Top Down Causation in Complex Systems like the Brain
In November we hosted Prof George Ellis, Distinguished Professor of Complex Systems at the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. George is the author of 12 books, one of them with Stephen Hawkins (The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time, 1973) and is considered one of the world’s leading theorist in cosmology. He is also an active Quaker and the winner of the Templeton Prize in 2004, for Progress Towards Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities. This evening’s talk he updated us on the ideas put forward in his first talk to the SMN London Group, two years ago.
George started his talk by quoting Crick’s comments that we (humans) are no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules (The Astonishing Hypothesis, 1973), a clear example of bottom up causation. But is that all we are? In his talk he showed us that although bottom up causation is certainly important, it is strictly limited in terms of the complexity it can give rise to, and for that to happen, a reversal of information flow from bottom up, to top down is necessary. Higher levels have demonstrably causal powers over lower levels and this is the key to the rise of genuine complexity.
Higher levels exercise control over lower levels by constraint, which generate news possibilities. For example, imposing pressure on a gas, enables new possibilities to take place, i.e, a change of state to liquid.
We heard about neurones and their constituent parts, networks and their constituent parts and so on – explaining the way complex systems organise themselves through modules. Although the flow of information of the constituent parts is bottom up once the connections are made, activities become regulated in a top down way. For example walking is an activity determined by the mind (top down) instructing the legs which then engage muscles, cells etc for such activity (bottom up). Another example given was vision: what we see – although dependent on the neuro-physics of vision – is ultimately determined by the Gestalt of our expectations. George showed us a number of examples to prove this point, one of them a set of moving luminous dots suggesting a walking person. As he pointed out, no person was shown, only luminous dots in motion, but because of the way the dots moved, we expectedto see a person walking, and that is what we did.
We heard about the causality of epigenetics, of goal oriented feedback systems and of adaptive systems, all as top down examples. In addition, we were presented with the interesting perspective of multiple causality, which George mapped on to Aristotle’s principles of Material, Formal, Efficient, Final. As an example, he posed the question: Why does a plane fly? The bottom up causation (Material) talks of the physics of flight. But the plane also flies because there is a pilot in the cockpit (Formal), and the airline, which has scheduled the flight (Efficient), and so on. Ultimately, because the company owning the plane, must make a profit (Final). Causality can be analysed in multiple ways and, George stressed, declaring any single level as absolute, is fundamentalism! Which is his criticism of Crick’s statement, in which he used the level he understands – that of neuro-biology as determining human behaviour.
It was a presentation packed tight with interesting information which was followed by a lively discussion!
Silence, Expansion beyond Limits
At our October meeting we had the pleasure of listening to Laurence Freeman OSB, a Benedictine monk who has made it his life’s mission to spread the word about the importance of meditation. He teaches people in worlds as far apart as business and politics, including schools and his programme is now in schools in 25 countries around the world. He is the spiritual guide and director of the World Community for Christian Meditation, a worldwide organisation. Laurence is also the author of 11 books, including Jesus: the Teacher Within and The Selfless Self and is a mystic from a Catholic tradition who is comfortable in, and conducts dialogues with leaders of all traditions. He has a close relationship with the Dalai Lama, and often shares a platform with him.
Laurence started by alerting us to the noisy background against which we live our daily life, not only in terms of sounds, but mental noise, to include our digital addiction. One of the results of this is that we have become uncomfortable with silence, needing constant distraction. This has an effect on our lives at various levels, practical as well as spiritual. Going on to talk about meditation, Laurence talked about the negative experience of silence, the fear and discomfort which lead us to take out our phones all the time, and then focused on the positive aspects. In meditation, when the mind is still, we encounter ourselves at a deeper level. . The mystical traditions call this self-knowledge, which is the foundations of knowledge of God. We can’t know God without knowing ourselves, and vice versa. Quoting the Bible: “Be still and know that I am God”.
