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Posts Tagged ‘William James’

Irreducible MindIn preparation for revisiting aspects of the paranormal next week it seemed worth republishing this from 2015.

Here I am, back with Irreducible Mind again. It’s the post sequence on sub-personalities that did it. It reminded me of the topic I avoided blogging about at the time I first read the Kellys’ book: multiple personalities.

I have used the book eagerly to help me explore the idea of genius and to add firepower to my attack on reductionism. I refrained from going over the ground they covered on NDEs because I’d pretty well exhausted that topic on this blog at the time, and I ducked out of tackling reincarnation because I didn’t feel I knew enough. I’ve forgotten what the chapter on Memory was about as it was too hard for me to follow.

But my reasons for steering clear of multiple personalities were somewhat more complex as we will see.

The chapter relating to multiple personalities is written by Adam Crabtree and covers more ground by far than can be tackled in detail here as it deals with ‘automatism’ in general and ‘secondary centres of consciousness’ in various forms.

I think the discussion of automatism may have put me off blogging about this chapter as it deals with an area about which I know almost nothing and which, to the modern reader, smacks of what has been dismissed as a kind of Victorian paranormalism. I will quote briefly what Crabtree says on this topic as it clearly deserves more serious investigation than it has received in most of the last century.

Automatism

Crabtree points out (page 305) how Myers explained what for him was a link between automatic writing and ‘unconscious cerebration.’ This led him to go one step further (page 306):

A secondary self – if I may coin the phrase – is thus gradually postulated, – a latent capacity, at any rate, in an appreciable fraction of mankind, of developing or manifesting a second focus of cerebral energy which is apparently neither fugitive nor incidental merely, – a delirium or a dream – but may possess for a time at least a kind of continuous individuality, a purposive activity of its own.

He came to believe (page 307) that all the various forms of automatism ‘resulted from the action of additional centres of true conscious intelligence operating outside the normal awareness of the individual.’

One of the most dramatic examples comes from William James (page 351):

[Automatic writing] maybe produced at an extraordinary speed, or be almost invisibly minute. James (1889) described a case in which the writer, with his face the whole time buried in his elbow on the side away from his writing, first writes out an entire page without lifting the pencil from the paper, and then goes back and dots each i and crosses each t ‘with absolute precision and great rapidity.’

I have no reason to suppose that someone with as much integrity as William James, whose work I have blogged about elsewhere, would have fabricated this evidence nor, with his sharp acumen, would he have been easily deceived. Such data requires investigation, and if examples of that ability still survive in this sceptical age they require a better explanation than ‘It must have been a fraud.’

However, this area is not my strong point so I am going to move on to a particularly interesting part of the evidence surrounding multiple personalities.

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

Original Cinema Quad Poster – Movie Film Posters: for source of image see link

Multiple Personalities

Whereas automatic writing, these days, may be a phenomenon difficult to replicate, examples of Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), though perhaps still somewhat controversial, would be far easier to find and therefore to systematically investigate.

Studies (Bahnson and Smith 1975 – page 349) have detected significant differences in such measures as ‘heart rate, respiration, and skin potential taken during audio-visually recorded psychotherapy sessions with a multiple personality patient over an eight month period.’ They concluded that ‘alter personality states of MPD are physiologically distinct states of consciousness.’ These measures would shift with changes in mood and arousal even without MPD involvement, though it is the consistency over time that points towards the conclusion they draw in the end.

What begins to sound slightly more dramatic is the finding (Matthew at al 1985 – page 350), using neuroimaging techniques, that ‘multiple measurements of blood flow in the brain showed that personality change produced significant differences in cerebral blood flow in the right temporal lobe.’

These findings are still regarded as lacking in sufficient rigour to convince sceptics. Other more dramatic ones even more so (page 348):

In an early survey of psychophysiological phenomena in MPD, B. G. Braun (1983) noted previous clinical reports indicating that striking physiological differences were sometimes observed between “alter” personalities in a multiple personality case, including alterations in handedness, rate and ability to heal, response to medication, and allergic responses. In this article, Braun also described three multiple personality cases of his own which involved the appearance and disappearance – depending on the personality in control of the body – of allergies to citrus fruit, cigarette smoke, and cats.

Emily Kelly goes into even greater detail on this issue in her chapter on psychophysiological influences (page 168).

There have also been reports of changes in handedness or handwriting across personalities… As many as 26% of MPD patients show allergies in some personalities but not in others… In a survey of 100 cases, 35% involve alter personalities which responded differently to foods, and in nearly half the cases they responded differently to medications… B. G. Braun . . . reported a case in which a woman who developed adult-onset diabetes ‘required variable amounts of insulin depending on which personality had control.’

That credible investigators claim to have discovered such effects seems to me to require that sceptics, instead of rubbishing them out of hand, should delve more deeply into the data themselves and set up studies of their own. Assuming that such findings prove robust, they will have implications about the mind/brain/body relationship that must undermine many of the prevalent assumptions, including the one that states that the mind is entirely reducible to the brain.

And weirder still!

Mrs Leonora Piper (for source of image see link)

Mrs Leonora Piper (for source of image see link)

Crabtree makes a strong case for seeing the evidence amassed by the Society for Psychical Research (PSR) and Myers himself in his masterwork Human Personality (page 353) as providing ‘impressive,’ and in his view, ‘compelling evidence for the reality of supernormal phenomena.’ He then indicates that, in the context of automatisms, he will be examining such phenomena under three headings: ‘creativity, motor automatisms and mediumship, and experimental psi research.’ This takes us beyond MPD in its strict clinical sense, but adds another dimension to the theme that our consciousness is split into various domains.

