Posts Tagged ‘David Fontana’

A passion to cage the invisible by visible methods continues to motivate the science of psychology, even though that science has given up the century-long search for the soul in various body parts and systems.

(James Hillman – The Soul’s Code: in search of character & calling – page 92)

In the last post I looked at some of the ways in which the arrogance of our convictions creates problems for us all, a theme triggered by excellent books on the afterlife by Fontana and Kean, who both emphasise the way our culture dismisses compelling evidence that supports the idea of the transcendent.

Basically, human beings are prone to asserting their unexamined convictions in the face of contradictory evidence.

One important reason for this has been labelled confirmation biasShahram Heshmat, in a Psychology Today article, explains:

[This] occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When people would like a certain idea/concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are motivated by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views (prejudices) one would like to be true.

Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it. Confirmation bias suggests that we don’t perceive circumstances objectively. We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices. Thus, we may become prisoners of our assumptions.

This tendency is not much of a problem when the belief in question does no harm. When beliefs do damage, this tendency is fundamentally unacceptable, especially if the beliefs spread, as they often do, and when our sense of self is deeply invested in them.

What do I mean by that exactly?

To answer that question, at least in part, let’s come back to the issue of the afterlife.

Fontana writes (page 94):

Just as once the multitudes were persuaded by the priesthood they had no right to approach the divine except through the intermediation of the church, so the multitudes are now persuaded by the materialistic creed of our times that they have no right to approach mental life except through the intermediation of those who put their faith in prescription drugs and brain scans.

Those who have invested their credulity in scientism plainly do not see that they are operating just like a Holocaust denier. Denial and arrogant ignorance is toxic enough when applied to the facts of history, and could potentially create the conditions for a repetition of the same abusive genocide. Denial of our spiritual dimension allied to a denigration of our more extraordinary experiences is not just potentially destructive, it is actually damaging huge numbers of people already, as previous posts on this blog have explored.

One short quote from James Davies’s book Cracked in support of this contention will have to suffice here. He is addressing the issue of our exportation of our psychiatric model to the rest of the world. In the chapter dealing with the export issue he first summarises his case up to that point (page 258 – square brackets pull in additional points he has made elsewhere):

Western psychiatry has just too many fissures in the system to warrant its wholesale exportation, not just because psychiatric diagnostic manuals are more products of culture than science (chapter 2) [and have labelled as disorders many normal responses to experience], or because the efficacy of our drugs is far from encouraging (Chapter 4), or because behind Western psychiatry lie a variety of cultural assumptions about human nature and the role of suffering of often questionable validity and utility (Chapter 9), or because pharmaceutical marketing can’t be relied on to report the facts unadulterated and unadorned [and its influence has helped consolidate the stranglehold of diagnosis and a simplistic psychiatric approach] (Chapter 10), or finally because our exported practices may undermine successful local ways of managing distress. If there is any conclusion to which the chapters of this book should point, it is that we must think twice before confidently imparting to unsuspecting people around the globe our particular brand of biological psychiatry, our wholly negative views of suffering, our medicalisation of everyday life, and our fearfulness of any emotion that may bring us down.

Not an entirely healthy approach to human experience then. Hillman defines the problem neatly (page 184):

If a culture’s philosophy does not allow enough place for the other, give credit to the invisible, then the other must squeeze itself into our psychic system in distorted form. This suggests that some psychic dysfunctions would be better located in the dysfunctional world view by which they are judged.

So, the widespread self-serving disparagement of the evidence in favour of an afterlife is just one troubling symptom of a prevalent materialistic disease.

It does not have to be so. There is a remedy and it is a matter of urgency that enough of us come to recognise that.

For a start, an important principle of my faith asserts that religion and science are in harmony, something I have  explored at length on this blog in the work of Alvin Plantinga and am republishing currently.

The third principle or teaching of Bahá’u’lláh is the oneness of religion and science. Any religious belief which is not conformable with scientific proof and investigation is superstition, for true science is reason and reality, and religion is essentially reality and pure reason; therefore, the two must correspond. Religious teaching which is at variance with science and reason is human invention and imagination unworthy of acceptance, for the antithesis and opposite of knowledge is superstition born of the ignorance of man. If we say religion is opposed to science, we lack knowledge of either true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test

(Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 106)

Moreover, in the Bahá’í view the existence of the spiritual dimension is supported by evidence, though such a proposition is not one that is widely accepted.

If you should ask a thousand persons, ‘What are the proofs of the reality of Divinity?’ perhaps not one would be able to answer. If you should ask further, ‘What proofs have you regarding the essence of God?’ ‘How do you explain inspiration and revelation?’ ‘What are the evidences of conscious intelligence beyond the material universe?’ ‘Can you suggest a plan and method for the betterment of human moralities?’ ‘Can you clearly define and differentiate the world of nature and the world of Divinity?’ — you would receive very little real knowledge and enlightenment upon these questions….

The intellectual proofs of Divinity are based upon observation and evidence which constitute decisive argument, logically proving the reality of Divinity, the effulgence of mercy, the certainty of inspiration and immortality of the spirit. This is, in reality, the science of Divinity

(Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 326)

Stewart in his home studio: for source of image see link.

The two books under consideration here provide a plethora of hard evidence for the reality of some kind of transcendent dimension. Kean’s account of her direct experience of  Stewart Alexander’s mediumship is just one of many such pieces of evidence (pages 321-344). It contains much that would trigger the incredulity of a convinced and dogmatic sceptic, including physical manifestations: however the conditions under which these phenomena occurred make it hard, perhaps virtually impossible to dismiss them out of hand.

