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Maps…..representing the world by making maps is one of the most characteristic skills we humans possess.

We don’t just draw maps on paper, but we make them inside our heads. Dan Seigel, who wrote “Mindsight” says we create three particular maps in the most forward part of our brains – the prefrontal cortex. He says we make a “me map”, a “you map” and a “we map”. He means we have an image, a pattern, or some other form of representation in our minds by which we recognise ourselves, the people we meet, and the relationships we have with them. These maps do more than allow us to recognise ourselves and others, they enable us to navigate our way around them. They help us predict, plan and choose which actions to take.

I don’t know about you but I LOVE maps. There’s something magical about them. I love to see maps over the ages which reveal how we have come to make sense of the world. So, when I was in Tordesillas, Spain, earlier this year I was delighted to find a whole host of astonishing maps in the Museo del Tratado de Tordesillas.

Look at this one, pictured above, it’s part of the Quesques Abraham map, otherwise known as the Catalan Atlas, from 1375. These first couple of sections depicts the world around the Mediterranean. You’ll probably recognise the British Isles, the Iberian Peninsula, the land we now call Italy, the North of Africa and so on. It’s pretty fascinating but it’s typical of the kind of geographical maps with which we are familiar. I think the Catalan Atlas gets even more interesting in the next set of panels –

This is the world to the East of the Med. The physical structures are way less recognisable, and that’s largely due to the fact that the world to East of the Med wasn’t known very well in those days. In fact, this section of the map is drawn from stories. It’s drawn from the stories of Marco Polo and other explorer/adventurers who travelled in the East and then wrote their travel journals, and from stories told in religious texts and passed down in various oral traditions.

I don’t think I’ve seen a map created that way before.

A map made from stories!

But then, I thought, isn’t that exactly what we do when we create these “inner maps”? The “me map”, the “you map” and the “we map” that Dan talks about?

So, I wonder……what stories do I draw on to create my “me map”? What stories do I draw on to create the various “you maps” and “we maps”? The stories of our encounters? The stories of other peoples’ encounters? Wow! What an idea!

I think I’m off to explore that further…..I wonder what those maps look like, and what stories created them?

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Do you know what I said just before I took this photo?

“Look at the light!”

It stopped me in my tracks as I was walking down this narrow road. I took that photo, then I stepped forward and took this one –

I don’t know which one I prefer so I thought I’d share both.

I know, you’re thinking…..was it the light which caught your attention or the colours and shapes of the wall?

The truth is, I’m not so sure. But I do know that the first thing I said was “Look at the light!”, so there was something about the light itself which caught my eye. Of course, as I look at these images now I see the amazing, subtle colours, and the higgledy-piggedty (is that a word??) nature of the stones, bricks, tiles and mortar which have been put together to make this wall. Was it build like this from scratch? Or is this some kind of repair job? Does this particular section of wall have a story to tell, a history? What events has it experienced, and who made this wall like this anyway?

It’s easy to get lost in these questions which we have no possibility of answering….except with our imaginations.

But this is beautiful to me.

This is a moment of experiencing beauty.

It’s also a moment of experiencing light. And, to be frank, the photograph doesn’t capture that experience. You had to be there.

When I think about this dual experience of witnessing light, and what it illuminates, I remember an old essay written by C S Lewis. Oh goodness, I read that when I was a teenager. Can I remember it clearly? I think it was called “Meditation in a tool shed” – off to google it (actually, I shouldn’t use “google” as a verb like that. After all, I have “duckduckgo” set up as my default search tool) – I mean off to duckduckgo it!

Oh, yes, here it is! 

Gosh, it’s quite dated now. The references to “savages” kind of took me by surprise there! Still, the basic idea is still clear. In this essay, Lewis is thinking and writing about seeing a shaft of light coming into his dusty toolshed, then moving to look along the light itself and seeing the sky and trees outside. He uses this experience to juxtapose two kinds of experiencing – looking at an object, something “outside” of ourselves, and experiencing as a “subject”. Well, I don’t think he actually uses that language but that’s what I’ve always taken out of it.

There’s a difference between observing and experiencing.

We do both all the time of course, and the objectivity of observing continues to be debated, but nobody can deny what you experience as a subject. That’s all yours. Or, in my case, all mine!

I think of myself as a realist. I’m not convinced by the arguments that there’s nothing “out there”, that everything comes into existence only in the moment of being observed. After all, the universe has been around for a heck of a long time before human beings emerged to observe it! As best I know!

I’m not really convinced by the relativist arguments either….that there is no objective truth, that truth is different for each and every one of us. But it seems kind of obvious to me that my subjective, day to day, moment to moment, experience is unique. As is yours.

