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Archive for March, 2012

For Mariner picture see link.

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[The] stone is the lowest degree of phenomena, but nevertheless within it a power of attraction is manifest without which the stone could not exist. This power of attraction in the mineral world is love, the only expression of love the stone can manifest. . . Finally, we reach the kingdom of man. Here we find that all the degrees of the mineral, vegetable and animal expressions of love are present plus unmistakable attractions of consciousness. That is to say, man is the possessor of a degree of attraction which is conscious and spiritual. Here is an immeasurable advance. In the human kingdom spiritual susceptibilities come into view, love exercises its superlative degree, and this is the cause of human life.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá in The Promulgation of Universal Peace page 168-69)

Once we have explained all the physical structure in the vicinity of the brain, and we have explained how all the various brain functions are performed, there is a further sort of explanandum: consciousness itself. Why should all this structure and function give rise to experience? The story about the physical processes does not say.

(David J ChalmersThe Conscious Mind, page 107)

Materialism’s biggest problem is that consciousness does exist.

(The Science Delusion –  page 109)

Putting my best foot forward?

 Three years ago I tackled the issue of the afterlife.  I felt, and still feel, that on this issue a good place to start is with the black swan problem and it works even better as an argument for the independence of consciousness from the brain.

Taleb has used this as the title for his extremely relevant guide to the inevitability of the market crashes which continue to astonish us despite all the evidence confirming their eventual recurrence, but that is not the point for now.

It’s to Karl Popper that we need to turn. He originated the term in a discussion about falsifiability. If you assert that all swans are white, you cannot prove it even by discovering an extremely long sequence of white swans. You can though falsify it. One black swan will sink the theory.

The same can be said of mind/brain independence, something which points to consciousness being more than matter. There is one near death experience (NDE) which happens to involve the mind apparently functioning without any support at all from the brain.

What is this black swan?

In Atlanta Georgia, the case of Pam Reynolds was investigated in the 1990s by Dr Michael Sabom. His account is incorporated into a wider discussion of NDEs by David Fontana, a professor of psychology, in his book “Is There an Afterlife?” (page 184 passim). Sabom states, and the surgical team corroborates it, that Pam was fully instrumented, under constant medical observation and completely unconscious as indicated for part of the time by the flatline EEG (a measure of brain activity: flatline would mean no brain activity at all that would support consciousness). It was as close to a controlled experiment as we are ever likely to get, he said on a television documentary on NDEs some time later. The surgical procedure she needed required a complete shut down of brain and heart activity in order safely to operate on an aneurysm at the base of the brain. None the less, after being anaesthetised for 90 minutes but not as the video suggested when she was flatlined, she accurately observed aspects of the surgical procedure which were either a departure from what would have been the standard order of events or had unusual features, such as the bizarre appearance of the “saw” used, of which she could have had no prior knowledge. The surgeon in the case, and others who commented such as Peter Fenwick, felt that the usual methods of registering visual perceptions and memories in the brain would certainly have been unavailable to her and could offer no explanation of how she could have subsequently had access to the experiences she described.

The problem here is that my ‘black swan’ torpedo, something that holes the titanic edifice of materialism below the waterline, is someone else’s ‘delusional anecdote’ only serving to prove how gullible we afterlifers are.

How good it is, then, to find a science heavy-weight pulling together a massive array of assorted evidence to call the whole enterprise of materialism into serious question. Rupert Sheldrake may not be a mainstream scientist accepted by the practitioners of the prevailing orthodoxy but he has too much credibility to be lightly dismissed.

The evidence he marshals in his book, The Science Delusion, covers many areas. For the purposes of this post I am focusing on the evidence that relates to consciousness in some way and supports the possibility of its not residing entirely in the brain. In fact, according to the evidence he quotes, some its most important aspects appear to be located elsewhere altogether.

Brainless means brain-dead, right?

Let me put a key point right up front.

