Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The War Against Solipsism

It has been said that all criminality is rooted in a repudiation of society.  An antisocial mindset-- such as “pride” (defined as the belief that one is of higher value than other human beings) or excessive egoism (focusing on one’s own wants and needs to the exclusion of the wants, need and rights of others)-- is often a prerequisite to trespassing against other people’s rights.  

Solipsism, then, the belief that the universe does not exist outside of one’s own mind, can perhaps be seen as the ultimate antisocial worldview as it reduces one’s fellow human beings to mere figments of the mind.  Denying the independent existence and personality of others means that one need not be concerned about how one treats them.  This is why our city’s government treats solipsism as a punishable offense.  Indeed, a recent government pamphlet singled it out as “a dangerous and contagious philosophy which must be eradicated.”

Psychologists have identified two distinct classes of solipsism.  In the first, dubbed “dualist solipsism,” the person believes that the entire world apparently external to him and beyond his control is an illusion created and orchestrated by the Demiurge.  Thus, to quote the pamphlet, “the solipsist imagines he is engaged in a two-player game where he is the sole independent ego playing against the omnipresent Other.”  Perhaps a more apt comparison might be to a video game where the solipsist is playing solo against the computer which generates and controls all the non-player characters and everything else in the game’s environment.

The second class of solipsism is called “monist solipsism.”  Some psychologists actually believe that the two classes are progressive stages in the same syndrome; while not all dualists move on to embrace monism, they argue that many monists passed through an intermediate dualist stage on the way to their ultimate destination.  Here the solipsist has reached the conclusion that he is the Demiurge.  The existence of things that are ostensibly external to him and beyond his control can be explained away as creations of the subconscious-- that part of his mind which is mostly hidden and independent from his consciousness and will.  Thus, the monist solipsist is forever engaged in a game of solitaire where any struggle is only against himself.  He believes that he is literally responsible for everything that happens in his life (or indeed in the universe), and overcoming obstacles and changing undesirable circumstances becomes a question of self-mastery.

In addition to the aforementioned government pamphlet and other bureaucratic papers calling for a hard line against solipsism, some non-governmental organizations, doctors and social workers have addressed the subject online and in journals.  These sources often argue against the solipsism-as-crime mindset and claim that it should instead be thought of as a degenerative thought disorder whose sufferers are in need of rehabilitation.  They state that  solipsists are likely to experience feelings of isolation, dissociation from reality, depression and even delusions.  Many of these advocates have outreach websites and literature targeted at solipsists.  The typical example asks the reader whether solipsism is negatively impacting his quality of life; it promises that recovery and return to a normal life is possible and it urges the solipsist to seek help-- perhaps pointing him in the direction of a help group or offering tips for changing one’s point of view.

Underground pro-solipsist literature is much rarer, but some examples have been found.  Its existence presents a conundrum: a solipsist cannot believe that any audience exists to receive his writing other than himself, or perhaps an omniscient Demiurge, so what could be gained from publishing it?  The one pro-solipsist document this researcher could find was a leaflet adopting (or mimicking) the youth, counterculture aesthetic.  It looks like the sort of flier one might find by the door in a music shop or a coffeehouse.  The text speaks of the moment one arrives at a solipsistic worldview as a sort of epiphany or awakening.  Meanwhile, the non-solipsist soul (note the use of the singular), who accepts the external world at face value, is “asleep” or “intoxicated.”  In this state, the soul sleepwalks through life and is easily controlled by “the powers that be” (a phrase suggesting the author may be a dualist).  This, the author claims, is why the authorities seek to crack down on the solipsist-- imprisoning the enlightened soul and suppressing literature that might awaken the reader.  The authorities want the soul to conform and they do their best to keep him intoxicated and ignorant. 
In the morning, the Masses walk down the street to work and they All tend to fall into the same pace-- They move with the Rhythm of the City, betraying the Fact that they are all Cogs in its Machinery.  So too the Soul not yet Awakened from its Stupor follows the Rhythm and gets in line-- Ignorant of the True Nature of the World-- Unaware that he is an Individual, that he is different!          
 Image from photo taken by Meeg on June 30, 2007

Life is a story in search of an author

Life is not a fairytale with a happy ending or a novel with a beginning, a middle and an end.  It’s more like the Bible-- a continuous stream of narrative that can present the reader with numerous happy or tragic “endings” depending on where he leaves off.

