Thursday, 29 April 2010

The usefulness of false ideas

Listening to a programme on neuro-science recently (OK, I admit it: it was another archived edition of the BBC In Our Time programme which I keep raving about here), I was fascinated by the extended discussion that it included on mind-body duality: are mind and body separate entities? Can mind even be conceived of as independent of the body? And, inevitably, is there therefore a soul distinct from the body?

It appears that you can ask a man in a coma to think about serving a tennis ball and a scan will show that the same areas of the brain light up as when a fully conscious player is planning to serve. That suggests that even in a coma there is a degree of consciousness. What seems to be lacking is self-awareness: that part of our consciousness aware not only of the world and our body, but conscious of its own awareness too.

It seems to me that it’s that self-awareness which gives us the impression of a mind separate from our bodies. Because it makes us feel that we’re looking in on ourselves from somewhere else, it suggests an external, independent existence. Since however scans show that its operation is linked to parts of the brain, it is clearly completely tied to our physical bodies. And since none of that activity shows up after death, neuroscience really doesn’t have much good news for believers in the immortality of the soul. It can’t disprove it, of course, but certainly encourages non-believers in their scepticism.

Despite that we persist – I persist – in thinking of ‘myself’ as somehow different from my body. That very mind which has taken fully on board the idea, demonstrated by neuroscience, that it is intimately integrated with my brain, persists in feeling that it has a separate existence.

But then again Einstein’s relativity theory (yep, another In Our Time programme) makes it absolutely clear that all moments in time co-exist – they don’t exist one after another – just like all points in space coexist. But I’m incapable of thinking of it that way: I have memories of the past, I have a sense of existing in the present, and I have forebodings – OK, sometimes hopes – about a future I can see only dimly.

At an even simpler level, I know the Earth travels round the Sun a lot more than the Sun moves round the Earth but when I’m obliged to take the dog out at a ridiculous hour of day, I’m absolutely convinced that I see the Sun come up and not the Earth go down.

All of which leads me to conclude that sometimes what the truth is doesn’t really matter. What matter is what one feels the truth is. What I feel is that the Sun goes round the Earth, it looks that way, most practical decisions based on the relative position of our planet and our star are easier on that assumption. In some terribly important sense, therefore, that’s how things are.

Similarly time runs along in a single direction, uniformly. This is less convenient, of course, when it comes to controlling one’s weight or stopping one’s hair changing colour, but, hey, it’s a lot easier than being Benjamin Button, for instance, or having to live all of your life in one instant, which is what the Einstein view would suggest.

And I’m absolutely convinced I have a soul. I doubt it’s immortal, which is just as well when all’s said and done: I can’t see how I’d escape hellfire otherwise, so avoiding the afterlife is a bit of a get out of jail card. But mind-matter dualism? I live it all the time. It’s a false idea? Maybe, but it’s the only way I can make sense of anything.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Michael Jackson and the intelligent use of force

The other day I found myself thinking about Michael Jackson, as one does.

Not the late, lamented, serially two-toned singer and dancer. No, I mean the British General who commanded NATO forces during the Kosovo operation back in 1999.

The principal of the College where I was first a student was a former Major General from the British Army who once told methat, in his view, a military commander ‘has failed when the first shot is fired’ in an engagement. The real skill in the use of military force is to achieve your objectives without actually using violence. Michael Jackson showed just how you do that.

His initial intention when he was poised to move into Kosovo was to make his headquarters at the airport of the regional capital, Pristina. But just before he made his move, 200 cheeky Russians drove at speed down from Bosnia where they had been part of the UN peacekeeping force and occupied Pristina airport themselves.

It was amusing to watch the subsequent press conference. Journalists kept trying to get Jackson to admit that he’d had a slap in the face from the Russians, that their action had thrown his plans into turmoil. He attempted to play down the significance of the event, but they kept harrying him. Finally, he said something along the lines of ‘I don’t what it is you’re trying to get me to say, but as far as I’m concerned, we were going to set up our headquarters at Pristina airport and now we’ll set them up somewhere else.’

