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Labyrinth

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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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Birmingham QE Hosp MedicalSchool

As I walk onto the platform a garbled announcement on the PA system informs me that the crackle for Birmingham will hiss from crackle 4.

I stroll in plenty of time to the appropriate end of platform 3. I’m glad of the bench on which to park my faded brown backpack loaded with food, coffee and a laptop. Just as I’m putting it down I hear a voice in my ear.

‘This train doesn’t usually go from 4, does it?’ The tone is full of a positive energy that sounds quite infectious.

I look up. A lady, slightly younger than me, is placing a brightly coloured shopping bag on the bench.

‘It used to but it hasn’t happened for ages. Not sure why now,’ I answer.

As we speak our train goes past the platform causing a moment of confusion before we realise it will have to reverse back onto the cul-de-sac of platform 4.

‘Where are you heading?’ she asks.

‘To the University.’

‘Oh! Why there?’

‘To run a seminar on consciousness.’

‘Oh wow!’ She almost leaps out of her skin. ‘That’s my life’s work. I’ve spent years working on that.’

‘You’re kidding,’ I say, almost equally astonished.

‘No. Honestly. It really is.’

Our train pulls to a stop behind us. We pick up our bags and wait by a door for the light to come on.

‘Do you mind if we sit together? I’d love to talk,’ she asks.

‘I’d be happy to. I will just need 15 minutes before we get to University station to go over my notes.’ (There’s copy of them for anyone interested in the footnotes.)

‘No problem. I’ll be getting off at Worcester.’

‘Perfect.’

The light comes on. I press to open the door and we settle at a table close by in the warm sunlight streaming through the glass.

The talking begins between us even before I take my coat off. It continues in a constant flow thereafter. Two girls who initially chose to sit at the table opposite to us decide to move to the next carriage. The idea of an hour’s exposure to the excited exchanges of two old fogeys discussing mind, spirit, higher energy, God, the universe and an afterlife is clearly too much for them.

Later, as the train pulls out of Great Malvern I take a card out of my wallet to write down the name of the book we were just discussing: Faith, Physics & Psychology by John Fitzgerald Medina.

‘Are your details on the back?’ she asks.

‘For sure. Is it OK if I have yours,’ I ask getting out my notebook.

‘No problem. I don’t have a television, email address or computer anymore, but this is my mobile.’

I scribble it down.

‘I wasn’t planning to take this train,’ she explains. ‘But my sister wasn’t feeling well and wanted to rest so I said I’d go back early.’

‘That’s weird,’ I reply. ‘I was going to take the later train but the organiser of the seminar wanted me there earlier to set up, so I decided to travel on this one.’

We definitely conclude that our meeting is synchronicity not coincidence. Chance doesn’t seem the likeliest explanation.

She gets off at Foregate Street. I get out my notes to check, for the last time, that they will work for an interactive session with about 15 people. Well before my destination I am happy with my notes. I just watch for the tall clock tower that will signal I am nearly there.

There it is on schedule. I pack up my stuff. As I walk along the platform towards the exit stairs I ring the organiser.

‘I’m going to need my car,’ she tells me, ‘so give me time to drive around the one-way system to pick you up. It’ll take me longer than it would to walk.’

I wait in watery sunlight for the lift, with my destination in eyeshot. I am totally unprepared for what is about to happen.

In about five minutes her car pulls up. Within less than a minute we are squeezing into the cramped car park in front of the looming facade of the Medical Centre. We talk our way through the elaborate security system and I’m in the shining glass and gleaming metal entrance hall again. Memories of the last time four years ago flood back. I’ve described them before so won’t dwell on them now.

We climb the stairs to the first floor labyrinth. We fruitlessly loop round the circle of one set of seminar rooms and set off from the stairwell round the next. We are in luck. The last room we come to is the one for us.

Thirty chairs. Rather more than I was expecting but still not too many for a seminar-style approach even if the room is full.

As the system there won’t talk to my Mac, I save my Keynote slides onto a memory stick in PowerPoint format. The university computer obligingly accepts them. The first slide appears on the screen.

Consciousness

We’re good to go.

Fifteen minutes before we start. The room is filling up. We need more chairs. Five minutes to go and a student asks me if she can sit down in front of the first row. Before I can even answer, another student kneels down to my left.

‘That’s not necessary,’ I joke, implying I’m not a guru. She seems to get the joke but I’m not quite sure.

The professor I’ve been talking to in-between all the toing and froing, stands up at this point, looks around and says, ‘I’m going to find a bigger room.’ Our organiser goes with him. I look up towards the door and see the queue of people three-wide snaking out into the corridor.

I decide to start packing up all my stuff to set up again somewhere else. I sense this could take some time.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

After what seems an eternity of fidgeting restlessly in our places, whether sitting, kneeling, pacing or standing, we’re told to follow the professor to a lecture theatre up stairs. We trail behind him chatting desultorily. When we get to the stairs there’s a traffic jam.

Stalled half-way up the stairwell on a step less wide than my foot is long I’m left with an insecure sense I might topple backwards at any moment onto the tail of the queue below .

Minutes pass.

‘We need to go downstairs to the ground floor. There’s a room there,’ someone shouts from on high.

We dutifully turn round and slowly descend. We wait in the shining entrance hall. I begin to see how many of us there are. This is definitely going to be no seminar. It really will have to be a lecture. Lectures aren’t my thing. I love bouncing ideas around in small groups, learning from others in an intense exchange of perspectives.

Still, I’m going to have to make the best of a bad job.

At last! The porter (not sure that’s the right word) comes back and leads us along a different labyrinthine corridor, from which we step into a massive hall with the lectern stuck in the far left corner away from the door.

This could be tricky, I think.

As people take their seats I set up again.

The microphone doesn’t work and it’s fixed to the desktop so I can’t carry it anyway.

I stare incredulously into the vast space around me. The front row is several feet away and the back row seems in a different dimension altogether. I’m going to have to shout. I get my flask of coffee out. I’m going to need it if I don’t want to be croaking by the end. At a conservative estimate there are about 100 people here. I’m glad I didn’t know this in advance. I’d be jelly by now if I had.

I set the slide to show the word ‘Consciousness’ again. I prepare my reluctant mind for lecture mode.

They introduce me. I start by explaining that I want to leave space for questions and feedback as we go, even though we are so many. I want to learn from their perspectives as well as sharing mine.