She quotes Fontana in their defence (page 326):

Despite his distaste for travel, Stewart has held séances in Scotland and Wales, as well as Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, and Spain. He has sat for sceptics, researchers, and parapsychological organisations. For these public sittings, he was often bodily searched, and his chair and every aspect of the various rooms were thoroughly searched. ‘Apart from the very few and unconvincing accusations made against him by ill-informed individuals,’ David Fontana wrote in 2010, ‘Stewart’s long career has been free from attempts to cast doubt on the genuine nature of the phenomena associated with his mediumship.’

In fact, the evidence in favour of this transcendent reality has often been more rigorously generated and seems more convincing, in my view, than that which recommends our ingestion of chemicals with a multitude of unpleasant effects in addition to their dubious benefits.

Kean’s words towards the end of her book seem a good place to stop (page 360):

No matter where the force that produces these extraordinary phenomena comes from, any intellectually honest person who studies the literature and engages directly with authentic, skilled mediums cannot deny that psi is real. . . . . I’m not a scientist, but I would think that if consciousness is nonlocal and there are nonphysical realms, these would naturally exist outside the confines of the material world and would therefore not be subject to the laws of physics. My only request of those who deny any of this is possible is to simply look at the evidence with an open mind.

Where the afterlife is concerned, there would be no better place to start such an investigation than these two books. There are of course other issues to explore. For the deficiencies of psychiatry James Davies and Richard Bentall are to be highly recommended: in terms of our econocracy Earle et al’s book is a good one.

Whatever area we want to explore we need to ‘look [and look hard] at the evidence with an open mind’ if we are not simply to be dupes of our prevailing materialistic, consumer oriented, economic-growth-is-good mythology.

Oh, and I’ll be looking at mythology again in the next post or two.

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In the kingdom (or is it the mall?) of the West, consciousness has lifted the transcendent ever higher and further away from actual life. The bridgeable chasm has become a cosmic void.

(James Hillman – The Soul’s Code: in search of character & calling – page 110)

Sharon Rawlette put me on to Leslie Kean’s brilliant and rigorous exploration of the evidence for an afterlife, Surviving Death. It was a compelling and inspiring read that triggered me to go back and re-read a book – David Fontana’s Is There an Afterlife? – which I had read long before I started blogging and from which I took no systematic notes.

As I went back over Fontana’s book I slowly became aware that there was a key issue I needed to explore that is flagged up strongly in both books. I decided that this took precedence for me at this point over their impressive research, because the feeling came through strongly from both writers that no matter how compelling the evidence and no matter how rigorous their presentation of it, there would be obdurate resistance to even considering it let alone accepting it. As I will examine later in this post such denial of legitimate evidence is far from uncommon in our supposedly scientific culture, and is not confined to matters of the spirit.

A key passage from Fontana reads (page 94):

We can go further and say that not only is the dogmatic approach by materialistic science to the mysteries of the human mind misleading it reveals a disturbing ignorance. Ignorance is not so much the act of not knowing something, it is the act of not knowing something but claiming to know. . . . . . Lacking any personal acquaintance with inner spiritual or psychic experiences, the materialistic scientist ‘knows’ that those who have such experiences are wrong in their interpretation of them, while he or she is of course right.

This insight follows immediately after his account of the life and death of Socrates and the conclusions he draws from that (page 93):

How interesting that nearly two and a half thousand years ago Socrates was giving very much the same explanation of mediumistic gifts and their inhibition by the conscious mind that we might give today. This brings home to us an essential but often forgotten truth, namely that the knowledge of the spiritual dimension possessed by the ancients has hardly been bettered. The myth of eternal progress in human understanding, which lies behind so much of our delusory intellectual arrogance in modern times, can clearly be seen at least in spiritual matters for what it is, a myth.

In his view we have sold ‘the birthright of our innate spiritual wisdom for the mess of potage of material progress.’

The arrogance of our ignorance goes back a long way and across more than one dimension of human experience.

Take for example John Fitzgerald Medina’s exploration of the misguided attitude of the European settlers to the native American mode of agriculture in his book Faith, Physics & Psychology.

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

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

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

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

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

Nonetheless, in the arrogance of our ignorance we dispossessed the native Americans of their land in the mistaken conviction that we knew better and they just didn’t know how to grow crops properly, justifying our actions by a distortion of scripture.

The irrigation system in ancient India was similarly disparaged with drastic consequences. Fred Pearce explains in his 2006 book, When the Rivers Run Dry (pages 301-02):

Until the early nineteenth century, much of India was irrigated from shallow mud-walled reservoirs in valley bottoms that captured the monsoon rains in summer. The Indians called them tanka, a word the English adopted into their own language as tanks.

Most of the tanks were quite small, covering a hectare at most, and irrigating perhaps twenty hectares. Farmers scooped the water from the tanks, diverted it down channels onto fields, or left it to sink into the soil and refill their wells. . . . Farmers guarded the slimy nutrient-rich mud in their tanks almost as much as the water. They dug it out to put onto their land, and turned silted-up former tanks into new farmland.

. . . The system thrived until the British took charge in India. . . . The British water engineers largely ignored the village tanks, apparently not realising that they were how India fed itself. . . . As the British and later the Indian government itself promoted more modern water gathering technologies, they gradually fell into disuse, but today, as the formal irrigation systems established on the Western model fail across the country, and as farmers are having to pump from ever greater depths to retrieve underground water, the old tanks are starting to be restored.

