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Image adapted from the Taschen edition of Renee Magritte

Image adapted from the Taschen edition of René Magritte

My parody of materialist thought last Thursday gives me a good excuse to republish this series on Medina’s book. This is the last of three posts: the first came out on Friday, the second yesterday.

Readers of this blog will be well aware that I’m on a bit of a crusade on behalf of consciousness as a spiritual entity. I left Medina last time just as he moved into that territory in his attack on materialistic scientism. The mind-brain data we have throws up a tough problem for dogmatic proponents of reductionism, though.

The Brain as a Filter

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.

To name just one example, however, there is a wealth of data generated by near-death experiences, some of it now prospective and therefore more compelling (I have republished some of these data in the last two weeks). This strongly suggests that consciousness is to some degree independent of the brain and can function lucidly when the brain is completely out of operation. I have covered other areas of research that lead to a similar conclusion and will also be republishing that in the coming weeks.

So, there are other models that do not reduce the mind simply to brain activity (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.

Scientism, which denies all possibility of non-material explanations of mind, is wilfully blind and therefore not really science at all as it deliberately turns its back on evidence that calls its materialistic assumption into question without ever examining it in detail if at all. We will be returning to some of the costs of these blind spots in later posts especially in the area of education.

A False Dichotomy

Many now believe that scientism has set up a false dichotomy between spirituality and science.

Rupert Sheldrake is a scientist who has risked his credibility and his career arguing publicly for science to accept its limitations and allow for the existence of baffling mysteries it cannot (yet?) explain.

He lists unhelpful dogmas that the church of science teaches (pages 7-8):

Here are the ten core beliefs that most scientists take for granted.

1. Everything is essentially mechanical. Dogs, for example, are complex mechanisms, rather than living organisms with goals of their own. Even people are machines, ‘lumbering robots’, in Richard Dawkins’s vivid phrase, with brains that are like genetically programmed computers.

2. All matter is unconscious. It has no inner life or subjectivity or point of view. Even human consciousness is an illusion produced by the material activities of brains.

3. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same (with the exception of the Big Bang, when all the matter and energy of the universe suddenly appeared).

4. The laws of nature are fixed. They are the same today as they were at the beginning, and they will stay the same for ever.

5. Nature is purposeless, and evolution has no goal or direction.

6. All biological inheritance is material, carried in the genetic material, DNA, and in other material structures.

7. Minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains. When you look at a tree, the image of the tree you are seeing is not ‘out there’, where it seems to be, but inside your brain.

8. Memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death.

9. Unexplained phenomena like telepathy are illusory.

10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

Alvin Plantinga

Alvin Plantinga

Another powerful expression of this anti-scientism view, which I have explored in depth on this blog, is to be found in Alvin Plantinga’s compelling analysis of the problem in Where the Conflict Really Lies (to be republished again later this week). He opens with an obvious truth which most of us may well have overlooked and whose implications he is keen to unpack (page 266):

Modern Western empirical science originated and flourished in the bosom of Christian theism and originated nowhere else. . . . it was Christian Europe that fostered, promoted, and nourished modern science. . . . This is no accident: there is deep concord between science and theistic belief.

He springs on us an unexpected point in favour of his case (pages 268-269):

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.

The apparent chasm between science and religion which unnecessarily widened into an abyss has wrought havoc in our society.

In summary for Medina (page 226) ‘Unbalanced materialism has ultimately resulted in a loss of reverence for life and has diminished our appreciation for the supreme values of life such as compassion, justice, unity, joyfulness, love, service, generosity, patience, moderation, humility – all of which lead to personal wholeness and add an essential richness, beauty, and purpose to life.’

Economic Materialism

Medina goes on to explore the links between the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview and our economic system (page 227):

Locke’s ideas eventually led to the establishment of Western economic values such as free markets, property rights, individualism, and self interest as the primary force that motivates the actions of individuals, and the idea that prices are determined objectively by supply and demand. According to Locke, the right to private property represents the fruits of one’s labours. Furthermore, he emphasises the idea that the purpose of government is to protect individual private property.

. . . . Unfortunately . . . . . Locke’s ideas (as is the case with most Cartesian-Newtonian concepts) have led to destructive outcomes.

He digs fairly deeply into the mire of this materialist mythology (page 228):

[Locke] argued that individual human development is entirely dependent upon the physical environment (an idea known as environmental determinism).

. . . The concepts of John Locke, as well as other Enlightenment ideas such as the concept of laissez-faire, helped to fuel the growth of capitalism. Laissez-faire refers to the belief that government should not interfere with economic affairs beyond the minimum necessary for the maintenance of security and private property rights.

In the light of the massive damage we have wreaked on ourselves and the environment in its name, it is stunning to read what the first advocates of laissez-faire capitalism thought about its beauty and value. It is even more amazing of course to know that many people alive today would probably still agree with them, but then that’s the power of myth after all (page 229):

[Adam Smith] perpetuated the Lockean and Physiocratic concepts of individualism and laissez-faire by arguing that individuals who are free (i.e., without government interference) to seek their own self interest and to compete for their own wealth will ultimately be guided, as by an ‘invisible hand,’ to enrich the whole society. . . . . According to Smith’s framework, the primary goal of society is the production of material wealth, not the advancement of emotional, psychological, moral, or spiritual health.

Medina does not suggest that this view remained the unconstrained consensus (page 230):

In retrospect, considering all the defects of laissez-faire capitalism, it can be argued that had it not been for the eventual “interference” of government reforms, laissez-faire capitalism would have doomed, to this day, the European and American masses to industrial slavery.

