Sapiens

Daughter left a copy of Juval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) lying around. I finally got around to reading it. What a great history of humankind: from the early variants that led to Homo Sapiens, to the great flooding; from the nomadic life to agriculture, cities, pyramids and early civilisations; to the dominance of religions and empires; to banks and money, the renaissance; and the development of science and capitalism; the industrial revolution and its empires, and the modern world of ‘permanent revolution’.

It’s a rollicking, engaging and informative tale that runs apace. Harari tells a good story and clearly knows a lot about the subject.

Unfortunately his description is one of surfaces, rather than of the spiritual depths of humanity – in a word, materialistic. Try this quote from page 263:

“…a huge gulf is opening between the tenets of liberal humanism and the latest findings of the life sciences… our liberal… systems are founded on the belief that every individual has a sacred inner nature… which gives meaning to the world… the life sciences have thoroughly undermined this belief… Scientists studying the inner workings of the human organism have found no soul there.”

This is of course nonsense. Science explicity deals with what can be ‘objectively’ measured, which explicitly avoids any question of inner experience and the soul. By definition it cannot understand ‘the sacred inner nature’ of every individual.

This does somewhat question the validity of Harari’s later speculations about the relationship of machines to future intelligence and possible supplanting of homo sapiens.

That aside, this book is a great read, and his speculations are stimulating!

As he indicates at the end, humans have become almost like gods in their powers, and yet we are wreaking havoc on the earth. He ends with a salutary note:

“Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

Could that be because we have lost touch with that sacred inner nature, and hence lack wisdom?

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!

Trauma and the body

In the early 1980s I read the then-popular book Bodymind by Ken Dychtwald, on how the psychological/emotional effect of events in our lives are reflected in the body, and increasing body awareness can help in addressing the residue of these. It all made sense.

Science, and particularly neuroscience, has move a long way since those days, so it was interesting to come back to this scene with Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score – the title says it all. The subtitle gives the particular focus of the book: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma.

Over the years I’ve been involved in various ways with counselling and had an interest in the talking therapies, but it has been evident that there are problems that these simply cannot reach, trauma being a major one of these. Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk has specialised in helping people with trauma over a long career, and it is fascinating to see his perspective on it, and how the professional view has evolved over that time.

I do recall from my own experiences growing up, that various uncles who had served in World War II never talked about their experiences – whether in Burma, or as a prisoner of war in Germany, or in active combat. It was in the box of their past, and they just did not want to open up that box. I suspect that each had his own trauma that was just too difficult to resolve in any conscious way.

It was the traumas of war that were first recognised in USA in 1980, in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. PTSD was then first described as a condition in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) of the American Psychiatric Association. Van der Kolk gives insight into the fight there has been since then to introduce into the DSM more general traumas that come out of lived experience due to domestic/child abuse, physical circumstances such as poverty, neglect, working conditions, hunger, racism, oppression by unfair policing and so on. This has proved very difficult. Might one suggest that those in power might not wish it to be recognised that the conditions they were imposing on members of society are actually causing traumatic injury to those in their ‘care’.

Even so, there has been great progress in the understanding and treatment of trauma, and the book outlines many approaches that have proved helpful, and the underpinning advances in neuroscience. It is impossible to summarise the wise words and stories emerging in these pages – engaging psyche, emotions and the body with techniques, therapies bodywork etc. Of course, drugs may help, but they are not the ultimate answer.

Van der Kolk is a great storyteller, so the material is fully engaging. We can all learn a lot, even in dealing with the minor ‘traumas’ of everyday life. Even more, we can see how the generation of trauma is built in to some of our governmental and social systems. He ends the book with this statement:

Trauma is now our most urgent public health issue, and we have the knowledge necessary to respond effectively. The choice is ours to act on what we know.

Well worth reading.

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

Fundamentalism

My post Modes of knowing highlighted that we have two modes of knowing: rationality, corresponding to left brain function; and intuition, corresponding to right brain function. The human being operates at best when these two modes of knowing operate in tandem, and there is great danger when the rational/left brain function takes over and ignores or denies the right brain/intuition. This is the root cause of fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism appears in many guises in the modern world.

