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Participation Mystique – An alternative to secular materialism

Mystiques of malabar

Mystiques of malabar: Seema K K via Flickr

Participation Mystique is a psychological and spiritual idea proposed by the anthropologist Lucien Lévi-Bruhl. It concerns the alleged mystical relationship that so-called primitives had with objects in their environment.

In Lévi-Bruhl’s own words:

In the collective representations of primitive mentality objects can be…something other than themselves…they give forth and they receive mystic powers, virtues, qualities, influences which make themselves felt outside, without ceasing to remain where they are.¹

The depth psychiatrist Carl Jung used the term participation mystique to denote two arguably related ideas.

First, Jung describes cases where his clients believe they have some kind of mystical connection with another person. This may involve a love affair, real or imagined or, more disturbingly, a kind of paranoid, fear relationship.

Over the years Jung modifies his thinking on this. Early on, he seems to say that participation mystique mostly involves a distorted understanding of the collective unconscious. That is, one mistakenly assumes a two-way mystical connection and that the other feels what they feel.

But later in his career Jung seems to open up to the notion that real, two-way relationships can occur through the matrix of the collective unconscious. These may be mutually conscious, conscious on the part of one person, or mutually unconscious.

Second, Jung talks about participation mystique in terms of the numinous power of the archetypes spilling over into ego consciousness. This doesn’t necessarily involve a relationship with another person, per se. The power of the archetypes can be experienced internally like the power of, as Jung suggests, the old gods. As such, they can be helpful or harmful, depending on how the ego relates to this power.

Lévi-Bruhl and Jung’s theories suggest that so-called primitives had an intimate relation with spiritual powers, good and bad.

For Jung, the ego is a high point of modern civilization. But the ego can also obscure the process of participation mystique. The psychological development of the ego gives mankind planes, trains and automobiles but robs us of an inner psycho-wealth apparently enjoyed by our ancestors.

This scenario has been questioned by Michel Foucault and others who say it is a romantic reconstruction of the past based on little or no fact. Foucault studies different understandings – in postmodern terms, constructions – of the self throughout Western history. He touches on themes like dream analysis and the sacrament of confession. But it seems he never really experiences the numinous in a mature way. Like many intelligent but overtly conceptual thinkers, his only understanding of spirituality comes from experimenting with mind-altering drugs.

The American mythographer Joseph Campbell builds on Jung’s work, suggesting that moderns can enjoy a sense of the numinous and feel spiritually connected to all of creation through archetypal films like Star Wars

Campbell implies that, contrary to what some might say, Europeans do not have a monopoly on deep culture. Culture is alive and well in North America—not so much through majestic old buildings and the classical arts but through the staggering achievements of Hollywood, the media, technology, and a higher standard of living. However, Campbell also appreciates the great cultural riches of European and most other civilizations.³

Darth Vader as a dark archetypal image – Vader has insight but uses it to destroy and conquer rather than to build up and share

Participation mystique is a pivotal idea because it links the individual to something greater than secular materialism. It opens the door to inner exploration and social dialog, both important and best kept in balance. Inner exploration without sincere dialog could lead to madness or charismatic authoritarianism. And social dialog without inner exploration might contribute to the same old worldly ideas being tossed around without any real insight, inspiration or meaningful innovation.

¹ Lucien Lévi-Bruhl, How Natives Think, trans. Lilian A. Clare, New York: Washington Square Press, 1966 [1910],  p. 61.

² The Romanian scholar, Mircea Eliade, says much the same thing in his own critique of modern culture. In Myth and Reality Eliade claims that mid-20th century comics like Superman “present the modern version of mythological or folklore Heroes” (New York: Harper & Row 1963, pp. 184-185).

³ These observations refer to about 1949-1987, when Campbell’s influence was at its peak. Everything has changed since then. I once knew a professor who came to Canada from a European country while it was under the grip of communism. Unlike Campbell, this professor implied that European culture was vastly superior to North American culture, the unanswered question being: If the professor likes the old country so much, why is he still in North America?

