Posts Tagged ‘John Hick’

In the last post I ended up exploring James Davies’ perspective in his recent book Cracked. I was focusing upon his emphasis on relationships rather then medication as the more effective way to help those with psychotic experiences.


It’s where he goes next that I found most unexpected but most welcome to my heart. He leads into it with an interview with Thomas Sasz just before his death at the age of 92 (page 276). He asks Szasz, ‘why do we believe as a culture that suffering must be removed chemically rather than understood in many cases as a natural human phenomenon, and possibly something from which we can learn and grow if worked through productively?’

Szasz’s response is fascinating:

Our age has replaced a religious point of view with a pseudo-scientific point of view. . .   Now everything is explained in terms of molecules and atoms and brain scans. It is a reduction of the human being to a biological machine. We don’t have existential or religious or mental suffering any more. Instead we have brain disorders.

This resonates strongly with the Bahá’í position as expressed, for instance, in Century of Light (page 136):

What [Bahá’ís]  find themselves struggling against daily is the pressure of a dogmatic materialism, claiming to be the voice of “science“, that seeks systematically to exclude from intellectual life all impulses arising from the spiritual level of human consciousness.

Davies summarises Szasz’s position on psychiatry (page 277): ‘It had become deluded in its belief that its physical technologies, its ECT machines and laboratory-manufactured molecules, could solve the deeper dilemmas of the soul, society and self.’

He quotes Bracken’s view on how this brings in capitalism (page 278):

What complicates things more is that we also live in a capitalist society, where there is always going to be someone trying to sell you something… In fact, some people would argue that capitalism can only continue by constantly making us dissatisfied with our lives.… You know, if everybody said I am very happy with my television, my car and everything else I’ve got, and I’m perfectly content with my lifestyle, the whole economy would come shattering down around our ears.

He continues (page 279):

What we customarily call mental illness is not always illness in the medical sense. It’s often a natural outcome of struggling to make our way in a world where the traditional guides, props and understandings are rapidly disappearing… Not all mental strife is therefore due to an internal malfunction but often to the outcome of living in a malfunctioning world. The solution is not yet more medicalisation, but an overhaul of our cultural beliefs, a reinfusing of life with spiritual, religious or humanistic meaning with emphasis on the essential involvement of community, and with whatever helps bring us greater direction, understanding, courage and purpose.

Instinctive Incredulity

However, we are even further away from generally accepting that some experiences labelled psychotic may have spiritual dimensions.

Christina and Stefan Grof’s indictment of our civilisation in their book The Stormy Search for the Self: understanding and living with spiritual emergency sings from essentially the same hymn sheet as Davies (page 235):

Though the problems in the world have many different forms, they are nothing but symptoms of one underlying condition: the emotional, moral, and spiritual state of modern humanity. In the last analysis, they are the collective result of the present level of consciousness of individual human beings. The only effective and lasting solution to these problems would, therefore, be a radical inner transformation of humanity on a large scale and its consequent rise to a higher level of awareness and maturity.

David Fontana also writes from direct experience of this painful level of materialism and its default stance of resolute incredulity when faced with any evidence, no matter how compelling, in favour of a spiritual dimension to reality. He had to combat it at almost every turn of his investigations. He even bravely admits to being contaminated by it himself. In the in-depth survey of his book Is there an afterlife? he writes (page 335):

My difficulty in writing about Scole [a long and detailed exploration of psychic phenomena including material effects] is not because the experiences we had with a group have faded. They are as clear as if they happened only weeks ago. The difficulty is to make them sound believable. It is a strange fact of life that whereas most psychical researchers interested in fieldwork are able to accept – or at least greet with open minds – the events of many years ago connected with the mediumship of physical mediums such as Home, Palladino, and Florence Cook, a strain of scepticism fostered by scientific training makes it much harder for them to accept that similar events may happen today, and may even be witnessed by those of us fortunate enough to be there when they occur. I mentioned in my discussion of the Cardiff poltergeist case… the struggle I had with my own belief system after seeing the phenomena concerned. When in the room while they were taking place I had no doubt they were genuine, but as soon as I began to drive home I started to doubt. . . . . The whole thing seemed simply unbelievable.

He adds:

It took a lengthy investigation, including one occasion when I witnessed phenomena while I was on my own in one of the rooms where the disturbances took place and the owners were two hundred miles away on holiday, before I could fully accept that poltergeist phenomena can indeed be genuine, and provide evidence not only of paranormality but, at least in some cases, of survival.

The Grofs articulate the challenge exactly (page 236)

The task of creating an entirely different set of values and tendencies for humanity might appear to be too unrealistic and utopian to offer any hope. What would it take to transform contemporary mankind into a species of individuals capable of peaceful coexistence with their fellow men and women regardless of colour, language, or political conviction – much less with other species?

They list our current characteristics in detail including violence, greed, habitual dissatisfaction and a severe lack of awareness that we are connected with nature. They conclude, ‘In the last analysis, all these characteristics seem to be symptomatic of severe alienation from inner life and loss of spiritual values.’

