If our minds are what our brains do (Dennett 2003:i) and changing entrenched brain pathways may be harder than we think (Merkl 2007) is the logical conclusion of an entirely naturalistic Darwinian human evolution a more just, humane world or a dystopia? Or you tried to change your mind but your brain wouldn’t let you.

Dennett (2003) argues that the evolution of the human brain over deep time has followed the laws of natural science and that human free will is an emergent phenomena of that same physical process. He forcefully argues that biological determinism does not limit human behaviour to predictable, inevitable outcomes.

Dennett contends that recognition of the true nature of man as an exclusively physical body proscribed by the laws of nature will provide a stronger, wiser doctrine of freedom (Dennett 2003:22) than the belief that the reality of man resides in her immaterial, immortal human soul capable of defying the laws of nature (Dennett 2003:1).

Man’s evolution towards moral thinking and existential interpretations is constituted by higher levels of evolution, more advanced outcomes of the natural evolution of entities towards emergent changes that allowed them to avoid harm and reproduce themselves (Dennett 2003:22).

While Dennett draws on arguments from biology, cognitive neuroscience, economics and philosophy proposing provocative and original arguments, there is a lack of the psychological or sociological2 imaginations in his work. It is in the area of habits (particularly those that are institutionalized or community-sanctioned) that flaws may be revealed in Dennett’s arguments of a logical evolutionary conclusion of an emergent salutary human nature incapable of overriding its material brain yet somehow managing to move beyond its own autopoietic system. Would human nature not follow evolutionary pathways towards conservation of the familiar while eliminating that which is uncomfortably unfamiliar from everyday life? What are the ethical implications for sustaining an authentic pluralism, diversity of cultures? It is in this area of an expanded Derridian hospitality towards the stranger, the unknown that Dennett’s secular humanism fails to respond.

Like Dennett, William James1 (1986:369 cited in Tursi 1999) perceived the same evolutionary principles at work in inorganic matter that have been applied to organic matter. In the same year that James developed his ideas on the relationship between the birth of human consciousness, habit and knowing, Freud explored the concept of habit formation as simple agents of conservation that are instinctual reaching deeply back through consciousness, through organic and even organic compulsions. James seemed to perceive the evolutionary changes in human consciousness as radical agents of variance and development. He aligned habit and knowing so that free human agents develop habits by force of will and character. James regretfully admits that habits are difficult to change after the age of thirty (1890). Freud’s theorized that an organism, including a human being, is disposed towards repeating its own lived experience while protecting itself against unsafe levels of stimulation from the unknown, the unheimlich or the uncanny. Freud argued that the cerebral cortex as the seat of consciousness, recorded negative past experiences of unfamiliar stimuli protected itself by constructed hardened defensive shields against outer stimuli. James acknowledges the way in which habitual sequences and customary feelings provide us with an agreeable feeling of being at home with oneself, whereas unsafe levels of excitation from uncustomary, unfamiliar, incongruous representations evoke distress, doubt, misunderstanding and irrationality (Essays in Philosophy 345). For a more in-depth thoughtful discussion see Tursi (1999).

James “advocates idiosyncrasy, spontaneity, and originality as enrichments to a malleable world, he always returns to habit (Tursi 1999). We reconfigure the unfamiliar or uncanny, the unheimlich to a more welcome pattern (Pragmatism 122).

Just as rivers can be reconfigured so too can our neural networks but deep entrenchment of fast flowing rivers in their time-worn river beds are less flexible, less plastic and more embedded.

It may seem easy to change your mind, but if it’s your brain we’re talking about, maybe it’s harder than we think. A University of Houston professor is looking into this with research into something called ‘brain plasticity (Merkl 2007 ).’

Key Words: brain plasticity, free will, entrenched core beliefs, reconfiguring entrenched brain pathways, habits, character, morality and meaning,


1 The work of William James, considered by his followers as canonical, has been derided by his critics as classist and elitist. I consider it fortunate that his work has again found a legitimate place even with these critics. James began or contributed to so many debates that have been recently resuscitated.

