Saturday, 7 November 2015

Strong Agnosticism

Agnosticism tends to get characterized as a kind of shrugging your shoulder's position. But strong agnosticism asserts much more than a shrug of the shoulders. Not only do I not know, but you don't know and they don't know either. None of us know. Our ignorance is in fact what unites us as human beings. We are all born into a mystery. Knowing is not an available option. The two options are (1) Embracing not knowing (cos we don't) or (2) Pretending to know something. Naive realists think from inside a box in which everything is either a thing (or something that happens to a thing or some that is done by a thing) or it is nothing. Their thinking asserts: "God is not a thing, therefore it must be nothing." Whereas in fact, if God exists, she must exist prior to all distinction. Which is why she must necessarily be unknowable... even for those of us who are interested in getting to know her.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Growing up and Waking up

We don't achieve the higher stages of waking up and growing up just by knowing that they exist... we need to practice.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Letting the mystery be

I think this is exactly right, and one of the reasons we should think of atheism as partial ... It seems like atheism doesn't sufficiently let the mystery be... like at some level it is in denial about the mystery.

Probably so is theism. Maybe even more so. Like we can't allow ourselves to be in the presence of the mystery so we have to cling to cookey notions which claim to pin the mystery down - this is how so many of our religious traditions turn into idol worship. They miss the critical part of the story of journeys which understands that the signpost is not the destination, and that you can never arrive at a destination - because by then it has ceased to be a destination.

I think humanity will turn out much more harmoniously it we embrace the mystery, celebrate the mystery, invite it into our homes, be thankful for it, wake up into the mystery in the morning, go to sleep in the light of the mystery at night, breath in the mystery, feel the mystery permeate every sinew of ourselves.

I doubt very much that anyone has ever killed in the name of the un-nameable and unknowable... Not really.

Oh sure you can run towards the enemy waving your sword and shouting "Allah is unknowable". But if you think Allah has told you to kill someone then clearly you don't really understand what "unknowable" means.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The Misunderstandings of Atheism

A typical misunderstanding that atheists have is thinking that if you contemplate god/s then that means you therefore must think that god/s exist/s.  Although lately I've been having my doubts about this, it must at least be one step up from this patently false notion to think of god/s as that which allow/s for existence, and not merely something that exists within existence. If God is, she must be in a way that leaves everything being exactly how it is. Otherwise it wouldn't be this way.

I don't know, really. I much prefer questions to answers. If I could have my life turn out anyway I wanted it to, it would be to become the embodiment of an unanswerable question. The thing that tends to really annoy me about atheists is that they don't have enough questions stuck deep enough inside them that they are happy to spam all of life with their trite scientistic empiricism. Empiricism, as the Answer To Everything, is a very boring God.

Perhaps there are no gods in our reality, but there are other realities in which there are gods.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Dawkin's Atheist Fundamentalism Is Embarassing

I like trying to understand things - in the sense of considering how coherent thinking can be accomplished or developed or progressed. Where is our thinking coherent and where is it inconsistent? What is useful about it? What is not useful? What could it be used for?

What are we not yet thinking? Perhaps we can hope faintly that taking the thinking that has been done up to now and building on it could make something better.

One of the many mistakes Dawkins makes is thinking that "Atheism" is somehow opposite to "Belief".

Whereas in fact Atheism and Religious Believers are really just 2 kinds of believers... they both believe stuff. It may well be that one kind of believer has a bigger goody-bag than the other (arising by virtue of their set of beliefs) - I'm not going to argue about that right now.

But I don't think Atheists should be allowed to get away with the nutty notion that they don't have any beliefs at all.

Both Atheists and Religious Believers are kinds of what we could probably call "Positionalists" ... which is to say they speak on top of a structure of assumption that there is something fixed or fixable that can be said about the Mystery.

I don't think the idea that Atheists and Religious Believers are two kinds of "positionalists" is a hypothesis... I think it is more like a poem or a painting. I don't intend to say some "true description of some fact about the world". But rather I am mean to paint a picture of the world that is appealing or entertaining or beautiful enough that it gets repeated.

Let's hear from Richard Rorty about the perils of capitalizing the word Truth...
"We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that the truth is out there. To say the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations... The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not.

The fact that Newton's vocabulary lets us predict the world more easily than Aristotle's does not mean that the world speaks Newtonian... The world DOES NOT SPEAK. Only we do that.

Truth cannot be out there - cannot exist independently of the human mind - because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own - unaided by the describing activities of human beings - cannot.

The suggestion that truth, as well as the world, is out there is a legacy of an age in which the world was seen as the creation of a being who had a language of his own. If we cease to attempt to make sense of the idea of such a nonhuman language, we shall not be tempted to confuse the platitude that the world may cause us to be justified in believing a sentence true with the claim that the world splits itself up, on its own initiative, into sentence-shaped chunks called "facts".

But if one clings to the notion of self-subsistent facts, it is easy to start capitalizing the word "truth" and treating it as something identical either with God or with the world as God's project. Then one will say, for example, that Truth is great, and will prevail."
Richard Rorty, "Contingency Irony Solidarity"

So the irony is that Atheists like Dawkins, with their insistence on thingifying the world, are actually doing more to keep alive the legacy of pre-rational dogma, now wearing the clothes of rationalism, than the pre-rational religions they are seeking to liberate us from.

Atheism is a description "from the outside" applied by a language that takes theism as a starting point ... as opposed to what it looks like having an absence of belief "from the inside".

Interestingly enough, Dawkin's reductionism precisely does not allow for the existence of any views from the inside looking out.

Just as an example, one way (one fairly bad way) we could characterize god would be as a view from the inside looking out, contrasted with the view from the outside looking in... the one that western science is really good at!

Coming back to the question of what an atheist is or isn't, I suppose my thought was that Dawkins-infected people like to say things like "atheism is an absence of belief rather than the existence of any"... and I tend to think that is mostly a self-deception. Atheism (A-god-ism) exists as a reaction to godism. These are effectively two sides of the same coin. Which was the thing I was pointing out. Action and reaction.

If a person is a scientist, they don't need to say they are an atheist. They could just say "I'm a scientist". But lots of Dawkins-infected people like to say Atheist and Scientist like these are two words for the same thing.

Ken Wilber has written a lot of books that point out how a scientific methodology can be applied to the internal first person I and We realms just as it can to the external It and Its realms.

So science quite apart from not being the opposite of god, may turn out to be the most viable route to illuminating the nature of god - or even better providing access to god.

Hi, Andrew - just for clarity here - are you saying truth doesn't exist without language?

If so i'm tempted to disagree: surely x is x and not not x wether language exists or not...?

Yes, I think I am saying truth does not exist without language, or at least I was quoting Richard Rorty, and Rorty was saying that... He is saying truth does not exist without language because only descriptions of the world can be true or false. For example, you don't say of a chair "this chair is true"... "this chair is false" ... you only say that about descriptions of the world.

The world does not present itself to us in some already-pre-described state. The world presents itself to us in a state which does not have built-in descriptions. Human beings meet this world with our descriptions of it, some of which others of us may agree to be "true" descriptions, and some of which others of us may say are "false"... But the point is that none of the language that we use is "already out there in the world", just waiting for us to discover it.

This is not to say that the world itself is not out there (which is a common mis-interpretation of Rorty). Rorty is not proposing any kind of slide into nihilism or relativism or chaos. He is not saying that there is no world out there to be described. Only that, while the world presents itself to us in a state that is not of our own design, the languages that we speak are human creations. The world does not present itself to us in "sentence-shaped chunks called facts".

I'll try to use your language if I can, although I'm not exactly sure how it maps on, but something like: in "x is x and not not x", the world only contains x in the first place, if you language contains x.