The work of meditation is simple, but can be hard. Confronting the whirlwind of the mind is not easy. We get in touch with our wounds, pain and dysfunctions but eventually it takes us to more authentic living. It liberates us from the addiction to distraction. It helps us control our attention. At this point Laurence mentioned the work of Iain McGilchrist and spoke about the important and complementary roles of the two brain hemispheres, their different ways of attention and how they influence our view of reality. The aim of meditation is pure attention and silence is the fruit of the work of attention. He spoke about two ways of looking at the effects of meditation: the benefits, which can be subject to scientific research, such as lowering the levels of anxiety, sleep improvement etc, and the fruits, which cannot be measured, but are equally, if not more important, becoming more compassionate, peaceful, patient, loving. Love is ultimately the work of attention. It is other-centred attention and Other-centred attention is central to the mystical traditions. Laurence finished with the wonderful quote from Rumi:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
It was a moving presentation, a feeling shared by all in the room!
The Harmony of the Spheres – an Old Concept in a New Light.
The September talk also slipped into the following month, and early in October we had a talk by Hartmut Warm, originally a civil engineer, a profession he abandoned a long time ago. Hartmut is also a computer programmer and has been working on his discovery, the subject of the talk, for about 20 years. We heard that the concept of the Harmony of the Spheres goes back to the old Greeks, perhaps even further. Pythagoras is known to have intuited a link between geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy. This concept was revived by Kepler (1571-1630) who wanted to prove the Harmony of the World (as the title of his book indicates) based on the heliocentric discoveries of Copernicus. Kepler furthermore thought he had found the correspondence between music and the planets, believing each to have a particular tone. Hartmut became interested in this when he was teaching music listening and he used his computer knowledge and skills to create both a graphic translation of the conjunctions of certain planets as well a musical interpretation. We were shown the graphics, by which a line is drawn between the two planets as a conjunction arises. By repeatedly drawing lines as the conjunctions occur over the years (and they never occur in exactly the same place) the software shows projections of the lines over many years, decades, centuries, millennia. The shapes that Hartmut found charting the conjunctions between the Earth and Venus, form a pentagram, as well as flower shape. Introducing Mars, we saw a virtual square around the pentagram. The conjunction of the outer planes, of Jupiter and Uranus, create a hexagram, and by combining the three most massive planets, Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune, we see first a chaotic sequence, and then, having run over 1200 or more years, a twelve pointed star emerges. Twelve, says Hartmut, is the number of the cosmos. Within the twelve pointed star, two hexagons emerge. Twelve is also the archetype in the sense used by Kepler, a pattern ordained by God, following a divine plan. Hartmut does not imply that there is a meaningful relationship manifested by the number 12, just points out the correspondence leaving the question open.
With regards to the musical aspect, we heard a short piece of music composed based on the harmony of the planets. Hartmut explained that ‘at a certain point in time each planet in its revolution around the Sun has exactly the distance of its semi-minor axis b from the central star. The velocity of the planet at this point almost precisely equals the arithmetical mean of the extreme velocities (which occur at aphelion and perihelion, i.e. at the farthest and the nearest points of a planet on its elliptical orbit around the Sun). If we put the velocity at the distances of the semi-minor axes and that at aphelion into correlation, we find a highly significant correspondence with musical intervals’. The piece had eerie and lugubrious sounds, interspaced with long moments of silence. It had a deep resonance! For further information, see his website http://www.keplerstern.com/signature-of-the-celestial-spheres/
Scientific and Spiritual Mysteries
Our August talk slipped into September, the earliest date our guest speaker, Prof Ravi Ravindra was able to make during his visit to the UK. Ravi is Professor Emeritus at Dalhousie University, in Halifax, Nova Scotia and has been professor in three departments: Comparative Religion, Philosophy and Physics. This makes him eminently qualified for the topic of this evening’s talk: Scientific and Spiritual Mysteries.
