. . . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit, and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.
(Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 316-317)
I began studying psychology in 1976, long before I became a Bahá’í, and completed my clinical training in July 1982, at least four months before I met even a mention of the Faith in the following November.
Never once in my entire experience of being taught psychology did I ever hear of Frederick William Henry Myers. The closest encounter I ever had of this kind was with William James. He was mentioned in asides with a dismissive and grudging kind of respect. The implication was that he was an amazing thinker for his time but nowadays very much old hat. I gave him a quick glance and moved on.
Looking back now I realise I was robbed.
When I decided to become a Bahá’í at the beginning of December that same year, after a lightening conversion, my friends thought I was nuts, and when I met the quote from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá which you’ll find at the top of this post, I was thunderstruck. It ran completely counter to all I had been taught and all I had found in any psychology I had ever read. I really struggled to integrate that insight into my world-view.
The context included ideas such as Manifestations of God (symbolised by the stars in the picture at the head of the post), a spiritual realm (represented by the left hand line), and a link between that spiritual realm and our material one (the line that joins the left hand to the right hand line). If accepting the idea of God was a huge challenge for a former atheist, taking on board the concept of a soul was an even bigger one. At least the Bahá’í concept of God was definitely not the one I most certainly did not and could never believe in: it still seems such an unwarranted gift for beings like us to have an immortal soul though, considering how badly we behave most of the time. It took me four years at least of hard study and deep reflection to even begin to get my head around this stuff. (The poem I posted on 21 March, after this post was written, gives a sense of where I was starting from.)
It is plain to me now though how this situation came about. Kelly and Kelly capture it neatly and clearly in the introduction to their brave, thorough and well-researched book, Irreducible Mind (pages xvii-xviii):
[William] James’s person-centered and synoptic approach was soon largely abandoned . . . in favour of a much narrower conception of scientific psychology. Deeply rooted in earlier 19th-century thought, this approach advocated deliberate emulation of the presuppositions and methods – and thus, it was hoped, the stunning success – of the “hard” sciences especially physics. . . . Psychology was no longer to be the science of mental life, as James had defined it. Rather it was to be the science of behaviour, “a purely objective experimental branch of natural science”. It should “never use the terms consciousness, mental states, mind, content, introspectively verifiable, imagery, and the like.”
And, sadly, in some senses nothing much has changed. Psychology is still, for the most part, pursuing the Holy Grail of a complete materialistic explanation for every aspect of consciousness and the working of the mind. It’s obviously all in the brain, isn’t it (page xx)?
The empirical connection between mind and brain seems to most observers to be growing ever tighter and more detailed as our scientific understanding of the brain advances. In light of the successes already in hand, it may not seem unreasonable to assume as a working hypothesis that this process can continue indefinitely without encountering any insuperable obstacles, and that properties of minds will ultimately be fully explained by those brains. For most contemporary scientists, however, this useful working hypothesis has become something more like an established fact, or even an unquestionable axiom.
This is a dogma and as such can only be protected by ignoring or discounting as invalid all evidence that points in a different direction. Edward Kelly argues for a different approach in his introduction, believing as the co-authors demonstrate in this massive tome that there is a wealth of evidence to undermine this a priori belief (page xxii):
First and perhaps foremost is an attitude of humility in relation to the present state of scientific knowledge. . . . Second, we emphasise that science consists at bottom of certain attitudes and procedures, rather than any fixed set of beliefs. The most basic attitude is that facts have primacy over theories and that belief should therefore always remain modifiable in response to the empirical data.
He quotes Francis Bacon (ibid.):
“The world is not to be narrowed till it will go into the understanding . . . but the understanding is to be expanded and opened till it can take in the image of the world as it is in fact.”
The Kellys try and practice what they preach, as their book demonstrates (page xxv):
Our own empiricism is thus thorough-going and radical, in the sense that we are willing to look at all relevant facts and not just those that seem compatible, actually or potentially, with current mainstream theory. Indeed, if anything it is precisely those observations that seem to conflict with current theory that should command the most urgent attention.
Their first chapter, to which I may return in a later post, takes a critical look at the current mainstream position. I want to start instead with their second chapter that looks in detail at the work of Myers. I want to do justice to a deep and creative thinker whom I was induced to neglect during my formal training, much to the detriment of my practice for a significant number of years.
I am plucking a quote from the middle of Emily Kelly’s chapter on Myers’s approach (page 76) because the last sentence cuts to the core of the challenge constituted by his position and the evidence that mainstream ‘scientists’ ignore:
This notion of something within us being conscious, even though it is not accessible to our ordinary awareness, is an exceedingly difficult one for most of us to accept, since it is so at variance with our usual assumption that the self of which we are aware comprises the totality of what we are as conscious mental beings. Nevertheless, it is essential to keep in mind Myers’s new and enlarged conception of consciousness if one is to understand his theory of human personality as something far more extensive than our waking self.
And perhaps it needs to be said in advance, in order to soften the shock for some readers, that he is not just talking about the kind of unconscious processes we all accept as definite, such as those which keep our hearts beating, or as probable, such as the projection of past experiences onto the present. He takes seriously not just what lies underneath our minds so to speak, the stuff that many dreams are made of, but also what soars above them, such as mystical states.
Emily Kelly’s preamble:
Before we look in more detail at what his exact position was in the next post, it might be useful to quote from Emily Kelly’s preamble. She puts her finger on the most significant loss incurred when psychology went pseudo-scientific (page 50):
All elements of the universe are not only inextricably related, but they all function according to the same basic, deterministic principles of cause-and-effect and are all, in the final analysis, of the same basic essence or nature. . . . The attempt to transform psychology into a science, however, raised some unique problems. The phenomena of psychology are unlike those of any of the physical sciences in that they are, above all else, mental. (Ibid.)
The pioneers of this approach were far too sure of themselves (page 54):
. . . . For many in the first generation of scientific psychology, the thoroughgoing unilateral dependence of mind on brain was “a practical certainty.”
The basic issue had been resolved (page 58):
. . . . For [T.H.]Huxley as for many other 19th-century scientists, the exact nature of the dependence of psychical processes on physical ones with an open – though unresolvable – question; the general dependence of mind on matter was a resolved – and thus closed – question. (page 58)
I almost winced when I read her pointed explanation of how psychology had traded in the mind to buy itself a place among the sciences (page 59):
Scientists instrumental in the development of 19th-century psychology thus in general had chosen to conceptualise science primarily not as a method with which to confront basic questions posed by contradictory aspects of human experience, but as a doctrine to which psychology, if it is to be a science, must conform. (page 59)
She paves the way for a key component of Myers’s approach in her quote from Mill (page 62):
John Stuart Mill had been the leader and exemplar of mid 19th- century liberal thinkers who believed that the cause of knowledge is best served, not by partisans, but by “those who take something from both sides of the great controversies, and make out that neither extreme is right, nor wholly wrong.” (page 62)
In the next post we’ll be taking a closer look at Myers’s approach.