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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Everything is emergent…

February 14th, 2018
by Chris

As my last post indicated, I’ve just been reading “All Things in Common”, and have been seriously persuaded that communism (not the State-centered kind, but the informal kind which obtains among friends) is the way Christians should manage their economic relationships. I’ve also followed a friend’s recommendation and viewed the video of Rob Bell’s 2016 “Everything is Spiritual” talk.

Rob puts forward a compelling view in which, in essence, what we refer to as the “Spiritual” or as “God” is, at least potentially, an emergent phenomenon. Elementary particles group together and become atoms (and display different behaviours), atoms group together and become molecules (and display different behaviours), molecules group together and become cells (and display different behaviours), cells group together and become organisms (and display different behaviours), and eventually you get consciousness – which displays another set of rules entirely. What happens when you group together conscious organisms? Well, he suggests that then you get a next level of behaviour, and that might be what we refer to as “spiritual”.

Rob isn’t the only person to have come up with that idea. I blogged a while ago about Nancy Abrams book “A god that could be real”, which uses the same concept. It does, indeed, stand to reason that a higher level grouping is going to display a different set of behaviours, and (in the usual way of emergent phenomena) one which cannot be predicted from looking at just a large collection of units of things from the next level down.

The thing is, we also know something about how groups of people behave, and it isn’t always an advance on what individual human beings do. Mob psychology, for instance, is something far nastier than you might predict from looking at the individuals who form the mob – and, indeed, something nastier than they would have thought would happen when they became involved with it. There is a famous definition of a committee as “an animal with six or more legs and no brain”; groups of people sometimes look more stupid than the individuals who comprise them, in other words (and that goes for mobs, too). My worry is that what emerges from a collection of humans might be more vicious and more stupid than any of the individuals composing it. Indeed, the result might look a little like some of the Old Testament pictures of God, or the God concept which gives rise to the idea of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.

[By the way, dear reader, if you happen to belong to the conservative/evangelical wing of Christianity, I am not suggesting that God is actually stupid or vicious, merely that some of his past followers have seen God in a way which inevitably leads to that conclusion, and have written down their understanding – though, as some of that is now scripture and some is doctrinally ingrained in much of Protestantism, that might not decrease your unease…]

If, however, I put together the overwhelming ethos of mutual care which Montero suggests is at least a main message of Jesus (if not the main message), things look a little different. Evolutionary biology has shown us that while competition between individuals tends to select the most able individuals, where there is competition between groups, the groups which perform best are those in which the members cooperate the most. This is actually the major reason why a hairless ape ill suited for being an apex predator (namely humanity) has become, collectively, the most fearsome apex predator on the planet; we cooperate with each other.

If we are moved mostly by a spirit of cooperation and mutual care, therefore, any emergent phenomenon arising out of humanity in bulk may not be more stupid and vicious, it may actually be something more intelligent and more compassionate than we can be individually. You can see elements of this in the phenomenon which makes “ask the audience” a better strategy than “phone a friend”; as long as a group is reasonably well informed, the group will deliver, on average, a better answer than any individual member.

In my dim and distant childhood, I can recall my parents saying that we were on this planet to help others, and my response tended to be “If I am here to help others, what are they here for?” (my parents were pretty much Sermon on the Mount Christians, and I was a precocious little toerag). Emergence provides the answer – it isn’t a matter of a chain of one helping another with eventual circularity; if we cooperate, the purpose will emerge from the whole group. As Rob suggests, we will be like the limbs and organs of a greater whole (the Church as the body of Christ), and “what are they here for?” becomes something which is above our pay grade – but something which will emerge. Something looking a lot like the Kingdom of God, perhaps?

And what of the situation if we do not adopt Jesus’ prescription for humanity? We will then, I think, be contributing to the System of Satan. A brood of vipers, in fact…

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All things in common…

February 13th, 2018
by Chris

I’ve been reading “All Things in Common” by Roman Montero recently, and have changed my mind as a result. (I can’t think of a better endorsement of a book!).

