Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

In the light of Monday’s link to Sharon Rawlette’s review of Leslie Kean’s book Surviving Death, it seemed worth republishing once more this sequence on essentially the same subject from a somewhat different angle. This is the last of the four: they appeared on consecutive days.

Having sought to establish, in his book Close Connections, that there is a spiritual dimension to reality, and that much that materialists see as explained away completely by the brain in fact has its roots in this other dimension, Hatcher shifts his focus onto a closer examination of some of the detailed implications of this.


Jenny Wade

For me,  perhaps the most fascinating one of all concerns the issue of memory. I’ve blogged about it a number of times. It is by no means settled yet what memory is and where it resides. Hatcher deals with this at some length. He explains his model in terms of spirit (page 251):

. . . . according to [the] Bahá’í perspective, the memory of self – even the recollection of specific events – will be retained by the soul and regained once the constraints of the associative relationship with the body are severed and the soul is released from its . . . . indirect connection with reality.‘

It may seem improbable that there could be any empirical basis for this. However, I have reviewed on this blog Jenny Wade’s book – Changes of Mind – and she is unequivocal that for her the evidence in favour of memory being held outside the brain is compelling. She reviews a mass of data based on careful investigations of the experiences of children, either from interviews with children or work with adults about prior experiences. What they described was carefully checked against the reports of independent witnesses (page 44):

Regression subjects … have accurately reported incidents long before any significant brain growthis possible, in some cases before the embryonic body was even formed.


William Wordsworth

Her model states that at conception the soul is independent of the body and its memories can be accessed by the child until about the age of four, after which the body becomes a barrier denying access. This is uncannily reminiscent of Wordsworth’s lines in the Ode on Immortality. I need to quote the whole stanza (lines 59-77):

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

What other evidence have we for supposing something rather more special than a mechanical process is going on here?

For me the growing literature on near death experiences (NDEs), which I have reviewed elsewhere, settles the question that consciousness is not produced by the brain and resides somewhere else. The brain simply decodes it for our body to use. It’s a no-brainer then that memory is no different. The brain can access it but does not contain it. Hatcher discusses other lines of thought that tend in the same direction.

Computer models do not provide an adequate account of how new learning is recorded and memories laid down. On page 252 Hatcher quotes from an article by Joannie Schrof ‘What is a Memory Made of?’

Where a computer encodes data in strings of 0’s and 1’s, the brain forms ephemeral patterns of chemical and electrical impulses. Where computers record information in serial order like an index-card file, the human brain creates sprawling interconnections; more than a hundred billion nerves cells each connected to hundreds of thousands of others to form a billion connections.

In addition, he points towards Robert Rosen‘s book Life Itself (pages 253-54) who writes:

. . . no new information . . . can be processed by a computer if the computer has not already been programmed to consider this information. The brain, however, can effectively create new sequences and new pathways.

Others that I have referred to elsewhere have also raised radical doubts about the computer model. Take Pim van Lommel again, in his book Consciousness beyond LifeHe quotes the conclusions of a computer expert and a neurobiologist (page 193):

Simon Berkovich, a computer expert, has calculated that despite the brain’s huge numbers of synapses, its capacity for storing a lifetime’s memories, along with associated thoughts and emotions, is completely insufficient. . . . . . Neurobiologist Herms Romijn, formerly of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, also demonstrated that the storage of all memories in the brain is anatomically and functionally impossible.

Credibility is lent to the implications of this argument by exceptional but genuine cases of brain damage, take for example (page 194):

John Lorber’s description of a healthy young man with a university degree in mathematics and an IQ of 126. A brain scan revealed a severe case of hydrocephalus: 95 percent of his skull was filled with cerebrospinal fluid, and his cerebral cortex measured only about 2 millimeters thick, leaving barely any brain tissue. The weight of his remaining brain was estimated at 100 grams (compared to a normal weight of 1,500 grams), and yet his brain function was unimpaired.


Karl Pribram (for the YouTube interview this comes from see link)

Though some critics feel that Lorber has overstated his case, the general point that severely compromised brains can function improbably well is not in question.

Where Hatcher goes next surprised me. He draws on the work of Pribram. I had read, as an undergraduate, his early work on plans and the structure of behaviour but perhaps I qualified too soon to benefit from the direction of his later work, that Hatcher refers to now. He describes (page 255) Pribram’s 1985  ‘holographic theory.’

As a concept of how the brain processes ideas or memory, the holographic theory implies that each portion of the brain contributing to the recollected idea would contain the complete thought, not a piece of it.

This took Pribram somewhere even more radically different from what I was taught in the 70s and early 80s (page 257-259):

Pribram has stated that the more he studies the brain and its functions, the more he feels that there may well be something outside the brain that accounts for its activity and capacity! . . . . .  the source from which the brain receives its “program” needs to be greater than the brain itself – the cause has to be greater than the effect it produces.’

And we find ourselves back with a familiar metaphor (page 257):

. . . Pribram has observed that when he studies the brain, he feels that in truth he is examining an elaborate transceiver rather than the ultimate repository of memory, the ultimate origin of self-consciousness, the primal engine of creativity, the seminal source of will, or the instigator of action.

Hatcher pushes this further and confronts the basic question which he feels is unanswerable in material terms (page 258): ‘. . . how can the brain be in charge of making itself function as a brain?’

This for him constitutes irrefutable grounds for believing in a transcendent reality imbued with a higher consciousness (page 258):

The most elaborate and powerful computer we have created or will ever create cannot program itself unless it is programmed to program itself. In short, there must exist for any given machine – or machine model of the brain – some willful input from an outside source for it to have any sense of goals or values, or for it to be capable of evaluating progress towards those goals.