  • Religious fundamentalism. We all know about that. The word in the holy books is taken as a statement of fact, rather than as metaphor. We see these fundamentalists all over the world – Islamic Christian, Hindhu, Buddhist… The effect is to deny the basic truths that were initially espoused by the founding spiritual teachers – Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha…
  • Political fundamentalism. The dedication to a particular ideology, which is often the cover for a privileged class, even an individual, to stay in control of society.
  • Economic fundamentalism. The dedication to particular ideas about how an economy is run, such as that private is always good, public spending is always bad, of many modern right wingers – or indeed the very opposite from many modern left wingers.
  • Scientific materialist fundamentalism. The belief that objective science and the materialist paradigm can explain everything, and that subjective life – religion/spirituality, morality, values etc – are somehow unimportant as without foundation.

I’m sure you could add further examples. Yes, fundamentalism abounds wherever there is human thought and endeavour – particularly, I would suggest, in these days of significant left-brain domination. The task of human development is, as ever, to tread the path between the extremes that lead to fundamentalism, to respond to life with the full subjectivity of those very subjective values that fundamentalism is inherently unable to take into consideration. To be human beings, not the machines that various fundamentalisms would seek to turn us into.

Inspired by Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter with Things.
Featured image by Stiller Beobachter from Ansbach, Germany, via Wikimedia Commons

Metaphor, Map and Model

Metaphor

1. a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance…
2. something used, or regarded as being used, to represent something else; emblem; symbol.

dictionary.com

Metaphor is the basis of language and related creativity. While this has always been apparent in the arts and literature, it is perhaps not so readily associated with other fields.

Just consider the two domains of thought that have dominated Western cultures for thousands of years: religion and science.

Religious texts are full of metaphor pointing towards the great religious and spiritual truths that can never be precisely expressed in language. Religions become problematic for human society when these texts are interpreted literally, rather than metaphorically. Then fundamentalism becomes a big problem, as it was for centuries in Europe and still is in many parts of the world. In the terms of Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary, the Left Brain Emissary has usurped the function of the Right Brain Master.

But surely science is different, you exclaim – it’s objective. Piffle! In essence, science makes mathematical models of the real world. And what are these models but metaphors that reach towards the underlying reality. Scientific fundamentalism becomes a problem when the scientist believes that the model accurately describes the real world, rather than being a metaphor, leading to losing touch with reality itself. The map is not the territory (another metaphor).

Of course, science’s handmaidens technology and modern capitalism have this problem in spades. It is not a huge leap to suggest that this Left Brain dominance has significantly contributed to today’s ecological and climate problems, and to the mealy mouthed response to these problems so far.

It’s all metaphor really!

Inspired by Iain McGilchrist’s magnum opus The Matter with Things.
Featured image includes a quote from Genesis I, King James version.

John Polkinghorne

I was sorry to learn of the death of John Polkinghorne in the recent college magazine Trinity Review. John was my director of studies in Applied Mathematics in the early 1960s, the only director of studies I can really remember from my time at university – which says something. He was very approachable and human, although I must record that he did not in the end succeed in inspiring me to a career involving Applied Mathematics.

I subsequently intemittently followed John’s career at a distance, with interest. Although a physicist specialising in quantum mechanics, John “baffled many of his fellow scientists by believing that advances in his field in the 20th century had made it easier to believe in God… he thought it was no less an article of faith to believe that atoms moved according to some hidden law of nature, as many other scientists did, than it was for him to believe they moved according to God’s will.”

In 1979 John left academia to take holy orders, eventually becoming the vicar of Blean, near Canterbury. He later became dean of Trinity Hall, Cambridge and a prolific writer about the intersection between science and religion. He was knighted in 1997, but as a clergyman was not called “sir”.

As well as being a fine human being, John was yet another example of the long parade of quantum physicists who have stressed the importance of reconciling science and religion/spirituality, in direct contradiction of the materialistic beliefs of many of today’s so-called scientific disciplines. See eg my post on Mystical Scientists.

It was a privilege to have known him.

Featured image of Trinity College, Cambridge by Mahyar-UK, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The thing thing

The thing is, we tend to think in terms of things – for everything (!)

Reality is something else. Everything is connected. There is no unique thing. Thingness is a model, approximating to reality. We could call it thing theory; some might call it materialism.

Psychologically we have an unfortunate tendency to confuse the map with the territory, so we think that things are more real than reality itself. Yet Quantum theory debunked thing theory many years ago.

