Friday, November 21 2014
By Mark Vernon on Friday, November 21 2014, 10:09 - Events
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
By Mark Vernon on Tuesday, November 11 2014, 13:51 - Events
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
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, November 6 2014, 11:56 - Podcasts
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
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, October 30 2014, 21:01 - Journalism
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
By Mark Vernon on Monday, October 27 2014, 09:21 - Journalism
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
By Mark Vernon on Friday, October 17 2014, 14:58 - Journalism
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.
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.
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
By Mark Vernon on Friday, October 10 2014, 20:10 - Journalism
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
By Mark Vernon on Tuesday, October 7 2014, 10:45 - Events
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.
Friday, October 3 2014
By Mark Vernon on Friday, October 3 2014, 13:12 - Podcasts
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?
Tuesday, September 16 2014
By Mark Vernon on Tuesday, September 16 2014, 10:52 - Podcasts
Agnosticism was the subject for this week's Beyond Belief, on BBC Radio 4.
I was trying to make the case for an agnostic spirit that is not just an option for some but actually part and parcel of the human condition and crucial for theists who want to undo their inevitable idols.
You can pursue the issue at book length too!
Friday, September 5 2014
By Mark Vernon on Friday, September 5 2014, 08:49 - Events
Thursday 25th September, St George's Church, Bloomsbury
Rupert Sheldrake writes: "Science has done much to alienate us from our direct, intuitive experience of nature. But now the sciences themselves are transcending the materialist world-view, and recent experimental research points to the reality of our intuitive and mental connections to the world around us."
Rupert Sheldrake will show how the sciences can now illuminate aspects of spiritual practices including pilgrimage, the power of sacred places, rituals, rites of passage, meditation and prayer.
Entry will be five pounds. There will be the opportunity to get a glass of wine before the event, and doors will be open at around 7.00. We will finish at roughly 9.00.
This event is part of a series organized by Jules Evans and Mark Vernon, called 'LPC : Wisdom' , exploring the ancient idea of philosophy as the love of wisdom.
Monday, August 11 2014
By Mark Vernon on Monday, August 11 2014, 15:02 - Events
I enjoyed this definition of philia in the festival posters, and was struck by how much agape was around - a rather Christian kind of love… And so am glad to be contributing with a talk on philautia this Saturday too.
Monday, August 4 2014
By Mark Vernon on Monday, August 4 2014, 16:10 - Podcasts
Is there a God-shaped hole at the heart of our post-Christian world?
Does it matter? Is it all potential gain, with freedom of expression and liberation from oppression at last possible? Or are there unforeseen losses, too? Has the decline in religious practice and ritual opened up a void now all too easily filled with consumerism, the social media, and a preoccupation with therapy and self-help? Indeed, with ‘oneself’?
Mark Dowd chairs a discussion on this controversial issue with Peter Stanford, Mark Vernon and Julian Baggini.
Thursday, July 31 2014
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, July 31 2014, 11:06 - Podcasts
1. Richard Chartres, the bishop of London, talked to Jules Evans, producing a really very remarkable interview.
Our spiritual culture at the moment is so impoverished and primitive. People find it extraordinarily difficult to be serious about angels or discarnate energies.
It’s a very modern tragedy that religion has become ideas in the mind. That’s why western religion is so feeble.
But alas we do not have many places where one can go today to learn and practice contemplation – we are very needy.
We don’t seek illumination from the whole but from bits and pieces. This is one of the reasons why this civilization is in grave peril.
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 spiritual incredible. It’s just as shallow as the rest of us.
2. If you feel C.S. Lewis is a little too vanilla, try Malcolm Guite's exposition. Never again. He also understands Tolkein, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams like no other.
3. Roger Scruton talked at Theos last month, as usual making a number of penetrating remarks and comments. I particularly liked his distinction between sound and tone: science understands sound, but it has no purchase on tone - though the rise and fall, mood and intensity of a musical phrase is the very stuff of life for us.
Or his distinction between causes and reasons. Again, science understands causes but it has no purchase on reasons as a prompt to action, and yet most of the meaning we find in life is linked to this aspect of our agency. We lose touch with this dimension at our peril. And perhaps we are in peril...
