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

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

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

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

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

Given the alternative model he describes:[2]

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

Science and Religion are in Harmony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings us right back to meaning again.

The Cause of Consciousness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Afterthoughts

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

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

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

. . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.

References:

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

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Mumbai Traffic

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

Quest

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

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

Meanings

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

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

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

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

Why exactly did I choose this title for my blog?

My explanation in EMS Explained included this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meaning and the Dream Analogy

Kastrup makes a fundamental point:[4]

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

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

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

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

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

Where do these thoughts lead us?

In terms of a deity he writes:[6]

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

This brings us to the following insight:[7]

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

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

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

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

A rag rug

An Example

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

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

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

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

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

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

World as Metaphor

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

I will digress a little before getting to that point.

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

NDEs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psychedelics

Now we come to the unexpected evidence.

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

Where does this surprising counterintuitive evidence take him?

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Footnote:

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

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

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

I hadn’t heard this argument before.

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

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

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

Some posts that suggest matter is not all there is

Psychology and Spirit

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

References:

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

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People for the most part delight in superstitions. They regard a single drop of the sea of delusion as preferable to an ocean of certitude. By holding fast unto names they deprive themselves of the inner reality and by clinging to vain imaginings they are kept back from the Dayspring of heavenly signs. God grant you may be graciously aided under all conditions to shatter the idols of superstition and to tear away the veils of the imaginations of men.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 58)

This time I will be looking more closely at both expressions of bias, as well as at possible remedies for discrimination.

Before doing so I want to include a reminder of Tom Oliver’s take on a closely related issue: our delusion that we are an independent and separate entity from the rest of the world. In his illuminating book, The Self Delusion, he explains:[1]

We are seamlessly connected to one another and the world around us. Our independence is simply an illusion that was once adaptive but now threatens our success as a species.

He makes it clear later that ‘recent social research reveals that people respond strongly to subtle stereotyping and their personalities go on to develop in ways which reinforce such stereotypes.’[2] So, when we harbour prejudices, which are included in his list of ‘viruses of the mind,’[3] our behaviour serves to create experiences that confirm to us our misplaced beliefs, and can be infectious. This all resonates strongly with Bahá’u’lláh’s description of us as ‘wandering in the paths of delusion’ and of how ‘superstitions become veils between’ us and our own hearts.[4]

This theme is worth bearing in mind as we move forwards.

Examples of Bias

I suspect most people who have had the patience to read this far are already aware of the many ways that bias can be reflected in behaviour. I shall therefore deal with those aspects of the matter briefly.

An obvious example that Jennifer Eberhardt adduces, in her book Biased, relates to policing:[5]

[In New York City] of all stops made for furtive movement, 54 percent were of blacks, in a city that is only 23 percent black. . . Yet blacks were less likely to have a weapon than whites. In fact, less than 1 percent of those stopped for furtive movements were found to have a weapon.

Studies have been done to examine this kind of pattern. In a study of what triggers a response to fire a gun:[6]

[Joshua Correll and his team] . . . found a race effect. Participants were even faster to respond “shoot” to a black person holding a gun than they were to a white person holding a gun. They were also more likely to mistakenly shoot a black person with no gun.… It was found with both white and black study participants.

The latter finding may seem counter-intuitive but, in the light of how powerful and pervasive stereotyping is, it should come as no surprise. That black participants were prone to this error supports the notion that it is often the result of conditioning rather than an expression of racially motivated behaviour. The same tendency can be seen on the streets: ‘. . . research shows that black police officers were just as likely as white officers to exhibit less respect to black drivers.’[7]

There is no escaping the fact that, ‘Every encounter police officers and community members have with each other happens in a larger societal context that shapes how each responds.’[8]

The conditions prevalent in a work context play a significant part in shaping negative responses:[9]

Yale Law professors Tom Tyler and Tracey Meares have worked together to develop a model for training police officers on the principles of procedural justice. But why do officers need to be reminded of these principles? Because one of the primary barriers to good policing is the cynicism the officers develop while working the streets. It’s easy for officers to get beaten down by fighting crime. . . As that cynicism grows, it also narrows their vision.