I try to click onto the next text with my right hand on the mouse. The right button does nothing. I need a track pad!

‘This isn’t working,’ I share. ‘I’m used to a real computer.’ They laugh. That helps.

‘Press the left button,’ a supportive voice from the front row advises.

That works. ‘Spirit, Mind or Brain,’ appears.

I ask my three questions. ‘How many of you are more or less convinced that the mind is simply a product of the brain?’ Maybe forty hands or so shoot up. There are too many to count properly. ‘How many of you are more or less convinced that the mind is independent of the brain?’ Almost the same number. That’s encouraging. ‘How many have no real idea which way to go on this?’ Probably about twenty.

I go on to share my collision of perspectives in 1982 after I’d moved from atheism to the Bahá’í Faith. I click for the ‘Abdu’l-Bahá quote. After repeating my earlier mistake, the quote appears.

Mind & Spirit

Mind & Spirit

Things begin to settle down. The details of the kind of explanation I intended to give I will share in the next short sequence of posts. It’s close to what happens on the day but not exactly the same. I’ll keep the story very brief for now. I’ve gone on long enough.

Episodes of explanation interspersed with a few questions flow on from here for over an hour.

I start by explaining my default position of doubt . . . . .

Inevitable Uncertainty

Inevitable Uncertainty

. . . . . before moving on to the improbability of life: how much more so of consciousness.

“Why bother investigating at all if we can’t prove anything for certain?’ someone asks later. I think after the event I should have said, ‘If science had only ever investigated what looked like a cast-iron certainty, where would quantum physics be now? By the end of the 19th Century eminent scientists thought there was hardly anything left to find out!’

As it is I offer, ‘We need to balance science and spirituality, as the Bahá’í Faith argues, if our civilisation is going to fly rather than crash even though the best we will ever get with human minds is an enhanced but still incomplete understanding which we can’t be completely sure is true.’

The muddle of models about the mind brain relationship. Isn’t monism the better idea? Is it all a solipsism?

‘Filter or spectrum?’ is the question I put. The brain as transceiver maybe.

Myers Spectrum 2

Myers Spectrum (1/2)

The effects of skunk. Do psychedelics break down the filter both ways – the infrared of stuff from below and the ultraviolet of input from above?

Myers Spectrum

Myers Spectrum (2/2)

Psi, though a small effect, is too rigorously explored and too improbable to dismiss – the issue is the explanation not the effect itself. Science has to take this seriously.

‘Isn’t all this a waste of time when we know consciousness is just the beautiful product of evolution and the massive complexity of our neuronal connections?’ asks a student in the second row. I pause to stop myself responding too sharply. I feel at least half the material so far was supposed to have dealt with that. I answer quietly, ‘Such a discount in advance of investigation dismisses countless experiences and phenomena as pure fantasy even though so many people are convinced they are real.’ I should have added, ‘Open-minded agnosticism is the only objective stance for science to take without betraying itself.’

Just before stopping I ask how many people present would be prepared to risk their reputation to investigate the spiritual aspects of consciousness. About ten people put up their hands. That is more than I would have expected. Encouraging again.

At the end there is a queue of students asking more questions and to share contact details. By the time I leave at 19.20 to catch my train I am in a daze of disbelief. I just hope I didn’t sell the topic short as I believe a more open-minded approach to the issue of consciousness is vital if we are to move towards the collaboration between science and religion that is required if we are to create a healthier society.

As I remember stating before, on my previous talk in this same building, if we place any credibility at all in the eloquently expressed arguments of scholars such as Margaret Donaldson in her book Human Minds, Ken Wilber in The Marriage of Sense and SoulJohn Hick in The Fifth Dimension or Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary, we have to accept the likelihood that, until our society finds a better balance between spirituality and science as pathways to what is fundamentally the same truth, we are in danger of joining previous civilisations in a crash landing.

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

Footnote

The Plan for the Seminar that Never Happened!

If there are fewer than 20 people I might ask them their names and one relevant fact.

Then:

How many of you are virtually certain that the mind is entirely a product of the brain?

How many of you are virtually certain that the mind is in some way independent of the brain?

How many of you are not at all sure which way to go on this?

  1. ‘Doubt Wisely’

Explore the agnosticism case:

William James

Dennet & Churchland

John Hick & Eric Reitan

  1. Prevalent Theories
  2. Eliminative Materialism
  3. Epiphenomenon
  4. Emergent Property
  5. Seen by most as unscientific

Given the improbability of life unless there really are infinite universes (the multiverse theory) the improbability of consciousness is even greater, so perhaps we need to approach the problems it poses with as open a mind as possible (cf Paul Davies The Goldilocks Enigma – God or infinite universes – both unacceptable to him.)

  1. Mind as completely independent of the brain.

This need not imply survival after bodily death but does entail the idea that the mind is not entirely reducible to the brain and that, though probably immaterial, it can control/influence the material brain (cf Schwartz).

  1. Mind as a spiritual entity.

This brings with it baggage our mainstream empirical materialistic culture does not welcome.

  1. There is a spiritual dimension including perhaps a collective unconscious and a potential capacity in all humans to access experiences without any obvious material mechanism (cf work on psi);
  2. There is survival after death (cf reincarnation, mediumship – inconclusive given fraud and super-psi);
  3. What survives is our sense of perceptive individuality in relation to others who have died, to the material world and to a transcendent power often referred to as God in Western culture (NDE evidence cf especially Sartori).

 So What?

The issue should be not to say that the evidence must be seriously flawed because I know the direction it points is not possible. Rather to admit that the evidence raises serious questions that need to be investigated. Otherwise we have scientism not science. The issue is the validity of the interpretation not the validity of the evidence.

How to explore it further?

Well, experimenter expectation effects have to be taken into account. These cut both ways. The convinced will tend to elicit positive results: sceptics the opposite.

Also putting people with suspected psi through thousands of repetitions of the same task will inevitably lead to increasingly random performance. Imagine going to the optician as I did recently and have them run the dot spotting peripheral vision acuity task 1000 times. I’d probably be rated spot-blinded tunnel vision by the end as boredom and fatigue increasingly eroded my attention.

Also the threat to your career as a credible scientist needs to be addressed. Not many people are prepared to commit career suicide by investigating what has been written off a priori as delusional. Often also neither unbelievers nor believers are keen to spend years investigating what they already know to be a fact.

