Amoeba Proteus

The amoeba is a single cell, protozoal life form. In evolutionary terms it is primitive, but it is in no way simple. The manner of its integration has not been fathomed by scientists, and laying bare its genome would not bring much advance in that direction. (Genome – the sequence of nucleotide bases in DNA which provide the information to synthesise specific proteins). Not only do amoebae reproduce asexually by mitotic (binary) fission, but sexually through one amoeba fusing with another, which leads to mixing of their DNA and separation of it through a form of cellular division called meiosis. This causes a refreshing of the genetic composition of the descendants. Without sexual reproduction, genetic information would have been gradually lost through exposure of DNA to thermal energy and amoebae would have long ago become extinct.

This poem is an attempt to express my wonder at the amoeba’s complex existence.

anonymous monastery of the raw state
sentient struggle at first light

between yes and no
the pallid hues of restlessness and doubt

like and dislike
forward back

vivid fleeting moment
captured if at all as disposition

close folding fusion
muddy rejuvenation of taste and touch

sexual immolation
and sortilege

Human Behaviour

There are no exact sciences of human behaviour. Economics, criminology, sociology, and the various branches of psychology are amenable to study through observation, data collection and statistics but the results are invariably subject to interpretation and experts differ without being able to resolve their differences through critical experiments.
The human world is less predictable than the physical world. Very few can make fortunes backing horses or investing in the stock exchange. It is impossible to predict with certainty re-offending behaviour in the criminally insane. This problem was captured for all time by a former medical superintendent of Broadmoor Hospital who observed ‘We all know that half the patients in Broadmoor could be released, the trouble is we don’t know which half. Patrick McGrath was the Medical Superintendent and I met him as a young psychiatrist when I visited the hospital.

There is a particularly valuable generalisation which arises from these limitations in our understanding expressed as Goodhart’s Law. My preferred way of expressing this is ‘Any robust statistical pattern breaks down when people rely on it for forecasting.’ Reductionists think this is to do with the great complexity of human beings, because they think everything, in principle, can be reduced to physics. This is an astonishing dogma. In fact it is to do with volition or intentional behaviour. If we were in a deterministic straitjacket (or indeed a random and unpredictable world), why would not human history be as monotonous as history on the moon.


Although I had stopped adding to my blog and have produced a book based on it, I thought I would add this poem I wrote yesterday. It is rather a case of other men’s flowers but perhaps has some merit. It was prompted by walking the coastal path in Cornwall near the Lizard, and also by reading the poem Coast Path by Matthew Barton in his superb recent collection, DUSK.


In his poem Coast Path,  Matthew writes of a kestrel 
wings outstretched, motionless on the wind,
which he sees as he looks down
from the cliff path where he walks.
When I reached ‘it was still as belief’ I too stopped.

Later I thought, such a simple phrase
any writer might have happened on it -
but perhaps more likely would have found 
‘strong’ or ‘steady as belief’ which are
not the same because not for ever.

It’s our death-in-life craving for the absolute,
Yeats’s ‘images that… fresh images beget’,
Rilke’s ‘In the end there is only one poet,
that infinite one who makes himself felt…
in a mind which can surrender to him’,

and Beethoven writing on the score
of what is his last complete work 
’Must it be? - It must be!’
His difficult life, a backward glance -
YES to all of it.  

Marking Time – the collected blog

Marking Time: Thought and Poetry During the Pandemic is now available in softback, bringing together in one beautiful volume reflections on amongst other topics creativity, psychosis, free will, measured and experienced time. Certain names reoccur: Shakespeare, Kant, Wittgenstein, Auden, and extracts from Rilke’s sonnets translated by David Cook enhance and elucidate. Cook’s own poetry reflects on hope, love, solitude, music.

I try to travel with hope and a sense of how little we know

Marking Time: Thought and Poetry During the Pandemic

240 pages ISBN 978-1-83847-261-0 £12.50

To obtain your copy order direct from me, David Cook, through your local bookshop or at Amazon.

