Minds do precisely everything computers do not do: Hart on Dennett

Daniel Dennett thinks consciousness is an illusion.  This claim is refuted by a moment’s introspection, but perhaps some philosophers are less trustful of introspection than is everyone else.  Certainly, based on this particular case, some philosophers would have good reason to distrust their own reasoning abilities.
It is nice to read a rebuttal of Dennett’s manifestly ridiculous idea by another philosopher, David Bentley Hart (writing in The New Atlanticist).  Here is an excerpt:

Dennett is an orthodox neo-Darwinian, in the most gradualist of the sects. Everything in nature must for him be the result of a vast sequence of tiny steps. This is a fair enough position, but the burden of any narrative of emergence framed in those terms is that the stochastic logic of the tale must be guarded with untiring vigilance against any intrusion by “higher causes.” But, where consciousness is concerned, this may very well be an impossible task.
The heart of Dennett’s project, as I have said, is the idea of “uncomprehending competences,” molded by natural selection into the intricate machinery of mental existence. As a model of the mind, however, the largest difficulty this poses is that of producing a credible catalogue of competences that are not dependent for their existence upon the very mental functions they supposedly compose.
Certainly Dennett fails spectacularly in his treatment of the evolution of human language. As a confirmed gradualist in all things, he takes violent exception to any notion of an irreducible, innate, universal grammar, like that proposed by Noam Chomsky, Robert Berwick, Richard Lewontin, and others. He objects even when those theories reduce the vital evolutionary saltation between pre-linguistic and linguistic abilities to a single mutation, like the sudden appearance in evolutionary history of the elementary computational function called “Merge,” which supposedly all at once allowed for the syntactic combination of two distinct elements, such as a noun and a verb.
Fair enough. From Dennett’s perspective, after all, it would be hard to reconcile this universal grammar — an ability that necessarily began as an internal faculty of thought, dependent upon fully formed and discrete mental concepts, and only thereafter expressed itself in vocal signs — with a truly naturalist picture of reality. So, for Dennett, language must have arisen out of social practices of communication, rooted in basic animal gestures and sounds in an initially accidental association with features of the environment. Only afterward could these elements have become words, spreading and combining and developing into complex structures of reference. There must then, he assumes, have been “proto-languages” that have since died away, liminal systems of communication filling up the interval between animal vocalizations and human semiotic and syntactic capacities.
Unfortunately, this simply cannot be. There is no trace in nature even of primitive languages, let alone proto-languages; all languages possess a full hierarchy of grammatical constraints and powers. And this is not merely an argument from absence, like the missing fossils of all those dragons or unicorns that must have once existed. It is logically impossible even to reverse-engineer anything that would qualify as a proto-language. Every attempt to do so will turn out secretly to rely on the syntactic and semiotic functions of fully developed human language. But Dennett is quite right about how immense an evolutionary saltation the sudden emergence of language would really be. Even the simple algorithm of Merge involves, for instance, a crucial disjunction between what linguists call “structural proximity” and “linear proximity” — between, that is, a hypotactic or grammatical connection between parts of a sentence, regardless of their spatial and temporal proximity to one another, and the simple sequential ordering of signifiers in that sentence. Without such a disjunction, nothing resembling linguistic practice is possible; yet that disjunction can itself exist nowhere except in language.
Dennett, however, writes as if language were simply the cumulative product of countless physical ingredients. It begins, he suggests, in mere phonology. The repeated sound of a given word somehow embeds itself in the brain and creates an “anchor” that functions as a “collection point” for syntactic and semantic meanings to “develop around the sound.” But what could this mean? Are semiotic functions something like iron filings and phonemes something like magnets? What is the physical basis for these marvelous congelations in the brain? The only possible organizing principle for such meanings would be that very innate grammar that Dennett denies exists — and this would seem to require distinctly mental concepts. Not that Dennett appears to think the difference between phonemes and concepts an especially significant one. He does not hesitate, for instance, to describe the “synanthropic” aptitudes that certain organisms (such as bedbugs and mice) acquire in adapting themselves to human beings as “semantic information” that can be “mindlessly gleaned” from the “cycle of generations.”
But there is no such thing as mindless semantics. True, it is imaginable that the accidental development of arbitrary pre-linguistic associations between, say, certain behaviors and certain aspects of a physical environment might be preserved by natural selection, and become beneficial adaptations. But all semantic information consists in the interpretation of signs, and of conventions of meaning in which signs and references are formally separable from one another, and semiotic relations are susceptible of combination with other contexts of meaning. Signs are intentional realities, dependent upon concepts, all the way down. And between mere accidental associations and intentional signs there is a discontinuity that no gradualist — no pleonastic — narrative can span.
Similarly, when Dennett claims that words are “memes” that reproduce like a “virus,” he is speaking pure gibberish. Words reproduce, within minds and between persons, by being intentionally adopted and employed.
