Saturday, July 04, 2009

New Poem - Abstractions

Abstractions, July 4th

I can see through words,
through the clouds of thought
obscuring the circle's dripping edge

I can see beyond the limits
of logic to where the river
is everywhere, both source
and destination, both swollen monsoon
and thirsty drought,
all this and more . . .

I can see the stones as though
from tomorrow, as though
the rains have finally fallen
and the night is quenched


in this place the hungry beetles caress
dark moments, frantic vibrations
signaling a life unseen


a false god, the brain, more powerful
than any real god that might exist

we fail to glimpse the body of reason,
the flesh of mind, the sinew
and synapse creating thought
from frivolous sensation

so what? I ask myself,
what matter is that to those
who go to sleep hungry or alone
in the hot wet night


philosophy is a luxury
of the comfortable . . .
and poets


so the night collapses on itself
and we call it dawn, still hot,
the air wet with smoke
of fireworks and foolishness

this isn't why I am here,
to blow things up in celebration
of an idea, to look backward

the future stands sentinel
on tomorrow, where the stones
are wet with rain,
the dawn is cool and alive,
and the hungry are sated
with all the earth can offer

July 4th Observation

[This is an expanded version of a Tweet from earlier today.]

Independence Day is passe. It was well and good to look back and celebrate the founding of the nation for a while. But there comes a time when that is no longer useful. That time has come and gone. The time of independent nations has come and gone, despite the efforts of some people to deny the global nature of human life in the 21st century.

We need an Interdependence Day, a day when race, religion, and nationality no longer divide people from each other, when we embrace the reality that we all need each other to thrive on this small planet spinning through space.

We need to recognize that isolationism is no longer a productive viewpoint. Ethnocentrism is no longer a healthy worldview. We need to take to heart the metaphor that suggests the sneeze of a butterfly in the Caribbean can impact global weather. Our reality as a species means we each are intertwined with all beings on this planet - when one person hurts another, we all suffer that pain.

But we can only hold this truth if we live with an open heart, the tender heart of the warrior that Chogyam Trungpa speaks of in Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. We must cultivate compassion as a higher truth than separateness. We must hold the well-being and freedom from suffering of all beings as our goal.

This will never happen as long as we are bound by race, religion, or nationality. These things limit our identity. We are one people, on one planet, with a shared destiny.

We need an Interdependence Day in which we look forward to and work toward a time when compassion is the bond that unites all people as one species, comforted in our suffering, and together in our hope for a better planet.

Lee Smolin Argues Against the Timeless Multiverse

Interesting rebuttal to the current mainstream view in physics. Smolen argues in favor of a cosmology that allows testable hypotheses based on natural selection of universes rather than the infinitely untestable hypotheses of random universes in string theory.

The unique universe

Many cosmological theories not only see our universe as one of many but also claim that time does not exist. Lee Smolin argues against the timeless multiverse

Three decades ago, talk of other universes was not seen by most physicists to be part of science. Most research in theoretical physics and cosmology concerned observable features in our universe and most papers and seminars referred to experimental results. However, since then there has been a gradual shift, during which it first became acceptable to work on theories that described not only our universe, but other possible universes, universes with less or more dimensions, or universes with different kinds of particles and forces. In the last few years, we have moved further away from theories of our one universe, as these other worlds went from being logically possible to hypothetically actual. It is now common to hear about the multiverse — a quantum cosmology that takes for granted that the visible universe that we see around us is just one of a vast or infinite number of universes.

The multiverse assumption often comes hand in hand with a metaphysical assumption regarding the nature of time. It has been argued by many experts in quantum cosmology that time is not a fundamental concept, but an approximate and emergent one. If this is correct, then we experience time in a timeless universe for reasons similar to why we, who live in a quantum universe, experience one that obeys classical physics: we are composed of very large numbers of fundamental particles and emergent statistical regular­ities determine much of what we experience.

Furthermore, the combination of the multiverse assumption and the timeless assumption effectively gives us a static meta-universe. Even if our own universe evolves in time, at a deeper level it is part of a timeless, eternal, ensemble of universes.

There are good reasons for these conclusions, and like many others in the field of quantum cosmology I have explored them. However, in the last few years I have come to believe that these conclusions are profoundly mistaken. In collaboration with the Brazilian philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger, we have been trying to understand the source of the problems and develop an alternative notion of time and law on the cosmological scale. Our reasons for doing so are based partly on concerns about whether these theories are testable by doable observations, partly on the current results of attempts to realize the timeless ap­proach and partly on philosophical considerations.

The problem with the timeless multiverse

In a timeless world in which our universe is just one of many equally real universes, the laws of physics must be very different from those that most physicists can ever have conceived. This is because the laws of physics are no longer determinable by what we observe in our own universe, for they must apply to all of the vast en­semble of universes. A fundamental law then no longer proscribes what happens in our universe; instead it gives probability distributions for properties of the ensemble of universes.

To understand why, it is helpful to distinguish between the notion of a fundamental law and an effective law. A fundamental law is posited to hold “meta-universally” from first principles and must be unique. String theory, for instance, is an attempt at discovering such fundamental laws of nature. Effective laws, at the other extreme, govern experiments at scales that we observe directly within one universe, down to the small scales probed by the Large Hadron Collider and up to the scales probed by observations of the cosmic microwave background. We can only observe the effective laws, but we hope that it should be possible to derive them from fundamental laws — otherwise the latter has no connection with what we observe. The question is whether that indirect connection provides enough ground for experimentally testing the fundamental laws so that they are relevant for our scientific understanding of the world.

Unfortunately, it appears that if string theory, or a similar theory, is true, then the fundamental theory does not in fact predict what the effective laws of nature are. Instead, it gives rise to a vast landscape of possible effective laws — a concept I introduced in my book Life of the Cosmos (the word landscape was meant to be evocative of fitness landscapes in biology). We then must have hypotheses for how the single ef­fective laws that describe our universe are chosen from the vast list of possibilities allowed by the fundamental theory. This is one of the major motivations for specu­lation about multiverses.

Several ideas have been suggested for how to select the effective laws that apply to our universe from the larger set of possibilities. One possibility, which has been much studied, is that the ensemble of universes is populated by laws by an effectively random process. An example is eternal inflation. In this scenario the process that produces the ensemble occurs at energy scales so high that they swamp any processes we have experimental access to. The result is that a universe like ours, populated by structures that depend on physics at much lower energy scales, is very atypical in the ensemble of universes. One then has to depend on the anthropic principle to pick out the very few universes hospitable to life, which are very rare in the actual ensemble. Not surprisingly, given that the characteristics of the ensemble can be postulated at will and are not subject to experimental tests, the result is that we cannot make precise and unambiguous predictions about anything observable in our own universe.

An alternative approach, which does lead to at least a few falsifiable predictions, is cosmological natural selection, which I introduced in 1992. This is based on a cosmological scenario that is constructed to be analogous to population biology. Universes are born from “bounces” deep inside black holes, which replace their singularities, where time had been hypothesized to end, with new expanding universes. This leads to a prediction that a typical universe is one where the parameters are tuned to maximize the production of black holes. There is in fact evidence that this is true of the laws that govern our universe. Most importantly, in this theory our universe is supposed to be typical of the ensemble, which leads to several genuinely testable predictions, all of which have held up since they were first published, such as the prediction that the upper mass limit of stable neutron stars is about 1.6 solar masses.

The contrast between these two kinds of multiverse theories leads to a question: why is the theory based on natural selection predictive — but not the one based on random production of universes? This helps us understand why the reality of time is necessary to explain how the laws of physics are chosen.

It is apparent that a scenario in which a population of universes evolves, rather than just being a random timeless distribution, requires a notion of time that is real at a level above individual universes. But to understand why the timeless picture fails, we have to go deeper to the foundations of quantum theory. For example, without time, and without the assumption that what exists is the single universe that we observe, it is hard to make sense of statements about probability relevant to what we observe in our universe. Since quantum mechanics is a probabilistic theory, we then run into trouble by trying to extend it to a realm where probability appears to make no sense. A number of authors have attempted to address this question, by proposing ad hoc measures for deducing predictions from ensembles of multiverses. At least up to the present time, none of these appears to be justified by anything other than the need to reproduce what we observe.

