Friday, February 20, 2009

It’s all in the Mind:

I remember a friend from long ago constantly repeating the above mantra for us when we first went to college.  Like all students new to college life we felt young, invincible and we quite loved the sound of our own voices and our own ideas.  Now, Noel had already done two years of philosophy in Maynooth College and these two years, in our young eyes, had conferred on him a deeper knowledge and insight into life and things intellectual than we ordinary plebs were granted – after all we were mere neophytes and our man had his stripes as it were.

I quite like reading philosophy, especially now as I grow older.  However, since I first began to study it way back in the late seventies of the last century, I have never ceased to read it.  These days I love dipping in and out of philosophy books for the general reader rather than the headier kind that is more suitable to professional philosophers.  I have many of A.C. Grayling’s books on popular philosophy on my shelves and I delve into them from time to time.  These books are mostly short reflective pieces he has written for newspapers over the years.  However, they do set my mind thinking.  After all, isn't that what it’s all about – reflecting, contemplating and thinking.  I have always subscribed to the Socratic premise that the unexamined life is not worth living.  I would even go so far as saying that I also subscribe to its reversal in the words that the unlived life is not worth examining.

The following are just thoughts more in the form of questions, but they reflect how I sit with life and how life sits with me, if I may be permitted to use a sustained metaphor from meditation here.

What is the Mind?:

This is a huge question which embraces many sciences: philosophy, biology, neuroscience or neurobiology, psychology, psychiatry and the field of neurology.  There are probably many other areas of study of the mind that I have left out.  The concept “mind” is indeed a hypothesis, and a very good one as it has not yet been falsified (a la Popper et al).  Most scientists say that it exists or subsists most probably in the brain.  Then, there are other learned scientists who say yes, for the most part it exists in the brain, but the mind can also exist by extension in other areas of the body.  The nuances of all this are quite beyond me indeed.  However, I know what these scientists are getting at.  The concept of “mind” is just that complex that its location could be seen as being as nebulous as the location of the “soul.”  Now I’m not going to get into theology or religion here, and I certainly do not want to insist on any sort of dualism whether of the Cartesian or Christian varieties here.  All I am saying is that a philosophy of mind is a very heavy and intricate subject indeed!

In 1998 I had a severe nervous breakdown which necessitated my spending seven weeks in a psychiatric hospital.  I was bombarded with the heavy psychiatric drugs like the typical antipsychotic known as largactil in the UK and Ireland and by its chemical name Chlorpromazine in the medical and pharmacological literature.  This certainly had the effect of knocking me out and rendering me almost unconscious for two weeks during which I slept continually.  When finally it was withdrawn and its effects had worn off and a common antidepressant administered I got better.  Now, why am I relating this story then?  Well, during this time in hospital I experienced myself or more correctly my “self” as a fluid, shapeless entity, like some sort of play dough or modelling clay that could be constantly reshaped.  In other words my personality was no longer “solid” and “secure.”  In fact, what was my personality anyway if it could be changed by psychopharmacological interventions?  Was I no more than a combination, a mixture or concoction of various chemical substances?  During this time we attended talks by psychiatrists on neurons and axons and the various chemical neurotransmitters that kept our moods in or out of balance according to their concentration in the chemicals of our brain material?  Where does the mind lie in all of this?  Then, there is the concept of personality – another hypothesis obviously which we accept because its useful and works.  It, too, may not really exist.  Okay we can define  “mind” and “personality” and “identity” is as learned terms as we are capable of, but their complexity is astounding if we really think about it. Other concepts equally as nebulous and complex are consciousness and knowledge and where it is contained in the brain and the hypothesis of the unconscious as codified by Dr Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung et al.

It’s all about Needs, really 

My mother has lived in a hospital/nursing home for the last seven years.  She has vascular dementia and has practically forgotten our names, and at times even her own.  Who is she?  Where is her mind?  As areas of the brain have died off due to vascular jamming with blood clots, she has become almost a different person.  As I said above, and most psychologists would agree, personality is always in the making and is not some "set in stone" reality that can be pinned down.  It is just a working hypothesis and a most useful one at that.  She has no need for anything now except food and shelter and her dollies and teddies.