Take, for example, the story of Jacob who wanted to marry Rachel.  After seven years of working for his uncle, Jacob gets drunk at his wedding banquet and wakes up married to the elder daughter, Leah.  Then he’s told that he can wed Rachel as well if he completes another seven years of servitude.  God makes Leah fertile, inspiring in her the hope that bearing sons would earn her the love of her accidental husband, while Rachel is denied children for a number of years.  Eventually, Rachel gives Jacob her handmaiden as a concubine so that she might bear him children in her stead.  Not to be outdone, Leah follows suit and gives Jacob her handmaid as well.  Then, finally, God opens Rachel’s womb and she gives birth to Joseph and Benjamin who become their father’s favorites among his twelve sons.  These misadventures involving trickery, issues of fertility and conception, polygamy and female servitude, take on an air of predestination when we learn that Jacob’s male offspring will go on to engender the twelve tribes of Israel.

But the story doesn’t end there: Joseph’s older brothers, out of jealousy, sell him to a passing slave trader; he is sent in chains to Egypt where through his talents and prophetic dreams he rises to become the Pharaoh’s trusted advisor and most potent minister.  He is reunited with his family when they come begging for grain from the Great Pharaoh’s storehouses during a years-long drought.  Joseph forgives his brothers and they all settle in Egypt, where-- when next we take up the story of the Israelites, generations later-- they have been reduced to slaves, waiting for the man chosen by God to liberate them and guide them to the promised land.

Nor is the moment when Jacob first saw Rachel collecting water at the fountain and fell instantly in love the beginning of the history.  Looking back, one remembers the rivalry for their father’s blessing between young Jacob, whom God had chosen to carry on the covenant, and his hirsute, older brother, Esau, who had taken Hittite wives.  And before that, their father, Isaac, had narrowly escaped death at the end of his father’s blade when God had tested Abraham-- commanding him to sacrifice his son (as the neighboring Canaanites gave up their children by fire to Moloch) and then sending the angel to stop his hand at the last minute.  Isaac who had been a miracle baby, born to Abraham and Sarah late in life-- years after Sarah’s handmaid, Hagar, bore Abraham’s first son, Ishmael.

*    *    *

If one sees life as an unbroken narrative then one arrives at the question of its author.  The monotheist believer would obviously state that authorship lies with God, the Creator, the Demiurge.  But, if we leave aside this philosopher’s assumption, we are then left with the Universe as a complex story with no single author.

In the absence of an author then-- on one level-- it is up to us, the characters populating the Universe, to participate in the writing of our own story.  Many people are unaware of how much power they possess to set their own life script.

And then-- on another level (theoretical or conceptual if not actual/noumenal)-- there are various invisible forces that shape the course our story may take-- barring one way with some obstacle, opening up another through a felicitous coincidence.  Their effects are much like the actions of the capricious, person-gods worshipped by the ancient Hellenes, who intervened in human affairs according to their whims-- punishing a perceived offense, aiding the career of a favorite son. 

The first of the potential universal powers up for consideration is Chance; some materialists claim it is the only true, superhuman force guiding the Universe, whereas others (e.g. chaos theorists) would say that Chance is just a placeholder used by men who cannot see the larger pattern.  Karl Jung’s Synchronicity-- the occurrence of meaningful, non-causal coincidences-- might be seen as a glimpse of the pattern underlying the seemingly random chaos of Chance.   

It has been proposed that there are various other intangible forces at work in the Universe.  Catholics often speak of Grace, for which I will always remember Evelyn Waugh’s definition: “the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself.”  The Eastern concept of karma amounts to a belief in a cosmic force of Justice.  Other nominees are suggested in the Kabbalah’s Sefiroth (God’s various manifestations) such as Khesed (Loving-Kindness or Mercy), Gevurah (Severity or Judgment), Tifereth (Beauty, Balance, Glory) and even Hod (Majesty or Splendor).  For some Buddhists the “Buddha-nature” is an energy pervading the Universe which works to liberate all sentient beings.  And for Zen Buddhists satori is a glimpse of the truest reality which may include some sort of hidden force or pattern.

Physics of course gives us a number of universal forces-- electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear force, and the most mysterious of these which is gravity.  Moreover, unified theorists are toiling as we speak to come up with a system under which these seemingly disparate phenomena can be bundled together as aspects of a single superforce (just as electricity and magnetism were long ago recognized to be manifestations of the same thing).  As insurmountable forces of nature, these doubtlessly play a role in determining the events that occur in our story.

I believe that whatever metaphysical force(s) we place alongside the physical forces of nature-- whether we conceive of them as the hand of God; manifestations of the divine; or simply as an imperceptible, underlying pattern—they are probably beyond the powers of human comprehension.

