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Posts Tagged ‘Eben Alexander’

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

(Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 316-317)

This, then, is what a theory of everything has to explain: not only the emergence from a lifeless universe of reproducing organisms and their development by evolution to greater and greater functional complexity; not only the consciousness of some of those organisms and its central role in their lives; but also the development of consciousness into an instrument of transcendence that can grasp objective reality and objective value.

(Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmospage 85)

Now I come to the question of transcendence.

Transcending the crocodile does not depend upon accepting the existence of a soul, though that’s where this post will be going in the end.

Even if we only consider the brain and see the sense of self as its product, with no ‘true’ or ‘real’ self beyond that, we have ground to stand on which will enable us to shake off the shackles of the crocodile and avoid the swamp it lives in.

I’ve recently been reading Julian Baggini’s book How the World Thinks. His discussion of the No-Self issue addresses this point succinctly and may help me avoid rehashing arguments used elsewhere on this blog. He explores the Buddhist concept of anattā, which denies the reality of the ātman or self (page 178):

There is no ātman that has physical form, sensations, thoughts, perceptions of consciousness. Rather, what we think of as the individual person is merely an assemblage of these things.

He adds an important qualification (page 179):

If anattā seems more radical a view than it is, that is in large part because its usual translation is ‘no-self.’ But all it really means is no ātman: no eternal, immaterial, indivisible self. This is very different from denying there is any kind of self at all.

That Buddhism then encourages the effortful practice of meditative techniques to free us from the prison of this illusion of self clearly indicates that the no-self doctrine is not incompatible with the idea that we can escape the crocodile inside.

So, whether or not we have an immortal soul or self that is not a by-product of the brain, we can use techniques such as reflection or disidentification to rise above the tangle of thoughts, feelings, plans and perspectives with which we weave our convincing patterns on the loom of consciousness.

If I am relying on reason alone there is no way I can prove that the mind is independent of the brain anymore than someone else can prove conclusively it isn’t. Agnosticism is the only position available to reason alone. Many people are content to leave it at that. They may even happily look at the evidence marshaled for soul or no soul and keep their options open. I did that myself for a number of years.

Some of us though prefer in the end to make a choice. We’d rather decide there is or is not a soul, a God and/or an after-life. Either way that’s an act of faith.

I decided, for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere on this blog, to believe we have a soul. I now feel this is the simplest explanation for all the data marshalled by psychologist David Fontana in his rigorous exploration of the evidence, Is There an Afterlife? For those interested in exploring further a more accessible book is Surviving Death by journalist Leslie Kean. Powerful individual testimony also comes from Eben Alexander in his account of his own experience as a sceptical neurosurgeon, Proof of Heaven.

If you prefer not to believe in a soul, the vast body of hard evidence still demands some kind of credible explanation, because trying to write it all off as flawed or fake won’t work. The evidence is in many cases more rigourous than that ‘proving’ the efficacy of the tablets we take when we have a problem with our health.

Anyway, I have come to think it’s easier to accept that our consciousness is not just an emergent property of our brain. If you’d like to stick with it we’ll see where it takes us on this issue.

Mind-Brain Independence

A quote from the middle of Emily Kelly’s chapter in Irreducible Mind on Frederick Myers’s approach (page 76) seems a good place to start from, because the last sentence cuts to the core of the challenge constituted by his position and the evidence that mainstream ‘scientists’ ignore:

This notion of something within us being conscious, even though it is not accessible to our ordinary awareness, is an exceedingly difficult one for most of us to accept, since it is so at variance with our usual assumption that the self of which we are aware comprises the totality of what we are as conscious mental beings. Nevertheless, it is essential to keep in mind Myers’s new and enlarged conception of consciousness if one is to understand his theory of human personality as something far more extensive than our waking self.

The mind-brain data throws up a tough problem, though. Most of us come to think that if you damage the brain you damage the mind because all the evidence we hear about points that way. We are not generally presented with any other model or any of the evidence that might call conventional wisdom into question, at least not by the elder statesmen of the scientific community. There are such models though (page 73):

The first step towards translating the mind-body problem into an empirical problem, therefore, is to recognise that there is more than one way to interpret mind-brain correlation. A few individuals have suggested that the brain may not produce consciousness, as the vast majority of 19th and 20th century scientists assumed; the brain may instead filter, or shape, consciousness. In that case consciousness maybe only partly dependent on the brain, and it might therefore conceivably survive the death of the body.

