I like to think of myself as a reasonably intelligent person. After all I have had a long life, following a Jesuit education, married for 60 years, five children and a career in high level finance. I am confident that my decisions and choices are well founded. But I am put on warning: people have an inbuilt tendency to overestimate their intelligence. Why not me? Or you?

I have been looking at the placebo effect. It is a valuable source of knowledge about the way the human mind works. It has the great advantage of enabling us to measure our possible confusions in a reasonably precise way. For example, the effectiveness of a drug for a particular condition can be measured by giving it to some patients while other patients are given a neutral substance instead. Clearly the effectiveness of the drug can be measured by the outcomes of the two groups. However, a number of the patients, who did not know that they had been given the neutral substance, also improved. This is put down to the placebo effect: thinking that you have, or may have had, the correct drug is enough to bring about a degree of recovery.

Perhaps even odder than that, there is evidence that for some conditions even telling the patient that the drug given is inert does not prevent an improvement. I can only suppose that going through the routines focuses the mind on the condition and in some way affects the brain. The patient’s basic temperament appears to be significant.

Other factors play their part. For instance, placebic injections are more effective than placebic pills. And blue pills are more effective than pink ones. Confidence in the medical team or an admired doctor also contribute. A most dramatic example is the potential effectiveness of sham stem cells injected into the brain in cases of
Parkinson’s disease.

Nor should we forget the “nocebo effect”. Here, for example, patients are told that a neutral cream may lead to more pain in some people. And so it does. You will understand how such phenomena can complicate medical conclusions.
Nor is this confined to medical issues. Athletes can improve their performance by false measurements of their timings, and insomniacs can brighten up when (fictional) tests show that that they had had better sleep than they thought. (You will find a thorough article on placebos on the British Psychological Society site at: p://

We are not thinking here merely of interesting facts: we are discovering how the human brain works. What we know, or what we decide, is the outcome of the combination between the action of our brains and our freewill. This column is not called Science and Faith for no reason. Every time we act, think or learn our brain changes. It carries our memories further back than we can actually remember, and even these may be distorted. The influence of our parents, other early carers and our siblings, is largely forgotten, but they travel with us into adulthood. I assume that I learnt my faith from my parents, and even now I can remember the answers in the Penny Catechism. Add to that all our experiences and decisions throughout life – each of them, and their consequences, have altered our brains, and so influence our decisions.

So much for freewill? I will certainly defend its existence – but I need to be careful. Most of the time, what are apparently free choices are in fact reactions furnished by my brain. They may well feel free but, unless I am aware of the likely influences playing their part, my freedom may be very limited. I am, as it happens, rather good at convincing myself that whatever I want to do can be justified in some way or another.

There is another side to this of course, how do we judge the actions of others? We might be thinking of gross activities such as murder, fraudulence, adultery or – if we are prepared to go that far – the abuse of the young. Naturally we judge them by our own standards, and that means that they can by no means be tolerated. But how about their standards? We know nothing of their experiences or the details of their brains. They should be punished of course – but perhaps not for their guilt, which we cannot measure, but because their punishment is an unpleasant experience which will be in their brains when faced by the next temptation. You may think I am going too far — but one day we will all be judged before the throne of God and I, at least, would prefer him to bear in mind all the subconscious weaknesses which have contributed to any sinful activities.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Neuroscience, Quentin queries | Tagged | 15 Comments


It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

I imagine that everyone knows this final verse of William Henley’s poem. For me, it is the summary of Stoicism – which arguably has influenced the Church over the last 2000 years.

Of course, it comes from the Greeks. The very word stoic (Stoa Poikile) means the painted porch — where Zeno of Citium taught his philosophy, around 300BC. We tend to use the word to describe a temperament sufficiently hardened to enable us to put up with pain and disaster. But that is to sell it short.
Stoicism holds that the cosmos consists of determinate, passive, matter which is penetrated by active divine reason. It is built on logic, physics and ethics. Our own reason is a spark of divine reason.

Since the cosmos is entirely rational and interdependent everything in it is organised by divine wisdom for the best. Human reason is a spark of fiery divine reason. To live in accord with the cosmos is to be happy and virtuous, for these two are the same. Since we cannot avoid “bad” or “good” circumstances, our aim is to accept them. Our objective is not to change the cosmos but to change ourselves so that our reason harmonises with divine reason.

Round about the first century the Romans took up Stoicism as a way of life. Many of you will know (emperor) Marcus Aurelius’ book Meditations, which he originally wrote in Greek, at the end of the second century. It is still revered as a literary monument to Stoicism. I keep a copy by my bedside.

