Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Suffering is life.

(Thomas Szasz quoted by James Davies in Cracked – page 276)

I threatened in an earlier post to republish this one. Here is it.

I was walking back from town one day when my phone pinged. It was a message telling me my book was ready for collection from Waterstones. I was puzzled to begin with then the penny dropped. Just before my birthday someone spotted that I had scribbled, in my list of books to buy, the title of Cracked by James Davies.

I turned round and headed back to town again. When I picked up the book, for some reason I wasn’t impressed by its cover. Maybe the words ‘Mail on Sunday’ put me off, though Wilf Self’s comment helped to redress the balance.

Anyhow, for whatever reason, I didn’t get round to reading it until after I’d finished Rovelli’s Reality is not What it Seems. I’ll be doing a short review of that later, possibly.

Once I started Davies’s book I was hooked.

I’ve already shared on this blog a review of Bentall’s book Doctoring the Mind, which brilliantly, for me at least, brings the more grandiose pretentions of psychiatry back to the earth with a bump. I quoted Salley Vickers’ verdict:

Bentall’s thesis is that, for all the apparent advances in understanding psychiatric disorders, psychiatric treatment has done little to improve human welfare, because the scientific research which has led to the favouring of mind-altering drugs is, as he puts it, “fatally flawed”. He cites some startling evidence from the World Health Organisation that suggests patients suffering psychotic episodes in developing countries recover “better” than those from the industrialised world and the aim of the book is broadly to suggest why this might be so. . . .

I summarised my own view by praising ‘its rigorous analysis of the misleading inadequacy of psychiatry’s diagnostic system, its powerful and carefully argued exposure of the myths surrounding psychotropic medications and their supposed efficacy, and its moving description of the critical importance of positive relationships to recovery.’

The Davies book also covers much of this same ground and is equally compelling. What needs to be acknowledged is that he also takes the argument to another level towards the end of his book. He is concerned that we are exporting our Western model with all its flaws to country after country and goes on to explore other implications as well.

In the chapter dealing with the export issue he first summarises his case up to that point (page 258 – square brackets pull in additional points he has made elsewhere):

Western psychiatry has just too many fissures in the system to warrant its wholesale exportation, not just because psychiatric diagnostic manuals are more products of culture than science (chapter 2) [and have labelled as disorders many normal responses to experience], or because the efficacy of our drugs is far from encouraging (Chapter 4), or because behind Western psychiatry lie a variety of cultural assumptions about human nature and the role of suffering of often questionable validity and utility (Chapter 9), or because pharmaceutical marketing can’t be relied on to report the facts unadulterated and unadorned [and its influence has helped consolidate the stranglehold of diagnosis and a simplistic psychiatric approach] (Chapter 10), or finally because our exported practices may undermine successful local ways of managing distress. If there is any conclusion to which the chapters of this book should point, it is that we must think twice before confidently imparting to unsuspecting people around the globe our particular brand of biological psychiatry, our wholly negative views of suffering, our medicalisation of everyday life, and our fearfulness of any emotion that may bring us down.

I can’t emphasise too strongly the value of reading through the details of his treatment of all these other aspects. I am of course aware that physical medicine, even though there are biological markers for diseases in this sphere unlike in mental health, has not been exempt from the disingenuous manipulation of data and unscrupulous marketing methods practiced by the pharmaceutical industry, as Malcolm Kendrick’s book Doctoring Data eloquently testifies, but the scale of that abuse is dwarfed in the arena of mental health – and I mean arena in the fullest sense of that word: the battle here is damaging more ‘patients’ and costing even more lives.

Davies’s examination of exactly how this exportation of the psychiatric perspective is coming about is also disturbing and compelling reading. He adduces for example how skilfully drug companies have learned to read the reality of cultures into which they want to make inroads with their products, how effectively they target key figures in the prescribing hierarchy of professionals, and how astutely they now reach out to the public themselves so they will go to their doctors and request what the drug company is selling – all this to detriment of the many ways the social cohesion of the receiving culture has often (though not always, of course) been supporting those who are suffering from some form of emotional distress.

Where he takes his case next, in Chapter 10, I found both compelling and resonant. He is in tune with Bentall in seeing the importance of supportive relationships but, I think, explores that aspect somewhat more deeply.

He repeats basic points, to begin with (page 266):

What the evidence shows… is that what matters most in mental health care is not diagnosing problems and prescribing medication, but developing meaningful relationships with sufferers with the aim of cultivating insight into their problems, so the right interventions can be individually tailored to their needs. Sometimes this means giving meds, but more often it does not.

He then quotes research done by a psychiatrist he interviewed (page 267). Using two existing MH teams, Dr Sami Timimi set up a study comparing the results from two groups, one diagnostic, the usual approach, and the other non-diagnostic, where medication was given only sparingly, diagnosis was hardly used at all, and individual treatment plans were tailored to the person’s unique needs.’

In the non-diagnostic group the psychiatrist spent far more time exploring with his clients the context of their problems.

The results were clear (page 269):

Only 9 per cent of patients treated by the non-diagnostic approach continued needing treatment after two years, compared with 34 per cent of patients who were being treated via the medical model. Furthermore, only one person from the non-diagnostic group ended up having to be hospitalised, whereas over 15 people in the medical-model team were referred for inpatient hospital treatment. Finally, the non-diagnostic approach led to more people being discharged more quickly, and to the lowest patient ‘no-show’ rate out of all the mental health teams in the county.

Davies also interviewed Dr Peter Breggin, a US psychiatrist who is critical of the medical model. Breggin explained his viewpoint (page 279):

Most problems are created by the contexts in which people live and therefore require contextual not chemical solutions. ‘People who are breaking down are often like canaries in a mineshafts,’ explained Breggin. ‘They are a signal of a severe family issue.’ .  . . . For Breggin, because the medical model fails to take context seriously – whether the family or the wider social context – it overlooks the importance of understanding and managing context to help the person in distress.

Davies quotes Dr Pat Bracken as singing from the same hymn sheet (page 273):

We should start turning the paradigm round, start seeing the non-medical approach as the real work of psychiatry, rather than as incidental to the main thrust of the job, which is about diagnosing people and then getting them on the right drugs.

It’s where he goes next that I found most unexpected but most welcome to my heart. He leads into it with an interview with Thomas Sasz just before his death at the age of 92 (page 276). He asks Szasz, ‘why do we believe as a culture that suffering must be removed chemically rather than understood in many cases as a natural human phenomenon, and possibly something from which we can learn and grow if worked through productively?’

Szasz’s response is fascinating:

Our age has replaced a religious point of view with a pseudo-scientific point of view. . .   Now everything is explained in terms of molecules and atoms and brain scans. It is a reduction of the human being to a biological machine. We don’t have existential or religious or mental suffering any more. Instead we have brain disorders.

Davies summarises Szasz’s position on psychiatry (page 277): ‘It had become deluded in its belief that its physical technologies, its ECT machines and laboratory-manufactured molecules, could solve the deeper dilemmas of the soul, society and self.

