The hard problem of consciousness: David Chalmers and The Conscious Mind

In my fourth post in this series, I review David Chalmer’s 1996 book The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. See here, here and here for the previous posts. This is a long and often technical book (about 395 pages) though Chalmers has kindly flagged the Chapters and Sections that he recommends non-philosophers read and has asterisked the headings of Sections that he considers technical details likely of interest only to philosophers. I read some but not all asterisked sections, and I have to say that it is indeed the most technical and “academic” work of philosophy I have read in decades.  But let’s dive into it.

The hard problem of consciousness

It was like a breath of fresh air to read the introductory chapter. Instead of dismissing consciousness as an illusion, Chalmers sees it as the largest outstanding obstacle in our quest for a scientific understanding of the universe. He coined the phrase “the hard problem” around 1994 and it caught on. In contrast to the hard problem of why we have first-person experience, issues such as how the brain processes environmental stimuli, or how it integrates information into a coherent whole, might be called “easy” problems, and many books about consciousness, such as Dennett’s, are largely about the easy problems. Consciousness remains a big, deep mystery about which science has almost nothing to say, and where there is no agreement even in the broad about how consciousness occurs.

Chalmers says he has found that around one-third of people think that solving the easy problems explains everything that needs to be explained about consciousness, and around two thirds hold that there is a further “hard” problem. This ratio is fairly constant across academics and students in a variety of fields.  He sets out explicitly to address the hard problem and to develop at least a basis for a scientific theory of consciousness though he recognizes that it is not open to investigation by the usual scientific methods.

He outlines a set of constraints within which attempts to obey in this quest. First, to take consciousness seriously and not redefine it as something else (as per Dennett). Second, to take science seriously in the domains where it has authority. Third, to take consciousness to be a natural phenomenon.

Two fundamental questions about consciousness

In the Introduction and Chapter 1, Chalmers clarifies what he means by consciousness. It’s the way we experience the world, the way it feels to us subjectively. Using the phrase Nagel made famous in 1974, Chalmers says “We can say that a being is consciousness if there is something it is like to be that being …”

Chalmers identifies two fundamental questions about consciousness that we currently cannot answer. (1) Why does conscious experience exist and how does it arise in physical systems, and (2) why do conscious experiences have their particular nature? Why does the experience of red differ from the experience of blue? 

First, Chalmers draws our attention to the range of conscious experiences by presenting a set of examples ranging from visual experiences, through mental imagery, to emotions, and to our sense of self. It seems odd that he completely ignores non-ordinary states of consciousness though he touches on changes in consciousness with a discussion of how his visual experience dramatically changed as a child when he was fitted with glasses.

This leads into an important distinction that he makes between the psychological concept of mind and the phenomenal concept of mind. The phenomenal aspect of mind is conscious experience. The psychological aspect of mind refers to the mental states construed as the (ultimately physical) states relevant to the causation and explanation of behavior. It matters little or not at all whether these mental states are conscious or not. The materialist hopes that the phenomenal and psychological minds turn out to be the same thing, Chalmers argues that they are different things, a form of dualism.

Chalmers approaches the study of consciousness from a completely nonspiritual, nonreligious perspective. The dualism he advocates is governed by natural laws, it is just that these natural laws extend beyond the laws of our current sciences. He is not a mysterian, someone who throws their hands up and say that consciousness is a fundamental mystery outside the reach of human understanding. Rather he wants to understand and explain consciousness as a natural phenomenon.

Zombies and other arguments against a reductive materialist explanation

Chalmers argument against a materialist explanation of consciousness relies heavily on two things: supervenience and logically possible worlds. The definition of logical supervenience is as follows: B facts/properties logically supervene on A facts if no two logically possible worlds are identical with respect to their A facts while differing in their B facts. A phenomenon is reductively explainable in terms of low level physical facts if and only if it logically supervenes on those properties.

These issues are dealt with in detail in a long and philosophically technical chapter 2. Its worth reading to get a grasp of Chalmers’ arguments in following chapters, but it is a heavy read with technical terms such as “intension” and “instantiation” much used.

Chalmers then argues that everything in our world logically supervenes on the low-level physical facts except for consciousness. He actually gives five arguments in Chapter 3 for this conclusion. The first and third, which I find the most compelling, are the zombie argument and the epistemic asymmetry argument.

