Friday, 29 April 2016

William James's account of the continuity of personal consciousness

William James writes:
Within each personal consciousness, thought is sensibly continuous. I can only define 'continuous' as that which is without breach, crack, or division. The only breaches that can well be conceived to occur within the limits of a single mind would either be interruptions, time-gaps during which the consciousness went out; or they would be breaks in the content of the thought, so abrupt that what followed had no connection whatever with what went before. The proposition that consciousness feels continuous, means two things:
a. That even where there is a time-gap the consciousness after it feels as if it belonged together with the consciousness before it, as another part of the same self;
b. That the changes from one moment to another in the quality of the consciousness are never absolutely abrupt.
The case of the time-gaps, as the simplest, shall be taken first.
a. When Paul and Peter wake up in the same bed, and recognize that they have been asleep, each one of them mentally reaches back and makes connection with but one of the two streams of thought which were broken by the sleeping hours. As the current of an electrode buried in the ground unerringly finds its way to its own similarly buried mate, across no matter how much intervening earth; so Peter's present instantly finds out Peter's past, and never by mistake knits itself on to that of Paul. Paul's thought in turn is as little liable to go astray. The past thought of Peter is appropriated by the present Peter alone. He may have a knowledge, and a correct one too, of what Paul's last drowsy states of mind were as he sank into sleep, but it is an entirely different sort of knowledge from that which he has of his own last states. He remembers his own states, whilst he only conceives Paul's. Remembrance is like direct feeling; its object is suffused with a warmth and intimacy to which no object of mere conception ever attains. This quality of warmth and intimacy and immediacy is what Peter's present thought also possesses for itself. So sure as this present is me, is mine, it says, so sure is anything else that comes with the same warmth and intimacy and immediacy, me and mine. What the qualities called warmth and intimacy may in themselves be will have to be matter for future consideration. But whatever past states appear with those qualities must be admitted to receive the greeting of the present mental state, to be owned by it, and accepted as belonging together with it in a common self. This community of self is what the time-gap cannot break in twain, and is why a present thought, although not ignorant of the time-gap, can still regard itself as continuous with certain chosen portions of the past.
Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as 'chain' or 'train' do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A 'river' or a 'stream' are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.
(from Vol.1: Principles of Psychology)

My objection to this sketch of the continuity of consciousness is very simple. The casting back by means of memory to the state of drowsiness just before the onset of sleep and a discovery of congruence with that state of consciousness seems to me to be an artificial construction. A memory could be mistaken, you could reach back and ‘find’ somebody else. In any case this elaborate re-connection is not something that we do or need to do. The other difficulty is that we often report a calm deep dreamless sleep. How could we know this if we had to rely on a connection of experience to experience to establish continuity? We cannot remember what we did not experience and yet we have that quite secure knowledge of having slept without dreaming. By James’s account this knowledge would to be impossible.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

William James and Henri Bergson

No doubt it is often convenient to formulate the mental facts in an atomistic sort of way, and to treat the higher states of consciousness as if they were all built out of unchanging simple ideas which 'pass and turn again.' It is convenient often to treat curves as if they were composed of small straight lines, and electricity and nerve-force as if they were fluids. But in the one case as in the other we must never forget that we are talking symbolically, and that there is nothing in nature to answer to our words. A permanently existing 'Idea' which makes its appearance before the footlights of consciousness at periodical intervals is as mythological an entity as the Jack of Spades.
(from Vol.1 Principles of Psychology)

Now here it is clear. as he himself admitted, that he came under the influence of Henri Bergson who showed him a way out of his thrall to logical intellectualism.

Let us leave out the soul, then, and confront what I just called the residual dilemma. Can we, on the one hand, give up the logic of identity?—can we, on the other, believe human experience to be fundamentally irrational? Neither is easy, yet it would seem that we must do one or the other………..
I told you that I had long and sincerely wrestled with the dilemma. I have now to confess (and this will probably re-animate your interest) that I should not now be emancipated, not now subordinate logic with so very light a heart, or throw it out of the deeper regions of philosophy to take its rightful and respectable place in the world of simple human practice, if I had not been influenced by a comparatively young and very original French writer, Professor Henri Bergson. Reading his works is what has made me bold. If I had not read Bergson, I should probably still be blackening endless pages of paper privately, in the hope of making ends meet that were never meant to meet, and trying to discover some mode of conceiving the behaviour of reality which should leave no discrepancy between it and the accepted laws of the logic of identity. It is certain, at any rate, that without the confidence which being able to lean on Bergson's authority gives me I should never have ventured to urge these particular views of mine upon this ultra-critical audience.
(from A Pluralistic Universe)

Mathematization of space as useful but untrue is a central theme of Bergson’s. A firm fixed identity to be postulated on the basis of our feeling of it does not line up with the flowing nature of consciousness. It is a logical construction that cannot be built out of the material to hand.