Some years back she needed her Church and her God.  On the surface of things, one would rightly say that she was a very religious person.  However, when one looked a little more carefully at her life and that of many of her friends – mostly all old women – one could see that the Church or religion gave them purpose in life, and here I’m not referring to some supra-human or supernatural purpose.  No, I’m referring to purpose in daily living.  In short going to Church gave them something to do, an outing each morning where they could meet up with their friends.  In other words God or Church or Religion all play a social function in the lives of many.  I would argue that these three concepts which overlap all play a psychosocial or psychological role in many lives.  And, fair enough, I say.  I don’t say that these people are deluded.  No, I say that they have needs and they need their God, their Church or their Religion to give their lives meaning.

When I came out of hospital now over ten years ago I ceased to practise my religion, because quite literally I no longer needed it anymore.  It was as simple as that.  I had a real need for it up until then.  Over the past ten years Psychology, Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Personal Development have all taken the place of Religion for me in my life.  I read voraciously and widely in these areas, attend a therapist and am training as a psychotherapist.  And so, what has changed?  It’s not that God is Dead, or that Religion is false or useless or that the Church is redundant.  No, it’s just that they are dead, false and redundant for me, now at this moment in my life.  If you like my God, my Church, my Religion, have got different names: Personal Integration (Jung, Storr), Self-Realization and Self-Actualization (C.Rogers) etc.

It’s not a Question of Argument:

This is where atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Francis Crick and Daniel Dennett and theists like the distinguished religious affairs commentator Clifford Longley, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre have all got it wrong: it’s not a question of “right” or “wrong”, “true” or “false.”  Such debates are like tennis matches.  Whoever is stronger (intellectually) on the day will win.  In fact, maybe this battle is unwinnable.  Even if it is winnable by one side or the other, it does not matter one whit.  Why?  Quite simply people have different needs at different times of their lives.  If religious makes people happy or at least happier in their human situation, then good for them.  Also, I feel that all the many different ways of looking at the world have their place in the scheme of things.  Other questions worth asking are:  What is mythology?  Is Science another mythology like Religion?  After all it gives us another paradigm by which to look at the world.  A deeper reflection on the nature of humankind and at its real needs is what’s important – not argumentation and the scoring of points.  Those atheists and theists who are debating with one another are doing no more than playing a sophisticated intellectual game while most of humanity just go on living, and often that living for them will involve one religion or another.


It’s much easier to find lists of atheists on the WWW than lists of theists.  I wonder what does that say about the God debate?

Above I have posted a picture of the stump of a tree which was recently robbed of its splendour in The Phoenix Park, Dublin.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

All that Glisters

I remember my mother quoting one line from Shakespeare to us as children.  Now she had left school at 13 or so years of age because that was the practice for poor children in Ireland in 1930.  Imagine they had read several Shakespearean plays in primary school before they were 13!  Anyway, back to the point.  The quotation which she often repeated for us children was: “All that glisters is not gold.”  This comes from the play The Merchant of Venice.  These days the citizens of planet earth are beginning, just beginning, to learn this lesson.  In the wake of the Celtic Tiger’s untimely (or was it timely?) demise the trappings of wealth and success – holidays abroad, a second house in the sun, four wheel drive vehicles, parties, big cars etc – are now become mere mirages.  Oh my goodness, it is probably a truism to state that each succeeding generation has to learn the lessons of the previous for themselves.  The myth of power, of success, of continued and increasing wealth was one which was swallowed whole by modern humankind.  We in Ireland have only come to wealth and its trappings in the past twenty years or so.  Now, we see that we were fools, that we bought into the lies which we were sold by advertisers etc.

Fool’s Gold:

The Celtic Tiger with its seeming unstoppable gallop was merely an imaginary construct of greedy and avaricious capitalists.  In fact what these bankers and speculators sold the Irish people was not real valuable gold but rather fool’s gold. Fool's gold  (I repeat the term for emphasis, even though it is rather stylistically amateur to use the same words in such close proximity) is another name for pyrite, also known as iron pyrite or iron sulphide.  Its shiny yellow lustre fooled many into believing they had struck the real thing, when really all they possessed was a mineral of little value.
The name pyrite is from Greek “pyrites” (of fire), from “pyr” (fire) because it produces sparks when struck against a hard surface. Some related words are fire, pyre, pyrosis (heartburn), pyromania (an irresistible impulse to set things on fire), and empyreal (relating to the sky or heaven, believed to contain pure light or fire).  So much for the etymology.  Once again I advise readers to access the wonderful site on words named AWAD where you can literally sign up for “A Word a Day,” the letters of which make the acronymic name of the site, by clicking here: AWAD.

