Category Archives: Language Concepts

I’m Right!

How we polarize!

The past three blog posts have been fueled by James Hoggan’s book I’m Right, And You’re An Idiot[1]. In conversation with Hoggan, David Suzuki (Canada’s leading environmentalist) asked: Why aren’t people demanding action on environmental issues? To address this question, Hoggan set out to interview a large number of some of the world’s leading thinkers, specifically individuals who study human communication, to gain their perspective on this failure.

As mentioned in Ways To Contribute, I am involved with the Suzuki Elders in exploring how to use this information in the management of difficult conversations. In Finding Common Ground and How Conflict Escalates, I proposed a simple (perhaps difficult?) methodology for this. Yet I also want to give credit to Hoggan for the immense amount of exploration he undertook.

The following are some of the major points with which Hoggan grappled. Most are from his Epilogue, and all are direct quotes, with the interviewee named (JH denotes Hoggan’s commentary). [Square brackets are minor changes I have added, hopefully without changing the meaning.]

  • Few of us are truly evil — and good people sometimes [strongly disagree] for good reasons. (JH, p. 215)
  • Democracy works only if reasoned debate in the public sphere is possible. (Jason Stanley, p. 98)
    • While contention lies at the heart of democracy, it must be constructive contention. (Marshall Ganz, p. 115)
    • [People] don’t need not agree on the solution or on the problem. They don’t need to understand each other, trust each other or even like each other. But they do have to recognize that the only way to move forward is together. (Adam Kahane, p. 123)
  • It is through narratives . . . that people learn to access the moral and emotional resources we need to act with agency in the face of danger, challenge, and threat. . . . [This] is one of the most important lessons set out in I’m Right. (Marshall Ganz and JH, p. 174)
    • At its most basic level, I’m Right is about how we tell stories and how we treat each other. (JH, p. 115)
    • To create powerful persuasive narratives, our starting point must be rooted in an attitude of empathy, respect, and compassion. (The Dalai Lama, p. 211).
  • People don’t start out mired in hostility. The situation evolves. . . . Our defense mechanisms kick in . . . and this provokes . . . eventual gridlock. (JH, pp. 214-215)
    • It is hard to know who and what to trust. (JH, p. 216)
    • An important key is to hold our beliefs lightly [so that we are open to new possibility]. (JH, p. 215)
  • Facts and reason are fundamental to healthy public discourse, but in our overheated adversarial public square, facts are not enough. (JH, p. 217)
    • The initial strategy . . . must be inquiry, . . . [exploring] what truly matters to people [the emotional energy]. (JH, p. 218)
    • We must appeal to people’s values and speak from a moral position, . . . encouraging debate about matters of concern. (JH, pp. 217-218)
  • A well-crafted . . . narrative helps tear down barriers of propaganda and polarization. This theme of emotional communication is grounded in the Golden Rule of treating others the way we want to be treated. (p. 219-220)
    • If we seek change, we should learn to use speech for its highest purpose — moral discourse. (JH, p. 222)

I propose that the methodology I suggested in earlier posts satisfies what Hoggan has identified, especially in providing narrative and compassion, and provides constructive contention.


[1] Hoggan, J. (2016).  I’m right, and you’re an idiot: The toxic state of public discourse and how to clean it up. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

How conflict escalates

I mentioned in my last post Finding Common Ground that people “argue conclusions,” and more readily relate to sensory experiences. In this post, I want to explore the mechanisms involved. If we are to find common ground, it is important that we understand mechanisms whereby conflict escalates — there is an adage: “Give a man a fish and he will feed for a day; teach a man to fish, and he will feed for a lifetime.”

That very adage is sensory. I can almost guarantee that in reading it, you had memories that engaged with the adage. Similarly in this post I want to teach how conclusions provoke conflict. Then I hope you may be able to take the skill into your own conflicts.

My operational definition of conflict is “difference in a closed space” — that closed space is a relationship of two (or more) people. One of Joe Schaefer’s fundamental premises was “the conflict is not the relationship,” the conflict is only part of the present relationship.

First, a diagram of importance, an emotional triangle. Imagine a triangle consisting of two people (me and you) and an issue (a conflict). Most people will say: “Let’s resolve this conflict so we can feel good about each other.” They put the conflict in the middle of the relationship. Instead, Joe said: “Let’s feel good about each other as we resolve our conflict.” Note the difference. The emotional triangle makes it clear that the conflict is not the relationship; it is part of the present difficulties of these two people, only a part of the relationship.

There are some fundamental principles of emotional triangles that are important here. First, each person of the triangle can directly influence the other person plus their own connection to the conflict. But they cannot directly connect to the other limb, the so-called 3rd Limb of each person (relative to the person).

Second, healthy exchange in communication is direct. It may not always be pleasant (for example, the healthy expression of anger) but the long-term outcome is potential health. Unhealthy exchange crosses into the third limb; it generally is not cooperative (although the individual impacted may choose to cooperate, e.g., an employee being told what to do by an angry boss).

A major example here is the distinction between feedback and criticism. In feedback, I give you information about myself that you cannot obtain in any other way — I tell you my experience. There is no requirement that you be different; it is simply a description of what I am experiencing, and generally I tell it in the hopes that our relationship will improve. In criticism however, I want you to be different — you should be different (according to me). The operational word here is should!

