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Posts Tagged ‘The Master and his Emissary’

ParaPSYConf

My most recent sequence of new posts concerns itself with the power of the subliminal. It therefore seemed reasonable to republish this short sequence from early last year. The second part comes out tomorrow.

Recently Sharon Rawlette left a comment on my blog in response to a link I posted about Emma Seppälä’s book The Happiness Track. We hadn’t exchanged comments for quite some time so I checked out her blog again and was reminded of a piece she’d posted in 2014 titled Evidence for Telepathy in an Autistic Savant about the work of Diane Powell.

This prompted me to see how her work had progressed since then.

In a video posted on her website Diane Powell deals in passing with the notion that autistic savants and others with brain damage illustrate how impaired cortical functioning can seem to give direct access to deep level answers to complex problems/experiences within the mathematical, musical or linguistic fields, with no possibility of calculation involved.

She argues, in the light of this kind of evidence, that the higher cortical functioning on which we pride ourselves seems to be an obstacle between our surface consciousness and its deepest levels.

This really set me thinking. So much so that when I was on one of my brisk daily walks I found myself wondering whether one of Bahá’u’lláh’s prayers that I recite every day contained a phrase I still did not fully understand. There are many such phrases, by the way, but this one resonated particularly strongly right then for some reason.

Bahá’u’lláh writes that in this day, for far too many of us, our ‘superstitions’ have become ‘veils’ between us and or ‘own hearts.’ In the same passage He also uses the possibly even stronger word ‘delusion’ to describe the path along which we walk.

When I first became a Bahá’í and read Bahá’u’lláh’s use of the word ‘superstition’ in this context I interpreted it simply to mean hopelessly primitive religious beliefs. With time and terrorism it became clear that I needed to add fanatical fundamentalisms into the mix. I wasn’t too phased either by the idea that such destructive beliefs bordered on the delusional, as even then I regarded delusions as part of a continuum along which we all are placed.

However, as someone trained in psychology, an essentially religio-sceptical discipline, it took somewhat longer for me fully to accept that scientism was right there with the rest as a front-line superstition, possibly even delusional when held with an intensity sufficient to achieve total impenetrability to all contradictory evidence, no matter how strong. This felt far too close to home but I had to accept the possibility nonetheless: the case in its favour was much too strong to ignore.

Since then, I’ve written a great deal over the years on this topic, both arguing that bad science is built on bad faith and also that our heads block us from hearing what our heart has to say. Most of us, most of the time, are blind to both these realities, and happy to be so as what we believe seems not only obvious common sense but also indisputably useful. Not only that but to doubt science and listen to our hearts looks like a soft-centred prescription for disaster, likely to plunge us back into the Middle Ages, ignoring the fact that some parts of the world never left there, and more disturbingly other parts have been only too eager to return there ahead of us already, hoping to drag us back with them eventually. The second group completed the regression so swiftly and effectively largely by allowing their head to agree with their gut and ignoring their heart completely. And, just for the record, to add credibility to my suspicions, people of a so-called scientific bent are surprisingly well-represented among the ranks of ISIS, but students of the arts and social sciences seem not to be so gullible. But that’s another story.

This conventional wisdom is unfortunately delusional and based on a fundamental if not fundamentalist misunderstanding of what true science is, of how it is in harmony with true religion, and also of what the limitations of instinctive and intellectual cognitive processes are and how necessary it is to balance them with more holistic levels of processing. I am not going to rehash here all I have said elsewhere: I’ll simply signpost the thinking and the evidence to support what, in my view, is this saner view of things.

Master and EmissaryReasons to doubt Materialistic Dogma

Two of the most impressive bodies of evidence I came across of this necessary shift in perspective were, first, Iain McGilchrist’s masterpiece The Master & his Emissary, and second Irreducible Mind by the Kellys.

The conclusion McGilchrist reaches, that most matters to me when we look at our western society, is on pages 228-229:

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.

Irreducible MindThe Kellys take the critique even further.

For them, the so-called science of psychology is still, for the most part, pursuing the Holy Grail of a complete materialistic explanation for every aspect of consciousness and the working of the mind. It’s obviously all in the brain, isn’t it (page xx)?

The empirical connection between mind and brain seems to most observers to be growing ever tighter and more detailed as our scientific understanding of the brain advances. In light of the successes already in hand, it may not seem unreasonable to assume as a working hypothesis that this process can continue indefinitely without encountering any insuperable obstacles, and that properties of minds will ultimately be fully explained by those brains. For most contemporary scientists, however, this useful working hypothesis has become something more like an established fact, or even an unquestionable axiom.

This is a dogma and as such can only be protected by ignoring or discounting as invalid all evidence that points in a different direction.

The Irreducible Mind points up very clearly how psychology must at some point bring this aspect of reality into its approach. Referring amongst other things to psi phenomena, Edward Kelly writes (page xxviii):

These phenomena we catalogue here are important precisely because they challenge so strongly the current scientific consensus; in accordance with Wind’s principle, they not only invite but should command the attention of anyone seriously interested in the mind.

The prevailing attitude of course in many cases goes far beyond methodological naturalism into the strongest possible form of it (op.cit. page xxvii):

Most critics implicitly – and some, like Hansel, explicitly – take the view that psi phenomena are somehow known a priori to be impossible. In that case one is free to invent any scenario, no matter how far-fetched, to explain away ostensible evidence of psi.

