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Posts Tagged ‘Richard Dawkins’

Graham Sutherland – sketch for the Crucifixion

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?

David Gascoyne

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’lláhpage 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.

Measuring the Mind?

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 Delusionhe 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.’

Coda

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.

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WJ pencil

William James – self-portrait in pencil

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.

Principled Uncertainty

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.

ChWright

Chauncy Wright

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.

CS Peirce

Charles Sanders Peirce

(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.

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Image adapted from the Taschen edition of Renee Magritte

Image adapted from the Taschen edition of René Magritte

Readers of this blog will be well aware that I’m on a bit of a crusade on behalf of consciousness as a spiritual entity. I left Medina last time just as he moved into that territory in his attack on materialistic scientism. The mind-brain data we have throws up a tough problem for dogmatic proponents of reductionism, though.

The Brain as a Filter

Most of us come to think that if you damage the brain you damage the mind because all the evidence we hear about points that way. We are not generally presented with any other model or any of the evidence that might call conventional wisdom into question, at least not by the elder statesmen of the scientific community.

To name just one example, however, there is a wealth of data generated by near-death experiences, some of it now prospective and therefore more compelling (I have republished some of these data in the last two weeks). This strongly suggests that consciousness is to some degree independent of the brain and can function lucidly when the brain is completely out of operation. I have covered other areas of research that lead to a similar conclusion and will also be republishing that in the coming weeks.

So, there are other models that do not reduce the mind simply to brain activity (page 73):

The first step towards translating the mind-body problem into an empirical problem, therefore, is to recognise that there is more than one way to interpret mind-brain correlation. A few individuals have suggested that the brain may not produce consciousness, as the vast majority of 19th and 20th century scientists assumed; the brain may instead filter, or shape, consciousness. In that case consciousness maybe only partly dependent on the brain, and it might therefore conceivably survive the death of the body.

Scientism, which denies all possibility of non-material explanations of mind, is wilfully blind and therefore not really science at all as it deliberately turns its back on evidence that calls its materialistic assumption into question without ever examining it in detail if at all. We will be returning to some of the costs of these blind spots in later posts especially in the area of education.

A False Dichotomy

Many now believe that scientism has set up a false dichotomy between spirituality and science.

Rupert Sheldrake is a scientist who has risked his credibility 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.

Alvin Plantinga

Alvin Plantinga

Another powerful expression of this anti-scientism view, which I have explored in depth on this blog, is to be found in Alvin Plantinga’s compelling analysis of the problem in Where the Conflict Really Lies (to be republished again later this week). He opens with an obvious truth which most of us may well have overlooked and whose implications he is keen to unpack (page 266):

Modern Western empirical science originated and flourished in the bosom of Christian theism and originated nowhere else. . . . it was Christian Europe that fostered, promoted, and nourished modern science. . . . This is no accident: there is deep concord between science and theistic belief.

He springs on us an unexpected point in favour of his case (pages 268-269):

God created both us and our world in such a way that there is a certain fit or match between the world and our cognitive faculties. . . . . For science to be successful . . . there must be a match between our cognitive faculties and the world.

The apparent chasm between science and religion which unnecessarily widened into an abyss has wrought havoc in our society.

In summary for Medina (page 226) ‘Unbalanced materialism has ultimately resulted in a loss of reverence for life and has diminished our appreciation for the supreme values of life such as compassion, justice, unity, joyfulness, love, service, generosity, patience, moderation, humility – all of which lead to personal wholeness and add an essential richness, beauty, and purpose to life.’

Economic Materialism

Medina goes on to explore the links between the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview and our economic system (page 227):

Locke’s ideas eventually led to the establishment of Western economic values such as free markets, property rights, individualism, and self interest as the primary force that motivates the actions of individuals, and the idea that prices are determined objectively by supply and demand. According to Locke, the right to private property represents the fruits of one’s labours. Furthermore, he emphasises the idea that the purpose of government is to protect individual private property.

. . . . Unfortunately . . . . . Locke’s ideas (as is the case with most Cartesian-Newtonian concepts) have led to destructive outcomes.

He digs fairly deeply into the mire of this materialist mythology (page 228):

[Locke] argued that individual human development is entirely dependent upon the physical environment (an idea known as environmental determinism).

. . . The concepts of John Locke, as well as other Enlightenment ideas such as the concept of laissez-faire, helped to fuel the growth of capitalism. Laissez-faire refers to the belief that government should not interfere with economic affairs beyond the minimum necessary for the maintenance of security and private property rights.

In the light of the massive damage we have wreaked on ourselves and the environment in its name, it is stunning to read what the first advocates of laissez-faire capitalism thought about its beauty and value. It is even more amazing of course to know that many people alive today would probably still agree with them, but then that’s the power of myth after all (page 229):

[Adam Smith] perpetuated the Lockean and Physiocratic concepts of individualism and laissez-faire by arguing that individuals who are free (i.e., without government interference) to seek their own self interest and to compete for their own wealth will ultimately be guided, as by an ‘invisible hand,’ to enrich the whole society. . . . . According to Smith’s framework, the primary goal of society is the production of material wealth, not the advancement of emotional, psychological, moral, or spiritual health.

