The Tale of a Trump

Jonathan Swift’s, Tale of a Tub, is an apparent attack on religious practises that vary from his own High Anglicanism.  But as he makes clear quite early in the book, religion merely provides the allegory, for  where the real power is held – in political structures and practises. Or as he picturesquely puts it, it is the empty tub thrown to distract a whale that might otherwise sink the whole ship.



A Tub for the Whale  James Gilray  1806


In section ix, a Digression concerning Madness, a chapter where the real object of his tale is more explicit than most, Swift links the gift of, ‘being  well deceived,’ as a characteristic of both the insane and the successful politician. He recommends that influential patriots should set up a commission to inspect Bedlam, an infamous mental hospital, with a view to selecting inmates to fill the various offices of state..

He justifies this by the following argument.

For the Brain, in its natural Position and State of Serenity, disposeth its Owner to pass his Life in the Common Forms, without any Thoughts of subduing Multitudes to his own Power, his Reasons or his Visions…….. But when a Man’s Fancy gets a stride on his  Reason, when Imagination is at Cuffs with the Senses, and common Understanding, as well as common Sense is Kickt out of Doors; the first Proselyte he makes, is Himself, and when that is once compass’d , the Difficulty is not so great in bringing over others;  A strong Delusion always operating from without, as vigorously as from within.

Jonathan Swift A Tale of a Tub 1710

Now dear reader, lest you be in any doubt, that the target of Swift’s tale is new American President, Donald Trump, I urge you to look carefully at the following illustration taken from the said book.



Observe the mad man  at the forefront of the picture.  Note the peculiar nature of the hands, and the delicacy of the ears.

The Æolists, windbag clergy, described in the Tale, have long been understood to represent the Scottish reformer John Knox and his followers.  Swift tells us that the reason  they wore their hair short, with their ears on show, was because these provide a guide to the size of the male protuberance.

Now it would be natural to jump to the conclusion that Swift, in his depiction of Trump, is once again showing his bias against those of Scottish ancestry, or is  displaying  blatant anti-Americanism. It was after all an American whom he alleged, in his A Modest Proposal,’  to have recommended a young healthy child, as a delicious meal.

This is to miss the point.  Swift does not argue that there is anything wrong with the practises he is describing. In the latter case, quite the reverse.

In fact it is quite clear from the following quote, that Swift is actually using his skills as a master propagandist, in support of Trump.  Who, but a genius, could put so clearly the case for alternative facts.

And so the Question is only this; Whether things that have Place in the Imagination, may not as properly be said to Exist, as those that are seated in the Memory; which may be justly held in the affirmative, and very much to the Advantage of the former, since this is acknowledged to be the Womb of Things, and the other allowed to be no more than the Grave.

Jonathan Swift A Tale of a Tub 1710


















Born to Believe

We understand and interpret the world through language. This of itself has the potential to bias the way we understand reality. Language right from our first words, ‘Mama, Dada, No!’ has inherent meaning, and frequently purpose.

reach for the moonIt should be no surprise to find that this is how  many of us interpret the world – a place with meaning and purpose.

We take life personally. And of course sometimes it is. Some of that which happens is a deliberate act by a conscious being.  Someone who if they had wanted too, could have behaved otherwise.

It is this feeling that life is, or ought to be, purposeful and meaningful, that creates within us the ecological niche, that is the habitat for religious memes.

I’m coming to think the really interesting thing about theology is not what any of it says about God, but how people try to verbalize their belief, and what the attempt tells us about the person and the culture in which said person operates.

Wendy Dackson  Two Entirely Random unrelated reflections 2016

Theology understood  not as the study of God, but as the study of how people incorporate this feeling that reality has purpose and meaning into their belief systems, has the potential to be a very fruitful discipline.

The study of God is a little more problematic.

The existence of an Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnibenevolent God, is as the Scottish Philosopher, David Hume pointed out inconsistent with the existence of suffering in the world.

This is something that Bertrand Russell also referred to in his, ‘Is There a God?’ essay  of 1952, the one that introduced the world to the Celestial Teapot.

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes.

Bertrand Russell  Is there a God ? (commissioned by, but never published in, Illustrated Magazine, in 1952)

Bertrand Russell is frequently understood to be implying that belief in God is the logical equivalent to belief in an orbiting teapot; there is no reason to believe in the existence of either, and this is a good reason not to believe.

This is how Richard Dawkins understood him, and  argued in, ‘The God Delusion,’ published 2006, that he could do better than this, by making a probability argument. The existence of God, is like the existence of a Celestial Teapot, so improbable that believing in either is unreasonable.

Of course they aren’t actually comparable. We know what teapots are; human artefacts, intended for the brewing of tea. We also know, or at least think we know, that there was no way in 1952, that one of these artefacts could have gotten into space.

There is no reason to believe that the Celestial Teapot existed, and good reason to believe that it did not.  But all that would be required for it to have existed, was for there to have been something going on, that we don’t know about. (I am assuming that even if it had existed in 1952, the fact that it was made of china, makes it highly probable that it would no longer be in existence.)

The same is not true of the Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnibenevolent God, of traditional Western theology.  A mere something going on that we do not know about cannot turn this God into a possible reality.

A God who is Omnipotent and Omniscient, is one who could do anything that is logically possible, including achieving His ends, without the need for suffering.  Suffering exists and therefore, given a normal understanding of goodness, observed reality is incompatible with the existence of an Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnibenevolent God.

There is zero probability that the Triple O exists.

The same is not necessarily true of the Celestial Teapot.

Knowing that the Triple O does not exist, does not rule out the possibility that this universe is the result of conscious creation.

We know what a china teapot is, and its existence or otherwise in any given place, is open to direct verification.  The same is not true of consciousness. We experience consciousness in ourselves, and extrapolate this outwards. The existence of other minds is a theory that is not open to direct verification.

All the provable facts on earth, including things such as The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, the Taj Mahal, and the Mona Lisa, can potentially be explained, as the outworking of  materialistic processes. There is no need  to introduce the notion of conscious agency.

Science is sometimes understood to be pushing the notion of a conscious, purposeful Creator into smaller and smaller gaps, as more and more phenomena fall to materialistic explanations.

It is argued that everything that has been recognised in past times as an act of conscious creation can already be, or will at some time in the future be explainable in materialistic terms.  The trouble with this is that it doesn’t just apply to so-called acts of God, it also applies to among other things, Michelangelo’s David, and Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. I am reasonably certain that the immediate creation of these items is explainable in entirely materialistic term, the firing of synapses, and contraction of muscles, and the effect that this had on materials external to the body of the artists.

I don’t regard this as evidence that these acknowledged masterpieces are not the work of conscious creators. Likewise materialistic explanations for the structures of the universe, do not provide evidence that they are not works of conscious creation.

There is good solid evidence that the Triple O does not exist.  There is good reason to believe that the Celestial Teapot does not exist. There is no reason not to believe in a Conscious Creator.

Our human tendency to see meaning and purpose, where we see structure and function combined, makes belief in a Conscious Other easy for many of us.  However as David Hume pointed out way back in the 18th Century, this does not give us sufficient reason to believe.  Since that time, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution has been propounded, with its demonstration, that it is possible to explain the existence of structure and function without need to invoke a deity. This proves just how right Hume was. It is unsound to argue from the existence of structure and function to a purposeful Creator, but it does not demonstrate that such a Creator does not exist.

The Protestant claim is that proof of God lies in his inspired word, the Bible.  We can know that God exists because he has revealed his existence to us.

It is sometimes claimed that the remarkable degree of consistency shown in doctrine, teaching and prophecy throughout the Bible demonstrates its divine authorship. This is a belief that although held fervently by some, is like belief in the Triple O, held despite the evidence not because it.

The author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, frequently wrote in a voice not his own.  The opinions expressed by his narrator, which in the case of Gulliver’s Travels, was of course Gulliver, were frequently although not necessarily at odds with the opinion held by Swift.  It is possible that the entire Bible is inspired by a consistent Creator, but if so then the Bible needs to be read like the works of Jonathan Swift.  The opinion of the narrator is not necessarily, the opinion of the Ultimate Author. And as with Jonathan Swift there is room to interpret the Author in different ways.

There is one major flaw in this analogy.  Gulliver is a work of fiction, he didn’t exist, therefore we know, that he was not the author of Gulliver’s Travels. It is reasonable to believe that there was an actual author, Jonathan Swift, who was trying to communicate something different, something frequently at odds with what his fictional narrator was saying. Swift was after all a satirist.

The case with the Bible is different.  The narrators of the Bible did exist.  There is no a priori reason to conclude that they were not working under the influence of an Ultimate Author. But no reason not to believe is not sufficient grounds to believe. This is the point being made by Albert Einstein in the following quote:

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can change this for me. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstition.

Albert Einstein Letter to Erik Gutkind 1954

Subtle interpretations provide evidence, not for  the Mind of God, but the mind of the interpreter.

Among the allegedly primitive legends of the Old Testament, is a story which has been written in such a way that it can be interpreted fairly literally, without any need for subtlety, in at least two different ways.  There is the surface level account, which reads like a fairy tale, and serves to disguise the much more historical  account that is also there. Both accounts describe that historians and archaeologists tell us really did happen, the origin of agriculture.

The double interpretation relies on a very simple trick, giving one of the characters a proper name   that has a meaning.  Anyone who has ever at a personal level run across the legend of Adam and Eve and Pinch Me Tight, will know just how unsubtle this trick can be.

The name Adam, like Pinch Me Tight, is a name with a meaning. In Hebrew the word Adam means man. Man not in the sense of the male of the species, but of humankind. It doesn’t take too much subtlety of interpretation to figure out that any story where the main character is called humankind is likely to bear hidden meaning.

The Garden of Eden story starts off with no humankind to till the ground.  It is quite literally humankind that is told not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.  It is humankind that  is told that the consequences of eating of the Tree of Knowledge will be death. The immediate consequence of eating of the Tree of Knowledge was not death, but the difficulties of primitive agriculture; the tilling of a soil that became increasingly infertile. It is an agricultural origin story.

