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Posts Tagged ‘Iain McGilchrist’

ParaPSYConf

My most recent sequence of new posts concerns itself with the power of the subliminal. It therefore seemed reasonable to republish this short sequence from early last year. The second part comes out tomorrow.

Recently Sharon Rawlette left a comment on my blog in response to a link I posted about Emma Seppälä’s book The Happiness Track. We hadn’t exchanged comments for quite some time so I checked out her blog again and was reminded of a piece she’d posted in 2014 titled Evidence for Telepathy in an Autistic Savant about the work of Diane Powell.

This prompted me to see how her work had progressed since then.

In a video posted on her website Diane Powell deals in passing with the notion that autistic savants and others with brain damage illustrate how impaired cortical functioning can seem to give direct access to deep level answers to complex problems/experiences within the mathematical, musical or linguistic fields, with no possibility of calculation involved.

She argues, in the light of this kind of evidence, that the higher cortical functioning on which we pride ourselves seems to be an obstacle between our surface consciousness and its deepest levels.

This really set me thinking. So much so that when I was on one of my brisk daily walks I found myself wondering whether one of Bahá’u’lláh’s prayers that I recite every day contained a phrase I still did not fully understand. There are many such phrases, by the way, but this one resonated particularly strongly right then for some reason.

Bahá’u’lláh writes that in this day, for far too many of us, our ‘superstitions’ have become ‘veils’ between us and or ‘own hearts.’ In the same passage He also uses the possibly even stronger word ‘delusion’ to describe the path along which we walk.

When I first became a Bahá’í and read Bahá’u’lláh’s use of the word ‘superstition’ in this context I interpreted it simply to mean hopelessly primitive religious beliefs. With time and terrorism it became clear that I needed to add fanatical fundamentalisms into the mix. I wasn’t too phased either by the idea that such destructive beliefs bordered on the delusional, as even then I regarded delusions as part of a continuum along which we all are placed.

However, as someone trained in psychology, an essentially religio-sceptical discipline, it took somewhat longer for me fully to accept that scientism was right there with the rest as a front-line superstition, possibly even delusional when held with an intensity sufficient to achieve total impenetrability to all contradictory evidence, no matter how strong. This felt far too close to home but I had to accept the possibility nonetheless: the case in its favour was much too strong to ignore.

Since then, I’ve written a great deal over the years on this topic, both arguing that bad science is built on bad faith and also that our heads block us from hearing what our heart has to say. Most of us, most of the time, are blind to both these realities, and happy to be so as what we believe seems not only obvious common sense but also indisputably useful. Not only that but to doubt science and listen to our hearts looks like a soft-centred prescription for disaster, likely to plunge us back into the Middle Ages, ignoring the fact that some parts of the world never left there, and more disturbingly other parts have been only too eager to return there ahead of us already, hoping to drag us back with them eventually. The second group completed the regression so swiftly and effectively largely by allowing their head to agree with their gut and ignoring their heart completely. And, just for the record, to add credibility to my suspicions, people of a so-called scientific bent are surprisingly well-represented among the ranks of ISIS, but students of the arts and social sciences seem not to be so gullible. But that’s another story.

This conventional wisdom is unfortunately delusional and based on a fundamental if not fundamentalist misunderstanding of what true science is, of how it is in harmony with true religion, and also of what the limitations of instinctive and intellectual cognitive processes are and how necessary it is to balance them with more holistic levels of processing. I am not going to rehash here all I have said elsewhere: I’ll simply signpost the thinking and the evidence to support what, in my view, is this saner view of things.

Master and EmissaryReasons to doubt Materialistic Dogma

Two of the most impressive bodies of evidence I came across of this necessary shift in perspective were, first, Iain McGilchrist’s masterpiece The Master & his Emissary, and second Irreducible Mind by the Kellys.

The conclusion McGilchrist reaches, that most matters to me when we look at our western society, is on pages 228-229:

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

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

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

Irreducible MindThe Kellys take the critique even further.

For them, the so-called science of psychology is still, for the most part, pursuing the Holy Grail of a complete materialistic explanation for every aspect of consciousness and the working of the mind. It’s obviously all in the brain, isn’t it (page xx)?

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

This is a dogma and as such can only be protected by ignoring or discounting as invalid all evidence that points in a different direction.

The Irreducible Mind points up very clearly how psychology must at some point bring this aspect of reality into its approach. Referring amongst other things to psi phenomena, Edward Kelly writes (page xxviii):

These phenomena we catalogue here are important precisely because they challenge so strongly the current scientific consensus; in accordance with Wind’s principle, they not only invite but should command the attention of anyone seriously interested in the mind.

The prevailing attitude of course in many cases goes far beyond methodological naturalism into the strongest possible form of it (op.cit. page xxvii):

Most critics implicitly – and some, like Hansel, explicitly – take the view that psi phenomena are somehow known a priori to be impossible. In that case one is free to invent any scenario, no matter how far-fetched, to explain away ostensible evidence of psi.

When you look at the evidence dispassionately, rather than from a dogmatic commitment to the idea that matter explains everything, the mind-brain data throws up a tough problem. 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, as Emily Kelly suggests (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.

Pim van Lommel

Pim van Lommel

Others are of course now following where they 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 as well as carefully investigated specific examples of Near Death Experiences (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, a 19th Century pioneer of this perspective – “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. In fact it is remarkable how close the correspondence is. This is Myers’s view as Emily Kelly expresses it (Irreducible Mind – 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.

I recognize that it may not be enough though to adduce evidence, which satisfies me, to support the idea of a non-material reality ignored by the mainstream because of a bias in science that discounts it. I need also to have some sound reasons for my claim that there is a valid distinction to be made between a good science, prepared to accept the possibility of transpersonal explanations, and a bad science, dogmatically committed to ruling any such explanation of experience out of count on the a priori grounds that it couldn’t possibly exist no matter what evidence was brought forward in support of it.

That’s where we’re going next.

