Posts Tagged ‘consciousness’

In the light of Monday’s link to Sharon Rawlette’s review of Leslie Kean’s book Surviving Death, it seemed worth republishing once more this sequence on essentially the same subject from a somewhat different angle. This is the last of the four: they appeared on consecutive days.

Having sought to establish, in his book Close Connections, that there is a spiritual dimension to reality, and that much that materialists see as explained away completely by the brain in fact has its roots in this other dimension, Hatcher shifts his focus onto a closer examination of some of the detailed implications of this.


Jenny Wade

For me,  perhaps the most fascinating one of all concerns the issue of memory. I’ve blogged about it a number of times. It is by no means settled yet what memory is and where it resides. Hatcher deals with this at some length. He explains his model in terms of spirit (page 251):

. . . . according to [the] Bahá’í perspective, the memory of self – even the recollection of specific events – will be retained by the soul and regained once the constraints of the associative relationship with the body are severed and the soul is released from its . . . . indirect connection with reality.‘

It may seem improbable that there could be any empirical basis for this. However, I have reviewed on this blog Jenny Wade’s book – Changes of Mind – and she is unequivocal that for her the evidence in favour of memory being held outside the brain is compelling. She reviews a mass of data based on careful investigations of the experiences of children, either from interviews with children or work with adults about prior experiences. What they described was carefully checked against the reports of independent witnesses (page 44):

Regression subjects … have accurately reported incidents long before any significant brain growthis possible, in some cases before the embryonic body was even formed.


William Wordsworth

Her model states that at conception the soul is independent of the body and its memories can be accessed by the child until about the age of four, after which the body becomes a barrier denying access. This is uncannily reminiscent of Wordsworth’s lines in the Ode on Immortality. I need to quote the whole stanza (lines 59-77):

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

What other evidence have we for supposing something rather more special than a mechanical process is going on here?

For me the growing literature on near death experiences (NDEs), which I have reviewed elsewhere, settles the question that consciousness is not produced by the brain and resides somewhere else. The brain simply decodes it for our body to use. It’s a no-brainer then that memory is no different. The brain can access it but does not contain it. Hatcher discusses other lines of thought that tend in the same direction.

Computer models do not provide an adequate account of how new learning is recorded and memories laid down. On page 252 Hatcher quotes from an article by Joannie Schrof ‘What is a Memory Made of?’

Where a computer encodes data in strings of 0’s and 1’s, the brain forms ephemeral patterns of chemical and electrical impulses. Where computers record information in serial order like an index-card file, the human brain creates sprawling interconnections; more than a hundred billion nerves cells each connected to hundreds of thousands of others to form a billion connections.

In addition, he points towards Robert Rosen‘s book Life Itself (pages 253-54) who writes:

. . . no new information . . . can be processed by a computer if the computer has not already been programmed to consider this information. The brain, however, can effectively create new sequences and new pathways.

Others that I have referred to elsewhere have also raised radical doubts about the computer model. Take Pim van Lommel again, in his book Consciousness beyond LifeHe quotes the conclusions of a computer expert and a neurobiologist (page 193):

Simon Berkovich, a computer expert, has calculated that despite the brain’s huge numbers of synapses, its capacity for storing a lifetime’s memories, along with associated thoughts and emotions, is completely insufficient. . . . . . Neurobiologist Herms Romijn, formerly of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, also demonstrated that the storage of all memories in the brain is anatomically and functionally impossible.

Credibility is lent to the implications of this argument by exceptional but genuine cases of brain damage, take for example (page 194):

John Lorber’s description of a healthy young man with a university degree in mathematics and an IQ of 126. A brain scan revealed a severe case of hydrocephalus: 95 percent of his skull was filled with cerebrospinal fluid, and his cerebral cortex measured only about 2 millimeters thick, leaving barely any brain tissue. The weight of his remaining brain was estimated at 100 grams (compared to a normal weight of 1,500 grams), and yet his brain function was unimpaired.


Karl Pribram (for the YouTube interview this comes from see link)

Though some critics feel that Lorber has overstated his case, the general point that severely compromised brains can function improbably well is not in question.