What we need in any case are detached and genuinely agnostic scientists to come forward (because they are most likely to obtain objectively credible results), jeopardise their careers, struggle for funding and devote decades to the exploration of an aspect of this issue.

How many of you are up for that right now?

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Reflecting Evil

Reflecting Evil

These [perfect] mirrors are the Messengers of God Who tell the story of Divinity, just as the material mirror reflects the light and disc of the outer sun in the skies. In this way the image and effulgence of the Sun of Reality appear in the mirrors of the Manifestations of God. This is what Jesus Christ meant when He declared, “the father is in the son,” the purpose being that the reality of that eternal Sun had become reflected in its glory in Christ Himself. It does not signify that the Sun of Reality had descended from its place in heaven or that its essential being had effected an entrance into the mirror . . . .

Promulgation of Universal Peacepage 173

Emp Civil

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on ‘The Empathic Civilisation.’

We have discovered how far Rifkin’s case against religion seems largely to be based on his dislike of Christian teachings, especially concerning the existence of Satan, the Fall of man,  and the resultant denigration of the body. He is aware that other religious teachings do not fall into what would be for him the same trap.

For example, he feels that the Gnostic gospels were more empowering and benign (page 238) and finds close parallels ‘between Jesus’s teachings as expressed in the Gospel of Saint Thomas and Hindu and Buddhist teachings at the time.’

He develops this theme (page 239):

. . . the Gnostics viewed Jesus as a human being who had achieved enlightenment. There is no talk of him performing miracles or referring to himself as the son of God or any recollection of Jesus dying for the sins of a fallen humanity.

Then he states his case (page 240):

For the Gnostics, ignorance of one’s true self, not sin, is the underlying cause of human suffering. Therefore, the key to unlocking the divine in each person is self-knowledge through introspection.

And he has a view of Jesus to match (page 241):

The critical question is whether enlightenment comes from fully participating in the world around us in all of its vulnerability and corporeality or by withdrawing to an inner world removed from the vulnerability of corporeal existence. The historical Jesus was fully engaged in the world.

He acknowledges the positive impact of Christianity (page 246):

The Christian empathic surge lasted a mere three centuries; but in that time it made an incredible mark on history. By A.D. 250 the number of Christians in Rome alone had grown to fifty thousand people.

Goethe, Kant and Schopenhauer

He, in the same way as many others, dates from the time of the Enlightenment the demise of religion as an effective force in society. He locates a key figure as embodying an inspiring post-Enlightenment empathic spirit – secularised empathy, if you like: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (page 307):

If one were to have to choose a single individual who most embodied a cosmopolitan view of the world and a universal empathic sensibility, Goethe would be an easy pick.

His subsequent commentary explains exactly the nature of Goethe’s appeal for Rifkin. He fuses empathy with biosphere concern (page 308):

Goethe felt that the purpose of living was to enrich life and that man is endowed with a special appreciation of life – a heightened consciousness – so that he might steward all that is alive. . . . Breathing nature in and out was the way one takes in nature and remains connected to the larger whole.

It is here that the roots of Rifkin’s model of empathy and biosphere consciousness becomes most explicit (page 309):

With Goethe, we see the secularisation of the empathic impulse, embedded in the embodied experience and that includes not only human society but all of nature. His empathic view is truly universal in scope.

His critique of Kant remains firm. He condemns his take on the Golden Rule (page 347):

Left behind is any heartfelt connection to another’s plight as if it were one’s own; the desire to comfort them because of a felt understanding of one’s common humanity.

He prefers Arthur Schopenhauer (page 348):

Schopenhauer argues that the moral code that accompanies theological consciousness is purely prescriptive. If human nature is “fallen,” as the Abrahamic religions suggest, then there is no moral basis within an individual’s being that would predispose him to do the morally right thing. God’s commandments, therefore, are a prescriptive device telling human beings that this is the way they “ought” to behave if they are to be rewarded by God’s grace and not punished by his wrath.

He is indeed hanging his condemnation of religion as a positive redemptive influence almost exclusively on the hook of a particular religion’s interpretation of Genesis. I suspect there is a rope around the throat of his argument here. He feels that he can now locate our redemption in that same physical nature he is convinced that religion is revolted by (page 349):

After deconstructing Kant’s categorical imperative, Schopenhauer offers a detailed description of moral behaviour that he argues is embedded in the very sinew of human nature – with the qualification that it needs to be brought out and nurtured by society if it is to be fully realised. He argues that “compassion” is at the core of human nature.

Is Being Embodied Enough?

Robert Wright

Robert Wright

However, in my view, and I suspect in the view of many members of many religions throughout the world, there is no need to make his leap of logic and deny a transcendent realm in order to explain why human beings can be compassionate. Even evolutionary theory – for example in the thinking of Robert Wright and Michael McCullough – plainly discerns how the development of empathy is wired into our brains and selected for in successful cultures.

Robert Wright sees this in evolutionary terms. In his book The Evolution of God, he discusses how the expansion of the moral imagination (page 428) can ‘bring us closer to moral truth.’

His line of argument will not appeal to everyone: it’s probably too materialistic for many religious people and too sympathetic to religion for many materialists. He states:

The moral imagination was ‘designed’ by natural selection . . . . . to help us cement fruitfully peaceful relations when they’re available.

He is aware that this sounds like a glorified pursuit of self-interest, similar to one of Rifkin’s reservations about the Golden Rule. He argues, though, that it leads beyond that (pages 428-429):

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.

Beyond RevengeMichael McCullough in his exploration of our dual potential for revenge and forgiveness, Beyond Revenge, sees them as hard –wired (page 132):

Revenge and forgiveness… are conditioned adaptations – they’re context sensitive. Whether we’re motivated to seek revenge or to forgive depends on who does the harming, as well as on the advantages and disadvantages associated with both of these options.

Empathy, also hard-wired, plays its part in determining what will happen (page 148):

One of the best ways to take all the fun out of revenge, and promote forgiveness instead, is to make people feel empathy for the people who’ve harmed them. In 1997, my colleagues and I showed that when people experience empathy for a transgressor, it’s difficult to maintain a vengeful attitude. Instead, forgiveness often emerges. . . . When you feel empathic toward someone, your willingness to retaliate goes way down.

