Consciousness 3 – The Adventures of a Naive Dualist

Commuting days until retirement: 408

A long gap since my last post: I can only plead lack of time and brain-space (or should I say mind-space?). Anyhow, here we go with Consciousness 3:


A high point for English Christianity in the 50s: the Queen’s coronation. I can remember watching it on a relative’s TV at the age of 5

I think I must have been a schoolboy, perhaps just a teenager, when I was first aware that the society I had been born into supported two entirely different ways of looking at the world. Either you believed that the physical world around us, sticks, stones, fur, skin, bones – and of course brains – was all that existed; or you accepted one of the many varieties of belief which insisted that there was more to it than that. My mental world was formed within the comfortable surroundings of the good old Church of England, my mother and father being Christians by conviction and by social convention, respectively. The numinous existed in a cosy relationship with the powers-that-were, and parents confidently consigned their children’s dead pets to heaven, without there being quite such a Santa Claus feel to the assertion.

But, I discovered, it wasn’t hard to find the dissenting voices. The ‘melancholy long withdrawing roar’ of the ‘sea of faith’ which Matthew Arnold had complained about in the 19th century was still under way, if you listened out for it. Ever since Darwin, and generations of physicists from Newton onwards, the biological and physical worlds had appeared to get along fine without divine support; and even in my own limited world I was aware of plenty of instances of untimely deaths of innocent sufferers, which threw doubt on God’s reputedly infinite mercy.

John Robinson

John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich (Church Times)

And then in the 1960s a brick was thrown into the calm pool of English Christianity by a certain John Robinson, the Bishop of Woolwich at the time. It was a book called Honest to God, which sparked a vigorous debate that is now largely forgotten. Drawing on the work of other radical theologians, and aware of the strong currents of atheism around him, Robinson argued for a new understanding of religion. He noted that our notion of God had moved on from the traditional old man in the sky to a more diffuse being who was ‘out there’, but considered that this was also unsatisfactory. Any God whom someone felt they had proved to be ‘out there’ “would merely be a further piece of existence, that might conceivably have not been there”. Rather, he says, we must approach from a different angle.

God is, by definition, ultimate reality. And one cannot argue whether ultimate reality exists.

My pencilled zig-zags in the margin of the book indicate that I felt there was something wrong with this at the time. Later, after studying some philosophy, I recognised it as a crude form of Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God, which is rather more elegant, but equally unsatisfactory. But, to be fair, this is perhaps missing the point a little. Robinson goes on to say that “one can only ask “what ultimate reality is like – whether it… is to be described in personal or impersonal categories.” His book proceeds to develop the notion of God as in some way identical with reality, rather than as a special part of it. One might cynically characterise this as a response to atheism of the form “if you can’t beat them, join them” – hence the indignation that the book stirred in religious circles.

Teenage reality

But, leaving aside the well worn blogging topic of the existence of God, there was the teenage me, still wondering about ‘ultimate reality’, and what on earth, for want of a better expression, that might be. Maybe the ‘personal’ nature of reality which Robinson espoused was a clue. I was a person, and being a person meant having thoughts, experiences – a self, or a subjective identity.  My experiences seemed to be something quite other from the objective world described by science – which, according to the ‘materialists’ of the time, was all that there was. What I was thinking of then was the topic of my previous post, Consciousness 2 – my qualia, although I didn’t know that word at the time. So yes, there were the things around us (including our own bodies and brains), our knowledge and understanding of which had been, and was, advancing at a great rate. But it seemed to me that no amount of knowledge of the mechanics of the world could ever explain these private, subjective experiences of mine (and I assumed, of others). I was always strongly motivated to believe that there was no limit to possible knowledge – however much we knew, there would always be more to understand. Materialsm, on the other hand, seemed to embody the idea of a theoretically finite limit to what could be known – a notion which gave me a sense of claustrophobia (of which more in a future post).

So I made my way about the world, thinking of my qualia as the armour to fend off the materialist assertion that physics was the whole story. I had something that was beyond their reach: I was a something of a young Cartesian, before I had learned about Descartes. It was a another few years before ‘consciousness’ became a legitimate topic of debate in philosophy and science. One commentator I have read dates this change to the appearance of Nagel’s paper What is it like to be a Bat in 1973, which I referred to in Consciousness 1. Seeing the debate emerging, I was tempted to preen myself with the horribly arrogant thought that the rest of the world had caught up with me.

The default position

Philosophers and scientists are still seeking to find ways of assimilating consciousness to physics: such physicalism, although coming in a variety of forms, is often spoken of as the default, orthodox position. But although my perspective has changed quite a lot over the years, my fundamental opposition to physicalism has not. I am still at heart the same naive dualist I was then. But I am not a dogmatic dualist – my instinct is to believe that some form of monism might ultimately be true, but beyond our present understanding. This consigns me into another much-derided category of philosophers – the so-called ‘mysterians’.

