Friday, March 2 2012

Fear of the dark

I've a piece in this week's The Tablet on David Cronenberg's film about Freud, Jung and Spielrein - A Dangerous Method - thinking particularly about the meaning of the relationship between Jung and Spielrein, presumed sexual in a hanky-panky kinda way. A taster:

Such experiences have been called ‘profane spirituality’ by Andrew Samuels, the Professor of Analytical Psychology at the University of Essex. His touchpoint is Jung’s analysis not of sexual pursuits but alcohol abuse. Jung argued that alcoholism is a ‘spiritual quest that had gone off the rails,’ Samuels explains...

‘There is no birth of consciousness without pain,’ Jung wrote in an essay penned when he emerged from his creative illness – though with that darkness, or shadow, comes the promise of life. Jung later proposed that great spiritual innovators tread similar paths too, finding inspiration from their own confrontations with the unconscious. According to tradition, the Buddha was tempted by the daughters of the demon Mara, a story that Jung interpreted as conveying Siddhartha Gautama’s hard won insight into his psyche. Jesus of Nazareth was driven into the wilderness and confronted the forces that approached him there. That which would have destroyed his ministry he faced to resource it.

More generally, it might be said that sins are forgiven not to be forgotten but so that the individual might be freer to understand their deeper meaning for him or her, ‘to recognise the realities of the human psyche’, as Christopher Jamison puts it in Finding Happiness. The strategy of facing inner hatred, envy, lust and anger can be traced back to the early desert fathers. Jung re-describes the process for our psychologically-minded age. The shadow is fearful and disturbing, but makes for spiritual development and openness to the numinous.

He once asked why the injunction to care for those who trouble us in the outer world should not apply to what troubles us in our inner worlds. ‘That I feed the beggar, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ – all these are undoubtedly great virtues,’ he writes. ‘But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all beggars, the most impudent of all offenders, yea the very fiend himself – that these are within me.’ We should not condemn this fiend but converse with him and discover his message for us.


Raspberry Pi and the aesthetics of evolution

I was on BBC Radio 3's Night Waves last night, talking about the new budget computer, Raspberry Pi. It's being billed not only as inspiring a future generation of computer programmers but also as a way for us all to become 'programmers not programmed'. I doubt that (about 30 minutes into the programme.)

Incidentally, there was also an interview with philosopher David Rothenberg. He was arguing that aesthetics is an additional principle of evolution, alongside fitness and sex, required to understand why whales sing or why bower birds must have blue nests, to the extent that they will kill to secure a blue feather. Hardly adaptive.

This struck me as rather like Simon Conway Morris' argument that mental niches might be explored by evolutionary processes, as much as physical ones.

Rothenberg also told of being round at Thomas Nagel's flat just recently. Nagel, Rothenberg said, knows that he is wrong in his famous essay What Is It Like To Be A Bat ?. That's a bit like saying you know Aristotle knew that he was wrong about final causation.


Sunday, February 26 2012

Podcast on friendship

I was in conversation with Simon Glendinning at the LSE on friendship last week.

There's a podcast online now, here.


Sunday, February 19 2012

Posthumous pardons

Night Waves had a discussion on forgiveness this week, which I took part in (last 10 minutes or so.) We were reflecting on a number of recent instances where the secular state has been exorted to forgive and yet seems unable - the Alan Turing case and others.

Whilst getting some ideas together, it struck me that forgiveness is something that goes on every day in churches, but the state finds it almost impossible to offer, having to hold to the law. I wonder if it's another ramification of the loss of the transcendent in public life. If there's nothing above the law, as it were, there's nothing to suspend the law, as forgiveness requires. In a religious setting, though, the divine is above the law and thus, as the good book says, everything is possible with God.


Tuesday, February 14 2012

Love in the shadow of Eros's deepest longings

This piece on love, human and divine, has just gone up at the Guardian's Cif Belief...

There is a long tradition in Indian religion that links human and divine love. Kama, as in the Kama Sutra, is India's Eros. Firing arrows of flowers, he made Shiva, the god of destruction, fall for Parvati, a tender consort. The myth speaks of how the aggressive and nurturing urges in the human psyche might be united. The life of the gods is our life too.

Related themes are touchingly portrayed in the miniature paintings called ragamala, which feature in a new exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London. They have a similar appearance to medieval book illuminations. Richly coloured, conveying a dream-like, archetypal feel, some show gods in icon form. Others convey intimate narrative scenes of devotion.

