Surely that’s not true

Some years ago, in Toronto, I was part of a conversation in which an ‘intellectual’ lady snapped at her meticulous husband with Emerson’s words *Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I felt she was hard on the poor man so I pointed out that Emerson had said “Foolish consistency…”: which was rather different. Now I was not popular, and I haven’t spoken to the woman since.

I find that truths which turn out to be not so rather fascinating, so let me give you a few examples. Then perhaps you can add some others in your contributions. It will make a break from our serious debates.

The guillotine was not named after its inventor. It was used in Italy for years beforehand, and was introduced to France by a Dr Louis. It was at one stage called a louison. Dr Guillotin persuaded the National Assembly to use it to replace the existing cruel methods of execution.

A miniature, as we all know, is a very small painting. Or do we? In fact the Latin word refers to painting with red lead. Normally once used for illuminated manuscripts it can, etymologically, be of any size.

The minutes of a meeting are not a record related to time but to size. The record customarily used small handwriting.

When Hamlet wished Ophelia to a nunnery he was far from preserving her virtue. In the slang of those days a nunnery was a brothel.

Brides do not walk down the aisle but the nave. The aisles go down the sides.

The human body renews itself every seven years. While bodies are always changing, seven is a fiction. The number seven seems to be significant in our minds.

Galileo never dropped objects from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to demonstrate gravity. Or at least he failed to mention it. The story only appeared years later.

Another questionable story concerns Lady Godiva, who happens to be an ancestor of mine. Her bareback ride is not recorded until over 100 years later.

Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb, as many Americans think. For example the British Sir Joseph Swan developed and demonstrated a carbon-filament bulb about a year before Edison’s success.

Now it’s your turn to contribute…

Posted in Quentin queries | 14 Comments

Are you in the race?

How racist are you? Once upon a time I would have claimed not to be racist at all. That was before I had my experience. Several years ago I was coming down a narrow staircase in the London Tube, and a West Indian was coming up. Naturally I moved to the side to give him clear passage. And I went on my way, feeling good about my liberal self. It was only later that I realised that my self satisfaction was racist in itself. I would not have felt it had he been a white person. I learn’t that one can be scrupulous in behaviour and yet retain questionable, but built in, attitudes.

It is of course an ugly quality. I recall walking around Covent Garden with a rather beautiful black lady friend. (change ‘black’ to whatever is the non racist description which is currently acceptable) There I was: clearly an English gentleman but with such a person on my arm. I was really shocked at the plain hatred shown in the expressions of several passers by. It was some 20 years ago. Is it different now?

You may remember the incident of the Washington official who used the word ‘niggardly’ in a speech. His illiterate listeners kicked up so great a fuss at such a racist word that he (as I recall) had to resign.

Of course this is by no means confined to skin colour. It is fortunate for some murky people that they can use the word ‘zionist’ instead of the word ‘jew’. And this is complex because one may, or may not, oppose Zionism on straightforward grounds. It is hard to distinguish rational approaches to such problems from those which are, in fact, racial in their inspiration.

A study was carried out in which the investigators applied for several, advertised, professional jobs. The CVs submitted each gave the same information but in some instances the name of the applicant was clearly Asian. It turned out that those which had an Asian name received significantly fewer invitations to a first interview than those with Anglo Saxon names, despite their equal qualifications. I doubt if the selectors were even aware of their bias.

I am not calling for us to eradicate racism, or indeed our propensity to associate characteristics with identifiable groups. But I am suggesting that, as far as we can, we should identify any elements of racism which we harbour. They may be conscious, semi conscious or even, as we think more deeply, unconscious. We may not be able to change the world but we can change ourselves.

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged | 30 Comments

Virtue versus law

Insofar as I am reasonably literate in modern moral theology I owe a great debt to A History of Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century (Keenan). It is of course a demanding read, but clearly written. (Try Amazon) What is traced here is the movement from a moral decision wholly based on traditional law to a moral decision which is formed by the individual, taking into account his whole human nature and the circumstances which surround the decision. The various theologians concerned of course differ in details and emphasis, but the broad direction is common. Let me give you an oversimplified example (not taken from the book) which helps me to understand.

I imagine a homosexual man who, for whatever reason, has a strong orientation. He meets another man with whom he falls in love and with whom he would like to have a committed relationship. He decides that this would fulfil himself as a human being and offers to him the opportunity of love and commitment. And that is his choice.

