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Posts Tagged ‘Jenny Wade’

KW Diag 5 v2I haven’t republished this sequence since 2015. Given my brief look on Monday at Koestenbaum’s levels of consciousness, it seemed worthwhile repeating this sequence which contains an explanation of Wilber’s model.

After re-posting the sequence of articles about Jenny Wade’s theory of the levels of consciousness, I finally got round to reading a book by Ken Wilber that has been lurking on my shelves for 10 years at least, I suspect. It is modestly titled A Theory of Everything: an integral vision for business, politics, science and spirituality.

This is the second of three posts attempting to capture some of the key points which excite me the most about it.

The first post tackled the basic four quadrant model, its concept of holarchy and the possible levels of consciousness development.

Now we look at some of the insights derived from this model, which give it its value.

The final post examines another way the model enriches our understanding of current problems and also outlines what we can do as individuals to lift our own level of consciousness.

What are the potentially testable advantages of thinking this way?

From the BBC's 'America's Left-Right Divide.'

From the BBC’s ‘America’s Left-Right Divide.’

1. Politics

It enables us to see beyond the fractured perspectives of our divisive political system, e.g. that both liberals and conservatives have each grasped a fraction of the truth, but the whole truth will only be available when their confrontational perspectives are integrated and a new and higher standpoint is achieved. He explains this clearly (page 84):

When it comes to the cause of human suffering, liberals tend to believe in exterior causes, whereas conservatives tend to believe in interior causes. That is, if an individual is suffering, the typical liberal tends to blame external social institutions (if you are poor it is because you are oppressed by society), whereas the typical conservative tends to blame internal factors (you are poor because you are lazy).

. . . . The important point is that the first step toward an integralpolitics that unites the best of liberal and conservative is to recognise that both the interior quadrants and the exterior quadrants are equally real and important. We consequently must address both interior factors (values, meaning, morals, the development of consciousness) and exterior factors (economic conditions, material well-being, technological advance, social safety net, environment) – in short, a truly integral politics would emphasise both interior development and exterior development.

2. Balancing the Material with the Spiritualmiracle

This leads onto a major issue that certainly resonates with the Bahá’í perspective, with its strong emphasis on the spiritual as well as the practical education of children. Wilber makes clear that we have to develop our understanding of consciousness as well as of matter if we are to truly develop as individuals and as a society (page 88):

So here is the truly odd political choice that we are given today: a sick version of a higher level versus a healthy version of a lower level – liberalism versus conservatism.

The point is that a truly integral politics would embrace a healthy version of the higher level – namely, grounded in the postconventional/world centric waves of development, it would encourage both interior development and exterior development – the growth and development of consciousness and subjective well-being, as well as the growth and development of economic, social, and material well-being.

Why does he describe liberalism as a sick version of a higher level and conservatism as a healthy version of a lower level? This is where the depth issue comes into play.

To cut to the core of his point he feels that conservatism is healthily rooted in the socio-centric conventional level of development (page 85: the blue level as he defines it – a very appropriate colour for the UK). Its problem derives from the relatively incomplete perspective available to that level.

With the Enlightenment, came a major shift from blue to orange and liberalism emerged from the shadows.

There was a problem though, in Wilber’s view (page 86):

Now had liberalism been just that… the product of an evolutionary advance from ethnocentric to world centric, it would have won the day, pure and simple. But, in fact, liberalism arose in a climate that I have called flatland. Flatland – or scientific materialism – is the belief that only matter is real, and that only narrow science has any claim to truth. Narrow science… is the science of any right-hand domain, whether that be atomistic science of the Upper Right or systems science of the Lower Right. Flatland, in other words, is the belief that only the Right-Hand quadrants are real.

Wilber argues (his italics) that ‘liberalism became the political champion of flatland.’ Furthermore, liberalism, given the primacy it awarded to material exterior forces, dismissed interiors as equivalent and irrelevant. He feels this leads to an inherent contradiction. He states (page 87):

Liberalism was itself the product of a whole series of interior stages of consciousness development – from egocentric to ethnocentric to worldcentric – whereupon it turned around and denied the importance or even the existence of those interior levels of development! Liberalism, in championing only exterior causation (i.e. flat land), denied the interior path that produced liberalism. The liberal stance itself is the product of stages that it then denies – and there is the inherent contradiction.

He claims that liberalism holds that ‘all interiors are equal – no stance is better than another. There are no waves, stages, or levels of consciousness, for that would make a ranking judgement, and ranking is very, very bad.’

The antagonism liberals will clearly express towards conservatives presumably derives from the conservative’s judgemental and patronising stance towards other perspectives and life choices than their own. This prejudice against a legitimate evaluation of the relative strengths and weaknesses of all perspectives blinkers them to the developmental implications of levels of consciousness and our need to progress through all lower ones to reach any of the higher levels.

Wilber discusses the possibility of seeing levels as different in terms of their relative maturity, but accepting them wholeheartedly as necessary and inevitable stages through which we all need to progress as individuals and societies (page 56):

Even if every society on earth was established fully at second tier [the highest], nonetheless every infant born in every society still has to start at level 1, at beige, at sensorimotor instincts and perceptions, and then must grow and evolve through purple magic, red and blue myth, orange rationalism, green sensitivity, and into yellow and turquoise second tier (on the way to the transpersonal). All of those waves have important tasks and functions; all of them are taken up and included in subsequent waves; none of them can be bypassed; and none of them can be demeaned without grave consequences to self and society.

Medina in his book, Faith, Physics & Psychology, 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.

For reasons I explain in the next post I am not sure his criticism is entirely warranted though I can see why he came to the conclusion he did.

Also Michelle Mairesse picks up on an issue that indicates how careful we need to be before leaping to any conclusions. She is basing her point on two of Wilber’s earlier books – The Marriage of Sense and Soul and A Brief History of Everything – but it none the less applies here as well, I feel.

Although he does lip service to all the perennial traditions, Wilber sees the severe Eastern Zen tradition as the summit of mysticism, a rather elitist view for one who lauds the Western democratic tradition. We can’t help wondering why China and Japan, the countries where the majority of Zen meditators have lived and attained Enlightenment, have not experienced a trickle-down effect.

There is, of course, a pragmatic aspect to Zen that has meant, rather as is the case with mindfulness practice now, that it was prone to be placed in the service of activities, such as the waging of war, far removed from the value system Zen was rooted in.

Rifkin’s position is closer to Wilber’s in some respects but built on very different non-transcendent foundations (page 451):

The key finding, according to the researchers, is that “individual security increases empathy.”

. . . .

Empathy exists in every culture. The issue is always how extended or restricted it is. In survival societies, empathic bonds are less developed, meager, and reserved for a narrow category of relationships. . . .

As energy/communications revolutions establish more complex social structures and extend the human domain over time and space, new cosmologies serve like a giant overarching frame for enlarging the imaginative bonds and empathy. Theological consciousness allowed individuals to identify with non-kin and anonymous others and, by way of religious affiliation, to incorporate them into the empathic fold. . . . Ideological consciousness extended the empathic borders geographically to nation states.

Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine on July 5, 2014 (For source of image see link)

Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine on July 5, 2014 (For source of image see link)

Two Important Insights

This brings us to two extremely important ways that this model for me enriches our analyses of current problems: the problems are firstly, “In a global world how do we understand the risks that come from technological advances especially in terms of weaponry being relatively easily available to world views that are essentially narrower than the cultures that created the advances?” This issue will be discussed today.

Secondly “Why is pluralism so testing and potentially self-destructive?” That will have to wait for the last post in this series.

Weapons and Levels:

This issue is quite simple to explain. He clarifies it on page 103:

One of the greatest problems and constant dangers faced by humanity is simply this: the Right-Hand quadrants are all material, and once a material entity has been produced, it can be used by individuals who are at virtually any level of interior development. . . . Nobody at a worldcentric level of moral consciousness would happily unleash the atom bomb, but somebody at a preconventional, red-meme, egocentric level would quite cheerily bomb the hell [out] of pretty much anybody who got in its way.

Jeremy Rifkin in his thought-provoking 2009 book The Empathic Civilization makes essentially the same point from a different perspective (page 487):

Weapons of mass destruction, once the preserve of elites, are becoming more democratised with each passing day.  A growing number of security experts believe that it is no longer even possible to keep weapons of mass destruction locked up and out of the hands of rogue governments, terrorist groups, or just deranged individuals.

What Wilber goes on to say resonates strongly with the Bahá’í position, which asserts that science and religion are like the wings of a bird, and both must develop in tandem if we are to fly.

Speaking of religion and science, the two great wings with which the bird of human kind is able to soar, He said: “Scientific discoveries have increased material civilization. There is in existence a stupendous force, as yet, happily undiscovered by man. Let us supplicate God, the Beloved, that this force be not discovered by science until spiritual civilization shall dominate the human mind. In the hands of men of lower nature, this power would be able to destroy the whole earth.”

(From Lady Blomfield quoting ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in The Chosen Highway – page 52)

Wilber expresses almost the same idea (page 103-104):

Until the modern era, this problem was limited in its means because the technologies themselves were quite limited. You can only inflict so much damage on the biosphere, and on other human beings, with a bow and arrow. But with the emergence of modernity and the orange meme and its sweeping scientific capacities, humanity began producing orange-level technology when most of humanity were still at red or blue levels of moral consciousness. . . . . Global catastrophes, for the first time in history, became possible and even likely. From atomic holocaust to ecological suicide, humanity began facing on a massive scale its single most fundamental problem: lack of integral development. . . . The lack of integral growth might signal the end of humanity itself.

He makes another telling point, which resonates strongly with me, who grew up in the shadow of the Second World War (page 117):

The same sort of cross-level access could occur within a given culture: Auschwitz was the product of a rational-technological capacity (orange) pressed into the hands of intensely pre-rational (red/blue) ethnocentric aggression.

This means that the destructiveness of this kind of asymmetry kicks in whether we are talking about the atom bomb or about trolling on the internet. The damage an individual or group operating ethno- or egocentrically can inflict has been massively magnified with the appearance of high order technology.

Some possible complications:

In his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology, John Fitzgerald Medina raises a crucial issue that makes it clear that the ways that levels operate is more complex than perhaps Wilber’s analysis clarifies. I will be returning to Medina’s book in a later sequence of posts so for now I will put his point simply in my own words.

He argues that when the technologically advanced but morally limited English invaders arrived in America, they ruthlessly purged the Native Americans from their inconvenient occupation of land the English wanted to exploit. This combination of robbery and genocide was made possible by the superiority of the rifle over the bow and arrow.

The English disparaged the complex but apparently haphazard agricultural system of the Native Americans and assumed that because there was no evidence of monoculture they were not using the land so, under their version of Christianity, it could therefore be expropriated. Their monotheistic Christianity, with its powerful old Testament inheritance, also failed to see any value in the idea of interconnectedness and the Great Spirit, so they dismissed the Native Americans as primitive, superstitious and backward.

When it came to setting up a federated system of their own, however, the fathers of the United States plagiarised the Native American sophisticated democratic system of the Iroquois Confederacy later to become the Six Nations, without, unfortunately, building in any trace of their respect for woman.

All this seems to demonstrate that homegrown technological development is no guarantee at all of moral advancement. The former can outstrip the latter within a culture with devastating consequences, either for that culture or for others with which it comes into contact. The modern world, according to the Bahá’í World Centre, is in the grip of a similar delusional script: the power brokers of the industrialised technically advanced Western world are convinced that their version of reality is also more highly developed morally than that found anywhere else.

Richard Schweder’s compelling account of his reexamination of Kohlberg’s comparison of American and Hindu moral development is an interesting example of where this can lead an expert research team. Kohlberg originally concluded that Hinduism lagged far behind the far more morally sophisticated Americans.

Schweder describes his findings in his book Thinking Through Cultures. His very different findings hinge upon his recognition that Westerners confidently and accurately code Western moral thinking as expressed by study subjects because they understand the implicit subtext, and they confidently and inaccurately code the moral thinking as expressed by subjects from other cultures because they haven’t a clue about the implicit subtext. He explains (page 225):

From expanding the Babaji interview text and identifying its implicit argument structure it seems apparent that the interview gives articulate expression to an alternative form of postconventional reasoning that has no place in Kohlberg’s stage scheme. In a sense the stage scheme is exploded by its own inability to classify adequately the moral reasoning of the Babaji. One may begin to wonder how many other moral development interviews coded as stage 3/4 would turn out to be alternative forms of postconventional reasoning, if we only permitted ourselves to move from what is said to what is unsaid, to expand the interview text and identify its implicit argument structure.

The argument about what happens when advanced technology falls into the hands of the morally handicapped extends a fortiori to current terrors such as from ISIL even though the book came out before this particular variation of the problem existed (ibid.):

Today, almost any ethnic tribe or feudal order can gain access to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons that historically they would never have been able to produce themselves, and the results are literally explosive.

The issue of pluralism will have to wait until next time along with what we can do as individuals.

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Interconnectedness

I haven’t republished this sequence since 2015. Given my brief look on Monday at Koestenbaum’s levels of consciousness, it seemed worthwhile repeating this sequence which contains an explanation of Wilber’s model. 

After re-posting the sequence of articles about Jenny Wade’s theory of the levels of consciousness, I finally got round to reading a book by Ken Wilber that has been lurking on my shelves for 10 years at least, I suspect. It is modestly titled A Theory of Everything: an integral vision for business, politics, science and spirituality. (This is not to be confused with a Bahá’í book by Robert Parry with a slightly more unassuming title, A Theory of Almost Everything, which had come out seven years earlier in 1993 or with Stephen Hawking’s unauthorised The Theory of Everything, which came out in 2007.) The title, of course, is partly tongue in cheek but not entirely. The book does have an ambitious agenda and one that understandably excites me given my attempts to organise my experience and thinking around the idea of interconnectedness (see diagram above).

