Monday, 9 October 2017

British Isles Cruise Part 1: The Aristocrats.

The Columbus at anchor dominates St Peter Port bay.

At the beginning of September the wife and I took a cruise round the British Isles with Cruise and Maritime Voyages (CMV). The ship was the Columbus, pictured above  dominating the Bay of St Peter Port in Guernsey (Channel Islands) after it had anchored. The ship was big by my standards, quite a bit bigger in fact than the Irish ferries' Ulysses which brought us back across the Irish sea after our holiday in Ireland.  Columbus statistics are as follows:

Gross Tonnage: 63,786grt
Registry: Bahamas, British Commonwealth
Passenger Capacity: 775 cabins (1400 passengers)
Re-built: 1997, 2003, 2010, 2015 & April 2017
Cruising Speed: 16.50 knots (Max 21.50kts)
Passenger Decks: 11
Lifts: 9
Electric Current:  220v
Stabilised & Air Conditioned: Yes
Officers & Crew: International
Cruise Staff & Entertainers: British & International
Length: 247m (811ft)
Beam: 32m (105ft)

Columbus' service and 
shopping mall
With Ulysses at a gross tonnage of 50,938 both ships are bigger than the Titanic's 46,328 grt which at the time was the largest moving object created by man (So I was told by a Belfast guide). Although Columbus is only middling by today's standards it seemed breathtakingly large to me. Looking down the well of the grand staircase induces vertigo. The cinema and reception mall wouldn't disgrace a small city. In fact the Columbus is exactly that, a small city. The realization of this starts to dawn when you think about all the infra structure, systems and personnel the ship needs to function: Electrical systems, sewers, hot and cold water, water distilleries, kitchens, refrigeration, air conditioning, laundries, restaurants, stores, shops, pubs, a theatre cum cinema, swimming pools, games rooms, gymnasiums, computers, communications, radar, library, rest rooms; the list probably goes on and on. As well as the crew involved in actually sailing the vessel there must be cruise directors, entertainments staff, cooks, waiters, bar attenders, doctors and nurses, security people, cinema staff, maintenance staff, systems engineers, stewards, cleaners etc. And the whole caboodle moves in one direction. But since motion is relative and barely detectable even in a fairly rough sea, one may as well consider the ship to be a stationary frame of reference.

Cruising on a big ship must be the most comfortable form of travel ever devised: Our cabin on deck 10 was like a hotel room. During our trip there was little sense of motion and the feeling of being on a ship was at a minimum even when the swell was 3 to 4 metres at one point. For me the whole experience had a very unreal feel to it: The comfort, plus the relativity I've already alluded to, gives the feeling that the ports-of-call are actually travelling to you rather than the other way round. Moreover, for first time cruisers like ourselves the unreality of it all is compounded by the pervasive ship-board culture which is nothing like we've experienced before. The ship began to feel less like a small city than a small planet in some dimension we were temporarily visiting; the culture was alien in many respects. Add this to the sense of being in a strange vehicle that somehow, Tardis like, brings exotic venues to one's doors without actually having to travel, then the feeling of being in another dimension is only reinforced. No instincts told me that I was inside an earthly vehicle. 

The theatre/cinema
I have to admit that from the outset I felt rather dubious about the whole cruise adventure; not only am I not a good sea traveler but I wasn't at all sure that the cruising culture with its wining, formal dinning, gaming, and social chit chatting was something we would fit in with. In fact we didn't. We were travelers and not cruisers and we avoided the formal restaurant in favour of the well served bistro on deck 12 with its excellent views. The on-board variety entertainments weren't ever going to be our cup of tea either, although on the last day we not only enjoyed, but also came back down to earth with a bump when we watched Alan Bennett's film "The Lady in the Van".  Also, my wife enjoyed a lecture by - knock me over with a feather - an academic on the Vikings - very appropriate as we sailed down the east of the British Isles on the last day. I had refused to go to this lecture quite convinced that it would turn out to be some stand up comic cracking jokes about horny helmeted Vikings doing rape and pillage - well I was wrong and regretted it. I've got to hand it to CMV they do their best to cater for a broad spectrum of taste. Of course they aren't going to please all of the people all of the time, so you can't blame them.  

One of the swimming pools
For many cruising on the high seas is an end itself and may not even need the diversions of sailing into ports to break the monotony. Stage entertainment, games rooms, socializing, films, interesting port excursions etc are well defined pastimes which can be singled out as distinct categories and pointed to as something to be enjoyed. But I think there is a much more subtle form of enjoyment going on at sea which is less easily identified;  this is the gentle massaging of the ego that is all part of the ambiance of life on board a luxury ship. The formal bow tie dinners, the proactively courteous ship's staff who wait on the passengers hand and foot always leaving the impression they are there at one's beck and call,  have the effect of quietly conveying to the passengers that they are some kind of high born aristocracy, born to be served. Also silently encouraging this flattering illusion there was a slight colonial air about it all, at least on the Columbus: The passengers were almost exclusively white, probably comfortably off senior Westerners, whereas the service staff were by and large relatively young and in the main came from the less rich ethnic regions around the world. For a week or two the passengers were in an immersive virtual reality that served a fantasy about being aristocrats waited on hand and foot by servants who relied on the generosity of their patrons to supplement their meager pay in tips. I personally find tips degrading: It reminds me of the rewards one gives to animals when they perform correctly. But then what choice do some people have.