Medina does not suggest that this view remained the unconstrained consensus (page 230):

In retrospect, considering all the defects of laissez-faire capitalism, it can be argued that had it not been for the eventual “interference” of government reforms, laissez-faire capitalism would have doomed, to this day, the European and American masses to industrial slavery.

He does not put forward socialism as his preferred alternative either (ibid):

. . . it is important to note that the alternative economic system of socialism is also fundamentally flawed. . . Both systems place undue importance on economics as the core of civilisation. . . . From a spiritual perspective, in spite of all their surface differences, capitalism and socialism, when applied in actual practice, have both been destructive to human beings, communities, and the environment.

And goes on to state (page 233):

It is ironic that Marxist revolutionary Communists set themselves up as the primary mortal enemies of laissez-faire capitalism because, in actuality, Marxist Communism is and laissez-faire capitalism and are both extreme manifestations of the same Cartesian-Newtonian worldview.

We are by no means out of the wood yet, in spite of all that we should have learnt (page 236):

Some people assume that the worst abuses of the system are behind us; however, as will be shown in detail later, laissez-faire is once again gaining ground in the United States and on the world scene due to the advent of global capitalism.

According to Medina, the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview has pulled of an astonishing sleight of mind (page 237):

In their efforts to give economics an air of scientific rigour, economists have consistently claimed that their theories and models are a ‘value free.’ . . . In fact, economists are actually tacitly accepting and promoting certain values over others. Such values are evident in the implicit or explicit promotion of competition, material acquisition, unlimited economic growth and expansion, insatiable desires, self-interest, and individualism.

Many of the items at the beginning of the list are seen by many as unquestionably either positive or the unavoidable price we pay for benefiting from an effective system, one that will remain indefinitely the best available. At the same time as these value judgements are hidden from sight, and the workings of the system are presented as simply pragmatic and objective, accusations are levelled at those with a more spiritual orientation that we are attempting to force our values on others, values with no basis whatsoever in reality. There is a heavily disguised pot calling the kettle black here.

Not everyone agrees that spiritual and moral values should be so militantly excluded from the workings of the economic system (page 238):

. . . . Herman Daly, a World Bank economist, and John Cobb, a Protestant theologian, . . affirm that the exclusion of religious and spiritual values from ‘economic science’ has had a devastating impact on people, communities, and the environment. They state, ‘Adam Smith himself emphasised in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that the market [freemarket capitalism] is a system so dangerous that it presupposes the moral force of shared community values as its necessary restraining context.’

Pollution in Shanghai

Pollution in Shanghai

Toxic Consequences

Our impact on the world is in many ways quite toxic (page 241):

There is now an overwhelming body of evidence that shows that Western-style economic development has led to highly destructive outcomes in Third World countries.

The pattern includes: heavy foreign capital investments, centralised development planning, Western-style industrial production, huge agribusiness farms, urbanisation, automation at the expense of labour, and extreme use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides.

Child labour is a major issue (page 245-46):

Benta Adera, for instance, a twelve-year-old Kenyan girl, spends ten hours every day picking coffee beans under the relentless scorching sun. As a result of the hazardous pesticides that are used on the plants, she experiences constant pain.

. . . . Many of the foreign foods and products that Americans buy may have been harvested or produced through the use of child labour. Accountability is difficult because the several components that make up a product may change hands several times before they reach their final form and destination.

Even well-liked global brands such as Apple have been caught out in this way and have come in for recent criticism because of the hardships their Third World workers undergo.

Where politics and economics meet Medina quotes evidence to suggest that there are disturbing forces at work (page 248):

. . . democracy itself is threatened by the extreme power of multinational corporations that manipulate governments with legal and illegal methods.

They are of course wealthier than many states, and the record of the tobacco industry and the drug companies does not instil much confidence in me that this evil will easily be remedied.

Medina does not find a great deal of hope in our political system to rescue us from the perils of such abuses (pages 301-02):

Cornell West, Harvard professor and author of the book RaceMatters, emphasises that it is necessary to go beyond the narrow confines of the liberal-versus-conservative debate regarding issues of race and class. He asserts that liberals, on the one hand, generally focus their attention on reforming economic and political structures but do not like to talk about individual morality, responsibility, individual spiritual transformation, and traditional religious or spiritual values. On the other hand, conservatives like to focus on individual morality and responsibility (the Protestant ethic) but generally avoid tackling the issues of business morality and ethics, corporate responsibility, and socio-economic justice and equality.

. . . It may seem as if liberals and conservatives have totally different views, but in actuality, from a holistic perspective, their views are simply opposite sides of the same Cartesian-Newtonian coin.

Those who look to mainstream religion for redemption may be in for a bit of a shock (page 391):

The most obvious result of the materialistic paradigm is the rampant consumerism that pervades Western culture.