Although it is slightly an aside, the whole technology of semantic search engines have made it clear that you don't need to know anything about the world as such, but instead you only need have analysis rules for the grammar of a language, to be able to provide pretty good answers to just about any question about the world that anyone cares to ask you. The reason this works is because our grammar provides us with what Kenneth Burke called a "terministic screen".

The wider context I was trying to think towards was an access to a relationship with the mystery that allows it to be itself. It has seemed to me for a long time now that we have almost no capacity for allowing the mystery to be itself. All our attempts to name it, dismiss it, deny it, understand it, appreciate it, dodge it, forget about it, laugh at it etc. etc. don't allow it to be itself.

We need a way of thinking about the mystery which confronts the void in all its voidness. Even saying it is unknowable starts to become an answer, and so dulls its edge. What relationship with the mystery allows it to be itself?

The mystery is unknowable, but also it is not even unknowable.

But the truth of a statement is dependent (and therefore based) on the truth out there in the world: a chair is a chair and not not a chair wether we can describe it with language or not.

If the world contains a chair the existence of the chair is true without the need for a language to describe it.

The statement: "the world only contains x in the first place, if you language contains x." also can't be true because it means we must have a word for an item before we knew of its existence...

We didn't have the word 'dog' before we had actually dogs and, further more, if dogs existed in another universe that lacked language the dogs existence would still be true.
In order to see the world in the way that Rorty is recommending, you could try the following question.

Here's the question: What things exist in the world, for which we do not have any language that describes them?

Something you may notice about the category of "things for which we don't have any language" is that there aren't any things in this category.

I think Rorty is saying is that this ought to make us suspicious!

Here is possibly a fuller answer that Rorty might have given himself. (Again from "Contingency, Irony, Solidarity").
"This conflation [between our language and our world] is facilitated by confining attention to single sentences as opposed to vocabularies. For we often let the world decide the competition between alternative sentences (e.g between "Red wins" and "Black wins" or between "The butler dit it" and "The doctor did it").

In such cases, it is easy to run together the fact that world contains the causes of our being justified in holding a belief with the claim that some non-linguistic state of the world is itself an example of truth, or that some such state "makes a belief true" by "corresponding" to it.

But it is not so easy when we turn from individual sentences to vocabularies as wholes. When we conside examples of alternative language games - the vocabulary of Saint Paul versus Freud's, the jargon of Newton versus that of Aristotle, the idiom of Blake versus that of Dryden - it is difficult to think of the world as making one of these better than another, of the world as deciding between them.

When the notion of "description of the world" is moved from the level of criterion-governed sentences within language games to the language games as wholes, games which we do not choose between by reference to criteria, the idea that the world decides which descriptions are true can no longer be given a clear sense.

It becomes hard to think that that vocabulary is somehow already out there in the world, waiting for us to discover it.

Attention (of the sort fostered by intellectual historians like Thomas Kuhn and Quentin Skinner) to the vocabularies in which sentences are formulated, rather than to individual sentences, makes us realize, for example, that the fact that Newton's vocabulary lets us predict the world more easily than Aristotle's does not mean that the world speaks Newtonian. The world does not speak. Only we do that."

Monday, 15 October 2012

Big Bang and religion mixed in Cern debate

RE: Big Bang and religion mixed in Cern debate

If we think of religious ideas in the same way as we think of artistic and cultural ideas, ie. not as BAD METAPHYSICS (religion tends to make really bad metaphysics), but instead as claims about BEAUTY or GOODNESS or SPIRIT, it is possible to find common ground between people who like science and people who like religion... In the same way that it is possible to find common ground between people who like tennis and people who like football. Which is not to say I think that all or even much religion is beautiful or good... I think a great deal of it is ugly and bad. My point is just that we aren't going to find any common ground if either religious people or scientific people keep viewing religion in that way.

If we start asking about any given religion: "Is it beautiful, or is it ugly?" and, "Is it kind or is it nasty?" etc. we will do better than if we ask: "Does this religion make accurate metaphysical claims?" Most religions were designed before human beings had thought very much about metaphysics, and so tend to be pretty rubbish at it. And rubbing people's noses in their stupidity never made for a good party.

However there is one place where I think modern metaphysics does agree with at least a couple of religions ... and that is the at the point of origin: ie. "Why is there anything rather than nothing?" ... and the delightful answer being that we don't know... nobody knows.

My feeling is that our collective ignorance of origin should be a primary tenet of our education system. If we could get people up to the level of an appreciation of our collective ignorance, I think we all might start to get a bit less arrogant.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Being an Intention

As a 21st century office worker, I tend to define myself as my skillset: the computer languages I have programmed with, the tools and technologies I am familiar with, the conceptual and design frameworks I have used on previous projects... and so on.  

And job opportunities tend to be defined in these same terms. A typical job role advert arriving in my email inbox states a list of 5 or 6 such requirements... skills they want me to have.

Of course there is nothing wrong with having skills. Skills are great. Skills are useful. When I hire a plumber, I definitely want him to have the requisite skills. And providing my skills as a software developer to other businesses is completely in line with being of service to the community in which I am embedded.

But, in the end, working from the perspective of these kinds of parameters and defining myself as a skillset is never going to be ultimately satisfying.

What we really desire to be working for and from, what really motivates us as human beings is our INTENTIONS. What does that look like in practical terms?

If job roles were advertised based on intentions they would say things like:

  • In this job you will make the world a better place
  • In this job you will save people’s lives
  • In this job you will reduce the suffering of old people
  • In this job you will end hunger

Or would they? … If your job role was stated as an intention, rather than as a skillset, what would the stated intention be? … And (which is more to the point) does that intention move and inspire you?

And there’s the RUB!

If the purpose behind your job role is not something that you find inspiring... WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING? … Come to that, what the hell is your company doing?

Ok, world! Its time to wake up! And notice. What the hell are we doing?

Things get pretty well straightened out when we start to define ourselves in terms of our intentions. Because there’s no hiding in there. As long as I am defining myself as a skillset, and going to work on the basis of my skillset and being paid on the basis of my skillset, it is easy for it to slip past me that: the work I am doing is utterly futile, counter-productive, wasteful, and has absolutely no good reason for it.

In fact when I consider the work I do from the perspective of the intention behind it, I notice that I should quit my job RIGHT NOW... and so should you!

We should quit our jobs and go and do something that is an expression of an intention that is inspiring, worth spending our lives on, that moves us and is satisfying as a way to define who we in fact are.

Only then will we start to escape the trap of an education system and a working culture that defines us according to a set of skills that we either do or don’t have.

Friday, 30 September 2011

How to understand how a universe or some universes can give rise to themselves

Plausibly Time is something that arises inside a universe, or inside our experience, rather than Time being a framework inside of which a universe arises (ie. not that).

Similarly Space is plausibly something that arises inside a universe, rather than being a framework inside of which universes arise.

So to understand how a universe or some universes can give rise to themselves, we may need to think about it from a perspective which does not include any of the things that plausibly only arise inside such a universe, things like Time and Space.

If we start from a perspective that is outside of Time and Space, then we may be able start to see clearly how universes could give rise to themselves... if they wanted to. ;-)

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Purpose is an ascription not an innate aspect of action

I think I agree with Erik Scothron if I understand him. Purpose seems to me to be an interpretation that is ascribed to someone by subjecting them to a "point of view" ... i.e. YOUR point of view. Or when a community does it, OUR point of view. The members of a language community use language to interpret a person and hence ascribe that person with particular intentions or purposes. We can, naturally enough, also do that to ourselves by borrowing (using, or more likely being used by) the language that the community we are a part of speaks.

The proposal that purpose is an innate part of action seems to me to be not a candidate for truth or falsity. You can of course go ahead and say things like that, but what could ever count as evidence for or against? (Rhetorical.)