Yet nevertheless we must not dismiss the ultimate given of consciousness:
Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as 'chain' or 'train' do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A 'river' or a 'stream' are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.

The vertiginous topsyturvydom expressed by the Bodhisattva seems to have come on James San:

Empty-handed, I hold a hoe.
Walking on foot, I ride a buffalo
Passing over a bridge, I see
The bridge flow, but not the water.

Roshi’s pandybat hovers.

(more yet to come)

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

In which I paddle in the Stream of Consciousness

Reading about Dorothy Richardson author of the series of novels entitled Pilgrimage I was informed that it was novelist May Sinclair who coined the expression stream of consciousness in relation to her narrative style. The doubt I have is not about priority of the use of the concept of consciousness proposed by William James to describe Richardson’s work but the notion that she initiated a new narrative style. The oddities of personal association, the meandering and saltation are in Tristram Shandy for instance and what novelist does not attempt to limn the turbulent, turbid or smooth flow of a character’s mind.

Pointed Roofs is the first of the 13 novel series by Richardson. I have just read it and will by the mill stream of my mind grind grind out the makings of a critical scone. Soon. My consideration now is that trope of James’s. What can it mean? Clearly I shall have to examine his usage of that metaphor in Principles of Psychology

Compare and Contrast:

Empty-handed, I hold a hoe.
Walking on foot, I ride a buffalo
Passing over a bridge, I see
The bridge flow, but not the water.
(Bodhisattva Shan-hui)

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Yohan J. John on the Brain/Mind Problem

In his latest two posts from the frontiers of neuroscience Yohan J John




appears to be entertaining methodic doubt in the first and methodical doubt in the second. The very method itself or the assumption that brain events are consciousness is questioned: that ‘the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile’ (Pierre Canabis) and the more we get to know about this neuronal traffic the closer we will get to the core question of how the identity of brain and mind is effected. Is this not searching under the streetlight of immediate apparent facts? No amount of this evidence will bring one to an understanding of how the one is the other. Metaphysical analysis can eliminate epiphenomenalism or occasionalism etc but the ‘thinkability’ of brain/mind identity remains in doubt.

The methodical doubts involve the ordered, systematic application of the principle of identity in the area of phrenology, improving your brain power and other nostrums. Writing on what we now consider the daft theory of the homunculus he reflects that we ought to rein in our scorn for the little chap may still be lurking in our modern theory:

The homunculus picture can also be discerned in the idea of the genome as a "blueprint" for the organism. Before modern genetics arose at the turn of the 20th century, some scientists (the "preformationists") proposed that the sperm contained a miniature version of the future organism. Modern scientists laugh at this causal passing-of-the-buck, but conceptually, a miniature person is not really that different from a miniature blueprint of a person.

Yohan J John’s, there’s a triple barreled name, has written an informative and witty brace of articles on the hard question.


Various formulations of the brain mind problem:
brain/mind formulas

Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw (pub.1948)

Was that a joke, his saying that he initially started out with the idea of following the history of the bullet from the lead mine to its discharge into Christian Diestl to avenge the death of Noah Ackerman? That ‘Christian’ is an fluorescent underlining that bleeds into the next page and indicates that maybe the wise hand of an editor stayed him. The elephantine coincidence of Christian having met Michael Whiteacre’s girl in Austria before the war is unnecessary particularly as she plays scarcely any part in the book. I read on a door once - ‘my karma ran over my dogma’. Politics are fatal to good writing and the ready to wear asides in the novel man a picket line. It’s still a good novel and the writer’s notebook is evident in its pages. Shaw paid attention during the war and if he neverr put himself in harm’s way he surely met the warriors coming home.

Noah Ackerman among the ‘crackers’ is well wrought and his fight for respect is only successful when he flouts the law of their common enemy, the army. Their captain turns out to be a poltroon in Normandy. Ricketts the lisping Texan, careful now, is another bete noir that is well delineated in all his ever present splendor.

Ackerman’s walk around town with his fiancé’s father is superb and shows that Shaw made his mark initially in fiction with the short story form. I’m reading his ‘50 Years’ collection now. The man has a sense of humor too, which I do not associate with the blockbuster writer. Being an early success had not spoiled him in 1948 when he published ‘Lions’. A degree in Advanced Failure with a subsid in Chagrin is not a requirement but is useful. Fail better as your man said. The red under Jack Warner’s bed may have sent him off to Europe where the hysteria, whatever its frail grip on fact, was not a major impediment to best sellerdom and the curse of the mini-series.

