The Mechanical – what is freewill?

Mechanical Cover


The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis is an alternate history.  In seventeenth century Europe, the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens visits Isaac Newton in Cambridge, looks at his work on alchemy, and makes a massive breakthrough. The mysterious aim of alchemy, to win the ability to transmute matter and find a universal elixir of life, becomes a reality in the shape of clockwork robots imbued with the self-aware force of life.  To maintain control of this technology, Dutch clockmakers imbue their creations with a ferocious sense of obligation that demands absolute obedience through pain.  Using these robots Holland becomes the world’s leading power.  Only the French hold out in eastern Canada. The story then follows the fortunes of a rogue “clakker” robot who goes on the run after coming into possession of a mysterious lens, freeing him from his internal compulsions.

The story itself is rather James Bond in its feel. A French spymaster tries to help the freedom loving clakker.  Their efforts end up, as usual, in an underground lair, the setting for fighting and explosions.  Perhaps it is right that the story follows this highly conventional pattern, since it is really about how we might find freedom in a life that demands we follow a destined path.   While the clakkers have an overwhelming internal obligation to do their masters’ bidding, there are also suggestions that humans have obligations of their own built into them.  This human element of compulsion becomes overt when the Dutch secret police capture a priest, acting as a French spy.  They place clakker controls within his brain, and send him off against his will to spy on the French in Canada.  His only hope of escape is the lens in the possession of the rogue clakker.

The freedom-offering lens is the work of a Dutch contemporary of Huygens, philosopher and lens maker Baruch Spinoza.  Ironically, Spinoza’s reputation as a philosopher is based on his Ethics in which he argues that all human life is destined.  Famously in Ethics he says : ″the infant believes that it is by free will that it seeks the breast; the angry boy believes that by free will he wishes vengeance; the timid man thinks it is with free will he seeks flight; the drunkard believes that by a free command of his mind he speaks the things which when sober he wishes he had left unsaid. … All believe that they speak by a free command of the mind, whilst, in truth, they have no power to restrain the impulse which they have to speak.”

Given all this, why is it a lens ground by Spinoza offers the chance of freedom?  Perhaps the answer lies in Spinoza’s idea that we can become aware of the compulsions that drive us.  We can detach emotions from their external cause and in this way master them.

Whatever conclusion you might come to, the important thing is that Ian Tregellis gets you thinking.  The book encourages a reader to explore all kinds of things.  I was off reading about Huygens, Spinoza, Descartes and Newton.  This is a very interesting book.  I recommend it.






The Multinational Crew of HMS Victory


England may have expected, but it wasn’t just England who answered the call.

The crew of HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar by nationality from Janes’s Naval History – 441 English, 64 Scots, 63 Irish, 18 Welsh, 22 Americans, 7 Dutch, 6 Swedes, 4 Italians, 4 Maltese, 3 Frenchmen, 3 Norwegians, 3 Germans, 3 Shetlanders, 2 Swiss, 2 Channel Islanders, 2 Portuguese, 2 Danes, 1 Russian, 1 African, 1 Manxman, and 9 men from the West Indies. So that’s a third of the crew of the Victory not classified as English.

English Heritage should change its name


View from South Foreland Lighthouse, looking towards France

I am interested in history, which since Friday has felt like a bad thing.  It was in the countryside, in all those English market towns and villages where people revere “heritage” that the EU referendum vote was lost.  In the cities full of cranes and change, Remain did well.  For a few hours on Friday morning I wanted to turn my back on history.  But then I reminded myself that heritage is not history.  History shows that Britain has never really been an island.  Its road system still reflects the influence of the Romans; its language is full of words derived from successive waves of Saxon, Scandinavian and Norman invaders; its laws revere a document called the Magna Carta signed by French nobles; its brief history as a global power owes much to continental banking ideas that came to Britain with the Dutch monarch, William of Orange.  “Heritage” ignores all this.  Heritage describes something that comes to you as a reason of birth. It suggests not so much what happened, as the picking through what happened to bolster a sense of entitlement.  Since Friday morning entitlement has been revealed as empty posturing, and it has become clear that English Heritage is an organisation that should change its name.  Maybe then we’d be more sensible, and not base decisions on an illusory, puffed up sense of identity that bears little relation to the actual events of the past.

If you wish to sign a petition calling for a 2nd referendum follow this link:

When England expected every man to do his duty, Europe helped


“England expects” flag signal on the rigging of HMS Victory in 2005

This week there will be many people arguing over Britain’s past and future. It is worth bearing in mind that if Britain has a past as a powerful country, then that would not have been possible without European influence. I am reading Benjamin Disraeli’s book Sybil at the moment, and Disraeli reminded me of how the introduction of Dutch methods of finance underpinned British power in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These ideas were introduced to Britain when Parliament arranged for Dutch monarch William of Orange to replace James II in 1688. Disraeli was not approving of Dutch finance, since the acceptance of national debt dates from that time. But all the power that the British empire wielded at its peak could not have happened without Dutch financial ideas.

