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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.


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Rona and other myths undercut our cosmological arrogance

In Oceanic mythology Rona is a fierce female cannibal who eats her beautiful daughter’s lover.¹

Another Oceanic myth tells of a male god, Rona, who fights the moon to rescue his abducted wife.² According to this story, when the moon tires from the battle with Rona, it wanes. When the moon regains its strength, it waxes.

This is a good example of what might be called alternative logic, lateral thinking or, for some, anthropomorphism. From his fieldwork, the depth psychiatrist Carl Jung observed that archaic myths are logical and meaningful to so-called primitives, just as scientific explanations appear logical and meaningful to many so-called advanced, thinking persons.

More recently, postmodern critiques of science tend to view theories as working myths or fictions instead of facts. This makes sense if one is willing to admit bias and the limits of human understanding.

English: Karl Popper in 1990.

Karl Popper in 1990 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Take Karl Popper, for instance. He points out that scientific theories are never really proved, per se, but only supported. Also, scientific theories are subject to falsification, modification or radical change through, as T. Kuhn suggests, a paradigm shift. We know that Newton’s Laws of Motion perform well for conventional problems. But Einstein’s work is required for areas that Newton couldn’t observe and probably didn’t imagine.³

Somewhat ahead of his time, Jung says he treated so-called primitives with respect and, when interviewing local elders and tribesmen, didn’t challenge their beliefs or try to convert them to a modern scientific or, for that matter, Protestant Christian perspective.4

A considerate move on Jung’s part. Imagine if advanced extraterrestrials publicly visited Earth. Let’s say the visitors could see beyond our common view of directional time and the (apparent) solidity of matter. These beliefs are important to the functioning and psychological security of 21st century mankind. So if ETs revealed too much knowledge too fast, they’d likely blow our minds as David Bowie put it in the song “Starman.”

Likewise, had Jung tried to convince indigenous peoples that the sun’s rising did not depend on contemplation and sacrifice but, rather, the Earth’s natural rotation, he might have upset their psychological wellness.5

This raises questions about our “developed” cosmological assumptions and how they tie in to the idea of progress. Clearly this topic can go in many directions. I touch on some of these in entries on numinosity, spirituality, mysticismscience, psychiatry and scientism, among others.

¹ See http://www.sacred-texts.com/pac/om/om08.htm for the source of these and also for this Wikipedia retelling:

According to Māori legend, a Ngaio tree can be seen on the moon:

The man in the moon becomes, in Māori legend, a woman, one Rona by name. This lady, it seems, once had occasion to go by night for water to a stream. In her hand she carried an empty calabash. Stumbling in the dark over stones and the roots of trees she hurt her shoeless feet and began to abuse the moon, then hidden behind clouds, hurling at it some such epithet as “You old tattooed face, there!” But the moon-goddess heard, and reaching down caught up the insulting Rona, calabash and all, into the sky. In vain the frightened woman clutched, as she rose, the tops of a ngaio-tree. The roots gave way, and Rona with her calabash and her tree are placed in the front of the moon for ever, an awful warning to all who are tempted to mock at divinities in their haste.

English: Hand-colored photograph of Carl Jung ...

Hand-colored photograph of Carl Jung in USA, published in 1910 (Photo: Wikipedia)

² Ibid.

³ See Reddit – Ask Science.

My PhD thesis suggests that Jung thinks and behaves like a postmodern before the idea of postmodernism becomes fashionable. Jung’s father, Paul, was a Protestant minister who said Carl had to “believe.” Jung later writes that he doesn’t know how he is to find this belief. With access to his father’s theological library, the young Jung took to Latin and religious studies like a dove to water.

Jung interviewed a Hopi elder and other Native Americans who held these beliefs. See cgjungpage.org.


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Jane Roberts and Seth – A look into the future?

Image via YouTube

Image via YouTube

Jane Roberts (1929 – 1984) was a trance channeler who wrote the Seth Books well before the idea of channelling became commonplace in New Age circles. Roberts also wrote several works of fantasy and science fiction.

Roberts allegedly went into a trance and channeled a spirit entity called Seth while her husband Robert Butts transcribed the sessions. Unlike some channelers, Roberts sometimes wondered if she was simply letting her unconscious express itself. But she usually writes as if Seth were a real being.

Whatever the case may be, the Seth character advances an interesting world view. Seth’s cosmology (map of all that is) includes parallel universes connecting backwards and forwards through time.

According to Roberts/Seth, the past and future of all parallel universes – to include parallel selves – interact with the present, perceived as now.