So what do conclusions do? Think of your response to any significant issue in your life, and what you concluded is the appropriate course of action to resolve the as-yet-unresolved issue. How did you language this conclusion? Again, I can almost guarantee that your conclusion contained some euphemism of should (have to, must, et cetera). Now, state your conclusion aloud, and feel your intensity. To what extent are you focused on the other being different (and perhaps yourself also)?

Thus, on most occasions when conclusions are stated in conflict, they become an implied criticism of the other. And who enjoys being criticized? What enjoys being told what they should be doing?

Hence, escalation!

The methodology of describing experience without stating conclusions minimizes this, as described in the previous post. We respond best to lived experience or metaphor that encapsulates experience. We generally do not fight with the narrative descriptions of others — we might disagree with the conclusion, but we usually trust that the other is telling the truth of their experience. And we share their reality.

Also, perhaps when we tell our own stories, we might be able to step into our own limited experience and the humility of uncertainty.

Can we go on feeling good about each other as we resolve our differences? Yes, we can!

Finding Common ground

A friend of mine sent me a link a few days ago to a TED talk on resolving conflict: Julia Dhar: How to disagree productively and find common ground (201810). My friend is part of a group who are exploring how to manage difficult conversations, the ones where people are almost certain to argue without resolution. Their premise (and mine), and the premise of the Julia Dhar talk, is that “Contempt has replaced conversation.” Dhar suggests that the resolution for all parties is to learn the skills of debating.

Yet, I think there is an easier way that I will describe shortly. The skills of debating are still part of the process — it is the preliminary steps that make it easier, and likely more effective.

First, to look at Dhar’s comments:

  • the nature of debate is that there is a big topic on the table, an idea that is controversial. One side argues in the positive; the other in the negative.
  • the foundation of debate is rebuttal, face to face, as the participants present structured arguments appropriate to their positions. For most people, rebuttal is difficult — it feels like attack. But if the personalities are minimized, it becomes tolerable, perhaps stimulating.
    • in a formal debate, it may be that the sides are assigned beforehand, independent of the debaters — to a certain extent, this removes the personalities of the debaters from the debate. Debaters learn to argue from either perspective.
    • Dhar notes that the “only winning strategy is to engage with the best, clearest, least personal version of the idea.”
      • of note, Dahr also identifies that “listening to someone’s voice as they make a controversial argument is literally humanizing. It makes it easier to engage with what that person has to say.”
  • she notes that powerful debaters do not seek to attack; they seek to find common ground. They create  what is called shared reality, and Dahr suggests that shared reality is the antidote of alternative facts.
  • most important of all, Dhar notes that the structure of debate, especially the ability to argue from  either side, is such that we “open ourselves, really open ourselves up to the possibility  that we might be wrong. [We encounter t]he humility of uncertainty.”

I agree with all these points yet, as noted, I think there is an easier way.

A former friend of mine (I lost track of him when he moved to Turkey) Joe Schaefer was a cultural anthropologist who engaged in community building. He talked about creative communication as that of “going on feeling good about the other while we resolve our differences.” And the way to do this was to talk about how you learned to hold the stances what were important to you.

I remember a process that Joe led us through. Thirteen pairs were asked to pick a topic upon which we strongly disagreed (issues like “Smoking should be entirely prohibited” or “Young offenders should be treated as adults for serious crimes” or “Gay partners should have the right to adopt children”), and then to take turns telling personal stories to each other of how we learned our attitudes to the topic. We used a standard format of “I remember when . . .,” telling the sensory details of something we remembered as being important to how we came to our conclusions related to the topic: a memory, an intuition, something seen or read, any source of meaning. These conclusions were what we were exploring, yet we were instructed to never state a conclusion during this exercise as to what we learned.

We exchanged memories for ten minutes only, and then had two minutes to explore to what extent we had reached a resolution between us — twelve minutes to explore a tough issue wherein we strongly disagreed. The outcome: ten dyads were completely satisfied in their resolution; two knew they had a resolution but needed a few more minutes; one pair knew they had no resolution possible yet were satisfied that they could be friends about it. I was astounded — I had never seen conflict handled this way and so successfully.

 So what is important here:

  • first, we stayed away from conclusions, and focused on sensory details of the memories. Details like “I remember walking into Tim Horton’s to get a cup of coffee. The place had a glassed-in smoking section. I saw a friend in the smoking section and went in to talk to him. I was amazed that, within ten minutes, my eyes were burning and my throat was burning.” Period — no conclusion.
    • People do not argue sensory details or memories. They argue conclusions.
    • Sensory details create shared reality. If you are Canadian,I can almost guarantee that when you read “I remember walking into Tim Horton’s,” you accessed your own memory of walking into your favorite Tim Horton’s — a shared reality in progress.
      • Although Dhar talks about shared reality as the antidote of alternative facts, there are fundamentally no such thing as facts. What we call “facts” are our memories of agreed-upon experiences. For example, [fact] I weigh173 pounds because [experience] I remember stepping on the scale this morning and noting that the scale displayed 173.4 (pounds). Even if we together watch me step on the scale, within a few minutes we only have the memory of the event to denote as “fact.”
  • the sharing of memories, without conclusion, allows each of us to learn about the “reality” of the other, to step into and feel their experience. Since no conclusion is stated, we do not have anything to bump against.
    • we also learn about our own reality. Once we begin to recognize the scanty information that forms the basis of most of our cherished beliefs, we begin to entertain the possibility of being wrong. We again encounter the humility of uncertainty.
    • in this humility, we can each step into the experiences of the other and “go on feeling good about the other while we resolve our differences.”
      • rather than putting the personalities aside, we actually increase our awareness of the humanness, and the personality, of the other.
  • from this place of connectedness, we might then choose to go on to “debate” the topic, recognizing that there are important “facts” within both sides of the “debate.”
    • and that if we are to resolve the issues, we must take all these “facts” into a common ground that works for all concerned.

