Archive for the ‘Self and Soul’ Category
Posted in Book Reviews, Science, Psychology & Society, Self and Soul, Spirituality, tagged 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'í Faith, consciousness, disidentification, FWH Myers, Irreducible Mind, mental health, Peter Koestenbaum, psychology, psychosis, Roberto Assagioli, Thomas Reid on 14/06/2015 | Leave a Comment »
What is the dust which obscures the mirror? It is attachment to the world, avarice, envy, love of luxury and comfort, haughtiness and self-desire; this is the dust which prevents reflection of the rays of the Sun of Reality in the mirror. The natural emotions are blameworthy and are like rust which deprives the heart of the bounties of God.
Because my current sequence of posts will be referring more than once to the Kellys and their thought-provoking text Irreducible Mind, it seemed a good idea to republish this sequence from March 2013. The three parts have appeared on consecutive days finishing on today.
In the previous two posts I’ve been moaning about how I was robbed when my training in psychology steered me away from the work of thinkers such as FWH Myers as though they had the plague. What I probably need to do to redress the balance is mention how much I was influenced by thinkers who were deeply influenced by Myers. In one case I know that for certain because I still have Roberto Assagioli‘s introductory text on psychosynthesis, which I read in 1976 and which cites Myers in the list of references at the end of Chapter I. Another was a seminal book I borrowed but never bought, so it is impossible to say whether the influence was direct and acknowledged: this was Peter Koestenbaum’s New Images of the Person.
Assagioli explained in his book the importance of what he calls a ‘disidentification exercise’ (page 22):
After having discovered [various elements of our personality], we have to take possession of them and acquire control over them. The most effective method by which we can achieve this is that of disidentification. This is based on a fundamental psychological principle which may be formulated as follows:
We are dominated by everything with which our self becomes identified. We can dominate and control everything from which we disidentify ourselves.
(For the psychosynthesis disidentification exercise see the following link.)
Then, in another exciting moment, I came upon Koestenbaum’s ideas about reflection six years after I had read Assagioli. Reflection is the ‘capacity to separate consciousness from its contents’ (Koestenbaum: 1979). We can step back, inspect and think about our experiences. We become capable of changing our relationship with them and altering their meanings for us. It is like a mirror learning to see that it is not the same as what is reflected in it. So here was a writer in the existentialist tradition speaking in almost the same terms as psychosynthesis. I had practised Assagioli’s exercise for a long period after reading his book. Now I was triggered into resuming the practice again by what Koestenbaum had written.
I came across Koestenbaum’s book just before I discovered the existence of the Bahá’í Faith (for a fuller account see link). It helped me take what I had found in Assagioli and fuse it with what I had found in the Faith and create an experiential exercise to express that understanding in action in a way that helped me immensely to adjust to spiritual concepts which until that point had been completely alien to me for decades – all my adult life in fact. The Baha’i Writings talk about certain key powers of the soul: loving, knowing and willing as well as introducing me to the idea of the heart, the core of our being, as a mirror. I pulled this into my version of the exercise (see below). What I didn’t realise until later was that Assagioli had corresponded with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and had therefore to some degree been influenced by Bahá’í thought. (See Disidentification exercise for the final version that I used myself rather than this one I revised to share for the use of others).
How amazing then to find Emily Kelly, in the book Irreducible Mind, quoting Myers quoting Thomas Reid, an 18th century philosopher (page 74):
The conviction which every man has of his identity . . . needs no aid of philosophy to strengthen it; and no philosophy can weaken it.… I am not thought, I am not action, I am not feeling; I am something that thinks, and acts, and suffers. My thoughts and actions and feelings change every moment…; But that Self or I, to which they belong, is permanent…
What I regret therefore now is that the usefulness of this exercise did not make me trace it back to its source and find out more of what Myers thought about this and many other things of great importance to me. So, better late than never, that is what I am about to do now.
Myers’s the self and the Self
The disidentification exercise rattled the cage of my previous ideas about who I was in essence. While I didn’t quite buy into Assagioli’s other ideas about consciousness at that time I felt, both intuitively and from the experiences I was having, that his idea was completely right that there is some form of pure consciousness underpinning our identity.
So, as good a place as any to pick up the thread of Myers’s thinking again is with his ideas of the self and the Self. There are some problems to grapple with before we can move on. Emily Kelly writes (page 83):
These ‘concepts central to his theory’ are undoubtedly difficult, but despite some inconsistency in his usage or spelling Myers was quite clear in his intent to distinguish between a subliminal ‘self’ (a personality alternate or in addition to the normal waking one) and a Subliminal ‘Self’ or ‘Individuality’ (which is his real ‘unifying theoretical principle’). In this book we will try to keep this distinction clear in our readers minds by using the term ‘subliminal consciousness’ to refer to any conscious psychological processes occurring outside ordinary awareness; the term “subliminal self” (lower case) to refer to ‘any chain of memory sufficiently continuous, and embracing sufficient particulars, to acquire what is popularly called a “character” of its own;’ and the term ‘Individuality’ or “’Subliminal Self” (upper case) to refer to the underlying larger Self.
Myers believed that the evidence in favour of supraliminal experiences, used here by me in the sense of things that leak through the membrane from above, is strong enough to warrant serious consideration and he distinguishes between that and subliminal experiences that come, as it were, from underneath (see diagram and footnote at the bottom of the post) (page 87):
Supernormal [ie supraliminal in my sense] processes such as telepathy do seem to occur more frequently while either the recipient or the agent (or both) is asleep, in the states between sleeping and waking, in a state of ill health, or dying; and subliminal [unconscious in my use of terms] functioning in general emerges more readily during altered states of consciousness such as hypnosis, hysteria, or even ordinary distraction.
