Sunday, 28 February 2010

What are Words Worth? 1.) The origin of language

My own life story gives me many reasons to be fascinated with language. I have scattered, random memories of the first five years of my life before I learned to read, but one of the clearest truest memories I have is the feeling of incredible joy I had on reading my first books – the realisation that there were infinities of worlds waiting for me, and all I had to do to get to them was to open page one. Reading was the first addiction of my life; it has proved to be the most benign and durable.

Other incidents reinforced my interest in language. I spent nearly a decade as a member of a Catholic religious order formally known as the Order of Preachers – among such a group, words and language were always going to be central. I studied philosophy, and no-one who comes into contact with modern philosophy can fail to be confronted with the many thorny and compelling questions which crop up when one starts to think about language. And then, more than half my life ago now, I left Ireland and moved to countries in which I had to learn to communicate and live in languages other than my native one. Lost in translation is more than a description, sometimes it can become a state of being.

Evolutionary psychology is a branch of science where most details are controversial, yet its basic postulate is accepted by most mainstream scientists (I refuse to try to discuss such ways of thinking with creationists – it’s futile); evolution, our adaptation to changing, different circumstances pushed the development of the brains of one particular sub-group of primates in the African savannah so that the phenomenon we describe as human consciousness appeared. Personally, I consider the term consciousness – if often used – too general; I prefer to specify it somewhat more as self-reflective consciousness. That which makes humans different from other animals is not intelligence (which can be greater or lesser), or consciousness (for all animals are conscious), but a capacity for self-awareness; as humans we are aware and are aware of the fact that we are aware. This fundamental awareness leads to the basic bifurcation of our consciousness, the division of that which we perceive into “I” and “not-I”. The next step comes quickly, the realisation that some “not-Is” are also “Is” in their own right and thus have their own awareness of themselves. And all of this could not happen if we were not, concomitantly, developing the capacity, in some sense, to name this.

In the beginning was the Word …

It is my firm belief that language and consciousness are ineluctably bound up with each other. There are all kinds of indications from modern scientific analysis and philosophical consideration that support this.

Fifty-five years have now gone by since the legendary and, amazingly, still cuttingly intellectually active Noam Chomsky produced his theory of transformational grammar, which basically argues that all children have an innate knowledge of the basic grammatical structures common to all human languages. Incredibly, particularly given his propensity for controversy, good alternative models, which completely refute Chomsky’s basic insight (argument over developments, details and consequences are another matter) are very difficult to find. An immediate conclusion which can be drawn from Chomsky’s hypotheses is that the rules of grammar – the basic toolkit we use to combine words to express meaning – are built into our brains at a very deep level. This is an indication that language, words, naming, are part of the basic architecture of the way our minds work. Language and consciousness are Siamese twins sharing the same vital organ – the brain – and if we try to separate them, both will die or, at the very least, become very badly damaged.

Anthropologists tell is that anatomically modern humans emerged around 200,000 years ago in Africa and that there is firm evidence of basic human culture, including language, from about 50,000 years ago. This sub-species succeeded in quickly supplanting other proto-human groups, including the famous Neanderthals. It would seem then that the development of consciousness and language took place some time within this period. The experts argue about almost everything in this time scale but there is one train of thought which seems to me to be useful with regard to the way this happened.

Humans, like almost all primates, are intensely social beings. All primates have complex social structures and complex methods of expressing, communicating, preserving and developing them. One of the main social instruments used by monkeys and apes in this respect is mutual grooming, as anyone who has ever visited a zoo, or had the greater luck to seen them in the wild, will have observed. Who grooms who, in what context, in what way, for how long, etc. are all complex statements, confirmations, blandishments, challenges, realignments of position and status within the group. It is the communicative cement which holds the group together, the interactive lubricant which keeps it working.

Of the primates, humans have the most complex social structures of all yet, although we still find grooming in many – mostly intimate – situations pleasurable, it no longer plays this central role for us. What happened?

When our ancestors left the forests for the savannah, started going upright and developing their cooperative foraging to increase the proportion of animal protein and fat in their diet this had a number of consequences. Brain volume increased. A larger brain was an evolutionary risk – initially it posed as many disadvantages as advantages. Increased intelligence was necessary for this form of life, but such a large brain needed more nutrition and more oxygen. It also needed to be kept at a pretty constant temperature to function well and the general environment and the fact that its possessor had to be able to move fast to nourish itself and avoid danger in the savannah led to an increased danger of overheating. The physiological answer to this was a loss of body-hair (with the obvious exception of the head) and an increased ability to sweat.