Even the dimmest materialist can tell me that I must be wrong about consciousness because, when you do enough damage to the brain, the lights go out. Sheldrake enables me to ask, though, how much damage is enough? 25%? 50%? 75%? 95%?

He has an answer. There is no way of knowing how much damage will destroy effective consciousness and functioning in any individual case. Massive damage can sometimes have little detectable effect (page 193):

John Lorber . . . scanned the brains of more than six hundred people with hydrocephalus, and found that about sixty had more than 95 per cent of the cranial cavity filled with cerebrospinal fluid. Some were seriously retarded, but others were more or less normal, and some had IQs of well over 100. One young man who had an IQ of 126 and a first-class degree in mathematics, a student from Sheffield University, had ‘virtually no brain’. . . . . His mental activity and his memory were still able to function more or less normally even though he had a brain only five per cent of the normal size.

He looks then at the well-researched area of memory to unearth an intriguing possibility (page 194-198):

More than a century of intensive, well-funded research has failed to pin down memory traces in brains. There may be a very simple reason for this: the hypothetical traces do not exist. However long or hard researchers look for them they may never find them. Instead, memories may depend on morphic resonance from an organism’s own past. The brain may be more like a television set than a hard-drive recorder.

. . . the fact that injury and brain degeneration, as in Alzheimer’s disease, lead to loss of memory does not prove that memories are stored in the damaged tissue. If I snipped a wire or removed some components from the sound circuits of your TV set, I could render it speechless, or aphasic. But this would not mean that all the sounds were stored in the damaged components.

. . . But what if the holographic wave-patterns are not stored in the brain at all? Pribram later came to this conclusion, and thought of the brain as a ‘wave-form analyser’ rather than a storage system, comparing it to a radio receiver that picked up wave-forms from the ‘implicate order’, rendering them explicate.

And it’s a small step from there to Goswami’s ‘consciousness is the ground of being’ which we described in the earlier post (page 114-115):

The philosopher Galen Strawson, himself a materialist, is amazed by the willingness of so many of his fellow philosophers to deny the reality of their own experience . . . He argues that a consistent materialism must imply panpsychism, namely the idea that even atoms and molecules have a primitive kind of mentality or experience. . . Panpsychism does not mean that atoms are conscious in the sense that we are, but only that some aspects of mentality or experience are present in the simplest physical systems. More complex forms of mind or experience emerge in more complex systems.

It all depends upon your point of view perhaps (page 119):

The philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce saw the physical and mental as different aspects of underlying reality: ‘All mind more or less partakes of the nature of matter . . . Viewing a thing from the outside . . . it appears as matter. Viewing it from the inside . . . it appears as consciousness.’

David Bohm

Our point of view will have consequences

It is an important issue though as our conclusions about it have implications for the way we live. Consciousness may be inherent in the universe. Bohm is another who raises this point (page 126):

Bohm observed, ‘The question is whether matter is rather crude and mechanical or whether it gets more and more subtle and becomes indistinguishable from what people have called mind.’ . . . In other words, mind is already inherent in every electron, and the processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call ‘chance’ when they are made by an electron.

If so what are the implications then? A sense of purpose is a major one (page 128).

It makes a big difference if you think of yourself as a zombie-like mechanism in an unconscious mechanical world, or as a truly conscious being capable of making choices, living among other beings with sensations, experiences and desires.

Maybe what we make of ourselves and of our world, in other words our entire future, will in part hinge on the answer we find to the question of consciousness (page 130):

Purposes exist in a virtual realm, rather than a physical reality. They connect organisms to ends or goals that have not yet happened; they are attractors, in the language of dynamics, a branch of modern mathematics. Purposes or attractors cannot be weighed; they are not material.

To make the point completely clear he later states (page 140):

Developing systems are attracted towards their ends or goals. They are not only pushed from the past, they are pulled from the future.

Yes, there is a push from the past and this is driven mostly from our unconscious as last week’s Horizon programme on BBC2 illustrated very powerfully. But, as we have already said, there is also a pull from the future which is mostly responded to in consciousness.

