The charismatic Cox

Our contributor, Brendan, recently brought the scientist, Brian Cox, into the discussion. I asked him to hold hard for the time being because an interesting letter on the subject was published in the Catholic Herald last week. I have the permission of the writer to post it here, so that we can comment on it.

“Dear Catholic Herald,

I’m sure many readers are watching and even enjoying the BBC2 series The Human Universe (Tues 9pm). Its potential challenge to christian belief and evangelism though will not be lost on most.

Prof Brian Cox, the presenter, is potentially a much more dangerous influence than, say Richard Dawkins. In promoting his New Atheist agenda, Dawkins abandoned science and adopted ill-informed ridicule as his weapon of choice. As such Dawkins was rejected even by many mainstream atheists. Even Stephen Hawking did not manage to make a coherent case for atheism, constantly confusing, as he did, mechanism with agency.

Cox is much more dangerous, whether he intends it or not (but I’m inclined to think he does intend it) firstly because he is telegenic and affable – not a fault of Dawkins! Secondly, Cox is careful to make constant reference to current scientific thinking. Therein lies the danger. Each point he makes starts with a scientific fact or hypothesis that most of us wouldn’t argue with. Then he switches to part of his own worldview, which is not, by any means, an obvious conclusion from the preceding piece of science.

The prefix to episode 2 was “Professor Brian Cox explores our place in the universe. He tackles the question that unites the seven billion people sharing this planet – why are we here?” His exploration was not very exploratory (apart from the nice scenic backdrops). Our “God hypothesis” was dealt with in a single sentence which was, to paraphrase:- “The ancients believed that the universe was created by the gods – it wasn’t”. As with every previous attempt by a scientist to explore the question “Why are we here” he ended up exploring the question “By what process did we come to be here” which is entirely different. There’s that confusion of mechanism with agency again.

In the most recent episode (4 Nov) he makes the following statement (again to paraphrase):- “Mankind lives on an insignificant speck within a vast uncaring universe. His survival (ie salvation?) is in his own hands” and “It’s vital that we abandon superstition” which I presume he intends to mean religion.

Please let us not be fooled into believing that these are simply one person’s opinions which he is entitled to, and so it really doesn’t matter. It does matter. This is first class telly and it’s influencing millions. I’m not hearing the Christian counter-argument, but please God, let’s hear it soon. There are plenty well-qualified to provide it, so hopefully they are suiting up right now!

Alasdair Brooks”

I’m not hearing the Christian counter-argument, but please God, let’s hear it soon. We have certainly discussed similar matters on this Blog from time to time, so we may hope to put forward some coherent ideas about the relationship between science and faith.

Do we think that programmes like this push the general public away from religious belief, satisfied by the charismatic Cox that faith explanations are superfluous? “”I had no need of that hypothesis.” answered the scientist, Laplace, to Napoleon, who had queried the absence of God in his book.

Alasdair Brooks distinguishes between mechanism and agency. Thus for example, the concept of evolution merely shows us one way through which the different species were developed, but tells us nothing about who is responsible for this process and the creation in which this happens. Why is this distinction ignored by Cox – who is nothing if not intelligent?

Do we see the situation as likely to become more extreme as science delves deeper in its understanding. For instance many scientists in the field will tell us, as a matter of fact, that free will does not exist.

I am an admirer of the British Humanist Association. Admirer? Yes, they are energetic and competent in putting their secularist views in front of the public. They have been influential in many campaigns. Why are we less successful, and what should we be doing about it?

Posted in Church and Society, Quentin queries | Tagged , , | 38 Comments

Marriage in trouble

He was a big, affable man and his attractive wife was petite. He explained to me how his wife was accustomed to attack him physically. And he had the scars of her fingernails to prove it. I was counselling in a presbytery in London. A mile away, in another presbytery, my wife was counselling a woman who had a disabled child. The child was sired by her own father. None of this will surprise a parish priest: all human life is to be found in the confessional or amongst those who seek a little word with him after Sunday Mass. Our job was to give practical help to those he steered into our counselling rooms.

The model I used was “The Skilled Helper”, developed in the 1980s by the Jesuit, Gerard Egan, at Loyola University, Chicago. This was a problem solving framework which could be applied in a range of counselling circumstances. I was later to use it for my own “Managing People and Problems’, 1988 – which was gratifyingly published internationally.

