Category Archives: Thoughts for Philosophers

Philosophy and Ethics formed part of my seminary training, so though my Honours Degree is Theology, my expertise includes philosophy. An Aspie perspective brings relevant insight to the way we do ethics, and the Big Questions humans tend to ask.

The Logic of Lewis

Continuing my consideration of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, let’s turn to his views on theology – the science of God (pages 130-100).

A map or photo is not as exciting as the experience of the real thing, but the map gives the “big picture” that makes sense of the local experience. In the same way, any experience of the presence of God will be more authentic for us than any work of theology, but experience alone gives a “vague religion” which is all thrills and no work.

If we took Jesus’ advice on how to treat one another, would the world be a better place? Yes, but the human race has never been very good at embracing the teachings of its moralists. If Jesus is the very best moralist, that only makes it even less likely that his lofty values will be attained than any other teacher’s!

There is more to Christianity than simply making this world a better place (though that matters too). Full Christianity goes beyond this “populist” Christianity be claiming that we become sons of God by attaching ourselves to Christ – our sonship is not automatic.

Here AspiePriest is relieved to see that Lewis follows the logic of Scripture which says we are adopted as sons of God through baptism, and therefore those not baptised are not God’s children – though still made in the image of God. In my experience most churchgoers will claim that all human beings are, by virtue of their humanity, children of God.

Man has biological life but is called to spiritual life – these are of such different orders that it is misleading to use the same word “life” for both. Lewis uses Bios for physical life and Zoe for spiritual life. We are like statues promised we will one day actually come to life!

How can God be more than a person without being “impersonal”? A human trying to understand God is like an inhabitant of Flatland trying to contemplate a cube when all that can be seen is a square passing through that two-dimensional world; the evidence suggests God is three persons and one nature, though we cannot comprehend the whole of God from our limited experience. God is Love – which means God cannot be a solo identity. But that’s not the same as making “feelings of love” into a god!

A group of people working together might be said to have the “group spirit”. In the same way, that which is common to Father and Son is the Holy Spirit, which can get into us and work through us – giving us the good infection of Zoe, which we are called to spread.

If you want to study an animal, watch it without frightening it. If you want to study another human person, enter conversation as equals. But if you want to study God, you must allow God to reveal Himself to you; and this He can do only insofar as your soul is pure. The best tool for seeing God is the Christian community as a whole.

 

God is outside time, and does not experience its passage. So we need not fret about God having to listen to millions of people praying “at once” and Christ was not sustaining the universe “at the same time” as spending 33 years on Earth; rather, he who inhabited timeless eternity was also present in the constraints of human time.

Christ (his spirit, as opposed to the physical body of Jesus) was begotten by the Father at the beginning of time. Imagine book B resting on book A. Now imagine this had always been the case. But B’s position can’t be understood without A’s. This is how we can imagine the son being begotten by the Father eternally.

From God’s timeless perspective, all human beings are connected. All are therefore affected when one of them is God incarnate. But each individual must appropriate the Zoe on offer by an act of will.

 

Why did God not simply beget many sons? Our “adoption” would not have been a painful process were it not for the Fall. And if more than one Son were begotten, what would make them distinct?

Our connectedness does not deny our individual distinctiveness. To emphasise either to the exclusion of the other would be a serious error; as in so many things, the truth lies in the via media.

This post has been largely a summary of Lewis’s writing. AspiePriest is pleased that Lewis’s thinking corresponds with his own in all of these matters. The question of whether there can be more than one distinct Son is rather like the questions in particle physics about how many distinct kinds of particle can exist…

 

A Modest Proposal

Continuing my consideration of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, let’s turn to his views on Christian sexual morality and marriage (pages 84-100).

Lewis distinguishes chastity from modesty, and explains how modesty depends on a social convention about what is deemed ‘acceptable’ – a Pacific island woman can display considerably more bare flesh than a Victorian lady! But each culture has its standards, and when these are known, deliberate breaking of them is a means of communicating sexual desire and exciting lust. Lewis also notes that when subcultures with different standards co-exist (consider two generations in the same society), there is a temptation to accuse the more conservative subculture of being prudes or puritans.

How objective is respect? Is it really “more reverent” to receive Holy Communion on the tongue than in the hand? Or is reverence an attitude of heart, which God alone discerns while others judge outward appearances?

Lewis opines that accidental infringements of modesty through ignorance or carelessness is “bad manners”.

