08 December 2020

Bishop Berkeley: is there an external world?

George Berkeley (1685-1753)
George Berkeley, born in 1685 at Dysart Castle in County Kilkenny, and Bishop of Cloyne from 1734 to 1753, wrote a philosophical analysis of materialism which has been the subject of controversy since its publication.

Berkeley attacked the belief in material objects that underlay the prevailing scientific model of the world. He argued that there was no basis for a belief in physical objects or an external world, and that we should think of all objects as being mental.
It is indeed an opinion strangely prevailing amongst men, that houses, mountains, rivers, and in a word all sensible objects, have an existence, natural or real, distinct from their being perceived by the understanding. But with how great an assurance and acquiescence soever this principle may be entertained in the world; yet whoever shall find in his heart to call it in question may, if I mistake not, perceive it to involve a manifest contradiction. For what are the forementioned objects but the things we perceive by sense? And what do we perceive besides our own ideas or sensations; and is it not plainly repugnant that any one of these or any combination of them should exist unperceived? *
Modern philosophers have tended to marginalise Berkeley because his views appear to be radically at odds with the conventional scientific worldview. Bertrand Russell, for example, took Berkeley’s arguments seriously but felt justified in dismissing them.
In one sense it must be admitted that we can never prove the existence of things other than ourselves and our experiences. No logical absurdity results from the hypothesis that the world consists of myself and my thoughts and feelings and sensations, and that everything else is mere fancy. [...] There is no logical impossibility in the supposition that the whole of life is a dream, in which we ourselves create all the objects that come before us. But although this is not logically impossible, there is no reason whatever to suppose that it is true; and it is, in fact, a less simple hypothesis, viewed as a means of accounting for the facts of our own life, than the common-sense hypothesis that there really are objects independent of us, whose action on us causes our sensations.

The way in which simplicity comes in from supposing that there really are physical objects is easily seen. If the cat appears at one moment in one part of the room, and at another in another part, it is natural to suppose that it has moved from the one to the other, passing over a series of intermediate positions. But if it is merely a set of sense-data, it cannot have ever been in any place where I did not see it; thus we shall have to suppose that it did not exist at all while I was not looking, but suddenly sprang into being in a new place. **
In these extracts from his book The Problems of Philosophy, Russell mentions some of the apparent problems of Berkeley’s thesis. It seems natural to one to suppose that, during the time between seeing the cat the first time and seeing it the second time, something exists which one can label as ‘the cat’, even if no one is having sensory experiences involving this inferred cat. However, the fact that positing such an independent entity may seem natural, or convenient, does not constitute philosophical proof.

* George Berkeley, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, in A.J. Ayer & R. Winch (Eds.), British Empirical Philosophers, Routledge and Kegan Paul 1952, p.179.
** Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, Williams & Norgate 1912, pp.30-36.

22 September 2020

guest post: Christine Fulcher on schools

Below is a post by my colleague Christine Fulcher, giving some of her views on education.
The headmaster of my primary school made great play of the fact that he was in loco parentis. He told us that this was how his legal position vis-à-vis the pupils of the school was described, and that this was Latin for ‘in place of the parent’. In other words, he was acting as a substitute parent during the hours we were attending that school. Well, if parents were responsible people, they would not be willing to let other people act in loco parentis in this way.

The fact that education is compulsory is an indictment of parents who want an easy life for themselves with their children out of their hair, rather than what is best for their children. If so-called education were not compulsory and supposedly ‘free’ at point of delivery (but not really free, being paid for out of taxation) then people might be more cautious about bringing children into the world.

As for the so-called ‘right’ of children to be educated: those who create ‘rights’ have their own agendas, which are not necessarily in the interests of those to whom they are giving these ‘rights’. The fact that it is generally in the interests of people to be able to read, write and do basic arithmetic is expanded into the idea of compulsory education, then forced upon children, who have no choice.

If education were not compulsory, a certain number of people might grow up unable to read, write or do basic arithmetic. But this is a lesser evil than that created by making ‘education’ compulsory. Much of modern education does not consist of ‘stuffing children’s minds with facts’, but of stuffing their minds with propaganda. This is not a modern phenomenon. Those who wish to spread any sort of propaganda, religious or atheist, have always been interested in using compulsory education of the young as a means of doing this.

