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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Sharing the ecstasy…

September 20th, 2016
by Chris

This post contains a very interesting list of experiences which the author, at least, interprets as experiences of God. He doesn’t think it’s an exhaustive list. I agree. It excludes, for instance, the wonder experienced in scientific discovery, or merely in contemplating the beauty of scientific or mathematical forms. It excludes the “aha!” moment, when something previously concealed or unknown is revealed – and sometimes this is available via humour.

However, it takes me back to an early part of my forays into the internet, back in the 1990s when I joined several forums on Compuserve, and in one of them (the European Forum) I found myself talking about the concept of God with a number of French atheists. It was an extremely long-running thread, as these things go, lasting around a year and with, eventually, thousands of messages. I found, if I stripped out the title “God” (actually “Dieu”, as the thread was so titled and the discussion was in French), I could actually talk about experiences which many believers (such as the author of the article I link to) would interpret as experiences of God, and find that pretty much all of the atheists had such experiences. I’ve written before about how I had to use a symbol – [   ] – to indicate what we were talking about; as soon as I tried to put any label on this box, I ran into the problem that all sensible labels for it carried so much freight of religious dogma for my interlocutors that they immediately started backtracking.

My theory was this. I had had a particularly intense initial experience of [   ], and had (after some agonising) interpreted it as a God-experience – but only because most mystics who wrote about their experience used God-language. That had pointed me at various practices and concept structures which various spiritual traditions seemed to use to promote mystical experience, and after some years of experimentation I had settled down to be able without too much effort to recall what I described as “an edge” of the full spectrum experience. This suited me really well – a full blown mystical experience renders it impossible to do anything else at the same time (or, commonly, for some time after it has passed) and also, while it is ecstatic (in the true meaning of the word) it is also very scary – there is a distinct element of the extinguishing of the self, and that feels to at least some levels of my mind too much like death, or at least too much like loss of control. While the “edge” isn’t ecstatic, it is very pleasant and tends to come with some insights into problems which may have been mulling around at the edge of consciousness.

I had also found that the practices and concept-structures seemed not to work for everyone, and, indeed, from what I could see only really worked for people who described an initial peak experience which they had usually not been working towards; once there had been one, it seemed that most if not all could achieve a repeat – and the more times it was repeated, the easier it became. Practice, it seemed, did make perfect – but only if there was something on which to build in the first place.

However, I was interested in whether the kind of “edge” experience which my French atheists described (or the article above describes) could be built on as a start point, and not just the full-blooded “fall off your horse on the road to Damascus” variety. Those seem to come only “out of the blue” and to a very limited number of people. Obviously, the objective was to find a way in which others could have the same kind and quality of experience as mine; I was certainly better for having had (and worked on) my own, and I wanted to share that.

It proved impossible to persuade any of my atheist friends that this was worth the effort, despite my best purple prose about how mind-blowingly good the experience could be (and, curiously, I found I did purple prose in French far easier and better than I do it in English). However, that did persuade me, as the article indicates, that pretty much everyone has some experiences which might serve as a basis.

This was not really a surprise to me. Way back in my early 20s, I had briefly gathered around me a small group who were intensely interested in my accounts of my experience and who actually wanted to have similar experiences themselves. However, almost without exception, it proved that they thought either that I could do it for them (a situation rather like that of the priest or monk who “does religion” so the rest of us don’t really have to) or that I could magically confer on them the ability to do it, perhaps just by osmosis by being around me a lot. Now, maybe on occasion a Zen master might find just the right wording to induce an “aha!” moment in a student which is sufficient to start the process, but I still have no idea how the Zen master does it, and Zen was not the way I eventually decided to go. I resolutely refused to accept the mantle of guru – I knew I didn’t have the answers they were looking for, and while I would have been happy to study, learn and practice alongside them, that isn’t what they wanted.

But, for anyone who is interested, I do have some tips. Firstly, if you scan down the list in the article, there are situations and places which particular people find very conducive to the “edge” experience for them (and it isn’t necessarily the same for everyone). Pick one, and spend a lot of time with it. Possibly, if they will combine sensibly, pick more than one…

Secondly, getting scared during the start of such an experience is fatal, so get comfortable, still the mind and calm the emotions. Avoid if possible circumstances where you’ll get interrupted, as well.

Thirdly, analysing what is happening while it is happening is fatal, so stop analysing. Mindfulness meditation is very good practice for this (and for the previous one).

Fourthly (and one of the group from my 20s has never forgiven me for this) try not to try. It needs to be natural and easy.

And lastly (and this helps a lot with no. 4) practice, practice and more practice.

I make no guarantees.

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Prax, dox, path, pist and agap.

