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Mirror of the DivineHow is it possible for a person who simply sets words to paper, who plucks a string or dabs colour on a canvas, to play… a remarkable role in the spiritual life of man? The key lies in the fact that art has a direct and real effect on the human soul.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 81)

Both because I am about to revisit the purpose of literature in terms of poetry this time, and because it involves discussing the kind of bleakness this sequence references, it seemed doubly appropriate to republish it so soon after the last time, earlier this year. It is coming out on consecutive days.

To explore further this issue of whether or not there is a self beneath the flux of consciousness with some hope of clarity, I need to go back to what Harris says: ‘The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows’ and ‘consciousness is intrinsically free of self.’

The No Self Issue

He may have disposed of the self in a way that preserves his atheism intact. What he skates over are the implications of the consciousness with which he is left. I can see that we are close to Buddhist ideas of the annihilation of the self as it merges back into the ground of being – blending its drop into the ocean once more.

But there’s a catch, isn’t there? There is still some kind of consciousness albeit without the usual boundaries. There is still an awareness with which he is connected and whose experience he remembers even if he cannot sustain that kind of awareness for long.

Setting aside my sense, which I have explored at length elsewhere, that the mere existence of consciousness warrants a transcendent explanation, and that reductionist explanations are missing the point, where does this leave us?

Eben Alexander

Eben Alexander

I am reminded here of the detailed, and in my view completely trustworthy, account of a near death experience given by Eben Alexander. I have dealt elsewhere on this blog with books that explore near death experiences (NDEs) in a more scientific way (see above links). I have chosen to quote here from one person’s experience partly because it is more appropriate to this examination of literature and also because it counterbalances Harris’s one-person account. If sceptics are happy to accept Harris’s conclusions from his experience, I can see no reason for me not to accept Alexander’s.

I need to quote from it at some length to make its relevance completely clear. Describing the early stages of his NDE he finds it frankly bizarre (page 77):

To say that at that point in the proceedings I still had no idea who I was or where I’d come from sounds somewhat perplexing, I know. After all, how could I be learning all these stunningly complex and beautiful things, how could I see the girl next to me, and the blossoming trees and waterfalls and villagers, and still not know that it was I, Eben Alexander, who was the one experiencing them? How could I understand all that I did, yet not realize that on earth I was a doctor, husband, and father?

The girl accompanies him through almost all the stages of his journey. When he makes his improbable recovery from the week-long encephalitis-induced coma, as an adopted child he goes back to exploring his birth family, an exploration interrupted almost before it began by his life-threatening illness. He makes contact and discovers that he had had a birth sister who died. When he finally sees the photograph of her a dramatic realization slowly dawns (pages 166-167):

In that one moment, in the bedroom of our house, on a rainy Tuesday morning, the higher and the lower worlds met. Seeing that photo made me feel a little like the boy in the fairy tale who travels to the other world and then returns, only to find that it was all a dream—until he looks in his pocket and finds a scintillating handful of magical earth from the realms beyond.

As much as I’d tried to deny it, for weeks now a fight had been going on inside me. A fight between the part of my mind that had been out there beyond the body, and the doctor—the healer who had pledged himself to science. I looked into the face of my sister, my angel, and I knew—knew completely—that the two people I had been in the last few months, since coming back, were indeed one. I needed to completely embrace my role as a doctor, as a scientist and healer, and as the subject of a very unlikely, very real, very important journey into the Divine itself. It was important not because of me, but because of the fantastically, deal-breakingly convincing details behind it. My NDE had healed my fragmented soul. It had let me know that I had always been loved, and it also showed me that absolutely everyone else in the universe is loved, too. And it had done so while placing my physical body into a state that, by medical science’s current terms, should have made it impossible for me to have experienced anything.

Proof-of-HeavenHe, as a sceptical scientist, on the basis of his very different experience, made a different decision from that of Harris.

His whole account absolutely requires careful reading. It is to be trusted in my view first of all because it is written by someone who was, before his NDE, an atheist, as Harris is, secondly because he is an academic as well as a highly regarded neurosurgeon with much to lose from declaring himself as a believer in such things, and lastly because he followed the advice of his son and recorded the whole experience before reading any NDE literature that might have unduly influenced his narrative.

What do the passages I have just quoted suggest?

Well, I think they bridge the gap between what Harris describes and what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá tells us (Tablets: page 730):

Know thou for a certainty that in the divine worlds the spiritual beloved ones will recognize one another, and will seek union with each other, but a spiritual union. Likewise a love that one may have entertained for anyone will not be forgotten in the world of the Kingdom, nor wilt thou forget there the life that thou hadst in the material world.

How come?

For a start, it shows someone conscious but without any memory for who he is – awareness stripped of self, in the terms we are using here. This leaves me feeling it maps onto, even if it goes beyond, the state of mind Harris describes.

So, with at least some resemblance to an extreme meditative state, it takes us one step further. It demonstrates consciousness without a brain. The coma has helpfully disconnected his brain, without any need for him to learn how to do it himself via meditation, and yet he is still aware.

Even more amazing is that, with his brain shut down, he has been able to retain detailed memories of a rich week-long experience and begin the process of reintegrating it into his brain-bound identity.

