Monday, January 28, 2013

can the digital natives write?

This video has a clever lead in with a surprising Mothers Day theme.

Then he (Mitch Resnik) goes onto say that those who describe kids as "digital natives" haven't got it quite right. Using computers and phones fluently is like them learning how to read but not to write. They miss out on creating new things on their computers and phones. They are locked in to whatever is available in the apps store.

Along the way, a variety of Scratch projects are displayed.

It's fairly persuasive the way Mitch argues the case.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Reason, Truth and History by Hilary Putnam

I'm still studying Hilary Putnam and related works and don't expect to reach any firm conclusions for some time. Some of Putnam's essays are quite difficult. There is an interesting and (for me) hard to define tension between Putnam's philosophy and the marxist philosophy of ascending from the abstract to the concrete (link to a 2006 blog about that).

Here is a very rough summary:
- the copy theory of truth is not valid (the idea that our minds and hence our words represent some sort of mirror copy of the real world is not valid)
- Subjective or relativist views are not valid (eg. post modernist and / or Kuhnian views that what we regard as "truth" depends on the perspective of the observer)
- We approach the truth through being rational
- Rationality includes both facts and values (eg. beauty is rational and that is factual)
- let the Hegelian metaphor be: the mind and the world jointly make up the mind and the world
- it's important to break down the socially ingrained fact / value dichotomy
- the "scientific idea" of One True Theory does not hold up

Reason, Truth and History by Hilary Putnam (the link is to a full copy available from Brewster Kahle's Internet Archive)


In the present work, the aim which I have in mind is to break the strangle hold which a number of dichotomies appear to have on the thinking of both philosophers and laymen. Chief among these is the dichotomy between objective and subjective views of truth and reason. The phenomenon I am thinking of is this: once such a dichotomy as the dichotomy between 'objective' and 'subjective' has become accepted, accepted not as a mere pair of categories but as a characterization of types of views and styles of thought, thinkers begin to view the terms of the dichotomy almost as ideological labels. Many, perhaps most, philosophers hold some version of the 'copy' theory of truth today, the conception according to which a statement is true just in case it 'corresponds to the (mind independent) facts'; and the philosophers in this faction see the only alternative as the denial of the objectivity of truth and a capitulation to the idea that all schemes of thought and all points of view are hopelessly subjective. Inevitably a bold minority (Kuhn, in some of his moods at least; Feyerabend, and such distinguished continental philosophers as Foucault) range themselves under the opposite label. They agree that the alternative to a naive copy conception of truth is to see systems of thought, ideologies, even (in the case of Kuhn and Feyerabend) scientific theories, as subjective, and they proceed to put forward a relativist and subjective view with vigor.

That philosophical dispute assumes somewhat the character of ideological dispute is not, of itself, necessarily bad: new ideas, even in the most exact sciences, are frequently both espoused and attacked with partisan vigor. Even in politics, polarization and ideological fervor are sometimes necessary to bring moral seriousness to an issue. But in time, both in philosophy and politics, new ideas become old ideas; what was once challenging, becomes predictable and boring; and what once served to focus attention where it should be focussed, later keeps discussion from considering new alternatives. This has now happened in the debate between the correspondence views of truth and subjectivist views. In the first three chapters of this book I shall try to explain a conception of truth which unites objective and subjective components. This view, in spirit at least, goes back to ideas of Immanuel Kant; and it holds that we can reject a naive 'copy' conception of truth without having to hold that it's all a matter of the Zeitgeist, or a matter of 'gestalt switches', or all a matter of ideology.

The view which I shall defend holds, to put it very roughly, that there is an extremely close connection between the notions of truth and rationality; that, to put it even more crudely, the only criterion for what is a fact is what it is rational to accept. (I mean this quite literally and across the board; thus if it can be rational to accept that a picture is beautiful, then it can be a fact that the picture is beautiful.) There can be value facts on this conception. But the relation between rational acceptability and truth is a relation between two distinct notions. A statement can be rationally acceptable at a time but not true; and this realist intuition will be preserved in my account.