The legal system at higher levels is not immune to this virus of the mind either, though without the same excuse of bitter experience:[10] ‘Judges are not immune to the pull of their own unconscious biases, and the algorithms that risk scores [to assess the likely failure to show up in court] rely on have already been shown to tilt against blacks.’

It is only fair to add that black people are not the only targets, though for reasons explained in the previous post they are likely to be the most persistently targeted. Concerning a white supremacist demonstration Eberhardt writes:[11]

The verbal attacks were also meant to signal to everyone else the Jews were no longer to be accepted as white. Their status was probationary – to be threatened in threatening times.

This also illustrates the previously mentioned role of fear in escalating prejudiced behaviour.

Possible Remedies

It is not easy to counteract patterns that are so deeply entrenched and reinforced by so many influences.

Not surprisingly I registered education as a potentially key aspect of Eberhardt’s thinking. Inside prisons she runs classes for offenders:[12]

Every class reminded me of the power of education to move us beyond our biases and reminded my students of the power of bias to shape their lives.

Clearly, education, over time in a supportive culture, could inoculate us against such viruses of the mind as racism. However, given the situation in which we find ourselves, making lasting and effective change is not easy. She quotes many examples and perhaps an attempted intervention in an organisation affecting a huge clientele would be as good an illustration as any. She tells of Laura Murphy’s work. She was an African-American civil rights attorney enlisted to help Airbnb deal with bias amongst their ‘hosts’:[13]

It’s easy to tell yourself that you don’t see colour, come up with a host of other justifications, and relieve yourself of any self-incrimination for your bias. Laura’s job was to focus the company’s managers on how these psychological manoeuvres worked subconsciously.

The primary problem is not that “People on the platform say, ‘Look, I don’t want any African-Americans’,” Lauren said. “The biggest problem to me is the unconscious bias.” And it’s more difficult to police and remedy that than it is to root out blatant bigotry.

She was able to make a difference, and there was one key factor involved:[14]

When hosts are provided with the previous reviews of guests by other hosts, for example, they are more likely to accept them into their homes, and the racial differences in acceptance rate begin to disappear.… Indeed, decades of research on stereotyping highlight the power of individuating information to mitigate bias.

Care has to be taken to take account of complicating factors. Improvements in behaviour resulting in lower levels of discrimination can backfire. Studies found that:[15]

. . . it was as though responsible behaviour handed [people] a license to behave recklessly. That suggests that companies that offer bias training might be loosening the reins in ways that set prejudice free.

Situations can also be complex in ways that reinforce the prejudices trainers are seeking to reduce. Back to policing again. The general point here is:[16]

Resetting norms isn’t easy, for a country or a company. But the next step – revamping company practices that allow sustained bias – is where things really get complicated.

Eberhardt analyses the exact dynamics in detail. What follows here is a brief helicopter view:[17]

What [these police officers] were experiencing on the streets was the fallout of racial disparities that reflect and generate biases that keep the cops and the community divided. . . . That lack of goodwill stalls investigations and lets crimes go unsolved which sours the perceptions of police and community members alike.

. . . Disparities are the raw material from which we construct the narratives that justify the presence of inequality. Those narratives spring to life to justify unequal treatment not just in the criminal justice arena but in our neighbourhoods, schools, and workplaces. . . . The narratives that prop up inequality can help us to live less troubled in a troubling world. But they also narrow our vision . . . Those biases will continue to be reproduced until we understand and challenge the disparities that fuel them.

It is easier to blame immigrants, foreigners or strangers for the problems that surround us, than grasp the difficult reality that the system is broken and is in urgent need of a complex repair or even a complete replacement. For more information on that see the sequence Can We Balance Matter and Spirit? Also reading Tom Oliver’s book would be a good place to start.

An Overview

Time to return to some general points. I have already noted that fear plays its part in prejudice. America is experiencing a transition that is raising anxieties in the minds of many white Americans:[18]

 . . . by the middle of this century, white people are likely to be a minority in this country… And simply reminding some white Americans of their diminishing presence can lead them to express more negative attitudes towards blacks, Latinos, and Asians . . . Feeling outnumbered can signal a threat to the legacy of dominance and the white privilege that affords.