The format was similar to that to be developed for cognitive behavioural therapy, which I described in my last column. It started with a listening stage in which the counsellor non-judgmentally took in the client‘s story, reflecting his understanding of how the client experienced the problem. This was followed by mutual exploration, which the counsellor gently guided. Usually they discovered that what had been a multi-faceted issue could be distilled into one or two key difficulties.

Following this analysis, goals were set for change. These followed the established rules for effective goals, in particular their order and concrete nature. More often than not, the client – or clients — needed specific training to achieve these goals. The last, and often lengthiest, stage was the achievement and monitoring of these goals over, perhaps, several weeks.

The application of this simple format required considerable skills. The range of difficulties was broad: how would you for instance help a couple who find that they share no interests, or a wife distressed by her husband’s addiction to pornography? But the common run of married or cohabiting clients shared the same common problem: communication.

That sounds like a motherhood word, but there is no doubt that the quality of sustained communication is a common factor for the good or ill of this relationship. The circumstances of marriage continually change — from young couplehood to parenthood to the empty nest and to retirement. The psychological needs we have in our twenties are not the same as we have in our fifties. Circumstances may vary from poverty to plenty and, perhaps, back to poverty again. And every change requires a new adaptation to each other, without a guarantee that both partners will adapt in the same way. No wonder that many people take for granted that marriage is a temporary state.

But there is communication and communication. The etymology of the word suggests a coming together as one; it requires not only the giving of information but also receiving it through listening. The first comes naturally, the second does not. Many conversations are a little like playing table tennis – we only take in what our partner is saying in order to whip back our response. Useful exchanges require that we listen to both the words and the feelings of the other, and acknowledge these before we respond. It is not hard to distinguish duelling from communication. It is through this ability to understand how a situation is seen, understood and felt by each other that accord can be achieved; it is the main tool for adjustment within the changing circumstances of a marriage.

Of course there are many reasons for marriage difficulties other than communication, but I found that it was so often a contributory factor that I spent much time drilling couples in this difficult skill. And drilling was needed. I would ask X to explain an issue already raised, from his point of view, and Y to respond by showing that she had taken in both the facts and the feelings. When they got it wrong (often) I checked them, and they had to start again. Frequently, that exercise enabled them to solve the actual problem in question – providing the proof of the pudding.

Given the pain which a couple may suffer, perhaps over years, before they come to counselling, it is a pity that they were never schooled in communication when they were preparing for marriage. This, I would argue, is a main function of marriage preparation courses. It cannot be done over a single day because the couple must develop and mature over a period. Subjects (such as ideal family size, what difficulties could arise in a mixed marriage, discipline and children, savers versus spenders, female and male attitudes to sexuality, natural family planning, marriage as sacrament, commitment) need more than information — they require actual practice in exchanging views. And most of that practice will be homework between sessions.

It might sound ambitious to ask a young couple to give up five successive evenings. But, except for the odd couple who leave after the first week, the rest will stay the course. – they are far too interested to leave. You can watch couples maturing before your eyes, and, in a very few cases, see a couple learning that they are not ready for marriage. (We even had one young man who came hopefully with two fiancées to see whom to choose.) Even now, decades later, we still meet couples who volunteer how formative these courses were for their own marriages.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Quentin queries | Tagged | 26 Comments

The maze of morals

You may have listened to a recent episode of the Moral Maze (link below) which debated the issue of moral education in schools. I found the programme confusing; it suggested to me that even well educated and thoughtful people may be sadly ignorant of the elements involved. You may disagree.

This week I am listing some questions inspired by the programme because you may well be able to throw some light here. Given that we may sometimes find ourselves discussing these issues with non-Catholics, it will be helpful if you do not major on ‘Catholic’ answers, remembering that morality throws up questions to non-believers just as it does to believers.

1 Is moral education primarily about teaching the young which actions are wrong and which actions are right?

2 Is moral education primarily about developing the skills of moral thinking so that pupils are able to decide on moral codes themselves?

3 Is moral education best not taught directly, but incidentally – when issues arise within other subjects such as science and history?

4 Should schools have no responsibility for moral education? This is the duty of parents: the schools’ job is to teach facts not values.

5 What common basis do we have for moral principles, or is any basis a matter of personal choice? (I think here particularly of teaching in non-faith schools.)

6 How would moral education deal with the fact that different cultures have different moral bases? For example, a culture with different approaches to the rights of women, homosexuality, capital punishment, democratic tolerance, etc.

