The Danger of Words: Maurice O’Connor Drury and the Pretence to Knowledge.

The following is a talk given to the Metaphysical Society of Trinity College Dublin in November 2012. The photographs of landscape show the area around Rosroe Co. Galway where Ludwig Wittgenstein lived and worked during the summer of 1948. They were taken by the author in August 2016. 

By Robert CB Miller BA (1970)

I should like to thank The Metaphizz for inviting me to speak and for paying my expenses – a combination of generosity and rashness hard to beat.

In thinking about this paper, I thought I could either do something easy or something difficult to earn my crust. I decided on the latter – so I have eschewed a detailed description of Drury’s friendship with Wittgenstein. It would only have been a digest of material which, if you are interested, is much better read in full. It is to be found in Drury’s own articles: Some Notes on Conversations with Wittgenstein and Conversations with Wittgenstein. They are both to be found in Recollections of Wittgenstein (OUP 1984) edited by another of Wittgenstein’s pupils, Rush Rees. Drury’s articles take up about a third of the book. Another source is the excellent paper Wittgenstein’s Pupil: the writings of Maurice O’Connor Drury by Professor Hayes of Limerick University (

What I propose to do is to give a very brief out line of Drury’s life and friendship with Wittgenstein. I will follow this with an equally brief outline of some of the main arguments of Drury’s book The Danger of Words.

I will then set out some thoughts of my own on one of its main themes – that our knowledge is limited and that one of the roles of philosophy is to contain the excessive ambitions of science. These have the virtue of being themes which can be found in Wittgenstein and, in a somewhat different form, in the writings of Noam Chomsky and Colin McGinn.

Drury and Wittgenstein

3,%20Dr%20Maurice%20O’Connor%20(‘Con’)%20DruryMaurice O’Connor Drury was born in Exeter in 1907 into a family with Irish connections. He was educated at the grammar school in that town and went to Trinity College Cambridge in 1925 to read moral and mental science. He graduated in 1931 with a first class degree. He intended to become an Anglican clergyman and attended the High Church training college of Westcott House where he spent a year. Under Wittgenstein’s influence he gave up this ambition and became a medical student at TCD.

Although Wittgenstein persuaded Drury to become a doctor rather than a clergyman, it was not because Wittgenstein opposed religion or Christianity. They often discussed religion and the New Testament and, I think, Wittgenstein valued Drury’s knowledge of New Testament scholarship.

During the Second World War Drury served in the Royal Army Medical Corps in Egypt and in ‘North Western Europe’. On demobilisation in 1946, he became a psychiatrist at St Patrick’s Institution. Both before and after the war Wittgenstein visited Drury in Dublin on several occasions. In order to work without distraction, he stayed in a bed and breakfast at Redhill near Arklow and at a cottage near Killary Harbour in Connemara which belonged to Drury’s brother. Drury became a consultant psychiatrist and remained at St Patrick’s until his death on Christmas Day 1976.

One of his sons, Professor Luke Drury, is currently President of the Royal Irish Academy.

Drury saw Wittgenstein for the last time on Cambridge railway station in 1951 a few weeks before the latter’s death. Wittgenstein was living with Dr Bevan at the time and despite his frailty came with Drury to the station. Drury writes:

“Just before the train pulled out he said to me, ‘Drury, whatever becomes of you, don’t stop thinking.’ These were the last words I ever had from him.”

I think Wittgenstein’s remark would make a good motto for all of us who are not, and are not planning to be, philosophers by profession.

The Danger of Words

The Danger of Words was published in 1973 by Routledge and Kegan Paul in the series, Studies in Philosophical Psychology, edited by RF Holland of Swansea. It reproduces six lectures. In the preface,   Drury introduces them as ‘colloquial in style’ and written for ‘special occasions’ and with specific audiences in mind – evidently fellow doctors and psychiatrists.drury's book

Drury states that the lectures illustrate the effect that Wittgenstein had one of his pupils. He explains that behind every scientific construction there remains the inexplicable and that philosophy makes it clear that scientific inquiry must come to an end with what cannot be explained.

In Chapter 1, Words and Transgressions, Drury urges clarity in the terms used in psychiatry and outlines five fallacies to which psychiatry is prone. For example, he points to the danger of thinking that because one has given a technical term to something it has been explained. Theories, he argues, against which no evidence could count are vacuous and have no place in science. He gives the example of Wittgenstein in discussion with Bertrand Russell explaining that a statement that an undetectable hippopotamus was in the room is without meaning. In Chapter 2, Science and Psychology,  Drury distinguishes between two types of psychology:  that of the novelist and that of the academic psychology. He contrasts the scientific psychology which attempts to ‘reduce the vagaries of human thought to a mechanical process of cause and effect’ with that of the insight into human nature of Aeschylus or Simone Weil. He quotes Wittgenstein: ‘Belief in the causal nexus is superstition.’

Chapter 3, Concerning Mind and Body, consists of an analysis the mind / body problem using the work of Professor Eccles as an example. He argues that the attempt to identify perception with any physiological process is mistaken. The mind, he claims, has no particular place in nature. We will return to this theme later.  In Chapter 4, Hypotheses and Philosophy, Drury argues that nothing is finally established in science and that all scientific theories are subject to revision. And he gives the example of evolutionary biology as a science which has become over-ambitious – again more about this later.

The fifth and final chapter, Madness and Religion, is perhaps the most remarkable. Drury asks whether we can distinguish between madness and religion. And he gives examples of people experiencing religious ecstasy who were evidently suffering from treatable mental disorders.  He wonders whether the fact that Joan of Arc could have been treated with modern drugs means that her experiences can be dismissed as mere psychotic episodes. His answer is a decisive No. He writes:

“Every death-bed can be a religious experience both for him who is dying and for those who had loved him and watch beside him. Every mental illness can be a religious experience both for him who is afflicted and for those that loved him. Conversely every religious belief and practice where it is deep and sincere is madness to those who trust in themselves and despise others.” (p136)

Wittgenstein thought that the modern belief in progress02_Rosroe2016 was flawed and that advances in science often left really important questions unanswered or misunderstood. In Culture and Value, he writes:

 What a curious attitude scientists have -: “We still don’t know that; but it is knowable and it is only a matter of time before we get to know it!” As if that went without saying.[1]

One of major themes in The Danger of Words is that there are limits to human knowledge. Drury argues that it is the particular role of philosophy to examine critically the assumptions of scientists and to suggest gently that sometimes they are attempting the impossible. Philosophers should urge scientist to state clearly what they mean and to limit their statements to what they can actually demonstrate. This allows Drury to meet the familiar criticism that no progress is made in philosophy.

