Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Category: Thoughts (page 1 of 3)

Words are Like Maps

Words are like maps. Their meaning shifts as our we find our own position upon the map, as we identify the journey we’ve travelled and our plans for future travels. We may use the same map, but in radically different ways and with radically different meanings.

Dr Andrew Lucas and Perpetual Life – A Film

I awoke this morning from my dreams with the idea for a film in my head. I am no script-writer and I will never find time to complete this project, so I share it here. If you want to turn it into a film or something else then please be my guest.

A shot of London – subtitle: Year 2166

We pan over London which now appears even shinier, and the streets are full of people celebrating the victory of England in the World Cup. An open top bus (suitably modernised) floats through the crowd. On the top are many familiar faces, including Wayne Rooney and many other members of the current England team.

Now cut to inside St Paul’s Cathedral, where there is a celebratory service going on, again we see the heads of Rooney and his team mates, we also see that the audience is full of beautiful young people, happy and genuinely attentive. They watch a young and handsome Archbishop of Canterbury who is giving a sermon.

Archbishop:

“How great is Great Britain! Yet again we are victorious at football. Yet again we prove that, truly, we are building Jerusalem here, in this green and pleasant land.

“And it is here in Britain that the great discoveries have been, the great steps forward in human progress. 400 year ago St Adam Smith uncovered the workings of the market. Only then did men come to understand that progress depends upon selfishness. This revelation then opened up the age of progress, industry and happiness.

“300 years ago St Charles Darwin uncovered the true workings of nature. Now we understand that we are not, directly, creatures of God, but of evolution, and that progress comes from the on-going battle of the strong to overcome the weak.

“Then, just 150 years ago, our living saint, Dr Andrew Lucas, made the next great British discovery.

Cut to an earnest young man sitting amidst the congregation who nods and smiles modestly in recognition of the Archbishop’s comments. Cut back to Archbishop who is continuing with his sermon.

“Dr Lucas has discovered the essence of life itself, the life force, the vital link between physics, chemistry and biology. Lucas has discovered that element of our life blood which makes life possible. Using his discoveries Britain then began its programme of extending Perpetual Life to everyone. The doors of heaven are now truly open.

“All these great discoveries have had to be matched by an evolution in our religion. Today the New Church of England has managed to uproot the heresy of life after death. We’ve gone back to the Bible and demonstrated the real meaning of Christ’s sacrifice. It was not some mysterious life after death that he was offering us – instead it was a message about the real possibility of heaven on earth. Today more and more people are taking advantage of the opportunities of Perpetual Life, as Dr Lucas and his team work to make this new technology available to everyone.

“So, let us thank God for England’s victory in the World Cup. Let us thank God for Dr Lucas and his brilliant discoveries that have made all this possible. And let us thank God for Great Britain, the country that has opened the doors of heaven.”

Congregation enthusiastically clap the Archbishop. The Camera pulls back from St Paul’s and pans to St Thomas’s hospital which is now one of the grandest building along the Thames. We are in a teaching theatre, where junior doctors are being educated, and are being addressed by a beautiful young (female) professor of medicine.

Professor of Medicine:

“Welcome everyone to your first course in the medicine of Perpetual Life. As trained doctors you will already know much of what I am about to show you; but it is always helpful to be reminded of the foundations, that underlie our vital science. So let us begin by watching this short film.”

We now watch the first scenes of an introductory teaching film on Perpetual Life. Suitable documentary images accompany the narration.

Film narration:

“In 2016 UK Parliament began the process of legalising euthanasia (or as it is now called Happy Death). The first step towards Happy Death was to allow people the right to end their life, under medical supervision.

“It was then that a brilliant young doctor, Dr Andrew Lucas, decided to specialise on end of life medicine. At first his programme focused on helping people be genuinely happy as their life ended, new drugs were developed and the process was made not just painless, but pleasurable.

“However, naturally, Dr Lucas also began to wonder whether there might not be other advantages to the Happy Death programme. A dead body can teach us much, a dying body can give up its organs to help others. But what if a living body could give up it’s very life force? What if life itself could be transferred from one individual to another?

“It was this profound insight that opened up the field of Perpetual Life (or PL). Today a willing patient can transfer their life force to another person, to extend their life and even to maintain them in state of perpetual youth and health.