He does not put forward socialism as his preferred alternative either (ibid):

. . . it is important to note that the alternative economic system of socialism is also fundamentally flawed. . . Both systems place undue importance on economics as the core of civilisation. . . . From a spiritual perspective, in spite of all their surface differences, capitalism and socialism, when applied in actual practice, have both been destructive to human beings, communities, and the environment.

And goes on to state (page 233):

It is ironic that Marxist revolutionary Communists set themselves up as the primary mortal enemies of laissez-faire capitalism because, in actuality, Marxist Communism is and laissez-faire capitalism and are both extreme manifestations of the same Cartesian-Newtonian worldview.

We are by no means out of the wood yet, in spite of all that we should have learnt (page 236):

Some people assume that the worst abuses of the system are behind us; however, as will be shown in detail later, laissez-faire is once again gaining ground in the United States and on the world scene due to the advent of global capitalism.

According to Medina, the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview has pulled of an astonishing sleight of mind (page 237):

In their efforts to give economics an air of scientific rigour, economists have consistently claimed that their theories and models are a ‘value free.’ . . . In fact, economists are actually tacitly accepting and promoting certain values over others. Such values are evident in the implicit or explicit promotion of competition, material acquisition, unlimited economic growth and expansion, insatiable desires, self-interest, and individualism.

Many of the items at the beginning of the list are seen by many as unquestionably either positive or the unavoidable price we pay for benefiting from an effective system, one that will remain indefinitely the best available. At the same time as these value judgements are hidden from sight, and the workings of the system are presented as simply pragmatic and objective, accusations are levelled at those with a more spiritual orientation that we are attempting to force our values on others, values with no basis whatsoever in reality. There is a heavily disguised pot calling the kettle black here.

Not everyone agrees that spiritual and moral values should be so militantly excluded from the workings of the economic system (page 238):

. . . . Herman Daly, a World Bank economist, and John Cobb, a Protestant theologian, . . affirm that the exclusion of religious and spiritual values from ‘economic science’ has had a devastating impact on people, communities, and the environment. They state, ‘Adam Smith himself emphasised in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that the market [freemarket capitalism] is a system so dangerous that it presupposes the moral force of shared community values as its necessary restraining context.’

Pollution in Shanghai

Pollution in Shanghai

Toxic Consequences

Our impact on the world is in many ways quite toxic (page 241):

There is now an overwhelming body of evidence that shows that Western-style economic development has led to highly destructive outcomes in Third World countries.

The pattern includes: heavy foreign capital investments, centralised development planning, Western-style industrial production, huge agribusiness farms, urbanisation, automation at the expense of labour, and extreme use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides.

Child labour is a major issue (page 245-46):

Benta Adera, for instance, a twelve-year-old Kenyan girl, spends ten hours every day picking coffee beans under the relentless scorching sun. As a result of the hazardous pesticides that are used on the plants, she experiences constant pain.

. . . . Many of the foreign foods and products that Americans buy may have been harvested or produced through the use of child labour. Accountability is difficult because the several components that make up a product may change hands several times before they reach their final form and destination.

Even well-liked global brands such as Apple have been caught out in this way and have come in for recent criticism because of the hardships their Third World workers undergo.

Where politics and economics meet Medina quotes evidence to suggest that there are disturbing forces at work (page 248):

. . . democracy itself is threatened by the extreme power of multinational corporations that manipulate governments with legal and illegal methods.

They are of course wealthier than many states, and the record of the tobacco industry and the drug companies does not instil much confidence in me that this evil will easily be remedied.

Medina does not find a great deal of hope in our political system to rescue us from the perils of such abuses (pages 301-02):

Cornell West, Harvard professor and author of the book RaceMatters, emphasises that it is necessary to go beyond the narrow confines of the liberal-versus-conservative debate regarding issues of race and class. He asserts that liberals, on the one hand, generally focus their attention on reforming economic and political structures but do not like to talk about individual morality, responsibility, individual spiritual transformation, and traditional religious or spiritual values. On the other hand, conservatives like to focus on individual morality and responsibility (the Protestant ethic) but generally avoid tackling the issues of business morality and ethics, corporate responsibility, and socio-economic justice and equality.

. . . It may seem as if liberals and conservatives have totally different views, but in actuality, from a holistic perspective, their views are simply opposite sides of the same Cartesian-Newtonian coin.

Those who look to mainstream religion for redemption may be in for a bit of a shock (page 391):

The most obvious result of the materialistic paradigm is the rampant consumerism that pervades Western culture.

. . . . Disturbing evidence shows that consumerism has made strong inroads even among spiritual and religious people. In fact, [when] compared to the general population, Americans who report to have a strong spiritual or religious faith show almost no difference in their adherence to crass materialism – they expend their money, time, personal energy, and other resources in much the same ways as all other Americans.

It is clear that Medina feels we will have to look elsewhere for a solution and this blog contains a wealth of information on those possibilities. As I said at the very beginning of this sequence I will not be unpacking all that in detail now (see below for some good starting points).

When I return once more to a consideration of his work, I will look first at the price our children are paying for our attachment to this bankrupt creed. It is perhaps worth sharing well in advance of the posts themselves a diagram which attempts to show one way in which we create a vicious circle by our attachment to and credulous belief in reductionist materialism and the benefits of competitive capitalism.

