The demon-infested small group

May 19th, 2018
by Chris

At small group this week (which I actually managed to get to, after a couple of months worth of the fortnightly session clashing with other commitments), we looked at Mark 9:14-29, which is headed in the study notes “Jesus confronts our unbelief”. While I strongly suggest you click the link and read the passage, shortly it’s an account of Jesus healing a boy possessed by a demon, the symptoms described being almost certainly (to my modern eyes) those of epilepsy. The disciples have clearly failed to cure him (following Jesus’ instructions to them back in Mark 3:13-15, Mark 6:7 and Mark 6:12-13), possibly due to the presence of scribes and a crowd of other people. Jesus reproaches those present (which the group and the study notes thought was directed at the disciples) as an “unbelieving generation”, asks the father how long he has been this way (since birth), says that all things are possible for those who have faith, and elicits the famous “I believe, help thou my unbelief”. The fit ends, and the boy is helped to stand up.

Unfortunately it appears that I am the only thoroughgoing sceptic in the group. After several testimonies of belief in the power of faith healing, I felt I had to say that I don’t believe it works. I have a fairly thoroughly non-supernatural view of reality, and faced with such testimony, the best I can manage is to suspend disbelief and concede that strange things do occasionally happen (and, of course, be glad for the person for whom it has apparently happened). Very occasionally. That hasn’t prevented me from storming heaven asking for a cure for some other people, in the very faint hope that this time it might work (and the absence of anything more likely to succeed), but that has never worked for anyone I have prayed for. I’ve heard insanity defined as “doing the same thing which hasn’t worked in the past expecting that it will work this time”. OK, it’s a very bad definition of insanity, but everything I know about the real world tells me that unless you change some aspects of what you’re doing, what hasn’t worked previously will still not work today… so there is no way I can rationally have any significant expectation that prayer will cure people (or, indeed, have any other effect beyond the relationship of the person praying with God and their own psychology).

I should maybe have clarified that I think prayer or belief may work sometimes with illnesses with a significant psychological component (though my track record of seeing cures to psychological illnesses through prayer is still a blank sheet, despite a LOT of attempts in that direction on behalf of myself and others, by myself and others – unless, that is, you consider that the cure might take over six years and involve several other possible causative factors, in which case the record may stand at one partial cure in the case of my own longstanding depression). I  can also see a possible mechanism for it to work (very rarely) for some physical illnesses via producing an excess of some chemical already naturally produced in the body, but again have never actually seen that. I know of no occasion when anything of the sort has cured epilepsy, though in conscience, all the passage tells of is the alleviation of a single fit. We do not know if according to the author, the child went on to be free of the complaint for life – it is not stated, though I found it interesting that (reading between the lines) the group seemed to think it was a permanent cure.

I have listened to a lot of testimonies of people who have thought themselves cured via such means, and after discovering that there were sound naturalistic explanations available in every case I looked at, eventually stopped looking for such explanations for fear of annoying people or, just possibly, causing them to doubt and thus prompting a psychosomatic recurrence of symptoms. Nothing is to be gained by doing that, unless people are refraining from seeking actual medical (or psychological) help in the expectation of a miraculous cure. But my group are not of that mind, they would unhesitatingly call for an ambulance rather than a priest on seeing an epileptic fit, just as I would.

Even so, I could see that my merely stating that I could not believe in such cures was upsetting to some, and I stopped talking about that aspect – and then clearly upset people again when the discussion turned to “unseen forces of darkness” and I said I did not believe in demons, whether or not a demon might have been responsible for the incident related in Mark. Again, I think the group were unanimous in thinking it was probably an epileptic fit, but it seems that there is widespread belief in demons, and indeed one person testified that each time he makes an advance in faith, difficulties seem immediately to arise – which he ascribes to demonic influence.

As a result of this, I did not explore the fact that possibly what we were actually talking about in our discussion was not faith in God or Jesus as such but self-belief. The disciples clearly were suffering from a loss of self-confidence. The trouble there is that the passage seems to me to be mocking the afflicted – I do not know any way to become more self-confident save for a history of repeated success in doing something, and to tell me that I should just have more belief in myself is somewhat aking to telling me to grow wings and fly. I would dearly LIKE to have more self-coinfidence. Indeed, I belive in self-confidence – it seems quite strongly to me that those who are self-confident have a far greater success rate than those who are not, and indeed, I have seen people serene in the confidence that something would work do things which I would have previously regarded as just plain impossible. I would really like to have more faith of this kind. But I don’t, and I don’t see how I can pull myself up into that by my bootstraps.

I did very briefly outline my acceptance of Walter Wink’s idea of the “Powers that Be” (I link to the single volume, though I have the three volume, in depth version) in relation to demonic powers. I didn’t amplify this – it didn’t seem that there was much interest beyond the fact that I had just said I didn’t believe in them in the absence of them being expressed concretely. This was Wink’s view of how Paul was thinking when he talked of the “powers and principalities” – the Jewish world-view of the time did not include the possibility of disembodied spirits; any spirit had to be embodied – a viewpoint with which I find I agree, in contrast to a view prevalent in Greek thinking of the time, which did have a view of disembodied spirits – and, indeed, for much of Greek thought, the disembodied was more real than the embodied. The study guide included a quote from C.S. Lewis “Enemy occupied territory – that is what the world is”, and it seemed to me that the prevalent world-view was of a demon-infested universe – which is not really the way I see things. Yes, I do see the world as gripped by some “powers”, including that of neoliberal economics (about which I write frequently, and which I tend to characterise as “the System of Satan”), but not as having a plethora of little imps set on frustrating our faith-based actions. Indeed, sceptical Chris sees the legend of “making an advance in faith and then being assailed by some setback” as a get-out clause – indeed, another get-out clause to add to the “your faith wasn’t sufficient”. When I come to believe that something will work, take action and find that it doesn’t, I question whether my initial belief is correct. I don’t assume that some incorporeal force of general buggeration is attacking me, or assume that if I just believed a bit harder, it would all work.

What are we to make of the last part of the passage from Mark, where we find Jesus explaining the disciples’ failure by “this kind needs prayer”? One could suspect that he had found by his question to the father that this was a functional disorder, whereas the disciples might have been having success with psychological or psychosomatic complaints. This statement does, in any event, tend to argue against the idea that his condemnation of a “faithless generation” was levelled at the disciples – it was, perhaps, rather levelled at the crowd generally. My sceptical side suggests that he might have more honestly responded “this practice largely doesn’t work, at least not for anyone except myself”, though perhaps, indeed, his prayers were commonly answered where my experience is that they aren’t.

If, however, I am correct in saying that the criticism was levelled at the crowd generally, it might suggest that a theory of a friend of mine regarding supernatural effects was in mind – he thought it possible that where a group of people is involved, it is the faith of all of them which produces a result, and the disbelief of the crowd (and particularly the scribes or teachers of the law, depending on your translation) impeded the disciples faith having the desired effect. On this understanding (which, I may say, I don’t share, but can’t entirely discount), the presence of even one or two sceptics might prevent faith healing working (or prayer being answered); the father’s thin faith, connected more closely with the child than anyone else, could have tipped the balance… OK, while I think that unlikely, it seems possible that the author (or even Jesus himself) may have subscribed to a similar view.

