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Posts Tagged ‘Julian Baggini’

Lost Connections

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Johann Hari’s book, Lost Connections, about his journey out of the medication trap surrounding depression. I’ve been recommending it to anyone I know who seems to have been struggling with similar issues. A close friend in Australia was initially intending to borrow the book from her library but the waiting list was so long, even though they had several copies in stock, she gave up and bought her own copy, which she is now lending to others. This gives a pretty clear indication of just how many people in our society are fighting these same battles.

For some reason I never found time to do a proper review of his book, and things have moved on since then, but I thought it was still important to mention it here before I move onto to fresh woods and pastures new.

So, what strange tracks have I been wandering along recently?

Three recent books kept me hooked from start to finish, a pretty unusual state of affairs as my habit is to move from uncompleted book to uncompleted book, sometimes only coming back to finish the first one in the sequence years after starting it.

Not quite so this time.

I obviously got a lot out of the first two books, my most recently purchased. I won’t be dwelling on them at great length though. They both tackled closely related subjects in slightly different ways.

How the World Thinks

Julian Baggini’s How the World Thinks is, as its sub-title spells out, a philosopher’s take on the world of ideas. It’s refreshing because it sets out to modify our Western tendency to think that ours is the only approach. His book is devoted to undermining this arrogant complacency and is replete with telling points such as (page 24):

It is perhaps no coincidence that insight as a source of knowledge is stressed most in the traditions the West finds least philosophical. Western philosophy’s self-image has largely been constructed by distancing itself from ideas of the philosopher as a sage or guru who penetrates the deep mysteries of the universe like some kind of seer. This distancing has blinded it to the obvious truth that all good philosophy requires some kind of insight.

And concerning a broader sense of what aesthetic means in Eastern traditions (page 294):

One problem I as a Westerner have understanding this is that the primary connotations of aestheticfor me concern art,… But the original, broader meaning of aesthetic is ‘relating to felt experience’… It was only later in the nineteenth century that the meaning ‘concerned with beauty’ became common. To say that Japanese philosophy is aesthetic rather than conceptual is not primarily to say that it is concerned with the appreciation of beauty – artistic, natural or otherwise – but that it centred on the experiential.

He spreads his net very widely over a number of topics and a vast range of traditions.

Living with the Gods

As does Neil McGregor in his book, Living with the Gods: on beliefs and peoples. Although Braggini dealt with spiritual and moral systems of thought, McGregor is more focused on religious traditions. He has a lighter touch and uses colourful illustrations to bring his points to life.

He deals with important issues that resonate across traditions such as (page 385) ‘the growing trend towards literalist readings of holy texts,’ which need to be taken poetically or mythically. This trend reinforces the tendency we are seeing across the world of faiths and ideologies to develop ever fiercer levels of conviction.

Another that crops up in his book is our different relationships with the natural world, for instance in the Yup’ik culture of south-west Alaska (page 70) which asserts ‘a respectful, entirely equal partnership between animals and humans, where the animals have a real agency,[something which is] almost impossible for a highly urbanised society to grasp. Most foreign to us is perhaps its assumption of such close inter-connectedness and mutual obligation.’

What’s Missing?

Given that both books cover such a wide spectrum of beliefs and world views, it was a shade disappointing to find that they neither of them mentioned the Bahá’í take on some of their issues, even though it would have been relevant, and one of them even quotes from a book by Christopher Bellaigue, The Islamic Enlightenment: the modern struggle between faith and reason,that doesn’t fall into that trap. More of that next time.

What issues do they each raise on which the Bahá’í perspective might have shed some light? A couple of examples will have to suffice.

Braggini first

Braggini deals at some length with the complex issue of the relationship between the individual and the community.

In his discussion of the self in the third part of his book (pages 175-220), he explains two concepts: the relational self and the atomised self. Although the Japanese are identified in our minds with a ‘collectivist’ emphasis (page 194) this is too simplistic. A leading figure in the Kyoto school (page 195) ‘stressed that nothing in this philosophy is against individualism’ and that ‘individualism and egoism must be strictly distinguished.’ He also discusses (page 201) the ‘default conception of self in Africa’ as ‘a relational one. One manifestation of this is the South African concept of ubuntu. This word defies translation but means something like ‘humanity towards others’ or ‘the universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.’ He believes that the individualism of our Western culture came about ‘as soon as selves were conceived in Platonic terms. Unlike the relational selves of East Asian thought, such selves are discrete, self-contained. They may interact and cooperate with others but each is a separate unit, entire unto itself.’

