Look me in the eye

We have all been aware of the shameful racism towards some England players at the Euro 2020 final. But it gives us the opportunity to consider how we, individually, tend to react to groups of people in much the same way. How do we think about the Irish, or the Scottish, men or women — or any other group with observable characteristics. Are we aware that our prejudicial responses have been necessary for the development of homo sapiens. I wrote about this a dozen or so years ago, and I thought it might be useful to remind you.


In a careless moment I have just knocked a heavy book onto the floor. My dozing cat instantaneously leapt from her favourite chair and scudded out of my study as if the world was coming to an end. She lives a safe and peaceful life but, being a cat, she knows that sudden noises spell danger and so her instinctive reaction is to run.

She is very like me. Aeons ago my ancestor heard a rustle in the undergrowth. He did not wonder whether it was harmless or a predator, his instinct told him to escape – and to keep going. Perhaps there were other hominids who rejected such caution and went to investigate. I did not descend from these for they did not survive to have progeny.

So let’s come forward through a few hundred thousand years, and note a recent study, at New York University, which tells us that we decide, even before we are conscious of it, whether a new acquaintance is honest or not. The recognition of an “untrustworthy” face can be measured in brain changes – even when images have been shown too quickly for any judgment to be made. Evolution ensures that biological creatures have developed to take such instinctive actions when faced by the possibility of danger or opportunity. We act on first impressions. But, like so many responses developed in primitive times they can sometimes be inappropriate today.

I have numerous grandchildren who are at an early stage in the job market, and they sometimes seek my advice about a prospective selection interview. They are surprised that I shy away from detail, and point out to them that selection interviews are hopelessly inaccurate, and that conclusive decisions are likely to be made within the first five minutes. What really matters is whether the interviewer likes the candidate or not. And once his mind is made up, subsequent information which conflicts is unlikely to be registered. And it will help if you are able to follow a poor candidate: you will look better by comparison.

We may experience the same thing when we attend a talk from a new speaker. How long does it take you to assess his intelligence, his social class, whether you would like him, whether he knows what he is talking about, whether he is worth listening to? You will decide all that in the first few seconds, and much of it before he has opened his mouth. It is true that in some cases you may have to revise your opinion but, most often, your general reaction of optimism or pessimism will influence you through to the end.

Indeed optimism itself can be manipulated. I once had a boss who was very good at refusing my requests but, knowing what a pride he took in his mathematics, I would put in a deliberate mistake. His pleasure in spotting it, together with my admiration for his skill, was often enough to get me what I wanted. Psychologists tell us that someone asked to read a text majoring on either depressing or encouraging words, will be influenced in both their mood and their subsequent decisions.

Hair, height, spectacles, general attractiveness, handshake, accent (class-related, regional, foreign) posture, shape of face, eyebrows, movements, gaze, smile, tone of voice, rhythm of conversation, clothes, skin tone, girth, name, address, are amongst the many signals which we know induce first impressions. And these impressions tend to stick. If you are running from danger it is safer to keep running than to stop and reconsider. Even contrary facts arising later may be denied, but more often they are simply overlooked. Sometimes interviewers refuse to believe that contrary evidence has been given until they listen to the tape recording.

Perhaps our first concern is to school ourselves to give the right first impressions. Have you ever thought of testing your handshake with a friend, or switching from contact lenses to spectacles? (The latter adds 12 IQ points to appearance.) But more important for our purposes here is to consider how accurate we may be in judging others. If we read the signs wrong we may of course make mistakes but, even worse, we may be responsible for an injustice. What precautions can we take?

Sometimes a signal may have a rational basis. So we might be right to suspect that a firm and friendly handshake comes from a firm and friendly person, but the sense of authority we attribute to a tall person is a primitive relic. Imputing greater honesty to received pronunciation than we do to a Glaswegian accent is cultural; and imputing virtue to those of attractive appearance is simply human nature. I do not advocate suspicion or cynicism, but it is prudent to remember that we too are susceptible to judging by the superficial. And we should be consciously open to changing our opinions as further evidence comes to hand.

