Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Mystical Positivist - Radio Show #2 - 25DEC10

The Mystical Positivist is now a weekly radio show on KOWS-LP 107.3 FM, Occidental, CA. Listen live on Saturday evenings from 5:00 - 6:00pm, PST, via the web at KOWS Live Stream.

This week's podcast features:
  • Scientific evidence of the efficacy of ancestor veneration
  • An interview with Mirka Knaster, Ph.D., independent scholar, Vipassana practitioner, and author of Living This Life Fully: Stories and Teachings of Munindra; discussing the subject of not following the path of our ancestors but embarking on a different spiritual journey.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Mystical Positivist - Radio Show #1 - 18DEC10

The Mystical Positivist is now a weekly radio show on KOWS-LP 107.3 FM, Occidental, CA. Listen live on Saturday evenings from 5:00 - 6:00pm, PST, via the web at KOWS Live Stream.

This week's podcast features:
  • Objective Art
  • Faith and Doubt
  • An interview with Robert Schmidt, Ph.D., director of Tayu Meditation Center, discussing spiritual practice and the context of spiritual work.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Suspension of Disbelief

Mystical positivism is an interesting way to frame an important aspect of spiritual practice in general. I want to comment on an attitude that mystical positivists of any religious or spiritual tradition will find useful. Bear with me for a brief excursion first.

The title of this post refers to an attitude necessary for reading a fantasy or science-fiction book, or watching a fantasy or science-fiction movie. If the book or movie has goblins (or, say, vampires or galactic emperors) as characters, we have to suspend our disbelief in the existence of goblins to take the book or film seriously enough to spend a few hours investing attention upon it. If we 've never seen or had experience with goblins, there's no particular reason to believe they actually exist. Yet without a suspension of the natural disbelief in the existence of goblins, we'd never be able to enjoy or learn something from the book or film.

In contrast to the attitude of the fantasy fan, the attitude of the mystical positivist is about the suspension of belief, and the cultivation of disbelief. That's overstating the case somewhat, but let me explain. In the initial two posts on this blog, the Mystical Positivist refers to Sam Harris' book The Moral Landscape. In that book, Harris discusses what he means by the word "belief" which he calls "the disposition to accept a proposition as true (or likely to be)." Any proposition that cannot be confirmed within the context of our own direct personal experience must be accepted in order to believe it.

The suspension of belief by spiritual practitioners means that important propositions about the nature of life and the pursuit of happiness must bear systematic and rigorous examination, so that we don't have to simply accept what someone else believes or has said about such matters. Instead, we can generate evidence in our own direct experience that may either confirm or disconfirm the beliefs of ourselves and others. In that way, we can build views about how the world works upon an ever more sound foundation. Yet that prizing of evidence can be called the cultivation of disbelief, because if credible new evidence emerges that contradicts previous views, with the attitude of disbelief we simply discard the older inaccurate view(s). Thus the cultivation of disbelief is not a blanket dismissal of all views; rather, it is the attitude of "holding lightly" our beliefs or views.

In referring to a sensible attitude toward beliefs, I like the French term "bricoleur" which loosely translates as "handyman" or fix-it guy. The handyman picks up a hammer when a nail needs pounding. Yet the hammer is put aside, and the saw is chosen, when it's time to cut a piece of wood.

In the same way, the mystical positivist is ever practical, and always looking for the best tool for the job that the immediate moment demands. Cultivation of the deep experience of oneness requires that one first establish a perspective upon the nature of reality that is absolutely reliable. One must become intimately familiar with one's mind, body and heart so that one knows the truth of these phenomena from direct experience. It's not just a big toolkit that one needs for that; one must also know how to fashion a new and unique tool from found materials whenever need and opportunity conjoin. That's what the skillful bricoleur excells at.

Perhaps when Socrates said that the wise man knows that he knows nothing, he was suggesting that we suspend belief, in the sense of grasping onto unexamined belief. That, I suggest, is the attitude of the mystical positivist.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Illusion of Free Will (cont'd)

Because Harris' The Moral Landscape is dedicated to the premise that the methodologies and objectivity of scientific inquiry can be applied to the question of human morality, his articulation of the illusory nature of Free Will is particularly compelling. What does it mean to say an action is moral if each human being can be said to not be in conscious control of their actions? If my actions spring from biological and perceptual determinants operating at a scale and speed well beyond the field of awareness of my ordinary consciousness, how can any action that emerges from this flux be said to be good or bad? It would almost seem as though my sense of ethics can only be a post hoc justification of actions operating though my organism with or without the participation of my conscious awareness.

