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Posts Tagged ‘Iain McGilchrist’

Ridván Gardens

The Ridván Gardens

. . . . . For art to merely display the workings of man’s lower nature is not enough; if it is to be edifying, the portrayal needs to be placed within a spiritual context… For it is only against such a framework that darkness can be perceived as the lack of light, evil as the absence of good.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 88)

The highest moral purpose aimed at in the highest species of the drama, is the teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself; in proportion to the possession of which knowledge, every human being is wise, just, sincere, tolerant and kind.

(Shelley from the Preface to The Cenci)

On the run-in to Christmas during this difficult time in terms of the current context of political uncertainty and division, it seemed a good idea to republish one of my longest sequence of posts ever, which focuses on the power of art.

Where do I stand in all this?

I felt it necessary to bear most of the ideas I’ve discussed in the previous posts in mind, but at this point to focus on how best to define what I felt would be most useful to capture in terms of my future exploration of this topic. I also want to find a way of making sure to include what can best be termed the spiritual factors involved in creativity.

I have already looked at this in part in an earlier post.

The first key issue to note is that the reduction of genius to creativity is in danger of missing the point (page 425):

[T]he study of the real thing – “genius” – has largely degenerated in modern times into the study of diluted cognates such as “creativity” or even “talent” which happen to be relatively accessible to the more “objective” means of investigation currently favoured by most investigators.

A brief quote from a recent book should serve to illustrate what they are saying. Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin, in their treatment of the issue in Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation, define creativity as they see it (page 4):

In human behaviour, creativity refers broadly to generating new ideas, whereas innovation refers to changing the way in which things are done. Creativity is displayed when an individual develops a novel form of behavior or a novel idea, regardless of its practical uptake and subsequent application. Innovation means implementing a novel form of behaviour or an idea in order to obtain a practical benefit which is then adopted by others.

It is immediately apparent that this is a long way short of what Myers is speaking about when he refers to genius (page 426):

In Human Personality vol 1, page 71, he writes of genius as: A power of appropriating the results of subliminal mentation to subserve the supraliminal stream of thought. . . . . [Inspiration] will be in truth a subliminal uprush, an emergence into the current of ideas which the man is consciously manipulating of other ideas which he has not consciously originated, but which have shaped themselves beyond his will, in profounder regions of his being.

I accept that it is likely to be impossible to define in words the exact nature of the creative process when conceptualised in this way and at this level. However, I did feel initially that the best metaphoric model to capture it, from among all the somewhat tired analogies on offer, was likely to be an organic rather than mechanical one. I could see why the idea of volcanic eruption or fire was so appealing. I felt at first that it misses a crucial dimension: creation is a living rather than purely material process.

Does that mean I accept some kind of Freudian reduction of creativity to a purely sexual sublimation process? No it doesn’t. Jung’s break with Freud was over the excessive value the latter placed on sexuality as the ultimate explanation of everything about human behaviour. Jung felt passionately that this discounted the spiritual dimension.

So, no surprise then to those who have read some earlier posts. I’m for a model that is rooted in a non-reductive model of consciousness. Clearly though I had to find some way of bringing this down to earth so I could define the important variables and seek them in the experience of the artists we read about or in our own experience of creativity, whatever that may be.

I didn’t use the word earth by accident. So no prizes for guessing where I started from.

Our garden meadow

Schematic Presentation:

Any model I provisionally devised needed to account for the power of external triggers, conscious sensibility and subliminal processes to contribute to creativity. I perhaps also needed to distinguish, if at all possible, between influences that push the creative process (‘subliminal uprush’ might be one such) and those that pull on it (such as the sense of purpose in the artist).

Because it helped me think clearly I started with a pseudo-equation (Did I hear someone groan?), sketching out one possible model.

Seeds + Soil + Cultivation + (Sun+Rain) + Seasons = Harvest

a. Seeds are such things as activating stimuli from reading and experience: these are more likely to push than pull the process.

b. The Soil is the subconscious, which in an artist is particularly rich and accessible. The soil quality is probably the result of:

  • Genetic predisposition and congenital influences (push?);
  • Early experience (push);
  • Skill acquisition; and
  • Spiritual orientation (pull?).

c. Cultivation is anything, such as weeding or fertilizer, connected with the process of planting and later material influences of a human kind that nurture the growth of the artefact. These may come from the artist or from outside: this includes the facilitation of creativity by interactions with friends – good examples are how his association with Byron helped produce Julian & Maddalo and his wife Mary’s trigger to write Frankenstein. I have also made mention of David Gilmour. These are more likely to be push factors.

d. Sun and Rain are the cosmic processes not in human control. Their influence can be strengthened by consciously trying to connect with them, for example through nature, meditation or prayer. Probably these are pull factors.

e. The seasons, probably push factors, are to do with the timing of developmental triggers related to the creative process and not in our conscious control.

f. The harvest is the work of art. Harvesting is its production and publication and involves a degree of conscious organisation and selection to ensure the result is as good as it is possible to make it.

An excellent harvest (f) will not be possible without all the preceding stages/components. Without the careful and diligent exercise of conscious control under cultivation (c) and harvest (f) the art will earn Myer’s stricture concerning Blake – that the subliminal uprush has not sufficiently been subject to conscious control. With excessive and constricting conscious control, or in the absence/depletion of seeds (a), soil (b) or climate (d), the work will not resonate at the highest levels of great art.

The Dissolute Artist Problem

The operation of none of these factors depends upon the artist being in anyway anarchic in his personal life, although not following convention in any way that hampers the creative flow is an advantage. It can be tricky to distinguish between meaningless and unimportant conventions and core moral values. Transgressing the former will not damage and might even foster the quality of the art: transgressing the latter will probably damage the art, or at least stifle its full potential.

Ludwig Tuman, in his thoughtful book The Mirror of the Divine, shares insights that are helpful on this issue, though he is addressing a slightly different aspect of the problem. He argues (page 114-15):

The tension between artist and society is… resolved by recognising his right of self expression, and by recognising, too, that the freedom of the individual must be tempered with a sense of spiritual responsibility towards the community. In conclusion, the Bahá’í teachings would seem to condone neither of the two extremes found in the history of art: neither the extreme of suppressing the artist, for to do so transgresses against his rights as an individual: nor the other extreme of allowing him absolute license, for the rights of those who are affected by his work must also be taken into account.

Two Key Issues

There are at least two other key issues to be resolved.

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

Bahíyyih Nakhjavání

1. How does one write with such a high intent without falling prey to Shelley’s strained and overwrought diction? (This is closely related to the issue of didacticism and dissonance, which I have dealt with already, so I won’t rehearse all that again here.) George Herbert manages not to sell his ideals short, where many others fail. Humility may be a key factor here.

It is possible that my misgivings about Shelley’s diction are misplaced. I say that in the light of Bahíyyih Nakhjavání’s article Artist, Seeker and Seer, which addresses almost the same issue. She writes:

Great art, therefore, is the expression of the soul’s glimpse of certitude in the double-lensed burning glass of an aesthetic structure commensurate with the patterns it perceives. To be great it must also seize us with an entirety that leaves no word untouched by wonder, no line untouched by light.

Maybe I’m just a pathologically understating Englishman cringing irrationally at the faintest hint of exaggeration! I leave that for you to decide. In the meanwhile, I will hold onto my doubts about Shelley’s high-flying style.

I perhaps need to clarify that this issue is not the same as the problem that some modern readers might have with what they could experience as an ‘archaic’ or ‘old-fashioned’ style. The latter problem is worth struggling to overcome as Shelley is in that case simply writing according to the conventions of his time and very effectively so at his best.

2. It might also be argued that empathy and art could clash if too much concern for family, friends and others distracts the artist from his work. However, if we take seriously the evidence Ricard adduces in his brilliant book Altruism, then it could be that compassion energises as well as bringing wisdom, suggesting that altruism, a disposition to consider the needs of others rather than a simple feeling state, and art would be deeply compatible to the great benefit of the art, and probably of the artist and of society as well. Presumably also the wider the compass of compassion and the stronger the disposition towards altruism, the greater the art will be.

