The base line: Alan Coleman, 1936 to 1945

In 1936, when he was four years old, Alan Coleman arrived at St. Joseph’s Home in Ballarat as a Ward of the State. He remained there until he was thirteen, and under the care of the Sisters of Nazareth in Geraldton until sixteen. When the Senate convened, from 2003 to 2005, an Inquiry into Children in Institutional Care, Alan made submission number 471. This story is taken from that submission.

Initially, Alan was in the nursery, but when he was six, he went “downstairs” to the school-age group of six to thirteen year olds. He realised that he was “in for a very hard time” because downstairs was “run like a prison.” Each child was assigned a number which was marked on his clothes. Alan was number 96.

The nuns delegated a great deal of authority to what Alan describes as “bully boys,” who were each in charge of from eight to ten younger boys. They had authority to administer some punishment and to refer offenders to the nuns to be given up to twelve strokes, or even more, of a long cane which had “pins in the end.”  The peak physical punishment was being stripped naked, held down by four of the bully boys, and flogged from shoulder to calf with a thick strap. If you twisted over, the strap was applied to stomach and genitals.  Sentences were up to a hundred lashes. Alan himself received this punishment at the hands of Sister Blandina, “the worst offender,” “sadistic and puritanical.”

In winter the boys were always cold and always hungry as, in Dickensian fashion, there were “never any seconds.” Any caught stealing food were punished either corporally or by being “made to stand in a dark passageway up to six or seven hours.” Saturday was weekly bath day. Three tubs and three towels served one hundred boys, youngest to oldest, in the same three tubfuls of water. Modesty was preserved by canvas towels worn round the waist. Only when it came to the bully boys turn were the tubs emptied and refilled with hot water.

In spite of the boys’ numbers, names were still important. Another Alan Coleman of the same age was sent up from Melbourne, so one had to change his name.  The new boy became Joseph Coleman, and in spite of the fact that, in contrast to Alan, “Joseph” was not very good at school and did not play sport, Alan gradually assumed the role of his protector for as long as they were in care together.

In Year 7 of school, Alan injured his hand while working in the laundry. He was six weeks in Ballarat Base Hospital, and though he had no visitors, he basked in the compassionate attentiveness of the nurses. After this stay, and a longer one due to rheumatic fever, he started to have visits at the home from friends made at the hospital. It’s a comment on his likability.

Alan’s eighth grade class, the last year of his primary schooling, was taught by Sr Blandina. The class was being prepared for an exam to determine the two pupils who would be eligible to attend St. Pat’s College the next year. Alan, to Sr Blandina’s dismay, topped the class and the eligibility. However, he heard a rumour that the Brothers at St Pat’s “could do what they liked” with the orphans, so he withdrew.

It appears that, after the school years, the boys went into either the farm boys’ quarters or the smaller group of college boys. The first allusions to sexual behaviour in Alan’s submission involve the farm boys offering personal instruction in masturbation. Alan and Joseph went to the college boys, who let them stay. “[W]hile I was upstairs we had no idea this types [sic] of thing happened…we kept this from the nuns because we were taught never to put anyone in.” That’s the extent of sexual abuse experienced, or heard of, by Alan Coleman at St Joseph’s between 1936 and 1945.

It was 1945, and orphaned farm boys from St Joseph’s were being sent to Nazareth House in Geraldton (apparently an old people’s home) to work in the kitchen.  In Geraldton, similar invitations to mutual masturbation were extended by the other farm boys and particularly the “manager,” a nineteen year old. The only more disturbing incident involved a visiting priest to whom Alan was sent on suspicion of “misbehaving.” The priest masturbated and asked Alan to “touch it,” but he refused. The refusal was accepted, “any way he was so excited he pilled [sic] out a large handkerchief and wiped it he told me not to say anything.”

Alan’s strong moral code and his moral courage shine through in these events: his protection of his adopted “brother;” his sacrifice of further education; his lonely refusal of the culture of masturbation among the farm boys; and his “no” to a priest. Alan’s life subsequently was that of a man adrift. He only settled at the age of sixty, in the Philippines, with a Filipina wife who bore him a son, although he still accused himself of an incapacity to show affection.

This is a picture of life for an orphan in St Joseph’s orphanage between 1936 and 1945, and it serves as a baseline for another story, or set of stories, about the same orphanage between 1943 and 1959.

A Modest Amendment


The bills I discuss below were withdrawn on the 27th of February, 2017, because they faced almost certain defeat.  The issue of reform was referred to the Queensland Law Reform Commission.

Two related private member’s bills are currently before the Queensland Parliament. The Abortion Law Reform (Women’s Right To Choose Bill) 2016 removes abortion from the Queensland Criminal Code, lock stock and barrel. This is necessary, as the Explanatory Note makes clear, because “[t]he current law in Queensland is causing great hardship and personal suffering.” Further, according to Dr Carolyn De Costa, “This is the only health procedure that is dealt with like this in criminal legislation. It’s way, way out of date and belongs in the 19th century. We’re practising medicine in the 21st century.” The “Benefits of the Bill” include the following. “The Bill will repeal outdated laws that can criminalise women and doctors for a basic human right and a medical procedure…These archaic laws are dangerous and have no place in modern society where women should always have control over their own bodies. This Bill will protect vulnerable Queensland women and the doctors that are currently risking prosecution to assist them.”

In his speech introducing the bill, Mr Pyne (Cairns—Independent) made some trenchant comments.
“A Cairns District Court jury took less than an hour to find Tegan Simone Leach, 21, and her partner, Sergie Brennan, not guilty of charges of procuring an abortion…They admitted…that Ms Leach took the pills…because they were not ready to have a child. It is my position that when a young woman is not ready to have a child and chooses to terminate a pregnancy that should be a matter for her and her medical practitioner, not a matter for the state.”

He goes on, “Surely a young person should not have to ruin their young lives by proceeding with a pregnancy if they are not ready and their family and their doctor think it unadvisable.” Well, and perfectly correctly, said Mr Pyne.

However, there was one disturbing element to Mr Pyne’s speech. “Should this bill pass, the decision for the doctor would simply need to be that continuing the pregnancy poses a bigger risk to the woman than terminating it.” One has to ask, “What’s it got to do with the doctor?” Is women’s control over their own bodies now to be handed over to the medical profession?

