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Posts Tagged ‘Iain McGilchrist’

The peaceful and uplifting simplicity of the interior of the Methodist Church in Ludlow

I was asked to give a talk at a South Shropshire Interfaith meeting in the Methodist Church in Ludlow. This sequence is based on the slides I showed and the explanations I gave. It does not attempt to give an account of the experience of the evening: it would be impossible to do justice to that. Suffice it to say, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to explore these issues with such a welcoming group of seekers after truth.

The Oneness of God

For present purposes I am of course assuming we can all accept that a power we label God in English actually exists. It would take too long to deal with that issue fully right now. What we can deal with briefly is to confirm the essential unknowable nature of God: in the end it is the words we use to describe this Great Being, the Ground of Being, that divide is.

‘McGilchrist in The Master and his Emissary explains (page 193): ‘Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally; our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness.’ Similarly with painting: Each painting says what words can never capture. Munch wrote (Prideaux’s biography – page 201): ‘Explaining a picture is impossible. The very reason it has been painted is because it cannot be explained in any other way . . .’

When we try and capture such an immense ineffability as God, we are in the country of the blind where the one-eyed man is king, as they used to say. Imagine two adjacent countries, the one a culture of cooks, the other of gardeners. For the land of cooks, the colour red has been explained to them by the one-eyed king as chilli: in the land of gardeners, their one-eyed king has said that red is like the perfume of a rose . When people from these two different countries meet they quarrel bitterly, sometimes killing each other for not believing in the rose or in chilli, when in fact they are talking about the exact same thing but do not know it. So . . . .

Copyright of the image belongs to the Bahá’í World Centre

The Oneness of Religion

This is not a new idea, though. John Donne, an Elizabethan poet-priest in Tudor England, wrote:

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

He wrote those words, part of the third of his five satires, during what must have been an agonising period of his life, when he was deciding to abandon the Roman Catholic faith, for which members of his family had died, and become an apostate. By taking this step, he avoided torture and execution and gained a career at the possible cost, in his mind, of eternal damnation.

While the Western world feels it has moved on from such ferocious divisions, the same does not seem to be true everywhere. Also, we should not perhaps feel we are completely free from milder variations of religious intolerance here.

This means that Donne’s message is still relevant.

The most obvious implication of what he says here is that we have to work hard to find Truth.

However, there are other equally important implications, and one of them in particular is crucial to the work of the Interfaith and makes a core aspect of the Bahá’í path particularly relevant for us in our relations both between ourselves and with the wider community.

Within the interfaith, we are all, in a sense, approaching Truth from different sides of this same mountain. Just because your path looks somewhat different from mine in some respects, it does not mean that, as long as you are moving upwards, yours is any less viable than mine as a way to arrive at the truth. Only when someone’s idea of God takes them downhill, perhaps killing others in His name, or at least hating them as misguided deviants, should we realize their God is not ‘worthy of worship,’ to use Eric Reitan’s phrase, and is not God at all. Theirs is not a true religion. All the great world religions are in essence one. It is only when we mistake the cultural trappings and rituals for the core that we think this is not true.

Donne clearly felt so at the time he wrote Satire III:

As women do in divers countries go
In divers habits, yet are still one kind,
So doth, so is Religion.’

A material symbol of this essential unity is the Bahá’í Temple.

Bahá’í Temples, as the world community of Bahá’ís grow larger, will be surrounded by ‘a complex which, as it unfolds in the future, will comprise in addition to the House of Worship a number of dependencies dedicated to social, humanitarian, educational, and scientific pursuits.’ These will be open to all.

I will explore the oneness of humanity next time.

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Glass table with book & VG

My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at work most strongly.

Vincent to Theo – March 1884 (Letters of Vincent van Gogh page 272)

It is three years since I republished this sequence of posts. The first time was triggered by the revelations about the rediscovered gun, which the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam thinks has an 80% chance of being the one with which he allegedly killed himself, and about van Gogh’s ear, as well as a Guardian long-read article by  on an exhibition of his work in Amsterdam. This time it is by my recent sequence of posts on Edvard Munch, whose art and ideas resonate so strongly with van Gogh’s, not least because of the emphasis they both placed on the idea of the soul. This is the first of five posts which will be posted every Monday over the next five weeks.

Getting a Feel for van Gogh

I am sitting in the sunlight at the dimpled glass garden table as I type. Its dappling effect seems to be clumsily mimicking the style of the man I am reflecting on right now. The white screen and shining metal of the laptop seem at odds with him and all he represented, all he most passionately believed in, and yet pounding on its keys is the closest I can get to an adequate response. Scribbling in my private diary didn’t seem enough.

IMG_2110I am almost twice the age at which he died, and have only fairly recently been conscious of my own death as something relatively close. As I sat on the flight to Amsterdam, I continued to read as much as I could of the Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh. I was quite glad of the plane’s computer malfunction before take off as it gave me another 45 minutes’ reading time.

In August 1883 he wrote to his younger brother, Theo (page 228):

For no particular reason, I cannot help adding a thought that occurs to me. Not only did I start drawing relatively late in life, but it may well be that I shall not be able to count on many more years of life either.

Given the shorter life spans of the 19th Century it is perhaps not surprising that a man who had just turned 30 should already be thinking about his death. Given what we know now, what he goes on to say is perhaps more uniquely poignant (page 228-29):

So, as to the time I still have ahead of me for work, I think I may safely presume that my body will hold up for a certain number of years quand bien même [in spite of everything] – a certain number between 6 and 10, say. (I can assume this the more safely as there is for the time being no immediate quand bien même.)

He is setting the context of his painting within these sobering constraints, which proved all too close to the mark. In just under seven short years’ time he was dead of a gun shot wound. (We’ll be coming back to that event later.) Theo died six months later, aged 33.

At the time of writing the letter, he feels that (ibid.) ‘within a few years I must have done a certain amount of work – I don’t need to rush, for there is no point in that but I must carry on working in complete calm and serenity, as regularly and with as much concentration as possible, as much to the point as possible.’

The intensity with which he feels what he writes is indicated by the underlining, which is his. He explains why this is so important to him: ‘The world concerns me only in as far as I owe it a certain debt and duty, so to speak, because I have walked this earth for 30 years, and out of gratitude would like to leave some memento in the form of drawings and paintings – not made to please this school or that, but to express a genuine human feeling.’

I was reading these words to get a feeling for the man even before I stood in front of his paintings in the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. And yet that is precisely what he seems to have wanted people to get from his paintings. He never meant to have his letters published. These were for the eyes of his brother, not the world.

The Myth, the Man and the Artist

My eventual experience in the museum, after queuing for two hours outside in an icy wind, illustrated allIMG_2113 too well how the myth gets in the way of the both the man and his art.

In the final room of the exhibition we caught up with a tour guide. She asked her group loudly, in front of his painting of the cornfield and the crows, ‘’How did van Gogh die?’

The predictable answer came back: ‘He shot himself.’

This same response I’d seen on the screen as we waited in the queue to come in. The same question – ‘How did van Gogh die? – flashed up with three answers to choose from (the wording may be slightly off as I didn’t write it down at the time):

  1. consumption;
  2. heart attack; or
  3. he shot himself in a cornfield.

After a few seconds the third answer darkened to indicate it was the correct one.

‘That’s right,’ the tour guide confidently responded: ‘He shot himself.’

‘No, he didn’t,’ my mind screamed back. ‘He was accidentally shot by a local lad.’ I’m not sure whether it was cowardice or consideration for her obviously pregnant and already stressed state that caused me to swallow my words.

‘This,’ she went on,’ pointing to the cornfield painting, ‘was his last picture.’

‘No, it wasn’t,’ shouted my head. ‘The last painting was of the tree roots.’ The passionate pedant in me was seething by this stage.

‘Why was he so poor, d’you think?’ she asked her enraptured audience.

Dissatisfied with the answers on offer she provided her solution. ‘He was the first artist ever to work outside the box, be completely original.’ The pedant in my head was reduced to the unprintable by this stage, though words such as Turner and Rembrandt amongst many others can be safely reproduced here. If the mould-breaking Impressionists had not made such an impression on him we’d have none of the late van Goghs.

