The Bishop of Digne

When I first read Les Misérables, I was miffed to find that the first one hundred or so pages were taken up with a character that does not even appear in the musical – Monseigneur Myriel, the saintly bishop of Digne (saintly as in incredibly kind, not as in pious). That hundred pages is basically devoted to painting a picture of just how saintly Mgr Myriel is.

When you know you have 1800 pages ahead of you and are impatient for Jean Valjean (the hero) or Javert (his primary antagonist) to appear, you don’t have much patience for detailed portraits of peripheral characters, however saintly. Mgr Myriel’s sole role in the story is to be the first person that shows the cold, starving, exhausted Jean Valjean some compassion, as Jean makes his way on foot from the prison galleys in Toulon, where he was finally released after nineteen years’ penal servitude, to Pontarlier in Central Eastern France, which is several hundred kilometres to the north. Valjean’s attempts to buy food or shelter along his way are rejected by innkeepers, peasants and even local jail-keepers who distrust and fear him because they know he is a former convict. Valjean seems destined to starve or freeze to death until the bishop takes him in and treats him like an honoured guest. Despite that, Valjean sneaks out of the bishop’s house in the middle of the night, stealing away most of the bishop’s silverware with him – the bishop’s only possessions of any value. When the police arrest Valjean next morning and bring him to the bishop, expecting the bishop to accuse him and thus complete an easy arrest for them, the bishop instead says ‘No, I gave all that to M. Valjean, and also, you silly sausage, you forgot to take these that I gave you as well’ (and hands over to the astonished Valjean the few remaining pieces of silverware). This act of unfathomable kindness stuns Valjean, gives him much to think about, and changes his life (but not instantly: he still manages to steal a shilling off a small kid later that day before he finally ‘sees the light’ – a baroque flourish that is omitted from the musical).

There you have it – one hundred and fifty pages summarised in a paragraph!

Victor Hugo is given to these long diversions. Later in the book there is a very long, technical diversion about the topography of the field in which the battle Waterloo was fought – apparently just to show what a villainous knave the innkeeper Thénardier is (‘Master of the ‘ouse’). And another later on, almost one hundred pages long, describing the construction and layout of the sewers of Paris – just because Valjean will escape the police by going through these, carrying the half-dead body of Marius, his daughter’s boyfriend.

In most cases these interpolations are irritating. They subtract momentum from one’s reading and cause one to lose interest. That’s how I felt on my first reading of Les Mis. There was no momentum to lose, because Mgr Myriel is introduced on page 1, but one is beset by impatience to meet Jean Valjean and come to grips with the famous story. ‘Why are we wasting time on this bloody bishop?’ the impatient reader (me) asks themselves, and ‘We get it already, he’s a very kind person, can we move on now?

But on the second reading it was different. I already knew the story. I knew when JvJ would enter, and why, and I knew what role the bishop would play. So, the impatience having been neutralised, I was alert for little details, items of colour and feeling, that were not essential to the plot, but instead artistic features of what is better considered as a vast tapestry.

And on that second occasion, I found myself entranced and inspired by Mgr Myriel. Unlike cardboard cut-out goodies like Dickens’s Little Nell or Little Dorrit (with Dickens, you always know you’re in for some insufferable Victorian sentimentality when somebody appears with the word Little prefixed to their name), Mgr Myriel seems real. One can imagine that there really are such people – rare, yes, but not extinct. I heard the retired heretical bishop Richard Holloway interviewed on ABC radio a couple of years ago and he sounded a little like what one imagined Mgr Myriel might be like.

How was it Inspirational? Basically, it just made me want to be like Mgr Myriel. I am sadly aware that my troubled, deeply flawed character is a million miles away from that of Mgr Myriel – a ridiculous seething mass of passionate good intentions with very little in the way of good actions to match. But just observing first hand the operation of Mgr Myriel’s apparently bottomless well of compassion made me want to be more like him – even if it meant travelling only a few small steps along the way between where I am and where he is. And in addition, Hugo managed to make it seem possible, that one could be at least a little bit like that.

It’s hard to put a finger on what it is that makes Hugo’s presentation of Myriel so inspirational and believable and so different from the goody two-shoes vaunted by other Victorian-era authors. Being honest, I have to concede it’s possible that it’s just a consequence of the frame of mind one has when one reads about them. Maybe if I’d read about Little Nell in the right time and place she would be my inspiration. I doubt it, but one must always remain open to the possibility of being mistaken.

One key difference is that Hugo doesn’t content himself with telling us how kind Mgr Myriel is, or with quoting dialogue in which Myriel says pleasant, amiable things. Talk, after all, is cheap. No, what we see beyond his gentle, friendly speech is a long string of tremendously kind actions. Myriel, piece by piece, gives away almost everything he has to those less fortunate than him. Since he is a bishop, and bishops in those days were very wealthy, with palaces, coaches, large incomes and expense allowances, there is an awful lot to give. Having given away almost everything he has, he then researches what other allowances and claims he can make from the church in virtue of his office, does the paperwork to claim whichever ones he can, and then gives those away too.

But never does Myriel congratulate himself. He seems to subscribe to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s ‘property is theft’ adage. When asked why he gave this or that thing away, he replies to the effect that he was never entitled to possess it in the first place. But Myriel is no anarchist. His comments are not generalised philosophical points about the nature of private property, but about the specific treatment by society of the people to whom he gives these things. They have been dispossessed, by the operation of law, of privilege, of capitalism, of raw temporal power. As his employer’s policy manual says ‘Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them’. Bishop Myriel does his humble best to redress the imbalance created by the church and state by returning some of the world’s good things – those that he has in his power – to those from whom they have been taken (whether directly or indirectly).