Not about whether following the economic prescriptions of Jesus would result in an effectively communist society; the author there merely confirms what I have come (reluctantly) to believe, that to follow Jesus’ instructions fully would mean effectively communism; holding what you actually possessed for the benefit of the community at large, if necessary selling it and providing for the poor and if not, sharing the property itself or its produce with others without preference between yourself and them, or between them – and that “the community” and “others” there means the widest possible interpretation; no-one, irrespective of whether they are of your family or another, of your race or another, of your ethnicity or another, of your nationality or another, of your sexual orientation or another, of your socioeconomic class or another or even of your religion or another should be excluded.

No, the point on which I have changed my mind is the question of whether the early church practiced this for an extended period. We know from Acts 2 and Acts 4 that this definitely was practiced, notably by the early Jerusalem church. but I have tended to take the view, widespread among scholars (including, as Montero points out, such heavyweights as James Dunn and John Dominic Crossan) that this was a fairly short-lived experiment. After all, from our 20th-21st century viewpoint, it fails miserably to conform to our indoctrination, which tells us that anything other than free-market capitalism will fail, and communism will fail quicker and more spectacularly than other deviations from the gospel of Hayek and Friedman. I have blogged in the past suggesting that Paul’s collection on behalf of the Jerusalem Church was evidence that the experiment had not worked, and that they therefore needed bailing out, and urged that we follow Jesus’ commands despite their impracticality. After all, I’ve argued, this pacifist business is pretty impractical, but nonetheless Christians through the ages have considered it at least counsel of excellence, and some denominations (for example Mennonites and Quakers) have actually followed the route of non-violence fairly completely.

The thing is, Montero shows pretty conclusively from a study of a large body of material up to and including the fourth century that actually, it was not just the first-century Jerusalem church doing a short-lived (and failed) experiment, this was a characteristic of Christian communities which was widespread through the Roman Empire, and it was still going strong in the Fourth Century, some three hundred years later. He also picks up a lot of refererences in Paul and the other writers of epistles to indicate that this was not a set of commands of Jesus which were already being subverted by his first and second century followers, but something which can legitimately be regarded as a general New Testament viewpoint.

And, of course, clear commandments from Jesus to his followers.

So we should all become communist…

Yes, I recoiled at that too. However, Montero makes the excellent point that what Jesus (and the other NT writers) were advocating was not at all State control of all property, and was not a centralised command economy, so it was not communism as it has typically been put into force in (for instance) the Soviet Union or China. It’s the kind of communism where you freely lend stuff to a friend, or give your neighbour a cup of sugar when they ask for it, without running an account. The kind where you buy a beer for someone without there being an obligation on them to buy you one in return (nor an implicit acceptance that they are of greater status than you because they are providing for you).

But it is also the kind in which, if you have a homeless person in your town and you have accommodation, you provide it without asking for rent, and where if you find someone hungry, you buy them a meal or a trolley of groceries, or invite them round for a meal. And, if the system is working well (as it seems from the accounts Montero has consulted it did for at least three centuries), there will be no homeless and no hungry people in your town, because they will all be being provided for by you and your other Christian neighbours. Or Islamic ones, or Jewish ones, or those of any other faith tradition which follows Jesus without necessarily thinking of it in those terms.

If you love him, follow his commandments…

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Conspiracy against the public

February 7th, 2018
by Chris

So there’s a cheater’s version of monopoly now?

I’m remembering many conversations with my libertarian opposite number on GCP, in which he stressed the inadequacy of planned economies as opposed to free market competition, being inherently inefficient and having a strong tendency to grow without necessarily producing any benefit – and, in conscience, I can’t really argue too much with that. Governments are very large organisations, have far too much administrative superstructure, and are generally extremely bad at forward planning (as, indeed, it seems economists mostly are).

The thing is, it now seems absolutely obvious that if you leave a free market to operate without regulation, it will produce bigger and bigger commercial concerns which will become either cartels or monopolies, and at that point you might as well have governments running things, as all the diseconomies of huge scale will be there, plus the lack of incentive to innovate (you just buy out the competition) and the lack of the competitive mechanism producing efficiency without actual planning. You will also have an organisation which is purely self-interested, even in theory, which at least democratic governments are not supposed to be. I’m thinking of the history of Microsoft here – it has never produced the best software, but it has exploited its near-monopoly (initially aided and abetted by IBM) and it’s vastly greater purchasing power to buy up anything which might pose a threat to it, with only a very few exceptions. It will probably continue to produce software which we curse at but can’t do without ad infinitum, and better software will either be bought up and used by Microsoft or bought up and conveniently forgotten about.

