Housing Crisis? Simple.

Across the road from my house, in a long terraced Victorian street, stands an imposing house in commodious grounds. Three stories high, a brick structure, Edwardian at a guess, the generous windows commanding a spreading view over eastern Bristol.

Well, would command. But the windows are shuttered and no-one is alive in there to enjoy the view anyway. The former lawn and garden have long since vanished under a horde of invading weeds and (this is the part that first puzzled me) the entire estate is surrounded by a formidable, and ugly, steel fence. An expensive fence, not something you would put around your home. Forbidding signs proclaim a mythical 24 hour vigilance. It is not that someone has just walked away. This place is on ice. Banked, I realised eventually, and gathering value as the growth in property values far outpaces interest rates.

This is simply wrong and where I come from it would not happen because of what you call Land Value Tax, probably a better handle than the vague ‘Council Rates’ we have in New Zealand but the same thing. They are the only tax we pay to maintain our councils and they are substantial.

 

Coming to the UK five years ago I experienced first hand the tyranny of the landlord, enabled and empowered by a chronic, inexplicable housing shortage. Why inexplicable? Because in every quarter of Bristol I constantly come across abandoned structures, some vast, wasting away on valuable land. Sturdy stone shells easily converted into thousands of apartments, often in reasonably attractive and desirable parts of the city. Big houses shuttered and empty, deteriorating office buildings in almost every part of most cities. Waste on a colossal scale.

How could this be? Slowly the penny dropped: they don’t tax land here. It was the only possible explanation and it turned out to be (mostly) true.

We simply don’t see this in NZ. In my home city of Auckland you can walk or drive for miles and never see an abandoned, deteriorating building – someone would own the land, unpaid rates would ruin them, the property would be seized and sold by the council to recover the lost rates and someone else would put it to use. Yes, that buyer would have to put in risk and work, probably the reason the UK’s banked properties stand idle. Development costs money. Landlording can be tricky in a country with well-established tenants’ rights. So much easier to park and forget. But in NZ the burden of council rates makes such development and usage unavoidable.

Why is this, to me, obvious solution to a desperate social problem scarcely on the political landscape? At first I was tempted to mutter darkly to myself about vested interests, but perhaps the simpler answer is that you British don’t see it. Since WWII you have grown up in a landscape littered by ruins. The abandoned house on the hill is a familiar literary trope. You simply don’t register that there is something fundamentally wrong about a Victorian factory, a house inherited by a distant, absent family member, just lying about the place unnoticed and unused. This is the way things just are. Or is it something else? I don’t know – you tell me. But waste on a grand scale it most certainly is, waste I have now seen in half a dozen English cities, and the simple remedy of Land Value Tax is standing in the wings waiting to fix it.

To be fair the government has not simply stood idle. Using the archaic mechanism of stamp duty, long since vanished from the NZ scene, they have moved to tax the purchase of second homes. This will not solve the problem, indeed may make it worse because it means that land bankers have to hang on to their empty properties even longer to wait for the investment to grow to where the profit from the eventual sale is still sufficient to justify the cost. Even worse, it applies only to residential properties. Buy an abandoned factory or office building and you’re fine. Bigger properties, potentially so many more homes.

The only real answer, a permanent and fundamental answer, is to make the holding of idle land and buildings uneconomic by taxing their value year after year.

There are downsides. During the late 20th century redevelopment of inner cities we saw elderly people rated out of their lifelong homes because the land on which they stood had been rezoned Commercial A, sending their rates through the sky. We are also rated on the value of the ‘improvements’, calculated on the rentable value of the buildings as they presently are. It can be argued that this is unjust, as it is the occupants, not the council, who have invested the resources to make those improvements. But the clearance of old housing stock in the wrong place to allow commercial centres to grow was inarguably necessary, and a pure land tax would avoid the injustice of taxing people for work done which has already cost them hard-earned resources.

But I promise you: it works in New Zealand and it will work here.

Just do it.

