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 (

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.

Freedom and Purpose

Commuting days until retirement: 34

Retirement, I find, involves a lot of decisions. This blog shows that the important one was taken over two years ago – but there have been doubts about that along the way. And then, as the time approaches, a whole cluster of secondary decisions loom. Do I take my pension income by this method or that method? Can I phase my retirement and continue part-time for a while? (That one was taken care of for me – the answer was no. I felt relieved; I didn’t really want to.)  So I am free to make the first of these decisions, but not the second. And that brings me to what this post is about: what it means when we say we are ‘free’ to make a decision.

I’m not referring to the trivial sense, in which we are not free if some external factor constrains us, as with my part-time decision. It’s that more thorny philosophical problem I’m chasing, namely the dilemma as to whether we can take full responsibility as the originators of our actions; or whether we should assume that they are an inevitable consequence of the way things are in the world – the world of which our bodies and brains are a part.

It’s a dilemma which seems unresolved in modern Western society: our intuitive everyday assumption is that the first is true; indeed our whole system of morals – and of law and justice – is founded on it: we are individually held responsible for our actions unless constrained by external circumstances, or perhaps some mental dysfunction that we cannot help. Yet in our increasingly secular society, majority educated opinion drifts towards the materialist view – that the traditional assumption of freedom of the will is an illusion.

Any number of books have been written on how these approaches might be reconciled; I’m not going to get far in one blog post. But it does seem to me that this concept of freedom of action is far more elusive than is often accepted, and that facile approaches to it often end up by missing the point altogether. I would just like to try and give some idea of why I think that.

Early in Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, the child writer Briony finds herself alone in a quiet house, in a reflective frame of mind:

Briony Tallis

Briony Tallis depicted on the cover of Atonement

She raised one hand and flexed its fingers and wondered, as she had sometimes before, how this thing, this machine for gripping, this fleshy spider on the end of her arm, came to be hers, entirely at her command. Or did it have some little life of its own? She bent her finger and straightened it. The mystery was in the instant before it moved, the dividing moment between not moving and moving, when her intention took effect. It was like a wave breaking. If she could only find herself at the crest, she thought, she might find the secret of herself, that part of her that was really in charge. She brought her forefinger closer to her face and stared at it, urging it to move. It remained still because she was pretending, she was not entirely serious, and because willing it to move, or being about to move it, was not the same as actually moving it. And when she did crook it finally, the action seemed to start in the finger itself, not in some part of her mind. When did it know to move, when did she know to move it?  There was no catching herself out. It was either-or. There was no stitching, no seam, and yet she knew that behind the smooth continuous fabric was the real self – was it her soul? – which took the decision to cease pretending, and gave the final command.

I don’t know whether, at time of writing, McEwan knew of the famous (or infamous) experiments of Benjamin Libet, some 18 years before the book was published. McEwan is a keen follower of scientific and philosophical ideas, so it’s quite likely that he did. Libet, who had been a neurological researcher since the early 1960s, designed a seminal series of experiments in the early eighties in which he examined the psychophysiological processes underlying the experience McEwan evokes.

Subjects were hooked up to detectors of brain impulses, and then asked to press a key or take some other detectable action at a moment of their own choosing, during some given period of time. They were also asked to record the instant at which they consciously made the decision to take action, by registering the position of a moving spot on an oscilloscope.

The most talked about finding of these experiments was not only that there was an identifiable electrical brain impulse associated with each decision, but that it generally occurred before the reported moment of the subject’s conscious decision. And so, on the face of it, the conclusion to be drawn is that, when we imagine ourselves to be freely taking a decision, it is really being driven by some physical process of which we are unaware; ergo free will is an illusion.

Benjamin Libet

Benjamin Libet

But of course it’s not quite that simple. In the course of his experiments Libet himself found that sometimes there was an impulse looking like the initiation of an action which was not actually followed by one. It turned out that in these cases the subject had considered moving at that moment but decided against it; so it’s as if, even when there is some physical drive to action we may still have the freedom to veto it. Compare McEwan’s Briony: ‘It remained still because she was pretending, she was not entirely serious, and because willing it to move, or being about to move it, was not the same as actually moving it.’ And this description is one that I should think we can all recognise from our own experience.

There have been other criticisms: if a subject may be deluded about when their actions are initiated, how reliable can their assessment be of exactly when they made a decision? (This from arch-physicalist Daniel Dennett). We feel we are floating helplessly in some stirred-up conceptual soup where objective and subjective measurements are difficult to disentangle from one another.

But you may be wondering all this time what these random finger crookings and key pressings have to do with my original question of whether we are free to make the important decisions which can shape our lives. Well, I hope you are, because that’s really the point of my post. There’s a big difference between these rather meaningless physical actions and the sorts of voluntary decisions that really interest us. Most, if not all, significant actions we take in our lives are chosen with a purpose. Philosophical reveries like Briony’s apart, we don’t sit around considering whether to move our finger at this moment or that moment; such minor bodily movements are normally triggered quite unconsciously, and generally in the pursuit of some higher end.

