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?

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The Spirit of the Law

Last year, I visited a major pilgrim centre where a notice in the sacristy caught me eye. The text at the top was in Latin – an extract from the rules for Mass, stating that no priest may join a concelebration once the Mass had begun. It was repeated below in all the major European languages, including English. Yet ten minutes into the Mass, as the First Reading was being proclaimed, a side door opened and two vested priests walked into the sanctuary and took their seats.

If I were late for a concelebration, I would not dream of vesting and joining in – at least once the opening hymn has given way to the formal Sign of the Cross and Greeting. (I have once or twice scurried in during the hymn to tag on to a procession!) But as soon as the Sign of the Cross has been said, that’s it. I would, in such circumstances, take my place on the people’s pews.

I have often heard it said, especially by Canon Lawyers, that Latin Law is not like English Law. English Law is imperative. In England, cars wait at red lights even if all the roads are clear. Latin Law, by contrast, is exhortative. “It would be most fitting if you didn’t join a concelebration once it has begun, so please do your level best to get the the sanctuary in time.” Does that mean I am being too legalistic in excluding myself from doing what I have seen other priests do, when they slip into the sanctuary later than that?

In the Gospels, we see that Jesus was no stickler for the letter of the law. When his disciples plucked corn on the sabbath day, he defended them. He did not carry out the sentence of stoning due to an adulteress. He was accused of not observing precepts about ritual washing. Yet in these cases we can see the spirit of the law which was being honoured. The Sabbath Laws are about creating a day for rest and worship where scheduled work is to be avoided, not creating a day when it is forbidden to help a person in need, or indeed to help oneself to the fruits of the land. The adulteress was left in no doubt that she was a sinner who had experienced an act of mercy. The ritual washings were cultural baggage which tradition had added to the Law given by God.

Is it so serious to slip onto a sanctuary during a First Reading? Perhaps it depends on the reason you are late. If you were unavoidably delayed by an act of mercy (you had to hear a confession) or circumstances beyond your control (a traffic jam where there wouldn’t normally be one) then it is probably within the spirit of the law to join a Mass you would reasonably have expected to be on time for. But it would always be fitting to refrain from doing so out of respect for obedience to the law and the dignity of the celebration. Perhaps it is less a matter of sin, and more a counsel of perfection – as scripture says in a rather different context (whether to marry or not!), the one who takes part does well, but the one who sits out does better.

AspiePriest’s Three Laws of Humanics: (cf. Asmimov’s Three Laws of Robotics)

  1. A human being shall obey every commandment given by God (as proposed in Scripture or the formal teaching of the Catholic Church), following the Spirit of the Law where this can be clearly grasped, but the Letter of the Law otherwise.
  2. A human being shall seek the well-being of all human beings (especially their neighbour, themself, their enemy), but never in such a way as to contradict the First Law.
  3. A human being shall seek personal happiness and fulfilment, as long as this does not contradict the First Law or Second Law.

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.

Three Kinds of Priest

In the part of the world where I minister, most of the priests around me were trained in the 1960s or 1970s. The majority of these priests are what I call ‘humanitarians’ (some would call then liberals). Their emphasis is the Second Great Commandment. They are concerned first and foremost for the material and emotional wellbeing of people, and often seem keen to set aside those church rules which make life ‘difficult’ (about such things as remarriage, contraception and priestly celibacy). When a group of them get together, they often say rude things about other priests who seem excessively concerned about such things as good liturgy.

At the start of 2015, I attended the conference of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy in Rome. The key speakers, as advertised, were key Vatican figures with interesting things to say. But the vast majority of priests I networked with at this conference seemed preoccupied with the restoration of the extraordinary form of the liturgy (a.k.a. Tridentine Mass) and how to save the Church from the terrible liberal errors Pope Francis was ‘likely’ to inflict on it around the forthcoming Synod on the Family. This group of clergy (‘conservatives’ or ‘traditionalists’) were just as rude about the liberals as my experience of vice versa. I got a definite sense that this group of priests first and foremost were seeking security of identity, expressed in terms of continuity with the lived experience of the church of the recent past. Any change was a threat not only to practice but to identity.