Hugo writes Myriel’s dialogue in such a way that one can imagine doing and saying such things. His lines are not ethereal or sanctimonious, but practical and down-to-Earth. After giving the last remaining silver to Valjean, as well as saving him from a return to penal servitude (this time for life), he professes relief, telling his sister and housekeeper that he was embarrassed to be dining off silver when others in the village had no utensils at all, and that he feels much more relaxed eating his soup out of a wooden bowl.

Here’s a sample. Mgr Myriel is talking to the director of the small, overcrowded church hospital that is attached to his large, luxurious bishop’s palace, and has learned that they have too many people crammed in, in unbearably uncomfortable conditions. After a series of probing questions about conditions in the hospital, Myriel comes out with:

Look, Mister Hospital Director, this is what I reckon. There’s obviously been a mistake. You have twenty-six people in five or six little rooms. We have only three people in here [in the palace], where there is room for sixty. It’s a mistake I tell you. You have my lodgings and I’ll have yours. Give me my house [meaning the little hospital]. This one here is your house.’

No moralising, no sermons, no verbal niceties, just ‘Look – this is what we need to do‘.

He even has a sense of humour – a quality nearly always lacking in nineteenth century heroes. When the housekeeper discovers that Valjean has disappeared overnight and so has the silverware, the following dialogue ensues:

Housekeeper: Your excellency, your excellency, do you know where the basket of silverware is?

Bishop: Yes.

HK: Jesus-God be praised! I didn’t know what had become of it.

Bish: [Picks up and presents to the housekeeper the empty basket that he had spotted lying under a hedge, where Valjean had jettisoned it last night] Here it is!

HK: What!? There’s nothing in it! Where’s the silverware?

Bish: Ah, so it’s the silverware you were worried about. I don’t know where that is.

One might be tempted to think that Myriel is a Marxist in disguise – a fifth-columnist usurping the rich, corrupt church from the inside by giving away whatever of its wealth he can lay his hands on. But that is not the case. For instance he does not give away the (very valuable) robes and ornaments of the cathedral – presumably because he feels that they belong to his congregation, who enjoy seeing them as part of their religious rituals every week. He even believes in a good God – quite an achievement given the corruption and cruelty of those around him who claim to represent that God. He holds fast to a humble, optimistic spiritualism in which God is identified with Love – the value that guides his life in every waking moment.

But he has no time for theology. He has no interest in doctrinal favourites like the trinity, the resurrection, sexual purity, salvation by faith or grace, or the damnation of sinners and unbelievers. When his ecclesiastical colleagues discuss such things he does not criticise them for wasting their time on meaningless arcana. He just shrugs his shoulders as if to say ‘They must be terribly clever to understand such things, but it’s much too complicated for a simple man like me‘. If he has a theological position, it is something like that everybody is worthy of salvation, and will ultimately be saved. He never quite articulates this though. If he did, he’d be at risk of punishment as a heretic. But all his actions seem to me to suggest such a belief. He expresses no theological opinions except for the primacy of love. He judges nobody, and is happy to admit his ignorance and uncertainty on all ‘ultimate questions’.

In general I am not a fan of clergy. But I make an exception for Monseigneur Myriel, even if he is fictional. He is an inspiration. I could never be anything like him. But if reading those 150 pages again, without the impatience this time, has motivated me to move even a little bit more from where I am towards where he is on the spectrum of compassion, it will have been worth it.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, February 2016


I don’t believe in reincarnation in the sense that I could be (unwittingly) the reincarnated soul of Marie Antoinette, but I think that there may be a germ of insight, perhaps even wisdom, in reincarnation myths.

There, I’ve said it. I’ve probably lost half my small readership right there. Let me try to explain, before I lose the other half. It’s not as bad as you think.

‘Here’s the thing’, as I am told young people say these days:

I am very taken by David Hume’s views on the self (as I am by many of Hume’s ideas). He was unable to find that he had any persistent self, no matter how hard he introspected (is that a word?). All he could find was ‘bundles of perceptions’. There is no perceptible separate watcher – a homunculus sitting in an armchair, as it were – watching those perceptions on a High Definition screen with SurroundSound. The perceptions just happen. And they are tied together – identifiable as the perceptions of David Hume – by occurring in the presence of the memories of the physical human body that bears that name.

There is a continuity to the stream of perceptions. They succeed one another, blend together and overlap. But that lasts only for as long as consciousness does. It is interrupted, usually at least once a day, by sleep, anaesthesia, concussion.

We say that we ‘return to consciousness’ but really it is not a return but rather a completely new stream of consciousness. The only connection to the previous one is that it occurs in association with the same human body, and hence that it has essentially the same set of memories.

We do not remember returning to consciousness. Or at least I don’t. Daniel Dennett explains this nicely in relation to peripheral vision. He says that we can’t perceive the boundary of our visual field (try it!) because to perceive a boundary we need to be able to see both sides of the boundary and, by definition, we can’t see the far side of the boundary of our visual field. Similarly, we cannot perceive the instant of regaining consciousness because to do so would require our being conscious of not being conscious immediately before waking up, and that is a contradiction. This only applies to dreamless sleep because when we wake from a dream we were conscious on both sides of the boundary, and we quickly realise that what went before was a dream.

So in a sense, the world is just full of streams of consciousness, each made up of a series of overlapping sensations and thoughts, with most streams lasting no longer than about sixteen hours. We can, if we wish, group those streams of consciousness based on the human body with which the stream is associated, but that grouping is fairly arbitrary. We could just as well have grouped them by the day on which they commenced, by length, or by mood.

