Wednesday, March 18 2015

Seeking an Easter Experience

Or, how to know Easter in the heart as well as head.

A podcast - available on iTunes or here as a feed - in which I try to talk about how the liturgical drama of the Easter services, from Maundy Thursday, through Good Friday, to Easter Sunday yields more insight than any doctrine or creed.

 

Wednesday, March 4 2015

Unbelievable - why we believe and why we don't

I've this review of Graham Ward's Unbelievable: Why We Believe And Why We Don't in the March issue of Third Way magazine.

The Peterhouse Ghost made an appearance in 1997. The fellows of the oldest Cambridge college were at High Table. Dinner was disturbed by a commotion in the Combination Room. The then dean and author of Unbelievable: Why We Believe And Why We Don't, Graham Ward, discovered two quaking servants amidst hundreds of fragments of broken china, mute with fear at the spectre that had crossed their path.

What intrigued Ward was not the reality of the haunting (it intrigues me), but the wide range of beliefs that were rallied to explain what had happened, as discussion rippled around the college. For some, the idea of ghosts was entirely acceptable and little more clarification was required. For others, ghosts were an entirely unacceptable proposition and academic disciplines from neuroscience to physics were deployed to explain away the incident. Others again, felt that the sighting was indicative of the inadequacy of scientific materialism and of the need for new explanatory paradigms.

Ward uses the story to launch a wide ranging discussion on the nature of belief. He defines it not as propositional statements to which an individual can give assent. Rather, he convincingly shows that belief is more complex, subtle and primitive. It is a preconscious disposition that informs, shapes and possibly determines the way we then interpret and experience the world. "I trust in God" captures the meaning better than "I believe in God", as commonly meant.

Belief is, therefore, comprised of many dynamics. For example, it's partly a product of our embodiment. The medical doctor and philosopher Raymond Tallis argues that the evolution of an index or pointing finger was as crucial to the capacity for belief as anything that evolved in the brain. Only with pointing can you conceive of yourself as having agency and being an agent. It creates an instrumental awareness of the body and the world, and so is a prerequisite not just for advanced tool use but also for the concept of "tool". Some other animals deploy what we call tools, but without the concept they neither experience nor develop tools in nearly such a rich way. A crow can use a stick but it won't decorate one, let alone sell it as an expensive walking stick.

Such developments signal momentous changes in consciousness and in the capacity for belief. Ward takes several fascinating chapters carefully to examine the archeological evidence left by our hominid ancestors to track its emergence. Homo sapiens sapiens is a creature that doesn't just interact with the world like, say, plants. We don't just perceive the world as, say, single-celled animals do as they are drawn towards nourishment and withdraw from dangers. Human beings perceive the world as this or that. Moreover, such intentional perception of the world incorporates the immaterial as well as the material - the visible and the invisible - in a fine interlacing of meaning.

Consider the role of the imagination. Coleridge argued that imagination creates a potential space that can be then filled with something actual, be that tangible or intangible. This human capacity is required to do everything from carving figurines to composing symphonies. Belief is also a political issue, in the sense that a community of believers - scientists, artists, philosophers, church-goers - play a crucial role in deciding what is believable. This insights helps unpack the depth of the challenge for theists in circles that are broadly atheistic. Evidence or arguments for the existence of God are not enough because there is the prior issue of whether such cultures are predisposed to believe in theism at all. To put it another way, lives transformed or arts that show transcendence are more likely to open an individual to perceiving the divine because such experiences address the issue at the right level. Reason then comes in to aid discernment.

Contemporary understandings of consciousness are crucial to such believability. Materialist explanations render religious beliefs radically unbelievable by reducing them to neural firings. What is often overlooked is that the same move empties the science of explanatory value too. They also can't explain why we experience the world as 3D and "out there", an experience unimaginable to the zombie-like registering of electrochemical exchanges in brain states. The writer Will Self offered a more apt image in a recent interview: "We’re a kind of energy field rather than something that’s imprisoned in a small bone globe."

Ward develops the argument to show how novels and stories work only because we can know characters and visit places that are totally fictional. Even when fiction evokes or references real places and people, the literature speaks to us because it reveals aspects of experience that would not otherwise be known or seen. Take the sign saying "Platform 9¾" at King's Cross Station. For Harry Potter fans, it turns the spot into something akin to a sacred place.

A religious attitude towards belief, Ward concludes, develops a stage further what is implicit in all belief, which is to say in all human consciousness. If the latter facilities our perceiving the world as this or that, religious belief moves us beyond to perceive the divine, in whom we live and move and have our being. William James grasped this final movement of belief when he defined it as trust in "an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto." It's what Paul meant by "living by faith". It's how the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews could described faith not as belief in spite of evidence, as is sometimes said today, but as precisely the opposite: "the evidence of things not seen."

 

Thursday, February 26 2015

The Call of Silence

And the Unknowing of Noise…

We live in a society with a powerful aversion to silence; with an anxiety of not having something said, or anything to say. Silence is feared and equated with emptiness, meaninglessness, nothing. Muzak is, of course, omnipresent. Or phones and plugged-in pods that create a bubble of noise, keeping the outside world out and starving the inner world of space. If the radio or TV falls silent, it suggests a fault, at best, and possibly global disaster.

Twenty-four hour news, too, cannot tolerate any gaps. You see it particularly during election campaigns, as we are suffering in the UK at the moment. For our wannabe leaders, to be caught off-guard in front of a camera is career threatening. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's spin doctor, famously filled the political day and night with the "grid". That's become the norm. It's noise as a means of control. "Silence is regarded as a sort of sin now, and it has to be filled with a lot of gossip and sound bites," Douglas Hurd, the politician and novelist, has written.

Or think about silence and friendship. It used to be said that a best friend is a person with whom you can be silent. No embarrassment, no irritation. Today, a best friend is someone with whom you are in constant contact, texting and messaging as automatically as breathing. Fill the space.

Research suggests that there is a connection between the wealth of a society and the levels of noise within it. A project at Sheffield Hallam University tracked the levels of noise in the UK for a number of years. It is rising - in Sheffield city centre, for example, by 3 decibels in 10 years. Officially 125 million Europeans suffer from noise above the recommended guidelines, according to the UK Noise Association, and this is almost certainly an underestimate.

Or maybe the lack of silence is a deeper, cultural issue? Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the history of the church at Oxford University, argues that our suspicion of silence has religious roots. In the second and third centuries AD, ecclesiastical authorities became antagonistic towards a group known as gnostikoi. They were Christians who claimed that God is most fully known as unknowable, and so therefore in silence. The authorities, who felt the need to shape what believers believed, branded them gnostics and cast them out of the fold. The problem was compounded in the next century when the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. Belonging to the church meant having access to secular wealth and power, so now what you thought was of political importance too. Thereafter, western rites included creeds and confessions that had to be audibly rehearsed. They policed who was in and who out.. The logic was that that the inner life, left alone, foments heresy and subversion.

The legacy of this tradition is that, today, most western churches do not practice silence. I suspect that this explains part of the appeal of mindfulness meditation: where else can you find and grow in silence? Silence is now also routinely associated with dissent and protest. Think of the tradition that runs from the Quakers to the use of silence by the Occupy protestors.

Alternatively, the Christian legacy seems to have shaped powerful scientific traditions too, such as empiricism or behaviourism. They work on the principle that if manifest evidence - scientific noise - cannot be produced in support of a theory or experience, then the theory or experience is either extraneous or deluded. Silence is treated as meaningless.

Does this matter? I think it does. I know a monk. He spends the majority of his day not talking. His aim is to live in quietude. Not talking has intrinsic value since it is then that he is able to listen to his inner tribulations and for the "still, small voice of God". To put it in secular terms, silence is necessary in order better to perceive and understand things.

To introduce some silence into your life is, therefore, a radical reorientation of your life, from one of possession by articulation to one of reception by waiting, watching, wanting. As Thomas Carlyle wrote: "Under all speech that is good for anything there lies a silence that is better. Silence is deep as Eternity; speech is shallow as time."

That, then, might be the most profound worry about rising noise levels and the strangeness of silence: it stops us thinking; it stops us experiencing. We must relearn to allow our minds to "move upon silence", to recall W.B. Yeats's lovely phrase.

