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If religious beliefs and opinions are found contrary to the standards of science, they are mere superstitions and imaginations; for the antithesis of knowledge is ignorance, and the child of ignorance is superstition. Unquestionably there must be agreement between true religion and science. If a question be found contrary to reason, faith and belief in it are impossible, and there is no outcome but wavering and vacillation.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá from The Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 181)

I have been triggered to revisit books I have hoarded which deal with levels of consciousness. This all started with another rapidly abandoned look at Ken Wilber’s model. With moderate enthusiasm I had picked off my shelves Wilber’s Up from Eden, which had lurked up there unread since 1996. I felt that Fontana’s references to his work in Psychology, Religion and Spirituality warranted another look to help me overcome the reservations triggered in my mind by John Fitzgerald Medina’s Faith, Physics & Psychology, where he takes issue with what he feels is Wilber’s arrogant implication that it is impossible for someone in a lower level society to leap to a higher level of consciousness (page 136):

. . . integral theorists actually support the idea that, out of the entire human population in the world, only an elite cadre of Westerners presently has the capacity to achieve the highest levels of human development.

I was not sure this criticism was entirely warranted but it did create reservations in my mind about some aspects of Wilber’s approach.

This was not what put me off this time.

I got as far as page 73 before the feeling that this was not the approach I wanted to immerse myself in right now grew so strong I couldn’t turn another page. His approach in this book was too mythological for my taste. I’ve so far been completely incapable of finishing any of Joseph Campbell’s work for this same reason. My distaste may be irrational but it remains insuperable.

As I sat and stared at my shelves aching for inspiration I remembered how much I had resonated to a book that explored in illuminating ways the split-brain culture we inhabit. No, not Iain McGilchrist’s The Master & his Emissary this time, much as I value that book and always will. There’s a clue in a comment I left on my blog more than a month ago, about a text that I have now re-read for the third time, but have not yet blogged about. I’ve probably never really attempted to integrate this account into my other explorations of levels of consciousness because the model presented does not easily map onto numerically coded versions such as those of Jenny Wade, Piaget, Wilber, Dabrowski  and Koestenbaum.

It is Margaret Donaldson’s Human Minds: an exploration. On page 135 she writes of what she calls ‘the value-sensing transcendent mode,’ something which our materialistic culture does not cultivate. She describes experiences in this mode as surging up ‘still in spite of the power of other modes which have threatened to exclude them.’ These experiences ‘come occasionally, unexpectedly, like marvellous accidents.’ Her book is partly about our need as a society to learn how to encourage us to access them more consistently. My own such encounters have been extremely rare indeed. Her insightful book also considers, though in less detail, the role of the novel and poetry in enhancing consciousness.

It also focuses on both the need to balance head and heart, science and religion, and on the ways we might get closer to achieving that.

I will deal fairly quickly with her discussion of her more basic modes of experiencing the world, then I will move on to the next highest levels in a bit more detail, before dwelling at greater length on her in depth exploration of the transcendent modes, both intellectual and value-sensing. In all probability this fairly rapid flight over the complex terrain of her richly informative model will fail to do it justice, but, if it at least brings her important work to your attention, that might just be enough.

Basic Modes

Margaret Donaldson deals first of all with the basic modes, the first of which concerns itself purely with the present moment, and begins in our infancy. She calls it point mode.[1] She goes on to add, ‘Later other loci become possible. For example, the second mode, which is called the line mode, has a locus of concern that includes the personal past and the personal future.’ More specific detail on the line mode next time.

Then our capacity expands to ‘the impersonal’ enabling us to think beyond our ‘personal goals.’[2] When this relates to thinking, that fits with our preconceptions about what it should be like. ‘But,’ she asks, ‘what about emotion? Can we take steps towards impersonality in respect of our emotions also?’

This is an issue we will come back to in more detail. For now I’ll just mention that she adds that ‘The process of “opening out” in those two directions is the one that I have previously called disembedding, in an earlier book, Children’s Minds.[3] This relates to some degree to concepts such as reflection and disidentification, dealt with at length elsewhere on this blog.

She emphasises that we modify our perceptions of the world ‘to suit our purposes.’[4] She was particularly taken with some of Freud’s descriptions of how we do that and expresses them in an effective metaphor:[5]

In talking of the defences Freud uses one image which I find illuminating. He likened the activities of a mind shaping its own consciousness to those of an editor revising a text, working towards an acceptable final draft.  The various mechanisms that have different editorial counterparts. For example, amnesic repression is equivalent to complete removal of parts of the text… likewise denial is equivalent to the insertion of ‘not:’… Projection is equivalent to changing the subject of a sentence: ‘He is I am evil, lazy, useless.’ Displacement amounts to changing the sentence object: ‘ I hate my father enemy.’ . . . In this way, we write for ourselves an authorised version of our lives.