Bracken’s view on this brings in capitalism (page 278):

What complicates things more is that we also live in a capitalist society, where there is always going to be someone trying to sell you something… In fact, some people would argue that capitalism can only continue by constantly making us dissatisfied with our lives.… You know, if everybody said I am very happy with my television, my car and everything else I’ve got, and I’m perfectly content with my lifestyle, the whole economy would come shattering down around our ears.

He continues (page 279):

What we customarily call mental illness is not always illness in the medical sense. It’s often a natural outcome of struggling to make our way in a world where the traditional guides, props and understandings are rapidly disappearing… Not all mental strife is therefore due to an internal malfunction but often to the outcome of living in a malfunctioning world. The solution is not yet more medicalisation, but an overhaul of our cultural beliefs, a reinfusing of life with spiritual, religious or humanistic meaning with emphasis on the essential involvement of community, and with whatever helps bring us greater direction, understanding, courage and purpose.

Unfortunately psychiatry, as with economics according to the writers of Econocracy, is failing to train psychiatrists in the adoption of a critical perspective on their own practice. So, he concludes, the pressure to change perspective has to come from outside the psychiatric system. He quotes Timimi again (page 285):

The things that get powerful institutions to change don’t usually come from inside those institutions. They usually come from outside. So anything that can put pressure on psychiatry as an institution to critique its concepts and reform its ways must surely be a good thing.

So, it’s down to us then. For me, promoting this book is a start. We all need to think, though, what else could be done, whether as a patient, a volunteer, a friend, a family member, an MP, a clinician or simply a citizen.

Currently, help is often tied to diagnosis. One psychiatrist quoted in this book is concerned that if categories of mental disorder are not confirmed as diseases, services will never be funded at the required level, the level, say, at which cancer services are funded. Surely, though, if opinion shifts to a tipping point not only the greater humanity of non-diagnostic treatments but also their relative cost effectiveness must carry the day in the end. But opinion will only shift sufficiently if we all play our part.

I know! I’ve got it.

You all could start by reading these two books. How about that?


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I found myself staring outside my window earlier today, but not the same day that triggered my recent poem on the death of trees. I looked past the silver birch immediately outside, with most of its green or golden leaves in place, to the bare branches of the denuded sycamore, left with only a handful of its leaves on this cold but sunny November day. As I looked the words of the sonnet penned 400 years ago came floating into my mind:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

Shakespeare, of course: sonnet 73.

That led me to Don Paterson’s reflections from his book on ‘Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: a new commentary.’ A later line of the sonnet reads: ‘Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.’ Paterson observes (page 212) that ‘WS is referring to night, though Death’s brother has long been sleep, whom he’s also invoking indirectly.’ Inevitably, we go further yet. He adds, ‘Remember Macbeth’s Come seeling night,/Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day.’ He reminds us that ‘seel’ is to ‘stitch the eyelids shut, as one would a hawk’s.’

The reference to Macbeth reminded me of the fascinating book that I had just finished reading: Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker.

He couldn’t resist wheeling out Macbeth either (page 108):

Ironically, most of the “new,” twenty-first-century discoveries regarding sleep were delightfully summarized in 1611 in Macbeth, act two, scene two, where Shakespeare prophetically states that sleep is “the chief nourisher in life’s feast.”

He argues that our industrialised society is chronically sleep deprived. And he harvests acres of evidence to prove (page 107) that sleep, amongst other things, ‘enhances memory,’ ‘makes [us] more creative,’ ‘protects from cancer and dementia,’ lowers our ‘risk of heart attacks and stroke,’ and leads to our feeling ‘happier, less depressed, and less anxious.’ We need to wake up to the danger we are in by not sleeping enough.

Three examples

Because I’m still a clinical psychologist at heart, to prove the value of the book I want to focus on his discussion of three problems: Autism, ‘Schizophrenia’ and Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I have called them problems rather than illnesses or disorders because I am deeply sceptical, as I have explained elsewhere, about the value of such labeling.

But I can set aside such quibbling for now and focus on his demonstration of how much sleep can do to mitigate such problems and how much the lack of it makes them worse.


His link between autism and sleep abnormality is dramatically strong (page 82):

Autistic individuals show a 30 to 50 percent deficit in the amount of REM sleep they obtain relative to children without autism.

A word of explanation might be necessary here.

During waking hours, in terms of information, we are in reception mode, he argues. Non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep performs a kind of reflective function (page 52) and stores and strengthens the ‘raw ingredients of new facts and skills’ whereas rapid eye movement (REM) sleep (dreaming sleep) integrates the information, ‘interconnecting the raw ingredients with each other, with all past experiences, and, in doing so, building an ever more accurate model of how the world works.’

He accepts that this correlation does not prove that the sleep problem in humans is the cause of autism or vice versa. However, research using animals suggests that when infant rats are deprived of REM sleep ‘aberrant patterns of neural connectivity, or synaptogenesis’ occur in the brain, and the rats affected ‘go on to become socially withdrawn and isolated.’

He adds that, since ‘alcohol is one of the most powerful suppressors of REM sleep that we know of’ it can ‘inflict the same selective removal of REM sleep.’ ‘Vibrant electrical activity’ is the detectable sign of REM sleep. The infants (page 83) ‘of heavy-drinking mothers showed a 200 percent reduction in this measure of vibrant electrical activity relative to the infants born of non-alcohol-consuming mothers.’ However, even when pregnant mothers consumed only two glasses of wine (pages 83-84), it ‘significantly reduced the amount of time that the unborn babies spent in REM sleep, relative to the non-alcohol condition.’

While he acknowledges that for humans (page 85) ‘we do not yet fully understand what the long-term effects are of fetal or neonate REM sleep disruption, alcohol-triggered or otherwise,’ the abnormalities caused in adult animals is clear.

I also feel that the evidence adduced by Raine in his masterly book The Anatomy of Violence may be partly explicable in these terms, though Walker makes no reference to it. In this study of violent offenders, Raine finds that foetal alcohol exposure is very much a factor needing to be taken into account, and not just with violent offenders, the main focus of his book, as it has implications for cognitive functioning including memory as well as impulse control in general (pages 163-164):

Part of the reason for this is its effects upon the hippocampus. The hippocampus patrols the dangerous waters of emotion. It is critically important in associating a specific place with punishment – something that helps fear conditioning. Criminals have clear deficits in these areas. The hippocampus is also a key structure in the limbic circuit that regulates emotional behaviour . . .

This impairment then interacts with early experiences of attachment, and disruptions to attachment make the likelihood of later personality problems much higher. Sleep strongly impacts upon the functioning of the hippocampus as Walker explains (page 155):

The very latest work in this area has revealed that sleep deprivation even impacts the DNA and the learning-related genes in the brain cells of the hippocampus itself.

So, whatever the exact direction of causation, and regardless of what other factors may or may not be involved, REM sleep disruption and autism are undoubtedly linked.


