Posts Tagged ‘science’

Religion and Science are inter-twined with each other and cannot be separated. These are the two wings with which humanity must fly. One wing is not enough. Every religion which does not concern itself with Science is mere tradition, and that is not the essential. Therefore science, education and civilization are most important necessities for the full religious life.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in London – page 28

At the end of the previous post I concluded that we are still a long way from having redressed the balance between an overvalued materialistic science and a discounted spirituality and religion. What other challenges lie ahead in Margaret Donaldson’s view, as explained in Human Minds: an exploration, if we are to correct this bias?

The Need for Hard Work

To foster this aspect of our potential being requires great effort,[1] it is likely that its ‘cultivation, like that of the intellectual modes, calls for steady work, sustained over many years; that it is hard to achieve in any circumstances; and that it is even harder to achieve without the full support of the resources of one’s culture.’ And the full support of our cultural resources is clearly lacking in this case.

In addition,[2] ‘[a] certain level of material and social security is necessary.’ This applies to both sides of this divide: given that the intellectual mode is more generously rewarded in our culture, it would seem to have the edge in that respect as well.

If the educational system does not nurture an appetite for understanding of any kind it is unlikely to prosper. Teachers are the ones who can hold such long-term benefits in mind[3] ‘in ways that children are unable to do themselves.’ A particularly interesting point she makes here concerns ‘the importance of stepping back further still [beyond the self] to recognise yet another point of view: the legitimate interest of all humanity.’  This involves ‘decentring’ sufficiently, in Piaget’s sense of the word, ‘to avoid being bound to a single point of view.’ This maps closely onto the concepts of reflection and disidentification which have featured often on this blog already, so I won’t rehash them here.

Goals such as these must not be imposed on pupils. They must be[4] ‘taken over by the learners as their own in the end’ in such a way that ‘discipline’ becomes ‘self-discipline.’ She makes a telling point when she writes, ‘Consequently special educational effort must be devoted to making comprehensible those purposes that are most likely to seem obscure.’ Materialistically minded teachers are unlikely to be able or willing to achieve that in terms of the value-sensing transcendent mode.

The key question therefore becomes: ‘How do you give them some sense of the experience that comes with developing spirituality as it aspires towards transcendence?’

Her answer is to suggest that[5] ‘if we are wise enough and sufficiently serious about the enterprise, our schools can offer intermediate goals in a well-planned sequence so that each achievement is also an opening which reveals new challenges not too far out of reach.’ For this to work, she argues,[6] ‘since the new goals cannot initially be understood by the novice, the first step on the way has to be an act of trust… This trust is encouraged and endorsed – or otherwise – by attitudes that are widespread in a society.’

Which is precisely the problem:[7] ‘if children are to be encouraged to direct their efforts towards achievement in these modes, they need to be shown that high proficiency in them is valued.’

We are here in the same kind of bind that I described in an earlier post which explored how we might better balance matter and spirit. I argued that a key pair of requirements was: first, co-ordinated institutions strong enough to mobilise change, and second, a level of global consciousness clear and strong enough to create those institutions. There is a chicken and egg problem there, however. Until we have an educational system that helps create such a consciousness, how will we have the effective motivation to create the institutions that we need if we are to develop such an educational system? My focus in that post was on reversing the negative effects of our economic system. The problem here is related to that but not identical.

What does Donaldson have to say about this aspect of the issue?

‘Gradgrind’s Class’ from The Illustrated Hard Times by Nick Ellis (for source see link)

Achieving a Balance

Even though she accepts that[8] ‘intellectual competence is not widely understood or valued for what it is.. . . the case is much worse when we turn to a consideration of the advanced value-sensing modes.’ In effect,[9] ‘our value-sensing capacities are being put quite firmly into second place.’ It would be breaking fundamentally new ground to have ‘a culture where both kinds of enlightenment were respected and cultivated together.’ She then asks, ‘Is there any prospect that a new age of this kind might be dawning?’

She accepts there will be[10] ‘a span centuries’ before we can ‘see any change at all.’ This anticipates the point made by the Universal House of Justice in a letter written in 2013 where it states, concerning a closely related issue:

[H]owever promising the rise in collective consciousness may be, it should be seen as only the first step of a process that will take decades–nay, centuries–to unfold. For the principle of the oneness of humankind, as proclaimed by Baha’u’llah, asks not merely for cooperation among people and nations.  It calls for a complete reconceptualization of the relationships that sustain society.

