Posts Tagged ‘Richard Dawkins’
Posted in Book Reviews, Civilisation Building, Identity & Society, Science, Psychology & Society, tagged 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Daniel Dennett, Emile Durkheim, Jonathan Haidt, moral capital, progress, religion, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, science on 25/04/2016 | 2 Comments »
If religion becomes a cause of dislike, hatred and division, it were better to be without it, and to withdraw from such a religion would be a truly religious act. For it is clear that the purpose of a remedy is to cure; but if the remedy should only aggravate the complaint it had better be left alone. Any religion which is not a cause of love and unity is no religion.
A recent post by Sue Vincent on recycling posts triggered me to have a look at some earlier stuff and I came across this pair of posts that still seems relevant in terms of its main ideas though the BBC programme and the summer prom in question are long gone. I’ll post the second part on Thursday.
The Hive Switch
I watched a compelling BBC Four programme the other day on the price of progress. One of the commentators, David Suzuki, listed the kinds of capital what he calls the ‘pseudo-science’ of economics dismisses as ‘externalities’ – the ozone layer, deep underground aquifers, top soil, biodiversity – all of them the ‘kinds of services’ that ‘nature performs.’
He did not include another kind that Jonathan Haidt, in his excellent book The Righteous Mind, brings into the closing chapters – moral capital. He begins with a slightly different concept – social capital (page 290):
Social capital refers to a kind of capital that economists had largely overlooked: the social ties among individuals and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from those ties. When everything else is equal, a firm with more social capital will outcompete its less cohesive and less internally trusting competitors.
Social capital has a strong link, in his view, with morality (ibid.):
To achieve almost any moral vision, you’d probably want high levels of social capital.
He goes on to define what he thinks moral capital is (page 292):
[W]e can define moral capital as the resources that sustain a moral community. . . . . the degree to which a community possesses interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that mesh well with evolved psychological mechanisms and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.
He examines its effects. It is a double-edged sword (page 293).
Moral capital leads automatically to the suppression of free riders, but it does not lead automatically to other forms of fairness such as equality of opportunity. And while high moral capital helps a community to function efficiently, the community can use that efficiency to inflict harm on other communities. High moral capital can be obtained within a cult or a fascist nation, as long as most people truly accept the prevailing moral matrix.
The root of this whole highly debated issue, for Haidt, comes back to our need to belong and to the role of religion as one of the main ways we meet that need. Haidt discusses this at some length earlier in his book and what he says is both fascinating and critically important (page 247).
Why do the students sing, chant, dance, sway, chop, and stomp so enthusiastically during the game? . . . From a Durkheimian perspective these behaviors serve a [particular] function, and it is the same one that Durkheim saw at work in most religious rituals: the creation of a community. A college football game is a superb analogy for religion.
How does he justify that apparently bizarre statement? He feels the fundamental effect is the same (ibid.).
. . . from a sociologically informed perspective, . . . a religious rite . . . . pulls people up from Durkheim’s lower level (the profane) to his higher level (the sacred). It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply a part of a whole.”
I got a faint taste of what he is describing, and with something of the same sense of ambivalence as he is pointing towards, when I attended the last night of the summer proms last weekend at the Birmingham Symphony Hall, celebrating its 21st birthday. The soprano got us all standing at the very end for an enthusiastic rendering of ‘Land of Hope and Glory.’ Many there were waving the union jacks they had bought and almost everyone was singing – a buzz of hivish activity, without doubt. I was standing half-wanting fully to participate, but so strong is my inoculation against massed activity, administered I think by so much footage of the Nuremberg rallies seen at a very early age, I didn’t sing and hadn’t bought a flag. In this way at such events I miss out on the positive for fear of the negative effects. Interestingly, an isolated but reasonably large Welsh Dragon was tolerated but the lady who unfurled a massive Chinese flag was asked to put it away – so even something as apparently innocent as a flag at the Proms isn’t entirely without the power to disturb.
An Attack that Misses the Point
Haidt accepts that religion, because it is linked to moral capital, can be the same kind of double-edged sword as moral capital (page 247-248):
Morality binds and blinds . . . . . Many scientists conclude that religion is an extravagant, costly, wasteful institution that impairs people’s ability to think rationally while leaving a long trail of victims. I do not deny that religions do, at times, fit that description. But if we are to render a fair judgment about religion—and understand its relationship to morality and politics—we must first describe it accurately.
He then embarks on a detailed analysis of the pros and cons of religion, starting with the attacks of the new atheism. He focuses on those writers who have some claim to be scientific in their approach (page 249-250):
Harris was a graduate student in neuroscience at the time, Dawkins is a biologist, and Dennett is a philosopher who has written widely on evolution. These three authors claimed to speak for science and to exemplify the values of science—particularly its open-mindedness and its insistence that claims be grounded in reason and empirical evidence, not faith. . . . For Harris, beliefs are the key to understanding the psychology of religion because in his view, believing a falsehood (e.g., martyrs will be rewarded with seventy-two virgins in heaven) makes religious people do harmful things (e.g., suicide bombing). . . . [R]eligion is studied as a set of beliefs about supernatural agents, and these beliefs are said to be the cause of a wide range of harmful actions. Dennett takes that approach too.
Haidt contends that this approach is far too narrow to do religion justice (page 250):
. . . trying to understand the persistence and passion of religion by studying beliefs about God is like trying to understand the persistence and passion of college football by studying the movements of the ball. You’ve got to broaden the inquiry. You’ve got to look at the ways that religious beliefs work with religious practices to create a religious community.
For him community is the key to understanding the core of religion (ibid.):
. . . . the function of those beliefs and practices is ultimately to create a community.
Parasite or Adaptation?
He skilfully contrasts two schools of thought (page 253-254).
To Dennett and Dawkins, religions are sets of memes that have undergone Darwinian selection. Like biological traits, religions are heritable, they mutate, and there is selection among these mutations. . . . Some religions are better than others at hijacking the human mind, burrowing in deeply, and then getting themselves transmitted to the next generation of host minds. . . Dennett proposes that religions survive because, like those parasites, they make their hosts do things that are bad for themselves (e.g., suicide bombing) but good for the parasite (e.g. Islam). . .
Scientists who are not on the New Atheist team have been far more willing to say that religion might be an adaptation (i.e., it might have evolved because it conferred benefits on individuals or groups). . . [I]nstead of talking about religions as parasitic memes evolving for their own benefit, Atran and Henrich suggest that religions are sets of cultural innovations that spread to the extent that they make groups more cohesive and cooperative. . . . Among the best things to do with a by-product God, according to Atran and Henrich, is to create a moral community. . . If the gods evolve (culturally) to condemn selfish and divisive behaviors, they can then be used to promote cooperation and trust within the group.
The conclusion Haidt draws from this, and other evidence that there is not space to quote, is (page 256):
There is now a great deal of evidence that religions do in fact help groups to cohere, solve free rider problems, and win the competition for group-level survival.