Even though I worked in mental health over thirty years, until I read his book I never realised fully the important role of sleep in the problems I was looking at, even though I used to explain to lay audiences that psychosis, as it is termed, was a kind of waking dream, which, I used to say, meant that we all became psychotic at night, whether we remembered our dreams or not.

There is an additional twist to the role of NREM sleep here (page 89): ‘Of the many functions carried out by deep NREM sleep… it is that of synaptic pruning that features prominently during adolescence.’

He goes on to explain how important adequate sleep is for the adolescent brain, given that it is critically involved in determining what synapses (neuronal connections) are removed to mature the brain appropriately. Then he makes his key point early on in the book (page 92):

Individuals who developed schizophrenia had an abnormal pattern of brain maturation that was associated with synaptic pruning, especially in the frontal lobe regions where rational, logical thoughts are controlled – the inability to do so being a major symptom of schizophrenia. In a separate series of studies, we have also observed that in young individuals who are at a high risk of developing schizophrenia, and in teenagers and young adults with schizophrenia, there is a two- to three-fold reduction in deep NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. . . . Faulty pruning of brain connections in schizophrenia caused by sleep abnormalities is now one of the most exciting areas of investigation in psychiatric illness.

He does not deal with this here except in terms of correlation. This therefore does not exclude the possibility that there are other causative elements at work.

Graph of the Model that states Psychosis is on a continuum with Normal Functioning (Source: The route to psychosis by Dr Emmanuelle Peters)

I am well aware, for example, of the strong evidence for the role of trauma in the development of so-called schizophrenia. His treatment of trauma is quite separate from his discussion of schizophrenia, as he is content to term it, and he relates the persistence of nightmares in the aftermath of trauma to the failure of the brain to suppress noradrenaline, a failure that keeps the terror alive. Normally the brain suppresses noradrenaline in sleep so that dream experiences do not create strong feelings of fear and the mind is desensitised to the terror by the calming dreams – a very different process from the NREM one he is describing here.

None the less, the correlation is significant and potentially valuable therapeutically. I would hope that future research is less diagnostically naïve and includes other potentially relevant factors in the mix.

Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

His exposure of the way in which sleep deprivation is ignored as a fundamental factor in ADHD was music to my ears. He launches it by saying (page 314):

An added reason for making sleep a top priority in the education and lives of our children concerns the link between sleep deficiency and the epidemic of ADHD. … If you make a composite of the symptoms (unable to maintain focus and attention, deficient learning, behaviourally difficult, with mental health instability), and then strip away the label of ADHD, the symptoms are nearly identical to those caused by a lack of sleep.

The drugs we prescribe to treat it further prevent sleep.

He is not claiming there is no such thing as ADHD, simply that many people to whom the diagnosis has been attached are simply sleep deprived. The treatment makes it worse not better. He quotes the figures (page 316):

Based on recent surveys and clinical evaluations, we estimate that more than 50 percent of all children with an ADHD diagnosis actually have a sleep disorder, yet a small fraction know of their sleep condition and its ramifications.

And more than that. Because our society undervalues sleep (ibid.):

Well over 70 percent of parents [believe] their child gets enough sleep, when in reality, less than 25 percent of children aged 11 to 18 actually obtain the necessary amount.

He points to early starting times in schools as one of the culprits and late bedtimes as another. This blind spot in our culture is damaging lives, he argues. We have to change.


I can’t resist a quick postscript on dreams. Oliver Burkeman, in a recent Guardian article, nails the difficulty I have with Walker’s reductionist approach, which he describes accurately: ‘recent work by researchers including Matthew Walker, author of the new book Why We Sleep, strongly suggests dreams are a kind of “overnight therapy”: in REM sleep, we get to reprocess emotionally trying experiences, but without the presence of the anxiety-inducing neurotransmitter noradrenaline. In experiments, people exposed to emotional images reacted much more calmly to seeing them again after a good night’s dreaming.

He rightly argues that Jung would not have agreed that this was all there was to it, and neither would I. He even provides a counteracting argument that retains the magic of dreams even while conceding they might be random:

So you wrote down a dream, then studied it, with or without a therapist, trying out different interpretations, and if one rang true – if it gave you goosebumps or triggered strong emotions – you pursued it further. What’s striking, you may have noticed, is that this approach would work even if Jung were wrong, and dreams were just random. If you treat them as potentially meaningful, retaining only those interpretations that really “click”, you’re going to end up with meaningful insights anyway. I’ve dabbled in this, and highly recommend it. To ask what your dreams might be trying to tell you is to ask deep and difficult questions you’d otherwise avoid – even if, in reality, they weren’t trying to tell you anything at all.

Walker’s disappointing take on dreams does not for me diminish one jot the fundamental importance of his book. Sleep really matters and he marshals convincing evidence to prove just how vital it is that we recognise this and act accordingly. It’s a compelling, accessible, credible and critically important read.

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It’s fatal when I’m left to wait with time on my hands near a book shop, especially with three book tokens burning a hole in my wallet – well, it’s perhaps more accurate to say they were making it too thick to fit comfortably into my pocket. I had nearly half-an-hour to kill within one hundred yards of a Waterstones. I gravitated first towards my usual ground floor book-stacks – Smart Thinking, hoping I’d learn how to do it one day, and Biography. Zilch. History was tucked into a corner to my left. I usually don’t bother. History books bore me as a general rule.

Not this time. For some reason one book I wasn’t remotely looking for leapt out at me: The Islamic Enlightenment. I pulled it down and skimmed the inside of the dust cover. I saw the words ‘brave radicals like Iran’s first feminist Qurrat al-Ayn.’ I flipped to the index. ‘Baha’ism 144-147.’ 

Having declared the redundancy of the Muslim clergy, Bahá’u’lláh and his son and successor, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, proposed one of the most enlightened social systems of the time.

I quickly Googled for reviews and came across this one from the Guardian. There were clearly many other good reasons to buy this book, which is lying on my desk at this very moment along with several others, waiting its turn to be read in a rather long queue. Below is a short extract from the review: for the full post see link.

A celebration of an age of reformers in Istanbul, Cairo and Tehran provides a powerful corrective to lazy, prejudiced thinking.

Fifteen years ago, I sought out the oldest surviving folios of Plato’s philosophy. My hunt took me first to the Bodleian library in Oxford, and then past vats of indigo and pens of chickens in the souk in Fez, through the doors of al-Qarawiyyin mosque and up some back stairs to its archive storeroom. There, copied out and annotated by the scribes of al-Andalus, was a 10th-century edition of Plato’s works: in my hands was evidence of a Renaissance, in Islamic lands, three centuries before “the Renaissance” was supposed to have happened.

The jibe too often heard today that Islam is stuck in the dark ages is simplistic and lazy – as evidenced by this vigorous and thoughtful book about Islamic peoples’ encounters with western modernity. One of the pertinent questions Christopher de Bellaigue asks is: did a rational enlightenment follow on from Islam’s deep-rooted interest in the works of Plato and other classical philosophers? The answer he gives is: yes, in certain places and at certain times.