The economic historian P.G.M. Dickinson writes of the crucial advantage of public borrowing during the Napoleonic Wars: “More important even than alliances… was the system of public borrowing… which enabled England to spend on war out of all proportion to its tax revenue, and then throw into the struggle with France and its allies the decisive margin in ships and men…” Acceptance of debt meant that Britain could outspend France, which was a bigger and essentially richer country. And it was the Dutch with their history of banking and commerce which allowed Britain to do this. These advantages allowed Britain to quickly recover from the huge setback of losing the American colonies in 1781 and become the world’s most powerful country up until the end of the nineteenth century. So even when Britain was at its most dominant, it is salutary to remember that this position would not have been possible without a Dutch king who took the throne in 1688.

Was Plato a Sociopath?

Republic cover

The Republic is Plato’s famous fourth century BC description of the ultimate just society.

I have just finished this book, and I loathed it.

The Republic begins by asking how we can identify morality. Plato sees morality as a set of rules. He suggests putting individual desires second to general interests, fostering unity, and playing your part in a society where there is rigid specialisation of roles. Plato, however, has no conception that morality might have less to do with rules and more to do with empathy.  Morality is actually an extension of the ability to understand how others are feeling, which tends to count against actions that are selfish or hurtful.  We also call empathy “having a conscience”.  The thing is Plato shows no ability to understand what other people are feeling.

In the sections where he condemns poetry, for example, it is the sense of empathy that really irritates Plato.    Reading Homer, or any other writer, he is appalled when he is made to feel the pain of others:

“When Homer or another tragedian represents the grief of one of the heroes, they have him deliver a lengthy speech of lamentation or even have him sing a dirge and beat his breast; and when we listen to all this, even the best of us, as I’m sure you’re aware, feels pleasure. We surrender ourselves, let ourselves be carried along, and share the hero’s pain; and then we enthuse about the skill of any poet who makes us feel particularly strong feelings … However, you also appreciate that when we’re afflicted by trouble in our own lives, then we take pride in the opposite—in our ability to endure pain without being upset. We think that this is manly behaviour, and that only women behave in the way we were sanctioning earlier… So,’ I said, ‘instead of being repulsed by the sight of the kind of person we’d regret and deplore being ourselves, we enjoy the spectacle and sanction it. Is this a proper way to behave?”

This is typical of much of Plato’s criticism of literature, which he sees only in terms of false representation of the world, rather than in terms of communication between people.

From this basic lack of empathy derives all the things I hated about The Republic.  Plato is able to dismiss the little people in society, lie to them about why exactly they have to accept their rigid role in life, let babies die if they are judged unworthy, let sick workers die for want of medical attention because if they are that sick they are better off dead. He can suggest that no woman keep her own child, or that people do not form stable marriages with each other.  Plato had no idea how people would be feeling in all these situations, and therefore is immoral in the way he talks about them.  Plato is only interested in controlling people, not understanding them.

Some readers might say that at least Plato understood the pain of women, when he famously argues that women should play an equal role alongside men in society.  But coming to this conclusion in no way involved Plato imagining himself as a woman, and feeling their frustration.  Instead, he looks at female dogs, sees them making good guard dogs, and thinks that society would be more efficient if it were to treat human females in the same way.

Today we use the term sociopath to describe an individual who cannot feel empathy.  These people are without conscience, live only to manipulate others, and are adept at hiding their nature.  What better place for a sociopath to hide than in a book on morality, which describes all kinds of ways in which people can be manipulated in society, from breaking up any possibility of power based on families, to brainwashing from an early age, to creating myths persuading them to accept their allotted role in life? The Republic could be a handbook for totalitarian regimes everywhere.

That’s why I loathed The Republic.

Politics lessons from Claudius


Claudius crop

Robert Graves recreates the life of the Roman Emperor Claudius, as if Claudius were writing his biography in secret.  The first part of his story, I Claudius, follows events up until the fearful and comic moment when, against all expectations, Claudius, the stutterer, the fool, the gauche academic, becomes emperor of the Roman Empire.  Claudius the God describes his subsequent years as emperor.  If Claudius could have chosen his life, he would have been a historian working quietly in some pleasant university.  Through Graves’ imagination, Claudius’s subject becomes himself, and the way people organise leadership.  In I Claudius, we saw the dark consequences of deciding that the messy business of life is all too much.  Instead of frustrating debate, disagreement, and compromise, why not throw all of that out of the window and get yourself a tyrant?  In some of the most charming sections of Claudius the God, we actually see the advantages of this plan.  Claudius is a good emperor who uses his power to defeat short-term self-interest and small mindedness.  Corn merchants, for example, object to plans to improve Rome’s harbour at Ostia, because a secure supply of corn coming in through a safer harbour might depress prices.  Claudius has the power to cut through all that and transform Ostia.  Sadly, at the end of the book, with the promise of Nero’s rule to come, we see that these advantages will be short-lived.  It is very difficult to get yourself a good tyrant, to find someone with the humility to see that power does not rest in themselves, but in the fear of others.

I loved the second book as much as the first.  Graves seems to get into Claudius’s mind so successfully, that a reader sees the world from a completely different viewpoint.  We see Britain as a backward place, where at a push some of the best men might make good coachmen.  And we see early Christianity as a confused mass of Life of Brian events, different people claiming to be messiahs, unexpected births in a down-at-heel Bethlehem inn, an earthquake moving a rock covering the entrance to a tomb, all somehow becoming the familiar story of Christianity we know today.

The story Claudius tells us is over two thousand years old, but we see our own world in it.  We see where our present situation evolved from, and realise that the dilemmas we face in selecting leaders remain strangely familiar.