Where Hatcher goes next surprised me. He draws on the work of Pribram. I had read, as an undergraduate, his early work on plans and the structure of behaviour but perhaps I qualified too soon to benefit from the direction of his later work, that Hatcher refers to now. He describes (page 255) Pribram’s 1985  ‘holographic theory.’

As a concept of how the brain processes ideas or memory, the holographic theory implies that each portion of the brain contributing to the recollected idea would contain the complete thought, not a piece of it.

This took Pribram somewhere even more radically different from what I was taught in the 70s and early 80s (page 257-259):

Pribram has stated that the more he studies the brain and its functions, the more he feels that there may well be something outside the brain that accounts for its activity and capacity! . . . . .  the source from which the brain receives its “program” needs to be greater than the brain itself – the cause has to be greater than the effect it produces.’

And we find ourselves back with a familiar metaphor (page 257):

. . . Pribram has observed that when he studies the brain, he feels that in truth he is examining an elaborate transceiver rather than the ultimate repository of memory, the ultimate origin of self-consciousness, the primal engine of creativity, the seminal source of will, or the instigator of action.

Hatcher pushes this further and confronts the basic question which he feels is unanswerable in material terms (page 258): ‘. . . how can the brain be in charge of making itself function as a brain?’

This for him constitutes irrefutable grounds for believing in a transcendent reality imbued with a higher consciousness (page 258):

The most elaborate and powerful computer we have created or will ever create cannot program itself unless it is programmed to program itself. In short, there must exist for any given machine – or machine model of the brain – some willful input from an outside source for it to have any sense of goals or values, or for it to be capable of evaluating progress towards those goals.

And this brings him to a powerful and important point. We have a delicate and complex instrument entrusted to us for purposes that we are hardly even beginning to understand and we have to treat it with the utmost care and respect (page 259):

. . . the brain, as a counterpart of the soul and its faculties, . . . .  must be capable of mimicking in physical . . . terms everything the soul feels, conceives, decides, or wills. This fact explains why a human soul cannot associate with (operate through) anything less complex or less ingeniously devised than the human brain. . . . . Any practice or substance that distorts the associative relationship between soul and body or that tampers with the brain endangers our ability to function as complete human beings and, thereby, to fulfill our earthly purpose of attaining the knowledge of abstract reality . . .

For me this book pulled together thinking from many disciplines into a coherent and compelling case for the soul. The work he adduces usefully complements my own reading and suggests many directions I could now take it. For that I am most grateful. The least I could do, I felt, was bring this thoughtful book to  the attention of others.

CC books

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Connections 4 Oct 2013

In the light of Monday’s link to Sharon Rawlette’s review of Leslie Kean’s book Surviving Death, it seemed worth republishing once more this sequence on essentially the same subject from a somewhat different angle. This is the third of four: they appear on consecutive days, the last tomorrow.

At the end of the last post I rashly promised to pick up the threads of Hatcher’s overall position on the brain-mind-soul-spirit issue in his valiant effort to explain their interrelationships in Close Connections. So, here goes.

In spite of all that we are not sure about, what is clear, from Hatcher’s and my point of view, is there are four aspects to experience important to any consideration of consciousness:

  1. the body/brain which can up to a point receive messages from
  2. the mind which is related in some way to
  3. the rational soul/human spirit which in turn has some kind of access to
  4. the Spirit with a capital ‘S.’

I am certainly not competent to take the matter any further other than by unpacking what I have just said slightly more clearly.  It is this physical aspect of awareness – the brain – through which we consciously experience what we call our mind, which there is much evidence to suggest has access to a dimension of reality that seems best described as spiritual. I tend to see the ‘human spirit,’ as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá terms it in one place at least, as the ‘soul.’ The mind, whose signals are decoded albeit imperfectly by the brain, emanates from this ‘human spirit’ or ‘soul’ which in turn has access to a spiritual realm of infinite proportions, whose complexities it seeks to transmit to the brain via the mind.

This may be the weakest point of Hatcher’s treatment and/or my understanding of this subject, but I am none the less grateful to him for triggering me to probe somewhat more deeply into the matter than I had done so far, and also to provide me with other avenues to explore for evidence and understanding.

This process by which this kind of communication between spirit and body brings ‘about patterns of action that enable the daily life of the individual to demonstrate an ever more refined spiritual or inner life’ is by no means automatic. Willpower plays a critical role (page 223):

Within this context ‘Abdu’l-Bahá affirms that our own advancement, however much it may be assisted from forces outside ourselves, must be instigated and sustained by our own will.

