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Adib_Taherzadeh

Adib Taherzadeh: for source of image see link

My current sequence of posts on subliminal influences makes it seem timely to republish this sequence that last saw the light two years ago.  I have changed the numbering from before. The posts are interwoven with the current sequence.

We ended the previous post reflecting that Erich Fromm does not deal with a crucial basic question in his explanation of why we are so prone to espousing destructive beliefs: do we fall so easily into the quicksand of debased frames of reference and divided attachments because we think that matter is all that matters, is all there is in fact? ‘Abdu’l-Bahá clearly thinks so. If that is so, then this belief is perhaps one of the key delusions that Bahá’u’lláh is referring to when He says: ‘the [people’s] superstitions [have] become veils between them and their own hearts and kept them from the path of God.’ We need to find out, if possible, what might make such a ‘delusion’ so prevalent if it is false? Also what does He mean by the ‘heart’ that we are ‘veiled’ from?

To even begin to answer those questions in words on a page, I am going to have to draw on wiser writers than me to get me started.

Why Hidden?

First, there will be the question of whether the world is set up in such a way that the spiritual dimension is hidden. Bahá’u’lláh is clear that it is hidden, and there appear to be good reasons for that. Knowing what the next life is like can create a desire to move there straight away. J E Esslemont quotes the words of Bahá’u’lláh in his book (page 189):

Blessed is the soul which, at the hour of its separation from the body, is sanctified from the vain imaginings of the peoples of the world. Such a soul liveth and moveth in accordance with the Will of its Creator, and entereth the all-highest Paradise. . . .  If any man be told that which hath been ordained for such a soul in the worlds of God, the Lord of the throne on high and of earth below, his whole being will instantly blaze out in his great longing to attain that most exalted, that sanctified and resplendent station.

That these are not idle words is illustrated by the story of the man who became able to see the spiritual realm and as a result wanted to die. Adib Taherzadeh refers to the event twice in his four volume account of Bahá’u’lláh’s life, The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh. I have pulled the references together from Vol 1 Ch 8 page 103 and Vol 2 Ch5 page 112:

The story of Dhabíh is that of a passionate lover. The object of his adoration was Bahá’u’lláh, Who had ignited within his breast the fire of the love of God, a fire so intense that it began to consume his whole being. Eventually he reached a state where he would neither eat nor drink. For forty days he abstained from food. Unable, at last, to check the crushing force of love which pressed upon his soul, he came one day, at the hour of dawn, to the house of Bahá’u’lláh and for the last time swept its approaches with his turban. After performing this task, he paid a visit to the home of Áqá Muhammad-Ridá where he met some of the friends for the last time. Later he obtained a razor, went to the bank of the Tigris and there turning his face towards the house of Bahá’u’lláh, took his life by cutting his throat. . . . . Dhabíh took his own life because he was intoxicated by the wine of the presence of Bahá’u’lláh, Who had enabled him to witness the glory of the spiritual worlds of God. This cannot be compared with ordinary suicide, nor can this episode be taken to mean that Bahá’í belief condones the taking of one’s own life. On the contrary, suicide is strongly condemned in the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh and is clearly against His Teachings.

. . . . . One day [a witness wrote], they brought the news of the death of Siyyid Ismá’íl of Zavárih. Bahá’u’lláh said: ‘No one has killed him. Behind many myriad veils of light, We showed him a glimmer of Our glory; he could not endure it and so he sacrificed himself.’ Some of us then went to the bank of the river and found the body of Siyyid Ismá’íl lying there. He had cut his own throat with a razor which was still held in his hand. We removed the body and buried it.

It would be unwise to see this story as unique or as a parable meant to illustrate something else. Pim van Lommel in his book Consciousness beyond Life (page 206) quotes a modern example of basically the same experience:

After a few days in an extremely critical condition, during which the doctors informed her family that she was unlikely to pull through, [a patient] suffered a cardiac arrest. At that moment she had an NDE, which she describes fully below. She was successfully resuscitated but remained in a critical condition and somehow became aware of her “hopeless” situation. She was desperate to return to the loving environment that she had just visited. In her desperation she managed to bite her breathing tube in half, thus precipitating an apnea.

She was again resuscitated and was able to describe the whole sequence of events.

John Hick also adduces a very compelling reason that appeals to a mind like mine that has never had even a glimpse of what that man or woman saw or Eben Alexander, amongst many others who came back to describe their near death experience, had access to. Hick, in his book The Fifth Dimension, contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to  believe or not (pages 37-38):

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

He talks also (page 114) of the materialism of our current ‘consensus reality.’ Naturalism has created the ‘consensus reality’ of our culture. It has become so ingrained that we no longer see it, but see everything else through it.

CharlesTart

Charles Tart (for source of image see link)

Consensus Trance

Given the hidden nature of spiritual reality and our freedom to choose what we believe or seek to teach others to believe, there is also therefore the immense power of social influence at work on what we experience and how we experience it. This is where we come to the fascinating work of Charles Tart in his book Waking Up.’ I will be quoting from him at some length.

He begins by contending (page 9) that ‘Consciousness, particularly its perceptual aspects, creates an internal representation of the outside world, such that we have a good quality “map” of the world and our place in it.’ He doesn’t mince words when he describes what he feels is an important correlative of this (page 11): ‘Our ordinary consciousness is not “natural,” but an acquired product. This has given us both many useful skills and many insane sources of useless suffering.’

He chooses to introduce a phrase that captures this (ibid):

. . . [For the phrase ordinary consciousness] I shall substitute a technical term I introduced some years ago, consensus consciousness, as a reminder of how much everyday consciousness has been shaped by the consensus of belief in our particular culture.

This is obviously closely related to Hick’s idea of  ‘consensus reality.’

There is a consequence of this, if it is true, which relates to the idea I am seeking to explore here: I want to get a better sense of what the veil is that Bahá’u’lláh refers to. Tart obliges with a step in the right direction (page 25): ‘By mistakenly thinking he is really conscious, [a person] blocks the possibility of real consciousness.’

This capacity for what Tart regards as our automated consciousness is not all bad, rather in the same way as Kahneman has explained in his idea of System 1 thinking, but its downside is potentially highly destructive. Tart writes (page 31-33):

The ability to set up some limited part of our sensitivity and intelligence so it automatically performs some fixed task with little or no awareness on our part is one of humanity’s greatest skills – and one of his greatest curses. . . . . . . . Mechanical intelligence can often be useful for utilitarian purposes, but it is dangerous in a changing and complex world. The mechanical, automated stereotypings we know of as racism, sexism, and nationalism, to use just three examples, are enormously costly. Automatised perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and reactions to one situation frequently get associated with the automatized perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and reactions to other situations, so we can be lost for long periods – a lifetime in the most extreme cases – in continuously automated living.

In a way that parallels Bahá’u’lláh’s ‘veils’ of delusion and superstition, Tart sees consensus consciousness as on a disturbing continuum (page 102): ‘We can view illusions and hallucinations as extreme points on the continuum of simulation of the world.’