War I don’t anything about, but he makes it real. I especially liked the way he stressed the need to be in a platoon of friends that would look after you in case you were inclined to volunteer to draw fire. Get the stranger ice-cream soldiers to do that. And the Luger souvenirs that they died for.

It is too big a book and too simple a book to get down to details about. ‘There were three soldiers went to war’ with a hey ho and a hey nonny no.
It surprised by by its quality and here I must incriminate myself; twas Stephen King mentioned it with approval in one of his books which I didn’t finish. Bring it on a flight to Australia and you will be still reading it on the transit bus and finishing it blear eyed on the day before you left.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Missing the Mark

And there is, finally, the merely negative but still real difficulty of conceiving personality even remotely like our own, not in association with a material brain.”(quote from Religion without Revelation by Huxley pub.1927)

It is observable that this last “difficulty” is never discussed in the book at all. Once again our author fights shy of metaphysics. Or possibly he reflected that he was writing for ordinary people, and that for the ordinary person it is much more of a difficulty to understand how personality functions in association with a material brain than to understand how it could function without one. The fact that mind and brain are interconnected is a fact given in experience; but how they are interconnected is not merely difficult to understand; it is simply, to our human powers, unintelligible.

(from Broadcast Minds by Ronald Knox pub.1932)

Quite! This is the aporia that generates a certain species of metaphysics and which draws inspiration from uncanny states of mind. There are two distinct speculations as to how brain/body and mind are integrated. One is the breathing in of the spirit or an infusion by God into matter to create a living soul and the other is that consciousness is one with matter. Consciousness is reflected according to the complexity of the matter that it pervades. This latter view has been called pantheism by some and non-dualism by others. This matters little to yogis or shamans who have or seem to themselves to have gone past the personal into the primal state of impersonal consciousness.

Prophets and sages working within their traditions have a common principle - we know god when we stop not knowing him/it/her. We actively miss the mark and worse still paint a bull’s eye round where our arrow lands.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Ronald Knox (Broadcast Minds) on Religion without Revelation by Julian Huxley

"And there is, finally, the merely negative but still real difficulty of conceiving personality even remotely like our own, not in association with a material brain.”(quote from Religion without Revelation by Huxley pub.1927)

It is observable that this last “difficulty” is never discussed in the book at all. Once again our author fights shy of metaphysics. Or possibly he reflected that he was writing for ordinary people, and that for the ordinary person it is much more of a difficulty to understand how personality functions in association with a material brain than to understand how it could function without one. The fact that mind and brain are interconnected is a fact given in experience; but how they are interconnected is not merely difficult to understand; it is simply, to our human powers, unintelligible.
(from Broadcast Minds by Ronald Knox pub.1932)

What Huxley wishes to maintain are mere cerebral events are all aspects of consciousness including religious experience. Religion thus defanged can be welcomed as a suitable numinous backdrop to the earnest business of ensuring the improvement of the human stock by eugenic programs. Yes, Prof. Huxley like a lot of early 20th.C. progressives was for the widespread spaying and neutering of genetically undesireables. The irony is that he himself was subject to manic depressive psychosis and had to be hospitalised and undergo E.C.T. A brother similarly afflicted hung himself. Culling for thee but not for me.

This is not considered in the two chapters that Knox allots to ‘Religion’ apart from noting that the opposition to birth prevention of the Catholic Church draws the fire of progressives. However it must have been part of the reason that Knox applies his acute mind to a farrago of half baked anthropology and reductionist psychology which to this day continues to be the default position of most of the professeriat.

Professor Huxley sees us as individual souls, bowed down by the contemplation of our private griefs, slinking into Westminster Cathedral at the rush hour to shake off the world’s dust a little, and coming out feeling vaguely comforted by the silence and mystery of our surroundings.

Professor Mark English writing about Science and Disenchantment
disenchantment offers this aperçu:

So I’m certainly not blind to this dimension of life; but I don’t think we should extrapolate on or intellectualize these feelings in the way religions and religious philosophies (like Platonism or pantheism) tend to do. They take the feeling and tell a story about it (Plato’s anamnesis, for instance). I say all we’ve got is the feeling. And that’s enough. It’s got to be enough.

