Category Archives: Cartoons

The Path by Michael Puett, and the fallacy of the True Self

Harvard professor Michael Puett, who runs a course in classical Chinese philosophy, has recently co-authored a best-selling book, The Path, along with author and journalist Christine Gross-Loh

The Path presents ancient Chinese philosophy as a guide (or path) to how to lead a fulfilling life in the modern world,

It sounds like a standard pseudo-spiritual self-help book, but Puett insists that if anything it’s the opposite: it’s an anti-self-help book (although its very title, The Path, and its subtitle, What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life, makes me have my doubts). It does however stand against the current self-help trends for promoting atomised individuality and self-centred solipsism. The book is also critical of navel-gazing ‘mindfulness’, the authors pointing out that in Buddhism, mindfulness was originally intended to break down the self, but that in the western version of Buddhism it’s often been distorted as a way of looking inwards and embracing the self.

One of the concepts that is pursued in the book is the fallacy of the authentic self.  I’m a big fan of this concept (the belief that the authentic self is a fallacy, that is – not the concept that there is such a thing as the authentic self), so here are a few of my thoughts on it.

The concept of the authentic self postulates that everyone has a core being or self that is somehow their true self – a self that is invariably superior to the version of themselves that functions in the everyday world (The everyday functional self is, after all, inevitably corrupted by the messiness of the real world, while the true self is in a state of pristine and pure isolation).

This is a nice conceit, with its attractive inference that everyone is at heart nicer than they seem. However, the very fact that this concept implies that we’re all quite pleasant people underneath should ring a few alarm bells in the self-delusion department.

The truth is, I think, that people are the sum of their interactions with the world: without the world we are nothing but a mass of cells and bio-electrical circuitry. Our ‘selves’ are an accretion of reactions to phenomena outside ourselves, such as our environments and our relationships with other people. It’s true that our reactions to these phenomena are laid down onto individual brains that are all structured differently to each other due to genetic variation, meaning that each individual will have a propensity to react differently to the world and to the experiences that it throws at them. I like to think of this genetically determined structure within the brain as a sort of ‘mind skeleton’ that is used to support the mind or self as it is constructed over the years as the result of experience, in a similar way to how the physical ‘body skeleton’ supports the body as it develops over the years (for better of worse). So I’m afraid that underneath the functioning self with which we interact with the world we don’t have a core ‘true self’ at all, just a rather fancy arrangement of scaffolding.


Here’s a cartoon that I drew in 1994 on the subject of finding your ‘True Self’ (I’ve held opinions on this topic for quite a few years). It was published as a greetings card by Paperlink.


Here’s another cartoon on the subject:


There’s a bit more on this subject in my book, Where Are We, Why Are We, What Are We? (And Why do we Want to Know?) , as detailed here.


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Pastiche, Parody and Piracy exhibition

Here’s an image of mine that features in an exhibition at the Cob Gallery in Camden, London.
The exhibition, called Pastiche, Parody and Piracy, is about the use of images that allude to images created by other people. It’s on until 5th July 2014.
The exhibition includes the work of some of Britain’s top cartoonists (and me). There’s also art of a non-cartoon nature in the exhibition, so it’s a good mix of the silly and the serious.

This cartoon is about copyright. It’s a stylised version of Mickey Mouse (note the ears), with the nose in the form of a copyright symbol. Walt Disney was famous for stringently enforcing copyright when it came to his cartoon characters. Copyright enforcement is very important, as it’d make life impossible for the creators of images if anyone could simply appropriate them at will, however a total banning of reference to images would make life equally impossible for people who want to make comments to which the images are important (such as in my use of Mickey Mouse here to symbolise copyright enforcement)


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Environment cartoon

environment cartoon

Today brings yet another warning from scientists about the melting polar ice caps due to global warming.
I suspect that people will only start acting to prevent it when coastal cities start being flooded.

To see more of my cartoons about the environment click the cartoon.

By the way, I know that penguins and polar bears live at opposite poles and are never seen together except in cartoons (and maybe zoos). They are together in this cartoon partly for humorous effect and partly to symbolise the global nature of the problem of climate change (and the global nature of its solution).

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M82 Supernova 2014J

The current “supernova of the century”, Supernova 2014J in M82 in now at its peak brightness, but the weather here in the south west of England is so dire that cloud cover is conspiring to thwart almost any obsevations of the object.

Fortunately, a few nights ago a rare clearing of the skies gave me the chance to train my telescope on the heavens, giving me a fine view of the exploding star. Judging by the weather, that’ll be the first and last time I see it.

