Great Minds

The square root of love

The universe is expanding but are we getting any wiser?

The universe is expanding…but are we getting any wiser?

In class this week we looked at some big, existential questions: What happens when I die? Is there a God and if so, what is she/he/it like? Einstein said that if there is a God, he must be a mathematician. I suppose God would have to be quite a lot of things, besides being good at maths, in order to comprehend fully what goes on down here on planet earth. When I was a child I imagined God as a big bloke in a boiler suit, but I suppose that was just a childish fantasy. Now my imagination goes a bit further.

I Sing the Body Electric! Poetic prophet Walt Whitman

I Sing the Body Electric! Poetic prophet Walt Whitman

I still think God must be pretty massive whatever it is. I don’t think he’s overweight because I doubt he actually eats anything. I suppose he isn’t male or female, though he might be both at the same time. One day I would really like to thank him/her/it for inventing all kinds of stuff, not just maths. The sky and the ocean, for a start. Stereo and vinyl, of course. But also real ale and romantic love and avocados and poetry and jazz. I suppose if he is even slightly human he must love children and Bradford City FC and battered haddock and papaya. I expect he adores Walt Whitman and Jeanette Winterson, Thelonius Monk and Sandy Denny. His favourite subjects are probably music, philosophy and nature studies, though I’m not sure about PE.

Of course, thinking about it, there must be quite a few things that get on his nerves. I expect he hates bullies and money and drivers who push in the queue. Anybody who gets above themselves in general, really – the vain and conceited and corrupt. I expect he invented the phrase, ‘You can’t take it with you when you go!’ Exactly, I say. He is brilliant at languages, obviously, as he understands everybody who tries to send him a message. He’s probably mates with Father Christmas, too, though I guess he doesn’t like hospitals because they make him sad.

Dinner to die for - stout and battered haddock

Dinner to die for – stout and battered haddock

I sometimes wonder if he’s Swedish or Alaskan, English or Brazilian. I suppose it’s possible that he comes from Yorkshire originally, though I doubt he’s been back there for a while. In fact, he must be way too big to have any nationality; that would explain why he hates our petty earth squabbles. When I think about it, he must be sad most of the time: sad about needless violence and killing, the way so many people die tragically, though death may be beautiful after the fact, for all we know.

If I’m honest, I see God as a huge, powerful force. If you imagine the expanding universe and infinity and eternity all powered by LOVE, you may get the sense of what I mean. Neither intolerant nor judgemental, God is kindness personified – a giant, transcendental loving hug.

Mars bars and Frank Zappa? Somebody's idea of heaven...

Mars bars and Frank Zappa? Somebody’s idea of heaven…

A colleague of mine once told me about a mate of his who had found a kind of heaven here on earth. This guy’s paradise could be reached by sitting on his comfy sofa listening to a Frank Zappa LP played loud, with a novel on his lap, a cup of strong tea at hand and a Mars bar to dunk into it. I instantly identified with this image, though it wouldn’t quite work for me.

Give us a kiss! Whoever invented Romantic Love was a genius

Give us a kiss! Whoever invented Romantic Love was a genius

No, heaven for me would involve some time travel. I would wake up in my flat in Bradford in 1977 looking exactly like I did then (well, maybe a bit taller and with a few more muscles). The big difference is that I would have my 2015 brain inside my head: I would be wiser. Then everything would happen just as it used to, except that I would be kinder, more patient, more appreciative of everything around me, more alive. All those dumb decisions and stupid mistakes would be avoided. Most importantly, I suppose, I would try so much harder to give a little bit of love to those around me…in the way that I suppose God must do in his wisdom.

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I think, therefore I am not good enough?

It's 2015: may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb...

It’s 2015: may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb…

I can’t get started this year. It’s 2015, the year of the sheep, and I feel like a toad. I want to be good this year. But I’m confused. You see, the other night I dreamt I was in a giant maze made of Yorkshire pudding.

...and there was Yorkshire pudding everywhere, everywhere!

…and there was Yorkshire pudding everywhere, everywhere!

It was scary. As I tried to find my way out I kept bumping into famous dead philosophers. Every time I saw one I asked the same question: “How can I be a better person in 2015?” Here’s a summary of what they told me:

Socrates: The first of three Greek blokes with beards, this one asked me why I wanted to be good. I said I wanted to do good things, you know, help others and not be selfish. He asked me why I believed in “good” and “not good”. Then I was stumped. He told me to forget dwelling on right and wrong and try to grow as an individual. Evidently I need to love the universe and my own life within it, but always to question what people tell me. Then, just before he vanished, he stroked his beard and said: “Remember, to be is to do.” I was still confused.

