Water, shade and a sense of home

Frejus

It is hard emotionally to live in a world of uniform space and time. We seek out special places and celebrate special times. ‘Home’ means more than a description of a place; it is where we belong.  Perhaps our whole life is a matter of looking for, or creating, a sense of home.  So, in the heat of what’s left of summer sunshine (we hope!) we may seek cool shade, with the sound of water in a fountain, symbolising and making real a sense of refreshment – as here in the Cathedral square in Frejus, in southern France. To me, life is all about finding such places, points on the map where we can suddenly feel comforted or ‘at home’ and develop a sense of ourselves. Our life is spread over the surface of the globe, like an overlay on a map with particular places taking on special significance for us.

Curiously, I do not choose places in which to feel ‘at home’; they choose me. No doubt they select themselves out of my on-going experience on account of memories stored in my conscious or unconscious mind, but they present themselves quite naturally, as inviting a comfortable rest and a sense of belonging. The world would be a poorer place without them.

That’s partly who I love photography; I can regularly visit places that evoke a sense of home, and in the cold of a winter’s evening recall summer’s heat and the blessing of shade and water.

An existential ladder?

ladder

How’s this for an image of existentialism? We are in the mud, soaking wet and the tide is rising. But we come across a ladder, which itself appears to be without any visible means of support, offering the prospect of escaping upwards out of life’s sticky, downward-sucking mud. We mount, hoping that we can reach… But no, other than a general sense of satisfied authenticity, it is difficult to specify exactly where the ladder will lead us. We may end up with little more than an elevated view of the surrounding mudflats.

Having said that, I’d rather be climbing the ladder than stuck in the mud, for at least a ladder suggests that there is something we can do about our situation; somewhere to climb; some token of hope.

Personally, I think the existential questions are the most fundamental for philosophy. Let sciences deal with the nature of the physical world; what concerns me is making sense of life from a personal point of view. The quest for meaning is not like the quest for information about some external object: it’s a process to be gradually developed and refined, never complete.

I’m not sure whether existentialism should be regarded as a branch of religion, or religion as a branch of existentialism. Both offer hope and quest for meaning. Religions would not flourish were it not for existential questions and the longing that they represent; existential philosophy would not achieve much without some overall idea that life can be made meaningful and that we benefit from a sense of integrity and direction.

The only advantage existentialism has over conventional religious enquiry is that it does not require any prior supernatural or metaphysical beliefs, which can be a stumbling block to many (myself included) who tend to take a naturalistic view of life.   Perhaps the best way to relate religion and existentialism is that taken by the theologian Paul Tillich, whose ‘Systematic Theology’ sought to relate existential questions to the symbols and ideas of religion. Without existential questions, religion may appears irrelevant, or be mistaken for ancient science. As a response to existential questions, any religion may provide a form of ladder out of the mud. Just don’t expect it to be leaning up against anything solid!

And – in case you’re wondering – this photo is not Photoshopped. The ladder was just there, stuck upright. How it got there, I have absolutely no idea.  Much like religion really.

 

Blackberries

blackberries

It’s been a wonderful autumn for fruit, here in the UK. Marianne and I have just returned from our third session of blackberry picking, murderer’s hands carrying fruit destined for the freezer. They’ve been on the go for almost six weeks now and while some are starting to look past their best, others are still green, awaiting their chance to ripen before the weather deteriorates. Few people seem to bother to collect free fruit these days – after all, why go plodding down lanes and risk getting scratched when you can buy blackberries in a plastic container from the supermarket? But I love doing it. Four reasons: 1) it’s a gentle, quiet activity, good in itself and good in its results (especially combined with stewed apples with a dollop of ice cream on the side!)  2) It’s great to be out there in nature, accepting that some things come for free. 3) There’s an interesting discipline about picking blackberries – don’t try to hog them all, leave some to ripen further, others to drop, others for fellow pickers. Picking requires restrained hedonism. 4) It marks the change in the seasons. I’m reminded of picking blackberries on Sunday afternoons with my parents and grandparents, the turning of the year, not yet harvest festival or time to gather conkers beneath the Horse-Chestnut.

Zen and the art of blackberry picking? I think a good case can be made for picking blackberries as a spiritual discipline – quiet attention, restraint, acceptance, appreciation; it’s got it all.

I don’t care that some supermarkets are already starting to clear space for their Christmas offerings; I want to enjoy autumn!