Well, perhaps it’s not entirely arbitrary. Apart from memory and a shared body, there is one other thing tying a body’s streams of consciousness together, and that is that each stream cares very much about future streams that will be associated with that body. So Tom, as he goes to bed, cares more that tomorrow he has to wake up 15 minutes earlier to get to an 830 meeting at work than he does that Rajesh in Mumbai is going into hospital for a triple bypass operation, even though the stream of consciousness that is Tom-today is as distinct from Tom-tomorrow as it is from Rajesh-tomorrow. This chauvinistic, body-centric caring is easily explicable by evolution. Animals that cared about their future states of consciousness – particularly about whether the animal would be healthy and happy in future – survived better than animals that did not. We can’t fight it. That’s just the way our nervous systems are configured. But neither can we draw any metaphysical conclusions about the existence of some spooky continuous self or ‘soul’ from it.

If one is a Cartesian Dualist, one believes that there is a ‘soul’ attached to a body, that is non-physical – whatever that means. Although Dualism was the predominant metaphysical view for the last few millenia, it appears to be a minority view now. One can be an Immaterialist – denying the existence of matter and asserting that everything is mental, or one can be a Materialist – asserting that minds are just physical phenomena that we don’t properly understand yet. But either way, most people are Monists – meaning that they believe the world is basically only made of one fundamental kind of ‘stuff’. I feel quite fond of Dualism, if only because it is quaint, old-fashioned and a minority view – which is always attractive to me (which is why I’m typing this with a non-Microsoft word processor on a non-Microsoft, non-Apple operating system). But try as I might I just can’t believe it, so I’m afraid I’ll have to leave it aside and plough on with my Monist biases.

What about before we were conceived then? Nobody seems to feel any big deal about the fact that there are no streams of consciousness associated with their body before they were conceived. I wasn’t conscious then, so I wasn’t around to notice the fact that I wasn’t conscious. Nor can I identify my first conscious moment, probably because of the Dennettian boundary problem already mentioned. I suspect that ‘my’ body gradually attained consciousness, and gradually attained memory, over the first months or years of ‘its’ life.

I feel similarly about what will happen when this body dies. Since I don’t believe in a Christian, Islamic, Valhallian or Olympian after-life, I think that there will simply be no subsequent streams of consciousness associated with this body, and no streams of consciousness that share memories with streams of consciousness of this body. It’s Just As Well really, because after a few years, the body will have been gobbled up by worms and/or fish and/or bacteria and there will be no body left with which streams of consciousness could associate themselves.

And yet….

And yet…. there is something in being human that makes it almost impossible to comprehend that the consciousness of this body will cease forever. Perhaps it’s an evolutionary advantage to feel that, or maybe it’s just random. But it’s there, and I think that that feeling accounts for why nearly all cultures have developed some sort of after-life mythology.

Some deny the cessation by believing in an after-life – a continuation of the ‘same’ consciousness. It’s by no means obvious what ‘the same’ means here. My guess is that it means there will be future streams of consciousness that share memories with the body’s pre-death streams of consciousness. Some deny the cessation of consciousness, or at least mortality, by considering their children or grandchildren to be continuations of themselves. Others deny it by looking at their achievements – their legacy to the human race.

Here’s my answer:

After the death of this body, ‘I’ will still be conscious because every consciousness is an ‘I’. In other words, ‘my’ consciousness won’t cease because at any point in time, all those that are conscious will be conscious, and all those consciousnesses are ‘mine’ because every stream of consciousness is of a ‘me’.

‘My’ streams of consciousness don’t stop happening. All that stops is that there are no more streams of consciousness associated with this particular body, and this set of memories. So – and here’s the wibbly-woo, new-agey bit – ‘I’ become those other streams of consciousness, because they are all ‘I’. We were never really separate, it’s just that each individual stream of consciousness is locked in its own perspective for as long as it lasts – sixteen hours or so.

There’s all sorts of metaphors one could use for this, and they’re all wacky, but they have to be, since we are dealing with the indescribable. One I like is the idea of consciousness as some sort of fluid that is subject to conservation laws in the same way as energy, momentum, angular momentum, electric charge and matter. So whenever a stream of consciousness ends, because of sleep, death or whatever, the amount of consciousness it contains is released and flows into other streams. It’s a metaphor, alright (!?!), so don’t go reaching for those scientific instruments or ectoplasm-detectors or whatever they had in Ghostbusters to try to catch and measure this fluid.

Another metaphor is that in a sense ‘I’ am imprisoned in my own consciousness, unable to perceive what another perceives, no matter how close I am to them. When my stream of consciousness ends – usually around 11:15pm – ‘I’ am set free and can become someone else – another ‘I’. For some reason I visualise a bird – probably a dove (how twee) flying out from a cage whose door has been opened.

It is key to this perspective that consciousness is fungible, not hypothecated (after all what’s the earthly use of studying finance if you can’t insert technical financial terms at strategic points in a philosophical discourse, just to show off). In other words it’s like money. We can no more say that the consciousness from my stream of 29 May 2015 became that of Elton John on 30 May 2015 than we can say that my deposit in the bank paid for part of a particular customer’s home loan. That dismisses the possibility of my being Marie Antoinette right off the bat.