Others are of course now following where he marked out the ground but we have had to wait a long time for people like van Lommel to show up in his book Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience with all the perplexities and puzzles of modern physics to draw upon (page 177):

It is now becoming increasingly clear that brain activity in itself cannot explain consciousness. . . . . Composed of “unconscious building blocks,” the brain is certainly capable of facilitating consciousness. But does the brain actually “produce” our consciousness?

The imagery Lommel uses in his introduction is slightly different from that of Myers, as we will see – “The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness” – but the point is essentially the same. Whereas we now can draw upon all the complexities of Quantum Theory to help us define exactly what might be going on behind the screen of consciousness, and Lommel certainly does that, Myers had no such advantage. Nonetheless, he creates a rich and subtle picture of what consciousness might be comprised. He starts with the most basic levels (Kelly – page 73):

. . . . our normal waking consciousness (called by Myers the supraliminal consciousness) reflects simply those relatively few psychological elements and processes that have been selected from that more extensive consciousness (called by Myers the Subliminal Self) in adaptation to the demands of our present environment: and . . . the biological organism, instead of producing consciousness, is the adaptive mechanism that limits and shapes ordinary waking consciousness out of this larger, mostly latent, Self.

This problem is illustrated by Myers’s very helpful original analogy, and it shows just how far he was prepared to go in taking into account disciplines that others would have felt were beyond the pale (page 78):

Our ordinary waking consciousness corresponds only to that small segment of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the naked eye (and varies species to species); but just as the electromagnetic spectrum extends in either direction far beyond the small portion normally visible, so human consciousness extends in either direction beyond the small portion of which we are ordinarily aware. In the ‘infrared’ region of consciousness are older, more primitive processes – processes that are unconscious, automatic, and primarily physiological. Thus, ‘at the red end (so to say) consciousness disappears among the organic processes’ (Myers, 1894-1895). Sleep, for example, and its associated psychophysiological processes are an important manifestation of an older, more primitive state. In contrast, in the ‘ultraviolet’ region of the spectrum are all those mental capacities that the remain latent because they have not yet emerged at a supraliminal level through adaptive evolutionary processes. . . . . Such latent, ‘ultraviolet’ capacities include telepathy, the inspirations of creative genius, mystical perceptions, and other such phenomena that occasionally emerge.

Where does this take us?

Given the mirror used to illustrate the power of reflection, a reasonable description of the effects of sticking with the ego and its crocodile can be found in these words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (Promulgation of Universal Peace– page 244):

What is the dust which obscures the mirror? It is attachment to the world, avarice, envy, love of luxury and comfort, haughtiness and self-desire; this is the dust which prevents reflection of the rays of the Sun of Reality in the mirror. The natural emotions are blameworthy and are like rust which deprives the heart of the bounties of God.

To find a close correspondence to the idea of disdentification in the words of an 18thCentury thinker felt like a further confirmation of its validity. Emily Kelly, in the book Irreducible Mind, quotes Myers quoting Thomas Reid, an 18th century philosopher (page 74):

The conviction which every man has of his identity . . . needs no aid of philosophy to strengthen it; and no philosophy can weaken it.… I am not thought, I am not action, I am not feeling; I am something that thinks, and acts, and suffers. My thoughts and actions and feelings change every moment…; But that Self or I, to which they belong, is permanent…

This contradicts my quasi-namesake David Hume’s perception of the situation as quoted by Braggini (pages 185-86):

What you observe are particular thoughts, perceptions and sensations. ‘I never catch myself, distinct from such perception,’ wrote Hume, assuming he was not peculiar.

I noted in the margin at this point, ‘’That’s not my experience.’

So, as good a place as any to pick up the thread of Myers’s thinking again is with his ideas of the self and the Self. There are some problems to grapple with before we can move on. Emily Kelly writes (page 83):

These ‘concepts central to his theory’ are undoubtedly difficult, but despite some inconsistency in his usage or spelling Myers was quite clear in his intent to distinguish between a subliminal ‘self’ (a personality alternate or in addition to the normal waking one) and a Subliminal ‘Self’ or ‘Individuality’ (which is his real ‘unifying theoretical principle’). In this book we will try to keep this distinction clear in our readers minds by using the term ‘subliminal consciousness’ to refer to any conscious psychological processes occurring outside ordinary awareness; the term “subliminal self” (lower case) to refer to ‘any chain of memory sufficiently continuous, and embracing sufficient particulars, to acquire what is popularly called a “character” of its own;’ and the term ‘Individuality’ or “’Subliminal Self” (upper case) to refer to the underlying larger Self.