As I moved away in mental melt down, hoping that no one would notice the steam coming out of my ears, I heard her say, ‘He only sold one painting in his entire life,’ and ‘No, he didn’t,’ exploded inside my brain.

VG book stackAs we explored the gift shop downstairs I saw on sale the very same book in which Naifeh and White Smith explain in detail their carefully researched evidence that calls into question the suicide myth (more detail in the next post). Doesn’t the museum read the books it sells?

My mind was also ringing with memories of a statement in the Letters, which I’d read in bed the previous evening indicating that he did make a few sales in his lifetime (page 168):

Van Gogh, about whom the myth persists that he sold just one work in his lifetime, received 20 guilders from his uncle C. M. in Prisenhage for a batch of drawings.

I had to admit though, when I had calmed down, that selling drawings to your uncle isn’t exactly making a breakthrough into the art market, no matter what de Leeuw, the editor of the letters, seems to think it is.

The simple blacks and whites of the myth are far more profitable of course than the muddled and muddied colours of his reality.

However, as I read my way through the account in his letters of his years of struggle with his art, I came to understand far more clearly what he felt he was about as an artist, and I believe that gave me a greater ability to experience the paintings as he meant me to than I would otherwise have had. It also kept the simplistic myths firmly at bay.

Inside his Mind

Let me unpack that a bit.

At one level my grasp of his intentions is pretty superficial. I was delighted to read (pages 311-12):

Van Gogh decided to concentrate on portraits . . . . In this field, he resolved to surpass photography, which, he felt, remained lifeless at all times, while ‘painted portraits have a life of their own, which springs straight from the painter’s soul and which no machine can approach.’

I got a buzz out of seeing van Gogh use the same image as I have borrowed ever since from my reading of McGilchrist to convey basically the same idea: when we submit simply to left-brain machine mode without reference to the holistic and organic richness of the right-brain process we have sold our souls.

Van Gogh is also indicating that he is close to Myers’s territory as explored by the Kellys in Irreducible Mind. There is a transcendent dimension to consciousness, which we must take care not to betray. Rather we should use conscious control to help us access it. He refers to this kind of approach in various places (page 272):

. . . art is something which, though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man’s soul, while much of the proficiency and technical expertise associated with art reminds me of what would be called self righteousness in religion.

His shift from religion to art as a vocation is perhaps partly explained by the strained relationships he had with his parents and their generation This split was forming even before his unwelcome passion for his cousin, which alienated his uncle, and his even more testing liaison in 1882 with Sien Hoornik, a pregnant prostitute, which torpedoed his links with his father, at least for the time being. In about 1879 his father had threatened to have him incarcerated in a mental institution in Gheel, and it was probably at this time that van Gogh changed from practising preacher to aspiring painter. He was seeking to break free of his cage (page 74):

I am caged, I am caged, and you say I need nothing, you idiots! I have everything I need, indeed! Oh, please give me the freedom to be a bird like other birds.

His final religious disconnect was clearly with the church rather than with spirituality, and art for him would always seem to be a spiritual practice. Dogmatism, simplification and hypocrisy remained anathema to him.

This did not mean that his paintings would be abstract and ethereal. He wanted to remain rooted in recognisable reality (page 223-24):

I find Breitner’s stuff objectionable because the imagination behind it is clumsy and meaningless and has virtually no contact with reality.

What maps his thinking even more closely onto the Myers perspective is his sense that disorder in art relates to disorder in the mind of the artist. Speaking of work he does not like he writes: ‘I look on it as the result of a spell of ill-health.’ He speaks of Breitner’s ‘coffee-house existence’ which creates a ‘growing fog of confusion,’ and of his having been ‘feverish,’ producing things which were ‘impossible and meaningless as in the most preposterous dream.’ Van Gogh felt that:

Imperceptibly he has strayed far from a composed and rational view things, and so long as this nervous exhaustion persists he will be unable to produce a single composed, sensible line or brushstroke.

The ‘subliminal uprush,’ as Myers would term it, needs conscious organisation to make the best of it.

Van Gogh also speculated (page 349) whether his ‘neurosis’ had a dual origin, first and foremost his ‘rather too artistic way of life’ but also possibly in part his ‘inescapable heritage,’ which he shared with his brother.

He did though see a value in suffering (page 285):

I can tell you that this year is bound to be very grim. But I keep thinking of what Millet said, ‘Je ne veux point supprimer la souffrance, car souvent c’est elle, qui fait s’exprimer le plus énergiquement les artistes.’ [‘I would never do away with suffering, for it is often what makes artists express themselves most forcefully.’

He also felt burdened at times by his work as an artist (page 355):

One knows one is a cab horse, and that one is going to be hitched up to the same old cab again – and that one would rather not, and would prefer to live in a meadow, with sunshine, a river, other horses for company free as oneself, and the act of procreation.

He trusted at the same time that the sacrifices would be worth it (ibid.):

There is an art of the future, and it will be so lovely and so young that even if we do give up our youth for it, we can only gain in serenity by it.

Thursday’s post will begin to examine in more detail both what van Gogh thought painting should be about, and also the issue of whether he died by his own hand or someone else’s.

IMG_2305

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Another asked why the teachings of all religions are expressed largely by parables and metaphors and not in the plain language of the people.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá replied:—“Divine things are too deep to be expressed by common words. The heavenly teachings are expressed in parable in order to be understood and preserved for ages to come. When the spiritually minded dive deeply into the ocean of their meaning they bring to the surface the pearls of their inner significance. There is no greater pleasure than to study God’s Word with a spiritual mind.”

(From ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in London – pages 79-80)

We stopped last time at the point where Lakoff and Johnson in their book Metaphors We Live By mention the metaphor of the mind as a machine.

This idea, and the more pervasive variations of the mechanical model of life, the universe and everything, could not help but call to mind Iain McGilchrist and his brilliant analysis in The Master & his Emissary.The conclusion he reaches that most matters 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.

It is ironic, in the light of this discussion, that mechanistic reductionists, who mostly dismiss poetry as flaky, probably don’t even notice most of the time that they are using metaphor, that key poetic device, to describe their view of the world, with all the reservations about objectivity that this should imply. More on that later.

The other metaphor Lakoff and Johnson mention is equally pervasive (page 29)

. . . Metaphors like THE MIND IS A BRITTLE OBJECT are an integral part of the model of the mind that we have in this culture; it is the model most of us think and operate in terms of.

And seeing our mind as an ‘object’ has other implications that they pick up on later when they write (page 58): ‘We experience ourselves as entities, separate from the rest of the world – as containers with an inside and an outside.’ This cuts across the sense of connectedness that more accurately captures our real situation.

They explore in considerable detail how metaphors are elaborated into coherent and complex systems (page 71):

All such metaphors imply further elaborations which can be experienced as a gestalt, a ‘complex of properties occurring together’ which is ‘basic to our experience.’

So far they had focused primarily on metaphors used so frequently we never experience them as imagery at all. Later they go on to consider the power of creatively generating different metaphors (page 139):

We would like to suggest that new metaphors makes sense of our experience in the same way conventional metaphors do.

But with interesting consequences.

They illustrate this by offering an alternative metaphor to describe problems. They are not puzzles which have a single solution which, once found, fixes the problem forever. They are more like elements in a chemical brew (page 144):

To live by the CHEMICAL metaphor would be to accept it as a fact that no problem ever disappears forever. Rather than direct your energies towards solving your problems once and for all, you would direct your energies towards finding out what catalysts will dissolve your most pressing problems for the longest time without precipitating the worst ones.… we see this as a clear case of the power of metaphor to create a reality . . .

They acknowledge that it would not be easy to integrate a radically different metaphor into our default operating system (page 145):

So much of our unconscious everyday activity is structured in terms of the PUZZLE metaphor that we could not possibly make a quick or easy change to the chemical metaphor on the basis of a conscious decision.