He felt that we needed to find some way of reliably tapping into these levels of consciousness (page 91)
The primary methodological challenge to psychology, therefore, lies in developing methods, or ‘artifices,’ for extending observations of the contents or capacities of mind beyond the visible portion of the psychological spectrum, just as the physical sciences have developed artificial means of extending sensory perception beyond ordinary limits.
He also has much that is interesting and valuable to say about the implications of a proper understanding of these upper and lower thresholds, especially when they are too porous, for both genius and mental health (page 98):
When there is ‘a lack of liminal stability, an excessive permeability, if I may say so, of the psychical diaphragm that separates the empirical [supraliminal: conscious in my usage] from the latent [subliminal: unconscious in my usage] faculties and man,’ then there may be either an expansion of consciousness (an ‘uprush’ of latent material from the subliminal into the supraliminal) or, conversely, a narrowing of consciousness (a ‘downdraught’ from the supraliminal into the subliminal). The former is genius, the latter is hysteria.
His use of supra- and subliminal is slightly confusing here but the main point is that genius expands what we are aware of, and more comes above the threshold, whereas hysteria narrows our experience so that less comes into consciousness. This is partly clarified by Kelly explaining (page 99):
In short, Myers believed that hysteria, when viewed as a psychological phenomenon, gives ‘striking’ support to ‘my own principal thesis’, namely, that all personality is a filtering or narrowing of the field of consciousness from a larger Self, the rest of which remains latent and capable of emerging only under the appropriate conditions.
Even the expanded consciousness of genius, in this view, is still filtering a lot out – in fact, it still leaves most of potential consciousness untapped.
There is in addition a common quality of excessive porousness which explains why, in Shakespeare’s phrase, the ‘lunatic . . . . . and the poet are of imagination all compact.’ Myers’s view is that (page 100):
Because genius and madness both involve similar psychological mechanisms – namely, a permeability of the psychological boundary – it is to be expected that they might frequently occur in the same person; but any nervous disorders that accompany genius signal, not dissolution, but a ‘perturbation which masks evolution.’
For Myers dreams, though they may indeed be common and frequently discounted, they are nonetheless important sources of data (pages 102-103):
Myers argued [that] dreams provide a readily available means of studying the ‘language’ of the subliminal, a language that may underlie other, less common forms of automatism or subliminal processes. . . . Myers’s model of mind predicts that that if sleep is a state of consciousness in which subliminal processes take over from supraliminal ones, then sleep should facilitate subliminal functioning, not only in the organic or ‘infrared’ region, but also in the “ultraviolet” range of the psychological spectrum, such as the emergence of telepathic impressions in dreams.
This has certainly been my own experience. A post I wrote two years ago will perhaps serve to illustrate that for those who are interested. My dream of the hearth, recounted there, was, incidentally, the only dream I have ever had in which I experienced the presence of God, another reason for my attaching such great importance to it.
An important related topic he also addresses is that of ‘hallucinations.’ People tend to be quite closed minded on this topic, seeing visions and voices as the sign of a mind gone wrong. This is quite unhelpful. There is a mass of evidence that I may come back to some time to indicate that ‘hallucinations’ range from the darkly destructive to the life enhancing and it important to pay close attention to the details of them and the circumstances under which they occur before coming to any conclusion about them. Our society’s default position, the result of exactly the backward step under discussion here that both psychology and psychiatry took in the name of pseudo-science, is harmful rather than helpful quite often (I have explored a more positive approach on this blog – see the six links to An Approach to Psychosis). Pim van Lommel’s research into NDEs replicates the same kind of pattern in that patients whose families and friends were unsympathetic took much longer to integrate their experiences and found it a more painful process than those who were met with support and understanding. He summarises this (page 51):
When someone first tries to disclose the NDE, the other person’s reaction is absolutely crucial. If this initial reaction is negative or skeptical, the process of accepting and integrating the NDE typically presents far greater problems than if this initial reaction is positive, sympathetic, or neutral. Evidence has shown that positive responses facilitate and accelerate the integration process. In fact, without the possibility of communication, the process of coming to terms with the NDE often fails to get under way at all.
We tend to underestimate the frequency of ‘hallucinations’ in the ‘normal’ population, something the Myers was already aware of (page 108):
One of the most important accomplishments of Myers, Guerney, and their colleagues in psychical research was in demonstrating the previously suspected, but as it turns out not infrequent, occurrence of hallucinations in normal, healthy individuals.
Not all them should be dismissed as fantasy (page 109):
These studies and surveys also demonstrated that such hallucinations are not always purely subjective in origin. Some, in fact, are veridical – that is, they involve seeing, hearing, or otherwise sensing some event happening at a physically remote location. . . . . Using their own figures for the frequency with which people recall having hallucinations in a waking, healthy state, together with statistics regarding the incidence of death in the United Kingdom, they concluded that hallucinations coinciding with a death happened too frequently to be attributable to chance.
All in all, Myers’s mould-breaking approach to the mind and to the problems of consciousness is refreshing to say the least, and maps onto my own long-standing interests in spirituality, creativity and ‘psychosis.’ It was icing on the cake to find what he said about science and religion, a point to savour and a good note to end this post on (page 113) :
On the one hand, . . . he believed that science could ‘prove the preamble of all religions’ – namely, that the universe extends far beyond the perceptible material world. On the other hand., religion could contribute to ‘the expansion of Science herself until she can satisfy those questions which the human heart will rightly ask, but to which Religion alone has thus far attempted an answer.’
