LPC event, Little Atoms interview
Last night the London Philosophy Club had our biggest-ever event, with 200 people coming to Conway Hall to discuss the relationship between ancient philosophy, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Positive Psychology.
The relationship between science (particularly psychology) and ethics seems to me to be in need of much more thought and investigation. I'm just reading a book about John Dewey, the great American philosopher and psychologist, who said: "the central problem of philosophy is the relation that exists between the beliefs about the nature of things due to natural science to beliefs about values...The problem of restoring integration and co-operation between man's beliefs about the world in which he lives and his beliefs about the values and purposes that should direct his conduct is the deepest problem of modern life."
We had three great speakers to help us in our exploration of this question - Donald Robertson, psychotherapist and author of The Philosophy of CBT; Kristjan Kristjansson, who has a new book on Positive Psychology and Aristotle coming out later in the year; and Tim LeBon, psychotherapist and author of Wise Therapy (that's Tim in the photo on the right). We also had a lot of expertise in the audience, including Kathryn Ecclestone from the University of Birmingham and Mark Williamson, head of Action for Happiness.
Most participants agreed that philosophy and psychology have some important things to say to each other and can complement each other. As I put it in my book, philosophy without empirical psychology is a brain in a vat, but empirical psychology without ethical philosophy is a chicken without a head. Both Tim and Kristjan suggested that, while Positive Psychology is far more sophisticated than mere 'happy-ology', it crucially lacks the Aristotelian 'core virtue' of practical wisdom.
For example, Positive Psychology tells us that meaning and engagement are important to flourishing, but doesn't help us distinguish between good meaning and bad meaning. This leads to the bizarre situation where Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology, suggests that Osama bin Laden 'technically' scored high in flourishing measurements because he probably felt filled with meaning, purpose, engagement etc. Simply having a life filled with meaning is not enough for a genuinely good life - a monomaniac obsessive might be filled with meaning, while wasting their life on some mad conspiracy theory, for example. A heroine addict, as someone put it last night, might be filled with 'flow' and totally absorbed in staring at the wall simply because they are high on smack.
You need practical ethical judgement to discern good meaning from bad meaning, good flow from bad flow, good relationships from bad relationships. And you can't develop that from automated programmes or simplistic scripts. You need relationships, debate, communal reflection - like the London Philosophy Club!
Perhaps here in the UK we can start to develop a working dialogue between the two fields of psychology and ethics, and get them to work together in education, health and social policy. That was part of the idea of last night - to get Donald, Tim, Kristjan and Kathryn into a room to meet each other and other inquiring minds, perhaps to develop a network.
I think everyone enjoyed it - I certainly did - and we got some great photos courtesy of the Financial Times photographer (I'm writing an FT weekend story on philosophy clubs) which hopefully we can post soon. The BBC World Service is also doing a short segment on philosophy clubs this Saturday on their show The World Today Weekend. The Spanish newspaper El Confidencial also did a story about philosophy clubs this week.
I had the pleasure of meeting Sid Rodrigues at Conway Hall - he's just started working there. Sid runs the Skeptics in the Pub network. Talking of Skeptics, I was on the brilliant radio show Little Atoms last week, talking about my book with Neil Denny. Neil holds down a day-job at British Telecom, and Friday evenings gives up his time (for free I think) to do his Skeptic radio show, which has hosted everyone from Christopher Hitchens to Jonah Lehrer to David Eagleman to Adam Curtis. How cool is that? I love these sorts of grassroots organisations, and the passionate creative individuals they attract.
By the way, today is the launch of the School of Life's new self-help series, with books by Alain de Botton, Philippa Perry, Roman Krznaric, Tom Chatfield and others. I wish them the best of success with it - Tom and Roman have both come to speak at the London Philosophy Club, and Alain and Philippa have been supportive and helpful to me in the past. I'm going to see the crew talk at the Union Chapel in Islington next Monday, and I'm speaking at the School of Life on Tuesday evening (tickets here). Meanwhile we're slogging it out on the Amazon philosophy chart - well...OK, they're slightly ahead of me, but then, they had a million pound book deal and I didn't! Anyway, buy all our books. But particularly mine. And Roman's.