Posts Tagged ‘John Fitzgerald Medina’

In the kingdom (or is it the mall?) of the West, consciousness has lifted the transcendent ever higher and further away from actual life. The bridgeable chasm has become a cosmic void.

(James Hillman – The Soul’s Code: in search of character & calling – page 110)

Sharon Rawlette put me on to Leslie Kean’s brilliant and rigorous exploration of the evidence for an afterlife, Surviving Death. It was a compelling and inspiring read that triggered me to go back and re-read a book – David Fontana’s Is There an Afterlife? – which I had read long before I started blogging and from which I took no systematic notes.

As I went back over Fontana’s book I slowly became aware that there was a key issue I needed to explore that is flagged up strongly in both books. I decided that this took precedence for me at this point over their impressive research, because the feeling came through strongly from both writers that no matter how compelling the evidence and no matter how rigorous their presentation of it, there would be obdurate resistance to even considering it let alone accepting it. As I will examine later in this post such denial of legitimate evidence is far from uncommon in our supposedly scientific culture, and is not confined to matters of the spirit.

A key passage from Fontana reads (page 94):

We can go further and say that not only is the dogmatic approach by materialistic science to the mysteries of the human mind misleading it reveals a disturbing ignorance. Ignorance is not so much the act of not knowing something, it is the act of not knowing something but claiming to know. . . . . . Lacking any personal acquaintance with inner spiritual or psychic experiences, the materialistic scientist ‘knows’ that those who have such experiences are wrong in their interpretation of them, while he or she is of course right.

This insight follows immediately after his account of the life and death of Socrates and the conclusions he draws from that (page 93):

How interesting that nearly two and a half thousand years ago Socrates was giving very much the same explanation of mediumistic gifts and their inhibition by the conscious mind that we might give today. This brings home to us an essential but often forgotten truth, namely that the knowledge of the spiritual dimension possessed by the ancients has hardly been bettered. The myth of eternal progress in human understanding, which lies behind so much of our delusory intellectual arrogance in modern times, can clearly be seen at least in spiritual matters for what it is, a myth.

In his view we have sold ‘the birthright of our innate spiritual wisdom for the mess of potage of material progress.’

The arrogance of our ignorance goes back a long way and across more than one dimension of human experience.

Take for example John Fitzgerald Medina’s exploration of the misguided attitude of the European settlers to the native American mode of agriculture in his book Faith, Physics & Psychology.

The sophistication of the Native American model lay not just in politics (pages 199-200):

Contrary to the American colonists’ misinformed judgements, much evidence now exists to show that the American Indians were in fact, quite adept at cultivating a large variety of plants in a diversity of climates, soils, and environmental conditions. They utilised the Earths resources wisely, gently, and reverently.

This system may be at least equal if not superior to our environmentally disastrous monoculture (pages 201-02):

Unlike the Europeans, who planted row after row of the same plants, the Indians throughout North and Central America cultivated small plots of land that often looked like wild, haphazard gardens. . . . Scientific studies have shown that such Indian-style plots, call milpas in Mexico, are resilient to pests and weeds and protect the topsoil from erosion. . . . . .

Modern agronomists marvel at the simplicity and productivity of Indian-style agricultural plots, and some are actively studying it as an alternative to the European style, monocultural plantation form of farming, which leads to widespread soil erosion and degradation of topsoil due to the massive use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers.

Nonetheless, in the arrogance of our ignorance we dispossessed the native Americans of their land in the mistaken conviction that we knew better and they just didn’t know how to grow crops properly, justifying our actions by a distortion of scripture.

The irrigation system in ancient India was similarly disparaged with drastic consequences. Fred Pearce explains in his 2006 book, When the Rivers Run Dry (pages 301-02):

Until the early nineteenth century, much of India was irrigated from shallow mud-walled reservoirs in valley bottoms that captured the monsoon rains in summer. The Indians called them tanka, a word the English adopted into their own language as tanks.

Most of the tanks were quite small, covering a hectare at most, and irrigating perhaps twenty hectares. Farmers scooped the water from the tanks, diverted it down channels onto fields, or left it to sink into the soil and refill their wells. . . . Farmers guarded the slimy nutrient-rich mud in their tanks almost as much as the water. They dug it out to put onto their land, and turned silted-up former tanks into new farmland.

. . . The system thrived until the British took charge in India. . . . The British water engineers largely ignored the village tanks, apparently not realising that they were how India fed itself. . . . As the British and later the Indian government itself promoted more modern water gathering technologies, they gradually fell into disuse, but today, as the formal irrigation systems established on the Western model fail across the country, and as farmers are having to pump from ever greater depths to retrieve underground water, the old tanks are starting to be restored.

Before we get too smug about it, we need to realise that this kind of blindness is as prevalent as ever.

Sometimes it’s entirely wilful as with Holocaust denial, where the evidence is unquestionable and easily accessed. Sometimes it’s partly motivated by self-interest or an ostrich approach where keeping our head in the sand seems less of a problem than facing up to reality, but also the sheer complexity of an issue such a climate change can make denial seem rational in the face of such demanding data. I’ve dealt with the complexity issue elsewhere on this blog so won’t rehearse it all here.

My long-standing personal commitment to investigating issues for myself and checking out the evidence carefully has been further reinforced by the faith I have chosen to follow. Bahá’í Scripture is unequivocal on this issue. We must investigate for ourselves if truth and justice are to be well served (see link for a fuller exploration of this theme).

At the individual level justice is that faculty of the human soul that enables each person to distinguish truth from falsehood. In the sight of God, Bahá’u’lláh avers, Justice is ‘the best beloved of all things[1]’ since it permits each individual to see with his own eyes rather than the eyes of others, to know through his own knowledge rather than the knowledge of his neighbour or group.

(Prosperity of Humankind – Section II)

There is no get-out clause:

If, in the Day when all the peoples of the earth will be gathered together, any man should, whilst standing in the presence of God, be asked: ‘Wherefore hast thou disbelieved in My beauty and turned away from My Self?’ and if such a man should reply and say: ‘Inasmuch as all men have erred, and none hath been found willing to turn his face to the Truth, I, too, following their example, have grievously failed to recognize the Beauty of the Eternal,’ such a plea will, assuredly, be rejected.

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh – LXXV)

I won’t labour the point any further. In the next post I’ll move onto to considering further implications.


[1] Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, Arabic No: 2.

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Image adapted from the Taschen edition of Renee Magritte

Image adapted from the Taschen edition of René Magritte

My parody of materialist thought last Thursday gives me a good excuse to republish this series on Medina’s book. This is the last of three posts: the first came out on Friday, the second yesterday.

Readers of this blog will be well aware that I’m on a bit of a crusade on behalf of consciousness as a spiritual entity. I left Medina last time just as he moved into that territory in his attack on materialistic scientism. The mind-brain data we have throws up a tough problem for dogmatic proponents of reductionism, though.

The Brain as a Filter

Most of us come to think that if you damage the brain you damage the mind because all the evidence we hear about points that way. We are not generally presented with any other model or any of the evidence that might call conventional wisdom into question, at least not by the elder statesmen of the scientific community.