But just as all of a banks liabilities fund all of its assets, the consciousness that is liberated when I go to sleep tonight will replenish the consciousness of all streams that are going at that time. So I am connected to Marie Antoinette not because her consciousness – as a discrete entity – became specifically mine (with many other users in the 200 years between), but because we all share in the same cosmic pool of consciousness, that is particular to no body, and is drawn upon and supplemented billions of times per day as streams commence and end, be it by sleep, waking, death, birth, fainting, or other cause.

In that sense, ‘I’ am Mahatma Gandhi, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Elvis Presley, Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson, Florence Nightingale, Elie Wiesel, Hypatia of Alexandria, Lucretia Borgia, George Best, Babe Ruth, Don Bradman, Peter Paul Rubens, Ludwig van Beethoven, Albert Einstein, John Cleese, Graham Chapman and, more importantly – many billions of other less famous people – clever, challenged, creative, dull, kind, cruel, indifferent, confident, shy. ‘I’ may be dogs and bandicoots and other animals too. But that’s the subject of another essay.

Arguably, a problem with this perspective is that consciousness will not persist indefinitely – at least not in this universe. We can be pretty confident that when the universe finally approaches heat death, no life will remain. So where does the consciousness go then? Well, that’s where the whole idea being a metaphor comes in handy. One great thing about metaphors is that you can drop them when something doesn’t fit, and pick them up again a little later. No metaphor fits every situation, because if it did, it wouldn’t be a metaphor (it would be the thing itself). So we drop it and think of something else, just as Shakespeare did when he realised that seas don’t generally fire arrows at you. Oh, no wait….

But why bother with a metaphor at all?

One might object that it’s silly to use a metaphor to orient oneself towards experience, especially when one knows that the metaphor will fail in some instances. My response to that is that every single one of our beliefs is a metaphor, and fails in some instances.

I tell myself I am sitting on a stool in front of a table to type this. The stool is solid and brown and the table is solid and purple. Yet that’s all metaphor too. The atomic theory tells us that what I’m sitting on is mostly empty space, and has no intrinsic colour. It has no integrity either, as it is constantly exchanging particles with its surroundings. But that too is only a metaphor, as quantum mechanics casts doubt on the whole notion of persistent particles, and who knows what even weirder theory will replace quantum mechanics and reveal it to be the crude metaphor that it undoubtedly is. It’s turtles all the way down, and there’s no reason to suppose that there’s a bottom.

Metaphors are neither true nor false, but they can be useful. We are story-telling animals, and stories – aka Metaphors – are the only way we can make any sense of life. They give it a shape that we can handle. Quantum mechanics is a useful metaphor if we want to make a laser (but not if we want to explain a black hole), and my metaphorical idea of this stool is useful if I want to have the experience that I call ‘sitting down’. So my metaphor of consciousness as a shared, universal, substance is useful to me if I want to think about inconceivable issues such as the non-existence of a persistent self, the lack of any conscious processes of this body before it was conceived and after it dies, and the relationship of all we people, and other animals, to one another.

Metaphors are also sometimes called myths, and they are just as good when they have that name.

Is this all just avoidance?

I can’t help pre-empting criticisms. It’s a vicious habit I picked up, I don’t know when but a long time ago. The wisdom of the ages says don’t bother, because it makes one’s writing longer, more complex, disjointed, ugly and harder to read. And critics rarely pay attention to one’s pre-emptions anyway. I can write “most dogs have fur that cause allergies to some people, but poodles don’t”, and some eager person will still sometimes respond “aha, but what about poodles? Got you there!”.

But since, like many people, I am my own worst critic I can’t help the odd pre-emption (of my own self-criticism), so I’ll allow myself one (or is it two? Did I already do one? We addicts are hopeless). Here it is.

Isn’t this all just some pathetic attempt to rationalise one’s way out of a fear of death by postulating some ridiculous Universal Consciousness? Why not just admit that when a body dies, it has no more conscious experiences, and that’s that?

Well Andrew (I reply), I’m glad you asked that question. Firstly I’d just like to observe that I did already say that (I believe) a dead body has no more conscious experiences, and there will be no more conscious experiences that have any memories of experiences that the body had. So this myth/metaphor doesn’t seek to deny or avoid that.

Nor is the myth relevant to fear of death, at least not for me. I used to fear death when I believed in a personal after-life, because I feared the punishments that had been threatened in that after-life if I didn’t conform to the strict expectations laid out in a rather large book of unrealistic rules. In fact I even feared the alternative of being ‘rewarded’ with eternal happiness, because I was convinced that no matter what treats and delights that reward comprised, I would be excruciatingly and agonisingly bored within a few billion years. But once I ceased to believe in an after-life, I ceased to believe in the possibility of such punishments, and hence I ceased to fear death. That is different of course from the fear of how one gets there (‘dying’), as I imagine that being squashed under the wheels of a Land Rover or being eaten by enraged Koalas is rather uncomfortable, albeit only for a short while.

No, the purpose of the myth, as far as I understand it, is twofold: first to escape the niggardly narrowness of the first-person perspective that is imposed on us by our bodily structure; second to open up possibilities for contemplating the mystery of consciousness, a phenomenon that no amount of scientific investigation seems ever likely to be able to explain. Given how mysterious and indefinable consciousness is (as opposed to mere brain activity that interprets sensory data, processes information and generates physical actions including speech), how unnecessary to the evolutionary account of the human brain it is, and how we (ie David Hume and I) are unable to detect any subject (‘self’) of this consciousness, it appears less ridiculous to me to regard consciousness as something primal, something universal that transcends individual bodies, than as an inexplicable phenomenon that arises in association with lumps of meat that are configured in just the right way.

Does that sound like a Humph! ? It wasn’t meant to. Ah well, if it is so, let it be so.