When you look at the evidence dispassionately, rather than from a dogmatic commitment to the idea that matter explains everything, the mind-brain data throws up a tough problem. Most of us come to think that if you damage the brain you damage the mind because all the evidence we hear about points that way. We are not generally presented with any other model or any of the evidence that might call conventional wisdom into question, at least not by the elder statesmen of the scientific community. There are such models though, as Emily Kelly suggests (page 73):

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

Pim van Lommel

Pim van Lommel

Others are of course now following where they marked out the ground but we have had to wait a long time for people like van Lommel to show up in his book Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience with all the perplexities and puzzles of modern physics to draw upon as well as carefully investigated specific examples of Near Death Experiences (page 177):

It is now becoming increasingly clear that brain activity in itself cannot explain consciousness. . . . . Composed of “unconscious building blocks,” the brain is certainly capable of facilitating consciousness. But does the brain actually “produce” our consciousness?

The imagery Lommel uses in his introduction is slightly different from that of Myers, a 19th Century pioneer of this perspective – “The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness” – but the point is essentially the same. In fact it is remarkable how close the correspondence is. This is Myers’s view as Emily Kelly expresses it (Irreducible Mind – page 78):

Our ordinary waking consciousness corresponds only to that small segment of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the naked eye (and varies species to species); but just as the electromagnetic spectrum extends in either direction far beyond the small portion normally visible, so human consciousness extends in either direction beyond the small portion of which we are ordinarily aware. In the ‘infrared’ region of consciousness are older, more primitive processes – processes that are unconscious, automatic, and primarily physiological. Thus, ‘at the red end (so to say) consciousness disappears among the organic processes’ (Myers, 1894-1895). Sleep, for example, and its associated psychophysiological processes are an important manifestation of an older, more primitive state. In contrast, in the ‘ultraviolet’ region of the spectrum are all those mental capacities that the remain latent because they have not yet emerged at a supraliminal level through adaptive evolutionary processes. . . . . Such latent, ‘ultraviolet’ capacities include telepathy, the inspirations of creative genius, mystical perceptions, and other such phenomena that occasionally emerge.

I recognize that it may not be enough though to adduce evidence, which satisfies me, to support the idea of a non-material reality ignored by the mainstream because of a bias in science that discounts it. I need also to have some sound reasons for my claim that there is a valid distinction to be made between a good science, prepared to accept the possibility of transpersonal explanations, and a bad science, dogmatically committed to ruling any such explanation of experience out of count on the a priori grounds that it couldn’t possibly exist no matter what evidence was brought forward in support of it.

That’s where we’re going next.

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Pilgrim’s Progress

Remember the saying: `Of all pilgrimages the greatest is to relieve the sorrow-laden heart.’

(‘Abdu’l-BaháSelections 52)

‘Who is my neighbour? My neighbour is all mankind.”

(Seamus Heaney: The Spirit Level,  page 28)

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing this post and a sequence on The Cultural Creatives by Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson.

For those who might have been holding their breath since my last post on the subject, I did in the end manage to finish Jonathan Stedall‘s Where on Earth is Heaven?

The last chapter was particularly resonant. It looks at how gloomily the world is portrayed in the news and seeks to redress the balance. He believes our ‘capacity for empathy is stirring’ (page 532). He refers to books that I feel I will be buying in due time.

Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken is the first one. He sees the current burgeoning of a network of non-profit organisations as ‘humanity’s immune response to toxins like political corruption, economic disease, and ecological degradation’ (ibid.) He quotes, on the same page, Bill McKibben‘s comment on the book:

The movers and shakers on our planet aren’t the billionaires and the generals – they are the incredible numbers of people around the world filled with love for neighbour and for the earth who are resisting, remaking, restoring, renewing, revitalising.

He refers (page 535) to an equally interesting book – The Cultural Creatives by Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson (see an earlier sequence). He describes cultural creatives (page 536) as sharing ‘what are often described as feminine values in relation to family life, education, relationships, responsibilities and caring in general.’ They constitute, in the view of the authors, about 25% of the population they studied.

What is currently lacking, he feels, is a way for such people to combine their energies together without compromising their creativity.

I’ll resist the temptation to expand on how much this, for me, is uncannily in synch with the ideals and developing practices of the Bahá’í community. Posts dealing with this are to be found throughout this blog. In this vein, though, Stedall also speaks of a zeitgeist that may be helping us shift in this direction, and, in a fascinating parenthesis, suggests that this effect would be more powerful ‘if the zeitgeist is an actual being and not an abstract concept’ (page 534). And in the end there is a quote (page 357) that could almost have come from a Bahá’í pen:

Today many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself – while something else, still indistinct, were rising from the rubble.

(Václav Havel: 1984)

If we look for them we can find examples, not just of the downside of our predicament, but of the uplifting aspect as well.

Examples of the morally blind side of our nature can carry the seeds of the more positive vision, of course. An example of that is a hit of the moment – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I don’t think I am wrenching the implications of its exploration of the blind side completely out of shape by saying that it is a compelling study of where absence of empathy and compassion can take us. It is powerful and effective, if a touch melodramatic in places.

There are also many places where we find a sense of positive potential which does not shirk the reality of the darkness. Blind Side is a good example, a film based on real events. It illustrates perhaps one of the best ways of protecting ourselves against the worst effects of our blind side.

If The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo managed to avoid the worst excesses of melodrama (I’m not quite sure where to place the savagery of the rape scene in this: in terms of the film’s moral balancing act, it triggers the ‘girl’s’ revenge while, at the same time, helping us empathise with her rage: I felt manipulated emotionally though), Blind Side is only tinged and not spoilt by the occasional hint of sentimentality. It shows us the power of empathy and how much it can accomplish in the hands of people flawed in many ways as we all are. Our flaws are not a reason to evade this challenge.