This piece, a revision and reworking of a couple of older pieces, has been published by IAI News.

 

Friday, February 20 2015

Buddhism, mindfulness, therapy, politics

A podcast of our BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking programme, broadcast last Wednesday.

Rana Mitter discusses Buddhism in Western therapy and in Eastern politics with psychotherapist Mark Vernon, Rupert Gethin - Professor of Buddhist Studies in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and co-director of the Centre for Buddhist Studies at the University of Bristol, Dr Anne Mette Fisker-Nielsen expert in religion and politics in Contemporary Japan and Christopher Harding – Cultural historian of India and Japan.

 

Wednesday, January 21 2015

Freedom Of Speech Comes From Within

The role of the inner censor hasn’t been much discussed since the atrocities in Paris, though it has a crucial part to play in our freedom. A piece from The Idler.

Freedom of speech has been extensively discussed since the atrocities in Paris at the beginning of the year. But a crucial element has largely been overlooked, I think. The freedom to speak, question and satirize openly is not just a function of the society, democracy or culture in which we live. It is also, crucially, about our inner freedom and the extent to which we ourselves repress, edit or deny.

The proposal that outer freedom may depend upon inner freedom goes back to the debates on liberty during the Enlightenment. David Hume, the Scottish thinker, famously remarked that our passions drive us to the extent that he himself would "prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger."

Adam Smith, his near-contemporary and the father of capitalism, argued similarly. He suggested that each of us carries an "impartial spectator". A personal haunting, it sees everything we do. It does not pass judgement but merely lets us know that we are being watched, by ourselves. That generates all manner of inner reactions and emotions, and we feel free only when we feel our impartial spectator sympathizes with our actions. As Mahatma Gandhi remarked, "Freedom and slavery are mental states."

Sigmund Freud made the link his own. He believed we have a personal censor within us. He called it the superego, or over-I. This inner critic and disciplinarian unceasingly monitors our thoughts, feelings and utterances. It represses, or at least moderates, what it considers illicit, intolerable or offensive. It can become more powerful than any law-maker or tyrant, manifesting a range of neuroses and obsessions that trap and disable the cramped, edited, self-monitoring individual.

The superego, Freud argued, arises inevitably out of childhood belligerence. Aggressiveness against the parent develops in the child because the parent prevents it having whatever it wants. But the child is also required to renounce this aggression, if it is to grow up. Caught between the Scylla of desire and the Charybdis of family authority, the child "takes the unattackable authority into itself". In other words, the external authority turns into an inner superego which displays all the aggressiveness against the child that the child would like to have shown its parents.

It's consciously experienced as conscience or morality or a persecutory voice inside the head that sounds strikingly like mother or father. As the adult emerges, society takes full advantage of the inner censor to keep the person in check because society requires that its members do not satisfy their desires willy-nilly with double the ferocity of any parent. In effect, Freud thought, civilisation demands that we live with a perpetual frustration of our most primitive needs to speak, seek and act.

The implication is that the inner intensity of the superego is echoed in the outer intensity with which issues like freedom of speech are debated. In part powering the demand for unrestricted freedom of expression, or the sacralizing of freedom of speech, is the severity and intolerance with which individuals struggle against themselves inside. (In repressive societies, the superego is simply writ large.) The suggestion is that the energy that drives the satirical artist to push at the boundaries of propriety, and the pleasure that comes from viewing outrageous cartoons, is partly caught up with this inner battle. At times like now, it certainly feels as if all kinds of unspoken, emotive dynamics are at play.

Freud's solution was free association. In the privacy of the consulting room, lying on the couch - because, interestingly, a vulnerable position helps outwit the superego - he encouraged his patients to say whatever thoughts or feelings came to conscious awareness. They were invited to wander in their minds without inhibition.

Try it. It's hard to do, and the capacity truly to freely associate may, in fact, be the end point of therapy rather than its starting point. But it's worth trying during the current debate about freedom of speech. A better appreciation of the wiles and strength of the inner censor and critic not only generates self-awareness. If Freud is only half right, it may moderate the ferocity with which the debate is engaged in the public arena, with all the external curtailments on freedom that intensity inevitably brings in its wake.

 

Friday, January 9 2015

A gate in the fence around belief

This piece is just published in the Church Times, thinking about the report on spirituality from the RSA.

SPIRITUALITY is back, if ever it went away. Sam Harris, one of the leading advocates of the new atheism, published a "guide to spirituality", Waking Up, last year. Then there is Sanderson Jones, co-founder of the highly successful Sunday Assembly, who argues that one of its main tasks is developing a language for spirituality. He describes himself as a "humanist mystic", and feels a "spirit in life" which transcends the everyday.

Now, a proudly secular institution in London, the RSA, has published a long report, Spiritualise: Revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges (Leader comment, 2 January). The report argues that spirituality needs to play a greater part in the public realm, because, without it, human beings are unable to draw on the depth in life which is required to tackle seemingly intractable problems, from unfettered consumption to climate change.

The author, Jonathan Rowson, consulted widely with more than 300 people of many faiths and none (including, I should add for transparency's sake, me).

This new curiosity about spirituality immediately raises hackles. There is a discomfort with the S- word itself, a feeling that "spirituality" is a vague term (as if "religious" were not). The charge is that it is ethically unengaged, intellectually incoherent, personally embarrassing, sentimental, and passive. One wag consulted by Rowson noted that, when he heard the expression "spiritual but not religious", he described himself as "religious but not spiritual". Last week's affirming Church Times leader still noted that the report did not escape the trap of treating spirituality as a largely individual matter.

The report recognises these difficulties, and makes them a starting- point. Rowson argues that the very vagueness of the term may be an advantage. It is one of those words, like "soul" or "sacred", that don't die, for all the railing against them, because they capture something that is crucial for human beings - crucial, perhaps, for the reason that it can't be precisely captured. The word can, therefore, hold a space that might withstand the onslaught of materialist values, and the tendency to pin down, exploit, and instrumentalise. If no one owns it, no one can claim a monopoly over it.

As for the charge of individualism, I would argue that this is also a strength of the report. Rowson's main motivation for thinking about spirituality is that it is needed to tackle important social issues, by means of personal growth. His professional life in policy development has taught him that, without individual transformation - expressed in the great spiritual injunction to "know thyself" - the big problems stay largely untouched. For Christians, you might say that, unless you and I are prepared to risk the happiness of the poor, the meek, the hungry, and the pure in heart, we may well be actually perpetuating the collective issues that face us.

THE new exploration of spirituality might also help to dissolve the religious barriers that are felt to exclude because they tightly define belief in God or Jesus. Religion itself could come to be seen as "a secure base from which to explore, not a fence beyond which lies infidels", as Elizabeth Oldfield, the director of Theos (and another of those consulted), put it.

Similarly, I wonder whether many religious people are uncomfortable with a serious, transformative spirituality, because of the demands it would make on them as individuals. Church of England religiosity currently seems to be taking a highly extraverted and paradoxically this-worldly turn. It is energised by a concern for the socially excluded and materially marginalised, as no doubt it should be. But such matters can also serve to keep the challenge of Christianity safely in other people's lives, thereby sidestepping the question whether we ourselves are dying each day to live more in Christ.

Related to the personal issue, spirituality should be a mission issue too. After all, if the mood music about spirituality has changed, it is also clearly true that a majority of people have not stopped believing in God or that there is a spiritual dimension to life. What has changed is the sense that the Church of England has much to offer when it comes to exploring those depths. As the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, recently put it in an interview with the philosopher Jules Evans: "The real trouble with the Church is not that it has retrograde social attitudes. . . It's that it's spiritually incredible."

For all the valuable campaigning on issues of social justice, if the Church does not know and communicate the feeling that life is rooted in a source deeper and more compelling than the everyday, then it has lost touch with its wellspring, and its days will look increasingly numbered. The RSA report - and the new interest in spiritual depth - is, I believe, implictly a challenge to us, and to our Church.

 

Sunday, January 4 2015

New Idler Course - Introduction to psychology and psychotherapy

A six week introduction at The Idler Academy to the history and fundamental ideas of psychology and psychotherapy.

Do join us mid course. Each evening can stand alone.

Dates: Weekly from Monday 12th January to Monday 16th February.

Time: 6:30 – 8pm.

My course examines the key developments in the 20th century exploration of what it is to be human. We begin with Sigmund Freud, not because many agree with him now, but because he powerfully sets the ball rolling, and in part prompts the deep and insightful discoveries of figures including Carl Jung, Melanie Klein, John Bowlby, and others.

The course will interest anyone who is engaged by ideas from the unconscious to attachment theory, from the ego to spiritual fulfilment. It assumes no foreknowledge, though welcomes a desire to think not only about what others have said but about your own experience of life and yourself too. It will be useful for those who are confused by the many different psychologies and psychotherapies of the 20th century, feel that the worldview they’ve inherited might be expanded, or is wondering about where they have got to in life, and why.

Monday 12th January: The first few years.

Perhaps the greatest discovery of 20th century psychology is that the early years of our life have a massive impact on our development. We are then at our most receptive; we are born vulnerable. We look at the stages of our growth, even in the womb.

Monday 19th January: From ghosts to ancestors.

We are all the product of families, some of us survive them, and there are those who even find themselves resourced by them. So why and how do ancestors and families have such an impact on us, and how can we learn to turn our hauntings into help?

Monday 26th January: The meaning of dreams.

This session examines the experiences Freud called the “royal road to the unconscious”. We ask what the unconscious is, how Freud’s ideas about interpretation have evolved, and we will work on particular dreams to unpack possible meanings.

Monday 2nd February: Relationship styles.

We all have them, as explored by attachment theory, one of the most far-reaching and empirically tested developments in 20th century psychotherapy. So what is your relationship style, how does it help and hinder you, and might it change?

Monday 9th February: Psychological types.

This notion was one of Jung’s first great contributions to psychology. It’s the idea that we have dominant functions and grow by engaging the inferior parts of our personality; utilised in Myers-Brigg tests, though actually far older and more interesting.

Monday 16th February: Spiritual paths.

Jung observed that most of the people who came to see him where, at root, suffering from the great malaise of modernity: a lack of making. It’s also a lack of connection to the parts of ourselves traditionally opened up by religion. So how can psychology help us re-connect?

 

Monday, December 29 2014

It's the end of the world as we know it

Another article published by the Idler Academy, partly to plug my new course starting in the new year, An Introduction of Psychology and Psychotherapy.

Life appears to pause on the last days of the year. The wintery week between Christmas and the New Year seems less frantic. We idle, mimicking the sun that rises late and stays low in the sky.

With the slower pace we see shadows and dreams. It's the time of year for ghost stories and sci-fi fantasies. Or have you noticed how the news takes on a different quality too, becoming more reflective and archetypal with planes falling out of the sky and ferries burning at sea? It's a dangerous time of year for elderly celebrities: the deaths of the famous seem to be announced like clock chimes during the short days. We slow down and, perhaps because we are not used to life without distractions, things feel unsettling as if the end of year allows us glimpses of what the apocalyptic imagination calls the end times.

Carl Jung felt that at such times a different dimension to the collective conscious becomes palpable. He himself lived during periods when the shadow side of life was evident at many times of the year, as a result of the edgy distrust of the Cold War and the frightening threat of nuclear war. He believed that the twentieth century was one "filled with apocalyptic images of universal destruction". Those particular horrors may have receded, or they may not. But it is striking how quickly the twenty-first century has replaced them with new threats. The most obvious is the devastation that is anticipated as a result of climate change. Or you could point to global terrorism. Or biological threats. And it does not stop there.

We seem to live with a fascination with ruination that extends beyond the possible or probable to the imagined. Look at how the end of the world repeatedly provides an irresistible storyline in movies: this year, there was the film Interstellar with a background story of unsustainable population explosion, and more recently the film Exodus retold the Biblical story of plagues and unnatural destruction.

There are many factors that contribute to these collective preoccupations. Jung was gripped by those that are psychological and reasoned that such concerns - real and imagined - arise in large part when we become disconnected from the spiritual side of life; that connection with depth that grounds us in dynamics of life that become smothered by our distractions and humdrum concerns. It's only when we idle that we notice it again.

Another factor is modern science. It has yielded unsurpassed knowledge about the human species, but it has led, paradoxically, to a narrower, machine-like conception of what it means to be a human individual. This presumably explains why complementary therapies are flourishing: they try to address the whole person, not just the illness or disease. Or it suggests why ecological lifestyles are increasingly appealing, because they try to reconnect us with the intrinsic value of the natural world. Conversely, when we lose touch with the spiritual side of life, it returns to haunt us in the kind of fantasies and concerns that come to the fore during these shadowy, last days of the year.

To put it another way, the full life of the psyche is crucial for we humans. Jung believed it is nurtured not just by therapy, but by the great spiritual traditions of our culture, with their subtle stories, sustaining rituals and inspiring dreams. The agnostic West has become detached from these resources. It is as if people are suffering from a loss of soul. Often, now, the world does not seem to be for us, but against us; and that in itself becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as the distance between our conscious lives and the deeper life around us grows.

Towards the end of his life, Jung reflected that many - perhaps most - of the people who came to see him were not, fundamentally, mentally ill. They were, rather, searching for meaning. It is a hard task. "There is no birth of consciousness without pain," he wrote. But it is vital. Without it, human beings lose their way.

But there is always hope, like the hope of the new year, because the life of the soul - the connection that produces meaning - remains all around us, all along. We only have to take time to look.

 

Wednesday, December 24 2014

Why we go home at Christmas

This article is published by the Idler Academy, partly to plug my new course starting in the new year, An Introduction of Psychology and Psychotherapy.

"Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The truth of Leo Tolstoy's observation is unavoidable at Christmas. And you don't need to practice mindfulness to notice how exposure to fathers and siblings, aunts and in-laws, correlates with bubbling irritations, a subtle sense of sinking, or worse. So why do we go home at Christmas?

A number of factors may be at play: the expectations of others; hope that this year will be different; failures of imagination. But I suspect that something very deep in our psyches pulls and tugs us at this time of year. It's a love that draws us back to them, though it's a type of love that's often hard to live with. Its tricky dynamics have been tracked by the German psychotherapist, Bert Hellinger. He calls it conscience.

He does not mean conscience as a sense of right and wrong, but conscience as a sense that involuntarily shapes our behaviour to fit in with our group. You feel it when you return to the parental home and feel instantly infantilized, as if all your efforts to grow up grew cold. Or you become a bossy eldest sister again, or an invisible middle brother, or the one who joshes and jokes. Why? You become the square block that fits into the square hole forged for you.

It seems impossible to resist, as if in doing so you'd spoil Christmas quite as badly as the supermarket running out of sprouts. That's the power of the need to belong, to do it right. Defiance provokes anxiety and guilt as well as anger and hate. By Boxing Day, you feel bound in an impossible bind. Why do we go home at Christmas?

We go like birds migrating to the poles. For all the testiness and tempers, the return tells us we have a place. Conversely, it's the reason why being alone at Christmas is such a painful predicament that may be experienced as a kind of psychic death.

Hellinger came to his realisations in the aftermath of the Second World War. He is German and wondered how it could be that ordinary citizens became complicit in the terrible deeds of the Third Reich. Group conscience is at work not only in families but nations too, he concluded, and explains how during times of war people will routinely kill, sacrifice, and terrorize for their fellows and country regardless of cause. Only an exceptional individual can stand above a collective.

"A clear or a guilty conscience has little to do with good and evil; the worst atrocities and injustices are committed with a clear conscience, and we feel quite guilty doing good when it deviates from what others expect of us," he explains in his book, Love’s Hidden Symmetries. Similarly, feeling innocent has little to do with following your moral compass, at least in the first instance. Rather, it is to know that you belong because you are behaving as the conscience of your group requires.

Freud said that becoming an individual is a psychological achievement because an individual is someone who has negotiated the welter of affective pressures that fill the environments in which he or she lives. We are caught in love's web, for good or ill, and become who we are mostly in response to those who are physically and psychically around us. It begins in our families, extends to our lovers, and is filled out by the circles that make up the communities and organisations, the society and culture in which we live.

So this Christmas, be tolerant not just of others, but of yourself. You are caught in a network of psychological connections that brought you life and, in a sense, to which you owe your life. It's tough. But if you can receive what's good, it will sustain you.

 

Monday, December 15 2014

What happens when we die - conversations with Rupert Sheldrake

We've published the latest two discussions between myself and Rupert Sheldrake. They're available as podcasts or on iTunes.

In the first, we discuss our postmortem experience by thinking about what we know of being alive. Might dreams tell us something about what happens when we die? Is the notion of the subtle body an indicator of life after death? How do the living relate to the dead, and how might the way we live our lives shape our experience after death?

In the second, we explore how the communication of science routinely exploits notions of wonder and beauty, and what this might tell us about how science opens onto wider dimensions of reality. Does science fiction similarly suggest that science is grappling with aspects of reality that it can't itself contain? Why is the experience of wonder and, further, the so-called supernatural so popular with the public? What is the hidden metaphysics embedded in popular science, and so perhaps in science itself...

 

Monday, November 24 2014

In praise of the logos

It's Stoic Week 2014. This article is an adapted extract from the new issue of The Idler Magazine. The organisers of Stoic Week will be publishing it on their blog alongside a response from someone who disagrees.

Ancient Stoics believed that life was grounded in a benign principle they called the logos. Logos is one of those Greek words that can be translated in numerous ways, as word or reason, discourse or principle, law or activity, allure or attraction. 

The earliest extended Stoic text to survive the centuries is a hymn to Zeus, penned by Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoic school. He praises the high god for the logos that "moves through all creation". He celebrates it as the wellspring of unity, direction, meaning, purpose. Suffering, he argues, arises from refusing the logos. Ignorance of its workings leads men and women into all manner of false hopes and expectations – the pursuit of fame and fortune, of pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Troubles resolve themselves in the letting go inherent in learning to follow the logos. 

It's worth reading this hymn in full, not only because it is the Stoic document closest to the founder, but because it conveys the crucial dimension of ancient Stoicism that, sadly to my mind, is ripped out today.

Most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful,
Zeus, the First Cause of Nature, who rules all things with Law,
Hail! 

It is right for mortals to call upon you,
since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be God's image,
we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth.
Accordingly, I will praise you with my hymn and ever sing of your might.


The whole universe, spinning around the earth,
goes wherever you lead it and is willingly guided by you.
So great is the servant which you hold in your invincible hands,
your eternal, two-edged, lightning-forked thunderbolt.


By its strokes all the works of nature came to be established,
and with it you guide the universal Logos of Reason which moves through all creation,
mingling with the great sun and the small stars.


O God, without you nothing comes to be on earth,
neither in the region of the heavenly poles, nor in the sea,
except what evil men do in their folly.
But you know how to make extraordinary things suitable,
and how to bring order forth from chaos; and even that which is unlovely is lovely to you.
For thus you have joined all things, the good with the bad, into one,
so that the eternal Logos of all came to be one.


This Logos, however, evil mortals flee, poor wretches;
though they are desirous of good things for their possession,
they neither see nor listen to God's universal Law;
and yet, if they obey it intelligently, they would have the good life.


But they are senselessly driven to one evil after another:
some are eager for fame, no matter how godlessly it is acquired;
others are set on making money without any orderly principles in their lives;
and others are bent on ease and on the pleasures and delights of the body.
They do these foolish things, time and again,
and are swept along, eagerly defeating all they really wish for.


O Zeus, giver of all, shrouded in dark clouds and holding the vivid bright lightning,
rescue men from painful ignorance.
Scatter that ignorance far from their hearts.
and deign to rule all things in justice.
so that, honored in this way, we may render honor to you in return,
and sing your deeds unceasingly, as befits mortals;
for there is no greater glory for men
or for gods than to justly praise the universal Logos. 

To put it another way, ancient Stoics did not believe that it is possible to live contentedly by ignoring what you can't control, as Stoicism is sometimes interpreted today. They did not presume that those most human of feelings, fear and anger, are simply our personal choices, to be turned off and on by some trained trick of the will. They saw that life can gradually be re-ordered to serve a deeper, divine imperative that runs through all things. Let go into that fundamental goodness, and whatever happens will ultimately be shaped after its beneficent, magnificent pattern. It's a commitment of faith to a changed perception of life, not a commitment to reprogramming aimed at a personality adjustment, again as Stoicism can sometimes seem by its modern advocates. 

It was a question of knowing the divine in nature through felt experience as much as reasoned argument. Hence, Seneca, speaks of intuiting the presence of God in nature. 

If ever you have come upon a grove that is full of ancient trees which have grown to an unusual height, shutting out a view of the sky by a veil of intertwining branches, then the loftiness of the forest, the seclusion of the spot, and your marvel at the thick unbroken shade in the midst of the open spaces, will prove to you the presence of deity. If a cave, made by the deep crumbling of the rocks, holds up a mountain on its arch, a place not built with hands but hollowed out into such spaciousness by natural causes, your soul will be deeply moved by a certain intimation of the existence of God.

Seneca also seems to have felt he had a relationship with God. "God is near you, he is with you, he is within you... a holy spirit indwells within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian." Philosophy is nothing if not a promise that we can know the deity, and not primarily by our efforts but because God wills to be known to us. In another letter, he writes: "God comes to men; nay, he comes nearer, – he comes into men. No mind that has not God, is good. Divine seeds are scattered throughout our mortal bodies; if a good husbandman receives them, they spring up in the likeness of their source and of a parity with those from which they came. If, however, the husbandman be bad, like a barren or marshy soil, he kills the seeds, and causes tares to grow up instead of wheat." 

Epictetus, too, had a powerful sense of God in his life. This is important to note because it is often from Epictetus that contemporary Stoics lift injunctions about how to live, though leaving the crucially divine setting behind - the metaphysical big picture that is required to make full sense of how we response to what happens. We are "children of Zeus", he says, before addressing God as father in prayer, acknowledging God's omnipresence, and God as the source and sustainer of our life. Indeed, our life is but a reflection of God's life, which is why it makes sense to let go of our own striving and trust life: "If our souls are so bound up with God and joined together with Him, as being parts and portions of His being, does not God perceive their every motion as being a motion of that which is His own and of one body with Himself?" Knowing this fact in every moment of our lives is what secures the Stoic promise of tranquility and freedom. "You are a fragment of God; you have within you a part of Him. Why, then, are you ignorant of your own kinship? Why do you not know the source from which you have sprung? Will you not bear in mind, whenever you eat, who you are that eat, and whom you are nourishing? Whenever you indulge in intercourse with women, who you are that do this? Whenever you mix in society, whenever you take physical exercise, whenever you converse, do you not know that you are nourishing God, exercising God? You are bearing God about with you, you poor wretch, and know it not!" He adds: "Remember never to say that you are alone, for you are not alone; nay, God is within, and your own genius is within." 

Our task in life is not only to know the divinity in the sinews of our being, in every breath we take, but also to fulfill our part in God's purposes. This engages us in a struggle that is personal, not mechanical; there is a moral element of choice about how we might live, and struggle with yourself as well as with discerning the divine around and about, within and before. We are interpreters of God's world and witnesses of God's work. In a climactic celebration of Stoic life, Epictetus declares: 

Why, if we had sense, ought we to be doing anything else, publicly and privately, than hymning and praising the Deity, and rehearsing His benefits? Ought we not, as we dig and plough and eat, to sing the hymn of praise to God? ‘Great is God, that He hath furnished us these instruments wherewith we shall till the earth. Great is God, that He hath given us hands, and power to swallow, and a belly, and power to grow unconsciously, and to breathe while asleep.’ This is what we ought to sing on every occasion, and above all to sing the greatest and divinest hymn, that God has given us the faculty to comprehend these things and to follow the path of reason. What then? Since most of you have become blind, ought there not to be someone to fulfill this office for you, and in behalf of all sing the hymn of praise to God? Why, what else can I, a lame old man, do but sing hymns to God? If, indeed, I were a nightingale, I should be singing as a nightingale; if a swan, as a swan. But as it is, I am a rational being, therefore I must be singing hymns of praise to God. This is my task; I do it, and will not desert this post, as long as it may be given me to fill it; and I exhort you to join me in this same song. 

Knowing that there is a God is, therefore, the first thing a Stoic must learn. Theology is not an optional extra for a few die-hard theists. It is the very heart and resting place of the Stoic view. Epictetus again:

(Stoicism)says that the first thing we must learn is this: That there is a God, and that He provides for the universe, and that it is impossible for a man to conceal from Him, not merely his actions, but even his purposes and his thoughts. Next we must learn what the gods are like, for whatever their character is discovered to be, the man who is going to please and obey them must endeavour as best he can to resemble them. If the deity is faithful, he also must be faithful; if free, he also must be free; if beneficent, he also must be beneficent; if high-minded, he also must be high-minded, and so forth; therefore, in everything he says and does, he must act as an imitator of God. 

Today, it is religious scholars of the ancient world who understand this essential aspect of Stoicism and aren't embarrassed to write about it. In his recent book on St Paul, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, NT Wright summarizes Stoicism, observing: "Once one has this knowledge, one is ready for the philosopher’s specific active vocation: to be dispatched like a scout or a spy in a time of war, to search out what is really going on, and then to come back and explain to people that they are mistaken in their perceptions of good and evil, and to point out the truth of the situation whether people want to hear it or not. Philosophers... are to be like owls who see in the dark – and then like heralds who announce the message with which they have been entrusted." 

I've laboured the point about the theology, and included several key texts, because this is what you will miss if you read most introductions to Stoicism today. To be frank, I think it is dishonest to sideline the divine foundations. It turns Stoicism into an atmosphere without air, a sea without water. Such reductionism is doubly misleading when it comes to Stoicism because the Stoics prided themselves on their rational approach to life that adds up because all its different parts link together - physics, ethics and metaphysics. Drop one element and they felt you are on the way to losing the lot. 

That, I fear, is what today's atheistic interpreters of Stoicism risk doing today. Unfounded and ungrounded, Stoicism loses its promise, its efficacy, and its divine energy.

 

Friday, November 21 2014

The School of Athens: then and now

Here is Dirk Lindner’s lovely pic of the School of London, take on 20 November on the steps of St Paul’s. The philosophers: 

ARISTOTLE: John Lloyd John is the founder of QI and produced the great TV hits Blackadder, Not the Nine O’Clock News and Spitting Image. 

PLATO: Angie Hobbs Angie is Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield and has written extensively on Plato. She is Honorary Patron of the Philosophy Foundation. 

ST PAUL: Nick Spencer Nick is research Director at Theos, a think tank promoting clear thinking on religion and society and author of Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury). 

PLOTINUS: Mark Vernon teaches philosophy at the Idler Academy and is the author of many books including Plato’s Podcasts. 

CICERO: Patrick Ussher Patrick is a post-graduate student at the University of Exeter working on Stoicism. He runs the Stoicism Today project. He will be teaching as Cicero the Sceptic. 

EUCLID: Alex Bellos Alex is an author and popular mathematician. He is the author of the Sunday Times best-seller, Alex’s Adventures in Wonderland, and is on mission to communicate the joy of numbers. 

DEMOCRITUS: John Mitchinson John is Director of Information at QI and co-founder of crowd-funding publishing platform, Unbound. Democritus was known as the laughing philosopher and first conceived the idea of atoms. 

EPICURUS: Tom Hodgkinson Tom is editor of the Idler and co-founder of the Idler Academy of Philosophy, Husbandry and Merriment. He is the author of the best-sellers How to be Idle and How to be Free. 

ZENO THE STOIC: Jules Evans Jules is author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations. He will teaching ancient Stoicism. Jules is policy director at the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. 

SOCRATES: Peter Worley Peter is CEO of The Philosophy Foundation and author of award winning books on doing philosophy in the classroom. He is President of SOPHIA, the European Foundation for the Advancement of Doing Philosophy with Children.. 

DIOGENES THE CYNIC: Jock Scot Jock is a poet recently diagnosed with cancer. He has chosen not to accept chemotherapy. He was given three months to live six months ago. In earlier life he was a roadie for The Clash and the Pogues. 

PTOLEMY: Danny Wootton Danny is a musician and artist. He teaches music at the Idler Academy through the medium of the ukulele. 

PROTAGORAS: Martin Robinson Martin is a former teacher and author of Trivium 21st C, a book which aims to reintroduce the study of the ancient Trivium – grammar, rhetoric and dialectic – in schools. 

 

Tuesday, November 11 2014

Announcing new Idler online modern philosophy course

Click here and use the discount code 'ithink01' and for the next 48 hours get £10 off!

WHAT is it to be modern? What ideas and assumptions shape the way we experience ourselves? Why do we take pride in our modern ways, so that being called medieval, for example, is an insult?

Well, if you want one candidate, to be modern is to feel that things can be described by scientific laws that behave in predictable ways. With that insight, comes a powerful, irresistible sense of understanding, mastery, progress. Moreover, everything in the world can be regarded in this rigorous way, human beings included. Think of how our politics is ruled by demography more than ideas; our economics by bar-charts more than human wellbeing; our hopes by income more than service.

It’s a fixation on certainty that was explored by the French philosopher René Descartes. His thought has had a massive impact on the hopes and aspirations of the modern world. He wanted to establish firm foundations for what we can know and he had a rather brilliant idea as to how to do that. He would turn doubt on itself. Doubt everything you can, he says, and see what’s left standing.

In his Meditations, he imagines sitting quite alone, by the fireside in a winter dressing-gown, asking: what can I be sure of? Can he be sure of say the table, the chairs in front of him? No, because the senses are unreliable: sight and sound have sometimes deceived him before, and we shouldn’t trust things which have deceived us even once. He then doubts whether there’s a world at all: the trees and clouds might be a dream, an illusion beamed into my mind by some malicious demon (for which read malign computer, today). Modernity prides itself on being able to question everything, anything.

In fact, nothing seems certain until Descartes finds one single point of resilience. His one point of certainty is his own existence. ‘Even if I’m deceived I must exist, even if I doubt at least I must exist,’ he concludes. This is the famous, ‘I think, therefore I am.’

His experience of knowledge and certainty are still with us, profoundly shape us. Descartes also boosts the trend for thinking about things by beginning with me, my thoughts, my experience. The ‘I’ becomes sovereign, and a kind of hopeful new god. We separate ourselves from what our forebears would have assumed, the older guidelines, the medieval structures of experience and knowledge. Descartes himself firmly believes in God, but the scenario he presents means that God can be left alone, be forgotten, apparently be disproved.

It’s an exciting experience, a brave new world. We can be ourselves in a way that others before us just couldn’t. The modern imperative is not to know ourselves, but to make something of ourselves. Freedom no longer means taking your place under God, it means making and enjoying open choices. Reason is not so much about finding harmony with the cosmos, as using the human mind to determine what may and may not be the case.

But these liberties – and they do bring us many valuable things – come at a price. Friedrich Nietzsche, the greatest of the modern atheists, understood that. When he has his ‘madman’ announce the death of God, he has the madman also lament: ‘How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning?’

This is the modern challenge. It’s the predicament we find ourselves in. It’s as thrilling as it is alarming; as full of potential as disaster. It’s what many sense in our times, whether they worry about ecological meltdown, runaway technologies, biological pandemics, nuclear war. Pondering the implications of modernity has never been more engaging, unsettling, timely.

 

Thursday, November 6 2014

New conversations with Rupert Sheldrake - anatheism and common prayer

We've published the latest two discussions between myself and Rupert Sheldrake. They're available as podcasts or on iTunes.

The first is on an anatheism, the notion that atheism is a phase that many people go through, as is widely recognised within spiritual traditions as a transition period in which ideas about God are discarded so that a deeper perception of the divine might emerge. We wonder whether the same thing happens at a cultural level and so whether contemporary atheism is itself a phase leading to more vital conceptions of God.

The second is on common prayer, that is, the value of spiritual practices undertaken with others. We ask what is lost when the so-called 'spiritual but not religious' generation assumes spiritual practice is an essentially individual pursuit, and what needs to happen in order for collective traditions to become accessible once more.

 

Thursday, October 30 2014

When Freud Met God

This piece is published in this week's edition of The Tablet.

For many Christians the existence of Purgatory is an article of faith. Even for Protestant writers such as C.S. Lewis it made sense as the place where the dead continue their journey towards God: why should our struggle end just because we have died, he reasoned? But can purgatory have secular meaning too?

Yes, a group of psychotherapists, theologians and historians affirmed at a recent conference. They met at the Anna Freud Centre in London, under the auspices of the Freud Museum, one sign of the rapprochement now taking place between psychotherapy and religion.

Sigmund Freud’s scepticism about belief in God is waning among psychotherapists and new links are being forged. Purgatory might play a part because therapy itself can be thought of as a profoundly purgatorial experience. The key is to expand the notion of Purgatory as a place we go to after death, and think of it too as a state of being that can be vividly known in life.

DANTE’S highly influential depiction of Purgatory, in the Divine Comedy, is particularly instructive. He describes Purgatory as a mountain. As his travellers ascend, they spend time on its various terraces. The souls of the departed are purged of various sins at each stage, the first being the most deep-rooted and necessary to tackle, namely the sin of pride. When stuck in the state of pride, a soul may not even know of its need for God. And if it does, it will resist the implied dependency.

Dante’s examination of the dynamics of such sin, which are gradually revealed by the soul’s time in Purgatory, compare favourably with modern psychodynamic insights. Pride in particular may be likened to what often shows up as the fundamental issue in psychotherapy, the state of mind that therapists refer to as narcissism.

Strictly speaking, narcissism is not a love of self, but a determination to love oneself that constantly fails. Narcissistic defences against feeling unlovable therefore accrue to the personality, and they are often in the form of pride because one of the best defences is to attempt to make the world in your own image. It is a form of fantasy omnipotence. And as well as cutting you off from other people, because it is through our vulnerabilities that we most intimately connect, narcissism cuts you off from the divine. Pride and narcissism alike mistake oneself for God.

In a way, the difficult task in therapy is to come to the deep realisation that one is not divine, but a human being who depends on love. This realisation is profoundly troubling if one’s early experiences of vulnerability were traumatic, for one reason or another. Conversely, without such an acknowledgement, life gets stuck. Only the individual who can love can grow, Freud realised. So too, the soul must remain on Dante’s first ledge of Purgatory until it can acknowledge its pride and then its need to open up to God’s compassionate and merciful judgement, for all that these are initially experienced as undesirable, painful and frightening.

Purgatory reflects aspects of the therapeutic experience in other ways too, Kalu Singh, one of the conference participants, continued. It might sound like a humdrum observation, but it is crucial that both take time. They do so because both must reach to the ground of our being, of who we have become and might become. Purgatory is a place of remaking, and further, this remaking is achieved not by forgetting the past but by not letting the past entirely shape the future. Therapy can be experienced like that too.

It is perhaps why Dante’s good angels seem to embody some of the qualities of a good therapist. They accompany the travellers and make space for them. What they do not do is attack them, tempt them, or hinder the deeper processes that might unfold. The psychotherapist, too, waits on the soul, as the Greek word itself implies.

The ways in which Purgatory differs from hell can help develop the comparisons. They were explored by psychoanalyst Richard Carvalho, who noted that if there is no hope in hell, as Dante put it, there is hope in Purgatory. In fact, Purgatory is a place or state shaped by hope, in spite of the pain: the pain is endured not simply as punishment, as it is envisaged in hell, but as process.

It might be put like this. In hell, a central problem is that the soul feels it is impossible to let go of bad experiences. So, a “hell of our own making” is the experience of being trapped in perpetual states of envy, rage, revenge and hate.

The psychoanalytic explorations of these emotions, particularly in the work of Melanie Klein, can read remarkably like the exploration of the seven deadly sins in the Church Fathers. Much as Evagrius Ponticus warned his brethren that pride and so on is what they would find if they ventured on the inner journey to God, so too the psychotherapist is trained to tolerate the negative feelings that will emerge in the relationship they have with their client.

But unlike in hell, Purgatory allows these feelings to be explored and worked through. The soul’s task, and the therapeutic one, is to find a way out of the compulsive clinging to what Christianity refers to as sin, the tragic human trait that left unchecked repeats and repeats and repeats.

The acknowledgement of pride helps to identify a way out, because fundamental to change and redemption is that it cannot be achieved alone: if hell is solipsistic, purgatory is relational. To put it theologically, grace is operative in Purgatory, and similarly modern psychology has demonstrated how the young child needs self-giving parents if it is to learn how not to be caught and ruined by its difficult feelings. As the psychotherapist D.W. Winnicott used to put it, the child needs a nurturing environment in order to be able both to experience the full range of its emotions and feel that it can survive the nastier aspects.

A therapeutic reading of Purgatory is not overly anachronistic, the historian Miri Rubin suggested. When ideas about Purgatory developed apace, at the turn of the first Christian millennium, Purgatory was envisaged as a place where you come to terms with yourself because you see yourself clearly, perhaps for the first time. This is to say that to the medieval mind too, Purgatory does not need to be a state you enter only once you have died. It is a process that is affected by, and is in, the here and now.

The spread of cultural and social activities associated with Purgatory, from chantry chapels to indulgences, can be understood in this way as well. Medieval ideas about Purgatory also contain the notion that the whole of human history is a kind of Purgatory, as creation is redeemed and returns to God.

The crucial dynamic in Dante’s Divine Comedy is, of course, love – the force that moves the sun and the other stars. Dante tells of falling into a rapture at his first taste of love, when seeing Beatrice. But this courtly, romantic love is gradually transformed into the longing not only for another human being, but for the divine. It is re-directed by being able to be thought about, as psychotherapists might say.

And indeed, Freud himself felt that the motor of psychoanalysis is love. It is the longing for more from life that enables the capacity to move beyond overwhelming experiences by gradually being able to gain a felt understanding of them and, then, to incorporate them. It is the realisation that they can propel one through life rather than simply leave one trapped. To put it theologically, Dante comes to realise that he loves God in the love he felt towards Beatrice.

Carl Jung, Freud’s erstwhile disciple, noticed that those who sought his help in the second half of their lives faced problems that were, at base, invariably religious. He argued that we moderns have spontaneously embarked upon new ways to nurture our souls. Many fail us, and so clergy and therapists need to be friends not enemies. As the rapprochement between psychotherapy and religion continues, thinking about Purgatory might prove to be an unexpected and yet fruitful place of meeting.

 

Monday, October 27 2014

Are You An Illusion? - Mary Midgley book review

This review is published in the current issue of Third Way magazine.

There is a quick answer to the question that forms the title of the 95-year-old philosopher Mary Midgley's new book. It is, no. You are not an illusion. But understanding the appeal of "selficide" illuminates much about contemporary popular discourse, and in particular why it is often difficult for religious perspectives to be heard.

Midgley is a lively writer, enjoyed for the focus and clarity with which she steers a way through often complex arguments. (In the interests of disclosure, I should say that I am the editor of the series in which this book and her previous one, The Solitary Self, are published, though I had no direct hand in editing the latest.) There is a technical way of summing up why it can seem plausible to assert that our powerful sense of being an individual, a person, a self is illusory: the methodological stance of the natural sciences has become an ontological conviction. In other words, the highly successful practice of treating the natural world as full of physical objects to be studied empirically has morphed into an assumption that the natural world is full of nothing but physical objects.

When it comes to experience and consciousness, free will and so on this assumption becomes problematic, because these aspects of life are not physical objects. A London bus is big but it is also red. Physics can study the size of the bus though not its redness: all physics can reveal is that my eye is receiving light of about 700 nanometers wavelength. If you think that physics offers the best access to reality, the temptation is therefore to write off the experience of redness as a byproduct of what happens when a certain wavelength hits the cells at the back of your eye and is processed by the neurons at the back of your brain. There is no real experience of redness. The reality is the electrochemical states in the brain. Mental life is an illusion and, since mentality is so central to our experience of ourselves, you are an illusion too.

(It's worth adding that Midgley is not asking the Buddhist question about the illusory nature of the self: her's an issue prior to that about the reality of mental life at all which is to say that the Buddhist enquiry into the nature of the self presumes mental life is real in some sense.)

Of course, Midgley points out, no-one can actually live as if they or their family are an illusion. And there are all sorts of reasons why the reduction of everything to physical objects, and declaring any remainder illusory, fails. If reductionism is taken to reveal the truth of things, why stop at the brain and not molecules, atoms or quarks? The atomic fundamentalist would insist that the experience of pain is no more neurons firing than it is the sense of agony: it is but a pattern of atomic excitation.

Alternatively, consider a simple question asked by Socrates, in Plato's dialogue the Phaedo. Why is he sitting in prison awaiting death by hemlock? The materialists of his day, Socrates says, would argue that his body consists of bones and sinews, and that a certain combination of contractions and movements in those bones and sinews led to him being behind bars. Only that seems a wholly inadequate explanation of his predicament because it misses out the main moral dimension. He is under arrest for what he believes to be the best way to live. That is the reality, and it is materialism that is flawed by dismissing ethics and the like. The paucity of this worldview was highlighted by Plato almost 2,500 years ago. Science has certainly progressed since then, but one of Midgley's main points is that now our moral imaginations seem to be shrinking.

As well as diagnosing what has gone wrong, Midgley argues we need to understand what has been lost. The crucial part played by intention and motivation in mental life, and so also our sense of self is one element she explores. She notes that Charles Darwin did not lose sight of this dynamic. He took it to be as real as the materiality of the fossils he also studied.

For example, in The Descent of Man, he examines the behaviour of female Argus pheasants who chose a mate by male display. Today, evolutionists would describe these remarkable dances and parades as merely representing the potency of genes. But Darwin argued that the male pheasants are clearly trying to charm a female. The display has nothing meaningfully to do with genes at all. "Many will declare that it is utterly incredible that a female bird should be able to appreciate the fine shading and exquisite patterns with an almost human degree of taste," he wrote. Darwin did not find it incredible. The mental life of pheasants is a fascinating subject of study and an obvious fact. Again, subsequent evolutionary science has, in this sense, regressed not progressed. Its "life-blindness", as Midgley puts it, makes a casualty of a pheasant's experience and our own.

Midgley respects the importance of the reality described by Christianity, though is agnostic as to its veracity herself. She argues that it is one thing not to believe in God and quite another not to believe in selves, without following the argument that the one may lead to the other: as some atheist as well as theist philosophers have pointed out, if you remove the ground of Being, then all beings come to be regarded as insubstantial and perhaps dispensable too.

She is also inclined to blame a certain kind of Christianity for the emergence of scientism. It is the type that searches for a world taken to be more real than the immediately reality that surrounds us - perhaps a heaven, the full presence of God, a perfect kingdom. Science makes the same theological move when it claims maths is more real than mud. What she seems to lose sight of is the centrality in Christianity, and indeed in Platonism before, of the very human experiences of love and suffering. They are not perceived of as impediments to truth but as the means by which we gain our deepest insights into life.

Nonetheless, by undoing the excessive claims of science, and showing why it should not dominate public discourse, Midgley contributes greatly to making space for religious truths again. Her books are always an illuminating read.

 

Friday, October 17 2014

Learning To Be God

This piece is published in Third Way Magazine this month.

In a fascinating conversation with the philosopher Jules Evans , Richard Chartres, the bishop of London, remarks: "The real trouble with the Church is not that it has retrograde social attitudes, or hasn’t embraced the emancipation of women. It’s that it’s spiritually incredible. It’s just as shallow as the rest of us." Western religion is "feeble", he continues, because it has been reduced from a journey of many dimensions and parts to a set of ideas that might be "encapsulated in a neat formula".

To put it another way, it's not gay marriage that is the main problem for contemporary Christianity. It's not congregational decline. It's not maintaining a religious voice on the public stage. Such issues, says Chartres, are really proxies for something more substantial, the loss of "fluency in spiritual matters". If Christians had that, the problems that preoccupy us would possibly dissolve, and certainly take second place.

A PROJECTION WITHDRAWN

We suffer from spiritual "impoverishment", and it happens when prayer becomes little more than a form of talking with God, or worse, the means of posting a divine wish list: I want someone to be converted, to be healed, to be renewed. A more alive and therefore credible spiritual life starts with a move through such activities and into the process - the struggle - by which our projections onto God begin to come undone.

Hence, Meister Eckhart went so far as to preach, "If I say that God is good that is not true. God is not good; I am good." He meant that God is beyond what we might think of as good - or wise or lovable - and when we see that we catch a glimpse of God. Cyprian Smith, in his penetrating book on Eckhart, The Way of Paradox , draws an analogy with falling in love: it's when we can let our beloved love us as themselves, as opposed to being the supplier of what we design or need or want, that we enter into a rich relationship with them. It's a frightening process, one that often feels as if we are falling out of love. So too with God. But what can emerge on the other side of this purgation is a life that is good, wise and desirable because it is truly rooted in God.

Saint Paul puts it succinctly when it talks of no longer living, but Christ living in him . What he discovered, when he admitted he didn't know how to pray, was the Spirit already praying within "with sighs too deep for words" . It's the kind of meditation or contemplation taught by fluent spiritual traditions: "Once you... had gone through this journey, from time to time, you tasted from the eternal well-spring that there is at the heart of every life and all life," as Chartres puts it in the conversation .

AN EASTERN JESUS

You might say that the Christian journey is one of the transformation of consciousness; it offers a revolution of our awareness of reality. It's painful and difficult because the trip is Copernican in shape: time and time again we must wrestle with the displacement of our egos as the sun at the centre of things. But, under one reading at least, it is a journey that Jesus himself seems to have undergone. This offers a vision of Christian life that, I suspect, can address some of the spiritual shallowness that the bishop of London identifies. Alongside medieval adepts like Meister Eckhart, it is presented in the writings of modern Christians like Thomas Merton and Bede Griffiths. In fact, the current head of the Shantivanam ashram that was lead by Griffiths, John Martin Sahajananda, was in London recently. He described how the life of Jesus as presented in the gospels suggests that his relationship with God evolved, in the sense of being a lifelong discovery of what was true all along. And astonishingly, Jesus' story is presented as if it might also become ours.

WAKING CONSCIOUSNESS

Brother Martin explained that a first type of consciousness experienced by Jesus was simply as a human being, the child of Mary. In this "waking consciousness", Jesus knew himself as a creature and experienced God as transcendent and other. A second type was his "collective consciousness" as a Jew, symbolized in his circumcision on the eighth day. In this position, Judaism seemed like his way, truth, and life - though he also sensed its limitations, perhaps in conversations such as he had with the Samaritan woman at the well or with the Canaanite women whose daughter was demon-possessed . It is as if such encounters were remembered because they conveyed part of the process through which Jesus undid his religiously-shaped projections onto God and let in wider possibilities. The baptism of Jesus symbolizes a third type of consciousness that transcends the second. "It was the moment he came out of the womb of Judaism and entered into the universal presence of God. It was his spiritual rebirth," Brother Martin writes in his book, Fully Human Fully Divine . He calls it "universal consciousness". The question now is not whether you are Jew or Gentile but whether you know yourself as a child of God. Further, God comes to be perceived not only as a transcendent other but as an indwelling presence: Emmanuel.

ONE WITH GOD

The journey does not end there. A fourth type of consciousness in Jesus' life came with the realisation that he was one with God: "The Father and I are one." Hence he could now say that he is the way, the truth, and the life by virtue of his identification with God who is the way, truth, and life. This is his "awakened consciousness" and he shows this way, truth, and life to us, his followers.

In an arresting aside, Brother Martin remarked that had Jesus proclaimed himself as one with God in India then he would have been sent to an ashram not the cross. Though, the Christian revelation is challenging to Indian religions in other ways. In recognising his identity with God as Abba, Father, Jesus shows that intimacy with the divine is a mark of the evolution of human consciousness. So too is the realisation that loving one's neighbour is the same as loving God. It's a step change from the old covenantal command to love God and neighbour.

ANCIENT & MODERN

It might be called a Vedantic understanding of Christianity , which appeals to me for a number of reasons. First, it is rooted in a spiritually rich and fluent tradition, one in which the difficult practices of withdrawing our projections are alive and being handed on. Moreover, in forms such as mindfulness meditation, it is becoming increasingly accessible in the west, perhaps because our spiritual neediness has led many to look to the east.