 Image from photo taken by Meeg on May 24, 2008 

Friday, May 13, 2011


Fakebook, to fakebook, fakebooking (v.):  using Facebook to broadcast social niceties of dubious sincerity (e.g. “Can’t wait for dinner tonight with my favorite sister and brother-in-law!”; “It was so good catching up with old friends last night!”; “Just witnessed the most beautiful wedding of two of the most wonderful people. Congratulations Tom and Sue!”)

Looks like someone’s been fakebooking.  

Do you know any fakebookers?

The Duke of Windsor and the Fuhrer

Like most of you, I watched The King’s Speech last year.  At the time, I liked it more than I expected to. I had heard it was good, but that it seemed like it could have been a 2-hour episode of Masterpiece Theatre; yet I found it to be more of an inspiring, feel-good movie than I anticipated.  It was, however, a pretty boring pick for Motion Picture of the Year (not that I have a standout suggestion for what should have won in its stead).

At any rate, I wanted to begin this post by discussing some issues people have raised concerning the film’s historical accuracy (see for example Christopher Hitchens’ article in Slate).  The first issue everyone brings up is the portrayal of Winston Churchill in the film: I’ve seen Timothy Spall’s performance criticized as a poor Churchill impersonation.  Moreover--  and I myself noticed this in the theatre--, the screenplay gets Churchill’s politics and allegiances at the time all wrong (more on this below).

The second issue people bring up is the portrayal of Prince Edward (called David by family, briefly reigning as King Edward VIII and subsequently made Duke of Windsor) and his mistress and later wife Wallis Simpson.  I thought The King’s Speech did a good job of showing how Edward appeared to be obsessed with Wallis and how many questioned what sort of spell she held over him.  Moreover, the film showed the bad blood that existed between Edward and Wallis, on one hand, and his brother Albert, the Duke of York (later King George VI) and his wife Elizabeth (the current queen’s late mother), on the other.  Several characters in the movie also suggested that as king Edward could have just kept Wallis as his mistress (perhaps marrying a woman who would have made an acceptable queen-- a European princess or British noblewoman).  Indeed,  Edward’s grandfather King Edward VII famously had several mistresses, including Mrs. Alice Keppel (Camilla Parker Bowles’ great-grandmother) who was admitted to the king’s deathbed by Queen Alexandra.

Some critics, however, suggest that the film should have made more explicit Wallis and Edward’s reported sympathies with the Nazis.   I remember a scene in the film where Edward said something vaguely complimentary about “Herr Hitler” to his brother, and I personally thought that was enough of an implication.  Others just wanted to see more of Wallis and Edward in general, which-- yes, theirs is an interesting story and could have made for a good movie, but this movie wasn’t about them.

Wallis and Edward, their alleged ties to the Nazis, and the 1936 abdication crisis also figured into the plot of the new Upstairs, Downstairs series that aired in the UK last year and here on PBS last month.  I wrote a biography of Edward when I was a senior in high school and have read a good amount on all this, so I thought I’d share my insights on what seems to be a topic of sustained interest.


During his stint as Prince of Wales (1910-1936), Edward actually became very popular with the people throughout the Empire due to his good looks and charisma (think about how stiff and awkward most of the royals seem) as well as his status as a veteran of the Great War.  He also developed a reputation for being relatively egalitarian and breaking with tired traditions (when he became king he decided to display his “good side” on coins and stamps rather than follow the set pattern of reversing the profile direction of the previous monarch).  Even his frequenting jazz clubs and his playboy lifestyle might have done something to endear him to the masses.

On the other hand, Edward often did not perform up to snuff when he was required to appear at dull, ceremonial events: on some occasions, he was seen to yawn or display visible signs of boredom; on others he may have appeared worse for wear the day after a long night of carousing.  Most young people would probably find these duties just as tedious as Edward did, but then one must keep in mind that this was essentially his job-- in exchange for which he lived a very comfortable life at the public treasury’s expense.

Edward could also be rather irresponsible.  According to custom, the prince normally wouldn’t carry money on his person, but rather groomsmen and the like would pay incidental expenses on his behalf.  Edward was apparently not very diligent when it came to reimbursing them.  Moreover-- and much more seriously-- when Edward became king in 1936, he was careless with the top secret government documents which he was privy to as Head of State.  These were reportedly left out in the open around the palace, even when foreign dignitaries might be visiting.        


