Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Subjectivity: The Mind’s I (Part I)

The title of this post is a direct steal from Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett. The Mind’s I is the title of a book they published in 1981, a collection of essays by various authors with the subtitle: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul. I’ve added the prefix because subjectivity is a recurring theme, at least in Part I.

After each essay they give a little commentary, but it’s the essays themselves that stimulated me. I’ve already written a post on one: Is God a Taoist? by Raymond M. Smullyan (refer Socrates, Russell, Sartre, God and Taoism in May 09).

So I will provide here my most significant impressions, or resultant thoughts, that just 3 of these essays have provoked. These are just from Part I of the book (there are 6 Parts) so I may well continue this discussion in a later post.

Borges and I by Jorge Luis Borges is an essay where Borges attempts to discriminate between his subjective and objective self in an accessible and entertaining way. It highlights the point made by John Searle in his book, MiND, that what distinguishes consciousness from other phenomena, that we try to investigate and understand, is that it has a distinctly subjective element that can neither be ignored nor isolated - it defies objectification by its nature.

The Dalai Lama makes a similar point in his book on science and religion, The Universe in a Single Atom, where he contends that neurological investigations into consciousness, whilst extremely edifying and illuminating, are really not the whole story without taking subjective experience into account.

The essay also explores, in an indirect way, the difference between the way we perceive ourselves and the way others do. I've always maintained that the most psychologically healthy relationships (work, family or friendship) are where these 2 perceptions closely align.

In the next essay, extracts from D. E. Harding's On Having No Head, Harding starts with an epiphany he had whilst looking at the Himalayas:

‘Past and future dropped away. I forgot who and what I was, my name, my manhood, animalhood, all that could be called mine. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, that present moment and what was clearly given in it.’

This, in itself, is an interesting revelation, coming from a man who makes no claim to mysticism. This epitomises subjective experience in as much as it cannot be shared with another. It's like someone, who viewed the world in colour, trying to explain it to a population of people who only saw shades of grey.

Harding then goes on to describe a world in which his head doesn’t exist for him, though he acknowledges they exist for other people – a form of solipsism. What I find significant is that he is highlighting what I call the inner and outer world that we all have, which is central to my own philosophy. The metaphor of ‘having no head’ which he talks about ‘literally’ (even a mirror image is a hallucination) is the void that exists in one’s mind except one’s thoughts. We have senses, yes, of which sight is the most dominating, but, as he points out, there is no screen that we view, it is simply ‘I’ looking out – the inner world’s most tangible connection to the outer world.

In other posts (specifically, Artificial Intelligence and Consciousness, Feb. 09) I argue that AI will never have this subjective sense that we have. So whilst machines can, and will be built to, ‘sense’ their environments, they won’t ‘experience’ it the way we do, is my contention. Most philosophers and scientists (including Dennett and Hofstadter) disagree with me, but both Borge’s and Harding’s essays merely underline this distinction for me.

Rediscovering the Mind by Harold J. Morowitz takes a different tack altogether. Morowitz, I assume, is a psychologist, and he tackles both the biologist and the physicist, who take a reductionist view of the world, whereby they presume they can explain macro-phenomena via investigation of micro-phenomena. Central to Morowitz’s thesis is an epistemological loop created by the accepted interpretation of quantum mechanics that it requires macro intervention by a conscious mind to produce a measurable result. He quotes Nobel laureate, Eugene Wigner: “It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness.” Because the biological reductionist reduces mind to neurons, thus molecules, thus quantum phenomena, Morowitz argues that we have a quantum mechanical epistemological loop from mind to quantum phenomena to mind.

The best analogy for superposition of states is one of those pictures that have 2 images intertwined, like the famous duck and rabbit combination that Wittgenstein once referred to, and there is even a Dali painting that uses it. The most effective ones are those utilising 2 contrasting tones where the shadow reveals one image and the light reveals another. The point is that your mind can only perceive one image or the other but not both at the same time, and you can even ‘switch’ between them. Well, quantum superposition is a bit like that (especially the famous Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment) but once you make the ‘measurement’ or the ‘observation’ you can’t switch back.

