This book is a Get Out of Jail Free card and a passport back into the playground.

The aim of this book is to set you free. But free from what? Free from neurosis. Free from the feeling that you have to obey authority. Free from emotional intimidation. Free from addiction. Free from inhibition.

The key to happiness, mental health and being the most that we can be is absolute and unconditional self-acceptance. The paradox is that many of our problems are caused by trying to improve ourselves, censor our thinking, make up for past misdeeds and struggling with our negative feelings whether of depression or aggression.

But if we consider ourselves in our entirety in this very moment, we know these things :

1. Anything we have done is in the past and cannot be changed, thus it is pointless to do anything else but accept it. No regrets or guilt.

2. While our actions can harm others, our thoughts and emotions, in and of themselves, never can. So we should accept them and allow them to be and go where they will. While emotions sometimes drive actions, those who completely accept their emotions and allow themselves to feel them fully, have more choice over how they act in the light of them.

Self-criticism never made anyone a better person. Anyone who does a “good deed” under pressure from their conscience or to gain the approval of others takes out the frustration involved in some other way. The basis for loving behaviour towards others is the ability to love ourselves. And loving ourselves unconditionally, means loving ourselves exactly as we are at this moment.

This might seem to be complacency, but in fact the natural activity of the individual is healthy growth, and what holds us back from it is fighting with those things we can’t change and the free thought and emotional experience which is the very substance of that growth.

How to Be Free is available as a free ebook from Smashwords, iBooks in some countries, Kobo and Barnes & Noble

It is also available in paperback from Lulu or Amazon for $10 US, plus postage.

The ebook version currently has received 611 ***** out of ***** ratings on U.S. iBooks.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

BOOK REVIEW : The Event in Science, History, Philosophy & Art by Yeshayahu (Jesaiah) Ben-Aharon

This isn’t an easy book to review. Parts of it strike a strong chord with me. It deals with the central dilemma of human life : how do we awake from the nightmare of history? But it is easy to get lost in it’s jungle of abstract concepts. “The function of virtual actualization is to take over the de-actualized and reversed elements and forces, released from the event’s actualization, in order to virtualize and actualize them on the plane of immanence.” Does this mean something? Or is it just a gobbledegook word salad? I have to give the author the benefit of the doubt. When I do feel that I know what he is saying it is often something deeply insightful and important. Sometimes you have to have had an experience in order to know what the words someone else uses to point to it are referring to. The subject here is really altered states of consciousness. So I’m willing to believe that the abstract concepts he introduces us to in the book and the framework within which he places them could come to take on a practical value if I were to have more experience of the processes of spiritual death and rebirth he’s talking about. As it is my experience of the collapse of dogmatic beliefs and of becoming through creative activity enable me to identify strongly with what he has to say when he uses more concrete examples.

Part of my problem grappling with the book may be my desire for Ben-Aharon to be talking about things I can believe in. Is he talking about us forming literal ethereal bodies or is this a metaphor for placing emphasis on our ability to experience ourselves as a part of the process of life which extends well beyond our physical body? I have to just take what I can from the book. I may be wrong about that other world not existing, but there’s no sense being gullible. As it is I view the spiritual simply as the realm of relationship as apprehended by human emotions. If I experience relationship with another person in a way which makes me feel something, then that is a spiritual experience. If I get a sense of wonder when I look at the stars at night then that is an experience of relationship to the universe itself. I just don’t see the spiritual as something which has an existence independent of the body.

How can we find hope in our profoundly dysfunctional social world? Our way of life is placing ever greater pressure on our ecological support systems. At a time when personal responsibility and cooperation for the common good are most needed, we are becoming ever more polarised and prone to blaming others. You don’t have to be religious to feel that this is the end of days.

To the degree that I can find hope, I find it in the overlap of big ideas, especially where those ideas seem to be carving out a deeper riverbed into which otherwise divergent streams may flow.

“Rudolph Steiner predicted that the new Christ Event would penetrate and transform all earthly and cosmic matter, life, consciousness and evolution.” So says the blurb on the back of this book. And Ben-Aharon begins his book with a quote from Jesus : “For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other.” Luke 17:24. But this is not a religious book, at least in any conventional sense. It’s references to religious texts are brief and used on the basis of their ability to give a useful way to conceive of something demonstrably real.

The Christian gospels predict a time of great crisis when an apocalyptic event (the revelation of previously hidden knowledge) would, after at first throwing the world into great tribulation, usher in the “Kingdom of Heaven”, i.e. a new way of being for the human race in which the old conflicts and hierarchies would disappear. The mighty would fall, the meek would inherit the earth, and we would all be united by love, all emotional suffering washed away.

I’m not a religious person. I don’t believe in the supernatural. But just such a metamorphosis seems both possible and necessary to me. We certainly have tremendous potential which we see in our technological advances, so why would it be impossible that we would find a way to heal the wounds which make us so dysfunctional socially?

The essence of the first chapter ‘The Event in Science’ is that the old reductionist mechanistic approach to science, and especially evolution, has been found insufficient and that a systems view which acknowledges that everything exists as part of a field of complex interrelationships opens up awareness of the development of matter and life as a creative process. I’ve read similar material before (Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind, which I read recently, is cited with regard to changes in our concept of cognition.) On the one hand, I found this chapter easier to understand, because so much of it is less abstract than what comes later, but, on the other hand, I don’t have enough knowledge of science to assess whether any conclusions it draws are too bold for the supporting evidence.

Yeshayahu Ben-Aharon

The second chapter ‘The Event in History’ presents perhaps the most useful concept in the book, that of “the reversal”. Why, when we took the great ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood and attempted to use them as the basis for revolutionary social transformation, did we end up reversing them into their opposites? In Communism the ideal expressed in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov - “All of us are guilty for everything and before everybody, and I am more than the others.”  - was reversed to become : “All of you are guilty for everything and for everybody and I am more innocent than all the others.” In Naziism the ideals of Goethe - “spiritual-moral sacrifice of the lower ‘ego’ in order to become the higher ‘Self’” was reversed so that the higher self was sacrificed to preserve the lower. In both cases the result was a descent into mass slaughter.

