Natural born killers

It is over thirty years since the execution in 1989 of Theodore ‘Ted’ Robert Bundy. He is still considered the most notorious serial killer in history. He ultimately confessed to the homicide of thirty people in a four year killing spree between 1974 and 1978. Yet, when he was born on 24th November 1946 nobody could have predicted the devastating course his life would take.

Pope Francis was born in Argentina on 17th December 1936, almost exactly ten years before Bundy. The trajectory of his path to the top job in the Roman Catholic Church was equally unpredictable at birth.

In this article I would like to take a reasonably shallow dive into the nature of human morality in the hope that it may go some small way towards explaining the absolute polarity between the lives of these two men – one an executed serial killer, the other – a living Pope. Morality is a whole subsection of philosophy in and of itself so I will probably return for a more comprehensive analysis at some stage in the near future. For now though, let’s just scratch the surface.

It is evident that the environment in which one grows up and the people with whom one associates (whether by design or default) are constituent factors in the development of every human life. We refer to this process as nurture.

The nature of a thing, on the other hand, comprises those features which are hardwired into it before its creation. The actual creation or instantiation of the thing brings its nature to life. Humans have a heart, lungs, a liver, kidneys etc. These bodily parts are common to all humans and are thus said to be part of the natural make-up of a human. In addition to our physical characteristics, we have innate cognitive and emotional functions related to the ‘normality’ and maturity of our minds. The whole of the human body is designed to mature in unison with time and the process of human maturation begins at conception when the first cell divides into two, then four and so on. Whether we are conscious beings before birth is still argued among the experts but recent research suggests that the true state of human consciousness begins some time in early childhood and not while a foetus is still wallowing in the relative luxury of its mother’s womb.

I was a computer scientist from 2002 until 2016, a time span which encompassed the design and development of Object-Oriented Programming (OOP). OOP views all things in a system as a collection of individual (but related) objects. Before these objects are instantiated in a system they must be defined. So, if a human object is going to play a part in a new computerised system, the programmer must define what a human is in advance. Typically the following questions would be asked:

1. What characteristics are common to all humans?

2. What actions are common to all humans?

These characteristics and actions would be included in the definition of a human object appropriate to the requirements of the computerised system and so will typically only be a small subset of all the human characteristics and actions we know. Let’s take an example.

A human being has an age characteristic. On the same date every year (our human object’s birthday), an action needs to be taken on the age, namely to increment it by one. How else would Facebook be able to wish you a Happy Birthday?! But, we don’t all share the same birthday! So, the programmer describes the generic human object as having a birth date but doesn’t define what date that is until an instance of the human is ‘instantiated’ in the system.

The creation of the human in the system is analagous to birth in the real world. Once the human is born we can define its date of birth but not before then. Effectively, what happened in the womb is precursory and of no relevance to the programmer as he defines human commonalities. Similarly, when you join Facebook, your date of birth is saved so the system can wish you a Happy Birthday each year – and place you in your relevant demographic for advertising purposes later on. Facebook doesn’t ‘know’ you and is not interested in who you actually are until the moment you join the network.

Moreover, the definition of a human object includes those features common to all humans but the characteristics and actions of each instantiated human in the system can change as time passes in the computerised system of our analogy. The definition of what it is to be a human before entering the system, however, doesn’t change.

Let me go all analogous on you for a minute or two! As I recall, Agent Smith in the original Matrix movie was replicated hundreds of times to fight against Neo. Neo was ultimately able to win because each subsequent ‘Smith’ was a clone and the combat abilities of each clone were exactly the same. After a few fights, Neo was able to decipher Smith’s abilities and emerge victorious against the remaining clones. Clearly, had the programmer given Smith different abilities each time a new ‘clone’ entered the system, Neo would have had his work cut out. It is these different characteristics and abilities which define each and every one of us as individuals in the real world and we become even more unique as our experiences fine-tune who we are.

Plato’s ‘Theory of Forms’ posits that the pre-instantiation nature of a thing is the pure ‘form’ of that thing and its creation merely replicates the original form. The instantiation is only a reflection of the true object. The nature of the true form never changes. It is the characteristics of the reflected instance that change.

A kitchen table is predefined as having a number of legs and a surface – its form. When a carpenter makes a new table he knows what it should look like (based on the form of a table) but he may decide to use oak or plywood, give it 3 or 4 legs. Once he has completed the table it can be said to be a new instance of the table that has been instantiated into the world. In Plato’s Theory, the new kitchen table is only a reflection of the table’s true form. The first dent in the wood will alter the characteristics of the reflected version of the table but its a priori form is immutable.

A human being under Plato’s theory is a reflective instantiation (at birth) of the pre-defined human object (‘form’) in a system we call ‘planet earth’ and each new instantiation has its own variation of the reflected characteristics. There are currently (approximately) 7.594 billion reflections of the human form on earth – and counting.

So, back to these characteristics we are born with and, specifically, which of them might be most relevant in respect of the Bundy / Francis dichotomy with which I began?

“There is in every one of us, even those who seem most moderate, a type of desire that is terrible, wild and lawless.”

This quote from Plato could be paraphrased today as:

“Under the right circumstances everyone is capable of murder!

I am currently living in Malaga, on the South coast of Spain where, until a few years ago, the upper echelons of the Irish criminal fraternity (specifically members of the Kinahan clan and their cohorts) chose to make their home away from home. In the face of stiff competition from Russian drug barons and unwanted attention from Spanish, Irish and European police authorities, they have since evacuated to the relative anonymity of Dubai but, while they were still active in these parts, shootings (and killings) were not an uncommon occurrence.

Let’s face it, if you play the ‘games’ the Kinahans played – and allegedly still do as shareholders in the Russian drug distribution networks – you are eventually going to end up in ‘the line of fire’! Getting shot by a competitor (or even a disgruntled colleague) is par for the course in the illegal narcotics business and should never surprise anyone finding themself at the receiving end of a hail of bullets discharged in anger.

Contrast the lives of the drug traffickers with that of Pope Francis. While previous Popes were indeed targeted, they did not make the same career decisions as the criminals to put themselves in the sights of the gunman.

In 1980, Pope Francis (or Jorge as he was known back then) spent a few months at the Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy, a Jesuit college next door to my own Jesuit alma mater in Dublin. In fact, it was the same year I started prep school there with 29 other eight-year-olds, complete strangers from all over Dublin – most of whom would become lifelong friends. The inimitable Ms. Maire O’Kelly was in loco parentis!

Even then, nobody had any notion of the Argentinian priest’s destiny. If you imagine him on a sunny summer evening strolling around the gardens of the Milltown Institute reading his ‘office’, it is easy to draw the stark contrast between his life and, say, one of the Kinahans. The former perhaps intent on accumulating a greater knowledge and understanding of the nature of the world and its people, the other intent on accumulating as much monetary wealth as possible in whatever fashion is required.

Evidently, the environment and people with which we surround ourselves significantly influences whether we will ultimately face the circumstances under which we are all capable of committing murder. The possibility of these circumstances occurring is vastly reduced in the case of Pope Francis and conversely, increased when one continually chooses the life of an international drug baron.

But what if, some random evening, a terrorist (with insider information that a future Pope is present) enters the grounds of the Milltown Institute and threatens the life of Francis who, not yet being Pope at the time of our shockingly hypothetical incident, is unlikely to be surrounded by his infamous Swiss Guard security detail? Let’s assume the terrorist wields a gun and states in no uncertain terms that he is about to pull the trigger. What do you think Francis would do? I suspect not even God knows the answer to that conundrum but it is highly likely, in my own humble opinion, that the future Pope (having altogether different but equally destructive weapons to hand) would attempt to use his knowledge of human nature, his intelligence and a few insightful hypotheses to convince the terrorist to cease and desist from his evil ways. But, let’s suppose, dragging the hypothetical into the realms of the unimaginable, that Francis carries a gun. Would he use it if he was certain the terrorist’s intentions were genuine? I suspect not but, for now, let’s just hope this crazy hypothetical is never put to the test! Perhaps the future Pope wouldn’t choose to shoot first and ask questions later but it is altogether conceivable that the rest of us wouldn’t think twice given the opportunity to defend ourselves against certain death.

Thankfully, most of us are never likely to encounter the scenario where we have to make such a pivotal choice – to shoot another human being in defence of our own life. We have chosen to live according to the laws of the land and are surrounded by like-minded friends and family – not criminals, terrorists or serial killers. But what if the life threatened was that of your son, daughter, sister, brother or even your parents? Would you shoot then? Of course you would! Despite often not being able to understand the rationale of those who kill, there are circumstances where we would, almost instinctively and without hesitation, pull the trigger – knowing it would end the life of another human being and save the life of a loved one. Given this, perhaps it is not inconcievable that Francis would also pull the trigger – should the life threatened not be his own. If the future Pope would do it, there is ‘hope’ for the rest of us!

It appears that the majority of us have an entirely different moral code when compared to the likes of Christy or Daniel Kinahan or Ted Bundy. How does this come to be? Well, if we are all agreed that the capacity for the worst kind of animalistic behaviour exists within all of us, then we can move on! Yes?

So, if we are capable of the worst posible behaviour, we must surely be capable of all other behaviours – from truly altruistic acts of goodness and kindness at the summit of the behavioural hierarchy all the way down to murder at the base. It appears, for the majority of us, that these base behaviours are absent in our lives purely because the circumstances do not present themselves whereupon we ‘lower’ our behavioural standards.

The argument that we are simply not the same kind of people as those locked up in maximum security prisons (with life sentences for the most heinous crimes imaginable) is without foundation. We are the very same as them but – through default or design or a combination of the two – we have somehow managed to avoid that particular set of circumstances which reveal the worst of our human traits. Circumstances, indeed, where we become incapable of inhibiting the most base animal behaviours and show our ‘true colours’. But, surely there is more to it than just circumstance? Of course there is!

There is a socio-economic influence at play too. The majority of prisoners behind bars around the world come from the poorest backgrounds. While it is true that wealthy people can afford to pay extortionate bail bonds and hire better lawyers to keep them out of prison altogether, the fact remains that the vast majority of criminal behaviour is exhibited by those who have been financially impoverished growing up.

Whether it is seeing others enjoy the trappings of wealth or a pure desire to lift themselves out of poverty, it is indisputable that the less well-off will often stoop to unimaginably low levels in pursuit of money. That having been said, I would suggest bad behaviour by this particular societal cohort has less to do with a paucity of financial means and more to do with a detrimental lack of discipline and suitable role models in the formative years – role models who would punish inappropriate behaviour, reward the good and, through their own actions, demonstrate the behaviour they expect.

The justice system is an extension of the role model system, albeit capable of rendering significantly more severe penalties for miscreant behaviour. But then again, our perpetrators have typically reached the age of responsibility if or when they encounter the courts. At this stage, the role model system appears to have already failed and society (via the justice system) must step up to the plate in its stead.

