Category Archives: Philosophy

Do your own research!

There’s nothing like someone telling you to do your own research to flag up that they don’t understand science. Or research. Or the internet. Research is something that takes time, evidence and scrutiny. It might be fairer to say ‘educate yourself’ if you’re trying to challenge someone – that’s often the response of weary activists faced with people who want stuff explaining to them. ‘Educate yourself’ is a good idea. ‘Do your own research’ is usually the expression of someone who is buying into drivel.

It is true that historically, people doing the cutting edge thinking were often reviled by their peers. You can find it in many different disciplines. However, there has been some learning from all of this – which is why we have peer review, why results are tested, why we question assumptions as much as we can. It is not the case that being a lone maverick, rejected by the wider community means that you must be right.

It doesn’t help that conspiracies certainly do exist – and in our recent history that’s meant covering up the harmful impact of sugar, smoking, and fossil fuels amongst other things. It is always worth asking who benefits, and where the money goes. Science, research and thinking all exist within a market economy and so much depends on what you can sell, and for how much, and who thinks it might be worth funding.

If you want to educate yourself, here are some things I can recommend.  Be wary of anyone making very confident claims about ‘facts’ – this is not the language of science and research. More cautious sites are more plausible. ‘The evidence suggests’ is the tone to look for. Ideally, any site offering you conclusions about research will offer links to the studies it refers to. They might be beyond your reading capacity, but often will have a summery that a non-expert (like me) can make some sense of.

It’s also worth checking out ‘experts’ by sticking their names in search engines. An actual expert will likely have a publishing record, and a bunch of people who agree and disagree with them, and you can quickly get a sense of how they are perceived. It is easy to announce that you are a professor at a leading university – I could tell you that I am. I’d be lying, and you could easily find that out, but only if you looked. If my argument was the one you wanted to hear, you might not feel like you had to check out my credentials.

We’re likely to be more persuaded by theories that fit our existing beliefs, and likely to reject ideas that don’t sit well in all of that. Pushing past that is hard. If you want to be on top of an issue, it might not mean you have to listen to all sides of the ‘argument’ especially if some of that is coming from unqualified people, based on misinterpretation or wilfully misleading. There aren’t always two real sides to a thing. Asserting that there should be a debate is not proof that there should be a debate. It is possible to be open minded, and able to change your mind, without having to be swayed by every ill-formed opinion. If you find you need to form an opinion on something important, don’t ‘do your research’, educate yourself about what’s going on.

Druidry and Justice

“And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it” is one of the lines from the Gorsedd prayer. Justice is very much a consideration for modern Druids. Unfortunately, righteous indignation and attention seeking along with other ego-orientated activities are all very tempting and can make performing as a giver of justice addictive. Real justice – restorative justice that actually makes things better – takes time and work. Using your power to attack someone else is easy, satisfying and unhelpful.

Justice is often complicated and requires taking the time to understand what’s happening. It’s easy to tell people off for appropriation, it takes a bit more time and effort to find out whether you are talking to people engaged in a living tradition that is part of their own culture. It’s all too easy to centre yourself and end up speaking over the people you are supposedly speaking for. This can result in misrepresentation, in hiding what the real problems are, and in creating bad feeling. People who feel we have to ban Christmas things so as not to offend minorities largely contribute to the prejudice against minorities, for example.

I recall one justice-preaching Druid a few years back who was blithely explaining that accessibility is all about building design, it’s not about problems in the bodies of disabled people. Except, if pain and fatigue are your main issues, you won’t make it to the building, or the late starting meeting. For some disabled people, what happens in their bodies is limiting and no amount of refitting a building will change that. Speaking over disabled people with an inaccurate story is really unhelpful.

There’s nothing like righteous anger to make a person feel powerful and important, and I’ve seen Druids doing their justice on these terms and it isn’t pretty. Standing up to someone, calling them out, telling them off – it can feel really powerful doing this. But, did you have more power than them all along? Did you come in on the right side? One of the most popular tricks abusers and bullies pull is to play the victim and enlist people to help them attack the person they have been mistreating. There is no justice if you are misled into helping a bully torment their victim.