To describe it as an uphill struggle would be an understatement. Climbing Everest alone and unequipped seems closer to the mark.

They see at least one window through which the light of hope shines (page 237)

[M]any researchers in the field of transpersonal psychology believe that the growing interest in spirituality and the increasing incidence of spontaneous mystical experiences represent an evolutionary trend toward an entirely new level of human consciousness.

As we will see in the final two posts, our medicalisation of schizophrenia and psychosis might well be slowing this process down. If so there is all the more reason to give the Grofs’ case a fair and careful hearing. This will not be easy for the reasons that Fontana has explained.

Incidentally, after acknowledging that absolutely convincing proof of the paranormal seems permanently elusive, after all his years of meticulous investigation Fontana reaches a conclusion very close to that put forward by John Hick (op. cit.: page 327):

Professor William James may have been right when he lamented that it rather looks as if the Almighty has decreed that this area should forever retain its mystery. If this is indeed the case, then I assume it is because the Almighty has decreed that the personal search for meaning and purpose in life and in death are of more value than having meaning and purpose handed down as certainties from others.

In his book The Fifth Dimension, John Hick contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to believe or not (pages 37-38):

In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, the hidden God – hidden and yet so readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, . . . . . This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.

So what chance do Christina and Stefan Grof stand in their efforts to prove the mystical component of psychosis?

More of that next time.

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LamberthIs consciousness spirit, mind or brain?

Or none of the above perhaps?

Just kidding.

I was asked to give a talk on this topic at the University of Birmingham at the beginning of March. I have done this once before (see link) and have ruminated on the issues before and since on this blog. I had so much running round in my mind-brain, whichever it is, that I needed to start organising my ideas in good time. Writing a blog post seemed a good way of helping in that process. The last post on Monday hopefully conveyed a sense of what actually happened. This is simply what I thought I might say!

‘Doubt Wisely’

David Lamberth in William James and the Metaphysics of Experience reports James’s point of view on the investigation of such matters, and I feel this is a good place to begin (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

When it comes to these issues, fundamentalist certainty is completely out of place. I may have chosen to believe certain things about the mind and its independence of the brain but I cannot know what I believe is true in the same way as I can know my own address. Similarly, though, those like Dennett and Churchland who believe that the mind is entirely reducible to the brain cannot be absolutely sure of their position either.

We are both performing an act of faith.

is-god-a-delusionIt is in this spirit that I want to explain my point of view and with the same intent as Reitan in his book Is God a Delusion? He explains that he wishes to demonstrate that it is just as rational to believe in God as it is not to believe in God. I am not trying to persuade anyone to believe as I do, I simply want people to accept that I am as rational as any sceptic out there, and more so than the so-called sceptics who have absolute faith in their disbelief. The only tenable position using reason alone is agnosticism. Absolute conviction of any kind is faith, which goes beyond where reason can take us.

John Hick adduces an argument to explain why we cannot be absolutely sure about spiritual issues, an argument which appeals to a mind like mine. In his book The Fifth Dimension, he contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to believe or not (pages 37-38):

In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, the hidden God – hidden and yet so readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, . . . . . This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.

So, most of us won’t find evidence so compelling it forces us to believe in a spiritual perspective whether it involves the concept of God or the idea I’m discussing here, that the mind is independent of the brain. Conversely, materialists should be aware that there is no evidence that could compel us not to believe it either. There is only enough evidence either way to convince the predisposed to that belief.

As an atheist/agnostic of almost 25 years standing and a mature student at the time I finished my clinical psychology training after six years of exposure to a basically materialist and sceptical approach to the mind, I was pretty clear where I’d confidently placed my bets.

There were three prevailing ideas within the psychological community at the time about the nature of the mind: the eliminative materialism advocated by such thinkers as Paul Churchland; the epiphenomenological approach which says consciousness is simply an accidental by-product of brain complexity; and the emergent property idea that posits that, just as the cells in our body as a whole combine to create something greater than themselves, so do our brain cells. I’d chosen the last option as the most sensible. Consciousness is not entirely reducible to a simple aggregate of cells: the mind is something extra. But I didn’t believe for one moment that it was not ultimately a material phenomenon.

mind v3The Emanation Shock

Well, not that is until I took the leap of faith I call declaring my intention to work at becoming a Bahá’í.

The words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the Founder of the Faith, were a bit of a shock to me at first: ‘. . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit.’

I had spent so much of my life thinking bottom up about this issue that the idea of working top down seemed initially absurd. There wasn’t a top to work down from in the first place, as far as I saw it to begin with.

Although I absolutely trusted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to be stating what he knew to be true and, because of all that I had read about his life, I believed that what he thought was true was more likely to be so than my version, I realised that this was something that required a thorough investigation of the empirical evidence if I was to bring my sceptical head on board alongside my accepting heart.

My memory of the process by which I set out to investigate suggests that my initial research involved looking into near death experiences (NDEs) and Psi.

