Autopoesis

An excellent article by Alfredo Erlwein-Vicuna in the recent edition of Resurgence magazine champions the concept of autopoesis – which is perhaps hampered by its rather obscure name. 

The basic idea is that cognition is the basic process of life, which is a process of a self creation. There is no separation between organism and environment; our perception of these sees different aspects of the same process. The whole is self regulating. Cf Gaia theory. 

According to Wikipedia “the term originates from the Greek αὐτo (self), and ποίησι (creation, production), referring to a system capable of producing and maintaining itself by creating its own parts”.

Fritjof Capra described this as “the first scientific theory that unifies mind, matter and life.”

Originator of the theory, Humberto Maturana states that reality is different for every living being because it is determined according to the sensory processes of each organism. There is no absolute truth. 

Erlwein-Vicuna suggests that democracy is a way of people living in mutual acceptance, which is perhaps a way of organising human affairs that is consistent with autopoesis. 

These ideas point the way beyond the current scientific materialism and the unsustainable politics of power and domination, towards a science that begins to understand life itself and a politics of cooperation and sustainability. 

A thousand posts!

It seems I have reached the magic number of 1000 posts, since I first started this blog in 2016. So many words and pictures. What was it all about? The issues that seem important to me, mostly well away from the mainstream. The photographs I took with my various cameras, mostly very portable travel zooms.

The important thing to me is that I did it, made the effort, tried to do something creative 1000 times, tried to reflect on important issues hundreds of times, went through that publication process 1000 times – that’s all I have to say here, publish and be damned.

It’s helped me to refine my thinking and my photography. Alas, I’m not sure what the benefit might have been for you, dear reader. And special thanks to those of you who have commented, helping me along the way. Great to touch another mind, even if briefly. And great to know blogging friends from all over the world.

I had this bright idea at the beginning to index the posts (using the display-posts shortcode) so that I and others could see what I’d posted on any particular subject. For example: in my passion for the natural world and photography – birds , and in my passion for raising of human consciousness – New Renaissance. I don’t look at these indexes often, but they can be quite useful. See top of page, if you’re interested. [Since WordPress has a limit of 100 display-posts entries, the alphabetically-ordered lists of posts are no longer complete. Anyone know a solution?]

At such a milestone, it’s appropriate to ask, whither now? The blogging habit is now ingrained, so I’m unlikely to stop anytime soon. Salutary to realise that to become an expert blogger would probably require 10000 posts – that’s about another 50 years at the present rate. So, amateur I will remain. And I celebrate the grace that has allowed me the time, health and resources to continue with this process.

To close, I’ve included my current favourite photograph, from Barmouth last year. Thanks for reading!

Towards Tywyn

Seeking Jean Gebser

“We partake every moment of our lives in the originary powers of an ultimately spiritual nature.”

Jean Gebser

Jean Gebser, philosopher, linguist, poet, who described the structures of human consciousness. Born Hans Gebser in Poznan, then Germany, 1905. Left in 1929 for Italy/Spain/France, changing name to Jean. Escaped to Switzerland at the outbreak of WW2. Died 1973.

Having seen many references to the work of Jean Gebser, I wanted to find out more about the man himself and his ideas. His main book The Ever Present Origin seemed difficult to get hold of, and is reputed to be ‘difficult ‘, so I tried the summary of the man and his ideas in Seeing Through the World: Jean Gebser and Integral Consciousness, by Jeremy Johnson (2019).

Basically, Gebser’s work is about human consciousness and how it has evolved and is evolving. He categorises five stages of its evolution, which I roughly describe in the following gross over-simplification.

  • Archaic – original consciousness of the whole, without differentiation.
  • Magical – perfect identification of man with the universe, without separation, all appears magical, a part of ‘the dreaming’.
  • Mythical – becoming conscious of the universe and others through stories and myths.
  • Rational – mental, logical. Man is separated from the world and reasons about it.
  • Integral – becoming aware of, transcending and yet benefiting from the perspectives of all the previous levels.

As stressed by Johnson, this is not intended to be a developmental schema, although it clearly describes the stages of development of humanity to date. But then, neither Johnson’s book nor Gebser’s work are easily read or understood – Gebser has his own specific terminology that I will not attempt to go into here. Johnson has made a heroic attempt to lead us into the thinking of Gebser, and his book is well worth reading, if you are so inclined. Each effort to understand helps us to get in touch with the inspirational quality of this work. He quotes Gebser, giving an indication of the true poetic scope of this work.

“The simple is in us. It is participation—participation in that which is unknown yet evident to us: a tiny seed in us, which contains all transparency—the diaphanous world, the most irradiated and most sober beatitude. It is so completely comprehensive and whole that neither our intelligent, super-clever, caged-in thought nor our pitiable-pitiful and needy-strong longing—how much poverty it renders visible!—can even divine it. And yet, it is within us.”

