Criticis se quis reprehendat?

December 4th, 2016
by Chris

In an article by David Sessions, I find the following critique of criticism, or more accurately what tends to be called “Critical Theory”:-

“The five characteristics of critique, Felski continues, are negativity (“characterized by its ‘againstness’”); secondaryness (“does its thinking by responding to the thinking of others”); intellectualism (“interested in big pictures, cultural frameworks, underlying schema,” vs. everyday practices and common sense); marginality (“it rails against authority”); and intolerance (“it insists that those who do not embrace its tenets must be denying or disavowing them”).”

I’m thinking in particular here of Radical Theology particularly as evidenced by the work of John Caputo and Peter Rollins (there are many other voices, but these are the ones I know the most about). All of those voices seem to share an origin in “Continental Philosophy”, which means the tradition of European philosophy which runs from Kant through Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger to a variety of 20th century French philosophers of whom Jacques Derrida is the best known (and most notorious). It also prays in aid Marx on the political front and Freud (and then Lacan) on the psychoanalytic front. That tradition is now most commonly seen in “Critical Theory”, which I understand is endemic in Literature departments in academia.

Caputo has often commented that Radical Theology is parasitic on mainstream confessional theology, thus confirming “secondaryness“. One might assume from Derrida’s comment that “he regarded his function as the destruction of meaning”, that negativity is also fundamental to this school of thinking. That would certainly be the naive reading of Derrida’s invention, “deconstruction”. It is, I think, also implicit in the general description of Nietzsche, Marx and Freud as “The Masters of Suspicion”.

It seems to me also pretty clear that, as I’ve invoked the names of several notoriously obscure philosophers, the endeavour is characterised by intellectualism. In defence of Caputo and Rollins on that front, both are very good in spoken contexts at making their field approachable by normal human beings (as opposed to philosophy graduates), and Rollins also writes in a very approachable way (Caputo is very readable, but peppers his work with a lot of references, many of them humorous, which I think most general readers would not pick up on – and, indeed, I include myself; I find, reading Caputo, that I have a permanent sense that I’m missing a significant number of his references…).

Is it also characterised by marginality? One might reasonably think so, as (particularly in the work of Peter Rollins) it bids us rid ourselves of the spectre of the “Great Other” (railing against authority), even if one does not consider the strands of Liberation Theology, Black Theology, Womanist Theology or Queer Theology as being integral parts of Radical Theology. Personally, I think those are more characteristic of Liberal theologies, and perhaps Radical Theology should therefore stand alongside the likes of Liberation Theology (etc) rather than be seen to subsume them. However, I might point out that Christian theology generally probably should (even if it commonly does not) follow the example of Jesus, and privilege the marginalised – women, foreigners, those of opposing religions, the poor and children all have special consideration in stories about Jesus in the gospels, and the mainstream (scribes, pharisees and the Roman occupiers aside a couple of specific examples) tends to get short shrift from him.

As an aside, I think the preferential option for the marginalised is even more important after seeing this attempt to lampoon it… I was in two minds whether to share it, as I tend to feel it goes beyond lampoon to something really quite spiteful and vicious, but it does make a point about some of the problems of this marginal-favouring approach. That leads me neatly into the final category, that of intolerance, which I could recast as being a totalising approach; in it, everything has to be criticised and dissected, and any opposition to that displays an adherence to one or more of the hidden subtexts which deconstruction allegedly reveals (I say “allegedly” because I strongly suspect that the process tends to read into texts things which were absolutely not there in the mind of the author, even as subconscious influences, as well as the hidden meanings which one would want to know of). If marginality is totalising, unless you are a member of a minority, you are effectively marginalised yourself (something which has been suggested as a reason for Trump’s success over Clinton; her narrative was heavily based in identity politics, mentioning African-Americans, Hispanics, women and LGBT to the exclusion of, in particular, while males, who then proceeded to vote in masses for Trump). You also, to my mind, cannot possibly be “secondary” if you are proposing something totalising.

There is thus a potential self-defeating rift at the heart of the deconstructive, critical approach – which has led some Radical Theologians to propose that that rift is fundamental to existence. Rollins perhaps falls into that category, although not to the same extent as (for instance) Alain Badiou in “St. Paul: The Foundation of Universalism”, Zizek in “The Puppet and the Dwarf” or Thomas J.J. Altizer in everything of his I have so far read. I am not personally convinced that reality has such a rift; it seems to me more likely that when you look at something through cracked glasses, it looks cracked. It is, perhaps, high time that deconstruction were deconstructed – which is what the article I linked to first is, perhaps, attempting to touch on in positing the “post-critical”.

In particular, I cannot see Peter Rollins work as being able to achieve this totalising effect, for perhaps just that reason – or, perhaps, because while it is all very good to understand that the “big other” is something which we construct, as are grand narratives (and, indeed, narratives of any kind); that ultimately none of these things exists, we are nonetheless hard-wired to posit the other and to try to make sense of our experience, to weave it into a story which makes sense. Most of us cannot live long in the absurd, the deracinated, the formless void (although I could argue that modern living seems to be moving inexorably toward the need for that). As Terry Pratchett (in my opinion much underrated as a philosopher) said, we are not so much homo sapiens (the wise or understanding man) as homo narrans, the man who tells stories.

Caputo, on the other hand, may have the possibility of doing more than merely clear the ground for a never-to-come rebuilding; his “weak but insistent call” and his “perhaps…” will be enough to weave ourselves a new story.

Perhaps…

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One man and his God?

December 3rd, 2016
by Chris

I’ve been struck over the last couple of days by two articles. The first, an interview with Donald Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science, contains these words:-

“I call it conscious realism: Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view. Interestingly, I can take two conscious agents and have them interact, and the mathematical structure of that interaction also satisfies the definition of a conscious agent. This mathematics is telling me something. I can take two minds, and they can generate a new, unified single mind. Here’s a concrete example. We have two hemispheres in our brain. But when you do a split-brain operation, a complete transection of the corpus callosum, you get clear evidence of two separate consciousnesses. Before that slicing happened, it seemed there was a single unified consciousness. So it’s not implausible that there is a single conscious agent. And yet it’s also the case that there are two conscious agents there, and you can see that when they’re split. I didn’t expect that, the mathematics forced me to recognize this. It suggests that I can take separate observers, put them together and create new observers, and keep doing this ad infinitum. It’s conscious agents all the way down.”

