Robert C. Priddy

Writings on diverse themes from philosophy, psychology to literature and criticism

  • Robert Priddy


    In this blog I post information and critical views concerning ideologies, belief systems and related scientific materials etc. I am a retired philosophy lecturer and researcher, born 1936.

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Fritjof Capra – unity of science and spirituality

Posted by robertpriddy on May 24, 2016

Dynamic complexity theory and the understanding of what Fritjof Capra called ‘networks’, enables understanding to progress well beyond many traditional dualism-based ideas and theories (such as arrived at only by intuition, untested assumptions and argumentation) towards genuine science-based unification hypotheses and discoveries.

Some of Fritjof Capra’s key ideas go beyond dualism and lead toward the reconciliation of many a theoretical and philosophical problem inherited from dualistic thought, which also has been dominant in Western culture and which persists in many of the less than up-to-date discoveries of philosophy and science. See Networks as a unifying pattern of life involving different processes at different levels – An interview with Fritjof Capra (http://wp.ufpel.edu.br/consagro/files/2010/08/CAPRA-INTERVIEW-FRANCIS-PIANSI-English.pdf)

Capra said: “What I am trying to do is to present a unified scientific view of life; that is, a view integrating life’s biological, cognitive, and social dimensions.“ Though many scientists considered this would be impossible, Capra bases his investigation on evolutional biochemistry which has made tremendous progress in understanding that process of molecular evolution. In evolution, symbiosis developed and led to new forms is called symbiogenesis, which continued throughout the evolution of life. Capra rejects the possibility of a master theory from which everything in existence can be deduced saying, “Even though there is a unified basic pattern of life, and we can be more precise and say that this pattern is a network pattern, these networks are not structures – at least most of them – they are functional networks.”

“The answer is the notion of sustainability. Over the evolution of life, nature has developed certain patterns of organisation that allowed life to survive for billions and billions of years, using the very same molecules of air, water, and soil. And not only to survive, but to unfold and increase its diversity, and so on. These patterns of organisation are patterns we need to understand and to apply to our human design. This is what is called eco-design today.”

Seeing sustainability as the key to unified development of the networks between man and nature, Capra says of his concept of networks: “I have included meaning, values, culture, consciousness, etc., right from the start, I can use my theoretical framework to analyse the global economy, and values are a crucial part of that analysis.” “Their importance is growing as a form of organisation whose efficiency has been enhanced by information technology. The body of knowledge that deals with them has mushroomed in the last ten years or so.”

On “the essential characteristic of Life” Capra says:”… the answer lies not in the structure of the cell, the answer lies in what philosophers and poets
have always called the breath of life. When something has the breath of life, it is alive. In scientific terms, that’s what we call metabolism. Metabolism is the ceaseless flow of energy through a network of biochemical processes, which allows the organism to maintain itself, to repair itself and to perpetuate itself. This metabolism is the essential characteristic of life.”

“With regard to complexity, I think the main characteristic of a complex system is that it is nonlinear. Complexity theory is a set of mathematical concepts and techniques that deal with nonlinear systems. A network, by definition, is nonlinear. The significance of this property was recognised already in the days of cybernetics. The cyberneticists were very interested in networks but did not have the mathematical tools to deal with nonlinearity. They invented all kinds of mathematical techniques, but they did not have the powerful computers that we now have to deal with nonlinear equations and to simulate nonlinear systems. A network is intrinsically nonlinear.”

“My firm belief is that life is a unified whole, that we don’t have biological life, and social life, and mental life or psychological life, and spiritual life. I think this is all part of the whole process of life,which has evolved on this planet for the last 3.5 billion years. It has evolved, as I said before, by using the same patterns over and over again.”

Fritjof Capra:- “We all need to better understand networks. Their importance is growing as a form of organisation whose efficiency has been enhanced by information technology. The body of knowledge that deals with them has mushroomed in the last ten years or so. The internet – network of networks – is now a significant part of the life of hundreds of millions of people. The metaphor is part of our everyday vocabulary.”
“Even though there is a unified basic pattern of life, and we can be more precise and say that this pattern is a network pattern, these networks are not structures – at least most of them – they are functional networks.”

“”Meaning” is a sort of catchword, or a label, for the whole dimension of consciousness and culture, where we have values, purpose, goals, strategies, conflicts, power, and so on. Power is actually a very interesting part.” …”meaning” is the ability of human consciousness to form mental images. That to me is the key. If I am able to form a mental image of something that either does not exist, or doesn’t exist yet, or is not here at the moment, I can say: this is what I want, and I am going to work toward it. So, the whole idea of purpose is based crucially on our ability to form mental images: strategies, plan, all that.”

Questioner: At some point you said: “The design principles of our future social institutions must be consistent with the principles of organisation that nature has evolved to sustain the web of life.” Why should it be so?

When there is a conflict between making more money or protecting human rights
– workers, all over the world need to be paid living wages
- toxic substances should be handled with certain care
– certain health considerations should be taken into account
– not trade in endangered species
– we cannot have processes of industrial production where we take natural resources, manufacture goods, create a lot of waste in the process, and then throw away the
goods themselves. This is not how nature works. The understanding of ecology tells you that species who act like this do not survive.

“How do you change the rules?”

FC — “I think that can be addressed only politically. Technically, it is absolutely possible to reprogram the global economy according to different values.”

“What we need to do is first to become ecologically literate, to understand the principles of organisation that ecosystems have evolved to sustain life, and then we have to redesign our technologies and social institutions accordingly. When you try to understand how ecosystems organise themselves, this leads you very soon to understanding how all living systems organise themselves. So, the exploration of sustainability becomes inextricably linked to the question of the nature of life, the nature of living systems.”

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Religion as an opiate and an exploitation

Posted by robertpriddy on April 15, 2016

Many people turn to religion because they have no other recourse to relieve their suffering, even though the evidence that prayer works is highly selective and unclear, as events prove the failure of prayer far more often than not. In this it is genuinely an opiate for the mind, supplying a need for some hope to hold on to in the face of disaster death and fear of the unknown, but still a dulling opiate. Religions aim at explanations designed to give a sense of safety and protection when there is actually little or none. One can explain to almost anybody in a relatively short time what the main tenets of any religion are – even young children.  One needs only to believe. However, to develop and apply critical thinking and scientific investigation takes many years of mental development and study.