Undoubtedly, there are numerous examples of poor people rising from poverty without breaking the law or turning to more mischievous means but, unfortunately, they appear to be in the minority. I would posit that it is primarily the continuity of the punishment / reward cycle by responsible role models that instills, in the formative years, the ability to consciously inhibit our worst behaviours and allow the best ones to flourish.

Good role models are critical to positive development. Familial role models are best. That being said, many a young man has been guided by people other than family and turned out well. It is the young men that have no guidance that typically stray into a cycle of behaviour considered by society at large to be at least inappropriate if not downright illegal.

Moral fortitude is learned. It is not, as we say in Ireland, licked from a stone. It is said everywhere, not just in Ireland, that the apple never falls far from the tree. Young men (and women) benefit most when their role models are morally well-rooted and teache sound ethics by example – and otherwise. The apple tree will, more often than not, bear delicious fruit when the roots are strong and the weather is conducive to good growth.

But, I hear you say, Ted Bundy’s parents loved and raised him well. They did indeed. So there must be even more going on than we have discussed so far.

The sharpest nail in the abnormal behaviour coffin is a psychological divergence from that which is considered the normal operation of the mind. Regardless of whether the criminal was born into poverty or not, and raised by morally-upstanding role models or not, it appears even the soundest of minds can go awry, whether as a result of a morbid curiosity with sexual deviance, lack of empathy or some other complex, yet disfunctional, brain activity.

A cursory glance at the crimes committed by Bundy will lead most to conclude that he was indeed a psychopath, despite the presence of loving parents, family and friends in his life as he matured to adulthood. The known particulars of Bundy’s psychopathy are essentially superfluous for the purposes of this discussion – suffice to say, despite demonstrating a high level of intelligence, his criminal actions can ultimately be ascribed to some chaotic and catastrophic sequence of synaptic impulse firings the rest of us never experience or at least never acknowledge as being viable.

In as much as most of us typically ignore, for example, suicidal ideations as being just that, it appears that the mind of a psychopath extensively analyses similarly disturbing brain activity and by the very analysis, attributes to it some level of importance. Whether this attribution leads to further action clearly depends on the makeup of the mind in question and the circumstances of the individual.

So, there we have it! Despite all the apparent advantages available to a new born child, it is still possible for even the most loved and best-guided child to ultimately stray from the narrow path designed by the laws, customs and conventions governing good society.

Under certain circumstances, we all have the capacity to behave (wilfully or otherwise) in a manner above and beyond that which is considered socially acceptable.

Should any of us be confronted with those circumstances in the future, it should be the express wish of each and everyone that we have sufficiently absorbed the requisite emotional skills to ensure we are consciously (or otherwise) able to inhibit the threat from the beast within and act in a manner befitting our position as the most evolved of all the animals on earth. Civil society depends on it.

Cut out the middleman. Stay home!

Back in prehistoric times, I imagine men and women sitting around their campfires at night would stare up towards the vast abyss with similar awestruck wonder as we do today. It is not unfathomable that the resultant questions which consumed their firelit conversations were similar to those we still ask ourselves millions of years later.

Granted the human brain has developed considerably since then, both in size and cognitive capacity, but it is nonetheless arguable that even the smallest and least-developed prehistoric mind was capable of capturing a very real sense of the absolute enormity of the visible universe in which the stars twinkle now exactly as they did when man first stood upright and walked the earth.

The realisation of just how seemingly insignificant his existence appeared to be when compared to the vast blanket of twinkling lights above him must surely have caused him pause for thought. In the language of the day, he may well have introduced his friends and family to a new phrase which they had never heard before – a phrase which described his pondering of the workings of the night sky. He may well have been the first philosopher but unfortunately, he was unable to document his thoughts other than sharing them with those around him and so we can only hypothesise as to what those thoughts might have been.

At some stage in our human evolution, men looked up to the night sky and used their imagination to invent gods – other-worldly entities which went some way towards explaining the magnificence which those men, using reason, could not. Whether this creation of ethereal gods first happened in prehistoric times or more recently is essentially irrelevant. Deities were (and are) the product of human imagination – which takes over the thought processes when reason and logic fall short. The moment when the human mind realises that something is unknowable is the moment when the line between reality and imagination is crossed – and god’s are instantiated to fill the void. The search for reasonable explanations to the unknown (having trawled exhaustively through everything that is actually known and still not finding universally-acceptable answers) has plagued mankind since first he strung a sequence of thoughts together. Where reason and logic fail, imagination succeeds.

The list of gods invented and worshipped by the ancient Pagans, Greeks and Romans is almost as infinite as the stars in the night sky. Those gods are now all virtually obsolete but there is a characteristic which is common to the lives of all who put their faith in god-like entities, from the Pagans, Greeks and Romans right up to the present day. That characteristic is subservience.

Whether from outright fear of the unknown – death, for example – or a good sense of empathy for others (particularly children), the invention of a god (or gods) facilitates relatively easy answers to the great philosophical questions. Where do we come from? Why are we here? Where do we go when we die? What else is there? The simple religious answer to all the seemingly unknowable questions is ‘God’!

At this juncture I would like to offer a round of applause to those who ultimately conclude that whatever god they worship is in fact the answer – having first searched the stratosphere for all other possibilities. At least they have paid their dues. I accuse everyone else of ignorance or laziness. But, I immediately qualify that accusation by saying that in many cases, their ignorance or laziness is through no fault of their own. If a man is not capable of reading, he can scarcely be justifiably accused of not having read the work of the great philosophers or theologians. If a man is busy working and taking care of his family, he can scarcely be accused of being too lazy to do all that reading. The man (or woman for that matter) that has the time and intellectual capacity to question religion but nonetheless accepts it without question is either lazy or ignorant – or both!

It appears then that most people, who find each day quickly filled with the tasks of living, don’t have the time to investigate the big philosophical questions for themselves – much less take even more time to assimilate all the information they have consumed and form reasonable conclusions based on their findings. They must, necessarily, turn to someone (or some thing) who has actually spent that (not insignificant) time doing the research on their behalf. Ladies and gentlemen, please show your appreciation for the religious institutions of the world as they take the stage to present their vast and various theories on life, love, the universe and everything. Break out the popcorn and sweets. We could be here a while!

Actually, this won’t take as long as one might imagine because all religions have a common thread at their core. There is no real need to delve deeper into their respective teachings at this stage. Suffice to say, regardless of which you choose to ‘follow’, all religions make a single (and seemingly straightforward) request of their respective congregations. They present their doctrine and ask that you accept it in full – without question.

This is where I part ways with every religion ever invented by man – which is to say every religion ever invented. To expect me not to question a doctrine I have initially chosen to follow (or have been introduced to as a child) is the epitome of arrogance. Surely if the doctrine holds up to detailed scrutiny its proponents would be more than happy to have it examined. My suspicions are immediately aroused when I am told that I have already been provided with all the evidence and the case is closed. What if I disagree with the way in which the jury arrived at the verdict? I am deliberately using a legal metaphor here because in any reasonably developed justice system a verdict should always be available for further scrutiny. For a justice system to render a guilty verdict and subsequently lock away the case files is a criminal act which necessitates its own trial! The legal metaphor doesn’t end here. Religion is on trial in my little WordPress courtroom.

In 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract posited that:

individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority (of the ruler, or to the decision of a majority) in exchange for protection of their remaining rights or maintenance of the social order.

While Rousseau was discussing subservience in a societal context, it is clear that a similar sentiment can be applied to a religious context. We consent to the doctrine of our ‘chosen’ religion without question. It’s a contract which we spiritually ‘sign’ either knowingly as adults making an informed decision to follow or unknowingly as children, whose illegibly-scrawled ‘signatures’ are, notably, not yet legally binding.

While I may be accused of comparing the indoctrination of children into a religion as a contract which is not legally binding, the practice of excommunication from the Catholic Church for breaking any of its ‘contractual’ rules is still considered a viable punishment. In 2009, the Brazilian mother of a nine-year-old rape victim was said by Archbishop José Cardoso Sobrinho to have incurred an automatic excommunication when she consented to her daughter having an abortion. It is clear from this and countless other incidences of excommunication that the Vatican still considers its global congregation to be under some kind of ‘contract’, the breaching of which may well result in the most severe consequences. Incidentally, the doctors who performed the abortion were also included in Bishop Sobrinho’s declaration!

Anyone who has ever had a legitimate job has signed a contract of employment. The same cohort of people will also, at some stage in the course of their employment, hear or be heard to say:

‘He’s the boss – what he says goes!’

It is true. If you want to keep your job you keep your nose clean and do as the boss tells you. You accept the way things are done at work because you want to get paid at the end of the month. Whether you have the freedom to discuss your concerns with the boss is an important distinction. Pure subservience means that while you may privately question the authority of the person or institution to whom you are subservient, you never publicly express those concerns. You are subservient in your quiet acceptance of the way things are for reasons which suit your own objectives.

Similarly, you go to the polling booth on election day and vote for your ‘favourite’ politician – to represent your concerns at both a local and a national level. You are subservient to the laws enacted by government and stay within the rules in exchange for your other ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ being protected by the justice system. As long as you are reasonably content with the life you lead you are unlikely to object – at least not publicly. However, should politicians renege on the promises they made at election, you will typically become frustrated or disillusioned by them and may even take to the streets in protest. At a minimum you are likely to review your voting options at any ensuing elections.

So, we are subservient to our boss at work, to our government (both local and national) and to the doctrine of our ‘chosen’ religion. There are many more aspects of life in which it is plausible to suggest we display subservient behaviours. Let’s keep it at the macro level for the purposes of progress and ask a seemingly simple question. What are the consequences of subservient behaviour?

The positive consequences are easily identifiable because they are the basis upon which we allow ourselves to become subservient in the first place. Political subservience allows us to live our lives while accepting that the government will take care of the issues which are above and beyond our own individual capabilities. Employment subservience guarantees we keep our job and get paid. Religious subservience provides us with a system of beliefs which typically enhances the quality of our spiritual lives. What about the negative consequences of subservience?

In all cases, should we come to a point where we disagree with or go so far as to break the rules, we typically find ourselves bowing our heads and asking for forgiveness. Who is standing in front of us when we do? The boss (Yes, sir), the judge (Yes, your Honour) or the priest (Yes, Father). Asking forgiveness is an admission of fault which follows from a realisation of guilt and each successive incidence of guilt chips away at our self esteem. One of the negative aspects of subservience is reduced self esteem or self worth.

It seems that we can live a reasonably peaceful and uninterrupted life within the confines of the law of the land or the rules laid down by the boss at work. The regulations are laid out in the statute books or the employment manual and we mostly just go about our business without any serious breaches. However, if we do breach the rules at work or the laws of the land, we have to be actually caught doing it before the punishment process kicks in – unless we are the most conscientious individual ever and feel obliged to hand ourselves in. But as conscientious religious beings we actually catch ourselves and report ourselves – to God – via the confession box. Guilt is a matter of conscience. It is our conscience that reports on us and it is our indoctrination by religion that fine-tunes that conscience to act as a ‘more-than-my-job-is-worth’ guardian of everything we do – a guardian who is always alert and on duty, even while we sleep!