Johann Heinrich Füssli, Le Cauchemar (The Nightmare), 1781 via Wikipedia

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 Macbeth Buxton International Festival, review (telegraph.co.uk)


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Freudian Slips – Glitch in the machine or key to countless possibilities?

FC&P New York Cocktail Party shoot: Is he envious of my ciggie?

Alexandra Xubersnak – FC&P New York Cocktail Party shoot: Is he envious of my ciggie? via Flickr

Parapraxis, the Freudian Slip

Parapraxis is an obscure word for a pretty common idea—The Freudian Slip. The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, was the first to try to analytically explain its occurrence.

In the Psychopathology of Everyday Life Freud says parapraxes are unintentional acts resulting from an unconscious wish, desire, attitude or thought.¹

This could involve forgetting names and sequences of words. But classic examples of parapraxes are slips of the pen or tongue.

Imagine a guest at a cocktail party accidentally saying, “I love your horse” instead of, “I love your house.”

For Freud, the hidden, unconscious meaning of the slip points to the person making it. From the above, the slip-maker could be an avid equestrian or, more in line with Freudian thinking, an intensely sexual person (the horse being a traditional symbol of virility).

miss_millions – my freudian slip(pers) via Flickr

Along with aggression, Freud attributed tremendous significance to the libido. The example for “Freudian slip” given at Wikipedia is even more directly related to sex, which again, for Freud is one of two innate drives.²

In general use, the term ‘Freudian slip’ has been debased to refer to any accidental slips of the tongue. Thus many examples are found in explanations and dictionaries which do not strictly fit the psychoanalytic definition.

For example: She: ‘What would you like—bread and butter, or cake?’ He: ‘Bed and butter.’³

Jung’s Challenge

Freud’s best student C. G. Jung was also keen on studying parapraxes. Becoming a luminary in his own right, Jung tried to explain parapraxes in relation to the shadow.

Jung’s idea of the shadow is both personal and collective. An irruption of shadow contents into daytime life could arise from an unresolved personal complex, the greater forces of the collective unconscious or some combination of the two.

Contrary to Freud’s theory, Jung says that slips do not necessarily point to the person making them. Not exclusively, at any rate. Jung believes that slips can involve an entire situation among several or many people, near or possibly across distance and time.

Freud recognizes the importance of others in the formation of the unconscious. But unlike Jung, he doesn’t talk about instantaneous, thematic connections across distance and time. So Jung arguably prefigures today’s transpersonal psychology, whereas Freud does not. In fact, Freud’s private letters ridicule Jung’s interest in parapsychology.4

Mankind the Information Processor

Like most things in life, there are even more alternative explanations for Freudian slips.

For many secular people accepting cognitive psychology5 there is no need for a personal unconscious or greater, transpersonal connectivity. A purely cognitive theory of parapraxes goes like this:

In contrast to psychoanalytic theorists, cognitive psychologists say that linguistic slips can represent a sequencing conflict in grammar production. From this perspective, slips may be due to cognitive underspecification that can take a variety of forms – inattention, incomplete sense data or insufficient knowledge. Secondly, they may be due to the existence of some locally appropriate response pattern that is strongly primed by its prior usage, recent activation or emotional change or by the situation calling conditions.

Some sentences are just susceptible to the process of banalisation: the replacement of archaic or unusual expressions with forms that are in more common use. In other words, the errors were due to strong habit substitution.6

Image via Wikipedia

Meaning, Wisdom and Everlasting Life

There may well be some truth to this. But cognitive psychologists tend to overlook the possibility that aspects of secular, holistic and theological explanations may actually work best together.7

Many researchers dismiss slips, mistakes and accidents as flukes brought on by stress, distraction, patterning, sleep deprivation or malnutrition. But people like Dr. Charles Brenner believe that parapraxes have profound implications:

In the mind, as in physical nature around us, nothing happens by chance, or in a random way.8

Perhaps one way of differentiating attitudes toward parapraxes is to ask whether we learn something of value from them. Are they just glitches in the machine or is something greater going on?