Hang on a moment though. While reading Wilber’s book and drafting the review, in rapid succession I gobbled up two other tomes.

First, after something like four years, I finally finished reading The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin. Such a time span is not unusual for me as I read books on rather the same principle as they make Russian dolls. Each book I start triggers me to start reading another until I have several books in progress nested one within the other. Often the one I started last is finished first before I trace my steps back to its predecessor (or not, as the case may be). You can see elements of this pattern as I describe my process now with these three books.

I very much want to record my response to this massive survey of the current state of our civilisation and its origins but I am aware that it overlaps with Wilber’s thesis in some of it themes.

As if that were not complicated enough, a friend left a comment on my blog recommending I look at John Fitzgerald Medina’s book, Faith, Physics & Psychology. Not only does this book contain a detailed critique of Wilber, and cannot be ignored for that reason alone, but it also torpedoed some of my blindly accepted assumptions about the Native American civilisation and if they sink completely upon further investigation of the facts they were clearly prejudices. His book also caused me to rehabilitate Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from my relatively low opinion of it.

There is no way I can do justice to the combined 1000 plus pages of these two books and Wilber’s theory all in one sequence of posts without driving you all nuts. So, I have decided to go ahead and publish this sequence on Wilber, with some acknowledgement of Medina’s caveats and Rifkin’s perspectives, before then exploring in appropriate depth the other two books at greater leisure over a longer time span.

Did I hear a sigh of relief?

The Quadrants

While I particularly want to focus on certain aspects of Wilber’s model in detail, especially where he deals with how his way of looking at things helps us analyse current challenges (the second post) and how we might focus our energies better on progressing our own personal development (the third post), I do need to give a sense of the overview first, I think.

KW 4 Quadrants brief

The best place to start the overview is with a series of diagrams. The first is a very simple schematic (page 71).

First of all we need to understand the distinctions he is making which will be located in four quadrants. The left hand quadrants are what he terms ‘subjective,’ by which he means experiential i.e. located within our consciousness. Consciousness can be either individual and concerned with our thoughts, feelings and decisions (Upper Left), or collective and concerned with our shared understanding of the world and what we derive from that (Lower Left). The right hand quadrants focus on the external, material and objectively observable and measurable. The Upper Right focuses on the individual, for example studying the brain, and the Lower Right focuses on the collective, for example social structures.

The next diagram goes into more detail about the individual in relation to his model of reality. It is important to hold these in mind as an aid to understanding the eventual full complexity of what he goes on to unpack in terms of all the implications of the quadrants. The Lower Right terrestrial or earthly, which includes social structures and systems in the observable world, correlates with the body/brain. The Mind-Soul-Spirit hierarchy at the individual level is an Upper Left system and as a culture is at the bottom left. The latter two obviously interpenetrate. I will say more about that later. Reality is the ground on which all this stands.

Finally, we need to take a closer look at this more complicated diagram in order to see how different levels are at work in each quadrant.

KW 4 Quadrants full

It is best not to get too concerned about some of the detail in the diagram above, especially when terms such as ‘uroboric’ (cyclical, self-devouring) will probably mean nothing at all without a dictionary at hand and even with one the exact implications will still not be clear.

His theory of quadrants is not without its critics, among them Michelle Mairesse. She feels they are ‘rather Procrustean.’ She also takes issue with specifics. She quotes, for example, A Brief History of Everything – page 99):

Wilber goes on to adduce many things from his display of nests. “Whereas everything in the Right Hand has simple location, nothing in the Left Hand path has simple location. This doesn’t mean that value, consciousness, pride, desire aren’t real, and this is where interpretation comes in. Surfaces can be seen, but depth must be interpreted.” . . . .

Unfortunately, his Quadrants appear to be skewed to favor his interpretations. His upper Right-Hand Quadrant, for example, begins at the atomic level. Why not the sub-atomic level? Is it because not all sub-atomic particles have simple location?

Levels and Holons

What most needs to be understood for present purposes is that each quadrant contains its own form of development. This is perhaps easier to see in the right quadrants. Atoms are, perhaps misleadingly, the simplest form in the Upper Right and the sequence from there is easy to track until SF1 arrives.

I don’t plan to deal with those conceptual challenges in detail as they are not core issues for present purposes. What is important though is to understand one of his main points: that every lower stage in all quadrants is contained in the next one above. This constitutes a ‘holarchy’ in his terminology. He explains as follows (page 40):

The ingredients of these hierarchies are holons. A holon is part of a whole that is a part of other wholes. For example, a whole atom is part of a whole molecule; a whole molecule is part of a whole-cell; a whole cell is part of a whole organism. . . . . Reality is composed of neither holes nor parts, but wholes/parts, or holons. Reality in all domains is basically composed of holons.

An acceptance of the reality of holons, as per this model, is what for Wilber constitutes second tier thinking, a higher level than the far more prevalent first tier thinking.

He is very keen that we should understand the power of the Left Hand Quadrants, which he feels have been underexplored and undervalued in current materialistic narrow science paradigms. A key point for him is that this means we have failed to understand fully the depth effects at work on the consciousness side of the diagram: this, combined with a failure to understand the way this kind of nested hierarchy works, accounts for many of our problems and our blindness to their possible solutions.

Levels of Consciousness

We need next to look at his analysis of the different levels of development in the two left hand quadrants by means of one of his more user friendly diagrams. His model is similar but not identical to that of Jenny Wade, already explored on this blog (see links in the opening sentence of this post).

We’ll start with his diagram, hopefully made easier to digest by the numbering and colours I have added. From a Bahá’í point of view, that he as well as Wade has nine levels is a bonus.

KW Diag 5 v2

1. Level of basic survival (Archaic-Instinctual): Seen in first human societies and in new born infants. Approximately 0.1% of the world’s population.

2. Level of animistic thinking, good-bad dichotomies (Magical-Animistic): Seen in magical ethnic beliefs, gangs and corporate ‘tribes.’ Approximately 10% of the world’s population.

3. Level of the self as distinct from the tribe: egocentric (Power Gods): Seen in feudal kingdoms, gang leaders, and New-Age Narcissism. 20% of the population: 5% of the power.

4. Level of meaning, direction and purpose (Mythic Order): based on a ruler and rules. Seen in codes of chivalry, totalitarianism and religious fundamentalism. 40% of the population: 30% of the power.[1]

5. At this level or ‘wave’ the self seeks truth and meaning in individualistic terms (Scientific Achievement): highly achievement-oriented. Seen in the Enlightenment, Wall Street, secular humanism and liberal self-interest. 30% of the world’s population: 50% of the power.

6. The level of communitarian bonding, ecological sensitivity and networking (The Sensitive Self): Seen in postmodernism, humanistic psychology, liberation theology, Greenpeace etc. 10% of the population, 15% of the power.

You can see from what he describes that the level of development in the individual can be closely paralleled by the social/cultural level and vice versa. A person functioning at the same level as the social culture (s)he inhabits will be more comfortable than someone who is not.

From there it gets even more interesting for me.

With the completion of the green meme, human consciousness is poised for a quantum jump into ‘second-tier thinking.’