The author has a keen eye for a story, and our companions as we follow his argument are those vivid heroes (and occasionally heroines) who had the vision and the guts to bring about reform. The narrative takes us through Napoleonic Egypt, Tanzimât Istanbul and Tehran in the 19th century, and the swirl of nationalism and counter-enlightenment beyond. De Bellaigue makes it clear that in the Islamic east, after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, a lot happened – in some cases reformation, enlightenment and industrial revolution – in very little time. The telegraph appeared within a heartbeat of the movable-type printing press; trains arrived at the same time as independent newspapers. Many of the challenging concepts being gingerly embraced by Islamic pioneers were also being given a name for the first time in the west – “human rights” in the 1830s, feminism in the 1890s. The tsunami of modernity was both thrilling and fearful.

On occasion, as with the Albanian-born Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt and the Ottoman sultan Mahmud II, the enlighteners were “both modernisers and martinets”. Often they died for their ideas. The story of the Persian feminist-martyr Fatemeh Zarrin Taj Baraghani [Qurrat al-Ayn], who read too much, wrote too much and, veil-less, promoted the social vision of the Bahá’ís (a united, anti-nationalist, monolingual world), is poignantly told. As well as big history analysis there are delightful incidental details. Egyptians, for instance, were horrified to discover that Napoleon’s troops trod on carpets with their boots and didn’t shave their pubic hair – at a time when Egypt was instituting such hygiene reforms as the fumigation of letters before delivery.

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The Great Chain of Being

If we say religion is opposed to science, we lack knowledge of either true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test.

( ‘Abdu’l-BaháPromulgation of Universal Peace –page 107)

In the light of Roger’s recent comment I thought I should in fairness republish my sequence of posts explaining the value of Wilber’s book The Marriage of Sense and Soul. This sequence of two posts was first published in 2012 and picks up on aspects of Wilber’s thought to which I resonate more strongly than those in his Theory of Everything.

In the previous post I summarised Ken Wilber‘s take on modernism as expressed in his The Marriage of Sense & Soul. Basically he feels that, although we have gained much by splitting the medieval fusion of instrumental, moral and subjective thinking, we have drained much of our felt life of its meaning by adopting such a purely mechanical model of the world. Part of his search for a way to undo this damage involves revisiting what he feels we have lost.

The Great Chain of Being Broken

On page 61 he picks up the thread:

. . . all interiors were reduced to exteriors. All subjects were reduced to objects; all depth was reduced to surfaces; all I’s and WE’s were reduced to Its; all quality was reduced to quantity; levels of significance were reduced to levels of size; value was reduced to veneer; all translogical and dialogical was reduced to monological. Gone the eye of contemplation and gone the eye of the mind – only data from the eye of the flesh would be accorded primary reality, because only sensory data possessed simple location, here in the desolate world of monochrome flatland.

He goes on to contend that when science discovered that mind and consciousness were anchored in the natural organism i.e. the brain and not disembodied, the Great Chain of Being, the old world view, took a colossal hit from which it never recovered (page 62).

I need to digress one moment to unpack what he sees as an essential aspect of this Great Chain of Being:

In the natural order, earth (rock) is at the bottom of the chain: this element possesses only the attribute of existence. Each link succeeding upward contains the positive attributes of the previous link and adds (at least) one other. Rocks, as above, possess only existence; the next link up, plants, possess life and existence. Animals add not only motion, but appetite as well.

Man is both mortal flesh, as those below him, and also spirit as those above. In this dichotomy, the struggle between flesh and spirit becomes a moral one. The way of the spirit is higher, more noble; it brings one closer to God. The desires of the flesh move one away from God.

This should have a familiar ring to it for anyone with a spiritual view of the world. It certainly has for Bahá’ís. There are many quotations I could choose from to illustrate this but the passage below is particularly appropriate in the context of this discussion where science and spirit have come to seem at war:

If we look with a perceiving eye upon the world of creation, we find that all existing things may be classified as follows: First—Mineral—that is to say matter or substance appearing in various forms of composition. Second—Vegetable—possessing the virtues of the mineral plus the power of augmentation or growth, indicating a degree higher and more specialized than the mineral. Third—Animal—possessing the attributes of the mineral and vegetable plus the power of sense perception. Fourth—Human—the highest specialized organism of visible creation, embodying the qualities of the mineral, vegetable and animal plus an ideal endowment absolutely minus and absent in the lower kingdoms—the power of intellectual investigation into the mysteries of outer phenomena. The outcome of this intellectual endowment is science which is especially characteristic of man. This scientific power investigates and apprehends created objects and the laws surrounding them. It is the discoverer of the hidden and mysterious secrets of the material universe and is peculiar to man alone. The most noble and praiseworthy accomplishment of man therefore is scientific knowledge and attainment.

( ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Foundations of World Unity – page 48)

The irony, that a capacity, which Bahá’ís see as spiritual in origin, should have been harnessed to a process that has undermined our understanding of the spiritual, will not be lost on anyone reading this post. Wilber makes a subtle but important point on page 70:

Notice the difference between the interior of the individual – such as the mind – and the exterior of the individual – such as the brain. The mind is known by acquaintance; the brain, by objective description.

This contempt for our subjective experience as a source of legitimate data is something he feels we need to overcome. This forms the basis for his more balanced model of empiricism, one that he feels does not fall into the trap of privileging matter over mind.

‘Real’ Science and ‘Real’ Religion

Wilber concludes a complex review of what should constitute evidence and falsifiability by stating (page 169):

. . . it then becomes perfectly obvious that the real battle is not between science which is ‘real,’ and religion, which is ‘bogus,’ but rather between real science and religion, on the one hand, and bogus science and religion, on the other. Both real science and real religion follow the three strands of valid knowledge accumulation, while both bogus science (pseudo-science) and bogus religion (mythic and dogmatic) fail that test miserably. Thus, real science and real religion are actually allied against the bogus and the dogmatic and the nonverifiable and the nonfalsifiable in their respective spheres.

To arrive at this point he has covered ground that it would be impossible to reproduce completely here. I am offering only a selection of the barest bones of his argument. I am aware that this treatment may reduce the power of his case somewhat and can only suggest that, before dismissing it out of hand, anyone put off by my summary should read the original case in full as Wilber puts it. Also I have discussed on this blog Alvin Plantinga’s powerful exposition of a similar argument.

One of Wilber’s most basic points is that science is inconsistent if it claims that all its conclusions are based solely on external evidence.  He admits that science at its best does not claim this. On the contrary it acknowledges that interior processes such as mathematics play a huge part in the construction of its world view. However, it does a sleight of hand when it privileges the interior processes upon which it relies (e.g. mathematics) while ruling out of court those interior processes that it regards as suspicious (e.g. meditation). In Wilber’s view (pages 148-149), if you accept the one you must accept the other.