This disappearance of hair made the intense and complex grooming practiced by primates more difficult – and more senseless. Grooming is also very time-consuming and works only one-to-one, so that it automatically limits both the size of the group and the possibilities of communicating information beyond a certain degree of complexity. Yet at the same time, the new way of life adapted by the man-apes demanded ever more complex communication within the group. The increased brain volume, with the concomitant increase in intelligence, however, also offered the processing power for an alternative, much more refined form of communication than grooming.

The solution to the problem of communication was the development of language, a much more sophisticated form of communication, which in turn led to a further growth in intelligence and somewhere in this process, slowly, incrementally, true human self-awareness developed. Without self-awareness, no language; without language, no mind.

In the beginning was the word …

(to be continued)

Wednesday, 24 February 2010


Margot Käßmann predigt in der Marktkirche in Hannover während des Weihnachtsgottesdienstes. Sie ruft zu mehr Frieden und Miteinander auf

Anyone following Irish current affairs in the past few months will hardly have failed to notice the subject of resigning – I use this term in preference to “resignation” as it implies a certain ambiguity in the sense that one might also comment that anyone who has been following Irish current affairs in the past few months will hardly have failed to experience a feeling of resignation. A number of bishops have (reluctantly) offered their resignations following the scandals resulting from the investigation of child abuse in the church. Some others have not. Two government ministers have resigned in the past week as a result of what can be best described as inappropriate conduct.

This evening, the top headline in the German media is the resignation of Bishop Margot Kässmann, the head of the Council of Protestant Churches in the country, both from her position as bishop of Hannover and that of head of the Church Council. Kässmann was the first woman to be elected to the top post in the German protestant churches last October. The choice was seen in some conservative church circles as questionable as Kässmann had divorced her husband in 2007. She is a woman of principle who is not afraid to raise issues – difficult issues. She has been openly critical of the position of the Catholic Church regarding homosexuality and the use of condoms. She would rather see unused churches demolished than used as mosques. Her sermons last Christmas and New Year in which she asked hard questions of German society in many areas, but particularly regarding the role of German soldiers inAfghanistan, made headlines and led to robust dialogue with politicians.

Last Saturday evening, Margot Kässmann ran a red light inHannover and was stopped by the police. A blood-test showed that she was drunk. The news broke yesterday and the Church Council issued a statement of support for her. At a short press conference this afternoon she announced her resignation. “I would no longer have had the same freedom to critically voice ethical and political challenges. The harsh criticism evoked by a quotation from a sermon like ‘nothing is all right in Afghanistan’ can only be borne when one’s own personal integrity is unreservedly acknowledged.” Her resignation has led to comments of respect and regret from all sides of political and public life in Germany

I am not generally an admirer of church functionaries, however this evening I have nothing but admiration for Margot Kässmann. Her resignation is an act of courage, a clear recognition of the responsibility involved in holding a position of leadership, particularly when this position defines itself or is defined as one which gives a particular authority regarding moral and spiritual issues.

The contrast to the Irish Catholic bishops is, to say the least, striking. Given the current daily increase in reports of abuse of children within the German Catholic Church, I also have the feeling that some bishops here may be feeling a little uncomfortable this evening. Of course, that would only be the case if they are really listening to what she said today; the freedom to critically voice challenges to society from a privileged public position is only there when one’s own personal integrity is unquestioned. Somehow I have the feeling that this moral clarity is something absent in the vast majority of Catholic bishops and church leaders.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Instant of Perception

In the core of the sun, where the plasma density is 150 times higher than the density of water on earth and the temperature is around thirteen and a half million degrees Celsius, hydrogen atoms crash into each other with such stupendous force that they fuse into helium atoms. In this process over four million tons of matter are destroyed every second, transformed into a burst of energy, the amount of which, following Einstein, can be calculated by multiplying the amount of matter by the square of the speed of light. This enormous burst of energy, in the form of high-energy photons (gamma rays) is absorbed almost immediately by the next few millimetres of the surrounding plasma, only to be released again, in random directions, at a slightly lower energy level.