Questions concerning the Model

In terms of a model of inspiration, various other questions arise. Should we be talking about triggers as the promoters of ‘subliminal uprush,’ or would the idea of pricking the membrane between consciousness and the subliminal be a better way of conceptualising it. This would make my soil model ineffective as an explainer. The subliminal could also be building up a kind of pressure that creates the possibility of its breaking through without a trigger – more like Byron’s laval image.

One Size will not Fit All

All of which inevitably leads me to feel that probably any one model of creativity is going to be too simplistic to cover all bases. I am reminded that Bahá’u’lláh, in conveying to us the nature and processes of the human heart, used at least three different images at different times: earth, fire and mirrors. I’ve explored these at length in an earlier sequence of posts.

The earth metaphor is relatively consistent in the Bahá’í Writings. The heart has or is soil in which spiritual qualities are to be planted, such as the hyacinth of wisdom or the rose of love. We need to weed it, seed it and tend it.

The mirror image is similarly consistent. Our heart, if polished and clean, will faithfully reflect what is placed before it, and it is advisable that we are turning it towards life enhancing aspects of experience, as well as keeping it clean.

Fire is slightly more complex in that it can be either the means of cleansing the heart, for example in the prayer which reads:

Ignite, then, O my God, within my breast the fire of Thy love, that its flame may burn up all else except my remembrance of Thee, that every trace of corrupt desire may be entirely mortified within me, and that naught may remain except the glorification of Thy transcendent and all-glorious Being.

Or of lighting its candle as in:

O BEFRIENDED STRANGER! The candle of thine heart is lighted by the hand of My power, quench it not with the contrary winds of self and passion.

This makes me fairly sure that the soil metaphor, which was influenced both by Bahá’u’lláh and by Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, has some value.

However, at times, as Byron and Shelley themselves testify, inspiration looks more like a volcano or a fire. So I think I have to find a way of factoring at least those two into the mix.

I realised then that I needed to see if Shelley’s writing contained the idea of a mirror anywhere in this kind of context before I simply began pulling that in as well.

shrine-mirror

Shelley and the Mirror

It was no surprise to find, in Shelley’s The Defence of Poetry, many references to the idea of a mirror linked to poetry.

After explaining (Duncan Wu’s Romanticism: page 946) that ‘poetry in a more restricted sense expresses those arrangements of language, and especially metrical language, which are created by that imperial faculty, whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man’ Shelley goes onto add that, for him, ‘language . . . . is a more direct representation of the actions and passions of our internal being’ than other more plastic or acoustic forms of art.

Presumably, to reconcile this with Iain McGilchrist’s view of right-brain holistic experience as being inherently inexplicable, Shelley simply means that poetry succeeds best in communicating with verbal consciousness because it has translated ineffable inner experience into musico-metaphorical terms that get as close as possible to transmuting those experiences into a form that left-brain language doesn’t have to decode before trying to understand them.

The key point that Shelley goes on to make is probably more crucial. He distinguishes rightly between ‘conception’ (an interesting word as it can mean an idea or a moment when the birth process is initiated) and ‘expression.’ He sees them both as means of ‘communication’ for the ‘light’ to use, but the conception is a ‘mirror which reflects’ that light, whereas expression is a ‘cloud which enfeebles it.’ He seems to be privileging language over other means as a communicator, in a way which I’m not sure I yet understand[1].

Shelley goes onto describe (page 947) ‘[a] poem [as] the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.’ He sees prosaic accounts as ‘epitomes’ or summaries stripped of their essential core and therefore subject to the corrosion of time. Poetry, however, ‘forever develops new and wonderful applications of the eternal truth which it contains.’ His conclusion is that:

A story of particular facts is as a mirror which obscures and distorts that which should be beautiful; poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.

There are two other less relevant references to mirrors in The Defence before Shelley reaches his triumphant conclusion (page 956):

Poets are the hierophants [expounders] of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

This clearly suggests that even the poet does not know the full import of what he says. He is simply a channel for meanings beyond his reach.

I think that just about clinches it. I have to draw on all three metaphors.

neardeathexperience

For source of image see link

Overarching Assumptions

There is the possibility for two overarching assumptions to any model I then create.

(1) If there is no transcendent realm, then we might only need to adapt McGilchrist’s concept of right-brain holistic, metaphorical, nonlinear kinds of processing, which create experiences irreducible to language. These processes frequently occur beneath awareness and produce new insights, sometimes quite complex, that surprise. We still would need to prepare the ground, protect the flame or shine the mirror to foster such experiences, enable us to see the truth at some level of our being, and permit it to enter fully into consciousness. None of this would require moral rectitude or spiritual development as an essential or even important component.

(2) If there is a transcendent realm, then all of the above would apply but also, moral rectitude/spiritual development would be an essential prerequisite for the highest levels of achievement.

At this point I have no intention of pretending that my tripartite model is correct. I merely want it to be useful as a lens through which to examine other creative lives and the art they have produced.

My assumption for now is going to be that, while it is theoretically possible for the transcendent realm, which I believe is there, to seed the soil of an artist’s subconscious, be reflected in the mirror of his consciousness or shine from the lamp of his mind to illuminate the present, I am going to be very cautious before concluding that any significant work of art I examine will provide evidence of any such thing.

I am going to be more confident of supposing that the greatest works of art are partly the product of subliminal processes of some kind, and I want to understand more clearly what they might be.

I also would like to believe that great art will teach us something of value to improve our daily lives, perhaps by connecting us with nature, enabling us to understand other human beings better, or showing us how to bring more beauty into the world. I will be looking for evidence of that, most probably in the art form I understand best – poetry.

Exactly how and when the metaphors of earth, fire and mirrors should be applied is going to be an empirical one, I feel, and I shouldn’t leap at this point to claim I have an integrated model.

Art and the Artist – a final thought

As a final thought, this whole process has led me to believe that as Shelley matured as a man, through personal suffering, key friendships and exposure to testing events in the politico-social sphere, he also matured as a poet. I feel that there is therefore a relationship between the development of the person and the development of the art which is not reducible to a question simply of skill acquisition.

The blind spots of the human being limit the reach of the art. However, because the impaired vision of the artist can be more penetrating than mine, even a flawed artist can open my eyes to truths unavailable otherwise to me. It saddens me to realise how much more such an artist would have achieved with more focus on his or her own spiritual and moral development. Defying pointless convention is one thing: debasing yourself is quite another. We all need to get better at telling the difference.

Let’s see where my next exploration leads me, whenever that will be!

Footnote:

[1] He wrote: ‘For language is arbitrarily produced by the imagination, and has relation to thoughts alone; but all other materials, instruments, and conditions of art have relations among each other, which limit and interpose between conception and expression. The former is as a mirror which reflects, the latter as a cloud which enfeebles, the light of which both are mediums of communication.

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[In art] what is important is not only the subject matter but also the way it is treated; not only the cognitive and emotional content manifest in the work of art, but also, and especially, the effect such content is intended to have on the knowledge and the feelings of the participant.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 88)

On the run-in to Christmas during this difficult time in terms of the current context of political uncertainty and division, it seemed a good idea to republish one of my longest sequence of posts ever, which focuses on the power of art.

In the post on the Mask of Anarchy, I concluded that Shelley manages to avoid the trap of painting only in black, without selling out the trauma that triggered the poem. The stanza form makes the message accessible. The figure of Hope, without in my view becoming sentimental, counterpoints the nightmare. And, most brilliantly, given where Shelley’s personal violence and previous politics might have led him, he depicts the power of non-violent resistance. This makes the work far greater than the man.

Ode to the West Wind

At about the same time as he completed this superb protest poem, another of his great poems was incubating, according to Holmes in his biography (page 546):

Shelley went for walks along the banks of the Arno thinking of . . . . his own exile, his ‘passion for reforming the world,’ his apparent impotence to help the downtrodden people of England, the disasters of his private life and inevitably, at 27, the beginning of the end of his youth.

