PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 135 2nd May 2008
I. 'Thinking Allowed: Philosophy for Children at Gallions Primary School' Review by Matthew Del Nevo
II. 'Placebo Religion and Philosophy' by Peter B. Raabe
III. 'What's wrong with Darwinism?' by D.R. Khashaba
What is the use and value of philosophy? This was the question posed in the first Pathways online conference (https:---). It is itself one of the perennial questions of philosophy, first raised in Plato's dialogue Phaedo, where Socrates recounts the profound transformation in his own view of the vocation to be a lover of wisdom.
In his review of a DVD produced by Gallions Primary School in East London, Matthew Del Nevo presents the succinct case for philosophy in schools. Any school head who ignores the value of philosophy for children in the face of the evidence is, in my view, putting their head in the sand. Here is the clearest example where demonstrable practical benefits are allied with the intellectual case that Socrates proved in his life, and in his death two and a half thousand years ago.
In his provocative article -- which will not please students of Heidegger -- Peter Raabe decries 'placebo religion' and 'placebo philosophy'. In philosophy, the placebo effect is achieved through creating the false impression that one is talking about something deep and important when one is not, an egregious practice which detracts from the mission of philosophy to promote understanding and illumination. Philosophy is not always required to demonstrate practically how, in the words of Epicurus, it 'alleviates human suffering', but it must at least strive to be enlightening.
Daoud Khashaba takes a bold step into the Evolutionist-Creationist controversy, accusing both sides of failing to grasp the significance of the metaphysical question that mere empirical or causal theories of origin fail to address. The unique value of philosophy and in particular metaphysics lies in the way it focuses on our inner human reality, what it is to be a conscious self who finds things beautiful or ugly, profound or meaningless. The question, 'Why am I here?' isn't a question about causes and effects.
Peter Boltuc, Editor of the American Philosophical Association Newsletter on Computers and Philosophy, in which my article 'The Pathways School of Philosophy' appeared last year (Vol 07, Issue 01), has asked me to advertise a special issue on 'The Ontological Status of Web-Based Objects'. Contributions of up to 3000 words should be emailed to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com by 1st July. For those (like me) who didn't know, examples of 'web based objects' are characters in online games, web sites, electronic images etc.
As Pirsig remarks somewhere, the Buddha may as easily reside in the circuits of a computer as on the top of a mountain.
I. 'THINKING ALLOWED: PHILOSOPHY FOR CHILDREN AT GALLIONS SCHOOL' REVIEW BY MATTHEW DEL NEVO
Thinking Allowed: Philosophy for children at Gallions Primary School (DVD, Gallions School, London 2007)
Philosophy or 'thinking skills' as it is otherwise known is becoming more important to schools. The movement of doing philosophy -- or practicing thinking skills -- with children was started by Matthew Lipman in the 1970s in the United States and became known as P4C, philosophy for children. Lipman has written extensively in the area over the space of a lifetime. One key theoretical text is Thinking in Education (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991; 2nd edition, 2003). Lipman, based at Montclair State College in New Jersey developed the 'community of inquiry' idea as the way of doing philosophy, or practicing thinking skills.
Lipman followed the American tradition, particularly John Dewey (1859-1952) which has a strong pragmatic rather than speculative or history-of-ideas character, saw philosophy as doing something and doing something for society. What the community of inquiry does is to foster critical and creative thinking. This means, thinking that is self-reflexive, in other words, thinking that has a sense of its criteria, that is sensitive to the opinions of others and their right to differ, and that is creative in the sense of not fixed, but self-correcting. This is the kind of thinking required in a democracy. Critical and creative thinking is good democratic thinking.
Why is this approach more and more pertinent to contemporary education? The reasoning goes as follows. With the rationalisation of education we have tied learning to outcomes, and mapped the curriculum to these outcomes. In assessing whether the outcomes have been met we have developed marking criteria. At the upper end of these marking criteria, across the curriculum, developed learning is judged to be that which is analytical. At the lower end of the marking criteria is learning which is descriptive. The difference here is between a student that can remember and describe information they have been given in lessons, and a student that can pick that information up and do something with it; analyse, assess, evaluate, appreciate, in a word, show they understand it.