So, what is going to happen lies in our own hands and depends to a significant extent upon our conscious choices. If we come to feel that those choices are all already completely determined by some billiard-ball-type interactions among our billions of neurones, we will behave very differently from how we would behave if we felt that we could freely choose a course of action determined to a significant extent by a freely chosen vision of what we wanted to achieve. At the very least, it creates a greater sense of responsibility for our actions.

What is also important is that the concept of consciousness being explored here by Sheldrake implies a strong degree of interconnectedness that in turn, for me, suggests that more than mirror neurones lie behind the experience of compassion. It is interesting in this light to read Thomas Mellen‘s account, in his story of his near death experience, of when he encountered the being of Light (Ken Ring – Lessons from the Light – page  287):

And at that time, the Light revealed itself to me on a level that I had never been to before. I can’t say it’s words; it was a telepathic understanding more than anything else, very vivid. I could feel it, I could feel this light. And the Light just reacted and revealed itself on another level, and the message was “Yes, [for] most people, depending on where you are coming from, it could be Jesus, it could be Buddha, it could be Krishna, whatever.”

But I said, “But what it is really?” And the Light then changed into – the only thing I can tell you [is that] it turned into a matrix, a mandala of human souls, and what I saw was that what we call our higher self in each of us is a matrix. It’s also a conduit to the source; each one of us comes directly, as a direct experience [from] the source. And it became very clear to me that all the higher selves are connected as one being, all humans are connected as one being, we are actually the same being, different aspects of the same being. And I saw this mandala of human souls. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, just [voice trembles], I just went into it and [voice falters], it was just overwhelming [he chokes], it was like all the love you’ve ever wanted, and it was the kind of love that cures, heals, regenerates.

And before you say it, if my preference for this picture, based on the evidence I have adduced, has in fact really been predetermined, then so has the preference of a materialist for a different reductionist picture. So why would his or her views have more weight than mine?

We all know the choice is ours really. Nothing can rationalise that reality away, I believe. A lot depends upon it.

No pressure then.

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21st March is the Bahá’í New Year.

The poem below seems appropriate for this day.

 

For Background Mandala see link

 

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. . . 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.

( ‘Abdu’l-Bahá  in Some Answered Questions, page 208)

The sciences evolve, and so do religions. No religion is the same today as it was at the time of its founder. Instead of the bitter conflicts and mutual distrust caused by the materialist worldview, we are entering an era in which sciences and religions may enrich each other through shared explorations.

(Baumeister & Tierney: Willpower, page 340)

What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind.

(George Berkeley)

Consciousness is preposterous. It can’t be possible yet it exists. I know it does because I am writing this. You know it does if you are reading this. Because it exists and we are in a sense (well, five of them at least, actually) the experience of consciousness, we are usually blind to its sheer improbability. So much for the senses, then.

Perhaps this paradox is why it is currently a battle ground between those who believe mind is merely matter and those who believe that mind is much more than matter. This difference, as we will see, has implications for whether our actions are completely determined by unconscious processes or are freely chosen. Yes, there is a push from our unconscious, partly the result of evolution and partly the result of automated memories, as last Tuesday’s Horizon programme on BBC2 illustrated very powerfully. But – and it’s a very important but – there is also a sense of purpose which creates a pull from the future which is mostly mediated through our conscious mind.

In my lifetime I have switched sides in this battle for reasons too many to list here. I used to believe in nothing that I couldn’t directly experience with my ordinary senses. Now I believe there is a spiritual dimension even though it would be fair to say I have never experienced it directly. Other people that I have come to trust have had such experiences though and my earlier conversion to this point of view is constantly reaffirmed by their testimony.