Give a Little

However, for true progress to be made, in his view, both sides need to give a little (pages 160-161):

We have asked science to do nothing more than expand from narrow empiricism (sensory experience only) to broad empiricism (direct experience in general), which it already does anyway with its own conceptual operations, from logic to mathematics.

But religion, too, must give a little. And in this case, religion must open its truth claims to direct verification – or rejection – by experiential evidence.

He builds further on this (page 169):

. . . . religion’s great, enduring, and unique strength, is that, at its core, it is a science of personal experience (using ‘science’ in the broad sense as direct experience, in any domain, that submits to the three strands of injunction, data, and falsifiability.

By injunction, he means ‘If you want to know, do this.’ This applies in equal measure to using a microscope correctly and to practising mindfulness skilfully. As I have argued elsewhere there are various pragmatic experiential exploration at the command of religions to explore their truths other than simply examining meditation, Wilber’s main focus, or similar purely individual experiences. For example, 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 collective action is transforming our communities[1].

From this validation of personal experience Wilber reaches the encouraging conclusion (ibid.):

Thus, if science can surrender its narrow empiricism  . . . . ., and if religion can surrender its bogus mythic claims in favour of authentic spiritual experience (which its founders uniformly did anyway), then suddenly, very suddenly, science and religion begin to look more like fraternal twins than centuries-old enemies.

This he sees as a way of reintegrating what has been for so long so damagingly disconnected. As he puts it towards the end of his book (page 196):

. . . . the crucial point is that sensory-empirical science, although it cannot see into the higher and interior domains on their own terms, can nonetheless register their empirical correlates.


[1] 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.

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If we say religion is opposed to science, we lack knowledge of either true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test.

( ‘Abdu’l-BaháPromulgation of Universal Peace –page 107)

In the light of Roger’s recent comment I thought I should in fairness republish my sequence of posts explaining the value of Wilber’s book The Marriage of Sense and Soul. This sequence of two posts was first published in 2012 and picks up on aspects of Wilber’s thought to which I resonate more strongly than those in his Theory of Everything.

A Windfall

I’ve had a plan for some time that looked like it would never see the light of common day. In the years before I began blogging I had read a number of books that impressed me deeply. I thought what a great idea it would be to blog about them as well, not just about the books I’m reading at the moment. So, I sorted them out onto a shelf for future processing. And they’ve stayed there ever since. Just not enough time in the day to revisit them, refresh my memory and convey my sense of why they are so important.

Then I had a windfall. I discovered that I’d done extensive notes on at least one of the books electronically in early 2001. In this post and one more I’ll attempt to winnow out what I feel now are some of the most telling points I captured at the time from The Marriage of Sense & Soul by Ken Wilber.

The Costs of Splitting

Wilber is concerned about what is also one of my obsessions: the price of modernism and the conflict that exists between religion and science. The Marriage of Sense and Soul is a brilliant attempt to capture the essence of his thinking on this issue in a reasonably accessible form between the covers of a single book. I don’t think he oversimplifies his position as a result.

Wilber acknowledges the dignity of modernity in its liberalism – equality, freedom, justice; representational democracy; political and civil rights:

These values and rights existed nowhere in the premodern world on a large scale, and thus these rights have been quite accurately referred to as the dignity of modernity.

This dignity comes (and he adduces scholars from Weber to Habermas in support of this contention) from the differentiation of art, morals and science; i.e. the beautiful, the good and the true. Each has its own language: I, we and it language (page 50). Because these are differentiated the We can no longer dominate the It. Religious tyranny can no longer dictate to science what is true. Nor can the “we” of the church or state over-ride the rights of individuals (“I”). As we shall shortly see, there is though another trap that a simplistic enthronement of reason has set for us.

It may help to bring in what Pusey and Sloane, in different books, have to say that sheds further light on this crucial set of distinctions.

Michael Pusey I have quoted in a previous post. He explains (page 51) that at the threshold of modernity Jurgen Habermas sees three modes of relating to the world becoming increasingly differentiated: there is first the ‘instrumental’ approach, then the ‘ethical’ perspective and thirdly the ‘aesthetic’ take on reality. These need to be in balance and integrated. We have increasingly privileged the instrumental (ends/means or rational/purposive) at the expense of the other two (moral and expressive). This mode has ‘colonised’ what Habermas calls the ‘lifeworld.’ Discourse from the other two positions plays second fiddle to the ‘instrumental’ (sorry! I couldn’t resist the pun!) This impoverishes the decision-making processes of our public lives. Values and subjectivity are seen as second rate, on no objective basis whatsoever.

Tod Sloan, in his book Damaged Life, quotes Habermas directly in support of his position (page 60):

As the process of modernisation continues, the different modes of rationality tend to become isolated in separate ‘orders of life.’ The resulting divisions present a serious problem to individuals who need to form personal identities capable of integrating several modes of rationality. Habermas writes: “Cognitive-instrumental, moral-practical, and aesthetic-expressive orientations of action ought not to become so independently embodied in antagonistic orders of life that they overcome the personality system’s average capacity for integration and lead to permanent conflicts between lifestyles. (Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action Volume 1, 1984: page 245)

In short, art, morals and science have flown apart and we are bearing the consequences!

Colonising the Life-World

Worse even than that, Wilber forcefully argues, science has invaded the other spheres (page 56):

. . .[T]he I and the WE were colonised by the IT. ..  . . . Full and flush with stunning victories, empirical science became scientism,  the belief that there is no reality save that revealed by science, and no truth save that which science delivers. . . . Consciousness itself, and the mind and heart and soul of humankind, could not be seen with a microscope, a telescope, a cloud chamber, a photographic plate, and so all were pronounced epiphenomenal at best, illusory at worst. . . . . Art and morals and contemplation and spirit were all demolished by the scientific bull in the china shop of consciousness. And that was the disaster of modernity. . . . it was a thoroughly flatland holism. It was not a holism that actually included all the interior realms of the I and the WE (including the eye of contemplation). . . . [I] as the reduction of all of the value spheres to monological Its perceived by the eye of the flesh that, more than anything else, constituted the disaster of modernity.

Trying to turn the clock back is no solution: attempting to regress to some theoretical Golden Age in the past is a dead end. On page 57 he states:

Premodern cultures did not have this disaster precisely because they did not possess the corresponding dignities, either, and thus they cannot serve as role models for the desired integration. The cure for the disaster of modernity is to address the dissociation, not attempt to erase the differentiation!

He ends that chapter with the bleak description:

A cold and uncaring wind, monological in its method and calculated in its madness, blew across a flat and faded landscape, the landscape that now contains, as tiny specks in the corner, the faces of you and me.

We’re on familiar territory here. McGilchrist has more recently addressed it in terms of getting a better balance between left and right brain functioning. Sheldrake is fighting to get science to put down the blunderbuss of materialism in favour of a less reductionist more holistic approach. What is Wilber’s answer? That’s what the second post will be about.

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I haven’t republished this sequence since 2015. Given my brief look on Monday at Koestenbaum’s levels of consciousness, it seemed worthwhile repeating this sequence which contains an explanation of Wilber’s model.