Here, as it happens, lurks the most incorrigibly problematic aspect of Dennett’s project. The very concept of memes — Richard Dawkins’s irredeemably vague notion of cultural units of meaning or practice that invade brains and then, rather like genetic materials, thrive or perish through natural selection — is at once so vapid and yet so fantastic that it is scarcely tolerable as a metaphor. But a depressingly substantial part of Dennett’s argument requires not only that memes be accorded the status of real objects, but that they also be regarded as concrete causal forces in the neurology of the brain, whose power of ceaseless combination creates most of the mind’s higher functions. And this is almost poignantly absurd.
Perhaps it is possible to think of intentional consciousness as having arisen from an improbable combination of purely physical ingredients — even if, as yet, the story of that seemingly miraculous metabolism of mechanism into meaning cannot be imagined. But it seems altogether bizarre to think of intentionality as the product of forces that would themselves be, if they existed at all, nothing but acts of intentionality. What could memes be other than mental conventions, meanings subsisting in semiotic practices? As such, their intricate interweaving would not be the source, but rather the product, of the mental faculties they inhabit; they could possess only such complexity as the already present intentional powers of the mind could impose upon them. And it is a fairly inflexible law of logic that no reality can be the emergent result of its own contingent effects.
This is why, also, it is difficult to make much sense of Dennett’s claim that the brain is “a kind of computer,” and mind merely a kind of “interface” between that computer and its “user.” The idea that the mind is software is a fairly popular delusion at the moment, but that hardly excuses a putatively serious philosopher for perpetuating it — though admittedly Dennett does so in a distinctive way. Usually, when confronted by the computational model of mind, it is enough to point out that what minds do is precisely everything that computers do not do, and therein lies much of a computer’s usefulness.
Really, it would be no less apt to describe the mind as a kind of abacus. In the physical functions of a computer, there is neither a semantics nor a syntax of meaning. There is nothing resembling thought at all. There is no intentionality, or anything remotely analogous to intentionality or even to the illusion of intentionality. There is a binary system of notation that subserves a considerable number of intrinsically mindless functions. And, when computers are in operation, they are guided by the mental intentions of their programmers and users, and they provide an instrumentality by which one intending mind can transcribe meanings into traces, and another can translate those traces into meaning again. But the same is true of books when they are “in operation.” And this is why I spoke above of a “Narcissan fallacy”: computers are such wonderfully complicated and versatile abacuses that our own intentional activity, when reflected in their functions, seems at times to take on the haunting appearance of another autonomous rational intellect, just there on the other side of the screen. It is a bewitching illusion, but an illusion all the same. And this would usually suffice as an objection to any given computational model of mind.
But, curiously enough, in Dennett’s case it does not, because to a very large degree he would freely grant that computers only appear to be conscious agents. The perversity of his argument, notoriously, is that he believes the same to be true of us.
For Dennett, the scientific image is the only one that corresponds to reality. The manifest image, by contrast, is a collection of useful illusions, shaped by evolution to provide the interface between our brains and the world, and thus allow us to interact with our environments. The phenomenal qualities that compose our experience, the meanings and intentions that fill our thoughts, the whole world of perception and interpretation — these are merely how the machinery of our nervous systems and brains represent reality to us, for purely practical reasons. Just as the easily manipulated icons on a computer’s screen conceal the innumerable “uncomprehending competences” by which programs run, even while enabling us to use those programs, so the virtual distillates of reality that constitute phenomenal experience permit us to master an unseen world of countless qualityless and purposeless physical forces.
Very well. In a sense, Dennett’s is simply the standard modern account of how the mind relates to the physical order. The extravagant assertion that he adds to this account, however, is that consciousness itself, understood as a real dimension of wholly first-person phenomenal experience and intentional meaning, is itself only another “user-illusion.” That vast abyss between objective physical events and subjective qualitative experience that I mentioned above does not exist. Hence, that seemingly magical transition from the one to the other — whether a genetic or a structural shift — need not be explained, because it has never actually occurred.
The entire notion of consciousness as an illusion is, of course, rather silly. Dennett has been making the argument for most of his career, and it is just abrasively counterintuitive enough to create the strong suspicion in many that it must be more philosophically cogent than it seems, because surely no one would say such a thing if there were not some subtle and penetrating truth hidden behind its apparent absurdity. But there is none. The simple truth of the matter is that Dennett is a fanatic: He believes so fiercely in the unique authority and absolutely comprehensive competency of the third-person scientific perspective that he is willing to deny not only the analytic authority, but also the actual existence, of the first-person vantage. At the very least, though, he is an intellectually consistent fanatic, inasmuch as he correctly grasps (as many other physical reductionists do not) that consciousness really is irreconcilable with a coherent metaphysical naturalism. Since, however, the position he champions is inherently ridiculous, the only way that he can argue on its behalf is by relentlessly, and in as many ways as possible, changing the subject whenever the obvious objections are raised.
