Reason, emotion, judgement, faith

Here is one of those truisms that I quite like:

“The definition of insanity is to repeatedly do the same thing whilst expecting a different result.”

This seems to embody some wisdom – it might be told in order to bring someone trapped in repetitious behaviour to realise that they are doing something wrong, and that if they are unhappy with some aspect of their present situation then they need to change something.

Now compare that with the story of Robert the Bruce and the spider making a web, which generates the truism ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again’. Once more, this seems to embody some wisdom – it might be told in order to encourage someone not to give up, not to be daunted by a sense of failure but to learn to overcome the obstacles in their path and treat triumph and disaster just the same.

My point is not that one of these truisms is ‘more true’ than the other. My point is that discerning what is appropriate depends upon the faculty of judgement, what Aristotle called φρόνησις phronesis, or practical wisdom.

In my chapter 3 I was quite critical of “reason” – a position that I maintain. “Reason” – as understood in contemporary society – is, to my mind, radically inimical to the cultivation of phronesis. This is due to the idolatrous conception of reason, in particular, the way in which it systematically denigrates the emotional aspects of human life.

Now Scott responded with this comment: “Emotions follow beliefs. That is, they are involuntary reactions we have as things happen to us, but what they are (and how strong) depends on how those things are evaluated (subconsciously) by our beliefs. Hence, they are data that, if we are self-observant, tell us what our beliefs are — in particular, in this context, what we idolize. But the only way to change beliefs (short of personal revelation — different data) is through reason.”

I disagree with this. I would want to discriminate between “reason” – by which I would understand our capacity to exercise logical thought – and “intellect” which I understand in a much broader sense. Intellect is to my understanding something much more reflective and, indeed, a much more integrated-with-emotion sort of faculty. It is intellect which gives birth to phronesis. In other words, our emotional reactions are not (they do not remain) unconscious – the whole point of spiritual maturity is that the emotions progressively become more integrated into the wider personality.

What I mean by this is that the choice between sanity and Robert the Bruce can be made entirely rational on either side – I see that as simply a sterile working out from whatever premises are chosen, and trivially true. What the intellect can do, however, is work out which of sanity and Robert the Bruce is applicable in the particular instance. This faculty derives from, and is dependent upon, a high degree of self-understanding and awareness with regard to values. It is this faculty which, to my mind, can only result in faith – for all other value commitments end up producing idols. (I don’t expect this to be persuasive to those who currently worship such idols, but it makes sense to anyone ‘outside the bubble’.)

Which brings me to how this links in with faith. The commitment of Christian faith is that in Jesus Christ we see the truest account of what it means to be human – the image of God in human shape. In other words, Jesus Christ is the idol of the system, in the sense of being the capstone and summation of it. The choice between sanity and Robert the Bruce is one that ends up being drawn into an intellectual reflection that brings Jesus into the conversation (much more could be said in unpacking this – another time).

To walk with a particular faith is to make choices that reveal that the judgements formed derive from a specific set of assumptions and beliefs about the nature of reality; in other words, a Christian faith is displayed by a series of decisions that only make sense if the actor is assumed to believe the truth of the faith. The worth of Christianity is then assessable by the fruits of those decisions made by such actors (called saints in Christian theology).

The saints are those whose capacity for judgement has been built up from the intellectual integration of reason and emotion; or, to put that differently, the emotions of the personality have been trained to love God with all heart, soul, mind and strength. The saint is the one who has been enabled to desire one thing, and thus has purity of heart. That is why they see God.

A line of thought

“God” is the label that we affix to what we believe to be most important.

For some, there is more than one God. Integrity is not possible in this context.

For some, there is no coherence in what is desired, merely a living moment to moment. There is no integrity possible here, in a more obvious manner.

For most, however, there is a desire for some sort of integrity, for the experience of a life knitted together and formed by the pursuit of a higher purpose.

It has to be a _higher_ purpose; our own wills and desires are not a sustainable diet and soon become jaded. In other words, in order to generate a life-long sense of vocation, personal growth, maturity in love etc etc there has to be something transcendent about what is pursued. Some sense that it has value independent of what any of us happen to think about it, even, perhaps essentially, that there needs to be some sort of internal struggle in order to attain or achieve what that value might be.

This is the spiritual path. This is learning to see the world truly. This is learning to desire one thing.

