Sunday, September 28, 2008

Shivering and blog-pruning

I am under the weather just now and extremely cold, given that it isn't yet cold enough to have the heating on. I am wearing my woolly hat indoors.

I've been thinking about pruning my archives. I know some bloggers regularly delete old posts which weren't particularly interesting or even delete everything before the last six months, but I never have. At one point I deleted one or two posts which were less discrete than I would like to be – things I wrote before I figured out that people might actually read this. You didn't miss much, I promise.

However, I have always felt it might be a little... inauthentic to delete stuff that I actually blogged. Like keeping a diary and cutting out certain events. Almost rewriting history. Not that this is that kind of diary, not really.

And now,I have got over seven hundred posts up here and I am beginning to feel some sense of responsibility for clogging up the internet. No, I know, I'm not, but there are lots and lots of posts in which I don't really say anything. And I don't blog in the way I used to and I suppose I am a little embarrassed about some of those little nothingnesses. I'm only talking about taking out the total crud, not deleting a whole year's worth or anything like that.

So what do you think? Given that I might go ahead anyway, I'd still be interested in your thoughts.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Morality without God

John Locke was a very clever man who made an excellent and influential argument for religious toleration in the middle of the seventeenth century. This followed a over century of violence in Europe between the old and new denominations of Christianity and a much longer period of resentment and ill treatment of European Jews and Muslims. Locke said that you can't and shouldn't try to make people believe something they don't, because true faith is something an individual must come to by themselves; if they convert to the “right” religion under torture or because they were persecuted, then it doesn't count. What's more, it is sinful to torture or persecute one another so you'll have buggered things up for your own immortal soul in the process.

But despite all this, he didn't trust non-believers. If you didn't believe in God at all, he said, then there was no disincentive (i.e. the threat of eternal damnation) to stop you being naughty.

And this view persists among some people of faith; a different kind of faith is okay, but no faith at all is not. Religious ethics are privileged, in the law, in education and the media above non-religious ethical frameworks such as Humanism. And the really sad thing is when atheists buy into this, and conclude that there are no absolutes and everything is relative. So...

We know that morality exists without the Abrahamic God. We have had many great civilisations who, whilst believing in supernatural entities, did not have anything like the benevolent Father who wants everyone to behave themselves. You might negotiate with the gods, spirits, ancestors or whatever, make sacrifices and give thanks, but there was no one divine law to which everyone had to adhere. What there always has been is a set of social rules to which everyone has to adhere. It is only for certain periods in our history where they have been completely inextricable from religious doctrine.

Of course, not all cultures are equal, but there is no evil unique to societies without God. Nor do monotheistic cultures have the monopoly on freedom, compassion, social cohesion or anything else we might value. So where does goodness come from?

Nephew Alexander has a dreadful book he asked me to read to him, full of religious poems (there's nothing wrong with religious poems, but these were all dreadful). I had to read a poem where a child misbehaves in all sorts of ways. Among other offenses, the child thumps his sister. But in the end he stoped because his mother explains that this is not the way that God wants the child to behave. The poem doesn't explain that misbehaviour harms other people, but merely God.

Now clearly, that's not where morality comes from. Christians don't refrain from assaulting one another simply because they're frightened of the wrath of God. A good Christian refrains from assaulting other people because other people are valuable; their feelings matter. Also, justice matters and violence is unjust. A Christian may add that God loves and feels for all people and justice is God's will, but that merely supports the decision they have already made not to thump a person. I hope.

I don't think you can describe a two year-old as a Christian, but Alexander is most certainly a moral person. His interactive play is very much concerned with working this stuff out. One of his earliest games involved giving and taking. It doesn't really matter what the object is, but he wants to give it to you and take it from you and give it back and so on. Sometimes he offers a thing, but doesn't give it. Sometimes he snatches a thing away. He is very interested in objects that are forbidden; he might attempt a swap or get upset if you won't hand over the thing he wants.

And he exhibits kindness and appreciation for others. He feeds his friend and teddies, he shares thing out. He gives hugs and kisses and says Peas when he wants something – something we've interpreted as please (although quite possibly, he just likes peas). Not yet two years old, Alexander already has a rudimentary grasp of that fundamental rule of all human morality, the Golden Rule, do as you would be done by. *

A small child is in an extreme version of the position we all share; he is dependent on other people. If he was to mess up in a big way, and everyone walked away from him, he could not survive. So his interest in co-operation is as deep-rooted as his fear of loud noises and his pleasure in sweet food. He cannot afford to be neglected or abandoned.