(I will ignore the fact that a quantum jump for a physicist is tiny. As the BBC put it, when talking about the Bond series ‘most of us are familiar with the term quantum leap, to describe a sudden and large-scale-shift in something. Physicists however also use this in the opposite sense, a typical quantum leap being the smallest possible change in the energy level of an electron.’ So, I’ll see this as a metaphor of the qualitative difference between the two tiers.)

He quotes Clare Graves (page 11) as describing it as a ‘momentous leap’ where ‘a chasm of unbelievable depth of meaning is crossed.’ We can then think ‘bothvertically and horizontally.’ We ‘vividly grasp the entire spectrum of interior development.’ We see how important ‘each level, each meme, each wave’ is and that ‘each wave goes beyond . . . its predecessor, and yet it includes or embraces it in its own makeup.’ He gives the example of the cell again, which ‘transcends but includes molecules, which transcend but include atoms.’

He contends (page 12) that ‘none of the first tier memes… can fully appreciate the existence of the other memes.’ They each think their own world-view is correct and attack if it is challenged. On the other hand, ‘second-tier thinking appreciates the necessary role which all of the various memes play.’ It is ‘instrumental in moving from relativism to holism, or from pluralism to integralism.’

We’ll be looking at aspects of that in more detail later.

He then goes on to complete his description, at least as far as he can.

7. At this integrative level life is seen as a kaleidoscope of natural hierarchies. 1% of the population: 5% of the power.[2]

8. At this holistic level energies unite feeling with knowledge. It sometimes involves the emergence of a new spirituality and detects mystical forces. 0.1% of the population: 1% of the power.

Second tier thinking is, in his view, the ‘leading edge’ of ‘collective human evolution.’

He gives no detailed description of level 9, probably because he feels no one alive is there yet.

Getting Bogged down in Green

A problem he is acutely aware of is that level 6 (green) gets stuck.

He gives it credit for its tolerant pluralism. It has protected human rights and the environment. It has rightly criticized the ‘often exclusionary, patriarchal, sexist, and colonialistic agendas’ of the blue and orange levels below it. But, ‘it has also turned its guns on all post green stages as well, with the most unfortunate results.’ It is highly ‘subjectivist.’ Individual preferences largely determine truth values, if no harm is being done: ‘what is right is simply what individuals and cultures have agreed upon at any given moment; there are no universal claims for knowledge or truth; each person is free to find his or her own values . . .’

In his view, and he goes on to explore this in a whole chapter to itself, ‘because pluralistic relativism has such an intensely subjectivistic stance, it is especially prey to narcissism.’ This attraction is so strong (page 28) people get ‘fixated to the green meme’ and will not let it go so they can move onwards and upwards.

Rifkin has much to say about this trap of narcissism to which I will be returning in far more detail in a separate sequence of posts. A brief quote will have to do for now (page 417):

The countercultural movement of the 1960s and early 1970s was not without its own shortcomings. More than a few observers looked into the eyes of the young free spirits and saw not a new level of empathic sensibility but only a rampant, carefree narcissism.

He also quotes an American sociologist, Philip Rieff (page 418):

Comparing theological consciousness with the new psychological consciousness, Rieff snorted that while ‘religious man was born to be saved; psychological man is born to be pleased.’ . . . . [T]he evocation of feelings becomes the ultimate “turn on” and being a person of good character, accountable to immutable truths is replaced by an actor playing out various identities while engaged in pleasurable mind games.

In the interests of brevity and moving onto other key areas I have simplified his argument here and anyone interested in grasping his full meaning should read chapter 2 –  ‘Boomeritis’  – for themselves.

We will need to wait till the next post to explore some of the implications of all this. Hopefully things will become a bit less technical then.

Footnotes:

[1] It is perhaps worth adding that, in Wade’s view expressed in Changes of Mind,conformist awareness (page 117) ‘is thought to represent the mainstream consciousness in civilised cultures, and it is tellingly labelled institutional, conventional, traditional, and conformist – the designation used here.’ The implication is that a huge proportion of people will currently live their whole life at this level in our culture. Studies such as those by Pettigrew of discrimination under apartheid in South Africa and discrimination in the American south of the 60s, strongly suggest that as much as 60% of any population could be in the conformist category. Stanley Milgram’s and Philip Zimbardo’s separate but equally disturbing findings point in the same direction.

For a recent discussion of where this desire to conform can lead us see the Guardian article on whistle blowing. This is why people who blow the whistle on powerful organisations are all too often left isolated, deserted even by those who said they would stand by them. Andrew Smith in the Guardian piece explains: ‘. . . even the strongest-willed individuals find the burden of standing out from the crowd unbearable over time . . . .  and we have a clear picture of ourselves as social creatures who, for the most part, would rather be wrong than isolated.’

[2] I have found it helpful to bear in mind Wade’s views on those levels, which in her hierarchy precede this one and in my view correspond to Wilber’s fairly closely. Her affiliative consciousness (his ‘communitarian’) is seen by Wade as one of two possible developments from her conformist level (his ‘mythic’). To simplify somewhat, if a developing self is inclined towards right-brain functioning with an emphasis on intuition and affect, the next stage will be affiliative. A left-brain bias, with a greater interest in rules than feelings, will move a developing self towards Achievement mode (Wilber’s ‘individualistic/scientific’). People may shift between these two levels before moving higher, if they ever do.

In this and many other ways I have found her model both subtler and more flexible than I understand his to be, and therefore more convincing. Rather than repeat hers here instead of his, as I was initially tempted to do, I thought it only fair (as well as less confusing) to quote his model and his colours. There are also other theories about levels of consciousness, Dabrowski’s for instance whose ideas I will be posting about later this week, and Maslow’s whose perspective I will be looking at when I come to consider John Fitzgerald Medina’s book Faith, Physics & Psychology.

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When I started blogging in 2009, I thought I was embarking upon something radically different from anything I’d ever done before. Now I am fairly sure that was not the case.

Recently I went back to my journal entries of 1982 because I wanted to read through the notes I had taken from Peter Koestenbaum’s book New Image of the Person: Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy. Because I wanted to catch all the quotations, I read through the pages of my journal more carefully than I usually do when only checking out a date or a name. It didn’t take long to show that it had taken me over a month to read the book, and my notes are interspersed with personal, psychological, existential and spiritual reflections, with groups of quotations from other books I was also reading at the same time thrown in, including Albert Camus’s The Plague. A very familiar pattern that clearly hadn’t started with this blog.

Basically, my diary was where I did all my thinking before I transferred part of it to my blogging. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose! The only real difference is that my diary was not in the public domain.

Levels of Consciousness 

In looking at my Koestenbaum notes I find many things I will want to come back to in due course. The first thing that is perhaps worth flagging up, given the themes I have explored on this blog, is the section of notes about levels of consciousness.

If you had asked me on oath where was the first place I had read about this idea I might have said Jenny Wade or Jeremy Rifkin, with a possible nod at Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. I’d know it couldn’t have been  Ken Wilber or Kazimierz Dąbrowski, neither of whom I read on the subject till much later. It would never have occurred to me that Koestenbaum was even in the mix, let alone the first person to run those words past my brain.