The ‘Thought Police’ in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 were guardians of the collective conscience because the state didn’t trust its citizens to legislate for their own thoughts. Similarly, religions fine-tune the conscience of their followers over time to guarantee they become guardians of their own thoughts and deeds. It’s like a completely automated legal system. Commit the crime, catch yourself doing it, feel guilty, report yourself to the authorities and ask forgiveness. Regardless of how forgiven you feel following confession, the thought is always there that you will be back again soon. Actually, if you obey the rules of the church you will be back regularly with a similar list of sins. Imagine heading to the local district court once a month to inform the judge of which laws you broke! Confession became a farce for me years ago when, like the angel I was, I found myself making up sins in my head as I entered and closed the door of the confession box behind me. Bless me father for I have sinned. It’s been far too long to bother you now!

Through empathy, our interaction with others as adults instills in us a sense of justice and morality but that sense of what is right is primarily encapsulated a lot earlier in life, in the behaviour of our role models towards us while we are young. A conscientious parent will scold for erring behaviour and praise the good – always ensuring that the confidence of the child is maintained. A good judge will issue a sentence appropriate to the crime. Fair cop judge – you have me bang to rights! A reasonable boss will issue behavioural warnings (whether verbal or written) unless of course the offence is punishable by immediate dismissal. The following day the warning is all but forgotten – in the spirit of progress. But, what does the Roman Catholic Church do to keep us ‘in check’?

Well, should we break one of the ten commandments, we are threatened with fire and brimstone for all eternity – unless we bow our heads and ask for forgiveness. An equivalent judge in court would be issuing life sentences for, say, burglary. Similarly, dismissal from work as a result of being late some Monday morning would be the wrong course of action and likely result in a justifiable claim of unfair dismissal by the unfortunate employee.

When the potential punishment is known to be utterly inappropriate to the crime, we find ourselves emasculated to the point that we never question the rules, never break even the most inconsequential of laws or commit even the most menial of sins. Our human nature has left us with no protection against the damnation of hell except to always do the right thing.

But we don’t always do the right thing! For whatever reason, all of us at some time or another have broken the law, bent the rules at work, questioned the authority of our parents or even protested decisions of the state. It’s in our nature to be dissatisfied at the best of times, to tiptoe the wrong side of the rules all the while weighing up the risks of getting caught. It is human to make mistakes and it is equally forgivable. What we shouldn’t be doing is relying on the forgiveness of God’s middleman who is always working on the assumption that we’ll be back next week and who’s sentencing guidelines never extend beyond the saying of a few prayers. That’s a strange kind of punishment indeed! The ‘break-em-down’ with guilt and ‘build-em-up’ with forgiveness routine of the Catholic Church is a continuous cycle of psychological abuse that can ultimately be detrimental to self esteem! It’s so much easier to fall than to pick yourself up again. The net result of the abuse is negative – reduced self esteem.

In an effort to assuage their own guilt, Catholics repeatedly surrender their self esteem and become subservient to the courtroom in the confession box. Telling a priest your sins is equally as useful as shouting them to the wind. A problem shared is not halved in this instance. How can it be? He’s about to judge you and pass a sentence of ten ‘Hail Marys’, a ‘How’s Your Father’ and a ‘Glory Be’ – and say a prayer for him if you can find the time. How is that halving your problem?!

Your conscience is doing all the morality work for you anyway, whether you vocalise your wrong doings or simply sit in a quiet room and think upon them silently to yourself. Granting the Catholic Church the power to forgive the very sins they set forth in the ten commandments is worse than a folly. You were set up to fail the minute Moses chiselled the word ‘First’ into his tablet of stone. Your ‘loyalty’ is guaranteed – for life. That’s not loyalty. Where else are you going to go when you need to alleviate the weight of your conscience?

Fuck this subservient bullshit. Cut out the middleman. Stay home and forgive yourself if you think you’ve done something wrong that you might otherwise take to the priest, nay judge, in the confession box! It will boost your self esteem no end when you complete the whole process on your own and the boost in self esteem should more than counterbalance the guilt. Stay home and save yourself the trip to the church. If you need to include God in the conversation, by all means do so. He’s everywhere – not just down at the church. At the very least, stay home until this Covid-19 crack is over!

The transgender dilemma

In software engineering a recursive function is a section of code which repeats itself until some condition is met to end the looping behaviour. The function may first execute using some initialised input parameters but those parameters will typically change or be changed within the function (or while the function is running) before becoming the input parameters again and again for each subsequent repetition of the function.

Novice programmers often forget to include the end condition, resulting in an infinite loop which will ultimately consume all the memory of the computer on which the program is running. The difficulty with catching this error is that it will typically only be discovered at runtime (after the program executes) but to fix the program the error must be found – and eliminated. Otherwise the program will always fail to complete!

Rather than choose a new topic to write about, I have decided to recursively look back over my previous posts knowing full well that some things I previously said are worthy of broader and deeper investigation.

Certainly, I am aware that many of the topics mentioned in previous posts possess infinitely more substance than the tangential reference I may have previously made and it would be remiss of me, before proceeding to an altogether new subject, not to complete a more rounded discussion of each of them.

I am often prone, when writing, to ‘fluidly’ move forward – away from a particular point – rather than pause and take a more substantive look at the meat on the bone.

The next few posts will be a deliberate derailing of some of the cargo carriages on a train of thought I could have (more conscientiously) boarded over the last few months but chose instead to temporarily set aside in a bid to more efficiently reach the chosen destination at the time – undistracted by the red and amber signalling. The train has pulled into the station and I am heading to the lost property office for a rummage around in the abandoned luggage.

While there, I will also attempt to pull the brakes on this all-too-indulgent railway metaphor! 🚂

In my article entitled ‘The elastic umbilical’
( you will find the following excerpt:

The ‘power’ once wielded by the most ‘popular’ religion on earth appears to have dwindled significantly…

I would like to further discuss how the decline in the ‘power’ of the Catholic Church has affected society in recent years and take one specific example to demonstrate the issues.

Anyone who believes in a God believes that their God is all-powerful and loving. Let’s set aside the all-powerful nature of God for now and focus instead on the belief that God is a loving God. It is safe to simultaneously assert that most believers view their God as they would view a loving parent. Thus we arrive at the oft-used concept of God the ‘father’.

It is irrefutable that our beliefs are not only conditioned by those that went before us but also, our environment and personal experiences as we mature into responsible and independent citizens. At some stage most of us will have the good fortune to become parents and it is the experience of being a parent that allows us to confidently express our feelings about family and all that familial life entails.

I recently read that the lead singer with Welsh rock group Stereophonics, Kelly Jones, had ‘accepted’ his 15-year-old daughter Bootsy’s wishes to identify as as a boy. My first thought was that it was most unusual that he would consider it appropriate for his child’s private life to be cast into the public domain. Upon further reflection I concluded that it was really none of my business. It was Jone’s choice to go public. While I do not agree with his decision to publicise what I consider to be a very private matter, I nonetheless accepted it and directed my mind to the issue of transgender itself, specifically as it relates to belief in a loving God.

To live a contented life I belief we should be continuously attempting to harmonise our mind and body. Certainly, the two are inextricably linked and cannot be viewed in isolation. If my body is healthy I have a better chance of having a healthy mind. The opposite is also true.

So, I (mostly) eat well and fill my mind with positivity on a daily basis. Should negativity enter my mind I typically eliminate it with a conscious effort to immediately replace the negative thoughts with positive ones. In this way, I am increasing the possibility that tomorrow will be a better day. It is a responsibility I feel towards myself – to be the best version of who I am for as long as possible. But it is also a responsibility to society. Being the best version of our individual selves is part of our contribution to the society in which we live. Society is a collective, playing host to all its individual citizens. Being the best version of ourselves is not just a self-centered effort but rather (hopefully) contributes to the well-being of every other person we encounter on a daily basis. Positivity is a very strong magnet to which we are all drawn and from which we can all benefit. Conversely, negativity in those we meet tends to send us running in the opposite direction.

I just tested positive – for positivity! You’re welcome 😎😉🤘

So, to be my best, I constantly try to maintain a level of harmony between my mind and my body which make up the whole of who I am. There is nothing else about myself that I can control. I am responsible for my own actions and reactions to life – nothing and no one else. I cannot, and should not, attempt to control the actions or reactions of others in their lives. In addition, I cannot (and should not) attempt to control the reactions of others to my own life. But, what if I encounter a friend (or even a complete stranger for that matter) who needs help dealing with a crisis in their life? If I can help, and they are willing to accept my help, then there is a justifiable case for intervention.

With our own children we have a parental responsibility to intervene and guide them as they mature – as a shepherd would a lost sheep. At the very least we are giving them the benefit of our experience. Until they have achieved their own social responsibility, we are their parents – not their friends.

So, it appears that Kelly Jones was having difficulty accepting his daughter’s re-identification of the gender with which she was born.

I am aware that I should now be referring to his daughter ‘Bootsy’ as his son or ‘Colby’ and using the pronoun ‘him’ instead. I have no problem whatsoever doing this. After all, that is his son’s choice and who am I to say it should be otherwise.

I was left wondering whether Jones’ difficulty accepting Colby’s new identity was because of a personal belief in a loving God. We cannot reasonably profess to believing in a loving God unless we also accept that transgenderism is a psychological illness – certainly a difficult notion to come to terms with. The two (a loving God and transgenderism) are irreconcilable. Here is why.

As parents we would all wish that our children are born healthy in both mind and body but, clearly, this is often not the case. Babies are born every day with physical and mental deficiencies and parents are charged with not only dealing with the fallout but also attempting to overcome or minimise the deficiencies if at all possible. It’s the responsible thing to do.

If you believe in God you believe that there are two genders, male and female, which are denoted by the genitalia with which you are born. But, the human body is not just a set of genitalia. It also comprises arms, legs, torso and a head, inside of which is a complex brain. We are still developing our understanding of how this brain works but, even without understanding all its complexities and intricacies, we can all agree that there is a globally accepted concept of that which constitutes a healthy mind. How else would we be able to identify a psychological illness if we didn’t have a basis for defining how a ‘normally’ functioning brain operates? The illnesses are deviations from the agreed normal.

With that being said, it is virtually impossible to understand why a loving ‘father’ God (just like a parent) would wish for a baby to be born with any deficiency whatsoever, knowing that even the healthiest baby has the trials and tribulations of life on earth ahead of it. But, we as parents can only wish for healthy babies. The loving God we speak of can do more than wish. It is Him, after all, that ‘granted’ the baby to its parents in the first place. Not only did He ‘grant’ the baby but, believers in God will tell you, He actually created it.

What loving God would create a baby whose mind is in conflict with its body or allow this to happen at any stage in the life of the child as it matures towards adulthood? That after all is the dilemma faced by all transgender people. Their mind tells them that the genitalia they were born with are inappropriate to the person they truly believe themselves to be.