Not unlike other mystical traditions, Roberts/Seth says part of the self is flesh-bound while other aspects exist beyond the physical.

Image via YouTube

Jane Roberts – The Interview – Image via YouTube

The Roberts/Seth view differs from the belief in reincarnation in that:

  • Reincarnation highlights the effects of past on present lives, overlooking a possible retro-influence of future lives
  • Roberts/Seth advances the idea of many selves, existing in parallel universes, subtly interacting among themselves
  • Like Shakti Gawain and others, Roberts/Seth underscores the importance of life here and now, while reincarnation tends to focus on liberation from Samsara (the wheel of rebirth)

Science fiction TV shows Sliders, Charlie Jade and Supergirl dramatize some of Roberts/Seth’s ideas about parallel universes, and many Star Trek episodes speak to a possible temporal continuum. Recent productions like Quantum Leap, 12 Monkeys and Travelers also focus on past/present/future interactions and multiple timelines. And then, of course, we have the British classic, Dr. Who.

Depth psychologists like C. G. Jung view time, if not parallel universes, within a holistic framework. And the idea of parallel universes has gained wider recognition through figures like Stephen Hawking and Michio Kaku.

The belief in an interactive past, present and future is not necessarily identical to the theological idea that God knows the past, present and future. Some theologians are uncomfortable with the idea, for instance, that the future could enter into or inform the present. They prefer to believe that the future just doesn’t exist and only God knows how it will unfold.

Image via Wikimedia

Image via Wikimedia

This traditional view has been challenged by the quantum world view of space-time as relative, multiple and interactive. Perhaps some are comforted by adhering to cherished religious and philosophical ideas. But clinging to the past rarely paves the way for future development.

As for Roberts, some might say that her well-documented difficult childhood and teen years¹ contributed to her creating a kind of escapist fantasy world. But if that argument were universally valid and true, people like Moses (sent down the Nile as a baby) and Jesus Christ (born in a manger to escape the murderous Herod) had nothing of value to say.

= ridiculous

The way I see it, difficult beginnings can compel some to grow into seeing new vistas that otherwise might have been dismissed. Of course, the insane can also emerge from difficult beginnings. But any truth claims should be judged on, to borrow from MLK, the quality of their content, not the ‘color’ of a person’s past.

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Roberts

Related » Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, John Locke, Soul


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Reversal – Beyond the clever machine

300-2In psychoanalytic theory, reversal is a Freudian defense mechanism.

A broader idea than turning against the self, reversal takes place when the ego converts an instinctual impulse into behavior appearing as its opposite. The miser becomes a philanthropist, the pervert a prude, the hater a lover.¹

Remember that Freud bases most everything on the instincts of life (eros) and death (thanatos). So reversal involves aspects and combinations of both waking and dreaming life:

The expression reversal into the opposite refers to the transformation of an idea, a representation, a logical figure, a dream image, a symptom, an affect, or the like into its opposite.²

Freud’s entire model is predicated on the belief that the psyche behaves like a clever machine or, in more contemporary terms, an adaptable computer program. For Freud, a variety of internal attempts are made to reduce anxiety and increase overall functioning. Sometimes the “program” works well. Other times it gets buggy (neurosis) or caught in a downward spiral where the machine crashes (psychosis), requiring a reboot.

Reversal is just another example of the clever machine trying to make things optimal, given its paradoxical life/death nature.

My main critique of this view is that all of the regulating is done within the machine. Even dreams that play with, combine or synthesize different moments in space-time are seen as originating from within the neurological system (mainly brain processes).

Compare this view to most religious and mystical traditions and it seems to fall short. A recent example, given the time of year, is how the three wise men in the New Testament are told in a dream to not return to King Herod³ after they find the Christ child. So the three wise men go home another way (Matt 2:12).

Granted, this is a religious story and we have no way of publicly demonstrating its truth. But it does suggest possibilities: Dreams could come from God or otherworldly agents beyond the clever machine. The brain could simply be reading a story, just like a media player plays a video or a radio plays a station. Not many would say a video player actually directs a movie or the radio writes the tune.4

Being a materialist atheist, Freud would not have seriously considered this perspective. And  I think that this, despite his obvious genius, was his greatest shortcoming.

¹ We see this with some religious people who talk about love but underneath harbor hateful, violent thoughts that sometimes erupt into deadly action.

² See http://www.encyclopedia.com/psychology/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/reversal-opposite

³ Beforehand, Herod lies to the wise men, saying he wants to honor instead of kill Jesus.

Freud’s student Carl Jung mentions the latter analogy, well before the idea of “channeling” becomes mainstream.


