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 clichés 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.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

The Origin of the Universe and the Arrow of Time

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.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Learning to speak for ourselves and protecting the testimony of others

A couple of weeks ago I went to baptism by the sea being conducted by a local Christian group. I was very kindly invited by some neighbours who are members of the group and lovely people. It was mostly a pleasant enough event. After the singing and the testimonials and the dunking in the sea there was a barbecue. The sun was out, the sky was blue, the people were friendly and some were even charming.

During the testimonial section of the proceedings, where the new converts described how they had come to their decision to make their “commitment” to Jesus and so on, I found the situation slightly disturbing and went for a little walk down the beach. I came back in time for the dunking, which was fun.

I’m not entirely sure exactly what made me want to take my little time out from the proceedings during the testimonials. I think it had something to do with the interjection from one of the Christian group’s leaders in between each of the converts who were telling their stories. The testimonials of the new converts seemed to be fair enough, but the process whereby in between each testimonial this leader from the Christian group commented on what the person had said, and what it signified, as though the convert’s testimony was not sufficient to stand by itself seemed to be discourteous. I suppose I found that commentary discourteous to the courage that it clearly took for the converts to tell their stories and declare their commitment. Of course sharing in a communion, sharing in a fellowship is important. But I wonder if we don't need to be more careful when it comes to guarding and protecting the testimony of the fellows in our fellowship.

To understand how I feel about this, you probably need to know some background.

My interest in religious and spiritual practice stems from a commitment to find common ground across all faiths or absences of faith in our (us human being’s) relationship with the eternal. As I see it, we all have a relationship with the eternal. That is to say, we all have a relationship with everything, with the universe, or the multiverse, or (G)god, or all time and all space, or The Mystery or whatever you want to call that space. We all have a relationship with everything-nothing. Whatever you want to call that thing or non-thing that we are all a part of, we all have a relationship with it. How could we not?

Not only do we all have an individual relationship with it, but we also all have a collective relationship with it. In our relationships with those we are closest too, in our families, in our community groups, with our friends and relations and neighbours, and with our colleagues at work. All of us in all of our inter-relationships also have a collective relationship with this eternal mystery, the origin of all, the open unfathomable unanswerable question.

Many of us may not care that we have a relationship with the eternal, and I think that is fine. As we grow older we may come to care more, and I think that is fine too.

Ultimately I think it is ALL FINE… and for me that is sort of the point. From the perspective of everything-nothing, from the perspective of all of it, from the perspective of the universe/multiverse, from the perspective of the totality, from the perspective of all time and all space… from that perspective how any of us come to make our peace with our relationship with all of it is not a problem. God is not suffering worrying that some of us don’t love her. In fact I expect she finds it amusing if not entertaining. We are not a problem for (G)god. We are a part of all of it. We are the set of atoms and molecules that she put in the place occupied by our body. We are the network of conversations and interrelationships that we are embedded in. How could she possibly have a problem with us? We are this particular part of everything.

And from our own point of view, it is not as though there is any problem with being a part of everything either. Besides anything else there isn’t an alternative. We are a part of all of it, whether we like being that or don’t like it. Some of us may not like it, but that is alright too. Things are how they are, man! (Wink.)

Actually there is ONE alternative that I can see to being a part of everything, and that is BEING EVERYTHING. Or to say that same thing in a slightly different way, the alternative to being a part of everything, is to be God. Now for most of us, becoming God any time soon is not a realistic career path. And it is for this reason that I think that we human beings need to reconcile ourselves with being a part of everything and reconcile ourselves with not being God. Because that is what we are. And that is what we are not.

So the summary version of everything I just said is that there is no problem with our relationship with the eternal. There isn’t anything that needs to be “done about it”. The notion that human kind has “fallen” from a state of grace and that we became sinful when originally we weren’t is completely contrary to all the evidence. All the evidence points to human beings climbing gradually upwards along the slow path of evolution from the slime of the primordial soup to the barbarisms of our human history to the condition that we find ourselves in today. Today we still perpetrate crimes against humanity, but today at least we are aware that they are crimes against humanity – and that is something completely new. Humanity has risen to today’s pinnacle of being able to recognize when it is committing genocide, in contrast to the past when genocide looked like land clearance. Many of us are still murderers and often the murderers are running countries, but the advance of being able to recognize those of us that are evil is a huge step up that has taken 10 thousand years of human history.