The sun itself is so large that it takes this energy anything between 10,000 and 170,000 years to work its way from the core to the surface, there to be expelled as photons of light, flung off into space at (what else?) the speed of light, 300,000 km. per second. From there it takes a fraction of this energy a further eight minutes to reach our planet Earth. Striking the atmosphere, more of it is filtered and absorbed until another much smaller portion reaches the surface.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

When light strikes the retina of the eye it causes reactions in the special cellular organelles there known as rods and cones. These reactions are carried along the optic nerve into the brain, which crosses, splits and branches to deliver the signals to many areas. The signals carried along the strands of the optic nerve set a cascade of tiny electro-biochemical reactions in motion all over the brain, different neuro-transmitters being released and taken up in many millions of gaps between the synapses of individual nerve cells, a staggeringly complex dance of constantly shifting miniscule electrical potentialities surging, combining, switching. The data from the retina is analysed, classified and sorted; organised into categories, compared with experiences stored in memory, put into context with all the other signals sparking and pulsing through the brain; other perceptions, situational awareness, sensations, emotions and thoughts.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I sit on a terrace in the early morning, a cup of coffee between my hands, looking east. I can still feel the recent lethargy of sleep slowly leaving my body. There is a beautiful sense of freshness, stillness, anticipation. In the clear morning, the horizon at the edge of the sea is a riot of blending colours from blue to every imaginable shade of red, orange and variations for which I have no name. On the line between sky and sea, a sudden orange-red thread of light. Sunrise. A moment of wonder, the first of many in another of a myriad of days.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Abuse of Children in the Irish Catholic Church

Given my history, I suppose many of those who know it and who know something of my views on the Catholic Church will have been expecting me to post something on this issue. In fact, I had decided not to do so, on the grounds that there are enough sensible people who have been commenting on what has been going in the Irish Church in recent months – and, more heartbreakingly, what has been going on in the Catholic Church for many decades. But, having read the reports of the pope’s statement following his two-day meeting with the Irish bishops, I was so flabbergasted that I felt I just had to comment on it.

The Irish Times reported today: ‘Referring to the sexual abuse of children as “not only a heinous crime, but also a grave sin which offends God and wounds the dignity of the human person created in his image”, he pointed to “the more general crisis of faith affecting the church” and its role in the abuse issue. This “weakening of faith has been a significant contributing factor in the phenomenon of the sexual abuse of minors”, he said.

Now, I will admit that I haven’t read the whole statement; frankly, I just don’t have the stomach for it. What I find simply amazing is Ratzinger’s monumental confusion of cause and effect evident in the last sentence quoted.

The reports published in Ireland in the last year, regarding abuse in Church-run institutions (which basically focussed on religious orders) and on abuse in the Dublin archdiocese, were both limited in their terms of reference and their emphasis to the past few decades. But, on the basis of the testimony of older victims, there is no reason whatever to assume that the phenomenon of sexual abuse of children and even more pervasive general cruelty and brutality began in the sixties and seventies. Even a cursory reading of the catalogue of horrors brought to light in the investigations makes clear that there was a major systemic component to this whole issue. The question which arises is how much the structures and systems endemic in the organisation and thinking of the Catholic Church created and protected an environment within which such abuse could be perpetrated in such a widespread fashion?

We are talking of an environment which developed and was perfected when the country still – oh what an irony! – regarded itself as “holy Catholic Ireland,” a country which was repeatedly told by its clerical leaders that it was special because it did not follow the way of godless Britain or the continent, a country in which it was fatal for the career of any politician to question the supremacy of the church (remember Noel Browne?), a country in which state law regarding matters of marriage, sexuality and family was carefully framed so as to completely reflect Catholic teaching. A country where almost every Catholic attended mass every Sunday, where the churches were full for novenas and annual retreats, where the majority of families went to their knees every evening to pray the rosary together. A country in which legislation was introduced little more than thirty years ago to liberalise(!) availability of contraception by allowing the sale of condoms to married couples only.

Indeed, it was only in the context of a “weakening of faith,” a growth in openness with regard to sexual matters, the spread of pluralism, that an atmosphere began to develop within which victims slowly started to gain the courage; no, more fundamentally, acquire the language and concepts with which they could begin to describe their martyrdom. It was only in a society where the dominance of the Church was beginning to weaken that public and civil society was able to hear the horrific accusations and start to bring at least a few of the perpetrators to justice, despite a general lack of cooperation from Church authorities.

Pope Benedict XVI’s comment is an indication of how far removed his world-view is from any honest sense of history of the past hundred years. Given increasing reports regarding abuse in Church circles in his native Germany in the past couple of weeks it would seem that his troubles are set to multiply. I have very little hope that he will learn anything from it; it seems far more likely that he, and the rest of the office-holders in the institutional Church, will retreat even further into their ethereal, fearful, controlled fantasy-world. My sympathy is with the victims, of course, but also with the thousands of honest, hard-working, believing Catholics who somehow go on working within the Church, whether priests, sisters or lay-people. Their leaders, right up to their Supreme Leader, are letting them down very badly.

