Posts Tagged ‘Psychology’

The great Oracle at Delphi once told a young Athenian that Socrates was the wisest man in the world.  When the youth asked Socrates why this was, he replied, “I suppose it is because I know nothing, but I do have opinions on many things!”

We can see that Socrates was using the word knowledge in a special way here ; what he meant was that he had no certain knowledge of anything ; he did not know reality.  This kind of humility was thereafter a persistent character of most of the writings of learned people right through antiquity and up to the modern age.

Then something new happened.  First, we discovered (or invented perhaps) powerful mathematics ; then we invented what we now call the scientific method.  The mathematics enabled us to make statements about the material world that were more or less precise and in a way that had hardly been attempted previously, and the second enabled us to investigate the material world in a highly particular systematic way.

To begin with, these two aids to investigation allowed us to produce a vast amount of information about the world ; and then allowed us to use that information to manufacture new powerful technology – including the technology to make more powerful means of studying the world more closely.  By the end of the nineteenth century, we had a veritable explosion of information in physics and in its technological fruits.  It is hardly surprising, therefore, that scientists of every stripe were eager to emulate the methods of the physicists

Now there was nothing wrong with this emulation and there still isn’t anything wrong with it as long as we remember that the methods of physics are directed at the material world ; particularly at the non-living world.

But man is a forgetful creature ; also much given to speculation, and easily deceived by appearances.  Thus it was that he forgot the original purpose of physics and the scientific method, and it was this forgetting that turned initial successes into a disaster.  For he began to see living things in purely physical concepts ; and, from there began to perceive living things as machines.  Biological machines.  Perhaps this new way of seeing things was epitomised by an enthusiastic late eighteenth century stock breeder ; he asked, “What is a sheep but a machine for turning grass into meat?”  Few people then imagined that Man would be characterised as a machine that happens to turn shepherd’s pie into thoughts.

But that is where we are today.  Man is a machine which is governed entirely and exclusively by the laws of physics.  Gone is the mind, gone is the psyche, gone free-will, gone is personal responsibility ; banished is the soul and the spirit together.  We are simply machines, assemblies of particles, at the mercy of our material environment (however you might try to dress it up in the exciting tales from quantum mechanics!).

But there is hope.  Physics as it is done today has almost exhausted itself grappling with the myths of the sub-particular world ; and, having led their colleagues astray, it will be the physicists who start breaking out of the prison they have made for us all.  This repentance began about a century ago with such luminaries as Rutherford and Planck, who sounded the warnings and offered the keys of the prison.

Was it not Rutherford who said, “Whether we like it or not, we live in a spiritual world.”  And was it not Planck who said, “Consciousness is everything.  Matter is derived from consciousness.”

But did their colleagues listen?  No.  For the physical sciences are easy to do ; no great wisdom is required.  And they are profitable ; research grants are readily forthcoming, if only for the sake of the saleable technology.

On the other hand, a science of humanity takes the harder road ; the road trodden by Socrates and most of his successors ; the road of modesty.


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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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To become the person you would like to be, you must begin by pretending to be that person.  If you are poor, but would like to be rich, you must first pretend to have those qualities and abilities that will lead you to riches.  If you are meek, but would like to be powerful, you must first pretend to have those qualities and abilities that will lead you to power.  If you would like to have particular new skills, you must first pretend to have those skills.

It is rather obvious where this line of thinking is leading.  For, as you repeatedly pretend and practise, pretend and rehearse, so you get better at what you’re doing.  By degrees, you become the person you would like to be.  And, as you progress, so you can raise your sights to higher levels of achievement.  And, as you gain confidence in the method, you can even change your aims.  In fact, you will almost certainly change your aims ; but this realization need not interfere with your initial purposes.

But you have to prepare yourself for disappointments, because there will be many.  And what better preparation than to pretend that you can handle setbacks almost effortlessly.  With practice, setbacks become simply parts of the process ; and they are necessary parts, for there is much uncertainty in the world.  Few indeed have the gift of foresight.

Perhaps the big question is, What kind of person would you like to be?  The answer will depend on your immediate needs, but also on your world-view ; and these two things must be reconciled.  For those of a particular (and deep-rooted) persuasion, perhaps the words of Evelyn Underhill have a resonance.  “For it is not what you are nor what you have been that God regards with his most merciful eyes, but what you would like to be.”

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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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It cannot be seriously doubted that nowadays people are more scientific than at any previous time.  Despite its obvious shortcomings, the technological successes of science have seduced millions into believing that it is the only way to describe the workings of the world properly.

