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Archive for the ‘Self and Soul’ Category

LamberthIs consciousness spirit, mind or brain?

Or none of the above perhaps?

Just kidding.

I was asked to give a talk on this topic at the University of Birmingham at the beginning of March. I have done this once before (see link) and have ruminated on the issues before and since on this blog. I had so much running round in my mind-brain, whichever it is, that I needed to start organising my ideas in good time. Writing a blog post seemed a good way of helping in that process. The last post on Monday hopefully conveyed a sense of what actually happened. This is simply what I thought I might say!

‘Doubt Wisely’

David Lamberth in William James and the Metaphysics of Experience reports James’s point of view on the investigation of such matters, and I feel this is a good place to begin (page 222):

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

When it comes to these issues, fundamentalist certainty is completely out of place. I may have chosen to believe certain things about the mind and its independence of the brain but I cannot know what I believe is true in the same way as I can know my own address. Similarly, though, those like Dennett and Churchland who believe that the mind is entirely reducible to the brain cannot be absolutely sure of their position either.

We are both performing an act of faith.

is-god-a-delusionIt is in this spirit that I want to explain my point of view and with the same intent as Reitan in his book Is God a Delusion? He explains that he wishes to demonstrate that it is just as rational to believe in God as it is not to believe in God. I am not trying to persuade anyone to believe as I do, I simply want people to accept that I am as rational as any sceptic out there, and more so than the so-called sceptics who have absolute faith in their disbelief. The only tenable position using reason alone is agnosticism. Absolute conviction of any kind is faith, which goes beyond where reason can take us.

John Hick adduces an argument to explain why we cannot be absolutely sure about spiritual issues, an argument which appeals to a mind like mine. In his book The Fifth Dimension, he contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to believe or not (pages 37-38):

In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, the hidden God – hidden and yet so readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, . . . . . This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.

So, most of us won’t find evidence so compelling it forces us to believe in a spiritual perspective whether it involves the concept of God or the idea I’m discussing here, that the mind is independent of the brain. Conversely, materialists should be aware that there is no evidence that could compel us not to believe it either. There is only enough evidence either way to convince the predisposed to that belief.

As an atheist/agnostic of almost 25 years standing and a mature student at the time I finished my clinical psychology training after six years of exposure to a basically materialist and sceptical approach to the mind, I was pretty clear where I’d confidently placed my bets.

There were three prevailing ideas within the psychological community at the time about the nature of the mind: the eliminative materialism advocated by such thinkers as Paul Churchland; the epiphenomenological approach which says consciousness is simply an accidental by-product of brain complexity; and the emergent property idea that posits that, just as the cells in our body as a whole combine to create something greater than themselves, so do our brain cells. I’d chosen the last option as the most sensible. Consciousness is not entirely reducible to a simple aggregate of cells: the mind is something extra. But I didn’t believe for one moment that it was not ultimately a material phenomenon.

mind v3The Emanation Shock

Well, not that is until I took the leap of faith I call declaring my intention to work at becoming a Bahá’í.

The words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the Founder of the Faith, were a bit of a shock to me at first: ‘. . . 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.’

I had spent so much of my life thinking bottom up about this issue that the idea of working top down seemed initially absurd. There wasn’t a top to work down from in the first place, as far as I saw it to begin with.

Although I absolutely trusted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to be stating what he knew to be true and, because of all that I had read about his life, I believed that what he thought was true was more likely to be so than my version, I realised that this was something that required a thorough investigation of the empirical evidence if I was to bring my sceptical head on board alongside my accepting heart.

My memory of the process by which I set out to investigate suggests that my initial research involved looking into near death experiences (NDEs) and Psi.

I decided that, as I was not absolutely certain of this, I’d better make sure I was even aware of that body of data at this time. I checked my bookshelves. To my surprise, it showed that I was reading about NDEs and Psi even before I declared as a Bahá’í. My copies of Raymond Moody’s Life after Life and John Randall’s Parapsychology and the Nature of Life both date from 1981, a whole year earlier at the very least. There is no reference to either book in my journals of 1981/82 so I don’t know whether I read them before finding the Bahá’í Faith.