 Unfortunately, Myers uses supraliminal to mean anything that crosses any threshold into consciousness, whether from above or below. This is a perfectly legitimate usage but it then leaves us no straightforward word to describe what lies above us and beyond our upper threshold. I have preferred to use subliminal to mean what lies beneath the lower threshold and supraliminal for what lies beyond our upper threshold, and conscious to describe what crosses either of the thresholds into our awareness. Quotes from or about Myers tend to follow his usage.
Posted in Science and Religion, Science, Psychology & Society, Self and Soul, Spirituality, tagged Bahá'í Faith, consciousness, Electromagnetic spectrum, FWH Myers, Irreducible Mind, Mind–body problem, Pim van Lommel, Subliminal Self on 13/06/2015 | Leave a Comment »
Because my current sequence of posts will be referring more than once to the Kellys and their thought-provoking text Irreducible Mind, it seemed a good idea to republish this sequence from March 2013. The three parts appear on consecutive days finishing on tomorrow.
Why it matters to me
As I partly explained in the previous post, my education as a psychologist was rooted in a discipline whose mainstream had chosen for almost a century to ignore subjective consciousness, probably the most important spectrum of human experience, in favour of what could be more easily quantified and externally observed. Most psychologists solved, and continue to solve, the mind-brain-reality problem by turning their backs both on the mind in any sense that is not reducible to brain activity and on any reality that appears to challenge the idea that there is nothing but matter. The poem I have just posted – Letter to a Friend in Winter – gives a sense of the issues I was wrestling with on the eve of my first encounter with the Bahá’í Faith in the spring of 1982: the same can also be said of the next poem I will be posting.
Deciding to become a Bahá’í pulled me up short, as I described in the first post of this series. I had not realised that we do not have to choose between material and spiritual models of mind and reality. There is in fact a third way. It involves opening the mind to all the evidence on both sides of the divide and developing a more adequate simulation of reality. And that’s precisely the challenge that Myers had taken up in the 19th Century. It’s time I did him the respect of beginning to grapple, albeit through an intermediary, with his position on this instead of looking only to modern writers for help. I have bought his key text – Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (the title was given posthumously and gives too narrow a sense of the book, apparently) – ready for the next stage, but feel I need to limber up in this way before tackling him head on.
If we start from the core point it will be easiest. To quote Ellen Kelly in the Kellys’ monumental book Irreducible Mind (page 64):
In keeping with his “tertium quid” approach, [Myers] believes that the challenge to science does not end but begins precisely when one comes up against two contradictory findings, positions, or theories, and that breakthroughs occur when one continues to work with conflicting data and ideas until a new picture emerges that can put conflicts and paradoxes in a new light or a larger perspective.
She quotes from the man himself in terms of his sense of the divide between spirit and matter (page 70):
“The line between the ‘material’ and the ‘immaterial,’ as these words are commonly used, means little more than the line between the phenomena which our senses or instruments can detect or register and the phenomena which they can not.”
Is the mind only our brain?
The mind-brain data throws up a tough problem, though. Most of us come to think that if you damage the brain you damage the mind because all the evidence we hear about points that way. We are not generally presented with any other model or any of the evidence that might call conventional wisdom into question, at least not by the elder statesmen of the scientific community. There are such models though (page 73):
The first step towards translating the mind-body problem into an empirical problem, therefore, is to recognise that there is more than one way to interpret mind-brain correlation. A few individuals have suggested that the brain may not produce consciousness, as the vast majority of 19th and 20th century scientists assumed; the brain may instead filter, or shape, consciousness. In that case consciousness maybe only partly dependent on the brain, and it might therefore conceivably survive the death of the body.
Others are of course now following where he marked out the ground but we have had to wait a long time for people like van Lommel to show up in his book Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience with all the perplexities and puzzles of modern physics to draw upon (page 177):
It is now becoming increasingly clear that brain activity in itself cannot explain consciousness. . . . . Composed of “unconscious building blocks,” the brain is certainly capable of facilitating consciousness. But does the brain actually “produce” our consciousness?
The imagery Lommel uses in his introduction is slightly different from that of Myers, as we will see – “The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness” – but the point is essentially the same. Whereas we now can draw upon all the complexities of Quantum Theory to help us define exactly what might be going on behind the screen of consciousness, and Lommel certainly does that, Myers had no such advantage. Nonetheless, he creates a rich and subtle picture of what consciousness might be comprised. He starts with the most basic levels (page 73):
. . . . our normal waking consciousness (called by Myers the supraliminal consciousness) reflects simply those relatively few psychological elements and processes that have been selected from that more extensive consciousness (called by Myers the Subliminal Self) in adaptation to the demands of our present environment: and . . . the biological organism, instead of producing consciousness, is the adaptive mechanism that limits and shapes ordinary waking consciousness out of this larger, mostly latent, Self.
So what is consciousness?
But in keeping with his ‘tertium quid’ approach, Myers believed (page 74) that “The reconcilement of the two opposing systems [the spiritual and material] in a profounder synthesis” is possible. According to Kelly (page 75) he drew on many traditions:
The rapidly multiplying observations of experimental psychology, neurology, psychopathology, and hypnotism clearly showed that the human mind is far more extensive than ordinarily thought, since much psychological functioning remains outside the range of our conscious mental life . . . .
He defined exactly what he meant (page 76):
. . . . something is ‘conscious’ if it is capable of entering waking awareness, given the appropriate conditions or the discovery of an ‘appropriate artifice’ or experimental method to elicit it . . . . Given this new, expanded conception of what is ‘conscious,’ Myers therefore considered such terms as “‘Unconscious’ or even ‘Subconscious’ . . . [to be] directly misleading” and he proposed instead the words ‘supraliminal, and ‘subliminal’ to distinguish between streams of consciousness that are and are not, respectively, identifiable with ordinary awareness. (page 76)
Kelly agrees that these two uses of the threshold concept can cause confusion. Myers is after all not only concerned with what rises into consciousness from beneath a lower threshold and but also what falls into it from above through a higher one.
