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Posts Tagged ‘Iain McGilchrist’

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

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

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

This is a question that matters.

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

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

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

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

Donaldson’s Take on Redressing the Balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Example of Buddhism

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

She states:[10]

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

And in the end she explains:[11]

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

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

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

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

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

Other Opportunities

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

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

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

Even so, she declares optimistically:[15]

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was not what put me off this time.

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

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

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

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

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

Basic Modes

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

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

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

She amplifies her comment by saying:[8]

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

I will digress a little before getting to that point.

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

NDEs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our brain may be compared both to a television set, receiving information from electromagnetic fields and decoding this into sound and vision, and to a television camera, converting or encoding sound and vision into electromagnetic waves. . . . . The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness.

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

The fact that an NDE is accompanied by accelerated thought and access to greater than ever wisdom remains inexplicable. Current scientific knowledge also fails to explain how all these NDE elements can be experienced at a moment when, in many people, brain function has been seriously impaired. There appears to be an inverse relationship between the clarity of consciousness and the loss of brain function.

What kind of evidence does he adduce in support of this proposition?

The most telling kind of evidence comes from prospective rather retrospective studies, ie studies where the decision is taken in advance to include all those people who have undergone resuscitation within the context of several hospitals and question them as soon as possible both immediately afterwards and then after a set period of time again later, rather than finding people who claimed to have had an NDE and interviewing only them. The data is impressive both for the numbers in total involved:[7]

Within a four-year period, between 1988 and 1992, 344 consecutive patients who had undergone a total of 509 successful resuscitations were included in the study.

and for the strength of the evidence those numbers provided:[8]

The four prospective NDE studies discussed in the previous chapter all reached one and the same conclusion: consciousness, with memories and occasional perception, can be experienced during a period of unconsciousness—that is, during a period when the brain shows no measurable activity and all brain functions, such as body reflexes, brain-stem reflexes, and respiration, have ceased.

The conclusion van Lommel felt justified in drawing followed naturally on from that evidence:[9]

As prior researchers have concluded, a clear sensorium and complex perceptual processes during a period of apparent clinical death challenge the concept that consciousness is localized exclusively in the brain.

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

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

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

Psychedelics

Now we come to the unexpected evidence.

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

Where does this surprising counterintuitive evidence take him?

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Footnote:

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

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

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

I hadn’t heard this argument before.

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

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

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

Some posts that suggest matter is not all there is

Psychology and Spirit

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

References:

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

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Tipping Point

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

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

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

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

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

A Tipping Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raworth

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

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

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

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

Ehrenfeld

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bahá’í Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The consequences are predictably bleak:

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

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

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

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

What makes it worse is that:

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

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

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

He offers the Bahá’í perspective as synthesis:

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

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

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

Next he turns to systemic interventions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional References:

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

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

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

Footnotes:

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

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From the The European Bahá’í Business Forum website

Coherence

At the end of the last post I flagged up the fact that another key capacity necessary for change is lacking: coherence. The significance of this lack was flagged up as long ago as 10 November 1974 in a message from the sovereign body of the Bahá’í community, the Universal House of Justice. They wrote:

We should also remember that most people have no clear concept of the sort of world they wish to build, nor how to go about building it. Even those who are concerned to improve conditions are therefore reduced to combating every apparent evil that takes their attention.

However, there are pressures that make it imperative that we transcend this lack of cohesion. The European Bahá’í Business Forum, in a recent letter, puts it fairly bluntly:

We are faced with a challenging new era in human history. It is a chaotic phase of transition in which collectively we are confronted with the difficult reality of unprecedented global uncertainty and forces of fragmentation.

The planet itself is now telling us through accelerating signs of climate change that business as usual is leading us to disaster.

In addition, they spell out bluntly that not everyone is willing to embrace the prospect of radical change:

While the internal incoherence within the current economic system will lead to its collapse, sweeping away some obstacles to a new sustainable system, we are currently faced with the headwinds of an intransigent resistance to change.