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'Newton' by William Blake

‘Newton’ by William Blake (scanned from ‘William Blake‘ by Kathleen Raine)

 Just as there is a fundamental difference between divine Revelation itself and the understanding that believers have of it, so also there is a basic distinction between scientific fact and reasoning on the one hand and the conclusions or theories of scientists on the other. There is, and can be, no conflict between true religion and true science: true religion is revealed by God, while it is through true science that the mind of man “discovers the realities of things and becomes cognizant of their peculiarities and effects, and of the qualities and properties of beings” and “comprehendeth the abstract by the aid of the concrete”. However, whenever a statement is made through the lens of human understanding it is thereby limited, for human understanding is limited; and where there is limitation there is the possibility of error; and where there is error, conflicts can arise.

(A Compilation on ScholarshipBaha’i Reference Library)

My parody of materialist thought yesterday gives me a good excuse to republish this series on Medina’s book. This is the first of three posts: the rest will come out over the weekend.

Why this book?

I’ve recently been ploughing on seeking to adequately review Jeremy Rifkin’s massive tome The Empathic Civilisation. I just put that to bed at the end of last week. Why start another sequence on a related theme so soon?

Some weeks ago I finished reading John Fitzgerald Medina’s heartfelt and wide-ranging exploration of our predicament – Faith, Physics & Psychology. Ernest Ochsner tipped me off about the book when he left a comment on my blog recommending it and saying ‘I believe you would find it a very good read.’ That would win the prize for the understatement of the year here in Hereford.

The book has proved a mine of important insights and understanding, not so much about the faith Medina and I share, but about the issue we both seem to feel passionately about. And passionate is a good word to describe much of the content of this book. He feels strongly about what he describes, perhaps because his shared heritage, part Mexican, part native American Indian, has shown him the dark side of our Western culture. He has lived too close to it for comfort, possibly.

While the passion occasionally destabilises the balance of his argument, most of the time it simply lends added power to the carefully gathered evidence he mobilises to support his perspective. I was moved, intrigued, excited and informed at every turn. It is truly one of the best books I have read for quite some time.

He covers so much ground I again have the Rifkin problem – how do I do justice to such a rich and complex canvas in a sequence of short blog posts. Again I have decided to focus only on certain key areas of his exploration, the ones that for me powerfully reveal exactly why we need to lift our sights and aim for the goal of rebuilding our civilisation on the basis of unity and interconnectedness: his depiction of our worldview, his critique of the American educational system and finally his treatment of racism, the last two of which I found both moving and revealing. I don’t enjoy dwelling on the weaknesses of our contemporary world but I do believe we have to confront the realities we face if we are to overcome the problems they are presenting us with.

Medina does exactly that. The remedy he advocates is so close to what this blog is all about I have not repeated it again here. His masterly depiction of what is going wrong has deepened my understanding immeasurably which is why I feel I simply have to share it as best I can in a way that will hopefully inspire you to read his book for yourselves.

He also analyses Abraham Maslow’s and Ken Wilber’s models of human development. Even though he raised Maslow in my estimation somewhat and slightly increased my reservations about Wilber, the effect was not significant enough for me to revisit the issue of levels of consciousness in a hurry given my repeated recent surveys of that area.

You will be relieved to know that I have also decided not to throw everything at you in rapid succession. I’ll be leaving a bit of a gap between each instalment.

I’m going to start with our worldview.

The Cartesian-Newtonian worldview 

Medina sees the current worldview as destructively rooted in the thinking of Descartes and Newton. He refers to it throughout as the ‘Cartesian-Newtonian worldview.’ Descartes split mind from body, which he considered to be a machine. He considered that all true understanding derived from analysis (splitting into components) and logic. Add to this Newton’s determinism (we can predict anything from our knowledge both of its starting state and the operation of immutable universal laws) and, in Medina’s view, we have the current, in his view pernicious, Cartesian-Newtonian worldview (page 14):

. . . . this classical science worldview is based on a mechanistic view of human beings and the universe that alienates human beings from their spiritual, moral, and emotional faculties. It has divided the world into mutually exclusive opposing forces: the dichotomies of science versus religion, reason versus faith, logic versus intuition, natural versus supernatural, material versus spiritual, and secular versus sacred. The result is a materialistic worldview that emphasises the truth of science, reason, logic, the natural, the material, and the secular while ignoring or even denigrating the truth of religion, faith, intuition, the supernatural, the spiritual, and the sacred.

462px-William_Blake_by_Thomas_Phillips

‘William Blake’ by Thomas Phillips

Medina is by no means alone in this view. Take Margaret A Boden for example in her book The Creative Mind: myths and mechanisms (2004 – page 278):

William Blake had a word for it – or rather, many. “May God keep us”, he wrote, “from Single vision & Newton’s sleep!” . . . .

[Blake] was reacting against the scientistic enthusiasm that had lead Alexander Pope to declare: “God said “Let Newton be”, and all was light.” For Blake, Newton’s light made only singlevision possible. Matters not dealt with by natural science, such as freedom and harmony, were insidiously downgraded and ignored – even tacitly denied.

Kathleen Raine in her book of Blake’s illustrations (page 87) comments on his picture of Newton[1]:

Newton shows the ‘spiritual state’ of a great scientist; he is absorbed in mathematical calculations, his eyes fixed on the diagrams he draws on the bottom of that “sea of time and space” which is the principle to which he is confined. . . . . the dark and dense medium of water, traditional esoteric symbol of the material world.

We are in rather familiar territory for readers of this blog in that Iain McGilchrist’s compelling analysis of the modern mindset in the West – The Master & his Emissary – which I have often referred to, is similarly disenchanted with this left-brain bias of our culture, as he would see it, which has left us credulously taking our analytic diagrams of the world as the world itself, ignoring the richly subtle and more holistic take on life that the right-brain provides us with. He writes (pages 228-229):

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

We are in urgent need of a new paradigm, Medina feels, and, fortunately, there are contenders for the title (page 15):

As Capra suggests, the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview is being seriously challenged by a variety of people who subscribe to what Capra calls “the holistic conception of reality” – the holistic worldview.