This problem is illustrated by Myers’s very helpful original analogy, and it shows just how far he was prepared to go in taking into account disciplines that others would have felt were beyond the pale (page 78):
Our ordinary waking consciousness corresponds only to that small segment of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the naked eye (and varies species to species); but just as the electromagnetic spectrum extends in either direction far beyond the small portion normally visible, so human consciousness extends in either direction beyond the small portion of which we are ordinarily aware. In the ‘infrared’ region of consciousness are older, more primitive processes – processes that are unconscious, automatic, and primarily physiological. Thus, ‘at the red end (so to say) consciousness disappears among the organic processes’ (Myers, 1894-1895). Sleep, for example, and its associated psychophysiological processes are an important manifestation of an older, more primitive state. In contrast, in the ‘ultraviolet’ region of the spectrum are all those mental capacities that the remain latent because they have not yet emerged at a supraliminal level through adaptive evolutionary processes. . . . . Such latent, ‘ultraviolet’ capacities include telepathy, the inspirations of creative genius, mystical perceptions, and other such phenomena that occasionally emerge.
He does not feel we are yet at our highest achievable level (page 80): ‘. . . our present sensory capacities and our normal waking consciousness [do not] mark the final point of the evolutionary process.’ This gels strongly with my own feelings about the matter as does most of what he wrote. Basically, consciousness is to all intents and purposes infinite. Currently we can read only a tiny fraction of it. Our brains are capable of evolving far further and of taking in or ‘reading’ a broader range of wavelengths from this spectrum of consciousness.
From here Kelly goes onto look at his concept of the self. This is too complex a topic to cram into the end of this post so it will have to wait for next time.
. . . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit, and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.
(Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 316-317)
Because my current sequence of posts will be referring more than once to the Kellys and their thought-provoking text Irreducible Mind, it seemed a good idea to republish this sequence from March 2013. The three parts will appear on consecutive days finishing on Thursday.
I began studying psychology in 1976, long before I became a Bahá’í, and completed my clinical training in July 1982, at least four months before I met even a mention of the Faith in the following November.
Never once in my entire experience of being taught psychology did I ever hear of Frederick William Henry Myers. The closest encounter I ever had of this kind was with William James. He was mentioned in asides with a dismissive and grudging kind of respect. The implication was that he was an amazing thinker for his time but nowadays very much old hat. I gave him a quick glance and moved on.
Looking back now I realise I was robbed.
When I decided to become a Bahá’í at the beginning of December that same year, after a lightening conversion, my friends thought I was nuts, and when I met the quote from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá which you’ll find at the top of this post, I was thunderstruck. It ran completely counter to all I had been taught and all I had found in any psychology I had ever read. I really struggled to integrate that insight into my world-view.
The context included ideas such as Manifestations of God (symbolised by the stars in the picture at the head of the post), a spiritual realm (represented by the left hand line), and a link between that spiritual realm and our material one (the line that joins the left hand to the right hand line). If accepting the idea of God was a huge challenge for a former atheist, taking on board the concept of a soul was an even bigger one. At least the Bahá’í concept of God was definitely not the one I most certainly did not and could never believe in: it still seems such an unwarranted gift for beings like us to have an immortal soul though, considering how badly we behave most of the time. It took me four years at least of hard study and deep reflection to even begin to get my head around this stuff. (The poem I posted on 21 March, after this post was written, gives a sense of where I was starting from.)
It is plain to me now though how this situation came about. Kelly and Kelly capture it neatly and clearly in the introduction to their brave, thorough and well-researched book, Irreducible Mind (pages xvii-xviii):
[William] James’s person-centered and synoptic approach was soon largely abandoned . . . in favour of a much narrower conception of scientific psychology. Deeply rooted in earlier 19th-century thought, this approach advocated deliberate emulation of the presuppositions and methods – and thus, it was hoped, the stunning success – of the “hard” sciences especially physics. . . . Psychology was no longer to be the science of mental life, as James had defined it. Rather it was to be the science of behaviour, “a purely objective experimental branch of natural science”. It should “never use the terms consciousness, mental states, mind, content, introspectively verifiable, imagery, and the like.”
And, sadly, in some senses nothing much has changed. Psychology is still, for the most part, pursuing the Holy Grail of a complete materialistic explanation for every aspect of consciousness and the working of the mind. It’s obviously all in the brain, isn’t it (page xx)?
The empirical connection between mind and brain seems to most observers to be growing ever tighter and more detailed as our scientific understanding of the brain advances. In light of the successes already in hand, it may not seem unreasonable to assume as a working hypothesis that this process can continue indefinitely without encountering any insuperable obstacles, and that properties of minds will ultimately be fully explained by those brains. For most contemporary scientists, however, this useful working hypothesis has become something more like an established fact, or even an unquestionable axiom.
This is a dogma and as such can only be protected by ignoring or discounting as invalid all evidence that points in a different direction. Edward Kelly argues for a different approach in his introduction, believing as the co-authors demonstrate in this massive tome that there is a wealth of evidence to undermine this a priori belief (page xxii):
First and perhaps foremost is an attitude of humility in relation to the present state of scientific knowledge. . . . Second, we emphasise that science consists at bottom of certain attitudes and procedures, rather than any fixed set of beliefs. The most basic attitude is that facts have primacy over theories and that belief should therefore always remain modifiable in response to the empirical data.
He quotes Francis Bacon (ibid.):
“The world is not to be narrowed till it will go into the understanding . . . but the understanding is to be expanded and opened till it can take in the image of the world as it is in fact.”