There are things which we may be able to discover. Thus we (or rather scientists) may be able to isolate the genes which give language to human beings. It may be like looking for a needle in a haystack but luck or huge labours (or both) may uncover the facts. There is no reason why this should not be the case. Scientific progress is possible and is perhaps to be expected. We will for example discover whether or not there is or was life on Mars.

And here I want to adapt a distinction made by Noam Chomsky and Colinchompers McGinn between PUZZLES and MYSTERIES.[2] They distinguish between PUZZLES which have possible solutions and MYSTERIES which do not. (Philosophers who have adopted this distinction have been called unkindly ‘Mysterons’.)  One can imagine what the solution to a PUZZLE would be like. A space craft lands on Mars and makes the necessary observations. Even where a solution may not be possible because the evidence has been destroyed, we know what sort of theory would count as a solution. Thus the evolutionary biologist, RC Lewontin, has argued that we can never know how human cognitive abilities evolved as the evidence does not now exist.[3]

Consequently PUZZLES can be divided into two sorts Insoluble PUZZLES (I-PUZZLES) and Soluble PUZZLES (S-PUZZLES). Plainly the discovery of whether there is life on Mars is an example of an S-PUZZLE. The evidence is available and all we have to do is to collect and interpret it. The case of the origin of human cognitive abilities may be an example of an I-PUZZLE because the evidence which would lead to a definitive theory no longer exists and cannot be discovered or recreated.

Of course in some cases what are supposed to be I-PUZZLES may turn out to be S-PUZZLES, when a new experiment is devised which can adduce the necessary evidence to move a PUZZLE from ‘I’ to ‘S’ status.

MYSTERIES are different for in their case it can be demonstrated (or at least argued) that no possible evidence or discovery can decide or could have decided the issue. This marks an important difference between MYSTERIES and I-PUZZLES. Of course, it is possible that what at some time was thought to be an I-PUZZLE may turn out to be a MYSTERY and vice versa. For practical scientific purposes it may not make much difference, but it marks an important philosophical distinction.

It may be that we are so constituted that we cannot conceive of any satisfactory solution to the mind body problem. This idea seems defeatist. Surely no limit can be put to scientific and philosophical progress. Much progress has been made, why should not this progress continue indefinitely?

One obvious retort is that the increase in our knowledge is limited by our character as animals. Take the example (due I think to Chomsky) of a rat. It is so constituted that it cannot understand arithmetic. Similarly there may be domains which human beings are incapable of understanding. That this could be the case can be illustrated by some examples of where it is evident that human understanding is limited and human faculties are constrained. The most obvious is our understanding of quantum mechanics. Richard Feynman said:  “…nobody understands quantum mechanics” – we just cannot comprehend fully something being at two places at the same time and entanglement over huge distances.  Another example is our inability to envisage a four dimensional space. Although if the Victorian mathematician,02_Rosroe2016 Charles Hinton, was right we can gain some idea of what it would be like, by memorising the different colours of the six faces of small cubes which themselves constitute a larger one.[4]  The technique should be used with care – it was rumoured that one person attempting it had been driven mad. Again we cannot see in the infra red or in the ultra violet, and think what a small fraction of the electro-magnetic spectrum we can see. These examples suggest that human faculties are limited – and they raise, at the very least, the possibility that human knowledge has limits which cannot be exceeded.

As we have seen the theme of the limits of human knowledge runs through The Danger of Words and I want to focus on the example of Professor Eccles‘ book, The Neuro-physiological Basis of the Mind,[5] which is discussed in Chapter 3, Concerning Mind and Body. Professor Eccles’ argument, I suspect, can be replicated in many of the modern textbooks on neuro-science you can find on the shelves of Hodges Figgis. Colin McGinn claims that the relationship between body and mind is a MYSTERY but I intend to show that Drury explains with some precision why it is a MYSTERY and indeed what kind of MYSTERY it is.

Drury describes Eccles’ programme:

“[Eccles] [is] going to investigate the whole field of the nervous system. Not only the structure and organisation of neurones and their synapses, but also the ‘working of our brains’, ‘how liaison between brain and mind could occur’. He [is} going to investigate ‘the process of perception’…”  (p70)

Drury outlines Eccles’ description of the operation of the nervous system, how ‘receptor organs’ receive stimuli which are then transmitted to the brain where they form ‘percepts’ – experiences in a private ‘perceptual world’. Drury explains how this description involves Eccles in a radical subjectivism. The observer can know nothing of an external world as he only receives ‘percepts’.  Eccles’ attempts to avoid this difficulty by an appeal to evidence that other people have similar experiences as ourselves. But this takes us no further forward; we have no reason to believe that these other people exist.05_Rosroe2016

Drury then seeks to find a way out of the dilemma. He points to Eccles’ use of the term ‘investigate’ as the key to dissolving the problem. He points out that we cannot investigate the means of scientific investigation: sight, touch, hearing, memory and language, for their efficacy is presupposed in any scientific investigation. He begins Chapter 3 by quoting Lichtenberg:

“What an odd situation the soul is in when it reads an investigation about itself, when it looks in a book to find out what itself might be. Rather like the predicament of a dog with a bone tied to its tail – said CGL, truly but a little ignobly.” (p57)

How can we investigate the means by which we investigate? It is a logical impossibility – we can use a telescope to view the stars or distant objects on earth but what we cannot view is the telescope itself.