This is not to suggest that we are all born good. Small children must manipulate those around them to meet their needs, whatever that takes. Alexander is learning by example, experience and experiment. He is very fortunate to be finding that kindness is met with kindness, but he has to keep testing. He pushes at the boundaries, he tests patience. He has to find out what's possible. Other children learn other strategies, some not nearly so nice.

We are excellent adaptive organisms in this respect; our instincts are at once selfish and altruistic. There isn't always even a clear dichotomy between altruistic and selfish motives – nor should these be necessarily be associated with good and bad. Someone once pointed out that true altruism, in evolutionary terms, might be to go round pricking holes in condoms, thus facilitating other people to pass on their genes far more often than they would otherwise. But passing on one's genes is not the goal of the individual. It is merely side effect of other instincts we have (sexual desire and the love of children); it doesn't actually make people happy just to be a biological parent.

Christian doctrine acknowledge this, although tends towards the view that all actions motivated by instinct are bad and sinful and good things can only come from spirituality (a rather scathing attack on the designer). In any case, both heathens and theists can at least agree that we are somewhat conflicted.

Morality is the answer to this conflict. I 'm not sure whether to steal your pretty stone; on the one hand I want it, on the other hand I don't want you to lose it. A moral code informs me that it is better not to steal so I refrain. And where does that moral code come from? Well, it's logical. The potential consequences of an action outweigh the potential gain.

Like maths, moral philosophy is partly instinctive; most of us would be naturally able to tell that a group of seven pebbles is greater than a group of six pebbles, but we get a lot further quicker when we are taught how to count and do arithmetic. At this point in history, we inherit a lot of knowledge about both maths and moral philosophy, but none of it is useful if we swallow it raw. We need to be able to understand and to argue for the the things we hold to be true.

If I assert that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two lengths in a right-angled triangle (breath), I don't need to claim this is true because Pythagorus said so and Pythagorus was magic; I can show you that it is the case (here, see). Similarly, if I assert that we should not murder one another, I don't need to justify this because it was written in the Bible and the Bible is magic. The validity of a moral argument lies in reason, not revelation.

And yet morality as arrived to by reason is by no means inconsistent with religious belief. The vast majority of moral philosophers in our history have had religious faith of some variety. God would be logical too, right? However, belief in God is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for knowing the difference between right and wrong.

A white duck
Congratulations to anyone who read this far on a weekday. Here is a picture of a duck as a reward.

*In her The Bible: The Biography, Karen Armstrong writes about a Pharisaic sage called Hillel,
It was said that one day a pagan had approached Hillel and promised to convert to Judaism if he could summarize the entire Torah while he stood on one leg. Standing on one leg, Hillel replied: 'What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is commentary. [...]'

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Reporting of mental health stories "horrifying"

Not a revelation, I guess.

There were two important mental health stories on the BBC News website last week. One was a report from the Healthcare Commission on the treatment of people with mental illness, much of which was rather damning. Another was about how people with mental ill health were being routinely detained in police cells instead of being taken to hospital for assessment. But the only one that made a big headline – the lead story one morning – was a story entitled Mental care escapes 'horrifying'

Using the Freedom of Information Act, the Today programme had uncovered that 94 people had escaped from medium and low secure psychiatric hospitals during 2007. The word horrifying comes from Sir David Ramsbottom, former chief inspector of prisons. Not sure quite why he was asked about this subject, but he said;
"It is a horrifying figure of course, but not one that surprises me because the medium and low secure units in the NHS do not have same degree of security a prison does."
No, that's quite right. That's because secure psychiatric units do not serve the same purpose as a prison.

Your psycho-killers of myth and legend, your serious criminals with mental health problems end up in high security hospitals, such as Broadmoor or Carstairs. Of course, criminality is not the only reason why someone is detained in such circumstances, but those are the places for people who are considered highly dangerous. I don't know how many people escaped from high secure psychiatric units in 2007. Probably none at all.

The vast majority of people who wind up in secure units do so for their own protection. The purpose is not incarceration so much as constant supervision. Prison, on the other hand, is primarily about punishment. People in prison have broken the social contract and have forfeited their liberty. Most people detained because of their mental health haven't committed any crime. They need protecting. The general public do not need protecting from them.

Sometimes this goes wrong. Last year, a young man with autism escaped from hospital and went on to rape a young girl. This is a terrible story, a terrible crime. However, most people who commit rape are considered mentally healthy and neurotypical; just because a crime is committed by a person with mental illness, autism or an intellectual impairment, that doesn't mean that other people should have seen it coming a mile off. I mean, they maybe should have done for all I know, but this tragic case is not evidence that thousands of people need locking up.