We are presently in what some scientists have labelled the sixth extinction.  Species are disappearing faster than at any time since the extinction of the dinosaurs.  The cause of this extinction is not an asteroid hitting the earth, it is us.  For most of the 500 thousand or so years that our species has been in existence, we were mostly harmless.  It was the agricultural revolution, that changed that.  It was the triggering factor that made our modern world possible.  The event, that enabled us to become death the destroyer of this world; the likely bringer of our own extinction. Eating from the Tree of Knowledge has put us in the pathway to accelerated extinction.

The Adam and Eve story is a work of ancient human genius. At one level it is a simple children’s story, advising of the dangers of not doing what you are told.  At another level it is an account that is compatible with our modern knowledge about the history of the earth.

But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.

Genesis 2:6

In our modern scientific version of origins, evolution, the process that resulted eventually in the formation of humankind, began after this initial watering of the earth, in the primitive ocean. The same time zone where the Bible describes God as initiating the formation of Adam.

In the Biblical account the river names identify the Garden East of Eden, where God places humankind, with the fertile crescent. In our modern accounts too humankind arose outside, the fertile crescent.  Human Beings moved into that area during the last ice age.

And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Genesis 2:8,9

And yes, our modern science tells us that as the climate became warmer the tundra type landscape changed to one where tree growth was no longer stunted. So trees did grow up, after human beings entered the fertile crescent.

Eating from the Tree of Knowledge strikes me as an excellent metaphor for eating of the fruits of agriculture.

Given the different roles of men and in hunter-gatherer society, it is likely that it was women who were the first farmers. Or metaphorically speaking it was they who first picked the fruit from the, ‘Tree of Knowledge.’

The King James version of the Bible provides a literal, not idiomatic, translation of the effects that eating of the Tree of Knowledge had on the woman.

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

Genesis 3:16

An increase in the number of conceptions, and an increase in male dominance are known to be consequences on women of the move from hunter-gatherer society, to subsistence farming.

And for men considerably more work was required of a subsistence farmer than of a hunter-gatherer. The diet of the first farmers was inferior to that of hunter-gatherers, and without understanding of the need for crop rotation and fertilizer the ground would have become increasingly infertile.

And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;  Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

Genesis 3:17-19

There is good reason to believe that the Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnibenevolent God of traditional Western theology does not exist.  The same is not true of a Conscious Creator. There is no reason not to believe that such a Conscious Other Exists.

Once men argued that the structure of the universe proved that God the Triple O, must exist. History has shown that Hume was right, there can be other reasons for structure than a Conscious Creator.  Massive improbabilities are possible in infinities.

The question I need to ask is, does the co-incidence between events related in this story and the findings of modern research, stretch the laws of probability to the degree, that requires introducing the concept of infinities into the equation; or could ancient human genius, and a bit of coincidence, provide sufficient explanation.

My opinion is that the latter explanation is sufficient.  The co-incidences mentioned are consistent with the reality of a Conscious Other, but do not provide proof.

The co-incidences do not prove that even this bit of scripture is divinely inspired.  But they do show that even as great a human genius as Einstein was, can sometimes be mistaken.

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.

Albert Einstein Letter to Erik Gutkind 1954






The British God


The British Empire was the most extensive empire the world has ever seen, but by 1952 when Bertrand Russell wrote the famous essay which introduced the Celestial  Teapot to the world, it was on its last legs.

The following argument, taken from that essay, although it purports to be a discussion on the truth of monotheism, is not one that was likely ever to have been used as proof of the existence of Almighty God.

But, if the truth of a religion is to be judged by its worldly success, the argument in favor of monotheism is a very strong one, since it possessed the largest armies, the largest navies, and the greatest accumulation of wealth. In our own day this argument is growing less decisive. It is true that the un-Christian menace of Japan was defeated. But the Christian is now faced with the menace of atheistic Muscovite hordes, and it is not so certain as one could wish that atomic bombs will provide a conclusive argument on the side of theism.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

But if the existence of an Omnipotent, Omniscient God is accepted, then it  follows, that this god has the power to determine who will have the largest armies, the largest navies, and the greatest accumulation of wealth.

By the time, ‘Is there a God?’ was written, that was no longer the British.

The God of  Status Quo

The hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful, written by the Irish, Anglican clergy wife Mrs Alexander in 1848 contained the following much derided verse.

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Mrs Cecil Frances Humphreys Alexander

I am not certain what Mrs Alexander meant, but it is possible to understand this as meaning that the present status quo is the will of God, and therefore should not be opposed.  Whatever is, is right, and one should accept one’s divinely appointed position in the class system.

This is how the Stuart kings Charles I, and James II, had understood their position, as divinely appointed rulers.  As their fate shows, Charles I was beheaded in 1649 and James II was forced into exile in 1690 after being defeated at the Battle of the Boyne, this was not a view that was universally held by their subjects, nor by any God who actually exists.

The position of the Stuart kings was similar to that of the kings of Lilliput in Swift’s Tale.

In like manner, the disbelief of a divine providence renders a man uncapable of holding any publick station: for, since kings avow themselves to be deputies of Providence, the Lilliputians think nothing can be more absurd, than for a prince to employ such men as disown the authority under which he acteth.

Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels  Part One:  A Voyage to Lilliput 1726

The fictional threat to the Lilliputian King, and the real threat to the Stuarts came not from those who didn’t believe in Providence, but those who held that the rulers were not doing the Will of Providence.

Providence is like Gulliver, an unreliable ally to those in power.  ‘The rich man in his castle,’ verse isn’t the problem with Mrs Alexander’s hymn. It could as easily be understood as a threat against those in higher position, who fail to act as the Deity, or His spiritual representatives – the clergy and their wives, think they should. Their higher status can be rescinded.

The problem is the concept of Almighty God.  A concept that lends itself too easily to might is right, and that whatever is, is good.  With Christianity seen as a way of controlling the masses and making them more amenable to the interests of those in power.

An interpretation that as the fate of the Stuart kings demonstrates was capable of having nasty consequences, and not just for those at the bottom of the pecking order.

The God of Empire

It might seem obvious that those with the largest armies, largest navies and greatest accumulation of wealth have the most power, and the greatest personal security.

As the young George Orwell discovered during the time he spent in the Imperial Police in Burma (1922-1927), the wielders of power are very far from free themselves; forced into role of Power’s earthly representative, by those whom the pecking order of empire demands they must have the respect of.

And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him.

George Orwell Shooting an Elephant  1936

Those who wish to be Omnipotence’s earthly representatives, pay a  high price.  The maintenance of power is a constant struggle.

Charles Darwin was very much a child of Empire, born in 1809 during the rise of the second British Empire.  The first had been lost with the American War of Independence in 1783.  This theology of constant struggle was encapsulated into his theory of evolution, and given voice most memorably in Herbert Spencer‘s phrase, “survival of the fittest.”

Survival of the fittest, should be understood, as survival of those that are best fitted to their environment. A principle that Jonathan Swift, over eighty years before Darwin was born, put into the mouth of the fictional scientists called in to provide a scientific explanation for Gulliver’s existence by the King of Brobdingnag – the land of the giants.

They all agreed, that I could not be produced according to the regular laws of nature: because I was not framed with a capacity of preserving my life, either by swiftness, or climbing trees, or digging holes in the earth.  They observed by my teeth, which they viewed with great exactness, that I was a carnivorous animal;  yet most quadrupeds being an over-match for me;  and field-mice, with some others, too nimble, they could not imagine how I should be able to support myself, unless I fed upon snails and other insects; which they offered by many learned arguments to evince, that I could not possibly do.

Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels  Part Two:  A Voyage to Brobdingnag 1726

The enhanced survival and reproductive fitness of those that are best adapted to their environment, is a very mundane explanation for the complexity and wonder of life.  It is no wonder that Spencer’s phrase is frequently misunderstood, even by those who should know better, as meaning survival of the powerful.   Evolutionary success to those who defeat their rivals.

The philosophy of might is right, and to the victor belongs the spoils was re-imagined as scientifically endorsed truth, and science rather than religion became the endorser of the righteousness of power.

Richard Dawkins is very much a child of empire, born in the British Colony of Kenya, as the Empire was nearing its death throes.  His religious views can be understood as a rant against the faithless god of empire. The god who gives power only to those who can take it.

The theory of natural selection itself seems calculated to foster selfishness at the expense of public good, violence, callous indifference to suffering, short term greed at the expense of long term foresight. If scientific theories could vote, evolution would surely vote Republican.

Richard Dawkins Atheists for Jesus 2006

As you can see he doesn’t speak highly of evolution either.  This despite the fact that one of the brute facts that the theory has to explain is the existence of altruistic behaviour in the natural world.

The Religion of Empire

Karl Marx had this in common with many of the British ruling class, he regarded religion as the opium of the people.  The difference being that he didn’t think this was a good thing. Richard Dawkins still thinks opiating the people is a good idea.  To the extent that in this 2006 article he contemplates, for the post – religious world he envisions as the ideal, the origination of non-religious memes that would encourage people to act against their own Darwinian interests.

Let’s put it even more bluntly. From a rational choice point of view, or from a Darwinian point of view, human super niceness is just plain dumb. And yes, it is the kind of dumb that should be encouraged – which is the purpose of my article. How can we do it? How shall we take the minority of super nice humans that we all know, and increase their number, perhaps until they even become a majority in the population? Could super niceness be induced to spread like an epidemic? Could super niceness be packaged in such a form that it passes down the generations in swelling traditions of longitudinal propagation?

Richard Dawkins Atheists for Jesus 2006

The Right Honourable The Earl Russell, otherwise known as Bertrand Russell was so taken up with the notion that the purpose of religion  is the control of the masses, in the name of a God of Power, that he was unable to understand the argument in favour of belief, made by the American philosopher and psychologist William James.

There is a moralistic argument for belief in God, which was popularized by William James. According to this argument, we ought to believe in God because, if we do not, we shall not behave well. The first and greatest objection to this argument is that, at its best, it cannot prove that there is a God but only that politicians and educators ought to try to make people think there is one. Whether this ought to be done or not is not a theological question but a political one.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

What William James Really Said

For William James the God that really existed, was not the god of power, but the God of Love.  His belief that behind all that is lay the Power of Love, freed him to act as though it was true.  Belief in this God freed him to be the man he wanted to be.

William James was a psychologist as well as a philosopher, and he understood the power of nudge.  We conform to social expectations.  It was shown, for instance, that Asian women, reminded just before a maths test that they were women did worse than in the control situation, while if they are reminded that they were Asian they did better.

