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Posts Tagged ‘Evolution’

I have never been an habitual reader of the Bible.  This is a failing, I know, but my carelessness goes back to my childhood, at a time when I suppose I identified the Bible with school assemblies – and I more or less hated school.  It is the same with our great authors – Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, et al ; I associate them all with school, and I have more or less ignored them all until comparatively recently.

As a result of all this, I am not like a cradle Christian, and for that I am somewhat grateful for my early life.  I am grateful not least because I spent so much time trying to make sense of the crazy world of the adults in my life that I became insatiably inquisitive about all things.  But, most of all, I became inquisitive about people and what makes them tick.  In other words, I am religious without being hampered by religiosity.

Of course, much of what I learned came from books ; for it’s all very well to observe behaviour in order to learn, but it is vain to try to invent theories that explain that behaviour without reference to greater minds who have given the matter more thought.  And in the course of my explorations, I have learned that it is also vain to trust the theories of others uncritically.  There are few experiences more depressing than a correspondence or a conversation with someone who quotes Shakespeare by the yard or the Book of Genesis by the metre ; or a blogger who pastes whole column-feet from Wikipedia.

With regard to my approach to learning, I recently came across two kindred spirits, and I stress that they are both far more clever than I ; and the second of those spirits is possibly far more clever than most people give him credit for.

DH Lawrence is not particularly well-known for his philosophy and his religion.  But I do recommend his very last book, published a year after his death.  It is called Apocalypse.  In it he addresses the meaning of the book, and compares his understanding with the many other opinions that have flourished since the earliest times ; opinions which range from the scholarly to the downright loony.  I have skimmed through Lawrence’s Apocalypse, as I usually do with a new book, and have only just begun to read it.

In the Introduction, there is a quotation which caught my eye : Lawrence wrote this :-

I am no ‘scholar’ of any sort.  But I am very grateful to scholars for their sound work.  I have found hints, suggestions for what I say here in all kinds of scholarly books, from Yoga and Plato and St. John the Evangel and the early Greek philosophers like Herakleitos down to Frazer and his ‘Golden Bough,’ and even Freud and Frobenius.  Even then I only remember hints – and I proceed by intuition.

Now here we have someone who is no mere book-learner.  He gathers information and proceeds to think about it ; and from his thinking he receives trustworthy intuitions – spontaneous realizations about the meaning of what he has read.  He does not feel bound by what he has read, but uses his readings as a springboard to deeper understandings.  He is a true seeker of knowledge.

Also he writes elsewhere that you can divide books into two classes : those that do not bear re-reading : and those that do.  A good book, he says, will offer new revelations at each successive reading.

Now all this is just what I should have said if only I had Lawrence’s skill with thoughts and words.  For, surely he is right on both counts.  For books by even the great writers are not there to be taken at face value ; they are not there to be slavishly believed and slavishly quoted from.  Even the greatest books are there to be intelligently interpreted and re-interpreted ; this is the secret of their greatness ; this is the seat of their power ; this is the key to the evolution of human consciousness.  Any other approach comes close to idolatry.

But there are limits to interpretation.  The aim is to allow the meaning of the original text to evolve ; to keep its spirit alive ; for it is the spirit that gives the text its life.  The aim is not merely to change the meaning of the text, for that is not evolution, but substitution, and that is likely to end in meaninglessness. I regret that many interpreters make that mistake.

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In a sense, everything is history.  For example, when I look at an object such as my computer screen, I am aware that I see it not as it is but as it was a fraction of a second ago ; this is because it takes a definite length of time for it to be neurologically processed and to be presented to conscious awareness.  When we move away from that kind of example towards more everyday awarenesses, to thinking about what to have for breakfast for example, things get even more historical ; if I decide on cornflakes, then where does my liking of them come from if not from pleasant memories of breakfasts past?

In a sense, then, while the arrow of time is always pointing forward, our sense perceptions of the world are always pointing backward.  It is as if Nature made us to feel more comfortable to look at the past rather than the future.

And in a sense, everything is spiritual.  For, even though I can persuade myself that I am looking at a material thing as I gaze at the computer screen, the moment I start to think about it, it becomes entirely a phenomenon of consciousness ; i.e., not material at all but spiritual.

These thoughts and others like them were crossing my mind as I enjoyed reading the history of the events following the Norman conquest, from the time of King William himself to King John.  I was conscious of enjoying that period of history as a purely spiritual pleasure ; for there is no way I could possibly enjoy it as a sensory one.  I might have imagined what it is like to be clad in heavy chain mail on the Sussex Downs ; I might have imagined what the weight of a swinging sword or mace might feel like ; I might have imagined the pain of taking an arrow-hit in the eye.  But there is no way that I can experience these things that are long in the past and beyond hope (or fear) of repetition.

“How wonderful life must be for the historian, I thought, living one’s subject entirely through one’s imagination!”