Published by Stephen Morris, August 2021



This is the last entry of this, my blog. Its contents will provide the substance of a book to be published later this year, 2021.

In March 1955, after learning of the death in Geneva of Michele Besso, his close friend for almost sixty years, Einstein wrote a letter of condolence to the family. It included this: ‘Now he has left this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. For us believing physicists the distinction between past, present and future only has the meaning of an illusion, though a persistent one.’ Einstein died the following month. To me, Einstein comes across as one of the more rounded and socially well adjusted of the great physicists, and so I tend to regard the letter’s statement as expressive of his sombre mood as he faced his own imminent death, and also perhaps as having the intention of comforting his friend’s widow. The tone is fatalistic, but as a younger man he did not come across in that way. Although a decidedly solitary thinker, he led a life which, as far as one can judge, was both full and fully engaged in the concerns of the rest of mankind.

Shakespeare in The Tempest gives notice of his retirement as a playwright through the elegiac speeches of Prospero. Although he was about fifty when he wrote it, he probably recognised that death was not too far away. There is a mood of resignation and acceptance in the great speech concluding ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made of, and our little life is rounded with a sleep’, and an echo of the Lord’s prayer in the epilogue. I would like to suggest, although my opinion is unverifiable, that Prospero’s remark ‘every third thought shall be my grave’ is Shakespeare’s pious remembrance of his two living daughters and his dead son, Hamnet.

The time of physics and the time of experience are very different. In order to ask, as some physicists are apt to do, ‘Is time real?’, we must forget our own mortality, something which, beyond a certain age, we can rarely do for long. And yet the fear of death is exceeded by the horror of the prospect of suffering through an indefinitely prolonged embodied existence. Perhaps more selflessly, many have yearned for an intuition of timeless relatedness to those whom they have loved. We are bound to admit, that such a vision of reciprocity is unimaginable, unless through a leap of faith or mystical experience.

In the final volume of À la recherche du temps perdu, Proust describes a complex revelatory experience which is twofold: that the meaning of his life is to write a book, and that the past is alive within him, including a continuing connection with those whom he had loved. He analyses the latter aspect – his intense experience of involuntary memory triggered by the senses in the following words:-

“But let a noise or scent, once heard or once smelt, be heard or smelt again in the present and at the same time in the past, real without being actual, ideal without being abstract, and immediately the permanent and habitually concealed essence of things is liberated and our true self. . . which had long seemed to be dead is awakened and reanimated as it receives the celestial nourishment that is brought to it. A minute freed from the order of time, has re-created in us, to feel it, the man freed from the order of time.”

Proust goes on to observe that such a feeling cannot be sustained for long, because it consists of fragments of existence withdrawn from Time. 

One can find other remarks about the sense of the ineffability present in certain experiences in Rilke, Kafka and T.S.Eliot. I will conclude with this from Kafka:

“Man cannot live without a permanent trust in something indestructible within himself, though both the indestructible something and his own trust in it may remain permanently concealed from him.”

If you’d like a copy of my forthcoming book or any other of my books drop me a line at: david.cook34@btinternet.com More details appear here: https://davidcookpoet.com/published-work/