The conflict is clear. A loving God, as believers perceive Him, would not lovingly create such a catastrophic conflict between the mind and the body – or would He? Well, if He would, we have to ask why and this brings into question what we understand ‘loving’ to mean.

There is no way that I would ‘lovingly’ inflict harm upon anyone. I might do so maliciously but God is not malicious. At least, that is not how believers in God would ever describe him.

The decline in power of the Catholic Church has left people – who might once have been avid worshippers – relatively directionless. A lost sheep will follow the flock or look for its shepherd. There was never any shortage of local shepherds to follow but they have become significantly more visible (and heralded) since the arrival of globalised communication in the form of the internet. New ‘gurus’ are popping up on social media almost on a daily basis it seems – with advice on all aspects of life, love, the universe and everything else as far as the eye can see. The religious dogmas of the Catholic Church no longer have to be passively tolerated from the pews at Sunday Mass. Reduced vocations, scandals and increased exposure to the alternative approaches have consigned those pulpit-driven dogmas of yesteryear to a less engaging sphere somewhere beyond the ether. Whether the new approaches to modern life are better or worse than the God-fearing lives of our forefathers is a question for another day.

The decline in power of the Catholic Church is also allowing people with issues and concerns (previously swept under the carpet by the Vatican) to begin to voice their views in a world where a more diversified press, an increasingly liberalised university system and social media have facilitated the expression of (and debate about) just about all human behaviours – no matter how taboo they may have once been perceived.

Philosophy is the search for absolute truth. So, through time and reason, we arrive in the year 2020 with five logical options for the truth of transgenderism with respect to belief in a loving God:

1. God exists, is a loving God and did not create disharmony between the mind and body of any of His ‘children’ which means that transgenderism is a psychological disorder not included in God’s design of the human species. But, then again, why would a loving God allow such catastrophe to occur in either the mind or the body at all? Option 2 is the next logical conclusion…

2. God exists and is a loving God but ‘loving’ has a more complex definition in that He has a longer-term plan which includes His ‘children’ having to overcome trials and tribulations to reach a wholesome state where the body and mind are in harmony. Transgenderism is still a psychological disorder in this scenario and begs the question as to what kind of a plan God has for those who spend their whole lives struggling with either physical or psychological disorders? Do they have to wait for death before they are granted any quality of life or maybe they are just being used as guinea pigs – for the rest of us to learn some important life lessons? That’s not very loving of Him!

3. God exists but is malicious.

4. God does not exist. Whether He is loving or not is moot. Transgenderism is not a normal function of the human species.

5. God does not exist and, again, his ‘love’ is a moot point. Transgenderism in this final scenario is a normal function of the human species.

If you believe in the existence of a loving God you must accept that He would not create a child whose mind was in conflict with its body unless option 2 above is true. It is not an easy option to accept because you are still left wondering why your loving God would inflict illness on his ‘children’ at all. Surely that’s not love?!

Regardless, transgenderism is a psychological disorder in options 1 – 4 and in the one remaining option (5) where transgenderism is normal, God does not exist.

It’s certainly a dilemma for believers in God but, as the old saying goes, you cannot have your cake and eat it too!

If you have nothing good to say…

In 1998 I ran for election to the Students Union in Athlone Institute of Technology. As part of my preparation for the hustings I wrote a manifesto which addressed the issues facing the student population of the college at the time. Happily, I was elected and have been politically vocal ever since – but I digress!

To introduce the manifesto, I was looking for a realistic vision for third level education in general and chanced upon a speech by Professor Edward Walsh who was leaving his position as President (and founder) of UL (University of Limerick). In his speech he opined that for far too long the Irish third level system had operated like an ivory tower – with academics looking down from a height at the larger percentage of the population and seldom interacting with them in any significant manner. He also stated that it was incumbent upon those charged with managing the various parts of the academic system to immediately begin making sustainable policy decisions in an effort to make third level education more accessible to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. His reasoning, as I understood it, was that the resultant diversity of university graduates would ultimately benefit Irish (and global) society in the medium to long term. Thankfully, his assessment was accurate and acted upon with all third level institutions in Ireland now accepting ‘non-traditional’ students through a variety of alternative programmes, scholarships and grants.

Sixteen years later I found myself taking a contract position as a lecturer of Computer Science – with students who were in receipt of Social Welfare and retraining for a new career in IT. Although it took some time for me to arrive at that teaching position in 2014, the words and sentiments of Ed Walsh had never really escaped my psyche. I was reminded of them again today while talking with a friend back home in Galway about the difficulties of disseminating academic knowledge to the population in general – rather than just those who are already intellectually open or susceptible to the new knowledge – a little like delivering a sermon to the congregation rather than the choir – assuming the choir consists of other academics and the congregation comprises the rest of society.

So, what are some of the issues associated with efficiently transmitting a thought or message that occurs in the mind of one person to the mind of another?

Let’s begin by establishing who is who and what is what. The thought or message happens in the mind of a person who wants to share it with someone else. Let’s call the person with the thought or message in mind the ‘sender’. Let’s stick with ‘message’ as the thought to be shared and let’s call the recipient of the message the ‘receiver’. The terminology comes from the transmission of messages over electronic pathways and is familiar to all students of electronics and computer science. We would typically abbreviate the terms to ‘Tx’ (Transmitter or Sender), ‘Rx’ (Receiver) and ‘Msg’ for the message.

There is another additional term associated with computer communications which is appropriate to this discussion. An ‘ack’ is a response from the recipient to the sender ‘acknowledging’ receipt of the message. It confirms that the transmission has been received and understood but only understood to the extent that there are no apparent errors in the message. For now just assume I have a good reason to mention it. All will become clear anon – hopefully.

So we have a sender with a message ready to be transmitted to a recipient.

Before we send it, let’s take a look at the message itself and establish a few basics. The actual detail of the message is not of paramount importance for the purposes of this discussion but rather we need to focus on the clarity of the message. Let’s take an example to help us proceed. Our email message is:

We have declared war on our enemy!

OK, maybe the detail of the message is actually important!

Without further ado, let’s send the message to our chosen recipient – and wait. The first response from our recipient might be:

Which enemy?

Well, at least we know the recipient actually received our message (‘ack’)!

Although there may be other questions to follow, it is already clear that we have not sent a very concise message. Let’s start again.

The U.S. has declared war on China.

Yep, the detail of the message is most definitely important.

Better! At least we have been more specific about our intentions to wage war with the Chinese – for whatever reason.

Let’s assume that this initial message contains sufficient information to begin a conversation and turn our attention to our recipient.

We are hardly likely to send this message to a 2-year-old child. The message should be intended for an appropriate recipient – who will at least grasp the meaning of our statement. So, it is obvious at this stage that whatever message we send must be understandable by the recipient – an executive in the military when waging war for example. Inappropriate recipients are not likely to respond positively to our communication or, worse, may even become offended by our inappropriate choice of target for our message. Friend-requesting strangers on Facebook is a good example of inappropriate communication – in most cases. Sales people cold-calling is another, spam email another – and there are as many more examples as there are stars in the night sky.

So, before sending the message, we will typically have expectations that the recipient will understand and respond in some manner as to move the conversation along. Otherwise what would be the point of sending them the message in the first place? We are hardly likely to spend time communicating with someone unless we intend for that communication to continue towards some reasonable objective. The message is the first in a succession of subsequent messages that we hope will form the basis for further conversation – or even debate.

So before we send out that initial message we should do some groundwork. What do we want to say? Why are we saying it? To whom do we want to say it and how do we convey the message such that our recipient understands it with as little confusion as possible? We hope for a response received ‘loud and clear’ but requests for further clarification may well move things along nicely too.

Confusion is only one of a litany of possible reactions when sending a message that is less than crystal. We haven’t even considered the implications of a recipient misunderstanding the intent of the message or even reacting emotionally rather than with reason. They may simply be having a bad day or be distracted by some other important issue. We have little control over the circumstances at the other end of the line but we should at least minimise the potential for a reaction other than the one we expect. Don’t, for example, ring your surgeon friend when he’s hovering over an open heart with a very sharp scalpel – although, as he pointed out later that evening over a couple of cold pints of Guinness in a Ballsbridge hostelry, he doesn’t bring his mobile phone into 5-hour surgical procedures anyway – or any surgery for that matter!

Another good friend once told me that he never sends important emails immediately after writing them. Rather, he sleeps on the issue and reviews the email before hitting the ‘send’ button the following day. A wise man indeed – and something of a ‘Lazarus’ figure when playing poker for real money!

Thus far, I have been discussing email messages where the communication is written and there is a definitive point at which the message is sent e.g. hitting the send button on email or WhatsApp or even, back in the heady days of ‘snail mail’, licking a stamp and dropping the letter in the post box. At least the moment before sending these types of messages is defined and affords the sender an opportunity to perhaps pause before committing to the finality of transmission.

But, face-to-face (or telephone) conversation is an entirely more instantaneous form of communication yet fraught with all the same predicaments! Is it any wonder we often find ourselves unintentionally offending the people closest to us – not to mention complete strangers. With so many mental hurdles associated with transmitting a message clearly in real time to think about, it is nigh on impossible to ensure we filter our statements according to the necessary criteria for efficient communication. Sometimes it’s a wonder we can communicate in real-time at all with so much going on in our minds before the words are assembled and transmitted from our vocal chords into the air.

I have thus far limited the discussion to one-to-one communication but what of one-to-many? Take, for example, the hirsutely-challenged President of the U. S. of A and specifically his activities on the much-maligned communication platform known as Twitter.

I imagine the ‘Donald’ wakes up each morning, blinks the sleep from his eyes and immediately reaches for his cellphone on the bedside locker to graciously share some wisdom or another with the world. God himself probably doesn’t know the ruminations of Trump’s mysterious and magnificent dream cycles! 280 characters (or less) later and a random sequence of letters has been transmitted to the Twitterati. It is clear, from his countless gaffs already cast upon the ether, that an absolute minimum of groundwork has been performed before our sleepy genius hits the send button.

Now if you mentally rewind to my earlier discussion involving all the difficulties associated with clearly communicating a message to just one person, imagine the exponentially more difficult task of communicating to millions, nay billions of strangers, each having their own opinions, hopes and fears and many craving words of solace or wisdom from their appointed leader. The prudent course of action would be to assemble your best people over strong coffee, tea and toast and have them craft a message to optimise the efficacy of any imminent transmissions.

One, and only one, of two things can be true when we look at the communications ‘deployed’ by this most peculiar example of the human species experiment. Either Trump’s team of experts are incompetent or he is! I suspect, being a firm believer in the wisdom of those who establish themselves as global experts in their field (through hard work and dedication to a particular specialist topic over long periods of time) that the latter is true. Trump is irresponsibly incompetent! Is my message clear and concise and understandable to all who read it? Let me repeat it just in case.

The elected President of the U.S.A., Donald Trump, is irresponsibly incompetent.