His hair was already becoming streaked with grey, according to Anne Wroe a possible symptom of syphilis. It is perhaps not surprising then to see the appeal of autumn as a symbol of his declining condition and his deep need for a powerful force to lift him out of his despondency. The climax of the The Ode to West Wind fuses these two aspects:

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

In this poem, I feel, Shelley has managed to curb his tendency to over-wrought diction, which mars so much of his poetry, without selling out the intensity of his feeling and the exaltation of his vision. Also, he has been more successful, as a result, in pitching his imagery at a deeply resonant level. For example, at first sight the idea of ‘dead thoughts’ seems inherently despairing and negative, until you see the comparison with dead leaves, whose death is precisely what is necessary to fertilise new growth. There is a sense of Shelley’s willingness to sacrifice himself in this process, but he does not rub our noses in it in the self-aggrandising way we see so often elsewhere in his poetry. It may be no coincidence that this poem follows on from the risk he took in trying to get The Mask of Anarchy published. (I will be returning to a closer analysis of both these poems in a later post.)

It will come as no surprise to readers of my blog that I find his use of the word ‘hearth’ particularly rich in implications. It contains the words ‘art,’ ‘heart’ and ‘earth’ within it, as I have explained elsewhere. As this was a poem I read often in my late teens, I now find myself wondering whether the core image in the dream I had in my 40s of the hearth, which was so important to my understanding of spiritual processes, was first planted by Shelley.

1 Earth Heart alone

For source of image see link

Elusive Inspiration

I will skate over another long poem – Peter Bell the Third – even though it does have some powerful passages. It is too uneven, and therefore ultimately unsuccessful, to be included here, where I am focusing exclusively on his more powerful poems for what they might reveal about the creative process at its best.

Holmes’s commentary on this period is relevant (page 556):

The astonishing speed and range of his creative output, which had now run in an unbroken curve from 6 September when he first received news of Peterloo, until 5 November, embracing such widely different genres of poetry and prose, and simultaneously throwing off a comet’s tail of ballad fragments and songs, suggest a state of exultant energy and vision, a consciousness of formidable active power that is difficult to conceive in ordinary terms.

He amplifies on this (page 569):

Like the great creative efforts of 1812 and 1817 – which were, equally, responses to political and social crisis in society – the effort of 1819 pushed forward the range of Shelley’s literary powers. It established in his mind more mature conceptions both of the actions and sufferings of other men, and of his own. In artistic terms the greatest gains were in economy and intensity of style.

Ann Wroe makes the astute observation that (page 92) ‘he could not will or control the poetic power, and when it lapsed he was merely a man again.’ What I would very much wish to be able to define, are the factors that connect him to this power so that his work resonates at a higher level than his more workaday verse. This would help me understand better the difference between poetry and verse: they can sometimes, to a cursory glance, appear the same, but repeated exposure reveals the former to penetrate reality far more deeply than the latter.

It was Erich Fromm who alerted me to the distinction between two kinds of stimuli. In The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, having discussed simple stimuli, which is the common usage of the term stimulus and means a trigger to reaction, he explains that there is another kind of stimulus (page 269):

. . . . one that stimulates the person to be active. Such an activating stimulus could be a novel, a poem, an idea, and landscape, music, or a loved person. None of these stimuli produce a simple response; they invite you, as it were, to respond by actively and sympathetically relating yourself to them; by becoming actively interested, seeing and discovering ever-new aspects in your ‘object’… by becoming more awake and more aware.

He unpacks some of the implications of this distinction (pages 269-70):

Stimuli of the first, simple kind, if repeated beyond a certain threshold, are no longer registered and lose their stimulating effect. . . . Activating stimuli have a different effect. They do not remain the same; because of the productive response to them they are always new, always changing: the stimulated person… brings the stimuli to life and changes them by always discovering new aspects in them.

When ‘poetic power’ is present we have activating stimuli which can change our awareness and which repay revisiting: when it is absent there is unlikely to be any such effect. In the final group of posts I will be exploring this issue in greater depth, though it will mean digressing into a discussion of the novel’s capacity to promote empathy as well as exploring the difficulties of distinguishing between a poem that is merely a simple stimulus and therefore probably only verse, and a poem that is an activating one, and therefore poetry in the best sense of that word.

I bet you’re looking forward to that discussion.

Sir Philip Sidney (for source of image see link)

Sir Philip Sidney (for source of image see link)

A Defence of Poetry

After the end of this period comes A Defence of Poetry, which Holmes (page 642) regards as something of an anthology of his earlier prose writing. A well known antecedent is Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry. The Wikipedia article acknowledges his influence on Shelley and beyond, and summarises his message:

In an era of antipathy to poetry and puritanical belief in the corruption engendered by literature, Sidney’s defense was a significant contribution to the genre of literary criticism. It was England’s first philosophical defense in which he describes poetry’s ancient and indispensable place in society, its mimetic nature, and its ethical function.

One of the most recent descendants is Seamus Heaney’s The Redress of Poetry, where he speaks of (page xvii) how poetry can bring ‘human existence into fuller life.’

This may not seem consistent with a strong desire to change the world in some particular way (page 2):

[Poetry] offers a response to reality which has a liberating and verifying effect upon the individual spirit, and yet I can see how such a function would be deemed insufficient by a political activist. For the activist, there is going to be no point in envisaging an order which is comprehensive of events but not in itself productive of new events. . . . . They will always want the redress of poetry to be an exercise of leverage on behalf of their point of view.

He sets an important criterion for the reality that poetry seeks to capture (page 7-8):

Poetry . . . whether it belongs to an old political dispensation or aspires to express a new one, has to be a working model of inclusive consciousness. It should not simplify. Its projections and inventions should be a match for the complex reality which surrounds it and of which it is generated. . . . . As long as the co-ordinates of the imagined thing correspond to those of the world we live in and endure, poetry is fulfilling its counterweighting function.

Shelley stands at a point of time approximately halfway between these publications. Similar to Sidney, he continues to see (page 642) ‘the function of poetry as a moral and political one, rather than as a purely literary one,’ and defines the moral function of poetry as (page 643) putting ‘himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.’ He sees poetry as strengthening that function.

Shelley draws a distinction which anticipates Iain McGilchrist, in a way (page 645):

The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world has for want of the poetic faculty proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world.

Approaching his End

Interestingly, when it came to Shelley’s reaction to the death of Keats in Italy from consumption, his ability to empathise with the reality of Keats’s situation was deeply flawed (page 648):

It is transparent . . . that Shelley was not thinking in any realistic way about Keats’s reaction to any review of 1818, but rather of his own reaction to the quarterly attack on himself in 1819.

His total lack of interest at this same time in the situation of his own children by Harriet points in the same unfeeling direction.

Writing to Claire at the time of the composition of Adonais, he explained (page 656) that:

. . . .  in writing poetry he found the only real form of mental relief which lifted him above ‘the stormy mist of sensations.’

I won’t be dwelling on this poem here, not only because of its flawed empathy, but also because, while I do not I agree with Holmes’s dismissive description of it as mannered and pompous (page 657), its unevenness raises too many doubts in my mind about its overall quality. I need more time before I can come to a measured assessment.

Concerning what poetry was for him, he said something revealing at this time, which I have also quoted in an earlier post (page 659):

‘The poet and the man are two different natures,’ he explained . . . ‘though they exist together they may be unconscious of each other.’

The best poetry of this period comes under the heading of Pisan Poems though I am not sure at this point what exactly triggered them and therefore am unclear how they might help clarify my current theme.

This is where my rather rapid overview of his poetic output comes to an end and I now face the daunting task in the next set of posts of integrating what I have learnt into my working model of the creative process so I can test it out on other writers. I’ll probably stick to writers because I understand the written arts better than the others, though I don’t necessarily value them more.