For some, that one thing may be completely secularly explainable – say, pursuing the agenda of Amnesty International whole-heartedly. Yet for any identifiable value I believe it fairly straightforward to generate situations where that identifiable value comes into conflict with other similar values.

It seems to me that it is only a religious tradition – specifically, it is only a religious tradition which has a place for the apophatic – that can generate the intellectual resources which enable the higher values to be pursued with integrity.

In other words, and succinctly, I do happen to believe that it is not possible to be “moral” (= pursue a path of personal integrity) without a properly formed belief in and worship of “God” (= transcendent source of value with intellectual tradition enabling the exploration of the same).

The Hockey Stick Illusion – a brief criticism of a criticism

Real Climate has published something of a review of Montford’s book. When I read it (yes, I do read Real Climate, as much as I can – that is, I tend to have enough time, I just find it difficult to digest nonsense 😉 it occurred to me that it was a perfect example of bad criticism, and thus – as I’ve mentioned before – something which I do think falls into an area where I have a little expertise.

I’m only going to explore one item in Tamino’s review; for more substantial responses go here and here; in brief, Tamino doesn’t engage with the substantive argument. No change there then.

First, it will be worth summarising one of the arguments that Montford makes. Rather helpfully for the statistically challenged, like myself, Montford takes time to explain what Principal Components analysis (PC analysis) actually does: it sifts raw statistical data in order to extract significant information (notable patterns). Crucially, each ‘sifting’ extracts less useful information than the last, so PC1 is very useful but each successive PC is less so. Montford: “while the PC1 might explain 60% of the total variance, by the time you get to PC4, you might be talking about only 6 or 7%. In other words, the PC4 is not telling you much of any significance at all”. Montford uses this very helpful analogy:

“The PCs are often described as being like the shadow cast by a three-dimensional object. Imagine you are holding an object, say a comb, up to the sunlight, and it is casting a shadow on the table in front of you. There are lots of ways you could hold the comb, each of which would cast a different shadow onto the table, but the one which tells you the most about the object is when you expose the face of the comb to the light. When you do this, the sun passes between the teeth and you can see all the individual points. You can tell from the shadow that what is being held up is a comb. This shadow is analagous to the first PC. Now rotate the comb through a right angle, so that you are pointing the long edge of the comb to the sun. If you do this, the shadow cast is just a long thin line. You can see from the sahdow that you are holidng a long thin object, but it could be just about anything. This would be the second PC. It tells us something about the object, but not as much as the first PC. You can rotate through a right angle again and let the sunlight fall on the short edge of the comb. Here the shadow is almost meaningless. You can tell that something is being held up, but it’s impossible to draw any meaningful conclusions from it. This then, is the third PC.”

This is how Tamino ‘responds’:

Principal Components

For instance: one of the proxy series used as far back as the year 1400 was NOAMERPC1, the 1st “principal component” (PC1) used to represent patterns in a series of 70 tree-ring data sets from North America; this proxy series strongly resembles a hockey stick. McIntyre & McKitrick (hereafter called “MM”) claimed that the PCA used by MBH98 wasn’t valid because they had used a different “centering” convention than is customary. It’s customary to subtract the average value from each data series as the first step of computing PCA, but MBH98 had subtracted the average value during the 20th century. When MM applied PCA to the North American tree-ring series but centered the data in the usual way, then retained 2 PC series just as MBH98 had, lo and behold — the hockey-stick-shaped PC wasn’t among them! One hockey stick gone.

Or so they claimed. In fact the hockey-stick shaped PC was still there, but it was no longer the strongest PC (PC1), it was now only 4th-strongest (PC4). This raises the question, how many PCs should be included from such an analysis? MBH98 had originally included two PC series from this analysis because that’s the number indicated by a standard “selection rule” for PC analysis (read about it here).

MM used the standard centering convention, but applied no selection rule — they just imitated MBH98 by including 2 PC series, and since the hockey stick wasn’t one of those 2, that was good enough for them. But applying the standard selection rules to the PCA analysis of MM indicates that you should include five PC series, and the hockey-stick shaped PC is among them (at #4). Whether you use the MBH98 non-standard centering, or standard centering, the hockey-stick shaped PC must still be included in the analysis.


The truth is that whichever version of PCA you use, the hockey-stick shaped PC is one of the statistically significant patterns. There’s a reason for that: the hockey-stick shaped pattern is in the data, and it’s not just noise it’s signal. Montford’s book makes it obvious that MM actually do have a selection rule of their own devising: if it looks like a hockey stick, get rid of it.

