Category Archives: Typical Humans 101

What is a neurotypical human being like? If you’re autistic, it’s really useful to have a manual. This is my contribution to such a tome, based on a lifetime of living with neurotypical humans.

Faith, Hope and Charity

Continuing my consideration of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, let’s turn now to questions of Faith, Hope and Charity (pages 112-129). These are known as the ‘theological virtues’ – and a virtue is a self-reinforcing good practice which we must choose to work at.

Lewis sees our human existence is a constant balancing act between reason and emotion. Even though we know certain things are true, and should give us security, our fears and other emotions can cause us to panic and doubt. For a new Christian believer, one who has recently become convinced of the weight of evidence that Christianity is true, this new faith will be challenged by an emotional storm – and sooner rather than later. Maybe this is borne of some piece of bad news, or perhaps it is because a powerful desire rises up for something known to be contrary to Christian morals. Daily devotions help reinforce what we know to be true in the face of our changing moods.

One of the perks of being an Aspie is that, having reached the point of deciding that Christianity (and its Catholic flavour) are intrinsically true, my faith is rarely rocked by passing moods. Yes, I have experienced “low spells” in my life where things have been difficult in work and relationships, but these seldom caused me to doubt God’s existence. There’s no passage in the Bible which promises a trouble-free life for Christians – our loved ones will get sick, die, and suffer the misfortunes of earthly existence.

Lewis comments that only those who have come to the point of “surrendering to Christ” will understand what it means to have this experience of deep conversion. This may be experienced in a flash or recognised in hindsight as something that happened immeasurably over years. Often it is borne of confronting one’s utter inability to resist temptation.

For me, there was a key year in the mid-1990s when two things happened. The first was that I was weighed down with the experience of wanting a relationship I couldn’t have, with a friend who was losing her faith. After months of agony, I said to God, “You must carry this burden, I can’t hold it any more.” On that day, I prayed in tongues for the first time. A few months later, having been resisting the idea of the call to priesthood, I surrendered to God and said: “You know best, show me what you want me to do in life – even if it is becoming a Catholic priest.” It was on this day – not the day I became a Catholic a few years before – that I made the intellectual decision to entrust myself to Jesus as Lord of every aspect of my life.

Faith is a virtue – that is, a daily practice to put into place. It means continuing to act according to the teachings of Jesus whatever life may throw at us. To believe is less about knowing things intellectually and more about “putting our trust in” Christ.

Lewis turns his attention to hope. Humans generally experience a longing for “something more”. Whatever we delight in, the delight fades. Some people use their life to chase “experiences” but nothing will ultimately satisfy. Others, more pragmatic, choose to stop “chasing rainbows” and settle for what they have; and may project an air of “superiority” to those they regard as adolescents chasing dreams. Lewis argues that desires exist because there is something capable of fulfilling them, and these unmet human desires are a signal to us that heaven exists. The picture-language used in the Bible to describe heaven merely points to its qualities – music for ecstasy, gold for eternity, crowns for power and splendour.

I’m not with Lewis 100% on the idea that if longing exists, the sought-for thing must exist somewhere in its fullness. I’m sure evolutionary biology can give some account of how a species benefits from a hard-wired drive to aspire – when suitable fruits are there to be harvested, aspiration pays off, and as long as not too much energy is expended on wild-goose chases, this strategy will succeed. But I do think I ‘get’ the idea of this unfulfilled longing. For me, it happens when surfing the Internet randomly – that sense that there is some page out there, just a click away, which has a funnier joke or a more interesting story, if only I knew what to click. I’ll just have to take Lewis’s word for it that music is the best way to experience ‘ecstasy’, as I’ve said before, music just doesn’t connect for me.

As for Christian charity, or love, Lewis is clear that this is a choice, not a feeling. It begins with behaving “as if” you love others and grows into affection for them. This is good news for Aspies! We can’t always feel, but we can choose to do good for others. (It is important, however, to check that our actions are appreciated by others and are not merely what the other person would like if they too were an Aspie!)

Lewis reflects on his very fresh memory of Nazi Germany to see how those who chose to act with friendliness or hostility to certain ethnic groups grew into a genuine love or hatred for those groups, by the very actions they chose to take. For my part, I know there was one occasion in my life when a person I instinctively didn’t like asked for my friendship. I made a deliberate choice to overcome those instincts and am glad to say that person is now a good and worthwhile friend.

As a Lenten reflection, I’ll leave you with this idea from Lewis. Do you doubt whether you love God? Ask yourself “What would I do if I was sure I loved God?” Go do it.

 

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.

A Touchy Subject

Last time, I pondered the question of why people don’t do things when it comes to food. This time, I’m asking the same question concerning touch.

A while back, I was walking alongside my pre-teen godson in a pilgrimage. We have a close and loving relationship, and I rested my hand on his shoulder. But his Mum wasn’t happy. “Only a Dad should touch a boy like that – you don’t see other godfathers doing that, do you?” She was also concerned that onlookers might misread the situation and assume I was a child abuser.

Once again, I have failed to make a study of typical human behaviour – in this case how godfathers normally show affection. And once again, even if I had noticed the absence of such behaviour, I wouldn’t have known the reasons why they don’t do it.

Indeed, in general, I don’t have a good sense of how really close friends behave when they are together in private – I don’t get to go to that many family parties. There are plenty of books guiding Aspies who want a sexual relationship, but none on how to navigate close yet chaste relationships when you are celibate. For instance, when you are a house-guest with a family, should you offer the hostess a kiss on the cheek when you retire to go to bed? There are clearly circumstances when you shouldn’t – if she’s asked you not to, or you know it would make her husband jealous. But is it the kind of thing people don’t do in general? I haven’t been a house guest alongside enough different guests to know! It’s just one small example of the difficulty of not reading the emotional melodies in a life which is occasionally ambushed by affection.

Another thing a close friend asked me not to do is to look into her eyes for too long. I’ve written previously about how I can’t read the emotions in other people’s eyes, but there’s also some good scientific research establishing that gazing into one another’s eyes promotes a sense of bonding – and even gazing into a pet’s eyes produces the “bonding hormone” oxytocin. As a celibate seeking to avoid, and avoid provoking, falling-in-love there’s one clear conclusion – don’t look for too long!

Food for Thought

I’ve not been blogging for a while due to a series of minor infections – when you’re not running on 100% capacity as a priest you have to prioritise the basics – and it may be a while before I’m posting regularly, but this thought came along.

Why is it that other people don’t do certain things?

Recently, I asked one of my trusted friends for perspective, because I had to fill our a self-assessment form which asked about my social weaknesses. “When you eat soup in company,” she said, “don’t dunk your bread in it. After all, you don’t see other people doing that, do you?”

I learned two things from this conversation.

First, I don’t tend to notice what it is that other people don’t do. I don’t think I’ve ever paid attention to how other people eat soup.

Second, my friend (and therefore, if she is representative, a fair percentage of humanity) get an icky emotional reaction when they see someone dunking.

Soup has never come up as a subject before, but at seminary, one student challenged me about dunking my toast in my morning coffee. At the time, my response was to always try to sit at a different table from him, so he didn’t have to watch me. But in hindsight, I think the message I was supposed to get was that most people find that icky and would be uncomfortable around me.

It’s in cases like this that we Aspies might be at a multiple disadvantage. First, if I did notice someone dunking in coffee or soup, I wouldn’t have a bad emotional reaction to that. Second, since I’m not good at reading other people’s emotions, I am unlikely to notice that someone else is uncomfortable about the way that I am eating. Third, since I don’t naturally seek out other people’s behaviour patterns as examples of what to do, or avoid doing, I’m not going to have a sense that most people don’t do that. And fourth, if no one tells you that most people do react badly, then even if you do notice that no-one else is dunking, you wouldn’t know why. Maybe most people simply don’t like to dunk.

My friend also pointed out that not eating part of a meal prepared for you shows disrespect for the time and effort that the person went into making it for you. This is a good example of the different assumptions that Aspies and typical human beings might make when it comes to preparing a meal… and it all depends on the Golden Metarule which I mentioned this time last year.

The Aspie Way

  1. People might have allergies or simply not like particular food. I don’t want to have to eat food I don’t like so why should I put anyone else in that position?
  2. I want my guests to enjoy their meal.
  3. I ask my guests what they do and don’t like to eat.
  4. I make sure that I prepare food that my guests like.
  5. If something goes wrong with my cooking, I want my guests to tell me so that I can avoid making the same mistake next time. How else could I be sure to prepare something they will really like?

The Typical Human Way

  1. Most people like the adventure of trying something new or unexpected.
  2. The host puts a lot of effort into giving the guests a surprise.
  3. The guests show they appreciate the effort by eating all the food, smiling, whatever they really think of it.
  4. They all say “Thank you for a lovely meal.”

Postscript…

I was recently at a bread-and-soup lunch for Christian leaders. For the first time in my life – and I’m now in my 40s – I paid attention to how other people eat. The bread was in the form of sliced baguettes. Of the six others on my table, four put dry bread in their mouths. Two took small pieces of baguette crust and dipped them in the soup.

It was fascinating, paying attention to this and noticing what other people do. A reminder that my way of being an Aspie includes no desire to conform to other people’s actual patterns of behaviour, no instinct to monitor that behaviour, and no awareness of non-verbal signs of fellow diners are reacting to my behaviour.

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.

How I Found Out I was an Aspie

During my childhood, my parents often commented that I was ‘born awkward, and awkward ever since’. I was a firstborn, so they had no prior experience of raising a son. I wasn’t failing so badly in school that I ever had to see a psychologist, although my Mum despaired of ever persuading me to play with other children. They never thought I might have a condition with a clinical label, though Asperger’s wasn’t so well known in the 1980s.

Looking back, it explains a lot. School playtimes were a nightmare in primary school. Often I would just walk forlornly around the edges of the yard, kicking up the dirt; sometimes I would go and tell appalling puns to the teacher on yard duty. I simply didn’t know what to do during playtime, and didn’t particularly want to join in any schoolyard games that seemed remotely rough.

Secondary School was a little less taxing, since I could volunteer to work as a Library Monitor during break times. But in my pre-teens I was so sensitive to other pupils using foul language, that quite a few made a point of coming and using it just to wind me up. I had no inhibitions about reporting bad behaviour to staff members, and on those occasions when a class teacher let the pupils go in order of good behaviour, I would always be among the first cohort. And being bright, teachers quite often prefaced their questions to the class with “Does anyone apart from (my name) know the answer?” That didn’t bother me then, but in hindsight I see that being both a goody-goody and a swot doesn’t make you many friends!

When I entered seminary, I received some puzzling feedback. My end of-first-year appraisal went something like this: “You are a great student, you seem to be faithful to your prayers and you do your chores. There’s just one thing we, the formation staff, are worried about – your being.”

“My what?”

“Your being.”

“Oh. I’m not sure I understand. Can you explain that in other words?”

“Errm, no.”

“What would you like me to do about it?”

“We don’t know.”

“Is this a significant issue for my onward formation?”

“Yes.”

“So you are telling I have a significant issue, you can’t articulate what it is or what I should do about it, but I need to sort it out?”

“Yes.”

This was a puzzle. The only sensible action I could formulate for my Second Year Plan was: “To be.” I hesitate to call this an action plan, since being implies something other than doing. Nevertheless, I framed an action of spending time in reflective silence. But I knew this wasn’t touching the heart of the issue.

Half-way through my seminary formation, I went on a pilgrimage with a group of young adults. I got chatting to one of them and it quickly emerged that we had a great deal in common. At our respective schools, we had each been the most intelligent and best behaved child, the one who found playtimes a bore. (Why waste time playing when there were more things to study? And no other child invited us to play, still less explained the rules, anyway!)

At the end of the conversation, she said to me: “I’ve just been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. I think you may have it too – you should get it checked out.”

So when I got back to seminary, I went to see the chief counsellor and asked if she had considered the possibility that I was autistic. She hadn’t, but thought it was a good idea. I was sent off for the relevant tests, and the diagnosis was confirmed. Finally, it helped me and the staff put a clearer label on this mysterious “problem with being”. It concerned the subtle exchange of signals through body language which typical humans send and receive all the time without being fully aware of it. (Later, I came to appreciate that reading the emotions in other peoples’ eyes is a key part of this.)

Divine providence arranged that meeting on a pilgrimage in another continent. Because of it, I reached the root of something the seminary might otherwise have failed to diagnose. Thanks be to God!

Ambushed by Affection

The British media have recently made a great stir about Pope (St) John Paul II having a close female friend to whom he gave his precious Brown Scapular and with whom he enjoyed a deeply emotional relationship – without any hint that he broke his vows of celibacy. Traditional Catholic wisdom is that one should avoid the “occasions of sin” – but very often, an occasion of sin is also an occasion of great good. If you cut yourself off from close relationships, you also cut off the possibility of experiencing affectionate friendships, and since God is love, God lives in such friendships. Nor can any absolute distinction be made – Pope Benedict XVI has acknowledged that there will always be a blurred line between the self-giving Christian love called agape and the base sexual instinct which is eros. There are two choices – avoid the possibility of close relationships at all; or walk the tightrope which seeks to give and receive affection without straying too far into arousal.

Last month, I wrote about how my way of being an Aspie means I can’t read the emotions in people’s eyes, and since facial expression conveys more than half the emotional content of a human interaction, that’s a pretty significant handicap. Another Aspie has said this:

Neurotypicals faces shine with “looks of love.” They show it with their eyes and tone of voice primarily. Neurotypicals are constantly saying nasty things to each other while at the same time shooting each other looks of love. It’s like saying, “You’re hair looks crazy today,” while their eyes and voice are saying “but I love you for it.” Talk about mixed messages! The same way that Aspies love to figure out riddles and solve puzzles, these are “social” puzzles for neurotypicals that they love playing with and figuring out. It’s considered “sophisticated” social interaction. Plus, the looks of love are very rewarding for them and make them feel warm and fuzzy inside.

Because I can’t sense these “looks of love”, they aren’t going to make me warm and fuzzy inside. But I do have close friends, and it is possible for my friends to communicate something that makes me feel warm and fuzzy. This only happens when someone unmistakeably and directly communicates to me that I am loved. It might be some words whose meaning is crystal clear. It might be an action that helps me with a project, when someone clearly understands what I am trying to achieve. But most commonly it will be because a friend has actually, physically, touched me.

A hand on my shoulder, a kiss on my cheek, an embrace that lingers longer than a perfunctory hug – all of these things can and do tell me that I am loved. But for me, they are not the crescendo in a symphony of love smouldering away in someone’s eyes – if one of my close and trusted friends does this, I find myself ambushed by affection, taking me from no awareness to strong awareness in a moment. This is a bittersweet experience, because it means for me there is only a very narrow gap between the kind of interaction which won’t communicate affection at all, and the kind I want to avoid as a celibate because it would move into sexual arousal.

It also means that I am not very good at using touch to show affection to others. Because what I experience in my life is being ambushed by affection at seemingly random moments, this is what I naturally reproduce in the way I have tried, in the past, to tell my most trusted friends that they are loved. When it is physically possible to offer a backrub or casually touch someone’s arm, I have done so – and until the last year or so, have been puzzled by feedback from friends who have asked me not to try so hard. Surely human beings want to be told that their friends love them, using the appropriate love languages?

I’m only just beginning to understand that the love languages are the icing on the cake, where the sponge-base is the visual communication. That must be why some of my trusted friends have counselled me to “stop trying”, and why I can never seem to join in with “teasing” or adult “play fighting”. What I am trying to do only works when it’s orchestrated as part of the symphony of non-verbal communication, and I can’t hear the basic melody. My friend Chelsea does assure me, though, that my eyes do communicate – she knows that I feel comfortable in her home because she can see it in there.

Not understanding the underlying melody, until now I thought that touch was all about how comfortable am I with you as a person, and you with me. If you put a hand on my shoulder and I’m comfortable with that, I thought that meant “OK, now we are close enough we can put a hand on each other’s shoulder at random moments”. But obviously not – there are much more subtle indicators for context. The meta-golden-rule strikes again!

It’s not easy, learning this as a Catholic priest. There are very few safe relationships in which I can practice. In my professional relationships, I will always err on the side of not touching unless I am absolutely sure it’s OK (holding the hand of a dying person is generally OK). I will never have a wife or experience a dating relationship (I never had a girlfriend before becoming a priest). I’m aware that there are such things as cuddle parties where non-sexual cuddles are available, but I find the idea of being touched affectionately by someone who’s not already a trusted friend quite repellent. In my professional relationships, my constant awareness that I have a duty to keep appropriate boundaries means that unexpected touch from others is always slightly uncomfortable. And that leaves only a small handful of trusted friends who, though they aware of my Aspie diagnosis, do not go out of their way to communicate affection in direct ways which they themselves might find uncomfortable – nor can I talk to them about this often, because I get the impression that conversing about “how do we show love to each other” is uncomfortable in the context of anyone other than a current or future spouse.

Sadly, this means that every time I visit such a friend, I never know whether or not I am going to be ambushed by affection. On a good visit, if I spend 1-2 nights staying in the home of one of my closest friends, there is a 50:50 chance they will do something that effectively communicates affection. There are few things more lonely than driving home from a visit where I experienced no ambush, knowing that one of the few trusted people in my life who could communicate love has failed to do so (through no deliberate fault of their own) and it might now be several months before I next visit a friend by whom I might be ambushed. If I feel warm and fuzzy six times in a year because someone has effectively communicated love, it’s been a good year. That’s not much love to live on, but it looks like it’s all I’m ever going to experience.

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.

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.

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!)