‘One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea.’
There’s an old Chinese story about a man called Huojia who went to fetch some water one evening, but when he looked into the well he saw the moon’s reflection. ‘O, my goodness! That’s a shame!’ he said. ‘The beautiful moon has fallen into the well!’ He ran back to the house to get a hook, which he tied to the well-rope and lowered down into the water in an attempt to rescue the moon. After a few minutes he was pleased to find that the hook had caught on something. He pulled hard on the rope, but whatever he had caught was very heavy and the rope broke. Huojia fell flat on his back. Looking up into the sky he saw the moon once again. ‘Ah, I was successful!’ he said to himself. ‘The rope may have broken, but my pulling has obviously freed the moon, and it’s finally back in the sky where it belongs.’ He was overjoyed at his efforts and told everyone he met how he had rescued the moon.
It’s very easy to laugh at poor old Huojia, but, change the details a bit, and we’re not so different. He didn’t know much about the mechanics of the solar system, but that didn’t stop him from making absurd claims. And although we know a great deal more about the world than he did, we’re still a long way from knowing enough to make definitive statements about the nature of reality. Of course, our ignorance doesn’t stop us. In fact, it’s quite likely that the less we know the louder we shout our opinions. Huojia told everyone he met how he had rescued the moon; with the same alacrity we find ourselves making pronouncements about things we know little or nothing about.
No doubt Huojia had entertained strange ideas about the moon from his infancy, and his friends would probably have had a hard time convincing him that he was mistaken. Once an idea takes root in the mind, it’s very difficult to shift it. We are all reluctant to surrender our cherished opinions, no matter how scientific or rational we claim to be. I’ve been alerted to this a couple of times recently.
The first was last month when I read that the American biologist Craig Venter had synthesised life in the laboratory. As it turns out, he’d done no such thing. He’d implanted an artificial genome into an already existing life-form; in a sense, as someone has remarked, he’d done the biological equivalent of translating a computer programme from one operating system to another. This is not to underestimate his achievement in any way. It is colossal, and no doubt will be improved upon and developed until, perhaps, at some time in the distant future, life will genuinely be synthesised. The news of Venter’s achievement shocked me because I’ve always wanted to believe that the complexity of even the simplest cell suggests, at least, that some kind of cosmic planning was involved in the genesis of life. I’m probably going to have to revise that opinion.
The second shock to my cherished beliefs came when I read the review of a book by Jonathan Balcombe called Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals. What Balcombe sets out to show is that, far from being automata, operating solely on instinct, as most of us in the western world find it convenient to assume, animals do have rudimentary reasoning faculties and emotions, and can feel pain and distress in ways which are akin to our own. Every year, apparently, about ten people are killed by sharks, and these incidents are reported by the media in all their gory detail; but the fact that 73 million sharks are killed each year by humans rarely merits a mention. We kill dolphins, too, and dolphins are highly intelligent. The book tells of Kelly, a dolphin living in the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi. Apparently, the dolphins have been trained to clean up their own pools, and every time they bring a piece of litter to the keeper they are rewarded. Kelly is clever. When she finds some litter, she hides it under a stone at the bottom of the pool, and tears pieces off it, delivering them one by one in exchange for a snack.
I was a vegetarian for a couple of years in the 1980s but I gave up. I had a few reasons, but I was able to convince myself that animals are intrinsically different from us and that killing them for food was acceptable. Maybe I need to revise that opinion.
What is interesting about both these recent jolts to my thinking is the way I initially resisted them. It’s very difficult to change one’s world view, even in relatively small matters. The first instinct is to find ways to strengthen one’s old arguments, and one of the easiest ways to do that is to refuse to engage any further with the new evidence. As far as the origin of life is concerned, I’ve always been something of a vitalist, believing that life could not have happened spontaneously or developed gradually. There is something comforting in this point of view and I, like everyone else, don’t want my certainties challenged. Nor do I want to give up bacon sandwiches, so, although I read the review of Balcombe’s book, I don’t know whether I’ll have the courage to read the book itself. It’s much easier to ignore these things.
Such an approach has been endemic among humans from the beginning of time. Apparently, when Galileo constructed a telescope and discovered that Jupiter had moons he realised that we would have to radically reappraise our view of the universe. Since the time of Aristotle, the prevailing belief had been that there were seven heavenly bodies – the sun and moon and the five planets visible to the naked eye – and that these described circles round a stationary earth. Seven, of course, was the perfect number; the circle the perfect shape. So, when the telescope revealed the existence of other bodies, and when it was discovered that the planets described ellipses not circles, round the sun, not the earth, many scientists were unwilling to accept that these things were so. They would involve far too much revision of their lecture notes; and the authority of Aristotle was sacrosanct. So, what happened? They simply refused to look through Galileo’s telescope!
