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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.

Afterthoughts

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.

References:

[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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The primary question to be resolved is how the present world, with its entrenched pattern of conflict, can change to a world in which harmony and co-operation will prevail.

World order can be founded only on an unshakeable consciousness of the oneness of mankind, a spiritual truth which all the human sciences confirm. Anthropology, physiology, psychology, recognize only one human species, albeit infinitely varied in the secondary aspects of life. Recognition of this truth requires abandonment of prejudice—prejudice of every kind—race, class, colour, creed, nation, sex, degree of material civilization, everything which enables people to consider themselves superior to others.

(Universal House of Justice The Promise of World Peace Section III – 1985)

In the previous two posts I focused primarily on our major blindspots. Before going into more detail about the nature of bias, it needs to be clarified that solutions to problems and attitudes that create divisions are hard to come by because too many of us, perhaps especially in the individualistic West, have an investment in denying our collective and complex connectedness. This constitutes an additional and intractable blind spot. It may even be that as our complex interconnectedness becomes more irresistibly obvious we resort increasingly to a defensive protectionism, and fall prey to an increasing credulity in the face of simplistic and often scapegoating fixes to the problems that disturb us.

I’ve touched on the problems of Western individualism already in my previous sequence on balancing spirit and matter. I mentioned that, when I read Shweder’s Thinking Through Cultures, I learnt how biased in a potentially destructive way our implicit individualism is. I confessed to how this related to flaws in my own discipline of psychology, favoured in the Western world. Earlier in his book Shweder describes it as follows:

Not surprisingly, in most sociocentric role-based societies… it is sociology, not psychology, that thrives as an academic discipline. In other, more individualistic cultures (for example, the United States) it is psychology that flourishes at universities and popular bookstores, while sociology has an uneasy relationship to a public that find sociological discourse to be unreal and laden with ‘jargon.’[1]

In the years since he wrote that book, Shweder’s thesis has not ceased to be relevant, as Tom Oliver testifies in The Self Delusion, his powerful 2020 dismemberment of our myth of individualism:[2]

Our modern culture, from media advertising to our formal education system, all seem to emphasise extreme individuality, and these are arguably providing an overwhelming set of stimuli which are training our minds to increasingly perceive the world in an individuated away.

This affects our understanding of almost any situation and strongly influences our decision-making. Take mental health, my specialism, as one example:[3]

. . . Clinical medicine still labours under a biomedical model, focusing purely on biological factors. Thus, mental illnesses such as depression are treated with drugs… without dealing properly with root psychological, environmental and social causes.

Though he is clearly not a believer in any commonly understood paradigm of God, his attitude to the required relationship between religion and science, if we are to break through our block, is very refreshing:[4]

We see in the 21st century a genuine synergy emerging between science and spirituality… We can cut through the dogma and fables of organised religion and instead explore scientifically the moral and spiritual states that are often narrowly dubbed ‘religious experiences’ that may actually be just one possible way to see beneath the veil of self-delusion…

A new partnership is needed between science and religion in order to deal with the destruction of our natural world.

He believes firmly that ‘state-of-the-art scientific advances in understanding human interconnectedness – whether it be with the microbiome within us, the natural world around us, or with other people – open up considerable benefits in terms of personal and planetary health.’[5]

I will return to some of his other insights later in relation to bias, which is such a pervasive symptom of our failure to connect with others.

First though we need to look at Jennifer Eberhardt’s perspective on that.

Implicit Bias

Bias may not be as conscious and deliberate as we might be tempted to think, and we also may therefore not be as free from it as we would like. Bias can be internal, invisible even to us, resulting in unintended acts of discrimination.

In her engaging and accessible treatment of the subject in her book Biased, Jennifer Eberhardt begins her explanation by clarifying this, using the term ‘implicit bias’ to capture this pattern:[6]

Implicit bias is not a new way of calling someone a racist. In fact, you don’t have to be a racist at all to be influenced by it. Implicit bias is a kind of distorting lens that’s a product of both the architecture of our brain and the disparities in our society.

A key foundation stone for this is located in research she summarises by saying:[7]

For nearly fifty years, scientists have been documenting the fact that people are much better at recognising faces of their own race than faces of other races . . .

That cringe-worthy expression ‘They all look alike’ has long been considered the province of the bigot. But it is actually a function of biology and exposure. Our brains are better at processing faces that evoke a sense of familiarity.

As a result, when we have negative associations to the unfamiliar they are activated with amazing speed:[8]

The process of making these [negative] connections is called bias. It can happen unintentionally. It can happen unconsciously. It can happen effortlessly. And it can happen in a matter of milliseconds.

This is why I am treating aspects of bias as another form of blind spot, similar to those I have dealt with in the previous two posts.