I decided that, as I was not absolutely certain of this, I’d better make sure I was even aware of that body of data at this time. I checked my bookshelves. To my surprise, it showed that I was reading about NDEs and Psi even before I declared as a Bahá’í. My copies of Raymond Moody’s Life after Life and John Randall’s Parapsychology and the Nature of Life both date from 1981, a whole year earlier at the very least. There is no reference to either book in my journals of 1981/82 so I don’t know whether I read them before finding the Bahá’í Faith.

Not that in the end, after years of checking this out as more research became known, NDEs have provided completely conclusive proof that there is a soul and that the mind derives from it. Even my Black Swan example of Pam Reynolds, which I discovered much later, could not clinch it absolutely. This was the beginning of my realisation that we are inevitably dealing with acts of faith here and that both beliefs are equally rational when not asserted dogmatically. Even if you couldn’t explain them away entirely in material terms, the existence of Psi complicated the picture somewhat.

For example, Braude’s work in Immortal Remains makes it clear that it is difficult conclusively to determine whether apparently strong evidence of mind-body independence such as mediumship and reincarnation are not in fact examples of what he calls super-psi, though at points he thinks survivalist theories have the edge (page 216):

On the super-psi hypothesis, the evidence needs to be explained in terms of the psychic successes of, and interactions between, many different individuals. And it must also posit multiple sources of information, both items in the world and different peoples beliefs and memories. But on the survival hypothesis, we seem to require fewer causal links and one individual… from whom all information flows.

Less sympathetically, Pim van Lommel’s research on near-death experiences is robustly attacked by Evan Thompson in his existentially philosophical treatise, Waking, Dreaming, Being which also claims to have turned my black swan, Pam Reynolds’ NDE, into a dead albatross.

I’ll explore this in more detail in the next post on Saturday.

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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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filter-spectrum-v2At the end of the last post we looked at psi. Other transpersonal experiences, particularly ones relating to mind-brain independence, are more controversial, if that is possible. Psi is even seen as a confounding variable, which I suppose is progress of a kind, rather than a supportive prop.

For example, Braude’s work in Mortal Remains makes it clear that it is difficult conclusively to determine whether apparently strong evidence of mind-body independence such as mediumship and reincarnation are not in fact examples of what he calls super-psi, though at points he thinks survivalist theories have the edge (page 216):

On the super-psi hypothesis, the evidence needs to be explained in terms of the psychic successes of, and interactions between, many different individuals. And it must also posit multiple sources of information, both items in the world and different peoples beliefs and memories. But on the survival hypothesis, we seem to require fewer causal links and one individual… from whom all information flows.

Less sympathetically, Pim van Lommel’s research on near-death experiences is robustly attacked by Evan Thompson in his existentially philosophical treatise, Waking, Dreaming, Being which also claims to have turned my black swan, Pam Reynolds’ NDE, into a dead albatross.

Quotations from Thompson’s sceptical and Mario Beauregard’s convinced account will illustrate the problem. I’ll focus on the hearing issue, though that is by no means the only point of contention.

thompsonThompson writes in Waking, Dreaming, Being (page 307):

Reynolds’s eyes were taped shut, so she wouldn’t have been able to see what was going on around her. Although she was wearing fitted ear plugs that delivered 40-decibel white noise to one ear and 95-decibel clicks every eleventh of a second to her other ear (in order to monitor her auditory brainstem response), she probably would have been able to hear the sound of the saw through bone conduction (as when you hear inside your head the sound of the dentist’s drill). On the basis of hearing the sound, she may have generated a visual image of the saw, which she described as looking like an electric toothbrush. She would have been familiar with the surgical procedure from the surgeon’s description and from having read and signed the informed consent form, and she would have seen the layout of the operating room because she was awake when she was wheeled in. So she probably had enough knowledge to create an accurate visual and cognitive map of her surroundings during her out-of-body experience. Reynolds’s ability to hear what the cardiac surgeon said may seem less likely, but to my knowledge no one has tried to replicate the auditory stimulus conditions to determine whether speech is comprehensible through those sound levels or during the pauses between the clicks.

mind-brain-relationshipBeauregard’s view is different (Exploring Frontiers of the Mind-Brain Relationship – page 132):

Sceptics will argue that when Reynolds saw the surgeon cutting her skull or heard a female voice say something about the size of her blood vessels, she was not clinically dead yet. Nevertheless, her ears were blocked by small moulded speakers continuously emitting 100-dB clicks (100 dB correspond approximately to the noise produced by a speeding express train). Medical records confirmed that these words were effectively pronounced (Seabom 1998). Moreover, the speakers were fixed with tape and gauze. It is thus highly unlikely that Reynolds could have physically overheard operating room conversation.

Intriguing or what? Deuce maybe? Or a plague on both their houses?