Please, Mr Plato,can I keep my poetry books?

Please, Mr Plato, can I keep my poetry books?

Plato: This old stick was a bit severe. When he found out I loved poetry he turned nasty and told me to throw my poetry books in the river Styx. Poetry is bad for me, evidently, because it’s not “true”, it’s only fiction. He told me everything on earth is imperfect, so I can’t be ‘good’ because ‘goodness’ is an illusion. And all my relationships have to be ‘Platonic’ from now on. Plato’s world sounded a bit strict for me. Luckily I had the Yorkshire pudding to console me.

Aristotle: I had to define ‘goodness’ for this real scientific guy. What is essential about being good, he asked me, what must be always present in an act of goodness, something that cannot be removed from the equation? I said ‘love’. He smiled, and for a second I thought he must like me, at least more than moody old Plato. “So, go forth and multiply”, he said, “with your earthly love”. Great.

"It is too difficult to think nobly when one thinks only of earning a living." Right on, Jean Jacques

“It is too difficult to think nobly when one thinks only of earning a living”, said Mr Rousseau

Descartes: This French guy had a really strong accent. What I think he asked me was how did I know that my ‘life’ was not just one big dream. Good question. “You think, therefore you think you are”, he said. I suddenly realised my dream was happening inside a much bigger one. Hmm. So, the shrew I found in 1967 in Heaton Woods that accidentally died on the way home was just an illusion, like everything else. What a relief!

Rousseau: Another French bloke, Jean Jacques told me to ditch all my possessions pronto and get back to nature. Get naked and live organically. Mankind, in his (or her) natural state is not avaricious and envious, but kind and considerate. So, it would be easy to be good, he told me, when human beings had dispensed with their silly commodity society. Being naturally human again, living in the woods on berries and nuts, would be noble, not savage. Voila!

Friedrich 'Superman' Nietzsche with his walrus 'tache

Friedrich ‘Superman’ Nietzsche and his walrus impression

Nietzsche: Friedrich’s moustache was awesome and made him look like a walrus! He was ranting in German but then toned it down a bit when I approached. He told me to imagine a place beyond good and evil and asked me what I would find there. I said ‘love’ again, and he said “Ja, Heureka!”  Then he told me not to trust language because it was only used to boss people around; I have to will myself to escape from language and ‘morality’ to a distant, metaphysical place where I can be a ‘Superman’. Sounds a bit mad to me. When I left, Friedrich was hugging a horse.

I want to be an existentialist just like you Jean Paul

I want to be an existentialist just like you, Jean Paul

Sartre: Another French guy, this one with inch-thick glasses, a funny eye and a fat cigarette in his mouth. He asked me what exactly I based my decisions on. I said the circumstances. He said those circumstances are always beyond my control, so choosing one way instead of another is absurd. I kind of agreed with him. Then he asked if I had a spare cigarette, preferably Gauloises. He looked really sad when I said no. Before I left, he said “Remember, jeune homme, to do is to be.”

How do you mean do be do be do?

Stranger in the Night: Frankie

All of a sudden I found the exit to the maze, which was lucky because I was stuffed with pudding. But I was still confused and feeling sad that I didn’t have a definitive answer to my question about being good. Then, out of the distance came a shadowy figure who seemed to be singing to himself as he walked towards me. It was Frank Sinatra! “Hey, kid, what’s up?” he said. So I told him about the philosophers and my dilemma. He asked me what had been the best advice so far. I said Socrates told me “To be is to do” and Sartre told me “To do is to be”. Frank agreed that was really confusing. Then suddenly he smiled and said, “Wait a minute, kid, I got your answer!” “Tell me, please!”, I said. “Do be do be do!”, he said. Then I woke up singing Strangers in the Night, which I realised was a great title for my dream.

