Linguistic Lingering, or Languor in Language

Like all other crusty sexagenarians, I get irritated by certain trends in the evolution of the language I speak. I suppose it’s natural to retain a deeply held desire to hold on to the speech cadences we suck in with our mothers’ milk. So when you’ve been around for more than half a century you inevitably encounter an increasing number of linguistic innovations which you feel reluctant to adopt. Some, of course, are refreshing and attractive; but it’s when certain phrases I’m used to are subverted or distorted by changing usage that I get that instinctive feeling of revulsion.

Here’s an example: when getting tired of something, my parents were always “bored with” it, or maybe “fed up with” it. And so, of course, was I. But nowadays it’s virtually universal to be “bored of” or “fed up of“. Of course, the prepositions we use are quite arbitrary: lately I’ve been learning some Italian, and knowing which preposition to use in each situation can be quite difficult for a beginner: ‘su’, ‘in’, ‘da’, ‘di’, ‘a’…? It just has to be learnt. And it can be quite important: ask for ‘un bicchiere di vino’ and you’ll be given a glass of wine; but if instead you go for ‘un bicchiere da vino’ what you’ll get is a wine glass.

But the conventions for our choice of prepositions are really quite arbitrary; and with the bored/fed up example there’s no danger of mistaking the meaning, so what am I making a fuss about? Well, my problem is that every time I hear the newer version I get that visceral, chalk-squeaking-on-a-blackboard spasm in the gut, and I can’t help it. And don’t get me started on some of those other verbal habits that so many of my generation love to hate: ‘phenomena’, ‘criteria’ or media’ used as singular nouns; or ‘disinterested’ to mean ‘uninterested’, ‘infer’ to mean ‘imply’ or (heard absolutely everywhere now) ‘refute’ to mean ‘deny’.

Of course all those who protest about such things are at pains to rationalise their distaste, and bring to bear an argued justification. The late philosopher Anthony Flew puts it this way:

If we oafishly employ our verbal chisels as verbal screwdrivers, we thereby unfit them for the job to which they are best suited. So what do we use for a chisel when a chisel is what we need?’ (Anthony Flew, Thinking about Thinking).

Well, true, I suppose, as far as it goes; once all your chisels are well and truly blunted there’s no means of resharpening them, in this instance at least. But language is endlessly innovative; it will always be rummaging around in the toolbox for replacements, or perhaps fashioning entirely new instruments. I think that what is really bothering Flew is that old bred-in, instinctive revulsion that kicks in when he detects the linguistic ground on which he originally learned to walk slipping and sliding around beneath his feet. Trust me, I know – I feel it myself.

Nevertheless, our standard sources often take a more relaxed view. The Oxford Dictionary, for example, accepts the shift in meaning of ‘disinterested’ – on the basis that a dictionary is in the business of reflecting usage, rather than dictating it. But do we pedants take that lying down? Oh no. There’s always that old fallback, ‘the purity of the language’.

‘What purity?’, you might justifiably ask. English, of all languages, has the most tenuous claim to this quality. As it has memorably been put:

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle through their pockets for new vocabulary. (Attributed to the Canadian writer James Davis Nicoll, from an internet forum in 1990).

So that’s one way of finding your replacement chisels – nick them out of the back of the nearest unsuspecting linguistic builder’s van.

A more recent self-appointed language policeman is Simon Heffer, whose book Strictly English: The Correct Way to Write…and Why It Matters offers a comprehensive guide to ‘correct’ English. There is, to be fair, much reasonable common-sense advice on clarity of expression between its covers, but once again, Heffer seems to share with me a distaste for deviations from what seem rather arbitrary rules – although he takes the crusade much further than I would dare; many critics have pointed out that his feet seem to be planted firmly in the early 1900s. And of course, it’s always fun to see whether the these guardians of supposed purity practise what they preach. Here, unfortunately, Heffer is rather open to ridicule on a number of counts. For example, on page 49 he tells us sternly:

The phrase each other can only apply to two people or things – “John and Mary wrote to each other” is correct but “John, Mary and Jane wrote to each other” is not. “John, Mary and Jane wrote to one another” is.

If Heffer is offended when this rule is flouted he must have had a particularly straight-laced education; I must admit it’s new one to me. But on page 189 we find Heffer saying:

…I advise my colleagues on The Daily Telegraph to bear in mind the sensitivities of the readers, because we would like them to continue to buy the newspaper and not feel alienated by its diction. So our readers communicate with each other on writing paper, not notepaper.

As one critic has pointed out, if we give Heffer the benefit of the doubt and assume he is not breaking his own rule, we can only conclude that the The Daily Telegraph has only two readers. But I’m inclined to forgive him, if only because on page 119 he is stipulating that ‘One is bored by or with something, never of it’, and that ‘One becomes fed up with things, not of them.’ (Hurray!)

But of course it’s true that without rules of some sort, we’d have no consistency at all and would be unable to understand each other – sorry, one another. As in so many other fields, the art is in finding creative ways to break these rules, thus opening up a whole new range of expressive possibilities. It’s rather like that graphic technique where you position a frame around an illustration, and then let the contents burst outside it – the effect always works, and injects extra vigour into the subject in way that wouldn’t have been achievable unless the frame were there in the first place. Rules can be used to great effect when they are broken, just as the frame is given a new purpose when its more obvious function is subverted.

However, with my pedant’s hat on I’d point out that rule breaking is more often a result of what Flew in the passage above called ‘oafishness’, and not the exercise of creative flair. But either way, it happens. It seems to me inevitable that there will always be tension between natural variety of expression and the restraining force of a rule framework. I am put in mind of one of the illuminating metaphors which the philosopher Wittgenstein was apt to employ. He compares those notions we accept implicitly – ‘bedrock’ notions as we might call them – with the rock of a river-bed, which guides the river’s flow of water – our day-to-day thoughts: “But I distinguish between the movement of the waters on the river-bed and the shift of the bed itself; though there is not a sharp division of the one from the other.” (On Certainty, §97) The rules of language seem to be a specific example of Wittgenstein’s idea: the rules of our language determine how we express ourselves, but our everyday discourse, in turn, gradually wears away and remoulds the rock of the rules themselves; the river changes course.