And there, possibly, I have an answer to why my personal lack of belief in faith healing upset some members of the group (and meant that I wrote this blog post instead of sharing further thoughts on the day). Perhaps on some level, the state of my belief is seen as in some way counteracting theirs?

There is one further thing which springs to mind, and that is returning to demons. I may not think the world full of disembodied inimical spirits (well, with the possible exception, on occasion, of my computer!), but I do think we can construct within our minds (and chiefly our subconscious minds) templates which are very inimical to our flourishing in various ways. Deep psychological work, then, can very reasonably be talked of as “talking with our demons”. The snag is, I strongly suspect that believing in the reality of demons above and beyond psychological mechanisms is capable of strengthening those which are already there, or even creating new ones. I have therefore said on occasion “If Satan did exist, it would be necessary to disbelieve in him”, which combines combatting the strengthening of the template in our own minds with, if my friend’s idea about belief creating supernatural effects happened to be true, reducing the power of such an entity.

Hey, I’m very conscious of the fact that these pieces of paper in my wallet marked with various numbers of pounds are only worth something because everyone believes they are. Now the £5 and £10 notes are mainly plastic, indeed, they aren’t even much use for lighting the barbecue… but don’t worry, my scepticism about their actual value doesn’t reduce their utility for you. Unless my attitude were to become commonplace, of couse.

Now there’s a scary thought!

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The other side of despair

May 11th, 2018
by Chris

As some reading this will already be aware, in 1996-7 I suffered a set of what, for me, were traumatic events, which resulted in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I didn’t know that was the case for several years (I was first diagnosed in 2003), though a friend who had been a soldier actually suggested to my wife that might be the case in 1997 – but neither of us took that entirely seriously, as, to us, PTSD was something which happened to the military and people involved in disasters involving loss of life or very serious injuries.

PTSD tends to come with depression and anxiety “on the side”, and my depression, certainly, deepened over the following years. As for anxiety, the events had made my profession extremely scary for me, and I tried to carry on with it (and so fulfil my perceived duty as breadwinner for the family) despite being, basically, terrified. As I now know, untreated PTSD tends to get worse. I made things worse by trying to self-medicate with alcohol (I know, medicating depression and anxiety with a depressant drug which is addictive and so causes anxiety when you stop taking it is, not to put too fine a term on it, mad – but in at least one sense of the term, I was already mad…)

As it turned out, I “snapped out of” the depths of the depression in 2013, and have functioned at least tolerably since then. OK, I still have diagnoses of chronic depression and chronic anxiety, but have medication which lets me function somewhat normally, albeit with restrictions (I can get, perhaps, four to six really productive hours out of a day if that involves human interaction, rather more if it’s solitary activity).

I’ve written about the depression on a number of occasions – in one post I wrote “I think we’re inclined to confuse depression with an emotional state – I certainly used to, and there’s a voice at the back of my head which still tells me that it is, with the corollary that ‘you can and should control your emotions’. Actually, depression isn’t controllable like that. You can’t ‘think your way out of it’; it isn’t a matter of controlling the impulse to look on the black side of everything. No, I think depression isn’t an emotion, it’s where emotions go to die.” The thing is, people in the grip of really deep depression don’t – can’t – feel emotions (or at least positive ones). For several years prior to 2013, if I attempted to consult my emotions (“What do I feel about this?”) the only answer which came back is “It’s all WRONG”.

That post was written after the depression lifted somewhat – I probably couldn’t have written it during the depths of the thing itself.

Another piece I wrote talked about the phrase “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” which appears in Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34. At the bottom of depression, that cry of apparent despair spoke to me as God incarnate knowing what it was like to be desperate (de- meaning without, and spero meaning “to hope” – so desperation and despair are both forms of hoplessness).  Not only was there no hope, there was no love, affection, happiness or any of those emotions, and therefore there was no way to choose one option over another – I was unable to summon the emotion “I would prefer this to that”, whether it was a choice in a Chinese takeaway (after about half an hour gazing blankly at the huge menu, I effectively flipped a coin) or whether to walk under a bus. And, of course, I had lost the sense of the presence of God (the foresakenness), because faith without emotion can’t exist – indeed, faith as in the original scriptural sense is best rendered as “love and trust”, and both those have at least an element of emotion.

I not infrequently would recite to  myself “be still, and know that I am with you”, which is actually a slight mangling of “be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) – but surely, to know that He is God demands that he is with you? Jesus, of course, represents the epitome of “God with us”. That, and other, generally more authentic,  biblical phrases were the key to surviving the depression. I had no way of making choices between options on the basis of my own preference, but I had rules, many of them Biblical ones, and reassurances that, even if I could not experience that presence, God was still with me.

Indeed, if we go back to Jesus’ cry on the cross, it is actually the first line of Psalm 22, and one can suspect that in the mostly oral culture of first century Israel, many listeners would have recalled the rest of the psalm. Yes, it goes on to say “I am poured out like water,  and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax;  it has melted within me.  My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,  and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;  you lay me in the dust of death.” as well as the better known “a company of evildoers encircle me; they have pierced my hands and feet”, which still conveys extreme emotional distress (or, in my words, “It’s all WRONG”…

…but it goes on to affirm that God is near “But thou, O Lord, be not far off” and “For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.” I see there an echo of what I was doing for several years – the situation seemed hopeless, I could not summon hope, but I could summon an ultimately hopeful scripture.

In fact, the scripture I made most use of was the next psalm in the book, probably the best known of them all. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, yet will I fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me”. Is “the valley of the shadow of death” exaggeration? No, because depression is definitely a life-threatening illness; many depressives eventually kill themselves, and my other regular refrain was “just for today I will not kill myself”.

And, if you insert “gospel” for “rod” and “psalm” for staff, they did comfort me – I am still here to write this, and give thanks for that fact.

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You have to draw the line somewhere part 3 – where it gets really controversial…

May 4th, 2018
by Chris

In my previous two posts, I discussed continua and our apparent need to draw hard and fast lines in them, which causes difficulties – particularly in the case of laws and politics.