And so, finishing Jonathan Stedall’s book, after a few other detours into film, has brought me back to a book I set aside many months ago – another book that inspired and irritated me in about equal measure. This book is Jeremy Rifkin‘s The Empathic Civilization which I think I will now attempt to read right to the end. Where I left off (pages 314-315) he is beginning to tackle the duality Iain McGilchrist explored from the point of view of brain structure:

When it comes to consciousness itself, one is struck by the fact that the human being is both a feeling and thinking animal [I’d prefer the word ‘being’ but there you go – that’s what makes reading Rifkin a bit of a switchback]. Therefore, one of the critical questions in the modern era has been which of the two – feeling or thinking – is the most relevant to understanding ‘human nature”?

How could I possibly resist another bite at this cherry?

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ParaPSYConf

Recently Sharon Rawlette left a comment on my blog in response to a link I posted about Emma Seppälä’s book The Happiness Track. We hadn’t exchanged comments for quite some time so I checked out her blog again and was reminded of a piece she’d posted in 2014 titled Evidence for Telepathy in an Autistic Savant about the work of Diane Powell.

This prompted me to see how her work had progressed since then.

In a video posted on her website Diane Powell deals in passing with the notion that autistic savants and others with brain damage illustrate how impaired cortical functioning can seem to give direct access to deep level answers to complex problems/experiences within the mathematical, musical or linguistic fields, with no possibility of calculation involved.

She argues, in the light of this kind of evidence, that the higher cortical functioning on which we pride ourselves seems to be an obstacle between our surface consciousness and its deepest levels.

This really set me thinking. So much so that when I was on one of my brisk daily walks I found myself wondering whether one of Bahá’u’lláh’s prayers that I recite every day contained a phrase I still did not fully understand. There are many such phrases, by the way, but this one resonated particularly strongly right then for some reason.

Bahá’u’lláh writes that in this day, for far too many of us, our ‘superstitions’ have become ‘veils’ between us and or ‘own hearts.’ In the same passage He also uses the possibly even stronger word ‘delusion’ to describe the path along which we walk.

When I first became a Bahá’í and read Bahá’u’lláh’s use of the word ‘superstition’ in this context I interpreted it simply to mean hopelessly primitive religious beliefs. With time and terrorism it became clear that I needed to add fanatical fundamentalisms into the mix. I wasn’t too phased either by the idea that such destructive beliefs bordered on the delusional, as even then I regarded delusions as part of a continuum along which we all are placed.

However, as someone trained in psychology, an essentially religio-sceptical discipline, it took somewhat longer for me fully to accept that scientism was right there with the rest as a front-line superstition, possibly even delusional when held with an intensity sufficient to achieve total impenetrability to all contradictory evidence, no matter how strong. This felt far too close to home but I had to accept the possibility nonetheless: the case in its favour was much too strong to ignore.

Since then, I’ve written a great deal over the years on this topic, both arguing that bad science is built on bad faith and also that our heads block us from hearing what our heart has to say. Most of us, most of the time, are blind to both these realities, and happy to be so as what we believe seems not only obvious common sense but also indisputably useful. Not only that but to doubt science and listen to our hearts looks like a soft-centred prescription for disaster, likely to plunge us back into the Middle Ages, ignoring the fact that some parts of the world never left there, and more disturbingly other parts have been only too eager to return there ahead of us already, hoping to drag us back with them eventually. The second group completed the regression so swiftly and effectively largely by allowing their head to agree with their gut and ignoring their heart completely. And, just for the record, to add credibility to my suspicions, people of a so-called scientific bent are surprisingly well-represented among the ranks of ISIS, but students of the arts and social sciences seem not to be so gullible. But that’s another story.

This conventional wisdom is unfortunately delusional and based on a fundamental if not fundamentalist misunderstanding of what true science is, of how it is in harmony with true religion, and also of what the limitations of instinctive and intellectual cognitive processes are and how necessary it is to balance them with more holistic levels of processing. I am not going to rehash here all I have said elsewhere: I’ll simply signpost the thinking and the evidence to support what, in my view, is this saner view of things.

Master and EmissaryReasons to doubt Materialistic Dogma

Two of the most impressive bodies of evidence I came across of this necessary shift in perspective were, first, Iain McGilchrist’s masterpiece The Master & his Emissary, and second Irreducible Mind by the Kellys.

The conclusion McGilchrist reaches, that most matters to me when we look at our western society, is on pages 228-229:

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.

Irreducible MindThe Kellys take the critique even further.

For them, the so-called science of psychology is still, for the most part, pursuing the Holy Grail of a complete materialistic explanation for every aspect of consciousness and the working of the mind. It’s obviously all in the brain, isn’t it (page xx)?

The empirical connection between mind and brain seems to most observers to be growing ever tighter and more detailed as our scientific understanding of the brain advances. In light of the successes already in hand, it may not seem unreasonable to assume as a working hypothesis that this process can continue indefinitely without encountering any insuperable obstacles, and that properties of minds will ultimately be fully explained by those brains. For most contemporary scientists, however, this useful working hypothesis has become something more like an established fact, or even an unquestionable axiom.

This is a dogma and as such can only be protected by ignoring or discounting as invalid all evidence that points in a different direction.

