Does God Exist?

Idly today, sitting on the loo, I picked up my late wife’s King James’ bible. When I first met her she was moving from the C of E, in the direction of Rome. Of course the translation is wonderful — it may not be as accurate as the modern versions, but it’s a great deal more beautiful. Years ago, I even wrote a little verse about it:

I doubt if King James wrote it,
But the one who did
Knew the force of short, brute words;
And did not, if there were no clear need,
Write polysyllabically.

And I was reading the first few chapters of Genesis. We all know the story of Creation and Adam and Eve, followed of course by the Fall of Man — into which we were born, and cannot be saved without Baptism. How odd of God, we may think: if he creates a human race damaged by nature to fail.

But such creation myths are common in ancient religions. They give a basis for sanctity, for understanding, for objectives, for rules. We may think it odd that the Church, and, I presume, Judaism blesses and guarantees the account. But we have no reason to believe that Adam, and  Eve ever existed. Nor, indeed, the Garden of Eden and its baleful tree. It’s a story, not a history.

In fact, the experts have followed the development of our ancestors over thousands of years and in many places. We must presume that the gradual development of the brain enabled a better facility of genetic success, and so we find ourselves as the ultimate example.

Nevertheless, its fundamental message is clear, We, at least, have developed morality: the capacity to make moral choices. (We may not in fact, be the first to be so: for instance there are pre homo sapiens as far back as 300,000 years, who  honoured their dead* — thus suggesting a recognition of human sacredness or at least immortality. Are these ancestors in Heaven, or in some kind of Limbo?)

But others might argue that what we call spirituality is simply an outcome of genetics. Those ancient humans who happened to have good relations with their fellows, and benefited from developing their own skills, would be likely to have passed on the characteristics of loving self and loving neighbours to a larger number of similarly successful offspring.

And, as I feel sceptical today, there are problems with the question of God. Of course we are sure that he created the Universe, someone must have done so. But when? Difficult to answer because time didn’t exist before he created it. So when did he do it? Nobel Prize for the right answer. How do we answer those who claim that the concept of God is merely a human rationalisation? Of course there are different rational claims to explain the existence of God, but no one of them actually works. We simply choose to believe in God.

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Stoic vice or Stoic virtue?

So, a fuss in the newspapers last week — on the Catholic rights and wrongs of homosexual practice. There appears to be an assumption that Pope Francis had changed the rules when, in 2013, he said of a homosexual man “Who am I to judge?”. I gather that some bishops have allowed blessings of such partnerships. This of course is a mistake: the Pope was talking about the private conscience of this homosexual, not the objective morality of the activity.

The Church’s long term rule on homosexuality is based on the Natural Law. And this approach is fundamental to several of the Ten Commandments. Quite simply: the male and female sexual organs are clearly structured for bisexual activity. Similarly, the argument versus artificial contraception is based through the same principle.

There is history behind this.  A  form of philosophy developed in ancient Greece was called Stoicism. The name relates to a building in the marketplace of Athens. It was later taken up by the Romans (think Cicero), and significant in the early Church. Put simply, it taught that we should obey the principles of nature in all our activities. The enemy of Stoicim was feelings, passions and so on. These human rexponses were always a danger to the rationality of Stoicism. Nowadays the term is often used as a criticism: a tendency to hold on to our decisions rather than to be flexible and human.

Personally, I have alwatys been drawn towards Stoicism. But I am not prepared to condemn feelings and passions. What is necessary, I claim, is to distinguish between the feelings which support reasoning and those which lead us to irrational decisions.

As a plain example, think of marital bereavement.  Yes, the feelings are strong. But I argue that they are rational because passion is proper, and usually necessary in marriage. But, if the strength of feelings prevents the survivor from taking the necessary actions brought on by bereavement, damage will be done. 

So, back to Pope Francis. Here, we should take into account that the condemnation of homoxual relationships was initially based on the assumption that human beings, and their natural characteristics, were created directly by God. Ergo, homosexual behaviour was out. But now we know that the physicality of homo sapiens was a product of  evolution. We may still judge that homosexual behaviours are damaging to society and so should be condemned.Other might argue that accepting homosexuality, including ‘marriages’, leads to a more peaceful society and reduces the dangers to health which develop from casual homosexual activity.