Equally surprisingly, a consciousness he didn’t know but which clearly knew him, a survivor of the body’s death, connects with him. Even though, in this NDE Alexander has forgotten who he is, and therefore does not confirm that aspect of what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote, the consciousness of his dead sister had obviously retained a sense of who she had been and what her relationships were, even when there had been no interaction physically with Alexander during her mortal life. It seems legitimate to assume that, if Alexander’s experience is a precursor to an eternal afterlife, there would be time for him to reconnect with memories of who he was.

What has all this got to do with los Solitarios and Lehrer’s ideas about the novel?

Just to clarify, I am not simplistically concluding that all the Solitarios are equally reductionist. Pessoa, Machado and Rilke each have their own more spiritual take on reality at times. What I am suggesting here is that Proust and Beckett, along with other modernists such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, have fallen into the modernist trap to some degree.

Why do I call it a trap?

Once we deny any form of spiritual or transcendent reality it is only a short step to concluding that life has no meaning beyond what we arbitrarily give to it. Beckett’s existential despair becomes a predictable symptom, as does what Richard Davenport-Hines summarized as the degenerative, secularised squalor of the world Proust saw around him and depicted in his work.

A further consequence of this world picture is a powerful sense of alienation. This adds to the dispiriting bleakness of life as experienced through this lens. Both Beckett and Proust lived lives that were profoundly disconnected from the social world around them. I am on dangerous ground here if I simplistically attribute this disconnection only to their materialistic approach to the world. My other Solitarios are equally alienated from the social world but, with the possible exception of Rilke, do not inhabit as bleak a subjective reality. My contention is that the combination of a tendency to extreme introversion combined with a reductionist worldview is a toxic prescription for despair. As such the literature it engenders will render a seriously distorted view of existence.

If their versions of reality are unbalanced, what to do?

Is the novel, part of Beckett’s and all of Proust’s greatest work, an inherently materialist form? Is the same true of drama as well, so no get-out for Beckett there? Is only poetry suitable for and tending towards spiritual matters, hence the difference that exists between these two novelists and the work of Rilke, Machado and Pessoa?

The quality of Beckett’s and Proust’s writing is indisputable: the deficiencies of their moral and spiritual perspective create significant flaws in their overall achievement. What, if any, might be the remedy?

Beckett clearly felt there was none.

His absolute refusal to attempt anything of the kind may be part of the reason why Beckett as a writer fails to engage my interest. Few writers have ever seemed as trapped as Beckett was in a pillar-box consciousness that struggles and fails to find meaning in anything at all. I still fail to resonate to the overall negativity and nihilism of his world view, of the kind that meant that towards the end of his life, when he was asked (Cronin – page 590), ‘And now it’s nearly over, Sam, was there much of the journey you found worthwhile?’ he replied ‘Precious little.’

Reading Proust is less of a journey into an existential Arctic. However, although he has a strong sense of what he feels is right, the world his work explores has lost its moral compass a long time ago.

Three novels immediately spring to mind as having combined darkness with light in  a more balanced way.

tenant-of-wildfell-hallI recently drew attention to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The journal of the heroine is a disturbing description of an abusive marriage. Helen mistakenly marries the vulpine and narcissistic Huntington, and laments (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Penguin Edition Chapter 29 – page 243):

I have need of consolation in my son, for (to this silent paper I may confess it) I have but little in my husband. I love him still; and he loves me, in his own way — but oh, how different from the love I could have given, and once had hoped to receive! how little real sympathy there exists between us; how many of my thoughts and feelings are gloomily cloistered within my own mind; how much of my higher and better self is indeed unmarried — doomed either to harden and sour in the sunless shade of solitude, or to quite degenerate and fall away for lack of nutriment in this unwholesome soil!

And although she trusts things will get no worse, she is sadly mistaken.

What interests me particularly is the way that Emily Brontë blends her faith with her art. It’s signposted there with Helen’s use of the expression ‘higher and better self.’

Her novel integrates her faith with her art in way that adds depth, a depth upon which too much of modern art and writing has turned its back. I accept that some will find Helen’s piety disquieting in that it initially seems to influence her to suffer in silence. Even during that period though it gives her strength to cope with her husband’s oppressive vagaries, while also enabling her to hold onto the necessary critical perspective that means she never succumbs to the temptation to tolerate them as in some way acceptable.

Even more impressively, in the end we see Helen demonstrating that such piety is not incompatible with constructive self-assertion when the occasion demands it. The prime activating consideration here for Helen was the welfare of her son, whom she wished to rescue from the corrupting influence of his father (pages 352-53):

My child must not be abandoned to this corruption: better far that he should live in poverty and obscurity with a fugitive mother, than in luxury and affluence was such a father. . . I could endure it for myself, but for my son it must be borne no longer.

Bahiyyih-Nakhjavani-009

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall blends art and spirituality superbly well: another book that comes close is Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s masterpiece The Woman Who Read Too Mucha brilliant evocation of the life and times of the woman given the name Táhirih(“The Pure One”), who famously stated at her point of death at the hands of a group of assassins: ‘You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women!’

I must also include Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.  To quote the Goodread’s review: ‘Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows “even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order” (Slate).’

It clearly can be done, and, if those three books are anything to go by, a strong focus on the consciousness of the characters depicted does not require a reductionist approach. These novels are very much in the tradition of Joyce, Beckett and Proust in this respect. But they do not lack a sense of the spiritual or transcendent also.

