Sunday, March 2 2014

The Middle Way Society

I have been talking with Barry Daniel from The Middle Way Society. Do have a look at their website too - interviews with Ian McGilchrist, Stephen Batchelor, Paul Gilbert and others…

Podcast version here.

Friday, November 1 2013

David Bentley Hart and the experience of God

I have hugely enjoyed David Bentley Hart's latest, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. It's philosophical theology with attitude and heart. A taster of his demolishing style (in this section, bashing computational models of mind):

"Software no more 'thinks' than a minute hand knows the time or the printed word 'pelican' knows what a pelican is. We might just as well liken the mind to an abacus, a typewriter, or a library. No computer has ever used a language, or responded to a question, or assigned a meaning to anything. No computer has ever so much as added two numbers together, let alone entertained a thought, and none ever will… A computer does not even really compute. We compute, using it as a tool."

Tuesday, September 17 2013

Ideas of power at the BBC

I'm enjoying The Ideas That Make Us programmes on BBC Radio 4, though struck again (like the series on Noise) by how they are shaped by a materialism and power agenda.

So, concludes Bettany Hughes in prog 1, ideas are born in our synapses. Is that so obvious - how an idea might spring from an electro-chemical exchange? Why isn't that questioned?

Or in prog 2, she thinks about fame as desirable because it allows for the successful exercise of power. Maybe fame is a misdirected longing for the eternal - which is what I think Plato thought.

Maybe the agenda will shift as the series progresses...

Tuesday, July 23 2013

The Brains Behind Spirituality

The new RSA Journal features an essay outlining the intellectual context for a new project. I think it's a significant one, examining how new scientific understandings of human nature might help us reconceive the nature and value of spiritual perspective, practice and experience. Our aim is to move public discussions on such fundamental matters beyond the common reference points of atheism and religion, and do so in a way that informs non-material aspirations for individuals, communities of interest and practice, and the world at large. I'd recommend a read.

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!

Friday, November 16 2012

Filling the hole in modern life

There is a long review of God: All That Matters and The Big Questions: God in today's Tablet. It's online here. A taster:

Sometimes Vernon’s arguments can feel a bit brisk, and it is natural that in such concise but also wide-ranging treatments the author cannot do everything. These two books are, however, very accessible and readable (the tone is conversational), and Vernon has an admirable flair for illustrating his points through references to contemporary popular culture: he can see a popular British TV series as evidence of the God-shaped hole, trace an implicit spirituality in Philip Pullman’s New Statesman articles, and make astute philosophical points about, for instance, the use of the word “spiritual” in the Body Shop’s Body Care Manual. Vernon’s books do as they say – they take religious traditions and practice seriously, confront the central issues that ­matter most to humans, and nurture searchers, enquirers and the curious in their questioning and contemplation.

Tuesday, November 6 2012

The master and his emissary: what difference does it make?

There was a tremendous seminar on Iain McGilchrist's book, The Master and His Emissary, yesterday at the RSA. (There are plans to publish a summary of the discussion pretty soon.) The two key aims were to test the thesis and to ask what difference it makes.

The thesis might be broken down into two parts. First, that work on the two hemispheres of the brain suggests we have broadly two ways of attending to the world, and so rooting our values too, and that things go best when we have access to the two ways, which is to say that there is a synthesis of both, rather than the denigration of one by the other.

Second, McGilchrist contends that we live in a world enamoured with a way of looking at the world that over-values the attention associated with the left hemisphere - roughly, attention that is focused and manipulating; and under-valuing open and connecting attention.

I'd say that most people in the seminar could go along with the first part, particularly when it is remembered that McGilchrist stresses that (a) his thesis is not that the brain causes anything but that it constrains attention - much as land does not cause water to flow but constraints its flow; and (b) that all the ramifications of his thesis can be arrived at by other ways, it is just that neuroscience provides a particularly powerful discourse for discussing them.

When it comes to the difference it makes, for myself the book brings three thoughts sharply to my mind. The first is about how we do ethics.