Apparently Mr Pyne took this into consideration, for shortly before the Abortion Law Reform (Women’s Right To Choose Bill) came back from committee, Mr Pyne introduced the Health (Abortion Law Reform) Amendment Bill 2016 to clarify matters following the presumed removal of abortion from the Criminal Code. Mr Pyne’s speech in introduction showed the development of his thinking.

“Section 20 provides that only a qualified health practitioner may perform an abortion…It also says a woman does not commit an offence against this section for performing an abortion on herself.”

“Section 21 addresses abortion on a woman more than 24 weeks pregnant. It states that a doctor may perform an abortion…only if the doctor reasonably believes the continuation of the woman’s pregnancy would involve greater risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the woman than if the pregnancy were terminated; and has consulted with at least one other doctor [to the same effect.]”

This is an enormous step backwards. Not only does a distressed and vulnerable woman have to plead with one doctor to provide her “basic human right” (in Mr Pyne’s words) to the control of her own body, but she must now plead with two. This may not be as bad as it looks, though, because there does not seem to be any requirement for the second doctor to interview the patient, unless a judge decides that “reasonably believes” unreasonably requires such an interview.

The section does at least make it clear that there is no artificial and arbitrary upper limit on the period in which a woman in physical or mental danger can obtain (doctors willing) an abortion.

What happened to that talk in the earlier bill about removing abortion from the Criminal Code? Well, it does get a guernsey in a note to Section 21. “A failure by a doctor to comply with this section does not constitute an offence but may constitute behaviour for which action may be taken under the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law (Queensland), Part 8 or the Health Ombudsman Act 2013.” That is some relief.

“Section 22 concerns the duty to perform or assist in abortion. It says no-one is under a duty to perform or assist in performing an abortion…However, a doctor has a duty to perform, and a registered nurse has a duty to assist a doctor in the performance of, an abortion on a woman in an emergency if the abortion is necessary to save the life of, or to prevent a serious physical injury to, the woman.” The difference between the conditions applying in this situation and those of section 21 are quite clear. Section 21 only addresses “greater risk” of physical or mental injury by continuing the pregnancy than by terminating. Section 22 addresses an immediate threat. This provision will be worthwhile if it prevents the suicide of one desperate woman who finds herself at the mercy of the “consciences” of medical providers in, for example, a country hospital. It is important to note that this safeguard applies to all abortions, up to term.

The first bill is at least unambiguous and represents a great leap forward for Queensland. The second bill is something of a curate’s egg, but is overall a step in the right direction. There is, however, a glaring omission.

While this long-awaited clarification and rationalisation offers more security to women and the medical practitioners seeking to help them, including the important consideration that abortion is available until term, no-one seems to have considered the situation of women whose foetuses are delivered prematurely. Given that the justification for the great majority of abortions under current circumstances is concern about the mental, rather than the physical, health of the woman, this is a grievous oversight. Suppose a woman who, though in a desperate psychological condition over her pregnancy, holds off having an abortion through a certain reluctance and in the belief that she still has, say, eight weeks to decide. Suppose further that this woman has the misfortune to deliver the foetus at this time. If anything, this circumstance would render the woman’s psychological state more parlous. Yet at the very time of her greatest vulnerability and need, the state and the law turn their backs on her, denying her the undoubted benefits of an abortion in her troubled state, because of an accident of timing.

This anomaly and injustice could be addressed by defining a “nominal pregnancy.” While the details would have to be decided by extensive consultation, suppose that the minimum period of a nominal pregnancy were defined as 37 weeks. The mother of any foetus delivered before 37 weeks gestation could then seek to have her nominal pregnancy terminated on the same basis as a woman whose actual pregnancy was similarly advanced.

This is not a proposal for infanticide. Pregnancy properly lasts about 39 weeks; the foetus is not ready for the outside world until then, as the difficulties of the prematurely born attest. So such a pregnancy coming to term at the usual time reflects the proper transition from foetus to infant. A prematurely delivered foetus is physiologically, then, still a foetus, although one in more difficult circumstances than usual. Furthermore, any psychological and exacerbating financial stresses on the woman will be aggravated by the circumstances of premature delivery.

It goes without saying that the termination of what we might call an externalised foetus would be achieved in the most humane possible manner, involving no suffering to the foetus. This carefully controlled process would in fact be much more humane than the process of normal late-term abortion, with its necessarily confronting aesthetics.

Hopefully the opportunity presented by these bills will seized in full by amending the second bill to include the just principle of a “nominal pregnancy” and put Queensland at the forefront of progressive thinking on women’s issues.

Schrödinger’s Baby

Ms Schrödinger is pregnant; and Ms Schrödinger is not.

Her pregnancy confirmed, she experienced joy or resignation; and she cursed the inconvenience or shrugged her shoulders.  She sought advice from her friends about obstetricians; and she sought advice about clinics and prescription drugs.  She has expectations of new life; and she has expectations of her old life. She is immersed in a whirlpool of change and growth, of ultrasound images and another heartbeat, of wonder and retching sickness, of anxiety about the future; and she has recovered the status and statis of the recent past.

Her state is an impartial differential function.  What will collapse this function, so that we may discover whether Ms Schrödinger’s baby is alive or dead?  Does Ms Schrödinger choose?

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live…

No, she cannot “choose life,” for no choice is required to bring this new life to parturition.  Ms Schrödinger chose life before her baby was conceived.  From that point on, the “default course” is life, and the new life drives on relentlessly to growth and birth and growth again.  In this respect, there is only one action to decide upon, one thing to choose: death. So a strange “choice” resolves this function.  Ms Schrödinger either walks the path she has already set herself upon, or tries to rewrite her own history by killing the witness.

To kill or not to kill: what will it be this time, Ms Schrödinger?  She is life-bearer and she is Kali.  She is the god-mother.  She cannot create life, but she can destroy it.

Unbeknownst to them, the children in the womb must pass quietly by the sleeping Kali, lest she wake and consume them.

In this way, every woman in this society has been given a licence to kill; but only her own children.  The law is not written in that way, but that is its effect, and was its intention.  The letter of the law is flouted systematically, and so the principle of law itself has been subjected to the will of the god-mother.  Ethics has been democratised, and the law which once reflected millenial ethical traditions of its culture in respect of the murder of the unborn, has come under the sovereignty of Kali.

Ave Kali! Hail Ms Schrödinger!


For Christmastide, and for the feast of the Holy Innocents, 28th of December.

Redefining marriage

Brendan O’Neill raises a point which I have never heard in the discussion before, but which I have always felt is critical. This unprecedented redefinition of the basic building block of human society rewrites the contract that the State entered into with every currently married person. How’s that for retrospective legislation? I will return to this point below.