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Consider to what a remarkable extent the spirituality of people has been overcome by materialism so that spiritual susceptibility seems to have vanished, divine civilization become decadent, and guidance and knowledge of God no longer remain. All are submerged in the sea of materialism. Although some attend churches and temples of worship and devotion, it is in accordance with the traditions and imitations of their fathers and not for the investigation of reality.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 221)

The previous post ended with a key question: can we redress the imbalance, described by Margaret Donaldson in her book Human Minds: an exploration, that has tilted our culture towards the intellectual transcendent mode with a current mistaken emphasis on a purely materialistic science at the expense of the more spiritual approach of the value-sensing transcendent mode?

This is a question that matters.

We have been here before on this blog, though from a slightly different angle. Iain McGilchrist in his brilliant survey of the problem in The Master & his Emissary reaches a conclusion that pins down exactly why addressing this kind of problem matters when we look at our western society:[1]

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.

Donaldson’s Take on Redressing the Balance

She feels that developments in science itself have begun to undermine dogmatic materialism:[2]:

 . . . Following upon the work of Max Planck from which emerged quantum mechanics, earlier conceptions of matter itself – those lying at the very basis of the ‘materialistic’ theories of nature – were shown to be mistaken.

Consciousness plays an unexpected part. She quotes Eugene Wigner as saying[3] that ‘it was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.’ As a result ‘[t]he intellectual intellectual construct mode reaches its limits and the extension of knowledge depends ever more heavily upon mathematical reasoning.’

Donaldson’s feels that materialism as an explanation for everything is finished:

[4] . . . The activities of science can no longer reasonably be taken as tending to the conclusion that the universe is a mechanism which we can expect soon to understand completely. That idea is dead.

What grounds, though, does she have for also feeling that ‘[t]he way is now open for a general recognition that the value-sensing modes need not compete with the intellectual modes but can properly function in their own way.’

My recent reading of Matthew Cobb’s The Idea of the Brain and Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future suggest that the way may be open but it is certainly not unobstructed. By the way, I accept that there are valuable insights in both those books, and in Mason’s case a large number of crucial points that we need to take on board if we are ever to avert the collision of the Titanic of our global civilization with the various icebergs of imminent disaster. However, even Mason does not see the possible wisdom of adding Donaldson’s insights into his remedy.

William James. (For source of Image see link.)

She launches her case with a quote from William James that resonates strongly with the emphasis the Bahá’í Faith places on the essential harmony of science and religion. James recognized, she says, that science and religion are[5] ‘both of them genuine keys for unlocking the world’s treasure house;’ that ‘neither is exhaustive or exclusive of the other’s simultaneous use;’ and that religion at its higher flights is ‘infinitely passionate.’

Then, from within her modal model which I hope this does not muddle, she mentions our different ways of dealing with problems[6] ‘from within the line and core construct modes’ for example, via psychoanalysis or cognitive therapy. However, she adds, ‘there remains another kind of possibility: instead of trying to redeem a troublesome mode we may try to leave it, at least for a while,’ explaining that ‘[a]ll of us have at least some variety of the point mode to escape into.’ ‘For some people though[7] ‘the intellectual modes also provide a way out.’

Those are not her favoured modes of transcending problems because:[8]

. . . there is a whole different human tradition in which sitting still is held to be an essential feature of the effort to control suffering and thus to be a way in which many hours of a life can properly and profitably be spent.

And she goes on to ask whether we are ‘talking only about becoming happier, or also about becoming in some sense wiser or better?’

The Example of Buddhism

She then explores the path of Buddhism at some length, describing it[9] as ‘a particularly resolute attempt to develop skill in leaving undesirable modes at will.’

She states:[10]

Two possible escape routes are proposed in the early Buddhist texts and accepted in much Buddhist orthodoxy. Paul Griffiths calls them ‘the cultivation of tranquillity’ and ‘the cultivation of insight’, the first being an attempt to overcome attachment, and the second and attempt to overcome ignorance.

And in the end she explains:[11]

we are brought to the conclusion that, within the Buddhist traditions we have been considering, escape from the line mode and the core construct mode mainly entails movement into two other modes: a special detached or objective kind of point mode, and a version of the transcendent mode.

. . . Both systems depend on detached, uninvolved, direct observation, used in conjunction with some transcendent function.

Basically, for her,[12] ‘[t]he idea is therefore closely akin to the belief that meditation can help us achieve some kind of breakthrough from the finite to the infinite.’

Her detailed comparison of the intellectual and the value-sensing transcendent modes has at least one clear implication concerning the unhelpful asymmetry of our Western culture’s approach to science, religion and spirituality. Most of us trust the products of the obscure and effortful scientific process, even though we lack even a shred of confirming personal experience in some cases. This is true even though that trust has been eroded by post-modern thinking and climate denial amongst other things. However, most of us refuse to extend the same kind of trust to the equally effortful exertions of advanced meditators: we simply do not believe the data drawn from their experiences, at the very least dismissing it all as ‘anecdotal’ and/or ‘subjective.’

From a personal perspective, when I was studying for my MSc in Clinical Psychology at Surrey University, I came across substantial amounts of Buddhist literature in the library there. I was so impressed by the depths of psychological insight I found on the shelves, I then used every opportunity to attend talks and meditation training at the Buddhist Society in Eccleston Square, London.  I did not convert to Buddhism though, because there was much, in terms for example of reincarnation, that I could not accept, but I remained deeply impressed by many of its insights none the less.

Other Opportunities

Art has a part to play, as we heard from her before in a previous post. She quotes Iris Murdoch[13] as saying that art gives us ‘intermediate images’ which most of us could not do without, but which ‘can lead to a full stop if they are taken as being for real.’ This maps onto McGilchrist’s description of part of the right-hemisphere’s skillset, in The Master & his Emissary, his in-depth exploration of how we can balance the two hemisphere’s distinct kinds of functioning more effectively.

None of this is a level playing field within our culture.[14]:

… our inner cities have become particularly ‘impermeable’ to spiritual experience. . . . Reports… often mention as external triggers specific encounters with nature or art. Also there are repeated suggestions that being alone is helpful or even necessary. The lives of the least privileged people are clearly in all these ways seriously short of opportunity.

Even so, she declares optimistically:[15]

It is at any rate clear that experiences in the value sensing transcendent mode are not extinct among us. They surge up still in spite of the power of other modes which have threatened to exclude them. . . . The experiences come occasionally… but they do not constitute a resource that can be used for living. They cannot be counted as part of the modal repertoire.

So, we are a long way from having redressed the balance. What other challenges lie ahead in her view? That will have to wait for the next post.

References:

[1]. The Master & his Emissary – pages 228-229.
[2] Human Minds: an exploration – page 186: unless otherwise stated all references are from this text.
[3]. Page 187.
[4]. Page 188.
[5]. Page 189.
[6]. Page 210.
[7]. Page 211.
[8]. Page 212.
[9]. Page 213.
[10]. Page 214.
[11]. Page 224.
[12]. Page 227.
[13]. Page 230.
[14]. Page 234.
[15]. Page 235.

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If religious beliefs and opinions are found contrary to the standards of science, they are mere superstitions and imaginations; for the antithesis of knowledge is ignorance, and the child of ignorance is superstition. Unquestionably there must be agreement between true religion and science. If a question be found contrary to reason, faith and belief in it are impossible, and there is no outcome but wavering and vacillation.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá from The Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 181)

I have been triggered to revisit books I have hoarded which deal with levels of consciousness. This all started with another rapidly abandoned look at Ken Wilber’s model. With moderate enthusiasm I had picked off my shelves Wilber’s Up from Eden, which had lurked up there unread since 1996. I felt that Fontana’s references to his work in Psychology, Religion and Spirituality warranted another look to help me overcome the reservations triggered in my mind by John Fitzgerald Medina’s Faith, Physics & Psychology, where he takes issue with what he feels is Wilber’s arrogant implication that it is impossible for someone in a lower level society to leap to a higher level of consciousness (page 136):

. . . integral theorists actually support the idea that, out of the entire human population in the world, only an elite cadre of Westerners presently has the capacity to achieve the highest levels of human development.