In addition, for me at least, they combine the capturing of consciousness with some form of interest-sustaining narrative, and it’s the echoes of the story and its implications that linger longest in my memory. If an author strays too far from some form of narrative it is possible he might diminish the long-term impact of his book on the reader.

Interestingly, all three books are by women authors.

Art, in my view, should create an experience that deepens our understanding of reality without unduly distorting it. Paradoxically, feminine writers are more effective in that respect than masculine ones, it seems. (It may be that ultimately I mean writers of a female cast of mind regardless of ostensible gender.)

Anyhow, when I now ponder on my current pantheon of novelists, women outnumber men. Jane Austen, the Brontês, Mary Anne Evans (pen name George Eliot), Elizabeth Gaskell, Doris Lessing, Hilary Mantell, A S Byatt, Margaret Attwood, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani and Marilynne Robinson, to name but the most important to me, leave Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad and Fyodor Doestoyevsky trailing forlornly in the rear.

This realisation has come as a bit of a shock to me. I hadn’t expected it to turn out quite such a one-sided contest. It was not always thus – it’s only since I recently realised that Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and William Makepeace Thackeray amongst others, have fallen from grace in my mind’s eye over the years.

I need to digest this insight and test its validity against a re-reading of some of the authors I’ve just mentioned before I leap to a firm conclusion that those with a feminine cast of mind seem to hold the balance between spirit and matter, plot and consciousness, better on the whole than those whose orientation is more macho.

Whatever the truth of the gender idea may be, that at least some writers can achieve this balance confirms it is not impossible, and, if we believe as I do, that there is a spiritual dimension to reality, for the reasons I have given throughout this blog, then art has a duty to incorporate it into its representations of experience. It does not need to do so explicitly, any more than The Handmaid’s Tale has to spell out in detail the moral code that condemns the abuses it depicts but the moral code has to at least be implicit and not completely absent.

Well, that new slant on things has made my rather demoralising exploration of Proust and Beckett well worthwhile.

There will soon be more on the value of the feminine perspective.

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Mirroring the Light

Mirroring the Light

A pure heart is as a mirror; cleanse it with the burnish of love and severance from all save God, that the true sun may shine within it and the eternal morning dawn. Then wilt thou clearly see the meaning of “Neither doth My earth nor My heaven contain Me, but the heart of My faithful servant containeth Me.”

(Bahá’u’lláhThe Seven Valleys‘: pages 21-22 which ends with a hadith or tradition about a saying of Muhammad.)

Revisiting ‘The Marriage of Self and Soul‘ triggered me into thinking there would be some value in republishing this sequence from 2009. The first three posts appeared consecutively: the last two will come out next Tuesday and Wednesday.

Is the soul a smoke and mirrors job?

There is, in some scientistic quarters where materialism is dogmatic rather than enquiring, a prevailing distrust of any statements of a mystical nature. This scepticism routinely crosses over into suspicions of insanity even when the source of the mystical statement would, on closer investigation, be found to demonstrate a strong, balanced and exemplary character without any other sign of delusion. In fact, in the real world as against in the fantasies of reductionists, mystics are almost invariably very practical people, something that gives their mystical pronouncements added credibility in my view.

Ever since the so-called Enlightenment, our culture has been increasingly losing the ability to discriminate between madness  (seen as meaningless because hallucinatory and delusional, though for reasons I argue elsewhere not necessarily meaningless even so) and mysticism, which is not hallucinatory or delusional in any acceptable sense of those words. I would earnestly request anyone harbouring such a sceptical tendency as I describe, to suspend their habit of disbelief for a few moments for reasons that will become clear as this exploration advances.

Before you read beyond them I would like you ponder on which of the following passages was written by a philosopher and which by a religious person.

Meditation, the first man says:

. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.

The second man states of meditation that it:

. . . frees man from [his] animal nature [and] discerns the reality of things.

Even though I tried to equalise the style you probably got it right. The first statement comes from Peter Koestenbaum (The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy page 99) and the second from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (Paris Talks: page 175).

I think you will agree though that they are more complementary than in conflict.

What each goes on to say is even more intriguing. Koestenbaum ends by saying:

The name Western Civilisation has given to . . .  the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s words are:

[Meditation] puts man in touch with God.

A Plan in The Mind's Mirror

A Plan in The Mind’s Mirror

The terms meditation, reflection and contemplation are used almost synonymously in many passages. In discussing what he terms reflection within the existentialist tradition, Koestenbaum speaks of it as ‘separating consciousness from its contents.’  It can be also termed disidentification when it involves separating our consciousness from our ideas of ourselves and leads into the deepest levels of our being.

So, it is not just mystics that find our ability to reflect remarkable. Existentialism, which is not known for a fairytale take on experience, gives it tremendous weight as does the Bahá’í approach. This is not a trivial issue. Both schools of thought, and many therapeutic approaches, see reflection in this strong sense as a key pathway to personal transformation, self-transcendence and the enhancement of society.

The Importance of Experience

We will postpone for a moment whether this entails an acceptance of other things such as the reality of the soul. What it does mean is that this capacity we have is subject to the test of experience by all of us. And when we try it out we may find it leads us in unexpected directions that call into question some of our most cherished assumptions. It will inevitably do so because it separates us at least for a moment from those assumptions, cuts across our identification with them, and enables us to look at them afresh. This is why we need to be prepared to suspend our disbelief long enough to put these ideas to an empirical test.