To start with, Ravi defined his understanding of the word spiritual as pointing to subtler levels of reality than the body or indeed the mind. The mind however is the tool with which we can approach those levels and for this, it needs to be quiet. For this reasons all spiritual traditions encourage their adepts to learn this skill through the process of meditation. When the mind is quiet it can potentially acquire knowledge from those realms, knowledge which he described as “objective”. This is because such knowledge is apprehended directly, not mediated by ego, personality, cultural and societal influences. The knowledge is received, it comes to the person, rather than worked out intellectually. This knowledge is the portal to freedom from the self, from fear and from the need to control. However, Ravi stressed that the ultimate spiritual mystery itself can never be solved at our level of consciousness, but with a quiet mind, spiritual mysteries can become dissolved and realized. He pointed out the felicitous meaning of the word ‘realize’ in English as it indicates both, “becoming aware of” and “making real”. This realization will lead to powerful internal transformation of the individual.
Science on the other hand also starts with mysteries to be explored, but the tool is very different. Scientific mysteries are solvable in principle through the intellectual, logical mind, which rather than quiet, needs to be active. Another difference is that in this field, the unknown, is knowable. And, when the unknown becomes knowable, the new knowledge gets published and other people will benefit from the work of a few. Not so with spiritual mysteries, which cannot be transmitted but only personally experienced. Science studies matter, and control and prediction are institutionalized. Spirituality is about the moment, lack of prediction and control.
Ravi compared the different processes of these different enterprises: science uses experiments and spirituality, experience. Both words come from the same etymological root but point to very different activities. Experiments are external, experience internal. The scientific project talks of evolution in a bottom up kind of way, whereas in the spiritual narrative the flow is top down, from more to less sophisticated levels of consciousness. Scientists work with levels of complexity, whereas in spirituality we talk of levels of awareness.
Ravi brought the two modes of knowing together by quoting a number of scientists who have had a profound spiritual understanding, amongst which Einstein, Schrodinger, Newton and Pauli. He quoted also from a variety of sacred texts and it was fascinating to hear someone who is so well informed on both science and spirituality, explain so clearly the fundamentals of both those ways of exploring the world in which we live. Ravi has written a number of books, and the one, which addresses the topic of this evening’s talk is Science and the Sacred: Eternal Wisdom in a Changing World.
Inside the Cosmic Mind
This month our speaker was Phoebe Wyss. Her talk was entitled, Inside the Cosmic Mind, the title of her new book. Phoebe is a professional astrologer and this evening she explained her quest to validate astrology, which she found over the 35 years as a professional, was often dismissed as nonsensical because it cannot be tested with the tools of materialistic science. She started by pointing out the current perspective, which sees the cosmos as meaningless, in accordance with the mainstream cosmological beliefs, which are predicated on materialist science. In contrast, ancient cultures had a more ‘right brain’ perception of the world in which they lived. Phoebe pointed out for example that the ancient Egyptians did not make a difference between inner and outer worlds. Both aspects were interrelated and the gods manifested in both. The Hermetic axiom ‘as above so below’ is the best example of this philosophy, understood also to mean inner and outer.
Phoebe joined the SMN with the intention to explore how astrology works. Looking at philosophical contributions, she singled out Plato’s realm of ideas in the Universal Mind structuring Nature, and Plotinus whose perspective was that every being, at whatever level of consciousness, participates in the Anima Mundi, the soul of the world. Pauli and Jung were also quoted extensively, supporting her argument of the correspondences between inner and outer worlds, the most well known being the concept of synchronicity. The concept of archetypes, an idea developed by Jung, helped her explain the nature of the zodiac energies.