In short, ‘. . . our experience of the world is experience of an interpretation.’[6] This maps closely onto my own sense of my perception of the world as a simulation. However, Donaldson explains, this tendency is balanced ‘by another more austere aim: the aim of understanding, of getting at the truth.’ The Bahá’í approach to this stresses the importance of an ‘independent investigation of the truth.’

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

There is another factor she mentions that again resonates with the Bahá’í Faith: ‘The second corrective is to consider shared experience.’ This sounds closely linked to the value attached to consultation, which is central to many processes of interaction encouraged in the Bahá’í community. Obviously these resonances partly explain my attraction to Donaldson’s model of consciousness, but it is not the only reason.

She argues that the foundations for our modes of consciousness are laid down very early.[7]  ‘At what point in life’ she asks, ‘does a child have a mind capable of concerning itself with things in some sort of controlled and organised way?’ and her answer is, ‘We can at least now confidently reply: “Very early, certainly by the end of the first two or three months, possibly sooner. (Stern terms it an emergent self.)’

She amplifies her comment by saying:[8]

There follows, from two to around eight months, the development of the ‘core self’ – a sense of self that is coherent, firmly distinguished from what is other, but not yet informed by an awareness of other minds.

. . . the point mode begins as the core self is established.

In the next post I will be exploring what follows on from that. It’s probably worth pointing out straightaway that, even later in life, as we shall see, point mode is not pointless.

References:

[1]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 11.
[2]. Human Minds: an exploration – page  16.
[3]. Human Minds: an exploration – pages 16-17.
[4]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 24.
[5]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 25.
[6]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 27.
[7]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 46.
[8]. Human Minds: an exploration – pages 46-47.

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In the previous post, after describing my encounters as a young man with death and Dickens, I paused just as I had began to explore some of the ideas in A N Wilson’s book, The Mystery of Charles Dickens.

Little Dorrit in a way laid the foundations for the upward trajectory I mentioned last time. Wilson wrote:[1] ‘Given the way that Dickens wrote his novels, burrowing deeper and deeper into his psychological history, and reworking experience as his fiction became ever richer and darker, you can see that the writing of Little Dorrit in 1857 probably had as devastating effect on his marriage as the meeting with Nelly Ternan. Creatively speaking, his relationship with his parents was of far greater moment than that with his wife, mistress or children. In Little Dorrit he had re-entered the shades of the prison house,’ by which he meant the period when Dickens’ father was incarcerated in the debtors’ prison known as the Marshalsea. Wilson concludes, ‘For now, in the pursuit of his art, the reworking and rebuilding of experience in fictive form, nothing was going to be spared.’

Earlier[2] Wilson praised Little Dorrit stating ‘The novel tells us that one of these days the whole edifice – of respectability, and family structure, and capitalism – is going to come tumbling down. Dickens achieved few more brilliant things than Little Dorrit.’

Wilson’s unpacking of the details of what drove Dickens in this intense direction needs to be read in its entirety. I shall simply share a few compelling insights.

A fundamental aspect of his early experience was being sent to the blacking factory by his mother at the age of twelve, though[3] Dickens had ’felt unwanted long before she insisted upon him going to work’ there. This darkened his relationship with his wife:[4] ‘Kate Dickens was actually his wife, but having borne ten children, lost her looks and became a fat wretch of misery worn down by his bullying; she had taken the place, in his imaginative life, of the mother he could not forgive for her treatment of him in childhood.’ Wilson feels he ‘reached the depths of the truth’ about his ‘mother-hate’ in Little Dorrit. 

Wilson flags up a key thesis[5] when he writes, ‘We are now able to see what Dickens himself was probably unable to see: that his flawed relationship with his mother is the defining feature, of the man and of his art.’

He was split in two, with a good and an evil self. Though he advocated kindness and did much philanthropic work, he could also be cruelly controlling. The mystery that Wilson pinpoints[6] concerns how this ‘apostle of kindliness’ could have been ’so furiously unkind… to the woman who had borne his children.’

Concerning his frenetic tours giving readings from his novels, A N Wilson quotes Edmund Wilson[7] who ‘thought Dickens was releasing, without entirely controlling, dark forces inside him and his genius that were only implicit on the page…’ Later[8] A N Wilson likens Dickens’ ‘divided self’ to that of ‘a detective [who] also imagined himself as the hunted criminal.’

One of the most insightful comments Wilson makes[9] relates to David Copperfield, as a quasi-autobiographical novel written after layers of disguising masks had been stripped away as a result of his affair with Nelly Ternan. He was faced in life with ‘the raw truth about his own ruthlessness, the impurity of his family hatreds, the psycho-bonds that drove his need for status and money, and the murky origins of his money.’ Wilson added at the end of that paragraph ‘had Dickens fully known what he was doing [in the novel], he could not have done it.’

He concludes[10] that while the divided self is extremely damaging it is ‘also a source of creativity.’

To fully appreciate the richness of his analysis, of which this has been the barest skeleton, you need to read the book. I don’t think you will be disappointed. As for me I’m dithering over whether to risk one more immersion in the fascinating darkness of the later novels, which for me are so closely associated with death and an armchair.