I was not sure this criticism was entirely warranted but it did create reservations in my mind about some aspects of Wilber’s approach.

This was not what put me off this time.

I got as far as page 73 before the feeling that this was not the approach I wanted to immerse myself in right now grew so strong I couldn’t turn another page. His approach in this book was too mythological for my taste. I’ve so far been completely incapable of finishing any of Joseph Campbell’s work for this same reason. My distaste may be irrational but it remains insuperable.

As I sat and stared at my shelves aching for inspiration I remembered how much I had resonated to a book that explored in illuminating ways the split-brain culture we inhabit. No, not Iain McGilchrist’s The Master & his Emissary this time, much as I value that book and always will. There’s a clue in a comment I left on my blog more than a month ago, about a text that I have now re-read for the third time, but have not yet blogged about. I’ve probably never really attempted to integrate this account into my other explorations of levels of consciousness because the model presented does not easily map onto numerically coded versions such as those of Jenny Wade, Piaget, Wilber, Dabrowski  and Koestenbaum.

It is Margaret Donaldson’s Human Minds: an exploration. On page 135 she writes of what she calls ‘the value-sensing transcendent mode,’ something which our materialistic culture does not cultivate. She describes experiences in this mode as surging up ‘still in spite of the power of other modes which have threatened to exclude them.’ These experiences ‘come occasionally, unexpectedly, like marvellous accidents.’ Her book is partly about our need as a society to learn how to encourage us to access them more consistently. My own such encounters have been extremely rare indeed. Her insightful book also considers, though in less detail, the role of the novel and poetry in enhancing consciousness.

It also focuses on both the need to balance head and heart, science and religion, and on the ways we might get closer to achieving that.

I will deal fairly quickly with her discussion of her more basic modes of experiencing the world, then I will move on to the next highest levels in a bit more detail, before dwelling at greater length on her in depth exploration of the transcendent modes, both intellectual and value-sensing. In all probability this fairly rapid flight over the complex terrain of her richly informative model will fail to do it justice, but, if it at least brings her important work to your attention, that might just be enough.

Basic Modes

Margaret Donaldson deals first of all with the basic modes, the first of which concerns itself purely with the present moment, and begins in our infancy. She calls it point mode.[1] She goes on to add, ‘Later other loci become possible. For example, the second mode, which is called the line mode, has a locus of concern that includes the personal past and the personal future.’ More specific detail on the line mode next time.

Then our capacity expands to ‘the impersonal’ enabling us to think beyond our ‘personal goals.’[2] When this relates to thinking, that fits with our preconceptions about what it should be like. ‘But,’ she asks, ‘what about emotion? Can we take steps towards impersonality in respect of our emotions also?’

This is an issue we will come back to in more detail. For now I’ll just mention that she adds that ‘The process of “opening out” in those two directions is the one that I have previously called disembedding, in an earlier book, Children’s Minds.[3] This relates to some degree to concepts such as reflection and disidentification, dealt with at length elsewhere on this blog.

She emphasises that we modify our perceptions of the world ‘to suit our purposes.’[4] She was particularly taken with some of Freud’s descriptions of how we do that and expresses them in an effective metaphor:[5]

In talking of the defences Freud uses one image which I find illuminating. He likened the activities of a mind shaping its own consciousness to those of an editor revising a text, working towards an acceptable final draft.  The various mechanisms that have different editorial counterparts. For example, amnesic repression is equivalent to complete removal of parts of the text… likewise denial is equivalent to the insertion of ‘not:’… Projection is equivalent to changing the subject of a sentence: ‘He is I am evil, lazy, useless.’ Displacement amounts to changing the sentence object: ‘ I hate my father enemy.’ . . . In this way, we write for ourselves an authorised version of our lives.

In short, ‘. . . our experience of the world is experience of an interpretation.’[6] This maps closely onto my own sense of my perception of the world as a simulation. However, Donaldson explains, this tendency is balanced ‘by another more austere aim: the aim of understanding, of getting at the truth.’ The Bahá’í approach to this stresses the importance of an ‘independent investigation of the truth.’

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

There is another factor she mentions that again resonates with the Bahá’í Faith: ‘The second corrective is to consider shared experience.’ This sounds closely linked to the value attached to consultation, which is central to many processes of interaction encouraged in the Bahá’í community. Obviously these resonances partly explain my attraction to Donaldson’s model of consciousness, but it is not the only reason.

She argues that the foundations for our modes of consciousness are laid down very early.[7]  ‘At what point in life’ she asks, ‘does a child have a mind capable of concerning itself with things in some sort of controlled and organised way?’ and her answer is, ‘We can at least now confidently reply: “Very early, certainly by the end of the first two or three months, possibly sooner. (Stern terms it an emergent self.)’

She amplifies her comment by saying:[8]

There follows, from two to around eight months, the development of the ‘core self’ – a sense of self that is coherent, firmly distinguished from what is other, but not yet informed by an awareness of other minds.

. . . the point mode begins as the core self is established.

In the next post I will be exploring what follows on from that. It’s probably worth pointing out straightaway that, even later in life, as we shall see, point mode is not pointless.

References:

[1]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 11.
[2]. Human Minds: an exploration – page  16.
[3]. Human Minds: an exploration – pages 16-17.
[4]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 24.
[5]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 25.
[6]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 27.
[7]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 46.
[8]. Human Minds: an exploration – pages 46-47.

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During April, I was working on the last of a long number of poems concerning my search for truth. I had no idea I was about to read a book that would provide my left-brain with some strings of words to help it understand what my right-brain was struggling to express.

Bernardo Kastrup’s book The Idea of the World was a fascinating read all the way through, but it was not until I almost reached the end that I found one of the most surprising pieces of information, previously completely unknown to me, in spite of my continuing interest in so-called ‘paranormal’ experiences.

I will digress a little before getting to that point.

He defines self-transcendence[1] as the ‘abrupt . . . broadening of one’s sense of self’ and explores the wealth of new evidence that demonstrates that such experiences, rich and complex as they often are, correlate with ‘a broad variety of brain impairment mechanisms.’ His list of such impairments includes cerebral hypoxia, electromagnetic and chemical impairment, generalised physiological stress and physical damage.

NDEs

One of his key examples is particularly close to an area of interest of mine: near death experiences. He writes:[2]

Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) are the prime examples of self-transcendence associated with dramatically reduced brain function due to e.g. cardiac arrest.

He refers at this point to the work of Pim van Lommel, whose book, Consciousness Beyond Life, I have blogged about earlier.

It’s probably worth a brief recap of van Lommel’s position.

Van Lommel argues – and I am not sufficiently expert in quantum theory to judge the strength of his case here – that quantum theory has altered the balance of the argument significantly:[3]

According to some quantum physicists, quantum physics accords our consciousness a decisive role in creating and experiencing perceptible reality. . . . . . This transforms modern science into a subjective science in which consciousness plays a fundamental role.

As a result of the implications of quantum theory and supported by his own research and that of others, he strongly feels:[4]

On the basis of prospective studies of near-death experience, recent results from neurophysiological research, and concepts from quantum physics, I strongly believe that consciousness cannot be located in a particular time and place. This is known as nonlocality. Complete and endless consciousness is everywhere in a dimension that is not tied to time or place, where past, present, and future all exist and are accessible at the same time.

To help lame-brains like me to keep up, he brings in a helpful analogy that is being used quite widely by those of this point of view:[5]

Our brain may be compared both to a television set, receiving information from electromagnetic fields and decoding this into sound and vision, and to a television camera, converting or encoding sound and vision into electromagnetic waves. . . . . 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.

Let’s pick up his argument at what is a crux for his case:[6]

The fact that an NDE 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.

