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MIND’S I EXPLORATIONS: The Wise Window on the World

In consciousness, Mind's I Explorations, Mind|Body|World, perception, psychology, psychology of religion, Psychology|Religion, Quran, sources of knowledge, The Method, universe on September 11, 2011 at 8:26 pm

This is the second edition of Mind’s I Explorations, a series I began with a view to base my reflections on the nature of reality (and how we come to learn it) on the anthology: The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul.

 

On having no head

The second piece of the anthology is a ‘charmingly childish’* narration of how one day in the Hamalyas, the author↓1  discovered (or rather realized) that he had in fact no head on his shoulders! In his own words, the discovery (or rediscovery) was an ultimate outcome of pondering a question for a long time: “What am I?”

*according to editors of the anthology, in their commnetary following the original piece.

If there was no head, what was there?:

It was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything—room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them snow-peaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world.

Indeed imagine not having grown up mentally, only developing the sharpened skill of seeing. And what would you have seen? No, you won’t see a head on your shoulders!

We conclude the presence of this head by comparing ourselves with others who have two sets of limbs and an overall physique similar to ours, and who speak, walk, eat and generally live like us. And based on this comparison, we deduce, that if they have a head, we must have one too. For although we can see our heads in the mirrors, can the testimony of a mirror (in a way, an optical illusion) be trusted?

This is the apparently naive explanation of the author. It’s not a philosophical explanation, rather it’s intuitive, describing things on an strictly ‘as is’ basis rather than distorting the first native experience of the world through rational logic. When we are born we have no idea of how the ‘uppermost part’ of our body looks. Our view is just like those film camera views when the directors are trying to show things from the ‘eyes’ of a particular character. Again, no head is visible in that view, only the body and limbs. And in place of the head is the view, the scene, itself.

In the author’s own words:

It was self-luminous reality for once swept clean of all obscuring mind … It was a ceasing to ignore something which (since early childhood at any rate) I had always been too busy or too clever to see.

The essence of this way of thinking really is: that the experience we go through at first hand must always be fundamentally different from all others. Yet, in this subjective experience lies a greater and more peaceful unity with the external world, than in reliance on logically deduced objective experiences.↓2(the anthology editors who comment on every piece seem to have interpreted it slightly differently).

All twoness—all duality of subject and object—has vanished.

 

The subject and the object: dichotomous, complementary, or uniform?

A duality or dichotomy refers to “two mutually exclusive, opposed or contradictory groups (such as): a dichotomy between thought and action”. Such dichotomies or dualities are of concern in nearly all major fields of knowledge. In human sciences and philosophy, often such dichotomies are subject of much debate as to their respective significance in some area and as to how much in distinction &/or opposition they stand with respect to each other. Examples include wave-particle duality, mind and matter/body, good and evil, creationism vs evolution, etc. Complement is what supplies the lack of another entity; literally, something which makes another thing complete, whole, or perfect. Uniformity may refer to an overall sameness, homogeneity and regularity.

In philosophy, the subject-object problem is concerned with delineating what is objective and what is subjective in our experience. As a starting point, we can think of ‘objects’, different beings in the universe, being perceived by an observer: the ‘subject’.  Thus on the face of it, the two entities appear to be dichotomous. However, we encounter various problems when we attempt to further elaborate this basic premise. For instance, if we depend on our own sensory experience to perceive an object, discerning only those properties which our capacities enable us to, can we really know the object objectively, as it really is?↓3 This also relates to the ‘observer vs the observed’ problem in physics epitomzied by the uncertainty principle so recently discussed on this blog. And then, to what extent our own properties (i.e. the subject’s) affect what has been observed?  

Thus, the way we actually experience the object (or the universe) certaintly seems to unify us (the subject) with it (the object). This is despite the fact that, through logical analysis, we may feel certain that the object (or the universe) has its own reality independent of our sensibility of it↓4, and also despite the fact that the total dependence for our own experience on our own devises of sensation and perception may also lead us to doubt whether ‘it’s all in the head’ or not↓5. Perhaps it’s best to say that what is out there complements what is in here (in me and in you), and that they are unified into one experience by the device of the mind which has no way to see the separation of the two.

Now, let us return to the original piece for further deliberations:

 

On regaining the pure nativity of one’s original perspective on the world:

What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking … as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories … like a sudden waking from the sleep of ordinary life, an end to dreaming.

I had been blind to the one thing that is always present, and without which I am blind indeed—to this marvellous substitute-for-a-head, this unbounded clarity, this luminous and absolutely pure void, which nevertheless is—rather than contains—all things.

…no arguement can add to or take away from an experience which is as plain and incotrovertible as hearing middle-C* or tasting strawberry jam.

— *a note in music

There arose no questions, no reference beyond the experience itself, but only peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden.