And that’s what he did. He ignored the Russians. NATO troops set up a perimeter around the whole airport area, leaving the Russians within it. Airports are quite large and you can hardly occupy the whole of one with just 200 people. So NATO was able to use the airport, just not the terminal building where the Russians were. So we saw film of NATO aircraft flying in and taxiing past the Russian positions, with not a hitch in their supply operations.

Then three days later we saw the best bit of film of the whole incident. NATO tankers drove through their own lines to the Russian ones beyond. They were delivering water to the Russians who otherwise would, quite simply, have died of thirst.

It was a glorious illustration of the use of military power without a shot being fired and therefore without a single casualty. Indeed, far from shooting at his adversaries, Jackson ended up providing them with essential supplies. The message sent was powerful: ‘they thought they would cause me difficulties, but in reality they can’t even operate, they can’t even survive without my help.’ The Russian gesture was revealed as the entirely childish act it really was – childish even to the point that its perpetrators ended up dependent on those they'd tried to provoke, like a naughty child on adults.

It wasn’t until many months later that it was revealed that Jackson’s immediate superior, General Wesley Clark, Supreme Commander of NATO in Europe, had ordered him to engage the Russians. Jackson had replied ‘I’m not starting World War III for you.’

Thank God for soldiers who don’t just know how to use force but when not to. Sometimes forbearance is just much more powerful.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Yesterday I listened to one of tomorrow's leaders

It’s wonderful the way people using mobile phones on crowded trains seem to suffer from the delusion that they are enveloped in some kind of sonic cloak, so that they can chat away to their heart’s content without anyone else overhearing them.

Yesterday I was sitting across the aisle from a (relatively) young man who was talking to a recruitment agency.

‘Oh, I’m looking for anything that allows me to access senior appointments more quickly,’ he was saying, ‘I want to get an early start on extending my responsibility and authority. I don’t care much what sector the opportunity is in.’

He was clearly the ideal candidate to be offered that kind of a break. ‘I’m a team player,’ he explained, ‘I look for what motivates my people and pull them together to work towards common objectives. I like to think of myself as a team player, dynamic, a self-starter, target-oriented and never satisfied with less than 100%.’

I found myself exchanging smiles with other passengers, some of whom were clearly having trouble stifling laughter.

‘I believe in delivering results and meeting objectives,’ he went on, ‘and I refuse to indulge in empty management speak and my only faults are excessive modesty and a tendency towards self-effacement.’

I may not have got those last bits right.

The worst of it is that at the other end of the phone line, the agents were probably thinking ‘Wow! This is just the kind of guy we want. If he’s prepared to sell himself that brazenly, he’s no doubt prepared to sell anything.’

So they’ll get him his senior management position with the opportunity to move into a top executive job in one of our leading companies in the relatively near future. Within a decade or two he’ll be ‘earning’ a seven-figure salary and making significant contributions to the Tory party; in time, he might be calling the legislative shots for the rest of us, as an appointed member of the House of Lords or even an elected member of the House of Commons.

Because I rather suspect that he has just the qualities of self-awareness and empathy with his fellows that are needed for that kind of career.

If ‘qualities’ is exactly the word I’m looking for.

Monday, 19 April 2010

What did we do to upset Iceland?

What is it with Iceland? It has a total population which anywhere else would just about make a reasonable city. It’s located in the North Atlantic so far from anywhere else that I can only imagine the original settlers turned up because they got lost on their way to somewhere more desirable.