And this brings him to a powerful and important point. We have a delicate and complex instrument entrusted to us for purposes that we are hardly even beginning to understand and we have to treat it with the utmost care and respect (page 259):

. . . the brain, as a counterpart of the soul and its faculties, . . . .  must be capable of mimicking in physical . . . terms everything the soul feels, conceives, decides, or wills. This fact explains why a human soul cannot associate with (operate through) anything less complex or less ingeniously devised than the human brain. . . . . Any practice or substance that distorts the associative relationship between soul and body or that tampers with the brain endangers our ability to function as complete human beings and, thereby, to fulfill our earthly purpose of attaining the knowledge of abstract reality . . .

For me this book pulled together thinking from many disciplines into a coherent and compelling case for the soul. The work he adduces usefully complements my own reading and suggests many directions I could now take it. For that I am most grateful. The least I could do, I felt, was bring this thoughtful book to  the attention of others.

CC books

Read Full Post »

Connections 4 Oct 2013

In the light of Monday’s link to Sharon Rawlette’s review of Leslie Kean’s book Surviving Death, it seemed worth republishing once more this sequence on essentially the same subject from a somewhat different angle. This is the third of four: they appear on consecutive days, the last tomorrow.

At the end of the last post I rashly promised to pick up the threads of Hatcher’s overall position on the brain-mind-soul-spirit issue in his valiant effort to explain their interrelationships in Close Connections. So, here goes.

In spite of all that we are not sure about, what is clear, from Hatcher’s and my point of view, is there are four aspects to experience important to any consideration of consciousness:

  1. the body/brain which can up to a point receive messages from
  2. the mind which is related in some way to
  3. the rational soul/human spirit which in turn has some kind of access to
  4. the Spirit with a capital ‘S.’

I am certainly not competent to take the matter any further other than by unpacking what I have just said slightly more clearly.  It is this physical aspect of awareness – the brain – through which we consciously experience what we call our mind, which there is much evidence to suggest has access to a dimension of reality that seems best described as spiritual. I tend to see the ‘human spirit,’ as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá terms it in one place at least, as the ‘soul.’ The mind, whose signals are decoded albeit imperfectly by the brain, emanates from this ‘human spirit’ or ‘soul’ which in turn has access to a spiritual realm of infinite proportions, whose complexities it seeks to transmit to the brain via the mind.

This may be the weakest point of Hatcher’s treatment and/or my understanding of this subject, but I am none the less grateful to him for triggering me to probe somewhat more deeply into the matter than I had done so far, and also to provide me with other avenues to explore for evidence and understanding.

This process by which this kind of communication between spirit and body brings ‘about patterns of action that enable the daily life of the individual to demonstrate an ever more refined spiritual or inner life’ is by no means automatic. Willpower plays a critical role (page 223):

Within this context ‘Abdu’l-Bahá affirms that our own advancement, however much it may be assisted from forces outside ourselves, must be instigated and sustained by our own will.

And there is no wriggle room here, no get-out clauses (page 224):

… while we may have little or no control over the path our life will take or what tests and calamities will befall us, we do have control over how we respond to all circumstances.


Jeffrey Schwartz

This blog has explored two schools of empirically based thought which validate the importance of the exercise of willpower in personal change. Schwartz, in his thorough description of his understanding and its basis in the experimental literature – The Mind and the Brain – sees it this way (his model involves four stages – page 94).

The changes the Four Steps can produce in the brain offered strong evidence that willful [i.e. willed], mindful effort can alter brain function, and that such self-directed brain changes – neuroplasticity – are a genuine reality.

The other approach, which is complementary not contradictory, is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, explored by Hayes at al in the book of the same name (page 247):

Many clients have long-standing and strongly reinforced avoidance repertoires that can be expected to reappear. . . . . . [T]he client’s job is not just to determine a direction but to reaffirm that direction when obstacles appear. . . . . [W]hen we are travelling in a particular direction, the journey can take us across difficult ground. . . . [W]e don’t walk into pain because we like pain. We walk through the pain in the service of taking a valued direction.

Hatcher is not blind to the heated debate which continues to rage around this whole issue between materialists who wish to see everything, including consciousness, explained entirely in physical terms and others who argue for the reality of a metaphysical dimension. His response is clear (page 227):

… The simplest response to [materialistic] arguments is that if these hypotheses are fashioned by the author’s own illusory faculties, then the hypotheses themselves maybe illusory or baseless. In effect, any hypothesis to the contrary has quite as much weight if all suppositions about reality are purely subjective and self-constructed.


We’ve been here before with Alvin Plantinga‘s brilliant and cogently argued hoisting of naturalism’s arguments, rooted in evolutionary theory, with its own petard in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies (page 315):

The principal function or purpose, then, . . . . . of our cognitive faculties is not that of producing true or verisimilitudinous (nearly true) beliefs, but instead that of contributing to survival by getting the body parts in the right place.  . . . hence it does not guarantee mostly true or verisimilitudinous beliefs. . . . . What Churchland therefore suggests is that naturalistic evolution—that theory—gives us reason to doubt two things: (a) that a purpose of our cognitive systems is that of serving us with true beliefs, and (b) that they do, in fact, furnish us with mostly true beliefs.

Hatcher goes on to examine evidence that the will can affect not just the brain, as Schwartz has demonstrated, but also physical reality outside the body of the consciousness deploying its intentions. He looks at the work of Jahn and Dunne, for example. They were critically reviewing, amongst other things, what they concluded was the rigorous evidence for tele/psychokinesis (pages 228-29):  ‘Amazingly, the documented results revealed an interplay between the conscious will of the participants and the distribution of the [ping-pong] balls.’ This kind of evidence, as we know, is dismissed a priori by practitioners of scientism on the grounds that they know this is impossible and the experiments must by definition be flawed and therefore not worth looking at let alone seeking to replicate.

While I am not familiar with the experiments Hatcher is referring to I have read two books which look carefully at the research evidence as a whole in the field of parapsychology. Both books come down cautiously in favour of the idea that something genuine is happening in terms of psychokinesis, though the most compelling evidence is derived from studies which involved influencing a random number generator rather than dice, because methodological rigour is easier to achieve. Deborah Delanoy in Jane Henry’s book Parapsychology: research on exceptional experiences quotes Radin and Nelson (page 54) who:

. . . . concluded that “it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that under certain circumstances, consciousness interacts with random physical systems.”

