Death in Tunis

I write this post with my newspaper in front of me, and the terrible story of the tourists mercilessly murdered on a Tunisian beach. How could anyone, with a sound mind, justify such actions? I notice, however, that the perpetrator died – and must have known that death would be his fate. I am reminded that Blaise Pascal said that he would only believe witnesses who were prepared to have their throats cut. Could he have accepted that these people were acting in good conscience? But it’s an old question: Benedict XVI, while he was still a cardinal, asked himself a similar question about the Nazis active in the persecution of the Jews.

You may be surprised that he accepted that, at the time they acted, they may have genuinely believed that they were doing the right thing in ridding the state of its internal enemies. Their error had started in their failure to come to terms with the deeper levels of their consciences which would revealed to them, as it can reveal to all of us, the good which we must do and the evil which we must avoid. Nevertheless, as Aquinas emphasised, even the faulty conscience binds. (I dealt with this issue at length some time ago. Put Holding out for a Hero into the search box above.)

We might imagine a jihadist’s train of thought. We may suppose that he is a young, but perhaps well educated, person. He believes that the world, particularly Western society, is continually trying to persecute Muslims. And he has good historical evidence that this is so. He is quite certain that the message of God to Mohammed expressed an imperative that Islam should spread and develop this new revelation to the world. Part of that message clearly states that Muslims are entitled to defend themselves, even in extreme ways, against the non-believers who seek to destroy Islam. Thus he concludes that God’s will trumps other, human, values – so that, if killing representatives of Western society promotes Islam, it is not only justified but perhaps a divine imperative. And indeed, in losing his temporary human life, he gains eternity as his reward. ‘Greater love hath no man…’

You might want to argue every item of the jihadist’ss analysis. But you may agree that, even in matters of much lesser moment, we too may come to faulty conclusions and so do wrong when we sincerely believe that we are doing good. All of us are old enough to remember a traditional form of Catholic moral education which required us to be guided in moral matters by the Church – whether or not our reason supported the ruling. And many of us would still argue that, once we reject the rule of law, ultimately anything goes. There’s good evidence of this, too. Perhaps the trend really started with questions on contraception. But it has moved on to sex outside marriage, active homosexuality, abortion in hard cases, in vitro conception, assisted dying, and the rest. The Church’s rules remain but there appears to be an increasing proportion of Catholics who either question some of these issues, or actively disagree with so-called orthodoxy.

So there are a number of issues here. While we believe in the evil of the jihadist’s actions, do we have to condemn the individual jihadist as evil? Has the Church’s historical moral teaching, expressed either in word or in policy, ever led to evil? Is morality a matter of obedience or a matter of personal decision in which the Church rules should be considered a guide rather than the last word? Do we think that the highlighting of the responsibility of conscience in Vatican II has brought more good than evil, or more evil than good?

If you’re going to solve all those, you’ll have a busy week!

Posted in Moral judgment, Philosophy, Quentin queries | 109 Comments

Thinking sideways

Edward de Bono – the champion of lateral thinking. Every so often, when I am giving my brain a quick routine service, I ask myself how my skills of lateral thinking are working. I am cheating today by writing about it; it will force me to look at the issues.

De Bono once impressed me with a mental experiment. He said, imagine that you are drawing a squiggly circle on paper. Then go over it, again and again. With each drawing, following the line gets easier and easier. And that’s because the furrow made by your pencil gets deeper and deeper – making a convenient channel.

Our neurons work in much the same way. They learn the pattern of our thinking, and the more we follow the same path, the easier it becomes. And that’s very useful because it enables us to do our thinking quickly and easily by going the way we did before. But it does have a disadvantage: it makes it less and less likely that we get out of the furrow, and so less and less likely that we do original thinking.

De Bono fully accepted the value of ordinary thinking; it was necessary for most of the time. But he advocated lateral thinking as an important skill for all of us to use on a regular basis. Here are some of the techniques that I have found useful. You will see that they are designed to force the mind out of routine thinking.

