Dead end

They say that there were no atheists on the Titanic as it sank to the strains of “Nearer my God to Thee”. And I can well believe it for the prospect of impending death tends to focus the mind. But it might not be so nowadays. The newspapers this week reported a survey which asked people what their priorities would be for a good death. High in the list were a pain free death and the wish to be in the company of friends and family. 60% ranked religious or spiritual needs as the lowest in the list of priorities from which they chose.

How different from the Catholic view! For us, death is a climax; it is the passage from our times of trial into, by God’s mercy, eternal reward. Not an end, but a beginning. It is the last, and perhaps most important thing, that we do.

But we all know that we have fallen short. And so we have to rely on the fact that God has gone to the extremes – up to the extreme of the Cross – to obtain our salvation. Death may come as a thief in the night, but not before God has taken every possible step to give us salvation. And he did not pay that price to lose us easily.

So, for us, the opportunity to come finally to terms with our relationship with God is one on which we put the highest value. And there is the great comfort of the sacraments of the Church to make up what we lack.

Yet I am uneasy. I can only speak for myself, but perhaps others will recognise something of this. Why am I relying on a future opportunity to square things up with God? I suspect it is because at the very end of my life I will have little or no opportunity to slip back into my old ways. What price a firm purpose of amendment, when amendment only has to be sustained for a few days or a few minutes?

Over the last month I have been subjected to a crash course in insight. My wife had a very bad fall which smashed her shoulder. Not fatal, of course, but extremely painful and debilitating. She has not been able to sleep for more than an hour or two at a time, and necessarily sitting in a chair. The rôle of nurse, on effectively a 24 hour basis, has fallen to me.

Over that time I have experienced a succession of swiftly changing emotions. Love and care, yes. But also impatience, irritability and moments of straight selfishness. I think I can say that my underlying inspiration and determination have remained constant, but my silent, repeated, reminder “in sickness and in health” has often been muttered through clenched teeth. So I have learnt a great deal about myself.

Now I have some work to do to get closer to where I hope to be at the moment of death. In effect I am asking myself how I would judge me if were I God. I want to start off with any good points I can find. That’s not self indulgence but because I believe that God looks for the good points first, just as I used to look for the good points in my children when their behaviour was foul. Then, the rather longer list of bad points. No room for hopeful excuses — God knows, as I really know, the difference between real excuses and the self-serving ones. The Holy Spirit will nudge me here, darn it.

Then I must construct a plan. As I have written before, I don’t think that trying to improve on all fronts is the helpful way. What I need to do is to focus on one area for a period, and then switch to another when I feel I have made a little progress. And around the circle again. It may take me a little time – to the end of my life perhaps. I shall need a great deal of grace, but then we are promised that on tap. And so I dare hope that, when that final moment comes, I will be a little closer to where I want to be. I do not expect my welcome to be phrased as “good and faithful servant” but I shall be content to find a little room somewhere in the servants’ quarters of my Father’s house.

Can I commend to you the idea of trying to judge yourself as God would judge you? And to see how close you are to being the person you wish to be on your deathbed? It sounds like an impertinence even to try to see the mind of God. But in fact such an undertaking is really a form of deep examination of conscience. Painful but healing.

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged | 59 Comments

Human or superhuman?

If you wanted an argument in early Christendom the issue of the Incarnation would always serve. Truly man or just pretend? Truly God or just inspired? Two persons with two natures or one person with two natures? Two wills or one will? Eventually, of course, we emerged with one person with two natures and so with two wills. Unfortunately orthodoxy still leaves us with mystery, and plenty of room left for debate.

One problem concerns knowledge. Christ was omniscient in his divine nature. How does this fit with his human nature? His human knowledge was processed through his human brain, and so it must have developed according to the stages of brain development. There was no danger of his sitting up in his manger and delivering a brief explanation of quantum mechanics. All he knew was the warmth of his mother’s breast and the smell of milk. But by the age of twelve he knew enough to quiz the elders in the Temple in his pursuit of his Father’s business, and his wisdom was to increase thereafter. Even the proclamation of his Father’s revelations cannot, as such, exceed the capacity of his or our human brain. “He who has seen me has seen the Father” – perhaps the deepest metaphor ever presented to mankind – remains a metaphor.