—-

These quotes let us infer four different aspects about the experience.

i) Our intuitive experience is pre-verbal; language is not involved. All thinking and speaking is learned from the world. The nature of the kind of thinking and speaking we learn from the world is rational: we learn to associate features with specific objects, objects with specific categories. We usually learn not to cross-over between concepts. As we grow older our creativity dies down since we are taught to think in terms of what’s rational and familiar, not what’s new and different.

ii) The ‘burden’ of all this rational knowledge and way of thinking tends to bury our own sources of pre-verbal thought (let’s call them intuition and the freshness and naitvity of creativity) farther and farther beyond the boundaries of conscious life. Whereas, the fact remains that this intuitive thought is as basic and primary to us as ‘tasting jam’ or hearing a melody.

iii) The burden is not just metaphorical, it’s literal: The more thought we put into issues, the more we experience generally negative emotions and the more the issue (that we have been thinking on) seems like a ‘pressure’ or ‘full of stress’. The most peaceful moments of our lives are indeed those when we are simply submerged in an experience rather than caught in the tangles of thought.

iv) Hence, the sense of joy and peace on having reconnected with one’s innate perspective on the world: that the whole world is unified by the fabric of first-hand experience. It’s the artifact of logic that ‘divides’ the world into things and categories and hierarchies, and into I and it. This is this and that is that. The author has replaced it with the original ‘I≡universe≡reality’ kind of experience that would have remained in our consciousness if we had not been trained otherwise by the rigors of reason.

In addition to explaining how we come to loose the freshness of our inborn perspective, these conclusions also touch upon another commonly discussed ‘duality’: nature and environment. However, the whole discussion might remain a heady philosphical or incomprehensibly mystical narrative if not made plainer.

 

How the world conditions us

The best way to clarify the subject is to recast it in terms of a famous (though not very widely known in mass media) person-centered theory of personality by Carl Rogers. In addition to becoming more familiar, an additional advantage in speaking in terms of this theory is that a lot of general psychological insights abour how life works might be gained.

In Rogers’ theory, the counterpart of the ‘native perspective on things’ is a process called ‘organismic valuing’. The counterpart for ‘the perspective the world imposes on us’ is ‘conditions of worth’. Before coming to these concepts, however, we must first consider what Rogers meant by conditional and unconditional positive regard.

When we give a person our trust and acceptance, with an expression of genuine positive sentiment towards them, despite their shortcomings, faults and mistakes, they have recieved ‘unconditional positive regard’.

On the other hand, when we treat a person based on how they behave, and how well they perform tasks, we are treating them with conditional positive regard: we love them when they are good to us, and neglect or mistreat them when they are incapable of goodness. In a way, we expect them to ‘conform’ to our standards of behavior; if they don’t meet those standards they are somehow worthy of inferior treatment.

These standards that others must meet to obtain our regard are what Rogers called as the conditions of worth.

Typically, learning takes place through the application of these conditions on the growing child. The child is given the impression of being a ‘bad child’ and treated with various forms of punishments (at the very least, the withdrawal of positive objects such as attention, praise or toys), when he/she fails in behaving as expected. It is the incentives of parents’ love and attention (positive regard) that prompts the child to learn speech, get toilet-trained, and learn to eat with manners. If parents are not very mindful of the balance in their attitude (specifically, in giving the child a steady sense of unconditional positive regard through all the ups and downs of child development) the child might well loose the innate interest and ‘fun’ in learning and exploring new things. As such, the child will learn to do every new thing just to obtain someone’s regard or to avoid someone’s punishment. That is also how many children come to despise any new learning, except what they learn from play-at-will.

Many a children have ‘discovered’ that playing with a certain child was ‘bad’ given his/her background; that someone we never thought of as good or bad is now definitely good or certainly bad since we have heard some of our elders announce and reinforce that; that even thought the idea that an act of dishonesty is unjust and harmful makes perfect sense, whether it’s ok to engage in it or not depends on who does it. Thus even when children have received noble and valuable guidelines for living at a formal level, they are more often than not negated by actual conditioning.

In adulthood, the primary forms of conditions may be replaced by other more sophisticated ones: money, power, status, achievement, renown and fame, and a luxurious life. Even though we come to experience them as our own needs, their common sense definitions contain the sense of comparison with ‘others’: more money than others, power over others, satus higher than others, achievement better than or different from others’, renown and fame among others, more luxury and comfort than others…. Our life is reduced to nothing but a race for meeting more and more worthy conditions of being.

 

What we loose in the process

What we loose in the process is our own pre-verbal, intuitive, and emotionally tinged sense of things—what Rogers called as ‘organismic valuing’. According to Rogers, all organisms (humans or lower) have a tendecy to develop as fully as possible. For lower organisms, this is restricted more or less to the physical sense: body needs and survival. For humans however, there is an additional dimension called as self-actualizing. This tendency refers to our innermost urge to realize all the possibilities of experience and capacity innate to us. This urge creates in us ‘organismic valuing’: an inner voice (of course, experienced as a feeling rather than a thought) that tells us that some things are superior and make us more content and peacefully satisfied from the inside than some other things, without anybody’s commentary as a go-between. In cases where conditioning has been rather foolproof, we never even come to realize that there are whole undiscovered, and unexplored sides of us suppressed beneath the life of society-imposed ‘values’ we are pursuing.

This rosy existence is unfortunately uncommon. We remain pressurized by the need to do more for others and for ourselves as our worth has been attached to certain objects valued by our society. We have to force ourselves to ways of behaving and thinking that are inferior in our own eyes, but suit others. We have to hide our true inclinations, attitudes, and opinions on grave matters of character and way of life so that they don’t meet with censure, ridicule, indifference, bigotry, or plain misunderstanding. Our happiness comes to reside solely in other’s being happy with us; moments of peace, contentment, and joy that originate solely from inside are few and far between.

