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cognitive science

The New Atheists are actually transcendentalists.

How do you fit experiences of ecstasy, awe, wonder, the Sublime, or the Numinous into a materialist paradigm, without reducing or devaluing such experiences? With difficulty.

I’ve spent an enjoyable few days reading various works by the Four Horsemen of New Atheism – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett. For Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins, the question of ecstatic or sublime experience is a key issue that New Atheism / materialism has to grapple with – and I’m going to briefly take you through their responses. My conclusion (to skip to the end) is that these writers actually have a deep sense of humans’ capacity for self-transcendence through art and contemplation, which is not entirely reconciled with their professed materialism.

Of the four, Sam Harris has perhaps thought most about this question  – indeed, he has a book out in September called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, in which he attempts an answer. He distinguishes himself from his fellow horsemen by his willingness to use words like ‘spiritual’ and ‘mystical’ in a positive sense, to signify experiences of heightened awareness when the chatter of ordinary consciousness dies down, and a deeper, more nourishing consciousness emerges.

He says: “Although we generally live within the limits imposed by our ordinary uses of attention—we wake, we work, we eat, we watch television, we converse with others, we sleep, we dream—most of us know, however dimly, that extraordinary experiences are possible.”
Harris has had personal experience of such ‘self-transcending experiences’, as he cals them, which he’s reached through meditation (for a decade he was devotee of Buddhism, and at one point a body-guard for the Dalai Lama!), through chanting, and through psychedelic experimentation with LSD and MDMA.

He writes in The End of Faith:

The history of human spirituality is the history of our attempts to explore and modify the deliverances of consciousness through methods like fasting, chanting, sensory deprivation, prayer, meditation, and the use of psychotropic plants. [Such practices] are some of our only means of determining to what extent the human condition can be deliberately transformed.

Harris believes ‘a kernel of truth lurks at the heart of religion, because spiritual experience, ethical behavior and strong communities are essential for human happiness’.  The atheist movement’s neglect of the value of spiritual experience (he says here) ‘puts us at a rhetorical disadvantage, because millions of people have had these experiences, and many millions more have had glimmers of them, and we, as atheists, ignore such phenomena, almost in principle, because of their religious associations’.

Yet, Harris insists, ‘these experiences often constitute the most important and transformative moments in a person’s life. Not recognizing that such experiences are possible or important can make us appear less wise even than our craziest religious opponents.’

What Harris wants to do, in his forthcoming book, is show how we can cultivate states of altered consciousness without reaching after unproven metaphysical concepts like God, karma, the afterlife, the soul and so on. Indeed, his project for the last decade and a half has – in keeping with his Quaker ancestry – been to strip religion of all irrational myth and superstition and leave just the bare ‘kernel of truth’, which would be something like ‘utilitarian ethics + spiritual experiences + skeptic-humanist-rationalist community’.

Which is fine. And I look forward to reading the book. But I’d raise three questions, that I hope his book answers:

Firstly, why do all the contemplative masters, whose findings he respects so much, insist that these mystical practices tell us something not just about the mind, but about metaphysical reality? If Harris is going to grant them such respect and authority, shouldn’t he be more open to the conclusions they reach on their inner journeys?

Secondly, what, as a materialist-determinist, does Harris mean by ‘self-transcending experience’? Does he think we can deliberately transcend our ordinary self? How can we do that, if we don’t have some sort of conscious choice? If self-transcendence happens involuntarily, it’s not really self-transcendence, is it? You wouldn’t say that a flower unfolding or a caterpillar turning into a butterfly was ‘self-transcending’…would you? Those are automatic and involuntary processes. Does he think spiritual experiences are similarly automatic and involuntary?

Are spiritual experiences voluntary or involuntary?

Harris has suggested that deep meditative states support the view that we don’t have free will – something I know Susan Blackmore also thinks. I have never properly practiced meditation, but I confess to not understanding how contemplative states reached by intense and deliberate practice over many years can be used as evidence for our lack of free will. Perhaps, as Blackmore suggests, such experiences and the training that lead to them are the natural unfolding of the cosmos, like buds opening in the spring…Though my sense of spiritual experiences is they’re not entirely involuntary, they usually involve some sort of voluntary submission of the will to a Higher Power.

Thirdly (this is more of a criticism than a question), Harris’ impatience with myths, rituals and any other superstitious paraphernalia suggests an impoverished understanding of the human mind, and of the power of symbols, images, rituals and stories to convey us into altered states of consciousness.