In terms of Reynold’s supposedly prior knowledge, it is perhaps also worth quoting Penny Sartori’s 2008 work in Swansea, quoted by Fenwick in a later chapter of the mind-brain book. In her study she was able to ask (page 148):

. . . whether the patients who said they left their bodies during the cardiac arrest were able to give a more accurate account of what happened during their resuscitation, than those who did not claim to have left their bodies or to have any memory of seeing the resuscitation. She asked both groups to describe what they thought had happened during the resuscitation and found that those who said they had seen the resuscitation were more accurate in their account of what had occurred than those who were simply guessing. This finding is important as it is the first prospective study which suggests that veridical information may indeed be obtained in some manner by someone who is deeply unconscious and who has none of the cerebral functions which would enable them either to see or to remember.

Thompson feels, even so, that there is a possible way of explaining these sorts of experiences. He quotes the work of Olaf Blanke and Sebastian Dieguez (page 313) who ‘put forward a model of how the distinct brain areas known to be frequently damaged in cardiac arrest patients may contribute to the various elements that make up near-death experiences.’ They claim to have found two types of NDE, one linked to right- and the other to left-hemisphere functioning. He adds (my italics): ‘it also seems possible that a patient could have both types of near-death experience and later link them together into one remembered and reported episode. Pam Reynolds’s near death experience, for example, might have been of this kind.’

So, you pay your penny and takes your choice.

I feel I’m back in a familiar place, the one described by John Hick.

John Hick adduces a very compelling argument that appeals to a mind like mine that has never had even a glimpse of what Pam Reynolds, amongst many others who came back to describe their near death experience, had access to. Hick, in his book The Fifth Dimension, contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to  believe or not (pages 37-38):

In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, the hidden God – hidden and yet so readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, . . . . . This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.

So, most of us won’t find evidence so compelling it forces us to believe.

To be fair to Thompson I need to add two more quotes which resonate with this in a way, the first from the end of the section on NDEs (page 314):

Although Blanke and Dieguez’s model is speculative, as they admit, it serves to illustrate how we can begin to approach near-death experiences from a cognitive neuroscience perspective, instead of supposing, as many near-death experience researchers do, that these experiences pose an insurmountable challenge to neuroscience.

This is at least honestly tentative, untainted by fundamentalist scientism. His basic position is similarly balanced (ibid.):

One way to lose touch with the existential meaning of near-death experiences is to argue, on the basis of the kind of cognitive neuroscience perspective just sketched, that these experiences are nothing other than false hallucinations created by a disordered brain. Another way is to argue that these experiences are true presentations of a real, transcendent, spiritual realm to which one’s disembodied consciousness will journey after death.

Both of these viewpoints fall into the trap of thinking that near-death experiences must be either literally true are literally false. This attitude remains caught in the grip of a purely third-person view of death… Both viewpoints turn away from the experience itself and try to translate it into something else or evaluate it according to some outside standard of objective reality.

Where does that all leave me?

I have failed so far to find evidence to confirm that transliminality of any kind is anything more than an occasional correlate of psychosis. Moreover, I sense that at this point, I am going to be hard-pressed to find strong evidence that will support the notion that psychosis entails the leaching into consciousness both of subconscious brain activity and extrasensory stimuli.


1: Lower Unconscious 2: Middle Unconscious 3: Higher Unconscious 4: Field of Consciousness 5: Conscious Self or “I” 6: Higher Self 7: Collective Unconscious (For the source of the image see link.)


Still, I have clarified to my own satisfaction what I think I need to find evidence for. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains in Some Answered Questions that (pages 241-42):

The human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul, and these two names—the human spirit and the rational soul—designate one thing. . . .

. . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.

The diagram at the top of this post, with which I illustrated in an earlier post the issue of brain-produced and extrasensory stimuli, plainly does not go far enough. One of the best existing attempts of something that does is to be found in psychosynthesis.

It neatly distinguishes the conscious self (the ego) from the Higher Self – in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s terms the mind as a power or fruit of the spirit. With its help I am hoping to explore these issues further, particularly with respect to psychosis and creativity.

I would hope eventually to be able to tease out how trauma can lift us towards compassionate self-transcendence instead of shrinking us towards self-protective egotism, depending upon our response to it. The implication for creativity would be whether the pain of life makes a better person as well as a better artist because greater creativity and access to the transcendent are both possible and facilitated by pain, and for psychosis whether pain causes less effective filtering for both brain-generated and extrasensory experiences.

In both cases trauma could lift or lower the trajectory of a person’s life. I’d like to explore more deeply why some people go up and others go down.

I’ll leave it there until the New Year, and pause my posts until then as I did last year. I wish all my readers well over this festive season.

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Why fret about the Afterlife Hypothesis?

A black Swan

A Black Swan

The previous post looked at how the black swan of Pam Reynolds‘ Near Death Experience (NDE) could perhaps be seen as a blow to the white swan theory that there is no possibility of life after death. This focused on the possible truth value  of the Afterlife Hypothesis. There is a critical look at the data in the Wikipedia link above that reveals weaknesses, of which I was previously unaware, in the case as presented in the television documentary. I still feel that mind-brain independence has been established in this case because of the accurate visual experiences gained under anaesthesia (see previous post on this subject — now revised). None the less we still need to consider the usefulness of the Afterlife Hypothesis if we are going to be able to persuade those who are sceptical to rethink.