Thus, for me, Dhar’s process is simply the end point of this more simple approach wherein we become familiar with and learn to respect each other, working to common goals.

Does this work for everyone in all circumstances. No, nothing does.

The other must be at least willing to listen to me at the beginning. The beauty of Joe’s methodology is that in most areas where I might argue, I can introduce this approach with fair ease, and often invite a dialogue rather than a debate.

The major limitation always occurs where the other is simply not willing to engage. Even there if I stay strictly with descriptions of my own sensory details, I can minimize argument. People cannot easily argue sensory details, especially if I tell something true that cannot be challenged (e.g., “Wow. I notice how tightly I am clenching my teeth because I so want to argue with you, and yet I am also stopping myself — I don’t want to argue. Does that ever happen to you?” — using the questions perhaps to invite common reality!)

There are so many ways to handle argument, ways that engage rather than separate. As Dhar notes, the skill is to invite common ground.

The Power Of Doubt

Doubt1

I have gotten into a bit of a funk since a recent David Suzuki article: Caribou science denial cripples conservation efforts (20180628). It underlines the power of doubt for me. The story links to a research article From Climate to Caribou: How Manufactured Uncertainty is Impacting Wildlife Management and discusses the many agencies (well beyond wildlife management, starting with tobacco and psycho-pharmaceuticals) that “employ a ‘multi-pronged strategy of denial’: deny the problem exists, deny its key causes, and claim that resolving the problem is too costly.”

What it raises for me is: Whom do I trust? And what is the nature of Doubt?

In the last couple of posts, I’ve discussed the nature and limitations of meaning, noting in particular that information is not the same as meaning and that too much information interferes with meaning. And as indicated earlier, one of the major ways we deal with this is to seek corroboration from a trusted group (the TIC process).

Another way we deal with meaning is by doubt, critically assessing the information as to whether or not it is consistent with what we already accept. Skepticism (specifically methodological skepticism) is an approach that subjects all knowledge claims to scrutiny with the goal of sorting out truth from falsehood. In many respects, getting uncomfortable and willing to be uncertain, to not know, to ask questions, to err and to fail, is the best and only way to learn, and move forward. It is so much easier to be certain, and for some, being uncertain is a major source of anxiety — the underlying issue of fundamentalism of any kind.

The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes “Doubt is often defined as a state of indecision or hesitancy with respect to accepting or rejecting a given proposition. Thus, doubt is opposed to belief. But doubt is also contrasted with certainty.” Both aspects, belief and certainty, are fundamental to my concern. Doubt has been a basic structural component of the major ways by which we as a species have valued knowledge, especially in the past 400 years, that of reason (philosophical study) and expiricism (scientific investigation). Doubt was also a major vehicle whereby Socrates sought wisdom, and thus doubt as a useful process has extended throughout our recorded history.

The major difficulty however is that doubt require honesty! The essential problem of dishonesty is that it grossly exaggerates doubt, and thus the deliberate creation of doubt can become a weapon of discouragement. In our current Age of Information (and Duplicity), doubt fails us when our premises are distorted by dishonesty. We become overwhelmed by too much information, at the very least by the inconsistencies inherent in the processing of dishonest information.

I know of no way through this dilemma. I have also found it incredibly difficult to encapsulate this blog — an expression of how doubt impacts.

doubt2

I will fall back on two people:

  • Voltaire: Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd!
  • Christian de Quincey, especially his book Radical Knowing where he talks of other ways of knowing beyond rationalism (the way of philosophy) and experientialism (the way of science): that of participatory feeling and direct mystical experience.
    • Both of these other ways are disparaged in our culture of scientific materialism, yet for me, both offer a way of knowing beyond doubt and certainty.
    • I highly recommend the writings of Christian, a philosopher of great integrity and wisdom, and like those who step out of the box, not well recognized.

Enough.

What’s It All About? Part 2

Meaning2This is my second post about meaning, it being the essential driver of human behaviour. We are meaning-makers, story-makers, and if we do not know “what it’s all about,” we will not move into action. At the same time, the creation of our meaning is complex and sophisticated.

Not only is the creation of meaning complex, but often the information itself is complex. This is especially so with all the information available concerning global warming.

I said last post that I would give some updated information regarding global warming. Here it is.

First, I want to draw attention to a brilliant presentation by Jeremy Rifkin on The Third Industrial Revolution via UBC Connects (20180316) — it is a fairly long video, and a quick summary is available as The Zero Marginal Cost Society (unfortunately both present the information too rapidly to allow good processing). Rifkin identifies that every industrial revolution in the past has occurred with and requires new innovations in communication (management), energy (creation), and transportation (movement). We have that now with the internet (communication), renewable energy (energy), and electronic vehicles plus 3D printing (both logistical), and thus we are now capable of a new industrial revolution. However he remains hesitant because he does not trust that we have the maturity as a culture to undertake this — we must learn to cooperate and collaborate. processes are underway, and are in a race against the impacts of global warming.

Unfortunately, all this has been my primary emphasis throughout this blog.

And given all this, what do I trust? And, what to do? Especially in relationship to global warming. I trust the following links — they are also potentially troublesome — they offer meaning, likely painful! Yet, within the assessment of what I can do regarding global warming, they offer much; they are my attempt to offer appropriate meaning.