In the process of creation of a human being, from conception through gestation and birth to eventual status as an adult human being, there is clearly a continuum. This Aeon article (which actually deals with whether we may already have created self-aware machines) has a list equating some stages in that process to machine examples. The list is as follows:-

Level Explanation Animal Example Human Age Equivalent Machine Example
-1 Disembodied Blends into environment Molecule
0 Isolated Has a body, but no functions Inert chromosome Stuffed animal
1 Decontrolled Has sensors and actuators, but is inactive Corpse Powered-down computer
2 Reactive Has fixed responses Virus Embryo to 1 month ELIZA
3 Adaptive Learns new reactions Earthworm 1–4 months Smart thermostat
4 Attentional Focuses selectively, learns by trial-and-error, and forms positive and negative associations (primitive emotions) Fish 4–8 months CRONOS robot
5 Executive Selects goals, acts to achieve them, and assesses its own condition Octupus 8–12 months Cog
6 Emotional Has a range of emotions, body schema, and minimal theory of mind Monkey 12–18 months Haikonen architecture (partly implemented by XCR-1 robot)
7 Self-Conscious Knows that it knows (higher-order thought) and passes the mirror test Magpie 18–24 months Nexus-6 (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)
8 Empathic Conceives of others as selves and adjusts how it presents itself Chimpanzee 2–7 years HAL 9000 (2001)
9 Social Has full theory of mind, talks, and can lie Human 7–11 years Ava (Ex Machina)
10 Human Passes the Turing Test and creates cumulative
culture
Human 12+ years Six (Battlestar Galactica)
11 Super-Conscious Coordinates multiple streams of consciousness Bene Gesserit (Dune) augmented Samantha (Her)

Some people reading this will probably be experiencing a very negative reaction around now, noticing that the list equates a 1-4 month foetus with a smart thermostat. How could I do that? Well, please bear with me. I appreciate that this is one of THE most emotive issues within Christianity (and in the politics of the USA and some other nations), but it does serve to illuminate my point about continua and drawing lines, possibly in the strongest way possible.

The abortion issue is a place where law meets a continuum. We quite rightly wish to make the killing of a human being a crime – but at what point does a conglomeration of cells become a human being rather than something not yet human, which has the potential to become human? The answer to that question has not been the same in all societies and at all times, nor among devout  Christians.

The earliest point ever chosen is, in fact, before even any sexual contact has taken place. Some have argued (from an interpretation of the Biblical story of Onan) that male semen is already worthy of protection (after all, “Onan was killed by God”… though probably for not following Jewish law regarding Levirate marriage rather than for onanism). This has to some extent been the Catholic position from time to time (although even there, I do not see masturbation held up as equivalent to murder), and despite being lampooned by Monty Python, is a viewpoint which is logical, though it takes the question of whether something is potentially a human being almost to its extreme (there have been cultures, or at least subcultures, which have thought that even the urge to have sex should not be restrained, for just this reason…)

The current position of very many conservative or Evangelical Christians (and some Christians who are neither) in the 21st century is that human life starts at the moment of fertilisation of an egg by a sperm. Again, this is a logical viewpoint, though it is worth pointing out both that it is extremely difficult to determine immediately that this has happened (a practical point) and that a large percentage of fertilised eggs never make it much beyond that point (miscarriages, often too early for even the mother to know that she has miscarried). The Aeon article likens this stage to a virus, and it is equally a logical viewpoint to consider the fertilised egg and very early embryo as worthy of as much (as little) protection as a virus, even if this is massively distasteful to some.

A major Catholic point of view, and one which has been widely followed in other cultural milieu, is that life starts at “quickening”, i.e. the point at which the mother first feels the embryo move. Again, this is logical, and has the added advantage that there is some evidence available without the need for scientific tests. That evidence is, however, something which only the mother can know. While the article places the point at which comparison with a smart thermostat is reasonable at 1-4 months post birth, actually the likeness might well extend back to the point of quickening.

Most legal jurisdictions which permit abortion at all, however, place the dividing point at a certain number of months’ pregnancy. Actually, this is possibly significantly less logical and more arbitrary, but does have the advantage of being clear if the date of conception is known and at least approximately ascertainable using ultrasound. In general, after this arbitrary point, abortion is only permitted if it is basically a choice between the life of the embryo and the life of the mother, and the mother is favoured. There could be argument, however, that the embryo should be preserved alive at the expense of the mother. In general, the time limit was initially placed at the earliest point at which the embryo and the mother could be parted and the embyo still survive, but that point has been moving steadily earlier as medical science advances; there is, however, clearly doubt as to where this point is – should it be at the earliest point at which any embyo is known to have survived or the point at which there is a significant chance (say 50%) of survival, or at the point where there is real confidence of the embryo making the leap to “baby”?

Perhaps the most obvious point to choose, and that which has been chosen in a lot of cultures at a lot of times, is the moment of birth. Although there can still be some argument, absent a few hours (or, for the lucky, minutes), it is clear to both mother and the wider world when this occurs. Of course, this is the point at which the abortion issue ceases; beyond that, one might think, the foetus has definitively become a baby, and therefore a human.

However, that has not always and everywhere been the case; in the UK, it was noted many years ago that it was incredibly difficult to induce a jury to convict a mother of killing a new-born (and in those days sentence her to death), so the government of the day invented a crime of “infanticide”, which was a lesser offence than murder (and, technically, still is, though I haven’t come across the offence being used for a long time). Though the offence (and its implied defence to a charge of murder) was created before obstetrics  was so well understood, it has sometimes served to avoid extreme penalties for quite a few mothers suffering from post-natal depression who have completely “lost it” when faced with weeks or months of a bawling infant and the attendant sleep deprivation (in UK law, the defence of insanity was prone to produce a very long period (possibly life) confined to a mental asylum if, indeed, a defendant could manage the very strict rules for that defence; the case after which those rules were named, which involved an attempt to kill Queen Victoria, is an example of hard cases making bad law; had the target been a lesser figure than the Queen, I suspect more relaxed rules would have resulted).

Further back in history, much the same thinking has produced reduced penalties for the killing of children much older than the 12 month limit of infanticide. Wergild in Germanic law (the payment due on killing someone) was typically half for an unborn child (as it was in Anglo-Saxon law), but sometimes less than a full amount for children who were not of full age; typically the age of majority was 14. Parents, in particular, could not infrequently punish children even to the point of killing them, as is suggested by certain passages in the Bible for the ancient Hebrews, which is hardly consistent with them being regarded as endowed with full human rights.

Protection against being killed is not, of course, the only issue on which the law has traditionally differed depending on age. The classic dividing point has been the “age of majority”, which in the UK has been 18 for many years, but used to be less, but other ages are in play for other purposes – for example, the ability to consent to sexual relations currently is 16 in the UK and the USA, another dividing line which produces hard cases making bad law, when slightly older adolescents are tainted with a “statutory rape” charge (and sometimes lifetime labelling as a sexual offender) for being intimate with a person slightly under the “age of consent”, but who may have been sexually active for some years. Other countries have younger ages, sometimes as low as 12.

Curiously, 16 is also the youngest age at which conscription into the armed services used to be possible for quite some time in the UK. However, the youngest age for the purchase and consumption of alcohol is 18 in the UK, 21 in the USA, leading to the anomaly of being able to die for one’s country but not to drown the sorrows occasioned when one’s fellow 16 year olds  (or, in the States, 19 year olds) are killed.

Many jurisdictions also have an age of criminal responsibility, below which a child is presumed not to be capable of forming a criminal intent (perhaps thinking in terms of the empathic or social stage in the Aeon article). These ages vary widely, from 6 to 14 (at the least, and using only UK and USA ages – the age even varies within the UK, between Scotland and the rest of the country). This couples with earlier observations in making some things crimes, sometimes very serious crimes, if victim or perpetrator is one day older or younger, but not in the alternative case – and that includes “number of months” cases of abortion, where that is the test.