He continues (page 59):

. . . . one of our greatest human abilities, and greatest curses, is our ability to create simulations of the world . . . . These simulations, whether or not they accurately reflect the world, can then trigger emotions. Emotions are a kind of energy, a source of power.

He begins then to unpack the full implications of his metaphor (page 85): ‘normal consciousness will be referred to as consensus trance; the hypnotist will be personified as the culture. The “subject,” the person subjected to this process, is you.’

He doesn’t give us much room to wriggle off the hook here. The state of mind he goes onto to describe is not an enviable one (page 95):

. . . . consensus trance is expected to be permanent rather than merely an interesting experience that is strictly time-limited. The mental, emotional, and physical habits of a lifetime are laid down while we are especially vulnerable and suggestible as children. Many of these habits are not just learned but conditioned; that is, they have that compulsive quality that conditioning has.

He goes onto to describe the full picture but I think this quote conveys enough for us to move onto the next stage of his argument.

3rd 'I' v6

Trance Breaking

First though it is important to pull into the frame a model he is drawing on for his idea of more appropriate functioning. He is influenced heavily in this by the work of Gurdjieff, a charismatic figure whose ideas are as intriguing as his character is difficult to read. Tart summarises what he finds useful (page 150):

Gurdjieff’s concept of man as a three-brained being, then, specifies that there are three major types of evaluation: intellectual, as we ordinarily conceive of it, emotional, and body/instinctive. . . . . [A] lack of balanced development of all three types of evaluation processes is a major cause of human suffering.

This was exciting to re-read after all these years not just because it is reminiscent of the Three ‘I’s I have been recently exploring. This is more importantly for now where I begin to find my two main lines of questioning coming together. I am trying to understand both the nature of the veils and the nature of the heart, and in particular what Bahá’u’lláh meant by the ‘understanding heart.’

Tart quotes a fable to illustrate more clearly what he means (pages 150-52):

There is an Eastern parable of the horse, carriage, and driver that richly illustrates our nature as three-brained beings and the problems resulting from poor development of each and from imbalance. . . . . .the carriage is our physical body. The horse is our emotions. The driver is our intellectual mind. The Master is what we could become if we provided for the development of our higher nature.

He goes on to describe what he feels, on the basis of Gurdjieff’s model, are the basic ways in which we can develop this higher nature. He emphasises what he calls ‘self-observing’ and ‘self-remembering.’ For reasons that will hopefully become clear, it is not necessary, even if we had the time, to examine those processes in detail. They are in my view in any case closely related to mindfulness and Vipassanā

Vipassanā as practiced in the Theravāda centers on mindfulness, including mindfulness of breathing, combined with the contemplation of impermanence.

The underlying principle is the investigation of phenomena as they manifest in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness highlighted in the Satipatthana Sutta:[15][note 5]

  1. kaya (body or breath),
  2. vedana (feeling tone or sensation)
  3. citta (mind or consciousness), and
  4. dhamma (mind objects/phenomena).

Tart’s conclusion is important to quote though (pages 197-98):

. . . by creating a deliberate centre of consciousness that is outside of the usual automated pattern of identifications and conditions, we create a more awake, less entranced self, the foundation for the Master, with which we can both know ourselves better and function more effectively.

Georges Gurdjieff

Georges Gurdjieff

Higher Centres

It is at this point that things for me get really interesting when it comes to getting a clearer idea of what an understanding heart might be (page 217):

Gurdjieff claimed that in addition [to the three-brained aspects of our being] we have two more centres, the higher emotional centre and the higher intellectual centre. Each of these higher centres is tremendously more powerful and intelligent than the ordinary emotional and intellectual centre, and each operates far more rapidly than the ordinary centres. The higher emotional centre includes what Gurdjieff called “real consciousness,” as opposed to the relative, conditioned morality of consensus trance. Both of these centres are part of our natural heritage as human beings and fully developed and operational, but it takes great work on one’s development to create the third-level foundation for contacting and utilising them.

Even though Gurdjieff has separated emotion from intellect in these higher centres, could this third level relate to the idea of an ‘understanding heart’?

Perhaps Gurdjieff was mistaken to see intellect and emotion as separate in this way at this higher level. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is very clear that the mind is a unity and it is our experience in the body that creates the feeling of separation in terms of its qualities, and Bahá’u’lláh could not be clearer, as we read in the first post, that the heart is ‘one and undivided’ and we should not split its affections.

My own sense is that unity is key here and that we should not be looking for splits and distinctions of this kind in the spiritual realm.

Coda

Before we leave this topic of conflicted feeling and divineness, it is worth going back to Tart’s thoughts on prayer quoted in the earlier post (pages 229-30):

. . . effective petitionary prayer for Gurdjieff, then, is intense and consistent desire and thought. However, most petitionary prayer, formal or unwitting, has almost no effect.

First, because the ordinary person is plagued by shifting identities that have disparate and often conflicting desires, the unwitting prayers of various identities tend to contradict and largely cancel one another.

Second, an obstacle to effective prayer is our inability to be consciously intense.

Effective petitionary prayer would be much more possible to a person who is genuinely conscious, who, at will and for extended periods, deliberately summoned up the intellectual and emotional intensity to pray consciously without distraction. If he prayed from his more integrated and constructive subpersonalities or from his essence, better yet. Praying from the third level of consciousness, remembering yourself while you pray, is the most effective all.

Maybe that’s why I have always found prayer so difficult, more difficult even than mindful meditation on holy scripture.

Tart then goes on to say things to which any Bahá’í, and any other soul convinced of the essential oneness of humanity anywhere, would resonate (page 232):

At times it has been perfectly obvious to me that we are not separate, isolated beings, that we are a part of a divine plan, that our prayers come from our deeper selves, which are also a part of that plan, and that our prayers are answered in ways that are best for our evolution.

Next time we will be looking at how all this relates to what we know about brain function and where that might leave us in the battle to get in better touch with our understanding heart.

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Why fret about the Afterlife Hypothesis?

A black Swan

A Black Swan

The previous post looked at how the black swan of Pam Reynolds‘ Near Death Experience (NDE) could perhaps be seen as a blow to the white swan theory that there is no possibility of life after death. This focused on the possible truth value  of the Afterlife Hypothesis. There is a critical look at the data in the Wikipedia link above that reveals weaknesses, of which I was previously unaware, in the case as presented in the television documentary. I still feel that mind-brain independence has been established in this case because of the accurate visual experiences gained under anaesthesia (see previous post on this subject — now revised). None the less we still need to consider the usefulness of the Afterlife Hypothesis if we are going to be able to persuade those who are sceptical to rethink.

We saw that Ken Ring’s research, which is summarised in Lessons from the Light, noted how often people who had experienced an NDE felt that their lives had been enhanced and that they wanted to be of service to their fellow human beings.

