from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Friday, 9 March 2012

reasons for jubilation

1 The banks brimming with primroses
2 The new green accessories to the bare thorn branches; and fat apple tree waking-up buds
3 Such huge starry faces on the celandines this year!
4 Plump purple sprouting broccoli in the veg garden – the third variety to flower, so we've been eating it since July and looks like it'll continue a bit
5 A pair of house sparrows (YES!) in the courtyard – never thought I could feel so joyful at the sight of a little brown jobbie that was so plentiful in my childhood. Woke to the monotonous cheep cheep cheep of a pair at my daughter's, yesterday, too – am glad that at tough times such seemingly little things can still make me smile.*
6 Excellent poetry performance by Bickleigh on Exe (one of the nicest friendliest primary schools I've ever worked in, and the class I worked with are currently rearing 100 salmon from eggs they've hatched in a tank to release into a tributary of the Exe) and Bow schools at Exeter Phoenix. I was slightly nervous – you come in and do a poetry hit and run raid; you don't always know whether what you've planted sprouts and grows, and you don't usually get to taste the fruit. Anthony, my poet-colleague, and I were really excited and proud of the pupils at the results.
7 Oh yes the cover to my new collection – look right if you haven't yet spotted it. Out in a few weeks!
8 An insightful and well-written article by Bryan Appleyard in last week's New Statesman on the militant intolerance of the new atheism, as promoted by Mr Dawkins. Appleyard explores a concern I have, and the source of a number of – errr, lively – debates between self and TM: the need to reduce (as I see it) everything to something amenable to the scientific method, and its rigorous rationalism (it should be said that though TM has a metaphysical outlook he is primarily a rationalist, albeit not at all of the Dawkins' variety; his perspective is that of the truth-seeker, and his conviction is that ultimately the rational mind should be able to explain everything).
     I guess for me I have no problems with allowing some mysteries to simply be that, and explanation and analytical understanding is of less relevance than other aspects of spiritual practice: eg how our value system, whatever it is, informs the way we live, and how we integrate, crudely, the needs of the head with the needs of the heart.
     Of course there is room for both – indeed both are crucial – but some things simply aren't amenable to rational explanation, or at least not without losing their essence; it's the wrong language for the movements of the heart. Examples are love, meaning, soulful/transcendent experience, art, mythology, music, poetry... These experiences do not happen in the harsh light of the rational gaze and its certainties, but need moistness, shade, mystery.
     Appleyard: 'Explaining religion – or indeed the human experience – in scientific terms is futile. "It would be as bizarre as to launch a scientific investigation into the truth of Anna Karenina or love," [Alain] de Botton says. "It's a symptom of the misplaced confidence of science... It's a kind of category error..."' (

To be fair, the article following Appleyard's in the NS, by Richard Dawkins, is also sane and justifiable, and makes a good case; until he starts mudslinging, at the end.

OK, to work – masses piled up...


* House sparrows, it seems, may be deterred from nesting where they always have, in close proximity to human dwellings, by EMR – electromagnetic radiation – in this case the frequency of radiowaves emitted not only by mobile phones but also by cordless indoor phones. There's a suggestion that bees too are affected by these waves. There is of course also the knock-on effect of massively destructive and widespread pesticide and herbicide use; in a society where systems thinking is not the norm, there's an absence of perception about what happens when you erase 'weeds', and insects, in an ecosystem. Perhaps you'll forgive me a little plea, or at least a suggestion: switch your mobile off when not in use; if you need to buy a new house-phone make it corded; try and buy, if you don't already, some organic foods which at least don't require the application of destructive chemicals; plant a bee plant this year...


  1. You, but probably not the author of the article, misunderstand completely.

    "...the need to reduce (as I see it) everything to something amenable to the scientific method..."

    The claim is not that everything can be reduced to the scientific method. It is that everything which can be explained so far has been explained by science (understood in a more general way than, for example, some historians do), and therefore, it is reasonable at this point to assume the same situation will continue.

    "...the conviction that ultimately the rational mind should be able to explain everything..."

    No, again, you will not find the new atheist 'leaders' saying that at all. But what has been explained so far, and likely what will be explained in future, is explained by science. There is a big difference.