2 Pierre Boudieu’s studies on the reproduction of social values through cultural institutions through schools and museums, for example, reveal the degree to which entrenched societal values continue to be reinforced in a hidden curriculum that benefits exclusive, powerful social strata. In Modernity and the Holocaust (1989) sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argued that genocide was the logical conclusion of the Enlightenment project with its promise of a better society based on shared western values. The Other who refused modernity would be eradicated through a process of natural selection that ensured a safer world for those with more power to reproduce themselves.

Not just for radicals, but for many mainstream liberals too, the road that began in the Enlightenment ends in savagery, even genocide. As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues: ‘Every ingredient of the Holocaust… was normal… in the sense of being fully in keeping with everything we know about our civilisation, its guiding spirits, its priorities, its immanent vision of the world – and of the proper ways to pursue human happiness together with a perfect society (Bauman 1989:8).


Zygmunt Bauman. 1989. Modernity and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p8

Dennett, Daniel C. 2003. Freedom Evolves. New York: Penguin.

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “You tried to change your mind but your brain wouldn’t let you.” >> papergirls. May 3. http://papergirls.wordpress.com/2007/05/04/you-tried-to-change-your-mind-but-your-brain-wouldnt-let-you /

Freud, Sigmund. 1953-75 [1919]. “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works. Trans. and Gen. Ed. James Strachey. 24 vols. London: Hogarth, 1953-75.

James, William. 1890. “Habit.” The Principles of Psychology. http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/James/Principles/prin4.htm

James, William. 1986 [1919]. Essays in Psychical Research. Ed. Frederick H. Burkhardt, Fredson Bowers, and Ignas K. Skrupskelis. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

Merkl, Lisa. 2007. “How Plastic Is Your Brain? UH Engineer Seeks Answers.” Medical News Today. May 3. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/medicalnews.php?newsid=69263&nfid=crss

Tursi, Renee. 1999. “William James’ Narrative of Habit.” Style. Spring. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2342/is_1_33/ai_58055905/print

© Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. “If our minds are what our brains do (Dennett 2003:i) and changing our brain’s habits may be harder than we think (Merkl 2007) can we achieve a wiser, stronger freer society through a process of purely natural selection as Dennett predicts?” >> Speechless

Why are genetics, neuroscience and evolution perceived as corrosive to notions of free will, personal responsibility and the possibility of negotiating a universal code of ethical values1? Steven Pinker (2002) brilliantly unveils a history of major debates on issues that have become increasingly strident.

Pinker reveals the underlying fear of a religious and secular nihilism engendered by materialist theories of consciousness in which the mind emerges solely from the forces of living matter2. Pinker concedes that ‘debating the Pope [on the ontological leap about the existence of the human soul, the higher purpose of knowledge and love of God] is the ultimate exercise in futility’ (Pinker 2002:187). But Pinker’s argument is that the theory that the mind is purely a physical organ is as humane as the doctrine of the immortal soul. In fact Pinker continues, the doctrine of the immortal soul and the reward of life after death, devalues life on earth (Pinker 2002:189).

Picture this, an exiled, persecuted Persian spiritual leader, invited to speak to distinguished audiences in London, Paris, New York . . . to respond to divergent philosophies that had emerged during his decades of imprisonment. In 1911 after strolling through the Trocadero Gardens near the Eiffel Tower he shared his thoughts on the relationship between mind, body and spirit. He acknowledged the way in which the terminology of soul, mind and spirit differed between the ancient and modern philosophers. The ancient philosophers used the term ‘soul’ as sensations of emotion as a function of the reality. The concept of ‘mind’ was used to describe the power that discussed the reality of phenomena. The concept of ‘spirit’ was used to discuss ‘consciousness’.

Abdul-Baha (1911) offered an alternative to the way in which philosophers described the relationship between body, mind, soul and spirit. He described how the mind as a faculty is a power superior to the soul because through the mind man can investigate the reality of every phenomena. The spirit is a third power differentiated from the soul and the mind. This third power, the spirit, involves an ontological leap of faith and cannot be deduced from a purely rational, scientific investigation of material phenomena. The soul is the motive power of the physical body, the intermediary between the body and the spirit. But it is the mind that can investigate the nature of reality choosing rationally to either open the soul to the spirit or to focus completely on the embodied self dependent on material comforts and needs. Each individual is called to use her rational mind and intellect to investigate truth individually. According to Abdul-Baha, those who choose to live in an entirely material world without need for spiritual qualities risk a weakening and eventual atrophy of the soul.