I do not believe, however, that rationality is defined by a set of unchanging 'canons' or 'principles'; methodological principles are connected with our view of the world, including our view of ourselves as part of the world, and change with time. Thus I agree with the subjectivist philosophers that there is no fixed, ahistorical organon which defines what it is to be rational; but I don't conclude from the fact that our conceptions of reason evolve in history, that reason itself can be (or evolve into) anything, nor do I end up in some fancy mixture of cultural relativism and 'structuralism' like the French philosophers. The dichotomy: either ahistorical unchanging canons of rationality or cultural relativism is a dichotomy that I regard as outdated.

Another feature of the view is that rationality is not restricted to laboratory science, nor different in a fundamental way in laboratory science and outside of it. The conception that it is seems to me a hangover from positivism; from the idea that the scientific world is in some way constructed out of 'sense data' and the idea that terms in the laboratory sciences are 'operationally defined'. I shall not devote much space to criticizing operationalist and positivist views of science; these have been thoroughly criticized in the last twenty-odd years. But the empiricist idea that 'sense data' constitute some sort of objective 'ground floor' for at least a part of our knowledge will be reexamined in the light of what we have to say about truth and rationality (in Chapter 3).

In short, I shall advance a view in which the mind does not simply 'copy' a world which admits of description by One True Theory. But my view is not a view in which the mind makes up the world, either (or makes it up subject to constraints imposed by 'methodological canons' and mind-independent 'sense-data'). If one must use metaphorical language, then let the metaphor be this: the mind and the world jointly make up the mind and the world. (Or, to make the metaphor even more Hegelian, the Universe makes up the Universe - with minds - collectively - playing a special role in the making up.)

A final feature of my account of rationality is this: I shall try to show that our notion of rationality is, at bottom, just one part of our conception of human flourishing, our idea of the good. Truth is deeply dependent on what have been recently called 'values' (Chapter 6). And what we said above about rationality and history also applies to value and history; there is no given, ahistorical, set of 'moral principles' which define once and for all what human flourishing consists in; but that doesn't mean that it's all merely cultural and relative. Since the current state in the theory of truth - the current dichotomy between copy theories of truth and subjective accounts of truth - is at least partly responsible, in my view, for the notorious 'fact/value' dichotomy, it is only by going to a very deep level and correcting our accounts of truth and rationality themselves that we can get beyond the fact/value dichotomy. (A dichotomy which, as it is conventionally understood, virtually commits one to some sort of relativism.) The current views of truth are alienated views; they cause one to lose one part or another of one's self and the world, to see the world as simply consisting of elementary particles swerving in the void (the 'physicalist' view, which sees the scientific description as converging to the One True Theory), or to see the world as simply consisting of 'actual and possible sense-data' (the older empiricist view), or to deny that there is a world at all, as opposed to a bunch of stories that we make up for various (mainly unconscious) reasons. And my purpose in this work is to sketch the leading ideas of a non- alienated view.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

summary of Peter Sutton's chapter on cultural relativism

This focuses on the legal aspects of strong cultural relativism. I hope to do another piece on the identity factors, based on an essay by Noel Pearson.

Peter Sutton. Ch 6 Customs Not in Common. In: The Politics of Suffering (2009)

The strong form of cultural relativism fails because aboriginal law is not compatible with white law. The details, once known, offend our civilised sensibilities – sexual assaults on women, child mutilation and violent punishment for crimes

A robust cultural relativism requires overcoming feelings of repugnance of the practices of the other culture, or, acceptance of a sanitised or politically correct version. Sanitised versions are easily lampooned.

If you are an urban liberal living a comfortable distance from experiencing the repugnant reality of some aspects of remote indigenous lifestyle then it is possible to maintain a rose coloured idealism and see legal pluralism as an act of decolonisation. This is non indigenous self-redemptive feel-goodism.