The other day it came up with this: The reason that anybody does anything is that they are trying to make the world a better place for everybody. Some people don't know that this is the reason yet. This is also not a candidate for truth or falsity either, but it occurred to me that it could be a useful way to interpret people.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Authenticity, self and identity

Economist article on Ideology and "Self" - although for self read "identity"

Plausibly a "self" can be thought of as the space inside of which experiences (such as thoughts and feelings and other kinds of occurings happen) and not any of the content that occurs inside that space. A better word for the content would probably be "identity" not self. So the article above isn't really about self, rather it is about the ability to define, for your self, a consistent identity - i.e. one in which all the content is aligned and in agreement.

If you look at it from this perspective, being true to your self starts to appear as a matter of identifying as the space itself, and not ANY of the content within it. And so from this perspective authenticity is always a consequence of GIVING SOMETHING UP rather than misidentifying your self as being any one THING.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Is God beautiful or ugly?

Statements like "god exists / does not exist" and statements about "truth and falsity" probably don't really belong in the same language game. We could call putting these together a "category mistake". In the same way statements about how to swing your tennis racket don't belong in discussions about football.

There is value in an understanding and appreciating of the interior realms just as there is in the exterior realms. Knowledge of the exterior realms gives you power with respect to building bridges and buildings and iPads and nuclear reactors and living longer and etc. Knowledge of the interior realms gives you power with respect to human solidarity, love, beauty, being reconciled and consoled in the face of the sadness and suffering that we have to live with until humanity gets to the point where pain and suffering has been effectively eliminated... and so on.

I suspect that telling people that their "belief in god" is superstitious nonsense tends not to go down so well with people who consider that they do believe in god. If instead, you say to those people: "I appreciate what you call your belief in god, in the same way that I appreciate picasso", you do at least have a place to start having a conversation.

If people could start thinking of their religion as a kind of cultural performance art, instead of as a bogus alternative science, we could hope that some of the confusions might just go away. It would allow people who enjoy such practices to go on enjoying them, without needing to justify doing so to the extent that they feel they need to apply to the courts to prevent school children being taught about Darwin.

Some people like to play tennis, others like to play football. If you happen to like tennis, it is slightly bizarre to find football repulsive - boring, uninteresting yes, but repulsive? ... that seems strange to me.

I completely understand people saying something like "worshipping God... nah that's not the game for me", but the animosity to someone else's hobby when it is not causing any trouble just does not compute.

Of course if someone wants to play a game called "crashing planes into high buildings" or "disrupting the educational curriculum" that is a completely different matter.

Educated people should choose their battles carefully. Otherwise you simply end up recruiting for the other side.

There are a category of statements such as "God exists" which simply don't belong in the same vocabulary as statements like "prove or disprove".

What would or could ever count as a proof? Are we expecting God to turn up for an interview on the Tonight Show?

Such statements as "God exists" should not be judged on the basis of whether they are true or false, but on the basis of whether they are beautiful or ugly. It might be that you think they are ugly, but it is the wrong question to ask whether they are true.

I'm not expecting anyone to think that what I am saying about "belief in God" is true, but I am hoping someone might think what I am saying is beautiful or useful.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

We really don't know!

There is a mystery that lies at the heart of being and the heart of being human: We don't know. And we don't know. And we don't know... We really don't know! :-)

Thinking that we know something (when we don't) makes us stupid. The truth is that we don't know. In fact the more that we find out about the universe, the more astonishing the mystery becomes... Why is the universe so huge? (Incomprehensibly vast.) What is it all for? Where did it all come from?

I think we can be forgiven for thinking that the universe has a sense of humour to give rise in the way it has to beings such as we are who live in this predicament of mystery in which we find ourselves.

My feeling is that spiritual fulfilment lies on a path that leads to putting ourselves into a direct relationship with that mystery and the silence with which it responds to our questions about it. To the extent that we retreat from the unknowable into the merely unknown, to that extent we miss out on the ecstasy, consolation and human solidarity that is available from that place.

Alternatively we could say that such questions are meaningless and valueless. But I don't think so. I think that the value of such unanswerable questions lies in their ability to put us into a direct relationship with that mystery that lies at the heart of being.

Post scripts:

(1) Is why anything exists at all simply unknown, or is it unknowable, or is it just a stupid question?

(2) It would be very boring if there wasn't a mystery at the heart of being.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

How does sexual ever mean spiritual?

One way in which the relationship between sexuality and spirituality becomes apparent to us is when we consider our ancestors. We all have an unbroken chain of ancestors that disappear over the horizon of the past. We have ancestors in every age that humanity existed. And prior to humanity existing we had some kind of lineage even back beyond that.

If we think of spirituality as a word that refers to our connectedness, it is not hard to see how the sexual animal that each of us is provides us with a connection which roots us into the flow of life. One of our most fundamental connections to the flow of life comes to us via sex.

If we accept that one of our fundamental connections to the past of long ago, to history and even to prehistory comes to us via the sexual connection between our ancestors going back across the generations, it is not to hard to think of spirituality as being a way of referring to our CONNECTEDNESS, or our ROOTEDNESS. We have a relationship with the past, the distant past, and the very distant past. And possibly we have a relationship with the future and the distant future.

If we extend these time-lines of connectedness out even further into the past and future indefinitely we start to see that we each of us have a temporal relationship with the a-temporal. That is to say we have a temporal relationship with the eternal.

Our rootedness in the present moment lies on a timeline that is woven together through sexual intimacy, not just between each pair of parental ancestors but also as Freud pointed out between parents and their children.

And yet this rootedness on our given timeline is only one of the kinds of rootedness that has a bearing on our lives.

We are not only rooted in time, but also rooted in space. Right here and right now we each of us find ourselves in THIS PLACE and THIS MOMENT.

However our connectedness extends far beyond this. The simple awareness of our physical bodies connection to their surroundings is another point of connection, as is the intermingling of our minds with other’s minds.

Indeed the threads that go to make up our rootedness are not only spatial and temporal and sexual. The connections that we have with the people we interact with regularly, our friends and family, our neighbours, our religious groups and community groups, our work colleagues, our old friends and friends of friends, and new friends, and on and on… Even strangers. Like the stranger you met on a train and had a strangely compelling conversation with.

Everything we say to everyone we say it to. Every object in our physical world. Each piece of clothing we put on our bodies. Each action we take to move ourselves through the spatial environment we are embedded in. All of these things, all of these connections, are hinting to us moment by moment regarding the FULLNESS OF OUR CONNECTION with the great totality of everything.

It starts to become apparent how misguided is the identification of ourselves with the extents of our bodies, the extents of our skin, and even the extents of our personal history. Imagine taking the universe away and leaving only your body, or only the time that started with your birth and will end with your death. Who would you be then? Certainly not the person you are now... certainly not the fantastically embedded and connected and thoroughly integrated part of the universe that you find yourself being, moment by moment that you live your life.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Plausibly the role of conscious being in the universe is the self-realisation of "god".

Plausibly the role of conscious being in the universe is the self-realisation of "god". So our "job" in being conscious beings is to elevate our level of consciousness so as to become god, smiling back at each other. The universe wants that from us because it has a sense of humour.

All this time we have been chasing after understanding god and having a relationship with god and the irony may turn out to be that we are god. She was here all the time, waiting for us to see the obvious, smiling at us from deep within our own souls. Just a suggestion. :-)

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Let's make god tonight!

I was directed to this talk given Daniel Denett by Luke Clayborn Hopper.

I actually love this talk. Dennett is such a mischievious philosopher, wickedly pouring scorn on the sloppy thinking he finds in the religious faith communities.

However having listened to the talk, I got involved in a conversation with some people on facebook about the talk, and this blog post is the result of that conversation.

