Wednesday, March 6 2013

An apology that is transformative and healing is a rare thing

A piece on the art of saying sorry went up at the Guardian's Cif yesterday. It had a slightly tortuous hook, but here's the main point.

You will be able to recall a parent leaning over you and commanding you to say sorry – perhaps to Auntie Maude on the day you spilt blackcurrant juice over her white tablecloth. The truth is that you did not feel sorry at all. You were bored sitting in her front room. Nonetheless, you forced the S-word through your lips because you had no choice – and it was fury, not regret, that accompanied your muttering. Presumably such an upbringing led PG Wodehouse to make a personal note: "It is a good rule in life never to apologise. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them."

That's the trouble with demanding an apology. Intention is all, and when it is not given freely, the meaning becomes confused and probably lost.

Then again, if you were a smart child you probably learned to twist your apologies to your advantage. Most parents will have heard their loved ones treating the word sorry as a shortcut to getting what they want, as a get-out-of-jail-free card. "Sorry, Mummy. Can I go out now?" In this kind of scenario the power dynamics are reversed. Sorry becomes a too easy word to say because it gives apologisers the upper hand and enables them to redirect things to what they want. Oscar Wilde knew that trick: "I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose."

In fact, I wonder whether there is ever such a thing as a clear and genuine apology that is transformative and healing. A case that is discussed amongst therapists concerns a young girl who was hospitalised for various life-threatening psychological complaints. A nurse heard her murmuring, "Say you're sorry. Say you're sorry." In response, a doctor replied, "I am sorry. I am very, very sorry," and others in the room joined in with the refrain. The impact upon the child was remarkable and almost instantaneous. Within a week she had recovered.

It seemed to be a case capturing the magic of an apology. But a few years later, things again started going wrong for the girl, now a teenager. She was hospitalised and then spent several years as an outpatient until what was really troubling her was discovered. It turned out that the S-word served only to bury her problems more deeply.

Then again, a world in which no one ever said sorry is a bleak one to contemplate. Perhaps, then, a good apology is a temporary measure. It can relieve a tricky situation for a while by unfreezing things and allowing relationships some flow. The mistake is to believe that is the end of the story. What sorry might create is the time and space for considering more deeply what went wrong.


Friday, March 1 2013

Science and faith: a new dialogue

I think the relationship between science and religion is changing, as I tried to say in an article in the Church Times. A new dialogue seems possible not so much with the physical sciences, where the lines of engagement seem pretty fixed for good and ill, but with the human sciences.

'The most exciting work in the future looks likely to be interdisciplinary,' explains Michael Welker, professor of systematic theology at the University of Heidelberg and one of the principle players in the field. Moreover, rather than considering general questions about how science and religion might relate to one another - whether they should be in conflict or alternatively operate as 'nonoverlapping magisteria', each looking at the world in different ways - it seems that focusing on specific problems is likely to bring experts in different fields into fruitful dialogue.

Take, for example, the issue of our continuity and discontinuity as persons - the difficulty of accounting for the fact that materially we are not the same biological creatures as we were even a few weeks ago, and yet life feels connected and everyone from your mother to a judge will treat you as the same person that you were even years ago.

Some of Aristotle's speculations about the nature of the human person, explored by Thomas Aquinas too, might be of use here. He argued that the soul is the 'form of the body'. It is a kind of dynamic pattern or animating basis to which the biological flesh conforms. Compare that with the understanding that is emerging in modern biology. 'What links us together is not matter itself but the continuously developing, almost infinitely complex, "information-bearing pattern" carried at any one time by the matter that then makes up my body', Polkinghorne writes Science and Religion in Quest of Truth. 'I believe that it is this information-bearing pattern that is the human soul.' The ancient notion looks not unlike the modern one. Hence the possibility of fruitful exchange...

In terms of the relationship between science and religion, this is a big change. No longer would theology be 'catching up' with scientific innovation. Instead, when faced with focused questions such as what it is to be human, the two would be on a level playing field. Both could contribute to the conversation, and both would have to recognize the inherent limitations of their insights. Such epistemological modesty neutralizes the fight over which discipline is the best arbiter of truth, and all in the interests of thorough and open-minded debate.


Friday, February 22 2013

Modern Philosophy at The Idler Academy

Do, please, consider signing up for the Modern Philosophy course at The Idler Academy, beginning next Monday, 25th February. There are still places. I'd be delighted to see you there.

