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Archive for the category “philosophy”

Random thoughts inspired by Enneagram

This morning Duncan Reyburn spoke about Enneagrams at TGIF, and here are some connected and some disconnected thoughts inspired in part by what he said.

For those who don’t know, Enneagram is one of those personality type thingies, and you can get a sample of it here to find out roughly where you fit in.

If it’s any help, my main type is 5, with 9 and 4 as subsidiaries. And on the Myers-Briggs scale I’m INTP (I find the Myers-Briggs one more helpful, as these things go).

As we sat waiting for Duncan to begin Val recalled that I had been rather disconcerted to find myself labelled as a type back in the 1970s. It was actually a jocular piece written by a journalist in the Sunday Tribune for women who felt the need for a piscine cyclist in their lives.[1] She described varieties of nubile males and what I found disconcerting was that her description of one of the types fitted me right down to the last detail. The detail I remember best was the car I drove — an ancient rust bucket with an empty cold-drink bottle rolling around on the floor (picture here). I think it included a beard and scruffy clothes as well. Actually it was rather flattering, in that she said that was one of the better catches available in the pond, But it was the thought that there were enough of us around to be so closely described that I found disconcerting.

But that was totally unscientific, so back to the Enneagram, and more unscientific thoughts inspired by it.

Duncan spoke about mythology and mythical monsters.: The contrast in Genesis 1 between the forces of chaos and the forces of order, and the notion of mythical dragons symbolising chaos. Duncan cited psychologists like Freud and Jung showing that myths and dreams of dragons represent our unconscious, and that the monsters are not really out there, but in our heads.

Now I may have misunderstood or be misrepresenting Duncan at this point, but I question that assumption. I think that it is a peculiarly white, Western and modernist way of looking at it. This business of seeing things as taking place “in here” in our minds, as opposed to “out there” in the world is very much culturally conditioned. Should we let Western psychologists like Freud and Jung have the last word to say about it?

As J.V. Taylor (1963:44f) puts it, in his book The primal Vision: Christian presence amid African religion:

But though these [dreams, thoughts etc] may infect the body with sickness and delude the senses with hallucinations, we believe them to be rooted within the sufferer’s mind. Dreams are only dreams, for we know their fantasies are confined within the wall of the dreamer’s brain.

We are in danger of forgetting that all this is only a figurative way of speaking. The spatial concepts of inside and outside cannot be used literally of something so elusive and abstract as the self; yet in Europe we have allowed them so to dominate our imagery that we have almost identified the mind with the brain and imprisoned the self within the walls of the skull.

But there have been other ways than ours of picturing this unimaginable Self. Some philosophies, notably the Hindu Upanishads, include on the ‘inside’ much that we can only imagine as being ‘outside’, so that even the transcendent Absolute is to be sought only within the innermost cave of the heart. But in the imagery of primal religion, on the other hand, the self is thought of as spilling out into the world beyond the confines of the experiencing body, and echoing back again from other selves. Africans would assert with St Augustine that ‘we live beyond the limits of our bodies’.

So I think that just as physicists something think of light in terms of waves, and sometimes in terms of particles, so we can sometimes see things as inside, and sometimes as outside our heads. Mythical dragons may refer to things within us, but they can also refer to things outside.

As Anderson (1990:256) puts it:

An experience that a premodern person might have understood as possession by an evil spirit might be understood by a modern psychoanalytic patient as more mischief from the Id, and might be understood by a postmodern individual as a subpersonality making itself heard – might even, if you want to get really postmodern about it, be recognized as all three.

And that’s something I do like to get really postmodern about. I’ve said more on that in this article Sundkler deconstructed: Bethesda AICs and syncretism.

Duncan spoke of films of sea monsters, like Jaws. They give chills to audiences in Pretoria, though they are dry and far from the ocean. Why? Because the monsters represent our Unconscious, which threatens to swallow us. Hence the need to face our monsters, because the monsters are not necessarily evil, but can sometimes take us where we want, or need to go. Jonah, for example, was swallowed by a sea monster, but the monster put him back on track.