The zombie argument is that it is logically possible to imagine zombies who are just like us, fuctionally, psychologically and behaviourally, but yet have no phenomenal mind, no experiences, nothing that it is like to be them. These are often referred to as philosophical zombies, as opposed to the Hollywood zombies who are functionally impaired. It is logically possible to imagine a world physically identical to ours inhabited by philosophical zombies. Therefore consciousness does not supervene on the physical facts. So consciousness cannot be reductively explained in terms of the physical and materialism is false.

The epistemic asymmetry argument stems from the fact that we know about it only through our own experience. Even if we had a completed theory of cognition (and biochemistry, chemistry, and physics) that information would not lead us to postulate consciousness. There is also the problem of other minds. Even if we know everything physical about other creatures, we do not know for certain if they are conscious. There is no problem with physical things like “other lives”, or other “economies” or “other heights”. Chalmers argues there is no epistemic asymmetry in these cases precisely because they are logically supervenient on the physical.

Chalmers concludes that consciousness cannot be logically supervenient “because a logically supervenient property can be detected straightforwardly on the basis of external evidence, and there is no special role for the first-person case.”  This is as close as Chalmers comes in the whole book to saying in straightforward jargon-free terms why consciousness cannot be reduced to the physical. The physical is objective, third-person, the “outside”. Consciousness is subjective, first-person, the “inside”. It seems quite obvious to me that the subjective cannot derive from the objective, the first-person from the third-person, the inside from the outside.

Chalmers’ five arguments are all “intuition” pumps to help the skeptical see that consciousness does not logically supervene. Briefly, his other three arguments are:

2. The inverted spectrum. Imagine someone physically identical to you, but with different conscious experiences. For example, their experience of the colour spectrum is inverted relative to yours.

4. Someone raised in a black and white room could have complete knowledge of neuroscience but still have no idea what it is like to see green or any other colour.

5. The lack of any remotely plausible analysis of consciousness that can explain even in outline how it arises from non-conscious processes.

In the rest of Chapter 3, Chalmers examines in detail and refutes all the various objections that he thinks might be raised against his arguments and conclusion. As Dennett, caustically but wittily has said, “Chalmers never leaps to conclusions; he oozes to conclusions, checking off all the caveats and pitfalls and possible sources of error along the way with exemplary caution.” Dennett has concluded that nothing can shake Chalmers intuition that consciousness is not reductive to the physical, because he has presented excellent versions himself of every one of Dennett’s objections and failed to convince himself. Dennett in quite an entertaining attack then suggests a number of reasons Chalmers may “cling like a limpet” to dualism. These include that it is a parody of academic philosophic scholarship, or that it is a philosopher performing (I am a philosopher and this is what philosophers do). See Dennett’s 2012 article “The mystery of David Chalmers” for these and other entertaining observations.

I am quite sure that Chalmers is largely correct in his conclusions, but rather than writing in clear language for a general intelligent reader as Anaka Harris does, Chalmers is indeed “doing what philosophers do” and doing it in excruciating detail.

Naturalistic dualism

In Chapter 4, Chalmers examines the implications of his conclusion that consciousness is a feature of the world over and above the physical, and not reducible to it.  However, consciousness is systematically associated with physical structures and functions. Chalmers develops this into the concept of “natural supervenience”, that there is an as yet unknown lawful association between the phenomenal mind and the psychological mind, between consciousness and physical processes. Again, a very technical and jargon-filled set of arguments. To my mind, its completely obvious that the inside (the first-person) is systematically associated with the outside (the third person).

Chalmers then suggests that a theory of consciousness could go one of two ways. First, that consciousness is a fundamental property alongside things such as charge, spin, etc. Second, that consciousness derives from some other class of more fundamental properties, which cannot be physical properties since consciousness is not supervenient on the physical.

Chalmers calls this position “naturalistic dualism” because it posits that everything is a result of basic properties and laws and is compatible with existing “physical” science. There need be nothing transcendental about consciousness, it is just another natural phenomenon. He then examines a range of possible objections to naturalistic dualism, particularly the concept of emergence of consciousness from complex systems, probably the dominant view among neuroscientists.  Like Annaka Harris, Chalmers rejects emergence on the grounds that consciousness is not supervenient on the physical and so cannot be emergent from it.  The first-person subjective cannot emerge from sufficiently complex arrangements of third-person objective things.

