Archive for the ‘Belief’ Category

To become the person you would like to be, you must begin by pretending to be that person.  If you are poor, but would like to be rich, you must first pretend to have those qualities and abilities that will lead you to riches.  If you are meek, but would like to be powerful, you must first pretend to have those qualities and abilities that will lead you to power.  If you would like to have particular new skills, you must first pretend to have those skills.

It is rather obvious where this line of thinking is leading.  For, as you repeatedly pretend and practise, pretend and rehearse, so you get better at what you’re doing.  By degrees, you become the person you would like to be.  And, as you progress, so you can raise your sights to higher levels of achievement.  And, as you gain confidence in the method, you can even change your aims.  In fact, you will almost certainly change your aims ; but this realization need not interfere with your initial purposes.

But you have to prepare yourself for disappointments, because there will be many.  And what better preparation than to pretend that you can handle setbacks almost effortlessly.  With practice, setbacks become simply parts of the process ; and they are necessary parts, for there is much uncertainty in the world.  Few indeed have the gift of foresight.

Perhaps the big question is, What kind of person would you like to be?  The answer will depend on your immediate needs, but also on your world-view ; and these two things must be reconciled.  For those of a particular (and deep-rooted) persuasion, perhaps the words of Evelyn Underhill have a resonance.  “For it is not what you are nor what you have been that God regards with his most merciful eyes, but what you would like to be.”


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It cannot be seriously doubted that nowadays people are more scientific than at any previous time.  Despite its obvious shortcomings, the technological successes of science have seduced millions into believing that it is the only way to describe the workings of the world properly.

One of the most unfortunate things to emerge from our love affair with science is that it has encouraged the more extreme believers into using the scientific method as the only way to describe people properly.   In the departments of the learned, gone are such words as soul, spirit, will, love, hate, and so on.  In biology, genetics, medicine, and even in philosophy, people are more and more regarded as physical machines, meat machines, in which the only processes are the ‘bottom-up’, causative ones ; the ‘top-down’, purposeful processes are not even considered worthy of study.  Even the lovely, tragic Psyche has been dismissed from psychology.

I wonder if the more enthusiastic believers have thought deeply about what follows from their infatuation with this view of science?   It seems to me that supposed causative determinants of personality and behaviour have two major sources : the first is the genes : and the second is behavioural conditioning.

In the case of genetics, it is supposed that our bodily character is determined by the arrangements of certain molecules and their interactions ; and this bodily character is the only character we have.  These genes, these arrangements of molecules, are themselves composed of simpler molecules which have their recent origins in the soil and ultimately come from stardust and the Big Bang.

However we dress this belief up, on its own it cannot account for moral behaviour without involving a lot of faith in unspeakable mysteries.  One may contemplate a molecule or an atom or an electron for ever and have no hope of discerning any sign of personality – nor any hint of moral behaviour – in them.  Nor any sense of purpose.  Atoms, etc., just do what atoms do.

In the case of behavioural conditioning we encounter something similar.  The child, the collection of genes, behaves in ways that are determined by its environment – principally by its parents and other influences.  And the parents, et al, are themselves no more than assemblies of genes.

What distinguishes a saint from a sinner?  The mere arrangement of his genetic molecules and/or the conditioning he has received.  And he has had no control over either ; and he can never have control over either.

In the best traditions of the best novels, I will leave it to you, dear reader, to work out where such extreme beliefs will lead ; to work out the consequences for a society that accepts these beliefs without some serious questioning.

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I suppose that, like most people, I grew up largely in a state of wonder.  I wondered constantly at the way the world is and how it came to be and how it might come to be.  Of course, a child does not articulate this wonder consistently, accurately and persistently ; it consists mainly in fleeting, silent questions which seem to come from nowhere and are soon gone, to be replaced by other thoughts.

But a few of these questions pop up often enough to become habits ; they are always there and, at first we are conscious of them.  But, as the habit entrenches itself, the questions become unconscious and, as such, simply form an influence on our character.  The point about unconscious thinking is that it shapes our character without our being aware that we are even doing it, and so we are largely unaware of why we are the way we are.

So it is, too, that while one person might feel attracted to being a mechanic (say) another is attracted to being a writer.  It is easy enough to infer that one has had some early encouragement towards mechanics, while the other has not.  But it also happens that some people develop interests which have been actively discouraged in early life.   And, in either case, it is nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly what early thinking was going on.

