Gratitude

Daughter often sends interesting web links. The latest was this one How to Avoid Raising a Materialistic Child. Apparently, research shows that practising gratitude makes children’s attitudes less materialistic. Well of course it does.

Psychology Today defines gratitude: “Gratitude is an emotion expressing appreciation for what one has—as opposed to, for instance, a consumer-driven emphasis on what one wants or thinks they need.” So it is also an antidote to consumerism.

Those messages to children to ‘say thank you’ are very important and need reinforcement by adults in their words and their behaviour. I know I used to think this was just a socialised habit that was meaningless; I now know it’s just so important. Gratitude is one of the main ways we connect with others, and with the natural world.

While researching this, I came across this excellent TEDxSF talk by Louis Schwarzberg – well worth the ten minutes run time, with some superb time lapse photography and inspirational messages – gratitude is the secret! The beauty of the natural world inspires gratitude for existence, gives meaning to life.

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The Last Million Mile Men

It’s scary to think how much driving I’ve done in over 50 years since the late sixties. Probably not quite a million miles (that would be 20000 miles per annum), but getting well towards that. That’s about 28000 hours, assuming a probable average speed around 35mpg, or around 3500 average 8-hour days. So that’s nearly 10 years of possibly productive time devoted to driving.

There must be many of mine and the next generation who will ‘achieve’ the million miles over their lifetime. No wonder we have a problem with global warming and pollution! Now, driving is not unpleasant, but what could I have achieved in all that time spent driving?

But it is clear that these generations will be the last million mile men. The technologies are converging fast and change will happen fast – just as horses and carriages were supplanted by the motor car within a decade or so at the start of the twentieth century. Electric vehicles, order on demand and automated driving are inevitable. Only the rich and people in sparsely populated areas will bother to own cars – until driving is banned on many roads for safety reasons.

Just think of the advantages – unpolluted towns and cities, no hassle of car ownership, an end to 1.25 million global traffic deaths per year (WHO-2013), reclaiming of the suburban front garden for plants and wildlife, a new mobility for the old and disabled, the opportunity to work or read while travelling… Of course, there will be problems, like hacking could take in a whole new dimension of crime – but these should be soluble. In the end, economics should force the change.

Well, yes but… There is now that unpredictable variable of climate breakdown, with extreme weather events becoming ever more frequent. Those who can afford it may just like to hang on to their motor vehicles, just in case… But they won’t be million mile men.

PS Before feminists complain, I would say that I am using ‘man’ in its old sense to refer to both genders. It would spoil the alliteration to add ‘and women’ to the title.
And I know I haven’t considered truckers, the ten million mile men!

Barn Owl

I’ve always had a bit of a thing about owls. I was once quite stunned when an owl flew towards me down a dusky country bridleway, and then passed by within a few feet.

So yesterday it was something special when a barn owl (or Tyto alba) appeared at an RSPB ‘Raptor Watch’ event at Parkgate on the Wirral. Parkgate quay looks out towards North Wales over the marshes that comprise the estuary of the River Dee. The sun had disappeared behind the Welsh mountains, the light was fading fast and it was getting cold. The owl had come to feed.

Backwards and forwards he patrolled over the marshes, perfectly framed in my binoculars. Frequently he dropped down into the marsh grasses, disappearing from view, often just for a few seconds, only to reappear and resume the search. Then it was a longer period – he must have caught something. Suddenly a dark shape flashed by to where he had disappeared, reappearing seconds later, followed by the owl resuming his search. It seems a kestrel had stolen his dinner. This happened once again.

Mesmerised by the graceful spectacle of this huge bird hunting like a ghost in the fading light, it was only the cold that eventually forced us back to our van to warm up. The barn owl was still hunting, almost a spectre in the gathering dark.

I was too entranced to take the time to get the camera out – I knew that it was not up to getting decent pictures at that level of light. So I’ve searched Wikimedia Commons for pictures of barn owls in flight – here are some of the best. Click and click again to see a bigger image.

According to the RSPB, although populations declined in the 20th century, these birds are not currently under threat. Given that they feed on small animals they are clearly vulnerable to chemical farming.

Thanks to Steven Ward, Edd deane from Swaffham, I Luc Viatour, for making these images available on Wikimedia Commons.