Stereotypes, Biases and their Sources

Eberhardt quotes Lippman’s interesting definition of stereotypes as ‘impressions that reflect subjective perceptions but stand in for objective reality.’[9] To create a stereotype, the important link here is between harbouring an impression and mistaking it for truth. Not surprisingly stereotypes can blind us ‘to information that [doesn’t] conform to what [we] already believe.’[10]This ‘confirmation bias is a mechanism that allows inaccurate beliefs to spread and persist.’ It is also not surprising to know [11]that ‘studies confirm that biased parents tend to produce children who are biased as well.’

Researchers have found abundant evidence for the different shapes such biases can take in terms of racial prejudice:[12]

What researchers typically find is that people are faster to categorise . . . faces and words when they are using the same key to respond to faces that are black and words that are bad. But if they’re using a single key to respond to faces that are black and to words that are good, their brains seem to bog down. It takes more effort to connect black and good, because black and bad are more strongly associated in our minds.

What is equally or perhaps even more disturbing is that there are also ‘results [which] suggested that the implicit association between blacks and apes was much stronger than the black-crime association.’[13]

Sharing the same race does not exempt us from bias either:[14]

Black people are just as likely as whites to expect signs of disorder in heavily black neighbourhoods.

. . . That suggests a sort of implicit bias that has more to do with associations we’ve absorbed through history and culture than with explicit racial animus.

Various emotions are implicated in different aspects of bias.

Fear is one. For example Bargh found that:[15]

those who had not received flu shots expressed more negative views about immigration than those who had been inoculated against the virus. Their sense of vulnerability to disease was tied to unacknowledged fears about infected immigrants.

Fear operates more generally than this, of course: ‘The same fear response that’s supposed to keep us safe can activate bias in ways that stigmatise and threaten others.’[16]The situation is even worse if we have to make decisions quickly: ‘bias is most likely to surface in situations where we’re fearful and we’re moving fast.’[17]

Disgust is another emotion involved in bias:[18]

When Harris and Fiske showed pictures of homeless people to study participants inside a neuro-imaging scanner,… the insula and amygdala – areas of the brain associated with disgust – were more active.

An additional twist makes the situation worse for some victims of prejudice. That skin colours remain the same across generations impedes the assimilation of those with darker skins because differences remain visible no matter what else changes over time, and, as Sherman and Clore’s research confirmed, the prevalent association of white with pure and black with bad runs deep. ‘“Sin is not just dirty,” the authors write, “it is black. And moral virtue is not just clean, but also white.”’ They conclude that ‘these associations allow implicit bias to turn skin colour into a value judgement.’ [19]

As we will find later, even closer connections across racial divides do not necessarily bring harmony and reduce prejudice:[20]

Online social networks connect us to our neighbours. But the same tools that promise security and promote camaraderie can foster a sort of tunnel vision that distorts our sense of danger, heightens suspicion, and even puts the safety of others at risk. Residents can circulate photographs of a ‘suspicious’ strangers to neighbours and police with the touch of a button and without any evidence the person is doing anything wrong – a practice that can amplify and justify bias in the minds of locals primed by worries about the safety of their homes.

To quote Eberhardt’s summary so far:[21]

In many ways, this is how bias operates. It conditions how we look at the world and the people within it, despite our conscious motivations and desires, and even when such conditioning can put us in harm’s way. Just as drivers are conditioned by how the roads are constructed in their native land, so too are we conditioned by racial narratives that narrow our vision and bias how we see the world around us.

We are conditioned to be biased and bias warps our way of seeing the world.

Next time I will look at some of the consequences of this in more detail and also at the complications that lie across the path towards possible solutions.

Footnotes:

[1]. Shweder – page 169.
[2]. The Self Delusion – page 158.
[3]. The Self Delusion – page 185.
[4]. The Self Delusion – pages 186-87.
[5]. The Self Delusion – page 194.
[6]. Biased – page 6.
[7]. Biased – pages 13-14.
[8]. Biased – page 32.
[9]. Biased – page 32.
[10]. Biased – page 33.
[11]. Biased – page 39.
[12]. Biased – page 40.
[13]. Biased – Page 143
[14]. Biased – page 160.
[15]. Biased – page 163.
[16]. Biased – Page 181.
[17]. Biased – page 184.
[18]. Biased – Page 164.
[19]. Biased – pages 166-67.
[20]. Biased – page 180.
[21]. Biased – Page 170.

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Uncertainty Principle v3

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child-soldier-empty-roadOnly as humanity comes to understand the implications of what occurred during this period of history will it be able to meet the challenges that lie ahead. The value of the contribution we as Bahá’ís can make to the process demands that we ourselves grasp the significance of the historic transformation wrought by the twentieth century.