The next post will explore more in terms of the complexities and ambiguities that qualify the optimism of that position if we take it too much at face value.
Posted in Book Reviews, Poetry & Song, tagged Achilles, Atilla, Daniel Batson, Eric Reitan, Genghis Khan, Hitler, Homer, Jonathan Haidt, Mao, Mark Edmundson, Napoleon, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Plato, Richard Dawkins, Sigmund Freud, Stalin, William Butler Yeats, William Shakespeare on 15/02/2016 | Leave a Comment »
As I worked on my recent sequence of posts about Shelley, prompted by a heads up from Gordon Kerr at Dazzling Spark Arts Foundation I stumbled upon Poetry Slam by Mark Edmundson. I was dead impressed. It was a short step from there to reading his book self and soul: a Defense of Ideals.
Because just about every page of the book is crammed with valuable insights I’m going to focus on only three aspects of it: first, what he calls the ‘polemical introduction,’ a few quotes from and comments about which will convey the overall theme of the book; second, his chapter on Shakespeare, which argues a fascinating case for seeing the value-free Shakespeare I took for granted as being in reality the demolition expert who detonated explosions beneath the foundations of the towers of medieval idealism to clear the ground for our modern pragmatic commercialism; and finally, his chapter on Freud, which sees him as the reductionist par excellence, who crusaded against any residual ideals that might give meaning to our lives and effectively buried for whole generations the values which Edmundson argues Shakespeare had fatally wounded.
I may drag a few of my own hobbyhorses into this arena as I hobble along.
While I found his attack on Freud was music to my ears, his antidote to what he defines in effect as Shakespeare’s toxic effects was far harder to swallow, and I am gagging on that still. I’m not sure he was completely wrong, though, even so.
The Triumph of Self
This is the title Edmundson gives to his introduction. I was hooked from the very first page so I’ll quote from it:
It is no secret: culture in the West has become progressively more practical, materially oriented, and sceptical. When I look out at my students, about to graduate, I see people who are in the process of choosing a way to make money, a way to succeed, a strategy for getting on in life. . . . . It’s no news: we are more and more a worldly culture, a money-based culture geared to the life of getting and spending, trying and succeeding, and reaching for more and more. We are a pragmatic people. We do not seek perfection in thought or art, war or faith. The profound stories about heroes and saints are passing from our minds. We are anything but idealists. . . . . Unfettered capitalism runs amok; Nature is ravaged; the rich gorge: prisons are full to bursting; the poor cry out in their misery and no one seems to hear. Lust of Self rules the day.
He is not blind to the dark side of idealism though he is perhaps not as sensitive to it as, for example, Jonathan Haidt is, in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis,’ when he indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):
The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.
What Haidt regards as central is this:
Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.
Haidt’s words were ringing in my ears as Edmundson begins to explain the three main ideals he wishes to focus upon. The first ideal he looks at is heroism. If the hook from the first page had not gone so deep, I might have swum away again at this point. I’m glad I didn’t.
That is not because I am now sold on the heroic as Edmundson first introduces it. The idea of Achilles still does not thrill me because he is a killer. He lights the way for Atilla, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and then for Hitler, Mao, Stalin and beyond.
None of those 20th Century examples are probably heroes in any Homeric sense of the word, but, with their roots in the betrayed idealism of the French Revolution, they have capitalised on similar perversions of idealism that have fuelled war, torture, mass prison camps and worse. I can’t shake off the influence of my formative years under the ominous shadow of the Second World War. I’m left with a powerful and indelible aversion to any warlike and violent kind of idealism, and any idolising of the heroic can seem far too close to that for comfort to me. In fact, high levels of intensity about any belief system sets warning bells ringing in my head. I’m not sure where to stand between the horns of the dilemma Yeats defined so clearly:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
I’ve dealt with that at some length in a previous sequence of posts so I won’t revisit that in detail now.
A key point was one I borrowed from Eric Reitan’s measured and humane defence of religion against Richard Dawkin’s straw man attacks. One of his premises is 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, would then be built on potentially totalitarian foundations. I am using the word God in a wider sense than the purely theological to stand for whatever we make the driving force of our lives: this could mistakenly be money, Marxism or the motherland.
I accept that, for the zealot of a destructive creed, his god is definitely worthy of worship, so much so he might kill me if I disagree: even so, Reitan’s point is a valid one. We should all take care, before we commit to a cause, to make sure that it is truly holy.
In any case, it’s where Edmundson goes next that kept me happily hooked (pages 4-5):
The second great Western ideal emerges as an ambivalent attack on Homer and Homeric values. Plato repeatedly expresses his admiration for the Homeric poem; he seems to admire Homer above all literary artists. But to Plato there is a fundamental flaw at the core of Homer’s work: Homer values the warrior above all others. For Plato the pre-eminent individual is the thinker, and the best way to spend one’s life is not in the quest for glory but in the quest for Truth. Plato introduces the second of the great ideals in Western culture: the ideal of contemplation.
He goes onto explain that Plato is not interested in investigating how to ‘navigate practical difficulties.’ He seeks ‘a Truth that will be true for all time.’
In religious terms, as Daniel Batson describes them, I’m an example of some one who scores high on the Quest scale, where religion ‘involves an open-ended, responsive dialogue with existential questions raised by the contradictions and tragedies of life’ (Religion and the Individual – page 169). No surprise then that I was delighted to find that Edmundson was going to explore this kind of ideal at some length. He also makes it very clear later in the book that being true to the role of thinker requires its own form of heroism, as the life and death of Socrates demonstrates.
Edmundson reflects upon the fact (page 6) that the ‘average citizen now is a reflexive pragmatist.’ He continues:
The mind isn’t best used to seek eternal Truth: that is impractical, a waste of time. The mind is a compass to get bearings in life; a calculator to ascertain profit and lost; a computer to plan one’s next move in life’s chess match.
He adds that ‘Instrumental Reason rules the day.’
Last of all he comes to one of my other obsessions (page 7):
There is a third ideal that stands next to the heroic and the contemplative: the compassionate ideal. The ideal of compassion comes into the Western tradition definitively with the teachings of Jesus Christ. But the ideal of compassion is older than Jesus; it is manifest in the sacred texts of the Hindus, in the teachings of the Buddha and, less directly, in the reflections of Confucius.
The shift in consciousness between this and the heroic ideal is massive (page 8):
No longer is one a thrashing Self, fighting the war of each against all. Now one is part of everything and everyone: one merges with the spirit of all the lives. And perhaps this merger is heaven, or as close to heaven as we mortals can come.
And staying true to that perception also requires great courage. The histories of the great religions testify to that, with their tales of martyrdom and persecution. It is sad though to reflect upon how often the persecuted faiths have later become persecutors themselves: it is not just the heroic ideal that has shed rivers of blood throughout history. Conviction, as I have explored before on this blog, is a double-edged sword.