T.S. Eliot wrote “- the sudden illumination - we had the experience but missed the meaning.” (from The Dry Salvges) R.K. does not make an idol of these feelings and rejects the notion that they are central to a truly religious life, they may be delusive, the religious light may be dim and the illumination poor. He has sport mocking the ‘sacred milk of the Todas’ and what he calls ‘peeps into anthropology’ which indicate to Huxley a progress from numinism to polytheism to monotheism. Therefore the Prof. says we should return to fundamentals and take up Numinism again.

The Protestantism of the sixteenth century made its appeal to the primitive Church; Professor Huxley goes one better and appeals to primitive man.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Ronald Knox and Lord Russel's The Conquest of Happiness (From Broadcast Minds 1932)

Officers for whom the war was over but who were exceedingly keen to get back into it again were sent to Staleg 7. It wasn’t the durance vile which compared favourably with boarding school that vexed them: their duty called. Though R.K. did not volunteer as a combatant in the First World War he had the idea of allowing himself to be taken captive and thus be able to minister to other prisoners in Germany. The War Office took a dim view. Lord Bertrand Russell was of course a conscientious objector and spent nine months in Brixton prison as a result. Ronald Knox loved his days at Eton mixing with the elite of which he was one for both his father and grandfather were bishops in the Church of England by law established. Whether they ever sat in the House of Lords or not they were entitled to do so. From Eton thence to Balliol (Ox.) as ever winning scholarships and prizes and being the centre of a coterie of high-minded wits. I seem to recall that he was offered a fellowship before his final results were known. Then he was ordained a priest and began to affect a dandyish get-up, buckled shoon and pleated chasuble. It bothered him that the local washer folk were not acquainted with such Ultra High Church verging on Roman requirements and he cast about for an R.C. dhobi wallah. Larkiness and fun really but as he inched towards the springboard of Father Tiber to whom the Romans pray the seriousness of such a move away from his highly cultivated background must have troubled him. But he did it and his talent for satire, mockery and gibing was applied to the irreligion of his day from another point of view. His chapter on Bertrand Russell’s book, The Conquest of Happiness is entitled The Rogue’s Hand-Book. It opens:

There could, I conceive, be few purer intellectual pleasures than to watch from an absolutely impartial standpoint the hesitations of a society shedding, half consciously, the last bonds which affiliate it to its old Christian beliefs. What may and may not, what must and must not be said; the limits within which its prophets must hold themselves, if they are not to be discredited by too much of delicacy or of precipitancy, the gradual deterioration of its theological currency, as men relinquish ideas, and cling all the more eagerly to the words that once established them – all this could be the subject of the most exquisite satire, if judgment could be suspended, if the issues were not felt as vital. It might be supposed that we were now past that stage; that the disintegration of our creeds had gone too far for any such embarrassments to persist. But – so innately conservative are we – the most advanced of our new spokesmen are not free men in dealing with their intellectual constituencies; they must speak in parables, they must gild the pill. If they are to demolish our certainties with success, they must set to work behind a scaffolding which advertises the intention of refacing them.

Knox regards this work of Lord Russell’s as a trifling production, a sort of self-help manual in the Samuel Smiles tradition of enlightened self interest. Bizarrely the notion of their being 3 main sort of human being is introduced, ‘very common types’, the sinner, the narcissist and the megalomaniac. That the first two are common types is a fatuous assertion that Knox dismisses. The sinner is merely an over scrupulous individual who feels the eye of god on him. Knox explains :

And there is a sense of sin, which is natural to the ordinary man living in a fallen world; as natural as the self-respect, with a touch of vanity in it, which we find in the majority of our neighbours; as natural as the decent spirit of ambition which Lord Russell himself praises.
( For some reason L.R. calls these natural attributes narcissism and megalomania. Very Odd!)

According to Russell the chief thing that brings happiness is ‘zest’. This spiritual condiment is liberated when we become immersed in some activity which takes us outside ourselves. Knox writes:

I do not find his psychology convincing when he suggests that we ought first to rid ourselves of the mental encumbrances which obsess us, self-pity, envy, inordinate ambition, and so on, in the hope that when we have done this impersonal interests will automatically supervene. A man may surely go through a good deal of mental self-discipline before he finds that it has evoked a nascent curiosity about the doings of the Bolton Wanderers.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Ronald Knox and the Omniscientists

Listening in is a subtle idiom. It seems to indicate a voluntary direction of auditory attention by someone. That which they listen in to would go on without them. People were invited to listen in to BBC programs. Perhaps ‘listen’ seemed too imperative to the polite English. In the 30‘s the invitation would be to listen in to Ronald Knox , Julian Huxley, Bertrand Russell, Gerald Heard and John Langdon-Davies. A book which I bought last Saturday for ein euro by Ronald Knox called Broadcast Minds is a critique of what he terms Omniscientism in the others listed. That portmanteau word is of course a coinage of Knox’s and suggests ‘know all ism’ in a smattering sense combined with a touch of scientism in its reverence for the empirical method. Such we have always with us but in the age of the wireless the power of such shallow thinking was enhanced. He likens it to gunpowder and printing which changed everything in their respective spheres. His book was published in September 1932. In 1933 Goebbels having just introduced a cheap radio to the German public was expressing his view of the power of broadcasting as a way of creating a unified nation.