The second avenue is probably the predominant one in the more traditional industries, and I have particularly in mind energy. Oil and coal have, in the past, been vast industries, and still retain commanding power in the marketplace; the only way newer technologies (solar, wind, wave, tidal, geothermal) have been able to make a dent in the effective energy monopoly is by government incentives. Curiously, considering the criticism of command economies, oil and coal have been less farsighted than have governments; it is clear even without taking into account externalities (pollution, notably) that exponentially increasing extraction of limited fossil fuels is going to result in their exhaustion (the only real question is how long that will take); governments are, in some cases, willing to take action to provide against that eventuality, while big oil and big coal have not been. Granted, it is climate change which has been the really major driver there; big oil and big coal have, however, not sought to respond to that (it is, after all, an externality not reflected in their balance sheets) and, in fact, to cast doubt on the overwhelming scientific consensus and, in some cases, buy governments to stop them taking action – something which I am confident has happened in the case of the current US administration.

Let’s face it, if you’ve built hotels on Mayfair and Park Lane, the last thing you want is a better hotel on The Angel Islington…

As Adam Smith wrote 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”.

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Freelance monotheists

February 3rd, 2018
by Chris

Doug Padgitt has posted an excellent discussion featuring himself, Barry Taylor and Ani Zonneveld. Doug and Barry I’ve heard many times, Ani is a liberal Muslim (technically a female Imam), and is a new voice to me.

The explanation of various aspects of Islam which do not tend to get much coverage these days – the tradition of caring for other members of society (which was seen in a major way a couple of years ago when the North of England was hit by flooding in many places, and the most conspicuous non-governmental aid came from Muslim communities) and the insistence on there being “no compulsion in religion” (a literal quotation from the Qu’ran) – was interesting, and very much worth sharing. I was reminded of it when, during the trial of the right-wing terrorist who drove a van into a crowd of Muslim worshippers last year, it was remarked that the Imam of that mosque had protected the perpetrator from an understandably angry crowd, and I thought first “How Christian of him” – but then corrected myself, because what I should have thought is “How Islamic of him”.

Some years ago I was initially somewhat taken aback when, in an internet discussion, I was described as being “a good Muslim” by someone who knew that I was a Christian, or at least an aspiring Christian for some value of that term. The discussion had ranged over a number of topics, religious freedom and “social gospel” being two of them, but what prompted the comment was my writing about the principle of acceptance, working from Twelve Step principles (God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…).

That is, however, the core of Islam, “al-Islam” usually being translated as “submission”, but which could just as well translate as “acceptance”. After the brief period of surprise, I was flattered. I have a lot of commonality with Karen Armstrong (an excellent writer, particularly on the intersections between the three main “religions of the Book”, Judaism, Christianity and Islam), who these days describes herself as a “freelance monotheist”. From all I know of Judaism and Islam, I could readily fit myself into, say, Reform Judaism or Liberal Islam (or the Sufi tradition). However, my upbringing was in Christianity, and that is the language of religious expression with which I am comfortable and in which I was steeped at an early age, so that is the logical place for me to be (the Dalai Lama would agree – he seems fond of telling people from other traditions who come to him and talk of converting to Buddhism that they should first go and become the best practitioner of the system they were raised in).

That illustrates the one point on which I have a major disagreement with a point raised by Doug – he suggested that whereas you are born into Islam (in most cases), Christianity is something which you elect. Doug comes from the evangelical tradition, of course, and fundamental to that tradition is the need to be converted (even if, as I’ve heard from a number of evangelicals, that is from, for instance “Anglican” – a position which grates horribly with me, as I regard “Anglican” as already Christian, just as I do the other 40,000 or so Christian denominations). Maybe, indeed, for him there is far more choice – most of those 40,000 are Protestant denominations, and people shift between those with considerable ease. That isn’t all that surprising, as some of them are separated only by some point of abstruse doctrine which doesn’t actually concern most people at all. There are, however, a number of Christian denominations which are much more like Islam (or Judaism) in that you are born into them and are, in some way, that denomination forever, even if you lose all faith, even if you become an evangelical atheist. Catholicism is the obvious one – once christened, you are either a Catholic or a lasped Catholic. The Amish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists and Latter Day Saints seem to have the same tendency, and I suspect that the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Christian churches are similar, although I have little to no experience of them.