Christine Fulcher

15 August 2020

Metachoric experiences

metachoric experience = experience in which the whole of a subject’s visual field is replaced by a hallucinatory one

Our research on lucid dreams, false awakenings and out-of-the-body experiences highlighted the capacity of the brain to generate experiences which provide a convincing replica of normal perceptual experience.

In lucid dreams, the subject appears to be relatively ‘normal’ in terms of cognitive faculties, as evidenced by the fact that he has awareness of his actual state, i.e. that he is asleep and that the experiences he is having are hallucinatory. In false awakenings, the subject appears to ‘see’ a convincing replica of his normal bedroom environment. He may then see monsters or other figures of various kinds, apparently superimposed on this otherwise faithful replica, although in fact the whole of the visual field is of course hallucinatory. In out-of-the-body experiences (OBEs) the subject is typically awake but appears to be seeing his environment from the wrong perspective — often as if from a point of view above his head. Again, the brain appears to be generating a highly convincing replica of the normal environment, visually speaking.

In the case of OBEs, there is also the observation that the hallucinatory state can apparently be entered with little or no awareness that a discontinuity has taken place from (a) actually seeing the environment to (b) hallucinating the same environment, albeit from a different perspective.

These experiences suggested a departure from the previous idea of a hallucination as an isolated area of the visual field which was generated erroneously by the brain, and then somehow superimposed on the rest of the visual field which was generated from actual input in the normal way.

Certain features of our research on apparitional cases — cases where an apparitional figure or object is seen against the background of the normal environment — led us to the possibility that many apparitional experiences, and possibly all of them, were analogous to lucid dreams and OBEs in being totally hallucinatory. That is to say, rather than the experience consisting of normal perception plus a finite hallucinatory element (the two elements being integrated in some way), the perceptual environment is entirely replaced by a hallucinatory one, at least as long as the apparitional figure is being perceived.

In our 1975 book Apparitions we proposed the term metachoric to designate such experiences in which the normal perceptual environment is entirely replaced by a hallucinatory one.

Celia Green
Charles McCreery

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29 July 2020

Tribalism and ethics

The essential feature of ethics — that is to say, respect for the right of the individual to have what he wants and to decide for himself what is of importance to him, so long as it is not interfering with the rights of others to pursue what they consider important for them — arose in association with capitalism. It was an ethic that could only arise when individuals had at least the potentiality of paying for what they wanted within the structure of the society they lived in.

This ethic has been nominally taken over by the modern trend towards tribalism. We will retain the great advances in knowledge and control of our environment which were made when collective control was somewhat weakened, but we will not consider it moral for individuals to pursue whatever goals they consider conducive to whatever sort of wellbeing they choose for themselves, unless we happen to agree with them. (‘We’ is a vague collective entity consisting of social agreement about what is right and proper.)

We aim to remove freedom, so far as we can, but we sweeten the pill by confirming our belief in the ‘individual’. Indeed, we respect the ‘individual’ more than ever before and complain that the previous state of society had too little of this respect. But when the nature of this ‘respect’ is formulated, it does not come out to anything so simple and absolute as respect for other people’s power to decide; it comes out as a concern for their well-being, based on some sort of ‘balanced’ assessment of their total wants and needs. By implication this is an assessment that we will make, not them, and ‘balance’ provides a lot of scope for overriding a person’s strongest inclinations if our respect for them is ‘balanced’ by our respect for something else that they should be inclined to want instead.

Extract from the forthcoming book by Celia Green, The Corpse and the Kingdom, due to be published in 2021.

