Archive for October 12th, 2020

Consider to what a remarkable extent the spirituality of people has been overcome by materialism so that spiritual susceptibility seems to have vanished, divine civilization become decadent, and guidance and knowledge of God no longer remain. All are submerged in the sea of materialism. Although some attend churches and temples of worship and devotion, it is in accordance with the traditions and imitations of their fathers and not for the investigation of reality.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 221)

The previous post ended with a key question: can we redress the imbalance, described by Margaret Donaldson in her book Human Minds: an exploration, that has tilted our culture towards the intellectual transcendent mode with a current mistaken emphasis on a purely materialistic science at the expense of the more spiritual approach of the value-sensing transcendent mode?

This is a question that matters.

We have been here before on this blog, though from a slightly different angle. Iain McGilchrist in his brilliant survey of the problem in The Master & his Emissary reaches a conclusion that pins down exactly why addressing this kind of problem matters when we look at our western society:[1]

The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity. This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth. . . . . .

There is a huge disadvantage for the right hemisphere here. If . . . knowledge has to be conveyed to someone else, it is in fact essential to be able to offer (apparent) certainties: to be able to repeat the process for the other person, build it up from the bits. That kind of knowledge can be handed on. . . . By contrast, passing on what the right hemisphere knows requires the other party already to have an understanding of it, which can be awakened in them. . .

On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, and perhaps also because it is more easily communicated than the subtle, nuanced, tentative, fluid and directly sensed approximation of reality that constitutes the right hemisphere experience, the left hemisphere view becomes the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships though are far better understood by the right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a rich morality, whereas the left hemisphere tends in its black and white world fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.

Donaldson’s Take on Redressing the Balance

She feels that developments in science itself have begun to undermine dogmatic materialism:[2]:

 . . . Following upon the work of Max Planck from which emerged quantum mechanics, earlier conceptions of matter itself – those lying at the very basis of the ‘materialistic’ theories of nature – were shown to be mistaken.

Consciousness plays an unexpected part. She quotes Eugene Wigner as saying[3] that ‘it was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.’ As a result ‘[t]he intellectual intellectual construct mode reaches its limits and the extension of knowledge depends ever more heavily upon mathematical reasoning.’

Donaldson’s feels that materialism as an explanation for everything is finished:

[4] . . . The activities of science can no longer reasonably be taken as tending to the conclusion that the universe is a mechanism which we can expect soon to understand completely. That idea is dead.

What grounds, though, does she have for also feeling that ‘[t]he way is now open for a general recognition that the value-sensing modes need not compete with the intellectual modes but can properly function in their own way.’

My recent reading of Matthew Cobb’s The Idea of the Brain and Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future suggest that the way may be open but it is certainly not unobstructed. By the way, I accept that there are valuable insights in both those books, and in Mason’s case a large number of crucial points that we need to take on board if we are ever to avert the collision of the Titanic of our global civilization with the various icebergs of imminent disaster. However, even Mason does not see the possible wisdom of adding Donaldson’s insights into his remedy.

William James. (For source of Image see link.)

She launches her case with a quote from William James that resonates strongly with the emphasis the Bahá’í Faith places on the essential harmony of science and religion. James recognized, she says, that science and religion are[5] ‘both of them genuine keys for unlocking the world’s treasure house;’ that ‘neither is exhaustive or exclusive of the other’s simultaneous use;’ and that religion at its higher flights is ‘infinitely passionate.’

Then, from within her modal model which I hope this does not muddle, she mentions our different ways of dealing with problems[6] ‘from within the line and core construct modes’ for example, via psychoanalysis or cognitive therapy. However, she adds, ‘there remains another kind of possibility: instead of trying to redeem a troublesome mode we may try to leave it, at least for a while,’ explaining that ‘[a]ll of us have at least some variety of the point mode to escape into.’ ‘For some people though[7] ‘the intellectual modes also provide a way out.’