Consciousness, self, soul

De Anima is the Latin title of Aristotle’s book about the soul or psyche. The less well known Greek title is Peri Psyches. We still wrestle with this concept, or if we don’t we should. Charles Sherrington, the great physiologist wrote The Integrative Action of the Nervous System, and although his methods were that of an experimental scientist he saw that a dynamic synthesis was implied in the neurological organisation which underpinned responses to environmental challenges. In later life, in his Gifford Lectures, published as Man on his Nature, he explored the limitations of the scientific method, and the wonder of the neurological loom (his metaphor), which weaves patterns in space and time. And yet consciousness resisted explanation. He was a broadly educated and thoughtful man who ended like Max Planck meditating on the wonder and complexity of the material world and the limitations of scientific method in providing answers to what most deeply concerns us.
I have long sensed philistinism or a lack of inwardness behind materialistic and reductionist creeds. One would like to hear people with such views discuss the tragedies of Shakespeare or the gradual degradation and moral collapse of Baron Charlus during the great arc of Proust’s roman fleuve. I also fear for how a materialistic philosophy may be used to justify the expediency of political despots in making their citizens objects of state technology to enhance central control. So it is good to remember the great scientists who remained humble before the mysteries of the natural world, and the striving that has given us human civilisation. The twentieth century gave us particularly pure and evil forms of state tyranny. The humanities need to be cherished as expressions of human values, not parodied as tools of state propaganda
The massive complexity of the brain, and the singularity (no doubt imperfect) of consciousness should give us pause. One might say that an analogy would be the simplicity of television picture with all the enabling electronic wizardry completely invisible. But this is wrong. Without a sentient creature looking at the screen there would be no image, just an abstract pattern. Without sentience, neither coherence nor meaning. And without a sentient creature inventing it, there would be no electronic wizardry tailored to our perceptual attributes. Or more simply there would be no reflection in a mirror without a sentient point of view looking into it.
Consciousness and neural activity are incommensurate. What does this mean? It means there is a gulf between two descriptions which is unbridgeable. Einstein put it aphoristically, ‘Not everything that counts can be counted.’ Or experience cannot be reduced to number.
Consciousness could have no conceivable role in a person who was a very complicated machine. It would be as though a person was swept along by natural forces while consciousness watched on helplessly, having no point of purchase in the physical world. The obvious role for consciousness is to enable us to exercise choice between possibilities. Martin Gardner in his essay ‘The Mystery of Free Will’ expresses it thus : ‘Free will, in my opinion, is another name for self-awareness or consciousness. I cannot conceive of one without the other.’
Einstein made this remark for which I have found no adequate analysis: ‘God does not care about our mathematical difficulties. He integrates empirically’. We know that Einstein did not believe in a personal God, but that he was attracted to the philosophy of Spinoza. Spinoza is usually described as a pantheist and here is a condensed proof he offered of the existence of God. No two substances share an attribute. One substance (God) has infinite attributes. It follows that the existence of that one infinite substance contains all attributes and precludes all other substances.’ He also said ‘That eternal or infinite being we call God or Nature, acts from the same necessity from which he exists.’ This is heady stuff and not many of us think like this today. But there is no doubt Einstein used the word God as a way of expressing his wonder at the sense of design in the Universe. So what was Einstein expressing? Perhaps that Nature unfolds unhesitatingly, coherently and without effort. But does the notion of God/Nature integrating empirically suggest something more? To me it suggests something like the phrase in the Four Quartets, ‘In my beginning is my end’, or that integration is a creative unfolding or revealing.
Some other observations about consciousness. The brain is a necessary condition of human consciousness, but it is not a sufficient condition. There must be an external world to which it is attuned, for it to achieve its full potential over time. Why is the world attuned to the brain? Perhaps not because brain arises from world, but rather because both have a common origin. And I would follow Kant in saying there are a priori conditions of experience, even if he did not reveal them satisfactorily despite his labours. Peirce’s insight that mentality, intentionality, measurement, meaning depend on irreducibly triadic relationships must be part of those a priori conditions of experience. And Heidegger’s intuition of the beginning of all sentient beings in Being, suggests monism can be preserved in an account of becoming which is decidedly neither deterministic nor random. Then becoming may indeed be described as held in the womb of time