Liver Birds

Liverpool’s Liver Birds enhance the attractive waterfront skyline at any time, but especially on an autumn afternoon, when a clear sun is at a low angle across the River Mersey. The mythical birds, believed to be representations of cormorants, have stood on the clock towers of the Royal Liver Building since 1911 (my grandfather worked for the company Royal Liver Assurance).

According to legend, the female looks out to sea, watching for the seamen to return safely home, and the male looks in to the city, watching over the seamen’s families. The birds face away from each other; if were they to mate and fly away, the city would cease to exist.

liver birds

Look at the full-size photograph and the image appears to not be horizontal. That diagonal line from the modern building in the foreground has completely messed up the perspective. Actually, I think it is pretty well true.

The interloper in the picture is unfortunately not a cormorant, but probably a pigeon.

Autumn Colours

This is a great time of year to be walking in woodland. Here are some lovely autumn colours from Anderton Country Park the other day.

  • Oak and birch are quite subdued compared to the vibrant beech.
  • Spindle and rowan give vibrant splashes of red.
  • White poplar gives contrast – as the white underside of its leaves becomes prominent.

Pan-what’s-it-ism

Because of the sort of books I read, I keep coming across these words and have never really understood the difference (or it doesn’t stick): panpsychism, pantheism and panentheism. Fortuitously, Christian de Quincey explains in his book Blind Spots. I’ve added links to Wikipedia, which has good definitions and background.

Pan is an ancient Greek word meaning ‘whole’ or ‘all of’.

Panpsychism is a philosophical belief about mind, meaning that all of nature possesses mind. Consciousness is in every thing.

Pantheism is a theological belief about the nature of God or gods. It argues that God and nature are essentially the same. God is immanent in nature.

Panentheism takes pantheism a step further – God is in all of nature, but also beyond nature. God is both transcendent and imminent in nature.

Panpsychism is consistent with pantheism, but less so with panentheism because that transcendent God lies beyond its concept.

As de Quincey points out, the important thing to take away is that God/nature is an ongoing, evolving, neverending creative process, and we are each a co-creative part thereof. Materialism is a dead duck, and atheism seems somehow irrelevant.

Never despair

World affairs can sometimes lead us into a trough of despair. Gandhi must have felt this sometimes in his battles for truth and justice. I just came across this quote which gives hope in difficult times:

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it–always.”
Mahatma Gandhi

It also reminds me of EF Schumacher’s words at the end of A Guide for the Perplexed (pub 1977):

“Can we rely on it that a ‘turning around’ will be accomplished by enough people quickly enough to save the modern world? This question is often asked, but whatever answer is given to it will mislead. The answer ‘Yes’ would lead to complacency; the answer ‘No’ to despair. It is desirable to leave these perplexities behind us and get down to work.”
EF Schumacher

Of course, hope is the antidote to fear, and one of the great messengers of hope in the world has been Barak Obama. For example:

“The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.”
Barak Obama

Mind and Matter

According to Christian de Quincey (in his books Blind Spots) there are four basic philosophical/ontological ways of looking at the mind-matter conundrum. For simplicity I equate mind with consciousness and matter with energy (as per Einstein).

  1. Materialism. Everything is matter; mind is an emergent phenomenon.
  2. Idealism. Everything is ultimately mind. Matter emanates from mind or is an illusion (maya).
  3. Dualism. Everything is ultimately separable mind and matter. They represent separate domains.
  4. Panpsychism. Everything is ultimately inseparable. Mind and matter together constitute sentient energy, the inner and outer of the one reality. Mind pervades everything, even the smallest atoms.

So, which is the most likely? This is my take:

  1. Materialism really is a crazy hypothesis the more you think about it. How can consciousness ’emerge’ from matter? Which is the more real to you? Although currently in wide vogue, this is in my view the worst theory, and can cause immense damage to nature which is regarded as ‘inert’. This damage is what we see today.
  2. Idealism is sort of the opposite. It has a certain plausibility. How could we know if it were not true?
  3. Dualism seems inherently implausible. How could the two domains interact? This seems to require a third concept.
  4. Panpsychism seems entirely plausible, coming closest to ‘explaining’ the basics of the universe we see. In such a universe we are clearly both objectively and subjectively a part of the One.