Further reinforcing the immersive game play of being an aristocrat for a week or two was the stratification among the passengers themselves: The cabins tended to get more expensive with the deck number. We felt we were doing well on deck 10 with only passenger deck 11 above us where some of the "high class" guests had balconies. This stratification played a similar role I guess as once did the medieval aristocratic career structure provided by the linear stratification of titles which marks one's status. So instead of us having the titles of knights, baronets, barons, viscounts, earls, marquis and dukes, our titles were Deck 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11. On Deck 11 we had Columbus' equivalent of dukes, but there were no kings among the passengers; that role was played by the captain and we were his worthy aristocratic guests invited to his mobile realm. In the restaurant there was even a captain's high table where specially  invited guests could dine with him.... all very reminiscent of the high tables in the castles and halls of the medieval  period. It is very difficult to resist the strong sense of flattery if one is invited to the captain's table. It is a fact that humans so often need some kind of social ladder, however that might be signaled, in order to fuel the aspirations and ambitions needed to motivate them.

Unlike the French the English never really did do away with their aristocracy in a revolution; instead the quirky history of England meant that all English people started to think of themselves as potential aristocrats. The constitutional monarchy hammered out during the seventeenth century, plus a trace of guilt that the population had committed regicide in beheading Charles I, gave the English aristocracy a reprieve and it was here to stay. Subsequently an increasingly commercialized Britannia got underway as rich yeomans (often of peasant stock) invested in business, moved into the cities, became rich, then moved out of the cities and purchased estates in the country, sometimes real castles, as they tried to ape the aristocracy. They even learnt the classics, purchased titles and invented heraldry for their families. Thus, every Englishmen was a potential aristocrat in the making; servants and slaves were largely a colonial thing. I have often wondered if one reason why the UK hasn't done as well in engineering as it clearly could have done was because it was thought of as a form of work not fit for aristocrats; after all, engineers are supposed to get greasy and dirty in engine rooms and aspiring aristocrats don't do that. There is a parallel here with classical Greek culture, a culture which the English upper classes studied avidly: The Greeks didn't excel as well in the sciences as one might have thought because in their slave society the masters weren't expected to do the kind of manual hands-on-work needed to do experiments.  But aristocrats can become, and often do, theoreticians and philosophers, because that kind of detached mental activity doesn't suffer the indignity of dirt and grime.

But the idea that there is such a thing as a contented feudal social stratification is an illusion as it always has been. On the Columbus some of the make believe aristocrats could be down right awkward: We heard of one case where a lady sent back her fried eggs three times because they weren't cooked correctly leaving the waiter nonplussed as to what was wrong. One night the restaurant opened late because, rumor had it, the waiters went on strike. We never found out why, but I can see it now.: On the one hand they had to interface with some demanding "aristocrats" playing the power game too hard; the fact that few of these passengers were real aristocratics may have meant they worked the fantasy for all it was worth. On the other hand the staff have their employers and managers over them; if these employers and managers don't give their staff all due respect and compensation in recognition that they too are very status conscious human beings, defection is no surprise. However, I have a suspicion that there is an assumption of privilege associated with the securing of these ship-board jobs and consequently staff are expected to be thankful for being offered a job whatever the conditions of employment.  The whole thing reeks of the feudal where the peasant was supposed to be thankful that his lord allowed him to work a strip of the lord's land. 

As I've already said the majority of the passengers were senior white people (So senior that even at 70 and 65 my wife and I felt like sprightly youngsters as we used the stairs rather than the lift) many of whom had probably done quite well for themselves. This fact upped the chance of coming across a phenomenon I have observed before; namely, the talkative opinionated male. Now, women are often accused of being too talkative but a talkative male is a lot worse. Males, especially if they've been in management, are far more dominating as they continue to habitually fill the role of an alpha male. Among the males on the cruise I also saw some sad sights: Men, who had no doubt had successful careers, now unmanned by the ravages of old age, but who were lovingly attended to by their wives. I saw one poor guy who had to otherwise use a frame to walk with no choice but to slowly climb, without the help of his frame, the very long gangplank needed to enter the ship. We were in Orkney at the time and a cold wind laden with rain blasted the old gentleman. As he had probably just come out of a coach he had no rain coat on and he became soaked all down one side. Surely there must be a more dignified way for "aristocrats" to enter a boat! In the warm luxurious belly of the ship I watched his wife attend to him as he recovered dribbling from his ordeal. Yes, I thought, that's what I may look like in a few years! (if I get there). I looked up and realised that one of the staff, a girl who was advertising some cosmetic service, had been looking at me looking at this old couple. She smiled but I was still engrossed in my grave thoughts so I'm not sure I smiled back.

