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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.

How lovable are you, on a scale of one to ten?

A few weeks ago, I woke up at 3am, for no particular reason, and lay in my bed listening to the city sleeping. My middle-class street in Tufnell Park was placid and at rest. Then I heard a woman sobbing, as she walked down the street. It was such a strange, piercing sound:  in the middle of the night, outside the silent family homes, was an adult weeping like a lost child. I wondered if I should get out of bed, put my clothes on, go into the street and offer her help. Was I really going to intervene in the messy chaos of her life? I went to the living-room to see if I could see her. But by then she had disappeared, and I went back to bed, slightly relieved.

The problem, as I see it, is that just about every human in the world doesn’t feel entirely loved or lovable. We carry the secret wound of our unlovable-ness deep within us, all through life, and out of these wounds our feelings of self-worth leak out, drop by drop. So we are constantly trying to top up our self-worth. And we do this in inappropriate ways.

The most obviously inappropriate way we try to feel loved is by piling up honours or wealth, in order to win the approval of strangers. We bring each new triumph to lay at the feet of other people, like a cat bringing in a dead bird. The feeling of being unlovable is actually an incredible motor for achievement. Hey guys, guess what I did? I’m lovable, right?

A likeability scale, from Forbes magazine

Alas, success doesn’t really make us feel loved. Success gives you a quick intoxication, and we might blurt out, like Sally Field winning her Oscar, ‘You like me! You really like me!’ But just as many people will envy and dislike you for success. And admiration is not the same as love. Admiration keeps you at a distance and misses your flaws. Love holds you close, and accepts you despite your flaws.

We seek love through celebrities. If they notice us, if they follow us on Twitter, if they sleep with us, we feel validated, connected to the beautiful people like Gatsby when he holds Daisy in his arms. Have a look at any of pop-star Harry Styles’ tweets and the desperate tweets his fans send him, begging him to follow them, and you get a snapshot of all the lonely young people looking for love in the wrong places.

We seek love through substance-abuse. Heroin, Russell Brand wrote, fills a hole in people, and ‘transforms a tight white fist into a gentle brown wave…A bathroom floor in Hackney embraced me like a womb.’ Alcoholics are also seeking love. There is nothing more boring than an alcoholic, because they desperately want to connect with you, with everyone, they just don’t know how to do it. Alcoholism, the Russian writer Vladislav Zubok recently suggested, can stem from a misdirected desire for togetherness and unity. And then, when the drunk fails to connect, their mood rapidly turns ugly. They lurch from eros to thanatos, from trying to bond to shoving the world away.

We seek love through food. I sat in a McDonalds yesterday at 5pm, sucking on a chocolate milkshake like a baby pacifier, and watched various overweight Londoners lumber in and order their Happy Meals, for their first dinner of the evening. They were seeking a brief good feeling from their trays of sugars and carbohydrates. I do the same. McDonalds’ adverts even try to sell themselves as the nation’s social glue, bringing together alienated family-members and different races and generations. Their slogan now is ‘We all have McDonalds in common’. Really? Are you saying the only thing we now have in common is Big Macs and fries? My God, it’s worse than I thought.

We seek love through technology. We constantly scan our smart-phone screens to see if anyone has Liked us. We have invented an app for everything, except feeling loved. Scientists tried – in the 1970s, they developed a computer programme called ELIZA, which tried to give people the feeling of being understood and accepted. There was briefly an idea to have ELIZA machines on every street corner, to hear our pain. It hasn’t quite taken off yet.

We seek love through sex. We give our bodies to strangers to get the experience of being held for a few minutes in silence. We pay someone to hold us.  Or we get the simulacrum of sex off the internet, without any of the messy intimacy. Can it be long before they start selling vibrating empathic robots to stroke our hair and tell us we’re worth it?

We seek love through therapy. We pay someone to give us unconditional acceptance, which the psychologist Carl Rogers said is the key ingredient in the therapeutic relationship. But is it really unconditional if you’re paying for it? Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is often accused of missing out this crucial dynamic of the loving therapeutic relationship, but the grandfather of CBT, Albert Ellis, emphasised the central importance of Unconditional Self-Acceptance, and Unconditional Other Acceptance. Who or what gives us the power to accept ourselves unconditionally? Apparently, we have the power. We can simply choose to accept and love ourselves, through some Nietzschean act of self-acceptance. It doesn’t sound that easy.