It follows that while Professor Eccles’ science is now far out of date, Drury’s attempt to unpick the confusion it contains is timeless and perhaps more relevant today than it was in the 1970s. And attempts to investigate consciousness as if it were just another feature of the brain are bound to fail. Nor is it the case that more exacting research, more and better scanning equipment, would succeed. As Drury explains:

 “…I am saying that however much we learn concerning the physiology of the eye and the optic tract this will never explain how seeing is possible.” (p71)

Of course, it is possible to investigate the organs of sight, hearing, memory, and language. There is very little that physiologists do not know about the eyes and ears and how they work, how they fail and if and how such defects can be remedied. And, perhaps to Drury’s surprise, there has been extraordinary progress in linguistics. But again there has been progress in the equivalent of our knowledge of the physiology of eyes and ears, syntactic structures, the form of any possible language and the physical production and reception of speech. But when it comes to the unprompted production of language we are at a loss.[6]

Drury’s next step is to attack the apparent obvious distinction between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’. The neurological pathways from ear to brain can be investigated scientifically by the usual methods. But then the nerve impulse is said to ‘enter’ consciousness. But ‘entering’ implies crossing a threshold. Here Drury comments:

“But in this sense, the common everyday sense, of ‘entering’ you cannot speak of anything entering consciousness. For consciousness has no boundary, no threshold which can be observed. If it had then there would have to be a third form of consciousness which was conscious of both what was conscious and what was not yet so. This is obvious nonsense. Consciousness is not just one of the many things we are conscious of: the mind has no particular place in nature.” (p75/76)

Drury provides an inoculation against these very natural ways of thinking which lead us into error and confusion. But surely, we protest, the mind must be something and it must have a place somewhere or other. But consciousness or the mind is used to determine where things are and consequently it can have no place itself. Consciousness is not one of the things of which we are conscious. If there were but one tape measure in the world its length could not be measured.  In a discussion of behaviourism in the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein writes:

“…but surely you will admit that there is a difference between pain behaviour accompanied by pain and pain-behaviour without any pain?” Admit it? What greater difference could there be? – “and yet you again and again reach the conclusion that the sensation itself is nothing” – Not at all. It is not a something , but not a nothing either!” …. the paradox disappears only if we make a radical break with the idea that language always functions in one way, always serves the same purpose.” (PI 304)

06_Rosroe2016In other words, cries of pain and descriptions of their character and location (stabbing and in my toe) are not the same as reports of behaviour or (to bring the argument up to date) brain activity. It makes sense to locate a pain as in my toe, it makes no sense to attempt to locate the sensation of the pain.

How do Drury’s arguments apply to McGinn and Chomsky’s distinction between PUZZLES and MYSTERIES? Chomsky and McGinn believe that MYSTERIES are insoluble because of our biological constitution. If we had bigger, better and different brains we might be able to solve the mind body problem. In the same way that a bigger smarter rat might be able to do simple arithmetic or ponder the square root of 4, so if we had bigger and better brains we might be able to resolve the MYSTERIES that currently perplex us.

But Drury’s argument about the character of the mind-body MYSTERY is quite different from those of Chomsky and McGinn. It is not our biological constitution which is the root of the problem but its logical structure. In other words, whatever our biology the problem would remain the same – and a Martian whatever his exotic biology would face the same dilemma that we do. A logical problem is universal and would be the same for Martians as it is for us. Martians can no more investigate their faculty of investigation than we can ours – all this of course pre-supposing that Martians have a faculty of investigation.

We can perhaps now divide MYSTERIES into two as we divided PUZZLES – I-PUZZLES which were insoluble because the necessary evidence is unavailable and S-PUZZLES where it is and where hard work and good luck may result in a solution. MYSTERIES bifurcate into B-MYSTERIES which result from our biological constitution like a rat not being able to count, and L-MYSTERIES which are irresolvable because of their logic.

Next and broadening our focus I will review briefly two other egregious examples of scientific projects which appear to have ambitions above their station. No doubt there are many others. In the Danger of Words, Drury seeks to limit the pretensions of both what would now be called neuro-science and evolutionary biology. In the nearly 40 years which have passed the claims of both have burgeoned. We have followed Drury in reviewing some of the pretensions of neuro-science. I will now tackle, first neo-Darwinian evolutionary biology, and second the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. And I will try to turn, in Wittgenstein’s phrase, latent nonsense into patent nonsense.

First neo-Darwinian evolutionary biology.

Neo-Darwinian Evolutionary Biology

Drury’s criticisms of evolutionary biology focus on the fact that in some cases evolution appears to have a trajectory which is not explicable by natural selection.  He gives the example of the atrophied femurs of whales which weigh just two ounces. Drury asks why does it weighs two ounces rather than, say, 20? (p104/105). Whether or not Drury’s strictures (or rather those of Professor Martin who he quotes) are just I do not know. But I believe that Drury was right to be sceptical of the pretensions of evolutionary biology.

What Darwin Got Wrong, Jerry Fodor, Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, theory of evolution, natural selectionTake Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini’s recent book, What Darwin Got Wrong, which was published in 2010.[7] They argue that the neo-Darwinist process of natural selection by random adaptive mutation is inadequate to explain many instances of biological evolution. They give the example (and there are others) of the parasitic wasp, Ampulex Compressa. Some wasps lay their eggs in other insects and on hatching the larvae eat the insect in which they have been laid. But Ampulex Compressa paralyses and then controls its prey, a cockroach, with two stings at precise intervals in specific different parts of the cockroach. This first zombifies the unfortunate insect and then allows the wasp literally to ‘ride’ the cockroach into the wasp’s nest which the latter has prepared. The wasp then lays its eggs which when hatched use the cockroach as a source of food. Fodor and his colleague comment:

“The ways in which this behavioural sequence could have gone awry are indeed innumerable. Not even the most committed adaptationist neo-Darwinians suppose that all kinds of alternatives are blindly tried out by the ancestors of the wasp and that better and better solutions were progressively selected, and that this optimal solution was finally retained and encoded for in the genes. …. What, then? No one knows at present.” [8]

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini also claim that adaptive natural selection contains a serious logical flaw. This is because of the ‘selection-for’ problem.  The problem is that certain characteristics of an animal may be coextensive with the features which give it an adaptive advantage. The theory of natural selection cannot distinguish between features which give it adaptive advantage and those co-extensive properties which do not. In ordinary science it is possible to explore counter-factuals which would determine which was the adaptive feature rather than the free rider. But this for the most part is impossible in evolutionary biology. It follows that natural selection as a theory cannot generate predictions. Indeed it becomes vacuous with successful adaptations being defined in terms ecological niches and ecological niches being defined in terms of successful adaptations.