One of the truly awesome things about looking at a supernova through a telescope is realising that you’re actually looking at a star in a different galaxy. When an amateur astronomer trains a telescope at a galaxy the stars are usually too faint to be resolved as individual objects, giving the galaxy the appearance of a fuzzy blur. A supernova however can be so bright during its short explosive lifetime of several weeks that it outshines the rest of the stars in the galaxy put together.

Supernovae can be created in one of two ways:

  • A normal star burns due to the fact that the huge mass of matter in the star collapses in on itself, creating a nuclear furnace at the star’s core as atoms fuse together under the pressure. The heat generated by this nuclear furnace acts against the star’s gravity and holds the star in equilibrium, preventing it’s total collapse. When massive stars run out of fuel it cools down and there is no more internal pressure from the nuclear furnace within the star to sustain the star against its own gravity, allowing it to collapse under its own weight. The outer layers of the star fall inwards creating a core that’s so super-dense that it then rebounds in a massive explosion.
  • In some supernovae a star that has already collapsed into a compressed cool core, but that is too small to trigger an explosion from the material in the compressed core (Such stars are known as a white dwarves), can acquire extra matter from a companion star when the two stars are orbiting each other and are thus under each other’s gravitational influence, so that the white dwarf reachs sufficient mass to trigger a thermonuclear explosion. Supernova 2014J is this is the type of supernova.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about supernovae, in my view, is that they are the source of all of the elements in the universe that are heavier than iron. All of the atoms of all of those elements started their lives in the the heart of supernovae.

Lighter elements are created in the cores of more pedestrian stars, in which atoms of hydrogen and helium (the only elements that were created at the beginning of the universe) fused together under the intense heat and pressure. Normal stars however just don’t produce enough heat to create elements heavier than iron. Only supernovae are up to the job.

Next time you heat up a copper-bottomed saucepan on your cooker, reflect on the fact that the copper on the bottom of the pan can only have come from one place – the heart of a supernova. Somewhere a lot hotter than your cooker: in fact the hottest place in the universe.

Of course when it comes down to it, because of the fact that all of the elements are manufactured in stars of some sort, and in stars alone (apart from hydrogen and helium), that means that everything on earth is made of stardust – even things that you rarely associate with the cosmos. As illustrated in this cartoon.

Please don’t use this cartoon without permission. PLease go here instead.

everything is stardust - cartoon


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Is thinking in words a good thing?

Thinking often manifests itself in the form of a voice in your head.
Why would this be? Why not just think in pure thought, whatever that means?
An article in New Scientist of 1st June 2013 deals with the topic, with particular reference to the work of Russian psychologist L. S. Vygotsky.
My own amateur theorising on the subject makes me speculate that people don’t actually think in words – the words come along afterwards to wrap the thoughts up in manageable packages that can be marshalled into some sort of order (possibly for the purpose of communication to others).
The fact that people often can’t put their thoughts into words seems to point to this.
We’re all aware of thoughts that we can’e express, which is possibly evidence that ‘verbal’ thoughts are secondary manifestations of thoughts rather than being primarily and pure thoughts in their own right.

philosophy of language cartoon

(Please do not copy this cartoon without permission. Get it here)


The process of inner verbalisation of thoughts definitely has its advantages though. It helps you to distill concepts down to easily manageable phrases.
Here’s an example.
I remember in my youth watching a controversial politician making an inflammatory speech on the television. He was predicting riots in the streets. (The politician involved was actually Enoch Powell, but I’m pretty sure the speech in question wasn’t his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech). It occurred to me that the very fact that he had made this speech might provoke people to start rioting in the first place – in effect his speech might be the very thing that brings about the event that he predicted. I mentioned this insight of mine to a friend: it took me quite a long time to explain it, as the concept was still quite a nebulous and ill-defined thing in my head. After I’d delivered my ponderings my friend said “You mean it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.” I’d never heard of a self-fulfilling prophecy at the time, but I knew instantly that that was what I meant. From that day on the whole convoluted process by which the very act of stating the possibility of an event can bring about the event itself  was condensed in my head to the shorthand term “self-fulfilling prophecy”. A very useful phrase indeed.
There is a downside to such handy condensation of concepts into easily graspable phrases though: concept ossification.

Once a useful verbalisation that encapsulates an idea is coined, the idea can become rigid and fossilised due to a lack of critical rethinking.
(Ossification is perhaps a very appropriate term here, because the phrases that encapsulate concepts should be thought of as the bare bones that give the concepts structure:  bones that form nothing but the skeleton and that need fleshing out in order to be given life and meaning.)