The value-sensing mode similarly runs counter to many deeply established prejudices in contemporary society, even to the extent that ‘Experiences in the value-sensing modes run the risk of being confused with madness.’[11]

Just as in the past, she feels, it took time and effort for mathematics to be distinguished from magic,[12] ‘it was achieved’ in the end, and now ‘[f]or our part we shall have to achieve a similar distinguishing of experiences in the value-sensing modes from magic on the one hand and madness on the other if we are ever to correct the imbalance between intellectual and emotional development that exists today.’

Her position is therefore ultimately optimistic by implication: humanity came to realise mathematics was not magical mumbo-jumbo, so it will do the same for mysticism eventually. She fails convincingly to explain the educational path that will enable that to happen. Even so, I find her overall exposition of the problem rewarding and illuminating.

The closest I have got myself to attempting an explanation of how such a much-needed transformation might come about is my discussion of how to move forwards from a competitive materialistic economic culture, using key points made by Karlberg in his richly rewarding book Beyond the Culture of Contest.

In describing ‘strategies of social reform’ he draws the following distinction:[13]

 . . . many people have viewed the development or transformation of individual consciousness as a path to meaningful social change. . . . [alternatively] many people have historically viewed the reform or transformation of basic social structures as the path to meaningful social change.

He offers the Bahá’í perspective as synthesis:

In this context Bahá’ís believe that individual psycho-structural development and collective socio-structural reforms are both necessary but that neither one is sufficient by itself. They therefore advocate a twofold process of change involving both.

He discusses this in more detail, first at the level of the individual, and emphasis on education is key here, as is the fact that the Bahá’í community is developing institutions for whom this is a main focus:[14]

On the individual level, Bahá’ís pursue social change primarily through educational processes. . . . [At the time his writing] out of 1700 social and economic development projects Bahá’ís are currently engaged in around the world, more than 750 are education projects. Bahá’ís also conceive of education in terms of individual, moral or spiritual development.

Next he turns to systemic interventions:[15]

The Bahá’ís are simultaneously pursuing collective strategies of socio-structural transformation. The entire administrative order…, with its non-adversarial decision-making methods, its non-partisan electoral model and its globally coordinated institutional structure, is not merely a theoretical construct for Bahá’ís. Rather, Bahá’ís have been actively building this administrative order for more than three quarters of a century…

The ultimate goal for Bahá’ís, he states with reference to Building a Just World Order,[16] is for ‘the administrative order’ to provide them ‘with an institutional framework within which they can further develop the skills, capacities and attitudes that they believe are needed to manage processes of social change in an increasingly interdependent complex world.’

Among those requisite social changes is the basic Bahá’í principle that science and religion are fundamentally compatible. The sane and effortful development of both these fields of exploration are fundamental to the creation of a more harmonious and constructive social order.

The Bahá’í world website pins this down precisely:

Taken together, science and religion provide the fundamental organizing principles by which individualscommunities, and institutions function and evolve. When the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community are kept in mind and due attention is given to both scientific and spiritual knowledge, the tendency to reduce human progress to the consumption of goods, services and technological packages is avoided. Scientific knowledge, to take but one simple example, helps the members of a community to analyse the physical and social implications of a given technological proposal—say, its environmental impact—and spiritual insight gives rise to moral imperatives that uphold social harmony and that ensure technology serves the common good. Together, these two sources of knowledge are essential to the liberation of individuals and communities from the traps of ignorance and passivity. They are vital to the advancement of civilization.

Even so, clear as that is, at least to me, there seems to be a long and bumpy road to travel before that vision of the future can be realised, and there has been much to reflect on recently about the ways we could get seriously derailed if we do not wake up soon enough to the realities that challenge our current self-centred and consumerist way of life.


[1]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 236: unless otherwise stated all references are from this text
[2]. Page 254.
[3]. Page 256.
[4]. Page 259.
[5]. Page 260.
[6]. Page 262.
[7]. Page 262.
[8]. Page 263.
[9]. Page 264.
[10]. Page 265.
[11]. Ibid.
[12]. Page 266.
[13]. Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 156.
[14]. Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 157.
[15]. Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 158.
[16]. Ibid.

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Consider to what a remarkable extent the spirituality of people has been overcome by materialism so that spiritual susceptibility seems to have vanished, divine civilization become decadent, and guidance and knowledge of God no longer remain. All are submerged in the sea of materialism. Although some attend churches and temples of worship and devotion, it is in accordance with the traditions and imitations of their fathers and not for the investigation of reality.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 221)

The previous post ended with a key question: can we redress the imbalance, described by Margaret Donaldson in her book Human Minds: an exploration, that has tilted our culture towards the intellectual transcendent mode with a current mistaken emphasis on a purely materialistic science at the expense of the more spiritual approach of the value-sensing transcendent mode?

This is a question that matters.