To see why this might be so consider the following quote.

 We all know people (is it significant that the ones I can think of are mostly women?) to whom we can sincerely say: “If only everybody were like you, the world’s troubles would melt away.” The milk of human kindness is only a metaphor but, naïve as it sounds, I contemplate some of my friends and I feel like trying to bottle whatever it is that makes them so kind, so selfless, so apparently un-Darwinian.

Richard Dawkins Atheists for Jesus 2006

This sounds very female friendly, but it is in fact setting a norm for female behaviour – nicer than men.

When people do not act according to the expected norm, they can be subjected to hostility. This attitude that women should be nicer than men, may explain Richard Dawkins  Dear Muslima letter; an attack on atheist blogger Rebecca Watson, whom he clearly felt had somehow transgressed expected standards of behaviour, by suggesting that male atheists should refrain from harassing women in lifts.

Conforming to stereotype is instinctive. The fact that people may feel threatened when human elements within their world do not act as expected, and respond with hostility, may explain why this is so.

The good news here is that we can get to pick our own stereotype, the Being in whose Image we wish to be moulded. The bad news is that others may fail to recognize our right to do so and react with hostility

William James chose the God of Love, over the god of power.

Richard Dawkins talks a good game, but the fact that he sees standards as something to be imposed on other people, rather than lived by himself, does suggest that he is still the servant of the god of power.

These standards can be understood, in the way William James did as personal, or they can be understood in the abstract. We pick them up from the society around us as implicit guides to behaviour.

It is only when we become explicitly aware of them, that we can reject or embrace their claim upon us.

And yes dear scientific rationalist, in this sense you too have a god.

Science herself consults her heart when she lays it down that the infinite ascertainment of fact and correction of false belief are the supreme goods for man. Challenge the statement, and science can only repeat it oracularly, or else prove it by showing that such ascertainment and correction bring man all sorts of other goods which man’s heart in turn declares.

William James The Will to Believe : and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy 1897

The Will to Power

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) regarded the Will to Power as a standard that the superior human, the Übermensch  would embrace.

It was the open embrace of power by the fascists  of mid – twentieth century Europe that perhaps convinced George Orwell that the empires that replaced the British would be worse.

I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East. I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it. All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible.

George Orwell Shooting an Elephant  1936

The following passage  from Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift’s mock sincere eulogy about the wondrous labour of disinterested virtue that was the first British Empire  roused George Orwell’s ire against him, and at least in part inspired his piece of vitriolic confirmation bias: Politics vs. Literature — An examination of Gulliver’s travels 1946

But this description, I confess, doth by no means affect the British nation, who may be an example to the whole world for their wisdom, care, and justice in planting colonies; the liberal endowments for the advancement of religion and learning;  their choice of devout and able pastors to propagate Christianity: their caution in stocking their provinces with people of sober lives and conversation from this the mother kingdom; their strict regard to the distribution of justice, in supplying the civil administration through all their colonies with officers of the greatest abilities, utter strangers to corruption: and to crown all, by sending the most vigilant and virtuous governors who have no other views than the happiness of the people over whom they preside , and the honour of the king their master.

Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels  Part Four:  A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms  1726

George Orwell both knew the evils of the power of empire and was in denial about it.  The empire was for him what theologian Peter Rollins identifies as the sacred object.  Both knowing that it has failed and being in denial, he projects the blame unto the ungrateful subjects, firstly the Burmese and then Jonathan Swift, a man who like Richard Dawkins was born of English parents in a British colony, although in his case the colony was Ireland. (Ireland didn’t become part of the United Kingdom until the Act of Union of 1800.)

Evidently Swift’s animus is, in the first place, against England. It is ‘your Natives’ (i.e. Gulliver’s fellow-countrymen) whom the King of Brob-dingnag considers to be ‘the most pernicious Race of little odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the Earth’, and the long passage at the end, denouncing colonization and foreign conquest, is plainly aimed at England, although the contrary is elaborately stated. The Dutch, England’s allies and target of one of Swift’s most famous pamphlets, are also more or less wantonly attacked in Part III. There is even what sounds like a personal note in the passage in which Gulliver records his satisfaction that the various countries he has discovered cannot be made colonies of the British Crown:

George Orwell  Politics vs. Literature — An examination of Gulliver’s travels 1946

Swift, as he was entitled to, identified as both English and Irish, and if he had been able to get a post within the Church of England, would have remained there.  There is not the least reason to think that he hated England.

Paranoia and finding scapegoats, is as Peter Rollins points out in, “You’d better give me what I’ve never had. Some thoughts on nostalgia paranoia and ontic shock.” is a lot nastier than nostalgia for the sacred object, that was never what you thought it was.  However if you must do it picking on someone who has been dead over 200 years is at least not likely to cause much distress of your target.

The doctrine of the Übermensch, where the over-man is understood as the stereotype that superior people are aiming to conform to, is not conducive to forming empires.  As Swift pointed out the successful running of empires requires men willing to subvert their best interests to the interests of the ultimate power, that that was in Swift’s day represented by the king .  To regard the power of the empire rather than their personal power  as paramount, is inconsistent with the idea of the Übermensch.  Realizing this I suddenly think a lot more highly of  Nietzsche than I had previously.

The Real Fundamentalist

Peter Rollins in The Divine Magician tells the story of the Englishman, the Scotsman and the Irishman auditioning to join the Special Forces.

They are interviewed separately and each given a gun and told to go into the next room and kill whoever is there.

The Englishman walks in and finds his best friend in the room and refuses to shoot.  The Scotsman  finds the same, but reasons that the bullets in his gun must be blanks and shoots anyway. (He is fortunately right.)

The Irishman when he realizes that the gun is shooting blanks, is forced to beat his friend to death with a chair.

The story is better told in The Divine Magician.

Peter Rollins identifies the Scotsman as the real fundamentalist, one who at least at a certain level is aware that a deception is being practiced. I would however argue that all three were fundamentalists, valuing the voice of power, and its value system  above the human.  Even the Englishman behaved as  a fundamentalist;  one who had a crises of faith, yet still accepted the values of the system he was operating in.

I think that Richard Dawkins in “Atheists for Jesus,” misrepresented the teachings of Judaism. References to both the God of Love and the God of Power can be found in the Old Testament.  But one of the things that he has got right is that the original Christian message was a revolt against fundamentalism and the valuing of religious and political systems more highly than the people they are there to serve. (Niceness had nothing to do with it.  It may get you walked on, it doesn’t get you crucified.)

To those steeped in the Sharia-like cruelties of Leviticus and Deuteronomy; to those brought up to fear the vindictive, Ayatollah-like God of Abraham and Isaac, a charismatic young preacher who advocated generous forgiveness must have seemed radical to the point of subversion. No wonder they nailed him.

Richard Dawkins Atheists for Jesus 2006

The Flesh and Daniel Dennett

 Dancing cow

A cow’s reaction to being released unto grass in spring.

The Ancient Greeks believed that it was his rationality which made man, that is – the male of the species, man in the image of God.  They understood man to have two souls, the rational immortal soul which was encased in the head, and a lower mortal soul which was encased in the body.  This mortal soul, incorporated the pleasures, emotions and senses, all of which led to destruction unless ruled by the rational soul.  This belief is given mythic form in Plato’s dialogue Timaeus.

Now of the divine, he himself was the creator, but the creation of the mortal he committed to his offspring. And they, imitating him, received from him the immortal principle of the soul ; and around this they proceeded to fashion a mortal body, and. made it to be the vehicle of the soul, and constructed within the body a soul of another nature which was mortal, subject to terrible and irresistible affections: first of all pleasure, the greatest incitement to evil ; then, pain, which deters from good ; also rashness and fear, two foolish counsellors, anger hard to be appeased, and hope easily led astray. These they mingled with irrational sense and with all-daring love according to necessary laws, and so framed man. Wherefore, fearing to pollute the divine any more than was absolutely unavoidable, they gave to the mortal nature a separate habitation in another part of the body, placing the neck between them to be the isthmus and boundary, which they constructed between the head and breast, to keep them apart.

Plato  Timaeus 360 B.C.Translated by Benjamin Jowett

The negative attitude to the flesh, i.e. the pleasures, emotions and senses, that became incorporated into some versions of Christianity, came from interpreting  the  New Testament in the light of Greek philosophy, rather than directly from the Scripture . A point referenced by Jonathan Swift in the following paragraph of  his satirical argument against abolishing nominal Christianity.

Does the Gospel anywhere prescribe a starched, squeezed countenance, a stiff formal gait, a singularity of manners and habit, or any affected forms and modes of speech different from the reasonable part of mankind? Yet, if Christianity did not lend its name to stand in the gap, and to employ or divert these humours, they must of necessity be spent in contraventions to the laws of the land, and disturbance of the public peace.

 Jonathan Swift  An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity  1708

Jonathan Swift didn’t just object to the Ancient Greek view of the flesh being treated as a Christian truth, he also regarded the notion that man was a rational animal as a fiction, and wrote to his friend Alexander Pope, that he had written Gulliver’s Travels, to illustrate this point.

I have got materials toward a treatise, proving the falsity of , that definition animal rationale, and to show it would be only rationis capax.

Jonathan Swift  Letter to Alexander Pope  September 29th 1725

The Scottish Philosopher, David Hume 1711-1776 agreed, arguing that the sole function of human rationality was the service of the passions.

The American philosopher Daniel Dennett takes a different tack. He argued in, “Consciousness Explained” 1991, that pleasures, emotions and perceptions,  i.e. those parts of human experience which Ancient Greek philosophy identified as the flesh, should be regarded as brain generated fiction.

Daniel Dennett contrasts his position with that  of the philosophical dualist René Descartes.(1596 -1650)  Descartes’ vision  was for the most part of a mechanical world of simple matter interacting according to universal laws, something that Dennett has no problem with, but for Descartes the natural world also included an immaterial mind, that in human beings was directly related to the brain through the pineal gland. And this does provide Daniel Dennett with a problem.  For the materialist Dennett, to say that something is immaterial is to say that it is non-existent, yet we do indeed seem to have experiences consistent with that which Descartes identified as the existence of an immaterial mind or soul.  Dennett solves this dilemma by basically accepting that Descartes was right, in regarding  mind experiences as immaterial; and arguing that therefore they have no reality, i.e. they are illusions, tricks of the brain, that are best regarded as fictions.