Rather, before opting for one of the paths open to us, there is some mental process of weighing up and considering what the result of each alternative might be, and which outcome we think it best to bring about. This may be an almost instantaneous judgement (which way to turn the steering wheel) or a more extended consideration of, for example, whether I should arrange my finances to my own maximum advantage, or to that of my family after my death. In either case I am constrained by a complicated network of beliefs, prejudices and instincts, some of which I am probably only slightly consciously aware of, if at all.

Teasing out the meaning of what it is for a decision to be ‘free’ in this context, is evidently very difficult, and certainly not something I’m going to try and achieve here, even if I could. But what is clear is that an isolated action like crooking your finger or pressing a button at some random moment, and for no specific purpose, has very little in common with the decisions by which we order our lives. It’s extremely difficult to imagine any objective experiment which could reliably investigate the causes of those more significant choices.

David Hume

David Hume

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant

So maybe we are driven towards the philosopher Hume’s view that ‘reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions’. But I find the Kantian view attractive – that we can objectively deduce a morally correct course of action from our own existence as rational, sentient beings. Perhaps our freedom somehow consists in our ability to navigate a course between these two – to recognize when our ‘passions’ are driving us in the ‘right’ direction, and when they are not. Or that when we have conflicting instincts, as we often do, there is the potential freedom to rationally adjudicate between them.

Some have attempted to carve out a space for freewill in a supposedly deterministic universe by pointing out the randomness of quantum events and suchlike as the putative first causes of action. But this is an obvious fallacy. If our actions were bound by such meaningless occurrences, there is no sense in which we could be considered free at all. However this perspective does, it seems to me, throw some light on the Libet experiments. If we are asked to take random, meaning-free decisions, is it surprising that we then appear to be subjugating ourselves to whatever random, purposeless events that might be taking place in our nervous system?

Ian McEwan must have had in mind the dichotomy between meaningless, consequence-free actions and significant ones, and how we can ascribe responsibility. The plot of Atonement, as its title hints, eventually hinges on the character Briony’s own sense of responsibility for those of her actions that are significant in a broader perspective. But as we are introduced to her, McEwan has her puzzling over the source of those much more limited impulses that do not spring from any sort of rationale.

Recently I wrote about Martin Gardner, a strict believer in scientific rigour but also in metaphysical truths not capable of scientific demonstration, and his approach appeals to me. Freewill, he asserts, is inseparable from consciousness:

For me, free will and consciousness are two names for the same thing. I cannot conceive of myself being self-aware without having some degree of free will. Persons completely paralyzed can decide what to think about or when to blink their eyes. Nor can I imagine myself having free will without being conscious. (From The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, Postscript)

At the beginning of his chapter on free will he refers to Wittgenstein’s doctrine that only those questions which can meaningfully be asked can have answers, and what remains cannot be spoken about, continuing:

The thesis of this chapter, although extremely simple and therefore annoying to most contemporary thinkers, is that the free-will problem cannot be solved because we do not know exactly how to put the question.

The chapter examines a wide range of views before restating Gardner’s own position.  ‘Indeed,’ he says, ‘it was with a feeling of enormous relief that I concluded, long ago, that free will is an unfathomable mystery.’

It will be with another feeling of enormous relief that I will soon have a taste of freedom of a kind I haven’t before experienced; but will I be truly free? Well, I will at least have more time to think (freely or otherwise) about it.

Iceland – the Joker in the European Pack

Commuting days until retirement: 57

Rift ValleyA few days’ break from the daily commute for a first visit to Iceland: enough time to discover that, while every country is unique in one way or another, Iceland has more claims to uniqueness than most. The rift valley shown in the photo above illustrates one aspect of this: Iceland itself straddles the American and Eurasian tectonic plates of the earth’s crust, and the land masses either side of this valley are being dragged apart at around an inch a year.

Marteinn Briem

Marteinn Briem in full flow

It was a young former history student, Marteinn Briem, who gave us our first sense of the country’s character.  At the age of 25 he has, in the past year, set himself up entirely independently to conduct walking tours around Reykjavik. This isn’t just a matter of describing old buildings and memorials (although he does that too, in an off-beat and entertaining way). During the two hour walk you’re given a multifaceted guide to Icelandic history, culture and politics, with highlights ranging from an Icelander’s view of the banking crisis, through stories about the elves (see later) to a virtuoso performance of the extensive set of Icelandic vowel sounds. Nothing is charged for any of this – Marteinn simply invites donations, but claims that recommendations on TripAdvisor are even more valuable to him. I’d encourage you to take his tour if you ever visit – his website is at

My first impression of Icelandic people was of a polite, Scandinavian sort of blandness; but if Marteinn Briem hadn’t already dispelled this for me, I think I would have soon come to detect more in them. Historically they have not been an independent country for long; first colonised by Vikings a thousand plus years ago, they were a dependency of first Norway and then Denmark for some 700 years until 1944, when their occupation by the Allies, while Denmark was under the heel of the Nazis, led to their eventual independence. So while what ties they have are mainly to Europe, they are obviously set apart geographically. Their language, sounding to our ears Scandinavian but with a certain alien twang, is famously hard to learn and derives originally from Old Norse. The Sagas originating from that early era are at the core of Icelandic culture, and it’s said that the language in which they are written is perfectly understandable to modern Icelanders, while of course Old English texts from that period are incomprehensible to today’s English speakers without extensive training.