The Heffers of this world (and, I’m afraid, the Duncommutins) will always be vainly attempting to shore up the banks and maintain that river in the same course – but they will ultimately be defeated by the torrent. The fact is that I still prefer to say “fed up with” and “bored with”. Like any self-respecting dinosaur I shall remain set in my ways, and addicted to the comforting sound of the language I am used to. Until, that is, I become extinct.

What a Coincidence!

My title is an expression you hear quite often, the exclamation mark denoting how surprising it seems when, for example, you walk into a shop and find yourself behind your friend in the queue (especially if you were just thinking about her), or if perhaps the person at the next desk in your office turns out to have the same birthday as you.

But by considering the laws of probability you can come to the conclusion that such things are less unlikely than they seem. Here’s a way of looking at it: suppose you use some method of generating random numbers, say between 0 and 100, and then plot them as marks on a scale. You’ll probably find blank areas in some parts of the scale, and tightly clustered clumps of marks in others. It’s sometimes naively assumed that, if the numbers are truly random, they should be evenly spread across the scale. But a simple argument shows this to be mistaken: there are in fact relatively few ways to arrange the marks evenly, but a myriad ways of distributing them irregularly. Therefore, by elementary probability, it is overwhelmingly likely that any random arrangement will be of the irregular and clumped sort.

randomTo satisfy myself, I’ve just done this exercise – and to make it more visual I have generated the numbers as 100 pairs of dual coordinates, so that they are spread over a square. Already it looks gratifyingly clumpy, as probability theory predicts. So, to stretch and reapply the same idea, you could say it’s quite natural that contingent events in our lives aren’t all spaced out and disjointed from one another in a way that we might naively expect, but end up being apparently juxtaposed and connected in ways that seem surprising to us.

Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer, put it more crisply:

People are entirely too disbelieving of coincidence. They are far too ready to dismiss it and to build arcane structures of extremely rickety substance in order to avoid it. I, on the other hand, see coincidence everywhere as an inevitable consequence of the laws of probability, according to which having no unusual coincidence is far more unusual than any coincidence could possibly be. (From The Planet that Wasn’t, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, May 1975)

All there is to it?

So there we have the standard case for reducing what may seem like outlandish and mysterious coincidences to the mere operation of random chance. I have to admit, however, that I’m not entirely convinced by it. I have repeatedly experienced coincidences in my own life, from the trivial to the really pretty surprising – in a moment I’ll describe some of them. What I have noticed is that they often don’t have the character of being just random pairs or clusters of simple happenings, as you might expect, but seem to be linked to one another in strange and apparently meaningful ways, or to associate themselves with significant life events. Is this a mere subjective illusion, or could there be some hidden, organising principle governing happenings in our lives?

Brian Inglis

Brian Inglis, from the cover of Coincidence

I don’t have an answer to that, but I’m certainly not the first to speculate about the question. This post was prompted by a book I recently read, Coincidence by Brian Inglis*. Inglis was a distinguished and well-liked journalist in the last century, having been a formative editor of The Spectator magazine and a prolific writer of articles and books. He was also a television presenter: those of a certain age may remember a long-running historical series on ITV, All Our Yesterdays, which Inglis presented. In addition, to the distaste of some, he wrote quite widely on paranormal phenomena.

The joker

In Coincidence he draws on earlier speculators about the topic, including the Austrian zoologist Paul Kammerer, who, after being suspected of scientific fraud in his research into amphibians, committed suicide in 1926. Kammerer was an enthusiastic collector of coincidence stories, and tried to provide a theoretical underpinning for them with his idea of ‘seriality’, which had some influence on Jung’s notion of synchronicity, in which meaning is placed alongside causality in its power to determine events. Kammerer also attracted the attention of Arthur Koestler, who figures in one of my previous posts. Koestler gave an account of the fraud case which was sympathetic to Kammerer, in The Case of the Midwife Toad. Koestler was also fascinated by coincidences and wrote about them in his book The Roots of Coincidence. Inglis, in his own book, recounts many accounts of surprising coincidences from ordinary lives. Many of his subjects have the feeling that there is some sort of capricious organising spirit behind these confluences of events, whom Inglis playfully personifies as ‘the joker’.

This putative joker certainly seems to have had a hand in my own life a number of times. Thinking of the subtitle of Inglis’ book (‘A Matter of Chance – or Synchronicity?‘) the latter seems to be a factor with me. I have been so struck by the apparent significance of some of my own coincidences that I have recorded quite a number of them. First, here’s a simple example which shows that ‘interlinking’ tendency which occurs so often. (Names are changed in the accounts that follow.)

My own stories

From about 35 years ago: I spend an evening with my friend Suzy. We talk for a while about our mutual acquaintance Robert, whom we have both lost touch with; neither of us have seen him for a couple of years. Two days later, I park my car in a crowded North London street and Robert walks past just as I get out of the car, and I have a conversation with him. And then, I subsequently discover, the next day Suzy meets him quite by chance on a railway station platform. I don’t know whether the odds against this could be calculated, but they would be pretty huge. Each of the meetings, so soon after the conversation, would be unlikely, especially in crowded inner London as they were. And the pair of coincidences show this strange interlinking that I mentioned. But I have more examples which are linked to one another in an even more elaborate way, as well as being attached to significant life events.