Hofstadter tackles this conundrum in his ‘Reflections’ of Morowitz’s essay by pointing out that the mysteries of consciousness and the mysteries of quantum physics are not the same. On this I would agree, but he hasn’t eliminated the conundrum or the epistemological loop. Hofstadter then explains quantum superposition of states, culminating in a description of Schrodinger’s (simultaneously live and dead cat) thought experiment, and a discussion on Hugh Everett III’s ‘many worlds interpretation’, which he describes as ‘this very bizarre theory’.

In fact, Hofstadter gives the best dismantling of Everett’s hypothesis that I’ve read, pointing out that there is a specific ‘subjective’ world that is the one you continue on in, that effectively eliminates all the other worlds. To quote Hofstadter: ‘The problem of how it feels subjectively is not treated; it is just swept under the rug.’ (Hofstadter’s italics)

I find it interesting that Hofstadter evokes ‘subjectivity’ to eliminate, in one stroke, Everett’s contentious interpretation. Having said that, Hofstadter expands on his theme, revealing, in prose I won’t attempt to replicate, how personal identity becomes meaningless in an ever bifurcating universe for each individual occupant.

But getting back to Morowitz, one of the salient points he makes is that the evolution of the universe is a series of discontinuities, starting with the Big Bang itself. A major jump in time, and the emergence of life is another discontinuity, followed by the emergence of consciousness. Morowitz even argues that humanity’s ability for inner reflection is another discontinuity again, though I’m sure many would contest this last hypothesis without necessarily contesting the previous ones.

But, also, one wonders if there is not a discontinuity between the quantum world and the so-called classical world, the organic and the inorganic, the sentient and the non-sentient. I think he has a point, when one looks at it from that perspective, ignoring the context of evolutionary time, that our reductionist philosophy, so prized by science in general, tends to ignore or brush aside.

I expect I will return to this subject in a later post.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Politics in religion, religion in politics

This is an unusual post for me because it’s an unapologetic critique of an international political organisation. This organisation claims a moral, canonical and, even Divine, legitimacy, yet, according to the one (well researched) book I’ve read, some of its activities have been as nefarious as any secret service organisation in the world. But, even if these accusations proved untrue, I would still oppose this organisation on philosophical grounds, because it’s the antithesis of everything I believe in, and its manifesto is to win the hearts and minds of the future world of humanity.

The book is Their Kingdom Come; Inside the Secret World of Opus Dei by Robert Hutchison (1997,2006). According to the back cover, Hutchison is a journalist, born in Canada, but now living in Switzerland. He’s been a correspondent for The Sunday Telegraph and The Daily Telegraph, and won 4 National Business Writing Awards for articles published in the Toronto Financial Post. Certainly, his knowledge and insights into the financial world is one of the book’s compelling features.

Opus Dei came to international attention when Dan Brown published his bestseller, The Da-Vinci Code, an elaborate work of fiction based on a conspiracy theory concerning the supposed lineage of Jesus. Before that, few people knew that Opus Dei even existed, and that’s probably the way Opus Dei preferred it. Hutchison’s book is partly an unauthorised biography of ‘The Work’s’ founder, Jose Maria Escriva de Balaguer (1902-1975), and partly an expose of Opus Dei’s numerous ‘corporate’ adventures. Opus Dei is Latin for ‘God’s Work’, which some found a pretentious title even when it was formulated in 1930, especially since Escriva was still a young Catholic priest in Spain. But according to the official version, it really started on the day of The Feast of Guardian Angels, 2 October 1928, when he had a vision of Opus Dei: “as He wanted it, and as it would become according to His wishes down through the centuries”, which, according to Hutchison, is ‘the postulation for Jose Maria Escriva’s sainthood unveiled to the world more than fifty years later.’