His concluding section of this part discusses the concepts of integrity and intimacy. He feels that ‘a lot of what is going wrong in the West is a breakdown of a stable equilibrium between intimacy and integrity. Consider the distinction in terms of autonomy and belonging. More of one inevitably leaves us with less of the other, and in the West the autonomy culture has become so dominant it has squeezed out belonging.’

What might the Bahá’í point of view add to this?

There is the obvious aspect: the core belief that all humanity is one. Also the powerful sense, as expressed by its central body in 2001 that there has to be ‘a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.’

That may not deal clearly enough with the question of the best relationship between the individual and the community. The Bahá’í NGO addresses that more adequately in The Prosperity of Humankind.They wrote:

Human society is composed not of a mass of merely differentiated cells but of associations of individuals . . . As social organization has increased, the scope for the expression of the capacities latent in each human being has correspondingly expanded. Because the relationship between the individual and society is a reciprocal one, the transformation now required must occur simultaneously within human consciousness and the structure of social institutions. . . in the achievement of human progress, the interests of the individual and those of society are inextricably linked. . . .Concern that each human being should enjoy the freedom of thought and action conducive to his or her personal growth does not justify devotion to the cult of individualism that so deeply corrupts many areas of contemporary life. Nor does concern to ensure the welfare of society as a whole require a deification of the state as the supposed source of humanity’s well-being. Far otherwise: the history of the present century shows all too clearly that such ideologies and the partisan agendas to which they give rise have been themselves the principal enemies of the interests they purport to serve. Only in a consultative framework made possible by the consciousness of the organic unity of humankind can all aspects of the concern for human rights find legitimate and creative expression. . . . Present-day conceptions of what is natural and appropriate in relationships — among human beings themselves, between human beings and nature, between the individual and society, and between the members of society and its institutions — reflect levels of understanding arrived at by the human race during earlier and less mature stages in its development. If humanity is indeed coming of age, if all the inhabitants of the planet constitute a single people, . . . — then existing conceptions that were born out of ignorance of these emerging realities have to be recast.

I have cherry-picked key points from across a number of pages to try and illustrate that this perspective is adding something significant into the mix: first, the idea of the global family of humanity and, secondly, the notion that we have an understanding of our relationships that has evolved in the past but now needs to evolve far beyond its current level.

In a letter written to all Bahá’ís throughout the world in March 2017, our central body went into more detail about the implications of this for our economic system:

The welfare of any segment of humanity is inextricably bound up with the welfare of the whole. Humanity’s collective life suffers when any one group thinks of its own well-being in isolation from that of its neighbours’ or pursues economic gain without regard for how the natural environment, which provides sustenance for all, is affected. A stubborn obstruction, then, stands in the way of meaningful social progress: time and again, avarice and self-interest prevail at the expense of the common good. Unconscionable quantities of wealth are being amassed, and the instability this creates is made worse by how income and opportunity are spread so unevenly both between nations and within nations. But it need not be so. However much such conditions are the outcome of history, they do not have to define the future, and even if current approaches to economic life satisfied humanity’s stage of adolescence, they are certainly inadequate for its dawning age of maturity. There is no justification for continuing to perpetuate structures, rules, and systems that manifestly fail to serve the interests of all peoples. The teachings of the Faith leave no room for doubt: there is an inherent moral dimension to the generation, distribution, and utilization o f wealth and resources.

This not only refers to the same idea of human progress, but also extends its reference to the relationship between the individual and society from the socio-political sphere to the economic one.

That’s the main reason why I feel the absence of an awareness of the Bahá’í perspective significantly reduces the sought-for inclusiveness of this otherwise excellent book. He is the writer who refers to Bellaigue’s book in a discussion of Islam (page 48), which means he should have had some idea of where the Bahá’í Faith is coming from.