Climate change: An ‘existential threat’ to humanity, UN chief warns global summit (20180515)

The current Secretary-General of the UN notes “Everyday, I am faced with the challenges of our troubled and complex world. But none of them loom so large as climate change. If we fail to meet the challenge, all our other challenges will just become greater and threaten to swallow us. Climate change is, quite simply, an existential threat for most life on the planet — including, and especially, the life of humankind.”

Degree sparks necessary debate (20180517)

David Suzuki is often blunt in his critique of the societal issues of climate change, something I appreciate. Yet, as he notes, his bluntness often is subject to ad hominem attacks, rather than depth of dialogue — unfortunate, and part of the distortion that occurs in transfer of information to meaning.

Climate Reality Check (2016)

The Uninhabitable Earth (20170709)

Good information in both. Also scarey!

The Climate Mobilization Living In Climate Truth Guidebook

A draft document developed by The Climate Mobilization, presenting many good links as to the nature of the pending catastrophe as well as practical tips for self-care.

What’s It All About? Part 1

Meaning2I’ve decided to write a post about meaning because it is the essential driver of human behaviour. We are meaning-makers, story-makers, and if we do not know “what it’s all about,” we will not move into action. At the same time, the creation of our meaning is complex and sophisticated.

Some definitions are needed. Data refers to patterns within energy transmission. Information refers to a measurement of a signal (data) between a sender and receiver, from point A to point B. For data to become information, the data must be perceived by someone; information requires both data and perceiver. Information is a derivative of consciousness; it is not the same as meaning, and in fact, information has nothing to do with meaning.

Meaning is the fit between self and non-self; if the perceived data relates to who we perceive ourselves to be (the fit) or in some way challenges who we are, we make meaning of the information. I’ve previously talked about how we do this, the TIC process, as one of the major limitations of meaning. We translate (T) the data in to something we recognize, we interpret (I) the data on the basis of our existing filters (preconceptions), and then we corroborate (C) the data by checking the significance, the fit, with an existing group we trust.

Another way we create meaning is if the information interests us. Davis in That’s Interesting! proposes that social theories (at least) are interesting because they challenge the underlying presuppositions of the reader, potentially altering both the common sense and the scientific view of reality. For me, this is an interesting idea in itself as it leads me to ponder what happens when the presuppositions are firmly held, as in the conflict between the environmental movement and the deniers of global warming.

Obviously there are all sorts of ways in which this process of meaning-making can go sour. One of the major ways is that in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it. This limits meaning! We bypass much of what we might actually need to know because of too much information. For me, it is a form of trauma, leading to overwhelm and apathy.

And we respond to it in the many ways associated with acedia:

  • we become fearful of overwhelm (“It’s too much.) This is especially true when we approach the issue of global warming. There is so much information and the information is so painful to absorb, we give up.
  • we become lazy (“I’ll look at it tomorrow.” “Somebody else will fix it.”)
  • we become self-righteous, especially if our corroborative group is also in denial. At its extreme, we actively sabotage by creating dis-information.

Even more frustrating is the nature of information dissemination. I’ve just been reading about Edward Bernays and the manipulation of Public Relations. He was the key figure in the early-mid 20th century responsible for the massive increase in public propaganda following the Second World War — advertising.

Bernays sold the myth of propaganda as a wholly rational endeavor, carried out methodically by careful experts skilled enough to lead “public opinion.” Consistently he casts himself as a supreme manipulator, mastering the responses of a pliable, receptive population. “Conscious and intelligent manipulation,” “invisible governors,” “they who pull the wires which control the public mind,” “shrewd persons operating behind the scenes,” “dictators exercising great power,” and, below them, people working “as if actuated by the touch of a button”—these are but a few expressions of the icy scientistic paradigm that evidently drove his propaganda practice, and that colored all his thinking on the subject. The propagandist rules. The propagandized do whatever he would have them do, exactly as he tells them to, and without knowing it. [Propaganda Quotes]

In reading this, I’ve also been aware of the changing parameters by which people engage in modern thinking, highly illustrative of both how information is transformed into meaning (especially via the TIC process), and the relationship between power and knowledge. An attendee at a recent Flat Earth Convention discusses just this theme: “those in power control what is considered to be correct and incorrect knowledge.” It fascinates me that a conference on the “reality” of a flat earth exists in today’s complex world! I wonder what else I am missing.

Two areas of changing parameters are most obvious to me:

  • the whole of the consumer industry with its so-called advertising processes. I like to think that originally advertising was meant to inform (perhaps my naiveté); now I simply see it as propaganda and manipulation.(my meaning).
  • the hidden algorithms that underlie many processes that presume to offer me choice: online filter bubbles that act in ways that provide information based on my previous choices. These  occur in the hidden background of many well-known websites, and essentially restrict my corroboration to what I have already chosen.

Give all this, what do I trust? And, what to do?

One of the maxims I am using these days is: Be at peace; come back tomorrow! By this, I do not mean “I’ll look at it tomorrow” or “Someone else will fix it.”

I actually mean I’ll do what I can today and be at peace with what I have done! And then see what tomorrow offers for me to explore and do, again peacefully.

Another interesting idea for me is how to disappear in this digital age. There are certainly people who want to disappear, and there are also people who specialize in this process, especially when it is legal to do so; I also imagine many processes by which people disappear for illegal actions.