Harris once, revealingly, said that if you removed all the irrational myth and symbolism from religion, you could present the insights of mystics and contemplatives in a book as bare and factual ‘as a manual for operating a lawn mower’. This isn’t true at all. Look at the great mystical literature – at the poetry of Rumi, at the parables of Jesus, at the Upanishads. They never state their claims about the nature of reality in bald and scientifically-testable facts, like a lawn-mower’s manual.  Rather, they gesture towards truths about the spiritual world with parables, paradoxes, images or metaphors. And the reason their teachings work, the reason they give us an intimation of the spiritual realm, is partly because of their poetry and beauty (unlike a lawn-mower’s manual). I’ll come back to the power of metaphor and aesthetic pleasure later.

Christopher Hitchens and the Numinous

Hitchens also had a powerful sense of the value of ecstatic experiences, or what he called ‘the Numinous’. He was once asked, in a debate on religion with Tony Blair, what he thought was best about religion, what bit of it he would most miss if religions did indeed disappear. He replied:

I’m a materialist…yet there is something beyond the material, or not entirely consistent with it, what you could call the Numinous, the Transcendent, or at its best the Ecstatic. I wouldn’t trust anyone in this hall who didn’t know what I was talking about. It’s in certain music, landscape, certain creative work, without this we really would merely be primates. It’s important to appreciate the finesse of that, and religion has done a very good job of enshrining it in music and architecture.

In a conversation with the other horsemen, shortly before his death, Hitchens says if he’d make one change to the whole New Atheist movement, it would be to distinguish the Numinous from the supernatural more clearly. That, he says, ‘would be an enormous distinction to make.’

On another occasion he elaborated:

I, think everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there’s more to life than just matter. But I think it’s very important to keep that under control and not to hand it over to be exploited by priests and shamans and rabbis and other riffraff..I’m absolutely not for handing over that very important department of our psyche to those who say, “Well, ah. Why didn’t you say so before? God has a plan for you in mind.” I have no time to waste on this planet being told what to do by those who think that God has given them instructions.

Hitchens was by far the most aesthetically-cultivated of the Four Horsemen – much of his writing is book reviews, and he spent his last days writing about the poetry of GK Chesterton, one of his favourite poets apparently. Indeed, before 9/11 turned him into the bristling bulldog of atheism, he was considering giving up political journalism to write a book on Proust (a rebuttal of Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life – alas that we never got to read Hitchens on de Botton!)

If he were still alive, I would try to ask him what he meant by the Numinous (it’s a term from Rudolph Otto’s book, The Idea of the Holy, in which it refers to the irrational and awe-inspiring aspects of religion) and what he means by saying our experiences of the Numinous are ‘not entirely consistent’ with materialism. How then does he account for such experiences – are they, like religious experiences, mere delusions or malfunctions of the brain? Does he really think that our hunger for the Numinous, and our incredible experiences of it, are just a by-product of blind evolution?

As he would have known, many smart minds – Plato and Kant among them – thought our hunger for the Sublime or the Numinous was an intimation of a transcendent realm beyond materialism, and evidence of our spiritual connection to this transcendent realm. This was why Kant made an accommodation between Christianity and his own Enlightenment free thinking. Hitchens, by contrast, is so keen to strip priests, rabbis and mullahs of their power, that he makes the Enlightenment mistake of throwing the baby of the Numinous out with the bathwater of the priesthood.

Hitchens was once asked, in 2007, if he was a strict materialist. He dodged the question, replying that the rabbi he was debating (Julia Neuberger) was definitely wrong to claim she knew the mind of God and could tell us His views on sexuality. But that didn’t answer the question about his own views. At another time, he told a Unitarian minister he was not a ‘vulgar materialist’, that we have a ‘need for the transcendent’. He was not, then, a strict materialist. He was a transcendentalist, just one with a particularly virulent hatred of organized religion.

Richard Dawkins and the wonder of poetry

Despite the stereotype of Dawkins as an arid rationalist, he does in fact have a profound sense of beauty, wonder and even ecstasy  – indeed, he calls the first volume of his autobiography An Appetite for Wonder. He describes, in that book, his love of poetry, particularly the poetry of Keats, Blake, Shakespeare and that uber-mystic W.B Yeats (Hitch was also a big Yeats fan). He ends his book, Unweaving the Rainbow, with a particularly ecstatic quote from Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale:

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!

