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Books That Have Transformed My Thinking

Introduction

I read a lot. Since 2009 my acquired disability has obliged me to rely more on Kindle and audiobooks. At the time of writing, my list of audiobooks, kept from early December 2020, stands at 219 (the latest being Tom Fort’s wonderful The Book of Eels). That’s better than 5 a month. I am not boasting, just providing evidence to back up my claim. Academics will wonder what I am talking about – but I had a fulltime job until June last year. As a hobby reader, its okay. Add Kindle books and podcasts to the list, and I have to confess I am a bit of an ideas junkie.

So, I thought it might be fun to share my top books that blew my mind. There aren’t a lot. In fact, at the time of drafting this essay I could think on only 6. In the end I got to 11 – and decided to quit there.

That does not mean there are only 11 books I would recommend. No, these are books that flipped my thinking on its head and obliged me to reimagine what was possible to think.

Back, around 1990, my life was in a period of crisis on many levels. I was talking to a colleague who had decided she had a need to explore the spiritual dimension. She was aware of my interest. I was dismayed to discover that nothing I said made any sense to her. I had spent the past 12 years immersed in esoterica; and had developed no capacity to communicate anything of meaning to anybody outside the jargon bubble.

Worse, I had been concerned for a few years that even among my fellow devotees of the Western Mystery Tradition and Wicca, few had any ideas that went beyond devotion and into speculation and inquiry. We recited jargon and dogma to each other. But we could not move into critical inquiry. 

What alarmed me most was the realisation that I was in a community which had no incisive critique of the contemporary world. I loved Wicca. I retain a deep affection for it. But if it talked twaddle about contemporary reality, it wasn’t useful to me. As a personal practice it is fine, but as a mode of interpreting contemporary human reality it lacked what I needed.

It is quite clear that the Western Mystery Tradition and Wicca satisfy the needs of adherents. I offer no criticism of either. I am explaining why they didn’t meet my needs. This may help others.

I was attracted to both, because I needed an explanatory model that helped me make sense of my experiences in the contemporary world. I wasn’t looking for absolute answers, just a tool to help me make sense. I suspect this motive drives others to ‘belief systems’. What I needed was an ‘inquiry system’.

This became clear when I had the opportunity to engage with discarnate teacher. Now before I go on, I want to make it clear that I am aware of all the objections to such an idea. It was a subject I researched intensely. I am satisfied that what I am about to say is grounded in reality.

After being ejected from 2 esoteric groups for asking too many questions and not consenting to agree to believe what was demanded, I was concerned that I was the one with ‘the problem’. 

The advice I received was that I was on a different path, more like doing a PhD as opposed to coursework. Back then, I had no idea what that meant, but at the time I was happy for the affirmation of apparent intellectual superiority. What an idiot I was. Just over 2 decades later I was to discover my own weaknesses in performing a formal research project. I started my research degree in 2002; and finished it in 2009. That was a very difficult and painful time. I nearly quit several times.

Now that advice makes perfect sense. That guidance also was very clear about something else. He was not there to tell us stuff, but to teach us how to learn. Around 40 years on, that’s starting to make sense.

At the time there was a growing passion for people having contact with their own guides. That led to a bunch of sentimental claptrap being passed off as messages from Pleiadians, and archangels. Most of it was delusional nonsense perpetrated by gentle souls who did not understand their limits of their ability to transmit messages – nearly all of which germinated in their innocent conceits and gentle follies.

I am not dismissing the idea of contact from the metaphysical dimensions, just asserting a need for a strong critical assessment of claimed contact. Most of it is BS.

There’s a reason there are no ‘new age’ texts on my list. But works by discarnate teachers are. They are challenging and demanding – confronting my conceits. Whether they really are from discarnate teachers isn’t the point. Being challenged by coherent, surprising and disturbingly plausible ideas is.

My Top 11 Books

1. Hidden Teachings Beyond Yoga, Paul Brunton, published in 1900

I started to read this book when I was 16. It took me nearly 18 months to finish it. I’d read a paragraph or 2 and fall asleep. It wasn’t that I was tired, or bored – just overwhelmed by the ideas. This book changed my life. Because of it, I quit school and gave up plans to go to university and study geology. Depending on your perspective it either ruined or made my lifepath.

I bought a copy a few years ago with the intent to revisit it, but I haven’t opened it. Not sure I will.

2. The Betty Book, Stewart Edward White, published 1937

I can’t recall how I came across this book – probably found it in a bookshop. Because of my direct experience with ‘channelling’ in the late 1970s I needed to do some research – to get my head around the phenomenon.

This was a foundational read for me. White’s The Unobstructed Universe is a companion piece. Both opened me up to a new source of ideas. The Betty of the title dies and speaks through Joan. The ideas are challenging, sophisticated, and coherent. This is what ‘channelled’ material should be. Otherwise, it’s of no use.

3. Journeys Out of the Body, Robert Monroe, published in 1971

I read this in the late 70s. My girlfriend had bought it after she had a series of spontaneous out of body experiences. I had one several months after. Monroe has unwelcome spontaneous out of body experiences, fears he is ill or going mad, and then discovers he is neither. Being consciously one of one’s body is quite something. It suddenly hammers home the proposition that we are more than our bodies in a veery empirical way.

4. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Robert Persig, published in 1974

I read this in the early 80s and bought the audiobook in 2019. I had a memory of being deeply moved by the book, but when I listened to the audiobook it was as if I had never read it. 

The book triggered strong self-reflection, both times. Even now I struggle to recall details. I have no doubt it would seem unfamiliar again; when I choose to listen to it again (it’s on my modest bucket list). It remains one of the most extraordinary books I have encountered.

5. Chaos: Making a New Science, James Gleick, published in 1987

I read this in the mid 1990s. Chaos theory just blew my mind. I saw the world differently thereafter.

6. Out of Control, Kevin Kelly, published in 1994

The mid 90s was a great time for ideas, for me. Kelly’s book added a dimension of complexity and subtlety to thinking about Chaos. It was a heady and wild ride into a blizzard of ideas.

7. Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, published in 1995

Another mid to late 90s read. The title drew me in. This was when I began to properly appreciate the value of emotions. I had been head focused until then, and this corrective was essential.

8. The Book of Absolutes: A Critique of Relativism and a Defence of UniversalsWilliam D. Gairdner, published in 2009.

I read this in 2010. It’s a book I must revisit. The idea of universal values is powerful, and Gairdner’s arguments were compelling. He wrote it as an antidote to relativism.

9. Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, Larry Siedentop, published in 2014

This is the most extraordinary book. Siedentop explores the evolution of the idea of the individual in European culture – arguing that it arises out of Christianity – perhaps in an unintended way. It is a masterpiece of scholarship and critical thought.

10. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, Peter Frankopan, published in 2015

History, as we see it, it centred on Europe. Frankopan moves that ‘centre’ to the ‘Middle East’ and obliges us to rethink what we thought we understood. It’s a powerful transformation, and I loved every minute of it. He has a follow up as well.

11. Rita’s World, Frank DeMarco, published 2017

DeMarco is, in a way, a new version of White. The Rita of the title and DeMarco are both associated with the Monroe Institute. Rita dies and she and DeMarco talk, and that becomes a book (well, one of several). I have read 6 of DeMarco’s books. As with White, the ideas are coherent, sophisticated and challenging.

While all 11 books profoundly impacted my thinking, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle MaintenanceInventing the Individual and The Silk Roads also stand out as masterpieces as reading experiences. Engaging with them was an intellectually and spiritually sensuous experience. I can’t ask for more than that from any book.

Conclusion

I love books. I have had to give up the 3D versions for ebooks and audiobooks because my manual disabilities have turned the pleasure turning pages from a loving caress into a chore. I still have books on the shelves in front of me. But they are more fond reminders and silent companions than sources. To be honest, ebooks and audiobooks are way cheaper by a huge margin.

It took me 18 months to get through Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga when I was 16-17. My second reading of Inventing the Individual took me just under 12 months. Brunton taxed my 16 year old consciousness. A paragraph could knock me out. Siedentop was such sheer pleasure I sipped him slowly, like a 20-year old single malt.

Reading is transformative in ways other forms of engaging with ideas cannot be. This is because each paragraph is an intimate encounter an idea that can challenge and transform in a way the reader can manage.

For me the best books are about challenging what I think. They confront me and oblige me to wrestle with ideas, which may be difficult, novel, or ideas that make me uncomfortable. In the privacy of my mind and imagination I can have that struggle on my own terms – fast or slow – so long as I honour the challenge.

Birthday Reflections

22 January is my birthday – one of the ones ending in a zero that signify a temporal milestone. This morning I headed off to Mountain High Pies for an indulgent breakfast of a Big Breakfast Pie and coffee, which I brought to the Black Mother Gully. As I arrived, a red Subaru, which is often here, pulled out in perfect time for me to drive right to my (and their) favourite spot. Perfect timing. 

There were 2 men standing not too far away talking, unmoving, backs to car. This was the first time that loose humans had lingered. They depart as I eat. I am left with magpies and frogs in the background. 

The grass is dressed in the residue of overnight rain and fog embraces the gully. It is a cool 12 degrees C.  All is peaceful. 

I have been listening to The Righteous Mind by the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He has been talking the biological and evolutionary foundations to our sense of right and wrong – and why we embrace some as ‘like us’ and others not so much. 

In the background there is the soft sound of chooks – as if offering sad condolences and farewells to their eggs. It’s always such a warm sound.

Haidt is focusing on human morality, and he sends a clear message – who we care for depends on who we embrace as ‘one of us’. The root of our instincts is tribal – in human terms. But it is also apparent that our ancestors shared fellow feeling with other lives – kinship beyond the physical with the many lives of the world they lived with in. 

Haidt’s insights are of immense value, but they are not absolute. He relies of science to make the very good case that there are instinctual behaviours that form part of our moral intelligence – it’s just not all there is. 

Who we choose to believe we are adds a dimension to our moral values, and our conduct. If we see ourselves as special creations of God, given dominion over the creatures of the Earth, we will frame a morality to interpret that. If we see ourselves as part of a community of lives united in the spirit of ‘we are all in this together’ we will frame a different ethos.

How we define who we are will determine how we define our relations with, and conduct towards, others.  Haidt observes that, in biological terms, we cannot progress beyond tribalistic senses of identity and care. We are group based, not species based in our care and concern. 

So, to be humanitarian is to access a sense of identity beyond the biological – to connect with our deep nature that transcends our biological being – a spiritual dimension perhaps. Haidt cannot go there. 

For me, it is the fusion of these two natures – the biological and the spiritual that generates a challenge of conduct and communication – bringing both together. There is a tension between them, when the aspirations of one push against the limits of the other. 

Toward the end of the book Haidt discusses the errors of reasoning in the New Atheist position. The presumption that religion is an irrational thing because it has been used badly is sloppy. It is not a primitive state of pre-rational error. 

Haidt, an atheist himself, raises the human capacity to see faces in clouds – pareidolia. This popularly asserted to be a kind of survival instinct – better overreacting to a mistaken perception that something is a bear than failing to react to an actual bear. This has been crafted into an argument that belief in gods is a mistaken interpretation of that reflex. 

This is so monstrously silly I can hardly take it seriously. There is a lot of sense talked about pareidolia. Awareness of agents in the world is fundamental to all creatures to the best of their ability, and false positives are common – either as initial reflexes or as actual errors. Cats will chase a light from a laser pointer as if it is a living thing.

But assuming that humans who, at one stage, had to be hyperalert to things to eat, and things that may eat them, will parlay the false positives into an enduring delusion is offensive nonsense. Nevertheless, there is a book called Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion by Stewart Guthrie, 1995, which seems to have gained and retained a wholly unmerited fame.

As a child I was terrified by a face in the clouds. I thought it was God. I was 4 at the time, and my father had been drilling into me the assertion that God was watching me. I was playing in outside, chanced to look at the sky, saw the awful face, and fled in doors to find my mother. I love watching clouds. These days I take photos of cloud formations in the Blue Mountains. Faces are rare, and not enough to build an erroneous beliefs system on. The idea that our ancestors saw a face in a cloud and mistook it for an actual being is idiotic. Even the best faces don’t look literally convincing – though I must allow the odd one might.

I saw a photo of a potato crisp that was supposed to look like Jesus. It didn’t of course. It just looked vaguely human shaped. You need to indulgently apply your imagination to agree it looked like Jesus, or Elvis.

Seeing lifeforms in nature is what you’d expect from people with acutely developed capacities to scan their environment. You look for almost, because not every form will be clearly defined. So false positives are always going to be high – at least on first encounter. For example, when looking for edible shellfish on a beach, you mostly see just hints – a mere suggestive line from a small section of the shell that is exposed – and more things look like that suggestive line that are not shells because lots of things look like lines. The ability to see that even vaguely looks like something you are looking for is critical if you want to get a feed. 

It is not rational to turn a schooled reflex that generates a high volume of false positives into a theory of religion – unless you need to explain away something you don’t want to have to validate.