(Century of Light – page 0)

The recent sequence of workshops on unity that I am blogging about at the moment also has roots in the insights expressed in a book I delved into about two years ago. Here is the third post of eight. I will be posting them interwoven with the Becoming True Upholders of His Oneness sequence. Century of Light is this key text published by the Bahá’í World Centre designed to help us understand the challenges we face in the world today. If you prefer you can download this in PDF version (3 Components of Our Wreck). I learned a huge amount both from preparing these materials and from walking with others in the 2015 workshop along a path of intense exploration over a period of days. 

Reflecting on Quotations

We agreed in the first workshop that we would start the day today by trying out one way of building reflection on a quotation into our moments of quiet contemplation.

We need to sit comfortably in our chairs, our backs reasonably erect, both feet in contact with the floor and hands lying loosely in our lap. We need to spend a few moments withdrawing our attention from the outside world and instead focusing it on our breathing. This is probably most easily done by resting our full attention on the movement of our diaphragm. At the start, if it helps, we can use our rate of breathing to slow down our inward recitation of the passage we have memorised. When we are alone we can of course recite the passage out loud. If anyone has not yet memorised a passage it is fine to begin this process by reading it slowly and mindfully after settling quietly into a reflective state of mind.

Keeping our breathing steady and even, we should focus our entire attention upon each phrase as we read or recite it. As Easwaran points out (page 32) in his excellent book, in the end we have to find the pace that suits us best: ‘the space between words is a matter for each person to work out individually.… If the words come too close together, you will not be slowing down the mind… If the words stand too far apart, they will not be working together…’

If we find our mind has wandered, we should, without getting irritated with ourselves, begin the passage again at the beginning. This teaches the mind that it cannot getaway with wandering: there is a price to pay.

In these early stages we should consider ourselves very successful if we can meditate in this way upon a text for five minutes without losing our concentration. Our aim over a period of months could be to increase their concentration span to something like 20 minutes. Clearly this would enable us, if we wished, to memorise longer passages for reciting, rather than repeating the same short text. It is advisable to change the text we use each week to fend off the indifference which can come from overfamiliarity.

  1. Why would regularly experiencing the wisdom captured in words in this way be helpful to us?
  2. What was our experience like this time?

Group Work

Reminder: For each group discussion the group should choose a facilitator. It would be best to change the facilitator for each piece of group work over the series of workshops but the group will remain the same. During the consultation, the facilitator’s role is to keep track of the time, to ensure that:

  1. everyone contributes something,
  2. no one keeps repeating the same point, and
  3. no one makes excessively long contributions.

The group also needs to agree who will keep a record of the main points for when there is a report back to everyone at the end of the group consultation. The aim should be to make the report back no longer than five minutes.

Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine on July 5, 2014 (For source of image see link)

Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine on July 5, 2014 (For source of image see link)

Group One Task

The Evidence of a Corrosive Cultural Climate

Pages 1: The loss of life alone has been beyond counting. The disintegration of basic institutions of social order, the violation – indeed, the abandonment – of standards of decency, the betrayal of the life of the mind through surrender to ideologies as squalid as they have been empty, the invention and deployment of monstrous weapons of mass annihilation, the bankrupting of entire nations and the reduction of masses of human beings to hopeless poverty, the reckless destruction of the environment of the planet – such are the more obvious in a catalogue of horrors unknown to even the darkest of ages past.

This is a powerful indictment of our culture. We need to unpack some of the implications before we can move on to more positive perspectives.

  1. Where do see evidence of ‘the disintegration of basic institutions of social order’ and ‘the abandonment . . . of standards of decency’? Is there an antidote to this process?
  2. What do we think is meant by ‘betrayal of the life of the mind through surrender to ideologies as squalid as they have been empty’? How might that best be remedied?
  3. Are any of the other points unclear in their implications?

Pages 3-4: The vast majority of the human family, living in lands outside the Western world, shared in few of the blessings and little of the optimism of their European and American brethren. [Refers to China, India, Latin America, & Africa.] . . . Most tragic of all was the plight of the inhabitants of the African continent, divided against one another by artificial boundaries created through cynical bargains among European powers. It has been estimated that during the first decade of the twentieth century over a million people in the Congo perished – starved, beaten, worked literally to death for the profit of their distant masters, a preview of the fate that was to engulf well over one hundred million of their fellow human beings across Europe and Asia before the century reached its end.

These masses of humankind, despoiled and scorned – but representing most of the earth’s inhabitants – were seen not as protagonists but essentially as objects of the new century’s much vaunted civilising process. Despite benefits conferred on a minority among them, the colonial peoples existed chiefly to be acted upon – to be used, trained, exploited, Christianised, civilised, mobilised . . . . To a large extent, religious and political pieties of various kinds masked both ends and means from the publics in Western lands, who were thus able to derive moral satisfaction from the blessings their nations were assumed to be conferring on less worthy peoples, while themselves enjoying the material fruits of this benevolence.