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 both immediately afterwards and then after a set period of time again later, rather than finding people who claimed to have had an NDE and interviewing only them. The data is impressive both for the numbers in total involved:[7]

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:[8]

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:[9]

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 the NDE was experienced were completely, accurately and verifiably recorded, something not possible in a retrospective study: van Lommel is clear[10] that ‘in such a brain [state] even so-called hallucinations are impossible.’

He explains how an NDE serves to demonstrate this:[11]

The oxygen deficiency brought on by the stopping of the heart temporarily suspends brain function, causing the electromagnetic fields of our neurons and other cells to disappear and the interface between consciousness and our physical body to be disrupted. This creates the conditions for experiencing the endless and enhanced consciousness outside the body (the wave aspect of consciousness) known as an NDE: the experience of a continuity of consciousness independent of the body.

Psychedelics

Now we come to the unexpected evidence.

Kastrup references similar work under his various headings, another of which is psychedelics. They produce ‘powerful self-transcending experiences’ and, he explains[12], ‘it had been assumed that they did so by exciting parts of the brain.’ As it turns out ‘psychedelics do largely the opposite,’ the evidence for which was derived from ideal research on subjects who were[13]‘placed inside functional MRI scanners, instructed to report on their conscious inner state according to standardised procedures, and then injected with the psychedelic compound.’

Where does this surprising counterintuitive evidence take him?

His first concern[14] is to use this evidence to undermine physicalism’s contention that consciousness is simply a by-product of the brain, something I have explored at length, particularly in terms of my disillusionment with psychology’s take on this issue (see my sequence on Irreducible Mind ). He contends that:[15]

It remains a direct implication of physicalism that an increase in the richness of experience needs to be accompanied by an increase in the compound level of metabolism associated with the NCCs[16].

What is also worth mentioning is that Matthew Cobb, a convinced reductionist, in his book The Idea of the Brain: a History, quotes comparable concerns from as early as the 1860s pointing to a potentially different conclusion. Francis Anstie[17] suggested that, in cases of hashish and alcohol, ‘the apparent exaltation of certain factors should be ascribed rather to the removal of controlling influences than to positive stimulation of the faculties themselves.’ Psychoactive drugs suppress the brain’s ability to control, including through inhibition.

This would not necessarily imply that rich experiences require an increase of overall brain activity and might be compatible with the observed reduction. Unfortunately, Kastrup does not quote enough of the evidence to clarify which parts of the brain show reduced functioning. However, this does not undermine the wealth of other evidence, for example from NDEs, that provide clear examples of lucidity while the brain is out of action. This suggests to me that Cobb’s later claim (pages 359-60) that ‘inexplicable experimental results’ that would undermine the ‘materialist approach’ have never ‘been forthcoming’ indicates that he’s never looked carefully enough, or possibly even at all, at the wealth of evidence that does exist.*

It is also worth pointing out that Cobb’s privileging of the term experimental might be used to rule out the kind of evidence created by NDE-type studies such as those van Lommel refers to, in which case it would be a convenient way of weighting acceptable evidence in favour of materialism and excusing materialists from ever bothering to objectively inspect evidence that might call their ideology into question.

I’ll pause for now, after considering that clash of ideas, before I move onto other aspects of Kastrup’s book that resonate strongly with me.

*Footnote:

Although I disagree with Matthew Cobb’s reductionist position, I think it’s worth mentioning that his book The Idea of the Brain: a History, is worth reading.

For instance, I was genuinely intrigued by the superficially plausible argument he puts forward, based on studies of spilt-brain patients. These are people, previously suffering from epilepsy, whose corpus callosum, which joins the two hemispheres of the brain together, has been severed.

He contends that[18] ‘if you split a brain, you get two minds instead of one,’ and goes on to argue that the resulting differences between the two halves of the brain’s way of processing experience[19] ‘strongly support the general working hypothesis that the mind emerges from the brain.’ He seems to believe that an idealist, who does not accept the reductionist view and argues that ‘the brain somehow detects the non-material mind, has to explain how, when separated, the two hemispheres enable such different minds to appear.’

I hadn’t heard this argument before.

I believe he underestimates the differences between the hemispheres in order to strengthen his contention. He suggests[20] that apart from language being located primarily in the left hemisphere and ‘emotional responses’ in the right ‘there are no clear fundamental differences in the functions of the two sides of the brain.’

He does not make any reference in his book to Iain McGilchrist’s The Master & his Emissary. I have reviewed this is an earlier post and won’t repeat the arguments here. Suffice it to say that McGilchrist establishes, to my mind beyond doubt, that the hemispheres work in significantly different ways, and that we along with most of our  so-called successful scientists are in bondage to the mechanistic bias of the left hemisphere at the expense of the subtler more holistic perspectives of the right hemisphere, which implies that this is part of the reason Cobb thinks as he does.

In the end, this leaves me convinced that Cobb’s contention is flawed. The reason is this. If the mind is separate from the brain, as a wealth of evidence suggests (see the list of links below for some pointers in that direction) which Cobb chooses to ignore in his book, and if our only way of experiencing the mind is through the brain, then a split-brain will divide our experience of the mind in the same biased way as it divides our experience of the world. I think this negates his key contention here that I, and those like me, have to explain how, when separated, the two hemispheres enable such different minds to appear. It should be self-evident. The differences between the hemispheres are sufficiently great to explain the differences between the two kinds of consciousness they create. Split brains can’t grasp and decode the signals of a united mind so our experience of the mind splits as well. A no-brainer, really.

Some posts that suggest matter is not all there is

Psychology and Spirit

  1. Irreducible Mind – a review (1/3): how psychology lost the plot
  2. Irreducible Mind – a review (2/3): Myers & the mind-body problem
  3. Irreducible Mind – a review (3/3): the self & the Self

References:

[1]. The Idea of the World  – page 179.
[2]. The Idea of the World  –  Page 180.
[3]. Consciousness Beyond Life – Kindle Reference (KR) 231.
[4]. Consciousness Beyond Life – KR255.
[5]. Consciousness Beyond Life – KR261.
[6] Consciousness Beyond Life – KR2,622.
[7] Consciousness Beyond Life – KR2,735.
[8] Consciousness Beyond Life – KR3,117.
[9] Consciousness Beyond Life – KR 3,136
[10] Consciousness Beyond Life – KR3,200.
[11] Consciousness Beyond Life – KR4,890.
[12]. The Idea of the World  – Page 182.
[13]. The Idea of the World  – Page 176.
[14]. The Idea of the World  – Page 189.
[15]. The Idea of the World  – Page 193.
[16]. Neural Correlates of Consciousness.
[17]. The Idea of the Brain: a History – pages 120-122.
[18]. The Idea of the Brain – page 344.
[19]. The Idea of the Brain – page 348.
[20]. The Idea of the Brain – page 347.

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Tipping Point

At the end of the previous post, which dealt with the need for coherence if we are to address the most compelling challenges of our time, I flagged up that a key pair of requirements was: first, co-ordinated institutions strong enough to mobilise change, and second, a level of global consciousness clear and strong enough to create those institutions. There is a chicken and egg problem there, however. Until we have an educational system that helps create such a consciousness, how will we have the effective motivation to create the institutions that we need if we are to develop such an educational system?

Additional complicating factors are that, to achieve a fully transformative level of consciousness to mend our crippled civilisation and defective cultures root and branch will, as the Universal House of Justice indicates, be ‘the work of centuries.’

However, if we are to have any kind of civilisation at all beyond the next few decades, there is at least one urgent problem to resolve: global heating. We don’t have centuries to rise to that challenge. I have neither the time nor the clarity to fully address that right now though there is an earlier attempt on this blog.

What I plan to focus on here is whether we have the capacity to begin to build the foundations right now to make both those other projects, lifting consciousness and creating institutions, potentially viable.

In this final post I will begin to explore some tentative suggestions about how this process might begin to work.