One of the most unfortunate things to emerge from our love affair with science is that it has encouraged the more extreme believers into using the scientific method as the only way to describe people properly.   In the departments of the learned, gone are such words as soul, spirit, will, love, hate, and so on.  In biology, genetics, medicine, and even in philosophy, people are more and more regarded as physical machines, meat machines, in which the only processes are the ‘bottom-up’, causative ones ; the ‘top-down’, purposeful processes are not even considered worthy of study.  Even the lovely, tragic Psyche has been dismissed from psychology.

I wonder if the more enthusiastic believers have thought deeply about what follows from their infatuation with this view of science?   It seems to me that supposed causative determinants of personality and behaviour have two major sources : the first is the genes : and the second is behavioural conditioning.

In the case of genetics, it is supposed that our bodily character is determined by the arrangements of certain molecules and their interactions ; and this bodily character is the only character we have.  These genes, these arrangements of molecules, are themselves composed of simpler molecules which have their recent origins in the soil and ultimately come from stardust and the Big Bang.

However we dress this belief up, on its own it cannot account for moral behaviour without involving a lot of faith in unspeakable mysteries.  One may contemplate a molecule or an atom or an electron for ever and have no hope of discerning any sign of personality – nor any hint of moral behaviour – in them.  Nor any sense of purpose.  Atoms, etc., just do what atoms do.

In the case of behavioural conditioning we encounter something similar.  The child, the collection of genes, behaves in ways that are determined by its environment – principally by its parents and other influences.  And the parents, et al, are themselves no more than assemblies of genes.

What distinguishes a saint from a sinner?  The mere arrangement of his genetic molecules and/or the conditioning he has received.  And he has had no control over either ; and he can never have control over either.

In the best traditions of the best novels, I will leave it to you, dear reader, to work out where such extreme beliefs will lead ; to work out the consequences for a society that accepts these beliefs without some serious questioning.

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I have mentioned before that, while I admire Freud, I am not a Freudian.  It is quite possible to see the virtues in a person without agreeing in the least with his or her ideas ; just as it is quite possible to see the  merits of a theory or of a hypothesis without buying into it completely.  Also it is more than likely that one may form an opinion of an idea only to discover later that the idea actually has a quite different interpretation from the one first seized upon.

I once read, in passing, that Freud considered the possibility that consciousness ‘arose from the very atoms themselves’.  And there is much that arises from that idea.  But in my haste my first thought was, “But this is typical Victorian materialism ! – a product of the Great Mistake that typified that otherwise great age.”  And, if I hadn’t more recently encountered another great thinker, I should probably still hold that opinion of Freud.

The mistake I made was so common that perhaps I may be forgiven ; it was the mistake of failing to ask the right questions.  I had forgotten the advice of Aristotle.  My first question to Freud ought to have been, “What do mean by the word ‘atom’?  I had assumed that he meant ‘the smallest indivisible particle of matter’ ; hence my judgement that he was proposing a materialist notion of consciousness.  (By the way, I had also forgotten that Freud was a near contemporary of Rutherford, and would have known of him.)

But further reading and further contemplation reveals that we do not have sufficient evidence that atoms are material things at all.  It all depends on how we look at the world and how we shape our arguments about it.

It depends on whether we are ‘outward lookers’ or ‘inward lookers’ – and on whether we are able to look both ways.  It depends on what we mean by empirical science.

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Conventions bring us comfort, if only because they lend structure to the world we live in.  They provide us with points of reference with which to compare one event with another.  And it is these points of reference which make the ever-changing world relatively stable.

One of our major conventions concerns the physical world.  When, for example, our eyes tell us that we see two tree before us, one tall and the other short, we are curious to know whether the tree that appears to be short is really short, or whether it only appears to be short because it is further away.

We know much about space because we have followed up the apparent oddities of its appearance to us.  We feel that we know these apparent oddities well ; so now they are not often oddities at all, but conventional representations of the world.

We have developed fine measurements for space.  We know that we can locate an object in space by specifying just three measurements – length, breadth and height.  We call these the three dimensions of space.  And we can see along these dimensions at will.  We can see to the left and right of us ; we can see backwards and forwards of us ; and we can see above us and below.  And we can see as far as visibility allows.

We also know that time is related to space ; we even call it a dimension.  But there is something apparently mysterious about time : in the ordinary sense, we cannot see along it.  If we wish to know what lies earlier in time, we must rely on our memories for what once was.  If we wish to know what lies later than us, we must use our imaginations to guess what might come to pass.

Of course, a short discussion of space and time must necessarily leave many matters unsaid.  But it’s interesting to meditate on Time ; and to wonder why it is so mysterious to our senses.

Why can we move freely in the three dimensions of space, yet only move ‘forward’ in time?  Why can we move at almost any speed in space, yet be confined to a fixed speed in time?

Are we really constrained to these limitations in moving in time?  Or is it our conventions about time that hold us back?

It is in this context that such things as precognitive dreams are so interesting.  Perhaps we know more than we can say about time.

Timeless beauty

Timeless beauty

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