As an aside, taking into account also ages at which it becomes legal to smoke, to own a gun (well, in the UK, anyhow) and to drive a vehicle, I do get the feeling that we tend to impose responsibility (conscription and criminal liability) before we are willing to give the perks of adulthood.

Finally, returning to admitted adults, we make exceptions to “thou shalt not kill”, at the very least for war, in the States for persons convicted of murder (or a few other offences – in the UK, it was until relatively recently possible to be executed for “arson in Her Majesty’s Dockyard”). It also seems to me that in the popular imagination as passed to us in TV and film programmes, killing someone for being a bad person (or, in the case of “collateral damage” for being somewhere near a bad person) is regarded as OK. The guys wearing the white hats (as it were) in film seem to have a licence to kill which the real equivalents of 007 can only dream of. It seems that this applies also to American law enforcement officers… Some of us, indeed, seem to regard killing people who are not of “their group” to be justifiable in a way they would not feel for someone more like them.

The trouble is, the debate between “pro life” and “pro choice” advocates has become extremely heated. This is not altogether surprising; as soon as you determine that at a certain stage of development a foetus is fully human, abortion becomes murder, and the term “baby-killer” is certainly frequently in use among “pro life” campaigners. It is a hugely unhelpful term to bandy about, because in all probability no-one among the “pro choice” camp thinks of what they propose as killing babies – they just set the dividing line between “on the way to being human” and “actually human” in a different place, and “on the way to being human” does not, to them, deserve the same protection as does “actually human”.

We have also seen a shift in the value we place on children since the days when England invented the offence of infanticide; in those days, a huge proportion of children never reached adulthood, dying of many childhood illnesses – or, indeed, accidents, because we once were not nearly so protective of children. Now, medical science can save the vast majority of those children (or foetuses), and we have developed a rather misty eyed view of children, at least in the general case (it is still the case that most parents and teachers have at some point entertained the idea of just doing away with the disruptive youngster…)

The chain of reasoning which considers abortion to be murder seems to end with a willingness to vote for Grishnak (a hobbit-eating orc from Lord of the Rings), as this article indicates. I rather suspect that those in the States who consider it not to be murder occasionally voted on much the same basis, thinking that voting for any Republican would lead to a huge reduction in womens’ rights.  Rachel Held Evans gave considerable thought to the issue when deciding to vote Clinton rather than Trump. This just illustrates the huge emotive weight which comes with being the wrong side of a line drawn in what is a continuum.

This heartfelt piece by Andy Gill is an attempt at a Jesus-centred response to the abortion issue, which (as pointed out here) has not always seen the line as drawn where evangelicalism would now see it.

What do I think? It isn’t an issue which I’ve ever had to make a hard decision on, thank God. I do, however, very much see the continuum rather than the hard line drawn across it. I’m a mystic, and therefore a panentheist, and I therefore see all life (not restricted to human life) as worthy of preservation, but having done a reduction ad absurdum, I cheerfully kill off bacteria in my body with antibiotics whenever they prejudice my health, and I eat meat – let’s face it, I couldn’t survive at all without eating things which used to be alive. I regard consciousness as more worthy of preservation, however, so animals are more worthy of preservation than are plants (absent a sound ecological reason), and humans more worthy of preservation than are animals, at least for the most part, as I see them as having a greater consciousness than animals.

But I also see adults as having, in general, a greater consciousness than infants or sub-infants. I would, therefore, unhesitatingly agree an abortion if the mother’s life was endangered by a pregnancy continuing. I would see that as a wrong, but as a lesser wrong than the death of the woman.

I recoil at the idea of “abortion on demand”, thinking that if a child can be born viable, it should be – there are, after all, many people looking to adopt, and if there is anything wrong there, it is that adoption is too difficult, expensive and time consuming. There, however, I am looking not just at birth, but at the upbringing of the child. I am very sceptical that we are doing a favour for the unborn by forcing them to be born into a family which can’t or won’t care for them adequately.

But then I have to ask myself how much of a favour we are doing in forcing them to be born into a society which won’t or can’t care for them adequately.

There are no easy answers when you draw lines across a continuum.

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I hate marketing

May 3rd, 2018
by Chris

I find on Partially Examined Life’s blog a link to this article, which criticises one aspect of consumerism through looking at Diderot’s essay on parting with his old dressing gown (click through – it’s quite short and not without humour!). It highlights one of the aspects of modern capitalist society which I like least, the need to create desire for unnecessary things in order to keep the immense surplus capacity created by mass-production and automation busy. (Mass production has a wonderful record of providing the necessities of life to more people than was possible before it, but largely operates to create a lot of things which people do not really need). Although it makes no direct mention of them, the article also highlights that the consumer society, which in Diderot’s time was hardly out of infancy, encourages greed (avarice), envy (covetousness) and gluttony (in the sense of consuming things you have no real need for, or in excess of your needs).

I am mostly immune to this. In conversation with another attender at the “Wake” festival last week (we were talking about Christianity and capitalism, which I sometimes characterise as the “System of Satan”; he is a self-identified capitalist), after I described my shopping habits, he suggested that I was a marketer’s nightmare. It’s a label which I will wear with pride!

I won’t take telephone calls which attempt to sell me something, I almost never watch commercial television live (because when I record it, I can fast-forward through the adverts), I’ve developed my focus when reading something surrounded by adverts to the point of not noticing most of them, and when I go shopping, I have a list and buy what is on the list and, for the most part, nothing else. I don’t window shop. As a general rule, I consider when thinking of buying something mainly whether I need it. Mostly, I don’t, and indeed I consider that the virtuous course of action is not to buy things for which I have no need. Things I don’t need, to me, represent a pointless waste of resources and of the time of some workers… and I don’t concern myself with what anyone else has (which is a major focus of this article). Marketing and advertising, to me, is a request for me to waste resources and time, and I can fairly easily resist that.

One of the events at “Wake” was a talk on Trump, and his methods of persuasion, and when a set of company symbols were presented and we were asked to think of the slogan associated with each, only one of them came immediately to my mind (in which I was very much in the minority). However, I was with the vast majority in being able to name Trump’s main catch-phrases (“build a wall” and “make America great again”) – not that that endeared Trump to me in the slightest, but I will readily concede that he was massively the better marketer when compared with Clinton.

