Who has free will? How does it work?
In November Dr. Chris Nunn spoke about free will. Chris is a retired psychiatrist and an assistant editor of the Journal of Consciousness Studies. He recently launched his latest book De La Mettrie’s Ghost: the Story of Decisions, in which he examines the question of free will against the background that human beings are more like stories or films than what De La Metrie suggested in 1747, machines. The key axiom of the book is that consciousness is a memory-related phenomenon. Perception, cognition or emotions must be remembered at least for a few seconds for it to be ‘reported’ to self-awareness. Consciousness plays a crucial role in the selection and editing of the contents of long-term memory, and here is where free will happens. Decisions made today are influenced by past memories and these memories will have been originally selected by consciousness. The principle that free will is down to memory frees us from neural as well as social determinism. What gets into memory will determine our actions irrespective of how it gets into it, therefore our choice of entertainment, films, books etc, will all be determining factors. There was a lively debate as this theory was evaluated from various angles, with arguments for and against. Free will being a subject which forces us to pitch philosophical arguments against our lived experience, it is not surprising that any one specific model is unlikely to resonate with everyone’s perception! And so it was this evening, and we were all left with much food for thought.
The Wayward Mind
In October we tackled the problem of The Wayward Mind, which is also the title of Prof Guy Claxton’s latest book. Guy is Professor of the Learning Sciences at the University of Bristol and the seeds of this book were planted many years ago, as a result of research done for his book Hare Brain, tortoise Mind: Why Intelligence Increases When You think Less. The Wayward Mind, an Intimate History of the Unconscious, looks at and brings together ‘an array of experiences on the fringes of reasonableness’. Guy started the talk by suggesting that the experience that the human mind has a ‘mind’ of its own is universal. We have inexplicable moods, memory lapses, insights and inspirations, dreams and many other states which show that we are ‘not entirely masters in our own houses’. All cultures have experience of these, but where the lines between normal and pathology are drawn, vary. Our own lines seem to be very tightly drawn, Guy argues, too tightly. His research over 3 to 4,000 years identified three families of stories to explain this waywardness: the supernatural, the biological and the psychological. These stories, are ways of interpretation and in the supernatural story we find places or realms inhabited by entities, forces, angels and demons. There are gods who are just like us, but more so and common metaphors, such as down, dark, dirty or up, light, shiny. The category of the physical or biological is the story which talks about humours, neuro-transmitters, brain physiology etc to explain the wayward mind. The psychological story finds elements of projection, unconscious forcer, inner territories which are dark and beyond our control, repressed feelings and appetites, and so on. This idea of the unconscious, packaged by Freud but circulating widely in the salons of Paris in the 1840’s and 50′, is also seen or interpreted in a variety of other ways, such as pneuma, soul, a hard drive of the mind, a memory archive and so on. During discussion time we explored the concept of ‘stories’ as ways in which we formulate reality, our own and wider perceived, in an effort to make meaning. There are of course people who are too tightly attached to one or other story, sometimes to an unhelpful degree. Guy himself is drawn to further exploration of the biological one but is in favour of embracing all those stories, taking them lightly and there was consensus that problems of psychopathology can indeed be created by drawing the boundary too tightly around what is accepted as normal.
The Twilight of Atheism: Reflections on the Future of Religion and its Alternatives
In September we tackled the changing fortunes of atheism with Prof Alister McGrath, Professor of Historical theology at Oxford University and author of, amongst other books,The Twilight of Atheism; the Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. Alister studied Chemistry and embraced atheism as part and parcel of the rigour of science. With time however he became interested in what drives atheism. Asked whether he had a ‘road to Damascus’ type of conversion, he explained that having become convinced that the evidence does not support the atheist view his conversion was a strictly intellectual one. As a significant worldview, atheism in the West followed the rise of modernity, which opened the way to human autonomy and reason, eclipsing the need to rely on divine revelation. The French Revolution had the effect of overthrowing the power and control of the church, opening the way for atheism as a liberating force. The pendulum however swung too far the other way and atheism became itself a source of power and control, the Soviet Union being a prime example. Quoting Freud, Marx and Feuerbach, Alister showed how atheism moved from being personal, to being a state authority. It replaced religion as the establishment. Today, spirituality is becoming more acceptable as a worldview perspective, in spite of the resistance in some quarters, and the name of Richard Dawkins comes to mind. Having written a book-length study on Dawkins’ views entitled Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life (Blackwell Publishers) we heard Dawkins’ arguments considered one by one. Atheism, just as religion, is based on a set of beliefs and in both cases those occupying the extreme corners can become fundamentalists ensuring difficulties in dialogue. In our changing world we find the younger generation being very comfortable with spirituality, its concepts and principles and even amongst scientists the picture is unexpected if we are to believe the vociferous materialist corner, for according to some research, 40% of scientists have spiritual beliefs, 20% are non-committed and only 40% are actual card carrying atheists! As expected, issues around the current religious-military-political situation were tackled and pessimism was shared regarding the wisdom of some of our current Western leaders.
