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Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

It’s amazing what you can think of on a blowy Wednesday morning.

It’s sometimes amazing how people can be persuaded to believe in far-fetched tales.  I don’t say fairy tales, because it is easy to see how a loving and beautiful tale can fire the imagination.  No, I mean the sort of far-fetched tales that are usually found in serious publications.

For example.  Most people have no great difficulty in accepting the common explanation for those odd things called rainbows.  They have read how a rainbow requires three things for it to exist.  It requires sunlight : water droplets : and an observer.  Take away any one of those things, and the rainbow ceases to exist.  And most people also understand that if you approach the place of the rainbow too closely, so as to see the water droplets, the rainbow also disappears ; it ceases to exist.

The really startling thing about a rainbow is that it exists only in a sentient mind.

But how many people have thought about another of the ordinary common things that also disappear when you get close to them?  Take the leaf of a tree, for example.  From a distance, it appears to have a shape and a certain solidity about it.  But physicists assure us that the leaf is actually constructed out of minute particles called atoms ; and these atoms are constructed out of even smaller things such as neutrons, protons and electrons.  And when you approach the leaf so closely that these tiny things might be ‘seen’, you will find yourself looking at what is mostly emptiness.  And the leaf disappears entirely.  Just as the rainbow disappeared when you got too close.

We are not talking about metaphysics here, just everyday experience.  The whole world is made up of two parts ; or are there two worlds?  Firstly we have the world of rainbows and leaves (and rivers, mountains, flowers, cattle, etc., etc.) ; and secondly we have the world of what we might call the ‘particles’ (the atoms, etc.).  The first world is made up of representations in our conscious minds ; representations that arrive to us via our senses.  The second world is not represented to our minds at all, because its constituents are out of reach to our senses.

But the really startling thing is that the everyday first world cannot without the second, occult world.

So we have a first world of representations and also a second world of the unrepresented.  A manifest world and a hidden world.  And it is easy to think of these two quite different worlds when we set our minds to it ; but it is very difficult indeed to keep them near the front of our minds in our everyday living.

When we stroll in the countryside or in the town, it is hard to bear in mind that the things we see, touch, hear, etc., – the fields, the sky, the clouds, the trees, the telegraph poles, the ground under our feet – are actually comprised of entities, such as atoms, electrons, protons, etc., which are quite beyond our senses and are not represented to our consciousness at all ; and that occult world is mostly empty space ; a sort of ghost world.  There is no light there, no colour, no solidity, no softness or hardness, no heat or cold, no sounds, no scents or flavours ; for these are all sensory qualities.  And our senses cannot reach down to that world.

Is it a sub-sensory world?  or a super-sensory one?

At any rate, it is not a material world, for matter is defined by our senses.  It is a world that exists in consciousness only in the form of ideas.  And these ideas are described in complex logical propositions that only a few specially trained mathematical people understand.  And even those specially trained people do not have a satisfying explanation of what the propositions mean.  So it is that this non-material, non-sensory world is a mystery ; a mystery that can never be represented to our conscious awareness.

Either we must accept that our familiar world of things – trees, meadows, clouds, rivers, other people, etc. – is a representation (re-presentation) of the insensible world of atoms, etc., or we must reject the theories of physics as nothing more than an elaborate delusion.  We cannot have it both ways.

What are we to call this non-sensory, occult, mysterious world that underlies our familiar world?  This invisible world that we are quite sure exists, but whose existence cannot be proved by the evidence of our senses?  It sounds very much like a spiritual world.

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I can remember, when I was about twelve or thirteen, being told how the eyes work.  It was part of a physics lesson and occurred after we had covered optics generally.

The gist of that lesson was this.  The eye admits light, through the cornea, the lens and two kinds of liquid media, and then establishes an image of the outside world on the retina.  Due to the workings of the aperture and lens, this image is upside-down.  Thus, the brain has the task of turning the image the right way up so that we can make sense of it.  If the brain did not do this, then the world would appear upside down to us ; and this would be both very confusing and untrue.

In retrospect, I can see that Mr Chaplin told us this story because we were just beginners at the subject, and the true story would have been a very complicated diversion from the purpose of the lesson, which was optics and not cognitive psychology.

But there was a time (up to the seventeenth century) when this story, about the brain having the task of turning the retinal image the right way up, was once the authorised version of the biology of seeing.  In those days it was perfectly obvious that the retinal image was upside-down, for anatomists had actually seen it in their experiments with eyes taken from real animals.  It was therefore equally obvious that the image had to be turned the right way up again.

But George Berkeley, who was arguably the most subtle of the three great empiricist philosophers, disagreed.  He said words to the effect that, “The brain neither knows or cares which way up the image is ; and nor do the eyes.”  The eyes are merely instruments for gathering light ; the brain works with the effects of that light so as to make an image in the mind.