Never take the first conclusion. When we face, say, a knotty practical problem we may well arrive at the solution. But put that solution on one side, and think of a second answer – and a third. Now you can choose the best of the solutions. Often you will find that it was not the first one you reached.

There is power in the use of absurdity. Suppose that you are thinking about parenthood. ‘Mothers love their children’ comes to mind. That’s straight thinking but it leads to nothing new. The lateral thinker might choose ‘mothers hate their children’ instead. Now all sorts of new ideas can come into mind: do they hate their children?, is it permanent or temporary?, what can trigger the feeling? – and so on. Now we are exploring some interesting properties of motherhood. The statement ‘God is a figment of the imagination’ might seem an odd place to start. But then it could occur to you that our concept of God is largely a figment of our imagination – so we’re already learning something new – about what we don’t know.

When I was teaching my young granddaughter and her best friend how to debate, we would settle on a subject first; for example: ‘The throwaway society is a good thing’, and they would prepare it for the next week. But they wouldn’t know whether they were going to be for or against – that would be decided by a toss before the debate started. So they had to prepare both sides. It was a splendid intellectual discipline. We have recently had much debate on the subject of climate change. I wonder how many of us took time to devise the arguments we might use to oppose the position we favour. I suggest that it was those who did this who thought much more deeply about the question.

The blank mind is often a problem. You want to choose a birthday present for a special person. Your mind is completely blank. I need to write a post for this blog. My mind is completely blank. So I will pick up a book, virtually any book, open it on any page and touch a random word. Surprisingly often that word, or something associated with that word, will trigger an idea. I tried that an hour ago. My pencil hit the word ‘ordinary’. Hopeless, I thought – but I played around with it: ‘extraordinary, everyday, not ordinary’ and then it clicked: ‘not ordinary thinking’ led me straight into ‘lateral thinking’. So that’s why you are getting this post!

So come and contribute your ideas and tips about thinking. That way we will all raise our game.

Posted in Quentin queries | Tagged , | 77 Comments

Man, proud man

Three million years before the first homo sapiens appeared our ancestors were making stone tools with multiple uses. These were not just opportunistic broken flints but tools which had been knapped for the purpose. A recent find pushes back the record of such tools by some 700,000 years. It challenges us to consider the characteristics of the earlier members of our line.

Strictly speaking, Kenyanthropus, the possible toolmaker, may not have been an ancestor. It has only been in recent years that the experts have realised that there were many different members of the hominin group, the majority of whom must be regarded as cousins rather than ancestors. It would appear that evolution was exploring a wide range of progressive types before one of them survived to lead eventually to our own species.

Kenyanthropus platyops was a small brained hominin, with a mixture of modern and primitive features, in some ways less advanced than the famous “Lucy”. The skill needed to construct tools with sharp edges had previously been dated to a much later development in the hominin line, and represents a step change in human cognition.

Palaeoanthropologists have a difficult task. While they have developed sophisticated methods of measuring, dating and identifying, they can only work with the fossils and other evidence which happen to be available. Consequently new finds bring change – sometimes, major change — and many conclusions should be regarded as both provisional and arguable.

Our interest here is to consider whether there is earlier evidence of the characteristics which we are accustomed to regarding as unique to our own species. I think of a capacity for abstract reason and free will. Both are necessary to create a moral person. Free will may not help for we are unable demonstrate freedom in terms of hard evidence even in modern man. So we must look to abstract reasoning, and perhaps the possibility of art.

A clue may come from brain capacity which doubles, and doubles again, in the evolution of hominins. And size not only increases brain cells, it allows for increased connections between them. It is probable that living in society enabled humans to develop the first expressions of a modern mind, though it may have taken 100,000 years to achieve this. Sharing skills with our peers and building on accumulated knowledge enabled us to develop and refine our neural capacity. We had started to ask questions and to develop ways, in concert with others, to find the answers.

And this requires speech. Here, it appears, we have continuous development from the sophisticated but restricted communication of the chimpanzee to our full scale of settled syntax and vocabulary. The immediate predecessors of sapienshabilis and erectus – may well have developed a rudimentary “proto-language”. We, too, may have started with proto-language, which developed into modern speech by perhaps 70,000 years ago in tandem with our social progress.

