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Thinking from Heaven and Earth

Michael R Finch

I wrote this in January 2007, after I had read Laura Weed's The Structure of Thinking .

[Return to list of Synthesis articles]   [next article]



Abstract

This paper's area is where meditation and philosophy overlap (I define what I mean by both terms elsewhere on this website).

It has two main threads: one is the art of using your beliefs and belief-systems as modes of perception, rather than your certainties of what is, or what you hope is. The second is the art of thinking with your body as well as with your mind.

I present both these threads as an evolution of Laura Weed's The Structure of Thinking and her accounts of y-type thinking (platonic heaven) and x-type thinking (object-positing, 'earthbound').

 

Contents

0 - Introduction
1 - The Structure of Thinking
2 - Metaphysical Implications
3 - Beliefs as Modes of Perception
4 - Object-positing with the Body
5 - A Quick Quiz
Notes

 

0 - Introduction

We haven't gone through all the detailed accounts that people give of 'that which is' and 'that which is not'...It seems that there's something like a battle of gods and giants among them, because of their dispute with each other over 'being'.

One group drags everything down to earth from the heavenly region of the invisible, actually clutching rocks and trees with their hands. When they take hold of all these things they insist that only what offers tangible contact is, since they define 'being' as the same as body...

...People on the other side of the debate (the friends of the forms) defend their position... from somewhere up out of sight. They insist violently that true being is certain nonbodily forms that can be thought about. They take the bodies of the other group, and also what they call the 'truth', and they break them up verbally into little bits...

Plato, Sophist [1]

Plato's theory of Forms is well-known, at least in outline. But writing in his old age Plato had his speakers sometimes argue against it. In fact, the main argument over the last 2500 years used against the Forms was somewhat ironically Plato's own (the 'third man argument' in his later dialog Parmenides).

In the quote above, from another late-Plato dialog, both sides of the debate get short shrift. The earthbound 'clutch rocks and trees with their hands', while the heaven-dwellers, the 'friends of the Forms', are 'out of sight', and take the truth of the earthbound and 'break them up verbally into little bits'.

This debate, this 'battle of gods and giants' between earth-dwellers and heaven-dwellers, is not just of interest in the philosophy of past centuries. I maintain that it is a battle very much alive now, and very relevant - not just to philosophy, but to our sanity, integrity and well-being, both individually as a person and collectively as the human race.

The quote above is concerned with metaphysics - 'the detailed accounts that people give of that which is' - and is presented by Plato as a dispute over 'being'. Richard McKeon has made the point [2] that the first philosophy (Aristotle's term for what we now call metaphysics) is indeed usually the first philosophy we are interested in. It is the big questions that interest us, 'why is there anything, and given that there is something, why this?' (Heidegger's 'fundamental question').

But McKeon points out that such an inquiry often trails off into inconsequence and goes nowhere, as the metaphysical questions appear unanswerable. It becomes clear that to proceed, we need to examine the answerer (also of course the questioner, in each case ourself), and how we think and obtain knowledge. The inquiry thus turns naturally to something like epistemology, the study of us humans as knowing thinking beings, which it is realised needs to be answered before the big questions of metaphysics can even make sense, let alone thought about rationally.

I therefore use Plato's earth-dwellers and heaven-dwellers not so much as metaphors for a metaphysical position (at least initially), but more as metaphors for how we set about obtaining knowledge and try to make sense of ourselves and the world we live in.

To be precise, I use Laura Weed's The Structure of Thinking: A Process-Oriented Account of Mind [3] as a framework and analysis for my argument.

 

1 - The Structure of Thinking

In this section I outline and summarise the main argument of Laura's important book.

Thinking is composed of two fundamentally different processes: a knower generating knowledge of the particular, and a knower generating knowledge of the universal. Consider a thought of the form: x is y, such as this apple is red. Typically x is a particular object (this apple), and y is a universal (property, concept, relation, Form - eg 'red').

Laura maintains that x-type object-positing is quite different from y-type property-attributing, and that many thorny philosophical issues dissolve in such an analysis. Hence to analyze thought properly, one must attend to these two types of processes: x-type object-positing in which one incorporates the passing show into thought, generating objects; and y-type property-attributing in which one computationally structures the raw data incorporated by experience, generating properties and concepts.

We need and use both - neither will do alone. Only the union of the two can explain stable objects, causation and how the mind uses mental data.

 

1.1 x-type Thinking

Let's first consider the x-type object-positing process. The essential insight here is that the knowledge of a particular object is a two-way interaction of the world and a knower's mind. This interaction then has two aspects or directions:

On the world-to-mind side of the interaction, a piece of the world (let's call it r) impinges on an aware mind causing the occurrence of experience x. The knower recognises x as an experience of r, and individuates and names r as the cause of x.

On the mind-to-world side of the interaction, the knower takes an aspect of experience x to be caused, and identifies r with x.

The word 'cause' has a large amount of philosophical baggage, and Laura spells her meaning of it 'kause' in an attempt to keep her meaning clear. In this model, the world-to-mind cause is akin to what current scientific thought would consider a cause (Aristotle's efficient cause); the mind-to-world cause is something like Aristotle's formal cause, although in this case it is the knower who places the 'form' in the thing.

The combined cause (or 'kause') thus requires the knower to have an intention and a point of view, and the mind-to-world side of the process always involves a judgement about the experience being marked. Kausation is two-way, the mutual ability of experience to manipulate thinking, and of thinking to manipulate experience. It is not efficient causation alone, because it is intentional. Whether the knower is effected by r depends on her attention to r and intentional indexing of r, and only then does r become absorbed into the knower's point of view at that time and place.

Note that this is not agent causation, but is prior to agency. A point of view (unlike agency) can be behind the scenes, even insignificant compared to the events being experienced. A point of view can be God's eye, fish eye, microscopic, macroscopic, social, political or any of hundreds of others as long as the two way relationship between x and r can be maintained from that point of view.

Here are some objections and questions to this account of x-type object-positing:

-- Isn't this just idealism? No, kauses of sensation are mind-independent, and human thinking does not dictate the character of the real.

-- How can x=r? The objection to 'x=r' is that x and r are quite different things: 'x' is in the mind, a thought, an experience, a point of view of the namer, a mental representation; 'r' is out there in the external world.