So – Tamino’s argument is that because the hockey-stick shape emerges with the fourth ‘cut’ it still counts as statistically significant. Although he accepts that the standard convention is to use just two passes (= PC1 and PC2) he goes on to say “applying the standard selection rules to the PCA analysis of MM indicates that you should include five PC series, and the hockey-stick shaped PC is among them (at #4)”. (Please shout if I’ve misunderstood the substantive point that Tamino is making here.)

Can people see why I find this an inadequate response to Montford? Montford explains PC analysis at length, and a significant element of the argument is that the #4 cut doesn’t give useful data. Tamino at first accepts this (with a link expanding the acceptance) but then seems to go back on himself by simply asserting that five series should be included, and that the hockey-stick shape (#4) is significant. Why? Where is the argument for this?

There are ways in which Montford could be shot down here – and I would imagine that a competent statistician, familiar with these issues, could do it quite swiftly _if_ Montford is wrong. My point is a broader one – purely as a matter of rhetoric, Montford has the more compelling argument. He makes a point and explains it in detail – I understand the argument that Montford is making and it seems coherent. Tamino’s response is very different, in effect it is merely an assertion, which we are to take ‘on authority’. As the authority of the realclimate site is – for me – completely shot, the argument falls.

If there is another place where realclimate defends the statistical usefulness of a PC4 analysis, I’d be interested to read it.

My attitude to science

(repost – thought it was relevant)
This has come up in the comments again. I thought I’d put together a list of some of the things I’ve written about the scientific approach, rather than retyping the wheel.

Probably the best place to start is this post: The Holiness of Stuart Staniford, as I do see something holy in scientific endeavour (not really surprising as it has such deep theological roots) and I believe it would be a tragedy if scientific research were to be repudiated in our society.

My main problem with science as it is received and worshipped in our culture is that it is apathistic, in other words it is systematically blind to what we most value. If we are to defend what we most value, we must be prepared to topple science from its perch.

That perch is embedded in a particular story. My paraphrase of that story is written up as: the mythology of science.

My longest discussion of science can be found in my Let us be human sequence, and the transcript of the relevant lecture is here.

I think what I would most want to stress is that the great majority of my criticisms of the way science is revered and estimated in our culture are valid independently of any claim for the truth of Christian faith. Which is why sophisticated atheists agree with most of them 😉

“We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered the problems of life remain completely untouched.” (Wittgenstein again)

The grammar of salvation

First posted December 29 2005; reposted as it is relevant to the Dawkinsnet situation.

A post about the structural parallels between Christianity and, Peak Oil and other groups with a tendency to ‘cult-like’ behaviour.

I have been struck by the echoes of Christianity that crop up in unexpected places, and to try and explain what I mean, I need to explain something about Wittgenstein’s understanding of philosophy and language.

The easiest way to get a quick grasp of Wittgenstein’s view of language is to talk about the difference between what he calls surface grammar and depth grammar. Surface grammar is the explicit content and form of a sentence: the division into nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on. It is what we normally think of as grammar. Depth grammar is the function that a sentence plays within the life of the person speaking the sentence. In other words, an investigation of the depth grammar of a word will indicate the use that the words have.

Think of the expression ‘I need some water’. This seems quite straightforward, but depending upon the context and the emphasis placed upon different words, it could have all sorts of different senses. For example, it could be a straightforward description of thirst, or an expression of the need for an ingredient in making bread, or preparing water colours. So far, so straightforward. But think of something more interesting. Perhaps it is an insult: I am a mechanic, and I am working on fixing a car radiator. My assistant knows that I need some fluid, but passes me some left over orange squash: ‘I need some water’ – where the expression also means: why are you being so stupid? In other words, the surface grammar of a comment may be the same, but the depth grammar is radically different dependent on the situation at hand. For Wittgenstein, true understanding came not from the search for definitions but from grammatical investigation – ie, looking at real situations and seeing what is being discussed.

So the ‘depth grammar’ is concerned with the function that words, concepts and behaviours play in our human conversation and life. What has been striking me strongly in recent months, first from my experiences at and now from researching the Peak Oil situation, is how far there are patterns of behaviour in non-Christian environments which in fact replicate the depth grammar of Christianity. In other words, how easy it is for a particular topic to become a gospel-substitute, and how this reflects the profoundly embedded nature of Christian thought within our civilisation. As Wittgenstein once put it – a whole mythology is embedded in our language.