A Tipping Point

Bahá’ís believe that we are living on the cusp of massive changes in society and civilisation. We believe that, in the words of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘the world’s equilibrium’ has ‘been upset.’ We can sign up to the vision expressed by Ray and Andersen in their book: ‘When a force for change moves into an inherently unstable time, the potential leverage is very great indeed.’[1]

Paradoxically, the very magnitude of the increasingly imminent threat and the totality of its potentially destructive power may be the trigger to our mobilising a more effective response. As David Wallace-Wells puts it in his apocalyptic warning:

If you had to invent a threat grand enough, and global enough, to plausibly conjure into being a system of true international cooperation, climate change would be it.[2]

Moreover, Bahá’ís believe that science and religion are not at odds, which goes some way to answering the problem McGilchrist explores in The Master & his Emissary. We can see how they could work together for the betterment of all humanity as these authors can: ‘New technologies may give us solutions to many global problems, if they are brought to life in settings with cooperative, constructive values.’[3] Our vision is often summarised in the words ‘The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.’ Ray and Anderson appear to resonate to that as well: ‘The sense of “one planet, our home” is inescapable.’[4] Their conclusion is: ‘It’s a matter of moral imagination, a wisdom of the heart.’[5] (For more on ‘moral imagination’ see an earlier post.)

And the core of that vision, that wisdom, is captured towards the end of their book:

[Cultural Creatives] say that each of us is a living system within a greater living system, connected to each other in more ways than we can fathom. If we focus on that wholeness, we can begin to imagine a culture that can heal the fragmentation and destructiveness of our time.[6]

I feel that there is the possibility of huge reciprocal benefits here.

There are a number of thinkers who have striven to articulate a more benign way of organising our global economic system.

Raworth

There are signs that younger economists, in addition to the writers of The Econocracy, are beginning to question the values of unrestrained neo-liberalism and its emphasis on growth and profit. Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics is one example. She writes (page 74-75):

We live now, says Daly, in Full World, with an economy that exceeds Earth’s regenerative and absorptive capacity by over-harvesting sources such as fish, and forests, and over-filling sinks such as the atmosphere and oceans.

Her book puts forward an alternative approach in detail. Her website contains this useful summary:

Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer. The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries is a playfully serious approach to framing that challenge, and it acts as a compass for human progress this century.

Ehrenfeld

Other thinkers are encouragingly moving in the same direction. John Ehrenfeld, in his conversation with Andrew Hoffman, explains his belief that our current understanding of sustainability, and its promise of a sustainable future, is a delusion:

Hybrid cars, LED light bulbs, wind farms and green buildings, these are all just the trappings that convince us that we are doing something when in fact we are fooling ourselves, and making things worse….Reducing unsustainability, although critical, will not create sustainability.”[7]

He suggests a more viable idea: ‘sustainability-as-flourishing.’ He describes four key elements:

First, flourishing is the realisation of a sense of completeness, independent of our immediate material context. Flourishing is not some permanent state but must be continually generated. . . . . Flourishing is the result of acting out of caring for oneself, other human beings, the rest of the ‘real material’ world, and also for the out-of-the-world that is, the spiritual or transcendental world. . . . Second it is about possibility. Possibility is not a thing. . . . it means bringing forth from nothingness something we desire to become present. . . . . Third, the definition includes far more than human benefit. Flourishing pertains to all natural systems that include both humans and other life. Finally, adding forever to this definition lends it the timelessness that is found in virtually all conversations about sustainability. In fact, sustainability makes little sense except as a lasting condition. It is that important.[8]

He feels we have forgotten what it is to be human and, blinded by materialism, we reduce everything about growth to economics, turning it into a kind of religion:

If religion boils down to a group’s ‘ultimate concern,’ then growthism is our religion and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is our god. But this religion exacerbates the destructive and violent intrusion of human culture into both nature and our own conception of who we are.[9]

It’s not, he assures us, about stopping consumption; it’s about how we consume. Our pervasive consumer culture is a choice that we’ve made: “This behaviour is so embedded that it appears to be human nature… But it is a cultural phenomenon”.[10]

Sustainability-as-flourishing, he says, requires the re-conceptualization of our lives around two perspective-shaking ideas. We need to shift our dominant mind-sets from Having to Being and from Needing to Caring:

Having is not a fundamental characteristic of our species. We are not creatures with insatiable wants and desires, even though that self-view has been reinforced by our present consumptive patterns. . . . . . Being is the most primal characteristic that distinguishes humans from all other species. Being is the basic way we exist in the world and is enacted whenever we exhibit authentic care. . . . .

Need is based on a deeply embedded insecurity that is fed by our modern culture telling us that we are incomplete or inadequate unless we acquire whatever thing will fill that artificial hole… Caring reflects a consciousness of our interconnectedness with the world (the web of life) and the historic recognition that well-being depends upon acting to keep these relationships in a healthy state. . . . . .

Institutions built on this premise will be very different from those of today. . . . . When we rediscover who we are, we will live out our lives taking care of a world composed of our own selves, other humans, and everything else.[11]

The idea of rediscovering a truer sense of self is not some kind of baseless sentimental nostalgia. For example, Gaia Vince in her book Transcendence quotes early evidence to support Ehrenfeld’s claim:

The extraordinary settlement of Çatalhöyük – already a city, 8000 years ago, of hundreds of one-room mud-bricked homes accessed from the roof – reveals evidence of a remarkably egalitarian society with strong social control and norms that prevented accumulation of wealth.[12]

Ehrenfeld also sees spirituality as going beyond the material and explains: ‘This domain is especially important to sustainability, as it heightens one’s sense for the interconnectedness of Being’ and goes on to say that ‘At the centre of this notion of interconnection is that of love . . . . Love is not a something, but a way of acting and accepts the Being of all others as legitimate.’[13] This reminds me of Scott Peck’s dictum in The Road Less Travelled that, ‘Love is not a feeling: love is work:’ those may not be his exact words, but how I have remembered what I thought he meant.

Almost Ehrenfeld’s final words on this aspect of the matter are: ‘Sustainability-as-flourishing without love is not possible.’[14]

Ehrenfeld develops this further, when he says that ‘Collapse cannot be avoided, if people do not learn to view themselves and others with compassion.’[15] I have explored the value of compassion and altruism at length elsewhere on this blog, so won’t elaborate further here.

This does not mean we will know all the answers and any such false confidence has been at the root of many of our difficulties[16]. We have to give due weight to the complexity of reality, which, as we explored earlier, much of current economic and political thinking does not do:

Our contemporary conversation about sustainability is taking place without a clear understanding, or with purposeful ignorance, of our place within a complex world. Complexity refers to a system whose parts are so multiply interconnected that it is impossible to predict how it will behave when perturbed.[17]

Ehrenfeld defines what our recognition of complexity must entail in his view:

Until we recognise and accept that we humans are an integral part of the complex system we call Earth, the possibility of sustainability will be nil.[18]

Singing from McGilchrist’s hymn sheet, he argues that mechanistic models won’t serve our purpose here[19]. They fail to capture ‘the holistic qualities of life.’[20] Moreover:

Flourishing and other similar qualities emerge from the working of the system as a whole and cannot be described by any reductionist set of rules.

This complexity also testifies to the impossibility of defining any of the problems we face in simple terms. No minority group or economic sub-system can in itself explain a failure of this wider system and we cannot accurately predict simple outcomes even from simple lines of action. Ehrenfeld goes on to explain exactly what this implies.

At the collective level, this all links back as well to the kind of collective creativity Paul Mason refers to in Postcapitalism, in ways that resonate with the Bahá’í concept of consultation discussed elsewhere. He writes:

Cooperative, self managed, nonhierarchical teams are the most technologically advanced form of work. Yet large parts of the workforce are trapped in a world of fines, discipline, violence and power hierarchies – simply because the existence of a cheap labour culture allows it to survive.[21]

He feels we have to move past this bad model towards a better one building on more co-operative principles:

As we pursue these goals, a general picture is likely to emerge: the transition to postcapitalism is going to be driven by surprise discoveries made by groups of people working in teams, about what they can do to old processes by applying collaborative thinking and networks.[22]

Ehrenfeld emphasises the importance of spirituality because it is the strongest foundation for a necessary sense of interconnectedness. His view of religion is much less positive, though that is not entirely surprising given how divisive religion is perceived to be, something we explored briefly in an earlier post. His main reservation though is that religions are out of date: he seems sadly unaware of the existence of the Bahá’í Faith and the role of other religions in promoting the kinds of awareness he is advocating.