For some it may be controversial that Capitalism as it has played out is seen by Ben-Aharon as the third great reversal. “As masters of the world by destination and capacity, first the British Empire, and now the American, could and should have used their given power and fantastic creative physical abilities, to create affluence for humanity as a whole... George Bataille…says that the problem of the world economy, ruled by the US, is what you do with 'excess' of economic prosperity as such. Production as a goal in itself can only become as social disease, a real social cancer, because it will not annihilate itself through free giving, leading to monstrous accumulations, untold riches and power in the hands of very few, and also to necessary cycles that will destroy this excess.” I’m no expert on economics, but in thinking about this it occurred to me that the supermarket is perhaps a useful example of the pros and cons of free market Capitalism as it currently manifests in the world. The supermarket gives us access to a wide choice of consumer products at relatively inexpensive prices, but a high proportion of the food on offer ends up being thrown out. Apparently, in the U.S. a third of all food produced is thrown away. And yet there are people who don’t have enough to eat. This reversal may not have been as immediately disastrous as Communism and Naziism/Fascism (though bloody wars are sometimes fought to protect market interests and the selling of weapons to dictators is part of that market), but we don’t know how sustainable it is. We need it to work better or we need something which will work better.

Ben-Aharon identifies transhumanism - the idea that we can use technology to make ourselves immortal - as another reversal which is on the horizon. Mystics have always had “intimations of immorality” through the temporary surrender of their ego in the face of the whole of which we are a part. To seek immortality of the ego by uploading yourself onto a computer (even if such a thing were possible) represents the ultimate rejection of the impermanence which is our soul, our participation in an ever-changing universe. As Ben-Aharon points out, this is “infinite egotism” and would have devastating social consequences.

So how do we reverse the reversal? Only through opening to “a new form and level of consciousness and being.” It has to come from autonomous individuals who can perceive potentials and act to bring them about in the social world. This is the opposite of a universalising system. Rather it is the individual who is universalised in the process of creation and actualisation of potential.

This leads to the chapters on philosophy and art. Ben-Aharon sees developments in modern philosophy, specifically postmodernism, as opening the way for this new way of thinking and sees art as the arena in which we explore spiritual transformations of being. This is where things get complicated. It probably doesn’t help that I’m not well-informed about post-modern philosophy.

I have heard Jordan Peterson rail against post-modern philosophy, in a way which made me curious to find out more. Sometimes denial lies behind anger, so one shouldn’t take vociferous condemnation at face value without more closely examining what is being condemned. On the other hand, post-modern philosophy is a big topic to explore and, so far, I haven’t found the time to do more than watch a couple of YouTube videos. But what I find fascinating is that Ben-Aharon sees the tools of post-modern philosophy, from people like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, as crucial to the fulfilment of the promises of the Judea-Christian religions. We need techniques to break free of the old dualities and dogmas and open up the possibility to see things in a new light. Perhaps it could be seen, not as a denial that truth exists, as some critics claim, but a strategy for opening the space necessary for the holistic truth to arrive. Like Field of Dreams - “Build it and he will come.” For Ben-Aharon the aim is not to destroy Western civilisation but to arrive at a realisation of  “…the other in me as the primal, unconditional responsibility for the earth and all her children.” A point at which we can reverse the Cain mindset and finally say : Yes, I will become my brother’s keeper!”

How can we reconcile this view of Foucault, Derrida, et al, as layers of the foundation for the “Kingdom of Heaven” with the social phenomena to which their ideas seem to have given rise - the dogmatic, repressive and judgemental political philosophy we refer to as “political correctness” and the narcissistic egotism which often goes with it. Peterson isn’t wrong in his criticism of this trend, but can we blame it on the philosophers? Isn’t this another case of reversal? What is presented as a path for the individual will become its opposite if we universalise it, if we try to force it onto the world. To try to overthrow the hierarchies of our own mind in order to set free our consciousness and our imagination is not at all the same thing as going to war against the social hierarchies around us and trying to overthrow them.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

BOOK REVIEW : Steps to an Ecology of Mind by Gregory Bateson

Gregory Bateson (1904-1980) was an anthropologist amongst many other things. His central project was the application of systems theory or cybernetics (defined by Norbert Weiner in 1948 as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine”) to the fields of anthropology, psychology, history and ecology. This collection of academic papers and public lectures presents his thinking over the period from 1935 until 1971. The title is a description of his aim. Just as ecology is the study of the interrelationship between living things in natural systems in search of an understanding of what allows those systems to persist as healthy functioning wholes, Bateson is operating according to the belief that the problems of society and the functioning of the natural world can only be understood by achieving “an ecology of mind” in which ideas fit together in an integrated system.

Some of the papers in this book make for challenging reading. Bateson is asking us to consider a different framework for viewing the world, to think outside the box. The box being our deeply ingrained misperceptions about the world. Living things, including ourselves, are systems which exist within larger systems. These systems are interconnected wholes within which all parts are in dynamic relationship with each other. Nothing can truly be understood out of context, and no change in the system can occur without change to the whole system. 

I found some of the abstract concepts to which Bateson introduced me a little hard to wrap my head around at times, but it is worth the effort. This book left me wondering why systems theory, particularly as Bateson applies it to learning and communication, is not taught in high school. Surely being able to understand how we think and communicate and the principles which determine our relationships with others are crucial to our ability to successfully manage life. 

But there is a reason why concepts so useful are not widely appreciated. They would represent a revolution, because faulty thinking goes to the very roots of our society. A mass breakout of sanity in the populations of the world would shake every aspect of our culture and economic activity to the very core. It would be the end of the world as we know it and the beginning of an adventure into the unknown.