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Passion, politics and personal hygiene in Brazil

Tiririca the clown says: "If elected I promise I will help all Brazilian families... especially mine"

Tiririca the clown says: “If elected I promise I will help all Brazilian families… especially mine”

Today is a big day in Brazil. More than 100 million people will toddle along to their local polling station to cast their precious electronic vote. Today, Brazil’s huge population will not just decide who the next president will be, they also have to choose senators, governors and representatives at a municipal and local level. For weeks, every strip of grassland next to the main roads has been cluttered with billboards, huge photographs of dozens of well-heeled contenders and their electronic numbers. There are no written messages on the pictures, apart from the subliminal and obvious “Vote for Me”, which goes without saying.

Having found myself caught up in all the excitement and, as an outsider, mystified by all these names, numbers and bland photographs, I naturally consulted my colleagues and students to discover how they were going to choose their next political leaders. To my chagrin I discovered that the vast majority of these “delegates” are unknown; anonymous faces with numbers to match. In fact, it wouldn’t be stretching the truth to suggest that many people will vote for the person who, from their photographic portrait, appears to be the most sincere and reliable. I won’t say “trustworthy” as Brazil has a shameful history (one which runs right up to the present) of corruption in politics at all levels, leading most voters to adopt a cynical attitude to the electoral proceedings. It looks like a case of “meet the new boss – same as the old boss”, as The Who’s Pete Townsend  aptly put it in his ironically titled song, Won’t Get Fooled Again.

That's Dilma the president at the top...but who are the rest?

That’s Dilma the president at the top…but who are the rest?

What a daft system! Surely nobody should be voting for someone they have never heard of. But then that is the nature of metropolitan politics where huge numbers of people live together and know next to nothing about how their city is run. It may sound idealistic, but wouldn’t it be great to get to know your candidate, to sit down and have a little chat? Only then would you know if this was the kind of person who best represents your opinions. Not only could you broach all those touchy subjects like poverty, education and corruption, you could get a feeling whether this candidate was understanding, humane, kind – somebody worthy of your vote. You could also check whether they have bad breath and expect you to pay for the drinks (obviously a no-brainer).

The biggest issue, as I see it, is how to make our societies fairer: how to engender more equality of wealth and opportunity. The simple solution – to tax the rich and give to the poor, Robin Hood-style, is surely way too simplistic. Wouldn’t that just make rich people not want to work anymore and, at the same time, make poor people lazy? Well, it depends. Like all political ideals, the answers lie somewhere deep in the darker realms of philosophy. The bigger question is: are we human beings basically good-hearted, sharing, caring creatures, or are we selfish individuals out to get everything we can for ourselves and our precious families? More to the point – shouldn’t all those candidates with the big beaming faces know the answer to these quandaries?

Hobbes: without state control you would be a brute

Hobbes: without state control you would be a brute

Of course they should! So, here’s the thing – all the candidates should be made to sit a philosophy exam and the results made public before the election. You see, I’m full of great ideas! But hang on a minute – do I know myself what the philosophers say about human nature? Well, erm, let me see…

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679): Here we have a very influential English pessimist who wrote in his impressive tome Leviathan that human life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” without the powers that be keeping tight control on everybody. That’s because human beings have a natural tendency to fight with everybody else in the name of self-preservation. What Hobbes called “every man against every man” or what we call today, proverbially, “dog eat dog”. (Oh dear…not a good start!)

Jean-Jaques Rousseau (1712-1778) “Man was born free”, Rousseau famously proclaims, “and he is everywhere in chains.” Sounds familiar? Well, the Frenchman’s invention of the term “noble savage” might also ring a bell. But what does he mean? Well, unlike Hobbes, Rousseau is a bit of a romantic. He believes that in our true “natural” state, human beings do not know good and evil; in fact our ignorance of vice makes us unable to do bad things to others. Men and women are naturally peaceful and “passionate”. (Now this is more like it…sounds lovely!)

Adam Smith (1723-1790)

Adam Smith in Edinburgh: 'Just start up a business and everybody will be better off...honest!'

Adam Smith in Edinburgh: ‘Everybody is better off with Capitalism’

This Scottish economic philosopher has got a lot to answer for, my friends. He believed that yes, man is selfish, but that self-interest will actually benefit everybody else. Sounds dumb? Well, Smith argues in The Wealth of Nations that the creation and maintenance of business practices will benefit the whole of society, from the managing director to the cleaner who scrubs his floor. This is the thinking that spawned “neo-liberalism”, a free-market, no-holds-barred economic system which ultimately led to the chaotic global financial crisis we saw just a few years ago. Aggressive capitalism, Adam Smith-style, surely does not benefit everyone. How could it?