The Kellys try and practice what they preach, as their book demonstrates (page xxv):
Our own empiricism is thus thorough-going and radical, in the sense that we are willing to look at all relevant facts and not just those that seem compatible, actually or potentially, with current mainstream theory. Indeed, if anything it is precisely those observations that seem to conflict with current theory that should command the most urgent attention.
Their first chapter, to which I may return in a later post, takes a critical look at the current mainstream position. I want to start instead with their second chapter that looks in detail at the work of Myers. I want to do justice to a deep and creative thinker whom I was induced to neglect during my formal training, much to the detriment of my practice for a significant number of years.
I am plucking a quote from the middle of Emily Kelly’s chapter on Myers’s approach (page 76) because the last sentence cuts to the core of the challenge constituted by his position and the evidence that mainstream ‘scientists’ ignore:
This notion of something within us being conscious, even though it is not accessible to our ordinary awareness, is an exceedingly difficult one for most of us to accept, since it is so at variance with our usual assumption that the self of which we are aware comprises the totality of what we are as conscious mental beings. Nevertheless, it is essential to keep in mind Myers’s new and enlarged conception of consciousness if one is to understand his theory of human personality as something far more extensive than our waking self.
And perhaps it needs to be said in advance, in order to soften the shock for some readers, that he is not just talking about the kind of unconscious processes we all accept as definite, such as those which keep our hearts beating, or as probable, such as the projection of past experiences onto the present. He takes seriously not just what lies underneath our minds so to speak, the stuff that many dreams are made of, but also what soars above them, such as mystical states.
Emily Kelly’s preamble:
Before we look in more detail at what his exact position was in the next post, it might be useful to quote from Emily Kelly’s preamble. She puts her finger on the most significant loss incurred when psychology went pseudo-scientific (page 50):
All elements of the universe are not only inextricably related, but they all function according to the same basic, deterministic principles of cause-and-effect and are all, in the final analysis, of the same basic essence or nature. . . . The attempt to transform psychology into a science, however, raised some unique problems. The phenomena of psychology are unlike those of any of the physical sciences in that they are, above all else, mental. (Ibid.)
The pioneers of this approach were far too sure of themselves (page 54):
. . . . For many in the first generation of scientific psychology, the thoroughgoing unilateral dependence of mind on brain was “a practical certainty.”
The basic issue had been resolved (page 58):
. . . . For [T.H.]Huxley as for many other 19th-century scientists, the exact nature of the dependence of psychical processes on physical ones with an open – though unresolvable – question; the general dependence of mind on matter was a resolved – and thus closed – question. (page 58)
I almost winced when I read her pointed explanation of how psychology had traded in the mind to buy itself a place among the sciences (page 59):
Scientists instrumental in the development of 19th-century psychology thus in general had chosen to conceptualise science primarily not as a method with which to confront basic questions posed by contradictory aspects of human experience, but as a doctrine to which psychology, if it is to be a science, must conform. (page 59)
She paves the way for a key component of Myers’s approach in her quote from Mill (page 62):
John Stuart Mill had been the leader and exemplar of mid 19th– century liberal thinkers who believed that the cause of knowledge is best served, not by partisans, but by “those who take something from both sides of the great controversies, and make out that neither extreme is right, nor wholly wrong.” (page 62)
In the next post we’ll be taking a closer look at Myers’s approach.
Posted in Afterlife, Book Reviews, Self and Soul, Spirituality, tagged 'Abdu'l-Bahá, American Society of Psychical Research, Bahá'u'lláh, Charles Honorton, Christopher Jamison, Jeffrey Iverson, Keith Harary, Nancy Sandow, Ray Hyman, silence, The Big Silence, the subliminal on 03/05/2015 | Leave a Comment »
The essence of faith is fewness of words and abundance of deeds; he whose words exceed his deeds, know verily his death is better than his life. The essence of true safety is to observe silence, to look at the end of things and to renounce the world.
Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time—he cannot both speak and meditate. It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.
I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to our take on reality, to where our society is heading and to what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This post was first published in August last year.
Progress on a spiritual path has often been associated with silence. Some years ago I heard almost the same words spoken as I watched the start of The Big Silence, which turned out to be a fascinating series of programmes on the spiritual impact of silence on five people over eight days – it’s almost exactly what this post is about, though from a somewhat different angle.
Christopher Jamison, the monk who led the group of five through this experience, described silence as the means for us to connect with our souls, and our souls as our means of connecting with God. That chimes with what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said in the quotation at the head of this post. Not many of the five got that far but their journeys were fascinating to watch.
Stumbling across Evidence
But what, if any, is the possible scientific underpinning to this?
The convinced adherent of naturalism will rule out in advance even the faintest possibility of any such evidence existing, to such an extent that he, and it is often a ‘he,’ will not even look at the wealth of existing evidence that points firmly in this direction, much of it more rigorously produced than that which supports the efficacy of the drugs we swallow so trustingly.
Let me share how I stumbled across one small example to illustrate the care with which this kind of experimentation is devised and which makes the whole body of research impossible to dismiss arbitrarily. I won’t upset materialists by insisting that finding this book was synchronicity, but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve found the book I needed at the time I needed it even when I didn’t know I needed it
With some friends, I recently visited Hay-on-Wye, with the intent of plugging some specific holes in my library with books on certain topics. I perhaps need to point out that my wife would not agree that there are any holes at all in my library if a hole is to be defined as shelf-space. I am not using ‘hole’ in that sense.
Having successfully located a sufficient supply of six such books in three shops I popped into a fourth shop for no good reason at all except I felt like it. I’d filled the gaps I was aware of, after all.