While I have numbered the questions so that you can identify to which one you are referring, feel free to give more general answers. Raising additional questions on this subject would be valuable. What I have written is only a start point.

Moral Maze

Posted in Moral judgment, Philosophy, Quentin queries | Tagged | 101 Comments

Knowing what we do

Bertrand Russell once said that if you wear blue glasses the whole world will appear blue. The depressed look though a dark lens and may experience themselves as useless persons, living in an unpleasant world and facing a miserable future. The anxious see a world of threat in which danger is constantly in prospect, and their ability to cope is threatened by self-doubt. The obsessive are linked into a cycle of activity needed to keep themselves and others safe, although enough can never be done.

There is nothing unusual about these people. Their fears and their difficulties are shared by all of us. The difference is that in these cases the difficulties have grown so severe that they can no longer cope. They may not be able to stay employed or perform their family roles. And, if they can work, their contribution may be much reduced. No wonder that the government, in 2007, thought it worthwhile to fund a network of therapists. The economic case for helping people with a wide range of psychological issues back into the workplace made sense. The method to be used was cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). There is hard evidence of its effectiveness with many disorders and it is relatively easy to train therapists.

In my last column I introduced CBT, noting that it retains the therapeutic force of behavioural therapies, while addressing our understanding directly. Its focus is not on the original causes of problems but on the current issues as expressed in current dysfunctional behaviour.

The underlying principle is that our emotional response to experience is not caused by the experience itself, but only by the experience as we interpret it. Supposing, for instance, that you are ignored by your hostess at a party. Various interpretations are possible: she was too busy and flustered, she had more interesting guests to talk to, she took you for granted as an old friend, you are the sort of worthless person who gets ignored. The interpretation you choose will probably tell you more about yourself than about your hostess.

Take, as a simple example, someone who feels so shy and anxious about company that he will avoid any social occasions. His therapist will explore with him the whole situation. Is there a pattern? What are the different feelings he has, and what triggers them? How does he see himself? Does he find some social occasions more comfortable than others? What bad social experiences come to mind? What would be the rewards of successful therapy?

This is not an interrogation. The form of questioning is usually “Socratic”, that is, open questions are used which provide the patient with an opportunity to explore his experiences in a liberal and accepting discussion. There are no correct answers, but the therapist, from experience and training, will be looking for certain features that are often found to accompany this disability.

From this will arise certain realisations or cognitions. These are likely to identify the negative thoughts which spring unbidden to the mind. Dysfunctional assumptions (“people recognise how useless I am”) will be explored, along with core beliefs (“I am unlovable”). From such discussions it becomes possible to formulate the deeper nature of the problem and its various aspects. While the therapist is a teacher and a guide, the results should be a mutual understanding on which a treatment plan can be agreed.

Such plans cover as wide a range as the diversity of problems, though the therapist will major on those for which there is good empirical evidence. Part of the process will be to improve recognition of half-expressed negative thoughts. A patient might be asked to note these down when they occur, for they do not survive long in the sunlight. Feelings associated with behaviour may be tracked, and their intensity and change noted. Dysfunctional assumptions can be tested, sometimes in real life. Programmes of behaviour may be agreed and monitored. Goals may be set and instruction in self-monitoring given. Ways in which patients can face their difficulties in gradual steps can be established. Deep relaxation and mindfulness meditation may be used. Progress will be measured by both therapist and patient for observing change is part of the therapy itself.

Practitioners understandably put emphasis on the measurable bases of their therapy. But I would want to emphasise the quality of the therapist himself. The healing relationship itself is important and so acceptance of the patient, depth of human understanding, ingenuity and perseverance will be needed. In the end, this is one human being endeavouring to serve another human being at a profound level. I would not hesitate to describe it as an art guided by science.

My description of CBT has been cursory but I have thought it important for us to understand, at least in outline, a major and widespread therapy which we might encounter. I think that it can teach us important things about human nature — and indeed about another channel of God’s healing work. Those who would like to study this more deeply will benefit from a clear and readable book: An Introduction to Cognitive Therapy by David Westbrook et al (Sage, £21).

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Neuroscience | Tagged | 81 Comments


In a comment on Mythtake, and in the context of free will, I said “If I were looking to demonstrate the existence of God, it’s where I would start.” Unsurprisingly I was challenged. Red rag to a bull!

