Reductionist dogs and the Near Death Experience.

One of the experiences that many of us share, is having our hearts melted by the way that dogs look at us. Of the different news stories this week, dogs have provided some of the most colourful. Or at least the look on dogs faces that melts our hearts. That, ‘are you going to love me’ look. or even ‘I love you very much will you love me back?” It could, of course, be something more basic and needy like an are you going to feed me’ look?


Dogpeople love their dogs for that look of mutuality. It’s wordless, of course, but it speaks volumes and touches our hearts. 


Except that according to Juliane Kaminski of Portsmouth University, it doesn’t. The look is not communicating love, need, mutuality and vulnerability. “Instead you are being manipulated by thousands of years of canine evolution, which has changed the facial structure of dogs, so that they can inveigle their way into your affections.


It seems that creating the look is down to an evolutionary and rather cunning muscle that creates this raised eyebrow. We like it. We respond by thinking that when a dog raises its eyebrows it does it for similar reasons that we do. Wolves haven’t developed it, so we don’t like them. Domestic dogs have, so we love them.


Why does this matter? Because it exposes two very different ways of looking at world, and even two ways of looking at or being unable to see, love.


I have always liked the computing acronym GIGO; garbage in, garbage out, because I think it works to reminder us that if you ask the wrong question you get the wrong answer; or perhaps more accurately, the kind of question you ask will affect the kind of answer you get.


The great chasm between science and religion has always been that scientists ask ‘how’ questions’ and the religious or spiritual, ask why questions. 


We usually get trouble when the how’s’ and why’s get mixed up. The trouble with the dog research is that seems to ask a why question but wraps it in a how process. This becomes the proposal that because evolution tells us how the capacity of a dog to look meaningfully developed, the answer to why is it looking at me so meaningfully can’t be love, it must be about the survival of the fittest. 


The same approach has been applied by scientists to Near Death Experiences.  When I was teaching psychology at university this was one area I found particularly interesting. It was fascinating to look at some of the explanations that a more hard-nosed experimental psychology was offering.  I had some personal reasons for this interest. I had experienced one myself, aged 19. I had drunk a litre of vodka in a rapid binge. One effect this has is to impair the respiratory reflexes.It’s very likely that my breathing was at theg very least, seriously impaired for some hours.   


And in those hours I thought I saw myself leaving my body, floating upwards and ending up in the presence of the courts of heaven, facing some form of tribunal, to be judged. It seemed to me at the time that the Light, (God?) was so intensely pure and so terrifyingly just, that there was a very real chance of my being sent away from his presence into hell.I remember thinking ‘if that happens at least I wilI have the satisfaction of knowing that there was justice in the universe 


So it came to me as a surprise to find the tribunal ending withmy being declared forgiven and being sent back. What was just as much of a surprise was to find that instead of being ill and sick for days after a serious bout of alcohol poisoning, I came to, feeling extraordinarily well, both physically and psychologically. Even if I had imagined the Light, could I have imagined the good health?


Some of the more interesting research work in the world of psychology suggested that what people who had these experiences were encountering was not God, as they thought, but their own nervous system. The classic dark tunnels and bright light associated by so many who have these experiences were not taking place out there, but were instead an experience of the hard wiring of our own nervous infrastructure. How in this more biological script blocks out what we would otherwise approach as a why.


The moral seems to be that if you assume that everything that happens to us 

can be reduced to either biology or evolution, then forgiveness is only a offshoot of electrical synapses we have misread; and a dog’s loving look is only a very particular evolved muscle that changes the shape of a dog’s eye to ensure that a human being is sufficiently hoodwinked to feed him. 


Is the dog man’s best friend or man’s most effective parasite? Does the look mean ‘this will make you feed me’ or something more reciprocal? Science v religion may not come down so much as to ‘how’ versus ‘why’, or even empiricism versus faith. 


It may also come down to the difference between a world that recognises and prefers the experience of love to the assumption of manipulation. 



Morphing from a ‘dead parrot to a canary in a coalmine’. The victimhood of John Cleese, defender of the Holy Grail of free speech.