Friday, July 18 2014
By Mark Vernon on Friday, July 18 2014, 11:21 - Events
In this RSA series on reconceiving spirituality, we have explored what it might mean to 'take spirituality seriously', the role of the body in spiritual experience, what sense we can make of the soul in a scientific age, and the importance of reflecting on our mortality. Join us for the penultimate event in this series, when we examine an experience and ideal that many believe has to be at the heart of any reappraisal of the spiritual: Love.
Thursday, June 26 2014
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, June 26 2014, 15:16
Thursday 17th July, St George's Church, Bloomsbury
"Do you have wisdom to count the clouds?" asks the voice of God from the whirlwind in the stunningly beautiful catalogue of nature-questions from the Old Testament Book of Job. Tom McLeish takes a scientist's reading of this ancient text as a centrepiece to make the case for science as a deeply human and ancient activity, embedded in some of the oldest stories told about human desire to understand the natural world.
Drawing on stories from the modern science of chaos and uncertainty alongside medieval, patristic, classical and Biblical sources, he challenges much of the current science and religion debate as operating with the wrong assumptions and in the wrong space. There are surprising consequences for our political troubles around technology and science.
Tom McLeish is a leading physicist and pro-vice-chancellor of research at Durham University. At Durham, he has organized fascinating cross-disciplinary projects including putting the cosmological models of medieval thinker Robert Grosseteste through the Durham 'cosmology machine' supercomputer.
Entry will be five pounds. There will be the opportunity to get a glass of wine before the event, and doors will be open at 6.30. There will also be an opportunity to buy Tom's book at a discount (not sure of exact cost but probably around £20). We will finish at roughly 9.30.
Tuesday, June 24 2014
By Mark Vernon on Tuesday, June 24 2014, 11:35 - Events
The RSA had the latest in its public discussions of issues related to spirituality last night, on death. Worth a watch, especially for the disturbance Will Self brings which is entirely appropriate to the subject.
It also struck me how woefully misunderstood traditional religious approaches to death are these days, as if Buddhism is mostly about being happy or Christianity just promises jam tomorrow.
Some of my take-home thoughts are below…
If we saw people dying and dead then perhaps mass entertainment of people dying and dead would seem less enticing. Will Self.
Christianity teaches dissolution and actualization as part of the same process, not unlike Buddhism. Will Self.
There is no such thing as life and death but rather deathlife like spacetime. Will Self.
Deathlife brings the dead back into play, not disappearing them beneath the waves, as secular culture tends too. Will Self.
The present moment is having its moment at the moment. Joanna Cook, thinking about mindfulness.
Thinking about my death moves death from a problem to be solved to a how to live life. You are already naked. Joanna Cook
Saturday, June 21 2014
By Mark Vernon on Saturday, June 21 2014, 09:54 - Podcasts
We've published the latest in the discussions between myself and Rupert Sheldrake. It's available as a podcast or on iTunes.
We discuss the idea that alongside five empirical senses, we have a range of spiritual senses that respond to pattern, wholeness, the implicit, the good. They tend now to be collapsed into a vague 'intuition', though medieval and ancient thinkers explored how they could be used to investigate the world much as the empirical senses are relied on today.
Thursday, May 29 2014
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, May 29 2014, 19:45 - Podcasts
We've published the latest in the discussions between myself and Rupert Sheldrake. It's available as a podcast or on iTunes.
We discuss the mindfulness phenomenon, which although partly a therapeutic movement seems akin to a spiritual revival as well. So what does the interest in mindfulness say about our times, how does it relate to past movements such as transcendental meditation, what can Christians and other theists make of mindfulness, and might it be a sign of a renewal in the quest for God - or even, God's quest for us?
Friday, May 23 2014
By Mark Vernon on Friday, May 23 2014, 10:01 - Journalism
This piece is in the latest Church Times, out today…
We are in the midst of a spiritual revival. It has touched the lives possibly of millions. It keeps books in the Amazon top 20 for years. It's bigger than the Alpha Course. And yet, the church seems hardly to have noticed it, or at least responds with nervousness. It is the practice of mindfulness - a technique and a state of being that the Oxford psychologist and Anglican priest, Mark Williams, has defined as "the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, with compassion, and open-hearted curiosity."
The latest sign was the launch this week, on 7th May, of an all party parliamentary group, supported by the Mindfulness Initiative, a collaboration of Oxford, Exeter and Bangor universities. Seventy or more MPs have undergone mindfulness training, and the aim is to help spread the practice into health, education, criminal justice and work. So might the established church now start to take more serious note and, if so, how?