To Dwell in the Space of the Heart
In this talk Andrew Burniston, who is a phenomenologist of religion, focused on two crises in Jung
s life, the break with Freud that precipitated an identity crisis in 1912 and his heart attack in 1944 that resulted in a series of NDE visions. The first event involved a descent into the depths and led to the creation of a new model of the psyche (the collective unconscious and the archetypes). By contrast the second was an ascent to the stars and opened the way to a new cosmology (synchronicity and the Unus Mundus). Jung formulated this new cosmology in his famous Synchronicity essay and in ch.VI of Mysterium Coniunctionis, his last major piece of writing. But he had to leave the task of completing this paradigm shift to later generations. Andrew suggested that the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi contained the key to the completion of Jungs magnum opus. Had it not been for a last minute decision Jung would have met the Maharshi when he was touring India in 1938. If the meeting had gone ahead he would have discovered that Sri Ramana
s teachings were not 'the song of the ages' but were based on practical experiential insights, as was his own empirical psychology. The method of Self Enquiry (Atma Vichara) entails tracing all ones thoughts back to the root thought ‘I am’ that originates in the Heart centre on the right of the chest. Andrew
s researches indicated that Jungs individuation process was preparatory to this spiritual discipline. But he acknowledged that his claim was very problematic: Sri Ramana taught that the ‘I’ thought should be seen through and dissolved, Jungian individuation, on the other hand, develops the uniqueness of the ‘I’ to the highest degree. The Sufism of Ibn Arabi provides a bridge between Self Enquiry and individuation. According to the Shaikh al Akbar extinction (fana) is followed by a rebirth of the self in the midst of the Divine Essence (baqa). A heart centred individuation is an alchemical operation, not a mere analogue to the opus. It leads beyond the collective unconscious to the union of the whole man with the Unus Mundus, the archetypal foundation of the world. Jung was studying the Unus Mundus doctrine of the Paracelsian alchemist Gerhard Dorn on the voyage to India. Andrew had come full circle by the end of his talk.
Eros and Physics
Unfortunately Dr. David Peat was unwell and this lecture had to be cancelled.
Experience Beyond Belief: Cultivating the Four Gifts of Knowing
In June we welcomed Dr. Christian de Quincey who teaches Consciousness Studies at John F. Kennedy University in California and is the author of Radical Nature, and nowRadical Knowing. The third book of his trilogy, Radical Science is being written and is expected to be published in 2008. Christian’s focus is consciousness and in his book Radical Knowing: Experience beyond Belief, he explores four ways of knowing: the senses – primary tool of scientists, reason – the philosopher’s gift, feeling – the shaman’s and intuition that of the mystic. The senses are the gifts of the body, reason is that of the mind, feeling is the soul’s gift and intuition is that of spirit. In order to really ‘know’ the world we need to cultivate all four gifts which are in themselves, different modes of consciousness. The most dominant however are reason and feeling and Christian identifies much of the strife and difficulty in relationships as coming from the different modes partners use to make sense of the world. When one person’s main tool is feeling and the ‘other’ uses reason, this can lead to misunderstanding. In further exploring the characteristics of these modes, Christian suggested that beliefs, generated by thinking can be unhelpful because they can be wrong. Thoughts distort reality whereas feelings, Christian believes, are the way by which we know each other and the cosmos. Feelings – which differ from emotions – have a cognitive component and can be trusted our search for meaning.