Marie Antoinette, 16 October 1793.


Metaphysics as a creative craft

In my writings I have not infrequently been dismissive of metaphysics, arguing that most metaphysical claims are meaningless, unfalsifiable, and of no consequence to people’s lives (leaving aside the unfortunate historical fact that many people have been burned at the stake for believing metaphysical claims that others disliked).

Perhaps it is time to relent a little – to give the metaphysicians a little praise. At least I will try. The basis for this attempt is a re-framing of what metaphysics is about. Instead of thinking of it as a quasi-scientific activity of trying to work out ‘what the world is like’, perhaps we could instead think of it as a creative, artistic activity, of inventing new ways of thinking and feeling about the world. Metaphysics as a craft, as delightful and uncontentious as quilting.

Why would anybody want to do that? Well I can think of a couple of reasons, and here they are (except that, like the chief weapons of Python’s Spanish Inquisitor, the number of reasons may turn out to be either more or less than two).

We know that there is a very wide range of human temperaments, longings, fears and attachments. A perspective that is inspiring to one person may be terrifying to another, and morbidly depressing to a third. For instance some people long to believe in a personal God that oversees the universe, and would feel their life to be empty and meaningless without it. Others regard the idea with horror. Some people are very attached to the idea that matter – atoms, quarks and the like – really, truly exists rather than just being a conceptual model we use to make sense of our experiences. Philosophical Idealists (more accurately referred to as Immaterialists) have no emotional need for such beliefs, and accordingly deny the existence of matter, saying that only minds and ideas are real. Indeed some, such as George Berkeley, regard belief in matter as tantamount to heresy, which is why the subtitle of his tract ‘Three dialogues between Hylas and Philonous‘, which promoted his Immaterialist hypothesis, was ‘In opposition to sceptics and atheists‘.

So the wider the range of available metaphysical hypotheses, the more chance that any given person will be able to find one that satisfies her, and hence be able to live a life of satisfaction, free of existential terror. Unless of course what they really long for is existential terror, in which case Kierkegaard may have a metaphysical hypothesis that they would love.

One might wonder – ‘why do we need metaphysical hypotheses, when we have science?‘ The plain answer to this is ‘we don’t‘. But although we do not need them, it is human nature to seek out and adopt them. That’s because, correctly considered, science tells us not ‘the way the world is‘, but rather, what we may expect from the world. A scientific theory is a model that enables us to make predictions about what we will experience in the future – for instance whether we will feel the warmth of the sun tomorrow, and whether if we drop an apple we will see it fall. Scientific theories may seem to say that the world is made of quarks, or spacetime, or wave functions, but they actually say no such thing. What they say is, if you imagine a system that behaves according to the following rules – which might be rules about subatomic particles like quarks – and you observe certain phenomena (such as my letting go of the apple), then the behaviour of that imaginary system can guide you as to what you will see next (such as the apple falling to the ground).

It’s just as well that scientific theories say nothing about ‘the way the world is’, because they get discarded every few decades and replaced by new ones. The system described by the new theory may be completely different from that described by the previous one. For instance the new one may be all about waves while the previous one was all about tiny particles like billiard balls (electrons, protons and neutrons in the Rutherford model of the atom). But most of the predictions of the two theories will be identical. Indeed, if the old theory was a good one, it will only be in very unusual conditions that it makes different predictions from those of the new theory (eg if the things being considered are very small, very heavy or very fast). So by recognising that scientific theories are descriptions of imaginary systems that allow us to make predictions, rather than statements about the way the world is, we get much greater continuity in our understanding of the world, because not much changes when a theory is replaced.

I think of metaphysics as the activity of constructing models of the world (‘worldviews’) that contain more detail and structure than there is in the models of science. We do not need the more detailed models of metaphysics for our everyday life. Science gives us everything we need to survive. But, being naturally curious creatures, we tend to want to know what lies behind the observations we make, including the observations of scientific ‘laws’. So we speculate – that the world is made of atoms like billiard balls, or strings, or (mem’)branes, or a wave function, or a squishy-wishy four-dimensional block of ‘spacetime’, or quantum foam, or ideas, or noumena, or angels, demons, djinn and deities. This speculation leads to different mental models of the world.

So metaphysics adds additional detail to our picture of the world. Some suggest that it also adds an answer to the ‘why?’ question that science ignores (focusing only on ‘how?’). I reject that suggestion. As anybody knows that has ever as a child tried to rile a parent with the ‘but why?’ game, and as anybody that has been thus riled by a child knows, any explanation at all can be questioned with a ‘but why?’ question. No matter how many layers of complexity we add to our model, each layer explaining the layer above it, we can always ask about the lowest layer – ‘but why?’ Whether that last layer is God, or quarks, or strings, or the Great Green Arkleseizure, or even Max Tegmark’s Mathematical Universe, one can still demand an explanation of that layer. By the way, my favourite answers to the ‘But why?’ question are (1) Just because, (2) Nobody knows and (3) Why not? They’re all equally valid but I like (3) the best.

Some of these mental models have strong emotional significance, despite having no physical significance. For instance strong solipsism – the belief that I am the only conscious being – tends to frighten people and make them feel lonely. So most people, including me, reject it, even though it is perfectly consistent with science. Some people get great comfort from metaphysical models containing a god. Others find metaphysical models without gods much more pleasant.

So I would say that metaphysics, while physically unnecessary, is something that most people cannot help doing to some extent, and that people often develop emotional attachments to particular metaphysical models.