Jean Gebser April 26 1973

Of course, there are parallels between Gebser’s analysis and the work of Iain McGilchrist, referred to in other posts. The current left-brain-dominant mode of being is the equivalent of the rational stage, and the co-operating left and right brains that McGilchrist envisages are the equivalent of the integral stage. See Scott Preston’s post Gebser and McGilchrist for more insight.

Jean Gebser is also referred to extensively in Ken Wilber‘s work, such as in the lengthy masterwork Sex, Ecology and Spirituality. All these guys are on to something fundamental about what it means to be human, and the direction of any New Renaissance of the human spirit.

The Matter With Things

I have spent many happy hours reading Iain McGilchrist’s magnum opus The Matter With Things. This is probably the largest and most expensive book (in two volumes) that I have ever read or bought, at 1578 pages, including appendices and an extensive bibliography, and a cost in the region £75-£90 (hardback), although there is apparently a cheaper Kindle edition. Why did I do this? Because I was inspired by his previous book The Master and His Emissary, which seemed to capture something very important about the predicament we find ourselves in today. See my review of that book here.

Also, I was inspired by hearing the man himself speaking in some of the videos produced by the Scientific & Medical Network. You can see some of these yourself on the website Channel McGilchrist. This man inspires by the depth of his erudition and the lengths to which he has gone to make his case. The Matter With Things took ten years of his life and provides a comprehensive justification and amplification of the theory in that earlier book. It speaks with equal erudition on neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, physics…

This is not really a book for the general reader; it does require interested effort and perseverance to complete, but I found the effort well repaid. When Iain presented his first draft to his publisher, the reaction was that it needed major editing and perhaps removal of references. He refused and chose to publish it himself. All the research and references were of importance.

I have no intention of trying any sort of summary. Perhaps the important point remains that first presented in The Master and his Emissary. We have these two modes of knowing about things: essentially rational and intuitive, which correspond strongly with left brain and right brain respectively. The proper mode of working of the human being involves both modes: initiation with intuition, working it through with rationality, and validating again with intuition.

Today’s problem is that the rational left brain has in many people significantly lost touch with the intuitive right, which is what grounds us in reality. The left tries to go its own way and ignore the right (the Emissary usurps the Master). We see the results all around in massive narcissism, and lost participation in the natural world, to the degree that we are apparently rather rapidly degrading it. The abstraction of the map has become more important than the reality of the territory.

In marshalling the evidence the book ranges widely over many fields. The first part considers the means to truth – attention, perception, judgement, intelligence (emotional social and cognitive) and creativity. The second part considers the paths to truth related to the brain hemispheres – science, reason and intuition. The third and final part considers the nature of reality, including the significance of opposites, the one and the many – parts and wholes, time, space, matter and consciousness, value, purpose of life and the nature of the cosmos, and the sense of the sacred. Wow.

Having seen various videos of the man in conversation, I found the experience of reading these volumes to be like having an ongoing conversation with an erudite and wise man – an enjoyable and educational experience.

McGilchrist sees this culmination of his life’s work to be the presentation and ‘proving’ of his theories, in an academic sense – there are just so many references, all beautifully laid out near the relevant text. Who can say that this is not a vital endeavour for humanity? These ideas are important!

Follow them

Wondering whether to jump in,
or await the tide at flood,
the inviting vista of the new horizon.
Ahead are the pioneers,
already well on the way,
towards the depths and that new horizon.
The new world beckons.

Figures at Antony Gormley’s Another Place, Crosby beach, Sefton – the gift that keeps on giving.

Butterfly emerging

Thanks to The Crysalis for alerting me to the story of the butterfly, a wonderful metaphor for the change in consciousness that we are in the midst of, or the New Renaissance we are involved in establishing.

You can find the story of the butterfly on the website of Evolution Biologist Elizabet Sahtouris here.

Essentially, it goes as follows>

“A caterpillar can eat up to three hundred times its own weight in a day… continuing to eat until it’s so bloated that it hangs itself up and goes to sleep, its skin hardening into a chrysalis. Then, within the chrysalis… a very different kind of creature, the butterfly, starts to form. This confused biologists for a long time. How could a different genome plan exist within the caterpillar to form a different creature? They knew that metamorphosis occurs in a number of insect species, but it was not known until quite recently that nature did a lot of mixing and matching of very different genome/protein configurations in early evolutionary times. Cells with the butterfly genome were held as disclike aggregates of stem cells that biologists call ‘imaginal cells’, hidden away inside the caterpillar’ all its life, remaining undeveloped until the crisis of overeating, fatigue and breakdown allows them to develop, gradually replacing the caterpillar with a butterfly!” 

Elizabet Sahtouris

This gives us a wonderful metaphor for the changing consciousness of humanity and the evolution of a New Renaissance. Our Western world culture that has developed and spread around the globe since the times of the Italian Renaissance has clearly reached its limits, as climate breakdown and energy limits take hold. The bloated old system has too many people on the planet trying to live in a way that is slowly destroying nature, until the inevitable comeback.