For me, thinkers like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett move through life like horses with blinkers. They see themselves and their world as nothing more than a complex outcome of biochemical processes originally formed by chance. Not unlike robots equipped with sophisticated AI, Dawkins and Dennett may learn how to avoid the next bump in the road after stumbling over the first one. And they may learn how to maximize pleasurable activity.

The full human being, however, is so much more. From life’s lessons we acquire enhanced spiritual meaning and wisdom, which far surpasses the mere avoidance of stumbling blocks and pursuit of ephemeral pleasures.

Image via Wikipedia

¹ Sigmund Freud, Psychopathology of Everyday Life. London: Penguin, 2002 [1901].

² Freud postulates innate drives for sex and aggression, which later came to include Sabina Spielrein‘s thanatos, or death instinct.

³ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freudian_slip

4 See my PhD, p. 283-284.

5 Usually seen as somewhat flimsy science, even among scientists.

6 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freudian_slip

Just as Intelligent Design attempts to fuse Darwinism and Creationism, several explanations may better approximate reality than only one.

Charles Brenner, M.D. Elementary Textbook of Psychoanalysis. New York: Anchor Books, 1957, p.2. This worldview matches my own and perhaps the meaning of the ancient Greek word Kairos – things happening “at the right time.” Kairos in the New Testament (composed in Greek) means at “the appointed time in the purpose of God.” See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kairos

Related » Parapraxes, Accidents and Necessary Mistakes

 Top 10 Crazy Facts About Psychiatry In The 19th Century (listverse.com)

 6 Marketing Insights Pulled Straight from a Psych.101 Textbook (grasshopper.com)

 Three lessons to fix America and prevent global decline (scroll.in)

 Doctor’s Diary: How to treat nightmares (telegraph.co.uk)


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Looking through a glass darkly – The paranormal, normal and bias

The Latin prefix para means beside or beyond. Like the word supernatural, paranormal refers to any phenomenon that eludes explanation through normal science or conventional wisdom.

Paranormal can be a misleading term because what is ‘normal’ is open to debate and subject to change.

At what precise point, for instance, does intuition or insight become as ESP or clairvoyance?

Funnily enough, the US courts still provide an option for placing the right hand on the Bible while taking oath—and the Bible is a book that invites believers to enjoy eternal rest in the paranormal realm of heaven.

Image: Wikipedia

Likewise, more recent versions of the American psychiatric diagnostic manual (DSM-x) accept religious beliefs that include the paranormal, providing the religion is well established and actively practiced within a given culture. Individual beliefs, however, are far more suspect, which speaks volumes about the psychiatric worldview.

Traditional religious persons tend to be wary of the paranormal, saying that it deals with magic, evil spirits, the occult, divination and demonic realms. Heaven, on the other hand, is said to be a faith-based concept denoting God‘s realm. So traditionalists tend to use the word supernatural instead of paranormal, as if that resolves all ambiguity about what is good and not good in the uncharted world of the spirit.

Many who have had unusual experiences or who believe they have psi abilities probably do not report these for fear of repercussions. They would not want to be ridiculed, bullied, harassed, stigmatized, marginalized or perhaps, worse, rough-handled by a medical establishment that leans toward what C. G. Jung called “medical materialism.”¹

Vallisca Paranormal Journalism

Vallisca Paranormal
Journalism: billnwmsu / Will Murphy

We can only wonder just how many genuine paranormal encounters go unreported. But one thing seems pretty clear: The data is questionable.

Social credibility bias, misreporting and unreliable statistics compel us to ask whether ‘normal’ and ‘paranormal’ are relative instead of absolute categories. Just as postmoderns deconstruct the idea of the ‘natural,’² the difference between normal and paranormal is relative to cultures and subcultures.