We read also in his autobiography of his deep love of music – his favourite experience at Oxford was being a member of a dining club which sang music hall songs together, and he says he became convinced of God’s existence as a teenager after discovering Elvis Presley was a believer (I think Elvis is a perfectly valid reason for believing in God – argumentum ad Elvisam). He says in passing that he has considered taking LSD, but was talked out of it by his uncle – a psychiatrist who has specialized in studying LSD. Perhaps we should start a petition to give Dawkins the best trip of all time, with a cast of thousands including perhaps a full orchestra and ballet company, to see whether we can nudge his world-view.

Dawkins seems genuinely aggrieved, in Unweaving the Rainbow, at the common view that science is somehow the enemy of poetry. He insists that ‘the impulses to awe, reverence and wonder which led Blake to mysticism are precisely those that lead others of us to science’,  and adds ‘our interpretation is different but what excites us is the same’. Why, he wonders, did Blake and other Romantics denigrate Newton and other Enlightenment scientists? Why do they attack materialism? If only they had sung the wonders of evolution or atomism , as Lucretius had. In the last line of his book he imagines a marriage of science and poetry – ‘A Keats and a Newton, listening to each other, might hear the galaxies sing’.

He reminds me, in fact, of CS Lewis ( a writer he quotes throughout the book), but Lewis before his conversion, when he felt like his mind was split into two hemispheres – Reason and Imagination – and he despaired of marrying them. It is not easy, for any of us, to marry the intimations of our aesthetic sense with the logic of our rationality.

But Dawkins’ attempt to marry the two does not quite work. He seems to think it’s simply a question of presenting poets with the facts of scientific materialism, and asking them to sing from that hymn sheet. If only, he wonders, Michelangelo or Bach had received their commissions from someone other than the Church, we might have had great symphonies to atomic materialism. I’m not so sure. The only aesthetic hymn we’ve had to atomic materialism, after two millennia, is Lucretius’ De Rerum Naturae, and even that veers off into a hymn to Venus. I think it’s no accident that, in age where atomistic materialism has become the ruling paradigm, great poetry has dried up.

Blake’s Newton

Romantic poets’ antipathy was not, I’d suggest, to science, but rather to scientific materialism. And the reason for that is partly their sense that the creative process is not chemical or neurological but spiritual. Most of the great poets believed their inspiration was from the spirit world, in one form or another (the Muses, the White Goddess, the spirits of Nature, God). Their inspiration felt like it was something beyond rationality, beyond ordinary consciousness, beyond their control – in that sense, it felt like a gift from beyond.

Hitchens once spoke of this: ‘I can write and I can talk and sometimes when I’m doing either of these things I realize that I’ve written a sentence or uttered a thought that I didn’t absolutely know I had in me… until I saw it on the page or heard myself say it. It was a sense that it wasn’t all done by my hand.’ This is why poets often feel a reverence and debt to the spirit-world (in one form or another).

In the Romantic poets beloved of Dawkins, this sense of the spiritual gift of creative inspiration is tied to a transcendental philosophy, found in Kant, Coleridge, Schiller, Emerson and others, which believes that the imagination enables humans to transcend beyond phenomenal appearances, beyond the limits of material determinism, and give us intimations of a transcendent or spiritual realm, which the Romantics in their more orthodox moments call God.

The strange thing is, Dawkins – like Hitchens, and perhaps like Harris – sometimes suggests something not so very far from this Romantic transcendental philosophy. He wonders why it was that human consciousness should have gone so exponentially beyond the consciousness of other species on Earth, why it gives us the unique ability to resist the tyranny of our genes, reflect on our experience and make relatively free choices about how to live. And he speculates that the answer may lie in our capacity for metaphor and symbolism:

I wonder whether the ability to see analogies, the ability to express meaning in terms of symbolic resemblances to other things, may have been the crucial software advance that propelled human brain evolution over the threshold….However it began…we humans, uniquely among animalkind, have the poet’s gift of metaphor, of noticing when things are like other things and using the relation as a fulcrum for our thoughts and feelings…Perhaps [the imagination] was the step from constrained virtual reality, where the brain simulates a model of what the sense organs are telling it, to unconstrained virtual reality, in which the brain simulates things that are not actually there at the time…We can take the virtual reality software in our heads and emancipate it from the tyranny of simulating only utilitarian reality. We can imagine worlds that might be, as well as those that are.