Ah! Here we are in the fraught territory, especially incomprehensible to the autistic mind, of non-verbal communication in the context of a shared understanding of certain cultural values. To judge whether something is “modest” is akin to judging with something is “fashionable”, and can only be done properly by a human being who knows how to read the fast-moving currents of changing opinion, and knows what a certain way of dressing is meant to signal between two people who understand the same code.

In last Saturday’s Divine Office (Week 6 of Ordinary Time), Pope Pius XII commented that “a modest wife is a boon twice over”. Previously, when this annual reading came around, I interpreted the modest wife as being “the woman who covers up”. But in the light of what I’ve just written, it might be more fitting to understand the modest woman as the one who “does not flirt, but uses the right social conventions to signal that she is faithfully committed to her husband.” The text goes on to say:

Her looks and words enter into the souls of her family, softening them, touching them, raising them up from the tumult of emotion… The wife is like the sun shining in the family by… the appropriateness of her dress and bearing, adorned by her open and honest way of life. Subtle signs of feeling, shades of expression, silences and unmalicious smiles, little nods of approval … If only you could know the full depth of the feelings of love and gratitude that such a perfect wife and mother inspires in her husband and children!

Ah! If only! But I’m an Aspie, so I can’t know that from my own lived experience. I’ll just have to take it on trust.

It seems, then, that there are two dimensions of chaste dress. One is ‘modesty properly so-called’, the intentional use of well-understood social conventions to advertise one’s availability or unavailability for a marital relationship in a social context. The other dimension concerns the acts of charity involved in dressing in such a way as to not provoke undue levels of involuntary sexual arousal in other people. This can never be done perfectly, because some people will have fetishes about parts of the body normally on display, and even separation of the sexes cannot guard against arousal from same-sex attraction.

Meanwhile, C. S. Lewis and Pope Pius XII inspired me to search for perspectives on “modesty” online. The Catechism has something to say, and many sites quote the much-misattributed “Vatican Guidelines” (see also my PS):

…a dress cannot be called decent which is cut deeper than two fingers’ breadth under the pit of the throat, which does not cover the arms at least to the elbows, and scarcely reaches a bit beyond the knees.  Furthermore, dresses of transparent material are improper.

If you visit Rome, you’ll see many signs outside churches indicating that visitors should not have bare arms or legs – I presume because those 1928 Guidelines are still in force. That is creating its own subculture, “Please show respect on our terms, not yours.” Perhaps it’s not a subculture for native Romans – I wouldn’t know, I’m not a Roman. But in the Eternal City thronged by tourists and pilgrims from around the world, there will be many more visitors who don’t share the same subculture of modesty than those who do. Is this a positive or negative thing? Does it say “Please adopt our subculture to acknowledge that this church is a set-apart place?” Or for those less discerning of what is going on, does it say: “This is a Christian site. It is run for prudes, by prudes”?

I won’t summarise the rest of Lewis’s two chapters here; it is a good broad summary of Christian teaching on chastity and marriage, with no paricular angle I wish to comment on. I will merely offer you two short observations which Lewis makes:

(1) Society has normalised casual sex and deemed it ‘healthy’. But our sexual instinct is no different in kind from those other instincts which we are called to check – no-one suggests we should give free rein to our other base instincts.

(2) We need not be deterred by the loftiness of the goal of perfect chastity. God may start by giving us the grace to rise after each fall, rather than the perfect gift. Nevertheless, the fact something is difficult doesn’t disqualify it from being a required moral goal.

PS Many websites conflate the ‘Vatican guidelines’ with other documents touching on modesty published by the Congregation for the Council (AAS 1930, v.22 pp.26-28) and a letter referred to in that AAS text from the Congregation for Religious (NOT itself published in AAS but Italian source cited and translated into English on a forum). Different websites give different claims for the “two inches” guidelines but the one who seems to have done most source research indicates the detailed instructions on modesty of dress for women were issued on September 24, 1928 by Basilio Cardinal Pompilj, the Cardinal responsible for the running of the Diocese of Rome on behalf of Pope Pius XI.

Mere Anthropology

Today I’m beginning a new series of blog posts, in pursuit of the aim of writing “Typical Humans 101“. Various friends have pointed me towards C. S. Lewis’s classic Mere Christianity(a book adapted from scripts for broadcast on BBC Radio) and the more recent series of books by the Jesuit Robert Spitzer beginning with Finding True HappinessLewis’s purpose was to document those things common to Christians from different denominations; Spitzer’s is to treat of humanity’s quest for transcendent happiness. But both authors say enough about the human condition that, with an eye to knowing something of the quirks of the autistic mind, I can pick out those facts which would seem unremarkable to typical humans but deeply insightful to many Aspies.

