Monday, 16 February 2009

Pushing at doors, limiting options and the use of language - An address for Evolution Sunday

Today we are one of some 1,019 Congregations from all 50 States of the USA, the District of Columbia, US Virgin Islands and 15 Countries involved in Evolution Weekend 2009.

This project has been growing for a number of years now but this one is somewhat special, because, as I am sure you know it is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin (12 February 1809) and the 150th anniversary of the publication of "On the Origin of Species".

In the words of the organisers:

Evolution Weekend is an opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship between religion and science. One important goal is to elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic - to move beyond sound bites. A second critical goal is to demonstrate that religious people from many faiths and locations understand that evolution is sound science and poses no problems for their faith. Finally, as with The Clergy Letter itself, which has now been signed by more than 11,000 members of the Christian clergy in the United States, Evolution Weekend makes it clear that those claiming that people must choose between religion and science are creating a false dichotomy.

There are, of course, innumerable ways I could explore this issue with you today and none would do justice to the whole subject matter. Here I would like to note my thanks to Sam Rice, a geologist who has his PhD from Edinburgh, who has been a helpful dialogue partner in the creation of this piece. However, don't judge him on the contents of this address, I take full responsibility for its contents!

Anyway, I have chosen to base my brief address today around a two themes I have been exploring in other ways over the past year or so. Themes which, I think, will generate some useful thoughts.

The first is the fearless act of looking - and I mean really looking - at Nature; the second, which is alluded to in the "Clergy Letter" itself, namely, that "Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts."

So to looking. I would like to note that looking at something does not mean that we see it - or rather we don't see that thing - or that nexus - in the fullest way possible. What we see relies heavily upon our current state of knowledge as well as the limitations of our cultural perspectives. One of the difficulties facing every human individual and culture is how we can continue to find strategies to draw us beyond our own present and always limited horizons so that we don't ever come to think that we have understood all there is to understand.

One of the major reasons I think we should be celebrating Darwin - and celebrating him as a human exemplar worthy of imitating in a general way - is not precisely because of his theory of evolutionary descent with modification - i.e. a theory concerning the origin of the diversity of species - but because of his ability (and bravery) to let the data speak to him in a way that forced him to enlarge his conception of the world and to accept, albeit a little reluctantly, that this enlarged conception would force a change in the way his culture would view itself. He helped enlarge humanity's horizons and open doors on new vistas. The mention of doors reminds me of a story told by Wittgenstein. He said: "A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that's unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push (Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Culture and Value. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. p.42)." Darwin looked at the "door" of data, thought, thought again and then pulled rather than pushed.

But, as we do this we must remember that the contemporary French particle-physicist Bernard d'Espagnat (On Physics and Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 2006) gently reminds us that "the information science yields serves to limit possible options, rather than put forward the allegedly correct one" (p.1) and continues by saying that "while Nature - in the broadest possible sense - refuses to explicitly tell us what she is, she sometimes condescends, when we press her tenaciously enough, to let us know a little about what she is not" (p.2).

Darwin's work reveals this process at work perfectly. Darwin did not present the world with a total theory about the overall, metaphysical nature of reality but offered simply a pragmatic, reasonable and coherent limitation of possible options and he did so on the basis of carefully collected empirical data. He was brave enough to press Nature tenaciously and lovingly so that, in Darwin's sphere of study, she slowly begun to him a little of what she is not. To pick but one example related to his work - colloquially and informally expressed - Darwin pressed her to tells us that she is not a flighty six thousand year old debutante but a considerably older lady who no less beautiful and wonderful for that. Nature has revealed to us that a literalistic understanding of the Biblical account of creation is simply not true.

This brings me to my second point today which is, as the Clergy Letter says, that "Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts."

In our ongoing series of Wednesday conversations this matter is being deeply explored by us and we do seem to be agreeing that our religious stories - primarily in our case, for historically contingent reasons, those contained in the Bible - that they do not convey (except by accident) scientific information. Taking seriously what Nature tells us she is not, the Biblical stories have become for us ones which are simply USED to help us explore basic existential and religious questions. As Wittgenstein noted the aim of the language-games of religion is not to figure out how the natural world works but to solve at what we commonly call the riddles of life.

So, to conclude and to lead us into conversation, like Wittgenstein I think we, as a liberal religious community, are prepared to affirm the belief that science is uniquely helpful in explaining how the world operates and we will continue to defend those who continue in this exploration. When science tells us how the world cannot be - such as those things Darwin showed us - we will take its results seriously and alter our world-views accordingly. Darwin stands today as a symbol of scientific free-thinking and so I give thanks for his human courage and careful scientific enquiry.