Two approaches have dominated in the modern world - utilitarian ethics, which focuses on the attempt to measure and maximise things like happiness; and deontological ethics, which focuses on the attempt to reason out what we should and shouldn't do. These might be the preferred approaches one would expect in world that trusts the human capacities McGilchrist associates with the left hemisphere. But there are all sorts of reasons for believing that they are now not serving us well - and they also sideline and misunderstand a third tradition that it seems possible to associate more with the capacities associated with right hemisphere functioning. This is virtue ethics. Virtue ethics takes the ups and downs of life as the basic stuff of ethics and cultivates the ability to reflect upon experience so as to learn from mistakes, tolerate the uncertainties of living, nurture the habits that enable one to flourish, and over time gain a feel for how to live well - that lived sense of understanding we might call practical wisdom.

The second thought is not unrelated and has to do with McGilchrist's central thesis that the way the hemispheres function constrains how we perceive the world. If it is right that we have broadly two ways of attending to life, one focused and directive, the other open and connecting - and this seems right to me as it is something that has been repeatedly observed by adepts in spiritual traditions - then it will presumably also be the case that we can nurture our attention so as to develop different perceptions of and approaches to life. It will no doubt be a difficult even painful task to cultivate a way of attending that does not come naturally in the modern world, that is to cultivate the open and connecting in a milieu that prefers the focused and directive. But it seems pretty clear that having access to both kinds of attention is crucial.

The third thought is related again, and concerns having a capacity for uncertainty - an ability to stay with the anxieties of doubt and not reach out after faux-certainities; as well as an ability to resist the temptation to need to be doing something, anything, and/or unconsciously seeking escape in distractions. The psychotherapist Donald Winnicott called it 'going on being', arguing that trusting life itself rather than the nervy isolated self, is fundamental if creative and unexpected insights are to unfold. Again, this would seem to be a far more difficult state to sustain when the capacities associated with the right hemisphere are lost or denigrated.

Tuesday, August 14 2012

A gentle scepticism with sympathy for theological yearnings

A nice review of God: All That Matters from Steven Poole in last Saturday's Guardian Review...

This entry in a confidently subtitled new series of short introductions is a light-footed scoot through theologies both ancient and (post)modern. Vernon, a philosopher and former priest, likes to demonstrate Greek sources of Christian ideas (Plotinus and Plato figure heavily), and to confound the Dawkinsites with ideas of God that do not conflict with science.

Combining a gentle scepticism with sympathy for theological yearnings, the author touches on those modern-science-approved Stoics, Spinoza, William James, Don Cupitt, "process theology", game theory, the techno-eschatology of the "singularity", and "apophatic theology", which says you can't talk about God at all – in our day, Vernon comments wryly, "such theology has, arguably, become unfashionable and even a source of annoyance". Particularly interesting is his chapter on the resurgence of Taoism in China, and its potential as an "ecotheology". This is a pleasingly ecumenical exercise, with an appendix on "10 films to see" that recommends The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Exorcist.

Thursday, July 5 2012

God: All That Matters - out now!

My new book, now available at amazon, and elsewhere I hope.

It's part of the new series from Hodder, broken down into eight chapters, looking at suffering, moral ideals, God in nature, peak experiences, goodness, ecological concerns, eschatological concerns and love. Plus an appendix on those pesky proofs for the existence of God.

Do have a look!

Wednesday, May 23 2012

Little Me, Making Philip Pullman

Treat yourself for 15 minutes and watch my friend Guy Reid at work...

Saturday, December 24 2011

Happy Christmas

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.

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.

Friday, September 16 2011

How To Be An Agnostic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 2 2011

Sexual Excess and the Meaning of Love

Exploring psychodynamic accounts of male homosexuality

In his autobiography, Chance Witness, the journalist Matthew Parris describes one day standing by an exit of the London Underground, from which commuters are pouring, and asking himself how many of the passing men he would like to have sex with? His answer is low: barely one in a hundred. So what sense, he asks, does it make to define himself as gay – a man supposed to seek sex with other men – when the overwhelming majority of men do nothing for him erotically?