Lewis’s opening chapters take me to a subject I’ve already considered on this blog – to what extent all human beings have the same inner experience of ‘the voice of conscience’. Lewis is not a psychologist, but as a respected author will have been chosen for broadcast and publication because he captures an understanding which will resonate with many members of his audience; a writer like Lewis rises to prominence because of his good grasp of what’s generally true about human nature.

Lewis’s way in to this subject (MC15-19) is that humans often quarrel about whether a course of action is fair. Even persons or nations who don’t keep their promises are likely to appeal to “fair play” on a regular basis. Such a dispute implies that there is a common standard of morality accessible to all parties. “This Law or Rule about Right and Wrong used to be called the Law of Nature… they really meant the Law of Human Nature… because people thought that every one knew it by nature and did not need to be taught it.” At least, most humans know it, but some may not, in the same way in which some are tone-deaf or colour-blind. Surface details may differ across cultures, but it would be difficult to imagine a culture which praised cowardice in battle or treachery to one’s friends. When we are accused of bad behaviour, we come up with all sorts of excuses – which is itself a sign that we intuitively know we have fallen short of some standard of fairness.  (Lewis also suggests reading the Appendix of Abolition of Man to continue this exploration.)

Following his original radio broadcast, Lewis received letters from  correspondents who found it hard to identify with this “Law of Human Nature, or Moral Law, or Rule of Decent Behaviour”. (MC 20-25) I suspect some such letters, from articulate critics, would have been from writers on the autistic spectrum.

Lewis also deals with the criticism that humans have a “herd instinct”. He acknowledges this may well be true but posits that there is a mental faculty distinct from instinct. We have instincts to eat food, drink water and pursue sex. When we hear a cry from someone in danger, it may stir in us contrary instincts to help and to flee – but there is a qualitatively different something within us which chooses which instinct to follow. This something often directs us to follow the weaker of the two impulses we sense. There is no broad category of human instinct which we must always follow in all circumstances, nor one which we must always suppress.

Inanimate objects are what they are, without choice. Human beings have the capacity of choosing their course of action. It is because we have a sense of what a person “ought” to do we can compare their actual deeds to what they “ought” to have done. We can distinguish this sense of “ought” from what we find convenient for ourselves. We might make use of a traitor, in our national interest, while despising him. (MC25-29)

Lewis notes that an external observer could discern a person’s actions but not their motives. From our own personal experience of being human,  we don’t always do what we know we ought; therefore, by studying human behaviour externally, we can’t establish the “oughts” which are being sometimes heeded and sometimes spurned in the mind of the person acting. (MC31) (Things have advanced since Lewis’s day. Current scientific knowledge of the neural mechanisms of morality are in their infancy; it is not unthinkable, however, that brain-scanning technology might one day be able to identify the presence of particular “oughts”.)

Overall, therefore, Lewis is arguing that there is a universal sense of fair play because all human beings have access to the same objective sense of The Good. If we generally agree that certain human societies are “more moral” than others (taking Nazi Germany as an example of low morals), does that not bear witness to our shared intuitive sense of what a moral society should look like?

Lewis allows that we may learn the Law of Human Nature by education, but argues that is not proof of its lack of objectivity, any more than learning a multiplication table invalidates the fundamental truth that 9 x 6 = 54 and always will be. He will go on to use the existence of The Good as a starting point for exploring the nature of God.

It seems to me that Lewis provides a well-written description of the Law of Human Nature which demystifies it for those of us who don’t experience it in our inner lives – as it is clear that some of the correspondents who contacted Lewis after the broadcast did not. This leaves us with a big question: does Moral Goodness have the same kind of objective reality as Mathematical Truth? That will be the subject of my next post.

* For Mere Christianity, I am using the 1971 19th impression of the Collins Fontana edition first produced in 1955; page numbers will be cited with MC using this edition.

Objectively Disordered?

Sometime after I received my diagnosis, a thought struck me. It is official Catholic teaching that a person experiencing homosexual tendencies is ‘objectively disordered‘. Should the same label be applied to a person on the autistic spectrum?

Why does this arcane topic concern me? It’s because of the church’s principle that an objectively disordered person should not seek ordination unless they have overcome the disorder. In 2005, the Vatican issued a document about the ordination of homosexuals which was not a total bar, but required the aspirant to honestly no longer ‘present deep-seated homosexual tendencies’ to qualify. This leaves an ambiguity. The document explicitly identifies the case where the tendencies were a phase which a person has grown beyond after adolescence, but leaves open the unspoken case where the deep-seated tendencies are still present but the aspirant has gained sufficient self-mastery to ensure that these tendencies are no longer ‘presented’.