We all speak a language that we have at best only partial control over. For most of us, most of the words, phrases and even sentences that we use have been inherited.

Perhaps sometimes when we talk to each other we make new connections, and consequently we invent new pieces of language? We find ourselves saying things that we have never said or heard before; ideas which are surprising even to the speaker who happens to be speaking.

I tend to think that it is useful to think about religious ideas in a similar way to the way that we think about art. It doesn't occur to us to have to ask about a great work of art: "Is this true?" A much more pertinent question is: "Is this beautiful?" ... Is what you or I have to say about Ggod beautiful? Or is it ugly? Is judaism/christianity/islam beautiful? Or is it ugly? Or which parts of it are beautiful? Which parts are ugly?

Scientistic thinking tends to be less good at addressing issues of beauty or goodness than it does addressing issues of truth. Creating an opposition between science and religion is a bit like creating an opposition between science and art. Although science and art have a lot to contribute to each other’s discipline and each other's area of expertise, they do a less good job at judging the value of the other. Holding science up in this way tends to weaken scientists attempts to educate people. People looking for spiritual answers fail to find them there, and subsequently get infected with mythic and magical religion.

Holding science up in opposition to religion is a big home-goal w.r.t. human advancement on the part of scientists. The path forward from mythic, magical, tribe-centred spirituality is a path towards all-human-centred, global (really universal) oneness. It points in the direction of universal love. It points in the direction of ecstatic union; it points in the direction of ecstatic union being the normal condition of living for all people. It has only one of its many faces pointing to science, all be it that face from a certain point of view is a very beautiful one.

One of the clich├ęs that gets bandied about is that “god is love”. But I tend to think that god is the state of a relationship that is beyond love. God and love and not the same state. That is why we have two words. So it would be better to say that god is a state of a relationship which is beyond the state of love. When you are in a relationship with someone which is in a higher state than love (a state which includes and transcends love, and thereby goes beyond love) we could say that the state of your relationship is the state of god. This is why I like to say “Lets make god in our relationships”.

In reflecting on these thoughts, I wrote this over on my poetry blog: Let's make god tonight!

And then someone asked me: What is "scientistic" thinking?

And this is what I wrote: or ...

Perhaps I am not using the best word.

I just mean that kind of way of thinking about life which uses the authority of science to justify its self-righteousness and fails to honour how much more there is to being human than merely understanding QM and gravity. The grammar of our lives occurs in the first person and second person - not only the third person.

Saying "God does not exist" is as vacuous as saying "God does exist". Neither statement makes any difference to anything. Except some people can get to have an argument about it. I would guess that that is why Karen Armstrong says: "that is the wrong question".

Which prompted me to consider what would be a more useful question?

Here is what I came up with:

What relationship could I have with the eternal such that having that relationship would make the world a better place?

Or to spell it out in a bit more detail:

What relationship can I design for myself to have with the eternal (everything / all of it / all of everything / the whole shebang [… shh… whisper this … god … whisper even quieter …. and / or any other human being]) … what relationship can I design for myself to have with the eternal such that having that relationship with the eternal would make the world a better place for myself, my community and the world at large?

Could we design our relationship(s) with the eternal explicitly and deliberately from the design principle of causing the betterment of humanity?

And then later on I wrote this:

It is not science that is the problem. Science can be wondrous, beautiful, useful, transcendent, nurturing, exciting, life-sustaining. The problem is using science as a smoke screen that blinds us to The Mystery. Like as though there is no mystery. We just sweep the mystery under the carpet of science.

There is A Mystery that lies at the heart of being and the heart of being human. We don’t know! We really don’t know. All good education points humanity in the direction of realizing our fundamental ignorance.

I am not advocating sloppy thinking either on the part of people who spend their lives contemplating The Mystery nor on the part of people who spend their lives contemplating a Unified Field Theory. I am merely suggesting that we should not measure success in spirituality by the measure of what constitutes success in physics or philosophy.

A successful spirituality is one that supports individuals and groups and communities in the being the designers of their own relationship with the eternal (the whole-thing, whatever you want to call that). It is a spirituality that points in the direction of peace between people – communities, families, neighbours, countries, tribes. It tends to unite people, to be a cause for celebration, joy, happiness, ecstasy. A successful spirituality protects people from their fears, allows us to reconcile ourselves with our own suffering and the suffering of others. Until such time as humanity manages to transcend death, a successful spirituality ultimately supports us in preparing ourselves for our own death and the death of those we love.

None of this necessarily requires a discussion of god’s existence or otherwise (unless you think it does). In fact none of that necessarily requires a dogmatic cosmology or worldview of any kind. Does god exist? I don’t care… How are we doing? How are we getting on? I care about that!

When speaking about the realm of Mystery, the questions we ask are critically important. Getting attached to answers that we come up with in response to those questions is simply a mistake. Any such answers are like places we pass through on a journey. They are not places to set up camp and defend to the death. They make absolutely rubbish justifications to pin tribal conflicts on to.

The realm of Mystery is a realm where the more open a question is the more useful and beautiful that question tends to be. It is a realm that invites us to ask ever more beautiful questions, in full awareness that no answers to those questions are ever going to be satisfying. It is the questions themselves (if they are any good) that nurture us.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Simon Schaffer: Communicating Knowledge is Also Always Making It

Simon Schaffer (Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge University):

"[The main theme of my professional life since arriving back in Cambridge] has been working out all the consequences I can think of of the idea that communicating knowledge is also always making it. So there's a very common idea which has initial plausibility but which is in fact completely false that what one is at as a scholar or researcher or whatever is working solidly backstage making knowledge, finding out new truths, making connections, and then subsequently somewhere else in a completely different way, all of this is going to be communicated. Its going to be communicated by publication, in teaching, in broadcasting, in exhibitions and so on.

"And I guess my experience over the last quarter of a century is that that's exactly the wrong picture of what happens. And on the contrary almost all the good ideas that I've ever had (there aren't very many of them) have happened in the process of deliberating, communicating, exchanging and so on, working with students (especially PhD students), and working with teams to organise and put on and interpret and plan and discuss exhibitions, and work in museums, working with groups around broadcasting on radio and television and so on. All of that has provided me with the places and opportunities to actually find out new stuff. And on the contrary the arrow almost points in the oposite direction (counter intuitively); it points from the museum to the study, it points from the [student] supervision to the article, it points from the televison programme to the book... not the other way round. And in retrospect that's really what I spent the last 25 years doing: television."

Mostly I'm posting the video here for the section I have transcribed above. You might want to move on the talk by Steven Johnson after the first couple of minutes. He is discussing a very similar idea but from a less academic standpoint.

There is a rough transcript of this video here: Transcript of 2008 interview with Simon Schaffer - starting from the section titled "Third session". (The transcript also has notes from the previous sections of the interview.) However above is a much more accurate transcript of just this very short section from the beginning of this video.

As well as being on YouTube, the whole interview from 2008 can be downloaded : here, although I would say that for the general viewer far the most interesting section is the final part.

I was reminded of this interview by watching this TED video which is kind of a presentation of a similar idea but from a less academically oriented sphere:

Steven Johnson - discusses: Where good ideas come from?

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Pickup Artists, Seduction, Feminists, Emotional Manipulation and Intention

I wrote the following blog post in response to a discussion I stumbled across about "Pickup Artists". (See Wikipedia on Pickup artists and this somewhat confrontational discussion on "Feminist Pitbull": A thread for discussing Elana Clift’s Thesis “Picking Up and Acting Out: Politics of Masculinity in the Seduction Community” ... and a book or 2 about it: The Pickup Artist: The New and Improved Art of Seduction and The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists )

Here is what I think about this:

All human interaction is a kind of manipulation. It is not manipulation that is the problem, but what type of manipulation is being practised. What I mean is: what purpose/intention is the manipulation serving.