The impact of the metaphors we use extends beyond abstract issues such as how we approach problems (page 146):

Not surprisingly, the social reality defined by a culture affects its conception of physical reality. What is real for an individual as a member of a culture is a product both of his social reality and of the way in which that shapes his experience of the physical world.

They also affect how we behave (page 156):

Metaphors may create realities for us, especially social realities. A metaphor may thus be a guide for future action. Such actions will, of course, fit the metaphor. This will, in turn, reinforce the power of the metaphor to make experience coherent. In this sense metaphors can be self-fulfilling prophecies.

And that is a key point, which makes the idea that we might need to modify our metaphors sometimes hard to access.

Power differentials don’t help (page 157) because ‘whether in national politics or in everyday interaction, people in power get to impose their metaphors.’

Basically, (page 158) ‘In all aspects of life, not just in politics or in love, we define our reality in terms of metaphors and then proceed to act on the basis of the metaphors,’ and in consequence (page 159) ‘. . . truth is always relative to a conceptual system that is defined in large part by metaphor.’

Which may explain why Pilate did not stay for an answer. As with most people trapped in a cultural trance there was no other truth worth considering, if there was any truth at all.

Personal Mythology by David Feinstein and Stanley Krippner covers similar ground using different terminology. I’ll deal with that more briefly. In her introduction June Singer writes (page xi):

If we are unacquainted with the contents of our personal mythology we are carried by it unconsciously, with the result that we confuse what exists objectively in the world with the image of the world supplied to us by our own distorted lenses.

The authors reinforce the same point right from the start (page 1):

Your personal mythology acts as a lens that colours your perceptions according to its own assumptions and values. It highlights certain possibilities and shadows others.

They express more forcefully the dubious effects of blindly following our myths (page 6):

The myths operating in modern societies tend to support material progress and the control of nature, rather than the attunement and participation with natural cycles that characterize more classical mythologies.

Metaphors We Live By also brings in the concept of myth late in their treatment of the issue (pages 185-86):

Myths provide ways of comprehending experience: they give order to our lives. Like metaphors, myths are necessary for making sense of what goes on around us. All cultures have myths, and people cannot function without myth any more than they can function without metaphor.

They clearly share my earlier expressed distrust of those who feel they can access absolute truth with no sense they are also operating from the perspective of a myth (page 186):

The myth of objectivism is particularly insidious in this way. Not only does it purport not to be a myth, but it makes both myths and metaphors objects of belittlement and scorn…

They also have reservations about objectivism’s opposite, subjectivism (page 188-192), and feel there is a need for a third way to avoid the deficiencies of both. They call this ‘experientialist synthesis’ (page 192 passim). They contend that metaphor ‘unites reason and imagination,’ an idea that is music to my ears. They echo McGilchrist in saying (page 193):

Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally; our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness.

In the end, they feel that (page 233) ‘much of self-understanding involves consciously recognising previously unconscious metaphors and how we live by them’ and ‘engaging in an unending process of viewing your life through new alternative metaphors.’

So Why Dreamwork?

It seems to me that dreamwork is important because it is likely to be the most readily available signpost to show the nature of our own subliminally seductive metaphors. Not until we recognise them can we make wise and conscious decisions to replace them with more constructive ones. Also dreams are rich in suggestions about what metaphors we might be wiser to choose instead as part of our operating system.

Take for example my recent dream about playing squash, which I think was a message from my dreaming mind to confirm I was consolidating the change of direction that was first triggered decades ago with my Dancing Flames dream, one that sent a strong message that I needed to blend more poetry into my life and take my foot of the mechanistic accelerator that was driving too much of what I did as I combined a fulltime job with studying psychology part-time.

The dream was short and initially seemed quite baffling.

Two of us are playing squash with forks for rackets and a boiled egg in its shell for a shuttlecock. I do a really hard return and the egg bounces back off the squash court wall broken and coming out of its shell.

Interestingly, some of my associations took me back to Birkbeck and studying psychology there, which suggests the theme is related to the same conflict or dilemma as before. I haven’t played squash more than about twice since I stopped studying psychology. Court had implications of prison. Squash could relate to suppression. I concluded that the dream was very forcefully pointing out how NOT to do things. An apparently exciting, even seemingly enjoyable but ultimately sterile competitive game is shown for what it really is. Given A Walk in the Park, the poem I wrote recently, it was perhaps not surprising that an association with egg took me straight to Magritte’s painting Perspicacity, an object lesson in creativity and how to do it better.

I’m not quite sure why my dreaming mind felt it necessary to remind me of this right now, as I’m not aware of being under the competitive pressure of exams any more, though the todo treadmill remains a problem. It was clear though that letting such pressures impinge too heavily is incompatible with the kind of reflective creativity I value highly.

Another dream I had on the same night seemed to point in the same direction.

I am holding a long set of wooden portable drawers which I clutch/clasp close to stop the drawers opening and the contents spilling out.

When I was originally thinking about this image I used the expression ‘nest of drawers’ as something smaller than a chest of drawers, not that chest is irrelevant, given that it contains the heart. I Googled it and realised this phrase was not the right expression in terms of conventional usage. So, for a time I backed off from the dream in puzzlement and couldn’t really work out what it meant.

But of course this image is my symbol and the word nest is a key to unlocking its significance. I can call it what I like.

So I did.

The nest of drawers is where my creative ideas incubate. I store all the fertile material I discover in these drawers, and at the right time they produce something original of value. I’m mainly a reader. Paper lays the eggs that hatch in my heart. I noted in my dream diary that ‘a full understanding of this dream depends upon the squash dream.’

This was an important realisation because the time it takes eggs to incubate from laying to hatching is considerable. It takes trust and patience to keep them warm and close enough for the bird of a new insight to emerge. Sometimes, perhaps too often, I give up on them too soon.

In terms of dreams, there is also a post on this blog that records how a dream directed me to a deeper understanding of what the word ‘heart’ means in terms of personal development. It was perhaps triggered by my prolonged exploration of what Bahá’u’lláh meant by his phrase ‘the understanding heart.’ I feel that this provides a useful example of how shifting the metaphors we use can make a radical difference to how we take action to tackle the need for personal change. I will be re-blogging this sequence in the coming days.

This clearly indicates that dreams are of course not the only source of life-enhancing metaphors that we can use to replace our default ones. Take for example this quote from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá which I’ve described elsewhere on this blog as completely overturning my existing paradigm (Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 316-317):

. . . . 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.

I had spent so much of my life thinking bottom up about this issue that the idea of working top down seemed initially absurd. There wasn’t a top to work down from in the first place, as far as I saw it to begin with. The brain made the mind, and that was it. Consciousness was an epiphenomenon, just a side-effect of the brain’s complexity, or at best an emergent property, an unexpected and not quite explicable benefit that we would learn to explain in the end.

Although I absolutely trusted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to be stating what he knew to be true and, because of all that I had read about his life, I believed that what he thought was true was more likely to be so than my version, I realised that this was something that required a thorough investigation of the empirical evidence if I was to bring my sceptical head on board alongside my accepting heart. It took several years of intense investigation before my head came fully on board with these metaphors – the light from a lamp or the fruit of a tree, where both lamp and tree are immaterial, spiritual.

Doing so changed the whole way I approach many aspects of the human predicament, not only in terms of death, and of illnesses which lock the person away behind walls of poor communication, but also in terms of understanding the full extent of our connectedness with other human beings and with nature – it was a life transforming shift.

Either way, whether through dreams, poetry, art or spiritual writings, I am in no doubt that recognising the metaphors we live by and learning to enhance them is a key skill to develop.

I’m pretty sure there will be more about that on this blog in the course of time.

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The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

[I]n turning inward, Dickinson gained unique insights into the human psyche.

(Pollak and Noble in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson,page 45)

The Passion of Emily Dickinson 

As I indicated at the end of the last post, I am looking at another book this time. Unlike Gilbert and Gubar, with their focus on patriarchy in The Mad Woman in the Attic, Judith Farr, in her book The Passion of Emily Dickinson,spends most of her time in the first two thirds of her book unpicking delicate strands of evidence to help us guestimate to whom some of Emily Dickinson’s poems were addressed.