Consider the claim of Christianity: the world is corrupted by Sin; Jesus Christ was born to free us from that Sin; if you accept that Jesus rose from the dead and confess him to be the Messiah (ie confess Jesus as the ‘standard’) then you will be released from Sin and born again. To embrace Jesus as the Messiah is to resolve all the spiritual questions which may plague us and provide a pattern of living which leads to abundant life. There is an explicit claim of salvation – “Jesus saves!” – and the embrace of that salvation, leading to fullness of life, is what shapes the ‘grammar’ of Christianity.

Now consider, first, some of the shenanigans at The MoQ – Robert Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality – is an account of the world, which claims to solve many of the most troubling contemporary issues. It is certainly a very useful philosophy, and one with which I have a lot of sympathy. Yet it is – inevitably – not without its flaws. What interests me is the way in which, once those flaws are pointed out, there is an exaggerated reaction, which suggests that there is something more at stake for the interlocutors than merely a dispute about philosophy. For the reaction often takes the form of ‘you haven’t understood it yet’. The MoQ is viewed like the Bible, ‘inspired’, therefore it cannot be wrong, therefore if you disagree with it there must be something wrong with you, you must still be in the grip of heretical understandings etc. Once you have understood it, then you’re free of the clutches of alternative views and it all makes sense.

As such, it’s a form of gnosticism. There is esoteric knowledge, associated with particular (pure) experiences – called Dynamic Quality in the MoQ – and once you have gained that knowledge, absorbed that insight, then you are on the inside. You share in the mysteries.

Now compare with some of the discussions that go on around Peak Oil, particularly the ‘doomers’. Instead of it being a work of metaphysics that needs to be understood, it is a combination of geology, physics and politics. Yet here there is the same tendency to describe disagreement as ‘not getting it’ and for there to be vigorous repudiation of alternative perspectives. Again, it is this emotional charge which interests me the most. With Peak Oil there is at least the possibility that lives might rest on the outcome of the debate, yet once views have been ‘scratched’ a little, it rapidly becomes apparent that the views expressed rest upon more-or-less unacknowledged presuppositions, going deeply into a particular persons view of the world. An entire weltanschaaung is in play – this is not an academic question, it is not just an existential question – these are the questions of the meaning of our life.

They are – in Christian language – ‘salvation issues’. For this is what is at stake in the discussions for the participants, this is what gives them such importance – that the resolution of a particular issue, whether it be the MoQ, Peak Oil, the virtue of Republican or Democrat perspectives, whatever – resolution of such issues takes on the penumbra of a faith. If you ‘get it’, then you are ‘saved’. Although the explicit language is starkly different, the fundamental patterns of human behaviour – the ‘depth grammar’ involved in these human conversations – seems to me to be effectively identical in each instance. This is what I mean by the ‘grammar of salvation’. An issue takes on the form of Christianity, whilst – obviously – employing a different vocabulary.

Which leads to the question of legitimacy. Christianity is explicitly talking about God, the meaning of life, the nature of our human existence. Yet the MoQ and Peak Oil make no such explicit claims – and those who are most charged to defend their perspectives are often also those who are most assertive about their rejection of Christian perspectives. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Yet it is also the way in which their language functions.

At the heart of the Christian faith – indeed, something which is held in common with other faiths such as Buddhism – is the sense that we cannot capture what is most essential in our words, our language games. The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao. Which has the consequence, once it has been understood, of making all explicit claims to finality stand under a cloud of doubt – this could be wrong. In Christian terms, this is the process of casting out our idols, those things around which we structure our lives which are not God, and thereby diminish our humanity in so far as we gain our worth from them (ie worship them). Which leads, ultimately, to a radical uncertainty, for there is nothing tangible and explicit upon which we can rest our judgements. Here there is only room for faith – for a lived out and worked out understanding and approach to life which cannot be captured in words.

Thing is, our culture suffers from a crisis of certainty, from Descartes onwards (see Cosmopolis by Steven Toulmin for one account of why), and this crisis of certainty has its origin in the rejection of Christianity amongst the philosophes of the Enlightenment. Yet the consistent reapplication of the grammar of salvation to various issues teaches me that the longing for salvation has not gone away – it has simply channelled itself into more socially (intellectually?!) acceptable channels. Metaphysics does function as a religion – it is a kind of magic, as Wittgenstein puts it.