Harvey Irwin in his book An Introduction of Parasychology makes a very sophisticated point about these same data (page 134):

That this phenomena [sic] necessarily entails a “mind over matter” effect as implied by the PK [psychokinesis] hypothesis is another issue. . . . . Statistically significant performances may stem not from a psychokinetic process but from precognitive identification of an appropriate time to commence the experimental series or to make a response in the experimental task. . . . . .  Recent analyses … suggest that this explanation does not fit the data as effectively as the assumption of direct (PK) influence, but the simple fact that the intuitive data sorting hypothesis can be proposed is sufficient to indicate that the PK research is not conclusive for the issue of ontological reality. . . . It cannot be said that a “mind over matter” effect has been authenticated.

Even so, if PK cannot be definitively ruled in because some form of clairvoyance might be at work, this hardly boosts the materialists’ cause.

You may be relieved or disappointed to know that we are now close to the end of Hatcher’s brave and for the most part lucid account of this complex area. He next gets to grips with issues such as memory, the definition of whose exact nature still eludes the experts. More of that in the next post.

Read Full Post »


John Hatcher

In the light of Monday’s link to Sharon Rawlette’s review of Leslie Kean’s book Surviving Death, it seemed worth republishing once more this sequence on essentially the same subject from a somewhat different angle. This is the second of four: they appear on consecutive days.

At the close of the previous post, we saw that Hatcher’s explanation of his position in Close Connections so far had paved the way for a number of quotations from the Bahá’í literature.  I have been familiar with these quotes ever since I wrestled with the discrepancy between what I had been taught as an agnostic clinical psychologist in training and what my newly found spiritual path was telling me. They are central to the issues under discussion and were extremely useful to me in my search for a deeper understanding.

First of all he quotes the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (page 196):

Man has also spiritual powers: imagination, which conceives things; thought, which reflects upon realities; comprehension, which comprehends realities; memory, which retains whatever man imagines, thinks and comprehends.

Hatcher then goes on to allude to a problem that is still challenging to grapple with – what are we talking about when we say ‘soul’ and what does it mean when we say ‘spirit’? He quotes the helpful words of Shoghi Effendi (page 206):

What the Bahá’ís do believe though is that we have three aspects of our humanness, so to speak, a body, a mind and and an immortal identity – soul or spirit. We believe the mind forms a link between the soul and the body, and the two interact with each other.

A translation of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá seems to clarify this in a further quotation (page 208): ‘. . . . the soul is the intermediary between the body and spirit.’ This carries an implication that there is a strong link between mind and soul, even if they are not identical. There is another useful quotation from a book which pulls together His responses to questions that people put to Him (page 209):

. . . . 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.

This indicates the closeness of the correspondence.

Light & Lamp

Hatcher spells out the importance for him of the distinction between soul and spirit (page 209):

For our purposes, this distinction will assume more importance as we elaborate the two methodologies by which the spirit operates as the conduit for information channelled to the conscious soul. Hence the distinction between soul and spirit is relevant to our study.

I have to confess I got a bit lost at this point and still am. I am not completely sure whether Hatcher is using ‘conscious soul’ as meaning the same as ‘mind’ in the quote immediately above his words. I am assuming at this point that he is, but that assumption will shortly be severely tested.

Before he deals with the two methodologies there is a bit more ground to cover in the translation of the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (page 213):

For the mind to manifest itself, the human body must be whole; and a sound mind cannot be but in a sound body, whereas the soul dependeth not upon the body. It is through the power of the soul that the mind comprehendeth, imagineth and exerteth its influence, while the soul is a power that is free.

As Hatcher points out later, this is why the Baha’i Writings place such emphasis on the avoidance of drugs and alcohol, both of which cause a degree of damage to the brain, the organ which even at its best will struggle to decode the complex information reaching it from the spiritual realm.

And now for the two methodologies (page 215):

The mind infers or induces the general from the particular and the unknown from the known. This is what we commonly allude to as the scientific method. However, the soul also has as its disposal methods for acquiring information about reality directly from the spiritual realm – through prayer and reflection, meditation, dreams, intuition, inspiration, and so forth.

It’s important to note, though, that (page 216)  ‘. . . regardless from what source information derives, it ends up in the same “place” . . . . . – it ends up in our conscious mind.’

At this point Hatcher summarises what he feels we have learnt so far before moving onto even deeper levels (page 218):

Between the human soul and the human temple is the intermediary of the human spirit, which employs the medium (perfect mirror or transceiver) of the rational faculty or the mind to bring about patterns of action that enable the daily life of the individual to demonstrate an ever more refined spiritual or ‘inner’ life.

Brain-Mind-Spirit Diagram

I have refrained from bringing in other references that Hatcher makes to such terms as ‘rational soul’ and ‘common faculty’ as they would have complicated things further in ways that would have extended this discussion unduly without adding much to its essence. For instance, he explains at the end of the paragraph discussing the ‘rational soul’ (pages 207-208) that: ”Abdu’l-Bahá sometimes employs the term spirit to allude to the human soul, while at other times he may use the same term to refer to the power that animates the soul and emanates from it.’ Later he writes, of the  ‘common faculty,’ (page 238):

The ‘common faculty’ thus translates metaphysical ideas into a form that the physical brain can comprehend and subsequently translate into forms of action.

This is not a concept that I have met anywhere else and addresses a problem that I do not think is widely recognised. We  know next to nothing about how this ‘common faculty’ might perform its role. There has to be a bridge, though, between the immaterial and the material. It is not clear yet by what methods we might come to a better understanding of how it works.