Our culture embraces its own narrow idea of empiricism. By this it generally means only controlled experimentation and excludes

A Feeling in The Mind's Mirror

A Feeling in The Mind’s Mirror

personal exploration through experience. There are many things in this world that we can only discover by doing not by reading, talking or thinking about them. Nor can we understand them by a method of scientific exploration that turns people into objects rather than subjects. In ‘objective’ mode, we become like a colour-blind neuropsychologist who knows everything about the way the brain processes colour but can never know what colour is like when we see it (I have adapted this comparison from David J. Chalmers: page 103).

Experiencing our ‘self’, in the fullest and deepest sense of that chameleon word, in order to discover who we really are, is one of those things.

So, I have a challenge for us all. I am suggesting that between now and the next post we all try the following experiment. We need to find a quiet space to do the following exercise at least once a day: it shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes. It is based on ideas from Psychosynthesis, psychology, Existentialism and the Bahá’í tradition. It is worth persisting with even if it feels somewhat artificial at first. Not to even try is pre-empting the possibility of an experience that could expand our minds. It works best if we approach it with open-minded curiosity as a personal experiment, not as a holy grail or a superstitious ritual.

Separating the Mirror from its Reflections

Sit comfortably and at first simply read the following suggestions several times. When you feel ready, close your eyes, breath slowly and gently, and in your mind repeat the suggestions to yourself at least three times. Put your own ideas into the round brackets if you wish.

I have thoughts but I am not my thoughts. My thoughts change from moment to moment. Just now I was thinking of (money): right now I am thinking of (these words): soon my mind will be preoccupied with (my next meal). So I cannot be my thoughts. I am my capacity to think, the well spring of all my thoughts.

I have feelings, but I am not my feelings. My feelings change from moment to moment. One minute I’m feeling (angry), perhaps; the next moment I’m feeling (sad). So, I cannot be my feelings. I am my capacity to feel from which all other feelings grow.

I have plans, but I am not my plans. My plans change from moment to moment. One minute I plan to be (rich), perhaps; the next moment I plan to be a (poet). So, I cannot be my plans. I am my capacity to will from which all my plans grow.

I am a mirror of pure capacities. I am a mirror created to reflect the highest possible reality. I will do all in my power to cleanse this mirror and turn it towards the highest imaginable realities.

(This exercise is an adaptation of the Disidentification Exercise originally described in `Psychosynthesis’ by Roberto Assagioli: see earlier link.)

Next time we will take a long look at the implications of this. We will look at what the distinction between a mirror and what it reflects suggests about us. In the meantime, happy mirroring!

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Mirroring the Light

Mirroring the Light

A pure heart is as a mirror . . .

In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love . . . .

Bahá’u’lláh: The Seven Valleys (page 21) & Persian Hidden Words No. 3

Revisiting ‘The Marriage of Self and Soul‘ triggered me into thinking there would be some value in republishing this sequence from 2009. The first three posts will appear consecutively: the last two next Tuesday and Wednesday.

I want to deal with only two more complex issues. Both of them stem from our experience of what might be our soul. The two quotations from Bahá’u’lláh give us a sense of what those issues might be. These posts could go on for a while yet!

The Mirror and the Garden

The first issue is to do with how we can feel there is an infinity inside us and how that relates to the ability of our mind to watch itself. We will be talking a lot about mirrors, hearts and minds later.

The second issue is one that Dennett raises which needs to be addressed more closely than I did last time. He states that the brain is a parallel processor of great complexity and that serial consciousness is what computing people would call virtual not real: in simple terms the more complicated parallel processor underneath, which can do lots of things at once (‘Not a man, then!’ did you say?), fakes our experience of thinking one thing at a time in a time-line.

Guy Claxton deals with much the same issue by using the analogy of interconnected octopuses to describe the brain’s complexity. Both

Octopus

Octopus

agree, as I do (and Jonathan Haidt as well in his elephant and rider metaphor), that the brain, whether or not we have a soul, can do an awful lot of complicated things without our feeling anything at all and can go its own way in spite of us sometimes.

This is the issue that will involve us in talking about gardens as way of describing hearts and minds. We will be exploring whether the relationship between our conscious mind and the rest of our mind is rather like the relationship between gardeners and their gardens. You will have to bear, more than you usually do, with my limitations here: my hands-on experience of gardening is derived only from the deckchair.

In the end I hope to use all this to shed light on whether I have a soul and whether my will is free.

Mind and Brain

We have to get some basic stuff out of the way first before we tackle the fascinating surfaces of our mind’s mirrors and the fertile depths of our heart’s gardens.

I ended the previous post wondering what it is like to experience my soul. I hinted that there is something about our inner experience, something with which we are all very familiar, which might just be the end of a piece of string that is tied to our soul, the experience of soul in consciousness if you like.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, along with therapies like Psychosynthesis as well as Existentialist writers and millenia of meditators, have all homed in on the one same remarkable capacity of our minds. I can look into my own mind and watch it: we can reflect. I can see the contents of my consciousness passing through my mind. ‘Oh look!’ I can say to myself, ‘There’s a feeling of anger. There’s a thought about fish and chips. Oh, and there goes a plan to go shopping tomorrow.’ I think we all know what that feels like already or can at least confirm that we can do it with just a small amount of effort: we can separate our consciousness from its contents.