People do sometimes use words in unusual ways, which can be misleading to those who do not understand that this is what they are doing.  Identifying the word fictional as a synonym for immaterial is one of those  misleading uses.  Time, direction, and process, while they are undoubtedly related to the material, are themselves immaterial.  Yet I think it unlikely that Daniel Dennett regards these as fictional.  I suspect he would take it as proof of their contemptible irrationality, if Creationists used this definition, as evidence that the process of evolution was the brain-generated fiction of godless scientists.

It is possible, as Dennett alleges, that some people’s ideas of consciousness are so tied up with the dualist notion,  that mind substance is an independently acting substance, that their minds are closed to the possibility of there being a materialistic explanation for our awareness of sensation. I think this is unlikely to be the case for very many.  I would for instance be surprised to find even one person, whose immediate reaction, on hitting their thumb with a hammer, was to blame their immaterial soul for the sensation of pain. If however the word consciousness does mislead people into thinking that they understand more about its causes  than the data allows, then it would be a good idea to use a word other than consciousness to name our awareness of sensation.

What Dennett argues isn’t that consciousness needs a rename but that it is fictional; so that for example,  all oaths, expletives, and other reports of pain issuing from the mouth of the thumb hitter, are to be regarded as brain induced fiction, not evidence of awareness of pain. Even if you are the thumb hitter, you are not in pain, you just think/feel you are.

This strikes me as the equivalent of arguing that the term horsepower implies that engines contain immaterial horses, and that as there is no reason to believe that this is true, we must regard those effects that are normally associated with the idea of horsepower, as engine induced fictions.

In neither of the above cases is the argument about reality.  In the horsepower example the vehicle will still move, and in Dennett’s argument the pain will still hurt. All that is different is that the word fiction is being used in a bizarre way.  A bizarre way that  almost makes it appear rational to claim that as the effects of consciousness or the internal combustion engine are fictional, that neither require an explanation.

The Problem of Pain

Daniel Dennett claimed in “Consciousness Explained” that the problem of pain was, “why does it hurt so much?” And I have to say that I really liked his answer.  He suggested that pain was selected for because it discouraged our distant ancestors from eating themselves.

For simpler organisms, it is true, there is really nothing much to self-knowledge beyond the rudimentary biological wisdom enshrined in such maxims as When Hungry, Don’t Eat Yourself! and When There’s a Pain, It’s Yours! In every organism, including human beings, acknowledgment of these basic biological design principles is simply “wired in” — part of the underlying design of the nervous system, like blinking when something approaches the eye or shivering when cold.

Dennett, Daniel C.  Consciousness Explained  1991

Notice that he is assuming,  that simpler organisms are the experiencing subjects of pain and hunger. When you hit your thumb,  stub your toe etc., the affected part of your body moves, before the information reaches the brain; a blink works on the same principle. They are reflex actions.  What reason does he have to believe that simple organisms have any more awareness of pain than is contained in a big toe, or the reflex system that causes the movement?  Or more awareness of hunger than the salivary glands?

Dennett’s argument that pain was selected for  in simpler organisms because it discouraged self-cannibalism, is an interesting idea, but as the pain response is slower than simple reflex, it is reasonable to assume that very simple organisms would be better served by reflex than pain, and that is what would be selected for.  Pain and hunger, a form of desire, are not simple reflexes, and the problem of pain is not, why does it hurt? but  how do you get something that is basically a machine, a biological machine, to be the experiencing subject of pain?

It is bizarre enough to require explanation, that a materialist should equate pain and hunger with reflex actions seeing they involve such very different structures in the nervous system.  It is likewise bizarre that a philosopher should treat the philosophical notion of a zombie, as identical with that of automaton.

The Myth of the Zombie Cow

Whirligig paper cow automatonPhilosophers use the term zombie to mean beings that are indistinguishable from us in every way except that they are without consciousness.  This means that their behaviour is identical to ours and so is their neurological wiring.  Like Bertrand Russell’s tiny orbiting teapot, no-one  actually believes they exist.  The point seems to be that, while there is no reason to believe they exist, and good reason to believe they don’t, there is no way to prove their non-existence.

An automaton is an entirely different concept.  There is good reason to believe that non-conscious mechanical systems exist, and no reason to believe that they don’t.  The only reason, we have to believe that it is possible for some machines to experience conscious awareness, is that we ourselves have the experience of being such a machine.

For most of us the so-called theory of other minds, the idea that other people are experiencing subjects of conscious awareness, isn’t a theory at all, but an instinct. It is something that makes social engagement  easier to manage, than it would be otherwise. This belief isn’t rationally caused, but it is rational to believe that people whose behaviour is similar to our own, and whose neurological wiring we have no reason to believe is different from ours, are experiencing life in a similar way to us.

We apply this theory of other minds instinctively not only to our own species, but to others as well. In Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett makes the  following comment:

 Horses, at least when they are colts, seem to get a kick out of being alive, but cows and sheep usually seem either bored or indifferent.

Dennett, Daniel C.  Consciousness Explained 1991

This suggests to me that he has never seen the way cows behave when they are released unto grass in spring after being cooped up all winter. They enter the field like a high kicking explosion of happiness.  I have seen this a few times and just watching filled me with empathetic joy.

Dancing cowsRationally my pleasure cannot prove that cows are the experiencing subjects of joy.  I cannot prove that cows are not automatons. Even proof that their brains were behaving like human brains experiencing joy, would not prove that they were experiencing similar sensations. Rationally  I am agnostic, but I have faith in the joy of cows.

The Conscious Machine

Number 5 – the robot hero of 1986 film Short Circuit.

It is conceivable that the robot Johnny Five, portrayed in the 1986 film Short Circuit could have failed the Turing test for intelligence in a machine, either by being too honest, or by displaying  too much knowledge to pass as human.

His ability to acquire knowledge, interact with humans, moral nature, and innovative problem solving, demonstrated more than adequately within the fictional world of the film, that Number 5 was intelligent.

He is not however one of the fictional robots that Daniel Dennet mentioned in Consciousness Explained as evidence that we are capable of conceiving  machines as  being conscious .  This may be because Number Five, is a dualistic,not a materialistic conception. He acquired his consciousness not from the running of a computer program, but as a miraculous consequence of being struck by lightning.

It is possible to conceive of ways in which an intelligent computer system could fail the Turing test.  It is also possible to conceive of  the existence of systems which could pass the Turing Test for successful communication as a human, without being themselves intelligent..The philosopher John Searle’s Chinese Room is such a scenario.

Searle asks you to imagine the situation of a person in a room who has no knowledge of Chinese. He  receives Chinese symbols as input, interprets them according to a rule book, and posts them as output.  This output is sufficiently good to convince Chinese people that he understands Chinese, therefore this system passes the Turing Test. He argues that this is the equivalent of what a computer is doing.

Clearly following the rules indicates a degree of intelligence so he has failed in his task, of proving that computers are unintelligent.  However regardless of how intelligent the man in the room is he will not understand Chinese.

Daniel Dennett argues that while the man does not understand Chinese the system does. Searle doesn’t disagree with this, providing you include the programmer or programmers as part of the system.  This is not what Dennett had in mind.  He thinks the room has the understanding.

In a situation like Johnny Five, where the computer is part of a robot, receiving sensory data, the situation is less clear cut.  This is a situation in which the man in the room, could  learn to understand Chinese.  With the right programming a computer could conceivably also learn to understand Chinese.

This in my view would make the computer intelligent, but it is not enough for Searle. For him intelligence also requires consciousness. Without consciousness the robot is an automaton, lacking drive and intentionality.  Or in other words he agrees with David Hume, that rationality is the servant of the passions, and he is arguing that, that which has long been metaphorically referred to as the flesh, is literally dependent on the actual flesh; it is not a digital program. And that it is the flesh that gives us the gift that separates the us from the automatons – consciousness.

Johnny Five acquired the drive to be truly alive by a miraculous strike of lightning.  John Searle is not claiming that we have our consciousness as a consequence of a miracle, but as a consequence of the behaviour of the stuff of which we are made.  He is not claiming that it is impossible for us to build conscious machines, just arguing that their consciousness will not be the result of running a computer program. That is as a good materialist he is arguing that the stuff matters.

An Unjust Accusation

Daniel Dennett, regards John Searle as a dualist in denial of his own beliefs.  And in the academic world where these men dwell, dualism is, according to Dennett, socially unacceptable, the sign of lack of intellectual rigour.

Given that Searle is claiming that the material is essential to consciousness, it was not immediately obvious to me anyway why Dennett was identifying him as a dualist. That is until I realized that Searle is claiming that feelings change things.  That an emotion, in this case drive, has an effect on the material. This is for Dennett just a re-imagining of that dualistic heresy – the Cartesian Theater- with materialistic camouflage.

Before reading Dennett I would have thought there were only two ways of imagining the relationship between thoughts including feelings, and actions. Either our thoughts and feelings, things like I want to finish this post, I’ll type this word rather than that one etc, have an effect on what happens, or they are epiphenomenon, that exist alongside and are caused by the physical, but have no effect on the physical. And as an evolutionist I would have regarded the last one as ridiculous.  Something as complex as emotion and thought is an adaptation, not just a happenstance, and as nature can only select between things that make a difference, then feelings and thoughts are not epiphenomenon.  They make a difference to the average reproductive fitness of the organism experiencing them.

Dennett argues that his is a different imagining of the relationship That thoughts and feelings are just what it feels like to be a brain, running a program. That there is no  difference between conscious and unconscious thought . That beings without the ability to communicate, because they are not running a sophisticated enough information processing program, also lack the ability to suffer.

It follows — and this does strike an intuitive chord — that the capacity to suffer is a function of the capacity to have articulated, wide-ranging, highly discriminative desires, expectations, and other sophisticated mental states.

Dennett, Daniel C. . Consciousness Explained 1991

If desire is not an internal experience or drive, which in Dennett world would be an impossibility, but merely the illusion of reality created by the running of a complex computer program, then there is in Dennett’s fictional world every reason to believe that computers have the ability to suffer, that the person making the most noise at the scene of an accident is hurting the most, unless there is other readily available evidence that this is not true, that babies suffer less than, slightly older children, who have the ability to articulate their desires, and the sufferings of a highly sophisticated man such as Daniel Dennett are immensely greater than those of others with less wide-ranging and highly discriminative desires.  So that it would be reasonable to conclude that Daniel Dennett’s man flu  must involve more suffering for him, than a similar affliction would cause in any less articulate human being.