And, despite the fact that I was brought up Methodist and am now Anglican (displaying the kind of shift Doug would be very familiar with), I am also working from the fact that I was born into Christianity, into a Christian culture, and even if I were to start self-identifying as, say, Muslim or Buddhist (Jewish would be more difficult), I am still going to have at least a degree of Christian identity burned into my subconscious, if not my conscious mind. Even though the culture I live in has moved a long way from where it was in my youth, when some form of Christian identity was the norm, to one where a sizeable majority of people self-identify as atheist, agnostic or just “none”, it is still a Christian culture in very many ways.

I’m reminded of the story told by Rabbi Lionel Blue (and which I’ve heard told by an atheist as well), of a visit to Northern Ireland, when he was asked if he was a Protestant or a Catholic. He answered “I’m a Jew”. There was a pause, and then came the question “But are you a Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew?”.

You can’t escape your cultural matrix entirely…

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You have to draw the line somewhere (part 2)

January 16th, 2018
by Chris

(Part 1 of this post looked at how we try and fail to deal with continua conceptually)

I spent around 30 years of my life as a practising lawyer, and the law is perhaps the area of human endeavour where black and white thinking is most evident. It’s obviously so in criminal law, but almost equally so in civil law. We need certainty; is this person guilty or not guilty (only in Scotland, as far as I know, is the middle not excluded, with their third verdict of “not proven”). Is this money owed or not owed? Has this person broken the terms of a contract or not? Should this person be ordered to do (or not to do) something or not?

It is not always easy to choose, particularly where the facts are somewhat unclear, as evidenced by the number of cases in which juries are unable to agree. This difficulty led to the UK government abandoning the old need to have 12 jurors all agree on a guilty verdict, and introducing the majority verdict. These days, you can have two dissenters in a jury of 12, one in a jury of 10. It also led to the abandonment of jury trials altogether in almost all civil cases in the UK (which is a move not followed in the States).

Even when unanimity was required, juries not infrequently got things wrong.

There was also the issue of needing to make a decision when, frankly, you didn’t know if there was a heap or not, in cases decided by judges only, or where the judge issued a strong direction to the jury. Inventive lawyers (including judges) would twist the wording of existing cases a little in order to avoid a result which was patently wrong, and that twist became a part of the law, to be followed, under the system of precedent, by future courts. Those courts, in turn, would feel they needed to twist a little more in some case, and the result was often a very unnatural interpretation of language. The legal maxim there is “hard cases make bad law”.

There are a couple of well-known quotations of Jesus which play on this X / not-X dichotomy; Matthew 12:30 and Luke 9:50; in the first, whoever is not with us is against us, in the second whoever is not against us is with us. The middle is excluded – but, of course, if you take the two quotations together, it is paradoxically allocated in both directions. Rather than ask whether scripture contradicts itself here, I suggest this should be read as paradoxical and pointing at the fundamental inadequacy of human language, which depends on such oppositions. It also depends on us creating the arbitrary dividing lines in continua, (in this case the disposition of others towards us, which may be anywhere between near-identity of objectives, and total enmity), which characterise the discussions about “heaps” and about turquoise. The truth of things is that there are often not such arbitrary dividing lines, despite what our language forces us to say.

Nowhere is this more seen, these days, than in politics. Oh, and in religion – in the Islamic world, the fundamentalists consider any slight deviation from their hardline interpretations of the Hadith to put people “beyond the pale”, including a large percentage of other Muslims, in Christianity, we are regularly seeing people condemned as outside the faith by the Evangelical “gatekeepers” (for instance Rob Bell for suggesting that “love wins” and espousing universal salvation, and a list of academics fired or persuaded to resign from religiously conservative seminaries and universities because their views had developed in a direction which was thought not to adhere exactly to the Westminster Confession or even stricter standards). But then, religion IS political since the Constantinian revolution.