And speech is important for our purpose. It requires abstraction. We must abstract from the particular and convert it to a concept both to talk about it and to think about it. Adam could not talk about the animals until he had named them. Nor could we. Speech, I would argue, is clear evidence of abstract reasoning. Did any other hominin use speech? The best candidate is the Neanderthal. It appears about 100,000 years before we arrived. Could Neanderthals speak?

We have no direct evidence. But both sapiens and neanderthalensis inherited from their immediate common ancestor the gene FOXP2 which is specific to speech. And the experts generally agree that both had the detailed anatomy required. If we grant to the Neanderthal a brain as large as ours, burial of their dead – possibly with grave goods, care for the sick and injured, decorative shells and ornaments, control of fire and small family groups, we are looking at a primitive, but undoubtedly human, culture, not essentially different from early sapiens. A strong case may be made that neanderthalensis was equipped, as we are, with reason and reflective consciousness. And this would imply the presence of morality.

Would we regard decorative shells and ornaments as art? They certainly approach it. But another clue, recently recognised, may be helpful. It is a deliberately engraved zigzag on a mussel shell. It is dated to 450,000 years ago, and was the work of our ancestor H. erectus. Whatever the scriber had in mind, he or she worked with meticulous care and proportion. We do not need to accept, as many do, that this qualifies as art, but we may agree with an expert from the archaeological team who reflected on “the growing realization that abilities such as abstract thinking, once ascribed to only H. sapiens, were present in other archaic humans, including, now, their ancestors.” If and how this relates to the history of salvation I leave you to speculate.

If you need a referenced text, email (changing ‘green’ to ‘blue’)

Posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, evolution, Neuroscience, Philosophy | 41 Comments

Laudatio Si

This post has been provided for our discussion on the new Encyclical on climate and related matters. Prior publicity suggests a number of questions which, amongst others, we might like to consider:

Is it the Pope’s job to write authoritatively on such secular matters?
Is Papal infallibility applicable here?
Do we accept the scientific basis on which the Pope is relying?
What will be (should be?) the reaction of institutions and countries?
What is our own reaction?

(We have discussed a number of pertinent issues on Guiding the Government. But feel free to repeat any opinions you have already expressed as part of this new discussion.
The next post and the previous post can be located by clicking on Home)

Posted in Quentin queries | Tagged , | 109 Comments

Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor

Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor – we all chose our occupations in life. But why did you choose the occupation you did? Was it a chance opportunity, or a deliberate choice? Was it in some way connected to a family tradition? Was it because you recognised that your particular skills could be useful in your choice? Or did you sit down, conduct a dispassionate analysis – and follow your rational conclusion?

I have a theory that we often choose our occupation from rather deeper notions, of which we are often unaware. And you may feel, when I have done, that you would rather you had remained unaware.

Take for example becoming a doctor. There are very good reasons for someone of the right intellectual ability and an interest in people to make such a choice. And, of course, the money potential is good. But perhaps a stronger pull may be that you rather like knowing all the answers, and being able to communicate them without much fear of being contradicted.

Or possibly a policeman? It’s an excellent opportunity for contributing to society, through being an agent of good order. But might you also be someone with a sense of righteousness which you would like to be able to impose on others? There might even a be a little temptation to frighten people through your authority. I don’t mean that all policeman, or any of the other examples, are like this – merely that you will find a higher proportion of these hidden characteristics in policeman than you would find in other similar people who are not policemen. (Change policeman to Inland Revenue inspector, if you wish.)

We have all known wonderful teachers who may have changed our lives through their dedicated vocation. But are there teachers who have motives hidden even from themselves? The big world is scary, but if you move from the safe environment of a pupil to the safe environment of a teacher everything is likely to be comfortable. Among other advantages, the teaching profession is known for its tolerance for incompetents, it’s really quite hard to be sacked – so you’ll be very secure. And how tempting it would be to switch from being at the receiving end of the teaching process to being in charge!