September 17th, 2016
by Chris

Roger Wolsey, in his book “Kissing Fish”, identifies several hallmarks of Progressive Christianity, one of which is orthopraxy (right actions) rather than orthodoxy (right belief). I’ve been rather inclined toward this view – after all, it is a truism that in order to know what someone believes, one should not look at what they say but at what they do. James writes “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead”, and Jesus perhaps goes further: “But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand” and ““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

Evangelicals, however, have a tendency to look at this emphasis and worry that it is preaching “works righteousness”; Paul writes ” For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (and elsewhere gives a hostage to fortune to those who say that good deeds absent faith are sins) and Catholics may worry about Pelagianism. Some might recall Isaiah 64:6, where good deeds are called “dirty rags”.

On the other hand, orthodoxy as normally interpreted means merely mental assent. You are agreeing to a set of faith statements, such as the Apostles or Nicene creeds, the Westminster Confession or the contents of the Catholic Catechism. My own church, the Anglican, uses the first two interchangeably, but actually also has as standard doctrine (thus “orthodoxy”) the Athanasian creed.

The relevant section of Catechism reads:- “That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;  Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence.  For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost.  But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost.  The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated.  The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited.  The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal.  And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal.  As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite.  So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty.  And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty.  So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God.  And yet they are not three Gods; but one God.  So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord.  For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords.  The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten.  The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding.  So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.  And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another.  But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped.  He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.”

I think this illustrates one of my problems with orthodoxy as a standard. That IS orthodoxy for my denomination, Catholics and quite a few other denominations (and is the root definition of trinity for all trinitarian denominations, which is the vast bulk of them). And virtually no-one among the laity really understands it, and, in my experience, precious few clergy – and that is assuming for a moment that it is, in fact, rationally understandable, given the statement by the Cappadocian Fathers that it is not supposed to be understood by human reason but is a holy mystery to be accepted by faith.

The thing is, when Paul talks of saving faith, I really don’t think he is talking of intellectual acceptance of some forms of wording which are at the least difficult (and at the most impossible) to understand – and yes, I know that Origen wrote “I believe because it is absurd” (in “Contra Celsum”). Assuming for a moment that the popular recent readings of Paul as properly referring not to “faith in” Christ but to “the faith (or faithfulness) of Christ” are not our preferred interpretation, the fact that “faithfulness” is seen as a viable alternative to “faith” may give a clue. “Faithfulness” is more a disposition than an intellectual exercise, and it really betokens love for and trust in someone (which perforce produces action). This is, of course, a viable meaning of “faith in” as well. I can have faith in my wife, without remotely needing to understand her, far less to accept a number of propositions about her (which is possibly why I am still happily married after 37 years).

Out of similar concerns, people have started talking about “orthopathy”, meaning right passions, emotions and empathies. The link I give is to an evangelical commentator, who is still keen to preserve orthodoxy and orthopraxy as well, feeling however that orthopathy has been neglected. I use it in part because it gives an excellent exposition of the term and in part because I don’t think it goes far enough – to my mind, while orthopathy is demanded by Paul and others, orthodoxy, in the form of rigidly correct intellectual assent, isn’t. However, orthopathy will automatically produce orthopraxy. I struggle to see evidence that orthodoxy does anything of the sort – if anything, the more orthodox someone is, the less they seem to me to embody the “fruits of the spirit”, or at least peace, forbearance, kindness and gentleness, which constitute for me (and, I think, for most Progressive Christians) a sizeable slice of the orthopraxy we are looking for.

Unfortunately, there is an earlier meaning for “orthopathy”, which usually denotes fringe medicine. If we were to use the original Greek “pistis” of Paul’s statements about faith as our root (instead of doxia or praxia), we would get something like “orthopisty”, which does not have a good ring in English. Perhaps “orthoagapy”, from “agape”, meaning love, used by Paul in 1 Cor. 13? I think that would convey right passion, emotion and empathy.

And what would the God who is equated to love by many theologians wish of us but love?

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Dogmatics, centering and the Synoptics.

September 13th, 2016
by Chris

I found a link in my fb feed to an article arguing the need for dogmatics in the church. Dogmatics is “the systematic critique of the message of the church… to avoid deviation, weakness and heresy”. In the Reformed tradition, the masterwork on the subject is Karl Barth’s “Church Dogmatics”, which runs to 14 volumes…

My immediate reaction was to dismiss this argument as clear rubbish (as you might expect from someone who wrote a blogpost titled “The Heresy of all Doctrines” some while ago. And yet, I started thinking – about (for instance) Arnaud Amalric, bishop of Citeaux and papal legate saying (probably in at least some accordance with the doctrine of the time) “kill all, God will know his own”. I think of Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel (and he is not by any means the only culprit). I think of the identification of Christianity with empire, which the Romans, Germans, Austrians, Russians, Spanish, Portuguese and British have done, and the Americans are now doing. And I shudder. These are all positions which I would dearly like to label false, deviant and yes, heretical.