We may be getting worse at this. A recent study suggests that those who spent too much of their time looking at screens of various sizes, rather than looking at people, gradually reduce their ability to read the emotions of others. It is ironic that social media, which presumably intends to bring people together, may be doing so at the expense of real encounter.

My wife told me that when we first met, over 60 years ago, she wondered who this odd scruffy person who actually argued with her – unlike her previous respectable boyfriends – could be. I asked her whether she had revised her first impressions since then. The little pause before she gave her tactful answer told me more than I wanted to know.

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Thirteen Years

Yes, thirteen years since Secondsightblog came into action. I have tried to count the number of items over the period. And it’s over 600. You can check if you wish! At that time I was the science editor of the Catholic Herald.

The purpose of the Blog was to present to Catholics — liturgical or secular — ideas and thoughts for discussion. Without doubt, the qualities of discussion have always been excellent. I am still tempted simply to pop in and have a look. Some of the names still with us today have contributed to the early items. Several others are now in Heaven.

Just for fun, I copy below the first item published.

April 21, 2008 by Quentin

Charterhouse, always at the cutting edge, has succeeding in finally solving a theological problem which has taxed great minds for 700 years. You might think that the number of angels that can stand on the point of a pin is a trivial question; indeed it is taken as a proxy for the absurdity of scholastic discussion. But it was by no means always so: and it is still the subject of discussion today.

Bring on the usual suspect: Thomas Aquinas of course. He started it by arguing that any angel could occupy a point in space and that no other angel could occupy the same point. He added that an angel did not have a dimensional quantity but a virtual quantity: it is not contained by the space in which it is present, rather it contains that space. However “there is nothing to hinder us from assigning a divisible place to an angel according to virtual contact; just as a divisible place is assigned to a body by contact of magnitude.” Plenty of room for argument, once you have worked out what he means. Check it at ST1. 52, 53 if you’ve a mind to.

Nowadays there appear to be two approaches to this vital question. Dr. Phil Schewe, of the American Institute of Physics, assumed, in his 1995 paper, the point of the pin to be one atom across and, by dividing this by the theoretical limit of the divisibility of space, calculated the number of angels to be 1 followed by 25 zeros. Another approach, sidestepping the Aquinas prohibition on overlapping angels, made use of quantum gravity. I cannot say I entirely followed the mathematics, but the answer turned out to be roughly the same. Apparently a larger number can be accommodated if they are dancing, but this causes insuperable problems with friction.

My own solution is, I claim, more elegant than either. We must assume the sharpest pin possible since any degree of bluntness is arbitrary. Therefore its tip must be equal to the limit of the divisibility of space or, if you wish, the smallest point possible. Since, St Thomas assures us, no other angel can occupy the same point, the answer to the question must be one. QED.

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We Don’t Need Bishops

So the debate about the attitude of the bishops concerning the American President and his prohibition to receive the Eucharist continues. (find a lengthy link to the elements of this below) And I don’t care because the important question for me is whether I believe abortion in itself to be a terrible sin, or not. On my Day of Judgment (perhaps not long off) the Almighty will be measuring my own judgments, and practices, of good and evil — that is loving God and loving my neightbour — nothing else.

The question of abortion is a question of created human nature. Do I believe that that neither I, or anyone else, has the right to kill an innocent human being? My answer to that is that I do not believe that I have such a right. But that leads to a second question: is a baby in the womb a human being?

The basic facts are clear. There is no human being before the male and female elements are joined, through conception, into one element — the ultimate genes are unique in their pattern. At that moment you and I have our own patterns, and our own identities. Over the days, months and years, the characteristics of our genetic elements develop through time and experience. This process continues after birth, and right through our lives. For example, we assume a capacity for broad reason about 7 years old, and a capacity for adult decisions at 18 or 21. At no point could we claim that we suddenly become human beings — because we are human beings ab initio.


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Computing Confession

We live in a world which provides more and more electronic devices which apparently assist us not only in finding information which would otherwise be diffcult to discover, but also to effect appropriate action.

Some decades ago (and back to the 1940s) the Church in Marbella (southern Spain) maintained a list of potential sins (in Spanish and English) which tourists could read and confess, and which priests could read, ask questions, and give absolution. I think it was an excellent idea and, perhaps, it still exists.