Next post, I’ll give some updated information about global warming — the primary intention of this blog is to challenge the human issues that drive climate change.

I hope that this additional information will help you to make greater meaning in your life!

Knowing Through Relationship

Relationship1The week has been busy — lots of little jobs, and also I have been having difficulty organizing a workshop I will be doing (in October) on relationship. I am taking an older workshop, one that I have never been fully satisfied with, and both reducing it in size (for a full weekend to 1½ days). Such a reduction is always difficult for me, and more so this time as I have been searching for how to focus the workshop in a way that satisfies me. What I have settled upon, and which satisfies me, is to emphasize the importance of intersubjectivity.

Intersubjectivity is a concept I learned from my research advisor Christian deQuincey when I was doing my PhD. To quote one of Christian’s books (Radical Knowing: Understanding Consciousness Through Relationship, 2005):

Intersubjectivity is “knowing through relationship” — a form of non-sensory, non-linguistic connection through presence and meaning, rather than through mechanism or exchanges of energy. (Kindle location 452)

Christian also distinguished three forms of intersubjectivity:

  1. Intersubjectivity-1, the exchange of linguistic tokens (words and other sounds),
  2. Intersubjectivity-2, where we influence each other with the meaning we promote, and
  3. Intersubjectivity-3, where we co-create each other into a meaningful experience by the wholeness of who we each are.

For me, when I experience it, intersubjectivity-3 is the richest form of dialogue of which I have experienced.

So the workshop is becoming a process whereby we (myself and the participants) explore how to have a really great relationship. In essence then, for a given relationship, to what extent are we willing

  • to be authentic with each other,
  • to support each other to be the person we each want to be (as opposed to who we should be for the other , or for society),
  • when difficulties arise in the relationship (inevitable), to explore the difficulty with total honesty.

Hard work, requiring that we love ourselves as well as our partner, and that we define the truths by which we each stand (or fall). The most important place for learning about life, provided we have ways to sort the complexity.

One component of this is what the Family Therapist Murray Bowen called self-differentiation — the consistent ability to be a self while in the presence of others. Amongst his other contributions, Bowen developed a scale for self-differentiation, ranging from 0 to 100. He believed most people scored around 40, and that no one ever scored above 70 — it is simply too difficult to stay separate from the influence of others (we are not designed to do so).

Anyway, the workshop is looking interesting.

Other issues of note for the week, both on climate issues:

The Planet Is Warming. And It’s Okay to Be Afraid (20170717)

Last week, I listed The Unhabitable Earth, an article that discussed the worst case scenario of what we face, indicating how close it comes to doom-mongering (worst case scenarios are usually very challenging). This link (The Planet Is Warming . . .) is an excellent response to the concern re doom-mongering in regards to global warming — unfortunately, if we are to respond effectively, we each need to deal with our despair. Not fun, but necessary.

A Brief History of the Straw (20141023)

Plastic straws suck (20170720)

Two interesting links to the impact of plastic straws, the first on our creativity, the second on our ecology. Apparently we discard 180,000,000,000 straws a year (1,400,000 kilograms a year, 500,000,000 a day) to landfill and other forms of discard. I deliberately changed the data from 180 billion to 180,000,000,000 to emphasize the impact. And that is just drinking straws!

Panpsychism, Part 4

Philosophy2My concluding post on panpsychism, essentially my attempt to understand my own experiences in philosophic and theologic language, in preparation for a two-year study program in contemplative practice.

During my careers as anesthetist and therapist, I have consistently been attracted to understanding the nature of consciousness. As anesthetist, I had the opportunity to familiarize myself with neurobiology (and the scientific view on consciousness), and was impressed with the depth of understanding of how the brain functions. But I was also always aware that studies of consciousness rely on a small amount of evidence from neurobiology, and a large amount of assumption. Most important of all, neurologic defects of the brain (strokes, tumours, et cetera) frequently interrupt our ability to assess consciousnesss, but do not prove that the mind exists in the brain — only that the brain is a major modality whereby we access the mind (and whereby the mind communicates with the body). Given the precept of panpsychism that sentience exists all the way down, the brain may be simply one of the means by which consciousness is accesssed. My preferred metaphor is that the brain is like a computer, but the mind is the equivalent of the internet.

As therapist I did not want (or seek) academic knowledge only; I wanted something that worked in transforming human dynamics. Thus I trained in Gestalt Therapy (and later Family Systems and Neurolinguistic Programming — all very powerful for change work). Throughout, my basic stance has remained that of a Gestaltist — focussed on awareness, contact (experience of the moment), and personal responsibility. In retrospect, I now recognize that these are fundamental to choice and intersubjectivity, the basic modalities that underlie panpsychism.

The profound mystical experiences I have had are also incompatible with scientific materialism (SM), and entirely feasible within panpsychism (and idealism). Two mystical experiences, in particular, have deeply affected me.

First, when I was about nineteen or twenty, I was alone one evening, studying the physics of the Bohr atom while babysitting my nieces and nephew. Without any warning or precipitating event, I suddenly lost consciousness (for an uncertain time, perhaps 10 – 20 minutes), and experienced myself as an electron swirling around a Bohr nucleus, an experience I still clearly remember as peaceful, joyous choice. I “awoke” from this state at total peace, unable to explain it in any way, but knowing (from my current perspective) that somehow choice and sentience exists “all the way down.” This is in keeping with synchronicity and panpsychism.