Part I : Metalogues

“A metalogue is a conversation about some problematic subject,” Bateson explains. These are conversations between himself and his young daughter which playfully examine important ideas. One which I found particularly thought provoking was “What is an instinct?” in which Bateson points out that concepts like “instinct” and “gravity” are “explanatory principles” - “…an hypothesis tries to explain something but an explanatory principle — like ‘gravity’ or ‘instinct’ — really explains nothing. It’s a sort of conventional agreement between scientists to stop trying to explain things at a certain point.”

Part II : Form and Pattern in Anthropology

Bateson did research on indigenous cultures in New Guinea and Bali, the latter work in collaboration with his wife Margaret Mead. From these studies he identified the phenomena of “schismogenesis” in contact between different cultures, a phenomena which also applies to relationships between individuals. 

This is a kind of negative feedback loop in which the behaviour of one individual or group toward another elicits the kind of response from the second which elicits more of the same from the first. Schismogenesis can take a symmetrical form - in which each individual or group has similar aims and are competing with each other - or a complimentary form in which there is a relationship of difference between the two, such as dominance and submission or exhibitionism and spectatorship. 

A simple example is an arms race. One country builds some nuclear weapons, so another country builds some so there is a deterrent against the first country using theirs against them. The first country views this as threatening, so they build more of their own, and so on. The negative feedback leads to a world endangered by a plethora of nuclear weapons. 

It is easy to see how relevant an understanding of these kinds of processes is. Marriage breakdown is no doubt generally the result of some form of schismogenesis. Little irritating behaviours which illicit irritating behaviours from the other party which perpetuate the phenomena, gradually escalating until the relationship becomes untenable. 

Or consider relationships between subcultures within our society. The prejudices of one group against another group can inspire retaliatory behaviour which reinforces the prejudice, etc., etc. One need only look at the behaviour of people of opposing political beliefs on the internet to see how this plays out.

Part III : Form and Pathology in Relationship

What particularly attracted me to reading Bateson was his double bind theory of schizophrenia. 

I don’t suffer from this condition myself, but I have experienced a bipolar psychotic breakdown as a result of finding myself in a double bind. A double bind is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. I was in a position where I put all of my faith in someone who insisted on the importance of honesty. Honesty is a strong conscientious principle for me, so I agreed with this. But when I expressed honest criticism of this individual, I was told I was “deluded”. When I pretended to be sorry for what I said, i.e. I lied, I was warmly rewarded. It was important to me to be honest and I wanted to please the person who asked me to be honest, but I had to lie to please him. As a result of this relationship I ended up becoming delusional, being locked up in a mental hospital and becoming so depressed I needed shock therapy. 

So I can relate to Bateson’s accounts of people who end up suffering schizophrenia as a result of demands made of them by a parent giving mixed messages. A mother feels anxious about affectionate contact with the child and backs away from him when he shows natural affection. Unable to face such feelings in herself, she compensates with overt declarations of love. The child doesn’t know what to base his behaviour on - the withdrawal or the pretence of warm feelings. This is a very simplistic description of a situation Bateson analyses in great detail. 

There is a strong connection between what he has to say here and both R. D. Laing’s work on psychosis and the family and Wilhelm Reich’s ideas about the effect that the neuroses of adults have on children. 

Bateson also gives a fascinating explanation for the cryptic verbal communication often exhibited during schizophrenic psychosis. 

Schizophrenia has a genetic basis, and Bateson gives consideration to the implications of this for identifying a predisposition for the “covert” schizophrenia betrayed by the parent and the “overt” schizophrenia which arises in their child.

Part IV : Biology and Evolution

Bateson scolds biologists and boards of education for “empty-headedness” in their battle with Creationists, pointing out that it is important for students to know about the evolution of understanding of evolution in order to properly recognise the problem of explanation it is trying to solve, and there is something to be appreciated in the way that the Book of Genesis framed the question : “Where does order come from?”

“In modern terms, we may say that this is the problem implicit in the Second Law of Thermodynamics: If random events lead to things getting mixed up, by what nonrandom events did things come to be sorted? And what is a ‘random’ event”. 

He also explores the implications of somatic change for evolutionary theory. Somatic change is adaption to an environment. If people go to live at a high altitude, at first they pant to deal with the thin air, but over time their lung capacity increases and breathing becomes easier. 

Can this kind of adaptation end up as a genetic change? 

Lamarck’s theory involving inheritance of acquired characteristics was discarded, but Bateson hypothesises that a random mutation may come after somatic change which gives the organism survival advantage by allowing what had been achieved by greater effort to be achieved without that effort. 

In order to survive an organism’s body has to be flexible to change, so if giraffes’ necks get gradually longer due to beneficial mutations which have survival advantage, their hearts will also have to be pumping more blood. This change in the demands on the heart is a somatic change. But at a later stage another random mutation may increase the size of giraffe hearts, this mutation having survival advantage because it reduces the effort needed and makes the giraffe more flexible to meet other challenges. In this way inheritance of acquired characteristics might appear to occur, even though it is not what is really happening.

In discussing dolphin language, Bateson points out that animal communication is all about relationship. In developing our own language, we humans acquired the ability to talk about specific things, and so our communication with each other about relationship is mostly conveyed by subtext and body language. Dolphins don’t have our body language repertoire, since they don’t have facial expressions or hands, so he surmises that dolphin language is a very complex, sophisticated language of relationship.

PART V : Epistemology and Ecology

Cybernetic explanation, Bateson tells us, is focused not on explaining why something is, but why something else isn’t. Natural selection is a perfect example. It explains the process of change in species by looking at how other outcomes were eliminated as unfit. 

Everything is looked at as potential information. There is redundancy in information to the extent that a message can be conveyed without some of that information being present. For instance if I type “sh*t”, the missing letter doesn’t stop you from knowing what I mean. Information can provide the form of something, redundancy within that form and the restraint that makes it that form and not another. All else “is noise, the only possible source of new patterns.”