 

A Silent Witness? Secret History?

I often pass by the Granada Cathedral, a huge pile of stone in the old city centre. I notice things. On the side of the cathedral I pass by I first noticed one thing, looked more closely and saw more.  Slowly I came to understand that I was looking at what I believe to be an undocumented but still visible relic from the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.

First I noticed the iron railing fence protecting every entrance.

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Interesting, I thought. Why does a church need such barricades?

Then I noticed how they were anchored to the building.

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That little alcove would have once contained a holy statue. Gone. In fact large areas of the exterior of the building showed many such alcoves, all similarly empty.

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Scanning further, I discovered that all the windows, stained or plain glass, were screened off with steel mesh.

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Note the smashed pane in the lower part of the window.

By now the penny had dropped: the Civil War. It is a matter of history where the Church stood in that conflict – firmly on the side of Franco and his Nazi supporters and against the socialist Republicans who had been elected to power – the legitimate government, in fact. The Church in Spain had been thoroughly compromised for centuries, comfortably in bed with the aristocracy, bleeding the peasants and working people white with their stranglehold on the hearts and minds of this deeply Catholic country.

The church and its fat, authoritarian clergy were in the sights of the Republicans from the beginning. Attacks on churches were legion, priests who stood by their power and privilege often put to death, either through the sentence of courts or by vigilante action.

I realised I was looking at the scars of this onslaught. The icons pulled down and smashed. The cathedral barricaded.

It gets worse.

The exterior of the building forms a series of bays demarcated by triangular buttresses.

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But the bay next to the gate I was looking at was special – it is cordoned off with ‘decorative’ chains.

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I wondered why. Then I noticed something unusual – at a consistent height between one and two metres from the ground the stones were pockmarked by something I recognised.

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These are bullet marks in the ceremonial gate to St Stephens Green in Dublin – the epicentre of the Easter uprising. They appear to be larger, either because the stone is softer (unlikely) or because they record the impact of the heavier ammunition from the Lewis machine guns the authorities deployed in the upper stories of buildings facing the College of Surgeons where the rebels were holed up.

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All between chest and head height of the average Andalusian man in the 30s (they were smaller then).

This, I am almost certain, was an execution site. Sacred ground, chained off. And unmarked by any overt signs.

They are gradually refurbishing the exterior of the cathedral. This, I expect, will be gone in five years.

There is no point trying to confirm this. To this day, I was warned by an Andalusian friend, a hood of silence hangs over the events of the war. My gitano guitar teacher spoke of it, but only inside our house and when we were alone. Raise the question in a bar, in conversation and someone will quickly and forcibly change the subject.

Repression in the south was swift and extreme. Neighbours dobbed in neighbours, who quickly disappeared. Of course, old scores were settled, and I sense in the often grim expressions of the very old that consciences remain troubled. It is dark territory.

Compare the pictures. This section of the cathedral wall is alone in bearing ambiguous, semi-legible graffiti. Look at the second-to-last picture above. Like the two or three other semi-erased graffiti, they consist of three letters.

Ireneo Antonio Torres, perhaps? Initials of somebody’s name, anyway.

They remember all right. And so they should.

Brexit – or Will They, Really?

David Cameron. We will remember that name all our lives. The walking, talking embodiment of the deluded, ivory tower dwellers of Downing St and Westminster. Never has a Prime Minister been so comprehensively out of touch with the people he represented. He has lived a life surrounded by the rich and powerful, fêted by big-time CEOs and sitting at tables with mighty world leaders. His wife comes from the élite landed gentry, and everyone knows it. When he went out and bought her second-hand Nissan Micra for £1,800 to get around in, I doubt that twenty people in the entire country actually believed she would even look at the thing. That’s how out of touch he is. Up till the last couple of weeks before the referendum he never seriously considered the possibility of a Leave vote, because he, personally, didn’t know anyone who would vote that way.