Cogucation v2

A Possible Solution:

Humanity is our Business (1/5) The Overall Vision

Humanity is our Business (2/5) The Vision of Civilisation Building 

Humanity is our Business (3a/5) Capacity Building

Humanity is our Business (3b/5) Capacity Building ctd.

Humanity is our Business (4/5) Devotional Meetings 

Humanity is our Business (5/5): (a) The Plight of Children

Humanity is our Business (5/5): (b) What can we do for our children?

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Chief Joseph ( for source of image see link)

Chief Joseph ( for source of image see link)

My parody of materialist thought last Thursday gives me a good excuse to republish this series on Medina’s book. This is the second of three posts: the first came out yesterday, the last tomorrow.

In conveying John Fitzgerald Medina’s perspective on the modern world in his book Faith, Physics & Psychology, I got as far as explaining his sense of the basic problem of materialism and his hopes for some form of holism as a solution. He also locates part of our current problem in the blinkered attitude of some forms of Christianity to other cultures.

Native North American Wisdom

That these kinds of Christianity mindlessly obliterated what they could not understand is a tragic example of prejudice from which were are still suffering the consequences (page 175):

The American Indians and European colonists had radically different worldviews. The Indian holistic perspective could have helped to equilibrate the excessively materialistic orientation of Western civilisation.

I will be examining the unholy consequences of in far more detail when I come to look at his consideration of racism and prejudice. For now I will deal with Medina’s treatment of the core essentials of the world views themselves. He quotes Chief Joseph 1840-1904 (page 176):

“We shall all be alike – brothers of one father and one mother, with one sky and above us and one country around us, and one government for all. Then the Great Spirit Chief who rules above will smile upon this land, and send rain to wash out the bloody spots from the face of the earth that were made by brothers’ hands.

He concludes (ibid):

I believe that the traditional Indian worldview contains the seeds for a new vision of reality that can help Americans solve many of their problems. Furthermore, the traditional Indian perspective is consistent with the modern holistic movement, and it is also consonant with several key teachings of the Baha’i Faith.

The contrasting attitudes to nature were a key source of conflict (page 181):

For the European colonisers, the natural environment fell into the secular category, and the earth and its resources were simply regarded as commodities to be exploited for economic and political gain.

. . . . In contrast, the American Indian holistic worldview drew no distinction between the secular realm and the sacred realm – even the natural environment was considered sacred.

The perspective of the Europeans was bizarre to say the least from the Native American point of view (pages 181-82):

. . . . for most Indians, the idea of buying and selling parts of the sacred Mother Earth as a privately held asset was inconceivable and made about as much sense as the idea of buying and selling the air.

A tragic and immensely costly war of ideas was virtually inevitable and not to the credit of the invaders (ibid): ‘ . . . the deist viewpoint was in direct conflict with the traditional spirituality of American Indians, who believed that the creator is in no way separate from his creation’ and the major implications of this were radically in conflict as well. The native American experienced (page 183) ‘all entities’ as existing ‘in an interconnected, interdependent cosmos . . . infused with the power emanating from the Creator’ whereas the interlopers’ worldview (page 184) had a ‘radically different . . . . despiritualised view of the natural world’ captured in the repellent language of Francis Bacon who wrote that nature should be ‘hounded in her wanderings,’ ‘bound into service,’ and made a ‘slave, while the goal of the scientist is to ‘torture nature’s secrets from her.’

It’s hard to imagine a wider divide.

Chiefs of the Six Indian Nations (for source of image see link)

Chiefs of the Six Indian Nations 1871 (for source of image see link)

Social and political organisation

Medina stresses that we should not delude ourselves into believing that native Americans were backward and primitive, riddled by irrelevant superstitions too fantastic to be trusted as a guide to the building of an harmonious and just society. Far from it (page 186-87) as a lengthy quote from his book eloquently testifies:

It is important to recognise that the American Indian holistic model was able to create sophisticated societies that were capable of instituting democratic government, gender equality, egalitarian economic structures, mathematics, science, the arts, religion, and so forth.

. . . . In 1797, years after the American Revolutionary War, Paine wrote in Agrarian Justice, ‘the fact is, that the condition of millions in every country in Europe, is far worse than if they . . . . . . had been born among the Indians of North America at the present day.”

In Indian society throughout the Americas, land was owned communally. . . . The food produced in all the lands was generously shared among everyone in the community including the less fortunate, the aged, and the ill. . . . Indian people were not trained to be mindless drones operating within a collective. To the contrary, they were raised to be independent thinkers and problem-solvers; they were encouraged to think for themselves but to be selfless in the sense of acting for others.

[A French Jesuit missionary in 1657 stated] Their kindness, humanity, and courtesy not only makes them liberal of what they have, but causes them to possess hardly anything except in common. A whole village must be without corn, before any individual can be obliged to endure privation.

It is noteworthy that in most Indian societies, women were afforded more respect, equality, and democratic participation in socioeconomic and political decision-making than their European counterparts, who were still largely treated as the property of men.

There is further compelling evidence to support this point of view (pages 189-90):

The Iroquois League was founded sometime between A.D. 1000 and 1450 by the Indian messianic figures Hiawatha and Deganawidah.

. . . . [It] lasted for centuries as an economically prosperous and socially harmonious unit that spanned from New England to the Mississippi River.

In fact it was so successful that the founding fathers of the United States borrowed the model (page 192):

Franklin became a major advocate for the use of Indian political structures within the American government.