However, at the same time as we do this, we are a community that is aware that there are also things (or states of affairs) which are manifest to humankind that cannot be expressed by science (whether in equations or words); Wittgenstein calls them the mystical (TLP 6.522) and we know that, for all its extraordinary gains, that science cannot give answers to that strangest of questions "why there is something not nothing" - the matter of why there is a world at all. (Cf. Jonathan Miller's "Atheism Tapes" and his interview with Denys Turner).

Also - in passing, but very, importantly please realise that this doesn't necessarily mean one has to posit a supernatural cause or creator of the universe - as a follower of Spinoza, Epicurus and Lucretius I bear witness to that. Anyway . . .

It is in this way that a liberal religious community such as ours can, with honesty and integrity, honour both the great religious teachers of humankind and the great scientists. When they are forcibly separated by creationists or those who hold to a dogmatic scientism I believe it can be shown that the possibilities of humanity are diminished. But when they are taken together - collectively contributing to human understanding in their own unique, but interconnected ways (because they are both human eadeavours) - then their teachings and examples help us live ever enlarged and more fulfilled lives.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Epicurean Self-analysis - dealing with the economic downturn - part 3

So far we have looked a little at two of Epicurus' three goods - friendship and self sufficiency (or freedom and the simple life). Today I'll introduce the third - the analysed life.

(In passing I note that what follows has been born out of my realisation that in many religious contexts the kind of analysis Epicurus calls for is deliberately avoided. One is simply told what to believe. But I have always been struck by Jesus' concern to get folk looking and thinking themselves. After all did he not teach us to 'Consider the lilies of the filed' and the 'birds of the air' and, even more memorably in Luke (12:54-57) to think for ourselves:

[Jesus] also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, 'It is going to rain'; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, 'There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? "And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?")

Anyway . . .

Epicurus' aim in his teaching was to help us achieve a certain kind of happiness or pleasure in life which he named 'ataraxia' - that is to say a certain state of equanimity or 'untroubledness'.

Friends obviously help in achieving this state as does living a simple life free from the seductive lure of what he thought were unnecessary if, sometimes, natural desires. The third 'good' is the analysed life. Such a life is one in which we make the time and space to think about the things that worry us and reflect deeply on their real status. In other words to discover whether we should be worrying about them or not. Here, in this place and in these conversations, we are trying to do something similar.

Now, a consideration of the 'analysed life' can take us in at least two directions. One encourages us to an ongoing observation of Nature and, from that observation, to see the truth of what Epicurus was led to express in his famous "Four-part" cure (tetrapharmakos) which has been found written on innumerable artefacts across Greece and the Roman Empire. Philodemus summed it up as follows (PHerc. 1005, 4.9-14):

Don't fear god,
Don't worry about death;

What is good is easy to get,
What is terrible is easy to endure.

However, we'll come to this in the coming weeks starting, in a round-about way, with next week's service celebrating the life and work of Charles Darwin.

The other direction is one directly relevant to the current theme of surviving the current economic downturn and it is that which I address here. I have shamelessly half-inched the basic drift of this from both Alain de Botton's excellent Channel 4 programme on Epicurus (click on the image immediately below) and his chapter on Epicurus in "The Consolations of Philosophy". There is nothing original in my presentation today nor, actually, in de Botton's - this is old and once, much better-known, stuff.

de Botton observes that as human beings we are easily seduced by the claims of advertisers who wish to persuade us that the products they are trying to sell will provide us with the real happiness we all seek. They can do this because 'objects mimic in a material dimension what we require in a psychological one' (Consolations of Philosophy, Penguin Books, London 2007 p. 65). Living an anlaysed life can help reveal this to us.

de Botton goes on to note:

We are not solely to blame for our confusions. Our weak understanding of our needs is aggravated by what Epicurus termed the 'idle opinions' of those around us, which do not reflect the natural hierarchy of our needs, emphasising luxury and riches, seldom friendship, freedom and thought. The prevalence of idle opinion is no coincidence. It is in the interests of commercial enterprises to skew the hierarchy of our needs, to promote a material vision of the good and downplay an unsaleable one. And the way we are enticed is through the sly association of superfluous objects with our other, forgotten need (ibid. p. 67).

He illustrates this in his TV programme by first considering friendship and he showing us a Barcardi advert. The background is of a tropical island with an azure blue sky, palm trees and a beautiful beach white in the sun. In the foreground we see four smiling friends in swimming costumes in a boat with a bottle set in their midst and all holding glasses. The caption reads "Barcardi . . . and friends." We want and need friends, we know that, but we are seduced into buying Barcardi which we think will give us something of that friendship.

Botton then turns to Freedom - that is to say self-sufficiency. He shows us an advert selling a perfume by Tommy Hilfiger called "Freedom - a new fragrance for her for him." Again it blurs our ability to understand that what we want is freedom not perfume.