Pinker replaces the concept of ‘spirit’ with ‘consciousness’ and rejects the concept of the immortal soul leaving us with a mortal brain and a mind dependent on and emanating from purely material living matter. He argues that the “doctrine of a soul that outlives the body is anything but righteous, because it devalues the lives we live on this earth.” (Pinker 2002:189) He argues that it is more humane to use the sciences of physiology and genetics to alleviate suffering from Alzheimer’s and major depression than to rely on the ontological leap of spiritual souls based on the premise that thought and emotion are manifestations of an immaterial soul. What Abdul-Baha is saying is that we don’t need to choose between the two. Science will provide cures for those aspects of mental illness caused by purely physical, physiological or genetic manifestations in the body. But how many of us seriously believe that science will provide answers for existential crises? And what about the ethical and historical relationship between incidents of suicides and the structural, political, economic realities that engendered unhealthy environments in which certain groups of people are socially excluded and at heightened risk for mental collapse? Despair is not a state of consciousness, brain or mind but of the human spirit.

The dilemma lies then with the ethical topography of self and the other to which Pinker responds convincingly. This intrigues me. How far can we go towards a set of universal values within an entirely materialist framework? Or how humane is human nature when disengaged from a higher form of consciousness called the spiritual?

Belief that a purely materialist view that human nature, body with consciousness but not spirit, will lead to a more humane world, a golden age of understanding human nature, resonates with the belief that the science of economics with its dogma of free trade will provide the solution to the extremes of wealth and poverty.


Abdul-Baha. 1911. Causeries d’Abdu’l Baha à Paris (Les ). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris_Talks

Abdul-Baha. 1911. “Concerning Body, Soul and Spirit.” Paris Talks.

Bergson, Henri. 1907. Creative Evolution (L’Evolution créatrice).

Bergson, Henri. 1932. The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion).

Ferguson, A. 1999. “The End of Nature and the Next Man: Review of E. Fukuyama’s The Great Disruption.” Weekly Standard. January 12.

Gould, S. J. 1976. “Criminal Man Revived.” Natural History. 85:10-21.

Kass, L. 1997. “The End of Courtship.” Public Interest. 126. Winter.

Lewis, C. S. 2002. [1952]. “Mere Christianity.” in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics. New York: Harper Collins.

Pinker, Steven. 2002. The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin.

Rose, S. 1978. “Pre-Copernican Sociobiology?” New Scientist. 80:45-6.

Wolfe, Tom. 1996. “Sorry but your Soul Just Died.” Forbes ASAP. December 2.

Wolfe, Tom. 2000. “Sorry but your Soul Just Died.” Ellipses.


1 Pinker cites partisans on the political left and right (Rose, Gould, Kass, Wolfe and Ferguson) who ironically are in agreement that the ‘new sciences of human nature threaten the concept of moral responsibility’ (Pinker 2002:132-3).

2 Pinker’s materialist view of human nature is part of a vast spectrum of materialist theories that are as numerous as divergent religious views. Henri Bergson’s (1859-1941) who enjoyed a cult-like status in his lifetime presented his view of Creative Evolution, Emergent Evolution, the Life-Force through the concept of un esprit vital, which vivified the entire universe with purposeful life. In Creative Evolution (1907) Bergson integrated findings of biological science with a theory of consciousness. According to some readings of the theory of Creative Evolution, Bergson denied the existence of the God of static religion but accepted that some force provided the impetus so that lowest forms evolved purposefully into the more perfected form of Man. (In 1914 the Roman Catholic Church, placed Bergson’s books on the Index of prohibited books. Bergson’s theories were in opposition to Catholic dogma as defined by the 13th century Catholic scholar Thomas Aquinas). C. S. Lewis (2002:31-2 [1952]) argued that this Life-Force was really a tame version of God and an open dynamic inclusive religion without the discomfort of moral consequences of rigid Kantian moral imperatives. (Lewis suggests Bernard Shaw as a source of the wittiest version of Creative Evolution.) Bergson’s ideas and the man himself became an object of ridicule to the next generation of French Marxist humanist intellectuals, like Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991) although Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, and Lévinas acknowledged his influence on their thought. Gilles Deleuze’s (1966) Bergsonism realizing the enduring contribution of Bergson’s concept of multiplicity, revitalized his work. Since the 1990s there has been an increased interest in Bergson’s thought.