For what it is worth, Dennett often exhibits considerable ingenuity in his evasions — so much ingenuity, in fact, that he sometimes seems to have succeeded in baffling even himself. For instance, at one point in this book he takes up the question of “zombies” — the possibility of apparently perfectly functioning human beings who nevertheless possess no interior affective world at all — but in doing so seems to have entirely forgotten what the whole question of consciousness actually is. He rejects the very notion that we “have ‘privileged access’ to the causes and sources of our introspective convictions,” as though knowledge of the causes of consciousness were somehow germane to the issue of knowledge of the experience of consciousness. And if you believe that you know you are not a zombie “unwittingly” imagining that you have “real consciousness with real qualia,” Dennett’s reply is a curt “No, you don’t” — because, you see, “The only support for that conviction is the vehemence of the conviction itself.”
It is hard to know how to answer this argument without mockery. It is quite amazing how thoroughly Dennett seems to have lost the thread here. For one thing, a zombie could not unwittingly imagine anything, since he would possess no consciousness at all, let alone reflective consciousness; that is the whole point of the imaginative exercise. Insofar as you are convinced of anything at all, whether vehemently or tepidly, you do in fact know with absolute certitude that you yourself are not a zombie. Nor does it matter whether you know where your convictions come from; it is the very state of having convictions as such that apprises you of your intrinsic intentionality and your irreducibly private conscious experience.
Simply enough, you cannot suffer the illusion that you are conscious because illusions are possible only for conscious minds. This is so incandescently obvious that it is almost embarrassing to have to state it. But this confusion is entirely typical of Dennett’s position. In this book, as he has done repeatedly in previous texts, he mistakes the question of the existence of subjective experience for the entirely irrelevant question of the objective accuracy of subjective perceptions, and whether we need to appeal to third-person observers to confirm our impressions. But, of course, all that matters for this discussion is that we have impressions at all.
Moreover, and perhaps most bizarrely, Dennett thinks that consciousness can be dismissed as an illusion — the fiction of an inner theater, residing in ourselves and in those around us — on the grounds that behind the appearance of conscious states there are an incalculable number of “uncomprehending competences” at work in both the unseen machinery of our brains and the larger social contexts of others’ brains. In other words, because there are many unknown physical concomitants to conscious states, those states do not exist. But, of course, this is the very problem at issue: that the limpid immediacy and incommunicable privacy of consciousness is utterly unlike the composite, objective, material sequences of physical causality in the brain, and seems impossible to explain in terms of that causality — and yet exists nonetheless, and exists more surely than any presumed world “out there.”
That, as it happens, may be the chief question Dennett neglects to ask: Why presume that the scientific image is true while the manifest image is an illusion when, after all, the scientific image is a supposition of reason dependent upon decisions regarding methods of inquiry, whereas the manifest image — the world as it exists in the conscious mind — presents itself directly to us as an indubitable, inescapable, and eminently coherent reality in every single moment of our lives? How could one possibly determine here what should qualify as reality as such? Dennett certainly provides small reason why anyone else should adopt the prejudices he cherishes. The point of From Bacteria to Bach and Back is to show that minds are only emergent properties of our brains, and brains only aggregates of mindless elements and forces. But it shows nothing of the sort.
The journey the book promises to describe turns out to be the real illusion: Rather than a continuous causal narrative, seamlessly and cumulatively progressing from the most primitive material causes up to the most complex mental results, it turns out to be a hopelessly recursive narrative, a long, languid lemniscate of a tale, twisting back and forth between low and high — between the supposed basic ingredients underlying the mind’s evolution and the fully realized mental phenomena upon which those ingredients turn out to be wholly dependent. It is nearly enough to make one suspect that Dennett must have the whole thing backward.
Perhaps the scientific and manifest images are both accurate. Then again, perhaps only the manifest image is. Perhaps the mind inhabits a real Platonic order of being, where ideal forms express themselves in phenomenal reflections, while the scientific image — a mechanistic regime devoid of purpose and composed of purely particulate causes, stirred only by blind, random impulses — is a fantasy, a pale abstraction decocted from the material residues of an immeasurably richer reality. Certainly, if Dennett’s book encourages one to adopt any position at all, reason dictates that it be something like the exact reverse of the one he defends. The attempt to reduce the phenomena of mental existence to a purely physical history has been attempted before, and has so far always failed. But, after so many years of unremitting labor, and so many enormous books making wildly implausible claims, Dennett can at least be praised for having failed on an altogether majestic scale.”