I said that we would come back to this point — the usefulness of holding the Afterlife Hypothesis to be true. I also said we’d look at why this aspect of the issue is critical if we are to understand why belief or unbelief on this issue matters to us all, believers and unbelievers alike, almost regardless of its truth value.

Some people may find the discussion that follows a bit challenging: it was impossible to write about it clearly without seeming to come on a little strongly. In spite of appearances, though, I respect differences of view immensely and would hope to learn at least as much from those who disagree with me as I do from those who think the same.

I’d like to focus on two aspects of the question of belief in the afterlife: its usefulness and its importance.

Our answer to questions about whether or not we have a soul, and whether or not that soul is immortal, very much determines who we think we are. It shapes our identity. Who I think I am powerfully influences what I decide to do and how I relate to others and to the world around me. It is important.

Then, when we look at the average effect of all our actions, influenced by all our various views of who we are, we will find that we have a vision of the kind of society, civilisation and culture we are creating by these decisions and these actions. This in turn influences who we continue to think we are. What’s perhaps even more important is it influences who our children come to think they are. In this way we enhance or warp our futures.

Because our future depends on it, we will need to address, as a society, whether materialism in its various forms is enough when it causes us to derive our values and our morals only from reason, experience and our shared sense of humanity – not that those are entirely without worth: a society that shuts its eyes to the feedback from experience and blinds itself to the truths that are within the reach of reason will soon fall off a cliff it is convinced does not exist.

But materialism goes too far when it preaches dogmatically that there is no need of any seal of approval from outside, no need of a transcendent point of reference, no need to believe in an afterlife. It claims that we can, as it were, place each of our feet in two different buckets, grasp the handles and heave ourselves off the ground. In my view materialism is trying to persuade us that the tiny candle of reason can illuminate the dark vastness of the entire universe: I find that claim preposterous.

Is getting the best out of ourselves without God really like the bucket problem?

Unfortunately, mobilising the evidence to try and demonstrate that materialistic worldviews fail to lift us as high as spiritual ones will probably fail to convince the wavering and leave the reductionist utterly unmoved. John Hick wryly concluded that the universe has been created to contain just enough evidence to convince the believer that there is a God but not quite enough to convert the sceptic!

However, I have come to the conclusion that a lot really does hang on the decision that we make on this issue.

It’s not just a question of our physical and mental health, and there is a great deal of evidence (Koenig et al) to suggest that religion is good for our state of mind in this world never mind the next. Nor of the efforts religious people make to be of service to others.

Tablets for all ills

Tablets for all ills

There’s also some less clear-cut evidence (see Batson et al for investigations that do justice to the real complexities of this issue) to suggest their efforts are somewhat greater in this respect than the efforts of those with no religion.

Certainly there is enough evidence to make a psychologically sophisticated atheist ask:

If religious people are right in believing that religion is the source of their greatest happiness, then maybe the rest of us who are looking for happiness and meaning can learn something from them, whether or not we believe in God.

(Haidt: page 211)

Even more importantly it’s a question of the expectations we harbour about our future, based on our estimate of our capabilities and our assessment of the current reality. These expectations, of course, help form the future.

This needs unpacking. An analogy will help.

Research strongly suggests that pessimists, and even depressed people, are more realistic about the present (See Seligman’s ‘Authentic Happiness‘ for example). On the other hand, optimists and happy people exaggerate, for example, the degree to which they are liked by others or the level of skill they have. They are less realistic: they see the world through rose tinted spectacles.

The sceptical materialist might well conclude “Case closed! You just shot yourself in the foot. I need read no further. You’re all deluded then.” I’m afraid (s)he couldn’t be more wrong!

If we take a snapshot of the lives of these two kinds of people say ten years later, what are we likely to find? You’ve probably guessed it. The optimists, untrammelled by low expectations, will probably have made something better of their lives on most measures such as the quality of their relationships or their level of health. The pessimists are usually very much where they started and generally much worse off than the optimists. A lot of information can be gleaned about the effects of a pessimistic or unhappy style from Seligman’s book (see also the link to the Authentic Happiness website on the front page).

In my view, comparing optimists with pessimists is very much the same thing as comparing those who believe in God with those who believe in nothing (which of course is also an act of faith). To divide the ‘camps’ in this way simply into religious and non-religious would be too simplistic of course. Some spiritual beliefs are narrow, constricting and/or pessimistic about the human predicament. Some materialistic worldviews have warmer perspectives and rosier expectations.

It will none the less be found, I feel, if the evidence is systematically sought and examined dispassionately, that, on average, people with a sense of the transcendent, because they have a more positive view of what they can achieve individually and collectively, will enhance their own and their communities’ lives significantly more each decade than will those who, because they take a completely materialistic view of things, have lower expectations of themselves, of others and of what can be achieved. This is an empirical question: it needs to be properly researched. Ken Ring’s work is already pointing strongly in that direction. I have also explored this at length from another angle in a longer sequence of posts.

Unless someone can produce compelling evidence to the contrary I intend to go on believing the words attributed to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:

As ye have faith, so shall your powers and blessings be.

(Adib Taherzadeh: The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, Vol IV: p 217: )

The Free-Rider Problem

There is one rather disturbing implication of all this.

If this idea is correct, that faith in the transcendent lifts our game and the level of well-being of the communities we live in, the person with a sceptical take on the afterlife, whether (s)he likes it or not, whether that is the intention or not, could well be making a contribution that falls short of his or her capacity as a result. When civilisation is getting as close to the edge of self-destruction as it is at the moment, every little short fall matters and could make the difference between collective survival or collective suicide.

In the worst case scenario, where the falling short is very great, someone who is sceptical to the point of cynicism, or even nihilism (this touches on extremism of all kinds, atheist as well as religious, and will have to wait for another time for a more adequate treatment), could become that bane of all organisations – the free-rider – who reaps the benefits of other people’s efforts without contributing his or her fair share! According to Philip Ball in his book ‘Critical Mass‘, the effect on an organisation of carrying too many such people is to make it unfit to survive.

He writes (page 333):

So why do firms fail? . . . . Once it grows big enough, it becomes a haven for free-riders who capitalize on the efforts of others. So the firm becomes gradually riddled with slackers, until suddenly the other workers decide they have had enough and jump ship. . . . The failure is self-induced.

It is perhaps stretching a point to extrapolate from firms to civilisations, where jumping ship is more like moving to China than changing jobs, but we know that civilisations do fail (See Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse‘).  If there is any truth in this extrapolation, it could therefore mean that our collective survival depends upon enough people waking up to the transcendent, regardless of how the costs of extremism at both ends of the spectrum eventually stack up.

We need to find out what we think for ourselves

I believe it would be very difficult indeed to reach a conclusion about whether faith in a transcendent dimension makes me a better citizen or not. The issue matters so much though that we should not  accept what we’ve been told simply on the authority of other people.