Perhaps the most convincing case for mediumship is that of Mrs Leonara Piper, whose activities began in the 1880s. She produced information about both the living and the dead over a 40 year period and was rigorously investigated for 15 years, including being followed by detectives (page 357): ‘Despite all this, she was never discovered in deception or fraud.’

William James made a little known declaration to the SPR in 1896 (page 359):

If you will let me use the language of the professional logic-shop, a universal proposition can be made untrue by a particular instance. If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, you mustn’t to seek to show that no crows are; it is enough if you can prove one single crow to be white. My own white crow is Mrs Piper. In the trances of this medium, I cannot resist the conviction that knowledge appears that she has never gained by the ordinary waking use of her eyes and ears and wits. What the source of this knowledge maybe I know not, and have not the glimmer of an explanatory suggestion to make; but from admitting the fact of such knowledge I can see no escape.

Summary

Crabtree ends by summarising Myers’s formulation of this area of research (page 363) according to five central features:

(1) Phenomena such as hysteria (then thought to be the underpinning of what came to be known as MPD), automatic writing and mediumship led investigators to ‘posit centres of consciousness outside the awareness of the primary consciousness’;

(2) These ‘consciousness centres must be regarded . . . as personalities or selves’;

(3) These centres may sometimes be aware of one another;

(4) Automatisms and psi are strongly linked; and

(5) There is a Subliminal Self (page 364) which is aware of all the activity of all centres and has ‘its roots in a transcendental environment of some sort.’

His final overall conclusion as expressed below may be particularly hard for our materialistic and ego-centred culture to accept but, Crabtree argues, needs to be seriously considered because of the sheer weight of rigorously replicated evidence in its favour (page 364):

Myers . . . insisted that our ordinary consciousness is not on top in any significant way, and that, as a matter of fact, what is most sublime in us and what is most original, derive from the subliminal, from what is out of sight, and from what, in the last analysis, must be our most essential Self.

And there is where I will leave the matter for now.

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

William James (for source of image see link)

We may think of science as one wing and religion as the other; a bird needs two wings for flight, one alone would be useless. Any religion that contradicts science or that is opposed to it, is only ignorance—for ignorance is the opposite of knowledge. Religion which consists only of rites and ceremonies of prejudice is not the truth. Let us earnestly endeavour to be the means of uniting religion and science.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks – pages 130-131)

“Let empiricism once become associated with religion, as hitherto, through some strange misunderstanding, it has become associated with irreligion,” James writes, “and I believe a new era of religion as well as philosophy will be ready to begin.”

(William James quoted in Lamberth – page 152)

Human beings are not passive observers of reality and our personal reality, our thought, is not simply imposed upon us. In a very specific way we may consider ourselves – collectively – as co-creators of reality, for through the power of the human mind and our interactions, the world undergoes continued transformation.

(Paul LampleRevelation and Social Reality – page 6)

. . . . and this is the last post republished on the back of my most recent visit to Hay-on-Wye. What would I do without second-hand books? not much, I suspect!

My battle to finish reading Irreducible Mind, the Kellys’ monumental and significant collection of chapters on how psychology lost the plot at the beginning of the last century and where it should think about going from here, alerted me, when I visited Hay-on-Wye and Cardiff, to look out for anything about William James or Frederick Myers.

I found zilch on Myers in either place, sadly, as I wanted some real books of his instead of the soft copies I’ve downloaded. It feels distinctly incongruous reading massive 19th Century masterpieces on an iPad.

I was much luckier with the better known, but not necessarily more significant James. I decided to start by reading the thinnest of the three books I now have, one I’d acquired in a bookshop hidden away down Morgan’s Arcade in Cardiff near the Plan café.

This may not have been as smart a move as I thought as thin does not mean easy to read, as I discovered. None the less David Lamberth’s book, William James and the Metaphysics of Experience, has turned out to be an excellent starting point, even though I probably understood less than half of the first half of the book.

The last part, though, from my point of view, was crammed with valuable insights into where James took us to and where we might now profit by following the path he was pointing towards.

The key to what Lamberth feels James is saying is summarised in the title to this piece. Not surprisingly grasping this idea, for me, Lamberthdepends upon a rigorous way of analysing what religious revelation might mean operationally for those of us who are striving to understand where humanity is spiritually at this point in its history. By that I mean ‘What does it imply both for how we enhance our understanding further and how do we turn that understanding into effective action, socially, scientifically and morally? Lamberth helps towards the clearer definition of those implications.

Acknowledging that Lamberth may not be able to recognise his own ideas in the use I am going to make of them, I will quote him whenever possible, though obviously outside of the full context of his thinking which I don’t completely understand. I doubt I’ll ever make it now as a philosopher.

James’s Dissatisfaction with Materialism

It would seem that, while James was a resolute empiricist, he was deeply frustrated by materialism (page 155):

[James] generally sides with empiricism on methodological grounds, even though he was consistently dissatisfied with the world-view of its premiere representative, materialism.

This seems partly to relate to the distinction, in James’s own words (page 182), between ‘theoretic . . knowledge about things’ as against ‘living contemplation or sympathetic acquaintance with them.’ The former ‘touches only on the outer surface of reality.’

Lamberth explains (page 184):

. . . [c]uts that are made in the fabric [of experience] conceptually must be seen to be arbitrary to a degree, in that they are not necessarily “natural” to the pure experience itself . . .

James expresses the problem vividly (page 186):

Philosophy should seek this kind of living understanding of the movement of reality, not follow science in vainly patching together fragments of its dead results.