I imagine he thought he was popular. No. What he was was less disliked, less distrusted than ‘the other lot’. Virtually every well-known politician in England has completely lost contact with that bedrock of ordinary British folk who don’t trust politicians, don’t want foreigners pouring into the country, just want to have a job, drink a couple of pints at the pub, watch Eastenders and not have to worry about anything more serious than how well their football team is playing. On one side, Cameron and his ilk. On the other, beige neo-libs and the oddball, Corbyn, who thinks that the average Briton has five kids, lives on welfare and eats out of food banks. God help us, Nigel Farage is probably the only prominent English politician who reads the great unwashed accurately, which is why he has his triumph.

So where will it take Britain? Two likely scenarios. One: Cameron’s legacy, the destruction of Great Britain. Scotland gone within the year. Less likely but very possible, a united Ireland in the EU, leaving a ‘United Kingdom’ of England and Wales. A struggling, isolated and desperate little country shaking its head in disbelief. A simmering wall of hatred between the educated and the stiff-necked plodders who have pulled the house down around their ears.

Two: the revolution that is already underway. 36 hours after vote Leave, a petition demanding a parliamentary re-think has 800,000 signatures. Cameron said this had to be a oncer, but nothing he said or says matters any more. In New Zealand company law, presumably mirroring the UK’s, major financial decisions such as selling off more than half a company’s assets have to be authorised by a special general meeting of shareholders and need a 75% majority. This is obviously the model Cameron should have applied, perhaps at a lower level, say 60%. But in his delusion that the referendum was a foregone conclusion he quite possibly never thought of it.

If I had to bet, it would be on the second option, but I may be tainted by wishful thinking.

The immediate, interesting question is this: where will the new politicians come from? Politicians who see that those who spent their time entertaining themselves in Parliament in childish point scoring off the opposition were a mob of well-paid Neros fiddling while Rome burnt. That all that shouting and laughter has earned them the contempt of the man and woman in the street and simply has to stop and will too, for a time. It will be a brave and foolhardy politician who roars with laughter at a cheap shot at the other side in the weeks to come. Quiet days in Westminster, at least.

If this sudden disaster were to result in the end of ideological experiments and the emergence of sober, collaborative and responsive government, it might even have been worth it. Sadly, that is not a bet I would back.

Brexit – England’s Culture Bites Itself Hard

Well, they’ve done it. Privately, I always thought they would, because I understand why.

I lived in the UK for 3 years. The most conspicuous characteristic of English culture for me was its fundamentally unwelcoming, closed and reserved nature. I spent the last three months living in a backpackers among young foreigners and the sense of ease, of bonhomie, even towards someone much, much older than them, was palpable, refreshing. Generally they liked much of the quality of life in England but none – no, not one – ever said they liked the English people. Cold. Mean. The most common descriptors. Actually, they are not. Not really. Among themselves, their friends and peers, they can be warm, generous, and relaxed. But the face they turn to the world they see as ‘other’ is resistant, unwelcoming. I began to notice, out at night in the streets of Bristol, that groups of young people out about town were either all English or all foreign. I’m a friendly guy, but I had enormous difficulty making friends in England. I left largely because of loneliness. (I have to say, in fairness, that if the English are slow to make friends with foreigners, once they do take that step they are intensely loyal.)
This is what has driven the Brexit vote. An Englishman’s home is his castle and when, and if, you enter it you had better watch yourself. When an English man or woman says ‘Make yourself at home’ they mean ‘Make yourself at my home’. That microcosm applies en large to the country as a whole. And most English people, deep down, genuinely believe they are superior to ‘the rest’. (Mind you, they’re not alone in that, certainly not in Europe.) Make no mistake – this wasn’t about economics, or even the contorted, domineering and dictatorial Brussels bureaucracy. The older, less educated English who swung this vote simply will not have anyone else telling them they have to make foreigners welcome. Bugger off!

Now they will pay for it.