And buried deep beneath the compost of all the negated inner and intuitive knowledge of good and right, bad and wrong, must be that original and fresh perspective on the world: of being at one with the whole universe, of experiencing the whole universe at first hand.↓6

 

Where do our innate knowledge and perspective come from

Scientists may call it nature; but nature means what is there already existing before worldly learning takes place. Hence ‘nature’ is not an answer to the above question; if used, it’d merely be a ‘circular’ definition. Nature is what has been created by God:

فِطْرَتَ اللَّـهِ الَّتِي فَطَرَ النَّاسَ عَلَيْهَا

 … this (faith) being the nature designed by Allah on which He has originated mankind. (in Ar-Rum, 30)

According to the Ma’ariful- Qur’an, English version,  two interpretations of ‘nature’ are derivable from sources. One is that nature here means Islam, in reference to the following Ahadith in Sahih Muslim, Book 33, Chapter 6:

There is none born but is created to his true nature. It is his parents who make him a Jew or a Christian or a Majoosi… (#6423)

and:

Every new-born babe is born on the millat, and remains on this until his tongue is enabled to express himself. (#6427)

According to the second, equally acceptable interpretation, “Allah Ta’ala has bestowed the capability to every human being to discern his Creator and believe in Him”. Once this capacity is allowed to develop, it will ultimately lead the person to submission to God in the form of Islam. In fact, Maulana Taqi (the author of the Tafseer) presents arguments clarifying that the meaning that resonates with both the context of the full ayah and the ahadith quoted above is this second one:

All children are born with the natural instinct to perceive and identify the truth through an observation of their environment; however, once they develop the skill of speaking (which actually means the ability to understand logical concepts and think accordingly) their conscious development falls dependent on the teachings of their respective social environments.

 

Where does it all fit in the subject-object problem?

 In Qur’an the world has been described many times as a thing of play and pastime:

وَمَا هَـٰذِهِ الْحَيَاةُ الدُّنْيَا إِلَّا لَهْوٌ وَلَعِبٌ

… the life of this world is nothing but a passing delight and a play… (in Al-Ankabut, 64)

And it’s objects a vehicle of deception:

وَمَا الْحَيَاةُ الدُّنْيَا إِلَّا مَتَاعُ الْغُرُورِ

THE worldly life is no more than a deceitful possession. (in Al-i-Imran, 185)

And it has indeed succeded in deceiving a majority of the people:

وَغَرَّتْهُمُ الْحَيَاةُ الدُّنْيَا

 … and they have been deceived by the life in this world… (in Al-An’am, 70)

And the real life will be the one to come after:

وَإِنَّ الدَّارَ الْآخِرَةَ لَهِيَ الْحَيَوَانُ 

whereas, the life in the hereafter is indeed the real life: if they but knew this! (in Al-Ankabut, 64)

 

Even research in astrophysics has progressed to the point that some authors have speculated on the ‘tentative’ and ‘image-like’ nature of this world. According to Michael Talbot, in his book The Holographic Universe:

… there is evidence to suggest that our world and everything in it. . . are also only ghostly images, projections from a level of reality so beyond our own it is literally beyond both space and time.

The interesting part is that the way we experience it, we are never in a position to ascertain whether this world is a literal inter-play of light and other energies. All our experience tells us directly is the uniqueness of one’s own window on the world — a window we cannot share with anyone else, nor can we ever succeed in ‘peeping’ out from any one else’s window. What we call red, is what we have heard others calling red and teaching us to do the same; we are not even sure (by direct experience) that what looks as red in our eyes looks the same in anyone else’s eye or not!

On the other hand, the tangibility of the objects of this world is also directly experienced by us. So we can’t be inherently sure of any ‘philosophical idealism’ either (the idea that we experience nothing but what our minds make up). Moreover, at the level of daily life, questions of what is good and bad behavior, what is just and unjust, etc affect us more though deeper deliberations do have their effect.

We also get a similar attitude from the Qur’an. While, at least at the meaningful level, the belief in the transience of this life (meant to be ever inexplicable at the level of this world and this humanity) is a direct corollary of the belief in a more real and eternal life; pondering too much on ‘how to explain it all in terms understandable to us’ won’t serve us in any practical matters:

هُوَ الَّذِي أَنزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ

فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ ابْتِغَاءَ الْفِتْنَةِ وَابْتِغَاءَ تَأْوِيلِهِ

وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلَّا اللَّـهُ ۗ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ يَقُولُونَ آمَنَّا بِهِ كُلٌّ مِّنْ عِندِ رَبِّنَا

وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلَّا أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ

He it is Who has revealed the Book to you; some of its verses are decisive, they are the basis of the Book, and others are allegorical; then as for those in whose hearts there is perversity they follow the part of it which is allegorical, seeking to mislead and seeking to give it (their own) interpretation. but none knows its interpretation except Allah, and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say: ‘We believe in it, it is all from our Lord’; and only people of who are wise take heed.  (Al-i-Imran, 7)    

 

This wisdom is again pre-endowed; the same inner wisdom that begins to loose its voice pressured by the outward-imposed ‘lessons’. Attempts to scientifically analyze and study this wisdom will again fail; one cannot expect the ‘subject’ to turn back on itself and to study itself ‘objectively’. This wisdom is our side of the reality: our window of the world, whether blurred termporarily by the conditions of worth; or, open and receptive and accepting of all the mysticalities of the world, humbly accepting its own and the world’s true nature for what it is.  