Myers believed that the evidence in favour of supernormal experiences is strong enough to warrant serious consideration (page 87):

Supernormal processes such as telepathy do seem to occur more frequently while either the recipient or the agent (or both) is asleep, in the states between sleeping and waking, in a state of ill health, or dying; and subliminal functioning in general emerges more readily during altered states of consciousness such as hypnosis, hysteria, or even ordinary distraction.

He felt that we needed to find some way of reliably tapping into these levels of consciousness (page 91):

The primary methodological challenge to psychology, therefore, lies in developing methods, or ‘artifices,’ for extending observations of the contents or capacities of mind beyond the visible portion of the psychological spectrum, just as the physical sciences have developed artificial means of extending sensory perception beyond ordinary limits.

He is arguing that the science of psychology needs to investigate these phenomena. I am not suggesting that, as individuals, we need to have had any such experiences if we are to make use of this model of the mind successfully. I personally have not had any. However, my belief that there is a higher self strongly motivates me to work at transcending the influence of my ego and its crocodile, and I suspect that subliminal promptings towards constructive action in complex and difficult circumstances often come from that direction.

This brings us into the territory explored by Roberto Assagioli in the psychotherapeutic approach called Psychosynthesis, with its use of concepts such as the Higher Self, for which I am using the term True Self.

1: Lower Unconscious 2: Middle Unconscious 3: Higher Unconscious 4: Field of Consciousness 5: Conscious Self or “I” 6: Higher Self 7: Collective Unconscious (For the source of the image see link.)

A crucial component in implementing the Psychosynthesis model, in addition to finding it credible, is will power.

Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis, contends that we are being raised by a higher force ‘into order, harmony and beauty,’ and this force is ‘uniting all beings . . . . with each other through links of love’ (Psychosynthesis: page 31). He explores what we might do to assist that process, and what he says resonates with Schwartz’s idea that persistent willed action changes brain structure. He writes (The Act of Will: page 57):

Repetition of actions intensifies the urge to further reiteration and renders their execution easier and better, until they come to be performed unconsciously.

And he is not just talking about the kind of physical skills we met with in Bounce. He goes on to say (page 80):

Thus we can, to a large extent, act, behave, and really be in practice as we would be if we possessed the qualities and enjoyed the positive mental states which we would like to have. More important, the use of this technique will actually change our emotional state.

This is what, in the realm of psychology, underpins the power of determination that the Universal House of Justice refers to in paragraph 5 of their 28 December 2010 message:

Calm determination will be vital as [people] strive to demonstrate how stumbling blocks can be made stepping stones for progress.

Changing ourselves in this way as individuals will ultimately change the world in which we live.

I am not arguing that transcending the crocodile is easy, nor am I saying that one particular way of achieving this will suit everyone. It is an effortful path and we each have to find our own. It is important that we do not mistake a credible looking path for the destination itself. If the path is not moving us towards our goal we must find another one. Nonetheless I am convinced the goal is within our grasp if we can believe in it enough to make the effort.

The Higher Good

There is one last important point for those of us who wish to believe in a God of some kind.

My very battered copy of this classic.

In his attempt to understand the horrors of Nazism, Erich Fromm writes in his masterpiece, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, a dog-eared disintegrating paperback copy of which I bought in 1976 and still cling onto, something which deserves quoting at length (pages 260-61):

The intensity of the need for a frame of orientation explains a fact that has puzzled many students of man, namely the ease with which people fall under the spell of irrational doctrines, either political or religious or of any other nature, when to the one who is not under their influence it seems obvious that they are worthless constructs. . . . . Man would probably not be so suggestive were it not that his need for a cohesive frame of orientation is so vital. The more an ideology pretends to give answers to all questions, the more attractive it is; here may lie the reason why irrational or even plainly insane thought systems can so easily attract the minds of men.

But a map is not enough as a guide for action; man also needs a goal that tells him where to go. . . . man, lacking instinctive determination and having a brain that permits him to think of many directions in which he could go, needs an object of total devotion; he needs an object of devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings and the basis for all his effective – and not only proclaimed – values. . . . In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity.

The objects of man’s devotion vary. He can be devoted to an idol which requires him to kill his children or to an ideal the makes him protect children; he can be devoted to the growth of life or to its destruction. He can be devoted to the goal of amassing a fortune, of acquiring power, of destruction, or to that of loving and being productive and courageous. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols; yet while the difference in the objects of devotion are of immense importance, the need for devotion itself is a primary, existential need demanding fulfilment regardless of how this need is fulfilled.

When we choose the wrong object of devotion the price can be terrifying.

Eric Reitan makes essentially the same point. He warns us that we need to take care that the object of devotion we choose needs to be worthy of our trust. In his bookIs God a delusion?, he explains a key premise that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry, including the secular variations such a Fascism and Nazism.