It is worth bearing in mind that nihilism is as much an act of faith as faith in God. If too much nihilism spread across too many people could annihilate us, surely, in all conscience, this is a matter of life and death now and bears painstaking and careful investigation, a scrupulously dispassionate weighing of all the evidence, before finally making up our minds? Bahá’ís believe in the inescapable responsibility of all of us to investigate the truth for ourselves. If you have a thirst to understand these issues you will find much food for thought (though water would of course be more use in quenching a thirst!) at the Baha’i World Centre site as well as through the other links on the front page of this blog.

After such strenuous investigation by everyone, how many of us would then be left to say with any sense of certainty there is no God, no soul, no afterlife?

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Adib_Taherzadeh

Adib Taherzadeh: for source of image see link

My recent sequence on the Three Brain Issue triggered an important question from someone who commented on the third post in that sequence: she asked “Could you add something here about what you feel that intuition actually is?” I hadn’t addressed that because a much earlier sequence had gone into the matter in some depth. I felt it was worth republishing it now in the hope it would be helpful.

We ended the previous post reflecting that Erich Fromm does not deal with a crucial basic question in his explanation of why we are so prone to espousing destructive beliefs: do we fall so easily into the quicksand of debased frames of reference and divided attachments because we think that matter is all that matters, is all there is in fact? ‘Abdu’l-Bahá clearly thinks so. If that is so, then this belief is perhaps one of the key delusions that Bahá’u’lláh is referring to when He says: ‘the [people’s] superstitions [have] become veils between them and their own hearts and kept them from the path of God.’ We need to find out, if possible, what might make such a ‘delusion’ so prevalent if it is false? Also what does He mean by the ‘heart’ that we are ‘veiled’ from?

To even begin to answer those questions in words on a page, I am going to have to draw on wiser writers than me to get me started.

Why Hidden?

First, there will be the question of whether the world is set up in such a way that the spiritual dimension is hidden. Bahá’u’lláh is clear that it is hidden, and there appear to be good reasons for that. Knowing what the next life is like can create a desire to move there straight away. J E Esslemont quotes the words of Bahá’u’lláh in his book (page 189):

Blessed is the soul which, at the hour of its separation from the body, is sanctified from the vain imaginings of the peoples of the world. Such a soul liveth and moveth in accordance with the Will of its Creator, and entereth the all-highest Paradise. . . .  If any man be told that which hath been ordained for such a soul in the worlds of God, the Lord of the throne on high and of earth below, his whole being will instantly blaze out in his great longing to attain that most exalted, that sanctified and resplendent station.

That these are not idle words is illustrated by the story of the man who became able to see the spiritual realm and as a result wanted to die. Adib Taherzadeh refers to the event twice in his four volume account of Bahá’u’lláh’s life, The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh. I have pulled the references together from Vol 1 Ch 8 page 103 and Vol 2 Ch5 page 112:

The story of Dhabíh is that of a passionate lover. The object of his adoration was Bahá’u’lláh, Who had ignited within his breast the fire of the love of God, a fire so intense that it began to consume his whole being. Eventually he reached a state where he would neither eat nor drink. For forty days he abstained from food. Unable, at last, to check the crushing force of love which pressed upon his soul, he came one day, at the hour of dawn, to the house of Bahá’u’lláh and for the last time swept its approaches with his turban. After performing this task, he paid a visit to the home of Áqá Muhammad-Ridá where he met some of the friends for the last time. Later he obtained a razor, went to the bank of the Tigris and there turning his face towards the house of Bahá’u’lláh, took his life by cutting his throat. . . . . Dhabíh took his own life because he was intoxicated by the wine of the presence of Bahá’u’lláh, Who had enabled him to witness the glory of the spiritual worlds of God. This cannot be compared with ordinary suicide, nor can this episode be taken to mean that Bahá’í belief condones the taking of one’s own life. On the contrary, suicide is strongly condemned in the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh and is clearly against His Teachings.

. . . . . One day [a witness wrote], they brought the news of the death of Siyyid Ismá’íl of Zavárih. Bahá’u’lláh said: ‘No one has killed him. Behind many myriad veils of light, We showed him a glimmer of Our glory; he could not endure it and so he sacrificed himself.’ Some of us then went to the bank of the river and found the body of Siyyid Ismá’íl lying there. He had cut his own throat with a razor which was still held in his hand. We removed the body and buried it.

It would be unwise to see this story as unique or as a parable meant to illustrate something else. Pim van Lommel in his book Consciousness beyond Life (page 206) quotes a modern example of basically the same experience:

After a few days in an extremely critical condition, during which the doctors informed her family that she was unlikely to pull through, [a patient] suffered a cardiac arrest. At that moment she had an NDE, which she describes fully below. She was successfully resuscitated but remained in a critical condition and somehow became aware of her “hopeless” situation. She was desperate to return to the loving environment that she had just visited. In her desperation she managed to bite her breathing tube in half, thus precipitating an apnea.

She was again resuscitated and was able to describe the whole sequence of events.

John Hick also adduces a very compelling reason that appeals to a mind like mine that has never had even a glimpse of what that man or woman saw or Eben Alexander, amongst many others who came back to describe their near death experience, had access to. Hick, in his book The Fifth Dimension, contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to  believe or not (pages 37-38):

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

He talks also (page 114) of the materialism of our current ‘consensus reality.’ Naturalism has created the ‘consensus reality’ of our culture. It has become so ingrained that we no longer see it, but see everything else through it.

CharlesTart

Charles Tart (for source of image see link)

Consensus Trance

Given the hidden nature of spiritual reality and our freedom to choose what we believe or seek to teach others to believe, there is also therefore the immense power of social influence at work on what we experience and how we experience it. This is where we come to the fascinating work of Charles Tart in his book Waking Up.’ I will be quoting from him at some length.

He begins by contending (page 9) that ‘Consciousness, particularly its perceptual aspects, creates an internal representation of the outside world, such that we have a good quality “map” of the world and our place in it.’ He doesn’t mince words when he describes what he feels is an important correlative of this (page 11): ‘Our ordinary consciousness is not “natural,” but an acquired product. This has given us both many useful skills and many insane sources of useless suffering.’

He chooses to introduce a phrase that captures this (ibid):

. . . [For the phrase ordinary consciousness] I shall substitute a technical term I introduced some years ago, consensus consciousness, as a reminder of how much everyday consciousness has been shaped by the consensus of belief in our particular culture.

This is obviously closely related to Hick’s idea of  ‘consensus reality.’

There is a consequence of this, if it is true, which relates to the idea I am seeking to explore here: I want to get a better sense of what the veil is that Bahá’u’lláh refers to. Tart obliges with a step in the right direction (page 25): ‘By mistakenly thinking he is really conscious, [a person] blocks the possibility of real consciousness.’

