Now that’s queer.

The last blog ‘Who decides our morals?’ received interesting and constructive comment. We touched on the subject of homosexuality, and John Thomas warned us about possible outcomes:
“Truly-independent studies have shown that the result of many homosexual practices involve disease, pain, suffering and death: are we really “liberal” in believing in an institution (eg. same-sex “marriage”) which promotes such practices, and their results? I doubt it. Maybe the truly “liberal” approach – that which truly frees people – is the one which says “for your own sake, you mustn’t …”

So let’s talk a little more about this since homosexuality has some issues which can help our understanding of Natural Law, as presented by the Church.

Perhaps I should start by saying that I do not question John’s evidence. Rather I welcome it, because it reinforces the nature of homosexuality as a mismatch. That is not a theological conclusion but a factual one: the mismatch is between biology and orientation. And mismatches tend towards problems: try putting a two-pin plug into a three-pin socket and you will see the mismatch straightaway. So we should expect the sort of problem outcomes to which John refers. The Church (CCC 2357) describes homosexual acts as grave depravity, intrinsically disordered, and which can under no circumstances be approved. While ‘disordered’ has the same meaning as ‘mismatched’, it carries more condemnatory overtones.

Clearly we should avoid mismatches as far as practical. But we are told that homosexual orientation is not chosen. It is suggested that it can come through genes, through problems in the womb before birth, or through upbringing. Nor is it curable. Various psychologists, or pseudo psychologists, have claimed that they can ‘cure’ it, but evidence of success is lacking. So we can presume that homosexual orientation in itself involves no moral fault.

But homosexual acts are a different matter. Could there be circumstances in which these might be justified? The answer in Catholic terms is unconditionally ‘no’. The reason is that homosexual acts are judged as intrinsically wrong, so, by definition, they are always sinful. This is an element in Natural Law which holds that God expresses his direct will through the structure he has created. This was understandable up to the 19th century but now we know that, through evolution, the creation of biological structure is indirect. While the outcomes of evolution are generally good since they have supported survival, this is not always so – particularly when conditions change. (A current example is the fertility rate which is about three times too high for modern conditions, and has to be controlled though contraception.)

While we are free to judge homosexual acts as evil, depending on the circumstances, we may no longer claim that they are always evil simply because God was once thought to have proclaimed this through his direct creative act.

It then becomes possible to consider whether two homosexuals who have entered into a committed loving relationship may be behaving virtuously in terms of what is open to them. We might well expect that the mismatch involved could cause problems, although the evidence that this is so in the case of homosexual marriage, is not yet available. I would not call it marriage for semantic reasons, and I would prefer to think of it as a civil partnership, but I should be happy to respect it as a good thing. Would you?

Posted in Bio-ethics, Church and Society, evolution, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged | 31 Comments

Who decides our morals?

When my wife miscarried at three months she pulled herself, haemorrhaging, to a tap so that she could baptise her baby. Why? Because she had been taught that an unbaptised baby will never get to Heaven. I commend her devotion, but just look at the situation: this child created to be fulfilled in eternity with God might, simply by chance, miss the whole point of its existence. Indeed at an earlier time it was thought that its destination was punishment in Hell because it was damned by the inheritance of Original Sin. Later we invented Limbo, but the principle was the same.

If that looks absurd to me – an active cradle Catholic – how would it look to an outsider? Flip through the New Testament and you will read the fundamental message that the vast majority of the world’s population is on its way to Hell. The only way to escape that fate is to be baptised and, in doing so, become a member of an exclusive organisation called Christianity. There are only one or two small exceptions, such as baptism of desire.

And, even the baptised are likely to stand in danger. How many of us can hold our hands on our hearts and claim that we have never committed a mortal sin – as so described by the Church?

I have tried to explain to outsiders that we have to interpret Scripture in terms of the context and knowledge of the times. They politely say they understand – but they walk off shaking their heads. And really I agree with them. Scripture is clear and emphatic about this. And the Church throughout its history has solemnly taught these things. If the infallibility of the Church cannot be invoked here, where else can it be invoked?

We are all aware of the decreasing proportion of Catholics in the developed world. And we know of so many who have in fact lapsed. I know, because it’s my generation, and many grandparents tell me that their adult children, to say nothing of adult grandchildren, have simply slipped away. It was a granddaughter of mine in her early teens whom I was teaching Catholic sexual doctrine. In fact she knew it well from her convent. She said “Yes, that’s what I’ve been taught, but I have to think about real life.”