Historically cultural relativism played a positive role in combatting ideas or ideologies such as social Darwinism, eugenics and racial / ethnic prejudice.

Today, the strong form of cultural relativism is in decline since those ideologies just listed are in decline.

Some people still promote aboriginal law as politically restorative but those views do not hold up well under close examination.

In the past some aspects of indigenous law were tolerated and supervised by police, eg. public leg spearings. But eventually other aspects such as carnal knowledge / sexual assault on underage promised wives by aboriginal men, or, subincision of males who were still legally children, were not tolerated. This led to charges of inconsistency by aboriginals.

As the intercultural / interethic shared social space increases between whites and aboriginals then tolerance of a dual legal system decreases.

Until the 1950s a blind eye was turned to black on black homicide provided traditional weapons were used (strangulation, clubbing, spearing). It was regarded as “blackfella business”. This broke down in the 1934 case of the killing of Kai-Umen because he was shot with a rifle and the bullet was still in his head.

Most modern people see some rights as universal rights and not just whitefella rights, eg. the equality of women, the protection of children

One aspect of the indigenous legal process is to restore equilibrium amongst the kinship group. For example, rather than hold a murderer responsible it may be blamed on a spirit inflicted by another tribe. This is different from our modern law with its focus on perpetrator and victim. There may be consequences of not allowing the indigenous process to happen, leading to further violence down the track.

However, the reasons for revisiting customary law as a political restorative are usually bad reasons or originate from ignorance:
  • persistent idealism
  • grasping at straws to solve high levels of disorder and crime in indigenous communities
  • building the aboriginal industry
  • legal cleanskins who are reinventing the wheel
As integration continues, which is irreversible in practice, then homogenisation increases and the hold of traditional law recedes. In modern times elders who have the knowledge of traditional law may not practice it themselves and so their advice is suspect.

The voice and language of strong cultural relativism is moralistic focusing on issues such as the evils of colonialism, Western power, racism of whites, police violence, the oppression of minorities. There is often little investigation of the on the ground realities. Also these critiques of western culture are not matched by critiques of indigenous culture.

Support for cultural relativism ebbs and flows with the NIMBY factor. When factors of repugnance, personal safety and destruction of the social fabric come to the fore then support for strong cultural relativism declines.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Peter Sutton's 2009 book launch

"There are simplistic, bourgeois ideas about what causes rage in such (remote) communities - simplistic, naive, self-serving, urban, bourgeois view(s).. The jig is up."
I'd forgotten how brilliant Peter Sutton's The Politics of Suffering book launch was. Marcia Langton is asking the questions and Peter Sutton providing the answers.

 If you haven't seen it go here. Both Part 1 and 2 of the video are excellent.

 I have read this book and have been rereading it recently. It is a hard book to read and I did stop reading in some places (first time around) because it discouraged me that anything could be achieved. Noel Pearson leaves out some of the more difficult issues and so is more encouraging. In the end I picked it up again and kept reading. Truth is a difficult word of course but insofar as there is such a thing as truth this book speaks it.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

three choices for indigenous people

The three choices for indigenous people in welfare state countries such as Australia are:
  • passive welfare, which leads to destruction 
  • go back to the past, which is impossible 
  • go forward to a bicultural and multicultural future 
The correct choice seems obvious but some people just don't get it. See this article: Marxism and the Aboriginal Question: The Tragedy of Progress

I found a Noel Pearson article (2004) which is directly relevant to the themes in the above linked article by David Bedford. It’s an essay from his Selected Writings, Up From the Mission. I did find a version (pdf) of this article on line, although it’s not exactly the same as the one in his book.

Economic context is important. Pearson makes some preliminary remarks that aboriginals in countries like Canada and Australia (he calls these First World) do receive significant welfare, unlike aboriginals in poorer countries like PNG (such as Papua New Guinea, which he calls Third World).