Speculate for a moment that the purpose of this push is the destruction of the the institution of marriage. How does that fit with the observations that the original dynamic of homosexual activism was, loudly and proudly, the destruction of the bourgeois institution of marriage? Perfectly well. That same motive was expressed equally fervently by what was known radical feminism in the 70s, and which has become the taken-for-granted feminism of the teenies. If that is the major motivation it has worked very well.

Still, though, something about the appeal of marriage has not been eradicated.  Couples who have lived together for years will marry when they decide to have children.  How about that?  That has happened in my own family. Why would they do such a thing if marriage is merely a recognition of the commitment and loving relationship between two people?  So marriage is a tougher nut to crack than was first imagined, and all those young feminists are still going off and getting married before having their children. “Gay marriage” is the next move in the campaign to break the nexus between marriage, family and society.

Returning to the issue of retrospective legislation, I note that there is no provision being made for those who have grave objections to the State’s redefining marriage, and in particular their marriage, to leave the redefined state. If these legislators are to pretend to have any concern for their constituents, they must surely include a provision for those who are currently married to be awarded a divorce on the single ground that the state has violated their original contract of marriage. Such a provision would provide for the automatic transfer of the state-sanctioned marriage to a state-sanctioned civil union of the kind that was offered to homosexual couples.

Those whose marriages are, first and foremost, a sacramental union, would still be sacramentally married.  The Catholic Church, for example, does not recognise the State’s divorces.  George Weigel, after the re-election of Obama, wrote, “Thus it seems important to accelerate a serious debate within American Catholicism on whether the Church ought not pre-emptively withdraw from the civil marriage business, its clergy declining to act as agents of government in witnessing marriages for purposes of state law.” Amen. That’s not going to happen, in the US or Australia, because it takes a Church with courage, commitment and a vibrant faith to stand in open opposition to the surrounding culture and many who are nominally within its own ranks.

Nonetheless, it should be the subject of a vigorous debate now. The various churches which currently act as agents of the State in marriage ceremonies could demand that their recognition as marriage agents be withdrawn as part of any “gay marriage” enabling legislation. They would advise couples to enter into civil unions immediately before coming to the church to marry, so that their legal rights would not be threatened.  Failing the cooperation of the State, the churches could engage in their own campaign of civil diobedience, refusing to sign State marriage contracts or allow them to be introduced into the church.

I’m not holding my breath.  The prospect of “gay marriage” has receded in Australia with the election of a conservative government, even as the law has recently been changed in the UK. In the United States, the fight is bitter, unequal and undemocratic, as the fate of both Proposition 8 and Brendan Eich attests. It is understandable, then, that a debate such as George Weigel proposed is being conducted in some nooks and crannies of the American Catholic Church, and perhaps in other congregations.  It is also understandable that Weigel’s view has been rejected in such comments as I have read.

Identity Theft

On the 10th of October, 2010, Natasha Mitchell interviewed Thomas Metzinger on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National network program All in the Mind. The show was titled You are not a self! Bodies, brains and the nature of consciousness. The ABC is the Government-financed public broadcaster in Australia. Radio National (RN) is an AM radio network dedicated to cultural and scientific topics that do not get much airplay on commercial radio. Metzinger was introduced on the programme like so:

Professor Metzinger is based at the Johannes-Gutenberg University in Mainz in Germany, and has long collaborated with neuroscientists and artificial intelligence researchers and others. And in his new book The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self he makes the case that there is no such thing as a self.

RN appeals to a an audience more interested in ideas than in celebrity gossip, and more interested in talk about ideas than in music or light entertainment.  Unfortunately, while the natural audience for such a format may be broader, the group of people who make these programs seem to fall into a familiar, narrowly defined demographic. They may be religious, in the sense that Harnack or Bultmann were religious, but in general they are atheist or agnostic. Radio National tends to preach to the converted; that is, to people just like themselves.

This particular interview, in other words, was not exceptional.  Here are some extracts. (Mid-point ellipse ⋅⋅⋅ are mine. Others are in the original transcript. All italics and bolding are mine.)

Thomas Metzinger: Nobody has ever seen a will. ⋅⋅⋅ We don’t find a will in the brain, that’s for sure. What we have is the conscious experience of having free will, of actually deliberating, wanting something, of weighing different goals against each other and so on, and that conscious experience of free will, that will be explained by science.

And the question is…many people in the general public feel an uneasiness with this debate about freedom of the will. Imagine there was no freedom of the will, that if we had a theory that said that, we couldn’t really believe that theory, it would make us sick. I mean, how could you imagine that every thought, every intention you are consciously experiencing right now has been predetermined by something unconscious outside of your reality. The people that have that experience are usually in psychiatric institutions. Our brains were never made for this.


Natasha Mitchell: ⋅⋅⋅ you make the provocative argument that there is no such thing as a self, that there never has been, that there never will be.

Thomas Metzinger: The physical body certainly exists, the organism exists, but organisms are not selves. I don’t deny that there is a self-y feeling. I certainly feel like someone, but there is no such thing. ⋅⋅⋅ What I am interested in is to understand why we just cannot believe that this is so. We have the feeling there is an essence in us, a deepest, inner core. We have this feeling that there must be something that is just not right about neuro-scientific theories about self consciousness, there’s something beyond it.

⋅⋅⋅ a first approximation could be to say what we have called the self in the past is not a thing in the brain and not a thing in some metaphysical realm beyond the brain, but it’s a process…

Natasha Mitchell: So it’s not a little man or woman inside our heads…

Thomas Metzinger: …that looks at pictures. But the experience of looking, of being directed to one’s own feelings or to one’s sensory perceptions of the outside world, this is itself an image.⋅⋅⋅ My⋅⋅⋅big, unintelligible philosophical theory⋅⋅⋅says that we identify with this image of our body because we cannot recognise it as an image. And if my theory is correct, there should be just this one element of global identification and it should be easy to control it experimentally. ⋅⋅⋅ But I must also…one warning, the idea of global ownership for our body as whole is a dangerous idea because it introduces a second self, like a little man that does the owning.

Natasha Mitchell: Exactly. You just can’t get away from this problem, philosophers!