Phoebe also mentioned the work of Rupert Sheldrake and his ideas of morphic resonance and the understanding of mind extending beyond the physical body both in time and in space, which brought her closer to understanding how astrology works. Another principle, that of fractal correspondence derived from chaos theory, also had an impact on Phoebe’s understanding which together with the nested hierarchy model helped her make sense of mind being included and transcended in levels of sophistication, throughout reality. She compared it with the language of correspondence from the ancients, between the micro and the macrocosmos. The human being is a mini universe, containing the whole within him. The seminal work of Richard Tarnas and his student Keiron le Grice helped Phoebe further and she quoted a sentence by Tarnas ‘the psyche is not in us: we are in the psyche’, which she sees as a very big idea to take in.
Ultimately Phoebe suggests that there is a top-down flow of meaning in the cosmos, from the mind of the whole downwards. The zodiac ‘is a geometric matrix in the cosmic mind’, in constant flow in which the archetypes – its core ideas – unfold and combine their qualities in ever-changing patterns. Notably, the zodiac expresses no causality but a mirroring of meaningful configurations of archetypal energies, which can be found in the events of history and our personal life stories. Astrology she said, allows us to recognise these patterns as they emerge in our lives, and help us make sense of our experience.
Living with Invisibility
For our June meeting our speaker was Graham Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford, author of a number of books, including Cities of God (2000), True Religion (2002) The Politics of Discipleship (2009) and more recently Unbelievable: why we Believe and Why we Don’t (2014). This evening Graham explored with us, Living with Invisibility, the title he gave to the lecture. He started by describing a typical day in his personal life to demonstrate that we live great chunks of our lives on the borderline between the visible and the invisible. The tool we use to make the invisible ‘visible’ is imagination. According to evolutionary anthropologists, we are unique as species for living in the symbolic. We perceive the world, and sense something more. In what is presented to us there is also an invisible aspect, which we experience as symbolic, and to which we attach meaning. These emerge through the process of interpretation. Graham quoted Merleau Ponti, who called the invisible, that which we infer from the visible, ‘intentional transcendence’. The invisible, is all around us. At the dimension of awareness, it is said that 95% of the operations of our body are unconscious, leaving only 5% conscious! In the sciences, Graham pointed to the example of multiverses, dark matter and dark energies, all of which are totally invisible and demonstrated theoretically through highly abstracted computerized mathematics.
Religious faith is another way in which we humans negotiate the invisible in the visible. It makes the hidden appear in the same way as in any other human symbolic transaction. Graham elaborated extensively on the work by the 4th C Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem. He explained in great detail, the steps Cyril took the aspirants through to ensure they had powerful experiences of all five senses: sight, sound, touch, smells, and taste, which would deliver them firmly into the intended belief system. It started with a series of intellectual lectures, culminating in the initiation through baptism into the community of believers. The teachings were to be memorized, nothing was written down, indicating that experience rather than cognitive process was the pedagogic method. The aspirants were also sworn to keep secret, what and how they learned. The use of imagination through the powerful experiences of the senses, which those seeking illumination were taken through, enabled them to learn about and participate in the divine. Furthermore, space and time was used skilfully as well, as the lectures took place in the magnificent basilica built by Constantine in Jerusalem, which had within it both the site of the crucifixion, Golgotha, and the cave of the resurrection. This made Jerusalem a sacred place both in terms of location and time, for being the ancient city of King David, the place of the crucifixion, the salvation of humankind, and the site of new Jerusalem, awaiting the second coming of Christ.
It was a most interesting perspective and Graham left us with the question: are thought, multiverses, God, etc, different forms of invisibility, or are they, what he personally thinks more likely, different logics we use to understand the influence of the invisible on the visible. Eg, brain activity inferring thoughts, gravitation suggesting a cosmological constant, etc, these ideas are all based on the work of imagination, which he feels is the most neglected area of neuroscience.
From the point of view of current world affairs, Graham expressed his interest in studying the effects of the invisible on the people who voluntarily affiliate themselves to groups like Islamic State, or Boko Haram.
We had an interesting discussion following the presentation, with challenging questions and poignant answers.
Can our Values Shift in time to Save our Planet?