And we are not finished yet. We stand today on a new frontier beyond which the prophets of our own time are pointing the way to higher levels of consciousness than the vast majority have ever before experienced. Whilst we face great challenges on the road ahead, the future calls us ineluctably to rise even higher into unimaginable realms of new transcendence.

Incidentally, just to be clear, none of what I am talking about here has anything to do with BELIEVING anything. It doesn’t really bother me what anybody “believes” because either their beliefs are aligned with the nature of reality in which case there is no problem, or their beliefs are not aligned with the nature of reality in which case they are going to suffer and eventually either die or give up those beliefs whichever comes sooner.

The nature of reality requires of us that we align ourselves to how it is. There isn’t an alternative. Trying to get it to align itself with how we think it should be does not have a good outcome. You can’t argue with gravity. When we just make up how we think it ought to be, we suffer until we correct our false notions. Consequently none of us need worry too much about the “beliefs” of others which don’t concur with our own. Either there isn’t a significant difference or else one or other of us is going to suffer more, and the one of us who is suffering more is going to find out soon enough without that one needing to be told they are wrong by the other one. Beliefs that are not aligned with the nature of reality either get corrected, or the people propagating those beliefs get eliminated. That’s how evolution works. In the end reality always wins.

I suppose you can’t argue with gravity, but you can build a helicopter. And it’s not always easy to know whether you are doing the first of these or the second. Sometimes you may die before you find out which you were doing, but that is all really beside my main point today.

My main point today is that when I am among Christians of the kind that were on the beach that day, I would tend to say (if I was asked) that I am not a Christian because I am not a Christian according to what such a group as this mean by that word, and if I was to say I am a Christian to those people I think it would be likely to cause a misunderstanding. What "being a Christian" means amongst this group of people is primarily that you are willing to adhere yourself to a particular set of doctrines including such things as the infallibility and literal truth of the writings included in the Christian bible, and secondarily that you are willing to be led in your indoctrination into this doctrine, by leaders in the group who have been legislated as having the authority to teach that doctrine.

However I am a Christian in the sense that Jesus was a Christian. And what I mean by that is that I am ready and willing to give up my life as a priority to giving up my opportunity to speak on my own behalf when it comes to speaking the nature of my relationship with the eternal. The opportunity to do this belongs to me. In and amongst the many wonderful things that I am grateful for every day, it is quite probably the greatest gift that (G)god gave me.

I get to stand on the sand beside the ocean and speak for myself. I get to choose my own words. I am not beholden to anyone who is presuming to have the right to translate what I say into some greater message that the world needs to hear. No one needs to hear my message. No one needs to agree or disagree. No one needs to witness it. No one needs to like it. No one even needs to understand it.

And the same goes for you and me. Together we can stand on the sand beside the ocean and speak for ourself. We can put our arms around each other. We can hold hands and watch as the sun goes down over the hills. We can whisper secrets into each others ears, and smile knowing smiles of understanding deep in our hearts.

We stand together, all of us, equal before Ggod. None of us have more right than any other to speak of her mysteries or indeed to deny her existence. Whatever you have to say about her non-existence, I am happy to listen. We all know deep in our hearts that when the truth is finally told, we none of us know anything. The Christians call this "The peace of Ggod which PASSES ALL UNDERSTANDING." When I look into your eyes at sunset and smile a deep contented smile, you can be sure that that’s what I’m smiling about.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Be Your Own Therapist

If you are viewing this anywhere other than my blog, you probably won't see the video.
To see the video, go here: Be your own therapist

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The Location of Thinking

Ordinarily and naively when we think about thinking, we think of it as something that happens “in our heads”. And indeed we think of the process of learning as a process of taking information that lies outside our heads in places like books and websites and copying it so that we have at least a summary version of that information “inside our heads”.

The direction of information flow appears to be going from “outside our heads” to “inside our heads”. A typical experience of the western education system seems to encourage this idea about what constitutes thinking and learning and understanding.