How is it that we are an expression of a self-regulating balanced ecological system, and yet we are psychologically out-of-balance and bringers of chaos to that larger system? Bateson re-examines the Adam and Eve myth to see if we can learn something about how the conscious purpose for which we have such an advanced capacity compared to other animals has set us against nature — our own deeper nature and nature as a whole — and how it produces a projection by which we blame either ourselves or the system - “I have sinned” or “God is vengeful.” 

To address this dilemma we need to bring the unconscious into consciousness. Bateson sees art as particularly important in this process. He touches on the use of psychedelics, but with some scepticism. “What is required is not simply a relaxation of consciousness to let the unconscious material gush out. To do this is merely to exchange one partial view of the self for the other partial view. I suspect that what is needed is the synthesis of the two views and this is more difficult.”

He points out a great error in Darwin’s account of evolution, and that was to present the individuals or their family lines or the subspecies as the units of survival. The unit should actually be thought of as individual plus environment or family line plus environment etc., because those who destroy their environment end up destroying themselves. 

Similarly we can’t understand mind if we see it as contained simply in the brain of the individual. The concept of “mind” has to be flexible according to what we wish to explain. It is the realm of ideas. An idea is “a difference which makes a difference.” The ideas we perceive through our senses are parts of the whole which is our mind at that moment. 

But Bateson expresses the view that, just as there is a global ecosystem of which all subsystems and all species and all individuals are a part, so there is a larger Mind of which all of our minds are a part. “This larger Mind is comparable to God and is perhaps what some people mean by ‘God,’ but is still immanent in the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology.”

Part VI : Crisis in the Ecology of Mind

What are the harmful ideas which dominate our culture?

“(a) It’s us against the environment.
 (b) It’s us against other men.
 (c) It’s the individual (or the individual company, or the individual nation) that matters.
 (d) We can have unilateral control over the environment and must strive for that control.
 (e) We live within an infinitely expanding “frontier.”
 (f) Economic determinism is common sense.
 (g) Technology will do it for us.”

We need to think in terms of flexibility, Bateson insists. New technologies can allow us to support increases in population, but the more we push the limits of the system and the more we depend on such technologies, the less flexibility we have. The same thing applies for individuals, our ability to survive and to thrive depends on our flexibility, the ease with which we can change our thinking and our behaviour in the light of changing realities.

Steps to An Ecology of Mind is a book overflowing with profound thinking about what really matters. I only wish it were less relevant today than it was when it was first published.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

BOOK REVIEW : Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza

I didn’t used to know what I was. If I felt that the term “God” could be applied to something real, but didn’t believe in the supernatural, what was I? Not really an atheist or agnostic. But also not a religious believer. Someone suggested the label “pantheist” and when I read the definition it certainly seemed to fit. Later I read that one of the key exponents of pantheism was the Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza (1632-77). When I read his Wikipedia page I found that his worldview sounded very like my own. Perhaps most importantly, he was a determinist. He didn’t believe in the existence of free will.

The way I put the argument against free will myself is to say that everything is linked by chains of cause and effect which feed back on each other in unthinkably complex ways. Nevertheless, if it were possible to know everything about the past, the future could be predicted. This isn’t possible because it is impossible to know everything about the past. As far as each of us as individuals are concerned, our output, i.e. our behaviour, is determined by our input, i.e. all of the influences which come from outside of us and react with or against each other within us. For some reason, this issue has been very important to me ever since my adolescence when I would argue the point with my mother, who insisted that I was the “captain of my soul”.

Somehow, in my teens I also heard a version of the story of Buridan’s ass (which Spinoza refers to in Book 2 of Ethics). As expressed by French philosopher Jean Buridan, and responded to by Spinoza, it deals with a donkey who is equally hungry and thirsty and positioned equally far from a bale of hay and a bucket of water. In the version I heard he was simply hungry and positioned equally far between two bales of hay. It is a paradox meant to illustrate that determinism is absurd, because, if we simply follow the path of least resistance or the strongest impulse, then, if there is nothing to choose between two courses of action we will be able to chose neither and thus will be paralysed into fatal inaction. The donkey dies of thirst or starvation. I know that I knew this story, because I remember one lunch time at high school screwing up my lunch wrapper and finding myself approximately equidistant between two rubbish bins. “I’m like that donkey,” I said, though I was ultimately able to chose. I was a very strange kid.

Copyright: egal / 123RF Stock Photo

Spinoza sets out to use logic to learn about God, the workings of the mind, the nature of the affects - our emotions and desires, the nature of our bondage to these affects, and how we can liberate ourselves and find blessedness through the intellectual love of God.

I’m not sure how well the logic holds up. Spinoza has a unique way of defining things, for instance, to him, perfection and reality are synonymous. I might tend to think of perfection as an imaginary ideal which cannot be met in reality. But the best thing is to go with him and see where it leads. The overall vision is inspired, and perhaps the formal structure of axioms and propositions along with the unconventional use of terms, can best be conceived less as building blocks for that vision as a technique for breaking the chains of our preconceptions.

Spinoza sticks with the tradition of referring to God as “he” even though it is clear that he is not talking about something with a human personality. For him God and Nature are synonymous. This is “that whose nature cannot be conceived except as existing.” Thus God is eternal, by definition not having the option of not existing. This may seem weird, perhaps a verbal trick. God is eternal because that is how I’ve defined him. But when I was at school they taught us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. So in energy we already accept the existence of something whose definition doesn’t allow for it to cease to exist. We will cease to exist. All matter will cease to exist. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an essence of which the things which cease to exist are made which is eternal. Spinoza likes to use the concept of the triangle as something unchangeable. God is all powerful. He can do everything which can be done. But he can’t make a triangle whose angles don’t add up to two right angles. Perhaps we could conceive of the concept of the triangle as something eternal. Everything which can be aware of the nature of a triangle might cease to exist. All actual physical triangles might cease to exist. But what a triangle is is unchanging and thus eternal.