. . . The Iroquois system is now known as a ‘federal’ system, in which each sovereign unit retains some power to regulate internal affairs yet yields some of the sovereignty to one central government, which has the power to regulate affairs common to all. . . . [The writer of the U.S. constitution] had only one possible model of what would later become known as federalism – the League of Six Nations. Weatherford states, ‘The Indians invented it . . . . even though the United States patented it.’

Agriculture

The sophistication of the Native American model lay not just in politics (pages 199-200):

Contrary to the American colonists’ misinformed judgements, much evidence now exists to show that the American Indians were in fact, quite adept at cultivating a large variety of plants in a diversity of climates, soils, and environmental conditions. They utilised the Earths resources wisely, gently, and reverently.

This system may be at least equal if not superior to our environmentally disastrous monoculture (pages 201-02):

Unlike the Europeans, who planted row after row of the same plants, the Indians throughout North and Central America cultivated small plots of land that often looked like wild, haphazard gardens. . . . Scientific studies have shown that such Indian-style plots, call milpas in Mexico, are resilient to pests and weeds and protect the topsoil from erosion. . . . . .

Modern agronomists marvel at the simplicity and productivity of Indian-style agricultural plots, and some are actively studying it as an alternative to the European style, monocultural plantation form of farming, which leads to widespread soil erosion and degradation of topsoil due to the massive use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers.

Quantum Mechanics

Holism & Physics

This holistic and interconnected view of the world, underpinned by a sense of a transcendent guiding Presence, is increasingly seen as completely compatible with modern physics, though physics would draw back from including any kind of God in its own model, at least at this stage. Medina draws on a book Blackfoot Physics by F. David Peat (page 217):

Quantum physics now supports a picture of the universe as a dynamic, indivisible whole in which everything is interconnected and interrelated. . . . Some indigenous people, to this day, have been able to maintain a holistic view; . .

The seemingly solid world of appearances is not to be trusted, physics suggests. The native American view is the same (page 218):

At its most fundamental is the Indian philosophical understanding that this physical world is just an illusion, a ‘world of appearances’ or ‘shadow world’ – it is not the true reality. Similar to Bohm’s holographic model…, their philosophical understanding is that each part of the universe ‘contains’ the whole universe within it.

This position is also forcefully expressed by Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, as this experience from His childhood testifies:

In a letter Bahá’u’lláh recalled as a child seeing an elaborate puppet show about war and intrigues in the court of a king and the riches of those in authority. After the performance, Bahá’u’lláh saw a man come out from behind the tent with a box under his arm. “What is this box?” Bahá’u’lláh asked him, “and what was the nature of this display?”

“All this lavish display and these elaborate devices,” the puppet master replied, “the king, the princes, and the ministers, their pomp and glory, their might and power, everything you saw, are now contained within this box.”

Bahá’u’lláh then recalled: “… Ever since that day, all the trappings of the world have seemed in the eyes of this Youth akin to that same spectacle. They have never been, nor will they ever be, of any weight and consequence, be it to the extent of a grain of mustard seed.… Erelong these outward trappings, these visible treasures, these earthly vanities, these arrayed armies, these adorned vestures, these proud and overweening souls, all shall pass into the confines of the grave, as though into that box. In the eyes of those possessed of insight, all this conflict, contention and vainglory hath ever been, and will ever be, like unto the play and pastimes of children.”

Medina balances his dark picture of the Enlightenment and its imperialistic Puritan version of Christianity with an account of its more positive achievements but, in his view, these do not compensate for the cost of its tunnel vision (page 223-24):

. . . in a much needed move, Enlightenment intellectuals did much to expose the gross corruption of the worldly, power-seeking clergy of their time. Unfortunately, because of their ‘blind rationalism’ and their overzealous efforts to expose church superstition, fanaticism, and hypocrisy, they ultimately promulgated an antimetaphysical outlook that has done much to undermine the faith and spirituality of people to this day.

We’re in Irreducible Mind territory here – the ground covered in the Kellys’ encyclopaedic examination of transpersonal phenomena in psychology. For example, they call into question the reductionist bias of the modern scientific consensus which dismisses in advance any and all evidence that suggests that there might be more to the mind than the workings of the material brain.

But more of that next time.

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'Newton' by William Blake

‘Newton’ by William Blake (scanned from ‘William Blake‘ by Kathleen Raine)

 Just as there is a fundamental difference between divine Revelation itself and the understanding that believers have of it, so also there is a basic distinction between scientific fact and reasoning on the one hand and the conclusions or theories of scientists on the other. There is, and can be, no conflict between true religion and true science: true religion is revealed by God, while it is through true science that the mind of man “discovers the realities of things and becomes cognizant of their peculiarities and effects, and of the qualities and properties of beings” and “comprehendeth the abstract by the aid of the concrete”. However, whenever a statement is made through the lens of human understanding it is thereby limited, for human understanding is limited; and where there is limitation there is the possibility of error; and where there is error, conflicts can arise.

(A Compilation on ScholarshipBaha’i Reference Library)

My parody of materialist thought yesterday gives me a good excuse to republish this series on Medina’s book. This is the first of three posts: the rest will come out over the weekend.

Why this book?

I’ve recently been ploughing on seeking to adequately review Jeremy Rifkin’s massive tome The Empathic Civilisation. I just put that to bed at the end of last week. Why start another sequence on a related theme so soon?