. . . . Disturbing evidence shows that consumerism has made strong inroads even among spiritual and religious people. In fact, [when] compared to the general population, Americans who report to have a strong spiritual or religious faith show almost no difference in their adherence to crass materialism – they expend their money, time, personal energy, and other resources in much the same ways as all other Americans.

It is clear that Medina feels we will have to look elsewhere for a solution and this blog contains a wealth of information on those possibilities. As I said at the very beginning of this sequence I will not be unpacking all that in detail now (see below for some good starting points).

When I return once more to a consideration of his work, I will look first at the price our children are paying for our attachment to this bankrupt creed. It is perhaps worth sharing well in advance of the posts themselves a diagram which attempts to show one way in which we create a vicious circle by our attachment to and credulous belief in reductionist materialism and the benefits of competitive capitalism.

Cogucation v2

A Possible Solution:

Humanity is our Business (1/5) The Overall Vision

Humanity is our Business (2/5) The Vision of Civilisation Building 

Humanity is our Business (3a/5) Capacity Building

Humanity is our Business (3b/5) Capacity Building ctd.

Humanity is our Business (4/5) Devotional Meetings 

Humanity is our Business (5/5): (a) The Plight of Children

Humanity is our Business (5/5): (b) What can we do for our children?

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Last night I managed to get round to watching Waldemar Januszczak‘s excellent programme on the work of Hans Holbein the Younger. It’s still available on iPlayer for those with access who wish to follow this up. The last fifteen minutes of the hour long programme were devoted to Holbein’s masterpiece The Ambassadors. In his exploration he picked up on something in the painting I had never noticed. This caused me to to add a line to a poem I wrote many years ago, as otherwise I do not think I would be doing justice to the complex layers of meaning in the portrait. I also have used a better image of the painting so that it shows all the necessary detail in the section that I have retained after cropping: clicking on the image twice brings it to a size that makes spotting the detail easier.

Uncertain Death v3

For the source of the image see link

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My rediscovery of Keats’s close affinity with Buddhism caused me to trawl back through my posts on poetry, with a vague memory that I’d been somewhere like this before. And sure enough I had. This pair of posts from 2011 is covering related ground – the first came out yesterday. This is the second and last.

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):

John Keats July 1819 (image from Walter Jackson Bate’s biography – Hogarth Press 1992)

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 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.

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.

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WJ pencil

William James – self-portrait in pencil

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.

Principled Uncertainty

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.

ChWright

Chauncy Wright

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.

CS Peirce

Charles Sanders Peirce

(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.

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First cause? The aftermath of the attacks of September 11 2001

First cause? The aftermath of the attacks of September 11 2001

To coincide with the appearance of her new book – Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence – Karen Armstrong published an interesting if not completely convincing piece for the Guardian the day before yesterday. There is an equally interesting riposte by Noel Malcolm in the Telegraph which my good friend, Barney, alerted me to. I shared an extract from her article yesterday. Here is an extract from the response. 

As I stated yesterday, I think each of them make valuable points. However, for me they fail to address clearly a fundamental aspect of the problem which Jonathan Haidt puts his finger on. Idealism, no matter how valuable it may be in many ways, can become fertile soil for murder and torture. Once you believe anything to strongly that the ends come to justify any means whatsoever you’re sunk in iniquity – an issue I have reblogged about recently. The other factors they adduce can all play a part in the toxic mix, and be used as justifications or act as triggers. None the less, if you remove over-identification with an ideology you significantly reduce the risk of an epidemic of atrocities. It doesn’t matter whether the ideology is religious or secular.

Still what they say deserves careful consideration in my view. We need all the help we can get to reach a deeper understanding of the processes that lead to such senseless slaughter.

Below is an extract: for the full post see link.

‘Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. We thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where’s the harm? September 11 changed all that.” So said Richard Dawkins, who until his retirement enjoyed the title of Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.

Some of us began to wonder whether Dawkins had secretly renegotiated the terms of his job, becoming instead the Professor for the Public Misunderstanding of Religion. To argue that one act of terrorism, however extreme, committed by members of one radical movement proved the harmfulness of all religion was a strange piece of reasoning. But, undeniably, it caught a popular mood, and the Dawkins-Hitchens denunciation of religious faith as a force for evil in the world has been on a roll ever since.

If the argument here were just about radical Islamism, this debate would at least have a clear and narrow focus. But the Dawkinsite argument is grafted on to an older tradition of anti-religious rhetoric going back to Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, who compiled an entire history of religiously inspired mayhem – from the brutal campaigns of the ancient Israelites to the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the many “wars of religion” in western Europe. This is a heavy burden for any would-be defender of the faith to pick up and deal with.

Karen Armstrong does not flinch from this task. A prolific author of books about religion, she seems to have the right qualifications to be a moderate, non-dogmatic apologist for it: as a former nun, she can see things, so to speak, from both sides of the convent wall. Previously she has written about early religious history as well as modern fundamentalism; her new book runs from the one to the other, from Gilgamesh to bin Laden, covering almost five millennia of human experience in between. This is both an apologia and a history book, aimed always at supplying the context of what may look like religiously motivated episodes of violence, in order to show that religion as such was not the prime cause.

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