After recently re-posting the sequence of articles about Jenny Wade’s theory of the levels of consciousness, I finally got round to reading a book by Ken Wilber that has been lurking on my shelves for 10 years at least, I suspect. It is modestly titled A Theory of Everything: an integral vision for business, politics, science and spirituality.

This is the last of three posts attempting to capture some of the key points which excite me the most about it.

The first post tackled the basic four quadrant model, its concept of holarchy and the possible levels of consciousness development.

The second looked at some of the insights derived from this model, which give it its value.

This final post examines another way the model enriches our understanding of current problems and also outlines what we can do as individuals to lift our own level of consciousness.

The Mean Green Meme

It is important to emphasise once more that Wilber regards the levels of culture he describes as unavoidable stepping stones towards our reaching our full potential as a global civilisation. Each has its value and purpose at the appropriate stage and needs to develop onwards at its own externally unforced pace if unacceptable costs are to be avoided. However, the dominant liberal culture contains a version of the world-centric perspective that does not quite see it that way (page 123):

The blue meme (by whatever name) is an absolutely crucial, unavoidable, necessary building block of the higher stages (including green), and yet green does virtually everything in his power to destroy blue wherever it finds it.

For Wilber (page 124) it is only ‘on a sturdy blue and then orange foundation, green ideals can be built.” He summarises: ‘No blue and orange, no green. Thus green’s attack on blue and orange is profoundly suicidal.’

KW Diag 5 v2

His next point is a subtle but important one (ibid.):

Not only that, but when the highly developed, postformal green wave champions any and every “multicultural” movement, it acts to encourage other memes not to grow into green. The more green succeeds, the more it destroys itself.

Instead of this flatland pluralism, which uncritically celebrates diversity regardless of the consequences, Wilber advocates what for Bahá’ís is a very familiar solution. We need to move towards (page 126):

. . . . a universalism of “commonalities,” which means that, in addition to recognising and honouring the many important differences between cultures, we also tend to cherish those things that we have in common as human beings living on a very small planet, . . . (what I also call unity in diversity . . . . ).

This would allow a pluralist to forthrightly condemn as totally unacceptable female genital mutilation, rather than dither about whether it is some kind of legitimate cultural variation.

The situation is complex though. He is also very aware that green pluralism cannot be imposed on people. One of the examples that he gives is of China (page 122) ‘where a blue ancient nation is ratcheting in fits and starts toward an orange modern state.’ He explains further:

Generally speaking, this development is not helped by making green human rights the main issue. Blue nations intuitively (and correctly) understand that green human rights will corrosively dissolve blue structure, and that spells disaster for China.

He quotes, instead, Samuel P. Huntington’s respectful gradualism as the ideal (ibid.):

. . . . if human beings are ever to develop a universal civilisation, it will emerge gradually through the exploration and expansion of these commonalities. Thus…, peoples in all civilisations should search for and attempt to expand the values, institutions, and practices they have in common with peoples of other civilisations.

So, what can I do?

At the very end of the book is a short chapter describing what he feels we can each do as individuals to lift our level of consciousness and its attendant practice. He opens with a beautiful quotation from Einstein (page 136):

A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us… Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole nature in its beauty.

Wilber has suggestions about how we could go about creating ‘an integral life, a life that finds room for body, mind, soul, and spirit as they all unfold in self, culture, and nature. He calls his recipe for this (page 138) integral transformative practice(ITP). I do find his jargon generating tendencies more than a little irritating at times, but the value of what he is really saying behind the abstractions outweighs the disadvantages by far.

He recommends that we start with the self, and use physical, emotional, mental and spiritual exercises, and by the latter he means meditation and contemplative prayer. I take it he is here making a distinction between this and petitionary prayer, a more frequent and less valuable practice, perhaps.

We then need to move to exercising in nature and in our culture as well. In terms of culture, this includes the obvious, i.e. in Bahá’í terminology ‘acts of service’ as well as something less obvious, ‘mutually respectful dialogue,’ in Bahá’í terms ‘consultation.’ ‘Getting actively involved in respect for nature’ for him includes recycling, environmental protection, and nature celebration. This not only ‘honours nature, it promotes our own capacity to care.’

He summarises his recommendations (page 139):

In short, integral transformative practice attempts to exercise all the basic waves of human beings – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual – in self, culture, and nature.

He feels that meditation is a key component of this process (ibid.):

. . . . what meditation can do is to help people disidentify with whatever stage they are at, and thus move to the next stage. And, in fact, we have considerable evidence that meditation does exactly that. It has been shown, for example, meditation increases the percentage of the population who are at second tier from less than 2% to an astonishing 38%.

In this he may be acknowledging, contrary to Medina’s criticism cited in the previous post, that people within first tier cultures can leap to the second tier and potentially in sufficient numbers to take the culture along with them.



Bahá’í parallels

In the explanation of his integral transformative practice I picked on a couple of places where what he says maps very closely on Bahá’í practice. At a somewhat more abstract level there are also close parallels.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Paris Talks makes clear that for Bahá’ís there is a physical as well as the spiritual domain and they are connected, not least through our brain and body (page 86):

It is, therefore, clear that the spirit in the soul of man can function through the physical body by using the organs of the ordinary senses, and that it is able also to live and act without their aid in the world of vision.

This does not denigrate the brain and body, nor suggest that they need not be studied. In the same talk he states ‘outer circumstances are communicated to the soul by the eyes, ears, and brain of a man.’

The power and reality of culture is also acknowledged by Bahá’ís. For example (Century of Light – page 134):

Globalization itself is an intrinsic feature of the evolution of human society. It has brought into existence a socio-economic culture that, at the practical level, constitutes the world in which the aspirations of the human race will be pursued in the century now opening.

And it is not just the aspirations that are crucial. Human experiences and desires are shaped and influenced by social structures which the Faith also factors into its models. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, makes this clear in his book The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh:

The enormous energy dissipated and wasted on war, whether economic or political, will [once Bahá’u’lláh’s vision becomes reality] be consecrated to such ends as will extend the range of human inventions and technical development, to the increase of the productivity of mankind, to the extermination of disease, to the extension of scientific research, to the raising of the standard of physical health, to the sharpening and refinement of the human brain, to the exploitation of the unused and unsuspected resources of the planet, to the prolongation of human life, and to the furtherance of any other agency that can stimulate the intellectual, the moral, and spiritual life of the entire human race.

My final feeling?

There are, as I have hinted, certain areas of unease to which I will be returning in later posts. Also his model is expressed in a specially created jargon which obscures rather than facilitates accurate understanding. His exposition is mostly theoretical rather than experiential. These possible flaws are things that clearly irritate Michelle Mairesse:

W. B. Yeats told a friend that he had dreamed of George Bernard Shaw as a smiling sewing machine. I believe that Wilber would be a more effective writer if he were less intent on neat sewing-machine logic and more intent on the smile of the Buddha.