Lamberth goes on (ibid.):

(James) seeks a philosophy that both can account for the practical successes of the sciences and can value and provide insight into our moral and religious sentiments and experiences . . . .

The Nature of the Transcendent

This leads on to the consideration of exactly what is truth and its possible relationship with our concept of the absolute. Lamberth quotes James’s own statement of part of this problem (page 192):

. . . .[I]s one all inclusive purpose harboured by a general world-soul, embracing all sub-purposes in its system? Or are there many various purposes, keeping house together as they can, with no overarching purpose to include them?

James clearly struggles with this, remarking on the next page of A Pluralistic Universe, from which this quote was taken, that ‘We are indeed internal parts of God and not external creations.’

Lamberth takes the view that, in the end, James does not feel able to conclude with certainty that there is an Absolute. His ‘pluralism’ (I will return to what that might mean for James) assumes (page 197) ‘that the superhuman consciousness, however vast it may be, has itself an external environment, and consequently is finite.’ As we will see as this argument unfolds, this is a much subtler and far less reductionist position than might at first seem the case.

It will help to start from James’s own words (page 198):

Our “normal” consciousness is circumscribed for adaptation to an external environment, but the fence is weak in spots, and fitful influences from beyond leak in, showing the otherwise unverifiable common connection [between all]. Not only psychical research, but metaphysical philosophy and speculative biology are led in their own way to look with favour on some such “panpsychic” view of the universe as this.

The modern mind, saturated as it is in materialist mantras, could find this naïve. Lamberth is keen to dispel this preconception (ibid):

Contrary to what his final conclusions suggest, James was actually quite sceptical of jumping to conclusions about the veracity of purported psychical events. He did, however, find himself forced to resolve that the most reasonable explanation for certain psychical phenomena was to postulate some sort of “leakage” between a wider, interpersonal area of consciousness (or experience) and the otherwise “fenced” individual field or sphere of experience.

Windrose

Wind-rose (for source of image see link)

From this we move, in my view, to a strong sense of the transcendent (page 199):

Every bit of us at every moment is part and parcel of a wider self, it quivers along various radii like the wind-rose[1] on a compass, and the actual in it is continuously one with possibles not yet in our present sight. And just as we are co-conscious with our own momentary margin, may we not ourselves form the margin of some more really central self in things which is co-conscious with the whole of us? May not you and I be confluent in a higher consciousness, and confluently active there, tho [sic] we now know it not?

The pluralism mentioned earlier therefore stems from our multitude of different perspectives as unique individuals who are subliminally interconnected and potentially subsumed into a greater consciousness.

James’s use of the word ‘pragmatism’ has been part of the source of confusion as to exactly what he means and what the implications are for any sense whatsoever of the ‘Absolute.’ Lamberth is clear that pragmatism, for James, was not limited to the material realm (page 212).

This allows for the possibility of the transcendent, the absolute even, and therefore absolute truth, in some sense, but in what sense exactly has been a vexed question apparently (page 216):

. . . the question of “Truth” has continued to vex interpreters of James to the present.

Lamberth finds Hilary Putnam’s work helpful here. Putnam sees James as distinguishing between ‘absolutely true’ and ‘half-true’ (page 216-17):

On Putnam’s reading, what is merely verified is always only “half-true” for James, while what is “true” by contrast, is true absolutely, standing in relation to an ideal or absolute truth to which we imagine all our formulations will converge.

Which is not the same, by any means, as saying that anyone knows the absolute truth (page 217):

“No relativist who ever actually walked the earth,” writes James, “has denied the regulative character is his own thinking of the notion of absolute truth. What is challenged by relativists is the pretence on anyone’s part to have found for certain at any given moment what the shape of that truth is.” James concludes by noting that “the proposition ‘There is absolute truth’ is the only absolute truth of which we can be sure.”

He continued (page 220):

. . . “[W]e have to live to-day by what truth we can get to-day, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.” . . . . . “No pragmatist needs to dogmatise about the consensus of opinion in the future being right,” James writes; “he need only postulate that it will probably contain more truth than anyone’s opinion now.”

Lamberth unpacks exactly what this implies, clearly and succinctly (page 222):

On this view, truth claims – however stable – are only ever hypothetical and provisional; moreover, counterfactuals, should evince some concrete grounding in fact, are only the beginnings of new trails of enquiry that lead to the revision of old truths or the addition of new ones. For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

A Two Way Street

Lamberth explains that after James’s death (page 226):

. . . the study of religion . . . . . developed in such ways that the insights of James’s views, in particular, the varied commitments of radical empiricism as a systematic, spiritualistic world-view, were never fully explored, much less embraced.

Science nominally endorses James’s criteria for the correct application of empiricism, but in practice privileges its own untestable assumptions while dismissing those of others. James has little patience with this kind of double standard[2].

Lamberth explains (page 227):

James seeks critically to hold off temptations towards reduction, whether reduction to quasi-mystical phenomenalism that eschews valuable reflective insights – scientific or philosophical – or reduction that privileges the philosophical or scientific account over the concrete, diverse first-order experiences that are its spark.

Lamberth nails his own colours to the mast shortly after this (page 229):

I . . . think that James’s turn to experience – understood in the broader context of his radical empiricism – is of crucial, substantive importance to the philosophy of religion, now and in the future.

A core component in his view as in James’s is a two-way street (page 234):

Considering James closely suggests that we should not adopt a theoretical stance that presumptively protects dominant metaphysical assumptions concerning “scientific” or “realistic” explanations from . . . scrutiny any more than we should adopt such a protective strategy for religious explanations and experiences.