Thomas Metzinger: Yes, it’s awful, isn’t it⋅⋅⋅ Our image of ourselves⋅⋅⋅is changing faster and more dramatically than through any other scientific revolution in the past. In a way we are destroying a lot of what mankind has believed in during the last 4,000 years, but it’s also clear that in this emerging vacuum neuroscience will not be able to put something new into this vacuum.

Natasha Mitchell: You see it as that we’re witnessing a disenchantment of the self, which is interesting because you’ve just banished the self in this conversation.

Thomas Metzinger: Well, who is ready to do that, who could even understand, honestly, what that would mean?

I have said that this particular interview was unexceptional. In terms of Metzinger’s underlying assumptions, assumptions which underlie almost all of RN’s programming, it is standard fare.  In the bald statement of the consequences of these assumptions, though, Metzinger goes farther than most of the program’s interviewees would do. Rather as Peter Singer takes certain assumptions which are deeply ingrained in the mindset of most Westerners, and draws from them their logical conclusions, so Metzinger draws the conclusions of materialist neuroscience. In doing so, he says, “…who could even understand, honestly, what that would mean?” Certainly not Metzinger.

For one thing, it means that the personal pronouns no longer have any referent. I, me, my, mine, you, yours, us, our, they, their, theirs, have all been rendered meaningless. For he not only resolves the old question about the existence of other minds, other selves—they do not exist—but he reverses Descartes—”I” am not, therefore “I” do not think. That consequence has no sobering effect on Metzinger’s speculations. He simply carries on as though nothing, really, has changed. He does this even, and especially, when talking about the frightening new reality we are facing.

Thomas Metzinger: It’s also a question of preserving our dignity in the face of these sometimes very sobering discussions, and in developing a cultural response to it. Can modern science help me? It’s not only about defending ourselves, it’s also about what I call riding the tiger; can all this new knowledge help us to improve our autonomy, maybe also our rationality? How can I take responsibility and charge for the way I deal with my own brain?

Most particularly, he continues to talk as though our desires can motivate our rationality to modify our behaviour in order to further enhance our rationality, our autonomy, our personal responsibility.  That is, our minds can be applied to change external circumstances, and even to modify our minds themselves.

Our selves, our minds, are an illusion, a process by which we are deluded into imagining that we exist as autonomous, rational centres of intention and action. Perhaps, though, according to this “big, unintelligible philosophical theory,” I do exist, but not as the illusion that I take myself to be. I am, in fact, a set of neuro-chemical processes which have found it convenient (in an evolutionary sense) to project the illusion of an I, and furthermore, to project onto that I the illusion that it is, in fact, me.  One must beware, of course, of promoting this I-ness into a “little man” to whom all of this projecting makes rational, emotional and operational sense. Such a lapse is absolutely verboten. There is no underlying I receiving the projection of this I that I experience. There are only I-less processes.

Let us hark back to the first quote from Metzinger above, about the non-existence of free will; a quote which in fact opened the radio programme. Imagine that the conversation above is being conducted with a psychiatrist. Imagine further that the psychiatrist has been introduced to Thomas Metzinger, but knows nothing more about him.

The psychiatrist is faced with a person who is convinced of the non-existence of his own self. He seems rational; is clearly intelligent, and yet is unaware of the glaring contradictions in his own disquisition. He continues to talk about his self, his thoughts, his intentions, his actions, and implicitly assigns the same capabilities to everyone else, starting with the psychiatrist. What would the psychiatrist think? What would you think? Now Thomas presents his credentials—Professor Dr Thomas Metzinger, Director of the Theoretical Philosophy Group and Director of the NeuroEthics Section of the Johannes Gutenberg Universität, Mainz, and Director of the MIND Group of, and Adjunct Fellow of, the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies.

There is a moment in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where Pirsig is talking to his son Chris about one of Chris’ friends at school. Chris says that the friend has seen a ghost.  Pirsig’s response is sceptical, and then Chris says the friend’s name: a native American name. Most readers, I suspect, share with the author the shock of an unexpected re-orientation of possibilities at that moment. I suppose that for our imaginary psychiatrist the situation would be similar.  Thomas has donned his New Clothes.

The psychiatrist, suspecting an elaborate hoax, as I did, consults the oracle, as I did. And sure enough, he finds a plethora of confirming information on the Internet, as I did.

How is it that someone who insists on the truth these notions, but the non-existence of the self that expresses them, comes to be granted such high academic honours?  How; when for, say, Robert Pirsig to express them at certain times in his life would have resulted in his being committed to an asylum? I am not here casting about for rhetorical effect.  Metzinger has said as much himself.

This is the reductio ad absurdum of materialist neuroscience. This is the philosophy that consumes the selves that embrace it. In the Kingdom of Bedlam, the sane question their sanity. Or to put it another way,

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

‘A Perfect and Beautiful Machine’

Daniel Dennett published an article titled ‘A Perfect and Beautiful Machine’: What Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Reveals About Artificial Intelligence in The Atlantic on 22nd June, 2012. What follows is the text of a post of mine on the Polanyi Discussion List, polanyi_list.

Daniel Dennett is performing conjuring tricks for his Atlantic audience.

To this day many people cannot get their heads around the unsettling idea that a purposeless, mindless process can crank away through the eons, generating ever more subtle, efficient, and complex organisms without having the slightest whiff of understanding of what it is doing.

How true. Drop the last couple of clauses, and he’s describing Polanyi.

In order to be a perfect and beautiful computing machine it is not requisite to know what arithmetic is.

This in bold, no less. I’ll come back to this.

Right there we see the reduction of all possible computation to a mindless process. We can start with the simple building blocks Turing had isolated, and construct layer upon layer of more sophisticated computation, restoring, gradually, the intelligence Turing had so deftly laundered out of the practices of human computers.

I didn’t juxtapose those two sentences; that’s how they appear, complete with italics.

No less a thinker that Roger Penrose has expressed skepticism about the possibility that artificial intelligence could be the fruit of nothing but mindless algorithmic processes.

Naughty Daniel. The passage linked is from The Emperor’s New Mind. Following the link, you will discover that the passage is not about artificial intelligence, but about human intelligence. Penrose is expressing a skepticism, made potent by his name, that strikes, not at the heart of Turing’s work, but at the heart of Dennett’s. Strangely, Dennett misrepresents this.

He introduces the sorta function. Early Arithmetic Processing Units sorta understand addition. Communication programs sorta understand that they are checking for communication errors. A chess program playing a Grand Master sorta understands that it’s queen is in jeopardy.