In 1982 I decided that, after nearly 14 years, it was time to leave the first company I had worked for long-term; let’s call it ‘company A’. During my time with them, a while before this, I’d shared a flat with a couple of colleagues for 5 years. At one stage we had a vacancy in the flat and advertised at work for a third tenant. A new employee of the company – we’ll call him Tony McAllister – quickly showed an interest. We felt a slight doubt about the rather pushy way he did this, pulling down our notice so that no one else would see it. But he seemed pleasant enough, and joined the flat. We should have listened to our doubts – he turned out to be definitely the most uncongenial person I have ever lived with. He consistently avoided helping with any of the housework and other tasks around the flat, and delighted in dismantling the engine of his car in the living room. There were other undesirable personal habits – I won’t trouble you with the details. Fortunately it wasn’t long before we all left the flat, for other reasons.

Back to 1982, and my search for a new job. A particularly interesting sounding opportunity came up, in a different area of work, with another large company – company B. I applied and got an interview with a man who would be my new boss if I got the job: we’ll call him Mark Cooper. He looked at my CV. “You worked at company A – did you know Tony McAllister? He’s one of my best friends.” Putting on my best glassy grin, I said that I did know him. And I did go on to get the job. Talking subsequently, we both eventually recalled that Mark had actually visited our flat once, very briefly, with Tony, and we’d met fleetingly. That would have been five years or so earlier.

About nine months into my work with company B I saw a job advertised in the paper while I was on the commuter train. I hadn’t been looking for a job, and the ad just happened to catch my eye as I turned the page. It was with a small company (company C), with requirements very relevant to what I was currently doing, and sounding really attractive – so I applied. While I was awaiting the outcome of this, I heard that my present employer, company B, was to stop investing in my current area of work, and I was moved to a different position. I didn’t like the new job at all, and so of course was pinning my hopes on the application I’d already made. However, oddly, the job I’d been given involved being relocated into a different building, and I was given an office with a window directly overlooking the building in which company C was based.

This seemed a good omen – and I subsequently was given an interview, and then a second one, with directors of company C. On the second one, my interviewer, ‘Tim Newcombe’, seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place him and thought no more of it. He evidently didn’t know me. Once again, I got the job: apparently it had been a close decision between me and one other applicant, from a field of about 50. And it wasn’t long before I found out why Tim seemed familiar: he was in fact married to someone I knew well in connection with some voluntary work I was involved with. On one occasion, I eventually realised, I had visited her house with some others and had very briefly met Tim. I went on to work for company C for nearly 12 years, until it disbanded. Subsequent to this both Tim and I worked on our own accounts, and we collaborated on a number of projects.

So far, therefore, two successive jobs where, for each, I was interviewed by someone whom I eventually realised I had already met briefly, and who had a strong connection to someone I knew. (In neither case was the connection related to the area of work, so that isn’t an explanation.)

The saga continues

A year or two after leaving company B, I heard that Mark Cooper had moved to a new job in company D, and in fact visited him there once in the line of work. Meanwhile, ten years after I had started the job in company C – and while I was still doing it – my wife and I, wanting to move to a new area, found and bought a house there (where we still live now, more than 20 years later). I then found out that the previous occupants were leaving because the father of the family had a new job – with, it turned out, company D. And on asking him more about it, it transpired that he was going to work with Mark Cooper, making an extraordinarily neat loop back to the original coincidence in the chain.

I’ve often mused on this striking series of connections, and wondered if I was fated always to encounter some bizarre coincidence every time I started new employment. However, after company C, I worked freelance for some years, and then got a job in a further company (my last before retirement). This time, there was no coincidence that I was aware of. But now, just in the last few weeks, that last job has become implicated in a further unlikely connection. This time it’s my son who has been looking for work. He told me about a promising opportunity he was going to apply for. I had a look at the company website and was surprised to see among the pictures of employees a man who had worked in the same office as me for the last four years or so – from the LinkedIn website I discovered he’d moved on a month after I retired. My son was offered an initial telephone interview – which (almost inevitably) turned out to be with this same man.

In gullible mode, I wondered to myself whether this was another significant coincidence. Well, whether I’m gullible or not, my son did go on to get the job. I hadn’t worked directly with the interviewer in question, and only knew him slightly; I don’t think he was aware of my surname, so I doubt that he realised the connection. My son certainly didn’t mention it, because he didn’t want to appear to be currying favour in any dubious way. And in fact this company that my son now works in turns out to have a historical connection with my last company – which perhaps explains the presence of his interviewer in it. But neither I nor my son were aware of any of this when he first became interested in the job.

Just one more

I’m going to try your patience with just one more of my own examples, and this involves the same son, but quite a few years back – in fact when he was due to be born. At the time our daughter was 2 years old, and if I was to attend the coming birth she would need to be babysat by someone. One friend, who we’ll call Molly, said she could do this if it was at the weekend – so we had to find someone else for a weekday birth. Another friend, Angela, volunteered. My wife finally started getting labour pains, a little overdue, one Friday evening. So it looked as if the baby would arrive over the weekend and Molly was alerted. However, untypically for a second baby, this turned out to be a protracted process. By Sunday the birth started to look imminent, and Molly took charge of my daughter. But by the evening the baby still hadn’t appeared – we had gone into hospital once but were sent home again to wait. So we needed to change plans, and my daughter was taken to Angela, where she would stay overnight.

My son was finally born in the early hours of Monday morning, which was May 8th. And then the coincidence: it turned out that both Molly and Angela had birthdays on May 8th. What’s nice about this one is that it is possible to calculate the odds. There is that often quoted statistic that if there are 23 or more people in a room there is a greater than evens chance that at least two of them will share the same birthday. 23 seems a low number – but I’ve been through the maths myself, and it is so. However in this case, it’s a much simpler calculation: the odds would be 1 in 365 x 365 (ignoring leap years for simplicity), which is 133,225 to 1 against. That’s unlikely enough – but once again, however, I don’t feel that the calculations tell the full story. The odds I’ve worked out apply where any three people are taken at random and found all to share the same birthday. In this case we have the coincidence clustered around a significant event, the actual day of birth of one of them – and that seems to me to add an extra dimension that can’t so easily be quantified.