Some weeks ago I finished reading John Fitzgerald Medina’s heartfelt and wide-ranging exploration of our predicament – Faith, Physics & Psychology. Ernest Ochsner tipped me off about the book when he left a comment on my blog recommending it and saying ‘I believe you would find it a very good read.’ That would win the prize for the understatement of the year here in Hereford.

The book has proved a mine of important insights and understanding, not so much about the faith Medina and I share, but about the issue we both seem to feel passionately about. And passionate is a good word to describe much of the content of this book. He feels strongly about what he describes, perhaps because his shared heritage, part Mexican, part native American Indian, has shown him the dark side of our Western culture. He has lived too close to it for comfort, possibly.

While the passion occasionally destabilises the balance of his argument, most of the time it simply lends added power to the carefully gathered evidence he mobilises to support his perspective. I was moved, intrigued, excited and informed at every turn. It is truly one of the best books I have read for quite some time.

He covers so much ground I again have the Rifkin problem – how do I do justice to such a rich and complex canvas in a sequence of short blog posts. Again I have decided to focus only on certain key areas of his exploration, the ones that for me powerfully reveal exactly why we need to lift our sights and aim for the goal of rebuilding our civilisation on the basis of unity and interconnectedness: his depiction of our worldview, his critique of the American educational system and finally his treatment of racism, the last two of which I found both moving and revealing. I don’t enjoy dwelling on the weaknesses of our contemporary world but I do believe we have to confront the realities we face if we are to overcome the problems they are presenting us with.

Medina does exactly that. The remedy he advocates is so close to what this blog is all about I have not repeated it again here. His masterly depiction of what is going wrong has deepened my understanding immeasurably which is why I feel I simply have to share it as best I can in a way that will hopefully inspire you to read his book for yourselves.

He also analyses Abraham Maslow’s and Ken Wilber’s models of human development. Even though he raised Maslow in my estimation somewhat and slightly increased my reservations about Wilber, the effect was not significant enough for me to revisit the issue of levels of consciousness in a hurry given my repeated recent surveys of that area.

You will be relieved to know that I have also decided not to throw everything at you in rapid succession. I’ll be leaving a bit of a gap between each instalment.

I’m going to start with our worldview.

The Cartesian-Newtonian worldview 

Medina sees the current worldview as destructively rooted in the thinking of Descartes and Newton. He refers to it throughout as the ‘Cartesian-Newtonian worldview.’ Descartes split mind from body, which he considered to be a machine. He considered that all true understanding derived from analysis (splitting into components) and logic. Add to this Newton’s determinism (we can predict anything from our knowledge both of its starting state and the operation of immutable universal laws) and, in Medina’s view, we have the current, in his view pernicious, Cartesian-Newtonian worldview (page 14):

. . . . this classical science worldview is based on a mechanistic view of human beings and the universe that alienates human beings from their spiritual, moral, and emotional faculties. It has divided the world into mutually exclusive opposing forces: the dichotomies of science versus religion, reason versus faith, logic versus intuition, natural versus supernatural, material versus spiritual, and secular versus sacred. The result is a materialistic worldview that emphasises the truth of science, reason, logic, the natural, the material, and the secular while ignoring or even denigrating the truth of religion, faith, intuition, the supernatural, the spiritual, and the sacred.

462px-William_Blake_by_Thomas_Phillips

‘William Blake’ by Thomas Phillips

Medina is by no means alone in this view. Take Margaret A Boden for example in her book The Creative Mind: myths and mechanisms (2004 – page 278):

William Blake had a word for it – or rather, many. “May God keep us”, he wrote, “from Single vision & Newton’s sleep!” . . . .

[Blake] was reacting against the scientistic enthusiasm that had lead Alexander Pope to declare: “God said “Let Newton be”, and all was light.” For Blake, Newton’s light made only singlevision possible. Matters not dealt with by natural science, such as freedom and harmony, were insidiously downgraded and ignored – even tacitly denied.

Kathleen Raine in her book of Blake’s illustrations (page 87) comments on his picture of Newton[1]:

Newton shows the ‘spiritual state’ of a great scientist; he is absorbed in mathematical calculations, his eyes fixed on the diagrams he draws on the bottom of that “sea of time and space” which is the principle to which he is confined. . . . . the dark and dense medium of water, traditional esoteric symbol of the material world.

We are in rather familiar territory for readers of this blog in that Iain McGilchrist’s compelling analysis of the modern mindset in the West – The Master & his Emissary – which I have often referred to, is similarly disenchanted with this left-brain bias of our culture, as he would see it, which has left us credulously taking our analytic diagrams of the world as the world itself, ignoring the richly subtle and more holistic take on life that the right-brain provides us with. He writes (pages 228-229):

The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity. This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth. . . . . .

We are in urgent need of a new paradigm, Medina feels, and, fortunately, there are contenders for the title (page 15):

As Capra suggests, the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview is being seriously challenged by a variety of people who subscribe to what Capra calls “the holistic conception of reality” – the holistic worldview.

Even physics seems to be coming to the rescue (ibid):

As we will later discuss in significant detail, recent developments in the field of quantum physics seem to validate the holistic worldview while debunking the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview.

His basic inspiration comes from three places (page 17):

This book explores the fresh and inspiring perspective provided by three different yet complementary movements: the Bahá’í Faith, an independent world religion; the self actualisation movement, which is based on the comprehensive theoretical work of the late psychologist Abraham Maslow; and the holistic movement, which is based on theories and research from various disciplines such as quantum physics, philosophy, psychology, neurophysiology, economics, education, medicine, ecology, and cosmology.

Holism again!