The Irreducible Mind points up very clearly how psychology must at some point bring this aspect of reality into its approach. Referring amongst other things to psi phenomena, Edward Kelly writes (page xxviii):

These phenomena we catalogue here are important precisely because they challenge so strongly the current scientific consensus; in accordance with Wind’s principle, they not only invite but should command the attention of anyone seriously interested in the mind.

The prevailing attitude of course in many cases goes far beyond methodological naturalism into the strongest possible form of it (op.cit. page xxvii):

Most critics implicitly – and some, like Hansel, explicitly – take the view that psi phenomena are somehow known a priori to be impossible. In that case one is free to invent any scenario, no matter how far-fetched, to explain away ostensible evidence of psi.

When you look at the evidence dispassionately, rather than from a dogmatic commitment to the idea that matter explains everything, the mind-brain data throws up a tough problem. Most of us come to think that if you damage the brain you damage the mind because all the evidence we hear about points that way. We are not generally presented with any other model or any of the evidence that might call conventional wisdom into question, at least not by the elder statesmen of the scientific community. There are such models though, as Emily Kelly suggests (page 73):

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

Pim van Lommel

Pim van Lommel

Others are of course now following where they marked out the ground but we have had to wait a long time for people like van Lommel to show up in his book Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience with all the perplexities and puzzles of modern physics to draw upon as well as carefully investigated specific examples of Near Death Experiences (page 177):

It is now becoming increasingly clear that brain activity in itself cannot explain consciousness. . . . . Composed of “unconscious building blocks,” the brain is certainly capable of facilitating consciousness. But does the brain actually “produce” our consciousness?

The imagery Lommel uses in his introduction is slightly different from that of Myers, a 19th Century pioneer of this perspective – “The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness” – but the point is essentially the same. In fact it is remarkable how close the correspondence is. This is Myers’s view as Emily Kelly expresses it (Irreducible Mind – page 78):

Our ordinary waking consciousness corresponds only to that small segment of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the naked eye (and varies species to species); but just as the electromagnetic spectrum extends in either direction far beyond the small portion normally visible, so human consciousness extends in either direction beyond the small portion of which we are ordinarily aware. In the ‘infrared’ region of consciousness are older, more primitive processes – processes that are unconscious, automatic, and primarily physiological. Thus, ‘at the red end (so to say) consciousness disappears among the organic processes’ (Myers, 1894-1895). Sleep, for example, and its associated psychophysiological processes are an important manifestation of an older, more primitive state. In contrast, in the ‘ultraviolet’ region of the spectrum are all those mental capacities that the remain latent because they have not yet emerged at a supraliminal level through adaptive evolutionary processes. . . . . Such latent, ‘ultraviolet’ capacities include telepathy, the inspirations of creative genius, mystical perceptions, and other such phenomena that occasionally emerge.

I recognize that it may not be enough though to adduce evidence, which satisfies me, to support the idea of a non-material reality ignored by the mainstream because of a bias in science that discounts it. I need also to have some sound reasons for my claim that there is a valid distinction to be made between a good science, prepared to accept the possibility of transpersonal explanations, and a bad science, dogmatically committed to ruling any such explanation of experience out of count on the a priori grounds that it couldn’t possibly exist no matter what evidence was brought forward in support of it.

That’s where we’re going next.

Read Full Post »

'Perspicacity' by René Magritte (adapted from 'Magritte' in the Taschen Edition

‘Perspicacity’ by René Magritte (adapted from Magritte by Marcel Paquet  in the Taschen Edition)

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

John Keats – Ode on a Grecian Urn

Now that I have finished my sequence of posts on Vincent van Gogh, and especially as the last post in the sequence was dealing with his mental health and the relationship that had with his art, it seemed appropriate to republish my three posts on genius from the past. They were all published in the middle of last year. The first was a stand alone: these two are a pair. This time I’m posting them on consecutive days, the first yesterday and the last tomorrow.

Having now finished my first complete reading of Irreducible Mind, I would like to tackle, in two stages, the subject of genius as the book presents Myers’s version.

The first stage is to look at why we should believe something special is going on, and the second stage will be to look at why we might entertain the idea that the work of genius comes from a transcendent process. It is in this second part that I will return to at least some of the evolutionary implications that an earlier post touched upon.

The Trap of Methodolatry

The first key issue to note is that the reduction of genius to creativity is in danger of missing the point (page 425):

[T]he study of the real thing – “genius” – has largely degenerated in modern times into the study of diluted cognates such as “creativity” or even “talent” which happen to be relatively accessible to the more “objective” means of investigation currently favoured by most investigators.

A brief quote from a recent book should serve to illustrate what they are saying. Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin, in their treatment of the issue in Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation, define creativity as they see it (page 4):

In human behaviour, creativity refers broadly to generating new ideas, whereas innovation refers to changing the way in which things are done. Creativity is displayed when an individual develops a novel form of behavior or a novel idea, regardless of its practical uptake and subsequent application. Innovation means implementing a novel form of behaviour or an idea in order to obtain a practical benefit which is then adopted by others.

It is immediately apparent that this is a long way short of what Myers is speaking about when he refers to genius (page 426):

In Human Personality vol 1, page 71, he writes of genius as: A power of appropriating the results of subliminal mentation to subserve the supraliminal stream of thought. . . . . [Inspiration] will be in truth a subliminal uprush, an emergence into the current of ideas which the man is consciously manipulating of other ideas which he has not consciously originated, but which have shaped themselves beyond his will, in profounder regions of his being.