‘Mark is a great teacher who helps to bring clarity to some potentially very intimidating subjects.’

‘It is much better to be talk philosophy than to read it.’

‘I never spent Sunday afternoons looking forward to Monday until I joined this course!’

We consider first Thomas Aquinas, who was probably the greatest interpreter of Aristotle ever and one of the most brilliant philosophers of the medieval period though often forgotten today.

The following Monday we turn to Descartes, who was a modern sceptic though in some ways quite unlike the ancient sceptics, a difference that some feel has led modern philosophy up a dangerous cul-de-sac.

We then come to the empiricist and idealist traditions, associated with towering figures like Hume and Kant, that in some ways bring the differences between the Epicureans and the Stoics into the modern world.

Then we spend a couple of weeks looking at the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of science - twin themes that were major components of ancient thought, though of course have also changed dramatically in the modern world.


Wednesday, February 20 2013

Rupert Sheldrake on atheism

Here (iTunes) and here (jellycast) are the third of my conversations with Rupert Sheldrake, stemming from his book The Science Delusion, this one on whether being a materialist - meaning believing that there is matter and energy in the natural world and no occult or spiritual forces - necessitates being an atheist...


Thursday, February 14 2013

God of love?

This is a slightly longer version of the article that has gone up at the Guardian's Cif belief...

Religious and spiritual sorts tend to bang on about love. God is love, some say. Practice the art of loving-kindness, others commend. And I've found it hard to know what sense to make of these sentiments. They can so easily lose weight and meaning in a thousand repetitions. Or there is the claim that love reveals and is the fundamental truth of reality. What can be made of that in a scientific age?

Then, I started to read up on developmental psychology, whilst writing a book about love. It seems to me that the modern science illuminates the older, religious claims.

Psychologists and psychotherapists as diverse as Jean Piaget and Sigmund Freud, John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott seem to say that we learn about love in roughly three stages. Our first love is narcissistic - not an entirely pleasant thought, though behaving as if we were the only creature of importance in the world is necessary for our early survival. Freud talked of His Majesty the Baby.

Neonates are lovable and tyrannical. Winnicott showed that the good-enough parent is not perfect but is capable of being devoted to their child, especially in the early weeks. The aim is to instill a feeling that life can be trusted because, on the whole, it delivers what the child needs, physically and emotionally. A sense of wellbeing grows in the young body. It provides the basis for the kind of self-love that enables you to get over yourself and feel comfortable in your own skin. The myth of Narcissus conveys a similar insight. The problem the beautiful youth had was not that he loved himself too much, but that he couldn't love himself.

Narcissism might be called the love of one, and love between two follows next. It is a step into the unknown. It's frightening to awaken to the realization that you are dependent upon another - a parent, in the child's case; a partner, in the adult equivalent: romantic love. But the upside is that life expands. To be one of two promises deeper delights and wider horizons than narcissism can embrace.

There is an assumption that dyadic love, also called falling in love, is the pinnacle of lovely experiences. But it is only the midpoint of the story according to developmental psychology. The next step comes with a secure enough attachment, as Bowlby put it. Equipped with such trust, the child is able to explore the world - to take tentative steps away from the cosy twosome.

It can enter what has usefully been called a triangular space. There's me, there's Mum or Dad, and now there's something else - a third dimension known in the reality of siblings, friends, interests, goals, a current of life that runs independently of me, though I'm somehow part of it. Again, taking that step is alarming, possibly traumatic. However, if negotiated OK, life becomes richer again, and more risky, and the individual's perception of reality grows.

So what does this have to do with God and love? Well, first, consider Plato. He argued that love has an epistemological dimension because of the way it draws our perceptions up a ladder of illumination. We find ourselves on one rung, lower down, and spend some time steadying ourselves with the view. Then, having gained our balance, we are inclined to look up. There's another rung, and an urge to step up. It is an unsettling, possibly frightening, experience. It is more comfortable to stay where you are. But with the right support, another view is gained.

The process can repeat itself, Plato proposed, until a moment is reached when the view that appears is nothing less than a beatific vision. It is as if we have momentarily taken in all that life and reality are. Plato called it the beautiful and the true. Believers call it God. The point is that love resources the ascent. It is a dynamic view of love that is remarkably commensurate with developmental psychology.