Setting those aside for the purpose of  keeping this review within manageable bounds, if I can summarise my problem at this point it is that we have met, in the last few paragraphs, the following models:

  1. Body (the physical) – Mind (the intermediary) – Soul (the metaphysical): Shoghi Effendi’s explanation.
  2. Body (the physical) – Soul (the intermediary) – Spirit (the metaphysical): ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s explanation.
  3. Mind (an emanation) – Spirit (the immaterial source of the mind): ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s response to a question,
  4. Body (the physical) – Conscious Soul (the intermediary) – Spirit (the metaphysical): Hatcher’s first formulation.
  5. Body (the physical) – Mind (means of inference from specifics) – Soul (direct access to the spiritual): Hatcher’s second formulation.
  6. Human temple (the physical) – Human Spirit using the Mind (the intermediary) – Human Soul: Hatcher’s final formulation.

So my provisional assumption that Hatcher is using ‘soul’ and ‘mind’ as roughly equivalent is not entirely consistent with his usage overall. It may well be that I need to re-read these sections of the book yet again, for the third time, in the hope that I will discover that the confusion is entirely mine. However, I do not have the time (or do I mean the motivation?) to do that at present and I suspect that the fault lies at least in part with the shifting sands of the terminology used here. I find the reasons the Guardian, Shoghi Effendi, gave for his clarification quoted earlier most helpful in this situation. (To be fair, Hatcher also quotes it but I feel loses hold of its core warning on this issue as his discussion progresses.)

When studying at present, in English, the available Bahá’í writings on the subject of body, soul and spirit, one is handicapped by a certain lack of clarity because not all were translated by the same person, and also there are, as you know, still many Bahá’í writings untranslated. But there is no doubt that spirit and soul seem to have been interchanged in meaning sometimes; soul and mind have, likewise, been interchanged in meaning, no doubt due to difficulties arising from different translations.

I think we basically have to leave it there for now, at least as far as the Bahá’í explanation is concerned.  I will pick up the threads of this theme, as far as that is possible, in the next post. The picture below will be the link.

Connections 4 Oct 2013

Read Full Post »

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

William James (for source of image see link)

We may think of science as one wing and religion as the other; a bird needs two wings for flight, one alone would be useless. Any religion that contradicts science or that is opposed to it, is only ignorance—for ignorance is the opposite of knowledge. Religion which consists only of rites and ceremonies of prejudice is not the truth. Let us earnestly endeavour to be the means of uniting religion and science.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks – pages 130-131)

“Let empiricism once become associated with religion, as hitherto, through some strange misunderstanding, it has become associated with irreligion,” James writes, “and I believe a new era of religion as well as philosophy will be ready to begin.”

(William James quoted in Lamberth – page 152)

Human beings are not passive observers of reality and our personal reality, our thought, is not simply imposed upon us. In a very specific way we may consider ourselves – collectively – as co-creators of reality, for through the power of the human mind and our interactions, the world undergoes continued transformation.

(Paul LampleRevelation and Social Reality – page 6)

. . . . and this is the last post republished on the back of my most recent visit to Hay-on-Wye. What would I do without second-hand books? not much, I suspect!

My battle to finish reading Irreducible Mind, the Kellys’ monumental and significant collection of chapters on how psychology lost the plot at the beginning of the last century and where it should think about going from here, alerted me, when I visited Hay-on-Wye and Cardiff, to look out for anything about William James or Frederick Myers.

I found zilch on Myers in either place, sadly, as I wanted some real books of his instead of the soft copies I’ve downloaded. It feels distinctly incongruous reading massive 19th Century masterpieces on an iPad.

I was much luckier with the better known, but not necessarily more significant James. I decided to start by reading the thinnest of the three books I now have, one I’d acquired in a bookshop hidden away down Morgan’s Arcade in Cardiff near the Plan café.

This may not have been as smart a move as I thought as thin does not mean easy to read, as I discovered. None the less David Lamberth’s book, William James and the Metaphysics of Experience, has turned out to be an excellent starting point, even though I probably understood less than half of the first half of the book.

The last part, though, from my point of view, was crammed with valuable insights into where James took us to and where we might now profit by following the path he was pointing towards.

The key to what Lamberth feels James is saying is summarised in the title to this piece. Not surprisingly grasping this idea, for me, Lamberthdepends upon a rigorous way of analysing what religious revelation might mean operationally for those of us who are striving to understand where humanity is spiritually at this point in its history. By that I mean ‘What does it imply both for how we enhance our understanding further and how do we turn that understanding into effective action, socially, scientifically and morally? Lamberth helps towards the clearer definition of those implications.

Acknowledging that Lamberth may not be able to recognise his own ideas in the use I am going to make of them, I will quote him whenever possible, though obviously outside of the full context of his thinking which I don’t completely understand. I doubt I’ll ever make it now as a philosopher.

James’s Dissatisfaction with Materialism

It would seem that, while James was a resolute empiricist, he was deeply frustrated by materialism (page 155):

[James] generally sides with empiricism on methodological grounds, even though he was consistently dissatisfied with the world-view of its premiere representative, materialism.

This seems partly to relate to the distinction, in James’s own words (page 182), between ‘theoretic . . knowledge about things’ as against ‘living contemplation or sympathetic acquaintance with them.’ The former ‘touches only on the outer surface of reality.’

Lamberth explains (page 184):

. . . [c]uts that are made in the fabric [of experience] conceptually must be seen to be arbitrary to a degree, in that they are not necessarily “natural” to the pure experience itself . . .

James expresses the problem vividly (page 186):

Philosophy should seek this kind of living understanding of the movement of reality, not follow science in vainly patching together fragments of its dead results.

Lamberth goes on (ibid.):

(James) seeks a philosophy that both can account for the practical successes of the sciences and can value and provide insight into our moral and religious sentiments and experiences . . . .