How do we do that though and what does it mean?

Some say it’s a by-product of language. That’s the A.C.T. explanation. “I speak therefore I can talk as though I am watching my mind.’ Others dress up their explanatory bankruptcy in fancier ways. ‘It’s an epiphenomenon of the brain’s complexity.’ Epiphenomenon means by-product. It also is used to indicate that this ability is accidental and pointless: all the really important stuff is going on underneath where the neurons are firing. ‘I’ve got more connections in my brain than atoms in the universe, so I think my mind can watch itself, ha, ha! It’s got no idea what’s going on.’

Some are more charitable. “Well, when you get complex systems you do sometimes get an emergent property that’s more than the sum of its parts.’ Consciousness and self-reflection would fall into this category. ‘My brain’s so complicated it’s better than its bits so I really can watch my mind working. More than that, my mind can change the brain as well as being affected by the brain.’

Now that really is something.

It either demonstrates an emergent property or suggests that the mind and brain might be different kinds of stuff. It really does happen as well. For instance, wiring a very antisocial late-teenager’s head (i.e. late meaning 18 or 19, but not dead yet or behind time in this case!) to a feedback machine, so he could learn how to increase the activity of the frontal lobes which control impulsive behaviour, led to more active frontal lobes. His grades improved, his crime rate slumped to zero and he stopped using drugs. That doesn’t sound like the brain was really calling all the shots to me.

The Spiritual Perspective

So, the mind can watch itself and also change the way the brain functions in significant ways. Why might that be more than an emergent property?

First of all, in the Pam Reynolds experience, which is not unique, we had, in my view, solid proof that her mind gathered and remembered information that her brain could never have gleaned or stored. It operated separately. The idea of mind/brain separation, therefore has evidence in its favour (See also Jenny Wade’s ‘Changes of Mind‘ for a full discussion of mind/brain separation in infancy and beyond). No theory connected with mind as an emergent property has ever predicted that. It goes way beyond what would have been expected.

That’s the kind of externally corroborated evidence that science likes to find but in this case prefers to ignore as what it demonstrates is held to be impossible.

More importantly though, there is the evidence of our own subjective experience. Remember the disparagement of free will? It’s an illusion, Dennett says. Such people also say that our experience of being able to look at our minds isn’t what it feels like. But why should we believe them about this any more than we should believe them when they say we do not really have free will? Is this another lamp post that needs kicking?

Who is it then that we can get in touch with when we watch ourselves? Who was there when we look back on every aspect of our lives at every period and feel we were the same self doing the watching then? Every cell in our bodies has since been changed. Is it really just a trick of language, neuronal connections or memory? Is there really no genuine constant sense of a real inner self observing all we do?

We all have to make our own decision about what that experience means. I think it is quite reasonable to say that it suggests that my mind is made of different stuff from my brain although it uses it. It is at least as reasonable to conclude that as to conclude that it’s all down to the neurons.

In another post there may be an opportunity to look at the work of Margaret Donaldson and Ken Wilber who both brilliantly advocate in their very different ways the value of subjective experience as data about reality. Many people can keep replicating the same experience by the same spiritual practices in very different cultures: that means something, they argue, about the true nature of reality. Newberg, D’Aquili and Rause have the humility to admit that even though we can pin down exactly what’s going on in the brain at the same time as these experiences, this doesn’t mean they’re not real anymore than understanding the neurobiology of colour vision proves that colour doesn’t exist. The fact that our brains turn wavelengths of light into the experience of colour does not mean there is nothing out there corresponding to the experience, even though green and 510 nanometres seem to have very little in common!

If I can carry you with me rather further now, let’s see in the next post where this possibility can take us. It is worth reminding ourselves again here that the word we use to describe this ability of the mind is ‘reflection.’ Next time we will be exploring mirrors, hearts, selves and consciousness. Not much to look forward to then.

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How dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form

When within thee the universe is folded?

(Ali, Successor to Muhammad,

quoted by Bahá’u’lláh in ‘The Seven Valleys‘ page 34)

sunset

Revisiting ‘The Marriage of Self and Soul‘ triggered me into thinking there would be some value in republishing this sequence from 2009. The first three posts will appear consecutively: the last next Tuesday and Wednesday.

Star-Stuff

Near death experiences come to the same conclusion as Ali:

As I indicated at the outset, what I have quoted here from our conversation describes only a portion of Mellen’s NDE, but it is enough, I think, to make clear that his vision is one of absolute wholeness in which all things are connected in a living cosmic web of organic unity. The visible universe is a universe of vibrating fields within fields, a dance of exquisite harmony, where, as Blake said, “Energy is eternal delight,” and everything sings of God’s immanent presence. At its core, exfoliating from the Void, is that radiant Light, which some have called the Central Sun, and which metaphorically may have its physical representation in the Big Bang, the genesis of it all, including the star-stuff we call ourselves. Because all things are truly one within this vision of life, we human beings-indeed, all living creatures-are one body indivisible and, as such, not separate from God either, but His very manifestation.