 We on the other hand intend a principled transformation in the worldview of our entire society, a revolution of the greatest possible extent that will leave nothing out, changing the life of our nation in every regard.
(from  propaganda)

What Knox as a cleric impugns in the written works and the broadcasts of those listed is their animus towards religion which is never frankly admitted but advanced by distortion and omission. H.G. Wells in his Outline of History likened by Knox to 1066 and All That set the tone for others.

He has not been without imitators. Nobody, of course, has dared to cover precisely the same ground; he would be afraid of the comparison, for Mr. Wells is readable. But he has pointed the way to a number of anti-Christian writers, and in some case thinkers, who have learned to abandon the old method of direct attack, and bury all religious and metaphysical issues under a cloud of scientific information. This is the technique of the omniscientist; he does not make any sustained attack on religion; he dismisses it in a series of contemptuous allusions, giving us to understand that he is too busy talking about science to delay over such trifling matters. Meanwhile he contrives to insinuate that religion and science are necessarily incompatible; that everything, therefore, which he has said in praise of science is ipso facto a condemnation of religion. He will belittle Christianity by forced contrasts; now dwelling on the long “aeons” which elapsed between the appearance of Moses, now showing how ignorent and brutish the Middle Ages were by comparison with the civilization that dates from Darwin. He is the prophet of a new age, and he has the public ear. He astounds with outpourings of quaint scientific facts; he dazzles with glimpses of the incomprehensible. He creates the impression that religion is of yesterday, science of today.

New Atheists have gone back to firing plague corpses from catapults over the battlements. The Internet has changed everything and perhaps such sly acerbities as ‘and in some cases thinkers’ may be too subtle for distributed micro attention. Knox’s discussion of Sir Julian Huxley’s Religion without Revelation pub. in 1927 and in a revised edition in 1957 must be the topic for a separate post as it dissects the idea of 'religiosity without religion' which continues to coruscate and lure the magpie thinker.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

The Way of the Divan

Naturally you have to balance the mournful march of the Penitenti with the sprightly insights of a never having to say your sorry chapbook such as The Examined Life: How we Lose and Find Ourselves by Stephen Grosz. Not so much the Way of the Cross as the Way of the Divan.

As in most consulting rooms, the couch wasn’t a couch but a firm single bed with a dark fitted cover. At the head of the bed was a goose-down cushion, and on top of that a white linen napkin that I changed between patients.

This room is in Hampstead and the patients seem to be mostly of the private sort not referred to him by the N.H.S. if indeed you can actually get the sort of open ended treatment with no concept of what constitutes a cure on the National Health. Do practitioners still have to be qualified doctors as in North America? I think not but that stricture seems like having to be a meteorologist before you can rain dance. A 50 minute consultation costs from £40 to £100 according to an N.H.S. source who suggests that you might consider a private course. How does that make you feel?

The stories in the book range from 5 or 6 pages to 10 in length with plenty of white and 1.5 spacing between the lines. Neat insights emerge in these accounts but we are not told whether a change in behaviour ensues or even a firm purpose of amendment.

There’s Philip the Liar, a virtuoso confabulist, who at the age of 11 told his school chums that he had been recruited by M.I.5. He told his father-in-law, a sports journalist, that he was a sub on the U.K. mens archery team. It got serious with Grosz when after months of not paying his bill Philip told him that he had donated a month’s salary to the Freud Museum. In Ireland this individual would be a national treasure and generally regarded as great gas. There seems no genuine intent to mislead with these outlandish yarns. Grosz’s discernment of a possible cause for the deflection of reality was Philip’s bed wetting which his mother concealed by whisking away bedclothes and pyjamas and returning them dry and ironed without a word. According to his own report they never talked about this, there was just this private wordless care.
Philip’s lying was not an attack upon intimacy, though it sometimes had that effect. It was his way of keeping the closeness he had known, his way of holding on to his mother.
My View: Pull the other one Doc.

There’s a serious ethical question here- how is insight supposed to motivate. You may know why you’re doing something and you know it’s harmful and yet you don’t change. The point however is to change and there is no evidence presented in these snippety case histories that change occurs.