“Success comes in cans; failure in can’ts”

.. great quote from Wilfred Bion. Our whole purpose is to make reality out of infinite potential.  I’m struck by similarity underlying Bion’s model of reality-creation and that of Alfred North Whitehead’s view of a “prehensile” crystallisation of reality in the present moment out of infinite potential.

“The art of being yourself at your best is the art of unfolding your personality into the person you want to be.” Wilfred Bion

“We cannot think first and act afterwards. From the moment of birth we are immersed in action and can only guide it by taking thought.” Alfred North Whitehead


Bion has this concept of our thinking as a candle actively penetrating the dark in a quest to mate with and discover the ideas or truths already there waiting.  If I understand aright Bion’s model of how this arises:

– there is a welter of “unthought” images, emotions and other stuff floating around – his Beta elements.

– if we are able to tolerate the pain of the unknown – then we begin to assemble these into the building blocks of thoughts – his Alpha elements. (Mostly we are able to do that because we’ve had a “good enough” mother and a holding environment as a baby).

– these alpha element thoughts then abstract into – pre-concepts which are “looking for” concepts to “mate with” to allow understanding of ideas. Importantly the ideas already exist and our mind and brain is a machinery that has evolved to allow us to think them.

Compare this with Whitehead’s view of the implications for reality of  quantum mechanics (see Process and Reality). The present moment – is like a zipper – moving from a past event into a future that the observer crystallises by selecting from the infinite potential. This then, the process by which reality is created. He calls the present moment prehensile, because there is an active searching or selecting of the future.

This concept (If my understanding is correct – the book is almost impenetrable) surely has resonance with Bion’s view. There is at the heart of both schemas a vital present force which is actively seeking a “mating” with a future that it is involved in helping create or crystallise.

Can we call this free will? Are we witnesses here and eternally now of all of creation?

“The foundation of reverence is this perception, that the present holds within itself the complete sum of existence, backwards and forwards, that whole amplitude of time, which is eternity.” Alfred North Whitehead


Consciousness, the rose and the fire


All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one

TS Eliot

Any static theory of consciousness feels incomplete. Reality is much closer to a process than a material. Whitehead’s “Process and Reality”, is impenetrable, but so much is clear. Consciousness, our awareness of self and the universe, is transitory, fleeting for most of us. This is to be expected if reality is the intersection of process and the material. It takes intense meditation and study to be able to hold oneself within the stream of the process that is reality as it pours through us. (I am told).

To quote Max Tegmark (New Scientist “Solid, Liquid, Consciousness”) “consciousness is a process that can occur in certain physical systems”. Whilst he invents new language (consciousness is for instance renamed as perceptronium) – it’s an old truth restated. As old, or older than zen. The mathematics are apparently called “Integrated Information Theory” or IIT for short. The system conditions necessary are interesting involving a fluctuation dynamic balance between various factors – system integration and internal separation for instance.

Reality may in fact be the same thing as consciousness (since observation crystallises out particular reality from the infinity of potential). In any case both are a process within a material setting. Matter doesn’t exist without the process of observation and the process can’t flow unless it is materialised. Just as gravitons need material to interact with to create weight. Matter matters – like the zip travelling through time, along the zipper. In this metaphor, what is reality? The changing space that the opening zipper reveals?

And what of the observer phenomenon? After 100 years of quantum investigation there is still no explanation of who or what the “observer” is. In the quantum world at least the observer certainly affects the observed – crystallising out one particular reality from the infinity possibilities that exist. Tegmark states “recent papers have argued that the observer is the key to understanding other fundamental physics mysteries, such as why our universe appears so orderly, why time seems to have a preferred forward direction, and even why time appears to flow at all”.

But is this not what we, each of us are? Fundamentally we observe. For me at least, the words observer and soul are interchangeable – as are the words observation and witness. As Teilhard de Chardin puts it – together we are the phenomenon of man and through us “the universe becomes aware of itself for the first time”. And Teilhard de Chardin also makes the powerful case that consciousness must have been a property of matter from the outset (his inner and outer), and that evolution has led along the path to emergent self-awareness and will eventually lead to (re)unification with God’s love at the Omega Point – when individual units of consciousness, our separate selves – unify and merge.

It seems to me that the separate strands of enquiry – scientific, spiritual and philosophical – are converging or possibly a better description is co-emerging; and toward a knowledge of the presence of God’s love. A rose is a rose by whatever name – love, connection, truth, God.

Momentum and Reality

Reality is bound up with the present. This, according to Zen and as re-expressed by Eckhart Tolle – the Power of Now..

The present, now, is the door to reality and focus on the past and future distracts from the intensity of experience.


How does that square with Alfred North Whitehead’s theory of relativity – where reality is a process and certainly not an instant?

It seems to me that the integration of these two concepts through the interpretation of the present – Now – as momentary rather than instantaneous. By this I mean to include the immediate past and the immediate future into a lengthened and extended instant. I think (though I’m never certain when trying to understand Process and Reality) that this is what Whitehead refers to as prehension.