About such elements, what

it is can be described in terms of the structural organization of the parts from which it is made… What it does is some (cognitive) function that it (sorta) performs — well enough so that at the next level up, we can make the assumption that we have in our inventory a smarter building block that performs just that function — sorta, good enough to use.

Here’s where it helps to have a background in software or hardware engineering. There is no such difference between what a circuit or a programmed function is and what it does. It does what it is designed and specified to do. Nothing more, nothing less; unless it has bugs. Dennett proceeds,

This is the key to breaking the back of the mind-bogglingly complex question of how a mind could ever be composed of material mechanisms. What we might call the sorta operator is, in cognitive science, the parallel of Darwin’s gradualism in evolutionary processes. Before there were bacteria there were  sorta bacteria, and before there were mammals there were  sorta mammals and before there were dogs there were  sorta dogs, and so forth. We need Darwin’s gradualism to explain the huge difference between an ape and an apple, and we need Turing’s gradualism to explain the huge difference between a humanoid robot and hand calculator.

The topic is the materiality of mind. But sorta in cognitive science parallels Darwinian gradualism. So, in this instance, “cognitive science” must refer to artificial intelligence. Trouble is, sorta dogs had to be be _actual_ not-dogs-of-some-sort. Likewise for sorta mammals, and sorta bananas and sorta everything. In their time, they were all _actual_ somethings. By the same token, the world must be full of sorta somethings now. We just don’t know how to recognise them. However, as pointed out above, that does not apply to circuits and programs. They are not sorta anything; they are precisely what they are designed to do.

…we eventually arrive at parts so (sorta) intelligent that they can be assembled into competences that deserve to be called comprehending.

Let’s go back for a moment to the bolded statement, which was also selected by the editors as the signature quote for the whole article. “In order to be a perfect and beautiful computing machine it is not requisite to know what arithmetic is.” So how did we arrive at the “deserving” machine? In order to be a perfect and beautiful computing machine, is it required to deserve to be called comprehending?

“There is no threshold above which true comprehension is to be found,” says Dennett. In fact, there is a threshold below which no comprehension is to be found. I can confidently assert that no machine created by human beings out of non-living materials has ever, or will ever, comprehend anything; not the telephone system, not Watson, not my old five-function calculator, not an abacus – nothing, not a skerrick of comprehension.

(My proviso is meant to exclude the truly horrifying prospect of the construction of artificial biological systems by molecular-level manufacturing processes. That, however, is not what Dennett is talking about.)

How can my assertion ever be proven wrong?

Here’s another: I assert that my species is composed of people who, like me, are self-conscious individuals who contemplate their own and others’ individuality with their minds.

How can my assertion ever be proven wrong? Or right?

It seems to me that, in addition to the various moral inversions that have been, and are, current, we labour under a logical inversion. Without ever having to prove their case, or even to demonstrate a plausible program for proving it, scientific materialists have managed to establish a virtually unchallenged base position that consciousness is a physical phenomenon, comprehensible with the currently available tools of science. Consequently, anyone who makes the irrefutable observation (as MP did) that there is a vast logical gulf separating the subjective experience of being – consciousness – from any observations that can be made of the conscious individual, is held not to be stating a simple truism, but to be making an unsupportable assertion.

Meanwhile, the assertion of the existence of other minds like my own remains the bedrock assumption of all human experience. One might almost say that it is a tacit assumption.

Comprehension is one of the jewels in the crown of consciousness. The desire and struggle to achieve it is the engine of intellectual innovation. It is at the tacit heart of human thought and action. Desire, struggle, the sense of an impending solution, the conviction that a solution, though remote, is feasible along this axis, the Eureka moment, the majestic triumph of Kepler, the dogged campaign to persuade: this is the stuff of human comprehension on those peaks of achievement that interested Polanyi.

Dennett tries to blur the distinction between the human faculty of comprehension and the deterministic workings of computing machines by trivialising the ranges of understanding and comprehension in _any_ human knowledge. He applies sorta, again. But, as his usage in evolution was sorta different from his usage in circuitry, so it is sorta different from this context. Maybe no-one will notice, because it’s sorta similar.

We still haven’t arrived at “real” understanding in robots, but we are getting closer. That, at least, is the conviction of those of us inspired by Turing’s insight… If the history of resistance to Darwinian thinking is a good measure, we can expect that long into the future, long after every triumph of human thought has been matched or surpassed by “mere machines,” there will still be thinkers who insist that the human mind works in mysterious ways that no science can comprehend.

Dennett ends with a fine burst of question-begging; seemingly the common currency of “cognitive science.” “Getting closer… is the conviction of…us…long after every triumph of human thought has been matched or surpassed by ‘mere machines’…” And Dawkins is in the habit of saying, of Christians, “they don’t have a shred of evidence for any of this.” Both are expressing a philosophical commitment.

I’m mathematically retarded; however, the wikipedia article on Turing machines (one thinks of the Mille Miglia) gives some interesting background to Turing’s work on computability, and its relationship to Gödel’s contemporaneous developments. This association is mentioned by Polanyi in the presentation notes to the Manchester seminar (with dissenting comments in the margin,) and by Dennett here. IIUC, Gödel was defining he limits of mathematical systems and Turing likewise explored the limits of computability.

The “maybe”[1] article could explore the relationship between Turing and Polanyi, stressing that Polanyi insisted that currently physics, chemistry and biology can not account for mind. At the same time, he believed that evolution was the process by which human beings, and their minds, came to be, but by triggering an ordering principle inherent in the universe in such a way as to initiate a self-sustaining, and increasingly self-driven, directed arc of evolution.

[1] On the list, it had been suggested that a response to Dennett’e article might be written.

The Science of Resurrection

In the collection of essays on which I based my discussions of Bultmann, you will find, as the last essay, a summary of the original eight essays by Austin Farrer, entitled An English Appreciation. In the course of it, he offers this:

The established, or virtually established, positions of science and history give rise to necessary refusals, as when we refuse to believe that the world was created eight thousand years ago or that the sun stood physically still for Joshua… About necessary refusals nothing can be done or ought to be done. They must be accepted.

While I have some sympathy with him, and I understand why he says this, I don’t agree with him. As he himself seems to be saying, there are two categories of knowledge involved here. The first, that the world was not created eight thousand years ago, is the knowledge of the history of the earth, derived mainly from the study of the geology of the earth itself, and the study of the formation of the solar system. The second, that the sun did not physically stand still for Joshua, whilst it is an historical assertion, is based upon the immediate evidence of the behaviour of the solar system, and the theories of planetary motion that have been derived, and may be constantly re-affirmed, from that always available evidence.