Of course, you can’t blame a people for their culture. Culture is the product of circumstance over time. During the industrial revolution the majority of English people, costume dramas notwithstanding, struggled in poverty. And they were cold. Freezing, starved of warmth and sun during a mini-Ice Age that peaked in the 18th century.

So they spent their lives in dark, cramped rooms, huddling over small fires. Their home, their space, became enormously important. Their refuge. The class structure stoked the fires. In the streets, at work, the English commoner had to bow and scrape, tug his forelock, in the presence of his betters. But once he closed his door behind them …

So, in their homes the English are, to this day, lords of their preserve. New Zealand has a shameful slew of regulations and laws allowing a host of various breeds of official to enter our homes without warrants. Customs officers. Immigration officers. The police, as long as they cite the right formula – drugs, terrorism, whatever. Not in England. They simply wouldn’t stand for it. Admirable, that.

In time they came to extend this attitude to their persons. The English are physically isolated, almost neurotic about touch. Any inadvertent touch, even a near miss, is occasion for an instant, ‘Sorry.’

So twenty years of strangers, foreigners, perceived to be ‘flooding’ into their collective castle had become too much to bear. Even in communities with a tiny percentage of foreigners UKIP polled strongly. Sadly, ironically, the cities with most immigrants voted Remain. The ‘problem’ was largely illusory, fueled by sensational media stories, but it was sensed as real. Real enough to provoke this reactive spasm, a throwing off of this oppressive sense of invasion.

What now? Actually, I believe that, relieved of this fear, the English will make a go of it. They will work it out. They are tough, determined and capable. Don’t write England off any time soon. But how it will play out will be fascinating. An example: I know someone who runs a business that needs workers prepared to start at three in the morning and work hard. All the workers are Polish, because the owner has found it impossible to find English workers who measure up. The big question: who will do the hard, dirty work in the years to come?

We’ll see.

 

Here I Go Again 1

Here I Go Again1

Sophocles, or one of the Greeks anyway, declared that you never go down to the same river twice. Someone else said never to go back to a place where you were happy. I certainly proved the latter true on my heart-breaking trip back to Darjeeling, my now-wrecked 70s paradise.
Maybe I’m a tiger for punishment or, more likely, I regard all generalisations with suspicion but I’m sitting in a train at Sants Barcelona waiting to pull out to Pamplona and my second go round with the Camino Francés. 
A promising start — just felt on top of the world checking in to the albergué in Pamplona, although slightly envious of the walkers coming in tired, road-worn and hanging out for a shower and a glass of wine. Oh well that will be me tomorrow. Fingers in good form on the guitar.
Next day I wander into an old church, or rather the old church. St Saturnine. Weird name for a saint but apparently the first bishop of Toulouse, came to Pamplona, converted the heathen and went back to Toulouse, a mistake as it transpired. Seems the pagan oracles had fallen silent in the presence of the faith and the pagans showed their displeasure by tying the good bishop to the tail of a bull at the top of their capitoline hill. The bull went crazy and the bishop went to heaven. The pamphlet in the church failed to mention whether this restored the oracular voices. One would hope so.
As it happened I had turned up in time for Mass, said by an old, humourless and bored priest to an aged and sorrowful crowd of about thirty. Can’t blame him for his mien, facing that crowd every day of his life. The church was floored by large wooden, numbered plates. Seemed a bit cheap to me, saving the trouble of naming the long gone interrees. Magnificent gilded altar with a plentiful pantheon of painted saints.The gazes of the old women left no room for doubt — idolatry, plain as day.

 

Day One under the belt. 