Then again, I think of Barth’s 14 volumes (which I haven’t read, and don’t intend to – I’m not trying to be part of the Reformed tradition anyhow, although elements of it are definitely present in Anglicanism) and wonder whether with that level of specification anyone can avoid heresy on at least some point. Actually, though, I strongly suspect that the vast bulk of people in the pews are technically heretics on some point even in respect of a much more relaxed dogmatic structure than Barth’s – Jason Michaeli’s recent series on heresies should be enough to convince most of us. What good is doctrine which no-one actually follows in its totality? Is the only function to convince us that we are all sinners – simul justus et peccator?

No, as I suggested in the “Heresy of all Doctrines” post, I think the problem is not in having some principles, some basics, it’s in having too many of them and trying to specify them incredibly closely. However, bearing in mind that every basic principle or assertion is going to exclude someone if we are thinking in terms of a requirement for belonging to a group, I am very attracted to the concept of the centered set (as contrasted with the bounded set, which is defined by what characteristics you have to have to be within it, and by implication the lack of any or which sets you definitively outside it).

Using the language of centered set, you would be located within the normal spectrum of atheist-to-theist not as an “in or out” affair but on the basis of how close you were to centering your life on God (where “God” could possibly be interpreted as widely as you wished, at least initially – it certainly is in one group I belong to, and this seems to work just fine for them). Similarly “Christian” could indicate degrees – of adherence to the principle of following Jesus, but without demanding a particular conception of Jesus. Also, distance from the centre of the set would be less important, in this conception, than the direction of ones attention.

There could well be an objection that my insistence that we should not attempt to specify what-it-is-that-is-God or who exactly Jesus was means that the location of the centre is unknown, so we could not adequately orient ourselves. In the case of God, I would counter that God is essentially beyond adequate human comprehension in the first place and that humanity is unlikely ever to be so close to the centre that some slight difference in orientation matters; so long as God is (as Paul Tillich puts it) our ultimate concern, we are correctly oriented.

In the case of Jesus, I have previously argued that he has to be regarded primarily as showing us the (or at least a) correct direction to God rather than as a hurdle or obstacle in the way of communion with the divine, or (for those who consider direct communion with the divine impossible) a necessary intermediary beyond whom we cannot go. This is treating him as the paradigmatic example of a man living oriented on God and held out by God as such, which is very much the picture obtained from the Synoptic Gospels and illuminated in depth by Daniel Kirk’s new book “A Man Attested by God”; although further argument would be needed to demonstrate that this is also in reasonable accordance with Paul and with John (although possibly not with all of the deutero-Pauline or the Catholic epistles). This is, of course, not Kirk’s thesis; he has a personal high Christology and is merely speaking to the content of the Synoptics.

 

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David Jenkins

September 5th, 2016
by Chris

I was sorry to hear of the death of the former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins. He has for years been one of the two Anglican bishops I cite as evidence for the fact that I might be able to call myself an Anglican (the other being John Shelby Spong), and was certainly an influence on me deciding that, of the available churches (which locally to me is a very restricted set) I should situate myself in Anglicanism.

My reasoning was that if these two distinguished and extremely controversial theologians could be Anglican bishops, the denomination should be able to accommodate someone with my theological ideas. As per my immediate previous post, Anglicanism is where I’m located at the moment, though I’m now in a fairly conventional congregation in which I don’t have the opportunity to talk radical or progressive theology significantly – in my previous much larger evangelical congregation, there was for a while scope for that (although almost entirely within the framework of Alpha discussions).

The radical and the progressive has to happen online – which is fine, but it lacks something which physical proximity brings, even with the aid of Google hangouts or Skype.

I should also mention another, rather lower ranking Anglican clergyman who was an influence, the late Canon John Kent, who was vicar at Selby in my teens. He notoriously preached on “God is Dead”, referencing Niezsche and Altizer, not just in a normal sermon but in one which was transmitted by the BBC nationwide. As usual with such things, it was the title rather than the content which attracted all the scandalised protests – his actual conclusion was that God was, in at least some sense, very much alive and living with us – but the whole thing was a huge encouragement to the teenage Chris – who was probably even more sceptical than I am now!

In passing, I’ve found another excellent article which focuses on the original cause of the Jenkins controversy. I’m pleased to see someone significantly more conservative than I am myself arguing that a “conjuring trick with bones” is not what we should read from the resurrection. OK, the author seems to think that there was something actually physical in at least some of the resurrection viewings (and I don’t) but the point remains the same.