If science were (page 235) to subject ‘its own metaphysical assumptions . . . to critique, testing and revision in a dynamic, empirically informed but rationally accountable form of inquiry, ’Lamberth feels, ‘such an open, minimally presumptive stage for investigation’ would be most beneficial. It would facilitate two important things:

1. the productive reopening of a range of presumptively foreclosed questions for novel reconsideration; and

2. the development of new insights.

Bahá’í Implications

A full understanding of all the implications of these insights goes further than simply hoping to reconcile science and religioncolorful_hands_small while they continue to go on their separate ways.

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 action is transforming our communities[3].

For those who have the time, a viewing of the video below will demonstrate a part at least of what I am trying to say.

Here we see communities across the globe applying their current understanding of the Bahá’í model for community action, learning from what goes well and what does not, to enhance their implementation.

It is important also to realise that all significant details concerning these experiments are fed back to the centre of the faith, collated and fed back to the Bahá’í world as a whole for further implementation, experimentation and hopefully eventual validation. What is learnt is also preserved, to be cascaded down through time as well as across widely dispersed locations.

It is precisely the lack of this co-ordinated and consolidated kind of information preservation and exchange that Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Andersen lamented in Cultural Creatives, their seminal examination of modern movements for cultural change. Too many people pick off parts of the problem unable to see or agree that they are all interconnected. When a group in one place dies, as is often the case, all that they learnt is lost. In the end the core issue cannot be evaded (page 246):

Cultural Creatives may be leading the way with responses directed towards healing and integration rather than battle. For these responses to contribute to the creation of a new culture, grassroots activism and social movements will have to evolve into new institutions. . . . [W]hile new social movements are transitory, institutions can turn the energies of these movements into everyday action.

For pragmatism, scientific or religious, to produce valid revisable conclusions of lasting practical value, the improbable combination of radical open-mindedness and strong institutional co-ordination is vital. It is to this combination of essential qualities that the Bahá’í community aspires – not an easy task by any means, calling as it does for a degree of detachment from what you think you are doing so you can see what is actually going on, whether at the individual, community or institutional level.

Whereas so far the main attempts to validate religious practice have focused on such admittedly significant areas as meditation, and the related experience of mysticism, or the correlation between religious beliefs and an individual’s charitable action, there have been very few examples indeed of the careful examination of the beneficial impact of constructive religious practices on communities as a whole. This is what in my view makes the Bahá’í process an innovative if embryonic example of pragmatism in the Jamesian sense. To operate this way effectively, of course, those who are testing the model need to accept that they will sometimes get it wrong as well as right.

It is for me exciting to see a rigorous explanation of why, in philosophical terms, such an enterprise makes sense, though it is also disappointing that there are, so far, so few concrete examples in either field of pragmatic and dispassionate investigation crossing the currently great divide between religious and scientific practice, though both these disciplines have the capacity to mount them and a self-evident duty to do so.

[1] A wind rose is a graphic tool used by meteorologists to give a succinct view of how wind speed and direction are typically distributed at a particular location. When the magnetic compass began to be used in navigation, the wind rose was combined with it and used as a compass card.

[2] Not everyone would agree that science lacks this kind of humility. For instance, Paul Jerome Croce describes it somewhat differently in his book Science and Religion in the Era of William James – page 4 – stating ‘probabilism, relativity, and hypothetical methodologies firmly established the fundamental uncertainty of modern science.’ I will be looking at this in more detail in a subsequent post. My suspicion is, as Croce also suggests, that the evangelists of science, who tend to monopolise the public gaze, were then and, for me, are now mostly dogmatic materialists. This is even more true in the UK, I suspect, than in the States.

[3] 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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‘Abdu’l-Bahá

‘Abdu’l-Bahá

I didn’t explain when I wrote this sequence of posts where the second-hand book shop was located. Given that I am showering posts this week about books bought in Hay-on-Wye there are no prizes for guessing right. This is the last in the sequence: the first was posted on Thursday, the second was posted yesterday.

Having explained some of the probable origins of my default position of uncertainty and explored Croce’s explanation of James’s version of that state of mind in his book Science & Religion in the Era of William James, only one thing remains to be done, I think.

And as for me?

Now, I want to briefly explore how my faith and my doubt can so tranquilly coexist, and perhaps why I found Croce’s exploration of William James’s uncertainty so congenial.

Just to repeat, I am chronically sceptical. I even doubt myself most of the time (for the background to some of this see previous posts). I exasperate people by checking up on anything important that they tell me if it does not gel with what I already know. When they express their legitimate irritation, I reply: ‘I don’t trust my own judgement. Why should I trust anyone else’s?’ Even when I obtain current confirmation, I regard my understanding of the point at issue as very much provisional.

Before I look at two particulars in the Bahá’í teachings perhaps I should also quote something that, to my mind. supports my checking script. Almost at the start of a core text by Bahá’u’lláh He writes:

O SON OF SPIRIT! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes.

Now for the key points.

There are two main threads in Bahá’í belief, as I understand it, that make my default mode so easily tolerable.