© 2007 Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Can science bring us into a golden age of understanding human nature? (Pinker 2002)” > Speechless. April 26. http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=ddp3qxmz_219dwbrzk

Larry looked up, waiting for C. J. to complete her sentence. She smiled with her tired — perhaps even jaded — eyes, ever so slightly, and completed the quote from St. Paul. She explained that she maintained her calm in the Press Room while being shot at because of her faith in “[t]he substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.” She wasn’t referring to faith in God but to this team of highly trained West Wing staff from President Bartlett, Toby and Will, to the Secret Service. This mise en scene against a backdrop of an insider’s poker game, is one of the many ways in which the popular TV drama portrayed the idealistic, behind-the-scenes, everyday life of the American presidency in the West Wing of the White House. Now that the entire series (2000-2005?) is available on DVD through video store outlets, public libraries, etc., the audience has probably expanded beyond the “loyal audience that desperately want[ed] to believe in the nobility of the American dream (Amazon).”Jack Beatty in his article (2004) published in The Atlantic online suggested that the West Wing under the presidency of George W. Bush should have St. Paul’s definition of faith as its motto, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1).” Beatty argued that while we might question “Bush’s veracity, his grip on reality, and the rationality of his policies,” we cannot question his faith.

By the end of the 20th century, the word faith had become politically charged. Faith and skepticism held in tension by everyday life events are part of the same lifelong dialogue. They are not on opposing teams. The terms faith and ideology have been used as if they meant the same thing in reference to various kinds of truth claims, religious (atheism, theism, deism, shamanism, etc.), politics (democracy, communism, socialism, monarchy), science (quantitative, that is statistical or qualitative methods that is qualia) or art forms (Greek helenistic, French Neo-Classical, German Romanticism, Inuit, Italian Baroque). I am not convinced that belief has the same negative correlation as ideology. The first may be blinded by passion, the second by politics. The first is associated with ignorance and niaivity, the second with jaded realism. The skepticism is a form of reflexivity in which a researcher remains open to the possibility that his/her own axiology, methodology, ontology may indeed be only partial. The need to be able to predict future events based on certain knowledge claims, that are always partial, is obvious. Belief in your own team (discipline, department, office) helps maintain an energy flow to get things done within a time/space continuum where there is a political need for expediency. However, knowledge claims for the future are more productive when faith is that which keeps a researcher engaged in her efforts to better understand regardless of political expediency.

The same quote from St. Paul over a century ago, was used by a Reverend MacDonald (1882). “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1).” Reverend MacDonald cautioned those in his congregation who judged atheists and agnostics harshly. He instead acknowledged the anguish of those who had lost their faith when they saw only the of the late 19th century and deduced that there was no hope, no light. They lost faith because the evidence around them led to despair or even worse apathy. At the same time Reverend MacDonald expressed his gratitude for the more recent translation of the Bible which clarified for him the difference between the spirit and the letter of statements such as, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1).”Perhaps then for the 21st century we need to look at psychology, cultural studies, political philosophy and why not religion as part of a similar conversation.

Bertrand Russell, British analytic philosopher, logician and mathematician (1872-1970) once argued that mankind “is a curious accident in a backwater (1961).” He contributed to the dethroning of man, or the marginalization of man in the materialist point of view (Russell 1961 cited by Barr 2003:68). But Russell changed his opinion as he advanced in years. He went from embracing atheism to embracing Faith in the possibility of the existence of God.