This changes everything because the connection between traditional economy and culture is ruptured in these “First World” countries, which have welfare states. He goes onto say:
In my view this distinction, between the indigenous peoples living in a First World welfare state context and those who do not – is decisive, and is not properly comprehended when people think about “the survival of indigenous cultures and societies in a globalised world”. It may not be properly comprehended by Indigenous leaders contemplating the prospects of their people being able to retain their cultures in a changed and changing world.
He then makes some remarks the “cultural vibrancy” he has observed in Third World countries such as PNG and contrasts this with the cultural disintegration he has observed in Australia. This latter aspect is not stressed in this essay but is a very strong theme in many of Pearson’s other essays, eg. Dr Charles Perkins Memorial Oration, ON THE HUMAN RIGHT TO MISERY, MASS INCARCERATION AND EARLY DEATH Delivered By NOEL PEARSON, October 2001

Pearson then outlines three choices for aboriginal people in welfare states. I would argue these choices are very relevant to the theme of the above "marxist" (not true marxism IMO) essay of which I am critical. I’ll quote this section from Pearson's essay in full (from the online version):
One choice is “to remain where we are”: attempting to retain our traditions and cultures whilst dependent upon passive welfare for our predominant livelihood. For the reasons advanced earlier, I would say this is not a choice at all. If we do, the social and cultural pauperisation of Indigenous society in Australia will continue unabated, and we will not establish the foundations necessary for cultural vitality and transmission to future generations. We therefore need to confront and demolish the mistaken policy that passive welfare can subsidise the pursuit of traditional lifestyles in remote communities.

The second choice is to “go back”: to maintain our cultural and linguistic diversity in the same way as the peoples of PNG are able to, or other such indigenous peoples throughout the Third World. But this is hardly possible. Indigenous Australians are now engulfed by the Australian economy and society, and it is impossible to see how territories could be established where the welfare state no longer reached, and traditional economies could be revived (this is not to say we cannot reform the welfare state within Indigenous regions). For one thing, my people would simply refuse this course in practice.

The third choice is to “go forward” and find solutions to a bicultural and bi- and multilingual future. That is Indigenous Australians must face the challenge that comes with culture and traditions no longer being linked with our economy in a relationship of coincidental necessity, but rather one of conscious choice. This is what I have in mind when I suggest a First World Indigenous people, rather than a Fourth World (1) people. Some of the elements and requirements are as follows. Firstly, it is about being able to retain distinct cultures, traditions and identity, whilst engaging in the wider world. Secondly, Indigenous Australians will need to ensure that the economic structure underpinning my people’s society is “real”. This will require fundamental reform to the welfare system affecting my people so that we are rid of passive welfare. It will also mean that our people gain their livelihood through a combination of all available forms of “real” economic activities – traditional, subsistence, modern – and this will include the need to be mobile through “orbits” into the wider world and perhaps back to home base again. Thirdly, education will be key to enable bicultural and multilingual facility and maintenance – as well as to enable economic mobility. Fourthly, we will need to deliberately and decisively shift our cultural knowledge from its oral foundations to written and digitised foundations. We will need fundamental traditionalists to be learned in our languages and cultures to fight for cultural scholarship and maintenance that can withstand whatever social and economic changes we will confront.

This is a bare sketch of the kinds of policies we will need if we are to survive as an indigenous people within a First World nation.

The programme I outlined is obviously not a separatist programme. I advocate restoration of social order and a real economy, education and proficiency in English that make my people socially and economically completely integrated, national unity and geographic mobility. There should be much common ground for Indigenous people who agree with me and conservative and economically liberal people.
(1) I wasn't clear about Pearson's "Fourth World" terminology. However I found an article by Nicolas Rothwell which clarified the meaning:
But crafting a future for Aboriginal remote communities requires above all else a clear sight of what they are now. The communities are a welfare state and, thanks to Cape York activist Noel Pearson, the rotting effects of passive welfare provision in the Aboriginal realm are plain, and the virtues of work-for-welfare programs are accepted across the board. But the communities form a welfare zone with unusual, complicating characteristics. They have Third World living conditions but they are not in the Third World.