This material potential may be a necessary condition for empathy to grow further in our increasingly global civilisation. Even if religion is not the enemy, do we need it? The question is whether we agree that the way evolution has shaped the brain is also a sufficient condition to produce the necessary levels of self-mastery and altruism and spread them widely and deeply enough across humanity to preserve us in the longer term.

Rifkin clearly feels it’s the best hope we’ve got, even though one of his key witnesses wasn’t sure where empathy comes from (page 350):

Although the origins of man’s capacity for empathy was a mystery to Schopenhauer, the teleology was clear. By feeling another’s plight as if it were our own and by extending a hand to comfort and support them in their struggle to persevere and prosper, we recognise the unifying thread that connects each of us to the other and all of life on earth.

He nonetheless builds an ideal of interconnectedness as far as possible in these purely material terms. He sees civilisation as having a key role in realising this potential (page 362):

While we are all born with a predisposition to experience empathic distress, this core aspect of our being only develops into true empathic consciousness by the continuous struggle of differentiation and integration in civilisation. Far from squelching the empathic impulse, it is the dynamics of unfolding civilisation that is the fertile ground for its development and for human transcendence.

He wheels out the atheist’s favourite philosopher to administer what he hopes will be the kiss of death to any hope of the transcendent (page 382):

Nietzsche went after both the theologians and the rationalists, saying that it was time to give up the illusion that there exists something called “absolute spirituality” or “pure reason.”

Nietzsche argued that there is ‘only a perspective “knowing”. . .’ I won’t rehearse here all the thinking that has been done to confirm that, while it is true that all I have is my perspective, it does not mean that we have proved there is no transcendent realm. I’ve explored this, for example, in the sequence of posts on William James, whose point of view is succinctly captured by Paul Jerome Croce in his masterly Science & Religion in the Era of William James (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.

Absence of evidence therefore would not be evidence of absence, but in any case there is a wealth of evidence Rifkin is choosing to ignore here, as we have briefly touched upon above.

I realise that just as it is impossible for Rifkin conclusively to prove that any hope of empathic rescue from our current predicament must come from our material nature because that is all there is, I cannot conclusively prove to everyone’s satisfaction that

(a) this could never be sufficient, and

(b) that is OK because we can draw upon transcendent powers.

That though is what I believe.

When I was a child my father asked me to imagine what it would be like if a man stood with each of his feet in a bucket, grabbed the handles and tried to lift himself off the ground. In my view, all the evidence so far points to our being in a similar predicament: I find it impossible to believe we can mobilise what would be the necessary level of vision, self-sacrifice and sustained co-ordinated action over centuries to turn round our descent into self-destruction and climb back from the brink of extinction by our own unaided efforts.

Amit Goswami (for source of image see link)

Amit Goswami (for source of image see link)

A Ground of Being

In any case, whatever you think about that point, I feel there is even more convincing evidence that we do not have to rely only on ourselves. There is a transcendent dimension or foundation to reality and we can learn to draw upon its powers. In religion-neutral language we can speak of a ground of being, inherently conscious, inherently loving, inherently wise, that we can learn to connect to.

Amit Goswami, the physicist, in an interview about his book, The Self-Aware Universe, confirms the mystic insight and vividly conveys his sense of it:

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. You see, the prevalent notion — even among people like David Bohm — was, “How can you ever do science without assuming that there is reality and material and all this? How can you do science if you let consciousness do things which are ‘arbitrary’?” But I became completely convinced — there has not been a shred of doubt ever since — that one can do science on this basis.

And he is not the only scientist to have reported such an experience (see link).

There are those who feel that this can be done as an individual through meditation without drawing upon any spiritual tradition or organised religion. I certainly agree that we can move a long way forwards in this way, but for me there is a distinction between the profound insights granted to the Founders of the great world faiths, no matter how far the followers may have strayed from the original path, and those insights a mystic can achieve.

To explain this clearly we need to start from the idea stated in the quotation at the head of this post. The Founders of the great world religions are like stainless Mirrors in which we can see reflected what is the closest approximation to the reality of God that we are capable of apprehending.

However, our hearts, which are, as a friend once expressed it, the experience of our soul in consciousness, are also mirrors which we can polish until they reflect as perfectly as we are able, but not as perfectly as a Messenger of God, the Sun of Reality if we choose to point them in that direction.

We therefore have two responsibilities: the first is to polish or rather burnish the steel of our heart’s mirror (it’s not a modern mirror!) so it can reflect more faithfully and, the second is to turn it towards the Sun of Truth. If we turn it in worship towards lesser gods it will become tarnished again (Bahá’u’lláh – from The Seven Valleyspage 21):

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.”

That, it seems to me, defines the difference between a mystic and a Messenger of God. Each Messenger of God has given us guidance appropriate to the time in which we live that will enable us to perfect our heart, as far as we are able, and perfect our world – rebuild our civilization if you like.

The Universal House of Justice, the central body of the Bahá’í Faith, has already unpacked very clearly what this must mean to us (see my earlier post on Working for a Divine Arkitect). When the arc of buildings on Mount Carmel were complete, the following words were read at the opening ceremony:

. . . the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionising principle will increasingly empower individuals and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to . . . the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

(Universal House of Justice: 24 May 2001 in Turning Point page 164)

While Bahá’ís have a model for how this task might be accomplished, it is not a task for Bahá’ís alone. It would be impossible. All people of good will across the planet need to play their part according to their sense of what is required of them.

While I accept that the capacity for a high degree of empathy is wired into our brains, I also strongly believe that a higher level again can be reached, with proportionately more leverage in terms of sustained action, if we also can internalise a sense of what the Quakers term ‘That of God’ which is in all of us. Then we will not only have a strong sense of our links to one another but we will also have the confidence to act against apparently overwhelming odds that comes from the knowledge that we human beings are not alone. Bahá’u’lláh says (Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words, Arabic no. 13):

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

Only when we have such a sense of powerful support and shared humanity does it seem to me that we can reach that tipping point, when most of the world of humanity will be prepared and able to put their weight effectively against the wheel of redemptive change, and only then will disaster be averted. Pray God that moment will not come too late for us.

Rifkin has done his best in this impressive book to suggest one possible path towards a secure future. Those who follow his line of thinking and put it into practice will surely do some good. They could do so much more, it seems to me, if they had faith in an effectively benign power higher than the planet we are seeking to save and which needs our urgent help.