The second is a piece by Keith Frankish, a philosophy lecturer in a similar area of research, who says, among other things, “As well as being embodied, mental processes can also be extended to incorporate external artefacts. Clark and fellow philosopher of mind David Chalmers propose what’s since been called the Parity Principle, which says that if an external artefact performs a function that we would regard as mental if it occurred within the head, then the artefact is (for the time being) genuinely part of the user’s mind. To illustrate this, Clark and Chalmers describe two people each trying to work out where various shapes fit in a puzzle. One does it in his head, forming and rotating mental images of the shapes, the other by pressing a button to rotate shapes on a screen. Since the first process counts as mental, the second should too, Clark and Chalmers argue. What matters is what the object does, not where it is located. (Compare how a portable dialysis machine can be part of a person’s excretory system.) The rationale is the same as that for identifying the mind with the brain rather than the soul; the mind is whatever performs mental functions. “

These seem to me to give a real basis for some of the intuitions carried by the mystical experience; firstly (per Frankish) that the boundary of the self is extremely “fuzzy” and can be much smaller than the extent of the “mind” or extend much further than the extent of the physical body, and secondly (per Hoffman) the feeling of being part of and connected with something far larger than the self, which something has at least some characteristics of a consciousness (or, if you like, “person”).

I was searching for an analogy to use for this, and thought of my wife (who is currently starting training our one year old german shepherd for working trials) and recalled the BBC television series “One man and his dog”. Watching a well-handled sheepdog herd sheep, the dog becomes very much an extension of the handler, which is two consciousnesses acting as one, despite the fact that the dog (the subservient partner) has a consciousness all of its own. That’s something my wife is currently battling with, as Lutz has a very well developed willfullness all of his own, and she isn’t yet completely attuned to the subtle signals Lutz gives off about his intentions.

Now, I’m sceptical about the validity of Hoffman’s more general claim that, in essence, it’s “consciousness all the way down” and that we should think of the whole of existence as a collection of consciousnesses, or at least proto-consciousnesses. That said, Frankish makes me think about Heidegger’s picture of the man wielding the hammer, in which the hammer becomes in a sense a part of the person wielding it. I would myself be inclined to think that for something to be a consciousness, it would need some sense of self, some feedback loop giving it a concept of what it is in itself. We certainly have that, and frankly I think Lutz does as well, although in his case it isn’t nearly as well developed (if I were asked to guess why, I’d say that it’s because he doesn’t have the same memory retention characteristics as humans do). But in the case of “One man and his dog”, I think we have a clear case of a single consciousness temporarily formed out of two – and it might be possible to stretch and say that the ensemble of man, dog and flock of sheep became a single consciousness for at least short periods.

Suddenly it doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched that I could write of feeling at one with a consciousness greater than myself of which I am integrally part…

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On the other side of the “end times”…

November 30th, 2016
by Chris

Richard Beck has a great series of blog posts on preterism (the belief that the apocalyptic statements of Jesus refer to the events of 70 CE, when the Temple was destroyed and, to a great extent, Palestinian Judaism with it – the second had to wait for the Bar Kochba revolt of 135 to be fully the case, but if you take the “end times” as being 70-137, that would be full preterism). Here’s the first, and the most recent is here.

After a lot of thinking, I’ve arrived at a full preterist understanding of the gospels myself, in that I do not think any “end times” described there have yet to come. This means that while I tend to read Jesus mostly as Marcus Borg’s “spirit man” (a mystic, in other words), I also read him as an apocalyptic prophet, prophesying the appalling actions of the Romans in 65-70 and 135-137. And I read him as a social and religious reformer (albeit not proposing reform imposed from the outside, but resulting from a metanoia, repentance, a turning to God and away from the courses of action being taken in those days).

However, just because I think we are nearly 2000 years after the “end times” of the gospels doesn’t mean that some of my more conservative fellow Christians are completely incorrect, and that we are not, perhaps, looking at a new “end times” – certainly, all of the factors mentioned by George Monbiot in a recent Guardian article are cause for concern.

But, of course, this merely means that when Richard stresses that the Kingdom of God is already here, among us, that is still the case. There is hope – but there may also need to repent of a lot of things which we are currently doing.

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Presidents, kings, revolutions and anarchy.

November 23rd, 2016
by Chris

I’ve been thinking about this concept: “There is also a metaphor that A Country Is a Person and a metonymy of the President Standing For the Country” since the election of Donald Trump. The quotation is taken from an article by George Lakoff, where he seeks to understand the psychology behind the victory. And I’ve been congratulating my own country on having a constitutional monarchy rather than a republic – had we had a republic, looking at the rise of UKIP in the 2015 elections and the Brexit referendum result, we could by now be rejoicing in being represented by President Farage. Nigel Farage is absolutely not qualified to represent me or the majority of my friends; he displays boorishness and bigotry, appeals to racism and thinly disguises his massive condescension behind a facade of “laddishness” (and “laddishness”, to me, is tantamount to grown up football hooligananism…) Had we elected him as President of Great Britain, I would expect us as a nation to be a laughing stock in governments around the world, and me personally to have to explain to every one of my non-UK friends why they really should not think less of me because my fellow countrymen elected a complete a***hole to represent them (and, unfortunately, me). Heck, I have enough difficulty having to explain Brexit (“so, Chris, you live in a country largely populated by morons?…”).

So I have collossal sympathy for the vast bulk of my American friends who did not vote for Trump and find him about as repugnant as I do. America has a tendency to do things larger, louder and with less finesse, and Trump is rather like a larger, louder, even more boorish Farage, as far as I can see. However, I also have a touch of feeling that he may be seen to represent me too – due to the conception of the USA as the forefront of Western Democracy and the often used term “leader of the free world”, if not to the fact that he’s an English speaker from the largest first-language English speaking country in the world (if you take into account second language or look at English being an official language of the country, the largest is actually India, where English shares the “official” status with Hindi), or the fact that the USA was originally a British creation. Granted, it went its own way earlier than any of the other colonies by quite some margin, but it’s still to an extent “our responsibility”, even if we haven’t had much ability to influence it for over 250 years.

Incidentally, don’t get me wrong here – if Trump does half what he said he’d do (and judging by the makeup of his “transition team”, there’s a serious danger he will) he’ll be an economic disaster, will set back the fight against climate change possibly irretrievably and will facilitate or encourage persecution of women and minorities. These are all very bad things – and that’s without commenting that someone who appears extremely thin-skinned and likes showing off his power is shortly to be Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful military the world has ever seen. This is not just an American problem – climate change affects all of us, US military interventions affect all of us, and the US economy is inextricably linked with many others (notably the UK economy). If he goes in the directions I fear, everyone will suffer; it’s not just a matter of perceptions, or even primarily that. But what I want to concentrate on here is the theory and practice of heads of state.