The Nature of the Transcendent

This leads on to the consideration of exactly what is truth and its possible relationship with our concept of the absolute. Lamberth quotes James’s own statement of part of this problem (page 192):

. . . .[I]s one all inclusive purpose harboured by a general world-soul, embracing all sub-purposes in its system? Or are there many various purposes, keeping house together as they can, with no overarching purpose to include them?

James clearly struggles with this, remarking on the next page of A Pluralistic Universe, from which this quote was taken, that ‘We are indeed internal parts of God and not external creations.’

Lamberth takes the view that, in the end, James does not feel able to conclude with certainty that there is an Absolute. His ‘pluralism’ (I will return to what that might mean for James) assumes (page 197) ‘that the superhuman consciousness, however vast it may be, has itself an external environment, and consequently is finite.’ As we will see as this argument unfolds, this is a much subtler and far less reductionist position than might at first seem the case.

It will help to start from James’s own words (page 198):

Our “normal” consciousness is circumscribed for adaptation to an external environment, but the fence is weak in spots, and fitful influences from beyond leak in, showing the otherwise unverifiable common connection [between all]. Not only psychical research, but metaphysical philosophy and speculative biology are led in their own way to look with favour on some such “panpsychic” view of the universe as this.

The modern mind, saturated as it is in materialist mantras, could find this naïve. Lamberth is keen to dispel this preconception (ibid):

Contrary to what his final conclusions suggest, James was actually quite sceptical of jumping to conclusions about the veracity of purported psychical events. He did, however, find himself forced to resolve that the most reasonable explanation for certain psychical phenomena was to postulate some sort of “leakage” between a wider, interpersonal area of consciousness (or experience) and the otherwise “fenced” individual field or sphere of experience.


Wind-rose (for source of image see link)

From this we move, in my view, to a strong sense of the transcendent (page 199):

Every bit of us at every moment is part and parcel of a wider self, it quivers along various radii like the wind-rose[1] on a compass, and the actual in it is continuously one with possibles not yet in our present sight. And just as we are co-conscious with our own momentary margin, may we not ourselves form the margin of some more really central self in things which is co-conscious with the whole of us? May not you and I be confluent in a higher consciousness, and confluently active there, tho [sic] we now know it not?

The pluralism mentioned earlier therefore stems from our multitude of different perspectives as unique individuals who are subliminally interconnected and potentially subsumed into a greater consciousness.

James’s use of the word ‘pragmatism’ has been part of the source of confusion as to exactly what he means and what the implications are for any sense whatsoever of the ‘Absolute.’ Lamberth is clear that pragmatism, for James, was not limited to the material realm (page 212).

This allows for the possibility of the transcendent, the absolute even, and therefore absolute truth, in some sense, but in what sense exactly has been a vexed question apparently (page 216):

. . . the question of “Truth” has continued to vex interpreters of James to the present.

Lamberth finds Hilary Putnam’s work helpful here. Putnam sees James as distinguishing between ‘absolutely true’ and ‘half-true’ (page 216-17):

On Putnam’s reading, what is merely verified is always only “half-true” for James, while what is “true” by contrast, is true absolutely, standing in relation to an ideal or absolute truth to which we imagine all our formulations will converge.

Which is not the same, by any means, as saying that anyone knows the absolute truth (page 217):

“No relativist who ever actually walked the earth,” writes James, “has denied the regulative character is his own thinking of the notion of absolute truth. What is challenged by relativists is the pretence on anyone’s part to have found for certain at any given moment what the shape of that truth is.” James concludes by noting that “the proposition ‘There is absolute truth’ is the only absolute truth of which we can be sure.”

He continued (page 220):

. . . “[W]e have to live to-day by what truth we can get to-day, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.” . . . . . “No pragmatist needs to dogmatise about the consensus of opinion in the future being right,” James writes; “he need only postulate that it will probably contain more truth than anyone’s opinion now.”

Lamberth unpacks exactly what this implies, clearly and succinctly (page 222):

On this view, truth claims – however stable – are only ever hypothetical and provisional; moreover, counterfactuals, should evince some concrete grounding in fact, are only the beginnings of new trails of enquiry that lead to the revision of old truths or the addition of new ones. For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

A Two Way Street

Lamberth explains that after James’s death (page 226):

. . . the study of religion . . . . . developed in such ways that the insights of James’s views, in particular, the varied commitments of radical empiricism as a systematic, spiritualistic world-view, were never fully explored, much less embraced.

Science nominally endorses James’s criteria for the correct application of empiricism, but in practice privileges its own untestable assumptions while dismissing those of others. James has little patience with this kind of double standard[2].

Lamberth explains (page 227):

James seeks critically to hold off temptations towards reduction, whether reduction to quasi-mystical phenomenalism that eschews valuable reflective insights – scientific or philosophical – or reduction that privileges the philosophical or scientific account over the concrete, diverse first-order experiences that are its spark.

Lamberth nails his own colours to the mast shortly after this (page 229):

I . . . think that James’s turn to experience – understood in the broader context of his radical empiricism – is of crucial, substantive importance to the philosophy of religion, now and in the future.

A core component in his view as in James’s is a two-way street (page 234):

Considering James closely suggests that we should not adopt a theoretical stance that presumptively protects dominant metaphysical assumptions concerning “scientific” or “realistic” explanations from . . . scrutiny any more than we should adopt such a protective strategy for religious explanations and experiences.

If science were (page 235) to subject ‘its own metaphysical assumptions . . . to critique, testing and revision in a dynamic, empirically informed but rationally accountable form of inquiry, ’Lamberth feels, ‘such an open, minimally presumptive stage for investigation’ would be most beneficial. It would facilitate two important things:

1. the productive reopening of a range of presumptively foreclosed questions for novel reconsideration; and

2. the development of new insights.

Bahá’í Implications

A full understanding of all the implications of these insights goes further than simply hoping to reconcile science and religioncolorful_hands_small while they continue to go on their separate ways.

