Beyond the Bunnies – Why Easter is for Grown Ups

April 17, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Easter, where have you been all my life? I will be 37 on Good Friday, but only today did I get round to inquiring into what the Easter story might mean for those who genuinely wanted to know.

I am grateful to some Christian friends (you know who you are) who have helped in various ways with our work on spirituality for sharing their insight to help me think this through. It turns out that Easter has philosophical and psychological layers most people never reflect on, and with all due respect, it’s several orders of magnitude more interesting than Christmas.

But these ideas at the heart of Easter are for grown ups. They are deep, dark, and difficult, and they make most sense to those who have been round the block enough to deeply know pain and the recovery from pain, and recognise this recurring pattern in our lives and the lives of others. The meaning of the Christmas story is relatively straightforward by comparison, and an easier one for children to grasp. So a warning: if you are expecting sweetness and light manifest as chocolate eggs or bunny rabbits, look away now.

At first blush the story makes no sense. The ‘son of God’(who?) dies in excruciatingly sadistic and vinegary pain while nailed to a wooden cross by the terrestrial baddies du jour to ‘save us from our sins’ (how?) and this singularly important(why?) celestial person(what?) is entombed in a stone cave. Just then, when this apparently appalling thing that remains confounding on a number of levels has happened, he miraculously comes back to life, removes the stone that kept him entombed, and is back amongst us; his resurrection proof that he really is the son of God (yes, that again…) and that, therefore, somehow, all is well.

Like most of the people reading this post, I am culturally Christian. I’ve heard versions of this story hundreds of times before and have never really developed a position on whether it ‘actually happened’ or felt that I needed to. Some Christians might say that’s a cop out, because if it did happen, it was this particular historical event, and not ‘the enlightenment’ that was, as Professor Tom Wright puts it ‘The greatest turning point in history’.

For now though, to be consistent with most of our other work on spirituality, I’m going to try to ‘keep the tension’ (as chess players put it) on the fundamental but also fundamentally contested questions of literal, historical truth, and focus on core themes from the story that have broader human application:

Pain and suffering

Some misunderstand Buddhism as a religion that is ‘all about suffering’, which is not true, but some misunderstand Christianity as a religion that is all about being nice and good, and that’s not true either. The heart of the Christian story is overflowing with stark realism and is very dark indeed. It’s about a moment where people are bereft of hope.

Nietzsche one wrote: “There was only one Christian, and they killed him.” That’s another story, another argument, but it captures the darkness and bleakness of the moment Jesus is killed very well. This touchstone of light is not only effectively tortured and humiliated, but through his death it appears that all light and all hope is well and truly snuffed out.

Easter therefore says: a life fully lived will feature suffering, not just a little bit, and it won’t always make sense at the time. There will be moments where you feel utterly forsaken, and that is not imaginary. But it is not the whole story either.

Love and Justice Reconciled

Whether or not you ‘believe’ in God (or know what it means not to) you will know that the Christian conception of God is one who is both loving and just, and that’s not an easy trick for anybody (yes, even God) to pull off. The Easter story is arguably about the possibility of squaring this circle. God didn’t just allow the baddies to ‘get away with it’; he allowed it to happen because he saw further and deeper.

Denial

Some say the heart of the story is about our terrifying capacity to turn away from what we need to look at. We would rather crucify the truth than recognise it as the truth. Our work on ‘stealth denial’ on climate change was not inspired by Jesus(!) but it was an attempt to capture this sentiment – the truth is often deeply uncomfortable and we will go to great lengths to get away from it. If there was a way we could ‘kill’ climate change, rather than deal with it, we probably would.

‘Eucatastrophes’

Tolkien coined the term ‘eucatastrophe’ as an antonym for catastrophe, because he wanted to highlight the reality of those moments where all seems lost, but suddenly and miraculously, the ring of power finds its way into the fires of mount doom; the seemingly dead come back to life; the incurable cancer inexplicably disappears.

Paradox

Easter is about holding on to the paradox that, as Mark Vernon put it to me: ”When all seems lost – really, truly, bleakly – all is found…”

Incarnation and Embodiement

The quietly brilliant Chris Oldfield put it to me that Easter, like Christmas, is a celebration of embodiment over elegant abstraction and virtual reality. It’s about “The scandal of Incarnation overcoming excarnation (as Charles Taylor might put it).” This point, has interesting resonances with Guy Claxton’s lecture at the RSA in our spirituality series. There is no spirituality, however you define it, without the body.

Gender 

A curious detail of the story, again indicated by Chris, is that it is female disciples who are the witnesses to the empty tomb. The male disciples basically don’t believe them “because their words seemed to them like nonsense” (Luke 24). There is apparently a lot of Biblical scholarship on this issue, connecting the male response to this important but discomforting news to modern day unhelpful stereotypes about ‘hysterical women’.

The Self

You can see Easter as being about emptying yourself to be filled with something more than ego; to die to your false self to connect with your truer deeper self. For those who can’t follow the story back to Christian belief and practice, this idea alone is an important one. Psychologically and existentially, we often need to lose ourselves to find ourselves.

Second Chances

A relatively conventional but important interpretation, is that the Christian God is fundamentally about second chances. New life can come even to the completely lost or bereft, and sometimes more than once.

Taking a Stand

For all that I said about not debating the literal truth, it is worth ending with a powerful quote (HT Chris Oldfield) that says, actually, whether we are culturally or religiously Christian, we do need to decide what we feel about ‘the truth’ of the resurrection:

From Tom Wright on: ‘Grave matters’; why the resurrection is not a ‘take it or leave it thing’:

“Take it away, and Karl Marx was probably right to accuse Christianity of ignoring the problems of the material world. Take it away, and Sigmund Freud was probably right to say that Christianity is a wish-fulfilment religion. Take it away, and Friedrich Nietzsche was probably right to say that Christianity is a religion for wimps. Put it back, and you have a faith that can take on the postmodern world which looks to Marx, Freud & Nietzsche for its prophets, with the Easter news that the weakness of God is stronger than men, and the foolishness of God is wiser than men.”

I’m not sure what I think about that, but I mean it when I say:

Happy Easter!

 

 

Should Scientists go on strike over climate change?