There are other flaws in some parts of evolutionary biology

One strategy of evolutionary biologists is to give a series of ‘Just So Stories’ (as in Kipling – How the Camel Got His Hump) to explain possible evolutionary pathways for the development of human cognitive abilities.Kipling It is enough, it is supposed, to give a plausible story (or stories) of how a process of incremental natural selection might have produced the result in question. But the description of a possible process disguises the fact that the actual process is unknown and may always remain so. The relevant evidence more than likely has been destroyed and no longer exists.

The result of believing that incremental natural selection is beyond dispute and the ONLY mechanism for evolution, is to limit possible accounts to those which accord with this supposed fact. The result is that attempts to develop, for example, an account of the development of human language by incremental natural selection are forced into a particular mould. Thus Chomsky’s view that human language was result of a mutation in a single individual about 75,000 years ago is ruled out by many evolutionary biologists on the grounds that it can’t be true because it conflicts with the fact of incremental natural selection. A good example is to be found in the Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution where this assumption is made in many, if not most, of the essays it contains.[9]  Often Dobzhansky’s famous statement ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’ is repeated as a justification for such dogmatism.  This is what Drury has to say:

“But …when a hypothesis has become generally accepted and shown its usefulness, it forgets its humble origin. It begins to masquerade in the logical status of a fact. Something we can’t query. Something which is the reality behind the phenomena. Something which has enabled us to see behind the curtain of sensation. And so the hypothesis which is our useful creation, dazzles our view of things. We fail to see much that the hypothesis doesn’t include; we extend the limits of our hypothesis into the regions of phantasy.” (p100)

On such wobbly foundations rest much of evolutionary biology.

I turn finally to the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence.

The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence

The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has become a recognised minor (and just respectable) branch of cosmology. Thus last year the Royal Society held a conference on the consequences of contact with aliens and there are regular announcements that ‘contact’ is to be expected within a few decades. Sir Patrick More recently opined that alien intelligence will be found within the next sixty years. And the SETI Institute has attracted much enthusiasm. Paul Allen, one of the founders of Microsoft, has contributed over $30m for the SETI Institute’s radio telescope which has been named after him. It is planned that it will survey 1 million stars for messages from ET.

SETI research has even inspired what almost amounts to a new secular religion. Thus the late Professor Allen Tough, a well-known SETI expert, speculated on the amazing results that could flow from contact with aliens:

“We might gain new insights and knowledge about deep, major questions that go far beyond ordinary practical day-to-day matters. Topics in an encyclopedia-like message or closeup dialogue could include astrophysics, the origin and evolution of the universe, religious questions, the meaning and purpose of life, and answers to philosophical questions. We might receive detailed information about the other civilization (which might be deeply alien to us) and about its philosophies and beliefs. Similar information could be provided about several other civilizations throughout our galaxy, too. We might even receive a body of knowledge accumulated over the past billion years through contributions by dozens of civilizations throughout the galaxy.” [10]


Something, I think, has gone very badly wrong. Here is a scientist, one of many in the same field, who is greatly exaggerating the consequences of a discovery – and it is a discovery which has yet to be made. Indeed, as we shall see the problems in understanding ET and any messages we might receive from him are insurmountable.

The search has two aspects. First, attempts to discover intelligent life by searching the electro-magnetic spectrum for messages and translating any received.  Second, attempts to send messages to aliens which they will be able to understand. I want to focus primarily on the former, although as we shall see the latter is deeply flawed for the same reasons.alien

Would we be able to understand any message received from aliens? It is assumed that we would be able to distinguish between a signal generated by an exotic natural process and a message sent by an alien civilisation. We would also have to distinguish between a message that was intended for us and one intended for others – or indeed that it was not the unintended bi-product of some other process.  But if we assume these difficulties out of the way, would we be able to decipher any messages received? SETI enthusiasts regularly assume that this would be a relatively easy matter – perhaps like the deciphering of the German Enigma codes at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.

But in this case the code breakers knew that the encoded language was German and that the messages would be about military matters. More important they shared with those sending the encoded messages all the human conventions and concepts which make human language possible, not to mention the innate biological structures. It is significant that where unknown languages have been deciphered it is only because versions of the text in the unknown language have been found in a known language. In the case of the Rosetta Stone there were three versions of the text one in Egyptian hieroglyphs, one in Egyptian Demotic and another in Greek. This latter version provided the key by which the hieroglyphs were deciphered. It is interested that in cases where languages have not been deciphered it is because no equivalent in a known language has been discovered.

Without a common frame of reference we would not even know what the alien message was about. It has been proposed that the facts of science and mathematics must be universal and hence could operate as a Rosetta Stone establishing such a common frame of reference. But mathematical and scientific concepts would have to be expressed in a language and without being able to understand it we would have no means of grasping what mathematical and scientific principles were being expressed. Hence science and maths could not be the key to deciphering the alien language as for them to have that role we would have to understand the language in which they were expressed.

11_Rosroe_slipway2016It is also unlikely that mathematical and scientific constants and relationships would have the same significance for aliens that they do for us, or indeed that their conception of science is similar to ours, or indeed that they have anything that we would recognise as science.  The mistake is to fail to realise that science depends on human concepts which are most unlikely to be universal. Further as we have seen science and scientific investigation depend on human faculties. It may be that a non-human ‘science’ is an oxymoron. Similarly easy talk about alien ‘civilisations’ is misplaced. For civilisation depends on a wide variety of human concepts: law, choice, responsibility, art and freedom, for a short selection.