It is in the expression ‘profounder regions of his being’ that the main contentious issue resides. At this stage we are only concerned with providing reasons to accept that genius is something special, not easily reducible to common or garden conscious processes. The next post will deal with the more difficult step.

Theories prevalent in the early years of the last century provide non-transcendent ways of addressing this which are, the authors argue, widely accepted in general terms (page 428):

Original formulation of a four phase model Graham Wallas (1926) – more fully developed version Eliot Dole Hutchinson (1931: 1939). The stages are:

  1. preparation;
  2. incubation;
  3. illumination; and
  4. verification.

Briefly, preparation refers primarily to the initial stages of intense voluntary effort on a particular work or problem. . . . . If this initial effort fails, the work or problem may temporarily be put aside in frustration, this being the stage of incubation… in which conscious effort seems to be largely or wholly absent. Something more than simple rest or dissipation of inhibitions seems to be involved during the incubation period, for then comes illumination, inspiration, or insight, in which radically new ideas intrude into consciousness, often suddenly, copiously, and with strong accompanying affect. This leads to a further stage of voluntary effort, verification, in which the new material may be evaluated, elaborated, and worked into the structure of the evolving product.

Edward Kelly and Michael Grosso, the authors of this chapter, acknowledge that this is not a strict sequence and there may be overlaps and recursions. A creative friend in a Facebook post also mentions the idea of a fallow period where nothing much seems to be going on while the soil recovers. He implies this is not the same as incubation, more a period where nothing has been primed so no seeds are germinating.

There are the obstinate few who do not accept this model in any form and wish to ‘deny that genius ever depends upon or utilises any special sort of “unconscious” work’ (ibid.):

Nothing more is involved, on this view, then unusually tenacious, discipline, and incremental application of cognitive processes of the ordinary sort.

haroldbloom

Harold Bloom (for source of image see link)

The evidence in support of the dissenters has for the most part been generated in the laboratory where (pages 428-29) ‘incubation and illumination cannot readily and reliably be evoked.”

They come to the crunch, barely concealing their contempt for this dismissive line of argument which also infects ‘literary scholars’ it seems (page 429):

[W]ith all due respect, this “nothing-special” view of genius seems to us a particularly egregious example of “methodolatry” . . . . The unwillingness of many modern literary scholars to confront genius in its full-blown phenomenological reality has recently provoked Harold Bloom (2002) to castigate them as “cultural levellers, quite immune from awe,” and in our view that judgement applies equally here.

The Roots of Genius in the Unconscious

In the end, then, I am with them in feeling that much of significance in the process of creating works of genius proceeds unconsciously. This could of course lead to another form of debasing reductionism. The Freudian distinction between Primary (pre-verbal, dreamlike) and Secondary (rational, verbal) Processes is a case in point but they feel it does not meet the challenges involved (page 458):

Primary process is no longer conceived as rigidly distinct from and opposed to secondary process, or as a mere slave of the Freudian unconscious – that boiling cesspool of primitive sexual and aggressive urges. Rather, it represents a distinctive mode of cognition existing alongside secondary process, complementary to and interactive with it, and potentially available in service of creative activities.

It is tempting here to delve back into McGilchrist’s exploration of the two hemispheres of the brain. Instead, to point up the possibilities of this, I’ll restrict myself to a short quote and a link back to my review of his book (page 203):

There is, in summary, then, a force for individuation (left hemisphere) and a force for coherence (right hemisphere): but, where the whole is not the same as the sum of its parts, the force for individuation exists within and subject to the force of coherence. In this sense the ‘givens’ of the left hemisphere need to be once again ‘given up’ to be reunified through the operations of the right hemisphere. . . . [T]he rational workings of the left hemisphere . . . should be subject to the intuitive wisdom of the right hemisphere.

Nor are we to suppose that genius is merely a whisker away from insanity, an idea that the 19th Century thinkers often toyed with (page 459):

“Inspiration – the ‘divine release from the ordinary ways of man,’ a state of ‘creative madness’ (Plato), in which the ego controls the primary process and puts it into its service – need to be contrasted with the opposite, the psychotic condition, in which the ego is overwhelmed by the primary process.”

Myers had little patience with those in the 19th Century who conflated genius and madness and subscribed to a ‘degeneracy’ theory. However, he did manage to sift some flecks of truth from its silt (page 471):

… [G]enius and madness share, as an essential common feature, an unusual openness to the subliminal. . . . . [However] genius masters its subliminal uprushes. [Those who succumb to them lose their mental balance.] Genius is not degenerate but “progenerative,” reflecting increased strength and concentration of inward unifying control and increased utilisation of subliminal forms of mentation in service of supraliminal purpose. Indeed, in its highest developments genius represents the truest standard of excellence, and a more appropriate criterion of “normality” than conformity to a statistical average.

I have already looked in more detail at the idea of genius as the norm of the future in a previous post.

William James is even more nuanced (ibid.):

Against any presumption that hallucinations are invariably diagnostic for psychopathology, for example, James pointed to the demonstrations by Myers and his colleagues that waking hallucinations are not uncommon in the lives of otherwise normal persons. Secondly, there are many examples of geniuses, even poetic geniuses, who were paragons of balance and stability. . . . Madness therefore is certainly not necessary for genius, although it may sometimes combine with intellect and will to produce it. What madness provides in such cases – what really is necessary, and can also occur in its absence – is uprushes from the “seething cauldron” of the subliminal, as described by Myers.