Commonsense and the Embodied Mind

Brain

For too long, the Philosophy of Mind has been struggling to get out of the 17th and 19th centuries – represented by the basic mind-body dualism of Descartes and the materialist reductionism which, rooted in 18th century empiricism, flowered in the 19th century, with the growing assumption that science would eventually tell us all we need to know about everything. It was not helped by the 20th century debates about meaning and the argument put forward by the Logical Positivists that empirical verification alone constituted a valid basis for factual claims, and the more recent materialist assumption that the mind is no more than a description of brain activity, an illusion to be dispelled by neuroscience.

A commonsense view of the mind recognizes that it is not the same thing as the brain, although acknowledging that the brain is the motor of mental activity. Nor does it make any sense to try to ‘locate’ the mind elsewhere. The mind is what we know and use as we experience ourselves as embodied human individuals, dependent upon our physical bodies, but enmeshed in a social and cultural world. We know what minds are because we read biographies, make friendships and interact with other people in a way that recognizes them as separate beings but in most ways much like ourselves. We also have a fundamental sense of who we are, not just through our experience of reasoning and reflecting, but in our engagement with and acknowledgement by others.

It is therefore refreshing to see that commonsense is at last breaking into the dead ends of traditional dualism and neuro-determinism. It has been a long time coming, but exemplified by such major 20th century thinkers as Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. The key thing – emphasized by Merleau-Ponty – is that the mind is embodied. Neatly summarized by Rachel Paine (in The Philosophers Magazine, 1st quarter, 2016), it is expressed as ‘4EA’. The four ‘E’s are:

Embodied – we are living beings within the world.

Embedded – within a social as well as a biological environment

Enactive – we build up and share our ‘world’ along with others

Extended – we are not ‘in’ the brain, but our selves extend out into the world.

added to which is the ‘A’…

Affective – we feel ourselves to be within a world with others; we do not observe a world our ourselves in a detached way, simply because we are part of the world.

To me, it makes sense to think of ourselves in this way; whereas both the reductionist approach of neuroscience and the attempt to revive a rather crude form of mind-body dualism seem to be creating problems by straining after theories that simply do not match experienced reality.

At last I sense the old cognitive log-jam in the Philosophy of Mind, is starting to shift, aided of course, by the very sensible criticisms of neuroscience offered by Raymond Tallis amongst others. Commonsense might eventually prevail.

This is my second blog post on the issue of the mind and neuroscience. If you’re interested in reading more on this topic, visit my website:

www.philosophyandethics.com

 

Walking on unsafe ground

DSC_0213

To me, there is is something fascinating and threatening about walking through an area of volcanic activity, as here amidst the ‘Craters of the Moon’ in North Island, New Zealand. Steam hissing from fissures in the earth; bubbling pools of hot mud; the glooping sound as bubbles of mud bust into the air; the small of sulphur. They are reminders that the habitable world is fragile, and that most of the universe is hostile to what we celebrate as life. We are, as the Buddha put it, like froth on the crest of a wave. We have nothing as of right; no environment – however carefully controlled – can ever give total protection; we tread carefully, recognising that life may not provide quite what we expect of it.

I’ve been reminded of unsafe ground recently, working on a book about two theologians who fought on opposite sides of the same part of the Front in 1916. The ground over which they worked, bringing back the dead and wounded, was as unsafe and unreal as one might possibly imagine: an interlocking series of deep and flooded shell-holes, each deadly for anyone chancing to slip down their glutinous sides.  For Paul Tillich and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, their conventional world of the pre-war years had been shattered and they spent the rest of their lives walking on what must have seemed very unsafe ground.

How we deal with the fragile and uncertain nature of life is a question for philosophy and a challenge for religion. Mostly we avoid thinking about it, comforted by the familiar. But it does not take much – a medical examination, an accident, an unexpected redundancy or bereavement or, as in today’s news, a horrendous mudslide, to rekindle the sense of our own vulnerability.

Morbid thoughts?  Perhaps, but also realistic ones. Celebrate when you can, but always count yourself lucky; you never know what’s ahead.

Courage, action and philosophy

Teilhard

Morning coffee on arrival at the Front, near Verdun, in 1916. The man on the right of the group is Teilhard de Chardin, the French scientist and religious  mystic.  A moment of normality and comradeship in the midst of hell. How did they find the courage to go on? And how did it shape Teilhard’s theology? (This image was published in the Teilhard Album, published by Collins, its provenance and copyright are being sought.)

I’m working on a book about the First World War and the impact it had on two religious thinkers – Paul Tillich and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – the one a German Protestant chaplain, the other a French Catholic stretcher-bearer. By chance, they found themselves on opposite sides of the exactly the same ridge to the west of Verdun in 1916. The experience of the war was to shape their thinking and their lives, until both found themselves living as exiles in New York, the one having been banned from Germany by the Nazis, the other from France by the Jesuit hierarchy.