Breaking the Intuitive Code
In May we had a presentation on Intuition, a subject of great interest to many. Gail Ferguson, an American Psychologist explained how from an early age this interest took over and eventually led her to write the book Breaking the Intuitive Code. In the 70’s she met a teacher who helped her develop her intuition and use it in a practical way. In time she found herself helping the police find missing children, missing people etc. Gail explained that intuition is an adaptive ability arising from a human sensory system which gives information in the present time primarily designed to keep us safe. By means of an interesting experiment, in which she asked us to ‘intuit’ what was in a brown paper bag, she showed that many of the ‘guesses’ – although incorrect – had something in common with the hidden object such as shape, texture, colour. This helped us understand that the mind has a tendency to short circuit the process by jumping to conclusion based on partial information. The sensory system, i.e., intuition, only knows elements, attributes, characteristics and the rational mind gives them names by association – often prematurely. The good news is that we can train ourselves to observe the intuitive thoughts that arrive and resist the temptation to name them immediately and so become more proficient in the skill. Intuition is a skill worth developing, it helps us navigate in uncertain and troubled times.
The Spirit of the Organisation
Prof Angus Jenkinson was the speaker at our April meeting with a presentation entitledThe Spirit of the Organisation. A fairly recent member of the Network, Angus is Professor of Integrated Marketing at Luton University as well as director of a company, business consultant, an artist, photographer and an author. His latest book is entitled From Stress to Serenity. Angus has practiced Anthroposophy as a spiritual path and this was the framework for the investigation of the nature of an organisation’s identity. Quoting from real life examples, he looked at it from a number of angles, ranging from the question of what a company’s identity means to the people who work in it, to what the brand ‘ which is an expression of the consumer’s identity – means to the people who buy its products. He went on to consider the physical, psychological and spiritual perspective of the identity of an organisation from an archetypal point of view. Having considered this vertical perspective, Angus moved on to explore the horizontal view looking at the transformation of well known brands over decades and we were asked to ponder on what might have existed prior to and follow after the life of an organisation – which led us to contemplate whether an organisation has a spirit. Finally, the tyranny of efficiency: the focus on minimising costs and increasing efficiency. When prices get squeezed, costs get squeezed and people get squeezed. The identity of an organisation becomes transformed because identity is about value, and value is the DNA of a brand. Many interesting and challenging questions followed this fascinating presentation.
Lilith Revisited – Female Rebellion and the Search for Consciousness
According to the Judaeo-Christian creation myth, Eve’s disobedience led to the loss of Paradise and brought on the woes of human existence; all women shared her guilt and therefore had to play a subservient second-class role in society for ever after. Or, in James Thurber’s memorable phrase, ‘Woman’s place is in the wrong.’ But is it? Writer and psychotherapist Beata Bishop found several contradictions in the first three chapters of Genesis, which led her to discover what had been edited out of the text: the story of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, who fled from the Garden of Eden when Adam, claiming superiority, refused to accept her as an equal partner. Lilith subsequently became demonised and blackened with the projections of men afraid of their own repressed sexuality. She was a rebel – but so was Eve, created to be Adam’s obedient helpmeet. Instead, she picked the forbidden fruit and, with that, chose consciousness. Once Lilith and Eve are freed from patriarchal projections, their acts of rebellion become acts of courage against heavy odds. It’s time we re-examined the founding myth of our civilisation and challenged its bias. For the degrading of women and, with them, of Nature and the feminine principle, have consequences that are only too obvious in today’s global eco-crisis. Unless the cosmic balance of the masculine and feminine principles can be restored, the future of life on earth looks bleak.