Not that in the end, after years of checking this out as more research became known, NDEs have provided completely conclusive proof that there is a soul and that the mind derives from it. Even my Black Swan example of Pam Reynolds, which I discovered much later, could not clinch it absolutely. This was the beginning of my realisation that we are inevitably dealing with acts of faith here and that both beliefs are equally rational when not asserted dogmatically. Even if you couldn’t explain them away entirely in material terms, the existence of Psi complicated the picture somewhat.

For example, Braude’s work in Immortal Remains makes it clear that it is difficult conclusively to determine whether apparently strong evidence of mind-body independence such as mediumship and reincarnation are not in fact examples of what he calls super-psi, though at points he thinks survivalist theories have the edge (page 216):

On the super-psi hypothesis, the evidence needs to be explained in terms of the psychic successes of, and interactions between, many different individuals. And it must also posit multiple sources of information, both items in the world and different peoples beliefs and memories. But on the survival hypothesis, we seem to require fewer causal links and one individual… from whom all information flows.

Less sympathetically, Pim van Lommel’s research on near-death experiences is robustly attacked by Evan Thompson in his existentially philosophical treatise, Waking, Dreaming, Being which also claims to have turned my black swan, Pam Reynolds’ NDE, into a dead albatross.

I’ll explore this in more detail in the next post on Saturday.

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Just another few days to go before the next meeting of the Death Cafe on 15 March from 6-8 pm, so am re-posting this account of the last meeting I attended in February. If you are close by it would be good to see you there.

As I walked towards the counter for my coffee I noticed three or four people talking to the lady who facilitates the Death Cafe. That looked promising. She passed me on her way to the room as I reached the counter and we exchanged greetings.

After a few minutes waiting for my coffee to be created, I began to have my doubts. They seemed to be quite happy standing at the counter chatting like a group if friends in a pub. I must have been mistaken, I thought.

I took my coffee and balanced it carefully back to the meeting room.

My pessimism was unjustified. They must have just been waiting for someone’s brew to finish. All four people joined us at the table after a short passage of time.

Brilliant!

Unlike last time there was no lack of participants for the Death Cafe at the Courtyard Theatre in Hereford this month. In fact, I think this time was a record compared with all my other experiences: we had ten people round the table, including four complete new comers, for our usual exhilarating exploration of the meaning of life under the shadow of death.

Some of the questions we dealt with this time were hardly existential. If you are not using an undertaker what do you do with the body in-between the post mortem/moment of death and the burial/cremation? Covering it with bags of frozen peas did not seem an ideal solution but none of us could come up with a better one. It was suggested that Soul Midwives could probably advise on better methods.

Another was, can you bury two bodies in one small plot, including your back garden? At least one person felt you could, but it was pointed out that this might reduce the value of the property somewhat in the event of its eventual sale.

I also could not resist sharing how inspiring I had found the recent funeral service I attended which had been organised entirely by the family and friends of the deceased (see link for full account). They had not relied on anyone else for input: there was no priest, no undertaker, no hearse. Instead, the coffin was carried to the graveside in a brightly coloured camper van, a vehicle perfectly suited to the tastes of the occupant.

At other points we criss-crossed over more predictable territory: near death experiences, Psi (I’ll be coming back to those issues in the next week or so), ghosts, exorcism, healing services to quieten the dead, and we debated whether it was possible to be sure whether there was an afterlife or there wasn’t (more of that too soon).

We all noted that Dying Matters Awareness week will run from 8-14 May, and we will be keeping our eyes open for possible events locally.

And I’ll end on my usual challenge. Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?

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Grave & Courtyard v2

As I walked towards the counter for my coffee I noticed three or four people talking to the lady who facilitates the Death Cafe. That looked promising. She passed me on her way to the room as I reached the counter and we exchanged greetings.

After a few minutes waiting for my coffee to be created, I began to have my doubts. They seemed to be quite happy standing at the counter chatting like a group if friends in a pub. I must have been mistaken, I thought.

I took my coffee and balanced it carefully back to the meeting room.

My pessimism was unjustified. They must have just been waiting for someone’s brew to finish. All four people joined us at the table after a short passage of time.

Brilliant!

Unlike last time there was no lack of participants for the Death Cafe at the Courtyard Theatre in Hereford this month. In fact, I think this time was a record compared with all my other experiences: we had ten people round the table, including four complete new comers, for our usual exhilarating exploration of the meaning of life under the shadow of death.

