Wed 17th Sep 2014 | Last updated: Tue 16th Sep 2014 at 19:31pm

Facebook Logo Twitter Logo RSS Logo
Hot Topics

Comment & Blogs

The one thing missing from the Olympic opening spectacle – this country’s Christian inheritance

An evening of wonder and spectacle could feature the industrial revolution without the Salvation Army

By on Monday, 30 July 2012

London Olympic Games - Day 0

On holiday earlier this week in Scarborough, I came across a copy of the Ethical Record, the monthly journal of the South Place Ethical Society. This Society, which has been patronised in the past by humanist luminaries such as A J Ayer, Julian Huxley, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, Leslie Stephen (father of Virginia Woolf) and Sidney Webb, is an educational charity “whose aims are the study and dissemination of ethical principles based on humanism and free thought, the cultivation of a rational and humane way of life and the advancement of research and education in all relevant fields”.

This particular copy of the journal had an article aimed at disabusing members of the Society from thinking that the UK had once been a group of Christian islands. After all, the writer pointed out, look at the origins of the days of the week: cobbled together from Norse pagan mythology – how Christian is that, I ask you? And what about Christmas and Easter? Really a celebration of the winter solstice, followed by a spring fertility ritual.

What the writer hadn’t realised, obviously, is that it is part of the genius of Christianity to adopt “nature” and transform it into something of grace. So of course, from a philological point of view, one might recall the merely pagan origins of the names of the days of the week while at the same time rejoicing at the new life breathed into the calendar by the Christian liturgical year.

I thought of this narrow and abridged interpretation of our country’s history by the Ethical Society when pondering Danny Boyle’s spectacular showcase of “Great Britain Limited” in his Olympic opening ceremony last week. Jim White in the Telegraph described the film maker’s quirkily brilliant imagination as “ninety minutes of dazzling theatre, dance, film and music; a mash-up of our cultural history delivered at breakneck speed.” Yes – it was all that, and it even made Boris Johnson cry. Yet at the risk of sounding like a beggar at this rich feast for the ears and eyes (if not the mind), I want to add that you can’t separate a country’s cultural history from its spiritual history, especially if this goes back for nearly two millennia.

Danny Boyle comes from a working class Irish Catholic family, was educated by the Salesians and thought about becoming a priest in his youth. Now he describes himself as a “spiritual atheist”. How can you be both? I don’t think the famous thinkers and writers I listed above would have described themselves as “spiritual humanists”. Danny Boyle’s problem is that atheism on its own sounds stark, boring, even ugly. Adding the word “spiritual” gives you an extra dimension: soulfulness, creativity, the divine spark of the imagination, which he brought to such zany triumph in his introduction to the Olympics.

What could Boyle have added to his island story that might have acknowledged the deeper underpinning of our cultural heritage? It’s hard to suggest anything that wouldn’t appear comic or naff, or simply struck a wrong note – but here are my thoughts. Perhaps the evening’s early theme of our “green and pleasant land” to the accompaniment of William Blake’s “Jerusalem” sung by choir boys could have included a nod to the legend of Joseph of Arimathea coming to Glastonbury, especially as a Glastonbury-style tor was included in this tableau. OK, it is only a story – but a pious, ancient, Christian one.

Much has also been made of Boyle’s working-class and therefore Left-wing roots. But being a socialist in the past was never seen as incompatible with being a Christian. William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, was a working-class man whose Christian faith led him to devote his life to the poor. When the theme of the Industrial Revolution was being played out in the stadium, why could we not have thrilled to the sight of a Salvation Army band, something odd, loveable and quintessentially English?

If the band had played that great Christian hymn “Abide with Me” (which was actually sung at the end of the evening as 50 dancers dramatised the conflict between life and death) it would surely have stopped the entertainment feature of the night in its tracks for a brief moment? Boris Johnson might even have wept.

And another thought: there was Rowan Atkinson, running along a beach while the theme tune of the film Chariots of Fire was being played: what about a mention of the real Eric Liddell, a devout Christian missionary in China, who wouldn’t run on the Sabbath because it was no longer part of the pagan calendar but the Lord’s Day?

These isles are full of noises, as actor Kenneth Branagh, aka Isambard Kingdom Brunel, intoned; they are also full of wonder, as Danny Boyle tried to suggest in his idiosyncratic kaleidoscope. Let’s just not forget that the greatest wonder of all, which has changed history itself, is our Christian inheritance.

  • http://twitter.com/petejonesyeah PJ

    You lost me at “working-class and therefore Left-wing”…

  • rjt1

    As a determinist, you must assume that your thought processes are also determined. This means that tomorrow, you may find yourself rejecting determinism, whether due to some random fluctuation in the chemical processes in your brain or some regular process. How will you know which option is true? Will it even make sense to talk of knowledge?