Malicious streak

Well, there you have it – random chance, or some obscure organising principle beyond our current understanding? Needless to say, that’s speculation which splits opinion along the lines I described in my post about the ‘iPhobia’ concept. As an admitted ‘iclaustrophobe’, I prefer to keep an open mind on it. But to return to Brian Inglis’s ‘joker’: Inglis notes that this imagined character seems to display a malicious streak from time to time: he quotes an example where estranged lovers are brought together by coincidence in awkward, and ultimately disastrous circumstances. And add to that the observation of some of those looking into the coincidence phenomenon that their interest seems to attract further coincidences: when Arthur Koestler was writing about Kammerer he describes his life being suddenly beset by a “meteor shower” of coincidences, as if, he felt, Kammerer were emphasising his beliefs from beyond the grave.

With both of those points in mind, I’d like to offer one further story. It was told to me by Jane O’Grady (real name this time), and I’m grateful to her for allowing me to include it here – and also for going to some trouble to confirm the details. Jane is a writer, philosopher and teacher. One day in late 1991, she and her then husband, philosopher Ted Honderich, gave a lunch to which they invited Brian Inglis. His book on coincidences – the one I’ve just read – had been published fairly recently, and a good part of their conversation was a discussion of that topic. A little over a year later, in early 1993, Jane was teaching a philosophy A-level class. After a half-time break, one of the students failed to reappear. His continuing absence meant that Jane had to give up waiting and carry on without him. He had shown himself to be somewhat unruly, and so this behaviour seemed to her at first to be irritatingly in character.

And so when he did finally appear, with the class nearly over, Jane wondered whether to believe his proffered excuse: he said he had witnessed a man collapsing in the street and had gone to help. But it turned out to be perfectly true. Unfortunately, despite his intervention, nothing could be done and the man had died. The coincidence, as you may have guessed, lay in the identity of the dead man. He was Brian Inglis.


*Brian Inglis, Coincidence: A Matter of Chance – or Synchronicity? Hutchinson, 1990

Tweets and Hums

Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

T S Eliot

T S Eliot – Internet visionary?

Not the first time I have kicked off with an Eliot quotation – but this one, from Burnt Norton in The Four Quartets, seems to me to have more prescience than Eliot himself could ever have known; it suggests something of how the poet might have described the Internet, had he encountered it. It’s not just the mention of ‘this twittering world’ which stands out, but if you have combed through a few typical Internet forums – or tweets, for that matter – you may feel that ‘eructation of unhealthy souls’ aptly describes some of the content.

Well of course for a couple of years I have been adding my own thin reedy voice to the raging hubbub of the Internet; whether this blog could be described as a series of eructations, or what it might reveal about the health or otherwise of my soul, is for you to judge, dear reader. But I will admit that I have also indirectly contributed to some Internet content that many of us would prefer not to be there. My work, up until I retired three months ago, concerned the provision of services to help companies increase their profits from selling on the Internet. So I can’t pretend that my soul is perfectly untainted, involved as it has been in the grubby business of taking from your wallet, rather than adding to your mind.

But I can at any rate claim never to have tweeted myself. Maybe I’m just too ponderous and verbose to be able to squeeze any of my thoughts into 140 characters. I do have a twitter account, but only use it for listening to what others have to say. I can even boast three followers, one of whom, I was surprised to find, is a prominent poet. So I can only assume that these are refined people who appreciate the value of silence. Perhaps, thinking of Eliot, I am putting ‘the darkness’ back into ‘this twittering world.’

The Hum

But it’s really another sort of noise that I wanted to write about here, which also, by all accounts, ‘sweeps the gloomy hills of London’, as well as many other places. It  must have been two or three years ago – I’m not sure exactly when – that I noticed a sound that I could hear at night when I was in bed. It was a soft, low humming that sounded like a distant motor running – constant but pulsating slightly. It wasn’t one of those noises originating in the house; the central heating and the fridge both generate their sounds only intermittently, and this never seemed to stop, and in any case had a distinct timbre of its own. I didn’t hear it during the day, but in daytime there are many other sounds to drown it out. I assumed that it must be some sort of industrial process in the area, and didn’t give any more thought to it for a while.

Every so often I would lie there and wonder about it. There is little industrial activity in our area, and I hadn’t noticed any sounds coming from what small factories there are. Then one day a few months ago my daughter (to whom I hadn’t mentioned anything about this) passed on to me something a friend had told her, about a phenomenon known as ‘The Hum’. The friend, who lives in a city distant from us, hears this sound and has read about it on the Internet. It seemed to match up with what I was hearing.

The Hum map

Worlwide reports of the Hum – http://www.thehum.info

So a quick bit of Internet research confirmed that it had been reported for at least the last 50 years or so in many parts of the world. But also, oddly, according to most accounts, that only some 2% of people actually hear it. And, even more oddly to me, that many lose sleep as a result, and suffer stress and mental illness. There are even claims of suicides caused by it, although I could find no more details about who these individuals were. I am surprised at all this because the Hum, if that’s what it is, certainly causes no problems for me. Most of us sleep in the presence of all sorts of background noises which we can habituate to, and are mostly not consciously aware of; for me this is just one more such sound. People who hear it are often referred to as ‘sufferers’ – but for me there’s no suffering involved, just mild curiosity.

It’s difficult to know what to make of the fact that only a minority of people hear the Hum at all. I seem to be the only member of my family who hears it; although I’ve now found that our next door neighbour does, and claims that it can prevent her sleeping.  All this suggests some kind of tinnitus – an internal effect generated by the brain or the auditory system. But in my case at least, I have satisfied myself that it is actually out there. Most people, including me, have some sort of noise in their heads – usually a high pitched ringing in the ears, as you can get after you have been exposed to very loud sounds – but much softer, and unnoticed unless you pay close attention to it. Tinnitus sufferers, of course, can have it much louder – distractingly so. But unlike those internal head-sounds, the Hum behaves like a noise in the environment; it appears to come from a direction (usually the window when indoors) and stopping the ears can block it.

