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 | Leave a comment


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 | 72 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


In our recent discussions we were reminded that the story of creation in Genesis is mythical. And we have no difficulty in understanding this when we accept that the great truth of God’s creation had to be conveyed in a form which the intended readers could understand.

But there was also a suggestion that the story of Adam and Eve was a myth, too. This, however, is a greater difficulty because the theology of the Fall of Man and his subsequent Redemption is arguably the fundamental thread of Scripture and Catholic doctrine. What then could it mean to call this story a myth? I hope to write a piece on this in the Catholic Herald eventually, and so I introduce it here — in the hope that you will be able to come up with ideas. Let me just brush in some issues.

The geneticists seem to be agreed that we are all related in that the human line has a common male and a common female ancestor. But these cannot be the original Adam and Eve of the Bible because such ancestors did not live at the same time as each other. However this does reinforce the idea of the human race as one family and one genetic descent.

But the first human beings were, in physical terms at least, outcomes of evolution. Prior to them there were different versions of homo, apparently developing from primitive tree-dwelling creatures, and becoming increasingly more sophisticated. One scale for measuring this is the pattern of growing brain capacities. By half a million years ago, brain size had doubled from about the same as chimpanzees to about the same as man today. The evidence of cognitive abilities dating before homo sapiens is of course sparse. But it appears that the knapping of flint to make weapon heads, the use of manufactured glue, the control and use of fire were already known before we entered the scene. While these may seem primitive, they were great leaps at the time.

Do we have any reason to doubt that these remote ancestors had mental capacities similar to ours? Were any of these made in the image and likeness of God?

The test here, I propose, is the ability for abstract reasoning, a fundamental sense of right and wrong, and a freedom to make a choice between the two. For example, the Neanderthals, from whom we did not descend, had relatively advanced cultures and quite possibly had speech. And we have some Neanderthal genes, from cross breeding. Did they too have immortal souls?

I remember being taught that the Garden of Eden was in the Fertile Crescent, but the anthropologists tell us that homo sapiens came out of Africa – and probably several times before a population from which we are descended was adequately established.

In our theology we speak of ‘fallen’ man. None of us will have difficulty in accepting that we are flawed – and seriously so, but ‘fallen’ suggests that we once had a much better, perhaps perfect, nature – one in which we related to God and, through right reason, conformed to Natural Law in its perfect state. Is the distinction between fallen and flawed merely a way of expressing our sad condition through the contrast, or was there really a momentous change in man as a result of his rebellion? Remember that to dismiss the fall of man, and so Original Sin, would be instantly regarded as heresy. But perhaps no more so than denying the six days of creation would have been condemned not many centuries ago.

Certainly Scripture would have it so. We were not personally guilty of Original Sin, we are told, but we have inevitably inherited this damaged nature. Without it, and without any personal sin, we are doomed to an infinite separation from God. It does feel a trifle unfair, but of course we have the intervention and the redemption of Christ which presents (to some of us) the opportunity of salvation.

Would it be heretical (and certainly unscriptural) to suggest that man sought an origin for his conflicting tendencies to both good and evil by coming to believe in a notional story of fallen nature? And would this negate the effects of redemption through Christ?

I would be interested to hear the views of those who would maintain the orthodox, and views from those who have difficulty in accepting it as it is described. Alternative scenarios would be interesting. And it would be good to learn if we have contributors who just simply don’t know, and maybe don’t care.

Posted in evolution, Philosophy, Quentin queries, Scripture, Spirituality | Tagged , , | 152 Comments

How we judge the Synod

We are on the eve of the Synod on marriage and the family, so I asked contributors to Second Sight Blog to comment on the issues listed in the Instrumentum Laboris – the initial working paper. Many comments were received, and discussion continues. I proposed that we should consider what we expect, hope or fear from this Synod. We know that it has already broken new ground through wide consultation – which has included the laity. Despite the amateur questionnaire, it does seem to have reflected correctly substantial gaps between the Magisterium and the body of the Church.

Synods arising from Vatican II have in the past been very much under the control of the Curia. Both the agenda and the final outcomes often appear to have been master-minded. It has even been suggested that they were a pretence of collegiality. However the advent of Pope Francis may well make a difference this time.

Will we see the bishops in open robust exchanges, and – even more importantly – will it be they who decide the outcomes (in communion with the Pope) or the Curia? It will be a real test of collegiality, otherwise we might as well drop the whole idea. And will we receive a reliable account of the discussions? Or perhaps nothing more than the eventual publication of some kind of carefully drafted official document?

Many will remember how, at Vatican II, draft documents drawn up by the Curia were simply rejected by the bishops; they preferred to produce their own. It was a true exercise of collegiality. But in the end it failed: the concept of a college of bishops, in communion with Peter, leading the Church has not become a reality. Ironically this is most clearly seen in that swift emasculation of the very episcopal synods which were to be the instrument of collegiality. We may hope that we will see, by contrast, the coming Synod as an occasion for straight talking, and for a readiness for serious debate.