Now as the quantity of available information that could be moved from “outside our heads” (OOH) to “inside our heads” (IOH) gets exponentially larger, individuals, groups, communities and even society at large tend in the direction of a state that gets called Information Overload, Information Meltdown or Information Overwhelm.

Whereas for a long time it seemed as though human beings were lacking information, and anything that could be done to increase the amount of information available to any given one of us was a good thing, that is no longer the case.

However the spectre of Information Overload may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for it leads us to begin to question our original model of learning. What if learning was in fact NOT a process of moving information form OOH to IOH? What if the kind of thinking we do IOH is actually the least reliable, least creative and least useful kind of thinking there is? What if we are at the threshold of a new paradigm for thinking: a paradigm in which thinking is something that we do in an information space that exists very much in the world – in the space BETWEEN our heads, or at the very least in the space that lies in front of them?

Here is the proposal:

We start from scratch and think of thinking as being a process that occurs in an information space which has nothing or very little to do with “our heads”. An information space is constituted in reality by things like people in conversation with each other, or students writing essays or reading books, or a lecturer giving a presentation to an auditorium or presenting a television series on BBC2, or a mathematician working with a piece of paper and a pencil, or collaborative participants editing a Wikipedia entry, or a group of engineers using a whiteboard to find a solution to an engineering problem, or a bloke sitting at home typing at his computer or using a piece of thought-processing software to explore a subject.

In all of these examples, I know, we can point to the existence of heads. People have heads, no question about that. Their heads come at the top of their bodies… or usually they do. My point is that for the most part the heads in question are largely irrelevant to the process of thinking.

Thinking is something that happens IN THE WORLD, and after it happens it may sometimes make its way into our heads… like an after-thought.

The value of this new way of thinking about thinking, a paradigm in which thinking is something that happens in an information space that occurs in the world, is that it affords us a much more powerful relationship with thinking. From this perspective, thinking starts to look like a transformation that we apply to information objects in the world, which alters the condition and relationship of those information objects from one state to another.

Instead of learning being a process of moving information from outside to inside, the direction of information flow during a learning process now goes from one information space in the world to another information space in the world, or else it occurs by the transformation of an information space so that the significance or layout or the organizational structure of the information has been altered. For example a lengthy treatise has been summarized. In the process of the summarization a subject that was previously inscrutable is transformed into one that is relatively digestible. For another example consider the transformation that information undergoes when it is converted from a reference-book type format and converted into a training course format. In many ways we might say the reference book contains the “same” information as the training course, but now the impact of that information is completely different. In this way we might think of learning as a process of transforming information so that it is “ready to hand” (that is to say more quickly accessible or organized for quick access by a particular person).

In all these examples there may well have been, during the process of “learning”, a corresponding modification in the contents of the head of the person doing the summarization, or carrying out the re-organization of the information, but perhaps we can think of this as being largely incidental.

If we follow this line of thinking through to some of its conclusions, we might start to consider that the power of any given thinking activity is not a function of IQ or necessarily any particular kind of individual abilities, but rather a consequence of WHERE we are attempting to do our thinking. In the light of this, the question of where we are doing our thinking starts to look like it is a matter to which we should pay a lot more attention than we have heretofore been doing.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Where is here?

If you are not baffled by the size of the universe, you have not understood how big it is yet.

We could be forgiven for thinking that the size of the universe has been designed with the deliberate intention of making any life within it feel insignificant. But in fact the situation is much worse: on the scale of the size of the universe, life within it is not significant
enough for any feeling of insignificance that life might have to merit as a deliberate intention. We are not significant enough to merit the status of deliberate insignificance.

Why go to all the trouble of making a universe this big, only to put life into this tiny grain of it? It makes no sense what so ever. The earth is like the foot of an ant on a football pitch the size of the world. If somebody squashed that ant, almost nothing would be any different. And yet here we all are, utterly convinced that we matter, and our lives matter, and curiously enough, perhaps they do.

As we are disenclined to believe in Creators these days, the obvious alternative to them seems to be that the universe could not help but come into existence. The existence of our vast universe was somehow evitable. It called itself forth. Something along the lines of this:

In the beginning there was nothing, but nothing had been nothing for so long that it was bored of being nothing. And so the universe said "Let there be me!" and there was him(her)(it).