In politics proper, however, we have in the last two years seen two events in opposite sides of the Atlantic which have produced horribly polarised, black and white divisions. In the UK, the issue was Brexit.

In the lead-up to the referendum, I talked with a lot of people about their likely vote. While my long term friends group and my facebook friends were nearly unanimous in rejecting a vote for Brexit, the area I live in voted over 60% for Brexit, and a lot of less close acquaintances were going to vote to leave the EU. There were members of both camps who thought there was only one correct answer, but quite a number on both sides were, on the one hand, dissatisfied with many aspects of the EU, and on the other, willing to accept that the EU has brought many advantages to us. Those in these groups were making a decision because they had to, but where the issue was not so clear cut for them.

I myself voted to remain in the EU; although I don’t like the current lack of direct democratic control in the institution (in which more power is with the appointed Commission and with the Council of Ministers appointed by the various national governments), I don’t like the slavish following of neoliberal economic policies by the European Central Bank (and, to be honest, by most of the hierarchy) and I am unhappy about the subsidy structures, which operate in favour of continental small farmers (including, in Germany, a lot of hobby farmers), the sheer likely economic pain of losing our single unified market of over 500 million people (the UK market is about 11% of that size, and well over half our trade is with other EU countries) weighed very heavily on my thinking (and although Brexiteers claimed that we would be far more prosperous if we left, all studies which have come out since the vote indicate that we will be 5-10% poorer overall), I really favour one of the original founding principles of the EU, which was to ensure by binding countries together that we did not repeat the two world wars of the 20th century, both of which were primarily European wars, and I tend to think that the only way of standing up to global multinationals (some of whom could buy and sell the UK, and we may not be alone there) is to have a more global rather than a less global government.

Many of those I talked to who were voting for Brexit were doing so on the basis that we would be more prosperous (or, at least, not massively less prosperous) if we left, or because we “needed to take back our democracy”, although the EU is democratic, albeit a flawed democracy, and almost all of the European legislation that people cited as intruding on our sovereignty would need to remain unchanged if we were to have anything remotely approaching free trade with Europe. These were just two of the arguments for leaving which I found wholly unconvincing – indeed, only two people I spoke to had what seemed like thoroughly rational reasons. The first thinks that Europe is going to fall apart in the near future due to its internal political differences – and he may be right, but I’d rather wait until it’s clear that is going to be the case.

The other said “I want to see the world burn”. Yes, if that’s what you want, voting for something incredibly damaging might well do the job – although, really, it was a protest vote (as were many other people’s); it was a way of showing that they were dissatisfied with the way the government was functioning. And they never expected to win…

Since the vote, however, I have heard a constant chorus from not only the longstanding Brexiteers that “the people have spoken, we are leaving the EU” irrespective of what terms this can be achieved on. “If we have to crash out with no trade agreements at all with Europe or the rest of the world, that is the will of the people, and it must be followed”, they say – and that includes a raft of MPs, mainly Conservative but some Labour, who originally campaigned to Remain. It is, of course, the case that there was a very small majority among those who voted, and there was no majority if all voters were to be counted – and, in the case of something which demands a major constitutional change, I really feel that there should have been a supermajority. However, that was not the basis on which the referendum was couched (though neither was the fact that it would be considered binding on parliament…)

Institutions and companies are now relocating to continental Europe and the negotiations to secure some form of new trade deal cannot possibly be concluded by the “leave date”, as many pointed out would happen (and we haven’t even left yet). However, if those of us who are now seeing our fears realised, dare to suggest that the facts of the matter are now much clearer than they were when we voted, and it would be only reasonable to ask the electorate to review their decision based on these new facts, we are berated as “Remoaners”, asked to “get behind the programme” and “make Brexit a success”. To that last one I tend to reply that it was their damn idea, and they should be able to do that without my help – indeed, they should have thought about the “how” first  – as for me, I do not believe that Brexit is capable of being made a success.