Additional Information:

In his book The Bottom Billion (2007) Paul Collier explains there are at least 58 countries worldwide trapped in poverty, as a result of factors such as incessant conflict or bad governance. The total population of these countries at that time was 980 million people, seventy per cent of whom live in Africa.

In addition we can factor in the abuse of children in various ways (Universal House of Justice: Ridván 2000):

Our children . . . . should not be left to drift in a world so laden with moral dangers. In the current state of society, children face a cruel fate.

  • Millions and millions in country after country are dislocated socially.
  • Children find themselves alienated by parents and other adults whether they live in conditions of wealth or poverty.
  • This alienation has its roots in a selfishness that is born of materialism that is at the core of the godlessness seizing the hearts of people everywhere.
  • The social dislocation of children is in our time a sure mark of a society in decline; this condition is not, however, confined to any race, class, nation or economic condition – it cuts across them all.

It grieves our hearts to realise that in so many parts of the world children are

  • employed as soldiers,
  • exploited as labourers,
  • sold into virtual slavery,
  • forced into prostitution,
  • made objects of pornography,
  • abandoned by parents centred on their own desires, and
  • subjected to other forms of victimisation too numerous to mention.

Many such horrors are inflicted by parents themselves upon their own children. The spiritual and psychological damage defies estimation.

Additional Information from ten years ago:

26,575 children die every single day. Of the 62 countries making no progress or insufficient progress towards the Millennium Development Goal on child survival, nearly 75 per cent are in Africa. In some countries in southern Africa, the prevalence of HIV and AIDS has reversed previously recorded declines in child mortality. Achieving the goal in these countries will require a concerted effort. Reaching the target means reducing the number of child deaths from 9.7 million in 2006 to around 4 million by 2015. Accomplishing this will require accelerated action on multiple fronts: reducing poverty and hunger (MDG 1), improving maternal health (MDG 5), combating HIV and AIDS, malaria and other major diseases (MDG 6), increasing the usage of improved water and sanitation (MDG 7) and providing affordable essential drugs on a sustainable basis (MDG 8). It will also require a re-examination of strategies to reach the poorest, most marginalized communities.

Trafficking in children is a global problem affecting large numbers of children. Some estimates have as many as 1.2 million children being trafficked every year. There is a demand for trafficked children as cheap labour or for sexual exploitation. Children and their families are often unaware of the dangers of trafficking, believing that better employment and lives lie in other countries. Most child casualties are civilians. But one of the most deplorable developments in recent years has been the increasing use of young children as soldiers. In one sense, this is not really new. For centuries children have been involved in military campaigns—as child ratings on warships, or as drummer boys on the battlefields of Europe. Indeed the word ‘infantry’, for foot-soldiers, can also mean a group of young people. What is frightening nowadays is the escalation in the use of children as fighters. Recently, in 25 countries, thousands of children under the age of 16 have fought in wars. In 1988 alone, they numbered as many as 200,000. And while children might be thought to be the people deserving greatest protection, as soldiers they are often considered the most expendable. During the Iran-Iraq war, child soldiers, for example, were sent out ahead in waves over minefields.

  1. How do you think that we managed to disguise from ourselves the iniquity of what we were doing in all these areas for so long and why has Africa come out of it all so badly?
  2. Have we now moved past that period of exploitation, neglect and abuse, or is it still happening? If it is, why does it persist?
  3. If we have moved on to some degree, how did we do it?
  4. Why is the harm we have been doing to our children a crucially important issue for us to address urgently, probably as urgently as climate change if not more so?
  5. What does all this tell us about the size of the task still ahead, if we are to turn things round completely?

Group Two Task

Materialism

Page 6: Where winds of change did dispel the mists, among the educated classes in Western lands, inherited orthodoxies were all too often replaced by the blight of an aggressive secularism that called into doubt both the spiritual nature of humankind and the authority of moral values themselves. Everywhere, the secularisation of society’s upper levels seemed to go hand in hand with a pervasive religious obscurantism among the general population.

Page 89: Fathered by nineteenth century European thought, acquiring enormous influence through the achievements of American capitalist culture, and endowed by Marxism with the counterfeit credibility peculiar to that system, materialism emerged full-blown in the second half of the twentieth century as a kind of universal religion claiming absolute authority in both the personal and social life of humankind. Its creed was simplicity itself. Reality – including human reality and the process by which it evolves – is essentially material in nature. The goal of human life is, or ought to be, the satisfaction of material needs and wants. Society exists to facilitate this quest, and the collective concern of humankind should be an ongoing refinement of the system, aimed at rendering it ever more efficient in carrying out its assigned task.

Page 135: There has not been a society in the history of the world, no matter how pragmatic, experimentalist and multiform it may have been, that did not derive its thrust from some foundational interpretation of reality. Such a system of thought reigns today virtually unchallenged across the planet, under the nominal designation “Western civilisation”. Philosophically and politically, it presents itself as a kind of liberal relativism; economically and socially, as capitalism – two value systems that have now so adjusted to each other and become so mutually reinforcing as to constitute virtually a single, comprehensive world-view.