Good metaphysics is a creative activity. It is the craft of inventing new models. The more models there are, the more people have to choose from. Since there are such great psychological and emotional differences between people, one needs a great variety of models if everybody that wants a model is to be able to find a model with which they can be comfortable.

Bad metaphysics (of which there is a great deal in the world of philosophy) is trying to prove that one’s model is the correct one. I call this bad because there is no reason to believe that there is such a thing as ‘the correct model’ and even if there was one, we’d have no way of finding out what it is. There can be ‘wrong’ models, in the sense that most people would consider a model wrong if it is logically inconsistent (ie generates contradictions). But there are a myriad of non-contradictory models, so there is no evidence that there is such a thing as ‘the right model’. Unfortunately, it appears that most published metaphysics is of this sort, rather than the good stuff.

It’s worth noting that speculative science is also metaphysics. By ‘speculative science’ I mean activities like string theory or interpretations of quantum mechanics. I favour Karl Popper’s test for whether a model is (non-speculative) science, which is whether it can make predictions that will falsify the model if they do not come true. A model that is metaphysical can move into the domain of science if somebody invents a way of using it to make falsifiable predictions. Metaphysical models have done this in the past. A famous example is the ‘luminiferous aether’ theory, which was finally tested and falsified in the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887. Maybe one day string theorists will be able to develop some falsifiable predictions from the over-arching string theory modeli that will move it from the realm of metaphysics to either accepted (if the prediction succeeds) or discarded (if the prediction fails) science. However some metaphysical models seem unlikely to ever become science, as one cannot imagine how they could ever be tested. The debate of Idealism vs Materialism (George Berkeley vs GE Moore) is an example of this.

So I hereby give my applause to (some) metaphysicians. Some people look at philosophy and say it has failed because it has not whittled down worldviews to a single accepted possibility. They say that after three millenia it still has not ‘reached a conclusion’ about which is the correct worldview. I ask ‘why do you desire a conclusion?‘ My contrary position is to regard the proliferation of possibilities, the generation of countless new worldviews, as the true value of metaphysics. The more worldviews the better. Philosophy academics working in metaphysics should have their performance assessed based not on papers published but on how many new worldviews they have invented, and how evocatively they have described them to a thirsty and variety-seeking public. Theologians could get in on the act too, and some of the good ones (a minority) do. Rather than trotting out dreary, flawed proofs of the existence of God. the historicity of the resurrection, or why God really does get very cross if consenting grown-ups play with one another’s private parts, they could be generating creative, inspiring narratives about what God might be like and what our relationship to the God might be. They could manufacture a panoply of God mythologies, one to appeal to every single, unique one of us seven billion citizens of this planet. Some of us prefer a metaphysical worldview without a God, but that’s OK, because if the philosopher metaphysicians do their job properly, there will be millions of those to choose from as well. Nihilists can abstain from all worldviews, and flibbertigibbets like me can hop promiscuously from one worldview to another as the mood takes them.

We need more creative, nutty, imaginative, inspiring metaphysicians like Nietzsche, Sartre, Simone Weil and Soren Kierkegaard, not more dry, dogmatic dons that seek to evangelise their own pet worldview to the point of its becoming as ubiquitous as soccer.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, January 2015

i. Not just a prediction of one of the thousands of sub-models. Falsifying a sub-model of string theory is useless, as there will always be thousands more candidates.

It is not necessary for me to have an opinion on that

(Rejoice, for there is no hope!)

As I was coming home from work, I wondered whether my son had been selected to be on a jury. He had been called in to the district court that day for jury duty, but only a minority of those called in end up on a jury (‘Many are called but few are chosen’).

My thought process was something like this:

If he gets selected then the trial will clash with some commitments he has in the next few weeks that matter quite a lot to him. So from that point of view it would be better for him not to be selected.

On the other hand, sitting through a long trial and hearing first-hand stories from people who lead far less privileged lives than we do would be a tremendous opportunity for learning and growth for him, albeit maybe somewhat harrowing.

Dear me, what shall I hope for? Shall I hope that he is selected or that he is not?

Then that precious thought came to me that has often entered my mind recently:

It is not necessary for me to have an opinion on that‘.

Whether he gets selected or not is outside my control. Whichever happens, we shall try to make the best of the situations that arise. There is no need, and no point, in hoping for one outcome or the other.

So I didn’t. I just shut the thought process down and moved on to something else.

I aim these days to completely banish hope from my life.

That may sound bleak. But it isn’t. The apparent bleakness is just an artefact of our peculiar Western culture. We are taught to hope from an early age. The sentence ‘There is no hope‘ is regarded within Western culture as synonymous with despair and misery. Yet there is no reason at all that it should be so. If we can learn to be content with the present moment, what need have we of hope?

This message has a strong presence in many cultures in India and farther East. It is not unknown in Western culture, but its presence is less strong than in the East. In Western thought it is principally manifest in the Ancient Greek philosophies of Stoicism and Epicureanism.

I blame Saint Paul for the Western preoccupation with Hope. It’s that famous passage in Corinthians where he says that the three greatest virtues are Faith, Hope and Love. I’m not Paul’s biggest fan but, in between the misogyny and the homophobia, he did have his good moments. And I reckon the poor old fellow got unfairly misinterpreted on that epistle. His point wasn’t that faith and hope are particularly great. It was that love is far more important than the other two. Surely that’s something we can agree on. Paul may think faith and hope are pretty good. I think they’re rubbish! But at least we agree that love is much more important. If Paul says that love is what makes the world go around, then I applaud him, even if he wants to spend some of it on his god rather than on his fellow humans and other suffering animals, who need it so much more. Perhaps he finds it hard to love other humans, and loving his god helps him to love others as well. If so then loving God first sounds like a good strategy, for him. For me it actually works the other way around. I find humans more lovable than the idea of God because of their (our!) frailness, limited understanding, cantankerousness and emotional vulnerability. Virtue of the beloved is only very rarely a reason for love. Parents do not love their toddlers because of their great virtue (what virtue?) but because of their vulnerability, because they need us so much.