This certainly strikes an intuitive chord with me, but not I think the one that Dennett is aiming for.

Suffering is not a matter of being visited by some ineffable but intrinsically awful state, but of having one’s life hopes, life plans, life projects blighted by circumstances imposed on one’s desires, thwarting one’s intentions — whatever they are.

Dennett, Daniel C.. Consciousness Explained 1991

Part of the case that Daniel Dennett is attempting to make in Consciousness Explained is that there are no private feelings whose reality can be known only by the being experiencing them. The above comment was made in a section related to animal suffering.  Note that he has defined suffering in a way that does not include physical pain, that ineffable,(for animals any way) intrinsically awful state, which is extremely hard to explain as the running of a computer program, but rather forms of suffering more amenable to his theory.

By this definition a person driving on a  journey, who stops the car because she feels a migraine coming on, and waits the attack out at the side of the road, has suffered not because of the headache, but by having her intention to complete her journey thwarted.

The  factors that caused the migraine suffering driver to stop as she became aware of a headache coming on are open to different philosophical interpretations.  If feelings are epiphenomenon  then the feeling did not have any causal effect, the stopping of the car was a consequence of entirely physical processes and although correlated with, independent of the drivers feeling of pain.  For a Dennettian  the feeling of pain did not have any causal effect on the stopping of the car, it was the fiction arrived at by brain narrative to explain why the car stopped. Only someone holding a view similar to Searle, would believe that the feeling of pain was a causal factor in stopping the car, and if they were a materialist think that this was something that science needed to come up with an explanation for.

I am an intuitive materialist at least on the subject of pain , and have confidence that such an explanation must exist.  .  I also  have confidence that there must be a material cause for the bizarre nature of the argument that Daniel Dennett is making about consciousness.

His description of the Cartesian Theater, and his assumption that this is the natural way that most of us view the world, until we receive enlightenment I think gives a clue.  He for instance argues that the instinctive interpretation of stubbing your toe, is to think that once the signal is sent to the brain another signal must be sent back to the toe.  I would argue that the instinctive reaction is to believe that the pain is in the toe.  The same with the visual images of the world around us.  He argues that we instinctively imagine these as being projected inside our heads in a Cartesian theater.

I would argue that our instincts lead us to believe that what we our seeing is in fact out there, and that this idea of an internal Cartesian Theater is secondary. It is the narrative fiction of someone who instead of just accepting the gift, tries to figure out how consciousness works, while having insufficient information to do so.  My suspicion is that these secondary intuitions are fixed deeply in Daniel Dennet’s thought processes, and that he has found himself in a social milieu where dualist beliefs gain you pariah status.

Now pariah status is something that I would expect to make a difference to the average reproductive fitness of the people experiencing its consequences. Intuitive beliefs arise from the unconscious not the conscious.  An intuitive belief that is contrary to the beliefs of your community could make forming relationships or acquiring positions of dominance within that community difficult.

Just pretending to hold the views required is likely to be recognized by others. Any mechanism that operated to suppress from the holder of the intuitive belief, the true nature of his thought would be selected for.  A great big, socially induced “here be dragons,” would work in conjunction with a submissive nature, and could prevent some from accepting the validity of their intuition.  This won’t  work for more dominant personalities. They would either find themselves expelled from communion, regarded as the community eccentric, or they could engage in a process of rationalisation that manages to successfully disguise from them and those around them the reality of their intuition. It is the last of these activities that is likely to be selected for by natural selection.   An adaptation that gains selective advantage by ensuring that we are not animal rationale but only rationis capax; rationalizers  rather than rational.

Rationalisation processes can be observed in operation in scientific creationist communities, where intelligent people, maybe not as intelligent as Daniel Dennett,  who is as the quality of his rationalizing  shows a very intelligent man,  make very complex arguments against evolution. Arguments that serve to disguise from themselves, and their followers, that they are not capable of for instance, holding a straight forward belief that the kangaroos hopped off the ark and bounced all the way back to Australia.

Bobby Henderson’s imagining, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, is I think a brilliant metaphor, for the sheer twisty noodliness, of human rationalisation.

The same noodliness that has resulted in Genesis Park, can also be seen in “Consciousness Explained”  My intuition is that Dennett’s theory of consciousness is the result of his refusal to recognize the dualism of his own intuitions, and his instinct to protect his own social standing by projecting  this socially unacceptable belief unto others, perhaps most notably John Searle.

The Selfish Gene Illusion

Richard Dawkins with a 3D model of a Necker Cube.

Richard Dawkins with a 3D model of a Necker Cube. Royal Institute Christmas Lectures 1991

Richard Dawkins regards evolution as a process which is driven by and operates for the benefit of  genes. He expressed this fairly clearly in The Extended Phenotype.

The thesis that I shall support is this. It is legitimate to speak of adaptation as being ‘for the benefit of’ something, but that something is best not seen as the individual organism.  It is the smaller unit which I call the active germ-line replicator.  The most important kind of replicator is the ‘gene’ or small genetic fragment.  

Richard Dawkins The Extended Phenotype Chapter 1 1982

Evolution is like the water cycle,  a natural process, and it is no more rational to speak of its effects being for the benefit of genes, than it is to speak of the effects of the water cycle as being for the benefit of raindrops. This is true even if you put the claim in speech marks. Both processes operate in a way that causes reproduction, in one case of  genes in the other raindrops. But to describe either raindrops or genes as the beneficiaries of the processes which produce them is to take quite a lot of poetic license, the kind of license which is more appropriate for an Enid Blyton tale than a work of science.

Richard Dawkins has illustrated his argument by referencing the Necker Cube.Necker_cube.svg

There is a well -known visual illusion called the Necker Cube. It consists of a line drawing which the brain interprets as a three-dimensional cube. But there are two possible orientations of the perceived cube, and both are equally compatible with the two-dimensional image on the paper. We usually begin by seeing one of the two orientations, but if we look for several seconds the cube “flips over” in the mind, and we see the other apparent orientation. After a few more seconds the mental image flips back and it continues to alternate as long as we look at the picture. The point is that neither of the two perceptions of the cube is the correct or “true” one. They are equally correct. 

Richard Dawkins The Extended Phenotype Chapter 1 1982

What I find interesting here is that neither of the two perceptions is correct.They are both illusions, as is the notion that adaptations are “for the benefit” of either the individual organism or the gene.

A successful adaptation increases the probability that the organism which bares it will reproduce, and therefore propagate the genes which are part of the cycle necessary for this adaptation to exist. If you consider reproduction as a benefit, a successful  adaptation works for the benefit of both the genes that are part of its chain of generation, and the individual organism that carries it.  And it similarly works for the benefit of the species; successful adaptations within a species work to decrease the probability of a species becoming extinct. There is however nothing operating within the system that makes it rational to claim that adaptations exist “for the benefit” of  any of those things: they are a part of the cycle of life, which like the rain cycle is a consequence of the blindly operating forces of nature.

 What Richard Dawkins should be saying, is that it is genes rather than organisms which have a chance of surviving through time, and they are therefore the units on which natural selection works. If they code for successful adaptations they remain constant or increase proportionally within the species gene pool. If they are less successful they decrease or even get wiped from the gene pool. Their roll is passive.  Rather than selfish manipulators, they are the poor bloody infantry.  They are only selected for if they are part of the cycle that results in the production of successful adaptations, for example, legs, kidneys, or the fight or flight instinct.

And  this is  in fact what he is saying, except when it comes to setting out the position he is advocating or drawing conclusions, when suddenly the gene becomes, instead of the passive victim of natural selection, a selfish manipulator working to ensure its own survival.

The following passage is the conclusion to the final chapter of The Extended Phenotype – Rediscovering the Organism.  Note how the gene (replicator) changes from the passive object of natural selection, to an active agent acting to ensure its own survival by selfishly behaving cooperatively.

The integrated multicellular organism is a phenomenon which has emerged as a result of natural selection on primitively independent selfish replicators.  It has paid replicators to behave gregariously.  The phenotypic power by which they ensure their survival is in principle extended and unbounded. In practice the organism has arisen as a partially bounded local concentration, a shared knot of replicator power.  

Richard Dawkins The Extended Phenotype Chapter 14 Rediscovering the Organism 1982

In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins links misapplied intentional stance with religious belief.

The design stance and the intentional stance are useful brain mechanisms, important for speeding up the second-guessing of entities that really matter for survival, such as predators or potential mates.  But, like other brain mechanisms, these stances can misfire. Children and primitive peoples, impute intentions to the weather, to waves and currents, to falling rocks.  

Richard Dawkins The God Delusion 2006

He in his own writing imputes intentions to Selfish DNA.

The story that he is telling of how selfish replicators working for their own ends overcame the forces of ancient chaos, has parallels in ancient mythologies, notably the Enuma  Elish, the scripture of ancient Babylon.

In this scripture Marduk, the god of ancient Babylon, achieved chief place in the pantheon of the gods, by right of conquest.  He slew the mother of all gods, Tiamat, ancient chaos.

Richard Dawkins Selfish Gene is a reworking of the tale that theologian Walter Wink has described as the myth of redemptive violence.

This Selfish Gene Myth has a characteristic that Richard Dawkins associates with the early stages of a religion’s evolution.

In the early stages of a religion’s evolution, before it becomes organized simple memes survive by virtue of their universal appeal to human psychology.

Richard Dawkins The God Delusion 2006

At the top of this post there is a picture of Richard Dawkins with a wire framed cube.  Despite the labelling this is not a Necker cube.  If you look at the cube the flip will occur, but only one of the shapes seen looks like a cube.  The other does not.

The point I want to make here is that only one of these perceptions is correct, and so it is with the Selfish Gene. It appears to be a scientific theory, but the reality is otherwise.

Richard Dawkins by his own account lost his belief in the existence of God at the age of 15, because of his exposure to the theory of evolution. While I would very much like to say, “See irrational beliefs aren’t just a religious phenomenon,” I don’t think Richard Dawkins’ case can be used to argue that.  He has replaced belief in a single creator acting intentionally and intelligently, with belief in lots of selfish little creators acting intentionally but without foresight.  For him evolution has completely filled the role of religion,  including  giving purpose, and rather than being an atheist, he is a polytheist, admittedly one who  is arguing for revolt against the selfish but stupid little creators, who have made us to serve their interests, but a polytheist nonetheless.