Icelandic handwriting

Some Icelandic handwriting

In the world there are around half a million Icelandic speakers – approximately the population of Sheffield. As in most countries without widely spoken languages, virtually everyone is fluent in English; but of course Icelanders can be more confident than most that no outsiders will understand their native tongue. Walking around Reykjavik, visiting cafes and shops, you are aware of Icelanders switching smoothly and effortlessly between English (mostly) and their own language as required, so that a private local community is effectively preserved amidst the onslaught of tourists such as ourselves. I didn’t detect anything hostile or xenophobic about this; just the understandable desire to guard national identity. In all but a few cases the friendliness with which we were received seemed quite genuine.

Polar bears

Polar bears as sales assistants

But this peculiarly Icelandic ambivalence is understandable especially in the light of recent history: the banking crisis affected the country more radically than most; the Icelandic kroner crashed, and as a result cheaper travel to the country has now caused tourism to take over from fisheries as the country’s principal industry. And Icelanders are quite adept at drumming up trade. In Reykjavik polar bears – fake, stuffed or animated – are on hand to attract us into the shops, as my photo shows. And no matter, as our guide Marteinn pointed out, that no real polar bears live in Iceland. The joke is on us, the tourists; but there’s no malice involved.  This was underlined for me when, as I lined up for my photo, taken across Reykjavik’s main shopping street, waiting for the cars to pass, I realised that they had stopped to let me take it. I can’t think of any other cities where that would happen.

Neither can I think of any other cities that offer such contrasting sights in a small area. There are ostentatious and confident modern buildings, such as the concert hall that overlooks the harbour, clad in coloured strip lights that coruscate at night like sequins on a dancer’s dress. But much of the city consists of the traditional clapboard houses painted in contrasting colours, seen here from the top of the Hallgrímskirkja, the cathedral that stands on the central hill – itself a pretty remarkable piece modern architecture.

Niew from Hallgrímskirkja

View from the Hallgrímskirkja


The Hallgrímskirkja

Once back in the street, and getting a bit cold and footsore, we took refuge in one of the warm, welcoming, cluttered cafés where we could have hot chocolate or traditional lamb soup. By this time I had collected in my camera more images that suggested the somewhat askance world view of Icelanders; here are two examples of the quirky murals to be found all over town.


Murals, or graffiti – whatever you prefer to call them

The explosive and unpredictable nature of Iceland’s physical environment must be a factor in the national character. There was the famous volcanic ash cloud of spring 2010 when, according to Marteinn Briem, the volcano (with the appropriately unpronounceable name of Eyjafjallajökull) had erupted in the south of the country, and the ash cloud blew south. As a result European air traffic was grounded while Icelanders could fly around their country as normal; this gave rise to much innocent schadenfreude.

A geyser

The original ‘Geysir’, from which we get our word ‘geyser’

We found the natural phenomena to be just as capricious as the Icelanders themselves: the Northern Lights refused to show, even on the few occasions when the sky partially cleared. However we did see a geyser. My photo of one blowing may not look that impressive, but you should view it with respect – your intrepid blogger undertook a 6 hour return coach trip, and it then took a 400 metre walk and a ten minute wait in a driving blizzard to land this image. As I say, a country where it’s normal for boiling steam to erupt from the snow must be bound to confer some contrary characteristics on its people.

The elf rock

The elf rock in Reykjavik

Not surprising, perhaps, that unseen life is popularly attributed to the landscape. The elves, or ‘hidden people’ are often spoken of, having something of the nature of the leprechauns of Ireland. Last year a construction project was held up because a large rock which had to be moved was said to be important to these mysterious beings. The story is that more than one piece of heavy equipment brought in to move the rock inexplicably malfunctioned. The solution was arranged by someone who claimed to be able to communicate with the elves, and promised them that part of their rock would be given a home in the centre of Reykjavik – and there it stands, as our guide Marteinn proudly showed us. (There was also a BBC report about it.)

Ísafjörður peninsula

The Ísafjörður peninsula

I noticed how Marteinn and most of his compatriots who mentioned the Huldufolk, or hidden people, left you with a carefully cultivated sense of uncertainty as to whether they actually believed in them. My feeling was that this was an expression of the subversive Icelandic sense of humour – as well as a useful draw for tourists. All this added to the impression of Iceland as a sort of court joker to the rest of the world; even the map of Iceland has the Ísafjörður peninsula in the northwest, appearing like rakishly worn cap and bells. The country is historically linked with Europe but claims the licence to mock its failings – a Fool to Europe’s King Lear.