All over the world you find more and more ‘imaginal cells’ of people who dream of a better world and offer solutions that are necessary parts of a transition to something better. Of course, they are resisted by ‘the system’, and at first their efforts seem in vain. Yet there is an inevitability of progress in the long run. The butterfly cannot be prevented from emerging; it is in the nature of things.

As Sahtouris says,

“… the vision of a new and very different society, long held by many ‘imaginal cell’ humans who dreamt of a better world, is now emerging like a butterfly, representing our solutions to the crises of predation, overconsumption and breakdown in a new way of living lightly on Earth, and of seeing our human society not in the metaphors and models of mechanism as well-oiled social machinery, but in those of evolving, self-organizing and intelligent living organism.”

The New Renaissance will come. Our task is to support and join forces with other imaginal cells to build the better future!

Featured image of the Asian Gerosis Bhagava butterfly by Pkgmohan, via Wikimedia Commons

Non-Duality

The Chryslis gives a good perspective on modernity, non-duality, and the complementarity of opposites. It’s all about the change of consciousness that we are witnessing in slow motion?

The Chrysalis

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.”

Rumi

There is an evident problem in the functioning of human consciousness in the Late Modern Era. Some hold that the multiplying social and personal crises of the times are actually altogether a spiritual crisis or a crisis of consciousness at root — a crisis of fragmentation, atomisation, and disintegration of the modern self and its consciousness structure. This seems evidently the case. There is, as we witness, great anxiety and Angst and extremes of paranoia and insecurity about what we call “identity” which drives all kinds of projection, scapegoating, racism, and violence. Also quite a lot of mental confusion and cognitive dissonance that some describe as “schizoid” or as “the culture of narcissism”, portents that we are faced…

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That was 2021 on this blog

My favourite photos from posts of 2021

These were the individual posts, if you’re interested: Towards Tywyn, Sun going down at West Kirby, Sunset at Barmouth, Chinon, Black pine canopy, Common gallinule

My favourite wordy posts of 2021

Most viewed (2021)

As ever, the most viewed probably depends on the vagaries of search engines and my choice of keywords. The top two were the same as in 2020!

Most liked (5 years)

At least the top entry suggests that this exercise is worthwhile.

A happy new year to you all!

Restoring the natural order

Once, we human beings were immersed in the dreaming of the world, just as the plants and animals. Our brains had two hemispheres, which were equally immersed, equally perceptive of and involved in our interconnected world.

Then, we created language and the ability to reflect. Gradually, the left side of our brain began to specialise, to separate out and lose contact with our livingness, an ability which was retained in the right brain. The right brain was grounded in the body and sensing the world; the left brain increasingly concentrated on abstraction and manipulation of the world. Being interconnected, they formed a wonderful partnership, but it was the right brain that was grounded in living, was the Master, served by the left brain.

But the left brain became ever more powerful in its schemes and manipulations. It invented science and technology and the duality of subject and object. The subjective was ‘in here’, and the objective was ‘out there’, and the latter could be measured and manipulated by science.

The problem was, the left brain began to think it was more important – than the connectedness, the beautiful, the moral, the intuition grounded in right brain experience. What was important was the re-presentation of the world, not the actual experience. Even that, subjectivity itself, would eventually be explained away by materialist models. Art was just about concepts, not beauty. Justice was about laws and punishment, not what was right. Might was right in the politics of ‘interests’, which even purported to justify obscene warfare. Money was the supreme value. Science could be directed without making space for inspiration. Education was to prepare for making money. Intelligence was an abstraction that could be mechanised.

Yet still the right brain was there, belittled, but grounding and connecting. The denied connection with nature as it was slowly and systematically debased, exploited, polluted. The failed left brain dominance was showing its true colours as climate breakdown and pollution got a grip, species began to disappear, a stream of plagues burst forth on the earth. It was time for the right brain to take charge again, a new interconnectedness, a new caring for nature and others. The science and the money became once again harnessed to the good of all, no longer driven by the fearful band of rich and powerful left brains who almost destroyed it all. Education aimed once again to uncover the destiny of this particular soul on earth.

What made this happen? Well it was the natural order of things. The over-specialised left brain could not in the end cover up the effect of its own defects. The mass tragedies stirred the human soul, and the balance changed.

Inspired by Iain McGilchrist’s books The Master and His Emissary and The Matter with Things.

A Reflection on ‘Amor Fati’

This post by Andrew addresses one of the major themes of my blog: “There is no doubt that we continue to live in uncertain times. No one quite knows where we are going and what the future holds. We exist in a liminal space of unknowing; a time of transition between worlds.”i75b7z

The transition is from the world we have known since the Second World War, now running into environmental buffers and sheer physical limits, into a new world, a new way of thinking, a New Renaissance.

So thank you, Andrew, we all will need Amor Fati.

A Life of Virtue: Philosophy as a Way of Life

Given that I recently got a tattoo of the phrase ‘amor fati’ (which means to love one’s fate), I wanted to write a short reflection on what the term continues to mean for me.