Though fascinating from a biographical point of view, whether Emily Dickinson was writing a poem to Sue or to the Master doesn’t really matter to most of us as aficionados of her work. For us, what counts is to be able to allow the poem to impact as strongly as possible on our consciousness through the lens of our current understanding. Admittedly sometimes biographical details can shed light upon the meaning of poem: but all too often they constitute a veil between it and us. A great poem almost always transcends even the writer’s conscious intentions and understanding. That’s what makes it great. If anyone can capture all its meaning in words it might as well have been written in prose.

For these reasons, I am skipping over the whole of the first part of her book and homing in on where I feel most at home, with what Farr has to say about Emily Dickinson as poet of the interior in relation to time, nature and eternity.

The beginning of this exploration comes at page 247 when Farr writes:

She did have a poetic ‘project,’ and throughout her oeuvre it is perceptible. This was to depict ‘Eternity in Time.’

She continues (pages 247-48):

[H]er feelings result in a radiant conception of immortal life. . . . There is nothing morbid about this dream vision. … It is love, and the painful longing issuing from it, that gave Dickinson her vision of eternity. . . If Dickinson’s poetic productivity largely ceased after 1868, the reason had to do with the assimilation of her two great passions for Sue and for Master.

I will come on later in more details as to why I think this is yet another over-simplification of why she may have fallen away from her peak after the mid-1860s.[1]I’m not denying though that love and loss were part of the grit that helped form the pearls of her poetry. I concur with Farr when she writes (page 251):

[S]he had to grieve before she could continue to develop (and the grief was itself a means of developing).

Pollak refers (page 6) to ‘Dickinson’s incremental knowledge of the house of pain.’

Her love of poetry and her perception of its links with love, as we have already noted contrasted with her loathing of domestic chores (page 255):

Her prevailing conception of love inspiring art enables Dickinson to write her final sentences. There eternity is felt in time, and its sea is linked to her work.… Her vision was of the next world next to her as she did her housework, all that baking, canning, cleaning, and sewing so balefully recorded in her letters.

Nature was crucial to her, as it had been to the Brontës and to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, because for her (page 294) ‘nature offers clues about infinity.’ This was even to the extent that (page 302):

The horizon was a point of order for landscape painters like Church. For poets like Dickinson, it was the point of fusion of this world and the next.

Which finally brings me to two specific poems.

This is the first, an intensely powerful poem of sacrificial separation.

There came a Day at Summer’s full,
Entirely for me—
I thought that such were for the Saints,
Where Resurrections—be—

The Sun, as common, went abroad,
The flowers, accustomed, blew,
As if no soul the solstice passed
That maketh all things new

The time was scarce profaned, by speech—
The symbol of a word
Was needless, as at Sacrament,
The Wardrobe—of our Lord—

Each was to each The Sealed Church,
Permitted to commune this—time—
Lest we too awkward show
At Supper of the Lamb.

The Hours slid fast—as Hours will,
Clutched tight, by greedy hands—
So faces on two Decks, look back,
Bound to opposing lands—

And so when all the time had leaked,
Without external sound
Each bound the Other’s Crucifix—
We gave no other Bond—

Sufficient troth, that we shall rise—
Deposed—at length, the Grave—
To that new Marriage,
Justified—through Calvaries of Love—

Farr writes (pages 305-06) that, while being on the one hand plighting ‘troth on earth,’ it also records a quasi-religious ‘ceremony or compact of renunciation.’ She summarises it by saying:

This may have looked like an ‘accustomed’ sunny day when her flowers bloomed as usual, but it has marked her own movement from spring to summer: from girlhood to womanhood, from the old life to the sacred new one.

Nature is here contrasted with the spiritual by its ignorance of the day’s significance, its beauty notwithstanding. While her hope for her love’s fulfillment in the afterlife is its main theme, there is the implication that this separation is at least part of the crucible for her future poetry.

Before moving onto the next poem I want to quote in full, I need to refer briefly to two others: ‘I cannot live without You’ and ‘Behind Me – dips Eternity.’ As Farr explains (page 308) the first poem is important because it is describing ‘the surrender of a love that is morally forbidden.’ This is one of the sources of the grief referred to earlier. The second is important for present purposes because the opening stanza captures vividly her fusion of nature and eternity:

Behind Me– dips Eternity –
Before Me – Immortality –
Myself – the Term between –
Death but the Drift of Eastern Gray,
Dissolving into Dawn away,
Before the West begin –

Farr goes into much detail about how the Luminist paintings of Frederick Edwin Church and Thomas Cole, with which Emily Dickinson was deeply familiar, play on these tropes. I will shortly be coming onto how nature and women were similarly seen, and in my view still continue to be seen, as objects of exploitation during this period and beyond.

It’s probably also worth including here Eberwein’s view, expressed in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson (page 79), that ‘For Emily Dickinson, then, the essence of religious experience remained in that haunting question, “Is immortality true?”’

Capturing the Inscape

I now need to illustrate the other powerful capacity her poems have: to capture inner states. It will also serve as a useful pointer towards the next book I’ll be considering: Lives like Loaded Guns.

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things gives a powerful account, similar to the one in John Fitzgerald Medina’s Faith, Physics & Psychology, of the so-called Enlightenment’s rapacious attitude to nature, expressed all too often in sexual terms. Patel and Moore write (page 53):

The second law of capitalist ecology, domination over nature, owed much to Francis Bacon (1561–1626)… He argued that “science should as it were torture nature’s secrets out of her.’ Further, the ‘empire of man’ should penetrate and dominate the “womb of nature.“

For them, ‘The binaries of Man and Woman, Nature and Society, drank from the same cup.’ I think their meaning would have been more faithfully represented if they had written ‘Society and Nature’ in that order. Even so their point is reasonably clear.

They share Medina’s distrust for our Cartesian legacy (page 54):

[H]ere was an intellectual movement that shaped not only ways of thinking but also ways of conquering, commodifying and living. This Cartesian revolution accomplished four major transformations, each shaping our view of Nature and Society to this day. First, either–or binary thinking displaced both–and alternatives. Second, it privileged thinking about substances, things, before thinking about the relationships between those substances. Third, it installed the domination of nature through science as a social good.

Finally, the Cartesian revolution made thinkable, and doable, the colonial project of mapping and domination.

This maps onto McGilchrist’s thinking about left-brain and right-brain differences and how the holistic, intuitive and empathic processes of our minds, which were in the past sometimes dismissively referred to as ‘feminine,’ and which tune into the ambiguous subtlety of reality, have been misguidedly subordinated to those arrogantly over-confident, logical, serial and linguistic processes, which hopelessly oversimplify reality and are sometimes complacently referred to as ‘masculine.’

I agree that Emily Dickinson, though she ultimately transcended them, was shaped by these crude ideological forces within a capitalist nonegalitarian culture that sees nature and humanity (women and ‘natives’ particularly) instrumentally, as thingsto be exploited for some kind of purely material advantage, rather than as beings to be valued for their own sake and nurtured with love and respect. As the Universal House of Justice has pointed out in The Promise of World Peace, capitalism is as flawed as communism, because both are equally materialistic ideologies:

The time has come when those who preach the dogmas of materialism, whether of the east or the west, whether of capitalism or socialism, must give account of the moral stewardship they have presumed to exercise.

That Dickinson was able to retreat from these repressive pressures into Vesuvial creativity is both a blessing to her, that helped compensate for her pain, and a gift to us now as we confront our generation’s variants of a toxic culture. She can inspire us to also strive to turn our pain in the face of abuses into creativity.

Her social isolation, a characteristic that fascinates me as my Solitarios sequence testifies, may have brought at least one other crucial benefit, beyond giving her creativity space to flourish in a general sense. It may have made her more sensitively attuned to her inscape than most of us will ever be.

