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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Graves’

Beneath the Debris

Some years ago I prepared a talk that was never delivered in full. Recently I rediscovered my notes and they seemed worth pulling together into a sequence of posts. So, here it starts.

The Limits of Language

A good place to start[1] is with a brain-teaser that’s even older than I am.

You are a prisoner in a room with two doors and two guards. One of the doors will guide you to freedom and behind the other is a hangman – you don’t know which is which.

One of the guards always tells the truth and the other always lies. You don’t know which one is the truth-teller or the liar either.

You have to choose and open one of these doors, but you can only ask a single question to one of the guards.

What do you ask so you can pick the door to freedom?

This little puzzle, which you can find at this link (do not click if you want to work out the answer for yourself – I’ll be including it at the end of the last post anyway), contains the three elements we are going to be most concerned about: reality, minds (or selves) and language. It won’t have escaped your notice, though, that in the puzzle all of these are rather simplified: they’re basically binary. Two doors and two guards.

Our reality is more spectral both in the sense of ghostly and along dimensions rather than in boxes. Our minds are more subtly diverse. Our language is capable of infinite variations. But it’s a good lead in because in the puzzle we have to do in simple form what we are constantly seeking to do in more complex ways with words in the real world of things and people: relate to others and develop a useful model of the world as it is. And all of these endeavours have a great deal to do with identity in the sense of who we think we are and our assessment of others as well.

Language though is anything but a straightforward ally in this endeavour. Graves was very suspicious of it:

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.
But concluded that we couldn’t stay sane without it:
But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
. . . . .
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.

'The Ready-Made Bouquet' by René Magritte

‘The Ready-Made Bouquet’ by René Magritte

And a system of psychotherapy (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: ACT), which draws on many traditions of psychology, philosophy and spirituality, shares this same suspicion about language and seeks to undermine our simple confidence in it in various ways. For instance they point out that it can lead to such circular and irresolvable torments as:

This statement is false.

You have only to ponder that for a few seconds to realise there is no way out!

What have the Bahá’í Writings to say about language?

People for the most part delight in superstitions. They regard a single drop of the sea of delusion as preferable to an ocean of certitude. By holding fast unto names they deprive themselves of the inner reality and by clinging to vain imaginings they are kept back from the Dayspring of heavenly signs.[2]

Language is cast here in terms that summon up the idea of ‘veils’ as used in the sense of things that come between us and the truth.

Let not names shut you out as by a veil from Him Who is their Lord, even the name of Prophet, for such a name is but a creation of His utterance.[3]

Obviously names are not all there is to language. ACT uses language to cover all symbolic activity. In which case names are an important subset of that category as they are used to label everything we know, can imagine or conceive. They are also, in one of their main aspects, the most concrete part of our vocabulary and you would think the least treacherous of all!

If you accept the possibility of a spiritual dimension, as I have argued at length elsewhere on this blog is almost certainly the case, things may not be as simple as they seem:

When we consider the world of existence, we find that the essential reality underlying any given phenomenon is unknown. Phenomenal, or created, things are known to us only by their attributes. Man discerns only manifestations, or attributes, of objects, while the identity, or reality, of them remains hidden. For example, we call this object a flower. What do we understand by this name and title? We understand that the qualities appertaining to this organism are perceptible to us, but the intrinsic elemental reality, or identity, of it remains unknown. Its external appearance and manifest attributes are knowable; but the inner being, the underlying reality or intrinsic identity, is still beyond the ken and perception of our human powers.[4]

And what is true for things outside us is even truer for what lies inside:

LXXXII. Thou hast asked Me concerning the nature of the soul. Know, verily, that the soul is a sign of God, a heavenly gem whose reality the most learned of men hath failed to grasp, and whose mystery no mind, however acute, can ever hope to unravel.[5]

The same would apply to those other aspects of our character referred to by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, i.e. the inherited and the acquired (if we assume that the soul is the innate part).

fireIn a moment we will be returning to the issue of self and identity. But first we must grapple a bit more deeply with the Bahá’í view of language.

To describe this, and the view of many spiritual traditions, as radically different from any conventional worldly view would be an understatement. Language is seen as potentially dangerous even lethal. Bahá’u’lláh wrote:

The essence of faith is fewness of words and abundance of deeds; he whose words exceed his deeds, know verily his death is better than his life.