David Bohm

David Bohm

He is yet another thinker to draw on the work of Bohm, not an issue about which I feel fully qualified to comment as I have stated elsewhere. He states (page 38) quoting Michael Talbot on David Bohm in The Holographic Universe:

“One of Bohm’s most startling assertions is that the tangible reality of our everyday lives is really a kind of illusion, like a holographic image. Underlying it is a deeper order of existence, a vast and more primary level of reality that gives birth to the objects and appearances of our physical world in much the same way that a piece of holographic film gives birth to a hologram. Bohm calls this deeper level of reality the implicate (which means ‘enfolded’) order, and he refers to our own level of existence as the explicate, or unfolded, order. . . .”

For me this has inescapable parallels with Bahá’u’lláh’s quotation from the Imam ‘Alí:

‘Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
When within thee the universe is folded’

And also to Blake when he wrote in Auguries of Innocence:

‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower . . .’

Medina goes onto spell out the implications in very similar terms (page 39):

. . . . According to Bohm’s theory, every entity, whether it be a person, a stone, or an atom, carries within it every form of energy, matter, consciousness, and life that ever proceeded out of the deeper reality. Talbot states, ‘Every cell in our body enfolds the entire cosmos. So does every leaf, every raindrop, and every dust mote.”

This idea has radical implications (page 48):

[Talbot writes] ‘In fact, Bohm believes that consciousness is a more subtle form of matter, and the basis for any relationship between the two lies not in our own level of reality, but deep in the implicate order. Consciousness is present in various degrees of enfoldment and unfoldment in all matter, which is perhaps why plasmas possess some of the traits of living things.’

. . . Furthermore, Bohm’s concept of ‘unbroken wholeness,’ is consistent with the Bahá’í understanding of the oneness of the universe. . . Sounding like a Bahá’í himself, Bohm even states, “Deep down the consciousness of mankind is one.’

As we have already discussed on this blog, these ideas are strongly linked to our motivation to change this for the better (page 52):

People will probably not feel an urgency to transform the current disordered world into a spiritually enlightened global civilisation unless they gain an appreciation for the true nature of reality.

I won’t dwell further on that here. For my more detailed thoughts see the links.

Defective Spiritualities

Medina goes onto unpack what for him at least are the limitations of ‘secular spirituality’ which (page 94) ‘do not necessarily promote an altruistic social ethic or a desire on the part of individuals to improve society for the benefit of all.’ He includes ‘religious fundamentalism’ (page 95-96) under this umbrella ‘because it represents an attempt to use religion as a vehicle to fulfil worldly desires for leadership or power or as a justification for ungodly acts such as forced conversion of pagans or warfare against infidels.’

My own views on this have been explored at length elsewhere on this blog so I won’t repeat them in full here, but I regard an inclusion of extremist fundamentalism as spirituality of any kind, let alone secular, as too far a stretch: ideologies that are invested in too narrowly and too strongly, whether they are nominally religious or apparently secular, fall into a different category for me, where delusion and fanaticism masquerade as a high-minded idealism, whose ends justify any kinds of means, no matter how barbaric, as long as it believes these methods will achieve them. Fundamentalisms give their so-called parents, whether theist or atheist, a very bad name indeed and have nothing whatsoever to do with spirituality in a true sense.

He adduces in support of his critique (page 112), in terms which will be more fully explored in a subsequent post, ‘the fact that many Enlightenment philosophers spoke eloquently about justice, equality, and liberty, and yet in the end, supported slavery, racism, classism, sexism, and genocide against American Indians.’ Throughout history, religious traditions, not just these deist and atheist ones, have displayed a similar empathic tunnel-vision, as Medina goes on to show, so his case that secular spirituality is somehow uniquely deficient in its ability to realise this kind of potential is not quite proven by this line of argument.

My feeling, as I explained in two posts last week, is that non-transcendent world-views may lack the long-term strength of commitment and belief in its possibility to do all that is necessary to avert the catastrophe humanity is currently facing, but they can certainly ‘promote an altruistic social ethic or a desire on the part of individuals to improve society for the benefit of all.’

He goes on to state that our version of Christianity has contributed to the problems the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview creates (page 129) as a result of its concept of ‘an all-transcendent God Who is essentially divorced from the cursed natural world.’ He concludes (pages 129-30):

It is my belief that an extremist form of Christian theism actually worked hand-in-hand with the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview to promulgate a false sense of separation between the spiritual and the material and between the sacred and the secular.

It is important to stress that he is not criticising the true essence of Christianity here, simply some of its more extreme distortions with their destructive consequences. I will unpack more of that next week.

Footnote:

[1] For those interested in a more mainstream Christian take on the matter see God, Humanity & the Cosmos (Southgate et al: pages 95-98): they too conclude that a mechanical view of the world prevailed as a result of the success of this Descartes/Newton fusion, and this then negatively affected economics and political theory as well as religion and our view of ourselves. 

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After yesterday’s post about the latest Death Cafe meeting this seemed a good poem to follow up with. 

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Grave & Courtyard v2

Usually I stroll to the Death Cafe from home after an early dinner. This time the situation was a bit more hectic, which might have been a sign of things to come.

I had spent too long in town and was dashing to the Courtyard to grab a sandwich before the six o’clock start. I got there just before 5.30. The reception area and the cafe was buzzing. The queue at the counter wasn’t too bad so I got my order in and my cappuccino reasonably quickly, though there was a bit of a crisis when fake news came through that they had run out of brown bread. I hate white for reasons I won’t bore you with right now. Anyway panic over when they established I’d apparently got there in time to catch the last slices of brown.