Even physics seems to be coming to the rescue (ibid):

As we will later discuss in significant detail, recent developments in the field of quantum physics seem to validate the holistic worldview while debunking the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview.

His basic inspiration comes from three places (page 17):

This book explores the fresh and inspiring perspective provided by three different yet complementary movements: the Bahá’í Faith, an independent world religion; the self actualisation movement, which is based on the comprehensive theoretical work of the late psychologist Abraham Maslow; and the holistic movement, which is based on theories and research from various disciplines such as quantum physics, philosophy, psychology, neurophysiology, economics, education, medicine, ecology, and cosmology.

Holism again!

David Bohm

David Bohm

He is yet another thinker to draw on the work of Bohm, not an issue about which I feel fully qualified to comment as I have stated elsewhere. He states (page 38) quoting Michael Talbot on David Bohm in The Holographic Universe:

“One of Bohm’s most startling assertions is that the tangible reality of our everyday lives is really a kind of illusion, like a holographic image. Underlying it is a deeper order of existence, a vast and more primary level of reality that gives birth to the objects and appearances of our physical world in much the same way that a piece of holographic film gives birth to a hologram. Bohm calls this deeper level of reality the implicate (which means ‘enfolded’) order, and he refers to our own level of existence as the explicate, or unfolded, order. . . .”

For me this has inescapable parallels with Bahá’u’lláh’s quotation from the Imam ‘Alí:

‘Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
When within thee the universe is folded’

And also to Blake when he wrote in Auguries of Innocence:

‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower . . .’

Medina goes onto spell out the implications in very similar terms (page 39):

. . . . According to Bohm’s theory, every entity, whether it be a person, a stone, or an atom, carries within it every form of energy, matter, consciousness, and life that ever proceeded out of the deeper reality. Talbot states, ‘Every cell in our body enfolds the entire cosmos. So does every leaf, every raindrop, and every dust mote.”

This idea has radical implications (page 48):

[Talbot writes] ‘In fact, Bohm believes that consciousness is a more subtle form of matter, and the basis for any relationship between the two lies not in our own level of reality, but deep in the implicate order. Consciousness is present in various degrees of enfoldment and unfoldment in all matter, which is perhaps why plasmas possess some of the traits of living things.’

. . . Furthermore, Bohm’s concept of ‘unbroken wholeness,’ is consistent with the Bahá’í understanding of the oneness of the universe. . . Sounding like a Bahá’í himself, Bohm even states, “Deep down the consciousness of mankind is one.’

As we have already discussed on this blog, these ideas are strongly linked to our motivation to change this for the better (page 52):

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.

I won’t dwell further on that here. For my more detailed thoughts see the links.

Defective Spiritualities

Medina goes onto unpack what for him at least are the limitations of ‘secular spirituality’ which (page 94) ‘do not necessarily promote an altruistic social ethic or a desire on the part of individuals to improve society for the benefit of all.’ He includes ‘religious fundamentalism’ (page 95-96) under this umbrella ‘because it represents an attempt to use religion as a vehicle to fulfil worldly desires for leadership or power or as a justification for ungodly acts such as forced conversion of pagans or warfare against infidels.’

My own views on this have been explored at length elsewhere on this blog so I won’t repeat them in full here, but I regard an inclusion of extremist fundamentalism as spirituality of any kind, let alone secular, as too far a stretch: ideologies that are invested in too narrowly and too strongly, whether they are nominally religious or apparently secular, fall into a different category for me, where delusion and fanaticism masquerade as a high-minded idealism, whose ends justify any kinds of means, no matter how barbaric, as long as it believes these methods will achieve them. Fundamentalisms give their so-called parents, whether theist or atheist, a very bad name indeed and have nothing whatsoever to do with spirituality in a true sense.

He adduces in support of his critique (page 112), in terms which will be more fully explored in a subsequent post, ‘the fact that many Enlightenment philosophers spoke eloquently about justice, equality, and liberty, and yet in the end, supported slavery, racism, classism, sexism, and genocide against American Indians.’ Throughout history, religious traditions, not just these deist and atheist ones, have displayed a similar empathic tunnel-vision, as Medina goes on to show, so his case that secular spirituality is somehow uniquely deficient in its ability to realise this kind of potential is not quite proven by this line of argument.

My feeling, as I explained in two posts last week, is that non-transcendent world-views may lack the long-term strength of commitment and belief in its possibility to do all that is necessary to avert the catastrophe humanity is currently facing, but they can certainly ‘promote an altruistic social ethic or a desire on the part of individuals to improve society for the benefit of all.’

He goes on to state that our version of Christianity has contributed to the problems the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview creates (page 129) as a result of its concept of ‘an all-transcendent God Who is essentially divorced from the cursed natural world.’ He concludes (pages 129-30):

It is my belief that an extremist form of Christian theism actually worked hand-in-hand with the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview to promulgate a false sense of separation between the spiritual and the material and between the sacred and the secular.

It is important to stress that he is not criticising the true essence of Christianity here, simply some of its more extreme distortions with their destructive consequences. I will unpack more of that next week.

Footnote:

[1] For those interested in a more mainstream Christian take on the matter see God, Humanity & the Cosmos (Southgate et al: pages 95-98): they too conclude that a mechanical view of the world prevailed as a result of the success of this Descartes/Newton fusion, and this then negatively affected economics and political theory as well as religion and our view of ourselves. 

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Birmingham QE Hosp MedicalSchool

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Where are you heading?’ she asks.

‘To the University.’

‘Oh! Why there?’

‘To run a seminar on consciousness.’

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

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

‘No. Honestly. It really is.’

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

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

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

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

‘Perfect.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

I scribble it down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consciousness

We’re good to go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minutes pass.

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

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

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

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

This could be tricky, I think.