Stoicism was of course a gift to the Christian Church as it developed its moral theology. Here was divine reason in the guise of a creator God – constructing the rational cosmos, piece by piece, over six days. It was possible to develop moral theology by the use of reason, just as Aristotle had developed social morality in his Ethics.

Inevitably, Stoic natural law has had its major practical effect on sexual matters – partly because these involve high emotional elements, but more strictly because they are biological by nature – a biology directly created by divine will, and therefore obligatory. Issues like sex outside marriage, artificially preventing conception and homosexual activity were clearly contrary to divine creation. They are evil per se and can never be justified. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor made this abundantly clear.

But, as we have recently discussed, the issue has been brought to the fore by Pope Benedict’s article, blaming the clerical sexual abuse crisis on the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and dangerously liberal theological ideas eroding morality after the church reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

As I write, a Vatican paper, Male and Female He Created Them, is being much discussed. It condemns the modern view which sees personal gender as a matter of choice rather than a matter of biology. The paper is based on pure natural law.

A question remains: should our moral values be settled by Stoicism or should our moral judgments have a broader, deeper nature than simply the natural law?

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How odd of God…

Around the world there are a large number of different denominations. They vary in their intensity and in their moral principles. Which do you think is the strangest of all? I have come across one which befuddles me. They worship their own god and it’s a pretty odd situation. In order to prove their absolute fidelity they must agree to kill their own children if their god demands it. Can you guess which one it is?

Yes, you’ve got it: it is the Chosen People, and inherited by Christianity. The evidence is clear in chapter 22 of Genesis. Abraham is required by God to sacrifice his own son Isaac. It is only about fifty lines, so, if your bible is nearby, you can read it in a few minutes. But you may think about it for rather longer. Certainly, philosophers have argued about it it over and over again. It is particularly associated with Søren Kirkegaard – a 19th century philosopher, who effectively wrote a book about it.

It is only at the very last second when Abraham raised his knife over his son’s body on the pyre that God stops him. Abraham’s fidelity is rewarded by God: he is told of the great blessings he will receive for his fidelity. He will have innumerable descendants. “All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants as a reward for your obedience.” (Jerusalem Bible)

There is no suggestion that this is simply a parable – it is an incident in the story. And it is quite realistic and detailed. God’s phrase “…you have not refused me your son, your only son” relates it to the history of Redemption, but the original readers might not have realised that at the time.

The quandary lies in the idea that God’s infinite goodness may somehow be expressed in a wicked act. We must ask ourselves if we would have been prepared to sacrifice our children simply because God demanded it. Even Socrates had a go at this in his  Euthyphro dialogue: does God love the good because the good is lovable? Or is the good lovable because God loves it? Or, if you wish, does God define the good arbitrarily? Or does the good exist independently? In this case we ask whether God is entitled to demand evil action in order to test our faith. Or does it cease to be evil simply because God requires it? If you can get a clear answer to that you’ll do better than Socrates.

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries, Scripture, Uncategorized | Tagged | 41 Comments

Lucky to be Brits?

Yes, the whole Brexit thing has become very messy. And I am not going to solve it through this column – even if I knew the right answer. What will be, will be. But I am intrigued to see what happens in a genuine democracy. I used to think that democracy was an ideal, and, from most of my post war life, it has worked well. Both Labour and Conservatives have been in power and our political changes have been rather modifications than revolutionary change. We don’t, on the whole, go in for fighting on the streets. But now we have learned that democracy itself can also get us into trouble.

Mind you, none of it should ever have started – if I blame anyone it would be Cameron for bringing it about in the first place. And the original set up was a serious mistake: such a major change in our affairs should have required at least a 60 per cent vote. As it was, of course, the votes were guesswork: reliable information was simply not available. I only made my decision on the voting day itself – and could easily have done so by flipping a coin.

I will say, in passing, that I rather admire Theresa May for her constancy. That takes character. If only she hadn’t called that General Election! Or proposed the unfortunate ‘dementia tax’. Whoever originally coined that phrase changed the future. The moment I heard the phrase quoted on the wireless I knew it was fateful. The right two words can change everything.

If I were asked why I voted for Brexit, I would say: Industrial Revolution. It was because Britain at that time really got cracking on this new idea – notwithstanding the opposition which, in this case, could be violent. I do believe this country has a cultural talent for capitalising on new ideas. Our constructive responses led us to the British Empire.

So I continue to believe that we still have the capacity to go it alone, and to do so very effectively. We can still be an entrepreneurial country, and, once again, show Europe how it can be done. That won’t be short term – the next ten years will be tough and demanding, but I do believe that in the long run we will be successful. So I voted, not for my generation but for my children, my grandchildren and my great grandchildren. They are lucky to be Brits.