I’m not sure why, but it seems to be a matter of public record that Edward remained a virgin until 1916, when he was twenty-two and serving in the army in WWI.  It was then decided-- I want to say by his father-- that his innocence had gone on for far too long, and thus he was brought to a French brothel to make a man out of him.  After the war, Edward engaged in several affairs with married women, including Freda Dudley Ward and Thelma, Lady Furness (aunt to Gloria Vanderbilt-- who, in turn, is the mother of Anderson Cooper).  Then he met Bessie Wallis Simpson, a native of Baltimore, who was married to her second husband, Ernest Simpson, when they began their affair (Simpson was half-British, half-American, and he apparently thought it an honor to be cuckolded by the future king).

Wallis and Edward would exchange sickeningly sweet love letters in which they discussed a dog of theirs nicknamed “Mr. Loo” because of his frequent accidents and in which they routinely misplaced the apostrophes in common contractions (e.g. “did’nt”).  Rumors of Edward’s sexual deviancy abound, and even his official biographer, Philip Ziegler, wrote about the couple that “there must have been some sort of sadomasochistic relationship.  He relished the contempt and bullying she bestowed on him.”  Their letters also attest to the fact that, several times during the abdication crisis, Wallis offered/ threatened to leave him (many Britons hated her for endangering the reign of their king); but Edward was by then totally devoted to Wallis and claimed he could not carry on without her by his side.


Edward came about his sentimental attachment to Germany honestly.  The royal family was, after all, of German ancestry: his mother, Queen Mary’s, father was born into the House of Württemberg; Queen Victoria’s consort was Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg Gotha; and George I, direct ancestor of the current royal line, was the Elector of Hanover.  Moreover, Edward may have had fond childhood memories of visiting his relative Kaiser Wilhelm II (Queen Victoria’s grandson) in Germany-- as well as visiting his relative Tsar Nikolai II in Russia.  Edward believed the British and German people to be bound together by strong, natural ties, while any conflict between the two nations (e.g. the two world wars) was almost dismissed as a quarrel among cousins.

The story of Edward’s life shows him to be politically naïve (and probably not all that intelligent); that said, it is clear that Edward did not see anything wrong with fascist dictatorships.  I once saw a documentary which discussed an official meeting between Edward (at the time, probably Prince of Wales) and Benito Mussolini.  Mussolini greeted the prince with a fascist salute (Mussolini liked to call it the saluto romano but it’s basically indistinguishable from “Sieg Heil!”), and the prince returned the gesture by raising his hand in a quasi-salute.  The other Britons accompanying him found this shocking and inappropriate, but Edward was oblivious and even remarked to someone in his retinue that this had been the result of a bit of swift thinking on his part.  And of course, in 1933, Edward famously declared: “Dictators are very popular these days, and we may want one in England before long.”  It’s a damning quote in and of itself but especially troubling coming from the future constitutional monarch, whose job it would be to invite ministers to form governments and who was meant to stay out of politics.   In regards to the Nazis specifically, Edward voiced the opinion-- no doubt shared by a great many people at the time-- that they represented Western Europe’s greatest defense against the Bolsheviks who were the real danger (these feelings may have in part been motivated by memories of what had happened to dear old Uncle Nick).  In his defense, the British government would continue to follow the strategy of appeasement until 1939.

In recent years, much evidence has also come to light suggesting strong pro-German and pro-Nazi sympathies on the part of Wallis Simpson.  When the Duke and Duchess of Windsor visited the United States in the 1940s, President Roosevelt had them tailed by the FBI.  According to the Bureau’s sources (including the former Duke of Württemberg, a distant relative of Queen Mary, who had taken vows as a Benedictine monk), Wallis had been Von Ribbentrop’s lover back in London when he had served as ambassador to Britain.  Their file states that Wallis’ exceedingly pro-German sympathies were well known to British Intelligence and that this may have been a key consideration in the decision that she could never be queen.  Finally, Wallis is accused of leaking information to the Nazis-- specifically, in 1939-40, during the couple’s sojourn in France (but, if this is true, think about those top secret documents the king left lying around back in 1936).


When King George V died in 1936, Wallis was in the middle of getting a divorce from Ernest Simpson (as a gentleman, he of course agreed to be cited as the party at fault in the proceeding).  Later that year, and before the divorce was finalized, Edward and Wallis took a Mediterranean cruise aboard a yacht called the Nahlin which set off an international media frenzy.  In Britain, however, there was a gentlemen’s agreement among the press not to print news of the cruise or of the Simpsons’ divorce proceedings (much like the agreement among the American press not to publicize FDR’s disability), and articles were actually (physically) cut out of international papers sold in the UK.