See how the creep of ideas has gone – from an on-balance decision, hoping for a decent trade deal (and preferably the kind of trade arrangement Norway has with the EU, which several prominent Brexiteers suggested would be likely), which on my responses most Brexit supporters expected, it is now “If we have to crash out of well over 50% of our national markets, what of it? The people have spoken.”

In the USA, of course, the similar issue is the election of Donald Trump to be president. This was another election which, I think, few expected to go the way it did, at least until the very last minute. I am much less knowledgeable about US politics than about those of the UK, and have to admit that I know only two or three people who voted for Trump, so my sampling is not nearly as good.

In that case, however, it didn’t take until after the election for the sides to become fairly polarised; at an early stage some I spoke to were saying they would hold their nose as they voted, but would vote for Trump (because Hilary Clinton “is corrupt”, something I personally find difficult to accept given the level of scrutiny she has been subjected to for decades now), or would hold their nose as they voted, but vote for Clinton, because – well – Trump!

In the early days of his candidacy, few I knew took him seriously; even those I knew who went on to vote for him thought him lacking in any experience with a deeply unpleasant personality and habits, and no real clarity about what he stood for, given his conflicting positions on so many things, but once he was the candidate, things changed.

There was of course during the primaries, a third possibility in the form of Bernie Sanders (a candidate with policies much more along the lines I favour), and a fair amount of my US friends group were Sanders supporters. In much the same way as lines were drawn and positions hardened after the Brexit vote, quite a few of those utterly refused to contemplate voting Clinton after the primary result, some even to the extent of voting Trump – ABC, anything but Clinton! Their position, with which I have much sympathy, was that Clinton was thoroughly in the pocket of big money, and was therefore going to give us “more of the same”, and change was absolutely needed – but to vote for big money directly in the form of Trump? (Actually, to vote for any Republican, given their track record of complicity with big money, astonishes me from anyone with even slightly liberal views). There was some comment that the Republican machine would operate reasonably irrespective of the personal characteristics of the president, or his competence, or his financial ties to foreign states. I perhaps had some hope that that might be the case for, oh, a couple of days after the election result…

But again, there are a couple of “ABC” voters I know who take the “I want to see the world burn” position. Just as with Brexit, I can respect their position, while wishing fervently that we could somehow prevent the conflagration.

As with Brexit, however, since the result became known, I hear choruses of “well, he’s the president, and we should now support him and give him respect” – very much along the lines of “the voters have spoken”. Again, finding out that he is not going to “clean the swamp”, fight Wall Street or, indeed, do anything for middle and lower class voters, and seems to have little clue as to what a president is actually supposed to do, is not producing the “new facts, need to re-evaluate” response. People are just yelling “anything but Clinton” more loudly…

“He who is not with us is against us” rules, to the exclusion of “He who is not against us is of our part”.

Except when you’re claiming a majority, of course…

I suppose, going back to my initial musings, it’s a form of “excluded middle” fallacy – except we’re almost all somewhere in the middle (at least until we are forced to take sides), and so the system eventually manages to exclude all of us.

Perhaps the Taoists have the right idea – everything is black or white in their famous “yin and yang” symbol, making a concession to our need to find boundaries, but the two parts are always inextricably linked, and there is a little point of white in the black, a little point of black in the white.

(Part 3 of this post will look at a specific and very controversial example of black and white thinking in religion, politics and law).

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You have to draw the line somewhere… (part 1)

January 11th, 2018
by Chris

I have friends who are ardently against digital recordings, feeling that analogue recordings (tapes or vinyl) reproduce sound far better than does digital recording – and I fancy they may well be right, though my own hearing is no longer sufficiently acute (or practiced) to convert me to their camp, particularly given the vast convenience of digital recordings. Some of them blame computers, which (at least so far) are resolutely digital devices, having grown up from what were initially a modest number of logical “gates” which were always either “on” or “off”. In the prehistory of computing, those were mechanical, then they became valves, then transistors, and these days are the equivalent of vast arrays of transistors all on a tiny sliver of silicon. Those friends yearn for something more analogue, which they imagine to be more like we are ourselves. Biologicals against computers…

And yet I find that it is not just the convenience of having pieces of kit which deliver yes/no answers to everything  which is “at fault” (of course those include answers which are very long strings of Y/N, binary numbers, such as 001011011001011101001000, which when long enough give an illusion of being analogue); we have developed, in our language and in particular our logic, our own binary predisposition.

