Posts Tagged ‘reality’



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Reasonable Doubt?

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This includes poems such as the one below.
Reasonable Doubt v2

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Reasonable Doubt?

Reasonable Doubt v2

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William Golding (for source of image see link)

William Golding (for source of image see link)

Yesterday we looked at revelation.

In John Carey’s biography of William Golding we find a description of the writer’s task that might seem to put him or her at odds with any kind of religious revelation (page 210-211). It describes Golding’s view of the matter:

The task of a writer, he insists, is to free the mind from the shackles of habit and creed. Belief systems such as Christianity and Marxism impose ‘rigid patterns’ on reality which deaden the mind. ‘The difference between being alive and being an inorganic substance is just this proliferation of experience, this absence of pattern.’ Accordingly, a writer must have ‘an intransigence in the face of accepted beliefs – – political, religious, moral – any accepted belief.’ If he takes an accepted belief for granted then ‘he ceases to have any use in society at all.’ In effect his job is to ‘scrape the labels off things,’ exposing the reality beneath.

It is worth reminding ourselves here of the distinction Paul Lample makes in his book ‘Revelation & Social Reality.’ He explains (page 10) that for Bahá’ís ‘[r]evelation creates consensus around new truths so that we, the co-creators of reality, can begin to transform the existing social order.’ Language is a key component in this process in that it both shapes and is shaped by social reality. There is a crucial distinction, he feels (page 21), between Revelation as the undiluted Word of God and religion as the way the Word is applied.

This means that the descriptions we evolve of what the revelation means to us may not be the same as the revelation itself. In fact our descriptions of any kind are pretty treacherous as the last two posts in the list at the end explain.This leaves room for an artist of integrity to dissent from any of the orthodoxies he finds around him. However, no one ordinary person’s idea of the truth, no matter how great an artist (s)he may, is likely to capture the whole of reality undistorted, so we would be wise not to swallow what they write, paint or film uncritically.

Giving up the GhostHilary Mantel deals with this in her typical drily humorous way in her excellent memoir (Giving up the Ghost – page 4):

Remember what Orwell says, that good prose is like a window-pane. Concentrate on sharpening your memory and peeling your sensibility. Cut every page you write by at least one-third. Stop constructing those piffling little similes of yours. Work out what it is you want to say. Then say it in the most direct and vigorous way you can.

(Not that she follows her own advice, by the way, as she goes on to admit.)

What she says next provides the crucial undercutting of her argument (ibid):

Besides, window-pane prose is no guarantee of truthfulness. Some deceptive sights are seen through glass, and the best liars tell lies in plain words.

She is resolutely sceptical of any facile notion that the truth is easy to access. She was interviewed recently on the Culture Show (only a few clips are available still) and had this to say about history and fiction that is as good an example as any of her take on things:

As soon as we learn any history we should learn to be suspicious of the history. we should learn to question the historical record all the time.

“I think I know this, but why do I think I know it? Who’s telling me this and who wants me to believe it? Who starts the riots that lead to the fall of the Bastille? Why him? Why then? Why that particular moment? Could it have been someone else? And if it could’ve been why wasn’t it? These questions perplex me and intrigue me and I come back to them time and time again.”

In the end we have to accept that ‘reality’ is not easily accessible – not through language but not even through the senses either.

A recent book on the nature of the universe we inhabit demolishes any feeling that we might have that what we sense reliably conveys exactly what’s out there. Take hearing for example (Page 20):

Air that puffs 15 times a second is not intrinsically different from air that pulses 30 times, yet the former will never result in a human perception of sound because of the design of our neural architecture

What is true for hearing is true for all the senses. We’ll be returning in another post to further implications of their position.

And they conclude (ibid.):

In short, an observer, an ear, and a brain are every bit as necessary for the experience of sound as are the air pulses. The external world and consciousness are correlative. And a tree that falls in an empty forest creates only silent air pulses—tiny puffs of wind.

So we’ll look tomorrow at where that apparent impasse might leave us.

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Thus when the wayfarer gazeth only upon the place of appearance — that is, when he seeth only the many-colored globes — he beholdeth yellow and red and white; hence it is that conflict hath prevailed among the creatures, and a darksome dust from limited souls hath hid the world.

Bahá’u’lláh: Seven Valleys page 21) 


These next two posts deal with two aspects of experience: the first, in this post, is the nature of our failure to see beneath the material surfaces of our world, and the second, in the next post, points us in the direction of a few people who seem to know better, and one of them is the physicist from whom I borrowed this main title.