First is the concept of progressive revelation with its connected idea that what changes are the social teachings of a religion, not its spiritual core. A brief but clear explanation comes from a Bahá’í website:

The Messenger of God reveals both spiritual truths, which are eternal, and laws belonging to a particular age. The spiritual truths are revealed according to the spiritual development of the men of that time. Thus Moses said: “Love thy neighbour as thyself,”  (4) but only the rarer spirits in His dispensation realised that Gentiles also were their neighbours. Jesus stressed that love should extend beyond the Jewish race, but still His followers were unable to grasp fully the oneness of mankind. Only recently have men progressed enough to regard the whole human race as one family, without division of colour, class or creed. Bahá’u’lláh, coming to a world prepared by the long line of earlier Messengers of God, could make this a central feature of His Teaching. All three Messengers were aware of the truth taught by Bahá’u’lláh, but until now man has not been ready to receive its full force.

Secondly, is the clear indication that Bahá’u’lláh gives that what he is explaining to us is pitched at the level of our current understanding and is not an undiluted and complete exposition of reality as He apprehends it.

O SON OF BEAUTY! By My spirit and by My favour! By My mercy and by My beauty! All that I have revealed unto thee with the tongue of power, and have written for thee with the pen of might, hath been in accordance with thy capacity and understanding, not with My state and the melody of My voice.

Both these quotations suggest that humanity’s understanding of the truth will always be incomplete, even incorrect sometimes, though it can evolve under the influence of science and revelation. Perhaps my lack of certainty is neither irrational nor irreligious.

In Bahá’í terms scripture is the City of Certitude: there is no one living now who can justifiably claim to dwell there. All any of us can now hope to do is inch a little closer to the gates. That’s why, for me, hearing a person state ‘I became a Bahá’í’ would be a declaration of intent rather than a statement of fact, no matter who said it.

Not only is scepticism about one’s own understanding healthy; as I understand it from the teachings of my faith, it’s essential. It not only makes fanaticism less likely, but it also serves to make consultation possible between people whose views and opinions differ widely. Without consultation, which is an essentially spiritual process dependent upon participants having sufficient detachment from their own views to listen effectively to the views of others, there would be no progress, or at least progress would be immeasurably retarded. A Bahá’í document entitled The Prosperity of Human Kind captures a key point:

. . . .  consultation is the operating expression of justice in human affairs. So vital is it to the success of collective endeavor that it must constitute a basic feature of a viable strategy of social and economic development. Indeed, the participation of the people on whose commitment and efforts the success of such a strategy depends becomes effective only as consultation is made the organizing principle of every project. “No man can attain his true station”, is Bahá’u’lláh’s counsel, “except through his justice. No power can exist except through unity. No welfare and no well-being can be attained except through consultation.”

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

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

All this might just suggest that my state of mind, far from being an unhealthy and condemnable dithering bordering on disbelief, may well be both more realistic and more constructive than the kind of certainty so conducive to the  ‘arrogance and hatred . . . peddled in the thoroughfares,’ which Yeats prayed that his daughter would be protected from. If I were certain this was true, I would not then be true to my belief in the value of uncertainty – a bit of a bind that one. As I explained earlier, I have recently republished a sequence of posts about the danger of high levels of certainty about our beliefs.

My best hope is fairly clear, even so. I can always look to refine my imperfect understanding, bringing it ever closer to what I hope is the truth but never knowing whether I have got there yet or not.

Interestingly that completely coincides with what Lamberth reports as William James’s point of view, reinforcing further my feeling that he was indeed a kindred spirit and explaining satisfactorily why I got such a buzz out of finding this second book after reading these words in the first one I had read (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

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WJ pencil

William James – self-portrait in pencil

I didn’t explain when I wrote this sequence of posts where the second-hand book shop was located. Given that I am showering posts this week about books bought in Hay-on-Wye there are no prizes for guessing right. This is the second in the sequence: the first was posted yesterday, the will be tomorrow.

Yesterday I attempted to explain my default position of uncertainty and why it lent such a strong appeal to Paul Jerome Croce’s book on William James. Now comes the difficult task of cherry picking key quotes from the book to illustrate why the feeling of attraction did not wear off as I read my way through it.

Principled Uncertainty

What follows here, designed simply to illustrate this one point, is a sparse selection of quotes from this book’s richly detailed and rewarding survey of the thinking of the time. I’m going to pick up the story with the impact of Darwin.

It would be impossible to overstate the degree of shock his book created. This is both because its argument was profoundly unsettling, and its accessibility meant that it was very widely read. What I hadn’t realised till I read Croce’s book was that he shocked not only the religious but the scientific community as well (page 88):

Science practised under the star of Darwinism represented the displacement of the cultured amateur by professional experts and a divorce of science from moral purpose and religious conviction. Most important, the new science, operating according to probabilities, removed its findings from expectations of certainty in either science or religion. This methodological challenge to scientific certainty is the true Darwinian revolution, far more than the supposed triumph of science over religion or even the dominance of Darwin’s particular insights about evolution.

The effect of this on William James is of particular interest to me (page 109-110):

The major shock of Darwin for James turned out to be the great biologist’s method and its implications for science and religion. Because the theory of natural selection was a plausible explanation rather than a proof of the origin of species, James began to doubt the need to expect certainty in either his science or his religion. . . . . . Darwin’s approaches provided a signpost, but William James in the 1860s still had much learning and struggling to do in his journey toward adopting beliefs without certainty.

In the 1850s and 1860s William James was a member of a loosely constituted group of young thinkers that called itself the Metaphysical Club (page 154):

The central issue of their enquiries was certainty. They saw that neither scientific theory nor religious faith could generate conventional forms of certainty, and they searchingly asked whether there could be any other basis for belief and action.