    Either you are deficient in logic, or you are deliberately falsely putting words into peoples mouths. If it is the former, and you need some help, here is a simple analogy.

    A sensible person says that every organized religion observed so far makes false physical claims, and it is reasonable to think that the same will continue in the future. She does not say that every religion necessarily contains such claims. It would be easy for her to re-define for herself the word 'religion' to force that to hold, but just as unproductive as to re-define science so as to make true your earlier false claims about what 'new atheists' say.

    No one is claiming that Bach's Mass in B Minor can be completely explained.

  2. Dear Anonymous Sensible Person

    Thank you for taking the time to write. Perhaps if you were to read my blog again, you might see that I am not claiming either that all atheists espouse the scientific method, nor implying that that was what Mr Appleyard was implying.

    I was simply expressing my own opinion that a worldview rooted entirely in the rational would be shortsighted, and that reason alone (viz Kant) cannot make qualitative judgements. For that we need imagination and empathy (which are of course connected). Any *fundamentalist* stance, religious or secular, undermines those two faculties, I believe.

    While I understand the point you are making, and actually to the extent that the world *has* been explained, I acknowledge that science/the scientific method of investigation has certainly had the greater part in doing so, I went on to say (or at least I hoped that was implicit) that, for myself, an 'explanation' doesn't necessarily enhance the experience of, say, love, or a poem, or yes Bach's B minor Mass (a favourite of mine, as it happens).

    So I don't think I was putting words in people's mouths so much as expressing my concern at a narrow focus on rationalism alone. I'm a poet, not a logician – your offer of help made me smile; thank you.

    Let me offer you something in return:

    '...It’s not that I need to believe;

    just the scale of our objective certainty: the cost,
    the way that all our knowledge still leaves us lost...'

    (from my forthcoming poetry collection)

  3. By all means it is quite acceptable to criticize an overemphasis on the rational. I might disagree, but only after the species has proceeded further into the future can we look back and maybe decide who was closer to being correct (look back rationally of course).

    But be careful how you phrase things when characterizing the views of others. A direct quote from you would indicate that Dawkins thinks that nothing exists unless it is ultimately explainable by science, and that is not his view I am quite certain. Don't criticize a straw man.

    And you know my 1st name from the NEw Statesman, but it seems not to be an option here!

  4. Now I'm intrigued. Logically speaking, why '1st name' – that suggests you think I already know your second name?

    I would like to think that the world proceeds not by a dualism but rather by a 'both/and' principle – or perhaps I mean that that is a path we would do well to adopt. Science can shed light; the arts can shed light. The rational is essential; the feeling nature we ignore at our peril. The spiritual needs to converse with the secular and v v, the Christian with the Muslim (ditto). We have to find a way to bridge the schisms in our troubled world, it seems to me, and dialogue is so fruitful.

    So I put my money on evolution of the species by a process of synthesis – mind and heart, the rational and the imaginal.

    It is true that I imagined – and that might be my failing – that Prof Dawkins does assume that for something to exist it needs to be rationally apprehensible by the scientific method. I'm glad you've put me right. I'll reappraise his ideas in that light.

    And here's our bridge - the B minor Mass. I'd say that such phenomena are closer to synthesizing opposing views than what is articulable verbally – well, of course, we know that from iconic moments of musical companionship in eg war zones.

  5. Interesting exchange - not least in the confidence displayed by the anonymous respondent in the intimacy of his or her knowledge of Prof. Dawkins' philosophical views. It was not entirely clear, however, whether the good professor's (ascribed) views on the limits to scientific insight are based on a perception that there exist classes of event which scientific method is incapable even in principle of explaining, or merely on the likelihood that human science will not in practice achieve a comprehensive account of life, the universe & everything.

  6. "...not least in the confidence displayed by the anonymous respondent in the intimacy of his or her knowledge of Prof. Dawkins' philosophical views..."

    It his based on reading all his books, and some others of his publications. Roselle has either not read them or not understood the plain english in them. Have you?

  7. "...views on the limits to scientific insight are based on a perception that there exist classes of event which scientific method is incapable even in principle of explaining, or merely on the likelihood that human science will not in practice achieve a comprehensive account of life, the universe & everything."