It seems then that consciousness requires some element of time, that which immediately surrounds the instant in which we exist. It is observation that crystallises out the particular reality which we choose. (Bohr, Born, Schrodinger – the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics). The experience of reality requires the flow of time – to allow the immediate past and future to give context to the instant that is now.

Consciousness can then be described as observation surfing on time, and the fragment of time that surrounds the instant creates the moment in which we exist. Hence – reality as momentum.

The dictatorship of sight

I hear that as many images have been captured in the past 6 months, as have been taken in the history of humanity to-date (paintings, drawings, films, photos etc).

There are also increasing numbers of people missing whole longed-for events because they are bound up with capturing them on their mobile phones. Unlike our grandparents we have a constant record of our past. It is re-presented to us on Facebook and by friends and family alike.

What effect is the fixing of our image having on our psyche and soul?

(It’s not a rhetorical question).

What was the life of our senses like maybe 100 years ago, and indeed for all of the development of our species until that point?

Our world would have been smelly. We each have our pheromones and scent, which are now covered, deodorised and washed away. Then, there would have been a rich scent-scape. Smell is a sense that is strongly associated with emotion. The nerves in the nose are a direct extension of the brain and feed in to the limbic system, our emotional brain. That’s why particular smells evoke such vivid memories and sensations. We now live in a relatively odour-free environment (a non-scence world?) and what smell there is from bottles rather than bodies. What difference does that make to our development?

Our world would also have been full of natural noise, and probably less of it. Birdsong, people arguing, the clip clop of horses in the street, the sound of wind in trees. (Oh yes, and sounds of pain and anguish from the diseased and dying).

Then of course, we lived hugger-mugger and would (I think?) have been constantly in- touching – literally rather than “by phone, “by text” etc…

..and our visual sense would have been present and alive rather than past and fixed. We would, I think, have perceived ourselves through the eyes of others rather than through mirrors and photos. Yes, we aged, but without the constant record and reminder of it.

We would, in short have been much more fully present. Here, now, alive, available to each other human to human. We would not have been waiting for the e-mail, the text, and the call. We would not have had some part of our mind in another place or another time.

We’re increasingly going backward into the future, with our eyes fixed on the rear view mirror, rather than on the road ahead or with the passengers in the car with us.

Which fixes us as materialists. The material, physical world is always in the past. Literally (see Whitehead, Process and Reality). It does not exists in the present, but is crystallised out by our free will from the stuff and limitless potential that is the future. As quantum physicists have shown again and again – everything is potential until observed. It is the act of observation that crystallises out the particular phsyical world – and by then its already in the past. As our ancestors put it, we are the sisters of Wyrd, spinning fate at the foot of the Tree Ygrdrassl.

The past, the material, is dead and done. Let’s live in the present, with each other, and look to the future.

Depression. Real or immaterial?


The BBC ran a piece recently about depression (All in the Mind: Radio 4). Researchers have found that when depressed people find it almost impossible to call to mind any positive memories. They selectively remember dark events only. Even when specifically reminded about real happiness, depressed people recall this in monochrome and in distance, rather than the glorious technicolour happy memories of upbeat people. Which, though is cause and which effect? Who wouldn’t be chained to a black dog if their whole memory landscape was dark, fearful and painful?

I connect this with a piece from Whitehead’s Process and Reality. Working out of quantum physics and relativity he shows that “reality” is in fact a process, of becoming and not the “material” so beloved of atheists. He argues for a philosophy of organism where reality is eternally spun in the present out of crystallised past memories using the stuff of limitless potential that is the uncrystallised future. (Shocking paraphrase of course). In any event in his model, the fundamental atom of reality is an “actual entity” or “actual occasion” which inherits only a selective part of the past, and in that selection alters the path of the future, a process he calls “concrescence” ( the process of making concrete).

Is it in the selection of memory (or feelings as Whitehead describes it) that lies the mechanism of free will?

In any event, how sensible it seems that selective negative memories create depression – a state in which we can only remember negative experience. A seemingly unbreakable loop. Conversely, remembering joy, leads to joy and creates joyfulness. Perhaps a parent’s real job is simply to fix their child in a happy positively reinforcing mental rut? However, in absence of a childhood filled with love, what then? Well, according to theBBC, the researchers have found techniques that work to jolt people into remembering light rather than dark events, and that in turn works to set a new upward path. In all compassion for those of us who he been in the prison of depression- let’s keep reminding each other of all that’s good, loving and hopeful…

Spirit Levels

I was in a pub in Edinburgh yesterday. It was packed, shoulder to shoulder. We were all intent on following the British and Irish Lions in their final rugby match against Australia. At the end “we” won via a series of sensational tries.

We were, of course, intent on the television screens around the pub. I was lifted into a space and life shared with that group in that pub as each try was scored and we all cheered. We became something separate – the momentary “we” was new and different from the collection of individuals normally described as we.. I was struck by the sense of one-ness. Looking at the people, rather than the screen – we shared the same rapturous expression – but on each of our individual faces.

This is, I believe, what we are drawn to as the joyful solution to the pain and loneliness of living and dying. We can become something different and shared; living in common and on a different spirit level. As that happens we lose our sense of self, our individuality and our ego, and become something qualitatively different. (See God as emergent property, or epiphenomenon).