It wasn’t until the 7th century that the idea that Christ might have only one will was scotched. It puzzles our shallow minds that he had two wills, one human and one divine. Our everyday experience leads us to conflate “person” and “nature” but, as the Incarnation reminds us, these concepts are essentially different. In fact Christ’s human will harmonised with the divine will, without losing the limitation of being human.

And perhaps there’s the rub. Homo sapiens is not born as a blank sheet. He is, to use a modern metaphor, programmed. We need, for instance, to have no doubt that his mother and father’s upbringing helped to shape his adult life. And, through his relationship with them he learnt about the male and female character, and the bonding of two persons in marriage. Nor need we suppose that he was a goody two shoes; it is natural for the young to learn through parental correction. But human programming has a much longer history than that. It started in a primitive form of life and evolved through billions of evolutionary steps to a stage fit to receive the characteristics of intelligence and free will. You, I and Christ are cousins of the jellyfish, albeit rather far removed.

Instincts and emotions provide useful examples because we have inherited many of these from the lower animals. Our instinct to react immediately, both emotionally and physically, to signs of danger comes from our animal past. Our openness to altruism can readily be explained by its rôle in assisting the survival of pre-human groups. The hormone oxytocin, valuable in the bonding of intimate relationships — from the care of the whining baby to the physical love of marriage, is also present in dogs who love their humans. Perhaps the most prominent of our inherited instincts is that of reproduction, as any documentary recording the life cycle of a species will show. To which we must add the workings of the brain through which by far the largest portion of our mental activity is processed without our conscious attention. Its 22 billion neurons have been programmed through evolution and experience for a great range of tasks which we do not yet fully understand.

Christ, the man, was subject to all of this for his human nature was a fallen one, vulnerable to fear, sorrow and pain, and, on the cross, even vulnerable to that sense of abandonment which God reserves for very special souls. He is subject to sinful temptations including those resulting from the extensive passions of our lower nature, which, of course, he shares. Here we distinguish three stages: initial (unchosen) stimulus, contemplating the temptation, surrendering to the temptation. Christ only experienced the unbidden stimulus, then, through his human will, actively attuned to his divine will, rejected the further stages.

There is a danger that our grasp of Christ’s human nature is only notional. We have to face up to the fact that he was really one of us, experiencing humanity in all its knobbly, natural aspects, just as we do. It is precisely because we all share humanity that the redemption of human nature, through his suffering, could come about. And, as Hebrews emphasises, it is through this sharing that he can sympathise with our weakness because he has been tested in every respect as we are, and yet remains without sin. We recognise Christ in many ways, but we should never forget that he led us on the battlefield as a true comrade in arms.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Neuroscience, Philosophy, Spirituality | Tagged , , | 104 Comments

The end of the affair

Last Saturday I attended my daughter’s silver wedding. It was a wonderful party, filled with the friends of a lifetime. Only one thing was lacking: her eldest daughter could not get leave from her voluntary posting in Zimbabwe. Instead she sent a written address, read out by her cousin. As she explained, with concrete examples, how her parents had supported her and her siblings, the tears flowed down her mother’s cheeks and, before long, I saw that the whole room was peppered with handkerchiefs. I won’t tell you whether I cried. One passage gave everyone a message:

“Our family, extended and immediate, grew out of my parents love for one another. There has never been a doubt in my mind that my parents are completely in love with each other and always will be. The love in our house emanates from their tangible and visible love for one another.”

