No, that doesn’t actually beg the question

Greetings from the Franschhoek Literary Festival where, when we’re not sitting in panel discussions, you might often find us sitting drinking wine and debating important matters. Today, after our table resolved the issue of whether you should wear your name tag in a visible (to some, ostentatious) fashion (yes), we moved on to talking about whether it was worth contesting the increasingly prevalent misuse of the phrase “begs the question”. Continue reading “No, that doesn’t actually beg the question”

On using italics and “othering” other languages

The Mail&Guardian recently published an op-ed telling readers that the paper would no longer italicise words in South African languages other than English (for the benefit of foreign readers, we have 11 official languages here).

You can read the piece on the M&G website, but you’ll need to create a (free) account to do so. While I understand, and have great sympathy for, their motives, the reasoning is muddled, and the conclusion incoherent. Continue reading “On using italics and “othering” other languages”

God bless you, Rest in Peace – on secular versus religious language

Andre P. BrinkWhen South African author Andre P. Brink died on February 6, I was one of the many who extended my condolences to his family and friends. I didn’t use the phrase “rest in peace” or its acronym “RIP”, because after death, there’s no agent capable of “resting”. That’s what death means, for those of us who subscribe to a naturalist ontology.

But that’s not all that “RIP” means – it’s a shorthand for extending commiserations, for demonstrating shared membership of a community of caring, and for marking the passing of someone who was considered valuable to that community.

To use – or exploit – the grief or sadness at the death of such a person to score political points for atheism is crude, unnecessary, and unfeeling.

Yet that’s exactly what I saw on some South African atheist online communities, and this is again an elegant example of why atheists need to be more concerned about their own PR, in that if you’re trying to argue – as we do – that gods aren’t necessary for being good people, it helps to behave like good people in the absence of gods.

The objections from atheists were the usual – focusing only on the fact that there’s no soul or spirit, they claimed that the words were meaningless, or even worse, that they demean the living by assuming that there’s more to life than just the here and now.

As I said above, there is more to the here and now, but in the limited sense of there being a social context in which words function, and what you signal when you reject that.

There is a time, and a value, to trying to get people to strip their language and their mental furniture of various metaphysical concepts. But that time – at least if you care about getting your point across, rather than scoring points – is when the matter can be considered in the abstract, rather than coming across as an insult to people who are grieving.

“Bless you” is a similar example, but different in a crucial way, in that you can easily poke fun at people who say “bless you” without poking at their open sores. The examples are different in degree, if not in kind.

“Merry Christmas” is another, and similar to “bless you” – it’s laughably precious to object to this in anything but the mildest of terms, and especially ridiculous to object so strongly that you get yourself thrown off a plane, as an American (presumably) atheist recently did.

Despite their religious origins, the point is that these phrases are now largely secular in usage. We know that they operate as shorthand for recognising a common humanity, and for reinforcing social bonds. No offence is intended by them, and our reactions need to be proportionate to the triviality of the “crime” committed.

Yes, I’d prefer for us to use alternatives. But for any alternatives to gain traction takes time. And motivating for them, and gaining consensus for their usage, won’t be easy if you approach that task by being an ass.

But for those of you who want to be offended, and treat any word or phrase with a religious origin as an insult, here’s your challenge: stop saying “goodbye” to people.

“Goodbye” is, after all, is a contraction of “God be with you”, and is thus surely pretty damn offensive.

Thinking fast and slow

As submitted to Daily Maverick

Two quite peculiar experiences stand out after returning from the Global Atheist Convention, held in Melbourne earlier this month. The first was at the instigation of Sam Harris, who guided the roughly 4000 atheists present in a session of mindfulness meditation. The second was watching our news cycle (or rather, social media commentary on it) from afar and at 8 hours remove.

The latter experience had the effect of highlighting the perception that little seems to change – that the same people kept saying the same things and the same entrenched positions kept leading to the same misinterpretations and squabbles. But in light of the quite alien – and for some, alienating – exercise in mindfulness, I couldn’t help but wonder whether we can do better and if so, how we’d go about it.