I can’t help but accept that Wilber squeezes spirituality so hard into his systematic framework that I fear its essence drains away all too often. Also a far stronger and more detailed sense of what we can do to change ourselves and our communities would have enhanced his message in this book, which was obviously written for a wider audience than some of his heavier tomes.

However, Wilber’s book remains valuable for a number of interconnected reasons.

As a social scientist I deeply appreciate the rigour with which he pulls in evidence to support his thesis. As someone who grew up in the shadow of totalitarianism and war I resonate strongly to the breadth of his analysis of extremism and violence. As someone who became disillusioned with so-called progressive politics, his exploration of the deficiencies of partisan perspectives has enriched my understanding of my own dissatisfaction. And finally, last but very much not least, a great deal of what he says in his Theory of Everything maps surprisingly closely onto the description of reality the Bahá’í Faith describes.

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KW Diag 5 v2I haven’t republished this sequence since 2015. Given my brief look on Monday at Koestenbaum’s levels of consciousness, it seemed worthwhile repeating this sequence which contains an explanation of Wilber’s model.

After re-posting the sequence of articles about Jenny Wade’s theory of the levels of consciousness, I finally got round to reading a book by Ken Wilber that has been lurking on my shelves for 10 years at least, I suspect. It is modestly titled A Theory of Everything: an integral vision for business, politics, science and spirituality.

This is the second of three posts attempting to capture some of the key points which excite me the most about it.

The first post tackled the basic four quadrant model, its concept of holarchy and the possible levels of consciousness development.

Now we look at some of the insights derived from this model, which give it its value.

The final post examines another way the model enriches our understanding of current problems and also outlines what we can do as individuals to lift our own level of consciousness.

What are the potentially testable advantages of thinking this way?

From the BBC's 'America's Left-Right Divide.'

From the BBC’s ‘America’s Left-Right Divide.’

1. Politics

It enables us to see beyond the fractured perspectives of our divisive political system, e.g. that both liberals and conservatives have each grasped a fraction of the truth, but the whole truth will only be available when their confrontational perspectives are integrated and a new and higher standpoint is achieved. He explains this clearly (page 84):

When it comes to the cause of human suffering, liberals tend to believe in exterior causes, whereas conservatives tend to believe in interior causes. That is, if an individual is suffering, the typical liberal tends to blame external social institutions (if you are poor it is because you are oppressed by society), whereas the typical conservative tends to blame internal factors (you are poor because you are lazy).

. . . . The important point is that the first step toward an integralpolitics that unites the best of liberal and conservative is to recognise that both the interior quadrants and the exterior quadrants are equally real and important. We consequently must address both interior factors (values, meaning, morals, the development of consciousness) and exterior factors (economic conditions, material well-being, technological advance, social safety net, environment) – in short, a truly integral politics would emphasise both interior development and exterior development.

2. Balancing the Material with the Spiritualmiracle

This leads onto a major issue that certainly resonates with the Bahá’í perspective, with its strong emphasis on the spiritual as well as the practical education of children. Wilber makes clear that we have to develop our understanding of consciousness as well as of matter if we are to truly develop as individuals and as a society (page 88):

So here is the truly odd political choice that we are given today: a sick version of a higher level versus a healthy version of a lower level – liberalism versus conservatism.

The point is that a truly integral politics would embrace a healthy version of the higher level – namely, grounded in the postconventional/world centric waves of development, it would encourage both interior development and exterior development – the growth and development of consciousness and subjective well-being, as well as the growth and development of economic, social, and material well-being.

Why does he describe liberalism as a sick version of a higher level and conservatism as a healthy version of a lower level? This is where the depth issue comes into play.

To cut to the core of his point he feels that conservatism is healthily rooted in the socio-centric conventional level of development (page 85: the blue level as he defines it – a very appropriate colour for the UK). Its problem derives from the relatively incomplete perspective available to that level.

With the Enlightenment, came a major shift from blue to orange and liberalism emerged from the shadows.

There was a problem though, in Wilber’s view (page 86):

Now had liberalism been just that… the product of an evolutionary advance from ethnocentric to world centric, it would have won the day, pure and simple. But, in fact, liberalism arose in a climate that I have called flatland. Flatland – or scientific materialism – is the belief that only matter is real, and that only narrow science has any claim to truth. Narrow science… is the science of any right-hand domain, whether that be atomistic science of the Upper Right or systems science of the Lower Right. Flatland, in other words, is the belief that only the Right-Hand quadrants are real.

Wilber argues (his italics) that ‘liberalism became the political champion of flatland.’ Furthermore, liberalism, given the primacy it awarded to material exterior forces, dismissed interiors as equivalent and irrelevant. He feels this leads to an inherent contradiction. He states (page 87):

Liberalism was itself the product of a whole series of interior stages of consciousness development – from egocentric to ethnocentric to worldcentric – whereupon it turned around and denied the importance or even the existence of those interior levels of development! Liberalism, in championing only exterior causation (i.e. flat land), denied the interior path that produced liberalism. The liberal stance itself is the product of stages that it then denies – and there is the inherent contradiction.

He claims that liberalism holds that ‘all interiors are equal – no stance is better than another. There are no waves, stages, or levels of consciousness, for that would make a ranking judgement, and ranking is very, very bad.’

The antagonism liberals will clearly express towards conservatives presumably derives from the conservative’s judgemental and patronising stance towards other perspectives and life choices than their own. This prejudice against a legitimate evaluation of the relative strengths and weaknesses of all perspectives blinkers them to the developmental implications of levels of consciousness and our need to progress through all lower ones to reach any of the higher levels.

Wilber discusses the possibility of seeing levels as different in terms of their relative maturity, but accepting them wholeheartedly as necessary and inevitable stages through which we all need to progress as individuals and societies (page 56):

Even if every society on earth was established fully at second tier [the highest], nonetheless every infant born in every society still has to start at level 1, at beige, at sensorimotor instincts and perceptions, and then must grow and evolve through purple magic, red and blue myth, orange rationalism, green sensitivity, and into yellow and turquoise second tier (on the way to the transpersonal). All of those waves have important tasks and functions; all of them are taken up and included in subsequent waves; none of them can be bypassed; and none of them can be demeaned without grave consequences to self and society.

Medina in his book, Faith, Physics & Psychology, 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.

For reasons I explain in the next post I am not sure his criticism is entirely warranted though I can see why he came to the conclusion he did.

Also Michelle Mairesse picks up on an issue that indicates how careful we need to be before leaping to any conclusions. She is basing her point on two of Wilber’s earlier books – The Marriage of Sense and Soul and A Brief History of Everything – but it none the less applies here as well, I feel.

Although he does lip service to all the perennial traditions, Wilber sees the severe Eastern Zen tradition as the summit of mysticism, a rather elitist view for one who lauds the Western democratic tradition. We can’t help wondering why China and Japan, the countries where the majority of Zen meditators have lived and attained Enlightenment, have not experienced a trickle-down effect.