This has always been a key question for me. It’s not surprising, then, that I felt myself to be in like-minded company. At this point I found an interesting side issue mentioned, suggesting that Richard Dawkins might be blindly following a long line of misguided popularisers, dating back to Darwin’s own time, and suggests that he really should know better. Croce refers to (page 155) ‘the recent revolution in Darwin studies, which demonstrates the scientific unorthodoxy of Darwin’s probabilistic methods and attributes the materialistic claims of scientific certainty to Darwin’s popularisers rather than to Darwin’s science itself.’ Music to my ears again.

ChWright

Chauncy Wright

A key influence on William James was a contemporary and fellow Metaphysical Club member, Chauncy Wright (page 174):

William James learned from his friend Wright to reject the certainties of traditional religion and to regard science in probabilistic terms, but James never accepted the claim that science offered alternative certainties. By considering the uncertainties of both fields, he extended Wright’s ideas further than Wright himself could imagine.

James then moved further on the shoulders of Charles Sanders Peirce (page 195):

Without intending it, this rigorous pacesetter for James’s understanding of science became a role model for the younger man’s more thorough embrace of uncertainty. Pierce’s ambiguities opened a wedge in the edifice of scientific authority which James expanded into wholesale questioning of the possibility of finding certainty in any beliefs.

A core aspect of Peirce’s thinking concerned the nature of what we can achieve by thinking (page 144):

[He maintained that] our minds can never reach the essences of things, but only come to know them in mediated ways. . . . . “Our idea of anything is an idea of its sensible effects. . . . . .[H]e claimed our minds can really know the world (at least in the long run), but that such knowledge will always be mediated; . . . . [T]he method of science is focused correctly on effects, not essences.

He felt that most knowledge was probabilistic (page 216):

Probabilities can provide certainties, but with important qualifications: as Peirce had already realised at least as early as 1867, they provide answers only about groups and in the long run. So he declared it “unsound” to claim “that knowing a thing to be probable is not knowledge.”

This approach requires as assumption of orderliness in nature (page 219):

Inductive inquiry, which gains knowledge through “a process of sampling,” relies on the assumed orderliness of its sample to do its business, since the inquirer presumes that the randomly selected portion “has nearly the same frequency of occurrence” as the whole class of things under evaluation. . . . He leaned his faith in induction on the orderliness of the human mind and the world it comes to investigate.

CS Peirce

Charles Sanders Peirce

(This sounds like an anticipation of Plantinga’s recent case that science and religion are inherently in harmony.) It’s clear therefore that Peirce did believe ‘in a divine creator and an orderly universe’ but his ‘prime goal [was] to lay the cosmological ground for his scientific project.’ Where did this leave James? Croce is preparing the ground for a second volume that does not seem yet to have appeared, so he does not go into great detail (page 223):

He was much more attuned than his more logical colleague to addressing the growing suspicion among scientists, religious believers, science watchers, and religion watchers that their propositions could not provide the certainty that previous generations had cherished.

He then qualifies this (page 224):

Recognition was only the first step, because he realised even more acutely than his peers the psychological appeal of certainty. To maintain the moral commitments that his whole circle cherished, to avoid a slide into nihilism, and to reconstruct belief for a scientific audience, James would need to find the moral equivalent of certainty.

Lamberth, whose work I looked at in a previous post, has much more light to shed on where James’s thinking ended up than I have time to repeat here. The final sense I have is that James did achieve a position where, even though uncertainty could not be completely dispelled, a workable sense of reality that would guide effective practical and consensus moral action is within our reach, even in the still pluralistic social world we inhabit. This is very much how I feel about the issue, hence my sense of being very much at home in this tome.

All that remains is to explain how I find it possible to feel at home with both this level of uncertainty and my commitment to the Bahá’í path. That will have to wait until tomorrow.

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Croce

I didn’t explain when I wrote this sequence of posts where the second-hand book shop was located. Given that I am showering posts this week about books bought in Hay-on-Wye there are no prizes for guessing right. This is the first in the sequence: the remaining two will be posted on consecutive days.

David C Lamberth’s excellent treatment of William James’s thought was not the only trophy I brought back from a second-hand book shop recently. A second book (please don’t groan – there is a third to come!) by Paul Jerome Croce has proved equally, if not more fascinating. The full title is Science and Religion in the Era of William James: Eclipse of Certainty (1832-1880).

At first I thought I would fit everything I wanted to say into one post. It turned out to be too long so I have split this into three to be posted on three consecutive days. 

Even before I read a word of it, just seeing the title of the book on its cover and the tantalising photograph behind it gave me goose bumps. Sad really I suppose that I should react so strongly to something so apparently obscure.

What was it exactly that triggered such a strong positive reaction to the sight of such an ordinary seeming book? I’m not sure I can answer that question fully but I know what some of the elements are of its attraction.

The Period of History

The dates for starters.

That period of history is full of strong emotionally loaded associations for me. Right from my childhood I was told stories of my mother’s parents and their conversion to the Roman Catholic Church as a result of the Oxford Movement. I’ve already blogged about that so I won’t go into more details here.

Not only that but one of my favourite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins was also a convert and recently reading his story revealed what a huge price people had to pay at that time for that choice. It could totally wreck their prospects. My father’s family disowned him for choosing to marry my Catholic mother. When I was in my late thirties, I followed my grandparents’ footsteps and converted, in my case from my sceptical atheism to the Bahá’í Faith.

This strengthened my ties to this period of history in two ways. For one, I felt closer to my grandparents. The other reason is that the Bahá’í Faith is rooted in this same period of history. The day the Faith first shone out was in 1844 to be followed by a greater disclosure of its meaning in 1863. It’s fair to add that the charisma of William James added considerably to the force of the frisson I felt.