Hutchison, henceforth refers to it as ‘The Work’, which apparently was Escriva’s own terminology. Escriva’s vision was that the secular population achieved ‘sanctity’ through doing ‘work’. But central to this vision was that ordinary people required ‘instruction’ as they couldn’t be left to work things out for themselves, which Escriva saw as the real danger facing humanity. This particular doctrine is a central tenet of the Catholic Church, especially when one considers how Papal authority attempts to intervene in the most intimate matters of people’s lives, specifically their sex lives. The Vatican’s attitudes towards homosexuality and birth-control are anachronistic at best and just plain immoral at worst.

But this is only one theme of Hutchison’s book, even if it be the one that I find most abrasive. It goes directly against my own existentialist leanings, and even rubs against my own experiences of religion as a child, and is one of the reasons I rejected it.

But a man has no greater zeal than when he believes he has a specific mission from God, and Escriva lived up to that expectation in spades. According to Hutchison, and other commentators, there are 2 faces to Opus Dei, and they are incongruent if not downright contradictory. For example: on the one hand Opus Dei ‘teaches’ the virtue of poverty, humility and piety, yet it wields financial clout that gives the impression of an international banking institution. Hutchison exposes some of the financial schemes that he believes Opus Dei, or personnel linked to Opus Dei, have been involved in, and cites his sources. But, even in my home town of Melbourne, I’ve seen the results of Opus Dei’s financial largesse first hand.

In the April 1, 2001 edition of The Age, Erica Cervini reports on a little-known, in-house political skirmish involving 2 archbishops with philosophical divergent views on Opus Dei: ‘Under the previous archbishop, Frank Little, Opus Dei was unable to get a foothold in the archdiocese.’ In the same article: ‘Opus Dei… has been invited by Dr. Pel to supply a priest to run St. Mary’s Star of the Sea parish in West Melbourne.’ Archbishop Pel left this legacy to Melbourne, just before taking up his position as Cardinal George Pel, Archdiocese of Sydney. Pel is a well known Catholic conservative, who publicly defends even the most controversial statements and proclamations of the Pope in the Australian media.

I have personally seen the money spent on St. Mary’s Star of the Sea, and I recently quipped to someone it was like ‘a little bit of Rome in Melbourne’. Melbourne, I have to say, though I’m not that well-traveled, is one of the most multi-cultural and liberalised secular cities of the world. Before Opus Dei took over, one could find literature at St. Mary’s explaining all the religions of the world – I have a pamphlet explaining Buddhism, quite succinctly and eruditely, and there were many others. In more recent times, the only literature I’ve seen is on how to join the priesthood. So it’s a complete change of ideology, and I have no problem using that word in this context.

Money is an efficacious means to influence and control people; it opens doors and creates obligations. There are a number of religious institutions that appreciate and utilise this simple methodology. Hutchison quotes Javier Sainz Moreno, Professor of Law at Madrid University, and outspoken critic of Opus Dei: “Opus Die knows very well that money rules the world and that religious hegemony of a country or continent is dependent upon obtaining financial hegemony…”

Of course, St. Mary’s Star of the Sea is very small beer compared to the examples that Hutchison provides. On page 164, he writes: ‘…its only interest is the spiritual well-being of its members, and it never interferes with their lives. It doesn’t own anything, certainly not a bank, and it never plays politics.’ Hutchison then proceeds to do his best to demonstrate the contrary to all these claims. In particular, he dedicates a large part of his book, and provides considerable detail, concerning the political and financial machinations that occurred during the 70s in Latin America; in particular, Argentina and Chile.