More than that, this subjective experience I have of my one unique life is inescapable for me. I can’t avoid it. I can’t stand apart from it and take another view entirely. That’s partly why I take these photos and write these words.

I’m just expressing my unavoidable uniqueness.

I should also stress, however, that I absolutely love it when others express their uniqueness too.

Go on….share what only you can share!

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I recently visited the Chateau de Clos Lucé in Amboise, in the Loire valley. This is where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last years of his life. He was invited to live there by François I in 1516. The king provided Leonardo with a place to live, 700 gold ecus a year, and financed his works, in turn for the pleasure of his company and daily discussions with him. Leonardo only lived three more years, dying in 1519, which is why, on this 500th anniversary year of his death, the chateau is hosting a major exhibition of his work. (As an aside I find it fascinating and inspiring that Leonardo was given free range “to dream and work” – what kind of society could we have if we funded creatives and academics to “dream and work” together, without goals, funding applications or publication demands?)

There are a number of Leonardo quotations around the chateau and the gardens. This one caught my eye –

You know that medicines when well used restore health to the sick: they will be well used when the doctor together with his understanding of their nature shall understand also what man is, what life is, and what constitution and health are. Know these well and you will know their opposites; and when this is the case you will know well how to devise a remedy.

After a lifetime career in Medicine, I’m less sure now that medicines do “restore health to the sick”. I think it’s biology which restores health. Human beings are complex adaptive systems, and all such organisms have both “self-healing” and “self-making” capacities. The best medicines stimulate those natural processes of healing. The next best support the processes. Many of the ones we use reduce symptoms, or reverse an imbalance in the body, both of which are reasonable goals and acts, but are they directly involved in restoring health to the sick? Do you think that’s just semantics? I don’t. I’d have a hope for the future that we’d develop the treatments which really do support and stimulate the natural processes of healing, and that’s what Leonardo says, in other language, at the end of that quotation – “when this is the case you will know well how to devise a remedy”.

When what’s the case?

Oh, yes, understand “what man is, what life is, and what constitution and health are”.

Ah! Well, there lies both the problem and the signposts to the solutions…..

A couple of years into my work as a General Practitioner I started to wonder what health is. Nobody taught us what health is at university, and the clinical training of a young doctor focuses on learning diagnostic and therapeutic techniques – identifying pathologies and treating disease states. I went back and looked at my Clinical Medicine textbooks. I searched the index for “health” – no entries. Nope, not one. That set me off on an exploration, looking for an understanding of what health is. The medical school textbooks were no help. Oh yes, there was that old World Health Organisation definition –

“a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

But all that really does is substitute the word “well-being” for “health”. It does suggest health is multidimensional – physical, mental and social – and it does suggest health is something positive, not just the absence of disease or infirmity. But does it really take us much further that irritating “Brexit means Brexit”?

While researching the issue of the absence of health in medical textbooks, I discovered there was a kind of parallel anomaly….biology textbooks didn’t have a definition of life. Really? Well, yes, it wasn’t uncommon to find a biology textbook without the word life appearing in the index.

So what is life?

One of the more satisfying descriptions I read was from Maturana and Varela’s, living organisms demonstrate a “self-making” capacity, which they termed “autopoiesis” and that lead me down the path of the complexity scientists and their definition of “complex adaptive systems”. I still find that a good starting place.

That leaves us with two more areas to explore, according to Leonardo. What is man? and What is a constitution? Remember he was writing 500 years ago, and we would probably now say “What is a human?”, rather than “what is man?”. Let’s leave constitution aside for just now, as it’s pretty embedded in the issues of what is a human and what is health?

What is a human being?

There have been a couple of books published recently which put this question centre stage again. Douglas Rushkoff’s “Team Human“, and Paul Mason’s “Clear Bright Future“. Both of these books are concerned about the impact of technology on human beings and on our societies. Rushkoff says –

being human is a team sport. We cannot be fully human, alone. Anything that brings us together fosters our humanity. Likewise, anything that separates us makes us less human, and less able to exercise our will.

In other words, he focuses on the innate sociability and need to act co-operatively in human beings. I’ve heard Paul Mason say at least two interesting definitions of what is a human – human beings “use energy to counter entropy” – in other words we are a creative species. And human beings are “co-operative, imaginative and linguistic” – the combination of which makes us a unique species.

All of these ideas are interesting to me. And I find it refreshing that these questions are coming to the fore now. Surely this is a timely and positive response to the mechanical, data and statistics driven reductionism which is so utterly de-humanising.

I continue to explore what it means to be human, and I find some of the more impressive answers in the works of philosophers, from the classical schools to Spinoza, Bergson and Deleuze (to name just a few!)