This capacity for what Tart regards as our automated consciousness is not all bad, rather in the same way as Kahneman has explained in his idea of System 1 thinking, but its downside is potentially highly destructive. Tart writes (page 31-33):

The ability to set up some limited part of our sensitivity and intelligence so it automatically performs some fixed task with little or no awareness on our part is one of humanity’s greatest skills – and one of his greatest curses. . . . . . . . Mechanical intelligence can often be useful for utilitarian purposes, but it is dangerous in a changing and complex world. The mechanical, automated stereotypings we know of as racism, sexism, and nationalism, to use just three examples, are enormously costly. Automatised perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and reactions to one situation frequently get associated with the automatized perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and reactions to other situations, so we can be lost for long periods – a lifetime in the most extreme cases – in continuously automated living.

In a way that parallels Bahá’u’lláh’s ‘veils’ of delusion and superstition, Tart sees consensus consciousness as on a disturbing continuum (page 102): ‘We can view illusions and hallucinations as extreme points on the continuum of simulation of the world.’

He continues (page 59):

. . . . one of our greatest human abilities, and greatest curses, is our ability to create simulations of the world . . . . These simulations, whether or not they accurately reflect the world, can then trigger emotions. Emotions are a kind of energy, a source of power.

He begins then to unpack the full implications of his metaphor (page 85): ‘normal consciousness will be referred to as consensus trance; the hypnotist will be personified as the culture. The “subject,” the person subjected to this process, is you.’

He doesn’t give us much room to wriggle off the hook here. The state of mind he goes onto to describe is not an enviable one (page 95):

. . . . consensus trance is expected to be permanent rather than merely an interesting experience that is strictly time-limited. The mental, emotional, and physical habits of a lifetime are laid down while we are especially vulnerable and suggestible as children. Many of these habits are not just learned but conditioned; that is, they have that compulsive quality that conditioning has.

He goes onto to describe the full picture but I think this quote conveys enough for us to move onto the next stage of his argument.

3rd 'I' v6

Trance Breaking

First though it is important to pull into the frame a model he is drawing on for his idea of more appropriate functioning. He is influenced heavily in this by the work of Gurdjieff, a charismatic figure whose ideas are as intriguing as his character is difficult to read. Tart summarises what he finds useful (page 150):

Gurdjieff’s concept of man as a three-brained being, then, specifies that there are three major types of evaluation: intellectual, as we ordinarily conceive of it, emotional, and body/instinctive. . . . . [A] lack of balanced development of all three types of evaluation processes is a major cause of human suffering.

This was exciting to re-read after all these years not just because it is reminiscent of the Three ‘I’s I have been recently exploring. This is more importantly for now where I begin to find my two main lines of questioning coming together. I am trying to understand both the nature of the veils and the nature of the heart, and in particular what Bahá’u’lláh meant by the ‘understanding heart.’

Tart quotes a fable to illustrate more clearly what he means (pages 150-52):

There is an Eastern parable of the horse, carriage, and driver that richly illustrates our nature as three-brained beings and the problems resulting from poor development of each and from imbalance. . . . . .the carriage is our physical body. The horse is our emotions. The driver is our intellectual mind. The Master is what we could become if we provided for the development of our higher nature.

He goes on to describe what he feels, on the basis of Gurdjieff’s model, are the basic ways in which we can develop this higher nature. He emphasises what he calls ‘self-observing’ and ‘self-remembering.’ For reasons that will hopefully become clear, it is not necessary, even if we had the time, to examine those processes in detail. They are in my view in any case closely related to mindfulness and Vipassanā

Vipassanā as practiced in the Theravāda centers on mindfulness, including mindfulness of breathing, combined with the contemplation of impermanence.

The underlying principle is the investigation of phenomena as they manifest in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness highlighted in the Satipatthana Sutta:[15][note 5]

  1. kaya (body or breath),
  2. vedana (feeling tone or sensation)
  3. citta (mind or consciousness), and
  4. dhamma (mind objects/phenomena).

Tart’s conclusion is important to quote though (pages 197-98):

. . . by creating a deliberate centre of consciousness that is outside of the usual automated pattern of identifications and conditions, we create a more awake, less entranced self, the foundation for the Master, with which we can both know ourselves better and function more effectively.

Georges Gurdjieff

Georges Gurdjieff

Higher Centres

It is at this point that things for me get really interesting when it comes to getting a clearer idea of what an understanding heart might be (page 217):

Gurdjieff claimed that in addition [to the three-brained aspects of our being] we have two more centres, the higher emotional centre and the higher intellectual centre. Each of these higher centres is tremendously more powerful and intelligent than the ordinary emotional and intellectual centre, and each operates far more rapidly than the ordinary centres. The higher emotional centre includes what Gurdjieff called “real consciousness,” as opposed to the relative, conditioned morality of consensus trance. Both of these centres are part of our natural heritage as human beings and fully developed and operational, but it takes great work on one’s development to create the third-level foundation for contacting and utilising them.

Even though Gurdjieff has separated emotion from intellect in these higher centres, could this third level relate to the idea of an ‘understanding heart’?

Perhaps Gurdjieff was mistaken to see intellect and emotion as separate in this way at this higher level. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is very clear that the mind is a unity and it is our experience in the body that creates the feeling of separation in terms of its qualities, and Bahá’u’lláh could not be clearer, as we read in the first post, that the heart is ‘one and undivided’ and we should not split its affections.

My own sense is that unity is key here and that we should not be looking for splits and distinctions of this kind in the spiritual realm.

Coda

Before we leave this topic of conflicted feeling and divineness, it is worth going back to Tart’s thoughts on prayer quoted in the earlier post (pages 229-30):

. . . effective petitionary prayer for Gurdjieff, then, is intense and consistent desire and thought. However, most petitionary prayer, formal or unwitting, has almost no effect.

First, because the ordinary person is plagued by shifting identities that have disparate and often conflicting desires, the unwitting prayers of various identities tend to contradict and largely cancel one another.

Second, an obstacle to effective prayer is our inability to be consciously intense.

Effective petitionary prayer would be much more possible to a person who is genuinely conscious, who, at will and for extended periods, deliberately summoned up the intellectual and emotional intensity to pray consciously without distraction. If he prayed from his more integrated and constructive subpersonalities or from his essence, better yet. Praying from the third level of consciousness, remembering yourself while you pray, is the most effective all.

Maybe that’s why I have always found prayer so difficult, more difficult even than mindful meditation on holy scripture.

Tart then goes on to say things to which any Bahá’í, and any other soul convinced of the essential oneness of humanity anywhere, would resonate (page 232):

At times it has been perfectly obvious to me that we are not separate, isolated beings, that we are a part of a divine plan, that our prayers come from our deeper selves, which are also a part of that plan, and that our prayers are answered in ways that are best for our evolution.

Next time we will be looking at how all this relates to what we know about brain function and where that might leave us in the battle to get in better touch with our understanding heart.