Justice requires us to take the time, to listen and to understand. Start by policing your own behaviour. Look at your own words and deeds first. If you’re going to call people out, make sure you know what’s going on – don’t call out indigenous people for following their own paths. Don’t assume you can tell who someone is by looking – mixed race people exist and you won’t know who they are from a casual glance at a profile picture.

If something makes you angry, don’t act in the heat of that anger on a ‘justice’ crusade because the odds of getting it wrong are high. Take the time to reflect. Look at the situation properly. Think about what would be most helpful. So yes, call out your racist family members – you know what their background is. But be careful calling out people you don’t know when you also don’t know what’s going on. It is better to amplify the voices of people who are disempowered – it is a good and useful thing to do, and won’t mean you perpetuate misunderstandings. Listen, lift people, make space for them, encourage other people to listen. And if someone invites you to join a crusade against a person, look carefully at the evidence and the existing balances of power. Tread carefully.

If you care about justice, it has to come second to any desires you might have to feel powerful, or important or to put yourself centre stage.

What is a child?

What we think a child is will inform how we treat them, how we teach them, and relate to them. What we think children are, and what we think childhood means is intrinsically wrapped up with what we think humans are.

There are those who see all children as innocent, and those for whom children are monstrous little barbarians who have to be humanised and civilized. Here the science is fairly clear. Children by nature have a pretty good sense of fair play (sorry, no links, but this stuff isn’t hard to find).  It appears that the more selfish and unpleasant behaviours are the learned ones, not the innate ones.

However, if we believe children are uncivilized monsters by nature, what we have to do to ‘break them in’ and tame them becomes an issue. This doesn’t tend to go with gentle, child-centred learning. It does tend to go with colonial mindsets and beliefs that ‘uncivilized’ people are inferior.

When it comes to education, it’s been popular to think that children are blank slates, or empty vessels and that filling the child with ideas is the job of the educator. This isn’t supported by the available evidence – children absorb impressions and ideas from the moment of arrival in the world and by the time they get to school they definitely aren’t empty vessels. They learn naturally through messing about and exploration – something the entire western approach to education ignores in favour of making them sit still and learn to do as they are told.

One of the most pernicious stories about childhood is that children do not know what they want or need and must have adults make those decisions for them. A child who is allowed to develop and hold opinions will have no trouble doing so. A child who is never allowed to learn through their own mistakes or evolve personal preferences won’t know how to do that. It’s not about what children are capable of, in this area, it’s about what they are allowed.

Do we think children need to be punished for mistakes, or educated to do better? Do we raise them to be questioning free thinkers, or do we want them to be quiet and obedient? Do we consider them capable of genuine malice? Do we look at their behaviour and ask where they have learned it? Do we think they should be sitting down quietly or do we think they belong outside? Do we assume they will automatically be natural in nature, or might they need some guidance?

It is so easy to project personal values and assumptions onto children. They aren’t well placed to resist. They are malleable and informed by their environments, so what adults decide is true and real for them can be imposed and made real, often. Treat a child like a monster, and you may well end up with a monster. Or a child who is anxious and can’t function properly. Treat a child like they can’t think for themselves and they won’t learn how to and you’ll get teenagers who cannot function. Treat a child like they can do things and they will – there’s a great deal of evidence from indigenous peoples around this one.

A child is not an empty thing waiting to be filled or shaped by adults. When we treat them like people, they have a much better time of it.

Seeing the future

One of the best tests of any information source is how well it predicts the future. This might seem obvious when thinking about divination, but it applies to all forms of knowledge. I think this is highly relevant at the moment as we have so many beliefs and opinions dominating conversations. I remember when the idea of the UK leaving the Single Market and Kent becoming a lorry park were labelled ‘project fear’ only now that seems to be happening…

Predicting the future is of course a tricksy business, and the future is full of surprises. No one really predicted this virus malarkey. However, the international vulnerability to a pandemic was known – the way we travel, the lack of joined up thinking between countries and the way we invade wild spaces where new diseases are lurking, were all known factors suggesting a particular trajectory.

The thing to watch for is how close your knowledge gets you to being able to make useful predictions. If your knowledge source doesn’t take you in roughly the right direction, what you’ve got isn’t knowledge, it’s a belief, an opinion, a fantasy. When you’re really invested in something that doesn’t match up with reality, putting it down can be really hard.