The essence of true safety is to observe silence, to look at the end of things and to renounce the world.[6]

And as if that were not enough:

. . . the tongue is a smouldering fire, and excess of speech a deadly poison. Material fire consumeth the body, whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul. The force of the former lasteth but for a time, whilst the effects of the latter endure a century.[7]

If I had more spiritual insight I might well be reduced to silence forthwith. I am certainly forced to give serious thought to my speech and why and how I use it. I am also forced to revise my view of silence, something not much valued in our culture.

What can silence do? What happens when we still the chatter of the prosy mind?

Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time — he cannot both speak and meditate[8].

It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed. . . .

Through the faculty of meditation man attains to eternal life; through it he receives the breath of the Holy Spirit — the bestowal of the Spirit is given in reflection and meditation. . .[9]

Anyone interested in looking at the power of silence more deeply check out these links.

Next time the issue of self and identity.

Footnotes:

[1] This post does not focus at all on some central and important aspects of this theme, for example the Word of God, backbiting, the new etiquette of expression including consultation, and criticism because that would be cramming too much in and I have already dealt with two of them in detail elsewhere (see links above) and others more incidentally.
[2] Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh (TB) Haifa 1978: page 58.
[3] Epistle to the Son of the Wolf: page 176.
[4] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Promulgation of Universal Peace (PUP) Wilmette 1982 pages 421-422.
[5] Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh
[6] Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh page 56.
[7] Kitáb-i-Íqán: (KI) UK 1982 page 123-124)
[8] This is of course not to argue that we should not meditate upon the Word of God but indicating that to do so effectively we will need to still the distracting chatter of the mind.
[9] Paris Talks pages 174-176.

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Language and the Brain

The Language Problem

So, here I am again, after two years, wrestling with the language problem once more. The last time was when I was preparing a talk for a Bahá’í Conference on the etiquette of expression.

Then, as now, the words of Robert Graves came to mind. For a poet he was surprisingly suspicious of language – or maybe that was because he was a poet:

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

But concluded that we couldn’t stay sane without it:

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
. . . . .
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.

I looked at a system of psychotherapy (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: ACT), which draws on many traditions of psychology philosophy and spirituality, shares this same suspicion about language and seeks to undermine our simple confidence in it in various ways. For instance they point out that it can lead to such circular and irresolvable torments as:

This statement is false.

You have only to ponder that for a few seconds to realise there is no way out!

I found similar reservations in the Bahá’í Writings.

People for the most part delight in superstitions. They regard a single drop of the sea of delusion as preferable to an ocean of certitude. By holding fast unto names they deprive themselves of the inner reality and by clinging to vain imaginings they are kept back from the Dayspring of heavenly signs.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Haifa 1978: page 58)

Language is cast here in terms that summon up the idea of ‘veils’ as used in the sense of things that come between us and the truth.

Let not names shut you out as by a veil from Him Who is their Lord, even the name of Prophet, for such a name is but a creation of His utterance.

(Epistle to the Son of the Wolf: page 176)

Obviously names are not all there is to language. ACT uses language to cover all symbolic activity. They feel we are all too prone to mistake a metaphor, which is only a map after all, for the territory itself.

The way we get seduced by the deceptive certainty of our maps is an aspect of those problems in the political arena that I looked at in previous posts (one on party politics and the other on complexity and climate change). I hadn’t realised how deep the problem lies until a week ago when I began to read a certain book.

Its Roots in the Brain

The book was published late last year. It looks at this problem from another angle again and makes an impressive contribution to the debate. It is The Master and his Emissary by Ian McGilchrist. I am only just about a quarter of the way through but am already mightily impressed.

At this point I’ll give only a couple of examples to illustrate why. I’m sure I won’t be able to resist revisiting this book in later posts rather in the same way as I kept going back to The Evolution of God or Is God a Delusion?

In the second chapter of McGilchrist’s book there is a section on Certainty.

Before plunging in to the specifics here perhaps I need to explain that his book is about the way that the two hemispheres of the brain operate. His thesis is not the simplistic one that says ‘Left-brain equals language and sequential processes and is the foundation of all our achievements in science while the right-brain deals with holistic arty stuff of little real value.’ He is not happy with the way our science-based civilisation deifies the left-brain mode but neither is he going to sign up to the opposite camp that wants to demonise it and glorify the stereotype of the right hemisphere as the intuitive and organic guru, the one to follow. He is keen not to quarantine the left-hemisphere in the Hades occupied by tyrants when they’re overthrown.