The chap I was talking with, by the way, was of the “TINA” (“there is no alternative”) school of thought regarding capitalism. He might not have liked screwing his suppliers and inflating his prices wherever possible, but those were things he had to do, because “that’s how the system works”. And there is no alternative… (except that, in fact, there is – at least there is within entirely traditional Christianity). The thing is, the conceptual space in economics has been appropriated by those who want to push neoliberalism as the one and only economic system, and it has been largely successful. The talk on Trump’s persuasive techniques also made much of his tricks of controlling the language used. (Although I can’t find a link to Alex Kazam’s talk, this episode of the Political Philosophy podcast does deal with the issue at around the 50 minute mark – the podcast then goes on usefully to discuss ideology, and is worth listening to if only for the consideration of whether we should allow Starbucks to sell human organs…)

So, in relation to financialised free market capitalism, I note that in many, if not most, circles these days, it is regarded as gospel that only free market capitalism works to bring general benefits to humanity (and the “financialised” part is just glossed over, despite the fact that most of the profits of Western capitalists these days come not from making stuff but from manipulating markets). It is contrasted with communism, which it is claimed has been tried and doesn’t work (but see the link in my preceding paragraph, for at least one instance), equating communism with a command economy, like those of the former Soviet Union and China (or, at least, China before its recent foray into a mixture of command economy and capitalism). But, of course, communism is not equivalent to a command economy, and the greatest command economies in the world today are those of the big multinational corporations – and those are not criticised for their central control.

In the USA, and to a lesser extent in the UK, there is also a failure to distinguish between Socialism * and Communism, and particularly Democratic Socialism and Communism. This results in American commentators saying that Bernie Sanders is “far left”, which would be laughable were it not for the success of the ideology of neoliberalism in commanding the vocabulary and shifting the political centre to what would, 40 years ago, have been regarded as fairly far to the right even in the States. Similarly, in the UK, I know plenty of people who consider Jeremy Corbyn to be dangerously “far left”, despite the fact that in my teens and twenties he would have been looked at by very many friends of mine as being at best a moderate Socialist, with many many shades of left between him and the real far left, which was in those days fought over by Marxists, Trotskyites and Anarchists in the mould of Bakunin. Corbyn is, of course, rather further left than Sanders, but that isn’t saying very much!

This tendency is so far advanced in the USA that a right wing commentator a couple of years ago suggested that Obama was proposing communism – in the form of socialised medicine. Of course, Obamacare is not actually socialised medicine at all – it isn’t even single payer – what it is is a compulsory insurance scheme with some regulation of the insurers. Here in the UK we still have mostly socialised medicine; the government pays for the NHS from tax revenue and the service is free at the point of delivery (except that there are charges for dentistry, not as high as private patient rates, and we do pay a flat rate for prescriptions if we are not in an exempt category – which, being over 60, I actually am now). I am not certain that it will stay that way, however, as the NHS increasingly has to contract out certain areas to commercial, profit-taking firms; as long as we have Conservative governments, there is at least a tendency in the party to think that America does health better – at least, that’s what they say; a jaundiced observer might think that their objection is that their friends cannot make a huge profit from medicine…

The result is that those who are critics of the current state of capitalism feel they need to find other labels; they have effectively capitulated to the re-definition of what were a set of perfectly serviceable terms, and now look for labels like “progressive”. I anticipate that the neoliberals will come trying to redefine “progressive” as well, and in a few years it will just be, for the general populace, another term for socialism, “which is” communism, “which is” command economy. Let’s face it, in Christianity the fundamentalists of the beginning of the 20th century had colonised “evangelical” by the end of the century and are now trying to colonise “Christian” – and they are to some extent succeding, as witness several occasions when someone has said “I became a Christian”, I’ve asked what they were previously, and they’ve answered “Anglican”, or “Methodist”, or “Catholic”. All of those labels were, the last time I looked, just labels for slightly different kinds of Christian.

In “1984”, George Orwell wrote about a society in which words were routinely redefined – it was called “Newspeak”. When I originally read the book (significantly before 1984), I considered it mere fantasy – but I am now thinking that it was prophetic, and merely a few years out in its label. We are being forced by these redefinitions of language to think in certain ways – such as that Sanders is “far left”, because he is a Democratic Socialist, and that has now come to mean, for many people, exactly the same thing as Communist, and exactly the same thing as “the government will come and take all your stuff”.

But, at the moment, the equation Socialist = Communist = Command Economy is a lie. Well, actually, it’s more than one lie, as they are three entirely separate things.

I really hate marketing…

* Don’t be put off by the title of this link – it’s adequately argued for a general audience – and the writing of this post has been much delayed by a binge of listening to a lot of Prof. Woolff’s other lectures…

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Rollins and Eyre: Chaos magicians?

April 26th, 2018
by Chris

A few years ago, my son, who was by this time identifying himself as a practising pagan (with an eclectic choice of deities) rang me and asked if I’d heard of Chaos Magic – which I hadn’t. He suggested that I look up the Wikipedia entry on the subject and ring him back. I link to the current form of the article; at the time, there was a little more detail about the very early days, where the article now states “first formulated in West Yorkshire in the 1970s”, and it included a quotation from a West Yorkshire Chaos magician who called himself “Mick McMagus”. For those not from the UK, or born later than the 1970s, at the time there was a very well known wrestler called Mick McManus, so the impression he was trying to convey really didn’t need the quotation from him which was also then in the article:- “There’s basically two kinds of magick. There’s puff’s magick, and git-ard Magick. Chaos is git-ard Magick.” (the “h” is frequently dropped by Yorkshiremen).

As I found when I rang Alex back, he thought the article, plus a conversation he has recently had with a Chaos magician in Lancaster, was very reminiscent of some things I’d said about theory and practice of rituals in some late night conversations when he was still living at home and searching for his own spiritual path. What he didn’t know, and I did, was that in the early 1970s I was for a while a regular attender at the Leeds Pagan Moot (Leeds being the largest city in West Yorkshire), and had met Mick McMagus, who was in those days, if I remember right, a Crowleyan magician (I certainly don’t remember him as yet using the term “Chaos Magick”, though I do remember him saying similar things to his quote above about Crowleyan magick) and (I think) Ray Sherwin. And I’d talked at some length about theories I had about ritual there… I was at the time in my phase of looking for any tradition which held out some hope of producing at least somewhat reliably a repetition of my initial mystical experience, and that included not only several Eastern traditions, but also all the strands of Western Occultism which I could find.

The Moot was a stimulating atmosphere, including Wiccans and Pagans of various types,  and Discordians as well as Crowleyan and other Ritual Magicians, most of which are now acknowledged as influences in the development of Chaos Magic (with or without a final “k” – at the time I tended to get right up the noses of the Crowleyans by insisting on pronouncing both the c and the k when talking of their particular brand). In point of fact, having just returned from Peter Rollins’ “Wake” festival in Belfast, the atmosphere there was vaguely reminiscent of the Moot, with the obvious difference that the Moot tended to avoid anything smacking of Christianity (the Wiccans were rather keen on “never more the burning times”, and were extremely suspicious of anything Christian, though some of the ritual magicians were using distinctly Christian symbol-sets); aside from that, discussion was far-ranging and very open, and lots of ideas were thrown around and played with. “Play” is particularly appropriate in the case of any conversation involving Discordians! It was, to use Pete’s terminology, a kind of “suspended space” itself, just as is Wake.