Annaka Harris says this much more clearly than Chalmers does: “when scientists assume they have bypassed the hard problem by describing consciousness as an emergent property — that is, a complex phenomenon not predicted by the constituent parts — they are changing the subject. All emergent phenomena — like ant colonies, snowflakes, and waves — are still descriptions of matter and how it behaves as witnessed from the outside. What a collection of matter is like from the inside and whether or not there is an experience associated with it is something the term “emergence” doesn’t cover. Calling consciousness an emergent phenomenon doesn’t actually explain anything, because to the observer, matter is behaving as it always does.”

Can consciousness play a causal role in events?

Next, Chalmers tackles the issue of whether consciousness is epiphenomenal. If all physical events are caused by physical causes, then consciousness cannot play a causal role in physical events, it is an epiphenomenon.  Chalmers examines a number of potential strategies for avoiding epiphenomenalism but concludes that none of them justify rejecting the conclusion that consciousness is mostly epiphenomenal, perhaps with some subtle exceptions.  This clearly is fundamental to the issue of whether or not we have free will, and I find it odd that Chalmers does not discuss free will directly. He is on record as saying he does not have strong feelings about free will. In any case, I will leave the issue of free will for a following post to examine.

In Chapter 7, Chalmers examines the issue of phenomenological judgements. This refers to when we use our cognition (thinking functions) to make judgements about the experience of consciousness. Chalmers argues that phenomenal judgements are themselves cognitive acts, and so fall within the domain of psychology and thus are not mysterious, potentially explicable scientifically, unlike consciousness. This leads to a paradox since our claims about consciousness should be reductively explicable in terms of cognitive science whereas consciousness is not.

Chalmers then argues that our judgements (and the things we say about the experience of consciousness) would be the same whether or not we actually experience consciousness. In other words, the zombie will describe experiences of consciousness exactly in the way that we do, although he does not experience consciousness.  This simply makes no sense at all to me and seems like a convincing argument that the complete philosophical zombie is actually not a logical possibility. A zombie cannot report his experiences of consciousness in the same way that I do. In other words, there is an area where consciousness plays a causal role in behaviour.

Annaka Harris makes exactly the same point: “consciousness seems to play a role in behaviour when we think and talk about the mystery of consciousness. When I contemplate “what it’s like” to be something, that experience of consciousness presumably affects the subsequent processing taking place in my brain. And almost nothing I think or say when contemplating consciousness would make any sense coming from a system without it. How could an unconscious robot (or a philosophical zombie) contemplate conscious experience itself without having it in the first place?”

Why does Chalmers ignore the evidence from meditation?

Most people who have had sufficient training in meditation realize that an experience of consciousness needn’t be accompanied by thoughts—or any input to the senses, for that matter. I have experienced what it is like to be acutely aware of my subjective awareness in the absence of any content such as thought, sights, sounds, or other perceptions. I have practiced for many hours to become aware of my awareness as an observer of thoughts and sensory perception, that is separate from them. And then to take that awareness and turn it back on itself, letting thoughts and sensory perceptions fall away.  While I might have difficulty finding words that can convey a sense of that experience, there are many such descriptions in the Zen literature, for example. I really don’t see how a zombie could carry out such a program, or report the experiences that result, let alone in similar terms to what I might report. 

Chalmers’ explanation for how a zombie is still conceivable in theory is that the language and concepts of consciousness could be built into the program of a zombie. The unstated implication is that we could also have the same language and concepts of consciousness built into us.  And the implication of that is that we also are not actually conscious, but our sense of the inexplicable wonder of consciousness is actually an illusion built into us somehow by evolutionary processes.  This totally destroys Chalmers claim that consciousness is not reducible. The idea that its logically possible for zombies to replicate the outcomes of a long-term meditation practice seems nonsensical to me.

Chalmers would seem to have no real experience of meditation. In a 2017 interview with Chalmers, John Horgan reported that Chalmers has “never had the patience” for meditation, and he has doubts about basic Buddhist claims, such as anatta, the doctrine that the self does not really exist.

I find this astonishing. Chalmers has made the nature of consciousness his life’s work and understands intellectually that consciousness cannot be investigated using the third-person objective methods of science. But he apparently does not have the patience to investigate the very sophisticated first-person methods that have been developed over thousands of years to exactly investigate the nature of consciousness. While Chalmers is of course entirely free to doubt that the self does not really exist, it seems enormously arrogant to do this while dismissing the no-self experiences of many people, including myself, through meditation or through exploration with psychedelics.