I do not hold that the existence of God can be rationally proved because God is ultimately beyond out ken: we recognise him through belief. Nevertheless, I think it is possible to demonstrate that such a belief is rationally based and that, by excluding the concept of God, we are left with questions about human experience to which we can find no other answer. I start by looking briefly at a classical argument, and I provide links for further arguments.

I summarise one line of approach which is known as the First Cause argument. It states that everything in the universe is contingent. That is, nothing in our experience exists only by reason of itself: it depends on the causes which have brought it about. We may not know all the causes (back to the Big Bang?) but we perceive directly that they are necessary. If we conceive of a universe in which everything is caused by something else, we are still faced by a need for the cause of the whole universe. Thus the explanation must lie in a first cause which exists of its own nature. We call this first cause God. Note that here Aquinas, in this context, does not describe God, nevertheless it is possible to identify the necessary attributes of such a first cause, e,g., omniscience, omnipotence, personhood etc.

An argument like this requires two factors. The first is our perception that entities require causes. This is a priori because, as a principle, it requires no empirical evidence. The second factor is our experience that entities do exist, and do require causes. Of course anyone is free to claim that entities do not require causes, but I think we can safely leave these in a little group talking to each other.

There are of course other arguments such as the argument from design and St Anselm’s ontological argument, (and you may well want to raise these in discussion) but I go directly to my claim that free will (and moral obligation) provides a starting point in considering the existence of God. I do so because both characteristics are facts of human experience and believed by everyone.

Believed by everyone? Surely not! There are many people in society from committed secularists to top neurologists who do not believe in free will. And there is a similar group (perhaps the same people) who hold that our moral sense can be explained by emotion. It appears, however, that these claims are merely intellectual. In practice such people show through their everyday behaviour that in fact they believe in both.

We only have to look at human behaviour. We act and speak the whole time in a way which shows that we accept free will. Even the most died-in-the-wool secularist will not restrain himself from blaming religion for its historical malefactions – cheerfully forgetting that he claims that religions cannot be blamed since their actions were determined and therefore not their responsibility. And of course no scientific conclusion carries weight if it is merely the outcome of unverifiable causes.

The sense of moral obligation also has difficulties. It is true that great philosophers, such as Hume and Ayer, claim that our moral sense is founded in emotion, rather than in a recognition of good and evil. But a similar inconsistency is present. Emotions, as such, cannot lead to truth. Only the recognition of right and wrong can do that. Yet secularists are often miffed by allegations that they do not accept moral obligation — again cheerfully forgetting that in their appeal to emotion they have removed obligation from the equation.

Do these considerations of free will and moral sense lead us inevitably to the existence of God? No, but they do open important questions. They confront the secularist with the problem that, in accepting only empirical facts, he is omitting the facts of human experience – facts which his own actions and insights clearly display. So we may hope that in exploring the qualities of freedom to act outside material causality and his deep instinct to follow the good and reject the evil, he will edge a step or two nearer to knowing the nature of God. It’s a start.

Aquinas on arguments for the existence of God.
Other arguments.
Ontological argument,

Posted in Quentin queries | Tagged | 75 Comments

Sin and the Synod

Unusually, I am inserting an extra post to give us an opportunity to consider the immediate outcome of the Synod. Many of you will already know that the section recommending the possibility of the divorced and remarried returning to Holy Communion and the readiness to welcome those in homosexual relationships did not achieve the two thirds vote required for inclusion, although a simple majority was obtained on both of these.

You will get a good, initial, account at , and this will also give you a link to the Pope’s important final address (try reading between the lines!).

You will remember that the Synod is only a starting point; it will not be until the 2015 meeting that conclusions will be reached, followed by a papal announcement. In between these two events there will be much discussion on these, and the other issues which have been addressed. When I wrote formerly about my hope for the Synod, my emphasis was on the need for genuine collegial discussion. Although we do not have direct texts of what was said, it is clear that such a discussion has taken place.

So now is the time for whole Church to discuss. And that means us. Do make sure, when you have had time for due thought, that you let the teaching Church know your views. That may mean to your diocesan bishop (perhaps via your pp), your religious superior or through any relevant organisation.

Meanwhile, there is plenty of opportunity for you to test your initial views with your fellow contributors here.

(Remember that “Behave yourself” is still inviting comment.)