I heard a Fly buzz– when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

Not only is this one of my favourite Emily Dickinson poems, but it is a significant one as we begin to transition to Lives like Loaded Guns. Farr pins down its crucial characteristic (page 310): ‘In such poems Emily Dickinson investigates the nature of consciousness by analysing its recession.’ As many people know it’s not the only one. Most famously there is also ‘I felt a funeral in my brain.’ More of that later.

Why she should be so interested in recessions of consciousness, Farr does not explain except in terms of her interest in death. She apparently called her poems (page 328) ‘bulletins from immortality.’

In the next post we will begin to close in on where all these ideas are leading.

Footnote

[1]. Between 1861, the year the American Civil War started, and 1865, the year it ended, she wrote something in the region of 936 of her 1789 poems, ie 52%. She was writing at an approximate rate of 187 poems per year. After the war was over, her average rate was 32 poems per year. That may not, though, have been the only factor.

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After all this whinging about what Peterson has written it’s about time I tried to explain what it all looks like to me.

What do I think?

I’m not sure yet whether all I have said undermines his basic argument.

I am still struggling to articulate exactly how I would develop a model to bring it closer to what I experience as reality. In a way, I am grateful to him for having pushed me to think more deeply about this issue, even though I am uneasy about a basic aspect of his model.

Anyhow this is how my thinking goes so far. And in case any of you need to know I’m handing over the writing of this to my right-brain, which, when I have the patience to listen to it on such matters, is almost always right.

First things first. I firmly believe that labels, dichotomies and categories, when employed in the social or cultural field are almost always not only false, but potentially fatal. I am not saying this as a reward to my right-brain for having had the patience to let my left-brain bang on about everything it’s read on the subject for the last ten years. My left-brain believes it too, but can’t always act on it in the heat of the moment. It’s so much easier to slap a sticky label over the complexity of social experience: it makes deciding what to do so much quicker and easier.

So, you can see why I’m so uncomfortable when I feel that Peterson, in spite of all the good things he says, seems to be happily dwelling in the land of opposites. If he was distancing himself from the categorising tendency he ascribes to our interpretation of the world, instead of seeming to be contentedly identifying with it, I’d be more inclined to agree with him. Yes, he sees its limitations, but seems to feel that it is an inescapable feature of our perception of the world, one which we have to be aware of, and adapt to, even if we need to soften its hard edges, if we are to function wisely in the world.

He seems to have decided, perhaps not consciously, to live in the left-brain world of, to use McGilchrist’s words I quoted earlier, ‘language, logic and linearity.’ He doesn’t seem to entertain, at least in the first half of the book, the possibility that we could give more space in our perspective to the paradoxical and ambiguous take on the world of the right-hemisphere as McGilchrist describes it. This suggests to me that the part of his analysis, which contrasts chaos and order so definitively, is buying into the left-brain’s perceptual bias in favour of categories.

He does eventually produce an admission of the dangerous weakness of the left-brain approach (page 217):

The capacity of the rational mind to deceive, manipulate, scheme, trick, falsify, minimise, mislead, betray, prevaricate, deny, omit, rationalise, bias, exaggerate and obscure is so endless, so remarkable, centuries of prescientific thought, concentrating on clarifying the nature of moral endeavour, regarded it as positively demonic. This is not because of rationality itself, as a process. That process can produce clarity and progress. It is because rationality is subject to the single worst temptation – to raise what it knows now to the status of an absolute.

However, he reverts, in my view, to overstating the value of words again later (page 281):

The past can be redeemed, when reduced by precise language to its essence. The present can flow by without robbing the future if its realities are spoken out clearly. With careful thought and language, the singular, stellar destiny that justifies existence can be extracted from the multitude of murky and unpleasant futures that are far more likely to manifest themselves of their own accord.

An ‘essence’ or ‘stellar destiny’ of any kind is more elusive than that. Peterson’s lack of coherence in the presentation of his ideas sometimes allows him to believe that he can have his cake and eat it too. Believing language can accurately capture the essence of experience is one of the things that can lead to our succumbing to the temptation of believing that what we know is the absolute truth.

Again I need to acknowledge that an earlier discussion on genuine conversation (pages 253-56) illustrates how we can enhance our understanding by the use of words, rather in the same manner as I would argue can be done by consultation, in the Bahá’í sense of that word.

In addition, I must add that what the right-brain would see as beautiful, if we let it, comes to seem scary rather than promising when the left-brain dominates with too little restraint. As McGilchrist puts it: ‘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.’

Only when we refuse to categorise, and can rise to the challenge of absorbing the blending of parts that is reality, can we have any hope of accessing the truth. Not a possibility Peterson seems to recognise. Without linguistic analysis, he claims (page 282): ‘Everything will bleed into everything else. This makes the world too complex to be managed.’

I feel the right-brain can make a better fist of grasping the blended complexity of reality than he allows for. Einstein, after all, describes how he sensed the truths that he was groping for, at first as almost kinaesthetic shapes in his mind or as a kind of music: ‘If… I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music.’

In consequence, I even think that not just our social world, but developments in modern post-Newtonian science are forcing us to accept this as a fundamental characteristic of reality. Flux, unpredictability and ambiguity confront us the more deeply we seek to penetrate below the surface of our world. Machado captures this brilliantly when he says: ‘cambian la mar y el monte y el ojo que los mira’ (sea and mountain change, as does the eye that sees them’ – quoted in Xon de Ros The Poetry of Antonio Machado, page 5). If we refuse to let the way we see change, we will never see the world as it is, only as we think it should be. Seeing the world more as it is may be scary, but it’s not chaos, and it need not be dangerous.

One thinker quotes convincing evidence to confirm that this fluidity and chaos underpins not just quantum matter but our biology as well. Jonah Lehrer writes in Proust was a Neuroscientist (page 47):

Molecular biology, confronted with the unruliness of life, is also forced to accept chaos. Just as physics discovered the indeterminate quantum world – a discovery that erased classical notions about the fixed reality of time and space – so biology is uncovering the unknowable mess at its core. Life is built on an edifice randomness.

It seems we can’t escape it.

What needs to change is our attitude to what our analytical mind, with its fixation on the maps it already has, finds disturbing. If we can trust our flexible right-brain intuitions more, what is new to us will feel less scary, and we will also tune in earlier to subtle shifts in the familiar, which are telegraphing imminent change, in a way that will help us deal with it more effectively. What I am striving for a lot of the time is to let my right-brain lead when I have to process complexity. After that, I need to integrate what it shows me into my left-brain maps without distorting or discounting anything essential.

Much of our way of seeing, when we use the categorising tendency that Peterson both critiques and yet accepts as somehow inevitable, creates avoidable problems, even becomes toxic, lethal. More of that in a moment.

I am not convinced that replacing categories with dimensions will in the end be a completely satisfactory way of interpreting the world. For a start it’s hard to use the difference between the known and the unknown as ends of a dimension anymore than to see it as indicating two categories.

I have concluded, as I explained earlier, that knowing/unknowing are not identical, as Peterson seems to think, with chaos and order, which I am also saying may not be so easily distinguished either. This is because knowing and not knowing are characteristics of consciousness. The diagram on the left attempts to express that relationship.

The dotted line around the edge of the known indicates my sense that the boundary, if there is one, is at best fluid. How do we deal with the forgotten – what was once known, is now not consciously remembered and yet almost certainly subliminally influences how we see the world and how we react to it?

The dark area around the outer circle is meant to represent where physical consciousness of any kind ends – death if you like. Even this needs a dotted line, I think, given my belief that physical consciousness is not all there is. As I have explored that at length elsewhere, I’ve decided not to go there in this sequence which is already long enough, and I have to keep my left-brain quiet long enough to finish even this much.