The Unknown Bureaucrat

The Unknown Bureaucrat

What summed this up for me was a sculpture that stands near the centre of Reykjavik: it’s called The Unknown Bureaucrat, and in characteristic Icelandic fashion it celebrates the notional worker who gets things done and keeps everything functioning – but at the same time pokes fun at him. Maybe it also appealed to Duncommutin because he saw himself in it: only three months remain before I drop my brief case and free my head from the big stone block of work and commuting in which it is embedded.

Old Ladies, Old Gentlemen, Ironmongers and Encyclopaedias

Commuting days until retirement: 61

So far, I haven’t got to see the film I mentioned – the one I prepared for by reading Testament of Youth and writing about it in the last post. Infuriatingly, my local cinema and all the others in the area were showing it only around lunch time on weekdays. Obviously whoever decides these things had put it down as a film for old ladies. If it were a few months further on I’d be retired, and would be able to consider myself an honorary old lady, buttoning up my overcoat and toddling round to the picture house for a couple of hours of sedate entertainment. As it is I’ll probably wait and see it on DVD, Netflix or whatever.

But in fact I’m not at all in the habit of thinking of myself as an old gentleman, let alone an old lady. A few months ago I went to see a medical specialist about a minor but painful condition (happily temporary, as it turned out). I got my copy of his letter to the GP, which started: ‘I saw this 66 year old gentleman…’. My immediate reaction was: ‘Who can he be talking about? Have I got the wrong letter?’

But no – it came home to me that the way the world sees you isn’t often the way you think of yourself. But does anyone now think of themselves as a ‘gentleman’? A hundred years ago they certainly would have done; and the doctor’s letter shows that it’s still a formal, polite way of referring to someone who has at least reached middle age. But to think of yourself in that way seems like divorcing yourself from the contemporary world and consigning yourself to a time-warped existence.

John Carey

John Carey

My current train reading has in fact reminded me all too sharply of how distant in time my origins now are. It’s another piece of autobiography, of the Oxford English professor and literary pundit John Carey – The Unexpected Professor. He’s a good deal older than me – he was born in the 1930s – but there was so much in his early life which struck a chord with me.

I remember, as he does, the sorts of books that we were given by well-meaning adult relatives, with titles like 101 Things a Boy Can Do. (You could also find collections of Things a Girl Could Do, but, needless to say, they were very different.) There’s a particular phrase that always cropped up in those books which has stayed with me ever since. These masculine activities usually involved some sort of construction project which required certain outlandish components which were always ‘obtainable from any good ironmonger for a few pence.’

Reading about Carey’s boyhood, it was with a delighted shock of recognition that I found he had remembered exactly the same phrase. Like me, he wasn’t exactly sure what was meant by ‘ironmonger’. The most likely candidate in my area was a hardware shop called Mence Smith, where my queries about these unlikely items would be met with blank stares. So maybe it was a Bad Ironmonger – if it was an ironmonger at all, that is.

Another memory I share with him from that time is of the encyclopedias of the time; the very word, in the Internet age, has a dated ring to it. The most prosperous households would own the authoritative, and impossibly expensive, Encyclopedia Britannica, but most of the families I knew had a less prestigious set, usually dating from before the war, with grainy black and white illustrations and text that impressed on the reader how clever and enlightened the ‘modern’ world was, and how abjectly primitive our dim and distant forebears. I particularly remember a picture of the very latest in steam locomotives busily chuffing down the main line, with the breathless caption ‘A Mile a Minute!’  Today, sixty miles an hour is the speed of the average motorway dawdler.

And encyclopaedias make me think of a strange, shadowy business movement that was in its heyday some years back. It was based on sales people going from door to door selling encyclopedias – at one time they seem to outnumber even Jehovah’s Witnesses. I once got a telling glimpse of how this worked when, between a college course and a regular job, I was looking for an opportunity to earn something and saw a newspaper ad inviting people to a meeting about some potential work.  Encyclopedia selling was what it turned out to be. A roomful of people was addressed by a sharply suited, rather too plausible sounding character, who asked people for guesses as to what they would earn for selling a single set. There were hesitant tries.  ‘One pound?’  ‘Two pounds?’ (This was the 1960s – you can multiply the amounts by about 16 for today’s prices.) ‘No,’ he eventually said triumphantly. ‘TWENTY pounds!’

Most of his audience were now slavering like Pavlov dogs, as he had intended, and seemed not to have drawn the obvious conclusion that this meant the encyclopedias were very difficult to sell indeed; and given that it was commission only, and that I would probably be the world’s worst salesman, I knew it would dispiriting and dreadful. He invited anyone who was perverse enough still to be uninterested to leave, and only two of us out of 40 or 50 did. I was reflecting what sort of organisation it was that gleefully duped its own employees.

Some years earlier, as a child, I’d had a glimpse of this from the other side. A new set of encyclopedias, The Children’s Britannica, appeared in our house. It seemed that my father, not usually a soft touch, had bought them on the doorstep. Much later on I heard my mother’s account – that it had been an attractive young woman who was selling them. I doubt if he would have succumbed if it had been a man.