Monarchies are a terrible idea from the point of view of theoretical politics, but in practice the constitutional variety (which we’ve had longer than anyone else, at a minimum since the Restoration of 1660 – and for any reader who wants to date it to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, I regard that as merely confirming the Restoration settlement against an attempt to reverse it) seem to work pretty well. In these, the monarch has practically no actual power, but is a symbol (or as Lakoff puts it, metonymy) of the nation. The major plus point there is that people ascending to the throne have been brought up knowing that that will be their “job” in the future, and for the most part have it dinned into them from birth that they are going to be a symbol, and must therefore behave in an appropriate manner. This is, if necessary, reinforced by the consciousness that we’ve had a revolution twice to remove a monarch who was overstepping their constitutional position, and could do so again.

It does amuse me that much the same reasoning is used by Edmund Burke in “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (here discussed by PEL – the second part is here) to justify inherited wealth and the power of the then nobility. Burke is well known as an arch conservative, which is also amusing considering my status as (in general) an arrant Liberal. I actually wouldn’t extend this argument to nobles as a class; there is a major difference between performance of a symbolic function (the monarchy) for which training is very valuable and managing the wealth of the country, for which training might be valuable, but which aristocratic systems seldom if ever provide well in practice.

Burke, however, did support the American revolution, despite his general principles. He did so on the basis that the rule of George III was tyrannical – and, in fact, he was wrong. George may have wanted to be a tyrant, but lived at least 100 years too late for that to be practical in England; the actions which the proto-Americans complained of were centrally those of his government, of the parliament of the day – which, of course, was not representative of the people of the American colonies, who elected no MPs and were ruled by appointed governors.

Against that background, I find a lot of irony in the fact that many US citizens now appear to be suffering from Canada-envy. Let’s face it, Canada is the bit of the mainland American colonies which didn’t join in the Revolution, which stayed loyal to King George – or rather (as he was a symbol, a metonymy) to the United Kingdom which he represented. Yes, my American friends – you could all be Canadian now – if you hadn’t had a revolution. (I need to admit here that the history of Canada would no doubt have been very different in that case, and the nature of the society might not have been quite so admirable as many Americans now find it…)

So, was there a tyrrany, albeit of an elected parliament which nonetheless did not represent the American colonists rather than  of the monarch? The answer probably has to be yes – in default of any participation in government, tyrrany is really the only applicable word. Burke’s criticism of the British position was very much on the basis of “no taxation without representation”. There is another irony here; even with all the measures which the colonists complained of, the actual burden which the UK parliament was attempting to impose was negligible compared with the burden of maintaining the apparatus of the modern United States. As tyrranies go, it wasn’t very tyrranical.

Of course, the really important part was “no taxation”; had there not been an attempt to tax (which was largely due to the UK government having recently incurred a lot of expense in removing the ever-present threat of French Canada from the American scene), I doubt that “no representation” would have found much traction. I tend to find that people aren’t all that interested in the political process as long as government isn’t doing things they object to too much – I know that would hold for me. In my case, though, I’m happy to accept a significant level of tax; in the States the aversion to any form of taxation seems to be alive and well. So does the idea that people are not really represented by their government, despite the electoral process which now exists (and I have sympathy there – my vote rarely counts, partly because I persistently vote for third party candidates). Both antipathy to taxation and frustration with lack of political power are suggested as contributing to Trump’s success, with the further irony that in the case of the Revolution, taxes were almost entirely in the interests of defence, which is not an area where Trump supporters would be likely to reduce expenditure…

There were, however, some other more obvious causes than the mere lack of a vote for the colonists to want to be free of the UK parliament. One such was the trade monopoly in tea which they attempted to give to the East India Company (the protest was not about taxes on tea, it was about the fact that government appointed merchants were given a monopoly on reduced tax tea so that the Company could undercut the price of smuggled Dutch tea, thus annoying the smugglers). This was symptomatic of a basic British doctrine that the colonies were there to provide raw materials and both manufacture and the carriage of goods should be a monopoly of “home grown” industry and companies. I note that crony capitalism is another irritation which commentators think explains the popularity of Trump, and definitely in part explained that of Sanders.

Then again, there was the declaration by the government that the interior should be an Indian reservation (Indians had been very instrumental in defeating the French) – this went against the desire of the colonists to expand to the West, and also played into fears that Indians might be regarded as citizens. Perhaps Mexicans are the current equivalent? Then again, some commentators see Somerset’s case of 1772 as exciting fears (which were entirely justified, but not until 1833) that slavery would be abolished in the British Empire; much of the economy of the more southerly colonies rested at the time on slave labour. Indeed, during the Revolutionary war, the British did encourage slave revolts. Again, I could see some resonances in current events of a white fear of being put in a minority and losing their privileged status.

So, is Trump’s election a kind of revolution, analagous to either the American or the French revolution, or even the Glorious Revolution (which I linked to earlier)? It might at first sight look more like the Glorious Revolution, in that power is going to be handed over without significant strife. However, going back to my first point, Trump is now representing America, and what he represents is against many elements of the established order – crony capitalism (especially the banks), globalism, social care, tolerance of minorities and multiculturalism having all been his targets – as well as what he supremely represents, which is the complete absence of any form of politeness (a more general and less loaded term than political correctness) or restraint. Certainly some voices from the left, such as Slavoj Zizek, have supported Trump very much on the basis that the established order needs to be pulled down and Trump is the best agent to achieve this.

Indeed he may be, but I have in mind also watching a BBC programme on Maximilien Robespierre, in which Zizek supported the need for the terror unleashed under Robespierre, and which to my mind made Burke a visionary in his “Reflections”, which Burke wrote before the terror. Robespierre and his fellows were, of course, elected at least somewhat democratically, and once in power steadily moved towards a regime which I would not wish on anyone, happily fairly short-lived.

Now, Trump is not Robespierre (who was sometimes referred to as “the sea-green incorruptible”). He is clearly not an idealogue, which Robespierre definitely was – one of my greatest criticisms of Robespierre is that he elevated theory over everything, and most definitely thought that the ends justified the means, however draconian the means were (though I have an uncomfortable memory of Trump endorsing torture…). However, a lot of those now being appointed to advise him are ideologues, and they are moving into positions of power in a government massively more equipped to maintain a security state. His taking of power ought to look like the Glorious Revolution, in which there was almost no violence (though there were some rebellions in later years – we were more content with Dutch than with German monarchs, besides which the Jacobite claimants had far more charisma), but I wonder if it actually will be.

What Zizek and others on the left see Trump as representing is an anarchic agent of change, one who will produce (at least for a time) anarchy on the way to a better and brighter future. With Burke, I do not like anarchy, I do not like terror; I favour gradual change rather than revolutionary change; I want to have a clear picture of the objective and a believable path from where we are to it, rather than an unpredictable upheaval. But (and this may be a factor in the overwhelming Evangelical support for Trump) I am not sure that the way of Jesus is gradualism rather than revolution. It seems to me that Jesus hoped for and expected a major upheaval, though I’m dubious that he wanted to bring that about, rather expecting that God or historical momentum would do this; Marxists commonly expect historical momentum to do this, while the Evangelicals no doubt expect God to bring it about.