My Default Position

This is all very straightforward as an explanation of part of my strong reaction to the book. What may be less clear is why the eclipse of certainty should have held any attraction at all for someone who had converted to a new faith?

This is harder to pin down but is at least as powerful a component as the other things I have mentioned and a brief exploration of some of the ideas in the book will have to be included in this explanation.

To begin at the beginning though, I need to say that my default position, for as long as I can remember, has been doubt. The crisis of my two pre-school experiences of hospitalisation underpinned this position. As I have explained in an earlier post the feeling of being abandoned by my parents, who were not allowed in those days to stay in the hospital, and the sense that Christ was not rescuing me, led to the conclusion that I had only myself to rely on and that I could not really trust anyone or anything else including God. Perhaps related to this my chronic condition is uncertainty.

This was reinforced by my absolute revulsion, as someone growing Mixed Dictators v5up in the shadow of World War II, from dogmatic and damaging ideologies such as Nazism, Maoism and Stalinism,  which had been or were being implemented with ferocious conviction.

Certainty came to seem pathological to me. I do not believe that I can be certain of anything except possibly my memory of such things as my name and address.

Reinforcing still for me the value of this state of mind are the widespread current evidences of the toxic effects of certainty. People are resolutely butchering other human beings completely convinced of their own rectitude. I have also blogged about this dark side of conviction before, and have recently republished this sequence of posts so I won’t dwell on it further right now.

Even so, when I finally sat down to read this book I had not expected to feel quite so relieved to be so comfortably at home with the ideas it explores. But more of that tomorrow.

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I have a small number of physics books in my collection. As far as I can remember Paul Davies’s was the only one till now that I had read right to the end. If I include the one I am about to describe, they span from 1994 till now. I was doing all right on Why does E=mc2? until my reading was interrupted halfway through and I didn’t have chance to pick it up again for over three months, by which time I had forgotten so much of what it said that I couldn’t understand what I was reading.

So, why did I buy Rovelli’s book? Well, it has good reviews (but so did the others). It is short, a mere 234 pages of text. And the print is big.

Even so I’m feeling very smug because I’d read it in a week.

‘It can’t have been very good, then,’ you think.

You couldn’t be more wrong.

Even though I could not follow all his arguments to the last detail, I could get the gist. Not only that, but being able to understand enough made it exciting to read.

Now, I’m not a physicist, in case that is not already obvious, so I am not competent to do a credible review of the physics. All I can say is that what I understood of what he explains gels with the little I have already read and retained.

His basic thesis throughout the book is to explore his perspective that physics has been going through a process of deep simplification, as he illustrates in his last diagram on this theme.

I will just look at the implications that he spells out concerning only one of these transitions into deeper simplicity, and that is the last, the one where space and time have disappeared from the mix. How on earth could that be possible?

Well, not on earth at the macro level as we experience it with our unaided senses.

He believes that the evidence as we best understand it, from a loop theory point of view (he’s not a fan of string theory), is that matter is not infinitely divisible and there comes a point where it cannot be divided anymore at the quantum level. When he is talking about space, the quanta he is concerned with are the quanta of gravity, which constitute space itself (page 148): ‘the quanta of gravity, that is, are not in space, there are themselves space.’ What is crucial is the relationship between particles, their interconnections. He clarifies this by saying (page 150):

Physical space is the fabric resulting from the ceaseless swarming of this web of relations. The lines [between quanta] themselves are nowhere; they are not in a place but rather create places through their interactions. Space is created by the interaction of individual quanta of gravity.

This is how space disappears. Now for time (page 158):

We must learn to think of the world not as something which changes in time but in some other way. Things change only in relation to one another. At a fundamental level, there is no time. Our sense of the common passage of time is only an approximation which is valid for our macroscopic scale. It derives from the fact that we perceive the world in a coarse-grained fashion.

He is aware that much remains to be done before this view of reality is confirmed and widely accepted (page 186):

The theory [quantum gravity] is in its infancy. Its theoretical apparatus is gaining solidity, and the fundamental ideas are being clarified: the clues are good, and concrete – confirmed predictions are still missing. The theory has not yet taken its exams.

I suspect his tongue was rammed into his cheek when he wrote that – ‘solidity,’ ‘concrete’ – unlikely!

He feels (page 203) that the two theories of quantum mechanics and quantum field theory are not contradictory but rather ‘the two theories each offer the solution to the problems posed by the other!’

In his annihilation of infinity, his closing remark paves the way for an interesting discussion later. He writes (page 208) ‘The only truly infinite thing is our ignorance.’

The roots of his concept of science go back at least as far as William James’s pragmatics of uncertainty, which I have discussed elsewhere. As he puts is (page 230):

But if we are certain of nothing, how can we possibly rely on what science tells us? The answer is simple. Science is not reliable because it provides certainty. It is reliable because it provides us with the best answers we have at present.’

While I am not comfortable with his various disparaging references to religious belief and feel that a dose of Plantinga would have done him good, his next point is valid within the sphere of science and also points towards the potential dangers of any kind of fundamentalist and dogmatic certainty (page 132):

We don’t have absolute certainty, and never will have it – unless we accept blind belief. The most credible answers are the ones given by science, because science is the search for the most credible answers available, not the answers pretending to certainty.

Unfortunately his earlier expressed certainty that there is no life after death, which he calls ‘nonsense,’ betrays his message somewhat. However, I still feel his point is valid in the main. He spells out its implications (ibid): ‘the nature of scientific thinking is critical, rebellious and dissatisfied with a priori conceptions, with reverence and sacred or untouchable truth. The search for knowledge is not nourished by certainty: it is nourished by a radical distrust in certainty.’