What does he have to say about levels? Well, part of the reason I still resonate to some of what he says is that it is rooted in the process he calls reflection, which I have dealt with at length on this blog. This basically involves separating consciousness from its contents to the maximum extent possible, a process he tracks through various stages.

Koestenbaum’s model boasts six levels. He explains these over half a dozen pages or so (pages 77 -82).

The first stage, our starting point as it were, is where there is ‘no experienced distance between consciousness and object… we call this condition of consciousness the animal consciousness.’ The act of stepping back brings you to the second level: “eidetic or abstract consciousness,” in short to the ability to think. Next we reach “individual consciousness… [t]his level of consciousness thinks of itself as an individual and isolated self…’

This is where it really begins to get interesting.

The next ‘deepened level of consciousness is called the intersubjective or intimate consciousness… Two people do not feel like two individuals in one bipolar field, where each individual consciousness is an object to the other; they feel like a combined subjective core to which a world of objects is given in common.’ He uses the analogy of two space modules docking: “when they finally lock into each other, a common door is opened, their space is stretched and expanded, and a larger and communal inner space is created.”

What I am going to say now is extremely subjective. I’m going to say it anyway. When I was working well as a therapist, how I experienced the interaction between the client and me is almost exactly captured by those words. I felt as though I was in a quasi-meditative state which had opened an airlock, to borrow from his metaphor, in between my consciousness and the client’s, and the client had reciprocated. All sorts of factors could interfere with that process either on my side or on theirs, however it happened sufficiently often to make effective therapy possible.

As I reflect on this thought now, it seems to me that for consultation in a Bahá’í sense to work (something I have also explored at great length on this blog), something analogous has to happen at a group level. This is where he goes next, I think.

The fourth stage he labels ‘social or communal consciousness… It is the experience of unity with a large number of conscious centres over a long period of time.’ I don’t think by this he necessarily means the hive effect Haidt describes in The Righteous Mind. That promotes not wisdom but instinctive groupthink, or on a larger scale harmless collective, or sometimes even dangerous mob behaviour, rather than reflective cohesion of any kind.

I can again subjectively attest to something like this happening when I worked over a period of 25 years with a small group of others sincerely attempting to make decisions about all kinds of matters from the mundanely practical, through the highly emotional to the deeply spiritual. The group changed its members one or two at a time over the years as a result of an annual electoral process, but this did nothing to impair the sense of collective consciousness, one which, far from creating mindless conformity, encouraged the honest expression of diverse opinions while containing such differences within an ultimately harmonious frame.

The next two levels I have no personal experience of myself, but feel that the mystical literature testifies to something of this kind, including at points the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh.

The fifth stage is ‘cosmic consciousness’ where ‘the social consciousness becomes now the object of our consciousness… With this reduction we have reached the experience of universality.’

This may be at least in part what Bahá’u’lláh is describing when, in the Seven Valleys, He writes (page 18):

[The wayfarer] looketh on all things with the eye of oneness, and seeth the brilliant rays of the divine sun shining from the dawning point of Essence alike on all created things, and the lights of singleness reflected over all creation

He explains that differences are in the eye of us as beholder. He describes how the light we see is affected by the object it falls upon (page 19):

. . . colours become visible in every object according to the nature of that object. For instance, in a yellow globe, the rays shine yellow; in a white the rays are white; and in a red, the red rays are manifest.

This does nothing to detract from the pure whiteness of the original light itself, its inclusion of all differences in one. I absolutely believe in the reality of this level of awareness, even though it has eluded my consciousness so far. The essential unity of all things is hard to discern behind the material differences.

And the sixth and last level is even further beyond my reach. It is ‘the eternal now… when even space and time become the objects of the intentional stream of consciousness. The subjective core which has succeeded in making an object of cosmic consciousness experiences itself outside of space and time.’

Rovelli has managed to explain lucidly how at least one theory of physics suggests there is such a realm wrapped inside quantum reality.

He believes that the evidence as we best understand it, from a loop theory point of view (he’s not a fan of string theory), is that matter is not infinitely divisible and there comes a point where it cannot be divided anymore at the quantum level. When he is talking about space, the quanta he is concerned with are the quanta of gravity, which constitute space itself (page 148): ‘the quanta of gravity, that is, are not in space, there are themselves space.’ What is crucial is the relationship between particles, their interconnections. He clarifies this by saying (page 150):

Physical space is the fabric resulting from the ceaseless swarming of this web of relations. The lines [between quanta] themselves are nowhere; they are not in a place but rather create places through their interactions. Space is created by the interaction of individual quanta of gravity.

This is how space disappears. Now for time (page 158):

We must learn to think of the world not as something which changes in time but in some other way. Things change only in relation to one another. At a fundamental level, there is no time. Our sense of the common passage of time is only an approximation which is valid for our macroscopic scale. It derives from the fact that we perceive the world in a coarse-grained fashion.

I think all this may go some way to explaining why I found Koestenbaum so fascinating in the first place and why I feel moved to revisit the notes I took all those years ago. Also I feel that my previous habit of restricting my quotes from his book to those relating to reflection only has rather sold him short. This is the beginning of my attempt to make up for that.

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brian-cox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Symbolic logic

A Deep Concord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Real Conflict

religion & Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In the light of Monday’s link to Sharon Rawlette’s review of Leslie Kean’s book Surviving Death, it seemed worth republishing once more this sequence on essentially the same subject from a somewhat different angle. This is the last of the four: they appeared on consecutive days.

Having sought to establish, in his book Close Connections, that there is a spiritual dimension to reality, and that much that materialists see as explained away completely by the brain in fact has its roots in this other dimension, Hatcher shifts his focus onto a closer examination of some of the detailed implications of this.

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Jenny Wade

For me,  perhaps the most fascinating one of all concerns the issue of memory. I’ve blogged about it a number of times. It is by no means settled yet what memory is and where it resides. Hatcher deals with this at some length. He explains his model in terms of spirit (page 251):

. . . . according to [the] Bahá’í perspective, the memory of self – even the recollection of specific events – will be retained by the soul and regained once the constraints of the associative relationship with the body are severed and the soul is released from its . . . . indirect connection with reality.‘

It may seem improbable that there could be any empirical basis for this. However, I have reviewed on this blog Jenny Wade’s book – Changes of Mind – and she is unequivocal that for her the evidence in favour of memory being held outside the brain is compelling. She reviews a mass of data based on careful investigations of the experiences of children, either from interviews with children or work with adults about prior experiences. What they described was carefully checked against the reports of independent witnesses (page 44):

Regression subjects … have accurately reported incidents long before any significant brain growthis possible, in some cases before the embryonic body was even formed.

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William Wordsworth

Her model states that at conception the soul is independent of the body and its memories can be accessed by the child until about the age of four, after which the body becomes a barrier denying access. This is uncannily reminiscent of Wordsworth’s lines in the Ode on Immortality. I need to quote the whole stanza (lines 59-77):

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

What other evidence have we for supposing something rather more special than a mechanical process is going on here?