The abdication crisis began in earnest when Edward made it clear that he was determined to marry Wallis as soon as she was legally available.  One should note that he didn’t dare to try and advance wedding plans while his father was still alive (in The King’s Speech,  George V is made out to be a tyrannical ogre of a father).  The primary obstacle to Edward and Wallis’ marriage was that as king he was Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and at the time the church did not allow divorced persons to remarry while their previous spouse still lived.  Wallis, meanwhile, was a divorcée twice over (the fact that she was a commoner and an American probably didn’t help her case either), and it was widely known that they had begun their relationship while she was still married to husband #2.  Under the Royal Marriage Act of 1772 members of the royal family could not wed without receiving approval from the reigning monarch, and under the Act of Settlement of 1701 any royal who married a Roman Catholic was removed from the succession; by extension, some might read these laws as giving Parliament power of approval over a marriage by the reigning monarch.  At any rate, it was decided in 1936 that King Edward could not marry Wallis Simpsons without the consent of Parliament as well the governments of the Dominions (e.g. Canada, Australia) and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Stanley Baldwin’s government threatened to resign en masse in protest if he wed without approval, and most of the opposition agreed to support them on this issue.  Had this occurred it would have constituted a full-blown constitutional crisis.

In an attempt to resolve the crisis while keeping Edward on the throne, several compromises were put forward by his supporters.  First, a morganatic marriage was proposed in which Wallis would be styled “Duchess of Cornwall” (the title now used by Prince Charles’ wife, Camilla), and any children of theirs would presumably have been excluded from the line of succession (this may have been considered almost a moot point as Wallis was forty at the time).  After that-- in a last ditch effort-- it was suggested that Wallis could marry Edward without being given any title at all.  Critics argued that, title or no, any woman married to the King and Emperor would be looked at as the de facto queen in all but name.  Thus, in the end, none of these solutions were deemed acceptable by all parties concerned, and Edward agreed to relinquish the throne, signing HM’s Declaration of Abdication on December 10, 1936.  His tenure as king hadn’t lasted long enough to allow for an official coronation.  It is often suggested that, for some opponents, Edward’s determination to marry Wallis Simpson served as a fortuitous excuse for removing a monarch who was unsuitable due to his irresponsibility and/or his political opinions.

Throughout the crisis, the king continued to enjoy a great deal of support from the common people (i.e. the working class).  40 members of parliament, as well as several peers and knights of the realm also came forward on the king’s behalf, and there was some talk of them banding together to form a “King’s Party.”  Chief among those fighting to keep Edward on the throne was Winston Churchill, then a member of the opposition in the House of Commons, who supported the king to the last-- causing himself some personal embarrassment and dealing his career a serious, albeit temporary, setback.  This would of course lead to some considerable initial strain in Churchill’s dealings with Edward’s successor, King George VI, although the two came to work together closely by the end of the Second World War.  Other prominent supporters of the king during the abdication crisis included former Prime Minister David Lloyd George; press baron Lord Beaverbrook and Sir Oswald Mosley, head of the British Union of Fascists.


When Edward abdicated in favor of his younger brother Albert, the Duke of York, who took the regnal name of King George VI, he was given the ad hoc title of HRH the Duke of Windsor.  After their marriage, Wallis was made the Duchess of Windsor but she was officially denied the styling “Her Royal Highness” in a move the couple regarded as a slap in the face.  I read that shortly after the abdication, when the couple was living in Austria, Edward began phoning the king with advice and instructions-- almost as if he thought his brother was just acting as his stand-in or that he still retained some authority.  He was soon informed that that was not the case.

In 1937, against the advice of the British government, the Duke and Duchess toured Germany as honored guests of the ruling Nazi party.  All the infamous photographs of the Duke and Duchess standing together with the Fuhrer and giving him a friendly handshake, as well as photos showing the Duke reviewing SS troops, date from this visit.  The Duke reportedly executed full-on Nazi salutes, and he was even taken on a tour of a concentration camp where political prisoners-- some of them Jews-- were being held, although the reality of mass executions was hidden from him (furthermore, the extermination camps and Hitler’s Final Solution did not come about until after the outbreak of war in 1939).  This visit represented a propaganda coup for the Nazis, and it reinforced Hitler’s view of the Duke of Windsor as a powerful ally.  For his part, the Duke may have (naively) believed that this friendly visit could help stave off the coming world war, and it should be said in his defense that this took place almost a full year before Neville Chamberlain would sign the Munich Pact with Hitler.