This, it seems to me, is a transcendent and even redemptive vision of the imagination. It is much more inspiring to me than the metaphor Dawkins is most famous for – the metaphor of the Selfish Gene, in which humans are merely robotic vessels for our replicator genes. Dawkins and Dennett (whose thoughts on ecstasy I’ll have to leave for another day) have both tried to extend the self-replicating logic of genes into the world of culture, with their theory of memes. The theory is that memes  – ideas, concepts, fashions – also use humans as hosts and seek to replicate themselves and spread, like viruses. This is not a very good theory, for various reasons – the most obvious being that ideas aren’t discrete entities like genes, and my idea of God, say, may be very different to your idea of God. The meme theory does not do justice to our individual capacity for creation, adaptation, improvisation and play.

But in his more exalted moods, Dawkins talks about culture in far less mechanistic and deterministic terms. Culture is the supra-material realm in which humans can transcend our genetic determinism, can escape the tyranny of the mundane and utilitarian, and delight in free play, spontaneous improvisation and moments of expanded consciousness. Art is a window beyond materialism, a ladder to transcendence.

That is a vision of human nature that I can share, even if I’d disagree with Dawkins about the origin of our capacity for transcendence and what it says about the nature of the universe. And, of course, one’s experience of ecstasy will be very different if you think it is either an evolutionary by-product in an indifferent universe, or the re-connection of your soul with the divine cosmos. Neither is necessarily better or worse, they’re just clearly different.

Jerome Kagan: the best predictor of depression is being poor

I’m a great fan of Professor Jerome Kagan, the eminent Harvard psychologist, who has done important work on the role of the amygdala in emotional disorders like social anxiety. I admire his humane appreciation for both the sciences and the humanities, and his awareness of psychology and psychiatry’s dangerous tendency to ignore the role of culture, values, language and context in human emotional experience.

Kagan, considered one of the finest psychologists ever, is clearly deeply concerned about the direction of western intellectual life, and in particular about “the dramatic ascent of the natural sciences in the years following World War 2, which intimidated the other two scholarly communities” – ie the social sciences and the humanities. He feels we in the West have become out of balance, overly fixated on a biologically materialist view of the human condition, with serious consequences for our societies.

He expresses his concerns about our culture’s tendency to simplistic scientific materialism in his new book, Psychology’s Ghosts, which he discussed last month on Radio Boston. He said that psychology and psychiatry focus too much on the symptoms of emotional problems, while ignoring the causes – and, in particular, ignoring the cause of poverty:

If you think about all the physical diseases, they are diagnosed not by the symptoms you tell your doctor, but by the cause. Malaria means not that you have a fever but that you have the malarial parasite. Psychiatry is the only sub-discipline in medicine where the diagnoses are only based on the symptoms. You tell your doctor you can’t sleep and you have no energy and he says that you’re depressed. You’re treated for depression on the basis of your symptoms when your depression could come on for a half a dozen different reasons and the reasons are important in how you treat the patient.

There is inadequate research being done on the life history causes. In medicine, if you have a disease, immediately several hundred or a thousand investigators start at once — take AIDS — to find out what was the cause. There is very little research going on on the role of class, on the role of life history, on the role of who you identified with, your religious identification, your ethnic identification. In other words, there’s a whole complex set of causes; they are not being studied.

The problem is that biology made extraordinary advances, both in genetics and in ways to measure the brain. Because that technology is available, people rushed over to that side and hoped that that would solve the problem, abandoning the other half. To put it briefly, biology says you’re likely to be vulnerable to this envelope of illnesses. Your environment, your setting, your class, your culture, where you live disposes and selects from that envelope the symptoms you might develop.

As I read the literature, and I have many people on my side — the best predictor today in Europe or North America of who will be depressed is not a gene and it’s not a measure of your brain; it’s whether you’re poor. And that makes sense.

If, in a country like ours with an enormous range of income, you’re poor and you’ve been poor since you were a child, which means that your medical care is less adequate, your diet’s less adequate, you’re probably fighting some low level infections and you’re poor — that’s a pretty good reason to be depressed.

That then is taken out because we’re looking for the genes. Now, in fact, there probably is 10 percent of depressed who do have a specific genetic vulnerability and then we’re missing the 80 percent who don’t have a specific genetic vulnerability — they have a very good reason for being depressed […]

We’re hoping that we will discover the biological causes and treat the biological causes and we won’t have to worry about the societal causes and the individual lifestyle circumstances that people deal with. That’s the hope. My own view — and I’m not alone — is that is denying the problem.

