Aside

I just re-found this piece of unfinished writing from a couple of years ago. I thought it was worth sharing…

In the past, the model for life has been simple. Obvious. Find a career. Move up the ladder. Get married. Buy a house. Have kids. Move to a bigger house. Sell up and move to country. Retire. Play golf. Leave the house in the country to the kids.

This old model has served our parents well, but it isn’t open to me. The expectation of ever-increasing house prices – of housing as investment – has lifted the value of property beyond what is achievable to low-middle income earners such as myself. The average house price is now too many times the average income, and the era of cheap credit is over. It just isn’t conceivable that I, as a single person with my historic income could buy a house let alone one big enough to raise a family in.

Demographic changes mean that the pension/retirement model is broken beyond repair. There are not enough workers to support the number of retirees, and it is getting worse. The average pensioner is living longer, and couples are having less children. For my generation, a comfortable retirement is only really conceivable for the highest earners. Private pensions funds are becoming bankrupt and the state will increasingly struggle to support the growing number of pensioners, many of them on dangerously low incomes.

The comfortable, financially secure future – the middle class dream – is fast becoming fantasy. It is unlikely that I will earn enough to achieve it. I have neither the capital, nor the job security, to build that type of security.

I have no desire to abandon myself to a life of insecurity, a permanent now of short-medium term jobs, rented apartments, living in the transient ‘communities’ of the bigger cities. I have the same desire for place, for family, for security and stability that our parents and grandparents did.

I don’t see why we should abandon our desires for family life because the models of previous generations have been broken. Instead of tearing our clothes in despair, or resigning ourselves to a life of transience and impermanence we need another model, another possibility of achieving the same aims.

It is easy to decry societal change, financial hardship and the death of the family. It is far harder to come up with a solution. There are some things that are dying that I have no desire to resurrect. I don’t want to spend the last 30 years of my life playing golf and going to the theatre. I don’t particularly feel that society ‘owes’ me anything, or have an expectation that they should provide for me – either now or later. But there will come a time when I can’t work, either for health reasons or old age, and I would hope for some structure to support me.

I don’t know now if marriage and children are possible for me. I have to be realistic. It is not impossible, and it is desired, but such things are out of my control. But I have no desire for an isolated, lonely future. I don’t want to live a life without children in it, whether or not I have my own. I have a desperate longing for family. But family can take many forms.

My hope is that intentional community and collective ownership can be an alternative, an antidote, to the decayed and broken current model. That it is possible to gather together with like-minded individuals and create a space, a home, a sense of family that can be self-supporting and enduring. That a group of people can together own property, create a home, develop a collective financial security, raise children, care for one another in sickness and old age and endure beyond the death of the original members into perpetuity.

I also hope that, beyond this, it would be possible to create something that can have a positive impact on the wider community in a geographic area and even, to an extent, society as a whole. That a community might be able to collectively demonstrate alternatives to the usual patterns of life.

The question, of course, is how you do that. How do you build community over the long term? How do you overcome the barriers of finance and property, especially when money is so easily a source of conflict?

Suggestions on a postcard (or debate in the comments) gratefully received.

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The philosopher’s monologue

[A piece of creative writing for you. Imagine a scene: a scholarly debate is about to begin between a prominent evolutionist and a well-known theologian. The hall is packed and the atmosphere tense. But before the debate can begin an elderly member of the philosophy faculty gets up and takes the floor. Here is what he says:]

I find the argument of these two gentlemen entirely artificial and, indeed, the very premise of the question ridiculous. To set science against religion as if they were alternates is a truly false dichotomy. Science no more can explain the meaning of life than religion can tell of the inner workings of a star. To suggest otherwise is to misunderstand the philosophy of science, indeed to misunderstand philosophy in general.

Science is concerned with process, with the how of something. How does this work, what is its purpose and where did it come from? It is a method of exploring the practical nature of the reality around us; its functionality. It starts with a curious examination, postulates a theory and then experiments to examine the effectiveness of said theory. If a theory stands up to experiment, if it seems an effective model and explanation for the observed ‘thing’, then the theory stands. If not, it is rejected.

Scientific theories stand only as long as they remain the best theory available. They are frequently supplanted, however ‘right’ they might have seemed in the past. There is always a revision, an improvement, an alternative. As such science cannot be said to deal in facts, only in observable results and in current theorems. It is a realm of questioning, questing and searching; of scepticism and disbelief.

Religion, in many ways is the opposite. Although there are far more parallels than contradictions between open religious dialogue and modern scientific thought. Religion deals primarily in the why of the world, and specifically in the whys of human behaviour. Religion is the enculturation of cultural history and social norms; it is the framework of explanation that allows morality to develop.