The key word here is ‘disordered’, which implies a concept of natural order. This leads us to two underlying questions: what would we mean by a ‘normal’ human being, and therefore what do we mean by a ‘human being’? As a scientific question, this is a special case of the very large question of ‘what is a species’.

To forestall comments, I acknowledge and accept that theologically, human beings are ontologically different from mere animals. But this does not invalidate the biological approach, which can only analyse and recognise the continuum between the human species and other species.

As we now understand genetics, the basic unit of living creatures is the gene, a string of chemicals (using an alphabet of just four molecules, coded A, C, G and T) which instructs a living cell to make something or do something. A particular combination of genes (a genotype) results in a particular kind of creature (a phenotype). When a phenotype can exist and thrive successfully in its environment, the genotype (which always suffers random errors when reproduction takes place) tends to stay stable. Unsuccessful tweaks die out quickly from the gene pool. Sometimes, a random change produces a new phenotype which, even if only subtly different from the old pattern, is slightly more successful in the same environment, and thus evolution occurs.

A ‘species’ is how we refer to a stable pattern of genotype and phenotype. Within this, we will find plenty of in-species variation. So among the various apes and primates, the stable pattern of ‘no tail, big brain, walks upright, not very hairy’ characterises the human species. Traits like the colour of hair, skin or eyes are in-species variations.

If we measure a lot of individual adult humans, we will find natural variation in properties such as height, foot size and athletic ability. On each of these measures we can define what an ‘average’ human being is like; there will be outliers with extremely large or small values far from the average.

Less commonly, we will find variations not merely of degree but of pattern. A person might be born with an extra finger, only one kidney, or the plumbing of the heart reversed. These differences might be due to a genetic error, or a glitch in the way the body laid down its template while forming as a foetus.

Because the Bible speaks of God forming creatures in their ‘kinds’ (and the very word ‘creature’ implies ‘something created’) there is a long heritage of thinking of a ‘kind’ or ‘species’ as something fixed for all time. But in the light of modern genetics, we can only describe a species as a currently-stable pattern of genotype and phenotype – there is no sense that the pattern ‘ought’ to be a certain way. Now the term ‘disorder’ literally implies failing to live up to the pattern which ‘ought’ to be there (philosophical disorder) but can also colloquially mean ‘something that impairs body function’ (practical disorder).

A reversed heart is clearly a practical disorder, and will prove fatal without surgery.

A missing kidney is only revealed as a practical disorder if the function of the remaining organ begins to fail.

If it moves smoothly together with the other fingers, it’s not clear if having an extra finger is a ‘practical disorder’; it may indeed provide extra ability at tasks such as playing the piano! Its presence may cause a social handicap if the individual is identified socially and penalised for being ‘different’. Whether we consider it a philosophical disorder depends on whether having five digits on each hand is intrinsic or incidental to human nature…

What, then, about homosexual tendencies or autistic traits? Are these variations within the ‘normal range’ of human variation?

In the past it may have been naively thought that all persons were either clearly heterosexual or clearly homosexual in orientation. Nowadays it is acknowledged that there are different degrees of orientation. Autistic traits also exist on a spectrum. The average human (in the mathematical sense, for which you can use mean, median or mode) is neither homosexual nor autistic. But there will be humans whose orientation is mostly or entirely of same-sex attraction, and as a shorthand label, we call these people ‘homosexual’; similarly there are degrees of autism which makes it sensible to use labels such as  ‘Asperger’s syndrome’ and ‘low-functioning autism’.

Are people with strongly homosexual tendencies objectively disordered? They are also objectively far-from-average. But here theology intervenes. There is a strong narrative running through the Old and New Testaments that God’s plan is for men to marry women and for such couples to be fruitful. This indicates a divinely-instituted order within which men and women are either to refrain from sexual intimacy, or marry an opposite-sex partner. So a person of homosexual tendencies is ‘philosophically disordered’ with respect to the divinely revealed plan. Whether or not this is a ‘practical disorder’ depends largely on the prevailing attitudes of society.

Are people with Asperger’s objectively disordered? They are objectively far-from-average, and therefore likely to be socially handicapped. Given the way human society works, this constitutes a practical disorder. Given the mix of typical autistic traits (honesty, integrity and social awkwardness) there are traits which point towards good philosophical order as well as those which point away, so, in my opinion, high functioning autism does not constitute philosophical disorder.