Before we get too smug about it, we need to realise that this kind of blindness is as prevalent as ever.

Sometimes it’s entirely wilful as with Holocaust denial, where the evidence is unquestionable and easily accessed. Sometimes it’s partly motivated by self-interest or an ostrich approach where keeping our head in the sand seems less of a problem than facing up to reality, but also the sheer complexity of an issue such a climate change can make denial seem rational in the face of such demanding data. I’ve dealt with the complexity issue elsewhere on this blog so won’t rehearse it all here.

My long-standing personal commitment to investigating issues for myself and checking out the evidence carefully has been further reinforced by the faith I have chosen to follow. Bahá’í Scripture is unequivocal on this issue. We must investigate for ourselves if truth and justice are to be well served (see link for a fuller exploration of this theme).

At the individual level justice is that faculty of the human soul that enables each person to distinguish truth from falsehood. In the sight of God, Bahá’u’lláh avers, Justice is ‘the best beloved of all things[1]’ since it permits each individual to see with his own eyes rather than the eyes of others, to know through his own knowledge rather than the knowledge of his neighbour or group.

(Prosperity of Humankind – Section II)

There is no get-out clause:

If, in the Day when all the peoples of the earth will be gathered together, any man should, whilst standing in the presence of God, be asked: ‘Wherefore hast thou disbelieved in My beauty and turned away from My Self?’ and if such a man should reply and say: ‘Inasmuch as all men have erred, and none hath been found willing to turn his face to the Truth, I, too, following their example, have grievously failed to recognize the Beauty of the Eternal,’ such a plea will, assuredly, be rejected.

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh – LXXV)

I won’t labour the point any further. In the next post I’ll move onto to considering further implications.


[1] Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, Arabic No: 2.

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Pam reynold's surgeryIs it just a question of faith?

I ended the previous post with a question: why should the existence or not of an afterlife matter to you if you don’t believe it, even if it matters to me who does. Why on earth should you consider believing what I believe?

Let’s see if we can make some progress on that one.

Some people believe there is an afterlife and I am now one of them, though it was one of the more difficult things I had to accept when I investigated the spiritual life. After all why should beings so imperfect have an immortal soul? We hardly seemed entitled to such a privilege. To be honest, as a former atheist, I found it easier to believe in God than in an immortal soul.

The Bahá’í Faith is clear on the issue:

The soul is not a combination of elements, it is not composed of many atoms, it is of one indivisible substance and therefore eternal. It is entirely out of the order of the physical creation; it is immortal!

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks: pages 90-91)

It is also clear that how we live now will affect the kind of afterlife we have. This is to do with how well we have fed our souls. When our spirit goes from the narrow womb of this world to the vast expanses of the next we will need all our spiritual faculties in the best possible order if we are to cope.

And just as, if human life in the womb were limited to that uterine world, existence there would be nonsensical, irrelevant — so too if the life of this world, the deeds here done and their fruitage, did not come forth in the world beyond, the whole process would be irrational and foolish.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: No. 156)

I needed help with coming to terms with this improbable hypothesis and found it hard to take it simply on trust, though I did try.

I’m going to be basing a strong case to support the idea that beliefs in transcendence and the afterlife are the strongest possible motivators to building a better world. There is a problem with that though as an argument to defeat people who are sceptical. They could concede the point while still saying that there is no afterlife. There are many examples we could draw on to support the view that mistaken beliefs can be very motivating indeed. People have died and been killed for them – in fact are still dying and being killed. If the only difference is that one person’s belief wreaks havoc while the other one’s creed enhances life, we haven’t moved all that far in terms of truth value: just because a belief seems benign doesn’t make it true.

So if this pragmatic argument were the best one going in support of transcendence and the existence of an afterlife, we’d have to say that the case was at least one wing short of a complete aeroplane! Even high levels of positive usefulness, after all, do not prove truth.

So, before we move in more deeply to the implications for our society of a belief or lack of it in transcendence and the afterlife, it seems a good idea to tackle the evidence issue from another angle.

Black swan bookA Black Swan: the Case of Pam Reynolds

Is there really no evidence for an afterlife and/or the value of transcendence other than indirect and inconclusive notions of how it is better for our society if you believe it than if you don’t?

I think there is. We need to start with the black swan problem.

Taleb has used this as the title for his extremely relevant guide to the inevitability of the market crashes which continue to astonish us despite all the evidence confirming their eventual recurrence, but that is not the point for now.

It’s to Karl Popper that we need to turn. He originated the term in a discussion about falsifiability. If you assert that all swans are white, you cannot prove it even by discovering an extremely long sequence of white swans. You can though falsify it. One black swan will sink the theory.

The same can be said of mind/brain independence. I accept that a near death experience (NDE) which happens to involve the mind apparently functioning without any support at all from the brain does not absolutely prove there is life after death, but it is a necessary if not sufficient condition for maintaining that belief. I believe that this necessary condition has possibly been fulfilled at least once under completely controlled conditions. I think it may constitute a black swan for those that say an afterlife can be ruled out as completely impossible.

What is this black swan?