How about the priesthood? That can hardly go wrong because you have the call from the Holy Spirit. Ho hum – the notion that our guidance from the Holy Spirit is reliable is very suspect. It is all too easy for us to mistake what we really want to do or really want to believe for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. (Is it possible that we occasionally see this on the Blog?) “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God” was what St John recommended. What are the very human characteristics which might lead someone towards ordination? Figure of authority? Holy man? Happiness of one’s family? Subject to passions which cannot otherwise be controlled? Fear of the opposite sex? Secure career?

May be time for confession. I spent my career working in a large financial company with a high reputation. I started at the bottom, and worked my way near enough to the top over exactly 40 years. Why? Not for the love of finance, I assure you. Or of our clients. No, I am a person who likes to see a secure future. I do not like surprises. And an immensely strong company, who promoted from within, and only sacked people for financial irregularity, was just the thing. And I benefit from its pension scheme to this day. Nothing very noble in that.

How about you?

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged , | 58 Comments

How the chicken got its beak

A week or two ago Nature published a report about how chickens developed a beak from the flat snout of their dinosaur ancestors. All that was required was a change in position of two proteins. Evolution.

We have recently been discussing evolution and, no doubt, we will do so again. So this week I am providing a simple account of this. Many of you will already know the facts, but I think our discussion may well be improved by us all starting from a common, base, position.

In the 19th century biologists began to question whether there was some mechanism which brought about the differentiation of the various species. Darwin and Wallace came up with the solution of evolution – which Herbert Spencer described as “the survival of the fittest.” This was hugely controversial in a society where the description of creation in Genesis was common ground. It remains so today, and we see this in pinprick attacks on aspects of evolutionary development, or in the insistence that evolution is no more than a theory – with the unspoken subtext that it is just a provisional idea.

In fact evolution itself is not a theory, it is an observed phenomenon, supported by massive evidence. And this is not surprising since it is a necessary procedure for biological entities which pass on their characteristics when they reproduce. Darwin knew that offspring carried the characteristics of both parents but he did not fully understand the process. It was several years before the work of Mendel, an Augustinian friar, opened the way to understanding the work of genes.

The principle may be easily explained by a simple example. Imagine an early ancestor of the dog. In such a population there will be a few who, by chance mutations, have a better sense of smell than the others. These ‘superdogs’ would have better access to food than their fellows, so they would be more likely to breed. This might have been aided by their greater ability to identify bitches on heat. Over successive generations the proportion of ‘superdogs’ would have risen. Thus the modern dog has a sense of smell many times higher than that of humans.

Because evolution involves an interplay with the environment, we would expect changing environments to play their part too. Why are Inuits short and stubby? Because the thickset retain body heat, enabling survival in a cold environment. Why are the Masai tall and slim? Not hard to work that out either.

Evolution is continuous. We are rarely aware of this because the timescale is usually much longer than ours. But there are examples which can tracked. A classic is the peppered moth. Before the Industrial Revolution the light-coloured moths were camouflaged against the light-coloured trees, while the dark-coloured were an easy prey for birds. But as the tree trunks blackened through industrial pollution, the advantage switched to the dark-coloured version. And, with successive generations, the proportion of black moths increased greatly, at the expense of their lighter cousins.

So no educated person will deny that evolution brings about the development of different characteristics and different species. Yet there are still many instances where it has been difficult to track how the necessary changes came about. So is it possible that there are other systems or procedures which are active, too?

At the scientific level the answer is ‘no’. Science cannot prove negatives so, in theory, its conclusion can only be provisional. However, all the evidence points in the direction of evolution. And no evidence of substance points any other way. To claim that the general principles and procedures of evolution are in doubt is simply gratuitous.

The only objection to evolution which still carries weight is a primitive religious position which claims that we must take the biblical account of creation as a literal description. The big New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture suggests that such a view requires either bad science or bad exegesis. We have seen the Church move from criticism to tolerance to a general acceptance that the Bible and science are not at odds.