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Revelation and revealed knowledge – Can we separate the wheat from the chaff?

Divine Revelation (album)

Divine Revelation (album) via Wikipedia

That was a revelation!

When we hear someone say this in daily life, we usually take it to mean that they are inspired, see an issue in a new light or learn something that deepens their understanding.

Revelation has become a secular term but the idea of ‘revealed knowledge’ is found in most spiritual traditions. In the religious sense, revelation has several different meanings.

One meaning points to knowledge disclosed or uncovered about God’s plan of Salvation or the Divine essence. This knowledge could influence the interpretation of observed events. And general revelation is differentiated from special revelation.

  • General revelation means that God’s existence and attributes can be partly understood through observation of God’s creation
  • Specific revelation points to the belief that individuals receive divine communications

In Catholicism revelation is a truth communicated to a person by God. Revealed knowledge initially bypasses but does not contradict the intellect and differs from inspiration. But after a revelation, a person may think about and be inspired by their otherworldly experience.

From a comparative study of mysticism it seems that revealed knowledge is usually misunderstood by mystics, themselves—at least, at the outset. Over time the true meaning may become more clear.

Mystics make mistakes because they tend to interpret revelation according to their limited, human perspectives. Again, revelations from God should eventually make more sense. But those not from God would eventually prove to be a sham, provided the persons assessing a revelation are mentally healthy.

This idea is linked to the notion of true and false prophets, as found in the New Testament:

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them

That’s a lovely story and great for laying guilt trips on people if we don’t like what they’re doing or simply because we don’t like them in the first place! But in reality, it’s a bit problematic for us mere mortals.

Why?

Photo - Tim Evanson via Flickr

Photo – Tim Evanson via Flickr

Well, because some genuine prophets could appear ‘false’ if not enough time had passed to test a true revelation.² By the same token, some false prophets could be seen as ‘true’ by fanatics claiming that more time is needed to verify a false revelation.

One thing seems clear: This is not an easy area and many mistakes could be made by overly zealous, wish fulfilling individuals and groups. For those preferring to think for themselves, it’s sometimes hard to determine who’s misguided and who’s in tune with God.

¹ Matthew 15-20, New International Version, emphasis added.

² An example Christians often give here is http://biblehub.com/john/2-19.htm.


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Repression – Freud’s master defense mechanism

defend-444565_640We’ve probably all heard the psychological term “repressed” without stopping to think where it comes from.

The idea of repression usually turns up in sentences like, That bible thumper is so repressed, he can’t get it on with anyone. And in other insinuations like Billy Joel’s lyric, You Catholic girls start much too late.¹

I’ll talk about these examples a bit later but first, let’s understand what Freud meant by the idea of repression.

Freud believed that repression is widespread, leading many Freudian psychoanalysts to call it the “master” defense mechanism. Repression apparently occurs when anxiety provoking impulses or ideas are banished to the unconscious by the ego or superego.

  • Primary repression takes place when instinctual impulses are blocked before they reach consciousness.
  • Secondary repression occurs when camouflaged versions of an initial impulse are relegated to the unconscious.

An example of secondary repression would be a respected religious figure’s inability to remember a dream image of himself as an axe-murderer. The image generally would represent thanatos or the death instinct and, specifically, a desire to depose a threatening object (Freud’s use of ‘object’ includes other people). This violent desire is inconsistent with the dreamer’s conscious self-image, so the dream image is repressed.

Repression can be healthy when preventing the ego from being overwhelmed by anxiety. But it becomes unhealthy when fears and neuroses are never dealt with. Unresolved neuroses contribute to psychological rigidity and, in some instances, may impair overall functioning and quality of life.²

Image via Tumblr

Image via Tumblr

That’s the theory in a nutshell. With regard to sexuality, from a theological standpoint it’s hard to know when someone is merely repressed or if they’ve been called to celibacy, a perspective Freud could not understand. Also, some geneticists and physiologists theorize that people with low to non-existent sex drives are simply put together differently.

So the next time you hear a sexual joke about that “frigid” so-and-so, maybe think again. For all we know, the so-called “repressed” person might simply be different from most and possibly operating on a level that many are too conventional to appreciate.³

¹ Billy Joel, “Only The Good Die Young” on the album The Stranger.

² Freud began as a neurologist before founding psychoanalysis. For some decades supposedly “scientific” psychologists generally discredited his views but more recently neurology is turning its gaze back to the idea of repression and other Freudian concepts. This time, instead of flatly debunking Freud’s ideas, some researchers find them at least partly compatible with modern research. See:

³ Andy Warhol and saints from different world religions come to mind.