The way forward, I believe, lies in recognising a higher and inspiring source of value that will help us lift our game in a way that can be sustained throughout our lifetime. For many of us that is God (from Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 76):

Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

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

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

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

The No Self Issue

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

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

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

Eben Alexander

Eben Alexander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do the passages I have just quoted suggest?

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

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

How come?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do I call it a trap?

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

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

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

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

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

Beckett clearly felt there was none.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bahiyyih-Nakhjavani-009

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

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

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

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

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

Interestingly, all three books are by women authors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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brian-cox

My latest sequence mentions the Bahá’í view that religion and science are compatible and necessary if our civilisation is to progress. It therefore seems appropriate to republish this earlier sequence. This is the first of four: the second will be published tomorrow, and there last two on Friday and Saturday. 

It’s hard to tell which falling straws are a good guide to the way the wind is blowing.

Is it the one whose label can be drawn from the research Cosmo Landesman wrote about in the Sunday Times recently?

The average Briton feels a hundred percent fit and healthy only 61 days a year, according to a report out last week. . . . . What has turned us into a nation of hypochondriacs?

Or is it the one drawn from the research indicating that the UK’s stiff upper lip reluctance to trouble the doctor is adversely affecting this country’s treatment of cancer?

Should we be dashing to the GP at the first faint whiff of trouble or should we stop whinging and ignore our trivial aches and pains.

I was sitting in the GP’s surgery having decided I was more likely to be one of those who let the curable turn into the untreatable rather than someone with a highly volatile twinge magnification system. I clearly had a serious case of late-onset lung rot: I really needed to be here.

While I waited to be called, to distract myself from dwelling on how few days were probably left for me to put my house in order, I listened to a BBC radio interview with Professor Brian Cox. Among the interesting ideas he shared was the view that, although he doesn’t believe in God himself, there is nothing at all in science that rules God out (or, as I suspect he could have added, rules Him in either).

If research data cannot even clarify for certain whether I should go to the doctor’s or not, how can we fairly expect science to determine the God question – one for which it is totally unsuited. Incidentally, you may be relieved to learn that my cough will not carry me off just yet. So much for my experiment with hypochondria.

Symbolic logic

A Deep Concord

Thank heaven (my view, obviously) that some people are talking sense about the science vs religion issue from within the scientific community. I’ve already written on this blog about Rupert Sheldrake, Eben Alexander, Ken Wilber, Jenny Wade, Margaret Donaldson and others. Now I can add Alvin Plantinga to my list.

I need to own up from the start that there are dozens of pages of his book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, that I simply don’t understand. These occur when he resorts to symbolic logic to explain his point. Maybe it is the briefest way to explain a complex issue. Maybe it is the best way of cutting out any of the cognitive biases that can creep in from dodgy heuristics. Maybe it’s the best way of showing the opposition what a big hitter he is. Whatever the reason it leaves me outside the warmth of his argument in the winter cold with my nose pressed fruitlessly against the glass. I’ve found though that skipping such pages doesn’t affect my basic grasp of the rest of what he says, and what he is saying is welcome and compelling stuff. Take this for starters from his introduction:

If my thesis is right, therefore—if there is deep concord between science and Christian or theistic belief, but deep conflict between science and naturalism—then there is a science/religion (or science/ quasi-religion) conflict, all right, but it isn’t between science and theistic religion: it’s between science and naturalism 

He defines ‘naturalism’ as ‘the thought that there is no such person as God, or anything like God.’ He sees it as a kind of religion.

He doesn’t claim that the expression of religious feeling is universally benign but he’s clear that, not only do religions not have a monopoly on the creation of suffering, but also their efforts in that direction are comprehensively upstaged by secular ideologies:

. . . . the world’s religions do indeed have much to repent; still (as has often been pointed out) the suffering, death, and havoc attributable to religious belief and practice pales into utter insignificance beside that due to the atheistic and secular idiologies of the twentieth century alone.

This is a point Jonathan Haidt has also addressed in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis.‘ In his view idealism, and this is not by any means restricted to religion, has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

The Real Conflict

religion & Science

To go back to our main argument, Plantinga clarifies where the conflict seems to lie for him:

There is no real conflict between theistic religion and the scientific theory of evolution. What there is, instead, is conflict between theistic religion and a philosophical gloss or add-on to the scientific doctrine of evolution: the claim that evolution is undirected, unguided, unorchestrated by God (or anyone else).