Ragamala imagery is also inspired by the musical modes known as raga. Each mode has a unique feel. One is bright and uplifting. Another, dark and melancholic. Each picture is a visual representation of the emotional mood associated with a raga. Though their precise function is contested amongst scholars, it seems fair to assume that listening to the right mode, or contemplating the right image, deepens insight. They offer a meditative, aesthetic therapy.

The most accessible ragamala in the exhibition reflect on the theme of love. We see a female lover walking in parkland, and then conversing quietly with an older and presumably wiser confidant – or perhaps a guardian angel. In one, she longs for her beloved. In another, she seeks shelter from the storms of passion.

Similar erotic themes are central to the Platonic theology of the Christian traditions. Again, the ups and downs of human love are imagined as a shadow of Eros's deepest longings: union with the divine. Or think of the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible. The different chapters in the story of human love can be taken as allegories of the spiritual quest. The woman in the ragamala is a lover and a human soul too.

The deployment of psychological moods to cultivate insight was a major theme of the Renaissance. Writers extensively explored the links between sound and soul, colour and spirit. "I often resort to the solemn sound of the lyre and to singing to raise the mind to the highest considerations and to God as much as I may," wrote the humanist philosopher, Marsilio Ficino.

Modern music therapies revive the tradition. In a recent article for the Lancet, Professor Martyn Evans explained that "when music works upon us therapeutically, it expresses, recalls, and even rekindles general features of our embodied experience and of our ordinary being." It nurtures "bodily and psychological fluency and vitality," he continued, adding: "[and tells] of our place in the universal order of things."

Love is more important to Christianity than reason or learning, writes Christos Yannaras, a leading Greek theologian. To be a believer is to embark on an erotic adventure because God is a "mad lover", he ventures. The human soul rises to the divine in the passion of ecstasy – passion being the operative word, as the journey is one of pleasure and pain because it necessitates a stepping out of yourself, an ek-stasis.

"The thirst for life is implanted in our very nature, in each tiny fold of our existence," Yannaras explains, in On the Absence and Unknowability of God, "and is an unquenchable thirst for relationship, that is to say for the reciprocity of self-abandonment and self-offering." Falling, as when falling in love, speaks of the collapse of the walls with which the individual protects him– or herself, though also isolates him– or herself too.

So also the spiritual struggle. The Sufi poet, Rumi, was another influence on the tradition of the ragamala and advised this: "Tend within to the opening of your heart." There's a message for Valentine's Day.


Saturday, January 28 2012

It's time for science to move on from materialism

This piece, on Rupert Sheldrake's new book, The Science Delusion, has gone up at the Guardian's Cif. I see Mary Midgley reviews the book today too...

Werner Heisenberg, one of the founding fathers of quantum physics, once observed that history could be divided into periods according to what people of the time made of matter. In his book Physics and Philosophy, published in the early 60s, he argued that at the beginning of the 20th century we entered a new period. It was then that quantum physics threw off the materialism that dominated the natural sciences of the 19th century.

Of materialism, he wrote:

"[This] frame was so narrow and rigid that it was difficult to find a place in it for many concepts of our language that had always belonged to its very substance, for instance, the concept of mind, of the human soul or of life. Mind could be introduced into the general picture only as a kind of mirror of the material world."

Today we live in the 21st century, and it seems that we are still stuck with this narrow and rigid view of the things. As Rupert Sheldrake puts it in his new book, published this week, The Science Delusion: "The belief system that governs conventional scientific thinking is an act of faith, grounded in a 19th-century ideology."

That's provocative rhetoric. Science an act of faith? Science a belief system? But then how else to explain the grip of the mechanistic, physicalist, purposeless cosmology? As Heisenberg explained, physicists among themselves have long stopped thinking of atoms as things. They exist as potentialities or possibilities, not objects or facts. And yet, materialism persists.

Heisenberg recommended staying in touch with reality as we experience it, which is to say holding a place for conceptions of mind and soul. The mechanistic view will pass, he was certain. In a way, Sheldrake's scientific career has been devoted to its overthrow. He began in a mainstream post as director of studies in cell biology at Cambridge University, though he challenged the orthodoxy when he proposed his theory of morphogenetic fields.

This is designed to account for, say, the enormously complex structure of proteins. A conventional approach, which might be described as bottom-up, has protein molecules "exploring" all possible patterns until settling on one with a minimum energy. This explanation works well for simple molecules, like carbon dioxide. However, proteins are large and complicated. As Sheldrake notes: "It would take a small protein about 10^26 years to do this, far longer than the age of the universe."