A Physicist’s Personal Testimony

Amit Goswami, the physicist, in an interview about his book, The Self-Aware Universe, which I quoted in a post about three years ago,  confirms the mystic insight and vividly conveys his sense of it:

So then one time — and this is where the breakthrough happened — my wife and I were in Ventura, California and a mystic friend, Joel Morwood, came down from Los Angeles, and we all went to hear Krishnamurti. And Krishnamurti, of course, is extremely impressive, a very great mystic. So we heard him and then we came back home. We had dinner and we were talking, and I was giving Joel a spiel about my latest ideas of the quantum theory of consciousness and Joel just challenged me. He said, “Can consciousness be explained?” And I tried to wriggle my way through that but he wouldn’t listen. He said, “You are putting on scientific blinders. You don’t realize that consciousness is the ground of all being.” He didn’t use that particular word, but he said something like, “There is nothing but God.”

And something flipped inside of me which I cannot quite explain. This is the ultimate cognition, that I had at that very moment. There was a complete about-turn in my psyche and I just realized that consciousness is the ground of all being. I remember staying up that night, looking at the sky and having a real mystical feeling about what the world is, and the complete conviction that this is the way the world is, this is the way that reality is, and one can do science. You see, the prevalent notion — even among people like David Bohm — was, “How can you ever do science without assuming that there is reality and material and all this? How can you do science if you let consciousness do things which are ‘arbitrary’?” But I became completely convinced — there has not been a shred of doubt ever since — that one can do science on this basis.

More Mystical Angles on the Matter

Andrew Powell, in Thinking Beyond the Brain, an intriguing book edited by David Lorimer, put me onto Goswami. He concludes, ‘Everything is mind,’ (page 182) and goes on to say (page 186):

. . . there is a more important truth to be discovered, that we are one. If humankind should ever learn that what belongs to one belongs to all, heaven on earth will be assured.

In the same book (pages 128-131) there is an account of a similar but not identical mystical experience. Charles Tart quotes the story of a Doctor S who was an atheist at the time. He was alone, watching the sunset, which was particularly beautiful that evening. All verbal thinking stopped. While what he experienced was, he said, impossible to express, he did try to convey it in words (page 130):

I was certain that the universe was one whole and that it was benign and loving at its ground. . . . . God as experienced in cosmic consciousness is the very ground or beingness of the Universe and has no human characteristics in the usual sense of the word. The Universe could no more be separate from God than my body could separate from its cells. Moreover the only emotion that I would associate with God is love, but it would be more accurate to say that God is love, than that God is loving.

Most religions, and the Bahá’í Faith is no exception, hold that God is more than the universe: they mostly agree also that God permeates the universe in some way. Which means, of course, that He is in us also. Bahá’u’lláh confirms this when He exhorts us to:

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee . . .

(Hidden Words from the Arabic: Number 13)

The implications for the nature of consciousness are immense if, as I do, you believe this to be true. What if you don’t?

Is this the best hard evidence we can get?

Aren’t these just anecdotes and metaphors, carrying no more weight than any other personal opinion? Is this going to help reconcile the differences between faith and science in this all important area?

Fortunately, since I first explored this question much more research has come into the public domain. And I’m not talking about things like Near Death Experiences (see the links at the end of this post), or David Fontana‘s explorations of the reality of the soul and the afterlife. I’m referring to work such as Schwartz‘s that demonstrates that the mind is not easily reducible to the brain but rather can, by force of deliberate willed attention, change the brain. Not quite enough to carry a hard-line materialist with me, though? Not even enough to cause him or her a fleeting doubt?

Well, beyond that, and most recently, there has been Rupert Sheldrake‘s book The Science Delusion. In the next post I will seek to unpack some of the most telling points he makes that should cause us to question too glib an attachment to a materialist explanation of consciousness.

Related Articles

The Afterlife Hypothesis (1/3)

The Afterlife Hypothesis Tested (2/3)

Is the Afterlife Hypothesis Useful (3/3)

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Yesterday I managed to find time to watch a BBC 4 programme I’d recorded which had been screened in memory of Gerry Rafferty who died last year. I had forgotten how much I loved his music. For one thing the progress of technology has meant that since I sold my turntable I haven’t been able to play my LP of ‘City to City‘ and my tape deck went with it, along with my chance to revisit the other music of his I have. This programme brought it all back. I can sense a leaking of the purse about to happen.