Reality is more akin to interconnected processes – for example the human process interconnected with the earth process, interconnected with the solar system process, and the galactic process…

Does it matter? Yes, because we appear to think we can manipulate things without considering their interconnections, with our reductionist, materialistic mentality. The effect is only too obvious in what we are doing to the natural world. For example, the UK HS2 rail project replaces a complete ecosystem with a few trees planted in a load of freshly laid soil, and thinks that’s fine.

Of course, in daily life, thing theory works quite well on a practical basis, as does flat earth theory. I sit on a thing chair on a flat earth and eat a thing meal on a thing plate with a thing knife and a thing fork. We just need to know the limits of our theories and models, and when they cannot and should not be applied.

From the perspective of neuroscience, the left brain is very good at things and theories, but not very good at flow and interconnected processes. That’s when we need the right brain. If lefty has taken over completely (the Emissary usurping the Master) then ultimately we destroy every ‘thing’.

Inspired by Iain McGilchrist’s books The Master and His Emissary and The Matter with Things.
Featured image of billiard break by No-w-ay in collaboration with H. Caps, via Wikimedia Commons

A systems problem

Global warming and climate change are symptoms of a systems problem in the organisation human affairs. At a gross level we could characterise the system as having four key elements: sovereign nation states, a fairly ineffectual United Nations, the global capitalist system, and the mass body of modern science and technology.

The scale of system change required is massive and fundamental. It is unlikely to be achieved top-down. It requires change in all these areas.

COP26 set some directions and targets, but not really adequate to address the need. But well done to those involved. What is clear is that the current rich and powerful form a huge brake that resists and will resist the changes needed.

So hang on to your seats. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. But the thing about nature is (and we are part of nature) it does evolve, in an intelligent manner, at all levels, from the smallest components of life. Some form of humanity will emerge in some form of synergistic relationship with nature.

What we don’t know is just how bumpy the ride might get, and just how long it might take. It’ll always be true that for each of us it’s the living right here, right now, that matters, and doing the right thing.

Featured image of hurricane from free photo library.

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.

Our Minds Limit Science

Here’s a wonderful rant by secretsoftheserpent about the essential nature of science, being and consciousness. I don’t necessarily agree with every word, but most of it makes exhilarating sense.

secretsoftheserpent

Our ego mind is what limits us. We are our own worst enemies. We can’t be wrong. We have to have others think like us. The ego will get itself into trouble constantly. Science is not immune to the ego. In fact science is being run by one of the biggest ego trips ever in history. Until we get science and the human race out of the ego, we will not advance.

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A question of balance?

1966

A group of us members of the university astronomical society visit Herstmonceaux Observatory in Sussex. We travel by coach from Cambridge. We have a great time, and on the way back consume significant quantities of Merrydown, which someone had the foresight to provision us with. One of the most entertaining of our party is an acquaintance, Brian Hoskins, of Trinity Hall. I will not embarrass Brian by saying what actually happened on this journey, but it was nothing disgraceful.

2014

I hear this vaguely familiar voice on BBC Radio 4’s morning Today Programme. It is distinguished Professor Brian Hoskins, chair of the Grantham Institute on climate change, voicing the urgency of the action needed against global warming and climate change. Next, I am horrified to hear the old political bruiser and ex-chancellor Lord Nigel Lawson pontificating about what nonsense is all this stuff about climate change. It is not a fair contest, the experienced media brawler versus the earnest scientist. Lawson was supposedly put up by the BBC in the interests of ‘balance’ – balancing true science against bigoted opinion.

2017-18

The BBC give Lawson an opportunity to further express his views on climate without scientific challenge. The next April, the broadcasting regulator Ofcom rules that “BBC Radio 4 broke accuracy rules by failing to sufficiently challenge the climate change denier Nigel Lawson’s controversial claims in an interview“.

2021, yesterday

The Meteorological Office reports on the Today programme that recent extreme weather events were undoubtedly caused by man-made climate change. No so-called ‘balancing viewpoints’ are expressed. The evidence is now fully in.

2022?

Interestingly, the other viewpoint commonly expressed by Lawson and other right-wing zealots around the same time was the importance of Brexit to sever the UK from the European Union. We don’t yet have the full evidence, but years of ill-tempered arguing, recent UK economic performance and the intractable situation in Northern Ireland suggest that the realisation, that this too was cloud cuckoo land, is not too far away now.

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.