We have been here before on this blog, though from a slightly different angle. Iain McGilchrist in his brilliant survey of the problem in The Master & his Emissary reaches a conclusion that pins down exactly why addressing this kind of problem matters when we look at our western society:[1]

The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity. This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth. . . . . .

There is a huge disadvantage for the right hemisphere here. If . . . knowledge has to be conveyed to someone else, it is in fact essential to be able to offer (apparent) certainties: to be able to repeat the process for the other person, build it up from the bits. That kind of knowledge can be handed on. . . . By contrast, passing on what the right hemisphere knows requires the other party already to have an understanding of it, which can be awakened in them. . .

On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, and perhaps also because it is more easily communicated than the subtle, nuanced, tentative, fluid and directly sensed approximation of reality that constitutes the right hemisphere experience, the left hemisphere view becomes the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships though are far better understood by the right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a rich morality, whereas the left hemisphere tends in its black and white world fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.

Donaldson’s Take on Redressing the Balance

She feels that developments in science itself have begun to undermine dogmatic materialism:[2]:

 . . . Following upon the work of Max Planck from which emerged quantum mechanics, earlier conceptions of matter itself – those lying at the very basis of the ‘materialistic’ theories of nature – were shown to be mistaken.

Consciousness plays an unexpected part. She quotes Eugene Wigner as saying[3] that ‘it was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.’ As a result ‘[t]he intellectual intellectual construct mode reaches its limits and the extension of knowledge depends ever more heavily upon mathematical reasoning.’

Donaldson’s feels that materialism as an explanation for everything is finished:

[4] . . . The activities of science can no longer reasonably be taken as tending to the conclusion that the universe is a mechanism which we can expect soon to understand completely. That idea is dead.

What grounds, though, does she have for also feeling that ‘[t]he way is now open for a general recognition that the value-sensing modes need not compete with the intellectual modes but can properly function in their own way.’

My recent reading of Matthew Cobb’s The Idea of the Brain and Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future suggest that the way may be open but it is certainly not unobstructed. By the way, I accept that there are valuable insights in both those books, and in Mason’s case a large number of crucial points that we need to take on board if we are ever to avert the collision of the Titanic of our global civilization with the various icebergs of imminent disaster. However, even Mason does not see the possible wisdom of adding Donaldson’s insights into his remedy.

William James. (For source of Image see link.)

She launches her case with a quote from William James that resonates strongly with the emphasis the Bahá’í Faith places on the essential harmony of science and religion. James recognized, she says, that science and religion are[5] ‘both of them genuine keys for unlocking the world’s treasure house;’ that ‘neither is exhaustive or exclusive of the other’s simultaneous use;’ and that religion at its higher flights is ‘infinitely passionate.’

Then, from within her modal model which I hope this does not muddle, she mentions our different ways of dealing with problems[6] ‘from within the line and core construct modes’ for example, via psychoanalysis or cognitive therapy. However, she adds, ‘there remains another kind of possibility: instead of trying to redeem a troublesome mode we may try to leave it, at least for a while,’ explaining that ‘[a]ll of us have at least some variety of the point mode to escape into.’ ‘For some people though[7] ‘the intellectual modes also provide a way out.’

Those are not her favoured modes of transcending problems because:[8]

. . . there is a whole different human tradition in which sitting still is held to be an essential feature of the effort to control suffering and thus to be a way in which many hours of a life can properly and profitably be spent.

And she goes on to ask whether we are ‘talking only about becoming happier, or also about becoming in some sense wiser or better?’

The Example of Buddhism

She then explores the path of Buddhism at some length, describing it[9] as ‘a particularly resolute attempt to develop skill in leaving undesirable modes at will.’

She states:[10]

Two possible escape routes are proposed in the early Buddhist texts and accepted in much Buddhist orthodoxy. Paul Griffiths calls them ‘the cultivation of tranquillity’ and ‘the cultivation of insight’, the first being an attempt to overcome attachment, and the second and attempt to overcome ignorance.

And in the end she explains:[11]

we are brought to the conclusion that, within the Buddhist traditions we have been considering, escape from the line mode and the core construct mode mainly entails movement into two other modes: a special detached or objective kind of point mode, and a version of the transcendent mode.

. . . Both systems depend on detached, uninvolved, direct observation, used in conjunction with some transcendent function.

Basically, for her,[12] ‘[t]he idea is therefore closely akin to the belief that meditation can help us achieve some kind of breakthrough from the finite to the infinite.’