We saw that Ken Ring’s research, which is summarised in Lessons from the Light, noted how often people who had experienced an NDE felt that their lives had been enhanced and that they wanted to be of service to their fellow human beings.

I said that we would come back to this point — the usefulness of holding the Afterlife Hypothesis to be true. I also said we’d look at why this aspect of the issue is critical if we are to understand why belief or unbelief on this issue matters to us all, believers and unbelievers alike, almost regardless of its truth value.

Some people may find the discussion that follows a bit challenging: it was impossible to write about it clearly without seeming to come on a little strongly. In spite of appearances, though, I respect differences of view immensely and would hope to learn at least as much from those who disagree with me as I do from those who think the same.

I’d like to focus on two aspects of the question of belief in the afterlife: its usefulness and its importance.

Our answer to questions about whether or not we have a soul, and whether or not that soul is immortal, very much determines who we think we are. It shapes our identity. Who I think I am powerfully influences what I decide to do and how I relate to others and to the world around me. It is important.

Then, when we look at the average effect of all our actions, influenced by all our various views of who we are, we will find that we have a vision of the kind of society, civilisation and culture we are creating by these decisions and these actions. This in turn influences who we continue to think we are. What’s perhaps even more important is it influences who our children come to think they are. In this way we enhance or warp our futures.

Because our future depends on it, we will need to address, as a society, whether materialism in its various forms is enough when it causes us to derive our values and our morals only from reason, experience and our shared sense of humanity – not that those are entirely without worth: a society that shuts its eyes to the feedback from experience and blinds itself to the truths that are within the reach of reason will soon fall off a cliff it is convinced does not exist.

But materialism goes too far when it preaches dogmatically that there is no need of any seal of approval from outside, no need of a transcendent point of reference, no need to believe in an afterlife. It claims that we can, as it were, place each of our feet in two different buckets, grasp the handles and heave ourselves off the ground. In my view materialism is trying to persuade us that the tiny candle of reason can illuminate the dark vastness of the entire universe: I find that claim preposterous.

Is getting the best out of ourselves without God really like the bucket problem?

Unfortunately, mobilising the evidence to try and demonstrate that materialistic worldviews fail to lift us as high as spiritual ones will probably fail to convince the wavering and leave the reductionist utterly unmoved. John Hick wryly concluded that the universe has been created to contain just enough evidence to convince the believer that there is a God but not quite enough to convert the sceptic!

However, I have come to the conclusion that a lot really does hang on the decision that we make on this issue.

It’s not just a question of our physical and mental health, and there is a great deal of evidence (Koenig et al) to suggest that religion is good for our state of mind in this world never mind the next. Nor of the efforts religious people make to be of service to others.

Tablets for all ills

Tablets for all ills

There’s also some less clear-cut evidence (see Batson et al for investigations that do justice to the real complexities of this issue) to suggest their efforts are somewhat greater in this respect than the efforts of those with no religion.

Certainly there is enough evidence to make a psychologically sophisticated atheist ask:

If religious people are right in believing that religion is the source of their greatest happiness, then maybe the rest of us who are looking for happiness and meaning can learn something from them, whether or not we believe in God.

(Haidt: page 211)

Even more importantly it’s a question of the expectations we harbour about our future, based on our estimate of our capabilities and our assessment of the current reality. These expectations, of course, help form the future.

This needs unpacking. An analogy will help.

Research strongly suggests that pessimists, and even depressed people, are more realistic about the present (See Seligman’s ‘Authentic Happiness‘ for example). On the other hand, optimists and happy people exaggerate, for example, the degree to which they are liked by others or the level of skill they have. They are less realistic: they see the world through rose tinted spectacles.

The sceptical materialist might well conclude “Case closed! You just shot yourself in the foot. I need read no further. You’re all deluded then.” I’m afraid (s)he couldn’t be more wrong!

If we take a snapshot of the lives of these two kinds of people say ten years later, what are we likely to find? You’ve probably guessed it. The optimists, untrammelled by low expectations, will probably have made something better of their lives on most measures such as the quality of their relationships or their level of health. The pessimists are usually very much where they started and generally much worse off than the optimists. A lot of information can be gleaned about the effects of a pessimistic or unhappy style from Seligman’s book (see also the link to the Authentic Happiness website on the front page).

In my view, comparing optimists with pessimists is very much the same thing as comparing those who believe in God with those who believe in nothing (which of course is also an act of faith). To divide the ‘camps’ in this way simply into religious and non-religious would be too simplistic of course. Some spiritual beliefs are narrow, constricting and/or pessimistic about the human predicament. Some materialistic worldviews have warmer perspectives and rosier expectations.

It will none the less be found, I feel, if the evidence is systematically sought and examined dispassionately, that, on average, people with a sense of the transcendent, because they have a more positive view of what they can achieve individually and collectively, will enhance their own and their communities’ lives significantly more each decade than will those who, because they take a completely materialistic view of things, have lower expectations of themselves, of others and of what can be achieved. This is an empirical question: it needs to be properly researched. Ken Ring’s work is already pointing strongly in that direction. I have also explored this at length from another angle in a longer sequence of posts.