Jerome Bruner and the cultural construction of emotions

I just finished a fascinating small book by Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner (that’s him on the right), called Acts of Meaning. Although it was published in 1990, I don’t think it’s widely known among lay-people, and I think its ideas are worth briefly discussing – because they offer an interesting critique of cognitive science, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and a call for it to become more culturally aware.

Let me say at the outset that CBT helped me enormously and that what follows is not a rejection of CBT but an exploration of how it could be expanded to include more from the arts and humanities.

Bruner was one of the pioneers of the cognitive revolution, which transformed psychology from the 1950s on. The cognitive revolution was a rebellion against behaviourism, which claimed (to generalise) that all human behaviour could be described by a very simple process: Stimulus – Response. There was no need, behaviourists said, to inquire into human thoughts or beliefs or values. We simply respond to external stimuli, and change our automatic responses accordingly, like automatons, or rats in a laboratory.

The psychologists of the cognitive revolution rebelled against this view of human psychology, and insisted that humans’ internal thoughts and values play a powerful role in defining how we experience reality, how we feel about it, and how we respond to it. Between the Stimulus and Response lies a person’s beliefs and values – and we can change our beliefs and become the ‘authors of ourselves’. This, of course, is a very different view of humanity. We go from being helpless automatons passively reacting to stimuli, to autonomous beings, actively creating meaning from our experience, able to choose how we respond to life’s challenges.

Part of the cognitive revolution is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which was invented by Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck in the 1950s. Both Ellis and Beck were inspired by their reading of ancient Greek philosophy, particularly of the Stoics, who insisted that humans create their experience of the world through their beliefs. As the Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote: “Life itself is but what you deem it.”

The Stoics were the vanguard of the cognitive revolution, 2000 years before it happened. Humans, they suggested, were “disturbed not by events, but by their opinions about them”, as Epictetus wrote. Therefore, to heal yourself of emotional disorders, you should simply become aware of your beliefs, see how they cause your emotions, and then change your beliefs if you decide they are false and irrational.  Eventually, the Stoics believe, we will be able to perfectly match our beliefs to external reality (or God), and nothing that ever happens will ever upset us. The therapeutic process is, the Stoics believe, entirely individual. We can’t expect society to change its foolish ways. Rather, the lone Stoic heroically separates themselves from their toxic culture, and makes of themselves a perfect little fortress of calm rationality amid the irrationality of their society.

CBT might not believe in God, but apart from that, this is pretty much a description of CBT’s therapeutic approach. We must rationally examine our beliefs, and reject any that are false, until we become perfectly adapted to reality and nothing truly upsets us anymore. As in Stoicism, this recovery process is entirely individual.

Clearly the Stoics got something right – our emotions dofollow our beliefs, and if we change our beliefs we change our emotions. Realising this helped me personally to overcome depression. But perhaps both CBT and Stoicism are too individualist, and ignore the importance of culture both in emotional disturbances and in the recovery process. Other Greek philosophical schools, like Plato and Aristotle, agreed with the Stoics that our emotions are caused by our beliefs. But they had a much keener sense of how our beliefs are shaped by our culture and political system. So the process of recovery is not just individual – it is also cultural and political.

PoW: Friday highlights from philosophy, psychology and the politics of well-being