Her detailed comparison of the intellectual and the value-sensing transcendent modes has at least one clear implication concerning the unhelpful asymmetry of our Western culture’s approach to science, religion and spirituality. Most of us trust the products of the obscure and effortful scientific process, even though we lack even a shred of confirming personal experience in some cases. This is true even though that trust has been eroded by post-modern thinking and climate denial amongst other things. However, most of us refuse to extend the same kind of trust to the equally effortful exertions of advanced meditators: we simply do not believe the data drawn from their experiences, at the very least dismissing it all as ‘anecdotal’ and/or ‘subjective.’

From a personal perspective, when I was studying for my MSc in Clinical Psychology at Surrey University, I came across substantial amounts of Buddhist literature in the library there. I was so impressed by the depths of psychological insight I found on the shelves, I then used every opportunity to attend talks and meditation training at the Buddhist Society in Eccleston Square, London.  I did not convert to Buddhism though, because there was much, in terms for example of reincarnation, that I could not accept, but I remained deeply impressed by many of its insights none the less.

Other Opportunities

Art has a part to play, as we heard from her before in a previous post. She quotes Iris Murdoch[13] as saying that art gives us ‘intermediate images’ which most of us could not do without, but which ‘can lead to a full stop if they are taken as being for real.’ This maps onto McGilchrist’s description of part of the right-hemisphere’s skillset, in The Master & his Emissary, his in-depth exploration of how we can balance the two hemisphere’s distinct kinds of functioning more effectively.

None of this is a level playing field within our culture.[14]:

… our inner cities have become particularly ‘impermeable’ to spiritual experience. . . . Reports… often mention as external triggers specific encounters with nature or art. Also there are repeated suggestions that being alone is helpful or even necessary. The lives of the least privileged people are clearly in all these ways seriously short of opportunity.

Even so, she declares optimistically:[15]

It is at any rate clear that experiences in the value sensing transcendent mode are not extinct among us. They surge up still in spite of the power of other modes which have threatened to exclude them. . . . The experiences come occasionally… but they do not constitute a resource that can be used for living. They cannot be counted as part of the modal repertoire.

So, we are a long way from having redressed the balance. What other challenges lie ahead in her view? That will have to wait for the next post.


[1]. The Master & his Emissary – pages 228-229.
[2] Human Minds: an exploration – page 186: unless otherwise stated all references are from this text.
[3]. Page 187.
[4]. Page 188.
[5]. Page 189.
[6]. Page 210.
[7]. Page 211.
[8]. Page 212.
[9]. Page 213.
[10]. Page 214.
[11]. Page 224.
[12]. Page 227.
[13]. Page 230.
[14]. Page 234.
[15]. Page 235.

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Ye must therefore put forth a mighty effort, striving by night and day and resting not for a moment, to acquire an abundant share of all the sciences and arts, that the Divine Image, which shineth out from the Sun of Truth, may illumine the mirror of the hearts of men.

(Selections from the Writings ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 140)

At the end of the previous post we left Donaldson’s question hanging in the air:[1]

Is there any evidence that people can function in modes which parallel the intellectual modes but in which emotion, rather than thought, has primacy?

Mainly the Value-Sensing Transcendent Mode

At this point she begins to unpack what is meant by what she calls the ‘value-sensing transcendent’ mode, contrasting it with its complementary opposite the ‘intellectual transcendent mode:[2] ‘what is to be regulated by this [mode’s] control will be thinking of a kind that might interfere with emotion rather than emotion of a kind that might interfere with thought.’

She fears that the development of the value-sensing mode at this level might be so alien to us that we will not concern ourselves with it at all ‘because progress in science and technology has led to a dangerous imbalance, so that we have become one-sided.’

She feels that evidence in support of the existence of this mode and its predecessor might be found ‘in responses to art and music, and in certain kinds of experience that we call religious or spiritual.’ She adds:[3] ‘I shall call the modes we are discussing value-sensing modes, with the proviso that the values in question must transcend personal concerns.’ In this case ‘thought and emotion would again be separated, but this time emotion would be the primary function.’ The value-sensing modes would be essentially acognitive.

I did find her apparent fusion of emotion/feeling/sensing somewhat confusing at times.* Anyhow, with the help of my exposure to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy I came to define the value-sensing mode as the state of consciousness in which we are most in tune with our positive value system. ACT argues that operating from the observing self enables us to unhook ourselves from disabling scripts and discover, choose to live by and enact our deepest values in spite of all the discomfort that inevitably attends upon such a commitment. Our lives become value- rather than self- or language-centred. If we do not achieve this level of understanding, in their view, we are condemned to betray our highest values because we have confused ourselves with what we are telling or have been told about ourselves.

Their History

Donaldson begins[4] with the question of whether our modern conviction that only the intellectual mode has validity ‘has always existed.’ She admits to speculating somewhat when she claims[5] ‘the value-sensing construct and transcendent modes are probably at least as old as their intellectual counterparts, which would place their advent in the middle or earlier half of the second millennium BC.’