I am aware that the beliefs and principles of the Church will often be rejected by the world. We should expect that. But I would be happier if we were associated with a moral law which others might envy, and which we fully understand and defend out of conscience rather than fiat;. For example, I will have no truck with abortion – I don’t need the Church to tell me that. But I am open to a more liberal attitude towards homosexuality – now that we understand the condition much better.

It is no surprise that Pope Francis is in trouble with the traditional conservatives. He favours active and continual exploration of the demands of morality. He respects tradition but has little time for accepting it as always the last word..

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Am I being critical?

I have a young relative who is severely dyslectic. Now well into his twenties, he is a top designer currently working on a major prestige project in London. That may seem an unlikely career, but I know why because he addressed it in his university dissertation. He explained that dyslexia can produce a difficulty in recognising patterns, and patterns are an important shortcut for most of us in arriving at sound conclusions from initial evidence. But for a creative designer that may be a problem because his skills rely on radical thinking – he must not be trapped into easy assumptions based on conventional experience.

I remembered this when I was reading a recent study which examined whether IQ or critical thinking was the most important in making decisions.This was measured by the positive or negative real world outcomes. It showed that, although high IQ was needed for making good decisions, critical thinking was even more important. Loosely defined, critical thinking uses relatively organised approaches to problem solving; it employs a variety of methods and attitudes which assist us in analysis and warn us of the tendencies to error built into the human system. Formal IQ tests tend to focus in a somewhat abstract way on the thinking process, while critical thinking is more closely related to the real world.

Let’s imagine a doctor (not yours of course) who listens to your symptoms. He has been trained to the eyeballs and is assisted by several years of experience. This may prejudice his critical thinking because his mind is full of pre-suppositions and likely answers from his existing patterns. We know, for instance, that doctors are susceptible to reading symptoms in the light of their own specialities, and they may, like all of us, be influenced by recent experiences, irrelevant evidence and even, if the neurologists are to be believed, by what they had for breakfast.

Of course that is likely to be true of all the learned professions whose success depends on the veil of omniscience. And by contrast it shows why critical thinking is not common. That is because the critical thinker must first aim his criticism at himself. He must constantly doubt his own views and solicit ideas from those who disagree with him. His triumph is to spot his own errors – which moves him closer to the truth, and so towards the good outcome he seeks. When I become prime minister I shall have a high level team, called “The Swines”. Their job will be to find the flaws in all my proposed policies.

Our imaginary doctor stands in for experts in general. And experts are the people we naturally go to in our uncertainties. Our doctor, like the lawyer and the investment adviser, is forecasting the outcomes of symptoms and forecasting the outcomes of potential remedies. Unfortunately the average expert is not much better at forecasting than the rest of us. When we read of a proposed political decision of consequence we hope to find an expert to forecast the outcome. We probably need not bother: we would do better to consult the professional forecasters. And the evidence broadly supports this.

What can we learn from these forecasters? They tend to work in groups. This broadens the range of mental and psychological ideas, encouraging cooperative work and welcoming challenges. They are quick to recognise, and to abandon, analyses which can never be more than guesswork. As far as possible they use hard data, distinguishing the bad from the good, and they employ a variety of statistical methods which may be used for analysing mathematical probabilities.

We would expect them to be knowledgeable about a range of disciplines. They cannot be expert in all of these but they must know enough to recognise the principles of a relevant discipline and how to get help in its application. And they must be humble in accepting that their own judgments may be skewed by their individual personalities born from genes and experience. They will be continuously aware that there is a range of tendencies leading to error which exists in the human psyche. One example of this is the confirmation bias. Once our minds have begun to form a view we start to favour evidence which supports that growing view. There are several others.

While we could not be expected to use such expertise in everyday life, it is valuable to consider how we can at least approach the principles that forecasters use: the use of good information rather than guesswork, a broad understanding of probability, awareness of our susceptibility to a variety of prejudices and, most importantly, acceptance that uncertainty is unavoidable can all improve our critical thinking.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Neuroscience, Quentin queries | 11 Comments

Who Decides?

Subsidiarity strikes me as a dull word. Read it, and then pass on. But the concept is important. Loosely, it may be defined as allowing decisions in society to be taken at the lowest practicable level: higher authority may not arrogate decisions which can properly be made at a lower level. The principle is explicit in the Catholic Church’s social teaching, and it applies to the Church itself as a community – as Pius XIIth taught in Quadragesimo Anno.

Many of us will have experienced it in bringing up children. We gradually introduce it through encouraging the child to make its own decisions. And this is difficult because we are concerned for the child’s safety yet we know that our instinct to protect can lead to the child going into the outer world with no experience of making decisions or of understanding the consequences. Subsidiarity in parenting is a matter of continual judgment.