But the equals is that of semantic identity, like 'Sam Clemens = Mark Twain' mark the same thing, or '1+1=2' are different ways of denoting the same thing. So 'x=r' are different ways of picking out the same thing. In practical terms they are redundant: x is the character of r from the point of view, is 'buried' in it just as '1+1' is 'buried' in '2'.

-- When sight is used as an example, an objection is that something must carry r-ness from r to the percipient's brain.

First, the percipient is not passive, waiting for something to hit consciousness, but object-positing means actively soliciting r's.

Second, the objector is having an issue with actions at a distance. Consider experience of lightheadness+experience of stomach rumbles = hunger. This is direct sensory awareness of hunger. Or take a Eureka type intellectual insight. Neither of these need to be 'mediated', and nor does sight (or the other 'distance' sense, hearing).

-- Russell and others divide the x=r into: sensations, sense-data and objects. Laura's account is simpler, more definite and clearer: we directly see things, not sense-data from which we infer the existence of things.

-- Is there a 'real' object, independent of the percipient? And what is it?

When looking at (say) a table, and asking 'what is it *really*?', answers can be wood, atoms, space etc, but it depends on your point of view. Usually a table will 'really' be a table, because usually our point of view is mid-ranged, but from say a biologist's point of view it will be cellulose fibres, or from a chemical point of view the atoms. Tables are objects and atoms are different objects; their capacity to kausally impinge on human experience is mind-independent, but their characters (specified by book-placing or chemical analyzing points of view) are mind-dependent.

So physical objects exist independent of mind, but any knowledge that we have of them needs an indexing and intentional viewpoint. Human history shows that the more we pay attention to this kause of our experience, the more we can learn about it. Most major advances in knowledge are due to new viewpoints from which to index and discuss our impinging environment.

I summarise object-positing with a direct quote from Laura's book: the x=r relationship is the relationship that some perceiver has with some aspect of his or her environment, some idea, or some state of him or herself, when the perceiver recognizes something with sufficient clarity to mark it as a subject matter and think about it indexically as a 'that'. This is identity between the subject matter and the conscious point of view that characterizes it as a subject matter. There aren't two things: an object and an awareness of it. There is only one thing - the object.

 

1.2 y-type Thinking

Propositions are the atoms of y-type thinking, just as objects are the atoms of x-type thinking.

When asking 'What exists?' or 'What things are there?' the natural response is 'objects' or 'matter', a universe inventory. But when we ask 'What do we know?' or 'What can be known?' then the natural answer is 'properties' or 'universals', which we combine into propositions to reason with.

But is this real knowledge of the world? What people get from y-type reasoning processes are scenarios about what the world could be like, but little or no info about what it is like. There are no objects in the y-realm, only structures and relationships.

This is not to say that y-type thinking cannot further our knowledge. Of course it has, just think of reasoning and mathematics, say. But the real value of platonic heaven is when its abstractions and Forms are related to x-type objects. We may know from experimentation that all the right-angled triangles I can draw obey Pythagoras' theorem (to the best of my measurement). But when I prove it for all right-angled triangles that exist, or that could ever exist, I am using the Form of the triangle in platonic heaven.

You can argue that this platonic triangle is an object in platonic heaven, but not in the sense of object-positing. Is it isosceles or scalene, or neither? Could an isosceles platonic triangle be the Form for a scalene one?

Practicing mathematicians often 'see' in their mind's eye their mathematical objects, and in my own experience this can come close to x-type object-positing, a direct intuition of a y-type construct. The fact is x-type and y-type processes are not always cleanly divisible, and they certainly inform each other; the division is only for analysis, but I think a far-seeing analysis which is particularly fruitful.

My summary of y-type thinking can be much shorter than my summary of x-type thinking above, since any reader of an 'intellectual' bent, who thinks consciously with universals, concepts, logic, definitions, structure etc knows what Laura means by 'y-type' thought.

 

1.3 Types of 'object'

Returning now to objects, given this account of them, we can object-posit many things other than sensual physical objects 'out there'. After all, this account of a posited object requires that an object be accessible to direct awareness, have a kausal influence, have an intention that selects a point of view with respect to it, and have stability as a 'this something' ('stablity' being a relative human judgement).

Older empiricisms characterized the recipient of experience as a static sorting box; here object-positing is a conscious and attentive human interaction with experience.

Given this, there are several sources of direct awareness for object-positing:

-- The Five Senses - these are not controversial, and are the most obvious source. Note that this is not a sense-datum (see above).

-- Kinesthetic and Bodily Awareness Sensations - since objects do not needs to be reduced to a mental representation, such sensations are clearly objects in the object-positing sense.

-- Sub-Consciously Motivated Drives, Needs and Anxieties

-- Dreams and Memories - note that a dream-mouse and a real mouse can be distinguished because we can distinguish the kause of the source of the experience. Note we need 'kause' here (an experiential impingement on awareness) rather than 'cause' which is usually taken to be an efficient transfer of mechanical motion or force.

-- Creative Mental Play - including imaging and creative visualisation etc, and memory palaces.

-- Religious or Mystical Experience

-- Intellectual Synthesis - Eureka-type intellectual discoveries. Most other intellectual work (99+% of it) is y-type thinking, but occasionally an intellectual breakthrough will occur with all the vividness of an object being presented to awareness.

 

1.4. Meaning of Heaven and Earth in this paper

This finishes my brief summary of Laura's account. In the rest of this paper I will use her framework to discuss some issues which I think are important, particularly how to make use of her insights in practice, and in thinking in the widest sense of that term.

Two points to clear up before going further:

First, in this paper by 'heaven' I mean 'platonic heaven' as an exact synonym for Laura's y-type thinking and realm. I follow Laura in using lower-case 'p' so that I am not committed to Platonic heaven as Plato actually envisaged it, but to the more general 'platonic heaven' based on it that is captured by y-type thinking.

Only a minority of philosophers these days assent to Platonic heaven, but most philosophers and intellectuals give priority to platonic heaven, meaning that in their intellectual or academic life they implicitly believe in the reasoning and abstract concepts of y-type thinking over and above the direct experience of x-type thinking.

Similarly, in juxtaposition to 'heaven', and using Plato's quote at the beginning of this paper, I use 'earth' or some derivative as a poetic expression for x-type thinking and its implications.

My second point is that I am not saying that x-type thinking is 'better' than y-type thinking. Both are necessary to be fully human.

However, because the tone of most philosophical thinking today is to give precedence to y-type logical conceptualizing, it will sometimes appear that I am claiming superiority for x-type thought, when in fact I am only attempting to redress the balance.

 

2 - Metaphysical Implications

Laura's book is an account of how we think and obtain knowledge, and I personally find it very persuasive. Although it does not presuppose any metaphysics, however, it is clear that a metaphysical stance drops out of it, as it were.

First, in x-type object-positing we obtain knowledge of the world as it is. This is direct realism: we gain first-hand direct knowledge of the everyday world we are familiar with, and it is real. Reality in the y-type platonic heaven then means something different: a structure or abstraction exists and is 'real' only to the extent that it is consistent and not contradictory both with the wider y-type realm you are considering, and with the x-type world that experience gives us.

For example, Plato's Third Man argument against his own theory of Forms arises because Plato has 'being' or 'existence' a property of a concept, since for Plato concepts or Forms are what is real, while occupants of experience like tables, chairs and people are imitations of the real.

The solution is to reverse Plato's ontology: the Forms or the conceptual realm is a playground for possibilities, not a demarcation of the real. Reality is experience, first-person singular contact with trees, people and other intentional objects.

Then questions of existence in the y-realm only refer to internal consistency. So for example the proposition 'unicorns do not exist' is not problematic. The concept 'unicorn' is consistent and a possibility, and can exist happily in the y-realm - it just happens to fail to have a concrete x-type correlate to which it could refer.

Y-type thinking processes are useful tools for manipulating possible worlds, but if we want them to apply to the real world we must make the effort of connecting them to it through experience. This is what good science, and in fact good thinking in general, both does and needs to do.

 

2.1 What is ultimate reality, the things-in-themselves, noumena?

The question still nags, though, that if the reality I perceive when looking at an object is an interaction between the object 'itself' and my awareness and point of view, then what is the nature of that object 'really' if I were not interacting with it?

My own answer to this is that, in Ryle's famous phrase, the question is a category mistake. It is like visiting someone's home, being shown all the rooms, and after the tour saying 'well I have seen all the rooms - the dining room, living room, the kitchen etc - now show me the home'. A 'home' is a house plus a person's or family's point of view of that house (as the house where I feel safe and comfortable, for instance).

We can use the term 'real' in platonic heaven to refer to what is consistent there, and on earth here to refer to objects that I am aware of and which the wider community is also aware of (including of course extensions to that, such as the scientific community). But to ask 'what is real, ultimately, beyond all this' is to ask 'but where is the home?' after touring the house.

This is not to say that objects only exist if I am perceiving them. Expressions such as 'things-in-themselves' and 'noumena' make sense and express useful concepts, just as a 'home' exists and can even be pointed to 'that is my home there', but it is still different from the house, even though I will point to the same building when I say 'that is my house there'.

So I may well grant noumena, the ultimate reality, to exist, but I cannot ask the question 'what is it?' - that is the category mistake. Reality belongs to earth and can apply to platonic heaven, but to go further is not only unnecessary, but impossible.

This is not quite to agree with Kant, that noumena cannot be known because they are 'transcendent'. It is to go further, and to suggest that the whole question is as meaningless as the question 'where is your home?' after being shown someone's house, and that the question thus needs to be put aside

If this seems unsatisfactory, a cop-out, I think it is because we are so used to wanting to find the answer in platonic heaven - meaning our y-type thinking abstractions and concepts - that we are convinced that the question 'what is ultimate reality?' must have an answer in the terms we are setting.

 

2.2 The richness of the ultimately real

Before leaving metaphysics, I will indulge in platonic heaven and suggest one property that ultimate reality seems to possess. And that is endless richness, or as Gendlin calls it intricacy. It is the property that no matter how I look, or investigate, or think, or conceptualise, ultimate reality is always richer than I conceive of it, and than I can conceive of it.

It is rich in several senses. First, there is always more to it than I think there is, and however much I look at it or investigate it or experience it, there is always more; it is inexhasutible. I am reminded of a mathematically dense set, such as the real numbers, where between any two numbers, however close, there is always an infinite number of other numbers.

A second sense of richness is intricacy, a word Gendlin often uses. The 'always more' is not just more in quantity, but more in quality, in detail. Another mathematical metaphor I am reminded of is that of a fractal, a mathematical set that has order and structure however much I magnify it. This fractal metaphor also implies that there is undifferentitated detail, which becomes differentiated upon magnification, an 'unseparated multiplicity'.

I am not attempting to explain or equate in mathematical terms; I am using metaphors from my own domain with are meaningful to me personally.

A third sense of richness is the concept of the implicit - a folded within, a suggestion that the whole contains more than the sum of its parts, no matter how one derives those parts from the whole. Several systems of thought contain this idea in a spectrum ranging from David Bohm's implicate order to Eugene Gendlin's philosophy of the implicit.

One consequence of this characteristic I am calling richness, is that any set of characteristics whatever, including this set of course, will never define nor contain what it is describing. A third mathematical metaphor comes to mind: that of Godel's work.

Godel's results are often incorrectly stated in popular literature, usually as there are 'unprovable mathematical propositions' or some such. Stated precisely, he shows that whatever rules of proof we have laid down beforehand (metaphorically the explicit), if we accept that these rules are trustworthy, then we are provided with a new means of access to certain mathematical truths (from the implicit, again metaphorically) that those particular rules are not powerful enough to derive.

Again, I am only using this as a metaphor, but one that provides me with a powerful handle and a certain insight into what I understand Gendlin to be saying.

 

2.3 The richness of heaven and earth

I have claimed above that this is not a metaphysical paper, and that the heaven-and-earth dichotomy in my title is primarily a dichotomy of how we think and obtain knowledge, rather than two rival metaphysical stances. So let me state my richness of the previous section in non-metaphysical terms.

Any knowledge I gain must be either by x-type object-positing or y-type property-attributing, or more usually a mixture and interplay of the two. Neither knowledge-gaining process can let me know the ultimate (whatever that is) , meaning any knowledge beyond their two domains respectively.

X-type object-positing gives me knowledge of the particular. There seem to be an awful lot of particulars, in fact a universe inventory of them seems endless in practical terms. So my x-type thinking must be limited, meaning whatever I know and however much I know, there is always more to know.

Y-type property-attributing claims to give knowledge of the universal, but the universals are possibilities of structures, relationships, properties and abstractions. They are not necessarily real in the sense of x-type objects that I can experience, and need to experience to live in this world. So again, my y-type knowing is limited. However much I can know of infinities and eternities and ultimates and sets of all sets, they are all denizens of platonic heaven only.

So my richness claim can be stated thus: Thinking from heaven or earth or both, and gaining knowledge thereby, is always limited. No matter how much I know, there is always more that I don't know. And this 'more' implies both more in number, and more in quality, detail and intricacy. Compare Einstein's quote as the 'circle of light increases so does the circumference of darkness around it'.[4]

The universe at all levels, from the biggest to the smallest, from the most impersonal to the most initimate and personal, is both richer than we think, and richer than we can think.

 

3 - Beliefs as Modes of Perception

Empty are the words of that philosopher who offers no therapy for human suffering.

Epicurus [5]

From the basic platform I have outlined, the rest of this paper will describe two directions to go which follow from what I have written thus far, and also which have a practical effect on the human condition. This last is important. I do not want to spin out yet another philosophy solely from platonic heaven, but a philosophy of both heaven and earth which furthers sanity, integrity, clear thinking and love, and which hinders hate, anger, gullibility and, yes let's echo Epicurus - suffering.

These two directions are our attitude to beliefs, and how to think clearer using object-positing as it applies to the body. In this section I discuss our beliefs about our beliefs.

 

3.1 Plurality of Beliefs

First, by 'beliefs' in this section 3 I am meaning metaphysical beliefs - the beliefs that form your worldview. In Laura's terms, these beliefs are heavenly constructs, templates in platonic heaven for how things are down here on earth. In section 4 below I discuss beliefs in earthy terms.

Clearly there are many different heavenly beliefs and belief-systems that people have in the world. And even among philosophers (or perhaps that should be 'particularly among philosophers'), who one would hope are belief-sifters, weighing and judging all the various belief-systems on our behalf, there is strong and dramatic disagreement.

The polite term for philosophers being forever in disagreement is 'plurality', and the result 'philosophical pluralism' - not the cultural pluralism of ethnic, racial, religious, literary or political diversity - but pluralism as a plurality of philosophical systems or views.

The name Pluralism was first suggested in 1882 by William James [6], and was developed by Richard McKeon in the 1940's and 50's. McKeon [7] wrote a series of papers analyzing historically the large number of such philosophical views over the last 2500 years, showing that the differences were all due to the distinctions made by the various philosophers - their principles, methods, interpretations, and selection processes.

So while commonsense observation leads to the obvious fact of there being a plurality of beliefs, McKeon and others have given a philosophical respectability to this fact, and have shown that philosophical plurality is indeed inevitable.

Laura's analysis also suggests that plurality is inevitable. As I noted in my section 2 above, a belief-system of how the world is 'really' is either heaven-centered, in which case it is at best a possibility no matter how wonderful and sublime; or it is earth-centered, in which case it is at best married to a human point of view, no matter how solid and grounded.

Does this matter? Yes, I think it does matter while we attribute so much importance to our beliefs that we are often prepared to die for them, or kill others for them, and while our behavior can be so dramatically driven by them.

 

3.2 Some Metaphysical Belief-Systems

I will not attempt to categorize all the possible belief-systems, but here give a brief overview of some common belief-system types, and in what way they do drive our behavior. I classify them by the status attributed to self and other.

3.2.1 Other as object

Here I do not mean by 'object' necessarily the object-positing sense, but that class of belief-systems where the other - whether other human, animal, or environment - is regarded as having no value except in the benefit it can provide to self.

Much of humanity seems to believe like this, and the resulting behavior is selfishness - often on a grand scale. The looming environmental catastrophe itself is surely a result of humanity giving no intrinsic value to this planet and its inhabitants; and the causing of gratuitous pain, torture, and fighting wars can only occur while holding this kind of belief that the suffering of others is of no concern to self.

Sometimes this belief is a result of the lower religions, where God favors only you and your like-minded neighbors, and nature and non-believers are to be used as you wish, or killed even for not being like you (this of course is God's will). Or alternatively, there can be lots of gods, such as in classical Greece, several Hindu strands, and popular Taoism. But these gods are just ourselves writ large, with all our prejudices and beliefs, and as with the one 'jealous God' they are used to allow us to treat others as objects without any guilt, since it is again the 'will of the gods'.

3.2.2 Other as Living

Hunter-gatherers are often credited with believing that their environment is alive, or is inhabited by spirit, and that even the animals they hunt and kill have an intrinsic value above and beyond their use to the hunter. This results in a respect for the other, and nature is used for the benefit of self with gratitude and sensitivity, and not wantonly. Compare native Americans' hunting of the buffalo over generations, and making use of every part of the killed animal, to the wholesale slaughter of all the tens of millions of buffalo on the Plains by European Americans in the 1870's and 1880's, just for fun.

Whether all hunter-gathers in the past operated under this benign belief-system is debatable. Certainly you can romanticize the distant past in this way. But it seems that many did, some well documented in the very recent past, such as the African !Kung and San, and the native North Americans.

My point here is simply that if your worldview of other is as living just like you, then your behavior will be in general very different (kinder, more respectful) than if you regard others as having no rights or feelings worth consideration.

3.2.3 Dismantling both Self and Other

Some belief-systems attempt to dismantle both self and other. Two prime examples I can think of are the western scientific orthodoxy and Theravada Buddhism. However, they do so in different ways and with different results.

Western science attempts to reduce to basic material units, and does so from the outside, as it were, as an intellectual endeavor. In the terms of this paper, the scientific community in general has a platonic heavenly construct where everything - including self and other - is built from ultimate units. The effect of this can be seen anywhere in the world where science and its resultant technology are in evidence: huge material benefits of course, but also an alienation in people where everything of traditional human value has been reduced, in belief at least, to sub-atomic units.

Theravada Buddhism, on the other hand, seeks to dismantle self and other from the inside as being inconstant, stressful and not-self. For many, this is just a belief of the way things are, but serious practitioners attempt to build on this belief so as to experience and observe these qualities in their ongoing mental environment. If this program is followed through with rigor in meditation, then a deep peace and love can be engendered from the resulting experiential insight.

In this last case, we can say that this insight is x-type and earthy - what is seen is object-like in the object-positing sense, something presented to experience. If it only remains a metaphysical belief, then it remains a heavenly construct on its own. Interestingly, it appears that by 3 to 400 years after the Buddha, the Theravada practice had degenerated to this platonic heavenly belief only, and the wish to return to experiential earthy insight gave rise to the Mahayana Buddhists, who thus disparagingly referred to the degraded Theravada as Hinayana, the 'lesser vehicle'.

3.2.4 The One behind Self and Other

The final type of belief-system I consider is where there is one ultimate essence or being that is behind every phenomena. Apart from the western philosophical systems which hold this, I am thinking of the religious beliefs such as the Godhead of Eckhart, the Brahman of Advaita and Vedanta, or the Tao of the Tao Te Ching.

 

3.3 Modes of Perception

If beliefs are so varied and of so many different kinds, and if McKeon is right that philosophy will always result in a plurality of beliefs, and yet beliefs are so important to people, then how can you proceed?

My suggestion follows an idea of the Buddha, who said that the importance of your beliefs lies in the effect they have on your behavior, rather than in their truth content. So rather than adopt a metaphysical belief because you think it must be true, try picking a belief and see how your behavior and insights are effected. Use a belief as a mode of perception, rather than a truth.

Here are some examples of what I mean, from my own personal experience:

3.3.1 Whole-body Breathing

Many meditation styles use following the breath in some way as a technique towards whatever the goal of that meditation style is. I used to find that when I tried to focus on my breath, even when breathing naturally and trying not to influence my breath in any way, I nevertheless felt some restriction in my breath, and the harder I tried to relax (the absurdity of that phrase is intentional) the worse it often became.

Once it was suggested to me that my breath could enter into my body in many different places, not just through my nose and mouth. I did not believe this (I still don't) and I dismissed the idea. But later I wondered what it would be like to believe that, to breathe as if the air was entering through all the pores of my skin. So I tried, and I found the unnecessary tension in my breathing muscles vanished, and my breathing was remarkably relaxed and refreshing.

This is a brief experiment that you, the reader, can do right now. Take a few breaths through your nose, focusing on the air entering and exiting through the nose, and notice any tensions or uneasiness in your breathing in the trunk of your body.

Now take a few breaths as if the air were entering and exiting directly through your skin all over your trunk. Think of your trunk as a giant sponge, soaking the air in all over, and expelling the air of the spent breath all over. Is there any difference in your breathing?

3.3.2 Everything is alive

I was on a Buddhist 'mindfulness' retreat once, where we tried to be mindful at all times in whatever we did. The presiding monk made the suggestion that we treat all the inanimate objects we encountered in our day as alive. How would that change our relationship to them and our handling of them?

The answer of course is that it did so dramatically. There is a large difference between picking up my cup of tea as if it is a cup of tea, and picking it up as if it were a small bird say.

The belief that everything is alive as a metaphysical truth has a lot of baggage; but the belief that everything is alive as a mode of perception has no baggage and can effect my behavior for the better. And because there is no baggage or investment in the mode of perception, then if it does not work for me I can forget it and move on to something else; whereas beliefs that are held as truths typically require considerable investment, and consequently it is difficult to drop them.

3.3.3 God as the wind and trees

I was walking once in a wood, with sunshine and a fair breeze, and I felt particularly good - relaxed, joyful, and everything was just right. As I felt the warmth of the sun on my face, and the contrasting slight coolness of the wind, and saw the trees swaying gently, I thought to myself that if I were a religious person who believed in God, then I would be saying to myself that this is all a manifestation of God.

I then deliberately started to believe in God, following the idea I am presenting in this paper. There was no doubt that my sensitivity and the exquisiteness of the occasion increased. I saw the waving branches as God's hands waving at me, I felt the wind as God's breath on my face, the sunshine as His love for me. I was overwhelmed with joy and a love for myself and all creation.

3.3.4 Praying to Kuan Yin

My final personal example concerns my praying to Kuan Yin, a Chinese goddess. She is supposed to dwell in the western paradise (the Pure Land) with the Amita Buddha, but while he stays put, she is sent out like a roving ambassadress to help all those who pray to her.

I was dealing with a difficult personal situation at the time, and I was reading about her and the myths surrounding her. It was with a sense of desperation that I started praying to her. You have to face West and pray, which I did. In all I did this over a three day period. The first day I mostly felt a fool, but by the second day I was getting into it, and would not have been too surprised to have seen her swooping through the clouds (which is how she travels).

By the third day, I found it a very comforting ritual which seemed to give meaning to my whole personal situation and make it manageable. And things and situations happened, which resolved the problems I was having, and which I attributed to her intercession.

After this three-day period I put this belief aside,and I stepped back into my normal, rational mode, with what I think of as my natural skepticism. Clearly the events that had happened to me would have happened anyway, and it was only coincidence that event X happened shortly after I had prayed to Kuan Yin for event X to happen.

It was certainly clear to me why people have beliefs such as this. Any events occurring which support the belief reinforce it considerably, while the many more events which counter it are conveniently forgotten or dismissed.

But as far as my own personal experience went, having the belief that she was a real goddess who could actually help me, and my acting on that belief, had a positive outcome, even though I knew at the back of my mind that she did not exist 'out there'.

3.3.5 Aleister Crowley, Chaos Magic, and the 'Belief Engine'

Although Aleister Crowley has had a bad press (he was called the 'most wicked man alive', and he was by his own admission a decadent, heroin-addicted bisexual Satan worshipper) he nevertheless said and taught some interesting notions.

One of these was the idea of the 'belief engine', whereby he encouraged practioners of 'magic' to be able to pick up any belief and believe it wholeheartedly for a day or two. The modern-day Chaos Magic movement has taken up this idea of Crowley's, where belief is a tool that one consciously uses, and one's ability to believe whatever one wants is a skill to be learned.

I am not endorsing so-called 'magic', and certainly in its popular meaning of making one's (or one's client's) often petty wishes come true, I have no interest in it. I am mentioning it here simply because of Crowley's and Chaos Magic's explicit statement and use of belief as something to use, and not as what one thinks is the truth which is the dictionary definition of belief.

3.3.6 Some Caveats

Here I mention some objections and caveats to what I have written in the previous few sub-sections.

First, you need to be discriminating in what beliefs you choose to take up in the manner I have described. If you have the belief that all is illusion (Skanskrit 'maya'), and as a result you believe and then act as if you can walk through walls, the results will be unfortunate.

Another way of saying this, is to repeat that the beliefs I am describing in this section 3 are platonic heavenly beliefs. To believe you can walk through walls counters an earthy x-type belief, based on the x-type fact that walls are solid and that you cannot walk through them.

Secondly, there is always a danger that by psyching yourself up to actually believing for real what you believe initially as a mode of perception, you cross over the line and really believe it. Of course, it may be that the belief seems true to you as well as being a skillful mode of perception, so in that case there is no harm. But that should always be a conscious choice to make, and not one that just happens by default. In other words, you need to be aware of what you are doing and why you are doing it.

You need as a conscious observer of your own inner life to be monitoring how useful a particular belief actually is as a mode of perception. The trick is to still allow that belief to function as a belief. It is a curious fact of human psychology that this is quite possible, just like a musician can play a piece with complete focus and rapture, losing herself in her own playing, and can still at the same time notice her own performance objectively in order perhaps to tweak and improve it next time.

The practioners of Chaos Magic call such a dual stance the belief and the metabelief. This is one answer to the objection that this thesis I am presenting that beliefs can be used as modes of perception is itself just a belief. I am not sure how effective an answer this is, calling the thesis a 'metabelief' rather than a 'belief'. But I am not sure how cogent the objection is in the first place: so what if my idea of using beliefs as modes of perception is itself a belief? By my own thesis, that could itself be a mode of perception, which in a way it is.

 

3.4 Conclusion

Here in this section 3 I have considered what I call metaphysical beliefs, or beliefs that exist in platonic heaven, and how they can skillfully be applied to earthy situations.

It might be objected that this is all a bit cynical, or very cynical, treating people's core beliefs in this way. This is related to the fact I am using 'belief' in an unusual way, since the dictionary definition of a belief is that it is a 'cognitive content held as true'.

I don't hold this is cynical at all. Most people's core metaphysical and religious beliefs may be precious to them, but that does not excuse the fact that throughout history much war and human suffering has been caused by groups of humans holding their religious beliefs to be true. If beliefs could be held as modes of perception or candidate and possible truths rather than as absolute truths, then the world would be a much happier place. But I realise this goes against the grain of history, and counter to a basic need in most people to hold to what they consider to be an absolute truth.

It is an experiential suggestion, not a platonic truth. It is a question of whether you, the reader, are willing to make the experiment, to play with the verities of platonic heaven here on earth.

 

4 - Object-positing with the Body

Although I do not agree with the philosophy that Marx and Engels derived, I agree wholeheartedly with their starting point, and I adopt it as my own:

In direct contrast to German philosophy [read: all analytic philosophy] which descends from heaven to earth, here it is a matter of ascending from earth to heaven. That is to say, not of setting out from what men say, imagine, or conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, or conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh; but setting out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process....

Marx and Engels [8]

Section 3 above was suggesting how platonic heavenly beliefs might be used and played with in skillful ways, treating their transformative effect on behavior as primary, and their truth content as secondary. In this section I look at earthy beliefs.

In Laura's analysis, earth-dwellers also need some beliefs, or in her terms, x-type thinking and object-positing need intention and points of view. That means that when we look at something say, or feel something, the kind of object or things that we see or feel is to some extent decided by what we bring to the table as it were, in other words by our beliefs.

The beauty of Laura's analysis is that this is not a static state of affairs, and due to the two-way interaction between the object as it impinges on our awareness and the 'form' (Aristotle's phrase) that our mentality places in the object, we can learn and our beliefs can be changed. Indeed, Laura's whole conception of kausation is formulated so that this ability to learn and be flexible is possible in her account of object-positing.

Laura mentions that kinesthetic and bodily awareness sensations can be object candidates in her sense of the word, as are other mental phenomena, such as sub-consciously motivated drives, needs and anxieties; dreams and memories; creative mental play - including imaging (I would also include the art of creating memory palaces and creative visualisation); religious or mystical experience; and intellectual synthesis. In other words, anything that impinges on consciousness that we use for object-positing, no matter what we take its 'source' to be - something external to us 'out there', or bodily sensations or mental events that are presented to us as givens that we perceive with intention and a point of view, so that it is a 'that' for us.

Much of what I write on this website in concerned with, in the terms of this paper, object-positing in the body. That means, taking raw bodily feels and 'felt sense' (as Focusing uses the phrase) as given objects, and examining the mental point of view or intention that informs them, and learning from that process.

I mention three practices of this nature:

 

4.1 Focusing or Thinking at the Edge

These two terms, and the practices behind them, were originated by Gene Gendlin [9]. The references I have in the footnote give a full account of them. Here I will summarise them in the terms I have been using in this paper.

First, a bodily feeling may be very significant. In fact, you could say all sensations have significance, and are the basic way our body talks to us and tells us about situations to avoid or change - pain being the most obvious example. But here Gene is meaning bodily feelings that are giving no obvious physical message.

He gives an example of someone in the afternoon having a nagging discomfort in the pit of their stomach, and the person having the background thought that something is wrong. Then they remember a lunch appointment they forgot. That remembrance may lead to other sensations and feelings, but the original pit of the stomach discomfort then goes. In other words, some part of the person other than the conscious part 'knew' about the missed appointment, and created the nagging discomfort accordingly, which vanished when the fact of the missed appointment became conscious.

The Focusing practice would be that when the nagging discomfort first appears, the person is aware of it and consciously admits that it might be trying to tell them something, or have a meaning or significance beyond the physical sensation. In other words they 'focus' on it, and present to the bodily feel (in Focusing jargon the 'felt-sense') various concepts or meanings. By seeing how or if the felt-sense changes or morphs accordingly, they can zero in on any meaning the sensation might have. This is thus a zig-zag process, between the sensation as felt bodily, and meanings or mental concepts that are provisionally presented to it.

Another well-known example Gene gives is that of a poet searching for the mot juste with which to finish a line in the poem they are writing. Many words or phrases will come to mind, some quite good that would fit well, but there is one word or phrase that is just right. In other words, while the mind is presenting possibilities, there is some censor in the person that rejects these until the 'just right' word pops into consciousness and the censor gives their assent.

The 'censor' in this sense is the bodily-feel or felt-sense. While all poets create poems in this way, a Focuser would do so by consciously feeling how the body reacted, viscerally perhaps, to each suggested word or phrase. Again, by zig-zagging between the bodily felt-sense, and the mind's presentation of various possibilities, the claim is that each informs the other and the creative process is heightened and made more efficient thereby.

In the terms of this paper, the felt-sense or bodily feel is clearly the object. I think the Focusing process as I have described it can be seen in two ways. One way is to say that the mental component taken to the bodily feel is one's point of view, and that the zig-zag that Gene describes is then a deliberate refinement of the object-positing process, whereby one consciously adjusts one's point of view and as a result obtains an adjusted object in experience.

A second way to see this process is that the mental component presented is more than one's point of view necessary for object-positing, but it is a fully paid-up denizen of platonic heaven. In other words, in thinking with Focusing you are deliberately bouncing x-type and y-type thinking off of each other, in an intimate and fruitful interaction.

Which interpretation you use is, I think, a function of how you use Focusing. It is used in different ways for different purposes. It can be used in daily living, like remembering forgotten appointments; it can be used in therapy, where the therapist is a qualified Focuser and is coaching the patient in Focusing for therapeutic purposes; it can be used as an almost mystical path to have 'deep' experiences, either to support a particular belief-system, or just to see where it leads with no agenda.

I myself use it in daily living in various situations, and also in my meditation practice. I don't use it as the main focus (excuse the pun) of my meditation practice, although others do. Instead it is for me an adjunct, a way to relate to my body and its various feels to provide the context, in a sense, of my meditation sitting. I thus use it along a spectrum, as it were, of purposes. Sometimes I merely want to get comfortable with my overall bodily sense, in which case my mental component would best be described as my point of view.

At other times, particularly in emotional or stressful situations, I am looking to my bodily feel to have meaning and to discern what that meaning is. That is a conscious using of platonic heaven. My heavenly concepts are not just a logical game, but are grounded by the object-positing in my body; and by the same token, my object-positing is not just noting 'there is that there', but is an aware act that both has meaning in itself, and has meaning uncovered and brought to light by the use of heavenly constructs.

To return to Plato's metaphor at the beginning of this paper, there may well often be battles in myself between the heavenly and the earthy, between conceptual thought and object-positing. But to be truly human I believe I need both, not just assent to both as being necessary, but to entwine both in a detailed and skillful interaction or zig-zag that enables both to support each other, and as a consequence support and uplift me.

 

4.2 Objects in Platonic Heaven: Mathematical

Laura mentions that on occasion it seems appropriate to objectify constructs in platonic heaven, and she suggests that 'Eureka-type intellectual discoveries' might be presented to awareness in such a way as to qualify as object-positing, saying that the distinction can become a bit 'blurred'.

As a one-time practicing mathematician, I think this is particularly relevant to mathematics. I found that both myself, and all my mathematician friends or colleagues, were platonists, at least privately. There was a strong sense that the mathematical constructs we used and investigated existed 'out there' somewhere in a sort of mathematical landscape, and it was a question of discovering them rather than inventing them.

And to claim they were 'mental' or existed 'in the mind' in some sense was even more of a platonist stance, since that landscape was public. By that, I mean that I could describe to a colleague my own ramblings through this mathematical landscape, and my discoveries ('turn left at that Riemannian manifold and then just behind that Lie Supersymmetry group that comes into view, you will find...' kind of thing). Then provided that mathematical colleague had the necessary training, he or she could then enter the mathematical landscape in their own mind and confirm my discoveries that I had made in the same mathematical landscape that I had held in my mind.

I think this strong sense of mathematical constructs existing as objects is justified. I would say that when learning an area of mathematics for the first time, it is indeed a heavenly exercise in Laura's use of the term, meaning that area of mathematics consists in logical constructs and property manipulation. It appears to be at the very opposite end of the spectrum from object-positing: artificial and intellectual conceptualizing with no attachment to anything earth-like.

But then there comes a point when the dry and abstract construction leaps out of its heavenly context, and is presented to awareness as an object, fulfilling all Laura's prescription of a 'real' thing 'out there' being informed by a point of view from here. This is such a real and striking phenomenon, that many mathematicians are then led directly to full-blown metaphysical Platonism, such as Roger Penrose for example [10].

In the spirit of Laura's analysis, I myself make no metaphysical claims, but merely observe that it is part of the thinking process, and that by adjusting my point of view appropriately I can make heavenly constructs fulfill the conditions for object-positing. The important point, I believe, is to be aware of what is going on in my thinking, to make the distinction between object-positing and property-attributing, and allow that distinction to be fruitful.

 

4.3 Objects in Platonic Heaven: Buddhist

There is a similar sense to objectifying platonic heavenly constructs in many belief-systems or meditation styles. I take as an example Theravada Buddhist meditation.

In fact, there is not really one style of Theravada Buddhist meditation, but many, with many innuendos and flavors, depending upon the teacher and which tradition within Theravada he or she teaches from. One fairly basic teaching which is fairly common, is the 'three characteristics'. This maintains that every phenomenon in the mind, or in the physical world, partakes of three characteristics: it is inconstant, stressful and not-self [11].

You can take these three characteristics as being intellectual or metaphysical beliefs about the nature of all phenomena; you can take them as being working or practical beliefs that just help you get through the day; or you can 'note' them in your meditation sitting, trying to see each mental event as being inconstant, stressful and not-self. This 'noting' practice can range from mere repetitious and automatic name-calling like a parrot, to a deep effort to actually experience it as a fact that phenomena are inconstant, stressful and not-self.

I suggest that in the latter case, what you are really attempting to do, is to take a piece of Buddhist philosophy, or something that is told to you as 'this is what the Buddha taught', and to move it from the heavenly realm of conceptualizing to being an earthy object. It is my experience that this is possible, in the same way that a mathematician can object-posit what to most other people, including novice mathematicians, is a heavenly logical construct.

Another Buddhist 'belief' is the Four Noble Truths: stress exists, has an origin, a cessation, and there is a path to realize this cessation. I put 'belief' in quotes, because to regard it as doctrine is, I think, missing the point. Again, the point is to take this insight out of platonic heaven as a metaphysical system, and see it as directly as a clear object in front of your face.

 

4.4 Object-Positing only with the body?

The subject of this section 4 is 'Object-positing with the Body', but so far only my Focusing subsection 4.1 above is directly concerned with bodily feel. Here I ask a question, or rather a series of questions:

Is object-positing a necessarily bodily process? I can conceive of y-type thinking with a mind only, but can I conceive of x-type object-positing with a mind only? I don't just mean that I need a body to house a mind, or that I need a body for sight and hearing, for instance. I mean: is object-positing a necessarily visceral process, where gut feelings if you like are as necessary as mental points of view?

When Carl Sagan was asked 'What is your gut feeling?' about a particular question, he answered 'I try not to think with my gut'. I agree that thinking, in the sense of mentally manipulating concepts, is a function of the brain and not the gut. However, my gut (more generally, my viscera) is where I am most sensitive to what Focusers call bodily feel or felt-sense.

I suspect that the answer to my own question is Yes, object-positing is a thinking process requiring a mind-and-body. A disembodied mind, if such a thing were possible, could not object-posit, whereas this disembodied mind could think conceptually - and that is all it could think. I freely admit that I cannot prove such a hypothesis.

Another way of saying the same thing, is that our Cartesian mind-body split is conceptual only; that a 'disembodied' mind is impossible as an object, and is a y-type entity existing in platonic heaven only. So poetically calling x-type object-positing 'earthy' would in fact be more than merely poetical.

This leads to another thought: is the whole concept of 'mind' itself y-type? If so, the entity by which we have platonic heavenly thoughts is itself an inhabitant of platonic heaven! Roger Penrose would like that idea, I think (see my footnote [10] below).

So if my tentative hypothesis is correct, and above I suggest that some mathematical thinking and some committed meditation practice is object-positing, then these are bodily processes as much as mental processes. I think that is so, and is not as absurd as it may at first appear.

 

5 - A Quick Quiz

5.1 The Quiz

Imagine an academic, scientific or intellectual field that you are expert in, in which the thinking is predominantly y-type. If you read or are told a brand new theory or idea in that field (which of course will need a y-type response) do you nevertheless deliberately pay some attention to your initial felt-sense and bodily response to the new theory/idea?

If you read or are told some startling or surprising news or new idea in a field that you are not expert in, do you pay some attention to your initial felt-sense and bodily response to it?

Focus on your bodily feel right now.

Are you actually paying attention to your bodily feel in response to the previous sentence?

Even if you felt it presumptuous of me to give an instruction like that, so that your immediate reaction was annoyance or negative, did you feel that in your body (as opposed to only thinking it)?

Do you, either in private thought or public speech, often use the word 'feeling' as a synonym for understanding ('Yes, I feel that too', 'No I don't feel that' as opposed to using 'seeing' as your predominant metaphor for understanding)?

Do you have a discipline or practice in which you deliberately try to become more sensitive to your body and its feelings? (Focusing, some medition styles, somatic exercises such as some yogas or tai chi, some dance, even dangerous sports perhaps, etc)

Do you have a discipline or practice in which you deliberately try to become more sensitive to your body and its feelings and at the same time let those feelings react with your y-type thinking?

 

5.2 The Answers

Of course, there are no 'correct' answers, but if I am in talk with any philosopher or teacher, even in an arena of predominantly y-type thinking, I would like to feel that he or she would have quite a few 'yes' responses. Someone who answered 'no' to every question, or who did not even bother with reading my quiz, or was annoyed by it, I don't think would be sympathetic, or even understand, what I am trying to say in this paper.

 

Notes

[1] Plato, The Sophist 245e - 246c. The 'friends of the forms' tag appears a few lines later in 248a. Trans Nicholas P White in 'Plato: Complete Works' Ed. John M Cooper (Hackett 1997) [resume]

[2] Selected Writings of Richard McKeon; Vol 1 ' eds. Z.K.McKeon and W.G.Swenson (University of Chicago Press, 1998). [resume]

[3] Laura E Weed 'The Structure of Thinking: A process-oriented account of mind' (Imprint Academic, 2003) [resume]

[4] Nov. 1947 - from "Atomic War or Peace", published by The Atlantic Monthly Magazine [resume]

[5] Epicurus, quoted in Porphyry's 'To Marcella' 31, quoted in A.A.Long and D.N.Sedley 'The Hellenistic Philosophers' CUP 1987 p.155. [resume]

[6] Quoted in David H. Richter 'Pluralism at the Millennium', online at http://qcpages.qc.cuny.edu/ENGLISH/Staff/richter/Pluralism.html [resume]

[7] Richard McKeon (died 1985) was a philosopher who deserves to be better known. His students have many stories about him, and many of his students became famous in their own right, such as Rorty, Pirsig, Susan Sontag and Gene Gendlin. In a charming eulogy by one of his former students (http://net-prophet.net/mckeon/mckeon.htm) he was possibly the widest-read philosopher of the last century, and this student found a book in the library by a Greek philosopher which had only been read once, by McKeon, in it's entire 40 year history there. [resume]

[8] Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. The German Ideology, trans. anon. Unabridged ed., Progress Publishers, 1976 p.42 [resume]

[9] Gene Gendlin has written many books and papers. Many of these papers are online, and for a bibliography and an outline of Gene's philosophical stance start with http://www.focusing.org/philo.html. I have found the best book is a collection of articles by critics of his, each one of which has a response by Gene, and which also has an introduction by Gene which is a summary of his thinking as a whole: 'Language Beyond Postmodernism: Saying and thinking in Gendlin's philosophy.' Edited by David Michael Levin, Ph.D.. Evanston (Northwestern University Press.) I have met Gene, and found that he truly walks his talk, meaning that his Focusing is a practical practice (many practices in my experience are not practical!) It was due to my interactions with him, and particularly with Josiah Hincks who showed me how to practice Gene's philosophy, that my own ideas became clearer. [resume]

[10] Penrose is renowned both for his high level of mathematical output, and his 'Three Worlds' metaphysics - the three worlds being the physical world, the mental world, and the mathematical platonic world - and the fact that each subsumes the other in a cyclic pattern: the physical world is subsumed in the platonic mathematical world (mathematics can explain all of physics); the mental world is subsumed in the physical (all minds have a physical basis); and the platonic mathematical world is subsumed in the mental. I first read of this in his book: Roger Penrose The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe (Jonathan Cape, 2004). You can Google Penrose and 'Three Worlds' to obtain lots of online papers and references. [resume]

[11] In Pali the three characteristics are the tilakkhana, consisting of anicca (often translated 'impermanence', but more accurately 'inconstant'), dukkha (often 'unsatisfactoriness' or 'suffering', but here 'stress') and anatta (not-self). I use the English translations given in the writings of Thanissaro Bhikkhu. [resume]


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