There is no doubt that we continue to live in uncertain times. No one quite knows where we are going and what the future holds. We exist in a liminal space of unknowing; a time of transition between worlds.

It is easy to cling onto the promises of ideologies which proclaim they have the ‘right answers’ to move forward. They relieve our anxieties and give us a map to make sense of the world. However, I’ve come to realize that all these assurances are just a façade. The efforts of the modern world to influence and control the will of nature still remain futile at best.  

Nothing is ever set in stone.

Nothing is ever…

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Are we insane?

It is difficult to argue with the suggestion that modern human beings are insane, as we trash the environment, poison our own air and water and our own food supplies, send countless species to extinction, indulge in numerous wars, even drive the global climate towards unpredictable extremes. Steve Taylor‘s 2012 book Back to Sanity addresses this issue. Yes we are insane, but we can get back onto a sane track.

Steve suggests that it was not always so, quoting a number of indigenous leaders and their perception of Europeans, who spread the madness across the globe, for example:

“Indian faith sought the harmony of man with his surroundings; the other sought the dominance of surroundings…”

Chief Luther Standing Bear

Steve suggests that “we suffer from a basic psychological disorder that is the source of our dysfunctional behaviour, both as individuals and as a species.” He coins the term ‘humania’ or ‘ego-madness’ to describe the condition – a malfunctioning of the ego. The essential thesis is that humania is a surface condition, and within we always have access to harmony, sanity and connectedness.

The book is in two parts. Part I examines the psychological dissorder and its effects, how humania gives rise to pathological human behaviours. Part II examines how we can practically transcend this psychological discord, and attain a real state of sanity, which is of course a theme of sages across the ages.

Steve is a psychologist, and his practical suggestions are well founded; many of which you will have come across elsewhere, for example: learning the habit of resting in our own mental space without needing distraction, seeking help to resolve past trauma, learning to dis-identify with thoughts, challenging our own negative scripts, practising service and mindfulness, meditation or meditative activity, periods of quiet.

Steve suggests that our only way forward as a species is for enough people to transcend humania; the alternative is too grim to contemplate, but we see the first intimations in today’s increasingly common extreme climate events.

This is one of now-many books on similar themes, a sure indication that people are beginning to change. Will it be fast enough? Who knows, but that is no reason not to try.

Steve’s book provides good diagnosis and guidance on the most pressing issue of our times.

Indigenous Peoples Day, lessons in environmental stewardship and more

This post by Jane Fritz gives an excellent summary of some key aspects of the ancient wisdom of the indigenous peoples of the earth, who knew how to live sustainably on the earth. Our current societies in all the countries of the world have so much to learn from this.

Let’s start with the humility to recognise that such earlier generations actually have much wisdom to offer us about living a good and sustainable life. It is the hubris and arrogance of modernity to discount the value of this wisdom, in favour of modern more materialistic concerns. It is apparent that this is leading to massive destruction of our natural environment, soiling the only nest we have, so to speak.

Robby Robin's Journey

NationalIndigenousMonth

Today is not just the third Monday of my postings for National Indigenous History Month, it’s also National Indigenous Peoples Day.  It’s a day for celebrating Indigenous knowledge and culture, and Indigenous contributions to our planet.  [You can find some wonderful pictures of powwows and community celebrations that take place on this day in non-COVID times at my last year’s post: Celebrating National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada.]

In recognition of this special Day, I’d like to focus on lessons non-Indigenous people would be well advised to take from the teachings, traditions, and beliefs of Indigenous Peoples in Canada and indeed Indigenous Peoples around the world since time immemorial.

Lesson 1: Sustainability.

NatalieSappierFish

From the Assembly of First Nations (AFN):

For countless generations, the First Nations and Inuit people have had unique, respectful and sacred ties to the land that sustained them. They do not claim ownership of the Earth…

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Spiritual science

Can science and spirituality be reconciled? Is there a way of looking at things that brings them into alignment? Of course, the answer is ‘yes’. In his book Spiritual Science, published 2018, Steve Taylor gives a convincing answer. His subtitle is ‘why science needs spirituality to make sense of the world’. Steve gives the reasons and, from my perspective, comprehensively demolishes the arguments for the recently dominant paradigms of materialism and scientism.

Steve looks at the origins of materialism. Science originally developed alongside religion through pioneers such as Descartes, Kepler and Newton. They were not seen as incompatible. it was around the second half of the 19C that Darwin’s theory of evolution came to put into question whether the biblical stories could actually be true; there came a theory that religion was not necessary to explain the world. TH Huxley was a leading proponent of what became the materialistic viewpoint. The inner content of experience and consciousness itself were mysterious elided. After the world wars further discredited religions, materialism gradually took hold, and there came about a new faith that materialism could explain everything. As Steve points out this has denigrated the experience of the spiritual/religious life, and indeed has become a new religion. The result has become increasingly clear as humanity in the large degrades the natural world, and even imperils its own existence.