Primarily, religion seeks to provide stories around which individuals can gather, to find common ground and a shared sense of identity. It seeks to answer questions that are completely beyond the scope of science: ‘why are we here?’; ‘how should we live?’

Perhaps my argument is too esoteric. Let us try an example:

Near my home in the village where I live is a duck pond. Every now and then, when deep in thought about this matter or that, I like to wander through the village, wave to my neighbours and say my cordial helloes, and to sit on a bench by the duck pond and marvel at the ducks.

I should start by saying that both science and religion are quite capable of joining me in marvelling at said duck, and are both perhaps quicker than an old philosopher at excepting that the duck is indeed there before them. A scientist would ask “is the duck observable?”, conclude it is, and move on to other questions. Likewise the priest or theologian. It is the old philosopher who gets bogged down in questions relating to whether he can believe the evidence of his own eyes… But I digress.

The scientist may ask “what is a duck?” and muse on its biology and microbiology, its place in the great genealogies of fauna, its importance to the biodiversity of the duck pond. To the scientist, this question is functional; how does the duck itself function, and what function does the duck have within the life cycle of the duck pond and its environs. If the scientist were to ask “how did the duck come to be here?” the question would be asked in the context of local ecology, migratory patterns and evolutionary history.

The scientist may indeed marvel at the duck. He marvels at the incredible complexity of its microbiology, or the way it perfectly fits within the ecology of the duck pond; the interoperability of the duck’s various ‘systems’ and the interdependence of the duck with the many other life forms within the ecosystem. He marvels, then, on the functionality of the duck, its physical nature and its place within the physicality of the cosmos.

The religious man looks at the same scene in an entirely different way. Religion is less concerned in the nature of the duck than it is in the story of the duck. What can be learnt from observing the duck and the duck’s behaviour? How can these stories be applied to our own lives for our moral betterment, or to more closely define our society or culture? How does the very existence of the duck point towards the nature of the universe and our place within it?

If the religious man asks “what is a duck?” he muses on its created nature; he asks how different the duck is from himself, or from God. He asks, more importantly, how the duck came into being, and why. The answers to these questions may be myth or conjecture; they may be deeply rooted in tradition and cultural heritage or they may be wild speculation; indeed, the answers to this may be impossible to know. But in asking his ‘why’, the religious man goes where the scientist cannot, to embrace the existential nature of the duck, and what it might or might not say about the existential nature of the man.

When the religious man marvels at the duck, he marvels in its beauty. He marvels in the beauty of the duck, in the beauty of the duck pond, and in the way that they so obviously complement each other. He marvels that he is there at all, to witness this beauty and to appreciate it. He marvels at the gift that such a moment can be found, with ducks, duck ponds and men to marvel at them.

While both men might ask “is the duck good to eat?”, the scientist thinks in terms of taste and nutrition and digestion; the religious man in terms of the morality of the act. While they may both ask “am I like the duck?” the scientist thinks in terms of genus, and the theologian in terms of how his nature is similar or different from that of the duck.

My point, friends, is that the questions are different, as are the questioners. They stand on entirely separate mountains, looking at the same subject from entirely different perspectives. And, quite often, they are found to be looking at entirely different things.

My colleagues here will stand before you and try and argue the right of their perspective to describe the nature of our universe, and the unsuitability of their rival’s. Science, you will hear, has explained away religion entirely and obviated its need. Or perhaps you will here that religion can be argued in terms of proof, and that that proof is evident around us…

Poppycock.

My contention before you today, friends, is that there is no basis in philosophy for this argument. A scientist cannot stand in the physical realm and speak to the nature of the spiritual; he does not possess the necessary tools. All the tools he has are based on what is observable and testable and he cannot observe, and certainly cannot test, what is beyond the veil.

Likewise religion has misguidedly wallowed into an argument that it is ill-equipped to fight, and certainly cannot win. The stories that we tell ourselves of existence, our existential musings in the dark of the night, are vital to our very humanness; they are what lift us up above the animals around us and mark us as different, separate. But those stories, those musings, those wonderings, however fresh or ancient, are unable to explain to us the inner workings of a duck, or a cell, or a star. They may ponder on the purpose of such things, but can tell us little about their function.

In this fight both camps have made the same mistake: they have conflated the how and the why. This is a grave error, and yet it is the foundation of tonight’s debate. Science has an incredible capacity to gradually discover the nature of the mechanism of our existence, to find explanation for the many steps in the long and complex journey that brought us to this place. But it is entirely unable to tell us why we are here at all. There is no tool in the scientist’s toolbox that even begins to tell us why, although it may one day offer theories as to why we ask that question.

