Still deceased after all these years


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“I don’t know where that leaves you, but you’re still deceased as far as the law is concerned.”

You couldn’t make it up. A man disappears in 1986; is declared legally dead in 1994; reappears in 2005. And the judge, calling it a “strange, strange situation”, found that death rulings cannot be overturned after three years.   There’s no more raising Lazarus from the dead, not with today’s Pharisees. Especially if you’ve been dead three years or more.

Sometimes the problem is not with returning from the dead, there’s a more fundamental issue at stake. In some places it’s illegal to die. Yup, death is prohibited.


A few years ago, we went to Aiguebelle for our summer vacation, far from the madding crowd. And the nearest town was Le Lavandou. Which you could get to on the “road train” pictured above. And so we did. While we were there, I looked up Wikipedia to learn more about the place. It turned out that A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square was written in a bar there.

It also turns out that it’s illegal to die there. The mayor called it “absurd… to counter an absurd situation”.

Le Lavandou’s not alone. Apparently the Greeks of Delos beat them to it by about 2500 years, and there have been many others since.

Not being allowed to die. Once dead, not be allowed to come back. Predictable phenomena in a world of letter rather than spirit, a topic I’ve had the opportunity to delve into time and time again. Some decades ago, as part of my investigations, I was pointed towards the works of Michael Polanyi in this regard, particularly in the context of things tacit and things explicit. His “we can know more than we can tell” mantra resonated with me, and helped me understand something about the challenges of formulating workable law in any sphere.


Influenced by my upbringing (Brahmin family, Jesuit schooling and university, all in cosmopolitan Calcutta) and by my teenage reading habits (which included a healthy dose of Asimov, not just the fashionable Foundation series, but, more relevant to this context, the Robot series), I had become a firm believer in spirit-not-letter, that the intent of the law or principle or guidance was what really mattered.


Asimov believed that we all needed to understand why the spirit-versus-letter argument was going to become more and more important, particularly as we moved towards a posthuman society. It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry. Robots can do “letter” with their eyes closed. But spirit? That’s a whole ‘nother deal. [Incidentally, if you’re interested in this topic, you should go read Sage Leslie-McCarthy’s paper on Asimov’s Posthuman Pharisees; it is excellent].

Polanyi believed that our tacit dimension included tradition, inherited practices, implied values and prejudgments. We live in a time of intense change, and often we throw much of this to the four winds in the name of progress. But we have to be careful. Amidst all the bathwater of tradition there’s a baby that may be worth keeping.

Implied values.

Some of those implied values are part of what makes us us.

That’s what I believe George VI was referring to when he said:

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Sometimes, we behave “in a way which would not do if generally adopted“. It is something that every one of us is capable of, something we need to watch for.

So I get concerned when Stuart Broad doesn’t walk, deciding that the letter of the law had suddenly become more important than the spirit. In cricket, there is nothing more important than spirit.

It’s not just in cricket. Spirit matters.

Throughout the Cold War, there appeared to be a tacit rule that spies did what they did as part of statecraft while carefully avoiding any accusation of spying on commercial grounds alone. That rule is now being declared irrelevant and unworkable.Spy-vs-spy

There used to be an unwritten rule that governments didn’t spy on their own citizens unless they had demonstrable cause.

There used to be an unwritten rule that the role of elected officials was to serve their electors, to “govern”; to debate law while it was formed, then to uphold law once it was passed; where law needed changing, to use the process of law to change the law.

These unwritten, tacit rules were part of the fabric of society. An “understanding of things we knew but could not tell”, formed over millennia.

We are moving headlong into a society where we have to learn to teach robots to be human as they drive cars and operate drones and perform surgery and make our hearts work.

We need to be careful.

Because we could also be moving headlong into a society where we forget how to be human, and become primitive robots instead, unable to tell spirit from letter.

Spirit matters.



7 thoughts on “Still deceased after all these years”

  1. JP.

    Very interesting writing, but there is something in what you say that is contradictory in itself. As it was with Asimov’s writing about robotics. Implied means nothing to machines, implicit requires a certain form or memory and logic that machines don’t have.

    As society “progresses” we get more and more lawyers to make sure that all rules are fair to everyone, that apply equally to everyone (or at least, that is the excuse we use to let murdered walk away with their crime on a technicality – the law did not explicitly mention it). As we progress, we get more and more access to information that has been digitized, not historical references from people, or memories from peoples. This is the point where Asimov tried to warn us (some would say his three laws were part of that, thus the self-recurrence between them – in a way a robot would understand them with pure logic) and the point where, as a society, we need to make the decision of which direction is favored as humans.

    Alas, we don’t know how to act with all the information that is thrust at us, and we end up (in a panic) making up decisions like the above: it is logical that when someone is standing in front of you is alive, but the law says you are dead — so there. Logic wins.

    I like your writing, reminds me of the early days of information management and technology when we thought we could avoid becoming which we have become by planning. Wish more people would’ve seen it that way.

  2. Hi Esteban, it is hard to codify tacit things. Machines need things codified. So yes there is a conflict. The point that I was trying to make is that the tacit things matter. So rather than make us more like machines, unable to deal with tacit things, we need to hold on to the tacit things. Because they encompass values that matter. And who knows, in time to come we will have machines that can deal with tacit things. Asimov’s 3 Laws were an early harbinger of the way we will have to introduce principles and values and ethics to machines.

  3. Hey JP, liked this, had recently seen the Bertrand Russell quote myself and thought it probably quite revelatory about the two men :)

    I’d extend the ‘fair play’ aspect of cricket to a number of sports, golf, squash just a few. The way someone conducts themselves whilst playing them says much about them and the qualities they have…

    As to the more important questions you ask, we need more ‘composers’ and less ‘coders’ making decision in this world.

  4. I was interested to see the reference to Polanyi re tacit and explicit knowledge. I first came across this idea in Nonaka and Takeuchi’s book The Knowledge-Creating Company and didn’t recall it was Polanyi they were citing which of course on checking they did!

    Well worth a read for people who haven’t come across this book before – sets many concepts in context about knowledge and management.

    Spirit matters. What a great summation JP. Think I’ll get the T-shirt made now!

  5. @Mike in some ways sport is where we model values to do with various aspects of life, including (I hesitate) war. Calling a penalty on yourself in golf is a wondrous thing when done properly, when no one else could have known. And the idea of a solitary golfer having “no standing” on a course is something I cherish. Matter for a separate post.

Let me know what you think