If Michel Foucault is right, the modern experience of being human has been shaped, in part, by a scientia sexualis. The science established a link between the truth of an individual’s personhood and their sexual activity, ‘a new rationality whose discovery was marked by Freud – or someone else,’ as Foucault puts it. And yet, Foucault also argued that sexual rationality is simultaneously alienating, as it provokes anxiety about the truth of an individual’s sexuality identity too. Parris’s confusion is a case in point.



Freud himself was ambiguous on homosexuality. On the one hand, he describes the homosexual individual as having made a manifest narcissistic object-choice that renders him identifiable as an ‘invert’ and ‘pervert’. His default position on human sexuality has usefully been characterised as ‘norm and deviation’, the norm signified by heterosexual functioning that, resonating with his biologism, is best orientated towards procreativity.

But on the other hand, Freud complicates his analysis by blurring the boundaries between the ‘pathological’ homosexual and heterosexual others. All people, he notes in a universalizing move, are ‘capable of making a homosexual object-choice and have in fact made one in their unconscious’, adding that psychoanalysis is opposed to the separation of people on the basis of a supposed orientation and, further, that homosexuality is not explained either by the hypothesis that is it innate or acquired. If the aim today, following the removal of homosexuality from the list of mental disorders by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973, is to develop non-pathological understandings of homosexuality, then these latter principles are worth remembering.

Jung too seemed undecided about homosexuality. He variously regarded homosexual desire as psychologically immature; not criminal; symptomatic of cultural and historical factors as well as psychological; not defining a person; and as having meaning for the individual concerned. That meaning would unfold through individuation, the complex and individually unique process of psychological development that aims at personal wholeness. From Jung, it could be concluded that there is no such thing as homosexuality, but rather, as many sexualities as there are people.

However, as Foucault spotted, the notion of defined sexual orientations has a powerful appeal because establishing a link between sexual activity and personal identity promises knowledge, about the client for the analyst, and about themselves for the ‘gay individual’. As a result, more recent strategies for developing non-pathological accounts of homosexuality often sustain the link. Isay, for example, re-describes the Oedipal situation so that the peculiar emotional difficulties gay men have with their fathers are explained as a consequence of a gay orientation, as opposed to a cause. This is still a normative approach, in which the deviant becomes, say, the bisexual.

Another tendency, that over-values the link in a different way, might be described as the romantic politicization of homosexual sexual activity. It is found amongst queer theorists. Bersani, for example, describes a character he refers to as the ‘gay outlaw’. The outlaw pursues a variety of subversive sexual activities that threaten dominant cultural ideologies and, further, do not seek the mutual exchanges of loving human relationships in them. The political eclipses the personal.



This fascination with the cultural politics of sex is common in the gay sub-cultures of many modern cities, though it is not clear that it is has led to the outcomes queer theorists celebrate. Instead, it can be argued that it has merely fed the commoditization of sex in gay clubs and saunas. As Mark Simpson dryly remarks, ‘Gays have indeed changed the world and the shape of men’s underpants forever’. More seriously, from the point of view of the therapist, it has arguably contributed to what has recently been described as a ‘mental health crisis’ amongst gay men. ‘LGB people are at significantly higher risk of suicidal behaviour, mental disorder, substance misuse and substance dependence than heterosexual people.’

Now, this is an enormously complicated predicament, weaving socio-economic, cultural and psychological elements. However, from the therapeutic point of view, there is value in returning to those early intuitions from Freud and Jung.

Freud’s universalizing instinct emphasizes that human sexuality is a continuum, rather than hanging on singular object-choices, which renders it an unstable source of identity. To embed the insight further, it is also necessary to critique his heteronormative biologism, the implication that the main or normal goal of sexual activity is procreative. It is a move inherent in Lacan who, in his theory of the mirror phase, builds on the observation that human beings are born prematurely. This results in erotic gestures carrying meanings that are psychological rather than biological, and further, that are ‘permanently out of synch’ with one another. Hence, for example, Lacan’s axiom, ‘il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel’, focuses on the failure he sees as inevitable in a man and a woman’s attempt to relate to each other sexually (even when, biologically speaking, they are successful): rapport means both rapport and ratio in French, implying that their sexual connection never completely matches up.