And there is no wriggle room here, no get-out clauses (page 224):

… while we may have little or no control over the path our life will take or what tests and calamities will befall us, we do have control over how we respond to all circumstances.


Jeffrey Schwartz

This blog has explored two schools of empirically based thought which validate the importance of the exercise of willpower in personal change. Schwartz, in his thorough description of his understanding and its basis in the experimental literature – The Mind and the Brain – sees it this way (his model involves four stages – page 94).

The changes the Four Steps can produce in the brain offered strong evidence that willful [i.e. willed], mindful effort can alter brain function, and that such self-directed brain changes – neuroplasticity – are a genuine reality.

The other approach, which is complementary not contradictory, is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, explored by Hayes at al in the book of the same name (page 247):

Many clients have long-standing and strongly reinforced avoidance repertoires that can be expected to reappear. . . . . . [T]he client’s job is not just to determine a direction but to reaffirm that direction when obstacles appear. . . . . [W]hen we are travelling in a particular direction, the journey can take us across difficult ground. . . . [W]e don’t walk into pain because we like pain. We walk through the pain in the service of taking a valued direction.

Hatcher is not blind to the heated debate which continues to rage around this whole issue between materialists who wish to see everything, including consciousness, explained entirely in physical terms and others who argue for the reality of a metaphysical dimension. His response is clear (page 227):

… The simplest response to [materialistic] arguments is that if these hypotheses are fashioned by the author’s own illusory faculties, then the hypotheses themselves maybe illusory or baseless. In effect, any hypothesis to the contrary has quite as much weight if all suppositions about reality are purely subjective and self-constructed.


We’ve been here before with Alvin Plantinga‘s brilliant and cogently argued hoisting of naturalism’s arguments, rooted in evolutionary theory, with its own petard in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies (page 315):

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

Hatcher goes on to examine evidence that the will can affect not just the brain, as Schwartz has demonstrated, but also physical reality outside the body of the consciousness deploying its intentions. He looks at the work of Jahn and Dunne, for example. They were critically reviewing, amongst other things, what they concluded was the rigorous evidence for tele/psychokinesis (pages 228-29):  ‘Amazingly, the documented results revealed an interplay between the conscious will of the participants and the distribution of the [ping-pong] balls.’ This kind of evidence, as we know, is dismissed a priori by practitioners of scientism on the grounds that they know this is impossible and the experiments must by definition be flawed and therefore not worth looking at let alone seeking to replicate.

While I am not familiar with the experiments Hatcher is referring to I have read two books which look carefully at the research evidence as a whole in the field of parapsychology. Both books come down cautiously in favour of the idea that something genuine is happening in terms of psychokinesis, though the most compelling evidence is derived from studies which involved influencing a random number generator rather than dice, because methodological rigour is easier to achieve. Deborah Delanoy in Jane Henry’s book Parapsychology: research on exceptional experiences quotes Radin and Nelson (page 54) who:

. . . . concluded that “it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that under certain circumstances, consciousness interacts with random physical systems.”

Harvey Irwin in his book An Introduction of Parasychology makes a very sophisticated point about these same data (page 134):

That this phenomena [sic] necessarily entails a “mind over matter” effect as implied by the PK [psychokinesis] hypothesis is another issue. . . . . Statistically significant performances may stem not from a psychokinetic process but from precognitive identification of an appropriate time to commence the experimental series or to make a response in the experimental task. . . . . .  Recent analyses … suggest that this explanation does not fit the data as effectively as the assumption of direct (PK) influence, but the simple fact that the intuitive data sorting hypothesis can be proposed is sufficient to indicate that the PK research is not conclusive for the issue of ontological reality. . . . It cannot be said that a “mind over matter” effect has been authenticated.

Even so, if PK cannot be definitively ruled in because some form of clairvoyance might be at work, this hardly boosts the materialists’ cause.

You may be relieved or disappointed to know that we are now close to the end of Hatcher’s brave and for the most part lucid account of this complex area. He next gets to grips with issues such as memory, the definition of whose exact nature still eludes the experts. More of that in the next post.