The Language of the Law

In my last post, I began to explore the tension between the absolute nature of English Law and the suggestive format of Latin Law. Canon Lawyers say the law of the church is exhortative. How does that work?

An Italian friend invited me to go and stay in Italy with her husband and her sister. The two sisters generally spoke English together for my sake (and the husband’s). It sounded like they were arguing most of the time, “You should never have done so-and-so” – but it seems that rather than having a series of major disagreements, this was the normal way in that culture to express mild differences of opinion.

Wittgenstein, a philosopher of language, advised us to “Look for the use, not for the meaning“. As an Aspie, I find it hard to see beyond the literal meaning. Every professional field develops its own use of language, and jurisprudence includes case law teasing out the exact weight of what a law really means. But I do find it objectionable that a law might be drafted in words which are not literally intended. How, then can we know what it is supposed to mean? Scripture says: “Let your NO be NO and your YES be YES – anything else comes from the evil one.” And how can we understand God’s commands in the Bible, if they do not mean what they say? “Did God really say not to eat the fruit?” – that was the very first Temptation.

The whole Old Testament is a history of generations of God’s chosen people failing to live up to the Law they were covenanted into. There doesn’t seem to be much wiggle-room there for saying God wasn’t serious about avoiding the cult of Baal, paying tithes to the Jewish temple and seeking justice for the widow, orphan and honest trader. The Catholic interpretation of the New Testament holds that ‘This is My Body’ means just that in the context of the Eucharist. Yet God’s Word, like Christ, is fully human and fully divine. I cannot deny that there are human languages which thrive on exaggeration, as I have seen in Italian. To interpret that literally might be as alien to my Italian friend’s culture as to be non-literal would be to my own. When language itself carries such double meanings, have we any hope about pinning down what God wishes to communicate? And if so, can we express this in language which is itself unambiguous?

I once received an invitation to a wedding and said “I’ll come if I can”. I wasn’t going to know until a week before whether there would be room between other committment. In the event, I did go to the wedding. I didn’t let the couple know in advance because I couldn’t stay for the reception anyway, so there was no impact on catering. They were amazed that I had turned up. But I said “I’ll come if I can,” and in the event I could, so I came!  What should I have said?

And if “shall I come for coffee” means “let’s have sex”, how do I invite a person to spend an evening sharing a caffeinated beverage?

The Incredible Truth

Allow me to introduce one of my friends, whom I will call ‘Chelsea’. She is a family doctor and we have known each other since we were university students.

One day I was trying to explain to her the principle of Quantum Physics which says empty space is filled with ‘virtual particles’. This means that a pair of particles can appear ‘out of nowhere’ as long as they vanish again within a split-second interval related to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. There would be no cause for this to happen in a particular place; it takes place randomly simply because it’s statistically possible for it to do so.

Chelsea found this idea simply impossible to believe. I don’t think her problem was with the words; she could probably picture the concept of something emerging out of nothing. What she couldn’t accept was that the physical universe could possibly behave that way; her brain was conditioned by many years of seeing effect follow cause. I think they call that cognitive dissonance. It was clear that although she trusted my science qualifications, she could not bring herself to believe what I was asserting.

Chelsea is one of those trusted friends well aware of my Asperger’s diagnosis who serve as sounding boards to help me explore the neurotypical world. A few days later, I asked her a question. Was it true that when I visited her house, that even before I said any word or performed any action deliberately intended to communicate affection, she would be consciously aware of being in the presence of someone who loved her very much? She affirmed that she would, and when I pressed her on how she would know, she said she could see it in my eyes.

Not long after this conversation, another friend, a deacon, made a passing remark – “You could really see God in that person.” It’s a common phrase, but one I’ve never understood, so I took the opportunity to ask what my deacon-friend really meant by seeing God in someone. Ultimately he decided: “I can see it in their eyes.”

I also recently took part in a psychology experiment. I was asked to look at pictures showing human expressions – just a ‘letterbox’ image of the two eyes without the rest of the face – and choose from multiple-choice lists to say what emotion I felt the eyes were expressing. I found it almost impossible! Coupled with what the deacon and Chelsea told me, it was good confirmation that while most humans can read emotions in the eyes, I cannot.

 I have great trouble accepting this, just as Chelsea has great trouble grasping the counter-intuitive truths of Quantum Physics. It is so alien to my experience that you can ‘just pick up’ on how someone else feels about you, that although I can just write what I have written, it is very difficult to live my life feeling confident that my friends don’t need me to tell them how much I care about them because they can already sense it!