Of course it is so hard to think of nothing, without it sneakily becoming a something. This might be why it is hard for us to understand how nothing leads inevitably to something. Because we have to keep reminding ourselves that the nothing we are talking about isn't something called nothing, but actually not any something at all. What ever we might think nothing is, it is actually not that. (That being the point.)

However if the universe did, as it were, say "Let there be me", our intuitions about symetry point towards some additional wonders. If one universe can say "Let there be me", why should another infinity of universes not do the same? Do universes come in a whole load of different sizes, in the same way that planets and stars and galaxies do? Are there some really small universes out there, where sentient beings similar to ourselves are not so inclined to be baffled by the size of that universe, because the universe in question isn't actually all that big? Maybe there are one or two universes out there that are just big enough for a family of four? Maybe we could move in?

Still you might ask, "where are any of these universes located?" - but that of course misses the more immediate question: "where is This universe located?"

Obviously it is Here. But where is Here?

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Good Education

While we mostly tend to think that education is about Knowing, I would like to assert that education is about Not Knowing.

Good education is a process of moving ourselves and others towards the edge of our collective ignorance. The outcome of good education is not the arrogance of everything we collectively know, but rather the awareness of that abyss of ignorance. The summit of education brings us up to the edge of that abyss. That is where discovery can begin, and knowledge can move out to claim new territory. Before we can do that, we have to get to that edge. The edge of ignorance.

An awareness that this intention lies behind the education process allows the process of education to be true to itself. The final thing that our best teachers have to say to us, is that beyond this edge, nobody knows.

It is this edge that all education must aim for if it is to be honest. Ultimately all our knowledge in all areas of human endeavour is limited. The admission of these limits do not define our defeat. The admission of these limits is rather the place we must first aim to arrive at. It is the point. Moving ourselves up to the edge of ignorance is in fact precisely what counts as victory in education. Arriving at that edge. Moving ourselves and others towards that edge. Seeing that edge on the horizon. Knowing it is our destination.

Knowing that our destination is not the certainty of every bit of known territory that leads up to the edge, but rather it is the wonder that comes when we stand unflinchingly in front of the unknown and perhaps even the unknowable.

If as a teacher you manage to bring your students to that place, you are a very great teacher indeed.

Ignorance is not where we start from in education, rather it is where we get to if we are successful. Ignorance is the very height of education. Until we are aware of everything known, we cannot be aware of the space out beyond that. Where we start from in education, we might rather call innocence. This is a state in which we don't know anything, and so have no appreciation of the vast space of ignorance that lies beyond what is known.

What we know from science is that the universe is astonishing, beautiful and extremely bonkers. There is no compelling explanation as to why it exists. Perhaps such a question is ultimately paradoxical and meaningless. But in any case the study of science should make us humble, not arrogant.

The universe turns out to be utterly flabergastingly enormous. So enormous relative to anything in our usual experience that it renders any explanation we have so far gathered regarding why it might exist as utterly inadequate. Currently we human beings find ourselves in a situation where we are confronted with an utter mystery. We really don't have a clue. Or we certainly have no more than a clue.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Direct experience of the mystery is what makes life bearable when it is otherwise being unbearable.

The interesting thing about "god" is that we don't know. We barely even know what the question is; let alone what the answer is.

A useful way of using the word "god" is as a signpost pointing towards our collective ignorance – the “unknown” – the majestic mystery that lies at the centre of being and also our being. Experiencing the mystery is not something that I would want anyone to miss out on.

When we deny the mystery, or convince ourselves that the question of the mystery has been answered, or doesn’t merit being asked, or is meaningless, or any of those other ways we have to avoid confronting the mystery, we deny ourselves the direct experience of the mystery. The direct experience of the mystery is what puts a smile on the face of the Buddha (and he didn’t believe in god either).

There is no reason why any of This should exist. And yet it does.

The direct experience of the mystery is what makes life bearable, when it is otherwise being unbearable.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Taking the universe for granted, and other easy mistakes to make

It is natural enough that we take the existence of the universe for granted. But if we were to stand in a perspective from which we did not take it for granted in this way, what is it that we see?