And imagination is but one short step back from its alluring cousin, fantasy.  “How comforting it would be,” I thought, “If the nobler Anglo-Saxons had never allowed themselves to become embroiled with those ghastly Normans and French!”

But then, history is history, as they say, and the events cannot be realistically imagined as being different from what they actually were.  All ‘what if’ scenarios are mere fantasy.  Perhaps that is why so many students of history see their subject as elaborate lists of dates, names and deeds ; nice and safe lists with little margin for error.  But surely this is not history at all ; it is  little more than chronology.

So, perhaps that is why they also like to have each item in the list tagged with the opinion of their teacher ; in the belief that this somehow adds veracity to the content of the list.  But such opinions are so often conditioned by the political opinions of the teacher, which always contaminate history with modern ideas alien to the age being studied.

Of course, history is bound to contain large amounts of historians’ opinion, but I do not think that this is what it is really about.  For, surely, no subject is worthy of study unless the student is in some way in love with the subject being studied.  And what is being studied in ‘History’?  it has to be simply people.  So the first requirement of an historian is to love people and, from that, to desire to know what they did and why they did it.  The ‘what’ is easy enough ; that is the bare menu.  But the ‘why’ is where the recipe is ; it leads to the kitchen where the tale of entire nations and civilisations is cooked up.

History is a tale with many story-lines, therefore with as many aims ; but apparently without an over-arching plot.  In 1066 nobody in England had the faintest suspicion of a Hanoverian monarch.  History has many chronologists but not an all-knowing author.

And yet there are patterns in history, which suggests something about human nature.  And the patterns do not lead to mere repetition of events, which suggests that human nature is changing.  For example, in general, the farther back we go, the more violent are the methods of government ; and this suggests that we are moving in a direction where force as a method is giving way to persuasion.  And violence, of course, is the outcome of ways of seeing the world and of ways of thinking.
Therefore, it seems to me that history is the tale of the evolution of human consciousness.  It is a spiritual tale.

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One of the most interesting writers of the twentieth century is Owen Barfield.  CS Lewis, who was no mean intellect himself, described him as the best of his unofficial tutors.  Barfield was destined for a brilliant academic career at Oxford but the early death of his father required him to take over the family law firm at the age of about thirty.  But that did not prevent him writing the most penetrating books on subjects related to language and thought, and the evolution of the human mind.  As with so many British writers, he is not so much remembered in his own country now ; the dominant marxist flavour of academe here has eclipsed such people ; effectively they have been declared persona non grata.  It is to America we must look for a lively interest in the best of British ideas.

I have just bought one of Barfield’s later books, published in 1965 ; it is called Unancestral Voice and is about the evolution of consciousness and thinking.  Surprisingly, it opens with a discussion on the famous trial concerning Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Barfield is a difficult writer for modern minds.  This is partly because his style is terse and partly because his ideas are simple ; so simple that they provoke the deepest thinking in the reader.  They are necessarily simple because they deal with matters at the very foundations of our minds and bodies ; matters such as consciousness, feeling and thinking, which we take for granted as a matter of course.

So, I have begun this book by skimming through it just to capture the flavour of it, and resisting the temptation to delve into its detail.  The next step for me will be to study it just a little more deeply ; just deep enough to identify the difficult bits and clear up any words and phrases that I don’t understand.  That will be followed by a normal reading of it, from beginning to end.  With any luck, I should have grasp of what he is trying to teach me when all that reading is done.

Alas, on page 45 I have come across an arresting idea ; it is pointing to something that is not new at all, but it is put in a way that (to me) is quite startling.  It is this : The brain is related to thinking as the eye is to light.

So thinking, then, is not something private and individual ; it is everywhere, like light. And the brain is not an organ which originates thinking, it is like the eye.  As the eye detects light, so the brain detects thinking.

Is he going to use this model to explain how it is that people of a particular broad culture tend to think in similar ways – the collective conscious?  and how it is that there are fashions in thinking, which come and go and also contribute to the evolution of ideas?  Now this is real psychology, which the marxists wouldn’t even begin to understand.  I will read on, for Barfield never disappoints.

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People are constantly talking of reality.  How often do we hear words such as : “get real” : “the reality is” : “it really is true”.  It is as if we believe that the human senses and the human mind possess a mystical quality that enables them to transcend the material world and take a privileged view of it.

But is it true that human beings are capable of perceiving reality?  Might it not be case that a herring has a better, truer appreciation of the world than we do?    Are we wise to assume that the size and complexity of our brains has made us better at perceiving?  Is it possible that all our complicated vocal expressions that describe the world are merely noises without any particular meaning?  Might it not be the case that our consciousness is simply an elaborate deception – an evolutionary accident that is leading us to a dead-end?