Modern technological democracies need the latter kind of person who can do something with what they have been given, which is responsible, reflective and relevant.
The world is awash with information, but do we have the young people coming through that know what to do with it? It is one thing to know how to access information, it is another to be able to judge whether the information is worth accessing. The one is a passive mind, the other an active judgement. It is the latter modern technological democracies need.
But can we expect such 'higher order' skills of our young people? In the democratic spirit, the answer is a resounding yes. Being a philosopher is for everyone. When should you start? The earlier the better. Lipman started working at the younger end with primary school children and then extended his work into secondary schools.
The DVD under review here is entitled 'Thinking Allowed'. There is a pun on aloud, but the title is nevertheless provocative. Are we getting our school children thinking out loud among themselves in an engaged and intelligent manner, or do we shut their thinking in on them and deluge them with information. Are they allowed to think? Do our educational planners, our school leaders even really know what thinking is? There are political questions here. Thinking is dangerous, as Plato recognised, because once people begin to think for themselves things can start to change in unplanned ways.
Gallions Primary school is in East London. It is multi-cultural, in fact primarily non-Anglo. I'm just guessing, but I don't imagine the parents of these children are London's middle class. They are mainly (I'm guessing) kids of migrant parents trying to make a way in the new society. This is important because it shows the democratic importance, strength and potential of embedding philosophy into school. There are two ways of doing it. One is having philosophy as an add-on to an already packed curriculum or under the gifted and talented budget, the other is to embed it right through the school as the way to process what is being taught. By 'process' I mean the students really working with the materials they get given in lessons and playing with it. Gallions Primary has followed the second, more adventurous route.
'Thinking Allowed' mainly shows footage of the community of inquiry, showing how it works, how students process work, how they work together and how the teacher operates as a facilitator. The DVD manages to show the developmental aspect of this, by which I mean how, over time, the community of inquiry develops like a team that knows how to work together. Also the DVD gives us at least a glimpse of how embedding community of inquiry style learning through the school changes the school culture in ways that have huge positive impact over time.
'Thinking Allowed' is most useful for those who are thinking of venturing down the path of philosophy in school and want to see what it looks like; it is less useful for those already thoroughly versed in the ways of community of inquiry.
On the point about embedding school-wide philosophy or critical and creative thinking skills, it is true that the culture of the school will improve, enrolments will improve, and the outputs will improve (i.e. student's achievements). Of course there is a circular relationship between these, once one improves, that has influence on the others.
The story of Buranda State High, a primary school in downtown Brisbane is often cited in this part of the world. Burunda had failing enrolments on the back of its poor reputation and performance and was going to be closed down. A new Principal took the school on and said she would turn it around. She introduced philosophy in school across the classes. She sent teachers off for philosophy in schools training. The school completely turned around and begun to compete as one of the best primary schools in the state, both for its learning culture and the quality of students it produced. The measure of success, surely the result of philosophy in school, was the minister of education in Queensland picking Buranda as school of choice for his child.
In the DVD of Gallions, similar improvement in culture is mentioned. They cite the complete drop in incidents at play-time, with students being able to sort through their problems by talking about them. This is spontaneous and not set up by or monitored by teachers on duty. It is simply a marked improvement in the school's culture that is a benefit, they believe, of introducing philosophy in school to all classes and developing a thoughtful culture out of that base.
I will not go into how the community of inquiry works, for children or from the point of view of the facilitator, who is the teacher; and it is facilitating, not teaching, which is big shift for some staff. You can see all this if you obtain the DVD.