Karl Marx famously wrote: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” (from ‘Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’)

Major religions have ever aimed to make the world a better place, encouraging good acts known to all. However it also easily became as a means to social control, seeking power at the highest political levels.    States always try to control their populations, some less rigorously but many also in almost draconian ways. Religion is still a powerful factor in this and is abhorrent when used cynically by priests and their allies who want to get control over you, such as in preaching what you should or should not do, and failing to respect you as an individual or a person with your own intelligence and conscience. This is the opposite of serious philosophy, which aims to gain proper insight and demands a lot of effort. One may try to simplify a moral philosophy, but this must be at the expense of the many-sidedness of the information and diverse viewpoints and the comprehensivity of reasoning involved. To ignore this complexity is to become dogmatic.

Dogmatic sects of all major religions often lead to people having extreme opinions and to be too certain that they have the truth. Very different to the scientific or the healthy sceptical mindset which is willing to live with a degree of uncertaintly and not think one has all the answers. These can easily end up as cults willing to coerce others and even kill others. Many of the most religious countries of the world rank high among the oppressors of others – be they minorities, the poor, neighbouring nations ot those of other faiths. Judging by the fanaticism, hate and wars caused between faiths – now as ever – one may rather say religion is stronger than an opiate, more like something much stronger, say amphetamines, crack or worse dependencies.

See also What mainly characterises religion?
The final test of a religious faith

Can religion and ideologies lead to cognitive disorder?
DNA beats God hollow: genetics vs. religion
Sam Harris, Religion, the open mind and traps for the unwary
Religious ’doublethink’ – basis of denial of reality
Perception And Reality, Fiction and Fact in religion
‘Everything is relative’ – the bane of religions
Spirituality redefined without religion or mysticism
On the roots of political, religious and other fanaticism
The Origins and Persistence of Religious Belief and Faith in God
The ultimate brand name: God
Is religion necessary to humanity?

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The subjective mind’s relation to objective truth

Posted by robertpriddy on February 4, 2016

All my experience is subjective and so is yours. But this does not mean that all of it is private. It can be shared, though not immediately or directly, but only through communication of one or another kind. The subjectivity of all our sensations, perceptions, feelings, thoughts, and conceptions does not arise always – or only – from our subjective inner world, for there are phenomena beyond our control and even beyond ken, be they objects and events from anywhere in space-time or neurones in the brain which register them. Such entities are independent of any one individual, and are common to all who may perceive them.

The causes of responses in the human brain to stimuli come largely from outside the brain (i.e. from the world and/or the body), secondarily from reflections in memory of external stimuli’s effects and thoughts or emotions about them. People’s perceptions of the same object or event are not necessarily entirely the same, and their interpretation of what they perceive can differ very greatly. There can likewise be inter-subjective agreement about perceptions, just as there may or may not be agreement of interpretations or opinions.

Whatever originates beyond the conscious brain or mind – as well as what it invokes for a person – will always be more or less transitory, for everything changes given time, and not least also the mind and the personality-identity of everyone. All we perceive, conceive and interpret meaning from is relative to the individual mind. Other minds, situated otherwise each have different backgrounds, memories and conceptions.

Each of us was began to grow up into what can perhaps best be called a ‘historically prejudiced’ consciousness. Perceptions, ideas, beliefs, ideologies, certainties, doubts and confusions are all conditioned by one’s figurative cradle. How confining or otherwise this proves to be will depend not least upon upbringing and the development of personal qualities, upon the degree and kind of autonomy of being that is allowed or encouraged. The chrysalis of accepted truths, from childhood to maturity and beyond. The transformation from whatever herd instincts or cultural leanings one acquired into a free-thinking, self-observant and knowledgeable spirit requires the inspiration and also the hard knocks of the wider personal experience the better. Not that all personal experience is positive, for one’s experiences can be so fruitless, debilitating or ruinous that it quells the spirit.


Solipsism

Solipsism is a philosophical theory of knowledge, the key position of which is no one else but oneself exists. All one perceives and experiences is the spontaneous creation of one’s own mind.  This can, of course, never be proved or disproved in any conclusive fashion. The convinced believer in solipsism cannot be argued down by decisive evidence that others exist, since the evidence and the person stating it can all be claimed to be a creation of the mind of the solipsist. The external world likewise… it is a projection of the solipsist’s mind.

However, if the solipsist is the only being who exists, why does his mind create the illusion that there is an external world, one which limits his abilities to do many things and constrains him in countless ways? Why is the solipsist’s mind itself, being the only one in existence, incapable of creating whatever he wishes simply through thinking it? If the universe is, as some insist, a delusion, why does the solipsist allow his mind to go on creating a delusion?

This solipsist delusion of narcissistic ‘untouchability’ would have been developed through time and diverse circumstances, a growing cognitive disorder caused by long-term underlying personal problems or reduced mental quality. The claims cannot be sustained for even the most hard-line solipsist has to interact with the real world, so actions will conflict with the rigorous opinion. The chief psychological feature of solipsism is, most likely, an extreme bias towards black-and-white thinking and an exclusively one-sided and artificially limited application of scepticism.


Scepticism

Scepticism is a method, not a belief system. It can, like any method, be badly understood and misapplied, but properly understood it is a means to clearing away bewitchment of the mind through habit, unreflecting blundering, the wiles and traps of language (especially the written word), and the ossification of one’s cherished experiences and ideas.

Sceptical thought differs from the subject matter it investigates in that it can reveal what the subject matter occludes or has purposely been covered up. When sceptical inquiry is applied even-handedly by pursuing both pro and contra standpoints, alternative theories etc., it will – if successful – develop more and more evidence to support for the one or the other. It examines arguments for use of pseudo- evidence, investigating whether or not reproducible facts support them. Once the dialectic of overviews is sorted out sufficiently, use of the sceptical method can reach conclusions which are far superior to mere rational conjecture. It is the guardian against false beliefs, unfounded beliefs, and beliefs which run contrary to knowledge and evidence and false claims, cover-ups and counterfeit evidence. That is why no person retains a religious faith of any kind when they are accomplished thinkers who question rather than believe what they want, what is comfortable, and what they depend on like an emotional crutch. The stage is reality, there is nothing behind it (except speculative wishful thinking) and the audience is part of the entire theatre.

