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.

 

Thursday, November 10 2011

Americans have fewer friends

Was on the BBC World Service talking about friendship, on the back of new research suggesting Americans have, on average, two friends with whom they can confide, down from three a generation ago. It's online here, about 5 minutes from the end.

Made familiar points about the difficulty of doing statistical work on friendship because people mean such different things by it, though this research has sought to define friendship, as confidence sharing. Though, then again, what counts as confidential varies hugely from person to person, I'd guess.

Also, although the news hook was the 'problem' of social media - is Facebook ruining friendship, kinda idea - I suspect that the real issue is contemporary mobility, the way people move from place to place so readily, for work or for a new experience. That's a challenge for the development of deep friendships simply because knowing someone, and allowing them to know you, takes time. Friends must share salt together, as Aristotle put it, meaning sharing the saltiness of life, not just its passing sweetnesses.

 

Saturday, October 29 2011

On evil

Was speaking on evil at the Battle of Ideas this morning, in favour of keeping the concept. I agree it can risk obscuring, not diagnosing, the common complaint against it. Though it's very expressivism - 'pure evil' - is useful, keeping the horror of what might be called evil in view, and reminding us that trying to understand is not the same as entirely explaining: there is something unspeakable about evil.

That said, the Christian tradition, drawing on Aristotelian ethics, does have much to say on the subject, namely that evil is the absence of good, the privatio boni doctrine of Thomas Aquinas.

It might be a lack of values, and so nihilistic. It might be a lack of virtue, or the practical intelligence that allows life to flourish. It might be a lack of appropriate early attachments between mother and child - the empirically well supported analysis from psychotherapy. It might be a lack of meaning, which as Joseph Brodsky points out, is what is exposed in 'turning the other cheek':

‘The other cheek here sets in motion not the enemy’s sense of guilt (which he is perfectly capable of quelling) but exposes his senses and faculties to the meaninglessness of [evil].’

All in all, the nothingness of evil gathers a lot of understandings together, scientific, moral and theological. It is nothing, almost as in Burke’s ‘It is only necessary for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph.’

I argued that it is also important to see that this account of evil is not evil as the opposite of good, but as the absence of good. This is not a Manichean view of the world, the approach much modern ethics assumes - the utilitarian idea that there is pleasure and pain, or that there is right and wrong.

Rather, evil is a concept that is best at home in virtue ethics: good and evil are related not as north is to south, but as north to not-north - or even better, as hot is to cold, as one member of the audience pointed out to me afterwards.

With evil, life is not as it is supposed to be. Or more strongly, life is as it is supposed not to be in some basic, fundamental way.

 

Monday, October 24 2011

Primary colours

Liquid Amber at Wisley gardens today.

 

Saturday, October 22 2011

The vestal virgins of St Paul's

There is a striking sense of anger at the closure of St Paul's cathedral, even in secular quarters, directed against the dean and chapter. It feels like they are our vestal virgins, supposed to keep the flame of the city alight, not hand it over to health and safety.

Funny how myths stay alive.

 

Wednesday, October 19 2011

Can evolutionary theorists ever make sense of religion?

I suspect Robert Bellah's new book, Religion in Human Evolution, will be an important one for evolutionary explorations of religion - as outlined in this piece for the Guardian. A taster:

A fundamental mistake, Bellah argues, is to conceive of religion as primarily a matter of propositional beliefs. It is not just that this is empirically false. There are good evolutionary reasons for understanding religion in an entirely different way, too.

Go back deep into evolutionary time, long before hominids, Bellah invites his readers, because here can be found the basic capacity required for religion to emerge. It is mimesis or imitative action, when animals communicate their intentions, often sexual or aggressive, by standard behaviours. Often such signals seem to be genetically determined, though some animals, like mammals, are freer and more creative. It can then be called play, meant in a straightforward sense of "not work", work being activity that is necessary for survival.

This liberated play is found among creatures that don't have to work all the time, perhaps among offspring that are cared for by hard-working parents. It creates what the psychologist Gordon Burghardt has called a "relaxed field": the evolutionary changes that occur in this mode aren't driven by survival pressures.

Mimesis and play are so important in the story of religion because they are the precursors of ritual, that embodied way of being in the world that enacts, not thinks, understanding. If you have ever played peekaboo with a child, you were together learning about presence and absence. At a more sophisticated level, religions nurture the complex gestures of ritual and practice. Christians perform liturgies, Muslims prostrate themselves in prayer, Buddhists focus attention on breathing. This is the bread and butter of religion. Man can embody truth, reflected WB Yeats, when he cannot rationally know it...