The universe seduces us into taking it for granted by being fantastically detailed and mind-numbingly reproducibly consistent. It keeps on being just like it is. On and on. And it does so down to the most extraordinary level of detail. That bit of dirt on the paving stone at the corner of the street, just like it was yesterday. The level of detail is astonishing.

Reality/the universe manages to be taken for granted by being rigourously consistent, persistent, and extraordinarily detailed.

We could be forgiven for thinking that a creator, if there is any, has deliberately designed the universe from the design principle that the presence of any creator should disappear.

If there is a creator god, we might easily conclude that she has designed the universe in such a way as to encourage us not to believe in her (at least to the extent that it is rationally possible to not entertain at least a smiggen of curiosity regarding the transcendental, given the confronting mystery of being that we are moment by moment presented with).

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Where do atheists come from? … and where are they going?

Our regular everyday explanatory processes work by explaining one thing in terms of another. It is not hard to see why such a method does not work when it comes to be applied to Everything (Everything as opposed to some one thing inside of Everything). There certainly is no good reason for expecting our everyday explanatory processes to work in that realm; clearly it is a realm of a different order. It is the set of everything, as opposed to an item within the set of everything. With regard to the closed system of things within the universe, the only set that the set of everything belongs to is itself. And this self-reflexiveness is bound to cause trouble. Like one of those cards that says "The statement on the other side of this card is true" and on the other side it says "The statement on the other side of this card is false".

This article is not primarily about the question of what statements like "God exists" could mean or do mean to the people who utter them - however interesting that question may be. Rather it is an article about the question of what correlation exists between people who say things like "God exists", and other socio-educational factors.

However if we were to consider such a question, my proposal would be to consider whether people who say things like "God exists" are meaning an to refer to an entity which resides Within "our universe" (perhaps even an entity which is co-extensive with our universe – ie. "god simply IS our universe") or one which resides Outside our universe in some way.

Whilst I would imagine that most people who say such things probably would not want to let themselves be subjected to this question, I would propose that it is a question which sheds some light on the chasm that lies between people who happily say things like "I believe in God" and those who happily call themselves Atheists (if they avail themselves to being pushed into calling themselves anything).

The moment by moment seeming to exist that our universe presents us with is from one perspective a moment by moment miracle, in and of itself.
The mere presence of the universe is in and of itself already miraculous, without any additional occurrence being needed on top of that to raise that up to level of miracle status.
Of course the apparent persistence of this miracle, as a consequence of the miracle’s design, tends towards being taken for granted.
We could say "the miracle that is our universe is, by its very nature, designed to be taken for granted".
In any case it is not clear what, if the universe did all of a sudden go out of existence, would be the meaning of that.
There would after all be nowhere for that absence of the existing universe to register itself (at least not anywhere that those of us inside our universe have or could have any knowledge of).
If the universe was not "here", then neither would we be here, being alarmed by its absence.
(Incidentally, I think the same insight can be usefully applied to ourselves with regard to being dead.)
We could speculate that possibly from a perspective outside our universe (outside of our space and time), "our universe" could be being stopped and started, turned on and then turned off again, brought into existence and then out of existence again, without us sentient beings within it being any-the-wiser.
However, from our perspective "inside our universe" we certainly could never know about this.
The status of statements about how our universe may or may not look from the perspective of being outside it, is at the very least slightly dubious.
Statements of this kind cannot be candidates for "truth" of the same kind that statements made by us inside our universe speaking from the perspective of being inside it.
They could possibly be candidates for "truth" of a different kind, but it would be a category mistake to mix these two kinds of statements together.

It is this insight that leads me to wonder regarding to the location of "god", as referred to by people who like to say things like "God exists".
I wonder whether such people are talking about an entity which exists INSIDE our universe, or an entity which exists OUTSIDE it.
Or is it an entity which exists BOTH inside and outside?
Or is it an entity whose existence depends on a paradox of both existing and not existing both inside and outside.

"Completeness", "wholeness", "perfection" (and if thought of in the sense of these words, even the words "Everything" and "Nothing") can be thought of as ideas to which the comparative term "more" does not apply. I hope Lars Næsbye Christensen doesn’t mind me quoting the question he asked on Facebook: "Is nothingness any less deserving of explanation than something?"