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Supposedto be an image here.  Damn the semi-crippled iPad. Hope to figure it out eventually. Read o
First thing: snow! A remnant pile, anyway, outside the magnificent, old and expensive albergué at Roncesvalles. Arrived in sheeting rain and freezing cold just really before nightfall and immediately realized that I’m not prepared for this sort of weather. Mostly worried about my guitar, which I have not equipped with rainproofing inside its soft case. Offered a night’s accomm and the pilgrims menu for €22 I recklessly accepted and was rewarded with an excellent meal – an entire trout, very well cooked. The next day I left in the dark to beat the rush, heavy overcast but no rain thank God. 
I certainly made the right decision to flag St Jean Pied de Port and start at RoncesValles. A climb and descent of not more than 400 metres had my knees screaming for mercy. The ascents are strenuous and the descents painful, terribly so on the first day with a pack which is still, at 12+ kgs, a little too heavy. Two oddities encountered on the way: the letters SOS inscribed in the limestone of a distant hillside, twenty metres high if they were an inch, and a horse that wouldn’t take an apple. He looked on enviously as his brother – both stocky palominos, like most in these parts – scoffed his share, but when I offered him a portion he sniffed at it, took it in his lips and let it drop. I’m sure I have never known a horse decline an apple, a most curious thing. When I encountered them they were studiously licking each other’s hooves. Don’t ask me. Everything is somewhat awry in Basque country.
Arriving in Zubiri, 22 km under the belt and buggered I t was my misfortune not only to encounter but be officiously planted by the manager of the Municipal in the bed next to an Englishman who had pestered me the night before. This was one of that irritating tribe who interpret the taking up of a book or a musical instrument as a clear invitation to a conversation. Not that he had any conversation in him, and what he had instead I couldn’t understand as he was also one of that whispering sort who, when asked to repeat themselves lower their voices even further to do so.This guy had a masters degree in passive aggression.
Lying in my bed reading, exhausted and knees aching, I managed to eventually silence him with my monosyllabic answers, some of which made no sense as I hadn’t fully heard his question and just said any old thing. I fear I can be quite unpleasant when I require my peace and someone is determined to take it from me.
Around the dinner table at night, which I joined when the evening had advanced by four bottles of wine, all empty, I was assailed by the most withering blast of hatred I can remember. A middle-aged, sour-faced man was holding forth about his native Malta. I mentioned that it was the only island, indeed the only place in the world, to hold a royal title from the Queen in the person of the entire population, for steadfastness in the face of the German onslaught in WWII. He was well pleased to hear that, but then I made a joke, declaring that the trouble with Malta is that no-one, including myself, quite knew where it was, going further to ask people at the table. Only one, an affable American, could answer. (Apparently it is just below Sicily, so you won’t be caught out if you fall into the same trap.) This oaf went entirely off his head, and kept screaming at me, “You don’t even know who you are! Who are you? All you have is sarcasm and you don’t even … etc.) I made a couple of attempts at answering but as soon as I opened my mouth he went off again. In the end I had to make a joke of that by counting instead of answering. “One, two, …” “You don’t even know who …” It took a good five minutes for the others to calm him down. I finished by pitying him, and hoping the Camino does him some good; even from a drunk that kind of rant is a worry.  He left and I retired to play my guitar. After a couple of tunes a lovely young American woman, a soulful creature, came over and kissed me. I welcomed the sympathy – I had found the onslaught fairly disturbing, the sheer malice of it, and went on to suffer dreams in which I was abused by strangers.
I’m taking the time to write this morning for the first time, my second morning. I left Roncesvalles before dawn yesterday in order to beat the crowd to the Municipal, but I have the luxury of time today, knowing the capacity of the Jesus y Maria in Pamplona – more than 150 beds, and it’s not the only albergué.

 

Bizarrely, as I left Zubiri this morning I passed the Maltese taking a coffee at a sidewalk table. He lit up with a smile and wished me a hearty ‘Buen Camino.’ Of course I smiled and waved back. Why not?

