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Archive for July, 2011

Whatever we might think of religion, we cannot deny that it fascinates us.  Almost any post on the subject, except the most anodyne, risks attracting undue attention.  That, I think, is a sign of our times, which bear an uncanny resemblance to former, pre-Christian ages.  And yet, religion endures as ever.  Perhaps that is because its writings contain some ideas which still have the power to rather startle us – after we have had first thoughts about them.

“Whatsoever you did to one of the least of my brothers, you did unto me.” Fr Werenfried van Straaten, of the ACN, thinks these words should be dearer to us than all earthly wisdom

It is generally taken for granted now that Jesus was referring to the weakest members of a society – the poor, the humble, the incurably sick, and so on.  Whether we be religious or not, we generally see now the merit of the sentiments involved ; but it was not always so.

At around the time of the Incarnation, it was common to live life with a starkly Darwinian perspective on life – although that name was unknown to people then.  In Greece, for example, weakling babies would be taken to the hills and ‘exposed’ ; left to die either of starvation or aided by the teeth of animals, to be consumed and forgotten.  And, for the Romans, any manifestation of weakness was despised ; their world was only for the strong, the ambitious and the ruthless ; and the more one fell from those ideals, the less regard was paid.

And, even in that gentlest of all religions, Buddhism, it is still held that a person does not live so as to help the poor and the weak, but for his own personal advancement towards a state of blessedness – and forgetfulness.  “It is my destiny that matters, not yours.”  Similarly for Hindus.  This explains, I think, the abject misery of so many amid the fabulous riches of the better off.

Taking all this together explains the extraordinary resistance to the Gospels in the early days ; for the message, the Good News, ran counter to the prevailing orthodoxies.  It was subversive and threatened the powers of the great.  A pacifist, a do-gooder was not merely someone to be derided, but someone who had to be eliminated along with his dangerous notions.

Many questions arise from this doctrine concerning “the least of my brothers.”  But, of all the questions, perhaps the most puzzling is this, “Why on earth should almighty God be in the least concerned with the least of his people?”

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Something to think about
Some strange ideas about human nature have emerged in recent years.  One such idea appears to be that humans have no control over their actions.

The world is made of particles
The argument for the idea runs like this.  The entire universe is composed of particles which are perfectly invisible to us ; but these particles assemble themselves in systematic ways to produce larger particles, such as molecules  ; and the larger particles arrange themselves in ever larger groups, until the largest of them are actually able to influence our sensory organs.  In other words, they become visible, audible, tangible and so on.

The world is determined by natural laws
This is not a particularly surprising model of what the world might be like.  We can imagine such things as rocks, puddles, mountains, rivers and so on being made of trillions of invisible particles, all arranging themselves according to what appear to be natural laws which decide on the shapes and sizes and masses of natural things.  In accordance with the natural laws, objects, such as the stones, puddles, mountains and oceans, etc., may only take on certain physical arrangements.  And the things themselves have no power to alter their physical arrangements.  A mountain cannot choose to grow either bigger or smaller, heavier or lighter, etc. ; nor can it decide where to place itself on the Earth’s surface.  This model of the physical world is easily imagined, so no surprises there.

Humans are no different to non-living things
When we come to living creatures such as people, we can certainly imagine the shape and size of a person being decided by the same natural laws that decide the shape and size of a pebble or a mountain.  We can just about imagine those same natural physical laws arranging the matter of our bodies so that we move about on the Earth’s surface.  We are able to imagine this because, if circumstances are right, even pebbles move about on the Earth’s surface – in high winds, for example.  The difference between a moving person and a moving pebble is that the person moves more elegantly and in a much more complex way.

All human behaviour is determined by impersonal natural forces
But now we begin to approach a puzzle.  The puzzle is this : a person will often move about without there being any external natural forces being applied to his body.  But pebbles, etc. do not.  Thus, the model seems to say, people move in that way in response to internal forces acting on the body.  But those forces are of exactly the same kind as the external forces that move pebbles ; indeed, those internal forces are dependent on external forces, in the form of the food we eat (so it is doubtful if they can really be called internal).

Humans have no personal control over their behaviour
And the puzzle deepens.  For this model of the world does not give the person any control over his movements ; all movement is governed by the natural laws which decide the way in which the particles of the body shall act.  So a person has no more control over his movements than does a cloud of dust being driven by the wind.  It’s just that his movements are more complex because his particles are more complex.

Humans are completely material and mechanical
In the new model of the world, there is no ‘essence’ to a human being ; no mind, no soul.  There are just material particles doing what particles do in accordance with the usual natural laws.  Thus there is no ‘person’ in control of the human’s body ; there is no transcendent ’soul’ which is in control of the body.  The model is completely material, mechanical and impersonal.

Humans are machines that have gone crazy
There are many surprises to be investigated in this model of the human being, if only because it is utterly unlike the models we have been used to.  One puzzle is that a completely material, mechanical and impersonal biological machine could ever have come up with the ideas of personality and free-will.  Surely, aren’t such ideas aberrations in the proper functioning of the machine?

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My mistake …

It is not wise to generalise too freely about the behaviour of people because, to an extent, behaviour follows personality, and personalities are complex.  Behaviour also follows thoughts ; and our thoughts are complex.  Thus our general behaviour is complex ; even our habits are complex.  Perhaps that is why we are prone to make mistakes, for the more complex a system is, the more there is to go wrong.

During WWI, much interest was shown in the performance of people and their technology.  In particular, there was concern at the unreliability of the artillery in use.  It was observed that there was a high incidence of weapons failing to fire ; of weapons failing to detonate on landing or detonating prematurely or landing in the wrong place.  A number of such types of fault were reported and the authorities decided to investigate in a way that had not been done before.

Their inquiries took them to the munitions factories, and it was here that they made their most interesting discovery, for they found that the operators who assembled the artillery shells worked under the most rigorous procedures.  But, of course, this was not the surprise, for one would expect such a dangerous job would be closely controlled.  The big surprise was not the close controls, but the fact that the operators committed so many errors.

The operators, on average, made about 12% errors ; out of every eight actions that an operator took, one of them was quite simply wrong.  Even the operators’ inspectors made errors at the same rate.  This does not mean that the weapons they made suffered from a 12% defect rate, for many errors were discovered before the making of the weapons was completed, and were duly rectified ; also, some errors did not result in malfunction.  That 12% conceals a complex situation ; but the result was, nevertheless shocking to the investigators and to the manufacturing staff.

So surprising were the results that it was decided to repeat the investigation in other areas of employment, for perhaps it was the very nature of munitions factories to make people nervous and prone to error.  But, over a period of time, it was found that the 12% error rate under controlled conditions is endemic in people.  No matter what kinds of tasks were investigated, the average error rate was more or less constant.

It might be thought that there is some defect in the British psyche that accounts for the errors but that is not so, for the results have been replicated world-wide.

An interesting study was carried out in the US in the sixties.  The investigators in a hospital decided to follow the fortunes of prescriptions issued  by the doctors.  They would follow a prescription from the diagnosing doctor to the pharmacist, then to the nurses and then to the patient.  The upshot of their findings was that some 15% of patients were receiving the wrong treatment.  The study was replicated in the NHS with a similar result.  It will be noted that the correctness of the prescription itself, and of the diagnosis, were not investigated because doctors would not permit such scrutiny of their work.

It would seem that people are too complex to be relied on to work with a very high degree of consistency.  We may be creatures of habit, but our habits are themselves not habitual enough.  It is not only the lower orders of society who are wayward in thought and deed ; I’m afraid we are all affected.

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