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For me, the experience of living is too rich to think that a rule book can contain all the answers, certainly not any declaration of rights drafted by lawyers but not even the wonderful piece of literature that is the Bible. As they live their lives, people still generally behave as if they are free spirits with consciences, with some feeling a holy spirit guiding them too. I wonder, though, if the march of publicly-defined rationalism on the one hand, and rule-book religious spokespeople on the other, has weakened that private realm of conscience, the still, small voice of calm drowned out by the tinkling of cymbals.

Cymbals need a human impulse to bang them together. The composer writes a score which directs when they are to be sounded. It takes some practice to get the timing right, but it would be pretty uncooperative to ignore the instruction, and downright rebellious to clang them repeatedly in a quiet section. Reductive views of how cooperative brains work would see a message received from eyes scanning the score followed by an instruction photon firing off neurons which force the body into action. Clang! The less cooperative brain would contain chemicals formed from irritating experiences earlier that evening which prevent the instruction photon from setting the neurons off, ignoring the black look from the conductor and the confusion of others still tootling their flutes. The rebellious brain would form chemical patterns resulting from its genetic inheritance, or from habits formed in childhood, to produce an unwanted flow of photons and a cacophony. Clang, clang, clang! Does that make this cymbalist a rebel without a cause?

This takes us to what it takes to be a person. A brain is necessary but that’s not sufficient. A body is needed to produce messages for the brain, and these are made up of what? Photons fire up neurons, but what are photons? Particles, waves, packets of energy? It’s difficult to suggest that they have any nature at all, not strange, not charmed, not good, not bad. In Quantum Theory, it’s not even certain where they are until the equivalent of an eye gawps at them. Particles can remain eternally entangled, however far separated in space and time. But trying to understand what personhood is from this stuff doesn’t get far. A life scientist might have a bash at saying which component parts would be necessary to form a functioning, thinking entity. The very words used show that then the answer is being assumed. They’ll have many interesting things to say, without bottoming the problem. The physicist has already told them that at root the answer is unknowable.

So let’s try words and concepts from the humanities to say who we are. A non-reductive view came from philosopher Charles Taylor in Sources of the Self published in 1989. He sees our being as the story we tell ourselves about what our life means. That sounds like a soul to me. Are we allowed to postulate such an essence so readily when no substance can be given to it? If we don’t, we are left twiddling our thumbs. It’s circular, I know, but all I can do is to put it through the sense checks my brain can create. And certainly when I first read Taylor, I was captured by his inclusivity. It makes sense. It gives meaning, if not purpose, to life. Keats saw the world as a vale of soul-making too. But somehow, as I examine my life, it feels like elements of the soul I’ve become have been there from the start. Paul Simon wrote that “after changes upon changes we are more or less the same” in a not often heard verse of The Boxer. I accept that the most logical explanation for that feeling would be a bodily genetic inheritance, not a spiritual feedback system. Aristotelian philosophy sees God as unchanged by what happens in life. I don’t feel unchanged, just left with a sense that traces of the future have been in me from the start. These traces don’t prevent failures, but help me cope with them!

With or without God, is this world no more than a machine, one that’s lasted forever? The standard model of Physics gives it a start date nearly fourteen billion years ago, with some preferring an eternal explanation. There is disagreement over whether infinities are possible in a physical system. I was impressed in the third form at Grammar School that an infinite geometric series could have a finite solution. The example given of a ball bouncing an infinite number of times but going no further than a known distance doesn’t mirror reality though. The ball does stop bouncing as the bounce characteristics are affected by fresh forces at lower levels. The mathematician Gödel has appeared to demonstrate that no mathematical model of the universe can contain its own explanation, and so with others has suggested an Infinite Cause outside the system. We’re nearly back to Aristotle with that. This idea causes many scientists to be aghast. They are philosophical monists without realising it. For them, science will contain its explanation and there is no other form of knowledge. The problems caused by quantum bifurcations is dealt with by a statement that everything that can happen does happen, causing there to be a multitude of universes. One eternal explanation proffered by some physicists has new universes always capable of being formed, thus giving an infinite number. None of this is falsifiable and at this stage cannot be considered good science. Yet people who consider themselves to be at the rational end of the spectrum prefer this explanation to only one universe created by an act of will from outside the system, with the potential physical uncertainties and entanglements in the universe made firm by an observer or observers to make just one outcome. I prefer to think of God as having the initial act of will, with intelligent created observers having a shout alongside his Holy Spirit as the story is written. The three-in-one God of being, knowing and doing makes the story real at the end of time, which is also the beginning.

These musings are not that original and stand in the Christian tradition, Western and Orthodox. They perhaps assume a rich life lived long enough to appreciate a story. I think they are benign and helpful in giving purpose as well as meaning to such a life. They’re not capable of falsification which is why I should not expect them to form a basis of telling others how to behave. What serves these ideas though is that people talk as if they have some free will and have consciences. In the absence of any other evidence, I do think that society can accept that many people believe this to be the case, and wish to live their own lives on this basis. They see conscience as their soul, with expedience coming from the machine of the body. We shouldn’t let the cacophony drown it out.

Philosophers call this dual aspect monism rather than fully-fledged dualism. I’ve tried to put this world-view into my novel, Where’s Sailor Jack? The case for it is a mix of story and reason. The rogue cymbalist forgets the last bit. Those certain of themselves ignore the first.


John Uttley, 69, was born in Lancashire although he now lives just outside London. Where’s Sailor Jack is his first novel. Not fancying a memoir, or his family’s story, John instead recorded his Lancastrian sense of humour as well as documenting a tumultuous, exciting period of British history. History John just happened to live through.

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