Some would question the point of identifying God and Nature. If God is not conceived as a personality who created the universe from the outside, and stands in judgement of us, why not simply say there is simply nature and no God? The reason, I think, is that Spinoza’s vision is very much a spiritual one, i.e. one which deals with the realm of immaterial connection. God is a “substance” through which all things are connected, and, to the extent that they are not disturbed by our affects, our thoughts are God’s thoughts. Thus it is that reason can allow us to connect with the eternal and enter into a state of blessedness from which arises naturally the virtuous behaviour which makes loving community possible. We didn’t invent reason. It is an expression of our nature, which each individual may apply to their own situation. The ability to find meaning and coherence is born in us, and is just another manifestation of the meaning and coherence which makes us possible - God within and without.

Copyright: zaikina / 123RF Stock Photo

For Spinoza, our highest virtue lies in self-preservation and the ability to maximise our capacity for action in the world. This might, at first, seem a selfish philosophy. But, in his vision, the healthily functioning individual finds joy in the joy of others, and thus is motivated to assist them to realise themselves in the same way. If we don’t assume the responsibility to look after our own welfare first, we will be of little use to others. It’s like that sign they have in planes which tells you to put on your own oxygen mask before trying to help anyone else.

What holds us back is our own affects, our reactive emotions and desires. It seems fairly obvious that the best basis from which to solve the problems we find ourselves in is reason. If we acquire knowledge, draw conclusions and base our actions on those conclusions, we are liable to arrive at better results than if we simply act directly on our immediate emotional response to the situation. Of course, there are times when there is no time for thought, such as when confronted with a sudden danger. But, even then, to the degree that we have previously exercised our reason on the possibility that such a thing might happen, we may respond more effectively. One of Spinoza’s more unusual definitions is that he classifies all negative emotions as sadness. Everything reduces to sadness or joy. We experience joy as our power of action is increased through reason. Negative emotions, which drain us of our energy to act or distract us from reason, are sadness, and sadness is evil, precisely because it acts against our competence and our reason. This is an unusual way of looking at things, but, I think, a useful one. What stands in the way of our self-realisation? And what can we do about it?

The key to liberation from enslavement to the affects is to understand what they are and how they function. If I become angry in response to something someone has done, I might just punch them in the nose. That would be to be a slave to my affects. Or I might recognise with my reason that I am angry and that acting directly on that anger will not produce the best result for me in the longer term. The more we learn to stand outside our affects and recognise them for what they are, the less powerful they are.

Something else which aids in this is the concept of determinism. It is a great reliever of suffering and stress. When tragedy befalls us, much of the emotional turmoil revolves around “what if?” questions. What if I’d stayed home that day? What if I’d behaved differently? What if I’d been more careful? But if we accept that whatever happens was always bound to happen, we can accept it more easily and concentrate on repairing the damage. And if we believe in free will, then when someone does something destructive towards us we may tend to be overwhelmed by anger, but if we recognise that they were expressing their current nature over which they had no choice, then we can more easily respond to the situation in a practical way targeted more precisely toward arriving at the best possible outcome. (It is important to recognise that determinism doesn’t mean that a person who behaves destructively can’t change their behaviour, only that their behaviour couldn’t have been otherwise at the time.)

Just because Spinoza was a champion of reason, and a critic of superstition, doesn’t mean that his philosophy is necessarily antagonistic to the moral principles expressed by the great religions. For instance, by his own reasoning, he arrived at a principle which is central to Christianity. “IIIP43 Hate is increased by being returned, but can be destroyed by love.”

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - AUGUST 22: City sculpture from bronze of Spinoza on August 22, 2015 in Amsterdam Copyright: frugo / 123RF Stock Photo

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

The Meaning of Life is Integration

Meaning arises through context and relationship.

The letter “O” doesn’t necessarily mean anything on its own, but when it is placed with three other letters to form the word LOVE meaning arises from the relationship between the letters.

If we disintegrate the word, it loses its meaning.

Thus integration is the path to meaning.

If we anthropomorphised the letters we would say they are cooperating to produce the meaning. So cooperation is the path to meaning.

We discover the meaning of data by integrating it into a coherent framework.

We integrate data through association. We make a distinction between same and different and assess the qualities of that which differs. We look for patterns in the data and seek to draw conclusions by looking for elements of sameness in the larger patterns. By seeing ways in which things are the same, we establish our categories.

The way that we associate data can be affected by the story by which we understand ourselves and guide our actions. We can, consciously or unconsciously be asking ourselves the question : “How does this data fit in to what I already 'know'?” or “How can this data be useful to me?” This tendency will interfere with our ability to associate the data, because we will tend to filter out details which would challenge our current theory or we will ignore what seems useless.

Nature’s thrust is toward the formation of living systems which function as integrated wholes. Her progress can be measured in terms of successful integration. Our body is a success because it has the capacity to operate as a successful harmonious system for as long as a hundred years. It is on this success that the formation of a larger whole, that of human society, rests.

Where there is a flaw in the integration of a natural system, conflict tends to manifest, and there is a fixation on that flaw. Sociality is the route to a larger whole for animal species. Competition for food and/or mating opportunities is generally the flaw, or impasse or “unfinished business”, in this process. Achieving the next stage of organisation means finding a way to integrate food sharing and mating into the cooperative functioning of the group, so that they cease to be a fixation which warps the healthy life of the group and leads to confllct.

The same principle can be applied to political theories and theories of human psychology. They are attempts to achieve a functioning whole conceptually that will improve the functioning of the individual and the social group. Once again, it is at the point of their flaws that fixation and conflict occurs.

You could say there is a survival of the fittest between theories, but the one which survives is not the one whose advocates fight the hardest (the social Darwinist model) but the one which is best adapted, the one which most accurately models reality. 