Our May speaker was Scilla Elworthy PhD, nominated for the Nobel Peace prize three times for her work towards peace and disarmament. Scilla works tirelessly for her projects, which are all based on her strong belief in the basic human right for respect and freedom. In 1982 she founded the Oxford Research Group to facilitate effective dialogue between nuclear weapons policy-makers worldwide. In 2002 it was Peace Direct an organisation that helps local peace builders in conflict areas. Then in 2013 she co-founded Rising Women Rising Worlds, to advise the leadership of selected international corporations. Her most recent project is her book, Pioneering the Possible: awakened leadership for a world that works.
In this evening’s talk, Scilla started by pointing out that we live in a world that is miserable and frightening for most of its inhabitants. Although the rich/poor gap is forever getting wider, the truth is that rich people are unhappy too. Einstein pointed out that no problem can be solved from the consciousness that created it. Based on this insight, Scilla distilled 10 top values, which need to be replaced, to lead us to a more sustainable, rewarding and meaningful existence. For each stale and replacement values we heard powerful examples supporting her arguments. Some brought despair for instance, the actions of the corporation-backed TTIP agreements (see http://www.theguardian.com/global/2015/may/04/ttip-united-nations-human-right-secret-courts-multinationals) and others hope for instance, the fact that in the 1990s for the first time, more wars ended by negotiated settlement (42) than by military victory (23). This started a trend that accelerated in the new millennium, between 2000 and 2005, seventeen conflicts ended in negotiated settlements; just four ended in military victory.
Here is the list of the values and their replacement as envisaged by Scilla:
|Stale value:||Replaced by:|
|1. Might makes right|
|Talking trumps fighting|
|2. Humans have the right to do as we like with the planet|
|Humans are responsible for the health of our planet|
|3. Survival of the fittest |
|Survival through cooperation|
|4. Science and the rational mind are what distinguish mankind|
|Body, feelings and soul balance the mind in humankind|
|5. Continuing economic growth is essential|
|Consciousness is the new capital|
|6. Good fences make good neighbours||Building bridges works better for less|
|7. Short-termism is fine|
|Thinking long-term is the fastest way to save our planet|
|8. There will always be a technical fix in time to resolve serious problems||We need a greater intelligence than technology to fix humans and their problems|
|9. Women are too emotional to deal with the real issues of business and world affairs||A yin-yang balance is the best bet for human survival|
|10. Consuming is our right||Connection not consumption will satisfy us|
Humans, Scilla pointed out, are meaning seeking creatures with spiritual impulses. The mantra for 20th C was ‘what can I get’ and for the 21st C it must be ‘what can I give’.
We had an interesting discussion to follow and I think it is fair to say, that many of us felt more hopeful about the future, based on what we heard!
Universal Consciousness: Poetry? Metaphor? Science? OR all of the above?
Our April speaker was Prof Emeritus Richard Silberstein, who holds a PhD from Swinburne University of Technology in Australia. Richard has 30 years experience of neuroscience research and is the originator of Steady State Topography, a brain imaging methodology. His interest in the workings of the brain originated from his interest in consciousness and mystical experience when he was very young and, by approaching it from the scientific perspective, he made it his life long work. This evening he presented Universal Consciousness: Poetry? Metaphor? Science? OR all of the above?
Richard started by reminding us that mystics of all traditions have spoken of their mystical experiences in which they sensed that the universe is alive and permeated by profound love. People who had NDE also consistently report experiences of harmony and profound love. The thought is comforting, but is it just the working of the brain?
Much work has taken place on the ‘easy problem’, meaning correlates, patterns, neuroactivity of consciousness. We are however very far from understanding the hard question, how matter and consciousness interact.