From the ninth to the twelfth centuries in Europe,[6] ‘[t]he culture overwhelmingly favoured and promoted the value-sensing construct mode’ and ‘[i]t came to be thought positively improper to press inquiry too far,’ thus placing a bar against intellectual exploration to such an extent that[7] ‘[c]uriosity was, then, at risk of becoming impiety and investigation had to be curbed, out of respect’ for the divine nature of nature. She argues that it was ‘not until the twelfth century that things really began to change.’

Even so,[8] ‘[t]he hold of the value-sensing construct mode on European minds would remain strong for centuries more. But the process of challenging its dominance had at last begun.’

Clearly there had been a long-standing ‘imbalance in the direction opposite to that which obtains today.’ The emotional core modes were valued more than the ‘relatively neglected’ intellectual ones.

It was not until the 17th century that[9] ‘the establishment of modern science . . .  was fully and decisively achieved.’ The belief began to prevail[10] that, far from prohibiting investigation ‘God was now supposed to want us to try to understand.’ As that process unfolded[11] ‘what happened to the other advanced modes . . ?’

There was no sense in which this favoured[12] ‘a parallel development on the value-sensing side.’ Instead[13] ‘society became progressively, and in the end very thoroughly, secularized,’ passing ascendancy[14] ‘more and more completely to the intellectual modes.’

Poetry and music may have allowed ‘spiritual feeling’ some degree of expression. Beethoven and Wordsworth are possible examples of that. Even though[15] ‘Wordsworth’s writings were influential . . . they did not redress the balance.’ Materialism basically triumphed.

I want to pause for a moment and consider this. Jonathan Bate’s recent biography Radical Wordsworth goes some way to explain both how far the poet kept spirituality alive and also what might have prevented his revitalizing it more effectively.

A poem of Wordsworth’s that I consider to be one of his greatest is Ode on the Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. One stanza should be enough to convey the depth of its spirituality.

                                                     Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

Bate quotes[16] his use in another poem of the expression ‘eternal beauty’ as applied to a landscape, to suggest that Wordsworth perhaps believed in some form of pantheism. He feels[17] that the poet ‘was articulating a radical alternative religion of nature.’

So, where’s the problem?

Possibly the most eloquent example of where the problem lay, according to Bate, was the quality that gave Wordsworth the confidence to write an epic poem with himself as hero, his Prelude. Many of his contemporaries were unimpressed by what Keats defined as the essential drawback of Wordsworth’s poetry. Keats believed[18] “that the problem with what he calls ‘the Wordsworthian’ was the ‘egotistical sublime’, the perpetual writing from the point of view of the self.” In contrast, Keats was keen to incorporate ‘a counter-model that was the antithesis of egotism.’

Wherever the truth lies in this case, poetry and music did not have a sufficiently strong hold on the imaginations of that period to keep the value-sensing mode alive and improving.

She quotes an illuminating episode from Darwin’s life to illustrate what might have been happening in this particular respect on a much wider scale:[19]

Along with the loss of religious belief there developed in Darwin what he himself calls a ‘curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes.’ His mind became ‘a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts,’ so that he ceased to enjoy poetry, paintings and music. This, he tells us, it is ‘a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.’

So, are we now stuck so firmly in the quicksand of unbalanced materialism that there is no possible remedy? Consideration of that will have to wait until next time.


*This, I think, may derive from my attachment to the distinction Stephen Covey makes, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, between feelings, values and principles. We can, and often should[20] ‘subordinate feelings to values.’ However, values are not infallibly reliable guides to right action:[21] ‘Principles are not values. A gang of thieves can share values, but they are in violation of the fundamental principles we’re talking about. Principles are the territory. Values are maps. When we value correct principles, we have truth…’ There’ll be more about Covey coming up in my next sequence of posts.


[1] Page 141. Unless otherwise stated all references are from Human Minds: an exploration.
[2] Page 142.
[3] Pages 142-143.
[4] Page 156.
[5] Page 158.
[6] Page 164.
[7]. Page 165.
[8]. Page 166.
[9]. Page 167.
[10]. Page 174.
[11]. Page 176.
[12]. Page 178.
[13]. Page 180
[14]. Page 181.
[15]. Page 183.
[16] Radical Wordsworth – page 47
[17] Radical Wordsworth – page 186.
[18] Radical Wordsworth – page 402:
[19] Page 184.
[20] The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People  – page 71.
[21] The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People  – page 35.

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Another earlier poem that seems to fit well with this sequence.  