Steve then goes on to ask the simple question ‘What if the primary reality of the universe is not matter? What if there is another quality, which is so fundamental that it actually pervades matter, and matter is actually a manifestation of it? What if this othe quality also pervades living beings, and all non-living things, so that they are always interconnected?’ Of course, this sort of idea has been adopted by many cultures in history, and is similar to the perspective of the ageless wisdom propagated by Helena Blavatsky. Steve refers back to the ancient Greek philosophy, to the world’s religions, to indigenous cultures, all of whihc had similar viewpoints. It is the modern materialism that is the aberration.

Steve’s panspiritism, and the similar panpsychism, have much greater explanatory power than materialism, which tends to reject the numerous phenomena that it cannot explain, not least the question of consciousness itself, which tends to be ‘explained away’ from the materialist viewpoint (the ‘hard problem’). In the panspiritist vew, consciousness exists everywhere and in everything, and the brain acts as some sort of receiver which channels it. And of course this view allows for the possibility of ‘spiritual experiences’, which are well understood and documented.

Steve goes on to explore the correlates between mind, brain and body, near-death and awakening (spiritual) experiences, psychic phenomena, an alternative view of evolution, the puzzle of altruism, and the problems of quantum physics, which has long been known to be inconsistent with simple materialism. Finally he outlines key tenets of panspiritism and the significance of the expansion of consciousness in the evolution of our universe. This is what it’s all about!

Steve’s book is a genuine tour de force, expressed in language that is not deeply technical. Well worth reading.

Diaphaneity: Unfolding the Wings of Perception

Another great post by Scott Preston which draws together many different but related threads in the study of our two modes of consciousness.

The ideas of Jean Gebser, William Blake, Carlos Castaneda, Iain McGilchrist, Buddhism, Christian mysticism are woven together and related. All are clearly describing the same reality with different terminologies. And what a wonderful title word: diaphaneity.

The Chrysalis

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” — William Blake

“Purify your eyes, and see the pure world. Your life will fill with radiant forms.” — Rumi

“The mystery, or the secret, of the sorcerers’ explanation is that it deals with unfolding the wings of perception. The nagual by itself is of no use, it has to be tempered by the tonal. The sorcerers’ secret in using the nagual is in our perception.” — don Juan to Carlos Castaneda, Tales of Power.

In his book The Ever-Present Origin, Jean Gebser describes the new (integral) consciousness as being chiefly characterised by “diaphaneity” or “the transparency of the world”. The citations above are other attestations to the fundamental reality of the “diaphainon

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The Power of Systems Thinking: Beyond the Reductionist Mindset

Systems thinking and an moving beyond the limitations of a reductionist mindset are vital aspects of the thinking needed for a New Renaissance. In this post Andrew gives an excellent summary.

A Life of Virtue: Philosophy as a Way of Life

It is unfortunate that it often takes a crisis for us to become acutely aware of how interconnected the world really is. We see how everything is immersed in a web of interlinked systems ranging from the economy, natural environment, health systems to our own personal wellbeing. Each input is a unique part of the puzzle, and is connected to the system at large through a series of information flows and interdependent feedback loops.  

Systems are everywhere. We see them in the complexities in our own bodies to the harmony that exists in natural ecosystems. Every unique organism has its role to play in the sustainability and continuation of our vast and diverse natural habitats. The success of a well-functioning system is dependent on how well its parts are organized to achieve a common goal.     

In nature we never see anything isolated , but everything in connection…

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New Renaissance vision – 25 years on

I recently came across this short unpublished article I wrote towards the end of 1996, reflecting on The Knutsford Lectures 1993-1996 on Visions of a New Renaissance, previously described in this post. It was an ambitious attempt to capture the spirit and outline of the needed New Renaissance, inspired by what the 19 individual speakers had said. The limitations of my perspective and the lack of suitable outlets meant the article was never published.

Discovering this piece led me to consider, what has changed in nearly 25 years. Was the outlined vision valid? Are we any nearer to it? Here’s my brief assessment, against the categories in the Emerging Vision section of the above paper i.e.:

  • Sustainable ecology.
  • Ethical behaviour and social responsibility
  • Local economy and community
  • Appropriate scale and human scale
  • Open science
  • Soul and spirit
  • Love, compassion, nonviolence
  • Holistic views
  • Living philosophy
  • Imagination, inspiration, arts

I have to say that, despite some encouraging features, it seems as if we are further away from a New Renaissance than we were 25 years ago. Consider just three points:

  1. Dominating everything else, the failure to effectively act on environmental sustainability and climate change for 25 years has led us into an increasingly perilous situation. We, particularly governments and moneymakers, have failed the test of ‘acting as if future generations matter’. On the other hand, far more individual people are acting as if they do; the pendulum is moving.
  2. Behind this is the dead weight of materialism, mechanism and reductionism, continuing to dominate science, governance and economics, stifling the emergence of soul, spirit, love, compassion, true values.
  3. The conflict between large scale and human scale is still heavily over-balanced in favour of the mega-projects, big government, industrial-scale farming and against human communities, particularly indigenous, and local solutions. Human inequalities increase as a result of an economic/governmental system that systematically increases them.