When it comes to prayer, and magic there may be other factors to consider. Are you getting what you asked for, or are you getting what you need? What time frames are you working on? Do you need more practice? In fact that practice question is pertinent across all areas – if you’re trying to study the world in a rational way to predict what will happen, that also requires skills and knowledge and it may take you time to get it right. Knowing where to push to make the changes you want is a big part of getting anything done, and that might not be apparent at first.

There’s a lot to be said for cross-referencing between different kinds of knowledge. Intuition certainly isn’t an irrational source – we take in far more information than we can consciously process, so what rises up from intuition can be a consequence of processing information. The trick is telling between intuition, wishful thinking and fear. Here again the cross referencing helps because information from other sources can clarify which is which, and over time you can build a  better sense of what is emotional reaction and what is processed information.

Misguided beliefs and opinions don’t allow us to make good predictions. The longer we hold on to  them, the more distorted our relationship with reality becomes. That means having to create ever more complicated stories to explain why what we ‘know’ and perceived reality aren’t matching up. That way lies madness. However unsettling it is to put down a belief, it can be far better to do so than to build layer upon layer of cognitive dissonance. There should be no shame in making mistakes or trying things that don’t work – the important bit is knowing when to give up on an experiment in light of the evidence it generates.

A good death

She was old, her time had certainly come. She died at home, quietly and in her own time, in the company of people who loved her. It was a good death. We did well.

I don’t think we talk enough about good deaths. We’re quick to offer condolences when people die, but we don’t congratulate them on having done a good job for their families, and loved ones, and I think we should. I’ve started doing it.

That’s led me to thinking a lot about what constitutes a good death. First and foremost it is the freedom to die on your own terms. That often means getting to do so at home and with the people you love. Not always though – best not to assume. When we’re talking about death, we should talk about whether people got to die in a manner that they would have found acceptable. It’s a good thing to ask – that you hope they had a good death on their own terms.

When a person gets to die is obviously a big issue. When accident and illness takes someone who is too young, it can be hard to accept that as a good death. It may in fact be a bloody awful death and need identifying on those terms. Not all deaths are good. To honour the good deaths we must also acknowledge the terrible ones. To suffer greatly, to experience humiliation to be undignified and denied what you want at the end of your life is to have a really bad death. To go suddenly but to leave well has some redeeming features.

What we’ve done in our lives to that point, no matter how old we are, will frame our deaths. To live well is a significant contributor to having a good death. To have lived fully, to have loved and done good things with whatever time you had, to have been loved, to have had rich experiences – no matter when you go, with this kind of life, you can die well.

She was nineteen, which is old for a cat. Some cats like to go off and hide, but she didn’t, she was very clear about wanting us with her. As she started to fade in the morning she was still calling out to us for fuss and responding to being stroked and cuddled. We stayed with her, taking it in turns to sit with her on our laps. James sang her the many songs he has mangled to turn into cat praise songs. She faded gently, and was in no pain so far as we could tell, for most of that process. When death came, it was quick and she was on Tom’s lap.

It’s the best we could have done for her. Tiggy had a happy 2 years with us, and a good death. We will all miss her greatly, but there is nothing to regret in all of this.

What is love?

It might be more obvious to talk about love in terms of emotion, but it’s a subject I think benefits from a more philosophical approach. What is love? A body chemistry event that gives us the desire to seek pleasure with another person. The chemical bonding effect that enables us to parent small children. It is easy to reduce love to evolutionary functions.

We tell stories in which love is rare and scarce and you are supposed to only really love the one person, forever. We can choose to love. We can choose who and what to invest in emotionally – people, places, creatures, ideas, objects… there are no limits on how diversely we can love or how much we can love. There are limits on the time we have to deploy, but that’s all.

Love as a feeling can just evaporate, especially if we treat it as something that happens by magic. When love is what we choose to do, it doesn’t mysteriously go away, because we do things that sustain it. The everyday choice to love brings feelings of love to a person in a way that they have a lot of control over.

The stories we tell about love tend to focus on events and drama. In practice, love has far more to do with the small, everyday choices. It’s what we do in our lives. It’s how we approach other people, or places, or beings. Love is taking your litter home and picking up someone else’s. Love is what we have when we take care of each other and make a point of being kind to each other. Love is the decision to invest time, care and energy somewhere – and that can include ourselves. There’s certainly nothing wrong with including our own bodies, lives and feelings in how we take care and put kindness into the world.