Rather, they are in a much stranger place: a place quite hard to see and understand. We might call it the Fourth World: a deeply deprived space contained within the borders of a modern, prosperous First World state. Absolute poverty is not the limiting economic problem: a controlled, regular, yet inadequate supply of transferred money is, along with its inevitable outcome, relative poverty - a fate both grinding and comforting for those locked out of the productive economy. Capital formation is impossible under such circumstances, unless land use can be traded.

The inhabitants of this zone are welfare pensioners, who have subsisted for decades without strong incentives to acquire skills or seek jobs. In this Fourth World of the communities, there is a strong awareness of positional disadvantage: the men, women and children there know they are at the bottom of the social pyramid of Australian life, but they have no idea of how to change their status. The younger generation's members are encouraged to share the expectations of the wider society but geography and the lack of educational pathways prevent them from taking part in the outside world on even terms.
- Our fourth world
Do Pearson’s three choices represent the real options available? I think they do. Which of the three choices do you support? Argue your case. Obviously I’m with Pearson – choice three.

I would add that Noel Pearson’s practice has gone far beyond outlining these choices. He has influenced governments in Australia to implement his option 3 in Cape York Peninsula. This I regard as a remarkable achievement of truly progressive practical politics starting from a reality so grim that people can’t imagine and seem to continually want to forget about once they have heard.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Aaron Swartz

Information still wants to be free. It's sad that there are tragedies along that road. Such a waste.

Beautiful tribute from Tim Berners-Lee:
Aaron is dead.

Wanderers in this crazy world,
we have lost a mentor, a wise elder.

Hackers for right, we are one down,
we have lost one of our own.

Nurtures, careers, listeners, feeders,
parents all,
we have lost a child.

Let us all weep.

timbl - source
Aaron Swartz bio
Corey Doctorow: RIP, Aaron Swartz
Lawrence Lessig: Prosecuter as Bully

Monday, January 07, 2013

reinventing myself

We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction
- Otto Neurath
I love the practice of Zig Engelmann's Direct Instruction but am not happy with his philosophical underpinnings as expressed in sections of Could John Stuart Mill Have Saved Our Schools? Engelmann and Carnine just seem to take extracts from a variety of philosophers and throw them together in a grab bag: some James, JS Mill, Peirce, Plato, Skinner, etc. In other places serious thinkers such as Dewey and Piaget are dismissed without a full consideration of their contribution.

Nevertheless, the practice of Direct Instruction is very impressive, for disadvantaged learners, and I have to embrace it.

Since I like to think of myself as a philosophical person this creates a dilemma. I think of Direct Instruction as excellent in practice but insufficiently theorised.

It has led me to study philosophy again. I have some general background knowledge in the works of Karl Marx, Seymour Papert, the evolution debate between Stephen J Gould and Richard Dawkins, Douglas Hofstadter, Daniel Dennett, Marvin Minsky, Alan Kay and Noel Pearson. These thinkers have seriously influenced my thinking.

But they haven't yet provided me with the comprehensive thinking tools I need to evaluate Direct Instruction.

So, I've began a review of the history of the philosophy of science. Since Engelmann has at times described his method as "Logico-Empirical" (p. 125 of the JS Mill book mentioned above) then I needed to understand why logical empiricism as well as logical positivism had been decisively rejected by modern philosophers. A reasonable introduction (but it's only an overview with good references) to this question is provided by Peter Godfrey-Smith in Theory and Reality.

Arising from this study I've now discovered a seriously profound contemporary philosopher, Hilary Putnam, who forces me to think in new ways, who challenges my ideas in ways which I can't ignore. What this means is developing a toolkit of philosophical ideas which inform my world outlook and current practice in trying to help indigenous kids, who are behind in their learning, to learn more effectively.