In exploring their lives, I find that their story touches on many issues in philosophy and theology that have developed over the last century. With just one chapter to go in the penultimate draft, here is the concluding paragraph of Chapter 10, where I have been exploring how men found the courage to enter into the hell of the trenches.

It is a feature of the best philosophy and theology that, beyond critical analysis or dogma, it encourages us to think about the values and goals to which we commit ourselves. Its value is illustrated by the courage of those who act, with their eyes open, in a world where the future always appears uncertain but the past, with hindsight, sadly inevitable.’

Does the world make sense? Are we fated to attempt to make sense of it? How, in times of confusion or trauma, do we find the courage to act decisively?  War – and especially the monstrous experience of entering a killing ground across mud and barbed wire – sets a question mark over all our easy philosophical and religious assumptions.

Through Mud and Barbed Wire is scheduled to be self-published (my first attempt at circumventing the conventional publishing route) this autumn.

Neuroscience as an antidote to commonsense? I doubt it!

Brain

Advances in neuroscience have given us new insights into the workings of the brain, at least to the extent that the measurement of blood flow suggests which parts of the brain are operating at any one time. When we make a decision, the only physical evidence for how we do it is in terms of brain activity, just as when we go for a walk, the only physical evidence for how we do that is the movement of muscles and limbs, along with the corresponding unconscious brain activity. Such an observation is in accord with a common sense view of the mind, for few today would subscribe to the idea that we have a disembodied self, independently capable of pulling our physical puppet-strings. We think, we walk and we decide what to do – that is how we experience ourselves. We are real and we are embodied.

I am utterly frustrated, therefore, by those who take a further step and try to suggest that the self is nothing other than neural activity, or that our every decision is an illusion, created by neural activity that has taken place prior to our becoming aware of it. They suggest that, because they can detect activity even a fraction of a second before we make a decision, it is not we who have made the decision at all, but our brains, and therefore that we have no more than an illusion of being in charge or of being morally responsible for our actions. At this point, neurodeterminism parts company with common sense. We know what it is to agonise over a decision and then take responsibility for it, and no analysis in terms of neural activity is going to render that process illusory, any more than a Mozart symphony is rendered illusory by being analysed in terms of a sequence of sound waves. Of course there is no symphony without sound waves, nor some extra-terrestrial ghost of Mozart, but no list of frequencies is going to replace what we mean by the symphony or our experience of hearing it.

Neurodeterminism only makes sense if we assume that the human brain is the cause of its own activity and that human social interaction and communication are merely its by-products. Indeed, some enthusiasts for neuroscience mock the common sense view that we have of ourselves as thinking, choosing, creating, conscious beings as a relic of a pre-scientific outlook. If it can’t be measured, it can’t exist!

In fact, I would argue that the relationship between self and brain is exactly the reverse. Communication and social interaction, with the development of signs and language, provided the context within which natural selection favoured the development of mental capacity. Those best able to identify one another, communicate and make good decisions about how to act together, were able to survive in a competitive world, and the brain capacity that made possible such thought and communication therefore increased over time. To suggest otherwise requires belief in some external force that appears to have determined that hominids should have ever-increasing cranial capacity. But – if natural selection is a valid way of looking at evolution – it just doesn’t work that way. Change requires context and competition. It is because we flourish as a species if we think, decide and communicate, that our brains develop over time. Pure Darwin.

Notice that it is the reality of countless individuals in their interaction with one another and with their environment that enables this evolution to take place; it provides the context within which increasing brain-power makes sense. But, quite apart from evolution, we also know that the brain is plastic and constantly changing. It responds to our choices and actions. As we learn a new skill, the relevant neural pathways enlarge to reflect that achievement and to facilitate it further. We don’t find that we have a new skill because the neural pathways have changed; they change as we learn the skill!

This popular and ‘reductive’ misconception of neuroscience is not just a matter of putting the cart before the horse, its having a cart with no horse at all – and that is a recipe for going nowhere, and for having no explanation for how the cart arrived in its present position! Let Darwin come to the rescue of commonsense on this one!

What happens in the brain mirrors and continues to make possible what happens to us as persons and as social agents. We are more than our brains, and even if neuroscience were one day to achieve the impossible and give a full description of the activity of each and every neuron, it would still not explain what consciousness is like, or what it means to be a human being. That may be a common sense view, but I think it is none the worse for that!

For more on my views on The Philosophy of Mind, visit my website.