Posted in Quentin queries | Tagged | 47 Comments

The Brain Chart

Some 50 years ago my son came to me for help. He was preparing for his A-level history examination. But his mind was so cluttered with facts that he feared he could never compress them into an examination answer. So I taught him how to use a brain chart. Nowadays he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquities, so I can safely say that it worked.

Brain charts, originally popularised by the author Tony Buzan, are very simple. You can use them for a subject you are studying, or perhaps a talk you are planning to give, or maybe just to explore an idea. So grab yourself a sheet of paper and a pencil, but do not write your subject at the top. Instead, write it in the centre and put a box around it. Then invite your mind to identify the main elements of interest and connect them to the subject with a line. Don’t try to do this in order of importance, just flash them in as they appear in your mind. You will of course be able to put in further main elements whenever they occur to you.

Then start, focusing at random, looking at one of the main elements, and begin to add sub-elements to it. And of course you can use sub-elements, and sub- sub-elements, as you wish. Do this speedily around your chart and don’t get stuck in detail. Time enough for that when your chart is sufficiently full. You will then be able to see all the major factors and you are in a position to get down to work.

Typically, a chart for this column gives me pointers to enough matter to write a book. Yet I only have 800 words, but I am now in a position to choose the right 800 words.

The same psychology is present in the best way to read a non-fiction book. We are accustomed with books to begin at the beginning and read through to the end. And this is usually appropriate for, say, a novel – but a non-fiction book requires a different treatment.

Start by reading the dust cover, front and back – with particular attention to any summary, and the authority of the writer. Read the writer’s introduction, glance through his footnotes and notice his bibliography. Then flip through the book, carefully noting any introduction to or summary of chapters, and get a real feel for how the overall subject is being tackled. Look at any visuals. If it is a fairly recent book, it’s worth looking for reviews on the internet, and Wikipedia may tell you more about the writer.

The value of approaching non-fiction this way lies in the fact that our understanding and our memory is much greater if we have an overall picture of the issue addressed – rather than discovering it page by page. In some instance, of course, you might decide that you shouldn’t bother to read the book at all. At least you will have saved a few otherwise wasted hours. But, more importantly, it means that you can understand what is being said from the very beginning, and in turn are more likely to remember the key issues. Documentaries on television are the same: if you know something about the subject you will understand and remember far more than the viewer with a tabula rasa.

Some time ago I received a letter from a university teacher. It referred to this column. The comment was: “It is the single most useful piece of advice I have seen on how to learn.” So perhaps in this period of A-level examinations, it may be worth repeating.

Then, I was writing about the process of revision. I discussed the difference between short-term and long-term memory. We use our short-term memory continuously but it has a problem: new information replaces this knowledge unless we have already transferred the important elements into our long-term memory. There are various ways of doing this but the first, and necessary, way is to give the long-term memory time. So the first rule is to study for no more than about 15 minutes, and then take a five-minute break. The information now has time to enter the long-term memory. Then, move on to the next 15 minutes.

Later, on the same day, we must revise what we have grasped. A fellow scholar asking you questions is an excellent way. In an interesting experiment, it was established that groups that revised their new learning on the same day remembered the information six times better than groups that had left revision to the following day. Indeed, the first groups remembered more information months later than the other groups remembered on the following day.

I am not a teacher, but I have taught such methodologies as an industrial trainer. I am now wondering how much time is devoted in schools to teaching scholars the tricks of the trade. May they all end up with FRSA after their names.

Posted in Neuroscience, Quentin queries, Uncategorized | 13 Comments

Well, really! Women deacons?

There has been much discussion at Vatican Headquarters about the issue of women deacons. It is always pointed out that such deacons are to be found in the early Church. But that doesn’t settle the matter because the issue is not about women who hold formal positions in the work but ordained powers, skirting on priestly duties at the altar. Would the existence of women deacons lead eventually to consecration or granting God’s absolution through Confession? Scripture does not mention any of this relating to women. Following three years of study, the papal commission was unable to decide. Interestingly, as a recent article in the National Catholic Reporter (by Jamie Manson) describes, Francis himself holds the issue to remain uncertain. Perhaps we can help?

My first reaction is that in those days women’s status in society was very different. Their typical function was to give birth and to care for children. At that time a married woman might usually be child bearing throughout her post-pubertal life. Her functions in society were necessarily personal and in the nature of service. Moreover, in the close background were the pagan religions who often favoured female gods. The ordained female, carrying the powers of the Church, was unthinkable. Indeed this attitude towards women still exists not only in other countries and religions but the relics are in our own.