This wise consciousness could well be the primary fact of life; that elusive insightfulness that imbues with belief on and certain and intimate knowledge of the only Source deservant of that belief. Interestingly, I stumbled upon but last night on an online ‘course on the consciousness‘ by a Professor Emeritus in physics, in the University of Virginia, Stanley Sobottka. It resonates nearly perfectly with the above conclusion:

Because most scientists of all types are mentally wedded to a belief in an external reality, they are unable to see an alternative picture. In particular, they are unable to see that Consciousness, rather than external reality, is the fundamental Reality. Thus, they persist in attempting (and in failing) to create an objective theory of Consciousness. When the contents of Awareness try to objectify Awareness, it is like a puppet trying to “puppetize” the puppet master, a picture on a movie screen trying to “pictureize” the actors, a shadow striving to “shadowize” the object that is casting it, or humans trying to “humanize” God.

The problem of trying to create an objective theory of subjective experience has been labeled the “hard problem” of consciousness by David Chalmers… In fact, there is no hard problem for those who are aware they are aware.↓7  

 

Notes

1. D. E. Harding was a mystical writer on the nature of self and reality.

2. The commenting editors have not articulated this angle. To read the chapter along with the commentary, click this link.

3. Read “the problem of substance” on the pertinent wikipedia page. I mentioned a relevant example formerly in Prophetic revelation and subjectivity.

4. A view called as philosophical realism.

5. The issue is examplified by this famous question that if there is no one in the jungle to hear a sound produced, can we say that the sound was really there? Yes is the answer given by subjective idealists who say, in essence, that the mind makes the world (or the subject makes the object).

6. This idea, of course, is not part of Rogers theory but links this psychological discourse with the more philosophical one we began with.

7. For flow reading I have removed internal hyperlinks in the quote pointing to sections in the course which have already elaborated in various points in here. I have also removed the cross-reference to David Chalmers. To see the original go to the section of the course here: http://faculty.virginia.edu/consciousness/new_page_13.htm#9.6

 

Related posts from this blog:

On scientific speculativeness vs certainty of Divine knowledge: Assumptions vs Certainty (Synopsis)

Note that all the related links noted down in the above-linked post page are relevant to this discussion as well.

Also, more on mysteries of consciousness ordinarily hidden from our perception: Outrageous Sensations: What can we learn from LSD?

 

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RUMI REVELATIONS: Understanding Ramadaan through Rumi

In excerpts and quotes, literature, poetry, psychology of religion, Ramadaan, Rumi Revelations on August 23, 2011 at 1:07 am

RAMADAN SILENCE*

 

When the Ramadan banner flies, soul restrains nature,

so it can taste its own foodl

 

The strength of horses and the intensity of fire,

these are the powers of sacrifice.

Fasting, we honor the guest.

 

Clouds of courage give rain,

because it was in this month that the Qur’an rained down,

light through an opening.

 

Grab the rope.

Be lifted out of the body’s pit.

 

Announce to Egypt, Joseph of Canaan has come.

Jesus dismounts the donkey,

and the sacramental table descends.

 

Wash your hands. Wash your face.

Do not eat or speak as you normally do.

Other food and other words will come in the silence.

_________________________________

 

The concept of silence here symbolizes the fast. The silent person side-steps from the usual impulse to talk and to speak up his mind. This willing evacuation of the mind of petty distraction of conversation makes room for wisdom and insight. 

Rumis says this more eloquently in the following ghazal couplets**:

 

If you want your every atom to be eloquent and a poet,

don’t place your faith in poetry and prose, be silent.

 

If you start to talk, you will stray from your thought.

Don’t stray from your heart’s intent. Stay away from talk.

___________________________________________

 

Fast performs similar functions for us on a much broader scale. Why does performing acts God loves, with great frequency, length and recurrence become much easier in Ramadaan, than at other times? It’s not just because of the extra incentive we have in form of hope for extra reward; it’s not just due to being reinforced and encouraged by seeing nearly everyone around doing more. The fast frees us from the constant chain of distractions that our bodily ties of food and drink provide us through the day. Ordinarily, we remain mentally bound by one concern followed by another. Since hunger and thirst are of the body, naturally, other bodily and personal interests take forte as well and keep us occupied. Even when we think of doing something ‘extra’, we get lazy, feel busy, or simply forget amid the ‘stimulus overload’.

Fast provides a calm for the whole day. It also changes the schedule of daily life, thus helping to reinforce the change. The calm and peace resulting from a control on bodily hungers also weakens the force of other personal desires and lusts. Although, we feel the nutrient deprivation, we don’t even feel as much hungry as we would if we could not eat on time on a regular day. All this ‘stimulus underload’ paves the way for the better and nobler instincts of our psyche to come forward and to take lead.

If a mosque was full of chatter and banter, how could it inspire noble meditations, pious intentions and love-filled inclinations? It is the vast seclusion of the typical mosque from everything earthy and wordly that encourages those honorable attitudes.

And then….

 

A QUATRAIN^

 

This fasting sifts the soul like a sieve,

Discovering the hidden flecks of gold.

Once the soul outshines the brilliant moon,

It will tear up the veil and light up the seventh heaven.

