Friday, 20 July 2012

Covey, Heidegger and the Love of Wisdom

On Monday evening the Hull and East Riding Humanist Group, to which I have been associated since its conception, hosted a talk by the soon to be faculty member of the University of Tokyo, Dr Michael Gillan Peckitt. Michael is something of an expert on the philosophy of the existentialist Martin Heidegger (a branch of philosophy popular in Japan due in part to a relationship between Heidegger and Buddhism/Taoism) and his talk was about Heidegger’s friendship with the existentialist Karl Jaspers. My interest in this subject was prompted in part by the fact that the founder of the British Humanist Association Harold J Blackham, who died three years ago at the grand old age of 105, wrote a book called “Six Existentialist Thinkers” which featured chapters on both Heidegger and Jaspers. I have been reading Heidegger all week and I have come to the conclusion that he wrote interminable nonsense.  I have since found that I am in good company in thinking this, the once president of the BHA Bertrand Russell commenting on Heidegger’s book: “Highly eccentric in its terminology, his philosophy is extremely obscure. One cannot help suspecting that language is here running riot.” Freddie Ayer, another BHA president had a similar opinion. Besides talking much nonsense, Heidegger was a terrible fascist and Nazi until the end. It’s a shame that humanism is more closely linked to Nietzsche and Heidegger because of their atheism than the more religious Kierkegaard and Jaspers. It’s an association Heidegger himself renounced in his 1947 “Letter on Humanism”.  Indeed Heidegger was an early expositor of anti-humanism as promoted in the latter day by thinkers such as John Gray (the professor of European Thought at the LSE, not he of “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” fame). Sartre was an atheist but a more positive influence on humanism than the rest.
I learnt today on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that the American business and “character ethic” guru Stephen Covey had died on Monday, the day of my Heidegger dicussion. I read a tribute from Covey’s fellow business guru Tom Peters in the Washington Post with great interest, especially since Covey’s famous second “habit of highly effective people” focused on imagining what people would say about us in our obituary. Peters said:

“Professionally, the term ‘humanist’ could have been invented to encapsulate Stephen’s work.”


“many with whom Stephen had direct or indirect contact surprised themselves as they marched forward with their own enhanced humanism, courtesy of his work and example”

Stephen Covey was well known for his Mormon faith, a religion I would usually take a critical stance on, but I can see why Peters calls him a humanist. Humanism in its true sense is philosophy in its true sense, from “philo” meaning "loving" and “sophia" meaning “wisdom".  Covey had the gift of focussing on what kind of behaviour constitutes the life lived well. He didn’t write dense, incomprehensible "fashionable nonsense" in the style of Martin Heidegger or Jacques Derrida. If anything he was accused of stating the obvious, but I have long thought common sense not so common and Covey leaves a legacy of clear thought about habits of thought worth adopting, eminently more worth the effort of reading than the phoney continental philosophy of postmodernism all too prevalent in intellectual circles.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Higgs, the god particle and me...

It has been reported in the media that the well-known TV comedian and actor Eric Sykes has died. I have always found the obsession with celebrity culture and the attention the media pay to the lives of celebrities vaguely embarrassing, but today will not go down in history as the day a TV personality died. No, the 4th July 2012 will be remembered for the announcement made by the scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) that after spending over six billion pounds on the largest scientific apparatus ever constructed, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the much discussed Higgs boson has finally been detected. Seeing the photos of the reclusive Peter Higgs breaking down in tears and seeking to turn attention away from himself took me back to 1988. I was then an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh and would sit in the common room of the James Clerk Maxwell Building each morning with my flat mate, who was studying physics and another friend I attended my mathematics lectures with, sipping coffee and chatting between lectures. Sometimes a middle aged academic who often wore a black polo neck top would sit across the table from us never speaking. I once asked my flatmate, “Who is that guy?” and was told it was Professor Higgs. Apparently, he had postulated the existence of a new particle sometime in the sixties. Twenty-four years have passed, my flatmate went on to do nuclear physics at CERN, my other friend dropped science and is now a top hedge fund manager and I…well, I didn’t go on to either of those things. Why should it be that I remember this as if it had some significance? Peter Higgs is now justly famous for his contribution to the scientific enterprise and I suppose me remembering being ignored by a famous physicist is even more ridiculous than people remembering seeing, speaking with or being sat next to any other celebrity, yet I do remember it. Does the fact that Higgs really is a great man whose name will live for centuries to come make any difference? Not at all. Ideas are sometimes much bigger than the people who have them and perhaps we should spend more time focusing on the development of our own ideas, however apparently insignificant, rather than try to live vicariously through some vague association with celebrity or someone else’s achievements.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Secular Monarchy or Republicanism?