Appreciation of the benefits – in terms of the personal freedom, social prosperity and scientific progress enjoyed by a significant minority of the Earth’s people – cannot withhold a thinking person from recognizing that the system is morally and intellectually bankrupt. It has contributed its best to the advancement of civilisation, as did all its predecessors, and, like them, is impotent to deal with the needs of a world never imagined by the eighteenth century prophets who conceived most of its component elements. Shoghi Effendi did not limit his attention to divine right monarchies, established churches or totalitarian ideologies when he posed the searching question: “Why should these, in a world subject to the immutable law of change and decay, be exempt from the deterioration that must needs overtake every human institution?”

Page 136: Tragically, what Bahá’ís see in present-day society is unbridled exploitation of the masses of humanity by greed that excuses itself as the operation of “impersonal market forces“. What meets their eyes everywhere is the destruction of moral foundations vital to humanity’s future, through gross self-indulgence masquerading as “freedom of speech”. What they find themselves struggling against daily is the pressure of a dogmatic materialism, claiming to be the voice of “science“, that seeks systematically to exclude from intellectual life all impulses arising from the spiritual level of human consciousness.

These are key paragraphs for us to understand thoroughly if we are to grasp the importance and true nature of a more spiritual path forward.

Blake Newton

Additional Information:

From A Compilation on Scholarship: Baha’i Reference Library):

Just as there is a fundamental difference between divine Revelation itself and the understanding that believers have of it, so also there is a basic distinction between scientific fact and reasoning on the one hand and the conclusions or theories of scientists on the other. There is, and can be, no conflict between true religion and true science: true religion is revealed by God, while it is through true science that the mind of man “discovers the realities of things and becomes cognizant of their peculiarities and effects, and of the qualities and properties of beings” and “comprehendeth the abstract by the aid of the concrete”. However, whenever a statement is made through the lens of human understanding it is thereby limited, for human understanding is limited; and where there is limitation there is the possibility of error; and where there is error, conflicts can arise.

Medina, in his book Faith, Physics & Psychology, explains that he sees the current worldview as destructively rooted in the thinking of Descartes and Newton. He refers to it throughout as the ‘Cartesian-Newtonian worldview.’ Descartes split mind from body, which he considered to be a machine. He considered that all true understanding derived from analysis (splitting into components) and logic. Add to this Newton’s determinism (we can predict anything from our knowledge both of its starting state and the operation of immutable universal laws) and, in Medina’s view, we have the current, in his view pernicious, Cartesian-Newtonian worldview (page 14):

. . . . this classical science worldview is based on a mechanistic view of human beings and the universe that alienates human beings from their spiritual, moral, and emotional faculties. It has divided the world into mutually exclusive opposing forces: the dichotomies of science versus religion, reason versus faith, logic versus intuition, natural versus supernatural, material versus spiritual, and secular versus sacred. The result is a materialistic worldview that emphasises the truth of science, reason, logic, the natural, the material, and the secular while ignoring or even denigrating the truth of religion, faith, intuition, the supernatural, the spiritual, and the sacred.

Medina goes on to unpack what for him at least are the limitations of ‘secular spirituality’ which (page 94) ‘do not necessarily promote an altruistic social ethic or a desire on the part of individuals to improve society for the benefit of all.’ He includes ‘religious fundamentalism’ (page 95-96) under this umbrella ‘because it represents an attempt to use religion as a vehicle to fulfil worldly desires for leadership or power or as a justification for ungodly acts such as forced conversion of pagans or warfare against infidels.’

He goes on to state that our version of Christianity has contributed to the problems the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview creates (page 129) as a result of its concept of ‘an all-transcendent God Who is essentially divorced from the cursed natural world.’ He concludes (pages 129-30):

It is my belief that an extremist form of Christian theism actually worked hand-in-hand with the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview to promulgate a false sense of separation between the spiritual and the material and between the sacred and the secular.

It is important to stress that he is not criticising the true essence of Christianity here, simply some of its more extreme distortions with their destructive consequences.

For those interested in a more mainstream Christian take on the matter see God, Humanity & the Cosmos (Southgate et al: pages 95-98): they too conclude that a mechanical view of the world prevailed as a result of the success of this Descartes/Newton fusion, and this then negatively affected economics and political theory as well as religion and our view of ourselves. 

  1. Why do we think secularism and religious obscurantism might go hand in hand in the way described here?
  2. What are the achievements of American capitalism and what makes them so persuasive given the damage the system seems to be causing?
  3. How can materialism, dogmatic or otherwise, be effectively a religion? What are the parallels?
  4. What is ‘liberal relativism’ and how has it been fostered by a materialist world view? How does this philosophical and moral approach make such a perfect marriage with capitalism? Do we agree that this arrangement is bankrupt?
  5. Are market forces not really impersonal?
  6. Are science and materialism not really in tune?