Perception of spirit presence rarely involves seeing an organic representation. But when one seeks to represent it, the organic is the go-to metaphor. In fact, spirit often expresses through animal form, using actual animals – birds are common. So, awareness of the environment includes awareness of spirit as well as of organic beings – and anything else that might be useful.

I get it – if you don’t believe spirit is real, as Guthrie does not, then you will try to explain human behaviour in terms that exclude spirit. But that’s a conceit, and little more. It is a thinking error – form a conclusion and then develop a theory based on the conclusion. If a lot of people share that conclusion, few people will argue the point – and those who do can be discarded as ‘not like us’.

This is where we have problems with developing a moral philosophy – basing it on a conclusion that suits our conceits, rather than critical thought and evidence. Haidt relies on scientific evidence, which is perfectly fine. There isn’t ‘scientific evidence’ for spirit at this stage. This leads to clunky interpretations of data, reliant upon a belief set – the atheistic materialist model which assumes spirit is not real – as opposed to not proven. That’s a bad habit.

The so-called New Atheists, who condemn religion because it is perceived to be the cause of much ill, are in line for the same criticism. None are students of religion, and neither are they students of psychology. The most famous New Atheist, Richard Dawkins, is a biologist. They have, in my view, misused science in service of a dogmatic goal. In fact, science has been harnessed in the performance of awful things, harming humans and other lives of the planet. Yet nobody, so far as I know, has set up a movement to argue that science is the fruit of a delusion – a thinking error.

Science is, in essence, a methodology. So is religion. Both can be employed to injure, or aid, according to the lights of the practitioners. Haidt demonstrates that positive moral conduct is mostly directed only toward our group – we look after our own – and we may persecute others. Instinctual behavior can carry an overlay of a cultural narrative, including religion. Blaming religion for instinctual behavior is sloppy, self-indulgent, and unscientific.

Haidt, true to his scientific grounding, asserts, in relation to pareidolia, that “People perceive agency where there is none.” Because ‘science’ has not detected agency, the presumption is that it does not exist. The evidence of people asserting the presence of agency is discounted, because such evidence is not considered ‘scientific’. In an atheistic materialistic culture this makes perfect sense. In an animistic culture this is just a fusion of bias, conceit, and intellectual carelessness.

Conclusion

Good science is good science regardless of whether it is dressed in the pomp of conceit and dogma. The materialistic presumption is no different to the theological presumptions that impeded intellectual progress in earlier centuries. No age is free of conceits and bias in the formulations of theories about how reality works.

The fusion of good science and awareness of spirit is essential work. Reliance upon old discourses such as paganism without blending the old insights with new knowledge seems no more than a form of self-indulgence – a sentimental approach to spirit.

There’s a movement called New Animism. I have no affection for it because it seemed to me to be sentimental – animism was useful for what it conveyed about sensitivity, but essence of spirit seemed to be side-stepped – in an effort to make it intellectually respectable. We can get the desired sentiment better from insights into biology – ideas like forests being organisms – a community such as the wood wide web.

Flagrant exposure to spirit is not common for Europeans living in a predominantly urban setting. That’s how it is. The failure of Christianity to develop into an acceptable vehicle for discourse on spirit is a failing of Christianity, not of spirit. Rejection of the Christian God makes sense on rational grounds; but progressing to deny spirit does not follow. The absence a strong motive to ‘discover’ spirit will likely lead to not discovering anything.

The view of the New Atheists seems to be that ‘I am an important and intelligent person, so if the Christian God was real, he’d make himself known to me. I think this conceit overlays the more sensible – ‘As an intelligent person I don’t find anything persuasive about claims this God exists.’ That’s agreeable to me. It’s a position I can share. It’s what happens next that sets me at odds with atheists who claim their position is the universal and only valid one – all else are in error. Where have we heard that before? 

Religion and science are both fingers pointing to the moon. And despite Gould’s assertion, they are the yin and yang of our consciousness and not a mutually exclusive polarity.

Early religion was empirical – a struggle to make sense of an overwhelming sense of dynamic being; and to find a place for the human in it all. Science continues that task as a partner, not a competitor – or it would, absent the scientific and the religious fools. Religion has lost its way, because it has become tangled in the mess of instincts, culture, scientific (and other) ignorance, dogma, and conceits.

The ‘spiritual’ must see beyond the dogmatic follies of sound science and work with it to develop a new discourse. This must be an intentional commitment – to reshape how we understand and talk about spirit.

Reality Busted?

Introduction

The Case Against Reality removes the last bricks from the edifice of materialism. The 2019 book is by Donald Hoffman, a Professor of Cognitive Sciences at the University of California Irvine.

What has been missing to date has been a cogent and sophisticated argument free from dogma, and based on sound science. This is what Hoffman delivers. The book is good read for those who wish to imbibe the scientific thinking, but if you find detailed scientific explanations daunting, the book and the author can be readily searched on YouTube to deliver shorter idea-rich summations. I listened to the audiobook. 

We can take The Case Against Reality and use it to end the pointless squabbling – or pretend it does not exist. 

I don’t want to regurgitate the scientific arguments. I could only do a disservice to the YouTube summations. Rather I want to reflect on the consequence of attempting to incorporate the central message – that everything we encounter is but a representation, a signifier, an icon. 

Can We Have a Shared Story?

Reality, in its essence, is unapproachable because our means of apprehending it can generate no more than signifiers of it. The best we can surmise is that this reality is consciousness. Even so, that is hopelessly inadequate as a description.

We are left, thus, with our best efforts to say what is – guided by mystical, metaphysical, and philosophical thought in an alliance with contemporary science. The addition of vicarious empiricism in the book is a nice touch – science does have something important to say. It was refreshing to encounter a serious scientist acknowledging our tradition of deep inquiry through religious and philosophical practice.

I had a bit of a quibble about Hoffman’s allusion to the ‘mystical’ traditions of the Abrahamic faiths – because, apart from Kabbalah, they are tied to the precepts their parent faiths. In effect, they remain in a prison of signifiers, even if the sentiment expressed is transcendental.

From the moment Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics was published in 1975 materialists have been complaining that any analogy between what is and what is imagined by mystics is romantic folly.  Science, they fancied, would take us to a different destination. The idea that we would end up in the same place as a skinny bearded guy in a loin cloth got to three or more thousand years ago was intolerable. Wither the marvels of our intelligence and craft? Surely the destination cannot be the same?

But any survey of history will show that human life is a drama with limited themes. The climax is always one of a very small array of options. The telling of the story, is, however, infinitely varied. The story of contemporary science, informed by a materialistic passion or not, cannot end differently to other ways of knowing – yoga or shamanism. 

Signs of Consciousness?