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Growing churches and flying buttresses

September 5th, 2016
by Chris

It would seem that the church in England has stopped declining, from this article. Others question whether this is a pause before Church of England attendance (at the least) falls off a cliff – there are a lot of regular attenders in most congregations who are over 70, often over 80, and they will not be there in 20 years, whereas most Anglican congregations have far fewer people under 30.

However, the growth talked about in the article is generally in the sub-30 year old group, and is most commonly the result of congregations either planted by Holy Trinity Church Brompton or which fit pretty well into the HTB mould. The primary vehicle of evangelism for them is the Alpha course, about which I’ve written quite a few posts (it isn’t used solely by Anglicans, several other denominations use it as well).

What we are seeing, in other words, is the replacement of the Anglican Church as it has been with a set of clones of HTB, and the main evangelical technology being the Alpha course (although most HTB style churches also do street evangelism and the non-talking type of evangelism which I favour, caring for the poor, sick, homeless and marginalised).

A little under five years ago I was persuaded by a friend to go along to a set of talks and discussions about aspects of faith and various features of the modern world (such as science) being held at St. Michael le Belfrey, York. This was an early foray into trying to connect with people again after several years of being “incurvatus in se” as a result of chronic, serious depression and chronic anxiety. I asked some pointed questions, and the organiser took me on one side after the last of that series of talks and asked if I’d like to attend an Alpha course.

Somewhat taken aback, I said I didn’t know – I had already attended one and a half Alpha courses some years earlier (I was invited to stop going to the second, ostensibly because I might become an “Alpha addict”, but more probably because I displayed no sign of stopping asking awkward questions, which was actually a mistake on their part because I was there as company for someone else who hadn’t done the course and who promptly stopped going…) and I said I would perhaps be a disruptive influence. The organiser said that was fine, Alpha welcomed discussion and my presence would allay his fears that no-one would ask any of the difficult questions. So I accepted – and then found that I was listed as a “helper”.

A week before the Alpha “Spirit weekend”, my depression lifted overnight – was this Godly intervention? My friends from the course certainly thought so. Was it because I’d been a member of a recovery community for six years? My friends there certainly thought so. Was it because my antidepressants had just changed? Possible, I suppose, but the effects shouldn’t have been seen for at least a week or two, and the effect was instant, at least within 8 hours. This enabled me to do what I’d been thinking about for some weeks, and actually attend a service at the church – and I carried on doing that until earlier this year, when a combination of circumstances made me wish for something closer to home.

St. Mikes fitted a lot of my wishes for a church. It was welcoming of everyone (even people like me with seriously nonstandard theologies), it did quite a bit of social gospel work and it had a cell group structure into which I slotted myself. I do massively better in groups of 5 to 10 than I do in larger gatherings, and I really like studying scripture and sharing interpretations of it and reactions to it.

Over the next three years I helped with another 7 Alpha courses, assuming that by “helped” you include not only the grunt work but casting some doubt in discussion on most of the apologetics used. However, the people running the Alphas changed, and with them went a positive wish to engage alternative perspectives. The previous Alpha coordinators went off to seminary (which may be a good sign for the future of the clergy!) and my home group disintegrated, with several members going off to other churches. It seemed that the season when it was right for me to be there had passed…

What I learn from the article I link to is that increasingly, Anglican churches are going to fit the mould of St. Mikes and its like. This is something about which I am a little ambivalent.

The plus side is that they are very welcoming to the “seeker” and the new member, at least initially, and in at least some cases are prepared to accept people with divergent theologies as long term members of their communities. They stand some chance, through Alpha, of markedly increasing the number of self-identifying Christians, and could at least conceivably provide congregations with the size and diversity to cope with a variety of styles of worship and, just possibly, even a variety of styles of theology – it would not need much tweaking of their structures to achieve the last of these, but might need a lot of tweaking of their attitude to theology. They also have enough young people to make social gospel endeavours practical (which by and large they are not for ageing congregations in expensive-to-maintain structures), and they definitely have the will to do that.

However, they have not at least so far, so far as I can see, implemented the changes which would be needed to accommodate variant theologies, and they are producing significant numbers of people who think that “The Gospel” is basically just Penal Substitutionary Atonement. I can recall the confusion caused in one young and enthusiastic  church worker when I said I didn’t much like PSA, and he said “but that’s the Gospel…”, so I outlined another six or seven atonement theories to him and pointed out that none of them was actually part of any of the Anglican statements of faith.

The sponsorship by churches in the HTB mould of new seminaries such as St. Melitus (mentioned in the article) and St. Barnabas (my more local version) seems to me likely to produce generations of “ones size fits all” theologies in clergy, and it has definitely seemed to me that St. Mikes was moving in that direction.