They deal at some length with the various attempts that have continued to be made to link creativity and mental ill health, before expressing their measured take on the issue (page 473):

Most importantly, a central recurring theme amidst all the reported psychopathology is its coexistence with unusual levels of ego strength, manifested in characteristics such as industry, drive, perseverance, organisation, discipline, independence of judgement, tolerance of ambiguity and frustration, and determination to master the subject at hand using any available means of expression.

They draw in Jamison quoting Heaney on the bipolar Robert Lowell (page 474):

[Lowell] had in awesome abundance the poet’s first gift for surrender to those images of language that heave to the fore matter that will not be otherwise summoned, all that might be otherwise suppressed. Under the ray of his concentration, the molten stuff of the psyche ran hot and unstaunched. But its final form was as much beaten as poured, the cooling ingot was assiduously hammered. A fully human and relentless intelligence was at work upon the pleasuring quick of the creative act.

1024px-Stamps_of_Germany_(DDR)_1979,_MiNr_2409

For source of image see link

Where next?

Tackling another bastion of reductionism, they explain at some length what they feel are the insuperable deficiencies of the computer-based cognitive explanations of creativity which is any case a lower form of activity than genius.

Of far greater concern to them is the key importance of imagination, imagery and primary process to our efforts to penetrate more deeply beneath the glittering surfaces of things as they seem. We have mentioned this as part of the post about the evolutionary implications of genius.

Now is the time to begin to go deeper (page 467):

. . . . in the most important cases the subject being construed or expressed may itself only become known, at least better known, as a result of [a] symbolic process. Bowra (1955) nicely captures this in his continuing description of creative inspiration: “what begins by being almost unconscious becomes conscious; what is at the start an outburst of energy infused with a vague idea or an undifferentiated vision becomes concrete and definite; what is outside the poet’s control is gradually made to submit to his will and judgement.”

Imagery, as I have suggested elsewhere, mediates between the expressible and the ineffable.

There are cases of where dreams contain the solution to a problem that has long been wrestled with (see link for more examples):

Kekulé discovered the tetravalent nature of carbon, the formation of chemical/organic “Structure Theory”, but he did not make this breakthrough by experimentation alone. He had a dream!

I have explored this in far more detail elsewhere on this blog.

It is a short step now to the theme of the next post. A kind of Platonism prepares us to begin a consideration of the transpersonal roots of genius (page 486):

The sense of beauty… has increasingly been recognised as playing a vital role in creative activity in all fields from mathematics and science to the arts. Koestler (1964) in particular had urged this view upon the early cognitive psychologists, without much success, declaring for example that “beauty is a function of truth, truth a function beauty. They can be separated by analysis, but in the lived experience of the creative act – and of its re-creative echo in the beholder – they are as inseparable as thought is inseparable from emotion”. A. I. Miller (2001) documents in detail the role played by a sense of beauty in both Picasso and Einstein. Even Poincaré . . . invoked the notion of a subliminal aesthetic “sieve” that would only pass through to waking consciousness . . . “combinations of mental atoms” . . . whose elegance would make them of real mathematical interest.

I will come back to the further implications of all this in the next post.

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Levels of Consciousness 2

I recently embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme, even though I might have done the same thing recently.  A short while ago I republished a sequence of posts looking at Dabrowski’s Theory of Personal Disintegration (TPD). Because this sequence picks up on those themes from the perspective of a different writer, I thought it worthwhile republishing these as well as they too relate to Wilber’s theme of the moment on this blog. There are four posts in this sequence. The first came on Tuesday. The third will be published on tomorrow and the last on Sunday.   

This re-exploration of Jenny Wade’s book, Changes of Mind, began with a brisk review of her overall perspective followed by a summary of her views on near-death experiences. Before we come to transitions between levels of consciousness, the topic that is closer to the core of her overall purpose, her sense of how the different hemispheres of the brain influence the realisation of different levels of consciousness deserves a look.

Lateralisation:

Perhaps I should clarify at this point that she is concerned to unwrap the mysteries surrounding human consciousness at least in terms of how it develops and to define more adequately the different stages of that development. When I come to discuss the specifics of this it will be obvious that there are implications for what we term personality or character in the individual and what we term culture or society at the level of aggregates of people. This is very much a concern of McGilchrist as well in his masterly treatment of the subject in The Master and his Emissary.

IMG_0493Her Sixth Level of development is called Affiliative Consciousness. It is one of two stages of development that are open to somebody who has reached what she calls the conformist level of consciousness. All that needs to be said for now is that the choice at that stage, as she sees it, lies between Achievement Consciousness and Affiliative Consciousness (page 147). Achievement consciousness resolves the problems of the conformity level by working on the thesis that you “get it while you can,” whereas Affiliative Consciousness believes that “love conquers all.” We will be exploring the transition aspect in more detail later.

As she unpacks the characteristics of Affiliative Consciousness the lateralisation links becomes clear (page 151: ‘. . . ‘ indicates here and below I have deleted her references):

People at the Affiliative level mainly grasp similarities and patterns rather than differences . . . . In part, the emphasis on similarities comes from the need to avoid conflicts that might threaten their sense of community, but it is coupled with a holistic worldview and indifference to the passage of time characteristic of right hemisphere dominance . . . .

In the same way as McGilchirst does, she feels (page 152) that our culture is biased against right-hemisphere processing. As a result is tends to denigrate this level of consciousness:

The bias against right brain processing has created – and perpetuated – confusion between Naïve and Affiliative consciousness.