Did you ever hear the Arlo Guthrie sketch about the last guy in the world? This is a guy with so little happening in his life that he doesn’t even have a road to lie down in for a truck to run him over. All that guy has to do is go out and bum a dime and phone the FBI and say ‘Hey, FBI?’; they say ‘Yeah’; he says ‘Chairman Mao and Uncle Ho are coming to dinner tonight’ (OK, I know that the sketch is a bit dated now), and then hang up. And within seconds the FBI will have files on that guy, tape rolling on that guy, thousands of agents finding things out about that guy, because there are things to find out about him: I mean, he’s the last guy, so how did he find someone to bum a dime off? There’s plenty of people who aren’t the last guy who can’t bum a dime; he comes along and he bums a dime. And if he was the last guy and he had to bum a dime to phone the FBI, how was he going to serve dinner to all those people?

As Guthrie points out, his country is the only one in the world, not that could find out that kind of thing, but that would take the time to find stuff out about that guy. Anyone else would say ‘hey, he’s the last guy, screw him.’ But not in the United States, where there is no prejudice, there is no discrimination – they’ll get anyone.

Now I feel a bit that way about Iceland. ‘Hey, that’s Iceland. That’s the last place. Screw them.’ But down the decades, I’ve found I can’t.

Back in the 1970s, it was the Cod Wars. How we thrilled. Nightly pictures on the TV news of plucky little British sailors in their warships battling it out with vicious Icelandic fisherman in their sinister trawlers. Exciting times. OK, in the end we backed down, but it was still the stuff of which epics are spun, with all that is best in the heroism and glory that makes Britain.

Then they went quiet for a bit until a couple of years ago, when they started falling apart financially. ‘They don’t have any money?’ I wanted to say, ‘Hey, they’re the last guys, screw them.’ Unfortunately, it turns out that a lot of the money they didn’t have any more came from our pockets – 300,000 British depositors saw their savings evaporate, nearly one for every single Icelander. That’s without taking account of the £900 million of investments from British municipal authorities and police forces that they seem to have lost.

Now they’ve been spewing volcanic ash into the atmosphere for the last couple of days and forcing us to cancel most of our flights.

What on earth are they up to? Are they upset that we’re not paying them enough attention? Is it something we said?

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Just what is a Christian without love?

What with all the soul-searching about paedophile priests and the role of the Pope, I find myself returning to the question of just what Christianity is about.

People have often told me that what matters in Christianity is its spirit rather than the detail of its doctrine. As St Paul told the Corinthians, ‘if I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.’ In other words, it doesn't really matter if you've penetrated the mysteries of the Trinity or they've completely defeated you, what matters is the extent to which love inspires your outlook and guides your actions.

The Archive of Melvyn Bragg’s excellent ‘In Our Time’ series on BBC Radio 4 includes an episode about the Fall of Constantinople which I find particularly instructive from this point of view.

It’s easy to think that Christianity is essentially a European religion with Latin as its traditional language. Plenty of books and films conspire to give that impression. In fact, for most of its early history Christianity was predominantly an Asian religion and its main language was Greek. Of the five great patriarchates in the Roman Empire, four were in the then Greek-speaking East: Constantinople was on the border between Europe and Asia, Antioch was in Asia Minor, Jerusalem in the Middle East, and Alexandria, in Egypt, was in North Africa close to the cusp of Asia. Only one patriarchate, Rome, was in the West.

In the seventh century, an extraordinary new wave of conquerors emerged from the Arabian Peninsula, inspired by the new religion of Islam, and swept into Western Asia and across North Africa. They took Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria in swift succession. Only Constantinople held out in the East. When Spain also fell to the Moslems, Western Christendom in turn suffered a major blow.

Faced with such a powerful threat, you’d think the two remaining Patriarchates would see the sense of hanging together to protect each other.

However, Rome was upset that Constantinople wouldn’t accept its primacy within the Church. It made a great deal of an ideological dispute concerning Constantinople’s refusal to follow Rome in adding the words ‘and from the son’ to the end of the Nicene creed, making it read ‘… the holy spirit that proceeds from the Father and from the son’. In the East, the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father alone; in the West from the Father and the Son. This led to great debates about a triangular view or a linear view of the Trinity.
The Trinity as seen by the Church in the East (left) and West.
A difference worth thousands of lives and the loss of the Christian heartland?