A related issue is the recovery of classical space and time, which general relativity describes, as part of an effective theory. These must be emergent aspects of a fundamental quantum theory, much like the classical notions of a particle being at a definite place and travelling on definite trajectories is emergent from quantum mechanics. This is non-trivial because the notions of quantum space—time, which arise in quantum the­ories of gravity, are very different.

So far, approaches to quantum gravity that assume that both space and time are emergent fail to reproduce the space—time that we know. On the other hand, two approaches that assume that time is fundamental and non-emergent succeed, at least to some extent, in describing how space—time may emerge. The most developed of these is causal dynamical triangulations, which has impressive results indicating the emergence of classical space—time. A more recent attempt, quantum graphity, also has preliminary indications for the emergence of space given the existence of time. Furthermore, fundamental time is also needed to make sense of probability and describe the evolution of effective laws, which ties to the earlier issue.

These results were the first evidence that led me to consider the idea that there might have to be a fundamental global notion of time in any fully consistent approach to quantum gravity that can recover general relativity in the approximation in which the universe is large. This hypothesis is strengthened by recent results in unimodular gravity, which several authors have argued solves the long-standing problem of the cosmological constant — something that is necessary for a large classical space—time to emerge. What is remarkable, as pointed out by the physicists Rafael Sorkin of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, William Unruh of the University of British Columbia, Van­couver, and others, is that this approach des­cribes evolution in a global time related to the space—time volume of the past.

What is a cosmological law?

To understand the difference between the two paradigms of emergent time versus fundamental time we need to appreciate how much of our usual notion of physical law has evolved historically from our experience of laboratory observations. In the laboratory we do not, by definition, study the whole universe. We study a small subsystem of the universe that, to some reasonable approximation, can be regarded as isolated (apart from the measuring instruments that we use to observe it). When we do this, we explore the possibility that we can prepare that closed system over and over again, at different times and in different places, with the same elements and different configurations. We abstract physical laws from what is common in a large set of experiments, and study what becomes different when the initial conditions are different. This allows us to make a clean distinction between laws and initial conditions. The laws are held to be invariant, at least over scales of time and space larger than the scales pertaining to our experiments.

This situation is almost the same for most astronomical observations. We cannot prepare stars and galaxies in any state that we want, but we can observe vast numbers of them and we can treat them as approximately isolated. Hence, in astronomy we also have a justification for distinguishing between laws and initial conditions.

The separation of scientific explanation into law and initial conditions leads to one of the most universal and powerful notions in physics — the notion of configuration space. This is the space of all possible configurations, or states, of the system. In classical and quantum physics we assume that this space exists a priori and outside of time, and that it can be studied independently of the laws of motion. These laws then specify the rules for how the point that describes the initial conditions in configuration space evolves in time. We call this the Newtonian schema for explanation.

The Newtonian schema is the basis for the claim that time is not fundamental in cosmology. From this point of view, time is seen merely as a parameter on a trajectory in configuration space, and not as an intrinsic part of the physical law. The present moment, the time we experience, has no place in this description. The philosopher who does not believe in the flow of time points to the trajectory in the configuration space and says that the only thing that is real is that the whole history of the universe exists timelessly — what in general relativity is called the “block universe” picture. Many physicists and philosophers have fallen for the temptation of believing in the “block universe” picture. To them, our experience of the flow of time is just an illusion.

This argument is faulty for two reasons. First, it does not prove that time is not fundamental. When we observe motion, we record a series of measurements of a system’s position. These can be graphed on the configuration space, resulting in a curve that represents the record of the motion. This graph is timeless, because it is a representation of a record of a past motion, which is, of course, no longer changing. The correspondence is between a mathematical object, which is static, and a series of records of observations, which is also static. The fact that we can make this correspondence be­tween a mathematical object and a record of past mo­tion does not imply that the actual motion that the observations sampled is timeless. Nor does it imply that behind the real evolution in time of the real world there exists a complete correspondence to a timeless mathematical object. To posit this further relation is a pure metaphysical fantasy, which is not implied by anything in the science (see "The fourth principle: mathematics and Platonism" below).

New principles

The second failure of the argument for time not being fundamental is that it is far from clear that the Newtonian schema applies on the scale of the universe as a whole. Almost all work in classical and quantum cosmology assumes that it does. But given the difficulties that these subjects encounter, I think it more likely that the answer is no.

One reason for suspecting that the Newtonian schema does not apply to cosmology is that the experimental context that gives meaning to the separation of causes into laws and initial conditions is completely missing. There is no possibility of preparing the universe in different initial configurations, and there is no way to determine by observation the full initial conditions. Any observer, within the universe, can only see a fraction of any initial-value surface. Thus, the notion of initial conditions is simply not realizable in cosmology. If there is just one universe, there is no reason for a separation into laws and initial conditions, as we want a law to explain just the one history of the one universe.

The same is true for the configuration space of the cosmos. The universe happens once, so what is the meaning of all the states that exist in state space but are never realized in the history of the universe? The notion of the “quantum state of the universe” is a fiction, divorced from anything that could be prepared or measured in practice. These considerations suggest that the notions of configuration space and state space correspond to measurements and preparations that can be operationally realized only in the case of a small subsystem of the universe. These concepts — or at least their operational basis — fail us when we try to extend them to the whole universe.

The issue of time also looks different from this perspective. Time in the Newtonian schema is a parameter used to label points on a trajectory describing the system evolving in configuration space. When the system is small and isolated, this time parameter refers to the reading of a clock on the wall of the observer’s laboratory, which is not a property of the system. When we try to apply this notion to the universe as a whole, the time parameter must disappear. Some have attempted to argue that this means that time itself does not exist at a cosmological scale, but that is the wrong conclusion. What disappears is not time, but the clock outside of the system — which would be an absurd object since the system is the whole universe.

Indeed, it may be that sticking to the Newtonian schema, when it has no operational significance, leads us to take the multiverse scenario seriously. If our scientific methodology only makes sense when applied to subsystems of a vaster universe, then it is tempting to react to the problems that arise when we try to extend it uncritically to that whole universe by positing that our universe is in fact a subsystem of an even vaster multiverse. We get to do physics as we have been trained to, but this is a trap because to do this we must employ structures that have no operational significance. Better, in our view, to regard the Newtonian schema as inapplicable to cosmology, and to look for another notion of law that can make sense when applied to our entire, but single, universe.

But once we state that the distinction between laws and initial conditions has no counterpart in the cosmological context, this renders moot several puzzles that the extension of the Newtonian paradigm to cosmology has brought about. What is the initial quantum state of the universe? How do we interpret it? How do we define probabilities in quantum cosmology? How do we do physics when time has disappeared?

The physical law in a single, time-bound universe

By discarding the Newtonian schema for cosmology and dispensing with the notion of the multiverse, we also no longer have any reason to suspect that time is an illusion. This led Unger and me to consider the implications of a natural philosophy based on a different set of principles.

1. There is only one universe. There are no others, nor is there anything isomorphic to it.
This logically implies that there are no other universes, nor copies of our universe, whether within or without. The first is impossible as no subsystem can model precisely the larger system it is a part of, while the second is impossible because the one universe is by definition all there is. This principle also rules out the notion of a mathematical object isomorphic in every respect to the history of the entire universe, a notion that is more metaphysical than scientific.

2. All that is real is real in a moment, which is a succession of moments. Anything that is true is true of the present moment.
This says that not only is time real, but also that everything else that is real is situated in time. Nothing exists timelessly.