For me the growing literature on near death experiences (NDEs), which I have reviewed elsewhere, settles the question that consciousness is not produced by the brain and resides somewhere else. The brain simply decodes it for our body to use. It’s a no-brainer then that memory is no different. The brain can access it but does not contain it. Hatcher discusses other lines of thought that tend in the same direction.

Computer models do not provide an adequate account of how new learning is recorded and memories laid down. On page 252 Hatcher quotes from an article by Joannie Schrof ‘What is a Memory Made of?’

Where a computer encodes data in strings of 0’s and 1’s, the brain forms ephemeral patterns of chemical and electrical impulses. Where computers record information in serial order like an index-card file, the human brain creates sprawling interconnections; more than a hundred billion nerves cells each connected to hundreds of thousands of others to form a billion connections.

In addition, he points towards Robert Rosen‘s book Life Itself (pages 253-54) who writes:

. . . no new information . . . can be processed by a computer if the computer has not already been programmed to consider this information. The brain, however, can effectively create new sequences and new pathways.

Others that I have referred to elsewhere have also raised radical doubts about the computer model. Take Pim van Lommel again, in his book Consciousness beyond LifeHe quotes the conclusions of a computer expert and a neurobiologist (page 193):

Simon Berkovich, a computer expert, has calculated that despite the brain’s huge numbers of synapses, its capacity for storing a lifetime’s memories, along with associated thoughts and emotions, is completely insufficient. . . . . . Neurobiologist Herms Romijn, formerly of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, also demonstrated that the storage of all memories in the brain is anatomically and functionally impossible.

Credibility is lent to the implications of this argument by exceptional but genuine cases of brain damage, take for example (page 194):

John Lorber’s description of a healthy young man with a university degree in mathematics and an IQ of 126. A brain scan revealed a severe case of hydrocephalus: 95 percent of his skull was filled with cerebrospinal fluid, and his cerebral cortex measured only about 2 millimeters thick, leaving barely any brain tissue. The weight of his remaining brain was estimated at 100 grams (compared to a normal weight of 1,500 grams), and yet his brain function was unimpaired.

Pribram

Karl Pribram (for the YouTube interview this comes from see link)

Though some critics feel that Lorber has overstated his case, the general point that severely compromised brains can function improbably well is not in question.

Where Hatcher goes next surprised me. He draws on the work of Pribram. I had read, as an undergraduate, his early work on plans and the structure of behaviour but perhaps I qualified too soon to benefit from the direction of his later work, that Hatcher refers to now. He describes (page 255) Pribram’s 1985  ‘holographic theory.’

As a concept of how the brain processes ideas or memory, the holographic theory implies that each portion of the brain contributing to the recollected idea would contain the complete thought, not a piece of it.

This took Pribram somewhere even more radically different from what I was taught in the 70s and early 80s (page 257-259):

Pribram has stated that the more he studies the brain and its functions, the more he feels that there may well be something outside the brain that accounts for its activity and capacity! . . . . .  the source from which the brain receives its “program” needs to be greater than the brain itself – the cause has to be greater than the effect it produces.’

And we find ourselves back with a familiar metaphor (page 257):

. . . Pribram has observed that when he studies the brain, he feels that in truth he is examining an elaborate transceiver rather than the ultimate repository of memory, the ultimate origin of self-consciousness, the primal engine of creativity, the seminal source of will, or the instigator of action.

Hatcher pushes this further and confronts the basic question which he feels is unanswerable in material terms (page 258): ‘. . . how can the brain be in charge of making itself function as a brain?’

This for him constitutes irrefutable grounds for believing in a transcendent reality imbued with a higher consciousness (page 258):

The most elaborate and powerful computer we have created or will ever create cannot program itself unless it is programmed to program itself. In short, there must exist for any given machine – or machine model of the brain – some willful input from an outside source for it to have any sense of goals or values, or for it to be capable of evaluating progress towards those goals.

And this brings him to a powerful and important point. We have a delicate and complex instrument entrusted to us for purposes that we are hardly even beginning to understand and we have to treat it with the utmost care and respect (page 259):

. . . the brain, as a counterpart of the soul and its faculties, . . . .  must be capable of mimicking in physical . . . terms everything the soul feels, conceives, decides, or wills. This fact explains why a human soul cannot associate with (operate through) anything less complex or less ingeniously devised than the human brain. . . . . Any practice or substance that distorts the associative relationship between soul and body or that tampers with the brain endangers our ability to function as complete human beings and, thereby, to fulfill our earthly purpose of attaining the knowledge of abstract reality . . .

For me this book pulled together thinking from many disciplines into a coherent and compelling case for the soul. The work he adduces usefully complements my own reading and suggests many directions I could now take it. For that I am most grateful. The least I could do, I felt, was bring this thoughtful book to  the attention of others.

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History has thus far recorded principally the experience of tribes, cultures, classes, and nations. With the physical unification of the planet in this century and acknowledgement of the interdependence of all who live on it, the history of humanity as one people is now beginning. The long, slow civilizing of human character has been a sporadic development, uneven and admittedly inequitable in the material advantages it has conferred. Nevertheless, endowed with the wealth of all the genetic and cultural diversity that has evolved through past ages, the earth’s inhabitants are now challenged to draw on their collective inheritance to take up, consciously and systematically, the responsibility for the design of their future.

(From The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement issued by the Bahá’í International Community March 1995)

Throughout This Changes Everything, Klein describes the climate crisis as a confrontation between capitalism and the planet. It would be more accurate to describe the crisis as a clash between the expanding demands of humankind and a finite world, but however the conflict is framed there can be no doubt who the winner will be. The Earth is vastly older and stronger than the human animal. . . . . . The change that is under way is no more than the Earth returning to equilibrium – a process that will go on for centuries or millennia whatever anyone does. Rather than denying this irreversible shift, we’d be better off trying to find ways of living with it.

(From John Gray’s review of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate)

Emp Civil

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on ‘The Empathic Civilisation.’

After something like four years I finally overcame the reservations and irritations recorded in a republished post and finished reading The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin. Such a time span is not unusual for me as I read books on rather the same principle as they make Russian dolls. Each book I start triggers me to start reading another until I have several books in progress nested one within the other. Often the one I started last is finished first before I trace my steps back to its predecessor (or not, as the case may be).

I very much want to record my response to this massive survey of the current state of our civilisation and its origins. However, it runs to more than 600 pages and tackles a number of major themes in the process. In the end, I have come to feel that my approach needs to be divided into at least four parts, some of them split into two, and even then I will be doing aspects of his thesis scant justice.

I need to start with an overview, otherwise my approach will be too confusing to be useful.

Then it seems best to tackle his ideas about how the widening circle of our empathy is expanding the reach of our civilisation and at the same time creating a potentially world-destroying level of entropy. This may not become completely clear until the second post.