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Mirror 1

The perfect soul of man—that is to say, the perfect individual—is like a mirror wherein the Sun of Reality is reflected. The perfections, the image and light of that Sun have been revealed in the mirror; its heat and illumination are manifest therein, for that pure soul is a perfect expression of the Sun.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá – Promulgation of Universal Peacepage 173

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

(John Fitzgerald Medina Faith, Physics & Psychology – Page 52)

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on ‘The Empathic Civilisation.’

We have looked in reasonable detail at Jeremy Rifkin’s important analysis of the relationship in our culture between empathy and entropy, at his model of levels of consciousness where he pins his best hope for our survival on what he terms ‘biosphere consciousness,’ and his outline of where child rearing practices might produce the most responsibly empathic outcome within an essentially materialistic approach to reality.

I found his book valuable, thought-provoking but in one respect deeply flawed. There are no prizes for guessing where I think the flaw is to be found.

Embodied Experience Alone?Emp Civil

He is not just attacking a belief in the transcendent, it is true. Reason is in his rifle sights as well (page 141):

Both fail to plumb the depths of what makes us human and therefore leave us with cosmologies that are incomplete stories – that is, they failed to touch the deepest realities of existence. That’s not to dismiss the critical elements that make the stories of faith and reason so compelling. It’s only that something essential is missing – and that something is “embodied experience.”

We soon find ourselves in the currently prevalent default mode of reductionism whose limitations I have discussed elsewhere at length (page 163):

Human beings have created religious images of the future in part as a refuge against the ultimate finality of earthly existence. Every religion holds forth the promise of either defeating time, escaping time, overcoming time, reissuing time, or denying time altogether. We use our religions as vehicles to enter the state of nirvana, the heavenly kingdom, the promised land. We come to be believe in reincarnation, rebirth, and resurrection as ways of avoiding the inevitability of biological death.

While I accept that organised religion has not helped its case by its history of intolerance and cruelty in the name of some travesty of godhead. As Greg Hodges puts it in a recent post: ‘It takes a willful ignorance of history to deny . . . . that much of what humanity remembers about its collective past centers around large-scale, religiously-legitimized violence.’

Isn’t it just possible though that we might believe in transcendent realities such as an afterlife because there happens to be some hard evidence to suggest that there is really something in these ideas? Let’s take Pim van Lommel as one possible example of carefully gathered evidence that strongly suggests, at the very least, that consciousness cannot be adequately explained by brain activity alone and is therefore extremely unlikely to be a purely material phenomenon. The crux of his case can be captured in a few quotations from his book Consciousness beyond Life (pages 132-133):

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

Pim van Lommel

Pim van Lommel

What kind of evidence does he adduce in support of this proposition? The most telling kind of evidence comes from prospective rather retrospective studies, ie studies where the decision is taken in advance to include all those people who have undergone resuscitation within the context of several hospitals and question them as soon as possible, ie immediately afterwards, and then again later after a set period of time. This is a more powerful methodology than retrospectively finding people who claim to have had an NDE and interviewing only them.

The data is impressive both for the numbers in total involved (page 140):

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

And for the strength of the evidence those numbers provided (page 159):

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

The conclusion van Lommel felt justified in drawing followed naturally on from that evidence (page 160);

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

What is important to emphasise here is that the precise conditions under which each NDE was experienced were completely, accurately and verifiably recorded, something not possible in a retrospective study: van Lommel is clear (page 164) that ‘in such a brain [state] even so-called hallucinations are impossible.’

Eben Alexander

Eben Alexander

For those who find vivid individual experiences more compelling, that is just about all of us, one of the best examples is the detailed, and in my view completely trustworthy, account of a near death experience given by Eben Alexander in Proof of Heaven. 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.

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, 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.

On this issue, Rifkin’s cart may well be in front of his horse (page 168):

It should also be noted that where empathic consciousness flourishes, fear of death withers and the compunction to seek otherworldly salvation or earthly utopias wanes.

NDEs have been shown to increase empathy and reduce the fear of death over and over again, except in the case of the minority of examples of distressing NDEs (see Nancy Evans Bush for a rigorous study of those phenomena.) I’m not sure where his evidence is that empathy is greater where all forms of transcendence are denied.

He is aware of a void in the credibility of his position and has to locate awe elsewhere than in the transcendent he resumes to acknowledge (page 170):

Empathic consciousness starts with awe. When we empathise with another, we are bearing witness to the strange incredible life force that is in us and that connects us with all other living beings. Empathy is, after all, the feeling of deep reverence we have for the nebulous term we call existence.

I find this slightly muddled in any case. The first sentence implies that awe kicks off empathic feelings, whereas it is clear he feels that empathy creates awe. In any case I am not convinced by his empathy/awe connection.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

The Golden Rule & the Fall

As a convinced advocate of the Golden Rule and aware of its roots in the Axial Age which saw the dawn or significant development of Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, and Taoism, I am uneasy with his take on this key stone of almost every moral arch. He sees the Golden Rule as self-interested because, by observing it, according to his version of religion, we buy paradise when we die. Kant, in his view, almost rescued it but not quite (page 175):

Immanuel Kant make the rational case for the Golden Rule in the modern age in his famous categorical imperative. . . . . First, “Act only on that maxim that can at the same time be willed to become a universal law.” Second, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.” Although Kant eliminated the self-interested aspect of doing good that was so much a part of most religious experiences, he also eliminated the “felt” experience that makes compassion so powerful and compelling.

Rifkin does acknowledge that Judaism endorses the the universal application of the Golden Rule (page 214):

Lest some infer that the Golden Rule applies literally to only one’s neighbours and blood kin, the Bible makes clear that it is to be regarded as a universal law. In Leviticus it is written: “[T]he stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

He acknowledges that the Axial Age (page 216) was ‘the first budding of empathic consciousness.’

But he does not regard with favour what happened next (page 236-37):

Unfortunately, the universal empathic embrace extended to all human beings became increasingly conditional over the course of the next several centuries with the introduction of the devil into human affairs. The devil played virtually no role in Judaism. Satan came on the scene in the form of a demon, shortly after the crucifixion, among some Jewish groups. But the devil as a key player, pitted against Christ and the Lord, with the vast power to deceive, sow seeds of chaos, and even challenge the power of God, was a Christian invention.