For example we don't always tell people that we don't know very well the brutal truth about themselves. This is otherwise known as "Not Hurting People's Feelings". In this kind of way (such as "Not Hurting People's Feelings") in all interactions between people all of us try to get more of what we want out of each other, and less of what we don't want.

So ultimately none of this is really that important. Its more of a kind of "given". Of course you are going to try to do your best to take care of other people's feelings.

Much more important therefore is the intentions you have about what you do with that. For example: Are you trying to make the world a better place, or are you simply trying to increase the size of the pile that you yourself happen to be sitting on. At the end of the day, it is our INTENTIONS that matter. And they matter MORE than the means by which we go about achieving them.

I don't mean to suggest that good ends can be used to justify bad means. Only that in the situation that is being talked about here, namely the way we all manipulate each other's feelings so as to get more of what we want from each other and less of what we don't want, the skill with which we do that is not so critical as the purpose in aid of which that skill is being put to use.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Transfinite vs. Absolute Infinity, Multiverse vs. Universe, and the Silence that Comes from asking the Unanswerable Question

This is a pre-1909 image of Georg Cantor (he w...Image via WikipediaOut of the many types of infinities that get discussed, two of them seem IMO to stand in greatest contrast to each other: the "Transfinite" Infinity described by Cantor (an infinity that you get to by starting at 1 and adding 1 to it infinitely many times) and the Absolute Infinity which is an infinity that you get to just by being there in the first place. Absolute infinity cannot be arrived at by starting from somewhere else. You can only get to Absolute infinity by starting from Absolute infinity. However big your transfinite infinity gets, it never quite reaches the absolute. Although another word for Absolute Infinity could possibly be Zero. There is at the very least a poetic correspondence between Zero and Absolute Infinity. Like the man said: Everything == Nothing. 

It doesn't seem to me to be likely that we are going to be able to do an experiment in our universe that can empirically prove or disprove the existence of other universes. If such an experiment existed, I would be inclined to include that other universe into this one, and think of it more as a branch of our universe. The point of the word "Universe" being in part a place where we draw a boundary around everything that is measurable or detectable in our experience. I don't mean to put any stop to multi-verse speculation... but surely it is only ever going to be speculation?

The really satisfying and nurturing part of this conversation for me is the appreciation of the extent of the mystery. We don't know and we don't know and we don't know. We really Don't Know. Personally I enjoy listening to the silence that comes from asking the unanswerable question.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Knowing ourselves as language designers: how plagiarism can be a good metaphor for shedding light on our everyday inauthenticity

Almost always when I think of something which for me is an "original thought" (a synthesis that I have not heard of being discussed as itself) and THEN I do a google search on it, I discover there are whole communities out there who have been discussing the subtleties of that idea for the last several years.

A discussion of plagiarism in today's New York Times (see related articles below) prompted me to reflect that there is a kind of intrinsic plagiarism to being a language user. To escape this more insidious type of plagiarism we must become a language designer. That is to say that if we are to be truly authentic, we must start to know ourselves as language designers, and not merely as language users.

The thing I remember being told about plagiarism when I was an undergraduate is that if you steal from ONE PERSON it is called plagiarism, but if you steal little bits of stuff from TWENTY PEOPLE and put them all together, that is called talent. So to an extent plagiarism seems to come down to the size of the pieces of text or ideas stolen.

But it also is a function of the uniqueness of a given phrase within the current discourse. For example Edward de Bono has somehow got his ownership of the phrase "Lateral thinking" fairly well established, even though I wonder if he was actually the first person to use the phrase. In any case if I started claiming that I made up that phrase, I would probably get myself in to some trouble. Certainly I did not make it up. The only way that it wouldn't get me in to trouble claiming that I made up "Lateral Thinking" would be the extent to which I simply get ignored. (Being ignored saves me from all kinds of trouble!)

It seems like a good idea to acknowledge our sources when we write or indeed speak. It may be helpful to people reading what we write. They might want to follow back upstream and trace the flow of those ideas down through the essays in which those ideas have been discussed. It is as though we are able to establish the authenticity of our work by acknowledging the extent of it's inauthenticity... the sources from whence our ideas came.

In my completely un-academic blogs and writings I tend to speak off the top of my head and I'm sure it all ought to be credited to someone else. People are of course always welcome to comment and claim or request citation or attribution!

Furthermore all of our sources always had their sources. The flow of ideas through our collective mind is more like an ecology of ideas than it is like the output of independently acting thinkers as we naively tend to treat it.

The idea of "dead metaphors"
becoming the foundation for the next layer of thinking, points us to the
realisation that for the most part the language we speak hardly ever belongs to us as individuals. Mostly we are at the very least using vocabulary that we did not have much to do with the structuring of. Incidentally, I was introduced to the "dead metaphor" metaphor, by Richard Rorty, although I am quite happy to accept that it wasn't a metaphor that he made up himself.

When we first start to grapple with designing language that is appropriate to a situation that has previously been intractable or obscure, (such as a "wicked problem") language is initially more like something we bathe in and splash around in, than it is something which we are able to design. However in the process of our splashing we may start to create a synthesis which is useful to someone else as well as to ourself.

So in the sense of our vocabulary if not also our phraseology, our authenticity is always constrained by the limits of our capacity to carve out our own meanings for words. Meanings which may heretofore have never existed. To make this task approachable, the place to start is by using commonly used meanings for words to take us at least as far as we can get to go with them.

However, at some point, if we are going to be authentic, we must start to restructure a unique set of connections and meanings which thereby can hold the content that we have previously been trying to fit within a "Terministic Screen" where in fact it could never really confortably belong and be itself. "Terministic Screen" is a phrase coined by Kenneth Burke to refer to vocabulary via which a given person or group or community accommodates itself to a given situation or attempts to deal with one.

It is for this reason (the absence of appropriate language with which to express my experience of being in the world), that I have tried over the years to write what for want of a better word I have called "poetry". For want of a better word because I have not as yet entirely managed to carve out a meaning for "poetry" which fits very well with the content of what I write. Although if you read my book "Ecstatic Union, Our own fantasy in preference to someone else's" you will see I have at least made some progress.

It is at this point, the point at which we start to be language designers, not merely language users, that we may truly and finally escape from plagiarism.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Why do we talk to ourselves, and why can’t we stop?

When I say “talk to ourselves”, I don’t mean out loud in the manner of the homeless man who lives near the shopping centre, shouting abuse at himself and anyone else who comes closer than a bus length away.

I just mean the regular “internal monologue” that we are mostly all having with our selves all the time, except perhaps when we are sleeping. (Thank Ggod for sleep!)

We are mostly all so used to the endless commentary on ourselves and others and the pleasantness or unpleasantness of the immediate experience we are having, and having that “voice inside our heads” order us around, take over our mouths and start making itself heard in the world whenever it feels like it, that we often and mostly come to think of that little voice inside our heads as being “my self”. There is an absence of other candidates available in the application process for being called “my self”.

Even though when asked who I am, I don’t say: “I’m the little voice who lives in my head, and is secretly in charge of my body and all my affairs and actions in the world including my bank account and my willy”, despite this for the most part I operate consistently with this being so. I tend to treat this little voice as the final arbiter of who I am, even though I may not be consciously aware of doing so. When there is a decision needing to be made, I tend to refer to this little voice to make the decision on my behalf. Despite having found in the past that the little voice quite often makes LOUSY DECISIONS, I still tend to let it have its way with me for most of my waking hours.

Why do I let it do that? Because for the most part I live in such a state of trance that I don’t distinguish between myself and it. In fact the suggestion that I actual might not be that little voice after all is confusing to the little voice. It’s not sure if it likes that suggestion. Possibly it quite likes being in control of my life, or at least believing that it is in control. It likes believing that it is me.