The field is divided: a number of academics (Daniel Dennett, Francis Crick etc) propose that although we don’t yet understand how the brain generates consciousness, the future will no doubt bring the answer. Their version proposes that consciousness is an emerging property of the brain. Brain depends on properties of matter. Matter as structured has the capacity to demonstrate consciousness. Other scholars however such as Paul Nunez, author of Brain, Mind and Structure of Reality, suggest that consciousness may be a fundamental property of the universe and the explanation may not be found in the properties of matter. Schrodinger has also proposed that ‘consciousness may not be accountable in physical terms but it is absolutely fundamental, it cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else’.
Richard argues that parapsychology is the most promising area to challenge the materialistic account for consciousness proposed by current physics. He suggested that experiments, which include random number generators (RNG), are the most effective way to study parapsychology, as cheating is virtually impossible in those. We heard about experiments, which included both human and animal subjects demonstrating psi abilities and which returned statistically significant results. Something which is not well known, is that as part of the Turing test of whether a particular form of intelligent interaction is being offered by a person or a computer, Turing mentioned psi abilities, which humans do and computers don’t have.
What crowned the evening was a challenge to this reasoning, a most interesting research undertaken by Michael Levin, Professor at Tufts Centre for Regenerative and Developmental Biology. To test whether computers have psi abilities, Levin took two computers playing chess against each other and introduced a RNG to determine the choice of each move. It is known that the chess software analyses the projection of each possible move many moves ahead and chooses the one most like to result in victory. Levin introduced a RNG in both computers by which a quantum event determines whether the computer will choose the best option for victory or the second best, meaning a lower chance of winning. The experimenter’s effect was also neutralized, by programming the computers to play at random and unknown times. To the surprise of everyone, the computers seem to influence the RNG, just as the people and animals we heard from the other experiments, opting for winning moves in statistically significant results.
For Richard this tends to support a long held view that there must be something more fundamental in the universe, of which matter and consciousness are manifestations. Not a new idea, Spinoza suggested this, so did Pauli and Jung, and scientists have been using quantum theory to demonstrate to this. Michael Levin’s studies however, seem to demonstrate for the first time that psi abilities are part of the fabric of reality.
Consciousness and psi functions as aspects of consciousness, proposes Richard, are built into the very fundamental aspect of reality and the dualistic manifestation of consciousness and matter/energy emerge when appropriate matter/energy structures come into existence in complex structures such as the brain. Perhaps birth of universe was the point in time when this broken symmetry occurred and consciousness and matter/energy differentiated themselves into what we are familiar with. That is what he refers to as the ‘Conscious Universe’.
Miracles in the New Testament. Anything comparable in modern times? The case of Sathya Sai Baba and some Catholic saints
This month we welcomed Erlendur Haraldsson, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. Erlendur is a world renowned researcher of children with memories of past lives. He has written 6 books on that and other topics, amongst whichModern Miracle Sathya Sai Baba, A Modern Day Prophet. This subject was this evening’s topic with specific focus on miracles performed by Jesus as described in the new testament, which he compared with the paranormal activities (can they be called miracles?) of Sathya Sai Baba whom he met on a number of occasions and studied for over 20 years.
We heard that there are 38 accounts of miracles in the New Testament of which 22 are cases of healings, 3 cases of casting out evil spirits and 3 cases of resurrection. Amongst the non-healing miracles, are: changing water into wine, feeding the multitudes, walking on the sea, stilling the tempest and transfiguration on the mountain. Looking at miracles in recent centuries, Erlendur explored the studies of Cardinal Prospero Lambertini (1675-1758) who, in his De Canonizatione, examined the case for canonization of saintly people. Lambertini investigated miraculous phenomena to ascertain whether those of paranormal nature could be explained as originating from God, from the Devil or from human, psychic activity. He noted that not only saints can have psychic gifts, but ‘fools idiots, melancholic persons and brute beast’ could do so as well, in other words, anyone. As an example of unexplained paranormal phenomena, we heard about St Joseph of Copertino, whose levitation was witnessed by numerous people. In fact there were other Christian levitators such as St. Francis of Assisi, who hated the phenomenon, St Ignatius Loyola and St Padre Pio who as recently as 1968 showed signs of stigmata, bilocation, distant appearances, odor sancti as well as levitation. Some mediums, we heard, have also known to levitate and the examples given date back to the 19th Century, with the most recent being Rudi Schneider (1908-1957).