I have heard a few sermons on marriage but never one which taught me so much about the reality and power of marital love. I don’t mean that the marriage has been sticky and sentimental – there have been the ordinary course of spats and silences – but it was plain to their daughter that the profound love that bound her parents was the foundation of the family. My granddaughter continued “I am so proud to be your daughter. If I can be half the mother and daughter you are I will be more than happy.” But she seems to be on the right course: two new Zimbabwean babies have already been given her Christian name.

But I was brought down to earth on Monday morning. My newspaper reported that shortly more than half the births in a year will be out of wedlock. In the 1970s only one child in 20 was so born, by the 1970s it had become one in 10, and it has now reached 44 per cent. And it could have been worse since non-British citizens have been much more likely to be married before having children. It strongly suggests that marriage as a background for producing a family has become a lifestyle option in our culture.

Does it matter? Clearly there are some cohabiting couples who love each other dearly, provide a secure home for the children, and provide an example of long term love. And around 45 per cent of current marriages will break down and divorce. So the problems are are not confined to cohabiters. But there is an important difference: in 2010, when cohabiting couples were 19% of parents, they accounted for 48 per cent of family breakdown cases. And couples who were not married at the time of childbirth were twice as likely to split up before the child was 15 – even if they married at a later stage.

I was brought up in a secure family so I can only apply my imagination to the tragedy of family breakdown for a child. The rows, the loss of security, the divided loyalties, the loss of parenting, the reduction of material needs – suggest to me a terrible uncertainly and pessimism which I would have carried into later life. And indeed the studies show the higher incidence of educational difficulties, mental health problems and substance abuse in the children of broken relationships. The children are less likely to make good and lasting marriages of their own.

So it would seem that our society’s slide into open relationships in which commitment is only provisional is not just a personal matter – we are all affected. An unstable, and in many instances, an unhappy society is a future which threatens all of us. If you have watched television programmes on poverty and welfare benefits you may well have noticed how often the victims of the system are unmarried singletons who cannot both earn money and provide childcare. And behind those are many who have escaped that dilemma by getting rid of the baby before birth.

So what is our society doing to improve the situation? I have not heard the politicians championing committed marriage, nor have I seen them providing tax advantages to make marriage more attractive. On the contrary their reaction has been indifference, they have gone happily with the flow. But we all know that flows tend to end in the sewer.

Can you identify the factors which have led to this situation – remembering that Catholics (perhaps some in our own families) are not so different from the general population. What actions should be taken to alleviate the situation – by others, by ourselves?

(If you think that stable marriage should be the norm I suggest that you brief yourself through It is not a religious site but it is run by people who support marriage, and do so through recording the facts and the trends. You may like to read their ‘Manifesto’ for marriage)

Posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged , , | 99 Comments

The hard problem

I hope that some of you have had, or will have, the opportunity to see Tom Stoppard’s play “The Hard Problem” at the National Theatre. I saw it conveniently at my local Odeon – along with a grandson who is studying philosophy at Durham. It is of considerable interest to Secondsight Blog.

The plot itself is a little thin, but it provides a matrix in which a number of important issues are argued out between the main characters. A central theme is what I call the “Turing” problem. You will remember that Turing spoke of the possibility of developing a computer so sophisticated that anyone entering into conversation with it would be unable to distinguish it from a human being. We are faced with the question of the difference between a person and a machine, when the latter is at least equally competent, and often more so. This brings us up against the “Hard Problem” of the title , which is of course the question of our consciousness.

On the way we have to consider whether there is such a thing as altruism. One character argues strongly that there is no such thing as altruism in the sense of someone making a sacrifice for another. In all the examples presented to him he is able to show reasons why the ‘altruistic’ person is in fact seeking to gain direct or indirect advantage from his action. There is no room for an element of choice to benefit another at a cost to oneself. We can see this to be true at the level of the computer – where, ultimately, all operations are causal. The thought of a computer being kind just doesn’t fit the bill.

As you would expect, the idea of free will gets short shrift. In the mechanical (scientific) world a choice which is uncaused has no place. I was interested to read this weekend a draft dissertation from another grandchild who is studying philosophy (at London). He takes for granted that our decisions are all determined by our existing mental states, and bases his argument on that assumption. So much for five years of education at a distinguished Jesuit school!