If those who hear it are in a minority, perhaps there’s a clue here as to why it causes such distress in some. There may be a spectrum of sensitivity to this phenomenon – the majority unable to hear it at all; some, like me, just aware of it but undisturbed; and the few unlucky ones plagued and distressed. There is some evidence that most hearers are middle-aged or older, and it’s true that I never noticed it until a couple of years or so ago.

So where does it come from?

But the big question is, what is the source of this sound? I mentioned that it seems to come from the window, but if I lean out of the window I’m not sure I can hear it – it seems to be drowned by other ambient sounds (we live a mile and a half from a motorway). However one night recently I found myself awake in the small hours, when background noise is at a minimum. I went outside to listen and, yes, I could hear the Hum. The worldwide reports suggest that it’s not confined to certain localities; I was on holiday recently in Dorset, we’ll away from any towns or industry, and found that  I could hear it there also.

It has been reported to be a mainly indoor phenomenon; but this may simply be that, being a low frequency sound, it penetrates walls and closed windows more readily than other background noise. Outside, it’s overwhelmed by other, mostly higher frequency, ambient sounds. My hunch is that it could be some sort of vibration originating from the earth below. This could mean that the walls of a building act as a soundboard, magnifying the sound within. The ground source theory is backed up by one recent report, claiming that it’s a seismic phenomenon originating from wave motion impacting the sea bed. This all sounds rather speculative, however, and the mention of 13 to 300 second bursts doesn’t fit with my experience of a constant background noise.

But I do feel that some sort of seismic explanation is the most plausible. It seems that, rather than a ‘twittering world’, we have a humming one. I’d be interested to see comments from anyone who experiences – or suffers from – the Hum. You can also register your experience with it on a website that collects such data: www.thehum.info. And of course, as always, there’s a Wikipedia article.

Off the Rails

You might expect that, now I am at leisure and living beyond the end of that line, I’d have had lots more opportunities to write, and would be producing blog posts by the dozen – but in fact it’s not been until now that I felt one coming on. It’s partly the need to reorientate my perspective on everyday life, while at the same time getting to grips with all the jobs around the house and garden that have been neglected until now. And of course I don’t any longer have that strangely stimulating combination of movement, crowding and solitude which, as I mentioned a couple of posts ago, daily train travel provides. So far I’m actually finding less time to read, rather than more – a matter I shall have to put right.

But, behind it all, I do feel some sort of altered perception quietly forming itself. I’m finding a quiet pleasure in repetitive, mentally undemanding tasks – maybe many of us need more of this sort of offline activity in which to make some sort of space to stretch our mental limbs. However for now, I’d just like to revisit my first week of retirement, which was something in the nature of a holiday. We did a little bit of gentle travelling which gave me plenty of opportunity to just look, in the spirit of innocence that I wrote about last time. And so here are a few highlights, revisited with the help of some photos and not too much commentary.

The middle of the week saw us in Sussex, up on the South Downs. I hope this picture, taken in the high clump of trees known as Chanctonbury Ring, gives a feel of the day:

Chanctonbury RingAnd a few days after this rare rural idyll, we were in  a city – Norwich, which I often visit for family reasons. Like all cities which have a long and rich history but are still thriving, there are piquant juxtapositions of old, young (and perhaps middle aged) wherever you look. Here’s one I happened to record:

In NorwichOr there is just the old – sun on the cloisters at Norwich Cathedral:

Norwich Cathedral cloistersAnd in the cathedral itself, there’s an evocative artwork by the Brazilian sculptor Ana Maria Pacheco:

Ana Pacheco sculptureWe are told it’s based on a scene from Virgil’s Aenead – Aeneas carrying his father from the ruins of Troy. I found it quite compelling – it’s the size of the faces, and the way their expressions are rendered, that commands your attention. The style seems like a blend of contemporary and medieval, giving a sense of the timelessness of the emotions depicted; and the cathedral setting adds to this. It put me in mind of some of the topics I’ve thought of writing about here: current attitudes to religion, and how humans and their ways of thinking can change (and also how they don’t change) across time.

More about the artwork here while the exhibition is on.

Second Childhood

Commuting days until retirement: 0

     Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness, and mere oblivion,
Sans eyes, sans teeth, sans taste, sans everything.

Shakespeare’s seventh and final age of man is maybe responsible for the notion of a second childhood as something negative – a feared disintegration of the faculties. I’ve noticed that the word ‘childishness’ in this passage is sometimes rendered as ‘innocence’. Which is good, because that’s where I want to place my emphasis. Second childhood for me is not so much about senility – indeed, I’m lucky that, so far, my eyes, teeth and taste are largely undiminished. Whether or not I have ‘everything’, I’ve got those; although I suppose at my age, in Shakespeare’s time, I would more than likely have been losing them. And as for ‘mere oblivion’ – no sign of that yet, thankfully.

The Seven Ages of Man

The Seven Ages of Man: William Mulready (1786-1863)

Perhaps I’m on the sixth stage, ‘the lean and slippered pantaloon’. Aside from the fact that I’m not quite as lean as I ought to be, it’s not such a bad description of me in retirement. And the innocence part? Well, when you get to my age, the future may not be something you want to think about too much; or to put it another way, it is something there is rather less of than there was previously. All the more reason, then, to concentrate thoughts on the present.

And it’s the present that I associate with innocence – think of the first childhood. No past, little notion of the future, but a welter of here-and-now, immediate sensory experiences to be lost in. These are what philosophers call ‘qualia’ – those very basic sensory elements of which our conscious life is built. In recent posts I’ve been arguing against a contemporary trend in science and philosophy to believe that these are somehow illusory, not real. I hope that posts to come will, by way of describing some of my own experiences, help to lay bare the implausibility of that position.

