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 752 ***** out of ***** ratings on U.S. iBooks.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

The Psychological Roots of Patriarchy

Photo by Andrey Kiselev

In listening to a talk by Jordan Peterson I found myself once again thinking over the disagreement he has with feminists over whether our society is a patriarchy. It seems to me that this a disagreement which can only be resolved through an acknowledgement of what I have called the human neurosis and the phenomena of the character armour to which it gives rise.

Patriarchy is defined as “a society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.” This has clearly been the case throughout much of our history, but in all areas of our society and government women now play a large role, so one could reasonably argue that our society is either no longer patriarchal or that the patriarchy is on its death bed.

I have also seen patriarchy defined as a “male-role orientated” society. Jeremy Griffith of the World Transformation Movement uses that definition, though I haven’t seen it used elsewhere. If we were to take this definition then I would say that we do live in a patriarchal society and that feminism is doing nothing to change this. Historically the female roles have been nurturing roles arising from the biological fact that women give birth to children. Business, politics, science, medicine, the military, the clergy - all of these have been fields historically dominated by men. Those who fill roles in these disciplines continue to be the individuals who have the most power and respect given to them by society, even if “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” Feminism has allowed more women to enter these fields, but it has not changed the dominant nature of these roles. Now I’m not trying to say what should be. Clearly science, medicine, business, etc., are crucial and I’m not suggesting we somehow try to reduce that importance in order to achieve some kind of balance with the nurturing role. I’m just trying to acknowledge that things are not so clear if one uses this alternative definition.

Some aspects of patriarchal organisation arise for practical reasons. Think back to the time of our hunter/gatherer ancestors. In a time of peace between tribes, the nurturers would call the shots, but, in time of conflict, authority would have to be transferred to the defenders of the group. Wherever a task which was performed by males became temporarily more important to the group than the nurturing role, power would shift to the males.

But then we have the neurotic element. When our developing intellects arrived at the concept of idealism, i.e. that it is meaningful to distinguish between forms of behaviour which promote the integrity of the group and forms of behaviour which work against the integrity of the group and to strive to promote the former and discourage the latter through self-discipline and group imposed discipline, our self-acceptance began to be undermined. Unable to fully meet our new-found ideals, we began to feel guilty. This is what is symbolised in the Bible in the story of Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and being cursed by God, excluded from Paradise (a state of blissful unity with each other and the natural world) because of “sin”, i.e. non-ideal behaviour. Ironically it was not our behaviour which continued to curse us, but our habit of self-condemnation in the face of that behaviour.

We became deeply insecure about our own worth and this is what made us ego-embattled. Our propensity for selfishness, aggression, delusional thinking, etc., all arose from this pervasive sense of insecurity.

Because women tended to stay closer to the nurturing role and thus could more easily view themselves as “the good guys” engaging in behaviour which promoted the integrity of the group, it was the males who tended to become more insecure about their own worth. The role as group protector was essential, but their newly acquired conscience could tell them that killing people was wrong. They tended to fulfil roles which were more likely to lead to a guilty conscience and thus a greater insecurity about their self worth.

One of the symptoms of this insecurity was the need to control others and to suppress the critical voice. The outer had to match the inner. In the severely armoured man, the critical voice of the conscience is deeply repressed, and this is achieved through inflexible controlled habits of thought. The freedom of others is felt as a threat, partly because it calls out to that which is repressed in the armoured individual, making the maintenance of discipline more difficult, and partly because they may use their freedom to criticise the armoured individual. They are a potential ally to the individual’s own repressed critical conscience.

The patriarchal structure of society historically has been shaped by this psychological condition. There have no doubt been other practical factors, for example it makes sense that, when military conflict arose, men would generally be the fighters, because women, as the producers of children, are too precious to sacrifice, and also men tend to be bigger and stronger. But we can’t understand the way that female voices were excluded unless we acknowledge the fragility of the male ego as a result of the negative feedback loop between egoistical behaviour and the very insecurity driving that behaviour.

Understanding the human neurosis brings a sympathetic understanding to our assessment of our history and to our response to current circumstances.