Hoffman observes that, from an animistic perspective, saying that consciousness resides in a rock is not right, because the thing we call a rock is more like an app icon on our computer desktop. The icon for email is not the email app, not the program. 

It is more accurate to say “that which this rock signifies is consciousness”. But even so we are imprecise because the word ‘consciousness’ has so many layers of meaning. Even if we arrive at the idea that that which the rock signifies is grounded in consciousness as the primary nature of the real, we are little advanced. 

We struggle with the idea of consciousness. Like so many grand ideas, it is maddeningly imprecise – and yet we have no substitute. We have the same difficulty with Love and Space. Such imprecision reflects thinking at the boundary of present utility, and what beckons as future understanding.

But at least we have cast off from the shore of material certainty. The voyage has begun. It is necessary, from here, to distinguish between perception and relating. Once we are unmoored from the assumption that what we perceive is reality we need to frame a different sense of relating. That is the challenge that is yet to be cogently articulated.

At present we relate to signifiers as if they have inherent value. They have the value of their utility, which is no mean thing, but no more. After all, our primary apprehension of our existence is predicated upon the critical fact that we experience being in the context of life in an organic form – for whom the complex nuances of utility determine how our lives play out – for good or ill. 

Is it a Game?

In Far Journeys Robert Monroe describes a fascinating scene in which he and a guide watch beings in spirit form clamour to enter human physical bodies for a life experience in the material world. The intensity of experience generated by the critical utility of sensory experience is something we might usefully describe as analogous to playing an immersive game. The concentration of sensation caused by the constraints of the game is powerful. It is also to be craved, apparently. This is precisely what Buddhism counsels against. What Munroe witnessed as intentional desire for sensation becomes the ground of identity once the state is attained.  One in the body, we imagine we are the body.

The useful analogy can work for us again if we imagine becoming addicted to the immersive game to such a degree that identity outside it is forgotten. The game becomes our signifier of our reality – and hence the foundation of identity. What is beyond is forgotten, or, in the case of materialism, denied.

White, in The Unobstructed Universe, describes how time, space and motion are the obstructed (physical) analogues of more fundamental attributes in the unobstructed aspect of being. The unobstructed attributes are receptivity (time), conductivity (space) and frequency (motion). Thinking in unobstructed terms is immensely difficult – if only because the habit of the obstructed experience is overwhelming – if our only point of reference is physical existence.

But we need to remember that we can employ VR to create experiences of space and motion from a hard drive no bigger than a mobile phone – thus indicating that there must be a ‘code’ or signifier for both. Time is more problematic in that experience of it can be ‘condensed’ or manipulated in a different way – but not as comprehensively substituted. 

The hard drive still exists in the obstructed realm, of course, but it shares attributes of the unobstructed – allowing an experience we can take to be ‘real’ to be crafted from code – from signifiers.

As Hoffman observes, how do we know we are not in a ‘game’ inside a highly sophisticated hard drive developed by an alien? On one level the idea is absurd. On another, maybe not so much. The point is, however, that our sense of what is ‘real’ beyond our sense of utility is wonderfully uncertain.

A Question of Gods

According to Aristotle, Thales of Miletus (c. 624/623 – c. 548/545 BC) declared that “All things are full of gods.” Even allowing for problems of translation (an ever-present risk when encountering the thought of our more ancient forefathers), there is a tempting idea that could be retranslated as ‘Behind the appearances of all things there are expressions of conscious being.’

Hoffman quotes the Italian physicist Federico Faggin in saying “A central goal of conscious agents is mutual comprehension.” It is interesting that a cognitive scientist quotes a physicist re the goal of conscious agents. Things are changing!

Mutual comprehension may not extend beyond pure organic utility – Can I eat it? How do I catch it? Will it eat me? How do I avoid it? Can I mate with it? How do I do that? But we can imagine a deeper level of utility – between gods and humans – and a need for mutual comprehension as well.

The principle of free will confers upon us an essential uncertainty. In the muddled thought of Christianity that uncertainty is everywhere. The will of God can be defeated by human intransigence. Ignore the problems with that idea literally; and attend to the code. Things are way more uncertain and complex than theologians can imagine – so they create a signifying fiction that magnifies human choice as always a morally loaded act.

DeMarco (I have forgotten which book) provokes us with the idea that no matter what happens, it is always good. This can seem callous and cruel. The alternative is to see events upon a cosmic sliding scale of absolute good or evil. But events must surely be only signifiers. How we respond is more important than what we respond to.

The act of seeking mutual comprehension between human and god must be more complex, and uncertain, than can be imagined. For me, the word ‘god’ can only denote a discrete organised pattern of consciousness that can act on its own accord. And that can be on any scale, though mostly beyond the human.

Gods have always been a part of the human experience. The word ‘god’ has been applied through our cultural bias, and with wild abandon, to all cultures. This has led us to imagine we know what is signified when we employ the word. We don’t. When we speak of the ‘gods’ of the Egyptians, the Greeks, or anyone else, we need to remember we are interpreting their ideas on our terms. We may not presume we understand what they meant. For this reason, polytheism may be no more than a fiction of our invention. 

By that I do not mean that these traditions do not have multiple agents, just that we cannot assume there is an equivalence between the ‘God’ of the Abrahamic tradition and the ‘gods’ of the ‘pagan’ traditions. The word ‘god’, applied to both, does not mean there is actual shared meaning – or equivalence. This is a common feature of English. We do not confuse Scone, the place, with scone, the baked good – because we have no motive to do so. But when it comes to ‘God’ and ‘god’ some have a motive to mine confusion and conflict.

Materialism has attempted to confine our real inquiry about the nature of reality to a narrow peninsula upon which humans are the only intelligent agents of note. It has succeeded to an alarming measure. However, that extraordinary hubris is now melting under the glare of evidence presented by careful and modest thinkers.

The past has been a protective beacon of what is possible once hubris is persuaded to surrender to real reason; and give up dogma-infected intellectualism.

Hoffman reminds us all that “science is not a theory of reality, but a method of inquiry”, and argues for the testing of religious and philosophical ideas using the rigor of science.

Let us be frank and admit this is not likely to happen with any haste, absent any profit to be made. But it is refreshing that the conversation can be had among thinkers of goodwill once the death grip of materialism is replaced by the firm hand of intellectual honesty and discipline.

Proponents of religious and philosophical ideas are not innocents here. The opiate of belief is as much a tyrant as the dogmatic denial of the metaphysical. Honesty, modesty, and the eschewing of dogma on both sides is essential for mutual progress.

It could be that Faggins is onto something. Our passion to understand our reality beyond the scope of mere pragmatic utility may be because of a deep sense that what we encounter, and signify as ‘reality’, is a conscious agent.