Another difficulty is presented by what may be called the ‘Channel problem’. All human languages are produced sequentially using sound (or sound equivalent) in a single stream. But there is no reason why non-human languages should be so limited.  Television usually involves two streams or channels, sound and moving pictures. Often other channels are added – sign language, music, and news and stock market tickers.  And notice that in television transmissions both channels have to be properly co-ordinated for the message to be understood and that very often any one channel is largely incomprehensible without the other. Alien languages might employ multiple channels and we would have no means of separating them or determining how they were related to each other. Suppose we only received one channel with the other(s) unknown to us. While it may be easy enough for us to distinguish the different channels in human communications such as television, it would not be so easy to do the same for alien communications. Indeed it would be a probable insoluble problem in its own right. And what if the alien message had 363 channels?

It follows that the meaning of any message received is likely always to remain unknown and unknowable.

Similar difficulties would stand in the way of aliens understanding the messages we send to them. In November 1977 Professor Charles Drake and Professor Carl Sagan used the Arecibo radio telescope to send an FM radio message aimed at the M13 star cluster which is 25,000 light years away. The former it will be remembered invented the famous equation that can be used (on varying assumptions) to estimate (or rather guess) the number of currently communicating ‘civilisations’ in the Milky Way. Since the message was sent it has been disclosed that it was never a serious attempt to communicate with aliens but a mere test of the equipment. Further by the time the message reaches its target, star cluster M13 in 25,000 years time, it will have moved away.


The cottage in which Wittgenstein stayed has been demolished and replaced with this building. Note the plaque on the left hand side.

Still it is worth analysing as an example of the type. Other similar messages have been sent to nearby stars and most are expected to arrive in the middle of the current century. The Arecibo message consists of a binary string with 1679 binary digits. The number 1679 was chosen as it is the product of two prime numbers 23 and 73 selected to show the number of rows and columns. Encoded in the message is information about DNA, mathematics, crude images of human beings, the relative size and position of the sun and planets. But there is no reason to suppose that aliens could understand the conventions that for us link images to things represented, or indeed binary digits.

Why should any group of aliens have these concepts or indeed anything that we would recognise as a concept? This point was made unintentionally by a UK Ministry of Defence spokesman who speculated humorously that UFOs might have entered UK airspace for reasons of tourism. Everybody laughed. But the statement is no more ridiculous than Stephen Hawking’s warning that we should not advertise our presence to aliens for fear of provoking an attack. The anthropomorphism is the same. For both tourism and aggression are human concepts applicable to human beings.  And again, why should we believe that aliens have these concepts or that they would be applicable to them?

Speculation about aliens is a good example of how our concepts can fail to grip – or to use Wittgenstein’s phrase, we run up against the limits of language. We can only use human language and human concepts to analyse living entities which are human or animal like. But by definition aliens are not human or animal like and consequently our concepts will be inapplicable if not useless. We have some inkling of the nature of the problem when we wonder whether we can rightly say of a beetle that it feels pain, or that a dog feels remorse. I leave it to you to imagine what sort of understanding we could have of creatures which do not share our 600 million year evolutionary pathway. Indeed, in speculating about the possible existence, lives and ‘civilisation’ of aliens we cannot fail to fall into confusion.


To conclude, one of the effects of recognising the limits to knowledge is that it makes us wonder at the things which are inexplicable and must remain so always. As Drury says – every time we regain consciousness after sleep it is a miracle. He describes the role of the philosopher as follows. It is, he says:07_Rosroe_slipway2016

“To insist that people say only just as much as they really know; that when, as happens in every generation, new advances in knowledge are made, they are not taken to be more important than they really are. You ask what is the value of such scepticism, such agnosticism, such carping criticism? One value only. It keeps wonder secure.” (p113/114)

Drury then tells a parable:

“You are sitting in a room and it is dusk. Candles have been brought in that you may see to get on with the work in hand. Then try to look up and out to the garden which lies beyond; and all you can see is the reflection of the candles in the window. To see the garden the candles must be shaded.

Now that is what philosophy does. It prevents us from being dazzled by what we know. It is a form of thinking which ends by saying, don’t think – look.” (p114)


[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, translated by Peter Winch, Basil Blackwell Oxford 1980, p40e.

[2] Colin McGinn, Problems in Philosophy, Blackwell, 1993.

[3] Richard C Lewontin, The Evolution of Cognition: Questions We Will Never Answer, in An invitation to Cognitive Science: Methods, models and conceptual issues, Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 1998, pp 107-131.

[4] Charles Hinton, Casting out the Self, 1904.

[5] Professor JC Eccles, The Neuro-physiological Basis of the Mind, 1953.

[6] Mark Baker, The Creative Aspect of Language Use and Nonbiological Nativism, in Ed. Peter Carruthers, Stephen Laurence, and Stephen Stich, The Innate Mind: Foundations and the Future, (OUP, 2007).

[7] Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, What Darwin Got Wrong, London, 2010.

[8] Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, op cit., p89/91. Another parasitoid wasp, hymenoepimecis agryraphaga, stings its prey, a spider, so that it spins a web of a type that it never spins otherwise and is strong enough to hold the cocoon of the wasp’s offspring.

oxford language evolution[9] Ed. The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution, OUP, 2012

[10] Allen Tough, ‘An Extraordinary Event’ in Ed Allen Tough, When SETI Succeeds: The Impact of High-Information Contact, Foundation for the Future, 2000, p 3.

The Agony of Donald Trump

When that great conservative Mel Bradford lay dieing in a hospital in Midland Texas of a heart condition he is alleged to have said “It was the cheeseburgers that got me in the end!” Well, it was “The Washington Post” that got Trump in the end. He was always a weak candidate, a candidate that carried too much baggage from the past, a candidate who was against too much, and for too little. A candidate, it is true, who was brave enough to tackle the issue of immigration that threatens to transform the United States in ways which are unpredictable,donald-trump but almost certainly undesirable. Nevertheless Trump was not the candidate and not the man to make this point.