“I think, the subject which will be of most importance politically is mass psychology….Its importance has been enormously increased by the growth of modern methods of propaganda. Of these the most influential is what is called ‘education.’ Religion plays a part, though a diminishing one; the press, the cinema, and the radio play an increasing part…. It may be hoped that in time anybody will be able to persuade anybody of anything if he can catch the patient young and is provided by the State with money and equipment. The subject will make great strides when it is taken up by scientists under a scientific dictatorship…. The social psychologists of the future will have a number of classes of school children on whom they will try different methods of producing an unshakable conviction that snow is black. Various results will soon be arrived at. First, that the influence of home is obstructive. Second, that not much can be done unless indoctrination begins before the age of ten. Third, that verses set to music and repeatedly intoned are very effective. Fourth, that the opinion that snow is white must be held to show a morbid taste for eccentricity. But I anticipate. It is for future scientists to make these maxims precise and discover exactly how much it costs per head to make children believe that snow is black, and how much less it would cost to make them believe it is dark gray. Although this science will be diligently studied, it will be rigidly confined to the governing class. The populace will not be allowed to know how its convictions were generated. When the technique has been perfected, every government that has been in charge of education for a generation will be able to control its subjects securely without the need of armies or policemen.

—Bertrand Russell, The Impact of Science on Society (1951)


Rollins and O’Connor’s publication (2003) entitled West Wing: The American Presidency As Television Drama (The Television Series) critically analyzed the series. See also (Things Unseen).

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Evidence of Things Not Seen: Media and Black and White Snow”

Selected Webliograhy and Bibliography

Misiano, Christopher. 2003. “Evidence of Things Not Seen.” West Wing. April 23. No. 420.

Beatty, Jack. 2004. “The Faith-Based Presidency.Atlantic Unbound. March 25.

Hebrews 11:1

MacDonald, George. 1882. “Faith, the Proof of the Unseen.” Sermon. Brixton Congregational Church. June.

Rollins, Peter C., O’Connor, John E. Eds. 2003. The
West Wing: The American Presidency As Television Drama (The Television Series). Syracuse University Press. ISBN-10: 081563031X, ISBN-13: 978-0815630319. 272 pp.
“Informed by historical scholarship and media analysis, this book takes a critical look at this award-winning show from a wide range of perspectives. Eminent scholars Peter C. Rollins and John O’Connor make an important contribution to the field with an eclectic mix of essays, which translate visual language into on-screen politics. While the series may be criticized as “idealistic,” its clever techniques of camera work, lighting, editing, and mise en scene reflect America’s best image of itself, and entertains a loyal audience that desperately wants to believe in the nobility of the American dream. This collection introduces readers to the sensibilities to appreciate the show’s nuances and the necessary knowledge to avoid any misreadings. It will be of interest to students of politics, popular culture, fans and critics alike.”Amazon book reviews.
Russell, Bertrand. 1961. Religion and Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


December 11, 2006

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Somewhere on the Pacific a small lifeboat shared by two unwilling and unlikely passengers rolled with the waves. Pi knew he could do more than just survive once he realized that Richard was dependent on him. Pi could fish. A Bengal Tiger, king of his own ecosystem, would die at sea without the help of the seventeen-year-old. The book really ended there; it didn’t matter after that what was truth or fiction. Pi’s understanding of power in everyday life was his new reality.

Speechless refers to both the writer and reader. At one level it’s about a writers’ block being blogged. At another level is refers to deafening silence that occurs when one speaks with too much feeling or mentions an uncomfortable idea in a nice place, a unpleasant reminder in polite company, a divergent idea in a space of group think, another perspective than the Renaissance perspective. But it also refers to robust conversations among political philosophers who understand the power of language and everyday life. Socrates, Plato, Derrida called for renewals in philosophy. They examined what we do with words, the role of memory. Speechless alludes to Derrida’s urgent appeal for a renewed democracy, for a revitalized philosophy from a cosmopolitical point of view.

The human eye can distinguish 16 values of grey but that’s not including the subtle differences in the colours of grey. We just don’t have the time to see the variations.

I began speechless on October 16, 2006. Two months later I have learned what a permalink is and how to make one. It’s the equivalent to the old web page’s index.html. Now I have to learn where to use it.


The cloud of tags below has grown organically since I first began using WordPress as my main blog host on October 16, 2006. I am building my customized clouds of folksonomies by working on and learning from a number of Web 2.0 feeds. This includes a Flickr account for photo blogging which attracts alot of viewers. I have only a couple of dozen images but one image alone uploaded on October 22, 2006 was viewed 1,179 times over a period of 64 days! I reworked this image again and posted it on speechless under “Wave Algorithms.”