 
Reference:
David Bentley Hart [2017]:  “The Illusionist,” The New Atlantis, Number 53, Summer/Fall 2017, pp. 109-121.

Clarence River stories

Sir Ninian Stephen (1923-2017) was Governor-General of Australia from 1982-1989, and before that, a Judge of the High Court of Australia from 1972-1982.  He was named for Nina Beatrice Mylne (1873-1946), an Australian heiress whom his Scottish mother accompanied on her European and Australian travels.  Nina Mylne was born at Eatonswill, a property on the Clarence, 8 miles upriver from Grafton, New South Wales.   On that property now is a settlement called Eatonsville, on the southbank of the river; the area on the northbank is known as Mylneford.

Nina Mylne’s father, Graham Douglas Mylne (1834-1876), had been born in St Andrews, Scotland, and had been a Lieutenant in the 95th regiment of the British Army from 1853-1861, seeing action on Deesa, India in 1854, the Crimea 1855, Lucknow 1857, Hunker 1858, Burugain, Sandi and Ruiya 1859.  He came to NSW in 1859 to take over the property at Eatonswill established in 1839 by his late brothers, John, Thomas and James Mylne. John and Thomas Mylne had returned to Scotland to bring to NSW two Mylne sisters;  all four had been among the 121 who did not survive the wreck of The Dunbar at Sydney Heads on the night of 20 August 1857.  Only one person survived that disaster.  The wreck of the Dunbar was sufficiently searing on the colonial psyche that NSW school children were still taught about it 120 years later.  Graham Mylne’s brother James Mylne, who had also served in the Indian Army, had died of natural causes in Malta on return visit to Britain following the tragedy of the Dunbar.   According to Louise Tiffany Daley, the Mylne brothers were known for their hospitality and their parties, and for introducing horse racing to the northern rivers.

Graham Mylne married Helena White in 1860. They were good friends with the first Governor of Queensland, the new colony proclaimed on 10 December 1859, George Bowen (1821-1899) and his wife. I wonder if Mylne and the Bowens traveled to NSW from Britain on the same ship.  The Bowens’ first surviving child, Adelaide Diamantina Bowen, born in 1858, was known as “Nina”.  Bowen appointed his private secretary, Robert Herbert (1831-1905) as the first Premier of Queensland.  Herbert organized and won the first elections on 27 March 1860, and served as Premier from 1859-1866. Herbert appointed another of Bowen’s private secretaries, John Bramston (1832-1921), as the Attorney-General of Queensland.  The two had met at Balliol College, Oxford, and were life-long friends.  They shared a house together on a farm near Brisbane, which they named Herston, combining letters from both their names. Herston is now a Brisbane suburb.

From 1864, Graham Mylne jointly owned a property near Roma in south-western Queensland with Herbert and Bramston, and he was the elected MLA for the surrounding electorate, Warrego, from 1867-1868.  The town of Roma, gazetted in 1867, was named for the maiden surname of Governor Bowen’s wife, who hailed from the United States of the Ionian Islands. Graham Mylne’s father-in-law, William Duckett White (1807-1893), built a fine homestead, Lota House, on the sea east of Brisbane, in the suburb now called Lota.

Both Robert Herbert and John Bramston eventually returned to Britain, and Herbert served as Permanent Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1871-1892. Bramston served under his friend as Assistant Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1876-1898.  Herbert never married.

Note: The image was The Pioneer by Frederick McCubbin, 1904, now in the National Gallery of Victoria. The city in the background of the third panel is said to be Melbourne.

 

References:

Louise Tiffany Daley [1966]:  Men and a River: Richmond River District 1828-1895.  Australia:  Angus and Robertson.

