Posts Tagged ‘Richard Dawkins’
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 07/10/2012 | Leave a 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)
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.
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 17/07/2012 | 1 Comment »
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.
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, Science and Religion, tagged 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Altamira, David Horrobin, Eric Reitan, Keith Oatley, Ken Wilber, Margaret Donaldson, Paris Talks, Picasso, Richard Dawkins, Robert Wright, Roy Baumeister, Rupert Sheldrake, Science & Religion, Steven Mithen on 27/02/2012 | Leave a Comment »
Just as there is a fundamental difference between divine Revelation itself and the understanding that believers have of it, so also there is a basic distinction between scientific fact and reasoning on the one hand and the conclusions or theories of scientists on the other. There is, and can be, no conflict between true religion and true science: true religion is revealed by God, while it is through true science that the mind of man “discovers the realities of things and becomes cognizant of their peculiarities and effects, and of the qualities and properties of beings” and “comprehendeth the abstract by the aid of the concrete”. However, whenever a statement is made through the lens of human understanding it is thereby limited, for human understanding is limited; and where there is limitation there is the possibility of error; and where there is error, conflicts can arise.
(A Compilation on Scholarship: Baha’i Reference Library)
This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.
This faculty brings forth from the invisible plane the sciences and arts. Through the meditative faculty inventions are made possible, colossal undertakings are carried out; through it governments can run smoothly. Through this faculty man enters into the very kingdom of God.
(‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Paris Talks, page 175)
A Turning Point in Human History
At a critical period in the prehistory of humanity, traces of three trends can be found in the archaeological record at a level not previously seen: artistic activity, burial and advances in tool making. As the basis of his examination of the link he sees between this flowering of creativity and a vulnerability to problems of the mind, Horrobin summarises this turning point in the following terms (The Madness of Adam & Eve, page 19):
While our knowledge of our ancestors remains very limited, the artefacts that they left behind demonstrate a clear discontinuity in mind, if not in body, which occurred at some point between about 50,000 and 200,000 years ago.
Steven Mithen has proposed that the ability to make metaphors is close to the essence of being human, and close to the essence of art. It’s the ability to discover that something can be both itself and something else. . . . It could be that our attainment of it was the crossing of a threshold from the archaic to the modern human mind. Evidence of the archaeological record indicates that this ability arose between (sic) relatively recently. . . . A musical instrument – a flute – has been found from 43,000 years ago. The first known cave paintings were made 31,000 years ago. At around the same time, people started burying their dead.
An increased variation in the tools created also dates from this period.
This is a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms and can only be seen as a dramatic development. The reasons are hard to explain and reducing them to the result of accelerated brain development from some combination of vitamin-rich fish and digestion-aiding fire fails to be completely convincing. That a bigger brain gives us an evolutionary advantage in the ability it confers on us to deal with the complexities of our social life misses part of the mystery for me.
My concern is not so much with this development’s physical causes, its suddenness or the evolutionary advantages it might be said to bestow, but with the fact that it seemed to implicate three diverse forms of human expertise and inquiry: art, religion and science/technology. The roots of all those three are here. Horrobin quoted Picasso (op. cit: page 16) as having viewed the cave paintings at Altamira, painted throughout a period between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago, and commented: ‘We have learned nothing.’
The Dangers of Dogmatic Science
We have become prone to see the realms within which art, religion and science move as quite distinct, even hostile. Is that position justified? Might it be possible that each is a path towards a better understanding of reality, towards a closer approximation of the truth? By divorcing them have we blocked off any hope of achieving a more complete perspective than the current fragmented and contradictory one?
There are increasing numbers of reputable thinkers who believe so. Rupert Sheldrake 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.