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The Afterlife and evidence

Posted by robertpriddy on January 25, 2016

Those who believe in an afterlife, in whatever sphere imaginable cannot know what it would be like, the shape or form, time or place or any other definitive information about it. One may believe one knows, but that is still just a belief, however much circumstantial evidence one may claim for it or however convincing the sect, cult or guru that promotes it may be. Therefore certain questions can be asked.

Presuming that I will reappear in some form, will it be me and not someone else when some new spirit awakens me? Humankind has long supposed that the individual person lives on in an afterlife and therefore has the same identity. The underlying faith here is that it will be I who will be there and take on some new form, preferably in an easier and better world. Or perhaps the same form renewed as one had at some stage, so if one meets long-lost friends and relatives, they will recognise me? Thus one can build out a narrative to quell anxieties about endless oblivion.

How you were at some given time of life – or any of the other considerably different selves that evolve throughout your life until the ‘final act’ – does not constitute your undying identity. The idea that there is an unchanging self which is one’s core identity has no sound evidence to support it, as Julian Baggini and others have shown. Though there are many scriptures which suggest or assert this, and much philosophy that is enamoured of the thought and its possibilities, there is no empirical evidence to substantiate this.  To this, the true believer in the eternal self will often respond that it is a matter that cannot be decided by worldly methods, but only by intuition along with high-flying reasoning, possibly by using supposed paranormal powers to obtain ‘divine revelations’ or occult wisdom. Arguments for all such means must rely on beliefs, unproven assumptions or axioms. Moralists who believe in divine reward and punishment (such as a universal law of karma) are motivated by a range of emotions and unexamined prejudgements. (Around 80% of Americans believe in heaven and hell!)

Suppose such beliefs to be valid and true. How then would our existence be? Imagine – for example – how it would be to be living on as a continuation of oneself in an infant’s body, remembering all those things one has been and done that make up one’s supposed ‘self’, a self which remained the same and could not be changed whatever one did. Would not we then have to drag along with us all our remembered lives endlessly? Not to be able to remember them would not change the real situation, only that we could somehow hide our true self from our awareness. Without self-forgetfulness we could get no relief from the sorrows, sufferings and traumas that marked us in the past. Could a blanket of forgetfulness descend as we came into a new life somehow maintaining an unconscious continuity of self, while an entirely fresh experience develops in consciousness? This is what some believers in reincarnation hold.

This vision is one that rebirthers develop with their manifold extra-scientific doctrines and methods of so-called ‘past life regression therapy’. Such ‘therapies’ are not scientifically based or recognised by modern medicine, depending as they do on ways of altering perceptions such as through hypnotherapy, suggestion, and even the use of mind-altering substances. What one experiences or interprets from them is subjective and uncontrollable by other observations. Many cases of persons who discover they were sexually abused in childhood by parents or others have been shown to be bogus and great suspicion attaches to claims based on these supposed regression claims. Research on so-called false memories and how they arise has made considerable advances.

There is no proof or even reliable circumstantial evidence that either eternal hell or everlasting heaven exists, while there are many feasible explanations as to how these beliefs arose in primitive humanity, what or who motivated and sustained them for all manner of reason. Despite this, there are innumerable differing claims about what happens to the individual after death, countless belief systems of where one goes and how its inhabitants would be… from Elysium to Hades, Paradise to Hell, Purgatory or Sheol, Limbo, Swarga or Naraka, Valhalla or some other realm of ancestors or disembodied shades… the imaginary details are virtually endless.

Various religions teach of intervening periods between death and rebirth. The Greeks believed in this, Christianity developed speculation on it much further, while much Hindu doctrine revolves around temporary existence in other worlds according to what personal destiny decrees. If one can ever be reborn, there would most likely have to be a transition the nature and length of which no one can determine. In that interval, the deceased person may or may not experience selfhood just as before. The disembodied soul or wraith is often alleged to meet judgement leading to trials, punishments or rewards as an adjustment to the other-world and education to further existence… rebirth in some appropriate form or other (even as an animal, according to some religions). The various versions of purgatory (Catholic, Jewish, Hindu) involve transitional visits to imaginary hells or to uplifting spheres, the latter much promoted by mediums,’channelers’ and diverse mystics.

The doctrine that a person’s “true self “ is completely transcendent of the mind (call it ‘eternal spirit’ or ‘heart’ or ‘universal consciousness’ or what you will) is part of the belief system that refuses to consider a person (or soul) not disappear after death,  This involves a schism between individual consciousness and the so-called universal one. Many sophisticated spiritual arguments are put forward, especially in Advaitic Hinduism, to bridge this gap. Yet they are speculative in the sense of being unconfirmable in research or personal experience.

Though ‘spiritual masters’ claim to have the experience of both, and many users of psychotropic substances assert the same, there is no guarantee that the universal awareness they experience is the same in each or even any instance. Besides, consciousness must always be consciousness of something – some ‘mental object’ or phenomenon – or else it is not consciousness. So anyone’s guess is as good as another’s on what ‘universal consciousness’ has as its object. It cannot be its own object. So even when we may seem to experience that we are somehow ‘beyond mind and in pure spirit’ – as can occur in many ways from extreme meditation and asceticism, induced trance, the ingestion of opium or of psychedelic and entheogenic substances, the specific mind and brain is still always the medium of experience, for none of it can be recalled without the mind’s activity. However much would-be spiritual teachers struggle to ‘cleanse’ the mind of all worldly aspiration and thoughts, try to stop it, get between though impulses to  negate it, or otherwise deny its presence, it remains the medium of all that too. 