It’s only then that it will make sense for me to explore his ideas about levels of civilisation. We’ve been here before with Ken Wilber and Jenny Wade. While his approach has echoes of theirs, it is very different. My caveats about his perspective on religion, through relevant at this point, will probably be dealt with in more detail at the very end of the whole sequence of posts.

After the levels, though perhaps most importantly, I plan to look at his ideas on child rearing and education before attempting to express my own take on the issue, which is, of course, deeply influenced by the Bahá’í perspective.

The Overview

Perhaps perversely, my introduction will start with the last paragraph of his book. Don’t worry: I won’t be working backwards from there. He writes (page 616):

The Empathic Civilisation is emerging. We are fast extending our empathic embrace to the whole of humanity and the vast project of life that envelops the planet. But our rush to universal empathic connectivity is running up against a rapidly accelerating entropic juggernaut in the form of climate change and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Can we reach biosphere consciousness and global empathy in time to avert planetary collapse?

One of the most succinct though not necessarily the clearest passages in the book to unpack some of the implications of this comes on page 254. What follows is the main gist without clearly unpacking his six interconnected points.

He starts from what has come to seem an old chestnut: the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. He sees it as an example of a recurring pattern throughout history ‘where the synergies created by a new energy and communications regime facilitate more complex social arrangements, which, in turn, provide the context for a qualitative change in human consciousness.’ Decoded more simply, this means that cooperative connections multiply in an organic fashion over fairly long periods of time and result in our seeing the world and other human beings differently. As he goes on to explain this is very much a double-edged sword (page 254-55):

The change in human consciousness is played out in a dialectic between a rising empathic surge and a growing entropy deficit. . . . . When [entropy] eventually exceed[s] the value of the energy flowing through the society’s infrastructure, the civilisation withers and even occasionally dies. . . . While the unfolding interplay between an empathic surge and an entropic deficit often – but not always – leads to collapse, what remains is a residue of the new consciousness that carries forward, if however tenuously, and becomes a memory lifeline to draw upon when new energy/communications regimes emerge.

What point does he feel we have now reached? First of all, there is the question of sheer size (page 424)

The world has shrunk and the human race finds itself nearly face-to-face in the world of cyberspace. Distances are becoming less relevant in the era of globalisation.

Secondly there is the complexity this brings in its wake (page 425):

A vast array of economic, social, and political institutions oversee the most complex civilisation ever conceived by human beings. The entire system is managed and maintained by billions of people, differentiated into thousands of professional talents and vocational skills, all working in specialised tasks in an interdependent global labyrinth.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

Empathy has inevitably extended, in spite of the friction entailed (ibid.):

Brought together in an ever closer embrace, we are increasingly exposed to each other in ways that are without precedent. While the backlash of globalisation – xenophobia, political populism, and terrorist activity – is widely reported, far less attention has been paid to the growing empathic extension, as hundreds of millions of people come in contact with diverse others.

Now to one of his key points. This empathic growth comes at a price (page 452):

… the leap in empathic consciousness is made possible by the expropriation of vast amounts of the planet’s energy and other resources to attain the level of economic security necessary to allow people to shift from survival values to materialist values and finally to quality-of-life values. . . . Unfortunately, the leap in empathic consciousness rides atop the growing entropic stream that’s turning much of the planet into a wasteland and further impoverishing a large proportion of the human race. . . .

The question, then, is whether the minority of the human race that is undergoing an empathic surge, but at the expense of impoverishing the planet and a large portion of the human race, can translate their post-materialist values into a workable cultural, economic, and political game plan that can steer themselves and their communities to a more sustainable and equitable future in time to avoid the abyss.

This paves the way for his explanation of a critical set of challenges (page 510):

Half of the human race is using up more of the Earth’s fossil-fuel energy and natural resources than is necessary for a comfortable life and is becoming increasingly unhappy with each increment of additional wealth. The other half of the human race is digging its way out of poverty and becoming happier as it approaches the minimum level of comfort. But there isn’t enough oil and other fossil fuels – or uranium for nuclear power – to keep the wealthy in a luxurious lifestyle or elevate three billion poor people to a comfortable lifestyle.

He recognises that affluence tends to increase our attachment to acquiring additional material wealth and decrease our sensitivity to the plight of others – so empathy tends to go by the board. Our greatest challenge is (pages 510-11):

How, then, do we reorganise our relationships with each other and the Earth so the “haves” can tread more lightly and the “have-nots” establish a more firm footing with the environment, allowing each other to come together at the threshold of human comfort? It’s at the threshold that we optimise empathetic consciousness and create the conditions for a sustainable global society.

If we fail the price could be our survival (page 612):

We now have colonised virtually every square inch of the planet and established the scaffolding for a truly global civilisation that is connecting the human race in a single embrace, but at the expense of an entropic bill that is threatening our extinction.

His analysis of the problem is powerful and compelling.

As I have indicated at the start, the next post will dig more deeply into his exploration of the relationship between empathy and entropy. After that we will move on to considering that old chestnut – Levels of Consciousness – but in his rather different terms. At some point we will need to consider his concept of the biosphere as a motivator for collective action and a sense of transcendence, but first we need to examine his model of child rearing.

A thread that I will not be able to resist weaving into this scheme, probably in the final section, is his rationale for excluding religion from his model. We need to consider whether that makes or breaks his plan for a possible way forward.

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. . . . psychotic symptoms exist on a continuum even in healthy individuals (Stefanis et al., 2002). This, too, seems to be explicable if psychosis is a way to cope with existential distress – as psychosis would be quantitatively, rather than qualitatively, different from normal.

(Psychosis as Coping by Grant S Shields – page 146 in Existential Analysis 25.1: January 2014)

There is growing interest in the idea of that ‘psychotic’ crises can sometimes be part of, or related to spiritual crises, and many people feel that their crises have contributed to spiritual growth. A number of clinical psychologists have also explored the interface between psychosis and spirituality. Some believe that at least some ‘psychotic’ episodes can be transformative crises that contain the potential for personal, including spiritual, growth. Many people who believe that there is a spiritual element to their experiences find support from others with similar beliefs invaluable, for example within faith communities.

(From Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia published by the British Psychological Society – page 55)

In the last post I began to look at a paper (pages 41-49, from the British Journal of Clinical Psychology – 2012 – 51, 37-53) by Charles Heriot-Maitland, Matthew Knight and Emmanuelle Peters on the subject of what they call Out-of-the-Ordinary-Experiences or OOEs.

Where their findings became even more intriguing from my point of view was when their discussion used terminology with clear spiritual implications that are held in common across NDEs, mystical states and meditative practices. They write:

Another subjective phenomenon reported by both [clinical] and [nonclinical] participants was the sensation of ego loss, what essentially seemed to be a breakdown of the normal psychological relationships between mind-body and/or self-others.

A fear reaction was frequently reported and ‘is likely to have largely come from the unfamiliarity of [the] experience . . . . It is possible that more prolonged absorption was caused by the emotionally fulfilling roll of the OOE in a psychological problem-solving process.’