Does functional organization fully determine conscious experience?

In chapters 6 and 7, Chalmers starts to outline a possible approach to developing a naturalistic dualist theory of consciousness. He argues for a general principle that consciousness is an organizational invariant, i.e., that “functional organization fully determines conscious experience. In other words, if a silicon brain is organized identically to a human brain, it will also be conscious. He did not present any evidence for this claim that I could see, and I don’t find it plausible. In another review, Eric Dietrich comments that this principle is unintuitive and not widely believed among philosophers.

Chalmers gives some thought experiments to argue for this principle: his examples show that, without it, humans could be massively mistaken about their experience of qualia (whether absent, fading or dancing). I found all these thought experiments unconvincing, not least because once Chalmers has decided that zombies can be programmed to think they are conscious even when they are not, then humans can also be massively mistaken about their actual experiences and his arguments self-implode.

Panpsychism: maybe not as silly as people tend to assume

Chapter 8 is even more speculative. Chalmers proposes that the basic stuff of the universe is information and that has two aspects: a phenomenal and a physical aspect. He largely lost me here. I did not find it at all compelling. But this leads him to consider panpsychism, since even simple systems containing information must then have associated experience. Of course, the experience of a simple system will not be associated with a mental life, a sense of self, or memory.

I discussed panpsychism in my previous post about Annaka Harris’s book, and that it is largely dismissed as ridiculous by scientists, who imagine it implies rocks must have human-like consciousness. Chalmers makes all the same points, very clearly, and also notes that panpsychism avoids the need to have consciousness wink-in or switch-on at some particular level of complexity. Rather it may be a universal property, with very simple systems having very simple phenomenology and very complex systems having very complex phenomenology.

Chalmers also discusses the possibility that we have various information-processing systems in the brain with associated consciousness, to which we do not have access.  This indeed is what has been found in some split-brain patients. Chalmers concludes that his theory results in a variant of “outrageous” panpsychism, but it is a view that can grow surprisingly satisfying with reflection. I am inclined to agree with him.

In conclusion

The two final chapters deal with conscious machines and strong artificial intelligence (chapter 9) and quantum mechanics and consciousness (chapter 10). I will leave these subjects for later discussion.

While Chalmers does indeed take consciousness seriously and recognize that it is fundamentally different to physical functions and cannot be reductively explained, most of his philosophic machinery and some of the principles he argued for in the second half of the books I found unconvincing. Consciousness exists in the real world, it is our primary experience and in fact ALL our experiences of physical systems are mediated through consciousness. So consciousness must be explored using evidence, not by using thought experiments of what is guessed to be logically possible. And the primary evidence is direct personal exploration of consciousness through tools like meditation, breathwork, psychedelics. None of which Chalmers appears to have any interest in or experience with.  Sure, these first-person experiences are much more difficult to work with than the objective observational tools of current science, but philosophical thought experiments about “logically possible” worlds are even less adequate for understanding such an important aspect of our reality.

Christian beliefs in heaven and hell are not what Jesus taught

In two previous posts (here and here), I examined the prevalence of belief in heaven and hell across the world and in the major religions. Less than half of Christians in developed countries say they believe in hell, and only a slight majority in heaven. The USA is the major exception, with over 80% of Christians saying that they believe in heaven and in hell. Here I examine the extent to which the Christian belief in heaven and hell as places of reward and punishment after death are supported by either Biblical texts or the teachings of Jesus.

All 31 uses of the word “Hell” in the King James Version of the Old Testament are translations of the Hebrew word “Sheol”.  Sheol in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) is a place of still darkness which lies after death. The first mentions of Sheol associate it with the state of death and a sense of eternal finality. The generally brief mentions of Sheol seem to describe it as a place where both the righteous and the unrighteous dead go, regardless of their moral choices in life. The references can usually be interpreted as either a generic metaphor describing “the grave” which all humans end up in, or as representing an actual state of afterlife (Wikipedia).

Views on hell and the afterlife vary in Judaism, as in the Hebrew Bible. They range from belief that physical death is the end of life, through to an afterlife in Sheol, where humans descend after death. There is generally no concept of judgement or reward and punishment attached to it, though some Jews believe that many humans in Sheol have intense feelings of shame about their misdeeds and this constitutes suffering which makes up for the bad deeds.