St Jonah

Films like Jurassic Park are apparently about land based monsters, but are really about divorce. The external monsters force dysfunctional families to face their internal monsters and become reconciled, and in the end it is the biggest, strongest and most fearsome monster, Tyrranosaurus Rex, which keeps the real threat, the velociraptors, at bay.

And that made me think that yes, it was the Tyrannosaurus Rex of apartheid that kept South African Christians on track before 1994. It was opposition to apartheid that made many Christians and Christian bodies more conscious of their core business. And after 1994, they lost their way, and started floundering, and were caught unawares when the velociraptors of corruption charged in. One evil spirit exorcised, but seven others rush in to take its place. But apartheid was not unconscious, and was not simply in people’s heads. It did not remain within the confines of the skulls of theorists. Apartheid changed the landscape of the country and moved thousands of people from one place to another. It was not simply the Freudian unconscious. So yes, we do need monsters to keep us on track. But monsters and the track are not just inside our skulls.

And Val said that while Duncan was speaking about Jonah, the Ode of Paschal Nocturns was running through her head.

Jonah was caught but not held fast in the belly of the whale. He was a sign of Thee who hast suffered and accepted burial. Coming forth from the beast as from a bridal chamber, he called out to the guard, “By observing vanities and lies you have forsaken your own mercy.”

And it struck me that Duncan had cited someone as saying that Christianity belonged to No 2 on the Enneagram, but really needed to practise the other 8. And I recalled that there are nine odes in the Canon, but we only ever sing eight of them. We never sing Ode 2.

 


Notes and references

[1] The current saying was “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”

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The Limits of Discourse : As Demonstrated by Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky : Sam Harris

For decades, Noam Chomsky has been one of the most prominent critics of U.S. foreign policy, and the further left one travels along the political spectrum, the more one feels his influence. Although I agree with much of what Chomsky has said about the misuses of state power, I have long maintained that his political views, where the threat of global jihadism is concerned, produce dangerous delusions. In response, I have been much criticized by those who believe that I haven’t given the great man his due.

Last week, I did my best to engineer a public conversation with Chomsky about the ethics of war, terrorism, state surveillance, and related topics. As readers of the following email exchange will discover, I failed. I’ve decided to publish this private correspondence, with Chomsky’s permission, as a cautionary tale. Clearly, he and I have drawn different lessons from what was, unfortunately, an unpleasant and fruitless encounter. I will let readers draw lessons of their own.

via The Limits of Discourse : As Demonstrated by Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky : Sam Harris.

An interesting discussion, and worth reading.

It seems that the “old atheism”, that of the Bolsheviks, was associated with left-wing politics, whereas the “new atheism” of Harris, Hitchins et all, is linked to the politics of the right.

Now all we need is some sociological or anthropological studies to come up with some reasons for this.

 

Incompatible worldviews: The castle in the Pyrenees

The Castle in the PyreneesThe Castle in the Pyrenees by Jostein Gaarder

The book takes the form of e-mail correspondence between two former lovers, Solrun and Steinn, who meet by accident some thirty years after they parted, at a hotel that was linked to the events that caused them to part. They reflect on the events that led up to their parting, which involve a mysterious “Lingonberry Woman”, and the divergent interpretations of their shared experience, naturalistic and supernaturalistic, that eventually caused them to part.

The story is almost allegorical, with the main characters standing for two worldviews, a technique that is shared with some of Jostein Gaarder‘s other books. In the end, neither the philosophical nor the narrative mystery is solved, and both are left hanging. I can understand this in the case of the philosophical mystery of the natrualistic or supernaturalistic worldviews, but in the case of the narrative mysteries it makes the story a bit unsatisfactory.