The Bahá’í Faith is a pragmatic religion – striving to learn how to walk the spiritual path with practical feet. The components of this process are described as study of guidance, consultation, action, reflection along with prayer and meditation on Scripture. This provides a set of interconnected steps to assess how effectively action is transforming our communities[3].

For those who have the time, a viewing of the video below will demonstrate a part at least of what I am trying to say.

Here we see communities across the globe applying their current understanding of the Bahá’í model for community action, learning from what goes well and what does not, to enhance their implementation.

It is important also to realise that all significant details concerning these experiments are fed back to the centre of the faith, collated and fed back to the Bahá’í world as a whole for further implementation, experimentation and hopefully eventual validation. What is learnt is also preserved, to be cascaded down through time as well as across widely dispersed locations.

It is precisely the lack of this co-ordinated and consolidated kind of information preservation and exchange that Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Andersen lamented in Cultural Creatives, their seminal examination of modern movements for cultural change. Too many people pick off parts of the problem unable to see or agree that they are all interconnected. When a group in one place dies, as is often the case, all that they learnt is lost. In the end the core issue cannot be evaded (page 246):

Cultural Creatives may be leading the way with responses directed towards healing and integration rather than battle. For these responses to contribute to the creation of a new culture, grassroots activism and social movements will have to evolve into new institutions. . . . [W]hile new social movements are transitory, institutions can turn the energies of these movements into everyday action.

For pragmatism, scientific or religious, to produce valid revisable conclusions of lasting practical value, the improbable combination of radical open-mindedness and strong institutional co-ordination is vital. It is to this combination of essential qualities that the Bahá’í community aspires – not an easy task by any means, calling as it does for a degree of detachment from what you think you are doing so you can see what is actually going on, whether at the individual, community or institutional level.

Whereas so far the main attempts to validate religious practice have focused on such admittedly significant areas as meditation, and the related experience of mysticism, or the correlation between religious beliefs and an individual’s charitable action, there have been very few examples indeed of the careful examination of the beneficial impact of constructive religious practices on communities as a whole. This is what in my view makes the Bahá’í process an innovative if embryonic example of pragmatism in the Jamesian sense. To operate this way effectively, of course, those who are testing the model need to accept that they will sometimes get it wrong as well as right.

It is for me exciting to see a rigorous explanation of why, in philosophical terms, such an enterprise makes sense, though it is also disappointing that there are, so far, so few concrete examples in either field of pragmatic and dispassionate investigation crossing the currently great divide between religious and scientific practice, though both these disciplines have the capacity to mount them and a self-evident duty to do so.

[1] A wind rose is a graphic tool used by meteorologists to give a succinct view of how wind speed and direction are typically distributed at a particular location. When the magnetic compass began to be used in navigation, the wind rose was combined with it and used as a compass card.

[2] Not everyone would agree that science lacks this kind of humility. For instance, Paul Jerome Croce describes it somewhat differently in his book Science and Religion in the Era of William James – page 4 – stating ‘probabilism, relativity, and hypothetical methodologies firmly established the fundamental uncertainty of modern science.’ I will be looking at this in more detail in a subsequent post. My suspicion is, as Croce also suggests, that the evangelists of science, who tend to monopolise the public gaze, were then and, for me, are now mostly dogmatic materialists. This is even more true in the UK, I suspect, than in the States.

[3] There are those on what are probably the edges still of the scientific community who would already recognise this as a viable method of investigation, one that will enhance both understanding and practice. One example is the model of action research described by Peter Reason.

Read Full Post »



I didn’t explain when I wrote this sequence of posts where the second-hand book shop was located. Given that I am showering posts this week about books bought in Hay-on-Wye there are no prizes for guessing right. This is the last in the sequence: the first was posted on Thursday, the second was posted yesterday.

Having explained some of the probable origins of my default position of uncertainty and explored Croce’s explanation of James’s version of that state of mind in his book Science & Religion in the Era of William James, only one thing remains to be done, I think.

And as for me?

Now, I want to briefly explore how my faith and my doubt can so tranquilly coexist, and perhaps why I found Croce’s exploration of William James’s uncertainty so congenial.

Just to repeat, I am chronically sceptical. I even doubt myself most of the time (for the background to some of this see previous posts). I exasperate people by checking up on anything important that they tell me if it does not gel with what I already know. When they express their legitimate irritation, I reply: ‘I don’t trust my own judgement. Why should I trust anyone else’s?’ Even when I obtain current confirmation, I regard my understanding of the point at issue as very much provisional.

Before I look at two particulars in the Bahá’í teachings perhaps I should also quote something that, to my mind. supports my checking script. Almost at the start of a core text by Bahá’u’lláh He writes:

O SON OF SPIRIT! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes.

Now for the key points.

There are two main threads in Bahá’í belief, as I understand it, that make my default mode so easily tolerable.

First is the concept of progressive revelation with its connected idea that what changes are the social teachings of a religion, not its spiritual core. A brief but clear explanation comes from a Bahá’í website:

The Messenger of God reveals both spiritual truths, which are eternal, and laws belonging to a particular age. The spiritual truths are revealed according to the spiritual development of the men of that time. Thus Moses said: “Love thy neighbour as thyself,”  (4) but only the rarer spirits in His dispensation realised that Gentiles also were their neighbours. Jesus stressed that love should extend beyond the Jewish race, but still His followers were unable to grasp fully the oneness of mankind. Only recently have men progressed enough to regard the whole human race as one family, without division of colour, class or creed. Bahá’u’lláh, coming to a world prepared by the long line of earlier Messengers of God, could make this a central feature of His Teaching. All three Messengers were aware of the truth taught by Bahá’u’lláh, but until now man has not been ready to receive its full force.

Secondly, is the clear indication that Bahá’u’lláh gives that what he is explaining to us is pitched at the level of our current understanding and is not an undiluted and complete exposition of reality as He apprehends it.

O SON OF BEAUTY! By My spirit and by My favour! By My mercy and by My beauty! All that I have revealed unto thee with the tongue of power, and have written for thee with the pen of might, hath been in accordance with thy capacity and understanding, not with My state and the melody of My voice.