If there is no deep-seated conflict for Plantinga between the theory of evolution and theism, the same is surprisingly not true in the case of naturalism and science:

I argue that the same most emphatically does not go for science and naturalism. . . . . there is deep and serious conflict between naturalism and science. . . . it is improbable, given naturalism and evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable. . . . . a naturalist who accepts current evolutionary theory has a defeater for the proposition that our faculties are reliable. . . . naturalism and evolution are in serious conflict: one can’t rationally accept them both.

Later posts will come back to this point again but I probably need to clarify this summary of it. Basically he argues that, from naturalism’s perspective, all beliefs are reducible to neuronal activity and all that evolution ensures is that the actions that neuronal activity produces are conducive to our survival. The content of our beliefs is an irrelevant by-product of this neuronal activity and cannot be relied on for its truth value. All that is required is that the action patterns produced by our synaptic activation keep us alive. There is no need for the beliefs we also coincidentally hold to be true and therefore no guarantee that they are. There are therefore no good grounds in terms of a completely reductionist evolutionary theory for believing that naturalism is true. After all, believing in naturalism would have had no survival value in our prehistory and therefore no warrant in this version of evolutionary theory. For this reason naturalism disqualifies itself as a well-founded belief system.

The evangelical atheists have, in Plantinga’s view, grossly overstated their case (pages 24-25):

Dawkins claims that he will show that the entire living world came to be without design; what he actually argues is only that this is possible and we don’t know that it is astronomically improbable; for all we know it’s not astronomically improbable.

He wryly adds (page 28): ‘Whatever happened to agnosticism, withholding belief?’

The nature of the situation is, in Plantinga’s view, much less clear cut. He starts with a simple statement of naturalism’s position before exploring some of his doubts about it (page 34)

Life itself originated just by way of the regularities of physics and chemistry (through a sort of extension of natural selection); and undirected natural selection has produced language and mind, including our artistic, moral, religious, and intellectual proclivities. Now many—theists and others—have found these claims at least extremely doubtful; some have found them preposterous. Is it really so much as possible that language, say, or consciousness, or the ability to compose great music, or prove Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, or think up the idea of natural selection should have been produced by mindless processes of this sort? That is an ambitious claim.

He looks at Dennett’s position (page 35): ‘Darwin’s dangerous idea as set out by Dennett is a paradigm example of naturalism’ and calls it seriously into question (pages 37-38):

Locke believed it impossible in the broadly logical sense that mind should have arisen somehow from “incogitative matter.” . . . . Contrary to Dennett’s suggestion, the neo-Darwinian scientific theory of evolution certainly hasn’t shown that Locke is wrong or that God does not exist necessarily; it hasn’t even shown that it is possible, in the broadly logical sense, that mind arise from “pure incogitative” matter. It hasn’t shown these things because it doesn’t so much as address these questions.

Plantinga feels that the Dawkins and Dennett position is creating a major problem in the States at least (page 54):

The association of evolution with naturalism is the obvious root of the widespread antipathy to evolution in the United States, and to the teaching of evolution in the public schools. . . . As a result, declarations by Dawkins, Dennett, and others have at least two unhappy results. First, their (mistaken) claim that religion and evolution are incompatible damages religious belief, making it look less appealing to people who respect reason and science. But second, it also damages science. That is because it forces many to choose between science and belief in God. Most believers, given the depth and significance of their belief in God, are not going to opt for science; their attitude towards science is likely to be or become one of suspicion and mistrust.

One of the main purposes of Plantinga’s book is to scotch this misconception for good and all (page 55):

Well, if we think of the Darwinian picture as including the idea that the process of evolution is unguided, then of course that picture is completely at odds with providentialist religion. As we have seen, however, current evolutionary science doesn’t include the thought that evolution is unguided; it quite properly refrains from commenting on that metaphysical or theological issue.

And that is what makes it seem worthwhile spending another three posts exploring various aspects of his argument – and even that will barely scratch the surface of this brilliant book.

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NDE

In the light of yesterday’s link to Sharon Rawlette’s review of Leslie Kean’s book Surviving Death, it seemed worth republishing this link as well. Below is an extract from an excellent article by Gideon Lichfield summarising the current state of research on NDEs: it manages, in a balanced dispassionate way, to express the author’s scepticism without offending those who believe in an afterlife. For Lichfield’s full post see link

Near-death experiences have gotten a lot of attention lately. The 2014 movie Heaven Is for Real, about a young boy who told his parents he had visited heaven while he was having emergency surgery, grossed a respectable $91 million in the United States. The book it was based on, published in 2010, has sold some 10 million copies and spent 206 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. Two recent books by doctors—Proof of Heaven, by Eben Alexander, who writes about a near-death experience he had while in a week-long coma brought on by meningitis, and To Heaven and Back, by Mary C. Neal, who had her NDE while submerged in a river after a kayaking accident—have spent 94 and 36 weeks, respectively, on the list. (The subject of The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, published in 2010, recently admitted that he made it all up.)