Uncertainty Principle v3

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If religious beliefs and opinions are found contrary to the standards of science, they are mere superstitions and imaginations; for the antithesis of knowledge is ignorance, and the child of ignorance is superstition. Unquestionably there must be agreement between true religion and science. If a question be found contrary to reason, faith and belief in it are impossible, and there is no outcome but wavering and vacillation.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá from The Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 181)

I have been triggered to revisit books I have hoarded which deal with levels of consciousness. This all started with another rapidly abandoned look at Ken Wilber’s model. With moderate enthusiasm I had picked off my shelves Wilber’s Up from Eden, which had lurked up there unread since 1996. I felt that Fontana’s references to his work in Psychology, Religion and Spirituality warranted another look to help me overcome the reservations triggered in my mind by John Fitzgerald Medina’s Faith, Physics & Psychology, where he takes issue with what he feels is Wilber’s arrogant implication that it is impossible for someone in a lower level society to leap to a higher level of consciousness (page 136):

. . . integral theorists actually support the idea that, out of the entire human population in the world, only an elite cadre of Westerners presently has the capacity to achieve the highest levels of human development.

I was not sure this criticism was entirely warranted but it did create reservations in my mind about some aspects of Wilber’s approach.

This was not what put me off this time.

I got as far as page 73 before the feeling that this was not the approach I wanted to immerse myself in right now grew so strong I couldn’t turn another page. His approach in this book was too mythological for my taste. I’ve so far been completely incapable of finishing any of Joseph Campbell’s work for this same reason. My distaste may be irrational but it remains insuperable.

As I sat and stared at my shelves aching for inspiration I remembered how much I had resonated to a book that explored in illuminating ways the split-brain culture we inhabit. No, not Iain McGilchrist’s The Master & his Emissary this time, much as I value that book and always will. There’s a clue in a comment I left on my blog more than a month ago, about a text that I have now re-read for the third time, but have not yet blogged about. I’ve probably never really attempted to integrate this account into my other explorations of levels of consciousness because the model presented does not easily map onto numerically coded versions such as those of Jenny Wade, Piaget, Wilber, Dabrowski  and Koestenbaum.

It is Margaret Donaldson’s Human Minds: an exploration. On page 135 she writes of what she calls ‘the value-sensing transcendent mode,’ something which our materialistic culture does not cultivate. She describes experiences in this mode as surging up ‘still in spite of the power of other modes which have threatened to exclude them.’ These experiences ‘come occasionally, unexpectedly, like marvellous accidents.’ Her book is partly about our need as a society to learn how to encourage us to access them more consistently. My own such encounters have been extremely rare indeed. Her insightful book also considers, though in less detail, the role of the novel and poetry in enhancing consciousness.

It also focuses on both the need to balance head and heart, science and religion, and on the ways we might get closer to achieving that.

I will deal fairly quickly with her discussion of her more basic modes of experiencing the world, then I will move on to the next highest levels in a bit more detail, before dwelling at greater length on her in depth exploration of the transcendent modes, both intellectual and value-sensing. In all probability this fairly rapid flight over the complex terrain of her richly informative model will fail to do it justice, but, if it at least brings her important work to your attention, that might just be enough.

Basic Modes

Margaret Donaldson deals first of all with the basic modes, the first of which concerns itself purely with the present moment, and begins in our infancy. She calls it point mode.[1] She goes on to add, ‘Later other loci become possible. For example, the second mode, which is called the line mode, has a locus of concern that includes the personal past and the personal future.’ More specific detail on the line mode next time.

Then our capacity expands to ‘the impersonal’ enabling us to think beyond our ‘personal goals.’[2] When this relates to thinking, that fits with our preconceptions about what it should be like. ‘But,’ she asks, ‘what about emotion? Can we take steps towards impersonality in respect of our emotions also?’

This is an issue we will come back to in more detail. For now I’ll just mention that she adds that ‘The process of “opening out” in those two directions is the one that I have previously called disembedding, in an earlier book, Children’s Minds.[3] This relates to some degree to concepts such as reflection and disidentification, dealt with at length elsewhere on this blog.

She emphasises that we modify our perceptions of the world ‘to suit our purposes.’[4] She was particularly taken with some of Freud’s descriptions of how we do that and expresses them in an effective metaphor:[5]

In talking of the defences Freud uses one image which I find illuminating. He likened the activities of a mind shaping its own consciousness to those of an editor revising a text, working towards an acceptable final draft.  The various mechanisms that have different editorial counterparts. For example, amnesic repression is equivalent to complete removal of parts of the text… likewise denial is equivalent to the insertion of ‘not:’… Projection is equivalent to changing the subject of a sentence: ‘He is I am evil, lazy, useless.’ Displacement amounts to changing the sentence object: ‘ I hate my father enemy.’ . . . In this way, we write for ourselves an authorised version of our lives.