Possibly it is a mistake to try to explain either of these ("everything" and "nothing")… I mean it is a mistake to try to apply the regular thought process / structure of Explanation to either of these ideas: nothing and everything. After all explanation as it is standardly applied is a process whereby we explain some entity (call it A) in terms of another entity (call it B). If the entity we are trying to explain is "everything" there is no other entity available to explain it in terms of (I mean there is nothing outside of everything, nothing other than everything that everything could be put into an explanative relationship with). No doubt this could be expressed more elegantly in the terms of set theory, but I leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Equally if there is Nothing and only Nothing, there isn’t anything available to explain Nothing in terms of either.

We may start to see that the explanative process that we use for example to explain rainbows in terms of the sun and the rain and light, that explanative process that works so well for so much of human endeavour, simply does not belong in the realm of everything and nothing. We can see the process of explanation as like a habit that we have learnt to use over and over, to such an extent that we have come to expect it to work everywhere. However when we enter the realm of Everything / Nothing, our standard process of explanation simply has no meaning, no bearing and no application. It simply has no practical relevance or relationship with that realm. It is simply a mistaken application of an old habit. Like a rugby player must learn not to pick up the football and run with it when he comes to play football for the first time, so we must learn not to try to apply our usual procedure of explanation to the realm of Everything / Nothing.

So if this is the case, if we should not even bother to try to explain Everything / Nothing, how else should we put ourselves into a useful relationship with it – given that explanation serves no useful purpose with it?

Atheism/taoism/dudeism/whateverism or even "belief in god" (whatever that might mean) is a reasonable approximation to the truth for people who don't have much interest in the subject, but for those of us who are interested, I don't think any of these are ultimately satisfying. How far any of us want to go down the path of enquiry into the mystery of being is good question to ask ourselves and each other.

Atheism and "belief in god" (whatever that might mean) are fairly similar positions. Both positions hold us back from experiencing the mystery of being in all its mysteriousness. Both of these positions allow us to avoid confronting the void, the emptiness, the unknown and unknowable.

Atheism/taoism/budhism/dudeism/whateverism and equally adhering to beliefs in a mythic god such as christianity/judaism/islam are all similar positional-type relationships with the eternal.
This insight presents us with the opportunity to put ourselves into a direct relationship with everything.
A relationship that is not mediated by doctrine or position or belief of any kind.

I mean something like common and garden explanations explain something inside the universe in terms of something else inside the universe. This methodology is not equiped or designed so as to be able to explain the universe itself. In the case of the universe itself, there is no "something else". I think we can see this is the case both by definition and empirically.

I think in a way this helps us to understand the origin of the word "god". The word "god" allows us h-beings to fill in the other side of the equation when applying our standard explanatory methodology.

What happened here is analogous to what mathematicians did when they came up against a need to be able to write down the square root of minus one. Mathematicians amongst us will be able to tell you that a minus number multiplied by a minus number is a positive number. And a positive number multiplied by a positive number is also a positive number. So at first thought you would be forgiven for concluding that there is NO number which when multiplied by itself could ever give the result minus one. Squares of numbers are always positive. However this did not stop mathematicians. Instead of saying "it just can’t be done" they simply invented a new kind of number having the required property, and called it "i", such that i multipled by i by definition equals minus one. And therefore the square root of minus one is "i". They invented this kind of number so as to not have to turn back when they reached an otherwise dead end.

In a way we could think of the word "god" in a similar way.

As far as anyone of us know (or probably could know), there is no "something else" that can be used to explain the presence or the existence of the universe.
And at this point we can go at least two ways.
We can invent something (lets call it god) and say that the something else is "god".
Or we can start to wonder if our whole explanatory methodology simply does not apply when it comes to realm of everything/nothing.
The explanatory methodology was after all developed very much in the world of the every day and common place.
There is no very good reason for expecting that it should be valid if we take it and apply it to the completely different realm – the realm of "everything / nothing".

Ecstatic union lies on the other side of our unwillingness to confront the void in all its voidness.