But we too may have some psychological concerns. Evolution has no agenda beyond survival in an environment. It would almost seem as if God had washed his hands of the detail, and left the rest to chance. But what we call chance is in fact the result of ignorance. We call the fall of a die chance simply because we do not know the effect of all the factors. God does. The advantage of omniscience is being omniscient. We may think evolution to be extremely complex; how much easier it would be for God to bring about all the universe with a single fiat. In a computer age we should more readily understand how a simple equation can bring about complex change. Evolution is God’s simple equation, and he used it to people the earth. Far from deploring it, we should be lost in admiration at its elegance.

Posted in evolution, Quentin queries | Tagged , | 88 Comments

The truth of pornography

My very dear Grandchildren,

I am writing you an important letter. You may or may not agree with it, but I am asking you to read it carefully and to think about what it says. Since it’s an awkward subject – pornography – you may not want to talk with me or your grandmother about it – and that’s fine. But we’re here if you want to.

Nowadays pornography is easily available, perhaps on a tablet or on a phone. And, if you haven’t looked for it yourself, you may well have friends who have shown it to you. That’s not surprising because many people, of all ages, have watched pornography. I am not going to discuss rights or wrongs here but I want to tell you that pornography is a lie. And it’s a dangerous lie which can do you a great deal of harm. The kind of pornography I am writing about is typically a video in which pretty well every form of possible sexual contact between men and women is shown, either with couples or groups.

What is the lie about that – if such things really do happen? It’s found in the impression that what you see on the video shows in some way what a good and exciting sexual life ought to be like. Older people with many years of experience, recognise the lie immediately, and need pay no attention to it. But those who encounter pornography at a young age have no such defence.

When you look at yourself as a sexual person you will probably recognise two things. One is a concern about love – falling in love, about affection between men and women, and about loving relationships. The other is sexual thrill. And it is only the second which pornography addresses.

Don’t knock sexual thrill! It’s very important. It is nature’s way of urging: “make a baby, make a baby”. In your science classes you will have learned how evolution constantly favours breeding – without it there would be no evolution in any species. In the midst of sexual thrill you won’t hear nature’s message; indeed the last thing you may want is to make a baby, but that’s what it’s all about.

Go back to the video. To listen to it you would think that everyone one is having ecstatic feelings over and over again. Look more carefully, and you will see that the actors don’t look ecstatic, they look bored. They look bored because before long even extreme sexual thrills become boring. Think about it – first time great, second time good, 100th time boring – give me something new!

And now you can pity your grandparents. They have been married for 50 years. Assuming they’ve made love twice a week, that’s 5000 times. Boring, boring, boring. They probably gave up simply years ago. Well perhaps not – not if they have the secret. And that secret is simple. It says: if the motive of all your sexual relations is love, affection and total commitment to each other you can carry on enjoying the accompanying thrills until they carry you out in a box. And that kind of sexual life spreads itself throughout the marriage through care and closeness.

Give me something new! Yes, marriages whose first motivation is sexual thrill will risk the relationship. Sooner or later boredom sets in. Perhaps one partner, or both, ceases to have any interest in sex – with an inevitable effect on the relationship. Perhaps one of them seeks, or finds by chance, the new thrill of a new partner. Novelty is erotic – that’s nature again, trying to make new babies anywhere at any cost. Over 40% of today’s marriages fail. How many of them do you think were based on love, affection and total commitment? And how many based on thrills which ran out of steam?

So that’s the big lie of pornography. But there are other problems too. A recent study of young teenagers discovered that nearly 20% had been shocked or upset by porn images. That is a tragedy because it means that their early knowledge of adult sex is one of disgust; it’s not a good start to what will probably be a large part of their later lives. But there are worse things.

One of these is the danger of becoming addicted to pornography. Just like drugs, some people (about 10%) get hooked – and they find themselves not only preoccupied by extreme sexual thoughts but endlessly searching for more and more porn to keep the thrills going. And, again like drugs, they never guessed when they started that it would turn out like that.

Perhaps most shameful of all, some young people are pushed and persuaded into pornography by their friends. Some kind of friends! Look on the bright side – the Devil gets some shut-eye while others do his work for him.

Your loving Grandparents.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment | 86 Comments