It is also necessary in secular organisations. One of the important changes in the second half of the 20th century was the recognition that allowing workers at different levels to make their decisions rather than to direct them by detailed instructions produced better results. This was so in both commercial organisations and in others, such as hospitals.

Of course it is not a free-for-all. Depending on the nature of the work, some rules will always be necessary. But it is the authority’s tendency to trust their workers’ motivation and capacities which brings the best outcomes. It is not always easy for authority to do this well. It somehow seems safer to enforce rules – giving independence is asking for things to go wrong. Many organisations are under the genuine belief that they observe subsidiarity when in fact it scarcely exists.

It is interesting to consider how the Church stands up to its own principle of subsidiarity. At first sight it does not look promising. Its structure is headed by an absolute ruler. He is surrounded by a huge civil service, called the Curia, which is responsible for the different activities of the organisation. Then we have the bishops who, provided they obey the pope and the Curia, have full power over the diocese, through to the parish priest and finally to poor little us. However the structure itself is not the whole story: if each layer is inspired by subsidiarity it can work perfectly well.

But does it? Those who say no might point out that Catholic morality has always been a matter of obedience. Despite its acknowledgement of conscience, and the occasional reference to charity, it’s obeying the rules which appears to count. Theologians who appear unorthodox can be dealt with by methods of medieval justice. Despite Cardinal Newman’s insistence that the witness of the laity is an important element in the belief of the Church, this is largely ignored. When the English-speaking bishops produced a new liturgical translation in line with the teaching of Vatican 2, the Curia created a new set of rules, rejected the translation, and wrote their own. It’s the one we use today. While such attitudes are gradually improving, much helped by Pope
Francis’s example, we have a long way to go.

(Perhaps I am influenced by experience here. I am one of the few people who has had an Imprimatur withdrawn after it had been granted and the book published. Interestingly a paragraph specifically criticised by the Holy Office was drafted for me by an archbishop.)

Yet, even as I write this, I am aware that the solidarity and the certainties of the Church have played an important part in the strength and orthodoxy of the Church. I only have to look at other denominations to see the dangers which can arise from the lack of central authority. How do we relate the essential truths of faith and morals to an increasing freedom of its members to make up their own minds?

Posted in Church and Society, Pope Francis, Quentin queries | Tagged | 25 Comments

Help! I need somebody

Today I need some help. The 25th October is the 50th anniversary of the UK’s Abortion Act 1967. And I have undertaken to write on that day a somewhat longer column than usual in the Catholic Herald on the subject. It is important for me to know how thinking people view this issue nowadays. And I do so in the light of the recent British Social Attitudes survey that 61 per cent of Catholics favour legalised abortion.

There are several issues to discuss here, and my suggestions are by no means exhaustive. But here we go.

What are the strongest arguments against the legalisation of abortion?

What are the strongest arguments for the legalisation of abortion?

Does the Act achieve the control of abortion it proclaims or is it in practice a free pass to abortion?

Should Catholics condemn abortion simply out of obedience to the Church’s firm teaching, or should they be deciding as a matter of conscience?

The percentage of Catholics favouring legalised abortion has been increasing and now includes a majority of those who claim to be Catholic. Why is this?

I have an impression that those who oppose legalised abortion are increasingly seen as extremists or, more kindly, as oddballs. But always politically incorrect. The issue now is not focussed on the baby but on the rights of the mother.

The account at is comprehensive but conveniently it starts with the key reasons which justify abortion.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Church and Society, Moral judgment | Tagged | 27 Comments

Science and philosophy

Over supper a few nights ago I had a conversation with Damien (not his name) which roamed around the relationship between science and philosophy. Damien is a young man highly educated in the sciences and with, I suspect, an IQ which would give me an inferiority complex. He told me that he avoided philosophy because it yielded no certain answers and, by its nature, could never do so. Science on the other hand did give clear answers based on empirical evidence, even if we needed sometimes to modify them in the light of new discovery.

Of course I understood but I wondered if the two could complement each other. And I explored the track of artificial intelligence. I had recently listened to a scientific conversation on the nature of the brain. It was assumed that the brain was ultimately mechanical. With its 100 million neurons and its 100 billion connections we might never reproduce it in practice. But what if we could? Were we to create a robot with an exactly reproduced human brain, and a body to match, would we have created a real human being? Of course we never reached an answer. So pause, and think what other elements the robot might need to have.