In Atlanta Georgia, the case of Pam Reynolds was investigated in the 1990s by Dr Michael Sabom (page 184 passim). His account is incorporated into a wider discussion of NDEs by David Fontana, a professor of psychology, in his book “Is There an Afterlife?”. Sabom states, and the surgical team corroborates it, that Pam was fully instrumented, under constant medical observation and completely unconscious as indicated for part of the time by the flatline EEG (a measure of brain activity: flatline would mean no brain activity at all that would support consciousness). It was as close to a controlled experiment as we are ever likely to get, he said on a television documentary on NDEs some time later. The surgical procedure she needed required a complete shut down of brain and heart activity in order safely to operate on an aneurysm at the base of the brain.

None the less, after being anaesthetised for 90 minutes but not as the video suggested when she was flatlined, she accurately observed aspects of the surgical procedure which were either a departure from what would have been the standard order of events or had unusual features, such as the bizarre appearance of the “saw” used, of which she could have had no prior knowledge. The surgeon in the case, and others who commented such as Peter Fenwick, felt that the usual methods of registering visual perceptions and memories in the brain would certainly have been  unavailable to her and could offer no explanation of how she could have subsequently had access to the experiences she described.

There is a huge literature on NDEs which many people with a materialist perspective refuse to inspect on the grounds that no amount of evidence can prove the impossible. This is scientism, not science, and I would urge everyone, no matter how sceptical, to investigate this thoroughly for themselves. The arguments parroted by so many that NDEs are the results of material causes such as anoxia or drugs just don’t stand up in this case (or in many others, according to Peter Fenwick).

What is of additional interest here is that the investigations of Ken Ring plainly indicate that NDEs are life transforming. His list of the changes they induce includes: appreciation for life, concern for others, reverence for life, antimaterialism, anticompetitiveness, spirituality, sense of purpose, and belief in God (pages 125-127). These are all things that we will hopefully come back to in more detail in the lifetime of this blog (though for some people it may already seem to have gone on far too long).

That list of Ring’s is a very significant one that paves the way for the next more pragmatic approach to the issue of why it should matter to everyone, why everyone needs to investigate carefully before they jump to the conclusion that an afterlife is impossible. A sense of the transcendent allied to a belief in life after death does seem to create a different more life- and community-enhancing pattern of behaviour in the individual who possesses them.

Time for a break, I think: more on that next time.

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It seems a good idea to republish this sequence from almost four years ago to complement the current new sequence on collaborative conversation. This is the first of six.

Some Background Thinking

I thought it was about time I tried to do a post on the work I did for most of my professional life. It could be tricky and might not work out at all.

I have been struggling for ages — at least ten years —  to capture in words the work I used to do. Words like therapist and therapy make me uncomfortable. Even the word counseling implies unequal distributions of wisdom. She who gives counsel is somehow superior to him who receives!

I have come to believe that what I did is best called mind-work. It includes mood-work, belief work and will-work: it should have included ‘soul-care’ but that would have been a step too far for a clinical psychologist’s job description even though ‘psyche’ means ‘soul’ to the Greeks.

Everyone does mind-work up to a point. It’s a bit like cooking though. Almost everyone prepares food at some point in his life but not everyone’s a chef. As a professional mind-worker I was a bit like the chef. I was an expert at the work at the same time as the people who worked with me as clients were experts about their own minds.

Because, to do mind-work, I drew on lots of other disciplines and traditions, including philosophy, psychology, biology, religion (especially Buddhism and the Bahá’í Faith) and the arts, I could sometimes feel like giving myself a fancy title such as psy-culturalist. This captures the richness of the traditions I could draw on and also captures the essential purpose of mind-work which is growth. It also meant I didn’t have to label myself a psychologist with its one-sided implication that I study the mind but don’t work with it, nor did I have to call myself a Clinical Psychologist with its implications of illness and therapy, which are insulting to the client.

Psy-culturalist, as a term, has a similar problem to Clinical Psychology. If we think about gardening, it’s a one-way street. Plants, as a general rule, don’t grow people. Mind-work, though, is both reciprocal and reflexive. I grow you and you grow me and we grow ourselves as well!

In the end then mind-work is a perfectly good description.

Mind-work for the most part involves forming a relationship (much more on that later) that allows words to be used in a process of collaborative conversation (the title of a book chapter I contributed to This Is Madness) to enhance meanings in a way that enables all participants to grow. As I see it every human interaction is an opportunity for mind-work and as many interactions as possible should be used as such. Even the groups of people who traditionally have been seen as experiencing meaningless lives, such as those with a diagnosis of schizophrenia or dementia, are not to be excluded from this meaning-making growth process. My work has mostly been with the former group and what follows discusses some implications of that. For me though, everybody means something and to deny that is to dehumanize us.

Perhaps it is important to clarify something. I use the word mind to cover a wide variety of possibilities. Consciousness is only one of them. Many important processes take place outside the circle of light shed by conscious attention. Mind is also where the body is experienced and shares a two-way relationship with the brain, so the realms of the physical are not excluded. The mind is a node in a sociocultural network and is affected by many wider systems which it maps and responds to in a variety of ways. No mind is an island! There is also strong evidence that the mind can operate independently of the body/brain (See Jenny Wade’s Changes of Mind, Ken Ring’s Lessons from the Light and David Fontana’s Is There an Afterlife? as well as posts on this site about the afterlife hypothesis for more detail about that.)

There are differences that should not be obscured. A psychologist is paid for her mind-work: her client is not. That is one difference which can create an undesirable power-differential if great care is not taken to counteract that tendency. Another difference lies in the fact that the client is the expert, as I have said, in his own mind: the psychologist is the expert when it comes to the nature of the work in some of its aspects. That is the only other difference. Both can grow as a result of the mind-work they do together.