Perhaps I am missing some literary allusions, but the title is one of the mysteries. All the action takes place in Norway, and none in the Pyrenees — the closest the characters get to the Pyrenees is a trip to Normandy, which is mentioned in passing. And the “Lingonberry Woman” apparently has nothing to do with lingonberries (whatever they may be). She neither gathers them, nor eats them, nor offers them to the characters to eat. It might have been more appropriate to call her the “Foxglove Woman” since the characters are looking at foxgloves when they encounter her.

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Insanity goes viral

A Facebook friend posted this picture byte and asked if I had any comment to make on it. I had seen it before, and hadn’t made any comments, as it was one of thousands of picture bytes that appear on Facebook every day. I sometimes even pass on one or two that I think are amusing or pithy, even though sometimes they may come from a questionable source, but I didn’t feel moved to comment on this one, until I was specifically asked to do so.

dawkinsThere is probably quite a lot one could say about it, and so Facebook is not exactly the best medium for that, since it only allows one-paragraph comments.

I suppose the first thing to ask is how many of the 12 195 people who shared this on Facebook (at last count) have seen the original manuscript. Do they know who wrote it, and when? Do they know which language it was originally written in, and who translated it into English, if English was not the original language?

It was apparently posted on Facebook by The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (Official).

The Richard Dawkins Foundation may (or may not) have the same relation to the statement on the left that the Church of England had to the King James Bible. They may be as “official” as the King James translators were (and they do say they’re “official”).

But the authorship of the graphic remains a mystery. Was it composed by a single author, or by a committee? What might its Sitz im Leben be? A committee room with polished table and vinyl upholstered chairs? A convivial gathering at a pub (official, of course)?

Four people are named on the website of the Foundation that appears to have posted it — Richard Dawkins, Elisabeth Cornwell, Sean Faircloth and Brian Govatos. Did one of them write it? Did they all write it? Did each write a paragraph?

And what of the faith of the 12 195 people who shared it on Facebook? What did they think they were posting? Were they sharing it in good faith, or was it just insanity?

While there is no evidence that Richard Dawkins himself wrote this, perhaps we can assume that it bears the same relation to the thought and teaching of Richard Dawkins as the New Testament does to the thought and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. The community that wrote the New Testament thought that Jesus of Nazareth was worth taking seriously and that his teaching was worth recording, in the same way as the Foundation appears to think that Richard Dawkins deserves to be taken seriously. And perhaps he does, though I tend to share the reservations expressed by a blogging friend a few years ago when Richard Dawkins appeared on a TV programme:

Rational debate about the existence/ non-existence of God, and the ethical implications thereof, is good. It belongs to human dignity to seek to discern what is true.

There is an academic discipline which studies questions such as what constitutes a warranted belief, what religious language ‘means’, whether it has a possible reference and what it means for our conceptions of the good life. That discipline is philosophy. There is also an academic discipline whose remit of study includes the atrocities committed in the name of religion. That discipline is history.

So why, when Channel Four want to air a programme about these issues do they give air-time to a biologist with no training whatsoever in either discipline? Moreover one whose previous pronouncements in this area have only been published because he has piggy-backed on his (justified) scientific reputation and which, considered in their own right, are unworthy of a moderately bright A-level student..

Yet another example of the ignoring of the humanities in mainstream culture and, in spite of the irrationalism of our age, the persistence of the Victorian cult of the polymath scientist. Boo, hiss.

dawkinsThe graphic which sparked off these thoughts could be said to have “gone viral” in modern parlance, where “going viral” is the new-fashioned term for old-fashioned propaganda. The graphic is a meme, and that is perhaps especially appropriate because Richard Dawkins is the inventor of the meme, or the concept of memes. That is perhaps a more deserved piggy-backing on his reputation as an evolutionary biologist, when he wonders about the propagation of ideas, and came up with the concept of a meme as analogous to a gene.

But since he likes to trespass on the fields of philosophy and history, let me briefly trespass on his field of evolutionary biology, and link the theme of “insanity” in the meme with another text:

V: Let us throw back our heads and laugh at reality
R: Which is an illusion caused by mescaline deficiency

V: At sanity
R: Which is an illusion caused by alcohol deficiency.