McGregor next

I can deal with McGregor more briefly. He discusses polytheism at some length (pages 322 passim). He is concerned to examine how monotheism has tended throughout its history to be more intolerant than polytheism in terms of the societies it shapes. He is not simplistic about this though (page 329): ‘But as we shall see  . . . polytheism, no less than monotheism, can in the modern world also provide a vehicle for exclusion and political intolerance.’

The potential Bahá’í contribution here can be stated briefly. As far as I am aware the Bahá’í Faith is the first major monotheistic religion explicitly to accept that Hinduism, a polytheistic Eastern religion, completely separate from the tradition of the so-called ‘people of the book,’ is a valid divinely inspired faith. Not only that but it explicitly includes Buddhism and, not so surprisingly given its country of origin, Zoroastrianism, in the same category. The international Bahá’í website lists the founders of the great faiths as follows: ‘Throughout the ages, humanity’s spiritual, intellectual and moral capacities have been cultivated by the Founders of the great religions, among them Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, and—in more recent times—the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh.’

This is not so significant an omission, perhaps, given the nature of his book, but it indicates that he fails to mention a monotheistic faith that has enshrined an inclusiveness that hopefully will avoid the intolerance trap.

Time to move on.

The last book in today’s list is Bellaigue’s on the Islamic Enlightenment.

More of that next time.

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. . . . 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.

(Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 316-317)

This, then, is what a theory of everything has to explain: not only the emergence from a lifeless universe of reproducing organisms and their development by evolution to greater and greater functional complexity; not only the consciousness of some of those organisms and its central role in their lives; but also the development of consciousness into an instrument of transcendence that can grasp objective reality and objective value.

(Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmospage 85)

Now I come to the question of transcendence.

Transcending the crocodile does not depend upon accepting the existence of a soul, though that’s where this post will be going in the end.

Even if we only consider the brain and see the sense of self as its product, with no ‘true’ or ‘real’ self beyond that, we have ground to stand on which will enable us to shake off the shackles of the crocodile and avoid the swamp it lives in.

I’ve recently been reading Julian Baggini’s book How the World Thinks. His discussion of the No-Self issue addresses this point succinctly and may help me avoid rehashing arguments used elsewhere on this blog. He explores the Buddhist concept of anattā, which denies the reality of the ātman or self (page 178):

There is no ātman that has physical form, sensations, thoughts, perceptions of consciousness. Rather, what we think of as the individual person is merely an assemblage of these things.

He adds an important qualification (page 179):

If anattā seems more radical a view than it is, that is in large part because its usual translation is ‘no-self.’ But all it really means is no ātman: no eternal, immaterial, indivisible self. This is very different from denying there is any kind of self at all.

That Buddhism then encourages the effortful practice of meditative techniques to free us from the prison of this illusion of self clearly indicates that the no-self doctrine is not incompatible with the idea that we can escape the crocodile inside.

So, whether or not we have an immortal soul or self that is not a by-product of the brain, we can use techniques such as reflection or disidentification to rise above the tangle of thoughts, feelings, plans and perspectives with which we weave our convincing patterns on the loom of consciousness.

If I am relying on reason alone there is no way I can prove that the mind is independent of the brain anymore than someone else can prove conclusively it isn’t. Agnosticism is the only position available to reason alone. Many people are content to leave it at that. They may even happily look at the evidence marshaled for soul or no soul and keep their options open. I did that myself for a number of years.

Some of us though prefer in the end to make a choice. We’d rather decide there is or is not a soul, a God and/or an after-life. Either way that’s an act of faith.

I decided, for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere on this blog, to believe we have a soul. I now feel this is the simplest explanation for all the data marshalled by psychologist David Fontana in his rigorous exploration of the evidence, Is There an Afterlife? For those interested in exploring further a more accessible book is Surviving Death by journalist Leslie Kean. Powerful individual testimony also comes from Eben Alexander in his account of his own experience as a sceptical neurosurgeon, Proof of Heaven.

If you prefer not to believe in a soul, the vast body of hard evidence still demands some kind of credible explanation, because trying to write it all off as flawed or fake won’t work. The evidence is in many cases more rigourous than that ‘proving’ the efficacy of the tablets we take when we have a problem with our health.

Anyway, I have come to think it’s easier to accept that our consciousness is not just an emergent property of our brain. If you’d like to stick with it we’ll see where it takes us on this issue.