April 14, 2014 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Well that’s a relief. The most recent IPCC report indicates that it needn’t cost the earth to save the planet (Ottmar Edenhofer’s line). It’s bizarre that the test of whether we should avert ecological catastrophe is whether we can afford to, but lamenting that absurdity is for another day.

In response to this latest report I was tempted to repeat a surprisingly popular post in response to another IPCC report a fortnight ago, but at a certain point the pattern of report publishing/report responding feels like complicity in climate inertia. We need to look at alternatives more closely.

The curious idea of scientists striking came, almost in passing, from an article by Bill Mckibben(above), who is perhaps the best known climate activist in the USA (we don’t have an equivalent person in the UK), known for his advocacy of divesting in fossil fuels, and most famous for his celebrated Rolling Stone article which made it clear why the only serious solution to climate change is to keep most of our fossil fuel reserves in the ground (and why, alas, that is never likely to happen).

His full post on MSNBC is here but these extracts give the jist:

“They’ve said it with graphs, they’ve said it with tables. They’ve offered colour-coded guides to future decades. They’ve told us about basic science and, when that didn’t work, they’ve tried to explain it in terms anyone could understand…

They’ve done their job. (And they’ve done it for free – working on these endless IPCC reports is a volunteer job). They’ve warned us, amply. The scientific method, with researchers working hard to disprove each others’ hypotheses, has worked. It’s yielded a concise answer to a difficult problem in chemistry and physics. When you pour carbon into the air, the planet heats up and then all hell breaks loose. That’s basically what you need to know.

But if science has worked, political science has failed…So at this point it’s absurd to keep asking the scientific community to churn out more reports. In fact, it might almost be more useful if they went on strike: until you pay attention to what we’ve already told you, we won’t be telling you more.”

Now there is an idea.

 

(From ‘Climate Camp‘. Image via www.otesha.org.uk)

People typically go ‘on strike’ with trade union support, using the considerable strength of ‘collective bargaining’ to improve workers’ negotiating power over pay and conditions. Public support for this kind of action depends on our sense of whether the cause is just, and the action proportionate.

So what would we feel about strike action that takes roughly the form: “You say you value our approach and expertise, but your inaction in response to our outputs offends our collective sense of professionalism as Scientists, and we won’t work any more until you show through your actions that you are taking us, and our profession seriously.”

It is not clear if McKibben just means IPCC members should go on strike, but the idea has broader applicability. I hesitate to make an estimate, but a brief Google search suggests there are approximately (depending on definitions) six million ‘Scientists’ in the world.

At present, these six million or so Scientists do not have what Marx and Engels referred to as ‘class consciousness’, but they have a great deal to unite around; a shared commitment to certain methodologies, principles, values and practices and a worldview that respects appropriate responses to data and evidence.

The vast majority of scientists, across fields, would generally share the verdict of the IPCC chairman Rajendra K.Pachauri: “The high speed mitigation train needs to leave the station very soon and all of global society has to get on board.”

From this shared sense of identity and purpose they would generally respect the verdict of their climatologist colleagues (better not to say ‘comrades’…) that climate change is happening because of what governments are allowing people and businesses to do, and that we ought to ‘do something’ rapidly to change that. (The most recent report helpfully gave some detail on that typically generic injunction ie we need a rapid transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy).

The vast majority of scientists, across fields, would generally share the verdict of the IPCC chairman Rajendra K.Pachauri: “The high speed mitigation train needs to leave the station very soon and all of global society has to get on board.”

Could Scientists stand together in solidarity in this way? Can we imagine an ENT surgeon, an inorganic chemistry PHD student, and a recently graduated engineer feeling ‘common cause’ in this way and taking professional action accordingly? It’s a bit of a stretch, because Scientists of all stripes and seniority would need to feel somehow ‘offended’ by the lack of respect given to the work of their colleagues to take collective action. At first blush it sounds and feels drastic, but is it really? Given what is at stake?

Assuming the rationale makes sense, could it ever happen practically? What would it look like in practice?

A long shot it may be, but it could have a huge effect. Scientists carry a great deal of societal esteem because what they do requires knowledge and diligence and a respect for something other than their own opinions.

However, while they have lots of  ’soft power’ – the power of attraction – the relatively ineffectual responses to their IPCC reports suggest they tend to lack ‘hard power’ – the power to change policy at scale, and they don’t always want it either! Striking would be both a form of communication and a form of direct action; and we need both on climate change.

As with every other aspect of the climate crisis, Scientists have a collective action problem. If there was some way for Scientists to better make their collective presence felt, for instance by their collective absence, this might be a powerful collective action solution that would communicate more effectively than any report every could.

Scientists of the world unite! You have everything to lose but your brains.

 

The power to create.. what?

The RSA is, almost fundamentally, a place of debate.  We debate at lectures with speakers; we debate online with the media; but most of all, we debate amongst ourselves.  We debate the morning’s news over breakfast; we debate project and report details at lunch; we debate existentialist dilemmas and the meaning of life over late-night drinks; and the cycle begins anew.

But lately we’ve been debating even more than usual, because the topic of discussion has not been about this or that, but about us and what we stand for.  A consensus on a new agenda is (slowly) building around the idea of ‘the power to create’: the belief that “all should have the freedom and capacity to turn their ideas into reality”.  This emerging worldview was first articulated by Adam Lent, Director of RSA’s Action and Research Centre.

It’s a concept that embodies two of our core principles:

  1. Creativity: that individual and collective ingenuity will be key to successfully addressing the complex web of social, economic and ecological challenges we now face as a society
    (and)
  2. Inclusivity: that the best solutions to these challenges will emerge from the bottom-up, rather than be imposed from the top-down

Where debate has broken out, it has typically concerned the lack of stipulation of which ideas we want to help people turn into reality.  Jonathan Rowson posted a full discussion of this issue, but for brevity I quote Paul Swann‘s comment, which put it thus:

“Calling for an ‘unprecedented explosion of creative endeavour’ is all well and good, but to what ends? Perpetual growth, short-term profits and increasing greenhouse gas emissions..?”