V: At knowledge which is an illusion caused by certain biochemical changes in the human brain structure during the course of human evolution, which had it followed another course would have produced other biochemical changes in the human brain structure, by reason of which knowledge as we now experience it would have been beyond the reach of our wildest imaginings; and by reason of which, what is now beyond our wildest imaginings would have been familiar and commonplace. Let us laugh at these things. Let us laugh at thought.
R: Which is a phenomenon like any other.

V: At illusion
R: Which is an illusion, which is a phenomenon like any other.

V: Let us love diversity.
R: Because there is neither end nor purpose to it.

V: Let us love simplicity.
R: Because there is neither end nor purpose to it.

V: Let us think and think we think because leaves are green and because stones fall and because volcanoes erupt in a world where seas are salt.
R: Amen.

Why should we worry about insanity when sanity is an illusion caused by alcohol deficiency? And when the whole lot is caused by evolutionary changes in the human brain structure? For more thoughts on this see Consciousness of absurdity and the absurdity of consciousness.

I was asked to comment, and there are some comments sparked off the the Dawkins Foundation’s meme (if one can believe patterns created by electrons on a screen). They are mostly playful comments, and I had thought of ending with some more serious ones, but I’m not in the mood for it at the moment, so maybe another time. At the moment I feel more in the mood for going back to family history, and to see what has been transmitted by genes rather than memes.

Consciousness of absurdity and the absurdity of consciousness

It was G.K. Chesterton who said:

the things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary. Man is something more awful than men; something more strange. The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization. The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature. Death is more tragic even than death by starvation. Having a nose is more comic even than having a Norman nose.

To which I would add that having a state of consciousness is more absurd even than having an altered state of consciousness.

Absurd?

Well, yes.

Back in the 1960s there was a genre of “theatre of the absurd”, and in one such play, A resounding tinkle by N.F. Simpson, one of the characters turns on a radio and hears a parody of an Anglican church service, with its versicles and responses:

V: Let us weep at the elastic as it stretches
R: And rejoice that it might have been otherwise

V: Let us sing because round things roll
R: And rejoice that it might have been otherwise

V: How flat are our trays
R: Our sewers how underground and rat-infested altogether

V: As a river flows always towards its mouth
R: So is sugar sweet.

V: Let us laugh with those we tickle
R: And weep with those we expose to teargas.

You get the idea — but where is all this leading to?

It leads here:

V: Let us throw back our heads and laugh at reality
R: Which is an illusion caused by mescaline deficiency

V: At sanity
R: Which is an illusion caused by alcohol deficiency.

V: At knowledge which is an illusion caused by certain biochemical changes in the human brain structure during the course of human evolution, which had it followed another course would have produced other biochemical changes in the human brain structure, by reason of which knowledge as we now experience it would have been beyond the reach of our wildest imaginings; and by reason of which, what is now beyond our wildest imaginings would have been familiar and commonplace. Let us laugh at these things. Let us laugh at thought.
R: Which is a phenomenon like any other.

V: At illusion
R: Which is an illusion, which is a phenomenon like any other.

V: Let us love diversity.
R: Because there is neither end nor purpose to it.

V: Let us love simplicity.
R: Because there is neither end nor purpose to it.

V: Let us think and think we think because leaves are green and because stones fall and because volcanoes erupt in a world where seas are salt.
R: Amen.

Forty years later I came across this blog: Memoirs of an ex-Christian: I am my brain, in which the writer says, among other things

current advances in science, especially in neuroscience, are pointing to the disconcerting realisation that the soul is simply a product of, and is totally dependent on, the brain. In a fascinating article on the mystery of consciousness, published in the latest edition of Time, Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard

I’d also read something similar in an op-ed article in a Sunday newspaper a couple of years ago, to the effect that some neuroscientists and psychologists who have studied human consciousness had come to the conclusion that there’s “nobody home”. Such a conclusion might fit well with Buddhist anthropology, which generally denies the “self”. It differs from Christian anthropology, which is based on the ultimate significance of the person.