So, then, we have it (page 9): ‘Courage, compassion, and serious thought: these are the great ideals of the ancient world.’
It would be impossible for me to do justice to the force and depth of his treatment of these three ideals. I am not even going to attempt it here. I can wholeheartedly recommend his entire book as a stimulating exploration of what we have come very close to losing.
In the next post I will simply home in on two relatively manageable implications of his main theme: his treatment of two key figures who, in his view, have helped misshape modern culture – Shakespeare and Freud.
Posted in Civilisation Building, Poetry & Song, tagged Abraham Maslow, altruism, Ann Wroe, Buddhaghosa, Buddhism, Carl Jung, David Gilmour, Edward F Kelly, Emily Williams Kelly, Erich Fromm, FWH Myers, Geoffrey Nash, Hazel Rowley, J P Guilford, James C. Kaufman, James Joyce, James Pennebaker, Janet Malcolm, John Hatcher, John Keats, Katie Roiphe, Keith Oatley, Lord Byron, Ludwig Tuman, Lynn Hunt, Maitreyabandhu, Marie-Louise von Franz, Mark Edmundson, Martha Nussbaum, Matthieu Ricard, Mel Rhodes, Michael Fitzgerald, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Peterloo Massacre, Picasso, Raymond Mar, Richard Dawkins, Robert Hayden, Robin Collingwood, Sebastian Haffner, Theravada, WH Auden, William Butler Yeats on 04/01/2016 | Leave a Comment »
In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?
In the last post I tried to pin down what it is that makes a poem. Now I’m moving on to a survey of the creative process from other perspectives than mine, trying to include a sufficient variety of angles without being able to cover all possibilities in such a relatively short post.
What the critics and the poets say about the process:
I’ll start with some hints derived from Peter Conrad’s over-ambitious overview, Creation: artists, gods & origins.
Looking at the ‘psychogenesis’ of art, he quotes Picasso as saying that art is (page 525), ‘the fire of Prometheus,’ by which Conrad thinks he means it is ‘a weapon to be used against orthodox divinities.’ Rank, however, in 1932, apparently took a different view and asserted (page 528) the ‘fundamental identity between art and religion.’ He felt that ‘art made possible our advance “from animism to religion,” because art is our only means “of exhibiting the soul in objective form and giving personality to God.”’
In a chapter titled Protoplasts Conrad notes the descriptions Byron and Shelley used to describe their experience of writing poetry (page 308):
For Byron, a poem was the lava-flow of imagination, a molten river of feeling. . . . . . . Shelley, less eruptive than Byron, called the mind in creation a fading coal, implying that the poet had to work fast before it cooled.
Ann Wroe sheds more light on that (page 311-12):
With inspiration, Shelley told Trelawney, the pressure within himself was . . . a sort of internal combustion under which his brain simmered and boiled ‘and throws up images and words faster than I can skim them off.’ Only after a while, when they had cooled, could he start to put them in order.
Shelley clearly also felt that suffering played a part in the genesis of true poetry. In Julian and Maddalo he puts these words into the mouth of the Byronic character:
He said–‘Most wretched men
Are cradled into poetry by wrong;
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.’
Mondrian apparently connected creativity with his sexuality (Conrad: page 530):
For Mondrian the rigour of creation required strict sexual abstinence: ‘a drop of sperm spilt,’ he calculated, ‘is a masterpiece lost.’
Edmundson, in a piece he wrote for Harpers, spells out the sense of something subliminal going on in more prosaic terms: ‘But poems, especially vivid, uncanny poems — ones that bring stunningly unlike things together in stunningly just and illuminating ways — don’t come from anywhere close to the front of the brain, the place where (let us say) judgment sits. Poems, we’ve been told more than once, come from a dreamier, more associative place in the mind (and heart).’
There are also many approaches to creativity within psychology. A Wikipedia article painstakingly draws attention to all of them, for those who are motivated to pursue this aspect further.
Among the approaches mentioned are the four Ps model: process, product, person and place (according to Mel Rhodes). There are variations on that. For example, there are theories invoking divergent rather than convergent thinking (such as Guilford).
The article places some emphasis on the work of James C. Kaufman and Beghetto , who introduced a “four C” model of creativity; mini-c (“transformative learning” involving “personally meaningful interpretations of experiences, actions and insights”), little-c (everyday problem solving and creative expression), Pro-C (exhibited by people who are professionally or vocationally creative though not necessarily eminent) and Big-C (creativity considered great in the given field). Again this has been an influential model.
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has defined creativity in terms of those individuals judged to have made significant creative, perhaps domain-changing contributions.
The relationship between creativity and mental health has been much explored (see the article itself for the full coverage which has many interesting links). The data they adduce is perhaps relevant here, given the tendency of contemporaries to label both Shelley and Byron as ‘mad,’ and in Byron’s case, ‘bad, and dangerous to know’ as well: however, their final caveat is probably the most important point:
However, as a group, those in the creative professions were no more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders than other people, although they were more likely to have a close relative with a disorder, including anorexia and, to some extent, autism, the Journal of Psychiatric Research reports.
A reference that maps on more closely to my existing biases is also mentioned:
Marie-Louise von Franz, a colleague of the eminent psychiatrist Carl Jung, noted that in these unconscious scientific discoveries the “always recurring and important factor … is the simultaneity with which the complete solution is intuitively perceived and which can be checked later by discursive reasoning.” She attributes the solution presented “as an archetypal pattern or image.” As cited by von Franz, according to Jung, “Archetypes … manifest themselves only through their ability to organize images and ideas, and this is always an unconscious process which cannot be detected until afterwards.”
I have already noted the possibility of social facilitation effect when I referred to David Gilmour’s creative process and Shelley’s first contact with Byron. This aspect has also been much explored.
The key idea of this perspective is that a deeper understanding of how creative outputs are generated and become accepted can be achieved only by placing the individual within a network of interpersonal relationships. The influence of the social context in which individuals are embedded determines the range of information and opportunities available to them during the creative process. Several studies have begun to expose the network mechanisms that underlie the genesis and legitimacy of creative work.
Although Ricard’s book on altruism has almost nothing to say about the role of the arts, in a much earlier post I have discussed how systematic evidence points to the power of the novel to increase empathy. This is the only significant text I have so far come across that deals in any depth with the power of an art for positive moral good, so I will quote from it at some length here.
Art teaches us not through its message – for it has no message as such – but through its awakening of sensibility and awareness.
Keith Oatley expresses his view by saying (from the Preface to his book Such Stuff as Dreams) ‘. . . . fiction is not just a slice of life, it is a guided dream, a model that we readers and viewers construct in collaboration with the writer, which can enable us to see others and ourselves more clearly. The dream can offer us glimpses beneath the surface of the everyday world.’
Obviously I need to be careful not to overextend to poetry what might only apply to novels but I do think his points are worth consideration here.
Keith Oatley’s book tackles the thorny and long-standing question of whether fiction is pointless and a nuisance or whether it has some value.
