Generally Speaking

‘Truth and Reason are part of the Authority they are challenging.’

Thank you for helping me to remember that.

I don’t think I said very much.  I was looking at the little horse

I had suggested we stopped walking for a moment, ostensibly to look at the little horse (and photograph it, complete with its stumpy legs, as you see in the picture), but actually so that I could write down my precious new idea before I forgot it again.

Something about Reason – that was what I had been saying as we walked together yesterday morning – Authority, and what was happening in today’s world to Truth. There was some new way of putting it together that had come to me suddenly last night when I was in the last stage of consciousness before going to sleep. Too close to sleep to summon the willpower to rouse myself and write it down. In case it evaporated in the night.

Which of course it did.

A few hundred yards back, as our path emerged from the woods, I had started talking about the funny sense you get of some idea that you’ve lost – a feeling, a sort of fleeting glimpse. And the way the more you look to clarify what it was, to try to pin it down and bring it back, the more it retreats. Like some shy animal into a hole. Or like a pea stuck up a child’s nostril in our health centre treatment room years ago (I always think of that one, for some reason) and all you’ve done is drive it further into hiding, until even the elusive sense you had of it has evaporated as well. (I also think of it as the left hemisphere of my brain struggling to pin down and fossilise something that is semi-consciously, shimmeringly, alive in the right. But I’ll come back to that.)

This time, for once, and thanks to her, my idea did come back. But as I whooped and spoke out loud my flash of amazing insight, and then spoke it again, louder, her response was disappointingly low-key. Despite her having been my life-long soul-mate and collaborator, who has had, as I often say, ‘all my best ideas’, this shining new inspiration of mine had struck less of a spark with her than, let me admit it, the little horse.

When we got home I was still delighted with my idea and no less convinced that it would find receptive minds somewhere, so I sat straight down and posted it as one of my rather infrequent tweets. My Twitter profile tells me that I have just passed 300 followers, but my offerings rarely if ever provoke a response. But this one, I felt, would be special, and I took care in highlighting some key words as hashtags, and adding a line of explanation ‒ shrewdly judged, I thought, to hint at both its originality and its importance. Like this:

The above screenshot was taken two days later, and as you can see from the empty icons along the bottom, once again I had failed to make any impression, let alone spark some new kind of viral pandemic.

But I consoled myself with something I learned years ago from reading Edward do Bono – that genuinely new ideas always seem strange, or funny, or off-the-wall, otherwise people would know them already.  So, I told myself, this was all a good sign, my idea really was new. But another time perhaps I might try to spell it out a little more carefully.

Sure enough, another time presented itself lower down the same Twitter feed.  An item by the indefatigable James O’Brian caught my eye. (@mrjamesob ‒ he of the 755.1K followers!) His tweet was about Jacob Rees-Mogg claiming in parliament that Boris Johnson was ‘the most freedom-loving prime minister… for at least 100 years’:

O’Brien commented: ‘He’s going to go nuts when he finds out what’s happened to our freedom of movement’

Aah – the ambiguity of the word ‘Freedom’! Just the kind of cue I needed. So I added my idea, carefully reframed, to the comments underneath:

I am thinking that the ‘Freedom’ populists talk about includes freedom from what can seem the terrible Authority of Evidence, Reason, and Truth itself.
I am wondering whether this is an explanation for these people’s otherwise incomprehensible immunity from popular censure.

It was one of some 250 others, but in spite that, this time there was a response. Within 24 hours it had been flagged as Liked by no less than 21 people, and one of them had passed it on to their followers.

So now I’m going to take this to another stage. I’m going to use this blog to ‘unpack’ the idea that was phrased in the words of my late-night inspiration, as they came back to me the next morning on our walk, and to try to tease out and pin down why it seemed, and still seems, so meaningful to me.

Not just for readers who are kind enough to have got this far, but for me. Because, believe me, I am not writing this stuff straight off. I am using the writing of it, over what is turning out to be the best part of a week, to test out, confirm, and hopefully to explain, why somewhere in this idea I had is lurking a truth which is worth sharing. And here I return to the idea that this is a matter of using words as a left-brain tool to tease out and pin down a richly complex but amorphous conception in the right (see Iain McGilchrist’s masterpiece, The Master and His Emissary, for his definitive account of the divided brain).