My conclusions here are similar to the views of good Catholics who argue that the use of contraceptives is permissible, and in certain circumstances obligatory. The levels of fertility in modern women were developed through evolution when the high mortality of the young required the conception of enough children to replace mortalities. The Stoic argument might be that we have inherited brains which are capable of matching new circumstances, and so we can (must?) alter our behaviour to fit the new situation. I am of course aware that contraception leads to other important changes, but not necessarily good ones, in our society.

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I have been reading a recent study of senior students who are vulnerable to stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms. But they are by no means alone. In current times we are all faced by a cluster of new, and often difficult, problems. And we may discover that our anxieties, far from helping us, actually reduce our competence. I certainly find this to be so.

The study provides evidence that the students were very much helped by formal meditation which has been shown to be an “effective and cheap way for universities to help students deal with stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms.”

I recalled the occasion, some years ago, when a lady lodger in my house became truly upset. I can’t now remember the cause but I do remember the healing.

I asked her to lie down on a sofa in my study. I instructed her to tense her muscles as tightly as possible, and then to relax them — while consciously noticing the procession of relaxation.  Eyes, mouth, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, lungs (top, middle, bottom), waterworks area, thighs, calves, feet. By the end she was quite calm. We watched a TV program together — and off she happily went.

I knew how to do this because I aim to set aside ten minutes every evening, before going to bed. As you would imagine, this regular relaxation exercise became more and more effective. Nowadays, when a concern arises, I do a swift relaxation from head to toe, and then I can cope.

But my current skills were not immediate: I had to practice this formal relaxation for a week or ten days to reach the full extension. Not long ago I was feeling quite tense on an occasion with my dentist. But just clenching then relaxing my hands was sufficient to cope with my fear.

This approach to our mental feelings and responses finds its place in the discipline of cognitive behavioral therapy CBT. Over recent years the development of this area of therapy has bcome increasingly important. I am certainly no expert, but I am fortunate in having a daughter and a grandaughter who are professionals.

But my first action was much earlier on. We had a baby in the next room who had the habit of crying when she woke up. It was very tiring. I told her that when she cried her Teddy Bear would disappear. If she didn’t cry Teddy would always be there to look after her. It took just two nights — and the crying stopped. And we slept. That was CBT in action.

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Too Few Children

“The story of births in England and Wales in 2019 is one of decreases and record lows, with the total number of births continuing the fall we’ve seen in recent years. Wales had the lowest fertility rate since our records began and England’s is nearing its record low.” (Office for National Statistics, 2019)

From time to time on this Blog we look at this (literally) vital issue. But we are not alone. Virtually, every international state in recent years shows a drop in the rate of births per women of fertile age. Bearing in mind that we need 2.1 births per women of fertile age to replace population, the current UK rate is about 1.7. (The extra 0.1 allows for infant mortality.)

Does this matter? We can argue the advantages of a reduction in population and, at first sight, a relatively small reduction may be valuable. But the change has its dangers: it leads to a higher proportion of older people, and a smaller proportion of workers. An extreme example is Japan where the proportion of over-65s is around 30% and continuing to rise. It has become a serious problem. It is likely to affect many other countries in the future. Including us.

If we consider natural law we may understand the importance of morality. This has been the basis of moral law in Catholicism. The Ten Commandments illustrate this. These assume that human beings are created as social animals. “Thou shall not steal” or “Thou shalt not bear false witness” are simple examples. Society cannot flourish in their absence. Such rules were originally accepted on the assumption that human beings were directly created by God. They could not take into account the concept of evolution. Thus, for instance, homosexual activity flew in the face of God-created biology. Nowadays we have to allow for our understanding that homosexuals cannot be automatically recognised as immoral and wicked. However, giving the term ‘marriage. to homosexuals in permanent relationship is, in my mind, questionable. Should not ‘marriage’ be confined to couple who can, at least in principle, produce their own children?