It’s not the computers – it’s us.

In order to define anything, we define what it is not – a binary opposition. If you think back to your schooldays, the archetypal essay question started “compare and contrast…” It seems we rarely know what a thing IS until we can work out what it is NOT.

Western logic, at least, has the principle of the “excluded middle” – a thing is either A or not-A, there is no middle ground. OK, some Western philosophy has attempted to move beyond that – postmodern philosophy, in particular, is keen on the ideas of “excess” or “remainder” . In my eyes, it does not deal with these in a particularly comprehensible manner,  though in conscience that may merely be a reflection of my own tendencies to black and white thinking; Eastern philosophy has, perhaps, done it better (and earlier) as witness Peter Adamson’s podcast on Nagarjuna’s tetralemma. (Nagarjuna was a Buddhist philosopher of approximately the second century CE).

In brief, the tetralemma initially acknowledges that there are actually four answers to “is this X?”; “Yes”; “No”; “Neither yes nor no”; and “Both yes and no”. Nagarjuna, however, then goes on to argue strongly that, actually, none of these is the case in a plethora of instances. He would no doubt have loved the app which (to make a philosophical point) leads you to the conclusion that you don’t know what “soup” is.

In the West, however, philosophers have been arguing about when a trickle of sand onto a surface makes a “heap” or a “pile” for millennia. I’ve been present when people have argued quite loudly as to whether turquoise is blue or green – they may have been helped by Nagarjuna to come up with the answer “both and neither”. In fact, it’s a range on the spectrum of visible light between about 490 and about 520 nanometres, and you can expect arguments as to exactly where those dividing lines are… and they are arbitrary. They would be arbitrary even if the range were between (say) 505 nm and 506 nm. Nanometres are themselves arbitrary divisions.

This tendency has lead to some significant theological problems, among other things. “What is God?”, for instance, given the general impulse to apply superlatives to describing God. “God is all in all”, for instance. If there is no “not God” to contrast God against, how do we even start to conceptualise what-it-is-that-is-God? This is a particular problem for the panentheist or pantheist, for whom God is radically omnipresent, but also for anyone taking omnipresence really seriously.

In a linked example, Sam Harris here explores with a Buddhist contemplative, inter alia, the issue of how to talk of mystical and contemplative experience of God, given the dissolution of the sense of boundary between the self and other, highlighting the difference between Advaita Vedanta (which talks of union of the self with the all) and Buddhism (which talks of the self becoming nothing, and the all as being void).


(Part 2 will look at law and politics, with some further nods to religion).

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Vade retro?

January 3rd, 2018
by Chris

Mystics have traditionally been considered very suspect by the Western branches of Christianity. Meister Eckhart was accused of heresy (though he died before judgment could be pronounced), Miguel de Molinos was imprisoned for the latter years of his life, and others were sidelined (frequently to monasteries) and treated with considerable suspicion; most of those who wrote did so in elliptical ways, possibly as much to avoid the attentions of the church hierarchy as to express what is possibly a fundamentally inexpressible experience. Some wrote anonymously, such as the authors of “The Cloud of Unknowing” and the “Theologia Germanica”. Even in the early 20th century, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was regarded as extremely suspect for his “Milieu Divin” theology.

In the late 20th and early 21st century, however, mysticism has at least sometimes been seen in a more positive light. Father Richard Rohr, for instance, is very widely known, and is respected across many divides within Christianity. There is still suspicion, however – Marcus Borg’s mysticism-based identification of Jesus as “spirit man” is one of several factors which led to him being anathema to conservative Christians. It is, I suppose, hardly surprising; mystics have access to what at the very least feels like unmediated contact with God, and this forms a potential source of authority separate from that of scripture and tradition, and from the church hierarchies which exist to interpret these for us. I’ve written before that when Jesus is credited in the Fourth Gospel with saying “I and my Father are one”, this is something which any mystic would feel able to say to themselves, and so is eminently something Jesus could have said, but is almost certainly something he never actually said – because his life-expectancy would have been minimal after saying that in public, given the attitude of the Temple authorities of the time (and probably that of everyday Jews) to percieved blasphemy.