Footnotes:

[1]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 140.
[2]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – pages 32-33.
[3]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 94.
[4]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens  – page 31.
[5]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 92.
[6]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 104.
[7]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 203.
[8]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 232.
[9]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 248.
[10]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 254.

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Before I plunge into my latest trigger to look at the novels of Charles Dickens again, I need to give a bit of bizarre background.

In my last year at school a few of us used to revise for our A levels in the local library opposite the book shop from which I eventually purchased my second-hand set of his complete novels.

Transitions in my life at this period were often accompanied by a death.

One day when we had been revising together in the library, we went to a local cafe for a chat. We were all shocked to hear of the death of a fellow sixth former whom we did not know well. Not only is it shocking to hear that someone so young, the same age as you, had suddenly died.  The circumstances made it even more of a shock.

His girl friend had broken off their relationship. Unable to accept her decision this acquaintance of ours had taken the shotgun from his father’s farm and gone to her place of work, killed her and then turned the gun upon himself. A murder-suicide.

I did not keep a diary in those days so I’ve no idea exactly what I thought and felt. That I still remember the basic facts is proof enough that the events affected me strongly.

My experiences of death did not stop there. In my last year at university I had chosen to take a finals paper on Dickens. This was why I bought the complete set of his novels, and read them all except Sketches by Boz and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Not long after I got a job at a grammar school. I’ve described that experience elsewhere on this blog. The main point of interest here is what happened over the Christmas break in my first year there.

When we returned from leave, again the talk over coffee focused on a death. A young man had started work in September, and, like me, it was his first real job. We had all been aware that he was struggling to control his classes, but I had not thought he was any worse than me in that respect. However, he did not return to work in January. When the news broke that he had thrown himself under a tube train over the Christmas break we struggled to make sense of what had happened and find some way of coming to terms with our sense of guilt at not having done enough to help him cope.

After almost three years in this job I decided grammar school teaching was not for me. So, I was fortunate to be able to get a job at a polytechnic in Kilburn. I had been asked, after being offered the job, to do a series of lectures on Charles Dickens at the beginning of my first term there. So, over the summer holidays, for the second time in my life, I read my way through all of his novels, again except Sketches by Boz and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I think my resistance here was to do with my preference for novels rather than short stories, in the case of Boz, and my dislike of unfinished stories in the case of Drood.

This time though there was a painful factor at play. In the front bedroom of the family home there was an adjustable wooden armchair with fitted cushions, similar to the one we inherited from my aunt which graces our hallway still. I sat in that chair reading my way through Dickens every day for the whole six weeks of my summer holiday as my father lay on the double bed dying of cancer.

I have never been able to read him again since. I gave away the books to Oxfam in the end except for Drood, which I still haven’t read, and probably never will.

Later, when I had decided to leave teaching altogether and was starting my psychology degree at the same time as working in mental health, my mother died, but that is another story.

Recently I bought a book by A N Wilson called The Mystery of Charles Dickens. I’m not sure whether it will be enough to melt the massive iceberg still standing in-between the novels and me. What I do know is that many of his comments on certain of the novels reminded me of the intense pleasure I derived from reading them, and by pleasure I do not mean fun, but rather a deep sense of satisfaction at immersing myself in a richly fascinating if rather dark world.

The novels I responded to most strongly and remember best are the later ones, particularly Little Dorrit, Our Mutual Friend and Great Expectations. What is intriguing is the explanation that Wilson gives for the greatness of the later novels:[1]

The worse that the husband, and son Dickens became in the twelve years left to him on earth, the greater his art became. The books that followed his separation from Kate [his wife] – A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend – were getting better all the time in a progressive curve.

More on that next time.

 

Reference

[1]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 141.

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The points of resonance for me that Kastrup’s book, The Idea of the World, provides, don’t end with NDEs, meaning and dreams. His case that the world has meaning, just as a dream does, takes him onto interesting ground.

He first points towards the strengths and limitations of what he calls physicalism:[1]

Physicalism has served important practical purposes… conducive to the development of technology.

But whilst valuable in a utilitarian sense, this focus on nature’s behavior – as opposed to nature’s meaning – is extraordinarily limiting to the human spirit. We are meaning-seeking animals…

And he strongly argues that there is real meaning in the world, not just a false sense of meaning created in response to our thirst for it.

Given the alternative model he describes:[2]

Each of us, as individuals, can now give ourselves permission to dedicate our lives to finding meaning in the world, reassured by the knowledge that this meaning is really there even if we can’t immediately apprehend it.

Science and Religion are in Harmony

He is clear why he feels this is so:[3]

. . . the truths of human intuition apply to the physical world because human intuition and the physical world are, at the most fundamental level, continuous with one another. Physics, mathematics and logic are all archetypal expressions of the ultimate subject in the form of its natural modes of self-excitation.

I’ve been here before on this blog with the work of Alvin Plantinga.