Our first test might be to kick the robot’s shins. Would we expect it to react? Yes almost certainly – because it would be programmed, like us, to protect itself. So, various internal actions would be triggered. Some would start the process of healing; others would jerk the robot into crisis action to decide, almost instantaneously, whether to escape or whether to bonk you on the nose. But would it be conscious in the sense that we use that word? Science has failed to answer that question. But I am clear that kicking a robot’s shins is not in itself a moral matter. But kicking your shins would be.

The next test would be whether our robot had free will. Some scientists would reject this test on the grounds that free will does not exist even in humans. Unfortunately this proposition is self-defeating. If conclusions are no more than the outcome of personal history which we can neither fully know nor control, it can claim no truth value for we would be already biological robots.

Could our robot be a moral entity? There are two elements here.
The first concerns our ability to recognise the good. Different ways of discovering this have been developed but perhaps the most popular is Utilitarianism. Its basic principle is the greatest happiness for the greatest number. It is an attractive approach but it is difficult to apply in practice except in simple cases. But our robot might have the advantage here through its ability to process huge human data, and the availability of the algorithms needed to assess all the options.

Much the same might be said for the Natural Law approach. Its rationale is that we flourish if we follow our true nature, which is given to us by God. By analogy our dishwasher will flourish if we respect its nature as recorded in the maker’s handbook. I have suggested in the past that if the Church’s application of natural law, as applied to the moral law in the light of its maker’s handbook, could be programmed, we could instantaneously measure the moral status of any proposed behaviour.

The second element of course is moral obligation. If for instance I decide that I should be a truthful person I can justify this in different ways. Perhaps I recognise the practical value of truth in society. Or I realise if I am known to be untruthful I will not be trusted by others, and be disadvantaged thereby. But such reasons are not moral they are utilitarian. The obligation which is expressed as “I ought to be truthful” is of a different order. The philosopher, A J Ayer, claimed that such moral statements have no objective meaning, they merely record our individual feelings. But even Ayer might have jibbed if I had claimed that his fundamental views denied the possibility of his being a moral person. Yet he was a moral person just as Professor Dawkins is a moral person — but both deny the intellectual substratum necessary to be this.

So introducing consciousness, freewill and moral obligation into our robot is more than a technical problem to be eventually solved. They appear to share the unique characteristics of being a person but we can conceive of no programming skills which could address them. It is at this point that science and philosophy part ways because they ask different questions. Science is concerned with the material and its measurement – continually seeking further solutions to causality. Philosophy asks: Who are we? Why are we here? What ought we to be? Such answers lie within ourselves, and always just beyond our reach.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Moral judgment, Neuroscience, Philosophy | Tagged | 11 Comments

Plain speaking for a change

“Plain Language Philosophy” is an approach to the truth which is available to all of us. Nowadays it is popular with serious philosophers – and often used by those who do not think of it as philosophy at all. In principle it promotes the idea that if we make a statement or a claim, even in the most natural way, we have to be prepared to defend the validity of that expression. In doing so we get closer to understanding what we are saying.

Here’s an example. “All Hottentots are rogues, they should be shunned in normal society.” Almost every word in that statement is susceptible to questioning. Let me suggest just three. You will be able to identify the others.
o what do you mean by “rogue”?
o what do you mean by “are”?
o what do you mean by “should?
And of course your responses to such questions will throw up other words and expressions which need their own clearer definitions.

I would choose Socrates as the champion plain language philosopher. His favoured approach was to ask questions rather than to make definite statements. So, when he was told by the Oracle at Delphi that he was the wisest man, he didn’t just accept or deny it, he went off to ask questions which might lead him to verify the claim. If you had said to him “I need a cup of tea” you might have found him interrogating the word “need”.

So here is an exercise in plain language philosophy: it is somewhat more important than a cup of tea. In each case try and establish the deeper meaning of the verb in each phrase.
“I hope there is life after death. I think there is life after death. I believe there is life after death. I know there is life after death. I am certain there is life after death.”
If you are in an atheistic mood today you can simply turn each proposition into its negative: “I don’t think there is life after death” etc. The exercise is the same.

I hope that working at this exercise will demonstrate to you how easily we make important statements without explaining even to ourselves what we mean. I am not suggesting that you should challenge everyone you meet. You might get as unpopular as Socrates, who died for it. But there will be important statements you encounter in conversation or in the media, or being shouted by the mob which you do need to interrogate through plain language philosophy. But perhaps more importantly you should interrogate yourself. Then you at least can say what you mean, and ensure that you mean what you say.

Posted in Philosophy, Quentin queries | Tagged | 17 Comments