“Dr Lucas himself, as a brave pioneer, first began to carry out these experiments upon himself and so he became the first person to benefit from PL. Then of course he turned to the leading minds of the time to win support. If it was not for the support of Heaven TV and the vision of its owner Mr Rupert Murdoch then his discoveries may have gone to waste. But after joining the PL Programme Mr Murdoch became its primary patron. Leading politicians joined him on the programme, and so his support grew. Today all our leading writers, scientists, film stars and sporting heroes are proud participants in the PL Programme – staying young, living longer and working to build a better world for everyone.

“Of course there are still mysteries to uncover; for just as it took many years to discover DNA, and so explain the truth behind Darwin’s theory of evolution, so we have not yet fully understood the mechanism by which the life force exists.

“Dr Lucas is continuing to work on the development of an artificial version of the life force. He will be successful; but until that time the PL programme must continue to exist in partnership with the Happy Death programme. We still need some people willing to give up their lives, in order to extend the lives of the best, the beautiful and the successful.

“We are also still limited by the constant of life – the 70 years rule. For while the life force can be transferred, the transfer value of life is set at a maximum of 70 years, and varies in accordance with how much life has been sacrificed. Life is extended by 70 minus the years already lived. So this means the most useful lives are those of the youngest.

“So while everybody wants to join the PL Programme we are not yet able to offer everyone the joys of the programme. Instead we must appeal to those who are ill, who are disabled or unhappy. We must offer them the chance to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Fortunately the technology of Happy Death has so improved that many more people are willing to step forward and offer their lives in sacrifice. For many people a few months of extreme happiness is well worth the loss of many years of life.

“Today the systems of Quality Adjusted Life Prices (QALPs) enables people to evaluate their options and to choose to trade in their life for a Happy Death. This is a independent, market-based system, all carefully overseen by NICE (the National Institute for Care Excellence).”

“Life and death has always seemed like a lottery. The best of humanity can be unfairly struck down, while the worst can hang on for decades. Today, thanks to the expertise of doctors like you, thanks to the patronage of Mr Murdoch and Heaven TV and thanks to the good people at NICE, death is being tamed. Death is now fairer and perpetual life is possible for the brightest and the best.”

At this point the film could develop in a number of different ways. Here are three options:

  1. We follow Dr Lucas becoming angrier with himself and with the system he has created, as he discovers, yet again, that he cannot overcome the life constant or develop the life force artificially. The film follows his efforts to pull down the system around himself and the way in which powerful forces within the media, politics and economics will not allow him to do so. [or]
  2. We follow the story of one of the members of the PL community who is finding that they can no longer earn the money necessary to stay on the programme. They become convinced that the high price and limited supply of PL is a plot to enrich the rich. However, by exploring what really happens to those outside the programme, and those on the Happy Death programme he discovers that in fact everything possible is being done to extend PL to as many people as possible (e.g. people are encouraged to give up their babies for HD at birth, people are being paid to join the HD programme, their family are being assured places on the waiting list for the PL programme, mental illness and suicide are being encouraged in low income families.) He then tries to share what he’s learned – but he is discovered and he is forced to join the HD programme himself. [or]
  3. We focus on a revolutionary movement, perhaps based in the North of England (say Sheffield), where people organise to overcome the powerful forces of the PL programme. This could involve a love interest story, where there is love between someone on the PL programme, perhaps in a position of influence, and a terrorist trying to tear the system down. This could also build on the idea that heretical religious groups continue to exist underground, who continue to spread their belief that life is sacred and that everyone is of equal value.

You may have much better ideas about where to take this story. But if you decide to make a film, book or play from this idea, don’t worry I promise not to sue you. However, if you do make any money please donate some to the disability campaigners who are fighting the Assisted Dying Bill:

http://www.notdeadyetuk.org

The Soul in Dialogue with Time

Let us suppose that each of one us has been given a gift, a soul. This soul is unique to us, and we cannot be parted from it.

We might imagine that soul turning to Time and saying:

“I know Someone mightier than you. You cannot hold me, you cannot change me, I am eternal.”

We might also imagine Time’s response:

“That is true soul, I am not your master, I do not define you. But only through me can you find yourself. You live in me and if you disregard me you diminish yourself and you disrespect your True Master.”

See also:

“Quid tam tuum quam tu, quid tam non tuum quam tu” (Augustine) – What is so much yours as yourself, and what is so little yours as yourself? The most individual element in us – the only thing that belongs to us in the last analysis – our own “I” , is at the same time the least individual element of all, for it is precisely our “I” that we have neither from ourselves or for ourselves.