“Of the good in you I can speak, but not of the evil. For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst? Verily when good is hungry it seeks food even in dark caves, and when it thirsts it drinks even of dead waters.”

We are required to live with our uncertainty; and the only way to live with uncertainty is through faith. The only interesting question is ‘what sort of faith?’ not ‘do you have faith?’. The ability to be detached from one’s own perspective is a sign of spiritual maturity – living with uncertainty we walk by faith. Unfortunately, those who are most strongly attached to the various perspectives – those in whom is provoked the strongest ‘emotional charge’ when such perspectives are held up to sceptical scrutiny – are those who have not come to terms with the uncertainty, and they do not have faith.

Only the holy can see truly. That is what it means to believe in God, to attain perfect detachment, and that is what it means to walk with faith.

On being a proper scientist

I wasn’t going to comment, but I think this is interesting irrespective of AGW:
“The CRU e-mails as published on the internet provide prima facie evidence of determined and co-ordinated refusals to comply with honourable scientific traditions … The principle that scientists should be willing to expose their ideas and results to independent testing and replication by others, which requires the open exchange of data, procedures and materials, is vital.”

My thoughts on the substantive issue are fairly reflected in this post.

Coincidence and Godincidence

A coincidence is something that happens to occasion remark, but which is, by definition, meaningless. That is, part of the metaphysical presupposition behind using the word ‘coincidence’ is that there is no meaning present. There is simply a factual occurrence which happens to provoke comment and interest in those perceiving it.

A Godincidence, by contrast, is something that happens to occasion remark but which is considered meaningful by the people involved. In other words, it is taken up into a larger story, that of their own life or the life of their community. One might also talk about providence.

This is not about proving one thing or another. This is about the assumptions embedded within the vocabulary.

Asserting that something is a coincidence – often accompanied with amplifiers like ‘mere’ or ‘just a’ – is the assertion of a specific metaphysical commitment, one which, in truth, rules out every possible sense of meaning (an unacknowledged consequence).

Part of the problem that Christianity faces is that this specific metaphysical commitment has not simply passed unnoticed, but that it has passed into the bloodstream of the church.

It needs to be extirpated. We might begin, as Christians, by disavowing the routine use of the word ‘coincidence’ and only using it when we are consciously asserting that there is no meaning to be found in an event.

I suspect that we would need to exercise a great deal of caution in such a case.

Random beliefs

Doug tagged me with this; I’m supposed to “Post a collection of 10 things you believe, ethical, philosophical or theological.”

1. I believe that God is a very great deal less concerned about sexual preference (and even behaviour) than we are.

2. I believe that God is a very great deal less concerned about styles of worship than we are.

3. I believe that there are services of “Christian worship” which qualify under neither heading.

4. I believe that love makes the world go round in a very literal (ie law of physics) sense.

5. I believe that governments consistently cause more problems than they solve, and I especially appreciate the prayer in the BCP that we might be ‘godly and quietly governed’.

6. I believe that the seriousness of climate change is significantly overstated.

7. I believe that all abortions are in every case sinful, but I also believe that on some rare occasions it can be a lesser sin than the alternative.

8. I believe that the church has lost something essential with a shift away from “supernatural” understandings of the faith (eg angels and demons); I also believe that there are problems with such traditional language of the “supernatural”. Should I ever get a chance to scratch the academic itch then I will research the nature of these forms of theological language and try to answer the question ‘what is actually going on during an exorcism?’ I believe that something very real and important takes place, but neither the supernatural nor the secular approaches capture it.

9. I believe that Wittgenstein is not well understood by many (most?) mainstream philosophers, most especially with regard to his understanding of religious language. (He’ll be my principal converation partner if I end up doing that PhD – but I doubt it will be in a Philosophy faculty.)

10. I believe that atheism in the humourless sense is a passing fad and that within perhaps as little as twenty years the likes of Richard Dawkins will be viewed in the same way as, eg, Ron Atkinson was for his language. That does not mean that all atheists will become believers (to think that is to persist in missing the point) – it is to say that at the philosophical level positivism has been comprehensively debunked, and all that’s left are the cultural echoes amongst the half-educated, which will slowly die out.


I’m going to tag: Banksy, Sally, bls and Graham.