The second mystical experience, when I was 31, was a sudden shift in consciousness to that of a feeling of deep peacefulness and blessedness; it recurred over the next month, and became a continuous state for almost three years, six months at its peak, then fading over two and a half years. In this state, I knew, without question, that the foundational basis of the universe was love, that the universe was friendly. At approximately five months, I encountered the book Cosmic Consciousness, a study of mystical states published in 1899; the book exactly described my own experience, and thus I now called my experience “Cosmic Consciousness.”

Both these experiences were transformational, totally unexplainable within SM, and although (in my current reflections) consistent with panpsychism, also consistent with emanationist idealism (the God of panpsychism is friendly, but impersonal).

[Incidentally, when I was in my 50s, again seeking to understand my life, I was talking with a well respected, very competent psychiatrist about these mystical experiences and other aspects of my life. She labelled me as schizophrenic, until I was able to convince her that I simply had a very different worldview than that offered by scientific materialism and the DSM-4 (the bible of psychiatric diagnosis). There is a price tag to having unusual experiences!]

Synchronicities have also guided me in amazing ways during my life, in ways that continue to astound me. Synchronicity is a coincidence in time of two or more causally unrelated events [acausal] which have the same or similar meaning, The events could have been chance, but in their occurrence, they had a profound “wow” factor that said “go in this direction.”

Two also stand out. At one point in my life, I shifted from anesthetist to therapist, and six years later, decided to retrain as an anesthetist. At the end of the training, I was looking for a job all over North America where I could do part-time anesthesia and part-time therapy — with no success whatsoever. Months went by. Then, suddenly a possibility arose to work at the local hospital (where I was almost totally unknown), and in a space of three hours (from the start of exploring to completion), I had hospital privileges (essentially unheard of, if you know anything of hospital organization). An hour later, as my then-partner and I discussed the situation, we decided we needed a new house to accommodate both our careers. At that same moment, we saw the builder of our current house drive down the street; we walked down to talk to him, and he agreed to build us a new house, and exchange our old house as partial payment. New job, new home, hassle free, all in the space of hours. Talk about feeling “right.”

At another time, now separated and somewhat despondent, I was moving to an apartment, and drove past a country house I had always liked — which now had a “For Sale” sign outside; I said to myself “Likely can’t afford it. But I’m curioius.” Days before, I had had a new client, a local realtor (in my ten years of practice, I had never previously had a realtor as a client). So I phoned the realtor, and six hours later, I had a new house; that house became the center that I (and my current wife) ran for about 15 years. Again, it felt “right.”

Scientific materialism cannot account for synchronicity, but panpsychism can, as can idealism. Both also offer understanding of how we are creating global warming in our hubris, and that we as a species are in profound need of becoming more mature. That as a culture we need to be on a spiritual path, not an egoic path. (Incidentally, I do not like the term “spiritual” — it has too many connotations that get caught in religious argument. But I do not have a better term.)

Being on a spiritual path implies something is amiss with where you are right now. Utterly true for me of our modern world. Enlightenment is waking up and simply accepting what is, working with it as a starting point.

So, now my conclusions — as starting points for further exploration.

For me, the fundamental basis of the universe is Creativity (choice). I am also in favor of the moral imperatives as suggested by the theologian Thomas Berry (community, diversity, and subjectivity, to which I have added change) as discussed in The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future (1999).

What else?

Panpsychism provides an comprehensive process by which reality is created, one that makes eminent sense to me. It is weird, but self-consistent, and covers the ground much more than does scientific materialism.

God is transcendent (as well as immanent) — I still trust the Starmaker myth, and Starmaker exists outside the system. I thus ascribe to panentheism, and lean towards emantionist idealism.

God is love (my learnings from Cosmic Consciousness), and in that sense, intersubjectively personal — the synchronicities of my life have all felt deeply personal, as if the Creative Ultimate is specifically attending to me at that moment.

I am not sure that I want to pigeon-hole the process more than this. I am somewhat unclear if what I have indicated above makes me an emanationist idealist or a panpsychist, and it may not matter. I am willing to live the inconsistencies of mixing paradigms.

A major distinction for me between panpsychism and idealism is that miracles are possible within idealism, but not within panpsychism. (Miracles are events that are totally unexplainable, ever; in contrast, mysteries are unexplainable at present.) Partly I am undecided as to the nature of miracles (idealism requires a miracle for Spirit to initiate matter). The big miracle within Christianity is that of Jesus — however, for me, that Jesus experienced Cosmic Consciousness is a simpler explanation (Ockham’s Razor) than that Jesus is transformed God (although it can be argued that we are all transformed God).

Likely I need to sit with others to explore further (of which I likely will have ample opportunity to do so over the next two years). Thus, my journey continues.

Panpsychism, Part 3

Philosophy2This is my third post on panpsychism, essentially my attempt to understand my own experiences in philosophic and theologic language. As indicated previously, I am enrolled in a two-year program of Christian contemplative practice (the Center for Action and Contemplation), wherein I intend to examine and compare my own spiritual stance with the models offered within that course.

In order to do so, I need also to be clear as to what my stance actually is. In my therapy workshops, a maxim I commonly presented was: “If you don’t know where you are , you cannot get to where you say you want to be.” A very important maxim! I am not interested in arguing my stance; it is simply a starting point for further exploration, hopefully one that deepens my spiritual journey in major ways.