 

 

Notes

* Translated by Coleman Barks in Rumi: The Big Red Book, 2010, New York: Harper Collins Publishers, p. 273

** Translated by Iraj Anvar and Anne Twitty in Say Nothing: Poems of Jalal al-Din Rumi in Persian and English, 2008, Sandpoint: Morning Light Press, p. 17.

^ Translated by the same as above, p. 19.

QURAN IN RAMADAAN: The determined vs the uncertain

In excerpts and quotes, psychology of religion, Quran, Ramadaan on August 14, 2011 at 12:38 am

 12 Ramazaan, 1432:

إِنِّي وَجَّهْتُ وَجْهِيَ لِلَّذِي فَطَرَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ حَنِيفًا ۖ وَمَا أَنَا مِنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ 

I HAVE turned my face to Him who originated the heavens and the earth, as a man of pure faith; I am not of the idolaters.’ (Al-An’am, 79)
 
 
I came across the ayah more than a week ago in my recitation cycle but the topic once again proved very interesting and also analyzable from a psychological point of view, hence the delayed posting.
 
This line is the great conclusion to Quran’s description of Hazrat Ibrahim’s (alaihi-s salaam) deduction of the Truth from his observations.
 
Background
 
Allah ta’ala thus begins the great but succintly and beautifully described incidence in Sura An’am:  

وَكَذَٰلِكَ نُرِي إِبْرَاهِيمَ مَلَكُوتَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَلِيَكُونَ مِنَ الْمُوقِنِينَ  

AND thus We gave Abraham [his first] insight into [God’s] mighty dominion over the heavens and the earth – and [this] to the end that he might become one of those who are inwardly sure. (75)
 
 
 The lines describing the observations of the skies that Hazrat Ibrahim made before reaching his conclusions are immensely beautiful. Those familiar with tajweed should read with care (and preferably meaning in mind) for full effect:
 

فَلَمَّا جَنَّ عَلَيْهِ اللَّيْلُ رَأَىٰ كَوْكَبًا ۖ قَالَ هَـٰذَا رَبِّي ۖ فَلَمَّا أَفَلَ قَالَ لَا أُحِبُّ الْآفِلِينَ 

 فَلَمَّا رَأَى الْقَمَرَ بَازِغًا قَالَ هَـٰذَا رَبِّي ۖ فَلَمَّا أَفَلَ قَالَ لَئِن لَّمْ يَهْدِنِي رَبِّي لَأَكُونَنَّ مِنَ الْقَوْمِ الضَّالِّينَ 

 فَلَمَّا رَأَى الشَّمْسَ بَازِغَةً قَالَ هَـٰذَا رَبِّي هَـٰذَا أَكْبَرُ ۖ فَلَمَّا أَفَلَتْ قَالَ يَا قَوْمِ إِنِّي بَرِيءٌ مِّمَّا تُشْرِكُونَ

WHEN night drew over him, he saw a star. ‘This’ he said: ‘is surely my Lord’ But when it set he said: ‘I do not like the setting ones’. (76)
WHEN he saw the rising moon, he said: ‘This is my Lord’ But when it set, he said: ‘If my Lord does not guide me, I shall surely be amongst the astray nation’. (77)
THEN, when he saw the sun rise, shining, he said: ‘This must be my Lord, it is larger’ But when it set, he said: ‘O nation I am quit of what you associate (with Allah, the Creator). (78)
 
 
Some tafaseer-al-Quran describe elaborate stories to explain how, while the sun, stars and moon are open to observation any night, Hazrat Ibrahim seems to have done his deliberation at one go. However, more moderate mufassirs such as Maulana Taqi and Maulana Maudidi remind us that collapsing relevant snippets of happennings apart in time and condensing them into a single lyrical and succint narration is a common feature of the Qur’an; wherein details that do not matter at the place are simply left out. So here it seems.
 
What is apparent is that despite being raised in an environment where idolatory and worship of celestial bodies was the absolute custom and his own father was a respected sculptor of idols, Hazrat Ibrahim probably retained his doubts since the beginning, and after his observations and thinking, finally reject once and for all such ‘obviously’ ‘created’ ‘things’. He realized that something which is subject to such a firm set of rules and cannot deviate from those rules (of rising and shining and setting on a tic-toc schedule) cannot be the creator itself, and doesn’t really merit the designation of ‘deity’ that his society had accorded it. The one who must have created these large floating bodies in the skies must be the Sole Creator.
 
We know that he used to think nothing of the sculpted idols of his nation on grounds that they are powerless and really helpless sittting dolls that cannot eat or speak (in Sura Al-Anbya and Sura As-Saaffaat).  Thus after final deliberations regarding the religious customs of his nation, he turned away from all false gods and declared his allegiance to the Sole God in the words that make up the focused ayah of this post.
 
There is one major concept in one word of this ayah that I wish to share with my readers:
 
 
Hanif: the upright, the pure-faith one, the focused
 
Although my search in online Arabic dictionaries mostly yielded the meaning ‘upright’, wikipedia describes hanif as a term for one having the pure monotheistic faith typical of Muslims. The reference to Hazrat Ibrahim is obvious since he rejected other idols in favor of the Sole God. In one Qur’an search engine↓1, I found the following description of the root ha-nun-fa that makes up hanif:
 
To lean to one side, incline, turn away from error to guidance, incline to the right religion, stand firmly on one side, leave a false religion and turn to right.
 