There is so much to ponder here.  And we will not be the first to ponder it, for certainly the world’s great religious thinkers have given much thought to the matter since the very earliest times.  In fact, most likely, it is with this pondering that religion began.

It is interesting to reflect that, if we did perceive reality, we could never make a mistake about what we see.  We could never mistake one person for another or one thing for another ; we could never mis-hear somebody’s words.  Also, if we did perceive reality, there would be no science being done today ; all knowledge would have been completed long ago.

But, as ever, there are other ways of looking at the matter ;  and some of those ways offer hope to those who believe that reality is within our grasp.

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It’s always fun to analyse things.  We do analysis so readily because it is easy ; synthesis (imaginative thinking) is a lot harder.  Science makes such good progress because it involves mostly analysis.

But, easy though it is, the results of analysis are still a puzzle.  For example, we might do a hundred experiments in which an object is raised above the ground and then dropped.  In every experiment we observe that the object falls towards the earth.  We then reason through the event.  And our reasoning leads us to infer that something must be causing the object to fall as it does.  Then we give a name to  that something ; we call it gravity.

But note : nobody has ever seen gravity : nobody has ever heard it.  We know of it only by the effects it has on objects, including the effects it has on our own bodies.  Mystery.

And then we can try a different experiment ; not quite as simple, because we need the right conditions.  Let us shine a powerful, narrow-beamed searchlight into the night sky.  Let’s choose a clear night when there is no dust or moisture in the air.  If we stand behind the light and look along its length, we see nothing.  The light is quite invisible.  It becomes visible only when it shines directly in our eyes ; or when some of the light is reflected back into our eyes by dust or moisture.  So, the light is not a property of the beam.  So what is it that is coming out of the searchlight?

Then we might take a pair of billiard balls ; a white one and a red.  If we cue the white ball towards the red one, we see it roll across the green table ; then we see the white ball and the red move off in different directions.  We infer that the white ball caused the red one to move.  But we can look as hard as we like, and yet never see that cause.  The cause is ours, not the ball’s.  Did the white ball really cause the red one to move?  or is that just what our minds made of it?

In each of these experiments, we have inferred something ; we have reasoned about what we have seen.  And it is interesting to note that the results of our reasoning are not self-evident.  We can be sure of this because, when we investigate the findings of people who have quite different cultures to ourselves, they come up with different results ; and that is not due to their faulty thinking ; it is due to their having quite different ways of thinking.

We might wonder whether, as human consciousness evolves, what other ways of thinking there might be awaiting us.  Will we still be doing the same kind of science ten-thousand years from now?

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Life can be precarious.  One useful realization to emerge from Darwin’s elegant theory of evolution is that creatures may evolve to become either generalists or specialists.  Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.  For example, one creature might become an omnivore.  An advantage here is that, if one kind of food becomes scarce, it has others to choose from.  A disadvantage is that it is in competition for food from a wider range of other creatures, some of whom may be better at hunting at foraging.  On the other hand a more specialized creature may have a particular kind of food all to itself ; but is poorly placed if that food should become scarce.  From that point of view, the creature’s evolution might be said to have taken a wrong turn.

Man is well placed, being an omnivore and also being widely distributed across the globe.  Barring great calamity, Man is unlikely to become physically extinct due to merely local changes in environments.

But it is not only bodies that evolve.  Minds also change.  The evolution of consciousness is comparatively rapid.  Ways of seeing the world, and of thinking about it, develop in a manner similar to that of bodily evolution.  A system of ideation, planted in a community at an auspicious moment can propagate itself very rapidly ; and it may confer considerable practical advantages on that community.  But, suppose that system of thinking is too specialized?  Suppose it is so infectious that it effectively eclipses other, more generalized, ways of thinking?  For example, the Romans conceived the idea that the way to increase the happiness of its citizens was to conquer other nations, and then tax them.  Rome certainly prospered under this regime of thinking.  The Roman state became, effectively, a parasite on its neighbours.  It did other things as well, of course, some for the general good, some not so ; but the point is that it was a specialized state.  Its final destruction was almost complete.  There are no Romans in Rome today.

We modern people think quite differently to the Romans.  And yet, have we also become too specialized in our perceiving and thinking?  Do we see the world through too narrow a prism?  Is the world suffering as a result?

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Ideas

As members of that wonderful thing, the human race, we are full of ideas ; and ideas thrive, and even evolve, in the mind.   Ideas beget other ideas.  But ideas also strive to bear a fuller fruit, namely action.  In a healthy mind ideas strive to become deeds, as caterpillars strive to become butterflies, and as eggs strive to become birds. A bad idea in the right kind of mind can become both good and fruitful ; while good idea in the wrong mind can become an abomination.

The mind is the environment for our ideas, just as the world is the environment for our deeds.  How much time should we spend cultivating our minds?  An hour a day?  an hour a week?  Any suggestions?

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