Naïve Consciousness, Level Two, is characteristic of early childhood in her classification of levels. It is clearly an insult to see Affiliative Consciousness as a regression to such a state and I find her linking of this to our culture’s disparagement of right-brain functioning completely plausible.

She does not contend, though, that Affiliative Consciousness is without drawbacks (page 153):

Affiliative consciousness is not all sweetness and light, however. Turning now to what may legitimately be considered drawbacks of right-brain processing, Affiliative people often do not perceive inharmonious elements indicative of negative emotions and difference, particularly anger. . . .  They avoid conflict and confrontation. . .  Right-brain-dominant people tend to be much less verbal in response to stress then left-brain-dominant people, more prone to deny problems, hold in hostility, and develop an appeasing ‘peace at any price’ approach to personal conflict.

So, not completely satisfactory then. What she feels is better is a balance between the two hemispheres. Achievement Consciousness is the more left-brain mode and is definitely not without its problems either, as its motif is ‘get it while you can’ (page 147). To do this it figures out ‘the “rules of the game” in order to “cut corners”, “play the angles,” increase [its] “odds” and gain an advantage over less able . . . . members.’ Not a prescription for the ideal personality, then, either.

Balancing these two aspects moves the person to the level of Authentic Consciousness (page 157):

Authentic consciousness requires access to the non-dominant hemisphere, but not exchanging one hemisphere’s orientation for the other’s. It is “whole brain” thinking, in which both hemispheres organise consciousness, suggesting some entrainment of EEG patterns across the neocortex.

McGilchrist would wholeheartedly agree that this is a huge step forward (see YouTube video below). In The Master and His Emissary he wrote (page 203):

[T]he rational workings of the left hemisphere . . . should be subject to the intuitive wisdom of the right hemisphere.

The next stage after this is Transcendent consciousness, the last one before Unity consciousness. At this stage the synchrony of the two halves of the brain goes beyond intermittent entrainment (page 198):

During meditation, EEG measurements show that both hemispheres slow from beta level activity to alpha and theta waves. Theta is the characteristic brain wave pattern of long-term meditators. Not only does synchronisation of brain waves occur between hemispheres in advanced states, but this entrainment forms harmonic patterns called hypersynchrony.

The exact relationship between the hemispheres is not clear at the Unity level (page 260):

It is not know whether people with Unity consciousness have significantly different brainwave patterns than those at the high end of Transcendent consciousness, especially concerning hemispheric influence…

The Transcendent level can be reached via the Authentic level from either Achievement or Affiliative levels of consciousness provided sufficient degrees of dissatisfaction are there to spur us on, but that issue needs to wait until next time. This is the aspect to which she has, in my view, made her most telling contribution.

McGilchrist RSA Version

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Levels of Consciousness

I recently embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme, even though I might have done there same thing recently. Earlier I republished a sequence of posts looking at Dabrowski’s Theory of Personal Disintegration (TPD). Because this next sequence picks up on those themes from the perspective of a different writer, I thought it worthwhile republishing these as well as they relate to Wilber’s theme of levels of consciousness. There are four posts in this sequence. The second will be published Friday and the other two on Saturday and Sunday.   

When I first read Jenny Wade’s book, Changes of Mind, I was carried away when she hypothesises that the highest possible stage of the development of human consciousness is Unity Consciousness. As ‘unity’ is a Bahá’í mantra, this was enough in itself to guarantee my complete attention and disarm my disagreements.

But there was more. This level of development was the last of nine. In Arabic numerology nine is the numerical value of the word at the core of the name of this Revelation: ‘Bahá.’ I was entranced. I wrote ‘Brilliant!’ inside the front flyleaf after I’d finished the book.

Because my recent reading of Dabrowski (see three earlier posts) has sensitised me to the possibility of categorising levels of consciousness and perhaps even character development, I decided to re-read her book.

I have decided this time round that it is brilliant (for different reasons though) but flawed.

Still brilliant after all these years

Why do I think this? My reasons fall into three main groups for present purposes: near death experiences, lateralisation of brain function, and the IMG_0493drivers of transitions from one level to the next.

The first topic is, in my view her weakest, and why I feel the book is flawed. Her treatment of this topic does not stand up well after reading Mark Fox’s thorough examination of the issues.

Her reflections on lateralisation and its relationship with the development of consciousness are intriguing and will probably prompt me to revisit Iain McGilchrist to check them out more thoroughly, but as it stands I resonate strongly to what she says. She maps out her levels of consciousness against the back drop of lateralisation and mounts a compelling argument for the value but extreme difficulty of achieving a proper balance in our lives between the operation of the two hemispheres of the brain. But more of that in the next post.

Her most interesting observations to me at present relate to the way that her model maps closely onto Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration in key respects. She analyses, in a more close-grained fashion than Dabrowski, which kind of conflict and discomfort spurs us to move up from the comfort zone of our present level of consciousness to the next step up the ladder of awareness.

bohm

David Bohm

It is probably only fair to add that I am completely incapable of properly evaluating the foundation of her thesis in Bohm’s work on the implicate order as I simply do not understand Bohm’s thinking well enough. You may well wish to stop reading at this point if you feel I have totally disqualified myself from commenting on her other lines of thought.