CCCP

Today, 7 November 2017, is the centenary of the Great October Revolution.

Like Mikhail Gorbachev (in an interview with Clive Anderson on BBC1 on 3 November 1996), I would have preferred the Revolution of February 1917 to have prevailed.

cod-Bourbakism

Economic historians Philip Mirowski and Edward Nik-Khah have published a new book on the role of information in post-war economics.    The introductory chapter contains a nice, high-level summary of the failures of the standard model of decision-making in mainstream micro Economics, Maximum Expected Utility Theory or so-called rational choice theory.  Because the MEU model continues to dominate academic economics despite working neither in practice nor in theory, I have written about it often before, for example herehere and here.  Listen to Mirowski and Nik-Khah:
Given the massive literature on so-called rationality in the social sciences, it gives one pause to observe what a dark palimpsest the annals of rational choice has become. The modern economist, who avoids philosophy and psychology as the couch potato avoids the gym, has almost no appreciation for the rich archive of paradoxes of rationality. This has come to pass primarily by insisting upon a distinctly peculiar template as the necessary starting point of all discussion, at least from the 1950s onwards. Neoclassical economists frequently characterize their schema as comprising three components: (a) a consistent well-behaved preference ordering reflecting the mindset of some individual; (b) the axiomatic method employed to describe mental manipulations of (a) as comprising the definition of “rational choice”; and (c) reduction of all social phenomena to be attributed to the activities of individual agents applying (b) to (a). These three components may be referred to in shorthand as: “utility” functions, formal axiomatic definitions (including maximization provisions and consistency restrictions), and some species of methodological individualism.
The immediate response is to marvel at how anyone could have confused this extraordinary contraption with the lush forest of human rationality, however loosely defined. Start with component (a). The preexistence of an inviolate preference order rules out of bounds most phenomena of learning, as well as the simplest and most commonplace of human experiences—that feeling of changing one’s mind. The obstacles that this doctrine pose for problems of the treatment of information turns out to be central to our historical account. People have been frequently known to make personally “inconsistent” evaluations of events both observed and unobserved; yet in rational choice theory, committing such a solecism is the only real mortal sin—one that gets you harshly punished at minimum and summarily drummed out of the realm of the rational in the final analysis. Now, let’s contemplate component (b). That dogma insists the best way to enshrine rationality is by mimicking a formal axiomatic system—as if that were some sterling bulwark against human frailty and oblique hidden flaws of hubris. One would have thought Gödel’s Theorem might have chilled the enthusiasm for this format, but curiously, the opposite happened instead. Every rational man within this tradition is therefore presupposed to conform to his own impregnable axiom system—something that comes pre-loaded, like Microsoft on a laptop. This cod-Bourbakism ruled out many further phenomena that one might otherwise innocently call “rational”: an experimental or pragmatic stance toward the world; a life where one understands prudence as behaving different ways (meaning different “rationalities”) in different contexts; a self-conception predicated on the possibility that much personal knowledge is embodied, tacit, inarticulate, and heavily emotion driven.  Furthermore, it strangely banishes many computational approaches to cognition: for instance, it simply elides the fact that much algorithmic inference can be shown to be noncomputable in practice; or a somewhat less daunting proposition, that it is intractable in terms of the time and resources required to carry it out. The “information revolution” in economics primarily consisted of the development of Rube Goldberg–type contraptions to nominally get around these implications. Finally, contemplate component (c): complaints about methodological individualism are so drearily commonplace in history that it would be tedious to reproduce them here. Suffice it to say that (c) simply denies the very existence of social cognition in its many manifestations as deserving of the honorific “rational.”
There is nothing new about any of these observations. Veblen’s famous quote summed them up more than a century ago: “The hedonistic conception of man is that of a lightning calculator of pleasures and pains, who oscillates like a homogeneous globule of desire of happiness under the impulse of stimuli that shift him about the area, but leave him intact.”  The roster of latter-day dissenters is equally illustrious, from Herbert Simon to Amartya Sen to Gerd Gigerenzer, if none perhaps is quite up to his snuff in stylish prose or withering skepticism. It is commonplace to note just how ineffectual their dissent has been in changing modern economic practice.
Why anyone would come to mistake this virtual system of billiard balls careening across the baize as capturing the white-hot conviction of rationality in human life is a question worthy of a few years of hard work by competent intellectual historians; but that does not seem to be what we have been bequeathed. In its place sits the work of (mostly) historians of economics and a few historians of science treating these three components of rationality as if they were more or less patently obvious, while scouring over fine points of dispute concerning the formalisms involved, and in particular, an inordinate fascination for rival treatments of probability theory within that framework. We get histories of ordinal versus cardinal utility, game theory, “behavioral” peccadillos, preferences versus “capacities,” social choice theory, experimental interventions, causal versus evidential decision theory, formalized management theory, and so forth, all situated within a larger framework of the inexorable rise of neoclassical economics. Historians treat components (a–c) as if they were the obvious touchstone of any further research, the alpha and omega of what it means to be “rational.” Everything that comes after this is just a working out of details or a cleaning up of minor glitches. If and when this “rational choice” complex is observed taking root within political science, sociology, biology, or some precincts of psychology, it is often treated as though it had “migrated” intact from the economists’ citadel. If that option is declined, then instead it is intimated that “science” and the “mathematical tools” made the figures in question revert to certain stereotypic caricatures of rationality.” [Mirowski and Nik-Khah 2017, locations 318-379 of the Kindle edition].