So I’m pretty confident that I was there when Chaos Magic was being born. Whether I could claim that it used magical theories which I provided is less certain; my ideas were drawn from Occult writers such as W.B. Butler, Dion Fortune, Gareth Knight and W.G. Grey (inter alia) with, perhaps, a bit of my own spin on them, and all of those authors were known to at least some of those at the Moot. My position at the time was that you could operate in any symbol-system you liked, and could indeed invent your own symbols, either exclusively or in combination with extant symbols, the essential for efficacy being that you believed in them for the time being. In passing, I generally avoid syncretism; to my mind, if you do mix symbol-sets, you need to be very good at it (or, perhaps, “git-ard”); I massively prefer to operate in a single symbol-set – after all, most of those have been in use for many years, and have been refined to work together and not produce conflict, which is not something you can assume if you do the typical “New Age” thing.

Crowleyans, and Chaos magicians, tend to hold to Crowley’s maxim that magic is “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will”; my own position, then and now, it that it should read “change in consciousness”. I was, in any event, not interested in anything other than causing changes in consciousness, and am significantly sceptical about whether these practices can produce gross physical effects (though not dogmatically convinced – I’ve experienced things and hear people I consider fairly reliable talk of things which might indicate that sometimes, though not often, there may be a physical result). In any event, I have serious reservations about whether one should try to produce physical effects even if it is possible.

[Just in passing, there wasn’t much emphasis during the 1970s discussions on sigil magic or Austin Osman Spare. Personally, I have a huge suspicion of Spare (second, perhaps, to my suspicion of Crowley), partly due to a recorded incident in which he was trying to materialise roses in a basement, and was declaiming “Roses, Roses, ROSES!…”, at which point a sewage pipe running across the ceiling broke, showering him with raw sewage. Perhaps an ingredient in producing roses by a less supernatural route?]

Having explained all that to Alex, he’s convinced that I’m a Chaos magician practising with a mostly Christian symbol-set – and I can’t really fault his reasoning or disagree with him too strongly, despite having been doing it for thirty years without any contact with others who describe themselves that way, or having read any of the books, and looking to most observers just like someone practising Christian devotional techniques (OK, with the occasional lapse into Buddhist, Hindu or Taoist). It’s a kind of meta-philosophy for me, and does inform how I look at what I do.

Returning to Pete Rollins, his Icon community and, to an extent, some of his Wake festivals have included elements of what he calls “transformance art” – and I, in my turn, think that what he is doing (or those around him are doing) is definitely a form of Chaos magic. They have the objective of causing changes in consciousness, they draw from a wide variety of symbol-sets (and sometime invent symbols) and they frequently have an element of subversive humour. At this year’s “Wake”, Pete referred to me in one discussion as a fellow Discordian. That’s probably not quite correct in either of our cases – while we are clearly both influenced by Discordianism, as Pete said, it isn’t a system on which he can build anything, as it’s too tongue-in-cheek and ironic, and I agree with him – and neither of us have really enough Discordianism in us to, for instance, claim it as our religion – but I think we are probably both Chaos magicians, of a sort. Chaos magic isn’t really something you need to join, it’s a way of looking at things and of doing them, and I think we both have a sizeable dose of that. I did ask him about whether he’d encountered Chaos magic, and he said he hadn’t. This is, perhaps, the rest of my side of that conversation…

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resurrections…

April 23rd, 2018
by Chris

My Easter was lightened by a mis-spelled church sign from just up the road from me. On Sunday morning, I was risen indeed – at around 5 a.m. for the daybreak service, which I went to with a little voice at the back of my brain suggesting that I’d get there and find the church doors closed, and a sign saying “April Fool” on them – Easter Sunday coinciding with 1st April isn’t that uncommon, but does give a host of opportunities to comedians, and it seems a comedian has taken residence in my subconscious. This might become apparent later in this post…

I’ve talked about my problems with accepting a physical resurrection in my previous post, and in a 2013 post prompted by the same preacher. In those, I’ve pretty much avoided letting the comedian loose. The thing is, the more I think about the model of resurrection  Jason Michaeli and others say I have to accept to be any kind of Christian, the more it looks to me like “Bible IV – the Zombie Apocalypse” – because whatever they say they are thinking, they are actually thinking about revivified corpses, even if they are somewhat transformed (after all, corpses do not typically walk through walls…). This is not Paul’s version of a resurrected body from 1 Corinthians 15:

“But someone may ask, “How will the dead be raised? What kind of bodies will they have?” What a foolish question! When you put a seed into the ground, it doesn’t grow into a plant unless it dies first. And what you put in the ground is not the plant that will grow, but only a bare seed of wheat or whatever you are planting. Then God gives it the new body he wants it to have. A different plant grows from each kind of seed. Similarly there are different kinds of flesh—one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish.

There are also bodies in the heavens and bodies on the earth. The glory of the heavenly bodies is different from the glory of the earthly bodies. The sun has one kind of glory, while the moon and stars each have another kind. And even the stars differ from each other in their glory.

It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies. For just as there are natural bodies, there are also spiritual bodies.”

Now, I’m pretty sure that Paul is reaching a bit as far as knowledge of what a resurrected body is like is concerned. He has himself only experienced what, from the account in Acts, was pretty definitely an apparition – and he knows that it wasn’t flesh and blood as we know them (and I can hear Scotty from Star Trek speaking that sentence…), but is imagining what it is actually like, using the concepts available to him. As it turns out, David Bentley Hart seems to agree with me. He points out, inter alia, that Paul also declares that flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom (or, arguably, enter it).

I’ve frequently read that the Jewish concept-set of the time did not allow for what later became the Christian concept of disembodied spirits, but demanded that any spirit be concretely expressed. This is rather similar to my own idea, using determinedly non-philosophical language, that there is “stuff” and there is “pattern”, and there are no patterns which are not expressed, somehow, in “stuff”. Walter Wink, in fact, makes much of this idea in his “Powers” trilogy, pointing out that the powers and principalities which Paul writes of were conceived as having definite physical expression; in Wink’s case, there may well be a “spirit of a nation” (or archangel), but there is no spirit without there being a nation. Other powers identified by Wink are such things as churches, companies and ideologies (such as capitalism). You can’t have them disembodied… which may be a disappointment to some conservatives! Thus, when accounts were written of Jesus being experienced post-crucifixion, they had to be expressed in terms of some embodiment, and some of them very definitely have “flesh and blood” like characteristics. So, too, however, have at least two tangible apparitions I have personally experienced, which I am pretty confident were entirely subjective on my part.

Indeed, the well known passage regarding marriage in heaven (Matt. 22:23-32) bears witness to a number of things. Firstly, the Sadducees not believing in resurrection at all may well point to a group which thought bodily resurrection was the only kind there should be, but were cognisant of the difficulties of that. Secondly, Jesus plainly did belive in some form of resurrection. However, his comment “as the angels in heaven” very strongly indicates that he, too, thought that this was not in a normal flesh-and-blood body.

So, I ask myself, why do those who keep posting on the necessity for belief in a physical resurrection more or less indistinguishable from rescuscitation do so, rather than allowing that some of us might fully accept resurrection, but think that it is in some different way? My suspicion is that they are falling into the Sadducee trap – if the resurrection is not bodily, not a rescuscitation, then it is no resurrection at all, and my belief that it is not a bodily resurrection (OK, on a very strong balance of probabilities basis, rather than something more absolute – after all, we do not have the accounts of people who have been resurrected as to what the process consisted of, as Jesus seems to have been silent on the issue) threatens their belief. Like the Sadducees, they cannot see that there is another possibility (or, in fact, several possibilities, as I’ve alluded to in the previous posts I link above).