To name just one example, however, there is a wealth of data generated by near-death experiences, some of it now prospective and therefore more compelling (I have republished some of these data in the last two weeks). This strongly suggests that consciousness is to some degree independent of the brain and can function lucidly when the brain is completely out of operation. I have covered other areas of research that lead to a similar conclusion and will also be republishing that in the coming weeks.

So, there are other models that do not reduce the mind simply to brain activity (page 73):

The first step towards translating the mind-body problem into an empirical problem, therefore, is to recognise that there is more than one way to interpret mind-brain correlation. A few individuals have suggested that the brain may not produce consciousness, as the vast majority of 19th and 20th century scientists assumed; the brain may instead filter, or shape, consciousness. In that case consciousness maybe only partly dependent on the brain, and it might therefore conceivably survive the death of the body.

Scientism, which denies all possibility of non-material explanations of mind, is wilfully blind and therefore not really science at all as it deliberately turns its back on evidence that calls its materialistic assumption into question without ever examining it in detail if at all. We will be returning to some of the costs of these blind spots in later posts especially in the area of education.

A False Dichotomy

Many now believe that scientism has set up a false dichotomy between spirituality and science.

Rupert Sheldrake is a scientist who has risked his credibility and his career arguing publicly for science to accept its limitations and allow for the existence of baffling mysteries it cannot (yet?) explain.

He lists unhelpful dogmas that the church of science teaches (pages 7-8):

Here are the ten core beliefs that most scientists take for granted.

1. Everything is essentially mechanical. Dogs, for example, are complex mechanisms, rather than living organisms with goals of their own. Even people are machines, ‘lumbering robots’, in Richard Dawkins’s vivid phrase, with brains that are like genetically programmed computers.

2. All matter is unconscious. It has no inner life or subjectivity or point of view. Even human consciousness is an illusion produced by the material activities of brains.

3. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same (with the exception of the Big Bang, when all the matter and energy of the universe suddenly appeared).

4. The laws of nature are fixed. They are the same today as they were at the beginning, and they will stay the same for ever.

5. Nature is purposeless, and evolution has no goal or direction.

6. All biological inheritance is material, carried in the genetic material, DNA, and in other material structures.

7. Minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains. When you look at a tree, the image of the tree you are seeing is not ‘out there’, where it seems to be, but inside your brain.

8. Memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death.

9. Unexplained phenomena like telepathy are illusory.

10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

Alvin Plantinga

Alvin Plantinga

Another powerful expression of this anti-scientism view, which I have explored in depth on this blog, is to be found in Alvin Plantinga’s compelling analysis of the problem in Where the Conflict Really Lies (to be republished again later this week). He opens with an obvious truth which most of us may well have overlooked and whose implications he is keen to unpack (page 266):

Modern Western empirical science originated and flourished in the bosom of Christian theism and originated nowhere else. . . . it was Christian Europe that fostered, promoted, and nourished modern science. . . . This is no accident: there is deep concord between science and theistic belief.

He springs on us an unexpected point in favour of his case (pages 268-269):

God created both us and our world in such a way that there is a certain fit or match between the world and our cognitive faculties. . . . . For science to be successful . . . there must be a match between our cognitive faculties and the world.

The apparent chasm between science and religion which unnecessarily widened into an abyss has wrought havoc in our society.

In summary for Medina (page 226) ‘Unbalanced materialism has ultimately resulted in a loss of reverence for life and has diminished our appreciation for the supreme values of life such as compassion, justice, unity, joyfulness, love, service, generosity, patience, moderation, humility – all of which lead to personal wholeness and add an essential richness, beauty, and purpose to life.’

Economic Materialism

Medina goes on to explore the links between the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview and our economic system (page 227):

Locke’s ideas eventually led to the establishment of Western economic values such as free markets, property rights, individualism, and self interest as the primary force that motivates the actions of individuals, and the idea that prices are determined objectively by supply and demand. According to Locke, the right to private property represents the fruits of one’s labours. Furthermore, he emphasises the idea that the purpose of government is to protect individual private property.

. . . . Unfortunately . . . . . Locke’s ideas (as is the case with most Cartesian-Newtonian concepts) have led to destructive outcomes.

He digs fairly deeply into the mire of this materialist mythology (page 228):

[Locke] argued that individual human development is entirely dependent upon the physical environment (an idea known as environmental determinism).

. . . The concepts of John Locke, as well as other Enlightenment ideas such as the concept of laissez-faire, helped to fuel the growth of capitalism. Laissez-faire refers to the belief that government should not interfere with economic affairs beyond the minimum necessary for the maintenance of security and private property rights.

In the light of the massive damage we have wreaked on ourselves and the environment in its name, it is stunning to read what the first advocates of laissez-faire capitalism thought about its beauty and value. It is even more amazing of course to know that many people alive today would probably still agree with them, but then that’s the power of myth after all (page 229):

[Adam Smith] perpetuated the Lockean and Physiocratic concepts of individualism and laissez-faire by arguing that individuals who are free (i.e., without government interference) to seek their own self interest and to compete for their own wealth will ultimately be guided, as by an ‘invisible hand,’ to enrich the whole society. . . . . According to Smith’s framework, the primary goal of society is the production of material wealth, not the advancement of emotional, psychological, moral, or spiritual health.

Medina does not suggest that this view remained the unconstrained consensus (page 230):

In retrospect, considering all the defects of laissez-faire capitalism, it can be argued that had it not been for the eventual “interference” of government reforms, laissez-faire capitalism would have doomed, to this day, the European and American masses to industrial slavery.

He does not put forward socialism as his preferred alternative either (ibid):

. . . it is important to note that the alternative economic system of socialism is also fundamentally flawed. . . Both systems place undue importance on economics as the core of civilisation. . . . From a spiritual perspective, in spite of all their surface differences, capitalism and socialism, when applied in actual practice, have both been destructive to human beings, communities, and the environment.

And goes on to state (page 233):

It is ironic that Marxist revolutionary Communists set themselves up as the primary mortal enemies of laissez-faire capitalism because, in actuality, Marxist Communism is and laissez-faire capitalism and are both extreme manifestations of the same Cartesian-Newtonian worldview.

We are by no means out of the wood yet, in spite of all that we should have learnt (page 236):

Some people assume that the worst abuses of the system are behind us; however, as will be shown in detail later, laissez-faire is once again gaining ground in the United States and on the world scene due to the advent of global capitalism.

According to Medina, the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview has pulled of an astonishing sleight of mind (page 237):

In their efforts to give economics an air of scientific rigour, economists have consistently claimed that their theories and models are a ‘value free.’ . . . In fact, economists are actually tacitly accepting and promoting certain values over others. Such values are evident in the implicit or explicit promotion of competition, material acquisition, unlimited economic growth and expansion, insatiable desires, self-interest, and individualism.

Many of the items at the beginning of the list are seen by many as unquestionably either positive or the unavoidable price we pay for benefiting from an effective system, one that will remain indefinitely the best available. At the same time as these value judgements are hidden from sight, and the workings of the system are presented as simply pragmatic and objective, accusations are levelled at those with a more spiritual orientation that we are attempting to force our values on others, values with no basis whatsoever in reality. There is a heavily disguised pot calling the kettle black here.