This brings us to the issue of the dependency of the mind on the brain and the ‘near-death’ experience, which is often thought of by some incorrectly as the after-death experience. A dead body cannot tell what it experienced. No experiment has so far succeeded in showing conclusively that a person who exhibit signs of death (like heart stoppage, cessation of brain waves) but revives afterwards was dead. Therefore no proof of even a briefest afterlife has been established. That the revived person is able to tell of events that took place during the ‘near-death’ experience does not guarantee that this was due to any kind of transcendental consciousness. Other explanations are possible, though the means remain unknown. One most telling fact is the described effects of large does of the drug ketamine can induce a state described by subjects to show very similar experiences to those who have survived near-death experiences, not least the so-called ‘K-hole’ experience, going through a dark tunnel towards a light, ending with a feeling of having died and being in the presence of God. (See The Blissful Brain by Dr. Shanida Nataraja, Gaia, London 2008, p. 149). 

Some Eastern religions claim that rebirth takes place at some indefinite time after death. This is mostly thought to be in another human body, otherwise incarnation as an animal at any level of evolution. The most optimistic hope is to reappear as some super-being, an angel, an enlightened soul, a deity or perhaps even as an alien of some higher level of development, but preferably as a joyous and all-knowing blissful consciousness eternally absorbed in a supposed Universal Being. If not next time but sometime in the future. Take your pick… but the chosen belief does not carry any guarantees.

All the imagined dimensions involved are actually inconceivable as definitive environments, locations, lands, societies. The can only be given the flimsiest of descriptions or representation, invariably depending on borrowing known features from our present world. Should there be a virtual copy of the present world elsewhere, incorporeal or not, we have never come across it nor can discover any feasible whereabouts. The power of human imagination can work equally for good or ill, truth or delusive myth-making. As Iain M. Banks has put it: “The imagination is necessary not to make things up – that would be wrong – but to come up with plausible scenarios for what ones senses are detecting, theories that might explain what is going on.”

Those who entertain ideas and hopes about an afterlife often say that it would add meaning to life. If we simply cease to exist, would not life be meaningless, or at least less meaningful? If a person cannot find living meaningful or create a meaningful existence without faith in its continuation after death, it is a sorry plight indeed. Meaning is created by the mind, being the significance we grant to events we experience, whether bad or good, important or less so. Nature does not exhibit any specific meaning (unless one can say procreation or evolution is inherently meaningful). Yet since the ancient past, humankind has tried to find clear unequivocal meaning in its various events and have tried to influence through worship and sacrifices the countless spirits and deities they came to believe must be behind it all. That kind of propitiation has never been proven to be effective, despite religions exhorting prayer and ritual, chanting and meditation, self-denial and much else to conciliate the imagined powers involved. No conclusive evidence of demons, deities, departed souls, ghosts, or other unearthly entities have yet been scientifically validated or widely accepted. Instead, science has provided testable explanations of the vast majority of natural events that affect humanity and also of how people hear voices, seem to contact incorporeal entities etc., making such otherworldly agencies redundant.

Where no satisfactory explanations to the ‘mysteries’ of nature and life could be found, imagination and superstition were called upon to play the biggest role in trying to explain them. This heritage of millennia, though intellectually redundant, has a tremendous inertia which hinders the controllable answers supplied through the lengthy and painstaking investigation of the sciences, answers that were held in great scepticism and were condemned as heresy or superstition due to nothing less than belief and superstition, which are still so very powerful throughout much of the globe. It seems most likely that the model for hell and heaven is earthly, the impenetrable blue mystery (the sky) and the roaring sulphurous volcanoe (hell), with the added details of the joy and blisses that the fortunate experience and the many man-made hells on earth.

Posted in Atheism, Spiritual cults, Spiritual propaganda, Theology | 1 Comment »

SCIENCE AND THE UNKNOWN

Posted by robertpriddy on December 6, 2015

The old adage ‘believe only half you hear’ is, of course, not even half adequate as a guideline for making up one’s mind about factual matters, perhaps even more so today when so many sources of all doubtful kinds are so readily available on the Internet. Having trained as a critical thinker in philosophy and several sciences and practicing the checking and rechecking of facts, the thorough analysis of reports, observational perception, reasoning and language, I became quite skeptical about the security of much scientific knowledge. Back in the 1960s and 70s, even the natural sciences had not yet achieved the exponential increases in knowledge that have resulted since digital technology developed on such a wide scale in so many areas of human endeavour. Rapid changes in cutting-edge scientific theories like astronomy, astrophysics, microphysics, had and still often have an effect of creating further uncertainty, because new theories – often conflicting – about the universe, matter and life have come and gone in procession – even though the most general theories (relativity, quantum theory) remained securely unshaken by experiment or continued observation. However, I now judge many of the ‘theoretical antics’ of astronomers and physicists, medical and social scientists to be a natural result when operating at the outer rim of accumulated knowledge.

The well-tried trial and error methods of scientific empirical researches are removing more and more uncertainties about the security of our knowledge following the computer-driven “quantum leap” in most of the sciences. In the human sciences, theories and paradigm shifts are more common, often mainly due to the particular problems of objectivity involved when human subjects study human subjects. The human and social sciences are and will always remain less experimental and quantitative by the very nature of what they research, the human being. All manner of question about the mind and ‘spirit’ are being penetrated in that technologies are penentrating ino the brain and human mind in ways which have been closed prior to unimaginable before the advances in experimental nevro-psychology such as magnetic resonance imaging.

>Of course there remain a range of what must yet be termed ‘paranormal’ or extra-scientific phenomena for which no known scientific methodologies can satisfactorily resolve and which can only be studied through reasoning, comparative analyses, historical explanations and investigations of anecdotal evidence. In human affairs, the ever-present possibility of fraud of most complicated and psychologially deep-rooted kinds is a major hindrance to assessing evidence. Another century of progress in understanding what now seem arcane matters will surely push back the dark frontier of unknowing considerably.