In addition, in Urdu translations of Quran I have often read the word yek-su as a proper rendering of the concept. ‘yek’ means one and ‘su’ means direction. Whole, the word again refers to one who has got rid of other distractions and now sticks firmly to one well-chosen side.
 
All the meanings of the word hanif have a close relation to the above history of Hazrat Ibrahim (alaihi-s salaam). Naturally so, since Allah Himself associates the word so often with the prophet, throughout the Quran. (Basic root search on tanzil.net will confirm that 8 out of 12 times, the word is used in connection with the prophet, including the ayah above. The remaining instances are interpreted to have similar meanings as already referred to).
 
 
Of being hanif and ‘determination’
 
Later history of Hazrat Ibrahim confirms that once having made his decision, he was tested as fiercely as anybody could and yet did not deviate for the slightest moment from the firmness of his belief. How did he make such a strong decision that he turned out to be so determined? Apart from his being a prophet, the qualities of his decision-making are worth examining for our own learning. Many people in the world do not have the strength to make such a strong decision at all; many others (like us), when they do, are not so stoically adherent to it as he was all his life: we keep faltering, forgetting, ignoring, or chickening out.
 
 
The process of decision-making
 
Decision-making is obviously a mental process. It begins when a person is faced with a set of alternatives in the environment. The process is not restricted to humans; however, the scale from simple organisms to humans increases in complexity: the situations posing alternatives are complex, and some alternatives are not even directly related to sensory information (Berthoz, p. 86 in Plmerol, 2010, see below for reference link). The decision Hazrat Ibrahim had to make (it was in his younghood, certainly well before Allah Ta’ala guided him through His message) was thus a very complex one: multitude of choices well-embedded in his environment against the One choice for which no salient sensory help was available.
 
Back to theory: each alternative is weighed in terms of costs and benefits before settling on one. Now what costs and benefits the young Ibrahim must have considered, indeed, which must have propelled him towards his deliberations as desirable incentives vs aversive risks. I think the answer must be the contrast between nobility vs lowness that I have already posed in my last Ramadaan post. As a resummary I will quote one famous line from Dr. Mohammad Iqbal, with its translation:
 

وہ ایک سجدہ جسے تو گراں سمجھتا ہے 

ہزار سجدوں سے دیتا ہے آدمی کو نجات 

[Woh ek sajda jise to giraan samajhta hai
Hazar sajdon se deta hai admi ko nijat ]
 
The one sajda that you often find difficult
Relieves you from stooping to a thousand gods
 
 
Two contrasting human tendencies that exist side-by-side in any human are the drive to avoid unncessary risk and be safe, and the urge to realize one’s true potential which entails risk-taking (Raufaste and Hilton in Polmerol, 2010, p. 475). It’s clear which tendency must have been superior in Hazrat Ibrahim (alaihi-s salaam).
 
Finally, “after a complicated physiological process involving numerous parts of the brain, a dominant solution eventually inhibits all the other possible solutions” (Polmerol, p. 177). Thus the process of decision-making ends with a final choice which may  be expressed as an action or opinion.  In Islam, however, mere declaration of monotheism earns mere name tag; action is required to be a true hanif, which Hazrat Ibrahim proved to be, earning good mention from such a High Source.
 
 
The mechanisms of decision-making
 
Ideally, decision-making would be a tight logical process. All the available alternatives would be examined with an exhaustive cost-benefit analysis for each of them; the solution would be an optimal one in consideration of all this information.  This is the rational approach to decision-making. In most cases this absolute rationality is impossible, since the human mind cannot think of all alternatives nor do a true exhaustive analysis for each of them (Simon, 1997,  in Polmerol, 2010, p.166). The reason for this is the future.
 
The variable of future makes everything uncertain. New, better alternatives may arise in the future. Chosen alternative may turn out to have unforseen consequences. Left out alternatives may turn out to be better than initially asumed. Etc. In Hazrat Ibrahim’s case, unforseen consequences did come up such as being thrown in a fire, having to leave one’s hometown, etc, but by that time future had already rewarded him with prophethood thus removing any possibility of uncertainty. But what about before the first message from God arrived, what about then?
 
In going through his deliberations, did he unconsciosly rely on recognition-primed decision-making? Now what is that? I quote wikipedia here: “Recognition-primed decision (RPD) is a model of how people make quick, effective decisions when faced with complex situations. In this model, the decision maker is assumed to generate a possible course of action, compare it to the constraints imposed by the situation, and select the first course of action that is not rejected.” The question is what suggests this first, intuitive course of action? According to one scholar (Polmerol, 2010, p. 158)↓2, such an intuition is suggested by “an affective, visual, or other stimulus” [the underlining is mine], “the recognition being that of matching to some pattern in making the decision”.
 