In short, ‘. . . our experience of the world is experience of an interpretation.’[6] This maps closely onto my own sense of my perception of the world as a simulation. However, Donaldson explains, this tendency is balanced ‘by another more austere aim: the aim of understanding, of getting at the truth.’ The Bahá’í approach to this stresses the importance of an ‘independent investigation of the truth.’

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

There is another factor she mentions that again resonates with the Bahá’í Faith: ‘The second corrective is to consider shared experience.’ This sounds closely linked to the value attached to consultation, which is central to many processes of interaction encouraged in the Bahá’í community. Obviously these resonances partly explain my attraction to Donaldson’s model of consciousness, but it is not the only reason.

She argues that the foundations for our modes of consciousness are laid down very early.[7]  ‘At what point in life’ she asks, ‘does a child have a mind capable of concerning itself with things in some sort of controlled and organised way?’ and her answer is, ‘We can at least now confidently reply: “Very early, certainly by the end of the first two or three months, possibly sooner. (Stern terms it an emergent self.)’

She amplifies her comment by saying:[8]

There follows, from two to around eight months, the development of the ‘core self’ – a sense of self that is coherent, firmly distinguished from what is other, but not yet informed by an awareness of other minds.

. . . the point mode begins as the core self is established.

In the next post I will be exploring what follows on from that. It’s probably worth pointing out straightaway that, even later in life, as we shall see, point mode is not pointless.


[1]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 11.
[2]. Human Minds: an exploration – page  16.
[3]. Human Minds: an exploration – pages 16-17.
[4]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 24.
[5]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 25.
[6]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 27.
[7]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 46.
[8]. Human Minds: an exploration – pages 46-47.

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The points of resonance for me that Kastrup’s book, The Idea of the World, provides, don’t end with NDEs, meaning and dreams. His case that the world has meaning, just as a dream does, takes him onto interesting ground.

He first points towards the strengths and limitations of what he calls physicalism:[1]

Physicalism has served important practical purposes… conducive to the development of technology.

But whilst valuable in a utilitarian sense, this focus on nature’s behavior – as opposed to nature’s meaning – is extraordinarily limiting to the human spirit. We are meaning-seeking animals…

And he strongly argues that there is real meaning in the world, not just a false sense of meaning created in response to our thirst for it.

Given the alternative model he describes:[2]

Each of us, as individuals, can now give ourselves permission to dedicate our lives to finding meaning in the world, reassured by the knowledge that this meaning is really there even if we can’t immediately apprehend it.

Science and Religion are in Harmony

He is clear why he feels this is so:[3]

. . . the truths of human intuition apply to the physical world because human intuition and the physical world are, at the most fundamental level, continuous with one another. Physics, mathematics and logic are all archetypal expressions of the ultimate subject in the form of its natural modes of self-excitation.

I’ve been here before on this blog with the work of Alvin Plantinga.

In his book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, Alvin Plantinga is looking at the notion, commonly held by Christians everywhere, that we are made in God’s image, and this will have an unexpected link to empiricism:[4]

God is a knower, and indeed the supreme knower. God is omniscient, that is, such that he knows everything, knows for any proposition p, whether p is true. We human beings, therefore, in being created in his image, can also know much about our world, ourselves, and God himself.

This capacity to learn about our world is a key aspect of our being and relates to this issue in his view (ibid.): ‘this ability to know something about our world, ourselves and God is a crucially important part of the divine image.’ And this is where he springs on us an unexpected point in favour of his case:[5]

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.

That match is not at all what we should necessarily expect. The world could just as easily, probably far more easily be an incomprehensible and apparently random puzzle to us, but it is not. Kastrup[6]  makes a similar point derived from Albert’s Treatise on Critical Reason:

Under physicalism we cannot logically argue for the validity of logic beyond our own minds, so the world could very well be absurd.

Plantinga also casts doubt on what he regards as the misplaced confidence of scientists in the products, as they would see it, of a brain created and shaped by evolution.

He argues that there is an undermining aspect of naturalism (his term for Kastrup’s physicalism) for anyone who chooses to espouse it[7]:

. . . . .  suppose you are a naturalist: you think that there is no such person as God, and that we and our cognitive faculties have been cobbled together by natural selection. Can you then sensibly think that our cognitive faculties are for the most part reliable? . . . . . . the probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable, given naturalism and evolution, is low. But then . . . . . if I believe both naturalism and evolution, I have a defeater for my intuitive assumption that my cognitive faculties are reliable. If I have a defeater for that belief, however, then I have a defeater for any belief I take to be produced by my cognitive faculties.