This was followed in their report by more of a spiritual nature concerning the discovery of deeper meaning:

This symbolic, deeper meaning perhaps reflects the quality of awareness that is not filtered or confined by the conceptual boundaries of ordinary day-to-day experience… If the ego breaks down, then it may be that perception of the world becomes unbounded and limitless . . . .

This, in their view, paves the way for a shift in consciousness:

Following on from the previous theme, which conveys an awareness that is free from the influences of a ‘conditioned’ conceptual framework, this theme suggests the implementation of a new conceptual framework, or a new way of looking at the world.

levels-of-consciousness v3Where their work maps onto that of Jenny Wade is in the idea that, when our old models of reality cease to work in new situations, a state of uncomfortable dissonance is created that leads to a breakthrough to new levels of understanding:

It could be that the initial psychological crisis arose in many participants due to an inadequacy of their existing conceptual framework in making sense of their emotional experience. . . . . . It may be that a new way of thinking was the necessary, adaptive ‘solution’ to the crisis; that the old conceptual framework had to be replaced by a new one for the emotional experience to become integrated.

Dabrowski's TPD diagramWade’s model maps closely onto Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration in key respects. She analyses, in a more close-grained fashion than Dabrowski, which kind of conflict and discomfort spurs us to move up from the comfort zone of our present level of consciousness to the next step up the ladder of awareness. Dabrowski, as I have explored elsewhere, correlates this most strongly with an intensity best described as suffering.

The next point the paper makes is crucial:

[T]he fact that, apart from existential questioning, there has been no notable difference up to this point in the OOEs of [clinical] and [non-clinical] groups implies that this problem-solving process is neither pathological nor indicative of clinical psychosis.

The real issue lies somewhere else altogether. They explain in a particularly important passage:

More of the [nonclinical] participants received validating/accepting responses from others, and more of the [clinical] group received invalidating responses, as these quotes illustrate:

‘[I] relayed this experience to psychiatrists in the [hospital] and was sent for EEG tests, was told that I was hallucinating – this guy just didn’t listen to, just obviously haven’t heard anything really that I’d said . . .’

‘Somebody came up to me and said “well, you know, we really need to hear from you. That’s a very powerful message to people, and they need to hear that message.” And that did matter to me.’

For the individual who is, perhaps, already slightly hesitant about how best to incorporate their experience into their social worlds, the difference between these two social interactions could be immense.

All non-clinical participants demonstrated some prior understanding or interest in their OOEs, which are generally described as ‘life-enhancing.’ Furthermore, ‘These life-enhancing qualities, which were reported by the majority of participants, add further support to the psychological problem-solving hypothesis. Not only did the OOEs provide many participants with relief from emotional suffering, but they also added a dimension that enriched other life domains. . . . . The medical (illness) explanation clearly presented barriers to similar reflections in the clinical population . . .’

The blame for why some people’s experiences are eventually experienced as dark, negative and ultimately inescapable seems to lie with the negative approach adopted by others, especially the medical profession:

More [non-clinical] than [clinical] participants viewed their experience as a temporary stage or process. . . . . . [I]f the causes and subjective nature of OOEs are no different between [non-clinical] and [clinical] groups, then it seems misleading for professionals to inform one group that their OOEs signal ‘the end,’ [ie they are stuck with them] while the other group continue with their (enhanced) lives.’

dancing-past-the-darkThis has echoes for me of how the reaction of others determines how the experiencer responds to distressing NDEs, which also has an impact on their future mental well-being. Nancy Evans Bush writes (Dancing Past the Dark: Kindle reference 2502-05):

Experiencers have told many sad stories of going to a professional for help in understanding their NDE, only to find themselves caught up in the medical model, pathologized by a diagnostic label and the NDE dismissed as meaningless. . . . . . . People have also told of being dismissed by their rabbi or pastor as well, for in a secular society much awareness of deep spiritual process is lost or distorted, even within religious institutions themselves.

Stephanie Beards and Helen Fisher, in a 2014 paper (Social Psychiatry Psychiatric Epidemiology 49: 1541–1544), shed further light on the dynamics of this. They write (page 1542):

It has been proposed that negative core schemas [ingrained patterns of thought or behaviour that affect experience] are formed early in life and may result from adverse experiences in childhood. If an individual experiences further trauma later in life, these schemas could become (re)activated, leading to emotional changes which may not only cause the development of psychotic experiences, but alter the appraisal of these anomalous occurrences, further increasing distress, and preventing a benign explanation from being concluded.

Even so, such experiences do not need to cast a shadow over the rest of a person’s life. The experiences themselves, as the current British Journal of Clinical Psychology study demonstrates, are not significantly different between the two groups, nor are the potential explanations they develop. Nearly all participants gave some acknowledgement of the link between psychotic and spiritual experience.

Because the OOEs of all participants seemed, at some level, to fulfil a psychological purpose, they were interpreted as being a part of an adaptive psychological problem-solving process, which frequently involved the breakdown of conceptual ego boundaries, and the formation of a new conceptual outlook.

However, regarding group differences (my emphases), they write:

[T]here was a sense that [non-clinical] participants were better able to incorporate their OOEs into their personal and social world. This was partly due to more [non-clinical] participants having prior conceptual knowledge of, and in some cases, open attitudes towards, there OOEs; however, the more prominent reason seem to be that more [non-clinical] participants received validation and acceptance from others.

The saddest point of all perhaps is this:

It would seem that the more OOEs are associated with clinical psychosis, the less chance people have of recognising their desirability, transiency, and psychological benefits, and the more chance they have of detrimental clinical consequences.

They draw some very strong conclusions from this:

An important clinical implication is that psychotic experiences should be normalised, and people with psychosis should be helped to re-connect the meaning of their OOEs with the genuine emotional and existential concerns that preceded them. . . . . . However, the current findings suggest that the argument for normalisation goes far deeper than just its clinical usefulness; they imply that a more ‘radical normalisation’ approach is needed, when normalising OOEs becomes an intrinsic formulation and treatment principle.

During my decluttering, I also came across a number of journals which describe current approaches to creating psychological descriptions of a patient’s problems, known as formulations in psychobabble. Nowhere, for any patient group, did I find reference to any kind of spiritual dimension, though the word ‘cultural’ was thrown in from time to time, and might have concealed an entrance through which such considerations could possibly have infiltrated the consultation process.

When it comes to psychosis, where the default first-line treatment is medication rather than therapy (or meditation), there is an additional problem:

Unlike antipsychotic drugs, which can suppress the emotional expression, this approach [of accepting the validity of the emotions underlying the OOEs] would validate and encourage the emotional expression, whilst working on building a more helpful conceptualisation or narrative about the emotional concerns.’

The authors do not regard their paper as definitive. They are all to aware of its possible limitations, shown, for example, by their reference to methodological caveats concerning small sample size and possible confounding variables not having been picked up at screening and thereafter controlled for.

I do not think those caveats constitute reasons for ignoring or minimising the significance of their findings, but rather they should be a motivating factor for the generation of further work on this issue. In the meantime, even in advance of further findings, we should be spurred to introduce into the clinical setting a far greater sensitivity to the emotional and spiritual meaning of such experiences.

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