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.


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.


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