Consciousness and Self-consciousness

At the age of forty I read for the first time William James’ Principles of Psychology or to be accurate large parts of it. As a practising psychiatrist I was surprised that no one had mentioned it to me before, because it is a masterful study, and the chapters on Habit, The Consciousness of Self, Association, Instinct and Will made a particular impact on me.
For those who suppose that conceptual analysis is an occupation for the dilettante, I can do no better than quote this wonderful sentence from it: ‘How then, inside the minimal pulse of experience, which taken as object is change of feeling, and taken as content, is feeling of change, is realised that absolute and essential self-transcendency which we swept away as an illusion when we sought it between a content taken as a whole and a supposed objective thing.’ ( I feel bound to add that I think this insight was Kant’s too, but James has made it much more accessible by the clarity with which he expresses it.
It shows very succinctly that all experience is two sided, there is the awareness of content and the awareness of the awareness of content, however dim this latter might be. We lack the french reflexive verbs, but not the experience of reflexivity. We are right to suppose that the acquisition of language has propelled humans far beyond animals in their capacity to reflect. Who has seen an animal sitting and thinking? They are capable of some reflection but not abstract thought. For instance a cat will assess whether it is able to make a big leap before attempting it, and a dog hesitate before declining to jump into a cold lake. These are examples of self-consciousness, if scarcely approaching the anguished self-doubt of Hamlet.
Two modern contributions, that have deservedly attracted attention in my opinion, are Thomas Nagel’s paper ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ (1974) and David Chalmers’ ‘Facing up to the problem of consciousness’ (1995). The latter building on Nagel’s definition that consciousness is the feeling of what it is to be something, describes the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ as the inadequacy of offered explanations about how consciousness is manifested from matter, and how considerations of information processing in sensory systems simply does not bridge this gap. Materialists, of course, believe that progressive refinement of neurophysiological techniques will eventually decompose the problem into small pieces, and it will disappear. To me this offends both logical and common sense. I regard it as a category mistake.
We now rightly feel that dualism, a physical and mental stuff interacting, just does not work. Monism has the attraction of intellectual economy and elegance, but is everything ultimately mind or matter? Panpsychism, (or perhaps William James’ Neutral Monism) offers another way, but in my opinion explains too much to be intellectually satisfying. After all it is difficult to see what consciousness or intentionality would add to the activity of a sub-atomic particle although perhaps it is less of a particle and more a cloud of unknowing, than we are easily able to imagine. In the end I withhold judgement on panpsychism.
But I do feel that when we think about consciousness we are starting at the wrong end. For instance the wonderfully minute and exact descriptions of the movement of the human psyche in Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Proust and Kafka are pinnacles of human achievement. Under the scientific examination of the brain, this subtle universe is flattened out into neuronal activity, and all meaning is lost. As I said in an earlier post, with the deterministic spectacles on what is holy in life disappears. To put it another way, machines cannot think because they cannot feel. Without feeling nothing has meaning, of which the most primitive axis is perhaps pleasant/unpleasant or yes/no.
In the following post, I shall consider the millions of neuronal impulses present in the brain at any one instant and the singularity of an instant of consciousness/self- consciousness.


Why is representative democracy the best form of government? Because it treats each adult as responsible and self-determining. If an individual transgresses, in other words is seriously anti-social, the State may punish in a proprtionate way, which is subject to public scrutiny. Such a grown up arrangement may allow human flourishing, but democracies can decay and lose their sense of purpose. The arts provide a barometer of where a Nation stands in relation to itself and others. It seems to me that all is not well in Western democracies, and while totalitarian regimes show an impressive ability to get things done, the old human rights’ problems are as apparent as ever. I have no answers, but here is a short poem which reflects my disquiet.

The past world is perfect: a grammatical trope, 
but I doubt if those oldies who stare 
out of sepia photographs in flamboyant hats 
were either much better or worse than us.
Along with horrors like Ozymandias and Genghis Khan,
their projects are forgotten, rotted with them in the earth.

Sobering that those who get power today 
will have bespoke means to help them.
State eyes will serve the State ego, everywhere unobtrusive,                                   intelligence be detailed though hard to interpret,
paranoia be rampant. Was Stalin worse than Henry the Eighth? 
With a nod or a signature the dead piled up higher.