Common to both of these statements (and to any useful statements we make) is a cluster of assumptions. We rely on our ability to draw true and useful conclusions about the world because we first rely on the world to be consistent in its structure, and to behave consistently. This is a confidence we learn from experience: the objects out in the environment are such as to allow us to learn about them without constantly having to re-evaluate that learning.

With the rise of scientific methodology, we have stepped far beyond the realms of direct experience. Take, for instance, our view of the solar system. Our knowledge—that the earth and all the planets orbit the sun—flies in the face of the evidence of our senses—that it is the sun, the planets and the stars that move, whilst the earth remains in place. Our confidence in this knowledge, and all such counter-experiential or non-experiential knowledge, is based on our confidence in the structures our society has erected for the testing, extension, elaboration and explanation of scientific knowledge. In short, we rely, for almost everything we know, on the testimony of witnesses whom we trust.

This confidence has become so great in light of the staggering technological advances in our societies, that the methodological processes that underlie it have quite rapidly become a religion in their own right.

What is it about our scientific knowledge that rules out believing that the sun stood physically still for Joshua? It is not our knowledge of the day-to-day mechanics of the solar system, or our knowledge of the tremendous scale of the force of gravity (itself an utterly mysterious force acting at a distance, until replaced by the new mysteries of general relativity) that rules out the Book of Joshua. It is, instead, the unshakable belief that the universe created itself; that there is no Creator. That absence of a Creator means that only physical processes deduced to be the operating principles of the universe can possible act on a planetary scale. I think it is safe to claim that this is an a priori position. It is not a conclusion which has been drawn on the basis of evidence uninformed by pre-suppositions. It is the fundamental working hypothesis of all materialists. To put it another way, it is the primary article of the creed of materialism. It is a statement of faith.

That is not the view of Christians. Christians know their Creator. It is He who is the maker of all things, visible and invisible. What is more important: He is an active God, participating to the point of revealing His name to the Hebrews, and coming in person to the Jews, and remaining in person to all who believe in Christ. This activist God has always accompanied His message of revelation with signs and wonders, for we are a sceptical people.

If this is true, and I believe there are compelling reasons for believing this, then no action that God has taken in history in support of His revelation is “impossible.” This, in itself, is not a statement of faith, but a logical consequence of the faith-supported belief in the Christian God. It is no more a statement of faith than the contention that the laws of physics preclude the standing still of the sun: itself a logical consequence of the belief that the universe is self-created; or at least that the agent of its creation, like Aristotle’s First Mover, is more remote than the ends of the expanding universe from its creation.

Such is the science of Resurrection. Science itself can tell us nothing about the Resurrection, but the Resurrection can tell us a great deal about science. We believe the fact of the Resurrection because we believe the witnesses; the chief of which is the Church itself. Having accepted this evidence, we draw our conclusions from it, as did the early Church. Among these are that we cannot understand ourselves as material beings. Not only can we not gain an understanding of our minds on this basis, but we cannot even appreciate the nature of our physical bodies on the basis of materialism. This event-based science subsumes and limits materialist science. It must inform all of our scientific thinking.

The other “necessary refusal” is of a young earth. This is a somewhat different case. The Tradition in which I have found myself—Catholicism and Anglo-Catholicism—is not sola scriptura. For Catholicism, Scripture, although inerrant, is not necessarily literally so. Scripture itself, in the Catholic view, was accredited by the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit: and it remains to the teaching authority of the Church to interpret Scripture, and to delineate the literally inerrant from the allegorically, and the like. I will assume that, for example, the conclusions of geology about the formation of the earth’s crust and topography meet the criteria of relatively uncontroversial and accepted science. This study concluded long ago that there had been massive changes in the earth’s surface over what can only have been very long time frames.

To address the young earth issue, we return to the assumption about the consistency of nature, but with a different emphasis. Whereas the reported Joshua event would involve a massive interruption to the normal process of nature, that interruption was of less that a day, at a remote point in history. No direct physical evidence of this event, which is not reported to have caused any other changes, can possibly be adduced either in support of, or against, its occurring.

In this case of the young earth, however, we have before us the same Book of Nature which the geologists have studied intensively over the past two centuries or so. From my Catholic perspective, I have no problem with this: the problem is displaced to other sites of contention. From the perspective of, let us say, an evangelical who believes in a young earth, at least two kinds of response are possible.

One is to challenge the interpretation of the evidence. This approach is fraught with difficulties. It accepts that nature speaks to us consistently and accurately, and so it involves endlessly contesting the accepted scientific interpretation, and every new piece of evidence that is presented.

Another is to embrace the primacy of faith and the literal interpretation of the Bible, while accepting that nature is telling a different story. I believe that a lot of scientists and technologists have adopted this position. For them, nature sets a complex and ever-fascinating series of puzzles whose solution generates worldly benefits for human beings; in mineralogy, for instance. They accept the terms that these challenges present, and set about trying to solve them. While nature is true and consistent in terms of the puzzles it presents, it is not the real story. That story is told in the Bible. Fallen Man can only appreciate the surfaces of nature; redeemed Man understands the Truth that God created all of this in six days. I have never had this discussion with such a person, so I am speculating from shreds of evidence, but this position offers a surer footing for literalism, even at the price of Fideism.

Catholics and Anglo-Catholics avoid these dilemmas by regarding the Genesis account of the age of the earth as an allegorical description of an underlying reality; the Creation ex nihio as a deliberate intention of God. For them, however, the challenges of scientific materialism have been displaced. The attacks on the Faith have been directed for some time now to the credibility of the witness. When the primary texts in which the testimony occurs are acknowledged to require interpretation, an open but unavoidable invitation to their undermining has been issued.

Though not germane to this particular discussion, I will quote in passing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, lest the extent of Catholic accommodation to modern viewpoints be misunderstood.