Many years ago I interviewed a woman accountant in Dublin about the future of women in business. To one of my questions she began to respond by saying that a women had to be just as good at her job as a man. But then she paused, and corrected herself, No she said a woman in business had “ to be maybe a little bit better than a man.” This may not now be true of women in business; but it is certainly true of conservatives in politics. Given the cultural context within which we live, conservatives have to be better than their liberal rivals- which was why of course that the liberals and especially the neo conservatives had it in so badly for Mel Bradford. Trump’s problem though was that he was a little bit worse even than Hilary Clinton- which is saying a good deal. Never can a major party in the United States have nominated someone who was less qualified, if only by temperament, for the great office which he has sought. It is no surprise then his campaign has ended, or will end in tears.

The agonising collapse of his campaign will not be pleasant to watch, and the hypocritical crowing of the liberals over his electoral defeat will be nauseating. But all is not lost. There is one way in which Donald Trump can rebuild his reputation and perhaps even increase his influence. His instinct not to abandon his supporters by withdrawing from the race is sound. He should stay the course. He needs now to devote himself in so far as he can to saving his party this fall even if he cannot himself hope to be elected. He must continue to campaign. He must urge his followers to vote, and to raise funds and to work for the return of Republicans to both Senate and House.

Above all though he must start to show some genuine remorse for the foolish things that he has done and said. This will not be easy for someone of his overarching ego. In the collapse of his political ambitions he needs to remember the truth that there is more rejoicing in heaven for the return of one sinner than there is for all righteous. But if then at this juncture Donald Trump were to prove that he is really sorry for the offence which he has caused by demonstrating that he has  learnt a personal lesson about how to treat women, then the American people- great spirited as they are- might well take him to their hearts- although not as President- in the same way that the British people came ultimately to forgive John Profumo.

1892_ellis island

Ellis Island, 1892

Were Donald Trump, now and in the years to come, to devote his obvious intelligence and his great wealth to the cause of a more a prudent immigration for the United States  then his influence could eclipse that of Hilary Clinton.  Who knows, perhaps it will be immigration which gets the Democrats in the end?              v

And now Columbia

I can’t pretend to know much about the civil war in Columbia, except that it has been going on for far too long. But the voters there have concluded that the terms offered to the FARC the rebel group were too lenient and have rejected them in a referendum. And on the same day the voters in Hungary came within a slither of throwing yet another spanner in the European works. After Brexit we are entering new political territory. Louis Napoleon pioneered the referendum as a way of copper bottoming his regime. Now it has become a method of humiliating elites all over the world. Those who imagine that the same method can be used to overturn this country’s ban on abortion had better be careful. More broadly politicians of all parties and in all countries are going to have to get out much, much more.

Bias at the BBC again!

Yet another example of left wing bias from the Beeb.

In a piece about Republican endorsements of Hilary Clinton the BBC trumpets the fact that she has been endorsed by the Dallas Morning News, which is described ” a conservative leaning” paper.dallasmorningnews Well this WAS true. But during my recent visits to Dallas over the last several years it has become clear that that the Morning News has been slipping to the left. Consequently its endorsement of Mrs Clinton proves little; although the BBC ‘s mishandling of the story, such as it is, shows that auntie has not forgotten her prejudices!

A critical error?

From Hansard, May 7th 1888.

Mr. P.J. O’ BRIEN ( Tipperary North ) asked the Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland [ A.J. Balfour ] , Whether he has yet received the Report in answer to the full enquiry which he promised into the circumstances of the case of the Cranna Orphanage in County Tipperary; whether it is accordance with the facts as reported at the coroner’s inquest on the body of the boy Madden; whether the remaining children in that Institution are still on the dietary [ regime?], the nature of which was then disclosed; and whether he will take steps to have this and similar Institutions visited at intervals by authorized Government Inspectors, so as to afford some protection to the orphan children therein confined, and to prevent the recurrence of such inhuman treatment as has been proved in the case of the Cranna orphans?    

THE CHIEF SECRETARY ( MR. A. J. BALFOUR )MORRIS(1889)_p333_THE_RIGHT_HON__A_J__BALFOUR_M_P (Manchester, E.) The local Constabulary authorities [ the police ] have furnished a copy of the verdict at the inquest on the body of the boy Madden, from which it appears that he died from weakness or syncope; but neither the jury nor the Coroner appears to have attached blame to any individual. The jury, however, in their verdict pointed out certain defects which, in their opinion, existed in the Institution as regards clothing, dietary, and attendance [ of a doctor?]. A letter has been received from the Bishop of Killaloe stating what steps have been taken to carry out the recommendations put forward by the Coroner’s Jury in order to remedy the existing defects.

MR. P.J. BRIEN The right hon. Gentlman did not answer the last part of the question. I understand that the Bishop of Killaloe very rarely visits the Institution.

MR A. J. BALFOUR I do not think a Government Inspector would be at all an improvement.

NOTE: Among the causes of Syncope mentioned by Wikepedia are, fasting, too few fluids, emotional distress and lack of sleep.  

When I mentioned the substance of this post to a friend ( a recently retired teacher ) he at once came up with the right diagnosis: “NEGLECT”

More on Apple


I can’t find a picture of properly stored apples!

One of the few memories that I have of my father, who died when I was seven, is helping him store apples in a loft so that they could be used throughout the winter. The idea was make sure that they were as close together as possible so that we could make as much use as we could of the space; but at the same time to ensure that individual apples did not touch one another, so that if one were to start to rot the rottenness would not pass from one apple to another so infecting  them all.

I can’t help thinking of this when I think about the mess we have got ourselves over the Apple finding. Eamon-Delaney-150x150Our friend Eamon Delaney put his finger on the implications of what has happened in a piece in the Sunday Business Post  Mr. Delaney makes the point that the Apple finding is very close to the very heart of how this state has operated since its very foundation.