(‘Lessons from the Light‘: page 291)

Reductionists, those who would explain everything in the simplest possible material terms and insist there is nothing left over, find all such experiences irrelevant to an understanding of ‘reality.’ When we explore the issue carefully though, it is my belief that we will find a way of reconciling the idea of a soul and a limitless interior (inscape as I called it in an earlier post) with ordinary human experience.

Let’s start relatively small.

The Ghost in the Machine

The argument rages over whether the ghost in the machine, the pilot in the cockpit of our being, really exists or not. The question would then become not ‘Are we a self or a soul?’ but ‘Are we even a self?’

Daniel Dennett is clear. There is no ghost whatsoever in the machine. It’s a myth. Serial consciousness is itself an illusion. We also kid ourselves  if we believe for one moment that the self we feel ourselves to be is really in charge.

I’d better say, right at the outset, I’m not a philosopher as Dennett is. I am or was until I retired an applied psychologist by profession and before that a teacher of English Literature. When it comes to philosophy I’m about as advanced as Dr Johnson when he kicked a lamp post to refute Bishop Berkeley‘s solipsistic claim that things existed only as ideas in our minds placed there by God.

I will argue none the less that Dennett is fundamentally mistaken.

He produces what for him is compelling evidence that our complex brain has plotted and initiated its responses before we were even aware of what we intended to do let alone had the faintest possibility of making a decision about it. The fact is though he is talking about a response time experiment when we also know, for instance, that athletes delegate their decision to react to the gun to parts of the brain that respond subliminally before conscious attention gets the signal. That’s one of the reasons you get false starts.

But the decision to delegate is not made by those parts of the brain. So that we do not get eaten all that often by tigers and the like, evolution has shaped us to be able, in emergency situations, to react faster than we can think: that does not mean we choose to do that all the time. It’s not how we decide to buy a house or write a book. If it were ‘Consciousness Explained‘, the Dennett book in which this theory is propounded, would simply be the product of the automatic processes of a complex calculating machine not the purposeful carefully wrought creation of a person.

The brain has also evolved to automate well-learned skills such as driving a car. We’ve all had the experience of driving several  miles on ‘automatic pilot.’ To suppose, as Dennett seems to do, that  this is the same kind of process as deciding where to drive is treating mud as though it were cheese. Even if we were blindfolded with a peg on our nose, the latter error would become immediately obvious when we put the mud in our mouth. Unfortunately we do not have a similar palate wired in for distinguishing logic from confusion. So, Dennett gets away with his extravagant overgeneralisation. We end up believing, if we are not very careful, that my decision to go and visit my cousin in Manchester was not an act of will but of unseen processes in the brain automatically unfolding.

I’m afraid free will is a lamp post for me. When I decided to write this blog I kicked it and it was definitely there. (The brain’s complex automation adds a further complication to this which, for simplicity’s sake here, I am deferring to a later post: in spite of it I still can kick my lamp post of free will!)

But if there is still some kind of ghost in the machine what kind of ghost and what kind of machine are we talking about?

Identity, Self, Character and Soul

Previous posts on this blog looked at some of the arguments and evidence as to whether or not we will enjoy some kind of afterlife. If this belief has substance, then we have some kind of soul. What are the implications of that for our identity?

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in his conversations with Laura Clifford Barney (Some Answered Questions [SAQ]: Page 212), explained that there are three kinds of character: the inherited, the acquired and the innate.

`The inherited character’, which he sees as the source of weakness of strength, most closely corresponds in layman’s terms to the idea of `temperament’ or `constitution’. ‘The acquired character,’ which for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is the source of good and evil, has no simple equivalent being a composite of all that results from our life experiences: the concepts that stand closest to it are the `empirical self’, (which interacts with others, performs social roles and meets the gaze of introspection), and, perhaps, the `personality’ (which, it is claimed by some, can be measured by questionnaires and tests but generally has no moral implications for the psychologist who studies it).  The last, `the innate character’, is described as `purely good’ because it is a `divine creation.’ This seems to relate it closely to the human soul: `The personality of the rational soul is from its beginning; it is not due to the instrumentality of the body . . .’ (SAQ, page 240).

This description suggests that our sense of who we are is likely to be a composite and we may choose at different times to identify with these different aspects. We could be a self and a soul on this model, and not have to choose between the two as the title of this post suggested.

It is easy to see how we come to identify with our body and with the character we slowly develop as we grow and learn from interactions with the world and with other people. It may be harder, if not impossible for some of us, to experience our soul at all let alone identify with it.

How do we do that? What does it feel like?

Those are big questions and will have to wait for the next post.

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There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

Robert Graves

I was going to attempt something tricky in the first two posts of this sequence. I planned to try and capture the strange impact of reading today a book that resonates strongly with a deeply influential book I read and took detailed notes from 40 years ago.

I’ve recently explained in the last sequence of posts partly why I revisited the notes from Koestenbaum’s The New Image of the Person in my diary of those days. This exploration should have given a sense of some important resonances as well as of Koestenbaum’s important role in my journey towards a renewed religious faith. So, given the difficulty of the present task, given that I’ve probably already said enough on that theme, and given that there is too much to say about McGilchrist in any case, I’ve decided to abandon that plan.

So, the main focus will be on The Matter with Things.