Of course, I could write about this for hours! Ha! Ha! But I’ll stop here and leave the possibility that these are questions you might like to pursue for yourself.

Let me summarise – because I think this is a lifetime project as well as potentially the basis for a whole curriculum –

  • What is Life?
  • What is a human being?
  • What is health?

The answers which appear from those studies could, possibly, give us the remedies of the future – the ones which actually do “restore health to the sick” – and, yes, more than that, allow us to create healthier societies filled with people who fulfil their potentials, creatively, co-operatively, and artistically…..can I even say “spiritually?”

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I listened to an interview with Yuval Noah Harari recently. I read his “Sapiens” some time ago and mostly enjoyed it, but I haven’t been tempted to read his more recent “Homo Deus”. This latter book looks ahead to consider how things might go as artificial intelligence and robotics develops apace. He argues that our technology could give us incredible powers, so that we may end up more like gods, but he also says things could go the other way and create an increasingly large class of people he labels as “useless”.

That “useless class” terminology is certainly a way of getting attention, but when he specifies what he means by it, there’s a lot in it –

“I choose this very upsetting term, useless, to highlight the fact that we are talking about useless from the viewpoint of the economic and political system, not from a moral viewpoint,” he says. Modern political and economic structures were built on humans being useful to the state: most notably as workers and soldiers, Harari argues. With those roles taken on by machines, our political and economic systems will simply stop attaching much value to humans, he argues.

He goes from there to imagine a future where this class spends its time on drugs and Virtual Reality games machines. Depressing, huh?

So, two things struck me immediately. Firstly, this connects to some of the debate about “Universal Basic Income” – the idea that every citizen should receive a monthly allocation because we are heading towards a system which will be “post-work” – robots and algorithms will take over most of the jobs and the increased automation will increase unemployment. Our current economic system will either be adapted to take account of that, or human beings will have to adapt to the current economic system. Or not. It’s this “or not” that Harari explores by describing the “useless class”. One question then is what do we value in society and how do we allocate resources to what we value? As a society.

The second thought was, what, if people don’t have jobs in factories, shops or offices, the only thing they’ll be able to do is take drugs and play VR games? What popped into my mind straight away were caring and creating.

Human beings are great at caring. Sure, we don’t do nearly enough of it, and we could sure do with developing our capacities to care, but take, as one example, the response to an earthquake, a storm, a flood, a terrorist attack. In all of those situations we hear story after story of human kindness, human sacrifice and human caring. With declining infant mortality and increasing life expectancy more and more people in the world are living longer and in need of more care. We won’t run out of opportunities to care for others.

Human beings are great creators. We are problem solvers, scientists, home makers, gardeners, cooks, and artists of all kinds – writers, sculptors, painters, musicians, dancers. We won’t run out of opportunities to create.

Thirdly, I’d argue, human beings are great learners. We have whole neural circuits primed to seek out what’s new or different. We have whole systems dedicated to learning skills, acquiring knowledge, understanding and making sense of things. We won’t run out of opportunities to learn.

So, when I visited the town of Blaye recently, I saw this artwork in a car park. Isn’t it beautiful? Simple, and beautiful. Doesn’t it capture something about the human ability to care and to create.

Isn’t there an opportunity at this point in civilisation to change our focus away from grabbing and consuming, to caring and creating? And learning!

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Look at the skeleton of this beautiful fish. The intricate and delicate structure of the bones is a stunning demonstration of the nature of networks. We can see the whole skeleton is made up from two simple elements, nodes and connectors. Whether we zoom in to study just one group, or out to look at the larger regions we see a variety of different patterns based on these two simple elements.

If you start at any point on this skeleton you’ll be able to trace a path to any other point without ending up down some disconnected cul de sac. In other words every single point is connected to every other one….either in simple one or two step connections, or through an almost infinite variety of pathways across the whole structure.

This is one of the most fundamental patterns at the heart of reality – networks of nodes and connectors.

You can see the same design in all forms of life, especially in multicellular organisms, all kinds of plants, animals and human beings.

Networks of nodes and connectors are the essential fabric of the universe.

Two of the best books I know about this phenomenon are Linked by Barabasi, and Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. I recommend them both. They show how this apparently simple structure builds up into the most complex of phenomena, from individual organisms, to social groups and whole ecosystems.

Once you see things this way you can’t help but see connections everywhere. It’s the science which demonstrates the limitations of reductionism and abolishes the notion of atomisation.

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tree-vine-fog

As I was opening the shutters yesterday morning I caught sight of some swirls of mist lying amongst the vines towards the next village. I took a few photos. Here’s one of my favourite ones. It pleases me. Enormously. There’s an entrancing beauty to it. And it’s one of those photos which stimulates all kinds of thoughts for me.