In fact it may well go back further than that, to the time when Gerald Balfour launched his campaign “to kill home rule by kindness.” The political part of his project failed. But for good or ill he and the others such as Sir Horace Plunkett who worked alongside him, left the new state a legacy of government activism ( for example the multifarious activities of the Congested District Board, and The Department of 200px-GeraldBalfourTechnical Instruction ) which dominated the way in which first the Free State and then Republic have acted.

Part of this was inevitably  taxation.  As Mr. Delaney points out the industrial policy of this state has always been grounded in the notion that the state could offer incoming businessmen a an extremely favourable tax environment which other jurisdictions simply could not match. I for one can remember advertisements inserted in the financial pages of British newspapers the sixties and seventies that made this clear. One of them ( I think ) went so far as to taunt the British Inland Revenue with the phrase “the one that got away.”


Could low taxes be part of the answer?

In the early 1980’s I was placing freelance articles in Irish business magazines about what the Industrial Development Authority was doing. My focus was to suggest that the IDA was not good at backing winners, and I doubted the wisdom of strategy that it was adopting. During the course of my enquiries it became obvious that the IDA and other state agencies ( not excluding the Revenue Commissioners ) were doing everything that they could to attract investment to Ireland.

It was also clear that the officials of the IDA knew very well that what they were doing infringed certainly the spirit of the European regulations, but also probably their letter. And they showed a good deal of nervousness on the issue. I could be wrong but my sense is now with hindsight that some kind of informal deal may perhaps have been done with the relevant authorities in Brussels who will have known what was happening but were turning a blind eye to what was being done in Dublin. There was certainly a lot of nodding and winking going

Well, well, whatever may have been the case the Apple finding has blown the whole case open. The fact is that policy makers in Dublin failed to see that whole free market culture of the EU was in conflict with the kind of industrial policy which was deeply engrained in the Irish State from, and even from before, its foundation.

The outcome of the current mess is difficult to predict. Word is that the governments and Apple’s appeal against the finding is likely to fail- but, of course, there is no way of knowing at this stage.  If it does then the implications are going to be momentous. The rot is starting to spread from Apple to Apple, or rather from Multinational to Multinational, and from country to country.

Brexit, of course, makes the situation look all the more intriguing. It may well be that freed from the constraints of the EU that the UK- or at least parts of the UK – might be able to offer extremely dangerous competition to Ireland for incoming projects. Ireland would, it is true, be able to point to unimpeded access to the EU something which UK could not in those circumstances be able to match. The Financial Services Centre in Dublin could well be a beneficiary.

Nevertheless aggressively promoted Enterprise Zones / industrial estates in say Fishguard and Enniskillen where Corporation tax might be lower than in this state could become the stuff of nightmares in Dublin. Irish policy makers are going to have to start arranging their apples with great care.

In respect of the Apple finding…

….it is odd to find an unnamed official in the Department of Finance saying “Ireland did not give favourable tax treatment to Apple” and “Ireland does not do deals with taxpayers.” Well this may be true now, but on my book shelves I have copies of the Telesis report ” A review of Industrial Policy” dated February 1982, the Government white paper on “Industrial Policy” issued on 12 July, 1984. In view of recent events they make instructive reading, although it should naturally be borne in mind that only the latter was official government policy even at the time.

In the Telesis report we learn on p 190 that “the most distinctive feature of the apple-logo_318-40184Irish package [ of incentives ] is the exceptionally low ( 10% ) corporate tax rate for the manufacturing sector. This rate is in effect until the year 2000.” Earlier on the same page the report notes that “During the negotiations between a company and prospective countries for investment, bargaining is the rule. Some powerful companies will encourage countries to outbid each other in order to maximize the benefits derived from incentive schemes” The report concluded that the incentives offered by Ireland to foreign companies too generous.

The 1984 white paper which is in effect a response to the Telesis report notes that the “administrative and marketing headquarters of multi-national companies normally perform activities for other units within a group of companies and are not directly involved in the generation of profits. To improve the opportunities for attracting such activities to Ireland, the Revenue Commissioners will continue to give speedy advanced rulings on the allowability of certain costs to companies planning to set up their administrative and marketing headquarters in Ireland” ( p. 63 ) Does anyone really believe that the Revenue Commissioners, or rather, of course, the officials who worked for them, would not have been mindful of the potential economic benefits to Ireland as they evaluated the  potential tax liability that any particular company might face if it chose to locate some  of its operations in Ireland?

The White paper identified “information technology, including computer services” as a sector which it wanted to encourage in Ireland. “It is clear,” the White paper emphasised ” that the greatest potential for development is in information technology…information technology will be the fastest growing industry for the remainder of this century.” Consequently the Ministers of Industry, in consultation with the Minister for Communications, “and other appropriate Ministers, will report to Government at an early date on the future and development in this country of information technology services and the detailed steps necessary to that end” ( p.68 ). There is no indication of what these steps might be  ( although see 104 ) However elsewhere the White paper indicates that  executives of the Industrial Development Agency ” ( I.D.A. ) and other State agencies will develop a closer relationship with selected companies [ emphasis supplied ] and the full range of both financial and non- financial services will be directed towards the company’s key activities” ( p.112, see also p.111, also see Telesis p. 225, 229, 235 )

The White paper NEVER says that tax can be reduced for individual companies. However the Telesis report is more forth coming. In its discussion of “policies for attracting new foreign owned industry to Ireland” the report emphasises the fact that the incentives which the I.D.A.” can use to induce a company to locate in Ireland are varied and substantial.” It goes on to say that the attractions of the 10% tax rate is enhanced by the fact that it “can usually be reduced to a much lower level or eliminated altogether [ emphasis supplied ] through various depreciation and other tax credits.” On the same page ( p.173 ) the report stresses that attracting electronics companies to Ireland has been a particular concern of the I.D.A.