That the system is broken in many ways seems almost beyond dispute. Joseph Stiglitz defines a key aspect in the introduction to his widely acclaimed post mortem on the efficacy of our current political and economic system – The Price of Inequality:

. . . capitalism is failing to produce what was promised, but is delivering on was not promised – inequality, pollution, unemployment, and, most important of all, the degradation of values to the point where everything is acceptable and no one is accountable.[1]

The remedy that makes sense to him is currently conspicuous by its absence:

For markets to work the way markets are supposed to, there has to be appropriate government regulation. But for that to occur, we have to have a democracy that reflects the general interests – not the special interests or just those at the top.[2]

This suggests that mending the system will not be easy.

We have to develop some sense, though, of how this perverse fragmentation can be remedied, and a desire for reform to be generated, if there is to be any hope of constructive change.

Not only is the tunnel vision of some approaches far too narrow ever to address the full complexity of the issues that confront us all in global late-capitalism, but even where there might be a wider focus, there is a failure to recognize that tackling aspects of the system’s defects more or less one at a time, in an uncoordinated manner, is not going to get far either.

Iain McGilchrist, in his comprehensive analysis of the way our culture has privileged the wrong half of our brain, The Master & his Emissary, makes it clear how neurobiology has been enlisted to serve the purposes of a reductionist and materialistic scientism. The conclusion he reaches that most matters when we look at our western society is this:

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.[3]

He makes a crucial point, when he writes, ‘However distinguished, the individual remains part of the whole and is understandable only in terms of the whole of which it forms a part,’[4] a truth our society and culture seems to have forgotten a long time ago. So, from our fragmented perspective, the group looks like ‘a potential threat to individuality,’[5] a belief that would make effective cooperation seem quite problematic.

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, the left hemisphere view has become 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. 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.

Towards the end of his book, McGilchrist describes a more desirable society when he writes, ‘a society is, or should be, an organic unity, not an assemblage of bits that strive with one another.’ As it stands, he adds, ‘It is as if every organ in the body wanted to be the head.’[6]

We are in desperate need of reinstating a proper balance in the modes of operation of the two hemispheres. This cry is articulated in the Bahá’í Faith’s belief that religion and science are to be seen as one and should not be in conflict. They are as the wings of one bird, as also, we believe, are men and women.

McGilchrist’s articulation of this need is complex and subtle but required reading for anyone who cares about these issues. The quote below is only one part of his case, though a central one.

There is, in summary, then, a force for individuation (left hemisphere) and a force for coherence (right hemisphere): but, where the whole is not the same as the sum of its parts, the force for individuation exists within and subject to the force of coherence. . . . . [T]he rational workings of the left hemisphere . . . should be subject to the intuitive wisdom of the right hemisphere.[7]

This however could be much easier said than done, on a collective level, when we are heavily influenced by the powerful promptings of a competitive and acquisitive culture.

A further obstacle to achieving collectively the necessary level of understanding to motivate us to effective action is the short-term perspective that is wired into our primate brains. Ken Whitehead expresses it better than I can:

This pattern reveals a fundamental characteristic of how our brains work; we tend to focus on the short term, and have little thought of the long-term consequences of our actions. The early hunters devised ever more efficient ways of killing the existing inhabitants of the new lands they occupied. There was no thought of long-term consequences. Why should there be? The supply of prey animals was believed to be inexhaustible. Yet one day they were all gone!

The problems we face in today’s world suggest that little has changed in the last fifty thousand years. In his 2004 book “A Short History of Progress”, Ronald Wright describes human beings in today’s world as running 21st century software on fifty thousand-year old hardware. Our brains have evolved to react to short-term crises, such as an attack by a hungry lion. The more subtle cognitive abilities which would allow us to assess and respond appropriately to longer term threats are much less developed within the human brain. As a result we are very good at responding quickly to an emergency, but we are hopelessly inept, both as individuals and as a society, when it comes to taking effective action to head off threats which are perceived as being distant.

So, to achieve coherence we need to effect two major changes.

The first is to subordinate our analytical tendencies to our holistic potential and invest the necessary significant level of effort in transcending our short-term biases. Education will be a key to that, but if those who value holism and effortful thought do not gain the power to shape our educational system, how is that ever going to happen?

The second is to create cohesive, cooperative and morally creative institutions to manage our communities at every level. This may have to be accomplished before we can rebalance our educational system. You may well ask, ‘how though can we do that until our educational and child-rearing systems create, on a wide enough scale, the kind of consciousness necessary to build such institutions?’ A chicken and egg situation to which I will return later.