When I ask myself the question “Who am I?” it is in a sense not me who answers. The question is automatically passed on to it (the little voice in my head) and it answers on my behalf. Naturally enough, when it gets asked the question “who are you?” the little voice inside my head responds by saying “I am the little voice inside Andrew’s head”. I say this, of course, but a lot of people when you ask them that question will tell you about their “personality” and what they like and don’t like. But that is a whole additional layer of self-deception, and I’m not even going to bother talking about that.

In a sense, the reason I am getting a misleading answer when I ask the question “Who am I?” is because I don’t know who to address that question to apart from the person who always answers on my behalf. And the person who always answers on my behalf is that little voice. Consequently I am not addressing the question to the right person in the first place. I am not addressing the question to myself. I am addressing the question to it. In order to be able to answer the question “Who am I?” authentically, I first need to be able to find who I am, so as to be able to ask the question of that person.

The task becomes impossible; I need to know who I am before I can ask the question of the right person, and therefore get back the right answer.

Despite all of this, for many of us who have stopped to think about it for while, and at least gone deeper than the notion that I am my personality and my set of likes and dislikes and circumstances and abilities and so on, for those of us who have got this far into the question it is nevertheless understandable to ask: if I am not that little voice in my head, then who on earth am I?

Sages down through the millennia of human history have experimented with making the voice inside our heads “STOP”, and have developed methodologies of meditation, physical and mental and spiritual growth that they have discovered can help a person to tame that beast within (or at the very least a methodology that helped to do that in their own particular cases).

The common experiment that is often suggested to anyone who is starting to experiment with taking charge over that voice in their heads is to try to make it stop. If you have never tried that before, it is worth trying it for a moment. Stop reading this, and just try sitting quietly for a moment and stop thinking. Try to see if you can stop hearing the series of thoughts that pass through your head one after the next.

Bhikku Bodhi, an American Buddhist monk.Image via Wikipedia

If you actually do the experiment, and you are a typical human being and not a Buddhist monk who has devoted a life time to the practice, you will have discovered that you have no capacity whatsoever to make it stop. It will not stop. In fact as you bring your attention to it to try to make it stop it just gets louder. You may try to exert your will over it but that does not help at all. “Stop! Damn you!” you exclaim, but it turns out that that is just the little voice shouting “Stop! Damn you!” inside your head. It hasn’t stopped at all. Quite the opposite. Instead of stopping it is now shouting “Stop! Damn you!” at the top of its voice.

What to do?

Well perhaps it might help if we took a step or so back from where we find ourselves in the middle of all of this.

Firstly let’s consider: Why might we want to make that little voice stop?

The concern for many people once they discover they have no control over their internal monologue is that we feel that we ought to have control. Before I tried this experiment, I hadn’t even questioned that that voice in my head was me. The voice just took it for read that it was me. It just assumed that.

Now I am having to deal with the worrying question of who I am if I’m not that voice (and what’s more so is the little voice having to deal with the worrying question of if it is not me then who is either of us), and to make matters worse it seems to be the case that I can demonstrate to myself that the voice in question is NOT UNDER MY CONTROL. If it WAS under my control, then surely I could make it stop. That seems right, doesn’t it? If it’s not under my control, then it is bothering to me that I am letting it run my life. In conclusion, Yep, it does seem like there is a problem here.

In addition to this nagging concern that the voice in my head is running amok with my life, and needs to be taken control of (along with my bulging waistline) another strand in the usual kind of thinking that I ought to be able to make it stop is that it would make life better for me. There is a notion that a quiet mind is a peaceful mind. Everyone knows that meditation is good for us, right? Although I may not have the patience to sit on the side of a hill, I’m sure I would be more peaceful and happy if I could just turn my internal monologue off for a while every now and then, and take a break from it… doesn’t that sound nice? No wonder people join Buddhist monasteries! How about when I am trying to get to sleep, like the night before an exam, or an important meeting or that presentation I am giving to a hundred strangers next week. Wouldn’t that be great! If at bed time I could just turn off that chatter in my head, surely I would get a better night’s sleep! And then I could just turn the chatter on again when I start to miss it or I’m getting bored sitting in an NHS waiting room. Actually, thinking about it, the thing that is most tedious about sitting in an NHS waiting room is the voice in my head saying over and over “What a waste of time this is!” If I could just turn off the voice in my head when I wanted to, that ability would have to be WORTH ITS WEIGHT IN GOLD.

Ok, so we have established that it would indeed be a useful skill, let’s think about how we might get it done.

And that brings me on to my secondly…

Secondly, where is the chatter in my head COMING FROM?

And it is here that I am going to make a suggestion which is probably controversial in a lot of quarters. I’m thinking that for lots of academics it is going to be a bit jarring. On the other hand probably not many academics are reading my blog, so I probably should not worry. (More about which in a moment.)

Here is the suggestion:

We tend to think that the little voice in our head is “us thinking”. What if it is not that? What if the voice in our head is more like “us remembering”? That is to say what if the chatter that goes on in our heads is a regurgitation of the conversations we have been having lately, the books we have been reading, the discussions we have been participating in, all on top of the series of however many years of personal history and experiences we have lived through.

In other words, the chatter that goes on in our heads is much more like a memory of conversations we have had in the past than it is like the generation of anything new. While we tend to think of it as being an active thing (“I am right now thinking”) what if it is more of a passive thing (“It is right now remembering”) or (“It is right now processing”) or (“It is right now self-re-organizing”).

Why is this useful?

The reason this is useful is because it points a way to us taking control of what goes on or doesn't go on in our heads.

If the chatter in our head is a consequence of thinking and conversation that we have done in the past, a way to take control over tomorrows brain chatter is to improve today’s thinking. (To see what I mean by “thinking” in this last sentence you need to read my short essay “The Location of Thinking”.)

As an example of how this could work, there are a couple of categories of mind chatter that typically go on in a person’s head (at least they go on in my head) that I think are particularly useful to address. I mention these two because they can be particularly unproductive and distressing mind chatter.

Category 1: Worrying. Everyone knows what worrying is. “What if X happens?” “Is something awful about to happen?” “Does that pain in my side mean I have cancer?” Et cetera.

Category 2: “Arguments I am having with myself”. I want to do X, but if I do X, then Y will happen, on the other hand if I don’t do X, then Z will happen, but I really want to do X, but it will be really awful if Y, but… Et cetera, et cetera.

How can this kind of brain chatter be dealt with?

In my short essay called “The Location of Thinking”, I suggested that productive thinking is usefully thought of as an activity that a person does in the world (rather than in their heads) by interacting with an information space that is located in the world.

This kind of thinking that happens by interacting with an information space that is located in the world can be used to settle the arguments we are having with ourselves, and determine the appropriate action to take or not take regarding any given worry. The result is not necessarily immediate or all encompassing but the consequence of this work reflects back into our mind chatter. The mind naturally quietens down when we settle the arguments we are having with ourselves. When there is nothing for us to argue about, we stop arguing. The result is silence… a quiet mind… a mind that is ready and able to be put to good use doing something usefull, a mind that is ready for something new.

By settling the arguments that we are having with ourselves and resolving best possible courses of action regarding worries the mind chatter becomes modified in a way that reflects this work having been done. Someone who goes through these processes discovers that their minds start to “quieten down”. The arguments they had been having with themselves are no longer being played out on the airwaves in their heads. The worries that had previously seemed to be on a tape loop have now been assigned with appropriate and well considered actions. The mind starts to disappear from the person’s awareness, not it turns out by acting on the mind, but by acting on the problems that their mind has been trying to deal with (and not doing so well in its attempt at dealing with those problems). When I say "acting on" I mean applying productive thinking in the world of the type that I discuss in my short article “The Location of Thinking”. As a consequence of this the mind starts to feel like a quiet and empty space. A space that is available to work on what is right in front of us and what we are doing right now.