3. Everything that is real in a moment is a process of change leading to the next or future moments. Anything that is true is then a feature of a process in this process causing or implying future moments.
The third principle incorporates the notion that time is an aspect of causal relations. A reason for asserting it is that anything that just existed in a moment, without causing or implying an aspect of the state at a future moment, would be gone in the next moment. Things that persist must be thought of as processes leading to newly changed processes. An atom in a moment is a process leading to a different or a changed atom in the next moment.

This alternative metaphysical framework has im­plications for the nature of physical law. Since nothing is true or real outside of time, there is no possibility of speaking of eternal laws. Laws are regularities that we discover hold for very long stretches of time, but there is no reason for laws to be true timelessly — indeed, there is no way to make sense of that notion. This opens the door to the possibility that laws evolve in time, which is an idea that has been on the table ever since the great American logician Charles Sanders Peirce wrote in 1891 that “To suppose universal laws of nature capable of being apprehended by the mind and yet having no reason for their special forms, but standing inexplicable and irrational, is hardly a justifiable position. Uniformities are precisely the sort of facts that need to be accounted for. Law is par excellence the thing that wants a reason. Now the only possible way of accounting for the laws of nature, and for uniformity in general, is to suppose them results of evolution.”

From this point of view, the notion of transcending our time-bound experiences in order to discover truths that hold timelessly is an unrealizable fantasy. When science succeeds, we do nothing of the sort; what we physicists really do is discover laws that hold in the universe we experience within time. This, I would claim, should be enough; anything beyond that is more a religious urge for transcendence than science.

So, what is physics without a clean separation into laws and initial conditions, and hence, without the notion that there is a space of configurations that exists timelessly? We do not know the full answer to this, but we have a few observations.

First, by discarding the Newtonian schema for cosmology we have much less reason to consider our universe one of many other actual universes. Indeed, we may also be able to dispense with the notion of a vast number of other possible universes, that somehow are never realized. We can imagine instead a notion of law that applies only to the single universe that really exists. We also no longer have any reason to suspect that time is an illusion because, as outlined above, the main arguments from physics for time being emergent and not fundamental come from the misapplication of the Newtonian schema to the universe as a whole.

As we attempt to realize those principles, we seek a notion of law that cannot be applied to an imagined universe within a multiverse, and which cannot be imagined to hang around timelessly waiting for a universe to begin that it can then govern. Given that the universe only happens once, we must try to imagine a new kind of law that applies only that one time. Such a law need not — and should not — have any sense in which it exists outside of time. Nor could it be conceived of as apart from the universe it describes. It might indeed be a law that evolves in time; that is, a law where the distinction between a one-time narration of the history of the one universe and the statement of principles governing that history weakens.

If the timeless multiverse paradigm now ascendant is correct, then we are approaching the end of a process that will eliminate the reality of time and replace it with a shadowy kind of “existence” within an eternal frozen world consisting of vast numbers of possibilities. If, on the other hand, the principles that Unger and I propose are closer to the truth, then we are at the beginning of a new adventure in science where we have to reconceive the notion of law to apply to a single universe that happens just once. In either case we will end up conceiving our universe in very different and less familiar terms than before.

But did we really imagine that completing the revolution started by Einstein would be possible without having to discard some of our comfortable beliefs in favour of disturbing and almost inconceivable new ideas? At this level we do science not for ourselves, but for the fu­ture generations that will live comfortably in conceptual worlds that we can at best only point roughly towards. Press)

At a Glance: Against the timeless multiverse

• Many cosmologists today believe that we live in a timeless multiverse — a universe where ours is just one of an ensemble of universes, and where time does not exist • The timeless multiverse, however, presents a lot of problems. Our laws of physics are no longer determinable from experiment and it is unclear what the connection is between fundamental and effective laws • Furthermore, theories that do not posit time to be a fundamental property fail to reproduce the space—time that we are familiar with • Many of these puzzles can be avoided if we adopt a different set of principles that postulates that there is only one universe and that time is a fundamental property of nature. This scenario also opens the way to the possibility that the laws of physics evolve in time.

The fourth principle: mathematics and Platonism

Believers in eternal truth often point to mathematics as a model of a realm with timeless truths. What is called the Platonic view of mathematics holds that mathematical objects (the things that the theorems of mathematics are about, such as numbers, spheres, planes, curves and so on) exist in a separate timeless realm of reality. Mathematicians explore this realm with their minds and discover truths that exist outside of time, in the same way that we discover the laws of physics by experiment. But mathematics is not only self-consistent, it also plays a central role in formulating laws of fundamental physics, which the physics Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner once referred to as the “unreasonable success of mathematics in physics”.

One way to explain this success within the dominant metaphysical paradigm of the timeless multiverse is to suppose that physical reality is mathematical, i.e. we are creatures within the timeless Platonic realm. The cosmologist Max Tegmark calls this the mathematical universe hypothesis. A slightly less provocative approach is to posit that since the laws of physics can be represented mathematically, not only is their essential truth outside of time, but there is in the Platonic realm a mathematical object, a solution to the equations of the final theory, that is “isomorphic” in every respect to the history of the universe. That is, any truth about the universe can be mapped into a theorem about the corresponding mathematical object.

If nothing exists or is true outside of time, then this is all wrong. However, if mathematics is not the description of a different timeless realm of reality, what is it? What are the theorems of mathematics about if numbers, formulas and curves do not exist outside of our world? This leads Unger and me to a new view on mathematics that can be summarized in a fourth principle.

4. Mathematics is derived from experience as a generalization of observed regularities when time and particularity are removed.
Consider a game, for example chess. It was invented at a particular time, before which there is no reason to speak of any truths of chess. But once the game was invented, a long list of facts became demonstrable. These are provable from the rules, and can rightly be called the theorems of chess. These facts are objective, in that any two minds that reason logically from the same rules will reach the same conclusions about whether a conjectured theorem is true or not.

Now a Platonist would say that chess always existed timelessly in an infinite space of mathematically describable games. We do not achieve anything by believing that, except an emotion of doing something elevated. Moreover, it is clear that a lot is lost; for example, we have to explain how it is that we finite beings embedded in time can gain knowledge about this timeless realm. We find it much simpler to think that at the moment the game was invented a large set of facts become objectively demonstrable, as a consequence of the invention of the game. We have no need to think of them as eternally existing truths, which are suddenly discoverable, instead we can say they are objective facts that are evoked into existence by the invention of the game of chess. Our view is that the bulk of mathematics can be treated the same way, even if the subjects of mathematics such as numbers and geometry are inspired by our most fundamental observations of nature. Mathematics is no less objective, useful or true for being evoked by and dependent on discoveries of living minds in the process of exploring the single, time-bound universe.

More about: Against the timeless multiverse

R Bousso, B Freivogel and I-S Yang 2008 Boltzmann babies in the proper time measure Phys. Rev. D 77 103514
R Loll 2008 The emergence of spacetime or quantum gravity on your desktop Class. Quantum Grav. 25 114006
F Markopoulou 2008 Space does not exist, so time can
L Smolin 2000 The present moment in quantum cosmology: challenges to the arguments for the elimination of time
Time and the Instant (ed) R Durie (Manchester, Clinamen Press)
L Smolin 2006 The status of cosmological natural selection arXiv:hep-th/0612185
R M Unger 2007 The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound (Harvard University

About the author

Lee Smolin is a founding member and research physicist at the Perimeter Institute

Dalai Lama on Community

A nice brief quote from the Dalai Lama on world community.

by the Dalai Lama,
compiled & edited by Mary Craig

Dalai Lama Quote of the Week

Our world is becoming one community. We are being drawn together by the grave problems of overpopulation, dwindling natural resources, and an environmental crisis that threatens the very foundation of our existence on this planet. Human rights, environmental protection and greater social and economic equality are all interrelated. I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. Each of us must learn to work not just for oneself, one's own family or nation, but for the benefit of all humankind. Universal responsibility is the key to human survival. It is the best foundation for world peace.