As people take their seats I set up again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mind & Spirit

Mind & Spirit

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

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

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

Inevitable Uncertainty

Inevitable Uncertainty

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

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

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

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

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

Myers Spectrum 2

Myers Spectrum (1/2)

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

Myers Spectrum

Myers Spectrum (2/2)

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

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

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

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

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

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

Footnote

The Plan for the Seminar that Never Happened!

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

Then:

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

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

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

  1. ‘Doubt Wisely’

Explore the agnosticism case:

William James

Dennet & Churchland

John Hick & Eric Reitan

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

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

  1. Mind as completely independent of the brain.

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

  1. Mind as a spiritual entity.

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

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

 So What?

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

How to explore it further?

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

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

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

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

How many of you are up for that right now?

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'Void Devouring the Gadget Era' by Mark Tobey

‘Void Devouring the Gadget Era’ by Mark Tobey

An unexpected ‘like’ alerted me to the existence of this post which I had completely forgotten. As I am planning to post a short sequence next week on the theme of consciousness – whether it is spirit, mind or brain – this post from 2010 seemed too closely related not to be repeated!

In a recent post I reviewed Iain McGilchrist‘s thought-provoking new book The Master and His Emissary. The night before last I watched a DVD, Food, Inc, about the American food industry (more of that in a moment). The images and information the film conveyed reminded me immediately of the nightmare world McGilchrist feels will be created by the untrammelled operation of the utilitarian left-hemisphere.

Towards the end of his book, McGilchrist spells out simply and clearly some of the characteristics of that world:

Skills . . . would be reduced to algorithmic procedures . . . which could be regulated by administrators. . . . Increasingly the living world would be modelled on the mechanical. . . . When we deal with a machine, there are three things that we want to know: how much it can do, how fast it can do it, and with what degree of precision. . . . In human affairs, increasing the amount or extent of something, or the speed with which something happens, or the inflexible precision with which it is conceived or applied, can actually destroy. But since the left hemisphere is the hemisphere of What, quantity would be the only criterion that it would understand. The right hemisphere’s appreciation of How (quality) would be lost.

(page 430)

He also quotes the work of Berger and colleagues (1974). When a society becomes dominated by technology they predict the development of what they call ‘mechanisticity’ and other distortions of the human spirit. This means:

. . . the development of a system that permits things to be reproduced endlessly, and enforces submergence of the individual in a large organisation or a production line: ‘measurability’, in other words the insistence on quantification, not qualification; ‘componentiality’, that is reality reduced to self-contained units, so that ‘everything is analysable into constituent components, and everything can be taken apart and put together again in terms of these components’; and an ‘abstract frame of reference’, in other words loss of context.

(page 430)

He summarises Gabriel Marcel as speaking of:

. . . the difficulty in maintaining one’s integrity as a unique, individual subject, in a world where a combination of the hubris of science and the drive of technology blots out the awe-inspiring business of conscious human existence, what he refers to as ‘the mystery of being,’ and replaces it with a set of technical problems for which they purport to have solutions.

(ibid.)

Ultimately, ‘[m]orality would come to be judged at best on the basis of utilitarian calculation, at worst on the basis of enlightened self-interest’ (page 431).

The DVD ‘Food, Inc‘ gives us a vivid insight into just how ‘enlightened’ that self-interest has already turned out to be.

The trailer below gives only a faint flavour of the power of the film:

The advert for the film, also on YouTube, packs a somewhat stronger punch but could not be embedded here. There is, though, no substitute for sitting through a rather harrowing 90 minutes to convey the full horror of the reality to which blinkered left-brain processes reduce us when they are unmoderated by the empathic big picture the right-brain brings to bear.

It is fascinating to see how Schwartz’s book, which I also reviewed recently, shows how a different path has led him to similar conclusions. He writes in his co-authored book, The Mind & the Brain (page 276):

Stapp made the point that there is no stronger influence on human values than man’s belief about his relationship to the power that shapes the universe. . . . When the scientific revolution converted human beings from sparks of divine creation into not particularly special cogs in a giant impersonal machine, it eroded any rational basis for the notion of responsibility for one’s actions. We became a mechanical extension of what preceded us, over which we have no control.

This view is permeating our culture, he feels:

The view that people are mere machines and that the mind is just another (not particularly special) manifestation of a clockwork physical universe [has] infiltrated all our thinking . . .

(page 258)

In his view, it accounts for all ‘our moral decrepitude’ because

. . . materialism as a world view . . . . holds that the physical is all that exists, and that transcendent human mental experiences and emotions . . . are in reality nothing but the expressions of electrical impulses zipping along neurons.

(ibid.)

This simplistic world view then refuses to acknowledge that there is a ‘mental force’ (i.e. a ‘physical force generated by mental effort’, which is not itself material – page 295) by means of which ‘through intense effort we can resist our baser appetites’ (page 257).

Such a reductionist world view is many million miles apart from the Bahá’í view that, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá expressed it:

. . . 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.

(Some Answered Questions)

Not only that. Volition, He explains, is a special characteristic not found in matter:

Man possesses certain virtues of which nature is deprived. He exercises volition; nature is without will. For instance, an exigency of the sun is the giving of light. It is controlled — it cannot do otherwise than radiate light — but it is not volitional.

(Promise of Universal Peace)

It seems as though this defective world view, which we can as a shorthand label materialism, which thrives when the left hemisphere cuts free of the right, is a significant part of the answer to a critical question religious faith poses to us:

Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself?

(Arabic Hidden Words: number 13)

The question which confronts us all is: ‘What am I going to do about it?’

This blog is part of my attempt to work out an answer.

The Bahá’í view at its core contends that, if we are to have an impact, we all need to find ways of working together rather than alone. We have to recognise our essential unity with everyone else, with all life everywhere,  before these problems can be properly addressed. Obviously, once that sense of oneness begins to be established, the more of us there are using it as an operating principle the greater our impact will be.