As a result, some scientists are proposing top-down, holistic explanations. Sheldrake's particular proposal is that such self-organising systems exist in fields of memory or habit. These contain the information required to make the structure.

Fearlessly, he extends the speculation to embrace a range of phenomena that many people experience. Telephone telepathy is one, when you are thinking about someone just as they phone. Or the sense of being stared at. The idea, roughly, is that our intentions can be communicated across mental fields that are like morphogenetic fields. They connect us – though in the modern world, with its ideological and technological distractions, we are not very good at noticing them.

Sheldrake has continually to fight his corner. In the new book, he records an encounter with Richard Dawkins, when the eminent atheist was making his 2007 TV series Enemies of Reason. Sheldrake suggested they discuss the actual evidence for telepathy. Dawkins resisted. "There isn't time. It's too complicated. And that's not what the programme is about," Sheldrake reports Dawkins saying, before himself retorting that he wasn't interested in taking part in another "low-grade debunking exercise". Dawkins reportedly replied: "It's not a low-grade debunking exercise; it's a high-grade debunking exercise."

I admire Sheldrake for his extraordinary good humour, given the decades of abuse he has endured. This manner comes across in The Science Delusion because, at heart, it is a passionate plea for the materialist worldview, finally, definitively, to be challenged.

Whether or not his own theories will stand the test of time is another question. In a paper published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies in November 2011, Fraser Watts examines them at face value and, broadly, finds them suggestive but wanting. For example, Sheldrake conceives of mental fields via the analogy of an amoeba: as an amoeba extends its pseudopodia and touches the environment around it, similarly telepathy and the like would be the result of "mental pseudopodia" extended into the world around us.

The analogy has the benefit of naturalising extrasensory perception, Watts notes. But it also raises problems. For example, how would it be possible mentally "to touch" objects that don't exist, as would happen when contemplating a centaur? Watts concludes: "An adequate account of the mind must encompass both first- and third-person description whereas the idea of a 'field', along with the other spatial descriptions that Sheldrake uses, seem to be exclusively third-person type descriptions." Oddly, this is a strikingly 19th century attitude to have.

Nonetheless, Sheldrake must welcome such serious engagement with his work. He may not be right in the details. But he is surely right, with Heisenberg, in insisting that the materialist world view must go.


Time management: the past isn't a foreign place

This piece has gone up at the Guardian, as part of a supplement in today's paper, Make The Most of Your Time:

The modern mind is inclined to think of the past as gone. Archaeologists dig the ground for it; others try to hold on to it with photos. "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there," reflected the writer LP Hartley.

But isn't the past entirely present? Contemplate, for example, the deep past of our evolutionary inheritance. We have four limbs because our prehistoric ancestors did. We sing much like whales and birds, melodically speaking, thanks to the creatures that first strove to communicate with music.

Of course, novelty emerges in evolution too: we humans have opposable thumbs and Mozart. But appreciating this deep past can awaken Gaia-like solidarity and connect us more profoundly with the origins of life.

Another source of our selves is historical, in the culture and family that shapes us. Here the past may feel less comfortable to contemplate, for such factors highlight another dimension – the way the past can constrain us. Your family links you to particular people and places. You might have moved to an anonymous city or left the country of your forebears to escape such ties. You might desire a future free of the past. The past can feel wearisome or even frightening in a culture, like ours, that is inclined to sell dreams of being who you want to be, regardless of the past.

In truth, though, that is a delusion. As William Faulkner remarked: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Further, it is when you attempt to turn your back on the past, and expend all that energy trying to ignore or delete it, that it becomes a drain and a burden. Paradoxically, it is then that you cannot put it away.

However, there is another way of thinking about the past; to consider it as a resource, one that's tailored precisely to you.

A better model for a happier relationship with the past might be the life of the artist. Their first task is to accept the constraints of their medium, the limitations of paint or the mere 12 notes of the scale. Only then can something wonderful occur. They develop a voice, they find a mode of expression. They become someone.

So with us too. The origins of our lives lie in the past. But this also means that the past is life's gift to you, painful though it can be. It is only within the constraints of life – having four limbs, singing a particular song, being of a time and place – that we can live, be transformed and free. The past is actually what makes us someone too.


Wednesday, January 25 2012

David Attenborough's, Primate Crisis


Tuesday, January 17 2012

Faith that is known first in the body

This piece has just gone up at the Guardian's Cif Belief...

There is a crucial element missing from Julian Baggini's Heathen's progress, his careful sorting of the differences between an atheistic and religious stance towards the world. It has to do with the body. Not only is the body fundamental to any understanding of religion but helps, I suspect, with some of the issues that have recurred in Julian's discussions; matters like the relationship between belief and practice.