The problem of consciousness is indeed hard. It faces the difficulty that one has to assume consciousness in order to enable it to be considered. That is, unless your brain can accept the idea that a philosopher or a scientist can solve a problem without using his consciousness. I have read many articles which promised to solve the problem but, in the end, they all turn out to be possible ways in which the brain is able to gather and present the stuff of which we are conscious, while leaving out the key step of consciousness itself.

In fact, although this was not mentioned, I think the real “Hard Problem” is freedom of the will. Consciousness is a necessary part of this of course, but it adds the additional problem of choice. Or we could take this further by considering the difference between good and bad choices. The computer has no use for “good” except as an alternative for “useful” or some such.

It is an irony that the scientific sceptics in practice accept altruism, freewill, consciousness as a personal quality, morality and the value of the good, in the conduct of all their daily life. How they live with the inconsistencies between their real life value systems and their intellectual denial of any basis for them intrigues me.

I will have given the impression that Stoddart is championing scepticism in this play. But the impression I received was that the jejune arguments of the sceptics became more and more incredible – not because they received an intellectual battering but because they appeared more and more ridiculous and irrelevant as the plot worked itself out with its all too human emotions and outcomes.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Neuroscience, Philosophy, Quentin queries | Tagged | 94 Comments

Knowledge – or mere entertainment?

In any newspaper we may find a mention of some exciting new scientific discovery. It may be evidence of a promising new cure, or perhaps an association between our behaviour and health, or some aspect of human psychology which we can relate to ourselves. The scientists have been beavering away on our behalf. Newspaper mentions are a distillation of around 40,000 studies a year which are recorded in the public domain. But what weight can we place on this information: are we being offered knowledge or entertainment?

Such studies are the outcome of the scientific method. This can be simplified by its stages: observe the material world and identify possible patterns; formulate hypotheses which could reveal the rule behind these patterns; test the hypotheses and accept those that are verified by experience. The corpus of modern science is based on this methodology, and so we should be properly grateful. But we need to be wary.

The published study is not a gift just to us: it is meat and drink to the aspiring scientist because the progress of his career and his reputation can best be achieved through his public contribution to new and potentially useful knowledge. A negative study, often an important contribution in itself, gets no fanfares. As a result there is a sad history of positive studies, some of which are at least questionable. Problems may range from an optimistic massage of data to outright fraud. While many branches of science are susceptible, those concerned with psychology and sociology are particularly vulnerable because the concepts and outcomes are more difficult to measure than those in the physical sciences, even with recent assistance from fMRI brain scans.

Scientific fraud (search for examples on the internet if you are interested) is less important to us than earnest scientists who believe so strongly in their hypotheses that they are tempted to make their data fit the conclusion which they “know” to be true. One obvious way is to bin those studies that prove negative and start again – perhaps with minor alterations – until they get the results they want. We read the triumphant final study, but know nothing of the preceding failures. One authoritative source described data massage as “rife”. And I write as one who has occasionally been tempted to omit an awkward result which conflicts with the statistical confirmation I need.

Another problem is the need to account for other characteristics which may be affecting the outcomes. Take, as an example, a measurement of the benefits resulting from breastfeeding. If, as I understand to be the case, breastfeeding mothers are likely to have a higher level of education and better living standards, this may skew the results. One may employ a control for this, but omit other, less obvious, characteristics. And each control imposed can raise the cost or validity of the study. Nor does such a study necessarily identify the drawbacks.

Few studies review complete populations – they use a sample. So, even if the study itself is gold plated, the results can never be precisely reliable. Probability theory is used to calculate the margins of error. Avoiding technicality, the p value indicates reliability. This must be 0.05 or below for respectability. Oddly enough, there is always a large a number of studies which just scrape in under this threshold – too large for coincidence. A similar statistical effect occurred when teacher discretion provided more C grades at GCSE than were warranted.