Even what appear to be straightforward ways of using scientific evidence to counteract bias can backfire. There are two main ways that this can work. The first concerns what happens when we explain how many people experience bias:[19]

It’s true that we are wired for bias. But the problem with narrowly settling for that perspective is that it can lead us today to care less about the danger associated with bias, instead of more.

. . . A research group… found that people are more likely to endorse stereotypes about out-groups – from racists to drug users to porn stars to trash collectors – when they believe the stereotypes are widely held in society.

The second way piggy-backs on this first one because ‘too much focus on how good innocent people can be biased without intention can sap people’s motivation to do something about it,’ which means that ‘teaching and learning about bias is a balancing act that has to be expertly calibrated to have the appropriate impact.’[20]

Not a walk in the park then.

Conclusions

There’s no way we can walk away from this problem, even if we want to:[21]

The strategy of turning a blind eye to bias has indeed failed to stem discrimination. But there are powerful currents that pull people away from confronting bias, even when they believe that’s the right thing to do.

Bringing people from different races closely together can make a huge difference, but the key word here is closely. Eberhardt makes it very clear that simply living in close proximity, but not gaining detailed knowledge of each other by frequent and meaningful interaction, can serve simply to reinforce prejudice:[22]

Science has shown that intense relationships across racial, religious, or ethnic boundaries can quickly undo fundamental [negative] associations that have built up slowly over time.

Her words toward the end of her book particularly resonate with me:[23]

. . . The capacity for growth comes from our willingness to reflect, to probe in search of some actionable truth. . . And there is hope in this sheer act of reflection. This is where the power lies and how the process starts.

I have explored many times on this blog how the power of reflection, especially when allied to the process of comparing perspectives Bahá’ís call consultation, can help us resolve even the most intractable of problems. There is perhaps another core principle of the Bahá’í Faith relevant here as well: the independent investigation of truth. Bahá’u’lláh exhorts us to ‘see with [our] own eyes and not through the eyes of others,’ and ‘know of [our] own knowledge and not through the knowledge of [our] neighbour,’[24] if we are to be truly inspired by justice and fairness in this world.

We may have a long road to travel but there is evidence that we can effect even such massive changes in the way our society and culture work. Even relatively simple steps can make a difference. Oliver, for example, quotes a study by Kang of loving-kindness meditation. He ‘found that participants who had undergone a course in loving kindness meditation had reduced intergroup bias. In particular, they were less likely to stigmatise homeless people compared with participants who were simply taught about the value of the meditation technique not shown how to perform it.[25]

I am well aware though, from reading Goleman and Davidson’s book on The Science of Meditation, that the road from transient state of mind to enduring trait of character requires long and sustained effort over months and years. Oliver is also aware of this same evidence and how effortful bringing about such fundamental changes will be.[26]

That’s no reason though not to keep on trying.

Footnotes

[1]. The Self Delusion – page 4.
[2]. The Self Delusion – page 170.
[3]. The Self Delusion – page 141.
[4]. From the Tablet of Ahmad.
[5]. Biased – page 63.
[6]. Biased – pages 66-68.
[7]. Biased — page 104.
[8]. Biased – pages 74-75.
[9]. Biased – page 84-5.
[10]. Biased  – page 108.
[11]. Biased – page 240.
[12]. Biased – page 123.
[13]. Biased – page 192.
[14]. Biased – page 193.
[15]. Biased – page 282.
[16]. Biased – page 291.
[17]. Biased – pages 296-98.
[18]. Biased – page 231.
[19]. Biased – page 281.
[20]. Biased – page 282.
[21]. Biased – page 239.
[22]. Biased – page 289.
[23]. Biased – pages 301-02.
[24]. Arabic Hidden Words – No 2.
[25]. The Self Delusion – page 225.
[26]. The Self Delusion – page 158.

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Coronavirus Structure (for source of image, see link)

If you need a more upbeat take on the pandemic this blog post by Arthur Lyon Dahl is a good place to start. Below is a short extract that stops short of the positive possibilities he explores: for the full post see link.