Posted in Pope Francis, Quentin queries, Synod | Tagged , | 44 Comments

Behave yourself

Can you teach pigeons to play table tennis? Yes, with enough patience. You have to watch the birds until one of them makes a move towards the ball, and then reward it with food. Each time it, or its partner, makes a further chance move of the right kind you reward it again. It may take a very long time but in the end you’ll have them playing, even if they never learn to keep score. Behavioural reinforcement is the key.

You can do the same with human beings. My daughter, aged three, persisted for months in waking up at midnight and staying awake for at least an hour. It was exhausting. Then, following the ideas of the behaviourist Professor Eysenck, I told her that every night she slept through, and only then, her furry monkey would have a penny in the morning to take to Mrs Minty’s sweet shop. For several mornings she was disappointed, but one great night she earned her penny. After that, it was plain sailing. It took about a fortnight. She has been a good sleeper for the last five decades.

Behaviourism, as a method of treating personal psychological problems, became popular during the later 20th century. It largely replaced psychoanalysis for the purpose because it was so effective. For example, psychoanalysis might once have been used to cure a “bedwetter” by exploring problems in the unconscious mind, where a behaviourist would have prescribed a wake-up bell triggered by dampness. Apart from the better results, behaviourism was quicker and far cheaper. My daughter’s sleep cure cost a shilling.

Behavioural treatment methods vary widely according to the issue involved. A good example is provided by the treatment of phobia. Imagine that you have an irrational terror of cats. This may have been triggered by a frightening incident involving a cat, perhaps years before. Each time you have encountered a cat you felt panic and left the room. And the sense of relief at escape simply rewarded your evasive behaviour. That phobia, being continually reinforced, could remain with you for life, unless you had the good fortune to meet a behaviourist.

He might ask you to create a hierarchy of cat experiences, starting with incidents so minor that you felt no fear, and leading up to incidents so proximate that they caused terror and panic. Having taught you deep relaxation as a skill, he would first ask you to imagine the most minor incidents, checking that you were able to maintain relaxation. You would then move, item by item, up the hierarchy – being encouraged to extend your relaxation at each stage — until, by associating relaxation with increasingly threatening situations, the fear was quenched. It would be unlikely to return.

A contrasting example is provided by a patient who had a preoccupation with bed linen and towels. He simply could not help himself from pinching them. His therapist put him into a hospital, and required him to spend all day moving towels into and out of the hospital store. After a few days of intense activity he became fed up with the sight of a towel, and no longer felt any temptation to touch another.

My favourite case is a man who developed asthma as soon as he was in bed with his wife. His therapist merely turned the picture of his mother-in-law to the wall. (True story, not a gag.)

To me, the most intriguing therapy is Eye Movement. It is used for those with truly distressing memories with which they cannot cope. The patient is asked to move his eyes continually from side to side while reimagining the memory in all its aspects as graphically as possible. Gradually the memory is detoxified so that it loses its intensity, and can then be handled normally. A possible explanation comes from “rapid eye movement” sleep in which the memory sorts itself out as we unconsciously digest our memories.

Behaviourism can be applied to a wide range of fears, anxieties and even simple, but dysfunctional reluctances. Depression, claustrophobia, insomnia and many other conditions have been cured. It will not always be effective, but the measurable results have been impressive. And once we have understood the link between our behaviour and the stimulus which reinforces it, therapy can in some instances be self-administered. Indeed, a therapist may, in appropriate cases, teach their client how to work at their cure between consultations.

Nevertheless, there is something missing. At least psychoanalysis works at exploring the unconscious to enable understanding of the origins of trauma and to come to terms with it. This is a consolation in itself, although often an expensive one. By comparison, treatment aimed only at behaviour may seem reductionist, and even disrespectful to the dignity of our nature. As the pigeons show, the training of behaviour alone is equivalently effective when applied to the lower animals. Instinctively we prefer to look for answers which reflect both human understanding as well as human behaviour.

But the seventh cavalry is on its way – in the form of cognitive behavioural therapy. As its name suggests, this treatment retains the therapeutic force of behaviourism, while addressing our understanding directly. But the focus is on the present rather than the past. If you tell a cognitive behavioural therapist that you hiccup because your mother tried to drown you as a baby, he will raise an eyebrow and invite you to consider instead why you hiccup nowadays. This therapy is thought to be so valuable that it is actually state-sponsored. We will look at it in due course.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Neuroscience | Tagged , | 24 Comments