Not everyone agrees that spiritual and moral values should be so militantly excluded from the workings of the economic system (page 238):

. . . . Herman Daly, a World Bank economist, and John Cobb, a Protestant theologian, . . affirm that the exclusion of religious and spiritual values from ‘economic science’ has had a devastating impact on people, communities, and the environment. They state, ‘Adam Smith himself emphasised in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that the market [freemarket capitalism] is a system so dangerous that it presupposes the moral force of shared community values as its necessary restraining context.’

Pollution in Shanghai

Pollution in Shanghai

Toxic Consequences

Our impact on the world is in many ways quite toxic (page 241):

There is now an overwhelming body of evidence that shows that Western-style economic development has led to highly destructive outcomes in Third World countries.

The pattern includes: heavy foreign capital investments, centralised development planning, Western-style industrial production, huge agribusiness farms, urbanisation, automation at the expense of labour, and extreme use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides.

Child labour is a major issue (page 245-46):

Benta Adera, for instance, a twelve-year-old Kenyan girl, spends ten hours every day picking coffee beans under the relentless scorching sun. As a result of the hazardous pesticides that are used on the plants, she experiences constant pain.

. . . . Many of the foreign foods and products that Americans buy may have been harvested or produced through the use of child labour. Accountability is difficult because the several components that make up a product may change hands several times before they reach their final form and destination.

Even well-liked global brands such as Apple have been caught out in this way and have come in for recent criticism because of the hardships their Third World workers undergo.

Where politics and economics meet Medina quotes evidence to suggest that there are disturbing forces at work (page 248):

. . . democracy itself is threatened by the extreme power of multinational corporations that manipulate governments with legal and illegal methods.

They are of course wealthier than many states, and the record of the tobacco industry and the drug companies does not instil much confidence in me that this evil will easily be remedied.

Medina does not find a great deal of hope in our political system to rescue us from the perils of such abuses (pages 301-02):

Cornell West, Harvard professor and author of the book RaceMatters, emphasises that it is necessary to go beyond the narrow confines of the liberal-versus-conservative debate regarding issues of race and class. He asserts that liberals, on the one hand, generally focus their attention on reforming economic and political structures but do not like to talk about individual morality, responsibility, individual spiritual transformation, and traditional religious or spiritual values. On the other hand, conservatives like to focus on individual morality and responsibility (the Protestant ethic) but generally avoid tackling the issues of business morality and ethics, corporate responsibility, and socio-economic justice and equality.

. . . It may seem as if liberals and conservatives have totally different views, but in actuality, from a holistic perspective, their views are simply opposite sides of the same Cartesian-Newtonian coin.

Those who look to mainstream religion for redemption may be in for a bit of a shock (page 391):

The most obvious result of the materialistic paradigm is the rampant consumerism that pervades Western culture.

. . . . Disturbing evidence shows that consumerism has made strong inroads even among spiritual and religious people. In fact, [when] compared to the general population, Americans who report to have a strong spiritual or religious faith show almost no difference in their adherence to crass materialism – they expend their money, time, personal energy, and other resources in much the same ways as all other Americans.

It is clear that Medina feels we will have to look elsewhere for a solution and this blog contains a wealth of information on those possibilities. As I said at the very beginning of this sequence I will not be unpacking all that in detail now (see below for some good starting points).

When I return once more to a consideration of his work, I will look first at the price our children are paying for our attachment to this bankrupt creed. It is perhaps worth sharing well in advance of the posts themselves a diagram which attempts to show one way in which we create a vicious circle by our attachment to and credulous belief in reductionist materialism and the benefits of competitive capitalism.

Cogucation v2

A Possible Solution:

Humanity is our Business (1/5) The Overall Vision

Humanity is our Business (2/5) The Vision of Civilisation Building 

Humanity is our Business (3a/5) Capacity Building

Humanity is our Business (3b/5) Capacity Building ctd.

Humanity is our Business (4/5) Devotional Meetings 

Humanity is our Business (5/5): (a) The Plight of Children

Humanity is our Business (5/5): (b) What can we do for our children?

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Chief Joseph ( for source of image see link)

Chief Joseph ( for source of image see link)

My parody of materialist thought last Thursday gives me a good excuse to republish this series on Medina’s book. This is the second of three posts: the first came out yesterday, the last tomorrow.

In conveying John Fitzgerald Medina’s perspective on the modern world in his book Faith, Physics & Psychology, I got as far as explaining his sense of the basic problem of materialism and his hopes for some form of holism as a solution. He also locates part of our current problem in the blinkered attitude of some forms of Christianity to other cultures.

Native North American Wisdom

That these kinds of Christianity mindlessly obliterated what they could not understand is a tragic example of prejudice from which were are still suffering the consequences (page 175):

The American Indians and European colonists had radically different worldviews. The Indian holistic perspective could have helped to equilibrate the excessively materialistic orientation of Western civilisation.

I will be examining the unholy consequences of in far more detail when I come to look at his consideration of racism and prejudice. For now I will deal with Medina’s treatment of the core essentials of the world views themselves. He quotes Chief Joseph 1840-1904 (page 176):

“We shall all be alike – brothers of one father and one mother, with one sky and above us and one country around us, and one government for all. Then the Great Spirit Chief who rules above will smile upon this land, and send rain to wash out the bloody spots from the face of the earth that were made by brothers’ hands.

He concludes (ibid):

I believe that the traditional Indian worldview contains the seeds for a new vision of reality that can help Americans solve many of their problems. Furthermore, the traditional Indian perspective is consistent with the modern holistic movement, and it is also consonant with several key teachings of the Baha’i Faith.

The contrasting attitudes to nature were a key source of conflict (page 181):

For the European colonisers, the natural environment fell into the secular category, and the earth and its resources were simply regarded as commodities to be exploited for economic and political gain.

. . . . In contrast, the American Indian holistic worldview drew no distinction between the secular realm and the sacred realm – even the natural environment was considered sacred.

The perspective of the Europeans was bizarre to say the least from the Native American point of view (pages 181-82):

. . . . for most Indians, the idea of buying and selling parts of the sacred Mother Earth as a privately held asset was inconceivable and made about as much sense as the idea of buying and selling the air.

A tragic and immensely costly war of ideas was virtually inevitable and not to the credit of the invaders (ibid): ‘ . . . the deist viewpoint was in direct conflict with the traditional spirituality of American Indians, who believed that the creator is in no way separate from his creation’ and the major implications of this were radically in conflict as well. The native American experienced (page 183) ‘all entities’ as existing ‘in an interconnected, interdependent cosmos . . . infused with the power emanating from the Creator’ whereas the interlopers’ worldview (page 184) had a ‘radically different . . . . despiritualised view of the natural world’ captured in the repellent language of Francis Bacon who wrote that nature should be ‘hounded in her wanderings,’ ‘bound into service,’ and made a ‘slave, while the goal of the scientist is to ‘torture nature’s secrets from her.’