It seems to me that the thrust of McGilchrist’s position is that it will take nothing less than the combined energies of our entire being to empower us to succeed in this struggle, the humane wisdom of the right brain moderating the blind utilitarianism of the left, the wing of true religion and the wing of true science working together to lift us off the ground. This level of energy will only be available when we are at one and in harmony within ourselves. The vision required for this level of personal integration is spiritual not material in origin. Not until sufficient numbers of people invest great efforts of ‘mental force’ over long periods of time to lift themselves to this level will the healing of our society become possible.

Even so, such integration of the psyche is possible if the requisite effort is made and people are successfully making comparable efforts every second of every day. The great spiritual traditions as well as the latest developments in neuropsychology, underpinned in Schwartz’s view by modern physics, combine to confirm that this must and can be done.

We don’t have to let the machine mentality take over the world completely. More and more of us can join in building towards the critical mass of effort that will create a tipping point. Hopefully, in ever increasing numbers, we will.

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filter-spectrum-v2

As I indicated last time, after exploring some of the complexities of the transliminality concept,  I am just going to start from the brain and work my way up from there.

So, we need to answer some basic questions first.

psychosis-spiritualityWhat is the Threshold?

What might this threshold be that Claridge referred to and how does it operate? Note that he has mixed psychosis and magic into its effects (Psychosis and Spirituality – page 82):

As defined by Thalbourne, transliminality refers to a individual differences in the extent to which ideas, affects and other mental contents cross the threshold between subliminal and supraliminal: in some people, he argues, the barrier is simply more permeable. . . . . Quoting a range of psychometric, clinical and experimental evidence, he argues that a high degree of transliminality is associated with strong belief in and reporting of paranormal phenomena; enhanced creativity; a greater tendency to indulge in magical thinking; more frequent mystical experiences: and a susceptibility to psychotic and psychotic-like symptoms.

Isabel Clarke, in the same book, seeks to tackle this using Teasdale and Barnard’s model of interacting cognitive systems. She writes (pages 108-09 – my italics):

[The ICS model concerns two central subsystems of the brain with imperfect intercommunication]. The implicational subsystem communicates directly with, and is much influenced by, the various sense modalities and the body’s arousal system, whereas the propositional system is more removed from this emotional area, and indeed, the vital communication between the two systems, which makes good cognitive functioning possible, can become temporarily disabled by a state of high or low arousal.

She clarifies what she feels is the distinction between

. . . . the everyday, scientific state . . . where the propositional and implicational subsystems are working nicely together in balance, [and] the spiritual/psychotic state . . . where the two are disjointed, and the system is essentially driven by the implicational subsystem.

She spells out the core issue concerning shifts into the implicational mode:

For the person with psychosis, the barrier that makes this sort of experience hard to access for most of us, is dangerously loose. . . . . When the asynchrony persists and there is not a rapid reconnection of the two main subsystems, this will be followed by loss of bearings because of having drifted out of reach of the construct system, or the propositional system, which people rely on to make sense of their environment.

It is not just that the ‘barrier’ is ‘loose.’ There are times when:

. . .  the orderly return does not happen. The individual finds themselves stranded beyond the reach of their constructs or propositional subsystem, trying to operate in the world. Not surprisingly this is extraordinarily difficult. . . . . The desperate sufferer tries to make sense of the unfamiliar environment, clutching at whatever connections come to hand. In this way, delusions, which usually have their origin in the early stages of the breakdown, are born. In another dissolution of normal boundaries, internal concerns are experienced as external communication and the person hears voices. Normal thought is disrupted – or as the psychiatrist would say, disordered.

It is clear that what she is describing is captured entirely by the concept of filter or the process of filtering. I am probably tilting towards a process rather than a object word, so the idea of filtering is beginning to appeal more to me than the idea of a filter. I have found it frustrating that I cannot access primary sources very easily on this aspect of filtering. The nearest reference I have found summarises its use of the ICS model as follows (Gumley et al 1999 – An Interacting Cognitive Subsystems Model of Relapse and the Course of Psychosis – page 275):

The ICS [interacting cognitive systems] approach enables a detailed view of how multiple sources of information interact to establish self-organizing, self-perpetuating, processing configurations that act to maintain persistent cognitive-affective states. The model predicts that implicational meaning is critically involved in the processes of initiation, acceleration and maintenance of relapse in psychosis.

Master and Emissary

They make no mention of filters or thresholds.

Isabelle Clarke’s book, published in 2010, relies exclusively for its explanation of transliminality upon Teasdale and Barnard’s 1993 interacting cognitive subsystems model, being presumably unaware at that point of McGilchrist’s 2009 hemispheric model brilliantly explored in The Master & his Emissary. He has much to say that sheds further light on what might be going on here. The key passages for our purposes fall between pages 211-233.

He is looking at the problem from the point of view that the two hemispheres of the brain have two separate ways of operating. The left hemisphere, to be a touch simplistic, is predominantly linguistic and analytical, the right holistic and metaphorical. McGilchrist uses his book not only to illustrate how they work but also to argue that our culture is dangerously privileging the left hemisphere mode. I have dealt with that in more detail elsewhere. I will only say more on that aspect here where it is helpful.

McGilchrist is not arguing that the two hemispheres have to be in each other’s pockets all the time:

My thesis is that the hemispheres have complementary but conflicting tasks to fulfil, and need to maintain a high degree of mutual ignorance. At the same time they need to cooperate.

How does this work, he asks.

There is a communication bridge between them called the corpus callosum:

If one thinks of the relationship between the hemispheres as being like that between the two hands of the pianist . . . one can see that the task of the corpus callosum has to be as much to do with inhibition of process as it is with facilitation of information transfer, and cooperation requires the correct balance to be maintained

If the corpus callosum is damaged there is more information transfer between the hemispheres:

This apparently paradoxical finding makes sense if the main purpose of the corpus callosum is to maintain separation of the hemispheres.

We can already see that this is heading in the same direction as Clarke’s explanation of Teasdale and Barnard’s ICS model. There is a filter between one aspect of consciousness and another, which can break down.

