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!)

An Aesthetic

“Do you have any hobbies?”

This was, and still is, my most feared question in any kind of formal interview or informal introduction. It usually leads on to questions about sports, music, or the arts in general. But I’ve never been interested in any of that stuff – and now I think I know why.

Supporting a sports team is about emotional engagement. Terry Pratchett captured the power of ‘the Shove’ (crowd of supporters) very effectively in his football-centered fantasy novel, Unseen Academicals. But when your ‘feeling centre’ is usually off-duty, it’s hard to get passionate about a particular team.

The visual arts are mainly about emotional communication. But I am not receptive to the emotional message of a piece of sculpture, a painting, or a ballet. If there is a language that can be learned, I can study that – and I can meditate on an icon with the help of a guidebook on the conventions of Christian iconography. But that’s a question of analysis by my ‘thinking centre’.

Music? I ‘get’ that minor chords feel sad and major chords feel happy. But beyond that, the emotional language of music is lost on me. Yes, I can recognise cinematic conventions so that the music can warn me that a dastardly act is about to be committed, but music shorn of words or images cannot communicate its emotional story to me. If there are words, they need to be intelligible. I do enjoy singing traditional hymns and modern worship songs, but those that have emotional weight for me do so because of a context in which I first heard them. I don’t often put on background music, but when I do, it will probably be Rich Mullins or the Maltfriscans.

Film and Theatre? If it’s the kind of movie where the climax has a hero risking life and limb to ‘do the right thing’, I will probably shed a tear or two at that moment. My feeling centre does wake up when my thinking centre alerts it to high-stakes righteousness. Similarly in novels… I remember reading The Hobbit during school break time and crying at the point where Thorin dies. A prefect came along and asked who had been bullying me… he wouldn’t believe I was crying for the emotions in a novel!

Poetry? I appreciate form over emotion, so give my poetry that rhymes and scans, and ideally has a funny message. Dr Seuss or Edward Lear? Yes please. Blank verse? Eurgh.

In short, I don’t support any football team, nor do I have a favourite pop musician or classical album. I do like reading novels and watching movies. I will pay to see the latest action-adventure in the cinema, especially if it’s the latest instalment from Marvel, but will probably wait for the Rom-Coms until I am having a quiet evening in front of the small screen. Am I boring?

Amazingly, it seems socially unacceptable to not respond to the world of sports or art at all. I could name an artist or team a million miles from your own tastes, and you would have a sense of who I am, but dare I suggest I’m not into any of that? I will be certain to be pigeon-holed as weird. Oops! Wrong planet!

Self-Awareness

Long before my diagnosis as an Aspie, my seminary instructed me to attend a weekend session to be analysed using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. So obediently I went off to a retreat centre where myself, one other young gentleman, and a dozen or so middle-aged women had turned up.

On the Friday evening, we all filled in detailed questionnaires about ourselves. The instructor took them away to analyse overnight. The following morning, I learned that my type was ‘ESTJ’ – more specifically, E1 S5 T21 J47.

What does this mean?  I was underwhelmed to learn that I have very strong tendencies towards relying more on thoughts than feelings (T21 on the Feeling-Thinking scale) and planning activities in detail well in advance (J41 on the Judging-Perceiving scale). More interestingly, on the Sensing-iNtuition scale, my score of S5 indicated only a small tendency to rely more on sensory data than intuition – a less marked trait than I would have predicted in advance.

Interestingly, I was almost neutrally balanced between being an extravert and an introvert (E1 is close to zero on the Extraversion-Introversion scale). In Myers-Briggs terms, this is not about one’s personal charisma, but a measure of whether you feel refreshed by spending time alone or in the company of others. Well, I know from experience that the best kind of holiday for me is one where I can spend half the time with friends and half doing my own thing, so that matches my score pretty well.

I returned to seminary with an established type of ESTJ, but not being much wiser than before I went. I couldn’t really see the point of the exercise – being assessed with a Myers-Briggs tool led to me discovering that I am exactly the kind of person I thought I was. I think the other young man on the course was similarly unimpressed.