If we are fighting to have our theory acknowledged then it is not complete. The conflict that it engenders in others is the evidence that it is flawed, that there is something we have as yet failed to integrate into it. When we have arrived at something that goes past theory and can genuinely be called understanding we will know because it is the sea that refuses no river. We will know because it makes us whole - ending our internal conflicts - and spreads its calming and revivifying light throughout all humanity.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Laying Ghosts : Jordan Peterson, Jeremy Griffith and the Denial of Truth

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) - What's he all about? Fucked if I know.

After discussing the reactions of Jordan Peterson and Jeremy Griffith to post-modernism, especially Jacques Derrida and de-constructionism, in a recent Facebook post I went looking for more information on the topic and found this account of Derrida’s approach which tends to back up Griffith’s contention that it is all about “proving” that there is such thing as truth. Of course, if there is no such thing as truth, you can’t prove that there is no such thing as truth. If it is an accurate description of the essence of the approach then I’m still a bit mystified as to how it became so popular. Playing games with words, based around unsupported and illogical contentions, to undermine the usefulness of actually saying anything, doesn’t strike me as something which would lead people to think : “Ah, this is a powerful tool we can use to achieve what we want to achieve.”

Griffith contends that this popularity is due to a need to deny that there is such a thing as truth as a desperate way to evade truths about ourselves which we can’t face. But, on a personal level, he is faced with the fact that most people are not interested in or accepting of his interpretation of them. What he sees as the truth is not what they wish to acknowledge as the truth. If what he expresses is the truth, then he may have a point, but the other interpretation is that it is his biased vision of truth and the indifference and rejection are due to its flaws, especially if those flaws are experienced by other’s as unfounded criticism within the body of what purports to be a defence for them. Instead of going back to the drawing board, there can be a tendency to shout : “You can’t handle the truth!”

I don’t know anyone who lives their life as if there were no such thing as truth or meaning. They may not believe in ultimate truth or ultimate meaning, but they have to base their actions in the world upon the assumption that some things are true and some things are not. If it is neither true nor false that it is raining, how do we know whether to carry an umbrella?

What I can see with Derrida is that he was concerned with texts. The question of truth in a text is not the same as the question of truth in the wider physical world. To what degree is the text trustworthy? But even here nobody I know lives as if there is no truth contained in a text. If the TV guide says that The Simpsons is on at 7.00 PM, that’s when we turn on the television and most of the time it turns out to have been true.

Texts range from car manuals which we tend to trust to fiction which everyone agrees is not literally true (though it may embody universal truths in symbolic form). When it comes to accounts of events in the news media or history texts we have reason to acknowledge that they can never embody objective truth. There is what we could call The Rashomon Phenomena. In Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1950 film we see the same event replayed from the point of view of each of the participants. Each time we see a different story, because the way each of us relates an event is shaped by how it fits into our larger narrative, by our perception of who we are and how the event impacted us.

Then we have the area of beliefs. Beliefs are provisional, even the long standing beliefs expressed in cultural traditions such as religion. They are narratives which we use to bring coherence to our experience, but there is always the possibility of new experience and new data requiring us to update our beliefs.

Post-modernism, at least as it is perceived by its critics, seems to represent a kind of radical skepticism. Not a denial that the TV Guide is useful for finding out when The Simpsons is on, but a resistance to accepting belief systems and accounts of events.

If all belief systems and all accounts of events are viewed as personal bias, there is no reason not to assert that one’s own is as good as anyone else’s. This could lead to complacency about testing one’s own assumptions against contrary evidence which is how we arrive at improved ways of managing our relationship with others and with life itself. And it could lead to the idea that some belief systems, some narratives, are “privileged” because they are those held by members of society who hold more power in an unfair system. This is not an entirely invalid observation, for instance, in the Middle Ages the Catholic Church had the power to crush heresy through violence rather than allow their own worldview to be challenged by critical discourse. And, today, those who have a lot of money to invest in the media can promote ideas which might not survive as well on a level playing field.

Peterson puts forward the pragmatic approach to truth. Truth is what works. if you believe something to be truth, you base your decisions on that belief and if it helps you to more successfully manage the challenges which face you, then that is the only evidence on which we can decide what is true and what is not. This applies to science, too. Our scientific theories are tested by whether they work to predict phenomena and whether, when we make decisions based upon them, the results stand up.

So how do we find some common ground. Perhaps when we are in conflict with someone we can decide not to attempt to force our beliefs upon them, no matter how well supported by evidence they may be, but rather to see if we can find some things we can agree upon. 

My experience of psychosis leads me to believe that, when our beliefs do diverge from that which is supported by direct evidence and from social norms (to the extent that that term is meaningful), they do so for a reason, because there is something we have not been able to integrate. The “normal” ways of understanding one’s place in life are not working, so the mind experiments in ways that may be very erratic, looking for a new way - a new truth which works. To simply say “That’s madness!” and expect the individual to conform, doesn’t work, because they need to go forward, not back.

The way forward is through dialogue, but in this we may need to move beyond the oppositional approach. Those of us who have spent a great deal of time and effort developing the framework with which we interpret the world - and this is true of Peterson and Griffith - will tend to view ourselves as crusaders for our truth. But what is most effective with those who view things differently from ourselves is to draw them out and let them discover for themselves the limitations of their conceptual structure. I’m sure that Peterson is good at this, because he has been a very effective therapist, but media events don’t allow time for this kind of approach.

This is where improvisation teacher Keith Johnstone’s techniques as outlined in his book Impro : Improvisation and the Theatre seem so useful to me. They encourage us to look less at the content of our discourse than at how we are relating to and communicating with the other party. Are we listening to them and responding spontaneously to what they say or are we “blocking” them by negating anything which runs counter to the path we have decided beforehand to follow?