Perhaps I'll write a few blogs outlining some of these new thoughts in the near future. Thinking aloud and having a conversation or debate on these issues does help.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Bess Price: "We need to support those who tell the truth"

from Quadrant Online
Bess Price's forward to Stephanie Jarrett's new book, Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence:
I have lived with violence all of my life. Many of my relatives have been either the victims or perpetrators of what is called grievous bodily harm, some of homicide. My own body is scarred by domestic violence. Some of this violence comes from our traditional way of life. When we lived in the desert we had no armies, police forces or courts. Every family had to defend itself. Everybody, male and female.

Men had the right to beat their wives. Young women had very few rights. Men had the right to kill those who they thought had broken the law. We all know this but won’t talk about it.

Things are now much worse because the good things about the old law are dying with the old wise ones who were born and raised in the desert and knew how the old law should work to make sure it was just. Now we have alcohol and drugs and our young people are confused and frightened. When they follow our old law they break the new, when they follow the new law they break the old. That is why the jails are full of our young men, and more and more, our young women.

We Aboriginal people have to acknowledge the truth. We can’t blame all of our problems on the white man. The best thing about acknowledging that we have our own traditional forms of violence is that this our problem which we can fix ourselves. We don't need to be told what to do by the white man.

In Alice Springs the courageous Aboriginal men of the Ingkintja Male Health Unit in Alice Springs admitted that there was too much violence and apologised to their women and children for the violence and decent enough to apologise.

Governments and human rights activists have ignored them. They are heroes who should be supported. I know Stephanie Jarrett to be decent, caring and hard working. I commend her work to you. We need to support those who tell the truth, acknowledge it and start solving our own problems.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Lysenko Affair analysis by Helena Sheehan

I've always had difficulty understanding the varying histories or recommendations about the history of the USSR. "Stalin good"; "Stalin bad, Trotsky good"; Koestler's "Darkness at Noon"; George Orwell's "Animal Farm"; "a Stalin led USSR defeated the Nazis"; "Stalin 70/30"; "Read more recent post archive opening histories"; "History is written by the winners" etc. Call me naive. You might think you understand it but I never have.

The author's or recommender's POV (Stalinist, Trotskyist, anti-marxists, liberals, humanists) always seem to overwhelm the complexity of the data. For many years I have put these questions into the too hard basket and remained a "doubtist".

So, what appeals to me about a scientific history is that the data and hence the interpretation is relatively harder. Science has clearly progressed a lot in the past 150 years (going back to Marx and Engels) whereas "progress" in economics and politics, it could be argued, is more like heading off in tangents or going around in circles. Progress in science can't be denied (even though the philosophy of science remains a difficult area) whereas progress in economic and politics is debatable eg. standard of living has gone up but the gap b/w rich and poor has widened.

Helena Sheehan has been strongly influenced by marxism and also remains open minded to different interpretations. As argued above I think her general framing of how to assess the history of marxism and the philosophy of science is a good one.

I'd strongly recommend Chapter 4, The October Revolution: Marxism in Power (the book is here). [So far I've read Chapters 1 (Engels) and 3 (Lenin's Materialism and Empirio Criticism) as well,which are also good]. In Chapter 4 she traces the evolution of the various currents that eventually led to Soviet State support for Lysenko's phoney science. Briefly, Lysenko promoted Lamarkism and opposed Genetics. After 1935 in the USSR ideological demogoguery progressively replaced useful, scientific, vigorous debate - at great and tragic cost.

It does make for grim reading in parts. It has helped me assess a part of history I've always felt uncertain about. It reveals the sorts of arguments and thinking behind them, used by both sides of the science debate, before the crude politics of power took over. I plan to delve into the style of discussion more: arguments that sound good at the time but turn out to be wrong (not finished yet). My motivation is an interest in what it means to have a scientific understanding of the world in a broad sense - and how that sometimes or often becomes derailed.