That should be enough to set the scene for the exploration of my way of working that follows.

The Client’s Perspective

In 1996 I interviewed someone who had gone through a series of conversations with me about his voices. He was a former miner and an ex-army man from the Welsh valleys. He was articulate but down-to-earth. What he told me enriched my way of doing things considerably and shed a great deal of light into previously dark places. We made a video together, from which the photo  below is extracted but without showing his face, and he was very keen that it be used to help others understand this kind of problem better. At the time of the videoed interview we had been working together for about six months. There was still a long way to go but much of interest had happened. I will call him Ian to protect his identity.

Perhaps most importantly, he emphasised the role of trust.

P.: And it was in November that we first met, wasn’t it?

I.: Yeh. Jenny [his residential social worker not the author of the book recommended above!] had started talking about you, you know? And it was coming up to the meeting with you. And I can remember going to the meeting with you that first time. And I can remember thinking who’s this bloke asking me all these questions, you know? And I didn’t trust you. But Jen was persistent that I could trust you, so I decided to trust Jenny and to talk to you.

P.: And you actually asked if Jenny could come to sessions, didn’t you?BM & PH

I.: Yeh, I asked if Jenny could come, yeh.

P.: Right. And I think she came about the second or third time you came.

I.: Yeh.

P.: And did you feel more comfortable with her there?

I.: I did, yeh.

P.: And did that make you feel more able to begin to trust me at least personally if not what I was doing?

I.: It took about a month to start to trust you. And that was with Jenny backing you up.

This cannot be stressed too much. Trust takes a long time to build and is easily lost. In Ian’s case Jenny who had worked with him for years and vouched for me assisted the development of trust. In a “delusion” exercise I use in workshops we can see how a period of unsympathetic and confrontational treatment at the hands of other people makes it harder for someone to believe we are not going to be the same. We need to prove our trustworthiness over a period of time. We need to be prepared for hostility at worst and the cold shoulder or evasion at best in the early stages of our relationship. We would be wise not to assume that such behaviour is the result of “paranoia.” It is at least as likely, if not more so, to be a natural reaction to months if not years of other people’s outspoken incredulity.

What also was important to the success of my work with Ian was all the effort Jenny put in in-between times.

I.: It took about a month to start to trust you. And that was with Jenny backing you up.

P.: And that was by being there in the sessions and by talking to you between whiles wasn’t it? You used to have meetings and discussions with her between times.

I.: Inbetweentimes, yeh. And we’d talk about what we’d talked about, you know? And she supported you in what she said.

She helped him remember what I had said or correct his distortions of it. She encouraged him to make use of the suggestions we had come up with. She helped him make sense of what was happening to him in the terms I had described it. Isolated mind-work sessions will achieve little if they are not reinforced and supported by a lot of work in-between.

We will hear much more from Ian in the next post.

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The greater the decline of religion, the more grievous the waywardness of the ungodly. This cannot but lead in the end to chaos and confusion.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Tablets – page 64)

Onely a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like seasoned timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turns to coal,
Then chiefly lives.

(George Herbert: 1634)

This sequence of posts appeared in September 2012. It seemed a good idea to republish them now. They contain a number of references to Century of Light, the focus of the workshop materials I am currently posting, and placing them between two workshops dealing with the dark side of our materialistic culture seems especially appropriate. I am posting all three in the sequence on consecutive days.  It’s perhaps also necessary to share the nub of a comment left on part one of the original  by a good friend. He felt that “the relationship of secularisation and the ‘secularisation thesis’ (so beloved of 1960s sociology) to the present state of religion and religiosity is much more complex and multi-dimensional than this post seems to suggest.” This is a valid point and is not explored in this sequence, though it triggered some changes in Parts 2 & 3 as I explain then. 

The Starting Point:

In The World Order of Bahá’u’lláhShoghi Effendi refers to “the onslaught of secularism invading what has hitherto been regarded as the impregnable strongholds of Christian and Muslim orthodoxy” as one of several grave symptoms boding ill “for the future stability of the structure of modern civilisation.” It clearly would seem a good idea to try and understand its nature better. When we look at current thinking in the wider community alongside key Bahá’í concepts, can we tease out the nature of secularisation more clearly?

“Secularism”, according to the Chambers Dictionary (1994), is “the belief that the state, morals, education etc. should be independent of religion” whereas “secularisation” is not defined: we are left to assume it might be the process by which secularism comes about, from “secularise” meaning “to make secular.” The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1973) gives the primary definition of secularisation as “the conversion of an ecclesiastical or religious institution or its property to secular possession or use.” This more or less forces us to start by attempting a definition.

Problems of Definition:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man.

(Alexander Pope: 1733-34)

David Fontana

The meaning of this term, according to David Fontana in Psychology, Religion and Spirituality (pages 10), probably depends upon what we decide we mean by religion. He summarises a detailed consideration of the work done to define religion and feels that three factors provide a good enough working definition:

1. Belief in a spiritual dimension,

2. Observance of a set of spiritual rituals or practices, and

3. Adherence to a doctrine of ethical conduct arising from spiritual teachings.

As for secularisation, Hamilton, in The Sociology of Religion, distinguishes six overlapping possibilities (pages 166-167):

  1. Decline of religion: previously accepted symbols, doctrines, institutions lose their prestige.
  2. Greater conformity with this world and a turning away from the “supernatural.”
  3. Disengagement of society from religion.
  4. Religious beliefs and institutions get transposed into non-religious forms.
  5. The desacralisation of the world.
  6. The movement from a sacred to a secular society.