It’s hard to imagine a wider divide.

Chiefs of the Six Indian Nations (for source of image see link)

Chiefs of the Six Indian Nations 1871 (for source of image see link)

Social and political organisation

Medina stresses that we should not delude ourselves into believing that native Americans were backward and primitive, riddled by irrelevant superstitions too fantastic to be trusted as a guide to the building of an harmonious and just society. Far from it (page 186-87) as a lengthy quote from his book eloquently testifies:

It is important to recognise that the American Indian holistic model was able to create sophisticated societies that were capable of instituting democratic government, gender equality, egalitarian economic structures, mathematics, science, the arts, religion, and so forth.

. . . . In 1797, years after the American Revolutionary War, Paine wrote in Agrarian Justice, ‘the fact is, that the condition of millions in every country in Europe, is far worse than if they . . . . . . had been born among the Indians of North America at the present day.”

In Indian society throughout the Americas, land was owned communally. . . . The food produced in all the lands was generously shared among everyone in the community including the less fortunate, the aged, and the ill. . . . Indian people were not trained to be mindless drones operating within a collective. To the contrary, they were raised to be independent thinkers and problem-solvers; they were encouraged to think for themselves but to be selfless in the sense of acting for others.

[A French Jesuit missionary in 1657 stated] Their kindness, humanity, and courtesy not only makes them liberal of what they have, but causes them to possess hardly anything except in common. A whole village must be without corn, before any individual can be obliged to endure privation.

It is noteworthy that in most Indian societies, women were afforded more respect, equality, and democratic participation in socioeconomic and political decision-making than their European counterparts, who were still largely treated as the property of men.

There is further compelling evidence to support this point of view (pages 189-90):

The Iroquois League was founded sometime between A.D. 1000 and 1450 by the Indian messianic figures Hiawatha and Deganawidah.

. . . . [It] lasted for centuries as an economically prosperous and socially harmonious unit that spanned from New England to the Mississippi River.

In fact it was so successful that the founding fathers of the United States borrowed the model (page 192):

Franklin became a major advocate for the use of Indian political structures within the American government.

. . . The Iroquois system is now known as a ‘federal’ system, in which each sovereign unit retains some power to regulate internal affairs yet yields some of the sovereignty to one central government, which has the power to regulate affairs common to all. . . . [The writer of the U.S. constitution] had only one possible model of what would later become known as federalism – the League of Six Nations. Weatherford states, ‘The Indians invented it . . . . even though the United States patented it.’


The sophistication of the Native American model lay not just in politics (pages 199-200):

Contrary to the American colonists’ misinformed judgements, much evidence now exists to show that the American Indians were in fact, quite adept at cultivating a large variety of plants in a diversity of climates, soils, and environmental conditions. They utilised the Earths resources wisely, gently, and reverently.

This system may be at least equal if not superior to our environmentally disastrous monoculture (pages 201-02):

Unlike the Europeans, who planted row after row of the same plants, the Indians throughout North and Central America cultivated small plots of land that often looked like wild, haphazard gardens. . . . Scientific studies have shown that such Indian-style plots, call milpas in Mexico, are resilient to pests and weeds and protect the topsoil from erosion. . . . . .

Modern agronomists marvel at the simplicity and productivity of Indian-style agricultural plots, and some are actively studying it as an alternative to the European style, monocultural plantation form of farming, which leads to widespread soil erosion and degradation of topsoil due to the massive use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers.

Quantum Mechanics

Holism & Physics

This holistic and interconnected view of the world, underpinned by a sense of a transcendent guiding Presence, is increasingly seen as completely compatible with modern physics, though physics would draw back from including any kind of God in its own model, at least at this stage. Medina draws on a book Blackfoot Physics by F. David Peat (page 217):

Quantum physics now supports a picture of the universe as a dynamic, indivisible whole in which everything is interconnected and interrelated. . . . Some indigenous people, to this day, have been able to maintain a holistic view; . .

The seemingly solid world of appearances is not to be trusted, physics suggests. The native American view is the same (page 218):

At its most fundamental is the Indian philosophical understanding that this physical world is just an illusion, a ‘world of appearances’ or ‘shadow world’ – it is not the true reality. Similar to Bohm’s holographic model…, their philosophical understanding is that each part of the universe ‘contains’ the whole universe within it.

This position is also forcefully expressed by Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, as this experience from His childhood testifies:

In a letter Bahá’u’lláh recalled as a child seeing an elaborate puppet show about war and intrigues in the court of a king and the riches of those in authority. After the performance, Bahá’u’lláh saw a man come out from behind the tent with a box under his arm. “What is this box?” Bahá’u’lláh asked him, “and what was the nature of this display?”

“All this lavish display and these elaborate devices,” the puppet master replied, “the king, the princes, and the ministers, their pomp and glory, their might and power, everything you saw, are now contained within this box.”

Bahá’u’lláh then recalled: “… Ever since that day, all the trappings of the world have seemed in the eyes of this Youth akin to that same spectacle. They have never been, nor will they ever be, of any weight and consequence, be it to the extent of a grain of mustard seed.… Erelong these outward trappings, these visible treasures, these earthly vanities, these arrayed armies, these adorned vestures, these proud and overweening souls, all shall pass into the confines of the grave, as though into that box. In the eyes of those possessed of insight, all this conflict, contention and vainglory hath ever been, and will ever be, like unto the play and pastimes of children.”

Medina balances his dark picture of the Enlightenment and its imperialistic Puritan version of Christianity with an account of its more positive achievements but, in his view, these do not compensate for the cost of its tunnel vision (page 223-24):

. . . in a much needed move, Enlightenment intellectuals did much to expose the gross corruption of the worldly, power-seeking clergy of their time. Unfortunately, because of their ‘blind rationalism’ and their overzealous efforts to expose church superstition, fanaticism, and hypocrisy, they ultimately promulgated an antimetaphysical outlook that has done much to undermine the faith and spirituality of people to this day.

We’re in Irreducible Mind territory here – the ground covered in the Kellys’ encyclopaedic examination of transpersonal phenomena in psychology. For example, they call into question the reductionist bias of the modern scientific consensus which dismisses in advance any and all evidence that suggests that there might be more to the mind than the workings of the material brain.

But more of that next time.

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'Newton' by William Blake

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

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

(A Compilation on ScholarshipBaha’i Reference Library)

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

Why this book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m going to start with our worldview.

The Cartesian-Newtonian worldview 

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

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


‘William Blake’ by Thomas Phillips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holism again!

David Bohm

David Bohm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This idea has radical implications (page 48):

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

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

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

People will probably not feel an urgency to transform the current disordered world into a spiritually enlightened global civilisation unless they gain an appreciation for the true nature of reality.

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

Defective Spiritualities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Birmingham QE Hosp MedicalSchool

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Where are you heading?’ she asks.

‘To the University.’

‘Oh! Why there?’

‘To run a seminar on consciousness.’

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

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

‘No. Honestly. It really is.’

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

I scribble it down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


We’re good to go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minutes pass.

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

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

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

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

This could be tricky, I think.