It was this process that I discovered three or four decades ago when it dawned on me that my Amstrad personal computer could be used as a revolutionary tool for recording ideas in a new form, a form that was fixed and provisional at the same time, and which then made it easy to progressively hone them.

That was when I was still deeply immersed in the life and work of a family doctor, with a stable list of patients whom I knew extremely well, in many cases over decades and several generations. Out of this experience, which in the modern world was already almost unique, I began to draw what I called ‘notes and jottings’, setting down things that struck me as surprising during my daily consultations. Surprise, I already knew from my reading De Bono, was another of his signals that something you’ve noticed conflicts with your existing picture of the world, and therefore that you should be paying it attention (because your existing ideas might be wrong)..

For years I worked like this on what I called my ‘project’. Just for fun, just out of private curiosity. But gradually I began to believe I had something worth contributing, so that my humble collection of thoughts developed until it was accepted for publication as my book, The Paradox of Progress. And after that, for me, the rest was history.

Although that digression does have some relevance to what I am getting at, it was mainly about the method I’m going to use. So, back to the short sentence I started with and let me try to work out why I found it so meaningful:

Truth and Reason are part of the Authority they are challenging’.

First I should recall that as I went to sleep that night my preoccupation was still with the mystery I had been addressing here just a few days earlier: why almost half of America voted to give Donald Trump a second term, in spite of his record in his first. And I knew from the appreciative comments I was receiving, and indeed from the hit count on the blog ‒ by far the highest since the travelogue I posted here four years ago from our Golden Wedding trip up the west coast of North America – that I did seem to be able to contribute usefully on this subject.

So, that was the context, let’s start by asking who I was thinking of when I said ‘they’?

Easy – I meant the populists, specifically Trump. From the outset he set out to challenge authority, and his followers loved him for it. Because that picked up on a deep-seated, human resentment of authority. Which we can all understand because, to a greater of lesser extent, we share that feeling.

We hate our lives being constrained by rules, originally from our parents ‒ however much we loved and needed them ‒ later at school – then in adult life, both at the workplace and outside it ‒ e.g. speed limits on roads or the latest footling regulations on the use of garden pesticides.

And there is a tension in all of us between on the one hand our realisation that these constraints on our freedom are essential in a civilised society ‒ we know we can’t all choose which side of the road to drive on, or the voltage of our electricity supply ‒ and on the other hand our human desire for autonomy and freedom of action ‒ for the dignity and challenge of basing our actions on our own decisions.

It is that freedom that is at the heart of Americans’ understanding of what it means to be a citizen of their ‘sweet land of liberty’.  Perhaps my two formative years at High School in Washington DC ‒- mentioned in another earlier post – has made that assumption second nature to me as well.

This kind of resentment of authority is more acute when such constraints on our freedom come from a source which we perceive to be alien. Which is why so many British resented ‘Brussels’, however generously we have been represented in the decisions taken there, and why the Westerner we met in the canyon in Capitol Reef National Park so bitterly resented being prevented from exercising his dogs in that fragile environment by distant ‘Washington!’.

But I also meant authority as a concept, in the way that Shakespeare personifies Love in his song, Who is Sylvia? – ‘Love doth to her eyes repair/To help him of his blindness/And, being helped, inhabits there’.

Which is why I spelled Authority with a capital A.

Trump attacked Authority in all these senses. He didn’t just rail against the Washington ‘swamp’. He didn’t just tell his followers, as Michael Gove told his in the UK, that they had ‘had enough of experts’. He didn’t just sack officials who failed to echo his every, self-contradictory whim. All of that is obvious, all of that has been rehearsed endlessly by critics. With zero effect on his followers.

The deeper idea that struck me as I went to sleep that night was that Trump went much further ‒ he attacked the very concept of Authority by attacking the foundations upon which legitimate Authority rested. His cheerful and absolute disregard for Reason and for Truth (which I also capitalised in my sentence) made him wildly popular with great swathes of supporters precisely because, as I suddenly realised, Truth and Reason were themselves aspects of the overbearing authority which had, step by ratchet-step throughout the modern era, progressively constrained their freedom of action, and even freedom of thought.