Above, we’ve seen that experts already recognize that in complex human decisions all alternatives are not suggested by sensory stimuli. So what could be the ‘pattern’, the ‘stimulus’ that the to-be-prophet must have recognized that was enough to embue him with such a near-certainty about his first-choice alternative? Is it that God has already embedded deep inside us some inkling of the True Reality that holds fast when all the other outside, apparent and obvious alternatives have been cancelled out by the rational mind? It turns out, He has:
 

وَإِذْ أَخَذَ رَبُّكَ مِن بَنِي آدَمَ مِن ظُهُورِهِمْ ذُرِّيَّتَهُمْ وَأَشْهَدَهُمْ عَلَىٰ أَنفُسِهِمْ

 أَلَسْتُ بِرَبِّكُمْ ۖ قَالُوا بَلَىٰ  شَهِدْنَا ۛ

أَن تَقُولُوا يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ إِنَّا كُنَّا عَنْ هَـٰذَا غَافِلِينَ  

AND recall (O Prophet) when your Lord brought forth descendants from the loins of the sons of Adam, and made them witnesses against their ownselves. asking them: ‘Am I not your Lord?‘ They said: ‘Yes, we do testify.’ We did so lest you claim on the Day of Resurrection: ‘We were unaware of this.’ (Al-A’raf, 172)
 
This is an unconscious memory that will surface at the conscious level after death removes us from this ‘cover-up’ world. This is the one that guides the fortunate among the non-believing ones towards the right path. Prophethood is not an excuse for being able to connect with this memory. Many stories of conversion will attest to how an inner drive led people to see prevailing customs and conceptions for what they were and to enter the honest quest for truth which Allah does reward.  
 
Now it’s time to turn to the other end of the continuum and see what prevents us, the ordinary human beings, to have strong decision-making power in the arena of faith.
 
 
The pitfalls of decision-making
 
Decision-making is not foolproof and the two factors that make it so are risk and uncertainty. Humans have a tendency to avoid risk or losses which makes them a biased decision-maker when risks of a situation are highlighted above benefits. This is a well-known phenomenon for psychologists called as framing effect. Humans also tend to lack tolerance for ambiguity which makes uncertainty a highly unpleasant emotional and mental state. Let’s overview these major pitfalls separately.
 
 
Risky Business
 
What kind of risks dissuade people from making the right choice or from sticking to it through thick and thin given the set of alternatives we have been considering in this post?
 
…I will have to face criticism, ridicule or oppression from others who do not think as I do…. I will be cut-off from my family or friends…. I will have to sacrifice my time and effort for the sake of worship…. My lifestyle will change…. I will have to confront and quiten the arguments of friends and family…. I will lose the petty comforts I am accustomed to…. I will have to drop many low habits which were fun and cool…. I will be left alone in the world if I change my religion…. I will be accused of accepting a terrorist religion by my acquaintances… etc…
 
For many people in the world unfortunately, the negatives, the risks get to be highlighted automatically far above the benefits when they begin thinking seriously about choices of faith. There are many reasons for it. For one, the alternative choices are more prevalent, familiar and habitual,  easily accepted and taken for granted, and we fear we are leaving so many things for the sake of a big and difficult step. Others: family, friends, institutes, media, reinforce the thinking all the more. At this point, many people do not realize that people adhering more firmly and consistently to the tenets laid down by the One True God are also leading comfortable, fulfilled and happy lives though certainly within the necessary limits imposed for our own good. Another major reason is that the benefits of the Choice tend to be long-term and seem to develop gradually, whereas the benefits in the alternatives are immediate and often exuberant and flamboyant. Thus it is easy to be impatient enough to be trapped by the transient and short-term manifold pleasures.
 
Apart from that, others also have difficulty of accepting or allowing a change of thought and lifestyle in a well-intentioned person. Needs such as the need for control, authority; the belief of oneself being in the right and deigning to stop someone else from the ‘stupid’ choice; or the hidden discomfort that is caused in one’s ownself when soemone else thinks of taking the bold step on issues oneself has been ignoring, avoiding or running away from… all these factors play a role so that our own acquaintances are sometimes the biggest barrier in taking the right steps.
 
These difficulties confuse the purpose and feul the intensity of the many uncertainties that have already troubled the changing person’s mind.
 
 
To be or not to be …. that is the question
  
Uncertainties plague even those who do believe in God. Does He really listen to us when we call? How is that possible? How can He take care of so many things at once? Among so many of His subjects do I really count? After all that I have done will He forgive me or must I suffer through Hell, before reaching Heaven? These uncertainties make our beliefs weak and dissuade us from being sincere or doing more than we currently do in the way of purity and goodness.

However, the uncertainties of those who do not believe at all (or do not really believe despite appearances) blaze like a burning wind in the desert of mind. Who really made this world? Or did it evolve itself? Who are truer, the scientists of today or the religious scripts of old? Is religion really a necessary part of life or just one of many areas, neglectable and forgettable? Is God really there?  What happens after death? Why death at all? Can it be avoided? Is there really a life after death or is it the end, the total, absolute, final end, and how does that feel?

 If you doubt the existence of God, you must also doubt the existence of Afterlife for that is then pointless. And it’s then that the idea of Death becomes the horrible, terrifying end that anyone wishes to avoid at all cost. Shakespeare’s famous verses from Hamlet (Act III, Scene I, lines 63-95) are so apt here  (I have underlined the more accessible and relevant portions):
 
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
 
And then…
 
Thus conscience* does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
 
 
Is there a solution….?
 
God has not left us without answers to many of the key questions whirling around in an uncertain mind. Any basic text or popular nonfiction will tell you to at least systematically find out information about your alternatives before choosing between them. Unlike pious people of old and dark times who arrived at monotheism purely on their own, without any explicit guidance (there are many documented examples from the pre-prophethood era of Hazrat Mohammad (sallahu alaihi wasalaam); we have the advantage of having a Guidebook, A Manual, A Reference-work of the highest calibre, waiting to be consulted with a rational mind.
 