On the back of ritual insight and symbolic representation comes theoretical exploration and theological propositions. But they are, in a way, epiphenomena to the more fundamental modes of religious understanding.

The ancient Greeks knew as much. When Plato deployed the word "theoria", he was referring to the ritual practice of making a journey to witness a life-changing spectacle or event, that were called "theoria". Hence, in his parable of the cave, the philosopher has to make an arduous journey towards the sunlight. He or she is more pilgrim than logician. But then Plato had the advantage of living before modern philosophers who sought to cleanse the discipline of living myth and metaphor, and align it with the literal truths of propositions.

 

Tuesday, October 18 2011

The Shard and transparently mortal buildings

I'm going to have to learn to block it out, but I was staring at the Shard again the other day. The shell is nearly completed. It is still a monstrosity. The planners who cut the deal should have arranged for compensation to be paid to folk whose visual environment is invaded by it, much like you get compensation for loss of light.

I found some consolation, though, listening to Roger Scruton talking about architecture, in a discussion with Ben Rogers. Rogers' talk doesn't come across on the podcast, but Scruton's is rich with ideas about what we might require of our architecture. In particular, he seemed to hit the nail on the head with what is so wrong with the Shard.

We've inherited an architecture of unhappiness in our time which has come in large part because functionalism has taken over our way of thinking about architecture. Buildings are designed for a specific function, usually at a drawing board so that the ground plan becomes all important, ignoring the fact that this function is as mortal as the person who's ordered it.

We're surrounded now by transparently mortal buildings... And it means that, because of the tyranny of the ground plan, most buildings are designed as a series of horizontal slabs. This is the modernist vernacular.

It was that line about 'transparently mortal buildings'. The Shard is, in effect, a mammoth celebration of death.

The architecture of happiness, conversely, is that which can survive a change of function. It doesn't have to be pulled down. A Georgian house becomes an office. A church becomes a settlement of flats. Buildings that outlast us, because they embody a satisfying form not a time-limited function, offer a deeper sense of place because their place is secured by a vision bigger than the person who ordered it. The sense of the past and future they afford lend their inhabitants some happiness.

(Image: Thefreddy12345)

 

Thursday, October 13 2011

The Moral Maze on friendship

I was on the combative BBC Radio 4 discussion programme last night, attempting to witness to the complexities of friendship, the hook being the dodgy dealings of the friendship between Fox and Werritty.

That said, I was struck by how the mood of the programme felt on the side of friendship, as it were, and rather against the cynicism fired by suspicion of it in a meritocracy. I came away thinking I might have been clearer about how friendship itself is many things, though we tend to talk about it as if it were always a valuable thing; and in particular, there are good and bad friendships, depending upon the virtues and vices the friends manifest together.

Anyway, do listen again (I'm on last).

 

Wednesday, October 12 2011

Is the transcendent natural?

I've been engaged in a conversation about the nature of the transcendent in recent days, with a group of folk who are, I think it would be fair to say, sceptics.

Their concerns, as I understand them, major on how the transcendent, whatever it might be, eludes scientific scrutiny. The fear is that it opens the door to all manner of mystification, religiosity and phooey. Alternatively, it implies strange processes by which apparently transcendent phenomena, notably consciousness/mind, emerge and float above, as it were, the material world with which science is comfortable. This is, in fact, leading some individuals entirely committed to naturalistic ways of describing the world to positing naturalistic ideas of the sacred, the transcendent and even the soul. Nicholas Humphrey comes to kind.

However, I tend to think that the word transcendent is treated as unnecessarily scary. I suspect it is often confused with the supernatural, the s-word often being deployed rhetorically to scare 'sane and rational' people off contemplating the transcendent. In truth, though, the transcendent is all around us.

For one thing, it is unclear to me what is meant by materialistic naturalism, if that is the philosophy which makes the transcendent inadmissible. And I bet if you ask most physicists these days, they'd be pretty unclear too. (I imagine biologists tend to more comfortable with calling on some kind of materialistic naturalism, mostly because they have a 19th century view of the nature of matter.) I prefer to follow Werner Heisenberg's advice, in his book Physics and Philosophy: he argues that old fashioned materialism is too narrow a frame to find a place for all manner of facets of life, often associated with mind; so better to stand on the known facets of life than the shifting sands of sciences that are changing so fast and whose ramifications are not at all understood.