This is quite similar to the conceptualization of hell in the TV series Lucifer, where people are trapped in hell loops of their own making out of shame and guilt, and that is the only torture going on in hell.

According to my analysis of the World Values Survey and the European Values Study (see here), Jews have the lowest prevalence of belief in hell at 38% among the major religions. Belief in hell is even lower at 32% for Jews in developed countries.

What does the New Testament have to say about hell? The New Testament was written in Greek with a smattering of Aramaic mixed in. Translators are often faced with words which don’t have an exact equivalent in a modern language, and the use of “hell” as the translation of several words varies quite substantially across various translations of the Bible. Here is a comparative table for selected versions from this source which I haven’t checked fully for accuracy. I have checked the count for the King James Version (KJV) against several sources, and they agree that “hell” is referenced 23 times in the KJV New Testament.

Twelve of the references in KJV New Testament are to the place name Gehenna, which is a valley just outside the city of Jerusalem where trash was burnt. So references to Gehenna may possibly carry an inference of fiery torment. The references are in Matthew (7 times), Mark (3), Luke (1) and James (1).

Ten of the occurrences of hell in the KJV New Testament translate the Greek Hades. Hades is the Greek underworld where all the dead go. The references are in Matthew (2), Like (2), Acts (2) and Revelations (4). There is another mention of Hades in Corinthians 15:55 which is translated simply as “grave”. There is a single mention of Tartarus, one of the realms of Hades which is a deep chasm, a place of darkness and torment. The reference in Peter 2:4 refers to Tartarus as the place where God cast angels that had sinned, to be chained in darkness and reserved unto judgement.

Most of the New Testament was written decades after Jesus died, and already included mythological elements common to several religions of the region. The concept of hell evolved over time, particularly when Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire and a selection of writings was chosen to become the official Bible around 382 CE.

Jesus died in either 30 CE or 33 CE. The Gospel of Mark probably dates from around the year 70 CE, Matthew and Luke around 85–90 CE, and John probably sometime in 90–110 CE. Various changes and additions may have continued as late as the 3rd century. To understand what the earliest recorded forms of Christian writing had to say about hell, I read the two oldest gospel texts, likely written around two decades after Jesus’ death, earlier than the four gospels of the New Testament.

Written in the 50s of the first century CE, only two decades after Jesus’ death, the Lost Gospel Q (for Quelle or Source) is significantly earlier than any of the four gospels of the New Testament. The basis for the “Q hypothesis” is the large amount of common material found in both Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. Scholars have concluded that neither of the authors of Matthew or Luke knew of the other’s work, and that the common source must have been an earlier gospel, now lost. Unlike the narrative gospels of the NT, Q is a sayings gospel consisting almost entirely of sayings of Jesus, with very few stories about Jesus. The Lost Gospel Q is scholars’ best attempt to reconstruct the text, to uncover the pure voice of the Gospel Jesus.

Among the many gospels and other documents found at Nag Hammadi in 1945 was the Gospel of Thomas, another sayings gospel. When scholars realized that over one third of the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas were very similar to those probably contained in Q, this leant strong support to the Q theory. Some scholars date the original Greek manuscript to the 50s like Q, which means it was written before the New Testament Gospels, and thus more likely to be historically accurate. The Jesus Seminar determined that, for nine New Testament parables likely to have been told by Jesus, the Thomas Version was closest to the original in six cases.

The reconstructed text of Q contains 82 sayings of Jesus and the Gospel of Thomas 114. How many of these sayings mention heaven or hell? For hell (or any of the words translated as hell in the New Testament) the answer is simple: none.

The 6th saying in Q does refer to the devil, in the context of the devil tempting Jesus to turn a stone into bread while he was fasting for 40 days in the wilderness. There is no mention of hell or of the devil ruling over hell. This story is very similar to the story of Mara tempting the Buddha with visions of beautiful women to try to obstruct his meditation and enlightenment. And the message of the 6th saying is almost identical.

There is also a reference to Beelzebul, as the chief of the evil spirits. Saying 37 of Q describes Jesus as curing a man possessed by a demon, at which some in the crowd said Jesus was in league with Beelzebul. Jesus disputes this and the translation has him saying “So if Satan’s house is divided how can his kingdom survive?” and that he casts out demons by the finger of God. Beelzebul is one of the names of the Canaanite god Baal, but in Christian mythology is another name for Satan.