As people take their seats I set up again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mind & Spirit

Mind & Spirit

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

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

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

Inevitable Uncertainty

Inevitable Uncertainty

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

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

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

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

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

Myers Spectrum 2

Myers Spectrum (1/2)

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

Myers Spectrum

Myers Spectrum (2/2)

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

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

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

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

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

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82


The Plan for the Seminar that Never Happened!

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


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

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

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

  1. ‘Doubt Wisely’

Explore the agnosticism case:

William James

Dennet & Churchland

John Hick & Eric Reitan

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

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

  1. Mind as completely independent of the brain.

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

  1. Mind as a spiritual entity.

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

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

 So What?

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

How to explore it further?

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

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

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

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

How many of you are up for that right now?

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© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

Laying the groundwork for global civilization calls for the creation of laws and institutions that are universal in both character and authority. The effort can begin only when the concept of the oneness of humanity has been wholeheartedly embraced by those in whose hands the responsibility for decision making rests, and when the related principles are propagated through both educational systems and the media of mass communication. Once this threshold is crossed, a process will have been set in motion through which the peoples of the world can be drawn into the task of formulating common goals and committing themselves to their attainment. Only so fundamental a reorientation can protect them, too, from the age-old demons of ethnic and religious strife. Only through the dawning consciousness that they constitute a single people will the inhabitants of the planet be enabled to turn away from the patterns of conflict that have dominated social organization in the past and begin to learn the ways of collaboration and conciliation. “The well-being of mankind,” Bahá’u’lláh writes, “its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.”

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

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.’

As we have seen in the posts on levels, Rifkin draws on Stanley Greenspan’s child developmental model Emp Civil(page 106-110: see link for more detail) involving six stages which can be summarised as sensation/security, relation, intention, self/other-awareness, emotional ideas and finally emotional thinking. Disruptions, for example to attachment, during these stages will create problems later. The development of empathy in the growing child depends upon the quality of care received (page 110):

Greenspan… is clear that ‘the ability to consider the feelings of others in a caring, compassionate way derives from the child’s sense of having been loved and cared for herself.’

This post will look more closely at Rifkin’s thinking on this issue and about how to facilitate constructive maturation in our children.

Child Rearing

He begins by looking at the effects of deprivation (Page 20):

What had been missing in . . . foundling homes was one of the most important factors in infant development – empathy. We are learning, against all of the prevailing wisdom, that human nature is not to seek autonomy – to become an island to oneself – but, rather, to seek companionship, affection, and intimacy.

He unpacks the implications (page 66):

The infant begins life, according to Suttie, with an inchoate but nonetheless instinctual need to receive as well as give gifts, which is the basis of all affection. Reciprocity is the heart of sociality and what relationships are built on. In reciprocity is blocked, the development of selfhood and sociability is stunted and psychopathology emerges.

Not surprisingly he brings attachment theory into the mix. Situations of parental dislocation can lead to maladaptive patterns of either ‘anxious’ or ‘avoidant’ attachment. More empathic parental relating has a better outcome (page 78):

The more securely attached infants grew up to be the more sociable adults. They were more sensitive to others, shared higher levels of cooperation with peers, and developed more intimate relationships. What those children all shared in common was a highly developed, empathic consciousness.

It should be no surprise that mechanistic attempts to remedy defects in parental child rearing habits has not proved much help (page 167):

In the 1980s and 1990s psychologists and educators introduced the notion of “quality time” into family relationships. The idea was for parents to set aside a few minutes in their otherwise overburdened and busy day to get back “in touch” with their children. The forced efficiency of these structured intimate encounters often defeated the purpose of the exercise. Deep relationships require nurturing and suffer when yoked yoked to the dictates of o’clock.

As a result we come very close in Rifkin’s next description to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s explanation of what would happen in a truly spiritual society (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahápage 133):

See then how wide is the difference between material civilization and divine. With force and punishments, material civilization seeketh to restrain the people from mischief, from inflicting harm on society and committing crimes. But in a divine civilization, the individual is so conditioned that with no fear of punishment, he shunneth the perpetration of crimes, seeth the crime itself as the severest of torments, and with alacrity and joy, setteth himself to acquiring the virtues of humankind, to furthering human progress, and to spreading light across the world.

Rifkin states (page 177):

While primitive empathic potential is wired into the brain chemistry of some mammals, and especially the primates, its mature expression in humans requires learning and practice and a conducive environment. Moral codes, embedded in laws and social policies, are helpful as learning guides and standards. But the point is that one isn’t authentically good because he or she is compelled to be so, with the threat of punishment hanging over them or a reward waiting for them, but, rather because it’s in one’s nature to empathise.

Over the next sections of his book he reviews our progress towards a more humane and insightful treatment of children from (page 244) progress under the Roman Empire which came to define infanticide as murder only in 374AD while treatment remained harsh in England well into the 17th Century (page 285-86). There was the Protestant urge to ‘impose patriarchal rule in the home and “break the will” of the child, to ensure his or her piety.’ Later:

. . . the extension of schooling to large numbers of children also subjected youngsters to a merciless routine of flogging by teachers for the slightest violation of decorum or for underperformance. Lawrence Stone reports “that more children were being beaten in the 16th and early 17th centuries, over a longer age span, than ever before.” . . . .

Parents saw corporal punishment as a way to save their children from the devil and an eternity in hell. Their behaviour was in stark contrast to the sentiments of parents in the earlier Italian Renaissance, who came to look on the children as pure, innocent, and uncorrupted.

Things did begin to improve somewhat as the century advanced (pages 286-87). For example, John Locke (1692) was more balanced: ‘while he cautioned against being overly permissive, he was equally opposed to being overly strict and punitive.’ By 1785 (page 288), ‘the practice of swaddling had been eliminated in England. . . . Wet-nursing went out of favour in the latter half of the 18th century in England as new mothers sought to be more attentive and nurturing towards their young. . . . The new expression of motherly affection ensured that the empathic impulse of the period would pass on to children, who will grow up loved and cared for and capable of empathising with others, just as their parents had empathised with that.’

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

Child Development

It was only late in the 19th Century that something more recognisably modern began to feature in the ideas around child development (page 388):

It was during the last decade of the 19th century and the first three decades of the 20th century that the concept of adolescence emerged. This was a special temporal domain to which all children – boys and girls – belonged equally. Society came to think of childhood as extending beyond puberty and into the later teenage years. Previously the child graduated to adulthood and the responsibilities that go with it upon reaching sexual maturity. No longer. Now work life was put off and children remained under the nurturing care of parents for a longer period of time.

This concept carried with it a sort of developmental time bomb (page 389):

Although it wasn’t until the 1940s that Eric Erikson coined the term “identity crisis,” the psychological phenomena accompanied the new period of adolescence from the very beginning. Adolescence is about identity crises as much as it is about identity formation.