Ideally ideas needs revisiting and reassessing periodically in order to check that they’re still valid.
This downside of encapsulation is probably far outweighed by its upside though, which is that you don’t have to spend all of your time thinking things through from first principles.

A metaphor for this upside may be that of the car. The downside of a car (or at least the downside that’s relevant to this metaphor) is that you hurtle past the countryside without seeing it in detail (did you notice that rare spider in the grass on the verge just then?), but the upside is that you can travel a hell of a lot further than by foot.

As the article in New Scientist mentions, Vygotsky proposed that words in inner speech may function as a tool that transforms the task that is being considered, in a similar way that an Allen key transforms the task of assembling flat pack furniture. Putting thoughts into words gives the thoughts a concrete form that makes them easier to handle. (My note: not too ‘concrete’ I hope, as  concrete has some of those rigid qualities of ossification  that I mentioned earlier.)
Putting thoughts into words may also give the thoughts access to parts of the brain that they would otherwise be denied access to, such as those areas that deal solely in processing language.

New Scientist

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Survival of the Misfits – Robert Newman

Comedian Robert Newman is very interested in evolution. So much so that he’s devised a stage show on the subject, Robert Newman’s New Theory of Evolution.

In an interview on the BBC’s Saturday Live programme to promote the show, Newman mentioned that he thinks that the famous phrase about evolution. “Survival of the fittest” should perhaps be replaced by a new phrase – “Survival of the misfit”.

That sounds about right to me.

I personally think that the reason that the human race is so successful as a species is possibly because from the moment we left the trees in Africa (probably, in my opinion,  by being forced out of them by the ancestors of the chimpanzees that still live there) we, as a species,  were misfits in our new environment. We had to take action in order to survive.

We certainly did take action, and the results are all around us to see. We no longer have to struggle for survival: indeed in some parts of the world such as where I live in England it’s relatively easy to sit back and do very little in order to guarantee continued personal existence. Complacency is now an option in a way that it never has been before. We now control and manipulate the world to such an extent that we can now walk down the street staring at our smart phones without having to even give a thought to the idea that we should maybe be keeping half an eye open for a sabre toothed tiger crouching behind a hedge. That’s complacency.

Complacency doesn’t get you very far though, so the future of the human race is determined by those amongst us who aren’t complacent: those who are a bit on the edge of things and who don’t feel quite right where they find themselves. The misfits.

When we first left the trees we were all misfits, chiefly because we were physically unfit for the situation we’d climbed down the trees into. But we’ve now changed the physical world around us to suit our own needs, so now most of us fit in just fine, physically at least. Nowadays being a misfit is usually the consequence of psychological characteristics rather than of physical ones.

Having misfits  as the instigators of future human progress is a mixed blessing of course. In some arenas of activity misfits are valuable contributors to the sum of human experience – artists of various kinds spring readily to mind here, as does the geeky variety of misfit who sees beauty in endless lists of numbers and who as a result uncovers hidden secrets of the universe: however in other areas of activity things look less clear cut – having psychological misfits at the tiller of power politics and big business leaves me with misgivings about where our future lies. With misfits in positions of power no wonder the world’s in the mess it is – we desperately need a sensible and sane driver steering our planet forward, but who but a misfit would consider embarking on such an onerous task?

There’s more about the misfit factor of human evolution here.

One last thing.

In the interview with Robert Newman that inspired this post he was asked what a comedian was doing pontificating about a subject such as evolution – a subject that should perhaps more properly be addressed by experts in the field. Newman’s response was to mention a quote attributed to Peter Ustinov “There are experts in little things but there are no experts in big things.” The point being, I think, that it’s only possible to be an expert within a very tightly defined area of study (such as, say, the structure of the antennae of diurnal moths), but that for subjects that are wider than that everybody has to contend with their own innate tunnel vision that’s inconveniently obscuring the complete view.

Robert Newman, being a comedian, is, I assume, a bit of a misfit. This qualifies him well for having interesting opinions and insights on subjects. Of course I inevitably think this, being a cartoonist myself and thus definitely somewhere on the misfit spectrum.

Find some of my own thoughts about evolution here.

Robert Newman’s web site

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A cartoon about Time

clock tower cartoon - watch tower cartoon

This cartoon was featured in the exhibition of cartoons on the subject of Time at this year’s Shrewsbury Cartoon Festival in April.
I don’t often use puns in my cartoons, mainly because I can’t think of any that are any good. But I’m quite pleased with this one.

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