That said, it also chimes with western developmental psychology, which can be thought of as a twentieth century science of human consciousness. Although this discipline is typically ambivalent about the spiritual dimension, it does describe human development as a series of step changes in awareness and awakening. Drawing links might, therefore, help to re-establish the fluency and vitality of older spiritual traditions.

UNFOLDING PSYCHOLOGY

For example, the Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan explores the process by which human beings discover meaning in life as a successive evolution of mindsets, from self-possession, to self-authoring, to self-transforming. With the last "we can step back from and reflect on the limits of our own ideology or personal authority; see that any one system or self-organisation is in some way partial or incomplete; be friendlier toward contradiction and oppositeness; seek to hold on to multiple systems rather than projecting all but one onto the other."

Might a vision of Christianity as a transformation of consciousness grab people's attention today? Could it reinvigorate an enfeebled religious imagination obsessed with issues? After all, if ours is a culture that lacks spiritual fluency, it is one in which many are anxious about depth in life and whether consumerism offers all that there is to being human. Christianity says, there is much more. It is found in the person of Jesus, and the call to follow him along the evolutionary trail.

 

Friday, October 10 2014

Evolution is evolving in interesting ways

I've this piece in the Church Times, and was glad to see too that Nature this week is asking the same question...

Evolution is the headline challenge to Christianity in the so-called culture wars. Various apologists make the case that there needn't be a clash, but the fact remains that humans are apes, life is a bloody struggle, nature produces great variety but even greater waste, and where believers foolishly sense design, there are really only random processes.

Biologists seem to know as much. Research from YouGov published last month concluded that almost half of British biologists are atheists, compared with less than one in five of the general population. A smaller proportion of atheists is found among physicists, even.

And yet what this story of stand-off often fails to note is that the theory of evolution is far from settled. Moreover, unease about neo-Darwinian orthodoxy, the version of Darwin's theory championed by Professor Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, has been growing in recent years. There are a number of figures in the field who, although they wholeheartedly accept that life evolves, are now questioning it.

Take the problem of "missing hereditability", the suggestion that genes can account for only a fraction of what we inherit from our forebears. It has become impossible to ignore this since the sequencing of the human genome in 2003. This impressive achievement has, none the less, dramatically failed to deliver on its promise to account for human diseases and behaviours through genetic mechanisms.

Click to enlarge A handful of breakthroughs have been made, and modern science's efficient PR machine ensures that newspapers still carry headlines about genes for this and that. Massive funding is at stake. But, in truth, the stated goals of the project have not materialised.

BUT something far more interesting, particularly for theists, has emerged. The failure has led to the mainstreaming of the new science of epigenetics. This acknowledges that the environment and nurture - even a parent's experiences - directly influence what is passed on to offspring. It undermines the idea that inheritance happens only via DNA, and that evolution is built solely on random mutations. To put it simply, life is far more complicated and responsive than "selfish-geneism" allows.

Genetic determinism was, in fact, challenged from its inception by a now forgotten biologist, Walter Weldon. He argued that the environment and nurture were required to account for the inherited variations within species observed in nature. Further, Weldon's view might have won the day, and saved us from a century of biological reductionism; but he died young. What is known as Mendelian genetics had better PR and, then as now, that often matters more than pure science.

Epigenetics might interest believers because it is one step away from the mechanistic interpretation of evolution which appears to land such blows on theism. It is a new piece in the puzzle of life which raises the possibility that evolutionary processes many not be blind and random, but might have direction, even purpose.

To that extent, it chimes with another critic of the status quo, the NYU philosopher, Thomas Nagel. In Mind and Cosmos: Why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false, he asks whether life may tend towards the emergence of consciousness. When you immerse yourself in all the extraordinary intricacies and syntheses at play in biological systems, it can certainly seem as if the universe wills itself to become aware of itself in the organism Homo sapiens.

AT A recent conference, "The Uses and Abuses of Biology", organised by the Faraday Institute of Cambridge University, Dr Simon Conway Morris, Professor of Palaeobiology at Cambridge, speculated that we might do well to return to the insights of the co-discoverer of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace.

Right from the start, Wallace argued that human consciousness was far more sophisticated than would be needed merely to afford human beings survival advantages. We don't use language just to warn our fellows of danger but to compose sublime, searching poems. We don't use sound just to attract a mate but to nurture the ecstasy and insights of music.

Neo-Darwinism puts language and music down as an evolutionary by-product or excess. But that is scientifically unsatisfactory, because it is, in effect, saying that there is no direct explanation. It also feels humanly inadequate, leading to comments such as those of the Harvard professor Stephen Pinker, who describes music as "auditory cheesecake". Don't sit next to him during a performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion.

Theists can be intrigued by this sort of debate, since it might change the narrative of a "clash" with science. But they also shouldn't get too excited. As Professor Conway Morris continued, biology would have to become an unimaginably different science were it to embrace any teleological dynamics. The taboo against directionality is strong.

Then again, paradigm shifts occur regularly in the history of science. Perhaps biologists are about to make an evolutionary breakthrough.

 

Tuesday, October 7 2014

Freud the sceptic, Idler Academy talk

Few people take Freud at face value anymore. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But he did us a great service. After Freud, it's much harder to ignore the fact that we are not the commanders of our consciousness. We do things that we wished we hadn't done, and don't do things we wish we had. Even more so when it comes to feelings when, on occasion, we are swept away by rage, envy, hate.

To put it another way, we don't really know ourselves; can rapidly become strangers to ourselves. If you pay enough attention you quickly come to realise that the bit you feel you do know, which Freud called the ego, is only one part of the complex system called the human psyche. Waking thoughts are just the tip of the unconscious iceberg.

In fact, Freud was not the first to realise that there is more to our inner lives than we might or can be aware of. The ancient Hellenistic philosophers known as Epicureans and Stoics realised that there are many situations when we cannot control ourselves. We might will it, but another part of us won't it. They reasoned that we must have feelings we don't feel; desires we don't realise we're slaves to.

But arguably, the ancient philosophy school that Freud followed most closely were the sceptics. In the Greek, sceptic means searcher or enquirer, and they were entirely unlike modern day 'sceptics'. They did not go around debunking other people's beliefs, a strategy that Freud would have instantly realised is defensive since the upshot is that it protects your own beliefs. Rather, the ancient and true sceptics tried to go let go of their consciousness understandings and see what novelties and fears might emerge.

Put it this way. Although you may think you are walking through life with your eyes open, they realised that in truth we may as well have our eyes closed. So they metaphorically shut their eyes and embraced the bumps and blows. They found it was not only therapeutic, leading in time to an unexpected inner tranquility. They found that actually they discovered far more about life in the process because they could tolerate, even welcome, what life threw at them. To use Freudian language, they became far less defensive.

Freud developed another technique called free association. He encouraged his patients to speak out whatever comes into their mind. It sounds easy, but it's hard. In fact, free association - speaking whatever the life of the mind throws at you - is more likely to be the end point and achievement of psychoanalysis rather than it's starting point. It opens up the unconscious and that is often frightening. But also, the search is intriguing and unexpectedly revealing. It can, in time, lead to an entirely new experience of life, one that embraces the darkness of the psyche, and ends at least some of our inner fights, anxieties and struggles.

We'll talk more about Freud at the Idler Academy on Monday 20th October.

And also about Jung at the Idler Academy on Monday 27th October. 

Book here!

 

Friday, October 3 2014

New Science and Religion talks, Institute of Art and Ideas

How did consciousness arise? Is the universe rational? Is there a meaning to life? Once these questions were the domain of the sacred, but in the modern world, science offers very different answers to religion.

In this course, Dr Mark Vernon explores the common ground between these allegedly incompatible world views. But which can provide us with the best description of reality?

Part One: The Battleground. Vernon reveals the history of the science-religion conflict and its place in our culture.

Part Two: Alternatives to the Conflict. Can we think about science and religion differently and avoid the conflict altogether?

Part Three: Science and Consciousness. Vernon proposes a new model for solving the problem: does consciousness hold the key?

 

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