I thoroughly recommend this DVD to anyone whose interest has been aroused by this review. As a practitioner of philosophy in schools here in Australia I know the information is accurate. It is also well presented. The DVD is realistic and down-to-earth, showing that philosophy in school is not something for elite schools but for all schools that truly value learning.
More information on Philosophy in School in UK can be obtained from the leading organisation SAPERE (Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education) http:---.
(c) Matthew Del Nevo 2008
Dr Mathew Del Nevo Senior Lecturer in Theology and Christian Spirituality Dean of Research and Development The Broken Bay Institute http:---
For information on how to obtain the DVD contact:
Paul Jackson Headteacher Gallions Primary School Warwall
Tel: 0207 476 1252
II. 'PLACEBO RELIGION AND PHILOSOPHY' BY PETER B. RAABE
I would like to introduce two new terms into the English language: placebo religion and placebo philosophy.
As you know a placebo is a faux-medication (such as a sugar pill) with no active therapeutic ingredients. A placebo effect is when the patient believes that the faux-medication he is receiving has active ingredients in it because he's convinced he can feel its non-existent effects. The same placebo pill will cause different patients to believe they feel very different 'effects.' One patient may be convinced the placebo pill helps him to sleep better, while another patient is convinced that the same pill has improved her eyesight.
I define placebo religion as when a believer believes that a piece of supposedly spiritual writing he is reading has active spiritual 'ingredients' within it. The same piece of writing will cause different believers to understand the spiritual message in very different ways. But like the placebo pill, placebo religion has no 'active ingredient' in it; the message of placebo religion is always vague, ambiguous, full of cliches and New Age platitudes, so that multiple interpretations can all seem correct.
When questioned or challenged on this problem of multiple interpretations, the authors who write placebo religious books and essays defend themselves by arguing that there doesn't have to be just one correct interpretation, and that, in fact, they intended their writing to be variously understood. They're willing to acknowledge that, of course, their writings will mean different things to different people. But in actuality, this is an admission that, like the placebo pill, there is no effectual substance to their writings. The benefit of their writing is the placebo effect, which is never contained in the writing itself; it is only in the believing reader. This is an example of the sort of writings found in what I call placebo religion:
There is only one absolute Truth, all other truths emanate
from it. When you find that Truth, your actions will be in
alignment with it. Human action can reflect the Truth, or
it can reflect illusion. Can the Truth be put into words?
Yes, but the words are, of course, not it. They only point
to it. The Truth is inseparable from who you are. Yes, you
are the Truth. If you look for it elsewhere, you will be
deceived every time. The very Being that you are is Truth.
Eckhart Tolle A New Earth: Awakening Your Life's Purpose
In placebo religion all the benefit comes from the belief of the believer. Not surprisingly there are psychological benefits, just like there are with a placebo pill, but there is no evidence that there's any spiritual benefit in the writing itself. For example, there is no evidence that there is an 'absolute Truth' or that finding it will lead to some sort of miraculous change in one's life. Without belief a placebo religion, just like a placebo pill, has nothing substantial to offer. And to offer placebo religion as though there's something substantial in it is clearly deceptive and immoral.
I use the word 'religion' because a lot of writing that is claimed to be spiritual becomes religion, in that there are texts published (which gain a sort of sacred status among believers), there are seminars (which are very much like religious meetings), there are leaders (who claim to be enlightened), there are faithful followers (who are awed by their leader and believe him or her without question), there are ritualized practices, there are memorized words and phrases, there are amulets, and so on.
The problem with placebo religion is that it causes harm in several ways. First, placebo religious writings make the believer feel inadequate because it leads him to feel he lacks the level of enlightenment that would allow him to clearly understand the vague and ambiguous writings which, in fact, can't be clearly understood. The religious response to this criticism is that the writings don't require understanding, rather they require some sort of mysterious 'feeling' or special 'knowing.' If the believer doesn't feel he knows what the writings mean, then he is told he lacks enlightenment. How is enlightenment attained? By reading the writings which the believer can't understand due to his lack of enlightenment. This circular argument places the responsibility for making sense of placebo religious writings on the believer; in other words, lack of understanding is blamed on the victim.