But this of course does not settle the matter, it merely suggests that the absence of ordained females in the early Church is not a useful argument. We still have to answer whether the nature of the female is unsuited to ordination. Unquestionably in modern societies there has been considerable change in this regard – although it still has a way to go. But we have certainly reached a stage where refusing equal privileges to women looks merely quaint. Indeed the presence of women in ordained roles in other Christian denominations appears to have been advantageous.

But does the Church have the power to ordain women – either as deacons or priests? How can that be answered except through the mind of God? Bad news for someone who has been apparently absolved by a woman, or received the Eucharist at a Mass whose celebrant was female.

My own view is just my own view: I believe that women should be ordained as priests and deacons. I have no doubt that this would benefit the whole Catholic community, and, perhaps, put right what has now become an injustice. Were this to come about it would have the same validity as any other serious teaching – whether from Pope of Council. I realise that many readers would disagree, so this column gives us an opportunity to exchange the arguments.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Pope Francis, Quentin queries | Tagged | 60 Comments

Hippopotomous words

Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia – that should give our typsetters a problem! It means a fear of long words. I think I could have coped with sesquippedalion because I can see that it means a foot and a half, but how the hippo got into it I have no idea. Phobias are many and with splendid names.

How about hierophobia: a fear of priests and sacred things? Awkward for a Catholic, but perhaps St Peter will accept it as an excuse. Not much hope, though, for those with papaphobia, which is fear of popes. Some readers might favour my invented  johnpaultwoophobia, and others francisophobia.  I do not suffer from caligynephobia, which is a fear of beautiful women; I only have caligynephilia – which causes me in company to approach immediately the most beautiful woman I can see. Not my fault: it’s a condition. Many people have kopophobia, that is fear of fatigue. Worrying about being tired the next day keeps them awake at night. And we mustn’t forget phobophobia, which is a fear of having phobias. Or panophobia, which is a fear of everything. There is a real danger of this, given the dire picture presented to us by the morning newspapers. Perhaps we now need brexitophobia.

But we must not treat phobias too lightly. I have a young relative with trypanohobia, or a fear of injections. This can be so serious that it can cause someone threatened with an injection to go into anaphylactic shock. Bad news – given the number of preventive injections the young have available nowadays. And many other phobic conditions can cause both distress and disadvantage.

Most phobias seem to be learned conditions, although some of the classic ones are connected with basic fears such as heights, or spiders (acrophobia and arachnophobia).   It may be that we have tendencies hard wired into the primitive part of the brain, set there by evolution as a protection against dangers in our early environment. And they tend to be self-reinforcing. For example ailurophobia, fear of cats, may have started with a now forgotten bad experience. But every time sufferers avoid a cat they feel a sense of relief, which acts as a little reward ensuring that their phobia continues or even gets worse.

And fortunately there lies a remedy. What has been learned can thankfully be unlearned. Behavioural therapists have had much success in training phobic people, through a process of gradual habituation, to rid themselves of their problem. Everyone with a disabling phobia should at least give this route a try. It can transform a life.

But I think I shall continue to live with my osteoichthyophobia (which does not appear in the standard list so I have had to neologize). It means fear of fish bones. It was a considerable nuisance on the days of Friday abstinence and, throughout my career, I chose to work from home on Fridays. My wife became so skilled at removing fish bones that I felt safe. If she had a trace of suzugosophobia (fear of husbands) she concealed it.

Of course you may see all of this as an example of floccinaucinihilipilification, and perhaps rightly so. Nevertheless obscure words do have their value. When I did a good deal of speaking to professional audiences I always tried to get in at least one word which the audience would feel they should have understood, but didn’t. I felt it gave me an advantage. I picked up the idea from a junior colleague of mine who had to address a senior audience. At an early stage he used such a word, and it was easy to see how the paternalistic audience responded by their increased attention to his message. But I also remember a Washington official using the word “niggardly” in a political address. He was immediately accused of racialism, and no explanation saved him from resignation.

But it’s not only what you say, it may be how you say it. Professor Honey in his Does Accent Matter? (Faber and Faber) reported that several studies demonstrated that ‘received pronunciation’ – that is, the then accent of the orthodox BBC newsreader, and shared by about 3% of the population – carried the highest prestige.  The owner is rated as more intelligent, competent and having higher leadership qualities than those with other accents; among women, the owner is also rated more highly in strength, initiative and femininity. Perhaps the outstanding example was Mrs Thatcher whose imitation of received pronunciation was masterly despite her bourgeois background.  The late Lady Warnock referred to it as “odious, suburban gentility”. Only natural received pronunciation speakers can detect the difference and they, as I have said, only represent a fraction of the population. But Honey wrote in 1989, it may all be different now


Posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Uncategorized | 50 Comments