Posts for January, 2010

The Same Blue

There is a puzzle that sometimes occurs to the metaphysically unwary. It comes in several forms but a convenient one is the question ‘If you and I were standing together, looking at the sky, would we see the same blue?’

The common sense answer to this might be ‘We are both looking at the sky. We see the same thing. The sky is blue. End of story.’

A physiologically more sensitive response might point out that there could be differences in the way our brains were wired. One of us, for example, might be blue-yellow colour-blind, in which case, we would not see the same thing. In order to answer the question, therefore, we may need a series of tests to eliminate the possibility of any such abnormalities. The results will enable us to say whether or not we see the same thing.

Neither of these answers satisfy the metaphysical enquirer, who is probing for something deeper, something that is better captured in the question ‘Is my experience of blue the same as your experience of blue?’ or, even more precisely, ‘If I were looking through your eyes, would I see the same blue that I see if I were looking through my eyes’. This second question takes us back to Jurgen’s conundrum. It suggests a dualistic view of what it is to be a person.

We can picture a human being as consisting two parts. The first is a kind of biological machine – the body. The second, which we can imagine as being inside the first, is a control room – the mind. Information is gathered by various sensors, the eyes, for example, and transmitted to the control room. There it is presented to the controller, the ‘I’, in the form of mental images, sense data or what have you. The controller makes decisions and sends out instructions that the body performs. The question now becomes ‘If I were in your control room rather than in mine, would I have the same mental images as you do?’ Answer: maybe, maybe not. It is impossible to know because I can never be in your control room, nor you in mine. I can never have any idea what actually appears on the screens in your mind.

This view of things goes further. It suggests that everything that goes on in my mind is utterly private and inaccessible to you or to anyone else. I do not know what you are thinking. I cannot feel your pain. I do not have your memories or your dreams. I do not see the same colours and shapes that you see. I am alone in my mind, locked in the private world of my subjective experience and I can have no direct knowledge of what is going on in your mind. In fact, we are so separate that it might well occur to me to wonder if you have a mind at all. Maybe your control room is empty.  All I can detect on my sensors, after all, is your physical part, your body. Then again, there is an even more radical possibility – maybe there is no world out there at all. Maybe all that exists is my mind, with its manifold contents.

These slightly mad conclusions, which nobody takes seriously except certain teenagers, lunatics and drug addicts, are very hard to combat once we have accepted the initial metaphor. The problems arise as soon as we start thinking of the mind as a container for all subject experience, a directly knowable in-here as opposed to an indirectly knowable out-there. If this is what the concept of mind involves then it is, at best, confusing and, at worst, dangerous and ought to be abandoned.

Instead, we should be thinking in terms of whole persons, who have different kinds of experiences, including memories, dreams, reflections, perceptions, sensations, emotions, intuitions, and so on. My experiences belong to me by virtue of being things that I attend to. They are objects of my point of view in other words. Some experiences are of such a nature that I can keep them to myself if I wish to. Others I share with other people. Still others I have in common with other people.

If I stub my toe, I have a pain in my toe and not in my mind. I can choose to keep the pain to myself but there is nothing especially private about it. You can’t feel the pain in my toe but you can know what it is like to have such a pain. You can share my point of view, in other words. If there are any differences in how we experience pain – if one of us is more sensitive than the other for example – then those differences are, in principle and probably in practice, discoverable. The so-called privacy of the mind is not much difference from the privacy of the bathroom.

There is perhaps only one disadvantage in thinking of oneself as a whole person characterised by embodied experience. There is little room in this picture for an immortal soul.

And the sky is blue. At least, it was yesterday.

Two Summers

What a pig of a summer! Cold, wind and rain. The worst New Zealand summer I can remember. It won’t give me my worst memory of summer weather, though. That still belongs to 1950.

That year, my parents, my younger sister and I went on holiday to Lee-On-Solent in the south of England. We stayed in a rented caravan in a caravan park. It rained. My father, who was managing a small building firm in north west London, kept having to go back to the city to on business. The rest of us huddled in the caravan. At least, my mother and sister huddled. After a while, I decided to do what I usually did on holiday. I went off wandering by myself. My mother was probably glad to get at least one of her kids from under her feet and let me go.

My usual holiday explorations were in search of railway engines or butterflies but the railway was too far off and the butterflies were all tucked away somewhere safe like everyone else so I made my way down to sea. There was a roadway with a row of houses on one side and a strip of grass on the other. Beyond the grass was the beach – not sand exactly, more like fine pieces of gravel or crushed shell, white and yellow with a few specks of dark brown. It crunched underfoot and was hard to walk through.

In the middle of July, even on a beach like that, you would have expected deckchairs and towels and people lying around or fooling about but there was no one. The whole beach, from end to end, was empty and windswept, except for me, a lone, shivering figure, huddled in my gabardine raincoat. Every few yards, spaced out along the line of the mid-tide mark, were big blocks of weathered concrete half buried in the gravel at odd angles. I knew them as ‘tank traps’ – part of some wartime defence system against a Nazi invasion.