Intentionally offending the recipient (or recipients) of our messages is an abhorrent activity in and of itself but, in many ways, doing so out of ignorance is even more abhorrent.

I referred to the Socratic Paradox in a previous post:

I know that I know nothing

Well, the responsible thing to do when you don’t know something is to ask someone who does. In an effort to learn, Socrates became expert at asking the right question of the right person. Even a kindergarten child knows to raise their hand when they have a question. Perhaps it is arrogance (beyond belief) that renders Trump incapable of asking for advice from those best placed to provide it or maybe he has just surrounded himself with the wrong people. Typically, those people should be academics who have spent their careers becoming experts in their chosen field or, at the very least, people with a great deal of specialist experience.

I suspect Professor Ed Walsh would have a few words for Donald if he got the opportunity. Trump’s Tower is not academic but rather a fortress built with brittle bricks of entitlement, arrogance, ignorance and an all-consuming fear of failing – again. Certainly, the fall from grace would be further, faster and infinitely more devastating than any he has experienced thus far.

The old adage applies:

If you have nothing good to say, say nothing!

A perfectly brief moment in time

I recently recorded a cover version of Ed Sheeran’s hit tune ‘Perfect’. The song got me thinking about the concept of perfection itself and how the word appears to be ridiculously overused in the common vernacular – from a philosophical point of view.

The concept of perfection appears to be used in everyday terms to accentuate an idealistic view of almost everything we do and see. To address the topic more rigorously, I will discuss the use of the word ‘perfect’ only in relation to aesthetic beauty – something I am familiar with in my everyday work. More specifically, I will stay away from the ‘Golden Ratio’ (visit Mona Lisa in the Louvre for visual confirmation) preferring to lean more towards the vagaries of popular and public opinion than any a priori knowledge or mathematical treatise.

So, what does any individual person consider to be the essential features of a beautiful woman? I note that this is a subtly different question to what society as a whole considers are the essential characteristics of a beautiful woman (more anon) but that the two are inextricably related in that society is the sum of its individual citizens, assembled for the purpose of living a ‘better’ life.

Also bear in mind, when discussing ‘beauty’ I am not talking about the personality of a woman but rather her physical appearance as perceived by those she encounters. Additionally, I could just have easily decided to choose to focus on a man for the purposes of the discussion but being a heterosexual male photographer, I find myself more attracted to capturing the beauty of women than men. Yes, sensuality is (almost) always part of my psyche when photographing a woman. The individual beauty of my female models is a subject with which my creative efforts are constantly consumed and therefore, lends itself all the better to further consideration here.

Perhaps you expected I would actually define the specific features of a woman I consider to be intrinsic to her aesthetic beauty. I cannot perform such an impossible task. Each and every woman has something about her aesthetic appearance that is absolutely beautiful. Granted, some women are more photogenic than others but why that may be is utterly irrelevant in the context of this discussion. The crux of my reasoning for choosing to focus on an ‘ideally’ beautiful woman is that most of us already have our own personal opinion of what that might be but we can simultaneously admit that our own opinions differ wildly to the opinions of others. It is a discussion we have all already had.

Further, within our own society, we may agree that one woman is more beautiful than another but get on an airplane (whenever they start flying again) and take yourself to the other side of the world before you state categorically that your definition of female beauty is universal.

I have been guilty at times (when shooting fashion) of looking at the back of my camera after taking a photograph and exclaiming the word ‘perfect’ aloud. This usually happens when all the elements of what I consider to be the essentials of the photograph I am trying to achieve come together in a single shot. The exclamation also contains a modicum of emotive elation, in that I have succeeded, in partnership with the model, to achieve the goals for the shoot. There is also an element of letting the model know that she has done a good job. All photographers (worth their salt) know that the opposite can be detrimental to a good shoot. Most models will watch your facial expression as you check the photograph. Nothing kills a younger model’s confidence quicker at a shoot than a grimace or puzzled look on the face of the photographer as he scrutinises her in close detail.

However, when I later upload the photo to my laptop for editing, I sometimes find that the perfection I saw on the two-inch screen at the back of my camera is in fact more flawed than I first thought. It might be only the slightest feature of the photograph (perhaps an erroneous technical choice rather than the model herself) but, regardless, the moment of elative exclamation at the shoot suddenly appears to be a moment of singularly catastrophic delusion.

I may edit in an attempt to recover the image I thought I had but the editing is superficial in that it is merely an attempt to rescue something which has been lost – or, more truthfully, actually wasn’t there in the first place. The set of circumstances which occurred before the moment I exclaimed ‘perfect’ resulted in a brief moment which was lost almost as quickly as it occurred and it is likely that the exact same set of circumstances will never be repeated. Like chasing the first cigarette of the day with nineteen more, the initial high is often way beyond reach.

In a moment of ‘joy’ (mostly related to my professionalism) I find myself using the word ‘perfect’ rather more frequently than I would prefer and more emotively than philosophically but, Plato (via Socrates) tells us in ‘The Republic’ that the ultimate philosophical pursuit is an attempt to ‘grasp the eternal and immutable’ – the truth of a thing. Transient moments like the couple of seconds I spent checking the photo on the back of the camera serve only as examples of mutability – the analysis of which may or may not move philosophical analysis closer to grasping more robust and permanent examples of eternal and immutable truths.

I feel bound to state at this juncture that the word ‘perfect’ is utterly imperfect in and of itself if used as some collective attempt to define an ideal. The only time the word ‘perfect’ should be used at all is in relation to an individual’s definition of the ideal and even that ideal will inevitably change as the views and opinions of the individual in question change with the passage of time.

Certainly, in the collective sense, something like a perfect society is an impossibility for any number of reasons but chief among them being the nature of change. Suppose that, for the briefest of moments a perfect society existed – that perfection being defined as a complete lack of reported crime. On Sunday night no crime took place in this society or at least none was reported. However, in all likelihood, a crime will take place in the next 24 hours and be reported. The larger the society the more likely this is to happen because there is a larger population from which criminals may emerge and (thankfully) from which to find a responsible (reporting) citizen. The perfectly ‘crimeless’ society that existed on Sunday night is shattered by Monday evening. A change took place – as change inevitably will – and perfection, as it was defined by the society at large, was lost.

Of course the perfection that was, albeit briefly, achieved must conform to some pre-ordained definition of perfection and therein lies the rub. Who defines what constitutes a perfect society? We all have different opinions of what is ‘perfect’ and it is nigh impossible to merge all those opinions into a single, all-encompassing version. It is for this reason that I am specifically addressing how an individual (rather than society as a whole) perceives aesthetic beauty.

Despite the acknowledgement that perfection is unattainable (albeit for the briefest of ‘deluded’ moments), it does not follow that we shouldn’t form some picture of the ideal. Without an image in our minds of what the ideal might be, we have very little at which to aim.

Setting out on a journey to an unknown destination will likely lead us on a wandering path whereas knowing our ultimate destination will keep us focused, even if we stray off the path of least resistance for a while. The wandering path can also be a lot of fun to find and follow and appeals to many but in this instance we are discussing achieving or reaching a pre-defined idea of perfection. Defining our destination before setting out is prerequisite to ultimately arriving there. Without that destination defined we are likely to find an entirely different destination which we may believe is even better than the original. But again, we are deluding ourselves. How could we possibly know that the unplanned destination is better if we haven’t arrived at, seen or experienced the originally-defined destination?

This might lead us to conclude that the most critical aspect of choosing our destination is defining it in the first place. The problem with this is that we are defining it at a single point in time and our opinions may well change before we leave or while we are actually on the journey itself – at which point we might justifiably review our initial choices and potentially change our minds as to which direction we now want to take.

Conversely, blinkering ourselves to the possibility of changing our minds (whether before or during the journey) may well result in us missing opportunities to experience other events which would serve to improve our lives.

But philosophy involves the effort to grasp (and understand) the eternal and immutable nature of things – not the transience inherent in the passage of time. Perhaps we can get to the immutable by looking into (and beyond) some examples of things that are constantly in a state of flux – like the aesthetics of a beautiful woman. The woman that is considered aesthetically beautiful at 21 may well be considered aesthetically beautiful for different reasons at 31 and 41 and 51.

So, how should we proceed with defining our ideals? How should we go about defining our own personal ‘perfect’ and, subsequently, how should we approach the journey towards it? Does it make sense to wear a pair of blinkers over our eyes (or some or all of our senses for that matter) like a horse that cannot run the race without getting distracted by the other horses running alongside or, should we keep our eyes (and ears) open to all the alternative routes along the way?

Try shouting at a 100-metre sprinter in the middle of the race. You have no chance whatsoever of distracting him because his focus is intent on reaching the finish line in as short a time as possible. But shout at a marathon runner and you might just get his attention. Which distance you choose to run depends on whether you like to live your life wearing blinkers – or not.

Certainly, we should have some idea of where we are going – towards what version of our own personal ‘perfect’ we are travelling – but, at the same time, we should be looking around and keeping our senses attuned to the changes that will inevitably take place.

As a photographer, my definition of ‘perfect’ beauty in the aesthetic appearance of a woman has changed multiple times over the course of my photographic journey and I expect it will change again (and again) as the journey continues. Although I am aware that perfection is intrinsically impossible to maintain, the pursuit of it is an occupation worthy of us all.

I am conscious that my own personal definition of aesthetic beauty in a woman has been moulded by not only my own unique life experience but also how the society I live within defines beauty. However, as the society we each inhabit evolves and becomes increasingly globalised, our previously localised definitions of beauty have been globalised too. What was once considered ‘foreign’ has, in more recent times, become significantly less so and, with the inevitable familiarity that follows, we find ourselves adapting the definition of who we are. Part of that adaptation is a ‘widening’ of that which we consider aesthetically beautiful.

In closing, I refer back to Ed Sheeran’s hit song to express a personal opinion as to how one line at least could be interpreted in light of this discussion.

The lyric ‘Darling you look perfect tonight’ appears to me to inherently suggest that tomorrow things will change – as is their nature to do so.

He is admitting that the perfection he perceives ‘tonight’ is more than likely brief and is trying to capture the moment (in song) so that when it passes – as it inevitably will – he has the memory of it to fall back on.

In many ways a photograph is similar to a song where both attempt to capture the essence of a brief moment in time and can later be revisited, becoming something of that which the philosophical effort attempts to grasp – an eternal and immutable truth.

Is coronavirus a blessing in disguise?

In the midst of a crisis such as the world is experiencing at the moment, it is often difficult to look any further than the end of today. We need to feed ourselves and our families and pay the rent or mortgage to maintain a roof over our heads. These activities are the first and most critical for survival and form the foundations for Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ – a very similar survival pyramid to that observed by Socrates’ in ancient Greece. From that perspective, little has changed in 2,500 years. Food and shelter are primal needs. But actually, quite a lot more has changed in the last few weeks!

Even when we do look further than the end of today, it is hard to say with any real confidence what lies beyond. It’s a scary prospect to look at anything which we cannot reasonably predict.