When war broke out in 1939, the Windsors were living in Paris, and Edward liaised with the French military as a major general of the British Army.  After the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, the couple fled first to Biarritz in unoccupied, southern France and then, via Spain, to Portugal, where they rented a villa outside the town of Estoril called Boca do Inferno.  The villa’s owner was Portuguese banker Ricardo Espirito Santo who some suspect acted as a German agent during the war.


Around this time, now that France had fallen to the Nazis, Hitler turned his attention towards a possible land invasion of Great Britain.  According to wikipedia, this mission (codenamed “Operation Sea Lion”) depended on the Germans first establishing naval supremacy in the Channel and air supremacy over English skies, and thus it was put on hold indefinitely when the British surprisingly and valiantly held their own during the Battle of Britain.

At any rate, Hitler imagined that after the German army had occupied Britain all he would need to do was to remove King George VI from the throne and replace him with his elder brother the Duke of Windsor.  He believed that the Duke would agree to sign a treaty of eternal peace with Germany and perhaps that he would act as the head of a puppet state (much as the last Qing emperor served as the head of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo).  As for who would be the quisling leading the collaborationist government in Britain, the leading contender would probably have been Sir Oswald Mosley.

The Nazi plot to get the Duke of Windsor under their control was codenamed “Operation Willi.”  Documents show that the Duke was contacted and informed that c. 50 million Swiss francs would be transferred to a bank account for him if he agreed to cross the border from Portugal into Franco’s Spain as a first step in Hitler’s machinations.  There is no evidence, however, to suggest that the Duke was seriously considering this offer.

During their sojourn in Portugal in July-August 1940, the Windsors were undoubtedly being closely watched by both German and British intelligence.  Churchill-- now the leader of the UK’s coalition government-- was aware of the couple’s pro-German sympathies and may have also learned of their communications with the Nazis.  Furthermore he loudly denounced several “defeatist” speeches that Edward had given since the war began.  And, even if there was no real danger that the Duke would betray his homeland, having him on the European continent still represented a liability.  Thus, Churchill wanted the Duke returned to British soil immediately.  Edward, however, did not wish to go back to the island of Great Britain due to the rift that had developed between the Windsors and the rest of the royal family.  Moreover, he refused to return unless he were given something to do-- some sort of official job or position.  Negotiations between the Duke and the British government went back and forth for some time before it was agreed that he would be appointed Governor of the Bahamas.  A British warship was sent to transport them, and Edward was threatened with court martial or charges of treason if he did not report to his post.  On the day they were to set sail, the Nazis staged a bomb scare in a final attempt to frighten the Windsors into turning away from the Allies.

The Duke and Duchess rode out the rest of the war in the Bahamas, far enough from the theatre of war that they could hardly do any harm.  Being handed a sinecure in the Bahamas might sound like a pretty sweet deal, but the Windsors referred to it as “St Helena, 1940.”  In the meantime, when Hitler’s plans regarding the Duke of Windsor and a land invasion of Britain were thwarted, the Fuhrer decided instead to invade the Soviet Union.  We all know how well that turned out.

Images: photograph of Edward VIII at his desk (possibly on the occasion of his abdication address, December 1936) found at; 1937 photograph of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor with Adolf Hitler found on wikipedia.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Use Your Illusion


In a previous post, we explored the idea that causation (the notion that A caused B to happen) is a judgment made by the mind in order to make sense of the universe around us, which would otherwise be nothing but (to quote Borges) “a heterogeneous series of independent acts.”

This tendency to search for and identify cause and effect relationships between different phenomena can lead the mind to fall into a number of illusions.  I use the word “illusion” here in a particular way which I want to call the Leopardian sense: I am not making a negative value judgment (for Leopardi praised illusions as useful-- a source of joy, and font of virtue).  I do not even mean to imply anything about the absolute existence of these concepts, so much as to merely state that these are things that cannot be directly perceived through the senses and whose existence (or nonexistence) and nature is beyond the powers of human understanding to learn.  Perhaps the only thing that is truly illusory about the following is the mind’s false belief that it has perceived, deduced or otherwise acquired knowledge about them as they truly are.


