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evolutionary psychology

This week’s highlights in philosophy, psychology and the politics of well-being

My book is finally being published next Thursday, which is very exciting. I’ve now gone through the ‘this is all so weird’ phase of feeling a bit self-conscious on the public stage, and am getting more used to it. You adjust to the weirdness. This week, for example, a commenter on an article of mine on the Guardian declared me to be mentally ill (for suggesting God might actually exist), and I found it funny rather than annoying.

What concerns me is less the prospect of bad reviews, and rather the prospect of no reviews. There are quite a few books out at the moment either on philosophy in general or on the philosophy of the good life in particular, so my book may well slip under reviewers’ radars. Well, if that’s the case, hopefully it will be a slow-burning firework that will eventually go off just when you least expect it (not sure where I’m going with this metaphor, sounds dangerous). Anyway, if you enjoy this blog, and you buy the book and enjoy it, do please tell your friends. In fact, my readers are really good at spreading the word, so thanks for that.

The good side of this situation is that there are some great books on the philosophy of well-being out now. Michael Sandel, probably the best-known philosopher at the moment, has a book out on the commodification of everything, which criticizes market ideology from an Aristotelian perspective, suggesting we need to reflect on the limits of what we are prepared to sell. Here’s a great article he wrote in the Atlantic on this topic.

Robert Skidelsky and his son Edward also have a book out on the politics of the good life, which also calls for a move beyond market fundamentalism and a return to Aristotelian virtue ethics, while ridiculing politicians’ present obsession with happiness measurements. The Archibishop of Canturbury, Rowan Williams, wrote a fantastic review of these two books in Prospect magazine, do give it a read, he’s my favourite contemporary Marxist.

By the way, two conferences coming up look at the rise of Neo-Aristotelianism, and the contemporary importance of notions of well-being/ eudaimonia in politics (particularly from the perspective of the philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre). Details here.

The  trend of national well-being measurements continues apace: Japan has apparently reported the first results of its national happiness measurements. And it’s… 6.6! Ha, we’re happier than you Japan, in your face. Still, Japan is happier than last year, when it was only 6.5 (though I thought this is the first year it’s done the survey? Oh well.)

Elsewhere, charities are learning to get on the well-being bandwagon. Oxfam Scotland has launched a ‘humankind’ index to help the Scottish government ‘focus on what really matters’. It constructed its definition of ‘prosperity’ through discussions with 3,000 Scots in focus groups, community meetings, street stalls, a YouGov poll and other stuff, and has come up with a weighted indicator based on what people said mattered to them. No reference to God in the index, I see, or football. All seems a bit nebulous – wouldn’t it be more useful not to conflate the various life-factors into one number but to give us all the separate measurements?

This is more interesting: charities are getting better at using well-being measurements to measure the impact of smaller local interventions, says the Guardian. I think this is where well-being measurements could actually be useful – at the local rather than national level, to measure the impact of smaller interventions. I can imagine myself using well-being measurements for this, to try and dazzle funders if nothing else.

Harvard’s Jerome Kagan, a wonderful and humane neuro-psychologist, has written a book called Psychology’s Ghosts, which explores four simplifications and distortions contemporary psychology is prone to. The first is the neural correlate fallacy – that human experiences can be simplified to bits of the brain lighting up on fMRI scans. Carol Tavris’s review in the WSJ notes:

If we can find which area of the brain lights up when we think about love or chocolate or politics, we assume we know something. But what, exactly, do we know? Sometimes less than we think. “An adolescent’s feeling of shame because a parent is uneducated, unemployed, and alcoholic,” Mr. Kagan writes, “cannot be translated into words or phrases that name only the properties of genes, proteins, neurons, neurotransmitters, hormones, receptors, and circuits without losing a substantial amount of meaning”–and meaning is as fundamental to psychology as genes are to biology. Many psychological concepts, he notes, including fear, self-regulation, well-being and agreeableness, are studied without regard to the context in which they occur–with the resulting implication that they mean the same thing across time, cultures and content. They do not.

The importance of meaning, value and cultural context in human psychology is also very emphasised by cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, as I discussed last week. Bruner is critical of cognitive scientists being so over-attached to a computational model of the brain that they end up ignoring people’s values, beliefs, culture and even their free will. In other words, they ignore the reasons people give for doing what they do, dismissing it as ‘folk psychology’. Here’s a great example of that sort of thinking – arch-computationalist Patricia Churchland, being interviewed by Julian Baggini.

Jonathan Haidt is one psychologist  who pays attention to the role of culture and values in human psychology. Yet, while his evolutionary account of the adaptiveness of religion may tell us that religion binds societies together, it fails to help us distinguish between ‘good’ forms of group-bonding and ‘bad’ forms like, say, fascism, argues John Gray in this excellent review in the New Republic. That’s the problem with evolutionary psychology as a moral guide – it’s descriptive rather than normative. It tells us what is, not necessarily what should be.

And when Haidt tries to decide what positive values he’d actually prescribe for a society, he is dishearteningly utilitarian, says Gray:

When Haidt considers what the normative element in morality should be, his conclusion is simple-minded to an extraordinary degree: “When we talk about making laws and implementing public policies in Western democracies that contain some degree of ethnic and moral diversity, then I think there is no compelling alternative to utilitarianism.” There is no sign that he is aware of the difficulties of utilitarianism as a moral theory. He cites Isaiah Berlin’s defense of pluralism in ethics without seeming to grasp that, if true, this pluralism was fatal to utilitarianism (as Berlin intended it to be).