Their stories are similar to those told in dozens if not hundreds of books and in thousands of interviews with “NDErs,” or “experiencers,” as they call themselves, in the past few decades. Though details and descriptions vary across cultures, the overall tenor of the experience is remarkably similar. Western near-death experiences are the most studied. Many of these stories relate the sensation of floating up and viewing the scene around one’s unconscious body; spending time in a beautiful, otherworldly realm; meeting spiritual beings (some call them angels) and a loving presence that some call God; encountering long-lost relatives or friends; recalling scenes from one’s life; feeling a sense of connectedness to all creation as well as a sense of overwhelming, transcendent love; and finally being called, reluctantly, away from the magical realm and back into one’s own body. Many NDErs report that their experience did not feel like a dream or a hallucination but was, as they often describe it, “more real than real life.” They are profoundly changed afterward, and tend to have trouble fitting back into everyday life. Some embark on radical career shifts or leave their spouses.

Over time, the scientific literature that attempts to explain NDEs as the result of physical changes in a stressed or dying brain has also, commensurately, grown. The causes posited include an oxygen shortage, imperfect anesthesia, and the body’s neurochemical responses to trauma. NDErs dismiss these explanations as inadequate. The medical conditions under which NDEs happen, they say, are too varied to explain a phenomenon that seems so widespread and consistent.

Recent books by Sam Parnia and Pim van Lommel, both physicians, describe studies published in peer-reviewed journals that attempt to pin down what happens during NDEs under controlled experimental conditions. Parnia and his colleagues published results from the latest such study, involving more than 2,000 cardiac-arrest patients, in October. And the recent books by Mary Neal and Eben Alexander recounting their own NDEs have lent the spiritual view of them a new outward respectability. Mary Neal was, a few years before her NDE, the director of spinal surgery at the University of Southern California (she is now in private practice). Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon who taught and practiced at several prestigious hospitals and medical schools, including Brigham and Women’s and Harvard.

It was Alexander who really upped the scientific stakes. He studied his own medical charts and came to the conclusion that he was in such a deep coma during his NDE, and his brain was so completely shut down, that the only way to explain what he felt and saw was that his soul had indeed detached from his body and gone on a trip to another world, and that angels, God, and the afterlife are all as real as can be.

Alexander has not published his medical findings about himself in any peer-reviewed journal, and a 2013 investigative article in Esquirequestioned several details of his account, among them the crucial claim that his experience took place while his brain was incapable of any activity. To the skeptics, his story and the recent recanting of The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven are just further evidence that NDEs rank right up there with alien abductions, psychic powers, and poltergeists as fodder for charlatans looking to gull the ignorant and suggestible.

Yet even these skeptics rarely accuse experiencers of inventing their stories from whole cloth. Though some of these stories may be fabrications, and more no doubt become embellished in the retelling, they’re too numerous and well documented to be dismissed altogether. It’s also hard to ignore the accounts by respected physicians with professional reputations to protect. Even if the afterlife isn’t real, the sensations of having been there certainly are.

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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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evidence-of-the-afterlifeI’m just over a week late catching up on this intriguing review of a book that it looks as though I may consider buying. How can I miss out on any book taking a hard look at the evidence for near death experiences? Well, I suppose the one thing that might give me pause is that it seems not to be such a hard look after all, relying as it seems to do on people’s stories and containing virtually no independent confirmation of the brain state or situation of those who experienced the NDEs, if the review at this link is to be believed. That reviewer writes:

If there are stories where it’s been verified that the NDEr’s saw things they could have only seen by floating around as some sort of disembodied consciousness, then these would definitely be considered evidence, and should be submitted to respected scientific journals. As it is, there was only one [such] story [in this book] (about the false teeth) that was published in the Lancet in 2001. Is there more evidence of this nature?

I think there is, but it may not be in this book. Purchase decision delayed till further notice! Below is a short extract of Sharon Rawlette’s review: for the full post see link.

First-person accounts of near-death experiences have been all over the bestseller lists in recent years. Think of Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven, Anita Moorjani’s Dying to Be Me, and Todd Burpo’s Heaven Is for RealIt’s hard to read these narratives without having one’s perspective on death–whatever it is–profoundly challenged. And yet individual stories of near-death experiences leave something out: they don’t give us a sense of just how pervasive and consistent this phenomenon is.