And I have difficulty feeling at ease in such a congregation, as do a lot of people who would now describe themselves as “post evangelical”, “liberal” or “radical”. Unless they are open to the idea that people may have very differing theologies from the standard evangelical rubric, they will continue to make uneasy, alienate or exclude all of these strands of Christian thought, and by and large, however apparently welcoming of variant viewpoints they may be in Alpha discussions, at root they are not open to this; the way is extremely narrow which leads to salvation for them (Matt. 7:14) rather than the father’s house having many mansions (John 14:2) or Jesus having other flocks (John 10:16).

Looking to the future, then, what is going to become of those whose thoughts either start to move beyond the evangelical model or which cannot bring themselves anywhere close to it in the first place? Are there going to be no churches, or even no communities, where they can find a home, at least not within Anglicanism – and the same may well apply to Christianity more generally?

I suppose that to some extent, this post is a lament. For many years I used to say that in respect of the church, I was like a flying buttress – I supported it, but from outside. For a while with St. Mikes, I felt more inside than outside – and now I feel outside again.

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The incoherence of the philosophers?

September 2nd, 2016
by Chris

I came across an “In Our Time” in which Melvyn Bragg discusses Averroes, the 12th century Muslim philosopher from Cordoba, with, inter alia, Peter Adamson of the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast. I recommend both.

One point I particularly take away is this. Islam had, in the twelfth century, discovered the works of the ancient Greek philosophers, particularly Aristotle, and had started translating these into Arabic (a practice which, mostly via the incredibly tolerant culture of al-Andaluz (Andalucia) in which for a brief period Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars worked together and sparked off each others’ works, introduced the Christian West to Aristotle, who had been largely forgotten about).

This concerned a theologian called al-Ghazali, writing in Baghdad. Al-Ghazali wrote a work against Aristotle (who he thought was dangerous to Islamic faith) called “The Incoherence of the Philosophers”, thus making himself a philosopher as well as a theologian – you can’t attack philosophy as a discipline without, ironically, being a philosopher yourself.

Averroes was engaged in writing commentaries on Aristotle, which were so influential that some centuries later Thomas Aquinas referred to Averroes as “The Commentator” and quoted him extensively. Not surprisingly, Averroes didn’t always agree with al-Ghazali, and wrote a rebuttal called “The Incoherence of the Incoherence”. However, on some things he did agree with al-Ghazali, but attributed that to faults in the interpretation of Aristotle by Avicenna, a Muslim philosophical giant of the previous century…

Don’t you just love philosophers?

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Arguing with God

August 30th, 2016
by Chris

Here’s another address from the excellent Rabbi Brad Artson, which I strongly recommend.

In a recent discussion, someone said that they really liked the way Judaism grapples with its texts – and I completely share that feeling. R. Artson talks at one point about what he is saying not being dismissible as a modern liberal interpretation – because it’s an ancient liberal interpretation… would that Christianity preserved its arguments and counter-arguments between scholars in their entirety, rather than having to have one become “orthodox”.

Also, it’s reinforced for me by R. Artson’s words that Rabbinic students need to learn their scriptures really thoroughly – and then apply them in the spirit of the rabbinic tradition, which always argues and always develops. Sadly, although some Christians do know their scripture this well, those who do seem always to be incredibly conservative in their outlook, and are therefore pretty much immune to any process of argument, counter-argument and owning the scriptures (through their interpretations) as a co-production with the original authors and with God.

I think I need to go away and study a bit more…

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Revisionist or balanced personal history?

August 17th, 2016
by Chris

Malcolm Gladwell podcasts at “Revisionist History”, and episode 9 is titled “Generous Orthodoxy”. Much of the episode revolves around Chester Wenger, a Mennonite clergyman, and his dealing with his son’s coming out as gay. He displays there what Gladwell calls “Generous Orthodoxy”, and I might add that it also displays costly discipleship.

His proposed alternative action for protestors at Princeton is also an example of costly discipleship (and one I approve of; if you desire that something take place and argue for that, you must take into account the thought processes of the people you’re trying to persuade, otherwise you’re just venting and will not get what you want), but what I want to focus on here is what Princeton should do. The root of the protest was the naming (many years ago) of a building after Woodrow Wilson, who was a major benefactor of the university (along with a lot of other “rich white guys”) and also, of course, a notable president of the United States.

What I hadn’t known before listening to this was that he was also a segregationist who set back the cause of black equality significantly. I plead in my defence that I’m not American, and the history of the States in the 20th century tends only to interest me where it bears on the history of my home country or where it displays some major historical trend, though I’m tempted to quote “1066 and all that” and say “the Americans became top nation and history ended”.