But I’d retaliate by pointing out that there is also a bit of a vacuum at the heart of the physicalist project. Thoughts and feelings, say its supporters, are just physical things or events, and we know what we mean by that, don’t we? But do we? We have always had the instinctive sense of what good old, solid matter is – but you don’t have to know any physics to realise there are problems with the notion. If something were truly solid it would entail that it was infinitely dense – so the notion of atomism, starting with the ancient Greeks, steadily took hold. But even then, atoms can’t be little solid balls, as they were once imagined – otherwise we are back with the same problem. In the 20th century, atomic physics confirmed this, and quantum theory came up with a whole zoo of particles whose behaviour entirely conflicted with our intuitive ideas gained from experience; and this is as you might expect, since we are dealing with phenomena which we could not, in principle, perceive as we perceive the things around us. So the question “What are these particles really like?” has no evident meaning. And, approaching the problem from another standpoint, where psychology joins hands with physics, it has become obvious that the world with which we are perceptually familiar is an elaborate fabrication constructed by our brains. To be sure, it appears to map on to the ‘real’ world in all sorts of ways, but has qualities (qualia?) which we supply ourselves.


So what true, demonstrable statements can be made about the nature of matter? We are left with the potently true findings – true in the the sense of explanatory and predictive power – of quantum physics. And, when you’ve peeled away all the imaginative analogies and metaphors, these can only be expressed mathematically. At this point, rather unexpectedly, I find myself handing the debate back to our friend John Robinson. In a 1963 article in The Observer newspaper, heralding the publication of Honest to God, he wrote:

Professor Herman Bondi, commenting in the BBC television programme, “The Cosmologists” on Sir James Jeans’s assertion that “God is a great mathematician”, stated quite correctly that what he should have said is “Mathematics is God”. Reality, in other words, can finally be reduced to mathematical formulae.

In case this makes Robinson sound even more heretical than he in fact was, I should note that he goes on to say that Christianity adds to this “the deeper reliability of an utterly personal love”. But I was rather gratified to find this referral to the concluding thoughts of my post by the writer I quoted at the beginning.

I’m not going to speculate any further into such unknown regions, or into religious belief, which isn’t my central topic. But I’d just like to finish with the hope that I have suggested that the ‘default position’ in current thinking about the mind is anything but natural or inevitable.

W G Sebald

Commuting days until retirement: 477

WGSebaldIt’s a rather sad experience to discover a contemporary writer who immediately engages you, only to learn that he has recently died – so that once you have exhausted his published novels there will be no more. This was my experience in the case of W G Sebald.

Sebald was a German writer, an immensely intelligent and learned man, who had learned early in life of his family’s former involvement in Nazi regime activity. He preferred to become an expatriate, studying in Manchester and taking up an academic post there. He then lived in Switzerland for a short time before returning to England to become a lecturer, and then Professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia. He held this post at the time of his death in a car crash in Norfolk in late 2001. He had evidently suffered a heart attack at the wheel.

austerlitzAs far as I remember I came across him simply by picking up one of his books in a shop. At first sight I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but it seemed so different from anything else I had come across that I had to buy it. The book was Austerlitz, his last published novel. Embarking on a Sebald novel takes you into an unfamiliar but compelling experience, where you are never quite sure what is entirely fictional and what is reference to factual reality. This ambiguity is enhanced by the grainy black and white photos, engravings and other visuals which punctuate the text, appearing to depict real things but at the same time conjuring up a dream-like atmosphere. The basic narration is always first person, but it’s never quite clear to what extent the persona is Sebald’s own. This effect is further enhanced in Austerlitz, as most of the story is spoken by the eponymous character, but told to the first person narrator who meets and talks with him in a variety of settings across Europe.

Sebald’s prose style is also unique. Sentences will generally be long, punctuated with commas, and in the course of a single sentence he will often digress from the here-and-now, maybe to refer to some historical fact, or describe the foibles of some character, before returning to the present. A Sebald novel is an other-worldly experience, both real and not-real, and makes reading him (for me, anyway) uniquely pleasurable. I don’t often re-read novels, conscious of everything out there which I have yet to read and probably never will – but Sebald is an exception to this. As is shown by the interview I have included below, the texture of his work is laden with allusions and metaphors, few of which I have been aware of on a first reading. He writes in German, and is translated, but he was generally closely involved in the translations himself, so we can be sure of their authenticity. I would recommend all four of his novels: The Emigrants, Vertigo, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz.

My post was prompted by a piece in this weekend’s Guardian Review, where I was pleased to find that a new book of his essays is being published next month. (There are other books of essays and poetry that I have not yet read – I’m saving them up for myself.) One of the essays is reprinted there: if I had read just the first sentences without knowing who the author was, I would immediately have recognised him as Sebald.

He was, according to all accounts, a shy, modest and delightful man. He was known univerally to those who knew him as ‘Max’. A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to meet someone who had been a friend of his – the Hungarian-born poet George Szirtes, a fellow member of staff at the Univerity of East Anglia. I learned how well liked he was, and what enormous sadness friends felt when he died.

Looking around the internet, I found a YouTube interview with an American radio station, made just before his death, so I have embedded it here.