As far back as 1982, a Gallup poll concluded that 5% of the U.S. population had had a near-death experience. That was 11.6 million people in 1982. (Today, 5% puts us at 16.2 million.) That is an astounding number of Americans to have experienced a “life beyond death,” but my own experience is consistent with those numbers. If anything, it suggests that they are on the conservative side. Among my own family members, I can count two people who’ve had near-death experiences–and my family numbers substantially less than 40.

But it’s not just the numbers that are astounding. In his 2010 book Evidence of the Afterlife, Dr. Jeffrey Long presents the results of his 12-year study of more than 1,300 near-death experiences collected from around the world, by his website nderf.org. Surprise! It’s not just Americans who have near-death experiences. And it’s not just folks from Judeo-Christian countries. It’s not just cardiac arrest patients, either. Or whatever subset of the population you think might be prone to having end-of-life “hallucinations.”

Dr. Long clearly lays out the evidence that very similar types of near-death experiences happen to people in very differentcultures and very different states of bodily dysfunction. For instance, you might think that near-death experiences can be explained as hallucinations created by an oxygen-deprived brain (a state known as hypoxia). Set aside the fact that near-death experiences are extremely lucid, a far cry from the confusion known to be induced by hypoxia. How do you explain the fact that the very same types of near-death experiences happen to people who are under general anesthesia, when they’re not supposed to be capable of any conscious experience whatsoever?

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brian-cox

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to our take on reality, to where our society is heading and to 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 sequence of four posts was first published in 2013 and falls nicely into place after my attempt to convey Medina’s take on reductionist science yesterday.

It’s hard to tell which falling straws are a good guide to the way the wind is blowing.

Is it the one whose label can be drawn from the research Cosmo Landesman wrote about in the Sunday Times recently?

The average Briton feels a hundred percent fit and healthy only 61 days a year, according to a report out last week. . . . . What has turned us into a nation of hypochondriacs?

Or is it the one drawn from the research indicating that the UK’s stiff upper lip reluctance to trouble the doctor is adversely affecting this country’s treatment of cancer?

Should we be dashing to the GP at the first faint whiff of trouble or should we stop whinging and ignore our trivial aches and pains.

I was sitting in the GP’s surgery having decided I was more likely to be one of those who let the curable turn into the untreatable rather than someone with a highly volatile twinge magnification system. I clearly had a serious case of late-onset lung rot: I really needed to be here.

While I waited to be called, to distract myself from dwelling on how few days were probably left for me to put my house in order, I listened to a BBC radio interview with Professor Brian Cox. Among the interesting ideas he shared was the view that, although he doesn’t believe in God himself, there is nothing at all in science that rules God out (or, as I suspect he could have added, rules Him in either).

If research data cannot even clarify for certain whether I should go to the doctor’s or not, how can we fairly expect science to determine the God question – one for which it is totally unsuited. Incidentally, you may be relieved to learn that my cough will not carry me off just yet. So much for my experiment with hypochondria.

Symbolic logic

A Deep Concord

Thank heaven (my view, obviously) that some people are talking sense about the science vs religion issue from within the scientific community. I’ve already written on this blog about Rupert Sheldrake, Eben Alexander, Ken Wilber, Jenny Wade, Margaret Donaldson and others. Now I can add Alvin Plantinga to my list.

I need to own up from the start that there are dozens of pages of his book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, that I simply don’t understand. These occur when he resorts to symbolic logic to explain his point. Maybe it is the briefest way to explain a complex issue. Maybe it is the best way of cutting out any of the cognitive biases that can creep in from dodgy heuristics. Maybe it’s the best way of showing the opposition what a big hitter he is. Whatever the reason it leaves me outside the warmth of his argument in the winter cold with my nose pressed fruitlessly against the glass. I’ve found though that skipping such pages doesn’t affect my basic grasp of the rest of what he says, and what he is saying is welcome and compelling stuff. Take this for starters from his introduction:

If my thesis is right, therefore—if there is deep concord between science and Christian or theistic belief, but deep conflict between science and naturalism—then there is a science/religion (or science/ quasi-religion) conflict, all right, but it isn’t between science and theistic religion: it’s between science and naturalism 

He defines ‘naturalism’ as ‘the thought that there is no such person as God, or anything like God.’ He sees it as a kind of religion.

He doesn’t claim that the expression of religious feeling is universally benign but he’s clear that, not only do religions not have a monopoly on the creation of suffering, but also their efforts in that direction are comprehensively upstaged by secular ideologies:

. . . . the world’s religions do indeed have much to repent; still (as has often been pointed out) the suffering, death, and havoc attributable to religious belief and practice pales into utter insignificance beside that due to the atheistic and secular idiologies of the twentieth century alone.