A common attribute of human cultures is the establishment of a ‘higher utility’ of moral relationship with that ‘embracing other’ in which right action leads to reciprocal response. Whereas the Greeks thought their gods capricious, Christianity has sought to inject a sense of lovingness into its conception of the divine. Perhaps ‘lovingly capricious’ might be closer to ‘reality’?

Conclusion

For me Hoffman has taken a certain pressure off the tension between contemporary science, as conceived by materialists, and those of us who insist on the validity of human experience over the span of our conscious inquiring being. It has always been objective of humanity to make sense of the ‘reality’ it functions in. 

Inquiry mediated by machines is heading in the same direction as inquiry mediated by meditation, psychotropics, engagement with spirits, experimentation on states of consciousness, unbidden encounters with the strange, and everything else in religion, magic, mysticism and philosophy.

We must open up the conversation to participants of goodwill, intellectual modesty, and shared curiosity. Maybe we can make some serious progress on shared understanding.

Black Mother Gully

At 07:07 I am here on an overcast morning. The ducks are on their breakfast patrol. The birdsong is delicate and multilayered with a close raucous call I cannot identify. A Crow is crying tenderly. 

I feel a sense of inquiry “What do you want?” and I say I want a message. The 7 duck patrol walks by. The mother duck eyes me, just because I am here. 

I am listening to Robert McFarlane’s Underland at the moment. He writes, in part, of the Wood Wide Web – of how a forest is a single organism united by a web of roots and fungi. The park and the gully are knitted together in a yin/yang dynamic. It’s a left brain shearing and framing of what was once a vibrant and complex unity. A family of galahs has arrived. 

Ian McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary is a deep look at how we humans have fenced off our own mental turf and then tried to stuff the world into it. 

We are ineluctably woven into a binary engine of reality. The one is two, and this is true of each of the two, ad infinitum.  When we inhabit one, we must allow that it is always two – and always the greater leaks through and beyond our mental fences. Two crows arrive nearby, on my right. A solitary butcher bird comes to a tree on my left. 

The Black Mother gully is abutted by the left brain mowed park. Simplicity v complexity. Managed v natural. Peopled v untrodden (I have never seen a human in the gully). European v indigenous. 

Crows and magpies are debating. All black v black and white. Crows sharp caw v magpies’ warm mellifluous song. 

And yet it is all bound together, united beyond our careless binary and divided gaze. 

Then a thought “Is this the message you are seeking?” And I say, “Thank you.”

Maple Grove Dreaming

There are beak down ducks in a pack patrolling the mowed lawn, picking out breakfast. I can hear magpies, kookaburras, and the gentle warm call of distant chooks. As I listen, other birds are calling further up the gully. Near me, the mowed grass is fringed by ferns, maybe a half a metre high. I hear crows. Now there are black cockatoos, out of sight. 

The park is a fusion of European passions for lawn and maples – hence the name Maple Grove – and an untamed, but profoundly gentle, bushland. It is a place of utter peace and inspiration for me. Silent magpies have taken over the breakfast patrol. 

It’s just gone 0700 and the sun is high enough set a soft light into the gully, caressing the treetops. It’s quiet enough that I can hear the magpies fly off. Breakfast patrol is over. The buffet closed. 

The bird song has composed itself into a symphony of peace, with a gentle beat that has so eased my spirit that writing is a struggle. I stop struggling for awhile, and just bask. Even though the city sounds are in the background they do not intrude. But then the performance is over. A plane drones overhead. The first human in near 40  minutes passes with an ancient brown dog. A car has arrived. Doors slam shut. My audience with the spirit of this wonderful place is over – for today. 

Brain kicks in. To the hard eyed this is a nice place. On weekends and holidays, it is packed with folk from Sydney. For a time, it is the host of a compact cosmopolitan al fresco community. 

Just for a moment, large drops fall, but not from rain. I surmise that maybe dew on the leaves of the nearby trees has been loosened by the sun. The mowed grass glistens as the sun rays get closer to me. The black cockatoos depart noisily, but I cannot see them. 

This is not just any gully. It has a mother’s peace to it. I do not know if it was special to indigenous people. I won’t ask. If it was, it is none of my business. It would have been a women’s place, I imagine. 

It is feminine and ancient and peaceful and patient. 

One evening in early 1997, I sat on a pile of stones beside Tullyganardy Road as it snaked out of Newtownards, and let my spirit flow into the earth beneath me. I had gone to Northern Ireland as the last act of my stay in the UK because having travelled that far from Australian and not going to my birthplace didn’t seem right. 

As my spirit sought into my birth land it encountered a cavern with three sleeping dragons. One stirred and said “What are you doing here? Go home. There is nothing here for you.” Then in respond to a half-formed thought from me said “Our time will come again.” I went home to Australia. There, beside the road, on a pile of stones I knew this was no longer my home. It took going back to stop saying I was Irish. I was born there, but nothing else about me remained Irish.

This gully seems home to an ancient spirit. It doesn’t have a form like the dragons. When I try to imagine what it is I am warned off in a gentle but firm manner. I sense a mature very black woman. By black I do not mean Aboriginal – just black. She says I should not want to know more. I am instantly reminded of Emma Restall Orr’s remarkable book Kissing the Hag: The Dark Goddess and the Unacceptable Nature of Women. I learned enough to know that I didn’t understand. Now I must be content with the outer mystery. Going beyond is not my business, and not my need. 

It’s gone quiet again. Just for a moment there is only the sound of bird song. I am still, entranced by colour, shape, light. 

When we moved to Casterton in western Victoria, just outside the town in Noss Retreat Road, I remember the mowed lawn out the back. It was a kind of moat around the house. My parents brought from Northern Ireland an innocence of snakes which was magnified into a terror by the locals. These were days of laborious mechanical push mowers. The moat, diligently maintained, provided protected access to the dunny and the washing line. Beyond the mowed area was long grass that led to a neglected orchard where apricots grew, and there was a creek. That was my playground when I was 5. It was safe from my parents. They would not enter the long grass. It was where I could dream. 

The gully reminds me of this time. The mowed lawn creates a safe place for leisure. What lies beyond is wild and sacred; and is protected by the ring-pass-not made by the mower. 

Is the charm of the place the lawn and maple trees with the 8 picnic tables and BBQ area? Or is it the radiance of a gentle sacred place – the nourisher of spirit?

03.01.22

In Praise of Emma Restall Orr – first posted 30.12.17

In 2016 I went hunting for a decent book on Animism, and I turned up 3 on my search of Amazon’s Kindle selection. These days, because my acquired disability means my grip is poor and holding hardcopy books has turned a joy into a chore, I rely on the Kindle app on my iPad now.