If we accept for now that thinking in terms of dimensions is legitimate, there are at least two categories of dimension active here, within the zones, if that is the right word, of knowing and unknowing. One concerns perceived reality, which stretches along a dimension relating to order and disorder between the extremes of order on the one hand, which can become tyranny, and on the other of chaos, which can be creative. The other dimension concerns the preference pattern of the mind that interacts with those perceived possibilities: among many other possibilities, in addition to the holistic and analytical I’ve already touched on, there will be risk-takers and risk avoiders, as Peterson makes clear he is aware towards the end of his book. Please hold in mind my fundamental scepticism about the need to accept that we have to split reality up, either in terms of order/disorder or degrees of risk taking, whether as dimensions or categories. Let’s accept for now that they hold good up to a point.

A risk-taker will delight in what they experience as the excitement of what the risk-avoider will see as the dangers of chaos, and conversely will feel stifled by the perceived order a risk-avoider thrives in.

It is important to note that perception is indeed an unavoidable mediator of all these interactions between reality and consciousness. I don’t think Peterson attaches sufficient importance to the flexibility of perception, and even fails to consider the possibility of its using dimensions rather than discrete categories. Nowhere that I’ve read so far does he deal with the possibility that we could potentially transcend even dimensional thinking when it is necessary to do so, either because it ceases to be useful or becomes potentially dangerous. Left-brain perception is his default mode, just as much as it is that of our culture. The rich potential of right-brain perception, in spite of the value he clearly sets on myths (reduced though to his left-brain interpretations of his selection from them), doesn’t really feature.

Why should we exert ourselves to go against our left-brain tendencies? They’ve lifted us out of the middle ages. Why can’t they lift us further?

That’s a complex issue, parts of which I’ve addressed at length elsewhere on this blog in terms of altruism, compassion and civilisation building.

In the light of the various references I quoted in the earlier two posts in the context of why human beings can perpetrate such evil, I’m going to focus briefly on why labelling, a left-brain temptation with emotional consequences, is so toxic.

Graph of the Model that states Psychosis is on a continuum with Normal Functioning (Source: The route to psychosis by Dr Emmanuelle Peters)

I have worked for more than thirty years in mental health. I have seen at close quarters the costs and benefits of diagnostic labels. Yes, getting the label of schizophrenia will open the door to the benefits system and give you access at least to some form of drug treatment. But drugs are a double-edged sword as I have discussed before. One edge can, if the patient is lucky, cut through the tormenting ropes woven around the mind by derogatory voices, but the other edge all too often clouds any clarity of thought and stupefies the mind. The diagnosis also carries, as so many labels do, a heavy weight of social stigma, which all too often more than outweighs any benefits. It’s far better, in my view, to look at the person as a whole, and tackle the more complex question of what these so-called psychotic experiences mean, and where their roots are in the felt life of the person.

Other labels are often at least as bad if not worse: abnormal, disabled, backward, black, unclean, alien, outsider, mad, cockroach, sewer rat, immigrant – the list is potentially endless.

If we see ourselves as in the normal, able, white, clean, insider, sane, human, legitimate citizen category, we can smugly comfort ourselves that we deserve all the good things we have whereas these people don’t and perhaps even couldn’t. It’s very cosy. It gives us no motivation to change anything. It even justifies to us in our own minds taking steps to protect what we are and what we have from ‘contamination’ or destruction, even if that means harming other people perceived as coming from any of those completely false categories. It wouldn’t take long, given the right circumstances, to tipple over into enthusiastic eugenics or even forms of genocide. We can see these toxic options unfolding around us even now.

Using only our left-brain analytic mind it is hard for us to experience the world except in such categorising ways. Yet, experiencing the world holistically is exactly what we have to do, especially in terms of our perceptions of our fellow human beings, and also the life-world around us. Labels won’t work if we’re going to survive. We are interconnected. In fact we are in essence one family, even one huge multi-minded entity. Only by operationalising this insight can we transcend this problem. And I think, from the evidence I’ve quoted earlier in this sequence, it’s not just Bahá’ís that see it this way.

View of the Terraces above the Shrine of the Báb on Mount Carmel, Haifa

We believe that this will not be an easy vision to bring into reality. The Universal House of Justice, our central body, wrote in a letter to Bahá’ís of Iran (2 March 2013 – my emphasis):

The rejection of deeply ingrained prejudices and a growing sense of world citizenship are among the signs of [a] heightened awareness. Yet, however promising the rise in collective consciousness may be, it should be seen as only the first step of a process that will take decades—nay, centuries—to unfold. For the principle of the oneness of humankind, as proclaimed by Bahá’u’lláh, asks not merely for cooperation among people and nations. It calls for a complete reconceptualization of the relationships that sustain society.

The bar is raised very high, as the Universal House of Justice explained to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the Shrine and Terraces project there on 24th May 2001:

Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower individual believers and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to the Day of God and to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

Not for nothing do they describe it as the work of centuries, and Paul Lample, clarifying this is not just the work of the Bahá’í community, writes (Revelation and Social Reality – page 48):

Generation after generation of believers will strive to translate the teachings into a new social reality… It is not a project in which Baha’is engage apart from the rest of humanity.

The diagram at the bottom of this post seeks to represent the magnitude of the task we face, moving as we must from the self-centred and short-term processing our bodies are programmed for, to the transcendent vision of our ultimate goal, far in the future though it may be, of a united humanity working together in harmony.

We acknowledge that religion has been and sometimes still is an obstacle in the path. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, anticipating by at least six decades Robert Wright’s caveat quoted in the first post, made it quite clear that ‘religion must be conducive to love and unity among mankind; for if it be the cause of enmity and strife, the absence of religion is preferable.’ (Promulgation of Universal Peacepage 128).

Treading this long and difficult road will involve resolving conflicts within us as well as between us. Most of us are still divided selves, as Bahá’u’lláh indicated (Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 163):

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union. The Great Being saith: O well-beloved ones! The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.

And the way forward, we believe, lies in recognising a higher and inspiring source of value that will help us lift our game in a way that can be sustained over centuries. For us that is God (From Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 76):

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

For others, such as Rifkin, it is awareness of the supreme importance of preserving our planetary homeland.

Whatever the source of our inspiration, it has to bring the warring selves within us into harmony before we can create a truly peaceful world. Whatever the value is that we find, it has to be a very powerfully motivating one, but essentially benign nonetheless. It must not replicate the self-righteous crusading we can still see around us, which believes that if you are not for us we can kill you.

A commonly used phrase captures an important aspect of this vision: unity in diversity. It allows for perceived differences within an essential unity, but does not fossilise them or make them an excuse for discrimination.

I am fairly sure that Peterson would not disagree, at least, with this sense of our common humanity, and the imperative need confronting us to recognise and act upon it. Because he comes from a Christian perspective, I’m sure he would recognise the importance of God as well.

I hope I have not been attacking a straw man in all this. Even if I have, I hope I managed to avoid placing him in a separate category of human being from my more enlightened self. In many ways he seems to have thought more deeply than I have about whole aspects of this problem, and I owe him a debt of gratitude for forcing me to think more deeply about my own model of the world.

Oh, and in case you hadn’t realised, his book, 12 Rules for Life, though its over-assertive and somewhat divisive in tone, confusingly organised, very left-brain in most of its language and at times testingly macho in style, has flashes of insight that might make it worth reading despite all I’ve said, even though I abandoned it before finishing the last chapter. Before going out and buying a copy it might be worth reading someone who has had the patience to wade through far more of Peterson’s prose than I did and probed more deeply into the problems and challenges his perspective creates. Nathan J. Robinson concludes at the end of a long critique:

. . . since Jordan Peterson does indeed have a good claim to being the most influential intellectual in the Western world, we need to think seriously about what has gone wrong. What have we done to end up with this man? His success is our failure, and while it’s easy to scoff at him, it’s more important to inquire into how we got to this point. He is a symptom. He shows a culture bereft of ideas, a politics without inspiration or principle. Jordan Peterson may not be the intellectual we want. But he is probably the intellectual we deserve.

‘You finished now?’ I hear my right-brain snap. ‘Can we get back to the poetry again please?’

‘I guess so,’ my left-brain sighs wearily. ‘This last lot was all your idea though!’ it growls, trying to fight back, but in the end can’t be bothered. ‘I’m too tired to argue after scribbling your stuff down for so long. I’m not doing this again though. Take my word for it.’