Now I’m convinced that the difference between these two views is absolutely vital in some key way that escapes me. However, it strikes me that it’s less important than hanging onto a toehold at the edge of your Continent against a common enemy.

So how did the protagonists behave? The representatives of Rome travelled to Constantinople in 1054 and, having failed to persuade the Patriarch to change his view, formally excommunicated him from the Church.

A great line in one of my favourite films, A few good men, is ‘my client's a moron, that's not against the law.’ What’s more, and this is one of the great arguments against all racism, being a moron isn’t limited to any one race or group or creed, and it’s just as common at the top of great organisations – for instance, among princes of the Church – as anywhere else. So the Eastern Church reacted with exactly the same level of maturity and Christian love as the delegates from Rome, excommunicating them in return.

The subsequent split in Christendom, which came to be known as the Great Schism, has persisted to this day, in the division between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.

For the next act in this pursuit of love above all other considerations, fast forward to the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The Crusades were about seizing the former Christian territories from the Moslems. So it’s interesting that the Fourth Crusade attacked the Christian city of Constantinople and sacked it.

It did so primarily at the urging of the Venetians, a great sea power of the time, second in the Eastern Mediterranean only to Constantinople. In case you’re wondering, this was not a coincidence.

The sacking of the City, by fellow Christians, led to the break up of the remains of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire based on Constantinople. By 1453, all that was left of the Empire’s former possessions were the City itself with some of the hinterland and the Southern Peloponnese, in modern-day Greece.

In that year, the Turkish Sultan Mehmed II moved against the City, which had resisted siege after siege in the past, including one by the Ottoman Turks 30 years earlier. This time, though, the Turks had brought great guns, built with skill by their Christian subjects in Hungary. With forces estimated at up to 60,000 against 7500 defenders – 3500 of them from Western Christendom, so some people heeded that stuff about love over doctrine – and the advantage of the siege guns, they finally broke Constantinople and captured it, following up with the sacking (raping, killing and looting) which was traditional amongst all Christian, Moslem and other armies at the time. It's probably still traditional today, though you only find out about it when people are moronic enough to take photos of what they’re doing.

The rule of the Ottomans was strengthened and lasted several more centuries. They might have won anyway, but it’s pretty certain that the sacking of 1204 made it inevitable that they would: it left Constantinople without the strength to defend itself against such a threat.

Now, from the point of view of simple humanity, none of this matters very much. I don't suppose that the vast majority of people under Ottoman Turkish rule then, or under republican Turkish rule now, lived much more or less happily than people under other regimes. Obviously, many thousands died and much was destroyed in the fighting, but who’s to say that the Byzantines would not have caused as much death and destruction had they retained their Empire?

It's just ironic from the point of view of Christianity. Of course, the Western Church emerged in full and sole control of the domain still politically controlled by Christendom, producing the Western-European, Latin-based image of Renaissance Christianity that has come down to us today. Overall, however, that domain was massively reduced. In particular, Christians in the old heartland of the religion were reduced to more or less grudgingly tolerated or openly persecuted minorities.

‘If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal’ said St Paul. He had a point. It’s curious that the people who proclaimed their role as defenders of his message seemed to have had such trouble hearing it.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Zen and the Art of Enjoying Spring

It took me a while to work out what was odd about the moment I drove up to my house yesterday, Friday, evening at around 7:30. Then I suddenly realised: it was still broad daylight, with a blue sky and a warm sun casting a a general sense of wellbeing over everything. It spoke a promise of a glorious weekend, already realised in part when we took our dog Janka out today on Cannock Chase, and for the first time of the year were able to go in shirtsleeves. And the people we met were all smiling.

I sat behind my wheel yesterday and thought ‘that’s it – that long winter is over at last. This is really spring.’