We need to unpack a little more the logic that underlies this conclusion:[8]

The principal function or purpose, then, . . . . . of our cognitive faculties is not that of producing true or verisimilitudinous (nearly true) beliefs, but instead that of contributing to survival by getting the body parts in the right place.  . . . hence it does not guarantee mostly true or verisimilitudinous beliefs. . . . . What Churchland therefore suggests is that naturalistic evolution—that theory—gives us reason to doubt two things: (a) that a purpose of our cognitive systems is that of serving us with true beliefs, and (b) that they do, in fact, furnish us with mostly true beliefs.

Thomas Nagel in his book Mind and the Cosmos is of basically the same opinion as Plantinga on this and says so explicitly:[9]

I agree with Alvin Plantinga that, unlike divine benevolence, the application of evolutionary theory to the understanding of our own cognitive capacities should undermine, though it need not completely destroy, our confidence in them.

. . . . Evolutionary naturalism implies that we shouldn’t take any of our convictions seriously, including the scientific world picture on which evolutionary naturalism itself depends.

He’s singing from the same hymn sheet as Kastrup as well, although this analogy may concede materialists a home goal at this point. Nagel pins his idealist colours plainly to the mast very early on, placing him firmly in Kastrup’s camp:[10]

The view that rational intelligibility is at the root of the natural order makes me, in a broad sense, an idealist

And his antipathy to reductionism doesn’t take long in showing:[11]

The implausibility of the reductive program that is needed to defend the completeness of this kind of naturalism provides a reason for trying to think of alternatives—alternatives that make mind, meaning, and value as fundamental as matter and space-time in an account of what there is.

Which brings us right back to meaning again.

The Cause of Consciousness.

Nagel deploys a somewhat different line of argument from Kastrup to support his idealist case:[12]

The inescapable fact that has to be accommodated in any complete conception of the universe is that the appearance of living organisms has eventually given rise to consciousness, perception, desire, action, and the formation of both beliefs and intentions on the basis of reasons. If all this has a natural explanation, the possibilities were inherent in the universe long before there was life, and inherent in early life long before the appearance of animals. A satisfying explanation . . . would reveal mind and reason as basic aspects of a nonmaterialistic natural order.

As the logical extension of this position, Nagel’s challenge to materialists is clear:[13]

For a satisfactory explanation of consciousness as such, a general psychophysical theory of consciousness would have to be woven into the evolutionary story, one which makes intelligible both (1) why specific organisms have the conscious life they have, and (2) why conscious organisms arose in the history of life on earth.

It is not enough to mumble that, because we now have consciousness and matter closely allied, we do not have to say more than that the evolution of matter into complex forms causes consciousness.

You may well be wondering at this late stage why I bother reading books such as Matthew Cobb’s, espousing as it does the materialism I so clearly reject. There are two reasons. One is that I am not ashamed to admit, as they seemed to be, that I can learn from what they write, even if I don’t agree with much of it. The second is that I am trying to set a good example in the vain hope that some materialists might follow it.

A good point to close on is the honesty of Kastrup’s admission towards the end of his book:[14]

Unfair as this may be to some of you, it is probably safe to say that most people, convinced as they may be by my argument at the level of rational thought, still can’t feel the world to be a mental unfolding. In all honesty, most days I can’t either.

Me neither, as my poems frequently testify. I’m still working on it though.


Even so I completely subscribe to Edward Kelly’s conclusion, expressed in the Afterword:[15]

The vision sketched here . . . also addresses the urgent need for a greater sense of worldwide community and interdependence . . .by demonstrating that under the surface we and the world are much more extensively interconnected than previously recognised.

So ends our journey from near death through dreams to the reconciliation of religion and science and the challenge to materialists to prove, rather than simply assert, that consciousness is reducible to the brain. Until such proof unequivocally appears, I stand firmly with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá when he states:[16]

. . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.


[1]. The Idea of the World – page 236.
[2]. The Idea of the World – page 237.
[3]. The Idea of the World – pages 242-43.
[4]. Where the Conflict Really Lies – page 268.
[5]. Where the Conflict Really Lies – pages 268-269.
[6]. The Idea of the World – page 231.
[7]. Where the Conflict Really Lies – page 313.
[8]. Where the Conflict Really Lies – page 315
[9]. Mind and Cosmos – pages 27-28.
[10]. Mind and Cosmos – page 17.
[11]. Mind and Cosmos – page 20.
[12]. Mind and Cosmos – page 32.
[13]. Mind and Cosmos – pages 50-51.
[14]. The Idea of the World – page 256).
[15]. The Idea of the World – pages 264-65.
[16]. Some Answered Questions – page 209.

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