You don’t have to be able to love yourself to love others – that’s a lie that kicks people who are already down. But, one of the things you can do for the sake of love is model how you want people to live, and not beating yourself up can be a gift you give to others. If people care about you, then taking care of yourself is an act of kindness to them. When we make networks and communities of kindness and mutual support, we hold each other, lift each other and help each other.

Love in moments of drama can seem intense and important. Without the day to day stuff, it is more fantasy than reality.

The right to make mistakes

For me, there is a world of difference between carelessness and needful mistakes. To get something wrong because you weren’t paying attention, is negligent and people should be held to account for that kind of thing. However, an honest mistake is a different consideration. An honest mistake comes from acting on insufficient information, most usually, or as a consequence of not having fully developed some relevant skill.

Without the freedom to make mistakes, it is difficult to learn anything. Only when we can make mistakes do we have room to explore and experiment. It’s not always obvious what will work, or what will suit us. Maybe you don’t know what kind of job you should have, or whether you should live in a yurt, or if you’ve found the perfect person to spend your life with. When we judge people harshly for making life choices and then regretting them, what we’re telling each other is that we shouldn’t take risks, move outside our comfort zones or do anything unfamiliar.

If you are drawn to the most obvious way of life and want the kind of job a five year old can understand, then it’s ok to go through life never making mistakes.  If your soul’s calling is a branch of the sciences that you didn’t even hear of until your thirties, how are you to know? If your yearnings are for something unusual, you may not have words for your desires, or any idea of what you crave until you encounter it in person. It is hard to make good life choices when you’ve never seen the thing that you will turn out to most want.

The narrower your life and experiences are, the less chance you will have at making good choices. The more diversely you experience, the more scope you will have for knowing what you want before you have to make firm decisions about it. If you live surrounded by people who are free to make mistakes and explore possibilities, you’ll know a lot more about your own options. If the people around you don’t feel allowed to make mistakes, you’ll see far fewer options playing out and you won’t know what might be available to you.

Too often, we frame integrity as consistency over time. We don’t allow ourselves to change in light of new information and experience. You can think you are one thing, or want one thing, and only find out that was a mediocre choice for you when you run into a real alternative. We also need the space to go off things. No one should be tied to their early choices. Consistency might make us more predictable and less work for each other, but freedom to change allows us to grow.  The choices we make when we are young may not be right for older versions of ourselves, and being able to let those go as mistakes and move on, is really helpful.

A mistake is not a failure. It’s a point a change, an insight and an opportunity. Mistakes can be where we learn most about who we are and what we want. Freedom  to admit when things didn’t work and to go on and make new and different mistakes, is truly liberating. I do not think our integrity lies in our consistency, but in our commitment to finding what we most need to be and how we should live. It shouldn’t come down to a handful of early choices. Life should be more of an adventure than that.

Wildness and culture

Often, the wilderness is represented as the enemy of, or the opposite of human civilization and culture.  This is, I think, one of the notions that underpins our dysfunctional western cultures and that can be blamed for a lot of our destructive thinking.

All too often, the desire for human civilization becomes the desire for power over the natural world. That in turn becomes an inclination to make everything unnatural – straighten out the rivers, plant the trees in rows, grow vast monocultures, and so forth. We cut the grass at the side of the road because we tell ourselves it looks tidier. What we’ve decided is ‘neat’ and therefore desirable, is stale and predictable.

When we make environments based on the desire to be tidy and in control, we make places that are harmful to humans. We don’t thrive in our austere urban spaces. Our mental health is improved by the presence of trees. We find solace in flowing water and flourishing plants.

Culture doesn’t thrive on sterility either. The best that we do as humans is more complex, and does not grow naturally in straight lines either. Poetry and art, music and extreme maths, philosophy and ethics, science and technology – our most creative thinking is not best served by our most sterile and limited impulses.

So, why do we do it? Why do we force our cities and lives into rigid forms that hurt us? Who benefits from having both people and the landscape under this kind of control? Most of us do not benefit. Most of us are made poorer by this process that has been with us for some hundreds of years.

Straight lines are efficient.  Tidy minds are less likely to have the inspiration for a revolution.