The term, survival of the fittest, was coined by Herbert Spencer, not Darwin, and is misleading.  It allowed evolutionary success to be understood as survival of the powerful, with victory going to the alpha male, the Übermensch.  It allowed people to interpret the theory of evolution as scientific vindication for the myth of redemptive violence. (The more accurate description, survival of those best fitted to their environment, just doesn’t have the same myth building appeal.)

It is this idea of successfully  competing individuals that Richard Dawkins incorporated into new synthesis biology, as  Selfish Genes; the little Übergensch that overcame the primal chaos, and brought organisms into being, to serve their lust for survival, their will to power.

Within his belief system, our role as humans, is to use the gift of clear thinking and intelligence which the Übergenes have made the mistake of gifting us with, to overcome the selfish goal-seeking mechanisms, which they have put in place to further their own interests.  See Richard Dawkins Atheists for Jesus 2006 That is we, some of us anyway, have the intellectual power to defeat our genes and become  Übermensch and Überwensch.

The Real Replicator

 eye balls in hands  animation

I hope I have managed to convince you that Richard Dawkins is not quite as clear-sighted as he thinks he is.  Up until very recently I would have argued that Richard Dawkins was the victim of  a, metaphorically speaking, prank  performed by a deceptor gene. A gene operating to deceive us, in  a way that has worked to increase the average reproductive fitness of those carrying it in times past.

I had accepted that genes were what survived the natural selection process, and that therefore genes were the unit of selection, the individuals that appeared time after time. It is the  information in the following passage that over the course of producing this post  has caused me to change my mind.

 The thesis that I shall support is this. It is legitimate to speak of adaptation as being ‘for the benefit of’ something, but that something is best not seen as the individual organism.  It is the smaller unit which I call the active germ-line replicator.  The most important kind of replicator is the ‘gene’ or small genetic fragment.  

Richard Dawkins The Extended Phenotype Chapter 1 1982

It occurred to me that it isn’t just the genes that live across many generations of lots of different organisms, the adaptations do as well.  Adaptations like eyes, kidneys and hind legs are reproduced time after time.  The unit of selection isn’t the gene, but the whole cycle of interconnections that lead from fertilized egg to successful adaptation and back again. It is this unit that is the replicator, and it is this unit that Dr Dawkins’ use of the Necker Cube illustration managed to hide from him.  The story of how eyeballs and hind legs have manipulated us in their selfish pursuit of survival, just doesn’t have the same mythic resonance as the Selfish gene.

It is ridiculous to imagine kidneys and hind legs manipulating us to further their own selfish ends, this  doesn’t mean that the same  is true of all adaptations. Instincts work by manipulating organisms in ways that have at least in times past increased the average reproductive fitnesses of the manipulated organisms.  Note the use of the word average here, it is entirely possible for an adaptation to lower the reproductive fitnesses of the majority of the organisms affected by it, and yet increase over time in the general population; so that an instinct for risk taking for instance could succeed if the reproductive payback for the successful organism was great enough to compensate for the failure of the unsuccessful. Even before taking into account the fact that the conditions under which the adaptation developed are likely to be significantly different from the conditions now in operation, it is dangerously naive to assume that instincts operate for the good of the person manipulated by them.

Richard Dawkins’  behaviour is consistent with what theologian Peter Rollins identifies as belief in the Big Other. This Big Other seems to be, at least in part, an anthropomorphic representation of the drive for social conformity.  We develop an image of what is socially expected of us and then act so as to conform ourselves to that image. So that if you are in a nightclub you are supposed to be enjoying yourself and that is the way you will act regardless of your feelings.  If you don’t conform to expectations then those around you are likely to remind you of your social responsibility, to behave appropriately, e.g. “Cheer up love.”

Richard Dawkins views himself as a scientist and has therefore worked to conform himself to his image of a scientist – a rational atheist.  The trouble with this view is that we humans are not that rational and as he acknowledges we have a strong and probably adaptive tendency to see purpose where there is none. The rational position would be to say yes, I do instinctively believe that events have purpose external to the human will, but I know that this instinct is not rationally based. It is this part of the real nature of being human and being an atheist, that  the  very intelligent, funny and irreverent Irish comedian Dave Allen sent up in his joke, “I’m an atheist, thank God,” and his discussion about why God prefers atheists.

But to acknowledge that one is from time to time irrational is to deviate from the self-image of a rational scientist.  Richard Dawkins has solved the problem a different way, he has placed purpose within the natural world – we exist to reproduce our genes.  Right at the heart of Richard Dawkins’  belief system there is this major irrationality, this stunning piece of unacknowledged magic thinking,  the attribution of intention, to little bits of DNA.

Similar self-image confirming mechanisms can be found in the more conventionally religious.

In a light-hearted but personal interview in front of hundreds of people in Bristol cathedral last weekend, Justin Welby said: “There are moments, sure, where you think ‘Is there a God? Where is God?'”Welby quickly added that, as the leader of the world’s 80 million-strong Anglican community, this was “probably not what the archbishop of Canterbury should say.”

Matthew Weaver  Archbishop of Canterbury admits doubts about existence of God 18th September 2014  

Within just three minutes in this interview  you can observe Justin Welby twice deny the reality of his doubt, in a way that makes  what he says a better fit with the social expectations that his audience, and the young woman, interviewing him would be expected to have of an evangelical archbishop.

As Peter Rollins has pointed out this could be interpreted as intellectual dishonesty, or a desire to fool some Big Other.  But it is also consistent with an empirically demonstrable human behaviour pattern, a drive to conform to social expectations or stereotype. An instinctive behaviour pattern that operates  largely at the level of the unconscious.

In response to the interviewers question about whether he ever had doubts, Justin Welby said  “There are moments, sure, where you think ‘Is there a God? Where is God?'”

When he made this statement Justin Welby was being given the my hero treatment by a gushing interviewer and speaking in a situation where it would be reasonable to expect the audience to be believers i.e. a situation that would have put him under social pressure to conform to stereotype. It is in that situation that he redefines the nature of his doubt to something  that it is not.  He relates his doubt to the feelings expressed  in Psalms 88, 44, and 22, and treats it as consistent with the feelings expressed there.  Only these Psalms are not about rational doubt of the existence of God, they are hymns expressing the feelings of abandonment or even persecution by God, of those whose lives have become hell on earth..  Rather than acknowledge the true nature of the doubt he has just expressed, he is identifying it not as rational doubt, about the existence of God, but as a feeling that is not inconsistent with certainty that God exists.

Please note that I am not saying that Justin Welby was being intentionally dishonest. Just that he was in the type of situation that is likely to kick off a social status preserving instinct, an instinct that has increased its own reproductive fitness in times past by ensuring that people don’t let their search for truth undermine their social status.

After that he went into a story about praying while going for a morning run with his dog. He related how he found himself saying to God, “Isn’t it time you did something, if your’e there?”  Straight after this he reminded himself of his social role,

 “probably not what the archbishop of Canterbury should say.”

 At this stage the interviewer, Lucy Tegg, broke in, with what appears to be an attempt, to  reassure him that he was still her hero and that his honesty was an inspiration  to other lesser Christians.

“But it’s  quite reassuring to people who think to themselves I don’t feel a presence, or at least I don’t feel it all the time.”

This is Justin Welby’s response..

“It’s not about feelings. Its about the fact that God is faithful, and the extraordinary thing about being a Christian is that God is faithful even when we are not.”

.Reminding himself that he is the Archbishop of Canterbury has had an extraordinary affect. Dog walker Justin Welby  had doubts about the existence of God, but  Archbishop Justin Welby has certainty about not only the existence of God but His Nature as well.

As the Archbishop he is able to ignore his rational doubts as mere feelings, and this would be funny if his own rational doubt was the only doubt that he was dismissing.  However as he linked his rational doubts with the real human suffering of people who because of the horrendous situations they are in have felt abandoned by God, he is also dismissing their doubts. And is like one of Job’s comforters encouraging the victims to feel guilt, for not being faithful to God.

I suspect that confronted with someone who was experiencing a horrendous life situation, Justin Welby would conform not to his image of archbishop, but of decent human being, and therefore  wouldn’t try to load them with guilt.  But in a situation where he is not being confronted by immediate human reality, he is happy to express the values of magic pixie land, those which he feels match the stereotype that is socially expected of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The very intelligent, very funny, and very irreverent  Dr Jonathan Swift recognized the dangers of conforming to stereotype, and he was especially incensed by the stereotype of man as a rational animal. The following satirical passage is taken from a letter he wrote to his friend Alexander Pope, in which he expresses his disgust with stereotypes.

  I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is toward individuals: for instance, I hate the tribe of lawyers, but I love Counsellor Such-a-one, and Judge Such-a-one: so with physicians—I will not speak of my own trade—soldiers, English, Scotch, French, and the rest. But principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. This is the system upon which I have governed myself many years, but do not tell, and so I shall go on till I have done with them. I have got materials toward a treatise, proving the falsity of that definition animal rationale, and to show it would be only rationis capax. Upon this great foundation of misanthropy, though not in Timon’s manner, the whole building of my Travels is erected; and I never will have peace of mind till all honest men are of my opinion.

Jonathan Swift  A Letter to Alexander Pope September 29th 1725

Swift died without achieving peace of mind, and nearly 300 years after this was written, honest men, and I have no doubt that both Richard Dawkins and Justin Welby are honest men, who thought they were telling the truth, can have their brains noodled with and be made fools of at the behest of an instinct for social conformity.

Cracking the Teapot

Yellow Dragon Teapot by ShyriaDracnoir The Celestial Teapot is frequently understood as an analogy for belief in a god or gods. This is to do Bertrand Russell an injustice.  His attack was much wider than that. Russell opposed all dogmatic beliefs, classifying any system of thought that used strongly held beliefs to justify the silencing of opposing voices as religion.

Cruel persecutions have been commoner in Christendom than anywhere else. What appears to justify persecution is dogmatic belief. Kindliness and tolerance only prevail in proportion as dogmatic belief decays. In our day, a new dogmatic religion, namely, communism, has arisen. To this, as to other systems of dogma, the agnostic is opposed.