Returning to Professor Carey, I’m now about halfway through his book, hearing about his university career and greatly enjoying tracing his steps as he explored the canon of literature. He’s giving me plenty of ideas for future reading. As a memoir it’s altogether more relaxed than Testament of Youth; he has a gently humorous, self-mocking style that’s light years away from the committed, stormy intensity of Vera Brittain. What they have in common is Oxford; what they don’t have in common is close experience of the pain and loss of war. A child in the Second World War, the nearest Carey got to that was a spell of peacetime ‘National Service’ in the army, which everyone of his generation had to do (I was part of the first generation that didn’t have to). So the difference in tone is entirely understandable; but I recently read an interview with Vera Brittain’s daughter, Shirley Williams, in which she admitted that her mother had no great sense of humour.

And, come to think of it, there’s a significant point of contrast between Shirley Williams and her near contemporary John Carey. Carey makes pointed references in his foreword, and repeatedly in the book, to his utter disapproval of the closing down of grammar schools in the UK. (For those unused to the confusing English terminology, grammar schools are state funded and select by ability, while ‘public schools’, referred to below, are privately funded independent schools where most richer people send their children.)

One thing that has not changed is that Oxford – and Cambridge – still take vastly disproportionate numbers of public-school students. This is often blamed on Oxford and Cambridge. The blame, however, lies with those who destroyed the grammar schools. Selecting for merit, not money, the grammar schools, had they survived, would by now have all but eliminated the public-school contingent in Oxford and Cambridge, with far-reaching effects on our society. This book is, among other things, my tribute of gratitude to a grammar school.

Shirley Williams

Shirley Williams

It was the Labour administrations of the 60s and 70s who put this policy in place, with egalitarian intentions but a strange failure to anticipate the consequences. Shirley Williams, who was a minister of education in the 70s, had a central role in implementing the policy, and still strongly believes it to have been right. Carey, as the above passage shows, was a working class boy – no ivory tower elitist but a perfect exemplar of those who benefited from the grammar school system. One scene from his book nicely encapsulates his outlook: during his spell in the army he has a trip in a small plane in Egypt. The pilot makes a detour to give the passengers an aerial view of the pyramids. Rather than being bowled over by their grandeur, Carey is thinking of the slaves who built them, and the tendency of humanity throughout history to separate itself into a pampered elite and huge, suffering underclass.

So in Carey and Williams we have two open, attractive personalities, both with strongly expressed, left-leaning views, who are diametrically opposed over this point. I’d like to hear them debate it (I’m with Carey).

One final, unconnected point. My reading between the two autobiographical works of Vera Brittain and John Carey was David Mitchell’s latest novel The Bone Clocks. Both the two memoirs look back to earlier periods of scarcer resources and greater austerity. The Bone Clocks ends in 2043, when climate change and dwindling energy sources are eating away at the comforts we now take for granted, and the characters are wistfully remembering an era of greater plenty. I’m hoping for a long retirement, of course – but perhaps not too long.

The Unsubmerged City

Commuting days until retirement: 77

To continue the First World War theme from the previous post, I saw that a film based on Vera Brittain’s classic memoir of her early life – Testament of Youth, with that war as the central and dominating event – was soon to be released. I’ve often heard of the book but have never read it, and much prefer to see a book-based film only after having been able to immerse myself in the atmosphere of the book itself. So I’ve now done that, and am very glad that I did. It recreates the reality of that distant period in a way that could only have been managed by a writer who experienced both the best and worst that it had to offer.

Love without dignity

We first meet Vera Brittain as a girl growing up in the rather stultifying atmosphere of a middle class Edwardian household. Meeting some of her brother’s school friends might be an opening to the expanding possibilities of life, but:

The parental habit – then almost universally accepted as ‘correct’ where daughters were concerned – of inquisition into each day’s proceedings made private encounters, even with young men in the same town, almost impossible without a whole series of intrigues and subterfuges which robbed love of all its dignity.

Eventually however she does fall in love with Roland Leighton, one of the group of friends, and an especially brilliant literature and classics scholar who scoops almost all the school prizes available to him. But the experience of a closening relationship was then very different to today’s typical expectations:

We sat on the sofa till midnight, talking very quietly. The stillness, heavy-laden with the dull oppression of the snowy night, became so electric with emotion that we were frightened of one another, and dared not let even our fingers touch for fear that the love between us should render what we both believed to be decent behaviour suddenly unendurable….
I was still incredibly ignorant. I had read, by then, too much to have failed to acquire a vague and substantially correct idea of the meaning of marriage, but I did not yet understand the precise nature of the act of union. My ignorance, however, was incapable of disturbing my romantic adoration, for I knew now for certain that whatever marriage might involve in addition to my idea of it, I could not find it other than desirable.

Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain as a VAD (illustration from book)

But by this point – early 1915 – the war is under way, and soon Roland, as well as her brother Edward and other friends, are away in military training, eventually to be involved in action as officers. Vera has already gone up to Oxford, women since 1876 having been able to study at University, but not – bizarrely to our modern minds – able to take degrees. (Having returned to study after the war she became one of the first who did.) But feeling she must share the experiences of those she loves in one of the few ways that she can, by summer of that year she is becoming a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nursing assistant – one of the women drafted in to nurse the wounded in that war. With minimal training, they were pitched into dealing with men who were often dying in front of their eyes, many with wounds that would be a challenge for the most experienced nurse.