I look at this and I think of two of the fundamental forces of the universe – the ones which Thomas Berry called “wildness” and “discipline”. The large tree in the centre of the image grows wild. It grows naturally and it spreads out above and below ground creating this ever branching structure which looks like its reaching out to the world. It looks like it’s stretching upwards and outwards to feel the sky and the moist air. In front of it are rows and rows of vines, trained and pruned by human hand, disciplined to grow along the wires. The vines form a complex web of life. As I look at them now it’s hard to discern where one plant stops and the next one begins.

When I think of these two forces, I think of the two hemispheres of the brain, each with its distinctive style of engaging with the world. The right hemisphere exploring, seeking the new, making connections. The left hemisphere exploiting, grasping, structuring. Iain McGilchrist writes in “The Divided Brain“, that the right hemisphere characteristically seeks to care, it seeks to engage with “the other” empathically. The left hemisphere seeks to control, seeking to deal with “the other” by categorising, labelling and separating.

How we see these forces at work in the world today!

 

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dscn7600

Barrie Condon, a retired Professor of Physics, generously shared his new book, “Science for Heretics” with me. He thought I’d like it. He was right. The subtitle of the book is “Why so much of science is wrong” and his aim is to provoke the reader into questioning both the claims of science and its methods. He uses the device of three characters, The Believer, The Sceptic and The Heretic, throughout the book as he considers several fields of science including mathematics, physics, and medicine.

The Believer is one who science reveals the Truth and will one day enable us to understand everything in the universe. The Sceptic accepts the basic tenets of science but retains some doubts about whether of not we will ever be able to understand everything. The Heretic doesn’t buy the whole project. He thinks the universe is not completely knowable and that our scientific theories which shape our views what we see are simply the projections of our human brains.

He particularly attacks the use of theory in science which tends to be translated into “laws”. He clarifies that no such “laws” exist and sets out the case for a return to observation and experimentation instead. I really enjoy his writing style and some passages particularly stood out for me.

For centuries we have been measuring all sorts of things but generally only recording the results we expected and ignoring the rest.

This captures two of my main objections to so much of medical practice – the reduction of human beings to measurements and the belief that the particular measurements which are made allow us to completely understand a patient and their illness. Although I have heard of a medical teacher say “Don’t listen to patients. They lie all the time. You can only trust the results.”, my own experience of doctoring couldn’t more diametrically opposed from that view. ONLY the patient’s experience can be trusted. Measurements, sadly, frequently mislead, and ALWAYS need to be set in the context of this individual patient.

Life saving claims for medicines need careful examination. Drugs do certain things which are beneficial to the human body in disease, but they inevitably have other effects which can be deleterious or even fatal.

I wish more doctors made that more clear every time they write out a prescription.

He’s even better on physics and cosmology.

For me, the two most important things he has to say are, firstly –

Science gives us theories that purport to explain how the universe works. This breeds confidence in scientists who then go on to do things that carry certain risks. These risks are rationalised away on the basis of existing theory. Even if our Heretic is wrong in saying that all theory is actually erroneous, history shows us that most or perhaps all theories ultimately prove incorrect. Our perceptions and calculations of risk are therefore also likely to be erroneous. Science generally also assumes a high degree of control over experimental conditions and again this faith seems misplaced. While we may routinely underestimate risk, we also routinely overestimate our ability to control it.

This is SUCH an important point. He’s arguing for a greater use of the “precautionary principle”. Instead of assuming that everything we produce, all our chemicals, all our technologies are safe until proven otherwise, we should be more wary. What we need is a whole lot more humility and the ability to confess that we really don’t know very much at all. And we certainly way overestimate our ability to control things. It’s the arrogance of believers which frightens me most – people who are so sure that they, and only they are right – I’m on the side of the Heretics in Barrie’s terms. It’s likely that what we think we know at any point will be proven not to be quite right in a few years time (or, indeed, to be completely wrong).

The second important conclusion he reaches is that there are no fundamental laws of the universe…..apart from, maybe, two –

As well as a possible law for uniqueness, the Heretic is open to the possibility of a second law governing complexity, namely that it increases with time.

Well, there he puts his finger on what I’ve written about many times on this blog – that the most important characteristics of the universe are its tendency to create uniqueness and its trend of ever increasing complexity.

Take those two undeniable features on board and try and practice science or medicine by measuring, generalising and trying to control the future! Good luck with that.

Thank you, Barrie Condon, for your delightful, humorous, thought-provoking, paradigm-challenging book. If it was an integral part of science education we might be able to look forward to a better world.

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