As I turned my attention to this young lady my thoughts moved on. Like many of the young staff here she was offering a fairly basic trade. But what made all the difference was the environment in which she plied this trade. You might be a cleaner, a room attendant, a cook, a waiter or a manicurist. These occupations aren't particularly high up the status ladder, but in this case it is where you carry out your work which makes all the difference. I imagine that many young people, perhaps with not the best set of qualifications in the world, apply for work on a cruise ship because potentially it's a lot more than just employment; it promises the romance and excitement of an adventure on the high seas, exotic ports of call and a chance to meet a wide spectrum of interesting people you wouldn't otherwise meet. I suspect, however, that this exciting sounding life does, nevertheless, have its downsides as well; there are limited opportunities to get away from the ship's intimate social hot-house which you may well want to do if the naturally expectant relationships between young people become intense and/or awkward or if your employer is as authoritarian and demanding as a baron, not to mention the attitude of some of the pseudo aristocrats on board ship. Hopes and aspirations have no doubt been badly bruised on some of these cruise ships.

But for the wife and I there was plenty of opportunity to detach from the cruising social hot-house. We could look out to sea during meals and drinks and for us the ports of call the were the main rationale for the cruise; strange fascinating places that we wouldn't otherwise have visited. I'll hand it to CMV: They do bend over backwards to make the whole cruise experience as enjoyable as possible for as many people as possible, but they are only human and naturally they face the constraints and limitations of being human. And human limitations were to be plainly witnessed in the stories we found waiting for us at each port of call. People may wonder why I ever opted for Christianity, especially in view of some of its own grotty, tacky cultural aspects. But if there's a single answer to that it is this: It is because Christianity is (or is supposed to be) strong on self examination and self awareness of our human limitations, especially those that go under the archaic appellation of "sin"; although I must concede that looking at some Christian sects, you wouldn't know it. As we were to find out Christianity figured prominently in the history of all the ports and places we visited;  unless one is intellectually apathetic this encourages one to have some kind of engagement with Christian history.

The voyage was tracked and conveyed to our cabin

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Steam Punk Pump: Temple or Church?

The crisp brick contoured facade of Papplewick pumping station

Papplewick pumping station just outside Nottingham was for me a fascinating visit; it piqued my interest in both mechanism and configuration: The mechanism was the dynamics of the two huge beam engines and the configuration was the architecture of the building in which the engines are housed. Today such highly functional machinery is likely to be housed in a plain utility-looking weather covering, but the Victorians of 1884 glorified their engineering endeavors with romantic decorative styling. They had immense pride in what they were doing and no expense was spared on what to us may seem unnecessary filigree; one may as well decorate a vacuum cleaner. The Victorians were, or so it seems, more at ease with progress than we are today. Lack of confidence in civilization and where it was going was not one of their faults.

The architecture of the pumping station is Romanesque with a classical entablature running round the outside of the building. The external effect is of it being either a church or a temple. However, the information boards at the station refer to it as a temple of water which is probably nearer the mark than a church. The early church builders used not the model of the temples all around them but the basilica design which in Roman times was neither sacred nor housed a god. The basilicas had civic connotations; they were not built to house gods but to act as public meeting places where news would be shared. In the new religion of Christianity God was everywhere but he was especially where Christians met; the gathering and congregation of believers was sufficient condition for communion with the divine; in fact given Bible references to the human body being the temple of the Holy Spirit the Christian condition for divine communion is even broader than that.

But Papplewick was not a meeting place, in fact far from it: The Papplewick brochure marvels that the elegant and stylish hosing was never intended to be seen by the general public. Papplewick, then, is far more a temple than a church, a temple of power where only a "priesthood" of engineers administered to the needs of this very local "god".  But this 'god', in the final analysis, was no service demanding god, for this god really served the people: Papplewick lifted naturally filtered water from the sandstone bed rock and this clean water was piped down to the people of Nottingham.  The public did not give obeisance and offerings to this god; it was quite the reverse; this god served the people with pure water. Right from its introduction the new technology was sending out mixed signals as to how it should be regarded.

(See my Facebook album here for more pics and video of Papplewick)

The Papplewick Pistons of Power 

The pistons jostle with decorative pillars

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Northumberland: Myth and Imagination - Part 3

(See here and here for parts 1 and 2)
The people who built Duddo stone circle (above) were probably working to some worldview but we have only vague ideas about what that perspective was. Humanity has always been challenged with the task of making comprehensive worldview level sense of its environment; but epistemic problems have impeded success and gaps have been filled with intolerance and dogma. But as we see below the error of fundamentalist scripturallism is not the answer to those epistemic difficulties - far from it!

Some solutions ameliorate one problem only to introduce another. An example is sickle cell hemoglobin which helps suppress the symptoms of malaria but increases the risk of sickle cell anemia. In circumstances like this there is tension between the advantages and disadvantages of alternative outcomes as they are weighed against one another and some trade-off settled for. There is, I believe, a tension of this type in the epistemic heuristic inherent in the mental make up of human beings.