--from The Pocket Dalai Lama by the Dalai Lama, compiled and edited by Mary Craig

Katrina vanden Heuvel - Rediscovering Secular America

A nice article for this Fourth of July from the editor of The Nation. She argues that America is NOT only a nation for Christian believers - I wish she were more correct in this, but on the ground, it's not so much tat way.

Rediscovering Secular America

posted by Katrina vanden Heuvel on 07/03/2009 @ 8:36pm

This Fourth of July, those who identify themselves as non-believers, or humanists, or atheists -- or a whole host of other names which signify a nontheistic worldview -- have much cause for celebration. After eight years in the Bush wilderness -- and an even longer period of ostracism by the Washington political establishment -- a rising demographic of like-minded Americans and a new president are guiding us back to our roots as a secular nation.

"We have generally been a pariah group in America," says Woody Kaplan, Advisory Board Chair of the Secular Coalition for America. "Pretty much unrecognized by the political establishment. Yet there's almost no religious group in America as large as us…. We were that third rail that politicians failed to touch."

Indeed when the Obama Administration invited the Coalition to the White House for a meeting in May it marked a stark departure from recent history.

"Joe Lieberman famously talked about the constitution providing for freedom of religion but not freedom from religion -- and questioned the possibility of non-believers to be ethical human beings," Kaplan says. "Suffice it to say we were never invited as an identity group into the Bush White House. But interestingly enough… we were only invited into the Clinton White House under the rubric of core civil rights or civil liberties interests, and not as an identity group of nontheists."

Things began to change shortly after then-Senator Obama announced his candidacy for president.

"He was on one of those talking head shows," Kaplan says. "And he was talking about Dr. King's arc of the moral universe bending towards justice. He followed that with ‘no matter what your belief system' -- and he made a list, a litany -- ‘whether you're Christian or Jewish or Muslim or have no religion at all.'"

Within a week the Coalition approached Obama. They let him know they had never been part of that "list" before -- never had had a seat at the table -- and they would appreciate it if he would continue to include them whenever appropriate.

As Herb Silverman, the Coalition's President says, "Lip service is better than no service at all."

"It's helpful in bringing us out of the closet," Kaplan says.

Obama agreed and remained true to his word. And then came the moment approximately 50 million Americans-- who identify themselves with terms like agnostic, atheist, materialist, humanist, nontheist, skeptic, bright, freethinker, agnostic, naturalist, or non-believer -- will never forget. In his inauguration speech, Obama said, "…Our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers." Two weeks later he talked about "non-believers" and "humanists" at the National Prayer Breakfast.

Kaplan gives a sense of both the historical and personal significance of Obama's words.

"The shock came at the inaugural speech -- arguably the biggest speech a President ever makes -- and he listed us there" he says. "And he's continued to do that -- he mentioned us twice at Notre Dame. And then he did it [this month] in Normandy. I can't tell you what a pariah group feels about those statements. For the first time we have a seat at the table. We're not thought of, evidently, as automatically unethical."

After meetings with the Obama transition team in coalition with other groups interested in church-state issues, the Secular Coalition for America was invited to the White House for its own meeting with Associate Director of Public Engagement Paul Monteiro. Kaplan, Silverman, Legislative Director Sasha Bartolf, and Associate Director Ron Millar all attended.

"It was the first time a nontheistic group met privately with the White House," Silverman says. "So in large part we just got to know each other… to have them learn more about our constituency, how many people we represent."

The Coalition described the "full spectrum of nontheists it represents" within its nine member organizations. (Now ten, with the recent addition of American Atheists). Among those organizations are the Society for Humanistic Judaism, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, and the American Humanist Association. The Obama Administration expressed particular interest in reaching out to the Secular Student Alliance. The Coalition also addressed some of the issues of greatest concern to nontheists, including coercive religious proselytizing in the military, faith-based initiatives, and employment discrimination.

"We also pointed out that we are much more unified than we used to be, and so we hope our needs will be taken into account," Silverman says. "And that we watch legislation, we watch what politicians say. And we think that it could be beneficial to the Administration for them to take our point of view into account, just like they do for other interest groups. I think they did get the message in the White House…. We're hoping now to become players in all three branches of government."

As the Coalition continues to carry out its mission of increasing the visibility of -- and respect for -- nontheistic viewpoints, and protecting the secular character of our government, it seems to be moving forward with great confidence. This comes as no surprise, given the fact that there are now more nontheists in America than Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Mormons and Jews combined, and the organization itself has made huge strides.

Kaplan describes the Coalition's transformation from its founding in 2002 with a sole employee and "half a year's money in the bank", to having a full-time lobby shop. That shop includes newly hired Executive Director Sean Faircloth.

Faircloth brings with him ten years of legislative service in Maine, including as the House Majority Whip. He also taught law at the University of Maine. In addition to advocating for the separation of church and state, he was active on children's issues, and founded and managed the Maine Discovery Museum, the largest children's museum in New England outside of Boston.

Faircloth says that the Coalition is "very pleased" with the recognition it has received from President Obama. But he adds, "I think we still have some important issues to address."

Perhaps foremost among those issues is the Obama Administration's continuation of President Bush's faith-based initiative. In a campaign speech in Zanesville, Ohio, then-candidate Obama declared, "First, if you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them – or against the people you hire – on the basis of their religion."

But Bush's policy remains in place while the program is under review, so under current law religious organizations can receive funding to provide social services, discriminate in hiring for those programs, and proselytize. The Coalition is advocating to end this clear violation of the separation of church and state.

"The President deserves great kudos for making his Zanesville statement. We would like him to [now] implement it," Faircloth says.

The Coalition is also pleased that the Obama Administration has ended the global gag rule, allowed stem cell funding, and largely ended funding for abstinence-only education programs. (There are some loopholes the Coalition is still working to address.) On the other hand, the nomination of Republican Congressman John McHugh as Secretary of the Army is a real concern. McHugh has one of the worst records of anyone in Congress on church-state issues. In fact, he voted against an amendment that would have required the Secretary of Defense to present Congress with a plan to prevent coercive and abusive proselytizing at the Air Force Academy.

Faircloth says the importance of the Coalition's advocacy extends beyond the specific issues themselves.

"I want to be involved in those lobbying issues," Faircloth says. "But also in terms of allowing people the comfort level and the opportunity to say, ‘Yeah, that's what I happen to believe. I happen to agree with Mark Twain. I happen to agree with Clarence Darrow.' And allow those people to feel comfortable joining an organization, whether it's a humanistic association, chapter, whatever the case may be -- saying, ‘I care about these values because I view them as moral values, and they connect to these policies….'"

Faircloth also sees the rise in the nontheistic demographic as an opportunity to reconnect with our nation's heritage.

"I see historical trends coming together that bring us back to our nation's heritage," he says. "Think if a presidential candidate were to say as Jefferson did, ‘Religions are all alike, founded on fables and mythology'…. Madison said, ‘In no instance have churches been the guardians of the liberties of the people. Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for everyone noble enterprise.' Abraham Lincoln said, ‘The bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession.' These tremendously valuable leaders, I question whether were they to be a candidate for public office today… would they be [elected]? And that would be a great loss to the nation…. I think something has gone haywire when it seems that they were more free to speak their individual perspective -- in some cases 200 years ago -- than elected officials might feel today. We want to address that issue."

Indeed when the Coalition ran a contest to find the highest ranking official who identifies as a nontheist (or one of the terms within the nontheist nomenclature), 60 members of the House and Senate were nominated. The Coalition spoke to each of them, and 22 admitted it but refused to go public. Only Congressman Pete Stark was willing to be identified.

Kaplan notes that the sample was skewed and that the number of nontheists in Congress is significantly larger. The legislators who were nominated were more likely to articulate their belief system than others, and some of the 60 nominees didn't admit to their belief system for fear it would be leaked.

"But we see at the very least there are 22 people who think that honestly admitting their worldview would cause them not to get reelected," Kaplan says. "That's an awful commentary on a pluralistic, liberal America."