I bought 2. One remains partially read. The other was Emma Restall Orr’s The Wakeful World. I was unprepared for the journey that book would take me on. I was expecting the standard stuff, based on her background. Emma was famously a Druid. Instead, what I got was a beautifully written exploration of the Western Philosophical tradition.

My exposure to Western philosophy is fragmented. I read Russell, Kant and Kierkegaard when I was 17 as well as a potted history, then some Plato and that was it for ages. I was too busy with Buddhism and a mess of other sources of inspiration. In more recent times (the past 20 years) I have listened to philosophy programs (ABC radio) and podcasts. I am up to episode 291 of Peter Adamson’s History of Philosophy podcast. Not a disciplined approach by any measure, but it gave me the confidence to tackle Emma’s book.

It was not intimidating at all. In fact, far from it. It turned out that Emma had a natural feel for Western philosophy and wrote on it with a free and fluid style. There is no getting away from the fact that it is a book that demands of the reader a certain level of work.

What do you get as a reward for the effort? You get a sound sense as to how the essential ideas of animism are alive and well and living in the hearts and minds of the celebrated thinkers of our culture. You can be an animist and a philosopher, and not be out of place in our intellectual tradition.

In fact I’d go so far as to say that if you have any desire to engage in thinking about animism from a position of intellectual discipline then The Wakeful World is something you must pass through. You cannot go around it.

I moved on to another of Emma’s books, Living with Honour. Okay, so you have your chosen philosophy, how does that play out in the world? We all know that living in our culture generates a constant stream of moral problems for us. Our values are violated on our behalf in so many ways. Some many ‘goods’ come to us with dirty strings attached, and very little gets to us without causing harm on the way. Even when we lay out our values and declare them, they are ignored for the superior benefits of lower cost or greater convenience, and we crumble. We live in a muddled and messed up ecosystem of aspirations and determinations, dominated by the crassest of them.

But we must go on. We must endure and we must hold fast to what values we can. Living with Honour does not preach. It challenges and confronts – and if you care, you will subject yourself to that.

I was ready for Kissing the Hag. I should declare that my present conception of deity is Goddess – something I see as a fundamental challenge to a male raised in a culture dominated by masculinity. You can’t ‘get’ Goddess from a male perspective without altering so much of your thought and existential reflexes. Emma is not a ‘Goddess’ person in the same way. Her conception of deity is different.

From a male perspective I found Kissing the Hag a riveting read. It took me into depths of feminine consciousness that had been previously impenetrable to me. Maybe afterwards I had a more appreciate understanding of the feminine, but maybe more important to me was that I came to better understand why I did not/could not understand women. That insight was immensely liberating.

I have had an email interchange with Emma over almost a year now. She is not a professional author whose job it is to produce books. What she writes are acts of service. This is perhaps no more evident in her writing style, which is lyrical and beautiful. It is writing from the heart. Even so, it does not diminish the high intellectual standard she also brings.

It is an exceptional thing these days to find writing that has both heart and head potency of this calibre. There are, for me, very few writers of this standard who dare permit their personal authenticity come through their writing. This is maybe because not too many such writers are around – combining personal authenticity with what is a prodigious capacity for insight and understanding.

No writer is all things to all readers. The best we can hope for, as readers seeking knowledge and insight, is to come across a writer who deeply nourishes us by their writing, who asks not that their thought be believed, but considered. Authors of that calibre are always going to demand a lot of the reader.

I am forever amused that authors of tremendous potency pass me by. It is as if the time for reading them has not yet come to me. Then one day that time comes, and I am excited and grateful. I am sure this happens to everyone; it is just that I sometimes feel I am responsible for not being aware of them. Irrational really.

What Emma writes is nourishment to head and heart. It adds an essential missing dimension to how we understand animism – as something implicit in the canon of Western philosophy. We would then understand that such a something would be ignored or diminished by the religious and the atheistic thinkers. Who wants to upset the dogmatic applecart trundling toward an anticipated destiny that fulfills the expectations of its narrow devotees? Even at the highest levels of apparent cultural appreciation there is repression and misdirection.

Animism has been asserted to be the mentality of the primitive. It is, in fact, the mentality of a human whose consciousness is not clouded by the fog of culture and its norms and dogmas. Philosophy is the love of wisdom – the desire for a mentality not fogged by norms and dogmas. Let us translate our culturally aggressive notion of the ‘primitive’ into ‘pristine’ (as yet free of foggery).

Emma demonstrates that (some) philosophers of our tradition applied deep reason to confirm the essential beliefs of our ancestors were genuine insights and not naïve thinking. Animism is a rightful heritage for us. It does not have to be rethought, but reclaimed and rearticulated.

You can do this with an eager desire for sentiment that drives a shallow, but essential, shift in cultural values. Or you can be part of the deep change that embeds reclaimed and rearticulated thought in our intellectual culture.

Start off with The Wakeful World. Take your time and do the work it demands of you. But let me be clear here. It is not a dauntingly difficult book. I am simply aware that there are so many undemanding books that make reading ‘fun’ it can be challenging to encounter a book that expects you to think, rather than be impressed and agree. Learning and thinking well take effort. Please don’t imagine they does not.

An Early Morning Reflection at the End of 2021

Introduction

I am parked down by a local park. It’s not quite 07:00. The sun is behind me, and I am intrigued by the way tree shadows trace linkages across the ground. We draw lines to link things – and now before me a transient line challenges me to see what has been linked. Two almost parallel shadow lines make a pathway from my car to a picnic table – an invitation to get out of my comfort zone?

Trying to Make Sense

COVID has become a huge thing in our lives. It has redrawn the contours of our conduct. It connects and separates us. What started off in one city in China has gone global. A virus which dwelt within a community of critters in the wild world was drawn out through trauma and has rampaged – seeking to return to an equilibrium – around the globe. 

Humans do not do well with novel micro-organisms out of context of their natural home. That was catastrophically true when Europeans arrived in the Americas, and elsewhere as well. 

But unlike earlier times, before travel became easy, our non-local interconnectedness is now addictive. We love to be other than where we are. We have eschewed the intimacy of the familiar for the sensation of the new. 

Over 1996 – 1997 I spent 13 months in Dover, UK. I had planned to move to the UK from Australia permanently, but that wasn’t to be. I was there to get an education, and nothing more. Not that I knew it at the time. 

I travelled, taking short trips to Paris, Edinburgh, London, Oxford, Dublin, Belfast and others. But I explored Dover too. 

I lived near a pub, The Orange Tree. It became my go to place. Like so many local pubs, it was a community centre – a communal lounge. Many there had not left Dover for years. There was a chef who worked in Canterbury, a truck driver who drove across Europe – and that was it. There was a guy whose parents fled from Brisbane back to Dover so he wouldn’t be exposed to the risk of conscription and have to serve in Vietnam. Well, that’s the story he was told. Apart from that, nobody seemed to have been out of Dover too far or with any frequency. The landlady told me she had been on holidays one time – about 20 miles distant. 

Being in Dover was a lesson in Community for me. This lesson was to be extended later in 1997 when I worked as Community Recovery Coordinator on the Tasman Peninsula, just a year after the Port Arthur shootings. Here the contrast between the old families and the new families was sharp. 

Intimate familiarity versus novel exploration are two poles of what drive us. Without the former we have no foundation, and the latter is no remedy. 

Animism and materialism reflect a similar polarity. The former is born of intimate familiarity. The latter spurred by the lust for the novel. It’s one thing to travel in search of a new foundation of intimate familiarity; and quite another to seek sensation, or to exploit, away from our familiar. 

COVID has disrupted our norms and thrown social and economic behaviour into chaos. The intimacy of strangers was to be avoided. Travel for non-critical reasons had been denied. 

And thrown back upon intimate familiarity we discover it is wanting. While it is intimate and familiar, it is not known. We can tolerate an intimate familiarity that is unpleasant so long as we can escape to something that offers respite and the chance to imagine an alternative. 

A Need to Rethink

There is no doubt that COVID will become a background disease like the flu. It will become a hazard to be navigated. But we must see it as more than a public health crisis and acknowledge that it is the product of who we are. 

In the US, Trump is still directing his supporters gaze to China as the source. It may be true that cultural and commercial practices in China released the virus from its natural domain. But it’s spread around the world was entirely down to us and our way of living. It has exposed crucial elements of the system of living we have created; and given us a chance to reimagine them. 

The natural thing to do is to desire a ‘return to normal’ – if that normal was agreeable. But we might pause to consider whether than normal was even remotely agreeable to the planetary life. Clearly our economy has been designed to cater to normal, and to exploit opportunity to gratify our desires. 

We in the west have long seen ourselves as a thing apart. This started with the Biblical creation of humanity as apart from all other creatures and then it was to humanity whom God gave dominion over all others – made apart and given to rule, to dominate. 

For a long time that narrative served the interests of generations. Its crudity was swallowed up in the Earth’s capacity to soak up punishment, but only up to a point – and now we can see that point on the horizons of our informed imagination. 

Now we have no recourse to imagining that the virus is a mere evil disputing our rightful dominion. The myths of millennia past do not protect us from intentional ignorance. Gone from the religious narrative is the notion of Divine punishment. That is visited only upon enemies and apostates. Our misfortune is an act of evil. The faithful are blameless.

The climate change discourse is the closest we have to a notion of divine punishment. That in which we live and move and have our physical being is kicking back. And yet, how strange it must seem that some of the most vociferous denials of climate change are those who profess the strongest religious ardour. They see it as a conspiracy of evil. 

It is not paradoxical that science has become the moral voice. Religion was always an existential response to problem of action and consequence as it played out in the real and unreal worlds – the physical and the metaphysical. Science has eschewed the metaphysical for dogmatic reasons; but is being drawn ineluctably back into balance. In the meantime, religion has abandoned the metaphysical for the purely psychological. It has become materialistic also. It still employs the language and trappings of the metaphysical – but there is scant spirit in it. 

This should not be a mystery. Religion is about succeeding in physical life – at least that’s the foundation of the Judaic strand of Christianity. As physical life became easier the need for metaphysical intervention has diminished. The moral dimension of material success was not something religion has been good at addressing – and, really, what else was there – beyond personal morality. A religion predicated on an intervening God really had no place to go. 

Nietzsche’s famous declaration “God is dead” is better understood as ‘our conception of God is dead’. Materialism has essentially cleared the body away, but contemporary Christianity has set it up as an idol. 

It’s All Part of One System

Stephen J. Gould has asserted that science and religion are two non-overlapping magisteria. He, like so many scientists, has misunderstood what religion is. They do not just overlap, they interweave. To grasp this, we must understand what religion is, and what it is not. It’s not as defined – the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods (Oxford Dictionary). That’s one aspect of what it is, not all it is. Our ancestors were animists. Their senses were profoundly attuned to the physical and metaphysical aspects of their reality. Their being in the world was precarious. Their way of knowing was framed in terms of agency, not mechanism. The luxury of the polarised thought that materialism has given us is novel; and was not available to our distant ancestors.

Religion is not about belief in, and worship of, gods. It’s about engaging with being in the world at a physical and metaphysical level – a way of knowing. We have replaced acute physical senses with technological ones, and we have replaced metaphysical senses with forms of psychology and arts in a materialistic framework. Absent is a deeper sense of the extent of the metaphysical aspect of our reality.

We are awash with self-interest. We struggle, as a culture, with notions of sustainability, peace, civility. This is, I think, part of evolution of individuality – still in its early phases. 

As we rediscover a holistic way of knowing – seeing that complex systems are the foundation of our reality – we will struggle to reframe our moral vision and discourse. Indeed, globally, ‘progressives’ struggle to articulate a sophisticated ‘secular’ morality. In some cases, this is a reluctance to follow the evidence away from a self-centred ethos toward something that looks too much like the old values championed by religious hypocrites.

Conclusion

We can avoid ‘morality’ as a word, because of its hypocritical taint, and replace it with ‘values’. But the challenge is the same – we must rethink our values at quite a deep level and bring them into conformity with the insights that greater awareness of complexity (at all levels) is producing.

We have some work to do – individually and collectively.

The Relaunch Post

The Original Blog

My first post was on 30 December 2017 – a piece called Gnostic Illusion. I am starting to draft this on 28 December 2021 with the goal of relaunching on 30.12.21 (That does not happen). At the moment, Gnosticism is a focus of interest for me. I am reading Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels. This book came out in 1979; and was not one I had encountered on the theme since then, despite having an interest and reading works by other authors. I’d read several of Pagels’ books, and I bought this one a few years. It’s been sleeping in my Kindle collection until just recently.

This was interesting because of two things. It would have been a waste for me to have read it between 1979 and 2019. And it is now clear that if the authors of the other books on Gnosticism I read had read Pagel’s book, they didn’t understand it.

What I wrote in 2017 didn’t have the assistance of Pagels’ subtle mind. It was shallow on key points, and a little off the mark. Still, the point I was making still holds, in my mind. I am still deciding whether to repost it.