Those are not her favoured modes of transcending problems because:[8]

. . . there is a whole different human tradition in which sitting still is held to be an essential feature of the effort to control suffering and thus to be a way in which many hours of a life can properly and profitably be spent.

And she goes on to ask whether we are ‘talking only about becoming happier, or also about becoming in some sense wiser or better?’

The Example of Buddhism

She then explores the path of Buddhism at some length, describing it[9] as ‘a particularly resolute attempt to develop skill in leaving undesirable modes at will.’

She states:[10]

Two possible escape routes are proposed in the early Buddhist texts and accepted in much Buddhist orthodoxy. Paul Griffiths calls them ‘the cultivation of tranquillity’ and ‘the cultivation of insight’, the first being an attempt to overcome attachment, and the second and attempt to overcome ignorance.

And in the end she explains:[11]

we are brought to the conclusion that, within the Buddhist traditions we have been considering, escape from the line mode and the core construct mode mainly entails movement into two other modes: a special detached or objective kind of point mode, and a version of the transcendent mode.

. . . Both systems depend on detached, uninvolved, direct observation, used in conjunction with some transcendent function.

Basically, for her,[12] ‘[t]he idea is therefore closely akin to the belief that meditation can help us achieve some kind of breakthrough from the finite to the infinite.’

Her detailed comparison of the intellectual and the value-sensing transcendent modes has at least one clear implication concerning the unhelpful asymmetry of our Western culture’s approach to science, religion and spirituality. Most of us trust the products of the obscure and effortful scientific process, even though we lack even a shred of confirming personal experience in some cases. This is true even though that trust has been eroded by post-modern thinking and climate denial amongst other things. However, most of us refuse to extend the same kind of trust to the equally effortful exertions of advanced meditators: we simply do not believe the data drawn from their experiences, at the very least dismissing it all as ‘anecdotal’ and/or ‘subjective.’

From a personal perspective, when I was studying for my MSc in Clinical Psychology at Surrey University, I came across substantial amounts of Buddhist literature in the library there. I was so impressed by the depths of psychological insight I found on the shelves, I then used every opportunity to attend talks and meditation training at the Buddhist Society in Eccleston Square, London.  I did not convert to Buddhism though, because there was much, in terms for example of reincarnation, that I could not accept, but I remained deeply impressed by many of its insights none the less.

Other Opportunities

Art has a part to play, as we heard from her before in a previous post. She quotes Iris Murdoch[13] as saying that art gives us ‘intermediate images’ which most of us could not do without, but which ‘can lead to a full stop if they are taken as being for real.’ This maps onto McGilchrist’s description of part of the right-hemisphere’s skillset, in The Master & his Emissary, his in-depth exploration of how we can balance the two hemisphere’s distinct kinds of functioning more effectively.

None of this is a level playing field within our culture.[14]:

… our inner cities have become particularly ‘impermeable’ to spiritual experience. . . . Reports… often mention as external triggers specific encounters with nature or art. Also there are repeated suggestions that being alone is helpful or even necessary. The lives of the least privileged people are clearly in all these ways seriously short of opportunity.

Even so, she declares optimistically:[15]

It is at any rate clear that experiences in the value sensing transcendent mode are not extinct among us. They surge up still in spite of the power of other modes which have threatened to exclude them. . . . The experiences come occasionally… but they do not constitute a resource that can be used for living. They cannot be counted as part of the modal repertoire.

So, we are a long way from having redressed the balance. What other challenges lie ahead in her view? That will have to wait for the next post.


[1]. The Master & his Emissary – pages 228-229.
[2] Human Minds: an exploration – page 186: unless otherwise stated all references are from this text.
[3]. Page 187.
[4]. Page 188.
[5]. Page 189.
[6]. Page 210.
[7]. Page 211.
[8]. Page 212.
[9]. Page 213.
[10]. Page 214.
[11]. Page 224.
[12]. Page 227.
[13]. Page 230.
[14]. Page 234.
[15]. Page 235.

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