Featured folksonomy:

Benign colonialism is a term that refers to an alleged form of colonialism in which benefits outweighed risks for indigenous population whose lands, resources, rights and freedoms were preempted by a colonizing nation-state. The historical source for the concept of benign colonialism resides with John Stuart Mills who was chief examiner of the British East India Company dealing with British interests in India in the 1820s and 1830s. Mills most well-known essays (1844) on benign colonialism are found in Essays on some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy. Mills’ view contrasted with Burkean orientalists. Mills promoted the training of a corps of bureaucrats indigenous to India who could adopt the modern liberal perspective and values of 19th century Britain. Mills predicted this group’s eventual governance of India would be based on British values and perspectives. Those who adopt benign colonialism as a truth claim argue that education, health, housing and employment possibilities improved conditions for indigenous peoples as settlers, merchants and administrators also brought new industries, liberal markets, developed natural resources and introduced improved governance. The first wave of benign colonialism lasted from c. 1790s-1960s. The second wave included new colonial policies such as exemplified in Hong Kong (Liu 2003)), where unfettered expansion of the market created a new form of benign colonialism. Political interference and military interference (Doyle 2006) in independent nation-states, such as Iraq (Campo 2004 ), is also discussed under the rubric of benign colonialism in which a foreign power preempts national governance to protect a higher concept of freedom. The term is also used in the 21st century to refer to American, French and Chinese market activities in countries on the African continent with massive quantities of underdeveloped nonrenewable envied resources. Literature that challenges the assumptions of benign colonialism claiming colonialist project as it actually unfolded placed First Nations, Inuit and Métis at higher risks of vulnerabilities to catastrophes, to social exclusion and human rights abuses, have not been as widely publicized.

For more see Flynn-Burhoe (2007).

There is a widespread Canadian mythology that First Nations, Inuit and Métis are among those who benefited from settler colonies prempting, improving, managing and governing aboriginal lands, resources and educating, training, developing, serving, monitoring and governing its peoples. Those who adopt benign colonialism as a truth claim argue that education, health, housing and employment possibilities improved conditions for the indigenous peoples since the arrival of settlers. Literature that challenges the assumptions of benign colonialism claiming colonialist project as it actually unfolded placed First Nations, Inuit and Métis at higher risks of vulnerabilities to catastrophes, to social exclusion and human rights abuses, have not been as widely publicized. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) addressed these claims but the term benign colonialism is still a convenient truth for many. Celebratory and one-sided social histories of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the RCMP, and various government leaders such as John A. MacDonald or civil servants such as Indian Agents, northern adventurers, when viewed through the lens of settlers while ignoring the perspective of First Nations, Inuit and Métis contribute to on-going dissemination of distorted histories. Museums, maps and census contribute to these distorted histories by grave omissions.

Related citations:

“Today, Mill’s most controversial case would be benign colonialism. His principles of nonintervention only hold among “civilized” nations. “Uncivilized” peoples, among whom Mill dumps most of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, are not fit for the principle of nonintervention. Like Oude (in India), they suffer four debilitating infirmities – despotism, anarchy, amoral presentism and familism — that make them incapable of self-determination. The people are imposed upon by a “despot… so oppressive and extortionate as to devastate the country.” Despotism long endured has produced “such a state of nerveless imbecility that everyone subject to their will, who had not the means of defending himself by his own armed followers, was the prey of anybody who had a band of ruffians in his pay.” The people as a result deteriorate into amoral relations in which the present overwhelms the future and no contracts can be relied upon. Moral duties extend no further than the family; national or civic identity is altogether absent. In these circumstances, Mill claims, benign colonialism is best for the population . Normal relations cannot be maintained in such an anarchic and lawless environment. It is important to note that Mill advocates neither exploitation nor racialist domination. He applies the same reasoning to once primitive northern Europeans who benefited from the imperial rule imposed by civilized Romans. The duties of paternal care, moreover, are real, precluding oppression and exploitation and requiring care and education designed to one day fit the colonized people for independent national existence. Nonetheless, the argument also rests on (wildly distorted) readings of the history and culture of Africa and Asia and Latin America. Anarchy and despotic oppression did afflict many of the peoples in these regions, but ancient cultures embodying deep senses of social obligation made nonsense of presentism and familism. Shorn of its cultural “Orientalism,” Mill’s argument for trusteeship addresses one serious gap in our strategies of humanitarian assistance: the devastations that cannot be readily redressed by a quick intervention designed to liberate an oppressed people from the clutches of foreign oppression or a domestic despot. But how does one prevent benign trusteeship from becoming malign imperialism, particularly when one recalls the flowery words and humanitarian intentions that accompanied the conquerors of Africa? How far is it from the Anti-Slavery Campaign and the Aborigine Rights Protection Society to King Leopold’s Congo and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”?