For most of us, we are reasonably satisfied with our personality or character.  After all, it has ‘worked’ for us, hasn’t it?  We have largely enjoyed our lives.  But it happens that we do become aware of certain dis-satisfactions also ; in which case, we might feel inclined to take an interest in our character-formation.  Indeed, we might feel a need to undertake a little character-reformation.  And our starting point might well be with our unconscious thinking.

I remember from long ago  wondering why it is that some people tend to see ultimate reasons for things, while others see ultimate causes.  There is certainly a fundamental difference in the kind of thinking going on here, and many people take these things very seriously ; some even devote their lives to the study of ultimate things.  I guess that a person of a theological persuasion will be interested in ultimate reasons, while an astronomer (for example) will be more interested in ultimate causes.

It seems that a certain tradition has grown up within each way of thinking about the world.  The person in search of ultimate reasons looks mostly inward, while the one in search of causes looks outward.  Thus it is, perhaps, that the theological type sees evidence of his Ultimate Reason for things wherever he looks within his own mind and in its rational functioning.  On the other hand, the astronomer sees evidence of his Ultimate Cause wherever he looks outward into in the sky ; everywhere he sees evidence of the big bang, whether it be in the orderly arrangements of the stars or in the ‘debris’ from the great primal event itself.

Saint Francis was an inwardly-looking man:

God be in my head
And in my understanding

God be in my eyes
And in my looking

God be in my mouth
And in my speaking

God be in my heart
And in my thinking

God be at my end
And at my departing.

St Francis

Taken, I am told, from a Book of Hours – a 1514 service book used in Clare College, Cambridge

After Psalm 121:8 : May the Lord keep our going out and our coming in from this time on and for evermore.

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The tale is told of how Socrates was confronted by a citizen of Athens who posed a question for him.  “Socrates,” the man asked, “Why does the Oracle at Delphi describe you as the wisest man in the world?”

The answer he got was something of a surprise : “I can only think that it is because I know nothing.”  Then Socrates added, “But I have opinions on nearly everything.”

Clearly Socrates was attaching what we would take as a special meaning to the word ‘knowledge’ ; he took knowledge to be something that was infallible and incontrovertible.  It seems that , for him, to have knowledge of a thing was to apprehend its reality ; knowledge was not a matter of opinion, it was not a matter of truth or falsity ; nor was it a matter for partiality.  This view opens up many possibilities for discussion.

Socrates was one of those very rare people who did not merely invent some new mathematical technique or some new machine ; he proposed a whole new way of thinking about ourselves and the world we live in.  The consequences were tremendous, and we live with them to this day.

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Man is a truth-seeking creature.  How’s that for a statement of belief?  And it is a statement of belief ; for there is no proof of it.  And yet I have come across very few people who do not believe it, either explicitly or implicitly.  But what is Truth?  How often do we seriously consider that question?  For doesn’t it so often lead to a debate which has all the appearances of a mere fog of words?

So, one way or another, we tend to escape the fog and develop a handy argument which puts Truth into some kind of framework ; and from there we can explore further.  For me, such a handy framework came from one of my unofficial mentors, the physicist AN Whitehead.  He put it something like this:

When an individual regards an event or an object, he forms in his mind an Appearance of it.  This is how it appears to him.

If two people regard the same event, then each has his own Appearance of it.

If the two people cannot agree on what they have seen, then we have simply two Appearances to deal with.  But if they can agree, then they have reached a Truth about it.

For example, if two people see a small flock of birds fly by, they might each have the Appearance of  seven birds ; and since they agree on this figure, they are satisfied that they have discovered a Truth.

But suppose the flock is much greater in number?  One person might have the Appearance of fifty birds, and the other an Appearance of sixty.  Here, they have discovered no Truth ; each will say to the other, “My figure is true and yours is false.”

But, suppose the observers have doubts about what they have seen?  Then they might well agree on a compromise figure ; they might agree that there were fifty-five birds in the flock.  Thus, by negotiation, they have reached a Truth.

But note : this Truth of fifty-five birds is an opinion and not reality ; the truth has not told us how many birds were really there.  So, what is Reality?  Surely Reality is just itself, and not a matter of opinion ; and it is nonsense to ask whether it be true or false.

So, in this world wide and long, there are countless Appearances and many Truths.  But there is only one Reality – and we don’t know what that is.

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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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