Both Q and Thomas have multiple references to heaven, the Kingdom of heaven, and the Kingdom of God. I have identified all the sayings in Q and Thomas which refer to heaven, the kingdom, and various alternate phrases.  Leaving aside several uses of the phrase “the heavens and the earth” which I see as a poetic reference to the universe or “everything”, and a single reference to “paradise” in Thomas 19 which is of Gnostic origin, the table below summarizes the number of sayings in which various references to heaven or the kingdom are made in Q and Thomas.

I am not sure of the extent to which these phrases represent direct translations of the original Coptic words (possibly itself translated from Greek or Syriac) or are variants introduced by the translators.

The “Kingdom of God” is also translated as “the realm of God” and the translators note that it is one of the most problematic phrases in the gospels. They actually used “realm of God” nine times in Q, compared to three for “kingdom of God”, but I have counted all “realm” references as “kingdom” references in the table above. The translators say that the Aramaic and Hebrew words used by Jesus are not referring to a place or territory but to a power that is coming to be, sometimes hidden and sometimes manifest. This sounds awfully like Buddhist writings that describe enlightenment or non-dual consciousness as ever-present but often hidden. In other words, a state of consciousness.

In fact, once I actually read all the sayings referring to the kingdom of heaven or other variants, it was quite clear that they do refer to an enlightenment state, ie. a state of non-dual consciousness always already present but usually hidden by everyday consciousness.

Q62 and T96 describe heaven as like leaven (yeast) in dough. T57 describes the kingdom of heaven as like wheat hidden among the weeds, and T76 as like a merchant who had goods and found a pearl hidden among them. The kingdom of heaven is clearly being described as like discovering something precious that has been there all along.

T109 similarly describes the kingdom as like a man who had a treasure hidden in his field without knowing it, and T113 says that the kingdom of the father is spread out on the earth and people do not see it.

In Q79, Jesus was asked, “when will the Kingdom of God arrive?” He replied, “You won’t be able to see the Kingdom of God when it comes. People won’t be able to say ‘it’s here’ or ‘it’s over there’. The Kingdom of God is among you.”

There are also several sayings where Jesus explicitly equates the kingdom with non-dual consciousness or enlightenment:

  • T3 mentions those who say the kingdom is in heaven or the kingdom is in the sea and dismisses them to explain “Rather the kingdom is within you and outside you”.
  • T22: “When you make the two one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make the male and the female into a single one, so that the mail is not male and the female not female, …. then you shall enter the Kingdom.

One saying of Thomas (T97) likens the kingdom of heaven to a woman carrying a jar of meal which empties out without her noticing. This quite unique saying implies that the kingdom of heaven can slip away if people are not careful. Q64 may also be relevant here: “Those who think that the realm of God belongs to them will be thrown out into the dark where they will cry tears of bitter regret.” These are definitely pointing to a state of consciousness which can potentially be lost, rather than to an eternal destination after death. And Q64 may even be warning that to grasp onto enlightenment is to lose it.

The Jesus of Q and Thomas is not the Messiah, the semi-mythical figure who will save humans who believe in him, but a wisdom teacher who is trying to explain to his listeners how they can enter the “realm of heaven” right here, right now. Jesus had a profound mystical experience, perhaps during his 40 days and nights in the desert, in which he experienced a non-dual state of consciousness where he was not separate but one with everything, where the inner was the outer and the outer the inner.

Like every mystic, he invents new language, poetic images, metaphors to try to describe his experience and encourage others to open to the same experience, and risks not being understood. He would have tried to communicate his experience in the context of the religious vocabulary he was familiar with and described it using terms such as heaven and God. And his common use of the term “father” for God would likely have been an attempt to convey the intimacy of the non-dual state where there are no boundaries and no “other”.

Although Q and Thomas are likely the earliest records of Jesus’ teaching, they should not be taken as a near transcript of things Jesus said. They are an early product of a developing tradition, recording sayings likely preserved orally, and predating most of the mythological elements later incorporated. It is noteworthy that neither of them contain any material about Jesus’ birth or death, let alone resurrection, and in both gospels it is his teachings, not his birth or crucifixion, which is important.