We are all Newtonians now – or are we?

Commuting days until retirement: 495

Browsing in a bookshop the other day I found a small book about Newton by Peter Ackroyd. His biographies are mostly about literary figures, and I didn’t know about this one – the prospect of Ackroyd on Isaac Newton seemed an enticing novelty. It lasted a few train journeys, and didn’t disappoint. I suppose I was familiar with the outline of Newton’s work, and knew something about his difficult personality, but this filled some of the gaps in my knowledge wonderfully.

Isaac Newton(Wikimedia Commons)

Isaac Newton (Wikimedia Commons)

There are perhaps three central achievements of Newton’s – each one groundbreaking in itself: his elucidation of the nature of light and colour; his invention of the calculus (‘Fluxions’ in his day) as a mathematical technique, and, above all, his unification of the movement of all physical bodies, cosmic and terrestrial, in a mathematical framework bound together by his laws of motion and gravitation. It’s true that calculus was, as we know now, independently hit upon by Leibniz, although at the time there was a fierce controversy, with each suspecting the other of plagiarism. Leibniz had published first, using a more elegant notation, but Newton had certainly been working on his Fluxions for some time before. The flames of the dispute were jealously fanned by Newton, who, once crossed or criticised, rarely forgave an opponent.

Robert Hooke

What I hadn’t realised was that the notion of gravitation, and even the inverse square law governing the strength of attraction, had been discussed by others prior to Newton’s synthesis in Principia Mathematica. It was Robert Hooke – a polymath and versatile scientific investigator himself – who had published these ideas in his Micrographia, without claiming to have originated them himself, and who wrote to Newton to draw his attention to them. They had previous quarrelled over Newton’s work on light and colour, Hooke having claimed some precedence in his own work, but Hooke had conceded to Newton, accepting that he had “abilities much inferior to yours.” This was the sort of thing that was music to Newton’s ears, who wrote back in a conciliatory vein, saying, in the famous phrase, that “if I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” There is some uncertainty as to whether this was a deliberate reference to Hooke’s own short and stunted stature.

But relations with Hooke broke down entirely when he pressed his claim to an acknowledgement in the Principia for his own previous work. Newton was furious, and never forgave him. Hooke was for many years secretary of the Royal Society, a body which, to start with, Newton had an awkward relationship, particularly given the presence of Hooke. But after Hooke’s death, Newton became president of the Society, and the relatively modest reputation which Hooke has today is thought to be due to Newton’s attempts to bury it, once he was in a position to do so. No authentic portrait of Hooke remains, and this is probably Newton’s doing.

By contrast, Newton sat for quite a number of portraits – an indication of his vanity. But he was of course held in high regard by most of his contemporaries for his prodigious talents. Those who got on well with him mostly had the skill to negotiate their way carefully around his prickly personality. An example was Edmond Halley (he of Halley’s comet) who had the task of passing Hooke’s claim to Newton, but managed to do so without himself falling into Newton’s disfavour.


Newton was long-lived, dying aged 84 – perhaps due to his ascetic style of life and his unquenchable enthusiasm for whatever was his current preoccupation. The early part of his life was mostly spent in Cambridge where he became a fellow, and then the second Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. He lived a mostly solitary existence, and when working on some problem would often work through the night, neglect bodily needs and be deaf to distractions. His absent-mindedness was legendary. Hardly surprising, given these tendencies and his awkward personality, that he was not known ever to have had a close relationship with any individual, sexual or otherwise.  Acts of kindness were not unknown, however, and he made many charitable donations in his later, prosperous years. He did strike up one or two friendships, and was fondly protective towards his niece, who kept house for him when he lived in London in later years.

When his mathematical powers waned with age, he found a new talent for administration in his fifties, when offered the post of Warden of the Royal Mint (and later Master). His predecessors had been lazy placemen for whom the post was a sinecure, and it’s thought that, on his appointment, perhaps 95% of the currency was counterfeit. Over succeeding years Newton turned the full force of his concentration to the task, and put the nation’s currency on a sound footing. Forgers were single-mindedly pursued to the gallows, which was where you ended up in those days if convicted of counterfeiting the currency.

So the last part of Newton’s life was spent prosperously, and in the enjoyment of a vast reputation, presiding over his twin fiefdoms of the Royal Mint and the Royal Society, and doing so right up until his death. But I have not mentioned his two other major intellectual enthusiasms, beside the scientific work I have described. One was alchemy – not then distinct from what we now call chemistry. Alchemists of course are remembered mainly for their efforts to create gold, and hence fabulous wealth – but this was not Newton’s aim. The subject was full of occult knowledge and arcane secrets, and for Newton this was one route to a revelation of the universe’s true, unknown nature, and he pursued it assiduously, having a vast library and spending at least as much time on it as his work in what is for us mainstream science. It also had a practical outcome, since he developed from it a thorough knowledge of metallurgy which he put to use in his work in administering the coinage.