Surely the major hindrance to enlightenment in the globalised society today – as ever – is the inaccessibility of genuine knowledge in all its convincing detailand evidence. Very few people in the world indeed – a mere handful – have witnessed the most costly experiments in particle physics, nor checked the validity of theories like relativity, yet everyone with a higher education seems to believe in them and that most of what we read about them are valid accounts, not mere deception. That the fact of the evolutionary origin of all life is still not accepted by a huge majority of the people of the world is partly also due to the relative difficult of access of the vast quantity of artefacts and the means to understand them. This also applies to the major part of all the things we have been educated to understand and take on trust, and – though we can surely be confident that most of it is reliable and well-researched – the very limits of any person’s ability to see for themselves means that room is left for doubts. It is primarily upon this ‘vacuum’, the certainty that there remain things unknown, that all religions have always thriven – and also the modern-day ‘spirituality’ of the so-called New Age and guru-oriented kind thrive. Without this, they would have very little left other than subjetive experiences to stand on… and their theological basis everywhere has always been essentially the uncertainty, the doubts, the confusion of unknowing of masses of people. This they replace with ‘faith’ of one or another kind…and historically it is seen that practically any kind of person, object or idea can become the centre of worship and personal mental-emotional sustenance.

That there is progress towards scientific objectivity in most areas of science is undoubted, for elimination of bias and cultural subjectivities from human knowledge is the very aim of science and the activity towards this end world-wide is enormous and becomes less partisan in approach and global interchange and understanding increases.

Much is made by religionists of the claim that the sciences cannot provide anyone with genuine answers to any of the most important human questions; why do we exist, what real meaning does anything have, what should I do? It is a fact that science does not pretend or set out to answer emotional and existential questions on how best to relate to others, how to develop human understanding – including how to obtain mental equilibrium, peace of mind and lasting fulfillment – are all so-called ‘extra-scientific’ issues. So the different (and very often conflicting) religions presume to step into the vacuum this represents and fill it with doctrines, moral imperatives and a vast range of beliefs about matters which cannot be tested.

Read further on this issue here

Comment  Eileenweed said December 7, 2015
As you pointed out, it is all relative and that is where religion comes in to declare the absolute ‘truth’ as they see it, fulfilling the need of human beings to feel they have a special blessed existence, a purpose, a value, a state of being forevermore. So sad that many individuals completely give up the LIFE that they have now (whether mentally, emotionally or even physically), in search of an unknown and unproven future eternity. What a waste!

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The changing role of sciences’ effects on human society

Posted by robertpriddy on April 20, 2015

Note: This article follows on from ‘Science agendas in transition’

The pressure of national and public interests: The ascendancy of the natural scientific community in controlling much educated opinion, such as through education and the media, is surely preferable to the alternatives of obscurantism found in many other areas of human culture. Yet through its predominance as an industrial and economic growth factor – with the consequent lobbying of its interests – it also can contribute to deleterious effects. Through it ambitions of expansion, applied sciences have long supported the dangerous but almost universal doctrine of economic growth without effective limits. Since the recognition of the pending crises of climate change, increasing exhaustion of natural resources, pollution, the breakdown and elimination of eco systems and apparently unstoppable world population growth, scientists have increasingly turned their efforts in the direction of counteractive science and technologies, the so-called ‘green revolution’. Unfortunately the pressure on governments to maintain and also improve achieved living standards does not encourage critical developments in social, economic and political sciences to concentrate on the revolution in thinking necessary if the world-wide conflicts that an eventual spreading breakdown of the world social order may be averted.

The many influences of the sciences on society – both of the range of physical sciences and all the social sciences – are only studied on a minimal scale as yet, and then without the depth and breadth or vision that is desirable if this crucial aspect and effect of science is to be understood. Both observation and reason insist that many uses of scientific knowledge are unplanned to say the least, but are also unseen and more unfortunate in many more areas of life than many supporters of scientific progress realize. This is partly due to the fund-consuming theoretical physical sciences and applied technological science whose vast budgets and research policies have momentous consequences for the world. Yet they are relatively free of all but peripheral democratic controls and they proceed to further the various interests they represent largely unexamined behind closed doors, both factual and figurative, doors upon which even the media have seldom brought themselves to knock. Since human cloning and associated genetic bio-technologies became a real possibility, however, public interest causes a resurgence in the scientific ethical debate on medicine, genetic manipulation and eugenics.

The disproportionately large investments from governments, major corporations and multinationals, in most cases with profit still as their overriding consideration, has also been driven by the military and weapons industries. This has only contributed to an intellectual-ethical malaise. Critics point out how the profit motives of the pharmaceutical industry also has too much influence over what is researched (or not) in medicine and the ‘health industry’ – and promoted and prescribed. However, since global warming and all its possible consequences has finally placed itself firmly on the world agenda, there is undoubtedly a shift in values towards ‘green thinking’ taking place in many large concerns, due to the realization that profit margins cannot survive without major adjustments and a change of course in many technologies. Nonetheless, those scientific projects which can advance technology or provide hard data of kinds useful to planners and policy makers still hold the confidence of those who rules the corridors of power. Investments fall off greatly in sciences that contain notable critical, reformative and humanistic elements. 

Setbacks to human knowledge occur and have had many causes: major wars, totalitarian regimes, colonial and missionary destruction and suppression, famines, plagues and various natural disasters. War being ‘the mother of invention’, advances in science have often been greater as a result of such disturbances than the relatively minor and temporary setbacks. Perhaps the major hindrances to any system of knowledge (other than practical limits) come about when the assumptions on which it is based are successfully challenged and cause a Kuhnian paradigm shift. This has been seen regularly since Copernicus,in Einstein’s relativity, in math’s and in logic where axioms were challenged and substituted for more inclusive concepts and so forth. In the C21 it seems likely that the methodological, philosophical and social assumptions of the last century with its interdisciplinary boundaries transformed through the expansion of ecologically initiated crossover thinking and the study of complexity (holarchy). The science community, becoming globalised on a far greater scale than ever through the computing revolution, will presumably overstep those interdisciplinary boundaries built up through university bureaucracies and interest groups in educational and research institutions. 

Social values and the common good in science: The regeneration of an intellectuality informed by genuine insight into human values is increasingly seen by many people as a necessity for the future of secular societies and world development. Much improvement cannot take place, however, without clearing the ground through an analysis of the causes of misplaced materialism and consumerism in modern society. The intellectual climate will have to turn the tide against the losses incurred by the degeneration of understanding due to excessive dumbing down and qualitative loss of the breadth of vision, such as via mass media and falling standards of general education. Due to the global internet, the scientific establishment no longer has such an effective level of influence or control over determining what is fact as it once commanded. 