Lastly he shows an advert in which a man with a glass tumbler in his hand is sitting in study in the early evening, looking relaxed and thoughtful and with the caption "After the tussle". It is selling us whisky by, as Botton observes, "promising the calm resolution of our problems that only an analysed life can bring".

When de Botton first published his book in 2000 he concluded his chapter on Epicurus with this note:

. . . it is possible to imagine that a well mounted Epicurean advertising campaign would have the power to precipitate global economic collapse. Because, for Epicurus, most businesses stimulate unnecessary desires in people who fail to understand their true needs, levels of consumption would be destroyed by greater self-awareness and appreciation of simplicity. Epicurus would not have been perturbed: 'When measured by the natural purpose of life, poverty is great wealth; limitless wealth, great poverty' (ibid pp. 69-70 - last quote: Vatican Sayings 25)

He closed his TV programme with his own splendid idea for an Epicurean advert. It showed an enormous new country house with extensive gardens and, parked in front of it, an expensive limousine. At the top right was printed a large, bright red asterisk - the kind that alerts you to some small print elsewhere. At the bottom right was that small print. It simply said "Happiness not included." As the shot pulled back we saw hordes of shoppers walking in front of it without a glance intent on their shopping. I'm not sure that de Botton's advertising campaign would have had, at the time, the effect he hoped it might. But then he hadn't reckoned on the events of the last year.

The economic collapse we are currently witnessing has, it seems to me, prepared our culture perfectly for the launch of a modern Epicurean campaign. The situation is such that almost everybody is being forced to look at their lives and analyse them to see wherein their true happiness lies.

Here is where a community like this suddenly can find real traction in the world again. We are a place where our lives can be examined - remember Socrates' injunction that the unexamined life is not worth living - and this is attempted in the context of a community which seeks supportive friendships coupled with a desire to encourage in ourselves a certain kind of intellectual and spiritual self-sufficiency, that is to say genuine freedom.

The hyper-capitalism of the last twenty years was truly a kind of madness and the consequences of its failure are going to be tough for all of us whether we bought into it or not. But, in our hands - if we choose follow in general outline Epicurus' philosophy that is (and it is a philosophy which, as Jefferson realised, is not antithetical to Jesus' teaching and example) - we have a healing cure both for ourselves and the wider world. And that cure begins with encouraging the leading of an analysed life. It means having the discipline to take the time to stop and look at every aspect of our former lives and begin again. The promise is that though, materially we will all be the poorer, we will discover the true richness of life once again.

As a concluding remark I think it is important to note that the life Epicurus is trying to get us to lead is not, in the end, solely analytical - by which I mean a life lived on the outside only ever observing. Rather Epicurean analysis helps us see that, in truth, we are intimately woven into the very fabric of Nature - we commingle with her and are made of the same stuff (and also, therefore, that we commingle with God). This is very much a philosophy which seeks to help us to a way of being in the world. Whenever it becomes purely a theory about the world it has failed.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Epicurean Self-Sufficiency - dealing with the economic downturn - part 2

Last week we began to look at the individual basic elements of Epicurus' philosophy. I'm doing this, remember, because I think that he offers us a tried and tested practical philosophy that is,

A: compatible with the 'extended way of thinking and acting' that I think defines well a functioning Unitarian congregation (whatever its collective metaphysical beliefs or those of its individual members);

B: because it is an effective strategy to employ in difficult financial, political and social times. I would add here that I think it is also a particularly effective strategy to employ in good times, but, since we are not in good times right now that is somewhat by the by for the moment. But just pocket that thought for the future. I think adopting Epicurus' basic pattern of life is an investment for life.

So, last week we took a preliminary look at the first of his three goods - Friendship. Today we'll take a look at the second Self-Sufficiency (i.e. Freedom or the Simple-life) and, next week we'll look at the third, namely the Analysed Life. Then, after Evolution Sunday (February 15th) we'll move on to his famous Four-Part cure.

His idea of self-sufficiency (or simple-living) was inevitably put forward in the context of his thinking about human desire. This can be schematized into three basic categories, those desires that are natural and necessary, those that are natural but unnecessary, and those that are unnatural and unnecessary.

Natural and necessary desires were for him those few things which one *really* needed simply to survive - basic food, drink, shelter and personal and community safety. Natural but unnecessary desires included that large group of things that although they undoubtedly give us pleasure such as smoked-salmon, a fine wine, a '54 Strat (see the picture accompanying this post), a pot of cheese etc. without them life would hardly be considered unbearable. Lastly unnatural and unnecessary desires included for him those for things such as social standing, political power, fame, glory, etc..

(NB: In the conversation immediately after I gave this address a vital point was brought out, namely the difficulty in ascertaining what precisely was meant, not so much by the word 'necessary', but by the word 'natural'. One contributor, for example, pointed out that desire for some kinds of social recognitions is actually quite natural. What was clear to us all was that some philosophies have assumed, and continue to assume, that it is absolutely clear what is natural or not and that can lead in some very unpleasant directions. The whole business of human sexuality is an obvious example of this. This is so important that I'll return to this subject during next week's address dealing with the third of Epicurus' goods, the Analysed Life.)

Epicurus strongly privileged the first category of desires above all others but he was no killjoy and he clearly thought the second category of desires could be fulfilled when the opportunity naturally arose and when it was clear no greater harm was going to be caused by indulging in them (remember his request for a pot of cheese I mentioned last week). But he certainly disapproved of the last category. This later category could result in a rather quietist approach and this was certainly the case amongst the earlier Greek Epicureans. However, the later, Roman Epicureans, because they were more concerned to show the applicability of Epicurean philosophy to a citizen's daily life, could become involved in political life if extenuating circumstances made it necessary. I'll explore this aspect another time.

So, with this understanding of desires in mind, we can now turn to how Epicurus summed self-sufficiency up in a letter to Menoeceus:

We regard self-sufficiency as a great virtue - not so that we may only enjoy a few things, but so that we may be satisfied with a few things if those are all we have. We are firmly convinced that those who least yearn for luxury enjoy it most, and that while natural desires are easily fulfilled, vain desires are insatiable. Plain meals offer the same pleasure as luxurious fare, so long as the pain of hunger is removed. Bread and water offer the greatest pleasure for those in need of them. Accustoming oneself to a simple lifestyle is healthy and it doesn’t sap our motivation to perform the necessary tasks of life. Doing without luxuries for long intervals allows us to better appreciate them and keeps us fearless against changes of fortune.

When we say that pleasure is the goal, we do not mean the pleasure of debauchery or sensuality. Despite whatever may be said by those who misunderstand, disagree with, or deliberately slander our teachings, the goal we do seek is this: freedom from pain in the body and freedom from turmoil in the soul. For it is not continuous drinking and revelry, the sexual enjoyment of women and boys, or feasting upon fish and fancy cuisine which result in a happy life. Sober reasoning is what is needed, which decides every choice and avoidance and liberates us from the false beliefs which are the greatest source of anxiety
(Letter to Menoeceus 130-132).

Please notice here, I plead because it is so often missed, Epicurus is not some miserabilist proto-Protestant who rules out absolutely the occasional satisfying of the natural but unnecessary desires by some measure of drinking and revelry, sex, or the feasting on good food, but simply reminding us that in them alone there is not to be found the right basis for the kind of happiness he thinks - and I think - we are really seeking. (The story of the woman anointing Jesus with the expensive oil of Nard springs to mind here as beeing intimately related to the need to celebrate luxuriously at times, even when one is poor and amongst the poor as well as facing terrible dangers - Mark 14:3ff.) What we seek is a more stable happiness that enables us better to appreciate - to desire appropriately - these other things when they come and to be fearless against any change of fortune, such as the one we are currently experiencing, which takes them away from us.

It seems to me and many others that as a society, for at least twenty years and perhaps more, we have been silently conflating Epicurus' categories of the natural and necessary desires with those of the natural but unnecessary. Now I think there is no doubt at all that all of us across Europe and the USA, but particularly in the UK, are going to have to get used to massive drop in the availability of the things that have been satisfying our natural but unnecessary pleasures, things that have become so much a daily part of most of our lives.

It is tempting to allow oneself to feel this only as a diminishment of our life, not least a diminishment of happiness - but I protest. This collapse in our economy really is a once in a generation opportunity to rediscover the pleasures of the simplest and most valuable things in life and, as a result recover a more secure and robust happiness. As we have seen Epicurus is believes luxury is best appreciated by those who do not need it. We've never needed it but we have forgotten this. One day the opportunity for luxuries may return and by then we may have learnt to enjoy them for what they truly are, enjoyable but by no means necessary. As another Epicurean saying (Vatican Sayings No. 35) has it, 'One should not spoil what is present by desiring what is absent, but rather reason out that these things too [i.e., what we have] were among those we might have prayed for'.

But I also feel it is important to sound here a note of warning. There will be many in our society - there are now - who will not view this loss of unnecessary pleasures as a good opportunity to be grasped. I fear many people will loose their hearts and heads and not always quietly and without violence. But, if we adopt Epicurus' approach - or at least something like it - then we will not only have to hand a practical tool to help us keep our own heads when all about us people are loosing theirs but we will also have a practical method to offer people in their struggle to come to terms with changed circumstances and to help them find a deeper and more stable happiness. As Epicurus said, 'Let us share our friend's (and here I understand friends to mean, as Jesus taught, our neighbours) - 'Let us share our friends' suffering not with laments but with thoughtful concern' (Vatican Sayings No. 66).