His third passion was his research into the history of Christianity and the church. Newton was a deeply pious man, more in a private than a public way. This was partly because Newton’s particular faith was a heretical one, and would have been dangerously so in the earlier part of his life, when England was ruled by the Catholic James II. Newton was obsessed with the now largely forgotten controversy concerning the opposed church fathers Arius and Athanasius. Arian doctrine (not to be confused with the ‘Aryan’ 19th and 20th century racial dogma) held that Christ was a subordinate entity to God, and denied the Holy Trinity taught by Athanasius, and adopted by the mainstream church. For Newton, Arianism was the true faith, whose origins, he believed, could be traced back beyond the Christian era, and was the only way to approach the reality of God.

It almost goes without saying that these three obsessions were not independent of one another in Newton’s mind. For him they all served the same purpose – to uncover the mysteries of the universe and the nature of God. Gravitation was a controversial topic at the time, in virtue of its assertion that one body could act upon another without physical contact. (Perhaps a sort of parallel with the issues we have today with the phenomenon of quantum entanglement.) For Newton, the concept was all of a piece with the mysterious action of God – a window into the nature of reality.

Of course Newton’s scientific conception of the universe has now been radically modified by the twentieth century developments of relativity and quantum theory. But there’s a more fundamental sense in which we are still Newtonians: his towering achievement was the scheme of the universe as an integrated whole, governed by mathematically described laws (with some honours also going to his predecessor Galileo). This is the framework within which all our modern scientific endeavours take place.


The brothers as they appear in the book (faces obscured)

The brothers as they appear in the book (faces obscured)

So why the note of uncertainty in my title? To explain this I want to digress by describing an image which came into my mind while thinking about it. A few years back, the local people where I live produced a book about our village’s history. An appeal went out for any period photographs that might be borrowed to illustrate the book, and there was a big response. The organiser gave me the task of scanning in all these photos for the book’s publishers, and one them sticks in my mind. It showed two brothers who were local characters during the 1930s standing in a garden, and a closer examination showed that it had been taken at a wedding. They are wearing their best suits, and are sporting buttonholes. Why is the setting not so immediately obvious? Because the photo had been crudely ripped in two down the middle, with both the brothers in the left half. We can see that one of them is the groom, and that the missing right half contained his bride – only her hand is visible, nestling in the crook of his arm.

I found this mute evidence of some anguished estrangement from the past rather moving. What had seemed like a happy union at the time now had the feminine half of it expunged by someone who was determined that she no longer deserved any place in their thoughts. Yes – you get my drift. The enterprise of science now prefers to go it alone along its own, masculine, analytical path, with any attendant mystery ripped out of the picture, leaving only the barest hint. (See my thoughts on atheism in the previous post.)

It’s worth returning to Newton’s own imagery and repeating the often-quoted passage he wrote towards the end of his life:

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

Although he was an arrogant man in his personal dealings (and the opening phrase here hints at how conscious he is of his reputation), I don’t believe this to be mock-modesty. He also was genuinely pious, and all too aware of the mystery surrounding what he had learned of the universe. Today, we look forward to finishing the task of enumerating the pebbles and shells, and are happy to ignore the ocean. In this sense we are more arrogant than he was, and that’s the source of my doubt as to whether we are really Newtonians now.

Ackroyd, Peter: Newton. Vintage Books, 2007

Science and Emotion

Commuting days until retirement: 507

heretics-coverFollowing my comments 3 posts ago, my reading on the train over the last week has been The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science, by Will Storr. Despite booming bishops and other distractions, I found it intensely readable, and I think it pretty much fulfilled my expectations.

The subtitle about ‘the Enemies of Science’ is perhaps a little misleading: this is not primarily an exercise in bashing such people – you’ll find plenty of other books that do that, and any number of internet forums (and of course I had a go at it myself, in the post I mentioned). It’s an attempt to understand them, and to investigate why they believe what they do. Storr does not treat the enemies of science as being necessarily his personal enemies, and it emerges at the same time that the friends of science are not always particularly – well, friendly.

I was going to say that it’s a strength of the book that he maintains this approach without compromising his own adherence to rationality, but that’s not strictly true. Because another strength is that he doesn’t attempt to adopt a wholly godlike, objective view. Rather, he presents himself, warts and all, as a creature like the rest of us, who has had to fight his own emotional demons in order to arrive at some sort of objectivity. And he does admit to experiencing a kind of bewitchment when talking to people with far-out beliefs. ‘They are magic-makers. And, beneath all that a private undercurrent: I feel a kind of kinship with them. I am drawn to the wrong.’

It’s a subtle approach, and a difficult path to tread, which invites misunderstanding. And one critic who I believe misunderstands is Mark Henderson in the Guardian who, while admiring aspects of Storr’s work, finds the book ‘disappointing and infuriating….  He is like the child who still wants to believe in Father Christmas, but who is just old enough to know better. Life would be more magical, more fun, if the story were true.’  Well here I think Henderson is unwittingly stating the central thesis of Storr’s book: that as humans we are above all myth makers – we have a need to see ourselves as a hero of our own preferred narrative.