To get at the issue, take a step back and consider a couple of strands of contemporary research. They draw links between our bodies and how we know ourselves and the world.

The first comes from cognitive science, or rather, a radical questioning of cognitive science as it has been construed. A diverse group of philosophers and scientists are now arguing that the dominant 20th-century view of cognition, as a capacity of brains or minds, is inadequate. The alternative is often called embodied cognition. It examines the evidence that our bodies play a vital role in how we engage with the world. According to this view, bodies are not just life-support systems for the brain or sources of sensory inputs. Rather, bodies are integral to human thought.

For example, it is noted how people use hand gestures when reasoning. "On the one hand," you might gesticulate, "But on the other hand too." It is proposed that we toy with possibilities in this way because the body enables us to symbolise complexity. As a result, we are able to hold on to ideas that a brain in a vat, or dare I say an analytical philosopher, would dismiss as incompatible. Bodies enable us to live in a cognitively richer world.

Then there are other researchers asking why Google is still so stupid. One answer is that, although vast databases feed the online search engine, it lacks one crucial thing. A living body. And this makes all the difference.

Try asking Google whether it is foggy outside. Nonsense is returned, though it's a simple question for us. We intuitively know about inside and outside, having an inside and outside of our bodies. We spontaneously look out of a window. In short, it seems that bodies are crucial for making the world a meaningful place too. (Conversely, a common feature of schizophrenia is not to have a clear sense of the inside and outside of your body. Commonsensical meaning departs. What's inside and outside becomes confused and alarming.)

Or again, there is the evidence coming out of neuroscience, so brilliantly discussed in Iain McGilchrist's book, The Master and His Emissary. It shows that the right hemisphere of the brain has far more neural connections with the body than the left. The result, when engaged, is a capacity for broad attention, drawing new links, and remaining open to the unknown and unexpected. Conversely, the left hemisphere only grasps what it knows. It is very good at being focused. It loves delivering the products of reason and is wary of imagination and affect, you might surmise.

All this chimes with research into human development too. Here, it seems increasingly clear that what we take to be true or false, trustworthy or doubtful, is first and foremost an activity of the body.

The story begins young, very young, when an infant – a word that means "without speech" – is trying to make sense of the world. A wide range of studies suggest that it does so by what it takes into its body and what it rejects. Good food is deemed good because it nourishes the child both physically and psychically. When a child turns away from the bottle or breast, it is not only having trouble feeding but trouble trusting too.

This early experience looks like it provides a grounding for adult convictions, an echo of which is carried in our language. Hence, when you don't trust some belief, you will resist being "taken in" by it, like the infant who didn't take in the food. Alternatively, when you have a strong conviction, you might say that it becomes "part of you", like nourishing food. "Drink the waters of wisdom", invites the Psalmist. He was not deploying a metaphor.

Hold on to those thoughts, and consider a second area of research, now historical. The insights here revolve around the beginning of the modern period, when a profound shift occurred in the way the body and belief were conceptualised.

One crucial moment was the discovery of the circulation of the blood in the 17th century. After that, the body was regarded as a closed system. Doctors became increasingly preoccupied with infection and contagion, what should and should not be allowed into the body. This clearly makes great sense in terms of medicine. But it has knock-on, epistemological effects too.

Consider, say, the tradition of British empiricism which developed at the same time. It deploys a similar logic in that it is sceptical about what comes into the body via the senses. That "data" must tested to see whether the beliefs it implies can be allowed to inhabit the mind. Similarly, knowledge that can claim objectivity, a validity independent of the body, comes to be valued more than subjective knowledge, which is gained by introspection, turning inwards.

The upshot is that the modern sceptic is suspicious of subjective convictions. They fixate on the many ways in which individuals can be self-deluded, and forget that they can also be wonderfully discerning. They miss truths that can only be known by acquaintance, which is to say, by letting them in.

Alternatively, the modern atheist may admit that going to church can be tremendous and saying prayers valuable to cultivate thanks. But they will ensure that these activities remain contained – quarantined, you might say – by interpreting them as of strictly aesthetic or instrumental merit. They must not be allowed to become processes by which the individual becomes porous to the divine.

The new cognitive and historical insights have further implications for the understanding of religion. For example, if religious narratives are to do with seeking patterns of meaning and a holistic view, the spiritual searcher will gain most from embodied ways of engaging with life. I suspect that this is why meditation can be so revelatory. It trains the attention towards aspects of embodiment like the breath. It exercises neurons that people never knew they had. Expansiveness is the result.