So, what justifies my belief that I need not burn all the novels on my shelves?
He doesn’t take a simple-minded approach to this topic. He is all too aware that there are issues. He accepts that more than one kind of fiction exists and not all kinds constitute art. He quotes Robin Collingwood (page 174) who regarded such genres as action and romance as non-art, because they are not explorations. They follow formulae, and their writers intend to induce particular kinds of emotion. If successful they are entertaining. That’s their intention. But they are not art. Clearly there would be forms of verse that fit this kind of description and are merely entertainment. Similarly with his category of debasing fiction that, for example, promotes violence or abuse.
He feels that true fiction at its best is an art form. Art, for him, leads to uncharted territory (page 177):
In fiction that is art, one is not programmed by the writer. One starts to explore and feel, perhaps, new things. One may start to think in new ways.
Moreover the area of human experience fiction is best at exploring lies in the area of selfhood and relationships.
He sees fiction as prosocial and moral, and finds that the research suggests that the skills we learn there do transfer to ordinary life. After explaining a carefully controlled study by Raymond Mar, he writes that when all other variables were controlled for (and could therefore be discounted as an explanation of the effects – page 159):
The result indicates that better abilities in empathy and theory of mind were best explained by the kind of reading people mostly did. . . . . .
Other studies he quotes all point in the same direction (page 165):
Nussbaum argues that this ability to identify with others by means of empathy or compassion is developed by the reading of fiction.
He admits very readily that this apparently straightforward and rosy picture has its complications over and above the issue of whether we can agree on exactly which examples of fiction are art and which are not, which are destructive and which are not. Prose that serves the kind of social function he describes cannot be quite boundaried by the idea of fiction in any case (page 177):
The idea that the essence of fiction is of selves in the social world, or of intentions and their vicissitudes, is I think, correct, but the category has untidy boundaries. The conventional definition of fiction excludes, for instance, memoir and biography, which can also be about these matters. Recent biographies of relationships by Hazel Rowley (2006) Katie Roiphe (2007) and Janet Malcolm (2007) have had all the characteristics that I am writing about, as does a memoir of growing up in Germany in the 20s and 30s by Sebastian Haffner (2002).
You’d also think that being a writer of fiction would confer amazing benefits for the writer in his or her own life. The reality is that being a writer of fiction sadly does not guarantee happiness or adjustment in the life of the writer. No surprise there then for readers of this blog This has been an ongoing concern of mine in terms of all art forms (see links below). It concerns Oatley as well (pages 177-178):
The question arises as to whether, if fiction helps social understanding, writers of fiction should be especially understanding of others and themselves. The much-replicated research by James Pennebaker (1997), in which writing about emotional problems has been found to have therapeutic properties, seems to support this hypothesis. Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley and Jordan Peterson (2006) have shown that writers of fiction tend to write about emotional preoccupations, particularly negative ones. It may be that some writers increase their understanding, but writers are not known generally for attainment of states of contentment or social decency. Although this question has not been well researched, it seems most likely that many writers of fiction do write from a position of struggle with their emotional lives. Perhaps many of them start from a position that is rather far out on this spectrum. So although they may make gains for themselves, they don’t necessarily do all that well as compared with the non-writing population.
Others have looked back into history and discerned the same patterns (page 168):
Hunt’s finding is that invention of the idea of rights, the declarations of rights, and the changes in society that have followed them, depended on two factors. One was empathy, which depends, as Hunt says, on “a biologically based ability to understand the subjectivity of other people and to be able to imagine that their inner experiences are like one’s own” (p. 39). The other was the mobilization of this empathy towards those who were outside people’s immediate social groupings. Although Hunt does not attribute this mobilization entirely to literary art, she concludes that the novel contributed to it substantially.
He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2011, pages 68-69):
The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc – breakthroughs into a new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.)
We’ll come back to that quote later.
So how does Maitreyabandhu approach these challenges overall? He sets his colours firmly to the mast almost from the start (page 59):
I want to make a case for imagination as an intrinsic faculty that can be recognised, enriched and matured so that it becomes the decisive force of our life. I want to make a case for imagination in the Coleridgian sense ‑ a faculty that unites and transcends reason and emotion and points us toward a deeper understanding of life beyond the limitations of the rational. I want to suggest that imagination has within it something that goes beyond our fixed identity and narrow certainties.
He is not blind, though, to the dark side of this force (pages 59-60):
At the same time ‘imagination’ can also be used to glorify the irrational or as another weapon in the war against reasoned thought. . . . With fancy, nothing more is being got at ‑ there is no inner cohesion, no imaginative unity of meaning, no deeper perception: it is novelty for novelty’s sake.
Then he states a central idea about imagination as a powerful positive force (page 61):
Imagination spontaneously selects sights, sounds, thoughts, images and so forth, and organises them into pleasurable formal relations that draw out their deeper significance, expressing fundamental truths beyond the machinery of conceptual thought. . . . . illuminat[ing] meanings that lie beyond the reach of words. The poem becomes a symbol for something beyond the poem. That ‘something beyond’ is experienced as taking up residence within the poem, without at the same time being reducible to it.
Imagination, for him, is about accessing meanings that lie deeper than words and giving us the ability to express them in the special form of words we call a poem.
He even formulates a kind of diagnostic test we can apply to determine whether a poem is the product of fancy or imagination (Footnote: page 64):
In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?
Given our capacity for self-deception in such matters I am less than completely convinced about the reliability of the test, but it may be the only one we’ve got.
Incidentally, the diagnostic distinction he makes at the end is close to the one in Erich Fromm‘s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, which we dealt with earlier. Fromm defines two types of stimuli (page 269):
What is usually overlooked is the fact that there is a different kind of stimulus, one that stimulates the person to be active. Such an activating stimulus could be a novel, a poem, an idea, a landscape, music, or a loved person. . . . .
The simple stimulus produces a drive – i.e., the person is driven by it; the activating stimulus results in a striving – i.e., the person is actively striving for a goal.
While the two writers are not describing things which are identical, there is clearly a close relationship involved, a substantial degree of overlap.
Maitreyabandhu moves on, in the remainder of his article, to analyse this issue more deeply in terms of the contribution that imagination, as opposed to fancy, makes (page 65):
Imagination has within it this impulse to ascend to higher and higher levels of meaning and ‘revelation’. It is this ascending nature that accounts for the best of the best – writers, artists, composers etc., for whom the word ‘genius’ is needed to make a distinction between capacity, even great capacity, and imaginative gifts of quite another order. As the imagination ascends, there is a greater and greater sense of unity, discovery, aliveness and spontaneity. This is coupled with a deepening sense of pleasure as well as an intensifying revelation of meaning – a powerful and transforming satisfaction that is both aesthetic and cognitive.