Unless someone can produce compelling evidence to the contrary I intend to go on believing the words attributed to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:

As ye have faith, so shall your powers and blessings be.

(Adib Taherzadeh: The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, Vol IV: p 217: )

The Free-Rider Problem

There is one rather disturbing implication of all this.

If this idea is correct, that faith in the transcendent lifts our game and the level of well-being of the communities we live in, the person with a sceptical take on the afterlife, whether (s)he likes it or not, whether that is the intention or not, could well be making a contribution that falls short of his or her capacity as a result. When civilisation is getting as close to the edge of self-destruction as it is at the moment, every little short fall matters and could make the difference between collective survival or collective suicide.

In the worst case scenario, where the falling short is very great, someone who is sceptical to the point of cynicism, or even nihilism (this touches on extremism of all kinds, atheist as well as religious, and will have to wait for another time for a more adequate treatment), could become that bane of all organisations – the free-rider – who reaps the benefits of other people’s efforts without contributing his or her fair share! According to Philip Ball in his book ‘Critical Mass‘, the effect on an organisation of carrying too many such people is to make it unfit to survive.

He writes (page 333):

So why do firms fail? . . . . Once it grows big enough, it becomes a haven for free-riders who capitalize on the efforts of others. So the firm becomes gradually riddled with slackers, until suddenly the other workers decide they have had enough and jump ship. . . . The failure is self-induced.

It is perhaps stretching a point to extrapolate from firms to civilisations, where jumping ship is more like moving to China than changing jobs, but we know that civilisations do fail (See Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse‘).  If there is any truth in this extrapolation, it could therefore mean that our collective survival depends upon enough people waking up to the transcendent, regardless of how the costs of extremism at both ends of the spectrum eventually stack up.

We need to find out what we think for ourselves

I believe it would be very difficult indeed to reach a conclusion about whether faith in a transcendent dimension makes me a better citizen or not. The issue matters so much though that we should not  accept what we’ve been told simply on the authority of other people.

It is worth bearing in mind that nihilism is as much an act of faith as faith in God. If too much nihilism spread across too many people could annihilate us, surely, in all conscience, this is a matter of life and death now and bears painstaking and careful investigation, a scrupulously dispassionate weighing of all the evidence, before finally making up our minds? Bahá’ís believe in the inescapable responsibility of all of us to investigate the truth for ourselves. If you have a thirst to understand these issues you will find much food for thought (though water would of course be more use in quenching a thirst!) at the Baha’i World Centre site as well as through the other links on the front page of this blog.

After such strenuous investigation by everyone, how many of us would then be left to say with any sense of certainty there is no God, no soul, no afterlife?

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Among other principles of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings was the harmony of science and religion. Religion must stand the analysis of reason. It must agree with scientific fact and proof so that science will sanction religion and religion fortify science. Both are indissolubly welded and joined in reality.

( ‘Abdu’l-Bahá   – Promulgation of Universal Peace: page 175)

In the context of posts on deep conversation this seems relevant to publish.

You may wonder why this post follows so closely on from two very long recent ones on consciousness. Well, beyond the fact that I’m obsessed with the topic anyway, that is. ‘Why now?’ is the issue really, I suppose.

The answer is that, on the Bahá’í New Year 21st March, I had to go to the Birmingham medical school to run a seminar on consciousness and some aspects of the experience stuck with me.

The building was not reassuring. I was already feeling slightly apprehensive as the topic sprawls way outside my area of expertise. Yes, I know I’m a psychologist but that’s less than a tenth of it. Consciousness has a finger in the pie, mathematically speaking, of physics. It has vexed philosophers into paroxysms of confusion and special pleading. Doctors have to grapple with its practical manifestations when coma strikes. And here I was walking into a lion’s den of different kinds of experts to teach my grandmothers to suck eggs. At least that’s how it felt.

And the modernist feel of the building’s interior was quite unsettling in a Kafkaesque sort of way. A massive entrance hall with off-putting security and gleaming surfaces (the picture below is of the library, but it has the same feel) led me up the stairs into a grid of intersecting corridors running in parallels at right angles and all very much the same apart from the identifying codes on doors that read like WAP passwords.

After hanging around stairwells, dithering for what seemed an eternity uncertain which direction to take, I managed to find an Ariadne to guide me through the labyrinth to the seminar room we were due to be in at 5 o’clock.

I was half an hour early and the room was occupied (not by the Minotaur, I hasten to add) so I moved through to a seated area within sight of the library. It was a hot day and the building was warm. I was sweating rather a lot after my walk from the station. Nerves? What makes you think anxiety had anything to do with it?

A psychologist in denial, I sat down in a leather-upholstered chair at a shining table, with an impressive phalanx of academic heavyweights gazing down on me from their imposing portraits, and got out my notes for the umpteenth time, desperately trying to convince myself I had internalised them.