Haidt assumes a connection between utilitarianism and the values of liberal democracy that dissolves with a moment’s critical reflection. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of modern utilitarianism, believed that utilitarian ethics applied universally, and advocated enlightened despotism throughout much of the world. Haidt’s belief that utilitarianism offers an effective way of making public policy in ethnically and morally diverse societies is equally unfounded. One of the problems of morally diverse societies is that utilitarian understandings of harm may not be widely enough shared to form an agreed basis for public policies. This is nowhere more clearly true than in the United States. Issues such as abortion and gay marriage are not bitterly disputed because legislators have failed to apply a utilitarian calculus. They are bitterly disputed because a substantial part of the population rejects utilitarian ethics.

I have to say, I’m surprised to hear Haidt comes out with such a utilitarian position. When I met him at the RSA a fortnight ago and asked him how we could find the right balance between liberal individualism and a more collective sense of the common good, he replied: “The first thing to do is make sure you keep rational utilitarians far away from public policy, because they have no understanding of human nature.” Well, quite…

Talking to yourself helps you achieve tasks, says a new experimental study that was widely reported. It found people who spoke to themselves while looking for an object were more likely to find it. Personally, I passed my driving test on the third time by talking to myself out loud while I was driving (though I think this may have so unsettled the examiner that he gave me a pass out of sheer terror).

I didn’t see Louis Theroux’s documentary about a ‘dementia village’ for the elderly in Arizona, but I was moved by this article he wrote about the two weeks he spent there.

Here’s an interesting article suggesting that botox may reduce people’s ability not just for facial expression of emotions, but also for actually feeling emotions. Yikes. Talk about affective flattening.

My colleagues at the Centre for the History of the Emotions wrote most of the articles in this issue of Wellcome History, including pieces on the politics of happiness, the history of crying in public, and other great stuff.

Meanwhile I started a column / blog on the Huffington Post UK site this week, with this first attempt, exploring how universities are not going nearly enough to care for their students’ mental health and well-being. I suggest universities need to embrace the liberal education mission of educating the whole person, not just their pre-frontal cortex.

Finally, here’s comedian Jon Stewart’s very funny take on this week’s revelations from the Murdochs at the Leveson Inquiry.

See you next week, wish me luck!


The Natural History Museum: temple to science, God…or both?

Alain de Botton keeps coming up with new projects for his religion for atheists, and I admire his energy and willingness to put his ideas into practice. It’s refreshing. His latest plan takes very concrete form: he wants to build temples for atheists, and is starting off with a pillar in London to give people a sense of perspective: it will show the history of the universe, with a tiny gold band at the bottom showing how recently man came on the scene. Good stuff: though a Stoic theist would think this was just as conformable with theist as atheist beliefs.

But naturally, the more ambitious and serious De Botton gets about his project, the more criticism he will encounter. Sure enough, Steve Rose wrote today in the Guardian that De Botton’s project sounds increasingly like a religion. Well, yes, that’s the point Steve. That’s why he called his book A Religion for Atheists. But we don’t need a new religion, says Steve. If atheists need monuments, they already have the Large Hadron Collider, the Natural History Museum, Wembley Stadium, even the Westfield Shopping Centre.
Not sure about that last one, though I guess it is certainly a monument to consumerism. Perhaps Steve is right – perhaps Las Vegas is a monument to atheism, a paradise city where everything is permitted and nothing is sinful. It’s where the Sceptics have their annual gathering, appropriately enough. Or is that the ‘wrong’ kind of atheism for Alain?
Anyway, of all Steve’s examples, it struck me that the Natural History Museum was closest to what Alain perhaps has in mind. The central hall of the museum really is very like a cathedral, with a sculpture of Darwin where the crucifix would be, and a giant (fake) skeleton of a diplodocus reminding us of the creation and destruction of nature, and the apparent absence of divine providence.
But is that really the message of the museum?
I looked into it today, and the real story is a little stranger. In fact, the founder of the museum, Sir Richard Owen, believed in transcendental morphology. He believed that a divine creative force moved through evolution, and that God revealed himself through history to man – particularly to scientists. I quote from Nicholaas Ruupke’s Richard Owen: Biology without Darwin. Owen believed that:

The history of scientific discovery had been a process of gradual self-revelation by God, not accidental but guided by illumination of ‘His faithful servants and instruments’, the scientists. ‘No scientific discovery collides against any sentence of the divine Sermon on the Mount’ [Owen declared].

Owen believed God’s self-revelation has been a continuous progressive process, with new insights and information downloaded (as it were) in chunks, and accessed by prophets and scientists through history. He tried to combine belief in a transcendent creator with scientific optimism in evolution, and ended up falling out with both Darwin and the Church of England in the process. In one service of 1876, for example, the priest criticised those who tried to replace God with science. To the shock of the congregation, Owen harangued the priest, declaring: ‘My Christian brethren! I trust with God’s help, that science will continue to do for you what she has always done, return good for evil!’
When Owen successfully lobbied for the establishment of a Natural History Museum in London, it was designed by the architect Alfred Waterhouse specifically as a ‘Temple of Nature’ to embody Owen’s vision of a nature guided by God’s transcendent power. In the words of the journal Architectural History:

The Temple of Nature that Alfred Waterhouse built embodied Owen’s belief that the history of the natural world was not a matter of randomness and chance but the creation of a transcendent presence.

So the Natural History Museum is really a monument to a moment in science before it moved in the direction of reductive scientific fundamentalists like Dawkins or Hawking, a moment of broader thinking – represented today by a handful of thinkers working at the cutting edge of science like James Lovelock, Roger Penrose or Rupert Sheldrake, who challenge reductive Darwinism and are able to think outside its narrow atomised functionalism. Owen was a champion not of atheism but of that rare but optimistic belief, that science and theism are not incompatible, that scientists are revealing the transcendent power that moves through creation, and that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in Darwin or Dawkins’ philosophy. His statue looked over the hall until 2009, when it was replaced by a statue of Darwin to mark his centenary. Time to bring the original statue back.