The second problem with placebo religion is this: imagine a patient with a serious illness is given a placebo pill as treatment. Since there is no substantive therapeutic medication in it, the patient will continue to suffer from the illness and perhaps even die. The same danger exists in placebo religion: it has no real substance other than the placebo effect. The believer will continue to be vulnerable to the ill effects of everyday life while he is convinced his belief in the placebo religion is having a positive effect on a negative reality.
And third, the leaders who promote placebo religious beliefs often receive financial patronage from their followers. This financial support enjoyed by the leaders allows them to spread the self-fulfilling prophecy that belief may bring financial rewards, or at least that a leader's enriched life is evidence that the life of those who believe will soon change for the better. If life doesn't improve for believers they are once again blamed for not believing correctly or fervently enough.
These harms in turn all lead to a still greater harm: a mistrust and abandonment of all religious writings, many of which may in fact have something substantive to offer those who wish to enhance their spirituality. What's the antidote to placebo religion? I suggest it's the 'therapeutic' effect of an examination of one's beliefs and values by means of philosophy.
Unfortunately, not all philosophy is beneficial. There exists quite a bit of what I call placebo philosophy. The ancient philosopher Epicurus said that philosophy which does not relieve any human suffering is just empty philosophy. Just like a pill that is empty of any medicinal ingredients is a placebo pill, philosophy that is empty of any beneficial 'ingredients' is placebo philosophy.
It may be argued that philosophy doesn't need to be beneficial in a practical sense; it only needs to be significant in an intellectual sense. While this may be true, philosophy that is claimed to be intellectually significant can also be empty. Empty intellectual philosophy consists of published works that are difficult if not impossible to understand because they're full of technical jargon, neologisms (invented words), ambiguity, vagueness, New Ageisms, and post-modernisms that lend themselves to a multitude of interpretations.
Here's an example of what I consider to be placebo philosophy:
Understanding is the being of such a potentiality of being
which is never still outstanding as something not yet
objectively present, but as something essentially never
objectively present, is together with the being of Dasein
in the sense of existence. Dasein is in the way that it
actually understands or has not understood to be this way
or that way. As this understanding, it 'knows' what is
going on, that is, what it's potentiality of being is. This
'knowing' does not first come from an immanent
self-perception, but belongs to the being of the there
which is essentially understanding.
Martin Heidegger Being and Time 1953
Placebo philosophy is often believed to be intellectually deep, conceptually profound, consequential, and full of value. But its value is evident primarily to believers, those individuals who believe there must surely be something substantial in it because it sounds so important, or because they recognise the author's name, or simply because of the fact that it was published.
Placebo philosophy, just like placebo religion, also has its awe-inspiring sacred texts, cult-like leaders, faithful followers, and seminars. It also has a form of ritual practice: analyzing various published editions and translations of the 'sacred' text to find purity of meaning, searching through secondary and tertiary sources for supportive commentary, even dissecting phrases and scrutinizing their individual words for greater enlightenment, all with a reverential diligence and deferential humility sustained by the belief that, in time, the meaning of the text will clearly reveal itself.
The problem with placebo philosophy is that it causes harm in several ways. First, placebo philosophical writings make the believer feel inadequate because it leads her to believe she lacks the level of philosophical sophistication and intellectual aptitude necessary to clearly understand those esoteric writings which, in fact, can't be clearly understood.
Second, it's a waste of time. Students and graduates alike can study placebo philosophy for many years in what ends up being a futile attempt to make sense of that which is mostly nonsensical. Yet many writers of placebo philosophy have argued that it's acceptable for a concept to be a self-contradictory, self-referential, true by proclamation, and an enigma with no set meaning. But this argument begs the question, Is it true that this is acceptable in philosophy?