It’s still happening. In 2004, two eminent biologists, Lewis Wolpert and Rupert Sheldrake, debated the issue of animal telepathy at the Royal Society of Arts in London. Sheldrake, you may know, is a bit of a maverick among scientists; he believes that all living things are connected psychically, and he has conducted experiments which seem to show that dogs know when their owners are returning home. Wolpert is an arch sceptic. During the debate, Sheldrake showed a video about a parrot which seemed to demonstrate his point, but, without even looking at the screen, Wolpert said, ‘Telepathy is just junk. There is no evidence whatsoever for any person, animal or thing being telepathic.’ Sheldrake comments, ‘I think this is rather like … … people not wanting to look through Galileo’s telescope. I think we have a level here of just not wanting to know, which is not real science.’
Wolpert is a materialist and seems unwilling to consider seriously anything which might tell against this fundamental position. I am a vitalist and a carnivore, and equally reluctant to engage with anything which might indicate that my suppositions about the origins of life or the nature of animal life need to be revised. It takes a lot of compelling evidence for us to change our minds, and the easiest way to deal with uncomfortable evidence is to ignore it. As Walter Bagehot said in the 19th century, ‘One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea.’
Some years ago, certain sections of the pro-abortion lobby were trying to discourage the media from showing foetal images obtained by CT scans, presumably because these pictures of tiny hands, feet and faces gave the lie to the convenient idea that a foetus is just an amorphous bundle of cells. Whatever one’s attitude to abortion, it surely can never be right to suppress evidence just because it is disturbing to one’s point of view.
This attitude, which is myopic, dishonest and cowardly, is even more prevalent in religion than in science. At least in science there is concrete evidence to consider. In religion the evidence is much more flimsy, and the temptation to suppress inconvenient facts much more difficult to resist. I went to a Catholic primary school where, in history and religion classes, I was taught that the popes were the successors of St. Peter, the vicars of Christ on earth, men of great virtue specially chosen by God to lead the one true church. I was also told about the noble Catholic martyrs who had been cruelly persecuted by the Protestants. But I attended a state grammar school. In one of the first history lessons, the teacher, Mr. Ockleton, told us about a man he described as ‘the son of the pope’. I put up my hand to correct him. ‘Popes don’t get married,’ I said, ‘so they can’t have sons.’ He kindly disabused me of my naivety, and in later lessons I was informed that religious persecution was practised by both sides, something my Catholic teachers no doubt knew about but had conveniently neglected to mention.
As I get older, the world intrigues and perplexes me more and more, and I’m finding it difficult to hold on to my old prejudices, and much easier than hitherto to rest content with my confusion, and to trust my own experience more than the opinions of others. I don’t care whether Lewis Wolpert believes in telepathy; I think I’ve experienced it, so I’m open to the possibility. I’m also open to the possibility of life after death, the existence of angels, reincarnation, and numerous other ideas which are scorned in our materialistic culture. I can’t prove them, and I’m not really too bothered about trying. What does this make me? I found the answer a couple of weeks ago in an article by David Eagleman:
Beyond the dogmatism of strict atheism and religious fundamentalism lies a third option. I call myself a possibilian. The idea of possibilianism is to explore new, unconsidered hypotheses. A possibilian enjoys awe at our existence, is not opposed to holding mutually exclusive ideas and is comfortable with uncertainty. Possibilianism is simply an appeal for intellectual humility. I think it’s possible to appreciate and study the mysteries around us without dogmatism. In the end, comfort with uncertainty may prove critical for our systems of education, law and civilisation.
I’m happy to be a possibilian. I’m not interested in dogma; I don’t want to force my opinions on anyone, and I’m perfectly prepared to accept that your experience of life has led you to different conclusions from mine. In his classic novel about the horrors of religious dogmatism, The Way of all Flesh, the 19th century British novelist Samuel Butler gives us sound advice about how we should hold our religious opinions:
It matters little what profession, whether of religion or irreligion a man makes provided he follows it out with charitable inconsistency, and without insisting on it to the bitter end. It is the uncompromisingness with which a dogma is held and not in the dogma or want of dogma that the danger lies.
One of the best examples of charitable inconsistency I’ve encountered comes in the 1953 film The Quiet Man. You’ve no doubt seen it. There are two clergymen in the film, Fr. Lonergan, the Catholic priest, and Rev. Playfair, the Church of Ireland minister. If I recall correctly, the Church of Ireland bishop is visiting Rev. Playfair to investigate the decline in his congregation, and Fr. Lonergan (played by Ward Bond, later of Wagon Train fame) asks his Catholic parishioners to line the streets in support of Rev. Playfair and ‘cheer like good Protestants!’ He himself covers his dog collar with a handkerchief and cheers along with the rest. This is charitable inconsistency. It simply puts people above dogma. That’s all. It encourages us to hold our metaphysics lightly and never to let them get in the way of the really important matters, like our relationships with others.
Craig Venter, the biologist I mentioned earlier, said something interesting a decade ago: ‘As a civilisation, we know less than one percent of what will be known about biology, human physiology and medicine.’ He summarises his position in his rather colourful American vernacular: ‘My view is, we don’t know shit.’ Isn’t it appropriate for us, ‘thinking meat’, people who ‘don’t know shit’, to review our prejudices from time to time, to keep ourselves open to possibilities, and to hold any opinions we might tentatively formulate with charitable inconsistency?
6th June, 2010