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

A dangerous article?

We have all been aware of the fuss made about Pope Benedict’s recently published article on morality and the Church. Here I reproduce a comment written by Thomas Reece in the National Catholic Reporter.

“Most of the media attention since a German Catholic magazine published Benedict’s 6,000-word statement has been focused on Benedict blaming the sex abuse crisis on the collapse of sexual standards in the 1960s….But Benedict also wants to blame sex abuse on contemporary moral theologians who challenged the church’s traditional, natural law ethics, especially as it applied to sexual ethics. Contemporary moral theology is less rule-based and, rather, takes a more personalistic and relational approach. Challenging the Church’s opposition to birth control, as did most theologians, opened the floodgates to all sorts of sexual sins, including child abuse, in his view.”
Reece’s text is at:
Benedict’s complete text is at:

There are some interesting points here for us to consider. The first thing that strikes me is that whether natural law is true or bunkum it is not difficult to see that sexual abuse of the young is simply wickedness. And that wickedness is mightily increased when a cleric uses his standing and authority not only to achieve his ends but also to protect himself from the consequences.

We might usefully probe the concept of the Natural Law. Of course it existed, under other names, as a key to morality long before the Church was founded. The assumption was quite simple: if we act in a way which conforms with human nature, we flourish. If we do the opposite we damage ourselves and the others involved. A simple example would be our realisation that human beings are by nature social beings. Thus stealing or lying, being inconsistent with the needs of society, are against the Natural Law.

When the Church developed the details of Natural Law much attention was paid to sexual questions. Since nothing was originally known about evolution, biology became the immediate evidence. Given God’s direct creation, biology told us precisely how we should, and shouldn’t, behave. Thus, to take the most obvious example, the creation of the reproductive organs clearly told us that homosexual relations defied God’s creative will – and thus was directly wicked. Today we might still accept that homosexual behaviour involves a biological mismatch, but we might now take into account the question of homosexual orientation, and committed homosexual relationships..

In fact Natural Law is not a fixed code. It cannot be because it is based on nature, and since we continuously develop our understanding of nature we must always be open to modifying our verdict. For example the controversy over artificial birth control was between those who held that the structure of sexual intercourse was the overriding principle and those who held that the relational needs of marriage should prevail. Josef Fuchs, the great Natural Law theologian, eventually concluded that married women had a clearer view of Natural Law in marriage than the official Church. We may agree or disagree.

Finally, we may consider whether or what aspects of the Church’s teaching and its hierarchical nature may have contributed both to the occurrence of abuse and the failure to control it

(Earlier this week an editorial article in NCR relevant to this theme was published at )

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Quentin queries, Uncategorized | 28 Comments

What do we call God?

Am I a sceptic? My immediate reaction is to deny this – after all it means that I am only too ready to reject the many statements of claimed truth which come to my attention. Or does it? Scepticism has been a central issue of philosophical discussion for over 2000 years – and it continues.

Socrates was a sceptic. But he would describe it as his teaching that we can never be certain about the truth. In fact we never establish the truth but, through debate and examination, we may hope to get closer to it. Flash through a few hundred years to the 18th century and we arrive at David Hume. He taught that all our experiential knowledge is no more than concepts in our brains. If, for instance, I am drinking a glass of wine, my view of it is an impression in my brain; our recognition of colour, tactility or flavour are all aspects of these internal impressions. I have no way of proving that it is an actual, existing object. He denied the connection between cause and effect: we know, for instance how billiard balls act on one another, but we have no way of proving that this is causal. He had no time for morality: we have only observed the outcomes of our decisions: labelling them as moral or immoral simply has no meaning. There is an “is” but there is no “ought”.

I am tempted to put this down to his Jesuit education – which puts much effort into asking questions and requiring demonstrations of evidence. He studied at the Jesuit college of La Flèche in France. Unfortunately René Descartes (17th century) was the great champion of truth and he went to La Flèche too. His starting point, after much thinking, was je pense donc je suis = I think therefore I am – often quoted as cogito ergo sum. On this, his solid brick of truth, he built his philosophy.

Ironically science is essentially sceptical. Its conclusions are always in principle open to new evidence or new procedures. We might, for instance, confidently state that water boils at 100 degrees centigrade – only to discover later that the figure actually changes according to altitude.

Metaphysical truths are a different matter. In this case meta means “beyond”. Since they are beyond the physical we cannot demonstrate them physically. Or for that matter in any other way. The phrase “I know that God exists” is strictly nonsense. We can say that we hold that God exists or that we believe that God exists. We can of course refer to arguments of various kinds which lead us towards belief but our conclusion is a personal decision.

Aquinas approaches it in a different way. He demonstrates that it is necessary to have a first cause and this, he says, is what we call God. So he goes from the natural to the supernatural. Without disagreeing with him, I prefer to approach this differently. I am sure of the existence of love and this, I claim, is what we call God.

Posted in Uncategorized | 30 Comments

Our future Church

There is no doubt that the Catholic Church is changing in many ways. Indeed it has changed in many ways within our lifetimes. And often in ways which, say, fifty years ago we would have thought impossible. So it might be interesting to consider what may happen in the future. This week I am going to list some possibilities – without attempting to approve or disapprove. But you may think of many more and, of course, you are free to judge how welcome or unwelcome, they are.

First of all comes papal democracy. As things stand at the moment the next pope will be voted in by the cardinals. So it’s in the hands of these old gents about whom we know very little. They have by definition succeeded in reaching high office, but that may simply mean that they are better at ecclesiastical manipulation than being either wise or virtuous. Surely one day we will select the pope democratically, even if there is an interim stage when the immediate choice is made by the diocesan bishops – who must have taken advice from the junior clergy and their laity. Indeed taking the advice of the laity will, for several issues, be obligatory.

Of course there will be a wider pool for choice because by then women will have become priests, and eventually bishops – there may be a successor to Pope Joan (IXth century). It seems to work well in Anglicanism, and although the current Church declares this to be impossible, that is simply ecclesiastical stick-in-the-mud.

In fact the clergy will have rather more time than heretofore. The future of granting absolution will be general rather than individual. After all the whole process is automatic: express your contrition and your firm purpose of amendment – and you’re home and dry. It might just as well be done in public. Of course, you might want to know whether such or such an activity is sinful – mortal or venial, and what the penance should be. But that now could be available through artificial intelligence – much more accurate than relying on the individual confessor.

This of course requires the Church to go through the whole range of moral/immoral possibilities, and other factors such as motivation, excuses etc. But in the end we would have an absolutely splendid and comprehensive moral law. Naturally the Church will make this a very serious source, and would suggest infallibility or near infallibility. This might be be a little threatening, but the individual could always apply the “1968″ clause. This is named after the publication date of Humanae Vitae – following which several senior bishops told their flocks that they were free to apply their consciences to the question. Basically it means: think about a moral issue, then take your choice.

Of course this Blog will want to share in this more democratic approach so, at some time, I will issue the regulation that should John Nolan and Nektarios, our elders, both agree about some subject – indeed any subject – I will follow their decision immediately.

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Quentin queries, subsidiarity, Uncategorized | 36 Comments