Monday, 15 February 2010



Anyone living on the edge of the Rhineland, as I do, cannot fail to take notice of carnival. As I commented recently elsewhere, it’s a festival where Germans become (from the viewpoint of non-Germans) very unGerman, but that, of course, in a typically thoroughgoing German fashion. In cities like Cologne, Düsseldorf and Mainz, as well as hundreds of smaller towns throughout the region, people dress up in ridiculous costumes, sing and dance in the streets, kiss complete strangers and drink astounding quantities of alcohol.

It’s a tradition which goes back to the Middle Ages and perhaps even much further – in some areas the ways it’s celebrated seem to contain remnants of elements of pre-Christian religions and echoes of the Roman Saturnalia (even if this took place in December). Its basic form fits well into the world of medieval Christendom, days of celebration, feasting and letting your hair down before the great fasting season of Lent begins – hence (at least according to many experts) the name “Carne vale” (farewell to meat). There’s also something very medieval about the idea of “time out” from a rigidly structured society; a time in which normal rules don’t apply, a time in which the world is turned upside down, a time in which the flesh is celebrated, a time in which the fool is king. Tolerable for the powers that be, for with Ash Wednesday the rules of ecclesiastically approved society, controlled by crown and chancel, are re-established with all their force. In one sense, it can be seen as a useful societal pressure-valve, with the added advantage that hung-over believers, perhaps vaguely remembering through an alcoholic veil some of the more embarrassing excesses of the previous days, were more receptive for messages of penance and the threat of eternal divine punishment.

One of the wonderful things about carnival is the way it takes a basic theme, perhaps even a basic human need to abandon rules, norms and structures and live out the Dionysian aspect of our nature, and adapts it into different forms in all sorts of local traditions; from the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, to stately Venetian masked balls, to the samba schools of Rio and the Funkemariechen and Prinzengarde, dressed in parodies of Prussian uniforms, in the Rhineland. And all the cultural inspiration and cross-pollination, from Harlequin and the Commedia del’ Arte, to the Marcel Camus’ magnificent film Orfeu Negro from 1959, with its wonderful, unforgettable music (remember Manha de Carnaval?).

Am Aschermittwoch ist alles vorbei … [On Ash Wednesday it’s all over] goes one of the traditional German carnival songs. But it’s not Ash Wednesday yet, the music is playing, there’s dancing in the street and the siren call is still whispering; Come, let go of your inhibitions, abandon the safety of your projects and plans, forget the future and the past and give yourself up to the eternal now, to dancing and drinking, to love and laughter and life …

We don’t always have to follow it, but if we are not able to at least hear it then our lives have become poor indeed.

Sunday, 14 February 2010


I really don’t know how much more of this I can take. It’s snowing outside. Again. In fact, it’s been snowing more or less continuously for the past twenty four hours how. It’s not heavy snow – if it were ten degrees warmer it would be the kind of light drizzle that wouldn’t really bother you. You’d tell yourself it was February, it’s still winter, you can’t expect sunshine at this time of year. But even this kind of light snow-drizzle can build up to quite a respectable amount when it’s been falling for a whole day. And it’s not as if there weren’t piles of snow everywhere before this current lot started.

Most years it wouldn’t bother me. After all, I live in an area where we do get some snow every winter, we’re used to it. We even get heavy snow every now and again. We have winter-tyres on our cars and shovels to dig them out. We enjoy the still whiteness which changes the world so much and the children get excited about building snowmen and sliding down slopes on sleds. But usually such conditions only last for a week or two at most and then a mild low-pressure area comes in from the Atlantic, the temperature rises and it all melts away.

This winter is different. Around the end of November the temperatures dropped below freezing and (with the exception of a few scattered days) they haven’t risen appreciably since. We’ve had snow storms, snow showers, light falls of snow and when it hasn’t snowed the temperatures haven’t climbed enough for the stuff to melt away. The piles pushed to the side of the street just get greyer and greyer until they’re almost completely black from exhaust fumes and dirt thrown up by passing cars and then it snows again and another white layer deposits itself on top of them. The local councils have all run out of salt to spread on the roads so that they are permanently potentially dangerous and the narrow ones are getting narrower all the time. Parking possibilities on the side of the street are diminishing dangerously and people are starting to aggressively defend them. The impulse becomes more understandable if you’ve spent three quarters of an hour digging your car out and making enough room to drive away to stock up on basic supplies and then return an hour later to find that someone else has parked his car on the space you worked so hard to clear.

People are beginning to admit to becoming severely depressed. I’m starting to understand the feelings of gloom many Scandinavians describe when they talk about winter. So much just becomes more of an effort, from dressing yourself in layers to go out of the house, to getting from A to B. You don’t even want to think about what the heating bill is going to be like.