I’ve been reading a lot on meditation and even doing a little practice.  Now, as a meditator I fully realise that I should be doing a little reading and a lot of meditation.  However, that ideal remains my goal.  Anyway, one of the things that meditation seeks to do for the practitioner is to allow him or her cease their clinging to things which of their very nature are subject to decline and decay like ourselves indeed.  Nothing lasts forever and our desires and drives are after all merely illusions when we have time to sit and think about them.  Can we really possess things?  Ask yourself this question.  As I sit typing these words I ask myself these questions:  Do I really possess (a much different word philosophically from ‘own’) this computer, the music to which I’m listening (a recording of Andrea Bocelli singing Romanza from the album of the same name) or the many thousands of books I own?  Can I really possess the house and car which I also own?  Can I really and truly possess them?  Are they extensions of my personality?  Do they define me in some way?  What do they say about me?  What do all my possessions say about me?  Then back to what my late father, a great human being, used to say:  “There are no pockets in a shroud” or yet again: “You cannot take it with you.”  If you cannot take it with you, then in how far can we say we possess anything at all?  Even our own lives, our very being, can we really possess them?

Now, to turn things somewhat on their heads, can we not say that we are possessed by the things we gather around us.  Let me put what I’ve said in the immediate paragraph in a series of questions.  This expression in question format of the above sentiments may be a more potent way of driving my message home to myself first and foremost:  Does my computer possess me?  Do words possess me?  Do my ambitions as a writer possess me?  Do my books, my joy, my salary, may car, my home, mu family possess me?  Okay, this is just a way of speaking, but it does have its point.  I love the distinction which I have alluded to many times ion my posts on this blog, namely the contrast which the great social psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm noted between “being” and “having” modes of Existence. He published a book called To Have or To Be (1976) (How far he was influenced by the great French Christian existentialist Gabriel Marcel I cannot say; Marcel wrote a famous autobiographical book called Being and Havingg in 1945)  Of course, we need to have certain basics in life as are beautifully and succinctly laid out in his pyramid of needs by the late great psychologist Abraham Maslow.  However, it is the deadly driven-ness of humankind to have more and more and more at the expense of our very own being that costs us greatly, even to the point of extinction.  I’m referring to human beings’ sheer greed and avarice which is putting the eventual survival of our planet at stake.  It is beyond my intention here to speak of the ecological crisis with which this planet is faced.

Another major contributor to our self-delusions of grandeur as a race is our very hubris or pride.  We have placed humanity and its achievements on such a high pedestal that we have forgotten our roots in nature.  After all, we are creatures of this world.  In forgetting that we are creatures of this planet we have committed a great category mistake to my mind – if I may be so bold as to appropriate a term coined by the philosopher Gilbert Ryle.  Yes, I suppose in intellect and in certain spiritual gifts we are greater than our fellow animals and plants – yes, yes, yes.  But, but, but, we are still very much part of this planet in our creaturliness which can only be denied at the high cost of our eventual extinction as a race.  We grow, bloom and expire with our fellow creatures after all.  In meditating we learn to take on board this new perspective of putting things in their natural places; we learn to appreciate life; we learn to put things in perspective; we learn to get a handle on our base desires; we learn that we live in connection or connectivity with everything else – that we are part of the web of life; we learn to accept ourselves as we truly are; we learn to live with beginnings and ends, with births and deaths; we learn to contemplate the whole universe as one reality in which we are just a small point of awareness; we learn to observe the seasons of the earth and indeed our own human seasons; we learn in short to live and die with dignity.