There is the nervousness to overcome, the sense that Buddhism is spreading across the land under the guise of teaching useful skills (Features, Lent Series 2013). One way to address this issue is realise that the concept of mindfulness is, in a sense, biblical. When scholars first translated the Pali word "sati" they landed on the word "mindful" by borrowing from the psalms: "What is man, that thou art mindful of him?" The use there captures something of the power of attention - of God being intimately aware of us, and we of ourselves.
It is, therefore, truer to say that mindfulness is just one of a family of practices, now often forgotten, that have long been part of the Christian tradition too, practices that might include reciting the Jesus Prayer, sitting still, and contemplative communion with God. "The skill required is inner silence," Martin Laird explains in his excellent introduction, Into the Silent Land, because "It is the noisy, chaotic mind that keeps us ignorant of the deeper reality of God as the ground of our being."
It can also be helpful to draw a distinction between "problem-solving" and "spiritual" mindfulness, as Alex Gooch puts it in a new collection of essays, After Mindfulness edited by Manu Bazzano (Palgrave Macmillan). Problem-solving mindfulness is a technique that, for example, tackles addictions (Comment, 3 January). There is lots of evidence it helps. Spiritual mindfulness is different in that it addresses not only individual troubles, but questions with which our culture as a whole is struggling - in particular the nature of the self and our relationship to the divine.
Why Christianity lost touch with its mindfulness traditions is a moot point. In his book, Silence: A Christian History, Diarmaid MacCulloch suggests that western ecclesiastical authorities have long tended not to sanction silence as part of everyday Christian life because in Christendom, much of social and political importance rested on the beliefs of individuals being made public. Elizabeth I did not want to make windows into men's souls, but amongst leaders she is an exception. Western liturgies that to this day contain little or no silence is a byproduct. The worry about mindfulness as secret Buddhism might be another.
But like the many revivals of religious life across the centuries, of which Justin Welby is rightly making so much (News, 4 April), I suspect that the mindfulness movement can be seen as a spontaneous desire to recover this lost dimension of the spiritual life that contemporary Christianity is failing to provide.
That said, secular mindfulness teachers tend to steer clear of the s-word and it is theologically unlike, even opposed, to the Christian understanding of God, grace and salvation. Rather, it is presented as a method through which the individual might become skilled to save themselves from unnecessary suffering. But a closer look suggests that this might be only a surface difference and that mindfulness can be a route through which individuals rediscover the divine.
Consider this. A good mindfulness teacher will not try to sell the practice with promises of happiness or fixes for anxiety, though there is a lot of that around. (In this way, mindfulness is a step on from CBT that does offer techniques for directly managing troubling thoughts and feelings.) Rather, they will teach the profoundly counterintuitive insight that the effort in mindfulness training is, paradoxically, aimed at learning to do nothing. Do not strive to mend, but rather see more fundamentally what is going on inside; understand the machinations of the mind more clearly. Yearning to be happy or be free of psychic pain is, in fact, likely to compound the problem.
But why should someone trust this recommendation? What is the model of being human that lies behind it? It is that in spite of appearances, all is well. Creation is benign. Life can be trusted. Suffering certainly copiously exists but a stronger grace longs to be felt, if only we can ease up on our desperate self-holding and so know it in some silence. To put it another way, mindfulness is premised on the conviction that our worried egos and daily preoccupations veil the truth that our lives rest in a life that sustains and supports all things.
Again, mindfulness teachers will stick to secular language such as "training the observer" or "simply noticing". That's right, that's the practice. But why do that if letting go were letting go into a godless, heartless void? It seems to me that, in practice, mindfulness nurtures the experience of knowing the God "in whom we live and move and have our being".
I suspect that soon individuals will turn to the philosophical and theological questions mindfulness naturally raises, and about which the Christian tradition holds rich and compelling possibilities. Christians now might want to develop mindfulness groups, discuss it, above all practice it. Because if mindfulness is symptomatic of a spiritual revival then it is also a mission issue, in the sense of missio dei: God's work in the world with which the church is invited to join. To put it another way, in a secular age, mindfulness may prove to be a much needed experiential way back to belief in God.