And more importantly, I want to take the chance to regain some of that childhood innocence, with the renewed opportunity to live in the present. Working life is more often than not about deadlines, career worries, and dealing with colleagues or clients who may not always be cooperative. Timetables and schedules drown out the immediacy of the present moment, and much time is spent squinting at images and characters on screens, rather than contemplating real, solid things. Perhaps this increasing abstraction and virtualisation of our working lives has somehow influenced attitudes in scientific thought towards the status of our sensory experiences.

And while I’m aware that my retirement is ultimately financed by that seething corporate world, I have no misgivings about leaving it behind in my own life. Instead of stressing my brain in front of a computer, I’ll be stretching my limbs as I dig in the garden; instead of straining to follow the jargon-filled chatter of a conference call, enjoying the sounds of wind and birdsong.

Innocence and Experience

Songs of InnocenceSongs of ExperienceIt’s conventional to see these two as polar opposites. But however it might have seemed to William Blake, I would suggest that it’s possible to combine them in a fruitful way. Everything was of course very different when I took in the sounds and sights of a summer suburban garden when sent out to play by my mother all that time ago. But now, taking up my garden fork after sixty intervening years, an important part of the experience will be the same, even if embedded in the context of a lifetime’s acquisition of new ideas and perspectives, after long experience.

I deliberately used the word ‘experience’ twice in that last sentence, with two entirely different meanings. The instance at the end is what could be called the Blakean one – lessons learnt, maybe pleasures undreamt of in innocence, but with the concomitant hard knocks suffered and come to terms with. My earlier use of ‘experience’ denotes what we might call ‘pure experience’ – the immediate stream of sensory events before our minds; in other words, what I hold in common with my childhood self. You could argue – and I certainly would – that if we can rekindle an appreciation of the latter sort within the context of the former, there is much to be gained. As Blake himself observed, ‘Without contraries is no progression.’

The constraints of the working life that I have described are perhaps, if in a rather less sinister way, the modern equivalent of Blake’s ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ which appear, appropriately, in his poem London – my own place of work. It’s in casting them off that I hope to reacquaint myself with that kind of experience which is almost synonymous with innocence.

That’s the potential that I feel a second childhood has for me, as I stand on the verge of it. The dilapidated railway buffers in my new title image signify only an end to daily work and commuting, not any other sort of conclusion. Beyond them there’s a whole new field to explore.

End of the Line

Commuting days until retirement: 10

So – with only ten more cycles of this curious daily shuttling between one place and another, it’s nearly time for me to say goodbye to commuting and finally justify the title of my blog. I’ve been at it, on and off, for just under half a century, which seems an astonishing thought. (And I’ve just thought of the journey to school – that extends my commuting experience to nearly sixty years.)  At different times I have shuttled by foot, bicycle, motor-bike, car, bus, train and various combinations of those.

Right now, travelling 25 odd miles into London, train is the only sensible option, even if it bites a significant chunk out of my salary. But that doesn’t stop my smartphone being convinced that I drive there, telling me faithfully every day: Time to work 95 minutes – 14 minutes delay via A1(M). Its little brain must be puzzled as to how I get there so quickly; and no doubt it will be even more confused when I stop doing the journey altogether, and will probably assume I’m dead and disable itself (although it seems to be making frequent attempts to do that already).

Silly walk

The Mony Python silly walk – perhaps inspired by memories like mine? (imgbuddy.com)

My earliest awareness of the daily cycle of travel was as a young child observing the disappearance and reappearance of my father, and it’s an image of the return home which persists in my memory. I would sit in my bedroom window to take in the view down the road, and watch the phenomenon as it was fifties-style: waves of largely identically dressed men – suits, bowler hats, rolled umbrellas – would be decanted along our street by each train arrival at the nearby station, and I watched until I could distinguish my father among the black suits and hats. The impression on me was such that I would play solitary games in which, with a stick, I attempted to imitate the particular way they swung their umbrellas in smooth arcs as they walked, half-synchronised with their steps like languid third legs. And even more impressive was their nonchalant way of crossing the street diagonally as they proceeded. Having been trained to look right, look left etc., and walk directly across, I would go for this much more sophisticated approach whenever unsupervised by an adult.

But of course commuting as an activity goes back a lot further in time, as I have been reading in Iain Gately’s book Rush Hour. The word itself originated in the United States in 1843, when passengers on the Paterson and Hudson River railroad were offered the opportunity to ‘commute’ their fares by buying a season ticket and getting a discount. Since then commuting by rail or Underground has become an activity where the normal rules of life can be strangely distorted. Normally etiquette forbids us physical contact with strangers – at least without a flurry of apologies if it happens – but on a crowded tube you can find yourself crushed intimately against a man or woman totally unknown to you. There has been awareness of this as an undesirable (or desirable, according to your predilections) aspect of the daily journey since Victorian times. One writer warned that the combined effects of reading stimulating popular novels while in transit, along with both sexes being packed together and shaken by the movement of the train ‘could lead to nervous collapse or the suspension of moral judgement.’

In my experience, however, quite apart from the difficulty of reading in the most crowded carriages, travel of this sort is the least orgiastic experience imaginable. The British in particular are skilled in maintaining a distant, uncommitted indifference even when someone else’s buttocks are pressed into their groin. Not so, it seems in all countries: in Japan, famous for its tightly packed metro carriages, a genre of literature and film has grown up since the publication of a story by Tayama Katai, The Girl Fetish, back in 1907. It generally features the lusting of Japan’s besuited commuters – the so-called salarymen – after schoolgirls, who in earlier times travelled to school in their kimonos. These are apparently not just stories, but extend into real life – there is an openly confident organisation called Chikan Tomo-No-Kai, or ‘The Brotherhood of Molesters’, to which quite eminent men belong.