I would want to make a distinction between ‘revelation’ and ‘genius’ for reasons that I have touched on in an earlier sequence of posts on Writing & Reality (see links below). At least, that is, if he means Revelation in the scriptural sense. If he is using ‘revelation’ more in the sense of ‘epiphany‘ as popularised by James Joyce or ‘peak experience‘ as Maslow would have it, then I have no quarrel with seeing it as heightened in works of genius.
What he says earlier suggests that this sense of ‘revelation’ is what he means (page 62):
When we manage to write a successful poem there’s often the feeling that all along, beneath the effort of drafting and re-drafting, some greater thought, some more unified perception was trying to be expressed. You – the person who sits and writes and worries about publication – you could not have written it. This is what Keats was getting at in that famous letter to his brother: “Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”
From about this point his discussion takes what, for me, is an extremely interesting turn. He draws on Buddhist thought to make a distinction between two tendencies in human beings when confronted by the mysteries of experience (page 66).
Faced with the ungraspable mystery of experience – and our deep sense of insecurity in the face of that – we will tend to fix the mystery into the shape of God or into an unaided, ordinary human being. These two tendencies (really they are deep pre-conscious beliefs) are what Buddhism calls ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism.’ Buddhism is trying to suggest a third alternative – beyond the polarisations of religion and science, beyond the Pope and Richard Dawkins.’
He explains that Buddhist thought defines two groupings of ‘conditioned processes’. (‘Conditioned’ here means basically the effects resulting from conditions.) Buddhaghosa, the fifth century Theravadin Buddhist scholar, wrote of them as follows (page 67):
He grouped all conditioned relationships into five different orders of regularities called the five niyamas. Put simply, the first three niyamas are those regularities discerned by the sciences: regularities that govern inorganic matter; organic life; and simple consciousness, including instincts. So for instance, we live in a world governed by the laws of gravity, by the processes of photosynthesis, and by the migratory instincts of swallows.
Buddhaghosa then goes on to enumerate two further levels of conditioned processes. Firstly, a patterning or regularity that governs the relationship between self-conscious agents (you and me) and the effects of our actions (kamma-niyama); and secondly the regularities governing the transcending, progressive potential within human consciousness, culminating in the emergence of a Buddha (dhamma-niyama).
It makes clear that, in the second pairing, ‘kamma-niyama processes are those laws that govern ethical life.’ He also makes the implications of that clear (pages 67-68):
Kamma-niyama processes mean that our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience. Pratitya-samutpada is saying this is a law, like the law of gravity or thermodynamics – you can know about it or not, believe in it or not, but it’s operating just the same.
This still does not explain exactly what this has to do with the relationship between imagination and reality, though the clue is in the sentence: ‘our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience.’
He then begins to tease this out (page 68):
Imagination is the mind working under the laws of kamma-niyama. As such, it always takes us a little way beyond ourselves into a richer dimension of experience. It is not the sole domain of artists and poets, though it’s typically discussed in reference to them. It informs the best of science and mathematics, the best in human endeavour. It is essentially ethical, a going beyond self-clinging.
The first part of that quote, up until the last sentence in fact, is not in the least problematic for me. It’s where humanity should be heading at least, though we’re not quite there yet – and that’s an English understatement in case anyone thinks I’ve completely lost the plot.
But he also realises the truth is more complex than that last sentence seems to be saying. He puts it so well I’ll quote him at some length (pages 68-69):
The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc — breakthroughs into new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.) Imagination’s sudden uplifts are sustained by the laws of kamma-niyama. But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.
What he says is true of the poet must also apply to the scientist. That’s why scientists as well as poets can end up serving very demonic purposes in their lives outside the laboratory/study and sometimes inside it as well, I think.
Interestingly he then leads us back to the very edges of revelation (page 69):
In our best readings of the best work, we sometimes feel intimations of an order of reality that completely transcends us, as if the work took us to the very edges of form and pointed beyond itself to some formless, timeless mystery.
And in the end he points up the link that I too feel is there between the best kinds of creativity in the arts and true compassion (ibid):
And transcendence is not vacancy or negation, but the complete fulfilment of everything – a breaking down of all boundaries. This mystery, this dhamma-niyama aspect of conditionality, finds its roots here and now, in every moment we go beyond ourselves, whether by acts of imagination or in our everyday kindness and generosity.
Where Maitreyabandhu distinguishes between fancy and imagination, others take a slightly different angle on the problem of where artistic inspiration comes from. Yeats’s resonant statement –
Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
(The Circus Animals’ Desertion – last lines)
– maps onto a century old concept, explored at length by FWH Myers and discussed in the Kelly’s excellent book, Irreducible Mind: ‘subliminal uprush.’ It’s a double-edged sword (page 430):
Not all [its] products are of equal value, however, for “hidden in the deep of our being is a rubbish-heap as well as a treasure-house” (HP v1, p72).
This suggests that being open to our subliminal processes might carry the risk of succumbing to the ‘rubbish-heap’ rather than being exalted by the ‘treasure-house,’ with unfortunate consequences for the way we live. We have to learn to distinguish between the two both as poets and readers.
In the end, for me, great poetry must combine music with a kind of algebra. By the latter word I mean what John Hatcher refers to in his book on Robert Hayden – From the Auroral Darkness (pages 16-17):
. . . . . the one quality of poetry which in every interview and discussion about Auden, Hayden inevitably mentions is Auden’s analogy between good poetry and algebra. This notion of poetry as a process of ‘solving for the unknown’ [captures the theory that influenced him].
If a poem can successfully combine these two things in a positive way, the experience it creates will raise consciousness to a higher level and enable us to connect with all life more effectively, and will almost certainly stimulate us to act in ways that enhance the world we live in. These are the criteria I will now seek to apply to three of Shelley’s poems in order to assess their quality before analysing the possible sources of their inspiration.
I’ll follow up on that next Monday.
- Writing & Reality (1): the mystery of revelation
- Writing & Reality (2):the role of lesser mortals
- Writing & Reality (3): look in your heart and write
Posted in Book Reviews, Civilisation Building, tagged Enron, Erich Fromm, Frans de Waal, Hannah Arendt, Hitler, John Fitzgerald Medina, Mario Beauregard, Matthieu Ricard, Native Americans, racism, Richard Dawkins, Second World War, Timothy Snyder on 05/10/2015 | 5 Comments »
The first memory I have from my childhood is of my father stepping through the backdoor in the morning light after an anxious night scanning the sky and listening for the warning of the siren’s wail. I rushed to greet him as he was taking his helmet off.
I pleaded with him to let me try it on. He wasn’t keen but finally gave in. All I can remember after that was the sting of the dust that fell into my eyes. Since that time I have never been completely able to shake that dust out of my mind.
From time to time over the succeeding years we would take out the gas masks and recall the times spent in the cellar hiding from the bombs with our sawn off Darth Vader headgear at the ready. I have no memory obviously of ever wearing the gas mask for babies, but when we tried on the adult ones after the war we looked like stranded frogmen and the humour perhaps helped soften the memories for my parents. At primary school on rainy days our lunchtime recreation took place in the windowless red-brick air raid shelter next to the playground. The two doors at each end were angled so that almost no light could travel in or out. In virtually complete darkness we would play a variation of piggy-in-the-middle using the stones which lay all around the floor. How there were no serious injuries with so much stone flying through the darkness I will never know.