It does not have to be thus. We are creating the new world day by day, in our thoughts and resulting actions. The New Renaissance is a spur to our forward thinking. Take at look at SciMed‘s current New Renaissance initiative!

And I have to be encouraged by the direction taken by international organisations, and particularly the forthcoming Davos Agenda, plus this year’s schedule of global conferences. Covid-19 appears to have catalysed the understanding that the current ‘system’ no longer works, and a new direction is necessary for the whole of humanity, based on working with nature, inclusion and social justice, and trust between nations. A reason for hope!

Ethics reduced to economics?

Over the years I’ve listened to many of BBC Radio 4’s short talks entitled Thought for the Day. I always found one of the most profound speakers to be Jonathan Sacks, then Chief Rabbi, who died recently. I am indebted to David Lorimer’s New Renaissance Newsletter, published by SciMed, for bringing to my attention the significant speech given by Sacks in his 2016 Acceptance Address for the Templeton Prize. The following extracts key points related to our current Western predicament. It could almost be his manifesto for a New Renaissance. Or you could just read the original at the above link.

“We have forgotten one of the most important lessons to have emerged from the wars of religion in 16/17C and the new birth of freedom that followed. A free society is a moral achievement. Without self-restraint, without the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and without the habits of heart and deed that we call virtues, we will eventually lose our freedom.

At some point the West abandoned this belief. When I went to Cambridge in the late 60s, the philosophy course was then called Moral Sciences, meaning that just like the natural sciences, morality was objective, real, part of the external world. I soon discovered, though, that almost no one believed this anymore. Morality was no more than the expression of emotion, or subjective feeling, or private intuition, or autonomous choice. It was, within limits, whatever I chose it to be. In fact there was nothing left to study but the meaning of words. To me this seemed less like civilization than the breakdown of a civilization.

It took me years to work out what had happened. Morality had been split in two and outsourced to other institutions. There were moral choices and there were the consequences of our moral choices. Morality itself was outsourced to the market. The market gives us choices, and morality itself is just a set of choices in which right or wrong have no meaning beyond the satisfaction or frustration of desire. The result is that we find it increasingly hard to understand why there might be things we want to do, can afford to do, and have a legal right to do, that nonetheless we should not do because they are unjust or dishonourable or disloyal or demeaning: in a word, unethical. Ethics was reduced to economics.

The consequences of our choices were outsourced to the state. Bad choices lead to bad outcomes: failed relationships, neglected children, depressive illness, wasted lives. But the government would deal with it. Forget about marriage as a sacred bond between husband and wife. Forget about the need of children for a loving and secure human environment. Forget about the need for communities to give us support in times of need. Welfare was outsourced to the state. As for conscience, that once played so large a part in the moral life, that could be outsourced to regulatory bodies. So having reduced moral choice to economics, we transferred the consequences of our choices to politics.

It seemed to work, at least for a generation or two. But by now problems have arisen that can’t be solved by the market or the state alone. To mention just a few: The structural unemployment that follows outsourcing. The further unemployment that will come when artificial intelligence increasingly replaces human judgment and skill. Artificially low interest rates that encourage borrowing and debt and discourage saving and investment. Wildly inflated CEO pay. The lowering of living standards, first of the working class, then of the middle class. The insecurity of employment. The inability of young families to afford a home. The collapse of marriage, leading to intractable problems of child poverty and depression. The collapse of birthrates throughout Europe, leading to unprecedented levels of immigration, and the systemic failure to integrate some of these groups. The loss of family, community and identity, that once gave us the strength to survive unstable times…

Why have they proved insoluble? First, because they are global, and governments are only national. Second, because they are long term while the market and liberal democratic politics are short term. Third, because they depend on changing habits of behaviour, which neither the market nor the liberal democratic state are mandated to do. Above all, though, because they can’t be solved by the market and the state alone. You can’t outsource conscience. You can’t delegate moral responsibility away.

When you do, you raise expectations that cannot be met. And when, inevitably, they are not met, society becomes freighted with disappointment, anger, fear, resentment and blame. People start to take refuge in magical thinking, which today takes one of four forms: the far right, the far left, religious extremism and aggressive secularism. The far right seeks a return to a golden past that never was. The far left seeks a utopian future that will never be. Religious extremists believe you can bring salvation by terror. Aggressive secularists believe that if you get rid of religion there will be peace.

Two historical phenomena have long fascinated me. One is the strange fact that, having lagged behind China for a thousand years, the West overtook it in 17C, creating science, industry, technology, the free market and the free society. The second is the no less strange fact that Jews and Judaism survived for two thousand years after the destruction of the Second Temple, having lost everything on which their existence was predicated in the Bible: their land, their home, their freedom, their Temple, their kings, their prophets and priests.

The explanation in both cases, is the same. It is the precise opposite of outsourcing: namely the internalization of what had once been external. Wherever in the world Jews prayed, there was the Temple. Every prayer was a sacrifice, every Jew a priest, and every community a fragment of Jerusalem. Something similar happened in those strands of Islam that interpreted jihad not as a physical war on the battlefield but as a spiritual struggle within the soul.