In his book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, Alvin Plantinga is looking at the notion, commonly held by Christians everywhere, that we are made in God’s image, and this will have an unexpected link to empiricism:[4]

God is a knower, and indeed the supreme knower. God is omniscient, that is, such that he knows everything, knows for any proposition p, whether p is true. We human beings, therefore, in being created in his image, can also know much about our world, ourselves, and God himself.

This capacity to learn about our world is a key aspect of our being and relates to this issue in his view (ibid.): ‘this ability to know something about our world, ourselves and God is a crucially important part of the divine image.’ And this is where he springs on us an unexpected point in favour of his case:[5]

God created both us and our world in such a way that there is a certain fit or match between the world and our cognitive faculties. . . . . For science to be successful . . . there must be a match between our cognitive faculties and the world.

That match is not at all what we should necessarily expect. The world could just as easily, probably far more easily be an incomprehensible and apparently random puzzle to us, but it is not. Kastrup[6]  makes a similar point derived from Albert’s Treatise on Critical Reason:

Under physicalism we cannot logically argue for the validity of logic beyond our own minds, so the world could very well be absurd.

Plantinga also casts doubt on what he regards as the misplaced confidence of scientists in the products, as they would see it, of a brain created and shaped by evolution.

He argues that there is an undermining aspect of naturalism (his term for Kastrup’s physicalism) for anyone who chooses to espouse it[7]:

. . . . .  suppose you are a naturalist: you think that there is no such person as God, and that we and our cognitive faculties have been cobbled together by natural selection. Can you then sensibly think that our cognitive faculties are for the most part reliable? . . . . . . the probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable, given naturalism and evolution, is low. But then . . . . . if I believe both naturalism and evolution, I have a defeater for my intuitive assumption that my cognitive faculties are reliable. If I have a defeater for that belief, however, then I have a defeater for any belief I take to be produced by my cognitive faculties.

We need to unpack a little more the logic that underlies this conclusion:[8]

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.

Thomas Nagel in his book Mind and the Cosmos is of basically the same opinion as Plantinga on this and says so explicitly:[9]

I agree with Alvin Plantinga that, unlike divine benevolence, the application of evolutionary theory to the understanding of our own cognitive capacities should undermine, though it need not completely destroy, our confidence in them.

. . . . Evolutionary naturalism implies that we shouldn’t take any of our convictions seriously, including the scientific world picture on which evolutionary naturalism itself depends.

He’s singing from the same hymn sheet as Kastrup as well, although this analogy may concede materialists a home goal at this point. Nagel pins his idealist colours plainly to the mast very early on, placing him firmly in Kastrup’s camp:[10]

The view that rational intelligibility is at the root of the natural order makes me, in a broad sense, an idealist

And his antipathy to reductionism doesn’t take long in showing:[11]

The implausibility of the reductive program that is needed to defend the completeness of this kind of naturalism provides a reason for trying to think of alternatives—alternatives that make mind, meaning, and value as fundamental as matter and space-time in an account of what there is.

Which brings us right back to meaning again.

The Cause of Consciousness.

Nagel deploys a somewhat different line of argument from Kastrup to support his idealist case:[12]

The inescapable fact that has to be accommodated in any complete conception of the universe is that the appearance of living organisms has eventually given rise to consciousness, perception, desire, action, and the formation of both beliefs and intentions on the basis of reasons. If all this has a natural explanation, the possibilities were inherent in the universe long before there was life, and inherent in early life long before the appearance of animals. A satisfying explanation . . . would reveal mind and reason as basic aspects of a nonmaterialistic natural order.

As the logical extension of this position, Nagel’s challenge to materialists is clear:[13]

For a satisfactory explanation of consciousness as such, a general psychophysical theory of consciousness would have to be woven into the evolutionary story, one which makes intelligible both (1) why specific organisms have the conscious life they have, and (2) why conscious organisms arose in the history of life on earth.

It is not enough to mumble that, because we now have consciousness and matter closely allied, we do not have to say more than that the evolution of matter into complex forms causes consciousness.

You may well be wondering at this late stage why I bother reading books such as Matthew Cobb’s, espousing as it does the materialism I so clearly reject. There are two reasons. One is that I am not ashamed to admit, as they seemed to be, that I can learn from what they write, even if I don’t agree with much of it. The second is that I am trying to set a good example in the vain hope that some materialists might follow it.

A good point to close on is the honesty of Kastrup’s admission towards the end of his book:[14]

Unfair as this may be to some of you, it is probably safe to say that most people, convinced as they may be by my argument at the level of rational thought, still can’t feel the world to be a mental unfolding. In all honesty, most days I can’t either.

Me neither, as my poems frequently testify. I’m still working on it though.

Afterthoughts

Even so I completely subscribe to Edward Kelly’s conclusion, expressed in the Afterword:[15]

The vision sketched here . . . also addresses the urgent need for a greater sense of worldwide community and interdependence . . .by demonstrating that under the surface we and the world are much more extensively interconnected than previously recognised.