  • TreenonPoet

     Good question regarding the nature of knowledge.

    The only reliable data are those which can be repeatedly confirmed independently of any random fluctuations in the brain or any other unhelpful influences. Barring a major brain malfunction, I can always repeat to myself the reasoning that leads to my conclusion regarding determinism. If a brain malfunction disables my reasoning, that says nothing about determinism because others can duplicate the reasoning process. (The lack of independent verification is what makes religion, and other mental afflictions, so worthless.)

    I would not argue that every event must have a cause (even though it seems to be so), but that every event must either have a cause or be unpredictable (since there is no cause to base a prediction on). Neither case allows for free will, and in that sense every event is deterministic. (You might ask how an unpredictable event can be deterministic. I would reply that the event is determined by any laws of physics that allow such an event.) This line of reasoning works for me every time. I would be interested if you have a valid opposing argument. (None of the opposing arguments that I have seen are valid.)

  • rjt1

    I suppose what I am getting at is that I don’t see how reasoning is possible in a determinist’s world. Just as action is not under the conscious control of its subject but is a function, at bottom, of chemical activity + the illusion of free will, so thinking would be a process produced in the same way, with just as little control + an illusion (I am free to think). ‘Changing one’s mind’ would mean hosting a different chemical reaction. Conclusions would not be the end product of logic but of chemistry, unless chemical reactions can be described as logical.

  • TreenonPoet

    This is a reply to rjt1′s comment that begins ”I suppose what I am getting at…”.

    The great thing about the laws of physics and (therefore) chemistry is that they are constant, even if man’s attempt to discover those laws produces formulae that are subject to refinement.

    Given ideal circuit components, a 12 Volt electric lamp connected to a constant 12 Volt power source via a light-activated switch will be lit (L) whenever the switch is sufficiently illuminated, not at random. This might happen if someone exposes the switch to sunlight (S). That is, L = S.

    If the switch is placed sufficiently close to the lamp, then the circuit will ‘remember’ that someone has at some time exposed the switch to light. Once the lamp lights, it keeps the switch illuminated. This ‘memory’ can be erased (R) by placing a card between the lamp and the switch. That is, L = S OR (L AND NOT R). If a card is interposed, the system’s apparent ‘change of mind’ is actually the logical reaction to a change in one of its inputs, using the system’s existing logic. Also note that the system may give the impression of ‘wanting’ L to be true (lit), or ‘wanting’ L to be false (unlit), but in reality the system has no free will in the matter. Note further that if one views the sytem components (lamp, switch, etc.) unconnected on a desk, one would not see memory, nor spirituality.

    The behaviour of both arrangements is purely deterministic. If the second arrangement (the memory version) had been based on chemistry, rather than electron flow, it would still be deterministic. Chemicals, and their physical states, obey the laws of logic just as they obey all the other laws of mathematics and the laws of physics.

    Consider the memory version to be a being whose sole function is to remember whether it had been exposed to light from an outside source. The only ‘reasoning’ it needs is to evaluate S OR (L AND NOT R), but it is not incapable of that reasoning even though it is deterministic. The same would apply if the variables involved were not simple boolean variables (that only have the value true or false) but analogue, and the same applies in a system with countless variables (as in humans). As the complexity of the systems under consideration increases, there is no level of complexity at which free will magically appears.

    The configuration of human brains varies and, of course, the electrochemical status of each live brain is unique and changes, but the principles of operation are the same and we might all have in common a zone of the brain that produces what we describe as a spiritual experience. It might be activated by a particular piece of music, or the contemplation of an imaginary fantasy, or something else. Who can say that the rush of electrons through the lamp in the earlier example is not analogous to a spiritual experience?

  • TreenonPoet

     I have posted a reply to your reply to my reply at comment nesting level zero. My post begins ”This is a reply to rjt1′s comment that begins “I suppose what I am getting at”…”

  • TreenonPoet

     This is a reply to rjt1′s comment that begins ”I suppose what I am getting at…”.

    The great thing about the laws of physics and (therefore)chemistry is that they are constant, even if man’s attempt to discover those laws produces formulae that are subject to refinement.

    Given ideal circuit components, a 12 Volt electric lamp connected to a constant 12 Volt power source via a light-activated switch will be lit (L) whenever the switch is sufficiently illuminated, not at random. This might happen if someone exposes the switch to sunlight (S). That is, L = S.