 

It is 36 hours later. I’m in Puenta la Reina. Last night, in the Jesus y Maria, I had just stepped through the door when S——, the young English pest, appeared out of nowhere behind me. Fortunately the lobby was crowded and we ended up about six beds apart. But I must say I have softened to him in the interval. I withdrew to a quiet corner to play guitar and was soon joined by Simon, an Italian with a collection of harmonicas which he played like a master. The half hour of 
blues that followed drew a small audience including an enraptured Steve. But that wasn’t what softened me. Earlier, I had been talking to a rather enchanting South African woman who told me that she felt perfectly safe in Johannesburg and that she believed those who emigrated to Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere probably exaggerated the crime situation to justify their departure, to themselves as much as anyone else. I asked if she or anyone she knew had ever been car-jacked. She said not. S——, who was listening, interjected, “Well you wouldn’t be — you’re white.” Renée turned to him. “What?” He repeated his assertion. “Do you think only black people get car-jacked in Sth Africa?” I asked. “Yes.” Renée shook her head. “Have you been to Sth Africa?” “No.” “Then how do you know?” “Because it’s true.” “Fine,” she answered and turned back to me in dismissal. Thinking about it I understood that the poor bugger is so hopelessly insecure he has no idea how to conduct himself with other people. In fact he has told anyone who will listen how he hopes to find himself on the Camino. I pray that he does, because he desperately needs to. 
This morning, walking out of Pamplona, I started to pass a guy who was going much more slowly than me, as almost everyone does. I’ve been keeping close to my natural walking pace; most people amble. As I passed him he quickened to match my pace. He had been laying for me, the cunning dog, and wasted no time in cracking on. First, the credentials. He had done the Camino Catalunya (1,200 kms.) The Aragonés. The Costal. Etc. Then the criticisms. The (very lovely, helpful) people at the Jesus y Maria were not real hospitaleros because they had not done the Camino themselves and didn’t understand pilgrims. Eight euros was too much. Only he and his group of friends who slept on mattresses on the floor to help out at an albergué owned by a friend were real hospitaleros, understanding that pilgrims, true pilgrims, are saints and hospitaleros have to be angels who look after them. Mind you, most people on the Camino aren’t real pilgrims any more, it has become a tourist trip. Then he started preaching in earnest. “You don’t do the Camino; the Camino does you.” Twenty minutes and I’d had enough. “Excuse me,” I said, “I have to say my prayers.” It was the only thing I could think of that was guaranteed to get him off my back. I did say a prayer, to keep myself honest. I prayed that I wouldn’t get cornered by the saintly, sneering Adrian again. I passed him an hour later, firmly clamped to another victim and talking nineteen to the dozen.
I would hate to give the impression I’m having a bad time. I most definitely am not. I have met and chatted with some gorgeous folk. Last night half a dozen boisterous Italians cooked a huge pot of pasta and insisted that I join them. I had an extremely enlightening discussion with a Spaniard around my age who filled me in open the political situation in Spain, translate4d in the difficult sections by a sweet young Argentinian with some English. But I am starting to wonder whether it’s me or the Camino that has changed. Last time, walking five hundred kilometres, I met only one single pilgrim who bothered me in the slightest. I don’t mind, not really. It’s all interesting.

 

This was lovely – the bell tower in an ancient church between Zubiri and Pamplona. a sign invited me to ring the bell once and listen, which I did. It rang for nearly a minute, still in great shape after 629 years.
A great walk today although the most strenuous yet. 25 km, including a stiff climb up the Alto de Perdon (Mt Forgiveness), arriving to a crowd of familiar faces in this wonderful old town (Punta La Reina), the Centre of which has scarcely changed in four hundred years. Narrow streets that you wouldn’t know had any shops till you were alongside them. No big glass windows, just doors to long, narrow shops crammed with traditional produce at nominal prices. I decided to cook. Three lamb fillets, more green beans than I could eat, a bread roll and some delicious elephant ear mushrooms cost less than €4, about $NZ5.50. And two bottles of the best cider in the world. Basque still cider with a specially designed cork at €1.50.