Should we thank God for the Pandemic? It may seem weird to be thankful for a catastrophe. Human suffering is never something to be sought or revelled in. But the pandemic now sweeping the world, with its ultimate outcome still uncertain, may be a blessing in disguise or a cloud with a silver lining. Let me explain.

We have been working for decades to identify and address social and environmental challenges and to make plans and set goals for a sustainable society across the planet. I have personally been involved since the first Earth Day in 1970 and have contributed to many constructive processes, leading most recently to the UN 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the Paris Agreement to address climate change.

However, along side this, governments have given priority to their national sovereignty, multinationals to their profits, and many world leaders to their inflated egos. Wealth is increasingly concentrated alongside growing inequality. Governments are failing to meet the needs of their people as they succumb to political fragmentation undermining democracy, when not already subverted to nativism, racism, corruption and despotism. A corporate stranglehold on the economy, feeding off a materialistic consumer culture, has escaped from all regulation or control. It is plundering the planet’s resources while driving us to a climate catastrophe and the collapse of world biodiversity as we drown in pollution. Nothing that we have done on the positive side has slowed this headlong drive to destruction.

As a systems scientist, I have often asked myself what it would take to slam on the brakes and slow the momentum of this material society out of control, before it takes us so far beyond planetary boundaries that it leads to the complete collapse of civilization. In our rapidly globalizing world, our economic, social and environmental systems have become increasingly interconnected, and while this has greatly increased human productivity and interaction, it also raises our vulnerability to a complex systems failure, with one problem precipitating many others like falling dominos.

For a triggering event, a third world war is an obvious possibility, but not very desirable, with most of the world’s population dying in atrocious circumstances. The Doomsday Clock has recently moved closer to apocalypse than it has ever been as reckless leaders re-arm in their desire for global greatness or domination. If nuclear arms are used, this could precipitate a nuclear winter and leave much of the planet uninhabitable for the survivors.

My preference leaned towards a financial collapse, as government, corporate and consumer debt grew into a giant bubble after the 2008 financial crisis. If currencies lost their value and global trade shut down, that might save us from a climate catastrophe and give us time to move to renewable energy sources.

A global pandemic was always another option, something resembling the Spanish Flu of 1918, but the emergence of such a threat, while probable at some point according to the World Health Organization (WHO), was unpredictable. Suddenly, it has happened.

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We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.

(Shoghi Effendi quoted in Compilation on Social and Economic Development)

Inequality

Tong is very aware, as I indicated at the end of the previous post, that our blind spots are highly damaging. What makes them worse is our tendency to protect them, sometimes by legislation that inhibits illuminating examination. A particularly toxic example, which she adduces, comes from the States and concerns inequality:[1]

Being poor is not just about losing the game. The poor are increasingly penalized and criminalized for their lack of wealth. At the simplest level, many banks charge a fine, or a fee, if any account balance is too low. The Bank of America, for example, has proposed a $12 dollar fee for monthly balances below $1500, in essence charging people for not having enough money. . . . Cities continue to threaten, arrest, and ticket homeless persons for forming life-sustaining activities – such a sleeping or sitting down – in outdoor public places, despite a lack of any lawful indoor alternatives. . . . Even faith-based organisations and good Samaritans face arrest and criminal liability for feeding hungry homeless people.

As I have dealt in detail with the deficiencies of our economic and political system in a recent sequence, I’ll just include here a brief reminder of Matthieu Ricard’s perspective on the system and why it finds it impossible to mend itself.

Ricard, in his thought-provoking book Altruism, radically questions the operational model of our acquisitive society. We are not homo economicus,[2] ‘selfish agents’ out to promote ‘their own interests.’ We are potentially homo reciprocans with a desire to ‘cooperate’ and consider ‘the benefits to the community’ in what we do. He quotes Amartya Sen who wrote:[3]‘Taking universal selfishness as read may well be delusional, but to turn it into a standard for rationality is utterly absurd.’