In addition, of course she is unversed in practical tasks in ways that many middle class girls of that were: she describes how she needed instruction in how to boil an egg. And of course more importantly for her work, there are other areas of ignorance:

Throughout my two decades of life, I had never looked upon the nude body of an adult male; I had never even seen a naked boy-child since the nursery days when, at the age of four or five, I used to share my evening baths with Edward. I had therefore expected, when I first started nursing, to be overcome with nervousness and embarrassment, but, to my infinite relief, I was conscious of neither. Towards the men I came to feel an almost adoring gratitude for their simple and natural acceptance of my ministrations. Short of actually going to bed with them, there was hardly an intimate service that I did not perform for one or another in the course of four years, and I still have reason to be thankful for the knowledge of masculine functioning which the care of them gave me, and for my early release from the sex-inhibitions that even to-day – thanks to the Victorian tradition which up to 1914 dictated that a young woman should know nothing of men but their faces and their clothes until marriage pitchforked her into an incompletely visualised and highly disconcerting intimacy – beset many of my female contemporaries, both married and single.

The reality of war

We see how the war explosively disrupted the hardened attitudes of the time in so many fundamental ways; but of course the core of Vera’s experience was that of death – at first hand in her nursing work, and fearfully anticipated in relation to her fiancé, brother and friends. Letters are nervously sent to, and received from, the front, and we experience her emotional swings as good and bad news of the fighting is received. As many must have done, they agree on coded phrases which will bypass censorship and give those at home clues to what is happening.

Roland anticipates that he will get through the war, nevertheless feeling it would be fitting to have received some wound as a token of what he has been through. But, as soon as Christmas 1915, Vera hears that he has died in action, shot by an enemy sniper. Numbly, she buries herself in her nursing work for the rest of the war. Her two closest male friends, members of the group formed at school with Roland and Edward, both succumb in turn, one being killed outright, and the other, Victor Richardson, blinded and brought back to hospital to recuperate, but then dying of his wounds. Her brother Edward, perhaps the quietest of the group, goes on to show great courage and wins the Military Cross. But finally, in 1918, he also dies in the fighting on the Austro-Italian border.

Brittain, Leighton Richardson

Edward Brittain, Roland Leighton and another friend, Victor Richardson (illustration from book)

I found Vera Brittain’s writing sometimes has something of the verbose, circumlocutory quality of the Victorian tradition she has inherited; but when describing the War period, driven by such enormous emotional stresses, it becomes more direct, powerful and evocative. At the same time some of the photographs included in the book brought home to me as much as anything what it must have felt like to live through that time. Not pictures of fighting or of the wounded, but simply of Vera’s brother and friends posed in relaxed groups for the camera: first in school dress at Uppingham, then in military uniform, later with freshly sprouted moustaches; the sequence then ends abruptly and shockingly with photographs of their graves.

The pacifist’s task

In the 1920s we see Vera working for what was then the League of Nations, and throwing herself into pacifist causes – but it’s a nuanced and intelligent pacifism. She writes of the heroism that war can draw out:

It is, I think, this glamour, this magic, this incomparable keying up of the spirit in a time of mortal conflict, which constitute the pacifist’s real problem – a problem still incompletely imagined, and still quite unsolved. The causes of war are always falsely represented; its honour is dishonest and its glory meretricious, but the challenge to spiritual endurance, the intense sharpening of all the senses, the vitalising consciousness of common peril for a common end, remain to allure those boys and girls who have just reached the age when love and friendship and adventure call more persistently than at any later time. The glamour may be the mere delirium of fever, which as soon as war is over dies out and shows itself for the will-o’-the-wisp that it is, but while it lasts no emotion known to man seems as yet to have quite the compelling power of this enlarged vitality…
Since those years it has often been said by pacifists… that war creates more criminals than heroes; that, far from developing noble qualities in those who take part in it, it brings out only the worst. If this were altogether true, the pacifist’s aim would be, I think, much nearer of attainment than it is. Looking back upon the psychological processes of us who were very young sixteen years ago, it seems to me that his task – our task – is infinitely complicated by the fact that war, while it lasts, does produce heroism to a far greater extent than it brutalises.

I’m lucky never to have been involved in a war, and have no idea whether I could have coped with the experience at all. But this sums up for me the paradox of how it can bring out qualities of bravery and selflessness in those who might never have been called upon to show them, were it not for the bumbling of politicians and the posturing of dictators. And perhaps that paradox was more painfully sharp in World War 1 than any other war before or since.

Brittain travels around Europe as part of her work, and experiences the festering resentment brought about by the post-war settlements, realising presciently that another war is a possibility, and wondering sadly what sort of cause it was for which those she loved had died.