I had ten minutes to kill before we were all due to meet again and the temptation was just too strong. After picking a particularly fascinating book off the shelf in the mindfulness section I checked the price. £326. Perhaps not.
Just above were a handful of books on NDEs. I almost didn’t bother to look because I have so many. I should have known what was coming – this is usually the way it happens. One caught my eye. To help me recover from the shock of the other book’s price I took it down.
In Search of the Dead. It had the BBC logo on the cover.
‘Never heard of him. If this is a book of ghost stories I’ll put it back,’ I promised myself. It claimed on the cover to be a ‘scientific investigation of evidence of life after death.’
In fact it looked a mish-mash of good science and intriguing ancdotes. £2. I only had a couple of minutes left. ‘What the heck! It’s only two pounds. If it’s no good the Oxfam Shop can have it.’
This is how the last book that I bought that day, became the first book that I read. And I’m glad I have. It’s an accessible but by no means naïve treatment of the topic.
Right at the start I found myself in territory that lies at the heart of the matter: the relationship between silence and the subliminal. An example is described in detail of how to investigate this with a sound – do I mean ‘silent’? – methodology. What follows is a brutal summary to illustrate the rigour of what is described more fully between pages 3 and 11.
Silence and Science
Iverson was a journalist, working for the BBC and visiting the States in September 1990 to get a handle on psi, the unknown factor in extrasensory perception. He was at the HQ of the American Society of Psychical Research. Dr Nancy Sandow and Dr Keith Harary were the key researchers named. The phenomenon under investigation was a form of Remote Viewing (RV). In this case it meant one person providing incontrovertible details under tightly controlled conditions of someone else’s visual experience some distance away, specifically for this BBC programme in a small park in New York City.
There are many ways in which such an experiment could be flawed. The experimenters in this case had done their best to close them all down.
First of all the subject, Tessa, who was to receive the RV data was unfamiliar with New York. Also, she wasn’t even a trained or self-styled psychic: she was simply the Production Assistant in Iverson’s crew who was volunteered for the role. She came from Wales and had never been to New York before.
Secondly, four diverse locations were chosen offering a selection of very untypical New York scenes.
Thirdly, Dr Harary, to whom none of these scenes was known, sat with Tessa in the library with a locked-off camera recording all they did and said before any further steps were taken. The library was a no go area and all means of communication with outside world had been removed. He and Tessa knew that a third person would be at one of the four locations at a specific time that afternoon. It was at that time they began their attempt to describe where she was.
Fourthly, Iverson received from Dr Sandow, who had selected the sites, a sealed envelope with all four locations specified. Then he was quarantined.
When all was set up, Dr Sandow got in a cab and randomly generated a number between 1 and 4, and set off for the designated destination. Before she clicked on the number she had no idea which of the four sites she’d be going to.
When she had stayed at that spot for the requisite period of time at the designated time period, the next phase began.
Meanwhile, Tessa had remained in the library for the duration of Dr Sandow’s visit to the site. Dr Harary then took the notes they had created, met up with Iverson and the envelope, and was driven to the four sites in a randomly chosen sequence. His job was to rank order the sites in terms of their correspondence to the description he was carrying.
To cut a long story short, the correct site was streets ahead of any of the others, only one of which had even the faintest resemblance to the target park. What was even more impressive was that every detail Tessa had mentioned was correct – the tall trees, the T-shaped path, a red and white awning over a shop, and above all a winged metal statue going slightly green (see the picture of the statue and her drawing of it).
Conclusions and Caveats
The researchers were keen to point out that from that one study you could not conclude that psi or something like it was substantiated. Even with so many details correct, there were only four scenes for Dr Harary to choose from so he had a 25% chance of being correct. It is the sheer weight of the evidence gathered in hundreds of such examples that points to the reality of something that needs to be explained rather than dismissed as outright fraud or sloppy methodology. The investigators were themselves keen to emphasise this to Iverson.
Iverson himself quotes Charles Honorton as an example (page 41):
In 1200 individual trials over the [previous] 15 years, where random guesses would statistically be expected to produce a success rate of 25%, the . . . average has been 34% – a 9% markup on chance. “The mathematical odds against chance are in the trillions to one, and even critics of parapsychology acknowledge results cannot be due to chance,” he says.
Honorton was joined in conducting a computerised and even more tightly controlled set of experiments by a sceptic, Dr Ray Hyman, who said at the end (ibid.), ‘We agreed that the results so far cannot be due to chance and are not likely to be due to improper selections of favourable data. However, we still disagree over whether this [sic] data constitutes evidence for psi or for some form of error that has not been detected.”
Honorton is unequivocal (ibid.):
‘We feel now the burden of proof is on the sceptics to say why these results should not be accepted. . . . The evidence for psi is very strong but is still not generally accepted by the scientific community, mainly because they are not aware of the better research going on.
What Iverson felt the investigators he worked with conveyed clearly to him was:
- Everyone is capable of psi (whatever that is – they didn’t pretend to know exactly);
- For its full manifestation it depends upon a person feeling safe and for distracting stimuli to be reduced as far as possible to zero; and
- The conditions most closely matching the ideal were
- sleep, which we all know leads to dreams some of which some people feel contain psi material;
- meditation, the consistent practice of which is widely reported to lead to transpersonal and mystic experiences; and
- the Ganzfeld procedure which systematically cuts down visual and auditory stimuli.
I have to modify the first statement somewhat in that the statistics, while very significantly above chance, do not suggest that everyone was scoring hits anywhere near consistently. It seems obvious that some people must not have been scoring hits at all and/or people were inconsistent. I am not at all sure therefore that everyone is currently capable of psi: however, I am hopeful that over a long period of time humanity will evolve to a point at which this could well be so. (I have already blogged in some detail about this: see link.)