Identity is partly a question of the priorities around which we organise our lives, the values we hold dearest and the meaning system we have developed. While the evidence suggests that we need to divide the influences that affect those outcomes among our genes, our parents and our peers, there is no doubt that for most of us our parents account for at least 30% of the items in the mix. So, when Rifkin looks at where we are at present with the challenges it brings, he concludes (page 502):

The question is, what is the appropriate therapy for recovering from the [current] well/happiness addiction? A spate of studies over the past 15 years has shown a consistently close correlation between parental nurturance patterns and whether children grow up fixated on material success. . . . If… the principal caretaker is cold, arbitrary in her or his affections, punitive, unresponsive, and anxious, the child will be far less likely to establish a secure emotional attachment and the self-confidence necessary to create a strong independent core identity. These children invariably show a greater tendency to fix on material success, fame, and image as a substitute mode for gaining recognition, except, and a sense of belonging.

The product propaganda known as advertising preys on this insecurity with its deceptive promises that greater wealth and more possessions will fill the void within.

Parents clearly have a critical role to play in how things take shape from here, whether upwards towards the light or downwards towards the dark (page 504):

Making the transition from a pioneer to a near-climax society and a truly sustainable economic area hinges on a far more self-conscious approach to parenting to prepare youngsters with deep pro-social values that will allow empathy to grow and the lure of the market to be tempered.


© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

Parenting is not the only consideration of course. He makes a bold claim (page 550):

The American public school system has leaped ahead of their counterparts in other countries by initiating a critical reform in the educational system, whose purpose is to better prepare future generations for the responsibilities attendant to creating social capital.

In the past 15 years, American secondary schools and colleges have introduced service learning programs into the school curriculum – a revolutionary change that has altered the educational experience for millions of young people.

Not everyone appears to share this rose-tinted view of the matter. John Fitzgerald Medina, in his book Faith, Physics & Psychology, is particularly sceptical. He bases his assessment on solid research (page 325):

David Purpel, an educator and author of The Moral and Spiritual Crisis in Education: a Curriculum for Justice and Compassion in Education… contends that the educational system is so enmeshed in the corrupt status quo that it consistently fails to address societal problems and that due to its slavish emphasis on grading-mongering and competition, it primarily acts like a giant socio-economic sorting machine that maintains and even exacerbates race and class separations between people.

Purpel is not the only witness Medina calls to the stand in his case against the current system of education in America (page 327):

Professor of education Clifford Mayes explains that the powerful influence of behaviourism shifted the field of education from an endeavor based on a strong sense of spiritual and moral calling to a technical job based on the tenets of classical science… Under the influence of industrialisation, schools and teachers were expected to serve and to promulgate the “cult of efficiency” and the “scientific management” of people and organisations.

Even if we accept that attempts are being made to introduce empathy-inducing elements into educational and training programmes in the States the blinkered way these are sometimes implemented undermines their efficacy, as Timothy Wilson testifies. The research he reviews in his excellent short book Redirect: the surprising new science of psychological change points towards the critical importance of incorporating a community service component into any remedial programme for children and young people manifesting behavioural problems (page 131):

The fact that policymakers learned so little from past research – at huge human and financial cost – is made more mind-boggling by being such a familiar story. Too often, policy makers follow common sense instead of scientific data when deciding how to solve social and behavioural problems. When well-meaning managers of the QOP [Quantum Opportunities Programme] sites looked at the curriculum, the community service component probably seemed like a frill compared to bringing kids together for sessions on life development. Makes sense, doesn’t it? But common sense was wrong, as it has been so often before. In the end, it is teens… who pay the price…

Rifkin explains what for him is the power of these socially engineered interventions (page 551):

The exposure to diverse people from various walks of life has spurred an empathic surge among many of the nation’s young people. Studies indicate that many – but not all – students experience a deep maturing of empathic sensibility by being thrust into unfamiliar environments where they are called upon to reach out and assist others.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

A Fork in the Road

Not for the first time in his book, he comments on the fork in the road that lies ahead (page 581):

The rap on today’s young people in the age group that stems from toddlers to young adults in their early 30s (everyone born after the mid-1970s) is that they are coddled, overexposed, overindulged, told they are special, believe that to be the case, are self-centred – “it’s all about me” – and trapped in their self-absorbed inflated self-esteem. We are also told, however, that they are more open and tolerant, less prejudiced, multicultural in their views, nonjudgmental, civic-and service-oriented, and more collaborative than any other generation in history. . . .

Is it possible that today’s young people are caught between both poles…? . . . . Yes, but with the qualification that the newest data shows a trend away from the ‘it’s all about me’ phenomenon and prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s . . . .

Exactly which way the dice will fall is not yet predictable (page 589):

The situation is anything but clear. While there are some among the younger generation who dream of personal fame, there are as many others just as devoted to community service and assisting those less fortunate. The likely reality is that the younger generation is growing up torn between both a narcissistic and empathic mind-set, with some attracted to one and some to the other.

Clearly parenting and schooling are crucial components in the creation of a compass and a map that will enable our children to choose the wiser route in life. What is disturbing is the vicious circle clearly at work if we do not rise to this challenge. The effects of unwise and unfeeling parenting will be further confounded by mercenary and mechanistic education systems. This combination will produce parents who will bring up more damaged children, and voters who will continue to elect governments that enthusiastically perpetuate education systems designed to create cogs for the machine of the global market. Building a more benign civilisation begins with our children who are “the most precious treasure a community can possess, for in them are the promise and guarantee of the future.” (Universal House of Justice: Ridván 2000) We need to change our approach and we need to change it soon.

Rifkin places his hopes for the future on the development of biosphere consciousness, a motivating force whose limitations I explained in the previous post (page 601):

Children are becoming aware that everything they do – the very way they live – affects the lives of every other human being, our fellow creatures, and the biosphere we inhabit. They come to understand that we are as deeply connected with one another in the ecosystems that make up the biosphere as we are in the social networks of the blogosphere.

He feels this hope is given added strength by the interventions being mounted in schools (ibid.):

Now the new emerging biosphere awareness is being accompanied by cutting edge curriculum [sic] designed to help young people develop an even deeper sense of interconnectivity and social responsibility at the level of their personal psyches.

. . . . . the new pedagogical revolution is emphasising empathic development. In April 2009, The New York Times ran a front-page article reporting on the empathy revolution occurring in American classrooms. Empathy workshops and curriculums [sic] now exist in 18 states, and the early evaluations of these pioneer educational reform programmes are encouraging.

I feel we need to read what follows with a balancing sense of the countervailing forces also at work within the very same educational system. Medina writes (page 319):

Within the mainstream educational system, students spend endless hours in academic tasks almost to the exclusion of all other forms of social, emotional, moral, artistic, physical, and spiritual learning goals. This type of education leaves students bereft of any overarching sense of why they are learning things, other than perhaps to obtain some lucrative job in the distant future.

I am not convinced that we can leave to our schools the work of spiritualising the awareness of our children and making them more attuned to the suffering of others and how to help, hence the strong Bahá’í emphasis within our communities placed upon the training of children and youth – something we offer to the wider community as well without in any way seeking to recruit people to our ranks. We simply want to find ways of helping young people become more community-oriented. I will be republishing relevant posts later this week that go some way towards articulating the Bahá’í view of the matter.