Ladies only

imgbuddy.com

Perhaps it was to ward off the possibility of such perversions that, at least until the time I was travelling to school, trains offered ‘Ladies Only’ compartments. A bit of googling reveals that these are still offered in Japan (not surprisingly) as well as a number of other countries, even if they haven’t been in Britain for some years. I can remember as a boy playing a silly and probably dangerous game which involved racing from the ticket barrier as the train arrived and trying to get in as near the front as possible, when one day I crashed into a compartment at the last moment only to find, as the train left, that it was Ladies Only. I was covered with confusion and embarrassment at the situation I had got myself into; but evidently the old ladies seated there found this terribly cute; they immediately adopted me as their pet for the rest of the journey. I was fussed over to such an extent that I was relieved that no other school friends had seen, and exploited the teasing potential.

However the battle of the sexes in the UK, commuting style, is not always so harmless. Many years ago I was on the tube on my way to work, having been up very late the night before before and feeling rather groggy. But I was just too late to get a seat, and was wearily strap-hanging, along with one girl beside me. I’m not sure exactly what happened next; maybe in my ennervated state I was swaying a little more than usual, and just touched her. Either way, I certainly wasn’t aware of any contact, until she suddenly turned and startled me by screaming ‘GET OFF ME!’

The rows of seated commuters jerked their heads up and stared – a goggle-eyed jury who had me instantly tried and convicted. I don’t know what the sentence would have been; luckily we were just reaching a station – not mine – but I didn’t wait to find out. I retreated hurriedly and ignominiously.

Gately’s book tells me that currently only 16.4% of commuting in the UK is by public transport. But, aside from over-packed carriages and incidents like the above, I prefer the relaxed thoughtfulness of train travel to the constant vigilance needed for driving. Many of my blog entries have been written on the train, and right now I’ve got a bit of extra time to finish this piece: I’ve just been told by the driver that there are overhead line problems at Biggleswade, and we are going to be stuck in our present position for some time.

Train window

4freephotos.com

This gives me a moment or two to reflect, tablet in hand, about why the train seems such a good place to write. It’s something to do with the suspension from regular living that a train provides – a sort of unconnected limbo that’s not anchored to any of the places which are associated in your routine with things to be done, or duties to be performed. We can add to that the gently stimulating backdrop of the landscape sliding past, giving a privileged, god-like perspective; and the fact that your attention is not demanded for any task at all, as it is for driving. The British aversion to talking to strangers on the train also helps.

So what am I going to do without this aid to creativity? I can imagine that, clutching my Senior Railcard in one hand (I’ll be needing the discount) and my tablet in the other, I may find myself on lovely, half empty midday trains headed nowhere in particular, with no other distractions, and certainly not erotic ones. Goodbye regular, bidden commuting; hello aimless, pleasurable wandering.

Are We Deluded?

Commuting days until retirement: 19

My last post searched, somewhat uncertainly, for a reason to believe that we are in a meaningful sense free to make decisions – to act spontaneously in some way that is not wholly and inevitably determined by the state of the world before we act: the question of free will, in other words. In a comment, bloggingisaresponsibility referred me to the work of Sam Harris, a philosopher and neuroscientist who argues cogently for the opposite position.

Sam Harris

Sam Harris (Wikimedia/Steve Jurvetson)

Harris points to examples of cases where someone can be mistaken about how they came to a certain decision: it’s well known that under hypnosis a subject can be told to take an action in response to a prompt, after having been woken from the hypnotic trance. ‘When I clap my hands you will open the window.’ When the subject duly carries out the command, and is asked about why she took the action, she may say that the room was feeling stuffy or some such, and give every sign of genuinely believing that this was the motive.

And I can think of some slightly unnerving examples from my own personal life where it has become clear over a period of time that all the behaviour of someone I know is aimed towards a certain outcome, while the intentions that they will own up to – quite honestly, it appears – are quite different.

So I’d accept it as undeniable that we can believe ourselves to be making a free choice, when the real forces driving our actions are unknown to us. But it’s one thing to claim that we can be mistaken about what is driving us towards this or that action, and quite another to maintain that we are systematically deluded about what it is to make choices in general. So what do I mean by choices?

I argued in the last post that genuine choices are not to be identified with the sort of random, meaningless bodily movements that a scientist might be able to study and analyse in a laboratory. When we truly exercise what we might call our will, we are typically weighing up a number of alternatives and deciding what might seem to us the ‘best’ one. Typically we may be trying to arbitrate between conflicting desires: do I stick to my diet and feel healthy, or give in and be seduced by the jumbo gourmet burger and chips?  Or you can read in any newspaper about men or women who have sacrificed a lifetime of domestic happiness for the promise of the short-lived affair that satisfies their cravings. (You don’t of course read about those who made the other choice.)

I hope that gives a flavour of what it really is to exercise choice: it’s all about subjective feelings – about uncertainly picking our way through an incredibly varied mental landscape of desires, emotions, pain, pleasure, knowledge and learnt experience – and of course making conscious decisions about where to place our steps. It seems to me that the arguments of determinists such as Harris would be irrefutable if only we were insentient robots, which we are not.

How deluded are we?

But Harris has an answer to that argument. We are not just deluded about the spontaneity of our actions:

It is not that free will is simply an illusion – our experience is not merely delivering a distorted view of reality. Rather, we are mistaken about our experience. Not only are we not as free as we think we are – we do not feel as free as we think we do. Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying close attention to what it is like to be us. The moment we pay attention, it is possible to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our experience is perfectly compatible with this truth. Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do? The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion. The problem is not merely that free will makes no sense objectively (i.e., when our thoughts and actions are viewed from a third-person point of view); it makes no sense subjectively either. (From Free Will – Harris’s italics)

‘Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind.’ Do they? Well, we have to admit that they do, all the time. We don’t generally decide what we are going to dream about – as one example – and Harris gives many other instances of actions taken in response to thoughts that ‘just arise’. But does this cover every willed, considered decision? I don’t think it does, although Harris argues otherwise.