Cultural biases can be subtle but also pervasive. Bias often goes unrecognized because we are blind to our prejudices, expectations and limitations. And despite what many will say on either side of the fence, this happens with both kinds of believers—believers in the paranormal and believers in the normal sciences.³

¹ Things may be slowly changing for the better. But Jung speaks clearly about mid-20th century biases. See http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk3/ftp04/nq21958.pdf p. 143.

² This approach was popular in the mid-1980s and 90s, just before widespread acceptance of the LGBTQ community.

³ Some call for a new kind of relational science that could be applied to paranormal accounts. See http://www.collective-evolution.com/2015/10/22/the-top-8-paranormal-scientific-studies-what-we-can-learn-from-them, “Daniel Siegel in conversation with Paul Zak” on Vimeo https://vimeo.com/182895570 and http://www.teemingbrain.com/2012/07/23/liminality-synchronicity-and-the-walls-of-everyday-reality/

† Re title: https://thenface2face.wordpress.com/what-does-now-we-see-through-a-glass-darkly-mean/

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Paranoia – When the line becomes blurry

Betsssssy 11/365: Shower Paranoia via Flickr

In most schools of psychology, paranoia is a disorder where one holds a belief that one is being persecuted, the victim of a conspiracy or in some kind of danger when, in fact, they are not.

Excessive anxiety or fear are thought to be two contributing factors to paranoia but there could be additional spiritual and transpersonal factors which mainstream psychiatry almost entirely overlooks.¹

Among analytical psychologists, paranoia is believed to be sometimes accompanied with inflation, in which the ego overly identifies with archetypal contents.

Within pop culture and the media, the term might not always be used correctly because some hold naïve views about or blatantly conceal shady personal and political agendas.²

Some pundits have been saying that we live in a “culture of fear,” especially during the Reagan and Bush eras. Apparently a wealthy and powerful few manipulate the media to try to generate just enough social paranoia to justify political acts (like war) or to boost sales for products that alleviate fear-related issues.

These critics maintain that the rich and powerful do not want to create too much fear. If they did, society might become paralyzed or chaotic, which definitely would not advance political agendas and corporate profits.

Reality, however, is often far more complex and open-ended than tidy conspiracy theories, making this view seem simplistic (but not unworthy of consideration).

Turn to 2017 and the persistent reality of global violence. The “culture of fear” theme is quickly losing ground to more recent tropes like Fake News, Climate Deniers, and Russian Spying. These are the latest media bad guys. And in a few years, there will undoubtedly be a new trendy list of public villains for popular news outlets to explore and discuss ad nauseam.

Sometimes actual cases of paranoia develop in highly intelligent, prominent personalities.

For instance, the Austria–Hungary (now Czech Republic) born mathematician, logician and philosopher Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) starved himself to death in later years. Fearing that his food would be poisoned, Gödel wouldn’t eat anything that his wife didn’t prepare for him. After his wife was hospitalized for six months, he refused to eat and simply wasted away to die.

Kurt Godel via Flickr

In 1978 the New Wave band Devo released a popular song “Too Much Paranoia.” And in the realm of the paranormal, some believers in extraterrestrial mind control wear tin foil hats to apparently block evil aliens from controlling people through ESP.

To outside observers, wearing tin foil hats seems a pretty clear case of irrational behavior arising from paranoia.³

¹ See https://epages.wordpress.com/2017/06/15/do-you-hear-voices-why-spirituality-and-transpersonal-psychology-are-so-often-overlooked/

² See psychcrime.org and mindhacks.com

³ Not to say that ETs necessarily do not exist. Probably nobody knows for sure. But to think that tin foil would protect a person against meddling ETs with advanced technologies seems absurd.

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Panpsychism – The Future Calls?

Toaster is in lurve

Toaster is in lurve: Cle0patra “Toaster has a new friend – Ice, they’ve been inseparable since she arrived” via Flickr

Panpsychism is the belief that all things possess consciousness. Some extend this belief to say that the type of consciousness matches the complexity of a thing’s organization.