Basically, though, if we are calm and can sit in a quiet place for long enough, most of us will get in touch with what usually falls well below the threshold of our awareness. Some of what we then experience may, for some of us at least, be out of the reach of our ordinary senses but none the less correct. When what we experience by these means is a material reality it can of course be checked against known facts, as in the experiment described briefly above.
When it is not a material reality, what then?
It seems to me that it is not so obvious, in the light of all the successful experiments with data that can be checked and found correct, that we should dismiss as hallucinations less probable experiences, even when they cross the boundaries of the material. I also accept though that we cannot safely conclude that every experience generated by sensory deprivation of some form is authentic.
How can we steer a true course between dangerous gullibility and unwarranted scepticism? What are we to think when what we experience is so unusual and so sublime that it beggars belief? I have already blogged about many aspects of this in terms of extraordinary experiences. I hope to return to it again soon in the context of silence and the sublime.
For the visually inclined
Later on I thought it would be good if I could find the original BBC programmes and I did – on YouTube. The one that deals with the remote viewing experiment is below. The other two I plan to come back to later when I look at some other aspects of the book.
The Power of the Mind:
Posted in Afterlife, Book Reviews, Science, Psychology & Society, Self and Soul, Spirituality, tagged Bahá'í Faith, brain, consciousness, Irreducible Mind, Near Death Experiences, Pim van Lommel on 25/04/2015 | Leave a Comment »
Van Lommel, in his book Consciousness beyond Life, is attempting to persuade us that consciousness is not a product of the brain: in fact, the brain, in his view, may simply be our means of accessing consciousness, rather as a computer gives us access to the internet.
After the first shock of becoming a Bahá’í, which came at the end of twenty years as an atheist including seven years exposure to a reductionist psychological orthodoxy, I had to fight to integrate my new understanding into my current worldview. Now I was reading that the mind is an emanation of the spirit, whereas previously everything that I had read told me that the mind was at best an emergent property of the brain, at worst simply a by-product of neuronal complexity. It was a steep learning curve.
For anyone reading this who is where I was in terms of this collision of ideas, Pim van Lommel is at the top of an ideological Everest. I am not naïve enough to suppose that a sequence of three blog posts is going to do much to shift such a person from where they are at present into this very different paradigm, especially given the bias of mainstream science against the whole idea as completely preposterous.
I would like to argue though that the only tenable position for any true science to adopt is agnosticism, and, moreover, an agnosticism that does not rule out anything a priori, that is prepared to examine any evidence on its merits no matter how dissonant with its prevailing ideas, and that is also capable of realising that evidence and explanation are not the same thing at all. While I might feel that van Lommel’s evidence and the arguments he builds upon its foundations are compelling in their demonstration that there is indeed a soul and an afterlife (in fact, he’s not quite saying that), there might be other conclusions to draw from that same evidence that we will be deprived of if we dismiss it out of hand as virtually delusional.
So, in that spirit, I hope I can carry along any convinced atheists among the readers of this blog at least to the end of this post and of the next one so that they can hopefully get a glimpse of the cogency of his arguments through my rather brutal summary. It has not been possible to also include a detailed explanation of his evidence base. For that a close reading of his text would be necessary. You will have to take my word for it that the evidence he musters, beyond the fragments I refer to here, is not to be easily dismissed as fantasy.The Evidence
Let’s pick up his argument at what is a crux for his case (pages 132-133):
The fact that an NDE is accompanied by accelerated thought and access to greater than ever wisdom remains inexplicable. Current scientific knowledge also fails to explain how all these NDE elements can be experienced at a moment when, in many people, brain function has been seriously impaired. There appears to be an inverse relationship between the clarity of consciousness and the loss of brain function.
What kind of evidence does he adduce in support of this proposition. The most telling kind of evidence comes from prospective rather retrospective studies, ie studies where the decision is taken in advance to include all those people who have undergone resuscitation within the context of several hospitals and question them as soon as possible both immediately afterwards and then after a set period of time again later, rather than finding people who claimed to have had an NDE and interviewing only them. The data is impressive both for the numbers in total involved (page 140):
Within a four-year period, between 1988 and 1992, 344 consecutive patients who had undergone a total of 509 successful resuscitations were included in the study.
and for the strength of the evidence those numbers provided (page 159):
The four prospective NDE studies discussed in the previous chapter all reached one and the same conclusion: consciousness, with memories and occasional perception, can be experienced during a period of unconsciousness—that is, during a period when the brain shows no measurable activity and all brain functions, such as body reflexes, brain-stem reflexes, and respiration, have ceased.
The conclusion van Lommel felt justified in drawing followed naturally on from that evidence (page 160);
As prior researchers have concluded, a clear sensorium and complex perceptual processes during a period of apparent clinical death challenge the concept that consciousness is localized exclusively in the brain.
What is important to emphasise here is that the precise conditions under which the NDE was experienced were completely, accurately and verifiably recorded, something not possible in a retrospective study: van Lommel is clear (page 164) that ‘in such a brain [state] even so-called hallucinations are impossible.’
He is, of course, not claiming that there is no relationship at all between brain activity and consciousness, only that the brain does not produce or completely determine consciousness in any way we currently understand and any assumption of that kind is unwarranted. He also produces reasons for concluding that our technology is not sophisticated enough as yet to capture what is actually going on. For example, our equipment can only scan once every two seconds whereas cerebral processes take place in milliseconds. This, he says, (page 180) is like ‘reading a book by reading only one of each thousand words.’