But do they wait for God to do this, or do they aim at anarchy through their own devices, giving God a helping hand along the way? Certainly one commentator thinks that they are espousing a “means justifies the end” strategy in supporting Trump. Personally, I suspect that shooting yourself in the foot in order to give an opportunity for miraculous healing is foolish, but…

 

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Nevertheless, God…

November 8th, 2016
by Chris

Some while ago I wrote a post with the provocative title “God – WTF?”. Having reread it, my thinking has not changed all that much. However, another slight spin on the topic came to mind earlier this week, when I was engaged in my other part time occupation of research assistant in a chemical process lab.

We were looking at a process which we had gleaned from a scientific paper, and (inter alia) speculating about how this particular reaction actually worked. If we can work out how it functions, we have a hope, at least, of making it work better – and the commonly used process for this chemical is only about 27% efficient; we want something as close to 100% as we can get.

Now, you can’t see a reaction happening, as such. Sure, you can detect that the stuff in the flask has changed colour, or become more or less viscous, or has started (or stopped) giving off bubbles. You can (as we did) take samples out at regular intervals and look at them with various instruments (in our case, chiefly a UV-Visible spectrum spectrometer, though we have also resorted to high pressure laser chromatography and, by sending samples away, mass spectroscopy and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy). These techniques let us at least guess at what the actual chemicals present in the reaction at that point are (the pinpoint identifications common in forensics based TV programmes are rather beyond what can actually be achieved in many labs, and rely on someone having identified a chemical previously so you have a characteristic trace for it).

None of this, however, is actually seeing the reaction, particularly as current theory holds that temporary intermediate chemicals are formed and quickly reformed in the type of reaction we are looking at, and will not be seen if you take out a sample and look at it at leisure – it will by then have reacted on or gone back to it’s original constituents. We are inferring what is actually happening from what we see, which is definitely second-order (and, of course, as with the equipment I have listed we are not looking directly at a chemical, we are looking at a trace on a screen produced by some physical process plus a set of fairly complex electronics, usually dissolved in something which itself affects the result).

One of the things we have decided during the last week is that the intermediate chemical in this process is not what the original scientific paper said it was. We have a number of possibilities, but it is pretty definitely not what the original authors (who were writing quite a while ago and probably didn’t have instant UV-Vis and HPLC results available to them) said it was.

This all reminded me of the position I was talking of in that post. I’m a mystic – I have experienced (and hope to experience again) something which I find past mystics have labelled “God”. I do not know (at least not with confidence, given a rather sceptical and enquiring nature) what that something is. It may be something which could reasonably be talked of as a person; certainly most theology in the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and their offshoots talks of God that way. It may be something more akin to a process – as John Caputo puts it “what is going on in the name of God”. It may be an emergent property, possibly an emergent property of mind, as I’ve speculated previously. It might even be just a meme (and even Richard Dawkins would agree that it is at least one meme…).

What I see from atheists, however, appears to me to be along the lines of “well, it isn’t A, and it isn’t B, and it isn’t C, so it doesn’t exist”. This, to me, is like saying that if in the experiment I mention we have ruled out the possibility of the reaction involving compound A, compound B or coumpound C, then the reaction isn’t happening. I can see it happening in the reaction vessel, even if I don’t know exactly how it is happening. Likewise, I can experience God (to a greater or lesser degree) without needing to know what it is that I am experiencing with any clarity – and, for me, that is a difficult thing to write, because I want to know with clarity how everything works!

It isn’t just atheists who are culpable here. A facebook friend involved in a webinar recently talked of people in his past (at a seminary) who held that if you had the wrong “doctrine of God”, you were damned. That, to my mind, is saying that the compound absolutely has to be compound A, whatever anyone else says – and, in a sense, that if it isn’t, for you, most likely to be compound A then, again, the reaction won’t happen.

Galileo is reputed to have said, in response to Church statements that the earth could not move (in order to orbit the sun) “eppur si muove” (nevertheless, it moves). God exists (or insists) and does what God does irrespective of your doctrine of God and irrespective of those who say that if we don’t understand it, it can’t happen.

For some value of “exists”…

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Antipolitics, Brexit and Trump

November 7th, 2016
by Chris

David Brooks writes of “antipolitics” in relation to the current possibility of Donald Trump getting elected. I think he is absolutely on the nail with this analysis. (I’m writing this the day before the election – if it doesn’t get posted until the result is known, it doesn’t really matter).

I have behind me a substantial amount of time in politics; I joined the then Liberal Party in my teens, and from my early 20s to my 50s was involved in trying to get Liberal and then Liberal Democrat candidates elected to local and national levels. In the process, I managed to clock up over 20 years as a local councillor, so I know from the inside that politics has to involve compromise. In fact, my first elected position was on a council which was, apart from myself, split 50/50 between Labour and Conservative councillors (Labour had one more councillor, as there were 12 in total). I found that I was thrust into the position of intermediary between the two sides, assisted considerably by the facts that on any issue where voting split along strict party lines, at the worst I could, by voting with the Conservatives, force the use of a mayoral casting vote (which was seen as politically negative) or at the best, by voting with Labour where the mayor was conservative (or, for a short while, myself) ensure that a resolution passed, and that the Liberal Democrats were seen as “the centre party”, probably in those days rightly. I hasten to say that I didn’t use that position of unreasonable power, given that I was a minority party councillor, very much, though it did mean that both sides were keen to talk to me!

It wasn’t usually the case that voting split that way, though; many issues were not really party political footballs, and in those debates and votes I felt the system was at its best; we had a set of disparate views, expressed them and argued them, sometimes even winning over one or two of our fellows, and then voted. We had differing points of view, but accepted that and were, on the whole, content that the majority carried the day. Most of the time, however, we were able to adjust what we resolved so as to produce a large majority in favour of anything we resolved, and not uncommonly unanimity, just by taking into account the positions of those who initially dissented.

One of the many reasons I had joined this “centre party” was precisely because I did not like the adversarial nature of the two party system. I had seen policies repeatedly decried by the party in opposition and then, a few years later, adopted by that party to a considerable extent when they came into power. Alternatively, many things which were done by one government would be undone by the next, irrespective of whether there was some merit in the measure, even if it could have benefited by a little tweaking. It was very nice to be instrumental in stopping this happening so much, albeit at a very local level, for a number of years. (OK, I admit that I was not successful in getting the council not to declare itself a nuclear-free zone, which I regarded as an exercise in futility as the council had absolutely no power to do anything about it, and which would merely make the council look stupid. There were a few other such anomalies, but nothing which actually mattered very much.)