This at least lends strength to the proven way that the skunk form of marijuana can trigger psychosis:

Dr. Paola Dazzan, reader in neurobiology of psychosis from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London, and senior researcher on the study, said in a statement: “We found that frequent use of high potency cannabis significantly affects the structure of white matter fibres in the brain, whether you have psychosis or not. This reflects a sliding scale where the more cannabis you smoke and the higher the potency, the worse the damage will be.”

White matter is made of large bundles of nerve cells called axons, which connect the grey matter in different regions of the brain, enabling fast communication between them. The corpus callosum, a band of nerve fibers that connect the left and right hemispheres, is the largest white matter structure within the brain. The corpus callosum is rich in cannabinoid receptors that are affected by the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in cannabis.

Interestingly McGilchrist brings a quote from the Upanishads into the mix at this point:

All in all, my view is that the corpus callosum does act principally as the agent to differentiation rather than integration, though ultimately differentiation may be in the service of integration. . . . . . [The] Upanishads] say: “in the space within the heart lies the controller of all… He is the bridge that serves as a boundary to keep the different worlds apart.

Routinely we blunder along automatically at what McGilchrist refers to as level one. But that is not always enough:

In the discussion of level one, the emphasis was on the necessary inhibition of one hemisphere by the other, since they each need to work separately. However, at a higher level, and over a longer time span, they also need to work together, not just because some important human factors, such as imagination, appear to depend on the synthesis of the workings of both hemispheres.

Without getting embroiled in the detail, the key point is this:

The right hemisphere certainly needs the left, but the left hemisphere depends on the right. Much that marks us out, in the positive sense as well as the negative sense, as human beings requires the intervention of the left hemisphere, as long as it is acting in concert with the right hemisphere. Important human faculties depend on the synthesis of their activity. In the absence of such concerted action, the left hemisphere comes to believe its territory actually is the world.

As he sees it, ‘one field of consciousness’ has to ‘accommodate two wills.’

Given my Entish tendencies he quotes what for me is a brilliant and beautiful metaphor to convey a key aspect of his model. I need to start one step back though.

He writes: ‘. . . the core of the self, is affective and deep-lying: its roots lie at a level below the hemispheric divide, a level, however, with which each cognitively aware hemisphere at the highest level is still in touch.’

I need to emphasise, before anyone gets too mystical, he is still dealing with the brain here.

Later I will have cause to refer once more to the point he makes now. He goes on:

So much of our experience, and our sense of our self, comes from low down in the ‘tree’ of consciousness, below hemispheric level: ‘integration’ does not need to be achieved. All the corpus callosum has to do is to help maintain moment-to-moment independence of the hemispheres, not integration of the self.

Panksepp, whose description he is drawing on, sees consciousness as ‘not all or nothing, but has a continuous existence, transforming itself as it travels upwards, through the branches, to what he calls, by analogy with the forest canopy, the “cerebral canopy”, until in the frontal cortices it becomes high-level cognitive awareness.’ McGilchrist emphasises that he prefers this analogy as it makes clear that consciousness is not a bird but ‘a tree, its roots deep inside us.’ He spells out that for him it is not ‘an entity but a process.’

I’ve already made clear that this preference for process over reification is one I share.

McGilchrist makes a key point about this filtering process and the holistic mode of the right-hemisphere:

Most, if not all, of the ‘functions’ mediated by the right hemisphere fall into this category of what has to remain outside the focus of awareness – implicit, intuitive, unattended to.

psychotic-art

Painting by David Chuck of a psychotic experience (Image scanned from ‘The Master & his Emissary’ plate 2)

He adds something of relevance also to the issue of psychosis:

The idea that self-consciousness, in the sense of being aware of ourselves doing or being something, is the left hemisphere inspecting the right is supported by a number of observations. The attentional ‘spotlight’ . . . is a function of the left hemisphere. The casualties in self consciousness are all right hemisphere based, social or empathic skills. And schizophrenic subjects, whose psychopathology depends on a reflexive hyperconsciousness, and who often depict a detached observing eye in their paintings, show a relative hypofunction of the right hemisphere in relation to the left.

This has contrary implications for the psychosis/transliminality hypothesis. It implies the operation of a hypervigilant left-hemisphere rather than a leaking filter system. However, such hypervigilance would not rule a filter issue completely and the overall model McGilchrist is advocating supports the possibility of systemic cross pollination: he quotes Ramachandran as saying ‘[The brain’s] connections are extraordinarily labile and dynamic. Perceptions emerge as a result of reverberations of signals between different levels of the sensory hierarchy, indeed across different senses.’

We are not done with McGilchrist yet, but this seems a reasonably good place at which to pause.

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Pilgrim’s Progress

Remember the saying: `Of all pilgrimages the greatest is to relieve the sorrow-laden heart.’

(‘Abdu’l-BaháSelections 52)

‘Who is my neighbour? My neighbour is all mankind.”

(Seamus Heaney: The Spirit Level,  page 28)

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 this post and a sequence on The Cultural Creatives by Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson.

For those who might have been holding their breath since my last post on the subject, I did in the end manage to finish Jonathan Stedall‘s Where on Earth is Heaven?

The last chapter was particularly resonant. It looks at how gloomily the world is portrayed in the news and seeks to redress the balance. He believes our ‘capacity for empathy is stirring’ (page 532). He refers to books that I feel I will be buying in due time.

Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken is the first one. He sees the current burgeoning of a network of non-profit organisations as ‘humanity’s immune response to toxins like political corruption, economic disease, and ecological degradation’ (ibid.) He quotes, on the same page, Bill McKibben‘s comment on the book:

The movers and shakers on our planet aren’t the billionaires and the generals – they are the incredible numbers of people around the world filled with love for neighbour and for the earth who are resisting, remaking, restoring, renewing, revitalising.