This idea appeals to me in particular because it chimes in with ideas that I have come across in an evening course I am currently following in the philosophy of emotion. Writers on emotion quite naturally classify emotion into positive (happiness, love, hope, excitement) and negative (sadness, hatred, anger, fear, etc). The naive assumption is that we welcome the former and avoid the latter if we can. But of course the reality is far more nuanced, and more interesting than that. In the first place is the need of many to pursue dangerous and frightening pursuits, and then of course the undoubted delights of sado-masochism. But much closer to home is the fact that we flock to horror films and emotionally harrowing dramas – we love to be vicariously frightened or distressed. Narrative is our stock in trade, and (as the increasingly popular creative writing courses preach) unless there’s plenty of conflict and resolution, nobody will be interested.


We all have our own unspoken narratives about our own place in the world, and in most cases these probably cast us in a more heroic light than the accounts others might give of us. They help to maintain our emotional equilibrium, and in cases where they are nullified by external circumstances, depression, despair and even suicide may result. And of course with the internet, bloggers like me can start to inflict our own narratives on a bigger potential audience than ever (I wish). And earlier theories of the world are of course entirely myth and narrative laden, from ancient Greek culture to the Bible and the Koran. Our cultural heritage fits around our instinctive nature. (As I tap this passage into my phone on the train, the man immediately next to me is engrossed in a Bible.)  How difficult, then, for us to depart from our myths, and embrace a new, evidence based, and no longer human-centred, story of of creation.

t-rexStorr encounters one of those for whom this difficulty is too great. John Mackay is a genial, avuncular Australian (there’s plenty of footage on You Tube) who has been proselytising worldwide on behalf of the creationist story for some years. In the gospel according to Mackay, everything that seems evil about nature stems from the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Before this there were no thorns on plants, men lived happily with dinosaurs and nobody ever got eaten – all animals were vegetarians. A favourite of mine among his pronouncements is where Storr asks him why, if Tyrannosaurus Rex was a vegetarian, it had such big, sharp teeth. The answer (of course) is – water melons.

On You Tube I have just watched Mackay demonstrating from fossil evidence that there are plants and animals which haven’t evolved at all. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of Darwin: if organisms aren’t required by external forces to adapt, they won’t. But of course on Mackay’s time scale (the Earth is of course six thousand years old) there wouldn’t have been enough time for fossils to form, let alone for anything to evolve very much. The confusion here is manifold. For his part, Storr admits to having started out knowing little about evolution theory or the descent of man, and to having taken the scientific account on trust, as indeed most of us do. But his later discussions with a mainstream scientist demonstrate to him how incomparably more elegant and cogent the accepted scientific narrative is.

How objective can we be?

Henderson charges Storr with not giving sufficient recognition to the importance of the scientific method, and how it has developed as a defence of objective knowledge against humanity’s partial and capricious tendencies. But Storr seems to me to be well aware of this, and alert to those investigators whose partiality throws doubt on their conclusions. ‘Confirmation bias’ is a phrase that runs through the book: people tend to notice evidence which supports a belief they are loyal to, and neglect anything that throws doubt on it. A great example comes from a passage in the book where he joins a tour of a former Nazi concentration camp with David Irving, the extreme right wing historian who has devoted his life to a curious crusade to minimise the significance of the Holocaust, and exculpate Hitler. Storr is good on the man’s bizarre and contradictory character, as well as the motley group of admirers touring with him. At one point Irving is seeking to deny the authenticity of a gas chamber they are viewing, and triumphantly points out a handle on the inside of the open door. He doesn’t bother to look at the other side of the door, and but Storr does afterwards, and discovers a very sturdy bolt. You are led to imagine the effect of a modus operandi like this on the countless years of painstaking research that Irving has pursued.

But should we assume that the model of disinterested, peer-reviewed academic research we have developed has broken free of our myth-making tendencies? Those who are the most determined to support it are of course themselves human beings, with their own hero narratives. Storr attends a convention of ‘Skeptics’ (he uses the American spelling, as they themselves do) where beliefs in such things as creationism or belief in psychic phenomena are held up to ridicule. He brings out well the slightly obsessional, anorak-ish atmosphere of the event. It does, after all, seem a little perverse to devote very much time to debunking the beliefs of others, rather than developing one’s own. It’s as if the hero narrative ‘I don’t believe in mumbo-jumbo’ is being exploited for purposes of mutual and self-congratulation. The man who is effectively Skeptic-in-Chief, the American former magician James Randi, is later interviewed by Storr, and comes across as arrogant and overbearing, admitting to sometimes departing from truthfulness in pursuit of his aims.