Benedict XVI citing St Augustine

Why We Mustn’t Murder Beethoven (or Anyone Else)

One doctor asks another:

“About the termination of pregnancy – I want your opinion. The father was a syphilitic, the mother tuberculous, of the children born the first was blind, the second died, the third was deaf and dumb, the fourth was tuberculous. What would you have done?”

“I would have ended the next pregnancy.”

“Then you would have murdered Beethoven.”

Story from Maurice Baring

The power of this story is twofold. First the story reminds us that our genetic pedigree is a poor basis for predicting talent. The doctor thinks he knows the likely outcome of the pregnancy, but he does not. Life and nature is still, thankfully, too unpredictable for such doctors to be able to predict such things.
But much more importantly the story asks us to examine our values. What if this young Beethoven had not been the great composer, but had been a child with disabilities. The doctor would have been just as wrong to end the pregnancy. The real arrogance of the doctor was to presume to judge the value of a human life, in advance and without being able to appreciate that person’s own story.

Use and Abuse of Standards

To have standards or regulations imposed upon us means we all cannot succeed; some will make it and some will fail. It is by the nature of such measures that they must divide us into sheep and goats.

The only standards that we should really accept are those we willingly accept. Only the standards that we set for ourselves can keep pace with our own learning.

Of course society does need valid tests; but these should be as objective as possible. For instance, Charles Handy compared the UK’s driving test with its exam system:

  • The first test is objective, we take it when we are ready, and it tells us something useful – you really can drive – these kinds of tests are much harder for politicians to corrupt.
  • The second is a system of ranking, which we are herded through whether we are ready or not – and it has proved very easy to corrupt.

A driving test is a standard that we can measure ourselves by. Music exams have also remained robust – you take each Grade when you are ready to pass it.

But an exam system which seeks to grade us and which is also taken as measure of the success of the school or the area or the government becomes corrupt. Perhaps systems that try to test both the person and yet which are somehow taken as a measure of the system’s own successfulness seem prone to collapse under their own inner contradiction.

The Devolution of Blame

Now I don’t want to be misunderstood – I am not blaming Devolution, what I want to talk about is the opposite problem.

Emilie Whitaker coined the term “blame devolution” to describe, I think, the way in which bureaucracies or other hierarchical systems seek to devolve blame to the point of least resistance. For example, ‘Let’s blame the social worker.’

This fact corresponds to the principle outlined by my Greek grandfather-in-law, Petros Protopapadakis: The fish always rots from the head down. In other words, in any system, the likely point of responsibility for any failure will lie with its leadership.

There is a dreadful paradox which plays out behind these two truths: The centre tends to exploit the periphery, and so we grow to mistrust the periphery and try to push power and accountability to the centre. But we can end up with the worst of all possible worlds – more centralisation, giving the centre more power to abuse its power.

A better framework for dealing with such abuses is constitutional or legal. We must have rights to protect us form the abuse of power. And any necessary powers must be located with those who are best able to meet those rights. (This sometimes means central power, sometimes local and sometimes just personal freedom).

We must be on guard against the policy soundbite – the lazy assumption that decentralisation always means better. But at the same time we must also ensure that power and control are properly devolved outwards, as far away from the centre as is possible, and in a way that is consistent with our secure rights.

We are the Rock and Life is the Stream

We are the rock and life is the stream – we can but resist with grace. On our optimistic days we may think of ourselves as the authors of our own lives. On our pessimistic days we may see ourselves as puppets, subject to the will of others. In truth – we can only be ourselves, true to the best in ourself – we may influence the flow of things, but we will never control it.

Every Statement

Every statement is an exaggeration, including this one.

The Atheist and God

The atheist is much closer to God than the agnostic.

In Christ’s words “My God, My God – why hast thou forsaken me” we sense the passion and grief that comes from Man’s separation from God. The atheist strives both to maintain this separation, while railing against all those who claim it can be overcome. Their faith in emptiness itself (Nihilism) or their assertion that they have the right assert their own meaning (Existentialism) is a comprehensible – if confused – act of faith.

They know something more is required – and they refuse to be fobbed off with second-hand goods. They sense, as Weil puts it:

“God can only be present in creation under the form of absence.”

A Poem is a Letter to God

A poem is a letter to God. Its meaning does not need to be clear to the poet or to the reader, for it is clear to God. It is more an act of homage – a sacrifice – literally – a ‘making holy’.