He refers (page 535) to an equally interesting book – The Cultural Creatives by Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson (see an earlier sequence). He describes cultural creatives (page 536) as sharing ‘what are often described as feminine values in relation to family life, education, relationships, responsibilities and caring in general.’ They constitute, in the view of the authors, about 25% of the population they studied.

What is currently lacking, he feels, is a way for such people to combine their energies together without compromising their creativity.

I’ll resist the temptation to expand on how much this, for me, is uncannily in synch with the ideals and developing practices of the Bahá’í community. Posts dealing with this are to be found throughout this blog. In this vein, though, Stedall also speaks of a zeitgeist that may be helping us shift in this direction, and, in a fascinating parenthesis, suggests that this effect would be more powerful ‘if the zeitgeist is an actual being and not an abstract concept’ (page 534). And in the end there is a quote (page 357) that could almost have come from a Bahá’í pen:

Today many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself – while something else, still indistinct, were rising from the rubble.

(Václav Havel: 1984)

If we look for them we can find examples, not just of the downside of our predicament, but of the uplifting aspect as well.

Examples of the morally blind side of our nature can carry the seeds of the more positive vision, of course. An example of that is a hit of the moment – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I don’t think I am wrenching the implications of its exploration of the blind side completely out of shape by saying that it is a compelling study of where absence of empathy and compassion can take us. It is powerful and effective, if a touch melodramatic in places.

There are also many places where we find a sense of positive potential which does not shirk the reality of the darkness. Blind Side is a good example, a film based on real events. It illustrates perhaps one of the best ways of protecting ourselves against the worst effects of our blind side.

If The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo managed to avoid the worst excesses of melodrama (I’m not quite sure where to place the savagery of the rape scene in this: in terms of the film’s moral balancing act, it triggers the ‘girl’s’ revenge while, at the same time, helping us empathise with her rage: I felt manipulated emotionally though), Blind Side is only tinged and not spoilt by the occasional hint of sentimentality. It shows us the power of empathy and how much it can accomplish in the hands of people flawed in many ways as we all are. Our flaws are not a reason to evade this challenge.

And so, finishing Jonathan Stedall’s book, after a few other detours into film, has brought me back to a book I set aside many months ago – another book that inspired and irritated me in about equal measure. This book is Jeremy Rifkin‘s The Empathic Civilization which I think I will now attempt to read right to the end. Where I left off (pages 314-315) he is beginning to tackle the duality Iain McGilchrist explored from the point of view of brain structure:

When it comes to consciousness itself, one is struck by the fact that the human being is both a feeling and thinking animal [I’d prefer the word ‘being’ but there you go – that’s what makes reading Rifkin a bit of a switchback]. Therefore, one of the critical questions in the modern era has been which of the two – feeling or thinking – is the most relevant to understanding ‘human nature”?

How could I possibly resist another bite at this cherry?

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In 2010 I published this post which attempted to define the appeal of poetry for me. I republished it again in early 2015. As it probably reflects my deepest feelings on the subject it seemed only right to give it another airing after the Shelley sequence on reality, art and the artist.  

Over the years of trying to read it and create it I have come to have a feeling for what poetry is for me.

This is not a theory about poetry. There can be no true theory about poetry whose essence eludes all theory. Poetry for me is about approaching an aspect of experience beyond the reach of prose and possibly beyond the reach of words at all. When I attempt to write a poem of potential value I am striving to express what I can’t explain, even to myself.

W. H. Auden

Auden referred to this as ‘solving for the unknown.’

Now, there are many perfectly enjoyable examples of what many people refer to as poetry which don’t do this. Such productions don’t take you anywhere you haven’t been before: they just describe it better – ‘What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed,’ as Alexander Pope put it.

McGilchrist, in his book The Master and his Emissary, deals well with this issue of what great poetry does that’s different. He quotes Scheler (pages 341-342):

[Poets] actually extend the scope of our possible self awareness. They effect a real enlargement of the kingdom of the mind and make new discoveries, as it were, within that kingdom. . . . That is indeed the mission of all true art: not to reproduce what is already given . . ., nor to create something in the pure play of subjective fancy . . . ., but to press forward into the whole of the external world and the soul, to see and communicate those objective realities within it which rule and convention have hitherto concealed.

He sees the limitations of Augustan, i.e. 18th Century English, poetry which represents experience pleasingly rather than authentically. Even art forms not so concerned with pleasing and more with informing the mind or inspiring the heart along predetermined lines, such as political propaganda or religious hymns, fall short of being great poetry by my definition. Once you compare, for example, a typical hymn with what Emily Dickinson did with the same pattern on the page, you inevitably get closer to seeing the difference between great inspirational verse and great exploratory poetry.

Cardinal Newman is in the spotlight at the moment as the Vatican ponders on moving him towards sainthood via beatification. He wrote the words of a still very popular hymn:

Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

This is beautifully put but the imagery is purely conventional and what it conveys is deeply familiar. We don’t need the hymn to introduce it to us. It is comforting to find the well-trodden paths of our own experience reflected back to us in this way. It helps us keep plodding on perhaps, which may be no bad thing sometimes. There is an honourable place for such work as this.

Emily Dickinson‘s experience is by contrast right at the edge of a darkness most of us know very little if anything about, even after more than 100 years, though a typical theme of hers, which I use here to illustrate her gift, is one that haunts us still. It’s in one of her better known (and therefore hopefully better understood) poems, of which I quote only the first verse:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

What exactly are we to make of this?

At one level it’s as easy to understand as Newman’s hymn. The imagery is as familiar in one sense as his. We know almost as much about funeral carriages (see the link below to When the Circle is Unbroken)  as we do about the night. But not carriages that carry immortality as well. So puzzles begin to arise.

How can a carriage carry both death and immortality? They’re deadly enemies and immortality is vast – too big to fit even into a stretch limo. So the familiar here is used in an unsettling even sinister way.

And why the hyphens? And the ironic tone – calling death’s action ‘kindly’ for example. In any case, if we are conscious, his carriage is usually stopping to pick up someone else – maybe someone close to us, but definitely not us. So, what’s this poem really about?