The clarity of Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom would have been filtered through at least one layer of memory of his disciples, and likely a second layer, contaminated by second layer understanding of other wisdom traditions such as Gnosticism or Neoplatonism. Some have attempted to identify Buddhist influences in the teachings of Jesus. From my reading of Q and Thomas, his sayings do not seem to have any clearly identifiable Buddhist terminology but rather to be the attempt of someone to describe his own enlightenment experience using poetic images and parables based in his own culture. Unlike the Buddha, he did not have a ready-made set of techniques (meditation) well known to others in his culture, which he could adapt as practices to facilitate the achievement of enlightenment. And so, inevitably, his teachings were turned from practices into beliefs by later generations of Christians.

As the Jesus tradition continued to develop, it incorporated many mythological themes from other Middle Eastern religious traditions, including death and resurrection after three days, and the myth of a paradise and a hell not of this earth, where the souls of the dead go after death. Probably after the first disciples and the second generation of followers, there were few traditions if any which preserved any understanding of Jesus’ actual message:  that the kingdom of heaven was right here now, waiting to be discovered like a treasure in a field, on this earth, not somewhere else in the future.

As for hell, it is not mentioned in Q or Thomas. The devil is mentioned twice, but only as an agent tempting Jesus to abandon his path to enlightenment. In few hundred years after Jesus’ death as the Christian religion developed and became the state religion of the Roman Empire, it incorporated a mythology of hell as a place of eternal torment for sinners. This was likely influenced by Zoroastrianism, a Persian religion which emphasizes a never-ending battle between good and evil — a contest between the religion’s God, Ahura Mazda, and an evil spirit, Ahriman. Its concept of hell involved the punishment of those who did evil in life, but it was also considered temporary and reformative, souls do not rest in eternal damnation. These beliefs almost certainly influenced all the Abrahamic religions, though Christianity’s notions of hell have also been heavily influenced by medieval views, particularly as expressed in the poetry of Dante and John Milton.

Modern Christianity, at least in developed countries other than the USA, is much more likely to preach that God is good, which makes it difficult to believe that God is also willing to have the vast majority of his children tortured forever and ever for any reason whatsoever, much less for crimes like accepting their sexuality or believing what their parents taught them, or not believing one or any of the many versions of Christianity.

COVID-19: the big picture

Today Switzerland became the country with the highest rate of confirmed cases of corona virus per million population. Well, that is if you ignore some micro-populations such as the Vatican City, San Marino, Andorra and Faeroe Islands. Why?  It is landlocked with Italy, France and Germany around it. It did not close the border between Ticino and Italy for cross-border workers and many live in Italy were the virus spread rapidly. Also, it was the height of the ski season and alpine resorts were crowded with skiers from all over Europe, Britain and beyond. Here is a graph I did yesterday comparing confirmed cases per million population  for the thirty leading countries (excluding small countries with population less than one million. Data are from at 13.11 GMT on March 24. A this point Switzerland had not yet overtaken Italy.

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Is freedom increasing or decreasing?

Last week, Freedom House released its 2020 annual report on global freedom. The report documents trends in every region of the world of declining political and civil freedom: “In every region of the world, democracy is under attack by populist leaders and groups that reject pluralism and demand unchecked power to advance the particular interests of their supporters, usually at the expense of minorities and other perceived foes.”

The report compiles a freedom index for countries based on an average of two indices for political rights and civil liberties, composed of numerical ratings and descriptive texts for each country. The 2020 index adds to a time series for countries that extends back to 1972.  I’m interested to see to what extent the time series upholds the view of Stephen Pinker that there has been sustained long-term improvement in both political rights and human rights globally and this will continue (Enlightenment Now, Chapters 13 and 14).

The graph below shows time trends for the number of countries falling into three broad categories of the freedom index, labelled as Free (green shades), Partly free (orange shades) and Not free (purple shades). The graph includes 185 countries. 11 very small countries with populations less than 90,000 in 2015 are not included.

Trends in numbers of countries by broad freedom category

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Ad Astra

Having just seen a standout performance by Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I was keen to see his latest film Ad Astra.  I saw some rave reviews by film critics that perhaps raised my expectations a little too much, because while I enjoyed the film I had some problems with it also. Here is a quote from one review: “In a mesmerizing, minimalist performance, Pitt forms the gravitational center of a film that takes its place in the firmament of science fiction films by fearlessly quoting classics of the genre (as well as those outside it)”.