Some of the questions we dealt with this time were hardly existential. If you are not using an undertaker what do you do with the body in-between the post mortem/moment of death and the burial/cremation? Covering it with bags of frozen peas did not seem an ideal solution but none of us could come up with a better one. It was suggested that Soul Midwives could probably advise on better methods.

Another was, can you bury two bodies in one small plot, including your back garden? At least one person felt you could, but it was pointed out that this might reduce the value of the property somewhat in the event of its eventual sale.

I also could not resist sharing how inspiring I had found the recent funeral service I attended which had been organised entirely by the family and friends of the deceased (see link for full account). They had not relied on anyone else for input: there was no priest, no undertaker, no hearse. Instead, the coffin was carried to the graveside in a brightly coloured camper van, a vehicle perfectly suited to the tastes of the occupant.

At other points we criss-crossed over more predictable territory: near death experiences, Psi (I’ll be coming back to those issues in the next week or so), ghosts, exorcism, healing services to quieten the dead, and we debated whether it was possible to be sure whether there was an afterlife or there wasn’t (more of that too soon).

We all noted that Dying Matters Awareness week will run from 8-14 May, and we will be keeping our eyes open for possible events locally.

And I’ll end on my usual challenge. Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?

Read Full Post »

 

feb-17-death-cafeJust another week to go before the next meeting of the Death Cafe on 15 February from 6-8 pm, so just re-posting this account of the last meeting I attended in January. If you are close by it would be good to see you there.

It took longer than usual to get my coffee at the Courtyard prior to the Death Cafe meeting last Wednesday. There were far more people at the counter than usual, most of them in my age group. The thought crossed my mind that we might be going to get a record attendance at the meeting, though there was no one in the queue I recognised.

I finally got my cappuccino just in time to make it across to the meeting room by a touch after six o’clock. As I approached I could see someone struggling with the wedge to make the door stay open. The room was dark. This did not bode well.

Holding my coffee perilously in my hand I unsuccessfully attempted to help with the wedge. ‘Better sit down before I drop this on the carpet,’ I thought. I switched the light on as I passed.

As I was arranging my coat on the back of the chair someone else came in before promptly disappearing again for a coffee.

By the time I’d sat down and made myself comfortable there were four of us in the room – the smallest number of people so far at any meeting I had attended. Even so, yet again I was energised by the range of issues we dealt with, some of them in considerable depth.

Maybe I was primed to enjoy this meeting whatever the numbers or the topics. I’d had about a fortnight of immersion in the tragic and death-dominated lives of the Brontës. Also within the last week I’ve had news of the deaths of two people I knew quite well – both much younger than me. Memento mori has been the flavour of the year so far.

This time the ground we covered included whether we preferred burial to cremation, whether we would want to be resuscitated or not, what did the idea of our own end make us think about, whether there is an after life or not and did we mind, did it matter what kind of funeral takes place after we have died, where have the supportive communities of old disappeared to, should we feel responsible in some way for creating the conditions that have made possible so-called ISIS and its killings, and how did we feel about the fact that our society is still letting so many people die.

Despite what they sound like, such topics don’t lead to one-foot-in-the-grave-type discussions. Unexpected positives often emerge.

The community question, for example, flagged up the existence of a promising initiative in Sandwell — Compassionate Community:

A Compassionate Community is a community that provides support to someone who is dying. The community could be family, neighbours, local organisations, a faith group, local businesses or people living in a particular area. It could be some or all of these.

People in a Compassionate Community help care for a dying person through small acts of compassion, supporting the dying person during their end of life, often enabling them to die well and, if possible, at home.

Palliative care professionals, such as doctors and care workers, are also a vital part of a Compassionate Community. However, to provide the best possible end of life care to someone they need extra support from the patient’s community, particularly if the patient wishes to die at home.

By working and pulling together a Compassionate Community can help a dying person, and their family and friends, get the support and care they need, helping them to deal with dying and death and the subsequent bereavement and loss of those left behind.

There are plans to test out a pilot project in Hereford apparently.

Even the worst sounding topics can trigger potentially life-enhancing deliberations.