If scientists, being human, are not free of personal mythology, could this work against the objectivity of the enterprise? I think it can, and has. Some examples come to mind for me. The first is Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician in the early to mid 19th century. In the days before Pasteur and the germ theory of infection, he was concerned by the number of maternal deaths in his hospital from what was called ‘puerperal fever’. This seemed to be worse in births attended by doctors, rather than midwives. In a series of well executed investigations, he linked this to doctors who had come to the maternity ward after performing post-mortems, and further established that hand-washing reduced the incidence of the disease. But the notion that doctors themselves were the cause did not meet with approval: an obvious clash with the hero narrative. Semmelweis’s findings were contemptuously rejected, and he later suffered a breakdown and died in an asylum. A similar example is the English Victorian physician John Snow, who in a famous investigation into cholera in Soho, conclusively showed it to be spread via a water-pump, in contradiction with the accepted ‘miasma’ theory of airborne infection. He further linked it to pollution of the water supply by sewage – but something so distasteful was a conclusion too far for the Victorian narratives of human pride and decency, and the miasma theory continued to hold sway.

Both these examples of course come from medicine, where conclusive and repeatable results are harder to come by, and easier to contest. So let’s go to the other extreme – mathematics. You would think that a mathematical theorem would be incontrovertible, at least on grounds of offending anyone’s personal sensibilities. But around the turn of the 20th century Georg Cantor’s work on set theory led him to results concerning the nature of infinity. The consequent attacks on him by some other mathematicians, often of the most ad hominem kind, calling him a charlatan and worse, showed that someone’s personal myths were threatened. Was it their religious beliefs, or the foundations of mathematics on which their reputations depended? I don’t know – but Cantor’s discoveries are nowadays part of mainstream mathematics.

Modern heresy

My examples are from the past, of course: I wanted to look at investigators who were derided in their time, but whose discoveries have since been vindicated. If there are any such people around today, their vindication lies in the future. And there is no shortage of heterodox doctrines, as Storr shows. Are any of them remotely plausible? One interesting case is that of Rupert Sheldrake, to whom Storr gives some space. He has an unimpeachable background of education in biology and is a former Cambridge fellow. But his theory of morphic fields – mysterious intangible influences on biological processes – put him beyond the pale as far as most mainstream scientists are concerned. Sheldrake, however, is adamant that his theory makes testable predictions, and he claims to have verified some of these using approved, objective methods. Some of them concern phenomena known to popular folk-lore: the ability to sense when you are being stared at, and animals who show correct anticipation of their absent owners returning home. I can remember when we played games with the former when I was at school – and it seemed to work. And I have read Sheldrake’s book on the latter, in which he is quite convincing.

But I have no idea whether these ideas are truly valid. Storr tells of a few cases where regular scientists have been prepared to try and repeat Sheldrake’s results with these phenomena, but most degenerate into arcane wrangling over the details of experimental method, and no clear conclusions emerge. What is clear to me is that most orthodox scientists will not even consider, publicly, such matters, since doing so is seen as career suicide. Is this lack of open-mindedness also therefore a lack of objectivity? Lewis Wolpert is quoted in Storr’s book: ‘An open mind is a very bad thing – everything falls out’, a jibe repeated by Henderson. You could retort that the trouble with a closed mind is that nothing gets in.  There is a difficult balance to find here: of course a successful scientific establishment must be on its guard against destructive incursions by gullibility and nonsense.  On the other hand, as we have seen, this becomes part of the hero narrative of its practitioners, and may be guarded so jealously that it becomes in some cases an obstacle to advances.

Sheldrake tells Storr that his theories in no way destroy or undermine established knowledge, but add to it. I think this is a little disingenuous of him. If we have missed something so fundamental, it would imply that there is something fundamentally wrong about our world-view. Well of course it would be arrogant to deny that there is anything at all wrong with our world-view (and I think there is plenty – something to return to in a later post). But Storr’s critic Henderson is surely right in holding that, in the context of a systematically developed body of knowledge, there is a greater burden of proof on the proponent of the unorthodox belief than there is on the the opponent. Nevertheless, I agree with Storr that the freedom to promote heterodox positions is essential, even if most of them are inevitably barmy. It’s not just that, as Storr asserts near the end of the book, ‘wrongness is a human right’. Occasionally – just very occasionally – it is right.

A morning of Intuitive Soul Whispering

Commuting days until retirement: 518

bigquestionsSunday – so rather than struggling to the train to notch up another commuting day, I am in my dressing gown munching toast in front of the Andrew Marr Show. And I stay on with the telly for that strange confection called The Big Questions. From what I’ve seen of this before it’s rather prone to producing Small Answers. Today was no exception, particularly in the section on the topic “Is faith compatible with reason?” (A mere third of the programme devoted to this.) The programme demonstrates that faith which TV producers have, against all reason, that if you plonk enough people with extreme and diametrically opposed opinions in front of each other, and give them each a few moments each to rant at each other, that some enlightenment will come out of it all.  (Well, I know that their agenda is to deliver ratings, rather than enlightenment. But couldn’t Sunday morning ‘god-slot’ TV be viewed more as a public service, and less as a ratings deliverer? Unfortunately I think that the brains of the people who run BBC1 are hardwired to work the other way.)