There was so much more to his art than ‘Baker Street.’ The harmonies and cadences of almost every song are emotionally rich and often hauntingly beautiful. Even though his days, largely because of alcohol abuse, provide another example of the gulf, explored elsewhere on this blog, that can occur between the art created and the life lived, he was greatly loved and is much missed.

For a Bahá’í and I suspect for many others who have faith in an invisible reality, his song ‘The Ark’, in the video below, has a special resonance, but many of his songs reached out beyond the mere material dimensions of this existence. I trust that wherever he is all his faults have been forgiven in the light of the legacy of uplifting music he has left us.

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Art teaches us not through its message – for it has no message as such – but through its awakening of sensibility and awareness.

(From Geoffrey Nash Restating the Idealist Theory of Art, page 168 in The Creative Circle edited by Michael Fitzgerald)

. . . . . fiction is not just a slice of life, it is a guided dream, a model that we readers and viewers construct in collaboration with the writer, which can enable us to see others and ourselves more clearly. The dream can offer us glimpses beneath the surface of the everyday world.

(From the Preface to Such Stuff as Dreams)

Keith Oatley‘s book, Such Stuff as Dreams, tackles the thorny and long-standing question of whether fiction is pointless and a nuisance or whether it has some value. I won’t rehearse the arguments he quotes from Plato onwards to suggest that fiction should be banned. Most of us have heard them all too often already. More interesting by far are his reasons for feeling this is unfair and the reasons for attacking fiction are basically unfounded. So, what justifies my relief that I need not burn all the novels on my shelves?

He doesn’t take a simple-minded approach to this topic. He is all too aware that there are issues. He accepts that more than one kind of fiction exists and not all kinds constitute art. He quotes Robin Collingwood (page 174) who

regarded such genres as action and romance as non-art, because they are not explorations. They follow formulae, and their writers intend to induce particular kinds of emotion. If successful they are entertaining. That’s their intention. But they are not art.

He also recognises that not all kinds of fiction are beneficial either (page 177):

The literature on possible effects of violence and of sexuality in the media is huge, and this is not the place to review it. Recent articles are by Paul Boxer et al. (2009) on effects on adolescents of media violence, and Deborah Fisher et al. (2009) on effects on adolescents of televised sexuality. Although there are questions as to how conclusive these bodies of research are, there is cause for concern that some forms of fiction may have harmful effects.

So, clearly enemies of fiction can select either pointless or damaging examples. However, the fiction that corrupts and destroys is not the kind he is considering. Real fiction, in his terms, is an art and is not to be dismissed as merely a pastime, a waste of time or worse an inducement to destructiveness. He feels that true fiction at its best is an art form. Art, for him, leads to uncharted territory (page 174):

. . . . art – I’ll offer a criterion –does not recruit people to believe or act or feel in a particular way.

He unpacks this idea further in many places, for example (page 177):

In fiction that is art, one is not programmed by the writer. One starts to explore and feel, perhaps, new things. One may start to think in new ways.

Moreover the area of human experience fiction is best at exploring lies in the area of selfhood and relationships.

He sees fiction as prosocial and moral. How does it work that way?

Fiction, Empathy and Relationships

His case is richly expressed so what follows is a selection of the key points in it that most resonated with my own preoccupations.

One of fiction’s most important benefits is the fostering of empathy. He defines empathy as follows (page 113):

In modern times, and on the basis of recent research on brain imaging, empathy has been described as involving: (a) having an emotion, that (b) is in some way similar to that of another person, that (c) is elicited by observation or imagination of the other’s emotion, and that involves (d) knowing that the other is the source of one’s own emotion.

He asks a general question ((page 95):

If we engage in the simulations of fiction, do the skills we learn there transfer to the everyday social world?