Further to this point, he quotes the interesting experience of a sophisticated subject who wanted to test this for himself, unknown to the experimenters. They were testing for the mind/brain’s reaction to either having one’s foot tickled or seeing one’s foot tickled. He decided he was going to think about football in the one case and about his cat’s funeral in the other. The results showed no difference between his thoughts and the thoughts of all the other participants as far as the fMRI scans were concerned (pages 180-181):
At present, scientific research methods appear to be incapable of accurately studying the neural processes associated with our experience of consciousness. . . . . . Given the fact that Roepstorff’s thoughts fell outside the scope of the experiment, the test leader should not have been able to understand the findings. But the leader failed to notice anything strange about the scans. They were no different from the scans of any of the other subjects. . . . .. only the subject himself has direct access to his thoughts.
Brain as Transceiver
Consciousness is fundamentally unverifiable, and thus fails to meet scientific criteria…. This evaporates the hope for completely objective knowledge about consciousness. Sooner or later, you will have to talk to your subject, so there will always be a subjective link.
Van Lommel then moves on to even more interesting ground (pages 183-184):
The hypothesis that consciousness and memory are produced and stored exclusively in the brain remains unproven. For decades, scientists have tried unsuccessfully to localize memories and consciousness in the brain. It is doubtful whether they will ever succeed.
He quotes the conclusions of a computer expert and a neurobiologist (page 193):
Simon Berkovich, a computer expert, has calculated that despite the brain’s huge numbers of synapses, its capacity for storing a lifetime’s memories, along with associated thoughts and emotions, is completely insufficient. . . . . . Neurobiologist Herms Romijn, formerly of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, also demonstrated that the storage of all memories in the brain is anatomically and functionally impossible.
Credibility is lent to the implications of this argument by exceptional but genuine cases of brain damage, take for example (page 194):
John Lorber’s description of a healthy young man with a university degree in mathematics and an IQ of 126. A brain scan revealed a severe case of hydrocephalus: 95 percent of his skull was filled with cerebrospinal fluid, and his cerebral cortex measured only about 2 millimeters thick, leaving barely any brain tissue. The weight of his remaining brain was estimated at 100 grams (compared to a normal weight of 1,500 grams), and yet his brain function was unimpaired.
This leads him to feel that the usual conclusion we draw when brain damage impairs functioning may be simplistic and misleading (ibid.):
. . . [F]unctions can also be lost after brain damage brought on by a cerebral hemorrhage, serious head trauma with permanent brain damage, long-term alcohol abuse, or encephalitis. The obvious and correct conclusion must be that the brain has a major impact on the way people show their everyday or waking consciousness to the outside world. The instrument, the brain, has been damaged, whereas “real” consciousness remains intact.
There is also a two-way relationship between mind and brain, something to which the latest work on neuroplasticity conclusively testifies (see earlier posts for more information). As van Lommel puts it (page 184): ‘A conscious experience can be the result of brain activity, but a brain activity can also be the result of consciousness.’ He expands on this point later (page 200):
In summary, the human mind is capable of changing the anatomical structure and associated function of the brain. The mind can change the brain. There is unmistakable interaction between the mind and the brain and not just in the sense of cause and effect. As such, it would be incorrect to claim that consciousness can only be a product of brain function. How could a product be able to change its own producer?
He therefore feels justified in stating (ibid.):
. . . . switching on your computer, connecting to the Internet, and navigating to a Web site does not determine the content of this Web site. The activation of certain areas of the brain cannot explain the content of thoughts and emotions.
Later he unpacks the implications of this more fully (page 268):
Where this leaves us
We are not aware of the hundreds of thousands of telephone calls, hundreds of television and radio broadcasts, and the billions of Internet connections around us day and night, passing through us and through the walls, including those of the room in which you are reading this book. . . . . . We only see and hear the program when we switch on a TV set,. . . . . The computer does not produce the Internet any more than the brain produces consciousness. The computer allows us to add information to the Internet just like the brain is capable of adding information from our body and senses to our consciousness.
He strongly questions the default position of contemporary neuroscience (page 185):
Contemporary research on consciousness in neuroscience rests on unquestioned but highly questionable foundations. Consciousness does not happen in the brain… despite the fact that a majority of contemporary scientists specializing in consciousness research still espouse a materialist and reductionist explanation for consciousness,
He explains exactly where key mechanisms for consciousness fail in a cardiac arrest and why an alternative explanation is necessary for those cases where full or even heightened consciousness exists in such a brain state (page 193):
During a cardiac arrest the cerebral cortex, thalamus, hippocampus, and brain stem as well as all connections between them stop functioning, as we have seen, which prevents information from being integrated and differentiated—a prerequisite for communication and thus for the experience of consciousness. The experience of consciousness should be impossible during a cardiac arrest. All measurable electrical activity in the brain has been extinguished and all bodily and brain-stem reflexes are gone. And yet, during this period of total dysfunction, some people experience a heightened and enhanced consciousness, known as an NDE.
Not surprisingly, this line of thought has spiritual implications (page 302):
Physicist and psychologist Peter Russell compares the ability to experience consciousness with the light of a film projector. As the projector throws light onto a screen, the projected images change constantly. All of these projected images, such as perceptions, feelings, memories, dreams, thoughts, and emotions, form the content of consciousness. Without the projector’s light there would be no images, which is why the light can be compared to our ability to experience consciousness. But the images do not constitute consciousness itself. When all the images are gone and only the projector’s light remains, we are left with the pure source of consciousness. This pure consciousness without content is called samadhi by Indian philosophers and initiates and can be experienced after many years of meditation. It is said to bring enlightenment.
This brings me to a consideration of what van Lommel makes of this possibility. That will have to wait for the next post.