My right-brain smiles quietly, thinks ‘Fat chance!’ but says nothing.

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Having done a helicopter view of my reading about what pushes us into evil action, now I must tackle Jordan Peterson’s approach to all this.

What exactly is my problem, given that so much that he says resonates with so much that I have read and come to believe? Maybe he doesn’t carry my understanding any deeper, but why do a step back from endorsing his viewpoint where it matches?

I have to say I am struggling to define this exactly. It’s more a gut feeling in some ways than a fully articulated critique.

I don’t like his rather over-confident and somewhat dogmatic style, it’s true. But it feels as though it’s something more than that. What I’m going to say is the closest I can get for now. I hope to put more effort into tackling it more carefully later, but at the moment my right-brain more poetic side is getting fed up with what it experiences as my left-brain yet again hijacking the plan to spend more time on spiritual poetry. So after this rough and ready attempt to pin down my problem with Peterson’s approach, I plan to pick up the threads of my exploration of Antonio Machado.

Concerning Peterson, I think it is largely because I have some difficulties with his fundamental premise. I’m concerned that his perspective might be like a tower of pennies standing on a bent coin at the bottom. It feels as though it could topple over at any moment. I cannot quite trust it even when he seems to be saying something I should agree with. I need to get a better grip of it.

Order and Chaos

The premise he seems to operate from at times is the dichotomy he detects between order and chaos, equating the former with masculinity and the latter with the feminine (pages 40-42):

Order, the known, appears symbolically associated with masculinity (as illustrated in the… yang of the Taoist yin-yang symbol). This is perhaps because the primary hierarchal structure of human society is masculine, as it is among most animals… Order, when pushed too far, when imbalanced, can also manifest itself destructively and terribly.

. . . Chaos – the unknown – is symbolically associated with feminine. This is partly because all the things we have come to know were born, originally, of the unknown, just as all beings we encounter were born of mothers… As a negative force, it’s the impenetrable darkness of the cave and the accident at the side of the road.

… Elkhonon Goldberg … has proposed quite lucidly and directly that the very hemispheric structure of the cortex reflects the fundamental division between novelty (the unknown, or chaos) and routinisation (the known, order).

For a start I feel there may well be two misattributions or confusions here, even before we dig more deeply: yin-yang and masculine-feminine.

Richard Wilhelm, in his introduction to the I-Ching (lxvi), tackles the issue of linking yin/yang with feminine/masculine, he writes:

To the disappointment of such discoverers it must be said that there is nothing to indicate this in the original meaning of the words yin and yang. In its primary meaning yin is “the cloudy,” “the overcast,” and yang means actually “banners waving in the sun,” that is, something “shone upon,” or bright… Thence the two expressions were carried over into the Book of Changes and applied to the two alternating primal states of being. It should be pointed out, however, that the terms yin and yang do not occur in this derived sense either in the actual text of the book or in the oldest commentaries. In the Commentary on the Decision the terms used for the opposites are “the firm” and “the yielding,” not yang and yin.

Wilhelm goes on to say that ‘change is conceived of partly as the continuous transformation of the one force into the other and partly as a cycle of complexes of phenomenon, in themselves connected, such as day and night, summer and winter.’ It is all subject to the universal law of tao.

As long as we disconnect the link Peterson implies between the left-brain and masculinity and the right-brain and femininity, I’m happy to accept the idea that the former deals with the known and the latter with the unknown. Iain McGilchrist sees this as one of the characteristic distinctions between the two hemispheres (The Master & his Emissary – page 40): ‘… in almost every case what is new must first be present in the right hemisphere. … The left hemisphere deals with what it knows.’

I don’t propose to dwell at any length on the way Peterson ignores the evidence that there have been matriarchal societies. I will accept that we have currently inherited a long tradition, going back millennia, of pragmatically successful and enduring cultures that are male dominated. I also accept that over all he does see some positives in chaos, such as creativity, and a downside to order, in terms of resistance to necessary change and overcontrol.

On Ditching Dichotomies

What bothers me most of all is what appears sometimes to be his investment in the reality of this dichotomy and his understanding of its nature. I’m with McGilchrist when he writes in his introduction (page 11): ‘It has been said that the world is divided into two types of people, those who divide the world into two types of people, and those who don’t. I am with the second group.’

Peterson doesn’t seem to see it that way. Plausibly, but I think mistakenly, he writes (page 43 – my emphasis):

We eternally inhabit order, surrounded by chaos. We eternally occupy known territory, surrounded by the unknown. We experience meaningful engagement when we mediate appropriately between them.

I need to quote also from Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief to capture his full sense though:

Unprotected exposure to unexplored territory produces fear. The individual is protected from such fear as a consequence of “ritual imitation of the Great Father” – as a consequence of the adoption of group identity, which restricts the meaning of things, and confers predictability on social interactions. When identification with the group is made absolute, however – when everything has to be controlled, when the unknown is no longer allowed to exist – the creative exploratory process that updates the group can no longer manifest itself. This “restriction of adaptive capacity” dramatically increases the probability of social aggression and chaos.

In 12 Rules for Life he expands on this (page 38 – my emphasis):

Chaos and order are two of the most fundamental elements of lived experience – two of the most basic subdivisions Being itself. But they’re not things, or objects, and they’re not experienced as such. Things or objects are part of the objective world. They’re inanimate; spiritless. They’re dead. This is not true of chaos and order. Those are perceived, experienced and understood… as personalities . . .

Because 12 Rules for Life is written in a somewhat unsystematic way, with different chapters dealing with different rules rather than having a progressive and consistent analysis of his overall view in some logical fashion, it’s hard to be sure I’ve really grasped his core point correctly yet. Because my other half, as I have said, wants to get back to Machado, I’m reluctant to tackle his much longer book Maps of Meaning even so.

Why does his approach trouble me? It’s partly because he looks as though he has assumed that we only apply the word chaos in a deeply negative sense to what we don’t know. This makes two mistakes, it seems to me.

I’ll make my definition of his first mistake concretely.

Chaos is not inevitably the death at the side of the road, any more than Order is sweetness and light. Order was also the organized slaughter of the Holocaust, just as chaos can lead to new insights and new beginnings. While he seems to acknowledge this possibility in some places the dogmatic certainty of his language in other places seems to ignore it. Both the known (order/the firm) and the unknown (chaos/the yielding) can lead to the negation we call death, of which we are understandably terrified, but they are intrinsically neither negation nor death in themselves.

Now for my sense of a second mistake on his part, which I realise may be simply nitpicking but I can’t shake it off as it feels important to me.

Even more of a problem for me is that I am not convinced that we perceive order and chaos as two distinct categories. I think we can just as easily see them as at opposite ends of the same dimension, and many of us do.

Moreover, I am not convinced either that they are coterminous with the known and the unknown, something that I will be coming back to in more detail in the final post. What we know or do not know, as he realises, is to do with a subjective dimension, and the familiarity of what we know can lead some of us to feel comfortable and safe, whereas the unfamiliarity of what we do not know makes many of us afraid. There are many people for whom the converse is also true: order is suffocating and to be avoided at all costs, and chaos is exciting and to welcomed whenever possible. These subjective states will occur in ways that map onto chaos or order when we have correctly identified those objective conditions. However an order that we do not recognize as such because it is unfamiliar will frighten us, just as a chaos that we fail to see as such might leave us feeling safe. Things are possibly more complicated than his model seems to allow for.

Two examples of one aspect of that will help here, I think.

The incipient chaos that climate change is brewing went for a long time completely unrecognised. Similarly the native inhabitants of a volcanic region can sense the impending chaos of an eruption to which incomers are completely blind. Some people still refuse to accept the reality of climate change in the defensive manoeuvre we call denial: that is not quite the same thing as being completely oblivious to impending or actual chaos.

Again I think that later in the book he clearly acknowledges this aspect when he writes (page 266):

Imagine a loyal and honest wife suddenly confronted by evidence of her husband’s infidelity… One day she sees him in a downtown cafe with another woman, interacting with her in a manner difficult to rationalise and ignore. The limitations and inaccuracy of her former perceptions become immediately and painfully obvious.