But then I thought of the Ryonaji Temple and Rock Garden in Kyoto. We were only in Japan for less than two weeks, but it has left an indelible impression on my mind. Kyoto, in particular, is a city of innumerable magical places, and the Ryoanji is one of them.

Central to the temple is the rock garden which consists of a sea of small stones raked into wave-like forms, across which are scattered fifteen islands of larger rocks. However, they are so disposed that only fourteen of them are ever visible, the idea being that seeing them all is to gain a view of perfection that can only be attained by enlightenment and doesn’t belong to this mortal and therefore imperfect world.

Glimpsing a little bit of perfection: part of the Ryoanji rock garden

It’s a lesson I learned again on Friday evening. The days are lengthening, the warmth is growing, the trees are covered in blossom; but on Sunday, I shall finally have to face up to a responsibility that I’ve been putting off from weekend to weekend for at least a month now.

The lawnmower’s going to have to come back out of the garage. I’ve never learned to think of mowing as anything but one of the ghastly tasks that are there to teach us fortitude. Even with our tiny little lawn, it still bores me.

Ah, well. I need to learn the Zen Buddhism of the Ryoanji. No experience down here on Earth is ever flawless. In fact, the defect is precisely what makes the rest feel like perfection.

Monday, 5 April 2010

The St Peter Plot: has the Vatican been infiltrated?

There is a classic response to a question to which the answer is obviously ‘yes’, which is to question the Catholicism of the Pope.

For instance, you might get the following exchange:

‘Do the Tea Party people proclaim Christian values but still want to deprive the poor of healthcare?’

‘Is the Pope a Catholic?’

It's a bit like the expression about teaching your grandmother to suck eggs, which occupied me in my previous blog.

However, recent events make it far less obvious that the Pope really is a Catholic. I mean, he clearly is, in the formal sense that he heads the Catholic Church, but is he a Catholic at heart?

It is a central tenet of Catholicism that the Grace of God is obtainable by any sinner – and every one of us is a sinner, ever since the Fall in the Garden of Eden – eating apples wasn’t always the healthiest of activities – but we have to seek forgiveness through the process of confession, which starts with sincere contrition followed by full confession (contritio cordis, the contrition of the heart, followed by confessio oris, the confession of the mouth).

This distinguishes Catholicism from Protestantism. Calvinists, in particular, believe that Grace is entirely arbitrary, in the literal sense of the word ‘arbitrary’ – it is an act of will, in this case God’s will, and cannot be influenced by any action of ours. They build a strong case for this view based on the omniscience of God. Follow this carefully, it’s quite complicated.

Because God knows all, he knows not only everything that happens but everything that ever will happen. He therefore knows what we are going to do throughout our lives, and he knows long before we do anything, whether we are saved or ultimately lost, whether we are destined for heaven or the other place. Now if something is known before it happens, then it's predetermined. God's knowledge of everything from the start of time, means everything is predetermined.

Consequently nothing we do, or fail to do, can possibly affect whether we make it to heaven or not. We may not know whether we're predetermined for salvation or damnation, but we certainly can't do anything about it – either way.

This view received its fullest expression in James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner in which the protagonist learns that he is one of the Elect, and can therefore do whatever he likes including commit murders and other heinous offences, because he’s bound to be saved anyway.

Many Calvinists argue that this is a travesty of their view, but hey, they would, wouldn’t they?

Anyway, the point is that the Pope refuses point blank to issue any kind of apology for the abuse scandals now rocking the Church. Instead, he attacks the media for their frenzy in trying to undermine his credibility.

You can see his point. The Pope’s neighbour, Italy’s revered Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, feels the same about the media. He denounces them for their vicious and unfounded attacks against him. Some parts of the media have alleged, for example, that the fact that British lawyer David Mills has been found guilty of accepting a bribe from Berlusconi suggests that Berlusconi must be guilty of having paid it. Extraordinary, isn’t it, the way people sometimes leap to conclusions on the scantiest of evidence?

So the Pope may have every reason for complaining of persecution by the media. Nevertheless, it’s hard to see in his behaviour either contritio cordis or confessio oris. The latter, you might think, could take the form of an apology, of the kind so many other Church leaders have been issuing lately.

Instead the papal position seems to be that the Church is above question, that because it is the Church, it speaks for God and deserves respect, whatever it or its servants may have done.

Now doesn’t that sound like the Confessions of a Justified Sinner?

Could it be that the Catholic Church has been infiltrated at the highest level by Protestants?

But let’s pursue this further. The Protestant Anglican Communion is torn at the moment between liberals who favour the ordination of gay priests and traditionalists who oppose this as unspeakable blasphemy.

A lot of the recent scandals concern Catholic priests abusing boys. So in not denouncing them, isn’t Benedict in effect condoning a gay priesthood?

Now the liberal Anglicans aren't keen on the abuse but they'd certainly go along with the tolerance of a gay priesthood. Doesn't this suggest that the views of liberal Anglicanism may have taken over the very top of the Catholic Church?

Now that would be a turn-up for the books, wouldn’t it? Imagine what Henry VIII, who founded the Anglican Communion in his celebrated split from Rome, might have thought. And doesn’t this just put into the shade all the trivial little conspiracies that Dan Brown makes his millions exposing?

So the question for Easter 2010 has to be: is Benedict XVI a closet liberal Anglican?

Just remember: you read it here first.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Relocating the Poles, and a proverbial lesson about eggs

Getting a different take on an everyday saying can sometimes invest it with a far deeper, sometimes even surreal, meaning.

I was absolutely certain I recently heard a radio newscaster announcing that ‘the Poles are getting closer.’

Immediately I found myself thinking about the way that in many sectors, including agriculture, catering and the health service, Britain has recently become massively dependent on support from Poland. So moving the Poles closer sounds like it might be a good idea. It would be tremendously convenient if Poland could be brought alongside and, say, moored next to South East Kent. It would also make it easier to pop over to Cracow, a city I’m told is well worth visiting, though I’ve never been there.

Then I realised that the radio had been talking about the forthcoming general election and was therefore making a much more mundane point.

Today another completely different phrase was brought to vivid life for me. We’re close to Easter now, and Danielle and I have come to Edinburgh to spend the weekend with our son David, his wife Senada and our granddaughter Aya.

In case any of my readers are a little vague on the details of Christian liturgy and need this explaining, Easter is the most important event of the Christian calendar. It’s true that Christmas seems bigger, but that’s only because commerce has got behind it far more. Easter commemorates the moment when Christ was scourged with whips, had a crown of thorns jammed on his head to mock the claim that he was King of the Jews, and was then put to death by crucifixion, a particularly long and cruel form of execution.

For most people, that would be the end of the story, but for Christ it wasn't: on the third day, Christians believe he rose again from the dead, the key miracle in the entire belief system, promising eternal resurrection to all who have faith in him.

Death, pain, suffering, resurrection, redemption. Matters of weight and spiritual depth.

So what could be more natural than to celebrate this moment of acute poignancy by pigging out on chocolate eggs?

Our family is pretty heathen, but it likes eggs and it likes children. So Danielle decided that she was going to introduce our five-year old granddaughter Aya to one of the delights of her own childhood, painting eggs for Easter. A colleague of Danielle's lives on a smallholding so he kindly provided two goose eggs.

They had to be emptied before painting. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Danielle went on-line to check just how it should be done.

To be fair they blew the eggs rather than sucking them – they weren’t that keen on having their mouths full of raw egg – but, hey, let’s not be picky.

As David pointed out, what we had just witnessed was the internet being used to teach a grandmother to suck eggs.

Aya blowing a goose egg

...and her grandmother, having been successfully taught how