Mysticism also seems to be deeply suspect from the point of view of Peter Rollins “Pyrotheology” project. I’ve written about this before, here and here. (Pete has apologised for the suggestion that the mystical state might be equivalent to psychosis, but has still mentioned the potential connection a few times…)

Now, Pete spends a lot of time talking about mystics, and Meister Eckhart in particular. The snag is, he seems to treat the mystics as having a particular philosophical approach to the question of what-it-is-that-is-God, namely the apophatic, rather than as having a particular experience, albeit one which strongly tends to lead to expressions of negation of conventional categories when attempting to describe what mystics understand as an experience of God (William James, in “Varieties of Religious Experience” identifies this ineffable quality as being one of the characteristics of the mystical experience).

The thing is, the viewpoint is a result of the experience, not its cause. Indeed, talking about mysticism with people who do not themselves identify as mystics, many of whom say “that seems a good way of looking at it”, and so communicating the viewpoint, has never, to my knowledge, contributed to someone actually having a mystical experience themselves. That was for some time a major concern for me – it was, for me, a superlatively good experience, and I wanted to share that with others – but on the whole, couldn’t. Again, James identifies another characteristic as being that it is something which happens to you, not something you do yourself, as essentially passive.

(For what it’s worth, the way to get there is by recognising the signs that there may be a mystical experience developing, and not stop it, for instance by trying to analyse it as it’s happening or by becoming scared; both the dissolution of the sense of self and the realisation of the immensity of the divine can be extremely scary. Contemplation and meditation are both very helpful in training yourself towards this; in addition, most people find an affinity with certain places or situations in which an opening of consciousness is closer for them – the “thin places” of Celtic spirituality, and you can seek those out or create the right circumstances – but that is no guarantee, it merely increases the probability.)

Pete, bless him, goes further in a recent video (which I’m afraid is not accessible without at least some financial contribution to his Patreon page), in which he suggests that as wholeness and completeness (“oceanic oneness”) are not attainable, the suggestion that people can achieve this is effectively Satanic.

Now, were it true that wholeness and completeness were unattainable, I would be with him (at the very least, offering something which is nonexistent is cruel) – but another of the characteristics of the mystical experience is an immense sense of wholeness and completeness (this is not one of the characteristics identified by James, but is one identified by F.C. Happold in “Mysticism; a Study and an Anthology”). Granted, it is transitory (one of James’ characteristics), and it may be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence (several major religious figures have written about a singular event which has shaped the entire remainder of their lives, notably Pascal). However, bringing in the fourth and last of James’ characteristics, the experience is nooetic; it carries some knowledge about the universe (as James puts it), and typically this knowledge is of ultimate oneness.

Again, it is true that you cannot stay in a peak mystical state for very long; you are not going to be able to combine a peak of mystical contemplation with (for example) walking down the street safely, without bumping into lamp posts or getting run down by cars; you are sometime going to need to eat, and attend to other mundane instances of being embodied. However, this long term continuation is not necessary due to exactly that nooetic character; once experienced, it can never be un-experienced, and at least some measure of the consciousness of oneness, wholeness and completeness is going to persist, possibly for life. I will grant that it is a mistake (one which I made for some time, though I did take away from that a much improved facility for not stopping an experience in it’s tracks) to pursue a repetition of such a peak experience to the exclusion of living your life – this results in people who, as has regularly been said, are so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly good.

Having said all that, do I think that proffering the possibility of a peak mystical experience to people is offering them something unattainable, and therefore cruel? No. In the course of something over 40 years of talking to people, I have found both that most people have at some point had experiences which are verging on the mystical, and that if I can stifle my own natural impulses to analyse everything happening to me and to be terrified in the fact of the immeasurably vast, I can at least sometimes progree from “verging on the mystical” to a fuller experience.

And those experiences are so good that I would still like to share them with as many people as possible…


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