Rifkin sees it differently from Medina  (page 604):

Tens of thousands of students have gone through the Roots of Empathy program. What educators find is that the development of empathic skills leads to greater academic success in the classroom. . . . Empathic maturity is particularly correlated with critical thinking. The ability to entertain conflicting feelings and thoughts, be comfortable with ambiguity, approach problems from a number of perspectives, and listen to another’s point of view are essential emotional building blocks to engage in critical thinking. Gordon makes the telling observation that “love grows brains.” . . . [ Mary Gordon writes]:

“The Roots of Empathy classroom is creating citizens of the world – children who are developing empathic ethics and a sense of social responsibility that takes the position that we all share the same lifeboat. These are the children will build a more caring, peaceful and civil society, child by child.”

To be fair, Rifkin is not completely blind to the obstacles (pages 604-05):

. . . because empathic engagement is the most deeply collaborative experience one can ever have, bringing out children’s empathic nature in the classroom requires collaborative learning models. Unfortunately, the traditional classroom curriculum continues to emphasise learning as a highly personal experience designed to acquire and control knowledge by dint of competition with others.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

Cooperation not Competition

He argues, as Michael Karlberg does in Beyond the Culture of Contest, that we must replace competition with cooperation if we are to rise above our current challenges. Karlberg describes in far more detail than is possible to include here an alternative model, based on the Bahá’í experience. The nub of his case is (page 131 – my emphasis):

Bahá’ís assert that ever-increasing levels of interdependence within and between societies are compelling us to learn and exercise the powers of collective decision-making and collective action, born out of a recognition of our organic unity as a species.

Rifkin even defines one of the fruits of cooperation in similar terms to the values Bahá’ís place on true consultation as a spiritual process (page 605):

Collaborative education begins with the premise that the combined wisdom of the group, more often than not, is greater than the expertise of any given member and by learning together the group advances its collective knowledge, as well as the knowledge of each member of the cohort.

The Bahá’í view is expressed as follows (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahápage 320)

The members [of a Spiritual Assembly] must take counsel together in such wise that no occasion for ill-feeling or discord may arise. This can be attained when every member expresseth with absolute freedom his own opinion and setteth forth his argument. Should any one oppose, he must on no account feel hurt for not until matters are fully discussed can the right way be revealed. The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions.


Rifkin closes by emphasising once more the importance of our recognising our links with nature (page 611):

In the case of our Palaeolithic forebears, fear of nature’s wrath, as much as dependency, conditioned the relationship. To reparticipate with nature willingly, by exercising free will, is what separates biosphere consciousness from everything that has gone before. . . .

Schools across the United States are already beginning to extend the classroom into the outdoors through their service learning programs, internship programs, and extended field trips. Reaffiliating with the biosphere is an empathic experience that has to be felt as well as intellectualised to be meaningful. It also has to be practised.

This sequence of posts so far has attempted, admittedly rather selectively, to give a sense of Rifkin’s overall argument, pointing out, where it seemed appropriate, its strengths and its weaknesses, but by and large letting Rifkin’s own words speak for his position.

The next and final pair of posts will look at what seems to me to be his most glaring omission – the role of religion in turning around our slide towards self-destruction.

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Altruism Black EarthThe first post looked at the implications of two books – Altruism and Black Earth – which led me to reflect on the possibility that we might not be immune to a repetition of the horrors of the Holocaust. At the end of the previous post we had reached the point of arguing that it is essential, if our society is to lift its collective consciousness to a more compassionate level, that we focus more intently upon the education of our children.

There are two key areas that determine the direction of a child’s development: parenting and schooling.


Let’s take parenting first, and why it matters.

One main point is, and probably always should have been, fairly obvious, though now we have empirical evidence to back it up. When Jeremy Rifkin in his excellent book – The Empathic Civilisation – looks at where we are at present with the challenges we face, he concludes (page 502):

The question is, what is the appropriate therapy for recovering from the [current] well/happiness addiction? A spate of studies over the past 15 years has shown a consistently close correlation between parental nurturance patterns and whether children grow up fixated on material success. . . . If… the principal caretaker is cold, arbitrary in her or his affections, punitive, unresponsive, and anxious, the child will be far less likely to establish a secure emotional attachment and the self-confidence necessary to create a strong independent core identity. These children invariably show a greater tendency to fix on material success, fame, and image as a substitute mode for gaining recognition, acceptance, and a sense of belonging.

There are also less obvious forces at work as well. Ricard explores the exact relationship as currently understood between evolution and altruism. He looks carefully at the evidence and quotes Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s conclusion from her research that (page 173):

. . . . ‘novel rearing conditions along the line of early hominids meant that youngsters grew up depending on a wider range of caretakers than just their mothers, and this dependence produced selection pressure that favoured individuals who were better at decoding the mental state of others, and figuring out who would help and who would hurt.’

In other words, the fact that newborns interact quickly with a large number of people may have contributed considerably to raising the degree of cooperation and empathy among humans.

Hrdy’s final point of view is very clear (page 174):

. . . without the help of “alloparents,” there would never have been a human species.

We are now breaking that pattern (ibid.):

The notion of “family” as limited to a couple and their children developed only in the 20th century in Europe, and as late as the 1950s in the United States. Before that, most families included members of three generations, comprising aunts, cousins, et cetera.

This carries a significant risk (pages 175-76):

. . . . given empathy and the faculties of understanding others developed thanks to particular ways of taking care of children, and if an increasing proportion of humans no longer benefited from these conditions, compassion and the search for emotional connections would disappear. [Hrdy] questions whether such people “will be human in ways that we now think of as distinguishing our species – that is, empathic and curious about the emotions of others, shaped by our ancient heritage of communal care.”


Is there any sign that our educational systems, not just in the West but also in countries such as China, are working hard enough to counteract a trend towards narcissistic materialism and competitiveness? There is a considerable body of evidence suggesting otherwise.

Of American education John Fitzgerald Medina writes in his hard-hitting Faith, Physics & Psychology (page 319):

Within the mainstream educational system, students spend endless hours in academic tasks almost to the exclusion of all other forms of social, emotional, moral, artistic, physical, and spiritual learning goals. This type of education leaves students bereft of any overarching sense of why they are learning things, other than perhaps to obtain some lucrative job in the distant future.

Though Jeremy Rifkin sees it more positively and refers to the existence in schools of programmes designed to develop empathy, he is not completely blind to the obstacles (pages 604-05):

. . . because empathic engagement is the most deeply collaborative experience one can ever have, bringing out children’s empathic nature in the classroom requires collaborative learning models. Unfortunately, the traditional classroom curriculum continues to emphasise learning as a highly personal experience designed to acquire and control knowledge by dint of competition with others.

[An example of what Rifkin refers to elsewhere in his book when describing programmes for cultivating empathy is in this clip.]  

An example of the current state of play in the States comes in a blog post on the NY Times site from a philosopher father after encountering issues with his son’s education. He summarises what he has learnt:

In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.

He spells out the implications of this rampant moral relativism:

. . . . in the world beyond grade school, where adults must exercise their moral knowledge and reasoning to conduct themselves in the society, the stakes are greater. There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts. If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?