This is a point Jonathan Haidt has also addressed in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis.‘ In his view idealism, and this is not by any means restricted to religion, has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

The Real Conflict

religion & Science

To go back to our main argument, Plantinga clarifies where the conflict seems to lie for him:

There is no real conflict between theistic religion and the scientific theory of evolution. What there is, instead, is conflict between theistic religion and a philosophical gloss or add-on to the scientific doctrine of evolution: the claim that evolution is undirected, unguided, unorchestrated by God (or anyone else).

If there is no deep-seated conflict for Plantinga between the theory of evolution and theism, the same is surprisingly not true in the case of naturalism and science:

I argue that the same most emphatically does not go for science and naturalism. . . . . there is deep and serious conflict between naturalism and science. . . . it is improbable, given naturalism and evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable. . . . . a naturalist who accepts current evolutionary theory has a defeater for the proposition that our faculties are reliable. . . . naturalism and evolution are in serious conflict: one can’t rationally accept them both.

Later posts will come back to this point again but I probably need to clarify this summary of it. Basically he argues that, from naturalism’s perspective, all beliefs are reducible to neuronal activity and all that evolution ensures is that the actions that neuronal activity produces are conducive to our survival. The content of our beliefs is an irrelevant by-product of this neuronal activity and cannot be relied on for its truth value. All that is required is that the action patterns produced by our synaptic activation keep us alive. There is no need for the beliefs we also coincidentally hold to be true and therefore no guarantee that they are. There are therefore no good grounds in terms of a completely reductionist evolutionary theory for believing that naturalism is true. After all, believing in naturalism would have had no survival value in our prehistory and therefore no warrant in this version of evolutionary theory. For this reason naturalism disqualifies itself as a well-founded belief system.

The evangelical atheists have, in Plantinga’s view, grossly overstated their case (pages 24-25):

Dawkins claims that he will show that the entire living world came to be without design; what he actually argues is only that this is possible and we don’t know that it is astronomically improbable; for all we know it’s not astronomically improbable.

He wryly adds (page 28): ‘Whatever happened to agnosticism, withholding belief?’

The nature of the situation is, in Plantinga’s view, much less clear cut. He starts with a simple statement of naturalism’s position before exploring some of his doubts about it (page 34)

Life itself originated just by way of the regularities of physics and chemistry (through a sort of extension of natural selection); and undirected natural selection has produced language and mind, including our artistic, moral, religious, and intellectual proclivities. Now many—theists and others—have found these claims at least extremely doubtful; some have found them preposterous. Is it really so much as possible that language, say, or consciousness, or the ability to compose great music, or prove Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, or think up the idea of natural selection should have been produced by mindless processes of this sort? That is an ambitious claim.

He looks at Dennett’s position (page 35): ‘Darwin’s dangerous idea as set out by Dennett is a paradigm example of naturalism’ and calls it seriously into question (pages 37-38):

Locke believed it impossible in the broadly logical sense that mind should have arisen somehow from “incogitative matter.” . . . . Contrary to Dennett’s suggestion, the neo-Darwinian scientific theory of evolution certainly hasn’t shown that Locke is wrong or that God does not exist necessarily; it hasn’t even shown that it is possible, in the broadly logical sense, that mind arise from “pure incogitative” matter. It hasn’t shown these things because it doesn’t so much as address these questions.

Plantinga feels that the Dawkins and Dennett position is creating a major problem in the States at least (page 54):

The association of evolution with naturalism is the obvious root of the widespread antipathy to evolution in the United States, and to the teaching of evolution in the public schools. . . . As a result, declarations by Dawkins, Dennett, and others have at least two unhappy results. First, their (mistaken) claim that religion and evolution are incompatible damages religious belief, making it look less appealing to people who respect reason and science. But second, it also damages science. That is because it forces many to choose between science and belief in God. Most believers, given the depth and significance of their belief in God, are not going to opt for science; their attitude towards science is likely to be or become one of suspicion and mistrust.

One of the main purposes of Plantinga’s book is to scotch this misconception for good and all (page 55):

Well, if we think of the Darwinian picture as including the idea that the process of evolution is unguided, then of course that picture is completely at odds with providentialist religion. As we have seen, however, current evolutionary science doesn’t include the thought that evolution is unguided; it quite properly refrains from commenting on that metaphysical or theological issue.

And that is what makes it seem worthwhile spending another three posts exploring various aspects of his argument – and even that will barely scratch the surface of this brilliant book.

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