When is a dead parrot not a dead parrot? Answer:- when it is a canary in a coal mine. 


John Cleese is one of the funniest men of our age. What makes him really funny is that his jokes tell the truth. It’s usually an uncomfortable truth that people need to hear. The ministry of silly walks was a parody of  body language and right-wing power. “Don’t mention the war” wasn’t just about the comfort of Germans it was about living with neurosis when reality becomes too challenging. The dead parrot sketch- “he’s dead,” “No, he’s resting,” was an ever timely another dig at public and private lying in and out of the market place.


John Cleese with Monty Python used to mock vested interests mercilessly. Pomposity and power got poked repeatedly.  It wasn’t so much a matter of speaking truth to power, but putting a banana skin under power’s feet, and laughing as it fell flat on its face.


With the two Ronnie’s, there was an unforgettable skit on class; ‘I look up to him, but I look down on him.”


The Life of Brian annoyed many Christians, but mainly they were wrong to be so offended. Bar the ending (which actually was tasteless and offensive, but you can’t get everything right) it was an expose of not of faith but of gullibility, stupidity and vested interest.


Nothing was safe from their wit. 


Like many artists Cleese had his periods. In his middle age, his blue period he co-authored a brilliant book called “Families and how to survive them.” He was on his third of fourth divorce and signed up to group therapy to try to get to the roots of his own dysfunctionality. It’s a very skilful book with cartoons that are worth the cover price on their own. He wanted to explore the truth about how families had dark as well as light sides. He wanted to help us deal with the difficult dynamics involved in trying to grow up and grow old.


But then came his old age, and the twitter period. Suddenly he bombed.


A few days ago, he repeated something he had said in 2011 about the way that London had changed under immigration and diversity. It annoyed people then and caused a few ripples, but this time it infuriated the on-line mob.


“Some years ago, I opined that London was not really an English city any more

Since then, virtually all my friends abroad have confirmed my observation. So there must be some truth in it…”


He was savaged by on line progressive critics and of course they resorted to their first and trusted weapons of shame, calling him ‘racist’ and ‘xenophobic.’


He fought back trying to explain that his critics were so keen to dismiss his as racist that they had missed the point he was talking not about race but about culture.


“I suspect I should apologise for my affection for the Englishness of my upbringing,but in some ways I found it calmer, more polite, more humorous, less tabloid, and less money-oriented than the one that is replacing it.”


The Mayor of London, was one of the first to try to close him down. “These comments make John Cleese sound like he’s in character as Basil Fawlty,” said Khan. “Londoners know that our diversity is our greatest strength. We are proudly the English capital, a European city and a global hub.” 


I will leave it to you to work out of there is any link between diversity and the rates of knife crime or city murder. What has happened to the English in London was what worried John Cleese, but isn’t our point here.  Something more fundamental than that is at stake, and it’s what happens when you criticize the ideas behind the progressive culture wars we are caught up in. 


Despite the shrieking of ‘racist’ John Cleese has gone to live in the Caribbean, which makes the accusation as stupid as it’s inaccurate.  When people raise questions about the rapid cultural changes that are being forced through society there is a standard three stage Orwellian reply that goes, 1:- “Shut up- you’re a fascist or a racist. 2. What you said is a lie. 3. Ok, it isn’t a lie but it’s a wonderful change that will make the world a better place.” 


Cleese isn’t a racist. It wasn’t a lie. London isn’t a better place. But more importantly, our society isn’t a better place when the first reaction of social media and public criticism is to get John Cleese (and others) closed down for hate crime when he points us towards an uncomfortable truth.


When John Cleese mocked class, religion and stupidity, we laughed with him and laughed too at ourselves. A few people got very uncomfortable but no one tried to close him down with insults and threats of prosecuting him for hate crime.


Voltaire is often wrongly quoted as saying  “To know who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticise.” If he didn’t say it, he should have done. John Cleese has moved from being famous for writing about dead parrots to being the canary in the coalmine.  


It’s not easy to make people laugh or tell the truth if the mob howls at you and calls you either racist, fascist or one of the others –‘ists’. But if or when we can’t tell the truth in public, we have lost more than the culture wars.







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