Pondering on what our deaths made us think about, we delved into the problem of how do we decide what are the most important things to spend our time on. Does it have to be something useful? Can’t it just be something joyous and enriching like a trip to the opera? Would watching a murder mystery on television count as worthwhile enough? What about a walk in the country? We all probably felt that the arts and a connection with nature were worthwhile in themselves and that doing things that benefited others definitely qualified as a good use of our last days. Interestingly, in the context of our discussion at that point, no one mentioned using our time to come to terms with death even though that’s what we all have said is a crucially important task in life as a whole. Perhaps we all thought it too obvious to mention!

As usual the time flew by and the meeting was almost over. We found ourselves wondering at the end how we could attract more people to these meetings. I’m still pondering that one.

Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?

Read Full Post »

Grave & Courtyard v2

It took longer than usual to get my coffee at the Courtyard prior to the Death Cafe meeting last Wednesday. There were far more people at the counter than usual, most of them in my age group. The thought crossed my mind that we might be going to get a record attendance at the meeting, though there was no one in the queue I recognised.

I finally got my cappuccino just in time to make it across to the meeting room by a touch after six o’clock. As I approached I could see someone struggling with the wedge to make the door stay open. The room was dark. This did not bode well.

Holding my coffee perilously in my hand I unsuccessfully attempted to help with the wedge. ‘Better sit down before I drop this on the carpet,’ I thought. I switched the light on as I passed.

As I was arranging my coat on the back of the chair someone else came in before promptly disappearing again for a coffee.

By the time I’d sat down and made myself comfortable there were four of us in the room – the smallest number of people so far at any meeting I had attended. Even so, yet again I was energised by the range of issues we dealt with, some of them in considerable depth.

Maybe I was primed to enjoy this meeting whatever the numbers or the topics. I’d had about a fortnight of immersion in the tragic and death-dominated lives of the Brontës. Also within the last week I’ve had news of the deaths of two people I knew quite well – both much younger than me. Memento mori has been the flavour of the year so far.

This time the ground we covered included whether we preferred burial to cremation, whether we would want to be resuscitated or not, what did the idea of our own end make us think about, whether there is an after life or not and did we mind, did it matter what kind of funeral takes place after we have died, where have the supportive communities of old disappeared to, should we feel responsible in some way for creating the conditions that have made possible so-called ISIS and its killings, and how did we feel about the fact that our society is still letting so many people die.

Despite what they sound like, such topics don’t lead to one-foot-in-the-grave-type discussions. Unexpected positives often emerge.

The community question, for example, flagged up the existence of a promising initiative in Sandwell — Compassionate Community:

A Compassionate Community is a community that provides support to someone who is dying. The community could be family, neighbours, local organisations, a faith group, local businesses or people living in a particular area. It could be some or all of these.

People in a Compassionate Community help care for a dying person through small acts of compassion, supporting the dying person during their end of life, often enabling them to die well and, if possible, at home.

Palliative care professionals, such as doctors and care workers, are also a vital part of a Compassionate Community. However, to provide the best possible end of life care to someone they need extra support from the patient’s community, particularly if the patient wishes to die at home.

By working and pulling together a Compassionate Community can help a dying person, and their family and friends, get the support and care they need, helping them to deal with dying and death and the subsequent bereavement and loss of those left behind.

There are plans to test out a pilot project in Hereford apparently.

Even the worst sounding topics can trigger potentially life-enhancing deliberations.

Pondering on what our deaths made us think about, we delved into the problem of how do we decide what are the most important things to spend our time on. Does it have to be something useful? Can’t it just be something joyous and enriching like a trip to the opera? Would watching a murder mystery on television count as worthwhile enough? What about a walk in the country? We all probably felt that the arts and a connection with nature were worthwhile in themselves and that doing things that benefited others definitely qualified as a good use of our last days. Interestingly, in the context of our discussion at that point, no one mentioned using our time to come to terms with death even though that’s what we all have said is a crucially important task in life as a whole. Perhaps we all thought it too obvious to mention!

As usual the time flew by and the meeting was almost over. We found ourselves wondering at the end how we could attract more people to these meetings. I’m still pondering that one.

Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?

Read Full Post »

death-cafe-jan-17

Just another few days to go before the next meeting of the Death Cafe on 18 January from 6-8 pm, so just re-posting this account of the last meeting I attended. If you are close by it would be good to see you there.