A second way of thinking about this dynamic is more simply put. At each transition - from one to two, from two to the triangular space - the individual realizes is that love was already there waiting for him or her. Narcissistic self-absorption relaxes with the realization that I am held in the love of another. Lovers move from falling in love to standing in love, to recalled Erich Fromm's phrase.

The life of faith detects that there is a fourth dimension to add to this third, a divine love that is there waiting. It holds all because it is the source of the love that flows through all. Fear and uncertainty do not cease. Human love always feels a bit like that. But faith is the felt sense that love can be trusted because love is, in truth, the ground of reality.


Wednesday, February 13 2013

Not in praise of hyper-romance

A small collection of articles just online, because tomorrow is 14th February...

BBC Magazine - Viewpoint: Down with romantic love

Aeon Magazine - What is love?

Third Way - In defence of Narcissus


Tuesday, February 12 2013

Divided Brain, Divided World

For those interested in Iain McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary, and the implications of the thesis, Jonathan Rowson at the RSA has produced a dialogue with Iain, plus discussion with others. I can vouch that the discussion was great!


Saturday, February 2 2013

A New Consciousness and the Vita Contemplativa, this weekend

A couple of things coming up that may be of interest:

Sunday 3rd February, 6.05am & online. BBC Radio 4, Something Understood - Towards a New Consciousness, with Mark Tully, also interviewing myself, the programme having been prompted by this piece.

Sunday 3rd February, 1pm. Idle Sundays at Selfridges - Aristotle, Epicurus and the Vita Contemplativa, with one Dr Mark Vernon.


Wednesday, January 30 2013

Love All That Matters - a QnA

Love: All That Matters is finding its way into the shops and amazon. The following QnA might be useful in saying a little more about it...

Does the book have a key idea? Yes. There are different kinds of love that we learn about in different phases of our lives. Life tends to go well when we have good access to these different ways of loving. So the book explores how we learn about the different loves, what can go wrong, and what can go well.

What are the different kinds of love? Recent developmental psychology suggests that there are three basic modes in which we love. There is self-love, which is required so that we can be comfortable in our own skin. There is the love of another that, when it is returned, nurtures us in trusting and loving others. And there is love of life itself, which allows us to be open to all that life throws at us, firing our passions, creativity and courage.

Why did you write this book now? In the 1950s, the psychologist Erich Fromm wrote a brilliant short book on love, The Art of Loving. Many of its insights still stand, but it does read as dated now, particularly about the relationships between men and women, and also about homosexuality. Also, Fromm wrote before modern developmental psychology. So I felt it was a good moment to update, in a way, Fromm's The Art of Loving.

Are these new ideas? They are, in the sense that developmental psychology has progressed in recent years. But it fascinates me how they link with ancient ideas too, remembered in myths and philosophy. So the book looks at a number of ancient myths, some well known like that of Narcissus; others almost forgotten, like the story of Eros and Anteros, which I think has many things to tell us about the struggles people find when they are in a couple

Is romance the highest form of love? No. I really think that the adulation of romantic love is a danger. The belief that there is one other person out there who will perfect your life is a powerful fantasy, hard to resist even by those who don't believe it. Romance is fine, but it must lead us to love life itself, with another, but not perpetually gazing into our beloved's eyes.

Is there a highest form of love? We need to be fluent in the various kinds of love. That said, I think that the love of life itself, manifest in creativity and friendship, is the richest flowering of human love. This is being able to stand in love. I talk about divine love too, the perception which may come that although we are thrown into life, life is underpinned by love. This sense is what religious people call God.


Friday, January 18 2013

Love All That Matters - an introduction

I've recorded a podcast introduction to my new book, Love All That Matters, which is out next week. Do have a listen! (Click on play button below or download via iTunes.)


Wednesday, January 16 2013

Rupert Sheldrake on free choice

Here (iTunes) and here (jellycast) are the second of my conversations with Rupert Sheldrake, stemming from his book The Science Delusion, this one on materialism and free choice...


Friday, January 11 2013

Atheism: what's the point?

I took part in a discussion about the value of atheism in The Battle of Ideas last year, the video of the session now being available online. 

I basically argued that the three biggest hitters - Freud, Marx and Nietzsche - were almost certainly wrong in their analysis of God and religion, but are very useful for believers to engage with. (I'm about 15 minutes in...)