Reference:
Philip Mirowski and Edward Nik-Khah [2017]: The Knowledge We Have Lost in Information: The History of Information in Modern Economics. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Roger Hollis and Elli

 

The British journalist Chapman Pincher (1914-2014) became convinced that Roger Hollis (1905-1973), Director General of MI5 between 1956 and 1965, had been a Soviet agent, supposedly working for GRU, Soviet military intelligence.  Pincher wrote a book, Treachery, in 2009 to present the full case for this claim.  Most of the evidence is circumstantial and, considered individually, not greatly persuasive.  But assembled and concatenated, it is strongly compelling. Hollis as Soviet agent is certainly the simplest overall explanation for the many coincidences, Western espionage failures, Soviet espionage successes, and multiple instances of MI5 inaction and bumbling idiocy that seemed to accompany Hollis’s career.  He wielded his pocket veto so often and so successfully, there was surely something up. Opponents of the Hollis-as-spy theory need not only to find a better candidate but also to provide an alternative explanation for his career-long pattern of inactions, delays, and ditherings at some times, and fast, resolute actions at others, in each particular case objectively favouring the interests of the USSR.

One supporting sub-claim is that Hollis is the spy working inside MI5 codenamed Elli by a Soviet defector in 1945, a name also used in other decrypted Soviet communications. Apparently, the Soviets believed that the agent named Elli had some Russian family connection, perhaps pre-Revolutionary. Here is Pincher (Location 432 of the 2011 Kindle edition):

Colonel John Lash, a Russian scholar at Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), the signals interception station based at Cheltenham, assured me that ‘something Russian’ must have meant something pre-revolutionary. Otherwise, the statement would have been ‘something Soviet’. Then, in 1985, while browsing through a book called Along the Road to Frome, one of several written by Hollis’s elder brother Christopher, I made a most relevant discovery. Members of the Hollis family and other relatives believed, with genealogical evidence, that they were directly descended from the Russian czar Peter the Great, and were rather proud of it! In that book, published in 1958, Christopher had stated: ‘I did, indeed, I suppose, share with my distant and much removed cousin, Annie Moberley, a claim to descent from Peter the Great.’ In another of his books, Oxford in the Twenties, when explaining his rather peculiar looks, Christopher stated that he was ‘the inheritor of a good deal of mixed blood, but it came from Eastern Europe’.

Annie Moberley’s father, George, had been born in St Petersburg, where his forebears were well established as merchants before the revolution. He became Bishop of Salisbury and firmly believed in his descent from the heroic czar. The Hollis brothers’ mother, formerly Margaret (Meg) Church, was related to Richard Church, a dean of St Paul’s in London, whose wife was a direct descendant of a woman called Sarah Cayley, who allegedly derived from an illegitimate son of Peter the Great. The Moberleys also traced their connection with the czar through Sarah Cayley.

Christopher Hollis, who was highly intelligent, certainly believed in the royal relationship, however distant. Whether or not it was real or taken seriously by other members of the Hollis family, they all knew about it. If Roger had been Elli, he could, directly or indirectly, have revealed this Russian connection to some Soviet contact, who would have informed Moscow in one of the enciphered messages, which would explain how Gouzenko’s deskmate had heard about it.

Whether Roger believed the Russian connection or not, it is inconceivable that he failed to appreciate the danger that it might make him suspect if his MI5 superiors heard about it following Gouzenko’s statement. Confirmation of the Russian connection was the missing link in Gouzenko’s evidence, and had it been known in MI5 Hollis should surely have been closely questioned about the exceptional ‘coincidence’, along with the other matching features.