As a warning it is only fair for me to say that what I manage to convey in the next few posts is barely scratching the surface. (Incidentally, so far, at the time of writing these words, I have also only read the first volume’s 778 pages of main text plus appendices and taken a quick look at Chapter 28.) My purpose is mostly to whet your appetite so that you will be tempted to jump into the text for yourselves. What I’ll be trying to do as well, though, is to dig a bit deeper, in the later posts, into issues that are particularly close to my heart, such as the nature of so-called schizophrenia.

A Built in Bias

Carette and King, in their thought-provoking book Selling Spirituality make a claim that resonates strongly with me. In their view, neoliberal capitalism has morphed into what is effectively a religion:[1] they describe ‘corporate capitalism’ as ‘the economic theology of neoliberalism’, which is, for them, ‘the new religion of the Market’ and ‘[i]ts God is Capital and its ethics highly questionable.’

We find McGilchrist making the same charge against what is all too often presented as science, using for example a quotation from Taleb:[2]

there is among many of the public, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out, ‘a religious belief in the unconditional power of organised science, one that has replaced unconditional religious belief in organised religion.… we have managed to transfer religious belief into gullibility for whatever can masquerade as science.’

As we see, his argument is against scientism rather than genuine science, but he finds the former far too prevalent for comfort in our culture. He makes his point against misleading practitioners of science, using again a quote, this time from another source, comparing them to clergy who distort the original message of their faith’s founder:[3]

The celebrated neurologist and brain researcher Norman Geschwind saw a larger picture that disturbed him. ‘There is a widely held supposition that one’s scientific peers are honest, well informed, not swayed by prejudices, and open to imaginative adventures into the unknown.’ He calls this supposition ‘a utopian faith in scientific advance’, one that is contradicted by ‘many occurrences which demonstrate that although science has replaced religion in the minds of many educated people, the unquestioning belief in the virtues of scientists maybe as misinformed as the older faith that the clergy were always the true repository of spiritual values.’

I feel we need to be cautious here as an ill-informed scepticism about science could further undermine the credibility of the research into the climate emergency and the effectiveness of vaccines. But I do accept that his basic point is correct. As is the case throughout this carefully researched exposition, he draws on a wide range of experts to support his position.

What we seem to be dealing with here is a modern tendency for too many people to replace what seem to them discredited religions with even more suspect substitutes.

McGilchrist focused, in his earlier book The Master & his Emissary, on what he felt was the key contributor to this tendency to deify reductionisms of various kinds and discount anything else as too flakey to be worthy of consideration.

Basically, as I have explored elsewhere, the conclusion he reaches that most matters when we look at our western society is on:[4]

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

There is a huge disadvantage for the right hemisphere here. If . . . knowledge has to be conveyed to someone else, it is in fact essential to be able to offer (apparent) certainties: to be able to repeat the process for the other person, build it up from the bits. That kind of knowledge can be handed on. . . . By contrast, passing on what the right hemisphere knows requires the other party already to have an understanding of it, which can be awakened in them. . .

On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, and perhaps also because it is more easily communicated than the subtle, nuanced, tentative, fluid and directly sensed approximation of reality that constitutes the right hemisphere experience, the left hemisphere view becomes the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships though are far better understood by the right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a rich morality, whereas the left hemisphere tends in its black and white world fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.

This approach has been so successful that the temptation to make a religion out of it, especially when it brings such obvious material benefits, can be irresistible and when the heavy price is hidden from the purblind eye through which we end up looking upon the world and what we have ‘achieved.’

In The Matter with Things he digs more deeply into the nature and costs of this destructive, even toxic bias.

What Price Materialism?

Not surprisingly, a key point that resonates with me strongly concerns our materialistic culture’s tendency to reduce consciousness to a side effect of the brain’s complexity, or even, as he says, deny its existence altogether:[5] ‘there are philosophers who deny the very existence of consciousness.’ I’ve fulminated at length on this elsewhere on this blog so I will resist the temptation to rehearse it all at length again here.

The key points most relevant here are these.

As explained in Irreducible Mind, psychology is still, for the most part, pursuing the Holy Grail of a complete materialistic explanation for every aspect of consciousness and the working of the mind. It’s obviously all in the brain, isn’t it?[6]

The empirical connection between mind and brain seems to most observers to be growing ever tighter and more detailed as our scientific understanding of the brain advances. In light of the successes already in hand, it may not seem unreasonable to assume as a working hypothesis that this process can continue indefinitely without encountering any insuperable obstacles, and that properties of minds will ultimately be fully explained by those brains. For most contemporary scientists, however, this useful working hypothesis has become something more like an established fact, or even an unquestionable axiom.

This is a dogma and as such can only be protected by ignoring or discounting as invalid all evidence that points in a different direction. Edward Kelly argues for a different approach in his introduction, believing as the co-authors demonstrate in this massive tome that there is a wealth of evidence to undermine this a priori belief:[7]

First and perhaps foremost is an attitude of humility in relation to the present state of scientific knowledge. . . . Second, we emphasise that science consists at bottom of certain attitudes and procedures, rather than any fixed set of beliefs. The most basic attitude is that facts have primacy over theories and that belief should therefore always remain modifiable in response to the empirical data.

I almost winced when I read Emily Kelly’s pointed explanation of how psychology had traded in the mind to buy itself a place among the sciences:[8]

Scientists instrumental in the development of 19th-century psychology thus in general had chosen to conceptualise science primarily not as a method with which to confront basic questions posed by contradictory aspects of human experience, but as a doctrine to which psychology, if it is to be a science, must conform.