Hi, welcome to another issue of the PoW digest. The Journal of Medical Ethics found itself in hot water this week when it published an article in which two Australian philosophers said that ‘after-birth abortion’ should be permissible in a wide variety of cases (in fact, pretty much in any case) because new-born babies aren’t really persons. The editor of the journal, Oxford transhumanist Julian Savelescu, seemed surprised by the subsequent furore, and says the authors have since received death-threats by ‘fanatics opposed to the very values of a liberal society’.
OK, I’m against death-threats. But what was Savelescu thinking? ‘Afterbirth abortion’? The whole point of the young field of medical ethics is to try and give science and medicine some moral grounding and prevent it from ethical abuses like the Nazi eugenics programme – not to urge science on in that very direction. This will not do much for transhumanism’s reputation.
Here’s a piece on a better example of medical ethics – the new report from the Commission on Improving Dignity in Care for Older People, calling for a values-based approach to elderly care.
Some better news from Oxford: the founder of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun, has left £26m in his will to humanities research at Oxford, the biggest ever grant for humanities research.
The positive psychologist and social intuitionist Jonathan Haidt has a new book coming out soon on the emotional and psychological roots of different political ideologies, arguing that our brains have particular emotive buttons around issues like justice, purity, fairness and so on, which political parties need to learn to ‘push’. Here, he applies this thinking to contemporary American politics:
America is in deep fiscal trouble, and things are going to get far worse when the baby boomers retire. Normally, when a nation faces a threat to its very survival, a leader can press the shared-sacrifice button. Churchill offered Britons nothing but “blood, toil, tears and sweat.” John F. Kennedy asked us all to “bear the burden of a long twilight struggle” against communism. These were grand national projects, and everyone was asked to pitch in.
Unfortunately, President Obama promised he would not raise taxes on anyone but the rich. He and other Democrats have also vowed to “protect seniors” from cuts, even though seniors receive the vast majority of entitlement dollars. The president is therefore in the unenviable position of arguing that we’re in big trouble and so a small percentage of people will have to give more, but most people will be protected from sacrifice. This appeal misses the shared-sacrifice button completely. It also fails to push the share-the-spoils button. When people feel that they’re all pulling on different ropes, they don’t feel entitled to a share of other people’s wealth, even when that wealth was acquired by luck.
If the Democrats really want to get moral psychology working for them, I suggest that they focus less on distributive fairness — which is about whether everyone got what they deserved — and more on procedural fairness–which is about whether honest, open and impartial procedures were used to decide who got what.
Interesting stuff – although Haidt seems to be putting forward a brand of ethics called emotivism – what’s right is what feels right. Or perhaps he’s really putting forward a version of rhetoric, which is the ancient art of emotion-button-pushing. But, to raise the old Platonic criticism of rhetoric: what’s to prevent anyone using such manipulative techniques for any ideology?
Ulric Neisser, pioneering psychologist and the man who reportedly coined the term ‘cognitive psychology’ in the 1960s, died last week. Here’s an NYT obituary of him, and here’s a good piece by Mind Hacks about how he came to criticise cognitive psychology’s narrow focus on the individual in favour of a more social, networks or Gestalt model of psychology. Thanks to the BPS blog for those links. And here’s an old but interesting piece on Steven Hayes, founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Didn’t know he’s a graduate of Erhard Seminars Training!
Here’s a piece where I climb on my soapbox and rail against the normalisation of violent pornography and demand that the global porn corporation chiefly responsible for this, Manwin, cleans up its act and stops making money from the glamorisation of rape. The CEO of Manwin is a young entrepreneur who apparently cares about social responsibility so I think we can get him to stop this line of business – our society shouldn’t accept it, in my view. Tweet him and challenge him to stop making money from rape-porn websites like PunishTube.
Here’s a piece where I suggest that Alain De Botton’s ‘religion for atheism’ has a class problem. Religions help the poorest and most vulnerable, while De Botton’s project seems to be closer to a retail company selling well-being to the middle classes. The School of Life, which he set up, has done wonders for making philosophy more accessible – I’m just suggesting it needs to go further.
On that topic, here’s a piece about a ‘philosophy-rapper’ in Brazil, whose mother runs a philosophy cafe in Rio’s favelas. And here’s a brief video of Richard Holloway, a former bishop and now a self-proclaimed ‘expectant agnostic’, on God’s crazy love for losers (and also on why agnostics should learn to ‘raid institutions’ for meaning, which is quite in line with De Botton’s project). I like that phrase ‘God’s crazy love for losers’. Too much self-help seems a religion purely for winners (in the material sense).
Talking of which, here’s a good piece from New Inquiry about what’s wrong with TED talks, and how they often express a sort of religious optimism in the power of social science and tech entrepreneurship to solve all the world’s problems, in fifteen minutes.
Here’s a piece where Slavoj Zizek considers The Wire.
Here’s the last thing Christopher Hitchens wrote – a nicely balanced piece on GK Chesterton.
Richard Layard is doing a talk next week on mental health as ‘the new frontier of the welfare state’. Could be interesting…could be weird! Will unemployment end up in the DSM? What would Ulric Neisser say?
That’s all for this week, see you next week,

Can we develop free will and consciousness through training?

This is a video of a talk I gave at a mad but wonderful event last night, run by a friend of mine, called the Oliphant Street 6X9 talks – where six speakers talk for nine minutes on various things (I went slightly over my allotted nine minutes…) Last night we had talks on Cardinal Newman, contradiction, Renaissance parties, the Lord’s Prayer, and I gave a talk on how experimental psychology has undermined the idea, from Greek philosophy, of the rational autonomous self, but perhaps we could still develop such a self through philosophical training.

The video is about 15 mins long, in two parts.

Part 1:


Part 2: