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Archive for April, 2010

Nearly all my books (and I have quite a collection now) came from second-hand bookshops.  Why pay £20 for a volume of wise words when £1 will be enough?  Besides, there is something heart-warming about reading the very ink and turning the very pages that another has enjoyed ; something unifying about reading the margin-notes of others and maybe adding one’s two pennyworth to them.  And I draw  a comfort in knowing that a previous reader had been as equally puzzled by some of the author’s ideas as I am.  Concerned readers have always made their mark on a book, right from the earliest times, and for those reasons.  And, of course, one has the pleasure of passing the book on for others to impress a little of their spirit on to it.

One such book is a little paperback collection of essays by that great physicist and philosopher A N Whitehead.  It is titled Adventures of Ideas, and was published in 1932 if memory serves.  In many places it’s a rather heavy book, since Whitehead writes in that terse style so common in the period ; every sentence is loaded with meaning ; every word has a distinct and carefully calculated value.  A paragraph in such a book would warrant a chapter in any other place.  Reading such a book is like reading poetry ; indeed, the book shines with poetic diction.  It is a book to be savoured a page at a time at most.  But I mention this book because it happened to come to mind ; there are many, many more which can be easily got.

So, in my view, a book is not a thing merely to be read by its current owner but a joy to be participated by many.  And nor is a book a thing to be used only as a weapon.  There is no more ghastly a reader than the perpetual college student, who amasses books for the sole purpose of diving into for ‘references’ with which to smite his own readers and listeners ; the kind who imagines that all that he reads must be consciously remembered or, at least, stored on ice and kept hard and sharp and ready for battle.  For me the pleasure of reading lies in allowing the words to wash through my mind like a warm summer shower of ideas.  For me ideas are like those atoms of Leucippus, Democritus, et al ; their little hooks will cling to whatever they find congenial to my own ideas consciously held, modifying them as they accumulate.  Those that do not cling will drop gently into my unconscious, there to find homes if they can ; else they may perish without regret or rancour, or perhaps live in suspension, enjoying a ghostly existence free from all responsibilities.

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I have just received an interesting letter from the NHS ; specifically from a Professor who describes himself (without apparent embarrassment) as a Hub Director.  I at first wondered how many people know that the NHS concerns itself with mechanical engineering, but I let it pass.  I then wondered how on earth the professor came to know of me, for I have had no previous communication with him or his hub or any other part of his machinery.  Ah!  Machinery.  Of course, he must have got my details from the notorious NHS super-computer which contains all the most intimate details of every citizen’s personal history.  You know, that infallible computer that we taxpayers are shelling out billions of pounds for (on pain of jail if we default).  So, the Computer of Infallibility got my name and address right ; but what of the rest of its outpourings?

The letter opens thus : “You were recently sent a test kit from the NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme.”  Well, this intelligence may be infallibly known to the Prof, but is hot news to me.  I searched through my pile of junk mail which I keep near the front door for convenience, wondering what sort of envelope a bowel test kit might come in.  But there was nothing remotely NHS-looking, nor anything even faintly smelling of disinfectant.  I wondered if the apparatus might have been in a parcel ; I mean, it might be a substantial piece of kit – a sterilised Clinical Throne with an airtight lid or something.  But the hidey-hole in the front garden, where Postman Pat usually leaves such things, was reassuringly empty.

So, no sign of test kits.  Am I to suppose that this is an elaborate hoax?  Is the Prof playing games?  Indeed, is there a genuine Professor at all?  The NHS is a big place, and there must be lots of scope for the staff to play merry japes on unsuspecting taxpayers.  I wonder how many others have been ‘had’ by this one.

But maybe it is all for real?  Maybe the Mad Computer really is churning out senseless letters like this one in earnest.  Maybe there is also another computer – one which thinks it is doling out test kits to the entire population.  How many kinds of tests are there?  Imagination boggles at the potential for confusion.  And not only for confusion, but for alarm, too – as some deeper reflection reveals.

For why, exactly, was I chosen for this ‘screening’?  Did every six-foot, blue-eyed, handsome swain with distinguished silver hair receive an invitation (command)?  Or is there something about me that the Prof knows but I do not?  Or maybe something his computer knows but he does not?

Or perhaps he/it sees me as a mere statistic ; a number in a list ; a mere abstraction ; an entity that happens to fall within two standard deviations of X.  This reminds me of some sophisticated methods of routine maintenance used by engineers who wish to save themselves the trouble of actually going out and looking at the machines they control.  Am I a mere machine?  A machine that might need a fix?  (or might not? or maybe beyond economic repair?)  A machine that undoubtedly serves the purpose of keeping both computers and technicians fully employed.  If so, I suppose I ought to be flattered.

Well, no test kit, no test ; and no reasonable reply to the Prof’s letter comes to my mind.  I don’t trust myself to write to him to explain the ethics of medical practice and experimental research ; and I don’t trust him to understand those ethics.  He has been conditioned, you see, to exploit his position of infallible rectitude so as to regard the entire population as his plaything.  It isn’t his fault that he is so suggestible as to believe in himself so.  He belongs with a generation of Fat Controllers who are destined to Control ; the attitude goes with that.  I suppose that, in some ways, he resembles a parody of a mediaeval bishop ; who sends inquisitors to parishioners’ homes  so as to get a measure of the local sin symptoms.  For is it not the case now that any illness points to a sin of some kind?  Is it not our duty to try to live for ever?

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The spirit of adventure

Ancient wisdom impresses our minds with a freshness that is truly staggering.  What we name the material world, for example, cannot be said (with any confidence ) to exist anywhere except in a human consciousness.  We can only know the world because we are conscious of it.  We cannot go outside of our consciousness to verify that there is world ‘out there’.  For to go outside of consciousness is to be unconscious – and aware of nothing.

Fireside adventures

When we are truly unconscious, the material world simply dissolves ; so does time ; and so does space.

The great twentieth-century physicist, Max Planck, even went so far as to say, “Consciousness is everything ; matter is derived from consciousness.”

The building blocks of ‘recognizable’ matter are atoms.  But, as Bertrand Russell reminded us, these are known only by sets of difficult mathematical equations whose interpretation is obscure.   For nobody has ever directly seen an atom, and nobody ever will.  The models we learn at school and elsewhere are just that,- models.

But consciousness, where we do our seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling and maths, is obviously not a material thing.  Perhaps Ernest Rutherford made it plainest, “Whether we like it or not, we live in a spiritual world.”  We seem to have derived our spirit of adventure from that world.

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The United Kingdom is in the grip of election fever and, in this case, a malaise that resembles cabin fever.   It seems generally agreed that the Labour Party will pay the price for its treachery against the people of this country.  There is much talk of the demise of socialism.  “It is finished,” they say, “A flush busted for ever.”

But we have heard all such talk before.  I recall the obituaries for socialism around the time of the great Conservative victory in 1979.  Also I remember a similar euphoria from the other side in 1997, when Labour trounced the Tories.  That nice Mr Blair openly crowed about ridding the country of the “evil forces of conservatism.”  (What dark passions lurk in the minds of politicians?)

Well, here’s some news : this election will not herald the demise of any political doctrine.  The broad tenets of politics are embedded in, and emerge from, human nature.  Their particular flavours may change with time and circumstance, but the bases remain.

The moral problem with politics is that it revolves around the concept of power.  Politicians ask, “Who has the power?” and, “Who ought to have the power?”  And what is the key to political power?  But politicians rarely dig very deeply into the undoubted corrupting influences of power ; or, if they do, their thoughts quickly move on.  Every  politician promises to undo the corruption of his predecessors ; every politician believes himself to be incorruptible.

In the last thirteen years we have endured levels of governmental corruption not seen since the eighteenth century at least.  How many MPs have enriched themselves by simply dipping into the public purse?  And this from the ruling party that proclaims its commitment to fairness for all!  So much could be written.

So, no political party is going to bite the dust as a result of this election ; the political doctrines will be spared to fight another day.  And political corruption will continue, tamed a little, perhaps, but alive and well in their induced dormancy.

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According to current theories of neurology a beautiful thing, such as a rose plant, grows not only in the soil where it apparently belongs, but also in each brain of each person who beholds it.  The real physical growth of the plant is replicated, as it were, as a different kind of real physical growth in a different kind of soil.  That’s the neurology  ; but what about the psychology?

Here it is supposed that a particular neurological structure produces a particular image in the conscious awareness of the individual observer.  Thus, a particular configuration of nerve cells and all their appendages produces a particular ‘picture’ to the observer.  It also produces particular sounds, scents and so forth, directly related to the original sensory data.

Thus the growing rose plant extends its physical presence to every observer of it.  In a sense, the rose has become distributed in a much wider section of the world.  In a sense, the rose now grows in many places.  And, because we are talking here of the psychology (rather than the neurology) that new growth – in consciousness – is not material ; it is not detectable by the senses, but only by awareness.  If not material, then what?  It surely must be spiritual.

And when we think of that rose we may truly say that it lives within us.  It has existence within us.  Or, at least, its spirit does.  An aspect of Idealism?

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In the field of cognitive psychology it seems fairly well established that our knowledge is comprised of complex chemical compounds distributed within the networks of nerve cells of the brain.  Thus my knowledge of the shape of an apple, say, is actually a chemical construct which would seem to bear no geometrical  relation to the actual apple.   Similarly, my knowledge of its hardness, texture, temperature, smell and taste are said to be chemical constructs in the brain.

Somehow, between the apple on the table in front of me – and the workings of the brain – the apple has been altogether lost.  What resides in my brain is not an apple but a neuronal model of the apple ; a collection of bodily substances, chemicals.

One obvious question arises : what is the relation between the neuronal model and the apple itself?  If it were possible to examine the chemicals that comprise the particular neuronal model, would I recognize them as representing an apple?

Perhaps before plunging into such a quest, I might pause to ask another question.  If my knowledge of the apple is made of chemical constructs in my brain, then surely it follows that my knowledge of my brain and its chemicals is also a neuronal model.  My knowledge of my brain is not my brain itself.  And, of course, my knowledge of the chemicals is not the chemicals themselves.  So what is the relation between the chemical constructs in my brain and my brain itself?

It is strange to think that, as we look at the world around us and even as we look at our own bodies, we do not neurologically perceive what is actually there ; we actually make chemical models of what is there.  We simplify the situation for ourselves by making conscious pictures, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings – cognitive models – all apparently derived from the chemicals.   We assure ourselves that our conscious awareness of the world is a true representation of it.  But that assurance does not come from either psychology or neurology.

Our models – neuronal and cognitive – are evidently deficient of explanatory power.  Or perhaps our theories of perception might just be plain wrong.

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The sound of church bells on a Sunday is a quintessentially English thing.  Many religious houses all over the world sound their bells but English ringing is just itself, even if others may imitate.  I remember sitting in long meadow-grass as a child.  Sitting and listening to the magic that came from Saint Margaret’s about half a mile away.  At that distance, the music has a wonderful quality ; it is not so much muted as rounded ; the sharp sound made when the clapper first strikes is softened, though still distinct.  And the music is somehow made more melodious.

Also, at that remove, the sounds are received softened, it seems, by having rolled leisurely over acres of grassland.  It was as if the music had borrowed some of the scent of the wildflowers on the way ; and some of the colour, too.  Perhaps it was a little warmer.  At any rate, I used to do more than just listen ; I enjoyed a whole experience.

And not only enjoyed but thought about it, too ; for every schoolboy knows that, just as the sound of willow on leather is in a slightly different world from the image, so the sound of the distant bells was out of kilter with what the bells were actually doing at that moment.  I didn’t do the calculations of time and distance when I was that young, but I did reflect on the paradox that sound and vision might be born as twins but soon live in different worlds ; the perceived  ‘now’ of one is not the same as the perceived ‘now’ of the other.  Unless, that is, there is some mystical connection between the two (which there is, of course).

Some years ago I had the pleasure of conversation with a professional organist.  Ho told me of the occasion when he was invited to have a wee go of a cathedral organ (St Paul’s, I think).  “This mighty machine was eerie,” he said, “Because there is delay of about three seconds between hitting a key and hearing the sound.”  I wondered if he was having a joke.

So much for merry sounds at a distance.  But it can be a very different tale close up.  We sometimes read of newcomers to a town or village who consider their lives to be blighted by the bells of the parish church.  It seems that the idyllic setting that they so approved of when merely considering buying their property quickly loses its charm after a few months of regular entertainment.  I do have much sympathy with them, for bells can be fearsomely loud.   Well, they would be, wouldn’t they?  After all, they were designed to rouse the populace from their slumbers of a Sunday morn.

On the other hand, my sympathy wanes when I reflect that the house-buyers ought to have known that bells are made to be paid attention to ; they ought to have known that their Sundays would never be the same again.  Such complainers are usually commuters, who are content to enjoy 150 decibels-worth of ugly din on the M1 five days a week but who baulk at 151 decibels-worth for half an hour of music on a Sunday.

On balance, my conservative instincts tell me that the church bells win this argument.  In the name of tradition alone their case is solid.

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