Judith Fox, in The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion (page 292- First Edition) reminds us of the distinction researchers and theorists have made between public and private “religiosity”, some locating “secularisation” only in the former sphere and “secularism” in the latter. She compares two influential thinkers in the field (page 295). Weber, it seems wistfully, contended that science and modernity would inevitably and irretrievably push faith to the margins: Durkheim, though an atheist, felt that the function religion served, regardless of its truth value, would never be outlived and religion would always revive in some new form when the old forms lost their hold. The latter is known as the functionalist view.

While some have ended up wanting to abandon the concept of secularisation altogether, Hamilton, in his treatment of the subject (page 167), feels this to be premature. He argues the term has a core meaning:

. . . the decline, and perhaps ultimate disappearance, of specifically religious beliefs and institutions which seems to encompass [the] first, second, fourth and fifth meanings. . . . Secularisation in this sense may or may not be occurring and may or may not be a permanent process.

Is It Happening?

Being overcome by the drunkenness of corrupt inclinations, the people of the earth find themselves in a state of stupor. They are, therefore, debarred from the wondrous signs of God, are prevented from attaining the ultimate goal and are deprived of the liberal effusions of divine grace.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Tablets – page 237)

Matthew Arnold

A strong sense of the decline of religion is also shared by poets. Matthew Arnold’s image of a retreating tide is perhaps the most famous example, but we will also be meeting Tennyson’s take on it in a later post.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

(Matthew Arnold: 1867)

Hamilton (page 169) reviews the evidence and concludes:

. . . the evidence would appear to be in favour of the view that religion, in general terms, is in decline in most Western industrial societies, at least in so far as they are Christian. . .  The general pattern of this weakening is that it is more marked in the Protestant countries of Northern Europe than in Catholic countries of the Mediterranean region. Britain falls somewhere in the middle. Holland and Belgium, however, show a somewhat less marked trend, at least until recently, and the United States perhaps the least marked but this is on the basis of church attendance and similar indicators . . .

The weakening effects of secularisation may also be extending to Islam as well. So, why is this happening? We’ll be returning to this aspect in the next post.


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[The] stone is the lowest degree of phenomena, but nevertheless within it a power of attraction is manifest without which the stone could not exist. This power of attraction in the mineral world is love, the only expression of love the stone can manifest. . . Finally, we reach the kingdom of man. Here we find that all the degrees of the mineral, vegetable and animal expressions of love are present plus unmistakable attractions of consciousness. That is to say, man is the possessor of a degree of attraction which is conscious and spiritual. Here is an immeasurable advance. In the human kingdom spiritual susceptibilities come into view, love exercises its superlative degree, and this is the cause of human life.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá in The Promulgation of Universal Peace page 168-69)

Once we have explained all the physical structure in the vicinity of the brain, and we have explained how all the various brain functions are performed, there is a further sort of explanandum: consciousness itself. Why should all this structure and function give rise to experience? The story about the physical processes does not say.

(David J ChalmersThe Conscious Mind, page 107)

Materialism’s biggest problem is that consciousness does exist.

(The Science Delusion –  page 109)

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This short sequence was first published in 2012: part one came out yesterday, this is the second and final part. 

Putting my best foot forward?

 Three years ago I tackled the issue of the afterlife.  I felt, and still feel, that on this issue a good place to start is with the black swan problem and it works even better as an argument for the independence of consciousness from the brain.

Taleb has used this as the title for his extremely relevant guide to the inevitability of the market crashes which continue to astonish us despite all the evidence confirming their eventual recurrence, but that is not the point for now.

It’s to Karl Popper that we need to turn. He originated the term in a discussion about falsifiability. If you assert that all swans are white, you cannot prove it even by discovering an extremely long sequence of white swans. You can though falsify it. One black swan will sink the theory.

The same can be said of mind/brain independence, something which points to consciousness being more than matter. There is one near death experience (NDE) which happens to involve the mind apparently functioning without any support at all from the brain.

What is this black swan?

In Atlanta Georgia, the case of Pam Reynolds was investigated in the 1990s by Dr Michael Sabom. His account is incorporated into a wider discussion of NDEs by David Fontana, a professor of psychology, in his book “Is There an Afterlife?” (page 184 passim). Sabom states, and the surgical team corroborates it, that Pam was fully instrumented, under constant medical observation and completely unconscious as indicated for part of the time by the flatline EEG (a measure of brain activity: flatline would mean no brain activity at all that would support consciousness). It was as close to a controlled experiment as we are ever likely to get, he said on a television documentary on NDEs some time later. The surgical procedure she needed required a complete shut down of brain and heart activity in order safely to operate on an aneurysm at the base of the brain. None the less, after being anaesthetised for 90 minutes but not as the video suggested when she was flatlined, she accurately observed aspects of the surgical procedure which were either a departure from what would have been the standard order of events or had unusual features, such as the bizarre appearance of the “saw” used, of which she could have had no prior knowledge. The surgeon in the case, and others who commented such as Peter Fenwick, felt that the usual methods of registering visual perceptions and memories in the brain would certainly have been unavailable to her and could offer no explanation of how she could have subsequently had access to the experiences she described.