I have a worldview which I express in my book How to Be Free. Unlike Peterson and Griffith, I haven’t put much time or effort into developing it. It is simple and, although I arrived at it through much introspection, I’m not a researcher or academic. I don’t feel motivated to “go to battle” for that worldview. I put it out into the world with a sense of Peterson’s pragmatism. If it is true, it will work. If it gives me insight into what Griffith calls “the human condition” then it will help me to engage with people in meaningful dialogue about the experience of being human in a way from which both of us will benefit, without me needing to feel pressure to persuade them of anything.

Peterson talks about the problem of ideological possession. I’ve experienced it. There are times when I’ve absorbed ideas, not been able to integrate them, and found myself, when in an argument with someone of the opposing persuasion, spewing them out as if they had a life of their own and I was not in control. But what supports this happening is an encounter with another entrenched and biased worldview. Peterson’s worldview may be far more nuanced and supported by study of psychological research than that of many who react negatively to him, but it is necessarily partial. 

The ideologies which may possess us are like ghosts. In stories, the ghost represents unfinished business, an entity which cannot be integrated into the conventional order because some truth has not been properly recognised.

So if we find ourselves in conflict with the ideologically possessed it is a copout to blame the ideology which possesses them, as the way to lay the ghost is to look for what that possession tells us about what is missing from our own worldview.

Jesus told us to love our enemies. For those of us who are trying to help spread ameliorating understanding in the world it is worth asking ourselves whether we feel we have enemies or whether we think only in terms of people we have not yet achieved the ability to help. Do we assume the responsibility for our own success or failure or do we tend to externalise that responsibility.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

The Problem With Justice

I recently expressed the view that an holistic systems view of human society undermines the concept of free will as any individual’s behaviour (their output) is determined by factors arising outside of them (the system’s input) and playing out within them in the only possible way. This raises an obvious and troubling question. Does this mean that people should not be held responsible for their own behaviour?

What do we mean by “being held responsible”? Do we mean being judged in some kind of ultimate sense? This would seem to be inappropriate. Interestingly, one of the key principles of the Christian religion is “judge not that thou be not judged”. Judgement is something we humans impose on ourselves by imposing it on others. If we don’t acknowledge the mitigating circumstance of bad input in the behaviour of others we will be unable to acknowledge it in our own situation without compromising our intellectual integrity. We may judge others by a different standard to ourselves, but only at the cost of breeding conflict within our own psyche.

But withholding judgement doesn’t mean being complacent to destructive behaviour. Self-correction through feedback is a crucial function of any organic system.

We have a habit of punishing destructive behaviour. Punishment can make sense as a form of corrective input. When we were children we may have been sent to our room for behaving rudely at the dinner table. Our parents know that, if our habit of rude behaviour is not corrected, we run the risk of losing significant social advantage in adulthood. They could simply explain this to us, but sometimes a practical demonstration of consequences adds to the effectiveness, giving a kind of emotional anchor to any explanation.

When it comes to criminal behaviour, prison sentences are often given as a deterrent. Sometimes this may have a practical role similar to the behaviour our parents may have used with us as children. A career criminal will generally factor in the risk of prison when calculating the advantage of committing a crime. Without the threat of prison a lot of people might just steal other people’s property on a whim. But many crimes are crimes of passion and in this case, awareness of the threat of prison (or even execution for some crimes in some places), may have no effectiveness as a form of input repelling the individual from the act. It is our reason which warns us about the potential consequences of our actions, and powerful emotions easily push aside all reason.

This doesn’t mean that prison isn’t useful as a way of containing people whose current psychological structure causes them to be a threat to others. It may also be a way to compel them to participate in some form of rehabilitation.

When we contemplate these issues we quickly come up against the concept of justice. Punishing someone for their destructive behaviour is seen as a matter of justice - righting an imbalance.

Justice is a mechanistic concept which we try to impose on the organic system which is society. We need something more holistic, which acknowledges the connectedness and complexity of all things. Our symbol for justice is a very simple machine - a pair of scales. Scales enable us to make a comparison between two objects in terms of one aspect of their nature. They enable us to find out which is heavier. But objects have many different characteristics - size, shape, colour, consistency - of which the scales can tell us nothing. And the world is not made up only of pairs. Everything is not binary. Of course the scales are only a symbol, but when we think of our concepts of justice we find that they have similar limitations.

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Lets look at the most primitive concept of justice - revenge. One person has harmed another person, so that person then seeks to right the balance by inflicting a similar form of harm on the perpetrator. This relationship is extracted from the wider social context and everything is simplified to a mechanical process - a heavy weight was placed on one side of the scales, so the answer is to place an equally heavy weight on the opposite side of the scales. An holistic assessment might find that the aggravating act was part of a gradually escalating negative feedback of offending behaviours between the two. It might find that many others were tangentially involved in the influences which flowed together to lead to that act. And such an assessment would be unlikely to find that the retaliatory act really righted any balance, as aggressive behaviour has a way of negatively impacting the person who engages in it and producing waves of harm that ripple out into the lives of others.

When punishment is not a simple educational technique, as in the example of a child being sent to their room to learn the disadvantages of anti-social behaviour, it is a refinement of the concept of revenge. Suffering, often in the form of deprivation of freedom, is imposed on the wrong-doer, because we feel that this rights a balance. They have inflicted suffering on others, so they must suffer, so that a kind of suffering equilibrium can be restored. But there is no actual equilibrium of suffering. Suffering may have been what drove them to inflict suffering on another in the first place. None of these things can be adequately measured, and, anyway, society can’t be calibrated like a machine, because its processes are organic. Machines and living organisms are different. Think of a television set. If the sound isn’t loud enough, you can turn it up. You can adjust the colour or the brightness. Changing the volume won’t effect how bright the colour is. Compare this the human body. Because it is an organic system, when we make changes - change our diet, get more exercise, take medication - these changes have a wider, and perhaps less predictable, impact than we intended. There are side-effects, because an organic system is dynamically interconnected. Changes in one part of the system lead to changes in other parts of the system.