Both these quotations suggest that humanity’s understanding of the truth will always be incomplete, even incorrect sometimes, though it can evolve under the influence of science and revelation. Perhaps my lack of certainty is neither irrational nor irreligious.

In Bahá’í terms scripture is the City of Certitude: there is no one living now who can justifiably claim to dwell there. All any of us can now hope to do is inch a little closer to the gates. That’s why, for me, hearing a person state ‘I became a Bahá’í’ would be a declaration of intent rather than a statement of fact, no matter who said it.

Not only is scepticism about one’s own understanding healthy; as I understand it from the teachings of my faith, it’s essential. It not only makes fanaticism less likely, but it also serves to make consultation possible between people whose views and opinions differ widely. Without consultation, which is an essentially spiritual process dependent upon participants having sufficient detachment from their own views to listen effectively to the views of others, there would be no progress, or at least progress would be immeasurably retarded. A Bahá’í document entitled The Prosperity of Human Kind captures a key point:

. . . .  consultation is the operating expression of justice in human affairs. So vital is it to the success of collective endeavor that it must constitute a basic feature of a viable strategy of social and economic development. Indeed, the participation of the people on whose commitment and efforts the success of such a strategy depends becomes effective only as consultation is made the organizing principle of every project. “No man can attain his true station”, is Bahá’u’lláh’s counsel, “except through his justice. No power can exist except through unity. No welfare and no well-being can be attained except through consultation.”

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

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

All this might just suggest that my state of mind, far from being an unhealthy and condemnable dithering bordering on disbelief, may well be both more realistic and more constructive than the kind of certainty so conducive to the  ‘arrogance and hatred . . . peddled in the thoroughfares,’ which Yeats prayed that his daughter would be protected from. If I were certain this was true, I would not then be true to my belief in the value of uncertainty – a bit of a bind that one. As I explained earlier, I have recently republished a sequence of posts about the danger of high levels of certainty about our beliefs.

My best hope is fairly clear, even so. I can always look to refine my imperfect understanding, bringing it ever closer to what I hope is the truth but never knowing whether I have got there yet or not.

Interestingly that completely coincides with what Lamberth reports as William James’s point of view, reinforcing further my feeling that he was indeed a kindred spirit and explaining satisfactorily why I got such a buzz out of finding this second book after reading these words in the first one I had read (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

Read Full Post »

WJ pencil

William James – self-portrait in pencil

I didn’t explain when I wrote this sequence of posts where the second-hand book shop was located. Given that I am showering posts this week about books bought in Hay-on-Wye there are no prizes for guessing right. This is the second in the sequence: the first was posted yesterday, the will be tomorrow.

Yesterday I attempted to explain my default position of uncertainty and why it lent such a strong appeal to Paul Jerome Croce’s book on William James. Now comes the difficult task of cherry picking key quotes from the book to illustrate why the feeling of attraction did not wear off as I read my way through it.

Principled Uncertainty

What follows here, designed simply to illustrate this one point, is a sparse selection of quotes from this book’s richly detailed and rewarding survey of the thinking of the time. I’m going to pick up the story with the impact of Darwin.

It would be impossible to overstate the degree of shock his book created. This is both because its argument was profoundly unsettling, and its accessibility meant that it was very widely read. What I hadn’t realised till I read Croce’s book was that he shocked not only the religious but the scientific community as well (page 88):

Science practised under the star of Darwinism represented the displacement of the cultured amateur by professional experts and a divorce of science from moral purpose and religious conviction. Most important, the new science, operating according to probabilities, removed its findings from expectations of certainty in either science or religion. This methodological challenge to scientific certainty is the true Darwinian revolution, far more than the supposed triumph of science over religion or even the dominance of Darwin’s particular insights about evolution.

The effect of this on William James is of particular interest to me (page 109-110):

The major shock of Darwin for James turned out to be the great biologist’s method and its implications for science and religion. Because the theory of natural selection was a plausible explanation rather than a proof of the origin of species, James began to doubt the need to expect certainty in either his science or his religion. . . . . . Darwin’s approaches provided a signpost, but William James in the 1860s still had much learning and struggling to do in his journey toward adopting beliefs without certainty.

In the 1850s and 1860s William James was a member of a loosely constituted group of young thinkers that called itself the Metaphysical Club (page 154):

The central issue of their enquiries was certainty. They saw that neither scientific theory nor religious faith could generate conventional forms of certainty, and they searchingly asked whether there could be any other basis for belief and action.

This has always been a key question for me. It’s not surprising, then, that I felt myself to be in like-minded company. At this point I found an interesting side issue mentioned, suggesting that Richard Dawkins might be blindly following a long line of misguided popularisers, dating back to Darwin’s own time, and suggests that he really should know better. Croce refers to (page 155) ‘the recent revolution in Darwin studies, which demonstrates the scientific unorthodoxy of Darwin’s probabilistic methods and attributes the materialistic claims of scientific certainty to Darwin’s popularisers rather than to Darwin’s science itself.’ Music to my ears again.


Chauncy Wright

A key influence on William James was a contemporary and fellow Metaphysical Club member, Chauncy Wright (page 174):

William James learned from his friend Wright to reject the certainties of traditional religion and to regard science in probabilistic terms, but James never accepted the claim that science offered alternative certainties. By considering the uncertainties of both fields, he extended Wright’s ideas further than Wright himself could imagine.

James then moved further on the shoulders of Charles Sanders Peirce (page 195):

Without intending it, this rigorous pacesetter for James’s understanding of science became a role model for the younger man’s more thorough embrace of uncertainty. Pierce’s ambiguities opened a wedge in the edifice of scientific authority which James expanded into wholesale questioning of the possibility of finding certainty in any beliefs.