Our history, horrendous as it has often been, could not have been other than it was. We made the best of a bad lot. It was in the best interests of all that society hang together in a way which allowed us to make progress in our understanding of ourselves.

So where are we now. We still suffer from our neurosis. The fact that women can fill more positions which were once filled by men also means that, if filling those roles makes the individual more prone to the human neurosis, our society probably has an even less healthy base.

The other side of this neurosis is that those who have been controlled, excluded or abused by the most armoured of individuals, are liable, understandably, to build up feelings of retaliatory hostility. And, sometimes, the power of these feelings can obscure the distinctions between the individual responsible and the group to which they belong. So it is not surprising that some will cling to the perception that our society is an oppressive patriarchy, seeing in the complex pattern only that which reflects the shape of their own trauma.

The solution is to open up understanding of this psychological substructure of our society and promote paths to healing for all. Political change on its own can’t assure us a healthy free and productive society. To the degree that we manifest psychological security as individuals, so will our society be characterised by freedom, respect and appreciation for all its members.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Is Objective Truth Possible?



Surely we are all in denial about something. That's why our social world is so divisive. Partial truths warring against other partial truths. If only some deity would come along and force us to see where we are full of shit. As an unbeliever, perhaps I'm suffering from Apocalypse envy, but sometimes I wish the world could just be blasted with a thunderstorm of incontrovertible truth that would put us all on the same page.

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Monday, 18 February 2019

Breaking Free with Joe Blow : Female Physical Beauty



This is my first proper Joe Blow YouTube video. I'm hoping to do many more. Teaching myself how to use a camera, record voice-over and edit a video has been a process of trial and error. Sometimes the best way to learn how to do something right is to do it wrong the first time.

Let me know what you think.


Sunday, 10 February 2019

The Economy of Love

Gentoo penguin colony on the rocks and glacier in the background at Neco Bay, Antarctica
- Photograph by Vadim Nefedov

Love is a mode of communication characterised by openness, honesty, spontaneity and generosity. It is also the bonds and emotions which accompany such a mode of being with others. The underlying message which it conveys is one of unconditional acceptance.

Love is the default relationship mode for humans. This may be hard to believe when we look around us at all the evidence of selfishness, prejudice and malevolence. We might believe that love is a precariously artificial thing which we only achieve by transcending our more basic nature, but that is not the case.

Love is what occurs when there are no barriers to it. If it is the exception it is simply because there are many barriers which can impede it. Think about the Antarctic. All you see is ice. Now that ice rests on rock. For us to see that rock, the ice would need to melt, but the fact that the ice is what we see doesn't mean that the rock is not the more basic and pre-existing phenomena.

Love is what happens between us when we feel truly safe. Not just safe physically, but secure in ourselves psychologically. It happens because if feels pleasurable.

It is a very basic principle that organisms, when all else is equal, open up to what is pleasurable to them and withdraw from what threatens them with pain or injury. If our existence is threatened then our attention may shrink back to ourselves and focus on meeting the challenge or we may reach out specifically to someone who can help us to meet the challenge. This is a conditional exchange. Our connection with them is dependent on their ability to help us to meet that current challenge.

For me the pleasure principle argues against the idea that we are essentially competitive. Where competition arises it is a temporary barrier to love. If we lived in a village during a time of food shortage, then our hunger might drive us to fight over what food is available. But as long as there was enough food, our tendency would be to return to a loving mode of relationship, because it feels most pleasurable.

What I'm deliberately ignoring here is the barrier to love provided by chronic emotional disturbance. This is the Antarctic ice which keeps the rock of love in us buried. If we are lucky, in our intimate relationships, we are able to thaw out enough to uncover it for a while.

The essence of this chronic emotional disturbance is compromised self-acceptance. What undermines our self-acceptance can be varied - suffering abuse at the hands of others, being heavily exposed to unreachable ideals of one kind or another which make us feel that we are unacceptable by comparison, being harshly judged by others, feelings of guilt about some of our actions, etc.

The message of love is unconditional acceptance and its expression requires that, for the moment, we feel unconditionally accepting of ourselves. To be focused on some aspect of ourselves which we feel to be a flaw is to not be fully focused on the other person. In love we forget about ourselves even as we give full expression to our essence.