Similarly, the whole issue of artificial contraception cannot be discussed simply in biological terms. In primitive times, child conceptions needed to be high because of infant death. That is no longer the case. Does that require a review of the rules? Such a review would also need to consider the other, sometimes questionable, effects of artificially controlling conception. There are many. I speak as someone with twenty seven descendants already. Fortunately, no serious problems so far.

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A Catholic President

Yes, I think I must say something. The USA have a new President. Good news by comparison with his predecessor. And many of us would think how marvellous to have a Catholic president. And a public one too, with a life of devotion.

But I am not one of the many because he is clearly claiming to support the provision of killing babies in the womb. I could understand him saying that, in the light of his almost unbelievable predecessor, he would regrettably not interfere with the laws of the different States in the matter of abortion, despite his moral condemnation. I am talking about plain evil.

This is not simply disobedience to the teaching of the Catholic Church (don’t take a hoot about that!) but it is the intrinsic evil of abortion. Let me tell you a story.  My wife was carrying our fifth child in her womb, at ten weeks. I had taken the other children up to the Common for exercise. She miscarried. Notwithstanding her distress, physical and mental, she picked up her child and baptised him or her. And, throughout the rest of her life, she looked forward to meeting her child in Heaven – where she is at last now.

If you think that human beings are simply the outcome of evolution – and so can be dealt with in the same way as any animal life you may agree with Joe Biden. But if you believe that human beings are created by the Almighty to, eventually, be in Heaven, you will not. Of course, there is the question of at what point does humanity start. It seems clear to me that this occurs at conception when the two genetic elements come together – and start the process of development. A process, in my case, which continues into the eighth decade. Those genes have expressed and modified our individual development to the very moment that you are reading this, and I am writing it

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How relationships go wrong

I have mentioned before that my late wife and I spent a number of years in the past as marriage counsellors. Today I want to look at whether my experiences taught me about the important factors in any long term relationships. So, I would have in mind children, parents, long term friends, work colleagues etc. etc.

We had started by working with engaged couples. Many of these had been sent by parish priests – often because the prospective marriage would be one of different religious beliefs. The meetings were a combination of information and group discussion. But there was one couple whose problems required a personal discussion with us.

It really didn’t work. That was because my wife and I approached the issues differently. We were somewhat distressed about this but it led to us getting professional training in direct counselling from the, then, Catholic Marriage Advisory Council.

Where would the clients come from? My wife came up with the idea of offering our assistance to the local parish priests. It worked extremely well. Perhaps too well because the PPs tended to send anyone with any psychological problem. That often led us to be hand in hand with the experts at the local mental hospital. And we were learning a great deal.

One PP told me that I had to keep my guidance to that of the current Pope. I was unable to promise this — he sent me no parishioners.

Where marriages were involved, we discovered that one factor was very common: the ability to listen to one another. There is a fundamental difference between hearing one another and listening to one another. Listening requires taking in the feelings as well as the facts – demonstrating our understanding and feeding it back to the speaker.

So much of our counselling time was spent teaching the clients how to listen. Then, many problems solve themselves. But this is by no means an assistance only to married people. Our relationships involve our friends, our parents, our children, our work colleagues, our bosses and so on. We have become listeners and so, indirectly, of service to all our “neighbours”. And, as I remember, God is rather keen that we should love our neighbours. And that includes us. How do we really feel? The deep understanding of our own feelings is the first movement towards understanding our own decisions and our own temperaments.

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How to Learn

Yes, I remember the day when my 14 year old son said to me: “You’re not like other fathers. “I asked him why. “Other fathers answer their children’s questions — you simply ask me more questions.”

Did I get it wrong? I only know that he eventually became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries.  And a bookshelf in my study is full of his work — Roman Britain, Pepys, John Evelyn. Now in retirement, he is currently working on yet another book. His sister has more than 250 books, mainly on nature, in print around the world.

Where did this start? I like to think it came about because, unlike my classmates, I never went to university. So, in my own defence, I started to study the relevant authors — mainly related to psychology. Not only did this enable me to write books on the practical psychology of everyday business but also on the psychology of morality — in Catholic terms. Later, I was able to help my grandchildren through their various subjects at university.