But I would suggest that a similar arrangement could be used for Confession nowadays, effectively anywhere, and in any language. Using the telephone or, more comprehensively, through the Internet, the program would identify our sins, and require appropriate details, plus the frequency since the last Confession. The priest could then set out penances and give absolution. The ‘confessors’ would of course need the proper sorrow for their sins, and the proper intention to do better.

I understand that, currently, the Church would not accept the true presence of the priest under such an arrangement. But of course this is illogical. If I speak to you on the telephone we are both in each other’s presence. Why should we not use mechanisms to achieve the same thing? And of course it would be possible to use Zoom (although I have little knowledge of how it works.) 

The advantage would be considerable. The rate of Confession has dropped substantially in many areas. What’s it like in your own parish? ‘Computer Confession’ would, I believe, encourage its frequency. I would be happy to use it once a week. And need it!

How about you?

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Taking your own life

Regular readers of this Blog will have noticed that I am definitely well aged. I was 73 when it started, and I am now 86. An old man. I am fortunate that, apart from difficulties of memory, I still seem to be fit. Moreover, I have children in the neighborhood and so, even in this difficult time, I am looked after exellently well. How long will this last? Two years? Five years? Ten years? All my children will have retired — and, indeed, being helped themselves by my fourteen grandchildren. To say nothing of a growing group of great grandchildren.

And so I am interested in the current political question of allowing the old, and perhaps sick, to take their own lives. Or, indeed, to materially assist such a person. (see the link below to a summary of the law). Some opponents of this change point out that, in the original debate on the legalisation of abortion, it was argued that it would only be in a few serious cases. The current rate of abortion for England and Wales is about 200,000, under the seven grounds permitted. (link below)

While I am confident that that my family will be faithful in their care right up to my natural death, I fear that I will feel guilty at taking so much, and, by then, contributing so little. How would you feel?



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Are you woke?

Are you ‘woke’? I ask because I recently had a little investigation into the meaning of the word. As far as I can make it out it means not making judgments of individuals on the grounds of their shared characteristics or backgrounds. The most immediate example appears to be racial colour. Thus any pejorative judgment of, say, a negro would be ‘unwoke’.

In the UK, English accent is important. Not long ago the ‘public school’ accent was the ideal. But wokeness is making a change. I notice that, increasingly, the BBC requires experts to be working class or have local accents. I recall Wifred Pickles, in the late ’40’s, readng the News. Pickles was a Northen comedian by trade. I found that I had to check his information by also listening to the same information read in a ‘BBC’ accent at the next news, in order to be sure.

When I first went out into the world my mother warned me against marrying anyone in the Royal Family on the grounds that they were jolly-come-lately, despicable Germans (she was a member of a pre-Conquest family). She was even concerned about her own marriage since my father’s family was unknown before the fifteenth century.

We tend also to hold views on nationalities — such as the Scots and the Welsh. And even different localities in the country. Are you Cornish or Mancunian? German, French, American?

Certainly we have views and judgments on gender. I think my late wife must have been almost the last to vow her obedience to me at our marriage. And she honoured that throughout her life. However, through incomprehensible ways, she usually got her own wishes.

And of course there are other characteristics, established through surveys. For instance, people who wear spectacles are judged to be more intelligent, and taller men are more likely to be chosen for senior positions.

How irrational!

But is it? Back to our old friend: evolution. Early homo sapiens and, indeed their predecessors, lived in a very dangerous world. It was necessary to be aware of other groups who might well be a threat. So they would have developed a range of clues to establish whether stranger groups were safe. They may often have not been accurate, but their usage would have given at least an element of security. So they continued to breed and, over the centuries, became more accurate. We have simply inherited the skill to measure the safety of others by recognizing the broad characteristics distinguishing between the harmless groups and the dangerous. Ironically, lower animals and breeds of insects operate in the same way. For example, dolphins have been found to favour other dolphins who help their fellows in danger, and hold a grudge against those who don’t.*

*Telegraph 23/4/2021. Report & leader.

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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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