The idea goes back to ancient times and has appeared around the globe. But it was rejected by a Church that adhered to a speculative, Aristotelian view of matter and which made a sharp distinction between organic and inorganic substances.¹

The Church’s teaching that human beings, alone, have souls complicated things, especially during times when disagreeing with or merely peeving powerful religious authoritarians could lead to ruin—that is, loss of property, torture and death.

After the Church, the philosophy of logical positivism helped to further squash panpsychism in the mid-20th century.

But it never went away.

Interest in panpsychism reemerged in academic philosophy, the New Age, science fiction and quantum physics. Also, it never really left Eastern religions, especially within Korean, Japanese and Chinese beliefs.

Image via Google Images CC

Today, with the rise of robotics, computing and artificial intelligence, a whole new vista of debate has opened up.

A contemporary panpsychist might say that an electrical circuit or machine generates a quality of consciousness in keeping with the degree of that object’s organizational complexity.

Also, the way a thing is organized could affect its consciousness. Not just the degree.

Sound nuts?

Well, let’s remember that human consciousness is demonstrably affected by our bodies and especially the electrochemical pulses coursing through the brain, nervous system and organs. So maybe the panpsychic view is not too far-fetched.

Additional critiques of panpsychism maintain that it is doubtful machines have souls, which many say is an essential component to life.

This might seem like the most compelling critique.

But can we be certain that God does not instill certain machines with souls… if not now, perhaps in the future?

St. Jerome produced a 4th-century Latin edition of the Bible, known as the Vulgate, that became the Catholic Church’s official translation – Wikipedia

Also, as our human bodies are increasingly transformed by science and technology even before conception – with in vitro fertilization – where do we draw the line between mankind and machine?

Traditional theology classes would probably not ponder these kinds of questions in a mature way.

It seems they are more geared toward generating revenue, defining intellectual boundaries and inculcating organizational obedience within a financially free clergy.²

But the questions raised by panpsychism are not going away. And soon they will have to be taken seriously.

Our future might depend on it.

¹ (a) This agrees with “Aristotle’s distinction between the mineral kingdom and the animal and vegetative kingdoms.” https://books.google.ca/books?id=KGaghraz8AUC&pg=PA526&lpg=PA526&dq=Aristotle%E2%80%99s+distinction+between+the+mineral+kingdom+and+the+animal+and+vegetative+kingdoms&source=bl&ots=o6Uhhd0oLB&sig=agRCj_3qQwuEsfs99EywODtzNac&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwirkcut4r7UAhVK44MKHQLxBaYQ6AEIKDAA#v=onepage&q=Aristotle%E2%80%99s%20distinction%20between%20the%20mineral%20kingdom%20and%20the%20animal%20and%20vegetative%20kingdoms&f=false

(b) “There is no clear or universally agreed-upon distinction between organic and inorganic compounds.” See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inorganic_compound

² From the perspective of depth psychology, emotionally challenged individuals often want something to cling on to. It might be hoards of money, status, or just something old and familiar. I say “financially free” because clergy who fit the bill are not burdened with financial concerns. How many working people around the world can claim that?

Related » Artificial Intelligence (AI), Strong AI Thesis, Leibniz, Spinoza


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Panenhenism – A WW-II spy comes up big in religious studies

Image via Abe Books

Panenhenism is a religious studies term coined by the WW-II British undercover agent cum Oxford scholar R. C. Zaehner (1913-1974).¹

A minor point for many, perhaps, but panenhenism differs from the more popular pantheism.

Panenhenism refers to the belief that the universe is a unified whole, but without any reference to God.

Zaehner’s term prefigures the semiotic and postmodern agenda to deconstruct words like “God” and what they connote for different individuals and groups—e.g. women, invisible, visible, silent and outspoken minorities.

Zaehner, himself, became a practicing Catholic and emphasized a distinction between what he called monist and theistic perspectives on mysticism.

The monist, he claims, adheres mostly to Asian religions (with some exceptions), where the self is identified with the godhead. The theist, on the other hand, believes that the self is forever individual and has some kind of relationship with God.