Human beings, it hardly need be said, are in the main social animals and this confronts them with one of their greatest epistemic challenges; that is, attempting to interpret the output of the most complex object known to man, namely the human mind. But the task of trying to read other minds is carried out routinely on the hoof and is a highly informal process. No doubt we have large packages of both soft and firm cognitive neural-ware which address this problem, particularly in the realm of reading the meaning of language. Human beings offer few observational clues as to what they are thinking even when they use language to express themselves. Hence, in this connection  human epistemic techniques have to join a paucity of evidential data-dots in order to arrive at highly complex conclusions about fellow humans. The epistemic process of predicting the otherwise hidden complexities of the human mind is likely to be very seat-of-the-pants. It is a miracle, however, that the process of mutual understanding works as well as it does, but there is a likely trade-off: The gains of getting it right outweigh the losses of making occasional (perhaps even frequent) mistakes. So it is likely that our neural-ware interpreter is balanced between the huge advantages of correctly understanding fellow human beings and an inevitable background noise of error. This human epistemic system is tuned on a knife edge and it's no surprise that in some individuals the inter-human neural package seems to malfunction badly: Autistics tend to under-interpret incoming data and paranoiacs over interpret it.

It is something akin to this very high risk neural-ware package which, I propose, is in operation during worldview synthesis. Unlike formal science which proceeds at a snails pace starting with basic and relatively simple systems and tries to build from the bottom up (see Brian Cox's comments here), worldview synthesis much more resembles the task of attempting to see behind the scenes into the human mind; this comprehensive epistemic process takes in a huge sweep of life experience as it tries to affirm very broad conclusions using methods that are informal and themselves often nigh on inscrutable. Highly ambitions conclusions, sometimes bordering on pretension and audacity, are arrived at. Worldview synthesis leaps well-ahead of formal science in ambition and vision, but the trade-off is that the risks of error, error often exacerbated by hubris, vested interest and tribal factors to name but a few perturbing influences, are balanced against the promise of an epistemic gold-mine. But let me point out the irony I've noted before; it is in fact an empirically based process in as much as it attempts to join the dots of experiential data, albeit rather creatively (See links below). In short  the whole system of worldview synthesis isn't a robust process!

However, we can but try. I'm the last person to condemn attempts at sweeping worldview synthesis; if we are looking for comprehensive understandings of the world we may have little choice but to engage in this activity along with its risks; it might produce high gains in the long run. The trick, I believe, is not to do away with the mythological imagination but to be aware of its operation and above all to use it with a good measure of cautious epistemic humility in order to avoid the pitfalls of misplaced hubris and arrogant certainty. But in spite of worldview synthesis being so seat-of-the-pants it is ironic that the mythological imagination is inclined to invest in its highly attenuated constructions far more certainty than they warrant; in fact it is almost as if these constructions become more real than the basic perceptions on which they are built. Pathological examples are easy to find: the Flat Earth conspiracy, David Ike's lizard conspiracy, Alex Jones' conspiracy theories, numerous Christian fundamentalist world views, Jones Town, and fascism. It is the certainty and blinkered single mindedness with which world-views may be held that gives them the potential to be highly dangerous; much more dangerous might I add than even the problems introduced by the unbridled ambitions of status-seeking. The latter is unlikely to be so sweeping as to attempt to assimilate the whole cosmic coboodle into one seamless narrative: The realpolitik of self-centred status seeking has a limited horizon and a limited agenda in its striving for hegemony, whereas mythological fundamentalism seeks a much more thoroughgoing world take-over; one that includes the very hearts and minds of those it seeks to dominate.

In modern times scriptural fundamentalism (a subject which concerns me deeply) believes it can eliminate epistemic risk with a simple formula; Viz: God's Word says so & so, therefore so & so is absolutely certain to be true.  But this epistemic has a very serious flaw: It fails to take into account that the natural language in which scripture is couched is far from being a direct revelation of truth. (See here, and here). As I have repeatedly made the case, natural language works by connotation and as such its interpretation taps into to a bottomless reservoir of facts taken from of human social history and the human context in general. Scripture can not be read like a mathematical text book where formality strives to obviate ambiguity and limit terms of reference; reading scripture is far more akin to the process of interpreting the natural linguistic output of other minds. Scriptural fundamentalists seek the security of certainty and authority; they cannot accept that there is a huge fallible human link in the chain when it comes to interpreting scripture. This fallible link is evidenced by the many contradictory forms that fundamentalism can take. See here, here and here.

Selfish human ambitions which seek after high status without regard to the welfare of society as a whole are potentially toxic, but things can be worse. The empires of status seekers are not quite so comprehensive as the ambitions of fundamentalist idealists who seek a mental empire of believers which they wish to draw in and submit to the narrative constructed in fundamentalist minds. So, on balance I fear the dogmatic worldview builders more than those with plain and simple social status ambitions and whose scope of operation is likely to only go as far as realpolitik. 

Human beings have an incredible ability to read imaginatively behind the scenes; we only have think of theoretical geniuses like Newton and Einstein who have scored big in this area. But against that we must set the many whose theories have failed and been forgotten (which probably includes my own!).
The theoretical imagination, especially when extended to vagaries of worldview synthesis, comes with risks.  This is not to say we should avoid braving the deep waters of worldview synthesis - far from it - we just need to proceed with a little cautious epistemic humility - that and a little faith. We work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

Epistemology links:

More pictures from Northumberland

The rain shrouded and ancient Cheviot hills convey a mood apposite to the mysteries of the meaning of creation.

To the uninitiated the highly asymmetrical ruins of Lindisfarne priory would present a mystery as deep as Duddo stone circle.