Here again, I have my own reasons for understanding this. My freedom of action as a doctor was progressively subjected to more and more constraints as my career went by. That was the background story to my forty years as a doctor. And that, and my attempt to resolve the resulting conflicts, was largely the subject of the book I wrote as I approached retirement.

On the instant I qualified as a doctor the way I was perceived by society changed. This was symbolised by my moving from the highest risk category for car insurance (as a medical student) to the lowest.

As my years as a junior hospital doctor progressed, I acquired steadily more freedom of action, but the ultimate clinical responsibility always rested with the consultant who headed the team–my ‘chief’. It was the chief who, at least in theory, faced the music when something went wrong.

And eventually, when I became a GP with my own list of patients, I took on that mantle of responsibility myself. I had nobody over me and nobody under me ‒ one of the many things I loved about the role. I also loved, although it was as daunting as it was stimulating, what now seems the extraordinary privilege of ‘clinical freedom’.

Clinical freedom did have its boundaries, which were policed with notorious severity by the General Medical Council. But that august body mainly concerned itself with drugs, sex, alcohol, and criminality. Freedom to treat our patients in whatever way we judged best remained to all intents and purposes absolute.

It made for a heady time when being trusted brought out the best in us a great deal of the time. But it also left too wide the door for bad practice and, crucially, for ignorance of what was an ever increasing cascade of scientific advances.

The end of those days can be traced with some accuracy to an editorial in the British Medical Journal of Saturday 29 October 1983. Headed The end of clinical freedom Its opening paragraph summarises what was a pivotal moment in medical history:

Clinical freedom is dead, and no one need regret its passing. Clinical freedom was the right‒some seemed to believe the divine right‒of doctors to do whatever in their opinion was best for their patients. In the days when investigation was non-existent and treatment as harmless as it was ineffective the doctor’s opinion was all that there was, but now opinion is not good enough. If we do not have the resources to do all that is technically possible then medical care must be limited to what is of proved value, and the medical profession will have to set opinion aside.

From then on, the changes were relentless. The god of Clinical Freedom was dead, only to be replaced by the god of Evidence Based Medicine. For the first time, government ‒ specifically Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1990, a year which my generation of GPs remembered for ever after as ‘when the darkness came’ ‒ saw its opportunity, as paymasters of the National Health Service, to call in what had been, ever since 1948, the independent contractor status of GPs. So began the imposition of more and more external rules and constraints on our practice. This, I have to say, was with the enthusiastic support of our Royal College, the academic body of British general practice, which saw nothing in the trend but progress.

And, writing this now, another new thought strikes me. For the first time I have an uncomfortable realisation that the success of my book, for success it undoubtedly was, may have been because it struck ‒ surely not, heaven help me, like Trump! ‒ a populist chord with fellow GPs.

It also struck a chord amongst people from outside medicine who happened to come across it. Perhaps that was populism as well? One of them, for example, wrote from a ballet school in Switzerland to thank me for it, saying it was ‘just the same for them’. Quite recently a farmer in the North of England emailed me out of the blue to say the same.

So, this ‘paradox of progress’ that I tried to analyse in the context of NHS general practice, seemed to pervade more generally. Throughout contemporary society there seemed to be a perception that making things better was making them worse.

Perhaps my own sense of impotence in the face of the terrible authority of our increasingly systematised world was lurking somewhere in the background to my supposed flash of inspiration into the mystery of Donald Trump?

Perhaps it was like this: Many of us feel trapped by the inescapable Authority of Logic and Reason which underlies Progress ‒ what Trump did, which accounts for his astonishing immunity from censure by half of a vast and superbly educated nation, was simply to throw Logic and Reason out of the window.

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
   Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
   A map they could all understand.

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
   Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
   “They are merely conventional signs!