    If the switch is placed sufficiently close to the lamp, then the circuit will ‘remember’ that someone has at some time exposed the switch to light. Once the lamp lights, it keeps the switch illuminated. This ‘memory’ can be erased (R) by placing a card between the lamp and the switch. That is, L = S OR (L AND NOT R). If a card is interposed, the system’s apparent ‘change of mind’ is actually the logical reaction to a change in one of its inputs, using the system’s existing logic. Also note that the system may give the impression of ‘wanting’ L to be true (lit), or ‘wanting’ L to be false (unlit), but in reality the system has no free will in the matter. Note further that if one views the sytem components (lamp, switch, etc.) unconnected on a desk, one would not see memory, nor spirituality.

    The behaviour of both arrangements is purely deterministic. If the second arrangement (the memory version) had been based on chemistry, rather than electron flow, it would still be deterministic. Chemicals, and their physical states, obey the laws of logic just as they obey all the other laws of mathematics and the laws of physics.

    Consider the memory version to be a being whose sole function is to remember whether it had been exposed to light from an outside source. The only ‘reasoning’ it needs is to evaluate S OR (L AND NOT R), but it is not incapable of that reasoning even though it is deterministic. The same would apply if the variables involved were not simple boolean variables (that only have the value true or false) but analogue, and the same applies in a system with countless variables (as in humans). As the complexity of the systems under consideration increases, there is no level of complexity at which free will magically appears.

    The configuration of human brains varies and, of course, the electrochemical status of each live brain is unique and changes, but the principles of operation are the same and we might all have in common a zone of the brain that produces what we describe as a spiritual experience. It might be activated by a particular piece of music, or the contemplation of an imaginary fantasy, or something else. Who can say that the rush of electrons through the lamp in the earlier example is not analogous to a spiritual experience?

  • rjt1

    I remain sceptical.

    Just one other point that occurred to me: at one point in the previous post you said: “I can always repeat to myself the reasoning” but this means “I can always *choose* to repeat to myself’. However, you have already denied free will. Therefore, according to you, you are not free to choose what to think about.

  • TreenonPoet

     I am not free to choose what to think about. Try it yourself. Deliberately think about a particular physical object. My guess is that you have a picture of that object in your mind. Now think deeply about why you ‘chose’ that object. What caused that object to come to mind when a thousand other objects were not even considered and therefore not consciously discarded.

    When I tried this just now, I thought of a red ball, but I did not think “I am going to think about a red ball” because, to think that, I must have already been thinking about a red ball. I happen to know that, as a result of looking at a bright light, a red spot appeared in my vision, but the red spot did not appear at my command.

    Likewise, if I repeat to myself the reasoning behind my conclusion regarding determinism, I am driven to do so. Using the word ‘choose’ does not make it any less driven.

  • rjt1

    If you are not free to choose, then you cannot use sentences which use or imply free choice, e.g. ‘I can always go through my reasoning’, since it would be legitimate to ask “always? really?”

    On a slightly broader note: as with any philosophical theory, there is room for questioning.
     
    The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which I take to be reputable, has this to say about determinism:

    “Determinism is deeply connected with our understanding of the physical sciences and their explanatory ambitions, on the one hand, and with our views about human free action on the other. In both of these general areas there is no agreement over whether determinism is true (or even whether it can be known true or false), and what the import for human agency would be in either case.”

    Not exactly an ‘open and shut case’ then.

  • TreenonPoet

     Instead of ”I can always repeat to myself the reasoning”, perhaps I should have written that my brain would be capable of the reasoning if it was driven to perform such reasoning, which is what I meant. (The driver would be the short-term need to be sure that my remembered support for determinism was not mistaken.) Perhaps I should add that, by ‘always’, I did not imply an after-life, nor did I mean that I could constantly repeat the reasoning to myself.

    To state that there is no agreement over whether determinism is true (by which I take it that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy means that there is some disagreement) is not to say that neither side is successfully countering the arguments of the other side, just that the other side do not recognise that success. (Some would have it that there is a debate to be had about whether man evolved from primitive life. The complete failure of all the arguments against evolution has not prevented creationists repeating those arguments.) As I say, I have not yet encountered a good argument in favour of free will.

    I have a high regard for the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, but in this piece, I disagree with every argument he makes against determinism. I do not have time to cover the whole piece, but if you wanted to ‘choose’ what you think is his best argument, I would be willing to tackle it. (If you did, I rather suspect that your ‘choice’ would be based on how convinced you are of his arguments. It would be as much a choice as ‘choosing’ the highest number from the set {1, 2, 3}.)

  • rjt1

    I think one can assume that said philosophers don’t recognise the success because the arguments are not conclusive…
     
    Reading the article, I think the author has a point:
    ‘To recap so far: I think Jerry’s position on free will is not scientific (it is a metaphysical stance)…As far as I can tell there is no empirical evidence whatsoever to support such speculation.’
     
