New review of Where’s Sailor Jack? : ‘‘…romantic, poignant, and extremely funny, exactly what I want from a family saga.’ – Stephen Carver, Blot the Skrip and Jar It

Seven Types of Wishful Thinking

I’ve just finished that fine philosopher John Gray’s book, Seven Types of Atheism. As a counter to the modern orthodoxy of a woolly humanism, it is superb. The view that things can only get better as progress occurs by using a scientific approach ignores that humans are animals no better or worse than their provenance permits and that science is morally neutral. His argument is that humanism has taken over from Christianity, making the same mistake in thinking there can be immutable laws to life. The convolutions of a Rawlesian view of justice demonstrate how arbitrary and inadequate humanist laws are, as was the Jewish law. Having previously dismissed the existence of the Christian God as incompatible with the random and cruel world that exists, he then turns on the Christian notion of personhood as a soul with free will, arguing that brain science has effectively demonstrated a total absence of free will, indeed that there is no source of personhood. If we accept this, we could use our manifold instincts to live our natural lives in whatever circumstances we encounter, invoking animistic spirits if that’s how we feel. No meaning can be attached to events, to history, to our lives. The whole concept of salvation from our natures is not only flawed, but rendered unnecessary. Concepts of immortality are not grounded in any experience.
Much of what Gray says is how I feel. But I’m a cradle Anglican who, while making no exclusive claims for faith bringing salvation, finds that the imagery of the Christian message is deeply satisfying. Buddhism may be more cerebral, Christianity more visceral. I prefer Dylan to Leonard Cohen. Story can take you beyond logic and beyond history. The beauty of the King James Bible, the uplift in my spirit(s) from singing Victorian hymns, the joyful memories of the teenage Church Youth Club, will remain in that recurrent assembly of neuronal connections in the brain that I call me. That vastly more connections occur that I am not aware of as I live an instinctual life doesn’t negate this sense of personhood. That it will only exist until death or dementia take it away does create a feeling of sadness, a feeling more intensely suffered with the death of a loved one.
I don’t think that the notion of one God is incoherent. I’ve argued this on these pages before. As a Physicist who can’t accept infinite regress as an explanation, who understands enough of the Maths to be staggered at its ability to tell us so much about the physical world but nothing about how sensations feel, and which as Gödel has shown can never contain a full explanation, I can only keep my head together by taking the infinite and the spiritual out of the physical system, perhaps occasionally meeting on edges.
I’ve nothing against animism. My lovely old dog died last year and we put his ashes under an old oak tree on the Common, his favourite walk. A few weeks ago, there was a deer grazing under the tree who stood looking at me before eventually slowly disappearing into the bushes behind. It was comforting but proved nothing conclusive. I’ve had surprising occurrences which invoked memories from my deceased Mother and Father, a natural explanation of which would involve statistically impossibly large coincidences. They’ve led me to conclude that they or I projected the event or someone up there is taking the michael. I did have one moment when the world unaccountably stood still in my youth. I fancifully pretend it was a point where the edges met, and my resurrection body was taken ready for my spirit to play on at death. That would be a result, a youthful body and a mature soul.
One time, the dog ran off as I let him off the lead, down a busy road to some food he’d spotted a few minutes before. Worried, I chased after him, only to trip over a flagstone and crash over, cutting knees, arms and hands. He’d just reached the food. He heard me fall, looked round, looked again at the food and trotted straight back to see how I was. I’ll give full personhood to animals.
I’ll do my best and fail to live a life that follows natural instincts as informed by the occasional neuronal connection I’ll call conscience urging me to treat others as myself. That won’t earn me salvation. But what I want to be saved from is eternal death.
I know, I want never gets.