Karl Marx (1818-1883) My homeboy, in case you hadn’t guessed, this infamous German revolutionary believed that humans are naturally sociable “self-expressive animals who need one another to survive, but who come to fulfillment in that companionship over and above its social usefulness”, according to Marxist professor Terry Eagleton. Humans are political creatures, in the sense that we always have to organize ourselves and work together in order to produce the things we need. The problem is, in the advanced capitalist societies of today, little people don’t get a chance to voice their opinions or have the power to change the mighty economic system.

The very noble savage

The very noble savage

Which brings me back to the Brazilian elections today. Everyone I have spoken to here has very strong opinions about their beloved country. Brazilians are passionate about politics and have a wealth of ideas about how the country’s institutions need to change. How, for example, the cynicism of corrupt, selfish politicians can be traced back to a woefully underfunded education system which fails to enlighten schoolchildren about the crass limitations of consumerism and economic self-interest.

Luckily, being an ex-pat, I don’t have to vote today, but if I was Brazilian, I would be rooting for the candidate who regularly visited all the areas (including the very poor) of his or her constituency to actually speak with the people; to meet the voters – as many of them as humanly possible. That is true political representation. I would also be tempted to vote for someone who was stunningly attractive, of course – as long as they had read all three volumes of Das Kapital!

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Backing into the future…

The past meets the present and the future in a big flash of light...then you wake up!

The past meets the present and the future in a big flash of light…then you wake up!

The Greeks had enormous respect for the past. It was from the past that they learned how to live. They didn’t “look to the future” (to quote Slade in their perennial classic song Merry Christmas Everybody). I’m not sure I could “look to the future” even if I wanted to, unless I had some LSD and a very large crystal ball. No, history was the oracle for the Greeks – their guiding light. It was as if they stood staring into the past with their backs to the future. Not a bad position to be in.

Come to think of it, there is no future to look into. Neither is there any present moment, as that keeps slipping away – like trying to catch a butterfly in an imaginary net. We live on shifting sands; the ground beneath us is forever collapsing just at the moment when another floor replaces it, or tries to. Of course, the most scary thing is that the past is also nebulous. It isn’t solid or knowable. History only “exists” in the millions of versions we have of it. Stories of the past.

John Gray, former professor of philosophy at the London School of Economics, takes things a step further. He claims that “progress” is a myth. The idea that the world and our lives within it are always getting better is just not tenable. For a start, capitalism isn’t a philanthropic system; it’s designed to make a profit. No progress, no future, no past: what are we left with? Surely we can at least look forward to living like an angel in heaven (if you have behaved yourself, of course)? Sorry, but no – heaven and hell are also mythical places.

OK, so if life has no meaning and we are not going anywhere what is the point? What are we supposed to do? Well, we always have our families to fall back on, don’t we? Surely a loving family counts for something? Erm, actually, the thing is, the nuclear family is a very conservative and inward-looking institution. “My family” is always more important than “your family” and my kids are always more valuable than yours. It’s another version of dog eat dog. We have lost any sense of community. We don’t get the chance to love and cherish our neighbour’s children; we can only focus on our own.

Life is meaningless, so you might as well flip your wig!

Life is meaningless, so you might as well flip your wig!

So what am I getting at? If everything is meaningless I might as well do what the hell I feel like, n’ est ce pas? Just have fun, throw my wig up in the air and kiss a nun! No, that won’t work because not everybody else has realised that life is absurd. People still think there is a point to life: retirement, perhaps, or the joy of telling stories to your grandchildren, tending the garden, and drinking chardonnay at lunchtime on a weekday. Actually I have some ideas of my own on how to conduct your life in a meaningless universe.

1) For crying out loud, go and tell the wife of your best friend that you have always fancied the pants off her and would give your hind teeth to have a little snog with her under the mistletoe! What have you got to lose?

2) Go and tell your boss to stick his job where the sun doesn’t shine! You have always wanted to just chuck a bag on your back and scoot off around the world, picking fruit, sleeping under the stars, living on cheese and wine and writing poems. You know you owe yourself a big adventure.

3) Become an alcoholic. Hang on a minute: the alcoholic I am advocating doesn’t drink. Yes, you heard me right. My kind of alky only behaves like someone who’s had a couple to freshen up. Always has a big smile, full of fun, gregarious, up for it. Natural effervescence.