Certainly the take on the serpent in Judaism seems more subtle than the Christian one

A very enigmatic figure in this story is the snake. What kind of animal is this that speaks and tempts Adam and Eve? Actually, it is hard for us to imagine the primordial snake, since part of the snake’s punishment was a metamorphosis of what and who he is.

Before the sin of Adam and Eve, we find the snake described in detail in the Bible. He is depicted as “cunning,” he speaks to Eve, he walks, and he even seems to have his own volition and will. After the sin, he is punished in that he will now crawl on his stomach, his food will be dirt, and there will eternal enmity between himself and man. What was the snake originally, and what did he do to deserve such a downfall?

Most kabbalistic commentators equate the snake with the Yetzer Hara — the self-destructive tendencies to move away from God.4 What is the function of the Yetzer Hara? Why were such tendencies created? And why was a snake chosen to represent this?

The purpose of God’s creating the world was to bestow goodness on mankind. The ultimate good is to not give someone a gift, but to empower him to accomplish on his own. Imagine someone training for the Olympics with his coach serving in the role of the opponent. If the coach does not oppose him with all his strength and wiles, the athlete will be upset with him. And when the student manages to overcome the coach, the coach is happy at his own downfall — since it is his role to finally be vanquished.

The Yetzer Hara is our coach. Any rational person would desire a worthy opponent to overcome. Therefore the original snake was almost human, walking on legs, speaking intelligently, and able to present a world view alternate to God’s. In that sense, the snake is the ultimate servant of God and man. He is the force which gives us the ability to choose between two worldviews — as long as the choice is balanced and the snake is not too difficult to overcome.

When the choice was between intellectual and sensual, the snake needed to be able to tempt man with a sensual experience. However, he needed to clothe it in the guise of the rational and objective truth. Therefore the snake was almost human in his abilities.

When man failed that test, the snake himself needed to undergo a metamorphosis. He needed to become the obstacle and temptation for a different humanity, who now could be easily led astray. Therefore the intelligent rational snake becomes a dirt dwelling mute creature.

Nancy Evans Bush makes it clear in her book that hell is a concept introduced by Christians and promulgated most powerfully in the mistranslations of sheol in the King James version of the Bible.

We will be looking in the next post at how much his aversion to the theological hinges on these Christian variations on that theme as well as where that then leaves us in terms of reversing our descent into the abyss.

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For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

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© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

Laying the groundwork for global civilization calls for the creation of laws and institutions that are universal in both character and authority. The effort can begin only when the concept of the oneness of humanity has been wholeheartedly embraced by those in whose hands the responsibility for decision making rests, and when the related principles are propagated through both educational systems and the media of mass communication. Once this threshold is crossed, a process will have been set in motion through which the peoples of the world can be drawn into the task of formulating common goals and committing themselves to their attainment. Only so fundamental a reorientation can protect them, too, from the age-old demons of ethnic and religious strife. Only through the dawning consciousness that they constitute a single people will the inhabitants of the planet be enabled to turn away from the patterns of conflict that have dominated social organization in the past and begin to learn the ways of collaboration and conciliation. “The well-being of mankind,” Bahá’u’lláh writes, “its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.”

(From The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement issued by the Bahá’í International Community March 1995)

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on ‘The Empathic Civilisation.’

As we have seen in the posts on levels, Rifkin draws on Stanley Greenspan’s child developmental model Emp Civil(page 106-110: see link for more detail) involving six stages which can be summarised as sensation/security, relation, intention, self/other-awareness, emotional ideas and finally emotional thinking. Disruptions, for example to attachment, during these stages will create problems later. The development of empathy in the growing child depends upon the quality of care received (page 110):

Greenspan… is clear that ‘the ability to consider the feelings of others in a caring, compassionate way derives from the child’s sense of having been loved and cared for herself.’

This post will look more closely at Rifkin’s thinking on this issue and about how to facilitate constructive maturation in our children.

Child Rearing

He begins by looking at the effects of deprivation (Page 20):

What had been missing in . . . foundling homes was one of the most important factors in infant development – empathy. We are learning, against all of the prevailing wisdom, that human nature is not to seek autonomy – to become an island to oneself – but, rather, to seek companionship, affection, and intimacy.

He unpacks the implications (page 66):

The infant begins life, according to Suttie, with an inchoate but nonetheless instinctual need to receive as well as give gifts, which is the basis of all affection. Reciprocity is the heart of sociality and what relationships are built on. In reciprocity is blocked, the development of selfhood and sociability is stunted and psychopathology emerges.

Not surprisingly he brings attachment theory into the mix. Situations of parental dislocation can lead to maladaptive patterns of either ‘anxious’ or ‘avoidant’ attachment. More empathic parental relating has a better outcome (page 78):

The more securely attached infants grew up to be the more sociable adults. They were more sensitive to others, shared higher levels of cooperation with peers, and developed more intimate relationships. What those children all shared in common was a highly developed, empathic consciousness.

It should be no surprise that mechanistic attempts to remedy defects in parental child rearing habits has not proved much help (page 167):

In the 1980s and 1990s psychologists and educators introduced the notion of “quality time” into family relationships. The idea was for parents to set aside a few minutes in their otherwise overburdened and busy day to get back “in touch” with their children. The forced efficiency of these structured intimate encounters often defeated the purpose of the exercise. Deep relationships require nurturing and suffer when yoked yoked to the dictates of o’clock.

As a result we come very close in Rifkin’s next description to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s explanation of what would happen in a truly spiritual society (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahápage 133):

See then how wide is the difference between material civilization and divine. With force and punishments, material civilization seeketh to restrain the people from mischief, from inflicting harm on society and committing crimes. But in a divine civilization, the individual is so conditioned that with no fear of punishment, he shunneth the perpetration of crimes, seeth the crime itself as the severest of torments, and with alacrity and joy, setteth himself to acquiring the virtues of humankind, to furthering human progress, and to spreading light across the world.

Rifkin states (page 177):

While primitive empathic potential is wired into the brain chemistry of some mammals, and especially the primates, its mature expression in humans requires learning and practice and a conducive environment. Moral codes, embedded in laws and social policies, are helpful as learning guides and standards. But the point is that one isn’t authentically good because he or she is compelled to be so, with the threat of punishment hanging over them or a reward waiting for them, but, rather because it’s in one’s nature to empathise.