The Need for Institutions

Focusing for now on the need for coherent and effective institutions, I found this clearly defined and analysed when reading The Cultural Creatives.

Ray and Andersen describe how anyone involved in working to change the culture in which they live will have to face the intense discouragement that all too frequently comes when results fail to match up to expectations. A choice point torments us: ‘Do I keep faith with my vision or do I break faith with it?’ Keeping faith beyond what feels like its breaking point is often what brings about a breakthrough, healing the testing breach between vision and reality, at least until the next time.

Much of the power of these processes is invisible, which is partly what makes the work so testing, but it can be calculated to some degree once you understand the typical dynamics:

To understand the true size of a social movement, think of a target with three concentric circles. The centre is the hundreds of visible leaders, demonstrators, and little organisations. Around the centre is a circle of many thousands of active supporters. and around those two active circles is the circle of the sympathetic millions who are touched by the events, and may simply read the arguments, and as a result make different choices in some part of their lives.[8]

Powerful as these processes are, even when political alliances reinforce them, they are almost certainly not enough:

To change the culture, you cannot depend on the terms and solutions the old culture provides. . . . Leaving the heavy lifting to the political side of the movements, the cultural side started drying up, and the submerged networks began to lose touch with one another.[9]

At present we are indeed for the most part locked into ‘the terms and solutions the old culture provides.’ Wilhelm Streeck hits this nail on the head as well:

The de-socialised capitalism of the interregnum hinges on the improvised performances of structurally self-centred, socially disorganised and politically disempowered individuals.[10]

Ray and Andersen pinpoint a crucial missing link:

No one knew, or even thought about, how to create cultural institutions to support the work that was so important to them. The first generation practitioners  . . . . . could [hardly] manage their way out of a paper bag. . . . There really was a hole in the culture – the old ways didn’t work, and the new ones hadn’t yet been invented.[11]

The apparent absence of new ways that seem potentially effective is a debilitating aspect of many people’s thinking, much of it rooted in our default position of individualism, as Streeck points out:

The sweated workers of today and the middle-class workers in the countries of advanced capitalism… never experience together the community and solidarity deriving from joint collective action.[12]

Not surprisingly, this becomes a vicious circle, founded as it is in disconnected disempowered individualism:

The practices that make it possible for individuals to survive under neoliberalism may also help neoliberalism itself to survive. . . . . social life in an age of entropy is by necessity individualistic.[13]

But we do have institutions. Why exactly, in Ray and Andersen’s view, wouldn’t the institutions the United States already had, for example, do the trick?

The three Bigs – big government, big business, and big media – have difficulty dealing with issues that cannot be isolated from other issues and solved with tools at hand.[14]

Even progressive movements themselves could be rendered ineffective by the same tendency to atomise everything: ‘Activists, too, are Modernism’s children, believing that they must become specialists.’[15]

Too many people pick off parts of the problem unable to see or agree that they are all interconnected. In the end the core issue cannot be evaded:

Cultural Creatives may be leading the way with responses directed towards healing and integration rather than battle. For these responses to contribute to the creation of a new culture, grassroots activism and social movements will have to evolve into new institutions. . . . [W]hile new social movements are transitory, institutions can turn the energies of these movements into everyday action.[16]

The Need for Transcendence

They also strongly suggest that this might well involve something much more than a merely materialistic approach. They quote Joseph Campbell:

‘You do not have a myth unless you have an opening into transcendence.’ . . . If we cannot recognise the universe and the nations and ourselves as manifestations of ‘the grounding mystery of all being,’ he said, ‘we have nothing we can really trust.’[17]

And this quote is not in isolation. They also refer to Vijali Hamilton:

‘The true story is that there is a luminous, spacious energy that flows through everything all the time. It’s within matter, within things as well as within space, and you can tune in to it at any time . . . . . It is not otherworldly. It is right here, closer than our own flesh.’[18]

This is very close indeed to the idea that Shoghi Effendi quotes the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith describing:

‘O My servants!’ Bahá’u’lláh Himself testifies, ‘The one true God is My witness! This most great, this fathomless and surging ocean is near, astonishingly near, unto you. Behold it is closer to you than your life vein! Swift as the twinkling of an eye ye can, if ye but wish it, reach and partake of this imperishable favor, this God-given grace, this incorruptible gift, this most potent and unspeakably glorious bounty.’[19]

A sense of transcendent power may be necessary if we are to overcome the limitations of our primate brains with their tendencies towards the instinctive rather than the thoughtful and the short-term perspective as against the long view.