Extract from The Hunting of the Snark Lewis Carrol 1832-98

And can’t you just see the attraction! What do you do when some clever clogs ‘fact-checker’ keeps some tedious count and says your hero has just passed 20,000 lies on the public record? You say, ‘I don’t believe they were lies – that’s just another opinion, there are alternative facts which say the opposite.’    On with the party!

Just the same with the size of the crowd at his inauguration. Just the same with Covid-19 when it manifestly didn’t ‘vanish like magic’. Just the same with the ‘hoax’ of climate change. Just the same with dozens of wild claims over the last four surreal years.

But Trump’s truly radical innovation, I think I now see, is to take things one stage beyond this: He says ‘what the heck do numbers matter ‒ they are just numbers ‒ they are ‘merely conventional signs’. What is this stuff called ‘truth’ which you keep throwing at me? What is this thing called ‘reason’? It is time to cast ourselves free from the shackles of these outdated concepts which have enslaved us for so long! Time to see this monster ‘science’ for what it is –a conspiracy against our heritage of freedom, which preachifies of nothing but encumbrances to our rights to frontier lives, to the drilling of oilwells, to the driving of giant cars, to the building of private armouries of guns. Americans were born free. Born to think freely, like birds up in the air. Yet everywhere their consciences have been chained by this foul imposter ‘evidence’! 

And once a leader convinces people that their chains are mere illusion, and gives them permission to ignore such outmoded constraints, to think without the shackles of reason, and to believe everything they want to believe is true, the people are wildly grateful. Wey hey, let the good times roll! It is the coming of a new Messiah.

Of course such a leader can do no wrong, for in this new New World, wrong is meaningless and has nothing to do with the case.

Perhaps it is time to return to the little horse, and leave further consideration of this for another day…

‘I’ve always had my doubts about you lot’

A lot on my mind

It just occurred to me to count up the number of poster/flyer projects for different events that I am currently designing, negotiating and getting printed. Four! Each for a different event I am currently involved in.

Until I made the effort to think of them all at once – and it was a real effort – I simply hadn’t realised there were that many. So that at least explained why I was getting the stages they were at – drafting – seeking comments & redrafting (repeat ad lib) – posting online – arranging printing – a bit muddled in my mind.

Read more…

A tribute to Robert M. Pirsig

Photo by Ian Glendinning at Chester, England on 7th July 2005

Talking in some depth about things that seem important – by J A R Willis


This article appeared in the December 2000 issue of Medical Humanities in the series Medicine through the Novel.  It is repeated here as a tribute to one of my greatest inspirations – Robert M. Pirsig – who died two days ago (24 April 2017)


‘Unless you are fond of hollering you don’t make great conversations on a running cycle. Instead you spend your time being aware of things and meditating on them. On sights and sounds, on the mood of the weather and things remembered, on the machine and the countryside you’re in, thinking about things at great leisure and length without being hurried and without feeling that you are losing time.’ (p 17 of 416)

The gentle voice is incredibly familiar, heard now for the third time, a voice that seems to have got itself into my deepest being. Read more…