Weathering of the stones of the priory has created forms just as fantastic as the stones at Duddo.

The view from Ford church; It conjures up thoughts of ancient origins, beauty, light, colour and the truncation of death. These thoughts mingle prompting the  feeling it must all mean something, thereby fueling the mythological imagination. 

To the unknown god: A flower offering (?)  found in one of the erosion channels of the Duddo stones. The offering instinct goes deep. 

This isn't Northumberland but the Chinese "shrine" at Kew Gardens, where the floor has become covered in coin "offerings". Ornamental ponds often attract the same behavior. What's at the bottom of these token "offerings"?  Is it carried out instinctively or is it done with the conscious intention of  hedging bets and attempting a communion with unknown spiritual forces?

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Northumberland: Status and Mystery - Part 2

Limestone crag and a hill fort over look Old Bewick Church. 
(See part 1 here)

On the first day of our Northumbrian holiday we visited Old Bewick Church (See also here). It is situated in a copse of trees beside a small stream and in the shadow of the impressive limestone rise that once hosted Old Bewick Hill Fort. (See above). Although built in the 11th century the church, with its narrow windows, looked very Saxon in style to my eye. We visited on a Sunday but there were no services running on that particular day.

Inside the church there are copious notes to read. In one of these notes a regular visitor claimed that those who knew the church well get to know that feeling of it being a "thin place"; that's spiritual jargon for a portal in space-time where the divine presence is easily detected. I myself seldom or never pick up on these mystical moods, feelings, atmospheres, presences, or what have you that people say are associated with a location. However, it was easy to see why this site has a reputation for holy tranquility and peace. Its gently trickling stream and its insulating wall of trees provide the intimate atmosphere of a venue cut off from the surrounding world. It's a site for turning in on yourself with holy introspection and contemplation leading, perhaps, to an intuitive revelation of the divine (Usually referred to as "encounters" nowadays). It was  no surprise, therefore, that just outside the gate of the church yard is poustinia,  a  small cell where one can retreat into the presence of God. This particular poustinia took the form of a thermally insulated garden shed. The insulation would also serve to deaden sounds, even the sounds of the birds in trees. So an already quiet environment becomes even quieter, perhaps helping to ensure that God's still small voice wouldn't be missed.

Old Bewick Church

All in all the environment of Old Bewick church encourages one to approach God via mythos; that is, one connects with the sacredness of the place through the intuitions and feelings, rather than the intellect.

On the following Wednesday we visited Duddo Stone Circle (See also here and here). The environs here couldn't be more different from Old Bewick Church. On its gentle treeless rise the circle provides good views of the surrounding scenery; most noticeable were the high barren igneous hills of the Cheviots to west. The stones are deeply fissured with vertical channels which, it is thought, are due to  the erosive effects of rain water rivulets channeling away the soft sandstone.  Two of the three websites I have just linked to date the circle as Neolithic and one Bronze age; If the former date is right then the monument is well over 4000 years old.

Duddo stone circle with the Cheviot hills in the background.

This website says of the circle:

Occasionally other people are about, taking photos, absorbing the setting, studying the stones or taking in the views across to the Cheviots and the Scottish Border. You may, though, find yourself completely alone in this ancient place, and feel a sense of peace and sanctuary that’s hard to find in the modern world.

Hence, the theme of sanctuary and separation which started for us at Old Bewick church continued. It was towards the end of the day and so we had the lonely circle to ourselves. To me the sense of long abandonment and dereliction were my strongest impressions. Moreover, that these silent stones reveal so little of their long since forgotten purpose heightens the general air of mystery which pervades this place. As this web site says:

Britain is littered with the remains of past lives, civilisations and cultures, many of which remain a source of mystery and conjecture. We may never know the exact reasons why these circles, standing stones, henges, hill-figures and monuments were erected or the peoples and belief systems that led them to complete some of these sometimes massive structures such as Silbury Hill and Stonehenge.

The inscrutable mystery of meaning and purpose hangs like an impenetrable mist over all megalithic monuments, almost to the point of frustration; why can't they reveal just a little more of what they were about? But no, they give away nothing by way of history and very little by way of archaeology. What compounds the problem is that their configuration is so different from the familiar linear Biblico-classical temple where history tells us that the inner sanctum, the holy of holies, was a space set aside for the divine presence, symbolized in most cases by an effigy. In fact there was an echo of this configuration in the layout of medieval churches. So can we conclude that the centre of these circles was a kind of holy of holies?   

One thing, however. does seem fairly probable: These stone circles weren't the introverted sites of contemporary Christianity, a Christianity which seeks internal and intimate revelation of God in an otherwise spiritually barren material world evacuated of sacred meaning by a seemingly heartless mechanical paradigm. In contrast to the spiritual introversion encouraged at Old Bewick the location and configurations of these monolithic structures were deliberately designed to connect with their surroundings; for they show the kind alignments to the heavens important to an agricultural society and also, some have speculated, alignments with the surrounding landscape.  In which case these stone circles are focal points which encourage us to look out as well as in. To these ancient peoples the cosmos was a temple full of spiritual significance. Their imaginations and myths made sense of an environment which, in comparison with modern times, they really hadn't even started to get to grips with intellectually. In the stone circles we are looking at a reification of a mythical spiritual vision, May be there are parallels with the Ptolemaic cosmos of the Middle Ages.