So it’s not surprising that leaps of faith are required of us if we are to undertake these kinds of transformative processes effectively. We must develop trust in what we are not wired to grasp easily.

Our negativity bias won’t help here. Hanson and Mendius’s book The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain explores this clearly.

They explain that:

. . . . to motivate animals, including ourselves, to follow [survival] strategies and pass on their genes, neural networks evolved to create pain and distress under certain conditions: when separations break down, stability is shaken, opportunities disappoint, and threats loom. [20]

They explain slightly later not only why this was so but one of its most unwelcome correlates:

. . . it’s the negative experiences, not the positive ones, that have generally had the most impact on survival. . . . . The brain typically detects negative information faster than positive information. . . . . Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.[21]

The consequences of this are not by any means simply confined to life threatening situations for us modern human beings (ibid):

. . . . In relationships, it typically takes about five positive interactions to overcome the effects of a single negative one (Gottman 1995).[22]

Also this bias towards negativity determines the scenarios with which our imagination mesmerises us constantly:

[Mini movies run in our heads] and . . . . keep us stuck by their simplistic view of the past and by their defining out of existence real possibilities for the future, such as new ways to reach out to others or dream big dreams. Their beliefs are the bars of an invisible cage, trapping you in a life that’s smaller than the one you could actually have.[23]

We need to make a conscious and sustained effort to cut against the grain of that bias:

Given the negativity bias of the brain, it takes an active effort to internalize positive experiences and heal negative ones.[24]

We clearly need every possible means to enable us to rise to the challenges we face in changing our broken system.

I have also been here before when I reviewed Jeremy Rifkin’s compelling analysis of our current situation in The Empathic Civilisation. He argues that a connection with the earth we depend upon, and our capacity to develop sufficient empathy for our fellow creatures as well as our planet, will be a sufficient motivator for us collectively, and in sufficient numbers, to avert catastrophe.

While I accept that the capacity for a high degree of empathy is wired into our brains, I also strongly believe that a higher level again can be reached, with proportionately more leverage in terms of sustained action, if we also can internalise a sense of what the Quakers term ‘That of God’ which is in all of us. Then we will not only have a strong sense of our links to one another but we will also have the confidence to act against apparently overwhelming odds that comes from the knowledge that we human beings are not alone. Bahá’u’lláh says (Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words, Arabic no. 13):

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

Only when we have such a sense of powerful support and shared humanity does it seem to me that we can reach that tipping point, when most of the world of humanity will be prepared and able to put their weight effectively against the wheel of redemptive change, and only then will disaster be averted.

Rifkin has done his best in his impressive book to suggest one possible path towards a secure future. Those who follow his line of thinking and put it into practice will surely do some good. They could do so much more, it seems to me, if they had faith in an effectively benign power higher than the planet we are seeking to save and which needs our urgent help.

And there we will have to leave it until I attempt to explore this further in the next post, tentatively offering some possible ways of beginning to break this deadlock.

References:

[1] The Price of Inequality – page xlviii.
[2] The Price of Inequality – page li.
[3] The Master & his Emissary – pages 228-229.
[4] The Master & his Emissary – page 202.
[5] The Master & his Emissary – Page 255.
[6] The Master & his Emissary – page 444.
[7] The Master & his Emissary – page 444.
[8] The Cultural Creatives – page 109.
[9] The Cultural Creatives – page 154.
[10] Streeck – page 41.
[11] The Cultural Creatives – page 187.
[12] Streeck – page 25.
[13] Streeck – page 40.
[14] The Cultural Creatives – page 227.
[15] The Cultural Creatives – page 229.
[16] The Cultural Creatives – page 246.
[17] The Cultural Creatives – page 299.
[18] The Cultural Creatives – page 311.
[19] The Promised Day is Come – page 16.
[20] The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain – page 26.
[21] The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain – pages 40-41.
[22] Ibid.
[23] The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain – pages 44-45.
[24] The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain – pages 73-75.

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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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