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John Hatcher

In the light of Monday’s link to Sharon Rawlette’s review of Leslie Kean’s book Surviving Death, it seemed worth republishing once more this sequence on essentially the same subject from a somewhat different angle. This is the second of four: they appear on consecutive days.

At the close of the previous post, we saw that Hatcher’s explanation of his position in Close Connections so far had paved the way for a number of quotations from the Bahá’í literature.  I have been familiar with these quotes ever since I wrestled with the discrepancy between what I had been taught as an agnostic clinical psychologist in training and what my newly found spiritual path was telling me. They are central to the issues under discussion and were extremely useful to me in my search for a deeper understanding.

First of all he quotes the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (page 196):

Man has also spiritual powers: imagination, which conceives things; thought, which reflects upon realities; comprehension, which comprehends realities; memory, which retains whatever man imagines, thinks and comprehends.

Hatcher then goes on to allude to a problem that is still challenging to grapple with – what are we talking about when we say ‘soul’ and what does it mean when we say ‘spirit’? He quotes the helpful words of Shoghi Effendi (page 206):

What the Bahá’ís do believe though is that we have three aspects of our humanness, so to speak, a body, a mind and and an immortal identity – soul or spirit. We believe the mind forms a link between the soul and the body, and the two interact with each other.

A translation of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá seems to clarify this in a further quotation (page 208): ‘. . . . the soul is the intermediary between the body and spirit.’ This carries an implication that there is a strong link between mind and soul, even if they are not identical. There is another useful quotation from a book which pulls together His responses to questions that people put to Him (page 209):

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

This indicates the closeness of the correspondence.

Light & Lamp

Hatcher spells out the importance for him of the distinction between soul and spirit (page 209):

For our purposes, this distinction will assume more importance as we elaborate the two methodologies by which the spirit operates as the conduit for information channelled to the conscious soul. Hence the distinction between soul and spirit is relevant to our study.

I have to confess I got a bit lost at this point and still am. I am not completely sure whether Hatcher is using ‘conscious soul’ as meaning the same as ‘mind’ in the quote immediately above his words. I am assuming at this point that he is, but that assumption will shortly be severely tested.

Before he deals with the two methodologies there is a bit more ground to cover in the translation of the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (page 213):

For the mind to manifest itself, the human body must be whole; and a sound mind cannot be but in a sound body, whereas the soul dependeth not upon the body. It is through the power of the soul that the mind comprehendeth, imagineth and exerteth its influence, while the soul is a power that is free.

As Hatcher points out later, this is why the Baha’i Writings place such emphasis on the avoidance of drugs and alcohol, both of which cause a degree of damage to the brain, the organ which even at its best will struggle to decode the complex information reaching it from the spiritual realm.

And now for the two methodologies (page 215):

The mind infers or induces the general from the particular and the unknown from the known. This is what we commonly allude to as the scientific method. However, the soul also has as its disposal methods for acquiring information about reality directly from the spiritual realm – through prayer and reflection, meditation, dreams, intuition, inspiration, and so forth.

It’s important to note, though, that (page 216)  ‘. . . regardless from what source information derives, it ends up in the same “place” . . . . . – it ends up in our conscious mind.’

At this point Hatcher summarises what he feels we have learnt so far before moving onto even deeper levels (page 218):

Between the human soul and the human temple is the intermediary of the human spirit, which employs the medium (perfect mirror or transceiver) of the rational faculty or the mind to bring about patterns of action that enable the daily life of the individual to demonstrate an ever more refined spiritual or ‘inner’ life.

Brain-Mind-Spirit Diagram

I have refrained from bringing in other references that Hatcher makes to such terms as ‘rational soul’ and ‘common faculty’ as they would have complicated things further in ways that would have extended this discussion unduly without adding much to its essence. For instance, he explains at the end of the paragraph discussing the ‘rational soul’ (pages 207-208) that: ”Abdu’l-Bahá sometimes employs the term spirit to allude to the human soul, while at other times he may use the same term to refer to the power that animates the soul and emanates from it.’ Later he writes, of the  ‘common faculty,’ (page 238):

The ‘common faculty’ thus translates metaphysical ideas into a form that the physical brain can comprehend and subsequently translate into forms of action.