The control of research investments by a relative handful of scientists – or on their relatively unquestioned ‘expert advice’ to policy makers – is a threat to democratic decision-making.That ‘knowledge is power’ is an observable – though highly complex – fact, not least because it is a social, political and economical commodity sought after by interest groups with many different agendas. ‘Control of knowledge gives power’ almost qualifies as an axiom these days, perhaps along with ‘knowledge is money’, as shown by the purposes of the competing financiers of the worldwide science-based industry, not least the by the patent and intellectual rights business. The scientific establishment has such a high degree of control that power can sometimes indirectly determine what is scientific fact. The control of research investments by a relative handful of scientists – or on their relatively unquestioned ‘expert advice’ to policy makers – is a threat to democratic decision-making. 

Whatever the material conditions of a society, intelligent thought is a necessary factor in any social and moral renewal, even the predominant one, for thought obviously gives rise to attitudes, which give rise to acts. This point of view may be rather out of fashion nowadays, depicted as some kind wishful idealism, the reason being that the dominant trend-setters are rather consumerism, economism and popular culture. Add to this the tendency of current sciences hardly ever to examine a course of events as the consequence – or even as partial product – of human thought and ideas, but almost always vice-versa. The historical swing of the pendulum towards physicalism and sense observation in recent centuries, though extremely profitable for understanding of the physical universe, may have taken advanced civilization too far towards social materialism. While it took centuries to clear away all kinds of superstitious theological nonsense and speculative metaphysics, the suppression of thought and opinion which starts from a contrary assumption to physicalism has already caused an upsurge in so-called ‘spiritual’ and outright religious thought aiming to reinstate ignored beliefs, which may be regarded as hypotheses no less speculative than many a far-reaching scientific theory (with micro-physics as one example). To move closer to a more balanced – less pendulous – view of everything, a reasonable counterweight to the blanket physicalism of hard-data scientism seems necessary.

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Science agendas in transition

Posted by robertpriddy on April 15, 2015

There has been a promising change in the public face of science which has occurred in many media since the 1970s and 80s. I trace in outline some recent trends in perceptions of science by the public, the media and by scientists themselves. Of course, science is in exponential growth and a very considerable outreach and development has taken place in many of the sciences in the past few decades, especially due to the ubiquity of virtually unlimited computing power and its related technologies.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the prevailing attitude of many intellectuals in the official media often showed an almost unquestioning belief in the efficacy of science with very little critical reflection about major underlying issues. The sciences and those referred to collectively as ‘scientists’ were often regarded too simply as the final court of appeal on virtually all the most important questions facing humanity. The near-deification of the sciences, at least in Europe and the US during the second half of the 20th century, made it the chief measure of human progress in many of the world’s most influential minds. This attitude was encouraged by the nature of claims made by some very prominent figures, especially in the physical sciences, claims which developments have sometimes confounded, sometimes made redundant. Together with powerful commercial interests and governments in highly industrialised states, a rather dangerously overstated view of the capabilities of the sciences to solve most vital human problems was promoted. The need to reexamine the limitations of science in the understanding of ourselves and the cosmos seemed long overdue.

Certain great challenges to the scientific community have shown up the relative uncertainty of scientific applications in dealing with major issues. One such was the debate over the safety of nuclear power, in which a hard-core of scientists gave excessive assurances, only to be confronted by the disasters of Three Mile Island and, above all, Chernobyl. A second challenge was to the scientific community’s unfortunate judgements and misrepresentation of such an embracing and admittedly complex issue as the decisive causes of global warming. The original huge consensus among scientists that the over-production of carbon-dioxide and other industrial waste gases were the determining cause of an oncoming global warming catastrophe became highly controversial when by the discovery of major inaccuracies in their important data (such as the rate of decline of Himalayan glaciers). This made the general public aware of the difficulties of scientific prediction on global and other matters which cannot be studied under laboratory conditions. Though opponents of the hypothesis of global warming caused by human activity were often outright anti-scientific or in blatant denial – not least religiously inspired – the intricacies of this major issue and the struggle of scientists to handle it became widely debated. This appears to have stimulated a considerably greater public awareness of – and healthy moderate skepticism about – the practical limits and theoretical uncertainties of much scientific research. Also, and somewhat paradoxically, the global warming controversy helped to publicize the ever-increasing expansion of research efforts – and the consequent increasing successes – of many scientific endeavours. The attack mounted on scientific theory of evolution in the form of religious creationism also came to the fore in a well-known U.S. court case in the USA against teaching ‘creationism’ in schools, with the result that the attack was defeated both scientifically and legally in a most decisive manner.

The overall achievements of science are immense, both from the viewpoint of the vastly increased knowledge bringing answers to questions that have always mystified humankind and from the unlimited practical improvements to human life. Yet this should not occlude pointing out and investigating remaining weaknesses – the often unproclaimed ‘gaps’ in its data and understanding of where the limitations to its explanation lie. Further, the theoretical avenues it explores, the practical and directions it takes at the expense of other potential aims are a matter for increased scrutiny, even though this is often strongly influenced by political forces. In the later 20th century its power, virtual certainties and superiority over other kinds of understanding were often made without requisite reservation of judgement, especially through the popular media, though this tendency has since fortunately been on the decline. Many shortsighted and truncated dogmas were long upheld by the inertia of ‘average’ scientific opinion, as the history of scientific breakthroughs and wider ‘revolutions’ richly illustrates. Some such linger on. The social inertia of out-dated or truncated theory of science and attitudes are doubtless operative to some extent in all countries, especially those with backward and traditional educational systems or unreformed academic universities.

Some of the signal changes in recent science include the shift away from a narrower kind of physicalism and quantitative methods in the biological and human sciences, which will shortly be discussed under the title ‘Science and materialism’.