We can all sit back and think about the mismatch between biology and orientation, or the Scriptural condemnations, or the Church’s explicit condemnation. But here, all that is beside the point. What matters is that the individual has used his reason to decide in line with what he understands is the good. And he rightly follows that.

That example is stark. But there are others. Let’s take a divorcée from a valid marriage who enters a second marriage. Must she insist that her new marriage should eschew sexual expression? Or, of course, a Catholic married couple who have good practical reasons to use artificial contraception. Again, whatever decision we think is right or wrong it is the individual who must choose.

We might contrast this with the moral theologian, Henry Davis SJ

“The Catholic Church insists therefore, in season and out of season, on the religious education of the child, explicit, dogmatic, determinate moral education… It says to the child: you must be good in the way I teach you to be good, so that afterwards you may know how to be good.” (Moral and Pastoral Theology,1958 edition)

I find myself undecided. I recognise two contradictory predilections in me. One is the absolute importance of the decisions of personal conscience. So I am minded to follow the more recent approaches. But because of the moral teaching of Davis’s confrères (I was at school in the 40’s) my response is programmed to accept law. Were I the homosexual in the example above, I would accept the relationship – but then feel guilty throughout.

Can you solve my dilemma?

Posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 17 Comments

The attraction of attraction

How attractive are you? The question was sufficiently important for The Times to publish two articles in January and to devote a leader to the issue. It appears that good looking people are more likely to be right wing than left wing: the Tories are simply more attractive. The reason, it seems, is that attractive people tend to be more successful in life, both personally and financially. I hurried to my own research database and in no time at all I found enough references to the effects of attractiveness to write a book.

Most of us, I imagine, are under the impression that we can make good judgments of the people we meet. But it would seem that the evidence we use is not based on our knowledge and experience but, quite simply, on what we see. To put it simply, we evaluate our fellows through their appearance. And, as I have written before, those initial valuations tend to stick in our minds notwithstanding later, contrary, evidence. On public transport I am usually insignificant, but last year I went to lunch at a smart club, wearing my best bib and tucker. Ladies stood up for me on the tube. And a street seller at Hyde Park Corner addressed me as “sir”.

This is not a recent phenomenon. Some 40 years ago a Canadian federal election was studied: it turned out that “attractive” candidates got more than twice as many votes as the less attractive. Yet a majority of the voters denied that looks had been a factor in their choice. A classic example is drawn from the television and radio debates between Nixon and Kennedy. The beautiful Kennedy was the winner on television, the dour Nixon succeeded on the wireless. But voting is free – how about court cases where good judgment is of the essence? Sorry.. in criminal cases the attractive are less likely to be convicted. In civil cases they are likely to get substantially higher damages. We know that attractive people are more likely to be selected for jobs, and that they find it easier to get financial investment and to procure loans.

As we look at these attitudes we may find ourselves considering where we personally stand in the scale of attractiveness. My beard is an issue: I was once told by my seniors that this was likely to slow my business promotion. This was at a time when beards were seen as farouche. However my wife, when it first appeared, described it as “like adultery but without all the hassle”. So I kept it. Interestingly, one study claimed that beards were attractive to women, but only for brief affairs. I cannot confirm that since my affair with my wife could not be described as brief. Other women were different: some came in closer, others moved away. The distinction was marked.

Voices are another aspect of attraction. A fascinating experiment showed a crime story where viewers from different parts of the country were asked to judge whether the protagonist was guilty or not. The verdict depended largely on accent. Birmingham and Glaswegian accents fared badly. But they are not alone: foreign accents in general also attract less trust.

Accent is an important issue. Higgins, in Shaw’s Pygmalion, got it right: “It is impossible for an Englishmen to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.“ And indeed, there is a built in tendency to believe and respect upper class accents. But there may be a limit to this: an accent which is seen to be affected may lose its power to persuade. I have no study which shows the influence of accent in political voting, but I expect it to be influential. How do you react to Jacob Rees-Mogg? But many parents, recognising the potential advantage, arrange for children to have elocution lessons.

A low voice we know, on the authority of King Lear, is an excellent thing in a woman, but so it is with a man. An interesting study showed that women listening to various male voices were attracted to the low ones. They could even visualise, often incorrectly, what the man would look like. Unfortunately such men were also seen as
more likely to cheat and unsuited to longer relationships.