So ends our journey from near death through dreams to the reconciliation of religion and science and the challenge to materialists to prove, rather than simply assert, that consciousness is reducible to the brain. Until such proof unequivocally appears, I stand firmly with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá when he states:[16]

. . . 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.

References:

[1]. The Idea of the World – page 236.
[2]. The Idea of the World – page 237.
[3]. The Idea of the World – pages 242-43.
[4]. Where the Conflict Really Lies – page 268.
[5]. Where the Conflict Really Lies – pages 268-269.
[6]. The Idea of the World – page 231.
[7]. Where the Conflict Really Lies – page 313.
[8]. Where the Conflict Really Lies – page 315
[9]. Mind and Cosmos – pages 27-28.
[10]. Mind and Cosmos – page 17.
[11]. Mind and Cosmos – page 20.
[12]. Mind and Cosmos – page 32.
[13]. Mind and Cosmos – pages 50-51.
[14]. The Idea of the World – page 256).
[15]. The Idea of the World – pages 264-65.
[16]. Some Answered Questions – page 209.

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Mumbai Traffic

A poem I wrote when I was in India a few years ago captures a frequent state of mind of mine, as more recent poems also testify.

Quest

I am seeking answers even
in the spinning of the fan
over my head, and in the strident horns
of the impatient traffic in the street below,
as meaningless to me as the cawrus
of the rooks near our hotel each night.
And yet I know (or think I do),
that there’s some pattern in the chaos
of it all, which might show me what I yearn
to understand.

How long will it be before
some force empowers my brain
to let my mind decode
the cypher of reality?
I do not want to entertain
the possibility that I am
never meant to understand,
even when my body’s
scrambling of the signal is removed.

Meanings

This kind of search is one that Bernardo Kastrup is addressing.

After his examination of extraordinary experiences occurring in the absence of brain activity, later in his book The Idea of the World, Kastrup moves on to the issue of meaning. He writes:[1]

I use the word ‘meaning’ to denote ‘sense,’ . . . .  ‘significance’ . . . and ‘purpose,’ . . .  freely conflating all three usages. This conflation is intentional and implicitly reflects the very conclusion of the chapter: that the purpose of life is to unveil the sense and significance of the world. Thus the meaning of life in the world is simultaneously life’s purpose andthe world’s sense and significance.

This is so close to the title I chose for this blog more than 10 years ago that it couldn’t fail to resonate.

Why exactly did I choose this title for my blog?

My explanation in EMS Explained included this:

We’re all a bundle of feelings, intentions and thoughts, and we all matter — we all matter very much. Only one word I could think of captures all of that. “This means a lot to me,” we say when we have a strong feeling about something. “That’s not what I meant,” we say when someone has misunderstood the thought we were trying to explain. “I didn’t mean to do it,” is our way of saying that what we did was unintentional. And most of all when I say “You mean a lot to me,” I’m saying that you really matter to me.

So, those three simple words mean quite a lot in every sense of that mercurial word.

I did miss out purpose though, I have to confess.

This emphasis on the meaning of life and the world contrasts, in Kastrup’s view, with the poverty of the physicalist narrative[2] ‘which provides a foundation for rationalizing the choice of living an unexamined superficial life.’

This is not a new source of discontent with the physicalist approach as Matthew Cobb uncovers in his book, The Idea of the Brain. He writes, for example[3], of the discomfort expressed by some philosophers in 1926 who wanted to ‘push back against the materialist implications of recent scientific discoveries’ and labels their positions as ‘a revival of vitalism’ preferring to explain biology ‘by some unique spiritual attribute shared by all living things.’

Am I right to detect a faint trace of contempt underlying that phraseology?

Kastrup and others would clearly disagree with the confidence Cobb places in his materialistic perspective. Which is where another resonating theme kicks in.

Meaning and the Dream Analogy

Kastrup makes a fundamental point:[4]

If the world is akin to a collective dream also produced by mental archetypes, . . . . then the same rationale should apply to our waking lives. The meanings we think to discern in the world may not, after all, be merely personal projections, but actual properties of the world. . . . . This collective “world dream” symbolically points to underlying transpersonal mental dynamics, just as regular dreams symbolically point to underlying personal mental dynamics.’

I need to place a reminder here of Kastrup’s basic model of the world, which is summarised rather brutally on page 92:

There is only universal consciousness. We, as well as all other living organisms, are but dissociated alters of universal consciousness, surrounded like islands by the ocean of its thoughts. The inanimate universe we see around us is the extrinsic appearance of these thoughts. The living organisms we share the world with are the extensive appearances of other dissociated alters of universal consciousness. . . The currently prevailing concept of a physical world independent of consciousness is an unnecessary and problematic intellectual abstraction.

A key question is whether, even though the alters contained within it are dissociated, Universal Consciousness is similarly blocked in terms of an overall awareness of all subordinate realities and inscapes. A quote from earlier in Kastrup’s book suggests not:[5]

Dissociation allows us to (a) grant that TWE [That Which Experiences] is fundamentally unitary at a universal level and then still (b) coherently explain the private character of our personal experiences…

Where do these thoughts lead us?