What this highlights is that human beings experience erotic desire as excessive, in the sense that whatever objects it becomes attached to, they will not satisfy it. Whether this is due to a fundamental lack at the origins of human subjectivity, as Lacan proposes, or because the erotic reaches for a plenitude ultimately beyond human experience, as Plato proposes, is another moot point. Nonetheless, psychodynamic accounts that aim to deliver a complete scientia sexualis will similarly always fail too. Better, like Shakespeare, to pose an open question to love: ‘What is your substance, whereof you are made?’

So, Hedges suggests, the scientia sexualis should be treated as a generator of ‘local myths – just-so stories’. They are valuable and inevitable as they are the way we deal with reality. But also limited and limiting. Hedges continues: ‘I believe it is our task as psychotherapists to listen to individual just-so sex stories, as well as to professionally generated just-so sex theories, and to try to untangle whatever limiting meanings have become attached to them.’

This resonates with Jung’s insight about homosexuality having meaning for the individual concerned, implying that the task for everyone is to discover the meaning of love. ‘Love is always a problem,’ Jung wrote, an ‘intensely individual’ one, and is such that every ‘general criterion and rule loses its validity’ when we try to make sense of it – though, for the sake of our development, try, we must.

Saturday, August 27 2011

Spot the difference?

I think it must be the whites of the eyes. On the left, a real chimpanzee. On the right, a fake ape, from Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The film is a slick, entertaining if rather obvious morality tale for our times - and left me thinking how they best conveyed the smart minds of the altered apes.

There was the advanced use of tools, the signing, and eventually even speech. But I think the most convincing moments were mostly achieved with the whites of the eyes.

(Image left: Common chimpanzee in the Leipzig Zoo, by Thomas Lersch)

Thursday, August 25 2011

How to address a revolutionary crowd

A fascinating vignette from the Arab Spring in Egypt at the seminar on religion and violence:

We were supposed to have a session with Moez Masoud, one of the leaders of the revolution who is also studying in the religion and psychology group at Cambridge. He couldn't make it, due to last minute pressures in Cairo. However, Sara Savage, with whom Masoud works, told us of him one day calling her, just as he was about to address a crowd in Tahrir Square.

The mood was tense, the stakes high. Lives might depend on what was said. The great risk in such situations is that crowds adopt binary thinking. The group sees only good guys and bad guys, only friends or enemies. This Manichean world carries great emotion appeal to the human mind. It focuses energy and inspires moral outrage. It moves people. It sparks revolution. But it also sparks violence, commits atrocities. So the question, Masoud had, is how to stir the emotion and avoid provoking knee-jerk reactions that might later be regretted?

Sara had simple advice, though it sounds a bit technical. Use conjunctions in your speech, she said on the mobile phone, though not negations. Say 'both', 'and', 'also'. Avoid 'either/or', 'not', 'against'. And use your body, because when people feel things in their bodies they are capable of holding complexity. They can know the desire for justice and for compassion. They can sense what it is to believe in more than one moral value. So, hold up one fist and declare absolute commitment to freedom. Then hold up another fist and declare absolute commitment to avoiding a bloodbath. And keep both in the air.

I imagine the phone went dead, for we didn't hear how it went. But next time you're addressing a revolutionary crowd...

(Image: Celebrations in Tahrir Square by Jonathan Rashad)

Friday, August 19 2011

Pop virtues

The Guardian has a running feature, My favourite album. I was glad that Tom Ewing picked Introspective by The Pet Shop Boys, high on my own list, and made it sound relatively cool, with his description of its sweeping pop treatment of ideas and spaces.

I think it struck me for its clever pop lyrics too, as in I'm Not Scared, when Neil Tennant sings:

What have you got to hide, 
who will it compromise, 
where do we have to be 
so I can laugh and you'll be free.

Thursday, August 18 2011

Is amazon the...

Of course not!

Tuesday, July 5 2011

Cat connundrums again

Montaigne's famous question was whether his cat was playing with him when he was playing with his cat. But I'm not sure he quite meant it like this.

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