Paul’s question highlights that ‘the power to create’ is silent on what is surely a third pillar of our principles: the issue of social responsibility.  In other words, are we advocating a kind of capitalist creativity which rewards any innovation that is profitable, regardless of externalities?  Or are we, with tonight’s speaker, David Harvey, promoting a revolutionary creativity to oppose capital’s exploitation of people and planet?  I cannot speak for my colleagues, but I find the question interesting as an exercise in questioning my own ideals.

‘the power to create’ is silent on what is surely a third pillar of our principles: the issue of social responsibility

“Ultimately”, it was said in our latest round of debate, “what will give any prospective agenda meaning is not the words we use, but the work we do.”  And perhaps the work I am doing is illustrative of the kind of creativity I want to see in the world.  Following on from a productive round table discussion with manufacturing representatives, policy makers, academics and NGOs, I am exploring the potential for a new project to accelerate the transition towards sustainable manufacturing.  The creative, inclusive and responsible vision here is one of a circular economy, in which production is localised rather than centralised, mass customisation replaces mass production, and pollution and waste become inputs rather than outputs of manufacturing.

Continuing the theme of working with business rather than against it, I am working on the RSA’s new Premium, which addresses the fact that we are chronically under-investing in our workforce, leaving people unproductive and unfulfilled.  Grounded in the belief that great ideas can come from anywhere, Valuing Your Talent is a crowdsourcing challenge open to all, generating practical innovations to help businesses (particularly SMEs) recognise and make the case for greater investment in their people – get involved today!

What these two projects have in common is that they seek radical, transformative change in the way businesses work, but they do so through a collaborative rather than confrontational approach.  So if our work says more than our words about who we are, then to the question, ‘what kind of creativity do I want to see in the world?’ I say:

This kind of creativity!’

 

Conor Quinn works in the RSA’s Action and Research Centre.  Follow him @conorquinn85

Top down, bottom up, side to side, inside out: 4 types of social change and why we need them all.

April 9, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

The next time somebody tells you that we need to move beyond ‘top down’ solutions and do things ‘bottom up’, ask them which way is North on their compass – where are they exactly, and where are they trying to go?

Image via www.emnconline.org

The point is not so much to disorient them but to get beyond cliches, and think harder both about what really matters and the stubborn persistence of lazy distinctions.

For starters, there is nothing inherently wrong with ‘top-down’. There’s a time and place for authority, hierarchy and regulation, usually to resolve intractable debates or create impact at scale, but it needs to be democratised and contained with suitable checks and balances.

And there is nothing inherently right about ‘bottom-up’, because while there is also a time and place for context, specificity, granularity, and the passion that comes from particular people fighting for particular purposes in particular places, there is a limit to what you can achieve without the major levers or economic and political power.

The deeper problem is that this geometric juxtaposition feels cliche-ridden because it is two dimensional, ‘flatland’ view of the world and the power that lies within it. If the RSA’s emerging ‘Power to Create’  worldview is going to walk its own talk, we do need to clarify our position with respect to top down and bottom up approaches, while also framing the scope for social change more imaginatively. Different kinds of problems need different social change strategies, and most problems need all of them.

As indicated in a previous post, I think ‘The Power to Create’ pivots around a range of interrelated ideas:

  • An analysis of ongoing socio-technical disruption: The reality of new technologies undermining old forms of cultural, political and economic power.
  • A grasp of the urgency of innovation: The need for new ideas and institutional forms to tackle major systemic problems.
  • A belief in the value of of mass creativity: A vision of social transformation grounded in meaningful creativity for the many, not the few.
  • A reappraisal of ‘small is beautiful’: The belief that a legion of small initiatives can and should challenge or usurp big businesses and governments in areas where their activity is relatively ineffectual.
  • A philosophy of freedom: A commitment to a vision of the good life grounded in self-actualisation and the joy of turning our ideas into reality.

So let’s assume for now this is an emerging vision of the world you can adhere to and see yourself in – what follows for how to act constructively within this emerging world?

So let’s assume for now this is an emerging vision of the world you can adhere to and see yourself in – what follows for how to act constructively within this emerging world?

As Cultural theorists have highlighted before, forms of social change are manifold, and often in tension, so while the power to create apparently leans towards ‘bottom-up’ approaches, I find the following four-part structure useful, not least because it highlights the importance of the deeper forms of behaviour change that have defined Social Brain’s work over the last few years.

We need to use all available tools; that means we need the vitality of personal agency, the systemic impact of of smart regulation, the elegance of socio-technical innovation and the humanity to keep ourselves present, open, aware, connected, vulnerable and inquisitive as the whole thing unfolds.

1. Top-Down (Political change for challenges relating to social and economic structure)

Key features: Impact at scale, usually involuntary, often relies on policy influence followed by regulatory change. 

Regulation gets a hard time, but it is sometimes necessary to create change at scale. The major changes needed to break down some of the barriers that currently constrain the power to create might include:

  • Challenging the legal status of corporations as persons, which arguably gives big business far greater legal protections than they deserve.
  • Working with the Law Society to shift fiduciary duties, so that companies can fulfill their legal obligations to shareholders while also factoring in the long term viability of the business, which would make it much easier to be genuinely sustainable.
  • Introducing a basic income for everybody in the population to strengthen the core economy based on care and trust, and mitigate the risks that prevent many from starting their own business. In case this sounds loony left, it might surprise you to know that Hayek supported this idea.
  • Campaigning on land reform. Coming from Scotland, the law of trespass in English law is a pain and the freeholder/leaseholder divide on many properties in England strikes me as utterly bizarre; such constraints get in the way of various forms of community action and people using their properties in creative ways, for instance to create or store their own energy.

2. Bottom-up (Social change for challenges relating to tangible and specific issues of a civil, civic or ecological nature)

Key features: Specific and contextual, usually voluntary but often need-driven and stemming from individuals or small groups and often tied to particular places or domains. 

Such top-down changes don’t prevent bottom-up changes; if anything their purpose should be to facilitate and encourage them. Local context is not a noise obscuring an underlying Platonic political form, but the very lifeblood of what matters to most people. Recycling, for instance, is about global resource constraints; but for many it’s about orange council bags under the sink or blue boxes out in the street.

We need to use all available tools; the vitality of personal agency, the systemic impact of of smart regulation, the elegance of socio-technical innovation and the humanity to keep ourselves present, open, aware, connected, vulnerable and inquisitive in this process.

If the power to create is partly about a reconceptualisation of agency, that means motivating people to act, which means seeing how the macro is manifest at a micro level in our lived experience, and starting from there. Paul Hawken’s classic book ‘Blessed Unrest’ about the rise of social movements gives an excellent overview of this kind of power.

3. Side-to-side(Change stemming from socio-technical disruption, characterised by systemic innovation)

Key features: Change that stems from loose associations of values and interests across domains, usually disruptive or entrepreneurial in spirit, grounded in virtual networks, now pervasive and international due to social media. 

What the conventional idea of ‘bottom-up’ change doesn’t capture is the significance of what Jeremy Rifkind calls lateral power and the growth in ‘disintermediation’ – people can get things done by themselves or with other like minded individuals without intermediaries in ways that were unimaginable until recently.

The very idea of top and bottom feels partial in this context. In addition to the hierarchies of vertical power(top down, bottom-up) there are heterarchies of lateral power; networks of varying size, shape and influence that often lie dormant but can suddenly be hugely influential in response to particular events, and cut across regions and countries.

Such shifts have altered the very idea of social change as necessarily place-based or even country-based, as indicated by Avaaz among others. This kind of horizontal influencing power, fuelled by ongoing technological disruption, lies at the heart of the rationale for our focus on ‘the power to create’.

4. Inside-out (change stemming from contemplative practices, seeking transformative changes to our ends as well as our means)

Key features: the psychological, spiritual and cultural underpinnings of all the other forms of social change; often contemplative or reflective in spirit, targeted mostly at major hidden assumptions, immunity to change, and adaptive challenges.

As argued here previously, what interests me most personally is the inner power to create; the relatively neglected fourth form of social change that is about integration, and the connection between the work we do on ourselves and the work we do out in the world. To grow in confidence and individual agency, to believe we can turn our ideas into reality in a meaningful and not merely tokenistic way, we need to work hard on on the consonance between what we think, say and do on a regular basis. And we need a much more robust idea of what to aim for in life, for ourselves and society as a whole. Only from that kind of enriched foundation, which we often need to work on ourselves to attain, can we act with conviction in the world.

The inertia within established forms of economic and political power is so very strong, that we have to keep on reminding ourselves what really matters to us in order to steer ourselves away from financial instability, social recession, and ecological collapse. And where to exactly? With finite personal time on a physically finite planet, we need the existential to inform the economic. Our collective task is to help each other build a sense of power and purpose, and use that power to create the conditions that will allow us all to live fulfilling lives.

Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA and tweets here.

Is good mental health ultimately about looking after your soul?

April 1, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

We think more than we can say. We feel more than we can think. We live more than we can feel. And there is much else besides (Eugene Gendlin). Perhaps the soul is what we mean when we reflect on that ‘much else besides’. – Iain McGilchrist

 

 

Monday night’s event in the RSA Great Room, “What Happened to the Soul?” by Iain McGilchrist, can be viewed above in all its unedited grit and glory.

This was the third event of six in the spirituality series, following from events one and two. Some more considered analysis on this third event will follow when we can quote from the full transcript currently being prepared, but for now, here goes:

It is always hard to judge the success of public events, especially when you’re part of them, but there have been many positive responses (‘tremendous’, ‘extraordinary’, ‘fascinating’) from people whose judgment I respect, and the people watching had plenty to say on Twitter, though I suppose that might just represent moral support or twitchy fingers.

My impression is that the questions and answer session (from c35 mins in) was particularly spirited, and may be worth cutting to directly to get animated and engaged by the ideas, before returning to the more intricate substance of the talk, which of course contained lots of wonderful material to think about too.

Mental Health

I think the biggest issue, and one I hope to come back to, concerns the scope to think about some mental health problems (perhaps mild to moderate forms of depression in particular) as a form of ‘soul sickness’. This reframing is informed by Iain’s account of the role of suffering in ‘growing a soul’(though he was emphatic that nobody should suffer acute mental ill health for a moment longer than necessary) and what might follow for the appropriate use of anti-depressant and anti-psychotic drugs. Perhaps we might say that a little bit of suffering that we can recover from is necessary for the growth of the soul, but too much suffering threatens to extinguish it entirely.

Perhaps we might say that a little bit of suffering that we can recover from is necessary for the growth of the soul, but too much suffering threatens to extinguish it entirely.

This is a big and complex issue, and a large part of the potential practical value of reconceiving spirituality, as indicated by our three research workshops(the content of which will be shared in our final project report, due in October.). Iain is clearly by no means the only person working in the broad mental health domain to think something resembling ‘spirituality’ may be important it not essential for mental health.

As a Psychiatrist, Iain would not be so facile as to say such a reframing is always appropriate or that it always helps significantly. However, if thinking in terms of the soul helps to make the experience of meaning a more fundamental aspect of human life and health, then it may be one the best reasons to talk about ‘the soul’ in public life.

Highlights:

A fuller account of that argument will follow, but for now, if you find time to watch the video, look out for:

  • “Oh God, if there be a God, save my soul, if I have a soul…” (A perennial quotation of uncertain provenance!)
  • The need for ‘the soul’ as a concept – why the substitutes don’t cut it as a way of capturing certain qualities of experience.
  • The joke about the poor man repeatedly praying to win the lottery, whom God finally speaks to by saying: “Meet me half way, buy a ticket.”
  • Iain’s intensely metaphorical (almost – but not quite!- to a comical extent) answer to the very direct question from our Head of Business Development Esther McCarthy about whether the soul (if we have a soul!) survives bodily death.
  • The value of ‘deliberate ambiguity’ – is the vagueness of terms like the soul part of their value? Is there something about trying to define them too precisely that misses this point? Does that feel right and appropriate, or still somehow evasive?
  • What can we learn from ‘soul splitting’ in Harry Potter?
  • Body and soul: “duality does not entail dualism.”
  • When we remember a person, are we really remembering their soul? A question from John Field FRSA that wasn’t answered; is this a good way to grasp what the soul is?

If thinking in terms of the soul helps to make the experience of meaning a more fundamental aspect of human life and health, then it may be one the best reasons to talk about ‘the soul’ in public life.

Lessons Learned

  • Iain has earned a deserved reputation as a thoughtful polymath with a sound grasp of sciences and humanities, but occasionally I feel he over-reacts to the fear of being thought to be a reductionist. His resolute ‘no’ in response to my question of whether science could ever help us make sense of the nature of the soul struck me as an overstatement.
  • We didn’t quite establish the connection between belief in/acceptance of the soul and belief in/acceptance of ‘God’, and it would have been good to probe that important if obvious question a little further. Clearly Iain’s account of the soul is no ghost in the machine, but is there any sense in which a more dispositional perspective on the individual soul is isomorphic with respect to a universal soul?
  • In response to the classical musical clip from the 16th century, one guest later told me that while it was assumed we were all touched, move and inspired, he personally didn’t feel it moved his ‘soul’ particularly, and wondered whether there was a presumption of cultural identification with meaning that was misplaced for those who don’t share the cultural tradition (he’s a highly intelligent Australian).
  • Iain’s education and disposition makes his thought hyper-nuanced, but it can feel like the boundary between nuance and obscurity requires a third-party arbiter at times! Personally, I am never quite sure when it feels appropriate to press for further clarity. Perhaps this desire is what Iain would call ‘left hemisphere overreach’ – asking for too much precision- but there is something Protean about Iain’s thought that I, as one of his biggest fans, sometimes find frustrating.
  • With hindsight, I should have tried harder to focus on the issue of ‘What happened to the soul?’ rather than what became the focus: ‘what is the soul?’ The questions are closely connected, but the result was that we heard from Iain the philosopher and I could perhaps have done more to draw out the Scientist; it felt to me, perhaps wrongly, like having the two together would give the fullest picture of the soul.
  • Relatedly, I am very familiar with Iain’s bestseller ‘The Master and his Emissary’, which connects an analysis of neural anatomy and function to a theory of cultural history, but I should perhaps have taken more care to share some of the main ideas with the audience, which we examined closely for an RSA report last year: Divided Brain, Divided World: Why the best part of us struggles to be heard. These ideas were implicit in much of the discussion, but a little unpacking of them might have helped to sharpen the key issues at stake.

In any case, I am pleased we have managed to draw attention to the cultural neglect of ‘the soul’, and I left feeling very glad we had hosted the event. Iain and the audience significantly moved along our thinking and opened up areas for further inquiry, not least on mental health.

On the other hand, and this is a positive point, there is something about these spirituality events that always leave me wanting more, as if the life changing revelation you naively hoped for is forever postponed until next time.

 

Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA, and tweets @Jonathan_Rowson.

We are currently considering ideas and speakers for our 4th and 5th (of 6) public events in this series, so do get in touch if you have any suggestions on questions or speakers.

 

 

 

 

Generic calls for ‘action’ on climate change keep us exactly where we are

March 31, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

You may have heard the news that today the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change once again highlighted that the potential impacts of climate change on humans are likely to be significantly worse than a slap in the face with a wet fish. The cartoon below* tells you everything you need to know about today’s announcement:

Embedded image permalink

The BBC led with a suitably troubling headline saying that Climate Change impacts are likely to be overwhelming. To be clear, these overwhelming impacts are not about a few cheeky if somewhat devastating storms, droughts and floods that we can handle with some good emergency services and a stiff upper lip. The relatively neglected point that today’s report serves to detail is the concomitant impact on our food, water and energy supplies, and likely consequences relating to disease, poverty, inequality, immigration and war.

One should take care not to sound alarmist (even if it’s bl**dy alarming!) but it is worth considering that such impacts are not projected to take place at some point in the distant future in a far away land, but coming soon, one way or the other, to you, your family and friends, in a city near you.

I am not sure how best to respond today, not least because I’m preparing for tonight’s event, but I did want to take this chance to say a few things off the cuff:

  • Please don’t say: “The time to act is now!” Generic calls for ‘Action’ are utterly futile. Please, if you think we should act, have the courage to stick your neck out and say how you think we should act, keeping in mind our competing commitments to energy security and prices, and economic growth.
  • Please don’t blame the politicians. That is a weak willed form of projection. Advise, encourage, threaten, cajole, heckle if you have to, but don’t blame them as if they had nothing to do with you, or as if they knew what to do, but are too feckless or lazy to follow through. It’s not like that at all; most politicians don’t even properly understand that the core issue is about global fossil fuel production, not reducing national emissions. If climate change is a pivotal political issue for you, let them know, but also help them see a constructive way to act that is not merely tokenistic.
  • Please don’t blame the climate sceptics or deniers. At least they are consistent, and many give this issue far more of their intellectual and emotional energy than their opponents. You could blame the media for giving them too much air time, but I believe it’s the people calling for ‘action’ who have no idea what that means that really keep us where we are. Our report on ‘stealth denial’ begs a lot of methodological questions, but we are confident that the majority of the population can be described as broadly accepting the reality of the problem, but denying (technically, disavowing) the related emotions, agency and responsibility that we collectively need to acknowledge and build on. In other words, the deeper and subtler forms of denial are the real problem.
  • Please don’t over-simplify. Climate change is complicated, but not impossibly so. I believe seeing it as a problem with seven dimensions (science, law, technology, money, democracy, culture & behaviour)  is a useful map on which people can see themselves, and their scope to act more clearly.
  • Please read our recent report: A New Agenda on Climate Change. It may have flaws, but it does try hard to get beyond all the generic calls to action that you’ll hear today.

 

Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA. He tweets @jonathan_rowson

*(I haven’t able to track the original source for this image, but will gladly do so if somebody else can.)

 

Event on Monday: What happened to ‘the soul’?

March 26, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Hang on, didn’t we used to have souls?

I grew up thinking there were clear dividing lines between mind, body and soul, and I was happy to have all three of them. Perhaps it’s just me, but it feels like, imperceptibly over the eighties, nineties and naughties, the soul was secularised away.

Around this time I sensed that even the mind started giving away to the brain, which in turn collapses into a broader notion of our material body and nervous system, which then gives way to genes…and it doesn’t even end there…Perhaps the reason I came to be in my current role is that I acquired such a strong felt sense that our common sense notion of what makes us human beings is completely at odds with the scientific account, and my interest in spirituality may be because the front line of this battle for the integrity of our understanding and experience is our idea of the soul.

(Image from RSAnimate of Ian McGilchrist’s first RSA lecture)

Personally, I feel like I haven’t heard about ‘the soul’ in public life for years. It’s as if this fundamental part of us was gradually theorised out of existence, and we collectively and unwittingly ‘forgot’ about something that used to be fundamental to our understanding of what it is to be human.

‘The death of the soul’ is part of the process of secularisation (a complex notion though that is) and the conventional wisdom among most scientists and analytic philosophers is that the soul is a mostly religious and pre-modern folksy notion that makes no sense with respect to modern understandings of our evolved bodies and brains. If you don’t move in those kinds of intellectual orbits though, this news – the death of the soul- might come as a bit of a shock!

Moreover, for many, including our prior speaker in this series, Guy Claxton, soul-like phenomena relating to meaning and transcendence can be explained without ‘the soul’. Indeed, Guy would probably say the loss of ‘the soul’ did no real harm to our souls. Others would go further, and say moving beyond quaint metaphysical notions of the soul liberates us, and allows us to be more authentically soulful.

Sometimes words capture elements of experience that we lose forever when those words disappear.

But is that right? Even if we don’t adhere to a religious or even philosophical (technically ‘ontological’) account of individual souls, surely it’s not so easy just to discard the notion, and everything caught up with the soul without some loss of perspective. Sometimes words capture elements of experience that we lose forever when those words disappear.

And perhaps the soul is still very much alive. It remains meaningful to speak of ‘Schools with Soul’ for instance, to love soul music, and most of us know people or places that feel ‘soulful’. Moreover some, including many psychotherapists, would go further and say that many mental health challenges relate to the neglect of ‘the soul’ at a societal level.

Personally, that makes sense to me. As I recently argued, I think our obsession with our ‘place’ in the world leads us to neglect our more fundamental ‘ground’, and that this neglect may prevent us from living our lives at their generous best.

It is therefore exciting to report that on Monday the celebrated author of the brilliant and extraordinary book ‘The Master and his Emissary’, polymath, psychiatrist and RSA fellow Iain McGilchrist will speak directly to these fundamental matters in his talk What Happened to the Soul? as part our series of events exploring the nature and value of spirituality in light of modern understandings of human nature.

Iain seems the perfect person to interrogate this question, in light of his background in sciences and humanities. He understands why ‘the soul’ cannot be what we used to think it was, but also why we may need it nonetheless.

I don’t want to steal Iain’s thunder, but from a brief call with him earlier today it sounds like the content of the talk will be very rich indeed. We might learn what it means to think of the soul not as ‘a thing’ but as a process or disposition; why it makes sense to say we can grow or extinguish souls, how individual souls relate to collective souls, and personally I was pleased to hear that Carl Jung might even get a mention or two.

As regular readers of this blog will know, we have paid close attention to Iain’s work before, but for those who want a quicker hit, here is a video of an RSAnimate of Iain’s last talk at the RSA, which is rapidly approaching a million and a half views.

The event is sold out, but will be live streamed. If you want to know more about your soul(!) you can tune in live and ask questions via #RSASpirituality.

The Inner Power to Create

March 24, 2014 by · 12 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.

- Mahatma Gandhi

I started writing this post a few moments after returning from a ‘Satsang’ at the Sivananda Yoga Centre in Putney. These free gatherings take place five minutes from my home and follow a familiar routine of four roughly half hour chunks; meditating (mostly concentration), chanting (mostly Kirtan), listening to a lecture(mostly free-flowing responses to an idea in one of the texts by the movement’s two founders) and sharing a meal(always vegetarian, usually lentils).

I go there for a spiritual ‘hit’, a change of scene, and a sense of community that is not mediated by social status. The setting is not without religious (mostly Hindu/Vedantic) signifiers, but they feel mythological and ritualistic rather than propositional, in that they are about the experience of symbolic meaning rather than the textual description of reality. The whole process leaves me feeling energised and renewed, but without that gnawing sense of intellectual compromise that haunts me in churches.

Tonight I was struck by something the Swami (teacher) said in her talk that got me thinking about the RSA’s emerging worldview, currently called ‘The Power to Create’. The Swami didn’t use the Gandhi quote above I was familiar with. Instead she spoke about the importance of retaining coherence between what we think, say and do, not so much for happiness, but for confidence, which may be a prerequisite for it.

If we think things are one way, but say otherwise; or if we say things should be so, but don’t act accordingly, it’s not just corrosive to wellbeing, it undermines our sense of agency.

When I strongly disagree but say I mostly agree, or when I say I want to lose weight but reach for the third piece of chocolate cake, my sense of self-efficacy is eroded. When we sense this recurring gap between thought and word, and word and deed, we lose faith in ourselves to shape our lives, and gradually assume it’s literally beyond our power to turn our ideas into reality.

When we sense this recurring gap between thought and word, and word and deed, we lose faith in ourselves to shape our lives, and gradually assume it’s literally beyond our power to turn our ideas into reality.

This was a timely thought. I have been trying to figure out what it is about the RSA’s emerging world view that leaves me feeling a little uneasy. I knew it was something about its value neutrality and lack of emphasis on our inner lives, but I couldn’t quite place it, and now I have a clearer idea.

The Power to Create has a kaleidoscopic core, but on my current understanding it tends to pivot around the following five interrelated ideas:

  • An analysis of ongoing socio-technical disruption: The reality of new technologies undermining old forms of cultural, political and economic power.
  • A grasp of the urgency of innovation: The need for new ideas and institutional forms to tackle major systemic problems.
  • A belief in the value of of mass creativity: A vision of social transformation grounded in meaningful creativity for the many, not the few.
  • A reappraisal of ‘small is beautiful’: The belief that a legion of small initiatives can and should challenge or usurp big businesses and governments in areas where their activity is relatively ineffectual.
  • A philosophy of freedom: A commitment to a vision of the good life grounded in self-actualisation and the joy of turning our ideas into reality.

It sounds a lot better than a slap in the face with a wet fish, as they say, but at present what’s missing is a theory of how changes in our inner lives correspond with the changes in the external world.

The heart of the power to create vision, it seems to me, is a reconceptualisation of agency that is currently described in the third person (‘it’ language) but it will need to find form in first (‘I’ language) and second (‘You’ or ‘we’) person expression. It’s not enough for ‘people’ to turn their ideas into reality, but particular ‘I’s, ‘we’s, and ‘you’s need to consistently live in ways that retain coherence between thought, word and deed.

If the power to create really is a vision of a world renewed and not just about more than people starting their own businesses, it needs a better account of how people develop that internal coherence to actually work for visions of their better selves, and for the greater good of others too. 

That may be possible, and worth striving for, but is it likely? I think it comes down to how optimistic you are about human beings. I generally take the Gramscian view that pessimism of the intellect is reasonable, but optimism of the will is essential, so it’s just not enough to believe willpower or positive thinking will get us through.

If the power to create really is a vision of a world renewed and not just about more people starting their own businesses, it needs a better account of how people develop that internal coherence to actually strive for visions of their better more integrated selves, and for the greater good of others too. We can’t just take that kind of personal growth for granted as an article of faith.

What does it take, internally, psychologically, existentially, spiritually, to shift one’s perspective from being primarily a passive consumer and citizen by default, making ends meet and waiting for better times, towards being the kind of person who looks at the problems in the world with an appetite to get busy changing them and lives for that very purpose? 

I think the ‘power to create’ vision would become much more powerful if it could answer the following question: What does it take, internally, psychologically, existentially, spiritually, to shift one’s perspective from being primarily a passive consumer and citizen by default, making ends meet and waiting for better times, towards being the kind of person who looks at the problems in the world with an appetite to get busy changing them, and lives for that very purpose?

We know that kind of shift takes deep and resilient self confidence but we also know such confidence is fragile. As I have argued before as part of our work on the social relevance of spirituality, any theory of social transformation needs a commensurately robust account of personal transformation to go with it.

We need to give more thought to our inner power to create.

 

Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA and tweets here.

Daniel Kahneman on religion, wellbeing, and thinking fast and slow

March 21, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

What a treat to see Daniel Kahneman here in London on Tuesday night at the beautiful Methodist Central Hall, just next door to Westminster Abbey and Big Ben.

Kahneman

image from How to: Acadmey

Kahneman is a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and a charismatic speaker who explains complex ideas in a very accessible way making them relevant to a wide audience. Regular readers of the Social Brain blog will probably already be aware of the key concepts in his bestselling book Thinking Fast and Slow, including that we can be thought as having two “systems” of thinking.

For those not familiar with his work, there are many summaries and reviews of the book available online; this recent article out earlier this week gives a quick overview of the main idea of TFaS. And a very over-simplified explanation of these systems follows:  Our System 1 is fast and automatic, these are gut reactions. Our System 2 is slower, requires effort, and is more deliberate. System 1 does a wonderful (or at least good-enough) job most of the time. System 2 often ‘endorses’ or goes along with System 1’s judgement or decision, although sometimes System 2 overrides our initial reaction. Kahneman’s decades of research has illustrated that while for the most part this job-sharing works quite well for us, problems can crop us when System 1 makes mistakes in its haste and then when System 2 fails to recognise and override them.

The book also describes other areas of closely-related research, including Prospect Theory and the difference between our Experiencing Self and Remembering Self. Prospect Theory offered economists a fresh way to understand utility, and one of its key ideas is that we are loss averse – losses sting more than gains feel good – a concept on which we based our headline and somewhat provocative recommendation in our recent publication Everyone Starts with an A, published last week.

The event on Tuesday was not the typical economics talk. The chair, comedian and TV personality David Baddiel, asked more philosophical questions than typically asked about the book (at least in the talks I have attended!), and the conversation turned towards such topics as dementia, atheism/religion, and wellbeing.

For example, using the ‘two selves’ distinction explained in the book, the effects of dementia could be thought of as a shift in balance from our remembering self to our experiencing self.  Regarding religion, Kahneman and Baddiel discussed how our yearning to create stories or narrative, along with the confirmation bias, might play a role in adherence to religions (including atheism). Kahneman continued by explaining that we have two ways of perceiving causality: physical and intentional. The conviction that intentions can have physical effects may provide an interesting way of looking at religion.

The discussion on wellbeing was particularly timely as this week was also the second annual International Day of Happiness (March 20). Kahneman explained that over the years he has reviewed his definition of wellbeing.  He used to think that wellbeing was the sum of the quality of someone’s lived experiences. Now this has shifted to take both the experiencing and remembering selves into consideration: our subjective reflection on our everyday experiences and major life events matter too. People want to have good stories about themselves, which depends both on how you experience something in the moment and also how you remember experiencing it.

The 2000-seat hall was completely packed and the event was sold out. I think I spotted Lord Richard Layard, economist and founder of Action for Happiness, in the audience, and there is an unconfirmed rumour that Richard Dawkins was in attendance as well. Unfortunately there does not seem to be a video recording of the event, but if you can find one it would be well worth a watch. In Kahneman terms, my experiencing self enjoyed the evening, and my remembering self enjoyed and continues to enjoy it.

 

Nathalie Spencer is a Senior Researcher in the RSA’s Social Brain Centre.

Are we failing to fully understand failure?

March 18, 2014 by · 11 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters, Social Brain 

Wow.  What fortnight it has been!

The press coverage from our most recent publication about using behavioural insight in the classroom, Everyone Starts with an A, has been exciting, interesting, and somewhat exhausting.

We have been featured in the Telegraph, the Times, the TES, the Daily Mail, GovToday, and others.  Jonathan appeared on BBC Breakfast on Sunday morning, and Louise and Nathalie did various radio interviews over the past few days, including Drive Time, Radio 5 Live, and Voice of Russia.  And Jonathan has been engaging in lively twitter conversations on the topic.  This is all in addition to the very welcome reception we got in Germany early last week, with articles in Die Welt, Die Sueddeutscher Allgemeine, and on the front page of Der Spiegel (with over 3,600 Facebook likes).

We have received many supportive comments from people who see the merit in trying out the approaches suggested in the report.  It’s also fair to say, though, that not all of the comments have been positive and in fact many of them are from critics who seem to think that use of these approaches only serve to molly-coddle our pupils and fail to set them up for the harsh realities of the adult world.

But to think that these recommendations molly-coddle our youth is to misunderstand them or the science behind them. It seems that the people commenting like this are commenting on what they know from the newspaper articles, not from our report itself.  So, in an attempt to clear up the confusion, let’s review the two most contentious recommendations from the report: everyone starts with an A, and give a ‘not yet’ grade instead of a ‘fail’. 

 

Everyone starts with an A.

Yes, yes, I know, we chose this as our title, so of course people will ask about it! But “Everyone starts with an A” is a lot catchier than the full explanation of “try giving your students an A at the beginning of the year, so that instead of working up to it they have to work hard to avoid losing it, because a well-known insight from behavioural science is that we tend to be ‘loss averse’ and thus are more motivated to avoid giving something up than we are to try to gain it”. It just doesn’t have the same ring to it. When months have been invested into a project such as this, it is not surprising that we want our ideas to broadcast and shared widely.  So we did pick one of the most provocative recommendations from the paper in our title, in the hopes of generating interest in the report.  And generate interest it did. But the flip side of picking a provocative title is that understandably all of the nuances and background behind it get lost throughout the chain. With each additional press release or article, the message gets somewhat warped, and “everyone starts with an A” can turn into “give students something they don’t have to work for” (for the record, that is NOT what we are suggesting!).

One misconception from critics is that this makes the A meaningless.  Perhaps the first thing to say here is that, in our approach, just because you start out with an A doesn’t mean that you keep it. So at the end of the term (project, year, etc) it will not be the case that the entire class has achieved an A (but wouldn’t that be great?); some students will get an A and others won’t.  The criteria for maintaining the A and how readily it is lost will be up to the teacher.  So the A is no less meaningless or meaningful than it is in a traditional method of assessment. The key here is simply reframing the starting point so that instead of starting from the bottom, the pupils are starting from the top.

This reframing serves two purposes.

First, it is likely to improve effort levels.  We know from behavioural science that people feel the pain of a loss more so than the pleasure of a similar gain. Decades of research by Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman (who is speaking in London tonight) and many others in the field support this. And this concept has been tested in the classroom by Levitt et al, who offered students a reward if they improved on a test. For some students, they were told: take the test, we’ll grade it, if you’ve improved then you’ll get the reward.  For others, they were told: here’s the reward (given upfront), take the test, we’ll grade it, if you’ve improved then you’ll keep the reward but if you haven’t improved then we’ll take it back. It’s worth repeating that both groups had the same  basic set-up of “be rewarded for showing improvement” and the only difference was whether the reward was given after the fact or before (with the threat of losing it). The researchers found that the second group performed better on the test, illustrating that this type of reframing may influence pupils effort levels.

Second, when a pupil starts out with an A, this plants a seed in their mind that they too are capable of achieving this grade.  It is not reserved for the “brainy” or other select few; with the right effort, persistence, and support they too have the potential to keep this grade.  Shifting pupils’ expectations can influence their own performance in meaningful ways.

Critics have also claimed that if you start with an A, the only way is down.  This is responded to in more detail in this previous blog post, but the quick reply to this is that throughout the year a pupil’s grade might rise and fall in either approach – whether you start from the bottom or the top – and the point of our method is to change the starting point.  (An even quicker reply is in this blog post, possibly the shortest ever on the RSA website).

 

Give a ‘not yet’ grade instead of a ‘fail’.

This is NOT, as some people have interpreted it, about “banning negative words”.  This approach is about communicating the setback in such a way as to focus on the process of learning rather than on personal traits. As explained by Jonathan in this previous post,  “Failure will always be an important part of any learning process, but there is a huge difference between communicating failure in a way that signifies you are failing because you are not good enough, and failing because what you have done is not yet good enough.”

Educational psychologist Carol Dweck explains that the way we think about intelligence, ability, and performance sits along a spectrum between two very different mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.  A fixed mindset is the belief that ability is a relatively unchangeable trait; in contrast, a growth mindset is the belief that ability can be improved with practice and persistence, just like a muscle can be strengthened through lifting weights.  Dweck’s research shows that a fixed mindset student will be proud when they get an answer correct, but when they come up against a set-back, they lose motivation because to them it signifies that they have reached the capacity of their (fixed) ability. Growth mindset students also feel proud when they do well, but they attribute it not to a personal trait but instead to the steps that they took to get there.  When growth mindset students encounter a setback, they are more likely to stay resilient and motivated, because they understand that with more practice and support they can improve next time. Our suggestion to give a “not yet” grade instead of a “fail” is one way in which a growth mindset can be encouraged in the classroom.

There are other ways of fostering in pupils a growth mindset, too, beyond this ‘not yet’ approach.  For example the way that teachers and parents give feedback can have affect mindsets.  Praising for ability or intelligence (“Great! You’re so clever!”) fosters a fixed mindset, whereas praising for the process (“Great! You really focussed while working on that problem set!”) helps to build a growth mindset.  Additionally, teaching students about the brain and how connections are made while we are learning serves to both explain that indeed we can continue to learn and improve throughout our lives, and also highlights the universality of learning and thus might especially help those pupils who self-identify as being part of a group around which there are certain stigmas or pre-conceptions (based e.g. on gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status).

In a recent email to us in response to the report, one reader, the head of psychology in a large college, wrote in with a wonderful quote which I think sums up the spirit of this chapter:  “My experience over many years has lead me to a mantra which I bore my students with, ‘there is no such thing as brainy, there is just hard worky’.”

 

Free download available

Hopefully these two explanations will go some way towards clarifying these two particularly attention-grabbing recommendations.  We encourage people to read the report here and to download the accompanying poster.

I don’t want to leave the impression that all the responses to the report or the recommendations therein have been critical. We have received many, many kind comments and supportive emails; thank you to those who have written in. The report has been described as “brave”, “hopeful”, and “insightful” and many recognise that the behavioural science underpinning these recommendations has a lot to offer to educational policy and practice.

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