Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Misquoting Jesus

Briefly, I'd like to recommend Bart D. Erhman's Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.

Following my previous post, religious people may argue that their beliefs are supported by evidence.

I know what I think about this, but I'd encourage anyone to investigate for themselves. Erhman's book is an excellent, balanced text, which doesn't in any way come over as anti-religious but explores the Bible's authenticity in a very engaging way.


Several years on

I've been away from this blog for some time. Other priorities muscled in and I lacked the perseverance to stick with this blog while it remained largely unknown.

Still, back here again it's gratifying to see a few comments from visitors.

My latest project is authoring science-fiction, and my rational humanism is less something I focus on, more a foundation that hangs in the background.

One thing I've taken to my science-fiction is an aversion to extremism. Which is to say, the only 'real enemy' in my fiction is fundamentalism, in any form on any side. It's dangerous! That said, often moderates are harder to argue with than extremists.

As I sit here now, it seems to me utterly ridiculous to argue for belief in a god who says, 'Believe what I tell you or you will go to hell.' How bizarre to suppose that belief in something without conclusive evidence could be a virtue; even a virtue that is decisive in deciding who is saved or condemned. Arguing with such isn't worth the breath, is it? (At least, it shouldn't be, surely.)

It's harder to point to the patent iniquitousness of belief when people create gods that are "nice", or are whatever is safe and comforting for them. You know, gods that will let everyone go to heaven and like gays! Indeed, it seems cruel to argue with people who opt for this sort of superstition and, being honest, I tend not to … Even though it's often said that moderate superstition is the thin end of the wedge; that we shouldn't let it pass and should insist on a scientific approach that tries to test belief with evidence.

Otherwise we allow an environment that – unanchored by respect for evidence – is more likely to let extremism flourish, sooner or later.

All the best to anyone visiting this blog.


Sunday, 9 September 2007

Huxley’s Human Potentialities, Part 5: The Way to Realise Our Potential (4).

Towards the end of ‘Human Potentialities’, Huxley turns his attention to ethics. He argues that cannot fulfil our potential for doing good on the basis of ‘commandments thundered down from Sinai’, categorical imperatives, and laws – all of which simply say “be good, or else”. We inquiries into how to go about doing good. Not only that, but we don’t know enough about how to BE good, and how to love: ‘That we shall perish unless we learn to love more warmly and widely … is only too obvious.’ Thus Huxley says he would welcome even a ‘general’ effort to condition of young children to feel more affectionately, in order to improve the moral and emotional atmosphere.

In the end, however, he feels that the answer lies in a more involved – more directed and precise – ethical method; we require practical techniques – focussed on autosuggestion – to make ourselves capable of implementing our good intentions. This means commanding ourselves on the verbal level, and carrying out those commands ‘…on the non-verbal levels of the autonomic nervous system and the subliminal mind…’. This kind of practice is, Huxley believed, ‘…of great value, both ethically and therapeutically.’

To some the idea of using autosuggestion might suggest that Huxley experienced bouts of eccentricity. Nevertheless, the evidence shows that it is a big mistake to underestimate the force of autosuggestion, for good or ill: dictatorships used it, when they compelled their peoples to recite instructions in the form of chants and songs; religions use it, when, for example, they encourage the recitation of confessions and creeds; people suffering from anxiety and depression use it, when they repeat negative self-statements that entrench their low self-esteem perpetuate their symptoms; therapists like myself use it, when we encourage ‘positive self-talk’, and the use of ‘coping cards’. A form of autosuggestion known as the ‘Emotional Freedom Technique’ is now widely used, and has become a big business. If we repeat any phrase often enough we do tend to believe it; it begins to shape our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Huxley’s Human Potentialities, Part 4: The Way to Realise Our Potential (3).

Huxley says that we should find new ways to stretch the kind psychophysical skills which, for example, we might use once we have learned to drive a car instinctually. Mechanisation has meant less opportunities for us to develop our capacities in this area, and to compensate for that society must begin educating ‘…on the non-verbal level of first-order psychophysical experience’: 'What is needed, if more of the potentialities of more people are to be actualized, is a training on the non-verbal levels of our whole being as systematic as the training now given to children and adults on the verbal level.'

When he wrote, in 1961, Huxley thought that studying from sciences to humanities was confined to the symbol-using mind, and we cannot say much has changed since then. Huxley would still say today that we need to awaken of purer forms of non-verbal experience and perception, ‘…with the fewest possible notional preconceptions’. After all, we cannot fulfil our potential for thinking and feeling, or for willing and acting, without our first perceiving accurately and discriminately.

Huxley even suggests that enhanced non-verbal perceptions might allow us exercise our potential for ‘higher insights’. Ancient tantric “philosopher-psychologists” of India, who believed that efforts to achieve perception ‘beyond names and descriptions’ was a preparation for living life fully, or for enlightenment. Yet Huxley is aware that modern times we tend be less concerned with enlightenment than with maintaining, or restoring mental health. He cites psychologists and psychotherapists – ‘Gestalt’ practitioners, for example – who at the start of the 1960s were finding that they could liberate patients by helping attend to their present, ‘here-and-now’ experiences. Some abandoned the Freudian focus on past trauma and the unconscious. Instead, mental health – of a sort that supports the realisation of potential – could be characterised by the breaking out of a ‘…prison of symbols and memories … by becoming aware, in a state of pure receptivity…’.

Further, Huxley suggests that higher levels of enjoyment follow from accurate perceptions; from perceptions less limited the “symbolic grime” of language – that is, a residue of notions about what things “really” or ”merely” are: '…when we understand that words stand only for the similarities between first-order experience, each one of which is unique, when we learn to pass at will from the stale ‘oldness of the letter’ (the world of symbols) to the fresh ‘newness of the spirit’ (the world of first-order experiences), then and only then will our potentialities for enjoyment be actualised.'

Friday, 31 August 2007

Huxley’s Human Potentialities, Part 3: The Way to Realise Our Potential (2).

Those of us who, following Huxley, wish establish an environment that favours the actualisation of in-born potentialities face an uphill struggle. This is because the societies we inhabit not oriented toward that end, and are instead preoccupied by the maintenance and extension of their wealth. So as things stand we can only do what we can with what there is.

One tool we do have is language, a resource for ‘automatically converting the bewildering profusion of first-order experiences into manageable symbols’. Although language can be misused to bolster the status quo’s misguided aspirations (for more consumption and national aggrandisement), it can also be used to encourage realistic thinking and appropriate thinking, so that we can formulate better science, literature, philosophy, and ethics. Language can enable appropriate education, which in turn can support the realisation of potentialities. Specifically education, mediated by language, has the power to promote two principles which are vital to the realisation of human potential: the ‘…understanding of the nature and limitations of language and the … fact of human variability.’

Language is made up of symbols that never truly represent ‘reality’, or at the least only represent ‘reality’ by degrees. If education is directed towards helping people to recognise this it shows them, at the same time, that truth is constantly in question. They become less vulnerable to the sort of persuasive power – of advertising, nationalism, ideology, and religion – which is based on a zealous and seemingly exciting misuse of language: “To what extent would it help boys and girls to actualise potentialities which, if they had not received this kind of training, would be been buried under unexamined preconceptions and traditional notions of smothered by uncritically accepted propaganda?”

As for variability, Huxley advocates a ‘genetic realism’; an admission that our freedom to choose what will make us happy or fulfilled is to some extent constrained or determined by unique genetic predispositions or potentialities. Education in human variability, Huxley says, can prevent forms of ignorance that foster prejudice; it can prevent the truly tragic suppression of rich diversity and innovation; it can also help us extend our perception beyond our culture’s ‘arbitrary chose norm of right-mindedness and good behaviour’, and it can benefit communities: “For the sake of the community (for no community can afford to waste its most precious asset, the gifts, the fully actualised potentialities, of all its members) ... the enormous spread of human diversity should be recognised, respected and systematically made the most of.”

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Huxley’s Human Potentialities, Part 2: The Way to Realise Our Potential (1).

To be meaningful, hope must be attainable. In ‘Human Potentialities’ Aldous Huxley says that we really can establish a future for humanity in which we ‘…actualise the many and great potentialities which in most individuals still remain latent’. We can do so, first of all, by establishing the right environmental conditions. As a Humanist Huxley believes that people have a natural desire, or even need, to strive towards the realisation of their potential. Nevertheless, we cannot trust that they will do so until their more basic requirements are met.

Describing Abraham Maslow’s concept of a ‘hierarchy of needs’, Huxley says that our physical needs (for food, and safety) and certain psychological needs (for belonging, and esteem) must be satisfied before we can realise the ‘most specifically human of our needs’; that is, before we can satisfy our need of knowledge, meaning, ‘self-expression through the manipulation of symbols’, and our need of ‘self-transcending development’.

It is necessary to concede that there are exceptions: some people realise potentialities in spite of, or even because of, isolation and a lack of love. In one song, I Found Out, John Lennon had this to say of his parents: “They didn’t want me, so they made me a star”. And yet in defence of Huxley’s argument, tortured geniuses like Lennon tend not to fulfil their potential in terms of being happy, or being happy with themselves.

So, the satisfaction of people's needs is a necessary first step, and a prerequite for their going on to fulfil their promise in multiple areas of their lives. But there are further ways and means to consider beyond that, as I will show in coming posts.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Huxley’s Human Potentialities, Part 1: Hope and a Direction for the Future Without Faith.

I admire Aldous Huxley, and all his work. His earlier, satirical and dystopian work tore down all hypocrisies and inequalities with piercing intelligence and wit. The novel Brave New World famously shows the possible dehumanising consequences of advancing science, and of advancing the fortunes of only a genetically ‘superior’ few. In that world dominant powers act like the religions and totalitarian regimes we know: they do not allow people to accept or respect difference – the quality of difference that we all share ¬– and they attempt to make everyone to follow the one same path to fulfilment whether they like it or not. But Huxley didn’t simply take the easy route of one who only criticises others, without offering positive alternatives; he didn’t simply show us an impending road to hell, without suggesting an alternative route.

After years of preparation Huxley wrote Island, a novel published the year before his passing in 1962. He sought to show how a community can choose to adopt practical and pragmatic systems in order to prioritise happiness, deeper present moment awareness, and love; he tried to describe a system which enables individuals to cultivate their own unique gifts, perspectives, and paths to happiness, to the benefit everyone. Equally, in an essay called ‘Human Potentialities’ (1961), which I will focus on here, Huxley outlined a positive direction for the future. He offered us something to strive for now, and an alternative to locating our hope in the consolations of an afterlife. In ‘Human Potentialities’ he criticises wealthy nations, where they envisage their futures in terms of more military might and more consumption. Rather, we should orient ourselves toward meeting everyone’s basic human needs, so that we might create a world in which everyone will have a chance to actualise their desirable potentialities. If we will it, or if we choose it and aspire to it, says Huxley, we do have the capacity to share our resources so that every human being will be nourished, secure, and valued; so that every human being will then be in a position to develop their capacities for intelligence, creativity, contentment, and love.

Aldous’ ‘Human Potentialities’ appears in a volume called ‘The Humanist Frame’ (1961), which was edited his elder brother Julian. Julian Huxley was a biologist, Humanist, and he had been the first director-general of UNESCO – his preface is worthy of mention. It is preface which centres on ‘Evolutionary Humanism’, as a way of giving humanism a set of principles and a ‘movement in a certain definable direction’. This ‘Evolutionary Humanism’ gives us hope and meaning, when it relates every kind of human activity to evolutionary movement. Evolution, Julian Huxley says, is not simply a biological process, but a psychosocial process which – particularly now, following recent strides in our knowledge and technologies – we can and should direct: "Today, in twentieth-century man, the evolutionary process is at last becoming conscious of itself and is beginning to study itself with a view to directing its future course. Human knowledge worked over by human imagination is seen as the basis of human understanding and belief, and the ultimate guide to human progress."

Linking in to his brother’s piece, Julian describes ‘Evolutionary Humanism’ as an aim for human species ‘…in the shape of greater fulfilment through the realisation of potentialities.’ In my next post I will show how Aldous Huxley thought we might practically go about realising human potentialities.