The abundance of studies in this area may partly be put down to the fact that they are relatively easy to conduct, and tend to be newsworthy, as The Times supposed. We need to be careful of such studies, which vary in their reliability, but, overall, they provide a useful picture. We can put down such superficial judgements to evolution which requires swift reactions to danger or opportunity to promote our survival (my computer mouse has just clattered onto the floor, and my cat has shot out of the room). But there are also many occasions when second judgment is better for us and for those we meet

Posted in Catholic Herald columns | 11 Comments

The vulgar mob

In January this year President Trump presented his “Fake News” awards, The New York Times led the list. But fake news is all the rage: a modern phenomenon which seems to have been born at the last presidential election. And it is true that the modern world is particularly vulnerable to it, although it has a somewhat longer history. Pontius Pilate arraigned Jesus citing fake news and in the Middle Ages fabricated stories of murderous Jewish activities were circulated successfully, and ultimately bloodily. Ironically, similar stories with similar objectives and similar outcomes were used by the Nazis, and believed as readily. The idea that we upright Brits would not have been fooled by such propaganda, in the same circumstances, is dangerously optimistic.

The target of course is mobile vulgus or the “fickle crowd”. It has always been with us – as the use of the Latin phrase indicates. Its characteristic is its tendency to believe the evidence which supports what it would like to be true. There is no doubt that while the universal mob response can be tracked through history it has become more common through the press, the radio and television. Today we can add social media.

Fortunately, none of us belong to a mob. Really? The tendency to accept evidence which supports our own view is shared by the educated, the politicians and the man in the street. And I include myself. The only hope of defence is an internal scepticism through which we continually interrogate evidence which appears to support what we think to be true. That’s difficult.

The difficulty is reinforced by the discovery that our brains are set to reward us when we find that our opinion is shared amongst the groups to which we belong. It appears that in the earliest times, safety required that communities should be united in their views. Conformity was safe, disunity was dangerous. Moving, as I do, between various Catholic groups I find that only a few minutes are needed in order to know what kind of opinions are acceptable in that group. It is ironic that the Catholic Herald, the first Catholic newspaper to have an uncensored letters page, was criticised over sixty years ago, often from high places, for encouraging the laity to express their views, and to have a liturgy in their own language. If the Herald had had its own way there might have been no need for Vatican II!

If the mob response has always been with us we should note that available methods of communication may be the key to its extent. Remember how the power of printing enabled the Reformation to publish the Bible in the vulgar tongue, and the circulation of other key documents. Without printing power that great cultural change might never have taken place. Perhaps its most powerful stimulant is social media: enabling a staggering capacity for the mob to communicate to thousands of people. It may well change the culture of our society, and indeed of our democracy, as did the invention of the printing press. As an example, a tweet, originally sent to about 40 people, which declared that anti Trump protesters were being bussed in for disrupting pro Trump demonstrations, went viral. It was shared some 16,000 times on Twitter and 350,000 times on Facebook. And so a new mob was formed. Trump himself is no fool: he uses twitters, absurd as they may seem to some, because he knows the predilections of his own mob.

Another example of the mob instinct is the principle of “safe places”, sadly found in our universities. Speakers on sensitive topics may not be acceptable to university societies, and speakers not pleasing to the students may not be invited. A similar mob demands that statues and monuments of historical figures associated with unacceptable activities should be removed. Do we not need their memorials to remind us of the dangers of allowing cultures to influence our moral values without questioning them? As the philosopher Santayana said “Those who cannot remember the past are destined to repeat it.” We appear to be bringing up a generation which cultivates its prejudices and takes care to avoid any challenging questions.

When Churchill spoke of democracy as the worst form of government except for any other he warns us implicitly of the dangers of democracy. The danger today lies in the capacity of social communication to form overnight enormous mobs whose members are blind to any values outside those of their group. Mobs don’t think: they emote. But each member has a vote. Much importance is placed on the democratic vote to choose Brexit. I accept that, but did you feel that you had enough reliable information to make a rational choice? Or were you, like me, forced to rely on your emotions, or the emotions of the mob to which you belong?

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Catholic Herald other, evolution, Moral judgment | 38 Comments

Original Sin re-visited

A number of years ago I had my own website. It no longer exists because it cannot be hosted through my current internet provider. But I was looking through the old files this week when I came across the page on which I attempted a somewhat daring explanation of our first parents and original sin.

The further back we go through the Old Testament the more examples we find where a story, rather than an historical truth, contains the deeper truth of Revelation. The classic example is the creation of the universe in six days. (If you think it really took only six days, leave the classroom.)