War and literature

But perhaps one of the important themes of the book is the fight to preserve the life of literature in the face of the rampant destructiveness of war. There is Vera’s own underlying ambition to write, set against her war work, all-encompassing in time, energy and emotion; as well as her almost-missed university education. But more glaringly obvious is the cutting short of thousands of promising, talented lives such as Roland’s. And her brother Edward had musical ability and enthusiasm which he was never able to develop further.

As the War gets under way and Vera’s friends are sent away, letters between them include poems and other writing – their own as well as that of others. In 1915 Vera sends to Roland a leading article she has clipped from The Times newspaper, whose title I have borrowed for this post. In the book she quotes a passage:

A medieval fancy that still lingers, ghost-like, on the more lonely sea-shores, such as that Breton one so tenderly described by Renan, is the legend of the submerged city. It lies out there barely hidden under the waves, and on a still summer eve they say you may hear the music of its Cathedral bells. One day the waters will recede and the city in all its old beauty be revealed again. Might this not serve to figure the actual conditions of literature, in the nobler sense of the term, submerged as that seems to many to be by the high tide of war? Thus submerged it seemed, at any rate, to the most delicate of our literary artists, who was lately accounting for his disused pen to an aggrieved friend. ‘I have no heart,’ he said, ‘for literature in this war; we can only have faith that it is still there under the waters, and will some day re-emerge.’ . . . There is fortunately no truth in the idea of a sunken literature. A function of the spirit, it can never be submerged, or, indeed, as much as touched by war or any other external thing. It is an inalienable possession and incorruptible part of man.

And of course against whatever literature we might imagine never appeared, because of the destruction of those who would have created it, the war generated a whole body of work which would not otherwise have existed – Brittain’s Testament of Youth being one example.

Je suis CharlieOne of the reasons that I was struck by that ‘unsubmerged city’ passage was that I read it at about the same time that the Charlie Hebdo murders were committed in Paris. A hundred years on, we may be dealing with an entirely different situation and a kind of literature undreamt of in those earlier years, but compare these early 20th century sentiments to the ardent faces of the crowds waving pens and pencils in response to the shootimg of the journalists and cartoonists.

While moved by the Parisian expressions of feeling, I couldn’t help thinking at the same time of the far greater atrocities committed recently by Islamic extremists in Nigeria and Pakistan – not to mention Syria and Iraq. The Western media devoted far more space to Charlie Hebdo than to these – perhaps understandably, since they are closer to home and threaten our own Western culture. But I hope and expect that the floods of ignorance, fanaticism and brutality will not in the end submerge the metaphorical cities which form the true and established cultures of those other, more distant places. They are surely under a far greater threat than our own.

A Century On

Commuting days until retirement: 91

In this New Year a certain possession which has lain in my sock drawer for quite a while will reach the age of a hundred years. It is an heirloom of sorts, given to me by my grandfather – who also made a brief appearance in an earlier post. To mark the occasion I have dusted down and revised a poem I wrote about this item a few years ago.


Nineteen Fifteen

Your gift still nestles in my drawer,
its long stout shoulder strap tangled
in the laundered wool and cotton –
five decades, now, beyond your time.

Some days I halt my morning rush,
forget the clock, pause, handle the case;
read the faded ballpoint on leather;
remembering how you wrote my name,

settled in your usual green armchair
as dusk came down, one October Sunday.
I ease it from its neat, stitched holder,
this solid, purposeful bequest:

Field compass, one; standard issue;
officers, for the use of; stamped
with a government broad arrow
and the date of manufacture.

A century on it works, as then.
I squint, as you did, through the sight,
take bearings on a garden tree unobscured
by battle smoke, try to imagine scenes

of which you never spoke. I only knew
the grandpa who did tricks with coins,
went on all fours, played horses,
rolled trousers when we paddled in the sea.

True, there was that faint, framed bedroom photo:
uniformed, an unfamiliar moustache,
no glasses and unwhitened hair;
the smile that told me it was you.

So why this memento, solemnly passed on?
Did you intend, perhaps, that finding bearings
of my own, I should eventually turn and look –
see the oblique heading that your life once took?


1915 Army Compass

Playing horses

Quantum Immortality

Commuting days until retirement: 91

A theme underlying some of my recent posts has been what (if anything) happens to us when we die. I’d like to draw this together with some other thoughts from eight months ago, when I was gazing at the roof of Exeter Cathedral and musing on the possibility of multiple universes. This seemingly wild idea, beloved of fantasy and science fiction authors, is now increasingly taken seriously in the physics departments of universities as a serious model of reality. The idea of quantum immortality (explained below) is a link between these topics, and it was a book by the American physicist Max Tegmark, The Mathematical Universe*, that got me thinking about it.

Max Tegmark

Max Tegmark

I won’t spend time looking at the theory of multiple universes – or the Multiverse – at any length. I did explain briefly in my earlier post how the notion originally arose from quantum physics, and if you have an appetite for more detail there’s plenty in Wikipedia. There are a number of theoretical considerations which lead to the notion of a multiple universe: Tegmark sets out four that he supports, with illustrations, in a Scientific American article. I’m just going to focus here on two of them, which as Tegmark and others have speculated, could ultimately be different ways of looking at the same one. I’ll try to explain them very briefly.