The sea was grey-blue-green, lumpy and cold. The waves turned over with a dull, scraping sound, surging white up the shingle and swirling round the tank traps, where they sucked and bubbled at the rough edges of the concrete. I stood and watched, shivering in the wind, with the salt-spray whipping into my face. I had my bucket and spade with me, of course, but there was little incentive to do anything with them. I wonder now what I must have looked like to anyone brave enough to take a stroll along the esplanade – a small, dark, lonely, figure on an otherwise empty beach, gazing at the sea beside a mouldering lump of concrete, a juvenile parody of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer, perhaps. There was only one consolation. I found a crab and a good one, too – about as big as the palm of my hand. I took it back to the caravan in my bucket. No doubt to my mother’s delight.

My father died about nine months after this holiday and the family was suddenly short of money. Despite the financial difficulties, my mother insisted that we should continue going away each year. We went once to Blackpool and a couple of other times to Hi-de-Hi type holiday camps, one in Prestatyn in North Wales and another near Lowestoft. The best, though, was our trip to the Isle of Wight in the summer of 1952.

We stayed at East Dene, a house near the village of Bonchurch, which had once been the boyhood home of the poet Swinburne. The building itself was delicate rather than imposing, with narrow pointed gables that gave it the feel of a Gothic church. In front there was a wide, rolling lawn which opened out into a view of the sea. Inside the rooms had been divided up with modern, strictly functional panelling to accommodate the holiday makers. It was all cream walls and brown linoleum, except that now and again you would find part of an ornate plaster ceiling or a toilet bowel decorated with flowers, inside and out.

That year the weather was warm. I soon found the flower gardens down the side of the building. There was a greenhouse and two or three long, raised beds full of lavender and other blooms. These attracted a riot of insects – butterflies and day-flying moths, in particular. As always, the sight of them filled me with wonder. The variety and the richness of the colours and the patterns on their wings were the first things to which I ever had an aesthetic response. When I first became interested I used to want to catch them and keep them but I had lost interest in that. All they did was flutter themselves to death in the jars. These days I was happy to just stand and watch and identify what was there.

There were the usual species – peacocks, tortoiseshells and red admirals, large and small whites – as well as some that were less common: blues and coppers from the downs and a fritillary or two. The ones that interested me most, though, were the hummingbird hawk moths, which I had read about but never seen before. They were orange-brown with a wingspan of two or three inches and they got there name from their habit of hovering while they fed. A furious blur of wings kept them airborne while they sucked at the flowers with a long, curving black proboscis. I tried to catch one in my hands but they were too quick, zooming away with a speed and a directness that was more like a bee or a fly than any other butterfly or moth I knew.

A few days into the holiday, I made my daily visit to the flower garden and found I had company, a girl of about my age. She was slim and serious looking, with straight brown hair and a pale blue dress dotted with little flowers. Her name was Dawn. We got to talking and found we liked one another – two introverted souls, perhaps, sharing the warmth of a summer day. I identified the butterflies and moths for her. Maybe she was interested. Maybe she was impressed by my knowledge. Maybe she was just already adept at the female trick of letting the bloke rattle on about his enthusiasms. Something clicked, though. We were in love.

We spent a lot of time together over that holiday. I don’t remember what we did or what we said to one another. All that comes back to me now is the strength of that emotion – innocent as perhaps all love is in some sense innocent at its core because it is simple and unqualified. Dawn introduced me to her family – her parents and her terrifyingly attractive older sister, who was probably about thirteen. They met my mother and my sister, too. What the adults said to one another, I can’t recall, but their conversation had an air that, looking back, seems surprisingly respectful of the feelings Dawn and I had for one another. Or perhaps I just missed the irony.

At the end of the holiday, Dawn and I exchanged addresses. We promised to write. Of course, we never did.


The heart 
 is a thing 
 without rhyme 
 or reason.

Just a thing
 going on
 day after day.

And when all’s said
 and all’s done
 perhaps it all
 comes down to

Just the crazy
 to the little rhythms
 of the heart.

God and Me – The Early Years

Mr Duffy has set me thinking about religion and the way it seems to persist in human thought. One theory is that we are biologically disposed to believe in something beyond our ordinary, material world despite what some people would consider to be the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I feel that tension in my own life.

I come from a family of believers. My father’s father was a staunch Methodist who signed the pledge at eighteen and took the Bible literally. To his mind, Charles Darwin was an agent of the Devil. My mother’s brother was born again during the thirties, possibly at one of the many revival meetings led by the pentecostalist George Jeffreys, and spent his working life as a pastor in the Elim Church. My mother met my father through Sunday School, where he and his first wife were teachers and she a pupil.

God was always around when I grew up. I remember the chapel in Cottingham, which the family attended until I was six. I remember kneeling by my bed at night to say my prayers and the grace that we all said at meal-times. I guess I was susceptible to this atmosphere. In one of my earliest dreams (I was maybe five or six years old) I drove an ambulance up to Calvary, lifted Jesus down from the cross and took him away. I was impressed by the strangeness of this grandiose experience and kept it to myself.