Then the hour of judgement arrived. The seminar room had no outside windows and was uncomfortably warm. No refreshments were allowed to cross its sacred threshold. It was going to be a throat-testing experience, as if mine wasn’t dry enough already.

We were about 16 people – men, women, young, old, atheist, agnostic, religious, culturally diverse. I began to feel more comfortable. People are just people after all. I checked out the audience for experts. Any qualified psychologists? One tentative possible. Relief! Any doctors? Just a small handful. I could cope with that. I’d thought I’d have a roomful. Any ‘real’ scientists? Just one man with a 30-year old physics degree. Things were getting better and better.

My plan was to cover challenging issues such as the improbability of consciousness, caveats about its reality, doubts about the materialist position and aspects of the nature of consciousness as we currently understand its workings.

Not overly ambitious then for a two hour exploration.

It would be too complicated to give a blow-by-blow account of what transpired though it will inform any future attempts I make to explore the topic. I’ll just pick up on a couple of the more intriguing points.

One of the most striking things was the lack of consensus across all shades of opinion about the free will issue. There were those who found the implications of determinism for a just and responsible society too destructive to make that hypothesis acceptable. Other people by contrast were quite comfortable with the idea that what we do is determined in advance by processes of which we are completely unaware and over which we have no control. This last position is bewildering to me, it’s so counterintuitive. ‘But what’s so reliable about intuition?’ you might ask.

Another aspect was that even the agnostics, who felt that theirs was the only rational approach to the issues of free will and determinism and of mind-brain independence, veered towards feeling the reductionist approach was somehow more plausible on both counts.

It’s as though the materialistic dogma of our times biases reason in favour of its assumptions even though they are no more reasonable than spiritual explanations. Materialism is a factoid that doesn’t know it yet. It is as much an act of faith as a belief in God and both creeds should seem equally reasonable or unreasonable, depending on the biases of the observer. And agnostics are supposed to be unbiased.

When the seminar was over the building did not release me easily from its grip. It was even harder to pass through security to get out than it had been to get in. It felt as though the building was finding its own way to express its modernist disapproval of all this flaky spiritual stuff. ‘Only matter matters after all,’ it seemed to say. ‘Agree and I’ll let you out.’ Thanks to a rebel on the inside with a passkey I managed to escape alive to tell this tale.

This clash of values is a serious issue though.

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 oblivion.

Sometimes it feels as though we are well on the way already, but that’s in my darker moments. Most of the time I believe that the tipping point can be reached where a critical mass of humanity gets the right idea in time. If Sheldrake’s idea of morphic resonance has any truth in it, the more people change their minds the easier it will become for the rest of us. Can we have more Blondins to balance on this tightrope please?

Charles Blondin

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Given my current pre-occupation with meditation this second post from April 2011 seemed worth republishing.

The title Bible’s Buried Secrets drew me to watch the first programme in the series on BBC2 in the middle of last month. Initially, in spite of the youth and charm of Francesca Stavrakopoulou, I found myself waiting on a bland platform of only mild interest until I found myself boarding a train of thought that carried me through intriguing terrain to a fascinating destination.

Her argument, in brief, was that the archaeological evidence for the existence of the biblical King David, Goliath notwithstanding, was so sparse as to call into question his reality. Bells in a distant steeple of my memory began pealing as though an invasion or a coronation was imminent. I recalled reading David Rohl‘s book A Test of Time many years earlier (1995 judging by the publication date). It was turned into a television series on Channel 4 which I never saw. He argued, in a way that seemed quite plausible, that this lack of corroboration for the Bible from the historical and archaeological record is a common problem and stems from the fact that the conventionally accepted Egyptian chronology is displaced in time.

For complex reasons that it would take too long to rehearse here, Rohl feels that (page 135):

There are . . . no safe fixed points in the chronology of Egypt earlier than 664 BC.

Caravaggio, David and Goliath 1599

David & Goliath: Caravaggio

He develops a new chronology which he summarises on page 143:

The New Chronology has determined that Ramesses II should be dated to the tenth century BC – some three hundred and fifty years later than the date which had been assigned to him in the orthodox chronology. As a consequence, the archaeology of Palestine associated with the late 18th and early 19th Dynasties – Late Bronze II – now represents the historical period known as the Early Israelite Monarchy, the era of David and Solomon.

It would be hard to find a blogger in the world with less knowledge of archaeology than me (I haven’t even seen all the episodes of Time Team), so I’m not going to claim I have the faintest idea who is really right here. What intrigues me is the divergence of view on a complex issue where the evidence appears not to be conclusive.

We’ve been here before, of course, on this blog with the issue of climate change and Peter Taylor’s detailed doubts about the theory of man-made global warming.

I love these examples of maverick experts challenging the prevailing orthodoxy. It has the same appeal as the tale of David and Goliath, in fact. Both Taylor and Rohl quote meticulously from a wide range of complex data, so wide in fact that they make the supporters of the mainstream consensus look as though the orthodox are the ones who are cherry picking data to use in evidence to support their case.