For a system to function in a healthy way, it is important that the parts are responding spontaneously to current conditions. One of the problems with the concept of justice is that it encourages us to allow the past to have too much effect on our actions in the present. We need to understand the past and use what we learn from it to help us to understand our current situation, but it is our current situation which needs to be guiding our behaviour. The past can’t be changed. What we need to work with is the present, which includes the present manifestations of damage arising from past events. If we look at the revenge example we can see that the widest self-interest of all parties is that they be able to cooperate together to form a healthy community. It is in nobody’s long term self-interest that people continue to extract retaliation for past misdeeds. Now if someone burned another person’s house down, the fact that they have no house is a current reality. It would be better that their friends be motivated by this current situation to help them build a new house than that they be motivated by the past to go and burn down the perpetrator’s house.

Let’s take the example of a man who beat his children. There are two current situations to deal with here - his anger management problem and the trauma still being experienced by his children. Putting a protective distance between the man and his children is clearly important. Then therapy needs to be provided to the children to help them heal, and therapy needs to be provided for him so that he can learn how not to be violent. The concept of justice would distract us from these practical forms of help. It would encourage us to look to the past with the illusory idea that fixing things has something to do with balancing one infliction of suffering with another infliction of suffering.

There is liable to be a strong resistance in us to the kind of withholding of judgement I’m talking about. The concept that there are good people who chose to do good things and bad people who could likewise chose to do good things but, instead, freely chose to do bad things, is like a security blanket. It is part of our character armour. The character armour, according to psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich, serves the purpose of protecting us from threats external and internal. When confronted with our own impulses towards malevolence, it may be important for us to keep telling ourselves we are good people and that those who behave malevolently do so by free choice. To recognise that the input we have been lucky enough to receive in the form of moral lessons, wisdom, capacity for clear reasoning, useful information, etc., only stands as a potentially fragile counter to our malevolence is disturbing. We want to be able to take credit for our virtue, and that means seeing other’s vice as a matter of choice. I think we can tend to guess from a person’s rigidity on this question, just how threatened they feel in the face of their own capacity for malevolence. If we have moments of inner peace, then I think our mind can open up to this more holistic vision, even if it may recede when we are caught up in the turmoil of life.

I’m not suggesting any plan for changes to the way our society deals with criminal activity. I wouldn’t know how to go about that. The control structures of society could be compared to the crutches used by a person with a broken leg. Some crutches may be better than others, but what is most important is that the person’s leg heal so they have increasingly less need of them.

I’ve talked about criminal justice, but I should also talk about the concept of social justice. There are many who talk of promoting social justice. This is a much broader application of the justice concept which suffers from the same mechanistic limitations. Social justice is measured reductively and quantitatively. How much money does the richest 1% of the population have compared to the poorest 50%? How many women are there in parliament? Now I’m not saying that these things are not important, but you can’t measure freedom or self-realisation simply in terms of money, and individuals are more than their gender. One of the key dilemmas for science is that there is a need for measurable data to provide objective evidence and yet we may lose the meaning of the whole by reducing it to its measurable functions.

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If thinking in terms of justice won’t make our society healthier, what will?

You might think that it’s all impossible. If the social system is so complex and dynamic then how can we know how to increase the health of its functioning? We’ve looked at how changes can have ever-widening unpredictable effects. The important thing is to think in terms of relationship. If we treat individuals as if they were parts in a machine, of course the result is not going to be what we expect.

What does health mean? A healthy organism is one in which the relationship between the parts is one which enables it to thrive. Relationship is communication. Most, if not all, social problems can be understood as communication problems. Violence is a form of communication. Money is a form of communication. The sharing of food and other necessary resources are communicative processes. When we behave in a malevolent way it is because of an internal communication problem. Our mind, which, when functioning in a healthy way, serves the purpose of guiding us towards our broadest self-interest, is providing us with faulty guidance. Think of it as a software problem.

So everything is about communication. Think of society as a circulatory system. Where problems arise it is because the flow of accurate information or needed material goods is blocked. So if we want to improve the health of the system we do so by trying to clear those blocks. Perhaps it is better to think of them as knots to be untangled, because the process is one of setting every individual free to experience the joy of healthy functioning. It is not a process in which one person has to be pushed down in order for another person to rise up.

I suppose there is in this a strong element of faith. If we are mostly tangled in some form of lonely and frustrated state, unable to find a joyful meaningful way to participate in something larger than ourselves, then all we need is for the seeds of a way out of our entanglement to be sown and flower in our mind and heart. All we need is new software able to replace the virus-contaminated version which has been turning us away from our own self-interest, holding us back from what, compared to our life now, would be paradise.

The bloodstream of a healthy society is love. Love is open, honest, spontaneous and generous communication. So untying the knots, clearing the blocks, means removing the obstacles to love. These come down largely to guilt and fear. You could say that selfishness is a major block to love, but selfishness is the natural self-directedness of the suffering or otherwise insecure individual. If we are not suffering physically, our suffering is most likely in the form of compromised self-acceptance. This often takes the form of guilt. Or we may have had our ego wounded by betrayal or some other kind of mistreatment by others. In this case we may be afraid of being hurt again. Any kind of fear may cause us to close off to loving communication in some way.

So a significant part of untying the knots that hold us back from realising a healthy society is learning how to cultivate unconditional self-acceptance. We can heal the wounds inflicted on us. While we can’t live in a world where there is nothing to fear, we can gain the courage which comes through healing inner division. And gradually we can show the way to a society characterised by open, honest, spontaneous and generous communication. Insecurity is the norm and the insecure feel a need for the comfort of numbers. We see so many examples of this. Lots of people want to do something but feel inhibited. Then gradually people start doing it and soon it becomes the new fashion.

Of course I’m not making an appeal to your free will here. I don’t think you or I have one of those. The ideas I express here have a life of there own. I’m only the host. Whether they fertilise your brain and lead to the fruit of action is an open question. If they do, you won’t have had any choice about it. If they don’t, you won’t have had any choice about it.

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