Or again, if a religious sensibility needs an embodied foundation, this would explain why spiritual directors advise individuals to make pilgrimages, to experience liturgies and rituals, and to discipline and pattern their lives. These are activities that are about letting go, which is also a letting in. Something opens up to a new experience of life. Illumination is gained. Faith known first in the body may be the result.

Of course, that faith may well seek creedal expression too, though reason best serves the experience, discerning and deepening it. "Excarnation" as the poet Yves Bonnefoy has called it, is "wrong-headed religion."

So, it is this embodied dynamic that, for me, Julian's reasoned articles have missed. As Pascal had it, the heart has its reasons. The new research appears to be confirming that the old insight is quite true.


Wednesday, January 11 2012

Philosophy at Selfridges

This will be fun, if you're free...

Words, Words, Words at Selfridges, London


Greek Philosophy: Thursday 19 January 6.30pm – 7.30pm

In this enthralling class, author and philsopher Dr Mark Vernon will teach the basics of Greek philosophy. You will learn who Socrates was and what he taught, as well as get the low-down on the philosophical schools that followed him: the Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics and Cynics. You'll also gain an insight into everyday life and politics in Ancient Athens, and how the dialogues of Ancient Greece are strikingly relevant to issues that concern us today.


Wednesday, December 28 2011

James Hillman on money as psychic reality

I've a piece on the Guardian's Cif belief about money and faith - not there titled as above, but above captures the main source and drift. Here's the piece:

No one expected the steps of St Paul's to become the epicentre for a nation's debate about money. But it is not surprising that faith should be so entwined with the prevailing anxiety of 2011, and no doubt 2012 too. After all, the Judeo-Christian tradition provides us with the language by which we express that anxiety.

The worry about the impossibility of serving both God and mammon is a thorn in the side of the collective consciousness. Or there is the fear that it is indeed easier for a camel to enter through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, to recall another of Jesus's witty, devastating lines. He also advised his disciples to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's, apparently dividing the worldly from the spiritual.

You do not have to believe in God or the kingdom of heaven to understand what he was driving at. It is surely no coincidence that in this year Jessie J's song, Price Tag rode high in the charts of a dozen countries. It urges us to forget about the price tag and remember the music, for which read: what do you stand for, soul or money? The challenge is straight out of the Bible.

And it is true: money has a dark side. "Follow the money," we say, meaning that it'll expose the questionable motivations behind people's actions. It's an old idea. Money for Charon would take you into the underworld.

Or there is the way money is associated with all manner of alarming predicaments. We fear "being broke" or "ripped off". Economically, we face "depression", years of "low interest". The metaphors that fill the newspapers remind us daily of psychological as well as financial nightmares.

But the matter can be pressed more subtlety. Rather than insisting on a choice, a split, it is possible to examine how money leads from the material to the spiritual, and vice-versa; how the divine might mingle with mammon.

The psychologist James Hillman, who died this year, wrote about money as a "psychic reality", by which he means a third state between the material and the spiritual. It sits at the centre of our efforts to unify many opposing forces in life. This is why it causes us so much trouble, though is a trouble that we cannot avoid if we want to live.

St Paul's itself embodies this struggle. The life of the soul is sustained within its marble walls, though psalms could not be sung without the material means to maintain, light and heat it. Alternatively, descend into its airy crypt and beneath the high altar you find, not the bones of a saint, but the tomb of a hero, Nelson. At the cathedral's heart is a memorial that tries uneasily to unify the political and religious.

Alternatively, think of the links between money and love. Hillman points out that the word "spent" has both a genital and monetary meaning. Or there is the notion of security, that can relate to the way people think about money and their personal relationships. In fact, an individual who avoids intimacy may well also say that money means nothing to them. Another person who is demanding in love may express that fear by also being the kind of person who counts the pennies. Arthur Schopenhauer had a resonate definition of money as "frozen desire".

The ancient world understood this link. The origins of the word "money" are associated with a goddess, Moneta. Her temples were treasuries. She was the mother of the muses, and so it might be said that money is the great enabler of the imagination. It forces the spiritual into contact with the material because the imagination can only be made real when facilitated by the means bought with money. There is no shame that the Renaissance could not have flourished without the money of the Medici.

In fact, the Christian tradition understands that money enables life, too. It is not money per se that is condemned. Rather it is luxury, which might be defined as money without imagination, as the material without soul. To put it differently, money must serve life, though it will try to make us its servant. Jesus's thought was that you cannot serve both God and mammon.