Taken together the Telsis Report and the White Paper paint a picture of  highly developed campaign to attract industry, and especially electronics companies to Ireland. in which grants and Ireland’s low tax rate were crucial. This process naturally involved the Revenue Commissioners if only because the companies concerned wanted to know how much tax they would pay if they set up here, as there was robust competition between  the various jurisdictions for example Scotland and Wales. The White paper makes it clear that the Revenue Commissioners were empowered to let companies know exactly what costs they could and could not write off against tax. The Telesis report adds that these write offs often, but not always meant, that the effective tax rate paid by the companies concerned was far below 10%.ireland_1

Nor can it be plausibly argued that these benefits were available to all companies equally. The Telesis notes that “creating and sustaining jobs in indigenous firms is far more difficult and expensive than doing so in foreign-owner firms” ( p.231 ) Consequently it is no surprise that both the Telesis report and the White paper make it clear that the policies of state aid that they favoured were selective. Not all companies were equal ( see Telesis, p 228 )  Foreign companies were favoured over domestic ones ( See, the White Paper, p 62-63 ) , and high tech over “screw driver” operations ( See, the White Paper, p. 36-37 ). I may be wrong, but so far as I can see nothing is said about the importance of increasing tax revenue. The whole thrust of Irish industrial policy at the time was- as the White Paper puts it – “the maximisation of value-added by industry and the capturing of this added value within Ireland for further investment and the creation of employment ( p.19 ) Ireland says the Telesis report “should respond more selectively by bidding very high on the really attractive projects [ such as Apple? ], and significantly lower on the bulk of potential projects” ( Telesis, p. 226 ) The report then goes on ( p.227 ) to describe the sort of project which it favoured.

And what of the EEC and its rules? Telesis ( p. 236 ) notes that the “EEC rules frown  [ Emphasis supplied ] upon grants for ongoing operating expenses and on subsidies directed only to indigenous but not foreign owner companies.” ( p. 236 ) And the gist of much of the next page is that because every body else was bending the rules – examples are given-  there was no reason why Ireland should not do so as well. The EEC rules were not seen as a major problem, although Irish policy makers were conscious of them. They seem to have been more nervous about the GATT rules and the OECD guidelines ( p.337 ).

Unless then there is convincing evidence to show that situation was radically less selective in 1990 when Apple arrived here, than what it had been in the eighties, it is, how best can I put it, easy to see why the authorities in Brussels might have been misled into thinking that Ireland did indeed do deals with tax payers, and that Apple, being the “powerful” company it was, might perhaps have been a beneficiary of such a transaction.

What, one wonders- would happen if the EU were to put some of our retried officials from ( say ) the Revenue Commissioners or the IDA under oath? The tale they told might be interesting.


The Temptation of Alan Hawe

christs-temptation-in-the-wilderness-montreal1-660x350The temptations of Christ in the wilderness mentioned by St Mark and described in the gospels of Luke and Mathew is an arresting part of the Christian message. It must of course have formed part of the early oral tradition of the Church if only because Luke and Mathew give the give the various temptations to which Jesus was subjected in different orders. It must either go back to what Jesus himself told his apostles, or be the result of some deep reflection by someone in the early church as he meditated on the internal moral challenges and temptations that he found himself subject to as he spread the Christian message.

Either way it is of extraordinary interest, and not just to Christians but to everyone who wants to understand the workings of the human mind, as we try to make sense of some of the horrifying news stories which this summer has been full. Even those who doubt the truth of Christianity should surely not ignore the fact that within the Christian tradition there is a huge body of wisdom about the difficulties that we face as human beings.

The first and most obvious point that emerges from the material in Luke and Mathew  about the temptations of Christ is its realistic understanding of human nature. The gospels see human life as being a series of struggles against the forces of evil. Humanity is beset on all sides. The misdirection of the human will is all pervasive. Here then is no optimistic enlightenment vision in which men will flourish if freed from external oppression. The structures may not help. Jesus was no uncritical admirer of the Roman Empire or the Jewish authorities. Far from it. But the real challenges are experienced within the human personality itself. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews ( almost certainly not St. Paul )  tells us that Jesus was tempted “in all points like we are yet without sin” ( Hebrews, iv, 15 ) There is then no exemption from temptation. We are all, even the best of us, whether we are liberals or conservatives, Jewish or Muslims, Shintoists or Sikhs, are faced with the possibility of getting it wrong. This, indeed, is a possibility that is inherent in our freedom. Error is the price we pay for choice.

The great merit of the account of the temptation in the wilderness is that it provides us with a map of the sort of temptation we are likely to face. It is a kind of summary of some of the  ways in which it is possible to crash out as a human being. We are all equally threatened with disaster. Of course we face many kinds temptations. There is nothing exhaustive about what is said here.  But the passages concerned focus on three particular forms which temptation can take. There is the temptation to materialism. There is the  temptation to misuse our religion. And there is the temptation to believe that we have the right to organize the lives of others. The temptation that is to act as if we are we alone are indispensable.

This last seems to have been the temptation to which Alan Hawe ( page23_hawe the teacher in Cavan who recently murdered his wife and their three children and then killed himself ) succumbed. In one of the notes he left behind “explaining”   ( if that is really the word) the atrocity, he wrote that his family would not be able to survive without him.

Of course this was utter nonsense. The bereaved do live on. But nonsense or not it was revealing nonsense. Somewhere within his mind was an appalling overestimate of his own importance. He was the centre of their lives. They  enjoyed no authentic existence without him. How can a decent man, and in some ways he seems to have been an exemplary human being, have come to believe this? Perhaps because his very sense of responsibility as a husband and a father had become in some strange, but all to human way, been corrupted.

Of course the rest of us will be able to congratulate ourselves with the comforting notion that we would never do anything so stupid and so evil. We would rather have died than do what he did…etc..But after we have patted ourselves on the back perhaps we should pause. How often have we made ourselves the centre of our world, and convinced ourselves that we are too are more important and wiser than is really the case?  Perhaps we should all remember the words of my late friend Maura Toler Aylward ( a very wise woman ) who pointed out that “ the grave yards of Ireland are full of indispensable people.”  Is there not perhaps a little of Alan Hawe within us all?

helplinesMay he and his family rest in peace.