Because the theme of this poem lies within a great tradition we can all begin to formulate answers to these questions. ‘Oh, death must be kind because he is releasing us into the realm of immortality.’ But, in truth, the poem in its entirety does not make it easy for us to settle into any one explanation as complete or satisfactory. She is using the verse form of the hymn to probe disquietingly into the themes that hymns are there to comfort us about.

Even my own modest efforts at poetry come up against this wall between what can be felt and what can be said. And that even when the experience described is pretty commonplace.

The Last Thing on my Mind
(with thanks to Julie Felix)

On a bare and wooden stage, a metal chair
and two guitars wait in the still and empty air
until, with her lined face and jet black hair,
much lighter than her years she runs up to
the microphones and chooses her guitar.

Her long black veil, blurred with early morning rain,
dissolves into the long room in Wood Green
where, more than forty years ago, blues ran
the game
: when the circle was unbroken,
Tom Paxton knew the last thing on my mind.

Now, in the mangle of my mind, the rollers
of my memories, and her melodies,
compress the fragile screen of consciousness
so thin the dyes of different times bleed both ways
with such relentless pressure thought stammers.

Even released days later, this ink’s flow
does not convey what I have come to know
nor my tongue catch its air within the strings of speech
though it was strings that brought her music within reach.

It doesn’t take a brilliant critic to realise how much greater this gap is when spiritual experiences are involved, as in Dickinson’s case.

George Herbert‘s genius, in a way not dissimilar to Dickinson’s, lies at least in part in his knowing how to use the commonplace to bridge the gap.

Having been tenant long to a rich Lord,
Not thriving, I resolved to be bold,
And made a suit unto him, to afford
A new small rented lease, and cancel th’old.

In heaven at his manor I him sought:
They told me there that he was lately gone
About some land, which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possession.

I straight returned, and knowing his great birth,
Sought him accordingly in great resorts,
In cities, theatres, gardens, parks, and courts:
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth

Of thieves and murderers: there I him espied,
Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, and died.

We’re in a world of tenants, landlords, manors, parks and theatres. The verse form is a common or garden sonnet, albeit one that mixes the Shakespearean and the Petrarchan forms. His readers would have read hundreds of similar ones, many about worldly love, some dealing with the divine.

But at the same time we’re also sharing an aspect of Herbert’s experience of Christ. He has made it possible for us to capture something about that which is clearly impossible to summarise. The poem gives us an experience which extends our world – well, I believe it does – and I would defy anyone to express what we have learned except by reading the poem to me again.

Ridván Gardens

The Ridván Gardens near Acre, Israel – a haven for Bahá’u’lláh in His last years

 

A tradition of Bahá’í poetry has a long way to go to catch up. Christianity goes back two thousand years compared to our mere one hundred-and-sixty-seven. I don’t think we can yet match Dickinson and Herbert who were both standing on the shoulders of giants.

One of the earliest Bahá’í poets was Tahirih. I only know her in translation but a non-Bahá’í scholar, Farzaneh Milani, praises her highly (page 91 in Veils and Words) though recognising she can be inaccessible :

Some of Tahereh’s (sic) poems are difficult to understand. Their language is rich in abstractions. She not only mixes Arabic with Persian but also makes repeated allusions to Babi jargon and codes. Her religious convictions saturate her poetry and set her verse on fire. They glow in her poetry like a flame that burns every obstacle in its way. The erotic-mystical imagery and language she uses reveal an all-consuming love of and an intense devotion to a divine manifestation.

And the translation on page 93 of one of Tahirih’s poems gives a sense of what I might be missing, though I suspect, as always, to translate a poem is to betray it (an old Italian saying about all translation goes: ‘Traduttore, traditore.’).

I would explain all my grief
Dot by dot, point by point
If heart to heart we talk
And face to face we meet.

To catch a glimpse of thee
I am wandering like a breeze
From house to house, door to door
Place to place, street to street.

In separation from thee
The blood of my heart gushes out of my eyes
In torrent after torrent, river after river
Wave after wave, stream after stream.

This afflicted heart of mine
Has woven your love
To the stuff of life
Strand by strand, thread to thread.

When we look at poems written by Bahá’ís whose native language is English there is only one as yet who is recognised as a poet of stature outside the Bahá’í community, and he is Robert Hayden.

Many of his poems do not confront a Bahá’í theme head on. One that does I have scanned as the layout will be lost if I typed it in. Poems use their shape as well their sound to speak to us, though this shift came only with the birth of writing, then of print.

Scanned from 'Robert Hayden: Collected Poems - edited by Frederick Glaysher (Liveright Publishing)

Scanned from ‘Robert Hayden: Collected Poems – edited by Frederick Glaysher (Liveright Publishing)

hayden

Robert Hayden (Photo from John Hatcher, The Auroral Darkness: The Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden. Oxford: George Ronald, 1984.)

Here he is attempting to capture the turning point in a garden in Baghdad when Bahá’u’lláh had arrived at the moment when He would make fully public the exact nature of His Station and Revelation. You can sense Hayden’s struggle to find the words in English that fit his purpose. Christian and quasi-scientific imagery rub shoulders perhaps uneasily, perhaps creatively together – it’s hard to judge. It is a significant achievement but it’s not on George Herbert’s level, I think. But we need to walk this precarious path of poetry unstintingly, persistently, and such gifts of grace as Herbert’s will eventually come our way.

Because great poetry broadens and deepens consciousness it has a significant part to play in building a better world. But great poets do not appear from nowhere. They need a fertile soil from which to grow. That soil is the wide-scale practice of poetry throughout a whole community of minds. Great poets arrive on the scene when ordinary people not only read but write poetry, and not only that but they pass it round from hand to hand, from brain to brain – in the old days it was in manuscript, nowadays it can be in blogs and on Facebook. We all need to play our part in this, if we are so inclined.

So, post a poem and pave the way along which the next great genius can walk into our midst.

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