A parallel phenomenon occurred in Christianity after the Reformation, especially in the Calvinism that in 16/17C transformed Holland, Scotland, England of the Revolution and America of the Pilgrim Fathers. It was this to which Max Weber famously attributed the spirit of capitalism. The external authority of the Church was replaced by the internal voice of conscience. This made possible the widely distributed networks of trust on which the smooth functioning of the market depends. We are so used to contrasting the material and the spiritual that we sometimes forget that the word credit comes from the Latin credo, I believe, and confidence, that requisite of investment and economic growth, comes from fidentia meaning faith or trust.

What emerged in Judaism and post-Reformation Christianity was the rarest of character-types: the inner-directed personality. Most societies, for most of history, have been either tradition-directed or other-directed. People do what they do, either because that is how they have always been done, or because that’s what other people do.

Inner-directed types are different. They become pioneers, innovators, survivors. They have an internalized navigation system, so aren’t fazed by uncharted territory. They have a strong sense of duty to others. They try to have secure marriages. They hand on their values to their children. They belong to strong communities. They take daring but carefully calculated risks. When they fail, they have rapid recovery times.

They have discipline. They enjoy tough challenges and hard work. They play it long. They are more interested in sustainability than quick profits. They know they have to be responsible to customers, employees and shareholders, as well as to the wider public, because only thus will they survive in the long run. They don’t do foolish things like creative accounting, subprime mortgages, and falsified emissions data, because they know you can’t fake it forever. They don’t consume the present at the cost of the future, because they have a sense of responsibility for the future. They have the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct. They do all this because they have an inner moral voice. Some call it conscience. Some call it the voice of God.

Cultures like that stay young. They defeat the entropy, the loss of energy, that has spelled the decline and fall of every other empire and superpower in history. But the West has let it go. It’s externalized what it once internalized. It has outsourced responsibility. It’s reduced ethics to economics and politics. Which means we are dependent on the market and the state, forces we can do little to control. One day our descendants will look back and ask, How did the West lose what once made it great?

Every observer of the grand sweep of history has said essentially the same thing: civilizations begin to die when they lose the moral passion that brought them into being. It happened to Greece and Rome, and it can happen to the West. Sure signs are: falling birthrate, moral decay, growing inequalities, loss of trust in social institutions, self-indulgence of the rich, hopelessness of the poor, unintegrated minorities, failure to make sacrifices for the sake of the future, loss of faith in old beliefs and no new vision to take their place. These danger signals are flashing now.

There is an alternative: to become inner-directed again. This means recovering the moral dimension that links our welfare to the welfare of others, making us collectively responsible for the common good. It means recovering the spiritual dimension that helps us tell the difference between the value of things and their price. We are more than consumers and voters; our dignity transcends what we earn and own. It means remembering that what’s important is not just satisfying our desires but also knowing which desires to satisfy. It means restraining ourselves in the present so that our children may have a viable future. It means reclaiming collective memory and identity so that society becomes less of a hotel and more of a home. It means learning that there are some things we cannot or should not outsource, some responsibilities we cannot or should not delegate away. 

We owe it to our children and grandchildren not to throw away what once made the West great, not for the sake of some idealized past, but for the sake of a demanding and deeply challenging future. If we do simply let it go, if we continue to forget that a free society is a moral achievement that depends on habits of responsibility and restraint, then what will come next – be it Russia, China, ISIS or Iran – will be neither liberal nor democratic, and it will certainly not be free. We need to restate the moral and spiritual dimensions in the language of the twenty-first century, using the media of the twenty-first century, and in ways that are uniting rather than divisive.”

Featured image of Sacks by cooperniall via Wikimedia Commons

New humanity rising

Do you sometimes wonder at the larger number of do-gooding organisations in the world? How come there are so many, many people willing to dedicate part of their lives to improving the lot of others and our connection with nature. Their name is legion.

Of course, many of us despair at the dark forces of personality and greed that apparently lead many major governments and businesses. But behind this there are so many forces moving in a more enlightened direction, and changing the nature of political debate, slowly but surely.

I believe that we see here the symptoms of genuine progress of humanity, away from the strong attraction of charismatic and fear-driven personality/ego forces, towards a deeper and genuine connection with, for want of a better phrase, spiritual values such as truth, beauty, goodness, compassion. Humanity is evolving, not least because of the demands being placed on us as a result of recent materialistic blindness,

I was much struck by the words of Simon Marlow in the recent Arcane School full moon talk for the sign of Sagittarius:

“Let us be clear in our assertion of the reality that over the course of history humanity has displayed a real trajectory of spiritual progress and development. This view causes not a few eyebrows to be raised, especially these days, when there is so much apparent evidence to the contrary. The conventional scientific and sociological view is that humanity has not really changed at all for thousands of years; that the great civilisations are but superficial veneers which temporarily paper over the permanently present and serious cracks or flaws in the character of humanity; that humanity is in fact fatally flawed. All apparent progress is only notional, to use Stephen J Gould’s striking phrase.