Third, in the same way that placebo religion harms legitimate spirituality, placebo philosophy harms legitimate philosophy. It perpetuates the belief among non-believers and non-academics that philosophy is obscure, difficult, mysterious, useless, and largely absurd. Not only that, but placebo philosophy which advocates transcendent illumination can sound exactly like placebo religion, leading to the alienation of individuals who are simply looking for meaningful philosophical discourse on everyday questions and issues.
What's the antidote to placebo philosophy? I believe the only solution is for philosophers themselves to stand up against it, to point it out for what it is when it's encountered, to refuse to study or publish it, and to write the antidote 'prescriptions' themselves in ordinary language. I believe that both placebo philosophy and placebo religion are a reprehensible and manipulative deception of the human mind in its desire for deeper knowledge and higher enlightenment.
(c) Peter B. Raabe 2008
Professor of Philosophy University College of the Fraser Valley Abbotsford, BC Canada
Philosophical Counsellor http:---
III. 'WHAT'S WRONG WITH DARWINISM?' BY D.R. KHASHABA
I have lately been reading, for the first time, Bernard Shaw's Back to Methuselah, first published in 1921. In the long preface Shaw comments on the Darwinist-Creationist controversy of his day in a manner which is still relevant to the debate as it is currently waged.
Shaw begins by pointing out a truth that is generally obliterated in the current controversies, namely that Darwin was not the originator of the idea or theory of evolution. Darwinism -- whether as originally propounded by Charles Darwin or as what it has become now -- is a special theory of evolution or a special chapter in the general theory of evolution. Among the many ancient and modern forerunners in the field, Shaw cites Goethe who,
... said that all the shapes of creation were cousins; that
there must be some common stock from which all the species
had sprung; that it was the environment of air that had
produced the eagle, of water the seal, and of earth the
Shaw then quotes Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles, who, in a book published in 1794 says,
The world has been evolved, not created; it has arisen
little by little from a small beginning, and has increased
through the activity of the elemental forces embodied in
itself, and so has rather grown than come into being at an
almighty word. (p.xvi)
Shaw was not primarily concerned to criticize Darwinism as the scientific theory it was in Darwin's work but as the philosophy of materialism and mechanism, of cut-throat competition and unfeeling struggle for survival that was appended to Darwinism by nineteenth century thought. He describes the atmosphere of thought in his day:
We were intellectually intoxicated with the idea that the
world could make itself without design, purpose, skill, or
intelligence: in short, without life. (p.xxxvi)
He goes on to say:
We took a perverse pleasure in arguing, without the least
suspicion that we were reducing ourselves to absurdity,
that all the books in the British Museum library might have
been written word for word as they stand on the shelves if
no human being had ever been conscious, just as the trees
stand in the forest doing wonderful things without
For myself, I do not even care to quarrel with, or to charge with absurdity, one who maintains that physical elements tumbling and knocking blindly through trillions of years might produce Hamlet and Beethoven's Choral Symphony and all that is good and all that is trash on the world wide web. All that, in itself, would be dead, lifeless, meaningless. But a single conscious individual reacting intelligently to Hamlet, moved by Beethoven's music, or feeling indignant at some imbecility on the world wide web faces me with a reality that is other than the physical world.
This reality, however it may have come about, is what I find meaningful, and it is in this reality that I find life and value and true being. And I cannot think of this reality as a by-product of anything that is without life and without intelligence. To me any existence devoid of life and intelligence is simply unintelligible. To me the fact that is elemental and ineradicable is not the world that presses on me from outside -- it is something closer home; it is this life and awareness and will that is on the inside. And I believe that this life and intelligence in which alone I find meaningfulness is fundamental and ultimate.
Shaw, in opposing Darwinism or the Neo-Darwinism of his day, advocates a version of Lamarck's theory. He writes that to one who 'tells you that you are a product of Circumstantial Selection solely' you may offer,
... the counter-assurance that you are the product of
Lamarckian evolution, formerly called Functional Adaptation
and now Creative Evolution, and challenge him to disprove
that, which he can no more do than you can disprove
Circumstantial Selection, both forces being conceivably
able to produce anything if you only give them rope enough.