Three Trinities

Christianity has the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son who is the Word, and the Spirit. Buddhism has the Trikaya, meaning the three bodies. These are: the Truth body: the body of mutual bliss: the created body in space and time. I’ve just had reason to return to the earlier work of the brilliant mathematical physicist Roger Penrose. My youngest son who is in his final year of a mathematical physics masters will have the privilege of hearing him lecture next week.(The lecture is on his present focus of Twistor Theory as a pre-cursor to space-time and quantum gravity.) He describes three worlds: Mathematics: The Physical: Mental Consciousness. He is an atheist promoting humanist values, but not one who denies the possibility of God. Indeed, he pours scorn on those who see multiverses as a convenient replacement for the God hypothesis. He sees the mathematical world as always within the scope of reason, if only in principle as he accepts that Gödel has shown that a mathematical system can never explain itself. The entire physical world is governed by the Mathematical world. The mental world is dependent on the physical. He does allow that all these assertions may be subject to exceptions. He particularly believes that consciousness may at its root be quantum mechanical and be non-computable. To this end, he postulates brain structures capable of collapsing the quantum wave.
Those of you who have read my ‘Where’s Sailor Jack’ saga will recognise that as similar to the worlds I’ve tried to create. I am a theist from a Church upbringing which has set my belief system, apparently permanently, as I’ve seen no reason to reject the sense it’s made as I’ve lived a life. Penrose doesn’t think we’ll understand much more of the mental world until the mathematics of the physical has a better, underlying theory. I’m too old, even if he isn’t, to handle the complex Maths of that next stage, if ever I could. I wish him and his successors good luck with that, and hope my son will reach that next level. I’ll have to stick with religion and the arts to see through a glass darkly as far as the grave.

Remainers or Brexiteers?

I’m working on a midquel to Where’s Sailor Jack, starting in 2015 and thus set in the years of the Brexit vote and its implementation, if indeed that actually happens. As such I can’t finish it until next year at the earliest, which is perhaps as well since progress in writing the book is proceeding no faster than the negotiations. I have introduced two new, female characters in the book; a mother, Lucy, in her forties and a daughter, Maddie, in her twenties. They are Brexiteer and Remainer respectively. Of course both Bob and Richard, the two heroes of the first book were both Remainers, having far too much to lose to wish to risk the opposite. Both also grew up in the aftermath of the second world war and hoped that the EU might have provided at least another generation of peace in Europe, even with the omission of Russia from its membership and the economic issues resulting from the folly of a single currency with Germany at the helm.
Maddie is a bisexual, seeing Europe as the future and its institutions as protection for her liberal values, despite the Eastern European countries being more socially conservative and the catholic traditions of the south. Lucy is a lapsed catholic, beginning to return to her former faith. The cultural changes from non-christian immigration still rankle with her. Bob, living in the Fylde, also hankers after a more homogeneous, although in his case an Anglican, past, without wishing to reverse any changes. Richard, in Hertfordshire, is more accepting of the multi-cultural society as it is a fact on the ground for him. They both blame the Tories and Cameron for imposing a referendum into a parliamentary system. And both have a dilemma now that the nation has voted to leave. Instinctively, their hackles rise when the remainers, BBC to the fore, hideously metropolitan in tone, describe the brexiteers as unknowledgeable and thick. They will never countenance any view that the metropolis is more progressive than the north-west. Also, since the vote, the devaluation of the pound has been good news for the north-west, the region growing faster than all others with a maufacturing recovery and housebuilding taking off. Bob had always argued that EU membership and a high value to the pound had mainly favoured the south-east and financial services. Richard had benefited more than most from that, but he is a Lancastrian to his core. As a result, both of them now feel that democracy demands that we leave. Bob actually wants that to be the case, Richard wouldn’t mind if we stuttered and stayed. One thing that unites them is agreeing with the recent group set up of intelligent people who now favour Brexit with a proper critique of the perplexing Treasury scenario analysis, brilliantly reported in The Sunday Times by Bryan Appleyard, another son of Lancashire. The negativity of the outcomes in these scenarios was guaranteed by the assumptions made. Bob and Richard, veterans of the business world, have seen many an analysis similarly skewed. They’ll make the most likely assumption, that those from the metropolitan élite are the the dickheads!

A Northern Intellectual

Do you choose who you are? Anyone who reads these blogs will know that I identify as a Lancastrian, football and cricket loving, middle-of-the-road Anglican; physicist, philosophical dualist, centrist politically with a liberal core but respect for tradition; the last Victorian and the first baby boomer, a Bob Dylan fan who loves the imagery of language and appropriation/assimilation in art, more an integrator than a differentiator while expecting nothing to have an ultimately logical answer; with engineers and businessmen who find their world both necessary and meaningless; in other words, I identify with the power of paradox. Is it what’s happened to me in life that’s left me like this or was I like it from the start?
I still have the accent of my home territory, despite having lived only twenty of my seventy-two years there. Many northerners in the south lose theirs. I’m not aware of having made any conscious effort to keep it, but there again I do like having it. I could as easily gone on the humanities side but nobody who has been fortunate enough to read Physics can ever regret it. I pursued a business career, successfully until it inevitably ended in failure, a result either of my roundedness or my quirkiness. I’ve written a novel, a family saga, which I was happy with, though bounded in my place and time, which tried to show characters who took everything with them.
None of my identifiers are unique. The number of people who share all of them, temporal and philosophical, probably number of order 10,000, maybe a millionth of the world’s population. There’s no point pretending I have the only valid perspective of the world. So it’s important to understand and not judge others. I must put myself in their shoes, something which today’s orthodoxy is close to useless at. Maybe it has been ever thus.
So I’ll continue to see myself as a northern intellectual, looking over from the house next door, a bit like the Manchester Guardian before it chose to lose its accent. I feel I have no other choice that I’m prepared to make. I think I was born this way.

Soon will be near to us once more

I’ve always loved Christmas. We still kit out the conservatory out as Santa’s Grotto, despite the children being in their twenties and not here much. The memories of the family Christmas when I was young and those when our kids were are equally magical. Sadly, there are only a few cousins left from the cast of thousands who’d be at my Grannie’s in the fifties. All the previous two generations are gone. “Someday soon we all will be together, If the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” Those were the words of “Have yourself a merry little Christmas” as heard through the war. Born as it finished, I saw those who’d hoped for it ten years later and that’s precisely what they were doing. Frank Sinatra took out the ‘muddling through’ and made it “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” That’s what Christmas is to me, the star of wonder. O God, lead us to thy perfect light when our time is through. I pray the darkness will not overcome it.

Madonna or the Magdalene?

I spent an interesting hour in the company of Bettany Hughes watching BBC4 last night. She’s always good value. Her programme was about how the cults surrounding Aphrodite/Venus developed through history in different cultures, mainly pre-christian but with a brief reference to the Madonna. My novel Where’s Sailor Jack? is a family saga, which assumes monogamy and love between partners as the norm, while the storylines substantially are about the difficulties in complying with that norm.
In the midquel to Where’s Sailor Jack?, provisionally called No Precedent? (I do like titles with question marks but they’re damned difficult to punctuate), now about half-written, I’ve created an alluring character, a young woman called Maddie, who is happy with more than one partner at once, of either gender. She does not feel that this is sinful, and as she throws away her family’s catholicism, will come to deride the notion that she stands in need of salvation.
I realised last night that I am writing her as a modern-day Venus, sometimes in blue jeans but mainly in a short, tight skirt when she’s wearing anything at all.If I allow her approach to life to become the theme of the book, don’t I negate the finely-nuanced acceptance of the basic Christian message of the first novel? The fall as depicted in the Garden of Eden, perhaps a little later than the first Aphrodite, is from a state of innocent obedience to guilty disobedience to the will of God, with no interim state of either guilty obedience, which some would accuse Christianity of, or innocent disobedience, the status perhaps being claimed for Maddie.
I’ve also realised that Maddie subliminally was suggested to me by Mary Magdalene. Maddie shows selfishness and deviousness with her fellow humanity, not seeking harmony in her pursuit of pleasure. If you take the gods out of the narrative, she does still for me stand in need of repentance and salvation, as do we all.
I’m sure that the development of the cults of Venus and the Madonna has been happening since humans came into being, and before. One time, my old dog ran off to investigate some food he’d spotted a few hundred yards back. It was along a main road, and I worriedly chased after him. I tripped over a flagstone and crashed to the pavement, cutting myself nastily. He heard, turned and ran back to me. He had a conscience. I was his lifetime partner. He didn’t have to forsake all others but he put me first. The Madonna or Mary Magdalene are both in the story.