All of this is, of course, complaining in relative comfort. We are, most of us anyway, warm and dry, well-fed and clothed, we haven’t had any power-cuts, the phones haven’t been out. Life looks a lot bleaker for the homeless, or the hundreds of thousands in southern Poland, where there has been even more snow than here, where it has been considerably colder and where rickety infrastructures have collapsed in many places.

It still makes me miserable though. I’m starting to think that global warming mightn’t be such a bad idea after all. Even now, my conscience is telling me I should finish this, put on layers of outdoor clothing and go out and dig out the car. Better now than having to do it tomorrow before going to work. Alternatively, I could just leave it where it is and walk to work tomorrow. It’s not that far, after all, and it would be good for me. But then, the car would still have to be dug out tomorrow. On the other hand, if it goes on snowing, that might be the case anyway …

Roll on spring!


I’ve considered doing this for a long time now, but have always rejected the idea. Does the world really need another blog? Definitely not. After all, there are billions of bytes of blather being produced every day and disseminated on the web; if there’s one thing the world can get on quite well without, it’s more of the same.

There’s part of the whole phenomenon that strikes me as pathetically, self-diminishingly egoistic. A cry for attention in a frenetic virtual marketplace of vanities, where everything is only a mouse-click away and you have to grab the passer-by in the first ten seconds before the sound, or smell, or promise of something sweetly illicit (almost certainly fraudulent) from another stall has already taken their attention away from you. Millions of voices shouting, talking, whispering into the ether; how many of them practically unheard? Are my musings, my attempts to put something of myself into a form which I regard as communicable, clear and creative really worth the effort? Do I want them to repose on a server somewhere in the practical eternity of digital storage, to be retrieved ten years hence by someone unknown to me, idly typing something into a search-engine out of insomniac boredom? [And, if this is you, dear reader, read on or not, as you will – the likelihood that we will ever communicate with each other seems to me, from this vantage point, vanishingly small.]

And then, of course, there’s the issue of commitment to the thing. How many thousands of people bravely start blogs, promising themselves (and others) all sorts of things, only to see them peter out in the daily round of all the other things to be done, joining the heaps of abandoned ideas and projects which litter our way through life, left to wither through lack of attention, boredom, laziness, or just the universality of the second law of thermodynamics, which sees entropy as the inevitable end of all processes? But even within models which see everything as clockwork continually running down, there are possibilities of creating temporary bubbles within the probability wave bleakly breaking on the shore, where tendencies are reversed, where we can create islands of meaning, connectedness, beauty within a wider world of chaos and indifference. Enough reason for Sisyphus to start pushing that f***ing rock up the hill one more time; the ineluctable hope that this time it will be different, that basic tenacious hope which is an essential part of what it means to be human. Enough reason for me, at least, to begin this blog project.

So, dear reader, stick with me, if you will. If I have any sort of model for what I hope this may turn out to be, it is the old, honourable, if today somewhat neglected tradition of the classical essay. In contrast to many (most?) secondary school pupils, I remember the collection of essays we had to read as teenagers in English class with great pleasure, from Charles Lamb to G.K. Chesterton and, particularly, the great Robert Louis Stevenson. And there is something in the very idea of an essay as an attempt which allows one at least a fig-leaf of an explanation if it doesn’t work.

I’m not going to make any promises with respect to frequency, form or content. I will try to stick at it, if only because, in my experience, people don’t tend to continue to visit web-sites where nothing happens for weeks on end. Feel free to comment, if you feel so moved, as I will feel free to comment on your comments – or not. And because this is my blog, I will also feel free to remove any comments I don’t like. Should you happen to like what you read here, by all means spread the word. While this is something that I am primarily doing for myself (like taking up painting), I’m not dishonest enough to try to tell myself, or anyone else, that I don’t care at all whether anyone reads this. There is an inevitable element of vanity in blogging, an expression of our need for assurance and praise from others, perhaps (more positively seen) a small feeling of confidence that that which one produces could just conceivably give pleasure or edification to someone else. Maybe even produce new connections and friendships – or deepen old ones.

And, if this should happen, well then the whole thing has been more than worthwhile.

[Für meine deutsche Freunde (wenn ihr euch bis zu diesem Punkt durchgequält habt): ich werde wahrscheinlich meistens auf Englisch schreiben; es läuft bei mir eben leichter und flüssiger so. Aber ab und zu wird hoffentlich auch etwas auf Deutsch hier stehen. Warten wir es eben mal ab!]


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