What I am seeking is a felt experience, rather than an intellectual concept — a felt experience that encompasses:

  • my understanding of human dynamics and consciousness (my medical background, especially my 25 years of being a therapist), including my own family of origin pain,
  • my knowledge of modern physics (quantum mechanics and relativity),
  • the profound mystical experiences I have had,
  • the synchronicities that have guided me,
  • the mechanisms and hubris underlying global warming, and
  • all the other experiences that make up a human life.

A statement that is very meaningful to me is:

A science that does not incorporate spirituality is dehumanizing;

a spirituality that does not incorporate science is delusional.

In this post (and the next, the final one), I’m going to be reflecting on those aspects that have impacted me personally, but with some sidebars of how they all relate now. Thus, I will be skipping back and forth over my life.

In the first post, I indicated that there are four principal ontologies in philosophy (materialism, dualism, idealism, and panpsychism), and that I (as well as many other people) have major problems in accepting materialism, or more specific, scientific materialism (SM). Reflecting on these ontologies in the previous posts has been very helpful to me as I now relate them to my present life.

As a result of my reflections, I now have even less trust of scientific materialism (SM) than I had before I started these posts. SM has been incredibly powerful as the basis of our modern world (both its benefits and its flaws), but it currently stands in a position similar to the Ptolemic world prior to Copernicus — deeply flawed.

  • it treats consciousness as an epiphenomenon, a useless fantasy, yet without consciousness, science could not exist (who or what would conceive of it?).
    • it operates from the assumption that with enough information, consciousness will be explainable as part of the material world. Yet consciousness is not material, and you cannot get something from nothing.
  • it utilizes but cannot explain quantum physics (let alone consciousness), expecially the nature of nonlocality, or even causality. These are fundamental to how science is not utilized.
    • As long ago as the 18th century, David Hume (1711 – 1776) devasted the then current scientific community by demonstrating the fallacy of causation. This was modified by Emmanual Kant (1724 – 1804), but has not withstood the “craziness” of quantum physics (which fundamentally is acausal). (It is the nature of paradigm shifts that “flaws” show up, are tweaked, but more and more, the current paradigm breaks down, with huge paradigm wars, usually until the old guard dies off.)

Enough on that. SM is thus breaking down; and we are in for major changes, not yet clarified. If you the reader want more details, I suggest the writings of Christian deQuincey, especially his Radical Knowing: Understanding Consciousness Through Relationship (2005), listed in Media Within This Blog. All of his books are worth reading.

One of the earliest influences for me personally occurred in reading the science fiction novel Starmaker (Olaf Stapledon, 1934, also in Media above). I first read this in 1959 (age 16), having given up on the “Church” at age 14 because of the many painful aspects of my childhood (family alcoholism, suicide, sexual abuse within a church setting, amongst other issues). Through it, I came to envision God (Starmaker) as all-knowledgeable, yet lacking wisdom; Starmaker creates universes as a means of learning and acquiring wisdom. Thus I was God’s teacher — God learns from my earthly struggles, and regardless of whether my life is “successful” or a “failure,” I am still God’s teacher.

This gave meaning and purpose to my life, something I badly needed at age 16. In retrospect, this is a form of emanationist idealism, not panpsychism. God is both immanent (in this world) and transcendent (beyond this world), a form of panentheism (the theologic term for God being both).

At this point, I had the sense of God as a personal entity who was at least interested in the outcome of my life. Then I went to university for my first degree, a BSc with a major in physics and a minor in mathematics — a great grounding for understanding scientific materialism (yet, in limited ways, I was exposed to Spirit, and deeply impressed by those who manifest it). Overall, I was exposed to a mathematical understanding of both classical mechanics and quantum physics as well as relativity theory. I’m very out-of-date now, but the grounding was solid.

What I did not obtain was a good introduction to the underlying philosophical issues, such as the quandry of acausality. My recent PhD has given me much deeper insights here, but my being out-of-date with the mathematics now means that I have to rely on the interpretations of others more than I like.

What I can say now is that:

  • I deeply question the foundations of scientific materialism, and
  • panpsychism is far more solid in its integration of philosophy and physics.

Thus, I trust panpsychism much more. And as a therapist of 25 years, I am also aware of a deep knowing that panpsychism is more solidly grounded in the nature of reality than is SM.

In the next and final post, I go back to my 20s to note that during and after my first degree (age 16 – 21), I began to have mystical experiences, and later a number of major experiences of synchronicity. These as well are not compatible with scientific materialism.

To be continued.

Panpsychism, Part 2

Philosophy1This is my second post on panpsychism, essentially my attempt to understand my own experiences. By understanding I mean my willingness to comprehend as best I can the mystery and awe of the universe; I do not mean its usual connotation of analysis — that is what I call overstanding, usually a place of hubris.

I also do not mean “what do I believe.” Beliefs for me are useful fictions or likely stories; beliefs link two or more pieces of information by some kind of story, usually what we call meaning, meaning being knowledge that fits.

What I am seeking is a consistent worldview, especially one in which I am able to frame my experience so that I (and in sharing with others) can assess its usefulness to me, and modify it as future experience updates. I always walk around with a large “imaginary” box of not-knowing, willing to experience what life offers, updating my worldview accordingly.

When I was a practicing therapist, one of the questions I would ask people (when the time was appropriate) was: Is the universe friendly? For me, there are only three possible answers: unfriendly, neutral (possibly meaningless), and friendly. (Incidentally, scientific materialism (SM) would suggest that the universe is meaningless — in SM, only matter-energy exists, and is objective and insentient.)