A recent Guardian/ICM poll found that the UK monarchy is enjoying record popularity with a 69% approval rating. The current diamond jubilee celebrations have prompted some prominent humanists such as Polly Toynbee to write on the republican cause in the national press. Perhaps now would be an appropriate time to discuss the relationship between monarchy, republicanism and humanism. It has to be said at the outset that as someone who dropped history in favour of sciences when choosing my GCEs, some may think me not a credible opponent of the learned President of the British Humanist Association whose illustrious family might be seen as left-wing royalty of sorts, her grandfather and great-grandfather being prominent historians and social reformers of their time, the former being an expert on the decline of imperial Rome due to the abandonment of the republican principles upon which it was founded . As a freethinker and humanist whose current beliefs are not founded on authority, whether hereditary, religious or academic, the truth is that I find little to agree with in Polly Toynbee’s journalistic output. I don’t like her constant and unjustified attacks on Nick Clegg, himself an active humanist in the past and the Liberal Democrat party he leads and I don’t like her petty killjoy attitude to the pleasure and security ordinary people, usually of conservative temperament feel in enjoying a national celebration centred on the royal family.  Unlike the head of state, the presidency of the BHA is not for life and we have been expecting a new president for some time since the excellent A. C. Grayling felt he had to withdraw his acceptance of the role fearing reprisals from the unreasonable far left wing of the humanist cohort after he became the provost of a private university (staffed almost entirely by prominent humanists), perhaps the upcoming conference would be an opportune time to announce a change. Of course, the selection of the BHA president is not directly democratic but if I had a vote I would nominate the recently made Viscount Matt Ridley, the voice of reason incarnate. Immanuel Kant famously explained the meaning of “enlightenment” to be the willingness to use one’s own reason without the guidance of another. This freethinking attitude to life gives rise to contrarian spirits such as that of the late great humanist Christopher Hitchens who courted controversy by sometimes appearing to switch sides, for example in his much publicised support for the Iraq War and there is an irony in that I should choose defend the status quo and take a reactionary stance against the tide of humanistic republicanism, but I have my reasons which I hope to set down.