My idea of backing into the future is surreal but incredibly life-enhancing. It goes like this: imagine you are repeating exactly the life you have already lived. You are playing the lead role in a movie of your life. You know all the moves, you’ve done them already. You made mistakes last time, so you won’t make them again. You didn’t do a lot of stuff last time because you were scared, embarrassed, cowardly. Now you don’t give a damn what people think. You have nothing to lose – nothing at all.

The inimicable Slade: "Look to the future now, it's only just begun..."

The inimitable Slade: “Look to the future now, it’s only just begun…”

So, act like a rock star, think like a poet and love like a god. Or, to put it another way, when in Rome, do as the Greeks!

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A streak of Danish passion

Who is the most important person in the world? You, of course. But your life is like a child’s adventure through a giant forest with hundreds of different pathways. Every day you have to decide which one to take. If only you had a guide to help you, someone who could answer your doubts and fears. Sometimes you feel so alone.

One dashing young man strolling around Copenhagen nearly 200 years ago would have sympathised greatly with your existential dilemma. He would have sat you down and explained that he had the same feelings and had come to the conclusion that there were no logical answers. He would have told you to rejoice in the fact that you are a unique individual. Then he would have revealed his great passion.

Like many brilliant thinkers, Soren Kierkegaard was destined for a life in the church. His brooding father, a pious Lutheran, expected nothing less from his youngest son. But by the age of 21, Soren’s mother and five of his seven siblings were dead. His father believed it was divine punishment for his own sinful past. His son reacted by swapping his bible for nights of drinking with his university chums.

Then arrived the moment of great enlightenment. Having read, understood and refuted even the most challenging philosophical works he could lay his hands on, Kierkegaard realised the only way to be truly free in an absurd world was through passion. Not a breathless passion for your landlady or next-door neighbour, however. A very personal religious passion that is yours alone. Yes there is a divine being at the helm of the universe, but you won’t find him by crouching on your knees in church. You need a leap of faith, or, if you’ll forgive the quip, to let your karma run over your dogma.

Kierkegaard described his childhood as “insane” and found it difficult to form relationships with women (he did propose once but then spent a year in mental anguish about it). But despite his obvious emotional insecurities, he remained remarkably cheerful and his journals are laced with humour. He is one of the very few philosophers who writes like a novelist, with characters and scenarios to illustrate his ideas.

Kierkegaard’s abiding message, perhaps, is to “come down from the clouds”. The divine is not something we have to strive daily to reach or attain. It’s within ourselves; unlock it and you will set yourself free.

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Dreaming with your eyes open

“No man is an island”, wrote the 17th century English poet, John Donne, “each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”. We are all one. It is a seductive idea that needs a leap of the imagination. Bodies and souls, heaven and earth, plants and planets all linked together in a universal whole that is travelling through time. One world.

One young man who had the courage to think in this way while everybody around him frowned and cursed was Benedict de Spinoza. In 1653, at the age of 20, he was thrown out of the church and vilified for his radical beliefs. But a true genius isn’t afraid of the establishment. He feels sorry for people who are trapped by their narrow doctrines and follow each other like sheep.

Spinoza had a profound vision of the universe as an abundant life-force that must be seen as a whole. He referred to this universal reality as Nature or God, but in essence it was the same thing. The young scholar upset his family and his elders by not becoming a Rabbi and instead made a living as a humble lens grinder in Amsterdam. But his passion was to contemplate the mysteries of the universe and make sense of it through his writings.

What most shocked people at the time was the idea that humans were not individuals with free will and therefore shouldn’t be judged for their actions. Spinoza described people who believed they were free as “dreaming with their eyes open”. It follows that notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ had no place in the Dutchman’s conception of the universe.

But Spinoza’s grand ethical system doesn’t necessarily mean we have no control over our destiny. The joy of being alive comes to us when we are able to rise above our day-to-day doubts and anxieties and see ourselves as a tiny part of an infinite, expanding, beneficent universe.

Spinoza’s books were burned in public during his lifetime and his most radical ideas were deemed too dangerous to publish until after his death. His story is one of bravery and enlightenment, of someone bold enough to open his mind to the vastness of space and time. He is said to have died calmly; I imagine he had a smile on his face.

Here’s another English poet – the Romantic visionary William Blake: “To see the world in a grain of sand, And heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour”.

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