Read Full Post »

Adib_Taherzadeh

Adib Taherzadeh: for source of image see link

We ended the previous post reflecting that Erich Fromm does not deal with a crucial basic question in his explanation of why we are so prone to espousing destructive beliefs: do we fall so easily into the quicksand of debased frames of reference and divided attachments because we think that matter is all that matters, is all there is in fact? ‘Abdu’l-Bahá clearly thinks so. If that is so, then this belief is perhaps one of the key delusions that Bahá’u’lláh is referring to when He says: ‘the [people’s] superstitions [have] become veils between them and their own hearts and kept them from the path of God.’ We need to find out, if possible, what might make such a ‘delusion’ so prevalent if it is false? Also what does He mean by the ‘heart’ that we are ‘veiled’ from?

To even begin to answer those questions in words on a page, I am going to have to draw on wiser writers than me to get me started.

Why Hidden?

First, there will be the question of whether the world is set up in such a way that the spiritual dimension is hidden. Bahá’u’lláh is clear that it is hidden, and there appear to be good reasons for that. Knowing what the next life is like can create a desire to move there straight away. J E Esslemont quotes the words of Bahá’u’lláh in his book (page 189):

Blessed is the soul which, at the hour of its separation from the body, is sanctified from the vain imaginings of the peoples of the world. Such a soul liveth and moveth in accordance with the Will of its Creator, and entereth the all-highest Paradise. . . .  If any man be told that which hath been ordained for such a soul in the worlds of God, the Lord of the throne on high and of earth below, his whole being will instantly blaze out in his great longing to attain that most exalted, that sanctified and resplendent station.

That these are not idle words is illustrated by the story of the man who became able to see the spiritual realm and as a result wanted to die. Adib Taherzadeh refers to the event twice in his four volume account of Bahá’u’lláh’s life, The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh. I have pulled the references together from Vol 1 Ch 8 page 103 and Vol 2 Ch5 page 112:

The story of Dhabíh is that of a passionate lover. The object of his adoration was Bahá’u’lláh, Who had ignited within his breast the fire of the love of God, a fire so intense that it began to consume his whole being. Eventually he reached a state where he would neither eat nor drink. For forty days he abstained from food. Unable, at last, to check the crushing force of love which pressed upon his soul, he came one day, at the hour of dawn, to the house of Bahá’u’lláh and for the last time swept its approaches with his turban. After performing this task, he paid a visit to the home of Áqá Muhammad-Ridá where he met some of the friends for the last time. Later he obtained a razor, went to the bank of the Tigris and there turning his face towards the house of Bahá’u’lláh, took his life by cutting his throat. . . . . Dhabíh took his own life because he was intoxicated by the wine of the presence of Bahá’u’lláh, Who had enabled him to witness the glory of the spiritual worlds of God. This cannot be compared with ordinary suicide, nor can this episode be taken to mean that Bahá’í belief condones the taking of one’s own life. On the contrary, suicide is strongly condemned in the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh and is clearly against His Teachings.

. . . . . One day [a witness wrote], they brought the news of the death of Siyyid Ismá’íl of Zavárih. Bahá’u’lláh said: ‘No one has killed him. Behind many myriad veils of light, We showed him a glimmer of Our glory; he could not endure it and so he sacrificed himself.’ Some of us then went to the bank of the river and found the body of Siyyid Ismá’íl lying there. He had cut his own throat with a razor which was still held in his hand. We removed the body and buried it.

It would be unwise to see this story as unique or as a parable meant to illustrate something else. Pim van Lommel in his book Consciousness beyond Life (page 206) quotes a modern example of basically the same experience:

After a few days in an extremely critical condition, during which the doctors informed her family that she was unlikely to pull through, [a patient] suffered a cardiac arrest. At that moment she had an NDE, which she describes fully below. She was successfully resuscitated but remained in a critical condition and somehow became aware of her “hopeless” situation. She was desperate to return to the loving environment that she had just visited. In her desperation she managed to bite her breathing tube in half, thus precipitating an apnea.

She was again resuscitated and was able to describe the whole sequence of events.

John Hick also adduces a very compelling reason that appeals to a mind like mine that has never had even a glimpse of what that man or woman saw or Eben Alexander, amongst many others who came back to describe their near death experience, had access to. Hick, in his book The Fifth Dimension, contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to  believe or not (pages 37-38):

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

He talks also (page 114) of the materialism of our current ‘consensus reality.’ Naturalism has created the ‘consensus reality’ of our culture. It has become so ingrained that we no longer see it, but see everything else through it.

CharlesTart

Charles Tart (for source of image see link)

Consensus Trance

Given the hidden nature of spiritual reality and our freedom to choose what we believe or seek to teach others to believe, there is also therefore the immense power of social influence at work on what we experience and how we experience it. This is where we come to the fascinating work of Charles Tart in his book Waking Up.’ I will be quoting from him at some length.

He begins by contending (page 9) that ‘Consciousness, particularly its perceptual aspects, creates an internal representation of the outside world, such that we have a good quality “map” of the world and our place in it.’ He doesn’t mince words when he describes what he feels is an important correlative of this (page 11): ‘Our ordinary consciousness is not “natural,” but an acquired product. This has given us both many useful skills and many insane sources of useless suffering.’

He chooses to introduce a phrase that captures this (ibid):

. . . [For the phrase ordinary consciousness] I shall substitute a technical term I introduced some years ago, consensus consciousness, as a reminder of how much everyday consciousness has been shaped by the consensus of belief in our particular culture.

This is obviously closely related to Hick’s idea of  ‘consensus reality.’

There is a consequence of this, if it is true, which relates to the idea I am seeking to explore here: I want to get a better sense of what the veil is that Bahá’u’lláh refers to. Tart obliges with a step in the right direction (page 25): ‘By mistakenly thinking he is really conscious, [a person] blocks the possibility of real consciousness.’

This capacity for what Tart regards as our automated consciousness is not all bad, rather in the same way as Kahneman has explained in his idea of System 1 thinking, but its downside is potentially highly destructive. Tart writes (page 31-33):

The ability to set up some limited part of our sensitivity and intelligence so it automatically performs some fixed task with little or no awareness on our part is one of humanity’s greatest skills – and one of his greatest curses. . . . . . . . Mechanical intelligence can often be useful for utilitarian purposes, but it is dangerous in a changing and complex world. The mechanical, automated stereotypings we know of as racism, sexism, and nationalism, to use just three examples, are enormously costly. Automatised perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and reactions to one situation frequently get associated with the automatized perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and reactions to other situations, so we can be lost for long periods – a lifetime in the most extreme cases – in continuously automated living.

In a way that parallels Bahá’u’lláh’s ‘veils’ of delusion and superstition, Tart sees consensus consciousness as on a disturbing continuum (page 102): ‘We can view illusions and hallucinations as extreme points on the continuum of simulation of the world.’

He continues (page 59):

. . . . one of our greatest human abilities, and greatest curses, is our ability to create simulations of the world . . . . These simulations, whether or not they accurately reflect the world, can then trigger emotions. Emotions are a kind of energy, a source of power.

He begins then to unpack the full implications of his metaphor (page 85): ‘normal consciousness will be referred to as consensus trance; the hypnotist will be personified as the culture. The “subject,” the person subjected to this process, is you.’