Whilst I have, at least to my own satisfaction, proved God. It is a proof that touches my mind rather than my real self. It turns out that rational knowledge of the existence of God is a poor friend with which to confront death and loss. In my 40’s I lived through existential angst, a dark night of the soul. I had been fed since childhood with the comfort of the knowledge of God and my friend and brother, Jesus Christ. I had though been trained as a scientist. Richard Dawkins had been something of a hero (I majored in verebrate evolution at Cambridge) and as we know he preaches that Science somehow disproves God. Who was right – my loving mother or an angry scientist? So, I decided to live in non-belief and confront that question from a premise and experience of an atheist. It turned out for me that atheism is a belief system, with internal logic and no proof beyond the opening statement. I know that now. Atheists open with the axiom – there is no God – and from that premise (and ignoring all awkward facts along the way) go on after some verbal and logical gymnastics to restate it as THERE IS NO GOD. It’s nothing more than a circus trick, and it’s only possible because NO premise can be logically proved or disproved. (Gödel, Heisenberg). Given a premise and some logic rules you can “prove” the premise. Well I can do that from the statement there is God, and to be absolutely frank it’s infinitely more likely. Here…

Let God be that which came before existence.
Time and existence exist.
Therefore God exists.


(By the way – who wrote those penetrating words in the Anglican service which define God as.. existing beyond time, both source and final purpose. Was that really written in the 16th century?)

So, it has has been a surprise and a relief to see through the ill-logic, one might say intellectual conceit, of materialists; and to move from the lonely existentialism of Sartres to the connected existentialism of Martin Buber. To perceive Whitehead’s rationale of our life in process at the ever moving edge of spiritual present as we crystalise the past out of the future.

But understanding is not the trick. It is in the moments of loss-of-self into the commonwealth of spirit in which there is intimation of immortality. The loss of our-self into the crowd in the pub, the shared smile, the surge of love for wife/mother/brother/friend/child, the rapture of connection with the countryside. Those are tangible glimpses of the next spirit level.

I have recently conceived of the moment of dying as a “fading to joy”, losing one’s identity into God. I now see that a better expression would be “surprised by joy”. Has that been used before?

Godel, Escher, Bach

Review of Gödel, Escher, Bach (Golden Eternal Braid) by Douglas Hofstadter.

This is an intellectual tour de force, a sweet confection of themes. Ultimately though it disappoints; he attempts to bind his thematic threads into a tightly structured fugue or rope, but achieves only candyfloss. As the title suggests, the writing pans across mathematics, the arts and music. On the way it takes in logic, philosophy, Zen Buddhism, linguistics and artificial intelligence. Indeed so extensive and brilliant are the references and insights that one suspects a touch of narcissism on the author’s part. He is certainly clever, and as a survey of thought this book is a must-read, however his final conclusions are just plain inconsistent.

One fundamental premise is that our material world is constructed around paradox and infinitely self-referential loops. The “Gödel” of the title is Kurt Gödel, a mathematician who proved that our knowledge must always be incomplete. We can not know all things. But, the link from that “voice” to the Escher and Bach of the title is not clearly formed. Rather these are separate themes which Hofstadter weaves into his “Golden Eternal Braid”, rather than inversions of the same theme which forms a satisfying fugue. The Escher leitmotif – that perception cannot be trusted, is illustrated by the manipulation of self-referential loops. Bach is recruited as a master of fugue, where the theme is woven together in different voices to create a new experience. In other words from individual threads he creates new – emergeant – reality. An epiphenomenon.

Though not appearing in the title, the concepts of Zen Buddhism are woven into the braid – pointing up the essential duality of existence and encouraging us to UN-think as a route to perception and integration. (see Karl Jung).

So in summary, Hofstadter’s braid is shaped from:

Gödel, all knowledge must be incomplete – definitively.
Escher, reality is not what it seems and comprises an infinity of self-referential loops.
Bach, threads are woven to create an epiphenomenon; whose sum is qualitatively different from its parts.

Given these premises he nevertheless concludes “I have no doubt that a totally reductionist.. explanation of the brain exists” (and he equates brain with mind and consciousness).

With all of these fascinating themes, the false logic of this eventual conclusion shocks. His statement is a axiom or belief, but is presented as a theorem (he has this in common with Dawkins and many other materialists). Having established that the great thinkers in different disciplines have all demonstrated a fundamental limit to our ability to know via thinking, he then goes on to state that he has “no doubt” that we will eventually completely understand the mind and consciousness in terms of materialist reductionism.

He would have been wiser to end with these, his own, words:

“By the way, in passing, it is interesting to note that all results essentially dependent on the fusion of subject and object have been limitative results. In addition to the limitative Theorums [eg Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorum], there is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which says that measuring one quantity renders impossible the simultaneous measurement of a related quantity. I don’t know why all these results are limitative. Make of it what you will.”

For a truly penetrating (and consistent) philosophy of the link between mathematics and reality I would urge you to turn to Alfred North Whitehead – Process and Reality.