12 June 2020

Herbert Spencer and the welfare state

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)
The philosopher Herbert Spencer, commenting in 1851 on the possible effects of welfare, a century before the inception of the modern welfare state:
We do not consider it true kindness in a mother to gratify her child with sweetmeats that are certain to make it ill. We should think it a very foolish sort of benevolence which led a surgeon to let his patient’s disease progress to a fatal issue, rather than inflict pain by an operation. Similarly, we must call those spurious philanthropists, who, to prevent present misery, would entail greater misery upon future generations. All defenders of a poor-law must, however, be classed amongst such. That rigorous necessity which, when allowed to act on them, becomes so sharp a spur to the lazy, and so strong a bridle to the random, these paupers’ friends would repeal, because of the wailings it here and there produces.
Spencer’s comments could be interpreted as implying that welfare may have negative effects on a society’s gene pool:
Blind to the fact, that under the natural order of things society is constantly excreting its unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillating, faithless members, these unthinking, though well-meaning, men advocate an interference which not only stops the purifying process, but even increases the vitiation — absolutely encourages the multiplication of the reckless and incompetent by offering them an unfailing provision, and discourages the multiplication of the competent and provident by heightening the prospective difficulty of maintaining a family.
Spencer did not, however, condemn charitable actions in general:
To that charity which may be described as helping men to help themselves, [the foregoing argument] makes no objection — countenances it rather. And in helping men to help themselves, there remains abundant scope for the exercise of a people’s sympathies. Accidents will still supply victims on whom generosity may be legitimately expended. Men thrown upon their backs by unforeseen events, men who have failed for want of knowledge inaccessible to them, men ruined by the dishonesty of others, and men in whom hope long delayed has made the heart sick, may, with advantage to all parties, be assisted.
The above extracts are taken from: Herbert Spencer, Social Statics, chapter 25, available at Online Library of Liberty.

11 May 2020

Zoroastrianism: End of the world

Zoroastrianism, which takes its name from the prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra), is one of the world’s oldest surviving religions, and was the state religion of the Persian empire for over a thousand years. Its origins may go back to the 2nd millennium BC, though it was not originally called Zoroastrianism. The name Zarathustra may mean ‘driver of camels’.
The roots of Zoroastrianism are thought to have emerged from a common prehistoric Indo-Iranian religious system dating back to the early 2nd millennium BC. The prophet Zoroaster himself is thought by many modern historians to have been a reformer of the polytheistic Iranian religion who lived in the 10th century BC. [Wikipedia]
The central deity of Zoroastrianism is Ahura Mazda (‘Lord of Wisdom’). Ahura Mazda is in continuous conflict with his negative counterpart Angra Mainyu (‘Destructive Spirit’).

Although Zoroastrians do not consider Angra Mainyu* to be equivalent in strength to Ahura Mazda, the religion is sometimes regarded as dualistic because of this conflict between good and evil. A more obviously dualistic religion is Manichaeism, which for a time replaced Zoroastrianism as the dominant religion in Persia, and which adopted the figures of Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu but posited them to be of roughly equal power. (A better word for what is meant may be ditheism rather than dualism.)

Zoroastrian belief includes the concept of an end of the world, or eschatology, although ‘end’ should be understood to mean radical transformation rather than complete cessation.
At the end, there will be a great battle between the forces of good and those of evil in which the good will triumph. On earth, the Saviour will bring about a resurrection of the dead. This is followed by a last judgment through ordeal. The forces of good will cause the metal in the mountains to melt, and to flow across the earth like a river. All mankind — both the living and the resurrected dead — will be required to wade through that river, but for the righteous it will seem to be a river of warm milk, while the wicked will be burned.

There will be a final act of worship involving the preparation of parahaoma, a sacred liquid used in Zoroastrian rituals. The righteous will partake of the parahaoma, which will confer immortality upon them. Thereafter, humankind will become divine entities, living without food, without hunger or thirst, and without possibility of bodily injury.

All humanity will speak a single language and belong to a single nation without borders. All will share a single purpose and goal, joining with the divine for a perpetual exaltation of God’s glory. [Wikipedia text, edited]

*  Angra Mainyu is also known as ‘Ahriman’.
**  Thumbnail is of a painting by Anuki Natsvlishvili, ‘Ahura Mazda & Ahriman’, viewable at saatchiart.com. It shows Ahura Mazda, on the left, in battle with Ahriman, on the right.

12 April 2020

Cosmic Consciousness

Maurice Bucke was a Canadian psychiatrist and a contemporary of the American psychologist William James. In 1901, Bucke published a book about mystical experiences entitled Cosmic Consciousness. William James referred to Bucke, and to cosmic consciousness, in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience, published one year later.*

Bucke seems to have been inspired to write Cosmic Consciousness by a mystical experience he had in his thirties. In the book, he reviews the experiences of other individuals, including Walt Whitman, William Blake and Dante, as well as religious figures such as Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad.

The following is his description of his own experience, written in the third person.
It was in the early spring, at the beginning of his thirty-sixth year. He and two friends had spent the evening reading Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Browning, and especially Whitman. They parted at midnight, and he had a long drive in a hansom (it was in an English city). His mind, deeply under the influence of the ideas, images and emotions called up by the reading and talk of the evening, was calm and peaceful. He was in a state of quiet, almost passive enjoyment.

