14.8% Shi’a. This approximately reflects worldwide demographics that suggest Sunni are between 75 and 90% of the world’s Muslims, and that 10 to 20% are Shi’a. I’m sure such a failure would not occur in distinguishing Catholics from Protestants, and the different attitudes they hold. Why, if we know that a population’s religious identity is important to them, when we’re trying to advocate active integration, would we then turn around and ignore that identity? It is at least conceivable that the difference between Sunni and Shi’a, as illustrated by the two examples I just gave, could be a part of the reason for emigrating in the first place.

As much as we might try and empathise with someone when they are going through something traumatic, and migration is traumatic, it’s hard to do so when we’ve not ever migrated ourselves. It is even more difficult when the person with whom we are trying to empathise seems radically different to us, and thus the basis for even empathizing – which most of us like to think we’re pretty good at, I’m sure – is just that bit harder. It is an unfortunate truism of the way our brains work that we notice difference first, and have to be reminded of similarity. Those of us who rely more on gut reaction, will therefore, in general, tend to be less empathic towards noticeably different strangers than those who stop and think about the commonalities we nevertheless share as humans.

Let me re-quote what I think is one of the most affecting lines from the case study above – notice the beautiful use of language when, at the same time they are mourning the loss of language. This, in a way, is the power and the shortcoming of words:

“the words … don’t stand for things in the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue. …This radical disjoining between word and thing is a desiccating alchemy, draining the world not only of significance, but of its colours, striations, nuances – its very existence. It is a loss of a living connection.”

Do you care to guess the specifics of the individual in that case study, the author of those words? In an attempt to illustrate just how universal such things are, I’ve not quoted a Muslim.


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The subject of that piece, the quotes contained therein written by her as an adult woman, speak of the experiences of a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl moving from Krakow, Poland, to Vancouver, Canada, in 1959.

[Reactions in the comments section, please.]

[1] McGrath, J., Saha, S., Welham, J., El Saadi, O., MacCauley, C., & Chant, D. (2004). A systematic review of the incidence of schizophrenia: the distribution of rates and the influence of sex, urbanicity, migrant status and methodology. BMC medicine, 2(1), 1.

[2] Fearon, P., Kirkbride, J. B., Morgan, C., Dazzan, P., Morgan, K., Lloyd, T., … & Mallett, R. (2006). Incidence of schizophrenia and other psychoses in ethnic minority groups: results from the MRC AESOP Study. Psychological medicine, 36(11), 1541-1550.

[3] Cantor-Graae, E. & Selten, J. P. (2005) Schizophrenia and migration: a meta-analysis and review. American Journal of Psychiatry, 162, 12-  24.

[4] Janssen, I., Hanssen, M., Bak, M., et al (2003) Discrimination and delusional ideation. British Journal of Psychiatry, 182, 71^76.

[5] Boydell, J., van Os, J., McKenzie, K., et al (2001) Incidence of schizophrenia in ethnic minorities in London: ecological study into interactions with the environment. BMJ, 323, 114.

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