The problem here is that my ‘black swan’ torpedo, something that holes the titanic edifice of materialism below the waterline, is someone else’s ‘delusional anecdote’ only serving to prove how gullible we afterlifers are.

How good it is, then, to find a science heavy-weight pulling together a massive array of assorted evidence to call the whole enterprise of materialism into serious question. Rupert Sheldrake may not be a mainstream scientist accepted by the practitioners of the prevailing orthodoxy but he has too much credibility to be lightly dismissed.

The evidence he marshals in his book, The Science Delusion, covers many areas. For the purposes of this post I am focusing on the evidence that relates to consciousness in some way and supports the possibility of its not residing entirely in the brain. In fact, according to the evidence he quotes, some its most important aspects appear to be located elsewhere altogether.

Brainless means brain-dead, right?

Let me put a key point right up front.

Even the dimmest materialist can tell me that I must be wrong about consciousness because, when you do enough damage to the brain, the lights go out. Sheldrake enables me to ask, though, how much damage is enough? 25%? 50%? 75%? 95%?

He has an answer. There is no way of knowing how much damage will destroy effective consciousness and functioning in any individual case. Massive damage can sometimes have little detectable effect (page 193):

John Lorber . . . scanned the brains of more than six hundred people with hydrocephalus, and found that about sixty had more than 95 per cent of the cranial cavity filled with cerebrospinal fluid. Some were seriously retarded, but others were more or less normal, and some had IQs of well over 100. One young man who had an IQ of 126 and a first-class degree in mathematics, a student from Sheffield University, had ‘virtually no brain’. . . . . His mental activity and his memory were still able to function more or less normally even though he had a brain only five per cent of the normal size.

He looks then at the well-researched area of memory to unearth an intriguing possibility (page 194-198):

More than a century of intensive, well-funded research has failed to pin down memory traces in brains. There may be a very simple reason for this: the hypothetical traces do not exist. However long or hard researchers look for them they may never find them. Instead, memories may depend on morphic resonance from an organism’s own past. The brain may be more like a television set than a hard-drive recorder.

. . . the fact that injury and brain degeneration, as in Alzheimer’s disease, lead to loss of memory does not prove that memories are stored in the damaged tissue. If I snipped a wire or removed some components from the sound circuits of your TV set, I could render it speechless, or aphasic. But this would not mean that all the sounds were stored in the damaged components.

. . . But what if the holographic wave-patterns are not stored in the brain at all? Pribram later came to this conclusion, and thought of the brain as a ‘wave-form analyser’ rather than a storage system, comparing it to a radio receiver that picked up wave-forms from the ‘implicate order’, rendering them explicate.

And it’s a small step from there to Goswami’s ‘consciousness is the ground of being’ which we described in the earlier post (page 114-115):

The philosopher Galen Strawson, himself a materialist, is amazed by the willingness of so many of his fellow philosophers to deny the reality of their own experience . . . He argues that a consistent materialism must imply panpsychism, namely the idea that even atoms and molecules have a primitive kind of mentality or experience. . . Panpsychism does not mean that atoms are conscious in the sense that we are, but only that some aspects of mentality or experience are present in the simplest physical systems. More complex forms of mind or experience emerge in more complex systems.

It all depends upon your point of view perhaps (page 119):

The philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce saw the physical and mental as different aspects of underlying reality: ‘All mind more or less partakes of the nature of matter . . . Viewing a thing from the outside . . . it appears as matter. Viewing it from the inside . . . it appears as consciousness.’

David Bohm

Our point of view will have consequences

It is an important issue though as our conclusions about it have implications for the way we live. Consciousness may be inherent in the universe. Bohm is another who raises this point (page 126):

Bohm observed, ‘The question is whether matter is rather crude and mechanical or whether it gets more and more subtle and becomes indistinguishable from what people have called mind.’ . . . In other words, mind is already inherent in every electron, and the processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call ‘chance’ when they are made by an electron.

If so what are the implications then? A sense of purpose is a major one (page 128).

It makes a big difference if you think of yourself as a zombie-like mechanism in an unconscious mechanical world, or as a truly conscious being capable of making choices, living among other beings with sensations, experiences and desires.

Maybe what we make of ourselves and of our world, in other words our entire future, will in part hinge on the answer we find to the question of consciousness (page 130):

Purposes exist in a virtual realm, rather than a physical reality. They connect organisms to ends or goals that have not yet happened; they are attractors, in the language of dynamics, a branch of modern mathematics. Purposes or attractors cannot be weighed; they are not material.

To make the point completely clear he later states (page 140):

Developing systems are attracted towards their ends or goals. They are not only pushed from the past, they are pulled from the future.

Yes, there is a push from the past and this is driven mostly from our unconscious as a 2012 Horizon programme on BBC2 illustrated very powerfully. But, as we have already said, there is also a pull from the future which is mostly responded to in consciousness.

So, what is going to happen lies in our own hands and depends to a significant extent upon our conscious choices. If we come to feel that those choices are all already completely determined by some billiard-ball-type interactions among our billions of neurones, we will behave very differently from how we would behave if we felt that we could freely choose a course of action determined to a significant extent by a freely chosen vision of what we wanted to achieve. At the very least, it creates a greater sense of responsibility for our actions.