  • If the universe is unfriendly (perhaps we are simply fodder for some greater being or beings who thrive on the ingestion of consciousness), it really does not matter what we do. However, we do have choice! We can live as if the universe is meaningful, and that our contributions make a difference — definitely something I would opt for if I believed this possibility.
  • If the universe is neutral, especially if it is meaningless (see scientific materialism), the same argument applies. I have choice, and especially I would choose to live in harmony with “all my relatives.”
  • Finally, if the universe is friendly, then it is likely that my existence is somehow important, and I make a difference. Perhaps not, but still I would choose to act as if this is the case.

In my various readings of mystics and spirituality (of which I have read a lot) and in my own mystical experiences, the answer (bar one) has always presented this third possibility as the only one experienced. (The one exception was that of 1970’s stories by Carlos Castanada, the stories of Don Juan, a Yaqui sorcerer, advocating the Eagle as the greater being who somehow feasted on consciousness. Even there, choice was advocated.)

Thus, for me, my choice is obvious. I strive to be the best human being I can be — by no means perfect! To do this, I also strive to clarify my own worldview so that it is consistent with my life experiences (as listed in the previous post). And as part of this (as mentioned), I walk around with a large box of not knowing, awaiting further assessment.

Back to panpsychism.

As noted in the previous post, panpsychism is one of the four major ontologies, yet the least academically respectable one since it contrasts so sharply with scientific materialism (SM). I said previously that human beings are not rational — there is a pricetag to being academically disrespected.

Yet for me, panpsychism is much more consistent with what I understand of the nature of the universe. In panpsychism, all unitary substances (photons to atoms to cells to organisms, and everything in-between) are sentient (able to know, feel, and make purposeful choices) — although the consciousness of electrons is surely different than that of human beings (more on this in the next post).

Panpsychism made a major advance in the 20th century through the work of Alfred North Whitehead, whose goal was to develop an ontology consistent with modern science. In contrast to SM which is strongly orientated to spacial description, Whitehead proposed that all reality consists of temporal events, known as actual entities. These events draw upon possibility (called eternal objects) to allow creative development of on-going reality. All events are mutually co-creating, such that all reality is a whole (thus to speak in isolation of any one event is a useful, but fallacious, abstraction). The total of all events of the universe come together, through the interaction of all matter-energy (the totality of the universe) with all consciousness (the totality of sentience), to create a seamless whole. (Considered in this sense, it makes the human domain seem rather small!)

Any one event has three phases (here I quote from my book Acedia the Darkness Within, p. 72):

  1. The subject ([as] consciousness), in the present, feels the pressure of the inflowing past (which is the origin of both our knowledge of “energy” and “causality”)—the memory of what has happened. (Whitehead called this “causal efficacy.”)
  2. The subject also intersubjectively apprehends other present-moment actual occasions—the experience of what is happening. (Whitehead called this “presentational immediacy.”)
  3. The subject is aware of possibilities for future states and action, and, guided by its aims and values, chooses specific possibilities to (literally) incorporate into its next moment of being—the anticipation of what is to come [the immediate future].

Whitehead called this entire process concrescence, the process of prehending the past through causal efficacy; attending to the present through presentational immediacy; and satisfying aims/values through “ingression” of possibilities (which he called eternal objects).

The residue of this concrescence then falls back into matter-energy as the experience of the immediate past, the inflowing past of step #1 above.

Fundamentally (if accurate of reality), this means that free will and choice are fundamental characteristics of the universe. But it does not mean unrestricted liberty to simply choose reality — the process is universal. Each sentient unitary gets to vote on how the next moment occurs, but the result is the response of the collective Consciousness.

Further with Whitehead, since everything had to exist as actual entities, he considered the totality of all possibilities to be the functional God of his understanding. He also considered that God had a preference for which possibilities were chosen, but allowed sentient matter to have freedom of choice. Thus the universe for Whitehead was immensely creative, and far from deterministic. But impersonal (at least by my interpretation of his work).

The advantages of panpsychism, for me, are that it treats the universe as sacred, and as I will discuss in the next post, is very consistent with my life experiences. In addition, it clarifies all of the major problems with the philosophy of mind as we now understand them:

  • the mind-body problem,
  • the problem of other minds (all part of the totality of consciousness),
  • the nature of causality (creative choice),
  • the problem of free will (creative choice), and
  • the problem of perspective, especially the nature of intersubjectivity (the flow of unitive consciousness).

A brief description of intersubjectivity, and then I will close this post (to be continued with my own life experiences as the basis of choice amongst the ontologies).

Intersubjectivity refers to the ways in which we are able to share our subjective experiences with other minds. DeQuincey, in Radical Knowing (pp. 280-281), indicates three levels of intersubjectivity:

  • linguistic (consensual agreement), through the exchange of words and other physical tokens (and hence deeply embedded in SM);
  • [weak intersubjectivity] mutual conditioning (participation), wherein individual subjects influence each other by their shared presence; and
  • [strong intersubjectivity] mutual co-creation, where the relationship is ontologically primary, where in some as yet mysterious fashion, “consciousness-es” merge in the co-evolution of experience. [Strong intersubjectivity, when I have experienced it, is the richest form of communication I know.]

One of the major limitations of the understanding of meaning and intersubjectivity was identified by the German philosopher Kant (in the 18th century) to be that nothing can be known for certain since all knowledge is already preconditioned by neurologic processes that filter incoming sensory information. This was a logical (and very sound) outcome within the ontotogy of materialism; however, it is not a restriction within the ontology of panpsychism (more in the next post).

To be continued.