We guess that these sites had sacred purposes, but actually this is an interpolation because we find it difficult to imagine that to ancient communities they could be anything else. That morning we had visited a henge reconstruction at Milfield (see below) and this underlined the point: Unless one is enamored of the silly idea that these are UFO landing strips then there are few options left other than to think of them as "ritual" venues; that is, our imagination populates them with priests and worshipers engaged in formal communion with spiritual forces and beings. But the modern scientific quasi-autonomous mechanical paradigm, which has for many had the effect of exorcising any sacred import, had no parallel among these people. and you can bet that, unlike us, they didn't make a distinction between the secular and the sacred. That may explain why their religion was so intertwined with the cosmos as a whole; as I have already implied, the nearest Western equivalent of that is probably the Ptolemaic universe of the Middle Ages.

Henge reconstruction at Milfield

To engage in the constructions of these monuments a society must have a labour surplus. In fact the physical dimensions of these configurations of stone and earth is evidence that whole communities would have signed up to their religion. They are also evidence of the strength of the communal religious motivation; especially so when it comes to something as huge as Averbury or Silbury hill.

In contrast to these henge communities the dynamic behind most of the constructions we see today is largely down to material acquisitiveness: Investments are made in order to further increase investment in a regenerative feedback cycle whose output is material wealth for its own sake. But these temple monuments were sinks of surplus labour; apart from social cohesion the material benefits of these works would to us seem questionable as they never payed back on the labour investment. Therefore with apparently little material reward for the rank and file it is very likely that henge societies came down heavily on heretics and dissenters; with such discipline, organisation and commitment evident in these structures I can't imagine that their corresponding societies were liberal minded and the innate human fear of the numinous was probably played for all it was worth; something we actually see today among fundamentalists.

The religious motive, when unleashed, is strong, although it can be irrational to the point of its own detriment - see for example the behaviour Daesh (i.e. so called "Islamic State"). As we saw in the last part material acquisitiveness is bound up with status seeking. But it seems that religious motive revolving round deep seated human yearnings for meaning, purpose and identification can override the motives behind wealth creation thus providing a data point of evidence which coheres with the narratives of theism. But either way human motivations, as we well know, can go so horribly wrong!

Visitor information board at Milfield henge reconstruction

The ancient Cheviot hills (in the background) dominate the country side for miles around and put human existence into perspective. This photo was taken in the church yard at Ford. 

Ford church: I found this to be an intriguing and original portrayal of the crucifixion. The figures display a mixture of ambivalent emotions in a depiction which, by using a low-rise cross, conveys the tragic ordinariness and brutality of first century crucifixion. And yet the unusual otherworldly lighting effects which explain the awestruck reaction of the figures are executed without making the picture kitsch  Who ever painted this scene understood the meaning of the cross; God introduces himself to humankind, but not in the way humankind is likely to expect. 

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Northumberland - Status and Mystery. Part 1

During a holiday in Northumberland the wife and I visited three of its impressive and famous castles: Alnwick, Lindisfarne and Bamburgh. We also visited one of those ever mysterious Stone circles, the circle at Duddo and also what may be its Christian equivalent, the Church at Old Bewick  near where we stayed;  but more about those two sacred locatioms in part 2.

Of the three castles we visited Alnwick castle is the only one which remains in the hands of a hereditary aristocracy and, in fact, is still in occupation; Ralph Percy and his wife Jane, the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland. At this juncture some might complain about unmerited privilege, but given just how status-driven human nature is, it is likely that the questions surrounding the badges of wealth and power will always be with us. There is, however, an upside to the UK aristocracy; they are evidence of a country whose paradoxical mix of stability and adaptability has allowed unbroken traditions tracing back to the middle ages; moreover, those aristocrats have themselves been willing to adapt to changed conditions. Revolutions and Civil Wars are horrible bloody affairs. Human intractability sometimes makes them necessary, but if reform and adaptation is possible, let's go with that!

The interior decor of Alnwick's state rooms is extravagantly opulent to say the least. Filigree is piled on filigree making it clear that the owners are at the extreme end of the wealth spectrum (guess which end). To me this was all very reminiscent of the over-the-top baroque message I saw when I visited Versailles. Not that I'm any judge of art, but I've always much preferred the clean and rational elegance of palladian and neo-classical decor myself. 

The next day we visited Lindisfarne castle, a castle whose decor is the very opposite of Alnwick. Publishing Magnate Edward Hudson purchased the fortification in 1901 and had Lutyens refurbish it in the arts and crafts style. The result is an austere feel to the interior. Lutyens, as was the intention of arts and crafts architecture, succeeded in creating the atmosphere of the unpretentious life of more primitive times, times when building materials were far less processed and more recognizably having their origins in the natural world and the hands of the craftsman rather than the machine. Although the interior ambiance of the castle is stony and spartan Lutyens' genius was such that he was able to give his work, nonetheless, a very homely and comfortable feel once the furnishings were in and a bright fire was in the grate. As I walked round the castle it felt like a sparsely furnished holiday home and that was in fact what Hudson intended it for. The castle is  now in the hands of the National Trust; from what I know of the NT you couldn't ask for more caring owners!