A good role for chatter in our heads does in this way start to get revealed: the role of the chatter starts to be seen not as the mistaken notion of being “my self thinking”, but as measuring device alerts us to the necessity to do some real thinking (thinking that is located in the world). The amount of noise going on in our internal chatter is a measuring device that measures the need for us to do some real thinking. The internal chatter in our heads may turn out to not be a requisite for powerful thinking at all, nor to be a constantly necessary part of the experience of a self. A self may exist from time to time quite happily without such chatter, and still be just as much a self as it ever was.

In addition this synthesis starts to suggest a possible answer to the question “who am I?”, “who are we?”; if we are not after all the voices in our heads, it might be worth considering the possibility that Self could better be characterized as a meeting between the internal and the external, a meeting between ourselves and the world.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Synthetic thinking vs. Analytic thinking - or "How to have fruitful conversations in public"

When we speak and listen in a group meeting, or medium sized group such as a workshop course, or even when we speak and listen in a large conference room together with several hundred other people... WHERE do the sentences that we speak to each other and those we hear others say, where do those sentences go?

At first glance this question may seem unnecessary and the answer obvious. The sentences uttered by others come “out of their minds” and go “into the minds” of the other people at the meeting or event. Possibly those thoughts and ideas also go into the notebooks of anyone who is taking notes. At some meetings, of course, we have someone "taking minutes", and that person sends out afterwards a blow-by-blow report of exactly what was said and sometimes by whom it was said.

On an individual level we should add that there is some sort of process of assimilation that happens as the thoughts of others mix with our own thoughts. And although we may remember specific things said by specific people, we may often be more interested in what comes out of a discussion by way of an individual SYNTHESIS of what I myself gleaned from the contribution of others, and what I am able to mix that with from my own experience, knowledge and wisdom.

What I am calling “Synthesis” here we could say is the process of putting things together by combining the parts that go to make those things up. A + B + C + D => RESULT. A,B,C,D are the pieces that are being brought together to produce a particular product or result. A,B,C and D are perhaps ideas. And when we bring those ideas together we come up with an idea that transcends any of these four parts that went to make it up. This bringing together could be called a process of Synthesis. And in the realm of thoughts and ideas, we could perhaps describe an analogous process to real-world synthesis, whereby a number of ideas are brought together to synthesize an idea whose whole is in some sense greater that simply the sum of its parts. By combining the part ideas we come up with something that we didn't have when those part ideas were being kept separately. This could be thought of as analogous to a real world example wherein we bring together 4 wheels, an engine and a chassis and make a car. The parts that go to make up the car don’t provide us with a usable car UNTIL WE PUT THEM TOGETHER. The whole can be functionally greater than the sum of the parts.

Synthesis as I am describing it here is often contrasted with Analysis. Analysis can be thought of as the process of conceptually breaking something down into its constituent parts. In this sense, analysis could be thought of as the opposite of synthesis. Traditional computer mind-mapping tools which start from a central main idea and allow a user to add successively thinner branches as they move outwards from that central idea (and typically also move down a hierarchy) are very good at Analysis and Analytic thinking of this kind. However they are not so good at Synthetic thinking, because the process of Synthetic thinking is more a matter of starting at the extremities and moving in to the centre – in a way this can be thought of as the opposite of starting at the centre and moving outwards towards the extremities. So we might, if we wanted to, think of Synthesis as being the opposite of Analysis. Synthesis allows us to CONSTRUCT a whole something out of its parts. Analysis allows us to conceptually BREAK DOWN a whole something into the parts that it could be made of.

Obviously both Analysis and Synthesis are useful. Certainly we want to have both of these aspects available to us, not only one or the other. They are particularly useful when you apply the one of these that is most appropriate to the part of a developmental cycle that you are currently in. Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Breakthrough (which tend to start out a development cycle) we could say are more a matter of Synthesis. Accountancy, Management and “Business as Usual” (which come later on in a development cycle) are more a matter of Analysis. Figuring out what went wrong is likely to be a matter of Analysis. Figuring out how we can make things better in the future is more likely to be a matter of Synthesis. Diagnosis is a matter of Analysis. Treatment is a matter of Synthesis. Problem is a matter of Analysis. Solution is a matter of Synthesis. Measurement is a matter of Analysis. Creativity is a matter of Synthesis.

In a conference situation, or workshop, or even a smaller group meeting, we may be in a situation where we have simply come to listen to a presentation from a single speaker or a series of speakers. We could characterize such situations as being MONOLOGUES. Obviously there are many people listening, but there is NOT VERY MUCH INTERACTION. There is mostly only one speaker. The content that gets delivered has for the most part been worked out before hand and is simply “presented”. There may be questions at the end or between sections of the delivery, but the outcome of such questions tends to just be more imparting of the knowledge and experience of the conference speaker. Nothing new is being created in the public realm (although it may be being created privately in the experience of each conference delegate - and this may subsequently end up in the public realm). The delegates may receive a great insight that they didn’t have before and may indeed be privately Synthesizing something out of that by virtue of their own perspectives and knowledge, but the conference as a whole does not get the benefit of that Synthesis at least not during the time over which the conference is running.

However there are some conferences these days where a more creative approach is taken, and certainly in our more medium sized workshop situations and smaller group meetings it is much more commonly the case that there is more opportunity for contributions from multiple participants and a process that involves much more INTERACTION. These kinds of scenarios could be characterized as DIALOGUES, and set in contrast to the more monologue situation discussed in the previous paragraph.

The more opportunity for dialogue that a meeting of minds affords, the more likely we can expect there to be a Synthesis of new ideas. The melding of ideas that were previously being kept separate, and the cross-fertilization that this affords, allows for the Synthesis of SOMETHING NEW. Meetings of this sort tend to be exciting if not thrilling for conference delegates. There is a sense that “anything might happen”; that “something is really happening here”. Such events as these tend to leave their mark on history. Whole new approaches to human problems are born at such events. Unprecedented outcomes occur. Life is made better.

However, for all the advantages that dialogue-type events provide, the management of conversation at events of this second type is not without its difficulties. Whereas the individual synthesis that a conference delegate may be developing “in their own mind” in the process of listening to the ideas of a conference speaker may be fairly easy to manage and discern (possibly depending on the adequacy of the individual in question), in the case of an event where multiple speakers are encouraged to engage in a dialogue, keeping track of what exactly is being said, what exactly is being Synthesized, becomes a real challenge.

So the question becomes: How can the management of a public Synthesis of ideas be made more productive, more fruitful, more fully democratic, more inclusive. How can we make visible what actually IS BEING SYNTHESIZED when people engage in a public multi-participant conversation? How can we capture the emergent whole which a conference of delegates is together constructing out of the pieces of insight, experience, knowledge and wisdom that they are each individually able to contribute to that whole?

One possible answer to this is the inclusion into the conference environment of a highly visible and dynamically updated display of the conversation as it unfolds. Various pieces of software are available which allow for the capture and display of ideas as they are generated from the minds of conference delegates. Ideally such software allows these ideas to be grouped (“clustered”) in multiple alternative ways, and consequently it allows a growing clarity of what is being Synthesized in that public conversation to be presented back in real-time to conference delegates. This powerful display of the unfolding of the public conversation is thereby able to feedback in real-time to the conference delegates, and thereby provide them with a deeper insight into what they are themselves developing. This in turn affords a greater opportunity to see what is being Synthesized and so engage even more deeply and completely with that Synthesis.