This new life we are living has been likened to a prison sentence with no release date. We are couped up in our homes, only allowed to go outside for absolutely essential reasons like shopping for groceries, visits to the pharmacy or walking our pets and, probably most difficult of all, we have no idea whatsoever when the prison sentence will end. It is likely to be months rather than weeks before we have this new virus contained, much less under control. Whether the governments of the world relax the social distancing rules in a couple of weeks or extend them beyond that is still up for discussion. Certainly, the consequences of sequestering citizens in their homes for any further extended period could be detrimental to law and order. The vast majority of us only have so much patience with authoritative dictats before we decide to try and take back the freedoms we enjoyed only a few short weeks ago – whatever we perceive those freedoms may be in the weeks and months ahead.

Stephen Fry recently posited that we should trust the people who say they don’t know. They at least are being truthful. Those telling us with certainty what the future holds are either delusional or being deceitful – whether for their own purposes or the greater good.

The WHO experts tell us pharmacologists are working flat out to create a vaccine but cannot say with any degree of certainty when the vaccine will become available. The vaccine might protect us from future infection but that is little consolation today (21st March 2020). So, briefly, let’s look a little further down the road than today.

What will the world look like post-Corona? We can barely even hypothesise about the days ahead as everything about our lives changes almost on an hourly basis it seems.

The virus is killing without regard for race, gender, creed or location and now we hear, even age. It is no longer just the elderly with pre-existing conditions that are losing the battle to breath!

Thousands upon thousands of people have lost their jobs in the last few weeks with no apparent prospect of re-employment on the (invisible) horizon. Global economies are increasingly susceptible to these changes and could potentially go into freefall over the next few weeks if not managed responsibly. Certainly, to paraphrase a great Irish poet, all has changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born.

The human condition loves the familiarity of ritual. We primarily perform the same tasks every day and seldom stray from the beaten path. It is in our nature to become comfortable in the relative security of the daily grind. Bring the kids to school, go to work, eat dinner, watch TV, sleep – and do it all over again tomorrow. Weekends provide a little respite but are short and typically lived knowing Monday is coming again soon. When we say we need a holiday we are saying we need a break from the daily grind. Well, Corona has given us a break but it is not a holiday!

Change upsets the vast majority of us, often more than we are willing to admit. It is the uncertainty of not knowing what the future holds that upsets our daily rhythms and puts a spanner in the works of our best-laid plans. But change is inevitable and we are charged with living our lives repeatedly trying to accept the changes that occur – with or without our intervention or consent.

Change most often upsets us when we have not consented to it, when we are not in control of its trajectory and this is most certainly the case with the Coronavirus.

We are living in the technological age where the pace of change has accelerated exponentially – especially compared with the most recent generations that have gone before us. Global travel has become increasing prevalent in the last forty years or so, affording more of us the opportunity to see the world but, it has also exacerbated the spread of this virus across the planet. Social media is keeping us informed and also in touch with our loved ones. There are pros and cons on both sides of the change coin. Appreciating and acknowledging both sides of the coin is vital.

Certainly, when we are released from this prison sentence we are serving at the moment and return to some sort of ‘normal’, we will appreciate the simple freedoms we have. Meeting friends and family for a coffee, walking on the beach, playing and watching our favourite sports, shaking hands. Hopefully, that appreciation will not be temporary but last a bit longer. All too often we celebrate but quickly forget the reason for the celebration once the party ends. Our memory of these days must not fade!

Unusually for me, I end this relatively brief writing excursion with (perhaps a paraphrased version of) the prayer of St. Ignatius Loyola, taught to all students of the Jesuits from a very young age:

Lord, give me the grace to change what I can, accept what I cannot change and the wisdom to know the difference.

When it comes right down to it we can only change ourselves and hope that the world becomes a better place because of the small changes we make. Coronavirus has provided us all with an opportunity to review the lives we live and the time to decide what changes we would like to make – however small and however insignificant they may appear.

Looking beyond today, it is reasonably certain that the sun will once again rise tomorrow. If and when it does, the world will keep turning – inch by inch, row by row. What part each of us plays in making that world a better place for ourselves and our fellow man depends on whether we have the courage and the wisdom to change…

To infinity and beyond

I’m sitting on a beach in Malaga looking up at a full moon resplendent in the clearest of twinkling skies. It’s almost 10pm in early March and still warm from the day that has now passed into night.

The vista above me is instantaneously exhilarating but nonetheless terrifying when considered for anything more than the briefest of moments! Beyond the immediate beauty of this starry, starry night lies that notion we refer to as infinity, a notion the human mind (as far as I am aware) is utterly incapable of grasping in any intelligible form. The path to understanding the notion of infinity is long, winding and often without end – just like infinity itself I suppose. Poets and philosophers have long been voicing (and penning) their various takes on the concept of that which is beyond what we can see – with our own eyes and, in more recent times, powerful telescopes and cameras.

Maybe that’s why I love being a photographer – capturing moments in time for recall at a later date – preferably much later. Have you ever noticed how photographs are more appreciated many years after they were shot? Viewed immediately after the fact, the photos are sharing the same mind-space as the recent memory of the actual moment in time they were shot. When the memory of the moment passes from the part of our mind that sees it clearly because it just happened, we still have the photos to help our recall – should we wish.

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe. [Albert Einstein]

I would much prefer to spend my life experiencing a succession of brief (exhilarating) moments but the intellectual beast has a habit of waking up and beckoning me to follow almost as soon as moments like this have occurred – and I often do.

As I gaze at this evening’s full moon the questions begin in earnest, begging a response. There are many, so it is an effort to choose one with which to start. Many of the thoughts currently racing through my mind relate to my wonderment at how infinitesimally miniscule this earth we inhabit appears to be when compared to the known universe, not to mention the parts of the universe about which we know next to nothing – and may never know anything!

As my imagination wanders further out into the universe – beyond the barely visible stars – to the parts my eyes can’t see, I feel obliged to at least attempt to grasp the enormity of it all. Despite knowing I will probably fail to truly grasp an understanding of the universe’s infinity, I’m still curious to discover exactly what I believe is out there – beginning with a shallow dive into the science books.

Ignoring all the visible stuff (planets, suns, moons, meteors etc), most of space is a vacuum. But even the least-dense vacuum has something in it (the odd hydrogen or helium particle for example). So, even out there in the furthest reaches of the universe, the notion that there is ‘nothing’ is false. Therefore, we can start with the premise that no matter (accidental pun) where we ‘look’ there is always ‘something’! It’s actually easier to just call the vacuum of space ‘stuff’ rather than get tied up constantly referring to its constituent chemistry.

So, where did all this ‘stuff’ come from and where is it going?

As far as the future is concerned, one school of thought will tell you the universe is expanding within a finite volume and will eventually turn about-face and start contracting – back towards the complete annihilation of ‘nothingness’. Oops, there’s that ‘nothing’ word again!

Another school will tell you the universe is infinite and expansion will continue ‘ad infinitum’. Gotta love the Romans for introducing that beautifully descriptive term into our vernacular. It can be paraphrased as ‘forever’.

At least both schools agree on something. The universe is expanding. I will accept this in good conscience and store it away for a future article. I’m fairly sure I won’t be around to photograph whatever happens, much less read about it on the internet! The distant future is essentially irrelevant to how we (presently here on earth) live our lives. The near future, on the other hand, is not.

As a sixteen year old schoolboy I had to decide what subjects I would prefer to focus on for my Leaving Certificate (Irish school-leaving examinations). I wanted to study Engineering at University so subjects like Geography and History were summarily dismissed but I maintained a keen interest in history (recent Irish political history in particular) extra-curricularly to my examination subjects. I discovered that one of the principle benefits of knowing my history is that an awareness of the mistakes of the past helps to minimise committing the same mistakes again. Having already (briefly) looked forward along the axis of infinity, now let’s look back along the same axis.

2020A.D., 1920A.D., 1820A.D., 1720A.D., 1620A.D…

A.D. is an abbreviation for the Latin term Anno Domini or ‘The year of our Lord’ which assumes a belief that Jesus Christ was born 2,020 years ago. There is an intermediary complication – the Gregorian calendar of 1582 – which plays havoc with the numbers. Fuck it – surely we can be more inclusive than that. Let’s skip all the positive and negative integers altogether and go right back to zero. Watch the mathematicians lose the plot at the idea of jumping back up to zero having wallowed around in the negatives for billions of years – approximately 13.772 to be as exact as possible. It’s just a conceptual segue people! Let’s just say that zero is the moment it all (the universe and everything in it) started.

Surprisingly (for those following the logical path of my reasoning), I’m going to skip the whole ‘How it all began’ debating match. God versus ‘Big Bang’ is an epic game of football that has been played on the global pitch for as long as man has been thinking about such things. The score is unknown. The result will probably be likewise. Let’s agree to differ, say we don’t know for sure and move right along.

I opened by saying that, as far as I am aware, the human mind is incapable of grasping the notion of infinity. Well, 13.772 billion is heading towards infinity. Admittedly, it’s not quite there yet but surely we have better things to be doing than counting that high or even trying to get an intellectual hold on numbers that big!

Wait! Maybe it’s more important than that. Maybe our failed efforts to grasp big numbers like 13.772 billion (or infinity – yes mathematicians, I know it’s not a number) is actually more relevant than we think.

For example, here’s another big number. The number of years after we die. How many is that? Actually, we can’t put a number on it because, as the mathematicians will tell you, infinity is not a number. Jesus, that’s kind of scary when you really think about it. Everything we know here on planet earth ceases to exist when we die – and continues to not exist – ‘forever’! The world will ramble on without us and barely miss a step in our passing. Am I really that insignificant in the overall scheme of things? It’s almost as if my place on earth is as infinitesimal as planet earth is in the universe!

That’s as good a reason as any to be afraid of death. Not being able to understand something so significantly central to our own existence, no matter how educated or intellectually agile you might be, is essentially a terrifying experience – similar to that second sensation I had earlier looking up at the moon and the stars. (By the way, it got cold, I came indoors!)

There are two ways to overcome that terrifying experience. Accept it as being just the way things are and move on or find something (or someone) that ‘explains’ it for you. Assuming you are the type who likes answers to your questions and cannot accept things just the way they are without further explanation, you will ultimately (perhaps after much soul-searching and research) either choose to believe in God – or not.

Naturally, the easier choice is to take a single leap of faith and side with God or – simply deny His existence. For those preferring to argue their case, the latter typically results in a lifelong course of extensive (and often laborious) reading.

Now, I’m not saying that believers in God are intellectually lazy in that they haven’t spent their lives flipping the pages of the plethora of texts offering a different outlook but the (ridiculously prevalent) argument that one believes in God because one ‘always has’ is certainly devoid of an intellectual effort to seek alternative explanations for the truth of our human reality. If you have the ability to read you should!