On the programme, the most difficult participant to ignore – and certainly the most irritating – was a lady called Andrea Foulkes, an accomplished TV performer, who, as she was anxious to impress on us, has had her own show on ITV. Among the accomplishments mentioned on her website is that of being an “Intuitive Soul Whisperer”. Well, we all need one of those. And what did she have to say? I will have to quote (thank goodness for iPlayer, allowing me to check I’m quoting accurately):

Quantum physics is starting to prove that the heart has a cohesive wave-form – it has a pattern, which is replicated, which creates emotion… Everyone’s thoughts and beliefs come from three strains: they come from ancestral pattterns, which we call genetic… and then you have past life patterns; and then you have compounded stuff, which you have from  being in the womb to the present day, because you have consciousness in the womb. And this creates your current reality…

“What is your external proof?” asked someone.  “External proof?” she burbled on, sweetly tolerant of those too slow to keep up with her, “External proof is clients who have experienced it, and they change their reality… all realities exist, but they exist within different dimensions. We live in a multidimensional reality, we live in a holographic universe”. (“We live in a what?”, interjected a bemused presenter.)

Well of course you don’t need to be a specialist in any of the disciplines she skipped over to be able to recognise all this as piffle of a high order. Further debate showed her telegenic, coiffeured carapace to be case-hardened against any assault by reason or logic. Which rather played into the hands of the other participant who made an impression on me – this time a positive one.

Will Storr, I learnt, is just bringing out a book: The Heretics – Adventures with the Enemies of Science, which supports the idea that we often choose our beliefs at first out of emotionally derived motives, only then seeking to justify them by selectively adopting the arguments which support them. While this can’t be universally true, it’s an issue which has always interested me. His pre-publication reviewers on Amazon are generally approving, if a little lukewarm, but I feel it’s a must-read for me. It comes out on Thursday, and I’ve preordered it on my Kindle.

That will use up a few train journeys, and I hope to report back in a future post. So – thank you, BBC, and sorry for my carping above. I did get something out of The Big Questions after all.

Reading on the train – and weightier matters

Commuting days until retirement: 523

If you have to sit on a train for any amount of time (an hour or so each day in my case) there is the decision as to how to spend it. From observation, here is a list of the most common ways, in rough order of popularity:

  1. Fiddle with your smartphone
  2. Read the Metro or Standard (free newspapers) – or do Sudoku on the puzzles page
  3. Look out of the window.
  4. Stare straight ahead, avoiding of course any eye contact with the people opposite you
  5. Read something, or play a game, on your tablet computer
  6. Read a book or e-reader
  7. (If male) take a friend with you and talk incessantly about football

Well, I go for 6, and seem to get more reading in on commuting days than other ones. (You can probably tell that you wouldn’t find me involved in 7). And that gives me an opening into what I’ve been reading recently – a book on Alan Turing, published at the time of his recent centenary. And there’s also a link with something that’s currently topical.


If you don’t know about Alan Turing, here’s a brief description: born in 1912, he quickly showed himself to be a mathematician and thinker of genius, becoming a Fellow of Kings College Cambridge at the age of 22. He’s famous in the first place for his pre-war paper On Computable Numbers which not only offered one solution to a long-standing problem in mathematics, but also laid for the first time down the basic theory of operation of the modern computer. This of was of course before his work on code-breaking at Bletchley, where in complete secrecy at the time, not revealed until the 1970s, he played a central role in saving Britain from being starved into submission by Hitler’s U-boats. After the war he continued to work on embryonic computers. Another famous paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, in which he speculated on the ability of machines to ‘think’, and proposed the much-discussed Turing Test, appeared in 1950.

He was homosexual, and in 1952 rather artlessly reported to the police a theft from his house by an overnight partner. The police immediately became more interested in the possibility of what was then the crime of “gross indecency” than the burglary. He was subsequently prosecuted, and sentenced to be chemically castrated by taking an oestrogen substitute, as an alternative to prison. In 1954 he was found dead, having half-eaten an apple contaminated with cyanide, a chemical that he had been using in experiments. The inquest verdict was one of suicide, and this is widely believed to be correct. However it’s also thought that he carefully devised the means of his suicide so that his death could be believed – especially by his mother – to have been an accident.

And the interest of the book I have been reading is that it mostly consists of a biography of him written in the late 1950s by his mother, which has long been out of print. And she does indeed strongly defend the accident theory, and manages never once to refer to his homosexuality. She would of course have known about it, having attended the inquest, and almost certainly knew earlier – but of course at the time she wrote it would have been especially bad form to have mentioned, after anyone’s death (let alone one’s own son), what would have been thought of as a shameful secret.

His personality


Alan Turing in 1934

What does emerge very strongly from her account is his exceptionally attractive personality. This is not just her own assessment, but supported by letters from friends and colleagues who wrote to her after his death. Many acts of generosity are recorded, and it is noted by many how he would take great pains to help the understanding of those less talented than himself, without any sense of talking down to them. He could be eccentric, unpredictable and often scatty – but entirely without side or pretension. I particularly like a story relating to the OBE awarded to him for his war work. (It doesn’t seem much of a recognition, given the magnitude of the achievement – people have been knighted for far less – but I suppose that had something to do with the secrecy.)  He was certainly proud of the award, but friends noticed that when, in the course of his many practical experiments, he opened a tin full of bolts, screws and metal components, there was the OBE medal, knocking about among them.