Mind-Brain Independence

A quote from the middle of Emily Kelly’s chapter in Irreducible Mind on Frederick Myers’s approach (page 76) seems a good place to start from, because the last sentence cuts to the core of the challenge constituted by his position and the evidence that mainstream ‘scientists’ ignore:

This notion of something within us being conscious, even though it is not accessible to our ordinary awareness, is an exceedingly difficult one for most of us to accept, since it is so at variance with our usual assumption that the self of which we are aware comprises the totality of what we are as conscious mental beings. Nevertheless, it is essential to keep in mind Myers’s new and enlarged conception of consciousness if one is to understand his theory of human personality as something far more extensive than our waking self.

The mind-brain data throws up a tough problem, though. 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. There are such models though (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.

Others are of course now following where he marked out the ground but we have had to wait a long time for people like van Lommel to show up in his book Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience with all the perplexities and puzzles of modern physics to draw upon (page 177):

It is now becoming increasingly clear that brain activity in itself cannot explain consciousness. . . . . Composed of “unconscious building blocks,” the brain is certainly capable of facilitating consciousness. But does the brain actually “produce” our consciousness?

The imagery Lommel uses in his introduction is slightly different from that of Myers, as we will see – “The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness” – but the point is essentially the same. Whereas we now can draw upon all the complexities of Quantum Theory to help us define exactly what might be going on behind the screen of consciousness, and Lommel certainly does that, Myers had no such advantage. Nonetheless, he creates a rich and subtle picture of what consciousness might be comprised. He starts with the most basic levels (Kelly – page 73):

. . . . our normal waking consciousness (called by Myers the supraliminal consciousness) reflects simply those relatively few psychological elements and processes that have been selected from that more extensive consciousness (called by Myers the Subliminal Self) in adaptation to the demands of our present environment: and . . . the biological organism, instead of producing consciousness, is the adaptive mechanism that limits and shapes ordinary waking consciousness out of this larger, mostly latent, Self.

This problem is illustrated by Myers’s very helpful original analogy, and it shows just how far he was prepared to go in taking into account disciplines that others would have felt were beyond the pale (page 78):

Our ordinary waking consciousness corresponds only to that small segment of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the naked eye (and varies species to species); but just as the electromagnetic spectrum extends in either direction far beyond the small portion normally visible, so human consciousness extends in either direction beyond the small portion of which we are ordinarily aware. In the ‘infrared’ region of consciousness are older, more primitive processes – processes that are unconscious, automatic, and primarily physiological. Thus, ‘at the red end (so to say) consciousness disappears among the organic processes’ (Myers, 1894-1895). Sleep, for example, and its associated psychophysiological processes are an important manifestation of an older, more primitive state. In contrast, in the ‘ultraviolet’ region of the spectrum are all those mental capacities that the remain latent because they have not yet emerged at a supraliminal level through adaptive evolutionary processes. . . . . Such latent, ‘ultraviolet’ capacities include telepathy, the inspirations of creative genius, mystical perceptions, and other such phenomena that occasionally emerge.

Where does this take us?

Given the mirror used to illustrate the power of reflection, a reasonable description of the effects of sticking with the ego and its crocodile can be found in these words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (Promulgation of Universal Peace– page 244):

What is the dust which obscures the mirror? It is attachment to the world, avarice, envy, love of luxury and comfort, haughtiness and self-desire; this is the dust which prevents reflection of the rays of the Sun of Reality in the mirror. The natural emotions are blameworthy and are like rust which deprives the heart of the bounties of God.

To find a close correspondence to the idea of disdentification in the words of an 18thCentury thinker felt like a further confirmation of its validity. Emily Kelly, in the book Irreducible Mind, quotes Myers quoting Thomas Reid, an 18th century philosopher (page 74):

The conviction which every man has of his identity . . . needs no aid of philosophy to strengthen it; and no philosophy can weaken it.… I am not thought, I am not action, I am not feeling; I am something that thinks, and acts, and suffers. My thoughts and actions and feelings change every moment…; But that Self or I, to which they belong, is permanent…

This contradicts my quasi-namesake David Hume’s perception of the situation as quoted by Braggini (pages 185-86):

What you observe are particular thoughts, perceptions and sensations. ‘I never catch myself, distinct from such perception,’ wrote Hume, assuming he was not peculiar.