To appreciate the origins of Opus Dei’s political leanings, if not its ambitions, Hutchison starts at the beginning. In Escriva’s formative years, he had to flee for his life over the Pyrenees during the Spanish civil war when priests were being summarily executed, and nearly lost his life in the attempt. This made Escriva a life-long enemy of Marxism and socialism, and led to Opus Dei members getting government positions under Franco. During the Cold War, according to Hutchison, Opus Dei formed links with American intelligence agencies both in Europe and in Latin America. Yet Escriva states in 1970: “If Opus Dei ever played politics – even for a moment – I would have left the Work at that very moment of error.”

But it is in proselytism that Opus Dei, not only sees its ‘Work’, but where it places its greatest emphasis, at least, to its members, if not the public. It’s this double-sided nature of Opus Dei that makes it most open to criticism and distrust. Hutchison quotes from ‘a dossier prepared by a former numerary (Opus Dei member) John Roche: The single most important activity in the life of a member of Opus Dei is recruitment or ‘proselytism’.

Roche quotes from Escriva’s own ‘manual’ called the Cronica: ‘None of my children can rest satisfied if he doesn’t win four or five faithful vocations each year.’

According to Hutchison, Opus Dei denies the existence of the Cronica, yet Hutchison quotes freely from a text, that he claims to be the Cronica, throughout the book.

In other parts of the book, Hutchison reports on the psychological stress that members suffered, resulting from cognitive dissonance that unquestioning obedience can demand, especially when that obedience requires almost constant deception. According to testimony of ex-members, Opus Dei is indeed a sect, by any definition, and its members suffer accordingly. (See footnote at end.)

But the most damning testimony comes from Miguel Fisac, an architect and Escriva’s 9th ‘Apostle’ who admonished himself when he finally left Opus Dei: “Now, Miguel, you will always tell the truth and you will try to be a good person, and nothing more.”

Fisac, who knew Escriva well, made the following revelation: “With the exception of Alvaro del Portillo, he never had a good word to say about anybody.” Alvaro del Portillo was Escriva’s personal confessor for 30 years, and became his successor when Escriva died in 1975. (The head of Opus Dei, as of 2001, was Bishop Jarvier Echeverria.)

Parts of Hutchison’s book read like an espionage thriller, that puts Dan Brown to shame, with at least two unsolved, yet related, murders, a number of suspicious deaths - most by heart attack and all opportunistic for their rivals – at least one suspected poisoning, and missing millions, involving banks with unknown stakeholders. Whilst Hutchison meticulously references his sources and carefully acknowledges what remains unknown or unproven, he leaves the reader in no doubt concerning his own opinions.

I have no need to add to the conspiracy theories concerning Opus Dei. Even at the most superficial level, Opus Dei is a political faction within an international political institution. The Vatican is effectively a ‘State’ within its own right; an oligarchy to all intents and purposes, and behaves like one. Opus Dei is the conservative faction of that state and has its own agendas that are far from transparent.

In 1982, Pope John Paul II officially proclaimed in an ‘Apostolic Constitution known as ut sit’ that Opus Dei was created ‘by Divine inspiration’, so it truly was a ‘Work of God’ and was now Canon law. As Hutchison points out, this makes Opus Dei ‘a state within the Church’ with its own authority to God independent of the Pope, which it could theoretically call upon if it ever saw fit. And what’s more it controls the Vatican finances, again, according to Hutchison, which makes it indispensable. The one consistent theme, that Hutchison maintains throughout his book, is the way Opus Dei uses financial muscle to get its own way.

Towards the end of the book, Hutchison deals with Islamic fundamentalism, which is perhaps the scariest part of the whole book. No Christian church will ever be able to have a dialogue with even moderate Muslims, while it insists that Jesus is the only path to spiritual salvation for the whole of humanity. One can see the distinct possibility of a collision between Christian and Islamic fundamentalism with the liberal, secular world caught in the middle, not only in Europe, which is Hutchison’s focus, but world wide. This doesn’t mean that atheism is the ideological answer to this collision; history shows that only moderates of both sides of any conflict can have a dialogue that will result in a pragmatic solution. I make this same point in a previous post (Left or Right, Feb.08).