This chronic emotional disturbance is really love deprivation. But it is important to remember that such deprivation does not necessarily lie in not being shown love by others. We need to be able to received love, and this is where the barrier tends to lie. Love, as I've said, is a mode of communication, and communication is a two way process.

To receive love we have to feel safe. We have to be able to open up to it. Our compromised self-acceptance leaves us feeling insecure and defensive, and for this reason we develop character armour - a rigid structure of self-perception and mode of interacting with the world. The aim of the character armour is to provide protection from external threats - to feel safe we need a practiced form of response - and from internal threats - a way to bottle up any feelings of hostility or despair.

The character armour is a barrier to giving or receiving love, because it stops us from being open and spontaneous. How would we do trying to make love with a suit of armour on? Our flesh would not touch and our movement would not be sinuous. Our bodies could not meld into one. The same is true psychologically. Love is a spontaneous dance. It can't be rehearsed.

Compromised self-acceptance takes either a passive or an active form.

Depression and other forms of mental illness are examples of mostly passive compromised self-acceptance. The message has been communicated to us - either directly by one or more others or more pervasively by some aspect of the culture - that we are not good enough. We passively take that message to heart. We may battle with it, but the battle is mostly internal.

What happens with the active form of compromised self-acceptance is that we set out to defend ourselves against the message that we are not good enough, or, in the extreme, to get revenge for having been subjected to it.

We may become obsessed with "proving" something about ourselves, by seeking status or material extravagance or something like that. We are thinking about what we do and what we have says about us. We are self-centred.

When severe insecurity about self worth combines with exposure to idealistic moral "shoulds", we may be so desperately cornered that we feel compelled toward some kind of revenge for our state. The "shoulds" require us to behave lovingly, but our severely compromised self-acceptance makes this impossible. If we were to take onboard the "shoulds" then they would destroy what is left of our self acceptance, leaving us suicidal. Hence the savagery with which we may attack those "shoulds" or anyone or anything our mind associates with them.

Photograph by Vadim Guzhva

This is the origin of malevolence in all its forms. Malevolence is clearly one of the major barriers to love.

Let's look at an example. Our self-acceptance has been undermined to such a degree that we feel the need to be comforted by sameness in those around us. People of a different race or culture leave us feeling insecure, because they give us a sense of uncertainty about whether they accept us. But then someone criticises us as being racist. The ideal is that we should feel about and behave towards others the same way irrespective of race or culture. This may set up a negative feedback loop. Our sense of insecurity in the presence of "the other" is grounded in our fear that we are not good enough. It leads to behaviour which causes us to be judged not good enough. Thus the insecurity is increased. The presence of "the other" becomes, in itself, a condemnation, which, if we are to keep from total loss of self-acceptance, must be resisted. This can lead to violently hostile feelings toward "the other", ironically generated by the insistence that we feel and act benevolently toward them.

The ways in which hostility between groups and individuals in our society, and all the other barriers to love, are generated are multifarious, but the underlying principles of the process are simple. Self-acceptance is undermined by mistreatment by others and exposure to unreachable ideals. Undermined self-acceptance makes us more likely to mistreat others. The only thing which can solve the problem is the cultivation of self-acceptance. The message of acceptance from others can help in this, but only if we are able to receive that message, something that our character armour impedes. Simply showing love to those who have hostile feelings towards us may actually increase those hostile feelings if they see our loving behaviour as a criticism of their unloving behaviour.

My aim here is not to directly suggest strategies for removing the barriers to love, but to provide a simple articulation of the phenomena which may be helpful in arriving at those strategies.

We need to understand that love is the default and that the barriers to it are outgrowths of compromised self-acceptance. The message which needs to be communicated is one of unconditional acceptance, not of behaviour but of the individual who betrays that behaviour, because hostile behaviour is, ultimately, a defiant response to what the individual experiences as an unjust withholding of that acceptance. It is acceptance that we are not unworthy because we are scared or angry that heals. When we act on our fear or anger in a way which harms others, the likelihood of our receiving that acceptance from others or ourself recedes. Thus the means for redemption and reconciliation where the damage has already been done are the Holy Grail we must seek.

Photograph by rawpixel

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