He lists unhelpful dogmas that the church of science teaches (pages 7-8):
Here are the ten core beliefs that most scientists take for granted.1. Everything is essentially mechanical. Dogs, for example, are complex mechanisms, rather than living organisms with goals of their own. Even people are machines, ‘lumbering robots’, in Richard Dawkins’s vivid phrase, with brains that are like genetically programmed computers.2. All matter is unconscious. It has no inner life or subjectivity or point of view. Even human consciousness is an illusion produced by the material activities of brains.3. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same (with the exception of the Big Bang, when all the matter and energy of the universe suddenly appeared).4. The laws of nature are fixed. They are the same today as they were at the beginning, and they will stay the same for ever.5. Nature is purposeless, and evolution has no goal or direction.6. All biological inheritance is material, carried in the genetic material, DNA, and in other material structures.7. Minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains. When you look at a tree, the image of the tree you are seeing is not ‘out there’, where it seems to be, but inside your brain.8. Memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death.9. Unexplained phenomena like telepathy are illusory.10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.
Oatley is both a psychologist and novelist who makes what might seem extraordinary claims for fiction as ‘not just a slice of life’ (From the Preface) but as ‘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.’
Both of these writers, Baumeister and Oatley, bring the methods of science to bear upon the positions they are arguing for.
Combining our Powers
In the posts of this blog we have already seen Eric Reitan argue that it is just as reasonable to believe in God as not to believe in Him. There is no evidence, scientific or otherwise so completely compelling as to force anyone to believe or not believe. We have seen Ken Wilber and Margaret Donaldson clearly demonstrate that scientism privileges the kind of evidence that supports scientism’s reductionist prejudices and discounts replicable experiences within the meditative traditions that suggest they might be unwise to do so. Baumeister and Tierney as we have recently discussed 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 in the list below.)
In the end, though, how much longer can a beleaguered humanity grope for solutions to its complex and global problems in the semi-darkness, refusing to use every possible source of light?
All too often it seems, as Sheldrake contends, the light of science is dimmed by reductionist and simplistic filters that need to be discarded. Robert Wright has strongly implied that religion in the hands of too many of us is narrowed to the pencil torch of some kind of fundamentalism. At the same time, too much of art at the so-called high end has surrendered to the fragmented perspectives of modernism and merely reflects our bewildered and chaotic perceptions of reality back to us in its broken mirror.
We can’t afford to let this continue for much longer, I would have said. We need to stop bickering and combine our powers if we are to solve our problems in time.
I plan to come back to the works of Sheldrake and Oatley in more detail at a later date but feel that what they write is of such importance and said so eloquently that I needed to highlight their work almost as soon as I had found it.
- Review: Such Stuff As Dreams – Keith Oatley
- Rupert Sheldrake: the ‘heretic’ at odds with scientific dogma
- The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry, By Rupert Sheldrake
- Skilfully Willing (2/2) (A summary of Baumeister and Tierney’s points about the value of religion)
- Conviction 1, Conviction 2 & Conviction 3
- ‘Is God a Delusion?’ by Eric Reitan
- The Self & the Soul (5/5) (for Wilber and Donaldson)
- Expanding the Moral Imagination (A review of Robert Wright’s book ‘The Evolution of God’)
In the previous post on this topic we ended with DH Maitreyabandhu‘s attempt to create a test of the value of a poem (The Further Reach – page 61, footnote):
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?
He moves on in the remainder of his article in the Poetry Society magazine, Poetry Review, 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.’
This, it could be said, is where I begin to lose my grip on his meaning but where I most want to grasp it fully. I want to grasp what he goes on to say because I believe – and not just because my religion says so – that religion and science are like the two wings of a bird. We need them both if we are to live wisely and well, but to use them properly we have to integrate our understanding of their different approaches to the truth. Maybe there is a transcendent position, as Jung would say, that dissolves their apparent differences and from which we can see their essential unity. I’m not sure this is what Maitreyabandhu is getting at, but I hope so. Let’s see where he goes from here. I can already feel the rope of his meaning slipping through my fingers.
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 innumerate 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 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.) 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.
I still don’t feel I have completely understood all that he is trying to say but I do hope that I haven’t introduced too much distortion or dilution into my attempt to convey the tenor of his inspiring exploration of the nature of imagination and its role in poetry. I am looking forward to integrating his insights more deeply into both my practice of writing and my practice of compassion.
- Writing & Reality (1): the mystery of revelation
- Writing & Reality (2): the role of lesser mortals
- Writing & Reality (3): look in your heart and write