To illustrate the latter perspective Zaehner begins his book, Mysticism: Sacred and Profane (1961), by referring to the Jewish writer, Martin Buber. Buber makes a similar distinction with his famous “I – Thou” thesis.

Image via Abe Books

Zaehner was pretty popular when I was in India during the 1980s. By stating his own personal biases at the outset of his study, he is miles ahead of other scholars who conceal their religious convictions while trying to appear ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ when dealing with world religions.

Later, while doing my doctorate in Ottawa, Canada during the 1990s, the notion of stating one’s biases at the outset of a study was a talking point at colloquia.²

¹ Quite an interesting read at Wikipedia » British_intelligence

² Basically, an informal exchange of ideas among those who cared to attend. Not all professors did. Some seemed to prefer volunteering for basic mail sorting chores in the mail room.

Related » Connotation, Denotation, Panentheism, Pantheism, Polytheism


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Gilbert Ryle – An Oxford man who advocated “ordinary language”

Gilbert Ryle (1900-76) was an English philosopher who taught at Oxford from 1945-68. He edited the journal Mind from 1947-71.

Ryle and others like G. E. Moore developed the idea, forwarded by Wittgenstein, that philosophy is best expressed in so-called “ordinary language.” For Ryle, using abstract language is so removed from everyday experience and speech that it tends to be, for the most part, inaccurate and irrelevant.

Some philosophers are so heavily invested in their specialized language that they become blind to the ambiguities, limitations and sometimes absurdity of their claims.

A similar argument could be made about anyone who overly invests in a particular language game or symbol system, to include psychologists, biologists, physicists, economists, lawyers, environmentalists… The list goes on.

Not everyone agrees with Ryle. For a while, his views were trendy in philosophy but that didn’t last long. Today, philosophy is even more esoteric and symbolic than ever. Most modern philosophy degrees demand advanced courses in symbolic logic that, to the uninitiated, might look more like math than critical thinking.

Drawing from René Descartes' (1596-1650) in &q...

Drawing from René Descartes’ (1596-1650) in “meditations métaphysiques” explaining the function of the pineal gland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here are some of the main points for and against the use of ordinary language in philosophy and related disciplines:

For:

  • Language is dynamic, full of ambiguous connotation and a product of culture. Meanings are always open to interpretation.
  • Specialized language cloaks bias and subtly reinforces unequal relations of power. For instance, in psychology a person is “ADD” or “Autistic.” The scientific label makes it so. End of discussion. Who cares if these people have unusual abilities that the status quo is too biased to recognize or support?
  • Ordinary language isn’t patronizing to ordinary people and may, in fact, draw them into a discussion. This could lead to new insights and benefits for all.

Against:

  • Given the potential ambiguity and fluidity of language, shouldn’t philosophers try to define their terms as precisely as possible?
  • Isn’t it valid for specialists to use specialized language? For example, do you really want your operating room surgeon to say “give me that blade over there” one day and “hand me the knife” another day instead of always using the quick and precise, “scalpel“?
  • Specialized language increases precision and facilitates greater communication, efficiency and effectiveness among specialists. Popular writers can always translate the main points to the public, later on.

It seems each of these arguments has its pros and cons.

For some, the best approach – ironically an age-old advertising and entertaining technique – is to tailor one’s expression to fit the perceived audience. Instead of speaking above people, some believe it’s better to try to connect—unless, of course, you’re in a specialized group using shared terms (e.g. A Trekkie convention).

Some hard core philosophers seem to overlook the many nuances of human interaction. So they can come off dry, abstract or irrelevant. But every now and then specialized thinkers do come up with ideas worth considering. For me, one example is Hume’s critique of causality. I love and sometimes mention that idea if I feel my audience is ready to consider its transformational potential.

But to return to Ryle, he also published a popular work in 1949, The Concept of Mind, that questioned Descartes mind/body dualism. Ryle says Descartes describes the mind as a metaphysical ghost in a material machine. And from that we have the enduring phrase, “ghost in the machine,” an idea now morphing into new meanings with the rise of AI.