    Slightly different tack: I was wondering how you view your past life: as you review it, do you say to yourself: “There is nothing I could have done differently”?
     

  • TreenonPoet

     Pigliucci writes:

    I think Jerry’s position on free will is not scientific (it is a metaphysical stance)…As far as I can tell there is no empirical evidence whatsoever to support such speculation.

    This is like asking for empirical evidence that God does not exist. In the case of God’s existence, the extraordinary claims made about God demand extraordinary evidence, yet not only is there no extraordinary evidence, there is no supporting evidence at all, and not only is there no supporting evidence at all, but there is evidence to the contrary (such as non-response to prayers). Likewise with free will. The concept is extraordinary because it defies the laws of physics as far as we are aware of them (in requiring neurological behaviour that cannot be explained by them), so extraordinary evidence is required to show that free will exists. That it seems to us as though we have free will does not count as evidence any more than it might seem to someone that God has spoken to them, or that a mirage seems real. Mechanisms that could cause the illusion of free will, voices in the head, and mirages can be suggested without resort to the metaphysical, so why invoke it (other than to employ philosophers and theologians)?

    On whether I could have done anything differently, I would accept that if some events can be random, then I might have done things differently, but they would still not have been done as a result of free will.

  • rjt1

    No, Pigliucci is not asking for extraordinary evidence. He is merely pointing out that the statement made is not a scientific one.

    Free will is not an extraordinary concept. It is the matter of common or garden experience. The claim that 99.99% of our experience is an illusion is an extraordinary one. What else is an illusion: that you are thinking and are conscious of it?

    You accept that, if some events could be random, then you might have done things differently. Conversely, therefore, you accept that nothing else, other than possible random events, could have been done differently. So, let’s suppose you murdered your granny. Looking back, you must say: ‘well, I have these feelings of regret but, ho hum, I couldn’t have done anything differently.’ Or maybe you will say: ‘it must have been a random event’. In either case, you deny responsibility: you cannot be blamed for things that you could not help doing. Moral responsibility implies that you did have a choice to do things differently.

    On the whole therefore, it seems to me that determinism is an intellectual game, not really to be taken seriously.

  • TreenonPoet

     

    No, Pigliucci is not asking for extraordinary evidence. He is merely pointing out that the statement made is not a scientific one.

    I did not say that Pigliucci is asking for extraordinary evidence – almost the opposite because he ought to be asking for evidence to support free will (as the existence of free will is the more extraordinary claim) but is not. He is trying to suggest that Coyne’s position is unscientific because a hypothetical experiment (rewinding the tape of life) cannot be performed in reality, but that argument is irrelevant because it is not necessary, in science, to perform an experiment to confirm something that can be rationally deduced.

    Pigliucci does attempt to identify two flaws in the rational argument. The first attempt is a word-trick, suggesting that if ‘free will’ is redefined, the rational argument no longer holds! The second attempt is to suggest that the currently known laws of physics might not encompass the totality of causal relationships in the universe (thereby permitting the possibility of a physical mechanism that could enable free will). The give-away is the word ‘causal’ since no decision can be attributed to free will if it resulted from the cause, and no cause can be attributed to free will for the same reason. What if Pigliucci really meant that there might be an unknown physical phenomenon that did not require a cause? I accept that such phenomena might exist, but then how could they be made use of by the human will?

    Free will is not an extraordinary concept. It is the matter of common or garden experience. The claim that 99.99% of our experience is an illusion is an extraordinary one. What else is an illusion: that you are thinking and are conscious of it?

    Of course it is not an illusion that we are thinking and conscious of it  – the definitions of thinking and consciousness imply as much. It does not matter what percentage of our time you think we spend making decisions, if we are mistaken about the way those decisions are arrived at, then we are mistaken whatever the percentages.

    let’s suppose you murdered your granny. Looking back, you must say: ‘well, I have these feelings of regret but, ho hum, I couldn’t have done anything differently.’ Or maybe you will say: ‘it must have been a random event’. In either case, you deny responsibility: you cannot be blamed for things that you could not help doing.

    You are the murderer if you murder your granny. Whether you are ‘responsible’ or ‘to blame’ depends on the meaning of the words. (Would you be responsible, or to blame, if hypnotised at the time?) But you would not have been able to help it. That is not to say that murder should never be punishable. Punishment will usually be required for society to function, and the threat of punishment is one of the inputs that can affect the decision as to whether to murder.  

    Moral responsibility implies that you did have a choice to do things differently.

    That sentence does not quite make sense to me. If moral responsibility is a consideration for others, such consideration is only partly instinctive (and competes with other instincts). The rest is based on current circumstances, memories, and one’s ability to process those data. Given a particular neurological status of one person’s brain, how can the those data result in more than one outcome?