He digs much deeper. He accepts that there is something contradictory about the way the two hemispheres of the brain work. He argues that the price of the relative suppression of the right in favour of the left has not been properly understood because we have disparaged the necessary and considerable abilities of the right hemisphere. However, we should be seeking to re-establish the right balance between them not reinforcing some kind of competition. If either hemisphere wins the race outright it will be no better than if we hopped around for the rest of our lives using only one leg.

So, back to his thoughts about certainty.

The left hemisphere likes things that are man-made. Things we make are also more certain . . . . They are not, like living things, constantly changing and moving, beyond our grasp.

(page 79)

He argues that language, for the left-hemisphere, is a tool in its battle to control and manipulate reality. It tends to relate to the world of the living as though it was all a machine of some kind that can be captured by analysis. Language provides its main map of reality, a representation, which the left-hemisphere in its hubris insists is all there is to know.

 

The Hemispheres

Because the right hemisphere sees things as they are . . . . it cannot have the certainty of knowledge that comes from being able to fix things and isolate them. In order to remain true to what is, it does not form abstractions, and categories that are based on abstraction, which are the strengths of denotative language. By contrast, the right hemisphere’s interest in language lies in all the things that help to take it beyond the limiting effects of denotation to connotation: it acknowledges the importance of ambiguity. It therefore is virtually silent, relatively shifting and uncertain, where the left hemisphere, by contrast, may be unreasonably, even stubbornly, convinced of its own correctness. As John Cutting puts it, despite ‘an astonishing degree of ignorance on the part of the left (supposed major) hemisphere about what its partner, the right (supposed minor) hemisphere, [is] up to, [it] abrogates decision-making to itself in the absence of any rational evidence as to what is going on.’

(page 80)

He goes onto summarise this:

So the left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right. The right hemisphere makes it possible to hold several ambiguous possibilities in suspension together without premature closure on the outcome. . . .The right hemisphere is able to maintain ambiguous mental representations in the face of the tendency to premature over-interpretation by the left hemisphere. The right hemisphere’s tolerance of uncertainty is implied everywhere in its subtle ability to use metaphor, irony, humour, all of which depend upon not prematurely resolving ambiguities.

(page 82)

All of this is grounded in a mass of evidence that there is not the space to include here.

He then moves onto an equally fascinating topic: morality.

He sees the left hemisphere as fixated on utility. If something isn’t useful in some obvious practical sense it’s a waste of time.

Moral values are not something that we work out rationally on the principle of utility, or any other principle for that matter, but are irreducible aspects of the phenomenal world, like colour. . . . . [M]oral value is a form of experience irreducible to any other kind, or accountable for on any other terms; and I believe this perception underlies Kant’s derivation of God from the existence of moral values, rather than moral values from the existence of God. Such values are linked to the capacity for empathy, not reasoning; and moral judgements are not deliberative but unconscious and intuitive, deeply bound up with our emotional sensitivity to others.

(page 86)

He points out the organic basis for this and I feel I need to quote his evidence this time:

The Brain

Moral judgement involves a complex right-hemisphere network, particularly the right ventromedial and orbitofrontal cortex, as well as the amygdala in both hemispheres. Damage to the right prefrontal cortex may lead to frank psychopathic behaviour.

(Ibid)

The amygdala can perhaps be called the emotional centre of the brain and is relatively old in evolutionary terms. The others are all part of the higher brain centres in the right hemisphere which came along later.

Given how central the idea of justice is in Bahá’í thinking, it is also intriguing to find it has has its own seat in the brain:

Our sense of justice is underwritten by the right hemisphere, particularly by the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. . . . . The right frontal lobe’s capacity to inhibit our natural impulse to selfishness means that it is also the area on which we most rely for self-control and the power to resist temptation.

(page 86)

There is also (page 92) apparently ‘a slow accumulation of evidence  in favour of religious experience being more closely linked with the “non-dominant” hemisphere.’

Conclusion So Far

I am now poised at the beginning of my exploration of his unpacking further implications of all this. I have just got past the bit that says:

I believe the essential difference between the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere is that the right hemisphere pays attention to the Other, whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves, with which it sees itself as in profound relation. . . . By contrast, the left hemisphere pays attention to the virtual world that it has created, which is self-consistent, but self-contained, ultimately disconnected from the Other, making it powerful, but ultimately only able to operate on, and to know, itself.

(page 93)

If these ideas have grabbed your imagination as much as they have grabbed mine, may be you won’t be able to wait for the drip-feed of bits and pieces that will come via this blog over the next few weeks. Perhaps you will prefer to go out and buy the book for yourself. I think it would be well-worth it.

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