Another was that I had decided even in my teens that there were usually not just two sides to any issue. There was almost always at least a third, and often a fourth, fifth or many more ways to look at questions, and forcing everything into a black and white, either/or decision was not going to give decision making the subtlety it really needed. I set out to try to provide additional options wherever possible, as well as trying to force compromise.

It is therefore hugely saddening to see the United States divided into two almost exactly equal camps for whom the other can do no right (whatever the faults of their own side), with elected respresentatives vowing to stop the process of decision making happening altogether – unless, of course, they can get their own way entirely. The UK has managed to get itself into the same position over Brexit. We are in general a little more polite than the general level of political debate in the States, I think, but both Brexiters and Remainers are very adamant in their views, and at the moment the Brexiters are crowing over their very marginal victory and telling those of us who voted “Remain” to shut up and help them leave the EU – no matter what the consequences might be. A very sustantial number of them sound to me a lot like some Trump followers (or, earlier in the US process, some Bernie followers) in that they have little or no idea what the end result may be, but they are so dissatisfied with the current situation that anything is worthwhile to end it. One friend, prior to our Brexit vote, expressed this very well (and she was the only person I heard express what I considered an entirely valid reason, others wanting things which were either contradictory or just downright unachievable); she said “I’m voting Brexit because I want to see the world burn”.

This is entirely rational, if you want to see chaos. I can even sympathise – we are, it seems, stuck with a succession of neoliberal governments (Blair and those allied with him being just as neoliberal as was Thatcher), the gap between rich and poor is increasing, the poor and disadvantaged in our society are becoming poorer and more disadvantaged and neither of the main parties has looked as if it might do anything about that (Labour under Corbyn just might do that, however…). Equally, our membership of the EU makes it more difficult to avoid such neoliberal policies, as witness the treatment of Greece by the EU and the banks. So do trade deals like TTIP, however – and we would probably end up entering deals like that if negotiating without the EU even easier than when in it.

However, I’ve never supported the idea that if you tear down what is existing, even if it is really bad, you are guaranteed of something better. By all means take it to pieces as, when and if you have a clear, workable objective and a reasonable plan for achieving it – a SMART task (specific, measurable, assignable – i.e. who will do what, realistic and time limited). The problem with both Trump followers and Brexiteers is that they have none of these. OK, certain members of each group may think they have them, but on examination those will prove incompatible with the objectives of other members of the group, and frankly I could drive a coach and horses through the gaps in any formulation of such objectives I’ve heard from any Brexiteer or Trump supporter.

I also completely reject the kind of “antipolitics” which seems to be at the root of both movements, or at least a sizeable proportion of each. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, I didn’t like the governments of the day and I didn’t like the local government actions of the day, and it was suggested to me by someone older and wiser than me that if that was the case, and I had no candidate I could bring myself to vote for, I should stand myself. I had to create a local branch of the party of my choice from scratch in order to do that – but that is what I did. Those who hate the way politics is going now have exactly the same outlet for their frustrations – work for a third or fourth party candidate you can believe in, or if there isn’t one, stand yourself.

Don’t try to wreck the democracy we have in the vain hope that something better will come about. As Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst system of government – apart from all the others that have been tried…

 

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Musing…

October 26th, 2016
by Chris

Peter Enns mentions, in a post which is mostly about incarnation, the fact that some scholars don’t take inspiration and revelation seriously.

Probably, the more “liberal” your theology (or “progressive” if you like) the less you’re likely to regard these as important terms. However, by almost any standards other than out and out atheist, I’m pretty much firmly in the liberal/progressive camp, theologically speaking – but I do take both of these concepts very seriously indeed.

That’s because I’m at root a mystic. I wouldn’t be writing this kind of post or reading a stack of theology, biblical study and spirituality material if it weren’t for that fact; the me aged between about 8 and about 15 was a complete atheist, and was frankly happy with that state – and there’s probably no room in an atheist, materialist worldview for inspiration or revelation. A mystical experience, however, whatever framework of interpretation you apply to it, comes with a large dose of self-verification – in other words, it tells you that it’s true, and more true than anything experienced through more mundane channels.

That said, it’s also incredibly difficult to communicate (at least to anyone who isn’t themselves a mystic) – mere words just don’t quite seem to hack it. They might for a poet, I suppose, but I don’t think I’d ever qualify as a poet (an occasional versifier at best…). I don’t think my “muse” is poetic.

I keep that very centrally in mind when talking either of my own experience or of the words of others which have been widely identified as “inspired”; the experience in and of itself may well be completely true, but by the time it’s filtered through the concept structures and language I have available, in my case at least it’s only somewhat true – and I expect that to be the case with any other person’s inspired statements. That means that I need to do some digging within the words used to try to discern what the original inspiration may have been – and that is particularly true where the original writer was using a set of concept structures and language which are foreign to me. On the most simple level, I need it translated into English. However, I also need it translated from, variously, a first-century Hebrew set of concepts or a first century Greek set of concepts when dealing with scripture, and translating into a modern-to-post-modern set of concepts.

The “post-modern” bit of that is a bit of a saving grace. The viewpoints Dr. Enns is talking of are, by and large, modern – and a modern view of inspiration is that it needs to be entirely rationally sustainable and reducible to material elements; this is what produces an insistence on an historical Adam and Eve, an historical recent creation and an historical flood. Those events have to have actually happened exactly as the literal words describe, otherwise they’re of no use whatsoever – a view agreed on by atheists and fundamentalists alike.

I can try to look behind the literal meaning and seek the inspiration which gave rise to to that kind of expression, given (in those cases) a several-thousand-year old Hebrew viewpoint on the way things were. A lot of what I post here involves that kind of process; I am working through scripture, reinterpreting it along the way as I am forced to do by not having an Iron Age Hebrew worldview and concept structures, and I am working through doctrines with the same compulsion caused by not having a first century Greek worldview and concept structures (particularly their philosophical ideas).

I haven’t got round to all scripture yet. There are some passages of scripture in which I find it so far impossible to discern an inspiration which I can regard as “true” – particularly those passages in which God is seen, ostensibly, as counselling genocide (the Amalekites in the Hebrew Scriptures, for instance) or as effecting it himself (the flood, or some interpretations of Revelation, for instance). Maybe those will never make sense to me as being inspired by or a revelation from God. Maybe they weren’t, and were inserted in what is definitely in part an inspired set of works by some thoroughly uninspired individual. I prefer, however, for the moment, to assume that at some point in the future I may work out how it is that they are divinely inspired, and in the meantime just not act on any of them which does not seem to me to display injunctions to love, not hate, and to peace, not strife.

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The failings of democracies, and an off-the-wall possibility…

October 21st, 2016
by Chris

I’ve been watching developments in the Labour Party in the UK with interest, and some horror. Following the Brexit vote, the Conservatives were clearly horribly divided and in some disarray, and that should have been a wonderful opportunity for Labour. What do they do? The sitting MPs immediately try to unseat their leader, Jeremy Corbyn. This led to a vote of the membership which re-elected Mr. Corbyn with an increased majority.