In the second part of the book is a shorter account by his older brother John, apparently written some time in the 1980s. This repeats much of the material in his mother’s account, but is viewed through the very different lens of John’s personality – not such an attractive one, you feel. He does indeed acknowledge his brother’s genius as well as his human qualities, but we are very soon aware of a curmudgeonly streak being on display. He announces at the start that in his mother’s work

a false note has been struck somewhere: could Alan have been quite that paragon of virtue that my mother describes? Yet, if an elder brother ventures to suggest the contrary, it can easily be suggested that he is jealous and sour. This is a risk I must accept. My only concern is to put the record straight, however hazardous the enterprise.

Well, pomposity appears to be another quality we can ascribe to John. But re-reading his account I am finding it difficult to see that Alan’s supposed faults are really anything more than unconventional behaviour seen from the standpoint of a rather stiffly conventional onlooker. Examples are his habit of turning up at the houses of friends or family, with short notice, at unsocial hours, or writing many more letters to professional colleagues than to his family. Irritating, perhaps, but hardly heinous. ”Worst of all”, he laments later, “was the unsightly condition of his hands, with every finger picked raw in a dozen places… I felt sicker and sicker until I devised a special system to prevent me from looking at them at all.”

His mother’s failure to mention the homosexuality he puts down to “Edwardian reticence” – but continues, unconscious of any irony, “I am trying to make this memoir as truthful as I can, so I will not go to the length of pretending that I like homosexuals.” (I suppose we can excuse prejudice on the part of someone born in 1908). He mentions the testimony of Alan to a psychiatrist, passed to John after Alan’s death, that Alan “loathed” his mother. I’m not sure what to make of this – I imagine that, as psychiatric testimony is likely to be, it could have been very ambivalent. But I suspect that John Turing did not do subtlety.

Gay marriage

I’m writing this at the beginning of a week in which there will be a vote on gay marriage in the House of Commons. It’s tempting to wonder how Alan Turing’s life might have differed in such an age as ours.  Well, it would have been longer, but otherwise there’s probably no meaningful answer. His personality was formed as a highly intelligent gay man in a society which he knew couldn’t cope with the notion of anyone being gay.

The same malady, in an attenuated form, still exists today. It’s among straight people that controversy mostly flares when it comes to the question of gay marriage. Individual gay couples (like anyone else) may be either keen on marriage, or not bothered about it. But for many straight people, the gay version “undermines the institution of marriage, which should be between a man and a woman.”

This is piffle. To me, it’s a no-brainer. If you feel, as many do, that marriage is a valuable institution, you can hardly be upbeat about its state today, when a big proportion of those marrying eventually divorce, and others feel they can dispense with it altogether. How can the inclusion of many gay people who are anxious to marry do anything but strengthen it?


So would Alan Turing have wanted to marry? An even more meaningless question, I think. In fact, he was at one time engaged, in the conventional sense, to Joan Clarke, who was a fellow codebreaker at Bletchley and no mean mathematician herself, by all accounts. John Turing met her on visits home and evidently thought little of her – an “unpromising female” whom he compared unfavourably with his own girl friends. In his account, she was “safe” (i.e. unattractive), and he prides himself on his ability, which Alan lacks, to deal with women who are not “safe”. It becomes fairly clear that his real problem was an inability to cope with an intellectual woman: he does speak explicitly of his distaste for Alan’s lack of small talk, and keenness on intellectual debate.

Turing Memorial in Manchester

Turing Memorial in Manchester

According to Andrew Hodges’ biography (recommended – see below) Alan warned Joan, a little disingenuously, that he had “homosexual tendencies”, but found that this did not discourage her. Eventually, he ended the engagement altogether, evidently feeling that it could not work in the long run. The relationship had lasted through the summer of 1941, fuelled by many shared enthusiasms, and was not the cursory and “farcical affair” which Alan’s brother attempts to portray. One imagines Alan caught between his own nature and the crushing conventions of his society, unsure of how far he could compromise.

If we have made progress since then, I think it has to do with the dawning realisation that the goodness in human nature doesn’t need a monolithic structure of social dogma to ratify it – it will flower anyway, whether conventional or not. Alan Turing was a good man who lived outside that structure, and paid a penalty for doing so. Unlike his older brother, he was ahead of his time, in more ways than one.

The book I read was :
Turing, Sara, Alan M. Turing: Centenary Edition. Cambridge University Press 2012

An excellent biography:
Hodges, Andrew, Alan Turing: The Enigma.  First pub. 1984, Vintage Paperback 2012

Andrew Hodges maintains a Turing website at

If you can it’s well worth seeing the stage play by Hugh Whitemore, Breaking the Code, which has also been produced for BBC TV – and is now, I have discovered, on YouTube.