Report Back: One member of each group explains their conclusions and what they have learnt. Their group members can join in to field whatever questions and comments come their way.

Compensating Accomplishments

Pages 4-5: To point out the failings of a great civilisation is not to deny its accomplishments. As the twentieth century opened, the peoples of the West could take justifiable pride in the technological, scientific and philosophical developments for which their societies had been responsible. . . . . A continuous process of discovery, design and improvement was making accessible power of unimaginable magnitude – with, alas, ecological consequences equally unimagined at the time – especially through the use of cheap fuel and electricity.

Page 5: Changes taking place at the deeper level of scientific thought were even more far-reaching in their implications. The nineteenth century had still been held in the grip of the Newtonian view of the world as a vast clockwork system, but by the end of the century the intellectual strides necessary to challenge that view had already been taken. New ideas were emerging that would lead to the formulation of quantum mechanics; and before long the revolutionising effect of the theory of relativity would call into question beliefs about the phenomenal world that had been accepted as common sense for centuries.

  1. How do we feel about the advantages they quote? Why aren’t they enough to turn our society round and avert the crisis towards which we seem to be hurtling?
  2. In what ways do we think new scientific paradigms may have changed our perspective on reality?

Where now?

. . . . . As the twentieth century opened, Western civilisation was reaping the fruits of a philosophical culture that was rapidly liberating the energies of its populations, and whose influence would soon produce a revolutionary impact throughout the entire world.

More on all this next time.

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The Great Chain of Being

If we say religion is opposed to science, we lack knowledge of either true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test.

( ‘Abdu’l-BaháPromulgation of Universal Peace –page 107)

In the light of Roger’s recent comment I thought I should in fairness republish my sequence of posts explaining the value of Wilber’s book The Marriage of Sense and Soul. This sequence of two posts was first published in 2012 and picks up on aspects of Wilber’s thought to which I resonate more strongly than those in his Theory of Everything.

In the previous post I summarised Ken Wilber‘s take on modernism as expressed in his The Marriage of Sense & Soul. Basically he feels that, although we have gained much by splitting the medieval fusion of instrumental, moral and subjective thinking, we have drained much of our felt life of its meaning by adopting such a purely mechanical model of the world. Part of his search for a way to undo this damage involves revisiting what he feels we have lost.

The Great Chain of Being Broken

On page 61 he picks up the thread:

. . . all interiors were reduced to exteriors. All subjects were reduced to objects; all depth was reduced to surfaces; all I’s and WE’s were reduced to Its; all quality was reduced to quantity; levels of significance were reduced to levels of size; value was reduced to veneer; all translogical and dialogical was reduced to monological. Gone the eye of contemplation and gone the eye of the mind – only data from the eye of the flesh would be accorded primary reality, because only sensory data possessed simple location, here in the desolate world of monochrome flatland.

He goes on to contend that when science discovered that mind and consciousness were anchored in the natural organism i.e. the brain and not disembodied, the Great Chain of Being, the old world view, took a colossal hit from which it never recovered (page 62).

I need to digress one moment to unpack what he sees as an essential aspect of this Great Chain of Being:

In the natural order, earth (rock) is at the bottom of the chain: this element possesses only the attribute of existence. Each link succeeding upward contains the positive attributes of the previous link and adds (at least) one other. Rocks, as above, possess only existence; the next link up, plants, possess life and existence. Animals add not only motion, but appetite as well.

Man is both mortal flesh, as those below him, and also spirit as those above. In this dichotomy, the struggle between flesh and spirit becomes a moral one. The way of the spirit is higher, more noble; it brings one closer to God. The desires of the flesh move one away from God.

This should have a familiar ring to it for anyone with a spiritual view of the world. It certainly has for Bahá’ís. There are many quotations I could choose from to illustrate this but the passage below is particularly appropriate in the context of this discussion where science and spirit have come to seem at war:

If we look with a perceiving eye upon the world of creation, we find that all existing things may be classified as follows: First—Mineral—that is to say matter or substance appearing in various forms of composition. Second—Vegetable—possessing the virtues of the mineral plus the power of augmentation or growth, indicating a degree higher and more specialized than the mineral. Third—Animal—possessing the attributes of the mineral and vegetable plus the power of sense perception. Fourth—Human—the highest specialized organism of visible creation, embodying the qualities of the mineral, vegetable and animal plus an ideal endowment absolutely minus and absent in the lower kingdoms—the power of intellectual investigation into the mysteries of outer phenomena. The outcome of this intellectual endowment is science which is especially characteristic of man. This scientific power investigates and apprehends created objects and the laws surrounding them. It is the discoverer of the hidden and mysterious secrets of the material universe and is peculiar to man alone. The most noble and praiseworthy accomplishment of man therefore is scientific knowledge and attainment.

( ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Foundations of World Unity – page 48)

The irony, that a capacity, which Bahá’ís see as spiritual in origin, should have been harnessed to a process that has undermined our understanding of the spiritual, will not be lost on anyone reading this post. Wilber makes a subtle but important point on page 70:

Notice the difference between the interior of the individual – such as the mind – and the exterior of the individual – such as the brain. The mind is known by acquaintance; the brain, by objective description.

This contempt for our subjective experience as a source of legitimate data is something he feels we need to overcome. This forms the basis for his more balanced model of empiricism, one that he feels does not fall into the trap of privileging matter over mind.

‘Real’ Science and ‘Real’ Religion

Wilber concludes a complex review of what should constitute evidence and falsifiability by stating (page 169):

. . . it then becomes perfectly obvious that the real battle is not between science which is ‘real,’ and religion, which is ‘bogus,’ but rather between real science and religion, on the one hand, and bogus science and religion, on the other. Both real science and real religion follow the three strands of valid knowledge accumulation, while both bogus science (pseudo-science) and bogus religion (mythic and dogmatic) fail that test miserably. Thus, real science and real religion are actually allied against the bogus and the dogmatic and the nonverifiable and the nonfalsifiable in their respective spheres.

To arrive at this point he has covered ground that it would be impossible to reproduce completely here. I am offering only a selection of the barest bones of his argument. I am aware that this treatment may reduce the power of his case somewhat and can only suggest that, before dismissing it out of hand, anyone put off by my summary should read the original case in full as Wilber puts it. Also I have discussed on this blog Alvin Plantinga’s powerful exposition of a similar argument.

One of Wilber’s most basic points is that science is inconsistent if it claims that all its conclusions are based solely on external evidence.  He admits that science at its best does not claim this. On the contrary it acknowledges that interior processes such as mathematics play a huge part in the construction of its world view. However, it does a sleight of hand when it privileges the interior processes upon which it relies (e.g. mathematics) while ruling out of court those interior processes that it regards as suspicious (e.g. meditation). In Wilber’s view (pages 148-149), if you accept the one you must accept the other.

Give a Little

However, for true progress to be made, in his view, both sides need to give a little (pages 160-161):

We have asked science to do nothing more than expand from narrow empiricism (sensory experience only) to broad empiricism (direct experience in general), which it already does anyway with its own conceptual operations, from logic to mathematics.

But religion, too, must give a little. And in this case, religion must open its truth claims to direct verification – or rejection – by experiential evidence.

He builds further on this (page 169):

. . . . religion’s great, enduring, and unique strength, is that, at its core, it is a science of personal experience (using ‘science’ in the broad sense as direct experience, in any domain, that submits to the three strands of injunction, data, and falsifiability.

By injunction, he means ‘If you want to know, do this.’ This applies in equal measure to using a microscope correctly and to practising mindfulness skilfully. As I have argued elsewhere there are various pragmatic experiential exploration at the command of religions to explore their truths other than simply examining meditation, Wilber’s main focus, or similar purely individual experiences. For example, the Bahá’í Faith is a pragmatic religion – striving to learn how to walk the spiritual path with practical feet. The components of this process are described as study of guidance, consultation, action, reflection along with prayer and meditation on Scripture. This provides a set of interconnected steps to assess how effectively collective action is transforming our communities[1].

From this validation of personal experience Wilber reaches the encouraging conclusion (ibid.):

Thus, if science can surrender its narrow empiricism  . . . . ., and if religion can surrender its bogus mythic claims in favour of authentic spiritual experience (which its founders uniformly did anyway), then suddenly, very suddenly, science and religion begin to look more like fraternal twins than centuries-old enemies.

This he sees as a way of reintegrating what has been for so long so damagingly disconnected. As he puts it towards the end of his book (page 196):

. . . . the crucial point is that sensory-empirical science, although it cannot see into the higher and interior domains on their own terms, can nonetheless register their empirical correlates.

Footnote:

[1] There are those on what are probably the edges still of the scientific community who would already recognise this as a viable method of investigation, one that will enhance both understanding and practice. One example is the model of action research described by Peter Reason.

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If we say religion is opposed to science, we lack knowledge of either true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test.

( ‘Abdu’l-BaháPromulgation of Universal Peace –page 107)

In the light of Roger’s recent comment I thought I should in fairness republish my sequence of posts explaining the value of Wilber’s book The Marriage of Sense and Soul. This sequence of two posts was first published in 2012 and picks up on aspects of Wilber’s thought to which I resonate more strongly than those in his Theory of Everything.