This article from Jacobin discusses some of the background to this. Now, Jacobin is generally a pretty left-wing source, so I tend to treat what it says with at least a pinch of salt. However, I think it nails the issues rather well.

I have historically supported our third party, originally the Liberals, now the Liberal Democrats following merger in the 70s with the Social Democrats, who were a breakaway from the Labour of the time. I’ve stood as a candidate for them many times and served as a LibDem councillor for, in aggregate, well over 20 years. During that time, to my considerable consternation, the Labour Party (under Tony Blair) moved so far to the right that I found myself for a while in the most left-wing of the three parties, at least so far as practical policies were concerned (though I knew that Blair miserably failed to satisfy a lot of the traditional Labour base, who were still to my left – and who had so much invested in the party that they felt there was nowhere else to go – obviously I would have preferred them to join the LibDems!).

The Conservatives had already, under Margaret Thatcher, moved hugely to the right of where they’d been in my youth, under the pernicious influence of economists like Hayek. Actually, while Thatcher claimed to follow Hayek, she and her successors have not followed this suggestion of Hayek “There is no reason why in a free society government should not assure to all, protection against severe deprivation in the form of an assured minimum income, or a floor below which nobody need descend. To enter into such an insurance against extreme misfortune may well be in the interest of all; or it may be felt to be a clear moral duty of all to assist, within the organised community, those who cannot help themselves. So long as such a uniform minimum income is provided outside the market to all those who, for any reason, are unable to earn in the market an adequate maintenance, this need not lead to a restriction of freedom, or conflict with the Rule of Law.” The trouble was, Thatcher went further – she famously stated “there is no such thing as society” and latched on to Hayek’s antipathy towards social justice (which, of course, means there is also no room for adoption as a national community of the Social Gospel). Blair took the Labour Party to much the same place, albeit dolled up with more talk of social concern, which unfortunately we “couldn’t afford to implement” (to reduce a lot of his statements to their ultimate basis). 

As a result, in 2010, the only viable majority government was a LibDem – Conservative coalition, which the LibDem’s duly entered into. I saw this as moving the LibDems also to the right, and while they did, I think, manage to make the 2010-2015 government much less nasty than it would otherwise have been, I think a lot of other LibDem supporters agreed with me. In any event, the party got more or less wiped out in last year’s election, down to the kind of numbers of MPs it had when I first joined in the 1960s. I thought at the time the coalition was made that it was a disastrous mistake for the party, and would compromise its principles, and unfortunately seem to have been proved right. The trouble is, it may well have been the right thing for the country… but that now left us without a reasonably credible and electable left-of-centre party. Except in Scotland, that is, where the electorate has almost universally elected Scottish Nationalists, who are definitely in the Social Democrat range which first Labour and then the Liberal Democrats abandoned.

I have watched the press talking about support for Corbyn, and the oft-repeated poisonous claim that the vast influx of new members is “far left”. However, I talk to a lot of people who fall within this new membership, and they are in no way “far left” – they’re actually pretty much like me, in what would, 40 years ago, have been firmly the centre Social Democratic position. OK, I will confess that my views may have drifted leftward a bit – I think that is an occupational hazard of studying the Synoptic Gospels a lot – but I’m definitely not “far left” or “hard left”. Indeed, I’ve toyed with the idea of joining Labour – I let my LibDem membership lapse following the coalition – but I too have too much time and emotion invested in the party to find leaving it completely an easy prospect.

The media plainly feels (as a substantial majority view, at least) that there is no viable policy other than neoliberalism, and anything more socially concerned than that is not only “left wing” but also unelectable. The trouble is, they are fighting the last war, i.e. the one in which Blair moved Labour to occupy the same ground as the Conservatives and thus secured three terms in power, based on the fact that the country as a whole had swallowed Thatcher’s neoliberalism. The thing is, I am fairly convinced that we’re collectively now sick of it, and particularly sick of the effects on not just the most vulnerable in society (who are told that cutting their benefits is to “help them” by giving them a greater incentive to go and find work – work which the system miserably fails to provide) but also the bulk of the population. They see stagnating wages eroded by inflation and the vanishing of any opportunity to do better. Labour should have won the 2015 election, but headed by Blairites, the electorate saw a party which would pursue the same neoliberal agenda as the Conservatives, but not do it as efficiently and lie about it into the bargain.

I think the vastly increased Labour membership reflects this, and not the resurgence of hardline Marxists and Trotskyists which the press wants us to believe. There just aren’t very many hardline class warriors remaining; most of the left has now acknowledged that communism in the forms in which it’s been tried so far just doesn’t work (however nice an idea it might be). I set on one side the rather good argument that command economies are not what communism aims at, they are really “state capitalism” – suffice it to say that there are no state-wide examples of successful communism to date.

In terms of shaping party policy, I think it’s entirely right that Labour should do this via direct democracy, the wishes of the whole membership. I have many reservations about direct democracy in national politics; the result of the Brexit vote indicates that it is possible that way to make some incredibly stupid decisions when the electorate is not well enough informed (or when they can be persuaded to vote emotionally rather than rationally), and am glad that as a nation we have representative democracy instead. (Some of my readers who voted for Brexit will disagree, but many of them feel that Remain voters were not well enough informed and, if they had been, would have voted “Leave”, so my point still stands). But Jacobin are right in saying that representative democracy tends to get us governed by a political class which is out of touch with the people as a whole. We should have an alternative drawn from a wider spectrum of experience and background – and then we can vote for them or not in each constituency.

I think that at the moment an unified Labour led by Corbyn or by someone else whose politics are very close to his would win an election at present. I confess that I’d prefer it to be someone else; Corbyn is not a natural leader and has made a lot of mistakes as a result. But there is no way Labour should go back to singing from the neoliberal, Tory song sheet.

Granted, we probably won’t have an election until the current term runs out in 2020. I have no idea what politics will be like in four years, apart from fearing that unless Brexit is somehow stopped in its tracks (or a complete free trade agreement reached with the EU which will have none of the benefits of Brexit but all of its burdens), the economy will be so bad that the only way to kick start it will be via a complete abandonment of the country to corporations, with little or no regulation or tax, of the government to neoliberalism and of the populace to declining wages, declining social care and permanent anxiety. Even that might not be enough. At that point, getting back to a civilised society might not be possible without revolution…

What does all this say about democracy itself? We have in the two events of the Labour leadership elections and the Brexit vote a contrast between representative democracy and direct democracy. In theory, direct democracy is the ideal – every member of society has an equal voice, and the majority should rule (though most people would argue that there should be restrictions on the exploitation of minorities by the majority – after all, everyone is part of some minority…) This was the model of the ancient Greek city-state, and it can work quite well – for very small societies. Typically, the number of people actually able to vote in those states was fairly low (they almost all practiced slavery, and those who didn’t relied on non-citizen “foreign” labour, women had no part in the process and many others were not able to give the time necessary to participate). It was also the case that they limited the franchise to a set of the most educated in their societies, who at least could be assumed competent to make informed decisions.