Even at that age, though, there were tests of faith. One of the verses of the Christmas carol Away in a Manger, has the lines

‘Bless all the dear children in thy tender care
 And fit us for ever to live with thee there.’

To my young ear, the last line ran ‘And fritters forever’ and I was convinced, in consequence, that I knew what Heaven was going to be like (and it was all right by me). I felt distinctly cheated when I discovered the truth.

I don’t remember where God figured when my father died. Religion certainly offered me no consolation or relief. I suppose people told me that my father was now in Heaven with God and the angels but, if they did, none of it registered. It was irrelevant to what I was feeling. It did me no good but, on the other hand, it didn’t seem to affect my sense of the spiritual or mystical. Perhaps it even heightened it because not long afterwards I had a vision.

We were visiting my uncle, the pastor, who at that time had a congregation in Suffolk, at, I think, Gorleston-on-Sea, near Great Yarmouth. I shared a room with my cousin, David, and one morning I awoke in bright sunlight. David was still asleep but above his bed I saw a hand. It was beckoning to me. I took this as an obvious sign – I was being called by God. I felt a strong emotional charge, a pull into something beyond myself. Again, I didn’t tell anyone. I was sure the call was genuine but somehow it seemed a private matter, as emotion often was in our family – not really anyone else’s business. Perhaps this was just a sign of an innate caution. Or perhaps I was already operating on a principle that separated the public world of everyday from the inner world of my imagination.

I don’t think I was an especially devout child in my daily life. I wasn’t a goody-goody. I did as I was told but I wasn’t averse to a judicious bit of stealing and lying if I could get away with it. Still, I went to Sunday School every week and, when I was  eleven, I entered an exam for a bible scholarship in Hull, where we were living. I had to learn Psalm 121 by heart and then answer a bunch of questions. The result was a book token for what then seemed a large amount of money. I was excited by the prospect of what I could buy. There were a number of books of science and technology I had my eye on. I was surprised, therefore, when my mother pointed out that the money ought to be spent on something more in keeping with the spirit of its source – something devotional, in other words. In the end, we compromised.  I got a copy of A Man Called Peter, which was the biography of a Scotsman who finished up as chaplain to the US Senate, plus The Observer’s Book of British Aircraft. I had no interest in the first and it was years before I finally got around to trying to read it.

 I had always had a fascination with the natural world and was subject to the usual boy-passion for machines. Insects and railway engines were my main interests but by now my curiosity was reaching out to scientific theories and the way in which they embodied reason.   

My last unequivocal religious experience occurred when I was thirteen. I suffered a new bout of religious fervour and decided I ought to become a missionary. For once my feelings were so strong that I had to tell someone about them. I confessed them to my younger sister and told her about my vision of the hand. Unfortunately, my description was so graphic that it freaked her out. She started to scream and ran to my mother, who took the matter quite seriously and gave me a little talk.

I had never before discussed religious belief with an adult and I suppose I had always assumed that they all thought the same way. Instead, I found my mother’s views were different from her brother’s. She told me she had gone to the same revival meeting as he had, along with their younger sister. Of the three of them, my mother was the only one who had not been touched by the pentecostal flame. It seemed that the other two had given her a hard time because she had not found Jesus. In fact, they told her she was bound for Hell. She concluded that, when it came to God, too much enthusiasm was a bad thing. Belief was all right. In fact, it was necessary. But you should avoid going over the top. It might lead to what she called ‘religious mania’. In short, the missionary business was a bad idea. God should be a component of a sensible life, one that was focussed around a good career.

I listened to this lecture determined not to heed it. She need not have worried, though. I was all for throwing myself body and soul into something but that something was never going to be conventional religion. Even as I had expressed my feelings to my sister I was having doubts about them. The worm of reason was already doing its work.

There were three things about Christianity that made me uneasy, despite my determination to follow the call. The first was the idea of Christ’s sacrifice. I was supposed to believe that he died for my sins but did that really mean he suffered crucifixion so that I could be forgiven for stealing a Gitanes cigarette packet from the boy who sat in front of me at school (I was fascinated by the lady in her swirling white gown)? The second thing was the problem of Hell. I am not sure I put it quite as clearly as I would now but I felt there was an odd disjunction between the notion of a loving Father and the fact that he could condemn any of his children to eternal torment. It didn’t make sense somehow. The third thing was my own father’s death. The trauma of that event seemed to make nonsense of any notion that there was a grand plan behind life. If there was a God, I didn’t really trust him.

The Good Life

“What must I do for a good life?” a young man asked the Master.

“You must eat and drink and sleep and breathe,” Master Tze said.

“But that’s obvious,” the young man said.

“Yes,” said Tze, “but it’s not as easy as you might think.”

“What else must I do, though?”

“Once you are alive, you must take care of the useless things,” Master Tze told him.