That noted, what does physics suggest? I did a physics degree at one point, and whilst that never took me beyond the wave equation for a hydrogen atom and a first look at special relativity, it exposed me enough to the subject to feel that the world of mathematics, which physicists typically experience as a process of discovery, provides quite a good example of exploring a transcendent world that links with the everyday world.

In fact, it could be that what can be called the transcendent is what makes the natural sciences possible. This would be the weight of the observation about mathematics. Then there's also the philosophical point about laws of natural which, it seems to me, have to be in some sense transcendent in relation to the natural sciences, or else you embark upon an infinite regress where the laws of nature need secondary laws of nature that determine them, that need tertiary laws of nature etc etc... It is for this reason that in physics you get books about the '7 fundamental constants' or whatever - fundamental being acceptable code for transcendent features; and in Dawkins-style evolution you get notions such as the immortality of the genes. I don't buy that, but the general point is that the natural sciences do, in fact, appear to lead to transcendent concepts that are required as their ground.

I know there's loads of debate about the nature of laws of nature. So more broadly again, on the transcendent in the everyday, I was reading about Abraham Maslow's notion of D-cognition and B-cognition the other day. This is the idea that D-cognition - D for deficiency - is the kind of knowledge required in the daily business of striving and surviving, which is largely a process of finding what we lack. B-cognition - B for being - is the felt or intuited sense of participating in the world at a deeper level than the humdrum. It's a different kind of knowing that can be linked to a sense of the transcendent.

Maslow has an example, from when he was once participating in a graduation ceremony. Apparently, he tended to think of such occasions as 'silly rituals'. However, on this day he suddenly perceived a tremendous procession, beginning with the great figures at the origins of his discipline and reaching into the future with the generations not yet born. It was not a hallucination. Rather, the ritual conveyed a vivid and I would say transcendent representation of the deep meaning of university life.

In general, the function of mimetic, mythical, ritual, poetic, religious and other ways of exploring our participation in the world would be to show or perhaps unveil the transcendent. It strikes me as highly likely to be a very common way that people experience the world, alongside the humdrum. And entirely natural.

 

Sunday, October 2 2011

Celtic evangelists

If you're passing Southwark Cathedral, do take time to look at The Four Evangelists by Sophie Dickens. They are tremendous, circling the aisle of the nave.

Based on imagery from the Book of Kells, it is as if a more ancient memory of Christianity has returned, one not almost overwhelming associated with comforting thoughts of love, but one that spoke to the archetypal passions in human beings - a faith like a winged man, at least as strange and troubling before it became so familiar.

 

Friday, September 30 2011

The Big Questions - God

I've just finished the manuscript for a book in Quercus' The Big Questions series, the one on God.

Reading it through, I realised one of the running questions is why science seems to be encouraging new spiritual exploration and enquiry, more than undermining it. There's the way a scientific attention to the world can develop a mode of perception that naturally provokes wonder. There's the way science is often counterintuitive, much as many spiritual practices discern counterintuitive perceptions of reality. Or there's the humility science can instill, which is not dissimilar to the notion that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.

So, I was interested to read that the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion has just published research suggesting that 70% of scientists believe religion and science are only sometimes in conflict; that 68% of scientists surveyed consider themselves spiritual to some degree; and that non-religious scientists typically think highly of their religious colleagues.

 

Friday, September 23 2011

The autumn equinox today...

... marking the aging of the year.

Though I've noticed these little cyclamens in the park nearby, just flowering, facing down the enormity of the season's change.

There's hope as well as a nip in the air.

 

Wednesday, September 21 2011

A spat in the psi-wars

Every so often, I catch a skirmish in the psi-wars - the often raucous, evidence-hurling debate between paranormal researchers and their sceptical debunkers. There was a bit of it yesterday, when Chris French, the gentleman amongst sceptics, wrote a piece claiming psychic Sally Morgan had been exposed with an earpiece through which she hears her messages from the other side.

Danny Penman, on the other hand, who writes broadly psi-favourable articles, or at least open-minded, had previously written an article on our Sal, which concluded she can produce 'amazing insights', whether by paranormal means being moot.

In this piece, at least, Chris hardly holds the high standards research in this area requires. His exposé is based upon a women called Sue who called into an Irish radio programme. It reads as if Chris hadn't verified her testimony or even who Sue is, else I'm sure he would have said; he also didn't speak to Morgan - who denies the accusations on her website. Danny, on the other hand, had a consultation with Sally Morgan, and sent three plants to do similarly, all of whom reported some positive findings. Who knows the truth of it.