Nevertheless, with its constituency growing -- and growing more visible, assertive, and respected -- the Coalition is optimistic about the future.

"All that terminology has meaning, but to me what is of greater meaning is our shared set of values," Faircloth says. "We think that [our constituency] is a quiet, thoughtful, moral group that is significantly growing in our society and it's time to let that blossom…. The Founding Fathers specifically addressed the issues that the Secular Coalition for America raises, and they specifically took our side on these issues. So, we're very proud of the civil rights movement we're involved with and we feel its heritage goes back to the founding of this nation."

Religious Experience Can't Be Discussed

From the Guardian UK, a review of Karen Armstrong's new book, The Case for God: What Religion Really Means. Armstrong is a former nun who has gone on to be the only women to teach in a Christian, Jewish, and Islamic university. She is the author of A History of God, among many other books.

This is a nice addition to the debates about religion - she advocates for religion as a practice, not as a set of beliefs. She presents the argument that all religions were, at their best, about practice and not about an intellectual set of beliefs. I like that idea - might need to read this book.

All quiet on the God front

Simon Blackburn discusses the argument that religious experience can't be discussed

This is an eloquent and interesting book, although you do not quite get what it says on the tin. Karen Armstrong takes the reader through a history of religious practice in many different cultures, arguing that in the good old days and purest forms they all come to much the same thing. They use devices of ritual, mystery, drama, dance and meditation in order to enable us better to cope with the vale of tears in which we find ourselves. Religion is therefore properly a matter of a practice, and may be compared with art or music. These are similarly difficult to create, and even to appreciate. But nobody who has managed either would doubt that something valuable has happened in the process. We come out of the art gallery or concert hall enriched and braced, elevated and tranquil, and may even fancy ourselves better people, though the change may or may not be noticed by those around us.

The Case for God: What Religion Really Means
by Karen Armstrong 384pp, Bodley Head, £20

Buy The Case for God at the Guardian bookshop

This is religion as it should be, and, according to Armstrong, as it once was in all the world's best traditions. However, there is a serpent in this paradise, as in others. Or rather, several serpents, but the worst is the folly of intellectualising the practice. This makes it into a matter of belief, argument, and ultimately dogma. It debases religion into a matter of belief in a certain number of propositions, so that if you can recite those sincerely you are an adept, and if you can't you fail. This is Armstrong's principal target. With the scientific triumphs of the 17th century, religion stopped being a practice and started to become a theory - in particular the theory of the divine architect. This is a perversion of anything valuable in religious practice, Armstrong writes, and it is only this perverted view that arouses the scorn of modern "militant" atheists. So Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris have chosen a straw man as a target. Real religion is serenely immune to their discovery that it is silly to talk of a divine architect.

So what should the religious adept actually say by way of expressing his or her faith? Nothing. This is the "apophatic" tradition, in which nothing about God can be put into words. Armstrong firmly recommends silence, having written at least 15 books on the topic. Words such as "God" have to be seen as symbols, not names, but any word falls short of describing what it symbolises, and will always be inadequate, contradictory, metaphorical or allegorical. The mystery at the heart of religious practice is ineffable, unapproachable by reason and by language. Silence is its truest expression. The right kind of silence, of course, not that of the pothead or inebriate. The religious state is exactly that of Alice after hearing the nonsense poem "Jabberwocky": "Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas - only I don't exactly know what they are." If Alice puts on a dog collar, she will be at one with the tradition.

Armstrong is not presenting a case for God in the sense most people in our idolatrous world would think of it. The ordinary man or woman in the pew or on the prayer mat probably thinks of God as a kind of large version of themselves with mysterious powers and a rather nasty temper. That is the vice of theory again, and as long as they think like that, ordinary folk are not truly religious, whatever they profess. By contrast, Armstrong promises that her kinds of practice will make us better, wiser, more forgiving, loving, courageous, selfless, hopeful and just. Who can be against that?

The odd thing is that the book presupposes that such desirable improvements are the same thing as an increase in understanding - only a kind of understanding that has no describable content. It is beyond words, yet is nevertheless to be described in terms of awareness and truth. But why should we accept that? Imagine that I come out of the art gallery or other trance with a beatific smile on my face. I have enjoyed myself, and feel better. Perhaps I give a coin to the beggar I ignored on the way in. Even if I do so, there is no reason to describe the improvement in terms of my having understood anything. If I feel more generous, well and good, but the proof of that pudding is not my beatific smile but how I behave. As Wittgenstein, whose views on religion Armstrong thoroughly endorses, also said, an inner process stands in need of outward criteria. You can feel good without being good, and be good without stretching your understanding beyond words. Her experience of "Jabberwocky" may have improved Alice.

Silence is just that. It is a kind of lowest common denominator of the human mind. The machine is idling. Which direction it then goes after a period of idling is a highly unpredictable matter. As David Hume put it, in human nature there is "some particle of the dove, mixed in with the wolf and the serpent". So we can expect that some directions will be better and others worse. And that is what, alas, we always find, with or without the song and dance.

• Simon Blackburn's Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed is published by Penguin.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Philosopgy in the Flesh - Chapter One

Huge thanks to the New York Times for posting the first chapter of this great book. I'm still not very far into it, but I'm loving the idea that reason is body-centered, not some archetypal ideal separate from the flesh.


Philosophy in the Flesh
The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought

Basic Books

Read the Review

Who Are We?

How Cognitive Science Reopens
Central Philosophical Questions

The mind is inherently embodied.

Thought is mostly unconscious.

Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.

These are three major findings of cognitive science. More than two millennia of a priori philosophical speculation about these aspects of reason are over. Because of these discoveries, philosophy can never be the same again.

When taken together and considered in detail, these three findings from the science of the mind are inconsistent with central parts of Western philosophy. They require a thorough rethinking of the most popular current approaches, namely, Anglo-American analytic philosophy and postmodernist philosophy.

This book asks: What would happen if we started with these empirical discoveries about the nature of mind and constructed philosophy anew? The answer is that an empirically responsible philosophy would require our culture to abandon some of its deepest philosophical assumptions. This book is an extensive study of what many of those changes would be in detail.

Our understanding of what the mind is matters deeply. Our most basic philosophical beliefs are tied inextricably to our view of reason. Reason has been taken for over two millennia as the defining characteristic of human beings. Reason includes not only our capacity for logical inference, but also our ability to conduct inquiry, to solve problems, to evaluate, to criticize, to deliberate about how we should act, and to reach an understanding of ourselves, other people, and the world. A radical change in our understanding of reason is therefore a radical change in our understanding of ourselves. It is surprising to discover, on the basis of empirical research, that human rationality is not at all what the Western philosophical tradition has held it to be. But it is shocking to discover that we are very different from what our philosophical tradition has told us we are.

Let us start with the changes in our understanding of reason:

* Reason is not disembodied, as the tradition has largely held, but arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experience. This is not just the innocuous and obvious claim that we need a body to reason; rather, it is the striking claim that the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment. The same neural and cognitive mechanisms that allow us to perceive and move around also create our conceptual systems and modes of reason. Thus, to understand reason we must understand the details of our visual system, our motor system, and the general mechanisms of neural binding. In summary, reason is not, in any way, a transcendent feature of the universe or of disembodied mind. Instead, it is shaped crucially by the peculiarities of our human bodies, by the remarkable details of the neural structure of our brains, and by the specifics of our everyday functioning in the world.
* Reason is evolutionary, in that abstract reason builds on and makes use of forms of perceptual and motor inference present in "lower" animals. The result is a Darwinism of reason, a rational Darwinism: Reason, even in its most abstract form, makes use of, rather than transcends, our animal nature. The discovery that reason is evolutionary utterly changes our relation to other animals and changes our conception of human beings as uniquely rational. Reason is thus not an essence that separates us from other animals; rather, it places us on a continuum with them.
* Reason is not "universal" in the transcendent sense; that is, it is not part of the structure of the universe. It is universal, however, in that it is a capacity shared universally by all human beings. What allows it to be shared are the commonalities that exist in the way our minds are embodied.
* Reason is not completely conscious, but mostly unconscious.
* Reason is not purely literal, but largely metaphorical and imaginative.
* Reason is not dispassionate, but emotionally engaged.