The issue was that black students at Princeton felt uncomfortable and excluded by having to study in a building named after a prominent oppressor of black people. Now it’s difficult for me to put myself in their position – I’m white, male, English, British and European, and all of those are “privileged” categories. I’m also comfortably off by the standards of my relatively rich country, which also probably doesn’t help. OK, I do also have a number of features which move my “privilege” score down to something more median, but still, I must consider myself as being in a privileged position. Could you make me feel uncomfortable and excluded by the naming of a building I had to use? I’m not sure. Maybe the “Adolf Hitler Cultural Centre”, or the “Joseph Stalin Centre for Political Studies” might give me pause, but probably no more than a very mild discomfort. That’s a thing I’ll come back to later.

I have two main problems with removing Wilson’s name from the building. The first is that he did make a huge contribution to Princeton and to the fact that there is a building there at all. Gladwell’s suggestion of various other Wilson’s to name it after ignores that rather fundamental fact; those others didn’t make that contribution. In removing the name, you are erasing the building’s history (but then, the podcast IS called “Revisionist History”); with that, you are erasing both the good and the bad aspects of Woodrow Wilson. I have no problem with looking at history anew and finding new ways of interpreting it, but I have a huge problem with throwing away chunks of it in the process – generally when new historical ideas are proposed, they have some truth to them, but they are also a reaction against the previous dominant historical ideas, and have a tendency to overreact – very often, a better analysis is found in a synthesis of the two. Rewriting history is, of course, always the project of the winners of any conflict, but as Orwell described in “1984”, it makes a mockery of any search for truth.

Secondly, though, I challenge whether it’s Christian to do this. One essence of Christianity is the willingness to admit fault and ask for forgiveness (which, I concede, Wilson never did) but another is to offer that forgiveness to everyone. All that is left of Wilson is his memory, and erasing a chunk of that memory is a kind of death penalty (and as he has passed beyond earthly sanction, we can perhaps consider that he has already been adequately judged and, as appropriate, sanctioned and forgiven; “Judgment is mine, saith the Lord, I will repay“, with the subtext that we don’t need to and perhaps should not). Yes, that memory is at the moment only (at Princeton, at least) of the good he did, following the principle “de mortuis nil nisi bonum“. Clearly that memory is inadequate, and needs adding to – but not in the half-hearted and apologetic vein suggested by the Princeton graduate whose comment is on the podcast. Equally, though, I think it inappropriate that we should follow Shakepeare’s somewhat sarcastic “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones; so let it be with Caesar”.

The thing is, we extol the virtues of famous people but fail to mention their bad qualities. Often this leads to meteoric rises and falls – the public (often through the press) latches on to someone and puts them on a pedestal, and then finds flaws and brings them down again. It also leads to the idiocy of thinking that (say) a pop star is worth hearing about politics or economic theory.

What we should, I think, do is always hold in mind the fact that everyone is “simul justus et peccator“, Luther’s phrase to indicate that everyone remains a sinner while being justified or righteous. Or, indeed, forgiven. What we need is a balanced view of everyone; they will have their virtues and good deeds, they will also have their vices and evil deeds. Perhaps the best exposition of how I think we should view people is described in Orson Scott Card’s “Speaker for the Dead“; his invention of the “Speaker for the Dead” attempts to give just such a balanced view of those who have passed away, presenting them as a human being and inviting understanding rather than adulation or condemnation, and there are now some people who, following Card, will act as Speakers for the Dead at funerals.

So what should Princeton do? At present, they have an unbalanced testimony to Wilson’s good actions. I suggest a plaque is sufficient, not just giving a nod to his bad side but giving it equal weight with the good and recording that the bad is not approved while yet the good is celebrated.

And, as one should always “follow the money”, that might allow Princeton to assuage student’s anxieties while still not putting off future donors who are afraid their own contribution will end up on the scrap heap of history due to a reassessment of their character in the future…

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Timings – questioning the panel

August 15th, 2016
by Chris

After day 1, I was mulling over some of the things said by the speakers, and put together things which Pete Rollins and Rob Bell had said to form a question – which, as it was solidly in Roger Bretherton’s area of expertise, seemed to me like a good question for the last session to put to the whole panel of speakers. As it ended up multi-part and a little long, I took a few moments in breaks to write it down and gave it to Pete on the morning of day 2, thinking that it was only fair not to ambush everyone with it.

As it turned out, Pete talked about it with his fellow speakers (he said it was a pretty decent question), but suspected the organiser wouldn’t want to use it, and he was indeed right. I gather the organiser’s reason given was that he thought he’d mess it up reading it out, but actually the questions he put were just right to wrap up the event, and my question would have opened up new avenues which wouldn’t necessarily have been helpful.

As nearly as I can reconstruct it, but with a little more detail, here’s the question:-

Peter talked about the existential lack at the root of being, which (as a gift) gave us our individuality, and in the process said that people who didn’t feel this separation from “the other” were commonly labelled psychotic.

Rob, on the other hand, talked with conviction about God being present in all places. Now, I’m not sure whether he did this as a result of having a mystical experience of oneness with everything, but it is the kind of thing someone who has had such an experience is guaranteed to say.

Now, I’m a panentheist mystic; I wouldn’t have followed the spiritual path leading to me being at Timings had it not been for an out of the blue peak unitive mystical experience which hit me when I was 14. One powerful feature of unitive mystical experiences, no matter which religious tradition they occur in, is that the boundary between the self and the other weakens or vanishes. (At the time, I was intellectually an evangelical atheist, so it was extremely unexpected and very life-changing.) It was a sufficiently good experience to set me on a path of trying to repeat it. (I’ve tended to say it was “better than sex, drugs and rock & roll”, though that was in hindsight as I hadn’t experienced any of those aged 14).

However, if I take Pete at his word, this means that my initial experience may have been psychotic.

I have in mind here Robert Sapolsky’s Stanford lecture on the evolutionary neurophysiology behind religion. Sapolsky identifies, for instance, Luther as having created his theology out of an obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, several other religious giants as probably having temporal lobe epilepsy and shamans (he thinks shamanism is at the root of many other religious leaders) as having schizotypal personality disorder.

Part 1 of the question, therefore, particularly directed at Pete, is “Are we to believe that all powerful religious experiences are the result of mental disorder?”.

Part 2 is “Does it matter?”

Part 3 is particularly addressed to Rob, and is “I’ve been preaching for years that an unitive mystical experience is something everyone might wish to aspire to – have I been suggesting to them that they should become psychotic or otherwise mentally ill?”

and Part 4 is “Does that matter?”

As it turned out, I was able to have a chat with Roger Bretherton after the last session and ask him his thoughts. He suggested that this kind of “surge” or “flow” experience didn’t completely fit the definition of psychosis. He also mentioned to me an incident where the hypnotist and illusionist Derren Brown had induced an experience in an atheist who afterwards didn’t want to accept that it was not a “true” experience, which I found interesting (I think I’ve found a video of that incident on You Tube, but it’s blocked by Channel 4 in the UK; most of his “atheist conversions” seem to have reverted to atheism later). I’d have liked to do the same with Rob Bell, but I had stretched my elastic to breaking point by that point, and for that reason and because Pete looked as if he was in the same condition (and admitted to me he was) I left discussion with Pete to a promised email exchange later.

My thoughts? Well, as I mentioned, when my first peak experience arrived, I was an evangelical atheist, and it was a severe shock to my system. My first thought was, in fact, that there was something wrong with my brain, and I went to my GP. Apparently at the time there wasn’t (though in a spirit of complete openness, there is now – I have diagnosed PTSD, chronic depression and chronic anxiety, though only the anxiety is really a significant ongoing problem and I manage that fairly reasonably). It didn’t involve any of the other factors which might provoke similar experience, such as drugs, sleeplessness, starvation, oxygen deprivation or electromagnetic stimulation of the brain either. I do not know why it happened when it did.

As I mentioned before, it was a VERY good experience. Clearly dopamine, seratonin or both were involved, because those are how the brain gets to feel really good. I therefore put aside worries about why it happened, and went looking for a repetition by any means which I could find written about as tending to produce mystical experience. If anyone’s faith tradition talked about mystical experience, I tried any techniques they said produced it.

For what it’s worth, the conclusion I eventually came to was that none of these would (at least in me) guarantee a repeat, but some of them looked as if they increased the likelihood of a peak experience and definitely were conducive to lower level experience (which I’ve tended to describe as an “edge” of full mystical experience) but which was sufficient for maintenance purposes. Sometimes there would be something a lot stronger, and that was good, but you couldn’t go round in a peak experience all the time, as you’d be non-functional for almost any other purpose. Being a fundamentally lazy individual, I hit on a set of low level practices which did this job without taking up too much time or energy, and didn’t involve anything illegal or dangerous.

Courtesy of The Religion Forum, I’ve been able to go through the various physiological symptoms and the circumstances with a friend, George Ashley (another psychology professor, now sadly deceased) in detail; George was an out and out atheist and was pretty certain there must be some mental abnormality there, but he couldn’t put his finger on it – he finally put it down to “a brain fart”, bless him. Another friend from there, Mel Bain, remarked to me that it sounded as if it was addictive – it sounded, he wrote, as if I was “Jonesing” for another “fix” of it – and I took that on board; it is definitely that.