Here Doyle is referring to John S. Mill cited in “A Few Words on Nonintervention.” . 1973. In Essays on Politics and Culture, edited by Gertrude Himmelfarb, 368-84. Gloucester, Peter Smith.

See also WordPress featured blogs Benign colonialism.

Related tags: Tom Kent Royal Commission on Newspapers, Hackett and Zhao, economic efficiency, Power and everyday life, ethical topography of self and the Other, teaching learning and research, wealth disparities will intensify, C.D. Howe, Cannibals with Forks.Selected annotated webliography

Campo, Juan E.  2004. “Benign Colonialism? The Iraq War: Hidden Agendas and Babylonian Intrigue.” Interventionism. 26:1. Spring.

Doyle, Michael W.  2006. “Sovereignty and Humanitarian Military Intervention.” Hoover Institute.

Falk, Richard. Human Rights Horizons: the Pursuit of Justice in a Globalizing World. New York & London: Routledge.

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. Benign colonialism. >> Speechless. Uploaded January 14th, 2007

Liu, Henry C. K. “China: a Case of Self-Delusion: Part 1: From colonialism to confusionLiu 2003.” Asia Times. May 14, 2003.

Kurtz,Stanley. 2003.”Lessons from the British in India.” Democratic Imperialism: A Blueprint. Policy Review.Mill, John Stuart. 1844. Essays on some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy.
Of these Essays, which were written in 1829 and 1830,

Current debates on colonization and human rights (Falk 2000) raise questions about the notion of benign colonialism. The dominant language, culture and values of colonizers imposed on colonised peoples is often narrated as salutary. Dominant social and cultural institutions contributed to faciliating the entry of indigenous peoples trapped in unsustainable subsistence economies. Previously colonised peoples claim that the colonization process resulted in a parallel process of the colonization of the minds of indigenous peoples. The process of decolonization of memory (Ricoeur 1980), history and the spirit is crucial for the social inclusion (OECD) of indigenous peoples and nations within nations, such as Canada.


This is a work in process vaguely entitled Synaptic Gasp. The synaptic cleft in the human brain reminds me of the gap between the hand of God and Adam in Michaelangelo’s visualization of Creation.

Neurons must be triggered by a stimulus to produce nerve impulses, which are waves of electrical charge moving along the nerve fibres. When the neuron receives a stimulus, the electrical charge on the inside of the cell membrane changes from negative to positive. A nerve impulse travels down the fibre to a synaptic knob at its end, triggering the release of chemicals (neurotransmitters) that cross the gap between the neuron and the target cell, stimulating a response in the target (Baggaley 2001:104).

My mind is stuck on the image of the gap. That’s the leap of faith between that which we can know and that which is beyond our capacity to know. In the human brain this synaptic gap is so microscopic no one has ever seen it. But there are amazing images that are somewhat like science fiction as artists attempt to compile scientific data into visualizations of what it might look like. I am not attempting to be a science illustrator. But I think somehow this image will be like a cartography of a way of thinking that resonates more with complex hyperlinkages than with the human brain. I have been working on this Adobe Photoshop Image which seems to keep getting larger and larger.

This is the Synaptic Gasplarger version of Synaptic Gasp,
originally uploaded by ocean.flynn.

I used the starry night wallpaper for the background. I did a pencil drawing of the the neural architecture learning as I was drawing. And I keep making sketches of close-ups so now I am trying to imagine terminal nerve fibres entwined in neurofilament, proteins at the interface of the downstream end of neuron’s dendritic spine and an excitary synapse.

The brain is a supersystem of systems. Each system is composed of an elaborate interconnection of small but macroscopic cortical regions and subcortical nuclei, which are made of microscopic local circuits, which are made of neurons, all of which are connected by synapses (Damasio 1994:30).

Damasio’s elegant text reads like poetry. He describes the neural underpinnings of reason and challenges Cartesian dualisms of mind/body, emotions/reason. Feelings and logical thinking are not like oil and water.

The “body [. . .] represented in the brain [constitutes] an indispensable frame of reference for the neural process that we experience as the mind (Damasio 1994:xvi).”

Our bodies are the ground reference for the construction we make of the world. Our embodied selves construct the ever-present sense of subjectivity, our experience. The body becomes is the instrument through which we construct our most refined thoughts and actions (Damasio 1994:xvi).

Churchland takes this reasoning to imply that we, our subjective selves — our very consciousness — are merely chemical reactions, synapses firing across synaptic gaps for purely physical reasons that science alone (not religion) will one day explain and interpret for us.

The ontology of things ─ objects, substance, stuff are all one thing ─ raises questions about the world’s origin or original principle (arche) and its nature (physis). The Conflicting-Worlds model holds that science and religion are mutually exclusive ways of knowing. Science is one ontological perspective, a way of studying what exists and ways of being of different kinds of things. Religion provides another ontological perspective or another way of adding something to the study of what exists. Those who adopt the Same-Worlds-Model, argue that science and religion are different epistemologies not different ontologies. Probably most of those who believe in the Same-Worlds-Model believe in a Higher Power, a God, Divine Architect in some form, who created man with the capacity and responsibility to explore logic, pure mathematics and physics. I can believe what I want but I like to read from both sides of the Möbius Strip.

Flashback: A uniformed unsmiling, fully armed police officer pulled me over. What had I done? What was I, my young, idealistic, apolitical and therefore politically naïve self ─ doing there in a Third World country under an unstable, potentially dangerous, communist, military dictatorship? The officer leaned into the open window on the passenger side of our old Renault 4. There was a long silent pause as he decided what to do with this flushed creature whose hands were clenched on the steering wheel like a ship’s railing in a storm. He reached in and picked up the book on the front car seat and calmly asked me a question in a voice that could have been saying, “Did you know you failed to stop back there?” But that’s not what he asked. Instead, I can still hear his words even decades later. He asked me, “Do you pray?” Is this a threat? No, he was fingering the book entitled Livres de prière indicating that he too prayed and would appreciate having the book. As I drove away trembling I looked in the rear view mirror as he opened the book, then pocketed it.

After I returned to my Western home and graduate studies, I could not forget this incident which repeated itself in many forms. In spite of the pervasive even dogmatic message that the logical next step in human consciousness resided in the 20th century’s western form of atheism, humanism and materialism most people  many still living in fragmented nation states that were former colonies ─ still believe that humans are spiritual beings and that some form of prayer unites us all even if it is a silent “Help!”

For more on the body/mind duality debate see Dawkins, Pinker, Fodor, Searle. According to Richard Dawkins (1976 SG, 2006 GD) these scientific and religious ways of knowing are conflicting and mutually exclusive.

Heraclites described the ontological ultimate stuff a process, a ceaseless flux like fire, not a substance retaining its identity through time.

These sources include:

Baggaley, Ann, Ed. (2001), “Anatomy of the Human Body,” Human Body, Dorling Kindersley Publishing: NY, p. 104.
Damasio, Antonio R., 1994, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Grosset/Putnam: New York.
Damasio, Hanna, (1994) “Gage’s skull, illustrations” in Damasio, Antonio R., 1994, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Grosset/Putnam: New York. p. 31-2.
Johnson, Graham, (2005), “The Synapse Revealed,” 23 September 2005, Science Magazine and the National Science Foundation. The first place winner of the Science and Engineering Visualization Challengewas Graham Johnson from Medical Media, Boulder, Colorado. His image is described on Science Magazine’s web page:

Deep inside the brain, a neuron prepares to transmit a signal to its target. To capture that fleeting moment, Graham Johnson based this elegant drawing on ultra-thin micrographs of sequential brain slices. After scanning a sketch into 3D modeling software, he colored the image and added texture and glowing lighting reminiscent of a scanning electron micrograph.


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