What better fit could there be for Gouzenko’s statement –‘he has something Russian in his background’? No other Elli candidate has ever fulfilled the description. Gouzenko could not possibly have known anything about Hollis or his family when, as a young cipher clerk, he had made his original statement about Elli to the Canadian authorities in 1945. It was an inexcusable gaffe by Peter Wright –later the self-styled ‘Spycatcher’ –and the other counter-intelligence investigators of the Hollis case to have failed to read the biographical books by Roger’s well-known brother, which were on the shelves of many libraries.”

Intrigued by this, I looked at Pincher’s stated sources, the two books by Christopher Hollis. These led me to other books by and about Annie Moberly (1846-1937), which I reference below. (Note that Pincher repeats the mis-spelling of “Moberly” as “Moberley” that Christopher Hollis makes in his 1958 book, which suggests that Pincher did not look far beyond Christopher Hollis’ books.) The quotation that Pincher gives from Hollis (1958) is also incomplete.  This is what Hollis wrote:

I did, indeed, I suppose, share with my distant and much removed cousin, Annie Moberley [sic] of Versailles fame, a claim which Mrs Iremonger’s The Ghosts of Versailles had not at that time exposed, to descent from Peter the Great. But even the existence of that claim had been kept from me. The exposition of it would have raised too many embarrassing questions about mistresses and illegitimacy. So I had to content myself with being Irish, and that indeed gave me a sufficient opportunity of political eccentricity.” (Hollis 1958, page 15).

Christopher Hollis is speaking here about his childhood.  He does not say at what age he became aware of the family claim of descent from Peter the Great.  The passage is sufficiently vague that he may only have become aware of it with the publication in 1956 of Iremonger’s book about the Versailles Incident, an incident in 1901 when Annie Moberly and a traveling companion later came to believe they had engaged in time travel during a visit to Versailles.  However, Iremonger’s book itself refers to an earlier book by Edith Olivier (1872-1948), a life-long friend of and, through Edith’s mother, a cousin of Annie Moberly, as the source, a book of essays published in 1938 (Olivier 1938).  Of course, neither Christopher Hollis nor Roger Hollis may have been aware of Olivier’s 1938 book, or her 1945 book, both of which talk about the Moberly connection to Czar Peter the Great (1672-1725).  Olivier notes that Annie Moberly kept a portrait of her Russian-born grandmother Sarah Cayley in her rooms at St Hugh’s Hall, Oxford, where she was the Founding Principal (1886-1915).   She was an Honorary Fellow and member  of the Governing Council of the Hall from her retirement in 1915 to her death in 1937. According to Anna Thomasson’s biography of Miss Olivier (Thomasson 2015, page 183), Annie Moberly was still living in Oxford in 1929. Did Roger Hollis meet with her while he was at Oxford during 1924-1926? If so, he presumably would have seen the portrait of their common ancestor Sarah Cayley on her walls.

Pincher has not revealed the full extent of Hollis-Cayley family connections in his 2009 book, perhaps because he did not know them. His case is in fact stronger than he recounts.  He is correct that Roger Hollis’ mother Mary Margaret Church (1874-1941) was related to Richard William Church (1815-1890), Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Richard was her uncle, brother to her father, Charles Marcus Church (1823-1915). And Richard had married Helen Frances Bennett in July 1853. But Mary’s father, Charles Church, Canon of Wells Cathedral, also married a Bennett sister, both daughters of Mrs Emily Bennett, nee Moberly. Emily Moberly was the daughter (one of 3 girls and 8 boys) of British-born Russian-based merchant, Edward Moberly, and Sarah Cayley (born 1764-), daughter of John Cayley (1730-1795), British Consul-General in St Petersberg.  Emily’s brother George Moberly (1803-1885), was born in St Petersberg and was later Bishop of Salisbury, from 1869 to 1885; in December 1834, he married Mary Anne Crokat (1812-1890), who was from a family of Scottish merchants long in Italy, as the Cayleys had been in Russia.