Further, the overriding role of major interests from governments and  military-industrial complexes in the direction of sciences has changed as post Cold War public concern and pressures to deal with a wide range of relatively neglected issues took effect. These include a wide range of environmental issues, from pollution, destruction of habitats and eco-systems, to depletion of various vital earth resources and climate change. This will be discussed under the title ‘The changing role of sciences’ effects on human society’

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God left no footprints anywhere

Posted by robertpriddy on February 5, 2015

The absence of any positive evidence or any circumstantial evidence of any entity having the nature or alleged abilities of a creative intelligent deity abolishes the idea that God is anything more than a human idea. The theme of the excellent book ‘Soul Fallacy‘  Longish excerpts can be read by clicking here and then on ‘Look Inside’. No entity we can call a self or a permanent ‘ego’– other than as a post facto mental construct – can be perceived inwardly as such (Sartre proved this though rigorous phenomenological analysis in his difficult but rewarding ‘The Transcendence of the Ego’). Julian Baggini has since then explicated many grounds for denial any kind of timeless or ontologically self-supporting self, which has important consequences for philosophy, psychology and religion.

See also:-  The Ego in psychology and philosophy  and   The Confused and Systematically Ambiguous Doctrine of Ego vs. Egolessness

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Can religion and ideologies lead to cognitive disorder?

Posted by robertpriddy on January 20, 2015

Religious faith depends upon a system of beliefs, not proven facts and certainly not scientifically verifiable facts. It depends on much more than belief as such. The influences of parents and the mental and emotional imprinting to which their children are subjected forms a basis – naive childhood acceptance of beliefs. The strength and nature of this influence will affect the ability of the adult to think otherwise. The memories, feelings and thoughts in a human brain are sustained in the form of connections between neurons or circuits which result from impressions received. How strong the impressions remain depends upon and how often memories and thoughts of them etc. are repeated. The strength of the neuron circuits preserving them grows with constant repetition and falls off the less they are reawakened. 

Having learned a religious or other wide-ranging ideology, developed and nurtured for decades, it is often harder to give it up that to retain it. One may modify it but those who have invested much in it – study, hopes,  social connections and activities to promote it or put it into practice – most likely would seldom reject it fully. In the face of the compromising and even most destructive facts, the first reaction is to seek answers, explanations which preserve the faith – possibly modify parts of it. These are examples of ‘psychological denial’  and are found in both religion and politics (as well in many other spheres of thought). Such denial is a known phenomenon and understanding its mechanism has been important at least since the work of Freud . Modern understanding of human reactions, mental and emotional, is expanding rapidly through the growth of the neurological sciences (with their breakthrough advances technologies). Both religions in the modern world are such belief systems. So how does such denial work? For many people – those who are less thoughtful and perspicacious – it seems that a certain feature of our brains is the answer. “Denials are nothing more than a statement with a ‘not’ tagged on, and it’s often the statement rather than the ‘not’ that seeps into the brain.” This is illustrated well by Cordelia Fine (in  ‘A Mind of its Own‘, Icon Books) where she compares the subconscious to a butler who looks after everyday duties so that our conscious minds can concentrate on more uncommon or elevated work. The best butlers, however, keep their masters happy by acting to protect them from supposed undue concerns and concealing various truths from him. Thus, our  predisposition to believe what we want to believe is aided by the brain function which conveniently side-lines ‘what the butler saw’.  “…evidence that fits with our beliefs is quickly waved through the mental border control“, while “counter-evidence must submit to close interrogation and even then will probably not be allowed in“. The moral: we should keep our mental butlers in check… not be a defenceless martyr to the fictions of the brain, and watch out in particular for its instinctive bigotry, which leads us to jump to conclusions.

One aspect of what is known as  ‘religious indoctrination’  is the regular repetition of beliefs and all other set formulae, such as holy names, prayers (like Hail Mary), creeds, hymns, mantras, bhajans, and also repetitive actions like ritual worship and other constant reminders or symbols of faith. This strengthens the belief network and its related mindset in the brain and at the same time weakens its opposites, like doubts, criticisms, alternate views, and other beliefs. This is common practice in many sectarian cults. So automatic or unquestioning acceptance of statements that come from sources positive towards one faith also tend to crowd out stimulate the mind ideas and facts threaten it and soon pre-judges or rejects such problematic information out of hand in advance. Recognition of this state of affairs by communist regimes was often behind various attempts of ‘brain-washing’ through enforced indoctrination techniques backed up by psychological torture and violence. The constant and boring repetition of communist slogans and text in the USSR and its satellites was also back up by fear of a draconian system of oppression, though it apparently proved less successful in removing contrary ideas in its populations, as the eventual overthrow of  the USSR showed.

However, and fortunately, it has been shown experimentally that such systems of increasingly fixed and very strong thought patterns are not immutable, but that neither is changing them easy, even if there is any stimulus to change (such as unwanted and emotionally negative events which bring on a serious a crisis of faith). If this were not so, people would not be able to go through thought revolutions, major shifts of belief, opinion and attitude etc. and all human culture would stagnate. So automatic or unquestioning acceptance of statements as long as they come from sources positive towards one faith also stimulates the mind to reject in advance whatever ideas and facts threaten it. Likewise in dismissing all problematic information out of hand or prejudicially.

When people become highly dogmatic and unwavering in set opinions and beliefs, it can be said that the brain has developed a condition of relative cognitive disorder. However ordered the set system may be within itself, if it has a fanatical aspect, it necessarily meets conflicting influences from the social environment it can only take in with great mental and or emotional difficulty . This disorder can be localised to certain subjects, like religion, politics or whatever other field of discourse , yet in many instances it tends to overflow into many even remotely related spheres of the person’s life.

What so affects a personal life can, under given conditions, spread to affect the lives of many others and therefore most fanaticism, is potentially dangerous to the society. In the case of religious fanaticism this is almost self-evident nowadays.  As Voltaire, who was among the first in Europe to confront religious fanaticism effectively in public, wrote “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities”. (Questions sur les miracles 1765 – summary translation).

The mind in evolution, brain-dependent and temporary
The human personality and the ego vs. the self

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The ‘Labyrinth fallacy’ in extensive belief systems

Posted by robertpriddy on November 24, 2014

There are systems of thought and belief which are seldom easily recognised as being a convoluted circular ‘labyrinth’ of ideas. The logical fallacy involved is circularity or self-contradiction, but this is not easily detected because of the complexity and extended nature of the particular idea-system or ‘labyrinthine’ doctrine.

