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London Philosophy Club

Stoicism for Everyday Life panel discussion

This panel was part of an event in November called Stoicism for Everyday Life, which was funded by the AHRC. The videoing of this event was funded by the Centre for the History of the Emotions. I love the philosophical expressions assumed by me and the other participants when we’re not speaking. Very pensive!

Occam’s moisturizer, or how not to escape into rationality

We had a good meeting of the London Philosophy Club last night. The guest speaker was Galen Strawson, talking about pan-psychism, which is the theory that all matter is conscious. Pretty mind-blowing (or matter-blowing) stuff.

Strawson’s basic argument is that either you’re a dualist or you think everything is made of the same ‘stuff’. If you’re a monist, and you also believe in consciousness, then everything must be somehow made of the ‘conscious stuff’, consciousness must be a fundamental constituent of all matter, including this table that I’m writing on. Table, thank you for all your support.

If all matter is conscious, then does that mean all matter can suffer, that the trees weep, the stones cry out, creation itself is groaning? Imagine being able to hear the emotional emanations of every object you encountered. It reminds me of the Roald Dahl short story, ‘The Sound Machine’, about a man who constructs a machine that enables him to hear plants communicating – he hears them cry out every time someone picks a flower. You’d have to turn that machine off pretty quickly, particularly at lunch time.

Anyway, for most of the evening, I felt like a one-legged man at a yoga retreat: slightly wobbly. I felt keenly aware of my lack of a philosophy degree. The audience, by contrast, were mixing it up with Strawson like professionals. ‘What about epiphenomenalism?’ ‘How radical is emergence?’ ‘Have you forgotten Occam’s razor?’ Whoever this Occam is, I think he should launch a whole range of male grooming products: Occam’s moisturiser, Occam’s chest-wax, Occam’s full Brazilian.

After the talk, we floated to a nearby pub, which I initially thought was called The Preposterous, but turned out to be called The Perseverance. I was hoping for a relaxation of the old cognitive muscles, but no, the debate raged on. ‘What do you think of consciousness?’ a lively South African called Frank demanded of me immediately. ‘I don’t know, but I’m hoping a Guinness will reduce it.’

He, I, and another man got into a conversation, and it emerged that the other man – let’s call him Chris, because that’s his name – believed in God. ‘You believe in God?’ asked Frank, astonished. ‘Yes’, said Chris. ‘You…you are a Christian?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘You believe that the Bible is true!’ ‘I…’ ‘To me, religion is just about feelings’, Frank pressed on. ‘There is rationality, and there are emotions. People who are into faith are usually very emotional. It is just about the feelings.’

I left Chris in the lions-den, and went to the other side of the bar, where I met a latex-fashion designer. She asked me what I thought of consciousness. I said I was a Pan-psychicist – I believe in a telepathic goat-God who plays the jazz flute. We talked for a bit about her work – I asked her, predictably enough, what was the kinkiest latex costume she’d ever designed for a client. It was… well, I’ll tell you at the end. Then we got talking about my own fetish (Greek philosophy) and the Stoics’ idea of how our reason can help us transform our emotions. Reason and emotion aren’t two separate things – they’re intertwined, like consciousness and matter.

We began talking a bit about the challenges of life in our respective industries. We began to have an actual conversation, in which we put down our conceptual armour, stripped off our philosophical latex, and spoke honestly about what it’s like to be us. And then someone came up and asked us if we were really realists or just pretending.

So here’s my point, such as it is. Max Weber once suggested that the only thing for mature adults to do in the icy polar night of modernity is to face up to our disenchanted, rationalised world, and accept it. In fact, we should serve the relentless process of rationalisation, so that we eventually subject all of reality to our technocratic control. His middle name was ‘Darth’, by the by. Darth Weber also said that some people, some ‘big children’, would not be capable of facing the icy darkness, and would turn for emotional consolation to religion. Well, says Darth, let them go without a fuss. They couldn’t handle reality.

I want to put it to you that rationality can be just as much of a flight from the messiness of reality. We see the pain and suffering of ourselves and other people, and we can’t handle it, so we retreat to the safety of abstract concepts and impersonal systems. Because, to misquote Paul Simon, a concept feels no pain, and a system never cries.

I think it’s an issue with Greek philosophy, perhaps with all philosophy – the flight into rationality. Out there is the messy chaotic suffering of humanity, but the philosopher, like Plato, retreats to the safety of his academy, and polishes his concepts. I know, I know, concepts help us, systems help us, ultimately they help to reduce suffering. But there is also the raw pre-conceptual reality of our suffering, and sometimes a dog has a wiser and more real reaction to it than a philosopher – the dog simply shares our suffering, without taking flight into concepts.

I want my philosophy to help me confront reality, by which I mean, help me confront the reality of how much people suffer in this world, and to enable me to look on that without shutting down, without escaping into abstraction. That’s very very difficult, because people suffer so much, and sometimes one feels helpless at the extent of it.

Just this morning, for example, I read of a woman who put her baby down for a second on the baggage carousel of a Spanish airport. The carousel was automatically activated, the baby was carried into the machinery, and asphyxiated. The husband was waiting at the barriers to meet them. Just an awful, awful story.

That sort of random tragedy happens all the time, every day. Not to mention people struggling with chronic illnesses, with mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, not to mention their families, desperately wanting them to be well, not to mention children or the elderly in care homes, so vulnerable to the worst human behaviour. There is so much suffering in the world, you want to switch off your emotions, to stop picking it up.

When tragedies happen, we reach for rationalisations, for concepts, because we want to protect ourselves from suffering. We take flight into rationality. Sometimes Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can be like that. You’re suffering? No problem. Here are some rational concepts and techniques. We can fix that! A lot of the time, those concepts really do help. But life is still messy, imperfect, there is still an ocean of suffering out there. It doesn’t make for a great TED talk, but it’s reality nonetheless.

And I want to suggest a slightly hippy idea. Sometimes the sadness we feel might not be our sadness. Sometimes it might simply be The Sadness, a sort of collective sadness. We might be picking up on the sadness of the person next to us on the bus, the historical sadness of a place we’re walking through, the sadness of a table. Some people, with sensitive dispositions, might be better at picking up the sadness of others. Those people need help, to shoulder the sadness. We all need help.

Beneath the latex-suit of concepts and labels (realist, epiphenominalist, atheist, fetishist) there is a basic reality: we are conscious beings. Consciousness hurts, because we are lonely, afraid, and mortal. But our consciousness also allows us to share each other’s pain, to free ourselves occasionally from the prison of isolation – if we have the courage to open up.

At the beginning of the Philosophy Club meeting, I sat next to a regular, and talked for a bit, asked them how they were. They launched into a graphic description of their physical ailments, including a particularly painful-sounding bowel infection, and also how their mother had dementia and breast cancer. Woah, I thought. But what do you think of epiphenomenalism?

Well, that’s reality. Messy, imperfect, chaotic. That’s the real stuff.

Oh yes, I promised to tell you what was the kinkiest costume the designer had made. It was…well…I better leave it til next week.