But there is a longstop. Substantial studies will be published in peer-reviewed journals. The intention is to check studies through expert criticism, and to provide the information needed for the study to be replicated by others. But even this system is flawed. Peer reviews, it has been strongly argued, are of questionable value and replication is a thankless task – thus too rarely done. In one case a pharmaceutical company decided to replicate 53 published studies of new drugs. Nine out of 10 failed.

What defence does the layperson have against inaccurate results? Certainly, one virtue is healthy scepticism. A reader with some close knowledge of a subject will be able to compare other studies and, if he has the skill, to analyse the study and its statistics, so he may want to obtain the full paper. For most people, commentary in a responsible publication such as New Scientist or Scientific American is the best bet.

There is, however, a post scriptum consolation. Religious believers are often accused of superstition, magic and claims resulting from wishful thinking. It may be a comfort to know that scientists, notwithstanding their steely pragmatic evidence, all too often prefer their own interests to the hard knocks of truth.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Neuroscience, Quentin queries | Tagged | 85 Comments

The balancing act

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I look back to the many years I spent as a smoker. And I wonder how I could have been so stupid. After all, for most of the time I was well aware of the medical dangers. But that didn’t stop me because the cigarette or pipe were there, and immediately offering the pleasure of a quick drag. I even came to understand how the pleasure centres of the brain reacted to the addiction. And punished me for failing to smoke.

I have been thinking about this again because the newspapers have carried so many stories on this new facility for those over age 55 to take their pension pot early. It is, say its champions, only right that intelligent human beings should not be treated as incompetents; they should be able to choose. (There are, of course, cynics who says that the Tories are well aware that lumps of extra spending just at this stage will give an extra push to a growing economy.)

I had encountered something similar before – when, in my former career, I was concerned with marketing pensions. There were a surprising number of people who, even after understanding the need for a pension and the importance of setting it up early, simply elected to spend the money now rather than provide for retirement. I even met an Evangelical who assured me that the Bible had condemned providing for the future –“Take no thought for the morrow. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof” he quoted to me. And he wasn’t joking.

So I fear that this new facility is not being offered to sane, balanced, rational people. It is being offered to human beings. And that is a different animal.

A picture of a seesaw comes into my mind. On one end is a large man, on the other is a child. Yet the seesaw balances. Of course it does, because the child sits on the long end and the man sits on the short. It’s the effect of leverage. “Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.” said Archimedes.

Human nature is like that: the more immediate the reward the greater its desirability. So a puff on a fag this very minute attracts me more than good health in forty years time.

We must assume that this, apparently irrational, characteristic is the result of evolution. There must be some benefit which contributes to survival. My guess is this. We are prompted to take action immediately because, if we fail to do so, that action may never be taken. As a result of this omission, we may be destroyed before we have a chance to enjoy the future benefit. Unfortunately, the instincts which emerge from evolution are not discriminating. What may have been a good survival strategy when lives were nasty, brutish and short, may no longer be so useful in more settled times.

It is only too easy to apply this to the Christian life. Sin is immediate, and attractive. We are drawn, Aquinas tells us, to a good – or something which we perceive to be a species of good at the time. Of course, if we pause for a moment, we realise that it will be an the expense of an incomparably greater good. But unfortunately this is somewhat indeterminate, and will not be available to us for many years. The sin is there – to hand.

We may even see a version of this ‘seesaw’ instinct in Christ. His first thought is to ask his Father to take away the ‘chalice’ of his Passion. But this is only an immediate good. Through invoking his Father’s will, he chooses to accept the long term benefit of redemption by suffering and death.

In day to day matters we may well be helped by remembering that the ‘seesaw’ instinct is just that – an instinct. The choice between immediate action and future consequences must be rational and not instinctive. In more serious issues, we must try to discern the will of the Father, and be ready to follow that.

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Neuroscience, Quentin queries | Tagged | 111 Comments