In terms of a deity he writes:[6]

Thus, our only access to God is through the images on the screen of perception that we call the world. These images are the extrinsic appearance of God’s conscious inner life.

This brings us to the following insight:[7]

Most people’s instinct upon having an intense dream is to immediately ask themselves: what does it mean? Looking upon life in the same way . . . can bestow on it a much more spacious, open and wholesome outlook. . . . the ultimate meaning of it all may not be discernible in any particular end point or conclusion, but only in the cognitive gestalt entailed by a circumambulation — to use a handy Jungian term — of associative threads.’

All this maps very closely onto the words of Bahá’u’lláh in The Seven Valleys (page 32):[8]

Indeed, O Brother, if we ponder each created thing, we shall witness a myriad perfect wisdoms and learn a myriad new and wondrous truths. One of the created phenomena is the dream. Behold how many secrets are deposited therein, how many wisdoms treasured up, how many worlds concealed.

Kastrup’s justification of a search for meaning in this way resonates so strongly with me. My poems of quest make complete sense now as does my love of dreamwork. Even finding a faith, as I did nearly 40 years ago, did not quench this thirst for deeper meaning. To choose a path is not the same as arriving at your destination.

A rag rug

An Example

Even though I have never had a dream that was stunningly prophetic or profoundly mystical, I did find an apparently simple dream profoundly enlightening, so I thought it was worth reminding readers of the basics from an earlier post.

I am sitting on a rag rug, the kind where you drag bits of cloth through a coarse fabric backing to build up a warm thick rug.  The rags used in this case were all dark browns, greys and blacks. It is the rug, made by my spinster aunt, that was in the family home where I grew up. I’m in the living room, facing the hearth with its chimney breast and its cast-iron grate and what would have been a coal fire burning brightly. I am at the left hand corner of the rug furthest from the fire. To my right are one or two other people, probably Bahá’ís, but I’m not sure who they are. We are praying. I am chewing gum. I suddenly realise that Bahá’u’lláh is behind my left shoulder. I absolutely know it. I am devastated to be ‘caught’ chewing gum during prayers but can see no way of getting rid of the gum unobserved.

I worked on this dream and discovered that various elements were profoundly meaningful, such as the rug made by my aunt, not least because of what she represented to me, including what Auden termed ‘foiled creative fire.’ For a sense of that those of you who are interested could read the poem The Maiden Aunt. I want, for present purposes, to focus on what for me has become the core of the dream’s meaning, a meaning which is still evolving even though this dream is now many years old.

There were two kinds of clue to this core meaning: one derived from word play and the other from role play. I’ll just focus on the first element here.

I’ll take the word play first as it’s easier to explain. The ‘chewing gum’ element of the dream can be dealt with quickly. It related to various ways I was stuck and perhaps still am!

More richly significant was the image of the hearth. The fact that it was in a chimney ‘breast’ helps convey the power of the realisation that came to me. The word ‘hearth’ is comprised of several other key words: ‘ear,’ ‘hear,’ ‘earth,’ ‘art’ and most powerful of all ‘heart.’ (See link for an intriguing piece of possible cryptoamnesia.) All of these words were separately of huge significance for me though I had some sense of how they might all fit together. For more on that from an earlier blog post, for those who are interested, see link to the post.

World as Metaphor

The world is a metaphor for the spiritual realm: we just have to learn to read it right.

This is in part what Bahá’u’lláh was saying in Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh:[9]

Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world. It is a dispensation of Providence ordained by the Ordainer, the All-Wise. Were anyone to affirm that it is the Will of God as manifested in the world of being, no one should question this assertion. It is endowed with a power whose reality men of learning fail to grasp. Indeed a man of insight can perceive naught therein save the effulgent splendour of Our Name, the Creator.’

I was almost in tears earlier as I reflected on this: finding validation in science and philosophy for what I believed and finding it expressed in terms that map so closely onto one of my preferred modes of exploration, was such relief.

Next comes the big topic: how can religion and science be reconciled.

References:

[1]. The Idea of the World – page 202.
[2]. The Idea of the World – page 211.
[3]. The Idea of the Brain – page 159.
[4]. The Idea of the World – page 233.
[5]. The Idea of the World – page 67.
[6]. The Idea of the World – page 235.
[7]. The Idea of the World – page 238.
[8]. The Seven Valleys – page 32.
[9]. Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 142.

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During April, I was working on the last of a long number of poems concerning my search for truth. I had no idea I was about to read a book that would provide my left-brain with some strings of words to help it understand what my right-brain was struggling to express.

Bernardo Kastrup’s book The Idea of the World was a fascinating read all the way through, but it was not until I almost reached the end that I found one of the most surprising pieces of information, previously completely unknown to me, in spite of my continuing interest in so-called ‘paranormal’ experiences.

I will digress a little before getting to that point.