It was quite some years after the war before the blackout blinds in our kitchen were replaced by something more cheerful and ration books disappeared at last. The terror of those days of war must still have been with me when I went on to grammar school. The last version of the nightmare that had haunted my childhood came only then I am sure. I was running for my life, pursued by the Gestapo. I burst through the doors of the gymnasium at Stockport School and dashed towards the wall-bars at the end (interesting symbol in such a situation). As I clambered to the top, the doors at the far end burst open and the pursuing gang of torturers burst in and I woke terrified.
Later, as I read about the war as a young adult I came to realise that Hitler was almost certainly a narcissistic megalomaniac psychopath. The mystery was how so many people bought into his fantasies and followed him. I could only hope the same thing would never happen again but books such as Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and her concept of the ‘banality of evil,’ as well as Fromm’s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness were not entirely reassuring on that point.
What about now?
The spread of a dark ideology is woven into the pattern of our current culture. It is derived from a distortion of Darwinism. It shapes behaviour for which it is also used as an excuse.
Not that Ricard’s book is blind to the dark side of our world at all. He argues that the prevalent credibility of the specious argument that human beings have evolved to be selfish leaves many people feeling that this is a self-evident truth that we simply have to accept, however reluctantly, and is used by others to explain and justify their self-seeking egotism.
He quotes (page 165) Frans de Waal who, speaking of Enron, the company ‘which went bankrupt thanks to embezzlement,’ said: ‘”the company’s CEO, Jeff Skilling – now in prison – was a great fan of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and deliberately tried to mimic nature by instigating cutthroat competition within his company.”’
Ricard’s argument against accepting this toxic doctrine is, in my view, clear and compelling. He not only quotes Darwin himself as supporting the force of cooperation as an evolutionary positive but also adduces a wealth of replicable evidence to refute the baseless conviction that all behaviour, however apparently altruistic, is selfishly motivated. This creed is completely contradicted by test after scientific test.
Sadly, though, evidence which is compelling for me is incredible to the all-too-many adherents of this cynical dogma (page 138):
Nonetheless, when confronted with the numerous examples of altruism which, like us, they witness in their daily lives, supporters of universal selfishness set to work proposing explanations that defy common sense. In other cases, they simply take for granted that genuine altruism can’t exist.
We’ve been here before, of course, with the battle being fought by reductionist materialists against the possibility of psi (see my posts on Mario Beauregard’s The Spiritual Brain). Daniel Batson, one of the key researchers into altruism, has responded to the critics by repeatedly producing further evidence for the genuineness of altruism that answers their current particular criticism and rules out their alternative explanations. In the end, in terms of this belief in the inherent selfishness of humanity (page 139), Ricard concludes that ‘A theory that is in principle unfalsifiable is not scientific, it is an ideology.’
The Second World War
And this is where Snyder comes into his own. His book is written as a warning to us that we should not complacently assume that we would never repeat the horrors of the Second World War. He feels that we are not so different from the people of that time that we could never repeat their nightmarish mistakes if the right conditions returned, as well they might, in his view. He raises the frightening possibility that, when we feel sufficiently threatened and an apparently plausible explanation comes along which appears to account for the threat and provides a supposedly effective defence, often by means of eliminating a scapegoat population, the vast majority of us will probably run eagerly after its proponents pleading to get on board, even if it means colluding in the slaughter of millions of completely innocent people, usually somewhere out of sight.
By what kinds of seductive pathways can this hell on earth be approached?
Most people born as I was in the shadow of the war will be fully aware of the Holocaust and its horrendous and abhorrent genocidal processes. What Snyder’s book does is examine in detail the various complex threads of argument by which this iniquity was made so palatable to so many.
In this first post I shall explore only one of these. Another will follow later. I am choosing this one first because of the overlap it detects between racist ideology and the very same culture that helped rescue Europe from Nazism – an irony that we would be wise to remember when we complacently assume that not only were we completely different then but that we could never ever be the same in the future.
While this thread links to the settlement made at the end of WW1 and the allocation of land that Germany thought should be hers, there is more to it than that, though clearly many in Germany felt that the settlement was unjust. And simply adding anti-Semitism into the mix doesn’t quite get there either. We need to add, amongst other things, the idea of Lebensraum and the provision of food that this would make possible. A key paragraph comes as early as page 15 in Black Earth:
“For Germany,” wrote Hitler, “the only possibility of a sound agrarian policy was the acquisition of land within Europe itself.” To be sure, there was no place near Germany that was uninhabited or even underpopulated. The crucial thing was to imagine that European” spaces” were, in fact, “open.” Racism was the idea that turned populated lands into potential colonies, and the source mythologies for racists arose from the recent colonisation of North America and Africa. The conquest and exploitation of these continents by Europeans formed the literary imagination of Europeans of Hitler’s generation. . . .
For the German general who pursued these policies, the historical justice was self-evident. “The natives must give way,” he said. “Look at America.” . . . . The civilian head of the German colonial office saw matters much the same way, “The history of the colonisation of the United States, clearly the biggest colonial endeavour the world has ever known, had as its first act the complete annihilation of its native peoples.” He understood the need for an “annihilation operation.” The German state geologist called for a “Final Solution to the native question.”
An equally sinister extension of this thesis was (page 17) the idea that ‘experience in eastern Europe had established that neighbours could also be “black.” Europeans could be imagined to want “masters” and yield “space.” After the war, it was more practical to consider a return to Eastern Europe than to Africa.’ To this end Hitler (page 18) ‘presented as racial inferiors the largest cultural group in Europe, Germany’s eastern neighbours, the Slavs.’ So it was not only the Jews who were racially slurred and targeted.
This relates closely to John Fitzgerald Medina’s thesis, in his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology, about how the founders of America managed to reconcile the rhetoric of their egalitarian constitution with profiting from both their virtual genocide of the Native Americans and from their practice of slavery, and about how the Nazis derived part of their inspiration from this. The Nazis, as well as highly esteemed figures in American history, justified their self-serving actions by invoking the notion that Africans and Native Americans were inherently inferior, an ideology of racism that persists in America and to some extent in Europe to this day, potential seeds of future denigration and genocide if we do not find effective means of transforming our collective consciousness. The diverse reactions, some of them very negative, towards the current influx of refugees suggests we might still have a long way to go before we are cleansed of racism and would never again be tempted towards ethnic cleansing of some kind at some point if we thought it served our purposes effectively enough.
Ricard also deals in some detail with how certain social and psychological factors can distance us from the humanity of others and lead to extremes of cruelty and mass killings (cf especially Chapter 30 – Dehumanising the Other) even though there is a deep-seated natural revulsion against killing our own kind (Chapter 29). While it is hard to predict in any given situation what proportion of a population will actively participate in a pogrom, if we can convince ourselves the other is not human our reluctance to kill can be overcome with horrific consequences. This remains true to this day and we would be wise not to forget it.