Erlendur then moved on to explore the feats of Sathya Narayana Ratnakara, known as Sathya Sai Baba. He was born in Puttaparti in 1929, a son of a poor farmer, and died in April 2011. Over his lifetime, Sai Baba built a reputation for performing paranormal feats. These were extensively studied by scientists, both in India and abroad, and no evidence of cheating was ever uncovered. It is also acknowledged that he had a reputation of inappropriate behaviour with young boys. The focus this evening however, was on Sai Baba’s ability to manifest objects and food items as well as vibuti, the grey ash for which he was famous. Erlendur told us that like Jesus, Sai Baba has also made a small amount of food and water, feed an unbelievably large number of people. He is known to have transformed liquids, on one occasion filling the tank of a car belonging to a visitor with water, which then transformed into petrol allowing the person to get back to Bangalore. And there are numerous accounts of sweets and candy being produced from nowhere and given to children and adults. From a comparison chart, we learned that he was also known to levitate, to heal people and was observed to become a source of light, such as Jesus in the transfiguration. He was, however, not known to resurrect people or to influence the weather, as Jesus has done. One of the questions raised by one of our audience, was that although healing is clearly a spiritual act, in what way could producing sweets be called spiritual? The answer came from another person in the audience, who pointed out that through his paranormal powers Sai Baba was able to attract many people amongst which many rich people who donated millions, with which the Sathya Sai Central Trust was able to give 1,380 million euros to charity in the last few years, funding schools, colleges, hospitals, water projects etc.
‘Both-and’ thinking: on embracing paradox in spirituality, philosophy and science
Our speaker this month was Dr. Oliver Robinson, senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of Greenwich. Olly also performs an important role in the SMN, that of Communications Manager. He is currently writing a book in which he discusses the subject of this evening’s presentation, ‘Both-and’ thinking: On embracing paradox in spirituality, philosophy and science.
To illustrate the concept of paradox, Olly started by telling us the Chinese story of the farmer who encounters a number of situations which can be interpreted as unfortunate, turning out to be fortunate and vice versa. The moral of the story is the Chinese understanding of the world as constituted by the energies of yin and yang, representing complementary rather than opposite aspects of existence. Each polarity contains its opposite. Any extreme creates energy which generates its opposite, this is the essence of Chinese philosophy of Yin and Yang. The Tao is one but is composed of two. The Chinese are skeptical of too much positive, and tend to see resolution of conflict as the understanding of a synthesis of opposites. Having described the Chinese perspective, Olly turned to Western thinking and, acknowledging that there have been many philosophers who looked at this issue, he chose the Hegelian lens, associated with dialectical thinking, to explore the idea of paradox. We were told that Hegel identified three types, which share the basic dialectical process: idea presentation, critical thinking and synthesis. The three types of dialectics are: the dialectic of essence – in which, a pair of concepts, which seem to be opposites are in fact complementary, such as the yin/yang duality. The dialectic of being, in which some thing or being can be in two different states at the same time. Different but reconcilable – such as the wave and particle duality, or the Trinity in which the Father (masculine, authority etc) together with the Holy Spirit (originally understood as Sophia, the feminine) bring about the Son, the concrete element. And the dialectic of notion, in which two concepts are brought together by a synthesis in which a new concept is created which incorporates them both. The example given was the tension between theism and atheism, resolved by the introduction of transtheism, an example of which is the Jain religion where Moksha is said to include concepts of deity as well as an impersonal state of liberation.
We heard other examples of paradox or dialectic thinking, including Jung’s approach to the tension of polarities in personality and ideas about God and the World. We also heard about Olly’s own experience of paradox, having been used to being the brightest in his class, he had to adjust to the paradox of being amongst the less bright when he moved schools at the age of 13.