He defines self-transcendence[1] as the ‘abrupt . . . broadening of one’s sense of self’ and explores the wealth of new evidence that demonstrates that such experiences, rich and complex as they often are, correlate with ‘a broad variety of brain impairment mechanisms.’ His list of such impairments includes cerebral hypoxia, electromagnetic and chemical impairment, generalised physiological stress and physical damage.

NDEs

One of his key examples is particularly close to an area of interest of mine: near death experiences. He writes:[2]

Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) are the prime examples of self-transcendence associated with dramatically reduced brain function due to e.g. cardiac arrest.

He refers at this point to the work of Pim van Lommel, whose book, Consciousness Beyond Life, I have blogged about earlier.

It’s probably worth a brief recap of van Lommel’s position.

Van Lommel argues – and I am not sufficiently expert in quantum theory to judge the strength of his case here – that quantum theory has altered the balance of the argument significantly:[3]

According to some quantum physicists, quantum physics accords our consciousness a decisive role in creating and experiencing perceptible reality. . . . . . This transforms modern science into a subjective science in which consciousness plays a fundamental role.

As a result of the implications of quantum theory and supported by his own research and that of others, he strongly feels:[4]

On the basis of prospective studies of near-death experience, recent results from neurophysiological research, and concepts from quantum physics, I strongly believe that consciousness cannot be located in a particular time and place. This is known as nonlocality. Complete and endless consciousness is everywhere in a dimension that is not tied to time or place, where past, present, and future all exist and are accessible at the same time.

To help lame-brains like me to keep up, he brings in a helpful analogy that is being used quite widely by those of this point of view:[5]

Our brain may be compared both to a television set, receiving information from electromagnetic fields and decoding this into sound and vision, and to a television camera, converting or encoding sound and vision into electromagnetic waves. . . . . The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness.

Let’s pick up his argument at what is a crux for his case:[6]

The fact that an NDE is accompanied by accelerated thought and access to greater than ever wisdom remains inexplicable. Current scientific knowledge also fails to explain how all these NDE elements can be experienced at a moment when, in many people, brain function has been seriously impaired. There appears to be an inverse relationship between the clarity of consciousness and the loss of brain function.

What kind of evidence does he adduce in support of this proposition?

The most telling kind of evidence comes from prospective rather retrospective studies, ie studies where the decision is taken in advance to include all those people who have undergone resuscitation within the context of several hospitals and question them as soon as possible both immediately afterwards and then after a set period of time again later, rather than finding people who claimed to have had an NDE and interviewing only them. The data is impressive both for the numbers in total involved:[7]

Within a four-year period, between 1988 and 1992, 344 consecutive patients who had undergone a total of 509 successful resuscitations were included in the study.

and for the strength of the evidence those numbers provided:[8]

The four prospective NDE studies discussed in the previous chapter all reached one and the same conclusion: consciousness, with memories and occasional perception, can be experienced during a period of unconsciousness—that is, during a period when the brain shows no measurable activity and all brain functions, such as body reflexes, brain-stem reflexes, and respiration, have ceased.

The conclusion van Lommel felt justified in drawing followed naturally on from that evidence:[9]

As prior researchers have concluded, a clear sensorium and complex perceptual processes during a period of apparent clinical death challenge the concept that consciousness is localized exclusively in the brain.

What is important to emphasise here is that the precise conditions under which the NDE was experienced were completely, accurately and verifiably recorded, something not possible in a retrospective study: van Lommel is clear[10] that ‘in such a brain [state] even so-called hallucinations are impossible.’

He explains how an NDE serves to demonstrate this:[11]

The oxygen deficiency brought on by the stopping of the heart temporarily suspends brain function, causing the electromagnetic fields of our neurons and other cells to disappear and the interface between consciousness and our physical body to be disrupted. This creates the conditions for experiencing the endless and enhanced consciousness outside the body (the wave aspect of consciousness) known as an NDE: the experience of a continuity of consciousness independent of the body.

Psychedelics

Now we come to the unexpected evidence.

Kastrup references similar work under his various headings, another of which is psychedelics. They produce ‘powerful self-transcending experiences’ and, he explains[12], ‘it had been assumed that they did so by exciting parts of the brain.’ As it turns out ‘psychedelics do largely the opposite,’ the evidence for which was derived from ideal research on subjects who were[13]‘placed inside functional MRI scanners, instructed to report on their conscious inner state according to standardised procedures, and then injected with the psychedelic compound.’

Where does this surprising counterintuitive evidence take him?

His first concern[14] is to use this evidence to undermine physicalism’s contention that consciousness is simply a by-product of the brain, something I have explored at length, particularly in terms of my disillusionment with psychology’s take on this issue (see my sequence on Irreducible Mind ). He contends that:[15]

It remains a direct implication of physicalism that an increase in the richness of experience needs to be accompanied by an increase in the compound level of metabolism associated with the NCCs[16].