And so, a few days later when there are concerns about people with mental illness being put in police cells rather than being taken to hospital, we wonder why police officers feel that it is appropriate to treat innocent and highly vulnerable people like criminals. Cause and effect, anyone? And how many people were subject to this horrifying experience in a year, compared to the 94 that got away? 11,500.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Picture This

A painting of my sister and brother-in-law

Alexander correctly identified the subject of the latest addition to the Family Portrait Gallery (my Mum's upstairs corridor) as his Mummy and Daddy. That having been said, he has recently pointed to a picture of Sean Bean and declared it to be his Daddy. Rosie, however, responded with a complaint that I had given her grey hairs. It's supposed to be light.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Not the end of the world

This is one of those times in life where a lot is going on, and life seems to be moving in a very positive direction. Yet instead of feeling great about this, I find myself anxious. It's coming and going, I'm not consumed with worry, but that it is coming at all is a source of great irritation.

The subject is pretty much unbloggable at this stage. But as with anything worth bothering with there are lots of uncertainties. Worse case scenarios are scary, but very unlikely. Up from the bottom, there are scenarios which could be very stressful, but remain unlikely. However, this is a risk we've decided to take because if all works out (most likely scenario), it should be very good. Obfuscation is making this sound terribly exciting – it's really not, at least not for anyone else.

I hate worrying. I hate that about myself. For I am, alas, one of nature's worriers and in recent years I've worked very hard at suppressing this tendency. All the nonsense I used to worry about still occurs to me, but I have learnt to close that book and move on. To some extent.

The thing I hate most about worrying is the possibility of wasting time. My maternal grandmother is in her eighties now, but has wasted an enormous proportion of her life to upset and worry. Probably the greatest and most ironic source of her anxiety is illness and death. Even now, when one might have thought she had triumphed over those two spectres as much as a person might hope to, she worries terribly about diseases she might acquire, about vague symptoms which she fears may indicate something sinister.

I wouldn't suggest that older people should not worry about their health, but one imagines that age brings significant perspective; at eighty-something, you're lucky to be around at all and you're even luckier if you're mobile and independent. George Bernard Shaw got to ninety-four and died of kidney failure; he damaged his kidney when he fell out of a tree. Now that's the spirit!

It is the greatest waste of time worrying about one's health. If it is worth worrying about, it is worth making a doctor's appointment and waiting to hear what an expert things. If it is going to get worse, then you are wasting the time you have now when things are not too bad. Even if you are going to die soon, then you are wasting the time you have now when you are alive and blissfully ignorant of your impending demise. I mean, it's not as simple as that if you really are going to die, but I mean during the stage when it is merely a persistent cough, a curious lump, a steady loss of blood from the jugular vein or whatever.

The same applies to all Bad Things Which Could Happen. Say the unbloggables go wrong and disaster strikes in a few months time. Well, everything is okay now. And of course, everything may continue to be okay and I will have wasted all this okay time. Because Bad Things are going to happen in life. Jobs are lost, marriages fail, hopes are dashed and people die – often with poor timing. However, these things are relatively rare in the course of life. Hopefully, there are periods of years where none of these things occur to us as individuals.

Often the things we worry about are Super Bad Terrible Things which hardly ever happen to anyone, or perhaps haven't ever happened yet. I don't know whether anyone was actually worried about the end of the world happening yesterday, but people do worry about that stuff, as Jack wrote about earlier in the week. Human beings will not go on forever, but it is unlikely that we will be destroyed by a single whoosh!, or indeed a bang! and almost certainly not a pertwang!. There are far less dramatic and more preventable disasters we should concern ourselves with.

So anyway, although this post is being written largely in an attempt to reason with myself, I shall nevertheless provide my five top tips for coping with a worrisome mind:

1. Accept that despite all the logic, your mind will be troubled by this stuff from time to time. This is natural and can't be resisted – any more than we can stop farting. But much of the time, that's all it is; sometimes there is a problem that needs wrestling with, often it is just an emotional waste product.

2. Worrying a lot about unlikely or fanciful events is usually symptomatic of some other problem. It is important to make a conscious effort to look after oneself, address sources of stress, watch our diet, exercise and sleep.

3. A cliched but nevertheless excellent test - and sometime cure - for worries is to write it down or tell someone about it. Often the mere thought of sharing this thought with someone else forces one to realise how silly it is and thus cure it. If not, putting it down in words or talking it over can often do the trick.