Harris addresses this dificult problem in a charateristically pragmatic way by invoking what I would call a statistical model for describing the ongoing correlation between the flux of activities that arises in our psycho-physical organisms and the ongoing stream of thoughts, feelings, and sensations that we experience in relation to this flux. In other words, there is enough of a correlation between our stream of consciousness and the actions that arise in our organisms that it is meaningful to say that in a certain sense we are responsible for our actions. Harris uses the example of himself walking into a supermarket, fully clothed, and purchasing a tin of anchovies. Though we can know from detailed fMRI studies that the actions that got Harris into that market arose from a scale of activities far outside the scope of his conscious awareness, he would have occasion to be surprised and feel like he was out of control if in fact he discovered himself naked in the market attempting to steal as many tins of anchovies as he could get his hands on. So for an ordinary person (we can leave aside the question of a sociopath, which Harris takes up in great detail in his book), there is enough of a correlation between the activites that unfold through our psycho-physical organisms and the sense of expectation and intentionality that arises in our field of consciousness for us to conclude that our conscious minds have some sense of responsibility for our actions. In other words, we can distinguish "our actions" (e.g. buying anchovies in the market) from "not our actions" (e.g. standing naked in the market trying to steal tins of anchovies) even though the mechanisms by which those actions unfold are not subject to our conscious participation.

This perspective of Harris' raises a number of interesting questions that to me touch on core spiritual questions (most succinctly summarized by who am I, what am I doing, why am I doing it?). For one thing, this picture of the relationship of the conscious mind to the functioning of the psycho-physical organism calls to mind Thomas Metzinger's Being No One - The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity. In this detailed theory of mind, driven by the findings of neurobiology, Metzinger charaterizes the self of consciousness as a sort of self-organizing model of the functioning of the organism. Biological organisms develop a working inner model of the organism as a whole which evolves to serve as a basis for predictive action and more effective interaction with the environment. In this respect, our conscious minds could be seen as attempting as closely as possible to function as accurate predictors of our organisms' inteactivity with the objective external environment.

Spiritual psychology adds to this picture with a detailed accounting of how the egoic mind distorts this process of modeling by using its rationalizing functionality to justify why a particular set of actions that emerges in one's organism is in fact exactly what one intended to do. We often find ourselves justifying our actions to ourselves or sharply criticizing our actions as though there were a direct causal relationship between our conscious state an our actions. To use a Fourth Way term introduced by Gurdjieff, our minds are filled with buffers that serve to justify after the fact particularly contradictory actions that may emerge from our organisms. Our buffers attempt through denial to hide gaping inconsitencies between who we think we are and how our psycho-physical organisms actually function. In fact, it is this dissociation of the conscious mind from the objective functioning of the psycho-physical organism as a whole that gives rise to the illusion of a self that exists independently of the organism. We can refer to this process of dissociation under the term Egoism. Though I will return to this topic in a later post, we can see by way of conclusion that one moral imperative for a human being would be to come to terms with the distortions introduced in our consciousness by Egoism as a means to bring our conscious minds into greater alignment with the activities of our organisms.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Illusion of Free Will

I recently finshed reading Sam Harris' latest book, The Moral Landscape - How Science Can Determine Human Values. Among the many interesting questions Harris raises (which I will return to later) is the question of Free Will particularly from the perspective of what modern neurobiological research is finding. Our ordinary psychological state presupposes that we are the authors of our actions. We experience a sense of deliberation and intentionality about the actions, thoughts, and feelings that arise from our field of consciousness.

And yet, if we confront the large body of scientific data about the operation of the human brain, a different reality presents itself. There are cascades of neural events that precede the phenomena of which we may be consciously aware (our thoughts, feelings, field of vision, movements). We have little or no awareness of this level of processing and it operates in timeframes and on a scale quite different from our sense of ordinary consciousness. Harris quotes a famous study by physiologist Benjamin Libet that demonstrated that activity in the brain's motor regions can be detected approximately 350 milliseconds before a person feels that he or she has decided to move. He reports another study that used fMRI data to show that in some cases activity begins as much as 10 seconds before the "conscious decision" even entered the subject's field of awareness.

Harris concludes:

The truth seems inescapable: I, as the subject of my experience, cannot know what I will think or do until a thought or intention arises; and thoughts and intentions are caused by physical events and mental stirrings of which I am not aware.

This conclusion is not so distant from the conclusions reached by certain spiritual traditions. The perspective on ordinary conscious awareness shared by traditions such as Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta, and Gurdjieff's Fourth Way speaks to the intrinsic emptiness or non-existence of the common conception of the self. Gurdjieff goes so far as to challenge followers of his teaching to recognize their own "nullity" as a critical step in establishing a different relationship to one's Being. That both ancient and more modern spiritual traditions could reach such conclusions without the benefit of fMRIs suggests that the intuition of the illusory nature of our sense of free will may be available to us directly through a rigorous and honest process of self inquiry.