What is also important is that the concept of consciousness being explored here by Sheldrake implies a strong degree of interconnectedness that in turn, for me, suggests that more than mirror neurones lie behind the experience of compassion. It is interesting in this light to read Thomas Mellen‘s account, in his story of his near death experience, of when he encountered the being of Light (Ken Ring – Lessons from the Light – page  287):

And at that time, the Light revealed itself to me on a level that I had never been to before. I can’t say it’s words; it was a telepathic understanding more than anything else, very vivid. I could feel it, I could feel this light. And the Light just reacted and revealed itself on another level, and the message was “Yes, [for] most people, depending on where you are coming from, it could be Jesus, it could be Buddha, it could be Krishna, whatever.”

But I said, “But what it is really?” And the Light then changed into – the only thing I can tell you [is that] it turned into a matrix, a mandala of human souls, and what I saw was that what we call our higher self in each of us is a matrix. It’s also a conduit to the source; each one of us comes directly, as a direct experience [from] the source. And it became very clear to me that all the higher selves are connected as one being, all humans are connected as one being, we are actually the same being, different aspects of the same being. And I saw this mandala of human souls. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, just [voice trembles], I just went into it and [voice falters], it was just overwhelming [he chokes], it was like all the love you’ve ever wanted, and it was the kind of love that cures, heals, regenerates.

And before you say it, if my preference for this picture, based on the evidence I have adduced, has in fact really been predetermined, then so has the preference of a materialist for a different reductionist picture. So why would his or her views have more weight than mine?

We all know the choice is ours really. Nothing can rationalise that reality away, I believe. A lot depends upon it.

No pressure then.

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. . . 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.

( ‘Abdu’l-Bahá  in Some Answered Questions, page 208)

The sciences evolve, and so do religions. No religion is the same today as it was at the time of its founder. Instead of the bitter conflicts and mutual distrust caused by the materialist worldview, we are entering an era in which sciences and religions may enrich each other through shared explorations.

(Baumeister & Tierney: Willpower, page 340)

What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind.

(George Berkeley)

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This short sequence was first published in 2012: part two comes out again tomorrow. 

Consciousness is preposterous. It can’t be possible yet it exists. I know it does because I am writing this. You know it does if you are reading this. Because it exists and we are in a sense (well, five of them at least, actually) the experience of consciousness, we are usually blind to its sheer improbability. So much for the senses, then.

Perhaps this paradox is why it is currently a battle ground between those who believe mind is merely matter and those who believe that mind is much more than matter. This difference, as we will see, has implications for whether our actions are completely determined by unconscious processes or are freely chosen. Yes, there is a push from our unconscious, partly the result of evolution and partly the result of automated memories, as last Tuesday’s Horizon programme on BBC2 illustrated very powerfully. But – and it’s a very important but – there is also a sense of purpose which creates a pull from the future which is mostly mediated through our conscious mind.

In my lifetime I have switched sides in this battle for reasons too many to list here. I used to believe in nothing that I couldn’t directly experience with my ordinary senses. Now I believe there is a spiritual dimension even though it would be fair to say I have never experienced it directly. Other people that I have come to trust have had such experiences though and my earlier conversion to this point of view is constantly reaffirmed by their testimony.

A Physicist’s Personal Testimony

Amit Goswami, the physicist, in an interview about his book, The Self-Aware Universe, which I quoted in a post about three years ago,  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.

More Mystical Angles on the Matter

Andrew Powell, in Thinking Beyond the Brain, an intriguing book edited by David Lorimer, put me onto Goswami. He concludes, ‘Everything is mind,’ (page 182) and goes on to say (page 186):

. . . there is a more important truth to be discovered, that we are one. If humankind should ever learn that what belongs to one belongs to all, heaven on earth will be assured.

In the same book (pages 128-131) there is an account of a similar but not identical mystical experience. Charles Tart quotes the story of a Doctor S who was an atheist at the time. He was alone, watching the sunset, which was particularly beautiful that evening. All verbal thinking stopped. While what he experienced was, he said, impossible to express, he did try to convey it in words (page 130):

I was certain that the universe was one whole and that it was benign and loving at its ground. . . . . God as experienced in cosmic consciousness is the very ground or beingness of the Universe and has no human characteristics in the usual sense of the word. The Universe could no more be separate from God than my body could separate from its cells. Moreover the only emotion that I would associate with God is love, but it would be more accurate to say that God is love, than that God is loving.

Most religions, and the Bahá’í Faith is no exception, hold that God is more than the universe: they mostly agree also that God permeates the universe in some way. Which means, of course, that He is in us also. Bahá’u’lláh confirms this when He exhorts us to:

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee . . .

(Hidden Words from the Arabic: Number 13)

The implications for the nature of consciousness are immense if, as I do, you believe this to be true. What if you don’t?

Is this the best hard evidence we can get?

Aren’t these just anecdotes and metaphors, carrying no more weight than any other personal opinion? Is this going to help reconcile the differences between faith and science in this all important area?

Fortunately, since I first explored this question much more research has come into the public domain. And I’m not talking about things like Near Death Experiences (see the links at the end of this post), or David Fontana‘s explorations of the reality of the soul and the afterlife. I’m referring to work such as Schwartz‘s that demonstrates that the mind is not easily reducible to the brain but rather can, by force of deliberate willed attention, change the brain. Not quite enough to carry a hard-line materialist with me, though? Not even enough to cause him or her a fleeting doubt?

Well, beyond that, and most recently, there has been Rupert Sheldrake‘s book The Science Delusion. In the next post I will seek to unpack some of the most telling points he makes that should cause us to question too glib an attachment to a materialist explanation of consciousness.

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