A core aspect of Peirce’s thinking concerned the nature of what we can achieve by thinking (page 144):

[He maintained that] our minds can never reach the essences of things, but only come to know them in mediated ways. . . . . “Our idea of anything is an idea of its sensible effects. . . . . .[H]e claimed our minds can really know the world (at least in the long run), but that such knowledge will always be mediated; . . . . [T]he method of science is focused correctly on effects, not essences.

He felt that most knowledge was probabilistic (page 216):

Probabilities can provide certainties, but with important qualifications: as Peirce had already realised at least as early as 1867, they provide answers only about groups and in the long run. So he declared it “unsound” to claim “that knowing a thing to be probable is not knowledge.”

This approach requires as assumption of orderliness in nature (page 219):

Inductive inquiry, which gains knowledge through “a process of sampling,” relies on the assumed orderliness of its sample to do its business, since the inquirer presumes that the randomly selected portion “has nearly the same frequency of occurrence” as the whole class of things under evaluation. . . . He leaned his faith in induction on the orderliness of the human mind and the world it comes to investigate.

CS Peirce

Charles Sanders Peirce

(This sounds like an anticipation of Plantinga’s recent case that science and religion are inherently in harmony.) It’s clear therefore that Peirce did believe ‘in a divine creator and an orderly universe’ but his ‘prime goal [was] to lay the cosmological ground for his scientific project.’ Where did this leave James? Croce is preparing the ground for a second volume that does not seem yet to have appeared, so he does not go into great detail (page 223):

He was much more attuned than his more logical colleague to addressing the growing suspicion among scientists, religious believers, science watchers, and religion watchers that their propositions could not provide the certainty that previous generations had cherished.

He then qualifies this (page 224):

Recognition was only the first step, because he realised even more acutely than his peers the psychological appeal of certainty. To maintain the moral commitments that his whole circle cherished, to avoid a slide into nihilism, and to reconstruct belief for a scientific audience, James would need to find the moral equivalent of certainty.

Lamberth, whose work I looked at in a previous post, has much more light to shed on where James’s thinking ended up than I have time to repeat here. The final sense I have is that James did achieve a position where, even though uncertainty could not be completely dispelled, a workable sense of reality that would guide effective practical and consensus moral action is within our reach, even in the still pluralistic social world we inhabit. This is very much how I feel about the issue, hence my sense of being very much at home in this tome.

All that remains is to explain how I find it possible to feel at home with both this level of uncertainty and my commitment to the Bahá’í path. That will have to wait until tomorrow.

Read Full Post »


I didn’t explain when I wrote this sequence of posts where the second-hand book shop was located. Given that I am showering posts this week about books bought in Hay-on-Wye there are no prizes for guessing right. This is the first in the sequence: the remaining two will be posted on consecutive days.

David C Lamberth’s excellent treatment of William James’s thought was not the only trophy I brought back from a second-hand book shop recently. A second book (please don’t groan – there is a third to come!) by Paul Jerome Croce has proved equally, if not more fascinating. The full title is Science and Religion in the Era of William James: Eclipse of Certainty (1832-1880).

At first I thought I would fit everything I wanted to say into one post. It turned out to be too long so I have split this into three to be posted on three consecutive days. 

Even before I read a word of it, just seeing the title of the book on its cover and the tantalising photograph behind it gave me goose bumps. Sad really I suppose that I should react so strongly to something so apparently obscure.

What was it exactly that triggered such a strong positive reaction to the sight of such an ordinary seeming book? I’m not sure I can answer that question fully but I know what some of the elements are of its attraction.

The Period of History

The dates for starters.

That period of history is full of strong emotionally loaded associations for me. Right from my childhood I was told stories of my mother’s parents and their conversion to the Roman Catholic Church as a result of the Oxford Movement. I’ve already blogged about that so I won’t go into more details here.

Not only that but one of my favourite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins was also a convert and recently reading his story revealed what a huge price people had to pay at that time for that choice. It could totally wreck their prospects. My father’s family disowned him for choosing to marry my Catholic mother. When I was in my late thirties, I followed my grandparents’ footsteps and converted, in my case from my sceptical atheism to the Bahá’í Faith.

This strengthened my ties to this period of history in two ways. For one, I felt closer to my grandparents. The other reason is that the Bahá’í Faith is rooted in this same period of history. The day the Faith first shone out was in 1844 to be followed by a greater disclosure of its meaning in 1863. It’s fair to add that the charisma of William James added considerably to the force of the frisson I felt.

My Default Position

This is all very straightforward as an explanation of part of my strong reaction to the book. What may be less clear is why the eclipse of certainty should have held any attraction at all for someone who had converted to a new faith?

This is harder to pin down but is at least as powerful a component as the other things I have mentioned and a brief exploration of some of the ideas in the book will have to be included in this explanation.

To begin at the beginning though, I need to say that my default position, for as long as I can remember, has been doubt. The crisis of my two pre-school experiences of hospitalisation underpinned this position. As I have explained in an earlier post the feeling of being abandoned by my parents, who were not allowed in those days to stay in the hospital, and the sense that Christ was not rescuing me, led to the conclusion that I had only myself to rely on and that I could not really trust anyone or anything else including God. Perhaps related to this my chronic condition is uncertainty.

This was reinforced by my absolute revulsion, as someone growing Mixed Dictators v5up in the shadow of World War II, from dogmatic and damaging ideologies such as Nazism, Maoism and Stalinism,  which had been or were being implemented with ferocious conviction.

Certainty came to seem pathological to me. I do not believe that I can be certain of anything except possibly my memory of such things as my name and address.

Reinforcing still for me the value of this state of mind are the widespread current evidences of the toxic effects of certainty. People are resolutely butchering other human beings completely convinced of their own rectitude. I have also blogged about this dark side of conviction before, and have recently republished this sequence of posts so I won’t dwell on it further right now.

Even so, when I finally sat down to read this book I had not expected to feel quite so relieved to be so comfortably at home with the ideas it explores. But more of that tomorrow.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »