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                       Issue #3 : Celia Green

The Human Evasion.
London: Hamilton, 1969. 126pp.

The Decline and Fall of Science.
Oxford: Institute of Psychophysical Research, 1977. 184pp.

Advice to Clever Children.
Oxford: Institute of Psychophysical Research, c1981. 191pp.

Human beings are oppressed by their finitude, but can't bear to think about this for too long, so they attempt not to mind, or to avoid being reminded of it at all. This is achieved through the cultivation of indifference to most of reality and obsessional interest in human society. As a result, when their frustration with being finite surfaces, it is expressed as hostility towards each other, rather than hostility towards the human condition itself.

That is the portrait of human nature running through three of the most neglected philosophical works of this century: The Human Evasion, The Decline and Fall of Science, and Advice to Clever Children. I have never seen the ideas in these books engaged with, anywhere. They are not even controversial, they are simply unknown, a circumstance quite consistent with the theories of their author, Celia Green. ("The human race's favourite method for being in control of facts is to ignore them.")

One could read these books as a trilogy: the study of a state of mind called "sanity"; the elaboration of its social and intellectual consequences; and the development of an alternative. In what follows I will try to provide a sketch of the worldview found in these books, but of course many more points are made than I can reproduce here, and I may have passed over many subtleties.

Celia Green perhaps uses the word "sanity" ironically, as she is contriving to demonstrate that the prevailing outlook is in fact unrealistic; and one might have preferred to retain a use for the word close to the ostensible meaning—for example, "sanity" could have denoted "a state of mind characterized by realism of outlook". But here it refers simply to normal human psychology.

Sanity is first observed to be unmoved by certain facts which one might call corollaries of "the principle of total uncertainty". As the skeptical philosophers discovered, one cannot be certain of the veridicality of one's memories and perceptions, or of the accuracy of one's reasoning. All the regularities of past experience in themselves prove nothing about the future (Hume), and for all we know everything could cease to exist right now. The perceived world might be pure hallucination (Descartes); perhaps yours is the only consciousness.

Sanity is indifferent or hostile to such considerations, and tends to confuse "reality" with, say, "that portion of reality of which humans can conceive", or even "that portion of reality with which humans have the opportunity to interact". This confusion is held to be a side-effect, so to speak, of a general scheme of reality-evasion, put into practice for psychological reasons—to avoid confronting the frustrations of finitude, which is to say, the frustrations of having limited power and knowledge.

It is speculated that this process begins in infancy, when we all first learn that it is possible to fail in the pursuit of one's desires. The genesis of sanity lies in the desire to avoid this frustration. To fail repeatedly suggests permanent limitation, which is horrifying; so the infant begins to restrict its efforts at control to those parts of its environment which are more immediately responsive, namely other people.

In the adult human this process has led to a fixation on human beings, evident in the way that most forms of frustration recognised by adult humans have to do with one's limitations when measured against other people. People become annoyed that they're not keeping up with the Joneses, not that they cannot teleport themselves home from work.

But any sort of aspiration remains dangerous, in that it may fail to be achieved, and thus act as a reminder of one's limitations. To become truly sane one must restrict one's desires to those which one already knows how to satisfy, and replace all forms of aspiration with "compensations"—which is where sadism enters the picture.

As the years pass and the frustrations of finitude mount, eventually the average human decides not to care about its limitations, having come to accept them. Thus people dislike being reminded of them, and the sane adult may even find consolation for its own finitude in the misfortunes of others, worsening the situation for them when circumstances permit.

Accepting one's limitations, however, is unrealistic, in the light of the total uncertainty; one's past inabilities at best offer material for inductive generalizations, not proofs of permanent incapacity. Equally, punishing other people for problems deriving from an impersonal cause is useless, if one is concerned with dealing with those problems. But the sane are not, according to the theory. They are solely interested in psychological remedies, not existential ones, since they believe the latter to be impossible.

Sane society has a role in the relief of the frustration of being human: it is there to keep people's minds off reality, by providing them with a set of artificial frustrations. The society of the sane is a "mechanism for preventing the fulfilment of its members", organized according to the principle of mutual restriction, in the guise of social justice; it is ensured that no one is better off than anyone else.

We thus have a double oppression: that inherent in finitude, and then that which human beings visit upon themselves; and the second is kept up because it helps distract everyone from the first.

In order to relieve the boredom of sane society, occasionally there are wars. There are never wars against death or finitude, though, only against other humans. Since the sane have decided to accept their finitude, the closest they can come to a transcendent aspiration is to imagine frustrating and injuring as many other people as possible.

It might be argued that modern times show a counterthrust, a sort of insurrection against finitude, in the form of science and technology. But this was a purely accidental development, made possible only by the decline in power of religious orthodoxy. According to Celia Green's analysis, the apex of civilization to date was achieved late in the last century; the culture "contained ideas hitherto not formulated". But in a case of cosmic agoraphobia, the European mind took refuge from the idea that the world may be illusory, from higher dimensions, from psychical phenomena, in a "social and intellectual revolution". The social revolution was intended to make it impossible for anyone to have the time and means to think about things not of interest to the collective. The intellectual revolution was intended to make it unnecessary to think about certain topics.

Thus philosophy responded to the total uncertainty by saying "Common sense knows better", and busying itself with linguistic analysis. In physics, inconceivable relations, such as those found in quantum theory, are rendered harmless by declaring that certain questions can't be answered and don't need to be answered. Phenomena which cast doubt upon the common-sense view of the reality of the external world (lucid dreams, out-of-the-body experiences) or the way in which we influence it and acquire information about it (ESP, psychokinesis) were neglected. In short, the human race is plunging itself into a new intellectual dark age, but the new orthodoxy will be, not religion, but belief in society.

There is, however, an alternative to sanity. The starting point is to ask, what would be a reaction commensurate to the total uncertainty and to one's own finiteness?

The Human Evasion suggests attitudes of urgency, self-sufficiency, single-mindedness and unconditionality, as likely character traits of the not-sane. Together these might be regarded as the attributes of centralisation, which may be defined loosely as the referring of everything to an overriding central consideration. The term is introduced in Advice to Clever Children, which is mostly about the nature of centralised psychology.

Centralisation follows from consideration of the total uncertainty. Life seems short, and indeed might end at any moment (urgency). You do not know why everything is existing, nor if anyone else is there (self-sufficiency); you do not know the importance of your position, but it could be infinitely important; the fate of the universe might hang upon it. So it is up to you to decide what to do, and to do it (single-mindedness, and unconditionality).

One could view centralised psychology as a developmental stage—which most people never reach. Ordinary human psychology is not prepared to accept the responsibility associated with a position in which it must make ultimately important decisions, and so it does not perceive that it is in such a position.

Another way of stating the whole thing is to say that it involves feeling responsible for doing the best possible thing with one's life. Centralised states thus tend to be highly purposeful, and carry an optimistic expectation of incalculable possibilities that may be realised. After all, one of the implications of the total uncertainty is that these apparent limitations may not be permanent after all.

So who is Celia Green? She is Director of the Institute for Psychophysical Research in Oxford, which she set up in the late sixties. Alongside her philosophical works, she has written or co-authored three books documenting some of the Institute's research - Lucid Dreams, Out-of-the-Body Experiences, and Apparitions, this last coauthored with Charles McCreery. As may be apparent, the Institute is interested in the investigation of a number of topics hardly examined by modern science. Much more about the phenomena in question can be found in The Decline and Fall of Science.

I have spoken with Celia Green twice, first in May 1992 in Oxford, and again by phone in October 1993. My impression is that their research program has been at a standstill for years owing to lack of funds. If they had the money, they would equip themselves with an electrophysiological laboratory and investigate the phenomena properly. On the second occasion, I asked what they were hoping to do in the near future, and was told, "We're hoping to do some research before we die."

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