If that is true, however, how do the eyes work out what is up and what is down?  They must do so, because we can see ‘up and down’.  Berkeley’s answer was that the eyes naturally know nothing of up and down.  And nor is there some little man living behind the eyes who studies the retinal image and knows that it is upside down.

The eyes deal only with light.  Upness and downness are dealt with by a separate system.  He called this separate system the sense of touch ; though nowadays we call it the proprioceptive system ; the system whose nerves are sensitive to tensions in the ears, skin, muscles, tendons and bones.

It is the proprioceptive system which tells us, for example, whether our arm is moving up or down ; or right to left ; or backwards or forwards.  For example, if the arm moves up it feels heavier ; if it moves down it feels lighter.  More subtly, it informs us of every detail of our posture.

So, how is it that we are able to see and recognise whether our arm is moving (say) from left to right?  It is because the eyes learn to associate movements of the retinal image with feelings from our muscles and bones.  So, when we move our arm to the right, the retinal image of the arm moves ;  while (in synchrony with that) the muscular signals give a movement to the right.  The fact that the retinal image of the arm moves to the left is neither here nor there, because we take our primary cues on direction from our muscles, not the image in the eyes.

Similarly, when we keep our body still, and see an object move across our field of vision, the muscles that control the movement of the eyes register particular tensions which indicate the direction of their own movement as they follow the image.  The visual system takes its cue on direction from these muscular tensions.

There are a number of interesting consequences to Berkeley’s observations, and he indicated them as hypotheses ; but it was not for some two centuries that the confirming experiments were done.  In the first half of the twentieth century, several experiments confirmed that the eyes “neither know or care” which way up the retinal image is.  People were fitted with spectacles which inverted the images they saw.  At first, the world appeared very confusing ; but within hours the people could walk about safely ; within days, they could drive a car safely ; within weeks they could fly an aeroplane safely.  The nervous system simply adjusts itself to the new circumstances.

Similarly, spectacles have been worn which rotate the retinal image through various angles ; others switch left to right.  All with the same effect – the vision adjusts to the new conditions.

There is much more to tell of the path that Bishop Berkeley opened to us, but I must stop here for now.  Suffice to say that the movements of the body are vital to developing and maintaining healthy vision ; for the senses do not exist independently of each other ; they are integrated.

Also terms such as left and right are not absolute, but are relative ; but they are established by convention.  There is no homunculus (little person) inside the brain or mind who makes sure that we get orientations and movements ‘correctly named’ ; the nervous system has been so designed and established that it takes care of all that.

If there is an observer of all our sensory information, then it is not something that the material sciences may do experiments with, for it would need to be super-sensory in order to perceive its data objectively.

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Are we ready to become aware of ourselves?

I have been fascinated with the material world for as long as I can remember.  It isn’t true that young children take the world for granted ; some at least do ponder on the origins of things and their destinies.  But there was one thing that I did for long take for granted – my consciousness ; in fact, when I was very young, I did not even think of consciousness.

But what is consciousness?  It is one of those things that is not revealed to us through the senses.  Rather it is our consciousness that informs us that we have senses.

We have a difficulty in describing what consciousness is without using metaphors.  For example, some psychologists have described it as a screen on which our world is projected.  But a screen is a material thing, while consciousness is not ; and so it is a potentially misleading linguistic device, for people have a habit of treating metaphors as if they were literal descriptions.

So consciousness is not a material thing, not detectable by the senses.  And what, therefore, is its proper classification?  It must surely be spiritual ; i.e., a known real thing which is not detectable by the senses.  And it is a thing which has the thoughts of psychologists tied in knots as they ponder it.

We are in the habit of asking, “Where does a thing come from?”  We are fascinated by origins.  But where does consciousness come from?  The current orthodoxy in psychology says that it is an ’emergent property’ of the brain.  According to this hypothesis, the complexity of the brain somehow causes consciousness to arise from it.  But still nobody knows how this occurs and nobody is any wiser as to what consciousness is.

But then the idea arises, “Why should it be matter that gives rise to consciousness?”  For isn’t it at least equally likely that it is consciousness that gives rise to matter?

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I was just reading a book in which JRR Tolkien’s name cropped up, together with a few lines of his.

Although now long estranged,
Man is not lost or wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
And keeps the rags of lordship he once owned.

Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
Through whom is splintered from a single White
To many hues, and endlessly combined
In living shapes that move from mind to mind.

….

We make still by the law in which we’re made

(JRR Tolkien)

These thoughts of his remind me of how far humanity has fallen in the last few hundred years, during which time so many people have been beguiled by the easy doctrines of physics (especially) that they have come to think of themselves as machines – biological machines, to be sure, but machines nevertheless.

Now it is true that there is much that is mechanical about a person – as a trip to the dentist will remind us ; but there is also so much more that is not mechanical.  For example, can consciousness be properly described in mechanical terms?  is love a mechanical process? is free will mechanical?