Harris’s talk was about death. The inevitability of death, and the absence of some sort of way of cheating it via an immortal soul, was used as a vehicle to ask us to reflect on wasted time and effort. We sometimes appear to live as if we might be immortal, deferring important decisions to quit smoking or patch up some relationship.

More crucially, some of us could be accused of not realising the full implications of our mortality – if this is the only life we have, it falls to us to improve our world, and we’ve neither unlimited time nor supernatural help to do so. An obvious, yet powerful, comment made by Harris was that it’s quite likely that many of us will spend our last months or years in regret for what we failed to achieve – but that being able to anticipate this regret seems to have little motivational force in the present.

The disjunction between thoughts of mortality and the significance of life, versus noticing that South Africans were again, and still, talking about whether Cape Town was racist or whether respect for cultural norms precluded criticism of polygamy was quite stark. I’m not suggesting that these conversations are unimportant. I’m rather observing that in having these conversations nobody ever seems to change their minds, or admit that they don’t have a well-justified position. And the debates never seem to take place with a greater degree of mutual understanding than in their previous iterations.

Part of the problem might be that we forget how young we are, and therefore how little experience we have of making sense of each other. While modern humans originated around 200 000 years ago, most of us still lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers until around 10 000 years ago, when agriculture started allowing for the formation of permanent settlements, trade, cooperation and the formation of complex societies.

If you start the clock those 200 000 years ago, we’ve only lived in societies for 5% of our existence, and in complex societies for less than 2%. The skills most useful for flourishing during the other 95% of our history aren’t equally useful today, yet they continue to determine many of our responses to modern challenges. Essentially, we’re pattern-making creatures, who survived through being able to do things like predict the movements of animals and the changes of seasons. We look for structure, and we’re so well-trained and efficient at this that it happens without thinking – and perhaps often in ways that are entirely inappropriate to a more complex modern world.

Daniel Kahneman’s recent book Thinking fast and slow details many of the ways in which our cognitive habits let us down through placing undue weight on surface over substance. He refers to System 1 and System 2 thinking to explain this, where System 1 sees patterns, and generates an “obvious” (and time-saving) answer.

But this answer is often wrong, because it’s mostly designed by humans who lived during that other 95% of our existence, and not by us. We need to remind ourselves to think more slowly and to be suspicious of the first, intuitive response. System 2 isn’t as easily fooled by misleading patterns because it’s a more careful judge of available evidence rather than impressions, and we can force it into action simply by being a little more patient and a little more cautious.

Besides reminding ourselves to think a little slower, I’d also suggest that there’s room for improvement in the way we talk. Tallyrand said that “language was invented so that people could conceal their thoughts from each other”, and while that might often be true, it also seems true that our language often serves to preclude rather than encourage debate, whether through the use of lazy, stereotypical categories or through moralistic outrage.

If we want to get better at understanding ourselves and cooperating to improve our world, we need to realise that we constantly make mistakes. Not only mistakes related to particular choices, but mistakes that involve how we choose, because they’re a feature of how we think. And we perhaps give too little thought to training the mind versus simply acquiring information.

This was the point of the meditation exercise described above. As Harris pointed out, while most accounts of practices such as these are contaminated by metaphysics, that shouldn’t prevent us from recognising that it’s possible for us to weigh evidence less subjectively and to do a better job of distinguishing between the significant battles and the petty squabbles.

A joke sometimes told about philosophers is that we’re inclined to say things like “we know it’s possible in practice, but is it possible in principle?” While watching the Groundhog Day-debates take place from my hotel room in Melbourne, I couldn’t shake the feeling that sometimes our principles seem immune to revision, regardless of the evidence. And that maybe, we should start by throwing them away – or at least by remembering that they are products of brains that were evolved to cope with a different world to the one we actually live in.

The limits of our language

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Curricular revisions in the area of religious instruction in South African schools have been the subject of a previous column, in which I argued that political expediency could compromise Constitutional freedoms, as well as handicap the development of a citizenry which is capable of significant intellectual engagement with policy. A related trend, with the same negative consequences, can also be observed in our universities. More recently, the teaching of the most basic foundation of language – grammar – is being threatened. And so, another potential blow is landed against clarity of thought and expression. Continue reading “The limits of our language”