I had had a personal example of this. At school I required a Credit in mathematics — a subject I had always found difficult. As no teacher was available, I simply worked through previous papers — using my own methodology. Of course, I passed. And I suspect that I know mathematics better than many of my fellows — it has become part of my brain.

Currently, for well known reasons, the young are faced with the problems caused by the practical Covid dangers of the classroom. Is this an opportunity for teachers to focus on how to discover and learn — rather than memorising the facts directly? Their pupils may well find that this sorry situation taught them more than sitting in a classroom. 

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Let’s try again

Secondsightblog has been operating since 2008. Ove the years we have discussed a whole range of issues from the simple to the complex. The comments and questions of readers have been first class. However, one subject has always fascinated me, and I don’t think we achieved the answers. So let’s have another go…

I decided to click my computer mouse this morning. Or did I? There is good evidence that my brain anticipated my conscious decision by a fraction of a second or even, as the latest research shows, by up to seven seconds. And here we are at the heart of neuroscience: one of the fastest-growing disciplines of our time.

Already we can spot metaphysical questions. How can I speak of free choice for a decision made first by the unconscious brain? Could I have vetoed my brain at the last moment? Is my conscious decision merely a process of noting what has already been decided?

Neuroscience, or the study of the brain, involves many disciplines from basic biology to the meaning of consciousness, and takes us into the tricky area of the distinction between mind and brain, to say nothing of the theological question of the soul. We can date it back at least to Galen in the second century AD, who first recorded damage in the brains of the corpses whose owners formerly had mental defects. But the modern trigger has been the availability of measuring instruments, culminating in magnetic resonance imaging which can immediately locate and measure brain activity stimulated by external cues.

Already scientists can map the functions of many locations in the brain, which are better described as interacting webs of connections under continual revision, decay and addition. Although as yet we know only a fraction, we are able to identify basic aspects of memory, the senses, even the webs which process morality and religion, and many more. No wonder that some neuroscientists hold the view that we have just a biological brain, with a corresponding body, and nothing more. All is potentially explicable in materialistic terms, and hence presumed to have emerged through evolution. (Of course, other neuroscientists argue that there are elements, such as consciousness, which cannot be explained through conventional scientific methods. They are not always popular with their colleagues.)

But the sceptical conclusion is not surprising. If every function of which we know can be accounted for within the biological brain (even if they are not all discovered yet) what function could be attributed to any agent which is somehow superior to the brain but differentiated from it – and of course would not be a biological entity detectable by any conceivable scanning method?

Some believers may be concerned about this too. What, for instance, is my religious belief worth if it is simply the product of a gene expressed in my brain structure? What credibility can be given to my choices and aspirations if these can all be traced to biological brain function?

Of course, neuroscientists acknowledge consciousness (they had better, hadn’t they?) They see it primarily as active in the higher operations such as cognition, long-term planning, memory, and language. Such functions are centred in the neo-cortex, lying above the reptilian and mammalian brains whose operations, though essential, are more basic – and are thought to be earlier developments in our evolutionary progress.

But if you ask them to distinguish between brain and mind, you may get some strange answers. I don’t want to put words into their mouths, but I can fairly summarise the explanations which some of them have given.

They acknowledge that we are all Cartesian at heart. That is, we instinctively think in terms of a difference which distinguishes mind from brain. We experience a consciousness of self which overviews the biological. We are able to think about our thoughts with an introspection unique to human beings. We have a sense of self which is distinguishable from our brain although it may work through it – as the violinist makes music through the violin. Even sceptical neuroscientists find themselves speaking in Cartesian language because that reflects their inner experience.

Pushed back against the wall, a neuroscientist may claim that mind is simply another word for brain. Cartesian language may be convenient, they say, but in fact all the functions that we attribute to the mind are to be found in the brain including, perhaps, a higher level of consciousness through which our introspection takes place.

But few neuroscientists are philosophers. If they were, they would quickly see that the difficulty is not answered. We can think about our thinking, and we can think about our thinking about our thinking, and so on ad infinitum. Introspection must ultimately come from outside the biological for the merely material cannot introspect itself. And if it is outside the biological it cannot be caught in a scan.