Tolkien here straightens our ideas, I think.

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Long ago I read a newspaper article which beautifully praised the life and works of a famous artist.  I have forgotten his name but that is of no consequence, for similar articles appear from time to time describing such clever people.  What struck the writer of the article most strongly was the ability of the artist to visualise ideal scenes – the sort that idealise Nature to a seemingly impossible degree.  Thus it was that he could paint a scene (real or fictional) not as it would normally appear, but as it seemingly ought to be if only the faults and vagaries of Nature were removed or rectified.  But perhaps that, in itself, was not the true genius of the artist ; rather, his genius showed itself in what he described as the perfect clarity of his visions, and in his wonderful ability remember and to paint exactly what he saw.

I expect there are many artists who share this gift in some measure ; and many more people who have the vision but lack the artistic skill to reproduce it.

And I expect there are just as many who have the visions (and maybe the artistic skill) but of a kind that are not at all beautiful – visions of perfect awfulness.  And it may well be that just about everyone has had such visions (both beautiful and horrid) in dreams.  Perhaps the great artists manage to enter into a dreamlike state whilst remaining fully awake.  Those with experience of hypnosis will have a good idea of what I mean.

One also hears occasionally of people who experience vivid impressions of scents and tastes, and even bodily feelings such as tensions and pains, though these are not so easily conveyed as art.

So four of our senses may be directly and vividly stimulated without any involvement of the organs of sense.  And generally this is accounted a good thing, a mark of genius.

When we turn to the fifth sense we find, first, something similar.  For example, it has been said that Beethoven could hear an entire symphony before he even set pen to paper or toyed with his piano keys to confirm his hearing.  Perhaps his profound deafness sharpened his imagination, but I don’t think that wholly accounts for his ability here, for Mozart also had the gift or genius.

I suspect also that great poets may vividly hear their lines before they begin to write ; as if their muse (or genius) is instructing them on what to put on the paper ; so as to ensure that the sounds, the rhythm, the rhyme, the metaphor and the meaning are all quite perfect for the context.  Again all this is generally marked as a gift of great price.

But then, the general opinion changes markedly in a certain respect.  For if the person who hears the voice in his head is not an acknowledged literary master, then his voices are taken to be signs, not of genius, but of madness.

There only so much that might be written about many things in the world ; but when it comes to people, the possibilities for discussion are endless.

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Investment

Investment

Survey the hills of home, now bathed in light,
Whose gladness is to please the jaded eye
Of careworn soul, grown weary of the slight
Reward afforded by the dreary tie
Between desire for pleasure and its gain.
And yet, those hills ; what are they if not heaps
Of stones and dust?  And what the light? – in main
An airy nothingness.  Yet fancy leaps,
Investing beauty in the dullest dust,
And so transform the merest native Earth.
Creating things of wonder, as we must,
Is surely our appointed task. If worth
Be reckoned fair and made as kind to kind,
Then beauty’s born from aught but living mind.

Jamie MacNab 2011

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There are few things more enlightening than to listen to what people say about themselves.  In most cases people are far too modest.

For example, there is a growing tendency in these modern times for people to think of themselves as essentially machines.  Some will openly declare as much ; while others speak of themselves as if they were but machines,- leaving that conclusion as a strong inference.  Ask someone how his eyesight works, and he is likely to reply that it is something like a video camera that registers whatever objects he happens to look at.  And his ears are like a tape recorder that registers whatever sounds happen to fall in range of hearing.

In other words, people see themselves as passive observers of the world ; the world does what it must, and the senses merely register and record what is going on.   But this way of thinking can have pernicious effects, which politicians and other clever people with ‘an agenda’ are not slow to take advantage of.

Also this way of thinking says that the world does what it likes to us ; and, being mere machines, all we can do is respond mechanically to what the world does.  Thus the world makes us what we are in the minutest details of thoughts, words and deeds.

So, we are just machines ; but the world also is just a machine, and so we are nothing more than cogs in its complex mechanism.  It is a world of causes and effects, and nothing more.  Whatever happens must happen ; and there could not have been an alternative, except by chance.

And yet, when people reflect more deeply on their relationship with the world, they are not convinced that everything is mere mechanism ; in particular, they have feelings that they themselves are more than just machines.  They feel that they have the will to act somewhat independently of what the world is doing ; they feel that they have the power of making real decisions ; they feel that they have the ability to perceive the world, and act upon it, in their own ways.

If it is true that we can perceive the world in our own way, then at least one interesting conclusion arises : that the world is becoming as we make it.

But, it will be objected, How can our perceptions of the world affect the world itself?  How can our consciousness (which is non-material) affect the world (which is material)? Surely consciousness and matter are different kinds of substance ; therefore, how can they affect each other?  How can they act and react upon each other?

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