This is just the starting point for an examination of where we might go from here. Next time we’ll dig a bit deeper into the problem before looking at some of the possible remedies in the final post.
Posted in Science and Religion, Science, Psychology & Society, Spirituality, tagged Alister McGrath, Bahá'u'lláh, Charles Taylor, David Gascoyne, Jonathan Haidt, Richard Dawkins, Roy Baumeister, Rupert Sheldrake on 23/08/2015 | 1 Comment »
The steed of this valley [of love] is pain; and if there be no pain this journey will never end. In this station the lover hath no thought save the Beloved, and seeketh no refuge save the Friend.
(Bahá’u’lláh: Seven Valleys+ page 8)
This sequence of posts appeared in September 2012. It seemed a good idea to republish them now. They contain a number of references to Century of Light, the focus of the workshop materials I am currently posting, and placing them between two workshops dealing with the dark side of our materialistic culture seems especially appropriate. I am posting all three in the sequence on consecutive days. It’s perhaps also necessary to share the nub of a comment left on part one of the original by a good friend. He felt that “the relationship of secularisation and the ‘secularisation thesis’ (so beloved of 1960s sociology) to the present state of religion and religiosity is much more complex and multi-dimensional than this post seems to suggest.” This is a valid point and is not explored in this sequence, though it triggered some changes in Parts 2 & 3 as I explain.
Towards the end of his chapter on the subject, Hamilton, in his book The Sociology of Religion, quotes Fenn (page 180) as wondering whether secularisation “does not so much drive religion from modern society [as foster] a type of religion which has no major functions for the entire society.” Spirituality becomes purely magical, even occult. The conclusion voiced in Century of Light captures this (page 6):
inherited orthodoxies [are] all too often replaced by the blight of an aggressive secularism that [calls] into doubt both the spiritual nature of humankind and the authority of moral values themselves. Everywhere, the secularization of society’s upper levels [seems] to go hand in hand with a pervasive religious obscurantism among the general population.
The evidence currently available suggests, for example, that the secularisation of society’s upper levels does indeed coincide with “religious obscurantism.” Hamilton (page 180) quotes a study by Luhrmann (1989) as showing how followers of witchcraft and magic in London and surrounding areas of South Eastern England are for the most part well educated, well-qualified professionals many of whom are scientifically trained and employed in such industries as computers and as research chemists!
A Road to Ruin?
Not from a monstrance silver-wrought
But from the tree of human pain
Redeem our sterile misery,
Christ of Revolution and of Poetry,
That man’s long journey through the night
May not be in vain.
(David Gascoyne: Poems 1937-1942)
On the one hand the picture within the Writings, with Bahá’u’lláh setting the tone by using words like “godlessness” and “heedlessness”, highlights how, as the light of religion fades, we find it decaying into a fanaticism, terrorism, fundamentalism, superstition or a mere market choice, surrounded by a darkening atmosphere of materialism, greed and scientism which culminates in the decadence the Guardian so forcefully depicts and condemns (World Order of Bahá’u’lláh: page 188) and concludes that at this stage we have become ‘. . . . a society that must either be reborn or perish.” The evasion of the challenge that true religion presents us with comes, when looked at from a spiritual perspective, with a high price in the form of pain.
On the other hand many scholars draw no such drastic conclusions, content to detect a not too unpleasant state of intellectual freedom which might lack meaning and clear moral direction but with none of the major consequences referred to. Admittedly, while other thinkers, such as McGrath (2004) in The Twilight of Atheism, present a far less rosy picture, this is generally from a position heavily influenced by a religious perspective.
The Academic View
None the less, I feel it can be argued that thinkers, researchers and scholars outside the Bahá’í Faith and within the main tradition of the social sciences have been grappling vigorously with the phenomenon of secularisation from their own perspective, and the fruits of their work do enrich our understanding even when some of them clearly do not share a sense that it is a destructive process. Their emphasis on data as a corrective to unbridled intuition is a healthy one, though this must not be allowed to lead to the all too frequent conclusion that what cannot be empirically proven is by the absence of that type of evidence proved wrong.
Even the agnostic and atheist majority amongst them recognise that there has been a price paid for the decline of religion, though they disagree amongst themselves greatly as to the value of what has been lost. There is also an increasingly detectable trend for academic writers to explore the values of religion to both the individual and to society. Some of these writers I have discussed in previous posts.
Rupert Sheldrake is one such writer. He is a scientist who has risked his credibiliity and his career arguing publicly for science to accept its limitations and allow for the existence of baffling mysteries it cannot (yet?) explain.
In his excellent book The Science Delusion, he lists ten unhelpful dogmas that the church of science teaches (pages 7-8). These include: everything is essentially mechanical, all matter is unconscious, nature is purposeless and evolution has no goal or direction, minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains, and mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.
Jonathan Haidt is another who writes in the same vein. He finds, for example, that religions are better than other ideologies at binding communities together long-term. He quotes evidence of where communes were compared (The Righteous Mind: page 256) and the findings indicated that just 6 percent of the secular communes were still functioning twenty years after their founding, compared to 39 percent of the religious communes. He looks at the analysis of the key ingredient of this superiority (ibid.): ‘the more sacrifice a commune demanded, the longer it lasted.’ This did not work for secular communes even though such sacrifices are necessary for longevity (ibid.): for them, ‘demands for sacrifice did not help.’ The inescapable conclusion seems to be, as Sosis argues, that (ibid.): ‘. . . rituals, laws, and other constraints work best when they are sacralized.’
For now perhaps it’s sufficient to close this list with a brief mention of Roy Baumeister and Ron Tierney who have trawled the scientific literature and found numerous examples of how religion benefits society and the individual. (I am not blind to the dark side of faith and have discussed it at some length – see my posts on Conviction for example.)
‘Unquiet Frontiers of Modernity’
I don’t think I can end this post without making some further reference to the work of Charles Taylor, whom I mentioned in the previous post. I cannot claim to have read him thoroughly or carefully as yet but dipping in and out of his book A Secular Age has convinced me I must make the monumental effort of reading through all 776 pages at some point. To give a sense of why I feel he is saying things worthy of careful note, I’ll quote briefly from a short section (Number 16 of his 19th Chapter ‘Unquiet Frontiers of Modernity’: pages 726-727).
He feels that there are a number of dilemmas which both faith and exclusive humanism have to deal with:
These demands include: finding the moral sources which can enable us to live up to our very strong universal commitments to human rights and well-being; and finding how to avoid the turn to violence which returns uncannily and often unnoticed in the “higher” forms of life which have supposedly set it aside definitively.
Both positions are shakily maintained:
The more one reflects, the more the easy certainties of either “spin”, transcendental or immanentist, are undermined.