In the second part of his Critique of Pure Reason,  Kant goes one by one and systematically refutes the arguments philosophers had used to conclusively prove the existence of God.  One of these, which Kant returns to several times, is what he calls the cosmological  argument for the existence of God.  Basically, this claims that God the creator is absolutely necessary because we need Him to fulfill the role of prima causa, or “the first cause” that set the universe’s chain of events in motion.  This logical argument for the necessity of God’s existence was much favored among early Christian fathers and Church theologians, who in many ways kept alive the traditions of the ancient Greek philosophers, and one can already see it present in Plato’s Timaeus.   There’s also an interesting parallel we can draw here to Buddhist thought given that-- according to the cosmological argument-- everything in the universe (save God, the originator without cause) is considered as lacking absolute necessity because its existence is dependent on an external cause (cf. the Buddhist notion that phenomena lack intrinsic existence since their existence depends on various root causes).

Kant’s explanation and ultimate refutation of the cosmological argument is tied to his ideas about causation.  The mind uses the “category” of causality to order and make sense of the universe’s “manifold of phenomena,” noting that certain phenomena come into being as a result of other, preexisting phenomena.  Then we note that the cause of these preexisting phenomena lies in still earlier phenomena. Here’s an example: this egg was laid by a hen, who in turn was hatched from an egg laid by her mother, who was hatched from.…  The mind, Kant says, naturally searches for the root cause that originated this chain, and thus eventually arrives at the idea of God as prima causa.      

But, Kant argues, although this search began in the world of phenomena perceived through the senses, between the observation backwards from chicken to egg to chicken to egg and the ultimate arrival at the distant prima causa there is an ellipsis.  The mind makes a leap, and when it lands it is no longer standing grounded in experience, but rather it is now dealing with mere ideas thought up in the mind and lacking an external basis-- or worse, with noumena, “things-in-themselves” (or let’s just call them things that cannot be perceived by the senses) that are unknowable to the mind.  Moreover, the philosophers’ God has several attributes which make Him impossible for the human mind to comprehend: for instance, God is eternal or exists outside of time whereas we can only conceive of objects bound in time and space.

What’s interesting about all this is, although Kant exposes this line of thinking as error, he also recognizes that it is only natural that the mind should fall into this trap.  The mind seeks to make sense of the universe by identifying a cause for every effect and thus it calls out to find a root cause at the origin of any set of events.   

Thus, among all nations, through the darkest polytheism glimmer some faint sparks of monotheism, to which these idolaters have been led, not from reflection and profound thought, but by the study and natural progress of the common understanding.


Another way the mind can err while exercising its ability to identify causation, is to find a cause and effect relationship where none actually exists.  Say you are wearing a pair of red underwear on the day you score a goal; you may decide that you might score another goal if you wear your “lucky red underwear” to the next game.  This is basically toying with the idea that wearing red underpants helped bring about or cause the goal.  Living in this age of science and reason, we all know that such ideas are nonsense, and yet it is still very easy to informally entertain these lines of thought on some level.

People with thought disorders such as autism and schizophrenia are often more prone to engage in “magical thinking.”  A child on the autism spectrum may, for example, decide that if they pass five blue cars on his bus ride that means he will have a bad day at school.  


Psychologist Carl Jung coined the term “synchronicity,” suggesting that some of the non-causal or quasi-causal connections the mind draws between phenomena might have subjective value for the observer.  Synchronicity is defined as a meaningful, non-causal connection between two phenomena which are unlikely to occur together through chance.  I’ve also heard synchronicity explained as a continuum with cause/effect relationships at one end and meaningless coincidences at the other.

An example Jung himself gives in his 1952 book entitled Synchronicity is that, once, a young woman he was treating recounted to him an unusual dream she had had that featured a golden scarab.  While the young woman was telling him this, Jung turned around and opened the window and what should fly in but a beetle!

The best example of synchronicity that I’ve witnessed in my own life takes places sometimes when I learn a new word.   The word must have been something obscure like “hierophant” which I’d either never seen before or-- giving it the benefit of the doubt-- perhaps I happened upon it previously on a very few occasions but it hadn’t made enough of an impression on me to make me curious about its meaning until now.  But then, after I look it up or otherwise learn its significance, it often seems that this obscure word (that I had somehow gone through my whole life up until then without encountering more than a handful of times) will come up again several times, and in unrelated contexts, over the course of a relatively short span of time: I’ll read it in an article or another book, and then I’ll hear it used in a movie or on television.  The skeptic’s explanation would be that I’m more likely to notice the new word now that I’ve taken the time to read up on its meaning (and maybe the time that’s passed between encounters is longer than I’ve realized), but it still seems that the rare term has popped up more than is usual or probable in this short period of my life.

Jung said, “When coincidences pile up in this way, one cannot help being impressed by them—for the greater the number of terms in such a series, or the more unusual its character, the more improbable it becomes.”  Perhaps the illusion here is that these connections are evidence of some mysterious force at work in the universe beyond mere chance.