In a larger society with an universal (or near-universal) franchise, the mechanics of direct democracy have been impossible to implement until very recently, save for a very few specific issues (such as Brexit, or the “propositions” which are regularly voted on in California). I say “until  very recently” because we are (at least in this country) close to having 100% ability to connect online, and that would give us the ability to vote as a direct democracy on everything government does.

The Brexit vote, however, exhibits some of the problems of this approach. Firstly, there wasn’t actually a clear and thought out policy there to be voted for or against – none of the details of how Brexit might be achieved was on the ballot paper, and there wasn’t even clarity that the government would have to follow the result, partly as a result of this. Nor (taking the issue most talked about) was there a clear statement that this would mean more or less immigration – although the bulk of those I talk to who voted Brexit want less immigration, a very significant number actually want more – but from outside the EU rather than restricted to within it, having accepted the argument that past statistics show that immigration actually improves the economy and is a boost to it rather than a burden. Certainly those business leaders who were Brexiteers thought that way… At the least, there should have been clarity of what was actually being voted for on this absolutely fundamental part of the issue.

Secondly, most people are just not well enough informed to take a sensible view on complex policy matters (this is one point on which both sides of the argument would probably agree, although they would think that anyone well informed enough would vote with them…). I like to think that I am significantly better informed than the average, and frankly I didn’t think that I was entirely competent to make such a far reaching decision.

This could possibly be remedied if we were all to spend large amounts of time researching the proposed policies, but that throws up another problem. Do we really want to spend perhaps four to six hours a day (at a minimum) researching and voting on government actions?

I, for one, do not – and I have a history of actually standing for office and getting elected, albeit at a local level. What I would have preferred at the time is for the councillors who actually did the job to do it efficiently and at least more or less in line with my thinking – but they were not doing that, and so the only option was to involve myself. The vast majority of people are not prepared to do that, or even to get involved in trying to get someone they feel will represent them well elected – the only effort they are prepared to put in is in voting on the day. Well, apart from complaining about the result, that is!

I arrive at the conclusion that some form of representative democracy, in which we choose from a pool of people who are willing to put in the hours and have the capacity to decide, is as good as we can hope to get – and I have centrally in  mind Churchill’s famous statement “Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried”.

But, I might hear you say, what about the Labour leadership election? Shouldn’t that have been left to the existing already elected representatives, namely the sitting Labour MPs? There is, after all, a strong argument that if you want someone to lead a group, they need the backing of a majority of that group, and Corbyn has never had the support of anything remotely like a majority of Labour MPs.

That would, after all, be another form of democracy, a “second-level democracy” if you like. It is, of course, at least in theory, the way in which our elected representatives make decisions in parliament (or congress, or the senate). However, this is not the way the Labour Party has decided to structure its electoral system. That is now “one member, one vote” (which I thoroughly approve of; it is the system my erstwhile party has had for a long time). The previous system (as can be seen from the link) gave each of the membership, the MPs and the Trades Unions one third of the votes (the Labour Party was initially the political voice of the Trade Union and Cooperative movements in the UK). That tended to lead to the party being controlled very largely by the Trades Unions (particularly as many Labour MPs are financed by Trade Unions), and those in turn were led by leaders who were not always perfectly representative of their electorate – they were, again, representatives in another species of representative democracy.

This, in turn, throws up another problem with representative democracy. You are inevitably going to end up with a party structure, and in a “first past the post” system like the UK and the USA, this is going to be subject to strong pressures in the direction of there being only two parties of significance. Once you get that, it is largely going to be the party which determines how our representatives will vote (under threat of being expelled from the party and therefore landing in the wasteland of minor party candidates with little hope of election). In the process we largely lose the ability to choose someone whose qualities as an individual we think make them particularly suited to represent us as individuals.

However, it also gives us a situation where if a party controls (say) 52% of the representatives, whatever they wish gets enacted – but what they wish is decided between that 52%. If that turns out to be on a simple majority basis, 27% of the actual representatives get to make all the decisions – and that is no longer properly democratic. This was at the root of a lot of the problems with the Trade Union vote within Labour – it led to a single union representative voting on behalf of the entire membership of the union, sometimes millions of votes – and that was commonly not quite what even a majority of members would have wished for, as many union members did not actually vote for their leadership anyhow (many were members for entirely non-political reasons, many could not be bothered, and that second category was made significantly greater by unions which only allowed voting at meetings which had to be attended). Some unions even chose leaders and policies by a show of hands at open meetings, leading to a strong suspicion on many occasions of people being coerced into voting one way, if only via perceived peer pressure.

How might this problem be reduced? Well, an interesting possibility is one I read at least hints about recently in one of the “Fox Meridian” science fiction books by Niall Teasdale. It also rather rests for decent functioning on an internet-connected society. The concept is that you can delegate your vote to any other individual (and one might suspect that they could then delegate theirs to another), with the interesting possibility that that could be limited to voting on a particular area of interest – so, for instance, you could delegate your economy vote to one person and your foreign policy vote to another. You can then withdraw that delegation at any time…

I haven’t yet thought this one through in complete detail, but I’d be very interested to receive comments and even more so to see it attempted in practice – perhaps not on the scale of a nation state initially!

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The impassible and impossible God, Eris and Dada.

September 28th, 2016
by Chris

Brian Neice says something in a recent blogpost which has been part of my thinking for ages, namely that the idea of a perfect God is a theological blind alley. As he points out, a perfect God cannot act and cannot change his mind – both things which our scriptures claim God does, in the first place frequently, in the second occasionally.

There is another spin-off of the “perfect, unchanging God” concept (which is the God-concept of Greek philosophy, not that of the Bible, except insofar as some Greek concepts have penetrated the New Testament, which was written in Greek). That is the idea of Divine Impassibility (no, not “impossibility”, though I might argue that the perfect, unchanging, impassible God is also impossible – as, indeed, Mr. Neice may be saying). This argues that as God is perfect, God cannot be moved to emotion by anything which happens in the world. We cannot, says this view, do anything which can change God – even emotionally, as either before the change or after the change God would not be perfect.

Again, this is not the God of scripture, who is frequently called “loving” and sometimes “wrathful”; both of these are emotions. You just cannot love if you can not be stirred by emotion, changed by what happens with another person. Theologians have been wont to use weasel words to get round this – God does not love, but IS love, they may say, for instance. Alternatively “God’s love is of a different kind to human love” (to which my response is “So different a kind as not to be love at all”).