I grew up to feel that I ought to hope that certain things would happen and that others wouldn’t. It was almost as though by hoping I increased the likelihood of the desired event happening. Hoping was like a duty, and to fail to hope was somehow remiss.

I don’t know whether I am unusual in that regard or whether it is a common feeling of people in our culture. But in any case, What a lot of nonsense!

My hoping or not hoping has no effect at all on what will happen! What matters is what I do, not what I hope. If I am concerned at the lack of compassion shown to refugees and the lack of action about climate change, I can lobby politically for those causes, express strong views in the public arena, try to personally help refugees and the environment, and donate lavishly to organisations that work towards those ends. Hoping at the same time for success doesn’t seem likely to increase the effectiveness of my actions.

In some ways, hoping may make my actions less effective. If I am constantly longing for success, I may become discouraged and give up acting if the prospect of success does not become progressively stronger. Then the cause will suffer. But if I act not out of hope but out of a belief that the actions are right then the activity is its own reward. If success follows, so much the better, but if not it does not mean that I have failed or that my time was wasted.

Imagine having a family member or close friend with a very serious illness. It seems natural to hope for their recovery, and to hope that they will not deteriorate, suffer and die. But what good does that hope do? What is needed is to do whatever we can to alleviate their suffering, maximise their chances of recovery and let them know that they are loved. If we waste mental energy and thinking time on wishing for a recovery, we will miss the opportunity to fully experience and value the time we have with them now. So let us do what we can to help, focus on valuing our time with them, and leave the things we cannot control to work themselves out, in whatever way they must.

Imagine a damaged passenger aeroplane that is plummeting towards the ground. Should the occupants hope to be saved? Well, the pilots should be focusing on the technical problem of how to regain control of the plane, not on hope. The cabin crew should be focusing on ensuring the passengers are all seated, strapped in, braced and know the emergency procedures, not on hope. The passengers themselves have less to do. But they can comfort one another – speak words of encouragement and love, help calm fears, hold hands, supply and dispose of airsickness bags. Or if seated alone, they can meditate on the inevitability of death – if not now then later – and try to achieve a state of acceptance. Or even sing! The orchestra on the Titanic that played as the ship went down is legendary, not because they brought hope, because there was none, but because they brought relative calm, courage and acceptance.

Let me restate: there is nothing new in this. The message has been preached for thousands of years in Stoicism, Epicureanism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism. It is only because our Western culture so often demands that we have hope, that there is any need to remind ourselves of the message.

My reason for discouraging hope is not only that it can distract from practical, helpful action. It is also that it is doomed to fail.

When we hope, we wish our life away. We diminish the importance of the present moment in order to elevate the importance of a potential future state. But if we prioritise the future over the past, what happens? As John Maynard Keynes said ‘In the long run we are all dead‘. Now I have nothing against death. It is a natural part of life, and is only sad when it comes too soon, too painfully, or leaves dependants in desperate circumstances. But while it is not bad, neither is it especially good. It is not something to be aspired to. It is simply blank, neutral (in fact it is, literally, nothing!). So the final consequence of hoping for the future, at the expense of diminishing the present, is to aspire towards the blankness of death, which seems a particularly empty and uninspiring goal.

It may be that in certain extraordinary circumstances hope may be beneficial. Perhaps parents whose child has disappeared, suspected kidnapped, may find that hope is helpful to them. My guess is that, even in those horrible circumstances, time spent thinking about hope may be more upsetting than time spent focusing on the practicalities of doing whatever one can to save the child. But I have no experience of such a situation, so my ideas are mere idle speculation. All I can say is that, although I have often hoped in the past, sometimes being quite obsessed by it, I have never experienced circumstances in which hope was helpful, and I cannot imagine any circumstances where I would expect it to be helpful.

I have one last reason for objecting to hope, and that is when it is used to focus beyond death, on a potential after-life. It is entirely reasonable and understandable that some people want to believe in an after-life. It is only when it starts affecting their actions in this world that it can become a problem. The after-life has been used as an excuse for terrorism (jihadists blowing themselves up in crowded market-places so they can go straight to Paradise where seventy-two virgins await them), for inaction on social justice (the poor will ‘receive their consolation in heaven’), and for inflicting self-misery (Roman Catholics with irretrievably broken marriages denying themselves the possibility of being in love again, because such ‘adultery’ would damn their immortal soul).

Maybe there’s an after-life and maybe there isn’t. But what we can be sure of is that no human knows anything about it. So whatever other humans tell us about it, whether in speech or via books such as the Bible or Quran, is pure speculation. Hence I suggest we treat after-life stories as just one more interesting, unfalsifiable hypothesis, like string theory, and get on with loving and helping one another here and now.