I was left wondering why I can never, quite, get excited about the paranormal. I've read a few books, the last, Randi's Prize by Robert McLuhan, struck me as balanced and thorough, and concluded the evidence is substantial and weighs in pro, and that sceptics routinely go into denial. No doubt the sceptics would claim the evidence is all dodgy and believers are inventive, usually honest, self-deluders.

But I suspect that the reason the paranormal so excites some is not that, if true, it threatens to overturn the whole of physics; you could hardly add to the weirdness of physics as it is. Nor that if science proved there were life after death or somesuch, western civilisation would rock on its axis; most people believe it already. Also, it seems a bit silly to me to be interested in the possibility of a telepathy that knows the colour of your sofa or what you ate for breakfast. Even if true, that would be just party tricks; mere spectacle.

Rather, the psi-wars appear to manifest a deep ambivalence about our way of life. It's something like this. The sceptics seem to fear that the gains of the modern world, particularly its rational empiricism, risk being lost to human folly, and so they champion a science that would understand the whole of life to keep that risk, and its propagators, down.

The believers, or open-minded, sense that a reductionist mindset risks reducing our humanity. The constant noise, distractions and demands that modern materialism have created prevent us from noticing the subtler ways we belong to one another, experienced, say, as an embodied feeling, a sense or intuition. Paying attention to that not the spectacle, as I believe is attempted in practices such as meditation or therapy, is important and can be life-changing.

 

Monday, September 19 2011

A Monday heresy

I didn't like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. I couldn't make head or tail of what was going on for almost all the time, and it didn't add up by the end. It took wikipedia for me to sort it out.

It's true that it's beautifully filmed and cinema insiders are loving it for its homages to Hitchcock etc. It's true that Gary Oldman has a smile like the Mona Lisa, hovering in between emotional states so as to seem almost from another world. It's watchable.

But what is a thriller if it fails to tell the story? And it's not just that it's demanding. I like demanding. I felt it was crudely obfuscatory. That's not a playful trick, a brilliant reversal, an artful unfolding. It's cheap narration.

 

Friday, September 16 2011

How To Be An Agnostic

I recall Zadie Smith writing about the joy of good readers, as opposed to good writers, I think in this piece. I understood the joy of a sympathetic reader reviewer, in this review by Timothy McDermott in the current TLS of How To Be An Agnostic. It seemed, under his eye, the book achieved all it might ever manage to do. It's brief, so forgive me if I cite it in full.

'How to' presumes 'why'. A course in how to survive in the wilderness presumes people want to survive there (the why) and offers them skills and techniques to do so. Mark Vernon asks 'how to be an agnostic', when neither the 'why' nor the techniques on offer are so clear-cut.

Vernon first recommends agnosticism as a desirable human virtue, appealing to Socrates' passionate spiritual quest to know oneself humanely and modestly, resisting the twin pitfalls of scientific and religious certainty. Knowing must become a service to, rather than a mastery of, the things we know, marked by patience and sensitivity, fragility and vulnerability. Vernon's book is a plea for such virtues rather than a manual of techniques, though he mentions in passing Socratic questioning and the mindfulness techniques of the Buddha.

Indeed the book is gently autobiographical, though not so much a chronicle of events - Vernon has been successively an Anglican priest, then a declared atheist, then someone disillusioned by both religion and irreligion - as the record of a path taken by a mind, a voyage around 'God', for want of a better name.

There are brilliantly perceptive and sympathetic chapters on 'How Science Does God' and 'Science on Ethics', examining the positions taken by scientists (mainly cosmologists) since Newton and in our own day - figures including Steven Weinberg, Martin Rees, Eugene Wigner, Roger Penrose, Paul Davies, John Polkinghorne, Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper. And two later chapters explore the agnosticism of Christian theologians, in particular Aquinas, Nicholas of Cusa and Pascal. The path Vernon traversed has led him to his present passionate commitment to a 'learned ignorance', respecting the limits of human knowing, and convinced that God lies beyond those limits, beyond the certainties of either religion or atheism.

I think the path will lead onwards. Are there not also limits to human not-knowing? Aristotle says that the mark of an educated man is to require in every field as much certainty as the nature of the matter allows. And Aquinas's agnosticism is companion to a calm certainty: other philosophers, as Herbert McCabe puts it, know what they mean by God but doubt whether he exists, whereas Aquinas has no doubt that something we call 'God' exists, but doesn't know what that is. And his 'learned ignorance' of what God is requires total clarity about what God is not.

 

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