In the end, after immersing myself in Irreducible Mind, I came to feel that I had been robbed as my training in psychology had steered me away from the work of thinkers such as FWH Myers as though they had the some kind of plague.

What is worth mentioning now though is that my sense that this materialistic perspective is virtually unquestioned by the scientific community could be slightly flawed, due to the way the pressures of the system make dissent extremely costly. As McGilchrist points out:[9]

A recent article… made the point that research into consciousness is hampered by blind adherence to an unproven dogma that consciousness must arise only from material causes,

and beyond that:

I can tell you that many scientists say in private that they believe in purpose in nature – with no necessary implication of a designer God – but cannot say so in public for fear of losing their job. Purpose in nature is not the same as Intelligent Design, but Intelligent Design is of course anathema to mainstream science.

(While he clarifies here that he is not sold on the idea of a ‘designer God,’ much of the final chapter of his book is devoted to explaining his exact perspective on the nature of God, and it is certainly not reductive.)

To support his point he quotes a dramatic example of the dangers for a scientist of openly advocating such apparent heresies as ‘Intelligent Design’:[10]

Take the case of the distinguished palaeontologist Dr Günter Bechly. Until 2016 he was Curator for Amber and Fossil insects in the Department of palaeontology at the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, a highly prestigious post. . . . He made the mistake, during the Darwin celebrations, of thinking that he really ought to read the pro-design books that he had put up to be dismissed. When he did, he found to his surprise that they had been misrepresented. They were much more sophisticated then he had been led to believe.… he was a foolish enough – or brave enough – to express open support for Intelligent Design: ‘I did not change my views in spite of being a scientist but because of it, based on a careful and critical evaluation of empirical data and rational arguments, following the evidence wherever it leads,’ Bechly says. He was immediately forced to leave his post . .

He adds ‘in a properly functioning scientific establishment, the expression of such views should at least be entertained, if not welcomed, and certainly not silenced,’ pointing out that ‘[t]he neo-Darwinists, it would seem, are less enthusiastic about doing [real] science.’

So, basically:[11]

As the left hemisphere mode of construing the world predominates however, things become unbalanced. Science is reconceived as a fundamentalist movement: prone to self-righteousness, closed to unfamiliar ideas, defensive, complacent, open to corruption and risking a lifeless failure of imagination.

and, as he mentioned somewhat earlier,[12] ‘[a] further questionable assumption is that there is nothing purposive about cosmos.’

‘Void Devouring the Gadget Era’ by Mark Tobey

His critique doesn’t stop there and is based on firm foundations.

There is too much reliance on the reductive metaphor of the machine (page 433): ‘We now live in a world in which everything, including the human brain, is considered to be understandable in the same way… that we understand a pop-up toaster,’ in spite of the shift in perspective in physics:[13]

As the biologists try to account for mind in purely material terms, physicists have increasingly been inclined to account for matter by appealing to mind.

(There’ll be more later on the positive power of metaphor.)

He goes on to argue that[14]  ‘avoiding teleology results in vacuity.’ There is a purpose to life in all its forms. However,[15] ‘[a] purpose here is not a plan. It is a tendency inseparable from — woven into, as it were, the fabric of — a life, which leaves all the detail, and even the final outcome, undetermined.’

Unlike in the past, the current approach is impoverished and ultimately misleading:[16]

It is salutary to remember that much great science of the past was done by people who were broad-ranging thinkers, often working alone, and often outside the walls of any academic institution.

. . . My worry is that even the descriptions of human behaviour which neurology, psychiatry and psychology depend are becoming further and further from any experience of human being, and as a result further and further from the purview of an intelligent non-specialist reader.

Our most prevalent model of the world, at least in the West, is seriously impaired. As Jonas Salk expressed it,[17] ’At one time we had wisdom, but little knowledge. Now we have a great deal of knowledge, but do we have enough wisdom to deal with that knowledge?’

Is there a way of bucking this unremitting trend? McGilchrist is convinced there is:[18]

.. . it is one of the messages of this book that imagination is not an impediment, but, on the contrary, a necessity for true knowledge of the world, for true understanding, and for that neglected goal of human life, wisdom.

Which leads me into my next areas of interest: art and intuition. More of that next time.

References:

[1]. Selling Spirituality – page 178.
[2]. The Matter with Things – page 418.
[3]. Op. cit. – page 535.
[4]. The Master & his Emissary – pages 228-229.
[5]. The Matter with Things – page 419.
[6]. Irreducible Mind – page xx.
[7]. Op. cit. – page xxii.
[8]. Op. cit. – page 59.
[9]. The Matter with Things – page 537.
[10]. Op. cit. – pages 538-39.
[11]. Op. cit. – page 542.
[12]. Op. cit. – page 421.
[13]. Op. cit. – page 447.
[14]. Op. cit. – page 477.
[15]. Op. cit. – page 478.
[16]. Op. cit. – page 506.
[17]. Op. cit. – page 50.
[18]. Op. cit. – page 549.

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Given my recent sequence redressing the balance of my Leaps of Faith sequence ended with a mystical theme, it seemed appropriate to republish some poems with a similar focus.

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