Bamburgh was the third castle on our list. Like Lindisfarne this castle passed from the aristocracy to the rich middle class. It was purchased by the Victorian industrialist and inventor William Armstrong and it is still in the family. Like Lindisfarne, Bamburgh is high up on an outcrop of igneous rock making it a very impressive and dominating aspect. The interior is well furnished  and decorated, but it is nowhere near as pretentious as Alnwick; its decor and furnishings don't overwhelm the senses with too much baroque busy-ness. People like Armstrong, who had ascended to their position by merit, had succeeded in an up and coming industrial society and had drawn level, if not overhauled, the aristocracy. So perhaps Armstrong felt he had nothing left to prove and therefore sensible understated decor was all he needed!

The acquisition of these castles by the bourgeoisie constituted the ultimate status symbols proving they had arrived at the pinnacle of Earthly power and wealth. As I have said before material wealth and the power it bestows has less to do with its own intrinsic worth to the individuals who possess  it than it does as a status marker. True, material wealth does bring along with it intrinsic creature comforts and other artistic consolations, but it actually plays what is probably a far more important role bound up with the social matrix.  A test I have long used in order to assist self-refection about what really motivates humanity re wealth is something I refer to as the tropical island test. Viz: Let's say you lived in a huge well appointed castle with all the material treasures, technological mod cons and luxuries you could imagine.  But the catch is that you had all this on a remote Island all to yourself with no one else around by which the comparisons of status could be made. In such a situation what then is left of the pleasures of riches?

By contemplating this imaginary scenario we can perhaps resolve out the components underlying human motivations toward vast wealth and power. Yes, there may well be motivational components revolving round the intrinsic artistic appreciation of material wealth and its comforts. But let us ask this question: What motivational expressions are lost in the island scenario, expressions which might lead us to regret the absence of a societal context in which we could possess overt wealth? How much is that regret due to us having lost the manifest glory of status and power? And how much is that regret a result of us being unable to use our wealth and power for the good of others?

Obviously, the island scenario is an armchair thought experiment where for the sake of the test we have to imagine a wholly unrealistic situation: Clearly, conditions of high wealth could not be contrived and maintained without a societal. context.  But the purpose of the test is to bring an analytical spotlight on our human motivations by attempting to isolate an important human trait - namely, the human hankering after status and position, aspirations which only make sense relative to a societal context. The consequent questions arising put our moral metal under the spotlight for examination.

Norwich Central Baptist Church has a monthly prayer card. On the 29th of some month whose record I have lost I read the following item for prayer.

"Temptation comes in many guises - materialism, selfish ambition, greed, pride, envy, self image, success, indifference to the Spirit's prompting. To defeat the devil's wiles - pray and obey! We have victory through Jesus Christ! Mat 4:10-11, 1 John 1:8-9"

I don't think the devil's wiles need have much to do with it; he can sit back and watch us fail! Look at those first eight motivational items; materialism, selfish ambition, greed, pride, envy, self image, success. I would hazard that each of them has at its root a common motivating factor and that is the human status drive. I'm not saying that the pleasure we derive from status is all wrong; it's like the reward appetite satiation when we eat food, a necessary activity which is ultimately needed to nourish the human frame. Likewise, we all need status for our own worth's sake and we also need people of high status in society. Also, legitimate pleasure comes from knowing we have a measure of societal recognition. However, it is possible, and it certainly has happened countless times in human society, that status becomes a glutenous overriding drive to the detriment of others and society in general; status seeking then becomes a sin; "sin" the word with the "I" in the middle,

Though status and its pleasures, unless abused, are no more wrong than sexual drives, short term self-denial in favour of long term goals is at the heart of Christianity.  At this point I must quote my oft quoted favorite Biblical passage once again: Philippians 2: 3-11:

Let nothing be done out of strife or conceit, but in humility let each esteem the other better than himself. 4 Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
5 Let this mind be in you all, which was also in Christ Jesus,
6 who, being in the form of God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.
7 But He emptied Himself,
    taking upon Himself the form of a servant,
    and was made in the likeness of men.
8 And being found in the form of a man,
    He humbled Himself
    and became obedient to death,
        even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God highly exalted Him
    and gave Him the name which is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Contrast that with the temptations of Christ (See Mat 4:1-11) which culminated in the offer of a promise of Earthly glory in vs 8:

8 Again, the devil took Him up on a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their grandeur, 9 and said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me. ”

Correct handling of status is, then, at the very heart of the Christian Gospel. The verses quoted above stand stark against general human mismanagement of otherwise acceptable motivations. This mismanagement has brought so much suffering with it. But just as the competitive search for status has been the problem, so in Christ denial of status has been the solution.

If life ultimately has meaning then we find that meaning in the questions which surround societal living and the right handling of status; for status is another word for human relations. If life has meaning its about getting right our perspective on status through Christ. I'm amazed by the universality of the core Christian message: We might even be atheists and yet find the above core values appealing and needed for societal solutions; good atheists will align their goals accordingly.