In this book he sees  fiction as (page 99)

. . . . . a kind of simulation, one that runs not on computers but on minds: a simulation of selves in their interactions with others in the social world. This is what Shakespeare and others called a dream.

And finds that the research suggests that the skills we learn there do transfer to ordinary life. After explaining a carefully controlled study by Raymond Mar (see video below for an interview with him), he writes that when all other variables were controlled for (and could therefore be discounted as an explanation of the effects) – page 159:

The result indicates that better abilities in empathy and theory of mind were best explained by the kind of reading people mostly did. . . . . .

Other studies he quotes all point in the same direction (page 165):

Nussbaum argues that this ability to identify with others by means of empathy or compassion is developed by the reading of fiction.

Others have looked back into history and discerned the same patterns (page 168):

Hunt’s finding is that invention of the idea of rights, the declarations of rights, and the changes in society that have followed them, depended on two factors. One was empathy, which depends, as Hunt says, on “a biologically based ability to understand the subjectivity of other people and to be able to imagine that their inner experiences are like one’s own” (p. 39). The other was the mobilization of this empathy towards those who were outside people’s immediate social groupings. Although Hunt does not attribute this mobilization entirely to literary art, she concludes that the novel contributed to it substantially.

But empathy is not all there is to it. His discussion of these other aspects is equally rich but there is not space here to unpack them (page 169).

A second theme in potentially beneficial effects of fiction is in understandings of relationships.

(His third theme I’m not sure is very different from his second as it concerns the dynamics of interactions in groups and is for me an aspect of relationships in general.) There is one more (page 170):

The fourth theme of fiction that can potentially prompt self-improvement is in understandings of the self.

Other Complicating Factors

He admits very readily that this apparently straightforward and rosy picture has its complications over and above the issue of whether we can agree on exactly which examples of fiction are art and which are not, which are destructive and which are not. Prose that serves the kind of social function he describes cannot be quite boundaried by the idea of fiction in any case (page 177):

The idea that the essence of fiction is of selves in the social world, or of intentions and their vicissitudes, is I think, correct, but the category has untidy boundaries. The conventional definition of fiction excludes, for instance, memoir and biography, which can also be about these matters. Recent biographies of relationships by Hazel Rowley (2006) Katie Roiphe (2007) and Janet Malcolm (2007) have had all the characteristics that I am writing about, as does a memoir of growing up in Germany in the 20s and 30s by Sebastian Haffner (2002).

The Brontes

You’d also think that being a writer of fiction would confer amazing benefits for the writer in his or her own life. The reality is that being a writer of fiction sadly does not guarantee happiness or adjustment in the life of the writer. No surprise there then for readers of this blog  This has been an ongoing concern of mine in terms of all art forms (see links below). It concerns Oatley as well (pages 177-178):

The question arises as to whether, if fiction helps social understanding, writers of fiction should be especially understanding of others and themselves. The much-replicated research by James Pennebaker (1997), in which writing about emotional problems has been found to have therapeutic properties, seems to support this hypothesis. Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley and Jordan Peterson (2006) have shown that writers of fiction tend to write about emotional preoccupations, particularly negative ones. It may be that some writers increase their understanding, but writers are not known generally for attainment of states of contentment or social decency. Although this question has not been well researched, it seems most likely that many writers of fiction do write from a position of struggle with their emotional lives. Perhaps many of them start from a position that is rather far out on this spectrum. So although they may make gains for themselves, they don’t necessarily do all that well as compared with the non-writing population.

You could decode that to be saying that tormented lives are seedbeds for major fiction and perhaps the writers would be worse people if they did not write. That would be a hard hypothesis to test in practice and the funding might be hard to come by as well.

Still, on balance, I feel Oatley makes a very good case for the value of great fiction. Let’s hope no one gets killed in the boundary disputes where one person’s masterpiece is morphing into someone else’s potboiler.

Related Articles:

The Compass of Compassion

Practising Compassion 1/2 & 2/2

Perfecting the Life or Perfecting the Art (1/2) & (2/2)

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