To say you are Christian because you were born Christian is an identical argument to voting for the same political party as one’s parents unless, of course, you have researched the policies of that party and agree with them – regardless of the familial political history. You should also have researched the policies of all the other political parties to conclude your investigations in as comprehensive a manner as possible. Did you conduct such research prior to the last election? It’s probable most (including myself) would respond with a ‘No’ if they are being entirely honest – swiftly followed by ‘who has the time for all that?’

The same is true of religious beliefs. What Christian has the time to read the Quran? What Muslim has the time to read the Bible?

And so, not having the time to do the research, we most often accept the beliefs of our parents and move on with a relatively unquestioning life. Religious conversions are a rarety.

As I was looking beyond the stars earlier the final thought I had (before retiring indoors) was an intellectual admission that I could never hope to be able to truly grasp the notion of infinity.

It’s not the first time I have tried to stretch the deepest recesses of my mind towards such a seemingly impossible task nor, I suspect, will it be the last. But, to avoid the terrifying experience of realising my mind is limited, I have found that the best course of action is to accept the infinite nature of the universe as simply being the way things are.

In that (relatively painless) acceptance I also find myself fearing death a little less. I feel a real sense of peace, calm and serenity when I think about infinity.

There is no need to panic if something is not understandable. Repeated consolidation of this may well result in further loss of fear, rendering the infinite years that lie beyond this mortal coil a simple notion that my human mind actually doesn’t need to worry about anyway.

Surely if we were meant to grasp the concept of infinity, our minds would have been built accordingly? Who really knows!?

Bless me father for I am about to sin!

It’s – a while – since my last confession but I confess now that I was a who-er for shoplifting keyrings back in the day. At the age of 7 or 8, walking past a souvenir shop for me was like an alcoholic trying to pass a pub. I’m assured by those in the know that the statute of limitations has expired for that particular crime spree but it still doesn’t help to assuage my guilt, however unlikely it is that I will receive a call from An Garda Siochana (Irish police) in the morning. The focus of today’s article is – how we come to know the difference between right and wrong – and the consequences of that knowledge.

‘Thou shalt not steal’

Summarily casting aside the seventh commandment etched by Moses on his tablets, let’s take a look at the sense of guilt we feel after committing a theft from a more reasoned and logical perspective. Naturally this will mostly only apply to those who a) have ever stolen something and b) have felt guilty at some stage following the theft. The best of luck to those who steal without conscience. The courtrooms and prisons of the world are your oyster!

There was this one particular keyring that stands out in my memory. It had a miniature Scooby Doo attached. Those who know me well are aware of my love (then and still) for all things Scooby Doo.

I can, many years later, reason that the owner of the souvenir shop at some stage had purchased the keyring and displayed it proudly for sale along with the thousands of other shiny trinkets adorning every nook and cranny of his premises. Back then this perfectly reasonable assumption never occurred to me. Why would it? I was seven years old and my brain was literally fried with the possibilities of how I would feel if the keyring were in my pocket. Fifty-five old pennies stood between me and ownership. Fifty-five old pennies I didn’t have.

The physiological effects (increased heart rate, sweating etc) in those last few moments before committing a crime are unmistakable and indicative of the knowledge that you are about to do something wrong. Call it ‘pre-emptive guilt’ if you will. Regardless, with practiced aplomb – and a quick glance over my shoulder to ensure the shopkeeper was otherwise engaged – the ‘Scooby Doo’ keyring was removed from its hook and deftly assumed its rightful place in my trouser pocket.

Certainly, had my parents (one, the other or both) caught me in the act, I would have been on the receiving end of a wholehearted kick up the arse! Thankfully, I was sufficiently wily at seven to ensure my souvenir ‘shopping’ was unsupervised by a responsible adult. The ten old pennies I did have were spent on ten ‘fruit salad’ sweets at the counter – to deflect from the real reason for my visit! Jayziz, even way back then I was employing the core techniques of a magician!

Anyway, let’s assume the shopkeeper was in business to make a profit. Whether he had paid ten or twenty old pennies for the keyring is moot. My theft dipped (even if only slightly) into his profits.

If I was the shopkeeper, I would justifiably feel aggrieved at the loss – however small. Perhaps he would have ignored the miniscule loss in profit and rather considered the incident a good opportunity to teach me a valuable life lesson. Regardless, it is the putting of myself in his shoes that reveals to me the error of my ways in stealing the keyring and renders my feelings of guilt which, from a physical point of view, appear at this very moment to be affecting both my head and my heart – but I digress.

Empathy for the shopkeeper’s position is a natural instinct we all share. Granted some are able to conquer this instinct to pursue a career of criminal activity but the vast majority of us live as law-abiding citizens and without difficulty recognise the empathetic nature of ourselves. It is present-day empathy with the shopkeeper that renders my guilt and it is that guilt which teaches me that stealing is wrong.

Conversely, the seventh commandment probably wandered loud around the mind of that seven-year old boy (raised in the Catholic faith) for a few minutes after the theft – until some other youthful excitement sent the commandment back where it came from. But, from a morality point of view, the commandment would have served its purpose to instill guilt in me at an age when the empathy I described above may not have been as well-formed as it is now. It would indeed be as surprising as it would be un-natural to discover that a boy of seven could or would empathise with a shopkeeper – of whatever age.

I’m not sure where pilfering keyrings ranks in the overall hierarchy of criminal activity but the various statutes of limitation – for which civil societies have seen fit to legislate – is probably a good indicator of the gulf between petty theft and say, for example, murder – for which you can be found guilty until your own dying breath. I’m positive in my own mind that murder trumps all other criminal activity – save maybe for paedophilia.

Ever since Cain killed his only brother in a fit of jealousy, man has been killing his fellow man. Not being able to put the question to Cain nor knowing any murderers sitting in prison or otherwise, nor considering the research effort even worthwhile, I have decided to, instead, simply imagine how I would feel if I myself committed a murder. The simple answer is – not good. Not good at all!

For whatever reason another person’s life is ended, the resultant guilt is unimaginable. Yes, one may attempt to justify the act in hindsight and it has been said that under the right (or wrong) circumstances we are all capable of it, but surely a right-thinking man would at some stage or another be wracked with unfathomable guilt – be it for the victim or those that inevitably loved the victim.

It is patently clear that there are degrees of wrong-doing which are encumbered with their associated degrees of guilt – regardless of how the legal system of a society views it. I would posit that, no matter what the act or its associated degree of guilt, the intrinsic and natural sensation that a wrong has been committed is generic and based on our ability to empathise with those that have been wronged.

Even as a society looking on, we empathise (to one degree or another) with the victims of crime. But typically, as onlookers, we don’t feel guilt – unless, of course, we are of the opinion that the whole of society (of which we are a part) is to blame for the problems that lead to serious crime.

Consider, for a moment, the parents of a convicted murderer. How must they feel living with the knowledge that the child they reared has been given a lengthy prison sentence having committed the most heinous of crimes? Their feelings of shame and guilt are nonetheless attestable and valid. Even those not involved with a criminal act will naturally empathise with the victim(s) and feel some sense of guilt – however negligible. How do you feel when you hear about a tourist in your country becoming the victim of some crime? That’s empathy – and shame (or guilt) are inextricably linked to our instinctive nature to empathise with our fellow human beings – to understand what it would be like to be in their shoes and have the same crime committed against ourselves.

‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’

Well done that man Moses! He summarised empathy in a single commandment. It’s an awful shame he didn’t have the internet at his disposal back in the day. His ‘hints’ for living a good life might have spread across the globe a bit faster and prevented untold criminality and preventable loss of life. He was certainly possessed of an astute understanding of the human condition – even if he was dispossessed of his own senses – chiselling the thoughts wandering around in his own mind into stone and adding insult to injury by subsequently claiming that they were commandments from God.

Claiming his own thoughts to be those of a higher being was very clever of Moses. He probably wasn’t sure his subsequent audience would accept the authority of his chisellings if they knew he wrote them himself. We all do it every day: ‘Following a recent study, experts have revealed that…’

Even from childhood we refer to a higher authority when the veracity of our claims might be questioned:

‘How do you know that Johnny?’ ‘My big brother told me – so there!’

The walk up the mountain in the fresh air at least afforded Moses the solitude to think clearly. With that activity, at least, I wholeheartedly agree.

I end this apprentice philosopher’s outing with the ancient philosophical question on morality for which I hope, at least in part, I have already provided some insights:

If you had never heard the ten commandments, would you still know the difference between right and wrong?

Adam, you are naked!

In my last article I put religion to the side and touched on prayer, a principal practice of the faithful and typically a direct conversation with God – ignoring the religious middlemen. Now, let’s take a brief look at knowledge. Consider this list:

1. Peer-reviewed academic paper
2. Non-fiction library book
3. Broadsheet newspaper
4. TV News
5. Redtop newspaper
6. Internet
7. Word of mouth
8. Advertisement
9. Rumour

For want of a better name, let’s call it the hierarchy of knowledge reliability. Theoretically, knowledge we acquire from the top of the list is typically more reliable than knowledge we acquire from the base. I say ‘theoretically’ and ‘typically’ by way of disclaimer because the list is neither conclusive (there are many more sources of knowledge) nor is the order or hierarchy completely correct – #Fact or #FakeNews can come from any source at any time. But, we have to start somewhere – right!

Personal interpretations aside, our knowledge of who and what the generic version of the Abrahamic God is comes primarily from the Bible. It is true that many believers attest to personal experiences of God in their daily lives but these are faith-based experiences. For the purposes of this article let’s focus on the attainment of knowledge rather than faith.

It must be said that the Bible is typically first accessed through whatever religion we find ourselves following in our formative years but it is a book and does not require us to be aligned with any one religion to move our eyes from left to right (or vice versa) across its pages. The Roman Catholic is as free to peruse the Quran as the Muslim is the Bible. So, of the sources listed above, which is most like the Bible?

Well, some will say the Bible belongs in the fiction section of the local library but let’s assume for the sake of argument that it is a work of fact. Then it’s rightful place is on the non-fiction shelf. Having said that, a comprehensive reading of the Bible from cover to cover will invariably divulge aspects of all the knowledge sources in the list above. Certainly, the book as a whole has been used by the Abrahamic religions of the world to advertise God down through the ages. It’s often tabloidic in it’s sensationalism (e.g. ‘would ya look at yer man walking on water’ – surely not) and intermittently displays a modicum of broadsheet (Cain, the son of Adam guilty of fratricide).

However, as a source of knowledge it has one indisputable feature. The book itself has survived almost 2,000 years of scrutiny and criticism. Surely, longevity (under the kosh) is testament to it’s veracity?

I beg to differ! The 100 year-old man who spent his life in prison after being found guilty of multiple murders lived a long life but is no more worthy of respect than the child who died of starvation at the age of two in sub-saharan Africa. Longevity is by no means a robust indicator of anything other than longevity itself. For eons the earth was believed to be flat – because nobody knew any better. In fact, it still is according to some modern ‘flat-earthers’! However, the vast majority of us now know it isn’t.