Polly is not the first president of the BHA to conflate humanism with republicanism and she won’t be the last. Shortly before her death, the erstwhile president of the BHA, Claire Rayner, who was also an active member of “Republic” – the organisation campaigning to make the UK a republic – said in response to an article linking humanism to republicanism that she couldn’t be a humanist and also support a monarchy and suggested that a humanist monarchy is an oxymoron and that the BHA should ally itself to the republican movement. On the contrary, what would be an oxymoron would be an "orthodox humanist" and the BHA campaign for constitutional reform does not mention republicanism at all. Virtually all of the humanists I know have echoed the sentiments of Toynbee and Rayner, pointing out that having a hereditary head of state is irrational since given the random nature of genetic inheritance there is no guarantee that a person born of royal lineage will be fit to be head of state. They point out that the monarchy is an anachronistic hangover from feudal times and doesn’t reflect the aspirations and values many of us hold, in relation to democracy, human rights, social mobility, etc. It simply establishes the permanent position of a particular social class with a particular political standpoint. I agree with this analysis for the most part – so what’s my problem?
Let me make an analogy. I don’t like soap operas. I think they are boring, tiresome and predictable – I have better things to do with my time. So in the unlikely event of me being made controller of the BBC, I am obviously going to cancel Eastenders and replace it with a new David Attenborough documentary, right? It’s only rational isn’t it – the UK population would gain great educational value from my decision and perhaps I could wean them off the rubbish. Many societies of the past, such as the former Soviet Union took just this paternalistic attitude. The problem is that such an attitude is in opposition to the humanist ideal of the “open and free society”. Eastenders is not for me, it is for other people who like that sort of thing and would feel outraged in being denied their weekly fix. If people want Eastenders and Eastenders does no real harm to anyone other than stultify their minds, they can have Eastenders and if they enjoy the pomp, ceremony, sense of continuity and security afforded by the British Royal family, that isn’t necessary a bad thing. Perhaps the comparison of the Royal Family to a popular soap opera is particularly apposite. The Queen is not a true autocrat, she does not really rule over us in the way that monarchs of the past did – crucially the period in history when the republican ideals were laid down. Nobody thinks of her as having a hot line to God or a divine right to rule. She “rules” if it can be called that by public ascent, something that looks likely to continue given the statistics showing support for the monarchy.  She is a figure head for UK PLC, a popular focal point for national unity, a fixed point in these days of corrupt democratically elected politicians and has been very successful in that role given the current widespread support for the monarchy, despite the efforts of some members of her clan to tarnish the brand. Her success lies in her ability to project herself as the embodiment of civic duty upheld over an entire lifetime, the chief civil servant of the people. It is true that the royals are more of an extension of the media celebrity culture evident in seeing them posing with people like Cheryl Cole and Tom Jones at the end of the “star studded” concert held at Buckingham Palace. Is that a bad thing? It’s show business. Like Eastenders, the monarchy is not for progressive intellectual types, its part of the bread and circuses that constitute the meaning of life for many ordinary people and a humanism that seeks to despise and ridicule the very human predilection for nationalism combined with entertainment and the security of a strong establishment is less than human. It also fails to recognise the progressive nature of the monarchy itself, for example the recent changes to the rules of succession, replacing male preference primogeniture with absolute primogeniture, in which the first born child of a monarch is heir apparent regardless of gender and the end to the ban on marriage to Catholics, also the requirement for those in line to the throne to gain the permission of the sovereign to marry. This shows the kind of slow and piecemeal change those of us on the right of the humanist spectrum favour, following Karl Popper in his seminal work, “The Open Society and its Enemies”, in opposition to revolutionary fervour.

So am I in favour of the status quo simply because the monarchy is currently enjoying great popularity? The modern monarchy rightly relies on popular support. As a humanist I could hardly be said to be a follower of Edmund Burke, but as the late Christopher Hitchens quoted William Hazlitt in the collection of articles (“Arguably”) he wrote shortly before his death, the chapter “Edmund Burke: Reactionary Prophet; Reflections on the Revolution in France”:
“It has always been with me a test of the sense and candour of any one belonging to the opposite party, whether he allowed Burke to be a great man.”
This is in contrast to Paine's suggestion that in mourning the plumage he forgets the dying bird. As Hitchens points out a statement employed the world over by pitiless revolutionaries to justify unscrupulous actions. Hitchens goes on to quote Burke:
“It is known; that armies have hitherto yielded a very precarious and uncertain obedience to any senate, or popular authority; and they will least of all yield it to an assembly which is only to have a continuance of two years. The officers must totally lose the characteristic disposition of military men, if they see with perfect submission and due admiration, the dominion of pleaders; especially when they find that they have a new court to pay to an endless succession of those pleaders; whose military policy, and the genius of whose command (if they should have any) must be as uncertain as their duration is transient. In the weakness of one kind of authority and in the fluctuation of all, the officers in the army will remain for some time mutinous and full of faction, until some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself. Armies will obey him on his personal account. There is no other way of securing military obedience in this state of things.  But the moment in which that event shall happen, the person who really commands the army is your master, the master (that is little) of your king, the master of your Assembly, the master of your whole republic.”