Contributors to the Blog have noted over the years a lack of active episcopal support for the Church’s position on contraception, and one of them has listed the names of the bishops who supported the rejected verdict of the Papal Commission. It will be important for the bishops to express without fear or favour their real attitudes on this question.

So far the signs indicate that there will be no substantive change in moral doctrine. But there may well be changes in pastoral practice. One of these could be a re-emphasis on the sovereignty of conscience, both its extents and its limits. It is about time for this Vatican II teaching to become a reality in pastoral practice and in general Catholic understanding.

The preparatory document speaks of confusion around the concept of Natural Law, and suggests that much may be done by explaining it in terms so simple that all of us will understand (and so presumably accept) its conclusions. But it is not a difficult concept: every entity from a washing machine to a human being has a nature, and that nature must be respected if the entity is to flourish and achieve its designer’s ends. The problem lies in identifying the detailed characteristics of that nature and correctly deducing its imperatives.

It is possible that the bishops may acknowledge that the Church herself has misunderstood an important aspect of Natural Law. As we learn more and more about the nature of human beings, both physical and psychological, we must accept that the imperatives we recognise will modify in harmony with our fuller understanding. If this were not so we would still, for instance, regard kidney donation as mutilation and natural family planning as inherently sinful. And since we have learned that our physical nature was not created directly but through evolution we have another, as yet untapped, source of understanding of what God’ teaches us through his creation.

The document rightly notes that much needs to be done to promote our openness to life. It is ironic that some European countries with an historical Catholic tradition have lower fertility rates than secular Britain and materialist United States. Is there a lesson here? However we need to be clear that openness to life does not necessarily mean the more the merrier. We all need to work towards a fertility rate which ensures a sustainable increase in population. – but no more. My recommendation is that every marriage should aim for three children. Allowing for the unmarried and the infertile, this should ensure a gradually growing population. But it should be accepted that openness to life itself cannot be simply judged by the means used to plan a family. It may even be that, in some cases, the concentration on natural methods becomes in itself an unhealthy preoccupation with avoiding new life.

The issue of those in second marriages being allowed to receive communion was clearly an important one to Blog contributors. There was no overall verdict but a strong case was made that it should be permitted in suitable cases, provided that the indissolubility of marriage is emphatically preserved. And the same might be said for the streamlining of nullity cases: it must never become a form of Catholic divorce.

So we look forward with cautious optimism to the Synod, bearing in mind that it is only the first stage of a longer process. It will of course continue at the Ordinary General Assembly in October 2015. And there will be much discussion in between.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Moral judgment, Pope Francis | 67 Comments

The right to be right

Deciding on our human rights often turns out to be a controversial matter. But how often do we consider their source? Some would argue that it lies in the will of the people to decide. Others would claim that the source is utilitarian – thus they are rules which must be observed if society is to be settled and peaceful. But if we look at the UN Declaration of Human Rights we find another reason.

In the Preamble appears “Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women…” And the first article reads: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

The implication here is that human rights are derived from human nature, and exercised through the characteristics of our reason and free moral choice. In other words the Declaration is a Natural Law statement. How strange that such a group of nations, representing a miscellany of all religions and none, should explicitly share this view of the dignity of man and accept the imperatives which can be derived therefrom! But that was in 1948. I wonder whether the same would happen now.

I ask because I run a philosophy group. It consists of older people from different professions. One or two practise religion but most of them would describe themselves as agnostic. When I discussed the Declaration with them, they opted first for the “will of the people” cause. But they dropped that when I pointed out some lawfully elected regimes which had behaved disgracefully during the 20th century. They then settled on the utilitarian reason. At no point, despite my questions, did they accept that human dignity might be a possible answer.

I think I can understand why – they are a wily lot. Apportioning inherent dignity to people raises some awkward questions if you want to leave God out of things. The secular belief that we are no more than an outcome of evolved matter is simply inconsistent with dignity: the material on its own has no inherent worth.

It seems clear to me that reason – which transcends the material – and free will – which is incompatible with a universe whose outcomes are determined only by cause and effect – are the essence of human beings, and the only basis which can support human rights.

Am I barmy to think this? And, if not, what questions should I have put to the group, or what points should I have made to them if I wanted to change their minds?

Quentin says: I have some reasonably good news about our fellow contributor, St Joseph. She has been undergoing a lengthy course of chemotherapy, and more to come. She is hoping that her eventual scan will show that her tumour is reduced. She describes herself as “I feel good – no pain just very washed out at times.” She is very grateful for our prayers, and thinks of us all.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged , | 66 Comments