You could regard this as a rather obscure philosophical debate. Should we be ‘mindful’ of it, and does it really ‘matter’? The damage being caused by materialism suggest it might actually be rather important to understand.

What do you think?

Are Humans Special?

Most characteristics of human beings are shared in different ways with other species. Humanity is special in its ability to dominate all other species and in its capacity for abstract thought. Other species are special, each in its own way.

Because that abstract thought has become increasingly dominant, humanity has increasingly lost touch with the rest of nature. The tragic phenomenon of today’s many threatened species and rapidly changing climate, still substantially ignored by our ‘business as usual’ political mindset, is leading in a clearly unsustainable direction.

In Blind Spots, Christian de Quincey suggests that the roots of this modern crisis lie in this presumption of human specialness – and squarely places scientific materialism and religion in his sights as substantial causative agents.

  • Materialism treats the matter of nature as ‘dead’, insentient and of no intrinsic value – (in this view) only creatures with consciousness have intrinsic value and that comes from brains, especially that great human brain. Doubts exist on the consciousness and sentience of various species, because of course you cannot measure consciousness.
  • In the previously dominant paradigm of Christian religion, biblical scripture reinforces the myth that ‘only humans have souls, or consciousness’.

We cannot do without science and religion; we do need them to eschew this crazy materialism and habit of perceiving human specialness, and forge a new path that sees humans as an integral part of nature, perhaps with a special responsibility to just not screw it up.

 

 

Psychopathic and Narcissistic Leaders

I was struck by these words in Steve Taylor‘s recent newsletter:

“I’m not a particularly political person, but I find behaviour of some present world leaders worryingly reminiscent of psychopathic and narcissistic dictators like Hitler, Stalin, Franco and Mussolini. That’s not to say that the present leaders have perpetrated the horrors of the older ones, but it’s easy to see how they have the capacity to, and how similar their personality types are. Political power is naturally very attractive to psychopathic and narcissistic personality types – and we should do everything we can to rein them in, and even to prevent them from attaining power in the first place.”

We all know who they are. Good people will need to stand up and be counted to keep them in check and swing the balance back towards the good. And I’m sure they are doing so.

Of course, it’s not just in politics. These people are found near or at the top of quite a number of business and financial institutions, often leading them to spectacular failure due to loss of contact with reality. As has been observed many times, money and power are great corrupters of weak, easily glamoured egos.

The End Times

Another poem by Steve Taylor gives a positive slant on worrying times; it is in the nature of things that systems grow, flourish and then begin to outlive their time, to be replaced by the new – there is always the bright new beginning.

How can our lives have meaning
when we’re living through the end times?
How can we find fulfilment
with catastrophe hovering us?

Why should we keep building
when structures are collapsing all around us?
Why should we keep trying to contribute
when nothing may remain to receive our gifts?
Why should we keep striving
when our goals seem to be dissolving, like mirages?

But look inside yourself – can’t you feel your soul aching
with a new yearning for change?
Can’t you feel the impulse to surrender
to a transcendent new goal, that is rising like a wave?

Our personal goals are fading
so that a collective cause can take us over
as we turn to face the end times.

Our vision is becoming clearer,
our minds becoming more focused,
against the background of the end times.

The superfluous is being stripped away,
our lives are being pared down to their essence
by the urgency of the end times.

This isn’t the time to be despondent,
but the time to transcend fear
and abandon every doubt and inhibition.
This isn’t the time to sleep
but to redouble our efforts to awaken –
to harness every quantum of our latent higher selves
and send out waves of transformation into the world
so that the darkness and chaos of the end times
can give birth to a new beginning.

Featured image by John M / Light at the end of the tunnel, via Wikimedia Commons

Consciousness

Scientific materialists claim that consciousness presents a ‘hard problem’ that will ultimately be solved by science demonstrating how consciousness is created by brain activity. Personally I think this is nonsense – consciousness lies outside the domain of science. In this post I explore what consciousness is through the lens of the philosophy of panpsychism, as presented in philosopher Christian de Quincey’s book Blind Spots.

Consciousness (or mind) is subjective, it is undetectable, is not measurable, and is not located in space.

Physical entities have extension in space, consist of matter-energy and can be measured by science.