As the reader we enjoy its mystery, just as we enjoy participation in ceremony – feeling part of something bigger than us. Only the fool would expect to fully drain the poem of its meaning – leaving themselves with only an empty shell – the merely literal.

After writing this I came across this similar thought by Joseph Brodsky:

“…after all, any art is essentially prayer. Any art is directed to the ear of the Almighty. Herein, actually, lies the essence of art. That’s for certain. A poem, if it’s not a prayer, then it’s at least put in motion by the same mechanism as prayer.”

From Solomon Volkov’s Conversations with Joseph Brodsky

How to Reduce the Riskiness of Trust

Confucius says “I do not see how a man can be acceptable who is untrustworthy in word. When a pin is missing in the yoke-bar of a large cart or in the collar-bar of a small cart, how can the cart be expected to go?”

Lao Tzu says “To give no trust is to get no trust”.

We all say we are eager together – to work in partnership others, to co-operate, to share ideas and talents. But often find it really difficult to actually make it happen. There are many good intentions, but often it is hard to follow through on those intentions; other things take over and so we carry on working alone.

There can be no partnership without trust. It is only when you trust someone that you are willing to put yourself in their hands. But trust is hard to achieve between individuals and between organisations.

Keys to trust are:

Time – the Chinese don’t use contracts (or so says Charles Handy) instead they start small and work over time to develop relationships – the contract is a threat – it is the actuality of mutual cooperation and mutual benefit that builds trust.

Values – of course we don’t trust people who we think have bad moral beliefs, we would expect them to let us down or do things that we think are improper. But trust also relies on a certain kind of humility – a willingness to learn – not to use values or political correctness as hammer to beat down the person. Often it is people who make a big fuss about their values who also feel they have the right to abandon ordinary moral standards.

Openness – a sign and a means to greater trust is openness. When developing the federation Altrum we developed a ground rule – you had to share any information you were asked for – this kept out organisations who only wanted to take and who didn’t want to give.

Humanity – trust grows through ordinary human contact, sharing time, food, talking, listening and touching. Only when the other person becomes real can you can start to trust them.

Trust is incredibly efficient. But it can be hard won. Taking the first step will always seem irrational and you will sometimes be let down.

Each time we punish people for problems that arise from misplaced trust then we risk weakening the fabric of society.

Designing with Constraints

Good design is the art of progressively adapting oneself to increasingly high levels of constraint  – until only one solution is possible – the best.

Thought is Like a Ladder

Thought is like a ladder, it can quickly extend to the stars. But to be of any use it must lean on something solid.

Brokered by Love

Happiness and virtue are brokered by love.

In moral philosophy there is a significant divide between:

  • Those who think morality has a purpose – telos – or 
  • Those who believe moral action is just about doing the right thing – with no reference to a goal.

In my Phd thesis I have argued at length that the moral understanding cannot be reduced to either perspective, that it is ultimately founded in our experience of duty, but that duties reaches out to virtue both in its respect for rights, but also in its desire for the good.

However another way of looking at this dilemma is much easier.

Think about bringing up your child. You want your child to be happy (and this can have many meanings) and you want your child to be good (and this can have many meanings). But what is the exercise of loving your child if it is not the effort of reconciling these two objectives. The paradoxical hope of true love is that our children will live long and contented lives but that they become the kind of people who know when they must sacrifice themselves for the sake of others.

Only love, not empty rationality, can reconcile this paradox.

Difference evokes Meaning

The philosopher, and disabled activist, Judith Snow tells us that disability is a gift.

Disability is a gift because all of our distinct features – everything that makes us different and unique – is a  gift.

Of course this statement can only be made as an act of faith. Clearly differences do not always feel like a blessing and they may not be treated by others as a gift. But she is asking us to have faith in the possibility that another person will exist who, at the right time, in the right place, will be able to receive that gift.

This may not be an empirical statement – but that does not matter. The demands of faith are central to our approach to the world. Judith Snow is telling us how to approach the world – not predicting that we we will do so.

She is also calling us to recognise the central importance of difference to a life of meaning. Getting back what what we’ve already got is an unsatisfactory experience – without meaning. Difference stimulates, provokes and creates the possibility of meaning.

However to experience this meaning, through difference, also demands that we share in a common world that makes meaningful exchange possible – inclusion.

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