Creation is a great truth but the concept is straightforward. Original Sin isn’t. History tells us that much dispute and disagreement, to say nothing of heresy and division, has arisen as a result. What is the deeper truth here, and what are its consequences? My web page on the subject assumed for its purpose that Adam and Eve and Original Sin was a story like the narrative of creation. So I attempted my version of the deeper truth. To be acceptable it needs to be consonant with the history of salvation, it must allow for the spiritual side of human beings (reason and freewill) and it must – at least potentially – be in accord with science. So here it is.

What if Adam and Eve never existed?

Did mankind descend from a single pair? Science tends to say not: new species are unlikely to develop from a single base, and there are ancillary difficulties such as the genetic effects of incest. These would of course be enhanced if, as Genesis describes it, the female partner derived her germ line from the man. But from the Church’s point of view descent from an original group is complicated by the doctrine of Original Sin, on which salvation history is centred. “Just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. (Romans 5).

It would be interesting to explore a way through which polygenism could be reconciled with Original Sin.

The question is academic, partly because it may prove impossible to demonstrate incontrovertibly how the human race started, and partly because the distinction between brute beast and man with a capacity and a responsibility for moral choice is a spiritual one, and so not necessarily subject to the normal rules.

A theory which I favour is that we are a fusion and a tension between the nature of the evolved brute beast, whose entire dynamic is self-benefit, and the spiritual nature through which we understand good and evil, and so moral obligation. We actualise our captivity to sin through our choices, just as we actualise our freedom through grace to follow the good. This would be a truly original sinful state (not in itself a personal fault) and truly inherited with our human nature. It may be no coincidence that the forbidden fruit in Eden gave them their knowledge of good and evil. In such a theory, Adam (a collective Hebrew word with no plural form, for “man”) becomes representative of the human race, particularised in a story – as was the custom. That may seem a radical idea but it requires no greater jump in interpretation than has occurred before, as scientific discovery has stimulated the Church towards a deeper understanding of the allegorical aspects of Scripture.

But what does this make of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, whereby Mary was free from Original Sin by virtue of her son’s saving merits applied retrospectively? If we rephrase Original Sin as a natural lack of integrity between our higher and lower natures then Mary’s freedom from this lack becomes itself a wonder. Her total being, body and soul, is fully harmonised and fully sanctified. She is, from the very beginning, the exemplar of the perfection towards which all Christians aspire. She is of course subject to suffering, illness perhaps, and temptation and death for, like her son, she is a true human being, and this is the human condition. But at all times her spirit, oriented towards the good, infuses her body and makes her a complete human person, a holy thing.

A further note
I remember, in my youth, counting my ribs against my sister’s, and being disappointed to find that I was not missing one. The irony is that the y chromosome of masculinity is actually a de-natured form of the x chromosome. Thus, as far as we know, the male was formed from the body of the female rather than the other way about. That fits in well with Eve, whose name means “source of life”.
March 2008

The sentence in italics did not appears on the original web page, but is consistent with my theory.

The earliest remains of a homo sapiens skull (not neanderthal) is dated at over 300,000 years ago, in Morocco. DNA and brain shape could not be ascertained. nature 8 June 2017. Whether Neanderthals had reason and freewill is an interesting speculation. If so, they had a similar original sin, and we have no reason to suppose they are not in Heaven.

Posted in evolution, Moral judgment, Quentin queries, Scripture, Spirituality | Tagged , , | 49 Comments

All Change

On February 11th , five years ago, Pope Benedict announced his resignation as Pope: “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry … in order to govern the barque of St Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.”

Using something of a simplistic summary, I would see Benedict as a pope of Catholic tradition, in general line with his predecessors. By contrast Francis may be seen as a pope for change – though he would doubtless claim his focus on a deeper understanding of Catholic tradition which, in the light of Vatican II, needs to develop. His general approach would appear to be emphasis on the importance of conscience, and its ability to overcome other considerations. Some high (or low) spots come to mind:

His reaction to homosexuality was “Who am I to judge?”
His view that under certain circumstances a Catholic in a second marriage could lawfully receive the Eucharist without excluding the sexual side of the second marriage.
His extension of the use of the liturgy in the national tongue of the congregation.

Taken, together with other instances – including curial appointments – this suggests quite deep changes in Catholic tradition. Of course we do not know whether his successor will reverse this trend or continue to progress it.

So I now suggest that we should discuss whether we approve of Pope Francis, in whole or in part. Or are we waiting patiently for a replacement to put everything right again?

(The current issue of the Catholic Herald (2 February) carries a complete article, by Damian Thompson, on Pope Benedict’s resignation.)

Posted in Catholic Herald other, Pope Francis, Quentin queries | 17 Comments