There are strong pressures towards the latter: ‘the present fractured expressionist culture . . . seems very inhospitable to belief.’ However, he feels the pressure to believe has not completely vanished.
. . . . the sense that there is something more presses in. Great numbers of people feel it: in moments of reflection about their life; in moments of relaxation in nature; in moments of bereavement and loss; and quite wildly and unpredictably. Our age is very far from settling into a comfortable unbelief.
He describes the secular age as ‘deeply cross-pressured.’
So, where do I stand? Secularisation, however positively you see it, comes at a price. So, of course, does religion. Defining what that price is, exactly, is the tricky part. That’s the task that we all must perform if we are to act responsibly. It’s also possibly not a once and for all decision, involving as it does the question whether or not to believe in a God of some kind. And if we don’t believe in a God, what do we read into this reality? If we do believe in God, what kind of god do we believe in? For my part, I find it harder to imagine that we can solve the problems that confront us without a belief in a higher being: such a belief will, I admit, only work if our sense of this higher being widens the compass of our compassion to include all life without exception and raises our sense of justice to its loftiest possible level.
The choices we make in this respect are likely to be constantly tested. The only things we cannot afford to do are pretend it does not matter or that we are not choosing. Ignoring the problem is a choice. These choices will shape the world our children thrive or die in.
Because in the background of my last sequence of posts lurked the thinking of William James, it seemed a good idea to republish this sequence on The Eclipse of Certainty from last Autumn. The three posts are appearing on consecutive days: this is the second.
Yesterday I attempted to explain my default position of uncertainty and why it lent such a strong appeal to Paul Jerome Croce’s book on William James. Now comes the difficult task of cherry picking key quotes from the book to illustrate why the feeling of attraction did not wear off as I read my way through it.
What follows here, designed simply to illustrate this one point, is a sparse selection of quotes from this book’s richly detailed and rewarding survey of the thinking of the time. I’m going to pick up the story with the impact of Darwin.
It would be impossible to overstate the degree of shock his book created. This is both because its argument was profoundly unsettling, and its accessibility meant that it was very widely read. What I hadn’t realised till I read Croce’s book was that he shocked not only the religious but the scientific community as well (page 88):
Science practised under the star of Darwinism represented the displacement of the cultured amateur by professional experts and a divorce of science from moral purpose and religious conviction. Most important, the new science, operating according to probabilities, removed its findings from expectations of certainty in either science or religion. This methodological challenge to scientific certainty is the true Darwinian revolution, far more than the supposed triumph of science over religion or even the dominance of Darwin’s particular insights about evolution.
The effect of this on William James is of particular interest to me (page 109-110):
The major shock of Darwin for James turned out to be the great biologist’s method and its implications for science and religion. Because the theory of natural selection was a plausible explanation rather than a proof of the origin of species, James began to doubt the need to expect certainty in either his science or his religion. . . . . . Darwin’s approaches provided a signpost, but William James in the 1860s still had much learning and struggling to do in his journey toward adopting beliefs without certainty.
In the 1850s and 1860s William James was a member of a loosely constituted group of young thinkers that called itself the Metaphysical Club (page 154):
The central issue of their enquiries was certainty. They saw that neither scientific theory nor religious faith could generate conventional forms of certainty, and they searchingly asked whether there could be any other basis for belief and action.
This has always been a key question for me. It’s not surprising, then, that I felt myself to be in like-minded company. At this point I found an interesting side issue mentioned, suggesting that Richard Dawkins might be blindly following a long line of misguided popularisers, dating back to Darwin’s own time, and suggests that he really should know better. Croce refers to (page 155) ‘the recent revolution in Darwin studies, which demonstrates the scientific unorthodoxy of Darwin’s probabilistic methods and attributes the materialistic claims of scientific certainty to Darwin’s popularisers rather than to Darwin’s science itself.’ Music to my ears again.
A key influence on William James was a contemporary and fellow Metaphysical Club member, Chauncy Wright (page 174):
William James learned from his friend Wright to reject the certainties of traditional religion and to regard science in probabilistic terms, but James never accepted the claim that science offered alternative certainties. By considering the uncertainties of both fields, he extended Wright’s ideas further than Wright himself could imagine.
James then moved further on the shoulders of Charles Sanders Peirce (page 195):
Without intending it, this rigorous pacesetter for James’s understanding of science became a role model for the younger man’s more thorough embrace of uncertainty. Pierce’s ambiguities opened a wedge in the edifice of scientific authority which James expanded into wholesale questioning of the possibility of finding certainty in any beliefs.
A core aspect of Peirce’s thinking concerned the nature of what we can achieve by thinking (page 144):
[He maintained that] our minds can never reach the essences of things, but only come to know them in mediated ways. . . . . “Our idea of anything is an idea of its sensible effects. . . . . .[H]e claimed our minds can really know the world (at least in the long run), but that such knowledge will always be mediated; . . . . [T]he method of science is focused correctly on effects, not essences.
He felt that most knowledge was probabilistic (page 216):
Probabilities can provide certainties, but with important qualifications: as Peirce had already realised at least as early as 1867, they provide answers only about groups and in the long run. So he declared it “unsound” to claim “that knowing a thing to be probable is not knowledge.”
This approach requires as assumption of orderliness in nature (page 219):
Inductive inquiry, which gains knowledge through “a process of sampling,” relies on the assumed orderliness of its sample to do its business, since the inquirer presumes that the randomly selected portion “has nearly the same frequency of occurrence” as the whole class of things under evaluation. . . . He leaned his faith in induction on the orderliness of the human mind and the world it comes to investigate.
(This sounds like an anticipation of Plantinga’s recent case that science and religion are inherently in harmony.) It’s clear therefore that Peirce did believe ‘in a divine creator and an orderly universe’ but his ‘prime goal [was] to lay the cosmological ground for his scientific project.’ Where did this leave James? Croce is preparing the ground for a second volume that does not seem yet to have appeared, so he does not go into great detail (page 223):
He was much more attuned than his more logical colleague to addressing the growing suspicion among scientists, religious believers, science watchers, and religion watchers that their propositions could not provide the certainty that previous generations had cherished.
He then qualifies this (page 224):
Recognition was only the first step, because he realised even more acutely than his peers the psychological appeal of certainty. To maintain the moral commitments that his whole circle cherished, to avoid a slide into nihilism, and to reconstruct belief for a scientific audience, James would need to find the moral equivalent of certainty.
Lamberth, whose work I looked at in a previous post, has much more light to shed on where James’s thinking ended up than I have time to repeat here. The final sense I have is that James did achieve a position where, even though uncertainty could not be completely dispelled, a workable sense of reality that would guide effective practical and consensus moral action is within our reach, even in the still pluralistic social world we inhabit. This is very much how I feel about the issue, hence my sense of being very much at home in this tome.
All that remains is to explain how I find it possible to feel at home with both this level of uncertainty and my commitment to the Bahá’í path. That will have to wait until tomorrow.