There is, of course, a pragmatic aspect to Zen that has meant, rather as is the case with mindfulness practice now, that it was prone to be placed in the service of activities, such as the waging of war, far removed from the value system Zen was rooted in.

Rifkin’s position is closer to Wilber’s in some respects but built on very different non-transcendent foundations (page 451):

The key finding, according to the researchers, is that “individual security increases empathy.”

. . . .

Empathy exists in every culture. The issue is always how extended or restricted it is. In survival societies, empathic bonds are less developed, meager, and reserved for a narrow category of relationships. . . .

As energy/communications revolutions establish more complex social structures and extend the human domain over time and space, new cosmologies serve like a giant overarching frame for enlarging the imaginative bonds and empathy. Theological consciousness allowed individuals to identify with non-kin and anonymous others and, by way of religious affiliation, to incorporate them into the empathic fold. . . . Ideological consciousness extended the empathic borders geographically to nation states.

Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine on July 5, 2014 (For source of image see link)

Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine on July 5, 2014 (For source of image see link)

Two Important Insights

This brings us to two extremely important ways that this model for me enriches our analyses of current problems: the problems are firstly, “In a global world how do we understand the risks that come from technological advances especially in terms of weaponry being relatively easily available to world views that are essentially narrower than the cultures that created the advances?” This issue will be discussed today.

Secondly “Why is pluralism so testing and potentially self-destructive?” That will have to wait for the last post in this series.

Weapons and Levels:

This issue is quite simple to explain. He clarifies it on page 103:

One of the greatest problems and constant dangers faced by humanity is simply this: the Right-Hand quadrants are all material, and once a material entity has been produced, it can be used by individuals who are at virtually any level of interior development. . . . Nobody at a worldcentric level of moral consciousness would happily unleash the atom bomb, but somebody at a preconventional, red-meme, egocentric level would quite cheerily bomb the hell [out] of pretty much anybody who got in its way.

Jeremy Rifkin in his thought-provoking 2009 book The Empathic Civilization makes essentially the same point from a different perspective (page 487):

Weapons of mass destruction, once the preserve of elites, are becoming more democratised with each passing day.  A growing number of security experts believe that it is no longer even possible to keep weapons of mass destruction locked up and out of the hands of rogue governments, terrorist groups, or just deranged individuals.

What Wilber goes on to say resonates strongly with the Bahá’í position, which asserts that science and religion are like the wings of a bird, and both must develop in tandem if we are to fly.

Speaking of religion and science, the two great wings with which the bird of human kind is able to soar, He said: “Scientific discoveries have increased material civilization. There is in existence a stupendous force, as yet, happily undiscovered by man. Let us supplicate God, the Beloved, that this force be not discovered by science until spiritual civilization shall dominate the human mind. In the hands of men of lower nature, this power would be able to destroy the whole earth.”

(From Lady Blomfield quoting ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in The Chosen Highway – page 52)

Wilber expresses almost the same idea (page 103-104):

Until the modern era, this problem was limited in its means because the technologies themselves were quite limited. You can only inflict so much damage on the biosphere, and on other human beings, with a bow and arrow. But with the emergence of modernity and the orange meme and its sweeping scientific capacities, humanity began producing orange-level technology when most of humanity were still at red or blue levels of moral consciousness. . . . . Global catastrophes, for the first time in history, became possible and even likely. From atomic holocaust to ecological suicide, humanity began facing on a massive scale its single most fundamental problem: lack of integral development. . . . The lack of integral growth might signal the end of humanity itself.

He makes another telling point, which resonates strongly with me, who grew up in the shadow of the Second World War (page 117):

The same sort of cross-level access could occur within a given culture: Auschwitz was the product of a rational-technological capacity (orange) pressed into the hands of intensely pre-rational (red/blue) ethnocentric aggression.

This means that the destructiveness of this kind of asymmetry kicks in whether we are talking about the atom bomb or about trolling on the internet. The damage an individual or group operating ethno- or egocentrically can inflict has been massively magnified with the appearance of high order technology.

Some possible complications:

In his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology, John Fitzgerald Medina raises a crucial issue that makes it clear that the ways that levels operate is more complex than perhaps Wilber’s analysis clarifies. I will be returning to Medina’s book in a later sequence of posts so for now I will put his point simply in my own words.

He argues that when the technologically advanced but morally limited English invaders arrived in America, they ruthlessly purged the Native Americans from their inconvenient occupation of land the English wanted to exploit. This combination of robbery and genocide was made possible by the superiority of the rifle over the bow and arrow.

The English disparaged the complex but apparently haphazard agricultural system of the Native Americans and assumed that because there was no evidence of monoculture they were not using the land so, under their version of Christianity, it could therefore be expropriated. Their monotheistic Christianity, with its powerful old Testament inheritance, also failed to see any value in the idea of interconnectedness and the Great Spirit, so they dismissed the Native Americans as primitive, superstitious and backward.

When it came to setting up a federated system of their own, however, the fathers of the United States plagiarised the Native American sophisticated democratic system of the Iroquois Confederacy later to become the Six Nations, without, unfortunately, building in any trace of their respect for woman.

All this seems to demonstrate that homegrown technological development is no guarantee at all of moral advancement. The former can outstrip the latter within a culture with devastating consequences, either for that culture or for others with which it comes into contact. The modern world, according to the Bahá’í World Centre, is in the grip of a similar delusional script: the power brokers of the industrialised technically advanced Western world are convinced that their version of reality is also more highly developed morally than that found anywhere else.

Richard Schweder’s compelling account of his reexamination of Kohlberg’s comparison of American and Hindu moral development is an interesting example of where this can lead an expert research team. Kohlberg originally concluded that Hinduism lagged far behind the far more morally sophisticated Americans.

Schweder describes his findings in his book Thinking Through Cultures. His very different findings hinge upon his recognition that Westerners confidently and accurately code Western moral thinking as expressed by study subjects because they understand the implicit subtext, and they confidently and inaccurately code the moral thinking as expressed by subjects from other cultures because they haven’t a clue about the implicit subtext. He explains (page 225):

From expanding the Babaji interview text and identifying its implicit argument structure it seems apparent that the interview gives articulate expression to an alternative form of postconventional reasoning that has no place in Kohlberg’s stage scheme. In a sense the stage scheme is exploded by its own inability to classify adequately the moral reasoning of the Babaji. One may begin to wonder how many other moral development interviews coded as stage 3/4 would turn out to be alternative forms of postconventional reasoning, if we only permitted ourselves to move from what is said to what is unsaid, to expand the interview text and identify its implicit argument structure.

The argument about what happens when advanced technology falls into the hands of the morally handicapped extends a fortiori to current terrors such as from ISIL even though the book came out before this particular variation of the problem existed (ibid.):

Today, almost any ethnic tribe or feudal order can gain access to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons that historically they would never have been able to produce themselves, and the results are literally explosive.

The issue of pluralism will have to wait until next time along with what we can do as individuals.

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