But there is one thing worse than mismanagement of our status motivations and that is the mismanagement of our religious motivations.  I might deal with this question in part II as I probe the depths and mysteries of religion.

Duddo Stone Circle, Northumberland

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Time Travel with Babbage and Watt Technology

With a hint of Faraday thrown in!

The time machine & time travelling sequences were the best part of this film.

The above video shows the time travel scenes from the 2002 film "The Time Machine". I downloaded the film from iTunes and watched it about a year or two ago. I thought the effects and sets were good and in particular I was impressed by the steam punk time machine. But on the whole I didn't really enjoy the story. In comparison with H G Wells' book of the same name the film sacrifices the disturbing cutting edge of the book for the feel good factor; but I suppose the feel good factor is what most people want of an escapist film.  The film, needless to say, takes evolution for granted, but doesn't follow Wells into the potentially nihilistic territory of a profane version of evolution.  In comparison Wells was entirely frank about the logic of a world where the only imperative is the survival "ethic" and just where that "ethic" might take us as a race.  In contrast the 2002 film smothers the Riddle of the Sphinx with schmaltz and kitsch. 

Wells' "The Time Machine" cuts two ways: It either reinforces postmodernism's thoroughgoing (and ultimately inconsistent) scepticism or it provokes a determination that the future need not be like Wells' depiction. But then, if there is no personal God to turn to who or what is going to guarantee that our efforts will prosper?  Profanity so easily succumbs to the depression of a nihilistic malaise. As I once reported an evangelical atheist saying: "The Universe doesn't care about us!".  The sense of ultimate hopelessness and futility which such expressions may engender is tantamount to being pulled down into darkness by the clutching hands of the demonic Morlocks. 

One day, perhaps one day,  some one is going to make a film that does justice to Wells' original ideas and the riddles they raise. With today's special effects a really good job of it could no doubt be done. However, unless the makers of this future film think they can do better they might like to retain the 2002 hardware reconstruction of the Time Machine itself! 

The  2002 Time Machine's  console  is reminiscent of Babbage's difference engine

Steam powered time travel! An eclectic mix of nineteenth century precision technology. But according to Wells the fancied human genius behind this project would likely  count for nothing in the cosmic context.
For comparison: the console of a real steam truck, although it lacks the Time Machine's "trip computer"! I took this photo myself at the Thursford Collection

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Holiday in Southern Ireland

The wife and I recently had a holiday in Southern Ireland, county Wicklow in fact.  Here are some of the places we visited:

Wicklow Gaol: This was our first visit of the week. Wicklow Goal is now museum. I anticipated before we went in that it would likely be a monument to British oppression of the Irish people. (Unfortunately for Ireland much of its history is covered by the history of British rule). I was right about this but I was glad to see that the story was told without any bitterness on the part of the Irish; one came out feeling the Irish still want to be friends with their somewhat larger neighbour. And a good thing too; we need friends like that! As an aside: We neither felt nor saw any of the many ghosts that are supposed to inhabit this building!

Glendalough: This is the ruins of a once busy monastic town. It is actually located in a glacial valley and as I looked around me I could see the high walls of the U-shaped profile of glacial action. The inhabitants of that town would no doubt have unconsciously viewed the landscape around them as ancillary and incidental to the cutting edge of creation; namely Man’s dealings with God.  Today, however, we find such a vision much more difficult to take for granted.  Changes in our perspective of time and space tempts us to view humanity as the ancillary objects, almost like inconsequential insects crawling around in the corners of the huge vista of a cosmic stage. When one understands something of geological history the setting of Glendalough, it only reinforces this tempting thought: This epic landscape with its huge space-time dimensions dwarfs human activity. It is easy to appreciate why Christian fundamentalists fail to come to terms with the cosmic perspective and can only cope with it by shrinking the cosmic backdrop to pre-scientific time scales and sometimes even returning to geocentric and flat earth cosmologies.

The central tower of Glendalough is its most notable feature: In the heyday of the monastic town it is thought to have served as a bell tower dividing up the day into its devotional segments; it was in fact the sacred equivalent of the city clock towers necessary for the marking out of secular time with a clock and bell before cheap mass produced time pieces were available to all.

Glendalough is now a town of the dead; It is still regarded as sacred and much of it covered by a grave yard that is in use today. I find some of the funerary paraphernalia that goes together with death full of pathos, a cathartic and apparently futile gesture in the face of the inevitability of termination. (See also here)

Aughrim: On the last day we walked round the small town of Aughrim not far from where we were staying. We had lunch by the gently chattering stream that passes through Aughrim. I reflected on the fact that this beautiful country with its neat well-kept shire-like feel is nothing short of a rural idyll. And yet southern Ireland is remarkably under-populated. There is in fact a very large Irish diaspora which dwarfs the 4.6 million inhabitants of Ireland. Sometimes an idyll can seem like heaven, a place where one wants to be for eternity.  But in this world it is difficult to tame the ambitious human spirit even with a mock paradise, a spirit that so often is looking for more. Sitting by a gently chattering stream is a solace and balm, but if you are ambitious you eventually get bored and have to move on. Many Irish people have done just that to the benefit of the world as a whole I would have thought!

Aughrim's quiet waters, but the allure of pastures new is always there.