Consciousness and matter/energy are the inner and outer of existence. They always go together. Consciousness is the capacity for knowing, feeling, being aware, making choices. It needs energy to act. Consciousness is pervasive throughout the universe, and goes ‘all the way down’ to the smallest components.

Consciousness gives meaning to the universe, gives an order that would otherwise dissipate through entropy, according to the laws of thermodynamics.

Consciousness provides a potential explanatory ‘mechanism’ for phenomena of action at a distance, such as intentional healing, remote communication, quantum interconnections and other well-documented phenomena – which provide great difficulty for science.

To me, this all seems rather more plausible than scientific materialism, and seems consistent with the world as I see it, and as it is reported by others.

Does this matter? Well yes, it is crucial. Scientific materialism and the relentless focus of materialist economics and everyday life on the outer, as opposed to the inner, is actually in the process of destroying the world it has created, through a lack of the wisdom that comes from inner focus. Do I need to mention the evident lack of sustainability again: global warming, pollution, wars, inequality, lack of concern for the poor etc.?

Do read Blind Spots or another of de Quincey’s books.

Featured image entitled ‘The path to consciousness’ is by Sar Maroof, via Wikimedia Commons

Lapwings

These lapwings at Anderton Country Park were too far away for a sharp photograph with my travel zoom, but I rather like the impressionistic picture. You can just about make out the characteristic lapwing crests. (Yes, there are a few ducks and gulls in the mix.)

Giant House Spider

The dog saw it a moment before I did, and almost managed to grab it off the vinyl floor before my quick intervention. This spider was BIG, appearing significantly larger than spiders usually found around the house, and with much bulkier body and legs than the long-legged harvestmen we sometimes see. Almost scary!

I first made a quick grab for the camera before it disappeared, and then carefully extracted it to the outdoors, using a large tumbler and piece of card.

giant house spider

An unusual feature of this spider is that the thorax is larger than the abdomen – most seem to be proportioned the other way around. Research shows it to be a giant house spider, actually quite common, with body length over half-an-inch.

According to Wikipedia, these spiders have eight rather ineffective eyes; the flash used for the photo has highlighted two of them. These spiders are not said to be keen on biting pets or people, so are not as scary as they look at first sight.

Exploring Ontology

Ontology – the fundamental nature of being

Something exists. As sentient conscious beings, we each know this for certain.

Nothing cannot cause something. So something must have always existed, as must consciousness.

Big Bang theory models the creation of space-time out of nothing, which is ontologically suspect.

Materialist philosophy suggests that consciousness emerged from no-consciousness, which is ontologically miraculous.

At the heart of things is mystery, which leaves plenty of space for God.

Inspired by Christian de Quincey’s book Blindspots.

Instinct and Intuition

Neither instinct nor intuition involve thought. Both involve responding directly to a situation. So what is the difference?

Instinct is an innate faculty we share with other living beings. We respond automatically to situations, eg catch a ball that is about to hit us, avoid contact with an unfriendly being. It typically involves a fixed pattern of behaviour, “reacting”. Instinct came along first and maybe represents the sum of experience of earlier generations, plus learned responses.

Intuition is direct knowledge of a situation. We just know what is right, what is true, what is about to happen, etc. Something is “seen” or “understood” beyond what is presented. Spiritual writings suggest that this involves a link to our ‘higher self’. Others suggest it’s something to do with pattern recognition. Intuition develops over the individual’s experience during a lifetime.

A quick web search showed me a huge variety of definitions of instinct and intuition. The most inspirational I found was that by Christen Rodgers:

True intuition arises from within the depths of your soul. It speaks in the language of the spirit – the language of love, flow, hope, and forward movement. Instinct, on the other hand, isn’t a spiritual sense but a physiological one. It comes from and serves the flesh and speaks the language of survival – fight or flight, judgement, avoidance, aggression, and fear.

This key difference is how you can tell them apart. Whereas instinct speaks in terms of resistance, intuition speaks in terms of flow. Intuition will urge you to go this way, do this thing, or approach that person. If something isn’t right for you, intuition won’t push against it. Instead, it will simply redirect you towards something else. Instinct, on the other hand, pushes back. It resists, fears, or judges what you perceive as wrong rather than beckoning you towards what’s right.