How to read the account of the fall

390 The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.

Resurrection Denialism

On the evening of that day,  the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side… Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.”Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.”
When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight… As they were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you.” But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit… “See my hands and feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.
This is what Christians believe. St Paul understood this. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile… If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied. At least, this is what Christians believed for two millennia, and what they still profess. The problem is that so many of them do not.
I cannot see how anyone who denies the physical, and permanent, resurrection of Jesus can maintain that he is a Christian. All such are working, in my view, for the destruction of Christianity; and they’re doing a pretty good job. Various surveys have shown that Christianity has waned dramatically over the past half-century in Europe and the Anglosphere, with the exception of the USA, where the decline has been much less marked. Neither do surveys tell the whole story. According to one report, only 1.13 million adults went to church on Easter Sunday, 2001, while the same report indicates that, in the 2001 census, 72% of adults in Britain classified themselves as Christian. In 2002, a survey of 20% of the Anglican clergy found that one-third of them did not believe in the physical Resurrection of Christ.
The truth claims of the faith are quite definite: denying the Resurrection flouts those beliefs. During Hitler’s rise to power, as an important part of his program for seizing complete control of Germany, he promoted a movement known as “German Christianity.” The various churches in Germany had an “interesting” relationship with the German state; they still do. At any rate, German Christianity split the churches, and a countervailing movement known as the Confessing Church arose. It included notables such as Bonhoeffer, Barth and Bultmann. Their purpose was to assert ecclesial independence. Bonhoeffer’s activities in the Abwehr, leading to his execution, were not conducted under the auspices of the Confessing Church. In 1937 Pope Pius XI, from this sickbed, wrote the encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (With Burning Concern) to the German Church, asserting the incompatibility of Nazi ideology and Christianity. The Catholics too were being ravaged by the appeal of the Nazis.
At this remove, there are few, if any, who would argue for the theological validity of German Christianity. Yet, as far as I am aware, it denied none of the fundamental tenets of of the Creeds. Today, however, the credal basis of the faith is being trashed in seminaries and theological colleges throughout the Western world.  Currently fashionable political movements demand that Christian teaching be radically altered to accommodate their agendas, and this is done as a matter of course.
Orthodoxy will again resume its place at the centre of Christian life and worship. How long it will be, God knows. When is does, this time will be seen as one of those periods in the history of the Church during which the Body of Christ was traumatised by the struggle between catholic truth and dangerous heresy. In such struggles, souls are torn asunder.
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

The Schoolman Dawkins

What does Dawkins mean by the term evidence? That seems to depend on the circumstances in which it is applied. In a previous post, I wrote about the challenge to the likes of Dawkins, presented by the testimony of and about Padre Pio.  Subsequently, I discussed the use Dawkins made of Hume in dealing with that challenge.

It has occurred to me since, that Dawkins double standards on evidence align him in some senses with the Schoolmen from the declining years of Scholasticism; or at least with the caricature of them that is retailed by the camp-followers of “The Enlightenment.” In this view, the Scholastics were lost in a world of excessive subtle arguments based on an Aristotelian and Thomist philosophy, splitting finer and finer hairs in a debate hopelessly divorced from the real world. Into this massive but brittle word of ideas was introduced a new realism, throwing away the old edicts, and relying only on observation, evidence and reason.

A basic problem with this caricature is that evidence ain’t evidence. Some evidence can, according to Dawkins, be dismissed a priori; for example, evidence of the miracle of the sun at Fatima, or of the bi-locations of Padre Pio. By what authority is this evidence dismissed? By the absolute authority of a philosophical commitment: that all things, visible and invisible, are material, complete, entire and with no non-material residue. This dogma trumps all evidence. For there can be no evidence that contradicts it. Given the pre-suppositions of the dogma, any evidence which purports to contradict it must necessarily by fraudulent, mis-reported, mistaken or mis-interpreted. Q.E.D.

It turns out that this dogmatic rejection of evidence is not unusual in the history of science, and Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn, most notably, have pointed out.

During the eighteenth century the French Academy of Science stubbornly denied the evidence for the fall of meteorites, which seemed massively obvious to everybody else. Their opposition to the superstitious beliefs which a popular tradition attached to such heavenly intervention blinded them to the facts in question. [Personal Knowledge,II.6.2 Scientific Value]


 Ordinary people were convinced of the fall of a meteorite, when an incandescent mass struck the earth with a crash of thunder a few yards away, and they tended to attach supernatural significance to it. The scientific committees of the French Academy disliked this interpretation so much that they managed, during the whole of the eighteenth century, to explain the facts away to their own satisfaction. It was again scientific scepticism which brushed aside all the instances of hypnotic phenomena occurring in the form of miraculous cures and spellbinding, and which—even in the face of the systematic demonstrations of hypnosis by Mesmer and his successors—denied for another century after Mesmer’s first appearance the reality of hypnotic phenomena. When the medical profession ignored such palpable facts as the painless amputation of human limbs, performed before their own eyes in hundreds of successive cases, they acted in a spirit of scepticism, convinced that they were defending science against imposture. We regard these acts of scepticism as unreasonable and indeed preposterous today, for we no longer consider the falling of meteorites or the practice of mesmerism to be incompatible with the scientific world view. But other doubts, which we now sustain as reasonable on the grounds of our own scientific world view, have once more only our beliefs in this view to warrant them. Some of these doubts may turn out one day to have been as wanton, as bigoted and dogmatic as those of which we have now been cured. [Personal Knowledge, III.9.3 Reasonable and Unreasonable Doubt]

Such examples are multiplied in Polanyi and Kuhn. They demonstrate the overarching role of some underlying structures of belief that are virtually indistinguishable from faith in the way scientists deal with the flux of information that comes to them from their environment, both personal and professional.  These models of reality are many cases simply the internalisation of the theoretical constructs of those scientific disciplines with which an individual is familiar, but all of these are encompassed by his broadest philosophical understanding of the nature of reality.

Philip E. Johnson wrote an article, The Unraveling of Scientific Materialism, in the November 1997 issue of First Things, in which he responded to a piece by Harvard Genetics Professor Richard Lewontin in the New York Review of Books in January, 1997. It’s a interesting article in a number of dimensions, including this quote from Lewontin:

Dawkins’ vulgarizations of Darwinism speak of nothing in evolution but an inexorable ascendancy of genes that are selectively superior, while the entire body of technical advance in experimental and theoretical evolutionary genetics of the last fifty years has moved in the direction of emphasizing nonselective forces in evolution.

Johnson continues:

Lewontin laments that even scientists frequently cannot judge the reliability of scientific claims outside their fields of speciality, and have to take the word of recognized authorities on faith. “Who am I to believe about quantum physics if not Steven Weinberg, or about the solar system if not Carl Sagan? What worries me is that they may believe what Dawkins and Wilson tell them about evolution.”

 However, the centrepiece is this direct quote from Lewontin.