4. Keep a list of the most important things in your life. These may include people, your job and past-times, aspects of yourself and your life which make it worthwhile. Most of the things I worry about have very limited bearing on any of the items on my list. When I consider this fact and concentrate briefly on the many good things I have going for me, I gain a lot of perspective.

5. Schedule a time to worry. This is a trick which I find very useful. If you find yourself anxious a lot, decide that you shall give your worries your full attention at a certain time of day, for at least ten or fifteen minutes. Decide what time that'll be, use the same time every day and stop everything else for that period. Almost always, I find those worries that haven't fizzled out in the mean time can be reasoned with and resolved quite painlessly.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Sea, The Sea

The sun, behind clouds, over the seaThis weekend we went to visit our friend Vic, who was holidaying on the North Norfolk Coast. Well, it was kind of on the edge of the Wash, but we couldn't see land the other side of the water. I haven't seen the sea for almost two years (I almost saw the sea when I was in Hampshire, but the Isle of Wight was in the way). I have missed it rather badly.

Despite having rumbled and rained for most of last week, Sunday was a beautiful day and we sat outside looking at the water. [...] went for a walk on the beach and kept going until we could only see his head, at which point he decided that the water was a wee bit too nippy. And because we were facing west, the sun set over the sea - admittedly in an unremarkable way behind clouds. It was all very beautiful and we had a lovely weekend.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Leave them kids alone.

In many ways, we expect young people to complete their education at the worst imaginable point in their lives. Okay, so their brains are still young and supple, but everything else is against them. You've got the ranging hormones, which makes it quite difficult to concentrate on anything in the same room as other young people of the compatible sex. You've got this weird status where you pass as an adult in some situations but are treated as a child in others. And then there is rebellion.

Teenage rebellion isn't entirely due to the hormones; older people keep pushing you around. Older people who, as you increasingly realise, aren't very much smarter than you are. Teenagers are really quite rational beings – beings with less experience and know-how than adults of course - and rebellion is usually rational too, in context. Adults who wish to help them need to address the context; teenagers who behave themselves are not more rational than the others, they just want different things.

Anyway, it is at the peak of all this that you are expected to decide what you are going to do for a job and pursue the appropriate qualifications.

Universal education is one of the best political ideas anyone ever had after democracy. Tools for thinking, knowledge and understanding empower us and enrich our lives. But school qualifications aren't terribly useful for anything. Nobody above the age of about twenty needs more than the basics – but they do need to keep learning. If you want to be a lawyer, you need to study law at university – and you needed your school qualifications to get in. If you want to be a hair-dresser, you need to be trained in hairdressing and you may need your school qualifications to get onto the appropriate course. And if you want to live a full and productive life, you need to keep on taking in and analysing information, finding new ways to solve problems and generally furnishing the dark and dusty shelves of your noggin with items of interest, incite and beauty. You can't get a GCSE in that.

However, school qualifications are a very useful political tool. The electorate care about education and qualifications are one way in which a government attempts to prove that they are doing a good job. Every year the exam results are getting better and better, so clearly everything is going well! When folks begin to doubt this, the government introduce more tests in order to increase the volume of evidence for their efficacy.

So the way things are done have very little to do with the needs of the individual student. What a young person needs is a good solid education, but that is a matter of quality as opposed to the time it takes. I don't know how long it does take, but I left school at fifteen because of illness and I'd say I had enough; my education wasn't over, but that level of tutoring, supervision and coercion had no longer been necessary for some time. After that, young people need to get the qualifications and training that they need to do whatever it is they want to do next. Not for the rest of their lives.

It's not only that it is some decades since a time when most people expected to get a job and keep doing it until they retired – I reckon most people still stick to roughly the same work for most of their working lives. It's that adolescence is a stage of identity crisis which can continue well into one's twenties. Even then, things can change and people need to adapt. The very idea that we can get all our learning out of the way in one go at one stage of life is both na├»ve and somewhat tragic.

The primary objective of school education should be to give young people the skills and motivation to learn. If you keep talking at them for years on end, some of it might sink in before the law says they're allowed to go, but if you teach them how to learn, they will keep doing it on their own steam. The most valuable thing a school can give to a child and that can't be measured. This, together with a culture, as opposed to a catchphrase, of lifelong learning, would mean that whatever happens, people could dip into education and training when the need or desire arose.

But this wouldn't provide very many objective statistics – at least not any time soon – by which we might judge a government's investment in education. So instead, they're increasing the length of compulsory education. A person will now be able to marry, have children and be obliged to pay tax before they are allowed to leave school or college. Having bought more time, there will be more exam results to boast of. And it will all look very good, whether it serves any useful purpose or not.