So whereas without such a display, we may each of us have our own “private synthesis” of the ideas being elucidated, once we have a display like this in place, it becomes a lot more viable to have a “PUBLIC SYNTHESIS” of the unfolding conversation. The ideas of the delegates, the thoughts and experience and wisdom that is being shared, can come together not merely individually in each of their minds (and differently in each of those minds) but in addition this Public Synthesis can be developed together which allows us to see the totality of what the contributions we are each making adds up to.

Related video - Divergent thinking as a pre-requisite for creativity

Friday, 30 July 2010

Disassembling the network of assumptive implication (or how to make life easier)

How to disassemble or deconstruct the “network of meaning” surrounding a given stuck situation.

We live inside a network of “assumptive implication”, what we could call a “network of meaning”. In this network of meaning, any given thought is associated via a “this means” or “this implies” relationship with other thoughts. ThoughtA implies or means ThoughtB, B implies or means C, C implies or means D, etcetera, etecetra, ad infinitum. I have written in A->B, B->C, C->D in the previous sentence but there are also of course multiple cross linkages. A implies B, C, D, E, etc. and B implies D,F,H, etc. and C implies A,G,K etc. This set of thoughts together with their linking relationships forms something like a network or a web. This web or network is what I am referring to when I say we live inside a “network of meaning” or a “network of assumptive implication.” Any given issue or problem or stuck situation that we are working on could be said to be EMBEDDED inside such a network of meaning / network of assumptive implication.

The reason I am calling it ASSUMPTIVE implication is because ordinarily the relationship A means B NEVER GETS CHALLENGED. Although it may be a more or less reasonable assertion that A means B (maybe A REALLY DOES mean B), the fact that in our initial way of thinking A simply DOES mean B and it does so without question, means that the validity of the assertion is not open to being tested. Because of this we are unable to see any possible view of the world in which A does not mean B, and so we are prevented from being able to see all the many possible alternative ways of seeing the problem we are working on, and restricted to only being able to see the problem in ONE FIXED WAY (one fixed and quite probably rather restricted way). Could we allow ourselves to consider the possibility that: Actually A does not necessarily imply B – could that be possible? Actually B does not necessarily imply C – could that be possible? Actually C does not necessarily imply D – could that be possible?

In other words, it may be worth considering the possibility that we are blind to the assumptions that are embedded in our structure of implication. These A means B assumptions are so habitual that we barely even notice them. They are like "water for the fish". The structure of meaning that we are swimming in is so natural to us that the possibility that there could be other ways of putting this network of thoughts together, the idea that there might be new thoughts that could be added to the network that could have a transformational impact, is almost impossible to see any validity in.

We tend to think that we are thinking earnestly about the problems we are trying to grapple with, but our patterns of "thinking" are so transparent to ourselves, so habitual, that very often we do not even hear ourselves thinking some of the thoughts that are fundamentally shaping the way the world is appearing to us. From the perspective of our experience we don't even think that the brush off by the girl we fancy MEANS we're deluded about our chances. We simply experience the consequences (eg. the emotional state) that result from never doubting the absolute fact of that being the truth.

For example: I want to by a car, but I don’t have any money to do so. Not having any money MEANS I cannot buy the car I want to buy. So now we stop for a moment and isolate the first clause (thought) from the second clause (thought). The first clause (A) is: “I don’t have any money” The second clause (B) is: “I cannot buy a car” Lets imagine that without my ever questioning this, in my network of assumptive implication, I take it for granted that A means B. However does A really mean B? Possibly it doesn’t. Possibly I could borrow some money. In fact in many places car salesmen are so keen to sell cars that they can arrange finance agreements to pay for the cars they are selling.

The point of this example is not whether it’s good financial sense for me to buy a car or not buy a car, nor which one, nor how to pay for it, the point is that a SINGLE STRAND within a network of assumptive implication (network of meaning), when pushed on even just a little bit turns out to be less fixed than it was being assumed to be. It turns out that A does not necessarily mean B, but I have been assuming that A does mean B without even noticing that I was making that assumption. Inside of my web of meaning, my network of assumptive implication, it is so obvious that A means B, that it never even occurs to me that this is something that is open to question.

So if we were to take every relationship strand in my network, every Thought1 means Thought2 etc. and start to open up the possibility that Thought1 does not mean Thought2, all kinds of actions that I was hitherto blind to start to become apparent.

The network of meaning that the problem I am working on is embedded in can start to be seen for what it is. What becomes apparent is that I haven’t actually been working on the problem I thought I was working on at all. I have largely been unable to work on the real problem because of all the constraints imposed on me by the network of meaning through which I have been viewing myself and the circumstances of the problem.

What is needed therefore, is a methodology by which we can start to disassemble or deconstruct this web of meaning that we as individuals and groups and communities have in place, and hold outside of the realm of being open to question so far that we can’t even see it as being a matter of our own assumption. (Instead we imbue the world out there as being constructed in that way.)

What would such a methodology look like? How can we start to pull apart this network of meaning?

The first step is to ISOLATE the thoughts that go to make up clauses A and B.

We constantly fail to notice that A does not necessarily mean B in part because we are not even noticing that we are thinking A and B. So the first step to deconstructing the network of meaning, is to identify and isolate the thoughts that we are having. Which thoughts should we isolate in this way? I would recommend to start out by taking any thought that comes. The isolation of some thoughts may have more impact than others, but which thoughts are going to provide the most new freedom of action is not easy to predict ahead of going through the process. Some thoughts that appear to be empowering, such thoughts as those we think of as “good thoughts”, may turn out to be restricting our actions in ways we had never appreciated. “I’m a kind and loving person”, may turn out to MEAN, “I can under no circumstances ever get angry, even when I get a ridiculous speeding ticket for doing 31 mph in a 30 zone”. Again please don’t get hooked by my examples. I’m not advocating either getting angry or not getting angry. Neither of these. What I am advocating is that where we are having a problem with something, we could start to deconstruct the network of meaning inside which the problem is embedded.

The “this MEANS that” relationship has become so hard wired in our thinking processes that we are failing to even notice that it is happening, that it is shaping the view we have of any given problem, and that consequentially it is constraining any possible action we can see that we could take about that problem or project.

The isolation of this entire collection of thoughts allows us to start to disassemble this “NETWORK OF MEANING”. The validity of any A means B relationship can in this way be easily challenged, and re-evaluated so as to be much more rigorously tested and reliable, rather than this whole set of meaning relationships going passed us as though they could not possibly be untrue.

Here are some more examples of A Means B type thought relationships:

If I try to stop taking my anti-depressant drugs and then decide I can’t cope without them, that MEANS I’m a failure. If I take an exam and get a bad mark, that MEANS I’m stupid and I’m never going to amount to anything. If I try to chat up a girl and she brushes me off disdainfully, that MEANS I’m not attractive (or it MEANS she’s a bitch, or it MEANS I forgot to put on deodorant etcetra, etcetra) Incidentally, for some men being brushed off disdainfully MEANS “game on”… and I’m not advocating that meaning either!

In each of these examples there are only 2 thoughts connected together by a “MEANS relationship”, but in our thinking process there is a whole NETWORK of thoughts which are connected together in all directions in this same way. When we get to work on a problem in our lives, it is initially EMBEDDED inside a whole network of assumed A MEANS B relationships (where A and B are two thoughts which in fact don’t necessarily have an A MEANS B relationship).

Sometimes implications may be more or less valid. But many implications may in fact be not at all valid. By isolating thought A and thought B and C, D, E, F etc, it allows us to uncover the whole network of assumed meaning that we have not previously been even questioning the validity of.

In this way we become able to DISASSEMBLE THE ENTIRE NETWORK OF MEANING inside of which a problem is EMBEDDED.

The accomplishment of this process allows for unprecedented freedoms to take actions that we have previously been completely blind to the possibility of.