We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

Johnson, rightly, regards this comment as revealing of a systematic rationale operating within the evolutionary biology communities. However, from previous examples, it can be seen that such systematic belief systems are endemic to science.  The question then is, not whether they exist, but whether, and to what extent, they are detrimental. In terms of the title of this posting, are we at present in the midst of the intellectual and religious flowering of the current structures of belief, or are we in the midst of its decline and fall, in a climate that is sterile, self-defeating and inimical to human flourishing?

Dawkins v. Fatima

In my previous post, I quoted from Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder, as follows.

It is the 70,000 witnesses that impress. Could 70,000 people simultaneously be victims of the same hallucination? Could 70,000 people collude in the same lie? Or if there never were 70,000 witnesses, could the reporter of the event get away with inventing so many?

Let’s apply Hume’s criterion. On the other hand, we are asked to believe in a mass hallucination, a trick of the light, or a mass lie involving 70,000 people. This is admittedly improbable. But it is less improbable than the alternative: that the sun really did move. … If the sun moved in truth… an even greater miracle would have to have been perpetrated: an illusion of non-movement had to be staged for all the millions of witnesses not in Fatima. And… if the sun had really moved at the speed reported, the solar system would have broken up. We have no alternative but to follow Hume… and conclude… that the miracle of Fatima never happened. Moreover, it is not at all clear that the onus is on us to explain how those 70,000 witnesses were misled. [My bold emphasis.]

I mentioned the logical flaws in such arguments, so I had better explain myself.

Let us conduct a thought experiment. In order to determine the way a large crowd of people experience the sun, we arrange to conduct tests at a number of venues at which crowds of from 50,000 to 120,000 people gather. Candidates for such gatherings spring readily to mind. With the co-operation of the organisers of these gatherings, we ask the attendees to glance towards the sun, while reminding them of the dangers of doing so. We further ask them to report to one of the many data collectors present, whether they noticed any peculiar behaviour of the sun. What expectations would we have? Apart from being sued by a large number of people because of the damage they sustained to their eyes in following our instructions, we can confidently expect that at none of the venues would any untoward phenomena be reported of the sun.

If, however, at the Portugese national soccer championship, 70,000 people suddenly cried out in terror as the sun seemed to tear itself from the heavens and hurtle towards the earth, how would we respond? Could we repeat what Dawkins has said above, and conclude that it never happened? Let’s be clear about it. In this case, as in Fatima, it is that 70,000 people saw the sun behave in inexplicable ways, ways contrary to the “laws of nature.” We might argue, with Dawkins, that the failure of others away from the venue to observe these phenomena means the the sun did not actually change it’s behaviour at that time. However, would Dawkins himself dare to argue that it is not at all clear that the onus is on us to explain the phenomena? I very much doubt it. Some hypotheses would have to be offered. But how could they possibly be tested, especially if, across all of the experimental venues, this turned out to be a unique event?

Unique events are always problematical for science. Scientific methodology is most comfortable with the observation of interchangeable subjects and controlled conditions. As either of these reduces, the problems of drawing generally valid conclusions multiply. Unique events in uncontrolled circumstances—the stuff of most of our lives—most of the time defy any but serendipitous observation. Why, for example, do we hold no expectation at all that the above thought experiment would yield such a result?

Our lack of expectation tells us nothing about the likelihood of the events at Fatima, because of the extra dimension, inapplicable to our experiment. That dimension is is the supernatural intervention of the Virgin Mary. My point in proposing the experiment is to demonstrate the different criteria that are applied to events thought to be naturalistic, and to those thought to be supernaturalistic. Why two standards for the judgement of the evidence?

The miracle of the sun at Fatima was witnessed by so many because it had been predicted by the children.  Mary, in the preceding apparition, had promised that some such event would occur on that date, and at that time. A falsifiable prediction was made, based on the hypothesis that the Blessed Virgin Mary was the one who was appearing, and that she, through her Son, had the power to initiate such events. Dawkins, as a scientist, should be very pleased with such a set of conditions, even if he is incensed by the success of the prediction.

Hume’s criterion, which to Dawkins seems…unassailable, he quotes as follows:

…no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish. ‘Of Miracles’ (1748)

Hume is talking about testimony, because his primary aim is to destroy confidence in the testimony of the Bible, and particularly, though not exclusively, the New Testament. Whereas the miraculous events of the OT occur in the Law and the more ancient histories, the NT is the witness, the testimony, of the contemporaries of Jesus, and Christianity was founded on this testimony. What he is demanding is that the testimony to, say, the Resurrection and subsequent appearances of Jesus, be of such a kind that it would require a miraculous revelation even more astounding than the Resurrection itself, to engender disbelief.

Is this feasible? Of course not. All human testimony carries a burden of uncertainty. Furthermore, supernatural events, by definition, are not repeatable, so no testing can be carried out ex post facto to reproduce the reported event or events. In that, it’s like the unrepeatable moments of our lives. It is the observed stability of many classes of events in the natural environment that gives us the confidence to repeat an experiment, on the understanding that the unrepeatable components of the new event do not detract from the common element that we abstract from the experimental reality.

Fatima, though, is a event that comes perilously close, for sceptics, to fulfilling Hume’s criterion. Surely the falsehood of the testimony of 70,000 witnesses would be miraculous? Dawkins accepts that, but fails the witnesses on the test of comparative miraculousness. But how many witnesses would it take to convince Dawkins? Had the whole of the daylit human population witnessed the event, it would not have been enough, because “the solar system would have broken up.”

That is to deny the nature of the demonstration that was Fatima. What drew 70,000 to Fatima was the promise that the Trinity would act in support of Mary’s appearances and messages to the children. They who created the natural universe, space and time, would act on their creation so as to demonstrate its dependence upon them.

Another word for testimony in this context is evidence, and when it suits his purposes, as it frequently does, Dawkins attacks everyone who does not share his worldview, as having no evidence to support their contentions. Here, though, Dawkins reveals that he simply disregards evidence which is contrary to his philosophical presupposition of exclusive materialism. For this criterion is nothing but a statement of a deeply held a priori philosophical commitment.

Hume’s test is prima facie anti-scientific. Nonetheless, it is the way most scientists proceed. They draw conclusions based on their own judgements of what is feasible and infeasible, reasonable and unreasonable, possible and impossible. Consequently, observations which wildly contradict prevailing scientific theories are dismissed as freakish outliers. Only if such observations persist might they begin to trouble the scientific conscience. Scientific consensus, however, can be a very unscientific thing.