Hearts and Minds: towards an understanding of terrorism
Dr. Scilla Elworthy was our speaker for the February meeting. Scilla is a large player in the world of conflict resolution. She established the Oxford Research Group in 1982, an organisation which undertook independent research into military decision-making managing to organise meetings between most senior policy-makers and their critics in all the nuclear nations, including China. For this she has been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize. She then founded Peace Direct which grew out of the O.R.G.’s conflict prevention work. Scilla is deeply interested and committed to create opportunities for conflict resolution throughout the world. She helped us think through the process that turns ordinary people into terrorists. Political helplessness, deep frustration and humiliation figure highly in the list of reasons which create a terrorist. These elements feed not only into the personal minds of those people who experience it, but they also create a constituency in the community which will turn the individual into a martyr, or hero. In addition, the middle ground of ordinary people becomes paralysed by such acts of terrorism and retreat in fear. This paralysis is a by-product as well as a pre-requisite to terror. The familiar cycle which follows an act of terror comprises shock, fear, grief and then anger. This anger turns into bitterness which then wants revenge and retaliation. Once that achieved, another act of terror will follow and a vicious cycle is created. The secret is to break the cycle at the point where anger turns into bitterness. This has the potential to turn the vicious into a virtuous cycle, in which the simple act of listening is able to defuse the most radical and violent trend. People want to be heard, to have their grievances acknowledged. Understanding the process allows us to deal with aspects of the cycle and with courage, determination and understanding we could make the future different from the past in this respect. In the booklet she wrote with Gabrielle Rifkind ‘Making Terrorism History, Scilla expounds on ways to achieve this. Peace Direct`s website
Polar Shift – a very real possibility
In January we welcomed Sir Ian Rankin who talked about Polar Shift. Ian’s interest in geology was awakened whilst he was an industrialist in the field of oil exploration. The subject of polar shift is not new and has been investigated by various people in the past. We heard about the mystery of well preserved Mamouths in Siberia, found with their bones broken and with plant food in their stomach. As these plants do not grow in Siberia it raised the question of a catastrophic shift in the earth’s axis. This shift would have created a pole where such animals were feeding in more temperate climate. Apparently there are other examples of animals that have been found in similar conditions in other parts of the world. Ian suggested that we are within 50 years of such a catastrophic shift and the main indicator seems to be a reduction of the Earth’s magnetic field. Here Ian brought in a very unorthodox theory, one developed by Osvaldo Pedroso, which challenges Newtonian principles of gravity. Pedroso maintains that it is not gravity which holds the planets in their orbits around the Sun, but a combination of opposing forces, one from a black hole at the centre of our galaxy which pulls objects towards it, whilst the solar wind of the Sun exerts a force in the opposite direction ‘ pushing the objects away. This solar wind which blows in the direction of the Earth is also responsible for the Earth’s rotation. The decrease in the magnetic field of the Earth means that the Solar Wind is likely to alter the angle of the axis and therefore move the pole from where it is at the moment to some other place. An interesting theory which generated many questions and comments, but I cannot say that everyone left convinced!
Special Interest Meeting – December 2006
Machine Consciousness: an Oxymoron?
A dialogue between Ron Chrisley, Reader in Cognitive Science and Philosophy at the University of Sussex and Graham Martin a lecturer and author of ‘Does It Matter? The Unsustainable World of the Materialists'(2005) took place on the question of machine consciousness. Ron Chrisley proposed that we can indeed build a conscious machine and Graham defended the opposing view. Ron started the procedures by analysing the statement ‘Could we build a conscious machine’ and exploring the meaning and implication of each word. A conscious machine would ‘evolve’ rather than be created and amongst others, he explored whether the consciousness of a machine would be comparable with the consciousness we experience as humans (or that of other animals). Graham for his part contended that to speak of a conscious machine is to commit ‘galloping catachresis’ – an erroneous use of a word. To clarify what he meant, he referred to the use of the word ‘leg’ to define a table’s prop. The word ‘consciousness’ associated with machines, he said, is in the same category. Graham referred to Polanyi’s definition of ‘explicit’ and ‘tacit’ knowing, the first being knowledge that can be put into words and the second, that which cannot, such as the taste of coffee or the intensity of a colour. Graham made the case for machines being unable to deal with tacit knowledge or to ‘experience’ consciousness and there followed a dialogue between the speakers and then a debate with the audience. Many interesting questions were fielded but the problem itself was as expected, left unresolved and intriguingly the question of whether computers will ever be able to fall in love was left hanging in the air.