Similarly religious thought, deeply suffused with attempts at explaining the ‘why’, at looking beyond the physical realm into other possible realities, at examining the nature of the human soul, is ill-placed to begin to satisfactorily answer the ‘how’. All it can do is regurgitate the stories that have been told in the past; stories that, however acceptable then, are simply insufficient now.

Both streams of thought do themselves a disservice by seeking to attack the other. They belittle their own usefulness in order to enter a realm where they can both quarrel. Science has little that is useful to say about morality, or the construction of society, and is in fact necessarily amoral in its questing approach. Likewise with religion, which can only make itself a laughing stock by arguing for the ‘how’ in old stories that are… well, beyond their usefulness in that regard, shall we say.

I will say this though, before I yield the floor to this pointless debate. While I see tonight’s argument as entirely false, I do not see science and religion as entirely separate. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The scientist and the religious man at the duck pond may indeed be one and the same. There is plenty of space within humanity to look for beauty, morality and mechanism within a scene. In fact, it is essential that there is. It is necessary for us all to ask ourselves both whether the duck is good to eat, and if it is good to eat the duck. To do otherwise is to reduce ourselves to a mechanistic level that denies the higher faculties on which science necessarily relies.

Science can examine the biochemical, psychological and sociological nature of mankind and determine the many factors at play in a man’s decision making. But when a man raises a gun to shoot another it is our religious tendencies that much judge who or what is to blame and what kind of justice might be applied. Science, you see, has no concept of justice at all.

It cannot. You cannot form judgment on what is ‘right’ by experiment; ‘rightness’, whatever that may be, is not observable. But that does not mean it is not knowable. Science, by detailed process of observation and experiment may determine what is the favourable outcome in a human endeavour, but it can very rarely provide explanation of why the outcome is favourable. It is the scientist’s religious tendencies that provide the explanation of said favourability.

I am rapidly losing the goodwill of my audience, so I will desist in my interruption. But first let me end with this thought:

The fact that we dislike or disprove of a particular narrative does not remove the necessity of any narrative at all. The fact that we raise science up to the level of a religion does not make us any less religious in our convictions. We have simply found disfavour with one dogma and replaced it with another.

I am not interested in arguing in favour of dogmas, on either side of this debate. I am simply here to remind you all of the nature of philosophy, and the very necessity of both moral and practical philosophies. They are both of equal necessity to us as individuals and as a society. It is unacceptable to equate them, or to say that only one side is needed, just as it would be to say that we only need women, and not men. In fact, such an assertion would be ridiculous, as is the one before you tonight.

And with that, I yield the floor…

Candidates Debate

Mayoral CandidatesThere are 22 days to go until the London Mayoral Election (and the nationwide local council elections, if you care about such things). Why do we care? Well, we care because the Mayor of London is the most powerful job in Local Politics (arguably the second or third most powerful in the whole UK), administrating a £9bn budget affecting upwards of 25 million people. The Mayor of London’s power is by no means absolute (mitigated as it is by the London Assembly, the London Borough Councils and the UK Parliaments London Local Government Office), but the decisions made in City Hall probably have more affect on the day-to-day lives of Londoners than those made in Downing Street. Who gets this job matters.

So yesterday we got our first candidates debate, ably hosted by the BBC’s Newsnight team. Candidates’ debates are a particularly American phenomenon, and clearly a format that none of the three main candidates were comfortable with (all three stumbled several times during their opening remarks). You can watch the full thing here.

Three candidates: Ken Livingsone (Labour), the incumbent; Boris Johnson (Conservative); and Brian Paddick (Lib. Dem.). Poor old Paddick made sense when he had the opportunity to get his point across, but was completely outdone by the other candidates. Old ‘Red’ Ken did well, but was largely on the defensive, fielding accusations taken directly from the front pages of the Evening Standard, which he did his best to dismiss as the sloppy journalism that they are… (Which says something about the other two candidates: the only criticisms they could level are ones raised by a woefully biased tabloid – stories that are largely ignored as sensationalist by the mainstream media). And then there’s Boris…

OK, I’m biased. I think this guy is inexperienced, popularist with a total absence of policy, gravitas and, well, common sense. I personally think that Boris came off in the debate as someone who has no real policies, and cannot admit to the costs of even the few ideas he has managed to come up with. (Witness the many, many times he was asked to come up with a figure for the cost of commissioning ‘new’ Routemaster busses – no figure was forthcoming because, quite frankly, he has no idea). But like I said, I’m biased.