He then quotes[4] Milton Friedman’s purblind declaration that any other policy for corporate officials than maximising the dividends of stockholders would ‘undermine the very foundations of our free society.’ The word ‘free’ there is of course doubly ironic: those who pay the true price of our society are anything but free. Then he follows up with Frans de Waal’s damning analysis: ‘Every advanced nation has had major business scandals [over the last 10 years] and in every case executives have managed to shake the foundations of our society precisely by following Friedman’s advice.’

He argues the evidence strongly suggests that the kind of regulation libertarians fear is conducive to economic growth.[5]Their fantasy of a ‘free market economy,’ far from being stable, leads to global crashes. He quotes the research of Thomas Picketty, which demonstrates that, even in-between crashes, none of the wealth realised by the elite trickles down to the less well off.[6] And the unkindest cut of all came with 2008 crisis: bankers walked off with bonuses while others, lower down this disgraceful pecking order, lost their homes and/or their jobs.[7] It is not without significance that, between 1998 and 2008, the financial sector spent 5 billion dollars lobbying politicians in the States.

Proof, if any were needed, of their lack of motivation to change.

Our Simulation

Tong’s conclusions are uncompromising while at the same time recognizing how steep is the hill we still have to climb:[8]

To see the world clearly, we must first become aware of the veil; we must recognize our blind spots. The way we’ve come to perceive reality is so deeply ingrained, so socially and inter-generationally rooted, that we’ve lost sight of the manner in which we think. This is important, because what we think creates reality.

Our constructed world has become so real and dear to us, we’ve forgotten that what we call reality is a product of our minds.

I have referred a number of times on this blog to the fact that our experience of reality, with all its vivid intensity, is simply a simulation. In a way this insight in itself is not the most important one to grasp. We need to dig more deeply into its implications. This is where the strength of Tong’s case and its ultimate value really begins to count:[9]

The system, as I’ve argued in this book, is our life support system. It is the system we have built so that we no longer have to rely on the whims of nature’s cycles. It is a system that made us the most powerful species on earth. . . . The irony is that our survival is merely incidental to the goal of the system: ownership.

We cannot see the system because it exists in our blind spots. It is nature in disguise. Today, if we fail to see our connection to the natural world, it’s because most of our products look nothing like it . . . Nature has been transformed into a product. . . . As a consequence, the economy grows, but nature dies.… None of us could have guessed that in the end we will need to pull the plug on our own life-support system, and if we don’t, it will destroy us.

What we see as our sustainer and protector will in fact eventually be the death of us if we do not act now to radically change it. And this is where Tong articulates the crucial insight shared in Tom Oliver’s book, which I referred to in the first post: our interconnectedness:[10]

We navigate the world by our common-sense perception, but that perception has blinded us to reality again and again. . . We have mistrusted processes and phenomena beyond the boundaries of what we can touch and feel with our limited senses . . .

Our senses tell us we are separate from the universe and the environment and other living things. Science, however, presents the evidence to prove that our physical perceptions are wrong.

Oliver is as intensely concerned as Tong is to counteract our dangerous delusion that we are independent selves:[11]

. . . We have one . . . big myth dispel: that we exist as independent selves at the centre of a subjective universe.

He explains:[12]

We are seamlessly connected to one another and the world around us. Independence is simply an illusion that was once adaptive but now threatens our success as species.

An initially subliminal sense that we are in some way tied tightly to diverse other races can have a negative effect. As our complex interconnectedness becomes more irresistibly obvious we see a defensive protectionism on the rise, and an increasing credulity towards simplistic and often scapegoating fixes.

Which is what leads me to move from considering blind spots to examining biases. More on that next time.

References:

[1]. The Reality Bubble – pages 307-08.
[2]. Altruism – page 564.
[3]. Altruism – page 565.
[4]. Altruism – page 566.
[5]. Altruism – page 571.
[6]. Altruism – page 572.
[7]. Altruism – page 573.
[8]. The Reality Bubble – page 339.
[9]. The Reality Bubble – pages 341-42.
[10]. The Reality Bubble – page 344.
[11]. The Self Delusion – page 3.
[12]. The Self Delusion – page 4.

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