This is not a concept that I have met anywhere else and addresses a problem that I do not think is widely recognised. We  know next to nothing about how this ‘common faculty’ might perform its role. There has to be a bridge, though, between the immaterial and the material. It is not clear yet by what methods we might come to a better understanding of how it works.

Setting those aside for the purpose of  keeping this review within manageable bounds, if I can summarise my problem at this point it is that we have met, in the last few paragraphs, the following models:

  1. Body (the physical) – Mind (the intermediary) – Soul (the metaphysical): Shoghi Effendi’s explanation.
  2. Body (the physical) – Soul (the intermediary) – Spirit (the metaphysical): ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s explanation.
  3. Mind (an emanation) – Spirit (the immaterial source of the mind): ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s response to a question,
  4. Body (the physical) – Conscious Soul (the intermediary) – Spirit (the metaphysical): Hatcher’s first formulation.
  5. Body (the physical) – Mind (means of inference from specifics) – Soul (direct access to the spiritual): Hatcher’s second formulation.
  6. Human temple (the physical) – Human Spirit using the Mind (the intermediary) – Human Soul: Hatcher’s final formulation.

So my provisional assumption that Hatcher is using ‘soul’ and ‘mind’ as roughly equivalent is not entirely consistent with his usage overall. It may well be that I need to re-read these sections of the book yet again, for the third time, in the hope that I will discover that the confusion is entirely mine. However, I do not have the time (or do I mean the motivation?) to do that at present and I suspect that the fault lies at least in part with the shifting sands of the terminology used here. I find the reasons the Guardian, Shoghi Effendi, gave for his clarification quoted earlier most helpful in this situation. (To be fair, Hatcher also quotes it but I feel loses hold of its core warning on this issue as his discussion progresses.)

When studying at present, in English, the available Bahá’í writings on the subject of body, soul and spirit, one is handicapped by a certain lack of clarity because not all were translated by the same person, and also there are, as you know, still many Bahá’í writings untranslated. But there is no doubt that spirit and soul seem to have been interchanged in meaning sometimes; soul and mind have, likewise, been interchanged in meaning, no doubt due to difficulties arising from different translations.

I think we basically have to leave it there for now, at least as far as the Bahá’í explanation is concerned.  I will pick up the threads of this theme, as far as that is possible, in the next post. The picture below will be the link.

Connections 4 Oct 2013

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Dizzy heights

In the light of Monday’s link to Sharon Rawlette’s review of Leslie Kean’s book Surviving Death, it seemed worth republishing once more this sequence on essentially the same subject from a somewhat different angle. This is the first of four: they will appear on consecutive days.

I recently read John Hatcher’s latest book Understanding Death. The second half was compelling reading and I’d thoroughly recommend it. However, it maps so closely onto so much that I have blogged about recently I thought I’d refrain from reviewing it in detail. It inspired me though to go back to an earlier book of his published in 2005 – Close Connections. Improbable as it might sound to a materialist, this book on spirituality helped keep me grounded in reality recently while I was staying on the dizzying 32nd floor of a Shanghai hotel. While the themes it deals with, unlike the hotel, are not exactly a million miles away from my well trodden home turf, it has much that enriched my understanding further, so I thought reviewing the second half of this book would be well worthwhile.

He looks in the first part of the book, at science, evolution and theodicy, amongst other preoccupations of mine, before he reaches the core topic of his book which I want to look at more closely. I am going to pick up his theme roughly halfway through (page 154): ‘our metaphorical self (our body) is the outward expression of our metaphysical self (our soul).’

The first half of his book has sought to establish that there is both a spiritual and a physical aspect to reality. This is a theme developed elsewhere on this blog so I thought I’d skip that aspect of his argument this time round. I am mainly interested for now on where he goes with this.

Much that he says has echoes of my other reading and I’ll point this up where it seems appropriate to do so.

He sees parallels between the maturation of the individual and of society (page 162).

Even as the advancement of the human body politic is portrayed in [Baha’i] terms of an “ever-advancing civilisation,” so the advancement of the individual can be portrayed in terms of an ever more inclusive or expansive definition of “self” . . . . an expanding sense of one’s relationships with and obligations to others, even eventually to the whole of mankind.