Wonder where the wonder’s gone

I know there’s a lot of depressing stuff in the News at the moment, such as the imminent nuclear war, but nothing has depressed me more than the recent religious survey. Less than half the population have any religious faith, and only 15% even say they’re Anglicans. I grew up in a Lancashire village just after the war when the vast majority were churchgoing Anglicans. Those that weren’t could be Methodists, Catholics whose ancestors had stuck with the old faith, or the odd atheist whose position was defined in opposition to Christianity. The community, 230 miles from London, was in direct line from that which developed 1300 years before when ancient Briton met Anglo-Saxon, perhaps with a bit of Dane thrown in early on. Yes, by then we had a picture-house, but the main entertainments were the church dances, the beetle and whist drives, and the annual gala (pronounced gayla as it should be), led by the prize silver band escorting the Queen of the May, where I won threepence for finishing third in the six-year olds race. A war had just finished and rationing was still on, but the mood had moved to one of hope.
This isn’t an anti-immigration piece: indeed I share the mourning for our past with reflective people from all colours and creeds I now talk to in London suburbs. Dog walkers of all ages form a group that thinks about what relationships mean. It isn’t an anti-liberal piece. I would have voted for nearly all the ‘progressive’ legislation passed since the sixties. It may be a piece with anti-metropolitan leanings but that’s not today’s concern. It’s not a piece to re-argue my view that theism is entirely rational, indeed more in line with the evidence from modern Physics and the theories from modern Maths than the alternatives of multiverses and actual infinities. It’s not about dualism or dual aspect monism, splitting the mental and physical, giving neither primacy, which I’ve also said enough on. It’s not saying we make reality, but it is saying that what we make is real.
The past is real. The universe is finite, a bit bigger than the universe of the six-year old me but finite. There’s no creator if it’s infinite, and if so nowhere to keep anything. No creator and there’s no sense of wonder to be felt when you look out at the night sky or across Ullswater to Helvellyn. What’s left is the frustration that the equations, all you then have by way of explanation, will never solve, with you wondering hopelessly why that’s the case. Now thank we all our God…

Somewhere a place for us

A recent debate with a friend has left me wondering about the distinction between somewheres and anywheres as propounded by David Goodhardt in his book The Road to Somewhere. This categorisation has been widely used by commentators to differentiate between leavers and remainers in the EU membership referendum. I can imagine the glee with which they read about it, guaranteeing as it did that they had fresh material for several future columns. Or in my case, for a blog.Those of you who have read Where’s Sailor Jack? will know from the biographical notes and from the themes of the book that I have strong links with Lancashire, particularly with Poulton-le- Fylde and Bolton, the home territories of Bob Swarbrick and Richard Shackleton respectively. This latter surname from just over the boundary with Yorkshire was my nod to my own distant ancestry on the male side. To this list, I could add Southport, Liverpool and Manchester where I have either lived or worked. But I did spend the bulk of my working career in London, and I live in Home Counties affluence. I moved from living in a Poulton terraced-house with an outside lavatory as the war ended to going to New College Oxford, the Wykehamists’ college, in 1964. Such was the unique opportunity for the favoured few intellectually able boys (and just a few girls) at that stage.
I voted Remain for three separate reasons: the economic risks from leaving: the wish to avoid further European wars: my children were voting Remain. If I had my way, the EU would also have Russia in too for the second reason.
My friend pointed out to me, after my usual, tedious eulogy for 1950s Lancashire, that anywheres are also from somewhere, not that I had remotely argued the opposite. I think the main critique of what I choose to write about is that it is arguing for the past as seen from both a temporal and geographical distance. It would be fair to accuse me of having a love-hate relationship with the socially liberal London-based media, for whom my principal criticism would be that they don’t know their own country very well. They also irritate me in the way they inveigle themselves into the editorialising position at the end of every discussion. It’s a skill I wish I possessed.(I do actually have even more problems with locally-based authority figures who know their own domains only too well and as a result wish to impose petty controls.)
I’m a philosophic dualist accepting separate physical amd mental domains that meet in reality. In Physics we used to say that the field is fundamental. I expect I will continue to strive to be rational in the decisions down to me while otherwise remaining a northern, Anglican, Bolton Wanderers supporting, family-centred male from the Fylde, capable of voting for all three main parties depending on time and place. In life, it’s the story that’s fundamental. We’re somewhere any old how.