However, friends, my belief does not affect your belief at all. I claim no authority (any authority I have derives from scripture or other more learned than myself), and just because I believe something is no good reason for you to do so. So your belief is unaffected.

Unless, of course, in your heart of hearts you actually believe that I’m right enough for there to be no physical resurrection, but not right enough for there to be non-physical resurrection – which makes me a kind of Schroedinger’s authority, right and wrong at the same time.

(Incidentally, to illustrate the provisional and non-absolute nature of my thinking here, I’ve used a small “r” and added an “s” to “resurrection”. There may be many ways to resurrect, indeed, and I may be wrong, there may have been a rescuscitation and a physical resurrection and a spiritual resurrection and a transmuting of a dead person into something unknown to modern physics – and a metempsychosis, and a chanelling, and, and…)

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He is risen indeed

March 29th, 2018
by Chris

It’s that time of the year again. People are wrestling with the idea of the resurrection, and Jason Michaeli (among others) has weighed in with a post claiming you have to believe in a physical resurrection in order to be a Christian. A sample of his attitude is contained in his Easter Sunday sermon:-

“You don’t have to believe it. But you owe it to the first Christians to take their testimony or leave it. Do not turn it into something else entirely. They didn’t believe the resurrection message was a metaphor or a myth. They didn’t think Easter was really about timeless truths. They thought it was the truth. That it actually happened.

In history. At Jerusalem, under Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, on the Sunday morning after the Passover when he died between noon and 3 in 33AD. Around tea time, as Monty Python’s Life of Brian puts it. All the little details, they’re there to reinforce to you that it happened. In history.

And if it didn’t happen, all the butterflies and sentimentalities in the world can’t mask over the fact that not only are we wasting our time here every Sunday, we are worse than liars.”

And I don’t believe in it. I can’t, much as I might like to. I can just about manage to suspend disbelief enough to say that a physical resurrection is not quite an impossibility, but that is a long way from belief in the sense that Jason means it. I also have a really major problem with a view that God-the-creator would need to break the rules he (in this mindset) laid down for the operation of the universe, which were good in the first place (I blogged some time ago about this in several posts under the general title “And God saw that it was good”).

And it distresses me when someone whose writing (and podcasting) I like and respect effectively turns round and says “Chris, you can’t be a Christian”. Jason isn’t alone there, either – there are quite a few bloggers who are dusting off Paul’s “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain” from 1 Cor. 15, and saying effectively the same thing.

Unless you can bring yourself to give mental assent to something having happened which is supremely unlikely, you cannot be one of us, in other words. This smacks, to me, of the well known feature of cults, that they demand belief in something totally at odds with everything we know of reality.

Many of us can’t do that – indeed, most people I know, living in a fairly secular society in the UK of 2018, couldn’t do that. To insist upon this seems to me to evict quite a lot of Christians from the fold – I am by no means alone in my view, there are significant numbers of “Christian atheists”, and a lot of other people in the pews who, in conversation with me, will change the subject quickly if “physical resurrection” is mentioned and look uncomfortable; they manage to preserve themselves by not thinking about it, as (presumably) if they did, they would be with me.

It also has major implications for evangelism, and despite my liberal-to-radical theology, I actually take the “Great Commission” seriously. Asking that someone believe in the impossible (OK, the extremely improbable) as a start point is probably the 21st century equivalent of Paul’s opponents in the first century demanding that male converts slice of a chunk of their penis. Not a demand which is likely to get you many converts – which is very probably why Paul was so keen on avoiding this requirement of being Jewish…

I wrote at some length in response to a previous post of Jason’s back in 2013, which I’ve since updated substantially. Much of what I’d argue is there, including a detailled acocunt of why I don’t think (being a retired lawyer) that the evidence in scripture is actually in favour of physical resurrection. This time, however, the issue crops up during Holy Week, and on Sunday morning I will be getting up again at silly o’clock for the daybreak service, which is possibly THE highlight of the year for me in terms of church services. I will be responding to “Christ is risen” with “He is risen indeed” with the rest of the worshippers.

Why would I do that, if I don’t believe in a “physical resurrection”?

Because I do, absolutely, believe in a resurrection; every bit of evidence I know of tells me that Jesus was raised in the consciousnesses of his followers, starting shortly after his death and continuing to today. As Paul tells us, Christians are “the body of Christ“, Teresa de Avila says “Christ has no body but ours“, and history tells us that that body grew over the four or five centuries following the crucifixion to the point where it became the religion of the greatest empire the West had so far seen, and that it has continued to grow, with at least a presence in every nation in the world.

Beside that fact, what need to I have of a revivified corpse which, perhaps, talked with a few Judaeans during a month of so after the first Easter and then ascended into heaven? That would be a magic trick. I have no need of magic tricks, and neither does Jesus. The resurrection, from my point of view, is FAR MORE than just “physical resurrection”.

He is risen indeed.

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Lessons from Cromwell

March 25th, 2018
by Chris

Sitting waiting for the service today, I was musing about Palm Sunday, and how it represents a tragic misidentification of Jesus as the “strong man” come to liberate Israel, and, as my mind tends to work that way, noticed a prominent tomb which has most of a recumbent statue of the occupant on top of it. I say “most of” because the hands and head have been destroyed.

They were probably destroyed by religious zealots during the period of the Civil War, which was the last time we placed a “strong man” in total control of this country, in the form of Oliver Cromwell, and those religious zealots were very significant in putting Cromwell there. They were Puritans, and considered that imagery in churches was idolatrous, whether it was supposed to represent God (or Jesus) or not. Most of the churches I know which predate the Civil War bear similar scars where religious artistry has been destroyed or defaced. I say “probably” because there was a spate of damage to churches earlier, during the short rule of Henry VIII’s son Edward, when the Puritan tendency had become powerful within the Anglican church and was supported for a while by Edward’s advisors. The damage under Cromwell was, however, far more widespread and severe, so I think it likely to have dated from then.

The same group were significantly instrumental in passing a number of laws during the period of the Protectorate – we did, at least, have a somewhat constitutional despotism (being English, we rarely do things entirely whole-heartedly) which included demanding the strict observance of Sunday, closing down theatres and banning drinking, gambling and public dancing. They also made their own pet brands of very conservative protestantism fully legal, though Quakers and some extreme groups were still beyond the pale! So were Catholics; the late king, executed by command of the same parliament, had at least flirted with Catholicism…

The English Civil War is usually presented in history lessons these days (and to an extent even when I was studying history at school) as a war about freedom versus absolutism, of constitutional, parliamentary rule versus government by a tyrant. Certainly, Charles I had tried to rule without parliamentary approval to an extent, and was an admirer of the European tradition, in France and Spain, of “the divine right of kings”, which was supported by the Catholic church – which may have been one of the attractions of Catholicism to him, had his marrying a French Catholic princess not been sufficient. In fact, the parliament which passed those laws was already pruned by Cromwell (it consisted of less than half the actual elected representatives), and only lasted four years before he dissolved it and ruled as “Lord Protector” – for life, no less, and which title passed very briefly to his son before the country decided it had had enough of what was, in the end, more of an absolute rule than the late Charles had ever managed.