This challenge, as I see it, involves the same confusion that vitiates the current controversies between the Darwinists and the Creationists or their present-day successors, the Intelligent Design advocates. Shaw, in my view, errs in treating the vitalism that may underlie Lamarck's theory, Schopenhauer's Will, Bergson's Creative Evolution, as on a par with Darwin's theory of natural selection. (Curiously, Shaw, while speaking of Creative Evolution and even using the expression Elan Vital, does not mention Bergson anywhere in his book.)
Darwin describes a method, an observed process, which may or may not be seen as adequate to account for the successive changes in living species. Darwin, whether he was quite clear in his own mind on this point or not, was not concerned with what was behind the processes he described. It is not impossible that biologists may find it desirable or necessary to supplement natural selection with a revised version of Lamarck's adaptation and inheritance of acquired qualities or something similar to that. This would still exclude any consideration of what is behind the process. That cannot be approached by scientific method. Scientific method can only tell us how -- in what manner -- the change has come about, but not what made it come about.
The how remains a brute fact without intrinsic meaning. Then comes a Schopenhauer who says we may conceive of a Will at the heart of things. This confers meaning on the phenomena of life but does not add anything to the facts observed and reported by objective science. A Goethe, a Schopenhauer, a Bergson, a Whitehead, is a poet who takes hold of brute fact and educates its brutality, shapes it into meaning, but does not produce facts.
You might say, 'Well, similarly, a Creationist or Intelligent Design advocate may assert that he conceives of a Creator or a Designer behind nature.' He may, but there is a difference. The Creationist means us to regard his Creator factually, as an existent entity. As I see it, that makes the Creator an object on a par with the physical world. He should then be subject to the same criteria and methods of verification applicable to nature, and by those criteria and methods he fails.
Moreover, suppose that you can demonstrate empirically that there is a mighty being out there controlling all the processes of the world. How can you show that that mighty being is not itself an automaton whose movements are purely mechanical? A mind 'out there' is a contradiction in terms. It becomes a mere addendum to the natural world, a tortoise that carries the elephant that carries the world.
Metaphysics does not, or should not, pretend to give us knowledge of the world outside of us, though metaphysicians commonly speak as if they do. According to the point of view that I have been trying to put through in all my writings, a metaphysician, properly, gives us a principle of intelligibility which makes the world make sense for us, makes the objectively chaotic and dumb world orderly and coherent. The metaphysician is in the same business as the poet and the artist who make the mindless sound and fury of the world signify something. That is why there can be various metaphysical systems, equally meaningful, just as there can be various epics, dramas, symphonies, equally fulfilling.
Does this land us in unrepentant Protagorean relativism? No, since I maintain that what we find to be real -- what gives us our concept of ultimate reality -- is our inner reality, the reality of creative intelligence and creative love within us. This reality is absolute and ineradicable. But it is ineffable. It cannot be constrained in a determined formulation. But it can be given mythical expression. Hence the possibility of endless metaphysical representations, opposed in letter but one in affirming the one reality we find within us.
Shaw, in his espousal of Lamarckism in opposition to Darwinism, was trespassing into territory that he had no call to stray into, but he is on firmer ground when he takes up the opposition between mechanism and vitalism. (p.lv). I think he insightfully portrays the plight of philosophical thinking in his own day and in ours when he says:
Our minds have reacted so violently to provable logical
theorems and demonstrable mechanical or chemical facts that
we have become incapable of metaphysical truth. (p.lvi)
Metaphysical truth has become completely lost to recent and contemporary thinking. This is not only sad; at the present juncture of human civilization it is ominous.
1. Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah, 1921. The page references are to the Penguin Books edition, 1939.
(c) D. R. Khashaba 2007
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