Note: Aristotle and Pythagorus showed the earth wasn’t flat way back in the day but the wily adventures of Italy’s Christy Columbus are just that much easier to recount and recall as fact. But, as is so often the case, I digress!

Genesis tells us that Adam and Eve were wandering around the garden of Eden completely ignorant of everything other than their environment and themselves. Eve goes and has a chat with a slippery snake and accepts his invitation to take a bite from an apple languishing just in reach on the tree of knowledge (of good and evil). Adam sidles over and she passes the apple to him, whereupon he also wraps his knashers around what must have been the most delicious Granny Smith ever! Oh wait – grannies hadn’t been invented yet!

As if by magic or some heavenly intervention, they both suddenly become aware (or conscious) of their nudity and grab a fig leaf with which to conceal their genitals. Interestingly, Eve didn’t feel the need to cover her breasts.

What the absolute fuck God!? The first conscious thought having eaten from the tree of knowledge is that I am naked. Way to ‘criminalise’ nudity! If they weren’t conscious of their nudity before eating the apple, their pure natural instincts would have eventually brought them together to procreate anyway so, what was the point? Maybe you had a plan for controlling birth rates by minimising sexual interaction through shame? That would actually be quite a reasonable explanation. After all, there are limited resources on the planet but the dogs on the street are copulating every day without being conscious of the reason why – or feeling shame. Whether they gain any pleasure from it is another story altogether. Did you really have to introduce the, often-debilitating, degree of self-consciousness into it for the human species?

Let’s not even go into the whys and wherefores of the incestuous possibilities of the whole Cain and the ‘mystery woman’ wife scenario. No, the thing to be ashamed of here is the nudity! Sure, the rest of us never stood a chance if this is how it all started out.

In 2014 (6 years ago) a Brazilian film crew witnessed the emergence of naked tribesmen (believed to be Peruvian in origin) from a forest near the Brazil-Peru border. The tribe were escaping the activities of loggers in the rainforest. One of the men can be seen in the video covering his genital area with his hands. It can be reasonably assumed that this is in reaction to seeing the film crew (presumably) fully clothed and that the tribesman had never before felt the need to conceal his genitals. Why he didn’t consider his unclothed state to be normal is the question that arose from this incident for me. Perhaps he had an innate sense that his tribe were archaeic and should conform to the behaviour of the ‘modern’ men he faced across the river. Certainly, for a naked man, the wearing of clothes is additive and he may well have (instantly) felt that addition was the more modern approach. Interestingly, his two companions don’t appear to share his shame. What is patently clear is that it was only upon meeting the clothed film crew that he felt the need to ‘cover up’. I am left postulating that he would have been wearing shorts if a missionary priest had discovered his tribe before they emerged from the forest, the priest’s motivation for clothing the tribe being to protect himself from his own instincts and prejudices. It is certainly true that the less liberal a society in modern times, the more likely that society is to view nudity as something of a taboo and sexual behaviour, specifically intercourse, as precursor to procreation and reserved solely for the marriage bed.

Back to the garden. God created Eve from one of Adam’s ribs and ordained her to be his ‘helper’. Well, that put women on the back foot for a while. In fact, they are still on the back foot – but thankfully (with no thanks to the modern-day, all-too-easily-triggered ‘feminists’ ) making ground apace. What kind of fucking God is this lad? I could go on and on listing the mysogynistic declarations of the Abraham god (deliberately dropped the capital ‘G’ there) but it should be clear by now that even in Eden he (again with the lowercase ‘h’) is already showing his true colours!

So, the longevity of the Bible must be due to something other than the ‘reasonable’ stories, metaphors and ‘facts’ contained therein. Indeed, it most certainly must! But what is it that has maintained the high, Vatican-like walls of defence around a tome that is clearly a collection of man-made myths and machinations?

Religion! Aye, there’s the rub! Religion that decries scrutiny. Religion that denies the absolute abhorrent nature of the God it professes to represent. Religion instilled in children too young to question it and maintained in adult’s afraid of the consequences of refuting the ‘Word of God’ – lest they be cast unto the fires of hell and eternal damnation.

Damn! I was hoping to put religion aside for a few more articles. Looks like we might have to get back to it in the next one!

Since Guttenberg’s printing press, dissemination of information has progressed at an unbelievable pace. In this internet age we can now ask a question and find answers instantaneously. We are no longer obliged to listen to (and take at his word) the narrow-world-view of the priest in the pulpit on a Sunday morning. The plethora of data available to us demands that we filter more and more information to our own needs but the consequence is an expansion of the mind to the point where our, once-thought immovable, beliefs are up for grabs. We are gaining new knowledge and reconsidering what is important to our own individual existence. Is it any wonder that traditional religious dogma is failing our scrutiny when we can now – with the click of a button – listen to (and watch) the likes of Christopher Hitchens (R. I. P.), Richard Dawkins, Stephen Fry, Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson et al.

YouTube is the new pulpit but we don’t have to wait until Sunday morning to hear the sermons. Priests have long since ceased to be the role models they once were – thank god! We have new sources for our knowledge now. Sources that naturally appeal to the reasoning beings we know we are. Sources that can be tossed aside and alternatives easily found should the former be found wanting. In many ways there is a voice for every season and access is no longer the preserve of the literate or the educated. We are becoming, once again, enlightened – although it could be argued that we have already entered a new dark age of collective ignorance, of which more anon.

The image accompanying this article deliberately depicts a naked Adam and Eve. I am just wondering which social media outlet will be first to censor it! Have we gone full circle again? Hopefully not!

Change takes longer than we expect but when it comes it arrives faster than we would have ever thought possible.

Eyes on the prize!

So, in my last article I postulated that we could make progress if we left religion to one side – for a while.

When we do, we are left with two principle notions in our deliberations. Knowledge and faith. Whether they are mutually exclusive remains to be seen but let’s take faith in isolation for the purpose of today’s apprentice ramblings. More specifically, let’s take a look at one of the core practices of the faithful – prayer.

A couple of years ago I installed a dart board on one of the walls in my house and, with the help of YouTube, started watching a variety of techniques that might help me throw the darts with reasonable accuracy.

For the first few weeks, the accuracy wasn’t even close to anything that could be described as ‘reasonable’. Although I was (more often than not) actually hitting the board, the particular numbers I was aiming for were typically proving frustratingly elusive. I took to thinking about how I could improve my aim.

Eventually, I remembered a visualisation technique from kayaking which improved my scoring almost immediately.

I would only look at an imaginary ‘pizza slice’ of the board. Take a look at a dartboard and you’ll see what I mean. The rest of the board became non-existent to my eyesight, to the point that there was actually only that pizza slice of dart board attached to the wall. The darts started landing in the pizza and as I improved, the pizza slice started getting smaller, depending on whether I was aiming for a single, double or treble.

Some will say that it was purely the practice that improved my game but the instantaneous improvement can be primarily accredited to the visualisation technique. Sports psychologists are intimately familiar with ‘visualisation’ techniques as are many other ‘success’ consultants. Tomes have been written extolling the virtues of visualising the outcome. ‘Eyes on the prize,’ my kayaking instructor used to shout as I edged over the eddy into the current. I would turn my head downstream, maintaining my focus on where I was going instead of where I was.

‘Eyes on the prize!’

Focus on the goal first and then take the steps you need to achieve it but always keep your focus on the goal and don’t let distractions deter you from your final objective i.e. reaching the goal.

So, the question I have been asking myself of late is why this visualisation technique proved so successful for me (both on the water and at the dartboard) and, in the midst of my ruminations, something occurred to me.

If you imagine for a moment that the whole dartboard is the entirety of the activity in your conscious mind on a daily basis and that the pizza slice is at the forefront of your consciousness – containing the thoughts and aspirations that are uppermost in your mind today. By focusing on just that small pizza slice in your mind you are effectively concentrating on (and consolidating) the thoughts that are uppermost in your mind, whether they be worries, fears or positive aspirations for your life. Just like focusing on the pizza slice on the dart board, these thoughts are receiving more attention than any others that may be ‘lying around’ in other parts of your mind. I see nothing (or very little) of the other parts of the board when aiming for the triple twenty – just as I neglect (temporarily at least) other thoughts in my mind when thinking about what is most important to me today.

When we say a prayer we are (often silently) vocalising a goal and bringing it to the forefront of our mind. We are becoming more acutely conscious of the goal by ‘voicing’ it in prayer – focusing our efforts on hitting the pizza slice with the dart.

It is said that God helps those who help themselves but, what if there is no God listening to our prayers? Rather, the act of asking (in the form of a prayer) for something starts a process whereby our conscious mind is now focused on attainment of the goal. Not only that but also, repeatedly praying for that same goal maintains the progress towards it by the very nature of keeping it uppermost in our conscious mind.

Consider a successful atheist businessman writing down the short, medium and long term goals of his company and then planning how to get there. If the plan is comprehensive and realistic it is more likely to succeed because the steps towards success have been mapped out. The steps can be reviewed and changed. Even the goal can change as time passes but at no point does our atheist businessman call upon God to help him with his plans. Yet invariably, the goals are met. He is a successful businessman after all.

What if an unanswered prayer is simply a prayer where we didn’t maintain our focus on the goal and conversely, the prayer that is answered is the request we made on which we continuously maintained our focus until it was achieved. The final outcome was achieved because we helped ourselves – full stop.

It has been said that the act of believing God answers our prayers and helps us achieve our goals inspires additional confidence which we would otherwise not have when facing a challenge. But confidence naturally increases as a goal is drawn closer anyway. We perceive the interim successes and are inspired to ‘drive’ on and the nearer we get to achieving our goals the more inspired we are to ultimately get there. On reaching a milestone, the non-believer congratulates himself for his persistence and presses on. The believer turns to God and thanks Him for his help and probably concludes by asking for continued assistance in his efforts. What help? What did God actually do for you other than inspire additional confidence that you otherwise should have (and could have) had in yourself anyway?! Are we simply using these prayers to bolster our self-confidence? Surely not – that would be a selfish use of God’s time – wouldn’t it? That said, praying for other people is an entirely different matter!

Here’s a little experiment you can try for yourself if you get the opportunity. Ask God for something statistically improbable e.g. a lottery win. You can do absolutely nothing to further the wish other than buy a lottery ticket. What happens? Invariably, nothing! You don’t win. It was, after all, statistically improbable! Now, you might be able to afford to buy lots of tickets – to increase your odds of winning – but that may still not defeat the central point of my argument. When you ask for the unrealistic, the chances are your prayer will remain unanswered – in this case because you could do nothing about the outcome – or very little in any case.

However, should you pray for something more realistic e.g. a pay rise at work, it is more likely you will receive that pay rise if you help yourself by improving your performance on the job. Whether you dilute the credit for ultimately achieving the pay rise depends on whether you believe God was involved in the success – or not.

PS: DO let me know if you win the lottery – remembering, of course, it was me that inspired you to buy that ticket! It’s not a miracle that you won – just a statistical improbability – realised!