It pays homage to many classic science fiction and other films, and the central journey to Uranus is very reminiscent of 2001 A Space Odyssey.  Brad does give a great “minimalist” performance as the icily competent, pathologically controlled astronaut, Roy McBride, whose heart rate never rises above 80 beats per minute, even in the opening sequence when he is falling from near space out of control, after an accident on the world’s tallest antenna.

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The Manson murders and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

After watching Tarantino’s latest film, which I reviewed in my last post (once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood), I got out Helter-Skelter to read again. This is the absolutely riveting story of the Manson murders in Hollywood in 1969, the police investigation that followed, the trial and outcomes, written by the prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who meticulously investigated and prosecuted Manson and three female followers.

Warning: this post contains spoilers about the movieOnce Upon a Time in Hollywood”.Don’t read further if you haven’t seen the movie and intend to.

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Myers-Briggs Personality Types

The US housewife and writer Katharine Cook Briggs with her daughter Isabel, the eventual creator of the test, c1905

I first came across the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) around 30 years ago. The MBTI was developed by Isabel Myers, a layman, and her mother Katherine Briggs, around the middle of the twentieth century.  They developed a questionnaire  that classified people into 16 types based on Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types, along with their own considerable experience of observing people in action, and some inspirational speculation. Jung’s theory was based on differences in the way that we prefer to use our mental capacities to function in the world – and Myers and Briggs simplified this to identify four dimensions of functioning preferences.  Their questionnaire and most others classify people’s preferences on these four dimensions and assign a letter based to each dimension based on which side of the middle-point you fall. The combinations of these letters result in 16 so-called “personality types”.

The Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) has become extremely popular and is a very widely used tool in management training. There are many variants of the questionnaire and of the type classification available for free online, as well as copyrighted versions used by management training companies and others.  It is estimated that since the 1960s, when the test began to be rolled out across the corporate world, more than 50 million people around the world are estimated to have taken it (A).

There are many free online variants of the MBTI, of varying quality. I give links to several that I have found useful.

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Skiing from Switzerland to France and back

I have recently been cleaning up old external drives that I’ve used over the years for backups and found a folder of photographs from a 2003 ski trip to Champèry. Champéry lies in a side valley of the Rhone valley under the Dents du Midi (“Teeth of Midday”) mountain range. Some of the photos really capture the beauty of skiing in this region, which is part of the Portes du Soleil (The Doors of the Sun). So I decided to put them up in this post. The Portes du Soleil is one of Europe’s two largest ski areas, around 1000 square kilometres, with 13 interconnected ski resorts and around 650 km of marked pistes, and includes Les Gets where we skied in February this year.

Looking down towards Champéry lying under the Dents du Midi on the other side of the valley

Continuing to head upwards from where the above photo was taken will bring you to the ridgeline which marks the Swiss border with France. Later in the day I skied down the other side into France and ended up in the Morzine valley, where I caught a chairlift back up to the top.

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Méribel mountain views

Some photos of the French Alps from the Saulire on the mountain ridge between Méribel and Courcheval. The Saulire is at 2738m and has spectacular views of the surrounding mountains, including Mont Blanc in the distance 63 km away. And then a thousand metre descent which made for great skiiing.

Looking west over the Méribel valley towards Val Torens

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Books by Colin Mathers

A comprehensive list of publications relating to my professional work is available at

Colin Mathers. Shall I try Australia? A history of the Mathers family in Ireland, Scotland and Australia from the 17th to the 21st century., Australia, 2010 (148 pages).

DSCN4793My great-grandfather, James Mathers, was born in Armagh, Ireland, in 1852 and moved to Scotland in the 1860s where he married Margaret Melrose. They migrated to Australia with their six surviving children in 1897. This book documents the history of the family in Australia, and traces the Mathers and Melrose ancestors in Ireland and Scotland back to the 1700s and earlier. The previous generation, born around the 1820s, were almost all illiterate labourers and coalminers. The subsequent history of the Mathers family encapsulates the dramatic changes in the educational, cultural and economic opportunities brought by the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

This edition of the book was available only to Mathers family members, and a second edition is planned. The second edition will include substantial additions and new information, not least because it has recently been discovered that James Mathers had an older sister, who migrated to Australia earlier, and whose existence was unknown to his descendents. Continue reading