Robert Wright

The resonates with Robert Wright in The Evolution of God and Jeremy Rifkin in The Empathic Civilisation. Wright’s position is captured in a quote I’ve used in an earlier post:

The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.

(page 428-429)

Jeremy Rifkin, in his searching book, The Empathic Civilisation, takes a more nuanced position but nonetheless highlights the positive power of empathy (page 16):

Much of our daily interaction with our fellow human beings is empathic because that is the core of our nature. Empathy is the very means by which we create social life and advance civilisation.

A recent article suggests that the empathy debate is a vigorous one.

From here Hatcher moves through familiar territory marshalling evidence in support of the metaphysical including near death experiences (NDEs) for example. There is much on this blog on this subject also (see the earlier links) so again I will not dwell on this.

It’s when he refers to Larry Dossey quoting the work of Paul Davies (page 180-81) that we move closer to the core of my current preoccupations.

‘What stuff is the soul made of?’ he asks.  ‘The question is as meaningless as asking what stuff citizenship or Wednesdays are made of. The soul is a holistic concept.’ This essential concept of ‘the mind,’ or ‘self,’ or ‘soul’ or ‘consciousness’ as nonlocal and nonmaterial – though capable of interacting with physical reality – is critical to our discussion.

pim v l

Pim van Lommel

This proves to be a truly challenging issue once you get up close, as we will see in the sequence of four posts.

The start is deceptively familiar, straightforward even. He brings in, at this point, the metaphor of the ‘transceiver’ which I had already met in the work of Pim van Lommel who unpacks it in his book Consciousness beyond Life (page 68 – see an earlier post for a fuller treatment):

The computer does not produce the Internet any more than the brain produces consciousness. The computer allows us to add information to the Internet just like the brain is capable of adding information from our body and senses to our consciousness.

Hatcher puts it this way (page 181):

To consider that the consciousness and its powers (will, memory, rational thought) can function through a transceiver (the brain) without being localised is at the heart of the Bahá’í concept of an ‘associated’ or ‘counterpart’ relationship between the physical self (especially the brain) and the metaphysical self (the soul). Dossey states the concept succinctly: ‘the fact that the mind maybe nonlocal does not mean that it could not act through the brain.’

These ideas, I have recently discovered, have their roots in the thinking of a 19th Century pioneer in this area, FWHMyers. Kelly in the book Irreducible Mind summarises a key part of his position (page 73):

. . . the biological organism, instead of producing consciousness, is the adaptive mechanism that limits and shapes ordinary waking consciousness out of this larger, mostly latent, Self

After exploring the effects of prayer, he draws on the insights of Lothar Schafer (pages 184-85): ‘. . . the background of reality has mind-like qualities.’ This is reminiscent of what Amit Goswami, the physicist, described in an interview about his book, The Self-Aware Universe:

So then one time — and this is where the breakthrough happened — my wife and I were in Ventura, California and a mystic friend, Joel Morwood, came down from Los Angeles, and we all went to hear Krishnamurti. And Krishnamurti, of course, is extremely impressive, a very great mystic. So we heard him and then we came back home. We had dinner and we were talking, and I was giving Joel a spiel about my latest ideas of the quantum theory of consciousness and Joel just challenged me. He said, “Can consciousness be explained?” And I tried to wriggle my way through that but he wouldn’t listen. He said, “You are putting on scientific blinders. You don’t realize that consciousness is the ground of all being.” He didn’t use that particular word, but he said something like, “There is nothing but God.”

And something flipped inside of me which I cannot quite explain. This is the ultimate cognition, that I had at that very moment. There was a complete about-turn in my psyche and I just realized that consciousness is the ground of all being. I remember staying up that night, looking at the sky and having a real mystical feeling about what the world is, and the complete conviction that this is the way the world is, this is the way that reality is, and one can do science.

This paves the way for a close consideration of the light that the Baha’i Writings shed on this intriguing and all-important matter. Consideration of that will have to wait till the next post. It’s where concepts get really slippery and hard to hold onto.

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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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LamberthIs consciousness spirit, mind or brain?

Or none of the above perhaps?

Just kidding.

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

‘Doubt Wisely’

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

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

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

We are both performing an act of faith.

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

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

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

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

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

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

mind v3The Emanation Shock

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

The words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the Founder of the Faith, were a bit of a shock to me at first: ‘. . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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