But we didn’t need neuroscientists to tell us this. Philosophers have pondered it for centuries, and most moderately bright 16-year-olds go through a solipsist phase. For me it was triggered by reading “The new reality” by Charles L. Harness, which for me was a paradigm shift that shaped my understanding of paradigm shifts.

I suspect that the question whether there is a “ghost in the machine” is not one that will be answered by neuroscience. It ends up in a circular argument, like a snake swallowing its own tail. Pinker’s article gives numerous instances of the brain’s limitations and the way in which it can be deceived. Why should it not be deceived when it tries to understand its own functioning?

The blogger (following Pinker) goes on to raise another question:

For some, this idea can be incredibly disconcerting. Not only does it rule out an afterlife, but it also brings up the question of morality: how can someone be moral without having to account for their actions in an afterlife? Steven Pinker, in the Time article, argues that the materialistic view of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the supernatural view of an afterlife, as it forces us to recognise the interests of other beings.

Is this anything more than wishful thinking?

If we rely solely on what neuroscience can tell us, the only system of values we can derive from it is nihilism: nothing exists, nothing is knowable, nothing has value.

Whether or not there is a ghost in the machine, one cannot derive values from the mechanism alone.

And Pinker errs when he says that “the biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul”, because the biology of consciousness provides no proof whatever for the value of anything. He also errs if he thinks that Christian morality, for one, depends on the dogma of an immortal soul. It doesn’t.

Christian morality does indeed have unprovable dogmas as its basis, but it is just not the dogma of an immortal soul or an afterlife in which there are rewards and punishments. The basis of Christian morality is the idea that persons exist and have value. This is unprovable. But it is precisely the same dogma that lies at the basis of Pinker’s proposed morality, and it is equally unprovable, and it cannot be derived from the biology of consciousness. It is derived from the consciousness of consciousness, which is not quite the same thing.

A Christian theologian, Paul Tillich, once said, “It is the greatness of Christianity that we can see how small it is. The importance of being a Christian is that we can stand the insight that it is of no importance.”

And perhaps this too can be paraphrased and extended, as I paraphrased and extended the quotation from Chesteron at the beginning. The importance of being a Christian is that we can stand the insight that it is absurd.

But it seems to me that those, like Pinker, who claim to be able to derive morality from the biology of consciousness, do so because they cannot stand the insight that it is absurd.

And then, of course, there is that fool Dawkins. (Sorry, that was a link to another deleted blog, but I saved the text, so here it is)

Jan. 8th, 2006 08:01 pm That fool Dawkins

Rational debate about the existence/ non-existence of God, and the ethical implications thereof, is good. It belongs to human dignity to seek to discern what is true.

There is an academic discipline which studies questions such as what constitutes a warranted belief, what religious language ‘means’, whether it has a possible reference and what it means for our conceptions of the good life. That discipline is philosophy. There is also an academic discipline whose remit of study includes the atrocities committed in the name of religion. That discipline is history.

So why, when Channel Four want to air a programme about these issues do they give air-time to a biologist with no training whatsoever in either discipline? Moreover one whose previous pronouncements in this area have only been published because he has piggy-backed on his (justified) scientific reputation and which, considered in their own right, are unworthy of a moderately bright A-level student..

Yet another example of the ignoring of the humanities in mainstream culture and, in spite of the irrationalism of our age, the persistence of the Victorian cult of the polymath scientist. Boo, hiss.

http://frsimon.livejournal.com/36897.html – This journal has been deleted and purged.

——-

This a “synchroblog” posting, which means that other bloggers will be posting on the same day on the general theme of “Altered states of consciousness”. Here are links to the other postings.

Added in July: here’s a belated link that would have been a worthy addition to this Synchroblog: Altered States, by Anthony North.

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