Bertrand Russell What is an Agnostic 1953

If you accept Russell’s definition of religion then the Northern Ireland conflict is, as Richard Dawkins alleges, although not in the way he means; a religious conflict, with two similar but opposing dogmas.

There is the Unionist / Loyalist dogma – Northern Ireland is British;


The Nationalist / Republican dogma – Ireland is one nation.

These strongly held differences of opinion are heavily implicated in the recurring cycles of violence that afflict my native land.  They themselves do not provide a sufficient cause for the violence, in that they are also held in the periods of peace interspersing the violence.

I think Richard Dawkins, in the following passage, provides an insight into the driving force that ties difference of opinion to persecution and violence.

American polls suggest that atheists and agnostics far outnumber Jews, and even outnumber most other particular religious groups.  Unlike Jews, however, who are notoriously one of the most effective political lobbies in the United States, and unlike evangelical Christians, who wield even greater political power, atheists and agnostics are not organized and therefore exert almost zero influence.  Indeed organizing atheists has been compared to herding cats, because they tend to think independently and will not conform to authority.

Richard  Dawkins Preface to The God Delusion Black Swan Edition 2007 

Dogma acts as a human herding tool.  Those who direct the herd acquire a great deal of power. This they can maintain by direct persecution of opposing voices within the herd.  Or they can persuade the herd that they are under threat from malignant forces and the herd will do the work for them.

Herding People – A Fictional Example 

Our way of life is under attack by fundamentalist Teabaggians.  They have disrespected the Teapot of Rationality; revealed to us first through the wisdom of the Ancient Philosopher. They will smash our china teapots and force us to embrace their vile custom of  teabag dunking.

We must stand together, and support the chosen ones, in opposing this evil tyranny.

A real example of this kind of call can be found at the CAIN website, an  archive of materials related to conflict in Northern Ireland. dup and uup leaflet dup and uup leaflet This leaflet was distributed throughout loyalist (working class unionist)  areas of east Belfast, by the two main Unionist parties when, because they had lost their majority in Belfast City Council, they were unable to ensure that the symbolic representation of their dogma, the Union Flag  remained flying constantly above City Hall, by normal political methods.

Given the nature of this call, the distinct whiff of, “They’re coming to take us away!” and your culture is being disrespected; it should be no surprise  that the people who were targeted by the propaganda were enflamed. Nor that when the vote was taken and the Alliance Party, a  group not aligned to either of the main  political dogmas, and the holders of the balance of power, stuck to their party policy  that the union flag  should only fly on designated days, that riots ensued.

The police managed to contain the violence without any major casualties, and at present around 700 people, mainly young working class men, have been charged with  related offences. No action has been taken against those who put out the leaflet. Nor has there been any public acknowledgement by the the leaders of our main Unionist Parties, that they know that the claims made in this leaflet were untrue and that maybe there should have been a little more care taken in the exercise of free speech. (There is no reason to assume that either party leader knew about this leaflet before it was distributed.)

Bertrand Russell’s definition of  religion as any thought system that holds dogmatic opinions, and seeks to impose them, by force if necessary, means that the Northern Ireland conflict was and is  by definition a religious conflict. This definition is misleading.

Dogmatism is related to power politics, and it is therefore primarily, even if it is a traditionally religious dogma that is being enforced, a political position. And in my country in recent times it has been political dogmatists, with in many cases the full support  of religious dogmatists, that have undermined the peace. Encouraging members of our different political  and religious communities, to identify those with differing views as Those Evil Awful People Over There. T.E.A.P.O.T. 

It is this teapotting of the other that can turn ordinary decent individuals into angry and cohesive herds of people, ripe for milking by power seekers.

Belfast peace wall

Belfast’s Peace Walls – Protecting Those Evil Awful People Over There, from Ordinary Decent People since 1969.

Michael Ruse, professor of philosophy at Florida State University, in an article discussing how  Richard Dawkins’ Humanism is unlike his own humanism, in that it has ended up acting like a religion, made the following claim.

…..  rival religions tend to say awful things about each other, putting down the doctrines and the practitioners. Think of evangelicals on the subject of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, or of Northern Irish Protestants on the subject of the Pope.

Michael Ruse  Curb Your Enthusiasm  Aeon Magazine October 2012

In reality, what a Northern Ireland Protestant will tell you about the Pope, depends on which of us you ask. Some within our community for instance think that the present pope, Pope Francis, is a really decent bloke; and are therefore inclined to wonder how long before the Vatican gets round to assassinating him.

There is a tendency for people, including Northern Irish people, to regard  the Protestant paranoia over Catholic intentions, found within my community, as primal. This is not so.

In the United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798, Irish Catholics and Protestants united against English colonialism, and the Anglo-Irish ascendancy.  When this rising was quashed the victors adopted a policy of divide and rule in, the area that is now, Northern Ireland. Propaganda was used to whip up paranoia in the majority Protestant community, about the intentions of the Catholic Church

The teapotting behaviour of the authorities was deliberate and rational. They were ensuring that Ulster Protestants were too afraid to rise against them, and would support the authorities against their Catholic neighbours. That is the authorities were aware of what they were doing.

Not  all of those who use teapotting to label others, as those evil awful people over there, are this self- aware.

Michael Ruse is a case in point.  In his article, Curb Your Enthusiasm, he notes similarities in the behaviour of  Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists, with the “squabbles” of the Reformation.

In the caricaturing of ‘faith’ as murderous fundamentalism, one hears echoes of the bloody and interminable Reformation squabbles between Protestants and Catholics. One also sees contempt for fellow human beings, many of whom are educated, thinking members of society. 

Michael Ruse  Curb Your Enthusiasm  Aeon Magazine October 2012

It turns out however that Professor Ruse’s objection isn’t in the teapotting of other people as inherently contemptible.  It is that they have teapotted the wrong people, decent human beings like himself, “many of whom are educated, thinking members of society.”   The professor thinks that they should be showing contempt for a different group of people.

It is also, of course, to help the real enemy, those who turn their backs fully on science as they follow their religion. Instead of making allies of those believers who hate intolerance as much as do you, everyone is at war and no proper defence is mounted against the really dangerous, the genuinely fanatical and fundamentalist.

 Michael Ruse  Curb Your Enthusiasm  Aeon Magazine October 2012

Because of course, the fanaticism that Michael Ruse has noted in what he refers to as Humanists or New Atheists cannot be real fanaticism, because they are like him; non-religious, science- respecting, educated, thinking members of society.  And as everyone knows the evil lies only in the other.

“And  the more things change the more they are the same.”

The very prescient Jonathan Swift in a satirical essay arguing, at the time unnecessarily, against the abolition of Christianity; identified what I am calling teapotting, as factionalism, and argued that it was a consequence, not  of religious belief but of human nature, i.e. instinctive. And that therefore abolishing Christianity, would not be sufficient to rid the world of factions.

Are party and faction rooted in men’s hearts no deeper than phrases borrowed from religion, or founded upon no firmer principles? And is our language so poor that we cannot find other terms to express them? Are _envy, pride, avarice_ and_ambition_ such ill nomenclators, that they cannot furnish appellations for their owners? Will not_heydukes_ and _mamalukes, mandarins_ and patshaws_, or any other words formed at pleasure, serve to distinguish those who are in the ministry* from others who would be in it if they could? …………………. And therefore I think, there is little force in this objection against Christianity, or prospect of so great an advantage as is proposed in the abolishing of it.

 Jonathan Swift  An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity  1708

N.B. The ministry* referred to above is government ministry, not religious ministry, and Jonathan Swift is making a direct link between power seeking and factionalism.

Jonathan Swift wrote this essay, more than one hundred years before the birth of Charles Darwin, and longer still before the birth of the father of genetics Gregor Mendel, and therefore was not in a position to speculate about the forces that created this drive for factionalism – the teapotic instinct.

He certainly never had the opportunity to read Richard Dawkins’  book – The Selfish Gene.  And it is the central idea in this book, gene selection, that can explain the teapotic drive.

Factionalism creates small ponds in which big fish can have a disproportionate amount of influence. Making people afraid means that they are easier to control.  Using  direct coercion means that the would be big fish, would have to be genuinely more powerful, than those they set out to coerce. Creating paranoia within the pond about Those Evil Awful People Over There, those not in our faction, does not require the same degree of power from the would be leaders.  It also creates  conditions favourable for paranoia in the labelled people, making them vulnerable to Teapotters within their community.

If there is a genetic component to the behaviour of the Teapotters, and if acquiring power  increased in times past, their relative reproductive fitness, then the teapotic gene would have increased  in the gene pool. This is so even if, as  doesn’t seem unlikely, the overall genetic fitness of everyone in afflicted communities was lowered.

That so many of those displaying teapotic behaviour, seem to be totally without self-awareness, believing that what they are claiming is empirical truth; is consistent with it being the result of what Richard Dawkins has referred to as the Selfish Gene.  Instinct geared  not to the good of the organism displaying the behaviour, but to promoting the behaviour that enabled the gene to become predominate in the gene pool in the first place.

Richard Dawkins’ and Michael Ruse show every sign of being the victims of a practical joke, inflicted on them by their DNA.  I would be laughing if I didn’t have an inkling just how much damage the particular bits of deoxyribonucleic acid that code for this behaviour, can influence people living in unstable political situations, to inflict on each other.(1) Or the strong suspicion that the most likely victims of this behaviour are going to be those, with the least ability to defend themselves.(2)

Related Articles

  1. Andrew Brown If religion doesn’t start wars, it’s clear it can make some conflicts harder to solve  May 2014
  2. Giles Fraser Yes, the church is bloody angry about these attacks on the poor, and rightly so February 2014



Embracing Gulliver

I first read Gulliver’s Travels when I was 11 years and a few months old, and by the time I had finished the book I thought Gulliver was a very silly man; and because I did not distinguish between character and author, I thought the same of Jonathan Swift.

For most of the book I accepted Gulliver as a fairly accurate  narrator of what was going on, although some of his attitudes surprised me: for instance how unembarrassed, even proud, he was in Lilliput,  when urination, or the king’s orders meant that his penis was on public display. (His breeches were somewhat worn when soldiers, at the king’s orders marched between his legs, and he interpreted their laughter as a sign of admiration.)