When  it comes to the counter-intuitive proposals of the Special Theory of Relativity (if you try to accelerate close to the speed of light you get heavier rather than going faster) and of Quantum Mechanics, I am very ready to accept that I have no direct experience of these realms, and if the mathematics predicts it, and experiment verifies it, then it must be so. But when it comes to the question of being human, it’s harder for me. I have to learn that my own experience of being human is not a good guide to the experience of the typical human beings around me.

There’s an oft-repeated statistic that says that 93% of all communication is non-verbal. This is true, but only for a very specific kind of communication – knowing what emotion is meant to be communicated by the saying of a single word. Imagine trying to say the word ‘thanks’, or ‘maybe’, or ‘terrible’ while deliberately trying to convey a positive, neutral or negative emotion. Mehrabian’s studies showed that the emotion behind a single word spoken in this contrived situation was conveyed 7% by the word itself, 38% by the tone of voice, and 55% by the facial expression.

I know from experience that I can read tone of voice pretty well, and if I can see someone’s whole face I can get a general sense from what I see – but if the eyes are so important then, hard though it is for me to believe, I am missing out on a very significant channel of communication. For you, if you are a typical human being, you are probably shrugging your shoulders at the banality of what I have just said, but for me, I am fighting cognitive dissonance to embrace this incredible truth!

A useful resource in this regard may be the Mind Reading DVD tool.

The Golden Metarule

Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

The Golden Rule of morality is both a teaching of Jesus and a tenet of many other world faiths. But for Aspies, it’s a poisoned chalice. You see, other people aren’t like you. They might not want done to them what you would want done to you.

Do you want people to tell you the honest truth at all times? If you are an Aspie, probably yes.

Do you want people to tell you directly how they are feeling about you? If you are an Aspie, probably yes.

Do you want people to say “Yes please” immediately when you offer them food, rather than go through the charade of “No thanks”, “But you really must,”, “Oh, go on then?” If you are an Aspie, probably yes.

Do you want other people to follow principles which disadvantage you rather than bending the rules to accommodate you? If you are an Aspie, probably yes.

Are you beginning to see the problem?

But what does it mean to “do as you would be done by”? This rule is capable of being extended. What would I like others to do unto me? I can answer this at the literal level of concrete actions, or at the ‘meta’ level of asking what kind of responses that person would like to have. My Golden Metarule says: “Assess whether the other person is an Aspie or a typical human being, and choose my behaviour accordingly.” Therefore, I must assess whether the other person wants an honest or a coded response, a direct or indirect indication of mood, a blunt response or a feigned polite refusal.

Aspies who have learned to function well in society are applying it all the time. But what about typical human beings who have Aspie friends or colleagues? Can it work both ways? Can typical humans apply this Golden Metarule and choose to deal with me bluntly and by the book because I am an Aspie and prefer to live my life this way? They have yet to prove it!

Conscience

“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.”

These words, article 1776 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, briefly summarise paragraph 16 of Gaudium et Spes.  They loftily declare that conscience is heard as God’s voice echoing within the depths of a person.

Really? I’ve never heard it within me.

The official Catholic definition of conscience and morality is a bit muddy and complex, but seems to go like this: There are God-given principles of morality. Insofar as we understand what these principles are, we must apply them to each and every moral decision we must make. Having reached a decision about whether a particular course of action is moral or not, we are duty-bound to avoid choosing any wrong course. Choosing to carry out an action we know to be wrong is, by definition, sin.

The ‘resounding voice’ of conscience apparently might do one of two things. It might tell me what one of the principles of morality is. Or it might shout Don’t do that!” when I contemplate a particular course of action.

What must I do if the teaching of the Church conflicts with one or more of the principles which I think my inner voice is telling me? I have a duty to form my conscience. If such a conflict occurs, I should doubt that the inner voice is speaking accurately, and trust that the Church’s teaching is more reliable. The inner voice is to be held sovereign when applying established principles, but not when establishing them in the first place.

The Church’s teaching is always about principles, not specifics. In the case of intrinsic evils, the distinction is semantic. For example: Should I procure an abortion? The Church intervenes, not to say directly “Don’t do it” but to say “Abortion is wrong in all circumstances”. I apply the principle to my life’s circumstances. Here of course, there is only one possible outcome. Nevertheless, it is an important point of principle that the Church only teaches the moral principle, and I remain morally responsible for applying it.