My strong impression is that the UK system, under the influence of Michael Gove and his successors, has moved a long way in this dehumanising direction also. There is ample evidence to justify this view. Confirmation that Medina’s bleak picture applies at least to some extent within the UK can be found, for example, in an article in the Guardian of February this year which quotes recent research:

The survey of 10,000 pupils aged 14 and 15 in secondary schools across the UK found that more than half failed to identify what researchers described as good judgments when responding to a series of moral dilemmas, leading researchers to call for schools to have a more active role in teaching character and morality.

“A good grasp of moral virtues, such as kindness, honesty and courage can help children to flourish as human beings, and can also lead to improvements in the classroom. And that level of understanding doesn’t just happen – it needs to be nurtured and encouraged,” said Prof James Arthur, director of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, which conducted the research.

There was also a piece by Layard on the LSE website in January this year:

In a path-breaking analysis using the British Cohort Study, we found some astonishing results. The strongest predictor of a satisfying adult life was the child’s emotional health. Next came social behaviour, and least important was academic achievement. This is exactly the opposite sequence to the priorities of most (but not all) educators and politicians. Indeed the last Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, deliberately reduced towards zero the importance which Ofsted should give to the emotional wellbeing of students.

An article on the Greater Good website emphasises how important it is to include a moral component in the curriculum and shows that there is widespread concern about this issue:

Many schools are hopping on the bandwagon to teach “performance character”—qualities such as perseverance, optimism, and creativity— because it has been shown to lead to greater academic success. Fewer, though, are also teaching moral character, which focuses on qualities that enhance ethical behavior, including empathy, social responsibility, and integrity.

The challenge is that performance character by itself is not necessarily good or bad. A person can exhibit great perseverance and creativity, but use it towards bad means—take your pick of corporate scandals to see this in action. To blunt ends-justify-means thinking, schools need to balance achievement-oriented performance character with the ethical orientation of moral character, while also teaching emotional skills.

Case in point: A recent study found that students at a middle school that emphasized moral character demonstrated higher rates of academic integrity than students at two middle schools that taught only performance character. In other words, the students who cultivated their moral backbone were less likely to cheat than the students who developed perseverance.

chinese teachers

Chinese Teachers in UK (for source of image see link)

A recent series on BBC television showed clearly how China is walking along the same potentially destructive path. Four teachers came to the UK to prove how the Chinese system is far more effective than ours in boosting academic performance. They emphasised, in their comments on their approach, how China stresses preparing their students to succeed in what they see as an extremely and inevitably competitive world. Their blackboard-based monologues, pumping out facts with no opportunity to experience their living meaning, was reminiscent of the Gradgrind approach to education Charles Dickens satirised in Hard Times:

‘Gradgrind’s Class’ from The Illustrated Hard Times by Nick Ellis (for source see link)

‘Gradgrind’s Class’ from The Illustrated Hard Times by Nick Ellis (for source see link)

‘Girl number twenty,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, ‘I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?’

‘Sissy Jupe, sir,’ explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.

‘Sissy is not a name,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.’

‘My father as calls me Sissy. sir,’ returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.

‘Then he has no business to do it,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Tell him he mustn’t. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?’

‘He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.’

Mr. Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.

‘We don’t want to know anything about that, here. You mustn’t tell us about that, here. . . . Give me your definition of a horse.’

(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)

‘Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!’ said Mr. Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. ‘Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours. . . .’

The square finger, moving here and there, lighted suddenly on Bitzer, perhaps because he chanced to sit in the same ray of sunlight which, darting in at one of the bare windows of the intensely white-washed room, irradiated Sissy. . . . . .

‘Bitzer,’ said Thomas Gradgrind. ‘Your definition of a horse.’

‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’

Unfortunately the Chinese teachers’ approach was shown to produce better grades than the UK system. My worry is that it probably does not produce better human beings, even while conceding that our own system leaves a lot to be desired still in that respect.

In addition to the need to build back into the curriculum elements of creativity, morality, and spirituality, there is an additional vital element we must not forget. A service component, something at the core of the Bahá’í approach, is almost certainly crucial to any educational system, not just one for remedial purposes. Compassion has to be linked to action to be fully internalised.

Even if we accept that attempts are being made to introduce empathy-inducing elements into educational and training programmes in the States the blinkered way these are sometimes implemented undermines their efficacy, as Timothy Wilson testifies. For example, the research he reviews in his excellent short book Redirect: the surprising new science of psychological change points towards the critical importance of incorporating a community service component into any remedial programme for children and young people manifesting behavioural problems. He was reacting to the fact that an expensive implementation of the programme involving nearly 600 students across several sites failed to produce any of the expected benefits (page 131):

What happened? It turns out that each site was given a fair amount of latitude in how they implemented the QOP [Quantum Opportunities Programme], and none of the sites adopted the entire curriculum. In particular, most of the site managers decided to focus on the mentoring aspects of the program and non-fully implemented the community service component – the very component that we know, from the Teen Outreach and Reach for Health programs, has beneficial effects! Sadly, more than $15 million was spent on a five-year intervention in which a key ingredient (community service) was eliminated. . . .

The fact that policymakers learned so little from past research – at huge human and financial cost – is made more mind-boggling by being such a familiar story. Too often, policy makers follow common sense instead of scientific data when deciding how to solve social and behavioural problems. When well-meaning managers of the QOP sites looked at the curriculum, the community service component probably seemed like a frill compared to bringing kids together for sessions on life development. Makes sense, doesn’t it? But common sense was wrong, as it has been so often before. In the end, it is teens… who pay the price…

For a sense of the what the Bahá’í Approach involves this video is a good introduction. It shows how the Bahá’í emphasis upon engaging young people in the process of child education and community building works in practice.

(Published on 2 May 2013: You can download this film from the Official website: http://www.bahai.org/frontiers/)

It seems to me imperative that everyone, no matter what their circumstances might be, needs at the very least to find whatever ways they can to raise consciousness among their family, friends and contacts, so that more and more people internalise a vision of humanity as one family and understand better how to nurture and sustain people, fellow creatures and the planet. If that can also involve directly relevant action so much the better.

My personal plan

For the foreseeable future I plan to explore, as often as I am able, this whole issue of altruism. In particular I want to understand more fully what factors enable us to widen the compass of our compassion and what factors narrow it.

I am already fairly clear that this will take me back over some familiar territory, though perhaps seeing it through a slightly different lens, but it will also require me to look carefully at some areas I have not explored in detail. Historical texts, for example, have not been my favourite grazing ground in the past – something about the way they marshal information switches me off. However, Snyder’s book has persuaded me I ought to give them another chance as I came to realise, from reading Black Earth, how little I really understood about many of the background factors that shaped the Holocaust. Maybe I also need to revisit some philosophical work that I have previously avoided as too challenging in its approach.

Some bolder experiments in terms of my personal experience might not come amiss either. I doubt that I can fully understand the challenges of this area without stepping into the fire.

What I have realised about this topic is that I can investigate it almost anywhere at any time, no matter what I am doing – perhaps even when I am chilling out in front of some anodyne murder mystery on the television.

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