 Although I always used to read Qur’an in a traditional way, when I started to read it in the true sense of the word I discovered that Qur’an has an answer for all the boggling, dissuading, or unnerving questions that can pervade the human mind who is misguided in any form. By any form I mean misguidance in the form of atheism, polytheism, idolatory, or even any of the misguidances prevalent in the vast Muslim nations including the kind encountered in the South Asian subcontinent (revering pious men to the extreme, according them godly status, etc).
 
At this point I must give way to the direct and chastising invitation in the Qur’an itself:
 

 أَفَلَا يَتَدَبَّرُونَ الْقُرْآنَ أَمْ عَلَىٰ قُلُوبٍ أَقْفَالُهَا

DO they, then, not reflect on the Qur’an? Or are there locks on their hearts? (Sura Mohammad, 24)
 
  
 
 Notes
 
1. It’s the Quran verses application on facebook and belongs to the same group responsible for creating the Beautiful Online Quran tanzil.info (I have begun to refer my readers to every ayah I quote on tanzil.info) and well as for developing the Quran Explorer software.
 * interpret as ‘conscious thought’

POINT|COUNTERPOINT: God and Happiness

In God, psychology of religion on May 19, 2010 at 5:44 pm

THE POINT

#1

The How of Happiness Blog (Sonja Lyubomirsky):

I begin with a bit of self-disclosure. I don’t have a religious or spiritual bone in my body. (Yes, maybe even less than Richard Dawkins.) But this doesn’t mean that I’m not open-minded about research on happiness and religion. As I write in my book, The How of Happiness, just because (most) religious beliefs cannot be empirically tested or falsified doesn’t mean that the consequences of having religious faith, participating in religious life, or searching for the sacred cannot be studied. Indeed, a growing body of psychological science is suggesting that religious folks are happier, healthier, and recover better after traumas than nonreligious ones.

Consider just two examples:

• If you are having serious cardiac surgery and receive strength and comfort from your religious faith, you’ll be almost 3 times more likely to be alive 6 months later.
• 47 percent of people who report attending religious services several times a week describe themselves as “very
happy,” versus 28 percent of those who attend less than once a month.

The trouble is that researchers don’t really know why.

#2

David Duncan, the pioneering single participant in the Experimental Man Project:

Now I’m in Bethesda, Maryland. Another day, another MRI scan. This time, the prompt on the monitor I’m gazing at inside the machine leaves no room for a nuanced answer:

There is a god.

I have a few seconds to answer yes or no on the clicker in my hand, but I am stumped about which button to push.

As blood surges in my head to locales associated with religious belief, I’m thinking that this question, for me, may be unanswer able. I am essentially nonreligious. I seldom go to church, and I often find myself agreeing with the likes of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens that organized religions are mostly artifacts of premodern cultures that in ancient times created all-powerful deities to explain and cope with the unknown. I believe that overzealous piety has led to horrors such as the Inquisition and to dogma that at times becomes so rigid that it blatantly contradicts scientific proof (and sometimes common sense). Yet I know that religion clearly comforts people. Studies show that patients who pray often tend to do better than those who do not. Nor can I deny the crucial importance of spirituality, a sense that one’s goals can be bigger than just looking out for oneself.

Bottom line: I have no proof that a god exists or that the universe is anything but random atoms assembling and disassembling without a design or a creator. My thumb twitches above the “no” button.

And yet I lack definitive proof that God does not exist. It is possible that he (or she or it) is real. Not the man with the beard depicted in medieval paintings, but some force far beyond our brains’ comprehension. If there is even a 0.0001 percent chance that this is so, can I answer no?

Time is up. My thumb moves toward yes, and I press it. I feel exhausted by so many thoughts racing through my brain; the neuronal exertion must have lit up my brain like a city at night seen from 35,000 feet.

#3

The Collision Detection Blog commenting on a an ‘easter egg’ from the new computational search engine Wolfram Alpha:

Wolfram Alpha is a super cool question-answering system. Ask it about something factual, and it’ll offer up whatever specific info it has — such as the dimensions of a #10 screw or a definition of “20/50 vision” (including an eye chart fuzzed out at the right line!) Wolfram Alpha can also answer queries that require it to collect together, parse and compare bits of data, such as finding the “10 nearest stars” or comparing the populations of Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily.

But what happens when you ask it a metaphysical question? I tried the query above — “Does God exist?” — and cracked up at the answer:


THE COUNTERPOINT

Questions…

Why are religious people measurably happier and more content than non-religious and non-believing ones?

Why is a secularist forced to answer Yes to the does-God-exist question in a moment of tense but honest psychological wrestling with his self?

Why is an excellent and scientific (though reticently self-referred as ‘poor’) engine gives a humble answer when asked the God-question?

Answers….?

This time round, I want my readers to provide me with the counterpoint.

I know I do have some loyal readers out there. They may not agree with my occasional rantings against modern science (or rather against the way science is being used today), but they keep with me because  of our common faith and certainty; and because of our common fate of striving to hold our head high in the increasingly crazy world of  hedonia, immorality, atheism, discontent, extremism, …..

After I have accumulated at least 5 different, reflective &/or elaborative answers as comments, I will post them as Part II of this post, annotated with appropriate commentary &/or references if I found suitable.


JazakAllahu Khaira