Saturday, December 24 2011

Happy Christmas


Tuesday, December 20 2011

Christian morality has the power to bring all things to account

I've a piece up at the Guardian Cif Belief reflecting on David Cameron's recent comments about the need for Christian morality. Here it is too:

David Cameron would not have had to assert that Britain is a Christian country if the matter were beyond dispute. The worry is that we have embarked on a journey of moral drift in this particular sense: it is not that Christian morality makes all things good – far from it – but it has the capacity to bring all things to account. To put it in more philosophical terms, theistic ethics can sustain an objective quality – something recognised by ethical thinkers as diverse as Friedrich Nietzsche and Pope Benedict.

Again, it's worth reflecting on what is meant by objectivity. It is not that rights and wrongs become self-evidently clear. Even so-called divine command theory – right is right because God decrees it is right – urges believers to engage in the arduous task of discerning just what God decrees as right. This is because God's moral law cannot be read off the page, in spite of what some might tell you, but can only be comprehended by those who have undergone a lengthy process of training and transformation. As Saint Augustine prayed: "Lengthen my days for the study of your law's inner meanings. Open the door to them when I knock on it. You had a purpose in causing the Scripture to contain so many pages dark with obscure meaning." Light comes when the individual's will is aligned to God's will, a lifelong task for which even the saint had to ask more time.

So objectivity in ethics is valuable not primarily because of what it might tell us to do, but because of where it suggests we might be heading. It is a view of morality that stands over and above the human frame. Only an ethic not of our own making can truly call us to account; and further, only an ethic not of our own making can remake us and surprise us. (I can't help but feel that this is what really offended Christopher Hitchens about Christian morality: it told him he was not a god and then, adding insult to injury, that he needed God.)

Iris Murdoch, the novelist and philosopher, made the case for such a transcendent view of morality in her book The Sovereignty of Good. The middle chapter, On "God" and "Good", pays re-reading. She calls it having an eye for a wider horizon. It draws the individual's inner gaze towards goods that are beyond their imagined concerns, though might be of concern to them because the wider horizon promises a flourishing that humanity, of itself, could never divine.

Think of the life of the artist, Murdoch suggests. The greatest artists are not self-aggrandising but other-attending; they don't use their imagination to pursue agendas but to open reality. The great test is whether the artist disappears in their art or whether they stamp themselves all over it. "The greatest art is 'impersonal'," Murdoch says, "because it shows us the world, our world and not another one, with a clarity which startles and delights us simply because we are not used to looking at the real world at all."

The moral life springs from that sight because it is fundamentally a question of attention, not action. It is about what you focus on before what you decide to do. This explains why moral heroes often tell of a striking event that etched itself on their mind. Desmond Tutu writes of seeing the white bishop, Trevor Huddleston, doffing a hat to his mother. In an instant he glimpsed a different world, a wider horizon. Such moments cannot be contrived, though they are presumably all around to those with the eyes to see.

I sense that this is why so much of what passes for moral philosophy today feels like it misses the point. Take the oft-discussed "trolley problem". It proposes thought experiments featuring runaway trolleys and innocent bystanders some of whom must die, depending on what you decide. But do such scenarios model moral life at all? They treat ethics as an isolated event, as a calculation: "The agent, thin as a needle, appears in the quick flash of the choosing will," Murdoch writes.

In truth, though, the moral work of our lives is done continually, collectively and over time. It emerges in the shape of our personality and temperament, habits and character. Prayer and meditation are more likely to nourish the good in us than reason or dispute. The religious sensibility understands that deeply, too, another reason it might be valued by those who have a concern for the moral life of our times.


Friday, December 9 2011

Philosophy at The Idler Academy

I'm doing a series of symposiums on modern philosophy at The Idler Academy, starting the New Year.


1. Descartes and the birth of modernity Monday 9 January, 6.30pm He stands on the threshold of a new way of being in the world, now called being modern, turning doubt on itself to see what can be known for certain, and controversially concluding ‘I think therefore I am’. But Descartes is widely misunderstood as responsible for mind/body dualism. In this Symposium we will look at what it means to be modern and try to set the record straight.

2. Bishop Berkeley and the empiricist/idealist divide Monday 16 January, 6.30pm After Descartes two different attitudes towards the world took root. Empiricism claimed that only the senses could be trusted as a source of knowledge. Idealism argued that our mental construction of the world must come first. Bishop Berkeley is a fascinating figure in this debate, the man who caused Samuel Johnson to kick a stone, refuting the non-existence of matter.