But what truly shocked me was the impact on the ladies. When they got their personal reports, it was all, “Gosh, wow, am I really like that? I never realised!” And I could see that they were so taken with this powerful new insight into who they were, that they would be quite ready to part with hard-earned cash to do whatever follow-up courses might be on offer: Myers-Briggs and Your Marriage, Myers-Briggs and Prayer, Myers-Briggs and Teamwork… the possibilities were almost limitless.

Knowing what I now know, could it be that the cacophony of competing emotions and the inner critic stop most typical humans from being able to see clearly what ‘type’ they are in the way I can? Probably. A mind which spends most of its time living out of its reasoning centre will have a consistent output and clarity of introspection. A busy mind with competing emotion will have increased fluctuation of focus and lower self-attentiveness.

I am still unsure of how knowing my MBTI® type can really help me. Knowledge of personality types may be useful in defusing conflict in group dynamics – but usually you won’t know the types of the other people in your group. If I were hiring a team to work with me and could pick people with complementary types, that might be of some use – but in church leadership you usually have to manage with the volunteers you’ve got.

I do wonder whether MBTI® could work as a diagnostic tool for autistic traits? I’m ESTJ (but could easily be ISTJ). Some research might point to Aspies tending to be INT* or at least I*T* – though others question the validity of the tool in the first place.

Note to Psychologists: please consider whether a strong score for J & T in a MBTI® score could be a good proxy for diagnosing autism, and act accordingly.

Psychology Lessons

One of the first-year courses at my seminary was basic Psychology. The lecturer’s major theme was ‘Relationships’. Everything that was said about interpersonal relationships and appropriate boundaries made sense. ‘The best boundaries are flexible boundaries’ – we were encouraged to be aware of dangers, but not rigid. But then there was the concept of ‘intrapersonal relationships’.

Intrapersonal what?

If your inner life is dominated by the bit that reasons with only the occasional shout from the feeling centre and no inner klaxon warning about the views of others, there’s not a lot of scope for relationship. There’s only the rational me. That inner me might be holding a rule book, and even editing it sometimes, but I’d hard pressed to describe that as a ‘relationship’.

If, on the other hand, your feeling centre is having a constant ding-dong with your thinking centre, that might be a bit more like an inner relationship. (I think a novel inspired by Isaac Asimov was trying to explore this kind of idea by describing a planet’s weather machine run by a calculating computer, ‘Dum’, and a human-like positronic brain, ‘Dee’, constantly cross-checking each other’s suggestions.) And if your feeling centre is inhabited by a cast of skirmishing emotions (as depicted in the recent movie, Inside Out) then it must be getting pretty noisy in there!

The psychology tutor also saw the students for one-to-one sessions and for group sessions. The groups began with a ‘check-in’ about one’s emotional state. But when your feeling centre is mostly asleep, there’s not a lot to report. For this tutor, ‘neutral’ was not an acceptable description of how one was currently feeling. But it was difficult to find anything else honest to say. Was I tempted to say something dishonest, which might be what the tutor wanted to hear? Well, since it is wrong to lie, I couldn’t do that. So I had to struggle to find the merest scrap of a suitable emotion.

One-to-one sessions were no easier. The tutor was clearly proceeding on the basis that I had a fully working ‘feeling centre’, and was deliberately refusing to be candid with him. Now, he had taught us the importance of ‘unconditional positive regard‘, yet I was finding no respect for my utterly honest utterances about what was going on inside my head. Eventually I did have an emotion I could report – a build-up of anger for being taken for a liar when I was speaking the absolute truth on every occasion!

Note to Psychologists: if your client is reporting a lack of emotions, then as well as exploring reasons s/he may be repressing them, please consider the possibility that s/he is on the autistic spectrum!