Some years ago a friend commented that it was easier to get liberals to build a consensus than to get conservatives to do so, because liberals would readily compromise on any solution which was generally good for human beings, while conservatives each had their own highly prized yet subtly different standard for what best expressions of liturgy and doctrine should be.

More recently, I realised there is a third kind of priest – the evangelical, or disciple. This kind of priest is most focussed on what Jesus commanded us to do. Such a priest is not afraid to innovate in those areas where the contemporary church is not currently doing some of the things Jesus commanded – such as evangelising or ministering the healing and prophetic gifts of the Holy Spirit. This is the rarest kind of priest, and I think you will find that they will speak sadly, but not rudely, about their colleagues who have allowed care for other human beings or their own security of identity to come before the First Great Commandment, to love God with all one’s heart, mind and strength.

Of course, anyone who truly loves God must necessarily love their neighbour; but if we are confident that God has said, through the church, that artificial contraception, abortion, euthanasia and direct co-operation with weapons of mass destruction are wrong in all circumstances, we cannot invoke the ‘public good’ defence implicit in the Second Great Commandment, to justify them. Any priest who was sworn the ordination oath of fidelity to celebrate liturgy and teach doctrine according to the norms of the Church is duty bound not to innovate – but that still leaves room to explore the spirit of the law, and does not bind the senior officials of the church from adjusting liturgies and developing doctrines, for they have the authority to do so.

There are not only three kinds of priests, of course. There are three kinds of lay Catholics, three kinds of deacons and three kinds of bishops. I doubt we can have more than one kind of Pope at any one time, though!

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!

The Whole Truth

Christian author Corrie Ten Boom tells a story of the time her family, in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, took in Jews and hid them in their cellar. When the Gestapo came a-calling, the kitchen table was pulled over the trapdoor. An office asked Corrie’s sister, Betsie, a direct question: “Are you hiding Jews in this house?”

Betsie’s Christian convictions forbade her from speaking a deliberate lie, even for a purpose as noble as saving the Jews. So she affected the most ironic tone possible and sighed: “Yes of course we are! Can’t you see they are under the table?”

“Don’t play silly games with us, woman!” snapped the officer, and moved on.

The Catholic moral tradition has always held ambiguous views about whether one must answer truthfully in all circumstances. The relevant commandment forbids “false witness”, which points to high-stakes situations such as courtrooms and oaths. The wider moral tradition considers questions of lying to ‘those who have a right to know the truth’.

When penitents come to me pained that they have lied to spare a friend’s feelings, I never tell them that doing so is permissible.  Nor do I state that it is clearly sinful – but they have identified it as sin and they are the one who has mentioned it in confession. I counsel them to find creative answers which are not direct responses to the questions asked, or perhaps to respond with, “Do you want my honest opinion?” before proceeding.

I have to recognise that the English language is used in certain conventional but non-literal ways. “How are you?” is an invitation to give a stock response to establish conversation, not to offer a comment on my actual state of well-being. As for “How do I look in this dress?”, I won’t begin to analyse what that might actually mean! As an Aspie, it grieves me that language is used so cavalierly in non-literal ways. As a scientist, I note that sociolinguists such as Erving Goffman have documented how language is used in different contexts. As a Christian, I wonder if we are acting outside the Lord’s injunctions to be straightforward (Mt 5:37). The Lord is Truth Himself; surely Jesus would not speak thus! (Yet in some contexts, such as ‘cut off your sinful hand’ Mt 5:29-30, I recognise that he must surely be exaggerating for effect. The behaviour, not the hand itself, must be amputated.)

There will also be contexts where I haven’t realised that there’s a non-literal convention going on in the way others use language. And how does the fact I am a priest influence things? If a terminal patient asks “Am I going to die?” is it my duty to provide false hope, or to prepare a soul to meet its Maker quite imminently?

And then there was the time I appeared in court as a character witness. I swore to tell the ‘whole truth’. How did I know the accused? “I was his spiritual adviser, but I asked his permission to waive confidentiality when his lawyer asked me to appear.” For this 100% honest response the jury was sent out and I was lectured by the judge about proper speech in court; I had breached some rule about indicating that a witness had been in contact with the accused. Clearly the Court did NOT want the whole of the truth which I had just sworn on the Bible to provide!

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!)