City HallIn my opinion, Boris, who is riding high in the polls at present, would be a complete disaster. His greatest level of experience is editing The Spectator, where he managed somewhere between 20 and 50 people, and had to make numerous apologies due to insensitive editorial comment. His own party have never trusted him with anything more than an appearance on comedy show ‘Have I Got News For You’. It’s not exactly the sort of experience you would want for someone running the most powerful provincial authority in the country.

Londoners, you have two votes to cast on May 1st: a 1st choice and a 2nd. Please, please don’t give Boris your 1st choice. And whichever of the 10 candidates you put 1st, please give Ken your number 2 (if not number 1).

Lets keep the blonde imbecile out of City Hall. Please!

Staring down a microscope too long gives you tunnel vision

So, much in the news this last weekend about Catholic bishops criticising the forthcoming embryology bill… The issue? Mainly that of making human-animal ‘hybrids’; scientists say its good progress, and will help develop useful new treatments; the bishops didn’t like it, one going so far as to call it ‘Frankensteinish’. 

Since then, there has been much too-ing and fro-ing between scientists, clergy and politicians on this issue. [Some key quotes can be found here.] This is a thorny issue and I don’t want to go in to it too much, because I have neither the time nor the ability to treat it with the care it deserves. What I do want to comment on is the fundamental difference in perspective between the bishops and the scientists, which was touched on by the Today programme this morning, and can’t be over-emphasised.

When a scientist in this field looks down their microscope at the small bundle of cells they are working on, they see a small bundle of cells. These are the Lego-bricks of life, but grouped together in too small a bunch to actually build anything. To the scientist these amazing micro machines are of great interest, even wonder, but the difference between a small bundle of cells (with no opportunity of implantation) and a human being is immense.

For many people of a religious persuasion (and in fact, for many non-religious people of non-scientific backgrounds), when they look down the microscope at the same bundle of cells they see something similar, and yet profoundly different. They look at the same cells with the same wonder and interest, but see something more: they see life, or at least the potential to become life. That potential is in itself something sacred, something of great mystery. Whether those few cells constitute life or not may be up for debate, but if those few cells were implanted in a womb they could continue to grow and divide and develop and become something wholly more wondrous.

For many people of a religious persuasion, the idea of experimenting on these cells is already a controversial, to some even immoral, one. This is especially true when the cells in question are of human origin; especially human embryonic origin. How can we treat as mere mechanisms the very cells from which we all began? Those that in a different context could well become another person like ourselves?

The suggestions in the bill coming before parliament take this already-thorny issue much further, by legislating the provision of creating chimera from the fusion of human adult cells and animal (probably bovine) eggs.

To the scientist, these chimera are merely useful alternative mechanisms on which to test their theories. An egg, stripped of its DNA is to them simply a vessel in which the mechanics of the human cell can function; the blank framework in which to mount the cogs. The resultant ‘cell’ is to them no different from the other cells on which they work, because all these cells they see down their microscopes are the same Lego bricks, the same clockwork contraptions.

I wonder if the scientists are actually able to understand the opposition from the Catholic bishops and others? Most of the reporting I have heard over the weekend suggests that those questioned simply think the issue is of a lack of appropriate education on the part of the bishops: if the science was only properly explained to them then they couldn’t possibly object so vociferously…

To me, this shows a fundamental inability to grasp the basis of the disagreement. I really don’t believe that those bishops that have spoken out have failed to understand the situation. I think they understand the science perfectly (or at least, as perfectly as any laymen can). It seems to me that it is those scientists that have been in the news that have the lack of understanding, because they have quite evidently failed to comprehend the basis of their opponents position.

If you look at a bundle of cells down a microscope and see them as devoid of life (in a meaningful, rather than technical sense), then there are going to be few manipulations of those cells that you would object to on a moral basis. In fact, it would be quite hard for you to connect that small bundle of cells with the concept of morals at all. If you look down that microscope and see something greater than the sum of the parts, see some however-distant reflection of yourself, then you are going to believe quite strongly that there needs to be a moral basis to working with such cells; that there are possible manipulations that should not be permitted.

While there have been many in the news who have criticised the bishops position, it is the voices of the scientists that I have heard that I feel I must criticise. Gentlemen, please lift your gaze up from your microscopes, rub your eyes, and try and understand the world around you. There are many, religious and non, in our society who have great qualms with the work that you do, because they fail to separate themselves from the small bundles of cells you work with as fully as you do. Please try to understand that, before you dismiss the objections of your detractors.