What I believe

Fifteen years ago I wrote a short piece, ‘What I Believe’. I reproduce it here, and an afterthought prompted largely by the experience of the last year.
My most basic intuition is that I am not here on Earth just to have a good time. My relationships with others lay on me obligations, which I acknowledge but am not always strong-minded enough to discharge. So arising out of my intuition is my belief that I am self-determining or have free will. However I have never found an intellectually satisfying account of free will and find phrases such as ‘unmoved mover’ and ‘transcendental ego’ unhelpful. I am left with the sense that the essential nature of human beings transcends their ability to reason about it. In recent years I have become more aware of the link between the free will question and the nature of consciousness. I can express this succinctly in the rhetorical question ‘What possible role could be assigned to consciousness in an externally determined being?’
Our existential aloneness (possibly not experienced so intensely by those whose lives in extended families or tribes) is manifested by individual physical separateness from all other beings in space and from an earlier self or selves in time. Certain mystical experiences suggest that the sense of aloneness can be annulled at least for short periods. I choose to believe that such experiences may at least sometimes represent insight rather than wishful thinking.
In a world of change is anything substantial? What of my identity for instance? If everything in the phenomenal world is adjectival, what is being qualified? I have difficulty with the word God, but in a world of flux there must be anchorage points for knowledge to be possible. What is a thing, organism, person seem important philosophical questions to me.
It shakes me still to realise how much, as a child, I dreaded the possibility of the early deaths of my parents. In the event they both lived past my fiftieth year. Now that they are dead, and I miss them deeply, I am able to face the notion that we will never be reunited. Everything changes and yet I believe beyond all evidence that in some sense nothing important is lost. Perhaps Plato was right, what are most real are the Platonic forms which are transpersonal and outside time. But I agree with Wittgenstein that what we cannot think, we cannot say either.
I appeal to intuition – we go to great Art for truth:
Mozart (especially Figaro) and Charlie Parker (especially the Dial and Savoy recordings) increase my awareness of sensuous beauty. The joy of being alive but tinged with melancholy – the knowledge of the transience of physical perfection. This is also perceptible in the poetry of Keats and the painting of Watteau. All four died young.
Shakespeare’s tragedies, Beethoven’s late string quartets, Michelangelo’s sculpture speak to me of the potential grandeur of human existence, its agony and triumph, in a word its sublimity.
Goethe’s remark, ‘Character is formed in the full current of life, genius in lonely places’ has great resonance for me. Through these contrary impulses each of us forges a unique outlook on life. My vision is characterised by my recognition of human wickedness, and less commonly human goodness. My need for a consoling faith and inability to find one is a daily reality, despite which I am extremely grateful to be alive. I am conscious of deep flaws in my humanity, which must I suspect, prevent me seeing further than I do. I see great potential value for myself in wordless meditation and from time to time I am troubled by a sense of guilt. At these times I find T.S. Eliot’s phrase ‘the purification of the motive in the ground of our beseeching’ has enormous power. I also wonder that a saying as remarkable as ‘ Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God’ could ever have been conceived at all, although strictly speaking I should say it exceeds what is sayable.

To which fifteen years later I would add this. After a year of pandemic, I might have expected to find some time to meditate more intensively than I have ever done before. This has not happened. What has happened is that I have once again wrestled with philosophical problems largely with the aid of a map provided by Kant’s thought. But philosophical thought is for me a propaedeutic: if the thought is sound, it should lead towards spiritual awareness and the unsayable. The imperatives that drive our most weighty and transformative decisions have origins as obscure as the beginning of the world. They challenge the dogma of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which we should think about very much harder than we seem to. The banal philosophy of Scientism rests on its lazy assumption.

Covid Blues

It has been a long dreary winter, but my wife, Susan and I had our second AZ jabs today, for which we are very grateful. We are looking forward to meeting up with friends very soon. Here is a lighthearted poem which takes the opportunity to steal a Russian proverb I like for the penultimate line.

The view from my window, 
a ragged field of six acres, 
is no more connected to my life 
than Iceland or Patagonia.

It was brown through January,
radical green in March,
and at Easter primroses
broke cover beneath the hedges.
I won't assimilate any of it. 
It's incidental to my appetites:
'To live a life is not to cross a field',
to live a life is music, laughter, friends.