I was also surprised at his apparent belief, that little people carrying away his turds in wheelbarrows proved that he was clean.  Those who  tidied up after me certainly didn’t regard it as proof of my cleanliness.

I admired the courage with which he dealt with his change of circumstances in Brobdingnag, the land of the giants, and thought their belief in Gulliver’s cowardice and their willingness to mock him did them no credit.  I was especially shocked by the behaviour of the young ladies of the court, who were in the habit of stripping him completely and laying him on their bare breasts, and in the case of one, placing  him astride her nipple. I was aware that they were taking pleasure in humiliating him, although it was sometime later before I realised the possible effect of what they were doing on the male anatomy, or why Gulliver might have been concentrating on how smelly their breasts were.

I struggled my way through the third voyage, and didn’t get much from it. I noted that Gulliver made a fool of himself, by his enthusiasm for the idea of eternal life, in the eyes of those who knew the  reality of Struldbrug existence. The horror of getting older and increasingly infirm, and never dying.

Perhaps it was the perception that others saw him as a fool, that in the fourth section of the book, made me less willing to take his opinions at face value . Certainly when he first described the yahoos I was willing to accept that they were fairly disgusting looking creatures, and to appreciate that he wouldn’t like being pooped on from a tree.  When he later describes a yahoo kept captive, by the dominant life form, the intelligent horses, as having a perfect human figure; this is when I lost patience with him.  Why didn’t he notice that they were human earlier?

As a farmer’s daughter, I was  aware that where captive animals are filthy, as he claimed the yahoos were, the fault lies with the keepers not the captives.  I also noted that he would have been  filthy, when he was chained up  in Lilliput if the little people hadn’t  given him a reasonable length of chain, and carried his poop away.

When Gulliver later tells us that the unchained yahoos spent a lot of their time in the water, I realised that filthiness could not be their native condition. Given that he had only one set of clothes, and didn’t have the yahoos’ easy access to water, I thought that the master houyhnhnms claim, that Gulliver was cleaner than the yahoos of his country, must be false.

It wasn’t until I was studying the history of World War II, that  I a ran across Nazi anti- Jewish propaganda and the use of  filthy/dirty as an abstract concept or metaphor.

I was rather surprised at Gulliver’s claim, when undressing in front of his master houyhnhnm, that nature taught him to keep certain parts of his body concealed. It  hadn’t been teaching him that when he was in Lilliput. It was only much later when I had become aware of the adult human male’s obsession with penis size, and had understood that there is good reason to believe that it is instinctive, that I appreciated the joke being made here. The master houyhnhnm  says that neither he nor his family are ashamed of any part of their bodies, but in this context a stallion has no reason to be ashamed.

I was not over impressed with the houyhnhnm claim to rationality. The master houyhnhnm told Gulliver that what made the yahoo truly odious was that they would devour everything that came their way, and that they would eat until they were ready to burst. He then said that nature (instinct) had pointed out to the yahoos a certain plant which gave a general evacuation. Then two paragraphs later “Gulliver” tells us, that the houyhnhnm forced a mixture of the yahoos’ own dung and urine down their throats to cure them of diseases caused, allegedly, by their nastiness and greediness.

I was disgusted with this irrational cruelty to the yahoo.  Why would you force something down the throat of a sensate creature, when there is an alternative cure that he/she will take willingly.  I was disgusted with Gulliver who hadn’t liked being force fed by the giant monkey in Brobdingnag, but was yet willing to see something much worse forced down the throat of others of his species. (By this stage in the book he is identifying yahoos and humans as the same species.) My disgust at Gulliver’s double standards reached a peak with his interaction with a three year old yahoo boy. He caught hold of the child, who fought to escape.  This Gulliver regarded as a fault in the child.  The frightened child also piddled on him.

I forgot another circumstance (and perhaps I might have the readers pardon, if it were wholly omitted), that while I held the odious vermin in my hands, it voided its filthy excrements of a yellow liquid substance, all over my cloaths; but by good fortune there was a small brook hard by, where I washed myself as clean as I could; although I durst not come into my master’s presence, until I were sufficiently aired.

Swift Jonathan  Gulliver’s Travels  1726

This is the same Gulliver who felt aggrieved because the queen of Lilliput was disgusted at how he put out the fire in her palace, the same man who when he was tied up by the Lilliputians  could well have drowned a large number, if they hadn’t seen what he was doing and jumped out of the way. Here he was making a fuss about infant piddle.

Shortly afterwards an incident is described where Gulliver has, with the permission of his sorrel nag keeper,  stripped and is cooling himself in a stream. A young female yahoo jumps into the water beside him.

It happened that a young female Yahoo standing behind a bank, saw the whole proceeding; and inflamed by desire, as the nag and I conjectured, came running with all speed, and leaped into the water within five yards of the place where I bathed.  I was never in my life so terribly frighted; the nag was grazing at some distance, not suspecting any harm; she embraced me after a most fulsome manner;

Swift Jonathan  Gulliver’s Travels  1726

I was askance at Gulliver’s truly ridiculous claim that he had never been more frighted in his entire life.  This is after all a man who had been captured by giants, fought off giant rats, and wasps, been bounced maybe forty feet from the ground on the nipple of a giantess. I thought his claim, that he was more frighted by the close presence of a young woman of human size and a hug from her, than any of these things, was completely ridiculous.

I was even more certain that Gulliver was truly ridiculous, when at the end of the very next paragraph, after a lot of gibberish, about how this young female hugging him, proved that he and she were the same species, he put in the following detail.

and her countenance did not make an appearance altogether so hideous as the rest of her kind; for, I think, she could not be above eleven years old.

Swift Jonathan  Gulliver’s Travels  1726

This yahoo whom Gulliver was professing such fear of wasn’t a woman. She was a little girl, younger than I was, and as he was saying,  he thought she could not be above eleven years,  maybe considerably younger.

When I first read this book, I had no understanding of what was meant by the accusation, that the young female Yahoo was inflamed by passion, so I just ignored it.   As an adult I am horrified, at the appalling attitude to female sexuality that this accusation reveals, not in Jonathan Swift: but in all those commentators, that have accepted this dark haired little girl as the personification of female lust.

In Gulliver’s Travels the target of Swift’s satire is the human pretension of rationality, our tendency to self-delude, and our use of double standards.  He has Gulliver end his travels, comfortably well off, and in a happy fugue of self – delusion, able to see yahoo evil in everyone but himself; and despising especially the vice of pride.

Ironically given that his target was self- delusion and irrationality posing as rationality, I think it is probable that Swift did not take sufficiently into account the effects of confirmation bias; our tendency to interpret what is occurring in line with our first impressions.

I think it probable that he intended the reader to react to the idea that the young female yahoo was a child by reassessing what they had just read; seeing instead the deeply unedifying spectacle of a socially embarrassed adult male, accusing a child of lust, while  excusing (possibly) his own arousal as due to fear .  (As the popularity of BDSM shows us, humans of both sexes can have their loins stirred for reasons other than sexual attraction; but only in the male is this obvious from a distance.)

The fact that in nearly 300 years of this book being read, this has not become the major interpretation of this incident terrifies me, for the young of my sex.  The accusation that the young female foreigner was sexually inflamed, is sufficient even still, to drive out a rational assessment of what Swift meant by this incident. (1)

Swift wrote to his friend Alexander Pope that he intended Gulliver’s Travels to demonstrate that man is not a rational animal.  It has been achieving this task for almost 300 years.

Gulliver’s Travels is a treatise on human nature.  Swift spent his life in England and Ireland, and you can find references in this book to the place and time in which he lived, but his target is much larger than this.

One thing that is being targeted is double standards.  Not just the way that we judge our own behaviour less harshly than the behaviour of others, but also the very different standards we use to judge the behaviour of the powerful and the powerless, our own society and the socially excluded other. Note Gulliver’s description of the young giantesses of the Brobdingnag court, girls who were in the habit of stripping and sexually humiliating him, as excellent ladies. Now compare that to his attitude to the significantly younger female yahoo, who merely gave him a hug.

Gulliver’s Travels demonstrates the power of propaganda.  The information we are given about the yahoo, is insufficient to tell us even  whether  or not they are human. They could be, as I thought at 11, possibly a kind of human looking dog. Yet there are no shortage of commentators willing to express their disgust at the yahoo, in a way that I suspect most of us would regard as ridiculous if directed at the dog. (Dogs are voluntary coprophages.  Dung had to be forced down the throat of  the yahoo, by that self-styled perfection of nature, the houyhnhnm.)

The houyhnhnm held councils where they discussed what to do with the yahoo, including proposing taking steps to bring about their extinction – that most final of solutions.  I see in this a historical reference to the attitude of the 17th Century English authorities to the Irish problem, and to the plantation of Ulster. But I see more than this in the parable of the yahoo.  It demonstrates the horrendous ability of propaganda and slander to affect our attitudes to other people. (The attitude of disgust towards the yahoo, only makes sense if we regard them as human.)

It makes people unable to see that when they do bad things to others, they are the bad guy.

Any feature which isolates a group or an individual can be used to label them. And if they are relatively powerless, then they become easy targets for the disgust and blame; that vindicates in their own eyes anyway the righteous persecutors.

It happened to Irish Catholics in Swift’s Ireland.  It happened to Gypsies, homosexuals and Jews  in Nazi Germany. Plato recorded it as happening to the philosopher Socrates. It can happen to the perceived religious; or irreligious; it can happen to those who just look religious, e.g. the crime of travelling while  looking like a Moslem; it can be used to blame girls, including the very young, for the crime of being sexually attractive or abused; it can be used to racially profile,  to target immigrants or the poor. And any other group or individual that can be identified as different.

It is a boon for those who wish to maintain or acquire power by encouraging paranoia among their followers.


P.S. That Gulliver identifies the language of the horses as similar to German, the language of  the Nazi’s, who with their ideas of the  Aryan as a  perfection of nature, really did attempt a final solution; probably shouldn’t be taken as evidence that Jonathan Swift was a time traveller. This is true even when you take into account that the claim, that Swift has the astronomers of the floating island make,that Mars had two moons; wasn’t discovered to be true until 1877.  Gulliver’s Travels was published in 1726.

  1. Amanda Knox’s Blog
  2. Giles Fraser on Lent and self Delusions of Moral Superiority (