The walk to the Courtyard last Wednesday was more complicated than the first time I described it. I won’t bore you with the details but the short cut across the car park I usually take has been blocked off. They’re in the process of building a by-pass. It was a warm evening and rushing to make up the time meant that when I arrived I had to discreetly wipe beads of sweat off the counter as I ordered my coffee.

I know. Why order coffee when I was sweating buckets? Well, I was going to a meeting of the Death Cafe. What else could I drink?

We weren’t in our usual room either. I had to carry my coffee upstairs to the Arts Studio, trying not to drip into the cup as I went.

But it was all worth it. Two hours of inspiring and uplifting conversation followed. Partly it was the sharing of difficult memories. But that really was only part of it.

Early in the meeting a key question came up yet again. Why, if we told people where we were going, did so many recoil in horror at the very idea?

We didn’t come to any firm conclusion about that, but it did feel such a shame that so many people were missing out on a great evening of laughter and insight.

I know poets, for instance, have grappled with the problem of death ever since people began writing poems. In the past two views of mortality were strongly connected with images of death such as skulls and tombs: memento mori and carpe diem. Each view of mortality has a different take on morality, interestingly enough: ‘Gather ye rose buds while ye may’ (Herrick) versus ‘be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin’ (translated from the Vulgate‘s Latin rendering of Ecclesiasticus 7:40).  Ode to his Coy MistressAndrew Marvell’s masterpiece of lyric poetry, ironically explores these two responses of his time.

The Grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hew
Sits on thy skin like morning glew,
And while thy willing Soul transpires
At every pore with instant Fires,
Now let us sport us while we may . . .

The balance is heavily tilted here towards ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,’ but the menace of the grave, the reminder of death, is not disguised. He manages to look both possibilities squarely in the face. Shira Wolosky has written a brilliant critique of this feat in The Art of Poetry pages 70-79. She states:

The poem offers, then, not one, but two topoi [themes]: the overt “carpe diem” and a subversive remembrance of death inscribed into the text alongside the call to seduction. . . . . . Both topoi are urgent calls, calls to weigh your life to see what, in its short compass of time and space, you really can accomplish; what, in its short span, really has value; what you should be striving for.

(page 79)

Graveside Stockport

We dug deep into what that same dilemma meant for our society, if anything. Our children don’t often die before us as all too many did in Marvell’s time. It’s easier to ignore death. Too much of the time we seem to be in denial, distracting ourselves with all the glitter at our disposal, and there’s a lot of it. That may be why the idea of a Death Cafe seems so repellant.

But if we do not face the inevitability of death, we wondered, how can we make the most of our lives? This distracted discounting of our destination may have consequences beyond our individual selves. Maybe the denial of personal death is echoed in and contributes to the widespread denial of what we are doing to the planet, and therefore ultimately to ourselves.

Part of it, we felt, may be the short term perspective evolution has hard-wired us with, which reality requires that we transcend. But taking the long view is hard, though not impossible we felt. We’re hard-wired for that kind of effort as well, but it’s something we have to consciously decide to do and stick with.

The fact that we are living so much longer makes it harder to take the long view: death seems too far off to most of us a lot of the time. Paradoxically though, our longer lives don’t mean we can afford to be less concerned about death. We should take it more seriously. There are more of us exploiting the surface of this planet than ever, so we are damaging it more. When the time comes, as it must for all of is, we can also expect a much longer and slower acquaintanceship with death, both our own and that of others’ close to us, than the plague or death in childbirth ever allowed.

There’s yet another obstacle to full awareness, as we explored.

While our longer lives, our global connectedness, and the global challenges we face, make it imperative we also face the destructive consequences of our mindless consumerism and consider the well-being of all life on our planetary home, we are wired strongly to give priority to the family, the tribe and more recently the nation, and find it harder to widen our embrace to include those who fall outside those boundaries. We felt this has to change. A tipping point has to come where the world of humanity tilts over into compassion for the world as whole.

Putting our heads under the sands of time as though its passing had no consequences is not the answer. Maybe coming to proper terms with our personal death could enable us to live in a way that cherishes all life, not just our own.

We all felt that these were inspiring not depressing thoughts. There are Death Cafes in many places. It might be worth your while finding out where your nearest one meets and give it a try.

I walked out into the mild darkness of that autumn evening with a new spring in my step. And that pun is just a mild reminder of the jokes that flew around the table as we debated death.

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Hints of Wood Smoke v2

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