The Divided Brain… Iain McGilchrist

After reading Iain McGilchrist‘s extended essay The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning I was trying to summarise what it said, it being itself a summary of his great book The Master and His Emissary , to daughter Becky on the ‘phone. Here is more or less what I found myself saying:
When you look at a brain, not just a human brain but any animal brain, the most striking thing about it is that it is separated into two halves. When you look more closely you find that the connection between the two halves (the corpus callosum), deep inside, is surprisingly small in size. And when you look closer still, using sophisticated techniques of modern science, you find that 80% of the messages passing though this connection are inhibitory. On the face of it this is very strange. It seems that the two halves of the brain, the seat of what seems, self-evidently, to be a unified self, are being carefully kept apart.
McGilchrist pointed out another strange thing in The Master and His Emissary: People who have had their hemispheres completely separated, as is sometimes done as a desperate remedy for intractable epilepsy, are not greatly incapacitated as a result. He asks “why ever not?”.
He further points out that the two halves of the brain, when closely compared, are not mirror images of one another, but are actually quite different in both shape and internal structure.
His explanation for this profound division of the brain is that there are two ways of modelling the world, both necessary, but completely different from one another. And one half of the brain is adapted to do it one way, and the other the other. We need both, but most of the time they must be kept separate. This is because they are completely different kinds of things – or different kinds of models.
But how can we describe this difference between these kinds of modelling? Shall we say that one brain (the right) is touchy-feely, instinctive, direct experience, while the other is measured, analysed, codified, processed? Perhaps. But the idea that I found myself repeating to Becky was simpler: one (the left this time) is the map and the other is the territory. Which ties in with the old adage: ‘the map is not the territory‘. The two are not the same, not even when they appear to be. I see this as important in the modern world because the more sophisticated the ‘map’ becomes the stronger the illusion that it actually is the territory.
Another idea of mine is that the right brain model is analogue (like a vinyl record) and the left digital (like a CD) – again entirely different in kind, but all-too-easily producing the illusion of being exactly the same. But I would like to know what McGilchrist thinks of that.
That is what I said to Becky, but McGilchrist also  goes on to show that these two different ways of modelling the world are reflected in different ways of organising society and deciding its priorities. That both are necessary, but that the society we are living in at the moment leans far too much towards the left-brain model.
Of the myriad aspects of life to which this analysis is applicable, I am currently preoccupied with the difference between living according to the rules and living according to something beyond the rules. I see here an explanation for how reasonable people are currently disagreeing violently over the question of whether it is right to avoid paying tax by means of clever manipulation of ‘the rules’. In this case the violence of the disagreement arises from the fact that each party sees it as self-evident that his or her approach is correct. I would go as far as to say that people who spend a lot of time playing sport are used to seeing the clever manipulation of rules as self-evidently virtuous. And that links with a visceral distaste I feel for the current tendency to describe people engaged in human activities as ‘players’. So, while the terms of such arguments appear to be the same, in fact they are so different that they cannot be meaningfully compared. They ought to be kept separate, in two carefully divided halves of comprehension, but here they clash with a terrible thunder.

The surprising payoff while learning a big part for a play

I am nine weeks out from playing the part of Prospero in Alton Fringe Theatre‘s production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. And I want to write about the surprising fact that learning a part like this is far from being the miserable slog that most people expect it to be. And, even more surprising, that it is possible for someone like me, who was particularly bad at memorizing almost anything at school, to do it at all !

Years ago Edward de Bono, he who coined the expression lateral thinking, pointed out that surprise is a sure sign that you have spotted something which conflicts with your existing picture of how the world is. And – assuming your observation is correct, as I have no doubt in this case it is – it must mean there is something in your understanding of the world that you need to change. So here we go:

Of course these are beautiful words, and supremely worth studying and getting to know.  But I keep getting the feeling that there is more to it than that. There is this positive pleasure you get when you run through, preferably out loud, something that you have got established, perfectly, in your mind. The buzz of knowing it is right, and exactly right, is just as real as the buzz that keeps you solving crossword clues (or trying to) or getting a game of patience to come out. It is as though we are hard-wired with a reward mechanism for accurate recall of surprisingly long texts. And the only reason this fact is surprising is that, in our modern, literate culture, this is an ability we hardly ever use, except when some of us are mad enough to land ourselves with a big part in a play.

But in an ancestral, pre-literate culture, such as prevailed during all but the last, infinitesimal proportion of humanity’s evolution, the accurate memorizing of lore of all kinds – stories, poems, ballads, not to mention travel routes – must have been a vital part of our intellectual equipment. So it is not really surprising that we find we are good at this sort of thing when we allow ourselves to try. Or that we get a physical reward for doing it well. Because it stands to reason that until the modern era this was a human need which was  just as vital for our success as a species as others for which nature has bequeathed us the built-in payoffs we know so well.

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
and ye that on the sands with printless foot
do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him
when he comes back…

That was from memory, I promise.  And I did get the wonderful payoff as I typed those words. I promise that as well. Three and a half of my 600 lines.  I’ve just checked the passage, from Act 5 Scene 1 in our script, and I did get it exactly right, punctuation and all.   I don’t know about you, but I still find that surprising.

PS  If you like this sort of thinking about thinking there’s lots of it in my first book, The Paradox of Progress

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