Wednesday, January 9 2013

Spiritual, but not religious? A dangerous mix

This piece has just gone up at the Guardian's Cif. I took part in a discussion about the same research last night on BBC Radio 3's Night Waves too...

People who are "spiritual but not religious" are more likely to suffer poor mental health, according to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. Michael King of University College London and his colleagues examined 7,400 interviews with folk in Britain, of whom 35% had a religious understanding of life, 19% a spiritual one and 46% neither a religious nor spiritual outlook. The analysis led to one clear conclusion. "People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder [dependence on drugs, abnormal eating attitudes, anxiety, phobias and neuroses]." The work supports evidence from other studies too.

All the usual weaknesses associated with asking individuals about religion are at play here, as the authors acknowledge. Nonetheless, the study prompts a number of speculations.

The spiritual itch is a deep one in the human psyche, for those who feel it. To scratch without the support of others might lead to an inner obsession that spirals out of control. It is possible, too, that personal crises drive people to seek spiritual solace that of itself does not address the underlying psychological distress. Then again, the resources of a healthy spiritual tradition, not pursued in isolation, should provide or point to the means of addressing psychological problems. The ground is then gradually cleared for genuine spiritual growth.

This raises another question, though. Do religious organisations in the UK today take enough notice of the insights of psychology and, conversely, do schools of therapy treat spirituality seriously? As the Cambridge psychologist and priest Fraser Watts explored in a recent talk, American therapists, for example, seem to be far happier talking about their clients' spiritual concerns than their British counterparts.

This must highlight broader cultural differences. In the US, religion tends to carry associations of freedom. I remember an American priest once saying to me, when I expressed amazement at the prevalence of religiosity in the US, that Americans came from Europe fleeing religious persecution. The two words "religion" and "freedom" naturally go together in the American psyche.

In Britain, though, it appears that many individuals view religion as an impingement upon their spiritual searching. Christianity, say, is felt to constrain life – perhaps because of the negative attitudes it projects about gay people and women; or because it presents belief as more important than growth; or because it looks more interested in sin than enlightenment. If that is so, the new research is a striking indictment of the failure of British churches to meet spiritual needs: individuals are not just not coming to church, some are becoming mentally ill as a result of religious failure.

Other results from the research are striking too, though similarly not determinative. People with no religious or spiritual understanding were significantly younger and more often white British, but were less likely to have qualifications beyond secondary school, perhaps challenging research purporting to show that atheists are more intelligent.

Another finding of this work was that those who were neither religious nor spiritual had just as good mental health as those the religious. This contradicts a notion widely held in positive psychology that religion is good for happiness (though that positive correlation typically derives from North American evidence.)

Finally, the research challenges the stance of those who are spiritual but not religious. It might be called the individualism delusion, the conviction that I can "do God" on my own. And yet, as the psychotherapist Donald Winnicott argued, human beings need to work through traditions to resource their personal creativity. Only in the lives of others can we make something rich of our own life. To be spiritual but not religious might be said to be like embarking on an extreme sport while refusing the support of safety procedures and the wisdom of experts who have made the jump before. Spirituality is like love: more risky than you can countenance when you're falling for it.


Saturday, January 5 2013

Love: All That Matters - another reason to watch out for it...

'A real Tardis of book, with so much wisdom and information packed into so small a space, and elucidated with a brilliant clarity. Sourcing mythology, modern psychology and philosophy, it shines a light on this most commonplace yet complex of emotions.' Tim Lott


Friday, January 4 2013

Ancient philosophy at The Idler Academy - book now!

There are still a couple of places left on the six week, ancient philosophy course, at The Idler Academy, starting Monday...


The Most Despised Science Book of 2012 is … worth reading

This piece has just gone up at the Guardian's Comment is free...

Every year, I "give" an award to the Most Despised Science Book of the Year. The 2010 award went to Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini for What Darwin Got Wrong. In 2011, Ray Tallis won with Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity.

My runner-up this time is Rupert Sheldrake's The Science Delusion, though in fact it had a strikingly decent reception for a book also critiquing scientistic dogmatism.

So the winner for 2012 must be Thomas Nagel, for his book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.