Over the next sections of his book he reviews our progress towards a more humane and insightful treatment of children from (page 244) progress under the Roman Empire which came to define infanticide as murder only in 374AD while treatment remained harsh in England well into the 17th Century (page 285-86). There was the Protestant urge to ‘impose patriarchal rule in the home and “break the will” of the child, to ensure his or her piety.’ Later:

. . . the extension of schooling to large numbers of children also subjected youngsters to a merciless routine of flogging by teachers for the slightest violation of decorum or for underperformance. Lawrence Stone reports “that more children were being beaten in the 16th and early 17th centuries, over a longer age span, than ever before.” . . . .

Parents saw corporal punishment as a way to save their children from the devil and an eternity in hell. Their behaviour was in stark contrast to the sentiments of parents in the earlier Italian Renaissance, who came to look on the children as pure, innocent, and uncorrupted.

Things did begin to improve somewhat as the century advanced (pages 286-87). For example, John Locke (1692) was more balanced: ‘while he cautioned against being overly permissive, he was equally opposed to being overly strict and punitive.’ By 1785 (page 288), ‘the practice of swaddling had been eliminated in England. . . . Wet-nursing went out of favour in the latter half of the 18th century in England as new mothers sought to be more attentive and nurturing towards their young. . . . The new expression of motherly affection ensured that the empathic impulse of the period would pass on to children, who will grow up loved and cared for and capable of empathising with others, just as their parents had empathised with that.’

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

Child Development

It was only late in the 19th Century that something more recognisably modern began to feature in the ideas around child development (page 388):

It was during the last decade of the 19th century and the first three decades of the 20th century that the concept of adolescence emerged. This was a special temporal domain to which all children – boys and girls – belonged equally. Society came to think of childhood as extending beyond puberty and into the later teenage years. Previously the child graduated to adulthood and the responsibilities that go with it upon reaching sexual maturity. No longer. Now work life was put off and children remained under the nurturing care of parents for a longer period of time.

This concept carried with it a sort of developmental time bomb (page 389):

Although it wasn’t until the 1940s that Eric Erikson coined the term “identity crisis,” the psychological phenomena accompanied the new period of adolescence from the very beginning. Adolescence is about identity crises as much as it is about identity formation.

Identity is partly a question of the priorities around which we organise our lives, the values we hold dearest and the meaning system we have developed. While the evidence suggests that we need to divide the influences that affect those outcomes among our genes, our parents and our peers, there is no doubt that for most of us our parents account for at least 30% of the items in the mix. So, when Rifkin looks at where we are at present with the challenges it brings, he concludes (page 502):

The question is, what is the appropriate therapy for recovering from the [current] well/happiness addiction? A spate of studies over the past 15 years has shown a consistently close correlation between parental nurturance patterns and whether children grow up fixated on material success. . . . If… the principal caretaker is cold, arbitrary in her or his affections, punitive, unresponsive, and anxious, the child will be far less likely to establish a secure emotional attachment and the self-confidence necessary to create a strong independent core identity. These children invariably show a greater tendency to fix on material success, fame, and image as a substitute mode for gaining recognition, except, and a sense of belonging.

The product propaganda known as advertising preys on this insecurity with its deceptive promises that greater wealth and more possessions will fill the void within.

Parents clearly have a critical role to play in how things take shape from here, whether upwards towards the light or downwards towards the dark (page 504):

Making the transition from a pioneer to a near-climax society and a truly sustainable economic area hinges on a far more self-conscious approach to parenting to prepare youngsters with deep pro-social values that will allow empathy to grow and the lure of the market to be tempered.

Schooling

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

Parenting is not the only consideration of course. He makes a bold claim (page 550):

The American public school system has leaped ahead of their counterparts in other countries by initiating a critical reform in the educational system, whose purpose is to better prepare future generations for the responsibilities attendant to creating social capital.

In the past 15 years, American secondary schools and colleges have introduced service learning programs into the school curriculum – a revolutionary change that has altered the educational experience for millions of young people.

Not everyone appears to share this rose-tinted view of the matter. John Fitzgerald Medina, in his book Faith, Physics & Psychology, is particularly sceptical. He bases his assessment on solid research (page 325):

David Purpel, an educator and author of The Moral and Spiritual Crisis in Education: a Curriculum for Justice and Compassion in Education… contends that the educational system is so enmeshed in the corrupt status quo that it consistently fails to address societal problems and that due to its slavish emphasis on grading-mongering and competition, it primarily acts like a giant socio-economic sorting machine that maintains and even exacerbates race and class separations between people.

Purpel is not the only witness Medina calls to the stand in his case against the current system of education in America (page 327):

Professor of education Clifford Mayes explains that the powerful influence of behaviourism shifted the field of education from an endeavor based on a strong sense of spiritual and moral calling to a technical job based on the tenets of classical science… Under the influence of industrialisation, schools and teachers were expected to serve and to promulgate the “cult of efficiency” and the “scientific management” of people and organisations.

Even if we accept that attempts are being made to introduce empathy-inducing elements into educational and training programmes in the States the blinkered way these are sometimes implemented undermines their efficacy, as Timothy Wilson testifies. The research he reviews in his excellent short book Redirect: the surprising new science of psychological change points towards the critical importance of incorporating a community service component into any remedial programme for children and young people manifesting behavioural problems (page 131):

The fact that policymakers learned so little from past research – at huge human and financial cost – is made more mind-boggling by being such a familiar story. Too often, policy makers follow common sense instead of scientific data when deciding how to solve social and behavioural problems. When well-meaning managers of the QOP [Quantum Opportunities Programme] sites looked at the curriculum, the community service component probably seemed like a frill compared to bringing kids together for sessions on life development. Makes sense, doesn’t it? But common sense was wrong, as it has been so often before. In the end, it is teens… who pay the price…

Rifkin explains what for him is the power of these socially engineered interventions (page 551):

The exposure to diverse people from various walks of life has spurred an empathic surge among many of the nation’s young people. Studies indicate that many – but not all – students experience a deep maturing of empathic sensibility by being thrust into unfamiliar environments where they are called upon to reach out and assist others.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

A Fork in the Road

Not for the first time in his book, he comments on the fork in the road that lies ahead (page 581):

The rap on today’s young people in the age group that stems from toddlers to young adults in their early 30s (everyone born after the mid-1970s) is that they are coddled, overexposed, overindulged, told they are special, believe that to be the case, are self-centred – “it’s all about me” – and trapped in their self-absorbed inflated self-esteem. We are also told, however, that they are more open and tolerant, less prejudiced, multicultural in their views, nonjudgmental, civic-and service-oriented, and more collaborative than any other generation in history. . . .