This shift in our understanding of reason is of vast proportions, and it entails a corresponding shift in our understanding of what we are as human beings. What we now know about the mind is radically at odds with the major classical philosophical views of what a person is.

For example, there is no Cartesian dualistic person, with a mind separate from and independent of the body, sharing exactly the same disembodied transcendent reason with everyone else, and capable of knowing everything about his or her mind simply by self-reflection. Rather, the mind is inherently embodied, reason is shaped by the body, and since most thought is unconscious, the mind cannot be known simply by self-reflection. Empirical study is necessary.

There exists no Kantian radically autonomous person, with absolute freedom and a transcendent reason that correctly dictates what is and isn't moral. Reason, arising from the body, doesn't transcend the body. What universal aspects of reason there are arise from the commonalities of our bodies and brains and the environments we inhabit. The existence of these universals does not imply that reason transcends the body. Moreover, since conceptual systems vary significantly, reason is not entirely universal.

Since reason is shaped by the body, it is not radically free, because the possible human conceptual systems and the possible forms of reason are limited. In addition, once we have learned a conceptual system, it is neurally instantiated in our brains and we are not free to think just anything. Hence, we have no absolute freedom in Kant's sense, no full autonomy. There is no a priori, purely philosophical basis for a universal concept of morality and no transcendent, universal pure reason that could give rise to universal moral laws.

The utilitarian person, for whom rationality is economic rationality--the maximization of utility--does not exist. Real human beings are not, for the most part, in conscious control of--or even consciously aware of--their reasoning. Most of their reason, besides, is based on various kinds of prototypes, framings, and metaphors. People seldom engage in a form of economic reason that could maximize utility.

The phenomenological person, who through phenomenological introspection alone can discover everything there is to know about the mind and the nature of experience, is a fiction. Although we can have a theory of a vast, rapidly and automatically operating cognitive unconscious, we have no direct conscious access to its operation and therefore to most of our thought. Phenomenological reflection, though valuable in revealing the structure of experience, must be supplemented by empirical research into the cognitive unconscious.

There is no poststructuralist person--no completely decentered subject for whom all meaning is arbitrary, totally relative, and purely historically contingent, unconstrained by body and brain. The mind is not merely embodied, but embodied in such a way that our conceptual systems draw largely upon the commonalities of our bodies and of the environments we live in. The result is that much of a person's conceptual system is either universal or widespread across languages and cultures. Our conceptual systems are not totally relative and not merely a matter of historical contingency, even though a degree of conceptual relativity does exist and even though historical contingency does matter a great deal. The grounding of our conceptual systems in shared embodiment and bodily experience creates a largely centered self, but not a monolithic self.

There exists no Fregean person--as posed by analytic philosophy--for whom thought has been extruded from the body. That is, there is no real person whose embodiment plays no role in meaning, whose meaning is purely objective and defined by the external world, and whose language can fit the external world with no significant role played by mind, brain, or body. Because our conceptual systems grow out of our bodies, meaning is grounded in and through our bodies. Because a vast range of our concepts are metaphorical, meaning is not entirely literal and the classical correspondence theory of truth is false. The correspondence theory holds that statements are true or false objectively, depending on how they map directly onto the world--independent of any human understanding of either the statement or the world. On the contrary, truth is mediated by embodied understanding and imagination. That does not mean that truth is purely subjective or that there is no stable truth. Rather, our common embodiment allows for common, stable truths.

There is no such thing as a computational person, whose mind is like computer software, able to work on any suitable computer or neural hardware--whose mind somehow derives meaning from taking meaningless symbols as input, manipulating them by rule, and giving meaningless symbols as output. Real people have embodied minds whose conceptual systems arise from, are shaped by, and are given meaning through living human bodies. The neural structures of our brains produce conceptual systems and linguistic structures that cannot be adequately accounted for by formal systems that only manipulate symbols.

Finally, there is no Chomskyan person, for whom language is pure syntax, pure form insulated from and independent of all meaning, context, perception, emotion, memory, attention, action, and the dynamic nature of communication. Moreover, human language is not a totally genetic innovation. Rather, central aspects of language arise evolutionarily from sensory, motor, and other neural systems that are present in "lower" animals.

Classical philosophical conceptions of the person have stirred our imaginations and taught us a great deal. But once we understand the importance of the cognitive unconscious, the embodiment of mind, and metaphorical thought, we can never go back to a priori philosophizing about mind and language or to philosophical ideas of what a person is that are inconsistent with what we are learning about the mind.

Given our new understanding of the mind, the question of what a human being is arises for us anew in the most urgent way.

Asking Philosophical Questions
Requires Using Human Reason

If we are going to ask philosophical questions, we have to remember that we are human. As human beings, we have no special access to any form of purely objective or transcendent reason. We must necessarily use common human cognitive and neural mechanisms. Because most of our thought is unconscious, a priori philosophizing provides no privileged direct access to knowledge of our own mind and how our experience is constituted.

In asking philosophical questions, we use a reason shaped by the body, a cognitive unconscious to which we have no direct access, and metaphorical thought of which we are largely unaware. The fact that abstract thought is mostly metaphorical means that answers to philosophical questions have always been, and always will be, mostly metaphorical. In itself, that is neither good nor bad. It is simply a fact about the capacities of the human mind. But it has major consequences for every aspect of philosophy. Metaphorical thought is the principal tool that makes philosophical insight possible and that constrains the forms that philosophy can take.

Philosophical reflection, uninformed by cognitive science, did not discover, establish, and investigate the details of the fundamental aspects of mind we will be discussing. Some insightful philosophers did notice some of these phenomena, but lacked the empirical methodology to establish the validity of these results and to study them in fine detail. Without empirical confirmation, these facts about the mind did not find their way into the philosophical mainstream.

Jointly, the cognitive unconscious, the embodiment of mind, and metaphorical thought require not only a new way of understanding reason and the nature of a person. They also require a new understanding of one of the most common and natural of human activities--asking philosophical questions.

What Goes into Asking and
Answering Philosophical Questions?

If you're going to reopen basic philosophical issues, here's the minimum you have to do. First, you need a method of investigation. Second, you have to use that method to understand basic philosophical concepts. Third, you have to apply that method to previous philosophies to understand what they are about and what makes them hang together. And fourth, you have to use that method to ask the big questions: What it is to be a person? What is morality? How do we understand the causal structure of the universe? And so on.

This book takes a small first step in each of these areas, with the intent of giving an overview of the enterprise of rethinking what philosophy can become. The methods we use come from cognitive science and cognitive linguistics. We discuss these methods in Part I of the book.

In Part II, we study the cognitive science of basic philosophical ideas. That is, we use these methods to analyze certain basic concepts that any approach to philosophy must address, such as time, events, causation, the mind, the self, and morality.

In Part III, we begin the study of philosophy itself from the perspective of cognitive science. We apply these analytic methods to important moments in the history of philosophy: Greek metaphysics, including the pre-Socratics, Plato, and Aristotle; Descartes's theory of mind and Enlightenment faculty psychology; Kant's moral theory; and analytic philosophy. These methods, we argue, lead to new and deep insights into these great intellectual edifices. They help us understand those philosophies and explain why, despite their fundamental differences, they have each seemed intuitive to many people over the centuries. We also take up issues in contemporary philosophy, linguistics, and the social sciences, in particular, Anglo-American analytic philosophy, Chomskyan linguistics, and the rational-actor model used in economics and foreign policy.

Finally, in Part IV, we summarize what we have learned in the course of this inquiry about what human beings are and about the human condition.

What emerges is a philosophy close to the bone. A philosophical perspective based on our empirical understanding of the embodiment of mind is a philosophy in the flesh, a philosophy that takes account of what we most basically are and can be.