I wonder whether any lessons can be learned by the study of a time when religious conservatives supported a strong man into office, on the basis that he would support their turning of the state into an exclusive homeland for their rather unpleasant religious beliefs, and were then disappointed when he became a greater tyrant than anything he replaced?

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Cold dead hands

March 10th, 2018
by Chris

There’s another of a set of articles looking to provide an alternative “Invisible Hand” to the one we currently allegedly have on Evonomics. The idea behind it is sort of sound, given that it imposes a cost on externalities which companies generally ignore such as environmental degredation, though frankly this is something which a well-functioning government should be doing (and that might be a local government rather than a national one).

My trouble with this approach, tweaks to the system so that “Invisible Hand” actually works, is that I’m convinced the concept is very fundamentally broken.

It is correct, as far as I’ve seen in a lot of years dealing with modest commercial entities, that this system works in a competitive environment of medium-sized companies dealing in wholesale goods, which is really what Adam Smith had in mind when he wrote “The Wealth of Nations”. It is, after all, pretty much what he saw, looking at a very early industrial revolution Britain from a position somewhat divorced from the realities of life at the bottom. We hadn’t, for instance, yet had time for the free market approach to produce massive corporations with monopoly power (or effective cartels of companies, with the same effect) in a lot of the economy. However, that is what is generally agreed as the end-point of free market capitalism, and as Smith remarked “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” Once you have that monopoly power, there is no constraint on prices via bargaining, because there can be no bargaining.

A further negative of this inevitable end-point is that while the “free market” is lauded as a better alternative to a command economy (centralised planning) – it is regularly pointed out by conservatives that we have seen a lot of command economies, chiefly in countries nominally communist, and they have failed miserably (the five and ten year plans beloved of Stalin and Mao are cases in point) – when you get multinational companies economically more powerful than many countries, they are practising their own form of command economics; they are all going to plan centrally. This, I would argue, gives you all the negatives of a command economy without the positives of at least nominally acting in the interest of the people or of having elections with a wide franchise which can change their leadership and policy, and, these days, an ethos focused entirely on “shareholder value” – which assumes that shareholders are only interested in the very short term (because that’s how stocks and shares are traded these days, with little or no transaction cost and no incentive to retain them long term). It isn’t even very sound self-interest, as that would argue that the company should look to its long term future, not just the next quarterly return.

There’s another really major fault in the “Invisible Hand” assumption when it comes to retail sales. Whereas if you’re buying millions (or even tens of thousands) of pounds worth of goods, you are going to bargain strongly if you can, it is just not worth the effort to bargain in the same way for a loaf of bread at the supermarket. I’ve certainly bargained that way on sales and purchases for myself – a house, a car, even (once) a pair of Moroccan carpets (in a bazaar in Tangier), but not when it comes to smaller things. There isn’t really the opportunity where I live, and although in Tangier people were bargaining hard over small items, if I were to go out for a basket of shopping it would take me all day to negotiate for the best price there, whereas it takes half an hour in my local Tesco. (From my point of view, you haven’t bargained hard enough unless you’ve walked out of the negotiation at least once – it took me well over an hour to bargain for the carpets, and should have taken longer had I wished for the best price, but I was constrained by needing to rejoin my guided tour… and yes, I did walk out once, but should have walked out twice of three times. Nonetheless, they cost me about a quarter of what they’d have cost in a carpet shop near my home, so I wasn’t too unhappy!).

It has to be a supermarket, because the smaller traders in town can’t compete on price (which a true invisible hand economy would allow them to) – they also suffer from the fact that the negotiation costs (in time) are the same if you’re buying £100 of goods or if you’re buying £100,000, and from the lack of weight which that huge purchasing power gives the supermarkets. Yes, there is some competition between the available supermarkets, but on the whole they tend to standardise their prices (not that I’m alleging a cartel, you understand), and the “discount supermarkets” tend to be unattractive for one or more of the reasons that they lack choice (economies of scale), are in locations which are difficult to access (lower land prices…) or have huge queues at the checkouts (economies of staffing) – plus, there is a cost in my time, petrol and patience in having to go round several places comparing prices (there’s still a cost even if all the information is online) and then round them again to make the actual purchases. Yes, there is some invisible hand effect – if one of them were overall significantly more expensive than the others, I would go elsewhere – but they can fairly freely overprice some items which will then slip into my basket because it would be too much effort (and expense, in time at the least) to go to somewhere else to buy just that item. I do know people who do split their shop between multiple places, but not all that many – and I strongly doubt that there are enough of them to have the overall effect which the “Invisible Hand” demands.

That, of course, is where I live. In a larger town, there might be more supermarkets closer together, and things might work rather better. In a smaller town, there might be only one supermarket, and the only constraint on its prices would be the threat of an independent retailler setting up in competition. I actually live just outside my town, and sometimes shop at the small Tesco which is in my village – and the prices there are fairly consistently higher than those in the big Tesco in town. Not by enough, in every case, to persuade me to go further, but significantly – and I tend to drive. For someone on foot, there would be even less competition.

And don’t get me started on the idea that the “Invisible Hand” has ever operated as economists describe in labour markets…

The trouble is, as this article tends to confirm, economics has to have an Invisible Hand as a matter of faith – it has to be a faith issue, as it’s never worked in practice outside the limited scope I described at the beginning of this post. So, if their God seems to be malfunctioning, they need to tweak him. Personally, I think that God is dead. But you won’t easily prise the concept out of the minds of economists – perhaps out of their cold, dead, Invisible Hands?

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Gun control

February 24th, 2018
by Chris

I can’t help weighing in on the gun control arguments which afflict our American cousins occasionally, and this is possibly the best set of counter-arguments for the usual arguments against gun control I’ve seen.

I am, incidentally, very glad to live in a country with strict gun control laws. If ours were relaxed to US levels, I would be scared. I wouldn’t be particularly scared that an armed robber would appear and demand property from me at gun point (though if they did, I’d give them what they wanted and hope not to be shot, rather than resist – no property is worth a life, even my own), but, looking at my neighbours, I would be terrified that one of them would shoot me (or a member of my family or a friend) by mistake. I know very few people who I would trust to go around armed with a gun, and almost all of them are in the armed services or the police. There are a few honorable exceptions – a farmer or two, and a couple of enthusiasts for target shooting. All of those keep their weapons very securely, and none of them would be able to extract them from secure storage fast enough to combat (say) a home invasion. All of them would pass any tests one might consider sensible for gun owners – psychological stability, for instance, and both initial and continuing training.

Even those I’d frankly prefer not to be armed in a situation where there was an active shooter in a public place. I wouldn’t trust their training enough…

 

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