By way of ending this post let me return to the wonderful above AWAD site and look at the very meaning of the root word to “possess.”  There I read that the word “possess”  comes from the Latin “possidere”, again from “potis” (having the power) + “sedere” (to sit). So when you possess something, say a patch of earth, you have the power to sit upon it, literally speaking.  And strangely enough my meditation practice, like all such practices, is about sitting.  Scholars, gurus and lamas recommend that we sit like mountains, sturdy, erect and objective as we observe our breath and the clear blue sky of consciousness across which the clouds of our earthly preoccupations flit in distractive words, phrases and thoughts.  In sitting every day at a given time we learn to come to terms with life; to come to terms with self; to come to terms with the nature of things by objectively observing them , by going with the flow, never pushing against the natural flow or force or energy that is at the heart of life.  To meditate means that we sit and that the only thing or rather the only reality upon which we sit and can truly possess is our very essence, our very being.  That is the only earthly point we can sit upon.  To be is so much more important and so much more life-enhancing than to have. 

Above another picture I took recently. I'll call it Winter Tree. It's worth pordering a little - the bare branches against a not too cold winter sky!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Magic of Words

For those of you interested in the magic of words there are a few interesting sites worth your perusal - (i) Ask Oxford which is a wonderful site run by the OUP people.  Here is the link: Ask Oxford, and (ii) an equally interesting and authoritative site – called AWAD - from which one can get a daily newsletter with yet another interesting word explained clearly.  The site’s acronymic name stands for A Word A Day and can be accessed by clicking the following link: AWAD.

With the magic a words, it is very hard to know where to start.  I find myself like a child going into a wonderfully large sweetshop where I could literally start anywhere and never stop feasting my eyes before feasting my belly.  Or again I find myself like a child going into a fabulous ice-cream shop like that, say, of Giolitti’s in Rome.  Again this shop has a website which is also worth accessing here: Giolitti.

Last year marked the 250th anniversary of Samuel Johnson's (1709 - 1784) Dictionary which was widely celebrated. After nine years of work, Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755; it had a far-reaching impact on Modern English and has been described as "one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship".The Dictionary brought Johnson popularity and success; until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary, 150 years later, Johnson's was viewed as the pre-eminent British dictionary.  He was also recognised as one of the sharpest wits of his generation who could shoot off learned quips as quickly as the mythical cowboy gunslinger dispensed bullets.  There is also an interesting page here worth perusing, namely the Samuel Johnson Sound Bite page which can be accessed here:  S. J. Sound Bite.  I’ll quote a few gems hereunder from our man Johnson:

"Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it."
from Boswell's Life of Johnson


On second marriages: "The triumph of hope over experience."
from Boswell's Life of Johnson


"A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization."
from Boswell's Life of Johnson.


"Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."
from Boswell's Life of Johnson


"Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."
from Boswell's Life of Johnson



The last of the quotations above would seem to be very apt in the contemporary world, given our national and international financial crises.

By way of finishing I would like to give a few statistics garnered from the above sites:

1.The Oxford Dictionary boasts a £35 million research programme - the largest language research programme in the world.

2.The corpus of words at Oxford now contains over 2 billion words of real 21st century English.

3.If all the words in the Oxford English Corpus were laid out end to end (measuring on average 1cm), the total would stretch a greater distance than from the northern tip of Scotland to the south tip of New Zealand. Because the corpus is a collection of texts, there are not two billion different words: the humble word 'the', the commonest in the written language, accounts for almost 100 million of all the words in the corpus!

4. Just ten different lemmas (the, be, to, of, and, a, in, that, have, and I) account for a remarkable 25% of all the one billion words used in the Oxford English Corpus. A lemma is a base word.  For example, “climb” is the lemma of “climbing, climber, climbs and climbed.”  For other interesting facts consult the above link to this site.

5.  A.C. Grayling gives the following word as the longest in the English language: pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. (Grayling, A.C., The Form of Things, 51).  An early primary school teacher who taught us so well as children apprised me of an important learning tactic with respect to spelling and reading, namely, breaking a word up into syllables or a horrible compound one like the foregoing into its constituent parts thus: pneumono-ultra-microscopic-silico-volcano-coni-osis.  This is a medical word, obviously, and it contains 45 letters and it means a lung disease of the silicosis variety

6.  An educated person would be expected to have an active vocabulary of 30, 000 words, and the reader of a tabloid like the Sun would require a vocabulary of approximately 800 words according to Grayling.  (See ibid., 51)