We were left with the understanding that ultimately everything is relative, depending on the perspective of the observer, and Hegel offered us a useful way of thinking to help us avoid or shift from a place of fundamentalism.
Science and Spirituality
We started the year with a full house and a long waiting list for Rupert Sheldrake’s presentation. Rupert is a biologist, author of 10 books and more than 80 scientific papers, and long standing member, friend and contributor to the SMN.
Rupert took this evening’s talk as an opportunity to run his latest experiment with the present audience. You will find the result at the end of this report.
In this evening’s presentation, Science and Spirituality, Rupert offered a different angle of interpretation within a context of science and spirituality, to five different subjects, which I report here briefly. The first one was Near Death Experiences (NDEs), which are considered a right of passage by those who experience them. He reflected whether baptism, as conducted in the early days of Christianity, might have been a way of inducing an NDE-like experience, specifically as a right of passage. Could the immersion in the river Jordan have been just long enough to produce such an NDE in the person? The next subject was prayerand here he quoted experiments conducted on meditators and the benefits of mindfulness on people with depression. May prayer be an ancient, and natural way of managing depression? Then came the placebo effect, or the power of the mind, which conscious or unconsciously produces extraordinary physical effects. Again, this is an ‘inbuilt’ ancient process and we heard that whereas in the recent past the placebo effect tended to invalidate results of trials, now it is becoming a validated result in its own right. We then heard about pilgrimage, central to many people’s lives in the distant past, perhaps this impulse is hard wired in us. Are these impulses in different ways, present in other species? Rupert used the migration of birds and pointed out that they do something which seems totally miraculous, to find ‘home’ when starting from long distances away, in unknown territories. Even if magnetism is involved as some people suggest, how do they find ‘home’? It remains a mystery. The next topic wasrituals, also an ancient practice and we learned that performing the same rituals over generations creates communities. From a rational perspective rituals may seem a waste of time, but as seen from the perspective of morphic resonance, we are connecting with the past strengthening those ties that link us horizontally with peers and vertically with ancestors. The last topic was the connection between heaven and earth, which, going back millennia, has been the role of towers in sacred buildings. But is it just symbolic? Perhaps there is a practical reason, namely to attract lightning and so energise the building. Rupert suggested studies could be conducted to establish how often church spires and towers are struck by lightning, and what the effect on the building’s sacred space may be.
It was an inspiring evening, and it is encouraging to hear his suggestion that the paradigm seems to be shifting to a less materialistic approach in science.
With regards to the experiment, here is the report:
On the meeting of 12 January, Drs. Rupert Sheldrake and Guy Hayward carried out an experiment, trying to find out whether or not just by looking at two laptop screens – one streaming an ‘on-air’ programme, and another streaming a recorded ‘catch-up’ episode of the same programme – one can tell which is ‘on-air’. The idea here, is that the collective attention of potentially millions of individuals watching the ‘on-air’ programme at the same time can be somehow felt by the participant.
Two opportunities to cast their votes were given to the audience. In the first, done before Rupert’s talk, the show was Top Gear, and the results were pretty much a dead-heat, at chance level (15 correct, 16 incorrect), therefore showing no effect. However, in the second experiment, done after Rupert’s talk, the programme was a late-evening stand-up comedy ‘Backchat with Jack Whitehall and his Dad’, and it showed a relatively strong positive effect – 19 correct, 13 incorrect. Another interesting finding with the second experiment was that 12 men voted correctly, whereas only 1 man voted incorrectly; this large gender discrepancy was not observed in the women (7 and 11, respectively). We currently have no explanation for this, apart from the fact that the two episodes both featured males exclusively.
Overall, there were 34 correct and 29 incorrect votes, with a positive effect of 53.9%, which if repeated over hundreds of trials would show strong significance.