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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Entangled Life

I’ve always known that there are mushrooms and fungi and yeasts and strange underground things called truffles. And I’ve increasingly become aware of just how interconnected is all life on earth, which shows through as one of the themes in this blog. What I had not fully realised is that fungi are fundamental building blocks of this interconnected life, even to the extent that plants could not exist without them,  and live in symbiosis with them. Of course this also applies to animals, including human beings. Indeed, some of the largest beings on the planet are fungi.

The actual fungal body is the mycelium of threads (hyphae) that runs through the earth, the compost heap, the rotting corpse, the living being. The mushroom and truffle are the fruit, which provides the mechanism to facilitate spreading of the spores.

For millennia fungi have provided the means for human relaxation and psychological transcendence, through psychedelic mushrooms and the alcoholic beverages that come from fermentation through yeasts, which are also simple fungi. Who knows what role they played in the visions of prophets and mystics, and the evolution of the human psyche.

All this and more is the subject of Merlin Sheldrake’s book Entangled Life. It is a very readable story of the discoveries of modern science related to fungi, woven with Merlin’s own personal journey. Well worthy reading for a better insight into the ever-increasing complexity of our understanding of the natural world, which is just about keeping pace with our ignorant destruction of it.

I should perhaps declare a minor bias, in that Merlin’s  illustrious father Rupert Sheldrake stayed overnight at our house in the early 90s, in order to give his Knutsford Lecture on Visions of a New Renaissance. Rupert’s innovative approach to science, that led to his theory of morphic resonance, appears to have rubbed off well onto his son Merlin, who is proving to be another great communicator of science.

Featured image of edible fungi in a basket is by George Chernilevsky, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mystical scientists

The greatest scientists are also mystics. They recognise that their science is just producing mathematical models of the real world, and there is always a mystery beyond that. The model is a map, not the territory.

In one of his early books Quantum Questions (1984), American philosopher Ken Wilber collated mystical writings of some of the main physicists who created the 20th century revolution in physics, including relativity and quantum theory. This effectively shows that those pioneers were, each in their own way, also mystics.

I recently got hold of a secondhand copy of the book to check it out. These are the scientific mystics included:

  • Werner Heisenberg, who gave his name to the famous ‘uncertainty principle’
  • Erwin Schrödinger, who developed wave mechanics
  • Albert Einstein, famous for his special and general relativity and contributions in quantum theory and Brownian movement
  • Prince Louise de Broglie, who developed the theory of matter waves
  • James Jeans, who made numerous contributions to the theory of gases, electromagnetism, the evolution of stars and galaxies…
  • Max Planck, father of quantum theory
  • Wolfgang Pauli, whose numerous contributions included the ‘exclusion principle’ and forecasting the existence of the neutrino
  • Arthur Eddington, leading exponent of relativity theory, who led the expedition leading to its first ‘proof’

As Wilber points out, they were following in the tradition of predecessors such as Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton.

All these great scientists recognised the philosophical nature of the work they were doing, and what was not within its scope. It’s a great shame that modern practioners of the strange faith of scientism and materialism did not have that same recognition and came to reject any concept of mysticism or spirituality.

Is the book worth reading? Only if it’s of particular interest for you. But it’s good to know of its existence!

Featured image shows attendees at the famous 1927 Solvay Conference, including
Front Row: Planck (2), Einstein (5),
Middle Row: de Broglie (7),
Back Row: Schrödinger (6), Pauli (8), Heisenberg (9).

by Benjamin Couprie, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Galileo’s Error?

Galileo Galilei is thought of as the founder of modern science. “One of his most significant contributions was his radical declaration in 1623 that mathematics is to be the language of science.”

Before that time there was mathematics, but there was also the recognised ‘inner world’ of sensory qualities. The latter was excluded from the emerging science.

The triumphant march of science, with its handmaiden technology, since then, suggests that this was a useful simplification.

But what have we lost? Since Galileo’s time the measurable objective has significantly eclipsed the sensed subjective – not only in science, but across society and in our relationship with nature.

We clearly cannot blame today’s ecological and economic crises on Galileo, but I’d suggest that the trend he set in motion led to the problems we now grapple with. We need a new balance between subjective and objective, which other theorists have suggested is a balance between left and right brain hemispheres.

Incidentally Galileo’s simplification also created the so-called ‘hard problem of consciousness’, by excluding subjective consciousness from science.