When the main thing going on in your head is a busy ‘reasoning centre’ equipped with a moral rulebook (written by your parents, the Church, the Bible and your lived experience), moral decisions are pretty straightforward. You apply the rules and get on with it. I seldom do a lengthy examination of conscience at bedtime, because to do so would only be to repeat the same moral calculus applied earlier in the day. If an action had turned out badly because of information unknown at the time, I would shrug and rationally conclude that I couldn’t have done differently there and then. More rarely, if my ‘feeling centre’ had exerted an unusual warning tug, or I might have allowed a thought, word or deed to be directed by a passing wave of sexual arousal, feeling of irritation, or gluttonous appetite, then there would indeed be cause to review an action which might not have been the best course.

I can’t say I have ever heard the resounding voice of conscience. Perhaps at times I have had a dull awareness of ‘this doesn’t feel like a good idea’ when pushing through some course of action. But as a preacher and teacher, it is hugely significant that my lived experience of conscience doesn’t match with what the Catechism says.

It strikes me as I write this post that despite my wide scientific reading, I have never come across discussions of the nature of conscience, or whether it works in the same way for everyone. A little Googling gives some quick results:

  • A reductionist biological view, of course, pre-supposes that the conscience, as an aspect of brain function, can treated like any other trait which evolved in modern humans. Darwin himself pondered the conscience in Descent of Man.
  • One Oxford psychologist was acknowledging that conscience might develop differently in different people back in 1961, in a journal intriguingly titled The Modern Churchman.
  • Some research papers have considered how we become more or less lenient in making moral judgments when our state of mind is coloured by a sense of disgust or awareness of physical purity.

The question of how human beings experience the workings of conscience is an empirical one, and therefore the proper domain of science, not theology. Do we know whether there are qualitatively different kinds of conscience, or only a single spectrum of one kind of conscience working more or less strongly?

Only once we can clearly state what human faculty we are speaking of, can we properly theologise about how that faculty may or may not mediate God’s will, either because God speaks supernaturally into that faculty, or the natural workings of that faculty are an aspect of humans being “made in the image of God”.

Wikipedia reminds me that scholastic authors spoke of the ‘spark of synderesis’ – but is their starting point an assumption that we all experience conscience in the same way?

Documenting how conscience works in the typical human will be a necessary chapter in the Aspie’s Humanity 101 Manual! But for moral philosophers, there is a wider question to ponder about the diverse nature of conscience itself.

I’ll finish this post by quoting paragraph 16 of Gaudium et Spes. Apparently I am supposed to experience conscience as something unlearned within me, as intrinsic to a human being as the Three Laws of Robotics are to Isaac Asimov’s positronic brains. Perhaps my experience of being human is rather like the story of the robot Caliban, who chooses to behave morally despite lacking an intrinsic set of laws.

In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.

Principles or Consequences?

Aspies are often accused of lacking common sense. Sometimes, what’s really happening is that a sense of duty overrides choosing to do what the typical human would do.

Once, at seminary, I walked into a small group session of prayer (in a staff member’s nicely carpeted study) with muddy shoes. Why? I was running late due to train problems, took a short cut across grass, and didn’t want to be any more late than I had to be. Cleaning my shoes would take time, but it was a matter of religious obedience to be at the prayer session promptly. My sense of duty that I had to be there overrode my awareness that I would be bringing mud into the room. Needless to say, the staff member whose office it was, was not impressed. So this is a cautionary tale for any religious superior in charge of an Aspie: unless you explicitly command your Aspie to interpret the rules flexibly and apply common sense, they may feel duty bound to do the opposite.

Serious scholars of ethics or moral theology will know that there are a number of mutually incompatible ways of judging what is Right or Wrong. The two most common approaches deal with principles (deontological ethics, ‘You must do your duty’) and with consequences (teleological ethics, ‘The end justifies the means’). Other schools of thought emphasise what feels right (emotivism) or what makes one a good person (virtue ethics) but we won’t overcomplicate things here.

The formal teaching of the Catholic Church is a hybrid of principles and consequences. The Church holds that there are certain actions and motives which are so bad in themselves that they are always, in principle, wrong. The technical name for these is ‘intrinsic evils’. Such actions include the deliberate killing of innocent humans, and deliberately rendering infertile a human act of sexual intimacy. Aside from the short list of intrinsic evils, the principle of double effect can be applied – if a possible course of action has both positive and negative consequences, it is permissible to choose the act for the sake of the positive consequences and to accept that negatives as collateral damage, as long as the negative consequences are not out of proportion to the expected good.

This stance generates huge amounts of controversy. The idea of intrinsic evil means that a foetus may not be aborted to save the mother’s life, nor may a weapon of mass destruction be used even though many more lives may be lost in the conventional war it might have forestalled. To those who think in terms of principles, these unfortunate scenarios are logically necessary (and the victims of these courses of action will be welcomed in heaven as heroes for their restraint). To those whose minds naturally think in terms of consequences, these principles seem inhuman and abhorrent.

Now, it strikes me that autistic minds tend to think more in terms of principles than of consequences. It also seems plausible that Aspies are more common among scholars than among the general population. How many of the great moral philosophers and theologians of the past had autistic traits? Does this mean that they were biased towards thinking of morality in terms of principles rather than consequences? Has this shaped the history of moral thinking in a particular way?

Now, it’s also true that autistic scholars have a way of looking outside conventional wisdom and seeking objective truths for what they really are. In the physical sciences, such scholars have dared to think that space is curved, solid particles are fuzzy, and the universe has an ultimate speed limit; the theories of Special and General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are the bread and butter of modern physics, but painfully counter-intuitive to the lay reader.

It seems to me that most human beings are more comfortable with a ‘least worst outcome’ approach than a ‘do your duty at all costs’ stance. So which is the case – that autistic scholars are wrongly seeking to impose their own mindset on typical humans, or rightly urging humanity to follow principles in a way which is deeply true yet counterintuitive? As a loyal son of the Church I will continue to preach that intrinsic evils are wrong in all circumstances, regardless of how unpalatable the outcome.

Meaning and Purpose

When I moved to High School, I got good grades in most subjects, but it took a while for my English scores to catch up with other subjects. I think that’s because I had to learn what kind of analysis was expected. When I watch a film or read a book, I am mostly interested in What Happens Next. I read quickly and turn pages to find out how the action proceeds, and should the author choose to insert a page of florid prose about the beauty of a particular landscape, my eyes will likely skip over that and seek out the continuation of the action. I don’t have a very visual imagination, so characters in the story become mere labels in my head – “Frodo, hobbit, hairy feet, carries the One Ring” – I don’t start imagining what people or places might look like.

In school English lessons, I learned to ask questions about the deeper meaning of a text. But that doesn’t come to me very intuitively. If something is an obvious satire, I can recognise that – Terry Pratchett’s Discworld astutely charts a world not entirely unlike our own, moving from a mediaeval existence to a thoroughly modern one. But unless the parallels are clearly drawn, I won’t see them at first viewing. If I am asked the right questions, then yes, I can draw that out – but it requires sustained brainwork, deliberately applied.

It now seems to me that many people are wired to instinctively seek meaning in events.

What is “meaning”? It’s an embedded message. Typical human beings find it in works of art. They find it in the beauty of nature. They seek it to account for the very fact of their existence.

Terry Eagleton’s Very Short Introduction to the Meaning of Life notes that there is a deep philosophical problem in even asking the question, “What’s the meaning of life?”

Is life, in fact (be it human life in general, or your life in particular) the kind of entity which has a ‘meaning’? The concept seems intelligible to an awful lot of human beings, and indeed the Alpha Course has attracted millions to explore Christianity by offering “An opportunity to explore the meaning of life”; but I feel handicapped as an evangelist because I don’t understand what the question means, or why so many people ask it.

Purpose is quite another matter. The Ancient Greeks analysed everything in terms of Four Causes, after Aristotle:

  • What is it? (Material Cause)
  • What rules does it follow? (Formal Cause)
  • What put it into the state it started in? (Efficient Cause)
  • What is its goal? (Final Cause)

Modern science makes do with only the first three to gain a sufficient understanding of the universe. Final Cause is only relevant for those artefacts deliberately designed by an intelligent agent with a conscious purpose in mind. Richard Dawkins has set out how Darwinian evolution by natural selection creates a lot of ‘design-oid’ objects which seem to have a purpose but in fact have been shaped to fit into an interlocking network of predators and prey by the accidents of history.

We human beings are intelligent agents. We are capable of asking the question: “What should I do?” Are we free to designate our own purpose, or has God already got one in mind for us? The traditional Catholic answer is that we were made to love and serve God, to be happy with him in this world and the next.

In my life, I pursued a PhD because I was interested in the subject and capable of doing it – that seemed reason enough. I didn’t consciously have a God-shaped hole and wasn’t asking “What’s the meaning of life?” But God did appear in my life, and I learned that calling Him Lord meant saying: “What would you like me to do?”, ultimately receiving the answer that I should be a diocesan priest. Yet even now, I have a sneaking suspicion that if that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have started seeking ‘meaning’ in life; and ‘purpose’ would have gone no deeper than pursuing ‘what makes me happy’ (which was very fortunately, for me, doing academic research rather than stealing cars or taking drugs!)