The first approach: quantum divergence

It has been known since early in the last century that, where quantum physics allows a range of possible outcomes of some subatomic event, only one of these is actually observed. Experiments (for example the double slit experiment) suggest that the outcome is undetermined until an observation is made, whereupon one of the range of possibilities becomes the actual one that we find. In the phrase which represents the traditional ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ of this puzzle, the wave function collapses. Before this ‘collapse’, all the possibilities are simultaneously real – in the jargon, they exist ‘in superposition’.

But it was Hugh Everett in 1957 who first put forward another possibility which at first sight looks wildly outlandish now, and did so even more at the time: namely that the wave function never does collapse, but each possible outcome is realised in a different universe. It’s as if reality branches, and to observe a specific outcome is actually to find yourself in one of those branched universes.

The second approach: your distant twin

According to the most widely accepted theory of the creation of the universe, a phenomenon known as ‘inflation’ has the mathematical consequence that the cosmic space we now live in is infinite – it goes on for ever. And infinite space allows infinite possibilities. Statistics and probability undergo a radical transformation and start delivering certainties – a certainty, for example, that there is someone just like you, an unimaginable distance away, reading a blog written by someone just like me. And of course the someone who is reading may be getting bored with it and moving on to something else (just like you? – I hope not). But I can reassure myself that for all the doppelgangers out there who are getting bored there are just as many who are really fired up and preparing to click away at the ‘like’ button and write voluminous comments. (You see what fragile egos we bloggers have – in most universes, anyway.)

Pulling them together

But the point is, of course, that once again we have this bewildering multiplicity of possibilities, all of which claim a reality of their own; it all sounds strangely similar to the scenario posited by the first, quantum divergence approach. This similarity has been considered by Tegmark and other physicists, and Tegmark speculates that these two could be simply the same truth about the universe, but just approached from two different angles.

That is a very difficult concept to swallow whole; but for the moment we’ll proceed on the assumption that each of the huge variety of ramified possibilities that could follow from any one given situation does really exist, somewhere. And the differences between those possible worlds can have radical consequences for our lives, and indeed for our very existence. (As a previous post – Fate, Grim or Otherwise – illustrated.) Indeed, perhaps you could end up dead in one but still living in another.

Quantum Russian roulette

So if your existence branches into one universe where you are still living, breathing and conscious, and another where you are not, where are you going to find yourself after that critical moment? Since it doesn’t make sense to suppose you could find yourself dead, then we suppose that your conscious life continues into one of the worlds where you are alive.

This notion has been developed by Tegmark into a rather scary thought experiment (another version of which was also formulated by Hans Moravec some years earlier). Suppose we set up a sort of machine gun that fires a bullet every second. Only it is modified so that, at each second, some quantum mechanism like the decay of an atom determines, with a 50/50 probability, whether the bullet is actually fired. If it is not, the gun just produces a click. Now it’s the job of the intrepid experimenter, willing to take any risk in the cause of his work, to put his head in front of the machine gun.

According to the theory we have been describing, he can only experience those universes in which he will survive. Before placing his head by the gun, he’ll be hearing:
BangClickBangBangClickClickClickBang…  …etc

But with his head in place, it’ll be:
ClickClickClickClickClickClickClickClick…   …and so on.

Suppose he keeps his head there for half a minute, the probability of all the actions being clicks will be 230, or over a billion to one against. But it’s that one in a billion universe, with the sequence of clicks only, that he’ll find himself in. (Spare a thought for the billion plus universes in which his colleagues are dealing with the outcome, funerals are being arranged and coroners’ courts convened.)

Real immortality

Things become more disconcerting still if we move outside the laboratory into the world at large. At the moment of any given person’s death, obviously things could have been different in such a way that they might have survived that moment. In other words, there is a world in which the person continues to live – and as we have seen, that’s the one they will experience. But if this applies to every death event, then – subjectively – we must continue to live into an indefinitely extended old age. Each of us, on this account, will find herself or himself becoming the oldest person on earth.

A natural reaction to this argument is that, intuitively, it can’t be right. What if someone finds themselves on a railway track with a train bearing down on them and no time to jump out of the way? Or, for that matter, terminally ill? And indeed Tegmark points out that, typically, death is the ultimate upshot of a series of non-fatal events (cars swerving, changes in body cells), rather than a single, once-and-for-all, dead-or-alive event. So perhaps we arrive at this unsettling conclusion only by considerably oversimpifying the real situation.

But it seems to me that what is compelling about considerations of this sort is that they do lead us to take a bracing, if slightly unnerving, walk on the unstable, crumbling cliff-edge which forms the limits of our knowledge. Which always leads me to the suspicion, as it did for JBS Haldane, that the world is ‘not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose’. And that’s a suitable thought on which to end this blogging year.

*Tegmark, Max, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality. Allen Lane/Penguin, 2014