(C) 1999 George Lakoff and Mark Johnson All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-465-05673-3

Authors@Google: Robert Wright

Robert Wright speaks at Google about his new book, The Evolution of God. This book clearly owes a lot to Jean Gebser and/or Clare Graves. His model is nearly identical to those approaches to the same topic.

Synthesis in Psychotherapy, By Roberto Assagioli

Synthesis is the goal of therapy in the psychosynthesis model, so this essay goes to heart of the PS approach.

Synthesis in Psychotherapy

By Roberto Assagioli M.D

Source: Psychosynthesis Research Foundation, Issue No. 24

(Address given at the Sixth International Congress of Psychotherapy, London, England, August 1964.)

At present we observe many different methods in the field of psychotherapy, some apparently in contrast with each other. There is no need to enumerate them; they are well known. I shall only mention that they may be roughly divided into two groups or classes, representing two dissimilar-conceptions and practices.

In a broad sense, the first might be called existential psychotherapy because it emphasizes the significance of the existential life problem, or problems, of the patient and aims at helping him first to discover and then to solve them. This group includes the various therapies based on depth psychology. Generally these therapies give much importance to the living relationship and interplay between therapist and patient ("encounter").

The second group comprises a large number of specialized techniques, each of which aims at eliminating the patient's symptoms or some specific trouble.

Both these kinds of psychotherapy have their respective uses and limitations. The value of the existential approach is that it goes deep down to the core of the patient's trouble, which is connected with his whole personality. It takes into account his attitude towards life, and aims at correcting and changing it in a constructive way, chiefly through the influence of the therapist himself. The limitation of this method is that it does not actively help the patient to apply his newly gained insight in the remaking or reshaping of his life and relationships with others in accordance with that insight. A patient may agree to the new outlook, but find it difficult or be unable to put it into operation.

The opposite can be said of the specific techniques. They are valuable and effective in eliminating a number of symptoms, in enabling the patient to discover and use his own latent resources, but generally they don't go deep enough. They don't eliminate the real cause or origin of the symptoms, which therefore are apt to recur. We are referring to such techniques as suggestion and auto-suggestion, hypnosis, "autogene training" in its more technical aspects, and other active training procedures.

Each group has its distinctive value and therefore they should be combined in an inclusive psychotherapy. However, this combination has to be made and applied in a different way in each case. Let us ever recognize and keep in mind that patients are of very diverse kinds and that the causes of their disturbances are correspondingly different.

Some cases might be called "Freudian," because the origin of the disturbances corresponds to Freud's interpretation; but many others do not fit into that pattern. Their problems, conflicts and ensuing troubles can be better understood in the light of the descriptions and interpretations given respectively by Adler, Jung, Homey, Frankl, etc.

Of course there is no hard-and-fast separation, because various kinds of causes can often be found in combination in varying proportions.

These individual differences call for differentiated treatment, consisting of the combination of various methods suited to each individual case and also to the different phases of each treatment.

One might say in brief that the various tasks and aims of a complete synthetic treatment are:

First, the discovery and elimination of the direct causes of the trouble and consequently the subsequent healing of the symptoms.

Second, the elimination of the conditions—physical, psychological and environmental—which might determine the reappearance of the troubles.

Third, the elimination of the consequences of the illness.

Fourth, helping the patient to make a constructive use of the drives existing in him, which otherwise might produce new inner conflicts and/or antisocial behaviour.

Fifth, to arouse and utilize to the utmost all his latent gifts and possibilities and particularly the higher ones latent in the superconscious.

The following is the general pattern of a complete psychotherapeutic treatment. The first phase is a thorough assessment of the patient's personality. It includes both a survey of all its conscious aspects arid the exploration of the various layers or levels of the unconscious.

This assessment brings to light the central existential problem or problems of the patient; but the therapist has to arrange, synthesize and interpret the material gathered in this light. This requires ascertaining the patient's general conception of life; his scale or scales of values (we use the plural because often he has various and conflicting scales of values); his chief aims; his frustrations; his conflicts. This existential situation is different for each patient. Although many conditions and problems may be found to be similar in many individuals and groups, the special combination in various proportions is individual, is unique.

After having ascertained the existential problems, the therapist must find out which can be the appropriate solutions. In many cases they are not difficult to discover, because they are indicated by the very nature of the problems. What is not easy—and sometimes very difficult is to put the solution into operation, that is, to make the patient arrive at it, both inwardly and outwardly.

This first step towards this realization is the recognition of the solution on the part of the patient, his conviction that in it lies the elimination of his disturbances. When agreement about this point between the therapist and the patient has been reached, comes the planning of the various steps, means and ways of achieving the envisioned goal. At each phase the therapist must ensure the understanding, the acceptance, the willing cooperation of the patient.

The first task in this active phase of the treatment is the elimination of obstacles, the dissolving of complexes, the removal of repressions. It can be called the psychoanalytic phase, in the strict sense of the word, and also the cathartic phase. In many cases it proves sufficient to give the patient a great sense of relief, end a number of symptoms may disappear. But experience has proved again and again that this is not enough.

The next task is the control and utilization of the drives, and particularly of the energies released by the elimination of complexes and blocks. A point that should be made very clear is that control of drives does not mean either their condemnation or their repression. It is a matter of necessary regulation. The energies have to be either expressed in a harmless way or better and whenever possible—utilized for constructive ends, through canalization, transformation and sublimation. This is specially needed in the case of the aggressive end sexual drives.

Another, and in a certain sense opposite, task, which requires the use of different techniques, is the development of the deficient functions. Very often part of the problem of the patient is a lack of balance, that is, the lack of the proper development of certain basic human functions. In some cases it can be the feeling function, especially in men; in other cases it may be the mental function. Often (although seldom recognized) it is the lack of the regulating and synthesizing will. Here the use of active techniques and systematic training is needed.

A task partly similar and partly different is that of the activation and utilization of latent energies and gifts It is being increasingly recognized that in everybody there are unused possibilities and talents often of great human and spiritual value. It has been found that in many cases the sense of having such possibilities and not being able to bring them to light, to make them actual is a basic cause of the patient's condition. That sense gives him a sense of frustration, of inferiority, which may result in depression, in rebellion, and be the cause of a number of psychological and psychosomatic troubles.

Sometimes the awakening of those superconscious gifts and energies, and their irruption in the field of consciousness happens spontaneously, in the form of artistic inspiration, religious experiences, etc., and the problem is to help the individual to assimilate and make use of them in harmonious and balanced ways. The techniques available for achieving these various tasks are many and diverse, and they can be used in a pragmatic way, independently of the theories or systems with which they have been or still are associated.

The practice of these techniques requires a certain amount of will on the part of the patient; therefore an important part of the treatment should be to help the patient, through appropriate means (which are available), to arouse, develop and make a wise use of the will. This has great value for every human being...including therapists!

The various aims which have been mentioned should not be kept apart from each other and pursued piecemeal, so to speak. They should be correlated so as to converge towards the achievement of the psychosynthesis of the individual that is, towards the building up of an integrated, harmoniously functioning personality, in other words, a full self- actualization.

Such individual psychosynthesis inevitably includes right and harmonious interpersonal and inter-group relations. No individual lives in isolation; there is constant and intense interaction between him and other individuals and groups. Moreover, the rapid development of communications, material end psychological, has today extended this interaction to an ever-expanding environment, indeed to the whole of humanity. Therefore the therapist has to help the patient to establish such right arid harmonious relationships. This is by no means an easy task, because these relations depend not only on the patient but also on the people and groups which make an impact and often exercise undue pressure upon him. In many cases, the therapist has to treat, directly or indirectly, other members of the patient's family as well.