He doesn’t give us much room to wriggle off the hook here. The state of mind he goes onto to describe is not an enviable one (page 95):

. . . . consensus trance is expected to be permanent rather than merely an interesting experience that is strictly time-limited. The mental, emotional, and physical habits of a lifetime are laid down while we are especially vulnerable and suggestible as children. Many of these habits are not just learned but conditioned; that is, they have that compulsive quality that conditioning has.

He goes onto to describe the full picture but I think this quote conveys enough for us to move onto the next stage of his argument.

3rd 'I' v6

Trance Breaking

First though it is important to pull into the frame a model he is drawing on for his idea of more appropriate functioning. He is influenced heavily in this by the work of Gurdjieff, a charismatic figure whose ideas are as intriguing as his character is difficult to read. Tart summarises what he finds useful (page 150):

Gurdjieff’s concept of man as a three-brained being, then, specifies that there are three major types of evaluation: intellectual, as we ordinarily conceive of it, emotional, and body/instinctive. . . . . [A] lack of balanced development of all three types of evaluation processes is a major cause of human suffering.

This was exciting to re-read after all these years not just because it is reminiscent of the Three ‘I’s I have been recently exploring. This is more importantly for now where I begin to find my two main lines of questioning coming together. I am trying to understand both the nature of the veils and the nature of the heart, and in particular what Bahá’u’lláh meant by the ‘understanding heart.’

Tart quotes a fable to illustrate more clearly what he means (pages 150-52):

There is an Eastern parable of the horse, carriage, and driver that richly illustrates our nature as three-brained beings and the problems resulting from poor development of each and from imbalance. . . . . .the carriage is our physical body. The horse is our emotions. The driver is our intellectual mind. The Master is what we could become if we provided for the development of our higher nature.

He goes on to describe what he feels, on the basis of Gurdjieff’s model, are the basic ways in which we can develop this higher nature. He emphasises what he calls ‘self-observing’ and ‘self-remembering.’ For reasons that will hopefully become clear, it is not necessary, even if we had the time, to examine those processes in detail. They are in my view in any case closely related to mindfulness and Vipassanā

Vipassanā as practiced in the Theravāda centers on mindfulness, including mindfulness of breathing, combined with the contemplation of impermanence.

The underlying principle is the investigation of phenomena as they manifest in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness highlighted in the Satipatthana Sutta:[15][note 5]

  1. kaya (body or breath),
  2. vedana (feeling tone or sensation)
  3. citta (mind or consciousness), and
  4. dhamma (mind objects/phenomena).

Tart’s conclusion is important to quote though (pages 197-98):

. . . by creating a deliberate centre of consciousness that is outside of the usual automated pattern of identifications and conditions, we create a more awake, less entranced self, the foundation for the Master, with which we can both know ourselves better and function more effectively.

Georges Gurdjieff

Georges Gurdjieff

Higher Centres

It is at this point that things for me get really interesting when it comes to getting a clearer idea of what an understanding heart might be (page 217):

Gurdjieff claimed that in addition [to the three-brained aspects of our being] we have two more centres, the higher emotional centre and the higher intellectual centre. Each of these higher centres is tremendously more powerful and intelligent than the ordinary emotional and intellectual centre, and each operates far more rapidly than the ordinary centres. The higher emotional centre includes what Gurdjieff called “real consciousness,” as opposed to the relative, conditioned morality of consensus trance. Both of these centres are part of our natural heritage as human beings and fully developed and operational, but it takes great work on one’s development to create the third-level foundation for contacting and utilising them.

Even though Gurdjieff has separated emotion from intellect in these higher centres, could this third level relate to the idea of an ‘understanding heart’?

Perhaps Gurdjieff was mistaken to see intellect and emotion as separate in this way at this higher level. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is very clear that the mind is a unity and it is our experience in the body that creates the feeling of separation in terms of its qualities, and Bahá’u’lláh could not be clearer, as we read in the first post, that the heart is ‘one and undivided’ and we should not split its affections.

My own sense is that unity is key here and that we should not be looking for splits and distinctions of this kind in the spiritual realm.

Coda

Before we leave this topic of conflicted feeling and divineness, it is worth going back to Tart’s thoughts on prayer quoted in the earlier post (pages 229-30):

. . . effective petitionary prayer for Gurdjieff, then, is intense and consistent desire and thought. However, most petitionary prayer, formal or unwitting, has almost no effect.

First, because the ordinary person is plagued by shifting identities that have disparate and often conflicting desires, the unwitting prayers of various identities tend to contradict and largely cancel one another.

Second, an obstacle to effective prayer is our inability to be consciously intense.

Effective petitionary prayer would be much more possible to a person who is genuinely conscious, who, at will and for extended periods, deliberately summoned up the intellectual and emotional intensity to pray consciously without distraction. If he prayed from his more integrated and constructive subpersonalities or from his essence, better yet. Praying from the third level of consciousness, remembering yourself while you pray, is the most effective all.

Maybe that’s why I have always found prayer so difficult, more difficult even than mindful meditation on holy scripture.

Tart then goes on to say things to which any Bahá’í, and any other soul convinced of the essential oneness of humanity anywhere, would resonate (page 232):

At times it has been perfectly obvious to me that we are not separate, isolated beings, that we are a part of a divine plan, that our prayers come from our deeper selves, which are also a part of that plan, and that our prayers are answered in ways that are best for our evolution.

Next time we will be looking at how all this relates to what we know about brain function and where that might leave us in the battle to get in better touch with our understanding heart.

Read Full Post »

Why fret about the Afterlife Hypothesis?

A black Swan

A Black Swan

The previous post looked at how the black swan of Pam Reynolds‘ Near Death Experience (NDE) could perhaps be seen as a blow to the white swan theory that there is no possibility of life after death. This focused on the possible truth value  of the Afterlife Hypothesis. There is a critical look at the data in the Wikipedia link above that reveals weaknesses, of which I was previously unaware, in the case as presented in the television documentary. I still feel that mind-brain independence has been established in this case because of the accurate visual experiences gained under anaesthesia (see previous post on this subject — now revised). None the less we still need to consider the usefulness of the Afterlife Hypothesis if we are going to be able to persuade those who are sceptical to rethink.

We saw that Ken Ring’s research, which is summarised in Lessons from the Light, noted how often people who had experienced an NDE felt that their lives had been enhanced and that they wanted to be of service to their fellow human beings.

I said that we would come back to this point — the usefulness of holding the Afterlife Hypothesis to be true. I also said we’d look at why this aspect of the issue is critical if we are to understand why belief or unbelief on this issue matters to us all, believers and unbelievers alike, almost regardless of its truth value.

Some people may find the discussion that follows a bit challenging: it was impossible to write about it clearly without seeming to come on a little strongly. In spite of appearances, though, I respect differences of view immensely and would hope to learn at least as much from those who disagree with me as I do from those who think the same.