 

The slot at the bottom is a special modification that enables you to pour a stream of cider from a great height in the traditional fashion by replacing only the narrower part. Spanish cider has no bubbles and is traditionally poured through the air to infuse it with a certain effervescence.
Then on to share pasta and wine with the table of joyful Italians. We struggle to communicate, and enjoy the struggle enormously.
I am beginning to make friends to the extent that, unlike the last time, I plan to confer on destinations so we can continue our friendship. Today I caught up again with Ellie, a thirty-something Dutch woman whose extreme sensitivity to the sun has forced her to leave the outdoor catering business she has built with her husband and extended family. A sweet Christian, she told me of a Sunday service coming up tomorrow in Dutch in Villamayor, which I’ll try to attend. So may Rudolph, a young Dutch vegetarian yogi type; very clear, bright-eyed, he finishes his days’ walks with no noticeable signs of fatigue. Several others. My Camino is shaping up well, from the slight sadness that hung over the first couple of days. I hold high hopes for even more improvement.
An easy day’s walk today, to the ancient town of Estella, dominated by a huge abbey that I’ll check out before dusk. ‘The gang’ is well found in the parish albergué, warm, well supplied, WiFi everywhere and only €6.00. The guitar will come out tonight. So glad I brought it; almost didn’t.

 

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Sam Harris, Free Will, the Brain and Me (or You)

Two items of information have popped up close together on my personal timeline which seem to shine a bright light on the long-debated question of determinism, so staunchly advocated by Sam Harris in his book ‘Free Will’, which I haven’t read and don’t need to read since he has already paraded the gaping flaws in his argument on YouTube.

The delightful Philosophy Tube (thanks Holly) led me to an address by Mr Harris in which he trotted out what seems to be his schtick: free will is an illusion because we don’t create our thoughts, they just occur as a result of all the previous influences coming to bear on the instant of their arising in our brain. Since we don’t create our thoughts, says he, we’re not responsible for them and the idea that we control our mind and therefore our consequent decisions and actions is an illusion.

I was irritated that in both the presentations I viewed that no-one thought to challenge his conflation of spontaneous thoughts with what is clearly a subsequent volitional process. “You might be sitting there, listening to me, trying to pay attention, and you have the thought, ‘Yeah, he does look a bit like Ben Stiller,’” he joked. This is true, but he fails to note that you then have a choice: wander along that pathway – ‘Hmm, I don’t think he’s as funny though, he’s taller,’ whatever –  or tell yourself to stop and pay attention to the content he’s delivering. Nothing advanced by Mr Harris even starts to convince me that this subsequent decision is pre-determined by all previous influential causes. In fact, he doesn’t even raise the subject, perfectly happy to treat random thoughts and deliberation as the same thing. But we all know they are not. Yes, thoughts pop up. But then we – we! – take over. We exercise judgement, draw conclusions, not at all as a deterministic process but by the exercise of will. Free will. Obviously our previous life experience, our genes, whatever, will influence this, but the choosing part is something we are absolutely in charge of.

Volition arises out of desire. What do we want? Science, experience have amply demonstrated that within certain limits we can train ourselves to want certain things and not to want others, the obvious case being addictions. We learn to want something that we previously had no interest in. Millions work every day at ‘becoming better people’ and many succeed. Action-reward feedback cycles kick in. We weed the old lady’s garden, feel good, do it again because we want to, become a better person. We make choices that changes us.

Harris would say that this is also deterministic, because it’s all just synapses arising out of previous synapses in an ineluctable, iron train of events.

For starters we can confound this proposition by using a logical trick. Our every brain moment, says Harris, is nothing more than the product of our past. Therefore our life runs on rails we can do nothing about. Determinism rules.

But life isn’t like that. We can and often do choose randomness, buying a lottery ticket being the obvious example. (I suspect Mr Harris has never bought a lottery ticket.) After that, what happens is greatly influenced by chance. So much for determinism.

But I am sure it’s all just a blind alley anyway because Harris commits a greater sin of conflation, equating the mind with the brain. No-one has ever established that the mind is equivalent to the brain. Harris boldly declares that science says they are the same thing but that is simply not true. The mind certainly operates within the sphere of the brain but it has yet to be scientifically demonstrated that they are the same thing.  In fact we are still not even sure what the mind is.