By ten to six I’d finished my sandwich and picked up my coffee to take to the meeting room. That’s where the problems started. I pulled open the door to see a room full of clothing, presumably costumes of some kind. I caught up with a member of staff who said the meeting was on the mezzanine floor. I carried my coffee carefully up the stairs and checked out the room at that level – crammed with people I didn’t know definitely not talking about death. Not there then.

On the way back to the stairs I saw the white hair of one of our clan bobbing up the stairs.

‘It’s not on the mezzanine,’ he said. ‘I don’t know where it is.’

I decided to check with the reception desk.

‘It is on that floor,’ the girl at the till told me. ‘It’s past the cafe.’

On the way back to the stairs for the second time I met another death enthusiast.

‘Where’s the meeting?’ she asked clutching her coffee and cake.

‘Follow me,’ I asserted confidently. We trekked up the stairs. She waited with her coffee and cake at a nearby table where I placed my coffee as well for safety while I checked out the room, which turned out to be either non-existent or a Platform 9¾ problem. I opted for non-existent and went back to the table where we sat for a while, she nibbling her cake and me scanning the stairs between sips of almost cold coffee for any hints about where the meeting was going to be.

After about five minutes, I decided it was time to go back to reception again. As I reached the bottom of the stairs, I saw a familiar face talking to what looked like the manager. She didn’t look happy.

‘So we haven’t got a room tonight?’ she probed.

‘I’m really sorry but demand was so high today we’ve had to use every available space,’ he flustered.

‘What do we do then?’ she asked with surprising politeness.

‘Well, there’s a table upstairs on the gallery floor with enough chairs.’

As we could only just hear him speak against the background noise we were not pleased about this, but there was nothing else we could do.

We trooped upstairs again but went one floor higher this time.

Two tables were at the stairwell where the noise was loudest.

We pulled them together and surrounded them with chairs, trying to make sure we would all be as close together as possible.

After a few moments more people trickled in and we got ourselves seated.

I was pleased to see the lady from the train had come. I gave a full account of our first meeting in a previous post. She was someone with a keen interest in consciousness and spirituality.

And there were two new faces as well – and they were young. I was happy to see that as it would make it easier to answer a question I’ve been asked more than once when talking about the Death Cafe: ‘Are there any young people there?’ Brilliant! I could now say an emphatic ‘Yes!’

It was hard going at first to make ourselves heard against the background noise, most of it caused by young children waiting for their programme to start in the main theatre. At least the noise would drop once the doors opened and they went in.

‘When someone is dementing, do their family go through a grieving process even before they die?’ This was an entirely unexpected question from someone so young, one of the new arrivals. Her voice was too quiet at first so she had to  repeat what she said.

That set the first ball rolling. Sadly, the white-haired man I mentioned earlier really struggled as he had a hearing problem. Turning up his hearing aid was no solution as it simply made the shouting from below even more of a problem. He wasn’t the only one by any means who was struggling. Most of us had a hard time hearing someone on the other side of the table.

‘It’s not the Death Cafe tonight,’ I quipped, ‘more like the Deaf Cafe.’ It seemed to ease the tension slightly, and fortunately the man with the hearing aid couldn’t hear me. (My apologies to David Lodge for stealing his joke: he published a novel in 2008 called Deaf Sentence about a man struggling with hearing loss.)

From dementia we slid into DMT because the topic had shifted to whether the mind is affected by the brain or somehow separate from it and whether we could somehow access a transcendent realm. I had to do some research when I got home as I’d never heard of DMT.

It was mentioned in the meeting as a pineal hormone with transliminal effects. Wikipedia writes:

N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT or N,N-DMT) is a powerful psychedelic compound of the tryptamine family. It is a structural analog of serotonin and melatonin and a functional analog of other psychedelic tryptamines such as 4-AcO-DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, 5-HO-DMT, psilocybin (4-PO-DMT), and psilocin (4-HO-DMT).

Most of that went over my head. The next bit was more accessible.

Historically, it has been consumed by indigenous Amazonian cultures in the form of ayahuasca for divinatory and healing purposes. It was first synthesised in 1931, and in 1946, microbiologist Oswaldo Gonçalves de Lima discovered its natural presence in plants. In the 1960s, it was detected in mammalian organisms as well.

I can’t find support for the pineal connection (for example):

And although Strassman clearly states that his ideas about DMT and the pineal gland “are not proven”, many people have accepted them as fact. As of June 2010, there is currently no scientific evidence that the pineal gland produces DMT, much less any evidence for the more far-out speculations that Strassman makes about DMT being a chemical modulator of the human soul. When Strassman examined the pineal glands from “about ten” human corpse brains, there was nary a trace of DMT to be found in them. This doesn’t invalidate his theory, since DMT is metabolized quickly, and none of the corpse brains were fresh-frozen. Further tests on fresh-frozen brains could be done. Someday there may be evidence that DMT is produced in the pineal gland, but that day has not yet arrived.

It did remind me though of Aldous Huxley’s work on the ‘doors of perception’ and Stanislav Grof’s on LSD.

Just as the other new comer was about to speak the loudspeaker blared out a fifteen minute warning about when people should make a move to take their seats.

She had to start again. She picked up on what the lady from the train had shared about Faith, Physics & Psychology concerning various books such as those by Fritjof Kapra and David Bohm. She explained her deep interest in matters of the mind, consciousness and spirituality, something which was clearly shared by others present including me.