But the key sentence here for, me is: ‘The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.’ – and the italics indicate that it is for Harris too. We may think we have the impression that we are exercising our wills, but we don’t. The impression is an illusion too.* Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t to me. But it’s very much in the spirit of a growing movement which espouses a particular way of dealing with our subjective nature. I think Daniel Dennett must be one of the pioneers: in a post two years ago I contested his arguments that qualia, the elements that comprise our conscious experience, do not exist.

Here’s another writer, Susan Blackmore, in a compilation from the Edge website where the contributors nominate ideas which they think should become extinct. Blackmore is a psychologist and former psychic researcher turned sceptic, and her choice for the dustbin is ‘The Neural Correlates of Consciousness’. She argues that, while much cutting edge research effort is going into the search for the biological processes that are the neural counterpart of consciousness, this is a wild goose chase – they’ll never be found. Well, so far I agree, but I suspect for very different reasons.

Consciousness is not some weird and wonderful product of some brain processes but not others. Rather, it’s an illusion constructed by a clever brain and body in a complex social world. We can speak, think, refer to ourselves as agents, and so build up the false idea of a persisting self that has consciousness and free will.

There can’t be any neural correlates of consciousness, says Blackmore, because there’s nothing for the neural processes to be correlated with. So here we have it again, this strange conclusion that flies against common sense. Well of course if a philosophical or scientific idea is incompatible with common sense that doesn’t necessarily disqualify it from being worth serious consideration. But in this case I believe it goes much, much further than that.

Let’s just stop and examine what is being claimed. We believe we have a private world of subjective conscious impressions; but that belief is based on an illusion – we don’t have such a world. But an illusion is itself a subjective experience. How can the broad class of things of which illusions are one subclass be itself an illusion? The notion is simply nonsense. You could only rescue it from incoherence by saying that illusions could be described as data in a processing machine (like a brain) which embody false accounts of what they are supposed to represent.

Imagine one of those systems which reads car number plates and measures average speeds over a stretch of road. Suppose we somehow got into the works and caused the numbers to be altered before they were logged, so that no speeding tickets were issued. Could we then say that the system was suffering an illusion? It would be a very odd way of speaking – because illusions are experiences, not scrambled data. Having an illusion implies consciousness (which involves something I have written about before – intentionality).  Just as Descartes famously concluded that he couldn’t doubt the existence of his doubting, we can’t be deluded about the experience of being deluded.

History repeats

The Aristotelian Universe

The universe according to Aristotle (mysearch.org.uk)

Here’s an example of how we can have illusions about the nature of the world: it was once an unquestioned belief that our planet was stationary and the sun orbited around it. Through objective measurement and logical analysis we now know that is wrong. But people thought this because it felt like it – our beliefs start with subjective experience (which we don’t have, according to the view I’m criticising). But of course a whole established world-view was based around this illusion. We are told that when one of the proponents of the new conception – Galileo – discovered corroborating evidence through his telescope, in the form of satellites orbiting Jupiter, supporters of the status quo refused to look into the telescope. (It’s an account of which the facts may be a little different.) But it nevertheless illustrates the extremity of the measures which the believers in an established order may take in order to protect it.

So now we have a 21st century version of that phenomenon. Our objective knowledge of the brain as an electrochemical machine can’t, even in principle, explain the existence of subjective experiences. If we are not to admit that our account of the world is seriously incomplete, a quick fix is simply to deny that this messy subjectivity is anything real, and conveniently ignore whether we are making any sense in doing so.

A Princeton psychologist, Michael Graziano, who researches into consciousness was quoted in a recent issue of New Scientist magazine, referring to what philosopher David Chalmers called ‘the hard problem’ – how and why the brain should give rise to conscious awareness at all:

“There is no hard problem,” says Graziano. “There is only the question of how the brain, an information-processing device, concludes and insists it has consciousness. And that is a problem of information processing. To understand that process fully will require [scientific experiments]”**.

So this wholly incoherent notion – of conscious experience as an illusion – is taken as the premise for a scientific investigation. And look at the language: it’s not you or I who are insisting we are conscious, but ‘the brain’. In this very defensive objectivisation of the terms used lies the modern equivalent of the 17th century churchmen who supposedly turned away from the telescope. If we only take care to avoid any mention of the subjective, we can reassure ourselves that none of this inconvenient consciousness stuff really exists – only in the ravings of a heretic would such an idea be entertained. And the scientific hegemony is spared the embarrassment of a province it doesn’t look like being able to conquer.

But free will? Even If I have convinced you that our subjective nature is real, that question may still be open. But as I mentioned before, I think the determinism arguments would only have irresistible force if we were insentient creatures, and I have tried to underline the fact that we are not. Our subjective world is the most immediate and undeniable reality of our experience – indeed it is our experience. It’s there, in that world, that we seem to be free,  and in which libertarians like myself believe we are free. Not surprisingly, it’s that world whose reality Harris is determined to deny. My contention is that, in doing so, he joins others in the fraternity of uncompromising physicalists and, like them, fatally undermines his own position.


*I haven’t explicitly distinguished between what I mean by illusion and delusion. Just to be clear: an illusion is experiencing something that appears other than it is. A delusion would be when we believe it to be as it appears. So while, for example, Harris would admit to experiencing what he believes to be the illusion of freewill, he would not admit to being deluded by it. But he would of course claim that I and many others are deluded.

**A stable mind is a conscious mind, in New Scientist 11 April 2015, p10. I did find an article for the New York Times by Graziano in which he addresses more directly some of the objections I have raised. But for the sake of brevity I’ll just mention that in that article I believe he simply falls into the same conceptual errors that I have already described.