What is also worth mentioning is that Matthew Cobb, a convinced reductionist, in his book The Idea of the Brain: a History, quotes comparable concerns from as early as the 1860s pointing to a potentially different conclusion. Francis Anstie[17] suggested that, in cases of hashish and alcohol, ‘the apparent exaltation of certain factors should be ascribed rather to the removal of controlling influences than to positive stimulation of the faculties themselves.’ Psychoactive drugs suppress the brain’s ability to control, including through inhibition.

This would not necessarily imply that rich experiences require an increase of overall brain activity and might be compatible with the observed reduction. Unfortunately, Kastrup does not quote enough of the evidence to clarify which parts of the brain show reduced functioning. However, this does not undermine the wealth of other evidence, for example from NDEs, that provide clear examples of lucidity while the brain is out of action. This suggests to me that Cobb’s later claim (pages 359-60) that ‘inexplicable experimental results’ that would undermine the ‘materialist approach’ have never ‘been forthcoming’ indicates that he’s never looked carefully enough, or possibly even at all, at the wealth of evidence that does exist.*

It is also worth pointing out that Cobb’s privileging of the term experimental might be used to rule out the kind of evidence created by NDE-type studies such as those van Lommel refers to, in which case it would be a convenient way of weighting acceptable evidence in favour of materialism and excusing materialists from ever bothering to objectively inspect evidence that might call their ideology into question.

I’ll pause for now, after considering that clash of ideas, before I move onto other aspects of Kastrup’s book that resonate strongly with me.

*Footnote:

Although I disagree with Matthew Cobb’s reductionist position, I think it’s worth mentioning that his book The Idea of the Brain: a History, is worth reading.

For instance, I was genuinely intrigued by the superficially plausible argument he puts forward, based on studies of spilt-brain patients. These are people, previously suffering from epilepsy, whose corpus callosum, which joins the two hemispheres of the brain together, has been severed.

He contends that[18] ‘if you split a brain, you get two minds instead of one,’ and goes on to argue that the resulting differences between the two halves of the brain’s way of processing experience[19] ‘strongly support the general working hypothesis that the mind emerges from the brain.’ He seems to believe that an idealist, who does not accept the reductionist view and argues that ‘the brain somehow detects the non-material mind, has to explain how, when separated, the two hemispheres enable such different minds to appear.’

I hadn’t heard this argument before.

I believe he underestimates the differences between the hemispheres in order to strengthen his contention. He suggests[20] that apart from language being located primarily in the left hemisphere and ‘emotional responses’ in the right ‘there are no clear fundamental differences in the functions of the two sides of the brain.’

He does not make any reference in his book to Iain McGilchrist’s The Master & his Emissary. I have reviewed this is an earlier post and won’t repeat the arguments here. Suffice it to say that McGilchrist establishes, to my mind beyond doubt, that the hemispheres work in significantly different ways, and that we along with most of our  so-called successful scientists are in bondage to the mechanistic bias of the left hemisphere at the expense of the subtler more holistic perspectives of the right hemisphere, which implies that this is part of the reason Cobb thinks as he does.

In the end, this leaves me convinced that Cobb’s contention is flawed. The reason is this. If the mind is separate from the brain, as a wealth of evidence suggests (see the list of links below for some pointers in that direction) which Cobb chooses to ignore in his book, and if our only way of experiencing the mind is through the brain, then a split-brain will divide our experience of the mind in the same biased way as it divides our experience of the world. I think this negates his key contention here that I, and those like me, have to explain how, when separated, the two hemispheres enable such different minds to appear. It should be self-evident. The differences between the hemispheres are sufficiently great to explain the differences between the two kinds of consciousness they create. Split brains can’t grasp and decode the signals of a united mind so our experience of the mind splits as well. A no-brainer, really.

Some posts that suggest matter is not all there is

Psychology and Spirit

  1. Irreducible Mind – a review (1/3): how psychology lost the plot
  2. Irreducible Mind – a review (2/3): Myers & the mind-body problem
  3. Irreducible Mind – a review (3/3): the self & the Self

References:

[1]. The Idea of the World  – page 179.
[2]. The Idea of the World  –  Page 180.
[3]. Consciousness Beyond Life – Kindle Reference (KR) 231.
[4]. Consciousness Beyond Life – KR255.
[5]. Consciousness Beyond Life – KR261.
[6] Consciousness Beyond Life – KR2,622.
[7] Consciousness Beyond Life – KR2,735.
[8] Consciousness Beyond Life – KR3,117.
[9] Consciousness Beyond Life – KR 3,136
[10] Consciousness Beyond Life – KR3,200.
[11] Consciousness Beyond Life – KR4,890.
[12]. The Idea of the World  – Page 182.
[13]. The Idea of the World  – Page 176.
[14]. The Idea of the World  – Page 189.
[15]. The Idea of the World  – Page 193.
[16]. Neural Correlates of Consciousness.
[17]. The Idea of the Brain: a History – pages 120-122.
[18]. The Idea of the Brain – page 344.
[19]. The Idea of the Brain – page 348.
[20]. The Idea of the Brain – page 347.

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