Postscript: Now, more than a decade on from those classes, I see Wikipedia has a fascinating article on intrapersonal communication. I recognise there is a philosophical conundrum in describing my inner voice as a dialogue or a monologue – if there is only one ‘me’ monologuing, why do I need to put things into words? But if it is a dialogue, who are the two parties? Ah, but since it takes a finite time to construct and develop a thought in words, perhaps the communication is between ‘past me’ and ‘future me’. No thought is instantaneous; that’s not physically possible, and besides, it takes time to think the words. But that means every thought is smeared out across a finite time, just as someone’s spoken sentence only makes sense when we review the last second or two of speech as a whole. A thought occupies a small tract of time which looks self-contained in hindsight – a thought is inherently dynamic!

But relationship is a broader concept than mere communication, and I am fairly sure my lecturer was not only intending to refer to our inner use of language. I think I am on the right track by positing that my brain does not experience the inner diversity of typical humans. This is a field autism researchers are only now beginning to explore.

Experts in Humanity

We need heralds of the Gospel who are experts in humanity, who know in depth the hearts of the men of today, who participate in their joys and hopes, concerns and sorrows, and at the same time are persons in love with God.” St John Paul II, Address to the Symposium of the Council of the European Bishops’ Conference, October 11, 1985, n. 13.

Ever since I was a child, I have known that other human beings were different from me. This didn’t particularly bother me; I thought all human beings were different from each other. It was only when I received my diagnosis of Asperger’s that I realised that most human beings were different from me in the same way! So most people can understand each other better because what is going on in their head is a good model for what’s also going on in the other person’s.

Have you ever tried to operate a Mac when all the computers you have ever used before were Microsoft Windows? Or to find the settings on an Android phone when you are only used to the Apple iPhone? You have to learn to adjust to a different way of doing things. The two phones or the two computers can do the same kind of things, but have different processes going on under the hood.

If you’re a typical human being, here’s what I think is going on in your head.

You have a ‘feeling centre’ which is continuously generating emotional responses to the situation you’re in.

You have a ‘thinking centre’ which can rationally analyse problems and situations.

You have an ‘inner critic’ which is ceaselessly passing judgment on possible courses of actions by assessing what other people would think of you if you did such-and-such.

You have a ‘personal template’ which depicts the kind of person you aspire to be seen as, which may be based on one or more role models you admire.

Your current state of mind represents whatever balance you have currently achieved between your thinking and feeling centres, and your inner critic, with reference to the personal template.

All of that probably seems so blindingly obvious to you that you are surprised that I’ve gone to the bother of writing it down. The thing is, that’s not what’s going on in my head.

My feeling centre is basically asleep (think of the Dormouse in Alice in Wonderland). It takes a major jolt to stir it to react – give me an unexpected kiss, accuse me of a crime I didn’t commit, or pull out in front of me in the fast lane, and it will wake up and feel something. But not otherwise.

My thinking centre is constantly active.

I have no inner critic. I can choose to use my thinking centre to act as one, but I have to make a conscious decision to do that. Otherwise I am blissfully free of that constant warning klaxon going off in your head.

I don’t have a personal template. What I do have is a ‘personal rulebook’. It contains the rules of human behaviour I believe I should obey. Where do those rules come from? From what I learned at my mother’s knee, from the Bible, from the Catholic Church and from my own experience of ‘what works’ in practice. Some of these rules carry greater authority than others.

So for the vast majority of my conscious behaviour, I am a rational animal living out a set of rules unencumbered by emotional pulls or pressure to manipulate what other people think of me. This is a mixed blessing! I am seldom glum, but seldom consciously joyful. I am uninhibited by what others think of me – but most other people will judge me according to whether I fit their expectations of social behaviour.

Nevertheless, I have to interact with you, as a human being and perhaps as your pastor. I need to know what is going on in your head. St John Paul II proposes that I should become an ‘expert in humanity’. I might even have to conform to your expectations of me to gain your trust. My head is not a good model for what’s going on in yours. So my expertise must start with a model of a typical human head. One of my main hopes for this blog is that together we can put together a good description of how a typical human thinks, in terms which will be intelligible to an Aspie. Comments welcome!