If we just existed as the form, as separate selfish personalities, as forever warring nations and competing power blocs, I think we would be quite justified in holding this view. But the point is we are not just personalities. The personality is, if you like, only the tip of the iceberg, the visible bit. Deeper than that, perhaps hidden to many but always present, are far more extensive, holistic and loving dimensions of our being. These dimensions are now demanding a widespread recognition. And did we but know it, the very flaws and deficiencies within humanity are forcing us all to become discoverers of these dimensions of conscious living that lie hidden within us all. And the guarantee of their existence is their revelation in the lives of the increasing number of spiritual giants and geniuses who have emerged from the womb of humanity over time.

We do not perhaps hold sufficiently in our minds the reality that it is our recognitionof these problems that is so encouraging. The fact is that millions of people all over the world are facing up to this reality and are now working and serving to heal, to remedy injustice, to resolve the urgent environmental and climate problems, to hold new images of beauty before the eyes of everyone, to penetrate ever more deeply into the mysteries of the unknown, and to attain to new heights of achievement in every single field of human activity without exception.”

Full Moon Talk Sagittarius, November 2020, London,  Simon Marlow

Humanity is rising to new heights of being, to more conscious living. Each of us has a part to play…

Featured image shows hidden dimensions of an iceberg in Svalbard, its underwater surface structures.
from Andreas Weith, via Wikimedia Commons

Hope in Hell

I am standing on the steps of Knutsford’s new civic centre. It is ten minutes to eight in the evening, in the mid 1990s. I peer anxiously at the traffic coming from the south, the direction of the railway station at Crewe. Where is he? His lecture was due to begin at half past seven. There is a full house of nearly 200 people waiting. Each of our organising committee for these ‘Knutsford Lectures’ on ‘Visions of a New Renaissance’ is quietly panicking. How long should we wait?

A taxi appears. Thank God, it appears to contain well known environmentalist and former Green Party Leader Jonathon Porritt. He sweeps into the building without a concern; the train was delayed. He’s ready to go on immediately. Panic over!

I don’t recall much of what Jonathon said that evening, but I do recall that it was well received, and he made a major theme of people ‘dancing in the streets’, with a social healing as well as an environmental healing as part of his New Renaissance vision.

All this was very much brought to mind as I recently tuned in to catch up on a Zoom talk recently given by Jonathon in a series organised by the Scientific & Medical Network, chaired by the indefatigable David Lorimer. Unsurprisingly looking somewhat older, Jonathon was speaking on the ideas in his latest book Hope in Hell.

It was interesting to hear Jonathon’s reflections on events over his lifetime and the current world situation. I picked out just a few key points, many of which have appeared in various guises on this blog over the years:

  • At one time UK was a leader in addressing climate change, not now.
  • It is good that UK was the first country to commit to net zero emissions by 2050, but current actions do not match this ambition, e.g. far more spent on HS2 than on a green revolution. This is a sort of institutional mendacity.
  • There is a huge gap between what the science says on climate and the institutional response (c.f. covid situation where the gap is relatively small), despite its being an existential threat to humanity. The current incrementalism is not an adequate response.
  • The dominant ideology of indefinite economic growth prevents effective action on climate. Only the Green Party has challenged this dogma over the last 50 years.
  • The other key driver of climate change is population. Because of historic situations it is impossible to have a sensible conversation on this subject.
  • There have been decades of visionaries and good works that have not fundamentally changed the direction of travel. The problem is political and the answers will only come by telling the truth about climate and effectively challenging politicians to do better – active political engagement for those who can. The establishment may not like it, but Extinction Rebellion did achieve political change.
  • At heart, what is needed is a change from self-based thinking to humanitarian-based thinking, from head only to head and heart. [Rather contradicts the previous point – the problem is not just political, but lies in all of us.]

Jonathon is substantially right, and was right in the 1990s.

This and many other issues related to a New Renaissance are covered by the wide ranging activities of SciMed, which has embraced the Zoom age with impressive energy. It is well worth joining if you want to become more informed. They even now publish a regular newletter entitled Towards a New Renaissance.

Our Story

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

TS Eliot, Little Gidding

In the beginning, after the big bang and the formation of the earth and living beings, human beings emerged embedded in the dream of nature. There was no differentiation.

Gradually there emerged language and groupings of people.

There were some societies where the connection with nature remained strong, where language worked in consort with the one, where men and women each brought their own strengths to that cooperation with others and with the one. They developed wonderful creativity in their cave paintings, and a wonderful science that enabled them to comprehend and relate to the cosmos through great stone constructions. They told stories that passed through the generations, passing on archetypal knowledge, lessons of experience to each new generation.

With the coming of written language, some feared that the knowledge of connection would be lost. They wrote it down, hidden away for when ignorant barbarians came, which surely they did.Read More »