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.
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.
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...)
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.
'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
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.
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.
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.
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...
The earliest extended stoic text to survive the passage of time is a hymn to Zeus. It was written by Cleanthes, the second head of the school, in the third century BCE. The mighty god is summoned as "most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful".
But it is not just a hymn of high praise. Within it threads the fundamental element of stoic thought that underpins the exercises and practices, psychology and cosmology celebrated this week by the organisers of Stoic Week. Without this thread, Cleanthes felt that stoicism makes no sense and, worse, might lead you astray.
It was called the logos – using one of those extraordinarily rich Greek terms that can be translated as word, discourse, reason, activity and principle. The logos, Cleanthes remembers, "moves through all creation". It is the wellspring of unity, direction, purpose. The wretched flee the logos, he continues, and their alienation from it is the cause of their suffering. Because they do not know the logos in their lives they instead seek fame, money, pleasure for pleasure's sake, all manner of passing things that sweep them along and actually destroy what human beings truly wish for. The result is a troubled life of ignorance. "If they obey the logos intelligently, they would have the good life," the hymn continues.
It is striking, then, that Stoic Week makes no reference to the logos (unless a moment of revelation has yet to come on the blog). Presumably that is because the philosophers and therapists behind the experiment feel either that the theological aspect is irrelevant today or that it would distract from the usefulness of the stoic practices that aim to build resilience, gratefulness and aspiration. But I think it is a vital issue to raise.
The ancient stoic training was an attempt to orient the whole of life to the logos. Chrysippus, the third head of the school and one of the most brilliant philosophers of the ancient world, used the metaphor of a cylinder rolling down a hill. Life is like that. There is nothing you can do to change it. What you can do is learn "to go with the flow", as opposed to resisting the bumps and shocks.
But why should you go with the flow, one of his young disciples might have asked? Because the flow can be trusted, Chrysippus would have replied. It is the action of the logos. It is mysterious, yes; often painful, yes. But ultimately benign. And if life were not providential, you are right: it would be more noble to resist it all the way.
In other words, the stoic notion of flow was a kind of devotion, an offering of yourself. Cultivating the right inner attitude was absolutely crucial to the good life stoicism promised. Practise stoicism for self-serving reasons, as instrumentally driven therapies and self-help might encourage, and you risk alienating yourself further.
Think about it this way. It is often remarked that ancient stoicism is close to modern CBT. That undoubtedly offers people timely help. But only some, it seems. Longitudinal testing of CBT appears to be suggesting the benefits are short-lived. I wonder whether Chrysippus might help explain why: does CBT unwittingly encourage the delusion of living out of your own strength, he might ask?
Stoicism was the most successful of the ancient Athenian schools. What is perhaps not much appreciated now is that it is, in a way, alive and kicking to this day. When the first Christians searched for resources to try to understand what they had encountered in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, stoic insights made tremendous sense.
St Paul felt that his experience of the divine was like that of the stoics. "For in him we live and move and have our being," he taught, explaining he was quoting from stoic philosophers. St John was so impressed that he argued Jesus was the incarnation of the logos, celebrated in the opening line of his gospel: "In the beginning was the word." Practices such as saying grace before meals, or giving thanks for the day at night-time, are stoic.
Is it too cheeky to suggest that if you want to practise stoicism today, you might start in a church?
Stoic Week looks like a genuinely interesting and valuable experiment. But two things struck me that I think are worth pondering.
First, there's no mention in the online literature of the logos - the divine principle that ancient stoics believed ran through all things and which meant you could trust life, even when it seemed to be going wrong. The basic aim of stoic practices was to align yourself to the logos, hence the meaning of going with the flow. It was not just any old flow.
Then, I see no mention of the stoic preoccupation with divination, the attempt to discern the logos by looking at the outer world of the heavens, which was thought to mirror the inner world of the self. Of course, astrology is suspect these days, but to lose touch with divination risks also losing touch with contemplating how the outer mirrors the inner, and vice versa, and that might render modern stoicism a solipsistic, lonely enterprise.
I guess the reason why the organisers felt they had to drop these theological elements is that they feel they won't run today. This is something that Christians might think about, because there is, in fact, a version of ancient stoicism that is alive and kicking in much of the world today, namely Christianity.
St Paul cites stoic thinkers and hymnody when, say, he talks about God as being that principle in which we live and move and have our being. St John too implies that Christ is the logos incarnate. Stoic practices such as reflecting on the day were incorporated into Christian liturgies and habits.
The question I am left with is whether Christianity has become so front-loaded with doctrinal ideology that we've lost touch with the fact that it too is fundamentally a way of life that is meaningless without the practices?
What was so unsettling about meeting Socrates? Why would you want to be a Stoic? How did Descartes radicalise the philosophical agenda? What is philosophy anyway?
These questions and more are explored in a series of evening classes on ancient and modern philosophy at The Idler Academy, the west London home of philosophy, husbandry and merriment.
The aim is to learn not just what different philosophers have argued, but how these rich traditions can resources us, body, mind and soul. On the ancient philosophy course we examine the pre-Socratics, Socrates and Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Sceptics and the Cynics. On the modern philosophy course we consider the work of late medievals, Descartes, Hume and Kant, Nietzsche and Foucault, Popper and Kuhn, and others. Full details can be found online.
The evenings are taught by Dr Mark Vernon. Previous participants have said: 'I never spent Sunday afternoons looking forward to Monday until I joined this course!' 'It is much better to talk philosophy than to read it.' The price is £150 for six evenings, beginning in January.
A striking Christmas present? A wise gift for yourself? Book now: places are limited!
It worries me when the Prime Minister says the church should just 'get on with it', and when the Archbishop of Canterbury observes that the synod may seem 'wilfully blind to some of the trends and priorities in... wider society.'
My perception is that conservative evangelicals and anglo-catholics alike regard such a stance as somewhat heroic, as if the right course is typically against the spirit of the age. They may read such remarks as endorsing their position.
Someone should be quoting Luke 16:8. 'For the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.' That is surely the point.