I posted 2 other essays that day – In praise of Emma Restall Orr and Conspiracies and Confusions

Emma wrote some wonderful books that inspired me deeply. They are way under-appreciated as serious sources of deep insight. Emma was a leading light in the contemporary Druidic movement in the UK, and then she walked away. After reading the original essay I googled her in the hope she was still active. She has replied, and we shall see what transpires. I will repost the in praise of Emma essay. 

An Age of Conspiracy?

I have moved a long way from what I wrote in Conspiracies and Confusions. I wanted to distinguish between conspiracy theories, real conspiracies and those that are somewhere in between.

I thought it necessary to do this because of the problematic situation that arises from theories about human origins and history. Conspiracy theories are part of our culture now. They tend to be manifestly idiotic -on sensible investigation. I wrote 3 blog posts that resulted from exploring some conspiratorial activity. I will repost them, because I think it is important to appreciate that we need disciplined inquiry of even things we are disposed to find appealing.

But there are also conspiracies that are just that – attempts to distort and deny truth. These can also be harnessed to the conspiracy theory culture as well.

Conspiracy is routine. Governments are into it as a part of core business – intentionally lying to conceal motives and actions that do not serve the common good. They will argue their motives and actions serve the common good – but never truthfully argue that case. It’s a messy business. There always seems to be a background interest and influence – and maybe it has ever been thus.

Then there are existential conspiracies where facts are hidden, or denied, to protect a discourse for motives that are never made clear. The truth about UFOs and ET is perhaps the most flagrant. Here the official stance of government is at odds with the publicly available evidence.

The other classic existential conspiracy is the claim that the Great Pyramid is a tomb. There is no real evidence to affirm this. It is a claim that has become woven into the Egypt story by ignoring the demands for evidence. It’s a case of ‘must have been’ – the art of dismissing disagreeable evidence and concluding that a thing ‘must have been’ as asserted because no other explanation is possible (read acceptable).

Now it may turn out that pyramids were built and used as tombs. The point is that no actual evidence that this was their primary function has ever been provided. It has been a case of extrapolating from scant and suspect ‘evidence’ and building an impenetrable fortress of dogma. This has led to wild, and sober, counter theories. These are necessary because it is intolerable to remain inert in the face of such flagrant manipulation of the interpretation of this precious legacy in the stages of human attainment.

The Need for Doubt

There are many things that have become woven into our cultural narrative using this tactic. It does not help when conspiracy theorists make doubt no longer respectable. Those who declare themselves arbiters of the good and the true and the real must always have their motives subjected to very close sceptical scrutiny.

The word sceptical has been debased from being the foundation of disciplined doubt to being camouflage for straight out dogma denial. Doubt has become political rather than intellectual. It is easy to take apart a proposition using purely ‘rational’ methods. But that’s how we destroy truth as well. Truth is not always robust and self-evident to rational inquiry. Sometimes (often in fact) it is shy and delicate and must be nurtured into expression.

There was a time when a common outlook had to be enforced. This was a time when a culture or community was vulnerable to harm if points of view became fragmented. These days, our complex pluralistic cultures can endure a lot of diverse opinion – but only up to a point. There still must be common agreement on crucial issues – and we have to agree what those are.

This is the foundation of what we now understand, in a limited way, as religion. Shared beliefs and values were necessary for survival – and flourishing. What we believe matters, still.

There are real conspiracies that interfere with the freedom to imagine who and what we are. This has been so ever since the Christian Church determined what ‘good’ people could believe and think. Where this differs from the critical existential imperatives of tribes is in the fact that none of the dogma is demonstrably essential to survival. Humans did perfectly well under paganism, and atheism hasn’t done irreparable harm.

The Limits to Virtue – As We Imagine It

What has done harm to the human condition is materialism – but not in the short term. The harm has proven to be systemic in the sense that the very foundation of human material wellbeing and existence is being attacked while most of us think we are enjoying benefits. This is no longer a matter of rational dispute. The evidence of harm is persistent and widespread. Opposition is organised and determined. It is fair to call it a conspiracy; because it denies, rather than refutes, the evidence that contradicts. Also, it is fair to assert it favours wrong-doing, for the benefit of a few.

W.B Yates’ poem, The Second Coming’ was written in 1919. I commend the whole poem, but I want focus on 2 compelling lines:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

That is bleak assessment of ‘the best’. Let’s allow a poet’s licence and say it’s not a case of lacking ‘all conviction’ but of expressing it poorly. The image of the ‘best’ – those who assert moral and intellectual superiority – tend to be nothing of the sort. On the extreme ends of the spectrum of moral and intellectual conceit there is woeful ignorance and adherence to dogma. 

The ‘worst’ see what they have to lose; and are motivated to become organised in its defence. The ‘best’ have a lesser sense of urgency, though what can be lost is nevertheless fundamental to human wellbeing. The ‘worst’ will impose their beliefs and values upon others. The ‘best’ will not, rightly so. So, the best have only the examples of their own conduct – which can be riddled with pride, arrogance, intellectual laziness and hypocrisy.

In this sense Yate’s is right. That lack of conviction comes from an inner sense of personal pride. It lacks the conviction of authentic insight, which taps humility. Yates is no mere poet. In 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He was a deep thinker with a powerful spiritual dimension to his life.

It’s something David Brooks has been looking at in The Road Character. It’s the dilemma of our age – how to be good with depth and grace without recourse to dogma and the arrogance of certainty. I am not saying I know what the answer is. I simply acknowledge the problem.

The coming year, 2022, will be a year of testing values and putting the ‘good’ under a challenge to articulate high values in an inclusive way. By that I mean speaking to what is noble and compassionate in everyone without straying into any ideological domain and thereby excluding those whose habits of mind forbid them from following. 

This is, I think, the challenge of the truly secular – a contemporary version of the catholic (universal) but without the dictates of creedal obedience. It’s hard ask; but I don’t know what the alternative is.

It’s not possible for ‘good’ to be ‘full of passionate intensity’. That doesn’t work. It becomes a mask for the ‘worst’ and it fools the many. The alternative can only be a matter for personal judgement and commitment.

Conclusion

What’s ahead of us is a time of challenge – to reframe our knowledge and values. Science is moving into quantum thinking, which is fatally wounding the materialist paradigm. Climate change is obliging us to rethink, reframe and re-imagine our being in the world. Social media is challenging us to reimagine civility and truth.

Indeed, we are living in cusp times in some many areas of being human. And off-stage, waiting in the wings, may be others from distant elsewheres. If their presence becomes widely undeniable, we will reach a tipping point for which we are not prepared.

I have no fixed opinions on ET, beyond thinking that the evidence is beyond hasty denial. The 25 June 2021 report from the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence – Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena – was widely dismissed as disappointing. But writ large between the lines was an entirely different message.