Her theory of her husband collapses. However, the spread-out nature of his argument across so many different rules, discussed in so many different chapters, makes it hard to grasp his overall perspective coherently: you have to pick up on and blend complementary aspects of his argument divided across so many pages.

When I have visited China I have encountered a parallel but not identical problem in that culture – where we experience order as chaos: a simple example is the traffic in the big cities. Those who live there seem able to detect an order and predictability that allow them to know when and how to cross the road which is invisible to me when I am standing on the corner of the junction of two dual carriageways and am clearly expected to cross diagonally. I see chaos in-between me and the opposite corner of the junction: the locals calmly navigate across to the other side. I am sure that on a larger scale an immigrant struggles to make sense of a new culture as a whole, and it takes some considerable time before the pattern underlying what looks like chaotic nonsense begins to emerge. Order is experienced as chaos. This point he does not seem so aware of.

When we stare into the complex chaos of the economic and political system some of us believe we can read it accurately, even when this is impossible, as Kahneman has demonstrated. He investigated where the border falls between what we can and what we cannot predict (Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow – Kindle Reference 4339-4347):

If subjective confidence is not to be trusted, how can we evaluate the probable validity of an intuitive judgment? When do judgments reflect true expertise? When do they display an illusion of validity? The answer comes from the two basic conditions for acquiring a skill:

1. an environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable

2. an opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice. . . . .

Physicians, nurses, athletes, and firefighters . . . face complex but fundamentally orderly situations. The accurate intuitions . . .  described are due to highly valid cues that the expert . . .  has learned to use. . . In contrast, stock pickers and political scientists who make long-term forecasts operate in a zero-validity environment. Their failures reflect the basic unpredictability of the events that they try to forecast.

In this context it is interesting to note that many civilisations have chosen to found themselves in danger zones such as near volcanoes and close to shifting tectonic plates that trigger earthquakes. The reason for that, apparently, is the soil fertility near volcanoes and the useful or valuable metals and minerals more readily available in earthquake zones.

This illustrates that chaos can be productive, so productive in fact that it sometimes compensates for the risk of trading with it. I think it is a mistake though to completely conflate the disruption of chaos with either creativity or death. It has the potential for either, but is simply a profound disruption of an existing order or a complete absence of obvious order, making it feel unpredictable and potentially dangerous, though sometimes worth plunging into at the risk of death as the rewards could make it worthwhile.

A pause for breath now. In any case my left-brain is getting pretty fed up of finding words to express my right-brain’s perspective. More on this next time.

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Last time I described my quest to understand our penchant for evil acts, including what might help us get past this fatal flaw, and what drew me to buy and start reading Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life.

Before I begin to tackle his exact contribution to this quest, I need to summarise the key ideas I’ve gleaned from those who are his forerunners in my investigations. My right-brain has agreed to this because I can pull most of this in from previous posts so it won’t greatly delay its desperately needed return to poetry.

Our Moral Imagination

Robert Wright in his book The Evolution of God argues that in evolutionary terms we are being forced to expand our sense of common humanity ever wider if we are not to face destructive challenges.

He states (page 428):

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

He is aware that this sounds like a glorified pursuit of self-interest. He argues, though, that it leads beyond that (page 428-429):

The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.

He rescues this from cliché by pointing out that the idea of common humanity may be a self-evident point when we read or hear it, but it’s far from obvious if you look at the way we act. This is because we are under the illusion that we are special (page 429):

We all base our daily lives on this premise – that our welfare is more important than the welfare of pretty much anyone else, with the possible exception of close kin. . . . We see our own resentments as bona fide grievances and we see the grievances of others as mere resentments.

He links the progress of humanity with the application of the unifying insight in daily life (page 429):

. . . . the salvation of the global social system entails moral progress not just in the sense of human welfare; there has to be as a prerequisite for that growth, a closer encounter by individual human beings with moral truth.

At the end of this sequence I will be exploring more fully the implications of this with the help of the diagram on the left. For now all I will say is that it will take a long period of time before enough of us to make a real difference shift from the ‘me now’ position to expanding the compass of our compassionate understanding so that it embraces the whole of humanity.

Writght feels that it is inevitable that we will either move closer to moral truth or descend into chaos (we’ll be coming back to that word again in much more detail later). He feels that (ibid):

. . . history has driven us closer and closer to moral truth, and now our moving still closer to moral truth is the only path to salvation . . .

by which he means salvation of the social structure. He feels (page 430) that religions that have ‘failed to align individual salvation with social salvation have not, in the end, fared well.’

Jeremy Rifkin, in his thought-provoking book The Empathic Civilisation, articulates an important caveat to any assumption that an increasing global culture will inevitably move us onward and upward. He adduces evidence to illustrate the role of entropy. We hit this forcefully almost from the start of the book (page 25):

If there were any lingering doubt as to how close our species is coming to the very limits of its sustainability on earth, a single statistic is revealing of our current state of affairs: our scientists tell us that the nearly seven billion human beings now inhabiting the Earth make up less than 1% of the total biomass of all the Earth’s consumers. Yet with our complex global economic and social infrastructure, we are currently consuming nearly 24% of the net primary production on Earth . . .

He then spells out what that means (page 26):

Our journey begins at the crossroads where the laws of energy that govern the universe come up against the human inclination to continually transcend our sense of isolation by seeking the companionship of others in evermore complex energy-consuming social arrangements. The underlying dialectic of human history is the continuous feedback loop between expanding empathy and increasing entropy.

In terms of Wright’s position, entropy notwithstanding, what we need to understand is what is blocking the process he describes of expanding the scope and range of our ‘moral imagination,’ or in my terms the compass of our compassion.

My very battered copy of this classic.

Our Objects of Devotion

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Wright’s terms, if the compass of our compassion is set too narrow, and we only identify with a subgroup of humanity rather than with humanity as a whole, we’re doomed.

Idealism, Ideology and Mistaking our Maps for Reality

Once we have taken that fatal step into mistaken devotion we are in the danger zone of idealism. Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

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

McGilchrist’s contribution towards enriching my understanding of this issue is in his profound interrogation of the negative impact of the dominant left-hemisphere’s processing on our thinking. The conclusion he reaches that most matters 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.

Group Dynamics

There are also social facilitation, group difference and status differential effects. Take, for instance, Zimbardo’s perspective, which is rooted in the study he initiated at Stanford University. Student volunteers were divided randomly into two groups: prisoners and guards. It did not take long for the guards to descend into abusive behaviours that meant the study had to be halted before serious harm was done. From this, and after examining the behaviour of American troops at Abu Ghraib, he came to disturbing conclusions about human behaviour in situations that steer us towards evil. He feels strongly that good people can do bad things, not necessarily because they are bad apples who should bear full responsibility for their crimes, but because they are placed in a bad barrel that rots them. More than that, it is too simplistic to then blame the barrel for the whole problem. The barrel maker has to take his share of the responsibility. Corrupt systems can corrupt good people. Only the minority in his experience are able to resist.

The power of such influences is reinforced by Haidt’s idea of the hive effect.

Haidt, in his other brilliant book The Righteous Mind, comes back to our need to belong and to the role of religion as one of the main ways we meet that need. Haidt discusses this at some length in his book and what he says is both fascinating and critically important (page 247):

Why do the students sing, chant, dance, sway, chop, and stomp so enthusiastically during the game? . . . From a Durkheimian perspective these behaviors serve a [particular] function, and it is the same one that Durkheim saw at work in most religious rituals: the creation of a community. A college football game is a superb analogy for religion.

How does he justify that apparently bizarre statement? He feels the fundamental effect is the same (ibid.):

. . . from a sociologically informed perspective, . . . a religious rite . . . . pulls people up from Durkheim’s lower level (the profane) to his higher level (the sacred). It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply a part of a whole.”

Being ‘part of a whole’ can have an unacceptable price, though, as I will explore next time.

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