If there is one book which seeded the thought of this blog it was Hannah Arendt’s Life of the Mind which I read in 2018 and then again the following year. I found its breadth invigorating and deeply regretted that it was unfinished when she died. To my surprise Arendt, whilst she is always respectful of Heidegger within the text, reveals herself to be a neo-Kantian, at least in my reading of the book. I also learnt that she was friendly with Auden whom she refers to once or twice, which further recommended the book to me. Her book does not so recommend itself to everyone. Mary Warnock in her anthology, Women Philosophers, describes the book as grandiose. So much the worse for the Oxford analytical tradition, was my reaction.
There was one insight in Arendt’s book which enriched my understanding of Kant’s moral philosophy. Kant’s discussion of ethics takes place at such a level of abstraction that I always felt troubled by his appeal to reason in explaining what the Categorical Imperative concretely insists we are required to do when we are confronted by any moral dilemma. For me ‘the the moral law within’ was complicated by psychological angst, the uniqueness of existential questions which suggest that there may be exceptions, however infrequently, to statements such as ‘Thou shalt not kill’ or ‘Thou shalt not steal’. Novelists like Dostoevsky are adept at exploring such issues by way of concrete examples. Arendt, in the unfinished final part of the book, suggests a way of accommodating this modern diffidence by referring to Kant’s third Critique, The Critique of Judgement. Here Kant distinguishes determinative from reflective judgement. Determinative judgements present no philosophical problems. There are empirical procedures for resolving doubt. For example, it may be unclear to which phylum a small organism belongs, but microscopic examination, anatomical characteristics , and even biochemical considerations should be able to resolve the question. In the rare instance of an organism which has reasonable claims to be in either of two phyla, it may prove necessary to tighten or elaborate definitions. Reflective judgements are typically for Kant aesthetic judgements (also teleological judgements about nature) and have a particular place in his philosophy. What he emphasised was that aesthetic judgements claimed universal validity despite being based on purely subjective experience. Who can doubt that Kant is discussing something very important when we consider the unassailable pre-eminence of Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Rembrandt for example? In exploring aesthetic judgement, Kant does not rely on the understanding as a supplier of conceptual rules but as a particular subjective power of the mind which all rational subjects share. We are in a different realm from that of scientific enquiry and with different procedures. Arendt suggests that ethical judgements should also be seen as reflective judgements. For example, our attitudes to homosexuality, abortion and euthanasia have changed over time, although disagreements are more strongly divisive than those on the relative merits of Bach and Debussy for example. There is a pluralistic (not necessarily relativistic) feel to modern day ethics which Arendt, by the recasting of Kant’s Moral Philosophy in the light of his analysis of reflective judgement, makes much more convincing while still preserving the cardinal feature of personal autonomy. Judgement is the faculty of thinking the particular as contained under the universal. In the special case where the particular is given but the universal has to be found for it, the judgement is of necessity reflective. Judgements of beauty and, to follow Arendt, of goodness are reflective judgements and although there is a remarkable degree of consensus, the criteria to establish the truth of a such judgements are of a different order from those of scientific judgements.
Two examples:
In King Lear, at a crux in the play Lear says ‘I am a man more sinned against than sinning.’ Appalling as Lear is in many respects, at this high point in tragic drama, I think the majority of the audience accept the rightness of this anguished utterance, wrung from Lear in extremis.
In the Jeremy Thorpe case, where he was being prosecuted for the attempted murder of Norman Scott, there came a point in the trial where Thorpe was asked what he thought of Scott. Thorpe replied ‘I pitied him’. Much later in his summing up the judge said ‘Thorpe didn’t pity Scott, he hated him.’ Though this pronouncement was made after hearing much evidence, it is a reflective not a determinative judgement, and on its soundness the understanding of Thorpe’s motivation would depend.
To end where I began, Arendt’s book reawakened my admiration of Kant’s philosophy and it has been an excellent companion during this past difficult year of pandemic