Is it possible that today’s young people are caught between both poles…? . . . . Yes, but with the qualification that the newest data shows a trend away from the ‘it’s all about me’ phenomenon and prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s . . . .

Exactly which way the dice will fall is not yet predictable (page 589):

The situation is anything but clear. While there are some among the younger generation who dream of personal fame, there are as many others just as devoted to community service and assisting those less fortunate. The likely reality is that the younger generation is growing up torn between both a narcissistic and empathic mind-set, with some attracted to one and some to the other.

Clearly parenting and schooling are crucial components in the creation of a compass and a map that will enable our children to choose the wiser route in life. What is disturbing is the vicious circle clearly at work if we do not rise to this challenge. The effects of unwise and unfeeling parenting will be further confounded by mercenary and mechanistic education systems. This combination will produce parents who will bring up more damaged children, and voters who will continue to elect governments that enthusiastically perpetuate education systems designed to create cogs for the machine of the global market. Building a more benign civilisation begins with our children who are “the most precious treasure a community can possess, for in them are the promise and guarantee of the future.” (Universal House of Justice: Ridván 2000) We need to change our approach and we need to change it soon.

Rifkin places his hopes for the future on the development of biosphere consciousness, a motivating force whose limitations I explained in the previous post (page 601):

Children are becoming aware that everything they do – the very way they live – affects the lives of every other human being, our fellow creatures, and the biosphere we inhabit. They come to understand that we are as deeply connected with one another in the ecosystems that make up the biosphere as we are in the social networks of the blogosphere.

He feels this hope is given added strength by the interventions being mounted in schools (ibid.):

Now the new emerging biosphere awareness is being accompanied by cutting edge curriculum [sic] designed to help young people develop an even deeper sense of interconnectivity and social responsibility at the level of their personal psyches.

. . . . . the new pedagogical revolution is emphasising empathic development. In April 2009, The New York Times ran a front-page article reporting on the empathy revolution occurring in American classrooms. Empathy workshops and curriculums [sic] now exist in 18 states, and the early evaluations of these pioneer educational reform programmes are encouraging.

I feel we need to read what follows with a balancing sense of the countervailing forces also at work within the very same educational system. Medina writes (page 319):

Within the mainstream educational system, students spend endless hours in academic tasks almost to the exclusion of all other forms of social, emotional, moral, artistic, physical, and spiritual learning goals. This type of education leaves students bereft of any overarching sense of why they are learning things, other than perhaps to obtain some lucrative job in the distant future.

I am not convinced that we can leave to our schools the work of spiritualising the awareness of our children and making them more attuned to the suffering of others and how to help, hence the strong Bahá’í emphasis within our communities placed upon the training of children and youth – something we offer to the wider community as well without in any way seeking to recruit people to our ranks. We simply want to find ways of helping young people become more community-oriented. I will be republishing relevant posts later this week that go some way towards articulating the Bahá’í view of the matter.

Rifkin sees it differently from Medina  (page 604):

Tens of thousands of students have gone through the Roots of Empathy program. What educators find is that the development of empathic skills leads to greater academic success in the classroom. . . . Empathic maturity is particularly correlated with critical thinking. The ability to entertain conflicting feelings and thoughts, be comfortable with ambiguity, approach problems from a number of perspectives, and listen to another’s point of view are essential emotional building blocks to engage in critical thinking. Gordon makes the telling observation that “love grows brains.” . . . [ Mary Gordon writes]:

“The Roots of Empathy classroom is creating citizens of the world – children who are developing empathic ethics and a sense of social responsibility that takes the position that we all share the same lifeboat. These are the children will build a more caring, peaceful and civil society, child by child.”

To be fair, Rifkin is not completely blind to the obstacles (pages 604-05):

. . . because empathic engagement is the most deeply collaborative experience one can ever have, bringing out children’s empathic nature in the classroom requires collaborative learning models. Unfortunately, the traditional classroom curriculum continues to emphasise learning as a highly personal experience designed to acquire and control knowledge by dint of competition with others.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

Cooperation not Competition

He argues, as Michael Karlberg does in Beyond the Culture of Contest, that we must replace competition with cooperation if we are to rise above our current challenges. Karlberg describes in far more detail than is possible to include here an alternative model, based on the Bahá’í experience. The nub of his case is (page 131 – my emphasis):

Bahá’ís assert that ever-increasing levels of interdependence within and between societies are compelling us to learn and exercise the powers of collective decision-making and collective action, born out of a recognition of our organic unity as a species.

Rifkin even defines one of the fruits of cooperation in similar terms to the values Bahá’ís place on true consultation as a spiritual process (page 605):

Collaborative education begins with the premise that the combined wisdom of the group, more often than not, is greater than the expertise of any given member and by learning together the group advances its collective knowledge, as well as the knowledge of each member of the cohort.

The Bahá’í view is expressed as follows (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahápage 320)

The members [of a Spiritual Assembly] must take counsel together in such wise that no occasion for ill-feeling or discord may arise. This can be attained when every member expresseth with absolute freedom his own opinion and setteth forth his argument. Should any one oppose, he must on no account feel hurt for not until matters are fully discussed can the right way be revealed. The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions.

Coda

Rifkin closes by emphasising once more the importance of our recognising our links with nature (page 611):

In the case of our Palaeolithic forebears, fear of nature’s wrath, as much as dependency, conditioned the relationship. To reparticipate with nature willingly, by exercising free will, is what separates biosphere consciousness from everything that has gone before. . . .

Schools across the United States are already beginning to extend the classroom into the outdoors through their service learning programs, internship programs, and extended field trips. Reaffiliating with the biosphere is an empathic experience that has to be felt as well as intellectualised to be meaningful. It also has to be practised.

This sequence of posts so far has attempted, admittedly rather selectively, to give a sense of Rifkin’s overall argument, pointing out, where it seemed appropriate, its strengths and its weaknesses, but by and large letting Rifkin’s own words speak for his position.

The next and final pair of posts will look at what seems to me to be his most glaring omission – the role of religion in turning around our slide towards self-destruction.

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