I therefore agree with the writer – God is nothing if He is not relational, and to be relational involves change.

That said, there is a fundamental dichotomy at the root of existence, that between order and chaos. In the Bible, God is represented in Genesis 1 as bringing order out of chaos, and is frequently seen after that as the embodiment of order – set against chaos. However, in the New Testament we see Jesus (who, according to deutero-Paul, is the image of the invisible God) saying “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword”.

You can have order which is bad, as well as chaos which is bad (few of us want very much chaos to enter our lives), and in that case, chaos needs to be brought to bear. This is, I suggest, always the case in order that there be – well – anything (as indicated in the video I linked to a few days ago in my post “The experience and consciousness of a neutrino”).

Cameron Freeman writes recently (and I can’t link to it, as it is in the “Friendly Fire” closed group studying the work of Peter Rollins): “In the beginning, there is an irresolvable paradox of antagonistic tensions forever trembling in the sacred depths of the universe. This perpetual wrestling between contradictory forces is not, however, a curse but a blessing. For as the immanent driving force of all temporal becoming, this primordial antagonism at the heart of reality itself is what keeps the future open by making the transformation of the world as we know it possible.”

He goes on to say “As the cataclysmic non-ground that is radically otherwise to any temporally constituted unity – and therefore destabilizing to the rational grounding of any presumed totality and every world-system, the anarchic abyss of this primordial dissonance (i.e. the Crucifixion) precedes and sets the stage for all new birth, and thereby constitutes the “condition of possibility” for the emergence of new forms of serendipitous creativity – from out of the disruptive darkness and into the light of new life…”

Indeed, order and chaos appear to be diametrically opposed principles, so attempting to suggest that either one of them is fundamental (and the other secondary) is going to cause problems. Taoism has, perhaps, some element of this in its well known “yin-yang” symbol, interlocking comma shapes of black and white, each with an “eye” of the other colour. However, suggesting that they are both fundamental is, as Cameron points out, paradoxical.

Then again, absolute chaos involves the dissolution of everything into irreducibly small particles (if, indeed, such things exist…) and thus death, while absolute order involves everything being completely static and unchanging, which is another kind of death. Only between the two can we find life.

The theological attitude which Mr. Neice and myself criticise is one which demands absolute order, and thus the death of God, i.e. atheism. However, the inverse of that is possibly Discordianism – and I would strongly argue that Discordianism is a religion of the absurd, and a reaction against too much love of order in established religions. I can certainly sympathise with that – Hail Eris! (at least in moderation).

Is it however true that if there is a fundamental contradiction or paradox at the root of reality, that that-which-is, or God, is both order AND chaos, is this also absurd? Or is it merely a function of the fact that our comprehension and our reason are inadequate to understand any further than that?

Certainly my mystical experience gives me the overwhelming conviction that all is one, and that one is God – so is there therefore a fundamental paradox in God? In those moments of unitive ecstasy, there is no discord, but there is also no sterile immovability.

Perhaps ultimately I need to recall that Jesus told us to address God as “Abba”. This is often suggested as being potentially baby language, and preachers suggest “Daddy” – which is a fine counterpoint to our tendency to think of God as unapproachable (the God of impassibility and perfection). Should I suggest that a better word would be “Dada”?

Dada is, of course, also the name of an absurdist movement in art last century… and Origen wrote “credo quia absurdum” (I believe because it is absurd)…

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The consciousness and experience of a neutrino

September 23rd, 2016
by Chris

I was interested by an article I read on panspychism (broadly, the suggestion that consciousness is the most fundamental thing and that matter and energy are epiphenomena or emergent properties of consciousness). Frankly, I’m inclined to agree with it’s stance, though another article which a commentator on the first links to, by Galen Strawson, entirely rightly refers to Bertrand Russell’s observation that “We know nothing about the intrinsic quality of physical events, except when these are mental events that we directly experience.” In that sense, at least, consciousness has to be primary, because that’s all we have to work with. Everything which we think we know about the world around us except for consciousness is ultimately a construction of our consciousnesses.

That, of course, includes such absolutely fundamental building blocks of science (and materialism) as matter and energy (ultimately, in Physics, the same thing).

The thing the author of the first article seizes on, however, is that while concepts such as matter and energy lead to a supremely useful edifice of scientific theory and hypothesis, the concept that everything rests ultimately on tiny units of consciousness does not lead to this, and in fact it’s very difficult to see that it leads to anything. It’s worth mentioning that this is one reason why I have difficulty with Process Philosophy and with its offshoot Process Theology – I find with Process that, once you get beyond the assertion that everything ultimately is reducible to moments of experience (and that all matter and energy is finally composed of moments of experience),  I tend to agree with the theologians who espouse it a lot. (There may be a viable distinction between micro-elements of consciousness and micro-elements of experience, but I don’t think it’s one which differentiates the two views significantly).

The trouble is, I can’t see that the explanation adds anything (and in the case of Process Theology, I can’t see that this basis is actually necessary for the rest of the theologians’ conclusions).

However, it is distinctly possible to see the same tendencies as are described in panpsychism as “consciousness” and in process as “experience” as self-organisation. As this video from Neil Theise MD, (principally a cellular biologist) indicates, if you put together self-organisation (which occurs at extremely fine scales, i.e. subatomic) with a random element (likewise) and some negative feedback, you will get larger scale stable things (communities or organisms, for instance). I interject that this is particularly the case where there is some means of storing information about the past. Incidentally, even if you don’t commonly click on my links, click on this one – it’s fascinating.

As you will see from the video, Dr. Theise found himself, to his surprise, put on a panpsychism panel when presenting some of his ideas, and has since convinced himself that he is, at least in some way, a panpsychist. However, he also indicates that he is reluctant to draw hard and fast lines where a continuum is involved, and while I can sympathise with that, I think it has led to him using the term “consciousness” for something which most of the rest of us would not call “consciousness”. He may not be prepared to draw that line, but our use of language has done so, even if it is a very fuzzy line (as is so often the case with language).

In particular, I think that in order to call something “consciousness”, we need the means of storing information, and that is not evident at the very lowest levels of organisation. This is a major reason why it is difficult for me to consider “experience” as basic, because to me, “experience” also demands a level of information storage which is just not present at the atomic level. Of course, being in origin a Physicist, my tendency is to see atoms or subatomic particles as fundamental, whereas Dr. Theise is used to seeing cells as fundamental. I just can’t say that a neutrino has consciousness or experience – it doesn’t fit.

However, he has drawn for me a pathway through something which may be called “epiphenomenology”, or may be called “emergence” all the way from the quantum soup to higher level beings such as ourselves.

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