3. Immanuel Kant and what it is to be enlightened Monday 23 January, 6.30pm Kant is the towering figure of the Enlightenment, writing a series of Critiques in which he attempted to outline the limits of human knowledge. He also wrote a seminal essay on what it is to be enlightened, arguing that it is ‘daring to know’ and kicking off the shackles of received authority. He is a tough read, but full of ideas to engage with by us, children of the Enlightenment.

4. David Hume and the philosophy of religion Monday 30 January, 6.30pm Sometimes known as the greatest philosopher who wrote in English, Hume was famous as a historian of England during his lifetime, but since then his philosophy, particularly of science and religion, has come to the fore. His refutation of miracles and arguments against design in the cosmos are important skeptical statements, and can very interestingly be challenged.

5. Michel Foucault and the philosophy of the self Monday 6 February, 6.30pm In this symposium, we cast an eye towards what is known as continental philosophy, which is generally as interested in questions of how to live alongside those of analytic philosophy’s how can we know. Foucault provides a stimulating entrée into this different world. A disciple of Nietzsche, and theorist of the self and sexuality, his ideas have percolated very widely.

6. Karl Popper and the philosophy of science Monday 13 February, 6.30pm Modern science is indisputably one of humankind’s most powerful inventions, but just what it discovers and how it works is widely contested. Popper is a crucial figure in this debate, with his measure of falsifiability. He also wrote very well about history and Darwinism. We will also consider Thomas Kuhn, and the notion of paradigm shifts, and other contemporary interpretations.



Monday, December 5 2011

Simon Baron-Cohen, and others, on Evil


Monday, November 28 2011

On the achievement of an erotic relationship

Just finished the manuscript for God: All That Matters, part of a new series from Hodder, coming out next year.

I took the chance to do some new reading, and was particularly glad to engage with Christos Yannaras, the Eastern Orthodox theologian and author of, On the Absence and Unknowability of God. I'd often read that Eastern Orthodoxy is the direct inheritor of ancient Platonism. I believe it now. If you want to know what it felt like to follow Plato, a Greek orthodox liturgy is perhaps the best place to go.

It would radically transform the heady debates about God that do the rounds in the analytic world. Stop asking what you believe. Start asking what you love. Yannaras writes that to understand the divine is 'the achievement and gift of an erotic relationship', eros being the yearning and desire for what we lack, and an achievement because this passion is often a painful affair. It requires stepping outside of yourself, a frightening thought for the children of Descartes, whose sense of identity has become very focused on the desire for self-control and self-determination.

'God… is revealed as a personal energy of erotic longing for each of his creatures', Yannaras continues. My sense is that it's like the felt knowing that exists between a mother and her child, rather than say the factual knowledge that a scientist gains of the world, fascinating though that is. God is understood not when a proposition is proven but when an eye of the soul is opened, as Plato put it, which I think can be roughly translated as, like being in love. William Countryman makes the point accessible in his book, Love Human and Divine:

‘[Love] can bring us into communion not only with God and with one another, but with every element in creation, from rocks to seraphim. Whether your connection with rocks takes the forms of a collector’s enthusiasm, a scientific delight in geology, an experience of mysticism in the natural world, or a sculptor’s intimacy with marble is secondary... they all proceed from the same erotic power of relating.’


Thursday, November 24 2011

All in the body

I was fascinated by Dr Kenneth Heaton's research into Shakespeare making deep connections between the physical and the emotional - and wondering whether doctors might learn a lot about their patients' emotional wellbeing by attending to their physical state; partly because I recently came across Shakespeare's Entrails by David Hillman.

Hillman discusses Shakespeare's 'visceral knowledge' - knowledge experienced in the body, as well as of the body. In the Bard, entrails are a locus of subjectivity and otherness, belief and doubt. He argues that Shakespeare lived at the beginning of the modern period, which has become such a somatically precarious age, what with mind/body splits.

Further, our language of the body has become muted by familiarity. When we say, 'on the one hand and on the other', or talk of 'venting our spleens', it feels like mere metaphor. We've become disconnected from our own experience, tending to spirit away the body, as if bodily references were just a gloss on mental life. Psychic interiority has become separable from the interior of the body. There's been a process of 'excarnation', already well underway by the end of 16th century.

Perhaps it's only now turning around...


Saturday, November 19 2011

The art of compassion

I've this piece on the Guardian's Cif Belief asking about compassion, and tying in with The School of Life's compassion sermon tomorrow...

Compassion is like happiness. Obviously a great good. And yet, I think it is also like happiness in another way. Its realisation is far more tricky than perhaps first meets the eye. A number of thoughts came to mind as I tried to think it through.