As Hitchens noted, this passage eerily prefigured the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte in the aftermath of the reign of terror and I would suggest that this unfolding of history would be the true enemy of humanism. The only time Britain had a republic it only lasted twenty years and was led by a man dismissed by the pre-eminent Scottish enlightenment philosopher, David Hume, as a regicidal dictator whose measures against Catholics in Scotland and Ireland have been characterised as near-genocidal. If we were creating a new country, with a new constitution, there is no doubt that I would be strongly in favour of a secular republic along the lines of the United States, but that is not where we are and it is churlish to deny that the pomp and ceremony associated with Royalty adds colour to the nations life. Thomas Paine excoriates his former friend Burke's refusal to criticize the crimes and cruelties of the "ancien regime" in his book "The Rights of Man" and perhaps I will receive the same response to this polemic, but in truth, the monarchy of the 21st century is not the monarchy of Paris 1789 and this is not the same quarrel. To think it is is to be out of touch with reality.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Is Happiness the only Good?

This is a recording of my two minute broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on Tuesday 17th April. I didn't intend it to sound so gloomy! Here is the script:

The humanist Robert Ingersoll once said “Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now and the way to be happy is to make others so.”  But what do we really mean by happiness? Many of the most gifted writers, artists, scientists and philosophers have lived lives of great value whilst enduring neurotic misery day-to-day. Surely we must separate feeling joy in the moment from the idea of a life lived well. The scientific discipline of evolutionary psychology offers a fascinating insight in to the evolutionary function of happiness in the sense of subjective wellbeing and why finding lasting happiness is so elusive. Other emotions such as fear and disgust are easily explained in terms of an evolutionary pressure to avoid the things that would threaten our survival in the environment in which our brains evolved such as the venomous spiders and snakes that were plentiful in Palaeolithic Africa. They each prompt different reactions to specific threats. The function of happiness appears to be that it helps us to strive for the goals that evolution has built in to us, such as finding food, finding a mate and spending time with our children. There are fewer positive emotions because they prompt us to keep doing what we were doing and there is only one way of not changing anything. For this system to work, our feeling of happiness has to be reset each time we obtain the desired outcome, whether it is receiving a pay rise or promotion at work, winning the lottery or your football team gaining promotion to the premier league. The feeling of happiness soon wears off but natural selection has programmed us to still keep thinking that lasting happiness is in our reach. Thinking about this helps us to cherish the moments of joy experienced in life whilst accepting their transitory nature.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Is Nothing Sacred?

This is a recording of my broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on Friday 9th December 2011. This is what I originally wrote but I cut it down to fit within the 1 minute 30 seconds allowed:

Good morning. Is nothing sacred? The dictionary definitions of the word sacred include such ideas as “dedicated to a deity” and “religious respect”. A less dogmatic meaning of the word sacred is something especially worthy of awe and reverence. Can an atheist like me find anything to arouse this sense of the sacred in the world around them? We often read about pressing environmental concerns such as pollution. Would it help to view the natural world as something sacred? This is certainly how our pagan ancestors viewed nature but I don’t think that in our modern industrialised world it is helpful to see nature as in some way inviolable or something on which we should not intrude. I think a better approach is to use our scientific rationality to understand the causal relationships active in the natural world so that we can mitigate the negative consequences of our way of life. What else might people think of as sacred? What about a famous painting, or the fossilised remains of an early human ancestor, or even a football stadium or sports trophy? How about ideas such as freedom and liberty or even life itself? I think the value of human life is to some extent contingent on the quality of life experienced by the person living it and there are some circumstances where voluntary death can ease suffering. For me, the idea of liberty comes close to an idea I might think sacred which means that a just society is one in which basic liberties are available to everyone, but of course, even that idea comes with some caveats. Humanism is unjustly derided by the religious as representing a crassly materialistic attitude to life, but if it is about anything it is about thinking deeply about what gives value to human existence. Aside from the obvious religious associations, phrases such as “sacred cow” suggest ideas unreasonably held to be above questioning and beyond criticism. Perhaps contemplating what might be considered sacred in an open-minded and sceptical way is more fruitful than concluding that anything actually is.