For Christen, the difference is between a response coming from a place of love, and one coming from a place of fear. I think this is going too far – animals clearly have both fearing and loving instincts. So maybe she’s right in terms of how we should assess our automatic responses, but not in strict definitional terms.

Other insights will be welcome as comments. (‘Insight’ – there’s another similar word that some writers take as a step beyond intuition.)

Spindle Red

spindle treeMost of the trees in Anderton Country Park are still green, many tinged with yellow and brown. Then there is the occasional splash of red, notably these wonderful Spindle Trees, with red leaves and red-and-yellow flowers. The rest of the year these trees are quite anonymous, but now, what a sight to lift the spirits!

The blogging persona

“What I want is to put into a book not only my ideas, but my person.”

Paul Tournier
from The Meaning of Persons

How much of ourselves do we reveal in a blog post? Paul Tournier faced this sort of question when writing his book. It could skate over the surface of things, avoiding anything that might be uncomfortable to his ego/persona, or he could reveal something of himself, as he might do in dialogue with another person.

And how dangerous might it be, as well as uncomfortable, to reveal things in a blog post? We’ve all heard tales of posts on social media that have subsequently been bitterly regretted.

Thus we bloggers create a new persona, showing what we are comfortable with being reasonably public, but hiding aspects of ourselves that we would only be comfortable with revealing in more intimate dialogue.

It’s in the nature of the beast.

To Live is to Choose

I love the title of the penultimate chapter of Paul Tournier’s book The Meaning of Persons. That must mean I have lessons to learn here!

“…it is precisely the free and responsible commitment of the self which creates the person.”

Procrastination and putting off decisions/choices is not good for the person. As is hanging on to old, outdated habits and situations.

“As soon as a man obeys his inner call, he upsets the game, bringing to light around him the persons buried underneath the personages.”

Yes it is time for change, and ever will be!

The Meaning of Persons

meaning of persons
A modern version

After writing my last post on Person, I was inspired to look back at a book that has graced my shelves for nearly fifty years – a rather battered copy of Paul Tournier’s The Meaning of Persons – which shows how long I have been interested in these ideas! The subtitle Reflections on a Psychiatrist’s Casebook accurately describes the content as his own reflections on his experience as a doctor, psychiatrist and Christian.

Tournier uses the word ‘person’ in its modern sense of the whole living individual, and uses the contrasting term ‘personage’ to represent the mask we present to the world, the outer human being, as opposed to the inner lived human being. Jung called this personage the persona (per-sona), so I will stick with Jung’s term henceforth.

Tournier ponders the question How can we Discover the True Person, in the context of his psychoanalytic work. He contrasts the process of objective and scientific inquiry, where information is exchanged, with the process of subjective and intuitive personal encounter where a bond of sympathy and affection is established between two people. In the former learning takes place; in the latter understanding takes place. He suggests that in the latter case there is true communion which touches the other person deeply. Tournier regards this communion as spiritual, and relates it to Martin Buber’s I and Thou. This is also the key to understanding oneself as a person – relationship with others.

Further reflection suggests that the person is the original living creation, and the persona is the automatic, habitual routine presented to the world. Industrial society and technology are increasingly impersonal and encourage the repetition of the persona and not the creativity of the true person. Much of social media and the celebrity culture focus precisely on personas.

There is an ongoing tension between person and persona, because we do not fully ‘know’ ourselves. This tension is often greatly magnified in those who need the support of a psychoanalyst.

There are interesting reflections on the distinction between psychology and spirituality. Tournier suggests that psychology is the science or method by which the mind is ‘laid bare’, but as soon as we approach questions of attitude to self/life/God/morality, then we are in the spiritual business of soul-healing.

In the latter part of the book, Tournier reflects on the bible, the living God and Jesus Christ as important aspects of his own perspective on the world – and entirely consistent with his psychoanalysis and the rest of this book. Indeed the bible has many hidden messages about discovering the inner living person. St Francis was a great exemplar:

“St Francis had become so fully a person, found such personal fellowship with God, that in every thing he saw a person, a reflection of the person of God.”

We could do worse than follow that…

With thanks to my friend Geoff at university for introducing me to Tournier’s book.
The photo of Paul Tournier is from Wikipedia.