The Church of the Holy Allegory

Tracey Ullman’s “A Christian’s Job Interview” is a brilliant piece of writing. A likeable and impeccably qualified woman is about to get the job. The interview panel think she is wonderful. Right at the end, it emerges that she is a Christian. The mood shifts. The candidate gently points out that for the previous 1500 years the British have been Christian. She is ushered out quickly, and once the door is closed, she is now described as weird.
This appears to be the factory setting of nearly everyone under fifty, maybe even sixty. I find it deeply depressing, indeed as I tell my kids, almost treasonable! But I have to acknowledge that it’s happened. At University, my youngest is friendly, but no more than that, with some ‘Christians’ as he calls them, who are ‘nice people’. By Christian, he means members of the Christian Union. They are evangelical and believe in the literal truth of the Bible which they study earnestly, passage by passage. As such, they then believe that their narrow group is ‘saved’ by their faith in Jesus Christ, with the clear inference that all others are damned. That view clearly will cause resentment, as does their use as a rule book of the very rare temporally-conditioned comments in the Bible on matters sexual. To me, this does no justice at all to the gentlest and least triumphalist of faiths, one that believes in victory only through defeat and which has developed the sublime doctrine of the Trinity in an attempt to understand how creator and creation meet.
The most descriptive passage in the Bible on the nature of faith is Hebrews 11.The first verse is: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The rest of the chapter is a description of many Old Testament figures who “…died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off…”, words from verse 13. These people could believe in what a Christ, maybe the Christ in themselves, could do, without seeing him. That sounds like a biblical challenge to exclusivity claims. It to me also suggests that the Christian message can be reached allegorically.
Christianity is not in the Western zeitgeist. The Holy Dove, the still, small voice of calm, is having trouble being heard. Despite Christian imagery abounding in the arts, with those two giants Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen’s work suffused with it, today’s young give the last word to the scientists, usually life scientists. I’m a physicist by first degree, so naturally find amusing Ernest Rutherford’s comment that all science is either Physics or stamp collecting. It’s true that life science subject matter starts some five billion years after the Big Bang, but I do think they are entitled to see what happened before than as analogous to evolution. What differentiates physics from biology is in the use of Mathematics. And not only does the maths make uncertainty fundamental, but Gödel has shown that no mathematical system can contain its own solution unless it is infinite. Infinities are notoriously difficult to deal with in Maths and he thus suggested that the infinite is outside the system. I make a simple statement. If you could sit outside the system, would it not be rational to view the creation of the conscious human, and animal, world that exists today to be some kind of result? Of course it has resulted from evolution; creationists do the religious cause no favours. Whether consciousness produces any agency can perhaps never be tested. If so it is best to assume that it doesn’t, even if the odd incident suggests otherwise.
What can be said from any introspection is that the mental lives we live are who we really are, rather than the bodies necessary to have them. It’s the mental consequences of the physical world that religion tries to give a meaning to. Maybe there is no meaning. I would dispute that but would accept that it may be only a meaning we give to it ourselves. It is by faith that I believe in a God.
If that God is outside the system, then what use is it to postulate him? I think that’s where religion needs a mystery that sits uneasily both with the bible class mob who try to make salvation a logical matter explicable in words, and the determinist scientists who see everything as physical. The doctrine of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit may be culturally conditioned and flawed, but speaks to the way we see our mental lives. Not only do we need to be provided, pardoned and guided, but we can think outside the system, as if Gods.
I suspect that during the 1500 years of Christianity in Britain, there have been many whose faith has been mental. It’s highly likely that previous generations had a better ability to understand literary genres than today’s does. Truth comes to us in waves, physical and mental. They didn’t need to separate. The truth in Christianity is a marriage of history and rich theology, with a resulting transcendental imagery. If you can believe in the physical resurrection, which I can, then come worship at the Church of the Holy Cross. If not, come anyway to worship at the Church of the Holy Allegory. You may be the truest of believers.

Moments

 

Live for the moment. Is this the secret of a fulfilled life? Not for a mind/body dualist.The mind is never in the moment.There’s a lag. Memory can’t fully replicate a sensation, but it does last, until it fades.
Seize the moment.That’s a thought, before the event, one that embraces what’s about to happen, maybe even changes it. That’s fulfilling. Until the memory fades.
Life goes by so fast. We miss most of it, one reason I hope for an afterlife. I want to go through it all again, seeing what I missed. (Which is probably mainly others in the picture muttering “plonker” in my direction.) In Where’s Sailor Jack?, there’s a moment when Richard thinks his resurrection body was taken from him. I once lived what I wrote. It wasn’t a moment to be seized. It wasn’t a moment to be lived for. It was a moment to be lived in. Perhaps the only one.You should seize the moment. The rest is decided for you.