Led by quantum theory, science has, over the past century, increasingly come to the realisation that this does not work. Objectification of everything leads to meaninglessness. Basically, mathematical models tell us little about the intrinsic nature of things.

How often, in politics do we see ‘managerialism’, where everything is measured and managed by number, being rejected by the people, in favour of more passionate and idealistic inner-directed politicians. Could this be a part of the natural rebalancing that is going on in the human psyche? It won’t be all ‘good’ – see eg Trump and Brexit…

This reflection was inspired by Philip Goff’s book Galileo’s Error, a well-written, readable and fascinating reflection on the history and philosophy of science and the foundations for ‘a new science of consciousness’. The case for different ontologies of materialism, dualism and panpsychism comes down firmly in favour of the latter. Well worth a read!

Featured image is 1636 portrait of Galileo by Justus Sustermans, via Wikipedia.

What is Philosophy for?

Mary Midgley was 99 when this book was published. This was also the year she died. What was so important as to keep this English philosopher active to such a great age? She had seen generations of academics come and go, and observed the follies of many thinkers in varying disciplines, who even denigrated the purpose of philosophy itself. She’d probably fought many battles. And now she had the clarity to write in a small volume what was the essence of the need for philosophy, in the process pointing out its wide range of applicability and the limitations of its critics. This is a wonderful, clear and refreshing book, remarkable for one of such advanced years.

So what is philosophy for? Midgley has a simple answer, in the spirit of a whole line of philosophers since the time of Socrates: “it is surely the effort to examine our life as a whole, to make sense of it, to locate its big confusions and resolve its big conflicts.” She goes on to ask why people need to study philosophy at all: “because it explains the relations between different ways of thinking”, suggesting that new developments in thought largely come from seeing across the disciplines, rather than from following tracks within them.

Midgley lived through the times when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and academia in the UK was required to become more ‘relevant’. Many traditional philosophy departments were forced to close and what were left focused on the business of ‘research’. Her attitude to such research is well expressed: “…I don’t do any, because I’m certainly not organizing any static mining operation of this kind. I suppose that instead I try to follow the argument (as Plato said) wherever it runs, and I may finally catch it in a territory quite far from the one where it started.”

Why did she write the book?

What makes me write books is usually exasperation, and this time it was a rather general exasperation against the whole reductive, scientistic, mechanistic, fantasy-ridden creed which still constantly distorts the world-view of our age.

This gives a good clue as to the content. I will pick out a few areas where Midgley’s views are far from the mainstream, but largely accord with the ideas you have read in this blog and elsewhere on the needs for a New Renaissance.

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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.

Reincarnation

I’ve always been drawn to the idea of reincarnation, despite its been scoffed at by much mainstream thought. At first this came from the attraction to Eastern religions, particularly Buddhist and Hindhu. But science has been catching up, and in this article (limited access via Medium) Deepak Chopra gives a nice summary of where things are, sprinkled with his own imagination.

He quotes Jim Tucker’s summary of research that shows that a significant percentage of children, up to the age of six, who have credibly reported experience of previous lives, and where that has been checked out. “There has been no serious questioning of the validity of this research.”

To cut a short story even shorter, Chopra summarises a plausible extension of current science:

What Nature presents, from the level of subatomic particles to the level of DNA, is an endless recycling. Just as physics tells us matter and energy cannot be destroyed, only transformed, the same is thought to apply to information and, going a step further, to consciousness. Everything in Nature is about endless transformation, and in the cosmic recycling bin, ingredients are not simply jumbled and rejumbled like balls in a Bingo cage.

Instead, as viewed in human perception, Nature exhibits evolution through three linked processes: memory, creativity, and imagination. Memory keeps the past intact, allowing older forms to contribute to new ones. Creativity allows for novelty so that recycling isn’t mere repetition of the same forms over and over. Imagination allows for invisible possibilities to take shape, either in the mind or the physical world.

If everything in Nature is recycling under the influence of memory, creativity, and imagination, it seems very likely that human consciousness participates in the same recycling. Or to put it another way, if human consciousness doesn’t recycle/reincarnate, we’d be outside a process that includes everything else in the universe but us. Is that really probable?

So maybe reincarnation is just cosmic recycling of consciousness. Nice thought.

Featured image is summary from Jim Tucker’s article linked above.
Thanks to SciMed‘s New Renaissance Newsletter for bringing this to my attention.