All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around as it were by a flame-colored cloud. For an instant he thought of fire, some sudden conflagration in the great city; the next, he knew that the light was within himself. Directly afterwards came upon him a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe. Into his brain streamed one momentary lightning-flash of the Brahmic Splendor which has ever since lightened his life; upon his heart fell one drop of Brahmic Bliss, leaving thenceforward for always an aftertaste of heaven. Among other things he did not come to believe, he saw and knew that the Cosmos is not dead matter but a living Presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of every one is in the long run absolutely certain.

He claims that he learned more within the few seconds during which the illumination lasted than in previous months or even years of study, and that he learned much that no study could ever have taught.

The illumination itself continued not more than a few moments, but its effects proved ineffaceable; it was impossible for him ever to forget what he at that time saw and knew; neither did he, or could he, ever doubt the truth of what was then presented to his mind. There was no return, that night or at any other time, of the experience.**

* William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Longmans Green & Co., 1902.
** R.M. Bucke, Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind, 1905 edition, Innes & Sons, pp.7-8.

15 March 2020

Henley’s Invictus

W.E. Henley’s poem Invictus was written in 1875. Originally the poem was published untitled; the name ‘Invictus’ was added by anthologist Arthur Quiller-Couch when the poem was included in The Oxford Book of English Verse.

Invictus was for some decades considered to represent the epitome of the ‘stiff upper lip’ British spirit. Although stiff-upper-lipness fell out of favour during the second half of the twentieth century, the poem has remained influential, as shown by recurring twenty-first century cultural references to it. When singer Cher recently tweeted about US presidential candidate Joe Biden that ‘your head is bloodied, but unbowed’, she was invoking a line from the poem.

Below is the poem in full.

Out of the night that covers me,
   Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
   For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
   I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
   My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
   Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
   Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
   How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
   I am the captain of my soul.

For a further discussion of the psychological significance of Henley’s poem, see my book Advice to Clever Children, p.124.

21 February 2020

Vladimir Horowitz and the psychology of kingship

Vladimir Horowitz
(1903 - 1989)
Pianist Vladimir Horowitz in a 1977 interview:
When I’m on the stage I’m one person, when I’m out of the stage I’m another person.

When I’m on the stage, I feel I am a king ... I’m a king ... yes, nobody has to interfere with him ... because I have something to do, I have to bring the best which is in me.
Horowitz was a Russian pianist who later became an American citizen. His performances tended to be intense and highly individual, impressing, among others, the composer Rachmaninov.

The psychology of kingship is not a fashionable concept these days. However, there are some references to it in Gnostic Christianity. It has some connection with the psychological state I discussed in Advice to Clever Children which I termed centralisation. See Chapter 29, ‘Royalty’.

13 January 2020

The social contract

In the views of exponents of how society came to be constituted as it is (or was at the time, or should be) we note fairly constantly a willingness to ascribe untrammelled and overriding power to the legislators of the community, together with infallibility.

In early accounts some justification for society’s claim to possession of the individual is felt to be necessary. This is provided either by God, who bestows upon kings their divine right, or by a social contract, which is mythical, even if some writers lose sight of its historical implausibility. Desiring the advantages of an organised community, it is supposed that individuals freely choose to obey the government that shall be chosen by majority preference; hence minorities have nothing to complain of, as they have entered the situation of their own free will. So conflict is avoided.

I would have formulated the situation myself by supposing that, at a sufficiently primitive stage, when there was some realistic possibility of a dissident or disadvantaged individual choosing to fend for himself, there was a real balance of advantages and disadvantages for each individual which led, on the whole, to his preferring to remain, in fairly unstable equilibrium, in the settlement or compound occupied by his group. Fairly disharmonious associations of this kind gradually evolved social structures which reduced the squabbling and maximised the stability of the enterprise. At the time of, say, Hobbes, there was relatively little opportunity for any individual to dissociate himself from the pressures and demands of his society. By now there is even less.

We note that writers on political theory wish conflict between the individual and society to be an impossibility, or if not impossible, at least a clear aberration from a perfect underlying harmony.

Extract from the forthcoming book ‘The Corpse and the Kingdom’