In these debates reality comes to seem as ambiguous as a Gestalt picture – you know the ones I mean. Is it Francesca Stavrakopoulou or Mother Teresa? It’s probably not a permanent state of affairs like the wave- particle situation with light, but it led me to wondering whether some other complex and ambiguous issues are eternally irresolvable.

Gazing through this window of my train of thought I had no desire to alight yet.

One perennial problem has become more acute since the rise of scientific empiricism. Religious people have sought to claim that myth is literally true, as though that will shift the debate in their favour, and the scientifically minded have been moved to dismiss anything that smacks of myth as utter fantasy. We either find the account in Genesis of the creation of the world implausibly defended as a realistic rendering of exactly what happened, or mystic experience, grounded in decades of disciplined practice, dismissed as irrational drivel.

Because I accept John Hick‘s position that the universe is such that there is just enough evidence to convince the predisposed that the spiritual realm is real while there is simply not enough to persuade the sceptical, it seems to me that the polarised debate described above is utterly fruitless. Reitan’s position is far more constructive: it is just as reasonable to believe in God as it is to doubt His existence.

If we could enact these mutually respectful positions, what would the world of ideas look like?

Not the bombed out war zone it resembles at the moment, that’s for sure. Can we find a picture of the likely scenario anywhere? Is a ‘marriage of sense and soul‘ of this kind really possible? I believe the green shoots of a different kind of landscape are pushing through the rubble of the battlefield and what was originally only the faint possibility of this marriage is already in the process of becoming a reality.

For example, Margaret Donaldson‘s brilliant book, Human Minds: an exploration, addresses a closely related question (page 264 – my emphasis):

The very possibility of emotional development that is genuinely on a par with – as high as, level with – the development of reason is only seldom entertained. So long as this possibility is neglected, then if reason by itself is sensed as inadequate where else can one go but back? Thus there arises a regressive tendency, a desire to reject reason and all that was best in the Enlightenment, a yearning for some return to the mythic, the magical, the marvellous in old senses of these terms. This is very dangerous; but it has the advantage that it is altogether easier than trying to move forward into something genuinely new.

Now we have clearly seen that the cultivation of the advanced value-sensing mode [e.g. in meditation] is not of itself new. It has ancient roots. What would be new would be a culture where both kinds of enlightenment were respected and cultivated together. Is there any prospect that a new age of this kind might be dawning?

For Baha’is, believing as we do that religion and science are both wings to the bird of true human understanding and progress, this is a crucial and exciting question, a long way further down the tracks of this particular train of thought than whether David did or did not really exist, but distantly related nonetheless.

Why do I think that this kind of mutual respect is possible, apart from a blind faith in my own particular spiritual tradition?


Electron (for source of image see link)

My sense that we are moving in that direction derives from my reading, in the main. McGilchrist, a psychiatrist steeped in the literature of his tradition, pleads eloquently, and on the back of a mountain of evidence, for the need to achieve a better balance between the two halves of our brain, between analytic reason and holistic intuition. On the religious side you have books such as Eric Reitan’s Is God a Delusion?. I have referred to his carefully balanced and utterly non-dogmatic position already in this post with a link to my review. On the scientific side, even if we ignore quasi-mystic physicists such as Amit Goswami, whose quantum spirituality is fascinating but some way beyond the reach of my full understanding, you have evolutionary thinkers such as Robert Wright, whose writing I’ve quoted more fully elsewhere in this blog. He states, for example, with a respect that echoes Reitan’s (The Evolution of God: pages 458-459):

. . . . natural selection’s invention of love . . . . was a prerequisite for the moral imagination whose expansion, here and now, could help keep the world on track . . . . . .

Though we can no more conceive of God than we can conceive of an electron, believers can ascribe properties to God, somewhat as physicists ascribe properties to electrons.

This idea of God as being beyond our understanding, though we can grasp some of His properties, resonates with the Bahá’í position:

As to the attributes and perfections such as will, knowledge, power and other ancient attributes that we ascribe to that Divine Reality, these are the signs that reflect the existence of beings in the visible plane and not the absolute perfections of the Divine Essence that cannot be comprehended.

(Bahá’í World Faith: page 342)

Wright continues (page 459):

One of the more plausible properties [of God] is love. And maybe, in this light, the argument for God is strengthened by love’s organic association with truth – by the fact, indeed, that at times these two properties almost blend into one. You might say that love and truth are the two primary manifestations of divinity in which we can partake, and that by partaking in them we become truer manifestations of the divine. Then again, you might not say that. The point is just that you wouldn’t have to be crazy to say it.

[Since this post was originally published I have, of course, blogged at length about Alvin Plantinga’s sterling defence of the proposition that religion and science are deeply compatible.]

For those who want to get a feel for quantum spirituality, and for just how closely related scientific language and ineffable spirituality can become, have a look at the video below. If you can cope with the video you’ll almost certainly enjoy having a look at a challenging article on biocentrism (see link). Mystics are not mad it seems nor science untouched by hints of the divine.

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