On the contrary, the other tidbit that came my way would seem to indicate, in a perfectly ‘scientific’ manner, that they are not. Recently a team from Nottingham University conducted research on people who had suffered cardiac arrest and survived. Of the 140 interviewed 37% said that they had coherent, memorable experiences while clinically dead. The brain shuts down within 30 seconds of the heart’s stopping. Yet these people went on having intelligible, often out-of-body experiences after this time limit. One interviewee experienced himself floating above the scene, in a corner, watching and hearing everything that was going on. He recalled a machine beeping twice.

His precise description of the scene was supported by those present. The machine he heard beeps once every three minutes. This man continued as some sort of entity, clearly with a mind, when his brain was dead, his body lying with its eyes having ceased to send signals to his brain. Yet he saw, for a period of at least three minutes.

Let’s just pick at this to be certain we understand its significance. For something to be scientifically provable, it has to be repeatable under the same set of conditions. But scientific proof is not the same thing as truth. If a pig flies once, somewhere, even if no-one sees it, then it is the truth that pigs can fly. It has not been scientifically demonstrated, proved, but it is the truth. This man, dead, continued to have conscious experiences. These were the same experiences, seen from another perspective, that the live people were having in the same time and place. It is not scientifically proven, but unless everyone involved is lying or deluded it happened. It is the truth.

We have heard these stories forever. They tend to be more or less similar. I conclude that what I have long suspected is true: my mind, me, inhabits my brain but it is not my brain. The preconditions of my brain do not absolutely determine what I do and the choices I make. They certainly exercise a very powerful influence. Changing course is difficult. I have always had major difficulties with impulse control so I know what I’m talking about. This is my personal life challenge: to not follow every impulse, to guide my actions by will and reason. It’s hard, but I do it.

I also detect in Harris’s presentations a common corrupter of scientific objectivity: the promotion of a virtuous outcome. Science is objective. It doesn’t care whether the world comes to an end, whether we are good to each other. Science is the study of what is. These days we see the scientific discussion about climate change high-mindedly distorted by the wish to achieve a desirable result, the continuation of comfortable human life. Data are suppressed, exaggerated, knowingly misinterpreted, because it’s good that they should be.* This is where science stops and preaching starts. Scientists should not preach.

Harris is preaching. He goes quickly to arguments for compassion. “If we truly understood that even the worst criminals really had no choice in the moment of their crime,” he trumpets, “we would have no hatred, seek no retribution. We might have to lock them away, but we wouldn’t hate them.” Which would certainly make for a better world. He advances logical reasons for philanthropy, saying that people who help others need have no religious reason for doing so, it makes sense anyway.

In fact in the two of his presentations I saw he spent more time preaching than discussing theory. That alone, casts a long, dark shadow over his credentials.

Sorry Mr Harris. You have not proved one damn thing.

* For the record, I’m a climate change doubter but not what is commonly called a sceptic. It is simply a fact that some of the IPCC data has been fudged in the ‘right’ direction, which doesn’t prove or disprove global warming. It’s just the truth.

A Sunday afternoon divertissement

Sunday afternoon, somewhere in Canton Aargau, in Switzerland. Pretty much the only lovely place I visited in my youth which remains just as beautiful. And, happy surprise, the Swiss are considerably less uptight than they were in the 70s.
I was invited to do as piece alongside three professional magicians. I was going to do it all in Schwyzertüutsch, which would have been quite a challenge, but apparently the Swiss get a laugh out of performances in English peppered with bits of their own dialect. So with my friend Tobias’ help I put together a piece and did it unrehearsed.
Consequently, at the point where I supposedly put the egg under my arm my mind went completely blank. Simply couldn’t remember how I was going to end it. got out unscathed, I think.

Check out Tobias, aka Buccini, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIjFfpA8i9U

He’s even funnier in Schwyzertüutsch!