Deeper still, perhaps, are Buddhism’s various techniques and practices for cultivating loving-kindness. We develop the practice of observing ourselves, with all our flaws, and not judging or condemning ourselves – because, after all, ‘you’ don’t really exist at all, so there is nothing to hate (and also nothing to love).

And then there is the weird idea of grace – the idea that, sometimes in life when we are particularly lost, God lifts us up, tells us it’s OK, and puts us on our feet again. Without earning it or deserving it, we have a sudden sense of our creator’s limitless love for us, a sense of reunion with Him after a long exile. Such moments are incredibly healing. After long wandering in a desert, you find a hip-flask of water on you, which never runs out. We feel replenished in our ability to love other people too, to care about strangers, rather than merely tolerate them.

Greek philosophy also talks about learning to trust the God Within, rather than scrabbling around in externals in a desperate attempt to feel loved. But in Stoicism, learning to trust the God Within involves solitary ascetic training and logical Socratic dialectic. It means obeying the dictates of the cold and impersonal Logos. In Positive Psychology, the search for happiness likewise involves endless strenuous exercises – keeping a Gratitude Journal, savouring a raisin, cultivating your strengths, perfecting your Duchenne smile. I don’t know if that really heals the wound we all feel, of not feeling entirely lovable. It seems more like a solitary workout regime in the gym.  You scored 7 on the gratitude scale – keep going!

In Plato, there is more of a sense of connecting to the Divine through love. But in Platonic philosophy, both ‘love’ and ‘the divine’ are abstract intellectual concepts. To me, love is not a work-out regime, or an abstract concept. It’s a relationship. Love is a father sweeping up his child into his arms when she runs to meet him.

But if you believe in a God who loves, who intervenes, who sometimes sweeps you up in his arms, then you are left with the troubling question of why He sometimes doesn’t. Why is there so much pain in the world? Why do His children feel so unloved and alone? I think of that woman walking through the empty street at dawn, sobbing, and wonder why God doesn’t intervene more often. Then again, why didn’t I?


In other news:

A new ‘wireless philosophy‘ project from Yale and MIT.

The History of Philosophy podcast from KCL looks at Islamic philosophy’s ideas on music.

One of the weirder corners of American religion has come to light in the media this week – the ‘Christian Domestic Discipline‘ scene, or Holy Spanking. I’m not sure if this is a real thing or a send-up.

Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association asks why the decline of religion has not led to moral chaos.

In the Independent, Paul Mason looks at how and why revolution is sweeping through BRIC countries despite their rapid economic growth.

Meanwhile Martin Wolf gives a grim picture of how austerity policies have failed in the UK, in the New York Review of Books.

Tomorrow I wrote the cover story for the Telegraph Weekend – have a look and a laugh at the photo.

This week’s column was partly inspired by a book called What’s So Amazing About Grace, by Philip Yancey, which I’m reading at the moment. A great book, which also inspired a U2 song. Watch an interview with Yancey here

Some book reviews. First, Tariq Ali reviews a new book on the bitchy side of Sir Isaiah Berlin. The Economist reviews a new book by a French writer who went to live in a shed next to Lake Baikal (no, not for tax reasons). And in the LA Review of Books, a review of Tao Lin’s ‘Taipei’, and the end of the dream of a psycho-pharmalogical utopia. Tao Lin also wrote a collection of poetry called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, by the way – one of the few instances I’ve come across of CBT influencing the arts.

Finally, it was very sad to hear about James Gandolfini’s death. The Sopranos is my all-time favourite TV show – I even considered writing a book about it last year, which gave me the excuse to spend most of August re-watching episodes. The show was about so many things, but particularly about the scarcity of love and the imperfection of families. Many of the characters love each other – Tony and Uncle Junior, for example, or Tony and Christopher. But their love gets lost under power, resentment and cruelty.

There’s no grace in The Sopranos – the two priests who appear are both weak and corrupt. Instead, the characters try everything from yoga to Prozac to psychoanalysis to search for fulfillment. I always thought Dr Melfi, the most famous therapist in literature, was a bit rubbish for waiting until Series 3 to offer CBT for Tony’s panic attacks, and the show itself is simplistically Freudian in making Tony’s mother such an out-and-out villain (unlike every other character). Still, what a show. Here’s the best article I’ve read on it, by Peter Buskind in Vanity Fair, which includes some amazing photos by Annie Liebovitz, like the one below.

See you next week,