Consider a couple of instances. First, think about the claim that the moral process is fully comprehended by a network of biological connections localised in the brain. In what way could moral approval or disapproval emerge from this? There would be no point in blame or approval if our behaviour were only the outcome of biological connections.

And that brings us to free will. How does the biological make choices? Without free will the sceptical neuroscientist is obliged to accept the conclusions of his neural circuits. And if those circuits came about through the random mutations of evolution, on what basis can he hold them to be true? 

Of course, many of our choices (far more than we imagine) are in practice not free. But there only has to be one occasion in the history of mankind when a truly moral decision was made, or one truly free exercise of the will – and the materialist case is blown.

So we can marvel at the wonder of God’s creation in the workings of the brain, without supposing for a moment that the brain has taken the place of the mind – or, if you prefer the terminology, the soul. (Many will remember the conditions which had to be fulfilled for mortal sin: grave matter, full knowledge, full consent. Without for a moment denying free will, it does seem hard to judge subjectively whether full consent is easily present. Conversely, when we perform a virtuous act, how do we separate our free choice from other, secular, factors which influence us? You may have a comment about this, or other aspects of the column. Keep them coming!

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Do you like heretics?

“I don’t like Protestants”. That’s what I learnt at school. it takes us back to the Forties – when I spent 10 years in a Catholic (Jesuit) boarding school. I don’t mean that this was formally taught but there was a general view that Protestantism was a betrayal of the true Church. Moreover, its priests were not really priests at all – in most instances there was no connection of ordination, leading back to the Apostles, and thus its “pretend” priests lacked the Eucharistic identity. It appeared to me that we preferred agnostics and atheists to what we thought of as pseudo Christians.

But “The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis redintegratio, recognised that those who believe in Christ and are baptised with water in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are truly our brothers and sisters in Christ. Through baptism they “are incorporated into Christ”, that is “truly incorporated into the crucified and glorified Christ, and reborn to a sharing of the divine life”. Moreover, the Council recognised that the communities to which these brothers and sisters belong are endowed with many essential elements Christ wills for his Church, are used by the Spirit as “means of salvation,” and have a real, though incomplete, communion with the Catholic Church.

I find this pleasing because, although I am a born Catholic, I have a direct descent from Anthony Thorold, the late Victorian Anglican bishop of Winchester and, formerly, Rochester. His portrait (by Spy) hangs in the loo.

So my question to Catholics, Protestants or any other Christian communions is whether we see, and treat, each other as a unique group of love and companionship. And do we put this in practice in our social work and in the many other ways which Christians can bring to our societies?

Below, you may see an important, official, account of the Catholic Church on this subject. It’s lengthy, and so is the link. But it’s well worth reading.

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My neighbour and myself

I live, entirely alone, in a pleasant part of South West London. When the original ‘locked in’ started I was approached by several neighbours offering their assistance. They are no longer just neighbours, they are now friends. But I am more directly served by a daughter who is in walking distance. She tries to ensure that I am visited at least once every day. Sadly, no hugs allowed – and I do love a hug. And I have been visited twice by my new great grandson: possibly the most beautiful baby in the world.

I have a friend some twenty miles away – she was in fact my late wife’s friend over 60 years. She too is widowed. She used to visit me every fortnight, but nowadays it has to be a late evening telephone call. We are both ancient, and we value that.

But I do have a constant companion – my old moggy. We spend each evening together. She likes routine. I don’t know what I will do if she snuffs it – I am too old to have a new young cat. I have written about her before.

I find my afternoon walks on the Common revealing. Everyone appears to be more sociable than heretofore. I frequently find myself in conversation with strangers, and I am always aware of how similar we often turn out to be. I even have chats with women – I am apparently well beyond being a source of any sexual danger.

What I am seeing is a community actively living out the virtue of loving our neighbour. And I like it. But I wonder whether it will continue when we all feel safe again. I realise that many of our neighbours have no religious connections – some may be consciously against religion. But, poor things, they can’t escape. Every time or moment of loving our neighbour is divine. There is only one source of love, and it is accessible to all of us. The little queue waiting to be accepted into Heaven will have some unlikely members. And so will the queue waiting for Hell. Let us all hope we are at least in the queue for Purgatory. See you then!   

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