Of course the therapist cannot change the groups and the general inharmonious condition of today's society, a society that can be considered to be in a pathological state. But every therapist can endeavour to do all in his power, through personal influence, lectures, writings, etc., to point out the psychological diseases of modern society, and to indicate their solutions. Some therapists, such as Erich Fromm, are deliberately doing this. In any case, the first thing that psychotherapists might well do is to establish harmonious relationships and right cooperation among themselves. This means first of all the recognition that each partial view might be considered, as Leibnitz said of the various philosophies, true in what it affirms and false in what it excludes or denies. It should be recognized that each school, movement, point of view, technique, has both its value and its limitations; therefore the knowledge, appreciation and utilization of all, or most of them, is required. This makes fruitful cooperation possible between therapists, and also between therapists and other humanitarian workers, such as social workers and the representatives of the various religions. It is already being done by various groups and societies; for instance, the Academy of Religion and Mental Health in America was created for this purpose and is very active. In brief, such are the scope and aims of synthesis in psychotherapy.

SciAm - Fit Body, Fit Mind? Your Workout Makes You Smarter

Great article in support of exercise for a healthy mind, which I and others have been arguing for a long time.

Fit Body, Fit Mind? Your Workout Makes You Smarter

How can you stay sharp into old age? It is not just a matter of winning the genetic lottery. What you do can make a difference

By Christopher Hertzog, Arthur F. Kramer, Robert S. Wilson and Ulman Lindenberger

Key Concepts

  • We are used to thinking of intelligence as largely a matter of genetic inheritance, but that is not the whole picture. What you do affects your mental well-being: staying physically and mentally active helps us stay sharp as we age.
  • Nevertheless, our personal efforts to bolster cognitive enhancement cannot forestall all declines in our cognitive performance.
  • What is especially surprising is the powerful link between physical activity and mental acuity. Staying fit helps us keep cognition more robust as well.

As everybody knows, if you do not work out, your muscles get flaccid. What most people don’t realize, however, is that your brain also stays in better shape when you exercise. And not just challenging your noggin by, for example, learning a new language, doing difficult crosswords or taking on other intellectually stimulating tasks. As researchers are finding, physical exercise is critical to vigorous mental health, too.

Surprised? Although the idea of exercising cognitive machinery by performing mentally demanding activities—popularly termed the “use it or lose it” hypothesis—is better known, a review of dozens of studies shows that maintaining a mental edge requires more than that. Other things you do—including participating in activities that make you think, getting regular exercise, staying socially engaged and even having a positive attitude—have a meaningful influence on how effective your cognitive functioning will be in old age.

Further, the older brain is more plastic than is commonly known. At one time, the accepted stereotype was that “old dogs can’t learn new tricks.” Science has proved that this dictum must be discarded. Although older adults generally learn new pursuits more slowly than younger people do and cannot reach the peaks of expertise in a given field that they might have achieved if they had started in their youth, they nonetheless can improve their cognitive performance through effort—forestalling some of the declines in cognition that come with advancing age. As John Adams, one of the founding fathers and the second U.S. president, put it: “Old minds are like old horses; you must exercise them if you wish to keep them in working order.”

The news comes at a propitious time. The proportion of older adults in the U.S. and in other industrial nations continues to grow: in 1900, 4.1 percent of U.S. citizens were older than 65, but by 2000 that amount had jumped to 12.6 percent; by 2030, 20 percent of us will be in that category. From a societal point of view, prolonging independent functioning is both a desirable goal in itself and a way of deferring costs of long-term care. For individuals, maintaining optimal cognitive functioning is worthwhile simply because it promises to enhance quality of life through the years.

Mental Training
How to keep minds keen over an entire life span is a question philosophers have mulled since the earliest writings on record. As Roman orator Cicero put it: “It is exercise alone that supports the spirits, and keeps the mind in vigor.” Modern research in this field began in the 1970s and 1980s, with studies that demonstrated that healthy older adults can improve performance to a greater extent than had been previously assumed. The earlier research did not fully address certain questions, such as how long adults could retain the new skills they had acquired through training, whether those specifically developed skills would also positively influence other areas of cognition needed in everyday life, and whether the studies done with small numbers of subjects would be broadly applicable to most members of society.

The latest experiments confirm that cognitive training does show substantial benefits for older adults and that these effects can be relatively long-lasting. Around the turn of this past century the federal government’s National Institute on Aging funded a consortium of researchers to conduct a large-scale training study in a sample of older Americans. In 2002 psychologist Karlene Ball of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and her colleagues published initial results on more than 2,500 individuals older than 65 who had received about 10 sessions of cognitive training. Participants were randomly assigned either to a cognitive-process training group to learn how to excel in one of three areas—memory, reasoning or visual search—or to a control group of subjects who did not receive training. At a follow-up two years later, the team randomly selected a set of the initial participants to get booster training prior to evaluation. The results showed strong training-effect sizes in each group as compared with controls, along with a pattern of specificity in performance improvements. For example, individuals trained in visual search evinced strong gains in visual search performance but little improvement, relative to controls, on the memory and reasoning tests, a typical finding in training research. Data from retests five years later on the sample found that measurable training benefits were still present after the longer interval.

More impressive, however, are recent training studies that focus on what psychologists call executive function—how a person plans a strategic approach to a task, controls what is attended to, and how he or she manages the mind in the process. Unlike training that focuses on very specific skills, such as memorization strategies, training that aims to help people to control how they think appears to work on broader skills that are helpful in many situations that require thinking. For instance, psychologist Chandramallika Basak and her colleagues at the University of Illinois recently showed that training in a real-time strategy video game that demands planning and executive control not only improved game performance but enhanced performance on other tasks measuring aspects of executive control. Other results suggest that psychologists are learning how to train higher-level skills that may have a broader effect on cognitive function.

You don’t have to have specialized training, however, to achieve cognitive gains or ward off cognitive decline. Everyday activities such as reading can help. We reviewed evidence on activity-related cognitive enrichment in more than a dozen studies. In 2003 neuropsychologist Robert S. Wilson and his colleagues at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago recruited more than 4,000 elderly people from a geographically defined community and rated their frequency of participation in seven cognitive activities (for instance, reading magazines). At three-year intervals for a mean of nearly six years, participants completed an in-home interview that included brief tests of cognitive function. More frequent cognitive activity at the outset was associated with reduced rate of cognitive decline over time.

Getting Physical
Over the past decade several studies have underscored the link between physical activity and cognition. For instance, in a study published in 2001 neuropsychiatrist Kristine Yaffe of the University of California, San Francisco, and her colleagues recruited 5,925 women older than 65 at four different medical centers across the U.S. The participants were all free of any physical disability that would limit their ability to walk or pursue other physical activities. The volunteers were also screened to ensure that they did not have a cognitive impairment. The researchers then assessed their physical activity by asking the women how many city blocks they walked and how many flights of stairs they climbed daily and gave them a questionnaire to fill out about their levels of participation in 33 different physical activities. After six to eight years, the researchers assessed the women’s level of cognitive function. The most active women had a 30 percent lower risk of cognitive decline. Interestingly, walking distance was related to cognition, but walking speed was not. It seems that even moderate levels of physical activity can serve to limit declines in cognition in older adults.

Moderate movement is good, but toning your circulatory system with aerobic exercise may be the real key to brain fitness. In a 1995 study of 1,192 healthy 70- to 79-year-olds, cognitive neuroscientist Marilyn Albert of Johns Hopkins University and her colleagues measured cognition with a battery of tasks that took approximately 30 minutes to complete and included tests of language, verbal memory, nonverbal memory, conceptualization and visuospatial ability. They found that the best predictors of cognitive change over a two-year period included strenuous activity and peak pulmonary expiratory flow rate. In an investigation published in 2004 epidemiologist Jennifer Weuve of Harvard University and her colleagues also examined the relation between physical activity and cognitive change over a two-year period in 16,466 nurses older than 70. Participants logged how much time they spent per week in a variety of physical activities (running, jogging, walking, hiking, racket sports, swimming, bicycling, aerobic dance) over the past year and provided self-reports of walking pace in minutes per mile. Weuve’s group observed a significant relation between energy expended in physical activities and cognition, across a large set of cognitive measures.

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