Notwithstanding all that, I still frequently find myself wondering which of two alternative potential events to wish for, when the outcome is entirely outside my control. Which should I hope for? Quick, this is important! Don’t hope for the wrong one! My running partner is five minutes late for our lunchtime jog and I’m tired. I wouldn’t mind giving the jog a miss today. Shall I hope that they don’t turn up so I can give my tired body a rest, or shall I hope they do turn up because I really need to lose that extra smidgeon of weight? What a responsibility! How can I decide? Then the blessed thought returns to save me:

It is not necessary for me to have an opinion on that‘.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, June 2014

On the feeling of tremendous well-being

One bright winter Thursday, in my last years of high school, I went for a bike ride in the morning. Thirty kilometres, quite hard, with plenty of hills. I didn’t have to go to school until 11 o’clock because I had a double free period. After arriving home and having a shower I went into the lounge room, put on a record – Schumann’s piano concerto – and made myself a cup of instant coffee (this was long before the days of personal espresso machines, not that my parents could have afforded one anyway).

The lounge room had a large window into which the sun was streaming, and outside I could see the nearby gum trees and the far off blue-green hills. My leg muscles had that pleasant, achey feel that tells of a hard job, well-done, and I felt very relaxed – full of endorphins perhaps.

It was the first time I had fully realised how marvellous Schumann’s piano concerto is. It has great swelling surges and a captivating momentum, especially in the last movement. It is deeply romantic in its expressivity, yet has a classical sense of drive and purpose. I had read not long before someone’s opinion that Schumann was only really a “miniaturist”, writing well for solo piano or accompanied singer, but that his attempts at large orchestral works were failures. “How wrong that critic is!” I thought as I thrilled to the surges and rhythms of the orchestra and the piano in response. Relishing the music, relishing the warm sunlight (on a chilly but bright winter’s day), relishing the coffee, relishing the gentle, worthy ache of my quads. Relishing the fact that I, a mere schoolboy at an undistinguished Catholic school, was free until 11 o’clock, and that the ride to school was mostly downhill.

This, I thought, is an excellent experience. I must remember this.

And I have. More than thirty years later, the sounds of that Schumann concerto still transport me back to that sunny lounge room.

Last week I had another great experience. I was just riding along a bush-lined path next to the airport. I had been feeling a little seedy earlier but now, after about half an hour on the bike, I was warmed up and felt a harmonious unity with nature as I swooped around corners and over dips and bumps. I am dancing Nataraja, dancing the cosmic dance that is the universe.

I doubt I’ll remember last week in thirty years, should this body last that long. I’ve already forgotten key elements – there was more to the feeling of well-being than I can remember even at this short interval. Perhaps I need a musical accompaniment, a taste or a smell, to really fix something in my memory.

My life contains these rare moments when there is a feeling of tremendous well-being. There are many more moments of dullness, routine, embarrassment, discomfort, sadness, fear and anger, as well as plenty of feelings on the positive side – relief, comfort, amusement, intellectual stimulation, success, kinship, love – that are appreciated, but not remembered for a lifetime.

People sometimes talk of wishing to “bottle” a special moment, to make it last. I can’t make it last, and I realise that trying to do so would be counter-productive. Clinging destroys the beauty and pleasure of the moment. In fact, part of the reason why such moments are so special is that they are different from the everyday. They are precious because they are rare of occurrence and finite of duration. But we can preserve all of the moment that is worth preserving by fixing it in our memory. We can write it down, or just set some mental markers to make it easy to recall. The Schumann and the coffee are the markers for my marvellous Thursday in 1979.

Each life is a work of art, a pattern, a dance, a song, a tapestry, and each individual is the creator of their own artwork. The artworks of all the different individuals mingle to make a grand panoply of colour and movement. We can make decisions and perform actions that enrich our own art work and those of others as well. Works of art need contrasts: highs and lows, louds and softs, fast bits and slow, pastels and primary colours, rough and smooth textures. If we can internalise the understanding of that sufficiently well then perhaps we will appreciate times of sadness, fear or pain as well as times of pleasure.

So I will pay more attention to the feelings that life arouses. If they are negative, I will try to view them as interesting, curious anomalies, phenomena to be studied. If they are positive I may do that too, but I will also try to make mental bookmarks to be able to recall them later on. Perhaps at times of great sadness it will be helpful to view the strife in the context of past joys, to reclaim, at least in part, the feeling of aesthetic necessity of such times as part of the grand pageant that this life is.

Perhaps it’s even worth mentally bookmarking some negative times for later reference. That may enhance the enjoyment of the positive ones, as well as assisting the holistic perspective. I can think of some past experiences of fear, pain (physical and emotional) and embarrassment on which I can look back quite equably now, perhaps even fondly.

But I’ll not pretend that I don’t enjoy the good experiences more. I do. Even one of those experiences is enough to justify this life. I have been very fortunate. I hope that everybody can have at least one experience like my Schumann moment before they die.

Friedrich Holderlin’s marvellous poem “To the parcae” expresses this rather well:

Grant me but one good summer, you Powerful Ones!

And but one autumn, ripening for my song,

So that my heart, fulfilled by sweet play,

Might the more willingly die, contented.


once I lived as the gods live, and more we don’t need.

A postscript. It’s not just about the bike. The two positive experiences I relate above involve bikes, but that’s not always the case. Many involve exercise, it’s true. I can remember running around Centennial Park on a sunny winter morning about twenty years ago (there’s something about sunny winter mornings that seems particularly conducive to well-being), watching the fence fly past me and thinking “I’m running so fast, and I can’t even feel my feet touch the ground!”. There are also wonderful, memorable moments involving one’s children or spouse. I have less of them though. I think the mind is too distracted during the years of child-rearing, by tiredness, busyness and endless to-do lists, to be able to focus well enough to form sustainable coherent memories. But the rareness of memories of such moments makes them extra special.

Andrew Kirk. Bondi Junction, 3 May 2013