The ultimate connection the mind is capable of drawing is the determination that everything is interconnected to such an extent that “All is One.”  This is the essence of monism or pantheism, which are basically the same thing.  The term monism is used primarily in Indian thought to refer to the belief that no distinction exists between the self (atman) and the ultimate reality underlying the universe (brahman); it is opposed to dualism which makes this distinction.  Pantheism is the more popular term elsewhere, and it can be described as a belief in the unity and identity of God and universe or as the collapse of the universe and the self into God.

Monism/pantheism is a popular worldview among mystics.  There are many monist schools in Hinduism including monist Vaishnavites who worship Vishnu/Krishna/Rama as the one, all-encompassing god (one might read the Bhagavad Gita as proclaiming  Krishna as the monist deity), monist Shaivites who worship Shiva as the one god, and monist Shaktas who worship the mother goddess as the supreme brahman (calling her Devi, the divine mother, or identifying her with the fierce Kali, etc.).  Of course, if you believe that All is One then all the gods are mere aspects of the same ultimate reality, and perhaps the name we call it by is not so important.

There are pantheist strains present in Jewish mysticism, but the relationship is often a troubled one given that many Rabbinical authorities denounce pantheism as anathema to Judaism.  Nevertheless, the doctrine of God’s divine immanence pervading all things is central to Hasidism.  Gershom Scholem, foremost academic expert on Jewish mysticism, also saw strong pantheist inclinations implicit in the Zohar, the tome that has served as Kabbalah’s central text since the 13th century.  I am tempted to draw a parallel between Ein Sof-- God in his most unknowable and primordial form out of which all other divine manifestations poured-- and the Indian brahman.  And I think I read that some Kabbalists draw a strong connection between the mysterious Ein Sof and the Shekhinah-- God’s immanence, or presence in the world-- which is perhaps the aspect of the divine that sits closest to mankind and that we are most able to personally experience.  Another Kabbalist doctrine that suggests pantheism to me-- although Scholem tells us that its progenitor, Isaac Luria, sought to the curb the Zohar’s pantheism with other of his teachings-- is that of the breaking of the vessels (Shevirath ha-Kelim).  According to this teaching, a catastrophe shattered the vessels which held God’s light, and thus the fragments of God’s several aspects became intermingled and dispersed and came to permeate the universe.  Luria even explains the genesis of evil this way, claiming that it too is part of God, being nothing more than divine Judgment or Severity divorced from His other attributes (e.g. God’s Mercy).  I have also read that pantheism exists in Sufi Islam, in the writings of Ibn ‘Arabi for example.

In addition to the Kantian suggestion that the mind tends to get carried away in its business of drawing connections between phenomena, another psychological explanation for the monist illusion might be found in the experience identified by early psychoanalysts as the “oceanic feeling,” or a sensation of limitlessness.   Looking out at an expanse of ocean with no land in sight or peering up at the star-filled sky on a clear night, for example, one sometimes becomes acutely aware of how small and insignificant one is compared to the vastness of the cosmos.   Some minds go a step further in these situations, and they seem to feel the sublimation of the self into the infinite.  This is usually reported to be an ecstatic, blissful or serenely peaceful sensation.  This experience is the subject of probably the most famous poem by Giacomo Leopardi, “L’infinito”; it also sounds similar to satori, the awakening revelation that Zen Buddhist practitioners strive to achieve (although Zen Master D.T. Suzuki goes to great pains to point out that Zen is not pantheism).  

But it doesn’t end there: some, perhaps those with preexisting religious or mystical tendencies, interpret the oceanic feeling as representing a convergence of the self with the godhead.  Romain Rolland, the French writer and mystic who coined the term and expounded it in his correspondence with Sigmund Freud, viewed the oceanic feeling as being at the source of all religious experiences.  Freud suggested that it might be caused by an unconscious memory of  the intimate, palpable connection we have with our mother in the womb or in earliest infancy.  For this reason, I’ve read that some psychologists view this as a regressive state and theorize that it may arise during times of hardship, stress, abandonment, etc. as a defense mechanism.

Photograph of ruins of St Andrews Cathedral, St Andrews, Scotland taken by Meeg on April 1, 2011; photograph of Carl Jung taken from Novakeo webzine (accompanying article by Marsha West, "Carl Jung: Psychologist or Sorceror?"); Sefirot diagram found on Reb Zalman Legacy Project site dedicated to the teachings of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi founder of the Jewish Renewal movement;  photograph of Romain Rolland taken from (Rolland won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915).