I noted in the margin at this point, ‘’That’s not my experience.’

So, as good a place as any to pick up the thread of Myers’s thinking again is with his ideas of the self and the Self. There are some problems to grapple with before we can move on. Emily Kelly writes (page 83):

These ‘concepts central to his theory’ are undoubtedly difficult, but despite some inconsistency in his usage or spelling Myers was quite clear in his intent to distinguish between a subliminal ‘self’ (a personality alternate or in addition to the normal waking one) and a Subliminal ‘Self’ or ‘Individuality’ (which is his real ‘unifying theoretical principle’). In this book we will try to keep this distinction clear in our readers minds by using the term ‘subliminal consciousness’ to refer to any conscious psychological processes occurring outside ordinary awareness; the term “subliminal self” (lower case) to refer to ‘any chain of memory sufficiently continuous, and embracing sufficient particulars, to acquire what is popularly called a “character” of its own;’ and the term ‘Individuality’ or “’Subliminal Self” (upper case) to refer to the underlying larger Self.

Myers believed that the evidence in favour of supernormal experiences is strong enough to warrant serious consideration (page 87):

Supernormal processes such as telepathy do seem to occur more frequently while either the recipient or the agent (or both) is asleep, in the states between sleeping and waking, in a state of ill health, or dying; and subliminal functioning in general emerges more readily during altered states of consciousness such as hypnosis, hysteria, or even ordinary distraction.

He felt that we needed to find some way of reliably tapping into these levels of consciousness (page 91):

The primary methodological challenge to psychology, therefore, lies in developing methods, or ‘artifices,’ for extending observations of the contents or capacities of mind beyond the visible portion of the psychological spectrum, just as the physical sciences have developed artificial means of extending sensory perception beyond ordinary limits.

He is arguing that the science of psychology needs to investigate these phenomena. I am not suggesting that, as individuals, we need to have had any such experiences if we are to make use of this model of the mind successfully. I personally have not had any. However, my belief that there is a higher self strongly motivates me to work at transcending the influence of my ego and its crocodile, and I suspect that subliminal promptings towards constructive action in complex and difficult circumstances often come from that direction.

This brings us into the territory explored by Roberto Assagioli in the psychotherapeutic approach called Psychosynthesis, with its use of concepts such as the Higher Self, for which I am using the term True Self.

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.)

A crucial component in implementing the Psychosynthesis model, in addition to finding it credible, is will power.

Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis, contends that we are being raised by a higher force ‘into order, harmony and beauty,’ and this force is ‘uniting all beings . . . . with each other through links of love’ (Psychosynthesis: page 31). He explores what we might do to assist that process, and what he says resonates with Schwartz’s idea that persistent willed action changes brain structure. He writes (The Act of Will: page 57):

Repetition of actions intensifies the urge to further reiteration and renders their execution easier and better, until they come to be performed unconsciously.

And he is not just talking about the kind of physical skills we met with in Bounce. He goes on to say (page 80):

Thus we can, to a large extent, act, behave, and really be in practice as we would be if we possessed the qualities and enjoyed the positive mental states which we would like to have. More important, the use of this technique will actually change our emotional state.

This is what, in the realm of psychology, underpins the power of determination that the Universal House of Justice refers to in paragraph 5 of their 28 December 2010 message:

Calm determination will be vital as [people] strive to demonstrate how stumbling blocks can be made stepping stones for progress.

Changing ourselves in this way as individuals will ultimately change the world in which we live.

I am not arguing that transcending the crocodile is easy, nor am I saying that one particular way of achieving this will suit everyone. It is an effortful path and we each have to find our own. It is important that we do not mistake a credible looking path for the destination itself. If the path is not moving us towards our goal we must find another one. Nonetheless I am convinced the goal is within our grasp if we can believe in it enough to make the effort.

The Higher Good

There is one last important point for those of us who wish to believe in a God of some kind.

My very battered copy of this classic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The way forward, I believe, lies in recognising a higher and inspiring source of value that will help us lift our game in a way that can be sustained throughout our lifetime. For many of us that is God (from Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 76):

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

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