Lumpers and Splitters

There are many grand divisions in the human race between one kind of person and another, and few can be of more significance, of course, than that between lumpers and splitters (I owe the sophisticated technical terminology I am using here to a very good friend: thanks, Iain!).

By nature, whatever that means, I’m a lumper. When using my ears and my eyes I instinctively go for the ‘big picture.’ I retain only a general impression and my first reaction is to get the ‘gist’ of things. 

I listen reasonably well — it was a core part of my old job, after all — but I store what I think was meant rather than the words that were actually said. Half a life-time of  verbatim note-taking hasn’t altered that.

When my wife makes some undetectable change around the house, such as completely rearranging the furniture, it is only when I go to sit down on a chair that has been moved that I notice that something is different. (I’m much better at noticing emotional atmospheres from the subtlest small hints and remembering the exact feel of what I’ve handled in some way.)

It’s how my brain works. The words and images may be down there somewhere but I can’t retrieve them. It’s as though my mind says, ‘Detail? Why bother? I’ve got the point.’ When I think I know the layout I don’t bother looking.

There are costs and benefits to this. I can get things done quickly and I generally have a good feel for the overall territory of a task or situation. The downside can be costly though. My blindness to a critical detail can send me crashing to the ground, and, as I’m often sprinting, the fall can be extremely hard sometimes.

Splitters, on the other hand, keep track of the details. They notice and remember the small things. They would remember exactly what was said or see that there was a small picture on the wall under the stairs.

This means that they are unlikely to overlook an important piece of information. However, if I am likely to fall over the detail I haven’t noticed, they are likely to get bogged down in all the details they find hard to ignore, even if they are not relevant to the task in hand.


Something is Missing

I think that both lumpers and splitters have another problem with detail that is disguised by this instrumental view, in which I am looking only at the practical usefulness of the two modes of operation. I think our two styles can blind us to the deeper realities behind material experiences, the kind of deeper realities the two posts on images and eternity have been looking at.

It’s obvious how my style holds me back — I skim too fast and only retain what the needs of the moment require. It’s not so obvious why an attention to detail might be an obstacle as well. I think it’s because it blocks access to the deeper reality: it’s essentially the material aspect of an object whose details are attended to and retained. Lumpers ignore and splitters are distracted by the complexity of such detail.

The tale told by Roberto Assagioli in his book, The Act of Will, illustrates this. 

A new student presented himself to a famous scientist one day, asking to be set to work. The naturalist took a fish from a jar in which it had been preserved and asked the student to observe it carefully, and be ready to report on what he had noticed about the fish. In a half-hour he felt certain that he had observed all about the fish that there was to be seen. It had fins and scales and a mouth and eyes —  oh, and a tail.

But the naturalist remained away.

The student went in search of the teacher but failed to find him. Another hour passed and he knew little more about the fish than he did in the first place. He went out to lunch, and when he returned it was still a case of watching the fish. He wished he had never come there to learn. The teacher was stupid. Then, in order to kill time, he began to count the scales. This completed, he counted the spines of the fins. Then he began to draw a picture of the fish. In drawing the picture he noticed that the fish had no eyelids. 

The teacher returned and was clearly disappointed and left again telling him to keep on looking and maybe he would see something. This put the boy on his mettle and he began to work with his pencil, putting down little details that had escaped him before, but which now seemed very plain to him. He began to catch the secret of observation. Little by little he brought to light objects of interest about the fish. But this did not satisfy his teacher, who kept him at work on the same fish for three whole days. At the end of that time the student really knew something about the fish.  (As I couldn’t find my copy of Assagioli’s Act of Will, I have adapted this from Teuber)

There is of course a huge amount that we can learn from the details we uncover from this kind of dissection. There is, though, at least one small problem here. What we are observing so carefully in this fashion has to be dead, or else, if not dead to begin with, it pretty soon will be.

Moreover, even though we have learnt a lot by systematically observing living systems such as ant colonies in their nests, primate communities in the jungle and bacteria in jars, we need always to remind ourselves that there are aspects of this world we are observing that are lost in that kind of analysis. And what is sacrificed may be of critical significance.

We may still be killing too many bees for this honey and it’s low-grade honey into the bargain. So where do we go from here? I think that will have to wait until the next post.

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