Steven Pinker dammed it with faint praise when he described it in a tweet as "the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker". Jerry Coyne blogged: "Nagel goes the way of Alvin Plantinga", which is like being compared to Nick Clegg. All in all, Nagel's gadfly stung and whipped them into a fury.

Disparagement is particularly unfair, though, because the book is a model of carefulness, sobriety and reason. If reading Sheldrake feels daring, Tallis thrilling and Fodor worthwhile but hard work, reading Nagel feels like opening the door on to a tidy, sunny room that you didn't know existed. It is as if his heart said to his head, I can't help but feel that materialist reductionism isn't right. And his head said to his heart, OK: let's take a fresh look. So what caused the offence?

Several things, but consider one: the contention that evolution may tend towards consciousness. Nagel is explicit that he himself is not countenancing a designer. Rather, he wonders whether science needs to entertain the possibility that a teleological trend is immanent in nature.

There it is. The t-word – a major taboo among evolutionary biologists. Goal-directed explanations automatically question your loyalty to Darwin. As Friedrich Engels celebrated, when reading On The Origin of Species in 1859: "There was one aspect of teleology that had yet to be demolished, and that has now been done." But has it? This is the moot point.

The scientifically respectable become edgy when approaching this domain. Read Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson's measured piece on the reaction Nagel's book sparked, published in Prospect. The possibility that the universe wants, in some way, to become conscious will "appear absurd" or "strange", he warns. But bear the anxiety, he doesn't quite continue, and consider the arguments.

I'm considering some of them with Rupert Sheldrake in a series of podcasts, if you'll forgive the plug. But it is striking that they can be aired in relatively kosher scientific circles too. A recent example is Paul Davies's bestseller, The Goldilocks Enigma. Davies argues that the refusal of natural teleology rests on an assumption that nature obeys laws that are written into the fabric of the cosmos. However, quantum physics offers every reason to doubt that this is so. The upshot is that Davies himself favours a universe that contains a "life principle".

So how come teleology is acceptable among cosmologists? It may be that they are used to the basic assumptions of their science being regularly overturned. Biology, though, has had a very good run since 1859. Questioning their science feels like a form of self-sabotage and dangerous. Hence, Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg, reviewing Nagel for the Nation, evoked the spectre of supernaturalism; and Simon Blackburn, reviewing for the New Statesman, jested that "if there were a philosophical Vatican, the book would be a good candidate for going on to the Index".

That was written tongue-in-cheek, but it is a purity argument no less. As Mary Douglas pointed out, secular societies still draw symbolic boundaries to keep the permissible in and threatening stuff out. Those who cross them risk expulsion. The media ritual of the public review offers a mechanism.

As Freeman Dyson recently wrote in the New York Review of Books, contemporary philosophers bow too low to science, mostly because they haven't done any, and have simultaneously lost touch with the elements that made their predecessors so great: the truths held by history, literature, religion. The 2012 award is well earned. We need those prepared to face the flak.


Monday, December 31 2012

Love: All That Matters - coming Jan 2013

'A profoundly benign and practical little book. Compact scholarship and wisdom with an original thesis.' Oliver James


Wednesday, December 19 2012

Rupert Sheldrake on materialism

I've done a series of conversations with Rupert Sheldrake, following on from his book The Science Delusion, exploring materialism. The first has just gone up...


Saturday, December 15 2012

With Good Reason: a debate on the foundations of ethics

I took part in a discussion about moral realism with Angus Ritchie and Julian Baggini at the LSE a week or so back, now online as a podcast.

I tried to talk about the moral imagination and moral emotions that draw us on a process of moral discovery, rather than whether there are moral facts. I feel that to ask that question up front is to put the cart before the horse, and leads to a rather dry debate, oddly disconnected from life.

Iris Murdoch's notion of the 'wider horizon' also appeals, her sense that the moral life stands beyond and before us, and is therefore transcendent. In this sense, morality is objective; that the good, beautiful and true is not made by us, but sought by us, and even seeks us.


Wednesday, December 5 2012

Giles Fraser on spirituality and social action

I hugely enjoyed debating with Giles Fraser on whether you can be spiritual without being religious. The discussion is online here.

Roughly, I was advocating that spirituality comes before social action - it's a fruit, not a root - lest the Christian concern for justice become anxious, guilt-driven and deadening. Giles can't stand the word spirituality, though it seems plain to me that much of his appeal stems precisely from his spiritual vitality...


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