Somehow, I have no idea now of how, we moved onto exploring virtual selves in this age of the internet and social media. Would we be mourned after we die by other FB users who had never met us? Does excessive reliance on social media cut us off from real contact with other people? We concluded that social media, just like all other leaps forward in terms of tools and technology throughout human history, was a mixed blessing – just like fire, which we can use to keep warm in winter and cook our food or to burn down a neighbour’s hut if he has upset us.

At about this point the blaring began again to summon all the noisy ones downstairs to their seats. Bliss. Silence.

We had a long exploration then of whether there is a soul, a spiritual dimension, a mind independent of the body – all my favourite stuff. I was astonished to find that someone did not agree that agnosticism is the only rational stance if you rely on reason alone. To believe there is or there is not a God is an act of faith.

‘Well, that’s not how I see it?’ a different voice chipped in.

‘How do you see it then?’ I asked trying to hide my shock at this denial of the obvious.

‘I’m not quite sure. I think it’s more a question of acceptance.’

I’m still not quite sure what she meant by that but we went onto explore whether truth was on a ‘huge hill,’ as John Donne expressed it, and we’re all on our different paths towards it or is there a better metaphor.

I think there was general agreement in the end with the other part of Donne’s position as expressed in his third satire (line 77): ‘doubt wisely.’

Whatever else, we all felt at the end of the evening, as we said our goodbyes, that it had been a great experience which we had all enjoyed enormously.

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

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An Islamic State fighter in Raqqa, Syria, 2014. Photograph: Reuters

Just over a week ago, an interesting piece appeared in the Guardian exploring the issue of fanaticism and terrorism from a somewhat different angle, factoring in what the writer, Olivier Roy, calls nihilism. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Biographies of ‘homegrown’ European terrorists show they are violent nihilists who adopt Islam, rather than religious fundamentalists who turn to violence.

There is something new about the jihadi terrorist violence of the past two decades. Both terrorism and jihad have existed for many years, and forms of “globalised” terror – in which highly symbolic locations or innocent civilians are targeted, with no regard for national borders – go back at least as far as the anarchist movement of the late 19th century. What is unprecedented is the way that terrorists now deliberately pursue their own deaths.

Over the past 20 years – from Khaled Kelkal, a leader of a plot to bomb Paris trains in 1995, to the Bataclan killers of 2015 – nearly every terrorist in France blew themselves up or got themselves killed by the police. Mohamed Merah, who killed a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, uttered a variant of a famous statement attributed to Osama bin Laden and routinely used by other jihadis: “We love death as you love life.” Now, the terrorist’s death is no longer just a possibility or an unfortunate consequence of his actions; it is a central part of his plan. The same fascination with death is found among the jihadis who join Islamic State. Suicide attacks are perceived as the ultimate goal of their engagement.

This systematic choice of death is a recent development. The perpetrators of terrorist attacks in France in the 1970s and 1980s, whether or not they had any connection with the Middle East, carefully planned their escapes. Muslim tradition, while it recognises the merits of the martyr who dies in combat, does not prize those who strike out in pursuit of their own deaths, because doing so interferes with God’s will. So, why, for the past 20 years, have terrorists regularly chosen to die? What does it say about contemporary Islamic radicalism? And what does it say about our societies today?

The latter question is all the more relevant as this attitude toward death is inextricably linked to the fact that contemporary jihadism, at least in the west – as well as in the Maghreb and in Turkey – is a youth movement that is not only constructed independently of parental religion and culture, but is also rooted in wider youth culture. This aspect of modern-day jihadism is fundamental.

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A good friend alerted me to this illuminating article on conflict resolution. It sheds such a useful light on the problems of conviction that I’ve just been exploring it was a no-brainer to post it now. Below is a short extract: for the fill article see link.

We can all play a role in helping defuse even the most bitter conflicts. Veteran negotiator William Ury shares his hard-won insights.

My passion in life is helping people and societies to move from no to yes. As a negotiator, mediator and cofounder of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard University, I’ve spent more than four decades traveling the world and getting involved in some of the most difficult conflicts of our time, from the Cold War to the Middle East.

One of my favorite negotiation stories is about a man who leaves his herd of 17 camels to his three sons as their inheritance. To the first son, he leaves half the camels; to the middle son, he leaves a third of the camels; and to the youngest son, he leaves a ninth of the camels. The three sons get into an intense negotiation over who should get how many, because 17 doesn’t divide by two, or by three, or by nine. Tempers become strained, so in desperation they consult a wise, old woman. She listens to their problem and says, “Well, I don’t know if I can help you, but if you want, at least you can have my camel.” Now they have 18 camels, so the first son takes half of them, or nine camels; the middle son takes his third, or six camels; and the youngest son takes his ninth, or two camels. Nine plus six plus two adds up to a total of 17 camels. There is one camel left over, so the brothers give it back to the woman.

Many of our negotiations and conflicts today are like those 17 camels — they seem impossible to resolve, with no apparent solution in sight. What we need to do is step back from the situation, look at it through a fresh lens, and come up with an 18th camel. Finding that 18th camel in the world’s conflicts has been my life’s work.

If you think about the human predicament today, we are a bit like those three brothers, because we are one human family. Thanks to technology, all the tribes on the planet can, for the first time, get in touch with each other. And the big question facing us is: How do we deal with our deepest differences, given the human propensity for conflict and the human ability to devise weapons of enormous destruction?

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