    There may be such events. There are events for which explaining in any scientific sense makes no sense, and there is certainly a possibility, depending what you mean by comprehensive.

    Can you give an example of something explained, without science in a suitably general sense?

  8. 'Roselle has either not read them or not understood the plain english in them'...

    Or maybe Roselle doesn't accept the materialist paradigm (implicit in what of Dawkins' work she has read) as a sufficiently comprehensive interpretation of the nature of reality?

  9. Roselle has referred to the materialistic paradigm, & it seems to me that a central issue is indeed ontological before it is epistemological - concerning the nature & dimensions of reality as investigated. I do not see that there is necessarily any limit to mthe scope of scientific method, if one defines the term to indicate simply systematic observation, interpretation & imaginative formulation of falsifiable explicatory hypotheses (pace Karl Popper). But that is by no means the same as assuming that all that there is to be observed comprises the aggregated interactions of material quanta in time & space as we currently know them.
    There is no logical basis for regarding philosophical materialism as the default assumption; it is an interpretive framework (a "metaphysical research project"), & to a considerable extent the balance of consensual interpretations is informed & determined by socially conditioned perceptions of authority. That is as true now as it was in the time of the Inquisition. The only real test is (interpretation of) direct experience, for the alternative is to be shackled by the sort of narratives which once predicted that of course you can't possibly find a new world out west, mate, everyone knows you'll fall off the edge of the world if you try that caper.
    A paradigm shift will occur insofar as there is developed a new type of shared experience to which word symbols can consistently be known to refer.
    I can attest that, to the best of my cognitive/interpretive capacity, there are definite levels of mind & reality which operate outside of our accustomed "arrow of time"-space continuum.

  10. Again I ask: "Can you give an example of something explained, without science in a suitably general sense?" So far, you clearly have not. And, at least for me to learn from you, a convincing example is an order of magnitude more valuable than an essay for a philosophy course which uses the words coined by Kuhn (with valuable contributions to the sociology of science but not its philosophy, I think) and Popper (with more contribution to its philosophy than any more recent people, I think). You hint at such an example with "there are definite levels of mind & reality which operate outside of our accustomed "arrow of time"-space continuum", but do tell.

    As for my phrase above, " in a suitably general sense..", it seems to me that your "...scientific method, if one defines the term to indicate simply systematic observation, interpretation & imaginative formulation of falsifiable explicatory hypotheses..." is a start, but seems to me rather limited. At two extremes, to me the knowledge of a squirrel about obtaining food, and the incompleteness theorems of Godel, are both part of science, and fall outside your latter characterization.

  11. I will leave the previous correspondent to respond if he wishes, but I would say from my own layperson perspective that quantum findings, especially in relation to linked particles but also to the wave/particle dyad (or unit, in fact), not only challenge/overturn many of the currently accepted hypotheses and assumptions of Establishment science, but have vast implications in many other fields (obviously in addition to the space/time question). We can't ignore those other implications in relation to human experience, and they are simply not easily explained by current understanding.

  12. Scientific findings are always "overturning" previous scientific findings. That is the nature of science. But there is a good deal of misunderstanding about what that means for 'truth', particularly of the (sometimes mistakenly thought to be) discarded old science. Getting into domains of applicability, particularly limits of observational accuracy, is far more than can be done here; but an example might help: not a thing is needed beyond Newtonian physics to guide a vehicle to landing on Mars, and yet Newtonian physics is 'false' in the sense above of having been replaced by quantum and relativistic theories, as above.

    "...have vast implications in many other fields (obviously in addition to the space/time question). We can't ignore those other implications in relation to human experience, and they are simply not easily explained by current understanding."

    I do not think so at all. Is there a simple example of anything like this? Quantum theory began to exist more than 110 years ago. Completely accepted non-relativistic quantum mechanics has existed without fundamental change since 1925.

  13. I'm a poet, and as such my interest is in how we make meaning, and also in symbolic and metaphorical truths.

    An example: as I understand it as a non-scientist, our current scientific notions are predicated on the idea that nothing travels faster than light. I'm struck by the fact of the unpredictable nature of photons in linked particle experiments. I'm gobsmacked and delighted that both the observer taking a reading and the other particle can affect the behaviour of the one – in ways that shouldn't be possible, given the supposed impossibility of anything travelling faster than light, and defy current linear notions of cause and effect and our established ideas about the movement of time from the past to the present to the future.

    So what does this mean for our experience of time?

    Philosophically and poetically speaking, hypothetically, as I see it, it is only the limits of my perception that keep me from noticing that currently, in this quantum universe, Stonehenge is being built, Henry V111 is beheading his wife, suffrage hasn't yet happened and we could still stop the Iraq war. Oh and Akhnaten is being crowned and Moses is taking dictation. And we've stopped global warming and resolved the Palestine question.

    I am meeting myself coming back the other way – before I've even left.

    In terms of 'reason' and according to the only widely-accepted current model of science, that statement doesn't make sense; but in terms of extrapolating from linked particle behaviour it seems to be exactly what's happening.

    Do you get my point? Newtonian physics can't get there yet; and observation, so far, has shown the 'what' but not the 'how'.

    In the above example, what is bringing it alive and making it understandable for me is my imagination, not my powers of reason.

  14. "our current scientific notions are predicated on the idea that nothing travels faster than light"

    Well, actually some stars recede away from others "faster than the speed of light".

    Well actually, special relativity has this as either a postulate or logical consequence of postulates, this being what you say formulated very carefully and clearly. I don't know what you mean by "predicated".

    Well actually, depending on the formulation, what is forbidden in the theory is passing from less than to greater than the speed of light, but objects trapped within the region greater are acceptable in some (mostly unaccepted) versions.

    You need to learn more, and ignore what reporters write in the popular press, if you wish to somehow work this into your vague musings, and eventually hope to make them amount to anything.

    The rest of what you say is similarly unappealing to anyone wanting real knowledge, so I'll leave it at that.

  15. Since I still don't know who you are, I'm mystified at an aggressive and patronising tone that you seem to employ when addressing what I have to say.

    It's a shame that we are wasting an opportunity to learn from each other, as I believe your last comment implies. I am more interested in fruitful dialogue across the disciplines than in proving 'the one right way'.

    It's a shame too that you seem to be implying that any 'real knowledge' is to be found only through scientific investigation and the application of logic.

    I don't deny its importance, of course, but I would hope that you too accept the importance of other kinds of knowledge and truth: eg imaginative/artistic/aesthetic, and moral/psychological.

    I'd also mention that often (maybe always?) the material for reason to work on is supplied by the imagination/subconscious. The one needs the other. I'm thinking here of the dream image of the double helix which allowed Crick and Watson to explain the structure of DNA, and the ouroborous dream image which informed Kekule's discovery of the benzoin molecule's structure.

    I'm also thinking of the fact that when Einstein was stuck with his scientific process, the freeing-up for him came from what Sperry termed a right brain activity (creative/imaginative/non-rational/subconscious); in his case playing the violin. Similarly Jung and his sandplay, which gave him the breakthrough insight he needed.

    It seems that I'm making a better stab at understanding your discipline and worldview than you are mine.

  16. Just to correct some history (if you do not learn from this, or any of my previous, blame your closed-mindedness, not my insistence on accuracy):

    The discovery of DNA structure in about 1950 is being confused by you with the discovery of benzene structure in the 1800's. From wiki, which is accurate here:

    "...The new understanding of benzene, and hence of all aromatic compounds, proved to be so important for both pure and applied chemistry that in 1890 the German Chemical Society organized an elaborate appreciation in Kekulé's honor, celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of his first benzene paper. Here Kekulé spoke of the creation of the theory. He said that he had discovered the ring shape of the benzene molecule after having a reverie or day-dream of a snake seizing its own tail..."

    I know many people quite intimately (including me, and none as accomplished as Albert Einstein of course), everyone of whom has many things in their lives besides their work, and for whom the intense work of discovering the truth by scientific hard labouring cannot proceed productively without much resort to these other activities. So the following is standard, not the least unique:

    "...when Einstein was stuck with his scientific process, the freeing-up for him came from what Sperry termed a right brain activity (creative/imaginative/non-rational/subconscious); in his case playing the violin."

    I learn real knowledge by being presented with examples of it, which I have asked for and not received from either you or the other correspondent, so I do not take my so-called failure

    "...I would hope that you too accept the importance of other kinds of knowledge and truth..."

    at all seriously until such specific examples are provided. I do not take vague references to entire subjects, like psychology, which contains much science and also a great deal of bullshit, as being examples, without more specificity.

  17. Dear Anonymous

    I appreciate (and I'm not being ironic) your correction on benzene, not benzoin: yes, I got that wrong.

    I notice you don't address the issue of Crick and Watson's dream re the double helix of DNA (I never remember which of the two it was, but I believe Crick). This is as far as I know common knowledge; I will check the source and post it.

    As it happens, I have learned from the things you have said, and although they have not altered my worldview, I consider that every time I incorporate a new perspective my understanding in general and my tolerance of differing viewpoints in particular is increased.

    While I accept that you may be operating from different premises, my own particular field of interest is in the evolution of consciousness and its wider implications for our species and the planet we live on.

    To this extent, as I've said, I'm personally more interested in enquiring into what gives us meaning and a sense of value, and it's hard to apply the requirements you insist on to that field.

    What I am interested in, as I have said since the beginning, is the kind of synergy that can come from an interlacing of different viewpoints - but don't make the mistake of assuming I don't apply any discrimination or discernment in that search.

    And I shouldn't underestimate the previous commentator, either. I suspect he's gearing himself up.

    For a good synthetic viewpoint that expresses in rigorous detail the perspective I've spoken of, I rate Ken Wilber's 'Up From Eden'. However, for any of it to make any sense, you need to at least accept the possibility of the existence of the transpersonal, and a quality of subtle consciousness that is not tied simply to the objects of the material world.

    That may be our real stumbling block: I don't suppose that the concrete world is merely a conglomeration of separate inanimate objects so much as the materialisation of subtle energy, aka electromagnetism, and I believe that to exemplify interconnectedness at every level. I suspect you don't hold that view.

    For me, that's where some of the power, imaginatively speaking, of the wave/particle simultaneous manifestation inheres, and the importance of (at the moment) inexplicable (in terms of conventional understanding) simultaneous effects of the one on the other + the observer of linked particles.

    What I'm doing, of course, with my above example re time, light, etc, is extrapolating from and transposing into the field of human experience the possible imagined implications and correlates of that. I emphasise that this is not intended to be even a quasi-scientific perspective, but an imaginative and poetic one. It requires a different mode of 'thinking'.

    While you may not agree, you might do me the honour of accepting that I too have a valid viewpoint.

  18. I haven't had the chance to check it up yet, but am now thinking that I remember that the image of the intertwined serpents/Caduceus wand as the structure of DNA came to Crick in a(n) LSD-inspired altered state, rather than a dream per se...?

  19. go back couple of posts, to squirrels & Godel, it’s not at all obvious to me that either a squirrel’s knowledge of food availability or Godel’s theorems necessarily fall outside my broad characterisation of scientific method. (I am taking it that Anonymous was referring to squirrrels’ own knowledge as being analogous to science, rather than to our knowledge of squirrels ‘ knowledge in the discipline of animal behaviour, but I may of course be wrong there.) Anyway, it seems quite reasonable to suppose that squirrels construct cognitive maps of nut availability patterns as a result of systematic /repeated observations of their environment; the maps are in effect hypotheses, & are certainly falsifiable – looks like squirrel science to me.
    With regard to Godel, systematic observation is not required to be confined to tangible phenomena: the field of relationships in logic satisfies the definition, as does falsifiability in terms of potentially competing propositions in mathematical logic.
    As for giving an example of “something explained without science, in a suitably general sense”, I thought that I had explained that I see no need to try to do so, as it is not my thesis that scientific method constricts further development of consciousness; in my view the great contemporary impediments are on one hand the tying of scientific credibility to the materialistic paradigm, & on the other the persistence of risibly simplistic approaches to metaphysics. The two sides of course feed each other, as well as fear & loath each other.
    The problem, dear Anonymous, with elaborating on my reference to experience of non-ordinary dimensions in consciousness, is that adequate terminology, or language to frame concepts, has not really been developed, because a critical social mass of recognised shared experience seems to be a condition of language evolution. Behaviourists would no doubt assert the other way round. Development of terms occurs haltingly, within subcultural groupings, until the process takes off from a not-readily-predictable point of convergence. So I could tell you of the unambiguous knowledge of mind operating fundamentally beyond familiar time & (3-dimensional) space, but it would prove nothing to you if you have not knowingly shared it, will very likely irritate you immensely because it will seem that I’m trying to big myself up in some way, & will probably strike you as all but meaningless.
    You sought to refute what Roselle had to say regarding philosophical lessons from (interpretations of) quantum physics. The basic equations may not have changed since Schrodinger, etc., but one point to make is that technical advances in experimental testing have, in one very significant example concerning linked particles, falsified the ERP hypothesis. And it seems to me that the most significant point, apparent since the 1920s but of which the implications have – extraordinarily- never been widely acknowledged, is the basic alocality of fundamental particles. If taken seriously, rather than brushed aside, that seems to me to...well, blow the materialistic paradigm into another set of dimensions.

  20. I love all this rational analysis! But isn't there a danger of being trapped by words and thoughts? Just as, without a mirror, the eye can't see itself, the mind can't comprehend itself. There are dimensions of life that can't be adequately parsed by science. Love, for example. You can define it in words. You can even attempt to describe it in terms of biochemical reactions and synaptic connections. But until you have tasted a peach, no words will evoke its flavour. Sometimes you have to throw down your books and smell the roses.

  21. I think, for myself, I want to summarise the rather scattered points I have been making, as simply as I can.

    1 It seems to me that a critic of unreason and intolerance needs to be pretty clear that their own views are being dispensed with (reasonably consistent) reasonableness and tolerance

    2 Yes, many organised religions have done a great deal of harm in the name of their god. That is not the same thing as assuming that anyone with a transrational/metaphysical approach is deluded, irrational and ignorant

    3 The problem with a materialist approach is a tendency to view things as separate and disconnected. This can foster a utilitarian view of the world and its inhabitants. My own philosophy suggests that an approach based in a view of interconnectedness, inclusiveness and tolerance is a better 'prescription' for this poor wounded world of ours.

    Any view can see the knock-on effects in an ecosystem of harm to the one causing greater harm to the rest. That was one of the points I was making in relation to the linked-particle thing: that nothing happens in isolation. A simple and material example is the use of neonicotinoids as pesticides which, in addition to other factors, seem to have had a disastrous effect on the bee population. No bees, no crop pollination, no food. That simple.

    We need, I believe, to wake up to the consequences of focusing on an idea that each organism is separate, and of not taking a 'systems' view - in my opinion this has been a downside of the development of ideas since the Enlightenment (though I recognise of course that there are upsides)

    4 Intuition and reason need each other. Together they can achieve greater things. The same goes for thinking and feeling, art and science, spirituality and the material world, etc. Insisting that the one is superior to the other leads to witch-hunts and prejudice. A healthy human, I suggest, will be alert to qualities of intuition, intellect, feeling, imagination and instincts

    5 Linked-particles and the issue of time: T S Eliot, one of the greatest poets and intellectuals of the C20th, said '... all time is eternally present...'

    6 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy'

    7 There are many paths to the truth, and many kinds of truth. All 'truths' that we can perceive, it seems to me, are relative and partial, and I don't believe any one of us has any hotline to 'absolute truth'.

  22. David, for some reason that post of yours went into my junk folder - hence just posting it now! Thank you for it; and what you're speaking of, of course, is what I'd call qualia - kind of the other pillar of quanta, and I like that symmetry. And we know that your and my philosophies, mutually rooted in Zen thinking as they are, suggest that all this dualistic thought is buying into one great illusion! - For the first time in my life the last few days have felt my consciousness so hijacked by thinking that I have felt mindless, paradoxically - but sadly not in an enlightened way, just an addicted one! So just been out and put nose down into the wet new dog violets burgeoning on the verges ... :-)


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