My simple summary of what I think she means in terms of Bohm is this. There is a hidden order and a visible one. Both are inextricably intertwined. The visible, or perhaps more accurately, the accessible order is the material world as we commonly experience it. The hidden order (though transcendent, timeless and placeless) is also expressed in and through the physical world here and now. Our highest self exists fully realised already in the hidden order but remains invisible to almost all of us. The purpose of our lives is to come to a realisation and expression of and identification with that self, consciously in the visible order. When we do so all ego and desire will fall away, and self in any sense we currently understand it fades away completely. If we fail, in her view we are reincarnated again to have another go. Moving up the levels of consciousness is primarily about cleansing the lens of perception so that we can experience in its true nature what is currently hidden from us.

For those of you who have continued reading, we need to look slightly more closely at the first of the themes I mentioned, and later at the other two in even greater detail.

Near-Death Experiences (NDEs):

One of the key problems here is that she fails to recognise, from the evidence available to her at the time, that NDE-type experiences are not uniquely linked to close encounters with death as she contends (page 324) on the basis of evidence drawn from Morse. Fox’s access to the RERC data enabled him to recognise the common elements between so-called NDE experiences and other mystical and spiritual states where there was neither a threat to life nor any kind of trauma. She does though accept (page 239), but more cautiously than Fox, that ‘near-death consciousness . . . appears to share some characteristics of Transcendent consciousness.’

She also rather too uncritically accepts a long list of core elements (pages 225-226), something about which Fox’s critical re-examination has caused me to be rather more sceptical.

Given that NDEs are very much secondary to her main thesis and her treatment of the issue covers a mere 24 pages out of her total of 341, it is perhaps not too surprising that it falls short of Fox’s focused and thorough treatment.

It certainly does not seriously blemish the overall case she is seeking to make. More of that next time.

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Pilgrim’s Progress

Remember the saying: `Of all pilgrimages the greatest is to relieve the sorrow-laden heart.’

(‘Abdu’l-BaháSelections 52)

‘Who is my neighbour? My neighbour is all mankind.”

(Seamus Heaney: The Spirit Level,  page 28)

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This post was first published in 2010 which just goes to show how long it has taken to me finally to finish Jeremy Rifkin’s book! 

For those who might have been holding their breath since my last post on the subject, I did in the end manage to finish Jonathan Stedall‘s Where on Earth is Heaven?

The last chapter was particularly resonant. It looks at how gloomily the world is portrayed in the news and seeks to redress the balance. He believes our ‘capacity for empathy is stirring’ (page 532). He refers to books that I feel I will be buying in due time.

Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken is the first one. He sees the current burgeoning of a network of non-profit organisations as ‘humanity’s immune response to toxins like political corruption, economic disease, and ecological degradation’ (ibid.) He quotes, on the same page, Bill McKibben‘s comment on the book:

The movers and shakers on our planet aren’t the billionaires and the generals – they are the incredible numbers of people around the world filled with love for neighbour and for the earth who are resisting, remaking, restoring, renewing, revitalising.

He refers (page 535) to an equally interesting book – The Cultural Creatives by Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson (see an earlier sequence). He describes cultural creatives (page 536) as sharing ‘what are often described as feminine values in relation to family life, education, relationships, responsibilities and caring in general.’ They constitute, in the view of the authors, about 25% of the population they studied.

What is currently lacking, he feels, is a way for such people to combine their energies together without compromising their creativity.

I’ll resist the temptation to expand on how much this, for me, is uncannily in synch with the ideals and developing practices of the Bahá’í community. Posts dealing with this are to be found throughout this blog. In this vein, though, Stedall also speaks of a zeitgeist that may be helping us shift in this direction, and, in a fascinating parenthesis, suggests that this effect would be more powerful ‘if the zeitgeist is an actual being and not an abstract concept’ (page 534). And in the end there is a quote (page 357) that could almost have come from a Bahá’í pen:

Today many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself – while something else, still indistinct, were rising from the rubble.

(Václav Havel: 1984)

If we look for them we can find examples, not just of the downside of our predicament, but of the uplifting aspect as well.

Examples of the morally blind side of our nature can carry the seeds of the more positive vision, of course. An example of that is a hit of the moment – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I don’t think I am wrenching the implications of its exploration of the blind side completely out of shape by saying that it is a compelling study of where absence of empathy and compassion can take us. It is powerful and effective, if a touch melodramatic in places.

There are also many places where we find a sense of positive potential which does not shirk the reality of the darkness. Blind Side is a good example, a film based on real events. It illustrates perhaps one of the best ways of protecting ourselves against the worst effects of our blind side.

If The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo managed to avoid the worst excesses of melodrama (I’m not quite sure where to place the savagery of the rape scene in this: in terms of the film’s moral balancing act, it triggers the ‘girl’s’ revenge while, at the same time, helping us empathise with her rage: I felt manipulated emotionally though), Blind Side is only tinged and not spoilt by the occasional hint of sentimentality. It shows us the power of empathy and how much it can accomplish in the hands of people flawed in many ways as we all are. Our flaws are not a reason to evade this challenge.

And so, finishing Jonathan Stedall’s book, after a few other detours into film, has brought me back to a book I set aside many months ago – another book that inspired and irritated me in about equal measure. This book is Jeremy Rifkin‘s The Empathic Civilization which I think I will now attempt to read right to the end. Where I left off (pages 314-315) he is beginning to tackle the duality Iain McGilchrist explored from the point of view of brain structure:

When it comes to consciousness itself, one is struck by the fact that the human being is both a feeling and thinking animal [I’d prefer the word ‘being’ but there you go – that’s what makes reading Rifkin a bit of a switchback]. Therefore, one of the critical questions in the modern era has been which of the two – feeling or thinking – is the most relevant to understanding ‘human nature”?

How could I possibly resist another bite at this cherry?

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