The Bahá’í Perspective

His view is essentially the same as the Bahá’í perspective, and he also sees this task as the work of centuries. He writes:

I don’t think even the young adults of today are going to be the ones to ultimately change things. They are part of a much longer process of change that will even outlive them. It will take generations for these ideas to become embedded in the culture and new norms aligned with flourishing to arise.[23]

It seems a good point in the discussion to tap into a Bahá’í writer who has usefully explored the nature of this dilemma: he looks at it in terms of consciousness and social structures.

Before I plunge into that aspect of his thinking it would perhaps be useful just to touch on some of his earlier insights to pave the way to it.

The writer I’m referring to is Michael Karlberg, a Bahá’í academic with a background in ‘critical theories of culture and communication.’[24] His book is titled Beyond the Culture of Contest. His explanation of his basic position summarises a key aspect of this sequence’s perspective:

This book was written to advance the thesis that our contemporary ‘culture of contest’ is socially unjust and ecologically unsustainable and the surrounding ‘culture of protest’ is an inadequate response to the social and ecological problems it generates.[25]

He later discusses Adam Smith’s assumption that the free market would function within and be restrained by ‘a larger moral framework,’[26] before going onto explain where it all went wrong:

Since western-liberal societies have largely neglected Smith’s call for moral self-regulation, yet accepted Smith’s warnings about state regulation, they have been left with a culture of virtually unrestrained market competition.[27]

The consequences are predictably bleak:

In this context, as the relative absence of state and moral regulation results in the permanent extinction of increasing numbers of species, sustainability of the contest itself is called into question.[28]

Interestingly, in the context of the earlier discussion about capitalism masquerading as a kind of religion, having referred in the previous page to ‘a seemingly insatiable society’ he mentions, immediately after pointing out the absence of moral regulation, ‘the deification of competitive values.’

His analysis of how our current tripartite system of political, economic and legal domains is destructively skewed raises another point relevant to the quandaries I am struggling with:

Political and legal contests are expensive and economic contests determine who has the money to prevail in them.[29]

What makes it worse is that:

Within this tripartite system of contests, it is impossible to regulate economic activity in a socially just and ecologically sustainable manner. In fact, within this system, it is the economy that ultimately regulates political and legal decision-making, rather than the other way around.[30]

His ideas about how to address this come much later, and this is where consciousness and social structures come into play. In describing ‘strategies of social reform’ he draws the following distinction:

 . . . many people have viewed the development or transformation of individual consciousness as a path to meaningful social change. . . . [alternatively] many people have historically viewed the reform or transformation of basic social structures as the path to meaningful social change.[31]

He offers the Bahá’í perspective as synthesis:

In this context Bahá’ís believe that individual psycho-structural development and collective socio-structural reforms are both necessary but that neither one is sufficient by itself. They therefore advocate a twofold process of change involving both.

He discusses this in more detail, first at the level of the individual, and emphasis on education is key here, as is the fact that the Bahá’í community is developing institutions for whom this is a main focus:

On the individual level, Bahá’ís pursue social change primarily through educational processes. . . . [At the time his writing] out of 1700 social and economic development projects Bahá’ís are currently engaged in around the world, more than 750 are education projects. Bahá’ís also conceive of education in terms of individual, moral or spiritual development.[32]

Next he turns to systemic interventions:

The Bahá’ís are simultaneously pursuing collective strategies of socio-structural transformation. The entire administrative order…, with its non-adversarial decision-making methods, its non-partisan electoral model and its globally coordinated institutional structure, is not merely a theoretical construct for Bahá’ís. Rather, Bahá’ís have been actively building this administrative order for more than three quarters of a century…[33]

The ultimate goal for Bahá’ís, he states with reference to Building a Just World Order, is for ‘the administrative order’ to provide them ‘with an institutional framework within which they can further develop the skills, capacities and attitudes that they believe are needed to manage processes of social change in an increasingly interdependent complex world.’[34]

At the end of this post I have added a list of additional references that will provide more detailed information about Bahá’í thought and practice in these respects.

Perhaps it is best to end this sequence with a quotation from a 1985 message to all the peoples of the world, as going into greater detail at this point would open up another long sequence of posts.

An urge towards unity, like a spiritual springtime, struggles to express itself through countless international congresses that bring together people from a vast array of disciplines. It motivates appeals for international projects involving children and youth. Indeed, it is the real source of the remarkable movement towards ecumenism by which members of historically antagonistic religions and sects seem irresistibly drawn towards one another. Together with the opposing tendency to warfare and self-aggrandizement against which it ceaselessly struggles, the drive towards world unity is one of the dominant, pervasive features of life on the planet during the closing years of the twentieth century.

The experience of the Bahá’í community may be seen as an example of this enlarging unity. It is a community . . . drawn from many nations, cultures, classes and creeds, engaged in a wide range of activities serving the spiritual, social and economic needs of the peoples of many lands. It is a single social organism, representative of the diversity of the human family, conducting its affairs through a system of commonly accepted consultative principles, and cherishing equally all the great outpourings of divine guidance in human history. Its existence is yet another convincing proof of the practicality of its Founder’s vision of a united world, another evidence that humanity can live as one global society, equal to whatever challenges its coming of age may entail. If the Bahá’í experience can contribute in whatever measure to reinforcing hope in the unity of the human race, we are happy to offer it as a model for study.[35]

My own sense of purpose here is similar to that which Karlberg stated at the start of his book:

. . . It is not my intent that readers come away from this book with a personal interest in, or commitment to, the Bahá’í Faith. I will be satisfied, however, if I have prompted my readers towards critical self-reflection regarding the codes of adversarialism that underlie the contemporary culture of contest.

We need to find ways of breaking free of the religion of capitalist profit and consumption that prevails so widely in the West.

I am not claiming that the Bahá’í Faith has perfectly developed a complete antidote in practice. We are still in learning mode and have a steep mountain still to climb. However, I believe our model has valuable insights that can be used by everyone engaged in this struggle to build a better world.

There is no way Bahá’ís could ever claim to be able to do this alone in any case. We all need to work on this together, and have much to learn from each other as we do so. A key Bahá’í offering is our pattern of globally co-ordinated practice, built on a foundation of consultative decision-making, and complemented by vigorous educational processes involving children, youth and adults, that offers a good chance of transcending the fragmented, divided, divisive and almost chaotic processes that currently exist.

This confronts the chicken-and-egg problem, referred to earlier, of how to have educational systems, organisational structures and enhanced consciousness being simultaneously developed.

Additional References:

Humanity Is Our Business Posts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Century of Light Posts1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8.

Becoming a True Upholder of His Oneness Posts 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Footnotes:

[1] The Cultural Creatives – page 230.
[2] The Uninhabitable Earth (page 25)
[3] The Cultural Creatives – page 318.
[4] The Cultural Creatives – page 302.
[5] The Cultural Creatives – page 314.
[6] The Cultural Creatives – page 314.
[7] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 18.
[8] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 49-50.
[9] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 76-77.
[10] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 175.
[11] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 191-194.
[12] Transcendence – page 178.
[13] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 202-203.
[14] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 204.
[15] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 208.
[16] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 217.
[17] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 226.
[18] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 227-228.
[19] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 229.
[20] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 230.
[21] Postcapitalism – page 287.
[22] Postcapitalism – page 288.
[23] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 305,
[24] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page ix.
[25] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page xi.
[26] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 39.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 41.
[29] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 51.
[30] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 52.
[31] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 156.
[32] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 157.
[33] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 158.
[34] Ibid.
[35] The Promise of World Peace

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