Our environments shape who we are. There is plenty of evidence now to make it clear that we are better, happier and healthier people when we live with trees. And yet we make tree-less environments that bring out the worst in us. And as those environments shape us we become the kind of people who live in empty, lifeless spaces and make straight lines out of our lives.

The wilderness was never the enemy of culture. Wildness is the rich soil in which human civilizations grow and flourish. I wonder how much our collective obsession with tidiness and control is a symptom of a dying civilization. We’ve been harming ourselves in this way for a long time now. Little wonder that so many of us have no idea how to live, and little desire to act in ways that would make life more viable.

Learning to Float

Sometimes life delivers such dramatic rites of passage that ahead of them, even if you know they are coming, it is hard to imagine who you will be on the far side.  Sometimes these things come along as a surprise, and the enormity of the threshold isn’t visible until you cross over it. Where these thresholds are can turn out to be very personal.

The good transformations can be just as startling and hard to process as the traumatic ones. It’s easy to forget this, and to end up flailing around a bit in the aftermath of good things.

My useful analogy for this is learning to float. Floating is very natural for the human body, we do it quite easily. But, if you’ve never let go and persuaded the water to hold your body up, floating is mystery. You don’t know how that feels until you do it. There is a line to cross between not floating, and floating.  I think floating in water is a really magical, wonderful thing, but I came to it late. I started learning to swim aged eleven and I was afraid of the water and it took a long time to learn to trust it to hold me.

Just because something is natural doesn’t mean we will find it easy and automatic. Our bodies are mostly predisposed towards movement and communication, but we still have to learn how to do those things.  We’ve evolved for sexual reproduction but dear Gods sex is complicated for many of us and does not come naturally and needs figuring out. And may be a lot like learning how to float.

If something is supposedly natural but does not come naturally to you, I invite you to remember learning to swim. And if you can’t swim, it still works because naturally floating hasn’t come naturally to you either. This is ok. I think mostly what it means is that a lot of people don’t notice their own learning processes so assume many things are easier than they really are.

It’s good to make room to honour the thresholds and the rights of passage. Our  conventions around rites of passage are perhaps too focused on pairing up, breeding and dying. Along the way there are many thresholds and life initiations, many opportunities for transformation and unimaginable change. The more attention we can pay to those, the better.

Druidry and time, continued

This is my second blog post contemplating a druidic relationship with time. The first one is here –

About ten years ago I had a run of experiences that caused me to focus very much on day to day life. Things that mattered greatly to me seemed unviable, or that I was threatened with losing. It was a frightening time, but, all I could do was take it day by day. Although things were hard, that day by day focus on gratitude, appreciation and making the very best I could of what I did have got me through and taught me a lot.

All the important stuff eventually worked out in the way I needed it to, as an aside.

The legacy from that time remains with me.  It taught me a lot about how to think about life. It taught me how precious the small things are, and how you never get the time back and how important it is to celebrate and honour what you have right now.

This is more of a seize the day philosophy than a live in the moment approach. It was impossible to live in the moment with the future so uncertain and so fearful. But it was possible to dig into each day as much as I could, to relish the best bits and make the best of what I had. I never lost sight of the bigger picture, but I focused a lot on the details of everyday life. And I learned that most of the important stuff is made out of those details anyway.

Whether we accept it or not, our relationships with time bring us a lot of uncertainty. You never really know how long you will have with a person, in a place, a job or anything else. I’ve found along the way that I regret things I didn’t do far more than I regret the mistakes I made. Life doesn’t always give second chances, so when I can, I jump in with both feet.  It’s important to recognise the uncertainty, I think. Important not to put off opportunities that might never come again and to recognise how brief and fragile life is. And then to engage with it as much as possible on a day to day basis. Take it as it comes, love it in its smallest parts.

I’m a big fan of doing little or nothing. Time spent on not much can be time very well spent. The one to watch for is when you’re filling in the time, or worse yet, killing time, when you aren’t really engaged with what you are doing.

I don’t think there’s any specific philosophy about time that is more innately druidic than any other, only to value what we get, to make the most of it in whatever way makes most sense to you. Whatever your relationship with time is, make it conscious. Choose it. Live it. Even if you have a wider belief that gives you all the time in the universe, this moment is precious and will never come in quite the same way again,