A Windfall

I’ve had a plan for some time that looked like it would never see the light of common day. In the years before I began blogging I had read a number of books that impressed me deeply. I thought what a great idea it would be to blog about them as well, not just about the books I’m reading at the moment. So, I sorted them out onto a shelf for future processing. And they’ve stayed there ever since. Just not enough time in the day to revisit them, refresh my memory and convey my sense of why they are so important.

Then I had a windfall. I discovered that I’d done extensive notes on at least one of the books electronically in early 2001. In this post and one more I’ll attempt to winnow out what I feel now are some of the most telling points I captured at the time from The Marriage of Sense & Soul by Ken Wilber.

The Costs of Splitting

Wilber is concerned about what is also one of my obsessions: the price of modernism and the conflict that exists between religion and science. The Marriage of Sense and Soul is a brilliant attempt to capture the essence of his thinking on this issue in a reasonably accessible form between the covers of a single book. I don’t think he oversimplifies his position as a result.

Wilber acknowledges the dignity of modernity in its liberalism – equality, freedom, justice; representational democracy; political and civil rights:

These values and rights existed nowhere in the premodern world on a large scale, and thus these rights have been quite accurately referred to as the dignity of modernity.

This dignity comes (and he adduces scholars from Weber to Habermas in support of this contention) from the differentiation of art, morals and science; i.e. the beautiful, the good and the true. Each has its own language: I, we and it language (page 50). Because these are differentiated the We can no longer dominate the It. Religious tyranny can no longer dictate to science what is true. Nor can the “we” of the church or state over-ride the rights of individuals (“I”). As we shall shortly see, there is though another trap that a simplistic enthronement of reason has set for us.

It may help to bring in what Pusey and Sloane, in different books, have to say that sheds further light on this crucial set of distinctions.

Michael Pusey I have quoted in a previous post. He explains (page 51) that at the threshold of modernity Jurgen Habermas sees three modes of relating to the world becoming increasingly differentiated: there is first the ‘instrumental’ approach, then the ‘ethical’ perspective and thirdly the ‘aesthetic’ take on reality. These need to be in balance and integrated. We have increasingly privileged the instrumental (ends/means or rational/purposive) at the expense of the other two (moral and expressive). This mode has ‘colonised’ what Habermas calls the ‘lifeworld.’ Discourse from the other two positions plays second fiddle to the ‘instrumental’ (sorry! I couldn’t resist the pun!) This impoverishes the decision-making processes of our public lives. Values and subjectivity are seen as second rate, on no objective basis whatsoever.

Tod Sloan, in his book Damaged Life, quotes Habermas directly in support of his position (page 60):

As the process of modernisation continues, the different modes of rationality tend to become isolated in separate ‘orders of life.’ The resulting divisions present a serious problem to individuals who need to form personal identities capable of integrating several modes of rationality. Habermas writes: “Cognitive-instrumental, moral-practical, and aesthetic-expressive orientations of action ought not to become so independently embodied in antagonistic orders of life that they overcome the personality system’s average capacity for integration and lead to permanent conflicts between lifestyles. (Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action Volume 1, 1984: page 245)

In short, art, morals and science have flown apart and we are bearing the consequences!

Colonising the Life-World

Worse even than that, Wilber forcefully argues, science has invaded the other spheres (page 56):

. . .[T]he I and the WE were colonised by the IT. ..  . . . Full and flush with stunning victories, empirical science became scientism,  the belief that there is no reality save that revealed by science, and no truth save that which science delivers. . . . Consciousness itself, and the mind and heart and soul of humankind, could not be seen with a microscope, a telescope, a cloud chamber, a photographic plate, and so all were pronounced epiphenomenal at best, illusory at worst. . . . . Art and morals and contemplation and spirit were all demolished by the scientific bull in the china shop of consciousness. And that was the disaster of modernity. . . . it was a thoroughly flatland holism. It was not a holism that actually included all the interior realms of the I and the WE (including the eye of contemplation). . . . [I] as the reduction of all of the value spheres to monological Its perceived by the eye of the flesh that, more than anything else, constituted the disaster of modernity.

Trying to turn the clock back is no solution: attempting to regress to some theoretical Golden Age in the past is a dead end. On page 57 he states:

Premodern cultures did not have this disaster precisely because they did not possess the corresponding dignities, either, and thus they cannot serve as role models for the desired integration. The cure for the disaster of modernity is to address the dissociation, not attempt to erase the differentiation!

He ends that chapter with the bleak description:

A cold and uncaring wind, monological in its method and calculated in its madness, blew across a flat and faded landscape, the landscape that now contains, as tiny specks in the corner, the faces of you and me.

We’re on familiar territory here. McGilchrist has more recently addressed it in terms of getting a better balance between left and right brain functioning. Sheldrake is fighting to get science to put down the blunderbuss of materialism in favour of a less reductionist more holistic approach. What is Wilber’s answer? That’s what the second post will be about.

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