Take the business of practising compassion. One can clearly will oneself to do a kindness here, offer a comforting word there. A fraction of the world would be a better place for it. But a concern came to my mind that reaching out might become like the injunction to eat five pieces of fruit'n'veg a day. It becomes a burden, one that you chastise yourself for not fulfilling. Your efforts to show compassion to others become a regular reprimand to yourself.

There is also the danger of tokenism. One act of compassion is used, perhaps unconsciously, to alleviate the guilt of the many quietly abusive acts that can fill an average working day. Or, do I visit my uncle in the care home because I care for him or because I feel secret remorse for his being there in the first place?

This is all counterproductive, if you follow Gandhi's line of thought that you must be the change that you want to see in the world. So I have the sense that being compassionate towards others requires being compassionate towards yourself too: serious intent, light touch.

To develop the thought further, you might say that the aficionados of compassion possess a certain freedom with themselves. I think this is shown in the well-known story of the Good Samaritan. A priest and a Levite pass by on the other side of the road from the man who has been beaten by robbers, though there is no suggestion in the story that they are not compassionate people. Rather, they are constrained by their fear of a half-dead man. And who can blame them? A half-dead toddler, Wang Yue, was recently passed by on the streets of Guangdong by over a dozen people, provoking a moral crisis in China and concern around the world. What the Good Samaritan had was an inner freedom that trumped any fear. He wasn't tied by convention, or fright, or lack of time. He was free to respond to another human being. Am I that free?

The risks associated with being kind are, in fact, multiple. Will an unexpected act be unwelcome or aggressive? Might it be thought an intrusion or demeaning? Can you judge accurately whether it's appropriate? Am I free enough to take these risks? Also, there's an art to receiving acts of compassion: you mustn't read too much into a warm smile or the squeeze of a hand!

There are interesting parallels between these concerns and the research on empathy. Empathy too is often taken to be an unalloyed good thing. And yet, as Colin Frith, emeritus professor at UCL, recently told me, an empathic feeling might as easily lead to an unkind response of fight or flight as a good response of compassion. Feeling viscerally upset by someone else's pain might make you turn your back. Alternatively, collective empathy with my in-group can lead to collective animosity towards those perceived as others. Such empathy powers war. The risk is that my compassion for some leads to self-righteous anger at others.

All that said, compassion has to start somewhere. And to a certain extent it seems possible to train oneself by attempting to form habits of reaching out. Perhaps the best advice is to aim high but start small. For it seems to me that compassion is really aimed at something big and difficult – nothing less than a transformation of your life and yourself. A good question to ask is whether you really want that to happen.


Monday, November 14 2011

'God' is back in China

For the first time in nearly 900 years, the Chinese government has asked Daoists scholars for advice in how to manage the country, Martin Palmer was telling me. This follows the previous destruction or reappropriation of 98% of Daoist temples and 97% of Daoist texts and other paraphernalia. The last time this happened was in 1219 when Genghis Khan summoned Daoist Master Qiu Chuji to come to his war camp in the Himalayas and advise him on his plans to conquer China.

Speaking of the revival of religion in China, three recent BBC World Service programmes were fantastic. A couple of factoids that surprised me.

- The Chinese have been speaking with the Alpha Marriage Course, as in the Alpha Course of Christian evangelicalism. Apparently, the authorities were so impressed by it, and are so worried about the rise of divorce in China, that they are considering adopting a version of it for nationwide roll-out.

- The Hui Muslims of China, numbering about 10 million, have women imams and women mosques. It's an ancient tradition, though being threatened now by globalisation, which means that Hui go on the Hajj, sometimes to return with more conservative codes of dress and gender.


Friday, November 11 2011

Tom Hodgkinson at Occupy on usury

There was a calm irony to Tom Hodgkinson's sermon on the evils of usury, at the Occupy camp by St Paul's yesterday. He cited the Bible as happily as an evangelical preacher, not on homosexuality or abortion, for which you have to know the handful of references, but on usury, which it unpicks on almost every other page.

Going way beyond references to God and Mammon, he drew out how, with the Reformation - which St Paul's celebrates magnificently in Baroque statuary on its facade - usury came in from the cold and has undermined all manner of goods, from neighbourliness and merrymaking to a fair price for a sheep. He wrote up some of the ideas here.

He wasn't saying, wind back the clock, though he did recommend his gold dealer just around the corner. He was saying, let's look the usury, upon which so much of our life depends, squarely in the face.


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