The wife of John Cayley (1730-1795) and the mother of Sarah Cayley Moberly was also called Sarah.  She was Sarah Cozens Cayley (1732-1803), who was born and died in St. Petersburg, and was a daughter of Richard Cozens (1674-1735) and Mary Davenport.  Cozens was British, and was Chief Shipbuilder to the Czar. His wife Mary was a daughter of Richard Davenport, also working as a shipbuilder for the Czar, and his wife Mary Dodd.  The eldest sibling of Sarah Cayley was Alexander Cozens (1717-1786), who was to achieve later renown as a landscape painter, as did his son, John Cozens (1752-1797).  Alexander Cozens was a godson of Czar Peter the Great, and also long rumoured to be the Czar’s illegitimate son. This may have been the source of the family rumour of Czarist descent.  The four sons of George Hollis and Mary Margaret Church, including Christopher Hollis and Roger Hollis, were direct descendants of Sarah Cozens Cayley and Sarah Cayley Moberly.  Another child of John Cayley and Sarah Cozens Cayley was Henry Cayley (1768-1850), whose children included the mathematician Arthur Cayley (1821-1895) and writer Charles Cayley (1823-1883), a close and life-long friend of poet Christina Rosetti.

The three Church brothers, Richard, Bromley, and Charles, were nephews of General Sir Richard Church (1784-1873), liberator of Greece.  Richard Church attended Wadham College, Oxford from Easter 1833, overlapping with the period that George Moberly was a Fellow at Balliol College, Oxford.  In the summer of 1833, before Richard met his wife, Helen Bennett, niece of George Moberly, Richard’s widowed mother, Mrs Church, married the widowed Thomas Crokat, future father-in-law of George Moberly.  Moreover, a third daughter of Mrs Emily Bennett, a sister to the two Bennett sisters who married the two Church brothers, married Charles Crokat, brother of Mary Anne Crokat.

One of the 15 children of Bishop George Moberly and Mary Anne Crokat was Charlotte Anne (“Annie”) Elizabeth Moberly (1846-1937), who wrote a book about her father, Dulce Domum (Moberly 1911).  As mentioned above, she was a participant in a supposed episode of time travel, the Versailles Incident (aka the Ghosts of Petit Trianon Incident) of 1901.  (Edith Olivier, in her memoir of 1938, also recounts an episode she, Edith, also had of supposed time travel, this time on Salisbury Plain.)  Both Christopher and Roger Hollis were first cousins twice removed of Annie Moberly, and the Crokat-Church and Crokat-Bennett marriages means the families were triply connected.  Moreover, the father of Christopher and Roger Hollis, the Right Reverend George Hollis (1868-1944), was also an Anglican clergyman and Bishop of Taunton, from 1931-1944.  One would expect that Bishop George Hollis knew his father-in-law Charles Church and knew of wife’s other ecclesiastical relatives, Richard Church (who was a prominent Anglican writer) and Bishop Edward Moberly; although much younger, he may also have met them. (Edith Olivier was also from an Anglican Church family, as the daughter of a Canon and the grand-daughter of a Bishop, Robert Eden.)

Of course, none of these connections or the fact of his brother’s knowledge prove that Roger Hollis knew that his ancestors had been merchants in Russia in the 18th and early 19th centuries, or that he had heard the claim that his family were illegitimate descendants of Peter the Great.  But the likelihood that he did not, it seems to me, is significantly less than the likelihood that he did.

 

References:
J. A. Hamilton, ‘Moberly, George (1803–1885)’, rev. Geoffrey Rowell, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/18862, accessed 6 Aug 2017]

Christopher Hollis [1958]: Along the Road to Frome. London, UK: George G. Harrap.

Christopher Hollis [1976]: Oxford in the Twenties. Recollections of Five Friends. London, UK: Heinemann.

Lucille Iremonger [1956]: The Ghosts of Versailles. Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain and their Adventure. London, UK: Faber and Faber.

C. A. E. Moberly [1911]: Dulce Domum. George Moberly, His Family and Friends. London, UK: John Murray.

G. Martin Murphy, ‘Church, Richard William (1815–1890)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/5389, accessed 6 Aug 2017]

Edith Olivier [1938]: Without Knowing Mr Walkley. London, UK: Faber and Faber.

Edith Olivier [1945]: Four Victorian Ladies of Wiltshire. London, UK: Faber and Faber.

Chapman Pincher [2011]: Treachery: Betrayals, Blunders and Cover-Ups: Six Decades of Espionage. Mainstream Digital.  Digital edition of book published in 2009.

Kim Sloan, ‘Cozens, Alexander (1717–1786)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2007 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/6546, accessed 26 Aug 2017]

Anna Thomasson [2015]: A Curious Friendship: The Story of a Bluestocking and a Bright Young Thing. London, UK: Macmillan.

Dick White, ‘Hollis, Sir Roger Henry (1905–1973)’, rev. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2011 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/31249, accessed 6 Aug 2017]