Even so, if you find his main ideas as exciting as I do, the book is so accessible and stimulating it’s worth buying.

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LamberthIs consciousness spirit, mind or brain?

Or none of the above perhaps?

Just kidding.

I was asked to give a talk on this topic at the University of Birmingham at the beginning of March. I have done this once before (see link) and have ruminated on the issues before and since on this blog. I had so much running round in my mind-brain, whichever it is, that I needed to start organising my ideas in good time. Writing a blog post seemed a good way of helping in that process. The last post on Monday hopefully conveyed a sense of what actually happened. This is simply what I thought I might say!

‘Doubt Wisely’

David Lamberth in William James and the Metaphysics of Experience reports James’s point of view on the investigation of such matters, and I feel this is a good place to begin (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

When it comes to these issues, fundamentalist certainty is completely out of place. I may have chosen to believe certain things about the mind and its independence of the brain but I cannot know what I believe is true in the same way as I can know my own address. Similarly, though, those like Dennett and Churchland who believe that the mind is entirely reducible to the brain cannot be absolutely sure of their position either.

We are both performing an act of faith.

is-god-a-delusionIt is in this spirit that I want to explain my point of view and with the same intent as Reitan in his book Is God a Delusion? He explains that he wishes to demonstrate that it is just as rational to believe in God as it is not to believe in God. I am not trying to persuade anyone to believe as I do, I simply want people to accept that I am as rational as any sceptic out there, and more so than the so-called sceptics who have absolute faith in their disbelief. The only tenable position using reason alone is agnosticism. Absolute conviction of any kind is faith, which goes beyond where reason can take us.

John Hick adduces an argument to explain why we cannot be absolutely sure about spiritual issues, an argument which appeals to a mind like mine. In his book The Fifth Dimension, he contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to believe or not (pages 37-38):

In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, the hidden God – hidden and yet so readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, . . . . . This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.

So, most of us won’t find evidence so compelling it forces us to believe in a spiritual perspective whether it involves the concept of God or the idea I’m discussing here, that the mind is independent of the brain. Conversely, materialists should be aware that there is no evidence that could compel us not to believe it either. There is only enough evidence either way to convince the predisposed to that belief.

As an atheist/agnostic of almost 25 years standing and a mature student at the time I finished my clinical psychology training after six years of exposure to a basically materialist and sceptical approach to the mind, I was pretty clear where I’d confidently placed my bets.

There were three prevailing ideas within the psychological community at the time about the nature of the mind: the eliminative materialism advocated by such thinkers as Paul Churchland; the epiphenomenological approach which says consciousness is simply an accidental by-product of brain complexity; and the emergent property idea that posits that, just as the cells in our body as a whole combine to create something greater than themselves, so do our brain cells. I’d chosen the last option as the most sensible. Consciousness is not entirely reducible to a simple aggregate of cells: the mind is something extra. But I didn’t believe for one moment that it was not ultimately a material phenomenon.

mind v3The Emanation Shock

Well, not that is until I took the leap of faith I call declaring my intention to work at becoming a Bahá’í.

The words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the Founder of the Faith, were a bit of a shock to me at first: ‘. . . 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.’

I had spent so much of my life thinking bottom up about this issue that the idea of working top down seemed initially absurd. There wasn’t a top to work down from in the first place, as far as I saw it to begin with.

Although I absolutely trusted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to be stating what he knew to be true and, because of all that I had read about his life, I believed that what he thought was true was more likely to be so than my version, I realised that this was something that required a thorough investigation of the empirical evidence if I was to bring my sceptical head on board alongside my accepting heart.

My memory of the process by which I set out to investigate suggests that my initial research involved looking into near death experiences (NDEs) and Psi.

I decided that, as I was not absolutely certain of this, I’d better make sure I was even aware of that body of data at this time. I checked my bookshelves. To my surprise, it showed that I was reading about NDEs and Psi even before I declared as a Bahá’í. My copies of Raymond Moody’s Life after Life and John Randall’s Parapsychology and the Nature of Life both date from 1981, a whole year earlier at the very least. There is no reference to either book in my journals of 1981/82 so I don’t know whether I read them before finding the Bahá’í Faith.

Not that in the end, after years of checking this out as more research became known, NDEs have provided completely conclusive proof that there is a soul and that the mind derives from it. Even my Black Swan example of Pam Reynolds, which I discovered much later, could not clinch it absolutely. This was the beginning of my realisation that we are inevitably dealing with acts of faith here and that both beliefs are equally rational when not asserted dogmatically. Even if you couldn’t explain them away entirely in material terms, the existence of Psi complicated the picture somewhat.

For example, Braude’s work in Immortal Remains makes it clear that it is difficult conclusively to determine whether apparently strong evidence of mind-body independence such as mediumship and reincarnation are not in fact examples of what he calls super-psi, though at points he thinks survivalist theories have the edge (page 216):

On the super-psi hypothesis, the evidence needs to be explained in terms of the psychic successes of, and interactions between, many different individuals. And it must also posit multiple sources of information, both items in the world and different peoples beliefs and memories. But on the survival hypothesis, we seem to require fewer causal links and one individual… from whom all information flows.

Less sympathetically, Pim van Lommel’s research on near-death experiences is robustly attacked by Evan Thompson in his existentially philosophical treatise, Waking, Dreaming, Being which also claims to have turned my black swan, Pam Reynolds’ NDE, into a dead albatross.

I’ll explore this in more detail in the next post on Saturday.

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