Wherever there is a vast collection of thoughts, ideas, beliefs and practices which are based on speculative reasoning and unlikely assumptions, one can become lost to oneself. This fallacy is strongly at work on astrologers, conspiracy theorists and religious sects and cults. It relies on a maze of teachings with very many tenets and thousands of absorbing details so constructed that, once inside it, it is near impossible to find a way back out. Every dead-end one meets causes one to retrace a bit and the new route will again lead you back to other routes and your mind gravitates more and more within the circle of belief. It gradually takes over one’s thinking, substitutes itself increasingly for normal perception so the escape from the cultist trap and the ingrained neural reinforcement becomes more and more unlikely. One needs some ‘Ariadne thread’ to find one’s way back to unbiased perception, reflection and pragmatic and critical thinking.

Belief systems employ reason – however well or badly – to explain whatever matters they would cover. Invariably they also explain and justify their own validity or supposed truth by reasoning. While no belief system can constitute genuine knowledge or lay valid claim to being tried and tested as true in any strict sense of the word, it may be a precursor of gaining knowledge, just as it may contrariwise be the forerunner of disillusion or defeat. With the labyrinth fallacy there are so many routes through the network of meanings created that one can form and re-form almost any conception more or less as one wishes. This is achieved by imprecise and generalised wording (i.e. open to various and differing interpretations). Wherever a fairly large degree of uncertainty about what is or is not being stated, divined or predicted arises, the labyrinthine explanations required and the tortuous confusion of meanings mislead.

Theories exist and multiply on virtually every conceivable subject. Some kinds of subject lend themselves more to the Labyrinth Fallacy than others… some examples of the former areas include metaphysics, religion, politics, conspiracy, secret intelligence, criminality, inexplicable or imagined phenomena. The list could obviously be extended greatly. Other subjects are less prone nowadays to the Labyrinth Fallacy because they are less open to large scale and factually-unsupported speculation, such as the nature of the physical world as studied by the natural sciences, the data on subjects collected by governments, statisticians, engineers and other well-accepted kinds of major investigation. In short, systematic investigations carried out in the spirit of scientific reasoning on the principle of minimizing sufficient explanations (Occam’s Razor) are least subject to the said fallacy.

The often-encountered urge to fit facts to match adopted theories or beliefs, rather than the opposite, invariably underpins the Labyrinth Fallacy. The fitting of facts to any ‘Procrustean bed’, when not done by outright falsification or neglect of negative instances or the like, mostly involves falsifications such as unreasonable de-contextualisation or reinterpretation of facts, obfuscation or other misrepresentation of the facts themselves or the methods by which they were obtained and so forth. Where a theory or belief-system provides – or else is open and prone to – a variety of alternative and loosely applicable approaches to the same fact or phenomenon, the ground is fertile for the Labyrinth Fallacy to complicate and confuse.

Throughout my adult life I have heard many stories from people – and read much – about Indian astrology being able to predict with great accuracy the future events of a lifetime – and also of subsequent lifetimes. During my nine long visits to India I came across pundits and ‘astrological seers’, which interested me despite my former rejection of Western astrology. In my younger years I studied that variant rather deeply – casting horoscopes and doing follow-ups as well as reading critical work about it. I eventually had to conclude that it relies mainly on psychological projection or else on self-fulfilling prophesy (not to mention vagueness, ambiguous language, credulity and even cold reading. It is such an extensive and involved art (not science) that it entraps its followers into a labyrinth of possibilities, always allowing for rationalisations and ‘deeper reinterpretations’, one from which only those with a strong analytic bent can normally extricate themselves. Hindu astrology seemed it may have offered more than that, not least because of glowing reports of its vast accuracy and ubiquity in India. Firstly, however, here is an interesting Indian critique of the country’s most dominant astrologers:-

Some examples: Hindu astrologers defeated by events
The Indian Sceptic magazine (under Basava Premanand) chose India’s most consulted astrologers as endorsed by Indian’s most well-known politicians and other professionals, to predict the outcome of the 2004 Indian elections. See the hilarious result: Top Indian Astrologers fall down on the job – badly

Again in 2009, the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations offered one million rupees to astrologers who could predict the elections results. Others have also challenged astrologers to make correct predictions, offering large sums to those who subject themselves to a serious test. Despite even the prize of a million dollars, no one is known to have won the challenge. (see http://nirmukta.com/2009/05/13/inr-2500000-to-astrologers-who-accurately-predict-results-of-india-parliament-election-2009/)

One exposure of a central ‘mechanic’ that often operates in ‘birth chart’ astrology – which relies a lot on the Barnum and Forer effect, which are statements that can apply to anybody – was demonstrated by Derren Brown, the ‘honest illusionist’ whose shows helped me understand much what Indian gurus can have done to achieve the reputation of miracle makers. Brown presented a group of young individuals with the same horoscope. They all claimed it was accurate and personal. (this may be seen on-line here). Though this did not demolish astrology as such, it showed the ‘Barnum and Forer effect’ and how impressionable young people can react to and interpret generalising statements about themselves. The process of thinking about oneself to search out memories which support the chacterisations is instructive. They were far from being objective about themselves (especially since they had limited time to decide reflectively on the statements) and were easily influenced by the content of a prediction as well as by the setting in which it was perceived.

Hindu doctrines  A current example of promotion of the Hindu belief labyrinth is Sathya Sai Baba’s extremely voluminous and most often hazy, generalising discourses, which are wide open to this ‘labyrinth fallacy’. His doctrine (‘teachings’) constantly refers to almost the whole range of ancient Indian scriptural ideas and beliefs, which are often mutually incompatible and have considerable depths of interpretation due to the complexity of languages, religious sentiments, beliefs and sub-beliefs. In this way Sathya Sai Baba left the field wide open for the Labyrinth Fallacy to operate on many levels. The many-sided and eclectic doctrine is such that all one’s perceptions have to be considered as a mirror of one’s own mind. This creates what may well be called a mental hall of distorting mirrors where great perspicacity is required so as to find the exit and liberate oneself from all the inherent fallacies!

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