Does it matter what caused it, then? I don’t think so. I have in mind Karen Armstrong, who found that her own peak experiences were the result of temporal lobe epilepsy and went through a period of atheism as a result; she however eventually seems to have concluded that the origin of the experience didn’t matter, and is now what she describes as a “freelance monotheist”; she has a fairly serious mystical streak to some of her writing. I have in mind several people with bipolar disorder, some of them famous (like Stephen Fry and Robin Williams), some of them people I’ve come to know well (which category doesn’t include famous people). Many of them value their manic phases so highly (despite knowing they’re part of a mental illness) that they won’t take drugs which would prevent them, and in some of those cases (Fry and Williams) the world would be a poorer place without their manic genius. But, of course, it eventually killed Robin Williams… I had my own taste of mania for 12 days three years ago when my depression lifted, and I can understand their attitude – it was an incredibly creative and productive time for me. But I wouldn’t have wanted it to go on much longer, I’d have burned out. I think of Van Gogh, as well, who probably painted his amazing works out of schizophrenia. Clearly, some mental conditions labelled as illnesses can produce remarkable things – and, indeed, as Sapolsky says, the people of a village he mentions are very glad that they have one schizotypal shaman – though they wouldn’t want a second one.

The second “does it matter?” is maybe more of a worry. I’ve rhapsodised about peak mystical experience for nearly 50 years now, and the thought that this may only be available through what is viewed as mental abnormality does concern me. Certainly all the experimentation and discussion with other mystics I’ve done over the years inclines me to think that at least the most intense forms of unitive experience are only felt by relatively few people, though many more describe experiences which I think might be taken as a base, worked on through various practices and perhaps might become more intense as a result.

But do I want to encourage others to go down that road? Initially I most definitely did – it was a supremely good experience, and I wanted others to have that. It had a lot of pluses from my point of view. It made me, for instance, a much nicer human being (it’s hard not to think of others when the border between what is you and what is them is blurred or nonexistent, and massively increased empathy is a typical result). It makes it pretty near impossible to feel an existential lack of “the other”; it strongly tends to stop one being at all worried by the thought of death. It also gave me a peculiar certainty- not intellectual certainty (I am still baffled by that-which-is-God) but emotional/spiritual certainty. I used to write sometimes that I didn’t need to believe in God, I experienced God.

A concern was that it might be that not everyone could have such a peak experience, even with a lot of work, and I started early on warning that nothing seemed to guarantee a peak experience – certainly, I never found a way of guaranteeing one in myself, merely guaranteeing an “edge” experience. Some of the well attested routes are illegal where I live (many drugs, for instance); some are physically dangerous.

Mel Bain’s comment also concerned me – yes, I found these experiences addictive, and that led me to warn against that aspect as well.

However, there is another potential downside which has concerned me more since my long period of depressive illness (which happily seems at the least to be in remission, albeit medicated, since 2013), and that is that this is something which messes with your psychology, and any amateur messing with psychology is potentially dangerous. I’ve interpreted that depressive illness as at least partly my “dark night of the soul”, which several mystics have identified as a normal part of a mystic’s journey. However, it was also most definitely mental illness, and it nearly killed me, several times; I also spent some years (10 or so) frankly despairing of it ever being over, and I’m not sure there was ever any guarantee it would be.

That is not an experience I feel I can in conscience encourage others to go through. It also leads me to warn that going seriously down the contemplative mystical path can lead to mental illness and possibly death. Pete’s warning about psychosis only feeds a little into that – depression is quite bad enough!

It might have been easier to deal with, less dangerous and more certain of coming to an end had I identified it as a “dark night” and had I had a spiritual director (rather than or in addition to psychiatrists and psychologists) at the time; that is perhaps the only saving aspect – but from my own experience it is only a possibility.

So I have to say that the mystical path comes with a pretty severe health warning.

However, so does any other technique which tends to produce radical psychological changes in people, including (unfortunately) the standard Evangelical “pray the sinners’ prayer and give your heart to Jesus” model, particularly if you also experience the “slain in the spirit” phenomenon. There are a lot of cases of people scarred by past experience of the Evangelical mould of conversion and its follow-on (which I tend to criticise all the more because, to my mind, it seriously fails to deal adequately with spiritual growth after the initial conversion). There are some theologies, as well, which are particularly conducive to producing or worsening anxiety disorders or which at the least exacerbate obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

Radical psychological change, it seems, comes with radical dangers.

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I would mention that one result of the “beneficial” aspects of the unitive experience is that I find it difficult to engage with some of Pete’s work other than on a purely intellectual level, because he regards the existential lack as fundamental, and the fear of death as not much less so – and I don’t really feel those.

 

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