In Hutchison’s last numbered chapter (I presume of the first edition), he reports on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Africa, Asia and Europe, and its inevitable collision course with the West, which I found amazingly prescient considering it was written prior to 9/11.

In the 2006 edition, he has written an epilogue that includes the canonisation of Escriva, as well as the most recent scandals and intrigues that have rocked the Church.

But its Opus Dei’s ‘opacity’ (Hutchison’s term) to the public and its firm belief that it is doing ‘God’s work’, quite literally, and therefore answers to no other law, that makes it so potentially dangerous. As Hugh Mackay points out in his book, Right & Wrong; how to decide for yourself, when you believe your personal morality is God’s law, you can justify any action, no matter how immoral that action may in fact be. ‘We are God’s chosen’ are the words of Opus Dei’s leaders in Rome, whom Hutchison claims he lived with for 4 years. “We have been chosen by God to save the Church”, Hutchison claims he was told ‘with utter conviction’.

You may wonder why I even bother to take an interest. There are 2 reasons: firstly, the philosophical premise that ordinary people should work things out for themselves is central to my own world view, and is the antithesis to Opus Dei’s philosophy; secondly, Opus Dei is a very secretive, almost clandestine organisation, commonly called the ‘White Mafia’, even by ordinary Catholics. And an institution - in particular - a religious institution that practices secrecy while feigning openness, must surely have hidden agendas, and therefore, repels trust.

In a much earlier post I talked about the importance of Trust (Apr.08) and how it was a requisite for the future beneficence of all humanity. Confucius (500BC) once contended that trust was the last commodity a leader could afford to lose. Opus Dei represents the complete opposite to trust, just through its very existence. A point that Hutchison makes as well.

I wish I could dismiss Opus Dei as a medieval anachronism, because that’s what I believe it is, but it plays a central role in Vatican politics. Its agenda is to infiltrate every institution of power in the Western World and the Developing World. The fact that it prefers this agenda to remain hidden is the real reason it should be exposed. Opus Dei and the Catholic Church both know this: if its real political ambitions were known, it would surely fail in today’s liberal, secular society.

As long as Opus Dei holds sway in the Vatican, the Catholic Church will remain a backward institution, out of time and out of place in the 21st Century.

Footnote: For testimonies from ex-members, refer and here.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Interview with a Buddhist nun

Robina Courtin is an Australian Buddhist nun, who’s lived in America for the last 15 years, and runs a prison ‘outreach’ programme, for want of a better term, which she initiated. (Actually called Liberation Prison Project and now also in Oz.)

I saw the movie she mentions, Chasing Buddha, in 2000, at a special screening where the filmmaker, her nephew (about 21 at the time) was present for a Q & A. I didn’t know she was an Aussie when I went to see the movie (I thought she must be American) but the movie opens with this off-screen voice in an Australian accent swearing like the proverbial trooper.

I remember that one member in the audience took offence, during the Q&A, saying she didn’t represent Buddhism at all. I think she’s changed even since the movie was made – in this interview (see the link below) she is less angry, though no less passionate. I can identify with that as well.

She has a very existentialist view of Buddhism, which is very similar to mine. I particularly agree with her existentialist interpretation of karma. Although I don’t agree with her ‘hypothesis’ that our current karma is a result of a past life. But her views on consciousness should not be summarily dismissed, even though they’re contrary to current Western thinking.

This link is only available for the next 2 weeks, and the interview is 55 mins long, but worth the time spent in my opinion. It's the Tuesday 2 June interview in the list. If you download it as an audio file, you can listen to it at your own leisure, but you won't get the musical selections, for copyright reasons.

I can identify to some extent with her childhood, both her attraction to religion and her trauma, though mine was not as intense, but it was soul-destroying or soul-damaging, albeit in a different way.

When you hear her sing, you wouldn’t know it was the same person.