I’d like to focus on two aspects of the question of belief in the afterlife: its usefulness and its importance.

Our answer to questions about whether or not we have a soul, and whether or not that soul is immortal, very much determines who we think we are. It shapes our identity. Who I think I am powerfully influences what I decide to do and how I relate to others and to the world around me. It is important.

Then, when we look at the average effect of all our actions, influenced by all our various views of who we are, we will find that we have a vision of the kind of society, civilisation and culture we are creating by these decisions and these actions. This in turn influences who we continue to think we are. What’s perhaps even more important is it influences who our children come to think they are. In this way we enhance or warp our futures.

Because our future depends on it, we will need to address, as a society, whether materialism in its various forms is enough when it causes us to derive our values and our morals only from reason, experience and our shared sense of humanity – not that those are entirely without worth: a society that shuts its eyes to the feedback from experience and blinds itself to the truths that are within the reach of reason will soon fall off a cliff it is convinced does not exist.

But materialism goes too far when it preaches dogmatically that there is no need of any seal of approval from outside, no need of a transcendent point of reference, no need to believe in an afterlife. It claims that we can, as it were, place each of our feet in two different buckets, grasp the handles and heave ourselves off the ground. In my view materialism is trying to persuade us that the tiny candle of reason can illuminate the dark vastness of the entire universe: I find that claim preposterous.

Is getting the best out of ourselves without God really like the bucket problem?

Unfortunately, mobilising the evidence to try and demonstrate that materialistic worldviews fail to lift us as high as spiritual ones will probably fail to convince the wavering and leave the reductionist utterly unmoved. John Hick wryly concluded that the universe has been created to contain just enough evidence to convince the believer that there is a God but not quite enough to convert the sceptic!

However, I have come to the conclusion that a lot really does hang on the decision that we make on this issue.

It’s not just a question of our physical and mental health, and there is a great deal of evidence (Koenig et al) to suggest that religion is good for our state of mind in this world never mind the next. Nor of the efforts religious people make to be of service to others.

Tablets for all ills

Tablets for all ills

There’s also some less clear-cut evidence (see Batson et al for investigations that do justice to the real complexities of this issue) to suggest their efforts are somewhat greater in this respect than the efforts of those with no religion.

Certainly there is enough evidence to make a psychologically sophisticated atheist ask:

If religious people are right in believing that religion is the source of their greatest happiness, then maybe the rest of us who are looking for happiness and meaning can learn something from them, whether or not we believe in God.

(Haidt: page 211)

Even more importantly it’s a question of the expectations we harbour about our future, based on our estimate of our capabilities and our assessment of the current reality. These expectations, of course, help form the future.

This needs unpacking. An analogy will help.

Research strongly suggests that pessimists, and even depressed people, are more realistic about the present (See Seligman’s ‘Authentic Happiness‘ for example). On the other hand, optimists and happy people exaggerate, for example, the degree to which they are liked by others or the level of skill they have. They are less realistic: they see the world through rose tinted spectacles.

The sceptical materialist might well conclude “Case closed! You just shot yourself in the foot. I need read no further. You’re all deluded then.” I’m afraid (s)he couldn’t be more wrong!

If we take a snapshot of the lives of these two kinds of people say ten years later, what are we likely to find? You’ve probably guessed it. The optimists, untrammelled by low expectations, will probably have made something better of their lives on most measures such as the quality of their relationships or their level of health. The pessimists are usually very much where they started and generally much worse off than the optimists. A lot of information can be gleaned about the effects of a pessimistic or unhappy style from Seligman’s book (see also the link to the Authentic Happiness website on the front page).

In my view, comparing optimists with pessimists is very much the same thing as comparing those who believe in God with those who believe in nothing (which of course is also an act of faith). To divide the ‘camps’ in this way simply into religious and non-religious would be too simplistic of course. Some spiritual beliefs are narrow, constricting and/or pessimistic about the human predicament. Some materialistic worldviews have warmer perspectives and rosier expectations.

It will none the less be found, I feel, if the evidence is systematically sought and examined dispassionately, that, on average, people with a sense of the transcendent, because they have a more positive view of what they can achieve individually and collectively, will enhance their own and their communities’ lives significantly more each decade than will those who, because they take a completely materialistic view of things, have lower expectations of themselves, of others and of what can be achieved. This is an empirical question: it needs to be properly researched. Ken Ring’s work is already pointing strongly in that direction.

Unless someone can produce compelling evidence to the contrary I intend to go on believing the words attributed to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:

As ye have faith, so shall your powers and blessings be.

(Adib Taherzadeh: The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, Vol IV: p 217: )

The Free-Rider Problem

There is one rather disturbing implication of all this.

If this idea is correct, that faith in the transcendent lifts our game and the level of well-being of the communities we live in, the person with a sceptical take on the afterlife, whether (s)he likes it or not, whether that is the intention or not, could well be making a contribution that falls short of his or her capacity as a result. When civilisation is getting as close to the edge of self-destruction as it is at the moment, every little short fall matters and could make the difference between collective survival or collective suicide.

In the worst case scenario, where the falling short is very great, someone who is sceptical to the point of cynicism, or even nihilism (this touches on extremism of all kinds, atheist as well as religious, and will have to wait for another time for a more adequate treatment), could become that bane of all organisations – the free-rider – who reaps the benefits of other people’s efforts without contributing his or her fair share! According to Philip Ball in his book ‘Critical Mass‘, the effect on an organisation of carrying too many such people is to make it unfit to survive.

He writes (page 333):

So why do firms fail? . . . . Once it grows big enough, it becomes a haven for free-riders who capitalize on the efforts of others. So the firm becomes gradually riddled with slackers, until suddenly the other workers decide they have had enough and jump ship. . . . The failure is self-induced.

It is perhaps stretching a point to extrapolate from firms to civilisations, where jumping ship is more like moving to China than changing jobs, but we know that civilisations do fail (See Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse‘).  If there is any truth in this extrapolation, it could therefore mean that our collective survival depends upon enough people waking up to the transcendent, regardless of how the costs of extremism at both ends of the spectrum eventually stack up.

We need to find out what we think for ourselves

I believe it would be very difficult indeed to reach a conclusion about whether faith in a transcendent dimension makes me a better citizen or not. The issue matters so much though that we should not  accept what we’ve been told simply on the authority of other people.

It is worth bearing in mind that nihilism is as much an act of faith as faith in God. If too much nihilism spread across too many people could annihilate us, surely, in all conscience, this is a matter of life and death now and bears painstaking and careful investigation, a scrupulously dispassionate weighing of all the evidence, before finally making up our minds? Bahá’ís believe in the inescapable responsibility of all of us to investigate the truth for ourselves. If you have a thirst to understand these issues you will find much food for thought (though water would of course be more use in quenching a thirst!) at the Baha’i World Centre site as well as through the other links on the front page of this blog.

After such strenuous investigation by everyone, how many of us would then be left to say with any sense of certainty there is no God, no soul, no afterlife?

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